Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Filmmaker Michael Jacoby Talks To New England Post About 'The Undesirable'

[From New England Post]
Two weeks ago, the official end to the policy known as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), which banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, was perhaps seen by some gay rights supporters as too little too late. For those supporters, however, it was a victory nonetheless. Others, specifically the current field of Republican presidential nominees, see it as quite a significant setback.
Rick Santorum, one candidate who’s been unhappy recently with the level of media coverage he’s been receiving, called the repeal of DADT “social experimentation” and “tragic.”
“Sex is not an issue,” he said at last month’s GOP debate in Florida to rapturous applause. His comments came after several audience members booed Stephen Hill, a gay soldier serving in Iraq who submitted a question about DADT via YouTube.
“We would reinstitute that policy if Rick Santorum was president,” Santorum said of himself in the third person. Given Santorum’s poll numbers, it’s not likely that that day will ever come.
For filmmaker Michael Jacoby, the repeal of DADT means a happy ending for his latest documentary, The Undesirable. Currently in production, the film tells the story of Melvin Dwork, a WWII Veteran who was tossed out of the United States Navy’s Hospital Corp in 1944. The phrase “undesirable discharge” hung over Mr. Dwork for almost 70 years until his record was cleared earlier this year, another happy ending for Mr. Jacoby’s film.
Mr. Jacoby, whose previous effort was Ten More Good Years, a film about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender aging issues, talked to New England Post this week about progress on The Undesirable.
NEP: When did you get the idea for The Undesirable and what's your connection to Melvin Dwork?
MJ: I met Mel fifteen years ago when I first moved to New York City from Los Angeles. I got a job working at a little restaurant in the village called Pearl Oyster Bar. At the time it was a tiny restaurant with only counter seating—sort of like working behind a bar. Because there was so much face-to-face with regulars, I got to know Mel. He came in quite often and had a lot to talk about. We eventually became friends and now consider each other family. Throughout the course of our relationship we learned more and more about one another and it didn’t take long before I learned about Mel’s life as a young man. When he told me he had served in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman I had a ton of questions for him. My grandfather was a Marine during WWII and I learned quite a bit about that war through him and his storytelling. Because I am gay, I had always wondered what it must have been like for gay service members at that time. Most men who survived The War returned to their families proud, victorious and honored. Men like Mel, undesirably discharged for being homosexual, had to return to their families and either come out to them at a time when no one did such a thing, or decide to lie about it. Mel told the truth and found that his family did not care. Most men were not so lucky. Since his discharge in 1944 Mel has been trying to clear his record. Nearly 70 years later he can finally say that he is as honorable as any of the service men or women that he served with.
NEP: Was Mr. Dwork always interested in the idea of having part of his life immortalized in a documentary film or did he take some convincing?
MJ: Mel had no problem with the idea of being in a documentary about his life. We had been talking about trying to make a narrative film for some time, but eventually settled on a documentary format. Perhaps one of the reasons Mel was so open to the idea of being in a film is because he helped inspire my last feature documentary, Ten More Good Years. He knows that if I set out to make a film it will happen. It isn’t just talk. He wants his story to be told in order to inspire others so that they may “right the wrong” and set their own records straight. I think he is confident in my ability to make sure that happens.
NEP: How much of the film have you completed and how is fundraising going?
MJ: I am currently shooting all of Mel’s interviews. This is the easy part. I have been fortunate enough to find a sound stage in New York called Pirate Audio to shoot Mel’s interviews in. I had done some voiceover work there in the past and they were kind enough to offer me an incredible rate for use of one of their studios simply because they were very engaged by the story. Making a documentary independently is very difficult if you cannot find people like the guys at Pirate or are not able to raise the cash. I am raising money now via a non-profit arts organization here in NYC called Fractured Atlas. Any money donated to the film is tax deductible as FA is a 501c3. FA then follows exactly how I spend the money to make sure it is going strictly towards the making of the film. Now, saying all that, I have only been able to raise about $2,500.00 so far. I need to raise about $200,000.00 to make this film from start to finish.
NEP: Did the official repeal of DADT increase interest a bit?
MJ: The repeal of DADT did indeed raise interest in the film, I think mainly because the repeal of Mel’s own “undesirable” status to “honorable” status by the Pentagon happened just one month prior to the DADT repeal. The Associated Press broke Mel’s story the Friday before the repeal of DADT and it quickly became their biggest story with over 200 news outlets picking it up. I think it was natural for reporters to put the two stories together even though they had nothing to do with one another. The timing seems to have been nothing more than a coincidence. These stories did drive people to my website and I can see that views of the trailer skyrocketed. While I have had plenty of positive comments and request for interviews I have not seen an uptick in tax deductible donations. (sad face)
NEP: What can people do if they want to donate?
MJ: If your readers wish to contribute to the film they should visit the website at and click on one of the donation buttons. They will be taken to the Fractured Atlas secure website for online contributions or given directions on how to make contributions via mail. All donors receive credit in the film and depending on how large the donation is there are gifts involved, as well as more prestigious credits.
NEP: Your last film, Ten More Good Years (2008), did really well at festivals and aired on Sundance Channel and Logo. I think people imagine that filmmakers who achieve critical and popular acclaim like that are just suddenly "in a club," meaning making a living off your art, in the film business, no looking back. Talk a little bit about the experience of Ten More Good Years and how it met or surpassed your expectations.
MJ: Despite the critical success of the Ten More Good Years it most certainly did not translate into big money. I did license the film to three networks, the two you mentioned and one in Canada. That money went to pay off the debt I incurred while making the film. I decided to retain all distribution rights in order to make more on educational and home sales. I was relatively successful with those sales but have since licensed the film to educational distribution companies in the US and abroad and just last week licensed home use sales of the film to TLA, a distribution company that focuses on LGBT content. It’s too difficult and time consuming to try to market, distribute and make new films all at the same time. Despite knowing that there is little to no money in making documentaries I am here doing it again. As with Ten More Good Years, I know this is a great story. I know people will want to hear it. The main thing that TMGY did for me is I now have something of a reputation as a filmmaker and I do find it easier to get people to listen to me and take me seriously. I’m hoping to partner with a network to make The Undesirable and am currently working on getting pitch meetings together. I’m crossing my fingers for HBO.
NEP: How has your life been changed by TMGY?
MJ: Ten More Good Years changed my life in many ways. While making a film like TMGY I became immersed in the story. It took nearly four years to make that film from start to finish. It’s was a bit like writing a thesis. I became somewhat of an expert on the issues. It affected my life so much that I have recently considered going to graduate school and getting a Master's Degree in Social Work so that I can work with and around older LGBT adults. I love LGBT history and I love learning about the men and women who paved the way for me so that I can be the open, honest LGBT person that I am today. If I can’t seem to make a living in film in the next year or two, I will most likely go for the MSW. Either way, I’ll be very happy.
NEP: What have you been working on since TMGY?
MJ: Following TMGY the producers at In The Life, an LGBT television series airing on PBS, asked me to come in and consider working on a couple segments for their broadcast. I produced one called The Written Word and another called Aging In A Safe Environment. Following that I directed and produced a short narrative film called With This Ring that was just selected to screen at the 26th annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in late October, early November. The film is an “Official Selection” placing it in competition for Best Short. With This Ring is a cautionary tale of gay marriage and something a little different than viewers might expect. It was a lot of fun to take a break from documentary and work in a more controlled environment; something I hope to do more of.
NEP: In an ideal world would you make a living as a documentary director?
MJ: In an ideal world I would love to work as both a documentary director and as a narrative film director. Documentaries satisfy my desire to learn about a specific topic and narrative films satisfy my desire to work with a larger crew in a more organized setting. Both types of film are so different, yet from one you can learn a lot about the other.
Mr. Jacoby lives and works in New York, NY and hopes to have finished The Undesirable in 2012. For more information, please visit:
(In the interest of full disclosure I feel I must point out that I composed the original music for Michael Jacoby's 2008 film, Ten More Good Years. My work as a film composer however does not affect my work as a journalist in any way, shape or form.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Phish Bassist Mike Gordon Tells New England Post About Another Side of In

[From New England Post]

If you've ever listened to Mike Gordon’s 2003 album Inside In, you've probably never thought to yourself, “This music would be perfect for an interactive multimedia installation.”

While most of the folky, psychedelic self-consciousness that Phish’s bassist summons is well worth revisiting when you’re in the right frame of mind, the funky 70s grooves and throwback slow jams will likely not remind listeners of art museums, galleries or the paint-splattered loft spaces of Velvet Underground’s New York.

Still, with guest appearances by Béla Fleck, Vassar Clements and Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.), among others, it's a memorable listen.

Inside In is a fulcrum of sorts; one point of a three-work constellation. The other two are Outside Out, Gordon’s 2001 full-length feature film, and Another Side of In, a collaboration between Gordon, artist Margorie Minkin (Mike's mom) and electronics engineer Jamie Robertson.

Another Side of In is made up of Minkin’s painted Lexan sculptures, sounds from Inside In Gordon lifted and looped specifically for the piece, light and perhaps most importantly, the intervention of a willing participant.

The latest exhibition of the piece will be at the Charles River of Industry and Innovation through December 23. Mike Gordon’s been a busy man lately—Phish’s recent benefit concert raised $1.2 million for Vermont residents affected by Tropical Storm Irene. But he was nice enough to answer a few questions from New England Post about the Another Side of In.

NEP: With the interactivity of an installation like Another Side of In, pictures, recordings, even videos, don't really do much to explain the experience. How would you describe the work to someone who's never experienced an interactive multimedia art installation?

MG: Interactive means that you are making a friend with the piece of art. You're relating to it as if it's another living creature, it reacting to your movements. My mother’s torso shapes make that easy to imagine, whereas the sounds provide a more abstract kind of character for those new friends.

NEP: Originally, if I'm not mistaken, there were 20 individual painted Lexan sculptures accompanied, with the presence and movement of spectators, by sounds and light. What was the process behind selecting and placing portions of the work for exhibition, five pieces in the case of the Charles River Museum version?

MG: My mother chose the five pieces, based on providing a variety of visual and auditory experiences, and ones that can blend together nicely when activated. There is something nice about a small exhibit, since you get to know each one more intimately. It's like playing music in an arena versus a club... both approaches have cool aspects.

NEP: For those unfamiliar with your 2001 film Outside Out and 2003 companion album Inside In, how would you describe their relationship? Was the record a collection of ideas, snippets and fragments of unfinished songs from a period of many years or did you sit down, decide to make a record, write it and record it?

MG: I had recorded all of the soundtrack for the movie myself, including the sound effects, music, production sounds, and ambiences. It was particularly cool to mix and match the roles of those categories—like using the sound of a washing machine as a song texture. I took the background sounds and score music and created the album from the movie. This involved spending a few months with film music, adding lyrics and song structures that would stand alone. The original tracks were used, with new parts overdubbed.

NEP: Another Side of In includes looped portions of sounds culled from the record. I know some artists feel like projects are never finished, they're just abandoned. Was it fun to get under the hood of that record again? To what extent did you know exactly where to find the sounds that might best compliment Another Side of In?

MG: The nice thing is that some creative fun goes into sound design for movies, and for albums, but in this case the backgroundy textures that one might not be conscious of hearing are given the spotlight. There were considerations about finding sounds that would mix together—some more ambient, some more rhythmic, etc., and searching for the kind of abstraction in sound that would allow each piece to grow into it's own character. My mother listened to each sound for the time she was working on the piece that would accompany it, and as the collection came into fruition, we discussed what we needed more or less of.

NEP: Your mother, Marjorie Minkin, created the painted Lexan sculptures in the exhibit. In you artist's statement, you say your artistry has always been inspired by your mother's. Can you describe how?

MG: We had a neighbor who used the expression, "anything within limitations," and my mother said she hated that concept—that limits are to be pulled and stretched. I was inspired how she would find a new medium or approach and then spend a decade or so trying countless variations on a theme, stretching every limit possible, from colors to opacity to layers. I was always so proud that the concept of mom to me was a woman in a room with several hundred gallons of iridescent paint and twenty foot canvases, or warped layerings of plastic.

NEP: I think people tend to dismiss work like this, interactive multimedia installations, without having an understanding the history of conceptual art. I'm thinking of Marcel Duchamp who began to work with ideas like interactivity, mixed media, recycling found objects, etc. about 100 years ago. Growing up around your artist mother, you must've been aware of conceptual art in a way most children are not. Does the work of specific conceptual artists inform Another Side of In or does the work flow simply from a place of open-minded creativity?

MG: For some reason, I fantasized about multisensory installations and spaces my whole life. I wanted to build an enclosed room with prerecorded media that would appeal to all the senses at once since being a young child. Growing older, I refined my tastes and grew to love abstraction, and the kind of simplicity art like this can have. I've also been involved in many kinds of interactive experiments in the live music setting, so making art interactive appealed to me. What didn't appeal to me is a lot of the interactive shows I saw when I started researching the field—especially when there is a latency that makes the experience feel disconnected. You have to feel like you are directly causing something to happen immediately, and if you do, it's a cool feeling.

NEP: Why do you think practitioners of some styles of art, music, dance, etc. seem to have no shelf life, while others struggle to gain traction outside of very small, cliquey communities? Do you think technology (Internet, smartphones, etc.) is changing this?

MG: We couldn't have predicted that Phish would have become so successful, and it would take volumes for me to attempt to guess why, though I have some guesses. One could read "The Tipping Point," by Malcolm Gladwell for a dabbling into the subject of why some things get popular. I'm sure new technology will both change the way art is created and the way it's experienced, and things are getting more interactive with touch screens and online schools. Creative people are having a field day, regardless of which ones become popular.

NEP: Phish just played its first show in Vermont in a long time, a benefit for Tropical Storm Irene victims. How are things in Vermont at the moment and what can/should people do if they want to help?

MG: Even assessing the damage will take a while, never mind all the mending. People can donate through by finding links to our Waterwheel Foundation, and volunteers are needed to help at cleanup sites.

NEP: What are you working on now? Are there any other mother/son collaborations on the horizon?

MG: I have fantasies for some intense variations and enhancements of our show. ASOI v. 9.2? I'm currently working on some music writing and recording projects, with various people, and for various outlets. I'm also looking forward to my next film project when the time is right.

Another Side of In will be at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation through December 23. Thanks to Jon Fischer Photography for the images.