Lanky and unshaven, documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins navigates a fork through the potatoes on his plate as we talk about Werner Herzog—specifically, the German director's maxim that people who want to make great movies shouldn't watch movies; reading, traveling (by foot) and having life experience will serve you better than film school. Even though he and David G. Marks—chowing on bacon and eggs in the seat next to him—are graduates of Chapman University's film school, they nod in agreement.
“It was interesting that by going to film school to get my degree,” says Elkins, “I became less interested in film and more interested in other aspects of life.”
We're talking about their new film, The Reach of Resonance, more art that documentary, with visuals that speak to Elkins' photography tendencies. But before Marks began his current career as a film editor, he traveled to Sweden (“Bergman's an influence, of course”) and worked as an au pair for a time, before returning and taking a series of jobs, including as a cook at jazz club Steamers in Fullerton and an assistant teacher to autistic children. Studying the science behind film—the psychology of actors, how light and dark alter the mood of a scene in cinematography—had Elkins considering the science behind music. “The diversity of experiences you have in life leads you toward connecting dots in different ways,” he says.
As a musician often in several bands at once, he was touring, performing or recording and puzzled over how vibrations moving through the air could so profoundly affect bodies, brains and culture. He found that few people understood those questions as well as the atonal “noise” artists he knew, who seemed to have a deeper philosophical grip on those ideas. Beginning in 2002, using a miniDV camera bought with an inheritance after his father died and a free camera he received for helping friend Ben Edlund (creator of the cult animated series The Tick) move to Los Angeles, Elkins began interviewing self-described “jazz/experimental music whore”/Wilco guitarist Nels Cline for a documentary. Cline modestly suggested that there were other musicians much more interesting than him and sent Elkins in their direction.
In 2004, Elkin's single-minded passion and vast knowledge about the subject, limited funds, and DIY ethic led close friend Marks to leap onboard as his producer. “We were very deliberate with all of the money we spent. It's good Steve likes sleeping in a tent,” says Marks, laughing. He didn't set a money limit, just asked Elkins to tell him where he needed to film and to give him a calendar and an approximate cost.
During the year and a half of filming that now make up 80 percent of the finished movie—the other 20 percent was shot previously or is archival footage—Elkins went to Australia, San Francisco, Sarah Palin's home state, the Mexican border and Slovakia. The Reach of Resonance ended up not being about Cline at all—though it's dedicated to him—but examines the work of four other artists: Aussie musical anarchist Jon Rose, who “plays” fences at worldwide political hotspots; Bob Ostertag, a performance artist and polymath who musically documented the U.S. war in El Salvador, AIDS and the gay-rights riots (1993's All the Rage with the Kronos Quartet); Miya Masaoka, whose tender musical collaboration with plants and cockroaches is incredibly compelling; and John Luther Adams, a former environmental activist living in Alaska who creates musical renderings of nature, including the magnetic field of the Aurora Borealis.
Elkins captures serene natural beauty as easily as he does unexpected moments of humor, gracefully delivering musical musings so dense the first half of the two-hour film left my head whirling amid eye-opening, thoughtful philosophical meditations. It's an amazing debut film, densely compassionate and moving, regardless of your initial feelings about “unpopular” music, as Rose calls it in the film.
The documentary's now on the festival circuit and won the Best Film Essay award at the Montreal International Festival of Films On Art in March. The Reach of Resonance will go on a museum tour as a result of its win, showing at the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and London's Tate Modern, among others. A hell of an accomplishment, considering the other films in the festival were studio-backed or made with grants, and this low-budget, two man crew, DIY film gets one of 10 awards handed out, from 600 films submitted. “It gives you some hope for what's actually possible,” says Elkins, wrapping up. “You can break through the gate keepers of culture.”
This article appeared in print as “Connecting the Dots: The OC-created documentary The Reach of Resonance is burning up the art-film circuit.”
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.