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American Hot Wax 

Spending tens of thousands of dollars on a doc about song-poems. Who's obsessed?

Wednesday, Feb 5 2003
Their goal may be recognition or wealth, but mostly it's the urge to hear their idiosyncratic words set to music. For decades, folks all over this fine land have sent their wacky verses (and a check) to music companies in L.A. or Nashville, receiving in return a professionally produced record or tape, with custom accompaniment by a live or synthesized band, to cherish. "They're really not getting a lot of encouragement or validation from the music industry," says S.F. filmmaker Jamie Meltzer. "But I admire someone who believes in what they do and goes ahead with it, regardless of whether the world tells them it's a good thing or not."

As a grad student at S.F. State, Meltzer set out to make a humorous short film about the oddballs who keep the song-poem industry rolling. But he soon realized that his subjects' strange obsessions paled compared to his own. "I was spending tens of thousands of dollars on this student film, but I had to persevere. Sure, I'm deluded that people will care about this subject that I care about. I think any creative person has to go through that. If you don't have those pretensions, or if you're not in a delusional state, then you wouldn't do it."

Meltzer gradually expanded Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story into a one-hour film. (Apparently, hipsters are starting to get wise to this musical genre, with Bar-None Records releasing American Song-Poem Anthology this month.) Though it's tempting to laugh (or shudder) at some of the characters Meltzer tracked down, he allows them their dignity. "I treated them as artists," he explains. "I took them seriously. If someone watches the film and comes away without the respect I'm trying to give these people, then I've failed." Clearly he won the trust of his subjects: A year after he finished filming, Meltzer still gets three or four calls a week, along with the occasional book of poetry. Picked by the national PBS series "Independent Lens," Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story airs Feb. 11 at 11 p.m. on KQED-Channel 9. S.F. Indiefest sponsors a benefit for the movie that night at 8 at Studio Z, 314 11th St. (at Folsom), with guests featured in the doc and a band playing vintage song-poems and cooking up impromptu arrangements. BYO lyrics -- or write them on the spot.

L.A. Confidential Stars Kevin Spacey and Laura Linney and director Alan Parker glided through an hour and a half of Q&A and hijinks for an adoring full house at the Kabuki following a word-of mouth screening of The Life of David Gale on Jan. 23. At one point, moderator Tim Sika of KSJS-FM in San Jose asked Spacey, "Did you audition for 'The Gong Show' in 1978, and were you pre-bonged?" "Why don't you go fuck yourself?" Spacey retorted with mock anger, to the crowd's delight. "There's no reason to bring that up." He then revealed that he had been a stand-up comic and, yes, he'd tried out for the show with a Johnny Carson impersonation. After, oh, three or four seconds of prodding, Spacey reprised a snippet of that act to mild laughter and great applause. The fan who memorably asked (and received) his permission to trace the actor's hands at Spacey's S.F. International Film Festival tribute last spring made her presence known, to Spacey's apparent bemusement.

Top of the World Congrats to Jonathan Karsh, who nabbed the directing award along with the documentary audience award at Sundance for My Flesh and Blood, his gut-churning portrait of an East Bay woman and her 11 adopted disabled children. Mark Decena's fictional look at better loving through chemistry, Dopamine, snared the fest's first annual Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, given to an indie flick whose themes encompass science and technology. ... The San Jose Film Festival (aka Cinequest) honors animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) with its Maverick Spirit Award on Mar. 8. ... Michel Ciment, a writer and editor for the French film mag Positif since 1963, is the guest programmer for this year's SFIFF. Last year's guest programmer, Roger Garcia, stays on as programming consultant.

About The Author

Michael Fox


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