By Leah Churner
30 Century Man
Dir. Steven Kijak, U.S., Plexifilm
Early in the documentary 30 Century Man, Scott Walker recollects his first visit to Sweden, in which he came to the horrific realization that vulgarity exists even among Scandinavians. Imagine Scott Walker, spending his whole adolescence daydreaming about Europe, suspecting his nationality switched at birth, yearning to unite with his brethren. Then he arrived in the land of Bergman and found a bunch of Woody Allen fans. Scott's first taste of true worldliness must have been bitter. Certainly this anecdote has the potential to rouse more than nasal guffaws (which is what it got from the audience when I saw it). Director Steven Kijak could have distilled a thesis from this, might have used the theme of disillusionment as a catalyst for the exploration of Scott's upbringing in the States, his expatriate identity, and the relation of these details to his solitary adulthood and finally to his music. Instead, Kijak transitions from Sweden to England with a little montage of stills from Bergman dramas and Ealing comedies.
Making an effort to appear more robust than Scott Walker’s Wikipedia entry, 30 Century Man opens with a Velvet Goldmine–type fairytale prologue. A female voice with a British accent—that “intercom of the future” voice familiar from Sixties sci-fi—relates the myth of Orpheus. In the first sixty seconds, there's an attack on “lazy journalists” (a preemptive strike on the film’s critics). In the last sixty, a parade of pull quotes (“Extraordinary . . . close to genius,” says The Observer) pulled from reviews of his latest album, “The Drift.” Some kind of unconscious equating may occur: With all these blocks of praise-slathering text onscreen, the film might as well be concluding with its own trailer.
In between is a narrated discography. Biographical details are furnished through slow pans over bopper-zine headlines, pertaining to Scott's breakup with the Walker Brothers, his burden of handsomeness, his frustration with the term “pop.” So who is Scott Walker? From whence all this anguish? We learn that a Playboy Bunny introduced him to Jacques Brel’s records. All we learn about the first 20 years of his life is that he formed a Scott Engel Fanclub prior to joining the Walker Brothers. Was he chiseled of stone by Greek gods in the back rooms of L.A.’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go?
To its credit, 30 Century Man is seriously focused on defining and promoting appreciation for the music itself. Much of it is organized into a “listening party” format, in which various musicians are shot in close-up as they hear recordings of Walker's music, providing commentary and some interesting facial expressions: David Bowie, Sting, Brian Eno, certain members of Radiohead, Ute Lemper, Damon Albarn, and Allison “electroclash” Goldfrapp, who praises Walker for “not hiding behind fashion or rhythm.” The long span of releases from the Walker Brothers’ first single, “Pretty Girls Everywhere” (1965), to “Tilt” (1995) provides plenty of conversational fodder. Occasionally the promotional abyss is punctured by insightful quips by Johnny Marr and Jarvis Cocker and by teasing asides from Soft Cell's Marc Almond (the only interviewee to pan “Tilt”).
More problematic is the literally rendered surface adornment—trippy, swirly computer graphics that recall those “skins” from Windows Media Player. It’s kind of like a laser lights show brought to you by the motion-graphics design collective Tomato, who did the titles for Trainspotting (the movie looks like an FSOL video on MTV’s Amp). In conjunction with the screensaver overlays, “The Drift” portion of the film is all whirling cacophony. (A different writer at The Observer, not quoted in the film, referred to “The Drift” as “another musical excursion to Hell.”) In the studio, percussionists bang on pipes, pots, pans and animal flesh. Walker sings with his baritone voice "perched vertiginously" in a high key "so that it isn't tranquilizing." Then more movement: record sleeves and printed lyrics zoom by in mock 3-D. A man named Martin Lawrence performs an interpretive dance in sweatpants.
Compare this pompous, funereal procession to the 2007 Rocky Erickson documentary You're Gonna Miss Me, in which Erickson is shown a wild man, a recluse, a soiled hero, divorced from reality and barely treading water in a deep vat of emotional, financial, and legal problems. Was that promotion? Exploitation? No, it was brilliant vertigo, focused on the blurry, hazy line between “cool” and “crazy.” Certainly not every documentary needs to be a lurid exposé on some fellow's hideous shortcomings, but the pussyfooting, completely uncritical treatment of Scott Walker here rouses a suspicion that the filmmaker views his subject as a fragile idiot savant.
I prefer the accessible, popular melodramas of his late Sixties solo albums to his avant-garde torture recordings. Perhaps its just my musical prejudices getting in the way; had this been a documentary about, say, Lee Hazelwood (another “doomy” American baritone whose career was contemporaneous with Walker’s, but who had epiphanies rather than disappointments in Sweden), enthusiasm and nostalgia would have mellowed my reaction, no matter how hollow, sloppy, and myth-perpetuating the film (even though the gulf between Hazelwood and Walker is as wide as the Atlantic).
For whom are these music docs intended, the experts or the ignorant? The fans or the haters? There’s a quote from Camus on the sleeve of “Scott 4,” which shows up in the film: “A man’s work is nothing but his slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” What were these two or three great images for the burgeoning Scott Walker, and when did his heart first open? I thought 30 Century Man would provide some kind of an experiential inroad to his persona, something persuasive and winning—a hook, in short. I forgot hooks are for pop songs, not trips to Hell. Smell you later, Orpheus.