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When You See Sparks

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Mark Kozelek: On Tour Film Review

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November 17th, 2011 at 8:38 pm

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Mark Kozelek is the immensely talented lead singer and writer for Sun Kil Moon, and before that, the Red House Painters, one of the leading bands of the sadcore movement in the 90s. When Kozelek tours, he tours alone, just his nylon string guitar and mournful, weary voice. His large fan base in Europe often leaves Kozelek on the road for many months. Mark Kozelek: On Tour is an attempt to showcase these tours, and to capture how this bare music arrangement has become the focus of Sun Kil Moon’s newest album Admiral Fell Promises.

Unfortunately the film, despite a promising teaser, is a meandering hodgepodge of a film, better as background than main viewing. The beginning ten minutes play out like a poignant music video, the kind that I’d always wished the Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon had been able to make. The album tracks “Ålesund” and “Half Moon Bay” play under somber footage of Mark Kozelek leaving his home of San Francisco in what seems like the dead early morning, taking off on a plane, and journeying into the clouds. The emotion the imagery and music elicits here is magnificently powerful. Is this what I picture when I hear a Mark Kozelek song? It is. The empty landscape on the way to the airport, the blistering lights from the wings of the airplane, the darkened clouds sitting under the black sky, all more powerful than I could’ve imagined. Alas, the beginning ten minutes are the strongest.

After that, the film splits apart: part concert film and part minimalist tour diary of Kozelek’s European and American tours in 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately, the editing and camerawork in both the concerts and travel footage is lacking, leaving all but the music to be desired. The transition between the album tracks and the concert footage is almost jarring. The first live track in Sweden begins with some uninspiring dialog between Kozelek and the sound engineers during the sound check. The badly lit one-camera shoot is supported by shots of the crowd timelapsing into their seats, Kozelek sitting in his dressing room, and unrelated shots of traveling the freeway. After the song ends, a sudden slideshow of travel photos pops up, changing without fail on every guitar strum. Kozelek then talks a little while in his hotel room about touring with the Red House Painters and his childhood. This lack of focus continues on.

With a more skillful editor, the various content could work together to tell a story. Unfortunately, the editing is where Joshua Stoddard seems to display his amateur filmmaking credentials. Instead of keeping on Kozelek preparing and leaving his dressing room during live track “Void,” Stoddard cuts back and forth with stock Final Cut Pro dissolves every thirty seconds. What’s worse is that it took me a few viewings to understand the dressing room footage has anything to do with the concert. There’s no establishing shot or narrative. The shots seem random and disembodied. Most of the footage, while beautiful in the case of the landscapes, is clearly used to take up space while Kozelek sings. The dissolves between every shot especially become aggravating.

Editing aside, there is some lovely footage here. Stoddard makes the excellent choice to keep all footage crushingly monochromatic. As Kozelek exits his start hotel room, his black silhouette and guitar case reminds us of that other legendary music figure. Driving in the rain looks especially dramatic.

We also get to peer into Kozelek’s mind through little vignettes and interview snippets. There are some moments where he seems deliriously tired, cackling and wheezing hysterically as he struggles to get through a story about being bugged by his manager. Kozelek has been criticized in the past for what Tiny Mix Tapes has called his “good-natured(?) ribbing” of the audience, a characterization I found endlessly amusing. His on-stage manner seems to vary from bitterly amused to cagily hostile. A couple proposed at a concert I went to in London. Kozelek’s setup for the proposal was something like, “I’m not really good at this, so… I think, I think someone wants to do something. Is there someone…? Is there someone in the audience that…?” Hey, at least he was honest.

One of the best things about the film is that it answers the question of why he seems so out of it at his concerts, and why a line in the song “Tonight in Bilbao” reads “Walked in a room, soaked up its fumes / Surveyed the faces I am lying to.” There is a telling scene where Kozelek stands in front of a coffee machine trying to get hot water from it. After a full minute, he flags down a clerk, and they tell him, “No water.” He tosses his cup into the trash and presses on, bags under his eyes.

The filmmaking leaves much to be desired. The endless shots of timelapsed freeway travel smack of amateurism — why not just choose the best moments instead of speeding through all of it? However, Mark Kozelek: On Tour is a wonderful showcase of Kozelek’s talent and a rare glimpse into his lonely-seeming tour life. With more recent Sun Kil Moon songs dealing heavily with the themes of European and American travel, seeing this film will be essential to Kozelek fans. For the rest, you could watch the film too, but I would suggest keeping your eyes only half open.

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