The Austin Chronicle

We Are Having a Hootenanny

And Stephin Merritt is not the life of the party

By Melanie Haupt, March 12, 2010, Screens

The question is simple enough, perhaps even inane: "What are you reading right now?" The subject pauses, smirks – indeed, he smirks a lot, so much so that one suspects that smirking is his default – takes a sip from a coffee mug, and ponders before speaking. His answer is ultimately forgettable, but that smirk is worth more than mere words. "I am Stephin Merritt," it says, "and I don't give a tinker's damn what you think of me." Roll opening credits, and welcome to the life of the Magnetic Fields.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields is the long-term passion project of Brooklynite and University of Texas at Austin grad Kerthy Fix. Fix and her co-producer/co-director Gail O'Hara decided back in 2001 to expand upon O'Hara's videotapes of Magnetic Fields shows and see what kind of narrative revealed itself in the process. "We kept waiting for something dramatic to happen (thus the 10-year time span)," explains Fix via e-mail, "but it never really did, so it evolved into a portrait film instead."

The film takes an inside look into the everyday lives of Merritt and his band, primarily focused on Merritt and his best friend and longtime collaborator, Claudia Gonson, who also serves as the band's manager. They futz around with toys that masquerade as percussion instruments, compose music, banter, fight. The other two members of the band, guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol, are mere set dressing, attractive pieces of furniture in the background; it is apparent that they are satisfied with this situation. "Stephin and I aren't friends," Davol says in the film. "It's better [for the band] that we're not." For Davol and Woo, this is a strictly professional relationship; not that Merritt, who sits in bars for eight hours a day writing the lyrically elegant, erudite songs that make his career so exceptional, is necessarily willing to let too many people into his inner circle.

Indeed, the portrait of Merritt that emerges over the course of Strange Powers is that of an aloof, dour, middle-aged gay man with a bum left ear, an acid tongue, and an empathy deficiency. Gonson, on the other hand, is vibrant, devoted, and credited with protecting all that is good and holy about the Magnetic Fields, a college-radio band with a devoted following. "Most artists wish they had the independent marketing muscle of a Claudia Gonson," says Fix. Additionally, Gonson is fiercely loyal to her friend, willing to defend him against accusations of racism for the crime of disliking rap and for stating that he likes the musical qualities of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" from Disney's Song of the South. She is also willing to swallow her pain and stand aside when he moves from New York to L.A. to pursue a career writing movie scores, leaving her behind. But, Fix is quick to assert, this is not a co-dependent relationship. "I assume that Claudia does the work she does because she wants to. I think she derives a lot of pleasure from it and does it in a sensitive and brilliant way." And Merritt? He's not racist: He doesn't like anyone.

Fix disagrees with the interpretation of Merritt as misanthrope: "The indie rock and pop world has an unrealistic expectation that an artist have an accessible persona with confessional overtones. In our era, this is the only commercial market for a songwriter like Stephin. But he would more comfortably be situated in a Sondheim space or as a writer of MGM musicals. Despite the pressures of the pop marketplace, Stephin's music sits out front and his persona does not seem to interest him as an artistic project."

There is something to be said for not playing ball in this social-networking era of a thousand apologies, for not giving a damn about what people think of you. And, as Strange Powers reveals in interviews with fans and friends alike, Merritt could have a horrific kitten-drowning habit and people would still love him for his music, simple and tender as it is. Strange powers, indeed.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

24 Beats Per Second, World Premiere

Monday, March 15, 7:15pm, Lamar 1

Thursday, March 18, 2:30pm, Ritz 1

Saturday, March 20, 7:45pm, Ritz 1

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