The Austin Chronicle

I See a Darkness

Mike Aho and Will Oldham examine 'The Lonely Life'

By Audra Schroeder, February 22, 2013, Screens

In the opening scene of "The Lonely Life," Will Oldham stands in front of a river, dressed head to toe in white, a baptismal intro to the world his character David inhabits. As we look closer, we see his shirt says New Light Laboratory, and that he meets with a therapist in a nondescript hotel room, where she prescribes medications, which in turn cause him to hallucinate. In one scene, they take the shape of an animated army of knives piercing his chest. In another, an octopus appears to him, and later he sits in front of a television filled with static, as a wall of feedback closes in on our protagonist.

Austin musician and filmmaker Mike Aho provides that feedback for "The Lonely Life," his first narrative short, which was funded via Kickstarter and filmed in Austin and Bastrop. Aho, who fronts the Austin band ((Sounder)) and composed the film's score for an upcoming album, The Howlingest Call, has directed music videos for Jennifer Herrema's band RTX and skateboard company Volcom. But "The Lonely Life" is a much more contemplative effort.

"In most ways, the idea for this film started as an elaborate music video, but the synergy just grew and it turned into something much bigger," Aho says.

Indeed, the mix of music, narrative, and visual art bumps "The Lonely Life" above the music video aesthetic. The animation is also locally sourced, with creations by Michael Sieben, Travis Millard, and Jeremy Fish filling the screen. Aho says the animations informed the story line, which eventually inform us that David has been cryogenically frozen, his history deleted.

"I thought of the idea after reading an article about new breakthroughs in cryogenics and how there are about 100 people frozen somewhere with old technology that, most likely, did not preserve them properly," Aho explains. "It all sounds like science fiction, but it's real. I wanted to make something like that, something that seemed far-fetched and fantastical but felt real to watch. ... I wanted the audience to sympathize with David even before finding out how dire his situation really is. I wanted him to embody this idea of being a pawn in a grand scheme. What Will brought to the character, as far as mannerisms and expression, blew us all away as we were shooting the film."

Oldham lends David the same quiet grace and desperation that he brought to Wendy and Lucy and David Lowery's recent short film "Pioneer," which will screen along with "The Lonely Life" at the Scottish Rite Theater on Feb. 28. As David, he is essentially a blank slate, his color filled in as he listens to audio therapy tapes that suggest who he might have been in his former life. Oldham's face, especially his eyes, convey the loneliness and confusion of his existence to striking effect. We see his hallucinations, but beyond that, we don't get much of his inner dialogue. We just read his face.

"I wrote the character for Will," Aho adds. "He was the only person I could picture playing the role. I have done a couple music videos for him, and he played a recurring character on a Web comedy series that I did with Michael Sieben for Thrasher magazine two years ago. What he brought to this role and the experience of making the film is immeasurable to me. I've been listening to his music for years, so having him involved, and even hearing the musical quality in the way he delivers lines, was an amazing thing."

Aho says it took him "a month or so of working out the ideas and plotline in my mind, but only a couple days to write dialogue." And that dialogue is fairly sparse, the narrative driven more by Oldham's quiet nature, rhetorical questions, and intermittent rides on a red bike. As the minutes wear on, David starts to pull at the threads, the seams start to show, and his day-to-day monotony at New Light Laboratory takes on a more sinister tone.

"The narrative really centers around the idea that sometimes in life, you can feel like you're in control of everything, but in reality there are thousands of elements out of your control that inform the way you live and the trajectory of your life," Aho says. "I think that the story in 'The Lonely Life,' while it is strange, is relatable to a lot of other aspects of the human experience: finances, relationships, etc. There are so many things that we think we are in control of, which are actually controlling us."

Monofonus Press presents "The Lonely Life" and "Pioneer" on Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Scottish Rite Theater, followed by a Q&A with Oldham and Aho. Ralph White performs before the screening.

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