Last night I re-watched Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel’s 1990 documentary about Fred Frith, Step Across the Border. I watched it with my housemate who had never seen it before. I had not seen it for about seven years, since I was in high school. To say that it was an invigorating and inspiring experience was to say the absolute, minimal least. I can say without hesitation that it is one of my all time favorite films, from the perspective of musical performances captured, cinematic beauty, and the exciting interplay of editing and found sound which I have not seen in many other documentaries.
If you are unfamiliar with Fred Frith, he is an avant-garde multi-instrumentalist and composer, primarily known for his work on the guitar. You can look up his work, an overview of his discography. His tenure with Henry Cow, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, and the Art Bears. His solo work for prepared guitar. You don’t need to know any of it to be stunned and pleased by this film. (Even my high school girlfriend who I watched it with seven years ago, who mostly liked bland indie pop music, was charmed by Frith.)
Frith is captured in this film as an unabashedly arty man, charming and practically detonating with talent. It was once said of comedian Peter Cook that he was “funny in the same way some people are beautiful.” Fred Frith is musical in the same way some people are beautiful. Un-self-consciously, constantly. Joyfully. This is a man who can be captivating by doing nothing more than casually humming out bars from compositions he has written, using his hands against the couch for percussion. One of my favorite scenes from the film shows Fred Frith from distance at a beach, wrapped in thick layers of coat. Above, seagulls whirl through the air and fill it with their cries. The camera zooms in and you realize that Frith is holding a violin and mimicking the seagulls, scraping the strings in imitation of their nasal cackling. We stay with him while he tries out five or six different calls, each time finding the exact note for the gull’s voice, such that if you had your eyes closed you might suppose the filmmakers had decided to include a lengthy scene of gulls crying for atmospheric purposes.
There are many highlights, however. The scenes of Massacre rehearsing their dissonant, free-jazz Balkan punk; “The Morning Song,” featuring an alarm clock; a jam between John Zorn and Frith in a dimly lit room, so that Zorn appears to be some sort of alien insect hidden inside a jacket (shades of Wollheim’s “Mimic”), blowing out something resembling interstellar blues; a mind-erasing piece featuring Frith playing percussion on prepared guitar and a Japanese percussionist wielding hammers against an indomitable wall of drums. Little in the film is forgettable.
It is apparent that Frith sees a connection between his music and his (left) politics. Just as his musical work seeks to estrange and distance itself and deviate from standard structures, he hopes his music, in some humble way, can help others to see through the mist of pre-given opinion. He says in the film that he has given up on his youthful hopes of changing the world and has instead seen the value in challenging, if for a moment, the expectations a listener had for music or what their definition of music was. If he can get a few listeners to come up to him and ask, “What in the world was that about?”, then he has done something of value. From the Skeleton Crew song, “The Border”:
A step across the border
One foot after another
A small step into elsewhere
To follow the quick light
Tom Cora, Iva Bittová, Pavel Fajt, Arto Lindsay, and many other figures wander through Step Across the Border. It is a charming and enervating film, a chaotic coughing of musical spores into the air. They get into your throat, they get stuck in your eyes. The next few days, you find yourself feeling their effects, tapping out rhythms on inappropriate surfaces, speaking with greater confidence about art and why it is important. You cough a few spores yourself. It travels round.