The maverick Seattle composer-performer-inventor Trimpin is that rare, pure artist with zero interest in self-promotion. So when filmmaker Peter Esmonde came calling, the artist put up some resistance.
"Most of his work with film had been TV crews that came in to do a two-minute piece about the kooky artist, hence his reluctance," Esmonde recalls. "One crew actually brought in a smoke machine. Another crew took an exterior shot of his studio and then shot the full moon with a wolf howling, like Frankenstein’s laboratory."
Looking to embark on his first feature-length documentary after a decade away from the film world, Esmonde wasn’t interested in crafting a portrait of the artist-as-freak. To the contrary, as evidenced by Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, he embraced a subject whose ethos was no constraints and no compromise.
"I’ve worked on literally dozens of films in various capacities," Esmonde relates. "The thing that really interested me was the processes of highly creative people from the point of view of how they work with a variety of materials, a variety of collaborators and in a wide variety of different settings. I deliberately looked for somebody who was highly respected in their field, who was working among or between disciplines, somebody who really forged their own path. I’d known of Trimpin since I was working at NYU in the mid-‘90s. I knew there hadn’t been a really good film about him, and he was reluctant to be filmed. As a documentary maker you’re always pulling stuff and putting it in files. When I heard that Seattle was doing a 25-year retrospective of his work, I realized that this was the moment."
Esmonde worked as a sound editor and assistant picture editor in his native New York for eight years, earned his MFA in directing from the AFI and spent several years at the Discovery Channel. He accumulated a ton of experience as a hands-on filmmaker and producer of digital media before being recruited to Encyclopedia Britannica’s executive suite and, a few years later, a VP position with a business consulting firm.
"The money was great, but the creative fulfillment was not," Esmonde says. "It was a considered move on my part to move back into documentary. The real question for me, after being essentially away from creative and documentary work for 10 years, was whether I could still do it—whether I still had the chops. I started just by picking up the camera again."
The SF-based Kronos Quartet had commissioned Trimpin to create a piece for them, and the rehearsal process provides the through line for Trimpin: The Sound of Invention. "[Kronos] wanted to stretch the parameters of what a concert could be," says Esmonde. "Trimpin did that and then some."
A select handful of documentaries about artists, including Let’s Get Lost and Rivers and Tides, qualify as works of art themselves. After Trimpin premieres at SXSW in mid-March, we’ll know if it belongs on that list. For now, Esmonde is content to describe how he matched his style with his subject.
"The thing about Trimpin as an artist is that he is wonderfully curious and peripatetic," Esmonde notes. "The guy can’t sit still. He’s always got his ears open; he’s always looking at the next gadget. It would have been well nigh impossible to put the camera on sticks and have him stay within the frame. So for me it was a real considered choice to approach the subject with a cinema verite aesthetic, with the camera on my shoulder and the smallest crew possible."
In the editing suite, the first 20 rolls Esmonde had shot quickly landed on the floor. The footage was awkward, with Trimpin visibly aware of the filmmaker’s presence. But from that point on, Esmonde succeeded in making himself innocuous.
"I never asked him to repeat anything; either I’d get it or I wouldn’t. Sometimes, I didn’t," he says with a chuckle. "We were lucky enough to capture a number of moments of discovery, from Trimpin finding new sounds with the Kronos Quartet to discovering the sounds emitted by cathode-ray tubes and the crash of glass in a dumpster."
The soundtrack is comprised mostly of Trimpin compositions with a few pieces by his late colleague Conlon Nancarrow. Esmonde credits multi-track recordist and music editor Phil Perkins and sound designer Jim LeBrecht, highly regarded Bay Area pros, with shaping the tracks. Among its other virtues, Trimpin will stand as a permanent record of a portion of its subject’s output.
"Trimpin doesn’t care about preserving or archiving his own music," Esmonde says. "It lives in the moment; it’s as ephemeral as the air. The tracks in the film are pulled from everything from amateur audiocassette recordings to 25-year-old quarter-inch recordings to things found in shoeboxes and the back of filing cabinets. In addition, we were able to do professional multi-track recordings of installations that were up and running."
After its Austin premiere, Esmonde anticipates Trimpin will play a number of festivals in the States and Europe. "Obviously I’d like the film to get distribution but I’m pretty cautious," he admits, noting the radical changes in the distribution of docs. "It’s for some people a very unsettling time, and for me, frankly, it’s exciting. Changes in modes of distribution will lead to changes in the documentary aesthetic, and that’s exciting."
But that’s down the road. In the more immediate timeframe, moviegoers exposed to Trimpin’s one-of-a-kind sound-and-music palette can expect to have their consciousness altered—at least temporarily.
"People have told me that sometimes for a day after rough-cut screenings they heard the world a little bit differently," Esmonde allows. "That’s the highest praise I can imagine."
Notes from the underground
Local filmmakers scored two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for excellence in broadcast journalism: California Newsreel and Boston-based Vital Pictures were honored for the four-hour PBS series, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?," and Thomas Lennon & Ruby Yang scored with Cinemax’s Reel Life: The Blood of Yingzhou District, winner of the 2006 Oscar for Documentary Short. … Barry Jenkins’ Medicine For Melancholy, which made its local splash at the 2008 SFIFF, tentatively opens here Feb. 27 as part of its national rollout via IFC Films. Filmmaker Kevin Epps opens his latest documentary, The Black Rock: The Untold Story of the Black Experience on Alcatraz, the same day at the Red Vic. … Feb. 27 also marks the day the Bridge Theatre goes dark for five weeks (reopening Apr. 3) in order for Joshua Grannell (a.k.a. Peaches Christ) to shoot his debut feature, All About Evil (as seen here). If you’re interested in (unpaid) extra work in a horror movie, stop by Peaches site … Jennifer Kroot’s It Came from Kuchar) will premiere at SXSW in March.
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