Saturday, February 9, 2013

Silkworm [UPDATED]


One of the final bits of wisdom in Searching for Sugar Man comes from one of Rodriguez's construction buddies, who compares him to a silkworm: "Someone who takes the raw material of life and transforms it into something beautiful, something transcendent, something eternal."

It reminded the Beast of a scene from the 2010 documentary Catfish, which Sugar Man somewhat resembles. In the former, the husband of a lonely, frustrated artist who has created curtains of internet-born mystery around herself compares her to the titular fish, which ships transporting cod from Asia to North America would throw into the tanks to keep the captive cod agile: "There are those people who are catfish in life, and they keep you on your toes, keep you guessing, keep you thinking, keep you fresh....and I thank god for the catfish because we'd be boring and dull if we didn't have someone nipping at our fins."

It's a definition which has now entered the modern lexicon thanks to the film's recent MTV spinoff. But the Beast thinks there's another type out there -- the Silkworm, someone who quietly transforms life into art in isolation from the mainstream. What's more, there's been a particular type of "Silkworm project" that we've noticed over the last decade or so -- and most of them are music documentaries. They usually involve tracking down an unappreciated or forgotten cult artist. Here's our top five Silkworm projects:

Jandek on Corwood (2003) Probably our favorite and the creepiest of the lot. This doc is notable for being about an experimental freak-folk artist from Texas so willfully obscure that he doesn't even appear in the film. (We only hear his voice from a lone phone interview.)

You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story (2005) Name-checked as an influence by Beck and the founders of Sub Pop Records, Gary Wilson recorded exactly one 1977 album of bizarre experimental cocktail jazz before dropping off the face of the earth. Probably the most similar to Sugar Man in structure.

Paul Williams Still Alive (2011) OK, this guy was pretty unavoidable in the '70s, when he wrote hit songs for The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, David Bowie (??) and Kermit the Frog. (Not to mention about 287 Tonight Show appearances.) But then he sort of disappeared into coke and alcohol addiction. Filmmaker Stephen Kessler charts his own cloying "search" for one of his heroes, who is now clean and sober and President of ASCAP.

In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (2004) Jessica Yu's gorgeous, disquieting and groundbreaking documentary uncovers the itinerant life of a disturbed Chicago artist who was an "outsider" in the most expansive sense of the term: The man lived his entire life in anonymity and his art was discovered only when they were cleaning out his one-room apartment.

Mingering Mike (2007) A joint book-art-film project centering around the album cover art of a fictional 1960's soul/funk singer named "Mingering Mike." A true inspiration to those of us who created album cover artwork for our own phantom music careers. (Guilty!) The amateur artist who created Mingering Mike has even released a full-length album called Super Gold Greatest Hits.

UPDATE (3/9/13): Wow, talk about "serendipity-doo," turns out there was an actual post-punk band from Chicago called Silkworm and there's a new documentary out about them with commentaries by Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Albini, Clint Conley and more. We haven't seen it yet, but check out the trailer below:

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