Occasionally we get lucky and stumble across interesting works of art buried deep in the cultural mud—where they would probably stay—if folk like us weren’t out there dirt-fishing for hidden gems. A couple of nights ago, as luck would have it, my metal detector started singing loudly during an ancient episode of This American Life. If you aren’t familiar, Ira Glass, who is an enormously talented public radio host out of Chicago, has created a stunning body of work with this program, on both radio and television, which I have followed on and off for years. The concept is simple and therefore brilliant: just film people being people with all of their foibles and hopes and victories and crushing defeats, center the pieces around a theme, and let the world speak for itself without offering an editorial opinion.
They used to call that journalism.
The episode that grabbed my attention was called “The Cameraman,” which begins with an interesting story about elementary school children in the era long before cell phones. One kid built a fake camera out of a box and a paper-towel core and began “filming” everything. This inspired other kids to make “cameras” and soon the entire class was running around the school like television news crews. Kids who didn’t build cameras became reporters, or production ancillaries of one kind or another, and competed for scoops across campus. This all came to a head when, one day, there was a fight on the playground where one kid was getting tarred and feathered by another, and the camera kids were gathered around, filming, and providing play by play even as the beating became serious.
That made me sit up a little straighter in my seat, particularly after reading William Shirer’s The Nightmare Years, where he details his efforts, along with Edward R. Murrow, to build the first radio news broadcasts from a European continent teetering on the edge of catastrophe. In the end—despite some incredibly short-sighted obstructionism from their own bosses who insisted Shirer and Murrow cover children’s choirs even as Hitler was racing toward Anschlüss with Austria–the broadcast format they devised became the standard that has been followed on radio and television news ever since.
But this episode wasn’t really about the schoolyard kids and their phony cameras. The Cameraman was really about a kid who grew up hating his stepfather, intensely, and made a film with the expressed purpose to humiliate him. As This American Life has it:
This episode is devoted to a single story that came to us by way of G.J. Echternkamp. G.J. spent years filming his mother and stepfather. In the ’80s, his stepfather, Frank Garcia, was the bassist in a briefly-famous band called OXO. G.J.‘s mom, Cindy Brown, met him at the height of his success, when the band’s one Top 40 hit, “Whirly Girl,” was on the charts. Twenty years later, they’re still together, but living a life they probably wouldn’t have imagined back then. G.J. started filming them as a joke, but over time, his reasons changed, and the way he saw both his parents changed as well.
We learn early on that Frank lives in the basement. He is, as you might imagine him, something of a troll. He drinks 36 beers in one sitting. He rubs his grotesque belly and slurps from giant bowls of Frosted Flakes, demanding more helpings with milk dry-brushed into his beard. He is a slob who spends hours in his home music studio wearing only his threadbare tighty-whities, and listening to his one top forty hit on endless repeat. It doesn’t take long for viewers to hate Frank, and to thank the Almighty that he isn’t married to our mom and living in her basement.
I was sucked into Echternkamp’s film, Frank and Cindy, which he made on a cheap camera without a crew and no budget. He didn’t intervene, or moralize, he just let Frank be Frank and Cindy be Cindy and occasionally confronted his mother with unpleasant truths about his childhood, or took her to one of Los Angeles’ hundreds of sad city parks to look at a book of old photographs and record her reactions. I was so taken by the simplicity of the narrative that I wrote “Frank Lives in the Basement” on our kitchen chalkboard because I knew somehow, in some way, I’d be thinking about it for a while—and because I often jot random thoughts on that chalkboard to keep the wheels turning.
It’s tempting to think we can’t learn anything from Frank, that he’s little more than a Shakespearean cautionary tale about the temporal nature of success, and life itself. But I think Frank is more than that. He is a kind of metaphor for Big America, and so wildly reckless and insincere—so utterly self-absorbed–it is difficult not to watch him intensely, and maybe with something of a fear-fascination. We don’t want to be Frank, or to admit we have a little Frank in our personal basements–but I think we do–if we are being honest. He may not be married to our mom—who enjoys liberal dosings of sedatives and reveals later that she has been stoned for years—but Frank is in there, alive and lurking around inside our own heads.
That’s a dangerous proclamation, and anyone who has watched Frank on screen will cringe at the thought, but police work was a career that keeps on giving, and lessons I took away from that career now have a name and a face: from the wealthiest homes on the American Riviera to the fetid bum camps under the freeway overpasses, Frank can, and does, live everywhere.
It’s probably too much to say that Frank is actually America, but in some ways he seems to be–so enamored of his one-hit wonder, his meteoric career path and brushes with greatness–that he forgets that continuing success requires sacrifice and hard work and that indulgence usually only leads to more indulgence until you are alone with three cases of beer. Our nation has lived off the laurels of WW2 for a long time and with each passing day seems to take another step downstairs–to snore off a drunk on that old sofa with the stuffing falling out. The Russians have never had a billboard hit and have suffered decades of garage band difficulties. They have a jaundiced showbiz eye and are grumpy as fuck, but they are still playing gigs while we are slurping up Frosted Flakes in the basement.
Maybe that’s too much, but I’m over the target.
Another aspect of this film I loved was its LA feel. Los Angeles is a fascinating city with its own smoggy insouciance. I wouldn’t want to live there but Los Angeles is so crazy, so absurd, so authentically inauthentic that it survives in a weird cloud of seductive charm. Even on a bad camera G.J. manages to catch the light of LA just right, and you can almost smell the concrete and grass, the wafting aromas and nearly perfect weather that lend something to the magic and the enormous illusion of the place.
Ultimately, I think Frank is like the rest of us, a kind of prize-fighter going the distance. Mid-fight, it’s easy to look back and be embarrassed about the pre-fight press conference, the predictions and the wild build up. And in every prize fight a fighter has to make adjustments. This film has Frank in about the ninth round. He’s lost all of them but the first. He’s not punched out be he’s wobbling and clinching. It’s become a kind of pathetic dance. You want badly for him to put together a combination, to defend himself, to jab and move, but you have the sense that his legs are probably gone. And in the end the greatest revelation may be more about his opponent. As the ring girls step down and the bell sounds for the tenth round you look up and realize, with some horror for its utter familiarity, that Frank has been alone in the ring the entire time, and is really just fighting himself.