When Chicago filmmaker D. P. Carlson decided to make a documentary about the late Joe Frank, LA's premiere radio storyteller who lost a lengthy battle with cancer last January, he could hardly have picked a more challenging assignment.
For one thing, it may be one of the most visually inert subjects imaginable--a man who spent the better part of four decades sitting in a small studio behind a microphone and mixing console, just talking. But for another, what the man did on the air was so unique that it defies easy description, though it hasn't kept some of us from trying. Director Alexander Payne ("Election," "Sideways"), who like Carlson was captivated as a film student by Joe's highly cinematic narratives, simply says that "you just have to tell people to listen."
Carlson liked my LA Observed piece, and I liked that he was making a movie about Joe, so I joined several hundred other online sponsors for his Indiegogo campaign and kicked in a little money to help out with the myriad music licensing and clearance issues so the film could get a proper legal release.
A few weeks ago, Carlson got back in touch with the happy news that Joe Frank - Somewhere Out There will premiere at this weekend's New Filmmakers Los Angeles DocuSlate program at Film Independent in DTLA.
Naturally I wanted to know more about it. The genesis of the project, Carlson told me, began with Joe's visit to Chicago in 2003 to accept the Third Coast International Audio Festival's Lifetime Achievement Award (listen to Joe's acceptance speech here). Carlson shot footage of the event, but a proposed short feature never materialized. They kept in contact and a few years later when Joe returned to Chicago for a live performance at the Steppenwolf Theatre, Carlson was able to strike a deal for a documentary--but only after promising Joe final cut.
Why, I asked Carlson, do people find Joe's radio art so compelling?
"I think ultimately it had something to do around the human condition," he said. "I think he had a way of doing a deep dive into pain and suffering that we all sort of have, finding a way to communicate it in a very artful way, almost an unpretentious way, to a degree where you can almost find something of yourself in what he's talked about. That he could make it funny, he could make it angry, he could make it dark."
In Carlson's film, a former girlfriend observed that during their nearly decade-long relationship, it seemed that every man they knew wanted to be Joe, and every woman wanted to be with Joe. Without knowing him, it seemed clear that people were both inferring and projecting certain qualities onto the man and his work. But what?
For Carlson, as a film student learning his craft, it was tutelage from a master. "I think through the sound design and through his storytelling, the efficiency of his words, that really roped me in," he explained. "He emphasized the assuredness, and the great philosophy, and I hung on every word he said."
A few years later, Carlson had an unexpected intimation of mortality when Joe was forced to step away from the mic to deal with a serious cancer diagnosis. "I felt like, here's a guy who seemed to be unbeatable, untouchable--one of 'the most interesting men in the world,' you know what I'm saying?'--this sound kind of persona, that he had to battle cancer, and was fragile to me, and it kind of alarmed me. When I approached the film, that was one of the things that I really wanted to discuss, and what we do with our time on earth, as we're being creative."
That still left Carlson with the challenge of translating the profoundly solitary and psychologically self-contained nature of Joe's audio essays with visual counterpoints engaging enough to hold the interest of audience members not necessarily fine-tuned to Joe's rarefied creative frequency. Yet it didn't prove as daunting as it might have seemed.
"The more you listen to his work and more you read about his life, his life story is sort of inherently interesting and almost a documentary in itself," Carlson commented. "It made it quite easy for me as a stylist for the film to work with his material to help tell his story, as opposed to people reciting, or him reciting, stuff. It's in his storytelling already."
I've been a fervent admirer of Joe's radio essays and tales for nearly 40 years. I sincerely hope that "Joe Frank - Somewhere Out There" can eventually break out of the festival circuit and find wider distribution and a larger audience that's receptive to Joe's singular talent for conjuring deeply weird dreamscapes in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and David Lynch.
And should his film be fortunate enough to find the kind of self-selective audience that truly appreciates it, here's what D.P. Carlson hopes they'll take away: "Here's a guy who was a true artist, who had a passion for what he wanted to do, did it his own way, didn't compromise, certainly didn't sell out--even though he had every opportunity to do that--and never gave up."
Despite his physically debilitating illness and its crushing psychological effects, with the support of his wife Michal Story and many friends and colleagues, Joe somehow kept moving forward.
"Even through the last year of his life, he was still doing his work, still trying to get it out there, and I think we should all respect somebody like that," Carlson told me with undisguised admiration. "He borrowed from the masters like we all did, he found them in their literary circles, but I think there was an originality to what he did, and that he should be one of these guys whom we celebrate. His work will last for a very long time."
"Joe Frank - Somewhere Out There" screens at 9:00 pm on Saturday, December 1, 2018 at Film Independent, 1139 S. Hill St., in downtown Los Angeles as part of the Independent Documentary Association's day-long NewFilmmakers Los Angeles DocuSlate program. Details here.