Joe’s managed to bring all of them together for his first feature length film, which embodies that other half of Joe Wakeman most of us have yet to see. They Read By Night is “leather jacket film” with plenty of drugs, rock n’ roll, and pulpy mayhem, all against a clever literary background. The film premieres at Gravesend Recordings next week in Bushwick. We were lucky enough to see the film in advance, but for your viewing pleasure here’s a first-look at the trailer and a bit of what we discussed about the film with Joe when we recently caught up with him at Birdy’s.
They Read By Night has all the Fonzie drawling and pomade lubricated peacocking you’d expect from an exemplar of the “leather jacket” genre. That’s not exactly a textbook term (at least not one we could find) but think greaser films, B movies, and motorcycle flicks. “The situation is patently absurd,” explained Joe, who describes himself as a big fan of his pulpy forerunners. “That was a big part of that scene too, if you look at Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or Andy Warhol’s Vinyl, they both have that 50’s teen-rebel, rock n’ roll kind of rebellious thing. I wanted to inject a feeling of cinema into what’s a pretty banal film to begin with.”
Joe’s film adds a clever twist to the genre. Whereas the girls of greaser films typically didn’t rise above arm candy, or have much purpose beyond being a brief sex draw as the backseat make-out partner, the women of They Read By Night are not impressed by their smooth-talking, troublemaker counterparts. They’d rather talk about philosophy and beat the guys at mind games. Though they could hardly be counted as intellectual fan girls. “Fuck Kant, he doesn’t even know what sex feels like!” Mary Sue (played by Eliza Diamond) and Bobbi the librarian (Nikki Belfiglio of Bodega Bay) scream back and forth, ripping up books and tossing pages into the air as they growl. “Fuck Voltaire! But I won’t say Fuck Rimbaud.”
The film starts with a wise-cracking, leather-clad street gang busting into the library. “We’re the Vampires, and we got in a slight altercation with the Nylons,” they explain. Tommy Rocketship, played by Taylor Bruck; Flip, or Alex Fippinger of the Yin Yangs and Junk Boys; and Benji, aka Benjamin Hosie of Bodega Bay bust into the library and tie the two girls up. They try mansplaining them (“I’m going to break it down for you…”) and attempt to consolidate control (“In order for there not to be more harm done out there in the world, we’re gonna cause harm to you,”) while assuring them: “We’re gonna have some fun.” But let’s just say that all this is completely reversed by the end.
“There’s definitely a feminist bent to it,” Joe agreed. “On the other hand, part of me thinks the feminism in it is a little facile, but everything’s a little facile– it’s a movie, you know?”
They Read By Night, as a black and white film with shadowy rooms, lingering shots, visages thrown into dramatic relief, certainly looks cinematic right off the bat. It feels that way too, because as a viewer you’ve got some catching up to do after being parachuted into an alternate reality, one that’s not entirely different from our own but nevertheless takes some getting used to. Bobbi the librarian is a human eye roll at the start of the film, “The Letter Killers Club,” she sighs, stamping a copy of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s modernist classic about a group of writers who vow to give up the written word as a means of ostensibly purifying their work. “What a joke. Try being a librarian, drowning in a sea of text. And I’m supposed to be the preserver,” Bobbi says.
As the film progresses, Joe lends you ample time to hang out with the characters, literally– you join them at a party, while they’re watching a movie, discussing said movie, bickering, fighting, snorting cocaine, and (potentially) hooking up. There’s not much that happens, but whatever does happen, however strange it may be, acquires a feeling of naturalness. Characters vacillate from reciting poetic lines, to stumbling over their lines, even awkwardly interrupting each other.
Joe started off with some basic ingredients. He was basically aiming to make a film in the style of the 60’s underground– not exactly totally non-linear, nor so experimental as to be hallucinatory, but something looser, more intuitive and free-flowing than your typical narrative movie. And those leather jacket rebels, they had to be at center stage.
“I did have this idea about hyper-literate leather jacket hooligans in the ‘60s who talk about books and stuff. I was trying to write a regular script for it and it was just coming out super cute and not exactly what I wanted.” Joe made a yuck face. Cute was definitely not what he wanted. He decided he’d been watching too much of A Clockwork Orange. “It’s the same idea, these bad kids who use a lot of words,” he explained.
But then he watched Vinyl for the first time– “Andy Warhol’s version of A Clockwork Orange,” and concluded, “I’d been watching the wrong A Clockwork Orange.” He was bowled over by the results of Warhol’s technique, or rather non-technique, of shooting unedited. “There was a script with dialogue, but it was only nine pages long,” Joe laughed. “It’s basically these actors who are not really actors trying to get from A to B and letting everything else grow out of that.”
Joe didn’t shoot They Read By Night totally unedited, but he did leave plenty of room for similar a similar vibe by not allowing for cuts during takes. If someone forgot their line, they forgot their line. “I mean, they were very long takes with non-actors,” he shrugged. Instead of giving his cast difficult scripts to memorize and complex rolls to assume, he built the film around his actors. It helped that Joe is really close with all of the actors, some of them he’s known for years. “I feel like there’s a better synthesis between actor and director that way,” he explained. “I based the characters more or less on the actual feelings that I know those people playing them have, just exaggerated elements of things I’ve heard them say before. I didn’t really write the parts too deeply. Almost all the dialogue is improvised.”
Besides the basic thematic elements, Joe said he took a Warholian approach, the only strict requirement being the actors get from “point A and point B” in a given scene. “I let their personalities guide the way the characters develop,” he explained. “I didn’t even really have a script before I had the parts cast.”
But I wondered if he was impressed by their ability to perform. “I don’t think anyone in the film even thinks of themselves as an actor really, they’re all musicians who play in bands in Bushwick,” he said. (There is one exception, Taylor Bruck who plays Tommy Rocketship, is an old friend who lives in Kingston, New York and raps under the name B. Ruckus) “And people who play music are really good at this.When you’re playing a rock show, there’s no attempt at verisimilitude. You’re doing something that’s uncommon. Anyway, I think everyone in the movie is a movie star. They don’t have to be anything other than themselves.”
However it’s obvious that the whole film isn’t improvised, a great deal of the script is written in a distinctly pulpy parlance. “I do like writing flowery dialogue,” Joe admitted. The musical background of everyone involved came in handy as well– Bodega Bay and Heavy Birds collaborated on an original song for the film, and there are scenes when the actors strum on guitars and sing songs.
“After playing music for a few years, I kind of realized it’s a lot easier to be a musician than a filmmaker in terms of getting people to come and look at your art,” Joe explained. “It’s really easy to get somebody to see your band, but if you make films it’s not the same kind of social thing, watching a movie. I want to make a social movie.”
Joe definitely succeeds in this, They Read By Night feels a lot like hanging out with your smart friends. But the idea of a “social movie” is sort of a throwback concept for Joe. “It’s really strange to me that it’s not like that anymore because it’s so much easier to make movies now,” he said. “Going to see a movie, it’s such an anti-social thing now. You watch movies at home on your laptop and even when you go to the theater with your friends and see a movie, but especially a good movie, it feels like you’re in church or a museum or something. What happened to movies being a dark place to go to with your friends and make out in?”
But if there’s a central set of characters in They Read By Night, it’s the books that surround the human characters. Literature comes through in the film like a towering wave, hitting you at every angle, sometimes in obvious way and others times less so. For one, much of the film is set inside a library, i.e. Joe’s apartment. “We built the set by just moving all the bookshelves into my living room, and even then I left two of them out. I didn’t buy any books to make the set, ” he explained. “I think there’s a lot of fetishism around books these days, but I think film is a fetishistic medium anyway. People film their fetishes. So it’s natural for me to make a film that fetishizes books. You should be able to film books the way that people have a tendency to film other people’s bodies.”
One scene combines fetishism (another recurring theme that often plays out as bondage of some sort) and literature. Bobbi and Tommy have separated from the rest of the party. While Tommy, an overly-confident macho dude, clearly thinks he’s going to get lucky, Bobbi’s got other designs. “You keep saying you’re the smartest man in the world, but I don’t even think you can read,” she challenges him (accusing someone of being illiterate is a recurring insult). “I think you’re cheese, take it off [the leather jacket] be a man!” He launches toward her, promising to prove his “robust virility.” But Bobbi overpowers him, tying him down and taping his mouth shut. “Now you know what it is to be a fucking man,” she says. While Tommy is bound, Bobbi explains how “when a man cums” it’s not really an act of masculine dominance, but a “pure expression of femininity,” before promising: “I’m going to inundate you with the feminine seed.” There are flashes of a sizzling fried egg.
Throughout the scene Tommy and Bobbi both quote Juliette by the Marquis de Sade, while the egg imagery is an homage to Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. “It’s extremely dirty— this guy has this fetish for eggs,” Joe explained of the 1920s novel.” I see the Bataille egg, and having eggs poured on you as a literary way to invert the classic patriarchal porn scenario of spraying someone with cum, and essentially make it a feminist image.”
Besides a variety of allusions and quotations, there are scenes devoted entirely to book covers: a collection of essays by Brecht, a pulp softcover, and Crime & Punishment, among others. The camera lingers on pages and marked-up passages loosely related to the following or former scene. These cuts act like bookends, if you will. And even after the credit role, there’s a bibliography. “Pasolini’s Salo is the only film I can think of with a bibliography, and I guess some Godard movies also have bibliographies,” Joe mused.
And come to think of it, the quippy-ness and collage-like mix of still lifes and dynamic scenes throughout They Read By Night is so very, very Godard. “I guess most of that is a Godard knockoff kind of thing,” Joe admitted. “Stylistically there’s no one I quote more than Godard. You find that [still life book shot] a lot in Godard films. It’s kind of like a picture of a word.”
They Read makes it glaringly obvious Joe’s a well-read kind of guy. And while there are literary references throughout, you don’t necessarily have to pick up on them to enjoy the film. But if you’ve also done the reading, there’s a lot more for you to have fun with. Joe manages to balance his love for literature and clever references with entertaining B- movie scenarios while avoiding coming across as pretentious.
“Film, literature, music, I have nothing but untempered love for all three of these things and they dominate my life, kind of,” he mused. “But I think the one that I like doing the best, and the one I think I do the best, and the one that makes me feel the best is film, so I have an emotional attachment to that. But what’s the point of even making such a distinction?”
What you’re left with after watching They Read By Night is a certain throwback vibe to the ’60s– a time when the printed word was all there really was for reading, film was still fairly exciting and new, and leather-jacket gangs ruled the streets. I thought about a guy I knew in college, his secret nickname was “60’s Guy” because he dressed up like a cos-play member of the Rubber Soul-era Beatles– bowl-cut, bellbottoms, and all. This 60’s Guy said outdated words like “groovy” and “righteous” with total seriousness. He professed that he listened only to vinyl records, played a vintage ’60s guitar in a psych band, and allegedly (though I’d never seen it with my own eyes) drove an old VW bug. While I could tell right off the bat that Joe Wakeman was not 60’s guy, I couldn’t help thinking the filmmaker demonstrates at least a small obsession with the past.
Is this nostalgia? Pure aesthetics? Or something more? Joe paused for a minute and started, “I don’t want to call it nostalgia, because I don’t want to idealize it. There were evil people doing evil things back then and evil won in the ’60s, but there was a good period where it looked like they weren’t going to,” he hesitated. “Maybe it’s cliché to say, but there were things that were progressing at that time that set us on this path, away from that path.” He listed some of the major shifts of the 1960s, horrible things that happened and, as we’re taught in history class, had the effect of convincing people that peace, love, and revolution were not gonna work.
“But we haven’t gotten off this path, and look– we’re in a world of shit right now! Things are blowing up all over the place!” Joe laughed ironically. “Things haven’t been this violent since the ‘60s. It’s really intense right now. Maybe it’s time we got back on the boat we got off on that decade when we started building our piles of shit. I just think the work’s not finished, and it could be.”
They Read By Night premieres Friday, December 11th at Gravesend Recordings (inside the Silent Barn), 13 Stanwix Street.