“We’ve set the bar so low that we don’t feel any pressure from the outside,” says Mika Rättö, front man of an obscure Finnish experimental rock band called Circle, at the beginning of Esko Lönnberg’s meta-meta-documentary, Man with a Video Camera. To be sure, Rättö’s words aren’t very reassuring to someone just sitting down to a 50-minute-long film with a jumpy timeline and English subtitles. But for artists, musicians, and documentary buffs with even a junior varsity-level of intellectual stamina, Man with a Video Camera is an interesting, experimental peek into what is often seen as an impenetrable subject: the creative process.
To Lönnberg’s credit, Circle is the perfect documentary subject for an exploration of the creative process. Formed in Pori, Finland, and described as “ever changing, ever Circular,” the band has released nearly fifty albums, EPs, and live sets in their 20-year existence. Prolific is a gross understatement. To try to capture the band’s creative essence, Lönnberg travels with them to their winter practice space—a couple of small, rustic cabins on the edge of the Finnish wilderness.
At night, the band convenes for drawn-out jam sessions—cataclysms of piano and banjo, jaunty harmonicas and electrified Eastern guitar melodies, meandering drones and vocal gibberish. For someone not accustomed to live experimental music, watching a group of grown men in studded-leather bracelets playing atonal rock music while their singer literally barks and gargles into a microphone is enough to arch a skeptical eyebrow.
By day, however, Lönnberg choreographs an ambiguous film starring Circle. Band-leader Rättö is very interested and encouraging in the side project, the other band members drag their feet, roll their eyes, and call Lönnberg runkke, the Scandinavian equivalent of wanker. “A documentary should have a strong sense of purpose,” says Rättö at one point. “It requires tension. But here, no one’s having a sense of purpose, except to watch the Olympics. How do you create tension out of that?”
The plot of Lönnberg’s fictional film is thoroughly diaphanous, more of a vignette than anything. At the beginning, Rättö is skiing around a frozen, swampy thicket half-lost. Next scene, the band performs a folk song on the cabin’s porch (singing “Leppanen is a sticky-sticky man”) until someone shoots an arrow at a banjo leaning against a tree. At one point, they all march through the woods at night wearing ski masks and toting candelabras. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
What soon becomes clear is that the project is even more complex than I’ve laid out so far. While Lönnberg is recording his short film and Circle documentary, someone else is filming him film them. Later, we see, he presents a different version of the documentary at a film festival. What you are watching, then, is a documentary about a documentary about a documentary. Even Lönnberg gets lost in the different narrative layers. “Is this real or fiction?” he wonders. “Difficult to say.”
Lönnberg doesn’t necessary reveal something groundbreaking about human creativity or push the boundaries of cinematography in Man with a Video Camera, but he does make an artful attempt to chronicle the innate, therapeutic, incomprehensible drive to make art.
At the film’s conclusion, Lönnberg asks a hanging, final assortment of questions. His last is as cryptic as you’ve come to expect by this point: “Tell me, stars: ‘What am I?’”
Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
Man with a Video Camera was first released in 2009, but is being re-released by Fonal Records in conjunction with Supersonic Festival, an experimental music showcase in Birmingham, United Kingdom, from October 21-23. If you’re in that neck of the woods and have an interest in experimental music, the documentary is worth an hour of your time.