In the first of a series of updates on Film 50 subjects, Newcity Film premieres the gently disturbing video for filmmaker-musician Thomas Comerford’s “How To,” directed by Jerzy Rose and Halle Butler. (Their 2014 Film 50 profile is here.) Comerford will perform with Luke Redfield and Dust Bunnies at the Flatiron Arts Building, 1579 North Milwaukee, third floor, on Wednesday, January 14 at 9pm.
RAY PRIDE: What led to this collaboration?
THOMAS COMERFORD: Jerzy is a former student of mine, as well as a friend in the community of artists and musicians I see around town on a regular basis. When preparing to release my new LP, I approached an array of friends from this group, which also included, as you know, Carolyn Faber and Chris Sullivan. The idea was to find people who were into the music and have them create a kind of motion picture “response” to the music. It was left completely open as to how anyone might approach it.
PRIDE: So you had other filmmakers shoot videos for your album last year: do you have a philosophy about that?
COMERFORD: Not so much a philosophy other than a desire to work with my friends, artists l respect, to see how they’ll spin off of what I’m putting forward. I think I’d find it uninteresting to make a vid for my own song—it’s far more interesting I think to have someone coming from a different position, though we may share some common ground, to bounce off my idea—my song—and imagine it and make it visual. I’d talked to Jerzy about doing a vid for some time, and I’m a fan of his work with Halle, so I didn’t hesitate to ask when moving forward with the plans to commission the vids. Jerzy did involve me in discussions of the ideas in the song and of some scenarios that might make sense for the video to go along with the song. In fact, he asked me to revisit the movie adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as a way to think about ideas of interpersonal cruelty or threat, especially in the guise of care or kindness, which is addressed in various ways in the song. So the imagery and ideas there became a mutual reference point.
JERZY ROSE: Totally, the video is trying to portray emotional violence and, yeah, social unease-slash-paranoia, but it’s trying to be funny about it. But the song is very gentle, very slow, so the violence is too, just dagger glares and hurt feelings. Also, I spent most of 2014 crying in bathrooms at fancy parties, so I was really into making a sad-guy-at-a-party video.
PRIDE: Jerzy, what’s behind shooting not only in a confined space, your own apartment, but so close in to your characters? There are lovely moments of social unease (including the eyelines between characters that are “off,” but in a good way). A shot that thrilled me is when from the kitchen the shower of Styrofoam peanuts cascade in the room behind the character with the slow-motion/out-of-focus frame.
ROSE: Tom and I started out talking about some kind of unreal social experience, but maybe somewhere domestic. We looked at “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” (one of my all-time faves) and Tom was drawn to that part when George is throwing the snapdragons at Martha—turning this loving gesture into a violent one—and that kind of became the packing peanuts in the video: a group of friends dumping the remains of a gift box over their clearly depressed friend’s head.
COMERFORD: Halle and Jerzy carried out all the details, scripting, casting and shooting without my involvement but with my blessing. I really enjoy how their reading of the song, while oblique in some ways, still finds ways to attach itself to the various characters in the short story—as various characters look at each other across the eyeline matches you mention, there’s a match also to the song’s narrator addressing a “you” which I really like.
“How To” is from Comerford’s 2014 LP, “II,” on Strange Weather Records. With Jared Larson, Mike Lopez, Halle Butler, Susan Hope Lanier, Naomi Huffman, Lori Felker, Adam Strohm, Emma Morris.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.