Friday, August 13, 2010

Haack: The King of Techno

Haack: The King of Techno
directed by Philip Anagnos
(USA, 2004, 56 minutes)

I only recently discovered electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack - thanks to a co-worker who alerted me to the fact that our library owned a number of his childrens albums in our "best-kept-secret" vault of phonograph records. Impressed by what I heard, I subsequently found a CD of his in a used record store (see my Hush Little Robot review), then found a used copy of an excellent 2005 tribute album to the man called Dimension Mix, that featured Beck, Stereolab, Fantastic Plastic Machine and others of that electronica ilk. I still know nothing about the man, other than he was Canadian who made electronic children's records (think Hap Palmer meets Kraftwerk), had a regretable name for a musician (a Haack musician?), invented/built/& played his own electronic musical instruments, and passed away in 1988. Oh, and he was apparently a product of his peace-love-and-Peyote-popping Hippy-in-the-'60s times, calling his friends "Starchildren" and confessing that while he didn't mind fame in the here-and-now, he was ultimately more interested in obtaining a "telepathic following." Tubular, baby!

But the missing link for me was finding a book or documentary something more in-depth than a mere Wikipedia entry. I found it - well, sort of - in the form of this so-so documentary by a director who admits he's not a documentary filmmaker. That said, this is, however, the only game in town as far as a visual record of electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack. Highlights are two TV appearances - on Gary Moore's What's My Line and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood - intersperced, unfortunately, with uninformative and unimpressive clips of no-name hipster musicians and DJs who smugly celebrate their discovery of Haack without any technical or historical insight beyond, "He was like, a genius man, I mean he was on Mr. Rogers." As they show off their aviator shades, tattoos, retro-psychedelic shirts, trendy facial hair-and-beard combos, and lava lamps, one never gets beyond the "I discovered Haack at at used record store" or "Friends turned me on to his tapes" insights. Only his fellow Juillard School of Music classmate, Ted "Praxiteles" Pandel, offers anything remotely analytical about Haack's music beyond its genius-making-kiddie-records Cool Factor, though the German group Mouse on Mars (Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner) come close to a serious discussion. But then Germans are always serious. After all, to folks from the land of Stockhausen and Kraftwerk, Haack is a kindred spirit whose machine-generated music is a logical progression of their beloved 20th Century electronic music.

The inarticulate hipster musicians interviewed irritated me beyond words; I wanted to rip their thrift store vintage clothing and pummel their meticulously-toussled-haired noggins with my fists, whilst shouting, "Shaddup and say something beyond how cool you are to know who Bruce Haack is!" And will someone tell Haack's friend/collaborator Chris Kachulis to put on a goddam shirt? The clip showing this 60-something, Boris Karloff-lookalike in a wife-beater undershirt shows off nothing but his simian-like hairy arms and shoulders and blotchy Leper Colony skin as he performs "Listen" in a subway station. (Chris, take a tip from Leonard Cohen - if you're pushing 70 and still performing, wear a nice shirt or suit!)

Though the film meanders on for another 10-13 minutes, it really has nothing more to say after 43 minutes (IMDB lists its official running time as 70 minutes, but my DVD was easily under an hour) - therafter sloppily and vaguely referring to the 2005 Dimension Mix tribute album that featured a few big-name electro-pop artists like Beck and Stereolab and Brother Cleve; unfortunately, none of those big names are interviewed, instead we get the guy who worked with the Beastie Boys (Money Mark?) and a bunch of no-namers. (And would it have hurt to do a title card with some info about the tribute album? How about a video insert of the album cover (even a draft copy)? The album came out in 2005 and this film was entered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, but, I mean, gimme something here to connect the dots for those of us who aren't in the know!)

Moreover, the film's greatest failing is that it never makes the case for its subtitle: "The King of Techno." It's just a glib catchphrase, like everything the hipster musicos utter.

One of the few extras on this DVD is a poorly-lit, poorly edited clip of the filmmaker speaking at a Sundance screening (did I see Skizz in the audience?), wherein he suggests that he wants to explore the full spectrum of Bruce Haack's amazing life in a narrative feature film with actors and such. Maybe he can pull off what a similar approach in Man in the Moon did for Andy Kaufman...but I doubt it.

Ultimately, this was a botched opportunity to say something about somebody who warranted the attention. I wish somebody like Skizz Cyzyk had made a documentary about Bruce Haack. He would have gotten beyond the surface and added some depth to this classic example of an "outsider musician" (Skizz's forte) rife for rediscovery by a new audience and rife for getting his due in music history beyond the Inner Circle of Hipster Cultdom. Still, it is all we have at the moment.

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