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|Requiem for a Dream|
|News/Features - Feature Stories|
|Tuesday, 07 March 2006 18:00|
It’s true that history is written by the winners. But in the case of the new documentary A Clown Short of Destiny, the losers are getting their say, too.
The movie documents a Des Moines heavy-music scene on the rise in the late 1990s, with several bands grabbing the attention of music labels.
One of those bands was Slipknot. Another was 35-Inch Mudder.
Slipknot has written its history, and it says that the certified-platinum band grew from barren ground. Bassist Paul Gray (known to Slipknot fans as “2”) told an interviewer that in Des Moines there’s “not much of a music scene,” and that refrain has been a consistent one coming from the band – particularly co-founder and percussionist Shawn “Clown” Crahan – since it signed with Roadrunner Records in 1997.
Chad Calek, the bassist for 35-Inch Mudder and the director and narrator of A Clown Short of Destiny, begs to differ.
“It was a magical time,” he said of the Des Moines hard-rock scene that spawned both Mudder (in 1994) and Slipknot (in 1995). “We had a special scene.” Calek claims in the movie: “In 1995, there were less than 10 hard-rock or metal bands in the Des Moines scene. By 2000, there were over 50.” The city was on the cusp of becoming something big – perhaps the next Seattle.
The thesis of A Clown Short of Destiny – its main argument – is that the support of Slipknot could have made it happen. If bands champion each other, the reasoning goes, an act that hits it big can bring some friends with it. That’s what happened in Seattle, said Justin Holstein, one of the movie’s producers: “It wasn’t a coincidence that like 50 bands got signed out there,” he said.
But instead of name-dropping Des Moines bands or talking up the scene overall, Slipknot’s members denigrated the state and their hometown, and refused to acknowledge that their fellow bands even existed.
But the two-hour movie isn’t merely (or even primarily) a persuasive piece, something meant to tell the world that Slipknot played a major role in killing the Des Moines scene. A Clown Short of Destiny – the current version of which the Reader previewed – is an intensely personal tale. As Calek said in an interview last week: “It’s the story of how 35-Inch Mudder loses.”
Yet the film’s hook – what makes it marketable to an audience beyond people who typically see documentaries, or beyond Des Moines – is Slipknot.
There is certainly a buzz about the movie, which is somewhat surprising given the highly local flavor of A Clown Short of Destiny. The movie was shown at the Park City Film Music Festival in January – winning the “Gold Medal for Excellence: Director’s Choice for Best Music Documentary” – and will be screened at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival in Los Angeles on March 11. MTV News wrote up the movie last week.
Calek attributes the film’s nascent success to its multifaceted nature, the fact that it’s about an internationally famous act while at the same time being about a band that few people have heard of. “The damage we did was to ourselves,” he said. “The damage they did was to the scene.”
And it’s not just about music or ambition. As Calek says in the movie: “A music scene is more than bands. It’s people. It’s hopes. It’s dreams.”
“Slipknot Couldn’t End Us”
A Clown Short of Destiny will be of interest to anybody in a band with visions of arena tours and gold records. “You’ll have your degree in rock stardom” after seeing the movie, Calek boasted.
It is also a cautionary tale about how petty rivalries – such as the one between Slipknot and 35-Inch Mudder – can polarize and poison a vibrant scene. And it serves as a warning to anybody with a lofty goal to seize opportunities, because you often only get one shot.
For the Quad Cities, the movie has a local connection beyond our geographic proximity to Des Moines. Holstein, the film’s cinematographer and co-producer, is a Bettendorf resident. He and Calek (now a full-time filmmaker in Los Angeles) run True Player Entertainment (http://www.trueplayer.net), a management firm that represents bands such as Index Case and Destrophy. They’ve also put together The Industry Bomb (http://www.theindustrybomb.com), a Web site that serves as a platform for both entertainment programs and a how-to guide on the music industry for bands.
A Clown Short of Destiny has literally been a decade in the making, with its origins as a documentary about 35-Inch Mudder on its path to getting signed. The original title: Dreamers in the Field.
Holstein shot more than 20 hours of footage, but there was one small complication: 35-Inch Mudder never got signed. “We blew it,” Calek said.
The film ends up having three distinct faces: a document of Mudder’s dashed dreams, a love letter to the Des Moines scene, and a screed against Slipknot.
Slipknot and its label have not responded to A Clown Short of Destiny publicly. Jamie Roberts, Roadrunner’s vice president of media and artist relations, wrote in an e-mail: “Neither the band nor the label have seen the movie, so there is no comment to be had from any of us.”
The Slipknot fan resource Pulse of the Maggots has taken a zero-tolerance approach to A Clown Short of Destiny. The Web site’s forum has only eight rules (http://forums.pulseofthemaggots.com/announcement.php?f=3), one of them dealing with the movie: “Posting of anything involving this documentary whether it be pro/con/ or a question about it is strictly prohibited. Users who post regarding this will be banned without warning and your thread will be deleted.”
So until more people actually see it, A Clown Short of Destiny will be known as “that Slipknot movie.”
The lead of the MTV News article says: “Calek’s documentary follows the controversial rise of Slipknot from the cornfields of Des Moines, Iowa, to the horn-thrown’ crowds of Ozzfest. But it also chronicles the ’Knot’s strange attempts to disgrace their hometown hard-rock scene and the effect that had on dozens of local bands.”
Having seen the movie, I can say that A Clown Short of Destiny is both more and less than that description suggests – more in the sense that it’s a rich, idiosyncratic, honest, lively, and funny testament to the family atmosphere of a local scene, and less because the Slipknot material is under-sourced and frequently less than convincing. The good news is that while the version of A Clown Short of Destiny that I saw was “finished,” if it gets picked up for distribution Calek will almost certainly have the opportunity to revise it and plug some of the holes.
Calek said he spent 18 months editing the movie and has created “120 versions of the film. ... Like any good documentary, it has a life of its own.”
The story starts in 1996, when both Calek and Holstein were students at Iowa State University. As Calek tells it, the Des Moines scene had two highly driven rap-metal bands: Slipknot and 35-Inch Mudder. They started out as friends.
But when Slipknot aligned itself with a Des Moines radio station (“The Dot” 107.5), 35-Inch Mudder formed an alliance with a rival station (“Lazer” 103.3).
Those bonds meant that Slipknot was blacklisted from Mudder’s station and any event tied to it, and vice versa. The movie claims (but provides no proof) that Slipknot’s Crahan bought the Safari Club, a Des Moines music venue. If a band wanted to play the Safari Club, the movie argues, it had to back Slipknot. Meanwhile, Mudder vocalist Cory “C-Bone” Brown worked for the radio station that was promoting his band. So every band on the scene had to choose a side.
“All music scenes have rivalries,” Calek said. What made the Des Moines scene unusual was that two major bands had leverage over other groups in terms of controlling access to a live-music venue and to the airwaves.
The situation went beyond rivalry when Slipknot signed to Roadrunner in 1997. Whenever Slipknot’s members were asked about Des Moines or Iowa, they responded that the area had no scene and no culture. The group’s 2001 album, Iowa, was so titled to prompt interview questions about the state, Calek argues. “Slipknot had a lot of hate for the scene,” Holstein said. “They purposefully tried to lock out every other band that tried to make it.”
Slipknot’s “Get This” features poetic gems such as “I don’t wanna do a show with your shitty fuckin’ band” and “Local bands: suck these nuts,” but in fairness, the song runs down all bands that aren’t Slipknot.
As for 35-Inch Mudder, its big opportunities came in 1999, when a pair of label showcases – in New York and then Los Angeles – were scheduled.
But the Big Apple cut Mudder down to size. As one member of the band says in the movie: “It just seemed so big, and we all felt small.”
Calek put it bluntly in our interview: “A lot of us were just overwhelmed. We hit the stage, and it was our fault. We didn’t have our shit together.”
The band performed well at the L.A. showcase, but Calek believes the New York show torpedoed any chance of a deal; word of the debacle had made it to Los Angeles. Mudder played its last show in June 2000.
Finally, then, A Clown Short of Destiny becomes the story of 35-Inch Mudder, with a Slipknot detour. “Slipknot couldn’t end us,” Calek said. “It was really in our hands.”
“They Can Still Sue”
Like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, A Clown Short of Destiny is political through a personal lens. Both movies are fallible in terms of facts and arguments, but they thrive through force of personality. Calek’s presentation is vibrant, energetic, conversational, irreverent, and nearly fearless. When he puts a dog on camera to talk about Slipknot, any rational complaint about the movie becomes moot. There’s a truth to the movie because Calek believes in it.
It’s not just Calek telling the story, though. “This story’s told by the music scene,” he said. The interviews with local bands certainly create an understanding of the community in Des Moines, while interviews with national acts – including System of a Down and 311 – reinforce the importance of popular bands supporting their hometown scenes.
But on the topic of Slipknot’s behavior – particularly after getting signed – Calek pretty much stands alone in the movie. What’s lacking in A Clown Short of Destiny is incontrovertible evidence. Calek generally doesn’t show primary materials – copies of newspaper interviews that the audience can read, for example, or screen shots of Web articles – so that viewers can see the quotes from Slipknot in the context they were presented. The movie doesn’t often provide dates and sources for its quotes. And only once does the audience get to hear the actual voice of a current member of Slipknot, and that comment is pretty mild. Overall, the audience is asked to take a lot on faith – that 35-Inch Mudder was so great, that Slipknot was the lesser of the two bands, and that Slipknot ran the scene down. In a court of law, A Clown Short of Destiny would be excluded nearly in its entirety as hearsay.
But that’s almost beside the point. The movie’s homemade, first-person perspective is one of its charms, and if it were more journalistic or more concerned with showing and citing evidence, it wouldn’t be as compelling. The movie is most fun when Calek engages in some cheap Michael Moore-like mockery, such as taking Slipknot to task for having a similar shtick to Mushroomhead, and a logo seemingly stolen from Korn.
The film doesn’t include interviews with current members of Slipknot – Calek said he’s made three or four attempts in the past few years – but I’m not sure they’d add much. When it comes right down to it, outside a pair of decapitated chickens – in a story without visual or documentary evidence – Slipknot is accused mostly of bad form.
Calek narrates with a boyish enthusiasm and (at times) indignation, and he gains more credibility as 35-Inch Mudder faces more adversity.
“I had to be more honest with this,” Calek said in our interview. “There was no room for anything but absolute honesty. ... I’m proud of a lot of things we did. And I’m not proud of a lot of things we did.”
Yet the movie’s journalistic shortcomings are important in a political and practical sense, because Calek and Holstein expect some return fire from Slipknot. By not backing up many claims, and by failing to disclose obvious conflicts of interest (with bands they represent, for example), the movie and its makers will be easy targets for anybody hoping to impugn their credibility.
Or, potentially, block the movie’s release.
As for Slipknot’s response to the movie, including the possibility of lawsuits to cripple it, Calek sounds sanguine: “I can’t control it,” he said. “I’ve got truth on my side. I have the right to tell the story. I have the right to tell the truth.”
Holstein is more fretful. “Anybody can sue anybody,” he said. “That’s the problem. The people in power always screw the guy who isn’t in power. ... Whether they win or not, they can still sue.”
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