Starting Heavy Feather as a publishing outfit in the Midwest, there have always been more successful, tenured venues I looked up to as goliaths to emulate in independent literature. Two Dollar Radio was one of those presses, early on, by which I became shell shocked, browsing their thirty-odd titles on display at my first AWP conference in Washington D.C., and leaving with, on the recommendation of their patriarch Eric Obenauf, Erotomania: A Romance and Baby Geisha, because I told him I liked such and such authors of this or that repute. I didn’t put much stock in that chance meeting then, that the distance over years would find me in the driver’s seat of my own publishing endeavor, writing fiction for an MFA plan of study, and editing another school-sponsored rag, not even knowing back then how to code an eBook, but the meeting came to mean more to me, as things do, with time, as Eric and I crossed paths again at different book fairs so we could sling our books to unsuspecting writers who sidled past our tables, and again, pulling from the trunk of my car—what was it doing there with hundreds of other books?—my copy of Erotomania to recommend to a friend (I never saw that book again).
What made TDR so fucking cool was the fact that they were doing it, and from some non-metropolis known to me then as Columbus. The city didn’t even register for me on that scale. Of course I didn’t give the city much of a fighting chance, being closer to Cleveland and Toledo, even Ann Arbor or Detroit, than I was to Columbus; plus all the cool concert bookings happened on or near the Cincinnati border in my naive opinion. But now, what follows me, haunts me even, as I study fiction in the remote reaches of the Third Coast, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is the access the state of Ohio, with its claustrophobic geography, provided for me as a fledgling publisher. There are so many colleges in the terrain. And so many awesome people like Eric and the TDR crew, whose combined successes makes publishing fun.
When the first effort by TDR Moving Pictures, I’m Not Patrick, debuted, I scrambled together some friends who would watch it with me, who I could coerce into an evening of Facebook chatting smart retorts instead of grading papers. It was Eric Obenauf’s feature film debut! I found two people in my program, on short notice, Matt Weinkam, a frequent contributor to the site and TDR street team member, and Matt Ftacek, a really insightful poet and friend interested in Derridean theory and free beer in exchange for watching a movie.
Jason Teal: I don’t have a clear ambition for this conversation, but feel compelled to talk about I’m Not Patrick in a critical light, this step forward being such a new topic to discuss in the same breath as books, for the site and the community at large. There’s not a lot about it online as it exists now, outside of trailer leaks or articles profiling TDR Moving Pictures after a decade of publishing books. So, I guess, where I want us to start is, how did you two hear about the press and its shift to microbudget filmmaking?
Matt Weinkam: I’m from Ohio so when I first heard an indie press out of Columbus was hitting it big I didn’t actually believe it. But there they were, badass press, bootstraps backstory, killer aesthetic and books that feel raw and experimental, anti-establishment even. How to Get Into the Twin Palms was the first book I read and it knocked me flat. Since then I’ve gone back to get A Questionable Shape, Crystal Eaters, and books by Joshua Mohr. Last year when the press was looking for volunteers to join its “street team” to help get the word out about their new titles I jumped at the chance. What a cool way to get fans involved. Now I follow them closely and get review copies and shout at people about how awesome they are. I mean, have you read Binary Star?! Once I heard about I’m Not Patrick I couldn’t wait to see it.
JT: Pretty convenient that I am just now hearing about this “street team” secret identity …
MW: Guess I’m a bit biased. Haha.
Matt Ftacek: Well, as an actual outsider, I didn’t know much about Two Dollar Radio or their filmmaking endeavors until just recently. I remember reading about Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia in a journal at some point (internet research says I was probably reading Paris Review), and sort of vaguely knew that TDR was a family-run press in Ohio, but otherwise I came into this experience blind. If anything, Jason, you were the biggest source of info I had in this project. I didn’t really know what to expect.
JT: I didn’t know what to expect with the film, either. I’ve read a lot of their books, and am currently bridging my seminar reading with peeks into The Only Ones, which I’ve shown to everyone I mention books to. The summary online says I’m Not Patrick is “a black comedy that follows Seth, a teenager whose twin brother, Patrick, has suddenly, tragically, committed suicide.” I trusted the synopsis, going in. I did not know Eric as a screenwriter first, and was curious to see what his creative process would culminate into, whether or not the product would conflict with or support the mission TDR set out to do in 2005. The trailer gave away very little, as trailers do.
MW: That online summary is fairly accurate. It’s basically the story of Seth dealing with the loss of his brother and how that affects his life at school, at home, and at work. At school he checks up on Patrick’s girlfriend and the hilarious Mr Tibbs forces him to go to counseling. At home his dad comes to terms with Patrick’s death and Seth has questions about his absent birth mother. Work was perhaps the most inspired storyline. Seth and Patrick owned a two-man landscaping company called Twins Landscaping. Now that Patrick is dead Seth has to find a replacement and hope he doesn’t lose clients to the rival Blonde Twins Landscaping. The film may sound pretty straightforward but it’s actually rather strange.
JT: I also found the assignments of names throughout kind of strange, that each one of Seth’s family members had a name derived from Patrick’s own—Patty, Patricia, Senior—that only served daily to remind Seth about his absent brother. It was a small enough quirk which was significant to reflect on, for me, after watching it. The genre was fiction. I was not expecting a documentary-style film; however, the style which opens the film seemed a lot like the one Palahniuk used to great effect in his novel Rant, or the letter collages of Michael Kimball’s Dear Everybody. Everyone but the subject weighs in. And it was awesome to see these formal constraints at play, more so than in recent films I have seen, as TDR is known for its concerted emphasis on fiction publishing.
MW: That documentary-like style is clear right away since the film opens with “interviews” with community members telling the camera the rumors they heard about how Patrick died. Everyone has a different story and those stories almost matter more than the truth. It really set the tone for how Seth would be treated the rest of the film. To me it seemed like a story about how our emotions are policed. Everyone tells Seth how he should be feeling after his brother’s death but no one bothers to ask how he is feeling.
MF: I saw a lot of critiques of American school systems in this film, and how student grief is processed. Seth’s trauma is handled by his counselors and administrators with a sense of PR management. When Seth insists that he doesn’t need all the counseling, that he won’t “shoot up the school,” the principal wrings his hands and asks Seth not to use that phrase. The scene is played for laughs, but it also makes some very pointed statements about how our society thinks about grief.
JT: Sometimes grief can be its own police. There is no set, textbook way to grieve, and if you are perceived to be out of step with the grief institution, then often people, especially family, begin to worry about you. There is very little talking going on at any rate, anything that resolves or opens dialogues between people, and this silence only escalates tensions between grievers and non-grievers, and is often delegated to other people who are just as, if not more, alien to your experience.
MW: I call “The Grief Institution” as an emo band name, by the way.
JT: Haha. Yours to take. But I get a producer credit.
MW: I’ll thank you in the liner notes.
JT: Well, thank you. Now what’s also interesting to me, is trying to pin down I’m Not Patrick’s aesthetic. It is at some times perpetuating choices routinely made in independent film, but at other times—and maybe this is dependent upon the budget restraints TDR adopted to adhere to the microbudget philosophy—subverting those expectations held dear by its audience. Can we start here? Who is this film’s audience?
MF: The audience? Probably disaffected Midwestern punk rockers. Can I just say? This film is punk as hell. Having spent most of my teenage years listening to a very particular brand of DIY punk rock, I was excited to hear bands like Japanther and Bummers blasting over the scenes, bands that play music with a raw, handcrafted feel to it. The sort of rock you used to play in your friend’s garage. As a low budget indie film, I’m Not Patrick uses its soundtrack well, and it uses it often. I don’t recall many scenes going by without some up-tempo punk rock tune blasting through the speakers, creating a very specific, sneering aesthetic to the film. In some ways, it does a lot to create a self-aware feel to the film, too. Yes this is a low-budget film, yes it’s amateur, but the film doesn’t care and neither should you. Punk rock.
MW: I like the punk rock vibe too because it’s a perfect fit for such a lo-fi film. It’s hard to achieve a polished film look with a $7,000 budget and had they attempted high drama and self-seriousness it might have fallen flat. Instead the rough cuts, amateur acting, and sound issues compliment the punk aesthetic. These “errors” are actually fingerprints that prove an individual made the film rather than a major studio. They’re a fuck-you to an establishment. They’re the quirks that give the film its charm. In the end this feels like a cherished cassette demo rather than some corporate label product. The micro-budget is actually an asset.
JT: It’s not all punk rock, I’d argue. Against my better instinct—I don’t like terms like literary or creative and their dubious connotations—there seems to be a literary presence evident in the film’s playthrough. In more than one viewing. This isn’t a basic deconstruction of film, it is steeped in the genre—
MF: Are you saying punk rock isn’t literary? Them’s fightin’ words!
JT: Punk rock is literary! Just like other genres. Science fiction and science writing, for example—because they are written compositions and relate to the shared human experience—contribute to literary conversations everywhere. They are the basis for major “literary” works. Literary writing equals life experience, is how I want to reimagine the idea of the word, to move it beyond class distinctions and definitions of either right or wrong texts. The canon. *shivers* We look to texts to interpret life experiences. That is their impossible utility: Texts teach us, subconsciously or consciously, how to live.
MF: I guess that’s agreeable. And it’s true, there’s a lot of ways that this film reveals its literary roots. The use of title cards is an obvious one, but there are some other tells too. The use of multiple voices as narration at the beginning and ends of the film has echoes in Greek choirs and the “we” narrator of The Virgin Suicides (although I also thought of the yelling-at-the-camera scenes in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing), and the way the film’s ending leaves multiple possibilities open seems like something that would right at home on the page.
MW: Even the humor is largely written. I kept thinking about Twin Peaks and Harold and Maude while watching—mostly because of the macabre material but also the surreal world that’s created—but actually it’s more akin to a short story by Kafka or Saunders. There aren’t many visual jokes or sight gags in the film. Much of the humor comes from the title cards or some of the character names and concepts. The rivalry between Twins Landscaping and Blond Twins Landscaping is conceptually funny. The French club’s insistence that Seth is their president despite the fact that he only came to the meeting to collect his deceased brother’s things is a hilarious scene, but it’s because of the writing, not the way it was acted or shot. It’s actually refreshing to watch a film that doesn’t rely so heavily on pratfalls or setup punchline jokes. The humor is deeper, at the story level.
JT: So was it a successful film? What do we think in these final moments together?
MF: A low-budget black comedy with a Kafkaesque punk rock aesthetic might not be for everyone, but I had a really good time. The film was genuinely funny, and Obenauf displayed a good eye for filmmaking (as far as this unqualified critic can tell). All in all, it was a great first effort, and I’m happy to have been introduced to Two Dollar Radio this way. I rate this film ten distorted guitar riffs out of ten.
MW: It was exciting to watch an artist transfer his talents from one medium to another. There may be a learning curve to the technical details of film and I’m sure it was a challenge to work with a very limited budget but Obenauf more than makes up for it with innovative storytelling, complex characters, and a charged atmosphere. I can’t believe how much he was able to accomplish within production constraints. I’d definitely call it a success. I’m excited to see more from him and TDR Moving Pictures in the future.
JT: It was a pleasure to see this project get off the ground. It’s inspiring that TDR Moving Pictures is taking advantage of these electronic distribution models to great effect, and only enhancing their brand by them. I’m excited to see how the project evolves with Grace Krilanovich in the director’s seat. Her Orange Eats Creeps was an exceptionally well-received novel, to the point that it featured on the best-selling science fiction novels for Amazon and was in the background of a Parks & Rec episode. I’ve already seen the film’s larger impact with regard to book publishing, through Jeff Wood’s cinematic novel The Glacier. It was a form I was unaware of until now. But as the project grows and TDR becomes more entrenched in film production, I imagine there will be more enticing names attached, whether that is in screenplays or directors rumored to be signed. It was a success, a loud success, like their other books. I will continue to watch.
Ed.’s note: click images to view larger size.
Matt Ftacek is a student of writing and literature at Northern Michigan University. He is a longtime reader and first-time writer at Heavy Feather Review.
Matt Weinkam’s fiction has appeared in Sonora Review, Covered with Fur, and DIAGRAM. His reviews and criticism can be found on The Rumpus, The Collagist, and Heavy Feather Review. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University where he is co-managing editor at Passages North and a founding editor of Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose.
Jason Teal is a founding editor of Heavy Feather Review.