Doc Talk: New Spins on Plan B in “Flipside”

By Peter Keough

A profound piece of director Chris Wilcha’s life was being disrespected and threatened with extinction. He had to do something. He had to make a documentary about it.

Flipside. Directed by Chris Wilcha. At the Brattle Theatre, June 28-July 1.

A scene from Flipside. Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

There is a lot going on in Chris Wilcha’s documentary Flipside, a lot of digressions, loose ends, unfinished and disconnected topics and ideas that elude cohesion. In that way, the film could be seen as a cinematic meditation in the manner of the peripatetic essays of 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne — circuitous, full of extraneous asides and topics pulled from a storeroom of memory and lore that, with a serendipitous twist, are buffed into an epiphany. In this case, the items sampled come out of a closet full of mementoes and a shelf stacked with the hard drives of unfinished documentary projects.

But not all were unfinished. As an idealistic, punk rock Gen Xer, Wilcha found himself sucked into employment that was the antithesis of all his beliefs – a sales rep for Columbia House (“You can’t pay your rent by not selling out,” he notes in voiceover). The job was just to tide him over until he established himself as a musician or filmmaker or artist of some kind. But he proved to be good at it, was promoted, and got his own office – much to the delight of his father, himself a star in the marketing profession.

Dutifully, though, Wilcha took his camera to work every day. He interviewed his co-workers, amassed 200 hours of footage, and after a few years made his breakthrough documentary The Target Shoots First (2000) — a sardonic look at his company, his generation, and the music business that made a splash when released and today is a cult classic.

His path was clear — he would make his mark as a filmmaker. But Wilcha again fell into the trap of looking for a day job that would enable him the means to pursue his true calling. In that direction, he took a tip from one of his idols, Errol Morris, who made catchy ads for Taco Bell while creating opuses like The Fog of War (2003). Once again Wilka was working for the despised capitalist consumer culture, with the intent, as is so often the case, of doing so only to undermine it.

Actually, if Wilcha wanted to choose a Morris film that resembled this one he might have gone with the madcap portmanteau Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997). More to the point would have been Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners (2001). In the meantime, however, Wilcha would discover, as so many others have before him, that the day job ended up taking most of his time. Once again, he was just too good at it. The offers kept coming, plus there was the growing family he had somehow acquired along the way. Years would pass between the start and abandonment of projects that would inspire him for a while and then, not always through his own fault, would lose steam and expire.

Among those aborted films was a profile of the jazz photographer Herman Leonard, then 87 and dying of cancer, clips from which open the film like a bait and switch. Another was a feature on This American Life’s Ira Glass at the time he was taking his schtick to the stage while facing a messy break-up. Others were with the legendary TV mogul David Milch, who had just been diagnosed with dementia, and a featurette with director Judd Apatow on the latter’s 2009 film Funny People, which was actually finished but, as Wilcha points out, aired only once on Comedy Central and is now available on eBay for $4. Apatow, however, would end up producing this film.

Each of these half-baked projects, Wilcha gradually began to realize, had themes in common: the perseverance of the artist in the face of adversity, the problematic nature of obsessive dedication in achieving those goals, and the elusiveness of genuine success. All anxieties that were pressing on him as he entered the middle of his life and was taking stock.

Then there was his planned documentary on Flipside, the hole in the wall New Jersey used record store of the title. That’s where he got his first job as a teenager. It was a music lover’s dream, with its stacks of flyblown LPs by Bob Dylan and more esoteric artists overseen by the proprietor, Dan, himself an encyclopedic font of knowledge and an obsessive collector who had a hard time selling stuff because he did not want to part with his beloved merchandise.

Still, the store did well in the ’90s. But when Wilcha returned years later it seemed like it had hit hard times. Despite the vinyl boom, Flipside was falling victim to an upstart new used record store in the neighborhood, also run by a guy named Dan, but cleaner and more focused on the quick turnover of product. The shop was drawing a younger crowd left uncharmed by old Dan’s sullen expertise, Flipside’s stained carpet, and the obscure albums squirreled away in cartons that smelled like smoked meat. A profound piece of his youth was being disrespected and threatened with extinction, Wilcha thought. He had to do something. He had to make a documentary about it.

But then he returned to LA and, once again, the years passed. Until now. Will Flipside provide the golden thread that will weave all these artifacts, memories, and hard drives into a unified magnum opus, a culmination of a life, a reflexive insight into art, film, and hoarding? Not quite, but despite being a bit slick with its montages and glib with the voiceover narrative (testimony perhaps to the filmmaker’s commercial expertise), the film is proof that Wilcha is ready to quit his day job.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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