A Place, Sort Of (or, Why the Ultimate Missoula Documentary Was Inspired by a T-Shirt, Sort Of)
A Kickstarter Essay by Andy Smetanka
The short version, here, is that I intend to make a ravishing documentary about my adopted hometown of Missoula, Montana, full of love and mystery and some affectionate ribbing, called A Place Sort Of, to celebrate 25 years of livIng here. The long version, relayed below, is that this film project--an enigmatic "city symphony" film with its spiritual origins in a t-shirt design that happened almost by accident four decades ago--has been, as you might guess, a long time coming.
In 44 years on earth, I have lived in three cities. One of them is Helsinki, Finland. The other two are right here in Montana. It strikes many people as odd, in Helsinki and elsewhere, that you can be from Montana AND from an actual city, but there you are. The movie I am planning to make, A Place Sort Of, is intended as an affectionate, entertaining, memory-celebrating and nostalgia-inducing documentary about one of these Montana cities--Missoula--with all its unusual currents and wrinkles. It's a kind of mutual Silver Jubilee present: a huge gift for me to make it, and then turn around and share with Missoula and the world.
It will be based upon the 24 years of Super 8 footage I have filmed in Missoula since 1991, but also pull in dramatic Super 8 reenactment, stock footage, time-lapse, silhouette-animation interludes, and clips from other films to concoct a rich cinematic patchwork of Missoula, its history, legends and lore, its traditions and vanished "golden ages," its hidden patterns and unsolvable mysteries. That's all I can say for now, but NOT because details are not sketchy; I have been secretly planning this for a long time and I have done my homework. I just don't want to give it all away.
I am a huge fan of so-called "city symphony" films, in which a city itself is not so much the subject as the main character. That's the Missoula I want to put in this film: made of people, but beyond that an organism of sorts with a rich individual personality. Walther Ruttmann's 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a Great City portrays a day in the life of the great German metropolis with a handful of staged events sprinkled here and there in the verité. Of Time and the City, directed by Terrence Davies, ruminates majestically on rainy Liverpool. Thom Andersen's 2003 Los Angeles Plays Itself is an astounding three-hour survey of how Los Angeles has been used in the movies. With Missoula as mysource and inspiration, I aspire to make a "city symphony" film to stand proudly among these masterpieces. Nothing less.
I myself was lucky enough to be a collaborator on one of the most unusual city films of all time, about a city I had only ever once myself at the time (for three days). I contributed silhouette-animation sequences to My Winnipeg (2007), Canadian director Guy Maddin's moody and magic-filled documentary tribute to his own prairie hometown. I recommend this movie to just about anyone (it's by far Maddin's most accessible work), not simply because it's touching and wonderful (which it is), or even that the animated scenes are incredible (which they are), but because it might inspire you to look for similar magic in the commonplace cracks and alleys of your own hometown. It also demonstrates the limitless possibilities of interpreting a place on film. To the extent one can plan for this things, I would also like to make a movie that finds the universal in the particular, and mystery in the commonplace.
Growing up in Billings in the 1980s, one was given to understand that Missoula was quite different from most settlements in Montana, indeed on Earth, with peculiar habits, quaint attitudes and more than its share of odd characters. From teachers, from parents: It was rare to hear the word "Missoula" without the word "granola" chuckled in the same breath. Some folks trembled at the very notion of an entire city where--gasp!--women were said to have sworn off shaving their armpits!
Even as a young and unironic pre-teen, it was a kind of revelation for me when someone's older brother or sister attending college in Missoula brought home one of the famous Rockin Rudy's t-shirts with the flying platypus creature and the inscrutable legend: A Place, Sort Of.* This frankly blew my mind at 12 or 13. The slightest bit of self-mocking humor in a booster-y t-shirt would have been quite outside my experience: Billings, at the time at least, always portrayed itself on t-shirts and in Chamber of Commerce literature as a more or less sensible, proudly Western place that had some pretty cliffs running through it and the Yellowstone River right there. And here was this Missoula shirt with...well, what was it?
You might need to step back to appreciate how unusual a statement this t-shirt really makes, so try to recall your own first experience with the flying platypus creature (which, by the way, is never referred to by any nickname). It's one of the most baffling semiotic packages you will ever encounter in t-shirt form: a flying platypus (which, anatomically, doesn't look at all capable of flight) and a strangely evasive non-sequitur, linked in some incomprehensible trinity with the name of a place, in a medium (the t-shirt) presumably meant to endorse, support or advocate.
A flying platypus? "A Place, Sort Of?" Who lives there, I must have wondered, the cast of Monty Python? What kind of community rallies behind a coat-of-arms like that? I freely admit that I have never quite assimilated this information, never fully reconciled this weirdest of trinities. I love, at many levels, that this is "our" oldest and certainly most weirdly distinctive Missoula souvenir (besides the Montana Turd Bird), but I have never stopped wondering about the, um, connectivity of its three main components. Actually, I can't think of any other t-shirt design that has given me half as much to think about for 30-plus years.
But it seems to me that all the beauty, the mystery, the unseen forces and irresolvable contradictions of life in Missoula are coded deep in the hidden sides of this eternal Missoula traingle. Everything in the Missoula experience must fit in the somehow. And so that is the starting point of my film: What is this place? What is this Missoula encrypted in the empty spaces between a flying platypus, a weird slogan and a Salish-drived name that melts delectably on the tongue of every visitor?
To find answers, I look first to my Super 8 archive: around ten hours of private home-movie footage I've filmed in and around Missoula since 1991. And what are home movies, after all, but amateur stock footage of one's corner on time and space? These home movies--families, friends, outdoor rock shows, parades, Halloweens, sunsets, climbing the M--not only document over half of my own life, they also document a quarter of a century of MISSOULA life in all its bewildering (bur selectively filtered) variety. A lot of it is time-lapse scenery, mainly in black and white, which lends exactly the kind of grainy beauty and brooding atmosphere I want for "my" Missoula--the last word in Missoula on honest-to-gosh film.
Taking these diverse home-movies as my real starting point, I will gradually add other elements to flesh out Missoula--not me--as the main character. To the home-movies will be added silhouette-animation interludes, time-lapse sequences, clips from Missoula's rare appearances in feature films, ambitious home-movie reenactments of key events when necessary, and plenty of instantly familiar Missoula views and locations. And who knows what's out there? Missoula's crawl-spaces must be full of old home movies and camcorder tapes, and at some point I will go looking for them.
(A side note: Already I've had one great time going through chests of old things with a friend and his mother, searching for footage we shot on another friend's Super 8 camera in 1992. I was holding the camera while one of these guys stood on a fire escape at Hellgate High School and poured down a long feathery column of non-dairy creamer from its brown canister, and the other lit it from below. The ensuing pillar of fire looked incredible on film (the one time I saw it projected); in real life, it had burned away half the hair and beard of future Fourth of July Creek author Smith Henderson, the accomplice who had done such skillful pouring. In any case, we couldn't find the reels and so this historic footage must be presumed lost. Or perhaps just ripe for reenactment, although I notice that iron fire escape has been removed from the high school at some point in the last 23 years. Coincidence?)
Most of A Place Sort Of, though, will consist of dreamy home-movie imagery of one kind of another. In bringing this introduction to my project gently to a close, I would like to explain why this home-movie look, which will characterize the entire film, is important. I like Super 8 because it comes straight out of the camera looking ancient and timeless, even when the filmed events are relatively brand new, just a few weeks in the past. I want the Missoula of A Place Sort Of to look familiar, personal, well lived-in, and also timeless and suffused in the dreaminess you can only get from film emulsion. That's going to be the biggest expense: scanning ten hours of old Missoula home-movie footage, as well as an hour or two of new footage, to HD video to look dazzling on big screens as well as small.
Obviously, this is a highly personal and subjective cinematic interpretation of the place. The Missoula experience I've been cumulatively documenting for a quarter-century will be different from every other Missoulian's and every other Earthling's. You won't recognize every nook and cranny of "my" Missoula but you'll recognize most of it.
And for those who don't live here? Well, the appeal of any "city symphony" should extend to people who might never have been to or even heard of the place. A film about someone else's city should makes you look at your own hometown with fresh eyes, newly attuned to the layers of personal and shared history tramped into its very sidewalks.
So that's the film I want to make. And I feel like if I succeed, A Place Sort Of will appeal to Missoulians and non-Missoulians alike for many of the same reasons: Both groups will laugh, cry, scratch their heads at times, pine wistfully and learn a lot about Missoula that they probably didn't know. For everybody who sees it, the movie should and must be a kind of cinematic waking dream of inhabiting someone else's home movies.
My life here for 25 years has been great. As a filmmaker, I feel like I could do worse than beguile both groups into thinking they were actually living parts of it themselves while watching A Place Sort Of.
So there it is. A Place Sort of: a timeless waking dream of Missoula life. It's ambitious. But so am I.
If you follow this project and watch some of the other Missoula shorts I plan to bring out as updates, I think you'll get an even stronger sense of the feature documentary I have in mind. I would be grateful for your support. Missoula is a grand, mysterious place that deserves a grand, mysterious documentary, and with your help I'll make it.
*The motto/logo combination of the shirt was originally conceived by Missoula writer Bill Vaughn.
Risks and challenges
I'm lucky because the types of movies I like to make are not dependent on typical filmmaking necessities like shooting schedules and actor commitments. I like to make movies mostly by myself and on my own schedule, without all the fuss.
Making my last movie was a simple matter of committing to making an entire animated WWI feature by hand and then making time to do it (three years and around 5000 hours). I predict this movie will get done much faster: there won't be as much animation, and a good deal if not most of the material is already filmed in any case.
Things always come up, of course, but the design of the project is such that it can roll with punches. It's a patchwork of disparate film elements, so if one particular thing doesn't work out, I'll simply adapt and think of something else to put there. We Missoulians are nothing if not resourceful and quick to adapt, filmmakers especially.
As indicated, film costs will consume around half of the $25,000 budget, but as long as I'm set up with an hour or two of fresh Super 8 stock and meet with reasonable good luck in finding other kinds of old film footage to go with my own, I'm set to complete A Place, Sort Of. Everything else is elbow grease, and I've got that by the vat.
- (24 days)