(The only true purpose served by these breaks in the action, of course, is that the musicians get to pre-empt accusations of narcissism by describing how unnatural it is to have a film crew stalking you day and night. That they often fund the stalking in question is a detail apparently left on the cutting-room floor.)
Anyway, in House Concerts, released on DVD late last year, this scene takes place at Burger King. It, too, is a clumsy moment, and yet for all the right reasons. Our subject, a middle-aged, overweight, folk-rock troubadour named John M. , is attempting to order his lunch a seemingly simple chore made difficult by a film crew's determination to document the artistic dilemma of choosing between a Whopper and BK Broiler.
It is a completely undynamic moment in which every element, including the film crew, points to a single question: Why the hell is this movie being made?
The answer does not come readily, but suffice it to say the world is a better place because House Concerts exists, if only to sit unloved at the bottom of film-festival reject bins or the virtual shelves of www.filmbaby.com. The film quite possibly the most remarkable music documentary you probably won't see this year follows the guitar-wielding John M. (full name: John Mollenhauer) and his devoted girlfriend, Penni Merrick, as they embark on a nationwide tour of house concerts.
"It's kind of the anti-rock-star tour film," Mollenhauer tells the Pitch. "It's just two people getting in a van and driving around the country and playing. Something that almost anybody could do."
On the surface, and only on the surface, House Concerts is about a type of performance experience that remains largely unknown, despite a nationwide infrastructure of performers, venues and how-to books devoted to its virtues.
Whether you're aware of it or not, homeowners throughout the country welcome complete strangers into their living rooms for concerts featuring touring folk musicians. In return for their entry fee, typically around $10, the entirety of which goes to the performer, attendees experience a show every bit as intimate and smoke-free and potentially awkward as you'd expect.
A growing network of performers have caught onto the possibility (and even profitability) of performing in such off-the-radar venues as the Brich family "Folk House" in Omaha, Nebraska, where the average gig can yield $400 for the performer, not to mention free lodging in the Brich family basement.
That phenomenon, and the spirit of togetherness it tends to create, serves as the general premise of House Concerts.
In reality, though, the film is as much about house concerts as Chris Smith's popular (and somewhat controversial) American Movie is about the process of making films. The true star is Mollenhauer, an earnest, earthy, go-for-broke, live-the-dream, compromise-for-nobody idealist whose notion of success is so skewed toward the positive that even the most dire concert settings (think hair salon plus screaming baby) are viewed as stepping stones to something better.
The documentary opens in Mollenhauer's native Connecticut with his and Merrick's giddy preparations to hit the open road. It isn't immediately addressed, but the tour finds him at something of a career transition he recently has given up on the ultracompetitive, beauty-conscious atmosphere of Nashville.
Like any road movie, House Concerts hits its stride, both visually and structurally, once Mollenhauer and Merrick get moving. The film is narrated by Mollenhauer's longtime buddy Steve, whose obvious delight for the role charmingly undermines the Cronkite-like seriousness with which he approaches it. (The DVD extras include a sit-down interview between Mollenhauer and Steve that's pure gold.)
The film masterfully captures the singular experience of a house concert, in which every normal artist-audience boundary (stage, monitors, microphone) is erased. We see audience members on couches, sipping wine, tapping sandaled feet to a live musician whose music most have never heard before and may never again.
Along the way, we encounter a cast of characters only reality could provide, including the extraordinarily grating Richard, whose devotion to Mollenhauer not only carries him across state lines but also leads him to the delusional conclusion that his opinions hold some professional weight. Cornering Mollenhauer by a table of finger foods, Richard informs the musician that the evening's performance, though good, lacked the energy of previous engagements.
"And I had to attribute it to the humidity," he says, shaking his head. "I had to."
In contrast, there is the adorable Merrick, routinely transfixed by songs she no doubt has heard hundreds of times before, including Mollenhauer's astonishingly uncryptic ode to her, "What If It's Love" (lyrics: This can't be love, I've been in love, this isn't how it feels, I could walk away from you if I wanted to).
As entertainment, House Concerts sits on the same uneasy border that brought so much criticism, including a full-on cinematic retort from director Todd Solondz, to American Movie. The problem is that the film can be viewed in two ways: on a sincere level, in which the music, personalities and settings are enjoyed at face value, and on an ironic level, in which all struggles, quirks and idiosyncrasies are enjoyed at the expense of those involved.
In other words, it's not hard to imagine that Mollenhauer was exploited to some extent which is a strange thing to think about a film written, produced and directed by Mollenhauer himself.
"If I had been making a vanity piece, I wouldn't have shown me forgetting lyrics," Mollenhauer says, defusing such concerns. "Or I don't know if I would have shown the concert in Dallas, where I had all the problems with the cats and the sneezing."
It's that candor along with the disastrous Labor Day party in which Mollenhauer mounts a picnic table for attention, performs a six-minute epic about his mother and makes the honest-to-goodness assertion that touring is "more fun than cancer nursing" that sets House Concerts apart from other music documentaries.