The first time I visited the apartment of musician and comedian David Nixon—several years ago, when I became a minor collaborator on a barroom theater project called Delaware with his band "Awesome"—we went up to the roof of the building and he mentioned something about his father. I asked for more details and he deflected the question, saying it was "complicated."
In the years since, Nixon has made an animated, musical documentary film (screening at Annex Theater today and tomorrow) about exactly how complicated. Nixon's father was a right-wing prodigy, then an LSD convert, then a charismatic leader of a sect of Japanese Buddhism who wielded a lot of power over the lives of true believers (with all of power's corrupting influence), then a psychic phone-line operator, and much more.
Here's the trailer:
There's another clip below the jump—about Nixon's time working on his father's psychic-phone hotline—and an interview in which he answers four questions: How many screenings has the film had? Was it difficult/cathartic to make a film about your father? Has there been any response from the folks who were in his sphere of influence back in the day? Why do you want people to see the film?
My favorite sentence from his answers: "It would be easy to live a life that did less damage than [my father's] did, but it would be hard to live a life that did as much good."
How many screenings has the film had?
None. Not public ones anyway. I've shown my mom and my brother. A couple of other random friends. My mom has shown a couple of her old buddhist friends. Back in November of 2012 at ACT, I showed some parts of it as well as doing some live songs that would later be included in the film. I'm really curious what people will think of the whole thing.
I don't know what to do with it next. Maybe film festivals? I don't really have any plans to show it again, though I surely would if people wanted to. We might release the music as an album. The music is really great. Daniel [Spills] has been awesome to work with.
Was it difficult/cathartic to make a film about your father?
It wasn't difficult for the most part, but it was often cathartic and it also feels like it could have been an endless project if I let it. There's so much material it could have easily been a miniseries or something. (As it is, it's 45 minutes.)
It's also been a strange experience. There's a cost to doing it. You think your memories are like recordings on a shelf that you put back on the shelf when you're done reviewing them. But it's more like what you put back on the shelf is a recording of the experience of reviewing the other recording (with some things emphasized or added to it and other things deemphasized or subtracted from it). Memory is fundamentally recursive. A copy of a copy. And that means the memories that are most reliable (at least in many cases) are the ones you haven't thought about in years, or ever. Like when you go over to your grandmother's house and see an old tricycle you used to ride around and you suddenly a memory comes flooding back that you haven't thought about since it happened. You can probably trust that one. But the stories your family tells every year at Thanksgiving—those tales get bigger or funnier each year. They turn into legends.
In the process of doing this, my memories of my father have been picked over so many times and so thoroughly that they all feel contaminated. Or rather, I've frozen them in time, in the movie, so they don't live on their own in my head any more. I've traded memories for a movie. I always hope that I'll have one of those memories that I haven't thought about in years, something I can really treasure as my own, living there in my head. But that happens less and less often because I've turned my head upside down like a piggy bank. Now I have a movie instead. That's what it feels like anyway.
The best I get are dreams about my dad, and I really treasure those. I lie in bed and savor them. I write them down so I can remember them and try and remember the feeling in the dream of talking to him again. That's the best I get, because the memories of actual events seem slippery and blurry now.
Has there been any response from the folks who were in his sphere of influence back in the day?
In researching the film, I talked to A LOT of people who knew him. Also a lot of people that were members (or still are) of the religion (Nichiren Shoshu/Soka Gakkai) emailed me with stories. Some of those stories made it into the film. If you've seen the trailer, you can guess that not all of the stories were good.
I just today had a message from an old friend of my dad's who was sort of second in command for a while back in the day, and apparently some old buddhists are talking about the film (maybe some of them saw the version at ACT, or else have seen the couple of clips I released early.) Anyway, this old friend of my dad's said that some are nervous about how I'm portraying the religion. Some probably don't want the bad parts of the history to come to light. There was definitely some crazy shit that went down back then. There were some people that didn't want to be interviewed by me, and I suspect they were worried about being associated with the film in case it criticized the religion and maybe the leaders would be pissed about it. I don't know.
But mostly the reception has been warm. People are excited that I'm doing this. Lots of them have been super encouraging. They want to hear what happened—even if it's only the viewpoint from Brad's son. They want the story to come out. A lot of it was covered up and not talked about. I don't know what the current leaders of the religion might think, but I think a lot of the regular members aren't afraid of being honest about bad parts of their history. A religion is only as good as the people that make it up, and they know that people aren't perfect. Sometimes they do amazing and wonderful things and help each other out and make the world better (and my dad did plenty of that), and other times they do shitty awful things and make things worse. My dad did plenty of that too. As I told my older half-brother Ron (my dad's first son), it would be easy to live a life that did less damage than Brad's did, but it would be hard to live a life that did as much good.
Why do you want people to see the film?
I'm proud of it. A couple of years ago, after we finished the short film about my brother (The Shelf), Daniel and I were thinking about what other projects we might want to do together. I said, "I dunno, maybe we could do something about my dad?" But it wasn't until I started telling Brangien [Davis, of Seattle Magazine] and Daniel some of these stories that I started to realize how not-normal it all was. It's a weird and powerful story.
Plus does any artist want to make art and show it to people? I guess that's just what artists do?
Plus I just love talking about it. That's why there's Q&A with the screenings.
More information about today's and tomorrow's screenings at Annex Theatre's website.