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Paul K ‘BioPic’ A Wilderness
of Mirrors, at Kentucky Theatre
by Kakie Urch
It’s a biopic that was 15 years in the making and a tragic rock opera released in the 1990s that “came true” in real life in the 2000s. And then there are the aliens.
A Wilderness of Mirrors, the feature film about Lexington musician Paul K. shot and edited by John Bosch, opens with a special screening at 8 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Kentucky Theater.
A Wilderness of Mirrors is just that – a look at a life refracted, magnified, glinting, utterly shattered, and pieces swept up until the looker – both in the glass and at the wreckage — is not sure what is real.
It’s not an easy film, but it is a good film. And while you should go, you probably shouldn’t go without a scorecard, or two.
The easiest to score are the significant high-profile cameos by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, who is interviewed about playing as a member of Paul’s band and Will Oldham, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who performs one of Paul’s songs as part of rock opera subplot 27(a). Many local musicians, including Tim Welch and Steve Poulton – both Paul K. band vets — also appear, both in interviews and in rare vintage footage of live performances, some shot on 8mm.
And let us attest here – the film includes music by Paul K. called “the greatest unknown songwriter of his generation” by the Chicago Tribune. And for those who saw him in the clubs with the electric pickup in his beatup acoustic bending the notes like some musical Beckham channeling the Who, the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, the MC5, Gram Parsons, Hendrix, Alex Chilton and Dizzy Gillespie, all at once, let us attest that is some of the finest music Lexington has ever produced.
So now are you ready for the aliens? And the CIA? We’ll let Paul K. tell you that one himself. That’s the scorecard that goes back to the actual Paul K. album of the rock opera he wrote, entitled A Wilderness of Mirrors: An Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. It’s a rock opera. This is major subplot 1, you might say.
“It’s fairly simple. The guy is a National Guardsman – an Army Air Corps member – in the 1940s who gets called in the middle of the night to go out and clean up some wreckage on the middle of the highway…..it’s implied that it’s a flying saucer. He gets irradiated. His wife gets sick. They lose their farm, all the livestock dies. So they go back east from Roswell, New Mexico, where this took place. There’s a road trip, and the musical changes with the geography as they travel. When he gets to New York, he is by now pretty much crazy and he gets hit by a taxicab in the street. They take him to Bellevue and unbeknownst to him, his wife is just a few floors up being treated. And then the music gets really weird and you don’t know what happens. It’s possible that aliens came down and landed on the roof of the hospital and saved them both. Or maybe not. CIA guys and aliens following him around. It’s kind of tongue in cheek but kind of not.”
A Wilderness of Mirrors, the music, was released on Alias Records and was well-reviewed when it came out. But the trail to the release and the road afterwards introduce subplots 2 and 3. (Be advised, these movements do not necessarily appear in numbered order, nor do they signal their key changes).
Nor should we leave out the sidelight that the title A Wilderness of Mirrors and the rock opera is a not-at-all subtle reference to James Jesus Angleton, director of counterintelligence for the CIA between 1954-1975 – during the Cold War.
It was Angleton, forever seeking moles and spied within the CIA and government itself who coined the phrase “a wilderness of mirrors” to describe a state of paranoia in which reality and refraction seem equal. And it is not without mention that Angleton, a poet and onetime editor of Furioso, the little magazine that published William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, copped the line from T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion.” Paul K. has always been interested in the powerful dark organizations including the CIA and written frequently about their influence in his music.
“The movie seems to be about halfway a documentary about the group and the other seems to be an attempt to make an MTV-style music video following the plot of this opera I wrote in 1997, “ Paul K. says.
But then there is the part where the plot of that opera seems to tragically come through in events in Paul’s life in Louisville with his long-time girlfriend, Leigh Farnsworth, who appears in some tough scenes in the film.
In the mid-2000s, Paul K., then living with Farnsworth in Louisville, was hospitalized with severe illness that lead to the beginnings of major organ failure. Complication upon complication – some not unconnected from his well-documented struggles with first drugs, then alcohol — made his prognosis grim.
Then, just after his release from the hospital, on literally shaky legs, Farnsworth was in a car accident, losing oxygen to her brain for several minutes. Brought to the same hospital from which Paul had just been released, she was left profoundly disabled from the brain injury. His attempts to get permission to see her in the hospital and later longterm care facilities parallel the journey of the protagonist of the rock opera.
So, Subplot 1 is A Wilderness of Mirrors, the rock opera. Subplot 2 is the musical journey of Paul K., an “unknown” but extraordinary songwriter and the sidemen who toiled and reached such heights on bass and drums. Subplot 3 is the strangely mimetic event cycle of Paul and Leigh’s starcrossed relationship.
Enter Subplot 4: The relationship between the subject and the filmmaker. Like the machiavel in Jacobean drama, this one always stirs it up. There is confrontation, confusion, deception and rivalry, including one scene, brilliantly edited, that takes place in the very Kentucky Theater where the film will be shown. Paul K. does not suffer fools gladly and some days, everyone’s a fool – even the people who care about him.
Paul K. said, “It’s been really, really quite frustrating. Just when it seemed he was in the home stretch, I went into the hospital and the whole thing with Leigh happened. Maybe it was too much for John to handle, but I kept saying, ‘Here’s your movie, man.’”
Filmmaker John Bosch, a Lexington native and Henry Clay High School grad who has worked in Brooklyn as a filmmaker and recording studio owner and producer for more than a decade, first pointed a film camera at Paul K. during an exhaustive tour across Canada in 1997.
That footage, and other early footage was collected and sat on a shelf in Seattle, while Bosch, who did his film school at Evergreen State College, worked for Amazon and Microsoft.
Bosch shot some footage of Paul K. in the Alias Records bungalow in California in those early days, just as Paul was coming up with the “Wilderness of Mirrors” idea and then, beginning in about 2000, some footage of shows in Lexington and New York and at home in Louisville.
This was in addition to the work on the rock opera sequences, in which actors and camera angles play actual roles. Will Oldham, for example, plays a wandering musician the fictional couple encounter on their travel to New York. Another tune from the rock opera, “Aftermath,” is portrayed in a music video vignetted to the 1940s.
“Paul’s one of those guys that every single thing out of his mouth is brilliant, funny, off-the-wall, maddening…. someone you just want to record,” said Bosch, who says the Wilderness of Mirrors film concept came about in earnest in 2005 and 2006.
“It’s just changed so many times. Sometimes I feel like it’s a burden. Not an impossible one. One that has sort of snowballed in a way that I really didn’t intend. My relationship with Paul is totally altered. At the same time, it’s been really challenging. Everything I’ve been working on since I started this sort of pales in comparison to this.”
“I found this commercial online for a 1950s 8 millimeter Kodak projector, but I stuck it in the film where Paul and I are having a big blowout in the Kentucky Theater. And I used his song ‘Stop This Film.’ There’s definitely lots of references to the process of making it. I never had the intention not to finish the film. I felt like I was dealing with infinity for the first time and that’s enough to make you bonkers. When it’s two guys like me and Paul going head to head over this. You have a responsibility to yourself but also to your subject.”
“It’s old school. It’s 720 by 480. It portrays somebody in moments that they are not their best of sorts. I think that can be difficult. The story itself is made up …of loss and heartbreak and sickness and death. The world seems like it has changed a little since….that was 3 years pre-World Trade Center and now we’re 10 years post,” Bosch said.
Bosch, who will be in town for the showing, says he sees the film as a three-part story: “Paul’s life, the rock opera, and my and Paul’s relationship in the process.”
Paul K. said, “I had to make a conscious decision to let it be his movie. Just because it’s about me, it doesn’t make it my movie. That’s the wrong thing to do. It’s his movie, not mine. I’m afraid to even go and fucking see it, that’s the truth.”
And in his movie, John Bosch the filmmaker applies just the right amount of truth, post-modern rupture, 70s verite, music, fear and reflective self-reflection to build the perfect Wilderness of Mirrors. It is not an easy movie, but it is a good one.
Kakie Urch is an assistant professor of multimedia in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism. She first encountered Paul K.’s music in 1983, when the late Mina Howard urged her to review one of his DIY cassette tape releases for the Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper.
This article appears on page 6 of the November 1, 2012 print edition of Ace Weekly.
Paul K. (nee Paul Kopasz) was born and raised in Detroit and moved to Kentucky in the 1980s on a full scholarship to be part of UK’s champion debate team. In 1985, he started an art-damaged punk outfit. His band has most consistently been called “Paul K. and The Weathermen,” but has had other names too. The group has more than 50 releases, including albums on Homestead, Alias and SilenZ. He spent time living in a Canal Street squat in New York in the 80s, playing with Jaco Pastorius and others. He spent stints in California, Amsterdam and again New York, playing and writing music. He has toured the U.S., Canada and Europe, to great acclaim for his songwriting, guitar and vocal skills. The music, from early days featuring an acoustic guitar with an electric pickup and effects, draws on influences ranging from The Who, The Velvet Underground, Big Star, Gram Parsons, The Kinks and Townes Van Zandt. The 1995 release, Love is a Gas, was produced by Mo Tucker of the Velvet Underground. 1997’s A Wilderness of Mirrors is the rock opera released on Alias and the basis of the “documentary/fairytale” movie. Other titles of note include Blues For Charlie Lucky, and the The Blue Sun, and, as the best place to start, the two-disc collection Stolen Gems.
A sampling of Ace’s Paul K archives:
John Bosch, the son of retired Translyvania University English Prof. Charlie Holmes and Carolyn Holmes, who advised University of Kentucky’s foreign student population, started the Paul K film in the 1990s. One of his most notable film credits is his work on Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain” featuring Isabella Rossellini. More credits include “The Color Wheel” (BAM Cinefest 2011), “I Beat Mike Tyson” (Rooftop Film Festival 2012), “Drivers Wanted” (SilverDocs 2012), and Joe Swanberg’s “All The Light in the Sky” (AFI Film Festival, 2012). Past film credits include “The Project” (Audience Award 2008 Slamdance Film Fest), “Darkon: The Movie” (Best Documentary, 2007 SxSW Film Fest), and “John Wayne Hated Horses” (2009 Cannes Director’s Fortnight).
Venturing deeper into production, in late 2011, Bosch was commissioned by Glitterhouse Records to travel to Bamako, Mali, where he produced a profile and music videos for Malian recording artist Ben Zabo. He returned to Mali in 2012 with European band Dirtmusic to document their recording sessions that featured Ben Zabo and a cast of Malian musicians.
A Wilderness of Mirrors is Bosch’s first feature film as director.
Also in this issue:
P. 4 Centre VP Debate Wrap-Up
P. 5 Ace’s photos from the VP debate
P. 8 Lexington’s music project The 10 in 20 arrives
P. 10 Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail gets a sibling
P. 11 Movies new on DVD that you might have missed
P. 12 Latitude Arts Community introduces their neighbors
P. 13 Is it squash or is it pasta? Ask Chef Tom
P. 14 Ace interview with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman