As I currently edit the essays that I wrote in February, 2016, I’m also finishing a new animated documentary called “The Sparrow’s Flight.” An account of this film’s production will serve as a good conclusion for my writing project.
On January 4, 2009, a group of musicians waited in my basement for Dave Herr, the drummer, to arrive for rehearsal. In addition to our collaborative film projects, Dave and I had also recorded music together over the years. We tried to phone him, but eventually gave up and practiced without him. Later that evening his girlfriend Kari called from a hospital, explaining that Dave had had a seizure and that doctors were currently performing an MRI scan of his head. The scan revealed a large tumor between the two hemispheres of his brain. When I heard the news I thought, “That sounds bad, but they’ll remove it and Dave will recover.” After the doctors performed a biopsy on the tumor, they determined that it was a ‘glioblastoma multiforme.’ Those words meant nothing to me so I searched online and learned with shock that ‘glioblastoma multiforme’ translated essentially as ‘death sentence;’ Dave would be statistically likely to live nine to fourteen months.
I sat paralyzed in a chair for an entire afternoon, grappling with this extraordinary news: my friend Dave Herr was going to die at age forty-five. I tried to recall any signs in his recent behavior that might have suggested a tumor had been growing in his head. Dave had always been an unpredictable character so it was difficult to judge whether he’d been acting strangely or not. I smiled remembering a night, many years previously, when we had seen Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” at the University Film Society. Afterwards, we drove to a park and lay on the grass, discussing the unusual pacing of the film. Certain events, such as the rocket journey to the space station, weren’t depicted at all, while the car ride to the rocket launch lasts almost five minutes. In the middle of our conversation Dave suddenly interjected, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. Guess what I did two days ago?” I shrugged my shoulders. “I went to Las Vegas, bought a plastic ring in a gumball machine for a quarter and got married to a Chinese woman I’d never met before!”
I travelled to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks after Dave’s seizure, on the day of his first brain surgery. My film “The Yellow Bird” was screening in a program of short animation that year. I had adapted this film from Jay Orff’s short story “Bear Paw,” in which a man accidentally shoots himself in 1917 in western North Dakota and is transported by horse drawn cart for medical attention while he loses blood. Don Hertzfeldt’s “I am So Proud of You,” which seemed to be about a man recovering from a brain injury, played in the same program as my film. The grimness of first screening left me completely exhausted. I wasn’t prepared to interact in any meaningful way at the festival and so I left early.
In August of 2009, Hilde and I wheeled Dave into a courtyard at the care facility where his life was currently winding down after eight months of continuous hospitalization. It was a warm, late summer’s day. Dave was completely incommunicative by this time, his personality consumed by multiple brain surgeries and consequent infection, so I simply positioned him facing a tree and sat behind him, looking at what he might be seeing. I wondered if he saw the tree blowing in the wind; I wondered if he still understood what summer was and if the idea of summer created other associations. I saw nothing in his face to indicate that he was aware of his surroundings at all. I walked away from Dave, toward the tree, and turned back to look at him. My friend was diminished in scale, shrinking and disappearing. I thought of the 1957 film “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” which Dave had loved for its scale-confounding sets and for the existential reckoning at the end of the film. I hoped that he was reaching an acceptance similar to that of the protagonist Scott:
“But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. I still exist!”
Dave died in October, 2009. I wanted to make a film about my friendship with him but, as had also been the case with “Bike Race,” I waited six years in order to gain emotional distance from the experience. Research began in the basement that had been Dave’s studio. His girlfriend Kari hadn’t had the heart yet to go through all of his things in the years after his death, so his activities and projects were still frozen in time from the moment of his seizure, a snapshot of his life that day, vulnerably preserved in boxes, on shelves and on hard drives. As I started to scroll through the files on Dave’s computer, it occurred to me that the memory on these drives was not just a technical metaphor; this digital archive was a manifest extension of his memory. Dave’s arcane interests were cataloged and collected in named folders: 18th century biologist Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations, design drawings by Naum Gabo for his sculptures, 1950’s robot toys, Arkansas State Prison head shots from 1915, architectural drawings from early 1970’s utopian community design. I also found folders of Dave’s own design work. As I opened the many Photoshop and Illustrator files one by one, I noted that he had saved all of his work with the original layers intact. I recognized the unintentional opportunity he had given me to manipulate the individual elements of his compositions, to reanimate his designs with motion; I could simply import his files into Adobe After Effects and improvise with them as raw material. By virtue of his preserved hard drive memory, I could collaborate with Dave on one last project.
I chose to start editing the Super 8 footage that we had shot in his family’s barn in the late 1980’s during our first enthusiastic period of experimentation together. I borrowed a hand-cranked viewer and began to take inventory of the Super 8 reels that I had stored in my studio. Initially, after years of working solely with software, handling physical film again felt awkward. My fingers were uncoordinated in threading the tiny strips of film on the viewer’s sprockets, then cutting and taping the edited clips together. But as I continued, watching dozens of fifty-foot film reels and re-entering the frame of my youthful interests, the facility of working with celluloid returned. Handling the material again actually felt reassuring.
I located all of the animation tests that we’d conducted with self-conscious, comic seriousness in our white lab jackets: stop-motion, paint on glass, sand on glass, pixilation, clay, hand-drawn and painting directly on film. And I found the one quasi-narrative project that we’d started to make, but never finished . . . “The Sparrow’s Flight.” Mimicking the Brothers Quay in both subject matter and attitude, we had felt that we needed an obscure literary source as the basis for our black and white experimental film. I had remembered the Venerable Bede’s “Parable of the Sparrow” from a medieval history class that I’d taken at Lawrence University. This text had seemed suitably esoteric, so we chose it as our starting point:
A sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the banqueting hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.
Using the footage that we had shot in 1988, I edited a version of the film, trying to conjure forth the somewhat furrow-browed sensibility of my twenty-five-year old self. I then built the larger documentary about Dave outward from this restoration with layers of his own materials: Kurt Schwitters-inspired collages, surreal figurines that he’d improvised by chopping thrift store toys into pieces and reassembling them, poster designs, abstract animation experiments, logos and Monkeyshow bumpers from our collaborative video projects. Collage was Dave’s primary aesthetic mode and thus it seemed logical to assemble my portrait of him as a collage of his own wide-ranging, creative output. The 2016 portrait film of Dave, “The Sparrow’s Flight,” developed organically around our earlier project, also called “The Sparrow’s Flight,” a documentary mise en abyme reflecting upon its own ambiguous location in time.
In addition to the animation we made together, Dave and I had also wandered together occasionally in the late 1980’s through the city to document abandoned industrial sites, each of us shooting with our own Super 8 camera. One afternoon in June of 2015, as I hand-cranked footage that I had shot of Dave walking through tall grass with his camera in June of 1988, I wondered, “Where are the reels of film that Dave shot?” At the end of this particular roll of film Dave rotated slowly toward me with his camera, shooting me shooting him. I called Kari at her work to borrow her house key, rushed across town to Dave's basement and started unpacking his boxes, searching for the distinctive blue plastic containers of processed Super 8 film. Hours passed as I emptied box after box. I spent an entire, increasingly desperate, afternoon looking and found nothing. I concluded, “He probably threw them out at some point when he was moving and wanted to get rid of things.” Just as I was conceding defeat, I decided to glance into one last small box that I thought I’d probably already searched once. I opened it and immediately saw the blue plastic reels.
I returned home with the box and began watching Dave’s films on the viewer. He had built his own misshapen plastic lenses for his camera and much of the footage was distorted and illegible. He also had been fond of shooting from a moving bicycle at night. Amidst the general darkness, blurred lights and nonrepresentational deformations, a tracking shot across the tops of long grass stalks suddenly appeared. With impatience I cranked further, the landscape rotated and I appeared in the frame at age twenty-five, aiming my camera back at Dave and his camera; the puzzle pieces fell ineluctably into place. I had restored these two points in space and time to their original relationship, to the brief overlap of perspectives that had occurred on a summer’s day almost thirty years previously. A sense of power overcame me that transcended the mere satisfaction of research well done. I had isolated a speck of permanence in the transience of my life, momentarily pausing the loss of the present moment, releasing Dave and I from the directional bondage of the clock and the calendar. Time was merely an illusion and I was on my circular adventure again with Dave, regarding him regarding me regarding him, returning to where I had once stood and seeing the frame of possibilities anew.