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Interview: Azazel Jacobs on “Momma’s Man”

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08202008_mommasman1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Last December, I met filmmaker Azazel Jacobs at a coffee shop just down the street from the Tribeca loft he grew up in, and where his parents — avant-garde cinema icon Ken Jacobs and longtime collaborator Flo — still rent. Though he now lives in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, Aza was back in NYC for final tweaking on his third feature, “Momma’s Man,” before its unveiling at Sundance ’08. The reason for our meeting was mostly professional, as Benten Films (a DVD label I run with film blogger Andrew Grant) had fallen in love with Jacobs’ previous film, “The GoodTimesKid,” starring his real-life girlfriend Sara Diaz, “I’m Going to Explode” writer/director Gerardo Naranjo, and himself. (Benten will release “The GoodTimesKid” in early 2009, so let the shilling stop here).

Several months later, after a distribution deal with ThinkFilm fell through and Kino picked up the slack, “Momma’s Man” is finally seeing a theatrical release. Shot mostly in the aforementioned Manhattan apartment and co-starring Jacobs’ real-life parents as fictitious versions of themselves, the film chronicles the unusual coming home of adult son Mikey (Matt Boren, as Azazel’s quasi-surrogate). Regressing into the familiar comforts of living with his folks, Mikey begins deceiving everyone to overextend his stay, ignoring his wife and child at home while coming down with a self-inflicted case of agoraphobia. The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis praised the film as “conceptually bold, emotionally naked… a work of surprising emotional and structural complexity. This is independent cinema defined.”

Back in New York for the premiere, Jacobs spoke to me by phone from his childhood home and makeshift movie set — though to avoid repeating other recent interviews, we talked mostly about the Clash.

“Momma’s Man” is only your third feature, and yet the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently held a career retrospective for you. How is this attention not going to your head?

[laughs] That’s a question for Diaz. I think it is. If anything, I’m definitely familiar with the fall after every production. There’s a sense while making a movie that you know [exactly] what’s going on with your life. Then there’s a deep depression, and it’s the same thing with the screening. Once you’re finished, you show it, and there’s this drop afterwards. That silence that comes after a movie is so devastatingly painful that it reminds me how thankful I am that people are actually watching and responding. The only thing I can say is that I’m being really conscious that soon the Google Alerts are going to stop, and then I’ll plummet into some sort of super-sadness.

You programmed “Rude Boy” for the BAM series, which has no direct relationship to your films other than you love it. Why is the Clash so important to you, even today?

I definitely feel like what [they] said to me, when I first listened, is still relevant to me. It still hits the same place. The thing about the Clash is that they were so obviously cinematic, in movies and images, that along with this environment that I was brought up with, what they brought to my world absolutely inspired me to be in film. I’ve got to be honest, the biggest goal was to show my work to [the late Joe] Strummer — that was the dream I foresaw. That’s not going to happen, so maybe it’ll continue to be something that I… you know, give back to this thing that’s still a source of inspiration. It’s like anything: you see a [Marcel] Pagnol film, or something from the ’20s and ’30s, and you realize that we’ve gone nowhere in terms of cinema. What was being done from the dawn of cinema was extreme and mostly beyond what we’re seeing today. I know there’s different and more extreme music, but I feel like whenever I start following a path or a track of music, it always leads me back to Strummer.

Where were you when you heard that Joe Strummer died [in December 2002]?

08202008_mommasman2.jpgI was in L.A. My dad called to break the news to me. The thing is, I’ve lost enough friends and people close to me just growing up in the city, so I definitely remember a few times thinking about if Joe wasn’t around, and giving my thanks that he was. I have an incredible last image of him. The first time I met Strummer was outside of that Irving Plaza show in ’89; he came by for “Earthquake Weather,” and I waited outside. I was 17, and I hand-wrote this letter, which I wish I had a copy of, but I really thought then that photographs or copying anything was poseur. So I don’t really know what I wrote, but it was probably pretty ridiculous.

Later on, I wound up seeing him [one last time] in the ’90s, and it was great. He was one of those people that, because their whole [persona] was how human they were, you’re not looking for anything beyond that. He was obviously what I had hoped. I was in Glastonbury with a friend, who was like: “Hey, man, there’s your king. There’s your guy.” I saw Strummer with his wife and his kids. They were holding hands with each other in a long line, and they all had those neon, glow-in-the-dark rave tubes on their heads and hands. I love that I saw him with his family and that’s who he was, just walking by. He was this person who I’ve been obsessed with my whole life — like, I could probably get down to his underwear size — and the idea of me letting him walk by without accosting him felt like a real testament to who he was and what he had given me.

How do you feel about the Clash after Mick Jones was fired and went on to form Big Audio Dynamite?

I’ve tried to fool myself into thinking “Cut the Crap” is an okay record, but it really is not. I don’t know what it is about these managers who start thinking that they were the band, but I guess that’s what happens. The Big Audio Dynamite album is great, it’s incredible. I wound up seeing their first show, and I definitely didn’t appreciate or respect it. In fact, I spent the whole show yelling for “Stay Free” with Piero [Arcilesi] from “Momma’s Man.” I can’t believe how annoying it must’ve been to have these two kids there yelling for old Clash songs. When he played Prince’s “1999,” I was so devastated and disgusted. Now, I think there’s nothing more punk than that he came to play that. What was that, ’85? I believed everything Joe said: Mick wanted to be a rock star, the Clash are going to be much better without him, blah blah blah. Now I think that what Mick was doing was so beyond… if you’ve ever heard Mick’s mix of “Combat Rock,” you realize his mix was so much closer to “Sandinista!” What Joe was accusing Mick of being was the opposite of the situation.

The “Pineapple Express” trailer has brought a resurgence to M.I.A.’s single “Paper Planes,” which samples the Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” Is that blasphemous to you?

The problem is the song is so good, you know? It’s exactly what you should do if you’re going to take [from] a Clash song. It’s still familiar, but she was able to capture what’s really amazing about the song and make it her own. I didn’t think I’d ever see it happen. I mean, Ice Cube did “Should I Stay, Should I Go?” and Will Smith used “Rock the Casbah.” All that shit was just a joke, a failure. So there’s something alarming to see it done so correctly. Now, I’ve heard Santogold doing “Guns of Brooklyn,” which I’m not– you know, I don’t think anyone is taking it anywhere. I don’t want to be that old guy; when I hear kids singing the M.I.A. song, I go “Oh god, they don’t know where that’s from!” But that’s okay. In a lot of ways, the Clash were the ultimate cover band. Pretty much every album had multiple cover songs. I liked the slow Clash songs, and it took me a long time [to realize] not only is this called reggae, but a lot of these are covers. M.I.A. did what the Clash did to the things that inspired them.

08202008_mommasman3.jpgFurther scratching at old punk wounds, you’ve told me that you feel Public Image Ltd. makes the Sex Pistols seem like “the Britney Spears of the ’70s.”

Again, I was way too close to see this at the time. What happens in “Momma’s Man,” where my dad tries to get Mikey to listen to whatever he’s listening to, was a constant in this house. My father was always telling me that what I was listening to wasn’t really pushing anything, and it was pretty uniform. He was the one who handed me PiL’s “The Flowers of Romance,” and I gave it a listen only because I knew it was Johnny Rotten’s album. I’m sure I couldn’t get past the first song. Now, in retrospect, I think that album is one of the all-time [post-punk classics]. I just wish I took my dad’s advice. Once you hear something like that, then go back to the Pistols… yeah, obviously, I still get this rush [like] when I first heard it, but it doesn’t nearly inspire the way that PiL did.

Speaking of, I just want to say that [experimental multi-instrumentalist] John Zorn was the one who sold me “Sandinista!” at a record store on Broome and Wooster back then. He was a friend of my dad’s, and whenever that was, early ’80s — I remember going up there with my dad, and we got it from him with his employee discount.

Okay, now for an obligatory “Momma’s Man” question. How different is your real-life interaction with your folks compared to the film? What are audiences not experiencing that you have first-hand?

Well, first off, my parents have a really good sense of humor. My dad is really funny and makes my mom laugh a lot. Anything having to do with this government is fodder for the humor in the house — mostly, though, it’s a comedy that comes from furor. That’s absent from the film, but it’s a big part of the relationship. They’re just playing these serious caregivers in the movie. There’s a happier life going on, but Mikey brings a damper to their lives — or maybe you see that when Mikey isn’t there, they’re in love and happy. But in my world, when I’m here, I see them talking to each other, really caring and being excited about what they’re up to — or what I’m up to. It’s not the somber tone that “Momma’s Man” devolves into.

Loving household aside, I’m guessing from your punk tastes that you were a pissed-off teenager?

Yeah. I don’t know why, though. That’s the thing I still try to figure out. I had this idea that to be punk, to be into that stuff, was to be angry. I was really short, so maybe that’s what it was.

[Photos: Matt Boren, Flo Jacobs and Ken Jacobs; Flo Jacobs and Boren; director Azazel Jacobs – “Momma’s Man,” Kino, 2008]

“Momma’s Man” opens in New York on August 22nd.

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