American director Mark Columbus uses his jazz-musician father’s spirited jamming as the vehicle that drives a humorous, gripping and ultimately moving narration in The Battle of the Jazz Guitarist. The filmmaker’s tale is the craft of an intelligent storyteller, and the film had its World Premiere in Toronto at the CFC Worldwide Short Film Festival this June.
The 7 minutes of film kick off with a video that the director’s father, Maxwell, recorded of himself, sitting in his music studio surrounded by guitars and recording equipment, playing his music passionately. As he plays, the director’s narration appears in subtitles at the bottom of the screen. At first, it seems as though the words, music and picture work together to paint a portrait of the filmmaker’s father, a tribute to a man overlooked. The initial picture is tragic in many ways – a talented musician who moved to the States for his family, forced to give up on his music career, finding work in a Tupperware factory, building a studio as an older guy, only to have it torn down because of a residential foreclosure.
Columbus talks to the viewer about how Maxwell was dragged to the US from Fiji by his wife, forced to find work in the factory. The realization that this man had to make some serious sacrifices dawns on the viewer as the music goes on, uninterrupted. As the narration moves forward, it starts to lose focus. The narrator gets distracted, as if watching the film as part of the audience. He talks about the food on set, his struggles with masturbation as a child. At one point, he notices the way his father holds a cup to his mouth in between playing, ‘Oh my God, I just realized, I lift my pinky like that too when I sip’. He notices this, and apologises, explaining how he’s always been a bit unfocused, that his films lack focus and his professors say he suffers from A.D.H.D. – a condition combining attentional problems with hyperactivity. As his distractions get the better of him, he goes on to question a moment in his life where he was thrown off his father’s back at a time he needed comfort. Was this his own fault? Was a bit of support too much to ask? Where did Maxwell’s unwarranted moment of anger come from?
At times, it is almost as if he becomes one of the viewers, watching from a more informed position, using the film to uncover himself, and ask himself questions. His story becomes his own. The portrait he paints becomes about two people -a father who gave up on a passion ultimately for the love of his family, and a son who may have suffered because of this. The film becomes about which position the filmmaker should take, where he stands in light of his father’s sacrifices, suffering and wrongdoing.
The Battle of the Jazz Guitarist tells a short story never quite seen before. The narration is hilarious and provocative, engaging the viewer in an inventive and deeply original way.