The moustache has always been a point of humor for them. For a band so steeped in melancholy-the somber classical piano Tobias Nathaniel plays hunched over as though stricken with scoliosis, the scratch of the saw frontman Pall Jenkins uses onstage, Jenkins' own haunting voice-the moustache is the punch line at the funeral, the audible fart in church.
Jenkins refers to it as "Dmitri's extreme mustache," a bushy line of circus-like manhood that probably deserves its own role in the Black Heart Procession's first feature film, The Tropics of Love. But Jenkins knew his keyboardist Dmitri Dyzinuski had the whole package.
"Dmitri didn't have to do much more than walk in front of the camera and it just started happening," he says. "The whole story was kind of written with Dmitri as the main role. He's just got a natural character."
There's the scene in Tropics where Dmitri straddles a motorcycle in front of a purposefully fake video of city streets. He turns the handlebars, but neither the bike nor the background move accordingly. The video behind him just jiggles like a bad Hollywood effect that was thrown out after George Lucas shot his first Imperial Destroyer. Dmitri is wearing vintage riding goggles, his scarf flapping in the wind as he looks over his shoulder, speeding away from-what? The cops? Fate? Himself?
What viewers don't see in the scene is Jenkins and co-director Matt Hoyt standing in front of Dmitri with leaf blowers on full blast. Yard tools normally used to rudely awaken neighbors were used for low-budget special effects-which Dmitri would likely tell you reeked of gasoline and stale mulch from a North Park lawn.
There's also the scene where a dejected Dmitri plays basketball at a San Diego park. He's by himself, and quite a bad shot.
What you don't see is Jenkins at half court riding his Sector 9 skateboard, a mini-DV camera attached to a high pole extending from the board's nose. It's a longboard-the sort with huge, soft wheels that easily run over rocks, which helped keep equipment costs down.
"We used the skateboard a few times to have that effect of the camera being on tracks when we couldn't afford it," says Jenkins. "I did fall a few times, but managed to roll into it and save the equipment."
But why is Dmitri fleeing from the cops or fate in front of a cheesy background to begin with? And what does all of this have to do with Pink Floyd's The Wall?
Black Heart Procession is one of two San Diego bands signed to Chicago's esteemed indie rock label Touch & Go, home to albums by Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, Big Black and Pinback (the other local band). In fall of 2002, when applying the finishing touches to their third release for the label, Amore del Tropico, the band realized that the songs told a vague story.
They sequenced the record with the story in mind, and asked Tough & Go owner Corey Rusk for $4,000 to make an independent film-a murder mystery-based on the album. Rusk agreed, and Jenkins started writing the screenplay. He recruited Matt Hoyt-a friend who had directed a DVD of Black Heart performing at a Halloween show-to help direct and edit what would become Tropics of Love.
"It was kind of an afterthought," says Jenkins. "The concept came as a reaction to making the music. The lyrics tie in a bit, but in subtle ways-in a vague way that can be interpreted how the viewer wants."
For most stage ninjas, the idea no doubt recalls Tommy, The Who's concept album that depicted the life of a "dumb, deaf and blind kid" who had an autistic talent for pinball (and is rumored to be based on guitarist Pete Townshend). Stoner-culture aficionados will, albeit more slowly, think of Pink Floyd's The Wall, Alan Parker's disturbing, impressionistic film about a depressed rock star's descent into insanity.
"When I was young and saw The Wall for the first time, I was blown away," Jenkins recalls. "I've always had a soft spot for records that flow like that. I like records that feel like a story. I've always had a camera but never had the means to make a film before. Now with technology you can do it in your house on your computer, and that's exactly what we did."
The first order of business was to shoot a scene of Tropics of Love that Touch & Go could use as a video for the song, "Did You Wonder?" Problem was, the song is in the middle of the album, and the band's rule for Tropics was that the film must use every song, in order. So their first day of shooting began with the middle of the mystery-a really shitty day for Dmitri's character, Luigi.
After leaving his house, Luigi bumps his bike into the car of a meathead neighbor, who proceeds to stomp him, pouring beer over his head and choking him with a garden hose. Battered, Luigi still manages to ride his bike to work, where he is accosted by what appears to be a methed-out cholo. While the film's anti-hero is at work, the cholo steals his bike.
"We have comedy going for us, and we relied on that to a certain extent," says Jenkins. "We wanted it to be a murder mystery, but we wanted it to be funny, so that you're laughing at the same time you're trying to figure it out."
A lot of the comedy arose from the impromptu suggestions of the band and friends, including actor Dave Sheridan, who would drive down from L.A. to play various roles.
"We just came up with ideas on the spot-"Yeah, we'll choke him with the hose, pour the beer on his head,'" Jenkins explains. "And Dave was like, "I want to be a cholo.' So he brought this cholo makeup and fake bottle down from L.A. that he busted over his head.
"We had a certain thing we had to get on film, but everybody could put their own flavor to it."
"Everybody" is an apt description of Tropics' cast. The opening scene features most of the cast as sophisticated partygoers in a 1940s speakeasy. A quick scan of the faces reveals a strong sample of San Diego underground music and art: Phil Beaumont of ghost town trio Maqiuladora; Rafter Roberts, owner of Singing Serpent Studios; Arabella Makalani of the and/ors; Jason Corbin, vocalist for Bartender's Bible; Britton Neubacher, organizer The Army of S/he Art and Action Festival; Emily Joyce, drummer-vocalist for Bunky; painter Dan Adams; punk rock bassist Jovi Butts; collage artist Jason Sherry; plus others, including Jenkins' mother, Anna.
Most of them play more than one role throughout the film.
Despite having to fully transform The Casbah for that scene-setting up tracking for the camera in two places, arranging fake fruit, plants, backdrops and various other set designs-Black Heart's crew managed to enter the club in the morning, shoot, clean up and leave before the Casbah's regular crowd shuffled in.
"It was pretty involved, but we managed to do it all in one day and then bands played there that night," Jenkins says. "That's the way it was for a lot of the sets. We would go in early or the night before, set it all up, and have everybody meet."
It was one of the many times Jenkins realized the importance of George W. Schmalz III, the film's production manager.
"We wouldn't have gotten everything done had it not been for George," he says. "If you're making something where you have a lot of people, having a production manager is really important. They keep your ass in line. George was even calling me and getting me out of bed."
After the lead characters are introduced-the impressive drunk Luigi, his beautiful girlfriend Maria and The Inspector, a conflicted, Mickey Rourke-type-the band plays the film's title song to the crowd of speakeasy loungers. Jenkins is wearing a tie, sunglasses and trench coat; his semi-beard suggests a severe indifference to grooming.
"Remember I say, when they take this comfort away, I'll be there every single day," he sings into the thin, retractable microphone that has become a visual staple of Black Heart's live show.
The characters dance until, in unison, they pause to suspiciously eye the camera. Nathaniel curls his spine over his piano. The double bassist is wearing a shirt, tie and a horse head.
The surreal, timeless scene is set for a murder, and it looks a lot like a hipster's guide to L.A. Confidential.
The second song-scene is crafted to "Broken World," in which Maria realizes that dating a drunk probably isn't such a grand idea. As he does throughout the movie, Jenkins moves between the characters without notice, a sort of phantom musical narrator. He sits with them as they argue at a café (Santos coffeehouse and gallery in Golden Hill).
After Maria has left Luigi to end the scene, Jenkins sings, "Now, we'll never meet again, not in this broken world," in his trench coat and sunglasses, still unshaven, on a suburban lawn (actually his own home in Clairemont.)
"As a narrator I come back in a few times. But I also sort of play a character in the movie from the past," Jenkins says.
The story goes on. Luigi is arrested and hauled off in a late model Buick (borrowed from Jenkins' neighbor) that has been transformed into a squad car. A courtroom trial ensues, made particularly odd by the use of the undersized desks at their location that day-the former Childrens' Museum downtown. We see Luigi in jail ("I painted my bedroom and put bars on the windows for that scene. Matt had the toilet in his backyard and we just put it next to my bed," Jenkins says.) Luigi experiences what may be an out of body experience, and his spirit walks to the water's edge (O.B.'s Dog Beach) and screams out some serious mortal pain.
"It's hard to tell too much more without giving it away," Jenkins then tells me, and leaves the rest up to the viewers' interpretation.
Who knows whether the Tropics of Love will succeed in monetary terms for the band. According to Touch & Go, Black Heart sold 16,000 copies of their first album for the label and 17,000 copies of the second. Tropico del Amore sold 20,000, enough for an indie band to make a living. Though they'll submit the film to various festivals, more democratic plans are also in the works.
"We're going to do showings at different bars," Jenkins says, noting that they have tentative dates scheduled in Denver and Portland. "The idea was to almost take it on a tour-play it on a night that's an off night, say Tuesday or Wednesday, charge two bucks, rent a DVD player and project it on a screen.
"And have popcorn and beers."
The film may affect some in the way Black Heart affected local P.R. man Bryan Spevak. He was working at San Diego's Cargo Records when the label released the band's first album. His first impression of the band was as "a beautifully tragic augmentation of [Pall and Tobias' former band] Three Mile Pilot that made my toes curl in ecstasy."
Or the movie could be like when Bobby Shaddox of local alt.country band Billy Midnight first saw them live. "I actually fell asleep during the show," he says. "I suppose this is a compliment, because I really felt that the band was going for this kind of thing at this particular performance."
To be honest, Tropico has moments ripe for both ecstasy and sleep, as Jenkins readily admits.
No matter. After two years, eight grand, multiple favors and endless hours editing by Jenkins and Hoyt, Tropics of Love is set for release on March 8 with a public screening at The Whistle Stop bar in South Park.
When first connecting about this story, Jenkins wrote via email: "If I watch that DVD one more time, I'm going to shoot myself."
Suicide watch is on.
M-Theory Records presents a special screening of Tropics of Love at The Whistle Stop Bar, 9 p.m. on March 8. Free. 619-284-6784.