The South by Southwest program notes for It’s About You, a documentary about John Mellencamp touring in ’09 and recording No Better Than This, explain that the film “is told through the eyes of the father/son filmmaking team of Kurt and Ian Markus, neither of whom had ever made a film before.” They also say that “the entire 90-minute film is shot on super8, to stunning effect.”
I saw It’s About You a couple of hours ago, and it needs to be said that the super8 effect is not “stunning” — the correct terms are “underwhelming,” “exasperating” and “aesthetically futile.” The idea in using this format, I’m guessing, is that Markus figured that super8’s raw realism correlates to the gritty, balls-out, unpretentious honesty of Mellencamp’s music. But the photography is so golfball grainy and murky and lacking in intrigue — everything captured by Markus and his son looks like shit, and the only thing that comes through is Markus’s belief that super8 is delivering some kind of primal truth that digital couldn’t hope to capture or simulate.
At one point Markus remarks that a special blimp encasement had to be built to suppress super8 camera noise during his shooting of Mellencamp recording his album. He also mentions that the camera, per super8 norm, had to be reloaded every few minutes. And you can’t help but ask yourself, “So these guys were so convinced that the coolness of super8 imagery would be worth it in the end that they put up with all this hassle? Why didn’t someone step in and say, ‘Guys, no one will care…in fact, some people will wonder why you bothered with super8 at all because it looks like crap and brings next-to-nothing to the table’?”
Secondly, Markus and his son’s filmmaking inexperience shows. Markus is a respected still photographer, but his instincts (and those of his son) are dull and listless, and their shooting technique (which includes an occasional inability to focus the lens, or a lack of interest in same) is strictly amateur hour.
Thirdly, Markus conveys very little in his narration except for the fact that John is his friend and that America and iife in general sure have changed since he was young, but basically that his friend is such a fascinating subject that all he and his son have to do is point and shoot. That’s a rather naive view.
Markus is also annoyingly stingy with facts. There’s a scene in which Mellencamp and his now ex-wife Elaine Irwin Mellencamp don white robes and receive holy baptism in a small pool inside a church. Markus isn’t making a film about celebrity, but it feels dishonest that he doesn’t identify Irwin or (I realize this is a stretch) perhaps mention the fact that Mellencamp announced on 12.30.10 that he and Irwin had separated, and that since then Mellencamp has copped to a relationship with Meg Ryan.
After 15 minutes or so I began to be convinced that the South by Southwest team accepted this film solely because of Mellencamp’s name and the fake-cool pedigree of super 8mm. They couldn’t have watched this thing and gone, “Aaahh, yes!…something fresh and real and heartland-y!” They had to know it was cornbeef hash out of a can, and decided to try and sell it as SXSW-approved farm fresh. I know that sounds cynical but what other explanation could there be?