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Movie Review: 2002 NYUFF: The Atlas Moth

DVD cover featuring the faces of two men in the shape of a moth

On the old “Kids in the Hall” show, they once did a sketch about this teenage punk band practicing a crappy song in their garage and dreaming about the day they finally “make it big.” Then suddenly, time fast-forwards about 40 years and the band is now a bunch of paunchy, gray-haired old guys in the same garage still practicing the same crappy song and still having dreams of being rich and famous. The skit is about five minutes long. The film The Atlas Moth is like a real-life 75-minute version of the second part of that skit.

The Atlas Moth is also apparently a sequel of sorts to the documentary Driver 23, both directed by Rolf Belgum, but I’ve never seen the earlier film so I can’t compare them. However, both films are about the aspirations of Minnesota hard-rock band Dark Horse, made up of three guys who are probably in their mid to late thirties (maybe forties) and who still talk about “making it,” despite the fact that they’re the most unlikeliest looking rock stars you’ll ever see.

When we’re introduced to Dan Cleveland, the front man of the band, he’s unable to speak in full sentences because he accidentally overdosed on medication to control his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Bassist Sean Cassidy looks like a life-size teddy bear, writes angry letters to “Incredible Hulk” comic books and raises moths in his basement. Drummer Jon Mortenson is an amiable guy who seems more interested in his nature photography hobby than he does in drumming.

While director Rolf Belgum appears sympathetic to Dark Horse’s desire to be a popular rock ‘n’ roll band, but it’s almost impossible to take these guys seriously, i.e. in regards of their attitude towards their music. Not only do they play notoriously antiquated heavy metal, but they never seem to commit to the hard work necessary to become famous. The “backbone” of the film is the band’s mixing of their first CD, but their sessions — conducted in Dan’s grungy bachelor pad — are filled more with pizza eating and video game playing than actual song mixing.

But I had trouble with The Atlas Moth because I couldn’t quite figure out what the overall point of the film was. It’s shot in a strict cinéma vérité style, without any intrusive commentary on the subject matter. However, I kept wanting the movie to make the point that it’s living in the here and now that’s important, not indulging in some silly pipe dream. Why do these guys talk about becoming as big as Nirvana, but don’t really seem interested in playing music? Belgum never asks, either directly or indirectly.

The film, overall, is a frustrating mix. On the one hand, it’s an intensely fascinating look at three guys opening themselves up completely in front of the camera. On the other hand, the movie never really builds up to anything. After the first introductions to the CD mixing and all of the band members other hobbies, I thought that was a great set-up, but then the film never moves on from there. We’re trapped for the entire film in Dan’s apartment and garage, Jon’s studio and Sean’s basement. The only outside voice comes from Dan’s ex-wife, in a subplot that sadly never gets developed.

The title of the film comes from Sean’s moth-raising hobby. The Atlas Moth is the world’s biggest and most beautiful moth, looking almost like a butterfly after a long incubation period, which I guess is supposed to be a metaphor for the production of Dark Horse’s first CD. When we finally get to hear a good dose of the band at the end of the film, they’re actually pretty good, so it’s actually kind of maddening that they’re not as devoted to their music as they probably should be, i.e. they may be devoted in words, but not in deeds.

I also think the film skips over a lot of what could have made it more interesting. It wasn’t until the movie was over that I realized what I had just seen was filmed over a two-year period. Belgum never address the question why mixing the CD took that long. Also, the only person heard other than the Dark Horse members is Dan’s ex-wife whose story sounds really interesting but we never see those two interact. Finally, while watching the film, I kept wondering why Jon addressed his photography as a hobby when he was obviously good enough to do it professionally. Only after doing some quick Internet research did I find out that he does make money from his pictures.

Continue on to 2002 NYUFF: Standing By Yourself

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