Sunnyside: Light at the end

02/08/2018

The trauma of the 1995 Mount Vision Fire churns at the center of a new documentary by Belgian artists Frederik Carbon and Katrien Vermeire, called “Sunnyside.” The film, named after a winding road that dead ends on the Inverness Ridge, follows the final months in the lives of the iconoclastic architect Daniel Liebermann and his neighbor, the experimental sound artist Henry “Sandy” Jacobs. The longtime friends died within a month of each other in late 2015, during production.

The film combines Vermeire’s meditative photography with a hallucinatory mix of sound by Carbon and Jeremy Harris such that you could almost watch it with your eyes closed. It is a fugue of friendship, landscape and solitude. Nothing much happens, until it does, like a tragedy by Beckett set in a bishop pine forest. There is an unshakable and unexplained attachment between the two men and a tangible sense that we are nearing the end of the world they built, and re-built, together. In Beckett’s words: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” 

“Sunnyside” adheres closely to the textures of the landscape: the swaying branches of pines, a reel-to-reel spinning at the touch of Jacobs’s fingers, the heaps of books, objects and papers with which Liebermann covers and surrounds himself. Except for a brief return trip up Sunnyside Drive and a heartrending finale at Chicken Ranch Beach, we never see the pair venture much beyond their adjacent dwellings. Footage of the Vision Fire and its aftermath comes in the middle of the film, and the shift back in time is noticeable by the change in video resolution and the restoration of some of the men’s vigor. Liebermann lost an untold number of archives, collections and materials to the inferno, which we see in video backed by a harrowing piano improvisation by Jacobs, who plays with and against a fearsome wind that shakes the wooden structure of his home. The sound of wind, a recurring echo of that loss, haunts the entire film.

In one scene, Jacobs holds a handheld video camera and narrates as he returns to the ruin for the first time. The land is charred and skeletal, and he finds it hard to orient himself without familiar markers. He discovers Liebermann, upright and in charge in a shimmering silver hard hat, already raking his driveway and directing a clean-up crew. The architect sets about building a large, medieval retaining wall and steps, stone by stone, to a late-17th century Henry Purcell opera. It is the perfect choice for a soundtrack, the elemental sounds of harpsichord, baritone voice and strings conveying the architect’s Werner Herzog-like reservoir of determination.

Sunnyside’s Belgian producers insisted that Carbon use the word “utopia” to describe this cloistered compound, “but I always see it more as a dystopia, as though the world went to pieces some time ago,” he told me over coffee at Toby’s, not long after the film’s premier at Slamdance Film Festival in Utah. “But maybe it’s more beautiful after the apocalypse than before.” Carbon admits that the film is not a traditional documentary, and that it could turn off viewers unfamiliar with Liebermann’s and Jacobs’s contributions to their fields or the back-to-the-land culture of West Marin. “It feels more like a fiction than a documentary,” he added. “Almost science fiction, other-worldly.”

The two friends are light and shadow. Jacobs indulges in comfort, delights in novelty and is boyishly earnest in his desire to connect with others. At 90 years old, he is the first to succumb to health problems, yet he seems more vibrant and nimble, “a little boy who found himself in a very old body,” said Carbon, who likened him to a monkey in a tree, observant and mocking of the world below. “Beautiful thinking, there’s nothing else worth bothering with,” Jacobs once wrote. We see him undress and submerge himself in a wine-barrel hot tub with his partner, Susan, and a large glass of Sangria in what looks like the most comfortable bath on earth.

It was Jacobs who first invited Carbon from Belgium to West Marin. A researcher obsessed with Alan Watts, Carbon was telephoned by Jacobs after ordering a large boxed set of the recordings that Jacobs had made of Watts’s lectures on Eastern philosophy in the 1950s. Their friendship took fast root, and Jacobs would often phone in the morning from an Alaskan camper he called his “cookhouse.” Time was short to document their lives, and he pushed Carbon to do it: “What are you doing in Brussels?” he’d ask. “I’m here today, but maybe not tomorrow. Come now.” Carbon, who had never made a film and had no intention of doing so, was first instigated by Jacobs on one such visit: Okay, first scene, first shot. Let’s go. Action. 

If Jacobs is perched in a tree, Liebermann has crawled into a burrow. The old master is a paradox: an architect who paid careful attention to his clients’ comfort yet ignores the discomforts of his own abode. He folds himself into a bathtub so tiny he barely fits, goofily imitating the honks of a wooden goose (a visual joke on a rubber ducky) that he holds over his crotch. 

The crumbling granite of Liebermann’s personality—hard, loquacious and surprisingly vulnerable—dominates the film. He is a more natural performer than Jacobs, and he speaks extemporaneously at great length, like an exiled Roman senator decrying the fall of Rome. His incredible store of knowledge is matched only by the eclectic range of debris surrounding him. Through hours of filmmaking, Vermeire said the crew would be astonished and exhausted by these monologues, but Liebermann was determined to put forth his philosophy and defend his way of life.

“I have what the Egyptians would call the horror vacui, fear of the void,” he says, propped up in bed next to an avalanche of junk as the camera pans around piles of odd figurines, model cars, paintings, papers and boxes. The wooden house creaks in the wind. “Like Hatshepsut in her palace. She had a terror of the drifting dunes and sands of the Sahara, filling up everything, and the winds. That’s called Sigfried Gidieon’s theory: why did Hatshepsut’s palace have a column every two feet apart?” Liebermann snickers. “Hardly needed that many posts. It was a forest, ’cause she was trying to create something that had some traction, some friction, in terms of space. My horror vacui is similar: it obviously doesn’t bother me to be cluttered. It drives a lot of people crazy, including my ex-wife and my ex-girlfriend, everybody else. It doesn’t bother me.” 

The absence of captions or biographical detail renders the poetry of these moments well, but a glimpse of their achievements would have put them in better context. We get some rough drawings, but do not see any of Liebermann’s finished homes, modernist cathedrals of brick and wood. Informed by his apprenticeship to Frank Lloyd Wright, his quest for the perfect wood or remote sawmill often ate up his profit, and a late career fallout with a Mill Valley client may have bankrupted him. Yet Liebermann’s work has been increasingly recognized—not only for its idiosyncratic grandeur, but because he chose to accommodate rather than resist the elements, creating more resilient, and comfortable, spaces to live.

The film also makes no mention of the Vortex Concerts, Jacobs’s collaboration with the filmmaker Jordan Belson in which he devised 360-degree sound for a series of performances in San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium in 1957. Famed sound editor Walter Murch credits Jacob’s experiment with popularizing the concept of surround sound. You also won’t see (or rather, hear) Jacobs in George Lucas’s first feature film, “THX 1138,” in which Jacobs plays a student learning the operation of a torture room, twisting dials and tweaking audio as Robert Duvall’s character writhes in agony. Jacobs and another actor improvised the dialogue, and it is the familiar exchange between torturers that makes the scene more disturbing than the torture itself.

“Sunnyside” may not give us Jacobs’s left-handed ping-pong tournaments at the Dance Palace or show him chatting up locals at the bygone Blackbird Café in Inverness. However, the choice to stay stranded on the ridge frames the film’s sense of transcendent decay. Jacobs and Liebermann are the last Jedi on an island, awaiting some form of closure long after the world has fallen. Their unspoken love carries this ponderous tale of two old men reckoning with life and mortality. Toward the end, Liebermann, stoic as ever, announces his friend’s death—“probably of a heart attack,” he says, which turns out to be true. He stands by Jacobs’s home overlooking Tomales Bay, as though discovering the beauty of that vista for the first time: “Heavenly spot, no matter how you complain.”

 

Jordan Bowen is a freelance writer exploring the intersection of landscape and culture. A former Inverness resident, he now lives in San Francisco with his partner, Willis.

 

A screening of “Sunnyside” starts at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18 at 32TEN Theater (3210 Kerner Boulevard), in San Rafael. Seating is limited and reservations are required by emailing mountvisionpictures@gmail.com.