It is easy to measure your life by achievements, to look at the accumulation of honors and awards, of personal and professional victories, and say, “This accumulation represents empirical success.”
It’s harder to measure your life, not necessarily by failures, but by unfulfilled potential, by half-finished tasks, or by the things left unused, and say, “Nevertheless, or maybe even.” Because There is still success from that.”
Takes something very universal out of life’s loose ends.
Chris Wilcha’s new documentary, Downsidetakes on the second challenge and provides an autobiographical portrait of how a life seemingly marked by disappointments and failures can be a life well lived. View Downside at the wrong moment or from the wrong angle and it can seem a little solipsistic, albeit in a way that will be relatable to many viewers. But taken as a whole, and with some reflection, it is a borderline profound and philosophical expression of contentment with all that is still unfinished in life.
Even on paper and without the reflection of a documentary, Wilcha’s life is by no means a failure. His first documentary, The target shoots first, was celebrated at festivals and offered a very Gen-X insight into his youthful attempts to sell out while working for Columbia House in the 1990s. He won an Emmy for helping adapt “Ira Glass.” This American life for television. Most of the time he has worked continuously as a commercial director for some of the largest brands in the world. He seems to have a family that lends itself to picture framing.
But Wilcha also has stacks of hard drives full of footage from documentaries he never finished, imaginary works of art that were shelved for various reasons. His occupation all along was glorified marketing. For a storyteller who grew up in a generation that found, at least for a time, ideological expression in the uncompromising cynicism of… Reality bites, this feels like a disappointment. Wilcha’s father worked in marketing and that is not the path he wanted to take, even though all signs point to his father being very happy.
The apparent backbone of Downside is Wilcha’s return to his hometown of New Jersey, where he simultaneously reflects on two monuments to the blurred line between collecting and hoarding. There is his childhood closet, a repository of albums, books, concert shirts and memorabilia of the youth he once was. And then there’s Flip-Side Records & Tapes, a vintage record store where he got his first job, a run-down repository of a bygone era that’s more like a museum than a retail store.
As he struggles to see the value in his decently organized mess, he also goes over footage from some of those unrealized documentaries in conversations with Flip Side owner Dan and some of Wilcha’s former friends and colleagues. And wouldn’t you know? The values – spiritual if not financial – all overlap.
Wilcha’s Cemetery of Truncated Projects is a fascinating place. There are interviews with the legendary jazz photographer Herman Leonard – believe me, you know some of his pictures – that were conducted shortly before his death. There is strange footage from an Ira Glass touring show where the host featured in fully choreographed dance numbers.
Then there are the documentaries that could have been started and that follow on from other unrealized projects. One of Flip-Side’s regular customers is Uncle Floyd, a television personality and New Jersey icon whose trip has led to unexpected connections Saturday Night Live and David Bowie. Wilcha’s connection to Leonard came through a connection with Dead wood Creator David Milch, who emerged from Milch’s association with Judd Apatow, with whom Wilcha worked on a documentary about the making of Funny people. There is a latticework of editing that ties these unfinished documentaries together Downside and unites them as facets of Wilcha’s life. The idea that seemingly loose ends from our past are actually storylines waiting for an unexpected resolution is both pleasantly Dickensian and wonderfully uplifting when you think about it.
They’ll probably be watching Downside I think that many of these films, which are no longer completely unmade, could be more interesting as feature films than this partial autobiography or the story of a beloved old record store. In particular, the material with Milch, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is interviewed in conversation with his wife Rita and with Apatow, made you want more. That’s also the point. Wilcha thought they would also be more appealing as features. But the care with which Wilcha treats Milch, Leonard, and Uncle Floyd, finding something desirable in each of their postures and moods without really caring, is thoughtful and sometimes inspiring.
No one there Downside lives exactly the life they dreamed of. Even Apatow, also an executive producer here, is connected to Wilcha through a film about the stand-up career he didn’t have. However, as Leonard puts it, “There will always be circumstances.” Whether you overcome or adapt to those circumstances, or find a way to learn from disappointments and move on, may be a matter of perspective, determination, or luck.
This can be a metaphor for the general pursuit of life, for the specific creation of art, or for the entirely universal experience of working through clutter and rubble and learning to see the treasure in the mess. Maybe you won’t be able to connect with the moments Downside It’s mostly about Wilcha, but in 96 minutes the film makes a case for crafting something new out of whatever your unused documentary footage equivalent is.