Don't assume too much from the title: Driver 23 isn't a nifty new game for your Sony PlayStation, or a direct-to-video knockoff of Gone in 60 Seconds. In fact, don't even expect to see much driving in Rolf Belgum's ambitious but unsatisfying documentary. Intended as an up-close and personal look at a musically challenged manic depressive who dreams of superstardom as a heavy metal god, Driver 23 turns out to be instructive and enlightening in ways the director doubtless did not intend.
It's tempting to compare Belgum's opus to Chris Smith's slightly similar but markedly superior American Movie, and the temptation shouldn't be resisted.
At a time when the freakish success of The Blair Witch Project has encouraged even more film school grads to borrow funding from friends and max out their credit cards, Smith's nonfiction feature provided an invaluable service by placing the Witch phenomenon in its proper perspective. While focusing on the obsessions, manipulations and self-delusions of Mark Borchardt, a thirtysomething Milwaukee movie buff who wants to be a director in the worst way, Smith forced his audience to consider what happens to the other 99.9 percent of indie productions by neophyte auteurs. It wasn't a pretty picture.
Houston premiere Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet
No MPAA rating
Driver 23, which was completed more than a year before American Movie premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, deals with another would-be "artist" whose fierce determination is far more conspicuous than his talent. In this case, the subject is Dan Cleveland, a Minneapolis-based rock guitarist whose indefatigable enterprise is such that, by comparison, Sisyphus was a namby-pamby quitter. By day, Cleveland works as a driver for a Twin Cities courier service. When he isn't behind the wheel, he's in his basement, rehearsing and recording with Dark Horse, his "progressive metal band," or on some local stage, playing to indifferent audiences during one of the group's rare performances.
Early on, when Cleveland talks about taking pleasure in making the most of his limited resources, you assume he's referring to his ability to play music. The resources in question, however, are merely the gear required to produce his rock: The sound studio in his basement is a jerry-rigged construct of Styrofoam and old suitcases. His instrument of choice is a homemade double guitar held together with duct tape. The machinery he designs for moving band equipment out of the basement -- an intricate Rube Goldbergian system of pulleys, cable and wooden ramps -- bespeaks of a misplaced faith in his own technical prowess.
And then there's the delicate issue of Cleveland's talent, or lack thereof. Dark Horse has a high turnover rate, with musicians coming and going on a steady basis, usually sticking around only for as long as it takes to realize that Cleveland won't get any better, and might even get worse, as a vocalist. Jeff, a lead guitarist who departs midway through the movie, diplomatically notes: "When Dan stays within his range, he's got a really good-sounding voice." But another Dark Horse alumnus, a self-described "visionary" named Tom, is more blunt in appraising Cleveland's talent: "He can't sing."
It doesn't take long for Driver 23 to reveal that Cleveland's most severely limited resource is his dodgy mental health. He frequently alludes to a "disorder" that requires his prodigious consumption of Zoloft and Prozac, and at one point he admits that he is rarely more than a scream away from total meltdown: "The disorder is always there, always boiling.There's always a flame in the pot. And when the pressure builds up enough, there's a release valve, and you start hearing this squealing from the teapot.Without the medication, I'm always squealing."
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Some critics, reflexively lunging at the obvious, have likened Driver 23 to This Is Spinal Tap. But such comparisons are facile: Rob Reiner's classic mock rockumentary is about has-beens, not couldn't-bes or never-weres. At its infrequent best, Belgum's film is less a clinical study of a talent-free wanna-be than a sympathetic portrait of a man who scores a victory each day he can sustain a tenuous grasp on his sanity. Maybe he'll never be a rock star -- though, let's face it, much crazier people have topped the charts -- but in this case, working toward a goal is far more important than actually fulfilling a dream. Or as Cleveland's supportive mother says, "It doesn't even matter if he gets what he wants, as long as he goes through the process."
The best parts of Driver 23 are so good that you wish the movie were a lot better, or at least a bit deeper. Shot over a three-year period on Hi-8 video -- reportedly on a budget of $700 -- the documentary as a whole seems shallow and superficial for reasons that have relatively little to do with budgetary constraints. It would be grossly unfair to say Belgum's proficiency as a documentarian is roughly akin to Cleveland's heavy metal musicianship. But then again, maybe it wouldn't be so grossly inaccurate. For whatever reason -- insensitivity? lack of experience? an inability to win the complete trust of his interviewees? -- Belgum glides along the surface, spending an inordinate amount of time on Cleveland's experiments with cables and pulleys while underplaying or ignoring more intriguing stuff that appears in the margins, on the fly.
Driver 23 is especially frustrating in the way it deals with the off-camera breakup of Cleveland's marriage to Shelly, an intelligent and empathetic but not infinitely patient woman who works as -- no kidding! -- a clown. He's white, and she's African-American. That nothing is made of this is no big deal. (It's worth noting, though, that her race isn't immediately apparent; the first two or three times we see her she's wearing white makeup.) What is a big deal is Belgum's refusal, or failure, to give us any sense of the dynamics of the marriage, to clarify why she moves away to California or what she will do once she gets there. She refers in passing to greater employment opportunities on the West Coast, leaving us to wonder: Is she going to work for a circus? Or is clowning just a temporary gig, something to do to make ends meet until she lands a job she has been trained to do? If the latter, well, what exactly is that job?
Yes, I know: There is only so much ground you can cover in a 73-minute documentary. But hey, who said the movie had to be that short? And why not spend the brief time to more illuminating purposes? Ultimately Driver 23 comes across as a textbook example of a film that deserved to be made by another, better filmmaker.