“We were out of the country when coke started to be a big issue for Bush in August of ’99,” recalls Suki Hawley, co-director with Michael Galinsky of the documentary Horns and Halos, which follows the saga of Fortunate Son, the Bush biography recalled by St. Martin’s Press and given a DIY second gasp. “We saw this very small piece that said ‘Book alleging Bush cocaine arrest pulled from shelves.’ “When they got back, they heard that underground publisher Soft Skull Press was reviving the book, and decided to explore. While keeping tabs on the Bush machine’s rug-sweeping, they began to focus on the shifting personae of two central figures: Soft Skull’s glam-tripping, idealist-opportunist, self-dubbed “punk of publishing,” Sander Hicks, and mercurial Fortunate Son author J.H. Hatfield, whose concealed felony for arranging an unsuccessful murder hit was the cause for St. Martins’s reversal, and whose subsequent misfortunes would eventually end in suicide.
In the pair’s Clinton Hill home, infant Fiona on my lap, the two artists animatedly share Galinsky’s photo series of a naked Hawley, from her first puff of pregnancy through birth day. Like the rest of their output, Horns and Halos (opening this week at Cinema Village) is rooted in a genial obsession with the process of becoming. Their 1995 indie-rock classic Half-Cocked now seems almost a forebear to fellow music-lover Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar—like novel-nicking Morvern, non-musician Tara and pals (all real-life Louisville rockers) abscond with her brother’s instruments and hit the road as a “band.” That film and 1999’s Radiation, made in Spain while touring Half-Cocked as part of a Galinsky-coordinated bill featuring live sets by Come and others, concern the plight of cash-strapped, creatively collaborative seekers. For documentary approach, Hawley cites the Maysles Brothers as polestars: “Salesman was a film we watched before starting. It makes a story out of the experience of these bible salesmen.” Galinsky interjects, “but it’s not about selling bibles. And this isn’t a movie about Bush or the biography. It’s really about people and how they deal in the world.”
Being avid undergrounders—Galinsky, ubiquitous indie-rock photographer and bassist of Sleepyhead, and Hawley, film generalist and videographer for sites like InSound.com—the two knew of Soft Skull, but were unprepared for Hicks’s outsize personality. Hawley recalls his initial bark, “I’m busy now. You’ll have to come by Saturday when I do the sweep ‘n’ mop!” Several interviews occur while Hicks shovels and sweeps at the Lower East Side building that house Soft Skull’s basement office. “It was a struggle in the editing to figure out how much of Sander and the Soft Skull backstory to put in,” says Galinsky. In the course of festival showings, they’ve tightened the film and added bits based on the reaction of the audiences. The first cut featured less exposition of Fortunate Son itself, and after showing in Rotterdam last year, they re-edited to give a clearer sense of the the book’s claims.
As to why there isn’t more Hatfield in the film, Hawley explains his change of heart after the media began to caricature him and his new foreword provoked a ruinous lawsuit, “He at first didn’t want to have anything to do with us. The first third of the shoot was just with Sander. Then after 60 Minutes, he knew he was at the bottom of the barrel as far as his representation in the world, and so he decided to become part of our documentary.” They were only able to shoot four days with Hatfield before his death. “We were hoping to go down to Arkansas to spend more time with him,” says Hawley. Adds Galinsky, “His wife had written us that he was in a dry-out clinic, but that he was glad to hear from us. But of course, we were never able to continue.”
At the center of the storm, Hicks, with his quick-changes from mohawk dude to suited corporado, from anarchist to capitalist and back, is a poster child for late-’90s indie identity crisis. Says Galinsky, “Some people have beat up on Sander for being opportunistic. But he was being opportunistic about something he cared about, which is commendable.” Adds Hawley, “It’s not black and white—you either make money or do what you believe in. We were trying to address that too.” When I mention that Hicks seems the archetypal straight-edge punk-rock kid trying to figure out a way to grow up, Hawley vigorously agrees: “In a way, that’s us!” Galinsky chimes in, “Yeah, it’s totally autobiographical.” They agree that in the process of girding himself and deciding that brash confidence would work best against whatever adversity would come from the right, Hicks talked himself out of acknowledging any real vulnerabilities. “But that totally applies to the way we’ve been able to get films done,” says Galinsky. “If we thought of all the hard things that would stop us, we would never make a film.”
Michael Atkinson’s review of Horns and Halos