Jerry Andrus, the 85-year-old magician profiled in A Thing of Wonder, says every field needs inexperienced people to bring new, fresh ideas. As described in the film, he once duped a convention of the world's top card magicians, an unthinkable feat Andrus credits to his self-teaching, because his competitors could never learn his tricks.
Similarly, the Portland filmmaking trio behind A Thing of Wonder--Adrienne Leverette, Eric Schopmeyer and Rob Tyler, collectively known as Archipelago--have eschewed formal cinematic training on their way to developing an exceptional gift for making documentaries.
Before their first film, 2000's Honky Tonk Dirt, none had any filmmaking experience at all. But in this endearing portrait of local street musician Lucky Buster (a longtime fixture beside Cinema 21), their instincts were correct and their ambition was clear. Best of all, they weren't satisfied.
"Every day as we were editing Honky Tonk Dirt, we'd talk about what we had and what we wished we had," recalls Leverette. "The process of making that movie, and even more so just watching it, was our training for this one." Indeed, the trio learned well, for Archipelago's sophomore effort marks a leap forward in the sophistication of its storytelling style.
Andrus is not just an aging magician, but a philosopher, a skeptic, and a bundle of energy. "He's the most alive 85-year-old I've ever met," says Schopmeyer. "His mind is constantly engaged, and he's always working on something, always thinking about something, always doing something." And Andrus' magic isn't about deception, but rather a mission to reveal different ways of perceiving the world around us.
A man of his immutable intelligence and charm, Andrus claims to have never once been in love. "It's hard to believe, but he says it so matter-of-factly," Leverette muses. "He's definitely focused on the things he does."
The film expertly indulges Andrus' take on everything from the taste of homemade apple juice to the existence of God, and his opinions aren't always what you'd expect. Take Andrus' rigid adherence to every last traffic law: "Here's this guy who has built his life around questioning absolutely everything," says Schopmeyer, "and he won't cross an empty street against the light." Tyler recalls how Andrus wants to design a "Thank You" sign for the back window of his car, to pop up when courteous drivers let him into their lane.
A Thing of Wonder is full of crafty camera angles and imaginative, even musical editing--the latter being no surprise, since Schopmeyer and Leverette are classically trained musicians. Schopmeyer also fronts the local rock band Slackjaw and is a music teacher at Marysville Elementary, where he and Leverette (along with friend Anthony Jamesbarry) recorded their self-composed score to the film. And while the production values are tremendously impressive, particularly for a local film, they never get in the way of Andrus' personal history. "We're not into doing the Ken Burns type of documentary, which I think holds your hand too much with narration and photos," says Tyler. "We'd rather have the subjects tell their own story."
The film's structure is like a meandering country road in a world of expressways. It comes from Archipelago's approach: "We don't write the movie and shoot it," Leverette says. "We like to hang out with these people, shoot them talking, and see what we have."
The movie's 45-minute length will prevent a long feature run (and placement on a short-film program), so Thursday's Northwest Film Center show and a September one-nighter at the Clinton Street Theater may be the only chances to catch it. But make sure you do: Like one of Andrus' card tricks, A Thing of Wonder is a dazzling, intricate work that seems effortless--and it'll be gone before you know what hit you.
A Thing of Wonder
Northwest Film Center at the Guild Theatre
829 SW 9th Avenue, 221-1156.
7 pm Thursday, July 11.
(Shows with Drowningboy and Gridlocker's Paradox)