20 Questions: Jim White

Jim White is a traveler, a Renaissance man, and a candid musical chronicler of the South. He pauses from his busy, restless artistic life to answer PopMatters' 20 questions.

Jim White

Transnormal Skiperoo

Label: Luaka Bop
US Release Date: 2008-03-04
UK Release Date: 2007-10-08

Jim White is a traveler, a Renaissance man, and a candid musical chronicler of the South. At various points in his life, he's been a Pentacostal, fashion model, New York taxi driver, drifter, pro-surfer, photographer, and filmmaker. All this wandering finds its way into his intriguing music. PopMatters says his latest album, Transnormal Skiperoo, "resonates with themes of traveling, becoming lost, and maybe just finding your way home again, and not just in the physical sense." His work has been hailed as masterpieces of "outer space alt.country." White also starred in the award-winning road-movie, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

A while back on ABC news, in their "person of the week" segment, they featured twin brothers who were attractive young male doctors. These brothers wanted not to open a cushy practice in some up tempo cultural hotspot like L.A. or Seattle, but rather to make a difference in places where no doctor dared go. And so they undertook a mission to provide medical care to poor people in Afghanistan. When the US government forbade them from doing this, saying they would surely be killed, they went to Afghanistan, anyway.

They risked their lives countless times criss-crossing the wilds of that devastated country to perform surgery on women, children, and often on wounded enemy fighters who would normally have killed the two Americans on the spot. They were never harmed and became known among the Afghani poor as the "same-faced healers". Such acts of noblesse oblige open up some deep emotional well in me and I just bawl like a baby.

2. The fictional character most like you?

There are times when I am good and times when I am bad. My actual character lies somewhere between the following extremes. At my best I might resemble Clarice, the Jodie Foster character in The Silence of the Lambs. I'm drawn to worrisome mysteries and despite my conspicuous failings, I drive myself toward the truth, no matter what the cost.

I did a lot of this when I drove a cab in New York City. I'd pick up murderous looking thugs and drive them where ever they asked to go -- lonely warehouse districts, neighborhoods devastated by urban blight, crime and drug gangs -- just to see what their intention might be. I see now that this tendency was equally a function of curiosity and hubris and am thankful to have survived such an audaciously naive mindset.

When I'm bad I'm a little bit like the Steve Buschemi character in Fargo. I wear a big puffy jacket and sport a sophisticated pompadour hairdo -- both accentuating my pencil neck and spindly frame -- and when I get mad or feel threatened I tend to quickly puff up and beat on my chest, sputtering and talking shit to whatever petty authority figure that might happen to be impeding my way. I did this recently with Carl, the Delta Airlines customer service representative who unfairly revoked my Sky Miles. And this is my revenge on him. Carl, are you listening? Carl...?

3. The greatest album, ever?

Of course this is subjective, but I'd have to say it's The Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was 11-years-old when it came out and it just flat out set my brain on fire. Weird transcendental vaudeville burlesque shit! Music at that time was mired in a lot of boring poses, then suddenly the most popular band in the world used their bully pulpit in an astonishingly innovative and subversive manner.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Hmmm; The Force verses second rate Shakespeare...

5. Your ideal brain food?

I don't eat brains. I use them.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I have two children and a wife whom I adore. I lay on the floor with my kids, wrestling and tussling and they squeal with delight. I'm happily married to a lovely, smart woman who understands me. If you had asked anyone who knew me well from the last 30 years what I was least likely to accomplish, it would be what I just described.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Let me clarify; I don't want to be remembered. I want something I did to be remembered. If I was to try to name that thing, I imagine it would to have helped others in some way related to my skills

When I was offered the opportunity to become a recording artist I almost said no, because at the time I truly detested the notion of becoming a public figure. Nevertheless, I'd been writing songs for years and wondered what use they might have in a larger context than my mind, so Luaka Bop's offer seemed like an interesting proposition. I discussed the idea with one of my good friends whose opinion I trust. When I told him my sentiments, he asked me this simple question: "Do you think that these songs that you wrote might be helpful to others?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, you're wrong. The songs you wrote will help people. Not all people, but certain people. If you want to be of service to people who are in some way lost like you are, then go be a musician."

I took his advice. A few months after my first album was released I was playing a sparsely attended show in Portland. Afterwards, as I was loading up my gear, a woman tenuously approached me and asked if she could relay a story. She then explained how a few months back her child had been stricken with a mysterious illness and had lapsed into a coma. The doctors had informed her there was little chance that her child would pull through and told her to prepare for its death.

Can you imagine? The cloud of sorrow that must have formed around her? And yet, she refused to invest belief in the doctors' prognosis. She stayed by her child's side for week upon week. Each morning in the car on the way to the hospital she and her partner (she was gay) would listen to a song I wrote called "A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados". It's a song I wrote when I was seriously contemplating killing myself. It's about not only standing and facing your fears, but aggressively denying their power over your life and circumstance.

She told me that they listened to that song over and over each day on the way to the hospital and told themselves the doctors were wrong. After a month, the child miraculously came out of the coma. Was it their love that saved this child? Their refusal to believe in the inevitable dark fate of us all? They showed great courage. The idea that a song I wrote in some small way helped them muster up that courage to fight such a fight makes me dizzy and giddy with hope for my purpose here on this earth.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Music: Tom Waits. Literature: Cormac McCarthy. Politics; Jimmy Carter. Celebrity: Audrey Hepburn. Science: Richard Feynman. Surfing: Wayne Lynch. I could go on... and on... and on...

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

It's a tie between Ingmar Bergman's film Fanny & Alexander and Victor Enrice's film Spirit of the Beehive.

10. Your hidden talents...?

But the bible says not to hide your candle under a bushel....

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

See response to number 7.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

In the year 1975 I borrowed a skateboard from a friend at a skate park called "The Paved Wave". In fact we swapped skateboards. His was long and mine was short. It was the end of summer, the surf had been flat for approximately six weeks and I'd been skating the park all day. I was desperately trying to get in shape for the upcoming US Surfing Championships, to which I was invited due to my favorable performance in a series of surf contests in Florida. The big event was to be held in Hawaii -- nirvana for surfers. I was 18-years-old and, other than the flat surf and lack of preparation for the big event, I had the world in the palm of my hand.

I hopped onto the longer skateboard atop the high, steep entry ramp and drove downward into the first large bowl of the park. The longer board picked up speed more rapidly than I was accustomed. I made it through that first bank, then catapulted into a tighter series of sharply banked turns. On the third and tightest turn I lost my balance and fell. I was moving at such a speed that I could not position myself correctly for the fall, and, as I tumbled forward, I heard a loud popping sound, followed by an excruciating pain.

At the hospital the doctor explained to me that I had twisted my right lower leg bone in half, a spiral fracture he called it, which was apparently the worst kind of break. I spent the next two months in a full leg cast. I missed the US Surfing Championships. The break was so bad and so painful that for the first few weeks I could not walk, even with crutches.

I miserably sat on the couch and watched TV shows like The $10,000.00 Pyramid and Let's Make A Deal. I'd always been a restless, agitated person and for the first time in my life, at the peak of my physical powers, I was suddenly utterly immobilized. As you might imagine I was bored beyond description.

My roommate's strange hippy-dippy friend Danny had left an old acoustic guitar at our house the year before and never returned to pick it up. Out of desperation I dug it out of the closet and started trying to learn guitar for two hours each afternoon, during that period when there were no game shows or reruns of Star Trek or Dark Shadows on.

The first week I wrote two songs, and since then I've written a thousand or two more. As the result of that leg break I've traveled the world as a musician and had successes that I would never have imagined for myself.

Had I not broken my leg? I likely would have gone to Hawaii and been blown out in my first heat (the Hawaiians skills were far superior to mine), come home and spent the next few decades taking odd jobs and trying to figure out how to make a living as a professional surfer. So my question is this, which was a better borrowed object for me; the skateboard, or the guitar?

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

I will wear either provided I can buy them at the flea market for pennies on the dollar and then rip them to pieces in the process of building that shed on the back of my studio. Whether fine or coarse, all my clothes bear the telltale evidence of spur of the moment, unplanned heavy construction duties.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Jesus Christ. (You can take that as either a noun or a mild expletive.)

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

If time is not a continuum, and many people suspect this to be so, then it's likely that we already go back and forth in time, much like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, but unlike Billy, we are unaware of it. Some aren't, though.

What do I mean by that? If your life is a book and each moment in life is a word in that book and each day a line in that book, aren't prophets just those who allow an occasional gust of wind to rustle their pages, allowing tantalizing, out of context glimpses into aspects of the past and future? I realize that that doesn't answer your question, but that's okay, isn't it?

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

When I'm stressed out I simply work harder. Mostly this is a productive approach, for even if I'm indulging some kind of ancillary neurosis, at least at the end of the neurotic process I have something tangible to show for my troubles.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

I'm not much invested in the realm of the senses, so this question has little bearing on anything of value that I might say.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I live in the country but I could live where ever I was put and still lead exactly the same life. Since I'm 50-years-old though, I now prefer to stay in the South. I've done my gallivanting and traipsing and presently want to wallow in the feeling of home.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

George! Take off those rubber boots and let that poor sheep go!

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I'm working on the following; a shed to store my tools and riding lawn mower in (as previously mentioned)., a novel, a feature film script based on an incident I read about in the newspaper, a series of visual art assemblages involving plywood and found objects, a series of prints of my 20 years of fine art photography (hundreds of photos! Many of my feet!).

And, as always, I'm working on twisting my personality disorder into an asset, much the way my leg was twisted during that skateboard ride. One day I will hear that "snap" and rejoice!

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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