From The Archives: A Beautiful Flower Growing in a Crack of Concrete – Wetlands Preserved with Jonathan Healey
Following the passing of Wetlands Preserve founder Larry Bloch on Sunday due to pancreatic cancer, this seemed like a fitting moment to revisit Randy Ray’s interview with Jonathan Healey, the cinematographer and editor of the documentary film Wetlands Preserved: The Story of An Activist Rock Club (directed by site founder Dean Budnick). This piece originally ran in July 2006 as the film began to make the rounds on the festival circuit, screening at SXSW, Woodstock, Breckenridge, Asheville Film Festival (where it took top documentary honors).
“Whatever some may claim, criticism is a subjective art, and even if it weren’t, the flowers in the cinema’s garden are so various that there’s no such thing as one standard by which to judge them.” – A Century of Film, Derek Malcolm
“It is the Celtic Way to find the middle ground between the beautiful and the ugly.” – Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman
Wetlands Preserved marks the documentary film debut of Relix Senior Editor and Jambands.com Editor, Dean Budnick. It goes without saying that the project is close to this writer, as well, as a) many of the best live acts of the 1990s are represented in the film; b) as a West Coast head, I was never able to make it out to New York to witness a show at the legendary club located in Tribeca; c) the Vermont Fab Four gigs have always been a fascinating story in Phishtory (1,200 in a 600-capacity club?!); d) like Wetlands in its heyday, the Rays have a retired VW bus located in the backyard which is vacant yet filled with many smoke-filled stories of yesterday painted in psychedelic surreal colors; e) and the venue supported a $100,000 per annum environmental activism budget. Budnick has made a film that accurately portrays a critical point in recent music history with shitkicker Wetland’s live tunes collected by Audio Archivist and Jambands.com Editor, Jesse Jarnow segueing into various colorful stories from musicians who played the hotter-than-hell joint to club owners to talent brokers to environmentalists to neighborhood real estate overlords to fans in a warm, humorous, honest and modern light.
The film is a fine representation of the club which lost its lease to a furniture store and encroaching gentrification, basking in skateboard film visuals and groundbreaking cinematic animation that layers multiple elements to shock photographs to life like some celluloid Dr. Frankenstein. Whereas the many eclectic live clips from Agnostic Front to moe. help showcase the various invigorating acts that former owners Larry Bloch and Peter Shapiro were able to corral, the animated visuals, numerous interview sequences with Bloch, Shapiro, musicians, writers, scenesters, Wetlands employees and activists help give the living history book a complex yet very appetizing flow.
Jonathan Healey served as the film’s Director of Photography and Editor while working with Budnick to get his vision onto the screen. Budnickupon introducing the film at the Ziegfeld Theatre at the Green Apple Music Festival to the audience along with producer, Peter Shapirowent out of his way to acknowledge Healey, prompting a beaming editor to stand from his seat and wave to the near capacity throng. Jambands.com takes an opportunity to investigate Healey’s experience on Wetlands Preserved, his additional production background and future projects.
Part I Wetlands Preserved
“A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun” – The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
RR: Wetlands Preserved had layers upon layers of meaning from music to activism to a timeless vibe that made the experience almost three-dimensional. The film echoes this imagery while delivering a lot of information. What are your impressions of how the film turned out?
JH: I was incredibly pleased with the final cut of Wetlands Preserved. Dean Budnick and I videotaped about 80-hours of interview footage and married that with countless photos, archival footage and animated music sequences. It was a daunting task to filter through these assets and determine which pieces of dialogue would best articulate Wetlands’s story. It took us a lot of time to compile still photos and video footage and animate them in a style that would complement the dialogue we chose to use. Indeed, Wetlands Preserve did have layers of meaning from the music that was created there, to the activism and social justice causes the nightclub would champion to the hundreds of anecdotes people shared with us. The film actually depicts all of these described “layers” using hundreds of layered animations. Take that and add a person’s dialogue and musical soundbed and you have quite a complex piece of art divulging lots of information. Think about it: An interviewee is telling the viewer about an account at Wetlands while underneath that audio is a live recording from the nightclub that either directly references this particular story or mood. Finally, you have all this visual information literally flying around the screen, or changing colors, or dissolving in and out. It can be a lot to comprehend; however, we did a great job keeping it understandable to anyone who might view the film. Plus, all of this maintains the movie’s entertainment value by keeping everyone interested in what’s they are seeing and hearing.
We had a few private screenings a year prior to the Ziegfeld premiere. These intermediary viewings always generated great ideas and response to this piece of work. Judging from the audience’s reactions we were able to determine whether or not something worked or that something did not work, or the audience really likes these two characters or a particular thing we thought was funny in the edit didn’t play on the screen. I’m glad we did these screenings as it’s important to get outside eyes on early drafts of edits. This is because myself, as editor, and Dean, as director, would spend thousands of hours in front of the material and the decisions you make on what stays or goes can become increasingly more difficult to make since you become attached to certain elements or jaded by others (since you’ve watched it over and over and over).
By the time Wetlands Preserved screened at Ziegfeld Theatre, I thought it was ready. What I didn’t expect was the tremendous turnout. From what I was told, somewhere between 800-1,000 people attended the screening. I was nervous that the room might look empty, but it certainly did not. In many cases where a lot of time was spent to create a particular storyline, or sequence, hearing the reaction in a small, private screening would really please me, but hearing roars of laughter, or even an incredible amount of hissing (in the case of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s shakedown on Manhattan nightlife) was truly satisfactory to me. Of course the direct compliments I received from people were humbling. I was so thrilled to see the, albeit brief, reunion of all the people who were so inspired by the club. Watching old-timers share remembrances with one another, after the screening, really showed that film needed do be made. In a way, I was able to contribute to this gathering.
Annabelle Lukins, a longtime Wetlands local, made a statement that was unfortunately cut during the edit. Lukins said something to the effect that Wetlands provided an arena for many people, whether it was the musicians, the talent buyers, the photographers, whoever, to get opportunities that might not be afforded to them in the typical, tough, New York City environment. It was because of the club’s open-mindedness and freedom to give anyone a chance that many folks got the break or breaks they needed to be doing what it is that they do now. That statement hit home with me because during my own personal residence at the club I was not really involved with anything other than watching my favorite bands perform. I’m truly thankful that this documentary presented itself to me and gave me one final chance to give back. I think I’ve done this and that’s what pleases me the most about the film.
RR: What was your take on Richard Gehr’s comment that Wetlands was "nostalgia as a camouflage for people that really didn’t need to be there." I don’t think Wetlands was a nostalgia trip. Did you?
JH: Do I think it was a nostalgia trip? Perhaps to those, like Gehr says, “who didn’t need to be there.” No. Wetlands was not a nostalgia trip. Wetlands served as an incubator for a lot of what we see in the live music arena, today. Sure, there were some silly murals on the wall, a VW Microbus, and they created psychedelic prints ads, but it’s my understanding that Gehr is saying nostalgia’ was applicable to those who didn’t really know the venue’s true mission Music and Activism. Someone who might stumble into the club unknowing might easily assume that Larry Bloch had created a 1960s throwback themed nightclub and leave. So be it. More room for everyone else to dance.