After nearly 20 years, Jim Horwitz’s innovative and bemusing feature receives a new restoration.
Header: Actor John Wiederholt displays a promotional t-shirt.
In the last decade, we’ve all become comfortable with the conveniences of shooting video, and even constructing a film on an iPhone—including in features as high-profile as Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018). But an entire generation ago in Madison, years before the advent of utterly mobile and portable high-definition technology, Jim Horwitz was conceiving Grodmin (2003), and what ultimately became a 90-minute feature, on 50 digital High-8 cassette tapes. The DIY metafilm, which mingles the art school experience with the filmmaking process itself, harnesses a particularly innovative aesthetic of its time and preserves significant social spaces of Downtown Madison around the turn of the century. And now, for the first time, the film is available to view in a 720p restoration.
While pursuing an MFA at UW-Madison between 2000 and 2003, writer-director Horwitz settled into his classes and immersed himself in the local music and arts scenes. “When you’re in Madison, you just feel this palpable sense of energy and ideas,” Horwitz says. “Beyond just being ‘in school,’ I wanted to work on a separate, personal project that harnessed [the feeling of the city]— capture the creativity of Madison in a bottle.” As he befriended graduate program adviser and painter David Becker, who shared his love of movies, Horwitz realized that an ideal way to celebrate his experiences would be in a feature film.
The prospect of doing so may have initially seemed like a novel experiment, but he was intrigued by the possibilities of making what he felt “needed to be” an art film, and one that would be freed of the technical constraints of traditional film narratives. “I wanted to tell a story but also create a structure that would incorporate all the amazing Madison buildings, stores, and locations that had captured my imagination,” Horwitz says. What began to take shape was something that put a literal spin on the concept of the art film itself.
Perhaps this is why Grodmin remains such an elusive feature to categorize, and one that beckons for a re-introduction. It bears some incidental comparisons to early mockumentary TV series (a 2003 review in Badger Herald noted the film’s “complex layering of fiction and reality effectively illustrates the ambiguity of our ‘reality TV’ culture”), and the sorts of quasi-experimental metacinema, or movies-within-movies, that rose to Hollywood prominence in the 1990s. Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) still stands tall as industry satire, and the subgenre was taken to a particularly literary high with Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). Spiritually, a bit of that reality TV parody, the aforementioned films’ DNA, and what Horwitz calls an “undercurrent of Gen-X themes about choosing identities and playing roles” visually lifted from the popular fantasy of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Back To The Future (1985), all reside in the form and development of Grodmin, as it began to emerge 20 years ago, in 2001.
Grodmin begins with a series of camera-facing interviews of a cast and crew of a film in production on the campus of an unnamed prestigious university. We first meet actor John Wiederholt (playing himself and the character of David), writer Marcus Haine (portrayed by Rob Iulo), and the one-and-only Becker himself as Art Department Chair Paul Reed. The title of Grodmin exists in multifarious terms—defined as a fraternity-like tradition of the university where upperclassmen serve as mentors or “grodmins” to younger students, a pseudo-documentary of art school that’s contained in the interviews, and also the movie-within-the-movie fragments of which Horwitz sets apart by color-grading with hyper-saturated hazy blue or sun yellow. The screenplay mines the tension between these separate, yet inseparable projects under the single banner of Grodmin in crafting a complicated, at times confusing, but honest examination of the challenges of adapting to art and production on the fly. The movie-within-a-movie also has to weather casting changes when character Lucas Branum (also playing Brian) is sought out by major studio subsidiary DreamWorks.
At the time of making the film, Horwitz wasn’t working from any particular movie template, and so the layered impression of Grodmin comes across as original and almost indefinable. “Most of the ‘inner’ scenes are silent montages, so I tried to film them like a film-painter [with] lots of close-ups on body language to express loneliness and isolation,” Horwitz says. While citing the serendipitous nature of the production, the chemistry between principal actors Wiederholt and Branum was integral. “I’d say 90% of the people in the film came to open auditions. […] I got very lucky,” Horwitz says.
Comparable to trends in the early 1970s, indie films in the early 2000s combined diminutive budgets and conceptual audacity, but Grodmin is really in a category of its own with a credits-tagged $500. “There was no budget, per se,” Horwitz recalls about the process of shooting. “After we filled one digital Hi-8 tape, I would go to the University Bookstore on the corner of North Lake and State (which is now a 7-Eleven) and spend five bucks on a new tape. When it was time to do a scene that needed a new prop, I just walked down to State Street with whatever money I had and bought it. My only real filming equipment was a Sony Handycam (which shot in 480p [standard definition]), a tripod, and my little desk lamp that I carried in a backpack all over town.”
Grodmin also acts as a sort of time-capsule of the city right after the turn of the century before recent campus renovations, towering luxury apartment complexes, and the steady decline of locally owned retailers that practically demolished the downtown Horwitz remembers. “Every Madison scene in Grodmin was shot within a one-mile radius of the Library Mall,” he explains, citing the ease of capturing a sheer variety of spaces and architecture. The film’s locations include the Mosse Humanities Building at the corner of Park and University, the University Club on 800 block of State, the Elvehjem gallery space (now known as the older half of the Chazen Museum of Art), the Fluno Center on University Ave, and the now-closed Sunroom Café on 600 block of State. But perhaps the most striking scene is a little over an hour in, when Wiederholt picks up a DVD copy of Branum’s Bloodline from a corner wall at Four Star Video Heaven’s original location at 315 Henry St.
Underscoring the turbulent in-film production of Grodmin is a wistful and even melancholy soundtrack comprised of bands Horwitz came to know, like Esov and Casa Verde (both featuring Sarah Jennings Evans of Glassmen, who is also an audio engineer on Tone Madison‘s podcasts) and Denver-based Rivulets. Horwitz notes that he would often go to shows on Friday nights for fun—at the Catacombs Coffee House on Library Mall (now a fast-food Subway), the Memorial Union, or Luther’s Blues (formerly at 1401 University Ave). “I’d just walk up [to the bands afterward] and say I was making a movie and ask if I could use some songs if they fit,” Horwitz says. “Everyone was cool. We were all making our own stuff, and I just felt like everyone wanted to help everyone get to where they were going. No one demanded money or did anything with contracts.”
Eef Barzelay and his band Clem Snide were most heavily involved and instrumental to the film’s tone. “Eef appears as ‘Jaded Art Grad’ [about halfway through the film] and was so generous with his music all throughout the process, having come through Madison several times while I was making the movie,” Horwitz says. Ahead of this reappraisal, Horwitz even assembled a unique YouTube playlist, “The Grodmin Mix.” It includes a number of songs on the soundtrack and others he gathered but were cut from the final print.
In 2021, a couple decades after production started, Horwitz sees the film as a love letter to the cozy film scene here. “I’ve always felt that living in Madison is like being a part of a giant creative company you never have to apply to. If anything, I would hope Grodmin reminds everyone to use everything they have around them to make the art they want to make,” Horwitz says. Shooting a film today isn’t quite as resource-intensive as it was then, but it still absolutely requires a relentless vision. Horwitz concludes, “Grodmin kind of says that art is everywhere, and you have to see it even if you think there’s nothing to see.”
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