Connected Through Music, Through Film

David Wexler, director of the SXSW documentary Disintegration Loops, on the way music has shaped all his cinematic visions.

This is one of the first memories I have from college … I wake up, in my dorm room, it’s really early. My feet are propped up on the desk. I’m trying my best to support myself and a reasonable grade-point average as I teeter on the chair’s two back legs with a stack of French vocab words. I don’t want to wake my roommate. In a few minutes, I’ll head up Bascom Hill and take my first college exam.

On my way to the elevators, I pass the common area, where a stoner is trying to make sense of something on television. I see smoke from the North Tower and at this point am thinking to myself, “What is he watching?” because this can’t possibly be real – when, suddenly, far off in the distance, behind the newscaster, the second plane hits and my life changes completely.

Being away from New York City, my hometown, on 9/11, added an isolated, quarantined weirdness to an already eerie, horrifying new normal. Shouldn’t I accept this gift, safely tucked away in my new Midwest hamlet? Shielded from the horror stories by cheese curds and excessive drinking? College life distracted, for sure, but I needed something more than that …

I enrolled in the film program, furthering my lifelong passion for movies … fully immersing myself in the French New Wave, and challenging myself with theories, directors, actors, actresses and film styles I had neither explored nor even heard of up until that point. And music. Music was everything. And music stores, if you can imagine that. In Madison, Wisconsin, it was B-Sides; when I was back in New York, it was Other Music; these were my temples, and music was my religion. My catharsis.

For me, music naturally fit hand in hand with my obsession for cinema. I think a ton of musicians want to be filmmakers, and just as many filmmakers want to be musicians. (I, for one, am in a band called Curls, and I often use playing music as a release from screenwriting and filming.) There is something about these two art forms that lend themselves to one another. And right after 9/11, my music was William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.

I have had the distinct pleasure of recently completing a film (also called Disintegration Loops) based on this masterwork, which just premiered at SXSW 2021. One just need Google search “Disintegration Loops,” and the importance of the music is clear and far-reaching. I find it hard to place the first time I heard William’s music – it feels like it’s always been there. The 63 minutes of “dlp 1.1,” consisting of one 12-inch tape loop, slowly deteriorating as it is being digitized … everything about that sentence sums up what was happening in the early 2000s. Everything changing, everything breaking down, everything building up, the analogue turning toward its digital extreme … It was horrifying, but it could also be redemptive and inspiring.

William Basinski talking with David Wexler on Zoom, the only way the two have ever been in contact.

I couldn’t listen to William’s music for a while because it was so poignant for me – just as I can only watch A Clockwork Orange once a decade, as its images are too haunting and powerful, many of them disturbing, many of them surreal. It’s hard to listen to The Strokes’ Is This It, and remove myself from the 18-year-old me, running around with my friends at night Downtown, and I can’t listen to Neva Dinova/Bright Eyes’ Spring Cleaning without thinking about my time driving around in L.A., or how the lyrics made me picture and care for a girl who I didn’t even know. How the images that song evoked made me want to make a movie, immediately.

It feels like only yesterday my friend Rebecca handed me The Libertines’ Up the Bracket and Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People – I think I listened to You Forgot It in People so many times, the CD just stopped working. Seven years later, Kevin Drew, Broken Social Scene’s co-founder, wrote the score for my film The Stand Up, and breaking that wall, connecting with someone in that way, became so surreal. And once again, my two loves meshed.

Kevin Drew’s email to David Wexler before he’d made The Stand Up
And his note to him on delivering the msuic for the film.

I close my eyes and see myself at sleepaway camp: My bunkmate pulls out a jewel case, with a blood-red image and it looks as if there’s a shadow of a woman on it, or is it a blur, is she smiling, laughing, crying … and I see “3eb” printed in the corner. I listen to it, and Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut quickly becomes my favorite thing. Twenty-four years later, I’m on my way to a wedding and Missi Callazzo, Third Eye Blind’s manager, calls me and tells me to come into her office right away because lead singer Stephan Jenkins is on the phone – I pull off the highway and head on over. I speak with him and we decide to make a movie together based on their fan favorite song “Motorcycle Drive By.” I get back in the car and put my suit on at red lights and make it to Long Island just in time for the rehearsal dinner. The film plays the Tribeca Film Festival, a lifelong dream of mine – only it plays online, during COVID-19, about this exact time, one year ago. These experiences become surreal, and blend into each other, as cathartic combinations of image and sound, words and music.

David Wexler with Third Eye Blind’s frontman Stephan Jenkins during the making of Wexler’s film Motorcycle Drive By.

March 2020: I return home from a cruise, of all things … right at the outset of the pandemic. I am picked up at the airport by a person wearing a Bane mask, and it’s horrifying. I think at first he must be overreacting, until my whole world changes once again.

New York City is a ghost town, and I wake up, panicked, and it reminds me of waking up to the backfiring of delivery trucks – the extreme angst of life post-9/11, as William puts it in our documentary, “The Empire State Building is gonna be next.” Not that long ago, I would wake up to city noises, expecting the worst … Was it actually happening again? Only two months before, I was at the Barclay’s Center on New Year’s Eve and the Strokes played and released The New Abnormal. How did they know?

I wake up now in my new abnormal. I’m reading Pitchfork when, lo and behold, there is a picture of William Basinski, who has new music coming out. We are disintegrating again, but everything will be OK, because this has happened before and we all got through it. And we will get through it again, together. I try to contact his manager, or his publicist, and find a website with an obscure email address on it … On the morning of March 24, 2020, I write that I am trying to reach William Basinski and that I would like to make a movie with him. That evening, he responds, and so begins our journey together. To this day, we have never met in person, but we are connected through music, and through film.

David Wexler is President of Cinema 59 Productions, based out of New York City. Prior to his feature films Evil Weed, The Stand Up, Anchors, Turtle Island, Vigilante and Last Supper, he had success in television with a show he produced and created for MTV called College Life. David’s film Motorcycle Drive By was an official selection of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and most recently his film Disintegration Loops was an official selection of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.