Video: Life Saving, a Short Film in 4 Chapters with Joe Henry

Steve Lippman exclusively shares his new collaboration with singer-songwriter Joe Henry, and his thoughts on working with him again 15 years later.

I first met and collaborated with Joe Henry in the autumn of 2003, directing a short experimental film, Tiny Voices, featuring music from his album of the same name and fragments of hard-boiled monologues Joe wrote and spoke. I can admit now that I knew quite little (or maybe just enough) about his work before I travelled from New York to Pasadena, California, to spend the day filming with him in his work studio cottage – a magical place, really – nestled in his backyard. It was not out of laziness or disinterest that I flew semi-blindly; I just wanted surprise. An open field. The spontaneity of imagination in response to whatever I’d encounter.

I have the finished piece to remind me tangibly, but I prefer to survey lingering details and sensations. The sunshine. The sweet smell of blossoms. The wall-size photo image of Richard Pryor that loomed as you entered the cottage, perhaps the only hint of semi-modernity to be found. Time. (We muck with time in the final edit of the film; a trickster’s joke.)

Later, there’s an outdoor dinner of In-N-Out Burgers at my pleading New Yorker insistence. Joe and his family – his wife Melanie, and children Levon and Lulu – all in attendance. I feel an abundance of generosity and collaboration (the shoot was great) and kindness coming from all directions.

I learn that Levon’s favorite movies (then, age 12) are Dr. Strangelove and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This gave me hope for the future.

I recall all this in contrasting tones of black-and-white Super 8 mm.

In the fall of 2017, I stand talking to Levon about Robert Altman; how he’s recently seen McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or was it Thieves Like Us? I ask if he’s ever seen Nashville, exclaiming it to be perhaps the greatest American film of the ’70s. He answers, “No.” My mock indignance gives way to an excitement for him to see it for the first time. Joe and I talk about Bergman and Godard. We’re gathered in midtown Manhattan at the Gibson Studios, among the ghosts and bones of its previous tenant, the Hit Factory, to create another short film together. Now, Levon will play alto clarinet – in musical dialogue with his father – as Joe sings from his latest album, Thrum. Watching this unfold, take after take, is unexpectedly moving to me.

In the interim years between these collaborations, Joe has weaved in and out of my life. He became part of the creative team of an ambitious project of mine not yet made, and pointed me toward mutual musical heroes with endorsement and encouragement. We have shared correspondence, if only infrequently, that’s been meaningful, inspiring and genuine. The quality counts. We share a deep bond in seeking out artists that have been further down the road than us, and who have much to offer and teach us still. Our tastes don’t always converge, but that foundation does.

And though I’m loath to bring social media into the equation, for several years I would read Joe’s posts on Facebook as examples of what to aspire to creatively and personally. His gift of communicating educated me, using words with just the right nuance and rhythm, showing me how to have a voice among the clutter. And not be imitative. Even when the subject was dire, I could always find compassion and a solution humming between the lines in his tone and language.

Joe writes far less publicly now. Perhaps the clouds are too dense, and there’s too much chaos to sort through to find clarity. I can only speculate and project why. So I mourn the loss of weekly or daily unexpected gifts and lessons – those he didn’t know he gave me, until reading this now. But I carry the feeling and examples with me.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as fate and circumstance have insisted, about creative process and time and heroes and mentors. Joe is part of it all to me.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized the joke conceit of Tiny Voices was that all the footage was found in some vault dating back to some unknown time. I deliberately made it incomplete.

And in the mosaic of my memory, I share this detour to long ago: I am probably only five or six years old. My godmother sits with me on the couch, and she puts some classical music on the turntable. I can’t recall what piece it was, but remember this vividly; she tells me to close my eyes, and says, “Tell me what you see.” I don’t remember my answer exactly. Maybe I pictured something like flowers or the sun, but it was the first moment where I conjured visuals to music. It was the first creative impulse I can remember. This was, if not in the official sense, when I became a filmmaker; before I even knew what that meant.

Our new film is Life Saving – the title found, or perhaps conjured, among genuine fragments of the past. The meaning to me has many layers, none of which I’m going to tell you. The use of “found footage” this time around is startlingly real, and certainly no joke. The colors are dented silvers and greys and splashes of darkness.

I have the impulse to say more, but I’ve learned my lessons well.

I closed my eyes, and this is what I saw.

Now, open.

Steve Lippman aka FLIP has directed music short films/videos/documentaries for David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, Esperanza Spalding, Jorge Drexler, Joe Henry,  Carly Simon, Bette Midler, and more. His work has screened at film festivals worldwide including Cannes, London, Berlin, Tribeca, and Denver. Imagery from his music films has been featured in major concert tours for David Bowie, Rosanne Cash and Dolly Parton. Flip directed Behind the Lid, a feature-length film version of the acclaimed theatrical experience co-created by avant-garde playwright/performer Lee Nagrin and master puppeteer/performer Basil Twist. The film premiered at BAM. He resides in Brooklyn and works globally.