Acknowledged for his recent short Real Violence, Jonathan King is an important up and coming filmmaker whose work explores the hardscrabble lives of fringe dwellers and the peripheral. A 2014 recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace Award, King's work brings together a unique vision of the American heartland with a stunning and original visual style of storytelling.
In 2006, I sought out Ralph Charles, a Wright Brothers test pilot who had gone on to build a massive and elaborate theatre pipe organ in an old farmhouse surrounded by cornfields and Amish communities.
Ralph had died four years earlier, at 103, and spent the final six years of his life once again in flight, after a 50 year hiatus – a sacrifice he made for his wife.
Having grown up in rural Ohio, I had heard of this man; years later, on a trip back there, I knocked on his door. Ralph had by then passed away, but I was lucky to meet Pat Greene, Ralph’s best friend and caretaker of the grand, intricate, obsessively perfected instrument. Pat, charged with maintaining this incredible pipe organ and keeping it open to the public free of charge, carries on Ralph’s legacy.
Pat had been responsible for publicizing Ralph’s return to the skies at 97. A wave of interest resulted in the ‘oldest living pilot’: in the 1990s Ralph was a guest on Letterman and “Today” shows, and NASA invited him to Mission Control. The great quirky thing Ralph devoted much of his life to may have been a substitute of sorts for that which he longed for, unremittingly: flight. But it is also an incredible object and event in its own right: its endless handmade details and adornments, the space it creates, the unlike-anything-else sounds it creates, the way its grandeur, resonance, from-another-era-ness take you over – fill, overwhelm, inhabit and transport you.
Being in its presence brought to mind my first encounter with art. My sister and I, raised in a strict, orthodox religious sect, discovered on a neighbor’s property a weird and evocative assemblage of objects into which the branches of nearby trees wove themselves and often crushed. The trees seemed to be overtaking the human hand’s frail efforts. Forests and coal mines in all directions, we would wander off in secret to explore the creations of our educated, eccentric/artist/hermit neighbor. Our fundamentalist beliefs forced my parents, however, to ‘rescue us’ from this pursuit.
Like Ralph’s wife Leona, our community believed (believes) there were (are) severe sacrifices that should be made, pleasures and gratifications and fascinations that must be set aside. When Leona was on her deathbed, Ralph asked Pat to clear the fields adjacent to his house for a runway. As his wife lay dying and nearly blind, the runway was finished and Ralph returned to flying. His guilt over his broken promise was great: Ralph would ultimately have a breakdown. The pull of what he had long forsaken was powerful as well, however: he continued to fly until his death.
Listening to Pat perform, being brought irresistibly, by the great organ’s presence, to the moment – to this moment – the inspiration for Marie was born.
I have since collected community photos and home movies that are an integral part of Marie. Whenever I return to my original ‘homeland,’ I am re-immersed in the punishing sensibility (if in its own way beautiful) austerity and afterlife-directness of my first ‘tribe.’ For decades, these seemingly irreconcilable points of view and approaches to life have almost riven me. In Marie, they are in conversation.
Jonathan King is an M.F.A. student in Directing at UCLA's School of Film, Theater and Television. King is a Jacob K. Javits Fellow, an Edie and Lew Wasserman Film Production Fellow, and a Jack Nicholson Distinguished Student Director Awardee. He has recently produced a feature film for Rabbit Bandini Productions, and has finished his first feature screenplay.
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