FRINGE CINEMA: “GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER”: EVOKING GUERNICA

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is an irregularly published column covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

DJ Monkey is an L.A. band, headed by Joey Alkes and Mick McMains, on the Squid Music label.  The band’s first album from 2004 was “Another Evolution” which produced the web hit music video/short film “U-Boat” and garnered a plethora of excellent reviews.

With DJ Monkey’s second album, “3rd World War,” Joey Alkes turned to Dennis Schraub to create a music video/short film for the band’s song “God is an Underachiever.”  Schraub and Alkes created two edits of the short film and choosing between them would be as unwelcome a task as choosing between Coltrane’s two edits of “Ascension”.  The comparison is apt.  “God is an Underachiever” is as difficult, moving and inspiring in it’s right as the much written about late Coltrane.
Schraub and Alkes refer to the film as being inspired by “Guernica”.  The second edit of the film was the one officially released, as the first was deemed too disturbing.  It is this second edit that is available on the Squid Music website and youtube.

God Is an Underachiever (second edit).  WARNING: Contains strong images of man’s inhumanity to man.

“Warning: This video was specifically made to create controversy! Not controversy for controversy sake, nor for promotional shock value, but as a plea for all of us to take responsibility, as representatives of our maker, for the mess we’ve all made of this planet! GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER is meant to spark dialogue and not point a finger!! Pay close attention to the line in the 1st chorus that says, “but I am still a believer.”–Squid Music

With the short film, “God is an Underachiever” appropriately becomes a 21st century multi-media collage work, as the film is as vital and as potent as the song itself.

Excerpts from the lyrics and a warning accompanying the video are poignant clues to the nature of the film.

“God is an underachiever, I guess he has to be.  God is an underachiever, but I’m still a believer.” 

“Seems like we no longer can hear very well… the mutation of the spirit.  Joan of Arc was burned at the stake… and some people thought Darwin a fool… God took him to a better place where the water had a better taste… when I die, it should be a special day….”

In his third symphony, “Kaddish” (written as an angry response to the murder of friend John F. Kennedy), Leonard Bernstein pointedly asks God, “You ask for faith, where is Your own?” and then turns his building rage towards the Father, ” Tin God, your bargain is tin!  It crumples in my hand!  And where is faith now-Yours or mine?”, before finally reconciling himself with the ancient covenant.

Schraub and Alkes’ film channels the same rage and, because it is a film and song of deeply sincere faith, it also channels the same hope.  The two edits have a different feel.  Although both films are replete with disturbing imagery, the first edit does have a more pronounced intensity with the visuals, the slower, more sustained pace, and opening narration.

Starving children, war victims, human deformities, the holocaust, burn victims, the twin towers on 911, the Spanish inquisition, murder victims, mutations from the atomic bomb, bull fighting, Iraqi war torture victims, barbed wire fence, atomic testing, rows of skulls, public executions, guerrilla warfare, cult religion, the Vietnam War, embracing skeletons and even Zillertaler Turk Hunter; the infamous image from the Neo-Nazi music project depicting hanging victims, are all mirrored against this haunting version.

The second edit is a full minute shorter, omits the opening narration, is quicker paced, has slightly (very slightly) more subdued imagery, but broadens the targets.

George Bush holding hands with an Arab leader, the Mona Lisa before and after one week in USA (blond and buxom after), Buddhist monks w/ tourist pictures by a tank, a young woman carrying her cross, maps broken down into religious territories (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc), a model of the Twin Towers on 911, surrounded by Sikhs and Indian fishermen, a Cult televangelist with a red gun, pointing toward the camera, prayer services, Iraqi weapons of war, a severed bloody leg in the street, a toy Jesus (with machine gun, USA helmet, hand grenade, knife in mouth), boys with toy guns, the hanging of Saddam, and a monkey, which Alkes describes as “one worn out dude at the end of the exposition, in a sea of empty seats.”

The second edit evokes something akin to the Christian anarchist spirit of Jacques Ellul and conveys a more hectic, maddening spirit feel, which is appropriate with the the more diverse imagery.

“To me the song evoked very powerful images and a mood that is hard to capture. Visually I just thought that trying to show all the bad in the world with a bit of good made one question the whole concept of God, whether you believed or not. I’m not sure how to put it into words, but the song simply moved me, in either version.”–Dennis Schraub

“My point in picking the image of the Sihks/Twin Towers wasn’t to display inappropriate behavior, but how iconic to our entire planet that event was and is.  That what we know of each other is our violence and contention.”–Joey Alkes

One can mention either version in the same breath as Dali’s “The Last Supper,” the infamous March 1942 Furtwangler, BPO performance of the Beethoven 9th in an audience of high ranking Nazis, Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Pasolini’s “Gospel according to St. Matthew,” Miles Davis’ haunted performance of ‘My Funny Valentine” after the JFK assassination, Bernstein’s “Mass” & “Candide,” Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” or the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet of “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” to name a mere few examples of when a work is created that is a hopeless and hopeful response to mankind’s determined rush to self-destuction.

Naturally, when the second edit hit youtube, there was some viewer backlash, mainly from fundamentalists who accused the filmmakers of being atheistic blasphemers.

In response, I would quote Orson Welles on seeing Luis Buñuel’s ‘The Milky Way’; “Buñuel is the most religious filmmaker I know”.

Schraub & Alkes have created a timeless work of art to be proud of.

An mp3 of “G_d Is an Underachiever” can be downloaded from the Squid Music website. 

2 thoughts on “FRINGE CINEMA: “GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER”: EVOKING GUERNICA”

  1. A well written review of a very powerful video. I have watched the reactions of people viewing this video and they are many times left speechless. The reviewer showed some depth, similar to that of the band and video makers – because he could see that this is an affirming statement, rather than simply seeing the negativity that was so blatantly put in front of you. Great song, too!

  2. The video suffers on the one hand from overstatement and on the other from lack of confidence and conviction not to mention imagination. The opening monologue is superfluous, the lyrics not to the point, and the images clichéd and heavy-handed. The central metaphor of God as an underachiever is not developed at all. Indeed, such an indictment might, for example, be rendered ironic as a consolation to other underachievers. God underachievement’s, all of the evil and tragedy in this world, considering His omnipotence after all, might be listed. We might be called upon to try not to put pressure on God when we pray, because God is clearly feeling so insecure! And so on…

    “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.”
    — Woody Allen

    “Underachiever—and proud of it, man!”
    — Matt Groening (creator of ‘The Simpsons’)

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