'There probably aren't many book collectors like there are record collectors," says Toronto filmmaker and record collector Alan Zweig, shortly after showing off some acquisitions. "At a certain point, book collectors are buying first editions -- they're not just buying any junk at Goodwill.
"And I don't like that phrase 'vinyl freaks' that's in some of the press releases about the movie," he continues, referring to his new documentary about record collectors, Vinyl, screening next week as part of Hot Docs. "'Freaks' is the absolute opposite of what I wanted the film to be about. If it was a movie about book collectors, no one would say 'freaks.' They would be thought of as cultured or well-read. There's no such thing as 'well-listened.'"
While this former "jazz snob" and easy-listening aficionado loves music, Zweig maintains that collecting records "is not about the music. My proof of that is just this," he says, pointing to a double album he's brought along to the interview called Stereo for the Swinging Season, its cover adorned with smiling blond couples at the beach. "I don't have to play this for a guy for him to go, 'Ooh, that's interesting.'"
Vinyl is more than merely interesting. It's a nakedly personal attempt by one lonely guy to discover whether his obsessions are his alone. Almost five years ago, Zweig was fed up with his career in the Canadian film business -- which included directing the 1994 film of Linda Griffiths' play The Darling Family, making the 1989 short Stealing Images and writing a stack of unproduced scripts. You see, nothing felt right in his life since he sold that Curtis Mayfield record (There's No Place Like America Today... a real good one, in case you were wondering). Even though he had the same album on CD, it just wasn't the same.
So he bought a Hi 8 camera and began interviewing other collectors. Along the way, he hoped to find that Curtis record -- or maybe even Satan Is Real, an ultra-rare record by the Louvin Brothers -- but mostly he wanted to find out if other collectors also pondered the psychic cost of their pursuit.
Luckily, some did. Zweig talked with an array of Toronto semi-celebs, like Atom Egoyan, Geoff Pevere, Daniel Richler and Don McKellar, plus familiar musicians and writers (including eye contributors Tim Powis, Don Pyle and Bruce LaBruce). But the most unforgettable collectors in Vinyl are the ones who don't get out as much, like the guy who says he's going to collect every record ever made or the fellow whose apartment is so crowded with records that he has to move them around for five or 10 minutes every night in order to clear a path to his bed.
After delays due to standard filmmaker traumas like running out of money -- Zweig also spent some months last year working the counter of the used-record store Neurotica while the shop's Scott Drysdale recorded Vinyl's score in the basement -- Vinyl arrives on the heels of John Cusack's tribute to music obsessives, High Fidelity. Hopefully, viewers who enjoyed that will take to Vinyl, although it offers a darker view of that behaviour. It's also very funny, too, and should also please fans of Terry Zwigoff's Crumb and Ross McElwee's equally personal Sherman's March.
But Zweig doesn't consider himself a documentary filmmaker, and Vinyl was strictly a no-money, one-man operation. "I just thought I was like a bill collector or a repo man," says Zweig. "I'd phone these people, then someone would phone me back and I'd say, 'I'll be there in an hour.' Then I'd get in my car with the camera and the tape recorder and one light and I'd go to their house."
His "crew" was whatever was in the trunk of his '85 Toyota, and the interviews were usually shot with no one behind the camera -- before sitting down to talk with them, Zweig trained it on his subjects and hoped they'd stay in the frame. "Essentially, I shot surveillance of the interviews that I did."
And Zweig's intention was not to make a "real" film about record collecting, one that documented the Toronto collectors with the rarest records and most pristine collections. Instead, he concentrated on people like himself, who were compulsive about getting huge amounts of stuff. "Anybody who buys records consistently is probably not a record collector in the strictest sense of the word," he says. "You can't really get a focused collection by going to Goodwill stores and garage sales. Still, anybody who goes to those places consistently and is thinking about records would qualify for the film.
"I have to admit," he continues, "that I was dead-set against making a film that had the typical documentary template of 'Here's this thing that some people do and we are going to learn about this thing that some people do through these two people.' And then there are all the stupid shots of them walking through the store. In my mind, my dream was that I'd get a hundred people in the film, so that at the end you would have to think, 'Oh, it's not just this thing that some weird people do, it's a thing that a lot of people do.'"
With his customary self-deprecating humour, Zweig adds, "I think I half-succeeded."