Auteur of the Scenester

With 'The Horrible Flowers,' indie filmmaker Eric Tretbar aims to prove he's still in bloom

Given Tretbar's dedication to the Minneapolis scene--the city's snow-muffled industrial environs, the enduring legends of its rock clubs and bars--it's a little surprising to learn that he actually grew up in suburban Kansas City. Tretbar's father was a doctor, his mother an English teacher. His younger sister Kirsten, who is also a filmmaker, says the family was steeped in film culture. "Our parents were total film freaks. You know how some families go to the lake and go waterskiing on weekends? We'd have movie marathons where our parents would take us to see Wild Strawberries or the latest Woody Allen movie.

"Eric was always the director type," his sister says. "I'm sure he doesn't want me talking about this, but he used to make these elaborate dioramas of World War II, these recreations of battles. He knew way more than a kid should about Rommel's tank movements in North Africa. Basically what he was doing was storyboarding a film."

Tretbar also got some early exposure to the film industry. His father, an avid photographer, oversaw the animation of a number of medical training films. Once, when Tretbar was nine years old, his father took him along to visit an L.A. movie studio. Tretbar was decidedly underwhelmed. "It was the most tedious, boring thing I've ever seen," he says.

Tretbar first came to Minnesota to attend Carleton. It was there, he says, that his interest in filmmaking blossomed. Schott, who became a mentor to Tretbar, remembers that his student was particularly taken with Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky's meditative volume on the philosophy and metaphysics of cinema. "I think it became a sort of bible for him," Schott says. If nothing else, Tretbar's embrace of Tarkovsky should suggest an enthusiasm for cinema somewhat more rigorous than the average undergrad's.

After college, Tretbar went off to film school at NYU. The program didn't take, however, and he left after a year. "I think a lot of people like me get interested in movies in an academic way. Like, 'I'm really into film. I just wrote a paper on Hiroshima, mon amour. My girlfriend thinks it's cool.' But filmmaking is one of the least academic and most practical, most concrete of all art forms.

"The problem with any film school," Tretbar continues, "is that [filmmaking] is like being a surgeon. You can learn science and chemistry, and watch other doctors cut the body open, take out the bad parts, and sew it up. But you have to do it for yourself. That's the only way to make a movie. If you want to know how to make a feature, then make a feature. It's always up to you. That's the naked truth about cinema: No one can stop you from making a film. But on the other hand, no one cares if you do make a film."

Despite his early infatuation with Tarkovsky, Tretbar favors the raw, DIY approach of auteurs such as Jim Jarmusch and Jean-Luc Godard. When he made The Usual, using his house as a primary location, he was, he says, "too inexperienced to know everything I was doing was wrong."

Tretbar had played in bands on and off since college, and, upon returning to Minneapolis in the mid-'80s, he started playing drums with the Funseekers, which also included future Hang Ups guitarist John Crozier. Tretbar's segue into making movies about the rock scene was, then, merely a natural outgrowth of his own rock career (indeed, Crozier appears in his first two films).

"The basic thing is that the rock scene is fascinating," he says. "There's all the bad behavior you'd expect. But the truth is, most of the people I know aren't in bands because they want to be rich and famous. They just love music and love performing." In the subculture of indie bands and seedy bars, Tretbar has found a ready set of metaphors for the conflicting claims of ambition and freedom facing any creative artist.

Which brings us back to 7th St. Entry and The Horrible Flowers. In the scene Tretbar has spent all morning shooting, Bettina, the film's protagonist, is facing a life-altering decision: She can either give up life on the road or she can blindly follow her muse, daring much to accomplish something that 99 out of 100 people won't care about anyway. This being an Eric Tretbar film, you can guess which she chooses.

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