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"Fix Your F*cking Face!" The Film Roles Of Mark Kozelek
Oliver Lunn , January 29th, 2016 09:36

To Mark his cameo in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, Oliver Lunn looks back over the acting roles of Red House Painter, Sun Kil Moon-er and arch wind-up-merchant Mark Kozelek

Mark Kozelek is a name we’ve heard a lot in the last year or two, isn’t it? It’s popped up in headlines like, ‘Mark Kozelek Tells “Fucking Hillbilly” Audience to “Shut The Fuck Up”’ and ‘I interviewed Mark Kozelek. He called me a bitch on stage’ and even ‘Mark Kozelek releases diss track 'War on Drugs: Suck My Cock'’. Yes, it’s true: 48-year-old Mark Kozelek, aka the Sun Kil Moon guy, aka the Red House Painters guy, has said some pretty hurtful things about rowdy audiences, Guardian journalists and The War On Drugs. And still, nobody really knows why. Perhaps it’s all part of an elaborate in-joke. Perhaps it’s an attempt to balance his profoundly mature music with profoundly immature humour: to dispel the notion that he’s just a humourless guy plucking a classical guitar. Or perhaps he’s just playing a role. It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. [See editorial note at foot of feature]

The fact is, Mark Kozelek the man isn’t the gentle crooner we heard on 'Carissa' or the benign artist who gifted us 'I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love'. He’s not the shy introvert that those songs might suggest. Behind the man perched on a stool with a nylon-string guitar is a hard-to-like personality, a big personality that, as it happens, is well suited to the big screen. Like most actors - let’s face it - he’s a little bit self-indulgent, a little bit, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

Kozelek’s history with the big screen dates back to 1993, when 'Katy Song' and 'Mistress' were used in Gregg Araki’s Totally F*ed Up. But the first time his face was beamed into cinemas was fifteen years ago, in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. In it, Kozelek plays Larry Fellows, the bass player of a budding 70s rock band called Stillwater. You might not recognise him at first. His hair is long and his eyes hide behind enormous aviators. When he speaks, however, his voice is unmistakable. You can hear that baritone drawl that characterizes every song he’s ever written. Unlike other singers whose everyday voices sound nothing like their dazzling vocals, Kozelek’s regular voice could slip in and out of song and you’d never know. When he chimes in during the famous “Tiny Dancer” scene on the tour bus, he upstages the rest of the band with ease. You can’t say that of many bass players.

Almost Famous is still Kozelek’s meatiest role to date. He has a few lines – let’s not forget, “I’m the bass player” – and some decent scenes where he plays guitar to groupies, band mates and doped up kids in hotel rooms. But arguably his greatest moment in the film comes during the band’s radio interview with a stoned, barely conscious DJ. Kozelek’s character, in an attempt to out-banter his band mates, coolly leans into the microphone and says, “Feces”. That’s his real moment in the spotlight. One word, delivered with the effortless panache of a Brando or a Bogart: Feces.

Kozelek got the Almost Famous gig because Cameron Crowe, it turns out, is a massive fan of Kozelek’s first band, Red House Painters. It’s also why the director invited him back to Tinseltown the following year to work on the Tom Cruise film, Vanilla Sky. There was a part for him in that too. Only, whereas he worked on the last one for over half a year, this time his on-screen appearance would be more fleeting, more of a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo than a bit part.

Credited as ‘Dude, Fix Your Face Guy’, Kozelek’s character stumbles into the men’s room of a sleazy New York club – the kind you might hear him complain about in a song like 'Ben’s My Friend'. Tom Cruise is in the men’s room already, observing the horrendous scars on his face as the result of a life-changing car accident. Kozelek enters the frame, blurry and out of focus behind Tom. He barks: “Dude, fix your fucking face!” and then waddles off screen. He explains in an interview with Ben Gibbard: “I was down there for a week on that, but I had one line.”

Today that meager line of dialogue seems apposite. When Vanilla Sky came out in 2001 – pre-War On Drugs beef, pre-Guardian journalist beef – fans of the singer probably saw the odious character he plays and thought, “man, he really is acting there! What a character!” When actually, in retrospect, his line in the movie isn’t a far cry from the on-stage babble he’s been spouting of late. The role fits like a glove.

He wasn’t as unlikable in his next film, 2005’s Shopgirl, starring alongside Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman and Steve Martin. In the low-key drama, penned by Martin, Kozelek plays Luther, the frontman of a grunge band called Hot Tears. When Luther’s amp fails, Jason Schwartzman steps in and replaces it with his own. “You saved our ass tonight,” says Kozelek, striking up a friendship with Schwartzman that leads to shared pisses on the side of a highway and a shopping trip to purchase meditation DVDs. In the brief tour bus scenes – echoing Almost Famous – Schwartzman treats the band to his somewhat lacking vocal capabilities. Kozelek, meanwhile, finds time to show he’s a dab hand at the ol’ guitar. His character, like the one he played in Almost Famous, is ultimately a dopey musician cliché. Nevertheless it’s another role the singer wears well.

By the time Kozelek’s career-high Benji came out, his songwriting style had become more stream-of-consciousness, songs peppered with personal anecdotes as if plucked straight from diary entries. That’s when and how his next movie role surfaced. In the song 'The Possom', from Universal Themes, he sings: “I got a call from Paolo Sorrentino / I’d be off to Switzerland in a week or so.” And then on 'Birds of Films': “How the hell did I end up playing myself in an Italian film / set in a ski town in Switzerland?”

He’s alluding to his part in Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s Fellini-esque drama about a retired orchestra conductor (Michael Caine) pondering and wondering around a Swiss hotel with his director friend (Harvey Keitel). Kozelek’s songs are sprinkled all over the film, while on screen he plays himself, performing 'Onward' to a small crowd in the ostentatious gardens of the hotel. He’s slumped over his guitar when the camera glides past. And we see him again later, albeit fleetingly, in the swimming pool with the other guests (including Paloma Faith, who should frankly never act in anything ever again). And that’s about it for that ‘role’.

Despite his tiny turn in Youth, Kozelek got plenty of material out of it. In another verse from 'Birds of Films' he sings about having dinner with Paul Dano: “Damn if I didn't go to dinner last night with Paul / But his throat was sore / And I could see that he was feeling ill / He spends more time on the set than I do / And it's cold out there / And the last two days, he was playing Hitler / I could see he was grappling with that / And I felt bad, and I gave him some words of support / And we talked about John Hughes movies.”

For fifteen years now Kozelek has been working as an actor – a term I use loosely here. He’s practically stood shoulder to shoulder with Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman, Kate Hudson, Paul Dano, Michael Caine – and he’s held his own. But to the question of his ‘acting career’: At this point it’s hard to imagine it will extend beyond bit parts and cameos. Instead he seems destined to be the ‘cool musician’ wheeled out by the ‘cool director’ for a ‘cool cameo’ in a ‘cool indie film’.

Finally, in the aforementioned interview, Kozelek sheds light on his movie work: “I can't say with any of those experiences that I loved or enjoyed it … but that type of lifestyle is kind of fun. It's nice to fly first class once in a while, and the catering, and the money you make in the movies. It's kind of a treat to be able to go down there and hang out for a week. I would do it again if someone called me, and that's how it's always happened.”

Youth is out in cinemas now

[EDITORIAL NOTE: "While we respect Oliver Lunn's right to express his own opinion on this and other matters and value his work as a writer, in retrospect the opening paragraph of this feature contains a sentiment so different to what we believe as a site, that we wanted to clarify our own position. It seems to us that there are other, more logical explanations for Kozelek's actions in calling a female writer a "bitch" and attempting to humiliate her verbally in sexual terms in front of a sizeable crowd of his own fans. The primary of these is simply that he is a misogynist and someone who revels in attempts to bully so-called soft targets (see also casual attacks on the working class and those failed by America's education system). The second most logical explanation is that as an also-ran, ageing indie musician, this kind of grubby, publicity hungry behaviour is simply the easiest way for him to get the attention of journalists, who would otherwise be concentrating on musicians less than half his age. For the record we do fully endorse Mark Kozelek's hatred of The War On Drugs however." John Doran, (editorial) Editor of tQ]