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NEWSARTICLE

In View: The Improbable Lightness of GJ Echternkamp

The first-time filmmaker recounts the trying odyssey of making Frank and Cindy, his unflinching new documentary about his own parents.

GJ Echternkamp is laughing. The director of the new autobiographical documentary Frank and Cindy is recounting his rather unfortunate decision edit his debut feature on an AVID. Yet, even though he's spinning a tale of woe—of time wasted, money spent—he is, improbably enough, overcome by laughter. Echternkamp's that kind of guy: a guy who laughs, and also, a guy who is improbable.

Improbably, his name is Gilbert John Echternkamp III. He is elfin-featured and improbably tall, with Gumby-like limbs. You may have glimpsed him in a Pringles ad, or in a viral Mates of State video he directed and starred in, or on the IFC Web series Getting Away With Murder, in which he played (also improbably) a hit man. His first paying gig in the movie business was as a softcore P.A. He started college at 14. His stepdad was a mulleted one-hit wonder with the '80s new wave band OXO. GJ Echternkamp doesn't seem real. GJ Echternkamp seems like a Wes Anderson character.

Echternkamp stops laughing. “Wes Anderson?” There's a long pause. “I guess I can see that,” he says at last. “Only then I'd have to be quirky. But I want to be something worse than quirky. Like, unstable. Not charming. Fucked up.”

He laughs again, but he's serious now. You can see what he means by the way he scrupulously avoids quirkiness in Frank and Cindy. The documentary hits home, because that's where he filmed it. The not unlikable but decidedly fucked-up title characters happen to be Echternkamp's mom and Frank Garcia, the one-hit wonder she married when Echternkamp was five. Garcia was supposed to be single mom Cindy's ticket out of the L.A. badlands. Instead, things got in the way: alcoholism, pills, suicide attempts, infidelity, Hall & Oates (Garcia toured with them). Frank and Cindy depicts the whole hilarious panoply of family dysfunction, and though Echternkamp doesn¹t shy away from madcap, more often than not the film offers brutal proof that life isn't as quirky when you're living it.

“The whole thing started because this friend of mine was like, 'You should make a short about Frank,'” Echternkamp recalls. “Which instantly appealed to me as an opportunity to humiliate Frank. And then as I was getting rolling on that, this other guy was like, 'You should make it a feature.' Which I was a little warier of, because, I mean, who makes a documentary about his parents?”

Three years later, the Echternkamp's documentary about his parents is opening the CMJ Film Festival at New York's Museum of Modern Art, at a special event hosted by This American Life's Ira Glass. An excerpted version of Frank and Cindy took up most of an episode of vaunted radio show's new TV incarnation on Showtime, making Glass something of an expert on Echternkamp and his family.

“Staffers literally watched every frame of every tape I shot for the movie,” Echternkamp says. “Including a bunch of footage that not only didn't make it into my cut, but that I never ever wanted anyone to see.”

Such as?

“Pass,” replies the usually voluble Echternkamp. But he does acknowledge that Frank and Cindy's appearance on This American Life gave him and his film a much-needed boost.

“I was at an impasse. You know, one of the upshots of making this film was that I decided I really liked my parents. I like Frank! The whole process helped me to develop a more nuanced sense of who they were. And out of that, I found myself wanting other people to respond to them as warmly. And then I didn't get into any festivals. It was a slap in the face. And not just directed at me, but directed at them too.”

Echternkamp voices more than a little frustration with the festival system—he sees it as bankrupting and opaque. He's on the circuit now, but This American Life and his own leveraging of the Internet have already gotten Frank and Cindy into the world more efficiently than any of the more traditional approaches.

“The Internet's not a miracle,” he asserts. “You can't just slap something online and expect people to come. But it makes a whole world of difference. It is democratizing. And gratifying, now that I do have people coming to my Website—people I don't even know.”

But Echternkamp is quick to point out that virtual interaction with his viewers can't compare to the in-person experience. Especially now that Frank and Cindy are getting the hosannas Echternkamp believes they deserve.

“They've been incredibly on board with all this,” he says. “And every time they show up for a screening or a Q&A, it makes me cry to see how much the audience loves them. I have this fantasy about making my mom a star. She should be! She kicks serious cinematic ass! There are so many shots of her I wish I could have used. That was the hardest part of making the damn thing—figuring out what to leave out. And deciding when I was done.”

“That's the problem with making a movie about your own life,” he observes. “You're never really finished.”

Frank and Cindy plays MoMA on October 16th as the opening night of the CMJ Film Festival. For details, visit cmj.com/marathon/film.php. For more on GJ Echternkamp and his film, visit www.frankandcindy.com.

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