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Just One Film: "In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton"

Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peet's empathetic look at the life of musician Karen Dalton showcases her talent and perseverance.
Carmen Gray
Just One Film is a series that recommends individual films from festivals around the world—the movies you otherwise might have missed that deserve to be discovered.
When American folk singer and guitarist Karen Dalton died in 1993 of an AIDS-related illness at age 55, there were few film recordings or other traces of her as an artist left behind. Her raw, idiosyncratic renditions quickly won admirers like Bob Dylan when she hit New York’s Greenwich Village scene in the ‘60s, but she had a disdain for ingratiating herself to starmakers keen to engineer her image for public consumption that contributed to her existence on the margins of mainstream fame. During her on-off engagement with the business she made only two studio albums, It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971), but her cult influence (inspiring artists such as Nick Cave and Joanna Newsom) has only grown.
How does one make a film about a musician who’s gone, with so little archive material to work with? The figure of the reluctant celebrity who simply wants to create without commerce-driven vultures feeding on her life-force is one that popular culture has long mythologized. In My Own Time, directed by Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete and executive produced by Wim Wenders, which recently had its world premiere at Doc NYC, avoids taking too much presumptive ownership over Dalton’s memory. The filmmakers admirably resist plotting a lurid tragedy and are unafraid to stay in the realm of ellipses, assembling anecdotes and observations that offer glimpses of Dalton, and do not over-read into the details or mute contradictions.
This approach can feel slightly thin, as generic footage of a past New York cityscape and abstracted Super-8 re-enactments are deployed as filler to lend an artful mood of time and place, but there is enough searing presence to the still photographs, snatches of home video, radio conversations and diary entries woven into imprint a sense of Dalton. Moreover, to recognize our distance from full knowledge instills a poetic aura of mortality that is refreshing in an era in which Insta-savvy stars are always updating and feeding fans an illusion of laid-bare connection. The documentary is framed less as a key to working out once and for all Dalton's complex character and shaky career trajectory than a way to honor her mystery, as well as circulate her musical legacy more widely. In this, its charms may work more on the uninitiated than diehard completists. A fire in 2018 left Dalton’s handwritten songs and poems obliterated and it was pure luck that Yapkowitz and Peete had made photographic records of them only months before. Realizing the transient fragility of even these few traces underscores the power of cinema as a record, even as we may be wary of its risks as a myth-maker.
Rather than cynically serving up a reductive image of Dalton for an all-encompassing market, In My Own Time appeals to nostalgia for an unvarnished authenticity that cannot be mass-manufactured. It’s far from the safely stage-managed, morally unimpeachable portrait of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, Miss Americana (2020). The high-profile Netflix release, directed by Lana Wilson (a filmmaker approved by Swift, and known for her empathic, intimate treatment of embattled subjects), is the quintessential confessional millennial-era music documentary (Netflix’s Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017) by Chris Mourkabel strove for a similar illusion of unadorned, all-feelings access to pop icon Lady Gaga.) Swift narrates and is carefully positioned as a role model of overcoming, self-empowerment, and political advocacy. She’s capitalism’s ideal worker-entertainer, making it through the hard slog, being nice and sufficient personal revelations in a hyper-online world of relatability as currency, as she cannily subsumes even her own vulnerabilities around intense image scrutiny into her brand.
In My Own Time foregrounds Dalton's music in labeled excerpts spliced in from start to end, offering an overview of her output. Unlike most of her contemporaries in the New York coffee-house scene, who’d come to folk through bohemian intellectual parents, Dalton had grown up in a rougher rural existence riding horses in Oklahoma and was immersed in folk from a young age by her fiddle-playing Baptist grandmother. Dalton wrote lyrics but preferred to interpret existing work, gathering little-known songs to both make hers and pass on (ballad “Katie Cruel,” for instance, dates from the eighteenth century and tells of a prostitute who’s fallen out of a town’s favor and feels existentially homeless.) She was frustrated with the obsession to latch onto the “new” that brought easier fame to those, like Dylan, who wrote their own songs but had a more superficial, less-lived understanding of their roots.
Dalton’s unique take on music, the vulnerability and mournfulness in her voice that cuts through with eerie realness and tends to stop fans in their tracks the first time they hear her, is hard to put into words—maybe even impossible. Yapkowitz and Peete turn to artists and music journalists who feel a deep connection to her work to describe the impact she has had on them as a sensitive conduit of collective pain and musical history. “It’s not background music,”  says Nick Cave of her demands on the listener. “It’s a dark and despairing world. Some people are happy to go to places like that, and others aren’t.” He recalls being brought to tears by the perfection of her rendition of “Something on Your Mind.” Enlisting a baroque personality with the rock status of Cave for comment treads the risk of implying the approval of famous men is a requisite for legitimizing interest in Dalton, rather than honoring her will to create on her own terms, but Cave’s always-eloquent, heartfelt reverence for the otherworldly, whether or not she would have cared for his opinion, does not feel out of place here.
 In My Own Time does look for context for the mystery of Dalton's creativity, of where she harnessed her contradictory brittleness and assured force from, to her unstable relationships, addictions, and poverty. Married for the first time at age fifteen and again at seventeen, she was an erratic part-time mother who became a frequent needle user of methamphetamine. Depression paid visits to her, and life was tough. But her rough edges are free of censure, sensationalism, or glorification. In an implied chain of legacy, indie-folk singer Angel Olsen has been enlisted to read snatches solemnly from her diaries. Talking-head interviews with her daughter (Abbe Baird), former partners, friends, and performers paint a picture of an intense presence prone to self-sabotage who harbored great emotional depths; a true eccentric who railed against the horizon-reducing demands placed upon women of domesticity and social conformity.
Dalton was not a natural fit for large stages, communing with the music in some deep, inner manner rather than projecting herself out to entertain. She preferred to play with friends in living-rooms and on porches, and did so frequently in New York and in stints away from the big city in Colorado, relishing being a connecting fiber of informal groups. The film acknowledges the sadness and stigma of illness and her less social days of nearing death as she stayed with a friend in Woodstock. But it does not buy into success as an entity defined by how much of an artist is left on the table for us to consume, or whether she made a fortune, suggesting not bending, carving one’s own track and leaving ghostly transmissions only for those attuned to the strange and rare is its own triumph.


ColumnsJust One FilmKaren DaltonWim WendersRobert YapkowitzRichard PeeteDOC NYCDOC NYC 2020Festival Coverage
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