Werner Penzel Release date1990 WriterNicolas Humbert, Werner Penzel SongsSparrow Song CastFred Frith, Iva Bittova, Rene Lussier, Jonas Mekas, Ted Milton
Step across the border
Step Across the Border is a 1990 avant-garde documentary film on English guitarist, composer and improviser Fred Frith. It was written and directed by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel and released in Germany and Switzerland. The film was screened in cinemas in North America, South America, Europe and Japan, and on television in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France. It was also released on VHS by RecRec Music (Switzerland) in 1990, and was later released on DVD by Winter & Winter (Germany) in 2003.
Shot in black and white, the 35mm documentary was filmed between 1988 and 1990 in Japan, Italy, France, Germany, England, the United States and Switzerland, and shows Frith rehearsing, performing, giving interviews and relaxing. Other musicians featured include René Lussier, Iva Bittová, Tom Cora, Tim Hodgkinson, Bob Ostertag and John Zorn.
The film won "Best Documentary" at the European Film Awards in 1990. A companion soundtrack album, Step Across the Border was also released by RecRec Music in 1990.
Step Across the Border is subtitled:
A ninety minute celluloid improvisation by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel.
"Improvisation" here refers not only to the music, but also to the film itself. Humbert and Penzel state in the 2003 DVD release of the film:
The film is not narrated, and the musicians, the music and the locations are not identified. Instead it is a sequence of "snapshots' taken of Frith and musicians he has worked with, rehearsing and performing, interspersed with apparent random images of movement (trains, cars, people, grass) that blend in with the music. The improvised nature of the film and its Direct Cinema approach make it more of an art film than simply a documentary on a musician.
The music in the film is performed by Frith on his own, with others, and by others on their own. Some of the music is improvised, some is composed material performed "live", and some is previously recorded material played as accompaniment to many of the "movement" sequences in the film.
The recording of the film coincided with the formation and activity of Frith's review band Keep the Dog (1989–1991), and many of the participants of the band appear in the film. There are even a few rare glimpses of the band rehearsing. René Lussier in particular, features prominently and "interviews" Frith about his musical upbringing and approach to music.
The title of the film comes from the lyrics of the song "The Border", recorded by Skeleton Crew on their album, The Country of Blinds (1986). A brief "video" of this song also appears in the film.
Musicians appearing in the film include:
Jonas Mekas – narrator on "The Butterfly Wing Effect"
Julia Judge – narrator on "The Sound of One Hand Clapping"
John Spaceley – narrator on "The Sound of One Hand Clapping"
Tom Walker – narrator on "The Sound of One Hand Clapping"
Ted Milton – television dancer on "The Border"
Robert Frank – old man in train
Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto
New York City
1990 – "Best Documentary", European Film Awards
1990 – "Special Mention", European Film Academy
1990 – "Images and Documents", Grand Prix International, Figuera da Foz, Portugal
1990 – "Best Documentary Film", Uppsala Filmkaja, Uppsala, Sweden
1991 – "Special Jury Award", Golden Gate Award, San Francisco
2000 – Chosen as one of the 100 most important movies in film-history by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma, Paris
Home media release
In 2003, Winter & Winter (Germany) released Step Across the Border on DVD. It contained a slightly shortened version of the original film, plus 12 "bonus tracks" and a trailer of Middle of the Moment, another documentary film by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel, with music by Fred Frith (released on the soundtrack, Middle of the Moment).
A few segments totalling about seven minutes were removed from the original film, including the "video" of the song "The Border" by Skeleton Crew, and Keep the Dog rehearsing "Norrgården Nyvla".
The "bonus tracks" are outtakes and many feature additional shots of scenes in the film.
John Dee Holeman – Gromes Hotel, New York City, February 1989
Charles Hayward – Rehearsal room backyard, Leipzig, October 1988
Arto Lindsay – Rehearsal room, Leipzig, October 1988
Fred Frith – Selluloid Restaurant, Osaka, January 1988
Fred Frith and Tom Cora – Rehearsal at The Kitchen, New York City, February 1989
Fred Frith, René Lussier, Jean Derome and Kevin Norton – Rehearsal at The Roulette, New York City, February 1989
Cyro Baptista – Reheasal room, New York City, February 1989
Fred Frith and John Zorn – Rehearsal at The Kitchen, New York City, February 1989
Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson – Rehearsal at Hodgkinson's house, Brixton, London, December 1988
Fred Frith – Concert at the Muse, Osaka, January 1988
Fred Frith – Frith's apartment (recalling some of his compositions), New York City, January 1989
Joey Baron – Baron's house, Hoboken, New Jersey, January 1989