Don’t let the title throw you. A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky: 12 Stories About John Zorn is really a personal documentary about the filmmaker, Claudia Heuermann. After hearing John Zorn’s music, she just had to meet him and make a film about him.
As an autobiographical movie it’s not that good. As a musical documentary it’s just awful. Like a school girl with a crush Heuermann is left inarticulate in the aura of her love interest. Her visuals are clumsy. Her editing is either showy, but not artistic. And, her narration stinks of bad acting.
She cloying tries to sound philosophical as she attempts to present Zorn’s wildly unclassifiable music. Zorn is not an easy target to pin down. He doesn’t enjoy giving interviews. His music, in his own words, is best served without visuals. The last thing he wants are people putting images to his sounds. He’s spent a good portion of his life avoiding this. So, making an visual work about Zorn’s music is a Sisyphean tasks. Heuermann understands this complication and tries to incorporate her struggle into the film.
It doesn’t work and instead you have vain attempts to approach her visuals and editing in the same fashion Zorn approaches his musical compositions. Zorn works in what he calls ‘blocks’. They range anywhere from one second to many minutes in length and they are always complete statements, but they are only part of the large piece. By truncating her story into 12 pieces I believe Heuermann is trying to act in a similar way, but her blocks are not complete and they only get in the way of the more lucid moments when she presents factual information about Zorn, his life, and his music in much more traditional documentary approach.
The whole thing would be a complete loss were it not for those moments when Zorn and his music take center stage. Footage of him playing with his groups Masada and Naked City, make the rest of the garbage worth enduring, though why it should be endured at all is so very questionable. I leave the film knowing only a little more about Zorn and too much about the director.
This is far more enjoyable and director free: