True Fame Waits 

Michael Masley's catastrophic documentary is par for his course.

Michael Masley should be famous by now: A Berkeley street musician deity, a Tom Waits collaborator, and, most importantly, the star of a Sundance-caliber documentary. But the disorder and disaster surrounding that still-hypothetical flick, Art Officially Favored, might explain why Masley hasn't quite hit the big time yet.

"It was a handshake between friends who had a vastly different scope of skills and experiences," explains Mihai Manoliu, a mutual friend to Masley and first-time director Michael Sloan. "It was good in that it got more mileage than I expected, given the unprofessional approach." Manoliu is using the past tense because the doc's subject and first director, respectively, are no longer on speaking terms.

Billed as a "documental" (a documentary-instrumental fusion), Art Officially Favored was supposed to center on the life of Masley, a Berkeley-bred street musician who has earned notoriety for his ten-fingered approach to playing the cymbalom, a variation of the hammered dulcimer. Though largely a Berkeley phenomenon, Masley has achieved some national critical renown for his innovative use of "bow-hammers" -- clawlike finger appendages made of brass and horsehair that he uses to strike and scrape the strings of his unusual instrument. His music became a mainstay at NPR, and his session work includes stints with Ry Cooder, Chris Isaak, and the rock band Garbage.

Sloan, for his part, had long wanted to make a movie, an artistic respite from his day job as a real-estate appraiser. So when he approached his old friend Masley about the documentary in 2001, both men saw Art Officially Favored as their chance to break into the big time. Especially the cymbalomist himself.

"From the beginning of the production, myself and other members of the production crew felt that Masley was hoping to make a fortune from this film," says Field Etienne, an AOF cameraman. Sloan, too, had high aspirations, investing nearly $20,000 of his own money with the hopes of earning a spot in the Sundance Film Festival. But he also hoped to make Masley famous: "There is only one thing that I can do to satisfy my desire that the world ... hears and knows about Michael," Sloan said as AOF's production began. Gushy, yes, but the sentiment seemed genuine. The pair had collaborated in the past as musicians, in addition to enjoying a twelve-year friendship. Art Officially Favored, it seemed, would solidify that bond.

Wrong. Bad planning and relentless power-struggling marred AOF from the outset. Masley and Sloan resisted drawing up contracts, relying instead on friendship and what they believed to be a shared vision. But as is the case with many such collaborations, each man had his own idea about where the film should go, and those ideas grew increasingly disparate over time. Masley saw himself not as a subject but as a full-fledged collaborator, a vision Sloan and his crewmates would come to regard as meddlesome.

"Masley, I think, saw the film as a vehicle for himself, and that's one major problem in documentaries -- making sure that the medium is as unbiased as possible," says Jason Clopton, the film's assistant director. "The subject is not necessarily allowed to have a part in the production, because that can skew it."

Masley insists that he was always more than a subject, claiming he actually co-wrote several scenes. "I would think of shots, and they would agree with me," he explains. "That's why I call it a documental, which is a hybrid form. It's documenting a subjective reality and an objective reality about an alter ego I created."

That alter ego is the Artist General, Masley's Emperor Norton-meets-C. Everett Koop take on creativity and politics. Under the rubric of the Artist General, Masley juggles dual roles as costumed antihero (he served as grand marshal of 2002's "How Berkeley Can You Be?" parade) and a one-man spam e-mail campaign of pun-filled leftist sentiment. (Example subject line from an Artist General e-mail: "RUBEgoo(tm)MEDIEVALdoo~Lickety Spit+Dogma-Stylist VP Rx='Major -League' Orifice Lube!") But for many in the crew, Masley's flashy scene-staging was a no-no, a conceptual rift between journalism and theater.

AOF's director, meanwhile, soon endured a series of personal disasters. After dumping a ton of cash into the project, Sloan discovered that he had let his real-estate license lapse, causing him to lose his job, his apartment -- everything.

Masley, too, was enduring a rough financial year, earning a fraction of his bounty from previous years as a street performer. Still, AOF's crew toiled on, collecting some seventy hours of footage. But tensions were mounting between Masley and Sloan, and it seemed inevitable the situation would come to a head. And on a warm September evening last year in Santa Cruz, that's exactly what happened.

"It was a perfect event for a movie like this," Masley says, sitting agitated and cross-legged in his Berkeley apartment. "It's so stupid not to have two minutes of that in there."

The event in question was "Only in Santa Cruz," a two-night festival comprised entirely of street performers. Included on the bill were the Flying Karamazov Brothers, guitarist Bob Brozman, and cymbalomist Michael Masley, a featured act on the show's closing night. Masley thought the soiree would make for some amazing footage, with him performing before a live, paying audience for a change. But because of a miscommunication between him and Sloan, the show never got filmed, which Masley interpreted as a missed opportunity in a life full of them.

Michael Masley should be famous by now: A Berkeley street musician deity, a Tom Waits collaborator, and, most importantly, the star of a Sundance-caliber documentary. But the disorder and disaster surrounding that still-hypothetical flick, Art Officially Favored, might explain why Masley hasn't quite hit the big time yet.

At age 51, Michael Masley is a virtuoso like none other, a master of an instrument with an indescribably cool sound. His proficiency and innovation earned him a spot in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, as well as endorsements from Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and producer Jack Douglas, who has recorded such heavyweights as John Lennon and Patti Smith, and who calls Masley "a marvelous artist." (Both are slated to appear in Art Officially Favored. )

And yet Masley languishes in a one-room apartment behind a garage in West Berkeley, its sole, tiny window obscured by a sun-starved spider plant. The cramped floor is cluttered with the street musician's tools-in-trade -- battery-powered amplifiers, Celtic and Middle Eastern percussion instruments, a ceiling-high rack of recording equipment -- with patches of aged white carpet peeking through underneath. Clearly, this is not the environment Masley had envisioned for himself, nor the life anyone believes he deserves.


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