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By Dom Sinacola | 1 October 2006

Thax Douglas is a laconic man trapped in a loud body. He's also a man frighteningly at ease with his carry; we watch him tread slowly down faceless streets, the same trundling step wherever he goes, with whatever he says. Sometimes what he admits is unnerving, even shocking, but Thax seems ignorant of the effect his stories have on those not familiar with him. Or maybe he's invulnerable to the implications of trauma and refuses to accept eccentricity at the sticky hands of a sticky childhood. Whatever the power lines that led him to a calm ascetic, to the hirsute walks through dirty neighborhoods, places Douglas laments as unsafe for the toddler living in the apartment below, Thax has no answers, no reasons, and no challenge for its titular subject. Instead, the movie becomes a broader interpretation of celebrity "status" and a thin meditation on the intractable power of commercialization.

Thax is the debut documentary by director Alex Mackenzie, produced by Ben Kolak and Graham Ballou. The subject, a 48-year-old self-styled "rock poet," is known among the Chicago "scene" as an oddity, a nuisance, a genius, and a breathing nexus for artistic endeavor and a hardlined independent mindset. He has read hundreds of poems before hundreds of acts both internationally renowned and locally obscure. He's, for the most part, revered by a deep underground and, for the most part, exploited by the mainstream. He's a laureate without the laurels, a celebutante with a deserved sense of self-entitlement and an empty pocketbook.

Thax Douglas is something of a fringe celebrity in Chicago. If you know the guy's name, you may have heard it said in so many similar words: at any venue on any night of the week, you can often catch Thax opening a rock show with a poem, and the conceit plays out in exactly the same way it sounds. Some concert-goers are annoyed, they boo or yell for the music to start. Some are elated, cheering for the man. Even though his poems are usually brief and the band waits patiently behind in the shadows, ready to play as soon as Thax finishes, people are confused, some intrigued, some impatient. That kind of conflicting sentiment conjures a din. And Thax continues in the same monotone, reeling out one wild image after another with no discernible cadence, affectation, or gesture. He certainly appears the confident and devoted artist, always in the same outfit of tattered baseball cap, fat glasses, wrinkled slacks, and faded Seattle chic. Always hairy and huge at the waist, holding a copy of a poem that just had to have been composed only moments before. In theory, the setup, Thax's pre-show gig, is supported. Thax is given free entry in order to prematurely hone the venue's energy. He corrals the music into spontaneous Kerouac verse; he considers himself a part of the "music scene" instead of the literary one, and his words are, simply, those of a fan at a rock show, words garbled, brief, and strung between excess and discovery. In practice, the setup, the setting of strange, unintroduced man before fevered crowd, labels Thax a character, an outcast, and an icon.

Thax, which was recently pre-screened at a "secret location" on the North Side of Chicago, is a documentary made lovingly by U of C student Alex Mackenzie. Along with two forgettable and worshipful short films about Thax -- one watching him write a poem, which is as horrible as it sounds, and one an attempt at what the longer movie accomplishes --Thax premiered to, as expected, a poetic introduction. With Thax's full cooperation, Mackenzie culled an intimate and humble portrait from a man who needs no cinematography to forge his own mythos of eclectic public appearances and unabashed public effacement. The movie, in turn, is divided into a neat three acts, each conspicuously cradling a public image of Thax as if the man himself would disagree in the labels. It's actually hard to tell how thoroughly Thax was involved in the making of the movie, how much he was the General Idi Amin pointing to the helicopter and instructing the cameraman to shoot that particular bit of constructed reality. In one scene toward the end of the film, Thax reads aloud a ubiquitous Chicago Tribune article about himself (titled "There's music in the verse of rock poet Thax Douglas"), pointing out inaccuracies and castigating the author for using the name of his first book of poetry, Tragic Faggot Syndrome, in a medium where more conservative readers could be turned off by the title. The title, surely, is cringe inducing, but the way Thax disowns his work, seemingly for the benefit of a more accessible public image, is even more unnerving.

Initially, we are greeted with Thax the Icon. At a show at the Fireside Bowl, Thax is one of maybe fifteen people, bopping benignly to skronk and noise. He pitches a martyr's silhouette: bulbous and burdened by an indescribable weight -- not necessarily physical -- and always swathed with decay. Prominent underground talking heads praise his figure; Tim Tuten from the Hideout calls him a contemporary poetic genius, "the best archivist of our time," and Ted Leo, Richard Buckner, and Eric Bachman find allegorical post-modern mania in his chaotic words, in his resilience to shun literary classification. Jeff Tweedy says Thax hijacks the audiences of others, and calls it a brilliant move. Phil Elvrum, predictably, champions Thax's humility. As the audience travels the city, are given long, meditatively smooth shots of El Train tunnels and infinitely stretched platforms, Thax the Icon transforms into Thax the definitive Chicagoan. His performances ("Wilco #9" or "Handsome Family Band #.") are before thriving crowds, like at Lollapalooza, and before timid pickings both. The effect is the raising of a devoted artist, an obdurate indie specter persisting as the epitome of anti-image, anti-commodification, anti-form. Who could argue with that? In other words, Thax offers a striking caveat that if you, the audience member, the watcher, do not understand Thax's work, you may not have your finger on the pulse of the Chicago Independent "Scene."

In blatant contrast, the film's second act introduces Thax's parents and his odd, tricky childhood. The facts of Thax's upbringing are telling enough, and revealed plainly, as if the facts could be found outside of the film's borders, and bear no cerebrally taxing consequence. In fact, on the film's website, Thax writes his own bio and is, as expected, staunchly honest. He was born Thaxter Elliott Douglas III on October 31, 1957 and moved, when he was five, to Woodridge, a suburb of Chicago near Downers Grove and Naperville; he skipped first and second grade; went to Downers Grove South High School and graduated in '74; he attended Northern Illinois University, the College of DuPage, and the University of Illinois, receiving no degrees and working menial jobs; he began writing when he went to a Green Mill Sunday night poetry slam in 1987; he read before his first rock show in '97; "He was always a music lover." In between these relatively normal touchstones, Mackenzie paints Thax and his parents in poorly lit confessions, bright beige windows over their shoulders and dust between words. The camera rarely moves, holds wrinkled faces longer than the statements they've given. We learn about Thax's stint in the Lake Shore Mental Health Hospital in 1974, where he underwent shock treatment, the result of which, his mother tells diminutively, was a significant altering in Thax's personality. He began forgetting big periods of his life. In high school, Thax suffered bouts of unprovoked rage, eventually having his condition diagnosed as "allergenic," and began receiving weekly allergy shots until 2001. He calls himself eternally unemployable, and seems to constantly battle with near-poverty. He is overweight. Later, Thax admits to "failing" as a homosexual during the 80s, encouraged to tell a funny story about dancing with Jeffrey Dahmer at a gay club and how everyone had an inside joke about the killer's name. They really ate that up.

Strangely, Thax is never truly encouraged to reveal these harrowing details about his life. With his parents, with friends, with the camera lens in his face, Thax empties his life calmly and eagerly. His parents chuckle with acceptance. He smiles warmly every so often, especially when watching a friend's artsy student film, one Thax starred in, be it a hairless, skinny Thax. Through quiet conversations, muted colors, archival snapshots, and lonely cityscapes, the filmmakers endearingly create a subtle idea of a man with a trying past, a man plagued by that past, but a man with no excuses, which is as close to acceptance as anyone can expect him to muster. Here is Thax the Outcast, the alien at comfortable odds with his environment, but inevitably on the outside of anything, from commercial viability to health.

And then sprouts Thax the Character, the furry, cartoonish piece of Chicago's mostly cynical and cartoonish music "underground." Thax's concluding moments are characterized by thick splays of color surrounded by silent pauses and dreary results. Thax is at the opening of Millennium Park, reading a poem, but mostly marveling at the lights, at the "Bean," at the kids playing under the fancy new fountains. This scene is replaced by Thax recalling the events of a Wilco aftershow, when a fan put speed in his drink, and when he almost had to go to the emergency room, which he wouldn't have been able to afford. Thax is gliding towards Madison Square Garden, the lights spelling out Wilco's New Years show, an event for which he'd "open." Thax is defiant. This scene is replaced by Thax retelling how Wilco's management told him he couldn't perform, supposedly as a consequence of crowd demographic or scheduling mishap. This scene is replaced by Thax reading the Tribune aloud, arguing with his own art, his back guarding the camera from the newspaper. This is replaced by Thax at Grant Park, announcing that he is leaving Chicago for New York, that Chicago's music scene is "sociopathic," something he has no ability to change. Thax is moving to New York this month.

Before the film draws to a close, the audience is told that Thax made it on MTV in 2005. It's a hurried, sloppily placed declaration, but the intent, regardless of craft or emotional manipulation, is one of validation. Maybe people are finally "getting" what the guy is doing. Or maybe, like most of MTV, Thax is an ephemeral character that just seems to survive. He warrants awe and fascination. Even when Thax curls his lips to claim he isn't a character, that because he's portrayed, usually, as one, he's found one of many reasons to leave the city, the filmmakers wreathe hallucinogenic vignettes around his dopefied head. Even when Thax disavows his representation as Chicago's rock poet laureate, even when he disavows the city, we find parallels in his strut and the El's pace, between his honest, labored image and the ugly diversity of each neighborhood.

Mackenzie never balks at the dependency and contradictions between Thax's images, between icon, outcast, and cartoon character. Instead, he leaves the confusion with Thax, as the rock poet attempts to escape his dubious Chicago celebritydom and the last ten years of his life. Thax doesn't want to be a character, a one-dimensional, regional sham, but he unhinges his past and crafts his public identity with a sense of methodical artifice. In that sense, the audience has a notion that Thax will only inevitably encounter whatever "sociopathic" behavior he despises in New York. Thax ends sadly then, on a note of futility and dramatic irony, when a man is unable to find, or define, himself in the face of increasingly curious fame. He's broke but well known, eccentric but traumatized, talented but alienated. Lost in the gray, he's all the more a fascinating subject, and all the more a character, and maybe that's why he feels compelled to escape.

Thax does not chide its subject to provide any more ideas or answers about his departure. The audience can only guess and study the lines under Thax's eyes, remember the shades of gray in his beard. Even so, Thax is still dissatisfying because, for all the easily limned structure, the movie itself is dissatisfied with Thax's conclusion. If the last half hour of the film feels abandoned, all the better. Calling Douglas a true representation of Chicago, an urban archivist and untainted celebrity, is a superfluous gesture, because the man's leaving and because Chicago's music scene is as amorphous as any other city's. And the character, or icon, or lonely, angry boy that Thax portrays is bound to miss home, and, anyway, miss the mark.