Daniel Kraus really likes to work. Kraus, 34, is both a published horror novelist and a filmmaker, not to mention an associate editor of Booklist, and he marvels at how busy he is. “Mostly,” he says, “I blame my various careers on a screwed-up brain that, somewhere along the line, fused together the receptors for pleasure and work.”
And maybe, he reflects, “it’s a by-product of working so hard on everything else that I became interested in the idea of work in and of itself.”
Work is the subject of Kraus’s ongoing series of feature-length documentaries about Americans doing their jobs. He’s halfway through the fourth installment, and the first three are screening this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The first, Sheriff, is about a North Carolina lawman, Ronald Hewett. Musician, the second, is about Ken Vandermark, the Chicago saxophonist and composer. And the third, Professor, making its debut on the 15th, is about Jay Holstein, a bombastic professor of Jewish studies known to his students at the University of Iowa as the “cursing rabbi.”
As a kid in Fairfield, Iowa, Kraus filled notebooks with illustrated, Stephen King-inspired monster stories. By middle school he was writing novellas—actually, he says, “one or two you could call straight-up novels.” When he finished one, he’d put it up on the shelf where he kept his King books without showing it to anyone.
In high school Kraus commandeered his dad’s mini-VHS camera and began making short horror movies. Then he remade dozens of Hollywood pictures, starting with Misery and including Reservoir Dogs, The Blob, and The Godfather. He cast his friends and put up posters to announce his screenings, which were usually in someone’s living room. When Fairfield got a public access TV station, he even got some of his movies shown on it.
Kraus entered the University of Iowa in 1993 thinking he’d become a novelist. The first period of his first day of school, he found himself listening to Holstein introduce his class on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Kraus remembers the professor as “intimidating as hell,” owing to “his brilliance, his confidence, and, on occasion, his anger.” Even so, Kraus says, Holstein taught him “more about writing than any writing or English teachers. While they were going through motions I’d gone through on my own in high school, he would analyze text and make me look at my own writing in a more nuanced way and think about layers to narrative and symbolism. He’s the passionate, challenging, inspirational teacher you dream about getting.”
After that, though, Kraus’s focus flipped back to movies. “I’d been toiling away writing novel-length manuscripts,” he says. “I was starting to get ground down. Having a room full of people clapping—you don’t get that with books unless you’re really famous.” He had a job at a local movie house, and he got to know one of the regulars—Jeff Towne, a hard-drinking wrestling fan and porn enthusiast with Down Syndrome. Kraus decided to make Towne, who lived with his 98-year-old, wheelchair-bound adoptive mother, the subject of a documentary. The 59-minute movie, Jefftowne, was accepted by the 1998 Slamdance Film Festival, a triumph that “more than anything, compelled me to stay with filmmaking,” Kraus says; it later won the Festival Choice Award at the New York Underground Film Festival.
After graduating, Kraus got a job as a cameraman at the NBC affiliate in Wilmington, North Carolina, WECT. “Hurricanes were always striking Wilmington,” Kraus says. “I was the idiot cameraman standing out there with electrical equipment. . . . I had a half-burned building collapse around me.”
In the course of the job, he shot several interviews that his station’s reporters conducted with Ronald Hewett, the media-friendly sheriff of nearby Brunswick County. Hewett’s “southern gentlemanliness” stuck with him, and when Kraus, tired of dangerous assignments and creatively restless, left WECT in 1999, he asked the sheriff if he could follow him around on the job. Hewett not only agreed but gave Kraus a pager so he could alert him to upcoming action.
For the next three years, while Kraus was writing articles, mostly about film, for Gadfly, Salon, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy, he also tailed Hewett. He captured the sheriff placating a church group riled up over a nudist camp, apprehending a near-naked fugitive in the woods, and so close to throwing up over a fatal stabbing that he made Kraus turn off the camera.
When he moved to Chicago in 2003, Kraus wasn’t sure what to do with his Hewett footage. But eventually, using Frederick Wiseman’s cinema verite films as a model, Kraus completely pared away the interviews, leaving an unembellished portrait of a man at his job. Sheriff premiered on PBS’s Independent Lens in 2005.
After that, “I realized I could apply the same aesthetic to other jobs,” Kraus says. He asked around for suggestions, created a spreadsheet of job categories, and came up with a list of possible jobs and subjects for ten films. For his second “Work” film, he wanted a portrait of an artist. “It didn’t matter if it was a sculptor or a dancer or what,” he says. He chose Vandermark, he says, because of his work ethic. “I liked his very pragmatic approach to making a living as a musician, looking at it as a nine-to-five job,” Kraus says. “I liked his tremendous output, what seemed like a tireless method of working.”
Vandermark wasn’t sure about the idea. “To be able to say to myself that I was a subject that merited a film being made felt egotistical, to put it mildly,” Vandermark recalled in e-mail from Europe, where he was on tour. But Sheriff convinced him that “if Dan made a movie about my work with music, it would be unique and not just the standard visual biography trying to ‘explain’ me.”
Kraus shot Vandermark over several months in 2005: booking gigs, driving the tour van, penciling in time with his wife, and, occasionally, composing and performing. Musicians who’ve seen it “seem to appreciate the fact that there’s very little music in Musician,” Kraus says. “Very little of Ken’s job has to do with music. It’s mostly talking on the phone and moving heavy equipment.” Vandermark sees Musician as “less about me personally and more about what it means to work and survive as a creative person in America.”
While making Musician Kraus rediscovered his itch to write novels and began work on one. Inspired by Ray Bradbury and, as ever, Stephen King, The Monster Variations tells the story of small-town kids on summer vacation who defy a curfew meant to protect them from whoever it is driving around in a truck running down boys. Random House published the book last year.
Kraus decided to make his third “Work” film about “the life of the mind,” and he could think of no better subject than Professor Holstein. Professor opens with Holstein’s introductory lecture in the room where Kraus heard it as a student 14 years before. “I’m old. This is my 38th year doing this—I’m irascible,” says Holstein. “I do not like misbehavior in the classroom. . . . I will yell at you for yawning. Don’t take it personally. It’s not my ego talking to you. It’s me trying to get you back on track. You understand? If you sit there bored out of your mind while I’m talking, you will suck up my energy and I’ll be a dead man by the third week of the semester.”
But, he goes on, “if I can get you interested enough so that you give me an energy return, it is a feeling the likes of which there are few others in the world. . . . Every so often I say something, it triggers a response, even in a room like this, and I feel this wave of energy. You will do almost anything to get this. If I could take a pill, I would take the pill. If I could take the pill and I was told it would shorten your life by ten years, I would say, ‘give me the pill.'”
Holstein, who’s been teaching at Iowa for his entire career, sees it as a place where he’s needed. “Many of my students from small towns in Iowa have never knowingly seen a Jew,” he tells me. “That is why, in spite of the problematic nature of lecturing to hundreds of students, I continue to teach large classes.
“Large-enrollment classes present a great opportunity to a professor of Jewish studies, lecturing to what is almost completely a Christian student body, many of whom—however unknowingly—carry some unfortunate baggage about Jews and Judaism around with them.”
Shaven-headed and fit at 72, Holstein delivers his lectures with the cadences and profanity of a drill sergeant. A marathoner, he runs hard, lifts weights, and tests his marksmanship by firing at cans with his son Joshua, an army veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This high-intensity approach has served me well in my classes, all of which are heavily enrolled,” Holstein says. “While there were parts of the film that made me squirm, on the whole I gained some appreciation of what it is that I do and why my classes are so popular.”
For his purposes, Kraus says, “it doesn’t matter that what Vandermark plays is jazz, or that what Holstein teaches is religion. What matters is the work.” He’s asked if Studs Terkel’s Working was an influence. “I was in touch with Studs shortly before his death,” says Kraus. “He expressed regret that he did not have the health to somehow help me out with the series. But, of course, though I’m profiling mainly anonymous workers just like he did, I’m doing it with the opposite approach. Studs was all interview, and I don’t ask a single question.”
In Kraus’s films, as in Wiseman’s, we know only what the camera tells us. “They’re like photo essays in a way,” Kraus says. “What happens before I turn my camera on and what happens after I turn my camera off isn’t really grist for the mill.” In Vandermark’s case, we don’t learn that back in 1999 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. And there’s nothing in Sheriff to suggest that in 2008 Hewett would be charged with embezzlement and obstruction of justice, plead guilty to a federal obstruction charge, and get 16 months in prison.
Between the shooting and editing of Professor, Kraus wrote the first draft of his second novel, Rotters. It’s about a grave-robbing Chicago teen sent to live with his father in Iowa, and Random House is bringing it out next spring. And he’s already shot his fourth “Work” film, Preacher; Kraus says Bishop William Nowell, a Pentecostal minister in Charlottesville, Virginia, was his first subject “to totally come in over the transom.” He read a newspaper profile a friend had written about him, sent for some video clips, and “was totally taken by how quiet and gentle he was outside of work, which contrasted so vibrantly with his wild passion once he really got going on a sermon.”
The editing of Preacher will have to wait until he finishes his third novel. “As a vacation from the books, I make the movies,” Kraus says.