It shouldn’t be possible to reach port in as leaky a vessel as “Strad Style.” Yet this documentary about an Ohioan’s singular quest ends up thoroughly disarming and rewarding, despite a borderline-exasperating reluctance to fill in the most basic blanks regarding our subject’s past and present circumstances. His curious Sisyphean labor, involving history’s most famous violin and a fast-rising latterday soloist, raises more questions than the film answers, even when that labor actually bears against-all-odds fruit. Yet the eventual triumph has a real impact that should resonate with viewers, as it has in sweeping audience awards at the Slamdance and Florida festivals so far.
Making his first directorial feature in nearly 15 years (and first documentary feature, period), Stefan Avolos may be dragging baggage from his low-budget supernatural thrillers “The Last Broadcast” and “Ghosts of Edendale” in trusting that a little narrative mystery can’t hurt. Or perhaps he simply thinks the vérité purity of his visually accomplished documentary would be tainted by having the subject interviewed, something that doesn’t really occur until the final shot here. But that turns “Strad Style” into a movie whose fascinating, idiosyncratic central figure offers almost no clues as to how he got to being where and who he is.
What we do glean is that 32-year-old Daniel Houk lives alone in a rambling rural farmhouse whose cluttered interior attests to both his artistic sensibility and inability to get his act together. He laments being “stuck in the cornfield,” and admits a “need to go out into the world,” but somehow that isn’t happening. One senses his isolation is not simply a matter of financial hardship — a suspicion confirmed when he casually notes he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But that’s where discussion of that elephant in the room begins and ends. Nor do we learn anything much about his intriguing “spiritual interest in “candle magic,” or a sparingly-seen cousin and mother who appear to have their own inscrutable peculiarities. Not raised at all are such matters as Danny’s past schooling, jobs or relationships; how he landed in this house (is it even his?); how he makes his evidently-threadbare living; or whether he has any musical training.
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The latter is particularly relevant to the obsession that drives “Strad Style”: Having befriended Romanian violinist Razvan Stoica online, he giddily offers to make that rising classical star an exact copy of the musician’s “dream violin.” That would be Paganini’s famed Del Gesu “Cannon,” made by Giuseppe Guarneri (Antonio Stradivari’s contemporary, rival and fellow inhabit of Cremona, Italy) in 1743. Houk admits he has no formal instrument-making training at all; we only see him play a violin briefly, and then just in a warmup/tuning fashion. Is he a mere crank? Even if not, can an amateur actually build at home something as sensitive as a violin suitable to a world-class player — let alone one that aspires toward the rarefied acoustics and personality of a legendary fiddle?
For a long time — most of “Strad Style’s” leisurely but engrossing length — we have no idea whether Houk is chasing something viable or a pipe dream, despite all the attention Avalos gives to his painstaking (albeit sometimes shakily improvised) construction process. He’s an engaging character yet also something of a lost soul, with mood swings and a general haplessness that make one doubt this violin is being built on a foundation of fully-grasped reality. When Stoica offers to play the untested instrument at an upcoming concert — and fly the untraveled Houk over for that occasion — Danny instant-messages, “It’s basically done!” though we know that is a very big fib.
Why would the professionally established Stoica levy such earnest, public expectations on a well-intentioned but possibly delusional fan? Has Houk even made violins before? If so, why and when did he start? Has he sold any? These aren’t trivial matters; rather, they lie at the heart of our comprehending the unusual pursuit depicted here, and their omission frustrates.
In other ways, however, “Strad Style” is highly worked: Avalos’ lensing is warm and attractive, his editing smoothly engaging, the use of music (solos by Stoica, natch) always astute. There’s a genuine, earned exhilaration to the climactic sequences, when our protagonist finds his life changed, greatly for the better. But it shouldn’t be the case that you can learn more about Houck’s life before Avalos began filming him from a one-paragraph press-kit bio than from this documentary’s 104 minutes.