Secret histories 

The indie world loves the idea of the secret genius, the dream that slaving away in various garrets is a shadow army of great artists too original, honest or ornery to get famous. In reality, it rarely proves true. Most of the artists laboring in obscurity are there for a reason. Every now and then, though, you do find an artist so crippled by vision or integrity or obsession that it’s unlikely they’ll ever “make it” in any traditional sense. They’re the ones who send in the reports from the skirmishes between hope and reality, who paint the pictures of the fault lines opening at our feet, who make the documentaries about the deserted side streets the rest of us never see.

Bill Brown is the real thing. For the past 10 years he’s been traveling the badlands and ghost towns of the American Dream, taking notes and shooting footage for his movies and stories, creating a body of work that’s beautiful, idiosyncratic and breathtaking. It’s also largely unknown outside the inner circle of the indie-film scene.

That’s partly because Brown doesn’t make it easy. His personal obsession is with things the rest of the world has left behind: country roads that run alongside modern freeways, lost histories of demolished buildings. This means, almost by definition, that he picks up on themes exactly when everyone else has stopped caring. Buffalo Common, one of the movies he’ll be showing June 3 at 1515 Broadway, is about abandoned missile silos in North Dakota. And the main character in Confederation Park, which he’ll also screen, is the Canadian winter. At first glance, neither one reads like the average moviegoer’s dream. But the films themselves are intoxicating.

Brown’s movies put you in the passenger seat sharing his own endless road trip, giving you a chance to get a last glimpse of the vanishing West out the window, to sit on a corner in British Columbia and watch the traffic go by for a few minutes. Brown’s choice of images is unerring, but his real genius lies in his own voice-over narration, which is always whispering some secret history to you in the background. It tells of the events of the night the lights went out, what happened in the building that used to be here — and shares Brown’s own musings and paranoid fantasies, at times hilarious, at times achingly melancholy. You didn’t want to see a movie about abandoned missile sites, but once Brown takes you out on the range and starts telling stories, you don’t want to leave.

Brown appears in Detroit with partner-in-crime Thomas Comerford, a pioneer in the modern use of the pinhole camera. They’ll split the bill as the inaugural installment of the Detroit Filmmakers Coalition quarterly screening series, which brings the best in national cutting-edge filmmaking to Detroit.

The films of Bill Brown and Thomas Comerford showing Monday, June 3: doors at 7 p.m., screening 7:30 p.m. at 1515 Broadway, Detroit. For more information, call the Detroit Filmmakers Coalition at 313-961-9936 or visit

Carey Wallace is a Detroit-area freelance writer. E-mail

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