If I could literally bathe in delectable words and visuals that examine the artistic process, I would; I love the subject that much. I would fill my tub with the very Calgon of criticism and have it take me away, soaking in ideas and insight. With no light save for the warm golden glow of several handcrafted chunky candles that did not smell of vanilla, I would sip a glass of delicately-smashed and fermented grape liquid, and consider the complexities of creativity. But instead of looking like a drunk naked weirdo in an empty bathtub thinking about stuff, I attended a Seattle International Film Festival showing of “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.”

I had heard about the film around the same time I attended a Magnetic Fields concert earlier this year, and was eagerly looking forward to seeing it. If you are already a fan of the Magnetic Fields, you know why: Stephin Merritt is…well…a very interesting and mysterious guy, to say the least. All that the Magnetic Fields do hovers and spins around his creative output and personality. Their onstage dynamic is this: verbal silence from guitarist/banjoist David Woo and cellist/flutist Sam Davol, and snarky sparse between-song patter from lead singer/uke/keys player Merritt and multi-instrumentalist/singer/manager Claudia Gonson. The songs themselves reflect the strange steampunk machine that is Merritt’s brain – in almost any pop genre from the past 50 years, from quiet folk to poppy indie-synth to noise drench, with lyrics that most often are a combination of lovelorn angst and dry detachment, with perfectly-placed rimshots of dead-on humor. Stephin Merritt out-Morrisseys Morrissey by a mile, and adds the gifted musicality of the craftsman songwriter, from the days of Gershwin and Berlin and Porter and Kern.

Past the music is Merritt’s reputation as an intensely-private curmudgeon/oddball, painful to interview, impossible to know. Well-seasoned music critics shake in fear that Merritt will be able to shut them down completely with a withering glance or single execution-style comment. Even Gonson, his friend since high school and surely the person who knows him best, seems to be a bit intimidated by Merritt underneath their constant poking argumentative repartee.

I wanted “Strange Powers” to poke into all these fascinating dynamics, with the camera’s unblinking eye, both dispassionate and intimate. How does Merritt do what he does? How does he create, what does the process look like? Is he really a weirdo? Is he a persona? Who is this guy anyway? What makes it all work? Could directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara deliver?

After viewing the film last night, I would give you the somewhat-frustrating answer: yes and no. We see far more of Merritt than we ever have, indeed, which confirms what we already knew about him: he’s got a mind that is just working a whole lot differently from most, he is intensely creative, and incredibly funny. But I don’t know that we come away with a strong feeling of who he is and why he is able to write such compelling music, or why he does. He’s still not giving away anything to anyone. Fix and O’Hara palpably keep a delicate balance throughout the movie trying to document and probe, but always pulling back somehow, trying not to push the subjects away or offend. “Strange Powers” was ten years in the making, and the most remarkable thing is that the directors had the tenacity to stick with what was, in the end, not a lot of material given.

The best parts of the film are the sections where we see the Magnetic Fields’ recording process, usually in Merritt’s cluttered miniscule New York City apartment. He has stuffed the place with every possible bizarre instrument you could think of, from a vibraphone to gongs to toy tambourines to kitchen whisks. There are piles and piles of notebooks with his lyrics and fragments of lyrics written in a strong script – imagery and ideas all obsessively collected and then ordered and aligned to make each song. The other band members are summoned and directed; as Davol notes, he and Woo are not Merritt’s friends outside of their Magnetic Fields work, and he feels that is one reason the band has remained functional for such a long period of time.

The irrepressible Gonson pushes the film along and we look to her the most for answers, which are only partially provided. She comes across as maternal towards Merritt, the one who deals with all the boring details and cleans up all the messes so he can spend his life doing nothing but creating. At the same time, she seems to have stalled out somehow, little changed in maturity and personality since her high school days, which is slightly odd to see in a woman in her forties. Perhaps that is a result of the bohemian nature of the musical life. Yet she is likable, and one admires her not letting Merritt get away with some of his acidy word bombs. She’ll throw a few back.

Merritt has the verbal timing of a comedy master, but I could not quite decide whether I thought this was a natural component of his personality that simply blurts out to anyone at any time, outcome be damned, or if his quick mind sorts, filters, and delivers lines very purposely. His bleary-eyed Basset Hound-y face is used as punctuation throughout the film, for both comedic and dramatic use. The SIFF audience exploded with laughter during a segment showing Merritt appearing on “Good Day Atlanta” with an annoyingly-chipper and hyper host after Merritt had decided to stay up all night before the 7:30AM performance. The severe awkwardness, just poised for disaster, was just fantastic.

At one point in the film, Sam Davol is commenting on one of the Magnetic Fields’ early club gigs, when things were beginning to gel for them. In the nicest possible way, he said he felt that the band was “bigger than the room,” that something important was happening, driven by the quality of Merritt’s songs. Maybe this too is the case with “Strange Powers.” It ends up a modest film rather than a deeply-illuminating one because of the difficulty in being able to show more of what makes Merritt tick. He is bigger than the film. Perhaps in another 20 or 30 years, another look can be taken at his career, after he has completed more of the work he is driven to do. I think that is how he would prefer it, although by that time he may also be the most perfect poster-elder for “Get Off My Lawn” that ever existed. Maybe Scotts Lawn and Garden products can underwrite a tour.

“Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields” is scheduled for theatrical release in November, 2010. It is worth checking out to see some of the details of the life of a modern music genius, who may likely be more known and revered 100 years from now, as Miracle-Gro perpetually feeds the flowers around his grave.