No Bounce

steenbeck

I played a lot of sports growing up.  I think that’s what gave me my sense of coordination.  How I became adept at falling I can only guess.  Maybe it was my creative side that, in my youth, created in me a tendency to walk around with my head in the clouds.  My mom once commented that creativity was a virtue that I got from my grandfather, the singer/songwriter.  Or maybe the ultra conservative media critics of the 1980’s were right and I became the most coordinated klutz in Texas because I watched four hours of Looney Tunes every Saturday throughout childhood.  That’s a good possibility because the results were often highly comical.

For example, when I was in the Green Acres Baptist Church basketball league in the eighth grade, I remember once after a turn over, I was chasing my guy who just received the pass.  As I sprinted, my toe landed on his heel tripping me up, propelling me forward on a trajectory that would have put your average athlete face down, sprawled out on the floor.  But somehow I executed a summersault in mid air, came down on my back, and bounce/rolled forward, landing on my feet, kind of like a cat.  It happened so fast that people in the stands were astonished, there were gasps and, after the game, smiling spectators complimented me on my acrobatics.  The same thing had happened a couple years earlier at Pine Cove summer camp when my cabin mates and I were walking downhill headed towards the location of our daily activity.  I tripped on a tree root and flew forward only to pop back up like a weeble wobble a half second later.  My camp buddies were equally amused and impressed.  While I like to brag about these and other humorous challenges to my athleticism experienced in my youth, nothing beats the college feat when I fell off the Dessau Hall stage, backwards, while filming a movie, without knowing it…….. and stuck the landing.

It was our first year in the program.  I didn’t know anybody when I started out so I had to make friends.  I’m not one of those kids who’s been making movies since age eight.  It sounds archaic to millennials with smart phones but in the 80’s VHS camcorders were like $$$ two grand $$$ and my family was too low on the income scale to justify spending that kind of bling on a “luxury item”.  If there were any events to be filmed such as me or my sisters playing sports, my dad would borrow a camera for the day and he was very clear that this was a tool, “not a toy”.  So when I started film school, I had to be proactive in learning the craft as well as networking with classmates who had already paired up and formed groups.  By the second production class, I had built a reputation for being somewhat skilled because In Production I, I had gotten to direct one of the semester end multi-cam studio projects with a really good blues band and the production turned out well in spite of the ambitious multiscreen rear projection set design that we implemented.  So When I approached Bryan and Mark about teaming up for various projects, I already had a little street cred.  Our program used a co-op type structure in that we all wrote and produced our own films and helped each other out as crew.  Bryan was in a band called The Roam.  His dad had been the keyboard player in Buck Owens’ band on Hee-Haw, a sketch comedy show from the 1980’s which means he was from California, but his mom was from the Texas Hill Country which, I suspect, was the reason he came back to Texas for college after their divorce.  Mark was a native Austinite who had gotten bit by the film bug when cast as a freshman student in the film “Dazed and Confused” an indie film shot in the Austin area in the early 90’s.  These guys were pretty cool and we would end up working on many films together over the next couple years.

One of the essential lessons used to teach film narrative structure is the “In Camera Edit” project.  In this exercise, there is no post production editing so you have to film the shots of your story board in order, hence the name.  We were shooting on 16mm film, no sound, no elaborate blocking of talent,  just basic stories and simple shots.  The camera employed for this task was the workhorse of the mid-century newsreel era…a Bolex.  The Bolex was designed for versatility.  There was no need for batteries because the motor mechanism was wind up, effective anywhere in the world, including undergraduate film schools all around the U.S.  Everything was mechanical, no electronics.  So, the trigger for turning the camera on was also mechanical, a spring loaded switch that the operator would pull towards him or herself and hold until the director called cut and then release to stop filming.  Another peculiarity of the cinematographer’s version of the swiss army knife (Bolex is Swiss), is that there was no zoom lens.  It had a lens turret that would rotate between three prime lenses, usually a wide angle 12mm, a normal 25mm and a long 75mm lens.

Bryan had a story idea and in the true new wave tradition, it centered around something ready at hand, for us that was a band.  Since The Roam had an upcoming concert scheduled at Dessau Hall, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to use these available resources as a setting for the film.  So we showed up to the venue a few hours early and scoped out the setting.  This was a large venue that must have held around 6,000 patrons.  The stage was large and sat at an elevation of about six feet off the ground.  In front of the already deep stage, there was a giant speaker box that extended the performance space out another three or four feet.  Well, we fell behind due to problems with loading the camera.  Once that was ironed out we start filming.  We take turns with the camera operator duties and when it comes time to shoot the drummer sequence, it’s my turn.  According to the storyboard, this sequence starts with a close up of the drummer, then goes to a medium shot including a couple more band members, then a wide shot of the entire band.  The venue operator is getting antsy because we only have 30 minutes to finish up before doors open.  My partners are rushing me as a result and so, in order to get the shots, I start moving pretty fast.  With the Bolex fully wound and the 75mm lens rotated onto the sweet spot, I get the close-up of the drummer drumming away with no problem.  Then for the second shot, I move the lens turret onto the normal position and find that I have to back up quite a bit to get a medium shot as indicated in our chicken scratch hand drawn images.  Since I’m up on a high stage, I’m keenly aware that I have to be careful since the edge is at my back.  As I frame up the shot and find that it’s not wide enough, I look back at my right heel to locate my footing and verify that there’s room to take a step back.  I’m moving so fast that, as I step back, I simultaneously whip my head forward while raising the camera to my eye, so fast in fact, that I don’t even comprehend what I’m seeing until my eye comes to rest on the viewfinder and I register the band standing there waiting for me to get set so that the director can call action.  Well I had to step back several times and check the framing before getting the second shot but, the shot goes off as planned.  Now I’m pretty far towards the front of the stage and we’re ready for the last shot, I have to rotate to the wide angle lens before framing up the shot and finding that, yet again, I’m too tight.  So I look down, step/whip, focus….still not wide enough.  Again…look, step/whip, focus….close but no cigar….again.  This time as I look down, just behind my right foot, I see the edge of the stage.  Just behind that is the giant speaker box.  I say to myself, “Sweet.  That extra four feet is just what I need to get the shot”.  The venue manager comes back around again, nervous as ever and reminds Bryan, loudly so that I’m sure to hear, that doors are opening in fifteen minutes.  By now I’m pretty proud of my pacing and I’m sure that one more look, step/whip, focus is all I need to pull this thing off.  So, sure enough, I look down at my right foot, whip the camera up to my right eye while closing the left so that I can focus as I step back onto the speaker box….with my left foot.

Come to find out, that speaker doesn’t actually go across the entire front of the stage.  The outer edge is smack dab in the middle of the spot where I’m standing so, I step back onto nothing at all!  But, I’m moving so fast, and with my left eye closed and right eye looking through a lens, that I couldn’t tell.  I’m looking through the viewfinder expecting to see the same group of twenty something rockers staring back at me that I’ve seen on every other view through the camera, but instead they’re just gone and I remember thinking to myself, as I fall backwards through mid air like a 100 foot tall pine tree felled by a lumberjack, “Hey, where’d everybody go”?  Then…….WHAM!  OWWW…what the HELL?  I land flat on my back.  Upon impact, people around me, exclaim, “OOOHHHH!” in unison and just stand there for a few seconds, stunned.  Then they come to their senses, rush forward and check to see if I’m ok.  Falling from the height of six feet onto your back is not a pleasant experience but in hindsight, It’s kind of funny since I stuck the landing.  No bounce, no roll, no sprawl, no broken body parts.  I just landed flat, “BANG”.  If stage diving were an Olympic event, this would be judged an 11, Gold medal all the way.  I laid there stunned for about a minute then my partners picked me up and walked me off to rest up.  Not only did I not get a concussion, I didn’t even hit my head.  If I had been aware of what was going on during the fall, then I probably would have broken something but, I held my form.  I kept stiff.  That’s the secret, stay stiff.

After the fall, my crew picked up where I left off without skipping a beat.  We got the shots, finished shooting the film and the concert went off without a hitch.  About a week later, we get the film back from the lab.  Bryan and Mark screen the film without me (I was working on some other project).  As they sit there at the flat bed editor running the work print through the ancient machine, an experience constructed of loud humming noises, the smell of old, hot lamps burning and dozens of mechanical sprockets and gears turning, pushing the 100+ year old medium of celluloid past a projection gate, splashing light passing through the film onto the top mounted viewing screen, they finally get to the drummer sequence.  The first shot goes by and cuts smoothly to the medium shot.  As the third shot pops up, Bryan is like, “whoa whoa whoa.  What was that?  Did you see that”?  Mark pauses the machine.  Bryan: “roll that back”.  Mark rolls the film back and pauses it in between the medium shot and the wide shot, which is strange because there’s not supposed to be an in between.  The budding filmmakers sit there with their heads cocked to the side like two dogs trying to figure out what to think about a strange noise.   Mark, with confusion ponders, “What IS that”?  On the screen is a dingy yellow, cross hatch kind of a thing.  They roll forward and find that the grid like pattern is on only three frames.  Suddenly, they recall that this is the point at which I did my Greg Louganis (or was it more of a Triple Lindy?) off the 2 meter platform, they can only conclude that it must be the ceiling of Dessau Hall and their conclusion would be correct.  Remember that spring loaded trigger?  Apparently, I hit the ground so hard, it turned the camera on…….for about a tenth of a second.

Now that’s, New Wave!


Feature Image: Steenbeck 16mm flatbed ST 921

Copyright Drs Kulturarvsprojekt 2012

License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Some Rights Reserved

 

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It’s Friday

As a teenager, my music preferences were mainly alternative rock, but in the early 90’s gangsta rap hit the scene and we were dropping names like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice-T and other rappers from south central L.A.  Middle class suburban kids pumped Un-Godly sums of money into the rap game.  Urban lingo became part of teenage vernacular across the US, in spite of the fact that middle class white kids sounded ridiculous using it.  We didn’t care.  We knew how ridiculous we sounded; that was the fun.  When it comes to movies, I was always more of a drama fan than horror.  However, I do like a good suspense plot.  With suspense you could go either way, drama or horror.  A third option would be the horror spoof comedy like the movie my buddy Brian Shaw would make a few years later on VHS about a evil, stuffed, cursed, cock a slasher spoof where a taxidermed chicken animates and begins dispatching housemates one by one, leading up to a showdown with the head “house dude” at the end.  But I wouldn’t see “Foul Game” until college and this story takes place a couple years before that which means, my horror movie experience consists of only the pop culture films of the seventies, eighties and nineties, you know, before the push for realism makes the horror genre really disturbing.

Yep, I’m definitely more for camp horror than ultra-realistic, truly scary, pushing the envelop faire.  One of the great things about horror movies is that you can heckle your friends that hide their eyes and scream at the “scary” parts.  In the 12th grade my friends and I met up on a Friday night and rented the horror film “Candy Man”.  There were about ten or twelve of us, both guys and girls.  At the time, this was supposed to be a pretty scary movie.  It’s a take on the Bloody Mary plot where you say the ghost’s name over and over in the mirror and they come back from the dead and kill you.  In this reboot of a classic, the Candy Man was the son of a former slave who had an affair with an affluent man’s daughter and was brutally murdered for it.  Saying “Candy Man” in the mirror five times would summon his angry spirit and you’d be sorry.  After the first act, I wasn’t really into the movie but the girls in the room were and, as would be expected, they were pretty freaked out since the first murder had already happened.  At some point in the second act, I announced that I was going out to get a pack of cigarettes. My buddy Kevin offered to drive and we were off.  The legal age for buying cigarettes was 18 and just before leaving to meet the crew, I had gotten my new license in the mail which, in Texas shows your face looking straight ahead instead of in profile designating that you’re no longer a minor.  I really wanted to try it out.   On the way to the corner store, Kevin was pumping some hip-hop with lots of bass…I think it was Ice Cube.  When we get to the gas station, there’s a long line (all adults) that I have to stand in which of course makes for an uneventful traffic jam holding up my right of passage on this landmark Friday night.  That and the lack of excitement found in your average convenience store makes me even more impatient.  East Texas has a reputation for being stodgy and ultra-conservative but that’s only true some of the time.  Tyler, TX was established the same year we joined the union.  It’s fairly urban for a population of 90 to 100k and so you have all types…even liberals (they fly under the radar but they’re there).  When I finally get to the front, the line is still long from a steady stream of customers filing through the door.  With much anticipation, I put in my order with enough volume so that all can hear, “a pack of Marlboro lights please.”  The clerk dutifully asks for my I.D. (as I knew she would), a request for which I’m locked and loaded.  My raised arm snaps down releasing the card like an ace in the hole on poker night.  As my crisp new plastic totem of independence smacks the counter, I exclaim, “TA DOWWWWW!”  It sounds cliché now but at the time it was fresh, ironic, and hilarious.  The clerk, though startled, begins laughing heartily as do all of my new fellow grown-ups standing in line.  With a triumphant smile on my face I pay the lady, take my smokes and exit victorious.

Back in the truck, Kevin had cycled the cd changer onto some Snoop Dog, “Gin and Juice”, and we headed back to the party where all the girls were by now surely jumpy enough to be an easy target for a prank (and being a typical teenager, I was always looking for an opportunity).  Now…there are those times when a plan just comes off perfect.  It’s not all the time.  It’s not even most of the time.  Some of the time, you even fall flat, right into a pile of embarrassment.  But, if you don’t ever take risks, then you’ll never have a story to tell where all the planets align and you get to be a hero.  This day is one of those days where it all pans out so well that I won’t even try to take all the credit.  There were no cell phones, so I couldn’t call anyone inside to find out when a scary scene was coming up.  No matter.  When you don’t have enough information, you’re going off your gut, and the universe comes alongside and shows you the way.  And that makes success smell all the more sweet.  I had a plan, so we turn off the music a couple blocks away and pull up one house down so as to stay incognito.  I sneek up to the front door, not knowing that inside on the TV, another summoning of the Candy Man is under way.  Right as the fifth “Candy Man” is uttered by the soon-to-be new victim, I turn the knob, put my shoulder into the door, quickly throw it open, and burst into a dark living room while screaming at the top of my lungs.  As I get a few steps in, I stumble and fall to the floor, roll over onto my back and fake a seizure while clutching my chest with both hands.  By the time I hit the floor and start to twitch, my lower pitched scream is displaced by five or six higher pitched and much louder ones.  When the dust and laughter settle, I celebrate my second win of the first day of the rest of my life as I revel in the exasperation of my fairer friends as they accost me with “the nerve” to induce a mass heart attack.

I said it once and I’ll say it again.

Ta…Dowwww.

 

 

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The Eighth Word You Can’t Say on TV

 

Most kids start cussing in elementary school.  In the fifth grade, I was reluctant but under pressure from two friends (one of which was a girl), I uttered my first cuss word and worked steadily on my technique throughout college.

After about 12 years, I could do it with such panache that it didn’t seem the least bit vulgar and would even make others laugh.  My first job out of college I started working as an installer in the systems integration business.  Technicians in the AV/TV/Film industry lean a little blue collar which meant that I fit it just fine and my occasional cuss word did too.  After about 10 months I decided to move into account management which meant I had to give up the habit because with a sales job I needed to adapt my style of communication to meet expectations.  Another aspect of sales is that it’s extremely time consuming.  On top of my regular responsibilities, I was required to plan and host product demonstration seminars.  I wasn’t really opposed to that in general but the problem was that they didn’t generate sales.  My income was 100% commission based so current business always took precedent meaning that I would be working on the marketing up till the night before the event.  Since I was always getting side tracked by paying clients and because my boss was so cheap, I never had time or money enough to be fully prepped for the show.

One of my coworkers who helped with show execution was a friend who goes by the handle “Toast”, a musician who used tin foil to burn images into bread…AKA: “Toast Art”.  He was also a funny Italian guy who worked as a technician for the company.  As a techie, it’s no surprise that my friend was also an artist with dirty words, just like all the other technicians that I knew.  We lived and worked in Austin but our boss wanted to expand into San Antonio so I setup my first event about a month in advance of the planned date.  As usual, I ran out of time and had to scramble to finish prepping the demo project the night before.  The plan was to record Toast performing on video and use that as demo footage.  We were to record him at the shop, ingest the footage, setup the demo project, finish stickerizing literature, and send out the final email blast.  So he shows up with his guitar wearing a white undershirt, unshaven, and looking a little disheveled (like any good artist should).  While we’re setting up, I’m assuming that he’s going to change clothes at some point but instead he sits down with his guitar and starts to practice.   I ask, “Uhhh did you bring a change of clothes for the shoot”?  He say’s, “What shoot?  I thought it was just audio.”  So without any time to reschedule the shoot, much less the event, we go ahead and video tape an original toast song with wardrobe left as is.  As we work, we’re joking around as usual, trying to keep it light and Toast drops a word that I had never heard from anyone other than him.  He’s a funny guy and true to Austin form, weird (idiosyncratic).  Going off of context clues and my understanding of the word’s creator, I assumed its meaning was benign.

The next day, having finished as much prep work as humanly possible, Me, Toast and another tech load up all the gear into the company van and head south on IH35 to get setup for the show.  After we’re all done and the guests finish rolling in, I notice that the turnout is twice what we’re used to in Austin.  We have 80 or more attendees and I’m feeling good about the presentation.  I had done lots of them in college and learned that the key to success was being completely natural rather than memorizing a script.  So as I start my presentation, I rely on my natural vernacular (a perfect example of why it’s important to develop a professional vocabulary in one’s personal life if you work in sales) which carried some influence from my technician friends due to our many hours spent together just the night before.  I was a little reticent using the footage of a messy looking guy in a tank top t-shirt, but I was feeling good about my pitch and proved adept with the material as I ran the demo (surely the audience would overlook one slightly awkward part of an otherwise brilliant experience).  As I find my rhythm, the “Toast-ism” from the night before  naturally finds it’s way into the conversation.  Everything’s going better than average and I’m delivering a killer presentation!  The thing that struck me as weird was that usually during these events, people raise their hands, or interrupt at regular intervals to ask questions.  But, this room is dead silent.  I mean, throughout the entire presentation, if I’m not talking, it’s crickets.  As I scan the crowd, I don’t find many people making eye contact.  The woman front & center is leaned back like a theatre patron sitting too close to the screen with her eyes slightly bugged out of her head, arms stiff, as she glances around furtively to get a peek at the people around her.  I’m more than a little nonplused because I’m in rare form.  I can’t figure it out…”What’s up with these people?”  I even stop a couple times to ask if there are any questions.  By the end of the seminar, not one person has asked a single question; not even during the Q&A session at the end.  I think, “Man, this IS weird.  This town has no freaking pulse.”

Back in Austin the next day, it all starts to make sense.  Apparently somebody had called the shop.  My boss asks me about it and I’m like, “yea…so what”?  He says, “Uhhh.  I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”  So, I do a little research.  Come to find out, my new word IS pretty bad.  Not only that but, the song our artist chose for his performance (I had been run so ragged with planning, that I hadn’t paid attention to the lyrics during the recording session) was his one and only murder ballad.  So as I replay the previous days events in my head, Instead of a brilliant presentation, I see myself at a professional event wearing business attire regularly dropping a word that’s so taboo that it doesn’t even make it into the George Carlin bit, while I stand in front of a giant projection screen featuring a song that recounts the tale of a man killing his wife and hiding the body.

George Carlin was right when he observed, “We need a list.  Why is there no list?!”  Thanks and good night San Antonio…..I’ll be here all week.

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Flux Capacitor Optional…Son of a Bitch!

When I was in high school, I had a chance to date the prettiest girl in Texas and had no idea.  But I’m getting ahead.

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There was no access to indie films in my hometown.  In the theatre we mostly had Hollywood blockbuster films like Back to the Future and the alternative on late night cable, horror movies such as “The Fly”, both of which I watched multiple times.  I didn’t know that there was a career path called “filmmaker” until my sophomore year in college.  The arts, overall, were not very prolific in Tyler and I wasn’t any exception so, people who had any kind of involvement with the entertainment industry were out of my league.

Stacy Outhouse was on the cover of seventeen magazine like eight times.  Her brother Jason and I were in the same Sunday school and physical science classes our sophomore year.  She was only a freshman but even at that age, she easily beat out all the other girls in our entire 5A high school).  One Sunday afternoon, I was at the Outhouse homestead where Jason and I were studying for a test and simultaneously  rockin’ some pearl jam from the Singles movie soundtrack.  Suddenly, Stacy (a Southern Belle) comes bouncing into the kitchen right past the table where I sit.  As she goes by she chirps, “Hey Blake”!  I look up kind of surprised because I have no idea she even knows who I am.  I say, “oh…uh…hey Stacy”, pause to take in her radiance and then, as she glides over to the refrigerator, I look back down at my books.  She opens the door to the fridg and says, “I’m going to get a capri sun”.  I raise my head again with a kind of blank look and say, “uh..oh…ok”.  Not taking the cue, I look back down as she leans against the counter, pokes the straw into the drink pouch, and takes a sip.  Then she says, with a little emphasis, “Do you want a Capri Sun”?   I look up again, not picking up on the signal, smile and say “Um…no thanks.  I’m ok”.  I look back down and she takes another sip.  This time with more emphasis than before she says, “are you SURE you don’t want a Capri Sun”?  Again, swoosh….right over my head.  I say, “Uhhhh.  Yea…I’m pretty sure.  Thanks though”.  At this point Stacy gives up and says, “Ohhh Kaaay” and bounces back out of the room.  After she’s gone, I think, “that was weird” and almost ask Jason “what’s up with your sister” and “does she have some kind of juice problem we need to have addressed”?  But I keep it to myself.

In college, memories of the past get pushed aside because there’s so much future to think about.  After graduation, my busy schedule slowed down a little and memories of the proverbial glory days start to filter back into my mind.  One Saturday, late morning I decide spontaneously to take a photography day trip into the Texas hill country.  As I’m driving down the highway, the memory of that day pops into my head.  I recall Stacy and her Capri Sun and as before I think, “huh that was weird”…..then the light bulb goes off.  No sooner than I realize my mistake, do my eyes bug out of my head, my foot lets off the gas and I let out a loud,”Awwwwwww” while my eyes and hands grope mindlessly around the dashboard for few seconds looking for the flux capacitor button so that I can go back to 1993.  Once I come to my senses and remember that flux capacitors are fictional (and worse, even if they had been real I never would have sprung for the option), all I can do as I coast down the highway is smack myself in the head with both hands and exclaim, “Son of a Bitch”!

I was so disappointed with myself that day that I didn’t feel like doing any photography, so instead I pulled over at a roadside bar in the quaint hill country town that I was passing through.  I sat there for an hour nursing a single beer while designing a flux capacitor on about a half a ream of cocktail napkins.  From a distance, out of the corner of my eye, I can tell that the bartender is eye-ballin’ me with an annoyed look on her face.  She declares, “Don’t worry about me.  I was fixin’ to go out back an cut down a entire forest anyways”?   At that, I realize that I had probably used one too many napkins about a half a pint in to the project and feel obliged to tell her the story about 1993 and the prettiest girl in Texas to make up for depleting her paper stock.  She sympathizes and says, “Ooohhhh…that’s rough” and then jokes that, “all the cocktail napkins in the world aren’t going to make up for that bonehead move”.  As she replenishes the dispenser, I retort, “I beg to differ.  The flux capacitor is real.  The trick is that you have to get all three dots lined up just right”.  She glances down at my work and notices that every napkin sports the exact same drawing.  Feeling the unasked question behind her raised eyebrow, I remind her that “Practice make perfect”.  With a flirtatious tone and bemused look she implores, “Uh-huh…and what happens if you mess up the dots”?  I say, “You just turn into a giant insect and start throwing up a lot”.  Then she blurts, “Ahhhhhh!  I think our flux capacitor goes on the fritz every Friday around happy hour”.


Image “Flux Capacitor” Copyright Dave Coustan – Creative Commons Attribution License. Image cropped

 

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The Dukes of Smith County (AKA: Dude, I lost my muffins)

In high school, as middle class suburban kids, we had it pretty easy much of the time.  We went to school, hung out with friends, did homework, went to the lake, watched TV and on occasion tried to make a little cash.  I watched most of the old popular reruns, my personal favorite was Looney Tunes.  My buddy Josh was a huge Dukes of Hazard fan.  It was his favorite TV show by far.  The first job I tried was lumberjacking on the family farm.  Josh chose a paper route.  Both are tough gigs but what possessed him to want to get up at 4AM on a weekend and rush around delivering huge piles of newspapers as a high school student….I’ll never know.  Somehow his recruitment efforts were successful for the first run so I was onboard.  His plan was to take his parents’ suburban to handle the route.  So, one Saturday night our sophomore year I spent the night at his house so we could get an early start the next morning. This was in the days before the term “Sport Utility Vehicle” existed.  The mid-80’s models were still built on truck chassis, so driving these boats was just like the 70’s model heavy half pickup that I borrowed from my dad on occasion, and they were just as tough.

4AM came early and I reluctantly roll out of bed, tired and hungry.  Normally, Josh’s mom would have had breakfast ready at this point in our day but at 4AM…no such luck.  So instead he fires up the suburban as I wearily survey the scene.  I thought it strange that he had removed the back seats which had to me physically removed from the vehicle.  As soon as we leave the house, it becomes clear that we we’re going to have to stop for road food, but we have to pick up the papers first.  We arrive at the Tyler Morning Telegraph within a half hour and as they load us up, my eyes get wider and wider at each incoming load.  By the time they finish, my jaw is agape and the suburban is stacked front to  back about 2/3 of the way to the top.  This is the Sunday edition laden with ad circulars and comics.  At 16 years old, we don’t exactly have a seasoned work ethic or attention to detail so, naturally we get a little behind.  The first problem is the road food.  We hadn’t planned ahead to bring snacks from home.  Josh seconds my motion to stop off and fuel up  (I’m craving some blueberry muffins and a Dr. Pepper).  As I pop open the package we get back onto the road and checked the route.  Here’s the next logistics problem.  We failed to  go over the plan in advance and with less than a year of driving experience, don’t know the city roads well.  Checking the clock, Josh gets nervous because if we don’t deliver all of the papers by the deadline, the customers don’t have to pay the bill and he gets docked or maybe even fired.  Since we’re behind schedule, he’s driving like a bat out of hell.  I’m not feelin’ the rush so I’m like, “dude, you don’t have to speed, the papers aren’t going anywhere”.  Not only does he ignore my advise, but he decides to gamble on a shortcut.  We just happen to be near my neighborhood which he kind of knows so, it looks like a good opportunity to shave off a few minutes.  We turn onto a road that passes right by my house.  It’s a steep downhill from Shiloh Rd (a major thoroughfare) into the residential area.  At the bottom of the darkened hill is a two way stop (for some reason, this intersection was built with huge dips on each side).  Because of the lack of visibility, I’m shocked to find that as we roll down the hill towards the intersection, Josh isn’t letting off the gas.  Disturbed by this, I’m like, “dude, you need to slow down”.  Yet again, he doesn’t listen.  I repeat my warning as I remember the giant dip at the bottom and the stop sign which gives right of way to crossing traffic.  “Hey man, slow down”, I project with a sense of urgency through a mouthful of blueberry muffin.  In a 4,000 pound vehicle filled with another couple thousand pounds of newspapers, we’re barreling towards the stop sign like a runaway freight train towards a “bridge out” sign.  This is the point at which I started to get freaked out and in a panic belt out my demand to “Slow the F*!% down.  With the bag of muffins in one hand and the other reaching swiftly for the “Oh S*!%” handle above the window, I yelled, “DUDE!…there’s a DIIIIIIIPP!!!”.  Before he can react, we slam into the crossroad, which at 40mph is like a giant speed bump.  We simultaneously yell, “AHHHHHH…..”The front suspension gives way so much that the front of the truck frame pummels the pavement as we skid through the intersection, sparks flying.  The suspension rebounds as we cross the midpoint of the road which sends us and the several hundred copies of the Sunday telegraph flying into the air, all four wheels off the ground.  As we continue our cry “…HHHHHHHHHH…” In mid-air, I swear I can almost hear the musical horn of the general lee and smell swiss steak simmering in the kitchen, (which my mom used to cook often with mashed potatoes & gravy while I watched reruns on cable).  Bottoming out a 6,000 lb vehicle is a violent collision so the newspapers launch upwards into the roof while my precious blueberry muffins fly out of the bag that I still grasp in my left hand.  Papers are falling into our laps while the muffins are bouncing off my face, the dashboard, windshield and everything else.  As we come down on the other side of the intersection, by some miracle, Josh regains control of the faux chrome trimmed, two-tone, three ton beast as we coast to the next stop sign, me in an adrenaline laced stupor and him with an idiot grin on his face.  We come to a stop at the next block, look at each other and he says in laughter, “Whoa….that was Bad Ass!”  I say in anger…”Dude…not cool.  I lost my muffins”.

It was true.  Sadly, every last one of my gluten rich mini muffins had landed in the floorboard and there was no time to refill.  So we spent the next several hours delivering massive stacks of newspapers to random locations on an empty stomach.

“dude”

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I Want to Suck Your Blood (and maybe have some babies)

This story is about the time I inadvertently dated a Vampire.

After spending seven or eight years in the TV business, I was starting to get burned out with the constant work.  This is the point at which I started to slow down and realize that living was not just about the career.  This new attitude gave my brain a little thinkin’ room to work on other things that I had neglected since graduating from college, such as family marriage, etc.  I hadn’t been on a date in a while, so, I decided that I was going to work less and date more.  I had just signed up for Facebook and decided to do a search and see who I knew.  I ran across a girl from my hometown that I had known in high school and remembered as being an extremely nice and all around attractive girl.  Her profile said that she had gone to graduate school and now worked in Dallas.  I messaged her to say hi and she quickly messaged me back, happy to hear from me and verified that yes, she was single.  We started up a long distance friendship which turned from chatting online to talking on the phone.  I was ecstatic because I had always liked this girl and we could talk for hours on end without any awkward pauses.  After a few weeks, we talked about getting together.  I was living in Austin but there was a mutual attraction and we were both looking seriously so neither of us thought distance was a problem.

One day, I made up a lie about having to go to Dallas for business and she said that we should hang out.  I made the trip and pulled up to her apartment which was in a nice part of town…not fancy but a fairly new subdivision.  When she came to the door, we were both excited to see each other and I was not surprised to find that she still had her Texas hospitality, native accent and good looks.  So that night we went out and had a good time at dinner where we talked about many things, art history among them.  She was a hobbyist with a paint brush and enjoyed photography, evidenced by the picture that she pulled out to show off.  Imagine a dark haired girl around 28 or 30 years old with jet black hair sitting at a formal dining table in a strapless jet black dress with a subdued smile on her face.  In the middle of the shot is a vase with a single vibrant red rose with the pretty girl peeking out at the camera from behind it.  She was a little embarrassed of her smile in the picture saying that she didn’t like her cuspids, but was proud of the artistic composition of the photo.  I didn’t know exactly which teeth the cuspids were but she had been a science major and occasionally used big sciency words that I would pretend to know so as not to look stupid or make her sound like a nerd.  So, I told her I thought it was a really nice picture and her smile was perfect.  I was also excited by this turn in the conversation because we now had something in common that we could discuss.  From my own art history experience in college, I followed up with a comment about symbolism and how meaning changes from one culture to another.  She sounded interested so I elaborated.  It had been a few years since I had studied, so I was winging it (bad idea).  The example that I used was how the color black in western culture means death but in other cultures it symbolizes life.  Of course, just my luck, she took it the wrong way because within the context of the picture, she thought I was calling her goth.  (I hadn’t even thought of that as a possible meaning) so I back peddled some to try and avoid further offense.  Fortunately we had a good rapport so this one faux pas wasn’t a deal killer.  We went back to her place to continue our conversation.  By now we were well acquainted and started to talk about family history, even some of the personal stuff that you don’t tell just anyone.  After a little while she said something that I interpreted as a sign of our friendship moving onto a new level.  I had been explaining that my family had suffered some obstacles that go back several generations and she sympathized with me saying, “Well, you’re in MY family now”.  I gave a big smiled and thought, “Wow.  This is going really well”!  So, we said our goodbyes, parted ways early that evening and I drove back to Austin since the business meeting excuse was a fabrication.  As the end of the year approached, I was planning to invite her to Austin for new years eve and started planning in advance.  During our next phone call, she beat me to the punch and invited me first.  I thought…”Man, we’re on the same wavelength”.

So, she made the dinner plans on new years eve while I was on the road and I arrived in time to hang out for a hour or so before dinner.  We went to a semi-nice restaurant that was about $75.00 per plate.  We had good conversation and a couple of drinks each.  We left in good spirits and she invited me back to her place for a night cap, an invitation that I gladly accepted.  Back at her apartment, she put on some music, we had a couple more drinks, and we danced a little.  Soon we started to kiss.  After a month of talking, this is the moment I had been waiting eagerly (and patiently) for.  I was stunned however because, strangely, there were no sparks, no chemistry.  My mouth continued to kiss but my brain was busy figuring out why no magic and what to do next.  Then it happened……She BIT me!

Talk about stunned.  I kind of let out a muffled “Ow”!  It wasn’t a little playful nibble like regular people would do.  She bit me hard.  At that point I was kind of just standing there not doing anything and my brain was like “What the hell is going on around here”?  Then she whispered, “Bite Me”.  So….at this point my mind is racing because I only have a few seconds to act and I’m really conflicted.  I mean, I really like this girl but I’m not into biting people.  Standing there with four drinks in me, a bloody lip and a strong affinity for this woman who had just become a take charge kind of gal, I start to wonder whether my reticence means I like her more (out of respect) or less because I’m not willing to do something weird.  As my brain searches for answers, I run through about a half hour of thoughts in a matter of seconds and start to recall details that had previously escaped my attention.  It’s funny how something can be right in front of your face but if your mind isn’t given the proper context, you’ll miss it.  For example; in the few seconds that followed the bite, I remember the comment about being in “HER family”.  In my mind I see that she was sitting with her wrists crossed in her lap and that her body shifted a little when she make the remark.  I can’t be sure but I think maybe she raised a hand as she shifted which would technically be a wave in my direction.  Then I remember the photo with her decked out in jet black with the bright red rose in the foreground.  As my mind pushes into to a close-up of her self conscious smile, I hear the comment about her large cuspids and then it hits me….the chick has fangs!   Now, I really don’t want to bite her because I don’t know all the Texas vampire rules, like if I bite her back does that make me her minion?  I don’t want to be a minion!  But on the flip side, since this all sounds crazy, I don’t want to not bite her because it might send the message that I think she’s weird and that would blow the whole relationship.  I have no idea what to do.  So in the heat of the moment, I compromise with myself and…..I kind of bite her…just a little.  Not hard!  Just a little nibble.  Pretty soon after that we stop and she says that she’s exhausted and it’s after her bed time.  So, we say our good nights and I leave for the hotel.

The next day, we meet up for a late breakfast during which I’ve become concerned because my vampire friend appears despondent.  I make several efforts to strike up conversation with no luck at all.  This bothers me because it feels like the relationship is going downhill and I kind of panic.  I’m not sure If she’s just hung over or if its the whole bitey thing that caused the change of spirit between us, so I decide to bring it up.  I say, “I think you drew blood last night”, which causes her to recoil in embarrassment.  I notice the wince and panic a little by saying, “No, no its fine…uh…I…uh…I liked it”.   I was lying for her benefit but apparently she wasn’t as concerned for my comfort as I was for hers because at that remark she cringed even harder.  Now I’m bug eyed thinking, “Oh crap!  Now she thinks I’M the weirdo”.  I try to recover but after things have gone this far, there’s nothing one could say that will make anyone involved look like less of a weirdo.  So, I just stutter a little and ramble stuff like, “I mean…No, I….that’s not what I….Uhh…I mean…Uhh”.  We finish breakfast in relative silence, she’s cordial as we say our goodbyes and I head back to Austin.

A few days go by and I call her.  She does not return my call.  I few more days go by and I call her again.  Still no response.  I now have a strong premonition that the relationship was torpedoed on the last date and so I write her a letter.  She calls me back in order find out what possessed me to write a letter and then says that she has to go wash her hair.  I was pretty devastated.  Fortunately, after a few weeks, I was able to think about the situation from a new perspective, that my perception of the girl was way off base because she wasn’t as nice as I had thought.  Plus, she dabbles in vampirism.  That’s not good.

 

 

 

 

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Martin Scorsese Notes: Film is Dead

 A trending blog post mentioned a comment by Martin Scorsese. His opinion was that words and images don’t mean anything anymore.

bbnfishbowl

Born at the end of the modern era, it was still the 20th century when I was bit by the film bug.  In the 70’s the world technically crossed over into the postmodern age, but everybody I knew in the first 23 years of my life was still living in the modern past.  Maybe because “The Event” hadn’t happened yet…the thing that would serve as wake-up call to jolt us from our traditions of comfort and force us to recognize the world was changing…9/11.  It was either that or the reality that modernism was all we knew.  Whatever the reason, all that academic discourse I was exposed to in those last two years, concepts like postmodernism, the dialectic, and the promulgation of ideas across all western cultures didn’t really sink in.  I guess, like everyone else, I was focused on the pop obsession of the time; the fear that the end was neigh because those in charge of our new world, a.k.a the computers, would all cough, sputter, cache their last bit of data, and bite the digital dust in a super-synchronized sub-millisecond.  Another problem with not being able to absorb all that thinky mumbo-jumbo was that, unlike the theoretical ideology of the communications sciences (yes…it is a science), the film school (full disclosure: the degree is a bachelor of Science in communications) was fun which makes for a pretty handy distraction from all that real world stuff.  This distinction was made even more potent by my background in the arts.  As a youth, I dabbled in drawing and put in 5 solid years of piano and trombone.  Even with that formal training starting at a very young age plus 4 years of fudging around with a guitar, I just couldn’t find a way to creatively plug in until I stumbled onto film.  Thanks to my resurrected passion for the arts as an undergrad, I became hopelessly optimistic that I would graduate with a brilliant thesis film at the ready, receive acceptance letters to the top three festivals of my choice, get noticed by a slew of agents and studio execs and boom…T minus 10 to dream job (If you went to film school and you say your expectations were any different…”You Lie”).  But no sooner than strapping into the cockpit and finalizing the pre-flight checklist did I realize…Houston, we have a problem.

At 22 years, we knew a lot about what we believed and a fair amount about our artistic voice.  There was no short supply of vision.  When I now read stuff that I wrote in college, I sometimes think, I was smarter then than I am now (other times I think I must have been smoking something illicit).  Whatever I knew, it did not include a prescient dread caused by the impending collapse of the world we were building.  We couldn’t predict how the independent film space was fixing to change, how indie festivals would be co-opted by major studios, and the 25% of total screen time dedicated to true independent (read- “unknown”) artists would be one of the fibers in the carpet being quietly and methodically yanked out from under us.  This was a significant problem because we’re not establishment filmmakers. We don’t have relationships with studios. Many of us don’t live in L.A., nor do we have meaningful relationships with people that do.  When you consider the size of the California film industry and their stranglehold on the traditional distribution mode of the business…the truth is, we’re industry “Outsiders”.  Even with the new changes (predominately, freight distribution giving way to the internet), Los Angeles is still the core of the movie making apple.  The new media distributors now dwarf “the majors” in size measured by operating capital, however the two largest players Netflix and Amazon just setup new facilities in the L.A. area.  Even as late as the early 2000’s, I don’t think anyone saw that coming.  Instead of taking pause to take inventory, we, the new generation of new wavers continued to endeavor in the tradition that we were raised with; feature length stories about people and their conflicts, with relatable themes done in the Greek drama tradition, using ideas that no one had ever heard of.  Since distribution was largely controlled by big money, the indie festival experience/theatrical market was the only tool we had to get us launched.  Losing the festivals and theatre screen space to the “majors” was a huge blow.  Why?  Aside from the obvious financial and PR ones, there’s the art of it all.  In order for “Story” to have its intended impact it needs to be presented to large groups in one space; a stage or an amphitheater, on a silver screen, around a campfire…etc (replicated as many times as possible for greater inclusivity).  This experience, had by all cultures for thousands of years, was a true dialogue that invited the audience to ruminate over relevant topics beginning with one or two perspectives distilled from experience by inspired writers and brought forth via the extraordinary talents of the bard and acting troupe (i.e. the Speakers) before a public audience (the listeners) that rightly exploits the opportunity to react in the presence of the so called experts, forcing their conversational counterparts to adapt and synthesize an acceptable rendition of truth with each new performance.  As a guy with a degree in the science of communications, schooled in the history of the development of western culture, the concepts of market system design, rationality of man, plus my own history as a life-long Baptist (uh…I know what you’re thinking….Not that kind of Baptist), I can fully appreciate the social ramifications caused by the loss of “Voice”; voice of the People represented by public university art school alumni who collectively hail from far and wide across our great land.  So, in that way, Mr. Scorsese, I can relate.

However, that’s the break point at which I can no longer espouse the virtues of the old way.  Now that viewership in the digital age has fragmented to the point that even the majors have been forced to join the ranks of large conglomerates and re-format their entire organizational structure, I sometimes find myself at a loss trying to figure out where traditionally structured dialogue fits into a disassociated society (and, what the heck does that even mean?  How can you have a disassociated society?).    The paradox causes the OS in my head to crash but also gives birth to a revelation that the answer is largely subjective; because in order for the world to continue, it has to be.  Society has to keep moving forward in spite of the fragmentation and disparate conversations going on simultaneously in different venues.  More importantly, the mental blue screen of death forces another re-routing of electrical impulses through the smart switches that comprise the organic, carbon based network in my head (one might say the brain is the original internet…think about that invention Al Gore).  This change of perspective illustrates how I reluctantly came to believe that success in that old tradition is damn near impossible if you’re an outsider.  I won’t launch into tirade or attempt to proselytize my dissatisfaction with the industry by enumerating the litany of problems that pushed me towards a new frame of mind (but the list is long). Instead, I’ll generalize and say that I embrace the change.  Hey… progress!  In hindsight, I can say new attitude is priceless, but like most people raised with tradition, in the beginning, I cursed change.  A) it’s different B) the old way felt more organic and really did force us to think and learn and master the craft C) the new digital equipment was then so expensive that only the likes of George Lucas could afford it.

As I worked as a sound mixer in film, a designer and account manager in the TV system integration business for the first seven or so years of this changeover, I watched the tech slowly improve in quality as well as price.  The next seven I worked in TV systems engineering and from a distance watched a second round of reductions in price and an exponential increase in robustness and quality to the point that it could be legitimately called digital Cinema.  Now, for $10,000, I can have what George Lucas would have paid $200,000 for 15 years ago.  Not only that, but I can now say “So What” if the studios co-opted Sundance and Cinemark.  I have You Tube and Vimeo.  I also have access to Apple, Amazon and Netflix.  And if that’s not good enough for you, there’s even a production company here in Austin that built their own proprietary distribution network which completely redefines the concept of self-distribution.  These guys & gals are successful making lots of media for a loyal fan base with a fast growing slate and faster growing audience.

All this boils down to prosperity.  We dreamed of it, had it ripped out of our hands by an oligopolistic industrial aristocracy, a power which has since been watered down restoring some of the balance lost.  Courtesy of the benevolent market system tenet of atomism the balance is maintained by the social regulatory policy called network neutrality and this is a phenomenal shift which brings new possibilities for prosperity, that is, if the public’s viewing choices are not truncated by regulation or the lack thereof (depending on your definition of the word “regulation”).  In western society, the problem that hampers true progress (like in screenwriting) is usually bad structure.  In screenwriting it results in wasted time as a result of bad decision making, but in the world at large bad structure breaks society by inducing the toxic condition of market power.  This problem is distinguished from the former example because individuals didn’t create it, nor do they have the power to fix it.  I won’t go into a discussion on market system social structure, (that’s the other blog: www.homesteadprotection.wordpress.com), but the gist is that when economies of scale create barriers to entry for new business (I use the term business loosely since, we the artists are generally allergic to it.  But, I do use it in spite of this fact because the new path to prosperity for artists is to employ brand building), then atomism is lost and prosperity suffers.  Generally put, this is bad for the middle class.  More specifically, as it relates to the art community, it ruins the lives and careers of those whose inner voice led them to their calling: work in a creative capacity.  Since newborn tech has put the nails in the coffin of these centenarian barriers, I can actually look out and see a way to produce stories that people will watch.  Not only that, but if I’m diligent and smart, I’ll actually make enough money to live.

So, while I agree that the loss of tradition is hard, particularly for insiders equipped to leverage all of the fine resources provided by the juggernaut called California film, the simple reality is that in a natural (unadulterated) market the following is true.  Change: “It Is What It Is”.  Besides, they had a good run enjoying uncontested power spanning one whole century.  But now the tradition will change, the expanded world-wide industry will be heathier as a result, and it will be done in true western form.


P.S. – To Mr. President-elect Trump and family: I hope y’all consider this argument before you alter network neutrality.

P.P.S. – To Martin Scorsese:  Thanks for making so many great movies.  I cant wait to see Silence, another run of Mean Streets, and anything else you’ll crank out in the future.

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Independent Film and Fortuitous Accidents

A couple weeks ago, the sound editing for “The Land” began.  The composer will be starting his work too, so I need to deliver notes and temp music soon.  One of the films that I’m scouring for samples is Martin Scorcese’s “The Departed”.  After the first act, I havent found anything that peaks my interest for this project but did discover something else.  It’s funny how by looking for one thing, sometimes you find something else entirely that’s just as useful.

In the first act we meet several police academy cadets who are all working towards a career with the Massachusetts state police.  One of them is the young cadet Billy Costigan played by Leonardo DeCaprio.  Despite his exceptional work ethic, 1400 SAT scores, and a performance at the gun range that would give Will Smith’s Deadshot a run for his money, the police Captain is dead-set against giving him what he wants; a normal life as an officer in the state police.  The reason is that Costigan has a family with a checkered past that includes organized crime.  Their sketchy history combined with Billy’s record of assault (minor confrontation) makes Costigan the perfect agent to send into the Irish mob because he’s believable as a criminal.  As they slowly cook up a recipe of beratement meant to lock him down as their in-house stoolie, the superiors of the department use a healthy dose of family history and then pepper in knowledge of his wealthy upbringing (proof that he’s no real blue collar cop) to manipulate him into understanding that despite what he thinks he earned, he will never be a member of the state police.  With no real family after his mom dies of cancer, Billy’s only option is to take their offer and become a mole within the Irish mob in order to have a career.  In this, one of my favorite scenes, the captain and staff sergeant Dignam work their good cop/bad cop routine and berate him for being, simultaneously, too good and too bad to be a true member of the Justice system.  The reason I love this scene is because it is a distillation of a theme; “The Injustice of Justice” because it shows a blatant act of manipulation that can only be legitimate in total absence of conscience.  Of course, there (arguably) are justifications for the act because the murderous gangster Costello has to be stopped.  But, that doesn’t absolve the department from destroying the future of a promising young man who only made one slight mistake that, under normal circumstances, society would quickly absolve.   In this scene, we witness the police department’s hypocrisy as they rationalize that “If you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs”.

This got me thinking about the two characters in “The Land”.  When the film comes out I’ll wager that audience will pick only one of the characters as the victim of the justice system (if that), but I think they’re both victims because both of their    attitudes were altered by the system irregardless of their family’s affluence, or lack thereof.  This scene in “The Departed”, also raises the question of another possible theme that is tacitly weaved into “The Land”.   The theme of Moral Turpitude.  If you were forced to publicly punish another by robbing them of their God given rights of freedom you’d likely be tempted to use Moral Turpitude as justification (I mean, really, what would be easier?).  Regarding Billy’s predicament, the captain and staff seargent don’t make this accusation explicit but it is insinuated when highlighting the assault and the criminal history of Billy’s relatives.  In “The Land”, this condition is also suggested by the local sherif.  But the question is this, is he looking out for the public interest or is he working his PR skills under the auspices of justice in order to show the public that he’s tough on crime?  If the later is true, then what is he selling?  And, what’s his reward?

There’s an interesting parallel taught in the study of communications sciences, specifically as it relates to PR and Advertising.  In the history of advertising we see that the media has often been used to “create a need” in order to sell a solution.  This means that the solution pre-dates the problem.  To execute this tactic, a manufacturer of a new product hires an advertiser who creates a convincing message, and inserts it into mass media.  The message is that there is a new solution to a problem the public was not aware existed and now that they are, they must have the solution.  One example is the socially offensive condition of halitosis (bad breath).  This condition was invented by advertisers who were trying to sell mouthwash.  After a successful ad campaign, the manufacturer benefits financially by the fabrication of an idea.  By using this same tactic, a person of high social stature…say law enforcement, has the power to manipulate public perception in the same way in order to sell the public on some idea.  So the sherif in this example could also be fabricating an idea….or maybe, as he would have you believe, he’s just stating facts; objective reality.  I guess without having access to both sides of the story, you’d never know which is the case, but then, that’s where narratives come in real handy.  By showing the other perspective that the public would not normally see, a true objective evaluation of the statements made by the public service figure can be derived.  Even if we give the benefit of the doubt, and assume that under most circumstances that leaders in our society are being objective, it’s still interesting when you come to the realization that other realities are possible.  Especially since, prior experience only gave us the one conventional option: Sherif = Hero = Truth (clothed completely in white) and Fugitive = Villain = Deception (clothed completely in black with a curly mustache).

The Hero\Villain dichotomy is an antiquated narrative device (designed to captivate audiences) that has been burned into our psyche by hundreds of years of storytelling and in recent decades has become passé (But that’s another post for another week).  The main purpose for this blog is to rediscover my own treatment of the themes identified above and invite y’all to join in.  When the film is finished it will make more sense but hopefully this post serves as a good invitation and your interest has been piqued enough to create a desire to see this Texas based, home grown story about two estranged friends whose futures will be altered forever by the many dimensions of the Piney Woods of East Texas and its most guarded secrets.

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Honor Among Villains

villains

As the Austin Film Festival draws to a close, I sit in a coffee shop on Congress Avenue awaiting a web series screening (which is a new thing in the TV business.  This new format could be the next reveloution for independent filmmakers that rivals the movements of the 60’s, 70’s and 90’s).  As I wait for the 25-minute-till, go stand in line alarm, I reflect on last night’s documentary called “Finding Oscar”.  Oscar was one of two Guatamaulan boys who escaped genocide when a tyrannical government waged war on purported enemies of the state.  The execution of a plan to eliminate all opposition was initited by a dictator propped up by the US government under the auspices of waging war against rebel insurgents.

Brutal murders were carried out by an elite military group.  Membership in this special forces unit by young men was highly coveted.  Their orders were to exterminate entire villages, bury the evidence and burn everything.  Women were ordered separated from the men.  They were raped, men were interrogated but not for any specific purpose.  When it came time to finish the job, the townspeople were all marched to the village water well outside of town.  Adults were put out of their misery before being hurled to the bottom.  Children on the other hand were thrown in alive.  Many years after the human rights crisis, in order to uncover the truth, a prosecutor finds two of the former “special forces” soldiers.  Some of the story is told from their perspective.  The interesting thing is that there was no proof brought to bear on the case but they cooperated anyways.  It’s hard to believe these cold-blooded killers, admittedly guilty of heinous acts, could have lied and gotten away with it but instead they fessed up and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.  Through the narrative, we learn that many of the murderers joined the unit because they believed it was a legitimate part of a legitimate government authority.  One recounts that on the day of the massacre, all of the men in the unit were ordered to go get people from the group of captives and take them to the well, which they all did.  Then they were ordered to throw them in, which they also did.  The man recounting these events said that it was done this way under orders from the commanding officers who answered to the dictator who wanted each man to have blood on his hands so that no one would ever talk.

The two young boys culled from the group of victims due to their unique eyes and skin, are found many years later as adults in foreign countries.  One of them, Oscar (who was 5 when it happened), was reunited with his biological father whom he did not remember.  Using information provided by the two Guatemalan special forces alumni, many of the guilty remnant were identified, located and held to account in Guatemalan criminal court.  Oscar testified in some of the trials and is now under government protection living with his family.  After the US declared an end to the war, the killing stopped.

The story only covers events specific to the genocide that occurred in this one town.  But it represents an accurate case study of the terror exacted by this same regime in hundreds of other towns.  These two military men featured in the documentary were part of a conspiracy that tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of people.  When asked why he came forward, one of them stated that he wanted to clear his conscience.  Some people in the western world believe in “Moral Turpitude” as a reason for why people do bad things which means that the defendant has no conscience.  I personally can’t find any support for this belief in our western social institutions that concern themselves with upholding the virtue of truth in the search for evidence of the nature of reality; neither in the academic circles that teach history of our principles that circumscribe the behavior of proper western society, nor in the crowd of religious scholars that delineate Christian theology (if it can be truly said that any realistic interpretation of scripture really does accomplish this lofty goal).

I’m not anti-war personally, but in the west where we like to punish people based on a positivistic assessment that the convicted suffers from “Moral Turpitude”, I wonder if president Reagan, anyone in his cabinet, members of the US Congress during the crisis, or the average American felt any culpability or guilt from our role in creating this perfect storm of terror.  If not, does that mean we suffer from moral turpitude?

As I try to figure out how to proceed in writing a story about the financial crisis and its effect on the most vulnerable members in American society, I think of this more extreme tale of genocide and wonder if there’s anything to be learned.  I’m stuck trying to figure out who my antagonist(s) is (are).  Are they villains?  Were the Guatemalan special forces soldiers villains?  Was it the Guatemalan dictator who is the villain or the US president or congress, or us regular people because we let it happen by not paying attention?  And what is the one thing that distinguishes villain from antagonist.  If one can comit murder and yet have a conscience, can the line really be drawn by “Moral Turpitude”?  Does it even exist.

What do you think?

 


Link to Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/24613099@N05/3765135511/in/photolist-6JHiBv-pJC14G-4QvFMm-4QvFFJ-34S2Tw-acpzGT-6GBVVc-6GFRmy-6GFWP5-6GFMW7-6GBQCD-6GBGbi-48HLLH-g3Lx8Y-6GGfYG-6GBysv-6GFU6j-6GG2wq-6GFPyU-6GC4ST-6GFJMw-6GBwAp-6GBTZg-q3KqNB-6GFW2U-6GG7by-6GFQiE-6GG4fC-61oFae-q3Cm37-6GBPh6-6GBRhn-q3CmQj-6GGiDU-6GBDwR-6GFDYd-q3CVYf-qk1J9K-6GC1FK-q3DdpS-6GC7iM-dnYdqt-q3CnqY-q3KMQX-5qNC9U-6gCYaw-q3Mbg4-qhUUrs-qk8ypb-q3CsbQ

(Photo copyright cranky messiah – Creative Commons License)

 

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The Bard And The Troll – Part II

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….Continued from: The Bard And The Troll: Part I

Part I explained the background of the situation that gave rise to this subject; namely, the introduction of my internet troller who worked for me on my first dramatic short (See Below).

I hadn’t heard from him in years, since he refused to do his ADR audio work that was needed to finish the film, demanded that I give him a finished copy of the film and then when I couldn’t (for obvious reasons) blocked my communications. He recently popped up on social media and slammed me with made up statements about my actions and my integrity. I have to address it but, I reiterate that I won’t resort to recriminations. But instead I want to lay out the situation for those unfamiliar. A director/producer has to make decisions based on what’s best for the project in spite of the fact that unexpected difficulties will arise. This is a challenge for anyone in the indie film space, but particularly for a 23 year old undergrad student in a right to work environment where the contracts are more de facto, contingent on changing conditions and dependent upon teamwork and cooperation of all participants. The begrudged states that he is upset about benefits to the cast and crew. While the most important benefit is the experience gained, there is the question of footage for the actors reel. For a producer, it’s important to always consider the marketing and PR demands of the project. Here’s the problem. Once you get public interest in your project, you have a very limited window in which to exploit that interest before the world moves on to the next buzz feed. Blowing that opportunity would be irresponsible for those in control of the film’s elements. And, on top of that, you never release footage that is not finished (which was the case with this film at the time). While changing technology (the death of film and the un-affordability of the digital intermediate workflow) and technical problems with the sound were causes for putting the production on hold, another was the lack of cooperation from talent. Earlier, I alluded to the responsibility of all involved to chip in to make the indie film happen. It’s so necessary, that its the dominant expectation among independent film directors and producers that the actors will engage themselves wherever necessary to help pull off the show, particularly with unknown actors, which was the case here. The person that holds contempt for me and my so called failure as a filmmaker is the one who refused to do his ADR work, which was needed to finish the film. In independent film, sound problems are ubiquitous and they often don’t reveal their nature until the post-production phase. This is because sound is technically complex and we often do not have a dedicated sound mixer to handle the meticulous job of capturing good sound elements that the sound editor will need to create a professional sound track. It’s also important to note that if you have problems with picture, the audience will often fail to notice, but with sound the opposite is true. The audience always notices and bad sound leaves the impression that the film crew did not know what they were doing. As you can imagine, this will also negatively affect any shot at getting programmed into high profile film festivals. Talk about a missed opportunity! Even though its common sense with reasonable people, past experience has shown me that, for future reference, I should go ahead and make the statement explicit: On future films, I expect that the actors will make an effort to be available for any unexpected/additional sound or picture recordings that crop up and these are expectations shared by filmmakers everywhere. They are also expected to support the film up to its release. Based on one of the comments made by the critic, I’ll also make explicit another expectation that should be common sense: In general, actors on short films do not get paid. This is always the case on student films and that goes for the crew as well (I had upwards of 15 crew members on some days and non of them have called me in anger about the film not being finished). My critic knew of this expectation at the time but has since decided to insult my integrity with the insinuation that there was some kind of expectation of monetary compensation. There was not and the subject never came up.
With regards to the Directing work: Dealing with the technical problems that caused the shelving of the project would fall under the purview of the producer. As a director, I succeeded in getting a locked picture within 10 months of wrapping production and this was cut on a flatbed editor, not digital NLE. Honestly, just getting to that stage was a phenomenal development because of the many problems encountered in production. The script was 80% exteriors and it rained on us each of the four weekends of our schedule. I admit to a few deficiencies wearing the producer’s hat, however this was my first time out of the gate and I had no funding. This film was floated on my personal credit cards and on the bank roll of family members who helped feed the cast and crew as we went over budget on time and money. I also provided a room for all out-of-town actors and crew but this person did not want to stay on location, an arrangement that deviated from expectations shared with everyone in the pre-production phase (another lesson learned about contracts). This film was also made possible because of the hard work I did in the two preceding years since it relied upon my reputation for the support needed from classmates and others in the film community. This is a huge, scary commitment when a young person is starting out in any entrepreneurial field. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to navigate the harsh waters of independent film and hold steady the rudder of craft is mistaken. Any critics out there, I challenge to try it themselves. And while putting yourself at risk, keep in mind that the key word here is “craft”, not “content”. Anyone can do “content”in an afternoon. Craft however takes decades to master. There were so many problems with this production, I could do an entire blog series on it but I’ll save those stories for the festival circuit. In short, I attempted to go BIG with this one by shooting in CinemaScope. To do that, I had to build a rig since the format does not technically exist in 16mm. For most people, its common sense, but again…I’ll be explicit for the benefit of clarity. This was a risky proposition for several reasons: 1) I was 23 and 2) not an engineer and 3) had a budget of about $300.00 a timeframe of around two months to re-engineer an optical widescreen format not used in Hollywood in three decades and test it before going out on my first shoot that would wait for no engineering mis-haps. In spite of the exhausting doubt, the final decision to move forward with my plan happened on a whim…a “no guts, no glory” play which is the kind of attitude needed for anyone on an entrepreneurial journey to press on, and succeed by creating something unique that the market and audience both crave.

Lastly, since trolling exploits the weaknesses in the conventional mind-set from the dying modern era, I want to touch on the subject of conventional wisdom vs. alternative (trolling is accomplished by resorting to a sort of fundamentalism that distills reality down to a positivistic argument void of any truth, a tactic meant to deceive that is as old as humanity, evidenced by it’s documentation in a multitude of western history books and scriptural narratives both). When I was 23, I was as conventional as anyone in the way that I planned projects. After all, Its the formal training environment of higher education that demands this conventional mind-set. Since I was in school at the time, my script was necessarily accompanied by a storyboard, filming location arrangements, and the optional optical anamorphic rig and lighting/electrical plan. In spite of all the planning, the only thing that did not blow up in my face was the one thing that, conventionally speaking, was an unjustifiable risk…the unplanned gut move; the CinemaScope.
Convention 0 – Alternative 1. Who would have thought? Not me! So….lesson learned. Since this was news to me, my advice is more to myself than anyone else. When conflict arises, take a break from finger pointing, walk a mile in the “other’s” shoes and take a risk by producing a well crafted story with your own money and reputation on the line. And if you’re feeling extra competitive, don’t harass. Instead, do more work. This job is a numbers game. If it takes 20 films to get one good one then reason dictates that one should participate in 20 rather than trying to force one to be a magic carpet ride to a dream job. And do this work with integrity which means a good attitude, an affinity for cooperation and good will towards my creative team…you know…with a “conscience”. Western society and American industry was built on it.

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