September 22, 2001

The script: Some people have

The script: Some people have asked if Iíll post the script here, and I feel a little odd to tell them there really isnít one at this point. Itís not really a matter of saying, ìItís a documentary; there IS no script,î because plenty of documentary films are scripted, or staged, or laid out before theyíre shot. When I worked on a documentary for Japanese public television right after graduating from college, I got self-righteously indignant before interviewing an expert when the director told me I needed to get him to say something very specific. ìIsnít that dishonest? Itíd be more ërealí to let him decide what he says, and we'll just capture it,î I protested. Of course, I quickly found out that the reason we were even considering interviewing him was because heíd expressed exactly that view in an article somewhere. Earlier, a researcher had found this expert and scripted him in. (Writing this, Iím reminded of the Simpsons episode were Bart became annoyingly famous for saying, ìI didnít do it.î He's a guest on Conan, who tells him, "Just do the line." Same thing.)

Anyway, two years ago, when I conceived this project, I had the general idea of telling the stories of my grandfathersí lives. The standard elements of that production were obvious, if critically unexamined: interviews with them, their family members and friends; ìtoursî of important places in their lives, family photos and memorabilia, historical documents and footage, etc. Journal writing and family history are strong principles of the Mormon tradition and teaching where my grandparents live, so it should be easy to pull the raw material together, I automatically thought. In fact, the project itself could be explained rather nicely within that context. The narrative structure was originally, then, chronological biography. Interesting, perhaps, but also understandable when it sat on the back burner for a couple of years. Making an episode of A&E Biography (still) doesnít interest me.

Not that my grandfathersí lives arenít a great story. Thereís just a difference between the documented life and the examined life. I hadnít been prepared or in the state of mind to examine their lives or to delve into their examinations of their own lives. As many journalsóMormon and otherwiseóand weblogs attest, itís not enough to just make an account of what you did or where you went, what you bought, who you met. At the other end of the spectrum, reflexive analysis of what you think or feel or intend can be just as unsatisfying and specious, especially at the time, and especially if itís done for ìposterityî (a family history [note: that link is a 1976 church mag article.]) or public consumption (Biography).

So. The project came back to the fore after I had developed some questions I wanted to examine and answer for myself. The most immediate medium for exploring these questions is my family, my grandparentsí lives and experience. Some of these questions have already been referred to in this log; others I plan on NOT posting, because I feel they could potentially obscure the experience of making and watching the movie. And in some cases, I still donít know the questions, much less the answers. Itís an iterative process, which is extremely well suited to digital video and, I hope, to weblogs as well.

September 19, 2001

"The Smoke of Thought": For

"The Smoke of Thought": For the third night in a row, at around 10PM, the wind shifted, and the faint but unignorable smell of burning reached the upper east side. Searching on Google for "smoke" and "smell" brought up two interesting poets: AE Housman and Philip Larkin. I've seen Larkin quoted several times in the past week. Here's an excerpt from Housman's "A Shropshire Lad":

Today while I am master still,
And flesh and soul, now both are strong,
Shall hale the sullen slaves along,

Before this fire of sense decay,
This smoke of thought blow clean away,
And leave with ancient night alone
The steadfast and enduring bone.

Larkin's poem, "The Building", contains a description of people in a hospital waiting room that could just as easily apply to New Yorkers lately: "They're quiet. To realise/This new thing held in common makes them quiet..."

For the record, I hardly ever read poetry and know basically nothing of poets or poetry. I guess I considered it superfluous--irrelevant, even--to the practical, "real" world I saw. Sometimes it steps up to the plate, though, and nails that same reality more cleanly than 150 hours of continuous media ever could. Economy of expression.

Like other friends who regularly add to their websites, I've been reticent to post during the week. From the standpoint of this site, it was a fairly easy decision; this journal is meant to document a film project I re-started in July. From a personal standpoint, it's been more difficult. After the quest to find out whether people you know are alright or not, the events of the last few days gave me pause, causing me to question the value or importance or priority of the things that occupied my time and attention. An architect friend wrote of being told architects weren't needed right now; Fran Liebowitz just mentioned on NPR that she's a "luxury item," unneeded in a situation like this. How needed is a documentary about farmers and rural small businessmen? Finally, the reality of the last few days made the question of posting moot; any idea of watching my footage was displaced by watching the news. Any attempt to think about the film was thwarted by thoughts of more immediate surroundings, people, and things.

That said, architecture, writing, filmmaking, art--these are inextricable elements of the culture and civilization we live in; the desire to participate in this culture, to contribute to it, to create something that will connect with others and extend/live beyond us doesn't change in a day. In the Times this week, more than one image of the rescue operation reminded me of the work of photographer, Andreas Gursky. The ephemeral work of Gabriel Orozco also came to mind, specifically this photo of the NY skyline. [Note: read the review linked there, too. interesting] The types of activities that may momentarily seem superfluous may also be the ones that gauge the health of the civilization we enjoy and (now) defend.

The primacy of family, friendships, inter-human relationships also survived the events this week. Exploring these ties and what shapes and forms personal relationships take both subject and object of the film project I'm working on. If anything, the experience of searching out friends and colleagues, of responding to messages and emails from concerned people around the world, and the unexpected generosity and awareness New Yorkers show each other on the streets all steel my resolve to continue the film project. Stay tuned, and thank you again for your concern, feedback, interest and questions.

September 11, 2001

11:00AM (EST) I'm fine, family

11:00AM (EST) I'm fine, family in NYC are fine. my wife's stepmother was at work on Broad Street, and is fine, temporarily out of contact.

September 11, 2001

Email now set to download

Email now set to download every minute. the last people we had on our first list from church- the ones who live in Battery Park City and work at the WTC- turned up in New Jersey. Most of the afternoon spent coordinating blood donors and helping set up a shelter at the church gym; it seems under-used, as most people have found a way home or a place to stay. I've read it in other places, but AIM was the lifeline for us to find out who was alright and to let people know we're alright, too.

Other than that, the thing I don't hear or read is how odd it was that everyone was walking all over the city today. Few cars, and every street looked like a concert or major event had just let out down the block. Very civil, yet somehow very unsettling; something was definitely not right.

September 7, 2001

While on vacation, we took

While on vacation, we took a weekend trip to Venice to see the Biennale, a sprawling exhibition of contemporary art. With some exceptions, the art was a tremendous disappointment. Chicken & egg, I don't know, but most of the work either strained to stand out and provide some immediate, breakout, experience right then and there; or else it required time, consideration, and contemplation which the festival format inexorably discourages. In this oppressively large exhibition, the apparent subtlety and understatement of two installations appealed to us greatly: Robert Gober's installation in the American Pavilion and a cafe project/installation credited to the artists Olafur Eliasson, Tobias Rehberger and Rikrit Tiravanija. Understatement is problematic, though, and in ways that concern me as I try to make a documentary that is, itself, unpretentious yet affecting and lasting. Also, these works made me even more aware of how important/complicating are the expectations/experience a viewer brings with him. Let me explain a bit:

In each room of the Jefferson-esque pavilion, Gober carefully places a few objects or assemblages that appear to be found or flotsam, but which turn out to be meticulously hand-crafted re-creations: styrofoam blocks, plywood, an empty liquor bottle. In the corner of each room, there was a white, plastic-looking chair. Were they part of the piece? Gober's certainly done chairs before. [see an image] [read an essay] We debated, looked for evidence of the chairs' handmade-ness (which we found), but decided they weren't. (Clue: they weren't lit like the other objects. Sure enough, they were for the guards.)

After walking ALL over the two main exhibition venues in Venice's August heat, we took refuge in the "Refreshing Cafe," which was credited to the three artists above. The cafe was a series of tables, some white lacquer columns/stools, and a counter/bar under an overturned swimming pool-like form propped up by pistons. It was a rare and welcome retreat from the heat and from the overwrought video art of the show. It wasn't really clear what the contribution of the artists was, but an improvised cafe with a few mod-looking furniture pieces certainly seemed in keeping with the other works of these artists. Just last night, though, I ran into one of the three and complimented him on having made one of the few pieces we liked in the whole show. Turns out that not only did the three of them not really do anything with the piece, what they did do had been completely altered by the exhibition authorities, calling the existence of the "work" into question.

  • This is kind of unnerving; when understatement is the goal or medium of a work, how do you differentiate it from (or not mistake it for) the "non-art" around it? Do you?
  • What does this mean for the artist and the creation process?
  • When looking at/for art, do we readily give artists we like/know more latitude, more time, the benefit of the doubt? Does this blind us to other experiences or discoveries? Is it a sign of dulling of critical approach or increasing orthodoxy?

  • SCENE: Bedroom. Night. Streetlamp right outside the window prevents total darkness. Awareness of my feet piercing the plane at the end of the bed. No comforter? There's a sheet, and it's tucked in. Something alights on my toes. Brushes against them. A butterfly? No, of course not. Damn you, Vladimir Nabokov... No, an Other's toes. We're sleeping close enough to brush toes. The mattress doesn't have a giant seam running right down the middle. Time? Four o'clock in the morning. I'm wide awake. The role of the Bad Dream in this scene will be played by a thirteen-hour trip from normally-six-hours-away France. Well, at least there's a DSL connection here. Vacation's over.

    Greetings from France. I promised at the start of this log that I would generally avoid travelogues/journals and stick to documenting the process of making a documentary film, but since I ended up not bringing any tapes with me on our vacation in France, the project is on vacation as well. That said, it's not out of mind. There are a few things that we've seen here that stick in my mind and will probably find their way into the project/story in some way:

  • Gleaners (see the link below on 8/5): My wife's family's house is in Provence, in a small village of farmers north of Aix-en-Provence. Fields everywhere of grapes, melons, tomatoes, and potatoes, which all remind me of Agnes Varda's film.
  • Farmers: Of course, the rhythms and activities of the farmers around us here are very similar to those in Mapleton, the location we shot in earlier. Just today, in fact, we passed a truck loaded with baled straw. The fact that many of the farmers we see around are quite old also parallels the US, where it's rare for young people to stay with the farming tradition of their families. One exception to that is the vintners, most of which continue as family businesses.
  • Nabokov's Ada: Nothing like dense, intense reading on an otherwise unplanned, isolated vacation. I'd been told this was the most difficult of Nabokov's books, and it is certainly complex. The narrative structure and fragmented timeline--written as commenting on looking back, memories out of chronological order--is kind of enticing and annoying at the same time. Nabokov gets the benefit of the doubt (I'm only 1/4 through); would people indulge such a complex structure for the film? Could I pull it off? Think about the film, Memento, which isn't Nabokov, and forefronts the structure. battery's running low. gotta go. a bientot.

  • August 22, 2001

    I've GOT to get this

    I've GOT to get this film shoot log out of my head and onto the screen! It's been almost two weeks since we actually got back, but since things snowballed as soon as I got back to NYC, I left for vacation with Jean and have been even farther away from the net than before. Some vacation entries will follow, I'm sure, but I'll spare you most of the details.

    On location, day 4 - Throughout the morning Jeff and I followed people around, fly-on-the-wall-style. We shot more farmers, some dry cleaning workers, and some older women doing housework and running errands.

    The inspiration, I think, was Albert & David Maysles' Salesman, a film I first saw in business school, of all places, where it transfixed me with its simplicity, forthrightness, and insight. Now that the whole 15 minutes mentality has permeated (at least) US-driven society, the indifference to the camera that Maysles' subjects possess seems impossible to recapture and either eerie or nostalgic, depending on your POV. I can tell you that the presence of the camera and the notion that something is being said or done ON camera and could be repeated/disseminated are front and center in the minds of almost all our docu participants so far.
    [if interested in Maysles, check out Maysles Films website or this interview with Al Maysles from The Onion's AV Club.]

    After lunch, we were planning to do some driving shots: homes, fields, roads, field roads, irrigation ditches, highways, mountain canyons, etc. We got as far as the homes, fields and roads when the lens fell of the front of the camera and I drove over it. (I still have it and will post pics when I get back). Apparently, the threads had come loose during repeated rotations of the graduated density filter (which is half gray and half clear and is useful for shooting with outdoor light). Anyway, shooting wrapped up pretty quickly after that. We had to get the sound equipment back to my friend Dodge, so we just kept on driving. This unexpectedly abrupt end of shooting did NOT have anything to do with the fact that the crew had its first-and only-lunch with beer in UtahÖ

    A final note from the crew regarding the location: Give up the search for good coffee early, at least in Utah County. Stick to 7-11 and avoid gas station/mini-marts, where 80-ounce refillable jugs of Diet Coke rule. In these locations, the coffee is generally the color of Coke (with melted ice), and apparently just as flavorful. One morning, I cracked, "I guess God doesn't want you to drink coffee," Jeff quickly (and accurately) replied, "Mormons don't want me to drink coffee."[note: I put the same link for both, since I'm a believer. ]

    [Just ignore the dates. There's so much going on, I'm more than a little behind on the log.] On location, day 3 - We spent most of the day following around Chad, a 32-year old farmer in Mapleton. Along with his father, he works several hundred acres of land around town, including the fields he leases from my grandparents' farm. Here's what we spent the day shooting:

  • Changing the course of irrigation water: While the irrigation ditches we shot on Wednesday are concrete-lined with pop-out steel gates, the water Chad changed today was in a field with an unlined dirt ditch. He had hip waders as he took up and moved an 8' plastic tarp that served as a dam, and then he used a shovel to close the 6 or so openings in the side of the ditch that allowed water to flow into the field. It was freakin' (sic) hot (100+ degrees) with no shade. Jeff waded into the ditch to shoot, while I scampered along the bank, pushing through weeds with the boom mike (which is tethered to the camera), trying to keep up.
  • Feeding lambs in their pens: Completely deserving of their reputations as stupid animals (the theme of Babe notwithstanding), sheep are also extremely smelly. At least when they're in pens where straw and their own manure make up the groundcover. They basically stampeded around behind each other, kicking up dust. Oh, and they licked the hell out of the lens, necessitating several midshoot wipedowns.
  • Cutting grain: We followed and rode along as Chad and his 10-year old nephew cut a field of grain with a combine (Check out ebay to see what a combine looks like.), which kicked up mad amounts of dust and chaff. Their field is located right across from a small subdivision, which was built on top of an alfalfa field. All in all, it was a hot, dirty, tiring day, and I felt like a total city poseur by the time it was over.

    So after dinner, we went to Ream's, a grocery/western wear store, and bought big silver belt buckles with our initials on them. (Sure put a stop to that whole "poseur" thing, let me tell ya).

  • Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

    Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

    comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
    greg [at] greg [dot ] org

    find me on twitter: @gregorg

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