Category:souvenir (january 2003)

January 11, 2009

"Topaz Carpenter"

I'd had the idea all worked out, and the script outline--or a draft of it, anyway--all ready for a couple of years, but my paternal grandfather Champ passed away before I was able to make the original documentary about him I'd envisioned.

In 2001, I rather impetuously set off to interview my grandmother Avis, his wife, about their life. Which is when I learned he'd been in a band. With outfits and everything. A dance hall country band that traveled the desert towns in Utah and thereabouts. It's how he and my grandmother had met. I guess that made her a groupie.

As long as I'd known, he was only ever the gregarious, Center Street businessman, the guy who ran the dry cleaners where everyone took their Sunday clothes. But my childhood memories of him picking songs for me on his guitar changed as I imagined how, for him, playing music was also a reminder of the life he'd given up when he had a family.

I'd met my great uncle Wayne, Champ's brother, twice. At Champ's funeral, and then a little over a year ago at Avis's. It occurred to me that I should talk to him, hear his stories, see his photos and mementos. Because he is only one of a few people left who can provide some sense of my grandfather as a young man.

And so over Christmas, I took a few hours to visit with him and his wife. And that's when he told me in addition to a musician, my grandfather had been a hobo. In central Utah in the Depression [aka, the last Depression, -ed.], there wasn't enough work in your tiny hometown, so you had to hit the road to find a job.


And in the Summer of 1942, after he and Avis married and had one, maybe even two kids, he left them and traveled to the desert town of Delta, where he got a job building the Topaz Internment Camp, where over 8,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned for up to three years.

Like most all the internment camps, Topaz Camp was built in a hurry, on a grid, using plans adapted from military barracks. Tarpaper-covered sheds were finished in sheetrock on the inside, and each block was divided up into apartments in a range of sizes--all too small--to accommodate different sizes of families. If they wanted any furnishings beyond the military cot provided, the internees had to build it out of the scrapwood the carpenters--including my grandfather--left behind.

Specifics of the camp's buildings and design were collected by the National Park Service, which conducted a survey in 2005 of all the sites and artifacts associated with the imprisonment of Japanese Americans [pdf], in order to identify candidates for National Historic Landmark status. In their report, it says,

Local craftsmen were used, but the requirements were not always stringent; in Millard County, Utah, near the Topaz Relocation Center, "Topaz Carpenter" is still a derogatory term, since anyone who showed up at the site with a hammer would be hired.
And a damn good thing, too, I guess. It's an odd feeling to suddenly find oneself--or one's family--on the wrong side of history. On several wrong sides, actually, if the "Topaz Carpenter" dig were real. I don't doubt that some people say/said it, but it so happens that my maternal grandmother grew up in Delta, and neither she nor her people seem to have ever heard the term.

Until I posted about it, the NPS survey was the only Google reference to Topaz Carpenters. It was someone's insult generations ago in the middle of BF Utah, and it ended up in a government history survey, sounding pretty official. Part of me wants to defend my grandfather by disproving the term's popularity, as if that would somehow change its accuracy. Because he really was a guy who showed up with a hammer, got hired, and who, in just a few weeks, built a prison camp for his fellow Americans.


After the camp was closed in 1945, the barracks were either torn down or sold to local farmers, who used them as barns, even a home or two. There was one left nearby--half of one, really, a 20 x 60 section, being used as a shed--which was donated and restored in 1991 to help create the Topaz Museum. [images:] Which is now on my list of places to visit next time I'm in Utah with a couple of days to spare.

This [Japanese] American [Internment Camp] Life [, 2007]
Ansel Adams Japanese American concentration camp photos from Manzanar [, 2003]

Unless they were on a group tour to Italy or something, my grandparents watched the Lawrence Welk show every Saturday night. When I was trying to score the second installment of The Souvenir Series, the one based on my grandfather's old dry cleaners, I really wanted to find a way to use Lawrence Welk music, and a young composer and I wracked our brains for a way in. But it was just unassailable, impervious to any kind of deconstruction or irony.

But maybe it was just too much and too soon. Watching Bobby Burgess and Cissy King dance to a 1977 big band arrangement of the Captain & Tenille classic, "Love Will Keep Us Together," I realize that Lawrence Welk is what it is, a wholly realized artform all its own. Somehow only 353 other people have realized it, too. [via archival clothing]

Turns out yesterday was Mr. Burgess's birthday!


It's the kind of thing you'd expect, sadly, of a clothes horse in a bubble economy: he buys a the turquoise-est, maroon-est, and black-est striped Yohji Yamamoto shirt he can find. That it cost $675 in 1999 is no surprise. That it's made of 100% polyester of the kind that litters mid-western thrift shops also raises no eyebrows.

He he wears it proudly on the flight to Salt Lake City to spend that post-IPO Christmas with his family. Somehow, he loves this shirt, even the second when he steps off the plane and realizes that it is his oh-so-Grand Street purchase that has, in fact, returned home; it turns out to be oh-so-indistinguishable from every potbelly-filled, cotton twill, line dancing rodeo shirt coming at him on the concourse. There had been nothing else like it in SoHo, but context was all.

"Dry Clean Only," the label said, and that's what he did, religiously. He respects the dry cleaner, cowers a bit, even. Does what he's told. You want your $675 shirt ruined by your own cheap laziness? I didn't think so.

It's 2005, a late autumn night on the road. Sweat's built up on his shirt--it's one of two in his bag--but there's no dry cleaners, and no time to wait until Thursday after 3:00 for pickup even if there was. What to do? He takes a chance and throws the shirt in with the rest of the laundry. It's late, one mixed load. He'll take it out to air dry, anyway, how bad could it be? Besides, it's been months since he's cleaned the damn thing, late winter/early spring, anyway, before he had to abandon it for the humidifying summer.

The shirt comes out barely wet, safe, fresh, perfect. Nearly as soft as those cashmere sweaters the first time he machine washed them on the advice of the 85-year-old knitter for Vogue Knitting, who, he figured, oughta know. And to think that all these years, he'd been so needlessly cautious sending it to the dry cleaners. All that money, that time, that waiting, that inconvenience, that dependence, for what?

It's only well into the next day when he remembers he's made a movie about a dry cleaners, his grandfather's old dry cleaners, in Utah. The kind of small town place where rodeo shirts get a pressing before the big dance, and where bootcut jeans get a crease so sharp and starch so heavy they don't hang, but arc like rainbows on the hanger. Is some familial longing somehow transmuted into his reverent care of a shirt? Or has his ironed-on faith in dry cleaning's infallibility finally started to crack and fade? After waiting decades to buy his own brand of toothpaste, has the man finally broken another enviro-genetically imposed bond?

The euphoria of suddenly discovered self-suffiency hasn't worn off yet, and until that flares down it's really too hard to say.

On the occasion of his cashing out on some serious equity (3,500 sf, Dakota, all orig. woodwork, bought around the time Gimme Shelter came out), Albert Maysles tells the NYT Magazine the first things that pop into his mind:

Favorite household chore: Washing dishes, because that is what my father did. In his day, he did a lot of work a woman would do then. We were all very proud of him for that because it saved my mother a lot of work. He's gone, but every time I wash dishes, I identify with my father, which is quite a pleasure.


Broken item he can't part with: I have this movie camera that I built to work in a way no other camera at the time could. It allowed me to shoot while moving around with synchronized sound but untethered to a tape recorder. I first used it to shoot the Beatles in 1964. That film was a revolution in documentary film because I could run around after them.

sony_dsr-pd170.jpg[Is he talking about the Drew Associates synch sound 16 mm? Because he first used that to shoot Robert Drew's 1960 doc, Primary, considered the birth of cinÈma vÈritÈ. Maysles was camera on that, along with Leacock, and Pennebaker.

Whatever, last year he made the switch to DV; now he uses a Sony PD170.]

For a 72nd St. Duplex, It's a Wrap [nytmag]
"Hand-held and from the Heart: The Stories of Albert Maysles" [Doubletake, via Maysles Prod.]
Origins of Documentary Film: Cinema VeritÈ []
Buy a Sony DSR-PD170 (MSRP $3940) for around $3,127 at Amazon [amazon]

Take your ironing board to Sierra Bonita, Souvenir (January 2003), as if you'd want to infringe on my copyright

Filling an iron cinematographically, Souvenir (January 2003), as if you'd want to infringe on my copyright

Cue up the Neil Diamond. Like a boatload of immigrant philosophers, chasing in this Continent's divinely appointed promises, the magically aestheticized transcendance of the twin landscapes of Caspar David Friedrichian Nature and Henri Fantin Latourian Domesticity, Extreme Ironing is comin' to America.

I only care because I care enough to have made a movie about ironing, Extremely Sentimental Ironing, you might say, which was set in that Land of Milk and Honey where Asian and Central American immigrants step into the dreams once pursued by Mormon pioneers from Western Europe.

[Note: If all you want is someone to read the Times for you unembellished, watch ,a href="">NY1.]

Honest mistake, but no, that's not me. Versace ad, nude dude ironingI'm off to the post office to launch a bundle of screener tapes of my second short, Souvenir January 2003, in the direction of festivals across the sea. This gives me a chance to see how my quiet meditation on ironing might go over with European audiences.

As it turns out, Steven Meisel, the king of the appropriationist school of fashion photography, has already ripped off my poignant little film and turned it into a rentboy-meets-La Jetee ad campaign for Versace. Combine this with the recent influx of beefcake on Gawker, and my mental shores are awash with waves of self-doubt about my (fully-clothed) original version. Should I have exposed more than my emotional self? Oh, and I need to go to the gym.

Meanwhile, in the land of Almodovar, on a new weblog, Republica de Catalombia, Mauricio writes intensely (and in Spanish) about his attempts to find ironing's deeper meaning. "I have the smooth impression that if the Greeks, that wise civilization like no other, had had the superfluous whim to iron, the labor of Sisyphus would consist of starching perfectly and folding the Egyptian cotton tunics of the entire population of Mount Olympus, bought by Zeus from the Colossus of Rhodes." [handcrafted Google translation]

Mauricio ends up going to the gym, too (Damn you, Steven Meisel!), starts ironing with abandon on a Sunday afternoon, and experiences a vision "as frightening as Vincent Price in a Corman film."

Hmm. Rather than spend money on international postage, maybe I should splurge on the dry cleaners instead.

It's been a while since I've posted about working on Souvenir November 2001, my first short. I decided a while ago that it really needed a proper sound edit, but my new Final Cut Pro install has had problems opening the project, and writing has distracted me from debugging.

Still, this week, I met with a cool young composer, Avery J. Brooks, about redoing the soundtrack for the film. We had a productive, fascinating discussion. Avery's a friend of a friend (Fred Benenson, who, it turns out, is interning for Peter at Gizmodo. Is there anyone not working for Nick Denton these days?), and is alarmingly talented. Watching the current cut of SN01, he spotted emotional and narrative cues in the music that I never noticed.

Intuited, maybe, but never articulated. Jonah and I put tracks down by feel, more or less. Avery labelled one track "success," another "disappointment," another "random," and so on, which mapped pretty closely to the main character's emotional state as he half-blindly searches for a memorial he doesn't know much about.

It'll make a good summer project, we decided, and I'll post updates of our discussion and clips as we go along. Meanwhile, check out Avery's own site, where he posts performance info and some examples of his work.

My second short film, Souvenir (January 2003), features a man who carefully irons his shirt before spending the day at a rural dry cleaners.

Here are two ironing-related websites:

  • Extreme Ironing: "April 10, 2003/ A new extreme ironing altitude record has been set by the Yety Team - 5,440m on the Everest Icefall...After a little ironing with the Indian Army we headed up the ice fall."
  • The dullest blog in the world: "Walking past the ironing board April 1/ I left the room and walked past the ironing board which I had left up in order to do some ironing. When I came back into the room I walked past the ironing board once again./133 comments"

    Until my film actually screens somewhere, I'm not at all sure where it falls in relation to these points on the online ironing continuum.

  • Since my most recent short film, S(J03), is about a guy who finds aesthetic pleasure and takes solace in ironing, I thought I'd surf up some relevant ironing links, to see if I'm crazy (or if I, and other people, are crazy):

  • The Pleasure of Ironing a Fine Cotton Shirt by Roy Earnshaw, published in a 1987 Land's End catalog, no-nonsense, with a bit of downhome, Garrison Keillor-y romanticism:
    I plug in the iron, check the water level, turn the setting to ó what else ó cotton. Then pause for a few moments to let it get hot.

    The room where I iron is a barren one. No furniture, just the ironing board. A "room we haven't figured out what to do with yet," having just recently bought this house...

    ...The finches in the back room start to peep as first light looks in the windows. Time for me to go.

  • The rise of Ironing John by David McKie, in The Guardian, a goofy sports story sports a literary lede:
    How pleasant to sit on a cold December day in a warm and welcoming room, listening to the servants going about their work: the washing machine roaring and whirring and at moments of excitement even advancing a little across the floor; the dishwasher clunking and clanking and buzzing to show it has finished; the fridge, though a less demonstrative creature, positively purring with pleasure...

    And yet in the midst of all this automated activity there still sits the obdurate, unreconstructed iron, as incapable now as it was in the 19th century of getting on with its business unless compelled and propelled. So many old chores have been swept away: this one remains.And remains, I had always supposed, predominantly for women...
    Yet that isn't so any more. Over the past 12 months, it appears, the young men of Britain have developed a taste for ironing.

  • Pressing Matters by Maggie Alderson, in the Sydney Morning Herald, colloquial, Australian:
    I love ironing. About once a year. That's about how often I actually get round to it. The rest of the time the pile of it grows in a corner of my spare bedroom like the European Butter Mountain. But crease-y, rather than greasy.
  • Channel 4 announces extreme ironing documentary, press release from the Extreme Ironing Bureau, the dry sarcasm British TV wears you down with:
    With stunning locations and beautifully turned out athletes, this film follows the fortunes of ìStarchî, ìPower Cordî, ìIron Matronî and ìSafety Settingî as they struggle with their delicates and make battle against the highly organised German and Austrian ironists.

    Extreme ironing was invented in Britain, but, like football and cricket, it already seems that Johnny Foreigner is better than us.

  • Practice Areas: Consumer Products, sales information for PR firm CRT, track record and attitude? Why go anywhere else?:
    We cut our teeth helping build great brands like Advil, CorningWare, Robitussin and Eskimo Pie. Hey, if we can get a bowling ball on Letterman and a new iron on CNN, there's not much we can't do.
  • Iron your worries away! by Kailah Eglington, on her personal site, Kailah's Korner, life-affirming and inspirational messages to help you catch your dreams:
    Next, I randomly split the ironing into two piles - the "Yes" pile and the "No" pile, then put on a relaxing CD. I start ironing the "No" pile. As I begin to iron, I visualise that the trousers or shirt that I'm ironing is a worry over which I have no control. As each wrinkle is smoothed out, I see that particular worry becoming less and less important. I have no control over it, so as the wrinkles get ironed, I gradually let the worry go.

  • This is what I sent to New Directors/New Films:
    Synopsis: A man carefully irons a shirt before spending the day at the rural Utah dry cleaners once owned by his grandfather.

    Utah Ark? It is shot in one day and is about the past, memory, and the links between history and present. It's not one take, ain't the Hermitage, though, and we didn't shoot the nearby Springville Art Museum...

    Dogme? Well, it's close. Perhaps fitting for a movie shot in small-town Utah, it adheres quite closely to the Vow of Chastity. But the Dogme filmmakers are fighting auteur-y demons I don't see, I have to confess, we didn't put a record player in the backseat of the driving shots, so our music is verboten. And they don't certify short films anyway Dog-me films, indeed.

    The Grandson: No violent deaths, no throbbing neck veins and stifled rage, but from the reviews for The Son and a familiarity with/admiration for the Dardenne brothers' previous work, I have to imagine some of their films' stylistic tendencies and refusal of melodrama have an (indirect) influence on my work. Cf. Souvenir's setting in a loud manual work-place, the handheld camerawork and (near) absence of music. I can only hope I attain some of their film's emotional impact. Read David Edelstein's Slate review .

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    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.

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