Yikes. I feel like I either must or must not watch the documentary, Project Greenlight, which premiers on HBO tonight. It’s the “making of” story of a guy from Chicago who won an online script contest by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s production company, Live Planet; top prize waw a $1mm budget and a distribution deal from Miramax. The NY Times review hinted at a couple of interesting and not-unexpected points: 1) Ben Affleck’s observation on the possible heinousness of the final product (an anxiety I share about my own project), “If Pete’s works, it’s `Stand by Me.’ If it doesn’t, it’s the after- school special I did when I was 13.” and 2) Caryn James’ observation that “though no one says this on camera, one of Mr. Jones’s assets was that his personality plays better on television than the runner-up’s.” As it turns out, then, was like acing the SAT’s or winning the first Survivor; there is a system to be understood and played. Just sign up for the Princeton Review of film making…
[added 18 Feb 02: Looking for Madonna & Gursky? scroll down or click here.]
Just got this via email tonight:
Documentary Fortnight , a film and video festival at MoMA December 6-16. Most of the movies are in the “social documentary tradition,” meant to illuminate, motivate, and drive social change. Many relate in some way or another to September 11 and the aftermath, including a veritable A&E marathon weekend’s worth of Afghan- and Islam-related works. Hmm. Here are two films that look interesting to me:
The Fourth Dimension. 2001. USA/Japan. Directed by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. The Fourth Dimension is a multilayered work that utilizes visual metaphors to address its central themes: the experience of time, the impossibility of truly seeing, and the impact of video on image making.
Beneath the Veil 2000-01. United Kingdom. Directed by Saira Shah. British journalist Shah used a hidden camera to film the lives of ordinary Afghans under the Taliban. The result shows shocking footage of mass executions and insight into the oppression suffered by Afghan women. 49 min.
This second one reminds me of a docu I saw at Sundance in 1990 called H2 Worker, by Stephanie Black, which was also shot undercover (albeit in the sugar plantations of Florida, USA).
As this log grows, I hear it’s becoming tricky for new visitors to the site to get up to speed with the project; I hope the highlight links will be useful (they already seem to be getting some use). As it turns out, there are nearly as many entries about NOT working on the movie, about daily life, and, obviously, about dealing with the September 11 events and their effect on the city. These entries aren’t included in the highlights links, but they are integral to the site.
When I first conceived this documentary over two years ago, it was different in key aspects from what I intend it to be now. It’s a product of my mind, my family, and my surroundings now, which are all different than in 1998. And now is different than August. So for those of you who are new to this site, I’d recommend looking to the highlight links for the nuts and bolts of this documentary project, and to the rest of the site for the context that’s informing it.
On an unrelated, much lighter (and, given the “deep thought” seriousness of recent entries, much needed) note, I surfed out all the sites I regularly visit during the holidays. Rather than watch movies (see last post) over Thanksgiving, I checked in on some ancient sites that that were cool before the web itself was cool (i.e., in 1995-7).
Blair Magazine: Some of these guys used to work with some friends. Whaddya know, there’s a new edition, number 7, after almost a two-year hiatus.
Polyestuh, aka Pimpz.org: Unlike Blair, this site hardly seems to have changed at all since 1996. It even recommends you use Netscape 2.0, just to “stick it to the man.” Those were the days.
Netscape Browser Archive: So if you’re interested in getting Netscape 2.0, or any other release, for that matter, check here. It supports “Java,” after all…
At the beach in North Carolina, camped out with the family for Thanksgiving. I’ve taken to traveling with my DV camera, AV cables, and a pile of tapes to screen whenever I can get behind a TV. Unfortunately, it turns out none of our TV’s has a compatible input, so I’m reduced to screening in the view finder, with no audio. Less than ideal, but a nice escape from the movies the other car picked: Best of Show; Legally Blonde; O Brother, Where art thou, and Finding Forrester.
So the first tape I put in didn’t have a label, just a date. I started watching it, and I didn’t recognize anyone in it at all. There were little kids running around, talking to the camera, shots of the sky, the camera set in the grass, some “dog’s eye view” running across a lawn, but nothing that could be identify what kind of occasion it was. Where had I gotten this tape? The handwriting of the date seemed familiar (my brother? my father?), but not really. As I tried to imagine what in the world this (silent) tape was and how it fit into my life, all sorts of worst case scenarios began popping into my head. I forwarded trough the whole tape. Nothing prurient, at least as far as I could tell. But you never know. What were they saying? Was the cameraman talking to them? Those Steven Meisel ads for Calvin Klein came to mind.
As I re-viewed the tape, more slowly, looking for a visual clue of who shot it and what it was, I caught a glimpse of the cameraman as he placed the camera in the grass to shoot up into the sky. Frame advance, rewind, rewind, rewind. Freeze. The happy mug of my friend and cameraman in Utah was upsidedown in the top of the frame. Whew. Now it made sense. He’d borrowed my camera package for a weekend to shoot some stuff at a family reunion. These were his cousins. I remember talking about his idea for a piece at the time (he’s an MFA student.) and the British artist, Gillian Wearing. This 1997 article from the CS Monitor mentioned an exhibit of Wearing’s where she video’ed adults lip-syncing the confessions of teenagers. A quote: “The video’s overall effect is to provoke a disquieting sense of confessionalism and voyeurism – of the private being made public in an inappropriate way.” This idea, or more specifically, the trepidation of my project falling into just that trap, has been a topic here on greg.org before (see the archives). Anyway, turns out none of my family (and at least one of my friends) is in a pedophilic photo club. Something to be thankful for, indeed.
It’s obvious to see how entertainment product has been superseded by reality since September 11; movies the country may have once flocked to are now recognized as fatuous and (potentially) consigned to oblivion (or straight-to-video, whichever’s worse). Today, I was made to wonder if the same thing should or would happen to so called “fine art.” Work of artists I both like and prefer to ignore has been pushed to the fore by recent events, and it’s a challenge to see how it holds up in the order-of-magnitude harsher glare. So many things aren’t abstracts or concepts any more; what happens to art that “addresses issues” and “explores limits” once these limits have been surpassed?
This afternoon I walked to Christie’s to preview the upcoming contemporary art auction. En route, I found Fifth Avenue to be completely closed for several blocks. I figured it’s UN week, Vicente Fox is at Trump Tower, that kind of thing. It turned out to be the funeral service of Donald Burns, the Assistant Chief of the NY Fire Department, held at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Nearly a thousand men and women in dress uniforms were standing at attention in the middle of the street, forming a line two blocks long and three to ten officers deep. [note: here is an image from a service one day earlier.] No one made a sound, including the spectators. Stores silenced their music. Burns’ casket and procession had just passed into the cathedral. After several minutes, the officers snapped to attention and began to file into the church. Two months did not diminish the overwhelming sadness and sense of grief the scene evoked.
Vanessa Beecroft, The Silent Service, 2001, image via publicartfund.org
It also made me think of the work of Vanessa Beecroft, including a performance she staged in April 2001 on the Intrepid. Here is a photograph derived from the event. Especially when considered in concert with her earlier work, this seems almost as empty and wrong as a Schwarzenegger film. The emperor has no clothes, indeed.
At Christie’s I saw several monumental photographs by Andreas Gursky, whose work “presents a stunning and inventive image of our contemporary world,” according to MoMA’s curator, Peter Galassi. From the first week after the bombings, when I was in full CNN burnout, I wanted writers’ and artists’ perspectives, not Paula Zahn’s. The scale of the debris, the nature of the target, even in wire service photographs, it called for Gursky’s perspective to make some sense of it, perhaps. As it turns out, he was grounded in Los Angeles, where he’d been traveling with (and shooting) Madonna’s concert tour. The other end of the spectrum, it seems, now.
Irony and knowingness doesn’t work; sheer aesthetic, devoid of context or emotion doesn’t work; stunning monumentalism rings a little hollow. On the other hand, sentimentality, baring-all emotionality, sympathetic manipulation is even worse. What does it take to make meaningful art now? If it weren’t nearly 2 AM (and if I had any answers), I’d keep writing…
[added 18 Feb 02: Here is Gursky’s photo from the 13 Sept. LA Madonna concert, which was unveiled at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris on 13 Feb. This has become one of the top five searches for my site.]
Even though I got back from London (and decided not to really post more about the art exhibition I went to see. focus.) almost two weeks ago, family and work and travel have largely kept me from my newly resolved screening schedule. Last week was characterized by an ultimately abandoned attempt to register our new car (purchased happily through ebaymotors) at the Virginia DMV, where the confusion, cognitive dissonance and abuse are running high, no doubt due to links to the September 11 hijackers. New York’s DMV proved to be reassuringly back to normal, requiring only an all-afternoon wait and the same sheaf of documents they always did. We comemmorated by ordering New York City plates, but with “Manhattan” instead of the “Bronx.” [note: Props to all Bronx readers. We just don’t live there.] NYC truly rules.
Screening and Logging: While a search on the web for “fierce vignetting” inexplicably came up empty, a similar search of my logging notes produces nearly 10,000 results. The combination of lenses and filters we used to shoot (see August entries), including a wide angle lens, resulted in an effect called “vignetting.” This is where the outer edges of the recorded image pick up black rings, which are cropped from the camera’s viewfinder. The Sony VX-1000 camera is known for this, and I thought we were aware enough before shooting to avoid it. Nope. There are entire scenes-minutes long-where we were shooting a farmer moving a stream of irrigation water that have pretty deep rings around the image. Whether it’s fixable or not or usable or not remains to be determined.
Poking around yielded this insane article by Paynie, who shot, edited and screened a feature-length dv docu about this year’s Burning Man festival. Sounds amazing, and on an impressive schedule. “BurnBabyBurn,” is playing December 1 at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival (in LA, somehow). Get tickets here. If only my grandparents hadn’t chosen 2001 to stop attending Burning Man, maybe I could’ve made more progress by now…
Still too distracted in the aftermath? Project in turnaround? The terrorist subplot deemed inappropriate for our new entertainment environment? No, no, and no. Just the rest of life–including work-related stuff, shuttling between NYC and DC, planning to build one house and to find another in the mean time, on and on–constantly impinging on my time and mind.
Also, recent travel has kept me somewhat out of touch with people who regularly ask, “how’s the movie coming? I haven’t seen an update on the web.” Cue the friends in NYC last week, including one blog coach and sounding board who cracked the whip and told me what I needed to hear: block out the time for working on the movie, to the exclusion of other things.
Somewhat unexpectedly, this weblog is functioning as a catalyst to keep this project moving forward. Not even cart/horse, really; practically harness/cart/horse. [as it turns out, he had his own motivations, too; his thought-provoking entry that mentions this site was in danger of getting stale if I didn’t update more frequently. Win-win, Chad. Thanks!]
Screening and logging: another reason it’s been easy not to work on the movie is that right now (since the first location in July/August, actually) I’m screening the footage we shot, logging the contents, taking notes, taking stock. This process–time-consuming under standard practice shooting– is even more consuming because of 1) DV profligacy and low cost (“just shoot ’em all and let the director sort ’em out.”), and 2) the Maysles-inspired fly-on-the-wall, unscripted approach.
During the two hours I blocked out yesterday, I screened “Utah 7: LW Follow,” a tape shot at my grandmother’s house.
Activity: chatting around the table; searching for recipes; starting to make biscuits shucking corn; continuing to make biscuits; negotiating with my young CT cousins for the day’s schedule; reading the paper; getting food for one, then another, cousin. It’s extremely mundane activity, but my grandmother–who was a schoolteacher for many years–has an unconscious habit of gently narrating almost everything and punctuating her narration with aphorisms, observations, recommendations. “Sometimes it’s better to listen silently across the room than to be the one asking all the questions.” (a paraphrase).
[note: it’s 10:30 AM as I write this, and someone is smoking a fatty right outside my slightly open window. Uptown. Off Park Avenue. They’re hanging around, too, not just walking by. It’s like it’s 1994 or something.]
Image: It’s generally pretty static, cleanly framed shots. Enclosed setting is a factor. Not a lot of movement by the subject, really. Also, the almost-impulsive decision to buy-not-borrow a tripod made it a favorite of the crew.
The crew being just me and Jeff, who did most of the shooting, also factored in. Ideally, it’d be more flexible with one more person to focus on sound, mikes, lighting, etc. I remember trying to corral my almost-16 year old cousin into being the boom mike guy, but he successfully evaded us for most of the time.
Technical: The sound sucks regularly. Our new XLR adaptor had a short in it, and there are long stretches where the popping and scratching are so bad, I almost had to mute the monitor. It would’ve been nice to test everything before getting out of reach of B&H. [note: the replacement’s fine, though.]
Light is great. A southfacing kitchen window is all we used. Nice contrast. Some unhappy moments with the wideangle lens. And the graduated filter (for reining in the contrast between sunlight and interior, for example) had a smudge on it. Only for a few minutes, though.
Equipment: This so clearly falls into the, “but it’s for the movie project” school of rationalization I shouldn’t mention it. Actually, if I’d posted about it two weeks ago, it’d give a too-clear portrayal of how I was avoiding screening tapes. I bought a bag for the tripod at Jack Spade, a store near my old office. Cool store, nice folks. The pitch for the bag was, “it’s for carrying blueprints. Or maybe a yoga mat.” They can safely add “or a video tripod” to their rap. Here’s a review.
Here’s a puff piece about the premiere of Jack Spade Films’ “Paperboys,” directed by Mike Mills. Mike makes Moby videos, too.
There’s an authenticity of the actual people and the store and the movie that I greatly admire, which is rendered cringingly fatuous in store reviews and movie premiers co-starring Tina Brown. How susceptible am I, is this project, to being “jaded Manhattanites [getting] a little nostalgic for suburbia?” I’d better make my grandmother executive producer. Back to work.
Actually, I’m leaving for a crazy two-day trip to see some friends whose work is in a show in London.
Sitting at JFK in the UA/BA lounge, waiting for my flight to London. My pal Andrew left on his full BA flight already, while my schedule is more leisurely (and my United flight barely half full). After birthing this morning’s entry, I read this article in the NY Times by John Tierney, which parallels my post of 28 Sept (see archives) and which plays right into discussions Chad and I have had in the wake. Favorite line from the article: “They want to see history with their own eyes, just like Oprah Winfrey and the other V.I.T.’s.”
National was practically empty; faint scent Cinnabon and National Guardsmen with AK-47’s. No free NYTimes (b/c they weren’t delivered to the airport today, apparently). Absolutely no delays taking off or landing, even into LaGuardia. Our flight’s approach was across Brooklyn, not up the Hudson, which offered a wide (but not straight down) view of downtown Manhattan. Everybody on the plane was staring or craning to see. [ shots of Manhattan from a private plane]
My video equipment’s out on loan for a music video, and I’ve been location scouting in DC for the last few days and haven’t been able to work on the movie at all. For cheap thrills, I’m flying out of National Airport this afternoon (good old Delta Shuttle), and will report any happenings of note.
This article from the NY Times about Verizon looking into how to preserve voice mail messages from people who died reminded me of this extended article from the Washington Post this summer, which I’d saved:
“Once, many months after my father had died, we had an electrical storm that knocked out the power in my house,” writes Lisa Valentine of Reston in an e-mail. “The answering machine in my room was blinking furiously when the power finally went back on. I hit the ‘play’ button and heard my father’s voice:
” ‘Lisa, it’s Dad, give me a call.’
“Needless to say, I kind of freaked out until I realized the tape was playing old messages that I thought had been erased forever.
“It was nice to hear from my dad again. But he didn’t leave a number where I could reach him.”
[NYT by Jayson Blair. WP by Joel Garreau]
The Sundance Channel currently has a “Cinema Verite” month, including this documentary history, “Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment,” by the National Film Board of Canada (gotta love those Canadians). Finally, I found this page on Sundance’s site with information on the whole series and some relevant links. Time to call the web usability experts.
ANNALS OF AVIATION/ Malcolm Gladwell/ SAFETY IN THE SKIES/ How far can airline security go?
LETTER FROM WASHINGTON/ Nicholas Lemann/ THE OPTIONS/ After the morning of September 11th, the Presidency changed, too.
DEPT. OF NATIONAL SECURITY/ Joe Klein/ CLOSEWORK/ Why we couldn’t see what was right in front of us.
LIFE AND LETTERS/ Louis Menand/ HOLDEN AT FIFTY/ “The Catcher in the Rye” and what it spawned.
DISPATCHES/ Jon Lee Anderson/ A LION’S DEATH/ The assassination of the Taliban’s most important Afghan opponent.
More poems, this time from W. H. Auden, whose work also turned up with noted frequency. These lines, set a few blocks from my house, could have been written last week, not in 1940:
The unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night.
“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.