“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.
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.
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.
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.
[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).
On location, day 2 – Email still is spotty, dialup is only AOL. And it’s hot as heck (as they say around here in rural Utah). Shooting’s going well. We were up and out at 7 yesterday (Tues.) to pick up additional sound equipment (add a Sennheiser boom mike to the list of required gear.) and to find hay fields being cut, baled and loaded. (Note: It takes 3-4 days for cut hay to dry before it’s baled; hauling is a couple of days later, so to get the entire process, we have to shoot several different fields.) About 80% of the fields in Mapleton were cut and baled a couple of weeks ago, so it took a little longer to find fields in process. Everyone we asked was very accommodating, letting us shoot with no reservation; the first field of guys (hauling) also pointed us in the direction of other fields being cut that day. Everyone knew my grandfather, so they were happy to help out. Jeff, my friend on camera, is pretty good at assimilating, while I basically looked like a tornado had picked me up off the street in NYC and dropped me in the field. (Note to self: leave sandals at home.)
Today, (Wed.,) we’ve been shooting work on irrigation ditches, the network vital to farmers as they move water around the valley. There’s a water co-op here, which schedules each farmer’s allocation and timing. Sometimes, a farmer’ll have to be out in the middle of the night to route water through a series of locks across the valley to his field at a specified time. Today, though, the farmers we were shooting were working in the 100+ degree afternoon. We didn’t need our light kit, which is a plus… the camera’s rubber eyepiece cap fell into the fast-moving current of the ditch and shot away. We got it on tape. “That run right in front of your uncle Juan’s house [two miles away], so you could get it back,” chuckled the 80-something farmer we were following.
Tonight we’re off to shoot the workers in my other grandfather’s dry cleaning plant, then maybe going to the drive-in to see Planet of the Apes. IF we can log the tapes in time. Also, we’ve got to check the sound on one of our two mikes, so the levels sync up. Recording sound straight into the camera is easier and cheaper, but it gives you less flexibility when making changes later.
We’re here in Utah, shooting. Got in last night. Two points:
1) Having been on DSL at home for so long, I didn’t realize what a pain a dialup connection could be. Right now, I’m logged in through my grandmother’s AOL account. This can’t last.
2) It’s freakin’ hot (you can’t swear in Utah without turning major heads). Been running around picking up sound equipment, testing filters, fixing the eyepiece on the camera. If you don’t have a full time equipment person, it’s going to always take extra time fixing, adjusting, and finding missing pieces of stuff.
Since I made the decision to actually go forward and shoot this film project (rather than just ruminate over it and periodically outline it), I’ve been watching films in slightly changed light. Now, I’m much more conscious of really parsing out:
what a director’s intentions were,
when something was executed (i.e., writing, acting, directing, setting, editing, etc.)
how he/she did it (i.e., technical processes, decisionmaking process).
I basically have gotten into full “influence/tool/idea absorption mode. The result so far is a list of films I’ve seen or re-seen recently that have an impact on me and this project in some way (all links are to imdb and/or amazon):
Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners – a simple, powerful movie–shot on DV–that basically pushed me over the edge to make this film.
Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Bizarre if you get right down to it, but an essentially unique film that I’ve fixated on. I’m not making a bittersweet, technicolor french musical, though. [DVD]
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life – unassuming, thought-provoking, frankly touching, and carefully made (Kore-eda interviewed over 500 people for the film and included some of these non-actors in the production). [DVD]
Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge – What is it about me and unconventional musicals? I was heartened that such a singular vision of a film could be realized, even if it’s not completely successful. It blew me away in some ways, though. [soundtrack]
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (Redux) – We saw it last night, first time on the big screen. Yow. Overwhelming. Whether it was just me, or the re-edit, or the big screen, it was definitely better than I remembered it. But basically, it’s the diametric opposite of what I’m trying to do with this film. In so many ways. [DVD]
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line – I can’t seem to stop watching this movie, whose release got so overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan (it seems silly to put them side by side for anything now…). It makes me want to shoot quavering fields of sun-dappled grass, though. [DVD]
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue – a 10-part made-for-Polish TV masterpiece of subtle, yet extremely deliberate storytelling based (somewhat thematically) on the Ten Commandments. Kieslowski’s sense of narrative and of portraying the inter-related nature of individuals’ lives and actions is an inspiration. [DVD]
It’s two days before leaving for location shooting, and I’ve been wrapped up in myriad other responsibilities and projects that won’t resolve. The takeaway: I’ve been ten minutes late all day, and it’s made all the difference. (This phenomenon was portrayed in the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, Sliding Doors, which I didn’t see.)
Waiting in line for some free theater tickets from 6:10AM until 1:30, They handed out the last tickets 55 people in front of me, and the last cancellation vouchers 5 people in front. Basically, ten minutes late. Whatever, I had plenty of time to work through shot lists, which I can assemble into a full schedule for our 4.5-day shoot.
From Central Park, it was off to B&H Video, an institution in the professional video/audio world. The store is run by a phalanx of orthodox Jews, so it’s important to plan on NOT going there Saturday, when it’s obviously closed. That they also close early on Friday (to be home well before the sundown start of the Sabbath) isn’t news to customers, either. But who’d think they’d close at 2? Not me. I got there at 1:55, and five minutes into inputting my order of filters, polarizers, tapes, tape, and cables into the computer, the young guy helping me took off, leaving me hanging. So, back I go on Sunday…
PS Thanks for the encouraging response to the “launch” of this log. I hope it’ll be interesting for you. By far the most common question from readers is, “What’s the film about?” I’ve pointedly not put too much description of the “plot,” because right now there isn’t one. The subject, themes and ideas of the film should become more apparent (to you and me) as things move forward, but for now I can say that I’m planning to tell the stories of my grandparents, who are from the neighboring towns mentioned in my last post. Stay tuned, I guess, to see how that might be at all interesting as a movie.
First week of shooting is scheduled. We (the crew = Jeff and me, with another guy joining up on location) leave NYC for Salt Lake City next Monday and drive down to Mapleton. (The town has the rockin’ URL, Mapleton.org. It’s some Novell millionaires interspersed (or overlooking) the original farmers who built the town. Part of the Springville metropolitan area. Springville.org. These people were really on top of the domain registration thing…)
We’ll shoot through Sunday in and around Mapleton and Springville. There’s an art museum in Springville, thus, the nickname, Art City. Number of business listings with “Art City” in Springville: 21. [source: Anywho.com]
Adapted from Victor Khong’s site, DV Cinematography
A reasonable checklist of equipment and accessories for shooting using a Sony VX-1000. It makes fairly clear the difference between hiring a PM and a crew (the old/OPM* model) and prepping a shoot yourself, essentially from scratch (the new/MM** model)
wide angle adaptor
3 f-stop neutral density filter
Ultra-violet (UV) filter
Diffusion filter – Cokin Warm Sun #694, Tiffen Pro Black Mist, Tiffen Pro White Mist, Tiffen Hollywood F/X filters
Warming filters – 81a, 81b, 85
Graduated grey filter
XLR Adapter from Beachtek
 Lav wireless mike kits and  pin mike
Shotgun mic – Sennheiser MKE 300, 416, ME66 (not gonna do it)
Boom pole, extendible painter’s rod or aluminium shower curtain (same here)
Manfrotto 055 tripod with the Manfrotto 136 fluid head (Victor’s choice)
Headphones with mini jack
Softcase camera bag
Reflectors – white/silver reflector, bounce card
white balance card
lens cleaner cloth (photoco)
 camera batteries
 AC Rapid battery chargers,  DC Rapid charger (Sony AC/DC-v700)
1, 2, 3 closeup diopter filters for macro shots
light kit (detail pending)
Indie Films Online has an interesting article and tips for lighting DV from Cinematography World
* Other People’s Money
** My Own Money
I killed most of the afternoon looking for our tickets to a sold-out concert tonight at Madison Square Garden, turning our apartment inside out (and feeling compelled to return it to more-organized-than-before condition) in the process. Why? because American Express doesn’t provide purchase protection for tickets purchased on ebay [note: perishable link].
The desire to post this otherwise evaporating anecdote doesn’t bode well for my ability to keep this weblog on topic, though (see 28.07.2001 entry)…