Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Bane and the Beauty

The Bane and the Beauty
The price of gas is down and suddenly there is traffic. Our morning commute is a long one and we are vulnerable to delays. Spuds' school makes tardy scholars (as they are referred to with no trace of irony) sit on a rug on the cement floor of the drafty cavernous building and miss the first period. It is a town without pity. We were late once, due to a traffic back up from a large fatality accident. I walked him in and shot the director a imploring but firm look and he was allowed to join his class. I figure I can pull this off again maybe once between now and June. The morning rush sometimes makes it difficult to harness my rage at the selfishness and thoughtlessness that people are capable of behind the wheel of a car. Sometimes the car ride is not a very happy one and I feel bereft for becoming unglued and missing genial chat with the boys. I am embarrassed by my outbursts and I try to remember to apologize after the fact. I am afraid my children will feel that the stress they witness during our rides to school is their fault and that they are the true object of my frustrations. My kids know, and I tell them far too often I'm afraid, about how their requirements impinge on my personal life and that I no longer enjoy the ease I knew before they were born. I want them to know that I am just weak and overextended and that they are the dearest blessings of my life.

My mother had a long term boyfriend and worked, usually full time, and conveyed consistently to me the injustice that someone with her looks be deprived a life of leisure. Her boyfriend died when I was fifteen so I was younger than that when, in some argument. my mother raged at me that I was the reason her boyfriend would not marry her. I probably was. Mimi was at some SRF lecture and a speaker said something about how essential for adult development it is to stop blaming our parents. I don't write here about the scars I carry to indict my poor parents. They loved me and wounded only out of their own woundedness, woundedness I am left alone now to puzzle. I hope I honor my mother and father by struggling to heal and praying for the strength and wisdom and grace necessary to avoid passing their mysterious kernel of hurt to their grandchildren.

My mother's has declined precipitously in the last month. She has refused to shower or change her clothing. The hotel has suggested she is no longer able to care for Sally the cat. What do you do with a seventeen year old indoor cat? Richard suggested we smear the cat with ground round and tell Rover that she'd called me a bitch. On our last visit I asked her about Charles, the gentleman with whom she passes all her waking hours and she said that she was not acquainted with him. Now, mine is the only name she knows. She has not visited my house since entering the hotel. We were remodeling for a long time and now that we are not remodeling I am afraid she would become disoriented, even if I were to stash away the few items of furnishings I appropriated from her home of fifty years. I made mashed potatoes the way she used to for Thanksgiving. She would have loved the food. I thought of picking her up but did not, more due to the fear that she would impinge on my guests and more particularly my personal enjoyment of the holiday, rather than a concern that she become confused and agitated.

My mother has lived at the dementia facility for over two years now. The first few weeks were difficult but then she eased in, felt safe and loved by her man friend there and she was freed of most memories. I have never seen her happier. I have been gratified that for most of the last few years she has been at peace for the first time in my memory. It was hell prying her away from her home of fifty years and selling it and everything in it. My ordeal was worth it and the last two years of serenity is my gift to her. It took an enormous amount of forgetting for my mother to soften and feel safe in the grace of love proffered, blissful in the eternal now. I have made it clear to my own children though that, having had a far different life than my mother did, I cannot bear the thought of, and would not wish to live, stripped of my own memories.

I often think of how my mother would react if she understood that most of her precious possessions were sold for nothing or given away. She was house proud and enormously fussy and in later years truly paranoid, about the upkeep and safety of her property. There were many strict rules of conduct on Fulton Avenue. Even though I learned the rudiments of cooking in the kitchen there, it was always at the risk of inciting my mother's rage for improper clean up or placing a pot in the wrong cupboard. Spuds and recently even the 16 year old, are learning to cook, usually under my tight supervision. I try to gently impart to them how much easier a kitchen works if order and cleanliness are maintained but sometimes, for all the promises I made to myself to be better than my own mother, I morph into a screaming control freak monster. Himself writes 5000 words of erudite criticism a week but he is unable to distinguish a saucer from a dessert plate and his natural curiosity does not extend to learning the difference. There have been words and accusations of shrillness. But, more often, there have been meals he's dug into with such gusto we're tempted to hose him down after. Perhaps I am a bit too kitchenproud, it straddles the t.v. as the center of our home, but for the most part the home improvement has brought joy in cooking and in eating, even sweeter when we recall the endless remodelling when I was too dispirited to even divise a perfunctory meal and Spuds toiled nightly with the Foreman grill and the microwave for which he received $2.00 a meal.

I copy and paste a link and a customer in Australia is able to download broadcast quality images and pay for it with a credit card. In my father's day a ninety minute film meant three steel reels in metal cans, packed in a fiber shipping case and weighing approximately 18 pounds. No physical commodity is involved in most of the sales we make now. My building is still crammed with films, valuable now only for the images we copy and license from them. Film is susceptible to an organism which causes it to melt into a gooey ooze, a condition called the vinegar syndrome. My father completed a full inventory about five years ago and purged us of cases and cases of putrid festering film. I notice lately the strong vinegar smell in the aisles. We are overdue for another inventory. The boys will start it over the slow holiday period and for weeks the dumpster will be full with wreaking decomposing celluloid, including rare prints of films that now will never be seen again.

I stroll racks of film in my building and it is bittersweet for me. They feed my children. They rot away. I walk through the aisles and see Dad's meticulous, almost mechanical, printing on many of the cases. Thousands of feet of celluloid here have run on manual rewinds through my father's calloused thumb and forefinger. Thousand of tears and breaks repaired by precise guillotine splices would hold, intact and perfect if they were to ever pass again through a projection gate. I remember films he showed me when I was little or prints I'd borrowed to show to friends in college but then I smell that vinegar smell and feel sad and vulnerable and impotent that I can do so little to preserve the collection, let alone this business my father began in 1950. People always visit the office for the first time and gush, "Look at all the film," and I respond with less and less enthusiasm or pride. The economy is rotten all over though so somehow my diminishing, literally rotting, assets and mocking, silent phones, do seem a bit less like a personal failure.

I went to a program curated by my friend and colleague, filmmaker John Cannizzaro at the Echo Park Film Center. I often feel stuck and oppressed, sitting here in my office jammed with films and obsolete equipment and film books I haven't touched since IMBD and lots of other crap. The Film Center is a non-profit community group in a funky store front on Alvarado. They teach film-making to kids and seniors and have a big bus they drive around with, teaching folks to make films during the day and showing movies on a big screen at night. They teach super 8 and 16mm film-making and host public screenings a couple times a week. The accouterments are similar to my office but while sometimes it feels like Mrs. Habersham here, everything withering and rotting, the film center feels wonderfully comfortable and alive. This funky community center reminds me, that despite having been worn down by trying to eke out a living for over a quarter century, I do love film. I took the sixteen year old with me. He has seen 16mm film projected more frequently than any of his friends, but last night I realized, watching him watching, that it hasn't been enough.

John, the co-curator of the International Animation from a Surreal Mind program, out of sheer love, though buoyed by some good film festival nods, produces avant garde shorts and frame-by-frame stop motion animation. The program included some stellar examples from other filmmakers, including the breathtaking 1971 Jabberwocky from Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. The intricacy of this film, which made use of Victorian dolls and costumes and extremely elaborate and exquisite paper arts is a stunning ode to patience and vision, even though John's 16mm print is quite faded to red. Another highlight for me was Frank Mouris autobiographical Frank Films from 1973, a stunning stop motion montage of thousands of images that captivated the artist through the course of his life. John's own stop motion parody of Eisenstein, "Fifty Feet that Shook the World" in which the Odessa steps scene is reenacted by film cameras, uniting in solidarity against the encroachment of video is hilarious. if not prescient that video itself would be close to obsolete not long after the completion of this laborious production. His second title was made for a competition to create an unedited narrative film entirely inside the camera, and Gulliver's Travels, a stop motion homage to Eastern European animators is visually complex, funny and a wonderful example how some artists can flourish even when imposed with seemingly impossible constraints. There is no more labor intensive form of film making and I kept elbowing the 16 year old and spitting, "This was made WITHOUT computers."

My business is transacted mainly via computer. I smell the film and worry about it but most of us labor at keyboards all day and seldom refer to a film element. We watched real prints last night in Echo Park though. The film broke. The focus was fuzzy. Some of the prints were bad dupes and others were scratched. Nothing was new or pristine or digital. It was real live film, rotting, fading and breaking and it is beautiful.


FionnchĂș said...

One morning in Prague, up before hotel breakfast was served at 7, I sat in the waiting room where the TV showed a Czech animation from, I guess, around the late 60s or early 70s. I was moved practically to tears of joy by it. My halting Czech phrases, of course, could not summon from the sleepy girl doomed to desk duty for the nightshift any details other than that, in her equally clunky tourist-English, confirmed that these were the broadcasted norm once upon a time pre-people like me in another regime, and another mindset.

I wondered too (silently) about the national use of puppetry as one of the few ways to express their subversion under the Iron Fist. I cannot unfortunately recall much of what I viewed, but the delight of childlike wonder it elicited stays with me. By psychic paths Disney never in me plumbed. xxx me

Chris Berry said...


Your depiction of the evolution of film is really interesting...Especially after having just gone through making a film on a computer...though it was time was way too easy to just google "fish spawning" and download some footage to paste in...It is reminiscent of the tube amp vs. modeling amp debate amongst guitarists (and many other similar techo-evolutionary debates among "purists")...the tube amp being a more "organic", "pure" approach at making music (well, actually banging two sticks together is more "pure")...vs the modeling amp which can mimic the organic and the pure, but never be so itself...I'm not sure what the winning argument is in this debate, but (though I acknowledge and personally like techo-evolution which gives us things like modeling amps and youtube clips) I'm with you on the traditional methods being better...

As an aside, your kids are lucky to be sharing a bit of American history with you in your day-day travails...Like the tube amp, I'm sure there will come a day (and you've probably seen several waves of this already) when vintage is the new thing ...