Friday, July 24, 2009

Movies Are My Life

Movies are My Life

Spuds is learning how to handle film. I know the basics. I can operate rewinds, run a projector, recognize most types of film stock and if there were a gun to my head I could probably make a hot cement splice that would withstand projection. But I approach film with trepidation and always with the anxiety that I will fumble and do irreparable harm to what is often a rare print. Spuds seems to have taken to it naturally though. The boys at first give him little busy work projects and he completes them thoroughly and with diligence. This week we are short staffed and overwhelmed with research requests and 13 year old Spuds has worked his way up from the mailroom.

We get a lot of straightforward requests for things like stiletto heels, drug stores, Shanghai and lunch counter sit-ins. Much of this is already archived and online but often we refer to enormous files of handwritten notes by subject that my dad made after screening hour after hour of film. Many of our customers needs are more subtle than just concrete images. A client demands a scene with sexual tension between a man and woman that illustrates that the man is torn between wild attraction and the fear of being emasculated. Oh, and make it funny. Another customer needs a clip of a medical professional promoting eugenics. Spuds is asked to review some animal husbandry films looking to fulfill the requests for animals (an employee rolls his eyes and corrects my verb) “mating.” Spuds makes perfect selections. He sits on a high stool at the projector, a slightly later model than the rock solid forest green RCAs that were designed to be parachuted to American G.I.s during WWII, which I grew up using.

I worked for my dad when I was a kid. It was different then because our customers rented whole films and not single images. When I was five or six, I would dictate the plot descriptions of Our Gang comedies and Popeye cartoons to my dad who would type them fast with two fingers on a manual Remington and submit them to be typeset for the annual catalog. Later I would make the description notes myself with a pencil on a steno pad for him to transcribe. He grumbled about my terrible handwriting and spelling. His hand was pristine and elegant and his spelling flawless. Finally, I was able, armed with carbon paper and white out, to type my own descriptions which he would edit with a thick red pencil, the kind you sharpened by tearing down brown strips of paper with a string.

When we published the last Budget Films catalog in 1989, we were already transitioning to stock footage and we knew it would be the last one. Some of the descriptions I wrote for this catalog, our customers called it the “phone book,” were actually word processed on our first ($5000.00!) Tandy computer and printed out on perforated pages via dot matrix printer. The commercial printing firm had no way of importing text so it still had to be typeset. My father laid out each of the nearly 400 pages by hand, going through dozens of exacto knives and gallons of rubber cement.

We don’t do plot descriptions much anymore. Instead, we pour over frame by frame and our descriptions are archived on the internet and seldom committed to paper. When I look at a film, one part of my brain is always in frame by frame stock footage mode. I try to see as many of the documentaries we provide footage for as possible. I can’t bite the hand that meagerly feeds me but sometimes I know even from the research stage that the filmmaker plans to use the footage completely out of its original context. This is fine for fictional films but in many cases it pushes potentially effective documentaries over the agitprop edge.

The 16 year old, a big Phillip Glass fan, and I go to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Glass conduct the Philharmonic in accompaniment to the film
Koyaanisqatsi. Because I have no footage in it, I am free to diss it. Now there’s some stock footage. Super flashy stuff but it feels like I’m at work. The title comes from the Hopi phrase “a world out of balance.” Unfortunately it is video projected at the Bowl but this truly is an assemblage of really extraordinary footage, although the frequent shots of blurred lights on a freeway remind me of a high school photography project. Much of the footage is aerial and relies on the most sophisticated technology available at the time (1982). While not a linear film it is loosely divided into sections. The first movement is lots of really blue skies and gorgeous roiling clouds and unspoiled mountains. The earth is beautiful. This transitions to man befouling the earth footage. Big machine digs big holes in pristine place. Man bad. Man spoil earth. Then there’s footage of people. People all crammed in. Crowded streets. Crowded subways. Close-ups of people with bad hairstyles grimacing. Spoiled earth too crowded make people sad. Technology and people bad, except for the technology used to shoot beautiful footage for movies that the few not bad people can drive their cars to theatres to see so that they feel that they are not bad people because they flagellate themselves with the reminder that man spoils earth. Eighty minutes of beautiful footage that inspires awe and nothing, a beautiful vapid thing.

I always had a projector at home and until I bought my first VCR in the 80s, I ran movies from Budget all the time. In the eleventh grade I cut school for days and ran film after film, my mother complaining only about the precariously teetering stack of fiber film cases. I could name the major works of just about every director and performer, usually in chronological order. Now I rely on Internet Movie Data Base. It is summer and Spuds is perched at his projector like I was for most of my adolescence.

At home, DVDs arrive in the mail box every day except Sunday. The 16 year old returns from summer school, lunches and commences to watch. He has just about finished Fellini and is working on Truffaut. He has seen every horror film ever made and has matured now to noir and new wave and neorealists. Like my friend Richard, he is convenient to have around when I have a film question and no internet access.

I enjoy revisiting films with the 16 year old that I loved when I was his age. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Bicycle Thief with him because my memory of it was so sad but is wonderful to watch him watch for the first time films that changed my life. I guess one family’s indolent teenager is another’s savvy filmgeek.

A letter from one of my prisoner penpals admonishes me for not turning off the documentary about Texas death row that freaked me out so much and consequently affected my family. I have now been off prison documentaries for a couple of weeks although they continue to accumulate on the DVR. The 16 year old has been pestering us for several years to watch the Showtime series Dexter. I caught a couple of frames of it while he was watching and it was pretty bloody so I demurred. He was very adamant about the show’s quality so several weeks ago Himself and I watched the first episode. It was better than I expected but nothing, I thought, worth getting hooked on, but Himself liked it. One of the great challenges of my marriage is to get Himself away from a book. It is hard to get him out of the house. He detests social occasions. Very few movies interest him. He abhors chitchat and loathes eating in restaurants. I seized on his interest in Dexter and now we are both shameless devotees, having devoured the entire first season of 12 episodes and about half of the second season.

The premise of the show is outlandish but it is extraordinary that the writers and actor Michael C. Hall have created an utterly sympathetic serial killer. Flashbacks of young Dexter with his adopted father are done brilliantly. The violence occasionally crosses over into the realm of disturbing but then seamlessly and swiftly the script returns to the realm of delicious black comedy where for the most part it remains anchored. The supporting cast is wonderful and the setting of Miami becomes a leading character, seamy, steamy and glaringly bright in the pitiless sun. The performers glow with perspiration as do we, in the dog days of summer. Another heatwave is predicted. The 16 year old is splayed out on the couch with the big screen, ticking off Antonionis and Billy Wilders. Spuds is helping Mom by searching for animals schtupping, er, mating and subtle sexual innuendo. Himself and I are sprawled on our bed in our skivvies, ceiling fan full blast, rooting for a serial killer. We are having a bitchen summer.
Shabbat Shalom


Pat said...

Layne, this was beautiful, partially because I identified with many parts of it, but also because it struck just the right balance of personal and universal. I watch "True Blood" because it too is one of the few things Matt and I can share.
Have you considered publishing this somewhere?

harry said...

Yep, very high quality mémoire... expand this and publish it beyond the blog, yep.

Interesting that "Spuds" gets a name while "the 16 year old" never does.

Chris Berry said...

A beautiful slice (splice?) of summer...