Friday, December 31, 2010

Our Lot

We observe a traditional Jewish Christmas. The Islamic Chinese restaurant is packed and overwhelmed servers pant as they dart about. The place roars with Asians and Muslims in burqas and nappy haired Jewish children prancing about and I feel a warm camaraderie, as one with the infidels.

Himself is persnickety about anything that involves the expenditure of monies and/or leaving the house so it turns out that the only movie the three men can agree on for the rite of Jewish Christmas is 127 Hours. I have a sort of numerical dyslexia and also lately trouble remembering the precise names of things. I request four tickets for 128 Days Later and while the box office girl is nonplussed my family subjects me to several days of ridicule. I see lots of films that I know are disturbing and manage. Heck, Himself and I saw Dead Ringers on our first date. I think I’ll survive the film but as soon as the titles are over I cannot watch. James Franco is going to fall into a in a crevice and get his hand stuck between two rocks and he’s going to end up cutting it off and even though it’s just a movie, I know it’s based on a true story and the imagining of this is just unbearable. I cover my eyes and do my best to jam my thumbs in my ears to block the sound. Himself would be somewhat sympathetic if I wussed out on the scene where he actually cuts the arm off but is annoyed and befuddled that I am unable to endure a single frame of the film. I hope when Himself sees The King’s Speech on DVD he finds it a magnificent film and feels real sorry that he wasn’t amenable to seeing it on Christmas.

The kids ask us when the last time we did anything on New Year’s Eve was and neither of us remember. This will be our 25th New Year we’ve seen in together although at the end of 1999 I was at a cool house party and Himself was stuck sitting with his ailing father in a cluttered stifling condo. Spuds became a bar mitzvah early in 2010 and despite our tenuous connection now to organized Judaism it does feel like an official passage from childhood. My own final and irrevocable passage to adulthood came later in the year when what was left of my mother slipped away and the meager remains dispersed without fanfare. I used to make a big deal about finding the perfect designy calendar because I would have to look at it all year. These days I pick up Mexican presidents from a Guadalupe restaurant or cute kittens from the 99 Cent Store because now a year doesn’t seem very long at all.

My father was frugal and would have blown a gasket about a twenty dollar calendar but he had a strange attraction for bad deals. It seemed he even knew when he was being had but I guess never really gave up hoping that maybe once he’d stumble on a truth that seemed too good to be. I’m not sure if it was with my current stepmother or the one before but an invitation was received for a free visit to what was purported to be California’s next big resort area and sure thing goldmine, The Salton Sea. He was dined and apparently over wined and ended up with a lot and promises that the value of the property would escalate thousand-fold. Dad would often joke about this folly and the land was left to us, a sort of gag gift. Our plans to escape Los Angeles for a few days are foiled, so on a whim, we decide to check out our inheritance in Salton City and cruise down to the Imperial Valley and through the nearby Anza Borrego Desert.

There is no edict that contentious subjects will be avoided during our day on the road but there seems a tacit agreement. As usual the kids pay inadequate notice to spectacular scenery and my prattle about the wonders of nature further incites them to ignore it. But Himself and the spawn take turns sharing music. Himself evokes some sweet nostalgia with REM and Camper Van Beethoven. I ask for some U2 as the natural soundtrack for the California desert but the greatest hits haven’t held up that well. The songs are overly familiar and almost cloying in a Beatles sort of way, stuff you know is good but that you never need to hear again. We switch to the IPOD of our young adult son and he shares some newer music. It is remarkable how accurately he is able to hone in on stuff because the subset of music Mom and Dad both appreciate is a very narrow one. He chooses a San Francisco band Weekend and we both cotton to it immediately and our affinity will always be enhanced as the sound will always remind me of our December drive through the desert.

Himself is too high strung to take pleasure in games so I play a car game with the boys. A film is named and then you have to name another film that starts with the last letter of the previous one. It is a stupid game. The kids and I play for two hours. The frequency of the letter “e” becomes an annoyance but the kids are like machines and I am blown away by the breadth of their lexicon.

The Salton Sea was formed accidentally in 1905 when the Colorado overflowed. Until it became obvious that the sea is evaporating there were sporadic rumblings about grooming the area into a prime resort. The result of these flurries of ambition is a couple generations of decay. Our lot is on the wrong side of the road from the “sea” but a number of cheapola brown stucco unlandscaped houses dot the vast nothingness. At first blush it is an awful place. The air reeks with ammonia and piles of rotting tilapia line the shrinking shoreline. But there is something large and poignant about this worst of California that I struggle to express in words.

Himself returns home from our hajj (there is even a sign on the highway “5 miles to Mecca”) unusually eager to get a book about the Imperial Valley. I pick it up from the library and he is nearly giddy when I present it. It is 1300 pages which make me feel less inadequate for failing to summon a pithy description of the region. This fatness of the tome does bode however for another less than scintillating New Year’s Eve.

I spend the rest of the week mostly at the office by myself. I fulfill a couple of orders and spend a few minutes creating invoices and licenses. Some of my first work there nearly forty years ago was typing invoices on what my father considered a newfangled electric typewriter. This was in the days before the proliferation of video and the only way one could really see a film was to rent it on 16mm. The old office was purchased by the city via eminent domain and torn down. The city had been busted for tossing obsolete light posts into the Pacific and now our old 15,000 square foot building is a storage lot. We stored about 30,000 films there on steel dowelled wooden racks.

We rented films to schools and churches and often to the studios which frequently had no prints of their own titles. The 1970s were a boom time with college film departments, film societies and revival houses springing up all over the country. The Budget Films catalog was legendary and the size of a phone book. It was filled with typos and some really bad writing which I wince to realize is my own. It was laid out painstakingly by my dad at a drafting table with carefully clipped photos from reference books and press kits and thousand of typeset descriptions affixed to boards using rubber cement and a straight edge.

The customer would usually mail in an order form. There were order forms in the back of the catalog and we would mail a new one with every confirmed order. Local, profligate or in a hurry customers would telephone. We would check the availability of prints in enormous black leather books. Each print of a film had a unique yellow page with a calendar grid. Full length films were stored in fiber cases and bound with green cotton straps that were tricky to make taut. Features were categorized by number and kept anonymous because break-ins were common. Early prints had three digit numbers and later ones four and eventually five. The print number was noted in marking pen on the case. Black and white films were marked in black ink and color films in red.

Short films were stored in cans and according to length and category. For example, there were 20 minute comedies which were labeled in black Dyno-Tape, the individual letters were punched out on the hard plastic gun whenever new prints arrived. Labels indicated also whether a film was silent, in a foreign language or bore a music track. There were educational, cartoon, sports and a number of other sections.

Features were shipped, mainly by UPS, in their own cases. 1600’ reels were housed in either single or double reel cans. The average feature fits onto 3 1600’ reels and when shipped with cans and case weighs about 18 lbs. Short films were removed from their cans and packed into fiber shipping cases, which came in a number of different sizes. Sometimes a customer would require that a cartoon or newsreel be mounted at the beginning of a feature or that a number of shorts be mounted together. The film staff hated this and we charged 50 cents per title to remount films on larger reels and splice titles together. We often had will call customers and the film handler would have to drop everything (ballgame on radio) and sometimes even stay late to assemble an order. Once I typed up a fake invoice about five minutes before closing on a Friday. I listed about twenty very short films with the instruction that they be mounted together. The joke was not received in the good natured manner intended.

When a film was reserved, it was marked in #1 pencil ONLY on its booking sheet. Each side of the booking sheet represented a calendar year. We allowed 14 days transit each way for bookings on the East Coast or in the South, 10 days for the Midwest and a week for Western orders. For very heavily booked films we’d have to replace the yellow page every two years. This entailed removing the huge book from its mount and prying the jaws open to fit in a new page. If a film had only a few bookings it was much easier to erase them then to insert a new page. We lived in a sea of eraser dust and our hands were always gray with soft pencil lead.

When a film was booked a 5 part invoice was typed. If there was more than a single error bearing an x-over you had to throw it away and start a new one. A single mistake was permissible but two or more was sloppy and unprofessional. The top white copy was a remittance and mailed when the film was shipped. The next white copy was for our bookkeeper. The yellow confirmation copy was mailed when a film was reserved. The green copy, with a shipping label affixed went to our shipping department. The pink copy was sent as an overdue notice when necessary. Each customer had a file with handwritten booking records and all correspondence. Pending invoices were stored in metal bins according to shipping date.

Checks were all printed on an enormous check printing machine which embossed the amount in bumpy red ink. The bookkeeper would also go through each client’s invoices at the end of each month and type up a statement. If a client was extremely delinquent for a large amount we might resort to a long distance phone call but usually collections were in the form of a “friendly reminder” rubber stamp.

When a film was returned from a booking it was checked back in with a huge steel inspection machine which sped the celluloid through a sort of Mousetrap game. It counted the footage so we could tell if anything had been excised. There was an ongoing problem with collectors removing dance numbers or other favorite scenes. We dealt with a number of creeps. There was the Sally Rand guy and another with a thing for b-movie star Vera Ruba Ralston who once returned a whole print, absent of reels, in a trash bag. Inspectors would remove sections of film with torn sprockets and splice tears by using a razor poised to remove a thin layer of emulsion and applying a tiny brush of cement.

I have about one tenth of the films we had in the old building. Most of what we need from them is digitized but every so often we get an unusual request and end up looking at film either on a projector or throwing a reel up on a rewind and cranking it through a viewer. When we transitioned from rental library to footage achieve we could not afford equipment to transfer film to video and all of our research entailed using prints of film. We’d mark clips with slips of paper and go sit at a laboratory for hours and guide the technician through a transfer. When transfer equipment became affordable, we combated film deterioration by transferring materials to ¾” tape and then we upgraded to beta sp. Now, the beta sp is showing signs of deterioration and we rush to digitize hours of material. We have thousands of hours on hard drives that fit on a small shelf. I can create a demo for a client in a couple of keystrokes but most of the films are labeled in my father’s hand and we have made only a small dent in transcribing thousands of pages of his written notes.

When we bought our first fax machine and installed the roll of photosensitive paper my dad and I stood and watched in awe as test fax from a colleague slowly fed through. We bought our first computer, a Tandy, from Radio Shack and it cost about $5000. We could print letters on dot matrix printer and we finally figured out how to use a very basic accounting program.

My relationship with a calendar is briefer these days and I know how my dad must of felt as the world progressed beyond his comprehension. He made the conversion of his music collection from open reel tape to cassette but when CDs came in, he threw in the towel and just listened to the radio and complained about all the crap they played. Towards the end of his life I couldn’t really explain to him about our digital conversion of the film library. He did like that we sold a lot of films on what he called “The Ebay” but never quite got the connection between the rows of film and those tiny keyboards we all pecked away at. My kids tease me when I try to navigate my computer or smartphone and so much of what they know is forever beyond my grasp. Tons of moldering films and sheaths of lists and notes and a parcel of spectacularly bleak land would seem a scanty legacy but my earliest memories are of Ella Fitzgerald on a brand new stereo hi-fi and Around the World in 80 Days in my pajamas in the backseat of a pink and black Dodge at the Victory Drive-In. There are no fat trust funds on my kids’ horizon but I hope memories of films and music and drives through the desert linger and enrich the swiftly flowing time.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

Thanks for sharing your inheritance, with our own inheritors. You spliced the Salton Sea with the film reels adroitly. May you and we and us and them (the boys) have a miraculous New Year, coming out of our one-day desert exodus back to the Promised Land, if less palm-fringed on our street. xxx me