27 July 2015

fumbling in the dark (pushing elephants)

I have not used a changing bag in years. The black lump of fabric looks like a windbreaker that was crammed into the bottom of a closet and forgotten. I unfold it, flapping it hard to get any dust off of it. There are two arm holes lined with elastic and a zipper at the other end. Inside this zipper is a second zipper, so that the bag is completely light tight. 

This was any everyday object in film school, next to a splicer, a light meter, various clothespins and hand tools. I line up a few of the film holders, and the box of 4x5 film. Everything needs to happen by touch, so all of the order and repetition I can muster will make it go well. You need to have a system, but I have not loaded this type of film holder ever. I stare at things, mumble words to myself about safety clips, about the smooth ridges of plastic that are the stop signs. I make sure the box of film will open easily. My watch comes off. I make sure my hands are clean, no oil from lunch on them then plunge them into the arm holes. E stands in a doorway, hypnotized by what I am doing. She knows enough to keep quiet and try not to distract me. I do not close my eyes. I stare at a spot on the floor, my head cocked to one side. This is how I used to do it. It all starts to come back, the fumbling in the dark turning into small confident acts. The double-checking, the little tugs on edges. The box opens easily and I tear into the film packet inside. There are little notches on one edge. I know where they line up. Slide the film under the lowest ridge, back it up, fold the flap over, slide the dark slide, give everything a tug. Yes, good. Flip it over, do the same. Move the film holder to a far corner of the bag and get the next one.

We are downstairs now. E is carrying my travel tripod and her camera on her shoulders. I carry the heavy tripod and a giant cotton bag with my 4x5 camera in it. Today will be the first time I actually try to shoot with it, beyond an inspired test shot in the living room of the stray objects on the windowsill. It is hot out, and mosquitoes are zipping around our ears. E looks up at me, that Mona Lisa smile on her mouth.

The woods are buzzing with little frogs and birds. I want to take pictures of the dinosaur weeds, the ones I grabbed quick sketches of with my phone a few days before. There are thistles, daisies, tall stalks with purple flowers sprouting from them in heavy clumps. I manage the camera, throwing a shirt over my head to stare into the focussing glass, the image upside-down and murky. I need to get used to this.

E shoots part of her film, images I hope to see later but I do not want to interrupt her process. I see she is thinking, hand on a hip jutting out, mouth twisting around.

I work carefully, methodically. When the picture is ready to be taken, I have to slide in the film holder and click when it feels right. I cannot see through the camera when I click the shutter. That will take some getting used to.

There is a spot next to the green, murky stream where the sun splashes against the trees. We pack things up and make out way to it. E trots next to me, half out of breath, half excited. A man stands there, hanging a garbage bag from a broken limb. I nod, smile. He eyes us. I wave my hands around, telling him I am going to take a picture of the trees and he asks if he should leave . I say no. He lights a cigarette. My hands are shaking. Maybe he does not understand that this black accordion box is a camera. I take a light reading, focus, yanking the shirt over my head. I think it is right. Set the shutter, pull the dark slide. Hope for the right pose, click the shutter asking myself if one of my fingertips strayed in front of the lens, and then press the dark slide back in. Unbelievable  - a portrait of a man smoking in the forest with great light splashing around behind him on our first day. Maybe this camera brings luck, this cumbersome beast. Maybe it is out of focus and a mess, I remind myself.

People always ask me why I shoot film in a digital age. Most of the time they expect me to offer some haughty reply, looking down my nose at the auto-focus, instant gratification of digital. They think I look down from some film pedestal. I am sorry they think that, and I have a feeling they could use some therapy. That is all about them, not me.

I shoot film because it is difficult. This difficultly leads me to try to do things that seem impossible at first, until I gain a foothold, some scrap of branch and earth to hold in my hand, then placing one foot in front of the next. Why do people climb mountains? I think they feel something similar. I shoot film because I love film cameras. They are simple beasts. None of my cameras even use a battery. They are %100 manual objects, like a wind-up watch, or a bicycle. These manuals relics were designed in a different time, when the world was a simpler place. Using them forces me to simplify, to sharpen my wits, my sensibilities. I know shooting with this new camera looks like I have fun trying to push an elephant down the street, but imagine how you would feel if you pushed and the elephant really moved.

20 July 2015

something about rain (E makes a movie)

I am looking for my charging cable, and wonder if E took it. I am in her bedroom now, the stuffed animals wrapped in scarves are hugging each other on the windowsill. I yank open some desk drawers. They are packed with scraps of paper and folded things, paperclips, little jangly sounds. The next, crammed full of god knows what. A quick wave of vertigo washes over me. This is what my desk drawers look like on a good day. I call her, ask if she knows where my cable is. She does not. I find it behind the couch half an hour later.

E stands by my desk on Sunday afternoon. I am working, staring at an animation. 
"Pop." She says in a quiet voice.
I turn to her.
"I need to shoot your face." She tells me.
"Right now?" I ask. "What do you need me to do? Just sitting or doing something?"
She twists her mouth around.
"Let me think." She says. "We'll shoot it tomorrow."
I watch her go back to one of my old cameras. She clicks the buttons, flicking through the options, staring at the monitor intently. I taught her how to use it a long time ago but it was too heavy for her. A few weeks ago she asked me for it, a quick refresher course and she trotted to her window taking pictures of the sky at night.

It is raining. She asks me to go downstairs with her. I am happy to carry her tripod, to follow silently and hand her whatever she needs. I offer to shoot some behind the scenes pictures for her and she laughs. This is what she does for me now.

The rain is letting up but she finds some wet leaves to shoot instead.
I stare at her, wondering how she is dressed all in black, high top converse sneakers, leather moto jacket and unruly hair. I had nothing to do with this beyond setting an example. We buy her only what she wants to wear. I bite the inside of my cheek, seeing a miniature version of myself, awkward, trying to accomplish some invisible result. I do not hover. I do not ask to see what she is doing, just if she needs me to carry something.
"Are there any puddles?" She asks me at one point.
I crane my neck.
"Maybe later." I tell her.
She nods, motioning that we can go back upstairs.
"So what is your film about?" I ask her. "Do you know yet?"
"Not really." She offers. "Maybe just about rain."

Later, the tripod stands in the kitchen, some kind of declaration. I do the same when I am making a film, leaving my equipment in the middle of rooms, a triumphant reminder.

13 July 2015

anything was possible (suffer no more)

E carries a little bag with camera batteries, hovering behind my shoulder peeking at the monitor. Her mouth twists a little, eyes on me, then back to the monitor. I explain to her what I am trying to say with this shot, how well it is working. She nods, not a word, just that knowing look. It is the very last scene to shoot, a young man leaving his work and heading home. I am trying to expand that moment when the tie is loosened, that long wait for a street light to turn green and then the crowd walking across, how a person can get lost in this moment.

All of the stories from this little film are lives I have led or witnessed. The betrayals, the arguments in living rooms, the date that became a short affair ending as abruptly as it began, the weight of the everyday, the dread of confrontation, the sad hope for more. The characters are young, except for one.  These are little glimpses, broken pieces of a collective life.

There are trains, and streetlights, people staring, leather jackets and an old man closing his eyes as the wind whips into his face. These all came from my past, my days in New York when messages wobbled from answering machines when you got home drunk, tripping over the mess you had left behind. That was when anything was possible but the mood was that nothing was possible.

06 July 2015

white nights and no place to go

The nights are bright, and cold. The drapes flip around like the ocean, drifting in and out of the windows and door frames. Trees bend heavily in a strong wind, brushing against the balcony sometimes like an intruder scratching on the glass. The rooms are fresh and clean, but the walls are somehow closing in on us. We are at the threshold of full-on summer, and we will walk these rooms until school starts.

Everyone is away, or about to be away on beaches and boats, waking up in unfamiliar beds. Summer holidays, a guaranteed trip to somewhere, if only to a shed in the woods surrounded by mosquitoes. No, we are here and the wind is blowing harder. E is asleep, her feet wrapped tight with her red blanket, arms crossed underneath, just her face poking out. N and V are in the big bed, the one that I fixed from squeaking last week. I see her tiny hand in the air, moving as she dreams some impossible baby dream. N, her glasses falling from her face but I will leave them there because if I try to take them all the way off she may wake up.

I pour myself the last of some ancient, dusty bottle of bourbon over a few ice cubes. They hiss and click in the glass until they find some sort of order.

There is a stack of pages to edit, pages I have avoided reading for more than two years now. The fountain pen is there, full and ready. I am lost between hope and fear about what lives there, if changing the names will make any difference. I have wrapped this book as tightly around myself as E does with that red blanket. I wonder if there is any breath left in it, any sparks or fireworks, any electric jolts.

29 June 2015

threading the needle (the birds)

That familiar feeling washes over the morning  - of being pulled in opposite directions. At one end, the petty, twisted mechanisms we cross paths with in life, the foul, grotesque result of miserable people trying to make sure everyone they encounter feels the same as them. It is a form of narcissism, this selfish cloud. It is hard to outrun a cloud, sometimes. At the other end is a tiny creature, a growing ball of new smiles, hands outstretched, eyes that grow curious, an enduring stare that does not blink. This little person that was not here a few months ago, at the center of our rhythms, guided by her ability to sleep, to be bathed, to poop, to eat.

I never forgot the clock I call baby time. Every time I wake E up, I think of those mornings we spent when she was the same pale-skinned lump of needs and big eyes. I think of walking around with her late at night, singing Desmond Dekker songs because that was what brought her peace.

We never forget those times, but there is nothing like doing it all again.

Now, I am walking with V in the stroller and she is not sleeping. She needs to. She wants to. Every curve of the path, every pebble is an obstacle. Will she thread the needle, and close her eyes? I look for noisy children and steer away from them. Out of nowhere two men with a chainsaw appear and I veer into the opposite direction before the throaty cough of the machine begins, and the buzzing into tree limbs brings her back to eyes fully open.

Those petty people, they are not here now. Their shadow cannot reach so far into this leafy suburb. I can only focus on the way V's hands jump around, finding a Michelangelo pose, one pinky frozen in the air as her eyes do surrender to this smooth asphalt, the chirping of at least two different kinds of birds, the smell of fresh cut grass, the low wet splash of a few leftover rain puddles.

22 June 2015


We were walking on the street and there was a toy gun on the ground. I saw no children around, and in one action snatched it up. 
E looked at me.
"Isn't that someone's toy?" She asked.
"We'll bring it back when we are done with it." I explained.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I think they didn't really want it anyway." She said.

The plastic gun with its bright yellow handle sat on the windowsill by my desk for a few weeks. I used to shoot a BB gun when I was a boy. My brother had one too. My father had guns in the house, for hunting. Sometimes the only reason there was meat on the table was because of those guns. The Lone Ranger was a big deal back then, more interesting, more accessible than Superman or Spiderman. He had a pistol, and a horse. I used to walk around the hallways of my elementary school squinting into the distance because it seemed that was something that cowboys always did, especially the Lone Ranger on his Palomino.

As soon as we left the farm, guns were no longer fascinating. I preferred cameras, watches, a cheap guitar. The Lone Ranger doll, broken and scratched was forgotten. It never even made the move to that small town. Something flipped over. It was David Bowie and Kurt Vonnegut, the B52's and The Clash that littered my shelves then.

I try to create projects to do with E in the summertime, while all of her friends are in their country houses, or in Italy or Miami, Thailand, some places she cannot even find on a map. These collaborations are distractions, and they are a joy to create. I script and concept and she reads all of my notes. I show her the way I develop ideas. Sometimes we shoot a little test, and she hovers behind my shoulder, munching on almonds as I manipulate the footage. She nods sometimes. It all makes sense to her. The story is a tough one, and we handle it carefully. She does not shy away from the truth, but we don't push it.

Then we record, we shoot, we edit, I make some music, we mix, we re-record the narration, the colors all get adjusted, graphics, and then it all percolates, like a pot of chili waiting to thicken, maturing. We watch a screener. There are always a few little cosmetic fixes, but it works.

She cracks one of those quiet, satisfied smiles. She understands why I took the plastic gun from the ground a few weeks ago now.

It had a story to tell.

15 June 2015

the tiger in Spring

N and E wished me luck before going to sleep. I made sure the pen had been filled with that bright blue ink from Florence. V was already snoring lightly with her hands curled to her chest, all cherub. There was ice in the freezer, in alphabet molds. I filled a short glass with everything left from A-J. A good splash of the Adega Veha and it is time to look down at the trees bending in the night wind until I am ready.

And then all in one motion, I open the big black book. The notes in the grey journal are on the white table and the dog-eared page reveals itself, the scribbles I have read so many times. I did not know how he would arrive here, how to have it happen without question, without doubt. It took months, after years. I was not in a rush but Richard Stack told me I should always finish a book in Spring. If not in Spring I must wait until the next one - that it was not ready yet. I pushed on this, surrendering two long mornings last week in New York to a booth in the back of the Pearl Diner, laying low, hammering into seven full scenes that glued together a Bowery hotel, a cathedral, a kitchen, a fateful taxi ride.

I am listening to Tabula Rasa by Arvo Part. This has been the soundtrack for the book sessions for the past few years now. The music becomes a bubble, a sense memory that brings me back when I have not written about Paul and Anya and Pasha for some time. It makes the old fragment familiar, immediate. I thread the needle once again, looping into the old story and building a few new lines, a few more inches closer to the end.

This will be the night it ends. After more than eleven years, the book will be on the page now instead of a messy pile of possibilities. It will be one whole, and it will need some editing but I edit heavily as I go so it is safe to say the book is one pile of papers, a plane at the gate waiting for the go ahead, pages ready to taxi, to leap into the sky for some unknown destination.

I do finish, and there is no surprise. I sip from the old brandy, savoring the emptiness. There is a vacuum now. I know I will wake up and have no book to struggle with, no ending to chew on as I take walks to buy groceries. The tiger has been brought to the mat and will not bite.