Thursday, October 28, 2010

Who was on those train tracks?

60 Minutes recently did a special on a mysterious silent film shot in San Francisco in 1906. . The camera is positioned on the front of a tram moving down Market Street, in the broad daylight, full of men, women, children, horses, carriages, vendors, and a few cars. Some people seem aware of the camera pointing it out, or waving at it, but most people simply go about their business. A darevil darts in front of the tram on his bike. All is well.
Film historian David Kiehn has uncovered the fact that the film was shot just days before the great earthquake that struck the city. He was interviewed on 60 Minutes about his quest to find the truth, and it is quite an intriguing story. The authorship of the film belongs to the Miles Brothers, film producers who shot both this film and the subsequent films detailing the destruction of San Francisco. But authorship has little relevance when confronted with this piece of cinema. Only history.
Below is the full film taken from Youtube. Below that is the link to the 60 Minutes story. Be sure to watch the additional films of San Francisco after the earthquake and take them as part of the same, eerie piece of work. Note the similarities.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bikers in the Rain

I shot a short film in the spring of this year. It is now complete. I do not know what will come of it. I do not know, or care, if it is a great film or not; I only made it because I had to. Since I did not keep a journal for this shoot, I will have to simply remember it. That said, everything noted herein is absolutely true.

(Photo by Mark Webster)

April 20th, 2010.
1) It is about to rain. This much is obvious. I drive in to downtown Portsmouth to pick up my Mom and her friend (no relation to filming). I drive back and probably exude some vaguely anxious, pessimistic mood the whole way. This is what happens in the absolute final stages of pre-production; you are waiting for everybody to arrive at the location, but you know something will go kaput. It practically is shooting time, but not quite. Some problem will certainly wedge its way in.

2) I pedal my bike to Little Harbor Road. Now is when the wedge comes; I get a call from Benji. He tells me his car broke down on I-95. He had to pull over and call AAA, but he had no idea when he can get here. I’m anxious, and I’m the one directing. So I ask him if, when he gets the car fixed, he can still show up. (Yes, this is the wrong thing to say. I don’t care at the moment.) He says he will. He’s a loyal friend. Without Benji, we will have no idea when a car or a person is coming down the road to interfere with our shot until it’s too late. It has to be completely clear for the purposes of the film; the most inherent point of the story is that the main character is isolated in his surroundings. If there is a major problem, there will be only four people to fix it. Maybe that’s enough, maybe not.

3) I arrive at Little Harbor Road. I wait, watch the traffic swish by, watch the clouds move as if they are made of molasses. After some minutes, I get a call from Kevin. He and Zach are here, but they drove too far down the road. They describe where they are, and I tell them to drive back the way they came. It takes no time for them to get here.

4) Mark has arrived. He came out from the South Street Cemetery, just like he did when I first met him in this same spot: a lanky, shaggy dot on a bike, wheeling defiantly past the gravestones. It occurs to me only now that he appears as a character would in one of Ford or Kurosawa’s more sentimental shots. But this image looks bizarre and nearly hilarious. It could have been more interesting than any shot in the actual film. But it passed us by.
(Photo by Damon Griffin)

5) I’ve attached the tripod to Mark’s handlebar. Everybody’s been introduced. I look over my four pages of silly notes for the shoot. I hand Zach a trash bag filled with two masks, a tuft of black and white feathers, two tiny bottles of dark and light red solution (respectively) that will serve as blood, and some ragged clothes that look like they could be lying around by the side of a road. Because they will be. We set off down Little Harbor Road.

6) One important thing you should do when directing a film is just let the location take over. It is inevitable that it will take over. So if there’s going to be rain, let there be rain. If your pants get muddy, let them get muddy. If there’s too much wind blowing to hear the bike pedaling, mix the sound later on so that it all sounds like wind, or remove the sound entirely. If cars drive by and yet it’ s the best shot you got, cut it up in to several shots, excluding the car, and live with the jump cuts. If you don’t just let nature have its way with you, not a single shot will be captured. If you don’t let nature have its way with you and your film is still finished, it will suffer the consequences of perfection.

7) We are gathered at the mouth of the dirt road that veers off from Little Harbor Road, and will serve as the “beginning” of Kevin’s journey. I tell Mark and Kevin where to position themselves. Kevin is applying blood to his leg. The fact that it looks very real cheers me. Mark turns on the camera and starts shooting as Kevin bends over to touch his wounded leg, lost and confused on some wooded road. I realize I am talking through the first half of the shot. We’ll edit it out later.

8) The first shot doesn’t work. This is because Kevin misunderstood the moment when he is supposed to jump on the bike, after wheeling it for uphill for about a minute. He goes past the crest of the hill, still wheeling it alongside him. Mark follows, not realizing anything is wrong. Can I accommodate this mistake? Can we make do with this way? No. Man up, Damon. Put your foot down. When an actor does something wrong, then you tell him that he did something wrong. I yell for everybody to stop, many seconds after I should have.

9) The next three, four, five shots go over just fine. I actually enjoy watching Zach place the bird feathers by the side of the road and spread them out so they are intermingled with the leaves and shrubbery. I enjoy sprinkling blood on the feathers, and making sure that Kevin knows where the feathers will be, when he should notice them and stop biking. We are playing with orientation, and I am actually enjoying the (supposed) fruits of our labors. This is a good sign, right? It’s ironic if it is, because this good sign comes right at the moment of the first sign of danger in the film; a dead bird, followed by Mark’s rough dolly close to Kevin’s leg as he rolls up his pant leg and surveys the dried blood on his knee.

10) This film actually follows a rough orientation in the biking scenes. We are behind Kevin; Kevin is biking straight ahead, down the middle of the road, surrounded by forests on both sides. It will suffice. But we don’t know where specifically he is, why the dirt road suddenly became a paved road, at what point he began or at what point he intends to end up. Orientation in the context of chaos is what we are aiming for on this film. It is the same combination Herzog perfected in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and earlier, Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer disorients us with startling montage and constant close-ups that elude any setting. But he orients us with a steady gaze of Maria Falconetti’s face-- all faces for that matter-- usually shot from a low angle. Herzog simply orients us with setting--the rainforest--and a group of people who are moving through that setting, by foot and raft. Later, he disorients those same devices. I am taking the Herzog approach. Except I’m not waiting until later to distort anything.
(from Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972/dir. Werner Herzog, Anchor Bay Entertainment)
(Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928/dir. Carl Theordor Dreyer; Gaumont/Janus Films)
11) Kevin starts biking at the dead end of Little Harbor Road; he is moving back the way we came, to Sagamore Ave. I’m letting him and Mark take it from here. They know what they’re doing. In the meantime, I walk with Zach back towards a bend in the road where he will hang the masks on delicate tree limbs. He remarks on a large, ominous tree with roots that look like their steaming mad about having been confined to a tree. He says it’s creepy and I should get a shot. I agree with him and seriously consider it, but the shot never happens. I feel that we are on surer footing now, and when I watch the footage later, it looks that way. As strange as it may sound, I think this feeling can be entirely attributed to us being on paved ground rather than a bumpy dirt road. Literally, surer footing.

12) When a film is being made on the fly, with semi-professionals and non-professionals, with no money, and was planned and instigated entirely by the director, then there really is such a thing as an auteur. I am the auteur of this film; but it doesn’t make me feel all-powerful or special. It is getting too dark for the camcorder we’re using; cars are coming by too often, stalling the shot; Benji couldn’t make it; it will rain any moment. Nonetheless, I did organize just about everything. The three people I am with are all assuming this is my vision and I know what I’m doing. So I am forced to feel the same way. I am sure all young film students and teenagers trying to make it in to film school feel the same way, until they realize that they aren’t much of an authority, that their voice sounds too squeaky, that they can’t answer a lot of questions, that they’re probably talking too much in the first place.

13) Kevin bikes down the road on the final stretch of his journey. Mark wheels close until he is parallel to Kevin, then pulls behind him. It is a very smooth, graceful shot. Then a car comes by and ruins it all. We shoot again.

14) Kevin wheels to a stop at the clothes sprawled across the bushes. The cloudy sky has decided to saturate all colors for us.  Kevin inspects the clothes, confused, and sees the blood trailing away from them. Cut. He is back on his bike, pedaling away from the scene furiously. Rain starts pouring down. The woods begin to clear. They stop when a car slows down and honks at them. It was bound to happen at some point. Kevin just starts biking again from the spot where he stopped and soon comes out on to busy, civilized Sagamore Road.
(Photo by Damon Griffin)

15) We are wet. I don’t want the camera to get damaged, or the bikes to get rusty. Shooting is done for this day. We still have to shoot the scenes in Cambridge on the weekend. I still have to haul myself down to Boston for that segment of the shoot. In time, I will realize that Mark had accidentally recorded only the minutes where we rehearsed the final three shots of the film, and stopped recording for the actual takes; a week later, we will do a quick re-shoot. In time, I will realize just what a bitch it will be to edit this film. In time, I will submit it to, and see it get rejected from, the New Hampshire Film Festival. Fuck it. I just keep going. If you want to make films, you don’t wait for them to happen to you, you force them on the world. You will be subjected to a cannonade of disappointments, compromises, dead-ends, technical breakdowns, lost commitments, and you just keep going.  You make the same mistakes over and over again until you just stop making them out of sheer soreness. You try to save up more money, you try to use a better camera, make more connections, submit to more film festivals, and they all ignore you; the camera you want is too expensive. You just keep going. You kick and scream and raise a ruckus and fall hard against the pavement, and everything happens short of God himself stepping down from the sky to personally tell you to quit filmmaking, and you keep going. And even if God does in fact come down from the sky to tell you the facts, you tell him to go to hell and you keep going. Eventually, you’ve found some images that people want to see. You have better cameras. You may have made some money. It doesn’t matter, dammit, none of it matters, reality will have to crack someday, you keep going.

Postscript by Will Treacy:When your actors do something "wrong", it could actually be brilliant. If it truly is wrong for the shot, you don't just tell them they did something wrong, you say something like, "that was great, but why don't we try it like this this time" Another good trick is to ask them for their ideas until they align with yours, and then they feel like they're contributing and came up with the idea. A huge part of directing is knowing how to work with actors

Friday, October 15, 2010

News: A Festival of Photochemicals

Claudia Cardinale in The Leopard/ Dir. Luchino Visconti, 20th Century Fox, 1963)

A.O Scott writes in 'To Save and Project' his recent article in The New York Times, that films are "..fragile things that often exist only fleetingly in their definitive state." It couldn't be stated any better. As he later notes, ninety percent of American silent films and fifty percent of American sound films made before 1950 are lost. Many films exist only fleetingly, period. But MOMA's forthcoming series screening newly preserved films, starting in November, is at least a warm embrace of a partially doomed situation. Films from all over the world, such as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard(1963), Manoel de Oliviera's Acto da Primavera and Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970) have all been given restorations for this series. Even Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum (1979)--supervised by the 71-year old director, who chose to add thirty minutes to the existing product--will be given a screening, with Schlondorff in attendance.
   This effort is either a step in the right direction--no one could fault the achievements of arduous, dogged film preservation, for films of any era-- or a half-witted attempt to cater to supposedly improve a film's "vision." It is great that some of these films are oddities, but why are they all films made after 1950? Couldn't MOMA and its preservation crew have gone the distance and dug up films from the long-ago past, simply because they must be found? In any case, getting a more diverse array of films found and cleaned up seems more important to this writer than pretensions about making the director's "intent" clearer and shinier, or adding thirty extra minutes. To read the full article, see here:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Motion Studies: Scenery's gone with the Wind

A Moontower, similar to the one in Dazed and Confused
     Dazed and Confused (1993) is a film that shuns the grand scheme of things and celebrates rowdy, youthful minutiae. So why add an artificial sense of grandiosity at the end? This is the problem that befalls it at the point near the end, when the party the Texas high school has put together in an empty park begins drawing to a close, after a fight breaks up. The song “Tuesday’s gone with the Wind” by Lynyrd Skynyrd rises to a crescendo over a long arial shot of the swarm of teenagers scattering.
            An establishing shot to end a prolonged sequence; nothing wrong with that. But there is something off here. This is a film about teenagers. Teenagers drinking, smoking, beating up freshmen, making out, playing 70’s hair music, “driving around.” This scene at the park—known as “The Moontower,” after the tower that stands in the center—is the thudding, stumbling denoument to a day full of such activity. Do we really need a grandiose shot of a camera slowly circling a scene, presiding over it all, as if to look down on these people? As the camera inches to the right, we look at the dots below and cannot bring ourselves to think of them as dots in a grand drama. We have already come to think of them as bumbling, outrageous teenagers in a free-flowing, intoxicated party that happened very much on earth. This closing shot looks like a composition that snuck out of a costume drama or an epic disaster film. And while Dazed and Confused in one sense is both of those, it is a shot that looks aloof. Those few circling inches look pretentious and out of place. It is further complicated when we see, in the upper corner of the screen, shafts of yellow light grazing the trees. Yes, it is almost day. But with those few inches, the joke’s already up; we know it’s not the sun, but the production lights.
            (This is an off-putting moment in an otherwise highly enjoyable film, leading me to find a way to forgive director Richard Linklater. I can think of exactly one pardon; perhaps he intended the shot to be from the point of view of the top of the moontower. But even then, Linklater would have to have established where the moontower is located on the field exactly and what the view is like from the top looking directly down, and it is too obvious that the shot is from a helicopter. Linklater doesn’t get a free hall pass on this one.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jack Goes Boating

(Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating/ dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman;Overture Films, 2010)
       Theater is not so much an originator of cinema as an antagonist. It seems that, even if there is still the occasional movie based on a play, we have successfully pulled cinema far enough from the stage to consider them separate entities; art forms that share some basic traits while respecting each other’s separate spaces. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, the director and star of Jack Goes Boating, is a man of both worlds, and his film is indeed based on a play. Since the playwright—Robert Glaudini, another man of both worlds—authored the screenplay himself, the results should be interesting.
            The film begins as if Hoffman wasn’t sure how to start the translation. His character, Jack, sits in a limo directly across from his fellow-driver pal, Clyde (John Ortiz), who is cheerily chatting him up about a reggae song that plays on the radio in Jack’s car and about future plans with a girl he wants to set Jack up with. Both men’s faces are shot in close-ups, leaving us uncertain of their location and proximity. The scene ends with a cut to a wide shot of Clyde driving off while Jack sits in his car, in the stark winter cold of an even starker lot overlooking towering Manhattan. It is only now when we become aware that Jack is a limo driver, and that this story will have him face a challenge.
That challenge is Connie (Amy Ryan), who finds Jack as much of a source of nervous attraction as he finds her. They are introduced at the apartment of Clyde and his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who works with Connie at a phone solicitation business. Connie is just as awkward as Jack, but more vulnerable to the ravages of the city; she is attacked on the subway to work one day, and spends some time in a hospital bed recovering from bloody facial wounds. It is at this point that Jack takes the opportunity to win her over, bringing her a stuffed Koala in the hospital and offering to make dinner for her soon. “Nobody’s ever cooked for me!” a drugged-out Connie exclaims. But Jack will. Since he doesn’t know how to cook, he starts taking cooking lessons with a friend of Lucy’s. And since Connie expressed her desire to go boating in the summer, he has also started taking swimming lessons with Clyde.
By this point, Hoffman is on surer footing. He directs a fine scene in a swimming pool, and never loses the sense that he knows his character backwards and forwards (he previously performed this role on stage). Yet, like Jack, Hoffman is too anxious to prove himself; in this case, to prove himself worthy of filmmaking. Hoffman inserts a variety of extended montages without realizing that they aren’t advancing the story per-se. One montage features Jack on a bridge, imagining that he is swimming, as the water of the swimming pool is superimposed on to his bundled-up body. It must have sounded symbolic, but it reeks of art-house kitsch.  Scenes like these aren’t helped by the watery, droning music of the band Grizzly Bear, which feels inessential to the film.
(John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Jack Goes Boating/dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman Overture Films, 2010)
            What is most intriguing about Jack Goes Boating is not its use of cinema, but simply—surprise—its use of characters. Ironically, Jack and Connie are not the most interesting people in the film. Both seem to have been damaged by unclear experiences in their pasts. Both have let sensitivity get the better of them in life, and both are sexually frustrated.  But while Jack’s courtship of Connie provides some sweet and funny moments, it’s never in doubt that they’ll get together. The truly fascinating people in this story are Clyde and Lucy. Starting at the end of one early scene, after Jack and Connie leave their apartment, Lucy abruptly walks in to another room. We know this is a marriage in trouble from this point on, and the way Ortiz and Vega play these bitter, dysfunctional, yet highly compassionate people provides some of the most splendid acting the movies have seen this year.  Glaudini surely felt the importance of these two characters, too, because the wisest touch he adds to his screenplay (I cannot speak for the play) is the light suggestion that Clyde may be the real protagonist of this drama.
            As for Hoffman, his own performance, and his sixth sense for fine actors, make this film more watchable than most plays, but more trying than most films. In the end, it feels as though he tried too hard with his camera; couldn’t he see that letting the theatre in the story take over could actually provide the surest cinema? The great Elia Kazan knew this fact; his films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront are works that translate the enclosed, exaggerated nature of the theater in to claustrophobic, fearsome pieces of moving imagery. Jack Goes Boating approaches the cinematic Kazan in its best moments; it settles for lazy visual experimentation in its worst. Cinema is the child parent Theater might never come to terms with. Maybe the relationship can be expressed in the lovely close-up of Clyde that is the second-to-last shot of the film; something gained for one side, something lost for the side that enabled it.

Friday, October 1, 2010


(Megan Faccio in Catfish/dir. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, Rogue Pictures)
          Catfish manages to state what we already know about the Internet in the ugliest, most uncomfortable way possible. It gives us a glimpse of what has always been true about certain people; the fizzled-out, wayward truth that is only made worse by social networking sites. This is a unique achievement considering that this film does not need to be a film at all, and the characters in it did not have to go to all this trouble to confirm our most dismal suspicions.
            The film really gets weird right from the get-go, after Nev Schulman, a New York-based photographer who had a picture of a dancer published in The New York Sun, begins a Facebook friendship with a young girl from Michigan—eight year old Abby—who has sent him an extraordinary painting of his photograph. The Beach Boy’s ‘Good Vibrations,’ as rendered by a chorus of children plays over the frantic imagery of Facebook. The voices of these children—singing a lightly suggestive pop song—add a perverse dimension to the inherent strangeness of a 24-year old talking to an eight year old online. Yet what is more astonishing is that it seems, initially, to be all good and then some. Nev begins talking to Abby’s mother Angela, on both Facebook and the phone, and soon is introduced to Angela’s stunningly beautiful daughter Meg, with whom he begins an online romance that soon crosses the limits of mere flirtation. Abby paints more of Nev’s photographs, each one indicating that she is a child prodigy. Megan is a farm girl who records him songs whenever he wants her to. All of it is captured on camera by Nev’s brother, Ariel, and their friend, Henry Joost.
            That all this elaborate shadiness is fully engaged, even enabled, by Nev is an indicator that he, Ariel and Henry had an idea of what they were getting in to all along. It also raises questions about Nev’s own grasp of ethics. So it does not come as much of a surprise when, less than halfway through the film, the legitimacy of some of the claims this family is making come in to question.
            It is at this point when Catfish morphs in to a detective story. This is not its final transformation, but it is the high point of the film. Nev and his friends are amateur detectives, but that’s all they need to be; the Internet will do most of the research for them. It is just when their findings yield a situation that any normal person would walk away from then and there, that the three of them decide to stop by Ishpema, Michigan, where the family resides. Their journey yields a final twist that is far from unbelievable, yet still very weird. But prospective viewers should not think this twist will bring the film in to horror film territory, complete with a homicidal maniac, rapist, or any situation where Nev’s life is put in danger. In its final act, the film simply enters an entirely new investigation, one which, unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to truly probe. The amateur detectives turn in to non-investigative journalists. They are so wowed by their discoveries that they miss what their discoveries imply about our modern society. Once it is all over, it feels as though Catfish could have easily been a literary work; part-memoir, part journalism, rather than a film.
(Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman and Nev Schulman in Catfish)
           In any case, Catfish is an almost too clever film. Although Joost and Schulman do their best to find poetry in online imagery, it all looks like neat editing. Although they appear to have shot the film on two different digital formats, there is nothing particularly cinematic about the movie. Despite this, there are images from Catfish that will depress any Internet user (read: modern man) for some time. Although the film’s legitimacy has come in to question—some claim that this is not a documentary at all—this is a moot point, because Catfish  adheres to documentary standards in the truest sense. The point of documentaries, from the time Robert Flaherty visited the Eskimos, has not been to capture authentic, un-staged action, but to cover a real phenomena in a social setting (i.e, internet networks) and its real outcome (i.e, the final third of this film) and let us decide on whether this a tragedy, comedy or drama for the real world. Catfish doesn’t follow through as well as it should. The best it does is hold a mirror up to the three self-absorbed hipsters who got involved in such a mess, thereby holding a mirror up to the rest of us e-weirdos. When we log online, we all become demented. That is its real world tragedy. But who is it that acted more demented in this story? Was it Henry and his friends? Or was it--- ?