Monday, June 13, 2011


Muse, aged about 4386, died recently of unnatural causes. Which one? Hard to say: perhaps all of them in a tragic bus plunge on the way to Atlantic City or one of those Indian Casinos. All I know is that they're not speaking to me.

Part of the problem is early dementia, or something very much like it, that has taken over my brain as I obsess over cases and motions as I dredge out the dusty training I got so many years ago that I was forced to set aside in the quest to live vicariously through a sociopath. Oops: my mistake - what was I thinking?

Thinking - aye, there's the rub. The creative force that is the source of the myth of the muse comes, for me, anyway, from some foggy, emotional place. Just like depressed folks can't "snap out of it, " creative people can't snap into it. It's either there or it ain't. When it's there, it's powerful. It's love, sex, hysteria and goosebumps, gluttony, vibration and ice water all at once. It's The Force in Star Wars. But it's not something to mulled over. One wouldn't spend the afternoon considering whether to have mad goat sex, would one? It just happens, rising from that place without words, to manifest as something that someone, somewhere, will receive like a shot to the soul as perfect communication.

When I was in High School, I had a film teacher who was, I know now, a sorry has-been-that-never-was, a failed film critic that hadn't even managed to rise to the level of college instruction. Still, he knew a lot about movies and for a year and a half, he was mentor to a smallish group of artsy-fartsy students at a hippiesque school where one could either pass or fail. No judgements, man. But this "experiment" in education meant that the standards were much higher than other schools with traditional grading systems. We had a ton of work to do each semester in every class and the "passing" grade was equal to an 85. Two fails in while attending and you were out, slung back into the school system that was otherwise host to race riots and guido fascism. No place for hippy-dippy creative types.

So, as wonky as the guy was personally, he knew how to love film, and he knew that one way to understand how to make movies was to make movies. So, each semester, one film was due from each student plus a group effort, all shorts of eight to ten minutes or under. This was in the days before portable video and anything other than real celluloid wouldn't have gone over very well for this guy anyway. As he put it, "This is a film class. Not a TV class. We will watch films, make films and understand films." And that's what we did.

Now, making a film as a group is not so easy, but he was totally hands off, except to advise now and then, mostly when we were about to beat each other to death. We had to script the picture, storyboard it, choose a director, cast the parts, scout locations, light it, edit and dub it, all in about twelve weeks PLUS shoot our individual projects. Mind you, most of the kids were sixteen to eighteen and the school paid no part of the cost for film stock and processing. There were two editing set-ups with winders, edit bins and an 1950's-era Moviola for 16mm and a Rollei viewer for 8mm/Super 8. The "house" rig was a Bolex R16 with a 400-foot magazine and no synchronous sound. For audio, there was a Uher Reporter and a Sennheiser boom mic with a fuzzy rabbit-fur covering to kill wind noise. There was some studio-type lighting that basically amounted to a bunch of "beauty dishes" with 150-watt color-balanced incandescent bulbs gaffer-taped to the top of very dicey-looking and very rickety stands. But we learned how to actually take what we had and turn it into a few student-y, but finished, productions, complete with titles.

In retrospect, it was a ridiculous amount of work to foist on students with a full load of other courses to pass. So, I guess this was the seventies' version of School of Rock, only, it was School of Film and the teacher was nowhere near as charming as Jack Black. No: not at all.

For my own projects, I started out okay. I had a Bolex P1 8mm that was through-the-lens with a massive zoom and took very nice footage. My first project was a documentary on a pro-Israel rally near the United Nations, done in newsreel style owing to the lack of any way to either record or sync sound, though there was a music track and crowd sounds added. Shot with a single camera, this project was where I began to appreciate the importance of loads of B-roll and tons of choices to be shot and maybe tossed for cutaways and such, but without which, a very boring project would be the only possibility. And I read Dymytyk's On Film Editing from cover to cover, precocious lad that I was, and learned stuff that I would use a-plenty when I edited video commercially, many years later.

On the next project, I went with a dramatic mystery/crime script. This time, I had graduated to 16mm with my own Bolex R16, which could shoot 100 foot rolls of film. The story was about a guy who was casually minding his business, reading the paper and eating his lunch when he gets the sense that there's someone watching him. His anxiety level increases through the film as he senses, but can't put down to an actual entity, that he's being stalked. The camera goes POV from time to time to show that there doesn't appear to be anyone around, let alone a malevolent attacker. I had just spent a summer watching a bunch of Hitchcock movies and reading about his style of filmaking and I storyboarded the hell out of that thing - each shot planned and marked so that anybody could have shot it and it would have come out the same way. The star? My best friend, who was very photogenic and could actually take direction. We had good weather, good light, everything worked, the concept was compact, the dailies looked good, and then I started editing it.

Maybe I succumbed to my teacher's own delusions of grandeur in his role as either Golwyn or as Mayer. I don't know. But I started editing that thing and no matter what, I could not seem to get it where I wanted it. I had all the shots as scripted. I even went back out and reshot a little. But the deadline was up and I was screwed. I offered to show the rough cut to the teacher. He refused. I either had to submit a finished piece or he would fail me, for my own good, he said.

Bitch. I knew I couldn't finish it in time for that coming Tuesday, because even if I made a work print, I would still have to cut the negative, run into the city and have an answer print made that could be project, for peer review, of course. Again, in retrospect, WTF?

So, I punted. I went to the beach (it was absolutely freezing, as I recall) and in one reel, no edits, in about three hours, shot a very abstract bunch of images that would become the now-classic, "Brighton Impressions." Heard of it? Yeah, no, didn't think so, although it did play on Channel 13 once . . .

Teach was disappointed. He said, and I will never forget it, "You know, Mr. B, you will never be anything other than a conceptual artist. Sure, what we watched here today slides in under the wire - right length, titled, on time. But what does it say? Huh? What? Nothing! Nothing, because you have nothing to say." In front of everyone, he did this. To a high school student. If that happened today, he'd be flipping burgers on the following Wednesday. Loser.

But I learned some valuable lessons, besides how to take a concept, a thought, a mere idea, and make it into something real that could be communicated to someone else. First, authority-types are not gods. Just because they wield or project power, doesn't mean they're qualified to do so, and even if they are, they can be wrong and more importantly at the moment, they can be bitches. Nevertheless, it's their tree house and one must play by their rules, even if they make absolutely no sense. Next, respect the form of communication your audience expects. If you want to go to a strange place, go, but give them a point of reference, otherwise, it won't be fun for them anymore and they won't come along. I give you David Lynch's Blue Velvet as a guide to this, versus the much earlier Eraserhead. Go watch those and you'll see what I mean.

I'll wait. Tap, tap, tap. Done? Okay: let's continue.

Most importantly, I understand that if a creative work is meant to be, it will be. The work has to come from within. That doesn't mean that one sits around sipping absinthe hoping to be inspired. The "work" part is producing even if what's produced varies from sub-par to utter crap. Keep shooting at the target, since their is a concept you're aiming at.  Don't get me wrong - if all you seem to produce is crap, better leave this job to the pros and take up something more suited to your Muse, like needlepoint, say. But once you start creating stuff, keeping trying things, cleaning, honing, polishing BUT remember that it will NEVER be perfect. Never. It will be finished, though, and that's when you have to stop and say, "Hello, World! Look at what I've wrought."

No comments: