The above film, “The Most Important Absence,” is the first one I’ve made in 2010. And I intend to put together several more of them. All clips were taken from public domain sources — mostly stag and burlesque films from the first half of the 20th century. The title is taken from a very influential essay about image, which I leave viewers to seek out. But the content contained within the film will probably reveal its source. Different viewers will come away with different interpretations, but the onus falls upon the viewer to determine what the juxtaposition means and where the absence really lies. The film has been expressly designed to offer several possibilities. There is no uniform interpretation.
In 1993, I took a film class and was grouped with an amicable ragtag crew. We filmed little shorts with the Panasonic PV-535, the only consumer VHS camera that had chroma key and that was compulsively used at just about every opportunity. The camera had a little mini-camera that you would mount on the top. You couldn’t directly feed in a video signal into the camera, but those who used the camera certainly improvised around the limitations. I would make long-distance telephone calls to video engineers and technicians around the nation, wondering if a converter existed to transfer the signal. I even attempted to persuade Panasonic to send me the blueprint, but they weren’t exactly flexible to some 19-year-old kid trying to hack their proprietary system. The camera had been given to me and I certainly wasn’t in the position to purchase another one to reverse engineer it. But it did serve me and several other folks quite well during the early 1990s.
As the guy with the equipment, I somehow ended up being the one who organized the shoots. I certainly never intended to seize control. I was just the guy who ended up with logistical ideas. I rotated crew duties, shifting directorial, editing, and photographic duties after I asked our crew members specifically what they were interested in doing. In Sacramento, we had a small ensemble of actors that included several friends, my sister, and all of the crew members. I solicited ideas from the group, often stepping in to help others flesh out their stories into a screenplay. I had spent much of high school studying screenplays (I once had my Terminator 2 screenplay book confiscated by my English teacher after my friend Tom and I were geeking out as the teacher delivered a lecture), writing scripts, and even attempted to make a feature film (called Three Kinds of Respect). Armed with this experience, I’d often sit next to a writer at a computer, asking the writer questions about the characters and the situations. We’d then bang out an intricate shooting script.
The above film, “Scene from a Mall,” was one of many films made during this period. It was built around an improvisational situation in which I played a disturbed man and Misa Whiteford played a woman waiting for her boyfriend. We shot this at the Country Club Mall in Sacramento, California, about ten years before the renovation. I suppose we approached this mall because, like Sunrise Mall, the 1960s aesthetic appealed to everybody. (It certainly reminded me of the original version of Dawn of the Dead.)
I’ve revised the film slightly, taking out about 40 seconds from the original version. At the time, I was editing these little films using two four-head VCRs. So you’d be able to cut two shots and get it roughly within a half second of where you wanted. This was trickier than it sounds. Because you had to anticipate that the output VCR would begin recording at precisely one third of a second after you pressed the RECORD button. And it therefore took multiple attempts for each cut. When I later learned how to cut and splice Super 8, and when I worked on flatbeds, it was a luxury to be able to cut on the exact frame. The present generation is spoiled with their NLEs.
Of course, now that I’m working with NLEs, I thought I would exonerate my 19-year-old self and offer the cuts that I had intended all along just before getting this film up on YouTube. What once took patient hours now takes about one twentieth of the time.
The editing limitations never stopped me from being ambitious. I would eventually make another short film that would contain more than 100 shots and would be filmed in San Francisco, Folsom Lake, and various points around Sacramento. (I even managed to shoot some video with an ancient black-and-white video camera, but the camera was on its last legs and it actually shocked the cameraman and never worked again. My mother yelled at me for this technical deficiency, as if I had deliberately killed the camera. But that’s another story.)
I’m going to slowly get some of these old films up onto YouTube — in large part because the videotape sources are starting to deteriorate. And if I don’t digitize some of this footage now, it may be gone forever. (These films are from fifteen to seventeen years ago. Given that videotape is known to deteriorate within twenty years, it appears that I’ve got my hands full.)
I don’t know if I still have the original sources for this film, but I wince at all the mall chatter contained within the audio. I may revisit this film again and do my best to filter out the background noise and boost the dialogue. But however I mess with these films, I promise that Han Solo will not shoot first.
“Subway” — the fourth installment of my “Anthropological Film” series — was shot and edited on July 14, 2009. For some unknown reason, I took my camera with me for a job interview. Since I had arrived at the Times Square station early, I began shooting to pass the time and satiate my fascination with what I was observing around me. I figured that this was a film that I could work on later, possibly “anthropological” or not. But that evening, I became haunted by the subway and felt compelled to finish the film. So I rode the subway for a few hours and, to my surprise, it all came together. For those noting the absence of rats, I should point out that I did go out of my way to look for them, but my quest for vermin proved unsuccessful (at least in relation to this film’s more human emphasis). And since the film is more about the human relationship with the subway system, I don’t feel that (for this film anyway) rats were entirely necessary.
“Golden Hour,” which was shot at and around Riverside Park, is the third of what I’m calling my “anthropological films.” You can watch it above or click through to YouTube to see it in HD. (The series started with “Bubbles: A Consideration” and continued with “Dia de los Vivos.”) Like the other two films, this installment deals with certain glimpses of New York that most New Yorkers seem to ignore or fail to appreciate. This latest film chronicles aspects of how we live that were put into place decades ago by developer Robert Moses. (I recommend Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, if you’re not familiar with the subject.) But you don’t need to be know New York history to experience the film.
I plan to shoot a total of ten “anthropological films” before the end of the year. There may even be more, depending upon how deeply I plunge into these variations on a theme.
[UPDATE: I have created an “anthropological films” page for anyone who cares to chart the progress. I will update this page with additional information pertaining to the interconnected themes of these films as it becomes available.]
On June 28, 2009, I attended The Flower Parade. I knew nothing about the parade, but learned very quickly that its intent was to celebrate Colombia. The above film, “Dia de los Vivos,” presents the spirit that I observed and participated in.
On June 12, 2009, I attended a bubble battle in New York. But the event wasn’t really a battle — at least not in the traditional sense. Hundred of people who didn’t know each other gathered in Times Square to blow bubbles. It seemed like such a simple act, but it turned out to be so much more. And I hope that the above film, “Bubbles: A Consideration,” gives anyone who wasn’t able to attend a sense of the possibilities.