Sunday, August 28, 2011

Vertical spaces in Collinsville with Tabitha for The Sydney Highrise Variations

When you make feature-length movies on no budget, you take what you can get when you can get it. So when Tabitha Hassell, the niece of my old friend (and Poetry Scores' new production assistant) Jocko Ferguson offered to show me around Collinsville for possible movie locations, I said sure.

We mostly know where we are shooting everything for the movie we are making now, Go South for Animal Index. So I sized up Tabitha's Collinsville with an eye toward the movie we are shooting next, The Sydney Highrise Variations.

We'll shoot Sydney to our score of Les Murray's poem by that name. Les' poem is about modernity, vertical space, and the rise of modern cities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Les' poem is saturated with the history and geography of one specific city, Sydney, Australia; but we make our movies in and around St. Louis and just have to make do with our local approximations of the exotic details in the poems we score and film.

In Tabitha's kitchen, straight away, I saw a quirky vertical closet that unfolds an ironing board. So I see an opportunity to shoot a domestic scene around an ironing board that exploits this vertical space.

(You'll see a lot of Tabitha in these shots. Laurent Torno III asked me always to position human beings in the frame when I'm shooting location shots.)

Tabitha also has a groovy vertical clock. Les' poem is in part about time -- about how the concept of the century is modern, so in a sense the 19th and 20th centuries were the first centuries -- so it wouldn't be hard to find a domestic scene to shoot in front of this guy.

Our first stop in town was a bar owned by a friend of Tabitha's. Given this was a big Hurricane Irene day, it was fitting to be in a bar named Hurricanes. It has a beautiful bar, though there is signage galore we'd have to dodge. The place never opens before 4 p.m. so we'd have tons of time to shoot there.

The courtyard at Hurricanes has a fantastic vertical to shoot as a backdrop: the Collinsville water tower, helpfully tilted so we can't read the town name.

Also a nice lone tree back there to shoot up into.

Collinsville has some trees, now. Look at this beauty.

Also, great roads for the tramps in our city highrise movie to ramble.

We rambled to Collinsville's most famous landmark, a giant catsup bottle.

There is an abandoned structure next to the bottle that is just dying to be some kind of hobo hideaway.

Where a hobo hideaway, must be railroad tracks.

Those tracks should sort of wander off forever.


Just opposite the hobo shed there also is what amounts, in a movie shoot, to a forested mountain.

Driving in Collinsville, you pass lots of these, which look cool but could get you killed shooting in them.

We made a stop at her friend Jason Jenson's house to see its tiki bar and golf green.

That could come in very handy when we come up with the scenes for the zombies in The Sydney Highrise Variations. In this movie, the zombies will be all of the new cosmopolitan urbanites who populate the new vertical city that sprouts up around the tramps of old town. We'll need some golfing new urbanite zombies. And zombies in tiki hot tubs.

Our final stop was a granary I have always loved.

Shot from a side road as we drove back to Tabitha's, by way of an ice cream shop, it looks rather like a castle.

It was a nice, productive ramble with Tabitha in her Jeep Rubicon -- a rugged 4WD monster she is willing to drive on locations with us. Welcome aboard, Tabitha! See you soon, Collinsville.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Moviemaker inspired by neighbor's fruits and vegetables

Frustrated physicist's wife (Natalie Partenheimer) with soldier (Thomas Crone).

If I am ever asked again about my influences as a moviemaker, I think I'll say, "The fruits and vegetables of my neighbor".

Last month, my next-door neighbor Mark Shaw knocked on our door and asked if we wanted a watermelon. I said, "Sure," and he walked home and came back with this wonderful fat little melon.

When you are making a feature-length movie on no budget, everything is a potential prop. When the movie you are making is about the making of the first atomic bomb, then everything fat and round looks like a visual pun on Fat Man, the fat round atomic bomb prototype assembled at Los Alamos.

I told Mark we should use the watermelon in our movie. I said "our" and "we" because, on top of being a thoughtful and generous neighbor, Mark is a film school grad who works hard as a volunteer on the Poetry Scores movie unit.

And indeed, the next day we were hard at work on location inside the courtyard at Atomic Cowboy, a city club with interesting visuals and spaces, which we're allowed to transform into a movie lot on Sunday mornings. I brought the watermelon to the shoot and stared at it until I could figure out a way to use it.

We had George Malich on the shoot that day, playing military chaplain. I decided to have the priest stroll into the physicists' open-air lounge to give them the surprise gift of a watermelon (which just happens to look like the bomb they will later build). The physicists are out, but they have left paperwork lying about. From these notes the priest begins to gather, with horror, what the physicists are doing behind their shroud of secrecy.

We also had Thomas Crone on that shoot. Crone plays one of the soldiers whose main role is to constantly reinforce the idea that this is a closely guarded and carefully controlled secret military base. Our soldiers do a lot of standing around with a gun or running someone off at gunpoint. In this scene, the soldier discovers the priest alone in the physicists' lounge and runs him off at gunpoint. Figuring no one would be the wiser, the soldier then saunters off with the watermelon.

So, now we had a watermelon that looks like the Fat Man bomb in the hands of a soldier. One of the places we have stationed the soldier is by a big drum of water. Los Alamos -- in our movie, it's an abstracted and imaginary place, Lost Almost -- was a place of scarcity, wartime rationing, and high elevations where it took water forever to boil. My shooting script calls for the physicists' wives to really struggle in the kitchen, as the women did in real life.

We already had shot a scene where Crone guards a big water drum from which a physicist's wife (Barbara Manzara) draws a bucket of water, more or less at gunpoint. I also had her character devour a plum on a bench beneath a tree, to show that she was famished, to remind us that simple pleasures persist even in desperate times, and to furnish an opportunity for a lonely and frustrated military wife to experience some of the sensuality that is absent from the barren bomb shop.

I like to make movies using repetitions with differences, the classic structure of folktales. So I could see right away what we should do with that watermelon. The soldier should stash his purloined watermelon by his post at the water drum and use it to entice a famished physicist's wife he likes the looks of to wander off to a bench beneath a shade tree, where he pursues other forbidden fruit with her but is rejected.

That was the scene we had scheduled for yesterday, with Natalie Partenheimer playing the famished physicist's wife Crone's soldier likes the looks of.

A few days before we were set to shoot, I walked over to Mark Shaw's house to return a different prop. His father teaches high school science and had loaned us a gigantic wall chart of the periodic table of the elements, which we had put to good use in the movie's theoretical physics scene. While I was in their house, Mark's mother offered me some cucumbers she had brought back from her reservation (she is Native American and grew up on a res in Wisconsin). Native American cucumbers? How could I say no?

Before I had crossed our yards to go back home, I knew I now had more movie props.

Yesterday, after Natalie and Crone had arrived on location at Atomic Cowboy, I talked them through my concept of the scene. It was pretty simple. Soldier stashes watermelon by his guard post at the water drum. Famished physicist's wife comes to draw water. Soldier likes the looks of her. While she is dipping her bucket, the soldier grabs the watermelon to surprise her. He offers to take her for a snack, and she readily agrees. They sit close together on a crowded bench. The soldier begins to slice off pieces of watermelon, and as they eat, it becomes clear this means a whole lot more to the soldier than it does to the physicist's wife. Depending on how they played that uneasiness and tension, we would figure out how to end the scene.

We got through the stage business at the water drum just fine, but once we started shooting the watermelon scene, Crone was not looking like a very aggressive lecher. V. Elly Smith was shooting the scene on three cameras, and I was monitoring one of the cameras trained on Natalie's face. When I could see that Crone might not make the moves to justify her looking offended and disgusted, I talked her through some other emotions -- like wanting more than she was getting from the soldier. She did just fine with that.

When we got to the point where we needed to figure out how to wrap up the scene, Elly and I conferred. I asked what she had to work with from the camera she was operating. She said she didn't have what I needed, if I needed the soldier looking like a lecher who was using the watermelon as a ruse for sex. Immediately, I realized that I had asked for a cliche -- the rapacious soldier, the self-defending damsel -- and now the natural instincts of my amateur actors (Crone's shyness, Natalie's attraction to Crone) had given me an opportunity to shoot a much better, much more surprising scene.

So I said forget everything else I had said. It was Natalie's lonely and frustrated physicist's wife who wanted more out of this than just a juicy watermelon. When she realizes that the soldier is all gun and knife but no action, when she realizes she isn't going to get anything out of this other than some watermelon, then she decided she wants all of the watermelon. So just as the soldier had done to the priest, she takes the watermelon and runs.

The soldier is then left alone with his rifle, his knife ... and a cucumber! I had stashed one of Mark's mom's Native American cucumbers in the soldier's rucksack with his knife. I told Crone he had it and he was free to use it as a phallic symbol when the rapacious/resistance deal went down. Now that the soldier was left alone, with no rapacious/resistance sdcene, the cucumber was put to a very different use. The soldier hacks it down and eats the cucumber, a symbol of both masturbation and self-mutilation.

V. Elly Smith shoots soldier (Thomas Crone) self-mutilating a cucumber.

So much better, so much more interesting, so much more approriate to the themes of our movie -- atomic bomb as the ultimate act of self-destruction -- than what I thought I wanted. And I owe it all to the fruits and vegetables of my neighbor, and the instincts of amateur actors.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The nexus of cancer, creativity and healing in "Go South"

Photo of Amy Camie by Julie Enstall

So, we are making a movie about the making of the atomic bomb. It's a silent movie we'll edit to the musical score we made to a poem. The poem, Go South for Animal Index, is written by Stefene Russell (who also performs on the score and acts in the movie). Stefene grew up a Downwinder from the Nevada nucleur test site and lost important childhood friends to wasting cancers, no doubt indebted to radiation exposure.

The Poetry Scores movie unit was confronted this summer with a cancer in our own cast. George Malich, who plays the military chaplain at the bomb base (Lost Almost, as the weary soldiers nicknamed Los Alamos), was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to undergo emergency brain surgery.

Before his surgery (performed by world-leading experts at Barnes-Jewish Hospital), George not only worked in the grueling final shoots for our movie but also managed to write, cast, produce, and direct an improvised dramatic series about his new experiences, Life is Meant for Living.

A lot of us have been thinking a lot about George. Thomas Crone, who plays a soldier opposite George's military chaplain in our movie, wrote an insightful piece of reportage about George's creative process, his coping strategies and his instinct to heal others through his own creative experience. If anyone can kick the ass of brain cancer, after wringing deep meaning and art out of it, that would be George.

What George has been dealing with has made me think back to the people Stefene lost through wasting cancers as a girl growing up, piercing her with pain that produced the poem that now has inspired a musical score and a silent movie production. Creativity and cancer: that is kind of how this Go South thing got started.

Then I remembered what Amy Camie has been going through. Amy is a local harpist who records with Adam Long, the multiply Grammy-nominated sound recordist who mixes and masters our poetry scores. Years ago Adam handed us Amy as a possible collaborater, and we finally incorporated two harp pieces she recorded with Adam into Go South for Animal Index. Amy since has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Exactly as George would later do, she approached the experience of cancer as an artist and a healer.

That wasn't much of a stretch for Amy. For more than 15 years, she has played harp to inspire and rejuvenate the spirit of what she describes as "cancer, hospice and grief communities" (she's not one to use a lame word like "victim"). So when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in December 2010, she basically turned her healing music on herself.

In celebration of her final chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Amy's friends and family sponsored the gift of over 300 copies of her record The Magic Mirror to local cancer patients. This should inspire George's friends as he looks forward to the day he finishes his course of treatment!

The peculiar thing is, the nexus of cancer, creativity and healing is inscribed into our movie in ways that directly involve George Malich and Amy Camie. On one of our first days in production on Go South, George played this magnificent breakdown scene. It's the alcoholic military chaplain on the atomic bomb base melting down over all the massive, unprecedented death-dealing his ministry has supported.

George's performance will be edited to track 27 of our poetry score, the second to last piece and the second of the two Amy Camie harp tunes. On our poetry score, the song is titled "Tell me what is the power," a provisional retitling of Amy's original harp composition, which we augmented and deformed in Adam's studio.

We added Christopher Y. Voelker's soulful violin meditations and Tim McAvin singing like a songbird Stefene's poetry: Tell me: what is the power that will wash an entire generation? We then deformed this beautiful acoustic harp, violin, and vocal trio with weird atmospherics from Numbers Stations recordings that Stefene provided as a source sound, and Adam's short-wave radio play. It's a long, distorted, disturbing piece. It ends with twinkling sounds from Adam's radio signals that sound like hope.

The deformed harp piece is long enough, at 6:42, to tie together all of our storylines in the movie leading into the final track, the final scene of the movie, which ends with a bang. As Amy strums the harp, George's priest melts down, the atomic scientists struggle and finally get their fat man atomic bomb set to pop, the lonely scientist wives (finally let in on the secret of the secret project) gather in secret to watch the bomb test from a distance, the soldiers and tramps continue in their animal ways, and, on the margins of the base, under a tree by a river on a native reserve, a small tribal community finally succeeds in their fourth ceremonial attempt to heal a sick child.

This final suucessful healing ceremony -- a singing ceremony -- is observed (and awkwardly, from afar, joined) by a widow and her child. The poet Stefene plays the widow, who loses her scientist husband early in the movie. He dies from sudden fatal radiation exposure in the nucleur physics lab. The widow and girl are then evicted from the secret bomb base (George's priest gives them the kindly, but firm, heave-ho). They wander, dejected, throughout the movie in a vintage 1940s automobile, grieving and lost.

The widow and little girl grieving a death from radiation poisoning are in the end led by a tramp through the woods to a river, where they chance upon the tribe's singing ceremony. The sick little tribal girl (our silent movie will do its best to show) has been suffering from radiation poisoning herself. After all, their native reserve has been turned into a zombie uranium mine. You think that is far-fetched? Then read Stefene's essay about the sources of her poem!


"And the mouth"

Amy Camie, Chris King, Adam Long, Christopher Voelker

"Tell me what is the power "
Amy Camie, Tim McAvin, Adam Long, Christopher Voelker


a slideshow of Julie Enstall's photographs of Amy Camie.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Zafer sent us some new translations of Ece Ayhan

Our Turkish wruter friend Zafer Yalçınpınar sent these texts. Click on them, and they get big enough to read. Here is what Zafer said about them:

I have just found some translations of Ece Ayhan poems... These are translated by Fatih Özgüven in early 80's.. They have published in a "literature translation press" which had called "Yazko"... We think that they are very interesting translations... Anyway, I share them with you... and you can share them anywhere/anyplatform you want...
A desultory web search turns up the following about the translator:
Fatih Özgüven teaches film theory and writes film and literary reviews for a number of periodicals and newspapers. His books include a novel, Esrarengiz Bay Kartaloğlu (Mysterious Mr. Kartaloğlu), a collection of essays, Yerüstünden Notlar (Notes from the Overground), and two books of short stories, Bir Şey Oldu (Something Happens) and Hiç Niyetim Yoktu (I Never Meant To). Özgüven is also a prolific translator, and has translated Borges, Nabokov, Henry James, Karen Blixen, Thomas Mann, Thomas Bernhard, Paul Auster, Jonathan Ames, Flannery O'Connor, Virginia Woolf and Brett Easton Ellis. Özgüven lives in Istanbul.

Sounds good.

Why do we care? Because we set Ece Ayhan's poem Blind Cat Black to music as a poetry score, and then made a silent movie to that score. We worked from the translation by Murat Nemet-Nejat. I prefer Murat's work on this great poem to Fatih's; but, hey! What is good enough for Zafer is good enough for Poetry Scores!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

You never know what is going to happen, George Malich

It's now a moment I'll always remember, as long as I am able to remember.

It was a sweltering July day in St. Louis. We were set up in the courtyard at Atomic Cowboy, shooting scenes for our movie, Go South for Animal Index.

George Malich was half in costume as the Lost Almost military chaplain, and Martin Sophia was half in costume as the younger tribal mystic. We had shot really effective scenes with each of them that day, though not together. And now we were trying to figure out if we would get back up in the blazing heat and shoot a scene with the two of them together.

Shooting an ambitious movie with a volunteer cast and crew, there is a lot of running and gunning. I started out trying to shoot my shooting script, scene for scene; and now I just assemble the best cast I can on the short notice I have after confirming a crew is available, and then figure out what we can shoot that best approximates the script.

It's a conceptual silent movie, based on Stefene Russell's poem of the same name. It's a fable that will be edited to a poetry score, Stefene's poem set to music. So there is infinite leeway in working with, or around, my shooting script to construct a fable that evokes the themes of Stefene's poem. This is my way of saying my method is not slop!

Back to that sweltering courtyard at Atomic Cowbow. It was 100 degrees in the shade of the Quonset hut. We had been working for hours. We already had really successful footage in the can with both of the actors in question. If we went home now, everyone would be satisfied. No one was really dying to get back up, put on the other half of the costume, lug the cameras back into the murderous sun, and start shooting again.

But then again, we are crazy people, like everyone else in the St. Louis amateur movie scene. Everyone was kind of looking at me, the director, more or less willing to make another run at it if I asked them to set up for one more scene.

I thought about it. I wasn't sure what we would shoot. I was pretty sure we could come up with something. I asked the actors what they wanted to do.

Martin had just done an exhausting scene where he simulated a prayer ritual to heal a sick child.

It took a lot out of him. He also was justly proud for having nailed a challenging scene with very little direction. Martin was in no hurry to act again.

George also had done a challenging scene earlier that morning. The priest, intending simply to deliver a watermelon to the Lost Almost physicists, had chanced upon some of their paperwork and, for the first time, come to grasp the deadly business they were about: building a weapon of mass destruction.

In this dark mood, the priest was chased away from the physicist's picnic table by a soldier (Thomas Crone) at gunpoint. George, too, had nailed his scene and knew it.

And I knew it. But I also knew it was my job to push people beyond their normal senses of comfort and endurance. So, I said, "I'm looking at the two of you here at the same time and thinking we should just get up and do another scene."

Nobody jumped up to do the scene. It was hot -- heat index hot, people keeling over dead from the heat hot, cameras overheating hot.

Martin said, "I'm not going anywhere," meaning he could always be available for another shoot. "George, you're not going anywhere."

George did not jump right up to do another scene. But he did say, "You never know what is going to happen."

I thought about it for a second. George's availibility and commitment were unquestioned, and Martin had just made it clear that he wasn't going anywhere. More importantly, in my decision-making process, I wasn't exactly sure what scene between the priest and the mystic would work for the movie. I knew something would work, but I was as baked by the sun as anybody else on the set. My instincts as improvising fabulist moviemaker were not at their best.

I called it a wrap. We packed up and went home.

Sitting there at the time, I now know, George knew he had a brain tumor. He knew, in less than two weeks, he would endure open-skull brain surgery. He knew that there was no way to know how many more shoots he would have for this movie, or for any movie.

"You never know what is going to happen," he said.

As it turns out, George and our cast and crew canceled other plans to make everything happened so that all the scenes we absolutely needed for George's character got shot before he went into surgery on August 1. We got it done. And George was amazing.

But we didn't need that scene with the priest and the mystic, and so we didn't get it, and now we will never have it.

"You never know what is going to happen," said George, who knew what was going to happen.