Monthly Archive for September, 2009

Route 66, Lucien Ballard and the Coleman

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You are looking at a photo of the original U.S. Route 66. Notice the concrete curbed border that once defined the narrow highway’s edges. This short section (one of very few scattered remnants still extant) is located just outside Miami, Oklahoma, a city of about 13,000—as of the last census. Miami is tucked into the tri-state corner of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. You can’t get much more “heartland” than here.

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Miami is just under “US 66” marker top right corner

Michael Wallis’ wonderful book on Route 66, first published in 1990, is now available in an edition celebrating the highway’s 75th anniversary:

Route 66: The Mother Road 75th Anniversary Edition link

And if you doubt me about the book, here’s what Stanley Marsh says:

“Since the do-gooders abolished public hangings, the only show in town worth watching is the traffic on Highway 66 heading West and Route 66: The Mother Road is the best book we have to tell us what we are seeing.” – Stanley Marsh III, Owner, Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas

Above is a picture of Stanley Marsh in 1981.

Above is a picture of Stanley Marsh in 1981.

Miami, now at the terminus or at the head of (depending on your direction of travel) the Will Rogers Turnpike, is a once prosperous town with a proud history rooted in agrarian liberalism, bible-thumping evangelism and home to several transplanted Native American peoples. It is also the birthplace of Heisman Trophy and Detroit Lions running back Steve Owens who has a major thoroughfare transecting the city named after him.

It is also where you can find the Coleman Theater.

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This description of the Coleman is from the Wikipedia entry:

The Theatre was built by George L. Coleman Sr. and opened on April 18, 1929. The building cost $600,000 to construct. The elegant Louis XV interior includes gold leaf trim, silk damask panels, stained glass panels, a carved mahogany staircase and decorative plaster moldings and railings. In 1983 the Coleman Theater was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.

The Coleman has been the subject of a lengthy and meticulous restoration effort for many years. It was once the major screen for Ottawa County in the era of the “movie palaces”. It also houses a magnificent pipe organ, the playing of which is the high point of a guided tour. One of its ironies is that this great instrument made its debut at the very end of the silent film era.

Interior of the Coleman from the stage

Interior of the Coleman from the stage

It was Route 66, the “Mother Road,” that during the Great depression brought audiences to the Coleman. It was also the escape route West for the refugees of the Dust Bowl—of Steinbeck’s and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.  Can you imagine what it must have been like to see this seminal film, photographed by Gregg Toland, in this very theater? I was inside the Coleman recently and a sense of the audiences past was palpable.

The Coleman today hosts more live music than movies. It was a recent stop for a concert of the “Bob Wills Band.” Wills died in May of 1975 but the sound of the “Texas Playboys” (like Glenn Miller) lives on.

The Coleman may be an architectural treasure of cinema past. But there is also a major human treasure from Miami. The great cinematographer Lucien Ballard was born there in 1908. He began working in Hollywood at Paramount Studios the same year the Coleman opened. He had a long and colorful career.

In 1944 he photographed a noiresque film called The Lodger. I saw it for the first time last month on Turner Classic Movies. Ballard has been best known for his spacious “Western” cinematography with action directors Budd Boetticher and Sam “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah.

With Sam he made five pictures from 1972’s Ride the High Country and 1969’s The Wild Bunch to 1972’s Junior Bonner. Like his directors, Ballard was considered to be a “man’s man”. When I was a camera assistant doing freelance commercials in the late 60s, some of the grips and juicers who had worked with him regaled me with stories. One of Ballard’s favored tricks (I was told) was to always carry a walking stick both as a pointer for set lighting and as a prod for lads he felt were not moving about fast enough.

I don’t claim to be a Ballard expert but I was awed by the richness and the dramatic nuance of lighting in The Lodger. Its chiaroscuro light gave a Jack the Ripper story a level of tension and foreboding way beyond the inherent merit of the screenplay. Moreover, it was on this film that he met actress Merle Oberon. Though the star was considered an icon of beauty, a near fatal car crash in 1937 left her face scarred. Unsuccessful remedial cosmetic work a few years later made her continued career problematic by 1944. It was Ballard who came up with the idea in The Lodger of creating a camera mounted fill light that would wash out her blemishes. And, yes of course, this is how the “Obie” light was born.

Here is a photo of Oberon from 1941.

Oberon from 1941.

In the grand tradition of actresses and cinematographers, they were married the next year and did several more films together until their divorce in 1949. A footnote to this history is the irony that Ballard himself was killed in a car crash in 1988, near his home in Rancho Mirage.

A good biographical sketch of Ballard’s life and work is on IMDB.

I never met Ballard; his was a generation before many film school “brats” infiltrated the film business. In fact, when I began to look for any work at all in a still closed union shop environment, the very worst thing you could tell a prospective employer was that you had gone to “film school”. There was a not uncommon kneejerk supposition that “elitism” combined with “educated idiocy” fairly infected the air we upstarts walked through.

The ongoing restoration of the Coleman Theater aside, whenever I am in small town Oklahoma or other rural areas of the Midwest, a sure marker of prosperity, or the lack thereof, is the current state of the historic downtown movie palaces. Some are derelict, boarded up. Others have become thrift shops or appliance stores, often with fragments of the original marquee serving as signage.  But communities that are restoring these American architectural icons may illustrate a renewal of small town life. Especially for young people of dating age, no home theater system can rival the magic of a movie cathedral.

Oh, how does a died-in-the-wool Soouthern California cinematographer come to know about Route 66 fragments and the Coleman Theater? Besides Lucien Ballard, there is one other esteemed filmmaker from Miami, Oklahoma—my wife, the editor Carol Littleton.

The Olivier Messiaen Centennial

What do singer Bjork and Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood have in common? Probably a number of things in the world of alternative and progressive rock music. But their unexpected nexus is a passion for the intricate, thorny, yet ravishing sonorities of the music of Olivier Messiaen.

There is tremendous interest in Messiaen’s music now as this is, along with Elliott Carter, an even more demanding modern classical composer, his centennial year. The difference between these titans of 20th century music is that Messiaen is no longer with us, having died in 1992, while Elliott Carter is not only very much alive and living in NYC, but seems to be at a still high water mark of his creative tide. I want to write about him in a future piece but since Carter may outlive some of us here, I’d like to say a little right now about his fellow centenarian.

I had a difficult time listening to Messiaen’s music for many years. But in early spring of 2000 I was filming the feature Antitrust, living in an apartment in downtown Vancouver. Easter Sunday arrived early that year and I recall being intoxicated by the beauty of the cherry trees in full bloom everywhere in the city’s central core. It was raining on a March afternoon as I was walking in the late, failing light toward the iconic Anglican cathedral at the corner of Burrard and Georgia Sts. I was going to the church to hear a performance of Messiaen’s canonical work “The Quartet for the End of Time”. And I did hear it that evening, performed by candlelight, in the centuries old timbered nave. It changed forever my whole orientation toward modernist music and made me as much an acolyte of Messiaen’s music as that of the two pop stars cited above.  Maybe even more so.

While the composition itself is secular, a case can be made that all of Messiaen’s music is deeply religious. He was a lifelong devout Catholic. The instrumentation of this work is unusual for a piano quartet in that that the usual viola part is written for a clarinet. And in this change lies the dramatic story of its composition and first performance in a prisoner of war camp.

Messiaen, a French soldier, was captured by the Germans on June 25, 1940 and interred in a POW camp near the town of Gorlitz-Moys in Silesia. The camp, Stalag VIII-A was a work camp, not a concentration camp, and being Catholic, it was likely that, though he would suffer privation, Messiaen would not be exterminated. Such was not the fate, however, of a whole generation of German and Austrian Jewish composers such as Viktor Ullman and Erwin Schulhoff, who were branded “degenerate” by the Nazis and who were exterminated or died in the camps.

Soon after Messiaen’s capture, it came to the attention of a German officer in Stalag VIII-A, Karl Albert Brull, a passionate music lover, (I know it’s almost a movie cliché—but it IS true) that a highly regarded French composer was among the prisoners. There were also a number of professional musicians held at the camp. Messiaen, a mesmerizing pianist, was allowed to compose and to play with fellow prisoners to provide entertainment for the Germans and maintain morale in the camp. Messiaen composed and rehearsed “Quartet for the End of Time” in a few months. It was first performed before the camp on January 15, 1941. Here is more information about its history and musical structure:

Wikipedia entry

And here is a video of the fifth movement.  This movement is for cello and piano. Not all movements are scored for full quartet. The third is for solo clarinet. The camerawork in this excerpt is mediocre but the performance is luminous.

There is a detailed account of the genesis, composition and premiere of this seminal modernist work in Rebecca Rischin’s fascinating book, from her doctoral dissertation, The End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. link

Her account of camp life reads like a WWII thriller, well sort of. I had contacted Ms. Rischin about the possibility of optioning her book and doing an adaptation for a feature film—an angle on WWII not likely to be explored by a major studio. But then reality set in and I had to ask myself if I were willing to devote the next three years of my life in a struggle to get something this arcane made as “entertainment”. I sensibly demurred. I had gone down that road a decade before with Ron Hansen’s transcendent novel of cloistered religious life Mariette in Ecstasy. But the rigors of that experience nearly had ruined my desire to continue as a filmmaker. I loved Messiaen’s music too much to think about polluting it with commerce.

Olivier Messiaen was also a brilliant organist who composed some of his most powerful work for this instrument. He was resident organist at Trinite Church in central Paris for well over half a century. As a student there in the early sixties, my wife, Carol Littleton, often would listen to Messiaen improvise above in the organ loft, while below, rapt listeners filled the nave of the church, moving in and out quietly so as not to disrupt the mood of the resplendent music.

You can see and hear a wondrous Youtube video of Messiaen improvising at Trinite.

It begins simply, quietly and sustains this mood until the blissful final chord. If you feel as if you are sometimes hearing birdsong, it is not your imagination. Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist and naturalist. During his frequent outings he transcribed thousands of birdsongs into his notebooks and used them as thematic material in his work.

The recently departed LA Phil music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, discusses the thrall of Messiaen and its profound effect on him in this video:

In 1972, music patroness Alice Tully commissioned Messiaen to write a grand work for performance in the concert hall bearing her name in NYC. The commission was to be in celebration of the American bi-centennial. Messiaen came to the US and visited the West. He became mesmerized by the grandeur of natural architecture in several parks, esp. Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah. A mountain was even named after him.

The 12 movement work he composed is called “From the Canyons to the Stars” and it has a revered place in Messiaens’s oeuvre much as Dvorak’s American masterpiece, “Symphony from the New World,” has in the compositions of the Bohemian master.

The transcendent eighth movement “The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran” (as well as a helpful text intro to it) can be found here on the NPR website:

NPR article

One final note about Messiaen and his centennial. In October and November of 2008 the resident music director of Saint Thomas Church in midtown Manhattan, John Scott, played a series of six concerts of Messiaen’s complete music for solo organ. The church, at the corner of 5th Avenue and 53rd St., is on the same block as that cathedral of modernist art, MOMA. You can imagine you can hear Messiaen’s complex organ chords wafting through the museum galleries filled with paintings of Kandinsky and Mondrian. Kandinsky especially was a great believer of synaesthesia, the belief that the sensations of one sense intersect and conflate with another sense. Messiaen expounded a theory of the colors of musical tone and Kandinsky believed his improvisation paintings were visual embodiments of music.

I was in NYC much of the time of this organ series and was able to hear most of the concerts. The beauty of that organ is deeply embedded in my musical consciousness, much like the cinematic colors of an abstractionist  and visually musical filmmaker like Oskar Fischinger, John Whitney or Stan Brackage.  But that is another story.

Movie Magicians, the Archivists

Conventional wisdom tells us that a B/W negative or YCM matrices should last one hundred years or more. In the past, I have parroted as much when I write about the efficacy of shooting and finishing on film.

This can be true—if the materials have been stored in an ideal environment and if original and vulnerable nitrate based film has been transferred to acetate-based stock. In the real world, a much less ideal scenario often holds sway.

This has recently come crashing home to me in the course of attending a series of seminars and papers presented by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) in their two-day conference at the Dunn Theater of the AMPAS Pickford Center. The convocation is called “The Reel Thing”. Grover Crisp and Michael Friend of Sony Pictures Entertainment coordinated the symposium. I was invited to attend by Grover whom I know well from the re-mastering for DVD and Blu-Ray of films such as Silverado.

Here is a schedule of some of the events that were presented recently, August 21 and 22.

The Reel Thing XXII Program Excerpts

Many fascinating and urgent issues were discussed and I plan to present some of them in future postings along with links for you to explore further. There is such a wealth of amazing topics in this schedule that I cannot begin to plunge into their depths.

But there is one single thing I want to discuss in this posting and that is the compelling interest and relevance that these seeming archival issues have to our immediate assignments as working filmmakers.

Early in your career there is a compelling momentum to work and forge ahead, looking toward the next film even before the current one is finished. As the credits accrue and as you begin to see films in video iterations and in broadcast media, even clips on Youtube, it begins to dawn somewhere in your deeper cranial recesses that there is a body of work forming that defines you as a unique voice — well, at least the films that seem to have a shelf life beyond the opening weekend and a one week promotion of the video release.

I remember when I was privileged to be on the jury of the 1987 Venice Film festival with my mentor Vittorio Storaro. I arrived in Venice a bit late the first day, August 28; the jury had convened already and as I was hustled into the green room I met a row of drawn faces. It had just been announced that director John Huston had died. His last film The Dead from the James Joyce short story was scheduled to open the festival that night. We started to discuss Huston’s life and career.

In this pre-IMDB era it was not easy to reference the 47 films he had directed—but we all knew that his very first directing credit was The Maltese Falcon of 1941. The list grew as we each spoke the name of a favorite Huston film. Even his wacky, little known cult film of the mid 50s, Beat the Devil from a Truman Capote script had its champion. The premiere that night of The Dead was both a cinematic wake and a celebration. The film ends with one of the most poetic voiceover readings in the history of cinema. There was audible audience weeping throughout this palace of cinema cynicism.

Seated near me was writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who was to be honored by the festival in a major retrospective. At this time he was retired; he had accrued close to 50 writing credits and had directed 23 films, among them as writer-director of All Abut Eve and The Barefoot Contessa. As I sat there I could not help but wonder how Mankiewicz, who was only three years Huston’s junior, sensed his own mortality, even as his own illustrious career was to be highlighted the coming ten days. As it happened, whenever I was not screening the films in competition, I sat with Mankiewicz as he watched his own films, some of which had been made more than forty years before. He volunteered that most of them he had not seen since the initial release. Most of them had been made in the pre-video era and it was not so easy for him to see his early work. Those years also represented a period when the concept of meaningful archiving had not assumed such value, the deep pocket revenue source of the studio film library still being a questionable concept.

I have made this lengthy diversion from AMIA’s “The Reel Thing” as an illustration of the way the immediacy of our career can slip away from us even as it is building. I now find myself with nearly 40 years of credits myself, going back to my first film as camera assistant, Monty Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop. So my attendance at the AMIA presentations gave me a personal slant to the whole concept of archiving and preservation.

The point I would like to make here is pretty elemental. As we filmmakers work, we are building a body of work that will be archived. And in this emerging post film era  (oh my god, I can’t believe I wrote that) the necessity of archiving and migrating the digital masters has become ever more urgent. One of the symposium speakers, an archivist from Belgium with a mordant sense of humor, rocked the room with this comment. “In the era of digital materials, our master tapes will last for 50 years—or for 5, whichever happens first.” This is no mere joke. Several speakers gave examples of digital data that began to disappear in less than 5 years. And unlike in the analog era, where materials tend to degrade slowly and can often be restored to close to pristine form (ironically, by means of sophisticated digital techniques), digital data, as it “degrades,” often just disappears completely.

We filmmakers work at the beginning of the film chain; we create the images. The archivists are at the other end.  Their efforts are directed to protect and preserve the image. Sadly, we do not seem to have much cross-pollination. When was the last time you saw an archivist visit the set? Or, when was the last time you wandered through a film vault or among state of the art archival robot servers? Here is AMIA’s homepage:

Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) link

I think it is crucial that we make an effort to mingle in and discover each other’s world. The archivists’ and restorers’ cutting edge techniques are fascinating of themselves. As important, though, is the fact that the men and women who have this amazing love and dedication to the history of film are the custodians of what we create.

Busking With Bach

A video of a street musician playing amid the bustle of a morning commuter crowd, hundreds of people passing by, not missing a step or casting even a sidelong glance at the performer. What’s so unusual about that? Well, for one thing this Youtube video has nearly a million and a half hits. That’s not likely to happen if you or I post music on Youtube.

Some of you may know this story already. It made national news in early April of 2007. If you do, bear with me because there is a lot more to this story than what you have heard or read.

First off, just play the video; then I’ll clue you in.

Okay, the violinist is damned good. The music, a masterpiece — the “Chaconne” from the J.S. Bach Second Partita. This movement is almost 15 minutes long and is one of the most difficult and exhausting pieces in the string repertoire. He plays it twice, plus Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”

At about a minute and a half into the video clip, a woman stops about ten feet from the performer. She does not move even as dozens of people scurry past on all sides, like one of those speeded up scenes from Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisquatsi — Hopi for Life Out of Balance. That’s a hint as to where this story is headed.

The woman is named Stacy Furukawa. After the music ends, she says to him “I saw you at the Library of Congress. It was fantastic.”

Whoa. Some street musician! Perhaps you know already that this was an event staged by Washington Post feature writer Gene Weingarten. His wonderful piece about the incident and its implications about our societal values is the subject of an article that appeared in the weekend magazine of the paper, a place where he was able to examine more than weekday reportage. The national dialogue that grew out of his essay is still going on. As for the video — Youtube finally disabled the comments section.

The musician is Joshua Bell, a young violin virtuoso, a luminary in the classical music world; he is playing on his own $3.5 million Strad. He chose a place to perform just away from the top of the escalator at the heavily trafficked L’Enfant Plaza subway station in D.C. In the course of a 43-minute solo recital, he earned about $59 from passersby—if you include the 20 bucks Ms. Furukawa gave him.

Several days after the subterranean “recital,” Bell appeared in NYC to accept the Avery Fisher Prize, one of classical music’s most treasured awards. Oh, just to enhance its cachet, it comes with a $75,000 honorarium. The next day, Bell is interviewed by Michelle Norris of NPR; you can listen to his thoughts about the D.C. event here:

NPR story

This entire brouhaha could possibly be reduced to a simple reflective aside about just how too busy we all are to recognize a moment of transcendent beauty in front of us. That was the tack that much of the national media took and it at first seems to be the point of Weingarten’s WaPost article. But to leave it at that does a real disservice to the imagination that thought up the event and the complex logistics that planted reporters all around the subway entrance, intercepted random passersby, and got their phone numbers under the pretext of doing a survey—only to be interviewed later by Weingarten.

This is the part of the incident that was least covered in the media’s haste to get the gist of the event and then move on to the next story. Weingarten was interested not only in the irony of a concert hall star being ignored, or of a glib indictment of the passing crowd’s indifference to Bach.

What is extraordinary about Weingartern’s full article, and I beg you to take the time to read it, is just how varied, singular, yet complex our states of mind are at any moment, even as we are bent upon our most mundane tasks. Here it is; it’s full of surprises (and with it a different half minute video clip). I know it’s a bit long but don’t “walk” past it, read it.

The Washington Post article

The article is partly bio (Bell’s), partly context (great music in a mundane place) and partly a wry musing on the futility of making general judgments about people. One suspects Weingarten has an almost Runyonesque interest in the “common man”. But then, he also writes about Kant.

But even beyond all this, what intrigued me about the story as I began to dig inside it is its Rashomon-like dimension: a story that seems to send out multi-perspective tentacles from a single event. Here is an apparently non-descript fiddler wearing a baseball cap, trying to pick up a few bucks between gigs, who turns out to be one of the world’s great concert musicians, who is not trying, as a self-styled venture, to address a purely personal question about fame, but who is, in fact, part of a social experiment staged by one of the nation’s signature newspapers, that fully expects a kind of mob frenzy to unfold when the crowd grows and the musician is finally recognized — but who in fact is not recognized, except by a solitary woman holding a plastic bag, the  musician then going on national radio to discuss his own surprised reaction at the lack of applause and the instant insecurity for what, regardless of whether or not he is recognized, is in fact great music, beautifully performed, the sense of time suspended when there is no reaction at all at the decay of the final chord, just stony indifference, all this charted by a contingent of reporters planted at the periphery, who intercept anonymous passing people in order to question them for a bogus survey, but who in fact are getting phone numbers for the reporter to interview later in the day about their recollection of a non-event most of them don’t recall — and finally the presentation of the whole motley doings as a lead feature in a newspaper magazine Sunday supplement.

The only thing that does not seem surreal to me in all this is that video image of one woman quietly standing opposite a man playing a violin, a web of beauty spinning out from the hands of the player to the ears of the listener, weaving itself around both of them, as the world passes by.

That moment kind of takes my breath away. But is this whole thing just hi-jinx, one of those “only in America” charades — or is there a point to be made here about how diffuse and complex our individual lives are, how indifferent we are to the most obvious beauty about us, or is it about the price we pay for being so per-blind?  Judge for yourself. Consider what a number of people tell Weingarten as he tries to re-capture that moment when they just walked past, unaware.

An Octogenarian at Fifty — Robert Frank and “The Americans”

Grafted onto the tony visual conceits of the 50s as seen by TV’s Mad Men (the era of the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and the perfect martini, of Elvis and Buddy Holly, Pat Boone and Johnny Mathis, of Detroit’s sweeping tailfins and James Bond’s double entendre)—there is another America. It is the America of Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl and a critical, if not dystopian, vision of America most truly visible in the haunting images captured by the lens of Robert Frank in The Americans.

During a recent phone call, friend and producer John Fiedler recalled for me his more than 20-year near-archeological excavation to collect all 83 photographs of The Americans. I say “excavation” because despite the mythic reputation of this body of work and the book published from it, Frank was a more than reluctant printer and made few copies. For a single individual, rather than a fully staffed museum, to amass an entire set required a near forensic dedication.

There was also general disdain for the work when it was published in 1959 and by the time the brilliance of The Americans was acknowledged, Frank had moved on to filmmaking with Pull My Daisy, as a leading voice of the New American Cinema. He returned to photography years later but in a more personal, introspective, even confessional way. But I’ll write more of that work later in this piece.

Once Fiedler had obtained all the photographs in as close to vintage prints as possible, he entrusted them for about five years to the Photography Collection of the National Gallery and its director, Sarah Greenough, for research and scholarly study.  However, the 50th anniversary exhibition of the photos of The Americans initiated by that august institution earlier this year (and which opens this month at the Met in NYC and then at SFMOMA) is not the same set that John Fiedler had so methodically assembled.

I have known John since he was Skip Nicholson’s assistant as a film dailies contact man at Technicolor in the late 70s. This was back in the days when film dailies were still the norm, back when you proved your bona fides as a cinematographer by having one-lights, back when a neophyte like me sweated through every day’s work in a dark and tense studio screening room.

At that time, I had been collecting photography for a few years and had gifted John with a photogravure by Edward Curtis.


Sioux Chiefs by Edward Curtis from “The North American Indian”

Little did I suspect that John would soon be a collector and toward what work he would be drawn.

By the late 60s even, history seemed to have passed Frank by.  Mainstream American photography had gone in a more overtly hip and political direction. Frank’s films had stubbornly remained mired in the east coast underground.

Here is a brief Wikipedia entry of Frank’s films:

Among his films was the 1959 Pull My Daisy, which was written and narrated by Kerouac and starred Ginsberg and others from the Beat circle. The Beat philosophy emphasized spontaneity, and the film conveyed the quality of having been thrown together or even improvised. Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Frank’s co-director, Alfred Leslie, revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in The Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film with professional lighting.

In 1960, Frank was staying in Fluxes artist George Segal’s basement while filming Sin of Jesus with a grant from Walter K. Guttmann. Isaac Babel’s story was transformed to center on a woman working on a chicken farm in New Jersey. It was originally supposed to be filmed in six weeks in and around New Brunswick, but Frank ended up shooting for six months.

His 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues, is arguably his best known film. The film shows the Stones while on their ’72 tour, engaging in heavy drug use and group sex. Perhaps more disturbing to the Stones when they saw the finished product, however, was the degree to which Frank faithfully captured the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, “It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again.” The Stones sued to prevent the film’s release, and it was disputed whether Frank as the artist or the Stones as those who hired the artist actually owned the copyright. A court order resolved this with Solomonic wisdom by restricting the film to being shown no more than five times per year and only in the presence of Frank. Franks’ photography also appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main St.

Other films by Robert Frank include Keep Busy and Candy Mountain which he co-directed with Rudy Wurlitzer.

There is a beautiful “tribute” book published in Tokyo by Yugensha (1972) titled Lines of My Hand but it attracted little notice beyond the photo book community. Four years later, Aperture published a small monograph in its Aperture History of Photography series with a brief introduction by Rudi Wurlitzer, screenwriter of the film Two Lane Blacktop. Wurlitzer’s incantatory preface seemed to channel that fellow writer of the American road, Jack Kerouac, who wrote the haunting opening of the first American edition of The Americans. It was this Aperture edition from 1976 that was my introduction to Frank and it has been a source of confusion for me ever since. While many of its images are taken from The Americans, there are pictures from Paris and London that are antecedent to it and a few that were taken later. To my still impressionable eyes they all became The Americans, and years later, if you know this book you may experience the same conflation.

John Fiedler did meet Frank several times during his “excavations” but often his contact with the artist was done through intermediaries. Here is a typical anecdote he relates: “I was offered a print of a long sought after image from a dealer who indicated the print was unsigned.  Unusual for prints of Robert Frank.  I accepted the purchase of the print and forwarded it to Frank for signature via his dealer.  Weeks passed.  Then, a call came to me inquiring about the provenance of the print.  Obviously, I had no idea of the history of the print but connected the respective dealers and, a few weeks later, I received a new print of the same image made for me by Frank.   What of the previous, unsigned print? Who knows?”

This anecdote is not the least odd one John recounts. I told him he should write a book about his decades-long odyssey. It would be its own “road movie”. When John had 82 of the 83 prints, I gave him my own beloved Frank as a small acknowledgement of his perseverance. The title is “Motorama, Los Angeles,” a murky picture of three pre-teen boys sitting in a new sedan, their heads barely visible.

Motorama, Los Angeles

Motorama, Los Angeles

Last year, Frank received an invitation from the Chinese government to attend a major retrospective of his work at the Pingyao International Photography Festival. The city is about 450 miles southwest of Beijing, an industrial outpost of grime and pollution—at least according to Charlie Leadoff who has written a revealing account of the travails of the then 83-year-old artist. His piece in the April 2008 issue of Vanity Fair “Robert Franks’ Unsentimental Journey” is an intimate account of the Learesque winter years of an American icon. The article opens with a shocking yet Chaplinesque account of Frank’s collapsing into unconsciousness while seated in a dinky noodle shop, his ever-present Dunkin’Donuts cap close by. LeDuff’s account details an intimacy with a man who is well known for his candidness, gruffness and emotional distance. You can read the full story here:

Vanity Fair article

obert Frank and his wife, June Leaf (right), at the opening of the Pingyao International Photography Festival, in Pingyao, China. Photograph by Edward Keating.

obert Frank and his wife, June Leaf (right), at the opening of the Pingyao International Photography Festival, in Pingyao, China. Photograph by Edward Keating.

If you scroll about one third down the article you’ll find a link to a minute and a half video of Frank called Pull My Donkey, shot by Leadoff in what appears to be an office in NYC.  In virtual silhouette, with traffic passing outside the window, Frank intones a kind of Beat poem. His wife, pictured next to him in the photo above, is also featured. The mood of the video is grim indeed.

The critic Janet Malcom once dubbed Frank “the Manet of photography.” Manet, like Frank, was a loner and while not himself ever an Impressionist, he was godfather to the entire free-brush movement, much as Frank was godfather to the 60s and 70s loose-limbed photo style that he early on abandoned. (I know it may seem a digression to reference Eduard Manet in a piece about Frank but in this blog I often will wander about like this.)

Manet’s work seems to me to be almost an analogue of Frank’s style, though a full century before it. There is a formality and flatness of perspective that haunts much of Manet’s work. Most of his figures look two-dimensional, subsumed into undefined backgrounds. Even in larger social groups, his people seem solitary, the scene fragmented. His subjects often engage the viewer with a dispassionate yet intense regard as if they are indifferent players in their own drama, a kind of deadpan aesthetic. You can see it clearly in this video made by a Manet devotee.

All of these characteristics also can be applied to many of the images in The Americans. Both of these solitary artists cast an unblinking, unsentimental eye at their societies and were initially castigated for it.  The very best analysis, as well as biography, of Manet and his social, artistic milieu, can be found in one of the most compulsively readable books on art ever, Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris.

Amazon link

Even if you don’t have time to read the book, scroll down to The Washington Post thumbnail review at the bottom of the Amazon page. You will read the disdain that the self-absorbed Manet faced as he led, unwittingly, a slightly younger generation of painters into an art revolution, as did Frank almost a century later. A footnote to this book is that it documents not only the careers of Manet and the Impressionists, but the parallel one of the most famous salon painter of the era, Ernest Meissonier, whose magisterial canvases epitomize the grand French tradition of the Salon.  (A Wallace-esque footnote to a footnote: Two of Ross King’s other wonderful books on art read like thrillers: Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. Indulge yourself. Read all three.)

To speak of the Frank of The Americans as a “loner” is no trope. In conversation with Le Buff he reveals that in his Guggenheim Foundation sponsored odyssey back and forth across America (three trips in a battered Ford, sometimes with wife and two kids) he remained a voyeur. “I only ever spoke to one person, the woman who got married in Reno… She called up her father (to tell him) and he hung up on her.” Frank’s style in shooting The Americans, if you can call such an anomalous technique “style,” was one of a quick-footed stalker. He would scope out a situation, shoot some quick shoots from different angles, and then move on in his Ford “to the next shot.” A review of some of his contact sheets, which are displayed in the upcoming 50th retrospective, confirms this. It’s too bad this work precedes the time-code record so common today. Meta-data is a privilege of the digital age. One would suspect that Frank hates it.

The catalog of the National Gallery/MET show is said to be definitive. Here is a glance at it with an editorial review below:

Amazon link

Published to accompany a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of this prescient book. Drawing on newly examined archival sources, it provides a fascinating in-depth examination of the making of the photographs and the book’s construction, using vintage contact sheets, work prints and letters that literally chart Frank’s journey around the country on a Guggenheim grant in 1955-1956. Curator and editor Sarah Greenough and her colleagues also explore the roots of The Americans in Frank’s earlier books, which are abundantly illustrated here, and in books by photographers Walker Evans, Bill Brandt and others. The 83 original photographs from The Americans are presented in sequence in as near vintage prints as possible. The catalogue concludes with an examination of Frank’s later reinterpretations and deconstructions of The Americans, bringing full circle the history of this resounding entry in the annals of photography.

This richly illustrated expanded edition of Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans contains several engaging essays by curator Sarah Greenough that explore the roots of this seminal book, Frank’s travels on a Guggenheim fellowship, the sequencing of The Americans and the book’s impact on his later career. In addition, essays by Anne Wilkes Tucker, Stuart Alexander, Martin Gasser, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Michel Frizot and Luc Sante offer focused analyses of Frank’s relationship with Louis Faurer, Edward Steichen, Gotthard Schuh, Walker Evans, Robert Delpire and Jack Kerouac, while Philip Bookman writes about his work with Frank on several exhibitions in the last 30 years. This edition also reproduces many of Frank’s earlier photographic sequences, as well as all of the photographs in The Americans and selected later works.

In addition, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans–Expanded Edition includes a wealth of additional materials, essential information for all interested in twentieth-century photography. It contains all of Frank’s vintage contact sheets related to The Americans, a section that re-creates his preliminary sequence and presents variant cropping of the first and subsequent editions of the book and a map and chronology, along with letters and manuscript materials by Frank, Walker Evans and Jack Kerouac related to Frank’s Guggenheim fellowship, his travels around the United States in 1955-1956, and his construction of the book. This groundbreaking 528-page catalogue is certain to be the definitive source of information on The Americans for years to come.

This outsider stance came naturally to Frank. He was born and grew up in Switzerland, an historically standoffish country. He first came to the United States in 1947, as a young man. Before being awarded the Guggenheim Grant, he had done important work in Paris, London, Wales, Spain and Peru. He also had assisted the mandarin-like Walker Evans who was instrumental in Frank’s being awarded the Guggenheim.

During Frank’s cross-country journeys he maintained a low profile. Despite this, he was often challenged by skeptical law enforcement officers, especially in the South, where he photographed in rural black enclaves such as Beaufort and St. Helena Island, So. Carolina. I know this country well as I had trained for the Peace Corps in 1967 near there, at a former civil rights training center outside Frogmore.  Our lawns were regularly set ablaze in the middle of the night, large flaming crosses lapping at the ghostly hanging moss. We went into Beaufort only under police escort. I re-visited the area in 1982 when we made The Big Chill in a grand house along the Beaufort River.  Much had changed in the intervening 15 years, though I still got a frisson when, one Sunday, I drove over to Frogmore, turned off the highway and saw the outbuildings of the Penn Center, bastions of another era.

Below are two of Frank’s most famous photos from The Americans, taken within a short hike of where I had spent three turbulent months a short time before the King and Kennedy assassinations. This is just the kind of carpetbagger snooping that got Frank “escorted” out of town by suspicious police, cries of “commie” ringing in his ears.

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina

Café, Beaufort, South Carolina

Café, Beaufort, South Carolina

Over the course of his three cross-country trips Frank exposed more than 28,000 frames that were edited down into the canonic 83. As you examine the contact sheets you can already see the proto-filmmaker at work. He shoots coverage, coverage. The “editorial” layout of the book sets off a brilliant dialogue with itself as the eye moves from one image to the next, one page to the next. There is an intense narrative and visual rhythm at work here not just a loose assemblage. I believe that in addition to the cumulative power of the images one at a time, their juxtaposition intensifies Frank’s vision of a nation that, while stretching three thousand miles across a continent, has a disquieting melancholic unity.

A friend recently sent me the link to an NPR story I had missed in its initial airing. It is about the young girl in the photo below, one of the most famous in The Americans and about whom Kerouac writes in his introduction:

“And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name and address?”


Elevator, Miami Beach, 1955

Her name is Sharon Collins and she lives in San Francisco. She has remained unknown by Frank scholars for 50 years. Here is her story:

NPR Story

There is an insightful look at this image as well as numerous other key photographs from “The Americans” in a current New Yorker story by film critic Anthony Lane. It is somehow appropriate that a movie reviewer hooked this assignment. The narrative line that pervades his article is much like that of a still photo movie. It was no accident that Frank so soon after turned toward cinema to continue his exploration of the American psyche. In this article Lane follows with a close scrutiny Frank’s travels in his Ford. He cites locations and dates, as well as gleaning information from contact sheets, in bringing to life the stories behind the photos. For the first time I realized that his shot of “Motorama,” which I cite above, was made at a GM auto show March 3-11, 1956 at the now demolished Pan Pacific Auditorium on Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. I remember that show; I was there with my dad; I was only a few years older than the three boys sitting so adult-like in that car.

The very human challenges that surrounded Frank’s cross-country odyssey are outlined in Lane’s review “Road Show”.

The New Yorker article

The 1972 Japanese book The Lines of My Hand pointed the direction in which Frank’s work would go. Critic Andy Grundberg in a 1989 release of a new edition of the book wrote for the NY Times:

At last Robert Frank’s legendary but seldom seen book, originally published in a limited edition in 1972, is available in a trade edition with additional material. It brackets The Americans, the 1959 book for which Mr. Frank is most famous, starting with snapshots of Swiss village life from 1944-46 and ending with inscribed black-and-white Polaroids from the 1980’s. In between are photographs taken in New York, Paris, Spain and the British Isles and even a smattering of pictures that appeared in The Americans.

Mr. Frank intended this book less as a retrospective of his career in photography than as an autobiography; to that end he has included brief notes about his state of mind and a section consisting of frames from some of his many movies. (After The Americans, he pledged to give up photography for films.) But most self-revealing and moving are the Polaroids he began making after the death of his daughter in 1975. With words of pain scratched, stenciled or written directly on them, these pictures give The Lines of My Hand the emotional resonance that is characteristic of Mr. Frank’s best work.

The pain expressed in the new images from Lines of My Hand seems now to be prophetic. Frank’s beloved daughter, Andrea, dies on Dec. 28, 1974 in a plane crash near the Mayan temple at Tikal, Guatemala. His long-troubled son, Pablo, commits suicide in 1993. Here is a deeply haunting photo of them in the family Ford, stopped at the side of the road at the time of The Americans.

Microsoft Word - Document1

At the end of the Vanity Fair article Leadoff gives a window into the winter mood of this photographic lion:

“Robert Frank is an enigma: hard and empathic and melancholic at once. He abhors schmaltziness and syrup. I asked him if he would like to see a photograph of my baby, He answered, ‘Why should I want to see that?’”

The initial printing of The Americans sold about 600 copies. Today, if you can find a copy:


This is what it will cost you, though the one offered below claims to be in better condition than the one here pictured.

The Americans

by Frank, Robert; Kerouac, Jack

price: $6,503.05

Ships from PA, USA

add to wishlist

Edition: First American Edition Binding: Hardcover Publisher: Grove Press, New York Date Published: 1959

Description: Near Fine. Hardcover. Illus. Stated First American Edition. With Introduction by Jack Kerouac. Near Fine in Very Good dustjacket. Light shelfwear. Some wear to very scarce dustjacket, heavy brown spotting to front, occasional chipping to edges, slight loss to spine-ends, creasing and tears to rear do with 3×3-inch loss. Contents unmarked.

I found a signed copy on the internet last week for $22,000.00… but it’s no longer available.

In 1996 the Swiss publisher Scalo published a small paperback for the 10th anniversary of Pace-McGill gallery on 57th St., NYC, Frank’s gallery. It is titled Thank You, an assemblage of 73 inscribed and drawn-on postcards from friends and admirers, addressed to Frank. This avowedly unsentimental man had kept them. There is no text in the book save his endnote:

“I have saved these cards over many years

I was touched how many people wanted to tell me

Their appreciation of what I was doing

Without asking anything in return

This small book is my way of saying Thank You”.

And we say thank you, Mr. Frank, you hardheaded old softie, for the mirror you held us to us and for the new eyes you gave us—50 years ago.

Avedon: Robert Frank, 1975

Robert Frank, 1975 by Richard Avedon

The Kodak Lunar Orbiter Camera

The recent media attention given to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, with its dramatic restored video of Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the lunar surface, has re-ignited our nation’s interest in extra-terrestrial exploration.

A fascinating and detailed Wikipedia entry about this mission is described here.

But this mission would not have been possible had it not been for a series of lunar surface mapping missions that were made several years before.  It is a story that is not as dramatic as that of the first humans to walk on the moon. But it is a fascinating story, nonetheless, of the way that the entire Apollo program pushed beyond the then perceived limits of technology. And the Eastman Kodak Company was a major player.

Between August of 1965 and August of 1966, five missions of a lunar orbiter module, equipped with a camera, mapped nearly 99% of the moon’s surface. Its objective was to find possible landing sites for Apollo 11 and the subsequent lunar exploration missions.

The mapping camera was the heart of the lunar orbiter module. It was equipped with two lenses; the first was a lower resolution one of 80 mm. The second lens, a 610mm high-resolution lens, was capable of resolving images of 2 meters in size. The exposures were made onto a strip of 70mm film. Yes, FILM. This was, after all, still an analog era. The film was fed through an elaborate transport chain from exposure (at an approximate ASA of 2) to development by a method called bimat (think something akin to Polaroid), then to an analog scanning of the film and its radio transmission to earth where it was rescanned onto film. These filmstrips were then assembled mosaic-like and mounted into frames that registered successive sections of the lunar landscape. There was also a record made onto two inch magnetic tape—but that is another story, one I will describe in another posting. It is the story of “lost” data that should serve as a cautionary tale for those of us who perceive the digital record of our work as somehow being archival.

Seven of these Kodak cameras were actually built, but with sufficient materials available for up to ten. Five, or possibly six, were deployed in the actual mapping missions. The last one now resides in the Technology Collection of the George Eastman House in Rochester. As a parenthesis, I would encourage all of you, if you happen to visit the Eastman House with the intention of seeing the historic photography collection, to make an appointment to study the collection of still and motion picture cameras as well. As I recall from a visit some fifteen years ago, they are sequestered on ranks and ranks of shelves in a large basement room that feels like something out of the final overhead tracking shot of Citizen Kane. There are thousands of “Rosebuds” stored here. This visit will bring the history of photography and motion pictures to life for you in a way that the memory will stick with you forever. Those of you who have ever seen the cameras in the ASC clubhouse will understand how that collection is but an aperitif to the drunken binge of the treasures of the Eastman House.

Please excuse the ruminative aside. I’ll get back to the subject at hand.

Photographs of the Kodak camera built for the lunar orbiter survey reveal what seems to be an amazingly primitive Rube Goldberg contraption. Stripped of the protective insulating housing, the camera module is a concoction of wheels, gears and bulbous glass. A then space age binding material called Velcro  (I kid you not) held parts of it together.  Here are some photos of the rig:




The half side view shows the film transport in detail. The front view shows the two lenses with a defrosting element embedded in the center of the lens in order to prevent fogging from the extreme temperature changes as the module orbits. The last view shows the camera in its protective cocoon as part of the entire satellite.

A video podcast of less than seven minutes features Eastman House Technology Collection curator Todd Gustavson discussing how the Kodak camera performed.

A description of the lunar orbiter camera program is described in more detail here.

The recent AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) symposium held at the Dunn Theater of the AMPAS Pickford Center in Hollywood featured jaw-dropping presentations by Al Sturm and Ralph Sargent of the history of this program as well as the forensic-like work to find and restore its lost images. It is this latter theme I will take up soon along with the recent new photos also taken by a high resolution Kodak digital camera.

Shirin Neshat, Iranian Filmmaker

The recent Iranian election and subsequent populist protests and uprisings have galvanized the imagination of the world. A new hope has arisen that another long oppressed people will be able to cast off their entrenched and reactionary government and forge anew a long but broken liaison with the rest of the world.

A year ago, I wrote briefly in American Cinematographer Magazine (June 2008) about my friend Shirin Neshat who is an Iranian filmmaker. She left her homeland at age 17 to study in the US, Northern California, but for most of the 90s she was able to return to Iran annually to visit family and friends.  A disturbing encounter at the airport in 1996 (she was detained and interrogated) forced her to decide not to return. She says “I don’t really fancy the idea of going to prison.” Between 1998 and 2003 she made ten short “videos”. I call them videos because they were shown as video in art galleries rather than in cinemas. But Shirin, unlike many other video artists, always shoots on film, her format of choice being 35mm. Her funding has come from collectives of arts patrons and collectors as well as European grants. Thus, she has worked outside the constraints of commercial cinema. Her work is sought mainly by fervent collectors and museums. She has further supported herself by the sale of her art photography, which has often featured chador-clothed women with poetic scripts written on their faces and extremities.  A gallery of her images can be seen at this Google site as well as at the Gladstone Gallery site.

A casual perusal of some of the more militant images makes it clear why it became dangerous for her to return to her birthplace.

In 2001 a friend gave her a novella written in Farsi by another Iranian woman living in exile. Shirin found the writer in the SF Bay area. Her name is Shahrush Parsipur. Shirin persuaded the now sixty-one year old refugee to let her make a film adaptation of the book. Shirin had never attempted a feature length film and this book posed many challenges. It tells the intersecting stories of five women in Tehran. Their stories come together in an idyllic, almost magical realist garden, where they go to escape differing forms of oppression.

Shirin has been deeply committed to realizing this work for several years. Parts of it have appeared from time to time in gallery installations. I saw two long sequences last winter at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. I had seen several of Shirin’s shorter videos such as Rapture some years ago. But the wide screen formatting and stunning beauty of the images from her feature, titled Women Without Men, in HD video projection, convinced me to search her out. I found her in a cramped office/cutting room in midtown Manhattan working on this film.

Though we have maintained email contact, her constant traveling in order to finish the film and with my own location filming impinging as well, it has been impossible for us to see each other. Several weeks ago I received an email from her telling me that the film will be completed in time to accept an invitation to screen in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival– as well as five screenings later in September at the Toronto Film Festival.

A subtitled trailer of Women Without Men is posted on Youtube at:

Though its images are in a discontinuous, non-narrative assembly it will give you a sense of the strong emotional thrust of the work, as it strives to define the plight of Iranian women. The irony is that the film is set in 1953. The social and human issues portrayed, however, remain timeless.

Shirin’s odyssey as a young girl in Iran, as a struggling student in California, then as an exile in NYC and her meteoric rise as a major artist in the high powered international art world, is told in great detail in the New Yorker Arts Issue of Oct. 22, 1907.  The article, “Voice of the Veil” is written by Lauren Collins. I mention the date because I can refer you online only to an abstract of the article.

If you have an online subscription you can easily access the whole piece. However you are able to find it, you will see it is a compelling story of the struggles many artists still face to realize their work.

What I would like to leave you with regarding Shirin and what I hope will be an inducement to seek out more about her is a short youtube video from FLYP of Shirin speaking about the “Green Revolution” now unfolding in Iran:

I wish her success in Venice and I hope that her film will speak loudly to the world, of the plight of women in Iran.

Note: Prior to this posting Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

A Hideous Loss: David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962–September 12, 2008)

This is a photo by Time photojournalist Steve Liss of writer David Foster Wallace in 1996.

This is a photo by Time photojournalist Steve Liss of writer David Foster Wallace in 1996.

Wallace wore a bandanna since early adulthood. It was not a fashion statement. He sweated a lot, he said. He wore it even on his interview with Charlie Rose on national TV at the time he was doing the “read and sign” book junket for A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a book of essays published in 1997:

Charlie Rose show

Wallace has been called both “the voice of his generation” and “unreadable”. But he has stayed at the cutting edge of the literary world, from the publication in 1996 of his near 1100 page novel Infinite Jest to his suicide on Sept. 12, 2008 — and beyond. Even in death, his reputation grows, not seeming to fall prey to that near inevitable decline in status that is attendant on many recently deceased artists, especially those who leave us “before their time.” Wallace was only 46.

Many readers have tried repeatedly to read Infinite Jest (often referred to as “the brick” or “the doorstop” because of its length and weight — even in paperback) and have failed to become engaged in a book that introduces new characters for at least the first 200 pages, has a wandering narrative and plot (if you can call it that), and seems to trip itself up in long sections about competitive tennis, Alcoholics Anonymous and obscure avant-garde films, the most enigmatic of which becomes the novel’s Hitchcockian MacGuffin . In June, one such lapsed reader, Matthew Baldwin, got together a few friends and decided to make this tome their “summer read”. Completely surprising to them, tens of thousands of readers nationwide have either signed on to read as well or have followed their lead with contributing comments to the website they set up:

The goal is to read 75 pages a week and finish by mid-Sept., the first anniversary of Wallace’s suicide. I am one of the nerds who decided to do that; in fact I became so caught up in the book that I finished the read a month ago.


Here’s a T-Shirt you can order online: “IJ” for Infinite Jest, 1079 pages of dense prose, 388 endnotes — of asides, second thoughts, or exculpatory explanations (sort of)— a wearable piece of “bragging rights” for the true nerd cognoscenti. I ordered two, XL, blue piping.

Wallace readers are fanatics. There is something so unique in his style and in the flow of his very smart thought, that either draws you in with magnetic force or repels you with equal intensity.

Wallace’s “take no prisoners” writing style was once the satirical object of the Onion’s writers, albeit their pens were dipped in very benign ink. It is a “break-up” letter imagined as written by our logo-maniacal author. The Onion did this spoof 5 years before Wallace’s death. It’s easy to imagine that he laughed louder than anyone.

the Onion article

Although I was familiar with Wallace’s non-fiction essays for Harpers, Premiere, Gourmet and Rolling Stone, my first foray into his fiction was when actor John Krasinski asked me to read a script he had written, an adaptation of some short stories from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a collection Wallace published in 2000. John’s script led me to the book itself, then into the labyrinthine film that he and I made piecemeal over the next year and a half, to its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, then into this summer’s read of Wallace’s masterwork Infinite Jest and now finally to reside in a deep sense of empathy with this much troubled man whom I never met.

This tendency of Wallace readers to adopt a sense of intimacy, even intense emotional connection to the author himself as well as to the work, poses a question that haunts me. Perhaps, it is partly that his sensibilities are so raw, his characters so flawed, even helpless and hopeless. Perhaps it is the link to his decades-long struggle with clinical depression with a suicide attempt in his youth and the actual suicide in his mid-forties, which draws readers so toward him. Perhaps it is the fierce intelligence and uncompromising literacy and vocabulary that oozes out of him, or perhaps this raging, wandering rush of second thoughts and asides that tumble onto his pages as foot and end notes in even the most seemingly commercial of his magazine assignments.

All of this is very much in play for me as an impassioned reader. But there is another quality in his writing that has been little noted by the critics. David Foster Wallace, despite his admitted logophilia, (keep a thick dictionary standing by when you read him) creates word pictures and actions more vivid and present than any writer going. This is present not just in the essays where the reader becomes a companion on his traversal of a Las Vegas video porn convention, a Caribbean cruise, the Illinois State Fair, or embedded in the 2000 McCain presidential campaign; this immediacy and sense of almost cinematic presence stalks the novels and short stories as well.

I have not been able to figure out how he does this, because everything that inheres in his style would seem antithetical to the linear line of film drama. But in the same way that a film close-up, especially one absent dialogue, compels us to deliberate on the mental state of the actor’s character, Wallace’s relentless probing of his character’s thoughts and actions, creates a near cinematic state of tension. On a visual level, his close scrutiny and documenting of real objects, bodies in movement, sounds, smells all serve to elevate his words into tangible experience.

The purest cinema is one of gesture, glance, reaction, a sense of riveting interiority deployed by exterior action. This is the cinema world of Antonioni, Bresson, Roy Andersson and much of Melville. Melville’s Le Samourai and Boorman’s Point Blank, both from 1967, obsessively track their anti-heroes through a non-verbal world. When the reader looks carefully at a Wallace work like Infinite Jest, it is the long, long sentences and paragraphs, devoid of the breaks and quotation marks of dialogue, which lay densely on the page. Even then, Wallace can read like a screenplay, albeit a screenplay no studio reader would pursue past page two.

It is a facile trope to argue that the writing that is most cinematic, is writing that is also the simplest, garroted by the use only of the present tense. This dictum, I feel, tries to conflate a screenplay (which is arguably a hybrid literary form) with true cinematic writing. I can hear the howls already about my denigrating the art of the screenplay. If a screenplay is truly an author’s medium, then why do so many half-assed wannabe writer/studio execs feed on it like so much carrion all the way through production, bringing on teams of “punch-up” scribes in the middle of the fray, even up until shooting the final scene—the whole mishmash often ending up in “arbitration” at the Writer’s Guild of America over screen credit?

We all love reading screenplays; they are a genre easy on the eyes and on the mind. In a way, the skill set demanded is similar to that of the magazine short story writer — a particular focus, usually on a clear-cut theme with a strong if not singular narrative line.  I respect the nuanced craft it demands, as well as the survival skills it takes to negotiate the studio’s executive suites. For years, I have served on the AMPAS Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships and have been privileged to see the idealism and hope of many emerging writers, and I have great compassion for the crappy way even veteran writers are treated by the industry-at-large.

As far as I have been able to determine, Wallace never essayed a screenplay. This is surprising in a way as there are so many cinematic references in his work and a real understanding of his corpus presumes a knowledge of film history. One of the most readable essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is his account of time spent on the shooting set of David Lynch’s film Lost Highway.

Also, one of the most fascinating and hotly debated sections of Infinite Jest is not in the text itself but is an endnote: the (in)famous note # 24. It is the filmography of James O. Incandenza, the deceased father of the young Hal and his two bothers Mario and Orin, the book’s central figures. This nine page endnote is both a buried key to back-story in the book as well as a hilarious send-up of Critical Studies’ usurpation of “Cinema” — one of the last of the arts left until recently unpillaged by deconstructionists and semioticians.

This endnote employs the linguistically precise but somehow elusive jargon of academia to catalog dozens of the most absurdist films imaginable. It is a bibliographer’s wet dream worth reading on its own if you, as I, are a filmmaker whose schooling predates the storming of filmmaking’s bastions by doctoral candidates in search of cinematic red meat.

There is a brief obituary of Wallace in this Time magazine link—but more importantly it hotlinks to four of Wallace’s most trenchant essays available online:

Time magazine article

If you scroll to the bottom of the DFW entry on Wikipedia you will find links to other pieces:

Wikipedia entry

Even more literate than the Charlie Rose interview cited at the head of this piece are the many conversations between Wallace and KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt on his radio program, Bookworm:

KCRW — Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm podcast

This link is to the full archive of Silverblatt’s encounters with Wallace. I call them “conversations” because the host is a deeply thoughtful and articulate man, himself a worthy partner to the uber-articulate Wallace. You may want to consider listening to the talk from March 2, 2006 centered on the book of essays titled Consider the Lobster. One piece Wallace talks about is “Host” about right wing talk radio. It is a window into the logic and tactics of this radio style, especially when men like Hannity, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck now have more influence over the political opinions of their target audience than the putative leaders of the GOP.

I want to focus this piece on links to two deeply moving journalistic surveys into the all too human side of DFW and his lifelong struggle to live and write with a piercing light into a world that was for him growing darker and darker.

The first is from Rolling Stone last November:

Rolling Stone article

Several times when I have searched this link, the story came but with no text, not even an abstract.  It seems to be back up now. Give it a try.

The second and more intimate one is from The New Yorker this past March:

The New Yorker article

Both writers are working on a Wallace biography to be published next year.

One of the most widely online Wallace reads is an address he gave in 2005 to the graduating class of Kenyon College. It is atypical for him in its direct, even demotic language, as if the erudite author wanted more than anything else to reach out and grab a young, post-literate audience. There have been many attempts to kill off sites that host this speech. It was published recently by a press that seems hell-bent on wringing some shekels from the writer’s remains. But do try to find the intact speech here: — commencement speech

The feature film of  Brief Interviews With Hideous Men opens in NYC at IFC Manhattan on Sept. 25 and two weeks later in LA at The Laemmle Sunset Five. It is likely to be the only adaptation to film of his work for some time.

My reading of Wallace has helped me see the world in which I live and work in a new light and with a fresh intensity. This is not an atypical experience. One of the guest writers on the I/S website posted this recently as we all near the end of the novel. In his case, Nick Maniatis (reading it for at least the fourth time) says is an ongoing experience.

“I can’t help but hope David Wallace realised what he achieved with this novel. This novel speaks to me. It makes me feel more connected to my family and friends. More connected to other fans and readers. More connected to my world. I better understand my faults and misgivings. I am more generous and open to differing points of view. I watch tennis with eyes I never knew I had. I no longer laugh at AA. I understand that letting go, saying no, and not being a slave to my desires is real freedom. Double binds only make you stronger. Connecting with others is connecting with yourself. I understand that one can, simultaneously, fall in love and choose to love.”

It has, also, in ways I am still struggling to understand, made me (I would like to imagine) a more perceptive filmmaker. I hope so very much that if you read Wallace, he will do the same for you.

After the Fat Lady Sings, It’s Still Not Over

Okay, you aren’t an opera fan? What? You say you love opera, a real Queen’s Throat devotee? Or maybe, more likely, Verdi and Wagner aren’t top 25 on your iPod playlist? If so, have you considered this?

Even before the advent of sound film in the late 20s turned a mature, not really so-silent, medium topsy-turvy (the first sound feature did have singing), opera was the closest art form that expressed the emotive power of cinema. Opera exploited dramatic and comedic story and acting, extravagant costume and set design, dramatic lighting and sound effects, deus ex machina hyper-kinetic stage action with lots of swordplay and stabbings, even mad women throwing themselves off parapets—and of course, intensely emotional music. Can we call it proto-cinema?

And in large parts of Europe it has never been just an elitist entertainment. Mozart’s late great work The Magic Flute was not grand opera but Singspiel, a populist mix of lowbrow comedy mashed-up with Masonic humanist ideals. It premiered not at the Vienna State Opera but in a working-class theater outside the Ringstrasse. In much of 19th century Italy, the manic hi-jinks and “noises-off” insanity of the operas of Rossini, as well as the more turgid melodramas of Bellini and Donizetti, were huge popular hits, with the signature arias sung by street vendors the morning after the premiere.

It was in the United Sates that opera became the province of an over-educated and hyper-indulged elite. That started to change a bit in the 30s with the Texaco Saturday matinee radio broadcasts, re-conceived a few decades ago when PBS began its Great Performances series, “Live from the Met”. Still, that had low reception on most people’s radar and PBS itself has always been a target for right wing legislators who think they know better than you or I, the taste of “the people”.

But three years ago, the new general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, began an experiment. It has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In a chain of cinemas already equipped for HD presentations, the Met initiated a program of live transmissions in HD, beamed live to cinema-goers on over 700 screens in the US and Canada as well as a total of 40 countries worldwide.  On entering the theater, you already see onscreen shots of the grand curtain and of the milling audience inside Lincoln Center’s Met Opera House. You start to feel, even before the performance begins, as if you are there. In past seasons, I have seen Met Opera in HD in LA and NYC and on location in Vancouver and Shreveport. My wife’s sister and family drive to Tulsa and St. Louis with children and grandchildren for these highly anticipated opera outings.

The fourth Met Opera in HD season will begin this coming October even as it continues to increase its venues. In the meantime, from Aug. 27 until Sept. 7, on these dog days of summer, there were free public HD screenings on the Lincoln Center Plaza of ten archived productions, There was space for 2800 people each night—first come, first served. Here is a recent story outlining the series, from the NY Times.

I bring it up on this blog because I think this is a telling example of how digital cinema can present, as well as transform, “old media”. A simple illustration of this, shown at the broadcasts, is how singers, at the conclusion of an act, even as the curtain drops and they begin the walk back to their dressing rooms for a break and costume change, are followed by a steadicam camera threading through the maze of backstage set pieces, stagehands moving humongous walls and flats, playing a kind of dodge-ball with one another. This even looks like a staged cinematic backdrop, burly extras crossing as if on cue, while an interview is being conducted on the fly. The effect is startling. Thirty seconds before, you have seen the soprano collapse onstage at the end of a grief-stricken aria. Now, she is chatting, still out of breath, into a handheld radio mike.

Every production, in addition to the stage director, has an HD video director who sometimes ignites an otherwise staid production with intricate camera choreography. One of the best of these wizards is Gary Halvorson, whose every production I eagerly anticipate. In the NY Times article hotlinked above, Times music critic Anthony Tommasini praises the sailing ship set of Britten’s Peter Grimes, designed by Scott Paskis, but then continues by describing how Halvorson’s visual conception notches up the emotional pitch of the opera.

In March of the 2007 season, the screening of Puccini’s one act trilogy Il Trittico documented the between act frenzy of IATSE Local 1 stagehands changing from the set of Il Tabarro to Suor Angelica— from a French river barge and dock of the former, to the full plaza and cathedral façade of the latter. More than 125 stagehands reset the stage in less than 20 minutes while a steadicam roamed among them and two remote cameras hawked down on the doings from above. This purely visual entr’acte was its own drama, a near equal to that of the opera itself.  This is not your grandfather’s afternoon at the opera.

Each production is not merely captured by HD cameras. They are each uniquely staged to, and as one with, the distinct onstage choreography of the production. Some are quieter, intimate and the cameras choose mostly medium and close-up coverage. Several operas are staged using multi-media projections on a scrim. The HD cameras remain more proscenium oriented and centered to the audience’s POV in order to capture the effect of the curtain-like 2-D staging against the shifting flow of the projected images. Several productions invoke highly stylized, architectural-like sets. Dramatic camera angles support this vision. In short, the operas are all different—a far cry from the standard “line ‘em up in a row and shoot” aesthetic too often seen in filmed opera past.

In addition to a battery of proscenium placed cameras, the Met HD productions use robotic cameras at a very low angle, mounted on a rail track tucked between the back of the orchestra pit and the prompter’s box. There are also two large technocranes placed extreme stage left and stage right, just off the stage apron. All these cameras are charged with an intense sense of fluidity — if not quite the schizoid frenzy of music videos. The low angle robotics, especially, alternate between dramatic wide-angle shots and a longer lens close-up intimacy that almost makes you feel as if you are in the prompter’s box itself.

Here is a trailer for the upcoming Met season that has a montage of shots from past season’s productions.  The cuts are too fast to really track the camera movements fully but it is a suggestion.

I know it is difficult to “get” a big screen feel from a website video but even here you get a sense of how dramatic the lighting is, how cinematic, rather than “theatrical” is the use of spatial depth and how fluidly the camera moves.

In my first blog piece, I spoke about a visit I had made to Vince Pace’s HD digital 3-D facility in Burbank. After showing me his “show reel” full of 3-D effects, a sort of 50s 3-D efx redux, I told him of my own interest in shooting 3-D in a more naturalistic style—without the flying objects “coming at ya”. He took Rob Hummel and me on a short walk to a new post-production facility he is building. We entered a screening room with a large silvered screen for Real 3-D. He showed us a short film he had done as a promo for a possible European 3-D HDTV arts channel. The film presented a white tutu costumed corps de ballet— like something out of the second act of Swan Lake. The dance moved laterally, slowly on a cathedral like, cross-lit stage. The sense of immersion into the corps was startling. It was like being one of the dancers rather than like a viewer, passively watching. Please, no rude jokes about how I might look in a tutu. The slowly tracking camera, with an ever-shifting perspective, was magical.

Later, I had an epiphany. So far I have restrained myself from emailing it to Peter Gelb. But maybe I will. More likely, he’s already three steps ahead of me. What if the Met HD transmissions were “coming to you soon”— in 3-D? Can you imagine the opera clips you’ve just seen in 3-D? I can, I really can.

The Swedish Comedian—An Oxymoron?

Even before we can begin to talk about the films of Swedish director Roy Andersson, you need to look at the images. They are of such uniqueness that I don’t know how to begin to describe them. This minute and a half montage is from his 2000 film “Songs from the Second Floor”. It can easily spawn an hour-long critical exegesis.

I understand that this clip could strike you as no more than the indulgence of an auteur cineaste, par excellence. The film did win a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, a sure marker of critical cachet. But then, there are some (that would include me) who think it should have won the Palme d’Or. However, if you are inclined already to dismiss him as a navel gazing introvert, understand that Roy Andersson is also one of the most sought after directors of commercials in Europe. Here are seven of his commercials:

On a visual level you will note that Andersson’s work is quite static. Any rare camera move demands a near forensic scrutiny. And even beyond that, most of the scenes are executed with a single setup. Each of the shots from the Songs trailer represents a fragment of a whole vignette that may last as much as five minutes.  There are about 60 shots in the entire film. No filmmaker working today, that I can think of, has a style that runs so counter to the manic tics of a visually ADD society.

And yet, Andersson is a comedy director. I know it doesn’t look like it from the content of the images. But maybe this will help. Imagine (if this doesn’t warp your credibility) Ingmar Bergman in conversation with Buster Keaton, in conversation with Luis Buñuel. That’s the closest I can come to describing Andersson’s “style” both in visual and narrative terms. I don’t know if it helps or confuses this question of style to know that Andersson’s favorite painters are both from the Weimar Republic, Otto Dix and George Grosz.

There is a painterly cast to his work, no doubt about it. And this is reinforced by the stylized, even abstracted, quality of the set design.  The environments are not “real”. Andersson’s characters inhabit a visually alien space that looks dissonant as backdrop to their earthbound bodies. These denizens of a near apocalyptic city move sluggishly through rigidly framed rooms and streets much in the way that Edward Hopper’s often-solitary characters are frozen in theirs. Hopper is not a painter that Andersson overtly references but I can’t help but feel there is a shared vision between them. I know this is a slight parenthesis from the direction of this piece (one of the indulgences of a blogspace) but take a few minutes to look at this delicate video, which captures the isolation of Hopper’s world.

I first encountered Andersson’s “Songs” at a screening for the Foreign Film Nominating Committee of the Academy. I remember that it was a weekday night and Songs was scheduled as the second, later, film of the evening. This meant that if the film were a dog, members could sneak out after about half an hour and still qualify as having seen it.  When the film began there were not much more than a dozen of us in the spacious Goldwyn Theater. At the end of the screening there were, I think, three. One was the great art director and production designer Robert Boyle, who at that time was still teaching at the AFI after having had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood. I had worked with Boyle on my final job as camera operator, Winter Kills, photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond. Between 1958 and 1963 Boyle had designed three films for Alfred Hitchcock. The most famous of them is North by Northwest which recently has been beautifully restored in digital 4K by WB’s MPI facility, under the aegis of Jan Yarbrough.

I am not certain what it was that Bob Boyle found as riveting in Songs as I did. Other than the pure strangeness of the characters and the dramatic line, I suspect it was the sophistication of the production design that appealed to him. How could it not? This is a worldview totally defined within the highly art directed confines of a frozen “frame”— the antithesis of Fellini’s manic energy.

But both that evening (Songs did not go on to receive a best foreign film nomination—no surprise) and subsequently, Andersson’s cinematic sensibilities have remained elusive to most Americans. So, it was with a great deal of interest and delight that I read recently that MOMA in NYC is going to have a full retrospective of Andersson’s work mid-Sept. in its “Filmmakers in Focus” series. Roy Andersson himself will be in attendance for several days to introduce the screenings. I will be there to meet him in MOMA’s Titus Theater.

Andersson does not travel very much and he is a private person. It is not easy to find out much about his working method, though MOMA will show a short film documenting the production of his most recent feature You, the Living. I have lots of questions to ask when I do talk to him. Since 1981, when he founded his production company, Studio 24, Andersson has made his films almost totally in his own studio. One of the things I want to discuss is the widely held rumor that his commercials are largely the source of the sets he uses in his features. It is said that he builds sets for the commercials, many of them in a rapidly retreating false perspective and when he has saved enough of them, he is able to recycle multiple sets for the features. This could explain how ambitious the sets are for what must be a very modest feature film budget: commerce unintentionally subsidizing art in the 21st century, Swedish style.

Further, Andersson, like some other auteur European directors (think Bresson and the Dardenne Bros.) does not hire professional actors.  The characters of Andersson’s films have lived-in faces and bodies, not the faces of actors accustomed to the indulgence of spending large parts of their day being tweaked by a team of “vanities”. Even the stooped posture of many of his “actors” traces the engraved lines of life’s travails.

Subtle humor is everywhere in the work, an intangible commodity at best, and the humor of pathos and irony is even more elusive. Look at how few Samuel Becketts there have been in the critical canon. And in film, I think you can make a case that Roy Andersson is sui generis. There is certainly no American director who plows the same terrain.

Although Andersson’s visual style flirts with early 20th century Surrealism (think of the paintings of the Belgians Paul Delvaux and Rene Magritte rather than the word games of the French) he insists that the actions and behavioral vignettes of his characters reflect the quiet desperation of real life. What he says about the seeming agon of his favored painters can be said also of his own cinematic characters. In an interview in the NY Times, Dave Kehr seeks out the simple truth of Andersson’s vision.

“ On the surface you can regard them as cruel sometimes. But behind the surface, there is a very, very sad heart.”  And often a sweetly funny one, I am tempted to add.

As a visual endnote (thank you David Foster Wallace) I point you to two beautiful Youtube videos on the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz, Andersson’s iconic referents. These videos are no academic art lectures, just images with music. Yet, the soul-searing trauma of the war with its attendant anger is an insistent theme throughout both artists’ work; it is covered by an empathic cloak, just as in Andersson’s films.

This first video below is a montage of Dix’s WWI images and illustrates the defining scars, literal and metaphoric, that beset Germany as the weak Weimar Republic struggled to stave off the rise of National Socialism. Caveat: some of these images are graphic, disturbing.

And this is a moving montage of Grosz’ societal traumas.

Both of these videos give us a window into the haunting tragedy of Germany during the Weimar Republic with a gutsy immediacy never to be had by historical or literary accounts. These videos are also a richly supporting context in which to approach the singular vision of contemporary life as limned by Swedish director Roy Andersson.