20 February 2017

the lens never lies (simple and messy)




The children are waiting. Their teacher is all smiles, a great ring of keys on his desk. I build the camera, pulling each accessory from the case as they follow each movement. 15mm rods. Follow focus. Top grip. Monitor. There are no lights with us because of the giant windows in each room. The sun is soft and pale, wrapping around their faces.

The concept of this film is so dense, so odd that they simply think our work today is "the daily life in a school". The fact that there are only four children in it, does not inspire any follow-up questions. We shoot a series of long, wide takes of a history lesson and then an English one. E is at the front desk, as this is really her half of the episode. Her face is serene, lost in thought as the other children wiggle hands in the air, or rock back and forth in their chairs.

I like this idea, to have the girl sitting next to her pass a note. It is actually the girl's invention. The camera hovers above the scratched surface of the desk. The note is scribbled, a paper folded once and it slides towards E, who reaches out and takes it. One gentle, continuous movement. This is inspired by a scene from Bresson's Pickpocket, now that I see it through the lens. All hands and seamless gestures. I try to explain this to the teacher, but maybe my fast speech and excitement are confusing. He gets it, I am happy, and that is all that matters.

We shoot a boy who chews nervously on the edge of his shirt next. He has freckles.

There are shots of them going down stairs, and going up stairs. Shots of them walking down halls, and running down halls. It is the everyday, in a wide frame. To me, this speaks volumes.

The last shot of the children is a long take of them getting dressed at their lockers. The light is behind them, and they are silhouettes, snapping and chattering with that ease that only children possess. The lens never lies.

And then, I send them home with handshakes and thank you's. I ask if the last two hours were anything like they thought it would be. I hear a great no from them. They thought I would shoot handheld, with a giant lens on the camera.

Now it is just E and the camera in a giant, dark cafeteria. She sits with her head on a table. The light is perfect. There is soft chrome and empty tables all around her. She raises her chin, staring off at nothing particular. She mumbles a few words to herself, clasps her hands in prayer and then says "amen". A peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in white paper crackles open and she takes a bite. This is her character in the film, a young woman that copes with her strange life by improvising prayers, not that she has any religion or church experiences to rely on. It is the fruit of her own construction, simple and messy.







13 February 2017

another life


There must be people that are not influenced by the seasons, or the weather. Rain must leave them unchanged. Snow may not fall in pirouettes outside their windows, then later on piss-stained piles. The sun must not finger into rooms late in the afternoon, drawing the edges of chairs and tables, buttery and warm. And at night, the streetlights must not feel like sleeping guards, leaning against the sky. The scatter of gravel under a car wheel, the wet thump of garbage thrown, the low moan of the trucks as they take it away. The smell of ice, antiseptic and sour. The smell of fresh cut grass.

I am sure they do not appreciate a fresh cup of coffee, foam dancing around the edges. Or a cup of tea, ruddy brown and wobbling in your mouth as you sip. Or a cold glass of water in the middle of the night, slugged back with the refrigerator door wide open.

None of this matters to them. They are not ruled by the whim of wind and sun. They do not stare out of windows, waiting for answers. They do not take that step back, saying "When winter is over I'll start."

I do not wonder about that life.
Give me the endless Russian snow, because it gives me time. Give me the loneliest streetlight and I will paint a portrait of him.





06 February 2017

Let's see (a photo by E)

There is a little voice that surfaced a few years ago. I am a born headbanger. Wall, head, grindstone, nose. Rinse, repeat. I don't know the origin of this voice, or the exact moment it appeared, just that I listened. It told me to let go. Instead of wrestling, take a step back and marvel at the way things can work out all by themselves. Sometimes the right action is to do nothing. It was a tough lesson to learn, as I am used to conflict being resolved with sweat and tears and sleepless nights. 

In E's bedroom, a guitar stands. I remember buying it together, her perched on a little stool trying one after another until this Spanish one felt best. It was expensive, but she was studying in a great program. That ended some time ago, and the guitar remains, like those props in 80's films. Every teenager with an unused guitar in the corner 

She still does not play it, but she teaches herself piano almost every day. She plays for hours, with a blanket curled around her feet, face locked in concentration. I tell her dinner is ready 15 times before she hears me. I did nothing but let her borrow one of my keyboards, and showed her how to work it. I did not take her to lessons, just told her she could use it any time and if I needed it back, I would tell her. I find it fascinating, how she chose it, how she takes such pleasure from it. She never said "can I play this for you on guitar". It was always practicing and memorizing, and preparing for the next recital, nothing more. 


She borrowed one of my old cameras in the same way, until we bought her a new one for her birthday a year ago. E keeps it on a little tripod, ready for a certain blue sky, or snow falling, or rain. She loves to photograph rain. But this also lingers for weeks and months, unused. Sometimes she goes out with me, when I am shooting and then she does sling the camera around her neck, stopping to look, mouth twisted in thought. But most of the time, she ignores the camera.

Last week, she told me she had started to make self-portraits with it. She was looking for my reaction, quite possibly my approval. I looked at it, and had the combined joy of a parent and of an artist, sometimes a teacher. I told her to do more like this, more, more, more. I told her what was working with the composition, what was working with the colors, and most of all, the undertone, the story. Then, I told her to forget everything I said because all that matters is what she thinks of it.

I asked her permission to show it, to write about it. A little smile, a shrug of the shoulders.

"Let's see."




30 January 2017

the visitor

There is a knock on the door. It is the middle of the afternoon, and salesmen normally ring all of the doorbells in the morning. Through the peephole, I see a small man in overalls. He knocks again, and for some reason I decide to open the door. He waves a paper in the air, something about a mark, something about the pipes. I tell him, sure ok I will sign it and he gestures inside.

I stare at his thick, wet black hair and his tiny hands. He is polite, pushing his shoes off at the doormat and tiptoeing in. He asks to look in the bathroom, and I wave him on. E wanders to the living room door, head craning.
"He needs to check the pipes or something." I tell her, quietly.
She shrugs her shoulders and goes back to her homework.

The man peers and squints at the pipes behind a crooked panel that swings open in the bathroom. He scribbles numbers down, squints again. He seems to be taking a long time and I wonder if he can see very well. His flashlight dances around, and eventually he is done. For some reason, I do not sign any papers. His head bows a little as he leaves. Thank you, thank you.

I did not even think to call N and ask her what to do.

Later, I mention this visit to her and her eyes roll. No one ever comes to check the pipes, it is no job, no position. This man is not who he pretended to be. He was a spy, an imposter, maybe looking for some other information. But no one has ever come to check the pipes in Moscow.









23 January 2017

the woman



I don't pretend to know more than what I witness. My eyes have seen tears, or that laugh that surfaces afterwards and it would be easy to glue everything together into one explanation. But that would be a mistake. Maybe even she does not know the whole truth.

But when she calls, I answer - if it is to march next to her, or to go buy some toilet paper. I cannot imagine my life without her and I sometimes think of writing a book about the man I might have become, wild and angry, yelling at cars in the street, a pimple on the world, a lost cause. It is too simple to say "she saved me" even if that is what it feels like. She calmed me. She loved me. She held her hand to my forehead in my darkest moments and they passed. Wife and mother and friend, my greatest critic, my greatest supporter. My heart leaps still at the sight of her.

I saw some family movies of N when she was young, maybe twelve. This is the skinny girl cracking gum that teases me still. Hands on hips, elbows out, eyebrow arched as the little arrows fly. Tiny little truths stinging my arms.

Today is the anniversary of the day we met. It was cold and dark. She smelled of narcissus, her hair a sleek curve that bounced at her shoulders. And she laughed. She laughed and laughed.








16 January 2017

I am invisible (carrots and blue)

E did not speak any English until she was almost 5. It all began the night I moved out of the apartment, how she found the words for the first time. Before that she spoke Russian, but when we lived in America she was exposed to many languages at a makeshift International school. When she was 9 months old she told me something in Chinese, which her teacher had to translate for me. She had been standing behind a curtain, and told me "I am invisible". Those were her first words. 



V has been talking nonstop. She began addressing the colors some months ago, and now there is a complete set of names she uses. They are a hodgepodge of Russian and English, but the names of objects have replaced some of them. For example, orange is "markovka" for her, which is the Russian word for carrot. Black, she says ""back" in English. White is "beh", short for the Russian word for white "belieh". Green is "agurshei" her way of saying the Russian word for cucumber. Pink is "pika" - a fabrication, a mix of the word she uses to describe a pig and just her imagination.

She points at the markers, and we draw things for her. Of course we drew carrots for her with the orange marker, and maybe that is why she calls it a carrot color. We draw bears with a brown marker and of course the color is "Boba", the nickname for her teddy bear. But blue, she says is blue, and yellow is pretty much yellow. Purple is hard to say, but it sounds a lot like purple. Sitting with her for five minutes is a walk in strange lands, the circling thoughts in her head expressed without hesitation. Fingers jabbing in the air, her quiet face nodding in satisfaction when she is understood. She cracks such a Mona Lisa smile when the page is full of drawings of our little family, and a monkey and a pig and some snowflakes and some vegetables.

I have read about the way language shapes thought, how the lack or abundance of words to express something in a culture manifests itself in people's actions. The confines of language can limit thought. Living in more than one culture often feels like an act of stretching, of bridging two lands that do not want to have anything to do with each other. So many things in Russia (and Russian) are the opposite to the West. Do you want to go, yes? Or, do you want to go, no? Wedding rings in Russia are worn on the right hand. Every time I go back to New York, I have an odd tradition of changing my wedding ring to my left hand once the plane lands.

But there are wonderful words in both - sincere, naive, classic, absolutely - that I find myself using here, without hesitation. I know that they mean what I think they mean. Sincere is sincere, freedom is freedom.

I wonder what is in store for V, and what expressions she will invent next. I imagine she will have her own adjectives, based on the color of the sky, or the sound of the crow in the tree outside our window.








09 January 2017

bears

Snow is falling, with the loose-boned abandon of a wounded animal. It is colder then cold right now, -30 at night. A wind whips up. Trees are cracking as they bend into it. The baby is restless. There are dirty dishes in the sink. A guitar leans against a stand, unplayed. I move from room to room, catching my reflection in the iced up windows. As usual, I do not recognize myself. I am not that man with a crust of bread in his mouth and a few slices of hard cheese balanced in a bowl. 

Everything comes to a complete stop. 

January is always like this. It is not a new story. 



Someone is painting in the hallway and the reek of turpentine and chemicals wafts under the front door, one more selfish act. All of the rooms are kept closed to keep in the warmth, but I throw doors and windows open hoping the fumes will go away. The air runs into my nose, hard sharp breaths inside. I decide to go to buy bread.

In the path, a handful of glittery hearts flip in the wind. They are scattered in all directions. Maybe someone got married today, and they are on their honeymoon in a hotel room far from here. Or, maybe they are just upstairs sipping strong tea. I kneel down, convinced I need to take a picture of one of them. An old woman appears out of nowhere, grumbling behind me, cursing as I delay her. I gesture to the red and purple hearts and she sneers. She hobbles past me, her ancient fur coat like the shell of a bear hanging from her tiny shoulders.