24 August 2015

snapshots from the end of summer

The doughnuts are greasy, caked with powdered sugar. These are nostalgic ones from a roadside stand that has not changed since Soviet times. There are faces waiting urgently, ready to churn their cars on and keep going. There are faces staring into space or out the windows, at a parked semi, at the sky. They are in no rush, nursing styrofoam cups of coffee, the table a mess of napkins and slick paper. I lick my fingers, and decide to stick to just the one.

It starts to rain a little. I take a meter reading, get a few shots with the leica before I hide it in my pocket.

There is a spring of sacred, holy water set back from the road. People walk past us with giant bottles they have filled. The tiny pool is green at the bottom and I see little vibrations, rivulets under the surface. The water is sweet and cold, and I cup some in my hands drinking deep.

The flea market is already closing, at four. The tables are folded up one by one. Faces lost, no treasures discovered, no big sales. Beads and old binoculars, broken watches and silver spoons go back into suitcases. The cars throttle and stop, then pull away. 

We bought a wind-up victrola, a portable one from about 1950. The man shook my hand afterwards, happy.

17 August 2015

burnt toast is the sweetest

E made plans for a few weeks, telling me at random times that there would be a hot cup of coffee waiting for me when I woke up on my birthday. She told me there would be a paper, and a note. She spent a week trying to sew a pillow cover for me from bright orange fabric, the white thread wobbling around, the corners puckered like a strange face. 

On the day, I woke up long before her. N and V had been up for hours. V looked at me, that tiny mouth jumping wide, a squeal jumping from inside her, legs kicking, tiny feet in the air. I thought to go back to sleep after a present like that and maybe have a perfect dream. I made myself a coffee instead, peeking into E's room and saw the pillow dangling from her hand, the needle on the floor. I tugged it loose and rested it on her nightstand. She knows the feeling of falling asleep while making something, I thought to myself, and that is something I am proud of.

The morning unfolded with some quiet moments with N, then changing a diaper, singing little songs to V while dancing in front of the mirror to the Blues Brothers and the Ramones, messages from friends all over the world sending sweet thoughts in more than a handful of languages. I found myself blushing at times, biting the insides of my cheeks.

E did wake up and I found her hunched over in bed, crying.
"I wanted to wake up first." She said, face down.
I laughed a little, trying to break the mood.
"And I fell asleep making the pillow." She added.
"I know you did, and I love it." I said, hand under her chin, raising her face.

A hug, her cheek on my shoulder, and then she asked me to turn the burner on. She made french toast all by herself, and only forgot to put butter in the pan which she did after the fact, eyes rolling, saying "I'll eat the burnt ones" but they were not burnt, they were fine and mine were decorated with blueberries and brown sugar, with a note tucked next to them.

That night, N told me I need to smile more this year as she made a toast at our little table.
"Yes, just like that one." She said, finger jabbing in the air at me as I felt the sides of my face hurt.

10 August 2015

What do you want to be when you grow up? (sucker punch)

The streets are ripped up, long bouncing paths of old boards weaving through them. There are nail heads poking out, people trying to navigate with baby strollers, dust kicking into our eyes. I am lost with E, late for a birthday party trying to find the entrance to the biggest toy store in the country. Her hand sweaty in mine, we crane our necks looking for street signs, any indication we are in the right place. Men are working on a hot Sunday afternoon, digging up old pipes. There is a stack of rusted out manhole covers, wobbling as people make their way.

We do eventually find the place, the opposite direction we had been going for the last hour. We stand in that first blast of air conditioning, dizzy and relieved.

The party is in full swing, at a sort of "who are you going to be when you grow up" theme park inside. Music is blaring from a thousand tiny speakers, young voices singing.

          Ole, ole, ole, ole
          Russian heroes! Russian Heroes!
          Ole, ole, ole, ole
          Russian heroes! Russian Heroes!

The children are wrangled by a young man in a cowboy costume. He asks each one for their name, and birthday as he creates a passport for them. Something turns inside me, that familiar outsider paranoia, that itch that will not go away. It is all so innocent, maybe fun for the natives. For me, it is a subtle lesson being taught, a stranger asking for your information the same as the real officers in the street who stop immigrants and tourists, with a salute and a sour face. I want E to give a fake name and a different birthday, and I know that is beyond ridiculous but the thought does occur to me. This is a country where information leads to weakness, and people protect their identities, their piles of stamped and registered papers with a fanaticism I have never seen anywhere else. To know where someone is registered is a door that opens, a vulnerability.

The children wander a miniature village under the fluorescent lights, here a tiny post office, a maternity ward with baby dolls in cribs behind the glass, a detective agency, a supermarket, a beauty parlor, a radio station. There are throngs of people milling around, and I stop counting after a hundred. Giant balloons pop with sounds like gunshots, and everyone jumps. The first stop for the children is to go to the bank, showing their passports and getting some play money. A little boy not older than five stands at the doorway, eyes staring hard at me and another parent leaning to see what happens inside. He wears a little vest, the name of a real Russian bank on his chest, their logo littered all over the tiny house. Another boy waves a toy metal detector, with "security" on his arm. My thoughts leap again, wondering what example this sets, this preparation for the real world. I grew up learning that "boys can be nurses" and "girls can be farmers".

I see the supermarket, with plastic food on the shelves and a collection of tiny children in smocks pushing miniature shopping carts. This reminds of trying to trick my brother into vacuuming the house. "If you're really nice I'll even let you vacuum!" I imagine someone asking "Hey kids, who dreams of being a cashier in a supermarket?"  My head reels. Maybe it is the sour hangover of someone raised on the American dream where no child is taught to dream of being a cashier. But the children are laughing, waiting patiently in line. I bite the inside of my cheek.

E and one of the other kids decide they want to be bank robbers, but that is not offered.
"Ok, I want to grow up to be Jon Stewart then." E chirps to me, and I smile.
Somehow I think he would really appreciate that, if he could be a fly on the wall here.

Children in more uniforms patrol the streets, with clipboards and pens tucked under their arms. They stop randomly, filling out questionnaires with other children about how satisfied they are with the activities. They take down their names, of course.

The cacophony of music and shouting may have overwhelmed the birthday party. The children retreat to a free room where they can play with dolls and cook pretend plastic food in a little kitchen.

I understand now, from E that to go and work somewhere you need to pay to do it.
"So, you buy your job?" I ask her.
She nods.
"I know what you are thinking pop, I know." She mumbles.

I regret being so critical, reminding myself how much I like the film Bugsy Malone, a messy, banana cream pie in your face mock-violent prohibition era fable of gangsters and morality played entirely by children. What is the difference, I ask myself. I think it is the fact that the only houses available are beauty salons, and the radio station stands empty. I think it is the fact that the pirate ship is not open and the bank is teeming with tiny workers. Maybe it is all a coincidence and I am being far too judgmental. E is running around, laughing, chattering with another girl. This is the life of an expat, especially one that does not assimilate. Every crack in the sidewalk becomes sinister. I do think the little boy in the bank working security has the same expression as his real life counterpart though. There is something so wrong about this to the outsider and so fantastic to the insider. This could be Willie Wonka-land, a land of pure imagination where a child finds that spark for the job they will pursue for the rest of their life. I know that one ride on a fire truck can make that happen. That nagging itch will not go away, that there is something dangerous going on here. Too much reality, not enough wonder for my raised-by-New-York-hippies taste. I was brought up on Free to be You and Me, big tough Rosie Greer telling us that "it's alright to cry".

After the cake and the cookies, the juice and the flash photographs of caught smiles and loose hugs we make our way back out into the bright afternoon.

In the metro, there are groups of police walking the platform, some with German Shepherds. There were not so many a few hours ago. It reminds me of a summer night in New York so many years ago, a Sunday too. I was in the metro going home and I got mugged at gunpoint, right in Soho. It was a sucker punch, a time and place so innocent that it never entered my mind what exit I should take.

03 August 2015

when you smile (I am a boat)

She stares at me for minutes on end without blinking. Some days her eyes are more gray, sometimes more blue. I watch the curl of her lips, the same as her mother's. The smile warms, inching across her face. I make noises, wiggle my face around into a thousand expressions. Her toe extends, as if it expresses all of the thoughts in her little head. The page turns and her face goes in on itself. I wonder if she has gas, or is about to cry. I see the lips trembling, the painful sounds brewing behind them. I find myself singing to her.

          when you smile
          I smile
          when you cry 
          I cry
          but when you laugh
          I laugh

The next page turns. The same eyes staring, looking straight through me. 
And then she does smile. A laugh bubbles over. 

Her hands are waving around. I have an idea this means she wants to be carried, to wander from room to room touching the same objects. First the little bell hanging next to the window in the kitchen. Then, the magnets on the fridge. Then the hallway mirror, where I see her reflection and try to gauge what she is interested in next. Then the balcony, staring out at the leaves bending hard in the wind. 

She slumps against me. I smell the hair on the top of her head and close my eyes, rocking from one foot to the other. Her tiny hands dance in circles in the air, pulling at the hairs on my arm, resting on them like I am a railing on a boat. 

27 July 2015

fumbling in the dark (pushing elephants)

I have not used a changing bag in years. The black lump of fabric looks like a windbreaker that was crammed into the bottom of a closet and forgotten. I unfold it, flapping it hard to get any dust off of it. There are two arm holes lined with elastic and a zipper at the other end. Inside this zipper is a second zipper, so that the bag is completely light tight. 

This was any everyday object in film school, next to a splicer, a light meter, various clothespins and hand tools. I line up a few of the film holders, and the box of 4x5 film. Everything needs to happen by touch, so all of the order and repetition I can muster will make it go well. You need to have a system, but I have not loaded this type of film holder ever. I stare at things, mumble words to myself about safety clips, about the smooth ridges of plastic that are the stop signs. I make sure the box of film will open easily. My watch comes off. I make sure my hands are clean, no oil from lunch on them then plunge them into the arm holes. E stands in a doorway, hypnotized by what I am doing. She knows enough to keep quiet and try not to distract me. I do not close my eyes. I stare at a spot on the floor, my head cocked to one side. This is how I used to do it. It all starts to come back, the fumbling in the dark turning into small confident acts. The double-checking, the little tugs on edges. The box opens easily and I tear into the film packet inside. There are little notches on one edge. I know where they line up. Slide the film under the lowest ridge, back it up, fold the flap over, slide the dark slide, give everything a tug. Yes, good. Flip it over, do the same. Move the film holder to a far corner of the bag and get the next one.

We are downstairs now. E is carrying my travel tripod and her camera on her shoulders. I carry the heavy tripod and a giant cotton bag with my 4x5 camera in it. Today will be the first time I actually try to shoot with it, beyond an inspired test shot in the living room of the stray objects on the windowsill. It is hot out, and mosquitoes are zipping around our ears. E looks up at me, that Mona Lisa smile on her mouth.

The woods are buzzing with little frogs and birds. I want to take pictures of the dinosaur weeds, the ones I grabbed quick sketches of with my phone a few days before. There are thistles, daisies, tall stalks with purple flowers sprouting from them in heavy clumps. I manage the camera, throwing a shirt over my head to stare into the focussing glass, the image upside-down and murky. I need to get used to this.

E shoots part of her film, images I hope to see later but I do not want to interrupt her process. I see she is thinking, hand on a hip jutting out, mouth twisting around.

I work carefully, methodically. When the picture is ready to be taken, I have to slide in the film holder and click when it feels right. I cannot see through the camera when I click the shutter. That will take some getting used to.

There is a spot next to the green, murky stream where the sun splashes against the trees. We pack things up and make our way to it. E trots next to me, half out of breath, half excited. A man stands there, hanging a garbage bag from a broken limb. I nod, smile. He eyes us. I wave my hands around, telling him I am going to take a picture of the trees and he asks if he should leave . I say no. He lights a cigarette. My hands are shaking. Maybe he does not understand that this black accordion box is a camera. I take a light reading, focus, yanking the shirt over my head. I think it is right. Set the shutter, pull the dark slide. Hope for the right pose, click the shutter asking myself if one of my fingertips strayed in front of the lens, and then press the dark slide back in. Unbelievable  - a portrait of a man smoking in the forest with great light splashing around behind him on our first day. Maybe this camera brings luck, this cumbersome beast. Maybe it is out of focus and a mess, I remind myself.

People always ask me why I shoot film in a digital age. Most of the time they expect me to offer some haughty reply, looking down my nose at the auto-focus, instant gratification of digital. They think I look down from some film pedestal. I am sorry they think that, and I have a feeling they could use some therapy. That is all about them, not me.

I shoot film because it is difficult. This difficultly leads me to try to do things that seem impossible at first, until I gain a foothold, some scrap of branch and earth to hold in my hand, then placing one foot in front of the next. Why do people climb mountains? I think they feel something similar. I shoot film because I love film cameras. They are simple beasts. None of my cameras even use a battery. They are %100 manual objects, like a wind-up watch, or a bicycle. These manuals relics were designed in a different time, when the world was a simpler place. Using them forces me to simplify, to sharpen my wits, my sensibilities. I know shooting with this new camera looks like I have fun trying to push an elephant down the street, but imagine how you would feel if you pushed and the elephant really moved.

20 July 2015

something about rain (E makes a movie)

I am looking for my charging cable, and wonder if E took it. I am in her bedroom now, the stuffed animals wrapped in scarves are hugging each other on the windowsill. I yank open some desk drawers. They are packed with scraps of paper and folded things, paperclips, little jangly sounds. The next, crammed full of god knows what. A quick wave of vertigo washes over me. This is what my desk drawers look like on a good day. I call her, ask if she knows where my cable is. She does not. I find it behind the couch half an hour later.

E stands by my desk on Sunday afternoon. I am working, staring at an animation. 
"Pop." She says in a quiet voice.
I turn to her.
"I need to shoot your face." She tells me.
"Right now?" I ask. "What do you need me to do? Just sitting or doing something?"
She twists her mouth around.
"Let me think." She says. "We'll shoot it tomorrow."
I watch her go back to one of my old cameras. She clicks the buttons, flicking through the options, staring at the monitor intently. I taught her how to use it a long time ago but it was too heavy for her. A few weeks ago she asked me for it, a quick refresher course and she trotted to her window taking pictures of the sky at night.

It is raining. She asks me to go downstairs with her. I am happy to carry her tripod, to follow silently and hand her whatever she needs. I offer to shoot some behind the scenes pictures for her and she laughs. This is what she does for me now.

The rain is letting up but she finds some wet leaves to shoot instead.
I stare at her, wondering how she is dressed all in black, high top converse sneakers, leather moto jacket and unruly hair. I had nothing to do with this beyond setting an example. We buy her only what she wants to wear. I bite the inside of my cheek, seeing a miniature version of myself, awkward, trying to accomplish some invisible result. I do not hover. I do not ask to see what she is doing, just if she needs me to carry something.
"Are there any puddles?" She asks me at one point.
I crane my neck.
"Maybe later." I tell her.
She nods, motioning that we can go back upstairs.
"So what is your film about?" I ask her. "Do you know yet?"
"Not really." She offers. "Maybe just about rain."

Later, the tripod stands in the kitchen, some kind of declaration. I do the same when I am making a film, leaving my equipment in the middle of rooms, a triumphant reminder.

13 July 2015

anything was possible (suffer no more)

E carries a little bag with camera batteries, hovering behind my shoulder peeking at the monitor. Her mouth twists a little, eyes on me, then back to the monitor. I explain to her what I am trying to say with this shot, how well it is working. She nods, not a word, just that knowing look. It is the very last scene to shoot, a young man leaving his work and heading home. I am trying to expand that moment when the tie is loosened, that long wait for a street light to turn green and then the crowd walking across, how a person can get lost in this moment.

All of the stories from this little film are lives I have led or witnessed. The betrayals, the arguments in living rooms, the date that became a short affair ending as abruptly as it began, the weight of the everyday, the dread of confrontation, the sad hope for more. The characters are young, except for one.  These are little glimpses, broken pieces of a collective life.

There are trains, and streetlights, people staring, leather jackets and an old man closing his eyes as the wind whips into his face. These all came from my past, my days in New York when messages wobbled from answering machines when you got home drunk, tripping over the mess you had left behind. That was when anything was possible but the mood was that nothing was possible.