20 October 2014

Rocco (please take a moment to vote for us before midnight Oct 22)

A few weeks ago I saw an invitation from Daniel Lanois, asking for filmmakers to create imagery for a handful of his newest songs. The films would be projected during live performances all over the world.

I chose the song Rocco, because it felt like breathing to me, and the concept came quickly. Windows, E' s face...

Today I was told that our film is one of the four selected by the judges, and they are looking for the votes and opinions of everyday people like you to help them understand what film is the best one.

Please visit http://fleshandmachine.com and by all means vote for our film (if you do think it is the best one.)

13 October 2014


A woman sits on a scrap of cardboard on the cold, wet floor. Her head is wrapped in a scarf. A boy, not older than two teeters on short legs, hands stretching out as people pass. His tiny palms are filthy from the dirt and wet grime in this tunnel. I pass them, as I have countless times. She has new shoes. They have Chanel logos on them, and are crusted with rhinestones. The pink of the slippers is barely visible past the tiny sparkles.

She could be in her thirties or she could be barely twenty and I would not know the difference. She appears with different children on random days. It is entirely possible that none of them are hers. There are stories upon stories about gypsies renting children to panhandle with, and there is nothing to suggest they are untrue.

Her shoes are clean under the flickering fluorescent lights. The boy has toys spread across the wobbly stones, a tricycle, a pail, a shovel. It feels more like a messy living room than the way to cross beneath a six-lane street.

When I was a boy, about the same age as E my parents told me about my middle name. I did not know it before then. They also told me I should stop picking my nose. They told me I did not need to carry a dictionary to school every day. Then, they told me I was part gypsy. In truth, this was a fabrication. Maybe it was a bit of creative parenting that backfired. I began climbing on top of my school desk the next day, dancing in circles, spinning wildly as the other children looked on in fear and shock, and then bland encouragement.

I liked the idea of being part gypsy. It felt like a wild vein ran through me, a reckless one, a fierce and mysterious one. If I had some gypsy blood, then I could probably put a curse on someone. I remember thinking that, being the smallest kid in the class. I learned about the evil eye and how you had to be careful. If you used it on someone that was innocent, the eye reflected back on you. Whatever ills you wished on them would actually happen to you instead. I felt great power, and that I needed to use it wisely.

Later in life, I understood it was all fantasy, a joke on a gullible child with an active imagination. I felt less interesting after that, less special.

When I came to Moscow that very first time, there were gypsies on Red Square. Boys ran with no shoes on in the warm sun, blurting a few words of English to me, hands always outstretched. They never walked, always ran. No one was giving them money. The policemen ignored them.

06 October 2014

manhattan (and a jasmine sazerac)

It is difficult to understand that you have been poisoned, if it happens drop by drop. 

Life trickles past windows. You take your child to school in the cold air. You make lunches. You pay bills. Money is made, and wasted. The transmission is grinding. A dry burnt electric smell hovers in the air. Everything needs oil. Everyone needs rest.

The neighbors have their tv on loud, all night long.
It sounds like an argument.

E is crazy about mortadella sandwiches, with grainy mustard. We make up a song about them and sing it in the street and on the metro.
"Morrrrrrtadellaaaa." She croons. "More than just a fellaaaaaaa."
"Especially in the rain." I add. "Under an umbrellaaaaa."
I wonder if she knows this is what saves me.
"Hey pop." She says.
I look at her.
"If we have mortadella and we have hope." She explains. "Then, we have mope."
I laugh, full and loud.

There are leaks in the walls. There are stains on ceilings. A wet, moldy smell drifts around the stairwells. The elevator stops working two or three times a day. The sky is low, heavy.
I don't know how we live here. I don't know if life would feel different anyplace else. I miss the random smiling faces on third avenue when I went to the post office. I miss the dive bar that used to be on the corner. I miss the pastrami sandwiches from across the street. I miss friends calling me, saying they are playing a last minute show a few blocks from the apartment. I miss takeout matzoh ball soup when I felt sick.

The wind whips up, bending the trees. They say it comes from the arctic, that there will be days when it is -30C this winter, that there may be snow in a week.

We are driving on a Saturday night, with no idea what to do. N's new winter coat rests on the back seat. I have Tones on Tail playing, realizing how the songs do not sound thirty years old.
There will be a dinner at a good place, without a reservation. They give us the same table we have eaten at before.
I order a manhattan.
The drink arrives, with three cherries and a twist of orange.
I sip once.
I close my eyes.
I listen to everything.
N is quiet, thoughtful as ever. I watch her hands turning in corkscrew shapes until I hold them.
"Everything will be fine." I tell her.
I realize how I have come to say this phrase as habit, and how foolish the words feel in my mouth, but at the same time, they are always right.
She looks at me with her big brown eyes.
I imagine the drops of poison leaving me, evaporating from the top of my head.
I sip the cocktail, cold and warm at the same time.
Food arrives.
We make plans.
The duck is rare, just as I asked.
The place is filling up. There are women in tight skirts and impossible heels. There are short men with beards and little black leather man purses.
I order a jasmine sazerac. The waitress apologizes, and tells me they have changed the drink for autumn and now is is a salted maple sazerac. I am sure it may taste lovely, but my face falls. She scurries to the bar.
"They will make you one." She tells me quietly, as if she does not want anyone to hear us.
I lean back, staring at the ceiling.
The plates are cleared.
The drink arrives. I can smell it long before the glass reaches my lips.
It tastes like the clouds that rain on New Orleans.

29 September 2014

passing Gagarin (the Americans)

It has started to rain just a little. We are in the car, and even though I have passed this intersection countless times, I take another picture of Gagarin. He is frozen, arms at his sides just like Superman, but he is not flying. He is a man above so many others, a man to be compared to. "You are no Gagarin." I can imagine someone once said, to someone, at some moment in time.

I was asked to do an interview a few weeks ago. The questions were good ones, not the typical fluffy excuse for light-hearted anecdotes. I told the reporter I was not going to candy coat my answers. "Oh no." I was told. "You have a strong story, we want to share it."  We went back and forth. I tried to understand if things were translating well. The reporter liked what I said. We edited the text together. I went to sleep satisfied, and half-forgot about the things that had been written. 

I often sit down on Mondays, curious about who reads these weekly posts. I have friends that give me reactions. I have people I have never met from places like Ireland and Sri Lanka, from Canada, from Portugal that all share comments from time to time. I do not write every Monday to please, or to entertain. I do it because this process had become a part of my life, sometimes a burden, sometimes an epiphany, sometimes a grey bit of nothing, sometimes something luminous. Often E reads my "Monday stories" as she calls them. I see her chin pinch as she digests the words. Most of the time she shrugs her shoulders and says "That's just life, Pop." She knows I write about what happens to us, plain and simple. 

Last week someone from America accused me of writing fiction here, that the events I write about are not real. They said it was too perfect, too impossible. I told E about this and her face fell. 
"Why would we lie?" She asked me. "Why do they think we lie?" 
I did not have a good answer for her. 
I liked that she said we, that she feels like an author in this.

I just came home from returning the camera we were shooting with all weekend. I have footage to check and organize. I need to pick up E from school in an hour for an exam at music school. There are leftovers in the fridge I warm up, skillet hitting the stove one more time in this rented apartment with the crooked doors. 

It seems the article was published yesterday. There are over 2,000 people who visited this blog in the last twelve hours. 98% of them spent a total of ten seconds and then left. I see the article has been shared on other sites. There are comments there, like "Marco - just an old fart stuck in the 90's, with his "thoughts and morals" finding depression in Moscow ... " and "ha ha, ... the best selling products which are usually hidden under the counter." Well, moron."

It gives me pause. 

I know full well that the internet allows strangers to say the cruelest things they feel like saying, like blowing their noses in the street onto the ground without a handkerchief as people pass them. I know that there are few countries in the world that are as defensive as Russia. Mostly, I am sorry that no one actually looked at this blog, that they did not read about the good mixed with the bad mixed with the triumph mixed with the betrayal. At the very most they looked at a picture and passed judgment, but found it all too easy to say I am a terrible judge of Moscow and Russia. Instead they read answers to a handful of questions translated into Russian and decided I am a typical American idiot, lost in my foolish pride and patriotism. And yet, if they asked me to explain what is wrong with my home, I could talk for hours. Even in an article when I explain what is imperfect with America, no one reads that part. In the end, people see what they want to see. If I see countless cars running red lights in Moscow, I must have vision problems. 

For some reason, my thoughts run to Robert Frank, a man of simple means, a man who changed the course of photography with one small book. Born in Switzerland, he travelled America on back roads and stayed in cheap motels (and was arrested a few times in the process). He showed a country over-run with racism and privilege, a brutal truth that no one in America wanted to hear. As an outsider, he found it all too easy to tell this story. He had perspective, and an unforgiving eye. I definitely find inspiration in his example. Mostly I like to know that he ended up living on Bleecker street a few blocks from my old apartment on East 1st Street, and that is where he found a home. 

No, I am not Gagarin.

22 September 2014

the props make the character

We do not need to change trains. The one next to our apartment takes us all the way to Partizanskaya. E rests a hand on my elbow, her head against my shoulder. It is not so early, but it is Saturday all the same. I know she would rather be in her pajamas, with a plate of French toast next to her. 

Outside, it is warming up already. 

I pay ten rubles to enter. She is free. 

I lead her through the first aisles, the rows of matroshkas and t-shirts, the shiny drinking flasks, the tables full of knives. We are going up and to the left, to the people with piles of junk, the strewn bits of nostalgia on wobbly card tables. Here I will find a typewriter with cyrillic keys and another one with English keys, not more than forty dollars each. I have been offered the same for two hundred dollars here. 

She is bored, as I pull her through the crowds, as I yank my neck ogling a collection of German harmonicas. I buy an old wind-up clock that ticks incredibly loud.  

We are not just shopping. I am making a world, a real world from these objects. I am finding the details of daily life for characters in them. That sound of that clock, it will go on the soundtrack now - something I never imagined when I wrote the script but of course it makes perfect sense, ticking in the kitchen just after breakfast with the dirty dishes sitting right there. This metamorphosis of the imagined, as it becomes concrete, as it becomes something honest on the screen, that is the work for today. 

I buy a metal comb for fifty rubles.

E is more involved now, curious about some things on the tables. I tell her we are almost done. There are wind-up phonograph players everywhere. It seems you can get a working one for 6,000 rubles or less. The sound coming from them is amazing, like pulling a wet cat across a hundred cellos.

As we leave I ask her if she would ever come back.
"It is not really my kind of place." She tells me.
I nod.
"Ok." I answer. "I mostly just wanted to give you a real-life lesson in writing."
"What do you mean?" She asks me.
"If you are going to write about something, you really need to understand it. You need to spend time with it, learn about all of the tiny little details." I explain. "I was not trying to get you to go to the flea market today. I was trying to show you how I make this film I am working on - how I find the lives of the characters in little things in their lives."
"Like the comb." She interrupts.
"Exactly." I tell her. "And then the actors get to use these very interesting little things, and it helps their imagination."
She nods, smiling up at me.

There are crowds of people clumped in the street.
A woman is selling hot tea and pastries filled with potato.

"I love you Pop." E says, after a moment.

15 September 2014

under the skin

There is a splinter in my thumb, but I cannot find it. As the skin touches a coffee cup, I know something is there. Digging into the skin with the point of a pin I find nothing. It is a phantom, still there. I make E's sandwich, slicing it on the diagonal, almost forgetting a box of juice.

The lunchbox in her hands, she stares up at me in the elevator.
"Pop, my throat has a bad taste." She whispers.
I nod.
"Let's see if it goes away." I tell her as we go outside.
Living here has brought me to doubt everything.

Later she calls me. I need to come and get her, she is actually getting sick.

Downstairs, the sun is fierce on my shoulders and I wrap my jacket into a ball and shove it into her backpack that I carry. Her tights are sagging, as if she lost weight since I brought her this morning. At home, she pulls on her pajamas and wraps the red blanket around herself. I take her temperature, bring the big bowl if she has to throw up. I survey the cabinets, the fridge. We have everything we need.

37.5 but I know it will go up from there.
She falls asleep.

The routine is a familiar one, the first night sleeping very lightly coming back to check on her after she does throw up once. The morning, seeing if her eyes are bright or if she is still under that little gray cloud. By afternoon she is on the mend, but I know this is deceiving. If we take a walk outside, she will get sick again.

I do run to the store, for turnips and garlic and ginger ale if they have it.

Outside, I realize how foreign things still feel here, even after seven years. The pointy black shoes, the slang, the flower sellers, the militia with their machine guns slung across their chests. Inside the house, it is like we are not here. There is no tv, no radio just the sound of English, our music, pens, pencils, computers, guitars. Inside we have a familiar little universe.

I call her, tell her I am already on the way back.
The splinter is still there in my thumb. I remind myself to dig for it again when I get home. At the same time, it feels good, some kind of reminder.

08 September 2014

the princess and Potempkin

I don't know when the windows changed. I had grown to ignore the velvet displays, empty in the early morning when I walked E to school. In the afternoon, yes there were diamonds blinking in the shadows. I never saw people going into the Princess jewelry store. There was a plaque on the corner of the building, reminding any passerby that Eduard Tisse had been born there, the cameraman for Eisenstein on films like Strike, and the Battleship Potemkin. Sometimes I wondered if anyone in the street knew who he was besides me. On this stretch of sidewalk there are mothers with babies in strollers, old women carrying plastic bags of groceries, workers who plant flowers. 

Now, the windows are covered with images of a woman wearing nothing but diamonds. She stares at the empty street, and traffic. Eyes painted, lips pouting, blond hair curving and frozen under layers of hairspray her eyes never blink. I wonder if the store does not have enough diamonds to display in the windows now. I wonder if she is the trophy wife of the owner and this is some compliment he has paid her, the photo shoot, the stylists, her standing topless in nothing but jewels as the strobes flash. 

A security guard stands behind the door, face close to the glass. I see his cheap shiny suit, his hands shoved in his pockets. He looks scared, angry, worried.