05 October 2015

lining up the bones (saved by chicken shit)

Halfway into shooting the scene it dawns on me that E is talking about life to a collection of dirty chickens in some farm. I wrote this all on the pages of Whale episode two in August. We rehearsed it, made it thoughtful, hesitant, honest. The costume looks perfect. Her shoes are scuffed and crusted with mud. I braided her hair with the same red hairbands. But standing here, checking focus, making little adjustments it becomes clear to me how odd the scene is, how awkward and half-desperate it is. All the same, E makes it real. I knew what would ring sincere from her, and gave her the right words. She twists her mouth around, pulls the sweater around herself, tells the chickens not to give up hope.

There is a cat and a little dog and a rooster making mayhem, and after we shoot her scene and I am just doing pickup shots of the chickens by themselves she dances around the place laughing and warm in my jacket that is ten sizes too big for her. I smile to myself, satisfied that I have found a way to make something beautiful with E, something personal and profound, something we are both very proud of.

It may rain soon. There is shit splattered across my bags, the tripod, my boots. It smells like my childhood, that sweet, sour wine smell of chicken shit.

I have been thinking about how so many of the great writers, the great artists were assholes as people. Terrible parents, terrible husbands, selfish, lonely creators of masterpieces. Of course there are exceptions, but the truth is hard to ignore. In art school we used to pretend that if you were crazy then you made good art, so if you were conservative you were probably a dud, shooting creative blanks. I know it is all a myth now, a story told by fools. There was one Van Gogh, that's all. Crazy made him, but Robert Frank was just inspired. Fante wrote the bible as far as I am concerned, but he slept with every woman, drank and gambled his family's money away and was a terrible father.

Every day I try to line up the bones, make E's lunch in the dark, try to run my hand across V's soft face before taking E to school. My first thought is to take out the garbage, or that we need light bulbs. The art comes second, third. There are guitars in the closets. There is a tall pile of pages to edit, to circle the corner of the page in blue and note the lost comma, or the one that needs to go away. A camera stands on a tripod in the corner, its lone eye staring back at me. When did I use it last?

The wind is blowing, a low moan. I hold V in my arms while N takes a shower and we look out at the tree tops bending hard, leaves skipping away from them dry and brown. She slaps her tiny hand against the glass, banging some message to them. N told me not to worry about who will read my new book when it is done, that E and V will read it someday and that is all that matters. I look at her across the kitchen table in the dark on a Saturday night, the thread from the teabag twisted around the handle of her mug the way she always does. I try to imagine what life was like when I was living alone on 1st Street, cameras and guitars around me and how I never wanted to go back to an empty house, how I was jealous of everyone on shoots that went long as they called their wives to say they would be coming home late.

I can barely remember that old life now.

28 September 2015

wandering nameless streets (Tony Come Back August)

Every once in a while you have a big idea. I wanted to make a little book, something for people to to slide into a pocket and read on an airplane, a slim bit of life to savor. The idea was to call it a Duo, somewhere between a jazz duo and a rock and roll act. Two stories intertwined, banging against each other, the rough and raw against the sublime, the hard fought victory, the miniature triumph, the gut punch, the aftermath.

I decided to work with Tony, who had a brutal story to tell about fatherly love for an ex-girlfreind's son, an autistic boy growing into an autistic teenager a few states away. He had a whole book in the works, but I tend to more juiced up about excerpts, about parts standing for the whole so we took a few handfuls of the poems and I began sequencing them. The second story must be visual, this I knew. I casted about, began to summon the tedious courage it takes to ask people to use their work and Tony said "why don't we just use your pictures?" I am not one to nominate myself, it just isn't my way.

The pages began to work, but it took time. There were long breaks as life and work threw a shadow over our little book. There were delays and delays. I had decided that the images would only come from Tbilisi. There is something perfectly decrepit and beautiful and hopeful in this place. I ended up going there twice before the sequence of pages felt right. There were teenage boys in the street lighting cigarettes. An old woman with a black purse tucked behind her, swinging in her hands. A man with no shirt on, his giant shoulders glowing in a dark courtyard. A woman on her wedding day, her face twisted and sour.

Once I felt things worked, I sent it to Tony and he felt good about it too. It still took me months to get things printed right, to get the grey, sooty pictures to tell their story. The clean pages of text were no trouble, his naked desire, his heartbreak as clear as a big blue sky.

And then the ugly, humiliating work, the sending of carefully written letters and advance copies to reviewers and small bookstores, all taken care of by my new friend Alexandra, who put some good luck whammy on each and every envelope.

The book went on sale on friday.

I found myself staring at this foreign object, the cover a bit scratched from kicking around my desk, the pictures staring back at me, the pages thick and smooth. It is just like knowing I am going somewhere but it doesn't dawn on me until I reach the gate in the airport, that I am going on a trip. My hard-won pictures would now be on shelves in various rooms in the world. The trusty Leica, those rolls of film, they had added up to something. The wandering in nameless streets had been for good reason.

You can preview the first twenty pages of the book here (click on "look inside") and you can buy it here: http://www.bittersweeteditions.com/store/tony-come-back-august

14 September 2015

candy (the cinematographer)

The news came and I was not entirely surprised. I thought she had beat it, hoped she had and imagined the best for the last five years. I saw her with a canvas bag in the streets in my mind, full of fresh cut flowers from the Union Square market. She was always getting on a plane, flying to Amsterdam or someplace with good coffee to give a lecture. Half Sicilian, half Cherokee, her face was round, her eyes round. She kept her hair short, and eventually I learned this was from the chemo but had just assumed it was her new style. 

I was fresh out of film school, shooting with everyone that asked. I had business cards made that said "cinematographer" all in lower case in red ink. My gaffer, B was dating a wild young girl, a bleached blonde. She was a receptionist, and he told me they made films where she worked, that I should go in to meet them because they were planning on making a low budget feature. All I had to show Candace was my thesis film, empty train yards and portraits of old people in their 90s that had worked on the railroad. I had walked in the darkness for miles, the wooden tripod on my shoulder, the Arriflex camera heavy in my bag as the fog rolled in and then I was shooting as the sun came up through it, broken fingers of old buildings standing like dead giants. They liked it. I saw a picture on the wall of Candace and David Bowie, a big black and white one. Her ex-husband and producer was there, his teeth a bit crooked, his face open and curious. The office was a loft in Soho, right on Broadway. It was a big bright space, and I was sitting in a low, soft chair. I found my hands waving around as I talked, cracking a few jokes. Candace asked me what I thought of shooting the body, naked bodies. I told them with a straight face that I had been drawing naked people since I was about 12 and there is nothing more beautiful to me. I said this without hesitation. Something clicked in the air, and I sensed that I should leave after that, let that be the last thing I said. My cappuccino sat on the table, not even sipped. It all happened very quickly.

The call came a few days later. I would be shooting my first feature at the age of 21. We would shoot in 35mm, and I could pick my own crew. The film was going to be erotic, maybe X-rated. It was set in a dystopian future when sex and expression is not allowed, just making babies and that's it. I don't think I ever saw the script, just a list of scenes and locations. They knew we could roll with whatever they threw at us, as long as we had one big light and fast lenses we would be fine.

The weeks churned past and I bought a black cap in some random moment. It had an ace of spades on it. The guys at the camera rental house picked up on it. "Hey Ace!" They called out when I come to look at lenses, to make sure the camera body was quiet enough. "One shot, that's all he needs. One take." They said, not joking so much as wishing us luck. I looked a lot older than my age but they knew I was green.

The relationship between the director and the cinematographer is complicated. There are boundaries, lines you do not cross. There are very different languages, and the result is one combined, messy, precise, emotional chemistry experiment. She had never worked in film, just with video people who followed a certain process that was far from what feature filming requires. I did everything to make her feel safe. I made sure things were fast and beautiful, that there was a little sparkle in every eye, that the shadows stretched long when they needed to. I was quiet. I told jokes when the day was over. My crew were a bunch of cracker jacks, all moonlighting to support me. There are few things in the world as mesmerizing as a small crew from New York. They are like cheetahs that can see the future. If I asked for a different lens, It was already sitting next to me. If I asked for some edge light, it was already being wired.

Ten days later, most of them 18 hours or more, we finished on time and under budget. I gave Candace my hat which she wore proudly. "Now, you're the Ace." I told her and she pecked me on the cheek, held me tighter than I can remember being hugged. We had a great party at her floor-through in Brooklyn. I cooked along with our producer and Candace told me she smelled like garlic getting off a plane three days later because of us.

The film never really made it anywhere, not even a real release but it didn't matter somehow. My name had been in Variety next to hers and that somehow meant something to me, a victory unto itself.  I saw the rushes - some of them looked like a Bergman film. No one would ever see the film we shot, and it did not matter for some reason. We had seen it.

Life went on. Like every film project, the intense relationships disengage, parting ways with a gentle understanding. We would meet in the street sometimes, faces bright and open, familiar. Some things can never be forgotten. They live right under your skin, forever. I think the last time I saw her it was in Spring. She had died her hair blonde (or so I thought at the time). She had that great gravelly laugh, as she said my name rolling the r. She looked well. I will remember her that way, with the wet smell of early morning rain steaming off the asphalt, the traffic on Houston rumbling around us, the sun whacking down into the alleys.

How impossible to hear she died, halfway across the world. If I was still living in New York I would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and do some small pilgrimage in her honor. Instead I am looking out the window eating breakfast after taking E to school. I come home, and play with V. She stands a little on my stomach if I hold her in the air above me. Her laugh is a little wave of gurgling sugary noises. I will look at N a little bit longer than normal today. I will watch her cheeks, her eyes lowered, the curl of her lips.

07 September 2015

Where is Valery?

I am sitting with E on the bench in front of our house. An old man wobbles towards us and mumbles something. I get the name Valery from it. I guess he is asking for him, where he might be. I ask E what he is saying and she shrugs her shoulders. He looks at us with big wet eyes, his shoulders hanging slack, jeans hiked up with no belt on them, his shoes those big pillow-shaped old people shoes. I shake my head no, apologizing. 

He stands for some time.

Our taxi arrives and we are off. He spins to us, surprised. Maybe he thought we said we knew this Valery. Maybe he thought we told him Valery was coming soon. 

When we come back, there is a cane leaning against the wall under the mailboxes. E has to pee and we have negotiated who gets the bathroom first but I am kneeling on the dirty floor, taking a picture instead. E rolls her eyes.

"Art first!" I announce, jumping into the elevator.

Upstairs I stare at the picture. I tell E I am going back downstairs just for a minute.

The Leica in my hands, my meter in the other I see the cane as the doors slide open with their messy clang. Someone is cooking peppers, and the hall sends out that bitter, green smell.

I breathe slowly, holding it in once I click the shutter. This removes my body's vibrations, lets things be a little bit sharper. Two frames and I reach the end of the roll. I think to go back and load a fresh one but then ask myself if I got it. I go back, twisting the little lever, rewinding the film already.

Later, we go out for milk and eggs and the cane is gone.

31 August 2015

the Abraham Lincoln summer

I remember the summer when I was ten, the same age E is now. We were poor, living off of food stamps and the garden. Summer was an epic stretch of time, one and a half lives removed from the last ride on the long yellow school bus, the weeks spent shirtless in a pair of cutoffs exploring the forest and turning over rocks in the creek. There was the smell of the lopsided barbecue, watermelon, fresh corn. 

We took rides to the local pool, the water so amped up on chlorine that our eyes burned after we got out. The car was the old pale blue Dodge Dart with the AM radio that came in loud and strong, cranking out Glen Campbell singing Wichita Lineman. There were a handful of pretty girls that flopped across towels on the grass, letting their hair dry, girls that wore polka dot bikinis, with pink toenails in their flip-flops. We oggled them from the deep end, our chins on the surface of the cold water. My brother never made a move, and neither did I. We just held back, treading water, satisfied all the same.

When school started again, and I entered the fourth grade I told everyone I had been in Florida all summer with my grandfather. In truth he died some years before and I had only met him twice. I told everyone we picked oranges and went to the beach every day. Then I told them that Abraham Lincoln was with us the whole time, that he had not died and he was living well in the outskirts of Miami.

The thing is, I really believed what I was telling them. It was real to me. I saw it all, the wet trees in the mornings, Abraham's big laugh, my grandfather with a cigar (or maybe it was a pipe). The kids gave me plenty of trouble, names, insults and the occasional gut punch. Later I understood I would do anything to avoid the fact that we never went anywhere, during summer or anytime else.

E has navigated another one of her summers, cooped up in Moscow drawing pictures, pointing cameras at leaves and trees and sunrises. She read some long books. She slept in. She stayed up late watching movies with me, with plenty of chocolate by her side. She has grown taller. She has lost more baby teeth, and she still gets visits from the Tooth Fairy (who is generous in a different currency every time she visits).

We made more of a film together, a part I wrote for her, a part she is proud of. I think this surrogate summer plan we cook up each year is getting better, but there are nights when I wish she was enjoying a gelato in Rome, or the salty ocean water on her lips at the end of a day in the sun.


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.