20 March 2017

things you think of when traveling


I would like to fall asleep listening to rain. I would like to have a great Thai takeout place to walk to. I would like to be 20 pounds lighter. I would like to be able to play a good B chord. I would like a pair of orange wingtips. Sometimes I would like to have wild locks of hair like I used to. Sometimes I think about how long it takes me to write a book, and if there is any way around that. Sometimes I forget to close the refrigerator. Sometimes I think about this electronics department in a local store I used to visit when I was a boy, staring at the cassette decks and the turntables. Sometimes I think about deer season and the dead animals tied to roofs and hoods with twists of rope, their expressions stiff all looking terrified.

I have a good watch now. I have a new guitar. I have work. I have a new striped sweater that looks like one of N's and I made her laugh when I wore it for the first time. I bought E a film camera for her birthday and she named it Marv. I bought V a Moana doll and she talks to it, as if is real.







13 March 2017

a borrowed name (the lucky ones)

When the call came so many years ago, I hid after playing that gold guitar in the living room until I got it right. My voice sounded foreign, outside of myself. Throat beyond the old windows banging in the afternoon sun. Names were considered - Son something, after Son House. I don't even remember the particulars except that Tom Waits mentions Martin Eden in Shiver Me Timbers -
          And I know Martin Eden's
          Gonna be proud of me

I saw this name in the credits of that short film and felt right about it. It wasn't me that sang about a child and regret, about love and a soul being saved. That was Martin Ruby, all him. 

Martin went on many adventures, howling at the moon, swinging low, yelling about how the cops stole your flowers. It was a suit I could pull on, look in the mirror and see someone else. And then I could take it off, and listen to the recording at the kitchen table and feel like I was hearing it for the first time. 

We all make fun of those musicians who go by a one word name, or a changed name, a borrowed name. It is all laughable if you look at it from the easy chair. But try to stand up and wear your heart on your sleeve, warbling like a lost chickadee and you will understand far better how these things happen. We all start from somewhere, an awkward, embarrassing nest we fall from, or fly above. It is a very messy business. 

Last summer I got a fresh call, a request to do a cover of a song. All of the proceeds from the project would go to a wonderful cause, the David Shedlrick Wildlife Trust. Helping to save an endangered species is a joyous act. So, I put on Martin's suit and let the muse take the wheel. There is a moment when the song disappears - children laughing and playing take over. There is a weeping harmonica. There were lyrics I wrapped my head around, from the genius of Palaxy Tracks, the band behind all of this. The toys came out of the closet, I tried to channel the dead and the living and the dust settled. 

And then, the idea of a music video was floated. I made one n the middle of the night, after the day's work was done, after the children were sleeping, their hands like angels. 





You can donate to download here: https://palaxytracks.com













06 March 2017

almost


Things are slipping though my fingers. I can see them, just out of reach as they twirl in the dark. Almost, an almost. And yet at the same time, a full life, days crammed with blessings and laughter. Nights dancing in the kitchen, the baby rocking wildly in her chair, E with her big eyes in mid-thought, N with her Mona Lisa smile. A bottle of wine cracked open, special glasses on the table. There is no way to complain about anything. Impossible.

The life of the reluctant expat is a series of lessons. The opportunities are distant and slim. You have to carve them out with your bare hands if you want something to happen. At the same time, there are no distractions here. The work is that of a hermit, of messages in bottles floating inside a bubble on the other side of the moon. The unheard story, the whispered idea.










27 February 2017

night shoot

A poodle scatters across the ice, approaching me. It sniffs my boots in the darkness. I see it is gray, or maybe just a very dirty white dog. The camera is next to me, pointing up at some trees and a streetlight, some apartment windows out of focus behind it. I see an old man approaching and I try to say a quiet hello. The monitor is perched on top of the camera. I am shooting night cutaways for Blackbetty. His nose wiggles, as if he is sniffing the air around me. I stand, waiting for them to pass before I move on to the next location. He stops and says something to me. I think he asks where I am from. I have gotten into the habit of saying "Canada" just to keep life more streamlined. I cannot imagine someone on the streets of New York asking a stranger something like this. Well, I used to think that way. Maybe things have changed there too.

I try to explain that we live a few houses over. He asks what I am doing. I tell him I am making an art movie, just about life, about trees, sky, moon, streetlights. He does not buy it. He repeats a word, over and over "snimat" which I understand is "to get dressed" so I really have no idea what he is asking. He asks for my passport and my registration. The little dog is stiff sniffing my boots. I tell him they are back in the house. He pulls out his phone and is threatening to call the militia. 
"Fine, I am going." I explain, yanking the heavy tripod and camera to my shoulder skidding across the bed of wet ice towards the path that will lead home. 
"Unfuckingbelievable." I announce, to the trees. 
I do not look back. That is what guilty people do. 

At home, I call N and tell her what happened. She asks if I was shooting near some nondescript two story building. I think for a moment, yes that is close to where I was. "Well, you should keep away from there." She explains. "It is not an apartment building."  Of course I want to chew on this silliness, if it is such important building, why are there no guards? But it doesn't matter. I should have known better, and now I am thinking about the next time I go downstairs to shoot the snow falling, or ice on the tree limbs, or a scene of E coming home from school, or something else and that shitty little poodle and the old man with his phone perched by his ear as he calls the militia. That is how my camera gets taken, my favorite lens, my movie. 





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."