Archive for July, 2009

The “Stick Your Head in the Oven” Miniseries of All Time

“Generation Kill.” If you’ve seen “The Wire.” If you are interested in modern day warfare. If you love great television. Watch. This. Show. Holy shit.

Iceman, Ray, and their transport
Iceman, Ray, and their transport

I’m not going to review the entire series, (1) because I’m not done with it, (2) because this dude did it better already on his blog here, and (3) because I want to focus this entry to one aspect of the miniseries: hopelessness.

I can’t sleep. It’s almost 3am. I finished the 3rd episode over an hour ago, and it won’t let go. The decisions that are made by those in command. The effects those decisions have on the troops and the civilians and what we know now looking back. It is cavalier at best, recklessly absurdist at worst. The way blame gets shifted. The way the soldiers can’t speak up. The way poor decisions aren’t discussed. The way “following orders” means ignoring logic. The way all the soldiers just have to swallow it. The way all they can do is laugh sometimes. The way they all know what’s really going on and discuss it with each other but no one else is paying attention. The way honor isn’t valued like it says on the commercials. The way you feel empty because of the shit these guys have to face and hopeless because of the decisions that are made for them. The way in spite of all of these things, the show isn’t anti-solider in ANY sense and wisely doesn’t preach about either perspective on the war in Iraq itself (because right then, at that point, it’s irrelevant, they’re THERE, and they have a job to do). The way it is only anti-bullshit bureaucracy that gets in the way of these men doing a good job and often ends up screwing things up for them. The way it leaves a weight on your heart for these men. The way it makes you realize that they’re there and I’m here and this show is probably only a small fragment of what they go through, so what the hell do I know anyway? The way the show can be bleak and heart-wrenching and make you want to cry and scream and shoot someone and hug someone all at the same time. The way it shows that even in the midst of this unbearable heaviness, there may be glimmers of hope amongst the men, shards of it stashed inside all of the chaos. This is not something a lot of people will want to watch. It is unpleasant, yet somehow both entertaining and deeply engrossing. It will leave you with a heavy heart and an ache. You may feel hopeless for a while after you watch it. I do. And I probably should.

What Have We Learned?

On July 15th, 2008, I bought my first film camera. Panasonic HVX 100. That weekend I was making a movie during the graveyard shift both nights at a Fed-Ex Kinkos my friend worked at. The first night, we got delayed for over two hours while a woman and her mother decided that 1am is the best time to make demanding requests that they didn’t want to pay for. We didn’t do nearly enough takes, everyone was tired, and even though the actors hadn’t really bothered to learn their 15 straight pages of dialogue, I was hell-bent on doing every scene as a single shot. 

I’ve made 4 movies in the last year – one of which I partially re-cast and completely re-shot, so 5 “technically” – and it’s safe to say I’m not the same filmmaker I was a year ago. (Check out one of them here and another one here) I was reading over some journal entries from that week. Illuminating:

 

“Right now my focus is on breaking down the script and figuring out… how each scene should be covered. I have some ideas for certain moments, but when I really think about having a specific shot – an interesting shot or at least a quality shot for every moment, the task becomes daunting. It is entirely possible that I have barely gotten my training wheels off, and here I am diving down a steep, rocky hillside. We’ll see how many bruises I end up with.”          – July 15th

 

“The clearest, truest thing I can say is that I feel like a filmmaker now. My feet wet, my mind unstoppably active from this point forward, this is what I want to do.”          – July 21st

 

Like most things worth doing, there is a combination of total fear and breathless excitement. I remember toiling away over storyboards, wanting to be professional, doing script breakdowns, blocking out the movements like a play in some cases. Pages upon pages upon pages of things. It’s a little like having your journal open in front of everyone, and they’re all passing it around asking you questions about it. You’ve got a choice to make. You can either be embarrassed about what you’re doing, or you can be proud and bold about it. One of the things I think I’ve learned most this year is to stand up and speak loudly what you want. Making movies with your friends is one thing. Completely different is standing in the Kansas City slums at 7am on a breezy Saturday morning in April, 25 cast and crew around you, most of whose names you don’t even know, everyone looking at you, expecting you to know what in the world to do, because after all your badge says “Director” and you’re in charge and at that point there is no one to hold your hand and do it for you. I find that I thrive in those moments. I love them. The Police showed up? Fuck it, I’m the director, looks like I’m walking over to chat with them, here goes nothing. Actors have questions, assistant director has questions, crew want to know where to set up the camera, lights need adjusting, what time is lunch, how many takes are we planning to do this time, this line doesn’t make sense, are we really going to film in a plane and a hospital, and how will we get those locations, “We need a director over here, please,” how does his makeup look, where’s our next location, is the dolly working yet…. on and on and on, and if you read this and think the eventuality that all of those things will be happening at once is a nightmare, then directing may not be for you. But the idea gives me chills, I get excited, I just want to be there in that big circus of creativity and shoot for 20 hours and be dead tired on Monday, but what’s it matter anyway, they won’t fire me, and I’ll sleep during the week. 

 

Trailer: The Movie - Day 1 - I Predict a Riot
Trailer: The Movie – Day 1 – I Predict a Riot

There’s just nothing like being on set and doing the thing you were meant to do and doing it well. Lesson #1 is the same as my high-school drama teacher taught: You’ve got to love it. It’s too hard to do if you don’t, and with so many people who do love it, just get out of the way and let them through.

 

I like things complicated. I like difficult shots, I like scenes that walk a fine line, I like to do a lot of takes. All fine things. But sometimes, you’ve got to kill your babies. Much of this year has been learning that there is power in simplicity. That simple doesn’t mean bland. That sometimes, a splash of complexity will get more mileage than you think. That just because you can design a 4 minute shot through a store, doesn’t mean you can film it, doesn’t mean the mics will work, doesn’t mean it’s the very best way to tell your story.

One of the biggest lessons has been that you can’t just show up and hope for the best. When I made that movie a year ago, I did not understand how my camera worked. I’m just now starting to really get it. You’ve got to seek out a knowledge base, and that means surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you and playing Sponge. There has been no more valuable tool than the IFC-KC (Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City). It connected me to the majority of the actors and crew for “Trailer: The Movie.” They let me hold auditions at their offices. For FREE. And it’s community, it’s connection, it’s knowing people and watching their stuff and talking about it and giving them your stuff. Every week I look forward to seeing certain people at the meetings, knowing afterwards, we’re all going to the same place to relax, have a drink, discuss why Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is the suck. Is there really anything else?

I think I didn’t quite understand the bond that forms on set. I was probably too cynical. I’ll close with two moments that I won’t forget. First, being at Kinkos with Peter (who worked there) from 4am till 8am to help get all the work done he should’ve been doing while we filmed. Dead tired, but still on a high, talking about whatever. Second, finishing “Trailer: The Movie” in Warrensburg, we got it done faster than we thought, eating our last meal together as a crew. Having a beer with them, the sense of accomplishment and pride I felt sitting there with Adam, thinking how strange and amazing it was that we had somehow caused this group to be together, people we didn’t know 8 months ago who are now invaluable to us. I didn’t see that coming. But I think I’m starting to catch on.

Just Use “Fortnight”

During a recent conversation with friend and former podcast co-host BJ, I referred to something as bi-weekly, then immediately asked, “Wait, does that mean ‘once every two weeks‘? Or ‘two times per week‘ ? ” If the former, then it would follow that “Bi-Monthly” means once every two months, but doesn’t it seem like “Bi-Monthly” means two times in one month? And if so, then to say bi-weekly would be to say bi-monthly. 

We were confused. “I’m looking this shit up right now,” he said. 

And once he did, oh boy, did the confusion ever just multiply. Check out some knowledge, from Merriam-Webster Online:

—BI-WEEKLY: 

1 : occurring twice a week 2 : occurring every two weeks : fortnightly

BI-MONTHLY:

1 : occurring every two months 2 : occurring twice a month : semimonthly

—FORTNIGHT:

: a period of 14 days : two weeks

 

I googled “biweekly confusion” which might seem to imply that I am confused either twice per week or once every two weeks, and I found the following explanation that I found amusing.

Confusion is caused by the fact that biweekly, bimonthly, and biyearly can mean either “once every two weeks (or months or years)” or “twice a week (or month or year).” If you want to avoid doubt, it is better to reword the sentence…

I think what this really means is, these words are defective. Their multiple definitions aren’t just paradoxical, they’re mutually exclusive. How many words are there that are real, actual words, but they are unfit to be used. Shouldn’t that be a requirement of a word before it’s given status as a “word” ? Because if the definition of a word is, according to Merriam-Webster, ” a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning…” then do these terms qualify as words? (For a good time, check out ALL the Definitions of “Word”)  How can a word be a word if it can’t be used, can’t be spoken without having to say, “No, what I really meant was…” These are words you use while your actual words are warming up in the on-deck circle.

Dictionary.com, for its part, takes the confusion to another level. On the same page, it has two “Usage Notes,” the first explaining that the terms go either way (swingers!) and the second note contradicting that to state that “Bimonthly and biweekly mean “once every two months” and “once every two weeks.” You know you’re in trouble when even the clarifications fall into the same confusion as the issue they’re clarifying. And I don’t think it’s out of line to say that this is very bad language.

Returning

I finished a journal the other day. The real, non-electronic kind and I have decided not to start again until the beginning of August or so, for reasons which will become clear then. I could really use a journal now, though, but part of me wants not to document or write about some things. Leave sections, gaps missing. It’s stupid, I’m probably just cutting out some hindsight for myself later on, but I am curious what will be the first thing I write when I do start again. What progress (or not)? It’s like coming back to a new season of a TV show, and things have changed but it takes the first episode to really see it all. 

Another thing I had planned was to not read until then. With the movie and life and everything, it seemed easier. My reading plan this year has been derailed by making a movie; more specifically by the editing of that movie. Much more than writing, you have to be accepting of the parts of the process that are most tedious. There are no shortcuts. You have to just take the time. Anyway, I’d finished a book, (Rick Moody’s Purple America) and while well-written, it had sortof underwhelmed (I’ve got to do some book reviews here soon) so I thought, okay, we’ll shut it down a bit. Then I went back on that and was going to start The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy… except, it just wasn’t the right book to start when everything’s up in the air. This next month of my life will mark the end of one chapter of my life, an important transition into a new chapter, and, hopefully, the revitalization of a third. 

But I have to read. As a writer, I have to read. As a filmmaker, I have to read. As a Christian, I have to read. As part of being ME I have to read. I picked up two Pulitzer-Prize winners today at the used book store, because when you own 35-40 books you haven’t read, it’s best to just keep going until you hit 200. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

The Perfect Image, from the upcoming film version. Can't wait.

The Perfect Image, from the upcoming film version. Can't wait.

Given the state of things, I began The Road tonight, and it is spare and gray and cold and great. Prose doesn’t get lonelier or better than this. It could have raised the stakes on Dickens and been called Bleak World. Sometimes what you need in these situations is not escapism, but stark, crisp story-telling, like a cold shower. It brings things into focus instead of letting them drift farther away.

Never Go Home

Student hit by a car; killed.
Not an original headline, but keep reading. There is something about the death of young people that is incongruously fascinating.  In sophomore or junior year, a kid from my high school got in a car accident on a narrow road just outside town. He and I got in a fight in 7th grade, during a PE football game. He was a pretty cool guy, though. Philip was his name. Anytime someone dies – be it celebrity or a person I knew or just someone I heard about – I have the same silly thought: what movies were they looking forward to that they’ll never get to see? It’s a projection of my own interests, sure, but the larger question is the same. People have hopes and dreams and goals. Even if they didn’t have anything so grand, what tiny things were they looking forward to? Maybe looking forward to seeing a friend who was coming into town, maybe a baseball game they were going to get tickets to.  What if that very day, they’d decided to eat at their favorite restaurant that night? And then they’re dead.
 
 

Falling From the Sky

Falling From the Sky

This is a macabre entry, but it’s going somewhere. After 19 months in an apartment, I’ve moved home for a short time. Solitude is a precious commodity, so simply having to engage in continual conversations is a chore for me. Worse: my father is testing new phones at our house, so all week he’s been calling from his cell phone to see which phones are working. They aren’t all ringing at the same time, so he swaps them out, hoping a new outlet will solve the problems. The ringing comes in waves, along with his commentary and ever-changing hypothesis for success. It’s annoying.

 
In summer, the basement’s the coolest part of the house, so Dad and I camp out there, usually a baseball game on, and both of us on opposite sides clacking away on our computers. Mom punctuates with intermittent questions from upstairs. She yells something down, he yells something back. Stifled muffles all around, which they infer as a signal to yell louder. Dad is doing freelance investigations for insurance companies right now, and here is where the teenage death comes in. Since I was a kid, we’ve had these ethical, insurance claims dilemmas. He’d draw out diagrams for my brother and I, and we would discuss who is at fault.
 
We’ve been discussing the following incident: Two early-20’s college students and their professor are on their way back from some band-related school event. Driving back, they get a flat tire. They change the tire and keep going. A little while later, they get another flat tire. With no second spare tire, they spend a while patching the second flat and proceed. Two miles down the road, the patch gives way. They get off the highway and find a tire center. But it’s Sunday, and the tire place is closed. They call the local police and ask for help, but the police say there’s nothing they can do, and if the group hasn’t found a solution by morning to give them another call. They call a few tire companies, all of whom are closed on Sunday. They even speak to one guy, but he won’t come help them. It’s 6pm Sunday evening. They’ve got cell phones, so they’re calling people trying to figure something out. At 7pm, a car stops and offers to take them to Wal-Mart, 30 minutes back the way they came, to get a tire. The professor goes and the students stay, since there are valuables in the vehicle. So off he goes. Two hours go by and the professor isn’t back yet. The students are milling about on the roadside, and one of them, a foreign exchange student with no family in the country, gets out his trumpet and starts playing. He’s walking up and down the road, just passing the time. It’s 9pm and he’s wearing a black shirt, walking on the narrow side road playing his trumpet. In his statement, the other student noted that sometimes our trumpet player closes his eyes while he plays because he gets nervous. The sound of the trumpet probably blocked out everything else, including voices and approaching cars.
And it was in this way that a 23 yr. old foreign exchange student from the Czech Republic was hit and killed by an unassuming 20 yr old who was driving home from work.
 
Consider also the following pieces of information.
–The professor said that the closed tire center had some tires laying out. He counted four which would have fit his van. He thought about taking one and leaving his information so he could pay the owner later, but he thought it would be a bad example to set.
–The student said that the two of them got annoyed and hungry, and it was out of that frustration that the Czech student got out his trumpet in the first place. In photos of the exact location of the accident, a McDonalds can be seen in the background. It was less than a mile away.
–The 20 yr old driver said that he saw one person on the side of the road in a white shirt. Since the road was narrow, he moved away from that person, effectively accidentally swerving into the other student.

There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, “Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.”





Talking with Dad he said, “The whole thing is a series of unfortunate events.” True, though this seems far too dark for Lemony Snicket. It seems more like something out of “Final Destination.” That such events should unfold as they did, each seeming in a way to produce the next, building slowly to a crescendo, and then tragedy. And so many questions bubble to the surface. If the students were hungry, why not walk to the McDonald’s, or the gas station, the sign for which can also be seen in the pictures. They were two hours from home, but they waited in the same spot for three hours. They had cell phones, why weren’t they calling the teacher asking him where he was? What was the teacher doing that took him so long? Why did the students walk on the narrow road when the tire station had a large driveway right there?
 
This is a situation that seems built purely of variables. If just one thing had been different, the outcome could have been avoided. If the group had taken a different vehicle or made sure the van was in good condition, or not gone to the event at all. If they had decided to come back any day but Sunday. If they had stopped at the Wal-mart after the first flat tire to pick up a new tire. If they had all gone to Wal-Mart together after the second flat. If they had stopped the van someplace other than a narrow side road. If the students had gone to get something to eat. If the white shirted student had suggested that the trumpet player not walk in the middle of the road. If the trumpet player hadn’t closed his eyes. If the 20 yr old had taken a different road home from work. But of course, if any of these circumstances were altered, wouldn’t it just create a new series of potential accidents and mishaps?
 
magnolia7They say that everything happens for a reason. I’ve never really liked that sentiment. It seems providentially saccharine and utterly simplistic. And anyway, how does that work here? Does tragedy have a purpose in mind when it occurs? Or does the purpose come out of the process of dealing with the tragedy? I guess the answer depends on whether you believe that God is malicious or loving. Be aware, as with most things of import, there is a right answer and a wrong one.
 
And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “Something That Happened.” This cannot be “One of Those Things… ” This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance. Ohhhh… These strange things happen all the time.

It Has Come to This

July 2009
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