Thursday, August 30, 2007

Open-Ended Films (Part 1)

In the late Sixties I was a writer/editor at Seattle Magazine, one of several divisions in the wealthy, liberal Bullitt family's King Broadcasting empire--a small empire, actually, not much more than a couple of television and radio stations, Seattle Mag, and a prizewinning but struggling documentary film arm called King Screen. Bored with the magazine world, I moved laterally to become a staff writer at the newly reconfigured King Screen, which was edging into educational films and away from the non-lucrative world of (pre-Ken Burns) documentaries.

My film assignments and original script ideas allowed for much variety, and I must have written a dozen short films, produced or not, over the next year or two. Back then, in the pre-computer world, schoolkids actually watched movies in the classrooms--you know, 16 mm. films projected by noisy machines onto the classroom wall or some collapsible screen the teacher or student volunteer had to wrestle up or down.

I got to write some pretty bizarre stuff, including one science fiction short about a future world in which humans actually lived in their cars, driving the endless autobahns of Earth, fighting real wars over gas stations and the like. Sounds maybe dumb now (Car Wars?), but I was looking for an environmental angle that might be different from the straight films we produced to tout recycling, cleaning up San Francisco Bay, and tracing an LP record all the way back to its source as oil in the ground. (That last was actually a lot of fun--a crew of four of us, cruising the West, filming at record plants, refineries, oil fields and more; I was the line producer on that job and did sound recording too.)

But instead I'd like to discuss the handful of films I was proudest of--two on race relations, a series of three devoted to the Lively Arts for kids and, my small claim to educational film fame, Our Totem Is the Raven, starring great Native American actor Chief Dan George (subject of the blog chapter next time around).

Black Thumb was my overt, 8-minute, quick glancing blow at racism. In the film, a white insurance salesman is having a hot and unsuccessful day, and when he knocks on the door of one more house, he gets no response, but hears sounds from the garden, where he finds a black man weeding and replanting. Assuming the obvious (this is the Sixties, remember), he asks if the owner of the house is somewhere around, and the black man stands up and says he'll go get said owner and send him to meet the salesman back at the front door. So... probably obvious by this point... when that front door opens, there stands the black man himself, facing the now-chagrined salesman. Film ends there, leaving the class to discuss whatever seems appropriate.

A better idea and more successful film was my 20-minute work called The Two-Twenty Blues. Summarizing quickly, the plot involved a middle-class black teenager, his family living well in the suburbs, and him a successful track star at the mostly white high school where his best friend is a white runner, both of them on the 220-yards relay team. Over the arc of the film, a more militant black teen appears at the school and latches onto the lead kid, trying to convince him (a la the Panthers and activist black athletes of the Sixties) that he is being exploited by the white school and he must stand up for his own people, taking some sort of action, making some major gesture to display Black Pride.

So: many scenes of track practice, relay team passing the baton, black students discussing, white friend remonstrating, etc. The film climaxes at a major track meet, where the Black Power advocate wants hero to make the raised fist salute if he gets to the winner's stand. The race goes perfectly, and there stands the team, black runner looking back and forth from his white teammate to the activist, wondering whether he should raise his fist... Again the film ends suddenly, leaving time for discussion of any ideas.

Both films got some praise and sold adequately to school districts around the country (once the films were picked up for distribution by McGraw-Hill), thanks to credible performances by local actors and a couple of excellent teenage non-actors we found by casting calls and auditions at the schools. But the King Screen bosses wanted more variety, of course, so I next dreamed up a series of three films meant to connect young kids to real, relatable, appealing figures in the Arts.

The first (Art) was a short documentary showing kids' artworks, which were then visually compared to the somewhat child-like paintings and drawings of Paul Klee. Klee's journal entries about simplicity and children's art were read voiceover, these interspersed with comments by real kids about their drawings and about Klee's pictures too. All in all, it became a fairly effective montage mixing all four visual and verbal elements.

So we got to do the second (Music), this time a dramatized short titled Erik Satie and the King of the Beans. Pianist-composer Satie had a wry sense of humor, reflected in the strange titles he gave his piano works; and I imagined a runaway boy, escaping his mother who wanted to force him to eat dreaded green beans, who bumps into Satie as he flees. The black-bearded composer takes the kid under his wing, shows him sights of Paris, plays some piano for him, and then persuades him to return home to Mom, but first composing in the boy's honor a short piece with that Beans title. Fine music, happy ending, lots of quiet amusement throughout.

To fake early Twentieth Century Paris we shot in alleyways and brick areas of Seattle's Pioneer Square and interspersed those scenes with b&w stills of Paris back then (by Eugene Atget and others, I think); we also had a nice under-the-roofs-of-Paris set built to represent Satie's flat as well as the nearby home of the fleeing kid. A young concert pianist provided the excellent piano music throughout, and Satie himself was played by rather well-known actor/director Arne Zaslove, head of a local repertory theatre company. Yet the film still lacked some of the zing it needed to be really successful; maybe my original idea just wasn't that strong.

The third film (Poetry) was meant to visualize a few of the somewhat childlike, wonderfully playful poems of lower-case poet e.e. cummings. I wrote a script using three of his poems (centered on the one beginning "in just-Spring the little lame balloon-man whistles far & whee..."), and we storyboarded what visuals would accompany the voiceover readings of the three. So far so good. But the tentative approval we had gotten from the cummings estate suddenly was yanked away from us, with the lawyers informing us that all rights were now embroiled in some legal battle back East.

I then tried to promote a sort-of alternate plan for the poetry segment, to do a documentary film (no longer for kids really) about honored anti-Vietnam War, deep imagist poet Robert Bly. I flew back to Minnesota, spent a day or so with Bly on his family farm, came back and wrote a quasi-script to suggest a shape for the documentary filming, actually got approval to proceed... but then the whole thing collapsed as higher-level bosses in the King Broadcasting chain of command decided against the somewhat controversial poet.

Oh well, two outta three ain't bad, I guess. And after those "turnarounds" (educational films stalled just like the features in Hollywood) came a major success, thanks to Chief Dan George... which (and whom) I'll write about next time.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Telephone Woes

(Ironic note first. This posting was delayed for days by my fershluginer computer which kept sending error messages and shutting me down every time I tried to use the damned Internet for anything! Now, please, read on.)

During that recent whirlwind trip to England, I tried to call back to the States on several occasions, but had trouble connecting--a hidden flaw in our cell-phone, caller-i.d. society.

The nine-hour time differential was awkward enough, but not the root problem. First off, the so-called international phone card I'd purchased didn't work for some unknown reason. Next, all my attempts at calling collect were shortcircuited by cell-phone rejections and answering-machine messages that were (of course) unable to accept calls. Moreover, my grudging follow-up calls attempting to pay by credit card all fetched up against a different frustration--connections that were going through but only to answering machines rather than actual persons!

Would I have been better off using some cell I'd carried across the Atlantic? Advance costs quoted for those seemed exorbitant to my (Luddite) thinking, so I ignored the idea, but as it was, I still wound up paying outrageous amounts (partly due to the painful dollars-to-pounds exchange rate, it's true) for poor results with almost no aural satisfaction.

The whole experience made me wish for the bad old days of recipient phones that simply were answered or not, and phone booths that commonly could be found inside post offices around the world--where you could pay by stacks of coins that were actually returned to you if the calls didn't go through.

Maybe if I'd persevered at a callbox... But just as the number of U.S. phone booths is dwindling, England's fine old red callboxes are also disappearing, albeit more slowly. They are still a thing of almost architectural beauty seen from without, but the insides suffer all sorts of abuse. What is it about phone booths that brings out the worst in people?

Well, donkey's years ago, back when Margaret Thatcher ruled Britannia's waves, I wrote my own fractured ode to a callbox, and here it is, still pertinent in 2007:

Man in the Glass Booth

I close the door
abandoning, for the moment, lorries’ roar,
thick skin-
head posturing, and nearby takeaway den
din. In here, I
can almost hear my
self think.
Not that it does,
much. Britannia’s
on the brink
as usual—or so the tabloids say.
Moi aussi

but soldiering on, of course,
both of us;
old news. Having carried
no news from Aix to Ghent,
I now curry
none in London. Nothing fit to print,
anyway: a sign
of the Times. As if by design,
among the invitations to leather
or massage, and the cruder
callbox-Byrons’ rhymes, I see
“For a good time, don’t call Maggie…

back.” Small chance of that;
the phone’s been rendered hors de combat.
What’s more, someone’s
put the boot in through two panes,
had a spo’ o’ bovver wiv a yellowed parchment
directory, and taken
greater pains
to scratch out all dialing instructions.
Even the cord has the mange.
Slightly squiffed, like Clark Kent
I have come in
to change…

my luck, if not my shirt.
Quite absurd,
really. The grimed glass displays
some misplaced Man of Clay,
out of pence
and pluck, who couldn’t
stay in touch
with anyone tonight. I’ll just reach
out and douse
the callbox light, and drowse
a while in

Monday, August 20, 2007

Newland of Animation

Time to say a few words about my good friend Marv Newland, animator extraordinaire, known around the world for his quirky cartoon works and illustrations and his production company International Rocketship. The U.S. pathetically remembers Marv best only for his student-days phenomenon, Bambi Meets Godzilla, but he has created or produced a host of others in the decades since.

Marv is California-born--a used-to-be surfer dude who still catches a few waves every year (even as he turns 60)--but due to his total opposition to the Vietnam War and our government policies back then, he left the U.S. for Canada way back in the Sixties, stopping off first in Toronto but then settling out West again in Vancouver, where he eventually became a landed immigrant. (About the only thing American he says he still misses is our craze for basketball, both College and Pro, but Marv and a small group of other ex-pat Yanks do gather regularly to play and occasionally to watch televised games.)

He has been loosely affiliated with some National Film Board of Canada projects over the years, and from time to time he takes on an animation job for some another company (or country!), but Marv and Rocketship mostly have gone their own way, creating internationally sought shorts like Sing Beast Sing, the amazing worldwide collaboration known as Anijam, Black Hula, and the very adult Pink Komkommer (Marv's own works), plus Lupo the Butcher, Dog Brain, and My Friend Max (among those produced by Marv but directed by other animators).

Marv and I can't quite remember how or where we met back in the early Seventies, but the proximity of Vancouver and Seattle has allowed us to become friends over the many years since, hanging out at each other's houses whenever some job or vacation takes one of us North or South (I used to commute to Vancouver regularly to do work for Eaton's Department Stores, for example). And I was able to hire him for at least one Rainier Beer project, when the company I worked for used Marv to create a TV commercial resembling several mock videogames squashed together. The nice irony was that back then he did all animation by hand rather than computer (think handdrawn video games), and this in the very city where fellow ex-pat William Gibson was inventing future-of-computers science fiction novels in the new genre he named cyberpunk!

We also discovered that we share a mutual craving for Mexican food and for hardboiled fiction (he collects books by Charles Willeford and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, for example) as well as the great detective novels of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald. I've turned him onto some newer authors (Michael Connelly maybe?), he got me into the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, and we regularly compete to see who can be first to find and read the latest Paul Christopher spy novel by Charles McCarry .

These days Marv does some teaching, travels the world as an honored guest or judge at several animation festivals, and still cranks out a new short every few years; the current project underway had (may still have) the name of Scratchy. And--this may be a separate venture--he has an intriguing, on-going conceptual piece involving handdrawn postcards that are dispersed by Marv to spots around the globe, then returned to him by mail, with each set of stamps being of some interest too. (I don't ask much more about these things than "How are the latest projects going?"; we are both old enough to be a bit cranky about, and protective of, any works-in-progress!)

I just wish we both got across that damn U.S./Canada border more often, but Homeland Security has made a mockery of "give us your tired, your weary... and your own returning citizens" as a precept of democracy--even as our shameful Fundamentalist/Right Wing administration on too many occasions has made me contemplate moving North!

But enough. I commend to all... Marvelous Marv, adamant animator in an admirable New Land.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bumper Cropredy (The Sequel)

And so we resume...

Back from England's green and pleasant land, my head buzzing with folk-rock and my wallet rendered ultra-light by the pound-versus-dollar fiasco. Fifteen or so current and ex- Fairporters showed up, as did some 23,000 friends, the first-ever sellout for the ever-more-popular, three-day festival held near Banbury at Cropredy (officially declared "Fairport's Cropredy Convention" these days).

Simon Nicol was gracious and jovial, as ever. Dave Swarbrick seemed smaller but healthier, and playing with more pizazz than he has for years. And Richard Thompson?... songmeister and guitar god, and the secret passion of males and females alike, it would seem, from the number of swooning and swanning fans clamoring after him everywhere.

We enjoyed two rehearsal-night sessions of Fairport (with guests); a major, over-two-hours club concert by RT and his Band touring to support the powerful Sweet Warrior album (anchored by "'Dad's Gonna Kill Me," his anti-Iraq ditty); Richard again for a shorter but still-potent set hard on the heels of the much-bruited, on-stage play-through of Liege and Lief by the original band (minus one); and a final-night FOUR-hour set by the variant Fairports.

Plus supporting-act oldsters Jools Holland, Richard Digance, Wishbone Ash, and The Strawbs; folk stalwarts Billy Mitchell and Bob Fox, Show of Hands, and The Bucket Boys; and young-turk hopefuls like Kerfuffle, Seth Lakeman, Last Orders, Give Way, and my personal fave, The Demon Barbers Roadshow. A grand time was had by all.

But I do want to pay special tribute to the woman who filled in for long-deceased Sandy Denny, singing all the Liege and Lief female vocals... Chris While, known to me only as a sometime associate of Ashley Hutching's current bands. Ms. While was pure and clear and powerful and--dare I whisper it--maybe even better that night than were Sandy Denny's own beautiful and slightly wistful vocals recorded nearly 40 years ago. Chris soared head and shoulders over previous Sandy fill-ins like Vicky Clayton and Cathy LeSurf (fine vocalists not quite suited to the part).

The weather was amazing. After weeks of will-it-rain-and-flood-still-more anxiety, instead we sweltered through 10 days of eighty-degree sun, allowing us to bake and fry on the fields of Cropredy. Side jaunts when not musicking included zipping around London, strolling around Stratford-upon-Avon, scouring both Banbury town and Cropredy village for any CDs or beers left unclaimed, and touristing through Cambridge and its aged but undreaming spires. Historically major colleges and brilliant bookstores were the order of that last day.

So to wrap up this Festive report, I think I'll tack on one of my life-of-tourist poems from earlier times in Merrie Olde E...

Country Ways

So on we go jigging her country ways,
Lightly skimming the groins of the braes,
The post-roads humping vales and downs,
Past tangled weirs into gnarly towns,
Mulch and Dreath hamlets, where iron-wrought
Villagers stare and spare no thought
For why, or who is come—hurdling the dells,
Dashing from Mousehole, splash into Wells,
Up Mendip Hills, out across Dartmoor,
Staggered by Glastonbury’s misty Tor,
The Abbey stones reiterating loss
Near a thorn-tree rimed with blossom-frost.

“Running well late,” this sodden spring;
Or so the folk say, blithely imagining
The sun out bright in this steel-wool grey
Drenching gorse and heath, coil-wound hay;
Daydreaming sunlight chipping chalk and flint,
Heat baking Bog Queen and Green Man skin
To ceramic perfection—hedgerows forming,
Starlings exploding, mayflies swarming,
Rife with the old heart-lurching ease
Of Albion’s seasonal epiphanies,
That sap of being, from loin to part,
Never gleaned in the sum of Descartes.

Loosed like the land’s replenishment,
This streaking commotion shields no pent-
Up magic, no ceremonious mystery,
No legends of Arthur, no lords of history,
Neither kingfisher lore nor Fisher King,
No, not Christ cup, not Saxon hoarding…
Merely a bug-flecked French sedan’s
Quarrel of blear-eyed Americans—
Cramped and gawking, time-lost tourists
Pummeled by each day’s ticking lists,
Routed by dale and glen and this late-spring
Gameboard arrayed for castling and mating.