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.


Anonymous said...

Nice story as for me. I'd like to read something more about that matter. The only thing it would also be great to see here is some photos of some gadgets.
Katherine Karver
Cell jammer

IWitnessEd said...

hello. i don't quite understand the comment... what gadgets, for example? but if you mean stills from the films, i don't have copies myself or any visual reference after all the years gone.