The best thing about Brooklyn College is that they encourage you to take courses in things other than writing, like pottery and sculpture and filmmaking. They make you get out and do things, as if there’s a correlation between the lead in your pencil and the lead in your ass. It worked. I gave up writing and became a filmmaker.
* * *
My first film was a disaster. It was supposed to be a pattern film, for Joel Zwick’s Cine-Tech 101. I shot it at Green-Wood Cemetery. I spent hours planning all the shots.
Cemeteries are really interesting. And heavily symbolic. The gravestones are like so many sculptures. At certain angles they line up in neat rows. But from other angles they’re all a-jumble—like the scenes of my boyhood in my head. I was going to shoot the stones with a long lens to get a foreshortened effect, so they’d all look packed in tight.
As if people were dying to get in there.
I shot for three hours on a sunny September afternoon. There was a fine interplay of stones and shadows. I could hear the camera whirring away. It was an old 16mm World War II documentary Bell & Howell that looked like Mickey Mouse ears turned on end. It had a big wind-up key.
As I shot I kept humming Beethoven’s 9th, the tune I intended for my soundtrack. I could see the film unfolding before my eyes.
Later, when I opened the camera, I noticed that all the film was still in the top canister. I turned the camera upside down to make the film be on the bottom where it should have been. It didn’t work. I had threaded it improperly. I’d been shooting air all afternoon.
* * *
At Brooklyn College I met Agnieszka Holland, the famous Polish director. Her work has won at the Cannes Film Festival and that impressed me. The film of my boyhood is destined for Cannes.
Aggie was a guest lecturer in Calvin Zwick’s Cine-Tech 101. “For ze filmmaker,” she said, “zair is ze technical hump. Unless he first gets over ze technical hump, he will never be a filmmaker.”
I knew what she meant. I asked her if she had any secrets about threading film. She thought I said shredding. “Not enough filmmakers shred zair films,” she said.
I smiled, undaunted. If I couldn’t thread it, I couldn’t shred it.
* * *
My second film was much improved. I returned to Green-Wood but with a crew this time. His name was Larry. He was a photographer from Bed-Stuy who hated films as much as he hated filmmakers.
“A single photograph is all you need,” he told me.
“Then why are you taking Zwick?”
“It’s a requirement of my program. To make sure the photographer sees things in continuity.”
“Sounds familiar,” I said. “Why don’t you try writing?”
“I got nothing to say.”
Zwick paired Larry with me as crewmates on the first day of class. We all had to stand up and announce our intentions in hopes of pairing up crews with similar interests. Most crews consisted of three or four students.
When it was Larry’s turn he said, “I hate films as much as I hate filmmakers.”
I said, “I’m going to win the Cannes Film Festival.”
After the crews had been picked, only Larry and I were left. Unfortunately, he was sick when I shot my first film.
“How’d it turn out?” he called to me as my VW pulled up to the curb at his Brownsville apartment.
Larry was a wimpy-looking guy but his girlfriend was gorgeous. She was sunning herself facedown on an air mattress by the fire hydrant. As I approached, she reached behind her back to unsnap the top of her bathing suit.
“Didn’t shoot it yet,” I replied to Larry. “Decided I needed your help.” I told him I was thinking of freeze-framing a few shots in my graveyard film and that got him all excited. It was almost photography.
“I made some peanut butter sandwiches for lunch,” he said, holding up a paper bag.
“Why don’t you thread the camera as we ride out?”
* * *
Now the 16mm World War II documentary Bell & Howell is quite a piece of machinery. It’s heavy and sturdy and indestructible. It took pictures of Hitler and pictures of Hiroshima. After the World War II the Army bequeathed a number of them to Brooklyn College. Ours was a functional antique.
The camera carries three lenses that screw into a revolving turret. There is a long lens, a medium lens, and a short lens. I told Larry to use the long lens. He wanted the short one, the wide angle. “It’s my film,” I snorted. Larry screwed in the lenses and snapped the long one into position.
It was another sunny September day and I was getting excited. “Dum dum dum daaa,” I sang to myself as I lifted the light meter from the camera case. I took a reading and we began shooting. Larry, surprisingly enough, was cooperative. The afternoon flew.
“Enfin, c’est fini,” I announced like Truffaut himself.
But when the film came back from the lab it was all washed out. And out of focus. Instead of a graveyard it looked like a ghost yard. Vague ashen stones stood against a white sky. It was haunting. My blurred rhythmical pans looked like a military review of the Ku Klux Klan.
“What the fuck went wrong?”
Zwick was pragmatic. “Light meter was probably out of calibration. Everybody just throws ’em in the case.”
“What about the focus?”
“The lens wasn’t screwed in tight.”
“Ze lens wasn’t screwed in tight!” I aped Aggie. “Once again ze victim of ze technical hump!”
When I saw Larry I was furious. “The lens wasn’t screwed in tight!”
“I told you we should have used the wide angle.”
I wanted to shred his head.
* * *
My next film was a technical masterpiece. (Zwick had given me a “D” for my
previous effort.) I shot it at Waldbaum’s, and I had to hassle the manager to let me film in his store. “Listen,” I told him. “This is the crazy ’60s, for Chrissakes. The whole country’s freaked out with people doin’ their own thing. Nobody’s gonna flip over somebody with a camera in a grocery store.”
After a while he consented. I positioned myself behind the Cheerios.
Zwick wanted us to do a non-directed film, a sort of documentary in which you have no control over the action. I decided to shoot the checkout girls. There were seven of them all lined up in their chutes, whanging away at the cash registers, too busy to notice my head popping up and down behind the Cheerios.
I shifted to 64 frames-per-second for some slow-motion shots. I was having a great time.
Then something happened that taught me a great truth about filmmaking. Some guy walked right in front of me, pushing his basket of groceries. But when he saw the camera he suddenly stopped, ducked, and retreated as if he’d committed a sin. The great truth about filmmaking is that people think filmmakers are sacred. With a camera in tow you can get away with anything. It’s the conditioned Hollywood response, a lesson that would prove helpful in making my boyhood film. If you ever want to get away with anything outrageous, just carry a camera along.
Anyway, my non-directed film turned out to be mainly about one of the checkout girls. Her name was Maya and she was very pretty. She was seventeen and it was a pleasure to watch her check out groceries. She had long black curly hair that flew about her baby face as she punched the keys and bagged the goodies.
I went over to her after I’d finished filming and said, “What’s a pretty girl like you doin’ in a joint like this?”
She was apprehensive. “What?”
“You oughta be in pictures.”
“How’d you like to be in a movie?”
“Well, you already are. I’ve been filming you for the past half hour.” I held up the magic Bell & Howell. It was too much for her.
“I’ll see you outside when you get off work.”
The only problem with Maya was that she was pretty only from the waist up. From the waist down she was chunky and thick-thighed. She’d been eating too many bagels. She was wedged into a pair of Levi’s so tightly it made me wince. It had all been hidden beneath the counter. How could I have known? I’d been too hasty. And now I was stuck with Maya for my next film, a film I hadn’t even planned yet. I’d just have to make sure to shoot her from the waist up.
“What kinda film you makin’?” she said outside, all excited now.
“Not sure yet. But with you, how can I miss?” I was trying hard not to stare at her thighs.
Maya beamed. “What’s it for?”
“The Cannes Film Festival.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Andy Warhol.”
* * *
I got a “B” on my Eagle film. “‘A’ for technical aspects,” Zwick wrote on his comment sheet. “The lighting was perfect. ‘C’ for conception: the slo-mo hurt the rhythm. ‘B’ for the film.”
I was ecstatic. A two hundred percent improvement! I had threaded the film, calibrated the light meter, and screwed in the lens all by myself, all without Larry who had to take his gorgeous girlfriend to the doctor.
I was climbing ze technical hump.
* * *
At this point in time I didn’t know I’d be making a film of my boyhood. The film I had in mind for the Cannes Film Festival was what Zwick called my “Cine-Tech 101 Wonder.” It was a combination of the films I was making in his course.
The idea came to me while watching a Bergman film at Beekman’s not long after I’d met Maya. I saw it all in a flash, and it would use every foot of film I’d already shot plus the new roll allotted for the assignment.
Our third film was to be a directed film. Here we could control the action, direct
the actors, and make significant weighty statements. In the Bergman film, Liv Ullman went running through a field. I saw Maya running (in waist high grass).
The story came quickly. The pretty checkout girl at the local Waldbaum’s mourns the recent death of a loved one—father, brother, lover (on purpose we don’t make it clear). She visits his grave after work and then repairs to a serene and natural setting for solace. Out of focus graveyard shots show the confusion in her mind. It was fall now, November, and the season itself would reflect the melancholy mood of the film.
I took Maya out to Green-Wood Cemetery. Larry came too. I only wanted him for one shot with his own camera—a single still photo of Maya looking down sadly at a gravestone, shot from behind the stone so the name (along with her thighs) was hidden.
Larry was inspired. I figured I’d have him blow up his shot to an 8x10. Then I could film it back in the studio, pinning it to the wall and shooting it from a tripod close up. It was all much easier than freeze-framing—the endless duplication in the lab of a single frame of film, a technique reserved for Cine-Tech 102. I figured the lone still shot would lend the film an air of poignancy.
I dismissed Larry after his photo and sent him home to his darkroom and his lovely girlfriend. “By the way,” he said in parting, “she’s pregnant. Let me know how your film turns out.”
“Will do.” Then I took one long lyrical shot of Maya running through the graveyard directly at the camera, screaming and flailing her arms in classic grief. I shot it in slow motion thinking, “Fuck you, Zwick. I’ll get the rhythm right.”
In my head I tried out different tunes—from the Beatles to Bolero—while Maya ran at me screaming like a sixth grader at a snake. I focused on her head and arms.
Then we moved over to Sylvan Water, where brown leaves, so symbolic of death,
were falling from a nearby grove of trees. I instructed Maya to walk to the shore, pick up a fluttering leaf, and set it gently in the water, where, like a somber boat, it would be borne out to the little lake beyond—like her father-brother-lover crossing the bar.
And as Maya walked back whence she had come, she turned once more for a last look at the scene, the breeze spread her curly black hair, and—the look on her face wasn’t sad enough. Just sort of cute. I knew then I’d need some heavy music before the credits.
* * *
Zwick gave the film a “B”. “The story line’s not clear,” he wrote. “There are no bridging shots. It’s like three separate films. The girl is happy in the supermarket. Then we see her sad in the graveyard with no transition. She’s not right for your story. The best shot is at the end, when she looks back. She looks good there. You should have built your film around that look.”
I concluded that Zwick had no imagination.
* * *
Maya loved the film. She wanted to make another. I told her I’d used up all the film the course allowed me. The semester was ending. I didn’t tell her I’d signed up for Cine-Tech 102. There we would learn freeze-framing, dissolves, fade-in’s and fade-out’s, sync sound and lip sync (until now my sound had been played on an accompanying cassette), and A & B roll printing—all the assorted mysteries that produce the magical effects on the silver screen, the technical camel’s second hump. But I shan’t bore you with how I mastered them. Suffice it to say that I did.
And I did, finally, get an “A” out of Zwick. The film that did it was the
masterpiece my film of Maya should have been. And for this one I never touched a
All second semester, when in the editing room, I picked up scraps of film thrown away by other filmmakers. The editing room closed each night at ten o’clock. Each day I’d show up at nine-thirty and grab pieces of film from the wastebaskets at the twelve editing stations. This began as an editing exercise for practice in splicing film, a hassle that involves cutting the film, scraping off the emulsion with a razor blade, applying glue, and sticking it all back together again. I did it daily to master the technique, so my films would stop falling apart in the projector.
One day, just for fun, I ran the film to see what I had. To my surprise the random shots fell into rough patterns. There were shots of a Circle Line tour boat, a black girl throwing a rose into the East River, a man playing with a dog, cars in a junk yard, a record player, a wheelchair on its side (one wheel spinning), a man raking leaves (spliced in upside down), a bulldozer, a collapsing geodesic dome, a student giving the camera the finger, a little boy with a dirty face, the foyer of the library, a still shot of a Playboy centerfold, desks in a classroom—and on and on.
I added loud rock music and called the film Garbage Cannes.
Zwick raved. “It’s life!” he wrote. “So many slices of life!”
I’d made my best film from the scraps of other filmmakers.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere, Aggie.