Tuesday, January 20, 2009


January 20, 2009

On one of my first jobs, working as a PA and part time sound man on a cinema verite documentary about a theater company traveling across America, I was struck, on my first day on location, by the action - or inaction - of the director. I was 26 and quite full of myself, full of ideas, full of imagined brilliance waiting to be unleashed upon the world...

I met the theater company in Northern Virginia late one morning, and I arrived as they prepared for an outdoor rehearsal, at a high school. The film's director, a really nice man and my employer after all, was walking around with the camera, shooting a conversation between a couple of the characters, but after a few moments, he sighed somewhat disgustedly, turned the camera off, and took the heavy thing off his shoulder. He stretched his arms up, his back clearly aching, obviously frustrated by what he had just been filming.

I looked out at the field, the 30 or so actors and technicians preparing for their day, in the midst of a grand summer-long adventure. I spotted two of them carrying on an intense conversation while moving scenery across the football field. I poked the Director and pointed them out to him - let's go film that. He took a quick, dismissive look, shrugged and shook his head, and said, "Boring."

To say that I was astonished would not capture the depth of my horror, or my immediate loathing for this block-headed man. (I cared not at all that it was hot, that the camera was probably thirty pounds, that none of the five characters he had chosen to be the focus of the film were in the conversation I was pointing to...) All I could see was his idiocy, his stubborn close-mindedness. Wasn't the point of a cinema verite documentary to stay open to whatever happened, to follow the story wherever it took you? What about all that crap he, The Director himself, had told me in hiring me about the film being a 'voyage of discovery?' How can you discover something if you don't even set out to find it? Get the camera off the ground, you lazy shit!

A few years later, I landed prematurely in a position of responsibility on another documentary, this one about John F. Kennedy. It was a two hour biographical film portrait, and, determined to make a well-trod subject fresh, we'd chosen to tell the story using strictly voice over interviews with archival footage. On the project, we had an Associate Producer who had been brought in to help find archival footage from the various archival houses around the country. She was bright and sharp and clearly knew her stuff. But what she did, invariably, maybe three or four times a day, was to say, "The way we did it at X was..." and then proceed to tell us all how they had done some similar task in her previous job. I resisted the urge to say to her, "Oh, really, they did it that way the last time you were doing a 2 hour voice-over-only documentary biography of John F. Kennedy?"

But finally, I'd had enough. I went into my office, took out an index card and wrote in big block capital letters a motto, to remind everyone, and really myself, that when we make something, part of the reason we are making it is, in fact, that we want that sense of newness; we want an audience to feel and think in ways they haven't before. I hung the motto in the editing room where I knew she, and everyone, would see it, and proudly, somewhat haughtily, went on with the business of making the film.

Over the years, I actually hung the motto again in a few other editing rooms, and even after opening my own company eight years back, I would remind various editors and producers of it from time to time -- but I think that age and a certain embarrassment caused me to drop it from my repertoire.

The fact is, it is extremely helpful when making things to know the formats, the structures, and the rules by which other things have been made before. And as much as we might all wish to be the great avant garde artistes of our day, a certain maturation process had better kick in at some point, an ability to reconcile the demands of Commerce and Art, especially if one wishes, for example, to live in Manhattan, have children, and send them to private school. (Just as a for instance.)

But why not balance the two? Retain the reminder that we are here for inspiration, for the madness and illogic of the never-before-expressed -- while also remembering that we work in a Society, after all, and that it is Society which will dictate whether and how much bread we get to eat? Surely these are not irreconcilable views, and in fact when they synthesize, we can have a life of beauty and power....

Because when you see someone dare to live this way, to speak this way, to act so incredibly sanely and soberly, while at the same time embodying, with every ounce of his intelligent fiber, the greatest, most revolutionary political act in decades -- and you see this man's effort succeed and inspire...

Today, the motto returns to the bulletin board.


Anonymous said...

I am glad to know from your previous column that you have matured but reading between the lines, it seems that maybe, just maybe, you are trying to convince yourself that maturity means compromise. And I don't think that you believe that. While a film needs structure and (maybe) connections with older traditions, making the audience feel something new is really all about risk-taking and originality. Since you have both, plus this connection with the past, no need to suggest that putting bread on the table negates any risk-taking. I think you know that.
Personna grata

Anonymous said...

I would like to revise my previous comment if it in fact actually appears. I thought it would be attached to the first column so I referred to your previous one, meaning This Film has not been made before. I don't think that to say something new you necessarily have to take a risk but you do have to be original -- in the sense that your eye and your way of transmitting what you see is unique to you. Now if you are worried about the Challah, that is another story.

Anonymous said...

A Quotation for consideration.

"Art may be at its most powerful – and most uncomfortable for authoritarians of all
stripes – when it orchestrates perplexity, fails to conform to what you already know, and instead sends you away temporarily disoriented but newly attuned to experience in ways that are perhaps even more powerful, because
they are vague, rogue, and indeterminate. … To choose the known and given over the invented and strange, to suppose firm the barrier between what we are inside and what we have yet to learn, is simply to mistake prejudice for
wisdom, and to concede that we have stopped growing. …" 3

3 “Curator Varnedoe: Art at Its Most Powerful Can Induce Disorientation,Perplexity,” The Stanford Campus Report (June 17, 1992): 13.

Nick said...

That is a great quote, Anny Nonymous. Thank you.

It's a terrific struggle, reconciling Art and Commerce - but always good to be reminded of what got us into it in the first place.

Anonymous said...

OK, it's late and I've been reading too long but come on, already. What was the motto?

Nick said...

Sorry, thought the title of the post made it clear. The motto is: "This Film Has Not Been Made Before."