Kodachrome Life

My girlfriend surprised me with an early Christmas present the other day: a vintage Kodak Instamatic M2 movie camera from the mid-60s. The estate sale she’d bought it from included a similarly vintage indoor lighting kit and a projector for home viewing after you’d gotten the super 8 cartridge processed at a photo lab. I’d once shot in 16 mm on a Bolex back when I was a film student, but I’d never shot on super 8 before even though I’d always wanted to. I mentioned it in passing once, and she remembered. Just a really, really good gift.

Inside the box the camera and assorted gear came in, there was a small metal box. I guess the estate sale people didn’t notice it, because they never mentioned it to my girlfriend, and she didn’t even know it was in there until I started rooting around and found it under the projector.

Inside the small metal box were a collection of film spools. Picking one up and holding it to the light, I could tell it was already processed, but it was hard to make out what was on the film. I found a YouTube instructional on that model of film projector, managed to locate a pdf scan of the original manual. I spooled the old super 8 film on the projector and set it against the wall for my girlfriend and I to watch.

It was scratchy at first, blown out in spots, but I chalked that up to the film’s age. But it kept happening, over and over. Almost like a pattern. Clear, vivid shots of blue sky sliced by cirrus, wispy, curling, like ethereal hair, then darkness, scratched film, and color flickering by one frame at a time, accumulating shape and weight like painted cells from a bygone era where color film was hand-colored. And I realized that that’s what this was. We were watching the work of a visual artist.

Miasmas of color gave way to eruptions of pitted black, simulated static from strategic distortions of celluloid. Then figures, maybe human, definitely moving, almost imperceptibly slow, but then with sudden, sped-up writhing, close-ups of grotesques and detailed makeup that seemed almost anachronistic for how vivid and real it seemed to be, how modern. This film had to be decades old, but it seemed fresh–hard-edged. There were elaborate stagings of musicals kept silent in the film, then abrupt cuts to sidewalks and streets, the camera sometimes placed on the ground perilously close to passing tires as cars rolled by and over it. Frenetic hyper-fast cuts of neighborhoods as they looked 60 years ago, the passersby and their fashions, the cars they drove the only giveaway that this film was made that long ago.

I dug around for his name, or for titles scrawled on film tins, but there was nothing. This was some of the best experimental work I’d seen on film, and by all accounts, its filmmaker lived without ever finding much recognition, if any. A lifetime of work, relegated to a cardboard box that can be sold after you die.

I started cataloguing as I waited for the new film cartridge I’d ordered to come in. I tried finding his name out later, but everything turned up a blank. So, for the time being, I catalogued the work under the name John Doe.

In time, I had over a dozen short films catalogued with runtimes, brief summaries, and considerations of artistic merit. I suggested titles where appropriate and went ahead and paid a company to make digital copies for posterity. I wanted to have a positive ID on the guy before I started sharing his work on the internet, but I never did find out his name. Either way, his work found a footing early on, the older folks considering him a peer of Stan Brakhage, and younger people noting the logical progression from work like his to people like David Firth and Jack Stauber. It was incredible to see the explosion of interest, the way this thing seemed to take on a life of its own.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do–I mean what I really wanted do with my life there for a while. But when that package came in and I opened it, when I loaded that fresh, first film cartridge into my Instamatic, I knew.

FADE IN & FADE OUT

I guess one of the things that’s fucking me up is that I’m supposed to be some mentor figure, some example, I’ve got the office hours and everything, but most days I’m just trying to get through without drinking too much, or if I am drinking too much, then without it showing.

I started out adjunct, shit pay, enough where I had to settle for the rotgut at the convenience store before I could afford the good stuff. I guess they were impressed by the fact that I kept shooting, that I was teaching filmmaking while still making films, like that was some exceptional thing, as if I had a choice. Because, truth is, I drink a lot, but I’d drink a lot more if I couldn’t make movies.

All the classes I teach are things I learned out of necessity, pretty much. Writing on a strict schedule (because I couldn’t afford to dick around), studying acting tech (because I’d often have to act in my own films starting out), microbudget filmmaking (that one’s obvious).

I didn’t have the luxury of film school, so I created my own with early internet forums and bootleg software and library late fees. I learned how to write screenplays by reading and writing screenplays. I submitted to contests, and I lost every one, but I got some encouraging notes once, when I scrounged up enough for the extra fee for guaranteed notes, and there was no way for that anonymous reader to know that the contents of their notes would decide my future, that I was just about to give it all up until I read that encouragement, until I realized that my scripts weren’t bad, they just weren’t yet as good as the other scripts. And that’s just something you have to learn by doing.

I get up around noon most days, tell myself it’s because my first classes don’t start until later anyway, but it’s really to allow myself time and space to nurse the inevitable hangovers. I don’t know. I’ll sit at home, in my chair, for hours sometimes, and just bite at my nails. I’ll bite till they bleed, till my fingers hurt when I wash my hands. I can tell that I’m changing.

I try to write something every day, even if I end up hating it, even if it’s shit. I’ll jot things down on paper first, even with the pain in my fingers from the pressure of gripping the pen, because it’s a different process, writing versus typing. I drink every day now, I guess.

One thing that’s interesting is to stay up past the effects of caffeine from earlier that morning, past alcohol when I get home and past the melatonin to help get me to sleep. To watch that liminal part of the brain start to take over. The part that makes you dream and keeps you there. I’ll sit down like that, and I’ll keep my eyes open, and I’ll look at things without actually seeing them.

I want to write something big, and bold, and dangerous. Something real. I want there to be something left of me when I’m gone.

On nights like this, working past the sleep, I’ll see only the transitions of a screenplay as I write, only the cues meant to begin and end, the FADE IN & FADE OUT that I guess is going on all around me. I write past these things. I write through them.

 

Featured Image

Moving Pictures

Cigarette smoke filling in from out of frame, an ’80s filmic haze accentuated by a smoke break on a movie set, hair as big as her dreams as she reads her lines to her warped reflection in a pink-tiled wall, knowing that the plan is for her singing parts to be dubbed over in post but still hoping that the director will change his mind when he hears her sing, I mean really sing, not like she sang in the audition room, where her nerves messed with her pitch and she was too breathy but where she otherwise nailed the look, sound, and movement of the character. Up till now, they’d filmed a few of the final numbers, songs where her character was singing with much of the rest of the cast, where her vocals weren’t an issue anyway. But soon, just after this smoke break in fact, she was set to belt out her first solo. And the director told her to go for it when she asked if she could really sing it in the take. He didn’t exactly finish by saying that they’d just fix it in post, but the implication was there, that was certain.

The production has that New Wave feel that’s just now starting to come up, and she can almost see future shadowcasts playing her in sticky-floored auditoriums at midnight showings. Stranger things have happened, anyway. Everyone told her she’d fall flat after dropping her first agent, but that turned out to be just the push she needed to really put herself out there. Now she’s freezing her ass off in an on-set location with no heating in the middle of winter with next to nothing in the bank, but at least she’s living out her dream, right here, with tinny audio playback to get the timing right, wearing makeup and costumes she doesn’t think she’ll be able to afford even after she makes it big, which, let’s face it, if it isn’t this film that makes her a star then it’s just never going to happen, is it, and she has to push this thought away as she sings contralto in a corner, flipping script pages and letting the cherry of her cigarette burn perilously close to her fingers, holding the hand up, out, and canted on an angle like she saw in all those glamorous old pictures in the movie magazines as a little girl.

Her nerves are such that she has to periodically wipe her hands on something to keep them from soaking the script she’s holding, trying to remember not to wipe them on this expensive costume but more often than not forgetting, and so she’ll interrupt her own tiny-voice singing to swear at herself for ruining this totally bitching costume, sweating off her makeup and trying to convince herself that it’s fine, she’ll do a Nina Hagen thing, when in reality she knows she’s a mess, her nerves are shot, and it’s to the point where she needs a fifth of vodka every night just to get to sleep for the next day’s shoot.

She takes polaroids of her life on set and attaches them to postcards, sends them back to Kansas so Mother and Father can see just how big she’s made it, so there will be no doubt in their minds that their daughter has Made It and is Going Places. She’ll take these polaroids before going to the next party, her castmates treating every wrapped day like it’s a wrapped shoot, and she’ll take this powder she’s given at these parties, inhale this powder that she can only have at these parties because she couldn’t possibly afford to keep up a habit like that on her own, and she’ll catch her face in the mirror sometimes after one of these parties, try to avoid seeing it but sometimes do it anyway. She doesn’t like seeing her face most nights.

But here she is, turning the page, then putting the script down, getting the blocking right, seeing her movement in the frame before it happens, knowing every facial expression, every vocal flutter, all of it perfect, just as it’s scripted, a performance that’s apart from this long string of nights, that will transcend all of that, she can feel it, and her head is spinning from something, don’t know what but it is, and the mood in the room is shifting, the final preparations are being made, and she’s about to be summoned, will hit her mark and sing this song like she’s never sung it before, to the point where the director will have no choice but to keep her vocals in the film, she will so totally embody the performance that to segment it at all would ruin the whole thing.

She turns, and she walks, and she moves to a staccato beat in her head to where she needs to be, a true moving picture.