Digital Times

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Recently, three places that I thought of as New York institutions closed: Kim’s Video, J&R Music and Computer World, and Pearl Paint. A large part of their closing was due to the absurd skyrocketing of New York real estate — basically, the greed of landlords looking to get rich and not giving a shit about the families or businesses or lives or perhaps even the character of an entire city, if you want to get hyperbolic, that they’re destroying in the process. But I and others have written about this already and I don’t want to hash and rehash those sentiments. There’s another side to this story that interests me.  

I doubt anyone was surprised by the closing of Kim’s. Kim’s Video was a place where you could find obscure films of all sorts, so it was a great resource for cinephiles and film students. It has a particular place in my heart because I lived in the Village for my first five years in New York, when I was a film student, and the couple of Kim’s locations I frequented there (apparently there were six at the store’s height of popularity, with the Avenue A location most legendary for its snarkiness) were in many ways responsible for my cinematic education — more so than most of my lousy professors at NYU. And yet this demise seemed inevitable. Who goes to the video store any more? Aside from those still watching cable, pretty much everyone streams their content these days unless they need something that’s only available on DVD — and then they use Netflix, or maybe go to the library if their library is good, or purchase it online. But soon, all video is going to be available digitally or not available at all.

As for J&R, it had been declining for many years as well. Having started out as a basement record store in 1971 founded by Joseph and Rachelle Friedman, J&R had expanded, by the ‘80s, into a record “superstore,” with several storefronts that took over Park Row in the City Hall area of Manhattan — one for Classical, one for Rock and Pop, one for Latin and World Music, etc. My dad used to shop there when we drove into the city on weekends to see my grandparents, and I came to appreciate the place when I developed into a pop-music-obsessed teenager and discovered you could get virtually any album there for $5.99 or less. In the ‘90s and ’00s, the decline of the LP and then the CD hurt all music stores, but while Tower Records went under in 2006, J&R managed to survive by moving more heavily into electronics and computers, morphing into J&R Music and Computer World. Even in that line, however, the store found itself battling a deadly trifecta: the damage to the economy of first 9/11 and then the recession, the competition of Big Box retailers like Best Buy, and finally, online sales. Unlike its also-Jewish-couple-inspired-initials-named cousin, camera/electronics superstore B&H, J&R seems never to have developed a really successful online business — or maybe it just didn’t have the efficiency of those conveyor belts. Whatever the reason, B&H seems to be surviving while J&R is gone. 

The end of Pearl Paint seems, to me, particularly sad, because it was a place that catered to the needs of creators more than consumers. It was an art supply mecca, with six floors of every tool and material, as well as knowledgeable staff who were themselves resources for the artists who shopped there. One specific time I remember visiting there was when I was going to have photographs displayed in a café in Park Slope. At the time — I think it was 1997 but I’m not really sure (more on that later) — I was living in a three story house there and had built my own darkroom in the basement where I made black and white prints, mostly from the hundreds of photographs I’d taken on a three-week trip cross-country with friends. I was excited about having the opportunity to show the pictures, but it meant I had to figure out a cheap and not entirely half-assed way to hang about forty 8×10 photographs. “Binder clips,” an artist friend of mine suggested, “and Pearl Paint.” So I went to an office supply store (that also no longer exists) and bought a couple of pounds of binder clips, and at Pearl Paint I found black poster board for mounting, sheets of plastic to cover the photos, and a roll of fishing line to hang everything — all for an amount a nonunion freelancer could afford to spend on something that wasn’t going to make any money. Creativity and a little labor was all it took. Now, of course, I do all my photo work digitally, and that’s also mainly how I display it — and I think that’s true of a growing number of artists. The people who still create and hang with their hands and need the supplies for that can find them cheaply and easily online. Of course, if you’re in the middle of a painting and run out of burnt umber, you’re screwed, but other than that, you can probably get most of what you need these days, even in terms of advice, from online art supply stores or eBay or forums or list-serves of like-minded artists, without talking to a human being or leaving the house.

So what’s the point of all this, you might say, other than providing myself with a good nostalgia waah? I am obviously not against technology. I need it, and I also like it. I get sick of hearing people, especially people my age who are really not old enough to be crotchety, complain about it all the time – “those damn kids who never play outside because they’re playing games on their DS’s,” “darned hipsters always looking at their cell phones,” “all this texting!” blah blah blah – as if we could go back, even if we wanted to (and I never really liked talking on the phone so I’m overjoyed that I can now text basically everyone except my parents). While I don’t get as excited about every new toy that comes out as some (read: my husband, who last week got an iPad Air 2 and an iPhone 6+), I do try to keep up with the possibilities opened up to us by each new shiny and the things it can do. I love that there are still places we haven’t been in media and storytelling and concepts we can barely wrap our heads around yet because they are still being invented. That’s thrilling to me. 

But that doesn’t mean that I think, just because the technology is moving this fast, that we shouldn’t take the time to give more thought to where it’s taking us. So much is changing. I feel like I missed the moment when it basically stopped being necessary to buy music, when the very concept of ownership of it changed. I will probably never buy another album or song, ever, because I can listen to basically everything I’d want, any time, on a music service like Beats or Spotify. That, in itself, is kind of huge. What are the implications? I don’t know, and I feel like I should have figured it out before I made that leap — but it’s already happened. And what about the slow death of newspapers and books, and now of broadcast television? We all kind of know this has all been en route, with online news sources and the Kindle and TiVo and streaming all the variations thereof, but it doesn’t seem like people are really preparing for what’s next, and how it’s going to change us. Because all of these changes change us too. I’m not sure we realize how much of who we are and our culture and our habits and our day-to-day revolve around media. Until recently, most of us in the US were on a similar schedule where we all read the paper, went to school/work, came home, ate dinner, listened to and watched what was on radio and tv and talked about it the next day. Now, we work from home, read and attend classes online, watch whatever whenever wherever streaming to our mobile devices – there always seems to be more we can be doing and consuming, and all at the same time. We see the little changes this causes – getting spoilered on Facebook and Twitter because we get all of our news on Facebook and Twitter as well as memes and videos on Facebook and Twitter that start global trends – everything Facebook and Twitter, basically, the rise and rise and rise of social media is one big component of all this. But for who we are and how we behave, the rise of the digital means…what, exactly? There’s a lot of talk of guidelines for good digital citizenship or “netiquette,” which is basically just following the rules of how you should treat people that we all know but somehow think we can get around in the faceless online world, but is that just the inevitable result of the ability to easily forget that we are all human beings when all we see are words — which are really just zeros and ones — on a screen? 

So it’s not just New York that has changed, or the way those who live here create, or consume, or communicate. It’s all of that, to the point that we’ve altered the way we live, and not just here, but everywhere. I don’t care about the loss of things being replaced by new things. Sure, I miss the feel of a paperback’s pages, or the sound of static on a record, but that’s really because they remind me of a time and place and a person who I once was. Though even that, my memory, is different now, in an era where I don’t need to remember phone numbers or the best way to get somewhere or what happened on a particular day, because I now have all of that stored in my pocket instead of in my head. And if texting and all forms of online conversation instead of talking feeds the introverted side of me that likes to deal with actual people less, how am I different then? Who is this new person? Do I like her? How well do I even know her?

But who has the time to ask these questions when we all have so much to do? 

Closure Shmosure

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A few years ago, someone I enjoyed working with stopped hiring me, and I felt kind of crappy about it. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, mind you. Contrary to what you might think from reading this blog, I am not the best or most popular boom operator in the world. I can be cranky and I fuck up from time to time. Even if I were perfect, it’s in the nature of freelance work that people who work together for many hours on end for long periods of time do tend to get sick of each other and break up eventually. But even less so than when it’s a personal relationship, people generally don’t feel like they need to let you know this is what’s happening – probably because the film world is a world of guys. So, as guys do, they just stop calling, and it’s just as shitty as when a guy you’re dating stops calling, except on top of feeling rejected and worthless, you also now have no income. 

Sometimes, as with personal relationships, the reasons are extremely obvious: you weren’t their first choice in the first place, and the “old girlfriend” came back when they finished the Wes Anderson movie they went off to do or whatever; you didn’t really mesh in terms of personalities or work styles and your working relationship was always a bit awkward and not really much of a “relationship” to begin with but just something that happened because he or she needed someone and you were available, basically the occupational equivalent of “fuck buddies”; or your professional relationship was a love-hate drama from the beginning, and you finally had that big fight where you, oh, maybe lost your shit and told the person that they were a jerk and impossible to work with (not that I have ever done this…). My problem, though, is that even when the reasons should be clear, I still want closure, just like I do in my personal relationships. For instance, I had someone who I worked with who always wanted me to look like I was working, and so didn’t like me to read on set (this was before the smartphone, but I’m sure that would also have been off-limits). I get that part of certain jobs is to always pretend you’re busy, but I’ve always avoided those types of jobs because they happen in offices and they suck, and working on set isn’t one of them. The way film production works is that everyone has a job to do, but a lot of those jobs can’t happen until other people do their jobs, so it’s just a reality that people tend to work in stages rather than all at the same time. Plus, this person apparently thought that when the standard was applied to him, discussing baseball with other crew members or smoking outside, which occasionally meant he wasn’t there when they called “Roll sound!”, was “working.” So my response was, “Look, as far as I can tell, my reading on set isn’t affecting the way I do my job. But if you think that it is, you can just not hire me.” And this conversation went on for years until he called less and less, and then one day, I realized he’d actually stopped calling. So, naturally, I just had to go and call him up and ask what the deal was.

“Well, I told you I didn’t like it when you read on set, and you kept doing it. And the last job we did together, you were sitting right next to me reading your mail. So now, you’re at the bottom of my list.”

“But look, I —“

“You’re at the bottom of my list.”

I learned from this experience not to call up the boss who stops calling you, because really, nothing good can come of it. At least in the personal world, you and the guy you were sleeping with who stops calling probably actually can avoid each other forever from now on, so calling him up and having a painful conversation where he confirms that indeed he is not calling you for a reason, that reason being that he doesn’t want to date you, can provide some closure without too much future awkwardness. There is, on the other hand, a very good chance you will run into the person you broke up with professionally at some point in time, and in fact, there’s a decent chance they may actually have a change of heart/get desperate, and decide to hire you again. But this can only happen as long as you haven’t called them up to rehash what happened between you, thereby making what you don’t like about each other concrete enough that neither of you can have convenient amnesia about it down the line. So the upside is, it may all eventually actually go away, but the downside is, you may have to go for a very long time, perhaps forever, without any closure.

“Closure smosure!” you might say. “Just let it go.” Well, for one thing, because I’m obsessive, I like to deal with problems right away, before they have time to fester. Also, maybe because 1) I’m a woman and 2) I’m Jewish and 3) I’ve been through lots of therapy, I tend to think that talking about one’s feelings is a good thing, or if not good, then at least necessary. This adds up to me being lousy at just letting it all go.

So with the boss who’d stopped hiring me a few years ago, I struggled. I swore I wasn’t going to call and try to find out what had happened (although I still did think through, like an idiot, all of the possible conversations we might have, just to completely be sure that it would be a terrible idea), but I still couldn’t stop wondering, mainly because he’d been so extravagant in his praise of my work. After every shot, it was, “Nice one,” or “Excellent job!” The last day we’d worked together had been no different — and I knew this because I’d obsessed over it, analyzing it and reanalyzing it, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Yes, I’d made a few mistakes, as usual, but he’d been just as extravagant in excusing them: “Don’t worry about that, it was fine,” or, when I’d butted heads with someone else on set, “He’s an asshole, don’t listen to him.”

But then, once I’d finally stopped thinking about it, he hired me again out of the blue – and I finally figured it out. What I’d made the mistake in thinking wasn’t that I’d done anything wrong, but that I’d done anything particularly right. This time, I noticed that he praised everyone’s work extravagantly. Moreover, I realized from the way he complained about other people he’d worked for that this was because it was the way he wanted to be treated. So he liked working with me okay, but not more than he liked working with other people, and so he’d hired those other people instead for a while – it was as simple as that. I finally had closure, although it wasn’t particularly satisfying: while I thought I’d been at the center of some drama, basically nothing had actually happened, and whatever had happened didn’t have much of anything to do with me.

I hope I remember this the next time someone stops calling, or some new person I meet doesn’t seem to want to be my friend (I have enough friends, yet I can somehow still be hurt when someone acts like they don’t give a crap if they are mine), or I get yet another rejection letter, or don’t even get a rejection letter because whoever it was couldn’t be bothered (which is just shitty, by the way), but of course I probably won’t. Creative control freaks like myself tend to take everything personally, as if we actually can do something about every little thing that happens to us. Even at my age, when I should know better, it’s hard to let go of the idea that you can can CAN make life turn out the way you want if you just try hard enough. Problem is, there are always going to be other people involved who gum up the works with their own silly ideas about who they are, what they want, and what’s actually going on. The only thing you really can control is the closure, by giving it to yourself.

Which is not to say you’re off the hook if you work-dump me, but don’t worry, I won’t be calling you up looking for answers. I’ll be letting it go. Really. No, really.

Anger is a Drug

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It’s been an angry few weeks in America, particularly America on the Internet. FergusonFerguson’s coverage in the mainstream press and the reactions to both on Twitter (and the newly discovered phenomenon, at least by white America, of Black Twitter) and to a lesser degree Facebook and Tumblr. The rapid spread of Ebola in West Africa, the angry reaction of Medecins Sans Frontiers to the lack of response by other aid organizations to this and other crises, and the global media reaction of fear, hatred and “othering” toward immigrants. Then the misogynistic Internet attacks and death/rape threats directed at Anita Sarkeesian (a feminist cultural critic who has created a series of videos critiquing the portrayal of women in games) and Zoe Quinn (a female game developer whose pissed-off ex-boyfriend alleged that her cheating on him with a games journalist led to positive reviews for her games), all leading to the #gamergate word war on Twitter, where gamers allege that games journalists are corrupt “social justice warriors” and games journalists say that gamers are angry white sexist man-children who shouldn’t be allowed to claim control of an industry that belongs to everyone. Then there’s the posting of scores of hacked, stolen, personal nude photos of female celebrities on 4chan and elsewhere, and the reactions to that, and the reactions to the reactions. I could go on, but that’s enough to make it clear what I’m talking about. 

It’s not like I’ve been outside the rage fray on all this. I’ve been doing my own share of posting and reposting of articles on nearly all of these issues (as you can see above), because yeah, I’ve been pissed off about it all too. What liberal feminist woman in her right mind wouldn’t be? Plus, when I repost stuff, I feel like I’ve sharing something important that needs to be said/said again, and when people like or repost the things I post, I feel validated.  

Then, the other day, I reposted an opinion piece from the Washington Post on Facebook called, “Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress.” It was reposted twice: once by a Facebook friend who agreed with me, and once by one who didn’t — in fact, his point in reposting the piece was how ludicrous and wrong it was, and how it was, copying from his post verbatim, “definatelya liberal agenda driven article to insight racism.” Now, that’s an easy quote to dismiss as representative of everything that’s wrong with America right now, and it’s not lost on me that this person, from my perspective, represents exactly the type of “white rage” that that article is about. But at the same time, he’s someone I know personally; a young veteran of the war in Iraq who we filmed with for the documentary, we spent a lot of time with him and his family, seeing how difficult it was to come home from the war he’d fought for his country, which had affected him physically and emotionally, and try to reintegrate into civilian life in an economically depressed part of the country at the height of the recession. While it irks me to no end, I understand why he thinks the way he does, and there was a time when I actually thought maybe we weren’t going to end up on opposite sides of every issue — probably before I got into a Facebook battle with him over the 2nd Amendment and gun control — when I thought maybe somehow he’d read the things I posted from the New Yorker or The New York Times or the Huffington Post, actually give them some thought and come around. Hahahahaha. Instead, this was the second thing of mine that he reposted in order to show what terrible things the liberal agenda is pushing (the first one being, amazingly, a Fox News-attacking piece on Ferguson from The Daily Show How can anyone repost Jon Stewart and not find him irresistibly right???). So in the same way that I’m using this Facebook friend as an example of the angry white right, I’ve become his example of the angry left wingnut. Yay.

How’d we get here? I can jump to blame it (being me) predominantly on the anti-everything sentiment whipped up by the right, using minorities, immigrants, gay people, President Obama, the “War on Christmas,” you name it, as scapegoats for outrage which is essentially built on fear (go back and read that Washington Post piece if you didn’t). But the truth is, I think we’re feeling just as enraged on the left now too. We may not have the talk radio chorus of frenzy or the echo chamber of Fox behind us, or the towering fortresses of misogyny that are sectors of Reddit and 4chan; we might instead have the mass feedback loop of Twitter activism, Avaaz and MoveOn petitions, and the biting commentary of Rachel Maddow, HuffPo and Bitch magazine. But it doesn’t mean we can’t get worked up in the same way about Ferguson, Citizens United, the Keystone XL pipeline, Sandy Hook, Wal-mart, the Koch Brothers, etc etc etc, and want to yell loudly about it, OR AT LEAST USE CAPITAL LETTERS. It’s hard for me to go on Facebook or Twitter or read or listen to the news these days without getting pissed off. You can argue that it’s about time that the left got as worked up as the right, and that we need to finally get that pissed in order to fight back. But is all this crap on the internet actually fighting for something? 

I know that, for me, anger is easy. It’s a place that I just go sometimes if I’m not careful, and not always with that much provocation. I’ve got some temper genes on both sides of my family, of different varieties: my mother yells and gets it out of her system and my father stews. Unfortunately, I think I inherited some of each, because I can get to the yelling easily, but I can also let the rage get in my head and preoccupy me, to the point that it gets in the way of my day. I think getting older has contributed to this on the one hand, mainly thanks to bitterness and hormones, while therapy and Prozac and maturity/practice have helped counter it. Still, it’s hard for me to let go of a Twitter or Facebook battle, even one that I’m not taking part in but am just following. But if it is one that I’m personally involved in, look out. It takes over. The next rejoinder, how to win, how much I want to just annihilate the other person with words and show them how stupid they are becomes all I can think about. 

And judging by what I see out there on social media, I’m far from the only one. Anger makes you feel powerful. It makes you feel right, and righteous. And posting something on the internet in reaction to your anger can make you feel like you’re doing something, and sometimes you are: at the very least, you’re expressing your rage, and likely passing it on to somebody else like a virus, getting them to share it or react to it with their own wrath. At worst, if you’re posting personal information or photos, or smears, or lies, or threats, as we’ve seen more and more people do these past few weeks it seems, you are doing real damage to somebody else (if you don’t believe me based on everything I’ve cited up to now, here’s another example). You may not be accomplishing much of anything else, but the Internet has become a really good way to hurt people. 

So maybe it’s time we all took our anger and got out of the house — and no, I don’t mean in order to bring it to the nearest bar fight. There’s an election coming up, and because control of the Senate hangs in the balance, it’s going to be important even though it’s a midterm. No matter which side you’re on (though I hope you’re on mine), you’ll be doing something more constructive with your ire if you channel it into going door-to-door to register voters. If you really just can’t pull yourself away from your computer or your phone, then instead of using them to post bile, make phone calls to get out the vote, or write your congressperson. And if you’re too pissed off at your elected officials to want to help any of them, then go to an issue protest or march or rally.

Hopefully, we can all find something we care about more than we care about being angry.

Notes From the Land of TV

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This summer has been slow for commercial work, so I’ve been spending a lot of time working in episodic television. It’s not a bad thing to do every once in a while. It reminds you that there are people out there making media that isn’t 100% designed to sell stuff. I mean, I know television is still about selling ad time, so it’s going to be at least 50%, and sometimes it is clearly 75-80%, especially when the product placement is super obvious: “You have access to everything in the Kenmore kitchen”; “Let me look it up on my Surface”; “You have half an hour to take your models to the L’Oreal Paris make-up room.” But someone somewhere in the process generally at least thinks they’re creating art. And that translates to the actors too — it’s actually nice for a change to watch some of them act. Not that commercial actors can’t be quite good, it’s just that having to pick up a French fry 75 times in a row in slightly different ways for reasons you don’t understand doesn’t really lend itself to creating an exemplar of the thespian arts. On the other hand, though, TV work is a bitch, distinctly more so than union movies and commercials. You’re often trying to shoot six to eight pages a day, as opposed to two or three on a feature and maybe one on a commercial. This means that the pace is rapid and the days are long — 13+ hours is common. Which is why I have been slacking on the blogging lately: several days in a row of TV work doesn’t leave room for much of anything else in your life other than sleeping and eating.

And thinking too much, of course. So here are some thoughts I’ve had about my time working in TV over the past 15 years.

1) Directors: in TV, the difference between a good director and a bad director is time. 

Directing is not easy, but directing TV is especially hard because you think you have artistic control but really, you have very little. Generally, you come in as a hired gun for an episode at a time, and you’re not there to be creative, you’re there to do a job: make an episode that basically looks like all the other episodes, and that cuts together without problems. Oh, and you’ll have to work faster than you’ve ever worked, and therefore make more compromises than you’ve probably ever had to make. So you have to know how to cover a scene without over-covering it, basically what you can get and what you have to get and the difference between the two. You also really have to know how to talk to actors, because generally, they know their characters and material better than you do, and you have very little time to try things out, so if you want to have even a chance in hell of getting them to make an adjustment, you’d better understand how to get them to listen to you. And you have to know how to work with your crew. They won’t expect you to be super friendly — you’re going to be too busy for that — but you have to know how to express to them what you’re trying to get, know when you’ve gotten it, and thank them at the end of the day. And most importantly, for any of the rest of that to happen, you have to know what you want. 

The directors I’ve worked with in TV over the years have really run the gamut. There were the British directors who took nine hours to shoot material that should have taken three, by adding shots that nobody could understand and doing multiple takes of them. (Why? Because when they shoot Downton Abbey, they’re used to a schedule where they break for tea every four hours? It’s a mystery). There were the husbands of the production execs who wanted to hear themselves talk just enough to add an extra hour or so to the day. And then there were the pros, who just came in, did their thing, cut their losses when necessary, thanked everyone, and went home. Of course, I can’t predict conclusively whose episodes are going to turn out best. But I will say that I’ve watched enough TV shows that I’ve worked on to know that when you use more shots than you need to tell the story, it gets cutty and confusing, and takes above four or five rarely get used (unless the actor was so exhausted that it simply took that long to get the line right). So you do the math.

2) Writers: make sure your script is finished before it’s time to shoot the episode.

I worked on a TV show many years ago where we were getting new pages an hour before we had to shoot them. It was crazy (and perhaps a sign that the writer was also the executive producer, which he was, and that show wasn’t going to survive, which it didn’t), but at least it meant that the writer was trying to get something right. Most of the writing for the shows I work on is fine, but when it’s not, it trickles down to affect everything. Writing cute and witty lines is easy. Even if your characters all sound the same, that’s generally something the audience will let slide because they’re so cute and witty (West Wing, anyone?). But what you can’t do is let them speak the subtext like they’re expositional title cards, because nobody talks like that. If your characters are constantly explaining things that no human being would ever be explaining either because you’re trying to make up for scenes that don’t exist or you don’t trust the audience to understand the context or follow the story, then you’re in trouble. In case you don’t know because you’re one of those L.A. writers who doesn’t fly out to New York to be there for the shoot, this leads to time-consuming on-set discussions with unhappy actors (because they know how human beings do and do not talk), more takes than you should have to do (because it’s hard to give a good performance of dialogue that doesn’t make sense), a slower day, etc etc. So please make sure your script is not just good enough but good before you send it to set.

3) ADs: your job is not just about “Picture’s up!”

It’s like a mantra: makethedaymakethedaymaketheday. But the way you make the day is not, in fact, by just pushing forward constantly and calling out “Picture’s up!” prematurely, as if doing that is going to magically make everyone ready to go when they aren’t. Your job is to make sure that everyone on set can do their job efficiently, and that doesn’t always mean that you just keep moving, in fact, it often means the opposite. For instance, it means that you take the time to plan out and inform the crew of where each department should set up their equipment. It means that you should take the time to make sure everyone knows when rehearsal is happening, so that everyone is there for rehearsal who needs to be there. It means you take the time to make sure that everyone knows you’re rolling and the lock up is really a lock up. Seems like common sense, I know, and most ADs basically get this right, but you’d be surprised how many seem not to understand that when you get these types of things wrong, that’s what kills your day. 

4) Crew people: don’t talk shit about your own department.

If you spend a lot of your time bitching at or complaining about the person you’re working with, I guarantee they probably have things to say about you that are just as bad if not worse. Plus, the more bad shit you say, the more the person you’re saying it to thinks less of you, rather than the person you’re complaining about. You should either stop hiring the person you’re complaining about or quit working for them, period. Otherwise, it starts to become clear that you are really on some level enjoying your sado-masochistic relationship, and this is how to like to work, which isn’t something that makes most sane people want to work with you.

5) Everyone: if you think it’s time for you to get out of the business, it probably is.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years with people who are pretty sick of what they do, and all conversation with them consists of variations how much their job stinks. Well, we all know the job stinks. We all know the hours are terrible, the food’s generally bad, things vacillate between boring and stressful, and the work itself can be back-breaking, frustrating, humiliating. You think this is news to anyone on this set? Right, so stop complaining about it. Even better, do what you’ve been threatening to do for the past 20 years and get out, or at least try. I know, believe me I know, it’s hard. It would mean massive changes in your life on all sides. Plus, if you couldn’t talk about the famous people you’ve worked with, the directors who love and always hire you (until they don’t), or your main topic of how much you hate your job, what would you talk about? But you might be happier. Unless, of course, being unhappy is what makes you happy. Which I think is true of many people who don’t know what it means to be happy, so being unhappy is the only thing that reminds them they are alive. 

This one, of course, applies to me. But at least I know it, and I am trying to do something about it, and instead of boring my colleagues with my complaints, I get to bore you. 🙂

Wasting Time

 

 

It’s August, the time of year when everything seems to move a little slower. Even here in New York, business quiets down, people leave town in droves, and those who stay even walk just a little slower in the heat (or maybe it’s just that the only people here are tourists, who walk slowly anyway). August would seem like the perfect time to waste time.

But even during these dog days, when I’m here in the city, I just can’t get down with that. As you can probably tell from reading this blog, there are no small number of things and people in the world that irritate me. But there’s not much that seems to make me more frustrated than when I feel someone or something is wasting my time. 

Being a New Yorker is full of weird contradictions when it comes to the concept of time. We are always overscheduled, trying to do many different things at once, going from appointment to appointment, in a hurry. We are the fastest-walking city in the U.S. (although a surprising 8th worldwide — I mean, seriously, how much could they have to rush to in Copenhagen?). We squish our way on to packed subway cars rather than wait for the next one and steal each other’s cabs. We are extremely impatient about service, especially at restaurants, and get fed up when our server is gone beyond the acceptable five to ten minutes. Overall, we simply hate to wait and feel simultaneously like we shouldn’t have to and that there’s so much going on at any given time that we can’t afford to — NYC has got to be the epicenter of FOMO. But at the same time, most New Yorkers are still famously willing to wait in crazy long lines for certain things. Pizza, Clubs and concerts, certain food trucks, the Shake Shack, a Cronut, a Cronut at the Shake Shack, art exhibits like the Rain Room at MOMA, or, rather ironically, Christian Marclay’s The Clock or the Rain Room at MOMA, etc etc etc. If people think it’s worth it — aka it’s trendy enough — New Yorkers will wait for it, for extraordinary amounts of time. 

This is where I draw my own personal line though: I really hate to wait. There’s pretty much always something else worth doing, that I could be doing, with my time. I do have a couple of exceptions. I’ve never been disappointed with a show at Shakespeare in the Park at the Public Theater, and waiting for that is kind of a summer ritual — you bring a blanket and brunch and something to read and you sit in the park (max time I will wait: three to four hours), and it’s actually somewhat pleasant. Then also, I’ll wait for the ferry to Governor’s Island for the Figment festival, known to some as the Festival of Hippies Doing Kooky “Art” While Biding Time Until the Next Burning Man, because it’s another fun summer thing to do and the line is never too long if you get there in the morning (max time I will wait: half an hour). So essentially, if it’s a unique experience and it’s free, I’ll consider it.

But if I feel like I’ve been cheated out of my time, beware, and this is fresh on my mind because this summer, it’s happened twice — TWICE. The first time, some friends were here from out of town to visit, and my other friend who lives here, on the Lower East Side, really wanted to take them to the new Russ & Daughters restaurant in her neighborhood. I get it, it’s something of an institution, and even though the hostess said the wait was going to be 2.5 hours, my friend was friends with the manager and he reassured her that it would only be half an hour. Well, it was 2.5 hours. They gave us some free food and a lot of free Bloody Marys and apologized profusely, but it still drove me absolutely batty. Not only were we all starving by the end, but I, at least, was acutely aware that my friends were only here for a short time and there was just so much to do. Plus, while the lox was excellent and varied and certainly a unique New York experience, I just couldn’t fathom food of any sort, let alone fish, being worth 2.5 hours of anyone’s time, let alone 2.5 hours of the time of six adults and one small child — a waste of, oh, 16-17.5 hours total, depending upon how you value, relatively, the time of a six-year-old. The second time just happened last weekend, when my husband and I went with a couple of friends and their baby to see St. Vincent at Celebrate Brooklyn. We arrived at the end of the very long line to enter CB at around 6:15 pm for the 7:30 show, and even though doors supposedly opened at 6:30, we didn’t get inside until around 8:00 — at which time, while the opening act was still performing, the lines for the bathrooms and the food were fully formed, and it was kind of hard to find a spot to place our blanket where we could actually see what was going on on more than one half of the stage. Again, the whole experience made me crazy. I couldn’t believe that this had happened to Celebrate Brooklyn, one of my favorite local series, which had never been this crowded before — who were all these people invading my borough and coming to my shows? But in addition to that frustration, and in spite of its being a beautiful night, it was hard to enjoy a show, despite my being cheap and its being free, when I had to ask if it had been worth nearly two hours of wasted time.

Of course, when you really think about it, you start to realize that this whole concept of having my time wasted that makes me so angry is somewhat arbitrary and bizarre. I mean, in both of the cases I mentioned above, I was with friends who I hadn’t seen in a while, hanging out, talking, enjoying their company — really, we would have been doing the same thing inside the venue that we were doing outside. And no matter where you are, even if you’re waiting for something like the food or the check at a restaurant, it should be the same: you’re there to enjoy the experience of being there, with the people you’re with, the food, the drinks, the atmosphere, and if there’s nowhere else you need to be, what’s the hurry?

I don’t think everyone in the world has this concept of wasting time, and certainly not with the intensity to which we – or at least I – cling to it here. I get a window into this sometimes when I travel. Of course when you’re traveling for pleasure, time hopefully means something different anyway — if you can get to that mindset. You have to shed not just the worries of work and home but the feeling of having to do things at particular times and cramming them all into a schedule, so you don’t miss anything, and that is not easy. Believe me, I’ve had those vacations too. But I think the best ones are the vacations when time loses its meaning, when you have some things you’d like to do, but you don’t care enough that you can’t also leave space for whatever just happens. And if you’re one of those people who has a really hard time letting go of time, sometimes it helps to go to places where you’re kind of forced into it. If you’ve never been to Europe in August, you haven’t seen a city really shut down. Plus, when you’re in Paris, or London or Rome, the layers of history you’re walking on top of are so apparent, it makes you realize what a small fraction of time the city of New York’s very existence composes, let alone one day in your own lifetime. Or if you stay on our side of the Atlantic, you often hear people talk about Island or Caribbean or Latin time, which basically just means that everything moves slower in those places and happens later in the evening, and lateness is more normal than not. This could be partly because people think of certain places as vacation spots where people drink piña coladas all day long, or because, in the Third World, transportation and bureaucratic infrastructure just don’t move with the same efficiency, and therefore everything that might depend on them just isn’t going to happen on time. But even in places where it could, like Buenos Aires for instance, people don’t seem to expect it to. And when you’re there, you start to wonder, why should you? What’s the point of worrying so much about something that isn’t, in fact, a currency, but really just a construct? In these places, you can start to feel like time isn’t, actually, something you need or want or use, but just something you live in and experience. Imagine that.

So when did time become my most precious commodity, the thing that I’m always trying to manage, that preoccupies and frustrates me continually? I’m sure it has something to do with getting older and realizing, in a real way, that my time is finite. But on a day-to-day basis, I am just always in a hurry, doing five different things at one time, having a hard time accomplishing any one of them. Between the work I do for money and the work I do in pursuit of future money and the work I do in pursuit of something else, there’s never really enough time. Then I have a husband, family, friends, Facebook friends, errands, chores, Carcassonne, all of which demand attention at least occasionally. 

But sometimes it’s good to remember that it’s August; that for the next couple of weeks, lots of people are on vacation and very little important is really going to get done; that the biggest waste of time is worrying about it, and that we’re all going to sweat if we walk too fast; and that somewhere in the world, for somebody, right now, time doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Zach Braff, And What It Means To Be An “Artist” In the Age of Kickstarter

 

 

A few weeks ago, Zach Braff’s second feature film, Wish I Was Here, was released into theaters. It wasn’t all that well reviewed (earning a 40% splat on the Tomato Meter and 43 out of 100 on Metacritic indicating “mixed or average reviews”), but that’s better than many of this summer’s movies. Nevertheless, it’s sparked way more discussion, much of it negative or nasty, than one would expect for a mediocre comedic second feature by a second-tier TV actor, even one whose first movie was a cult hit, in good part because of its soundtrack.

Those who have followed this story know that the reason Braff’s movie is getting so much attention is the Kickstarter crowd funding campaign he created to raise the money to make it — which is now mentioned in every article and review written about the film. The campaign created a huge backlash against him and his project, to the point where I’d imagine he probably regrets having raised that $2.6 million. The backlashers (including Kevin Smith) said that he should have paid for the film himself or via traditional film financing because by funding it through Kickstarter, he was taking money away from truly independent filmmakers and other artists for whom that method of funding was designed.

There are many hateable things about Zach Braff and his films — in fact, I was initially going to call this piece “Why We All Hate on Zach Braff,” but then I found a great blog post with almost exactly that title, which explains a lot of it really well. The main point this particular piece makes is that Braff is a navel-gazing white guy who has become the “face of crowd-sourcing entitlement” — in other words, someone who thinks he shouldn’t have to go the funding route that everyone else in Hollywood is forced to take because he is an artist and his voice is special. He also hasn’t fulfilled his obligations to the majority of his Kickstarter backers by sending them the measly t-shirts and posters and so on that they’re supposed to receive — despite the fact that the film is already in theaters and he and his team certainly could have done that by now — and he hasn’t exactly been apologetic about that, in fact, he’s been arrogant. But this might all be forgivable if Braff was the indie “artist” he thinks he is — in other words, if the new film he made was actually any good, and his voice actually was special, which, the blog takes pains to point out, it isn’t.

But let’s take a step back from the hating and break all of this down a little better. 

First of all, the Kickstarter backlash. I don’t really think Braff took money away from independents by going to Kickstarter, because I don’t think the money that went to him would have gone to other projects like, just for example, the 2011 Kickstarter for my documentary about the impact of the war in Iraq on the families of American soldiers. Not really the same audience, or the same reason for giving money — people gave us money because they were our friends and supporters, were interested in the work-in-progress they saw in the trailer, or were interested in the topic/issue, and I think that’s why most people give Kickstarter money to small films in general. While he absolutely said it for self-serving reasons, Braff is actually probably right that his campaign brought people to Kickstarter who wouldn’t have been there. Are the Zach Braff fans now going to look around the site and give money to documentaries and other, smaller projects? That’s anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly more possible than if they hadn’t gone there in the first place. So while I appreciate Kevin Smith’s honesty and integrity in recognizing that he’s had success and he should make use of that success, I don’t think the gain of Kevin Smith, or Zach Braff, adds up to my loss.

Next, the entitlement. Yep, Zach Braff is definitely an entitled white guy, and kind of a jerk in how un-self-aware he is about that. But our American pop culture world is chock full of entitled white guys, they pretty much created and define it. (Though some of them deserve credit for getting more self-aware, like Smith and Judd Apatow – whose support of Kristin Wiig and Lena Dunham has been an important factor in getting their work made – even if their own work, sadly, doesn’t necessarily reflect that). And when it comes right down to it, aren’t most artists, to one degree or another, navel-gazing narcissists? To decide to spend your life serving your own artistic vision and think it’s important enough that the world should support you in doing so, by allowing you to earn your living that way — that’s pretty much the definition of narcissism. And then if your artistic medium is film, you’re kind of even more of that, because you can’t just pick up a paintbrush or a pen and do it, you need all of this expensive shit, and at least a handful of (but often more like 50-300) other people to make it happen. To take all of that money and kind of stick it into your own navel? Now that’s entitlement. The only difference with an independent art film is that you think it’s art, not pure entertainment, not pure money-making, and you pretend not to care what anyone else thinks. Once again, that automatically kind of makes you a jerk. 

So coming back to the issue of art, the question then becomes, was it good? Or at least, will enough people agree with you that what you made was good, or at least worth it? Well, I haven’t seen Wish I Was Here, but it sounds like it’s a lot like Garden State – only people are just kind of over it now, because Garden State was ten years ago and Braff is essentially making the same, self-centered movie about himself and his problems now that he’s middle-aged and should know better. Given that, my reaction is kind of like, “Well, you knew what this guy did last time he decided to write, direct and star in his own film, what did you expect now that he’s more famous and successful, essentially because he’s been rewarded for being the dude who made that movie?” Plus, the situation was already skewed against the movie succeeding “artistically” in the media anyway, because Braff had essentially sold himself to the internet masses. When you’re a celebrity, you do kind of belong to the public, and when you’re a celebrity who directs and produces their own movie, you belong to your studio/investors. But when you’re a celebrity who starts a Kickstarter campaign, you belong to all the people who gave you money and everyone they know. You’re beholden to public opinion in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise be, because that public invested not just their money but their personal faith in your project. And because of that they feel what, exactly? Um, entitled perhaps? To some sort of connection to you, to pass judgment on your work, to some sort of payback. You can mitigate this and help people to think you are deserving by being humble and gracious and sending people the goods that you’ve promised them in a timely fashion. Well, Braff didn’t do that. He thought that he was making an independent film that would allow him to be just be the artist Zach Braff, or at least the one that he thinks he is. Alas, it’s not that simple, and he found that out the hard way. But going to Kickstarter to try to make something he thought was going to be true to his vision, and therefore, based on what everyone said about Garden State, good — can you blame him for that? 

Look, I have my own reasons to hate Zach Braff. For one thing, he went to my Maplewood, New Jersey high school (I was in the same class as his older brother) so I understand pretty well the type of comfortable and shallow suburban background that he comes from — and I don’t particularly like it, precisely because it was shallow and suburban. I also didn’t really think Garden State was very good to begin with, because it was pretty clear to me that it ultimately wasn’t about much of anything other than the self-pitying ennui of someone who was, well, shallow and suburban, and because Natalie Portman’s character in that film was one of the women for whom the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was literally invented (by film critic Nathan Rabin, to describe“that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”). Plus, as a filmmaker myself, let’s face it: I’m jealous and full of schadenfreude. Here’s a guy from my town who’s now a successful actor-writer-director — things I’d like to be (maybe not the actor part, but I guess if I wasn’t terrified of that I might desire it). And now, on top of that, he’s been able to raise money to make a second film through not just the means successful people traditionally have access to, like their own wealth and connections, but Kickstarter — the funding mechanism that’s supposed to belong to the rest of us, who aren’t known or successful — and he’s raised more money on it than any unsuccessful person could hope to do, precisely because he isn’t one of us. And then, he got money from traditional film financiers on top of that, something that is also incredibly hard for most of us filmmakers to do, because they won’t even look at low-level nobodies like us who can’t guarantee them a profit. Then, the fact that his film was going to go to Sundance and get picked up for distribution was basically a foregone conclusion, because he was already successful.

But as a filmmaker, I don’t like watching they guy get flayed for trying to do his own thing with whatever tools he’s got, essentially the money and power that we — and by we I don’t just mean the people who supported him on Kickstarter, but the public that supports the entire movie-making industry that gave birth to him and his ilk of auteurs — gave him. Deep down, we all might think we could be him and do it better than he does, without being such a dick about it, but the reality is, the American system of moviemaking made him that way and we’re a party to that. And you know what’s worse than vision-driven independent “artist” assholes? An industry that takes away all of their creative freedom in order to just make money. Maybe Braff isn’t entitled to artistic freedom any more than anyone else, but he also isn’t less entitled to it. And taking to Kickstarter because he wants the freedom to make a film the way we should all be allowed to make a film? I can’t begrudge him that. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to have to make movies for the rest of their life within the Hollywood system — even Zach Braff.

We have this powerful new tool of internet crowd funding to support the types of artists and media we think are meaningful. So let’s do that: support the artists and media we think are meaningful. Tearing down who and what we don’t doesn’t help any of us, and opens all artists up to similar questions and attacks regarding why any of us “need” or “deserve” artistic freedom. Maybe we don’t need or deserve it, but I’m not going to blame anybody for wanting it.

Regret vs. Repent

I worked a couple of nights last year on a commercial that was shot in and around a swanky but tacky (for which we decided to create a new term: swacky) hotel in the Meatpacking District. It was definitely a place for scenesters, not only because it had a cool, modern design and was in the Meatpacking District — by far the best part of town in which to spot drunk Europeans, it’s like their mating grounds — but because there were two nightclubs inside the hotel itself. Our crew was filming in the one on the penthouse floor part of the time, so it wasn’t open, but the one in the basement was. At around 4 am, we were stationed right outside the entrance to film some scene involving a guy walking past two gorgeous twins who were practically naked aside from their four-inch heels (it was, of course, a beer commercial), so we got to see a plethora of drunk/high people emerge from the place and try to make their way into cabs, limousines, or just shakily down the street and off into the night.

“Wow, do you remember what that was like?” Andrew, the sound mixer, at one point asked me. 

“You mean being drunk and belligerent?” I joked.**

“No, just…” he said, gesturing to group who seemed to be laughing hysterically at nothing and having a hard time staying upright because of it.

“You know,” I said thinking about it, “actually, no, not really. I never really let myself get to that point.”

“Oh,” he said. “You’re lucky.”

This led me to wonder, But am I really? When I was younger, I almost never got sick from drinking or felt hung over. I can only, in fact, remember three incidences. The first was the morning after my very first night out as a freshman at college, the night when I first experienced a frat party (well, several), and had way too much punch from a barrel at one labeled “Jungle Juice,” which turned out to be a combination of Kool Aid and Everclear. At the football game the next day (yeah, I was that kind of freshman: a joiner), I just couldn’t figure out what that horrible feeling was, sort of a headache and stomachache experienced simultaneously throughout my entire body, that made it really hard to tolerate all that sun and cheering. And so my first college learning experience was to largely avoid the JJ thereafter, and thereby skip such hangovers for most of the rest of my college career. Except for one night during my quarter abroad, when our residence of 45 American students had a massive house party involving hard alcohol of multiple varieties (our British RA was the kind of guy who kept Jack Daniels flowing in his room for all occasions, if that tells you anything about how well-supervised we were). The worst part wasn’t feeling bad enough the next morning to wish I had thrown up the night before (and I really hate throwing up), but the fact that I was unable to drink coffee, that I desperately needed, for the next several days — teaching me the next valuable lesson: don’t mix different kinds of hard alcohol, particularly if one of them is Kahlua. And then finally, there was the embarrassing time in my 30s when I finally solved the mystery of what would happen to me when I drank three martinis in rapid succession, and also finally learned what it was like to vomit from drinking.  

But in spite of my youthful ability to pretty much drink without consequence, I didn’t like that feeling of getting so out-of-control that I had no idea what I was doing, so when I felt myself hitting that point, I would stop. Now, I kind of regret that, because now that I’m in my 40s, the opportunity to behave that way is basically of off the table. This is not only because it seems embarrassing and somewhat pathetic to be a middle-aged woman who’s so utterly wasted that she can’t walk or speak, but because, thanks to the fact that my stomach seems to have outpaced the rest of me in terms of rapid acceleration into old age, I would truly suffer horribly for many days afterwards, and frankly I just can’t spare that kind of time. Yeah, who thinks about a night of reckless, debaucherous fun in terms of opportunity costs? This gal. And maybe a lot of you other folks in my age bracket think the same way, especially if you have kids who are going to wake you up the next day. But the problem is that I’ve always been this way; even when I was younger, I was cautious and thought ahead, obsessively, about everything. As a result, I am one of those people who, when I look back on my life, I have mainly regrets about the things I didn’t do, and very little repentance about the things that I did that I wish I hadn’t. 

What are some of the things I regret not doing? Here’s a partial list.

  • I wish I’d tried LSD, Ecstasy, ‘shrooms and cocaine. There are actually a ton of drugs I haven’t tried, since the only ones I have had are pot, hash and whip-its, but these are the only drugs I’d really like to try. Meth, crack and heroine are just too scary to me to even make it to my fantasy list. (I know, super boring, which really just reinforces what I’ve already told you). At this point, I don’t really want to try any of them because of the aforementioned opportunity costs, plus I worry about damaging my brain due to bad drugs and getting arrested — things that could fuck up my life, since I actually have one now. Also, being a middle-aged druggie, like being a middle-aged drunk, isn’t pretty.
  • I wasn’t slutty enough. I was never able to throw myself at people I was attracted to with true abandon, so I haven’t slept with as many men as I feel like I should have, and I haven’t slept with any celebrities or women — which, in retrospect, really seem like major omissions. I actually went through a period in my 20s and 30s of trying to be sluttier, because I saw so many women around me who were not, objectively speaking, more attractive than I, who seemed much more successful at sleeping with men I would have deemed unattainable. I tried to observe how these women did it, but what I think I could never pull off was being willing to do whatever it took, no matter what anyone thought of me, to get someone to have sex with me – once again, I was too shy, scared and self-conscious. I didn’t even start learning to flirt until my senior year of college, so that means at least the years between 16 and 21 (depending on when you think you should start having sex) were full of missed opportunities, and after that, my technique really wasn’t what it should have been…or even a “technique,” really. Now, I’m married and have too much self-respect. Plus, if I didn’t have the nerve to throw myself at people when I was young and drew the occasional invitational look, I certainly don’t now that I’m 45, invisible, and tired.
  • I haven’t tried enough scary, adventuresome activities, like paragliding, parasailing, kiteboarding, hang gliding, sky diving. I have friends who do these types of things, but me? I’ve done zip lines (aka canopying), where you’re fully harnessed in, so all you have to do is sit there and hang on — and even if you screw that up, and get stuck in the middle, somebody will just come get you. I also once jumped off a cliff that was over 35 feet high into a pool of water in Guatemala, and took a bike tour down a very steep, one lane “Death Road” in Bolivia. All of those things I really enjoyed, enough that I’d like to try more like them. But now that I’m at an age where death is no longer an abstract concept, it’s harder to conscience doing something that’s genuinely dangerous. 
  • I never really tried or tried to learn so many things that I wish I had, like playing an instrument or a sport well, or speaking a foreign language, or, like I mentioned in the last post, cinematography. And while it’s true that these things are all harder to take on now that my brain has pretty much finished developing, unlike with some of the other stuff on this list, the door isn’t fully closed on this category. I am trying to learn to shoot and I fully do intend to get back to learning Spanish, but finding the time and the energy to fail is hard. The galling part is that if only I’d persevered at any of these things earlier in life, I would be good at them already and wouldn’t have to go through feeling like an idiot now. 

And I think that sort of gets at what each item on this list has in common, that I’ve been thinking about since last week’s post: fear of looking or feeling stupid was a major motivator for my failure to do all of them. I realize this because one swell part of being the kind of person who thinks about everything way too much is that you never look back on moments in life and say, “Why did (or didn’t) I do that?!“ I can recall most of the obsessive thought process behind most of them, and that’s what all of these things I’ve listed have in common in terms of the why not. Fear of risk, not so much of being hurt physically or emotionally — I worry about those things now because, having had some contact with pain and death over the course of the past 20 years, I know a little better what they mean – but fear of making mistakes, above all those that would lead to me feeling foolish. Because while I don’t see much to repent now, I repented a lot when I was younger, obsessing over what I considered errors of mine and wishing I could take them back because they’d embarrassed me. Funnily enough, the handful of those mistakes I can actually remember now seem so tiny and meaningless — probably because they were. It’s hard to believe those were the types of fears kept me from doing…well, everything. I might genuinely still repent doing a few of those things now that I repented then, like getting into arguments that were stupid and unnecessary or hurtful to other people, but being motivated too often by fear of basically nothing important — that’s definitely my biggest regret. 

Of course, you can’t go back and do all of it again, or any of it. And like I said, I wouldn’t want to do most of the things on my list now. But I think the overall trade-off of fearing and regretting less, even if it means repenting more, is worth it.

** This had come immediately after a conversation with a couple of drunk Norwegians who, I guess because they were so incredibly drunk they had no idea what to do with themselves, decided to walk over to the sound cart and talk to us for a while. One of them grabbed my open bottle of spring water and started drinking it while the other one chatted up the security guard who had followed them out of the building before turning his rather hazy attention on us.

“Where are you guys from?” asked Andrew.

“Guess,” said the chubbier one in the white shirt, which was unbuttoned probably farther down than he intended, or maybe not, but either way it wasn’t flattering. “We’re from the place where all the beautiful people in Europe come from.”

Andrew and I scrutinized them. They both had light brown hair, puffy pink faces and accents that sounded German, but not exactly. Neither one was, to my eye, particularly beautiful.

“Sweden?” guessed Andrew.

“No, not Sweden!” the one who’d asked the question scoffed indignantly, turning pinker. “That just shows you to be ignorant, your saying that. This is why everyone thinks Americans are ignorant!”  

I was later informed by someone that the Swedish are universally disliked across Scandinavia, which is what, unbeknownst to us, made this a particularly poor guess. The first guy continued to expound on this theme of how stupid we were rather than telling us where they were from, so I decided to try his friend.

“So where are you guys from?”

“I’m not the same as him,” said the friend, who had an upper lip that looked swollen on one side, as if perhaps somebody had punched him in it recently, which didn’t seem all that unlikely — especially since I’d caught sight of him earlier, pursuing a group of people out of the club and into a cab, trying to get a girl to give him her phone number, shouting, “I will pay, I will pay for it!” 

“Oh, you’re not from the same place?”

“No, I don’t feel the same way about Americans.”

“Oh, well, that’s nice.” I’ve had a lot of conversations with drunk people in my day, can you tell? “But I was asking where you were from.”

“Oh, we’re from Norway.” 

I’m not sure what you can draw from this story that makes it worthwhile that you came all the way down to the asterisk to read it, except maybe that you can get belligerent drunk Norwegians to answer questions, if you keep trying.

Too Old To Fail

I’ve started shooting lately — actually doing my own cinematography, basically because I can’t pay anyone else to do it — and it’s making me feel kind of like a big idiot. I’ve been in film for over 20 years now, and counting school and all those super-8 films I made when I was a kid, you could say it’s been more like 37. It’s just that, since I decided to do sound for a living, I basically stopped paying attention to how people do, oh, the camera part of things. 

That’s especially strange because, when I started film school, I thought I might want to be a cameraperson. I’d studied and worked in still photography extensively as an undergraduate and felt like I was good at it, and I shot some projects in my first year of grad film, when we all alternated filming for each other so everyone could try out every skill, that I thought turned out really well. But then in my second year, the two guys whose films I had shot, who were friends of mine and who’d claimed to be really happy with my work, both asked another guy who was a buddy of theirs to shoot for them. I did film part of the second-year film of a woman in my class, and tried to do more shooting on my own for undergraduates, but my cinematography teacher, an old Czech master who spent his classes showing the films he’d shot and talking about how great they were rather than ever actually conducting a lighting workshop, didn’t seem to have any interest in talking to me and was dismissive of the work I showed him. I’m sure I was held back by my own lack of confidence and the general feeling I’d inculcated some time during high school that I wasn’t a “techie.” But I also realized that, by the time we were shooting our thesis films in third year, the people who were doing the bulk of the shooting were basically the popular bro-dudes, and the only women who were shooting films for men were dating those men. This irked me and I wanted to fight it, but at 22, I was finding film school challenging enough. I figured I could keep trying to battle my way into cinematography or I could focus on directing — which I could already tell was going to be enough of a battle on its own. So that was the choice I made. I still crewed for my fellow students as an AC or grip or gaffer for the experience, but I eventually fell into doing sound because people kept asking me to. It was always the bastard stepchild job that nobody wanted. 

But it was the professional world that really forced me to specialize. That’s the first thing you realize when you leave film school: you can’t say you know how to do the five different things you sort of learned crewing on your classmates’ films because that basically makes it clear to a professional that you don’t know how to even do one. The film business doesn’t need multi-paths, it needs competent cogs. I wanted a job that was going to keep me on set where I could learn about the process and people were hiring me (though as I’ve said before, by “hiring” I mean asking me “to work on deferment,” aka for nothing) to do sound, so I became a sound person. It was my job and I focused my energy on doing it well, until I got good enough at it that I had some brain space left over which I was able to then use to learn about directing (booming is an especially good vantage point for that, because you get to watch the director and the actors do their thing and can eavesdrop on their conversations). So while I have been on set for over 20 years, with people lighting scenes all around me, I really never paid much attention to how they did it. Even when I was on a super-small crew where we all pitched in on everything, or when I was directing and cared about how end result looked, I’d so trained myself that camera was someone else’s job that I managed to learn nothing. I find myself trying to go back and think about what I’ve seen other people do and realizing just how little I remember. My co-director/cinematographer on Flat Daddy and I traveled all over the country with her lighting gear, I helped carry it on and off luggage carousels, in and out of cars, from airport to airport, and yet I find myself racking my brain for what exactly that lighting gear was: “I know we had that one rectangular light, and she put some shmutz on it, but was that it??” I feel like Sherlock Holmes, who deliberately emptied his brain of the little things that didn’t matter so he could remember the complicated things that did, only now, it turns out those “little things” are actually more important than a lot of the random shit I remember for no reason, like pieces of dialogue and old phone numbers.

The other thing that of course sucks about this is that I didn’t think I would be going back to doing everything myself, which just isn’t the best way to work. There’s a reason why even a small film set has several different people to do all the jobs required: there’s a lot to do, and a lot of ways to fuck up if you don’t do it properly. It’s inevitable, when you try to do everything, that you just won’t be able to do it all well. I made my first documentary that way and a lot of things suffered, including, most embarrassingly, the sound, because I made it a low priority and just hoped it would be fine —yes, I was one of those people. But I learned from that experience, and on my next couple of projects, I worked with other people who did the cinematography, and everything went better — and I thought it would be onward and upward from there, that eventually, I wouldn’t even need to do my own sound or editing. Alas, that’s not the way things went, I seem to be downwardly mobile when it comes to the projects I’m directing, at least for now. Then again, this is the way things are going in film in general. Because, thanks to HD, most everyone can now get access to a decent and inexpensive camera, and can make a documentary super cheaply, people just expect that you will. As blockbuster budgets get bigger, eating up a bigger and bigger piece of the pie, the crumbs allotted to the rest of us get smaller. But I digress.

The point is, I seriously feel like an inexperienced kid, which is something that, at 45, I don’t experience very often. The closest I’ve come in recent years that I can remember was taking long trips to Latin America to study Spanish and travel in my late 30s. Not being able to speak the language in a place where I was spending a month and a half genuinely did make me feel stupid, but at least I was taking classes with other people who also felt stupid in the same way — a major bonding experience — and lots of the locals were tolerant if you were making an effort (though it was a real revelation to meet Argentinians while speaking English, then trying to speak to them in Spanish and seeing their faces totally change, reflecting the thought that, “Wow, this person is totally different and not at all interesting in Spanish.” Gives you real insight to what it’s like for non-native-English speakers here: even people who seem to speak the language just fine aren’t necessarily themselves in it). Wanting to avoid that feeling of failure was also the reason I decided not to try snowboarding in my late 30s, despite the fact that it looked like a lot of fun and one of my good friends had taken it up. When I started to really think about it, I realized that I had basically learned to ski between the ages of six and ten — a great time in your life to fall on your ass over and over again. Middle age not so much, not just because of the physical pain, which I figured I could handle, at least in powder, but the embarrassment. The one advantage you have as an older person is that you’ve got experience, so you at least seem like you know stuff. If you give that up, what have you got going for you? Who wants to hang out with a middle-aged idiot? Nobody, which is why, in a situation like this where I am essentially learning on the job (albeit a non-paying job), I have to do something I really hate: fake that I know everything. It’s been such a long time since I had to pretend that I knew what I was doing when I didn’t — even at the beginning of my career, I was much more comfortable being honest about not knowing and asking for help than trying to blunder my way through things, as I think most women are. Most guys seem to have no problem bullshitting like that, but I suck at it. Nevertheless, you really cannot just admit your failings in a professional setting — especially when you are a one-woman-do-everything who’s supposed to be in charge — probably because the rules in most of these settings were created by men. 

But I banked on all this, and I dreaded it, and I prepared as much as I could — studying manuals and racking my brain for what I’d seen done and watching people light for a few weeks (although the lighting on a million-dollar-plus-per-episode television show and a no-budget doc-type piece? Not so similar). What I didn’t bank on, what I’d forgotten, was the good part of being an ignorant kid: learning something actually feels kind of great. You make your mistakes — some of them huge, some of them not as huge — and you accept them, figure out how you’re going to fix them, resolve not to make them next time, and thank whoever or whatever it is you like to thank in these situations that you can edit around them. Then you get to look at what you’ve done and say, “Huh, I did that.” The joy of creation is always a joy, but it’s never so special or exciting as when it’s something new, or newish. 

Maybe we aren’t really ever too old to fail. Certainly not in middle age. Because if you didn’t allow yourself the opportunity to fail, the experience of being an ignoramus again, you’d be shutting yourself out of discovery and wonder. That would truly be a sad thing, to never be able to experience those feelings again in life — especially when you’re only half-way through it.

Snippets of Set Conversation

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Apologies for not putting up a lot of writing lately — I’ve been very busy at work. But if you’re looking for dialogue, sometimes work can be a source of interesting material. Here are some examples of conversations I’ve had or overheard on set lately.

The Conversation That Should Be In a Script About a Serial Killer Because You Can’t Make This Shit Up:

Crew guy I’ve just met an hour ago walks up to me and shows me a picture of himself firing a bow and arrow. 

“Oh, cool, do you compete at archery or something?”

“No, nah, I’m not into that. Just for hunting. I just feel like, when you go hunting with a gun, you have all the advantage. But with a bow and arrow, unless you’re like, shooting from up in the air or something, there’s, like, a chance you could become the prey. So it’s a lot more interesting, you know? And I was into this before the ‘Hunger Games’ or anything.”

The Please Stop Telling Me This Because I Hardly Know You Conversation:

“You remember that job we worked on together? My crew just stabbed me in the back. I never should have trusted them. I mean, I’m not saying I’m the nicest person in the world, but I practically taught them how to do their jobs, I was the one who whipped them into shape, you know? And you should have heard what they said about me. I mean, I don’t care, but he was the one who was always following me around. Then he would do this thing where he would stick his hands in his pants and scratch his balls and then touch me. I mean, I’m not saying he was into me, but it was fucking weird, you know? I’m not gay, I know everyone thinks I am, and I don’t care, but I’m not.” 

The Mostly One-Sided, Awkwardly Trying To Make Conversation Conversation:

“How can you read that? You must have good eyes. Take good care of your eyes. And your teeth. You have good teeth. I just had to have major dental surgery, very expensive. We got paid back for some of it, with the insurance, but not most of it. So yeah, take care of your teeth. (beat) You work in TV?”

The I Don’t Like to Complain, But…:

“This is a pretty nice job. I mean, it sucks that it’s like three hours from my house with all the traffic. But everyone is pretty nice. The actors, he’s super sweet, most of the time, and she’s okay. I mean, she’s not unfriendly, but she doesn’t like to be miked, I know she’s wearing this tight outfit, but it’s been a whole political thing. The wardrobe department, they’re great. Although some of these shirts they’re picking, and they have them wearing these heels, it’s like, don’t they understand that we need to do our jobs too? Did you notice that humming? That’s the transformers, yeah, this stage is the worst — you’ve got this central air that noisy and doesn’t even work. Yeah, can you believe the way they’re lighting this scene? I mean, every one of those lights has a fan in it, I’ve never seen those lights on a film set. This gaffer is a nice guy, but he never talks to me in advance about anything. Not that it’s surprising, I mean, nobody ever thinks about sound. I mean, I love this director, he gets it. But he still keeps shooting these wide and tight shots at the same time, it’s something they got from episodic, I keep telling them we have to do it separately, but you know how it is, I mean, the way we’re treated. But this is a good job, not like this movie I did back in March, now that director, likes to work run-and-gun, wires for everything, it’s like he just doesn’t care…”

Calling People On Their (Sexist) Shit

 

 

Last month, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel was unlucky enough to have his own, non-disappearing e-mails from when he was a frat boy at Stanford get published by Valleywag. They were pretty offensive, particularly in the way that they referred to women. Highlights include references to “sororisluts,” jokes about peeing on passed-out chicks while trying to have sex with them, and a suggestion to his frat brothers to “give yourself a pat on the back or have some girl put your large kappa sigma dick down her throat,” but for full effect you should just read them for yourself in all their obnoxious, female-degrading glory. Nothing unexpected if you ever had contact with the Stanford fraternity system, or any fraternity system I’d imagine, but still rather disturbing considering what decade/century it is. 

There was, however, one positive outcome of the whole business (and I’m not talking about Spiegel having to say he was “mortified and embarrassed” and that the emails “in no way reflect who I am today” — a whole four years after he wrote them, during which he created the premiere app for fratboys and their ilk to send self-destructing pictures of their junk to others). Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy wrote a very thoughtful response, essentially saying that not only was it disturbing that the emails were sent by a member of the Stanford community, but that they were received by many others. Rather than simply ignoring such behavior, he writes, “I am asking that each of us choose the more difficult path whenever we encounter such attitudes. It does not take many strong and vocal objections to communicate what we consider acceptable and what we do not. Members of our community should learn now, not many years from now, how abhorrent those attitudes are, whether real or feigned.”

I love that Etchemendy said it is important for college students to call each other out for being sexist, because nipping such behavior in the gestational/educational bud that is academia would be ideal. Unfortunately, once you’ve graduated from the cushioned and idyllic university environment into the real world, saying something about behavior that you consider wrong becomes much harder, because there are often real consequences, ones that can affect your real life. The thing is — and guys who are getting their boxers/briefs/boxer-briefs in a twist already, wondering, “Does she mean me? Am I doing something the feminazis consider sexist that I don’t know about???”, TAKE NOTE — I’m not talking silliness like the guys who act like their leg deserves half of my seat on the subway, or men who insist on holding doors for me or calling me “Honey,” because that stuff, while it is annoying, is also ignorable and really doesn’t affect my day-to-day. I’m talking about the behavior that is bad enough that it makes you not want to come to work, or go to a bar, or walk down the street, because it makes you afraid or uncomfortable to the degree that it really does alter your life and it make you feel like shit about yourself. Basically, I’m only talking here about situations where the stakes are high.

One of those situations is the workplace. While it rarely happens any more, it used to be pretty common that I was the only woman on set. And especially when you are the sole representative of womanhood that a group of men get to see day in and day out for 12+ hours a day, 5+ days a week for months on end, you will likely be the object of many feelings, which I would sum up as, basically, everyone else’s shit having to do with your gender. This could mean, at least in the independent film world I used to work in when I was starting out, that you would be on the receiving end of a lot of flirting with which you were expected to play along (to the extent that I actually had a female co-worker tell me once that she thought I was gay because I didn’t flirt on set); off-color comments and awkward jokes; your co-workers constantly mansplaining things to you, including how to do your own job; or three different guys — who you may have flirted with or just been friendly to as part of your normal daily routine — either trying to make out with you or asking for your phone number at the wrap party. And after all that intense, sleeplessness- and perhaps alcohol-and-substance-fueled time together, you might be having some feelings too. By the end of one crazy job, I had kissed the producer and slept with a PA because the guy I actually liked was cheating on his girlfriend with the make-up artist. So there are times when your own bad choices can make things more complicated, I’m not going to lie.

But when sexism does cross the line at work, be it into clear harassment or just beyond what you can stand, I think it is important to say something. As I mentioned in an earlier post, on one film that I worked on back in the 90s, I had a Victoria’s Secret catalogue stuck in my face by the director, asking me which lingerie I would wear as the rest of the crew chuckled. I rolled my eyes and said, in a joking tone of voice that was still loud enough for everyone to hear, “Okay, why do you guys think, just because I’m the only woman on set, that you have to ask me this stuff?” The director apologized, and luckily he was cool enough, and I was liked and respected enough on that job, that my livelihood was not at risk; the person in power could handle the criticism, and he and all the other guys took it the way it was intended, as basically, “I will put up with a certain amount of your shit because we are all friends, but there are limits.” That is, everyone except for one person. This crew member was kind of an old school, working-class union guy whose flirting style showed he really didn’t know how to talk to women as adults (his favorite mode of conversation with me was teasing me in a baby-talk voice about how much chocolate I ate). I knew he was just trying to relate, though, so I let it slide. However, after my reaction to the catalogue incident, he said he was uncomfortable, that he didn’t know how to act around me any more. I felt a little bit bad about that because I hadn’t wanted to make anyone uncomfortable, but overall, I felt like that was a worthwhile price to pay for speaking up. Making it clear who I was and how I wanted to be treated had kind of been the point, and the one person out of ten who had taken that the wrong way was someone who, while well-intentioned, was also a guy who kind of needed to adjust his view on those points — and if it made things a little more awkward, so be it. 

Because bear in mind, there are also consequences for not saying something. I’ve let some bad work situations that I thought I could “handle” go on long enough to make me miserable and purposefully lousy enough at my job that I deserved to get fired — so it definitely can affect your livelihood. And even in cases where you really can handle it, not saying something might affect other people who can’t. About 13 years ago, I had a landlord who hit on me. It was totally unexpected — after fixing a window in my apartment, he tried to kiss me. I pushed him away and said that that wasn’t what I’d meant by “Thank you,” and he left. He never tried anything again and I didn’t report it to anyone. Partly this was because he was a short, fat, older man and I was pretty sure I could take him, partly it was because the guy I was dating moved in with me soon after that so I never had to be alone with the landlord again, and partly it was that I was smart enough that I knew he was the one who’d be in trouble if he tried to somehow make my housing contingent on anything other than my paying rent. But it was also true that I was renting this little two-bedroom apartment in Park Slope for less than $800, an insanely good deal, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t think much about it until, five or six years later, long after I’d moved out, I got a call from an Assistant Attorney General in the New York State Civil Rights Bureau. Apparently, I had been far from the only one this landlord had harassed. While the AAG told me I shouldn’t feel bad about not reporting the incident, since I was talking about it now and helping to prosecute him, I still couldn’t help but feel guilty about how, because I’d let his behavior go, these other women had had to go through what I went through, or maybe worse — maybe he’d tried something more with them, maybe they had been more scared of saying “no.” If I had said something at the time instead of only considering myself and how it wasn’t a big deal to me, maybe that wouldn’t have happened.

Think about that: how every time you don’t call someone out for their sexist shit, it radiates outward — not only because that one person can do the same sexist shit to other women, but because their behavior is also seen by other men as acceptable. I recently posted to Facebook a Bitch magazine opinion piece about its author’s problems with Pharrell Williams, including how he’s demonstrated his sexism and misogyny in the writing, and subsequent defending, of Robin Thicke’s single “Blurred Lines.” One friend found a link in the comments on the Bitch piece to a video from a series called “ARTST TLK w/Pharrell Williams” where Williams interviews other musicians and artists — and in each one, a naked woman walks through at some point to serve everyone refreshments. Apparently, Williams says this is intended to provide a “unexpected flash of beauty.” WHAAA??? Seriously? I mean, the fact that he came up with this isn’t surprising given his track record when it comes to the music and videos he’s put out there, and how he’s tried to respond to being called sexist by basically being more sexist while claiming that he’s just “supporting women” (see here, here and here). He’s only the latest in a long line of male pop, hip-hop and rock stars who don’t get it, whatever. No, to me, what’s so awful about these videos is that nobody else involved in the making of a whole series of them thought to point out how fucked up this was. There had to have been at least a cameraperson, sound person, lighting person, grip (because there are camera moves, indicating they at least had a slide-and-glide if not a dolly), in addition to whatever producers and PMs there may have been, and then in post there was at least one editor and sound editor, and all of the people at the Reserve Channel on YouTube, whatever that is and whoever they are. I mean, were there any women involved? The one woman who got interviewed in one of these videos is a singer named Leah La Belle, a former pre-teen Miss America runner up and American Idol semi-finalist who is signed to Pharrell’s label — so its no surprise that, while the naked woman makes her look a bit uncomfortable, she only responds to it by saying, “That was nice.” Could at least the press call out the sexism there when they saw it? Apparently not. Articles about these videos just describe the naked women as “odd” and perhaps a symptom of “off-kilter taste,” or “juvenile,” or a symptom of what makes Pharrell a “less than gracious” host. Even Priscilla Frank of the Huffington Post just calls it a “questionable prank.“ Really female writer at Huff Post, that’s all you have to say about the unnecessary naked woman?  Really?

What hurts the most with cases like this is, I don’t know, I guess I thought that perhaps we had finally evolved. Sure, we’re having political battles over birth control and abortion; we’re having endless discussions in the press over Jill Abramson’s dismissal from the New York Times and about how Hilary Clinton is treated differently as a candidate because she’s a woman; we’re talking and hand-wringing about “rape culture” and how colleges are failing on sexual assault. But I’d thought maybe these were all good signs, because we’re actually finally talking about women’s rights issues and sexism and harassment, a lot. Even the horrible online trolling you see on Twitter and Reddit, threatening women with rape and violence for speaking their minds, or sometimes just for speaking, I thought showed us misogynists acting threatening out of feeling threatened — because they know their days are numbered. But then, when something like this video shows up, it reminds me that we’re still living in an era when all these people can still see blatant sexism and say nothing. And then I think maybe it’s the other way around: the big wrongs of policy, public and private, still happen because we let too many of the “little” things go. I saw an article about a study that showed judges with daughters are more likely to rule in favor of women. Well, Justice Anthony Kennedy has a daughter — who actually went to Stanford — and that didn’t help him rule in favor of women two days ago in the Hobby Lobby case. But, maybe she’s the type of woman who never says anything

No, one person can’t change the world, but the world will definitely not change if nobody speaks up. You don’t have to be a jerk about it; sometimes, people really and truly don’t get that they’re being sexist — even when it seems as obvious as a naked woman in front of your face. But you also can’t just let it all slide. Sometimes, like John Etchemendy said, you have to be the one who calls people on their shit, because if you don’t, who will?