When To Say When

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A couple of weeks ago, I got this in an email from Shutterfly with the subject message, “Congratulations on your new arrival.” As you can see, the email was trying to convince me that I should use Shutterfly to send all of my friends some nice thank you cards that match my birth announcement. 

Nope, you haven’t missed anything.  If you’ve been following this blog since it’s inception, you probably know that not only did I not just have a child, but that my husband and I have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a number of years now — although since we went through the fertility treatment unpleasantness last year, we’ve sort of been trying to take it a little easier about the whole pregnancy thing. But it’s hard to figure out exactly how to do that. We want to be realists: I’m 45 and we’ve been trying pretty consistently for four years or so, we know the statistics and I mean, we’re not idiots. We’re thinking at this point that we’ll probably just adopt, although we haven’t yet worked up the nerve to begin that whole process.

What’s hard, though, is knowing when to admit that, in at least one area that’s a big part of being a woman, you are basically done. Again, if you’re familiar with this blog you know that I’m not one of those wackos currently running for a Republican seat in the House who thinks that a woman’s prime function is as a baby factory — I can’t say I’ve even ever thought of it as a major function. But it is something we’re supposed to be able to do. In fact, it’s something I tried actively not to do for years and years and years, because I’d been taught in health class that if I didn’t, babies would practically be popping out of me left and right. It’s the blessing and curse that you’re born with if you’re female: you have babies. It’s why birth control belongs in every health care plan and why we call reproductive rights reproductive rights: because, without them, we can’t have control over that very central aspect of our lives that goes along with our biological make-up. 

Only now, I’ve reached a point in my life where I guess I need to face up to the fact that I really just…won’t? Ever? I mean, at my age, there are lots of things in life that I’ve accepted that I probably just won’t do – run a marathon (bad knees), have a threesome (married), climb Annapurna (not interested in risking my life) – but these are things I never necessarily wanted to or thought I would do. Plus, there’s always a chance they could  still happen – I mean, none of them are actually impossible for me, at least not yet. But having a baby very well may be. 

There are good reasons to stop trying, beyond just the annoyance of having to give up alcohol and sushi and Advil when I’m in the Zone of Potential Pregnancy, as I’ve come to call it. To be honest, as it gets more clear that I’m not going to get pregnant, I’ve gotten way more lax about the alcohol, as in toward the end of the month, as I wallow in hormones and feeling crappy about not being able to get pregnant, if I really really want a drink, it’s getting harder and harder to convince myself that I can’t have one. So I do, and then sometimes I feel like a horrible person even though I tell myself that many women don’t even find out they’re pregnant until they’ve already partied their way through the first six weeks, and then I inevitably get my period and the point is moot, again.

But another reason is that I’ve had two failed pregnancies already, and neither was exactly a barrel of monkeys. I know, this might be a bombshell to some of you, the kind that makes you uncomfortable with my degree of sharing, and I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy to just throw out there. But the crazy thing is that it’s actually very common: the non-viable pregnancy/miscarriage rate for women in their 40s who manage to get pregnant is 30-50%, and by the time you’re in your mid-40s it’s closer to that 50% end — so that means half of us. And sure, it’s crappy that this is true, but what’s crappier is that there’s a good chance the first time anyone will mention it is when your gynecologist is telling you you’re actually having one. 

That’s what happened to me the first time I found out there was no heartbeat at six weeks, and then waited two weeks to be sure before having a D&C – the short name for a dilation and curettage — to remove the contents of my uterus at eight. No matter how you say “remove the contents of my uterus,” it sounds pretty bad, but the procedure and the bleeding afterwards really weren’t — my gynecologist even suggested that I could keep my evening plans the day that it happened if I felt up to it. But of course I didn’t, not because I felt physically bad, but because, not knowing beforehand how likely it was that this was going to happen, I was emotionally unprepared. It’s a huge piece of information to adjust to when you’ve already spent a month or more thinking you’re probably going to have a baby: the idea that, all along, it was really more of a maybe/maybe not situation. Because after a month of being pregnant, even if you know there’s a reason why it’s too early to start picturing your child or picking out names, you’ve still already spent all that time working on adjusting your basic constructs of what you thought your existence would be like, from now on until forever, to a new reality. You basically started adjusting them from the moment when the little cross or line or whatever showed up on the plastic pee stick. And so I was miserable, and not being able to talk about it, which I felt like I couldn’t with anyone aside from with my husband and the doctor because I’d never heard anyone talk about it, only made that worse. If I met you during those couple of weeks, I apologize, there’s a good chance I was an asshole.

The second time it turned out I was unprepared again, but in a totally different way. When I found out I was pregnant, I tried to come to some place where I could accept either outcome, and I figured out fairly quickly that that was basically impossible. Trying to live in the indefinite space between two completely opposite realities and feel like both are truly possible and truly okay was a new sort of hell for someone like me who doesn’t like ambiguity to begin with, so my solution was to more or less tune my brain to the “I’m most likely not going to have a baby” setting. I knew that some people would think this bad luck (which I don’t really believe in but still don’t want to hear, thanks), and I knew I might have to cope with perhaps not being so mentally ready to actually have a baby if everything went well. But it genuinely did make things easier when there was no heartbeat again at six weeks and we set an appointment for me to come back in two for the D&C if I didn’t miscarry in the meantime. That was the part I wasn’t prepared for: the “miscarry in the meantime” part. When I started bleeding a few days later, I thought, Oh, okay, this is a miscarriage, but I figured it would be like what happened after the D&C — nothing a couple of maxi pads couldn’t handle — so I packed a few and went off to take the subway into Manhattan, because I had evening plans and figured that trying to go about my business would be a good idea to take my mind off of things. 

If you’ve had a miscarriage you know and if you haven’t you’ve probably guessed that this turned out to be a colossally bad move. At dinner, I started to get the sense that I was bleeding more than usual, and feeling a bit more crampy than usual, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until we were finally all preparing to go and I happened to look down at where I’d just been sitting and saw, even though it was (thankfully) dim in the restaurant, that the seat of my chair appeared to be slightly smeared. I tried to say a mild-mannered goodbye to as I hurried to the bathroom, where I discovered that, sure enough, there was a torrent of blood in my jeans that had seeped all the way through. But even then, having been through the "Oh, shit, my pants!” experience in my early teen years when menstruation was a new reality, I thought, “I’ve got this,” cleaned myself (and the chair) up as best I could, wrapped my sweater around my waist, and headed for home. It was only when I momentarily passed out on the subway on my way to Brooklyn that I realized that this really was not a familiar situation, at all, and I shouldn’t be treating it like one. Luckily, some nice people caught me, gave me a seat, and handed me a bottle of fizzy lemonade, which revived me enough to get me home. Still, the brand new experience of fainting had me a little freaked out — as did, even more so, what was awaiting me in my underwear. It didn’t look identifiably human, or identifiable at all really, but it was something that I had not really considered I would see and had no idea what to do with. By the time the doctor on call at my gynecologist’s office had gotten back to me, the bleeding and cramping had subsided somewhat, leading me to believe what she confirmed: that this whole messy experience was, indeed, your standard miscarriage. But while knowing I wasn’t going to die was a relief, knowing that this all was to be expected only made me feel stupid for not knowing what it was going to be like in the first place, and not realizing it was something I’d want to do in the privacy of my own home rather than at dinner in Manhattan.

So after all that, why keep trying, especially when the world just seems to be mocking you? I mean, the Shutterfly email was just the latest on that front; the feeling of failure is a sore spot waiting to be poked, because it’s not like you can get away from people in the world getting pregnant and having kids, especially when we have Facebook. Sure, I would like to make the asinine marketing people who sent this email feel bad and give me free stuff for life for doing it, because let’s be honest, they were truly butt-headed to insert themselves into something as personal and potentially complicated for any family as having a baby. But with the way social media, and the generation of people who have grown up with it, are headed, it seems like soon there’ll be nothing too personal to make public, or commercialize – so they’re just riding the trend. 

…She says, fully aware that she is a person who just made public the details of her miscarriage — but there actually was a reason for that. I’m not sure what the answer is to knowing when to accept that you are no longer a fertile female, but I think talking about infertility and miscarriage makes it all a little less dark and furtive, and knowing how common these problems are helps women feel like we’re less alone in having them. As experiences they suck on pretty much every level so of course nobody really enjoys talking about them, but they’re even worse if they’re treated like something to hide or if you go into them not knowing what to expect. Pregnancies that end up ending prematurely are a fact of life for a lot of women (and their partners), particularly now that more and more of us are trying to get pregnant later in life, and we have to just treat them that way. Because if we don’t, the undercurrent of it all is that it’s somehow our fault — particularly for those of us who are middle aged, who made the decision, for whatever reason, to wait to have children. And you can’t just keep blaming yourself every time the wrong thing shows up in your inbox.

Why I Love Film and Why I Miss Filmmaking

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I showed up on set the other day and was met by the sight of an old friend who’d I’d not seen for a very long time and who, thanks to many rumors, I had assumed was dead. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was: an entire box of Kodak Super-16 film.  

It turned out that the network TV pro-mos we were shooting were going to include some footage shot with a Super-16 Bolex — and it had been so long since I’d worked with one that I almost enjoyed the camera noise. In case you’ve never worked with a Bolex, you really can’t record sound with them because of that unique, lawnmowery, train tracky rattle and whirr that they make. (The cameraman I was working with on our behind-the-scenes crew said, at one point, “I’m getting the Bolex in the shot, by the way, in case you want to get the sound of that,” and I just laughed because it was impossible to not get.) But even the supposedly “silent” film cameras you could pretty much always hear in an interior, to the point where we often said that there wasn’t really any point in recording room tone (for non-film people, that’s the sound of the room when it’s silent that you record for use by the editor) because it wouldn’t match the rest of the sound without the camera noise.  

So, given that I often come at these things from the sound perspective, you might think that my attitude toward film would be “Good riddance.” Film cameras are noisy, they’re heavy, they take forever to load and can be harder to light for and that slows down the day, that’s all true. But from the filmmaker-whose-favorite-outlet-is-still-photography perspective, I grew up with film, and I will always feel that the image is superior.  Not to mention that it’s really strange to me to think that a lot of kids growing up today will have no real sense of what film was all about. On last week’s shoot, one of the young actresses, who was maybe 20, was looking at the Bolex and trying to find the screen where she could watch what was being shot – and thinking about that makes me realize how different the entire way we look at the creation of images has become.

Film’s precious immutability formed a key part of the process of using it. With filmmaking and still photography, you started with the actual negative that you’d loaded into the camera. That means you only had one copy — no backup, no second chance. So if your negative got scratched or left on the curb by a PA instead of getting transported to the lab (yeah, that happened), that was it, you would have to reshoot — which, given the cost of film and processing, could be prohibitively expensive for an independent filmmaker (not to mention potentially impossible if you were making a documentary). Overall, it made you take an incredible amount of care with your work. It wasn’t just that camera assistants had to be super careful, keeping the insides of those cameras pristine to ensure nothing would scratch or get on the negative, fastidiously checking the gate through which the film passed to be exposed by the lens for “hairs” — tiny shavings of celluloid that could stick there destroy your best shot. The cost also meant that you couldn’t just shoot and shoot and shoot the way people do today, rolling endlessly on every take while the director tries to get the actors to improvise or doing a thousand of everything in every frame size, just to be absolutely sure you got it. You had to really think about not what you wanted to get but what you needed, in advance, and plan it out, shot by shot, by considering how you were going to edit it together. Sure, that could limit spontaneity, but it also meant that directors and DPs and ADs were sure to go into a shooting day well-prepared — which you really appreciate when you are the crew person whose time is being wasted by someone who doesn’t. Film was possibly more expensive to waste than time, which has now become the primary commodity on a set — and I think that, along with the fact that you no longer have to stop to change rolls every ten minutes, is why we have the expectation of  go-go-go move-move-move, particularly on a television set, that also just wasn’t there in the same way before.

That fully-prepared and more painstaking way of working was the method I learned as a filmmaker, and I think that has had a huge impact upon not just the process but the finished product. I don’t ever go into any situation where I’m directing without a plan — period. When I was doing fiction, I shortlisted and storyboarded, and when I do docs, I have at least a list of questions that I want to start with and an idea of what action or b-roll I’d like to capture – all of which may change on the fly, but, for me, it’s the box that makes thinking outside the box possible. Granted, this agrees with my particular personality, which, as I explained already, doesn’t take easily to improvisation. But it also means that I know how to prepare. I sometimes feel like a lot of directors these days just don’t. 

Many also don’t learn to trust their own judgment, or those of the people they’re working with. When I started out (and now you’re really going to think this was the stone age), most of the indie productions I worked on didn’t even have video monitors, so nobody other than the DP could watch the shot, and you couldn’t play it back. On my first professional job in the sound department, a union feature called Fresh on which I spent a few days as sound intern (read: unpaid third), the director requested a monitor. They told him that, oh, remember that super big expensive zoom lens you also wanted that we couldn’t get? Well, the monitor came in the same case, so it’s not available either. Granted, he was a gullible first-timer, but yeah, you could get away with that then because monitors were far from being the staple of production that they are now. But the reason they told him that lie was because not having a video monitor or a way to play back footage meant that you had to really watch the live action of the scene as it took place, focusing solely on the acting and trusting the DP that he or she was getting the shot the way you wanted it. Of course, this way of working went away long before film did, but I still include it in the trend of how the care and collaboration that used to be part of the process has disappeared as we move away from the era of the media that defined it.

This applies perhaps even more to the editing room. When I learned to edit, I did it on a Steenbeck. I threaded the actual film from one plate to another, passing it through a maze of rollers and past a lit prism in the middle that projected the image on a small screen that I could watch. When I wanted to make a cut, I marked it with a grease pencil, pulled out the the film and actually cut it on a splicer, as in into pieces. Granted, this particular piece of film would be just a work print, the guide for the negative cutter to use when they cut the final version of your negative from which your final prints would be struck (your one and only negative, remember, so yes, you had to hire someone you really trusted to not to screw that up. My first negative cutter did).  Still, the more cuts you made, the more tiny pieces you had — so if you made too many changes, you’d be stuck with a million little bits of acetate that were hard to keep track of and extremely easy to misplace. You hung them in a crazy, medieval-looking torture device called a bin as some sort of pretend “organizing system,” but it still took forever to find anything, and inevitably at least one piece you wanted would be filed on the floor. And if you decided to put too many of those bits back into the film, your work print would evolve into one big ball of splicing tape that was guaranteed to jump around in the projector and make it impossible to screen. So you became very, very careful about the cuts that you made and thought about each change you made before you did it, a lot — and you had extra time in between to think too, because finding the pieces and putting them in the splicer and pulling out the film on the flatbed and taking off the old splicing tape and then taping it all back together took a while. Now as you might be able to tell from my description of this, I love, I mean LOVE digital, non-destructive editing, it has literally changed my life, and I would never wish it on anyone to have to go edit on a flatbed. But I’m also somewhat glad I learned how to edit that way, because, again, it informed my view of the process and made me think of it as something that was considered, painstaking and time-consuming — which, really, at some point it kind of should be if you want to end up with a well-made film. And I think you see the results of that in a lot of what’s made today: everything is expected to happen faster and with the easy ability to go back and reshoot and recut endings, particularly after test-marketing screenings — and even though they did that before digital, now it’s that much easier, making digital something of an enabler to what was already a shitty addition to modern studio filmmaking. It also enables the filmmaking by committee that also seems to be such a part of the Hollywood work these days. The fact is, when you’re not forced to think about your choices and commit to them in advance, you often don’t make choices at all. And rushing a film to meet a deadline, just because you can, will always do that film a disservice as well.  Even in the doc world, I’ve seen things go awry when filmmakers decided they had to make a certain festival, so even though the film wasn’t ready, they rushed it out there, sometimes with disastrous results, sometimes just with ones that made the film just a little less than it could have been.

Now, I’m not a nostalgia freak. Digital has done something amazing to the film industry by putting the ability to make films if not actually in the hands of everyone with an idea then within their reach, simply because the tools are so much cheaper. I remember seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, the first Dogme 95 feature made with a couple of little mini-DV handycams, and thinking, “This is the beginning of the revolution.” Because it was the first film that was made that way that I remember thinking looked like a real film; with hand-held, fast-moving camerawork enhancing the jagged drama of the plot, it created something that didn’t look like a documentary exactly but was appropriate to the light, cheap tools being used. Now, we have digital cameras that are just like film cameras, so you don’t necessarily have to do that, but you still can. The explosion of documentary film of recent years just wouldn’t have happened, and I personally would never have been able to make Flat Daddy or any of the projects I’ve directed since film school. And when it comes down to it, I know that’s more important than the aesthetics or the changes in process that I’ve been yammering on about here. I just would love to see more of the care that film forced us all to apply to filmmaking become an integral part of the process that we use now, so that the work that we do on set and the work that ultimately results reflect that. I still want filmmaking to be filmmaking.

And of course, I’ll always miss the absolute best part of shooting film: the surprise. When I shot black and white stills with my 35-mm SLR, it was always thrilling, after loading the film canister in complete darkness, then spending half an hour or so adding and pouring off chemicals, shaking and turning and turning and waiting, to finally pull the reels out and put them in the bath — and see that your images were there. It really was magical, and even more so when you made your prints, because every time you set one up on the enlarger, dodging and burning to get the exposure just right everywhere (but never cropping — that was frowned on by my framing-purist professors who would also say things like, “The best substitute for a zoom lens is a good pair of running shoes”), you still didn’t know what exactly you were going to get until you got to watch the image bloom up out of the paper’s whiteness in the developer — and then you really still didn’t know 100% until it had been in the fixer long enough for you to go outside and look at it in normal light, so blinding after all the time spent under one red bulb. I loved the darkroom so much that I even came to love the smell of the chemicals I associated with it, because of the excitement of those moments, when you finally got to see, for better or worse, what you’d created.

Us vs. Them

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Since I’ve been spending more time in the world of games and tech, I’ve been encountering a lot more young people than I would normally spend time with, and I have to say, it’s pretty interesting. First off, I have to point out that while agism is really apparent in a lot of industries (again, film biz, absolutely), tech and games might be among the worst. If you’ve been watching the HBO series Silicon Valley, you’ll see this parodied hilariously, but it’s one of those things that’s funny because it’s entirely true: the overall belief in tech is that young people really are saving the world with these ideas that they think they were the first to come up with. Now, certainly there is a lot of technology that is being created and explored for the first time, and, as a result, as I talked about in my last blog, the way folks — often, yes, young folks who aren’t shackled by the old ideas of generations past —are coming up with new ideas that are “disrupting” in all sorts of ways is pretty exciting. However, some of them clearly don’t realize how much of what they’re coming up with builds on all what came before — how all art and science, in fact, does and has always done that (anyone else out there watching Cosmos?), which is, duh, a large part of what’s great about art and science.

Now, it’s not entirely the fault of certain people in their 20s and early 30s that they think everything that they do and think is awesome and original. Our culture is obsessed with youth, we all know this. The young are fresh, they’re hopeful, they’re supple, many of them can booze, drug eat crap and not sleep and still look frustratingly hot. Plus, in the tech world, VCs and other people with money fawn over this demographic, because, on top of drinking the Youth Kool Aid, they need people who literally have the time and energy, which people my age generally just don’t, to devote to the round-the-clock schedule required to get a start-up off the ground. Additionally, there’s the much-discussed fact, very apparent to anyone who watches Girls (yes, you’ve discovered my secret: I watch way too much TV) but also often seen in an age bracket that should be old enough to know better, that the Millennials were brought up by their baby-boomer parents to think that they are special flowers who can do no wrong. 

But regardless of who’s responsible, people in their 20s to early 30s — and bear in mind that I am really mainly talking about a certain subset of people this age who are basically the first-world, educated, upper middle class — are just different than those of us who are a little older, and prone to a certain way of thinking about things which suffers from and perhaps also benefits from…dare I say it? Lack of experience. Now I’m not claiming that people my age are all super awesome to be around either — no, ha, far from it. Only that it does sometimes feel like like folks born roughly before 1980 and folks born after are members of different species. 

Here’s how I sum it all up, this aging process from your 20s through your 40s, and how it shapes your personality.

Early 20s: This is when you’ve just gotten out of college, where you were first exposed to a whole variety of new ideas and people that (hopefully) blew your mind, and you are now excited about applying what you’ve drawn from all that to the rest of the world. As a result, you think you know everything. Case in point: I remember when, at 25 or so, I met up with some 22-ish former frosh of mine who had just graduated, and before I even knew I was asking for it (because I wasn’t), they quickly started giving me advice. Sure, it was amusing at first, and I kind of liked being able to say, “Yeah, it’s not so easy as that, you’ll see,” but of course they didn’t see at the time, because how could they possibly know how much there was out there to learn? Which ultimately makes these folks insufferable to anyone older who isn’t really just interested in having sex with them — and even then they still are, but you’ll put up with it if the sex is that good/important to your self-image.

Mid-to-late 20s: By this time, you have figured out there’s a lot you don’t know about the world, but you think that’s a good thing, and so consider it your oyster. You have that feeling of possibility and the desire to try almost anything once. This is a great age to try on a new career, or go traveling by yourself.  People in their late 20s also sometimes have the magical ability to make those of us who are older feel young. When I was last dating, in my late 30s, I found more men in their late 20s to be interested in me than men who were more age-appropriate. Why? Because they were curious and unafraid. It’s kind of wonderful, really. Even now, I still can’t help but like people in their late 20s, at least for the first half hour.

Early-to-mid-30s: this is when you start to think you’re old enough to have acquired “wisdom.” You’re far enough from your childhood and teen years that you have some perspective on them and, especially if you’ve finally started therapy, you’re discovering how damaged they made you, so that everything becomes about trying to figure out exactly why you are the way you are. So this is an age when you are really in danger of oversharing. My example of encountering this age group is when I went to a games conference recently where (surprise) everyone was younger than me, including nearly all of the presenters. Many had a lot to say — after all, they were chosen to speak for a reason — and many of them did actually have interesting experiences that were enlightening to me. But then there were others. One of the speakers talked about a disaffected rockstar who flamed out just before her time, as if his view of the world was a defining moment in history. I get that it was for her generation, but, no, it wasn’t for everyone. To some us, his disillusionment was part of a continuum — because we knew about punk, and the Smiths, and I mean, we were Generation X, for crying out loud, we invented disaffection. Oh, no, wait, the activists of the 60s did that — I mean, the social reformers of the 30s did that — I mean…you see what I mean. Suffice to say, this is another very navel-gazing time, and especially, again, for those damn Millennials, some of whom are arriving there right about now.

Mid-to-late-30s to early 40s: I think this, as a time period, is the hardest to define in the kind of broad and obnoxious strokes that I’m using here, because by this time people’s experiences — even in the tiny subset of the first-world-upper-educated-middle that I set out at the beginning — have really diverged. Some are married, some aren’t, some have families, some don’t, some have careers, some are realizing they don’t. I think what they often have in common, however, is that now that they’ve re-examined the past to death, they start to look more closely at the present. Very often, they start to see that their lives are potentially half over, and start to question the choices they’ve made — hence the term “mid-life crisis.”

Mid-40s: This is when we all definitely know we’ve hit middle age, because we get really cranky. It’s amazing anyone can stand anyone by the time we get here, because we are all such a compendium of past joys and disasters. Sometimes it seems we are like pinballs, bouncing between bumpers of pain and annoyance. And because of this you finally realize that being honest about how you’re really feeling doesn’t always solve things. Sometimes, in fact, it makes things worse. But there’s also a wonderful acceptance that comes at this point, when you realize you’re kind of stuck with yourself, and that not everything and not everybody out there is going to work for you. For situations in which you have to spend extended periods of time with people — work, travel, romantic relationships — you need to find those who complement you, in that their jagged edges somehow fit yours. Relationships and situations that don’t do that can just be exhausting, because you’re sure that they are pissing you off on purpose, when really they’re just being what or who they are. Sure, something about how you make each other crazy is what brought you together, and sometimes you can get to a point where you only allow them to make you crazy in a good way while avoiding the bad, but that takes a lot of work. In the end, you’ll probably look back on those experiences and say you’re glad you had them, but you’re really glad you’re not having them any more. 

Now, reading back, it seems like I’ve been more than fair, given that I’ve somehow managed to make people the age I am now sound worse than everyone else. Swell. For a similarly gloomy take on the late 40s, 50s and 60s, tune in again in the unfortunately-not-too-distant future. 

But here’s the thing: we need each other. Okay, “need” might be a strong word, as in “I need for these younger people to recognize how cool I am,” which I totally do not. Or maybe a little, being ignored always brings out the pathetic high school reject in me. Still, the point I’m trying to make is that, as far apart as we often seem, we will do much better work if we work together. Those young whippersnappers could benefit from a little bit of our experience, even if they don’t realize it, and we would profit from some of their fresh outlook and insouciance, even if it sometimes drives us nuts. Since we were once them and they will eventually be us, you would think this wouldn’t be so hard, but of course, that’s also what makes it that way. We can tell each other “Don’t think like that,” and yet it is somewhat inevitable that we must.

All I can say is, young ‘uns, I get where you’re coming from, I really do. I know how fascinating the world can look through your eyes, and I would never want to deny you the pleasure of that — and the pain of being disabused of it — even if I could. But someday, you will be my age, and you will be just as frustrated with the cult of the new idea, and how little we sometimes seem to value what, and who, came before us. 

Utah?

I spent a large portion of last week at Tribeca Hacks Mobile, Tribeca Storyscapes and TFI Interactive. In fact, I was so busy at those events (and before that working on two commercials and before that spending Passover with my family in Pennsylvania and before that not actually knowing that the festival had started, oops) that I didn’t make it to any of the rest of the Tribeca Film Festival, in spite of the fact that there were films there that I wanted to see, including some by folks I know. But I guess that’s indicative of where my head is at these days: focused more on thinking about interactive storytelling and everything that entails (or could) and less about traditional filmmaking.

I can’t say it’s easy for me to switch gears, change horses, jump tracks, fill-in-your-own-dying-technology-metaphor-here. I’ve been in the “traditional” realm of storytelling for a while and it’s a little difficult — okay, a LOT — to shake my brain loose from that way of doing things. Let the audience pick the direction of a story? Let them generate their own content that we can not only share but also maybe represent on a map or a graph?  Er, is that a game? Is it an infographic? What the heck IS that?

Yeah, letting go is hard — of what you thought you knew, of believing you’re good at a kind of storytelling that you thought was going to be leading us into future rather than maybe getting left behind, of control of the story itself. And while giving up that control is something several people talked about in their presentations at TFIi on Saturday, it’s easier to look at in the abstract and nod your head and say, “Oh, that’s cool, oh totally,” than to actually do when it comes to your own work. Being part of a Tribeca Hacks team was a good exercise in letting go, not only because every other person on my team was sort of a multipath tech/design rockstar who could code, but because you have to give up a lot of control to work with a group of four other people who have just as many ideas as you do if not more. It’s amazing our team and three others managed to come up with cool and executable ideas for interactive mobile storytelling in 32 hours and didn’t just implode from the mass of all of those egos and brains trying to converge under pressure on to one workable concept (as the fifth team sadly did).

It’s invigorating to be around so many people trying to figure out how to blend/smash all of this potential for storytelling and interactivity together and bake it into something new. A lot of the projects I’ve seen so far seem like they emerged primarily from one realm — film & journalism or games or tech — but haven’t quite integrated the others. But I find what’s not being done yet as encouraging as what is, because it means the gatekeepers are few and there is no one right way right now, that there are so many avenues to explore and so much left to do that I know there’s a place for me, which is especially comforting given how I’ve been questioning my place in the traditional film business. 

And though, true, I didn’t make it to the rest of the festival, I was kind of surprised I didn’t see more filmmakers from the rest of the festival at the interactive events. Yes, I know of what a festival is like for people who go there with their films, it’s crazy with parties and shmoozing and trying to sell yourself and your project, and if what you’re looking for is a distribution deal for your current film or money for your next one, you’re probably not seeing any reason to waste your time elsewhere. (For the record, the parties on the interactive side were good too, especially if you like gin, which was flowing generously at the Bombay Sapphire House of Imagination and was also all they were serving). But I think any filmmaker would have benefited from seeing the amazing things that the storytellers who are starting to blur the lines between these media are making. It made me think a lot, and what creative person couldn’t do with more thinking?  

A number of the filmmakers I did see were other women, minorities, and LGBT folks. That partly reflects the curation of the organizers at TFI, of course, and they should be given credit for promoting diversity at the event through the projects and the presenters they chose. But I think that’s not entirely why they had that kind of turnout. Sure, one could see it as ironic, since we all know that if there’s one area that’s less hospitable than film to those who aren’t white and male and straight, it’s tech. But from another perspective it makes perfect sense, especially given the conversations I had with those filmmakers about how frustrated we all feel with the film industry, and how we’re looking for where else we can go with what we do, what we think about, and what we think we can do.

I guess I’d like to believe that those of us who don’t see ourselves in film or tech are forced by our outsider status to be innovative thinkers who want to combine the two. Frustrated with what we’ve experienced in the land of traditional media and looking for a new place that will welcome us, we’re seeking out what’s next. As an atheist Jew I wouldn’t say I have much in common with the Pilgrims or the Mormons, but I understand now how when you aren’t welcome where you are, you decide to strike out on the frontier. Maybe you’ll find a new world. Or Utah.

Who Cares About Tom Lehrer?

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I recently read this piece in BuzzFeed about Tom Lehrer. It’s worth reading, not just because it’s astounding to see something from BuzzFeed that isn’t numbered and contains more than a paragraph of text, but because it’ll tell you something about someone whose work was pretty great and, I think, necessary. Lehrer was a composer of satirical songs in the 1950s and 60s. I grew up listening to his albums (mixed in with Monty Python, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, among others) and I learned quite a bit about the world from them, if in sort of a warped way. Some of my favorite ditties of his were about such hilarious subjects as the Catholic Church (“The Vatican Rag”), subtraction (“New Math”), the American South (“I Wanna Go Back to Dixie”), nuclear proliferation (“Who’s Next?”), and destruction of the environment (“Pollution”). My parents, as I’ve mentioned before, were politically active, but instead of trying to get their kids interested in politics by talking to them about them, they sneakily just exposed us to Tom Lehrer. He also wrote about topics that weren’t so pertinent but just displayed his sick sense of humor and quick lyrical wit, which of course, as a kid, I loved, in songs like “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” (about murder and dismemberment) and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” (self-explanatory).

I found out from the article that Lehrer is still alive, although he basically drifted out of music decades ago. He started performing while he was a student at Harvard (which he entered at age 15, receiving his BA in 1946) and the success of some of his early performances encouraged him to make some recordings — which sold well, although they weren’t played on the radio at the time due to their “distasteful” subject matter. He performed in nightclubs and at concerts around the U.S. until he gave that up in the early 1960s, only doing a couple of international tours in the late 60s. He did write music for the satirical TV show That Was the Week that Was in the 1960s, including many of his most political songs, and for PBS’s The Electric Company in the 1970s (including “Silent E,” for you Electric Company fans). His last public performance was in 1972 on a fundraising tour for the George McGovern, but there are videos of him performing for classes at UC Santa Cruz, where he eventually went to teach musical theater in the history department, as well as math, while still maintaining a house in Cambridge (he finally gave up on finishing his Harvard dissertation in 1965).

Why he left music, and why he eventually stopped doing interviews, isn’t entirely clear. People speculated that it was in protest of Henry Kissinger’s having been given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 (which Lehrer commented made political satire obsolete), or because he was forced to relinquish his royalties to Nazi-turned-American rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun after being sued by him for libel (the lyrics to the 1965 song Lehrer wrote about him include, “‘Once rockets are up, who cares where they come down/That’s not my department’ says Wernher von Braun”). But Lehrer said both of these rumors were untrue. It sounds like it was more a combination of his discomfort with fame, his dislike of touring and his distaste for the New Left and the 1960s counterculture that eclipsed his brand of political liberalism. I can understand that, I suppose, but what makes me sad is how often Lehrer is quoted as saying that his work doesn’t matter. In 2011, he gave away his master tapes to someone he hardly knew — albeit a fan and archivist — saying, “I don’t care! They’re not worth anything to me.” I think any artist can relate to that sentiment: refusing to care because it’s safer not to, then you won’t be disappointed or hurt when people reject your work, devalue it or attack it, or forget it. It’s part of the thick skin you try to develop to protect the sensitivity that goes along with putting something creative and personal out into the world.

So I understand it, but that doesn’t meant I’m going to let it slide, because Lehrer’s work was worth something; in fact, it was important. People talk about Weird Al Yankovic and Tim Minchin as successors because they are also musicians, but Second City, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and perhaps all of late night television spring from the Tom Lehrer well of biting and irreverent humor. Not to mention that many people of my generation who were interested in comedy, which now includes the writers from many of these shows and much of what else is on television, were influenced by him. Moreover, in this day and age, satire is perhaps more necessary than ever. Now, I value sensitivity — I’m not a “First Amendment at all cost” type who thinks everything is fair game for humor. I’m used to having guys say to me, “Oh don’t get your panties in a twist” about yet another dumb blond or Jewish American Princess joke (which I actually don’t really bother to take on because they’re just your basic, stereotype-perpetuating insult, and people who like this kind of humor are generally too unsophisticated to see what’s wrong with that) or unnecessary, “chuckle-inducing” rape reference (which I do get irritated about, because someone needs to make the men who make rape jokes think about, hmm, how exactly is getting overcharged or criticized or beaten at a video game just like getting raped? Yeah, NOT SO MUCH), or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-own-most-hated-form-of-white-bro-“yo-dude-it’s-just-a-joke”-joke-here. But the job of satire is to use dark humor to point out the dark truth, to take on the wrongs of the world by exposing and then laughing at them. Sometimes, it’s really the only way to deal with subjects that are just so upsetting that there’s nothing you can do but laugh so that you don’t cry. When I was a kid, I would lie awake at night worrying about nuclear annihilation, but Tom Lehrer was still able to make me think and laugh about it in “So Long, Mom” (“So long, Mom/I’m off to drop the bomb/So don’t wait up for me/But though I may roam/I’ll come back to my home/Although it may be/A pile of debris”). In an era when media and entertainment and politics are continually trying to get you to turn off your brain, we need humor that does the opposite more than ever.

And that’s why I don’t want us to let his work fade into obscurity. I worry about the loss of Stephen Colbert to late night network television, where he’ll no longer be playing the Colbert Report version of himself who satirizes the right and the media with such laser-like accuracy.  And I worry that important voices will be cowed by campaigns like #CancelColbert, which I think do more to quash serious discussion of the topics they say are important than encourage them — whereas satire generally seeks to inspire debate. I like Jimmy Fallon (and especially that his house band is the Roots), but humor that seeks only to be likable is not very challenging.

Smart satire matters.  And so does Tom Lehrer.  (Sorry, Mr. Lehrer).

Improvise

I worked on a film a while ago with a bunch of somewhat known actors — some of them were people whose names you’d recognize, some were people whose faces you’d recognize, and at least one was one of those hot up-and-coming types who’d recently been in a Woody Allen movie. The director had made a number of low-budget movies, one of which had garnered some attention and good press, but he was, overall, definitely lower in stature than his cast. Anyone can tell you that this is a bad position to be in, but he then made it worse by letting the actors improvise.

Now, I love watching actors work, and booming gives you an excellent vantage point from which to do that. You really come to appreciate the ones who can somehow make their performances original, fresh and powerful take after take after take, while still getting all of their lines right and hitting their marks — the ones who know their craft inside and out. David Strathairn, Catherine Keener, they are that kind of actor. Then there are the more methody actors, who can get there, and sometimes to more unexpected places, but they need to get “into character.” Everyone on the crew of The Sopranos loved Jim Gandolfini, but he was known to tear up his trailer getting ready for particularly angry scenes, of which there were many. But they are still amazing – even the actors who choose to stay in character all the time, like the ones who play a jerk by actually being a jerk, are still a sight to behold when they turn it on for the camera. Bearing your soul in that way is just not something I can ever imagine doing. I studied up on my Meisner and Strasberg back in film school to learn how to work with actors, but I never took the step of trying to learn it from the inside because acting so scares the crap out of me. I understand what they do intellectually, but the balls that it takes to really do it, 100%, are pretty fucking substantial – that’s why you see a lot of actors who regularly squeak by with a 20-30% performance, which they can get away with if they’re hot, which, let’s face it, most of them are.

However, actors are, without a doubt, the neediest people on the planet. If there is attention to be had, they want to be not just the center of it but the epicenter. That’s why they’re actors. Now, I’m not saying that they can’t be giving. A large part of acting is about reacting, which requires playing, nicely or not, with others, so most of them have to know how to give at least a little. But let them and they will just take take take like the handsome incubi they are.

This is where the director is supposed to come in. To use a nautical analogy (so many film terms are nautical), the director is supposed to be the captain of this ship that is the film we are all making. The cast and crew will, hopefully, all know their jobs very well — they might be really good at rowing, looking out from the crow’s nest, swabbing the poopdeck or whatever — but they tend to be narrowly focused on those jobs and not on the destination to which the ship is supposed to be sailing. It’s partly the fact that one person has to be in charge – unless they’re making a commercial, in which case the ship is being captained by committee, and you can imagine how well that works out – and partly because the film is supposed to be the director’s vision, and therefore he or she is going to be the only one who can fully see what it should be, and the only person whose entire agenda is bringing that vision to fruition. Everyone else sees the film through his or her own narrow set of priorities. Cinematographers will noodle around forever trying to get the lighting to look good if you let them, because that’s what they think is most important. Assistant directors will just want to keep moving and make the day even if what they’ve shot is shit. Sound people, given the option, will light everything from the side and film it all in close up so that it can be easily boomed. And actors will want to act until they’ve chewed up all of the scenery and possibly some of their co-stars, because that is their raison d’etre.

So, on this film, one of the actors managed to work his way into a good cry at some point in all of his scenes — none of which had originally involved crying, and many of which were supposed to be funny. The couple, who were supposed to be madly in love, would always end up in a fight. Scenes would lose their endings that were supposed to act as segueways to the next part of the plot, and just continue into uncharted waters, with discussions that perhaps these characters might have had in real life, if they’d decided to explore the deeper questions of their psyches, only they wouldn’t do that because for one, nobody does that, and for another, they’re characters in a movie. We’re not watching these people because they’re actual people, we’re watching them because some writer has carefully crafted a plot for them to move around in.  

Now of course, I was partly (or perhaps largely) resentful of this because the longer these people improvised, the longer I had to keep holding the pole with the mic on it over their heads. Plus, not knowing which actor is going to say what next is never a good situation to be in when you’re supposed to be pointing the mic at the person who is speaking. Now, I’m willing to suffer to a certain degree for somebody else’s art — that is, after all, my day job – but I’m not willing to suffer for self-indulgent dreck, or when a director is basically using actors to give a script a rewrite because he doesn’t know how to do it himself. Improvisation can be a great tool, allowing actors to find their way into the script by using their own words, or for finding a fix for some problematic dialogue. And some actors are good writers, and many are great directors. But the problem with improvisation is that, left purely to its own devices, it doesn’t know how to get there – and by “there” I mean anywhere. The idea of improv, going back to Meisner, is to keep playing off of each other, reacting and reacting and reacting in an endless pinballing of energy, keeping the balloon in the air for as long as you can. But if there’s no direction, no goal, no script to come back to, nobody to eventually drive the bus (ship, whatever), then it just adds up to a fun but ultimately pointless exercise. Sketch comedy: yes. Crime drama: not so much.

So the improvisation on this movie made me tired, and sore, and resentful, and despairing for the future of the film we were making, if not for film in general. But truth be told, there might have been more to it than that. I’ve finally realized, here, in middle age, that I am not a spontaneous person. Seriously, I’ve tried. I love the idea of spontaneity: let’s order a round of shots, crash a party, go dancing until the wee hours, jump in the car and drive to AC! But then at some point, you have to wake up hung over, exhausted, at noon, in South Jersey, with no clean underwear. I love the idea of living in the moment, but I’ve always been too practical to not think ahead to the not having of the clean underwear – to what’s going to happen next. There have been rare times when I’ve been able to somewhat shed the shackles of this boring foresightedness (traveling by yourself in a foreign country is actually great for forcing you to do this), but in general, I’m too reflective, too self-conscious, a compulsive futurist. I think I’ve always been like this, but the older I get, the more I like to have a plan. It’s so cool when someone asks me to do something right now, but the problem is that, at least in my mind, right now has usually been spoken for, as has the rest of the day and possibly the rest of the week too, if not with actual plans then with things I was supposed to do yesterday but didn’t because I was playing Carcassonne or taking one more lap around the park on my bike because it’s finally spring. Hmm, I guess the only thing I really do well spontaneously is procrastinate.

Only now I’m at this point where I’ve lost my Plan. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I started making stop-motion films with my stuffed animals and my super-8 camera and Ektachrome back in 1977, but it wasn’t like I knew that’s what I would do with my life — because it’s not the kind of practical thing that anybody who is a planner would actually plan to do. But when I went ahead and applied to film school, then got in, it seemed decided, that this was The Plan.  Little did I know that The Plan of age 21, which would have had me, by now, established in a career as a successful writer-director who got full creative control to make whatever movies she wanted, oh, and I was also supposed to have children, would really just be the beginning of a 25-odd-year existential struggle.  Nothing ever turns out the way you think, I know, but this really didn’t at all.

So what am I supposed to do now?  Improvise. Yeah, at 45, I have to learn how to do that. And as if I didn’t fight it enough before, when I was just talking about something fun and unimportant, like ordering pizza at 2 am, now it’s just about, you know, my future.

Last night I saw Particle Fever, the pretty awesome documentary about the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Switzerland, and the discovery of the Higgs boson. The Higgs was known in some circles as the “God particle” because it was the one key particle from the Standard Model of matter that held everything together, and that hadn’t yet actually been proven to exist. In the documentary, there are a number of theoretical physicists who are hoping that, when the LHC finally smashes its particles together, it will prove theories they’ve been working on for the past 20 or 30 years. When, at one point, it seems that what has been discovered might just mean that their entire careers have been wasted, one of the physicists jokes that “jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the secret of success.”  

This is a good thing to keep in mind. Every plan or Plan has the potential to fail — and even if you succeed, then what? I know folks who became stock option millionaires at 30 and had no idea what to do with the rest of their lives. So here’s to learning, hopefully with undiminished enthusiasm, to improvise, to keep going, and to come up with whatever comes next – no matter how tired my arms get.

When The Right Thing To Do Is Wrong

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The other night I was on my way home from dinner with friends in Dumbo (a neighborhood in Brooklyn, for those of you who aren’t familiar, named for the acronym, “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” Yes, they just really wanted to name the place Dumbo.) Due to the vagaries of subway routes in our fair borough, this is always much harder than is should be. Despite that I don’t live far from Dumbo, it has one train, and I have one train on weekends, and the two don’t intersect — and on top of that there was track work on both lines, so neither was running where it should have been anyway. So, since it was around 10:30 pm on a warmish night, I decided to do what has become my default plan for Dumbo, and Citibike to my train — the only other real option being to take a cab, on which I was loathe to spend the 20 bucks.

I was going at a fairly decent clip when a woman flagged me down.  She looked decently put-together, so I stopped.  

“Thank you so much for stopping, you know, I’ve been out here for so long and you’re the only person who stopped!” she said with what seemed to be genuine urgency.  “Can you help me? I need to Google roadside assistance.”

“Okay,” I said cautiously.

“See,” she said, the words coming fast and furious, “my car won’t start.  My gas tank says it’s half full but I think there’s something wrong with it.  It’s right over there.”

I started walking in the direction she pointed.

“I got the cops helping me but you see, they say because they’re a government agency, they’re not allowed to look up who to call.”

“Really?”

“No, they can only contact Triple A, and I don’t have Triple A.”

“Okay…And you said the cops are over there by your car?”

“Can you slow down please?  Sorry, I’m in these heels, and I’m a woman, so I can’t hurt you.” She was a lot bigger than me, actually, but she wearing heels, and I was making her walk kind of fast, because I was realizing where I was: in a pretty deserted area near the Navy Yard and a bunch of projects. So I did slow down, but I didn’t stop walking.

“See, that’s the precinct right there.” She pointed to a building that did look like a police precinct, but it was hard to tell in the dark. “Please, I’m not one of them. I just need help and nobody would stop.”

“Okay, and, so…Why can’t the police help you?” I was still trying to make sense of this.

“Because they’re government officials, they can take me to get the gas can filled, but they can’t pay for it. See, that’s my car right there.” She pointed up ahead. There were a couple of cars, but there definitely weren’t any cops.

“I just need $8 to get over the bridge.“

That was when I realized that the story had changed, and now it was about money. She was just asking for money.  

She must have seen my reaction to this because she said, again, “Please, I’m not one of them.”

I reached into my pocket. "If I have it I’ll give it to you.” I’d just paid for dinner so I knew I didn’t have eight dollars, I had two singles and 20s. But now I just wanted to get out of there, so I gave her a 20.

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome. Good luck.”

As I took off, my mind was racing back over the interaction. Had anything she’d been saying made sense? Was her first plan to take my cell phone and run? Or was that just the initial way to keep my interest? Or could she really have been telling the truth but just panicky and unsure what to do?

I got to a red light and I stopped. A guy was standing at the corner, also waiting for the light. He looked at me.

“I hope you didn’t,” he said.

I sighed. “I did.”

He shook his head. “Well you have a nice night.”

“You too,” I said.

So: I’d done the wrong thing. And this being my 24th year in the city, I should have known better. I should have known better than to stop and put myself in what wasn’t a safe situation in the first place, and I should have known better than to be taken in by someone with a story. Moreover, because what she said was so calculated and convincing, this woman had clearly gone through what the person who stopped would likely be thinking and how to get around it (“I’m a woman so I can’t hurt you”; “I’m not one of them”). In other words, she’d probably done this before. Maybe that just made her just a good con artist, but when it comes to con artists, junkies are among the best. $20 would buy a fair amount of drugs. So I probably hadn’t even helped her.

But what else could I have done? There are people who believe in absolutes: that you should never give money to people because you encourage a “culture of dependency,” which in my book is the conservative bullshit excuse to not give a damn about anyone else; or that you should always give to those who ask no matter what because you have more than you need, which I don’t believe either, because money isn’t always the best way to help people and I don’t need to soothe my conscience that badly. I look at each situation differently. Here was a woman asking for help, and I didn’t know that she wasn’t genuinely in trouble. All evidence to the contrary, I still don’t know for sure. So, wouldn’t I do the same thing again?

I’ve thought about this a lot this past week and played it out in my head every which way. I always obsess about things I’ve done and what I could have done differently, but I’ve also been on this track lately considering the intersection of games and movies and real life, where interactive media is heading and where I might be able to go with it. It’s had me thinking about the old text games I used to play as a kid, "Haunted House“ and ”Zork,“ and those ”Choose Your Own Adventure“ books, as well as new “games” by people like Nina Freeman and Auriea Harvey (like this one and this one), that take on real life scenarios that they want people to think about or experience interactively. In my head, most of the scenarios where I stop to help this woman turn out badly. The one that actually happened is perhaps one of the better ones from my perspective, because I only lost $20 and left just feeling stupid. From hers, I don’t know. If the money was for drugs, then perhaps I left her worse off, but on the other hand, if I hadn’t given her the money, what ultimately would have changed for her? And the ones where I don’t stop turn out badly too. If she’s telling the truth, she might be stuck there all night, or she might get hurt herself in that neighborhood. If she’s not, she’ll find someone else – and I’ll still feel bad for not stopping. And if I’d spent that $20 on a cab instead and never even passed her by, I’d feel bad for having spent $20 on that that I could have better spent elsewhere.

Overall in life, if we regret the things we should have done but didn’t, and repent the things we shouldn’t have done but did, I am way more filled with regret than with repentance. So, what was the right thing to do?  What would you have done?

On Creativity: Why Make Things?

As maybe you’ve noticed, I’m not too high on the whole movie-making thing at the moment. Some might even say bitter. What, just because I go a little ranty from time to time about things I see in the industry like greed, sexism, and overall contempt for humanity?

Okay, I’m bitter. I have been for a while, but the big mistake I made, where I really turned the corner into negativity, happened maybe a year and a half ago when I started to ask myself (as part of this whole midlife whatever), “Why am I doing all of this? Why do I want to be a filmmaker at all? If I can’t support myself and afford to live decently without having to always worry about money, and maybe, I don’t know, have children, is it really worth it? What the hell am I getting out of all of this?”

Going back a bit, for those of you who don’t know (read: haven’t read my earlier blogs and so are wasting everyone else’s time with recap, yawn), I got into this business because I wanted to be a filmmaker. I got a graduate degree in film production because I wanted to be a writer and director and then I started working in the film industry because I felt like it was the best way to learn about how things were done in the professional world. I had started doing sound for people at film school and got a good reputation for it (that and camera assisting, the two, detail-oriented jobs that nobody wants because people only notice your work when you screw up — come on, we all know it’s true). People started to recommend me outside of school, and I took up booming as a way to meet sound people who might hire me. For a long time, I did that and wrote screenplays which never won the Nicholl, or anything else. High point: a nice rejection letter from Sandra Bullock’s production company, and if you don’t think that means anything, you’re dead to me.

But screenwriting in the wind (even for money, so I’m told) is not the most fulfilling pursuit because you’re not creating a finished product. You’re making something that’s a blueprint for a movie, but that deliberately leaves out a lot of the flesh involved in the fleshing-out part of making one because you want to leave room for the director and actors to fill in the details themselves. Plus, until the film gets made, you are just picturing Sandra Bullock saying your dialogue in your mind, and while that’s fun, it’s not really enough after a while if you give two shits about closure. (Which is why more than a few of my colleagues from film school and the business have given up screenwriting and are now published authors — four I can recall of off the top of my head). So around 2000, because I hadn’t completed anything of my own since my thesis, I decided to shoot and direct a small, pet-project documentary by myself on my Hi-8 camera. It looks and sounds kind of terrible, took five years to finish, and almost nobody saw it, but it had some insightful parts and was, yes, what we call all failed ventures, “a learning experience.” I spent another couple dead New York winters writing screenplays and traveling, and then, with a new documentary idea, a co-director/DP and two co-producers, I made another film, which got a grant and turned out really well, I think, and went to a handful of festivals — none of the big ones, but some good ones. High point: Stephen Colbert mentioned it at the end of his show, which made all of our friends freak out and gave us one full-house festival screening.

But then the film, which had to do with the war and came out around the time when everyone was basically sick of hearing about the war, kinda went nowhere. Now, mind you, “nowhere,” when it comes to documentaries, is a relative term. A few people did see the film at festivals and at community screenings, and you can watch it on iTunes and Amazon and Google Play and via a handful of other online distributors. But we still have no broadcast deal and we haven’t gotten any of our or our investors’ money back. Sure, we all kind of knew going in that we weren’t going to get rich, because you don’t make documentaries to get rich. But I did kind of think we’d break even, that the film would be more widely seen, and, most importantly, that it would move me to the next step of my career, where I could actually start to get paid to not just do sound on but actually make things for a living. But that’s not how it went, and as it turns out, that’s not that unusual. Many or perhaps even most documentarians don’t make a living at documentaries. There are a few, like Ken Burns and Michael Moore, who get to choose what they want to make and make a film every three to five years or so. Then there are a handful of other folks like Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple and Nanette Burstein who direct commercials or TV for hire every once in a while to earn money between making their own docs. Then there is pretty much everyone else, who has a supportive spouse and/or a side job, either teaching or working long, hard days in production or post, like I do. And you already kind of know what I think about that as a lifestyle choice.

Look, I’ve worked on some amazing projects and witnessed many phenomenal scenes being brought to to life. I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from watching talented actors turn in kick-ass performances, and do it perfectly and originally again and again and again (although it can be hard to enjoy it if they really do it again and again and again as a boom op, especially if there’s a lot of spontaneous head turning or screaming involved). But while being an actor or DP or editor does involve that act of creation, even when it’s on another person’s project, location sound is just about getting clean tracks. The only creative part might be the problem-solving, and that’s why you sometimes see sound people go out of their way to cleverly plant a mic in a vase of flowers, or hide a wireless lav inside a doctor character’s pocket pen. But the bulk of your workdays in the sound department are spent just figuring how to make it sound good — which, a lot of the time, given the challenges of noisy locations and lack of time and working around the lighting and the low-cut dress made out of something scratchy as hell or the occasional actor who hates being wired, means making it just not sound bad. For me, that isn’t creative and isn’t enough, because watching great creativity happen is not the same as creating something yourself. It’s just not.

“But so what?” I began asking myself. Sure, at some point, I had made having the opportunity to be creative a high priority in my life, but why?  I mean, for one thing, to do something creative for a living (as I talked about here), you need to have driving ambition — which I’m not sure I’ve ever had. An ambition for what? To impress people? To show everyone I could do it? To convey some higher truth? To get at some universal meaning for us all and bond over it? Am I a big enough narcissist to think that’s what I’m doing when I make things?  

To be rich and famous? Honestly, I’d always looked down on people who got into the film business for that, but now I was starting to think, well duh. Dorothy Parker once said, “I want nothing from Hollywood but money and anyone who tells you that he came here for anything else or tries to make beautiful words out of it lies in the teeth.” In other words, what the hell else were you really expecting to get? So few people in the industry are creatively satisfied, and if they are, they’re dissatisfied in some other way — like they’re pissed off about the fact that nobody recognizes their genius, they can’t pay their rent, or that nobody has given them $4 million to make a film on Kickstarter (doesn’t mean I think you deserved it, Zach Braff, just that people should get over it).

There was one good thing that did come out of all this wallowing. I remembered how once, a few years ago, perhaps during my last mid-life crisis (the one that happened in my 30s), my mother sighed and said to me, “Maybe we should have pushed you into something more practical.”  So then I realized: it was all their fault. I chose to be a filmmaker because I had overindulgent parents who always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, provided I didn’t break stuff or poison myself. And even when I did break stuff, like when they went away to California for a week and I had a party at the house and my friend Peter broke both the screen door and one of the bean bag chairs by riding it down the stairs, they thought it was funny — because I was generally such a good kid that they found a little bit of rule-breaking amusing. This didn’t shed light on any of the bigger existential questions I’d been facing, like why I’m still making films, or whether I should keep making films, but it did make it so at least now I had someone to blame.  

So there was that, but beyond it, I was kind of adrift, and I decided I wasn’t going to put my energy into any new films until I figured this out. I quit my screenwriting group. I stopped researching documentary ideas. I applied for a job at a big company and got rejected (after taking a test and doing four interviews back to back). I took an online class. I wallowed some more.

What I never stopped doing entirely, though, was making stuff. I’ve been taking photographs since high school and it was one thing I never really thought seriously about making a living at, so it’s never been freighted the way film is with my own and other people’s expectations. So when I stopped having an official place to put my creativity, I started just putting it there. Then, I started blogging. I mean, I had to write something, and nobody was reading it, so that didn’t matter either. Then a short time after that, my husband, a musician who was designing his own software to make music, had his own midlife crisis and decided maybe he should try put his creativity more into the software side of things. He started designing apps for a broader audience, then suggested we try making apps together. Last weekend, we even had our own two-person game jam, where we came up with a game, he wrote the code and I wrote the words (it’s a word-heavy game), and we finished a prototype in a weekend. I even took a hiatus from my hiatus from film and made a trailer for our first game, reasoning that it didn’t really count as a film per se the way I’d thought of them before because it was only 35 seconds long and I didn’t have to invest five years of my life in it.

What did all of this creative output have in common? That I got some direct return? That other people thought I was great because of it? That it’s all helping me get somewhere? No. It’s that I got a bizarre and perhaps foolhardy (considering the time commitment) amount of satisfaction out of just making this shit, and that I kind of like looking at and reading and watching it all and thinking, “Ok, cool.”

So, why make things? Well, because, still, in spite of everything, I just like making things. I’m glad I remembered that, because it’s really easy to forget when you’re trying to get something else out of it. And ultimately, if you’re creating for anyone other than yourself — and I don’t mean who’s paying for it, or who’s your audience, I mean who has to be made happy by it — it’s never going to feel worth it. Plus, making things means taking the risk of putting yourself out there and expressing your own ideas. The world needs more new ideas, and I know that a good kid like me, at least, needs to take more risks. They help me understand what I’m capable of.

And today, there really are no excuses not to make things. The creative process plus digital technology now equals access for so many of us who didn’t really have it back when I was shooting 16 mm and editing it on a flatbed with NYU’s equipment (yes, I am that old). Like taking photos? Use your phone and, if you want, share it five different places.  Want to make a film? Use the same phone, or if you can, spend $600 on a DSLR, then cut it on your laptop and share that (and by spending not too much more and doing a little research, you can also avoid having the sound be sucky, which I highly recommend). Have something to say? Write a blog. Maybe nobody will read it, or maybe eventually they will. At the very least, your family and your friends and maybe even your “friends” will see it. Maybe they’ll “like” it, and even actually like it. They’ll at least know you made something, and, more importantly, you’ll know.

So I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I know I’m going to keep making things. Because you know what it is that really makes you bitter about not making things?  Not making things.

You Think It’s About Magic But It’s Really About Money

Like many people in the film industry, my mind this week has been on Sarah Jones.  Sarah was a second assistant camera (the person who transports cameras and lenses, helps the focus puller take measurements to get the focus right and slates the take, among other things) who was killed by a train one week ago today during a shoot in Georgia for a film called Midnight Rider.  Sarah and her fellow crew members, along with the film’s producer-director Randall Miller and the actor William Hurt, were setting up to shoot a scene on train tracks running across a bridge.  It now seems more and more clear that they didn’t have permission to shoot on those tracks, and when an unexpected train came through, Sarah couldn’t get to safety in time.  You can read the details of what we currently know about the incident here.

I didn’t know Sarah Jones, but this week I’ve been reading about her and looking at her picture.  She reminds me of a lot of second ACs and other folks I know, young people who are working their way up in the business because they love film and they want to be part of the process of making it.  She also reminds me a lot of me — the me I once was: someone who got into the business because I thought it was about magic.  I see these photos of Sarah and how happy she looks, how much fun she’s having, even though she’s basically just doing menial labor (just like I do).  She’s meeting people and having new experiences on every job, which is a big part of what makes the business fun when you’re first starting out.  More importantly, she’s working alongside talented actors and directors and cinematographers, and she wants and plans to be one of them some day (according to her obituary, she, like most people I know in the camera department, was indeed planning to be a cinematographer).

We, as crew people, want to be part of the magic.  One big reason why we come to the film industry is because it’s a place of fantasy, where you can have experiences you wouldn’t find anywhere else.  Depending on your job, you might get to crash a car, or make it rain, or watch people “fly,” or get “shot” and then magically rise up from the dead.  Sometimes you get to work with or even get to know people you’ve admired, or whose handsome faces you’ve seen staring down at you, their arresting brown eyes five feet wide in 3-D on an IMAX screen.  And you will unquestionably get to do something that challenges you, maybe even scares you a little and makes you feel daring, like light a city street from a small box at the top of a crane, or swing a 16-foot pole with a microphone on it from a twelve-foot-high ladder…or clap a slate in front of a camera sitting on an active railroad track.  And from your first day on a film set, you also come to accept that you, as an individual crew member, matter relatively little in this vast whirl of production that you’re a part of.  This is reinforced every time the 1st AD barks at someone who’s taking too long to do his or her job, or your superior makes it clear, however nicely, that you don’t really have time to leave set to go to the bathroom, or a star or director gets their ass kissed when they’re acting like a total asshole — because they actually have value.  And this is why you will work 14 hours without a break and without a complaint, in a blizzard when you don’t know how you’re going to get home at the end of the night, or somewhere, or somehow, that you feel deep down is unsafe: because you’ve been told, over and over again, that you are not important compared to the movie-making machine which must roll forward and the money that’s being hemorrhaged every minute you hold up the works asking, “But why?”

We have rules and we have safety meetings and we have unions to look out for us, yes.  We have reps, and we have shop stewards, and we have grips who are supposed to be keeping an eye on safety on set — along with rigging and setting stands and laying track and pushing the dolly and the 30 other things that make up a grip’s job.  But these folks can’t be everywhere at once, and, just like the rest of us, they can’t always stand up to the machine, especially when everyone is always in a hurry and making calls on the fly.  When crews band together, we can say “no” and pull the plug at 18 hours.  But nobody wants to be the first one to suggest that, because we all need to work for a living and get hired on the next job.  So enough people acquiesce to something, and then it becomes just one more crazy thing film crews do that nobody else in their right mind would.  Just this past week, I was on a crew that worked 15 hours, seven before lunch and eight after (I only worked 12 because I had a late call).  Most of the crew was outside in weather below freezing all day, because there wasn’t room for them inside the location.  Those who were inside, however, were breathing in artificial smoke from a smoke machine and fake cigarettes (which sure smells like real cigarette smoke to me on my clothes, still) for practically the entire day, some with barely a chance to get some fresh air.  Oh, and the set was roach-infested, as no small number of New York locations are.  And that was a good set — with a nice, first-class director and first AD and DP who were all professionals, who knew what they were doing, who worked as fast as they could and weren’t in any way unreasonable.  These types of working conditions are just the norm on a big set.  On equally big sets, I’ve fallen, burned myself on lights, received decent-sized shocks from improperly grounded power, and had stands topple over on me more times than I can remember.  On less professional ones, I’ve run backwards in traffic with nobody spotting me, I’ve lain on the floor of a moving car holding a microphone, or been asked to ride in a trunk.  These are things that I wouldn’t do now, because after 20+ years in the business, I’m old enough to know better and established enough to say “fuck that.”  Or would I?  I still regularly come home from work with bruises that I don’t know how I acquired.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I boomed a scene sitting close to the edge of a roof with no railing and no safety line, and didn’t even think twice about it until the actor in the scene said afterwards that he’d been worried about me.  I brushed it off as him being chivalrous because it had seemed perfectly safe to me and I’m no newbie.  But my perspective is based on what I’ve done and seen people do in this business.  Maybe it’s a little off.  Ultimately these decisions are supposed to be “above my pay grade.”  But if all the people who make them care about is money, then, sadly, their perspective is even farther off than mine.

You see, what happens to people like Sarah the longer they’re in the industry, at least what happened to me, is that the business becomes less and less magical the more you realize just how much it’s really about money.  No Hollywood project gets made just because it’s “good.”  Yes, good movies and TV shows do get made, but it’s a struggle — because you’re fighting the business, which dictates that your project has to be as risk-free an investment as possible.  How do you do that with what’s supposed to be a creative venture?  You make it derivative of something else that already made money (best of all, a derivative sequel); or you bring in ten hack writers to try to top each other’s previous tricks, adding more and more jokes and action and special effects, and in the process “smooth out” whatever made the script unique to begin with; or you test-market the shit out of your footage until you’ve got an ending that may make no sense but appeals to the greatest number of people — the lowest common denominator audience.  All of this costs more money, of course, but it’s okay to spend the most astronomical budget ever if it’s in the interest of making still more money.  And in that interest, it’s okay to hire large crews of disposable people to be cogs in the machine — because, while most moviegoers don’t realize it, those human beings are what it takes to do all of the jobs that make that machine move.  And it’s why those crews work incredibly long hours, and why safety often goes by the wayside: because, when astronomical amounts of money are being spent literally every minute, cutting all the corners you can to save a thousand dollars here and there becomes much more important than any of those individual human beings being paid $400-600/day – or maybe $300 if you’re working outside of New York or LA, or $100 with no overtime if you’re a PA, or $0 if you’re an intern.*

The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and a petition has been created to request that Sarah Jones be added to the “In Memoriam” segment. Someone named Tim Gray wrote a response in Variety, and his point was basically that “Every person shown in the segment will deserve to be there. But not every deserving person will be there, because time is limited.”  In other words, again, it’s about money.  The Academy Awards only have a limited amount of very expensive time between very expensive commercials, and they need to spend that time selling movies — because that’s what the Academy exists to do: sell Hollywood movies.  Anyone who has ever deluded themselves into thinking otherwise is ignoring the evidence presented by the lists of winners and losers over the years, which have far less to do with “merit” than with Hollywood congratulating itself about what Hollywood does best: make money.  Does anyone think Forest Gump or Titanic or Gladiator were really the best movies made in their respective years?  Sure, they were fine, but mainly, they just made lots and lots and lots of money.  Even when the movie that didn’t make the most money that year wins — as often happens, because that would just be too easy, then they could just take a look at the box office numbers and everyone could go home — it’s because it involves stars, directors and producers who have made lots of money, and must therefore be celebrated for their past (and future) success.

Putting Sarah Jones in the “In Memoriam” segment wouldn’t sell movies very well at all.  It might even make it clear that something is wrong with the way that they are made: that the value of money often trumps the value of humanity, sometimes even the value of a human life, in the business that has been built around them.  Everybody in this industry already knows that, but they don’t want the rest of the world to know it, to really think about it, because it might damage the magic just a little bit for everyone else the way that it’s been damaged for me.

Well, sorry about that, folks.  People need to take a hard look at Sarah’s death and ask, “How did this happen?”  Because until the audience pays attention to the dollar-driven reality that goes into manufacturing their fantasies, nothing’s going to change.

Snow Days

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This has been a rough winter in terms of snow.  As in, there’s been a lot of it.  I mean, more than one would have thought was possible.  Four major storms this season already, but it also seriously feels like it’s been snowing every other day since the beginning of January.

Mind you, I don’t think this compares to the huge snowstorms we had when I was a kid growing up in the New Jersey suburbs.  Back then, it seemed like we regularly had one or two feet of snow several times a season.  And I loved it.  To me, it always felt magical.  Because my birthday is in January, I often had a snow day close school as a birthday present — or at least I remember it being “often,” even if it was actually maybe twice.  On one birthday, not only did I have a snow day, but we went sledding (the park near us wasn’t huge but it was dominated by Floods Hill, which was just as awesome for sledding as it sounds) and some guy who was there with his kids heard that it was my birthday, and he gave us this super-cool, two-person toboggan — because he had an extra one.  I remember another time, when I was in junior high, I was writing a 50-page research paper on Ancient Greece — yeah, our social studies teacher gave us this outline on all aspects of history and culture and we had to fill it in, it was the kind of ridiculous thing one only had to do in the “gifted” program.  Well, I had done all of the research, or at least the part I wasn’t making up, and I was bullshitting my way through the writing part, actually hand writing out the 50 pages, because this was 1982 and there were no word processors and I didn’t know how to type.  I was pulling what I thought was going to be my first all-nighter, which probably meant that I worked until I fell asleep at the table around midnight and went up and went to bed.  Well, I woke up the next morning to a snow day.  I still smile remembering the relief, how I felt like I’d gotten away with the kind of thing I never got away with (probably because I didn’t know how to do anything bad yet) and knew I would have time to finish it all and still go enjoy the snow.  I laughed at how my handwriting from the night before had gotten more and more slanted, like you could tell it wanted to lie down too, but I didn’t go back and recopy those pages because, heck, you could still read it, and who has time when the outdoors was a perfect, sparkling expanse of fun?  I just loved snow — walking in it, sledding in it, skiing in it, rolling in it, making snowmen and igloos.  I didn’t seem to really feel the cold or the wet for ages, and when I did, I could always go inside, leaving a trail of melt water, rubber, wool and polyester, to hot chocolate and a warm television.

It’s just not like that any more.  At this point, the snow in Brooklyn is piled in giant, frozen clumps of a stunning array of colors from yellow to grey to black.  The sidewalks are single-file walkways interspersed with luge runs – otherwise known as lawsuits waiting to happen – where homeowners never quite got around to shoveling one of the numerous times they were supposed to or just gave up.  I had to take a car service to work one morning last week when I came out to my car to find that the post-storm shoveling job I’d done around it had been entirely obliterated by a snow plow that had come through after, encasing the left side of the vehicle in slush that had since settled comfortably into a solid block of ice.  A couple of days ago, no thaw in sight, I finally spent 45 minutes with a weapon-like implement that I got from my super, (my plastic — hahaha plastic — shovel wasn’t cutting it) chipping the Camry out of its shell, peeling off my own layers of clothes, as I dissolved into a sweatball, finally freeing the poor thing enough that I could get in and gun the engine, ramming those fenders back and forth, back and forth, until the car careened into the street, knocking over what unmovable chunks remained. TAKE THAT, WINTER!  I am still sore in places that have never been sore before, and nobody has since parked in that spot, which still isn’t so much a “spot” as a skating rink surrounded by a doll castle of chopped ice bits. 

It’s painful to become disillusioned about things to which you once had a strong attachment. Sixteen Candles was one of my favorite movies as a teenager, and it was hard realizing that Long Duck Dong was a racist stereotype and that the prom queen essentially gets date-raped by the geek.  I used to love the feeling of the sun on my face and the color it gave my cheeks, but it doesn’t have quite the same, carefree appeal since I had four carcinomas removed from my nose and its environs. Cancer, racism, sexism, genocide, poverty, the real world creeps up on you as an adult.  You realize everyone you love is going to die.  You realize you are never going to be the female Steven Spielberg, and that maybe you don’t want to be because Steven Spielberg has lost his luster too.  Of course, you gain as well.  Letting go of the things you once thought were so great enables you to find new ones.  Amusement parks, Legos, Spaghettios and Gilligan’s Island are replaced by dance clubs, sex, red wine, and Top Chef, to then be replaced by museums, corduroy, hot tea and Downton Abbey — wow, that is a depressing progression, what am I, 90?  To be clear, I still enjoy sex, and red wine, although it gives me acid reflux.  But you get the idea.

And yet, today as I woke up to yet more snow, I felt that familiar heart lift.  It’s a reaction so deep-seated that I don’t think I’ll ever not feel that joyful little leap when I see the puffy flakes wafting downward or the streets covered in white.  Luckily, I don’t have to go to work today, but I still have errands to do and places to be, a dwindling supply of food in the fridge and a car that will have to be rescued, again, at some point.  Still, for a few moments before I have to start thinking about all that, I can sit by the window, drinking my tea, and recall what it used to feel like, to look out there and just see freedom.