Too Old To Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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