Sister Novena's PortaPulpit
freedom, liberalism, movies, and truth

Saturday, August 14, 2004
So... Where To Now?

As much as I hate to say it, I think Fred Kaplan is probably right:
This is a terribly grim thing to say, but there might be no solution to the problem of Iraq. There might be nothing we can do to build a path to a stable, secure, let alone democratic regime. And there's no way we can just pull out without plunging the country, the region, and possibly beyond into still deeper disaster.

(...)

Meanwhile, the U.S. military -- the only force in Iraq remotely capable of keeping the country from falling apart -- finds itself in a maddening situation where tactical victories yield strategic setbacks. The Marines could readily defeat the insurgents in Najaf, but only at the great risk of inflaming Shiites -- and sparking still larger insurgencies -- elsewhere. In the Sadr City section of Baghdad, as U.S. commanders acknowledge, practically every resident is an insurgent.

It's an important piece; give it a few minutes of your attention. And if that's not depressing enough, read this post by Billmon.
2:28 PM ::
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The Olympics?

Yes, apparently so! I'm as surprised as you are; I had no idea. I suppose it makes sense -- I mean, I know they come around every so often -- but my radar's just not tuned to the mainstream media anymore. Certainly nobody I know has uttered a word about it.

Both of the last two Olympics were, for me, spent in intense romantic struggle. During the Sydney Olympics, I was in a relationship with an Englishman that was on its last legs. I remember sitting on the floor in his living room, looking at Sydney, then looking at him... looking at Sydney, looking at him... and beginning to realize that this probably wasn't going to last much longer. Not that Sydney won or anything... but I might be where I had my first inkling that better things waited for me outside Basingstoke.

(He was a classic case of bait-and-switch: when I first met him, he was a yachtsman, fresh off a round-the-world race; when I left he was an old fart with a dead-end job and too much of an interest in porn... and that's saying something, as I have no real objection to porn.)

Anyway, the Salt Lake City Olympics were spent during an agonizing crush on another guy, made worse by his fanatical attention to them. As it turned out, he was a dick, too, but at the time he seemed to me to be the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Funny how that happens.

In any case, it's rather pleasant to feel the whole thing just sliding past me this year; an Olympics without melodrama is an Olympics I can safely forget when it's over.

Last night I went out to hear Tamaras play for real; she really does have a magnificent voice, rather Joan Osborne-like. Diana, who was doubtless stuck on Lee's shoot, didn't make it over, which was a pity. Yesterday was my first formal day off, though -- I don't have to shoot again until Monday -- and it was one of the most relaxing days off I've ever had. I had a great mail day, and ended up with all kinds of interesting stuff to read (Granta, Harper's, The King Arthur Flour Baker's Catalogue -- speaking of which, that's something else I should do while I'm off; fresh bread is good for the soul), so I spent the day on the sofa reading and watching Like Water For Chocolate (which was good but not quite as good as I remembered it.) My goals for today are to get all the kinks out of my back and shoulders -- I always used to carry tension in my lower legs, but in the last six months it's all travelled upwards; why do you suppose that is? -- and catch up on some correspondance.

Oh, and get this -- I got my second jury duty summons of the year yesterday. Goddammit! Why can't they pick on somebody else?
12:40 PM ::
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Friday, August 13, 2004
Pleasant Evening

We're experiencing unseasonably cool weather right now; today was absolutely gorgeous, sunny and 75F or thereabouts. We did a bit of shooting at the Arcade Restaurant downtown, and then went to Mud Island to film by the river. I haven't been over there in years, and I'd forgotten about the beautiful little park they have; with the pleasant weather it was particularly nice. Not even many mosquitos.

Afterwards, Diana and I decided to go have a bit of a hang-out somewhere. We went to Cafe Francisco first, but it was about to close, so we strolled up the block to Precious Cargo. I'd been there once before a couple of years back, helping to shoot a poetry slam (not really a happy experience, to be honest), but I'd forgotten how nice it was. We sat down and ordered coffee (for me) and tea (for Diana) and got to talking about the film and filmmaking in general and politics and that sort of thing. We overheard a live performance in the next room -- someone with a beautiful voice -- but we'd come to talk, so talk we did.

After a bit, the music switched from live to recorded. The guy behind the bar came over to ask how we were, and then spontaneously introduced us to a small dark-haired girl; this was Tamaras, the person who'd just been performing. Why he decided to do this I'm not sure, but I'm actually quite happy he did. We started chatting to Tamaras as well; after a few minutes she and her girlfriend joined us at the table. We discussed Memphis and the South (Tamaras was on tour from California), the environment, the back way into the Grand Canyon, Tamaras' music, and our common astrological sign. (We've been playing "Who's A Sagittarius?" on the film shoot -- it's rather uncanny how accurately Diana guesses who is; she and I both are. Due to various influences in my youth, I know more about astrology than anyone should, although I don't actually put any stock in it in real life. Having said that, it's is rather peculiar how many of my closest friends have birthdays between November 22 and December 21. Anyway, Tamaras turned out to be a double Sag with a moon in Aries; true to form, she's something of a fireball. For the record, her girlfriend was a Gemini.) Diana bought a CD (I was cash broke so I couldn't), and Tamaras told us she was playing again the next night at Java Cabana, a place very familiar to Co-op people. Diana and I both hope to go, and hopefully drag a few more people along with us.

Anyway, Tamaras has a website here, and for local people who are interested in hearing her -- she is very good -- she's playing at Java tomorrow night at 9 PM.
12:56 AM ::
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Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Death Match

I have long been a proponent of Frank Zappa's assertion that the world will end not by fire or ice, but by nostalgia. Lately, however, in conversations with my friend Taylor, I have developed a new theory of Armageddon. It will no doubt strike many as a scenario that reflects too many years spent in the southern United States, but I think it bears mentioning, if only so I can posthumously collect on my bet when it finally comes to pass.

The two opposing forces that will bring about the end of the world are -- pay attention, now -- Wal-Mart and kudzu.

Yes, I'm serious. Think about it: these two phenomena are merely two sides of the same dark energy. Kudzu is a pernicious herbacious weed that smothers and ultimately destroys everything with which it comes into contact; Wal-Mart is a pernicious economic weed that smothers and ultimately destroys everything with which it comes into contact. Two irresistable, inviolable forces, they are, in the greater sense, the same thing: one side represents indifferent, ravenous nature, and the other indifferent, ravenous free-market capitalism. Nobody has been able to hold back the encroachment of either for long, and where a seed lands, destruction inevitably follows sooner or later. Kudzu is legendary for its phenomenal rate of growth, but I'm here to tell you that the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Goodman Road in Horn Lake, Mississippi, has grown by 60 sq. ft. per year since it was erected, at least on the inside.

Taylor believes that ultimately the kudzu will win, in exactly the same way that paper beats rock. I'm not so sure; as the kudzu continues to submerge the rest of civilization, eventually the only place left to run will be the fortress housing the sole force strong enough to beat back kudzu: Wal-Mart. At first, the battle lines will be drawn at the edges of the parking lot, the asphalt gradually beating back the vines to accomodate the abandoned cars left by customers who no longer plan to ever leave the safety of the Wal-Mart. The people will gather inside the fluorescent-lit bunkers, singing paeans to Sam Walton as the vines creep around the foundations and the steel girders groan under the weight. Every dollar will be spent inside Wal-Mart, each Supercenter and Neighborhood Market connected to every other by a complex system of tunnels and subways which will be discovered below the foundations of even the oldest Wal-Marts; it will be unclear whether these tunnels pre-date the onset of Armageddon (suggesting an ominous degree of planning on the part of the Head Office in Bentonville), or whether they grew of their own accord after the fact.

Eventually a race of pasty, squishy grubworm-like people will evolve, subsisting only on discount Doritos, Sam's Choice peanut butter cups, McDonald's hamburgers, and 1-gallon jars of dill pickles that only cost a buck. The race will begin to exchange labor for protection from the kudzu, becoming not paying customers but simple serfs; the General Manager will be as a god among men, exercising le droit du seigneur and jus primae noctis. Advanced specimens of the new species will develop the ability to consume and digest any form of synthetic material or fiber, and within their bodies to transform that material into excrement in the shape of a regular, consistent form of currency. Consumption leads to production which leads to further consumption; the perfect free-market cycle will become a closed circuit and humanity will attain its most refined, elevated economic form. Ironically, this form will be based on a synergistic relationship between the hosts and the parasites (Wal-Mart and the grubworm people respectively... or vice versa; experts disagree) and as such will ultimately come to closely resemble classical socialism.

And in the final days of this millenia-long battle between the forces of Wal-Mart and the forces of kudzu, the earth will adapt a dual-strata structure, with Wal-Mart occupying even the deepest parts of the planet's crust, and a thick layer of kudzu completely enshrouding the surface. With nothing left upon which to cling or climb except itself, the sheer weight of the miles-thick kudzu layer will begin to collapse inward, suffocating its own taproots and ultimately -- finally -- bringing about that which seemed impossible: the end of kudzu.

Either that, or the kudzu will become sentient and eventually constitute the Earth's dominant (and only intelligent) lifeform. But that seems a little far-fetched to me.

1:33 PM ::
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Quality Assortment

We got an unexpected day off -- oh, sure, now we get one -- because a location had an unforeseen inspection come up. I mostly spent the day doing something I adore but have been having to sacrifice lately: sleeping. I think I actually spent more of the day asleep than awake. It was wonderful.

It also meant that I could go into the Co-op tonight for what's left of the Tuesday evening workshop. Only two people showed up; a local short was screened and promises were made that things would be back on track soon. By happy coincidence, Morgan had already scheduled a screening of the rough cut of the new film for 9 PM, so I got to hang around and get my first look at what we spent June shooting.

It is, as they say, a challenging piece. Morgan's already given to a relatively unstructured style and a Von Trier-ish aesthetic; this film was even less structured than Blue Citrus Hearts. Bearing in mind that it was only a rough cut, I think people are going to find this one less accessible than BCH. The disjointedness of the film is clearly intentional, but if I hadn't been familiar with what narrative line does exist, I do believe I'd have been quite confused by the end of the film. (Having said that, I am also possessed of a very concrete mind; I'm not afraid of abstraction, but it doesn't come as naturally to me as it does to some, and less-structured material in any medium is generally hard work for me.)

He's got to cut about 20 minutes out for the next stage of editing, and it looks like it's not going to be easy. I don't envy the job.

In other news, apparently there are a few people who read this blog; several people have asked about the result of my talk to Lee, so here it is. I was considerably softer about things than I had prepared myself to be, but that's a normal thing for me. (I have to really steel myself to get any momentum at all when it comes to confrontations.) Rather than stabbing a finger in his face and yelling "J'accuse!" like I did in my fantasy, I inadvertantly waited until he came to me. Yesterday we were shooting at Rhodes, and early on he'd offered an obviously bogus but conciliatory statement of near-apology about his outburst the day before. (He said he was upset because he didn't like to see anyone get hurt on his set; that may have been a small part of it, but neither of us who witnessed the incident really believed that was the heart of the matter. In any case, it was obviously intended as an apology, and given that both of us there were very laid-back types, we let it go.)

Anyway, I explained to Lee that the shoot was just making too many demands on my life, and that I needed to move to a part-time arrangement. He accepted my proposed schedule, and I immediately felt much better about the situation. No, I didn't confront him about the temper tantrum or his earlier sarcasm (the moment just seemed to have passed), but I think it was the stress of the endless shoot that was having the biggest impact on my attitude. I'm still not feeling as warm towards Lee as I originally did, but neither do I feel as hostile as I did a few days ago. I now feel like I can finish this film.

And finally, I'm relieved to note that the summer is gradually beginning to fade. I have to be frank: I much prefer autumn and winter. I was built for colder climates, and this southern heat just wipes me out. We've got some summer still left to go -- down here it doesn't even start to turn autumnal until late October or early November -- but the days are shortening up, which is a welcome sign of a more civilized season on the way. And if I can get to Vermont in January, I'll even get some good, deep snow before the winter ends. That would be fantastic.
1:38 AM ::
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Monday, August 09, 2004
Descent Of The Elvii

You'd think by now, after roughly a dozen years of association with Memphis, I'd have gotten used to Elvis Week. In truth, my horror/fascination has only increased as time has passed. If anything, I'm in much closer contact with The Fans now that I'm in Mississippi than I was when I lived in Memphis proper; down here across the state line, we're actually geographically closer to Graceland than most Memphians. For example, in order to get to our bank, we have to venture into Elvis territory. We don't generally attempt the journey during Elvis Week -- it's just too frustrating; you feel as if you're drowning in a sea of Elvises.

Diana, who's into Elvis, tells me that I really should do the candlelight vigil some year, just for kicks; perhaps she's right. I've actually come to appreciate the inclusive warmth of Elvis a lot more lately; especially in a city with such a history of bitter racial problems and ongoing separation, it's kinda inspiring to see Elvises of all colors and genders congregating in what is generally considered to be a pretty rough, poverty-stricken part of the city. The sheer number of Elvises is the most impressive part of Elvis Week: there are male Elvises and female Elvises (doubtless a few transsexual Elvises, too); young Elvises and elderly Elvises; PoMo hipster Elvises and old-school Elvises; straight and gay Elvises; white, black, Asian, and latino Elvises (and one gay latino punk-rock Elvis, still my favorite... besides Andy Kaufman, obviously.)


People literally descend on Graceland from all over the world, which can only be a good thing. Of course, we also get the road whales and the best of Bovine America...

Anyway, I braved the crowds and drove past Graceland today to see what was going on; given that it was a Monday, things were relatively subdued. Lots and lots of people on line for the Graceland tour, but with the pleasant addition of a huge LED monitor screening Elvis movies for entertainment. (The selection when I drove by was Blue Hawaii.)

It's sometimes frustrating to realize that for the vast majority of the world's population, Memphis = Elvis, period. (There's also a common misconception that if you come to Memphis you can visit the Grand Old Opry... and you can, but it's a bit of a drive.) Beale Street, as tarted-up as it has become in recent years, is still more culturally interesting than Graceland, but most visitors seem to consider it an afterthought. And if you head south down 51 into Mississippi and look closely, the Delta is one big museum for blues fans. The Jungle Room is amusing and all (and not quite as hideous as it looks in the pictures), but it's a pretty superficial representation of Memphis' primary cultural contribution to the world.

I, however, am not really a musical person as such; my interest in Memphis is a visual one. It has long struck me that music is a far kinder medium to the city than film. There is a seemingly infinite number of songs that are about or which mention Memphis, and generally speaking the attitude seems to be pretty positive. I can't think off-hand of any songs about people having a really shitty time in Memphis (and please, if anybody knows of one, let me know; I'd be curious.) Film, however, is only ambivalent about the place. In the movies, Memphis is generally a gritty, rather oppressive city; the closest I think I've ever seen to Memphis glamour was The Firm. The same is true of local film: people are much more interested in dirty, grimy, down-at-heel Memphis. In truth, that's how I see the city, too.

My favorite film about Memphis -- probably everybody's -- is still Jarmusch's Mystery Train. The city doesn't much look like it did in the film anymore; watching it, I always have the disorienting feeling of recognizing the locations but not being able to figure out exactly where they are; the film was made near the tail-end of Memphis' desperately-poor phase, so it looks a lot rougher in the film than it looks now. I do remember those days, though. (And for non-locals, I do not recommend walking from Sun Studio to Graceland. Unless walking for two days through an endless bad neighborhood appeals to you, in which case, hell, go for it.)

Anyway... music Memphis vs. film Memphis: there's a thesis in there somewhere.
10:44 PM ::
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Same Shit, Different Brutal Dictators

Imagine a time in Iraq when people, including children, were brutalized and tortured in prison, deprived of food and water, bound and beaten. Iraq under Saddam, c. 2000? Quite likely. But also, unfortunately, Iraq under our guys, one month ago.
BAGHDAD -- The national guardsman peering through the long-range scope of his rifle was startled by what he saw unfolding in the walled compound below.

From his post several stories above ground level, he watched as men in plainclothes beat blindfolded and bound prisoners in the enclosed grounds of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

He immediately radioed for help. Soon after, a team of Oregon Army National Guard soldiers swept into the yard and found dozens of Iraqi detainees who said they had been beaten, starved and deprived of water for three days.

In a nearby building, the soldiers counted dozens more prisoners and what appeared to be torture devices -- metal rods, rubber hoses, electrical wires and bottles of chemicals. Many of the Iraqis, including one identified as a 14-year-old boy, had fresh welts and bruises across their back and legs.

(...)

But in a move that frustrated and infuriated the guardsmen, Hendrickson's superior officers told him to return the prisoners to their abusers and immediately withdraw. It was June 29 -- Iraq's first official day as a sovereign country since the U.S.-led invasion.

So much for freedom and democracy, eh?
1:27 AM ::
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Despair, Continued

The film I'd most like to avoid thinking about is the one that refuses to let me ignore it. We had a rough day on Lee's shoot today; things are either coming to a head or beginning to fall apart. We were shooting at a private house -- it belongs to some acquaintance of Lee's --with the three main actors and the usual small crew. It wasn't a terribly difficult scene, although we were still running a bit behind. The crew was exhausted (we'd been up late shooting the night before), but plugging ahead. We got through the bulk of the shooting, and only had an insert shot and one short scene left to do.

The insert shot, however, was problematic: Scott, the supporting actor, tosses a beer to DeVere. Simple, except in execution; the beer was in bottles, not cans, and throwing bottles on a hard surface is, obviously, a risky thing at best. Lee had attempted to work around it by filming action in which to place a CGI beer bottle (which seems to me a dubious solution at best, but what do I know?), but wanted to try to get a real shot of the bottle being caught at least. What happened is probably pretty predictable. The bottle was thrown, DeVere attempted to catch it, but it slipped from his hand and broke against the lounge chair he was sitting in. He wasn't injured, really; he had a minor cut on his thumb, nothing deep although a bit prone to bleeding. Still, it was arguably a rather stupid and avoidable injury; the fact that Lee had pushed to try it displeased the actors. The significance of this, though, is what it helped set up a few minutes later.

Once we'd finished with the last part of that scene, we removed to the front of the house for the last shot of the day. It was another stunt scene: a shirtless DeVere runs across the yard, is tackled and knocked down by Scott, and Scott and the supporting actress drag him back across the yard by the ankles, face down. Given what had happened with the beer bottle, the actors were in no mood to court injury; neither DeVere, nor Scott especially, were willing to do the tackling, and they weren't keen on the dragging, either. Lee had planned the scene as a single shot, though, not leaving much room for doing anything other than a straight stunt. Scott and DeVere refused; Lee lacked a back-up plan. Scott made some suggestions about alternate ways to shoot it that didn't involve full-contact violence; Lee very grudgingly complied. This in itself had some echoes of a couple of days ago, when we were shooting an actor who really, really couldn't nail his lines. Another crewie made a small suggestion in an attempt to be helpful; Lee clearly resented it. I understood his position at that time, although he took it a bit more personally than was perhaps good for him. In any case, Lee wasn't particularly open to directorial suggestions, even though he accepted them in this instance and acted on them.

What eventually happened was that DeVere did the dragging half of the stunt and got a bit scratched up in the process. Lee made some comments that might have been genuine or might have been deeply sarcastic -- it was difficult to tell what his intent was -- about whether or not DeVere was hurt. DeVere responded with his own bit of sarcasm, the shot was wrapped up, and we crewies started to put away equipment.

While I was taking down the tripod, I heard an ominous sound of smashing metal or glass, turned around to look (afraid the camera had been knocked over), and saw Lee getting in his car and driving off in what can only be described as a huff. Diana and I went to the curb to look for whatever had broken -- the only thing we found was a bit of metal from Lee's cap, alongside the cap itself, which Lee had flung to the ground in a fit of picque -- and stood there staring at each other, half amused and half pissed-off. This temper tantrum didn't play well with anyone; the crew was still sore from the uncalled-for sarcasm of the night before, and the cast was simply fed up. The crew continued to gather up equipment while cursing gently under our breath; the cast just cursed. Lee came dangerously close to losing his entire film in that moment; just about everyone was one wrong word away from walking off the film entirely. The cast went home disgruntled; the crew debated what to do next.

After fifteen minutes or so, Lee returned, just as we were stacking the equipment up for loading. He didn't say anything to us; we didn't say anything to him. We humped the equipment out to his car, packed it in, and left.

I understand that Lee is in an unhappy place right now; directing can be very isolating when things aren't going well, and it's always stressful regardless. Lee, I think, is not a person who does well with either solitude or a lot of stress. And I completely understand how he feels about his film -- he spent years saving up the cash to make his movie, and it's the one thing, it seems, he really wants to accomplish. But here he is, that same movie gradually falling apart around him... I'd be frustrated and angry, too. Even so, he doesn't seem to understand why the cast refused him today -- the first lesson we had drilled into us by the old crewies at LFS was that nobody can compel you to do anything you don't feel completely safe doing, and some of what Lee was asking people to do was less than completely safe. (There have been other similar incidents -- I refused to venture out onto a pitched roof to get a shot not long ago, and also refused to climb onto a chair to attach diffusion to a very, very bright (like, 10K) lamp while it was still on... I have this weird thing about maintaining functioning retinas.) You can always ask a crewie or actor to do something a bit risky, but if they refuse, you really can't hold it against them; that's not being a prima donna, that's just self-preservation. DeVere has already been very patient with these requests; I didn't think it was fair for Lee to get annoyed with him for refusing one.

But Lee pitching a hissy fit was really just kinda distasteful and alienating. The director on a paying shoot -- the archetypal tempestuous artiste -- can get away with that shit, but not the director of an unpaid, all-volunteer indie cast and crew. I'm sure Lee was simply overcome with frustration, but it put everyone off.

It also put a bit of a wrinkle in my plan to talk to Lee; after this, I didn't much want to see him again today. I have a position worked out -- I'm going to offer to work 3-4 days per week (but no more than that) if he'll accept the compromise -- but today seemed like a bad time, especially where my issue with his sarcasm is concerned. It still has to be done, but I kinda want to see where he's at tomorrow first.
12:31 AM ::
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