Thursday, August 18, 2016

Some super 8 Time Lapse films of Minneapolis - early 1990s

Here are some short black and white time lapse films I made in the early 1990s. I had an intervalometer, which is a device I hooked up to my super 8 camera and that would automatically trip the shutter at the interval I chose, from one from every second to one every minute.

At that time one of my jobs was in an apartment in a high rise on the West Bank, so these films of the Minneapolis skyline were filmed from there.
This was made a few year before the Capella tower was constructed so there are only two tallest buildings. The skyline was a little thinner than it is today.

This next one is of the Cepro Mill, which is now the site of Cepro Park on the Midtown Greenway. There's a quick shot of a train on the tracks that would become the Greenway. I lived just a block or so away from here at that time.

Minneapolis was the Mill City not only because it had mills along the river downtown, but also because it had many mills in neighborhoods. It doesn't have so many of those any more.

In the last couple shots of the Cepro Mill you can really see how its grain towers dwarfed the neighborhood all around it. They even towered over the Lake Street Sears store, now the Midtown Global Market.

The last time lapse was made in what is now the very trendy Mill District neighborhood, but which then was pretty deserted. I was the only one around when I set up my camera on a tripod to get these time lapses on a beautiful summer day. The first building you see, the one with all the broken windows showing sky, is still around and now the home of the Mill City Museum, offices and loft homes. The long row of grain towers that my camera was loving is now gone. These were where the Guthrie Theater and Gold Medal Park are now.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Hugh Steers

Here's a 20 minute document I made of a gallery talk at the Montgomery Glasoe Fine Art Gallery in the Minneapolis Warehouse District at the opening night of the show Hugh Steers: Paintings and Drawings. Steers was a New York City artist who was dying of AIDS. The video was recorded in mid-January and he died less than two months later, in early March 1995.

I recorded it with my SVHS camera and used an audio mixer from MTN public access so I could put a lav mic on him and also a shotgun mic to record audience questions - you can even see it pop into the shot at one moment. I had the camera on a tripod and held up the shotgun mic in my hand.

Steers was fairly soft-spoken, so I probably heard him more clearly through the headphones than anybody else in the gallery in reality. At one point, Carolyn Glasoe adjusts my mic on Steers to help the audience hear him and I might have tried to say something like, that's only for the camera.

I did some slow motion inserts from the gallery and people interacting with the paintings just by playing the tape back slowly on the video deck. This was long before slow motion was easy with computer editing.

I edited it a little fragmentarily and randomly - maybe to match what his mind might have been like late in his illness - I don't exactly remember. He was right around my age and he was near death - I think it was Carolyn Glasoe who I had met somewhere and who asked me to tape this and told me that his health wasn't good. By the time I had gotten around to edit the video, he had passed away, and I ended the piece with his obituary from the New York Times.

I remember being introduced to him just briefly as I set up my equipment, and I also remember feeling so strange putting the lavaliere microphone on his collar and seeing so closely how thin he was from his illness. It's just a quick little video I made for public access TV, and I was making quite a few back then, but it has stayed with me because of his age and how close he was to death when he gave that talk.

I put this video on-line a few months ago, but yesterday got an email from the gallery in New York that represents his estate. First I thought they were going to ask me to take down the video, but they actually liked it and wanted to link to it on their page for him, which is here.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Walking Tour of the 1990 Lake Street Car Show and Parade

This was shot with a Video 8 camera that my mother had when she was in Saudi Arabia. When she returned, she let me use it, and I began shooting video with it around the south Minneapolis neighborhood where I lived until the fall of that year, when I bought a used SVHS camera.

Cars have always made me a little uncomfortable, and the discomfort here is palpable. I was more interested in the funhouse mirror reflections in the meticulously polished auto bodies than in anything else. My favorite scene may be the second shot, where the guy can't seem to find a place to put the number to identify his car, despite trying several places.

Here I did no interviews (unlike my friend J.C., who is seen here doing an interview for a public access TV show). I just stood back and observed with the camera, trying to find oddball moments or bits of visual fun that others might miss (like those great reflections, that end the video).

It looks like I edited it in 1991, probably on the VHS edit system at MTN.

Chicago Avenue Belongs to Us (1989)

I have been archiving some of the various videos I made over the years and thought that I might write something about some of them while I can still remember some of the circumstances of their production.

This was pretty much the first community documentary that I shot and edited. It was of a march down Chicago Avenue by residents of the Central and Powderhorn Park neighborhoods and block clubs that adjoined the avenue. The march was held to point out crime issues along the street and get local elected officials and the police department in support of efforts to make the area safer.

I checked out the basic VHS camera from MTN, the public access station that had its equipment checkout in the Lehman Center, on Lake Street in uptown. The camera was a big shoulder mount one with a separate VHS deck that would hang from your shoulder. The whole thing was pretty heavy in addition to being low resolution. I checked it out on Friday and carried it home on the bus for the Saturday march. By the end of the march, on a cold wet November morning in 1989, I was aching all over. On Monday, when I had to return the camera, I decided to shell out for a cab ride to take it back rather than lugging it on the bus again. After making this one I decided that I needed to somehow get some kind of smaller video camera of my own if I was going to keep on making things like this.

I edited it on the basic VHS edit system at MTN, which was also in the basement of the Lehman Center.

I did no interviews. I taped the event at the same distance as I might have if I was watching it as a reporter and taking notes (at the time I was editing the Powderhorn Park neighborhood newspaper, The Horn), and walked along with the marchers, taping as I watched.

This was long before the internet, so my audience was viewers of public access TV. My main obligation was to try to fill a 30 minute time slot, so I went long, luxuriously keeping the shots going. The documentary begins with a shot of the banner that is also the title of the video. All the people holding the banner are anonymous, their heads behind the fabric. It's almost like the banner is walking. It also ends on that shot.

At some of the different intersections, people would speak. I cut between the speeches and the video of people marching. It was a pretty simple formula.

I was able to let my mind wander and turn the camera from the speaker to something else interesting going on, like a girl on skates, or an interesting-looking person listening. The marching scenes give you a good sense of what Chicago Ave. was like in those days.

I didn't have great command of the titling machine at MTN, so I don't ID the speakers. Some of them that I remember are Mayor Don Fraser, City Council Member Sharon Sayles Belton, George Hoffman, Gayle Lamb, but there are many more whose names have vanished from my mind over all these years.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

There are First Teeth and Funerals: President's 1 Hour Photo

"President's 1 Hour Photo" is a 20 minute film made by Trevor Adams by hand scratching images on tiny 16mm film which he has bleached and gouged and then transferred to video and further staggered and superimposed and speed-warped. It was based on my novel, "President's Pictures: Novel in Nine Frames," narrated by Beth Peloff and features music by Dreamland Faces and Lisa McGrath. Ryan Billig, Maren Ward and Josh Tibbetts. It was finished in 2007, but that was after several years work.
I wrote the novel that he based his film on shortly after September 11, 2001. It was really born on a evening where Trevor and I had seen a performance at the Walker Art Center that involved animation and music created on the spot and then had a beer afterwards. Trevor inspired me to write a story that dealt with some of my feelings about the violence and media images that were all coming together in the whole September 11th thing.
The story I wrote was about a person named President Parkingson who works in a one hour photo processing booth in a camera store and processes a roll of photographs that seem to depict some kind of grisly murder. He gets a note that tells him that he is being watched, so he leaves town on the Greyhound bus and travels around to avoid the unseen person who he thinks is pursuing him.
As President travels, he comes upon one scene of violence after another. He takes out his camera to take a picture in an attempt to freeze that scene before the violence happens. He is not as successful as he wishes himself to be.
It was a strange story based mostly on dreams and the time I spent working at a photo lab and also partly written in a tent on a very rainy morning as my tent filled with water. Trevor is one of the few people on planet earth who read it, and he wanted to distill it down and make a film out of it, and this is what he did.
Trevor's spare but always recognizable images made the story come alive in a far different and amazing way than I ever could have imagined. They make it even more dream-like and scattered, a Greyhound bus journey to the darkest media depths of our tortured world.
But he also brings out the humor and the joy that is there too, and the wetness and the yearning. 
He made it all his own, a movie about movies and photography, about time and violence. His version follows a stronger dream logic than mine did, and mines the power of ellipsis and silence. The film is full of spontaneous reactions and perfect flubs, and is fully grounded in the past and night. It's about how we can see anything through all the chaos and confusion, and and and.
But it's also about the photographic medium, the old chemical kind, which I processed for hundreds of people years ago in an assembly-line of colorful rectangular motionless images, and which Trevor took knife and chisel to and sculpted out of the emulsion of a long strip such jumping images of apprehension and seeing.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Beyond the Frame at MSPIFF 2016

While downstairs in the multiplex theaters of St. Anthony Main narrative films from around the world were projected from digital machines to audiences standing in lines - upstairs, in a raw stone and drywall space, where some walls were up and some were torn, experimental filmmakers and a few others gathered to share a different kind of film experience. The films downstairs were often produced by multi-national partnerships so necessary these days to raise the funds to film a movie production as large as a freeway construction project, crews of people so honed in their craft that every costume, background, camera move and gesture are as perfect as international currency can buy, so that you completely lose yourself in the story posed by moving sounds and image and forget that they are indeed just moving sounds and images. Upstairs, the medium was the message, or at least that was what the opening panel was called.

Upstairs in St. Anthony Main, part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, was Beyond the Frame, a one day symposium and performance of experimental films from some local filmmakers and four from around the U.S. The evening before there were two programs, one of digital work and one of projected work, that played downstairs in the theaters of big seats and soft drinks and popcorn and light tight and hallways. I missed those programs, and only saw parts of the program that happened upstairs in the theater of folding chairs and windows open onto the halls and gypsum dust and ceilings nearly to heaven that happened on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon began with the panel. Kevin Obsatz, co-curator of the experimental program this year, organizes the monthly Cellular Cinema screenings at Bryant Lake Bowl. He said that he was just going to give the names of the panelists, and start with an opening question, and then let the panel go however it wanted to go after that. The question had to do with the Marshall McLuhan koan, the Medium is the Message. He asked if that was so in the world of experimental film.

Robert Schaller, who founded the Handmade Film Institute in Boulder, CO, was very clear on which medium he needed to work in. He said that if he couldn't make a film, he wouldn't work at all. He said that film mirrors the contradiction of human experience; at every stage it's approximate. He makes his own movie cameras out of junk. They are tools that are incapable of precision. He said that film also does that - you try for something, but the film gives you something else back. He is not that interested in the narrative that says that technology is making the world better, even though he does work in the world of computers as well.

Robert Todd of Boston said that he uses 16mm when the wind blows right, which is fairly often. He began with medium of drawing, and switched to film shortly after starting to exhibit his art work in galleries. He talked about how dumbness was an important part of his process. He said that he is aware of when he is done with a project at the point of forming thoughts. For him, digital or film are just different palette options, but film does offer experiences that digital doesn't. A woman on a plane that he had a conversation with said that she always used to love it when the 16mm film would break. 

He talked about the Klackalackaclack of the movie projector, which does not exist in digital, but also didn't exist in the days of film projection when the projection booth, separated from the seats by glass, also separated the spectators from the mechanism that gave them their film experience. He talked about what attracted him to the experimental film world was its openness, the sharing within the community, how you can ask a question and somebody will answer it.

Some of his films were of walks he took, just trying something with the camera, looking at details. His film "Undergrowth" provided a vision of the forest from the eyes of an owl. Immense wide angle close shots of an owl, its head rotating like a planet, its eyes reflecting, its feathers like a forest, were cut in eyeline matches with images of trees and branch and dense underbrush. The camera moved smoothly, like dolly or jib shots that Todd explained he made by letting his body fall and recovering just before he would completely lose his balance. A Theremin soundtrack made it even more otherworldly.

Chicago filmmaker Lori Felker said that for her the idea comes first, the format follows. She works in film and video, and talked about the "punk" nature of film, how she works in film because people gave her the equipment for free, and how you can see the mechanism and understand how it works, while she also works in video every day and said that she has no idea how it works. She talked about the joy of watching hockey games on satellite television during a storm, when the image breaks up delightfully and the commercial media system can treat you with experimental images that are beautiful and puzzling. She talked about the drive that experimental filmmakers have to keep things moving and awkward and keep you aware of what you are watching.

One of the pieces she screened in her all digital presentation was part of her "Broken New" series. She sat at a news desk with the frame full of the crawls and shoulder images like something out of CNN and delivered the news of her dreams at 5 am in the morning. She had the power suit and pose of a newscaster, but she also appeared to be someone who just woke up from a deep sleep. Dream and waking reality mixed in her news story that involved John Travolta, who was playing a character, and Sandra Bullock, who was herself, and Felker was in the movie, but she wasn't a character, she was just observing what was going on. Felker said that watching the news is an experimental experience with its multiple streams, and how you can miss things and keep on running into the tail ends of things.

Roger Beebe, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, called himself media promiscuous, without full loyalty to any specific one, but he did say that film was the tool he knew best. Video keeps changing, while a Bolex is always a Bolex. He talked about the challenge of finding time to do his work in the capitalist force field that we are operating under - every moment we are constrained by the overall system.

Not only is Beebe media promiscuous, he is also a bigamist. His portion of the program featured both video and film projectors often running at the same time. His pieces included his classic "Strip Mall Trilogy" which looks for meaning and finds only small dislocated pieces of alphabet and shape in the strip mall landscapes of the U.S.; a Mudhoney karoake found footage music video that he performed, and a three screen ode to the death and life of light and place in Las Vegas.

Local filmmaker Trevor Adams also screened in the evening, accompanied by sound master Mike Hallenbeck. Adams sank several Hollywood movies in bleach and scratches, putting the actors behind prison bars of dancing color and line with Jupiter swirls and dot effects and nervous lines that drew themselves around the composition, pointing out relationships between characters and turning them into instant ghosts. He also played a reel of film that he had shot and then altered, images of enslaved fast food workers, sentenced to serve, and digressions in scratch like one showing the evolution of cartoon eyes and a meditation on the worm of 16mm etching.

Robert Schaller provided a coda to the whole discussion and the whole day when he said that what really matters is that each of us offer the message that we have and we continually re-conceive and redeliver that message we have.

I had a strong personal response to the space that the event took place in. It was the former home of the Minneapolis Television Network, the city's public access cable channel. I had worked there in video, first as a volunteer and then nearly twenty years on staff, amassing a huge archive of images of the city and its people that I had taped for the channels, until I received a "hand over your keys and I'll walk you out the door" layoff just over three years ago. Since then the channel had moved to a new location. This was my first time in that space since the day I had been handed my walking papers.

Now the space was cut up, had been bombed, was in a state of transformation, like an image in one of Adams' films. It had been scratched up and bleached out and the internal walls had been taken down. You could see where there had been rooms only by the lines like a maze pattern on the floor. It was both cathartic and disturbing to me. The upstairs hallway, where my office had been, was now a dangerous balcony, and a window frame was cut out of it like it was waiting for whatever message we could imagine to put inside that frame. The medium is the message and the meaning, even if it's not just the film but also the evolving spaces we occupy to make and watch messages in, and how we leave space and time and how it all changes despite us, and how we are left with only memory and that need, as Schaller stated, to re-conceive and redeliver.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Kings of the Road

My first encounter with Wim Wenders' film Kings of the Road was seeing the entire film as a physical thing, seeing it as six full reels of 16mm film. This was in the days of campus film societies, which would rent 16mm prints of films and show them in campus lecture halls for a dollar or so on evenings and on weekends. I was on the committee that selected the films and I also wrote the film reviews for the campus paper, so every Tuesday or Wednesday, when the rented films arrived, I would screen them and write about them for Friday's student paper.

My friend Scott and I opened the box that came in the mail and looked at all those reels inside it. Normally a feature was on four or even three reels. This three hour film was on six or so. We were excited to get the film on the projector and start seeing it, not so much because we had already seen many of Wenders' films and wanted to get our eyes and ears on this one, but mostly because of what we had read about him and his position in the New German Cinema movement. Maybe I had seen The American Friend already. Certainly Scott had. He was from Seattle, where there were more opportunities to see films outside the mainstream than there had been in the Montana city that I was from. All I knew is that I couldn't wait to see this film, even though all I knew about it was the cryptic catalog description in the film rental listing.

We tried to thread the first reel, but the sprocket holes were on the wrong side. The film was tails out on all the reels, which meant that the film hadn't been rewound the last time it had screened, and the beginning of each reel was near the core and the end was nearest us. As we started to rewind the first reel we noticed how dusty the film was. We scrambled to find a cloth and then lovingly held the cloth to the strip of film as each reel rewound. By the time we were ready to play the film we had a small mound of dirt on the table and the cloth that we had removed from the long strip of film.

Before the first images of the film flashed on the screen we had had something of a holy encounter with it, feeling the whole movie, getting glimpses of it from its tiny images, seeing them float past us in a blur, our excitement and curiosity building by the minute.

By the time the film was over, we were dazed and it was in the wee hours. I remember it being the middle of winter and a cold walk home but those images were still so solid in my mind and I had no idea what to write about this film.

Cut to thirty years later and I'm going to the Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul at St. Anthony Main to see Kings of the Road with my partner Beth and it's an impossibly cold January day. We are going to see a painstakingly restored digital projection of the film. There are no more dancing dust particles and wandering vertical scratches in the German skies in this print of the film, and I'm seeing the film in the full 1:1.66 aspect ratio that it was filmed in and originally intended to be seen in. I'm not sure, but most of the 16mm prints we would show when I was in college had cropped off edges to fit the squarer 4:3 TV shape.

The film is being shown as part of a retrospective of film from Wenders' career. Earlier in the day Beth and I had seen his film Alice in the Cities, and now we were back for a second Wenders.
Kings of the Road begins with its technical specifications spelled out, its aspect ratio, that it is in black and white, the dates and locations of filming, the fact that the sound was recorded on location, a full listing of the cast and crew. The film starts and ends with bookends that are almost documentary scenes of movie theater oldtimers talking about the days of cinema past. The starting speech is by a man who started his career as a theater pianist and talks about the glory days of accompanying Fritz Lang's two part Nibelungen film with other musicians. The film ends with a woman talking about why she keeps her theater running, but shows no films at it. She does not accept the films of today, which are repulsive to her, and thus she does not show them, but keeps her projectors in repair in case the glory days of cinema return. These two are the grandfathers and grandmothers that own the theaters and that are referred to throughout the rest of the film, but we see them only in these scenes that come before and after the main story of the film. The woman at the end says that she believes that movies are "the art of seeing."

Al Milgrim, who is in his 90's, is perhaps the pre-eminent grandparent of the local art cinema scene as the director for years of the University Film Society. Beth and I saw him in the lobby as we were getting our tickets for Kings of the Road and he talked about bringing these Wenders films to town years ago, along with their director, who he had a chance to meet. Milgrom talked the manager of the theater into letting us in without paying. We tried to talk him out of this, but he insisted. If films are the art of seeing, Milgrom has helped so many people in the twin cities see.

In between those interviews with the cinema grandparents lies the rest of the 3 hour Kings of the Road. It is one of those new films that the woman with the closed cinema was talking about. It has a couple scenes that the old timers wouldn't approve of, but mostly it is a slow and steady tale of a friendship that develops over short bursts of dialogue and long stretches of silence, of just being. The original German title literally means "In the Course of Time."

The characters are a motion picture projector repairman who drives from one small town theater to another along the East and West German border, and a linguist who specializes in child language acquisition. The linguist, Robert, recently separated from his wife. He drives his Volkswagon beetle into a river in spectacular fashion, either in a suicide attempt or just grand frustration. The projector repairman is there shaving to laugh at Robert's sinking car.

Some dry clothes for Robert lead to the two of them sticking together, first silent but with looks and then gradually telling each other small parts of their stories. As they go from one town to another to fix theater projectors, they run into other people, a group of unruly kids at one theater who they end up entertaining by making shadow play on the screen; a man whose wife has just driven her car into a tree, killing herself; a young woman who works at her grandmothers theater and bonds fleetingly with the repairman; Robert's father, who sleeps in his equipment-strewn printing shop, and who Robert can only talk to by printing up a special edition newspaper out of all his suppressed rage.

The film is a deep exploration not of theaters, but of theater projection booths, the small rooms way up high over the audience where the gigantic pair of film projectors live and poke their noses out of small windows. These are not room that the public sees - instead of the curtains and chandeliers of the theater auditoriums there is peeling paint, exposed plumbing, and rough plaster. One of the booths featured in the film is so isolated that it is accessible only by walking on the roof of the building next door. The projectionist is like a gargoyle looking down with stillness upon the house and the image on the screen.

In one of the last scenes of the film, the men dismantle the projectors in a theater that has closed, and leave behind a stark empty booth, a room of wires and nothing on the walls but a series of faded 8 x 10 magazine images of movie stars from long long ago. Take away the movie star images and it could be almost any theater projection booth today.

When I was in third grade I did a report about motion picture projectionist as a career. Back then it could be a career, a job for one person to sit up in that booth and watch the single film the theater played so carefully that he could make the reel changes between two projectors without anybody even knowing. Motion theater projectionists were a lonely lot, up in that room, but they had all the people in the theater below them, all those people depending upon them to keep the dream of movie going without interruption, without noticing how smoothly the projectionist is doing his job.

The booths in the theaters that are still around don't even necessarily have to be small rooms - they only need to have enough space for a digital projector and a bank of audio panels. One person can operate all the projectors in a multiplex through a video server on a single computer. You don't have to be a professional projectionist to operate a whole theater, you only need to know how to create and adjust a schedule on a computer screen.

The booth behind me at St. Anthony Main does not look much different than that booth that the travelers emptied out in Kings of the Road. It no longer holds the twin giant projectors that it one held. There is nobody in there when the movie is playing.

I am not advocating a return to the days of celluloid films projected through dust and scratches, and neither is Wenders' film a nostalgia trip. The film is about the theaters as a way to explore the relationships between the people inside and surrounding that booth, that theater, the town and cities in which the theaters are located. It's about the relationships between the people in the film on the screen and what those relationship can do to guide or illumine our own in our own times and cities.

As much as the film itself, what has made my encounters with this movie special are the people that I have shared it with. The discovery and attention to the 16mm print that arrived dirty and backwards 30 years ago was special because I shared the experience with my friend Scott, who was one of the people who I met in film school who shared my intense passion for ribbons of celluloid and all the magic that could burst forth from their tiny images. My recent encounter was important because of the screening I shared with my partner Beth, and how Al Milgrom brought us to the screening like some kind of guide figure out of Greek mythology. A film experience is special because of everything around it, the town that the theater sits in and all the people who stand in the streets or look out of their windows, and all the visitors that might drop by that isolated projectionist's booth, the head from which we look out at the world and project some parts of ourselves upon everyone and everything around us.