As a film & vaudeo maker, I shine the most as a fuck-up. As of this writing, I've made over 162 movies. Many of them are fucked-up. But, perhaps, my recently sortof finished 1st "feature-length" 16mm film entitled The "Official" John Lennon's Erection As Blocking Our View Homage & Cheese Sandwich is my magnum-opus of fucked-upedness. If this film is recognized for nothing else, perhaps it'll become a prime catalog of mistakes.
20 yrs as a filmmaker & I still haven't learned how to use a light meter. 41 yrs old & I'm still usually too poor to afford fresh film and prints. The "Official"..Sandwich sortof started in December of 1990ev w/ my attempt to get my band of the time (variously named, but for these purposes the "Official" Project) to perform a "Medley of Spike Jones Covers" that I'd concocted. The film has since meandered in a large variety of directions. If an idea occurred to me that didn't seem important enough to base another film around, I'd use it for the ..Sandwich. If I saw something around the vicinity of my main location that interested me enough to film it, I'd shoot it & add it. If someone gave me some snippets of footage, I'd cut it in. If I had out-takes from other films or the best shots from films not otherwise worth preserving, I'd add those. It's a grab-bag.
When people ask me what the film's about, I tell them it's a "messterpiece" &/or, perhaps, that I'm its "messtermind". Which isn't to say that it's not "about something". It's about making something w/o worrying too much about whether someone else has "already done it". It's about the construction of a parking lot obstructing my view. It has a short cheesy homage to Michael Snow's "Wavelength". It's an homage to my own films. It's an homage to just-about-anybody's films. It's about the "Official" Project. It's about relationships between its visuals & its sounds. It's about attempting to accomplish expensive things w/ almost no money. It's anarchistic. It's dedicated to the mammaries of Spike Jones & John Cage. It's a mess. It's a MESSTERPIECE. But this article isn't about what it's about. This article's about The Anti-School of Fucked-Upedness.
Variety is a key word. What do you do if you want to make a movie & you don't own a camera? Maybe you borrow one. Maybe you can only borrow it for a day or 2. Maybe, under those conditions, circumstances are too hectic to learn to use the camera very well or to check it. Maybe the last person who used it left an orange filter in it. Maybe you didn't notice. Maybe you get back 400 feet of film underexposed w/ an orange tint. It's a mistake, a fuck-up, but you can't borrow the camera again or get the cast & crew together or afford to buy more film or afford to get more processed. Hence, you have instant "atmospheric lighting". Maybe these mistakes, these fuck-ups keep happening over & over - producing a new "special effect" each time. Variety is the result.
If a person is poor, they're less likely to own equipment, to be able to buy film, to be able to pay people to help them, etc.. They're more likely to be using surplus: equipment discarded or sold cheap because it's broken &/or shoddy; film that's drastically out-of-date. If they're lucky enough to have friends, they get their friends to help - these friends may not be technically inclined, they may not be actors, they may be difficult & moody. Since they're doing the impoverished movie-maker a favor by helping w/ the project w/o pay, they deserve, at least, to be indulged & appreciated. All of these factors help create more deviations from the initial vision. If the number of these factors is enormous, the movie may be more shaped by them than by the original intention. Eventually, the movie becomes "about" navigating thru the obstacles of FUCKED-UPEDNESS to just get the damned thing made in some shape or form.
The camera's broken, it has to be hand-cranked, the speed is irregular, the exposure time is irregular, it's difficult to crank it at exactly the desired speed. It's difficult to crank it & aim it & focus & change the f-stop w/ only 2 hands while moving. There isn't a dolly. The film's out-dated, it's slowed a stop or more, but how many? There isn't a light meter. The exposure calculations are a complex guesstimate. You're shooting in low light, it's hard to see thru the Bolex eye-piece, even w/ the f-stop all the way open. Maybe the camera's not reflex - you have to compensate for your parallax view. Maybe one of the crew isn't really sure they want to help or that they even like you. Maybe they're wondering why they're doing this for no money. Maybe they try to sabotage you. Maybe one of the cast wants to only stay for 3 hours when you feel that you need at least 8 to get just this little bit done. Mix all these things together & you've got the classic SNAFU of the impoverished jury-rigging moviemaker.
Maybe you want access to editing facilities or an optical printer but you can only get it thru a friend at a school who sneaks you in late at night. You have to avoid the security guards. You have to use equipment you're not familiar w/. You have to do things at times when maybe you'd rather be asleep. You have to work quickly. You can't nit-pik. You develop a style of winging it, of approximating, of using whatever you end up w/. Every mistake becomes yet-another "special effect". The more complex the project, the more it becomes a compendium of these effects.
Maybe you're shooting on location & you don't have enough people to act in the scene or otherwise help. You have to recruit a stranger who just happens to be there. You have to be charming. Maybe you're not in the mood to be charming. Maybe they think you're wierd &/or they're afraid of you. Maybe you convince them anyway even though you're asking them to do something they've never done before that makes them nervous. Maybe you'd better get it over w/ quick before they change their mind.
Maybe the VU meters don't work on the sound recording equipment. Maybe that's what's wrong & maybe it isn't. Maybe the cord's bad. Maybe the mike's bad. Whatever the problem, you may only have this one chance & there's no time to go thru the laboriousness of figuring out the problem. Chances are you don't know how to anyway. Maybe the person you've put in charge of the recording has never done it before or is very tired. Maybe they just leave the mike off. You fake sync sound later. Maybe this leads to using a phone book thrown on the floor as the sound of a slamming van door. Maybe this inspires you to use more & more oblique sounds to "connect" w/ the visuals. Everything becomes a special effect to cover a mistake, to take the mistake further & further into the weird.
Maybe the poor neighborhood where you live is especially filthy. Maybe the air's especially polluted. Your projector's broken. It eats the film, breaks & scratches it immediately. You don't have a viewer. The film reels are hand-spun - supported by nails on a board. The film gets dirty & scratched. More "atmosphere".
In the "Official"..Sandwich I shot footage w/o the filter mount in the camera. The result? Hundreds of feet of film with a light leak stripe down the side. I didn't like it. Since it was double perf film, I decided to flip the film periodically to, at least, change wch side the stripe was on. This created a more "dancing" image. I covered the stripe w/ drafting tapes. More "special effects" inspired by my attempts to correct FUCK-UPS.
Upping the Anti-School of Fucked-Up & Away.
How to up the ante? Become more & more ambitious. Shoot under more & more difficult conditions. For the ..Sandwich I wanted a limousine scene. What the fuck. I called a few limousine companies to find out how expensive rentals were. An acquaintance recommended a company that he'd worked for. They were very nice & said they'd rent one for 3 hours for $40.00! Fantastic. If only I cd get everybody together on time. I just barely had the money to pay for it & buy cheap champagne for the "rich" people in the limo & buy beer for the "poor" people scheduled to car-jack the limo at the World Trade Center in BalTimOre's Inner Harbor. In the midst of it I started to worry: Was that $40.00 for all 3 hours or per hour? Uh oh. What if I'd misunderstood. As it turned out, the limo-driver had so much fun he wdn't charge me at all. Sometimes you just get lucky. In SubGenius terminology, the luck-plane tilts your way. Surfing the chaos current. The limo-scene was shot w/ 2 16mm cameras. One of them was so crude it only had 2 settings: daylight & indoors. When it was time for processing I had to do some serious guesstimating about forcing the film. Whether to pull or push & how much. Not much chance of ever doing it again. It turned out.
Recently, I was working on a film w/ some visiting friends. I wanted to shoot the film in restaurants. I'd been too poor to eat in some of them - even though they were mostly very cheap. I didn't have a single penny. My friends had brought the equipment. I was their host but they were feeding me. I didn't want it to be this way but I've never been very good at making money or keeping it long. SUSFU. I had to rely on goodwill & good communication between myself & the restaurant personnel. Being honest, I told them that the film was sortof about people who keep going to retaurants w/o ever managing to eat - eventually starving to death. I told them that the best I cd offer them in compensation for their allowing me to use their places was a credit & a video copy - if & when it ever even turned out! I was nervous. Surprisingly, people were kind & cooperative. I cdn't even afford to buy anything in the restaurants.
For the last scene, I needed to have the "actors" actually order food to eat - more food than they wd eat. The restaurant had a very limited menu that wasn't very appealing to their vegetarian tastes. They had very little money left. It was my film & I felt that I shd pay for it but I didn't have the money. I'd already been a lousy host. One of the actors didn't want to spend the last of their money on food that they wdn't like to eat. What to do? Eventually, the understandably recalcitrant one relented & some of the food was bought. Once again the luck-plane tilted my way. The restaurant owner, perhaps w/o even being aware of my dilemma, gave us a discount on the food W/O OUR EVEN ASKING FOR IT! Bless you!
Now I just have to wait to find out if the film turns out..