To serve the human spirit
It was a sultry midwestern summer when a friend and I stumbled onto a film company -- 20th Century-Fox -- and the job of stand-ins. The work fitted us well: we both had acted in college, developing a healthy respect for theater concentration and intense directors; our wallets could well afford the impact of Hollywood; and the job appeared to be another step in my rites of passage, not necessarily into manhood, but into the twentieth century. With the world swirling by so rapidly, I had been looking for a handle to the spirit of our times. As a child of the '60s I had done the usual tromping through Europe, slinging tacos for a fast food shop, hiking through the wilderness without any food (a mountaineering school ritual), and driving across the United States penniless. A promising list, but what could provide better access to the twentieth century than working in an art form it had created?
My first day of filming began in a lessthan-promising fashion with an electrician bellowing at me: "He, stay out of the way, would ya, kid? You should be the other side of the police."
"I'm crew -- second team," I tried to explain, while hastily reminding myself of my duties: watch the actors rehearse and then repeat their actions for the adjustment of camera and lights. quite obviously my survival would depend on an instinct for the best place to wait -- out of the shot, out of the way, but with a good view of the action.
Another fact was becoming apparent as I stood there, disoriented and unsure of myself -- I was at the center of a terribly intricate system laced with high technology.
At the end of the day, when an assistant director spouted "Okey, that's a wrap!" (Hollywood language for clean up, the day's overm ) I began to understand the system as I saw it being disassembled into its many parts. Walkie-talkies blared with the voices of assistand directors orchestrating the exit, while the lenses for the superbly crafted cameras were packed away in tough metal cases. Dollies -- a sophisticated set of wheels for supporting the cameras -- were rolled off. Finally the caravan started up. First the caterer's trailer, which had produced some eighty New York strip steaks that day, followed by several recreational vehicles in which the director and actors could relax. A Honeywagon -- a motorized dressing room -- turned over its engines. And a station wagon headed for the airport where the day's film would be flown to Los Angeles, developed, and returned for the director to screen.
In the wake of the departing vehicles I sensed that the film industry required more technology, more raw power, than had ever been used to create a piece of art.Here the medium was far more unwieldy than pigment scattered over a piece of canvas, or words taped on to a blank piece of paper. The medium of cinema is life itself -- human beings and their buildings altered with make-up, a new wall here and there, and then transposed on to celluloid. Suddenly the moral load is doubled: the traditional responsibility an artist has to life is compounded with the film maker's responsibility to his medium, to the actors and the setting, that he not use them against their inner grain of truth -- force them to lie about themselves. Hitler did just that during the last days of the war when he used invaluable troops to create a self-consoling film about the victories of Napoleon. I had no answer, only growing suspicions that the integrity of a location and its culture might easily be swept aside in the surge of power necessary to produce a reel of film.
Later that week the cinematographer, trying to arrange a cramped office for shooting, suddenly called out "Lose it!" and pointed almost disdainfully at a filing cabinet that hadn't budged for the last twenty years. Instantly an army of grips -- movers of the film industry -- appeared and carted off the offending object. My friend and I tried to guess where the power of what was to bedome an oft-used phrase -- "Lose it -- would end. "Was it enough to have a building demolished, a road diverted?" we asked each other wryly. But behind our laughter lay a serious question: when does a cinematographer rearrange life to fit his assumptions, and when does he allow life to remoldm his assumptions?
It wasn't until the end of the summer, when we were filming aboard a houseboat on the edge of the Mississippi, that I actually saw the spirit of a location neglected and abused. We had canoed to work, my friend and I, as we were living directly across the river, astounding both cast and crew as if we had performed some terribly dangerous and half-baked feat. This gang wasn't very familiar with canoes, or rivers, as we discovered during the dinner break when the director and two others climbed into the canoe, faced the stern, and paddled out into the current. For a few minutes it looked as if we might have to continue sansm director.
Iwas disturbed with their lack of canoesavvy, with the hypocrisy of filming on the water and yet knowing nothing about it. What were they seeing in this lush river setting except the assumptions they had brought from Hollywood? They were hardly the artist who felt he must eat the apple before he could paint it.
By 4:00 that morning the cameras had rolled the last foot of film, and the river was filled with a dense, cool fog so that we couldn't see more than twenty feet in front of ourselves. Armed with flashlights to wave at the barges, my friend and I climbed into the canoe and pushed off. Soon we were immersed in another world, connected to shore only by the fading shouts of the crew and thoughts about the potential of film; of the rare directors who reportedly sit on the set with a typewriter reworking the script because of new dimensions discovered in yesterday's shooting; of the European director who refused to make a film in the United States because he didn't know American habits. I wondered if the promise of film wasn't the opportunity for a complex technological system to serve the human spirit, for it to become as pliable as clay to the artist's vision and the nuances of life. With that hope lingering in thought, we began to paddle around the islands waiting for the sun to rise.