Having needlessly dragged it around a few more years than sane, in a spring cleaning of the house and mind, I pulled the first DV camera I had – acquired in 1997 courtesy of the Dokumenta 10 Arts Exposition in Kassel, Germany – and set it ready for the garbage. Reluctantly, since it was a camera I rather liked, and I suppose I have a vaguely nostalgic sense for it. I liked it for visual qualities that others disliked it for, and wish I had another camera equivalent. The first DV films I shot were mostly with it, and they utilize those qualities: a capacity to make a lovely graininess, and a curious focusing mechanism, complaints about which caused SONY to pull the camera off the market within less than a year. I shot a whole film using just what that system did.
The VX700 had a nice gritty image, if that’s what you wanted, and it fit nicely with sense of London which I have. Also it had a basic “flash” mode which let me shoot 1/3rd of a second in-camera optical printing of a kind, giving movements an animated look, which again worked very nicely with many things in London.
On the other hand, it had a totally other “look” it could do which I used for Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa, shot in Cabanas, Portugal in 1997.
What caused Sony to pull the camera off the market was a focus system which seemed to cause a bloom of light around anything which had relatively bright light on it, though it didn’t do this when in focus. I never figured out what caused this, but I found it beautiful and shot many hours of material willfully out of focus, and it was from this that 3 years of editing produced Nas Correntes. It took so long as it has no narrative, runs nearly 2 hours, and pretty pictures alone do not make a film. It took a lot of looking, sorting, and find an internal rhythm and “music” in the images to turn it into cinema.
At the same time I got the VX700, I also got the Sony VX1000, a 3-chip camera. Also courtesy of the Dokumenta Exposition, which is in itself an interesting little story. Originally they’d contacted me and asked, would I be interested in making something for them. Naturally I said yes, especially when they said they’d get 1 million dollars and I could do whatever I wanted. Along the way they said Sony had a new technology, DV, and they’d like me to play with it, though I could shoot in film or whatever if I wished. I looked at the literature they sent, about the 2 cameras they had, and noted they were different in many ways, and I asked them to send both. They did, along with an early deck, and two monitors. When I got these, at the time in Scotland researching the film I thought I’d do for them, I had the VX700 in my hands a few minutes, playing with it, and something inside said “I am never working in film again.” And I haven’t. I did do a test at the time, taking some DV original and copying it ten generations away, confirming it was exactly as the original. I was sold, for many reasons. Among them aesthetic, but also financial: here was a tool that could do so many things, had its own beautiful qualities and, once you had the machines in hand cost almost nothing to use.
So I carried on preparing my million-dollar film, and when it came time to line up actors I informed the people at Dokumenta that I didn’t like asking people to set aside their time until I had money in the pipeline to pay them. A long silence ensued, and after some prodding, they said they couldn’t come up with a million, but $250,ooo would be a snap. I informed them that the idea for a million dollars wouldn’t work with $250,ooo, but I’d change horses and figure out something for 1/4 million. I moved to Lisbon and started work. No money arrived, but I trustingly assumed it would. Then on pressing for funding, Dokumenta said, well, $250,000 wasn’t in the cards, but $50,000 for sure…. Having eaten up now more than a year with this, and only some months remaining before Dokumenta’s opening, I clenched my teeth and said OK. Of course, some months went by with no money and 6 weeks before they were to open the exposition they inquired what I’d be sending. I said, “Nothing.” They seemed surprised, as if their wonderful art world reputation was so great one should crawl to be in in. And they asked for the equipment back. I wrote and told them the equipment, at the time worth $18,000, was not going to be going back to them, and it was really lousy pay for 18 months of being yanked around. Their lawyer sent a letter insisting the equipment must be returned. I then wrote the near-blind directress of Dokumenta that time around, a Parisian lady by the name of Catherine David, who had visited my apartment in London behind a coke bottle bottom thick set of glasses, and whom I had been told was a big film-fan. I wrote and said that in light of her familiarity with American films, as regarded returning the equipment, I would quote from a famous film, and wrote: “Just make my day.”
I never heard from them again. And while it must be said that their treatment (I learned later I was not the only one so treated, just that some still gave them things to show) was at minimum ugly and inexcusable, I do look back on it as still a kind of favor. Given my economic situation at that time (and normally), I suspect I would have waited 2 or 3 more years before I got a DV camera. As it was I was able to get in early, learn, and make a lot of films I would never have been able to make in film. Just as has been the case the last 10 years.
So those old cameras served a good purpose. Made with them were also:
6 Easy Pieces
As I set these cameras out in the trash – having checked that they just can’t do anything anymore, not even be used for rewind machines – I find it is the same time I wonder if I should put myself out to pasture, creatively speaking. Not so much because I feel dried up that way, but being a damned Taurus (though I being a Taurus naturally do not believe in such things), I find myself calculating the hard realities against the desires. In the current and I think foreseeable times, there is no reason to think that the things I make and want to make will have any qualities that “sell” them – to put it bluntly while they might get shown here and there, at festivals or special places like museums and a few surviving alternative cinemas, this wouldn’t really make any money. Nothing to pay the rent, put food on the table. In fact the reverse – to make much of anything requires at least some spending, whether in money or time and energy. And this money, and diminishing time and energy ain’t likely to come back. So one wonders, WTF!? These days the world is a bit hostile to what I do (and to many other things) and my guess is the political/cultural winds aren’t likely to shift anytime soon – not, perhaps, in my lifetime. My hunch is we’re in for some real hard times, times in which the concerns I have – aesthetic and also political/social – are likely to be thought worthless or worse. So plow on? I have my doubts.
On the other hand I went yesterday to get a DSR-11 deck, a projector (Optoma) and Sony Vaio notebook computer all repaired. On my shelves there’s 100-200 hours of material, most shot with those old cameras, waiting for me to find the 3-6 long films and myriad shorts hiding in there. So something else must be stirring in my soul. And 2 days ago I finally went out and spent and hour shooting with the EXcam HD camera. Spring arriving? Well, we’ll see.
Meantime to those two workhorses shown above, I finally give them the old heave ho, and thank them for the service done. They were great companions.
[DVDs of the films listed here are available in NTSC and PAL format at http://www.jonjost.altervista.org in case anyone is interested.]