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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sony VX700

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.

Frames from London Brief

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.

Images from Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa

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.”

Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry

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

Muri Romani

Sequence 01 crp sm


Roma – un ritratto

Roma big doubled head

Chhattisgarh Sketches



Imagens de uma cidade perdida


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 in case anyone is interested.]

Ed Ruscha, Exit

Door of the old NY Times Building

In a few more days the NY Times will put up a “pay wall” for its on-line edition, which has already caused a stink on the net, from those who insist it should be “free.”   At risk of causing some ire here and there, I’d have to say that given the realities of the newspaper business – what is left of it – I think the Times has a good case.  Newspaper readership is, courtesy of the net, way way down.  In turn, so is advertising revenue, the traditional money-maker for newspapers.  It does cost money to have reporters sprinkled around the country and the globe, to organize it all, edit, and publish it.  So until some Valhalla arrives for us all, and money grows on trees instead of on Wall Street, if you use something like the Times, a little pay is in order.  They let you read 20 articles a month “free” and then want $15 a month if you use more.  That’s 50 cents a day.  For one cup.   A visit to your local “coffee” shop for a mug of whatever gets you mugged for 6 to 10 times that.   So I’d say it’s a reasonable price.


Compositor on old-fashioned Adobe Illustrator machine

That said, last week Frank Rich, who used to be their theater critic until the theater of our national politics pulled him toward the less sublime, announced his departure – to do more serious writing he said.  He was one of the best mainstream columnists we have – insightful, a good writer, and able to intelligently go a bit deeper than most in his trade.  Probably has something to do with his training in the arts.   And then this week Bob Herbert, of whom the same could be said, though he tended to be a bit more rough and tumble in the interests of the poor and deprived, announced his departure after 18 years.   Who the Times replaces them with is being interpreted as a reading of political tea-leaves:  lean to the right? the left?   Some have said without these two the pay wall is too high to climb.

At present the right is well represented by two dreadful columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat.  Both act as seeming straw-men for those, like myself, who place comments.  Both are by-the-book Republicans (sort of redundant since that is what more or less defines Republicans), though Brooks tries his hardest to play some kind of well-meaning intellectual but almost immediately flounders around as soon as something veers from right-wing assumptions.   And, to put it frankly, while he is among the supposed luminaries of conservative America’s “thinkers” I find him rather stupid, to put it kindly.  He is a perfect example of someone boxed in by his own ideological blinders, so he stumbles forth, not even seeming to note when this or that evidence leads axiomatically to something he does not believe in.

David Brooks, Alfred E. Neuman, Ross Douthat

Mr Douthat (whose name I always subliminally read as Doubt that) is allegedly a youthful rising star of the conservative right.  If he doesn’t watch his eating habits he won’t be rising too much – this is a flattering picture of him. He is the kind of right-winger who seems to know some positions are indefensible and rather than thundering louder as his compatriots would, he stutters and says he’d prefer to not discuss it in public.  Say, gay marriage.   Taken together, if it happened that intellectual capacity – to say the ability to see something, analyze it, articulate what you can see, and draw perhaps a conclusion or two – were of any import in our political dialogue, these two, among the leading lights of the right, suggest it would be no contest in any such a debate.  However because it is not of any import – neither an intellectual capacity, or the honesty to concede a fact is a fact – it means these two, among others, are given time on the national airwaves to press their opinions, as stupid as they are, and to collect doubtless a nice pay-check from the Gray Lady for their weekly scribbles.   Surely some right-wing “think tank” also contributes nicely to their income.

Yesterday, responding to Mr Brook’s column of the day, I wrote the following, which for some reason was not published (usually I do get published, though also yesterday one got censored, I suspect because I used the term “A-hole” and this, for our lady, is evidently beyond the pale.)  His column was on Muammar Gaddafi, and how weird he is, and how weirdness seems to serve tyrants.

“They are untroubled by doubt or concern for the good opinion of others since they already possess absolute truth.”

Hmmm… while perhaps not quite so extreme, wasn’t there someone a little closer to home who was kinda like this, along with some of the other traits you ascribe to good old Muammar? But as I recall you kinda liked that feel-it-in-my-gut guy.

You seem to vacillate like a political weather-vane: when it’s something you like and is close to political home, hey, it’s OK; when not, the very same qualities can become anathema.

Historically there have been a lot of these characters – from Caligula on (and of course, far before him too). It tells you something about the ordinary everyday person’s character, too.

Good old Muammar

Meanwhile the world’s news continues at such a fast clip it’s rather hard to keep up with.  The middle-east continues to erupt, now with the US/NATO playing protectors of the Libyan uprising, not only maintaining a “no-fly” policy, but blasting the hell out of any of Muammar’s armor, cannons, etc.  Sort of, literally and metaphorically, “leveling the playing field.”  This of course has led to a field day of the commentariat of both American right and center talking heads (we don’t really have a left, though that which we have has also fallen into the to do/be or not chorus) who are caught, as usual, talking out of whichever side of the mouth seems convenient at the moment.  Or sometimes both at the same time.  Presidential candidate Grigrich made a 180 degree turn on the matter in two days.   Those who cheered Bush’s bombast, now excoriate Obama.  Or vice versa.  Were there not so many bodies strewn around the theater set, it would be comic, but it is not.

And while Libya yanked our attentions from Egypt, there the army goes about clamping down, the mask coming off quickly to show the same old powers-that-be are not going easily and in fact are ready to hop into bed with the not-so-long-ago arch-enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to secure that hold onto power (and all their intertwined businesses).  Presumably the Brotherhood has tested the waters and thinks the game is coming down on the army’s side.   But, next to the airshow next door, this is nada for the news.

Tracers over Tripoli

On with the news:  Saudi troops rolled into Bahrain, (among other things it hosts a large US Naval Base), there to tamp down the Shiite uprising against the Sunni minority ruling class in the interest of next-door neighbor Saudia Arabia, itself also seeming to be infected with the spirit of the middle-east spring.  In Yemen things oscillate back and forth, and now even in hard-nosed Syria the folks are rising up (only to be gunned down while Assad, son of the previous Assad, sends out his spoke’s-lady to claim he ordered no shooting – but the shooting goes on, and another town goes up in protest, and the famed souk in Damascus is filled with rhythmic shouting calling for an end to the regime, and it appears in a few more weeks likely another middle-eastern potentate will come crashing down.  Syria is next door to Iran, where, in a sense we could say all this started some two years ago.  Will it come full circle?  Tune in tomorrow.

Meantime while it has mostly slipped to the back of the line, the post-tsunami nuclear catastrophe in Japan carries on with no evident solution in sight.  Instead, sort of brushed out of sight, it festers and perhaps grows worse.  Radiation spills out, the threat of an imminent melt down in reactor #3 (out of 6) hints at worse to come.  Now the ring of radiation leakage has worked its way all the way to Europe, and food and water in the region is contaminated, and naturally nuclear energy industry speakers come forth to say it’s not that dangerous, and more people are killed and hurt by coal, and it was the tsunami’s fault, and not the industry’s, and other mealy-mouthed defenses.  Money talks, like we said.


Fukushima reactor #3Tsunami

That’s just a little bit of “the news.”  If you lived in other parts you might be concerned with the million refugees from the civil war in the Ivory Coast, or in Portugal with the economy crumbling and imminent “austerity” measures.  Or closer to home the Conservative Canadian government just collapsed owing to corruption scandals (surprise surprise!).  And of course down, way down, south there’s the on-going drug wars.

But here in America, at a Las Vegas trade show for electronics, there was this new toy – a dancing robot you can control with your cell phone or I-pad.  Now there’s something to write home about!

Dancing robots (aka American voters)


Censored by the Times (again).

A little update, March 28:  this weekend sent in early two comments, one to Maureen Dowd, other to the absurd Thomas Friedman.  Seems both were too something for our censors at the Gray  Lady.  Here’s what I wrote – which is nothing that wasn’t said by a lot of others – particularly to Friedman – by responders.  Must be something personal:

It appears Mr Friedman is able – or perhaps compulsively needful – to nurse his delusions forever.

“…..helping Iraqis manage multiple fair elections was that they had a credible neutral arbiter throughout this transition: the U.S. …”

I think there are many, most likely a majority, of Iraqis who would seriously dispute the credibility of America as a “neutral arbiter.”  I do not think one gains such credibility by the actions and behaviors of America in Iraq since, oh well, since Rummy shook hands with his good buddy Sadaam Hussein way back when.  It is only in Mr Friedman’s American imperialist fantasies that such credibility could occur.

Tipping his real hand, Mr Friedman says:

“Democracy requires 3 things: citizens — that is, people who see themselves as part of an undifferentiated national community where anyone can be ruler or ruled.”

This is what an authoritarian like Mr Friedman could think.  No, democracy is not “ruled” by someone; rather someone serves the people. But not in Mr Friedman’s world: it’s rule or be ruled.  This is not the choice a meaningful democracy offers, but it is the choice an autocracy gives.

Mr Friedman persistently demonstrates the he is no qualified to speak about the things he so constant speaks about.


I neglected to save the Dowd response, it was essentially a review of Broadway musical about Mormons, and I suggested there are more serious things going on in the world.  And then I responded to an Editorial Board item, and it too was not printed.

While it will be interesting to see which way the court tilts, it has long been that our legal system tilts – drastically – towards “money.” A real life experience showed me that: while in prison for refusing military service (1965-67) I met a fair number of people doing 5 years for possession of modest amounts of marijuana (those doing time for that now are many more, but mostly not light-skinned). On getting out while living with a very rich young woman her brother was caught on the Mexican border trailing a fancy power boat full of marijuana. After the first judge who was bought inconveniently dropped dead from a heart-attack the second Federal judge gave him 6 months. Money talks – bs walks. The All-American Way!

Ever it always was and will be: legal systems invariably serve the powers that be; the power in America, as always, is money.


Ricky Leacock

Ricky Leacock, at the ripe age of 89 has moved along, dead in Paris where he’d lived some time.  Leacock was a pioneer in “cinema verite,” very early on working to make 16mm, and super 8 cameras, and later video cameras, light and portable as possible.   I met him a few times, once in Cambridge where I’d had a screening of Last Chants for a Slow Dance.   Indicative of his sense of humor, he invited me for dinner and served rabbit stew.

Frame grab, Last Chants for a Slow Dance

Out of Leacock’s MIT classes came a stream of filmmakers, adopting in their own ways his fly-on-a-wall aesthetic, who’ve made a mark in the filmworld.  I’ve met a handful of them – Michel Negroponte and Ross McElwee, and a few others in passing.  Of course now with camcorders, cell phones and the ubiquitous camera eye almost everywhere, and the internet sites of YouTube and Vimeo it is difficult to recall how hard it once was to get an image and sound.  Leacock was one of those leading the way, and his influence is wide and deep.

Adieu, Mr Leacock




Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky

Faced with the catastrophe unfolding in Japan, where the combination of a severe earthquake and tsunami has resulted in the failure of 4 nuclear generators, Senator McConnell had this to say:

“I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy,” Mr. McConnell said on “Fox News Sunday.”

He said that the American public and politicians had recoiled after Three Mile Island, rejecting permits for the construction of dozens of nuclear plants on the “not in my backyard” impulse.

“My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan,” Mr. McConnell said.


[For some very dirty truths see this.]

Jefferson Davis, another famous Kentuckian

To translate Mr McConnell’s words from the Kentucky dialect this means something to the effect that:

“We ain’t got nothin to larn from no Japs and we ain’t gonna let no f….kn forenners fkn make us decide whatn to do.”

Senator McConnell in Todd Browning’s Freaks

Translated from public Senator-speak, the same words mean:

“We are not about to let events in foreign countries (where their competence may be in question) have any effect on our domestic policy decisions.”

Translate from back-room Senator-speak, it means:

“We’re not going to let some incident over in monkey-land get in the way of any business for our friends in the nuclear power industry who have always given so generously to my election campaigns.”

Diablo Canyon, CaliforniaSan Onofre, California

Note there’s 3 nuclear power stations in Ky and next door in seismic South Carolina there’s only 7.  There were several others in California but they were closed owing to malfunctions; one was stopped from being built in Bodega Bay, right on top of the San Andreas fault.

Todd BrowningJohnny Depp, another Kentucky son

The biggest recorded earth-quake arrived off the coast of Japan,  a place much accustomed to such tectonic shifts, sitting as it does directly along the Pacific Rim “Ring of Fire,” and in a handful of minutes unleashed a tsunami of epic proportions.  The news at the moment I write suggests a thousand and some dead, though the images caught by cell phones and little HD cameras surely tells another story, of tens of thousands or perhaps 100’s of thousands.  Meantime two nuclear reactors, sitting on the shoreline, are spewing radioactivity, their cooling systems ruptured.  Authorities tell bland stories seeking to calm the fractured nerves of the populace, though each passing hour seems to betray their assurances.

Japan, historically habituated to the jangled reality of plate tectonics, in some measure has done about as much as possible to deal with the physical effects of earthquakes.  It has strict construction and engineering codes, intended to adequately deal with the motions incurred when a part of the crust of our earth slips against a neighboring piece, and as occurred during this earthquake many of the tall skyscrapers of Tokyo swayed back and forth, built flexibly, like an airplane wing, to absorb the energies unleashed, and to dissipate them in movement.  Doubtless for the occupants of those buildings the effect was nauseous, but far better than were they rigid and had simply broken up and collapsed.

Yet, “in some measure” proves not adequate in the face of what nature can really throw at us once in a while.  The only defense against the tsunami that ravaged the north east coast of Honshu, would simply be to not populate it.  A low lying coastal plain, good for agriculture on a very crowded mostly mountainous island, this was simply not an option.  And even the most solid of seawalls would have done nothing meaningful in the face of the tsunami that hit them.  Cars and trains, whole neighborhoods of houses and factories – all were bandied about by the forces as if playthings.   It is then just a gamble to live there, a gamble the Japanese have little choice about making.

Nuclear plant that was badly damaged

In the 19th century, Japan, previously isolated by choice, in the face of the Western intrusions, chose to compete on Western terms.  It industrialized, and is in this time perhaps the most industrialized area of the world.  The computer I am writing on was made there, as are the cameras I shoot with, and many other things I have come from this powerhouse.  Yet, beyond the energy and discipline of its people, Japan has little to warrant its industrialization in terms of natural resources: it has no oil, its habitable and arable land is very limited by its geography, it lacks many other natural resources which most other industrial nations possess.   Japan must import almost everything except for the labor that goes into its industrial manufacturing.  It was a choice, an elemental one, which has  guided Japanese politics ever since.   It was Japan’s Faustian bargain with the future – to make itself utterly dependent on the import of almost everything it requires to be an industrialized society.  And in turn this guided such decisions as to build nuclear reactors adjacent to the fault-lines which guaranteed major earthquakes would arrive at some time.  As we have seen in the last days, even the most stringent of engineering does not suffice to make such plants “safe” in such conditions.  As the map above shows, Japan is littered with nuclear energy plants.  Nuclear power now provides about 30% of Japan’s energy “needs.”  Most of the rest is from oil (50%) and coal (15%).   Almost all of this must be imported.

Nuclear power stations

The US, though on the West coast accustomed to earthquakes, has done far less in legislating construction requirements, or other measures intended to cope with these events and their consequences.  There is no question that an earthquake near the intensity of the in Japan will strike the US, perhaps most likely along the Pacific Coast, but perhaps on the Madrid fault-line in the Mid-West.  With far less precaution taken in engineering, or even utter thoughtlessness in their placement – I recall in the early 70’s construction was begun on a plant in Bodega Bay, the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, on a lovely site overlooking the Pacific, and after they had begun to dig the foundations it was halted, not for being an aesthetic insult, but because it sat directly on top of a major fault-line, one that had jumped laterally 8-12 feet in some places in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1909 – America could expect far more catastrophic consequences both to the nuclear plants, and architecture in general, in an equivalent shake.  However, despite the forewarning provided by this week’s events, one doubts that real measures will be taken to reinforce architecture, or perhaps close down certifiably dangerous power plants, even though there is, in the longer run, a 100% assurance that a catastrophe will strike.

It will be interesting to see if in the coming time the Japanese, being a far more social/collective culture, have second thoughts on their bargain with the future, and begin to dismantle their nuclear stations and perhaps even conclude that the costs of industrialization are in fact fatal for them.  In America, it is almost assured that our capitalist and “individualist” ethic will result in little being done for the communal welfare in this regard: the power stations will remain (or multiply if some have their way); architectural engineering will be as cheap as profit-making allows, and one day the price will be paid.

The San Francisco 1989 earthquake

San Francisco earthquake 1909

San Andreas fault, everything on west side moving to Alaska

In light of the most recent word on the reactors, here is a map of potential fall-out:

See this for a remarkable example of both the technological capacities of our time, and of the power of nature to wash them away.  One day the sun will in its death throws explode and obliterate all the planets spinning around it; we will have very long before departed.  Sic transit etc.

[This item in the NY Times seems to suggest I am not the only one thinking perhaps Japan should consider stepping out of the technological industrial race and trying just to make a society for people to be happy.]

[Little update note, August 24, 2011:  in Paris saw my friend Toshi Fujiwara’s new film, No Man’s Zone, in late editing – he went to the Fukushima area about 3 weeks after the quake, and has made what I anticipate to be a very strong film on the devastation, the effects on local people, the duplicitous ways of government and corporations.]