I’m making a film of my boyhood, like Francois Truffaut in The 400 Blows. I began in the late ’60s, and here we are in the new millennium. That’s a long time to make a film of your boyhood. I’m making a film because it’s easier than writing a book.
I got into filmmaking years ago at the University of Iowa. I was in the Writers’ Workshop trying to learn how to write. But it was too hard. Actually, the film of my boyhood exists already as a home-movie in my head—a jumble of scenes of the things I remember—not in grainy black and white or fuzzy romantic soft focus, but in Kodak Ektachrome. All it needs is a bit of editing and blowing up from the little screen in my head to the big screen at your neighborhood theater.
The best thing about the Writers’ Workshop is that you take courses in things other than writing, like pottery and sculpture and filmmaking. They make you do things, as if there’s a correlation between the lead in your pencil and the lead in your ass. It worked. I gave up writing and became a filmmaker.
* * *
My first film was a disaster. It was supposed to be a pattern film, for Calvin Pryluck’s Cine-Tech 101. I shot it in a local graveyard. I spent hours planning all the shots.
Graveyards are really interesting. And heavily symbolic. The stones are like so many sculptures. At certain angles they line up in neat rows. But from other angles they’re a jumble—like the scenes of my boyhood in my head. I was going to shoot the stones with a long lens to get a foreshortened effect, so they’d all look packed in tight.
As if people were dying to get in there.
I shot for three hours on a sunny afternoon in September. There was a fine interplay of stones and shadows. I could hear the camera whirring away, an old 16mm World War II documentary Bell & Howell that looked like Mickey Mouse ears turned on end. It had a big wind-up key.
As I shot I kept humming Beethoven’s 9th, the tune I intended for my soundtrack. I could see the film unfolding before my eyes.
Later, when I opened the camera, I noticed that all the film was still in the top canister. I turned the camera upside down to make the film be on the bottom where it should have been. It didn’t work. I had threaded it improperly. I’d been shooting air all afternoon.
* * *
In Iowa I met Zygmundt Sulistrowski, the director who made The French Girls and the Nudists. His work has won at the Cannes Film Festival and that impressed me. The film of my boyhood is destined for Cannes.
Ziggy was a guest lecturer in Calvin Pryluck’s Cine-Tech 101. “For ze filmmaker,” he said, “zair is ze technical hump. Unless he first gets over ze technical hump, he will never be a filmmaker.”
I knew what he meant. I asked him if he had any secrets about threading film. He
thought I said shredding. “Not enough filmmakers shred zair films,” he said.
I smiled, undaunted. If I couldn’t thread it, I couldn’t shred it.
* * *
My second film was much improved. I returned to the graveyard but with a crew this time. His name was Arnold. He was a photographer from Wyoming who hated films as much as he hated filmmakers.
“A single photograph is all you need,” he told me.
“Then why are you taking Pryluck?”
“It’s a requirement of my program. It’s to make sure the photographer sees things in continuity.”
“Sounds familiar,” I said. “Why don’t you try writing?”
“I’ve got nothing to say.”
Pryluck had designated Arnold and me as crew members on the first day of class. We all had to stand up and announce our intentions in hopes of pairing up crews with similar interests. Most crews consisted of three or four students.
When it was Arnold’s turn he said, “I hate films as much as I hate filmmakers.”
I said, “I’m going to win the Cannes Film Festival. Just call me Truffaut.”
After the crews had been picked only Arnold and I were left. Unfortunately, he was sick when I shot my first film.
“How’d it turn out?” he called to me as I pulled in to pick him up at his trailer home on the outskirts of campus.
Arnold was sort of a wimpy-looking guy but he was married to a gorgeous piece. She was sunning herself on a blanket in front of the trailer. As I approached, she reached
behind her to unsnap the top of her bathing suit.
“Didn’t shoot it yet,” I said. “Decided I needed your help.”
I told Arnold I was thinking of freeze-framing a few shots in my graveyard film
and that got him all excited. It was almost photography.
“I made some peanut butter sandwiches for lunch,” he said, holding up a brown paper bag.
“Why don’t you thread the camera as we ride out?”
* * *
Now the 16mm World War II documentary Bell & Howell is quite a piece of machinery. It’s heavy and sturdy and indestructible. It took pictures of Hitler and pictures of Hiroshima. After the War the Army bequeathed a number of them to the University of Iowa. Ours was a functional antique.
The camera carries three lenses that screw into a revolving turret. There is a long lens, a medium lens, and a short lens. I told Arnold to shoot with the long lens. He wanted the short lens, the wide angle. “It’s my film,” I snorted. Arnold screwed in the lenses and snapped the long one into position.
It was another sunny September day and I was getting excited. “Dum dum dum daaa,” I sang to myself as I took the light meter out of the camera case. I took a reading and we began shooting. Arnold, surprisingly enough, was cooperative. The afternoon flew.
“Enfin, c’est fini,” I announced like Truffaut himself.
But when the film came back from the lab it was all washed out. And out of focus. Instead of a graveyard it looked like a ghost yard. Vague ashen stones stood against a white sky. It was haunting. My rhythmical pans looked like a military review of a blurred Ku Klux Klan.
“What the fuck went wrong?”
Pryluck was pragmatic. “Light meter was probably out of calibration. Everybody just throws ’em in the case.”
“What about the focus?”
“The lens wasn’t screwed in tight.”
“Ze lens wasn’t screwed in tight!” I aped Ziggy. “Once again ze victim of ze technical hump!”
When I saw Arnold I was furious. “The lens wasn’t screwed in tight!”
“I told you we should have used the wide angle.”
I wanted to shred his head.
* * *
I was twenty-six years old when I went out to Iowa. Before that I was a high school teacher. I once wrote a definition of teaching. “Teaching,” I said, “is like leading gentle children barefoot through a field of broken glass. There is the letting go of the hand and the all but inevitable bleeding.”
I thought it was pretty poetic. I showed it to this one girl and she cried. I showed it to this other girl and she said, “That’s bullshit. Just wear shoes.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but it sounded convincing. Soon afterwards I dropped out of teaching and went out to Iowa.
* * *
My next film was a technical masterpiece. (Pryluck had given me a “D” for my
previous effort.) It was shot at the Eagle Supermarket. Out in Iowa they have Eagle’s instead of A & P’s.
I had to hassle the manager to let me film in his store. “Listen,” I told him. “This
is 1969. The whole country’s freaked out with people doin’ their own thing. Nobody’s gonna flip over a man with a camera in a grocery store.”
After a while he consented. I positioned myself behind the Cheerios.
Pryluck wanted us to do a non-directed film, a sort of documentary in which you have no control over the action. I decided to shoot the checkout girls. There were seven of them all lined up in their chutes, whanging away at the cash registers, too busy to notice my head popping up and down along the row of Cheerios.
I shifted to 64 frames per second for some slow-motion shots. I was having a great time.
Then something happened that taught me a great truth about filmmaking. Some guy walked right in front of me, pushing his basket of groceries. But when he saw the camera he suddenly stopped, ducked, and retreated as if he’d committed a sin. The great truth about filmmaking is that people think filmmakers are sacred. With a camera in tow you can get away with practically anything. It’s the conditioned Hollywood response, a lesson that would prove helpful in making my boyhood film. If you ever want to get away with anything outrageous, just carry a camera along.
Anyway, my non-directed film turned out to be mainly about one of the checkout girls. Her name was Marsha and she was very pretty. She was seventeen and it was a pleasure to watch her check out groceries. She had long chestnut hair that flew about her baby face as she punched the keys and bagged the goodies.
I went over to her after I had finished filming and said, “What’s a pretty girl like you doin’ in a joint like this?”
She was apprehensive. “What?”
“You oughta be in pictures.”
“How’d you like to be in a movie?”
“Well, you already are. I’ve been filming you for the past half hour.” I held up the magic Bell & Howell. It was too much for her.
“I’ll see you outside when you get off work.”
The only problem with Marsha was that she was only pretty from the waist up. From the waist down she was pure Iowan—corn-fed, chunky, thick-thighed. She was wedged into a pair of Levi’s so tightly it made me wince. It had all been hidden beneath the counter. How could I have known? I had been too hasty. And now I was stuck with Marsha for my next film, a film I hadn’t even planned yet. I’d just have to make sure to shoot her from the waist up.
“What kind of a film are you making?” she said outside, all excited.
“Not sure yet. But with you, how can I miss?” I was trying hard not to stare at her thighs.
Marsha beamed. “What’s it for?”
“The Cannes Film Festival.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “In Des Moines.”
* * *
I got a “B” on my Eagle film. “‘A’ for technical aspects,” Pryluck wrote on his comment sheet. “The lighting was perfect. ‘C’ for conception: the slo-mo hurt the
rhythm. ‘B’ for the film.”
I was ecstatic. A two hundred percent improvement! I had threaded the film, calibrated the light meter, and screwed in the lens all by myself, all without Arnold who had to take his gorgeous wife to the doctor’s.
I was climbing ze technical hump.
* * *
At this point in time I didn’t know that I would be making a film of my boyhood. The film I had in mind for the Cannes Film Festival was what Pryluck called my “Cine-Tech 101 Wonder”. It was a combination of the films I was making in his course.
The idea came to me while watching a Bergman film in Iowa City not long after I had met Marsha. I saw it all in a flash, and it would use every foot of film I had already shot plus the new roll allotted for the assignment.
Our third film was to be a directed film. Here we could control the action, direct the actors, and make significant weighty statements. In the Bergman film Liv Ullman went running through a field. I saw Marsha running (in waist high grass).
The story came quickly. The pretty checkout girl at the local Eagle mourns the recent death of a loved one—father, brother, lover (on purpose we don’t make it clear). She visits his grave after work and then repairs to a serene and natural setting for solace. Out of focus graveyard shots show the confusion in her mind. It was fall now, November, and the season itself would reflect the melancholy mood of the film.
I took Marsha out to the graveyard. Arnold came too. I only wanted him for one shot with his own camera—a single still photo of Marsha looking down sadly at a gravestone, shot from behind the stone so the name was hidden (along with her thighs).
Arnold was inspired. I figured I’d have him blow up his shot to an 8×10. Then I could film it back in the studio, pinning it to the wall and shooting it from a tripod close up. It was all much easier than freeze-framing—the endless duplication in the lab of a single frame of film, a technique reserved for Cine-Tech 102. I figured the lone still shot would lend the film an air of poignancy.
I dismissed Arnold after his photo and sent him home to his darkroom and his lovely wife. “By the way,” he said in parting, “she’s pregnant.” Then I took one long lyrical shot of Marsha running through the graveyard directly at the camera, screaming and flailing her arms in classic grief. I shot it in slow motion thinking, “Fuck you, Pryluck. I’ll get the rhythm right.”
In my head I tried out different tunes—from the Beatles to Bolero—while Marsha ran at me, screaming like a sixth grader at a snake. I focused on her head and arms.
Then we moved a few miles out to the reservoir, a clear blue lake surrounded by trees from which decaying leaves, symbolic of death, were dropping nicely. A gentle stream entered the lake on the north side, falling over a rock ledge and rippling out like a river meeting the ocean. Directly across the lake stood a section of pine trees all stark and scraggled, like a grove of charred Christmas trees ravaged by fire. More death. Death all around!
I had Marsha walk down the path to the little waterfall, pick up a brown leaf blowing by, and set it gently in the stream, where, like a little boat, it was borne out to the wide waters beyond—like her father-brother-lover crossing the bar. The shot ended with a pan upward to the death trees across the lake.
As Marsha walks back whence she had come, she turns once more for a last look
at the scene, the breeze spreads her hair, and—the look on her face isn’t sad enough. Just sort of cute. I knew then that I’d need some heavy music before the credits.
* * *
Pryluck gave the film a “B”. “The story line’s not clear,” he wrote. “There are too many disjointed parts. It’s like three separate films. The girl is happy in the supermarket. Then we see her sad in the graveyard with no transition. She’s not right for your story. The best shot is at the end, when she looks back. She looks good there. You should have built your film around that look.”
I concluded that Pryluck had no imagination.
* * *
Marsha loved the film. She wanted to make another. I told her I had used up all the film the course allowed me. The semester was ending. I didn’t tell her I had signed up for Cine-Tech 102. There we would learn freeze-framing, dissolves, fade-in’s and fade-out’s, sync sound and lip sync (until now my sound had been played on an accompanying cassette), and A & B roll printing—all the assorted mysteries that produce the magical effects on the silver screen, the technical camel’s second hump. But I shan’t bore you with how I mastered them. Suffice it to say that I did.
And I did, finally, get an “A” out of Pryluck. The film that did it was the masterpiece my film of Marsha should have been. And for this one I never touched a camera.
All second semester, when in the editing room, I picked up scraps of film thrown away by other filmmakers. The editing room closed each day at five o’clock. Each day I would show up around four-thirty and grab pieces of film from the wastebaskets at the twelve editing stations. This began as an editing exercise for practice in splicing film, a hassle that involves cutting the film, scraping off the emulsion with a razor blade, applying glue, and sticking it all back together again. I did it daily to master the technique, so my films would stop falling apart in the projector.
One day, just for fun, I ran the film to see what I had. To my surprise the random shots fell into rough patterns. There were shots of a bus in Chicago, a black girl throwing a rose into the Iowa River, a man playing with a dog, cars in a junk yard, a record player, a wheelchair on its side (one wheel spinning), a man raking leaves (spliced in upside down), the main street of a small Iowa town, a bulldozer, a collapsing geodesic dome, a student giving the camera the finger, Senator Hughes on campus, a little boy with a dirty face, the foyer of the library, a still of a Playboy centerfold, desks in a classroom—and on and on.
I added loud rock music and called the film Garbage Cannes.
Pryluck raved. “It’s life!” he wrote. “So many slices of life!”
I had made my best film from the scraps of other filmmakers. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, Ziggy.
Claude Clayton Smith is Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, and the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of two others. His work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. He holds a DA from Carnegie-Mellon, an MFA in fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, an MFA from Yale, and a BA from Wesleyan (CT). He lives in Madison, WI, with his wife (first reader and editor) of 40 years. Visit Claude Clayton Smith at claudeclaytonsmith.wordpress.com
Image: Flickr / Nathan Forget