16mm Memories

For some reason that 16mm short I just posted got me thinking about how nice it was to use that Bolex wind-up camera. I just remember handholding the thing gave me a very specific energy, especially that shot where I’m wandering down the hall behind the character. Years later I finally bought a Krasnogorsk 16mm camera which had a pistol grip like some overgrown Super-8 camera and I always remember that shooting with that grip was a very different energy. I eventually just took the pistol grip off. I liked that top strap you’d find on Bolex cameras where you could somehow grasp parts of the top, side and bottom of the camera and kind of “cradle” the camera like a big metallic infant. Also, I think when I shot this short I was starting to get into Kubrick and I believe I read somewhere that on 2001 and ACO he had developed a similar strategy for handholding some of his lighter 35mm cameras, this cradling idea. This whole handgun strategy for operating always kind of disturbed me, though I still adapted to it easily.

I also remembered that I had some good instincts about not using that Arri light kit that we checked out with the camera, you know, THAT light kit, the little 1k Arri kit that they always give the students with the little light along with flimsy stand which most students don’t even know how to lock down. No sandbags becaue you’re a student, why should you even know about sandbagging your stands? Anyway, that’s essentially the film school “look” – the Arri 1k (with barn doors which may or may not be bent or broken) all shoved up in a closed-off dorm look. On the other hand, there’s nothing more beautiful than taking some plus-x 16mm, aiming it at a window and then placing your subject somewhere strategically around this window. Even if you screw up the exposure in the camera or the film-to-tape transfer (I think the telecine on my footage is a tad bright) and it blows out you’ve still got this beautful texture and depth, drama. Your instructors will yell at you but what the hell do they know. I just remember on the second 16mm film we did that summer that I was forced into working with all of these other people who simply didn’t believe in this, people who were so scared of exposure and natural light that they clung to those damn Arri 1ks. It was nutty.

Still, I’m not always a gigantic fan of completely “naked,” uncontrolled lighting sources and all the those stylistic quirks like not correcting your unbalanced “green-ish” flourescents (aka the style which Steven Soderberg appears to love) but on the other hand with black-and-white you can kind of let your guard down with color temperature and let your sources bloom and flutter admirably. I remember one time during Pygmalion that I was trying to be the cameraman, keeping all of these ideas about aperature and exposure and this lens in my head, and I blurted out “well we’re using that window, but is our film tungsten-based, it could get very blu-” halfway through I realized what I was saying, worrying about color temperature for monochromatic film. Nothing wrong with it though. I think the problem was I had all these books and stupid teachers drilling this crap into my head that I was having problems just thinking for myself, which is the most important thing with film, that kind of clarity above all this garbage you have to deal with everyday.

For half of my teenage life I kept trying to figure out some kind of standard for what makes a “good” and a “bad” picture because depending on present company the line is always drawn in different places. Like I remember taking this 35mm still photography class in high school (probably the winter after I’d made Pygmalion and was really happy with it) and I used to do these blurry photographs of hands, light, old men, just anything I could find in my limited environment. Everyone ignored my stuff – I think this was the era where I so shy that I barely was able to raise my voice enough to be able to even get in the darkroom and develop my film – but then this teacher would come in with these black and white stills she took of rodeos and crap, school football teams, perfectly-exposed happy little portraits of cowboys on cowgirls on these horses with this beautiful sky and puffy clouds behind them, a nice tonality and the use of the zone system, fun stuff, but the thing about them was they BORED me completely. They bored me to tears. So over the years, I’ve personally found that I simply need an image to grab me and pull me in, and when it comes to motion picture photography I want those series of images to convey a sense of drama and character and take me on an “emotional voyage” of sorts.

I must tell you that I think these early experiences with these idiots have turned me off to black and white altogether.

Your black-and-white work is immediately judged by a completely different criterion than the conventional, an academic criterion, which is a sliding rule. Don’t lie your to yourself; it’s a line in the sand. Your material is immediately marginalized. It can be a very powerful medium but it can also be a very academic wack-off medium where you can get lost in the formality of the thing and lose some of that vibratory feeling that I personally need, that emotion. And then after I got older and discovered Storaro, color theory, the whole Italian school of super-saturated brilliance – how the fuck can go you take me back to where I was in high school?

I’m sure black and white 35mm can be good place to start and learn. I’m also sure it could be a good place to get bored out of your skull while your moronic instructors bore you with the grayscale of their stupid cows and rodeo. You have to be careful with these blanket statements which society places in front of you about when and how to learn something because they’re often riddled wtih lies. Life really is a minefield riddled with the casualties who couldn’t see through the BS, make no doubt about it. It just feels very odd for me – the older I get the more I realize that life is just a game, and more often I realize that sometimes it feels more like a game of three-card-monte. The decks are always incredibly stacked against one at times in often random and strange ways. Very surreal.

I still love that kind of naturalistic black-and-white stuff I did on Pygmalion but I tell you, black and white cinematography in it’s current state is a minefield, and for motion picture photography it’s not very cheaper unless you figure out a way to get a good deal on your chemicals and develop your own film but still, the raw stock isn’t a big bargain either because it’s yet again a marginal, academic format. So of course I love Kane, Long Voyage Home, Touch of Evil, How Green Was My Valley, Strangelove, Seconds, In Cold Blood and all the rest of those dozen and dozens of brilliant stuff but Greg Tolland wasn’t shooting cowgirls and junior basketball playoffs. Black and white has been spoilt for me.

Also, you’re butting heads with so many brilliant films made in black and white and when you’re in “student” mode in an academic setting what is your primary temptation? That’s right, to copy. Take shots, ideas, sequences. I mean, in lit class if you want to write a gothic horror tale in the vein of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein so do you go off and find your own voice or do you sit down and just re-copy pieces of Frankenstein verbatim in your own handwriting? You’re correct, this would be considered plagiarism. You study Shelley, her own voice and technique but there’s a certain line you don’t cross. Film school academia isn’t set up to understand this or even debate this concept. So suddenly you find yourself either gravitating to that John Alton noir or your getting rough and sixties underground. Or perhaps nothing at all, Arri 1k sheik.

I can only perhaps think of one really astounding monochromatic film from the past twenty years, Begotten. I’ve heard great thing about Otto Buj’s The Eternal Present and I think I’m going to get that soon, so the jury’s still out for me.