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“Secret Sex, A Book Alive Online,” written and lived by John Scott G.
Chapter 28 – “Dazed & Amused.”
High as a kite, that’s what I was. More expressively, I was as high as a helium-filled balloon that had just escaped the grasp of a perplexed five-year old kid who was now wondering why gravity wasn’t bringing back his rapidly disappearing toy.
In other words, I was blitzed.
Ambling down the front steps of the college and heading in the general direction of my apartment, I suddenly made the decision to walk home. Usually I took the cable car, but since I lived only about two miles away — and since the ground was already moving beneath my feet in a most disorienting way — I didn’t need anything else to add to the sensations.
The stroll took about eleventy-three hours because I kept slowing down to appreciate the clouds, the wind, the trembling of the horizon line. . . Hmm, it shouldn’t really move like that, should it? I have got to get this under control.
When I finally made it back to my place, I stashed the stash in that most traditional of hiding places: the back of the freezer behind the ice cube trays. Next, I looked at my weekly schedule, to see when I could plan on partaking more of my recent purchase.
“Laundry day, that’s going to be okay for drugs,” I told myself. Being in a flipped-out state couldn’t cause too much trouble while doing my clothes, right? The darks might not get separated from the lights, but like a lot of college students, I only owned jeans, sweatshirts, socks and underwear, so color sorting wasn’t exactly a big problem.
“Movie night, that’s going to be okay for drugs.” That made sense. When you watch a movie, you’re in a dream-like state anyway, right? Being zonked prompted me to try different film experiences, like when I caught a double-feature of kung fu movies at a theater in the Mission District. The films were mature-rated but there were a lot of fathers who brought their pre-teen boys to that show. And everyone talked back to the screen, which was a hoot. “Look out behind you!” “Don’t go in there!” “He’s gonna gitcha!” “Thump him, thump him!” Since I was the only white person in the theater, I didn’t join in. At least I think I remained silent. But what do I know, I was stoned.
“The opera, that’s going to be okay for drugs.” Having blown my discretionary money on the dope, I couldn’t afford to go to the opera in the normal way. But I used the Student Rush ticket opportunity: ten bucks and you’d get a seat somewhere. You could be way up in the balcony or you could find yourself in the orchestra; ya never knew. And for five bucks, you could stand at the back of the theater, even for otherwise sold-out performances. That may seem like a pain, but I stood to see Luciano Pavarotti sing Riccardo in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” which is probably an interesting experience if you’re straight but it’s a total visual and auditory freak-out when you’re spaced.
There are things you don’t want to do while ripped. Or at least there are things that don’t work well for me. I wouldn’t want to do my taxes while under the influence. School was another example. Other than the weekly session of the Master’s candidates, which didn’t involve too much rational thought, I didn’t get high to go to school.
Not all the students observed the rule about not mixing drugs and schoolwork. You could see the results of that problem every week because the Master’s basement theater was where everyone brought their newly-processed 16mm film to view. These screenings were akin to what professional filmmakers call “dailies.” But during our viewing of the student dailies, some of what we saw was far from professional.
Out-of-focus shots. Blundering shaky-cam sequences. Poorly framed compositions. Over-exposed shots. Under-exposed shots. Double-exposed shots. Blank film! That last one always got hoots and hollers from whoever was in the audience. Blank. You’d think that the process of threading the reel into the projector would reveal the blankness; that even the most mind-fried undergrad would notice there was nothing on the film. But apparently this was not the case.
TA (Not to be Confused with T&A)
In order to earn money for tuition, I worked as a teaching assistant (TA) at the college. I took that seriously, too, and stayed clear-headed. This was a very wise choice on my part because TAs were always on call to oversee aspects of undergrad film production and sign-out the cameras, lenses, tripods, lights, and so forth.
In addition, TAs had to accompany any undergrad who wished to take film equipment off-campus. It was extremely advisable to remain straight for this; I did not want to be in a crazy-stupid condition while supervising the use of gear worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Sands of Time
I worked with several undergrad producers and directors on their finals film projects. One director explained his idea for completing a semi-improvised scene in a continuous 11-minute-long shot. In other words: turn on lights, sound, and camera and then let the actors run through the entire movie without editing.
“A single take?” I said.
“Right,” he replied. “One take. Just like Alfred Hitchcock in Rope,” he told me.
“Okay,” I told him, “let me see the script.”
“Well, only the actors know the story.”
“Then how will we know where and when the camera will move?”
“Oh, the camera isn’t going to move,” he told me. “It’ll be on a tripod. You won’t have to do anything except turn on the camera and then signal us when we get near the end of the roll.”
“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it. What could go wrong?” As it turned out, there were several things that could go wrong.
He selected the best, and most expensive, lights, sound recording gear, microphones, and lenses. His camera of choice was the Eclair NPR (noiseless portable reflex), the same camera used by Michael Wadleigh to shoot Woodstock. I felt like I was signing away my life as I put down my name authorizing this venture.
On the day of the shoot, we loaded up his car as well as his girlfriend’s car. We then drove to their apartment in the Castro district. He hadn’t told me it was a third-floor walk-up. But fortunately I knew which pieces of gear were the largest in size while being the lightest in weight. You don’t want to be fooled by grabbing that compact-looking metal box containing an Éclair, camera magazine, and battery packs.
We brought the gear upstairs into the apartment and down a dark hallway to a room with the entire floor covered in sand. The walls were lined with huge sheets of paper painted to look like the Paul Gauguin oils of Tahiti.
“Tropical isle setting for your film?” I asked him.
“No, just Baker,” he replied.
Baker Beach, on the west side of the Golden Gate Bridge, was popular for volleyball, Frisbee competitions, kite-flying, and nude sunbathing.
“Is your girlfriend going to be in this film with you?”
“Absolutely,” he said.
“Is she going to be nude?”
“Oh man,” I complained.
“You don’t think she’s attractive?” he asked.
“She’s a total babe,” I said. “I’m upset about having only one take.”
His girlfriend had overheard our exchange and popped her head into the room to tell me, “Thank you.”
“Oh no, thank you.”
The gear was set-up fairly quickly, but with each step on the sand, the floorboards creaked, and alarmingly so in the center of the room.
“How deep is this layer of sand?” I asked.
“Oh, ’bout three inches,” he said. “Why?”
“That’s a lot of weight on the floor of this room.” We stopped to consider the ramifications of bringing home so much of the beach.
“Yeah, well, we did the same thing last year and it worked out okay,” he told me.
“Has the sand been here the whole time?”
“Oh no,” he said. “This is new sand,” he said proudly.
“How did you bring it here?”
“Trunk of the car. Took a whole bunch of trips.”
“I’ll bet.” I didn’t want to know how they got rid of it.
I tried to only walk at the outer edges of the room. We adjusted the lights, set-up the camera, and went over the hand-signals I was to give the performers once the camera was rolling. Basically, they wanted me to hold up the appropriate number of fingers as each minute counted down for his 11-minute roll of film, then start waving my arms when there were 30-seconds left.
So, phones were unplugged, stereos turned off, and roommates told not to run water, open or close bureau drawers, talk, walk, etc. And then our director put actors in place, made certain they removed the appropriate clothing, and spoke the classic “Lights, camera, sound, action!”
For eleven minutes, I stood perfectly still as the actors went through their semi-scripted, semi-improvised lines, dueled with each other verbally, displayed their bodies, ripped up the painted scenery, etc. I dutifully held up my hands to signal 10 minutes, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Then I waved my arms as the roll reached 30-seconds to go. This was to be the magical moment when the final line would be delivered, the big finish to his conceptual film. And then they blew it and missed the final line.
Everyone just stood there in silence. You could hear heartbeats. I switched off the lights. I switched off the sound recorder. I put the lens cap on the camera. I turned to look at the actors, still frozen in place.
“Clothing, anyone?” I asked. They got dressed. The director came over to me to discuss the situation. We couldn’t do a re-take because much of the scenery was destroyed as part of the skit. And besides, he had only purchased one roll of film. We couldn’t come back again tomorrow because the project was due the day-after-next and it would take one day to get the film processed.
“What are you going to do?” I asked him.
“Just turn in the film the way it is,” he said. “We’re the only ones who know it’s not supposed to end that way.” A flicker of doubt crossed his face. “You’re not going to say anything, are you?”
“Me? Heck, no. I won’t write about this until years have gone by.”
“Okay, man. Thanks for all your help.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Hell, his girlfriend’s breasts were more than worth the effort. Actually his girlfriend’s everything was worth the effort. She was also in art school, although at a different college, and her current project was photographing her vagina spelling out the letters of the alphabet. Note: this was prior to Photoshop. I told her I liked her “G” and she smiled the smile of a woman who had total muscle control.
Among the 16mm cameras available at the college was one that shot 1,200 frames-per-second. The usual speed is 24 frames-per-second (fps) which means the high-speed camera really ate up film at a tremendous rate. And since that camera only took a 100-foot load, you couldn’t photograph anything for very long.
Here’s the math: a 100-foot load at 24fps lasts for about three minutes. A 100-foot load at 1,200fps lasts for a little over three seconds. So you would turn on the camera and photograph something forareallyshorttime. Once the roll was developed, you’d still have 100 feet of film that you’d project at the standard rate of 24fps. The projection time was still three minutes but you’d be able to see what you photographed moving very very slowly.
Why make a camera that moves so fast but limit it to a 100-foot reel of film? It was for industrial use, like if you were testing a chemical reaction or the spark mechanism on a Zippo lighter. You’d lock down the camera on a tripod, activate it electronically at the same time as your experiment, and later you could study the results in glorious slow-motion. Each semester, the possibilities of this high-speed camera produced the following conversation among the undergraduate filmmaking students:
“Hey, y’know what? It’d be awesome to smash a mirror with a hammer and shoot it in ultra-slo-mo!”
“Oh wow, yeah!”
Unfortunately, the stoned undergrads didn’t have the electronic connection between what they were photographing and the shutter of the camera. But that did not stop them, and they would leap into action, adhering to the following plan:
Suspend mirror in darkened classroom.
Convince TA to sign-out some lights.
Aim lights at suspended mirror.
Discover they forgot hammer.
Convince TA to sign-out and oversee use of camera.
Discover no one had purchased 100-foot load of 16mm film.
Beg, borrow or steal 100-foot load of film.
Convince TA you’re “really ready this time.”
Swing hammer into mirror, shattering it into ninety-seven thousand individual shiny sparkly spiky shards.
Locate first-aid kit for cuts, piercings, splinters of glass in hands, arms, faces, ears, etc.
Get film developed.
Take film to Master’s program basement theater.
Put Gustav Holst’ “The Planets” on the theater sound system and sit back to watch a stunning three-minute shot of a hammer getting close, closer, closest to and almost-but-not-quite-touching the surface of a mirror.
Endure hoots and hollers from audience.
It was in this atmosphere that I completed my Master’s Thesis Film Project. Actually, I finished the film, entitled “Visage,” during the first couple of weeks of my first semester. I completed the film early because I had been planning it for quite a while and had accumulated all the footage before moving to San Francisco. From time to time, to satisfy the requirements of the Master’s program, I would screen a clip for my faculty advisor (The Bearded One, as I referred to him). But for the most part, I just kept the finished film under wraps.
The summer before my final semester, I spotted a small item in the newspaper about the Program Director of the San Francisco International Film Festival looking for short films to be shown prior to each of the official screenings at that year’s event. I thought I would submit “Visage” but then I noticed that the paper I was reading was several weeks old and today was the final day for submissions.
So I called the executive offices of the Festival. The Program Director answered the phone because it was around one in the afternoon and he was the only guy in the office. I told him I’d love to submit my film but I had just arrived in The City from overseas and had not known about today’s deadline. He said, “If you can get the film here by two o’clock, we’ll consider it.”
I grabbed a print of the film and my one-page synopsis, ran to the cable car, transferred to a bus, got off and ran the last few blocks to his office. Made it with ten minutes to spare. Two weeks later, he called to say “Congratulations, ‘Visage’ will be screened as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.”
It turned out that the Film Festival screening would be the week prior to the due date for the Master’s Program thesis films. Perfect. Or so I thought. But I hadn’t counted on university bureaucracy.
“You won’t qualify for graduation if your film is shown at the Festival,” said the Chairman of the Filmmaking Department. “University rules state that a thesis film must screen on campus prior to any public showing.”
“So you’re telling me that the college doesn’t want one of its grad student films to be shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival?” I asked him.
His reply was typical bureaucratic nonsense. Instead of answering my question, he just read the rules out loud and then scowled at me. I was appalled. This man was the writer of one of the most-respected books on independent filmmaking. His reputation was one reason I selected the university in the first place. And now I discovered he was a sophist and a pedant. Or, to put it in terms everyone can understand, the man was a moron.
Because of this human rectal blockage, my master’s degree was suddenly in jeopardy. I left the college administrative offices feeling like a snail in a sprinter’s race.
But wait. Suddenly I thought about my dearest best acquaintance at the campus, our local entrepreneur and pharmacological supplier. Cat was good friends with Lavery, the guy who ran the Cinematheque, our on-campus film society. Could I find Cat now that I needed him the most? I could. Would he be interested in helping me despite my never having made another buy from him? He would. Could he introduce me to Lavery? Yup.
I explained to Lavery the problem I faced. As soon as he heard the situation, he said, “So if I put this ‘Visage’ on the next program, it really fucks over the head of the Filmmaking Department?”
“Kind of, yeah,” I said.
“Nice!” was his reaction. “You got it, man.”
It is terrific to have friends in low places. Especially ones who’ve come up against the small-minded twits of the world. And thus it was that “Visage” made its world debut on campus, as the rules require.
“Visage” was a 15-minute surrealistic ode to Attention Deficit Disorder; a backhanded tribute to kamikaze editing techniques; a shrine of psychedelic super-saturated colors and solarized imagery; a perverted hymn to visual outrage using sequences of natural beauty juxtaposed with World War II documentaries, underwater photography of sea creatures, and official footage of Pope Pius XII; an unrelenting attack on one’s eyeballs and auditory faculties; a collage/montage featuring a soundtrack comprised of Pierre Henry, Spike Jones & His City Clickers, and The Move.
Best of all, my weirdo project played that week as the opening work at the Cinematheque’s well-publicized presentation of Josef von Sternberg’s stately, elegiac, black-and-white opus, “The Scarlet Empress.” Never before have two more diametrically opposite works of cinema been shown on the same program. It would be like seeing a Lady Gaga music video followed by a documentary on a Midwest club of deaf mute quilt makers.
One week after the Cinematheque showing, the film played in the Palace of Fine Arts at the San Francisco International Film Festival. So I got to enjoy both public screenings and was allowed to receive the damn MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree despite the head of the filmmaking department lobbying to prevent it. (The Bearded One told me the guy had made an impassioned speech to a faculty meeting saying I should not be allowed to graduate but was voted down by practically everyone.)
A word of rueful and sage advice: Taking pleasure in any sort of revenge or poetic justice is a juvenile and perhaps even deeply bitter act. (Let’s all take a slight pause now and reflect on this.) But the revenge itself sure is sugary-good! (Insert drum-and-cymbal riff: ba-dum-bum-crash!)
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“Secret Sex, A Book Alive Online,” written and lived by John Scott G, is Copr. © 2011-2012 by JSG, all rights reserved under U.S. and international copyright conventions. Commercial use in any form is forbidden without express written permission of the author. Originally published on eNewsChannels.com with permission. Credits: Book cover design: Phil Hatten.