September, 2004

Political Graffiti

September 28th, 2004 September 28th, 2004
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Out here in the midwest, it’s all lawn signs and bumper stickers proclaiming themselves as either right-wing nut-jobs or liberal weeners. New York, I was expecting something similar. But no. I didn’t see one bumper sticker or a single sign in anyone’s window. I didn’t even see a badge (or button as my new compadres like to say).

In fact, I only saw two political comments other than the pro-Kerry T-shirt I wore on Saturday. One was another T-shirt with George senior and George junior sporting the caption “Dumb and Dumber”. The other was some graffiti up on a subway poster for a new TV series.

The poster shows a dad holding a kid up and someone has added a speech bubble to make it look like he’s addressing his son.

“The neo cons have killed more than 1,000 Americans in Iraq”. Someone else has added the word ‘Jews’ so it says “The neo Jews…”. A third person has added, “That’s only a quarter of the Americans killed on 9/11.” [As if those facts–Iraq and 9/11–are actually related, which sadly many Americans actually seem to believe.] A final fourth graffiti contributor has added simply “Grow a brain” although it’s not sure which of the others they’re talking to.

So there you have it. That’s the extent of grass roots, ‘in your face’ political posturing I witnessed in the Big Apple.

Only another 34 more days until the Presidential elections…

I See The Neon Lights

September 27th, 2004 September 27th, 2004
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“When Americans finally reach Mars, they’ll find a group of Australians already there, running a bar.”

I’m not sure who made this astute observation or even what time it was. I do know we were in a bar, in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, and it was some time after 1am on Saturday morning. It may even have been after two. The bar in question was the Chelsea Commons, a local’s local kind of place, just around the corner from the apartment block where we were staying with my writer friend Sybil.

“We” in this case was me and Pete. Pete had flown over from the UK to buy a laptop and a new camera. The money he saved on this deal was more than enough to pay for not only his flight, but mine too, and still have change. So there we were, in a bar right in the heart of Manhattan.

Pete got in to Penn Station at just after midnight. I flew in from Detroit and arrived in Newark at 11.30am. By the way, we–that’s the royal we–loved the automatic upgrade to first, a big leather seat and a free beer at 10am. Online check-in, so no waiting in a line at the airport. Elite security line, elite boarding. Thank you, Continental. Yes, I’ll miss all the perks when I’m no longer an elite passenger next year.

Anyway, I had the best part of a day to hang out. More than enough time to get in a couple of hours of walking in the afternoon. More than enough time to have a substantial lunch–substantial by normal standards, that is. I’m sure it’s just a regular lunch for a regular New Yorker. I walked. I did lunch. I still had time. More than enough time to take in a couple of movies.

First Wimbledon–Kirsten Dunst moving energetically in a short white skirt and providing all the momentum in a British rom-com based around tennis. It’s a reasonable matinee film, just nothing extraordinary as the cast, including Sam Neill, easily surpassed the formula script. No doubt, though, this will be billed as “a huge hit in the States” when it reaches UK cinemas. Well, I’m sure the half-dozen old dears I sat with in the multiplex were suitably impressed and will be babbling about it at bingo for the rest of this week, Alzheimer’s permitting.

Then The Forgotten. Nothing to do with Alzheimer’s, this is Julianne Moore hanging on to the memory of her son, killed in a tragic accident. One day, she wakes up and friends and family deny the son ever existed. Maybe she has lost her marbles, after all. Julianne chases after the truth. We chase after the point. It’s like a long episode of the Twilight Zone without Rod Serling. Nothing overly cerebral although it’s entertaining, pacey and sometimes unintentionally funny. It provides a couple of great “Holy shit!” moments and one, “Kill her already! Now! Now! Now! Sheesh…” when a police detective offers to help.

Fast forward several hours and I’m at Penn Station meeting Pete. New York Penn Station turns out to be larger than Heathrow Airport. An underground rabbit warren any self-respecting first-player VR gamer would be proud to have created. Pete and I play “Brit Hunt” using our cellphone tracking devices until we eventually hook up. Pete buys some cigs and we take the C train down to Sybil’s.

Next I thought going out to the bar for a couple of quick drinks would be a good thing, so we went round to the Chelsea Commons. I was thinking, “Well, maybe just til one o’clock. Two at the latest.” I hadn’t counted on James, the barman, recognizing me. “Hey! I know you! You were in here a few years ago.” Yes, yes it was me. They can’t get that many Brits there. James had had more than a few shots of Maker’s Mark and was on top form. We were introduced to several of his friends, including Frank who runs a craft services (film catering) firm with his brother.

Frank describes his job as being in charge of morale on set and he has an endless stream of stories about films he’s worked on. Spider-Man, Meet Joe Black, 15 Minutes, Devil’s Advocate… The list went on and so did Frank. So too did the beers. Frank was a fascinating, funny guy and the three of us swopped stories way beyond the wee small hours. James kept the CD’s spinning and the banter flowing as generously as the liquor. It was like being at a friend’s house where you know you should really be getting home but the music and atmosphere keeps getting cooler until your brain simply bails.

Our brains had opened the trapdoors in our heads and bailed long before when all of a sudden it was twenty past four and James was locking up, so we headed down to the Empire Diner, an NYC landmark and location for various films itself. Great burgers, root beer floats and more chat. We eventually headed for home at five and Frank headed back to Queen’s. It was 5.30am before we got to bed yet we were up at 7.30, woken by bright sun streaming in through the windows. Well, if you’ve only got one weekend to see New York, you’ll have to skip something–in our case, sleep.

The rest of the weekend was spent doing more walking. We walked until I got a blister on my heal. We found double decker tour buses at the Empire State Building and bought 48 hour hop-on, hop-off tickets. Much easier on the feet. Our guides showed us what was cool and we got to see a whole lot more, including the Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, none of which I’d ever seen before.

Pete took a ton of pictures–hey, it’s what he does!–but still not enough to fill a new 2GB memory card (holds 599 raw images). We took the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island but didn’t get off because it took so long to actually get on the boat. Tip for other visitors: if you just want to photograph the skyline, get the Staten Island Ferry which is free.

The Circle Line, which runs out to the Liberty and Ellis Islands, not only costs $10 but seems to be running some kind of graft with the street performers. They build the waiting line to hang around for 90 minutes while an acrobat guy performs and then holds out a hat. He must be making one or two hundred bucks an hour. He’s good but it’s quick and meanwhile the Circle Line ferries are leaving two thirds empty with just the upper deck full and two below devoid of passengers.

Cool views but it all took three hours before we got back to the bus. We met a New Zealander in the bus line–another antipodean travelling the world. Travel was broadening all our minds and the chance of finding an Aussie bar on Mars looked ever more likely. At the same time, an endless stream of street salesmen plied us with Prada handbags, Rolex Oysters and Oakley sunglasses for $5. A remarkable price for such an indispensable fashion item, Pete had to have a pair, so we parted with some cash.

Six or seven full buses came and went in the meantime until eventually the guy let us on to sit on the lower deck. Not ideal, although we smelled the fish market and caught glimpses of the Brooklyn Bridge. We got off the bus outside the NBC studios and walked around to Rockefeller Plaza, where there’s lots of cool art deco incorporated in the buildings and a weird new sculpture depicting life-sized people walking up a 60 foot pole into the sky. We did burgers at Burger Heaven around the corner then worked our way back down to West 23rd via a couple more bars.

It was a long day. It wasn’t over. We crashed for an hour then went over to El Quihote for steaks. Twenty ounce steaks. That looked like a lot given that we were already stuffed with large burgers, so I opted for sole broiled in bananas instead and Mr Stevens wound up with a whole saucepan full of chicken roasted in garlic. “Most people would take some home and have it for lunch tomorrow,” I told him but he scoffed nearly the whole pan leaving just one small carcass before we headed back to the Commons.

It was midnight.

For some reason, I thought we’d just stop for a quick beer with James and Frank, while settling up anything outstanding from our bar tab the night before. Pete had given James $50 at 4.30 but we’d never had a bill and the register was closed when we left. Oh, the reason I thought we’d just do a quick beer was this strange notion that we could maybe sleep before getting up really early to avoid long lines to go up the Empire State Building. I thought we could have maybe just one pint, be asleep by one. We left at 2.30am…

Sunday. Yesterday. 8.10. I’m awake. Pete is snoring in the bed opposite. I get up. Get dressed. I prod him. He snores on. 8.15: I open the blinds and light up the room. Still snoring. 8.20. I open the window and loud bus noises can be heard more clearly. Pete wakes up, bleary eyed. “Time to go,” I tell him and Sybil appears with coffee. Somehow we manage to get out the door and up to 34th and 5th to join the line: “15 minutes from this point”. The sun hasn’t yet burned off all the haze but we have our tall building experience, lots more photos are achieved and we do the Yellow Cab thing back down to West 23rd for breakfast with Sybil.

Our hostess is writing a book about Berlin while simultaneously planning a Zen Buddhist film festival. We eat eggs, bacon, French toast and strawberries at the Moonstruck Diner then call in at the video shop next door which turns out to be an Aladdin’s Cave of movies. Sybil knows someone there who’s involved with Rooftop Films–a short film screening program, along the same lines as Cinema Slam–but they aren’t there so Pete and I head off for more bus rides.

Our next tour guide has a microphone failure and shouts at us with trivia about Hell’s Kitchen, lately renamed Clinton, a name which is ignored by the locals. We wait for a new microphone and a couple of Chinese people get out and order pizza at the place on the corner. They’re back in time for the replacement bus and we go up, around Central Park, past Yoko’s apartment, Julliard, the opera house, Carnegie Hall, Raquel’s apartment, the new Time Warner building, Times Square, Bill Clinton’s offices… an endless list of sights, sites and sounds.

We duck overhanging branches on the open top bus as our guide explains that Broadway doesn’t fit the grid because it was the first road, built over the old Indian trails and extending 170 miles from beginning to end. We do the whole circuit then ask our guide where to get the best burger. He sends us to Island Burgers, a tiny place up on 9th and 51st. We’re having lunch in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a last taste of New York, medium rare, and then we’re done. Cooked to perfection and more than a little toasted.

I manoeuver the burned out husk of what used to be Pete Stevens to Newark Liberty International Airport and ship him and his toys back to Britain before heading to the bar in Terminal C for a pre-flight Sam Adams’ October special “with a hint of roasted pumpkin”. The sun sets a brilliant scarlet splash over the dramatic skyline before I board the plane and settle down to finish reading National Geographic’s dire warnings about the impending global warming catastrophe. Pete phones. “How do I get a DVD to play in the powerbook?” I explain where the program is and he finds it. Now he can watch Contact on a reasonable sized screen while Virgin hostesses cater to his every whim.

My Continental Express jet thunders down the runway and once again, I’m lifted magically up into the heavens, racing over houses, roads, buildings, then floating up to a void where a full moon looks down with enigmatic indifference. Behind me, the neon lights go down on Broadway and a thousand showtunes ripple out across the Hudson.

My brain is full. I look out in wonder at the millions of gold and silver jewels sparkling up from below, beautifully blotting out the stars from those on the ground. The effect is gorgeous, like a luminous tapestry, all thanks to fossil fuel. Exquisite destruction brings forth something spellbindingly aesthetic in a blip on the cosmic timescale. And it occurs to me that half a globe way, the sun is rising on a group of unambitious surfers as they recover from one pint of amber nectar too many and all too-lucid dreams of brewing in low gravity.

Weed And Feed

September 16th, 2004 September 16th, 2004
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It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m out in the front garden (or ‘yard’ as the locals like to say) picking up apples. Maggot-ridden, squirrel-bitten apples. They’d be pretty good if it weren’t for all the wildlife eating them or living in them. Anyway, there’s a ton of apples and I fill up three cartons. While I’m doing this, a few more drop off the tree. These are half eaten. The squirrels are sitting up in the tree trying to drop them on my head.

The squirrels fail and I get all the apples picked up. I had to get rid of them so I could mow the lawn. I have to mow the lawn so I can treat the grass with a combination of fertilizer and weedkiller. Hiawatha, our neighbour, is hanging out at his backyard bar with a couple of friends. I wave. They wave back. Hiawatha is the lead singer of the Cult Heroes, a Detroit rock band. He’s having an afternoon beer or two. He saunters over.

“Hey, Keith! How’s it going?” “Pretty good.” “Hey, that’s Patti Smith’s bass player over there. Why don’t you come over and say hi?” “Sure.” So I wander over and am introduced to Patti Smith’s bass player. He smiles, shakes my hand but I can’t quite make out the name. “Larry?” “Gary.” Great. “Well, I’ve got to get this lawn done. I want to do the weed and feed thing today. You can see all the bare patches where I’ve used Weed-B-Gone.”

Gary looks over, laconically. “You know, if you water that, the grass will come back.” “Yeah?” “Yeah. And I’ve done that weed and feed. The best time to do it is when the grass is wet.” “Okay.” I turn to leave. Hiawatha shakes my hand again and then strokes my fingers like they’re sacred objects. The squirrels are mocking me and I’ve just been given gardening advice by Patti Smith’s bassist. My day has taken a surreal detour. “Okay. Well, I’d better get started. I’ll see you guys.”

I stroll back and rev up the gas mower. I saw the kid across the road racing through the long grass and I know I can do this quickly if I go for it but in the end I only get as far as mowing the lawn, front, back and side. It took two refills of gas in the mower and two hours. It wore me out. That was yesterday. Today we’ll do the weed and feed thing. Bonus: the grass is wet.

Selling Out And Having Cake

September 14th, 2004 September 14th, 2004
Posted in Film making
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It’s Friday night and we’ve flown into LA for the screening of The Car at the LA Shorts Fest. Several friends have come along for the screening at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood. There’s Joseph and Lynn. Russ Collins from the Michigan Theater has come out to LA on business and is there, and so is my actor friend, Mark. Only one problem. The screening is sold out.

Somehow Lynn and Joseph have secured tickets anyway and Mark is already in the theater by this point, which just leaves Russ. We hang on to the last possible minute and the guy at the festival tent relents and gives Russ a ticket he’d been keeping in case a filmmaker showed late. We hurry in and we’re rewarded with catching the end of someone’s speechifying about a film that doesn’t live up to its own hype. But we’re in.

Overall, the standard was pretty high and it was fun to be in LA. Laura and I used a load of frequent flier miles to get there so we felt justified in hiring a bright red Mustang convertable for the weekend. It was worth it. We drove up to Malibu for lunch on Saturday and came back with the top down, cruising down Sunset Boulevard, playing a track called Comfort Eagle by Cake. Playing it loud.

We are building a religion,
We are building it bigger
We are widening the corridors and adding more lanes
We are building a religion.
A limited edition
We are now accepting callers for these pendant keychains
To resist it is useless,
It is useless to resist it
His cigarette is burning but it never seems to ash
He is grooming his poodle
He is living comfort eagle
You can meet at his location but you’d better come with cash

Now his hat is on backwards. He can show you his tattoos
He is in the music business he is calling you “DUDE!”

This is our theme for the weekend and we play it as we pass by Duran Duran’s star on the walk of fame, we play it as we check out the Beautiful People, we play it as we head on over to the Biltmore Hotel. This is where we’re meeting Russ and Joseph for drinks. We park underground and emerge into downtown LA. There’s only a handful of people on the street and they are either moving quickly or asking for change. Laura is impressed enough with one story to part with a dollar.

Outside, the Biltmore is huge. Inside it’s more lavish than the Ritz and, lucky for us, doesn’t have a dress code. They don’t have someone on guard to gesture with thumb and forefinger at their collars while breathing the word “tie” like a religious mantra. They just bring us peanuts and nibbles. They provide a drinks menu. They serve us. Which is nice.

We drink 007’s, a martini which is a mix of vodka and gin. They seem pretty potent. Actually I started with a G&T which was far more gin than tonic. Lynn had a single glass of wine and then interrogated Russ, who didn’t seem put out and, in fact, stayed for at least two more drinks. I don’t think he ever made his business meeting that night.

Sunday, we went up to Griffith Park, which is one of the truly cool things to do in LA. The observatory is closed until next year but it’s a great view and there seem to be a plethora of hiking trails around there. Hiking wasn’t on our “to do” list, however. Onwards it was until we came, at last, to Gower Gulch–a strip mall named for the cowboy-film casting calls once held there–where good Mexican folk smiled and made us sushi. We ended our stay with a brief ride out to the beach, to see the sea and hear the surf before crashing on to the shores of our pillows for the night.

There was more. There’s always more. There was a cathedral. There was architecture. There were other beers. Many beers. There was being stuck in traffic in one of the most beautiful neighbours you could imagine while the Hollywood Triathlon blocked the roads. There was breakfast at Farmer’s Market and Mark and I talked a bit about getting the best performance from an actor and… Well, there was more. And let’s not forget “The Car”–sold out in Hollywood. What a great city. Great people. Great weekend.

The Joy Of Socks

September 4th, 2004 September 4th, 2004
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Laura took us out to a “downtown network” party tonight. Not so many people there. In fact, about five to start with. They had the coolest DJ, tho, and he had a projector. I’m thinking I’ll get a projector and set myself up as some kind of audio visual VJ guy. This is the third bright idea I’ve had this week. The others were filming back screen projections for worldwide video editors wanting shots of the USA and sock calligraphy.

More about sock calligraphy in a moment. First I’ve got to tell you about Larry. Larry isn’t his real name but we never found out what his real name was, so Larry is as good a name as any. Larry came over and chatted to us at the network party. We were drinking diet Faygo orange. Caffeine free. Sugar free. Grey Goose vodka free? I think not.

So Larry’s telling us he works in construction, supervising a lot, when he isn’t doing various other jobs. So I ask him, “Why is there always a white guy with the Mexicans? They do all the work while he hangs around. Is that the translator?” Larry laughs. So I guess it’s true, although I think he denied it. I followed up with, “Do you speak Spanish?” while Laura tried to hide in the leather sofa.

Larry was a really nice guy, tho, like most Americans I’ve run into. Very personable, easy to talk to. Apparently he used to run a motel here in Ann Arbor. Good idea, you might think with all the students in town and their parents visiting from all over. Good idea, too, with all the football games and other college sports. Except Larry only filled the rooms 30 days of the year. What about the rest of the time? Grey Goose asked: “Did you rent by the hour?” Larry laughed again. Larry’s our new friend, although we don’t know his name.

Maybe Larry will become the first owner of my new sock typeface, the one I’m working on in my head. When I go to bed at night, I often remember something I’m supposed to do the next day. I can’t be bothered to go and find a pen so I make an initial out of the socks I’ve dropped on the floor. Like yesterday, it was “P” for “paint the wall where Sammy dented it” and “make Postcards for Cinema Slam”. This gave me the idea to make a typeface based on socks.

Or perhaps it could be based on all kinds of underwear. You could easily make a B out of a pair of knickers, or an O if you made the leg holes overlap. I think ‘Underpants’ would be a good name for this typeface. It could have variations too, like Underpants Bold and Underpants Light. I bet Underpants Black would be popular with deviant typographers. Or if it was just socks, then we could have Socks Extended and Socks Condensed. Laura rolls her eyes. I don’t think she’s convinced of my genius. Well, we’ll just see, won’t we.

Is It Because I Is British?

September 4th, 2004 September 4th, 2004
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While the “girlie men” are busy talking politics, I’ve been getting to grips with the reel world in Real America.

This past couple of weeks there’s been the whole saga of getting The Car to the LA Shorts Fest, a complete nightmare. I’d written to the Rhode Island Film Festival to give them the shipping info and let them know it was urgent. The deadline was actually August 26th. I called August 26th; no film in LA. I called Rhode Island; it’s been shipped.

Laura and I picked up our new Malibu Maxx on Thursday. Still no word from the festivals, we went away for the weekend. Toronto. We had tickets for the Bluejays playing the Yankees at the Sky Dome and these were good seats, right up behind home plate. We met up with Gail Harvey, a director friend of Simon Cozens, and her family. The Yankees wiped the floor with the Blue Jays: 18-6. We left for Greek Food. Back at the hotel there’s an email from LA, the deadline is pushed back to August 31st. But that’s it.

I call RI, I email RI. No response except the phone call I’ve already had to say the film’s been shipped. I figure, well what the hell, it must be en route. Wednesday arrives. Wednesday September 1st. 5pm. I check the mail. There’s a parcel. From the Rhode Island Film Festival. It’s The Car. I am absolutely 100% fucked off. The postmark says it was sent August 25th. I call LA and someone (?) says there’s a 90% chance of it getting shown. I drive at high speed to the other side of Ann Arbor so I can Fed Ex it overnight. $57.51. I get home and email an invoice to Rhode Island.

Then I go to the pictures.

While I’ve been busy in Michigan, Tom Cruise has been working his nuts off in California and has released a second feature film in the time I’ve barely completed a short. Collateral. It’s about a taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) who winds up with a hitman (Cruise) in his car. Laura declines to see this, although it’s okay, just a bit too long for an action film with only one character developed (not Cruise).

It’s a quiet night at the Quality 16 Showcase Theater. Various people with disabilities are down at the front. Thirty minutes into the film, one of them empties his bladder on the floor. It’s not quick or subtle. They needed the big weewee. The person who brought him sits behind him and ignores him. Why? God alone knows. It’s like going back in time to somewhere very primitive. Perhaps this is what the Wild West was like; cowboys just peed wherever they felt the urge, like a Manchester clubber on the way home. Who knows. All I know is it needs blogging about.

Back home, an email arrives from the RIFF director to say he’s looking into what happened with The Car. Two more days go by before I finally get through to the Filmmaker Liaison at the LA Shorts Fest. She’s really sweet. British, I think. Yes, they have got the film and it’s at the ArcLight Cinema, ready for screening. I make a mental note to get an extra copy made to take with us when we fly out on Friday. I can’t tell you how relieved I am, although not enough to pee on the carpet.

Finally, I finish the intro video for Artrain USA and burn it on to a DVD. I pick up another carton of insect-bitten and squirrel-munched apples and apple remains shed by our tree and put them out for the trashmen. Then we go and see Hero. It’s very beautiful, slow-motion martial arts, a simple story that unfolds with wonderful photography and actors flying dreamlike while they attack each other with swords. No one pees this time (Laura tells me this is actually really unusual behaviour) in the half-full theater and we both enjoy the movie.