Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hollywood, or bust

As a child, growing up in string of equally minuscule towns across the Pacific Northwest, I considered it simply an unspoken given that I would grow up and become rich and famous, though not necessarily in that order.

After all, my list of heros - and those I imagined to be "my mentors from afar" - were all movie men. First came the special effects wizards: Ray Harryhausen, Douglas Trumball, Willis O'Brian - it was their galleries of monsters and/or visual miracles that stoked my own mental storyboards. Next came screen icons Humphrey Bogart, Jerry Lewis, Rod Serling: a diverse pack of gents who shared a common creative theme: Loners. As I came of age a list of "Hollywood outsiders" was added to my list: Peter Fonda, Tom Laughlin, Dennis Hopper (while my role call appears to have been been only a mildly enlightened one by 70's standards, it certainly lacked no passion at the time).

Each year, when I sat cross-legged in front of the TV in my pajamas to watch the Academy Awards, I would do so feeling as if I were an active participant, that it was only a brief matter of time before I'd join the ranks of my brethren on stage and bask beneath a waterfall of praise, accolades and awards that would stretch out over my entire adult life.

A given.

Also please note that in my case it was never merely the "fancy" of such a life that drove my fantasies as much as my belief that I shared a visceral, gut-level connection with the entire process, one that drove me to compile huge inventories and lists (both physical as well as mental) of films, directors, character actors, soundtracks, scripts, film magazines and back stories.

At about the time I floundered into my teenage era, I was also writing and compiling my own movie reviews, notebook by notebook, an avocation that inevitably spilled into my High School newspaper, The Cub, in the form of awkward and often inarticulate words of praise for my latest favorite film. Looking back, precious few of these pictures rated a second glance, not to mention my clumsy editorial fawning.

Early in my photojournalism career, when a young reporter inquired as to what had prepared me for a career behind the camera, my answer was a dead-pan fact: an entire childhood of sitting in front of a horizontal screen, for better or worse.

As the gap between my childhood fantasies and the impending threshold of a real-life adult career continued to tighten, my likelihood for being a Hollywood success story seemed to rally, if only briefly.

In the Fall of 1970, a the beginning of what would be my Junior year in high school, myself and a small group of classmates - many who were also the stars of our school Drama Club - joined together to form a fledgling gaggle of young filmmakers. True to the spirit of a breed suckled on the sarcastic and irreverent sensibilities of Mad magazine, Laugh In and Stan Freburg, we christened ourselves "Greasey Films" and set out to set Hollywood on it's ear, 8mm at a time.

Since audio was not yet accessible for most 8mm and Super8 filmmakers (and the advent of home video was still fifteen years in the distant future), we decided our endeavors must be silent ones, and governed by the A-B-C choice (as we judged it) of Silent Film: A)Slapstick B)Spectacle C)Violence. We opted for bloody, and the more the better.

Shot after school hours in the course of two afternoons (it would've been just one if the magazine of 8mm film had not secretly jammed in the camera during the first shoot), "The Hunt" featured a sniper, a crazed escaped convict, two angry, pitiless lawmen and a small arsenal of weapons (both real and manufactured). True to our Greasey Films credo, we kept "plot" to a minimum and the amount of prop blood at a maximum. Its 1086 frames of 8mm Kodachrome film has a running time of four minutes and fourty-eight seconds, during which time four young men cavort through the woods, three of whom are gunned down, one execution-style. The final few moments of The Hunts original ending has now been forgotten, since years ago the final strip of 8mm film from the reel simply broke off and then was lost.

Shown during the lunch hour in our high school little theatre at the time, students payed twenty-five cents each to share our little cinema bloodbath, many paying to watch a second, a third, a fourth time and more. While a vocal soundtrack may have been completely out of the question, we did spruce up things with a series of thematic music played (on a cassette deck) during film presentations (gleaned from my own personal library of soundtrack albums). Shabby, perhaps somewhat, but judged by student-qulaity standards of the early '70s, pretty good stuff. And it got better.

Predictably, our next series films gradually became more ambitious: "Monster from the Deep", a ultra-short bit of improvisation that frame-for-frame may be our most inspired piece; "Eastwood", a western attempt that herds more cliche's than it does cowboys (sound effects were added to background music to help "imply" we were using real horses!); "Measely Rider", a lazy local send-up of the Peter Fonda classic.

There is little doubt, however, that Greasey Films' shining moment came with the genesis of "The Clarker Bunch", yet another cops & robbers film, but one with enough of a topical twist that it's premise still packs genuine box-office potential, even thirty years later. Hatched scene-by-scene over many an after-school cigarette (and occasional joint) in Roland Yarcho's black '66 Karmann Ghia coupe, TCB follows twenty-year-old Moss Clarker, just home from an Army tour of Vietnam, first through an unsuccessful series of (pantomimed) job interviews, and then reuniting with three former soldier buddies to embark on a string of bank robberies, a somber and relentless lawman in deadly pursuit.

Much of the film's drama is derived from the remarkable cinematic eye of cameraman Bruce Arnes, who appropriated his father's Bolex Macro Super8 camera (then something of a state-of-the-art contraption for home movie making) and tripod for our efforts. His stunning gift for ironic detail, for spotting a perfect location and then framing it on film just as perfectly, added a depth of character to our story where often the script left off, one that frequently surpassed not only our expectations, but likely as not even our ability to even fully appreciate at the time. Years later, as a "award-winning" photojournalist well-immersed in a "successful" career, I would marvel (and still do) at the photographic prowness of this formally untrained 11th-grade student. Above and beyond any of us others at the time, he is one whose professional-grade talent - a natural shooting ability and sense for cinematic magic - should have been his real ticket to Hollywood.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to The Clarker Bunch came the following year, when, while lingering outside a local movie theatre, we noticed the poster for an upcoming film. It pitched an plotline that for us was like a bolt of lightning: a group of GIs return home from Vietnam and, dejected, go on a deadly rampage. Wow. Rip off? Unlikely. A peek into a "Parallel Universe"? Without a doubt. It is one where dreams come true, and merely by wishing for them.

Warren Etheridge, a talent and critic in the film industry whose opinion I have come to highly regard as having an acute insight into such goings-on, once observed of his comrades that they almost could be divided into two camps: One group was employed in the film industry, being bored by and hating it in equal measure; the other group, desperately wanted "in", but so far without success.

Hollywood, at least for me, came and went early on. What at one time had been my powerhouse of knowledge, was now mere trivial pursuit. If raw talent only were the ticket, things may have taken different directions. Or not. Even at that there's no guessing which might have lead to lasting happiness, if such a crayon color comes in that particular box.

For all of its illusion and pretense, one thing Hollywood amply illustrates correctly is that our natural gifts and talents generally come in equal measure to our shortcomings, if not some personal demons. While the records of such wrestling matches occasionally make their way to the silver screen, they are first fought alone, in flawed hearts and silent rooms, without witnesses.

Back in the day, if you were to have lived just in the moment, you could have been there and believed that we all made it, right to the top, each and every one of us. Hollywood, Academy Awards, the whole rip. That's not an entirely bad way to let it go, in fact.

And as to what the hell came after, who the hell knows?

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