Monday, September 8, 2008

The Evidence By Which A Work Of Art Is Remembered

(Being the continuation of the history of my film, "Usher.")

The circumstances by which a work of art is produced is often as revealing as the work itself.

Sometimes more profound, and generally more lasting is the evidence left behind by which we remember and can reconstruct the work, both to its original artifact (the film) as well as the cultural traces it has left. The tangible evidence, in the form of prints, original materials, reviews and even subsequent artistic references (both explicit and discrete) contribute hints how it was presented, perceived and is (to be) remembered.

For "Usher," we ended up with about 12 hours of raw film on 16mm, over twice as much as expected. It planned as a 90-minute feature, and we intended to go back to the negative once we had cut the footage by transferring it into a computer and working electronically. The program would give us code to conform back to the negative, by which we may be able to make prints if someone would pay for that.

These decisions were made back in 2003, when the ease of shooting and post-production on digital media was more tenuous. Within the first 3 weeks of shooting the film, there was a money crisis - the producers's funds were no longer forthcoming in the way they had been, with vague contingencies and personal explanations that probably boiled down to some version of "oh, shit."

We proceeded to follow the time-honored (and idiotic) solution of putting it all on credit cards. This is usually when most small productions get abandoned. You likely end up with only half your film, undeveloped in a stack of reels in the basement, slowly turning to vinegar.

We thereby changed our shooting strategy to reflect the change in resources. As the rental charges on the equipment added up, the crew slowly abandoned the production to go get their life back (and some sleep). In the last couple of weeks, we devoted our time to pick-ups and close-up inserts with a 3-person crew in true indie style. We dropped whole scenes from of the script, and restaged complicated 3-page indoor dialogue scenes as single back-and-forth scenes (2 reverse angles; a musical sting; done!).

Most of the major action sequences were shot silent. Not having to set up for sound allowed us to barrel through dozens of short shots those nights; the lack of resources is also reflected in the Godard-ian montage cutty aesthetic we adopted.

I grabbed every insert and reaction we needed to use as visual bandaids to replace shots that would never be realized.

That's why the film ended up being filled with all the elegiac and nearly fetishistic close-ups of the theatre in odd locations, like a wandering eye that can't stay on the action, but drifts to inspect the decaying edges of the carpet or plaster muralwork.

Regardless of the shortened production schedule, we ended up with 12 hours of footage - twice as much as anticipated. The free editing suite in LA didn't come to pass - we had the footage transferred to BetaSP tapes, which we then fed into a computer at our studio.

Actually it was his basement.

We spent a year editing it, between working and other commitments, and eventually ended up with an 88-minute version, conceived as, and basically delivering on, a rather French inspired art/detective story concept: this in part because Jean-Pierre Melville films were being re-released around that time; and with no stunts (or stuntmen), we didn't make a full-on action/thriller to begin with.

That was beyond our means.

Our main character, a young hitman who messes up a job with the mob, goes to work in a movie theatre. He doesn't fit in.

We treated the theatre like a hallowed church - a place of "art," although baroque and decaying. Those long tracking shots that filled in blanks helped; they caress the decadent pallor of the decor like a lover gone to seed. They're akin to Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad" embalming his hotel setting.

(The official website here has more.)

We made copies and sent it out. We caught some small interest, and showed in the small Telluride Indiefest in Colorado, as well as in Nashville, and Silver Lake in Los Angeles (to, regrettably, only about 15 people). We also got a couple nice reviews.

We tried to sell it to a DVD company, but sales agents we talked with couldn't place it - the independent film industry was changing before our eyes (and is). DVDs, Tivo, and streaming are changing what and how people will be consuming content in the upcoming years.

At one point we were asked for a 5.1 mix, and we had a professional do that over a weekend. I wasn't happy with some of the editorial decisions made by the sound mixer (who was only trying to help - he moved and replaced some effects to achieve an overly realistic tone I didn't initially strive for). This version went out but wasn't accepted. We also signed with a company in NY last year, and they cut 8 minutes and changed the music around. That version almost got onto a local PBS station. I'm not sure they cut the right 8 minutes, but that's besides the point.

There are probably half-a-dozen copies of that edit out there somewhere. There are 4 versions, all slightly different; this brings up issues of "authorship" I won't go into now.

The rights are are back to me now, and over the last 4 years the film has migrated from 16mm to BetaSP to digital files, been cut and copied onto DigiCam and MiniDVs and BetaSP (again), VHS and DVDs. There are Pro-Tools files, time-code discs and edit lists.

I'm not entirely convinced the film is even finished. Once it's officially "released" I'll have to finally let it go. But for now I've got 3 big boxes in my garage of the original camera negative - 12 hours total, 74 reels, still unedited, and 2 bigger boxes of all the takes on Beta, in the same uncut order, a high-quality transfer, which can be worked on again if need be.

At least as long as there is a BetaSP deck to be had, a format quickly becoming obsolete.

The original Orinda theatre (a tri-plex, a fact hidden in the film, which is ostensibly about the end of an old-time single-plex) has been doing poorly of late. A couple of megaplexes opened within 10 miles of it in the last decade, and the theatre is up for sale.

I continue to try to sell my film, and have meantime given it an indie release on Indieflix (here); the Orinda Theatre itself tries to find a patron. If the building doesn't retain its protected landmark status, it will be likely be torn down for development sometime in the future.

It turns out my 12 hours shot in and around the Orinda Theatre may be a rare kind of historical document - pure raw footage of a classic deco theatre.

The kind they don't make anymore.

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