Today I walked outside my home and looked around at the lovely blue sky, the sunshine, and felt the familiar, pleasant late summer dry air that greeted me.
I marked it by saying aloud, “September 10, 2018…”, which happens to be my birthday.
Now, you have to understand that I’ve enjoyed the view from outside this particular house, on and off since I was about four years old.
I can recall very well walking down my driveway on such a morning as this, on my way to go to summer camp when I was about 10 years old. That driveway itself doesn’t exist anymore and now is buried beneath a landscaped garden my mom installed in the early 80’s.
Some memories, like this one, are quite firmly pinned to the sounds, smells, the angle of the sun, position on the planet, temperature and the environment of my family home, not to mention the “me-ness” of my own viewpoint.
Looking back, that summer day was a happy and auspicious one, heralded by an expectation of fun and discovery. It was on that day I first came into contact with the world of film making, thru a cinematography class that I elected to take in that summer session.
I recall that I could have taken an opera singing class instead. An enthusiastic teacher, probably desperate for students, actively recruited me, but I demurred. What a different life I might have had, had I given in.
Have many opera stars started their professional lives in Tarzana, California, I wonder?
But rather than Verdi or Puccini, that summer for me was full of experiments with Super 8 cameras and the art of movie making.
I recently had lunch with an old friend from that time, Jeff Wishengrad. He was a year older than I, and would go on to have a long career as an editor. At lunch, we recalled the memorable name of the project we worked on together for that class: The Grape That Ate Connecticut.
It was about a scientist who created a grape that grew to mammoth size and, well… ate Connecticut.
As primitive as it was, Super 8 was an excellent way to enter the world of visual storytelling. Its limitations were many, but its potential for magic was enormous, especially to us young people of the 1960’s.
As you probably know, there was no sound recording capability with Super 8, and a running time per reel of only about 4 minutes, the equivalent of about four Instagram posts.
Editing was cumbersome and largely disappointing, an affair conducted with white cotton gloves, and messy glue or adhesive strips, which would create a transition between shots that stuttered visibly in the final film. It would be like hitting a speed bump with each cut.
The solution to this was to “edit in the camera”, which meant using luck and compromises to have the take begin and end exactly where you wanted it to, before rolling the dice again on the next shot.
As soon as I could save the money, I bought my own camera, a Yashika Super 8. It had a modest zoom lens. That was about it for special features.
I liked to do westerns, because I had the hats, boots and toy guns as well as a rather dry, frontier-looking “backlot” in my backyard.
Myself, my sister Ellen, my neighbor Eldridge and my school friends were the actors, and we would don fake mustaches and cowboy hats, pretend to shoot six guns and roll down the hillside clutching our bullet-drilled chests.
After expending the Super 8 film cartridges, (which cost about the same as a cup of Starbucks coffee today–a serious financial investment for a ten year old boy of 1969) the agony of waiting began. All film had to be developed at a local photo store, where, like a chrysalis, the black plastic cartridge of exposed film would eventually emerge, magically changed into a white plastic reel of color film.
It took two or three days to develop a roll of Super 8 film, days which, for me, were full of dread. Since my camera was not very sophisticated, and my knowledge and understanding of film exposures was non-existent, the chances were excellent that hours spent in creating a masterpiece of western cinema would be rewarded by an utterly black reel of movie film.
Whenever a roll of film returned from the Fotomat store, the first thing I would do was inspect a few feet by hand, holding it up to the light to see if I could spot on the tiny strip some images, any images. If I could, then I was instantly relieved.
To view the finished movie, I would set up my Bell & Howell Super 8 projector in the narrow hallway in our house, (a hallway I still walk thru every day) pointing it at a blank wall some feet down from the bathroom door.
This passage can be made fairly dark by closing several doors that access it, although it leaves very little room for an audience; generally it would be just me and a friend, squatting behind the projector, which made a loud rattling noise, like something out of a David Lynch movie.
The film would roll, and our recent cinematic efforts would spring to life via the wonderful, intoxicating illusion of film.
As crappy as our movies were, we were dealing with the raw elements of storytelling, going along the same track that men and women of the early part of the century had done with their even more cumbersome machines. At least ours were in color, albeit the distinctly “Zapruder palette” of this early home movie-making technology.
I’m eternally grateful for the hours I spent playing with this raw version of filmmaking, and even though I didn’t go on to film school, or shoot or direct proper movies as a grown up, my love of visual story telling has persisted and benefited from these early experiences.
It was easy to embrace the possibilities afforded by YouTube for precisely this reason.
And the power of film and video as a communication tool has only grown more potent. Luckily, today’s kids can shoot with sound, color and editing capabilities that make our Super 8 sagas look like cave paintings illumined by a guttering firelight.
What would my childhood have been like without this period of indulgence and experimentation? The world of opera may never appreciate my sacrifice.
Thank you for reading this, and for being a part of my life.