Newport Beach Film Festival, a trip to the dentist and the road paved with Gold mythos

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 16, 2015 by eyesoreproductions

Newport Beach Marquee

I’m not going to lie. I’m pretty jacked to be in the Newport Beach Film Festival, my first major festival that will premier The Crooked Tune, An Old Time Fiddler in a Modern World. Of course I now stand as a dupe, the newcomer on the shore clutching my guarantee that all the roads are paved with gold only to run into the sharp elbow hustle of the Good old US of A. But I’m still going to chase that myth where a lowly independent scamps find a likeminded P.T. Barnum who takes a gamble and writes out the check, and dreams turn to golden reality. Synchronicity is supposedly how it works. But I also know myself. I love parties, but when I’m there I tend to not do so well. Everything sounds like a muffled echo chamber. I can’t focus and I end looking for the chill out space (surely they don’t call ’em that anymore). I was thinking about all this as I sat in the dentist chair.

Dentists tend to make me nervous, probably due to my childhood dentist’s tendency to wing it without Novocain but the chairs make me so relaxed. Talk about being good for the lumbar. And there I was tasting the sweet chemical hint of numbness, getting into a major conversation with the assistant, a true Baltimore old timer, with fake black hair and the rolling Ohhhh accent, getting into the history of Catholicism. Poor Baltimore. The city served as the foothold to Catholicism, but that was so 18th Century and the world has moved on.

But the old church is still there. “It should have been the Basilica (later built on Charles and Cathedral Streets) but they didn’t have anyone important or a part of someone buried there.”

Baltimore's shopping district at the turn of the 20th Century, right at the cusp of the Department Store heyday

Baltimore’s shopping district at the turn of the 20th Century, right at the cusp of the Department Store heyday

The place she’s talking about is The Mother Seton House which after two hundred years is ensconced with layers of old world development from when Lexington Market was the market in Baltimore, to when Howard Street was the corridor of department stores, to when it became a major shopping destination for the city’s poor, which means the leaders can use eminent domain, and make way for big time shopping stores, which of course never happened. Thus the strata of America in brick and mortar stands ramshackle and alluring and we talk about this West Side. The assistant knows her stuff down to who sold the bricks to the Basilica and the legend of the One Mile Tavern, and I pipe in my go to conversation piece, The Blueman. Jim Hall was a career city planner, but when he retired in the mid-nineties he tattooed his entire body, making him the second most tattooed person in the world. I did a cover story and a short movie. The dentist and the assistant know the Blueman well.

Photo by the late great Sam Holden

Photo by the late great Sam Holden

He’s been a client there for years. And we’re having a good ole time talking about the Blueman and all thing Baltimore and I’m holding with all kinds of dental gear and a suction tube in my mouth. In fact, it’s one of the best conversations I had in a while and I’m thinking if only I could take this attitude to the Newport Beach Festival when I find myself alone at the opening Gala, which starts at 10 p.m. My wife won’t join me until a few days later. Money is tight, my career is so on the cusp, my standards for a real job are going have to change when I get back, that is if I can make conversation as if a dentist is drilling out my tooth and we’re talking about a 70-year-old guy who just finished tattooing his entire face. Then I might have a shot of turning myth into gold.

Lester McCumbers (a belated appreciation) August 15 1921 – January 26, 2015

Posted in American History, Filmmaking, Old Time Music, West Virginia with tags , , on March 30, 2015 by eyesoreproductions

Lester fiddling 2Lester McCumbers was more than West Virginia’s last old world, old time fiddler. A man no doubt born into the remoteness of mountains and music and soaked it up in a regional style that over decades stood as a highly cherished remainder of an archaic sound that has recently caught the modern ear.

The New York Times did a wise man and the student piece about Lester McCumbers back in the late 1990s. And he continued to graciously host visitors from photographers to musicians committed to the old time sound and wanted to experience the exchange in person rather from a recording. Soon visitors no doubt realized there was more to Lester than the music or maybe there was more to the music.

Lester embodies the power of music, how music can more than compensate the lack of material things, how music infuses a kind of civility that draws people.  It was  amazingly subtle and at the same time a powerful thing to behold.

The passing of Lester McCumbers only reveals how much people can impress their person, their spirit on a culture or more precisely on what we call life. So many of us work, volunteer, try to do good, but only a few are blessed with a brilliance or a special presence that adds a singular warmth, like a fireplace fire to an otherwise chilled room. Lester McCumbers was one of those kinds of people. I only met him once, but it was a privileged afternoon for the documentary where he sat with Dave Bing, on guitar, Kate Johnson on banjo and played for all he was worth.  His family,  including grandkids and great grand kids were on hand. His oldest daughter was in her 70s as McCumbers then 92 with friends on both sides sat in cushioned kitchen chairs in the middle of the living room to work his repertoire. Dave Bing described him as the last of the truly old timers, “who ,”wasn’t homogenized” That is, he didn’t pull from records or popular culture or from other fiddlers. He played in a squeaky way that was full of bounce and life. At times the tunes were hard to come by. it was like watching a beautiful old car clicking away until that engine fired up strong and away they’d go. “I can play Old Jimmy Johnson, awe right,” he yelled. “Well let’s go,” answered Kate.

It’s tempting to get nostalgic about the old days. Wasn’t the same bemoaning unleashed  in the 1950s when those old fiddlers that hailed from the 19th century faded. But we all know the difference between McCumber’s more or less the World War II generation and the digital confusion of today is profound. Dave Bing often notes the conundrum between teaching people with entire cannon of old time a keystroke away and learning a tune sitting out on a hill. For better or for worse there’s no isolation musicians to be discovered and thus regional cultures have long melded thanks to the internet. Up and comers can learn tunes directly from online archives without ever visiting the area form which they came. That concept prompted at least one of Dave’s students to caution that musically we live in a dangerous time, where the context could get lost. This all seemed like a lot of BS until I found myself setting before Lester and the history is as real as his house full of nature decor and fiddle contest ribbons. On a bed lay about five fiddles mixed with an oxygen tank and a Jesus figurine. Afterwards he showed me a fiddle he made from the floorboards of his kitchen, a fiddle bridge he made from an old apple tree out back. Lester used to work in a tiny wood mill close by and he told a story of how the blade once unhinged itself and flew between he and his fellow worker, inches from cutting one of them in half He talked about the first time he ever used a power saw to chop a tree down and fretted a bit about streams being contaminated by coal runoff.He was a bit of a joker for sure. In his bathroom on an open and neat glass shelf stood a bright yellow box of Minees sandwich cookies. But when you took a peak inside expecting moon pies you were greeted by a selection of depositories.

Later,  He  couldn’t wait to show me a violin that he found that he said had a Strad label on it. I thought he was putting me on until I learned later that Stradivarius also released commercial violins. Still Lester had me stuttering a bit as I wondered which one he modified, the one for the masses or the one worth masses amounts of money.

But the way he related to music was beyond money. Just from that one afternoon I could see he lived a rich life, one where he allowed music to share the air so thoroughly that  it became transformative. I think that’s why young people are reaching for Old Time not just the music but the lifestyle where you sit around and not jam but communicate, live through the music. Lester McCumbers was more than just a link to another era. He demonstrated how music shouldn’t be seen as some kind of detached activity, but part of the very rhythm of your life.  I remember one point he watched Dave work out a tune on the guitar and nodded.  That’s right. and talked about how important the beat was, a notion that is universal as I’ve heard bluesmen tell me the same thing. “If you give me a good beat, that’s all I need.”

Afterwards driving away I asked Dave if hanging out with Lester similar to the days when he would hang out with Sherman Hammons, his mentor and Dave said he was just thinking that.

I feel fortunate to have witness it, hoped that I captured it and sorry to see him go.

On the verge of something?

Posted in American History, Filmmaking, Old Time Music with tags , , , on March 29, 2015 by eyesoreproductions
seeing such sights tend to slow down my trip some

On the way to the Hammons site.

So there I sat the doc was being tested at the Landmark Theater in Baltimore.  We were doing something called a DCP because supposedly high end festivals require this kind of format. It costs a good chunk of change, sometimes thousands. I got it done for $750, but that’s a lot for a guy going broke in a hurry.  They always do these movies about dreamers, who happily learn that if you do what you love and you work hard, it will pay off. But in life there is no such equation. Sometimes it just doesn’t  work despite the good intensions. I’m in the tail end of the  race. Better get some income. As I sat there in the theater with the Matt from Digital Cave who did the DCP, I was surprised I could even watch this flick. It’s gotten to the point that watching it with someone is too  much to stand. I watch every scene wondering did I just kill the movie. It seems like a movie comes down to that kind of fragile dependence. Each scene functions as a trapeze swinging out to carry the viewer forth. Sometimes I wonder if one works, if one is too long, unclear, duplicitous. But this time I feel that Crooked Tune does its job. The music which has been remastered by Studio Unknown is thick of full of depth. It’s still worthwhile, although I wonder if I shouldn’t cut the English lady who brogue has lost its allure with umpteenth viewing. The good news the money I’ve already sunk in the getting the 5.1 surround sound and now the DCP basically locks the pictures. No more tinkering and I did tinker to the very end. I watched it, watched Matt jump on his cell every now and then but heard him laugh a few time too. The Crooked Tune does take you somewhere somewhere deep that even I can surrender to even in my state and when it’s over, the documentary offers itself as a record of something,of a culture, a musical heritage that t has been overlooked. It’s just hard for me to look at.

Crossing the Finish Line, as Daunting as it ever was.

Posted in American History, Documentary, Filmmaking, Folk Music, how to make a movie, Media, Old Time Music, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by eyesoreproductions
Dave Bing with Lester McCumbers and Kim Johnson

Dave Bing with Lester McCumbers and Kim Johnson

Having just sent out my documentary after eight years on the trail, I can’t believe it came down to the last day. For every major project it has always been the same thing – dealing with the alcamey of compressing and uploading. It’s so crazy. I struggle with shooting all these clips, writing scripts, re-writing, editing, producing whatever, but the actually act of getting if off your computer onto a disc or uploaded on a site, remains a strange confounding process fraught with fear and loathing and the very real possibility of doom.

I was hoping to avoid this hell, but there is something strange about the so called exact analytics of the computer world. There’s a jinx lurking that could doom yer project. Case and point; here I was ready to compress my 70 minute piece, a full length doc that I overcome so many personal and professional obstacles it’s ridiculous. All I had to do was send it through QuickTime and then compress it and Bam. But no. It’s oh so boring to talk tech, about setting and such, but when you in it, the drama is as intense as any sport. Because here I was getting the file kicked back to me. System fail. System fail all the time reminding me that I’m not a tech guy. No way I should be dealing with this. I might as well be repairing my furnace. But I had to. I was aiming to strike audio tracks before sending it through Quicktime but nothing would work on the other end. I was in a world of permutation, clicking things and off and on to get this project through. Sending, Sending, sending. Go Go go, please. No. System Fail. In desperation I packed up my gear, holding my hard drive like a newborn, recalling the manufacture’s warning that “My Book” wasn’t designed as a portable drive. Didn’t matter I had a back up drive, that was weeks out of date and I was down to a days before the deadline.

I hit my friend’s place, a penthouse with a stunning view of the city. Taking 23 gigs down took hours of processing only to hear the canyon echo of duplicate tracks reverbing. What were these tracks doing here. they were dis-engaged. What was this computer doing to me?

I was desperate, the audio track now one long 72 minutes band of green suddenly didn’t fit the equally long quiltwork of video. I’m off by frames but enough to make their mouths move like monkies in fast motion. There was the wacky task of taking all the cartoon ballon of audio that is uniquely FCP X’s trademark and cutting them out, somehow miraculously not deleting a chunk of video giving my doc one of those unforgiveable blank spots. I’ve been told too late FCP X isn’t designed for large prjects. It doesn’t have tracks at all. All you could do was assign one, which was precarious at best and yet somehow my sound guy was able to download these pieces and create a mix, which fit the project snuggly but now sat like a misfit in the so called finished compressed video. No way I could turn this in.

The hour was too late to be playing the audio game. Do I dare go and start cutting? How about rippling the vide?. It was closing on midnight and his amazing solid state computer was now throwing me FCP’s famous beach balls of death at me. The thing was forever rendering, which wasn’t suppose to happen in X right.. Then my buddy had an idea of going back to an older version in Final Cut’s library. Go back in time buddy when everything was alright. Yeah your so called improvements will vaporize but you can turn Crooked Tune into SXSW, as a work in progress.

But people, y’uall know going back in time, is some tricky business. Click the library and select a date Sat. 10:37 and bam you see your project marred in the horrible red. Missing footage everywhere. That’s not suppose to happen. Don’t worry my buddy, we’ll just relink. Relink. Relinking is a hell created by psycopaths who think it’s acceptable to have to go into your finder, go into some file deep into your computer where you see a many numbers click that and still nothing happens. If there is a correct way, it surely is so unnatural that many of people have been left on the side of the road with broken projects. Now I was about to be one of them. Now I was just hoping I could go back to the present to where I was where at least I had my footage. I was at this point, for the first time since I was gunning to be SXSW that I contemplating that I wouldn’t even being able submit. That the next day I’d be in this building stage.

I was in a mourner’s stage of acceptance with rage soon to follow. That’s when the FXP crashed. That’s when I went outside my body and watched. This is when all was really lost. Since FCP X has no save button then it could mean that it restarted this version with all the missing files would be seen as now the contemporary version. Oh well, it’s not meant to be. No different than Carson Palmer laying on the field with the best team to his credit, knowing that he woudn’t be allowed to take the Cardinals to the post season. No way out of it, he was done. I drew my breath as the FCP jolted back on the screen and there was my project, not only restored but the audio now matched like it did a good twelve hours ago. I couldn’t believe it. It that moment it could have gone either way, I’ve seen it happen back in the early days of word processing when a system crash would cost you hours of precious writing. Could have some program set up this safety switch. Who knows. But now came the realizing that at 12:30 a.m. I’d be in for hours of waiting for the compressor and hoping that we now knew how to click off the duplicate tracks. Hours through the night. After 12 hours of compression. The Nov. 13 deadline, though three days away, suddenly reared up like a deer jumping across the road. I lay on his couch, watching a helicopter sweep my waterfront neighborhood, where my wife and children lay sleeping. My buddy and I ran out of things to say and retreated to books. He read a book about Bees. I sun into the Good Lord Bird, a fictional account of the John Brown rampage through the eyes of a runaway slave, cross dressing as a girl. Did John Brown really charge an Army battalion and win?

The sound of their Pa’s getting murdered and bellowing spooked them to howling like coyotes, till the thud of swords striking their heads echoled out the thicket and they was quieted up.

Such a narrative kept me company as I roused my self off the couch to see the torturous processing line moving not a smidgen. The activity monitor flicked numbers that I don’t understand much like the beeps and led lights of hospital monitors. The night chugged slow, so slow. Sleep felt more like succumbing to a web pulling me down wrenching myself awake to see that processing line. Back to the book, back to thoughts of my life being so ridiculous, awake looking out at the city and the condos with the dark windows around. Back to a sleep with hopes of a completed file with a flick of an eye. And there it was all done, really in the gloaming. The sky was a murky blue, and me realizing that oh man the sun is coming up. People will be out fresh for the work day. Me I’d stand solo, a rat washed to shore. But I had this movie done. It was done. The world will know. The world out this window. It could happen. Couldn’t it? I was back on the computer, looking at the sound, looking good good and then at the very end. The last scene. It was OFF. But I had to get it in. This was a Festival not a beauty contest. So I told myself, forgetting that thousands enter for a few cherished spots. But I had to hope if they got this point and dug the movie than surely they knew it as work in progress such things were forgivable. This was the rantional that I now stuck to. Now way I could go through this more into the harsh light of the day.
With the copies burning. I sat on the couch a wounded victor. I looked out on the first light, I could hear the traffic arch up. I felt like an explorer who just pushed out of the bush to the edge of a cliff.

I drove home with the commuters and swung open the front door to see kids and my wife a the table. I resumed my role washing the dishes, grabbling kid’s lunch from the fridge as if nothing ever happened.

Note Cards and the Great Unknown:

Posted in American History, Documentary, Filmmaking, Folk Music, how to make a movie, Media, Old Time Music, West Virginia, writing with tags , , , , , on May 22, 2014 by eyesoreproductions
Note cards galore, a bad sign of a cluttered mind?

Note cards galore, a bad sign of a cluttered mind?

Normally, the note cards are done before editing and I tried that, but the more I got into writing the paper-cut script, the more I actually grabbed footage, the poster board remained folded behind the TV gathering dust. That may have been a problem. As I spent this past year putting together a rough edit or what others might call a rough assembly, I found myself  spelunking the footage trail, allowing it’s narrative natural or not to take me places. Even though I had a script beside me, at time the temptation was too great and I wandered off road. Of course this lead me down horrible dead ends or got me lost, other times I could explore the natural connections that only come from reading a person’s inflection or recalling a conversation picked up by another interview.

I guess what I’m getting at is how can you possibly thoroughly explore your material? I put this question to none other than Walter Murch, the editor of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Movies, and a big proponent of the color coded note card system.  He was speaking at Johns Hopkins  University in March about his latest work, Particle Fever, about the search of the God Particle. By listening to his talk at Hopkins where he somehow explained how his love of poetry, particularly the Italian Poet Curzio Malaparte, whom he translated into English, you can see why the master editor relies on note cards to make his love of connecting with the abstract work on the screen. Murch talked  about how each sequence should have a point and the last image of that sequence carries a hardy punch. He talked that each film “has its own dialect” and you have to hear it.  So I asked him about the perils of abandoning the paper edit and the use of color coded note cards in trying to find the metaphors of film Hugh? .It was as if he couldn’t comprehend what I was talking about. Just color code the bitch  and then watch the connections form. (he didn’t say that)

In the thickets

In the thickets

I went back and after doing the rough edit I put my hot mess on cards and stuck on boards. The one thing note cards do is to reveal sequences that are too fat. Like a graph, you can visually see the excessive number of note cards from one sequence to the next. But I also fret over  removing these cards. I worked so hard  to paste up there.  By love of my way forced met to do alternative cards and saw possible cuts.

I still think there is a massive discord between scribbling out an idea of a card and working the edit suit dropping in cuts and seeing them breath. It’s one thing to say write down directions for the  character takes the stage, it’s another to see the scene unfold in a listless way that no amount of words can fix.  The scene just doesn’t work.

No matter, it seems that  the fate of this project will be right here in the second edit, having the guts  to break from the trail I just created, spurning the comfort zone, sucking up the labor that comes with starting over in order to really get  a solid movie. I think this is the place where we filmmakers and pretenders  get sorted out — the exceptional from the mundane. I just hope I can muster the nerve.

The blank page, board, the abyss and the stuff of creation.

The blank page, board, the abyss and the stuff of creation.



If The Devil is in the Details then I must be in Hell.

Posted in American History, Documentary, Filmmaking, Old Time Music, West Virginia, writing with tags , , , , on May 1, 2013 by eyesoreproductions

For the last month I’ve been working on my treatment. Actually I’ve been working on this treatment for years counting my never submitted application to the National Endowment to the Arts. Although I successfully can hit all the points, going A to Z, satisfying the requirements of basic logic, when I’m done I’m left with something far afield to what drives me to be shooting this thing for the last six years. Last week I sat with my professor who listen to be explain the film, the strange adventure of it all that I get just by riding along with Dave Bing and where it takes me– to Lester McCumbers house to the campsite where he spent teenage summers in a tent after a day with the Hammons. That image, i say, him being a teenager in the 70s out their in the deep woods by himself with a tape recorder a fiddle, no doubt some beer, that image is what propelled me to do this. that story he told me felt like he just handed the pure stuff, the very ferment that spawns American lore in the form of Huckleberry Finn. She says after i take a breath,”I wish i had a tape recorder so I could tape you because what your saying and what I’m reading are two different things.”

“What i’m saying,” I ask, “is better isn’t it?

“Yeah,” she says.

Somehow I need to get this on paper and still satisfy all the requirements so stringent with the treatment that is both suppose to sell and show the story and why the documentary is hooked into a larger issue. It’s not enough that’s it’s a good story. To do this  I got to get extremely intragit with the sentence. It’s the details  that makes all difference.

Decision making and the Solo Shooter

Posted in American History, Documentary, Filmmaking, Media, Old Time Music, West Virginia with tags , , , on March 26, 2013 by eyesoreproductions
Despite the looming snow storm. I went back for this. Nuts or what?

Despite the looming snow storm. I went back for this. Nuts or what?

Shooting solo and the mounds the decision making process can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s major turning point as in whether to venture further into West Virginia when a snow storm is moving in threatening two feet of snow or wether it’s just to pull over for a shot that could be handy when looking for b-roll. Sometimes the decision making creates a kind of tipping point especially when shooting solo. There you are interviewing someone or just documenting the life unfolding, trying to look for those devilish details that can turn a doc into something special and you got to remember where you placed the tripod plate or you may or may not have  snapped close the shutter door in the Bolex or the once go -to camera is buzzing horribly or you’re doing a ride along and you’re trying to reach that coffee mug while shooting or here’s a good one: did I put the tab down on the last tape shot or did I just re-inserted it and tape over my footage.

It’s tough. Organization and creativity should go hand in hand. It would help to free the spirit, but we (or I) also fear that being too organized tends to stifle the art itself. That’s why I have a hate love relationship with outlines before writing. Sometime the outline can turn writing into cartography. I  use what I call map making, writing point to point without the details. I form just the mile markers and then let the writing create my way.

But filmmaking is so different with all the technical requirements. I find visualizing the shoot before hand, hopefully the night before like right before hitting the sack, works.

That’s what I did with the Lester McCumbers shoot over the weekend. I also had the benefits of  mistakes made from several years ago when I charged into renown fiddler Frank George’s home, with gear ,some of which was new to me and set up on the fly. The results had issues let’s put it that way. gear

With the McCumber’s shoot. I figured on putting one camera on a tripod for a continual wide shot of Dave Bing, McCumbers and Kate Johnson played.

I set up a zoom recorder along with another lav mic on the floor, to give me a backup for audio.  Then I took my Sony ZU1 and shot at first peripherally  out of the wide shot but after a few tunes I didn’t care I was in way of  the tripod camera to get good close ups. I also made sure to shoot plenty with my still camera. So if all the video goes to hell I can at least make a audio slide show.

Lester sitting and talkingIn the end, I feel about as confident about the results as any shoot I’ve done. We’ll see. But of course there are the cases when shooting a doc when you can’t plan. Like taking a break and eating lunch and the conversation turns to heart attacks. There’s a ham sandwich in my yob, do I grab the camera off the floor. But the time I do, the moment is halfway gone. Too late.

It’s gotten to the point where you just have to factor in that there will be really good moments that are bound to get away, and I should just give myself a break.

earnest planning undone

earnest planning undone

The next day was even tougher because I was using a camera that I still haven”t mastered  The Bolex— no strike that — I settle for just using it correctly. Oh man, if I could just get one good shoot with one. UP NEXT MY MISADVENTURES OF FUSING BOLEX WITH THE DIGITAL AGE.