Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Surrealist Tapes




    I'm either getting really old, or the world around me is changing at an unpredictable rate. It seems like just a few years ago - actually, it was but a few years ago - that I was shooting and editing video on tape, from Hi-8 to S-VHS. I had, over the period of a decade, produced a collection of short experimental tapes, but also less-serious footage, some family events, and also, toward the end of it all, a bit of play with my Grandson.
    So it was that, just this last weekend, my Grandson, who's getting old enough now to be interested in electronic gadgetry, began diving into my plastic storage bin of Old Electronic Junk. He unearthed my old Sony Hi-8 camcorder, along with the fanny pack within which I kept all its accessories. He wanted to know if it still worked, so we tried a battery - hopelessly dead - so instead plugged in the AC adapter and, lo and behold, the gadget powered itself up. I noticed a tape in the fanny pack, a tape that was unmarked, so I ejected the mechanism and inserted the tape, waiting for it to thread up (threading up: two decades ago I was servicing machines like this; now they seem so quaint) and hit playback.
    Years ago, when the novelty of owning a camcorder was fresh, I did a series of videos that I called "The Joe Show", really just a video diary minus the daily consistency required of a genuine diary, decades before the narcisicm of You Tube, but formatted on the idea that I would sit on the couch in front of the TV, camera on tripod alongside, using the TV as a video monitor and, with microphone in hand, proceed to do my show, wherein I would talk about whatever it was I was doing, what I was reading, show video footage I had shot with the camcorder, even have guest appearances, family and friends the obvious victims.
    There's a rather famous episode of The Joe Show where my friend Bob comes over, and in a bit of role-reversal he plays the guest host, while I'm interviewed as the discoverer of an imaginary beverage called "Connestoga Cooler", invented by the early pioneers of the west, a conconction they would brew up in the backs of their covered wagons while they slowly made their way across the prairie, to wherever it was they were going, the Oregon Trail perhaps. I told Bob that the early settlers used whatever they could find to put into their conconction. The single most famous line of this tape, when asked by Bob how it was made, became "...it somehow involves the back of an old covered wagon and soiled undergarments...". We got a lot of mileage, and more than a few chuckles, out of that phrase, even spinning it, years later, into The Surrealist Tapes, an endless list of associations involving Part 'A' and Part 'B', the congruence of both parts being overtly unrelated, surrealistic even, structured around the phrase "It somehow involves...". We ended up with page after page of this nonsense, things like "It somehow involves Spuds McKenzie and The Boisie Girls", or "It somehow involves FC's diatribe and a last-minute ticket to Daluthe". (Actually, I just made that last one up on the spot; once you've got it, you never forget how.) But the thing is, you'd make this list of "It somehow involves" to use in actual conversation, with real people who have real lives and concerns greater than yours.
    There'd be times when you'd be called upon to deliver an answer or explanation of something, usually of your own doing. It could be work-related, or personal, providing information or deflecting blame, it didn't matter; the list would take care of you, provided you took care of the list. "Why didn't I get that report turned in on time? Oh, well, it somehow involves a Neal Young-like apparition and the twenty-third edition of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire." That'd send them back to their desks, deep in thought, and buy you a few more minutes within which to come up with a real excuse.
    The funny thing about The Surrealist Tapes is that they weren't tapes at all, unless you count that first incident, on The Joe Show; they were (and remain) just a list of phrases on paper, psychic incidents perhaps. But darn snappy phrases, ones worth keeping and using again and again.
    The other funny part was this business of "somehow". How does something just "somehow involve an empty scotch tumbler and a portrait of Dorian Grey", for instance? It "somehow" involves, but not specifically enough, lacking certainty, to give the whole game away in one fell swoop. You've got to work at it, dig into it to find the association, which eventually comes, it always does, but sometimes unexpectedly, surreal-like; irrationally.
    My older brother used to want to play along, but he never quite got the hang of it, he'd try to piece together two associations, but they'd be too ordinary, lacking any surrealist bite. He'd say things like "It somehow involves a pack of old Marlboros and a Bic lighter." It would fall flat. My friend Bob would end up impersonating "old John" as he would call him, even employing a good imitation of his gravelly-toned voice. "It somehow involves an old pack of Marlboros. Right on, John."
    Anyways, back on The Joe Show starring Bob, it was at this point that I hit on the great idea of showing Bob's audience where it was that the processing of the beverage actually happened, the porcelain "processing vessel" in the small laboratory room where, after you pressed the small metal valve handle, the liquid would begin "processing", swirling down the drain of the white vessel into the "finishing room" below. Potty humour. Literally.
    Years later we would replay this episode of The Joe Show, laughing like school kids at our own foolishness. The best part about The Joe Show was that it was totally improvised, not thought-out in advance, which often comes across as stiff and unnatural. The results of this episode have borne creative fruit ever since.
    Years later, another buddy of mine named David and I were down by the Rio Grande, one sunny day (does the phrase "It somehow involves two fools and a camera" ring a bell?), he with his newly purchased camcorder, and both of us with an interest in creating productions on tape. (Another detour: the word "tape" I purposefully began to use, in the same manner in which the cultural elite speak of "film". "There's a tape showing tonite", or "The Aesthetics of Tape Theory.") Once again on camera, I began to improvise. I told the camera, as I pointed through a clearing in the underbrush, that "this was where they dragged me, out to that clearing, where their ship was." It was but a few minutes of footage, some silly business about me having been abducted by aliens ("...and here's where my leg snagged across this tree root where they dragged me...") which David ended up using as footage with which to practice video editing, the resulting short video inspiring us to regroup and shoot a "more serious" production, the end result, a year later, was a 30 minute piece called "Bosque Abduction", (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), one of the finest B-grade tapes ever produced (at least, by us), which got it's Big Premier at the 2007 Roswell Film Festival, much to the consternation of the UFO true-believer audience in attendance who discovered that the abduction referenced in the title was a mere murder mystery in disguise, that there weren't little green (or gray) men (or women).
    The point is, there's lots of back-story, lots of history, lurking behind the unassuming exterior of this now-obsolete camcorder, which my grandson is now fondling. I flipped the mode switch on the camcorder to "VTR" (a quaint term in itself, Video Tape Recorder, which predates "VCR" by decades, reminding me of the original VTR, an old Ampex 2" reel-to-reel black and white machine from the late 1950s, the size of a large desk, that the US Navy trained me on, and which was used to record flight deck video, most notably the gray, grainy vision of crashed aircraft ablaze, the carnage of men and body parts aflame, our bootcamp indoctrination into the importance of Flight Deck Safety), flipped the LCD screen around so that it could be viewed by us both at a comfortable angle, and hit 'play'. I had forgotten that we shot this footage. He had, prior to this recording, seen some of my Joe Show tapes, and consequently decided to do "The Noah Show". He was in the prime of his cuteness, sporting a plastic toy rifle and a cammo vest, talking on his fake walkie-talkie to the other soldiers in his outfit. On the tape, he was fighting the war in Iraq, and I, playing the reporter interviewing him, asked him about the "Elk Hiders" (you have to say it with a redneck accent), the terrorists who "hid all them elks" (if you came back from hunting season without a trophy, it was the fault of the Elk Hiders). At the time, he was more interested in the pretend fighting action than in the technicalities of video shooting, and now, several years later, he and I got a good chuckle out of watching our play-acting. I was a few years more youthful, and he was a lot younger, both of us as mesmerized by our youthful appearances as we were by the captivating storyline.
    I realized, after watching this old tape, that it and the camcorder were both obsolete. His Mom and Dad don't even own a VCR, otherwise it would be easy for me to dupe a copy for him from Hi-8; and I don't have an analog capture card on my PC, otherwise I'd burn a DVD. So for now we'll just have to be content to watching these old tapes on the little flip-out LCD screen of the camcorder itself, trusting that the gadget doesn't expire anytime in the near future. It seems extraordinarily fragile, this business of relying on the permanence of consumer gadgetry, designed around the paradigm of planned obsolescence, for the retention of our collective memories. In retrospect, carving one's legacy into massive stone plinths, or erecting pyramids, does seem to make some sense.
    I wonder, too, about this business of being a photography hobbiest. I know, with almost sheer certainty, where my negatives and prints and image files will end up after I kick the proverbial bucket: into the trash bin of history. I am not, nor do I ever expect to be, blessed with a reputation as Artiste, deserving of some curatorial attention by a museum staff-member. My legacy will, at best, be stacked in broken and dusty cardboard boxes in The Shed, to be discarded at some opportune time in the immeasurable future.
    So I do it for myself, appearantly, this business of photography and video. Its like a way of seeing, of me understanding myself and the world around me. I am reminded of Garry Winogrand's quote about why he obsessively photographed, "to see what things look like when photographed". I think what he meant was that, once captured in-camera, an image becomes distinct from the reality it was extracted from. The image of the thing is not the thing itself; the image takes on a life of its own. And, as a photographer, I see things about life and reality revealed in the way images work, distinct from the ordinary reality around us. This became clear as Noah and I watched our old taped play-acting unfold itself.
    It's an obsession, I'm clearly certain. I really should have better things to be doing. Like yesterday, for instance, I spent half of an afternoon making triangular pinhole apertures from black electrical tape and aluminum foil, exposing their images onto paper negatives in a pinhole camera, then processing and scanning the results. I ended up, late last night, contact printing several of these onto nice double-weight fiber paper, before I headed to bed, still obsessed by the captivation of, not only the photographic image in all of its variety, but the process itself, the inconvenience of it all that seems, in my mind, to somehow lend it more meaning, imparting a personal sense of valuation based on the sheer effort involved, which no one else but myself can perceive or appreciate.
    This business of the process involved in working with handmade box cameras, paper negatives, improvised lenses and darkroom alchemy comes to resemble some kind of esthetic guild, where process and product remain indistinct, like those Orthodox icons of saints, or Buddhist mandalas, or Navaho sand paintings, where the process involved is at least as important as the end result. Perhaps, the process is the whole point of it all.
    In the meantime, I have this new one for The Surrealist Tapes: "It somehow involves carbon-doped insulators and an Aero-Ektar lens board..."

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~Joe

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