Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Sunday, January 22, 2012
“The decrepit underpinnings.” Bill put his pen down upon the centerfold of his composition book and looked away in thoughtful silence, across the dingy and littered street, to a group of students huddled together for warmth, the vapor of their exhaled breath and smoke diluted into the winter atmosphere like the remnants of some passing storm. He took a sip of tepid coffee, full-flavored and sweet, and took up pen once again.
He had been trying, ever since being reunited with Barney the Cigarette Guy (who was no longer in the smoke-selling business, though nicknames have a way of sticking tighter than glue), to formulate in proper terms his own personal interpretation of Barney’s photographic work. This was a point he found crucial to understanding the deeper meanings present, that however his opinion of the work might resemble Barney’s, each person comes away from an encounter with art possessing a unique, personal viewpoint, the result reflecting each one’s unique experience. To be certain, the frame lines that serve to define each of these images possess an editorial stance unique to Barney’s perspective, but the deeper, hidden implications of such imagery are implicit and therefore susceptible to a variety of interpretations, with as many variations as there are individuals.
It therefore seemed important to Bill, this cold, wet morning, as if taking on the spirit of a mission, to define the parameters of his own reflections upon the body of Barney’s work that constituted a stack of silver gelatin prints, galvanized from a series of marathon printing sessions that seem now to have been the aftermath of some mad frenzy of psychic proportion, as if someone else had labored in that tiny, cluttered darkroom, forgoing sleep and food, energized by nicotine, caffeine and an inexplicable internal drive.
And yet, something had been missing, which he couldn’t put his finger on until now.
The creation of a photograph had always been, in the “classic period” of film photography, a collaboration between photographer and darkroom printer, both requiring the skill of the craftsman melded to the vision of the artist, either skill taken individually of sufficient difficulty to do well so as to require the application of all of one’s talents to master. Only a few of the great photographers were both masters behind the lens and also in the darkroom. More often than not, the photographer took most of the credit for the art of the photograph, leaving his darkroom collaborator with the moniker of lab technician.
In this case, Bill was more than happy to remain the anonymous printer of Barney’s images; honored, in fact, and could now understand more clearly how such a craftsman could remain satisfied in the shadow of the camera-wielding artist. Bill was humbled by Barney’s results, but also left inexplicably perplexed as to how Barney could have possibly made this body of work that he, in fact, did make. One doesn’t merely order undeveloped rolls of the finest documentary and street imagery from who-knows-where; they have to be personally exposed in-camera, on-location, of which Bill had the raw film negatives to prove it.
The mystery was really about the speed with which Barney seemed to have mastered the technical aspects of handling what was an entirely manual camera, devoid of any automation, lacking even a light meter, with no prior experience. Not only did the technical aspects of Barney’s work remain an endless source of fascination to Bill, but also the subtle and sophisticated manner in which he pointed the lens that served to define those frame lines, able to separate out of real life those fleeting glimpses into the hidden mystery, the decrepit underpinnings, that make this life, and the human condition in general, so much of a perplexing riddle.
That’s it, he thought. “Decrepit Underpinnings” was a good enough title for Barney’s work, now he just needed to finish the introductory piece. Being in the position of Curator was a new experience for him, a role that he unexpectedly found himself in, after spouting off with this great idea he had, and now he felt the burden of the entire project upon his shoulders. That’s the way life is, you take the good with the bad.
It seemed just like yesterday when he had walked into Loser’s Blend, for a morning round of coffee and perhaps some writing, and had stood there by the door transfixed by the vision of Barney, sitting at the counter by the coffee roaster, as if he had never left, that cynical smirk on his face along with a deeper look of knowing, as if he had actually been gone and had come back, somewhat different yet essentially unchanged.
It was a spirited reunion, fueled by endless cups of coffee - so many that they had to pay for extra refills - and a change of venue out to the sidewalk tables for a smoke and a cold brace of winter air to clear one’s head for more discussion.
“I had some people to visit, some unfinished business,” Barney had explained. “People from my past, whom I had kind of forgotten about, abandoned when I was finally able to scrape a bit together and work my way up to opening the smoke shop, then thinking that I was better than them, had moved up in life.”
“Where did you go?” Bill had asked.
“At first I hung out at some of the usual sites around town where the down-and-out congregate, providing the cops haven’t driven them away. Which they do, from time to time. Met a few of the old-timers, heard some sad news about a few of the others. Then spent a few nights at the Mission. In between all of this, I was taking photos, of course, but trying to conserve my film and make each shot count. Which I think I did.”
“You sure did. You did great.”
“And then I hit the road. Hitch-hiked out west to Fresno, to finish some old business.” Barney had sat his cup down on the metal table and looked off into the distance, a clouded countenance surrounding him.
“None of my business, really. Unless you feel like sharing.” Bill knew how to pull things out of Barney, just patiently keep talking, keep him at ease, one small step at a time.
“Long story, would bore you to tears to hear it. Besides, it’s old history by now. Done and gone.”
Bill paused a spell, silently enjoying the banter but also people-watching the nearby tables. Finally he broke the silence. “Did I ever mention that my great-grandfather was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders?”
“You’re shittin’ me, right?”
“No, it’s true. He rode with old Teddy.”
“What was he, some kind of gunslinger? Soldier? Walk tall and carry that big stick?” Barney had that look in his eye, that fiery look that showed he still had some life left in him.
“No, not a big stick. A big tripod.”
“He was a surveyor, for old Teddy, not a gunslinger. Just a surveyor. I had you going, didn’t I?”
Barney just sat there, across the table from Bill, coffee cup up to his lip, one eye full of the devil’s fire, just eyeing Bill with intensity. And then he couldn’t contain it any longer, and spewed tepid coffee across the table and upon Bill as they both had the biggest laugh that each could remember, tears flowing, those at the nearby tables looking on with curiosity.
“A surveyor...!” Barney would exclaim, which would set them both to laughing all over again.
Finally, they both settled down, spent from their mutual spontaneous outbursts, and Barney got that serious look again, the look that said he was ready to talk.
He spun a tale of a mother that had died, leaving a work-weary father and two young boys, and how the father had struggled to make ends meet but couldn’t, in the end, keep the family together, sending the younger boy - Barney’s little brother - back east to live with an Aunt, while Barney left school early and learned quickly the meaning of hard work, until the Old Man’s health failed, the result of a hard life and constant drinking, which slowly wore away at his sanity until he was a mere shadow of the strong and vital father he had once been, and events took their course and the last feeble threads holding the family together had finally parted. It was a tragic story every bit unique yet all too common, repeated endlessly across the land. Nothing is ever as neat and tidy as it’s made out to be in fiction, real life being messy and unpredictable. When he was done Barney just sat there fumbling with his cold and empty cup, staring down into nothingness.
“Damn,” Bill finally uttered after an appropriately long pause. “So, that shot of the headstone in the graveyard...”
“...was my mother’s,” Barney answered him. “And the one of the tattered suitcase was my Papa’s, all that was left of his worldly possessions after he’d been put away into the State Home. I got there too late, you know.”
“Too late? You mean, he was still alive all this time?”
“Alive physically is all. His mind had gone completely, he never would've known if I’d gotten there in time. Was a blessing, really.”
“The funeral shots, that simple pine coffin, those world-weary pall-bearers, that was your Papa’s funeral, then?”
“Yea. I just found folks off the street, regular folks, you know, my kind of people - the down-and-out - and invited as many as I could to the funeral, promising them a free meal afterwards. A lady friend I met, who worked down at the Mt. Calvary Mission, promised me she’d have a whole spread ready to go after the funeral, which she did, and it was great. It was the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
Bill wiped away a tear with the tattered sleeve of his jacket, and then looked back at Barney, directly at him, deep into his eyes.
“What?” Barney met Bill’s gaze.
“Decrepit underpinnings. That’s who those folks were, the ones who did your Papa’s funeral.”
“The salt of the earth.”
“The keepers of the flame.”
“Of which this world was not worthy of them ... Or so The Good Book says.”
“I have an idea, about how to finish this whole photo project, the right way. Are you with me?”
“I’m listening. But we’re gonna need a refill on coffee, first.”
And that was how the idea for The Project came to be.
Previous stories in the Bill Series:
Barney the Cigarette Guy
The Guy Who Came in From the Cold
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Monday, January 09, 2012
Silence is Golden
Silence is golden, or so we have been told. Today provided a great example of this maxim, while at the multi-dozen-screen Cineplex, located out by the interstate highway along Restaurant Row. I was there to see a movie.
You see, I don’t go to the movies very frequently, and when I do it’s usually at the smaller neighborhood theatre that’s frequented by middle-aged types such as myself, where there’s less of the popcorn-on-the-floor-and-teeny-boppers-yapping-on-their-phones syndrome, though the carpet’s a bit worn and they don’t have those tiered, captain’s-chair seats. I must be picky, or something, but the typical over-hyped Cineplex offering is a bit too - cartoonish? So today, I went to see something a bit different, John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
I’ve read most every one of Le Carre’s novels, and consider him the master of the cold-war espionage genre. His stories aren’t studded with spectacular special effects, explosions and heart-pounding, nail-biting action, but instead offer insight into the inner thoughts and motivations of those on both sides of the wall who choose to spy, through an atmospheric portrayal of the drudgery, ambition and fear present in such a lifestyle. His stories are masterpieces of understated subtlety, as opposed to overhyped, superficial violence, and his typical characters are the anti-James Bond, an attribute I believe he set about purposefully to create in reaction to the cartoonish characterizations present in the Bond series of movies, and of which he has every right to claim some degree of intimate knowledge, having himself worked in British Intelligence in a former life and thus knowing more than just a little bit about the inner workings of the spy business.
But before I could immerse myself into the story at hand, I had to first sit through the preview commercials for other upcoming Cineplex offerings. These previews have ratings, I noticed, one for the preview itself, and another, afterwards, for the movie having just been previewed. For instance, an R-rated movie might have a PG-rated preview, etc. I suspect that behind all of these peculiar notifications (yes, I’ve been away from the movies for a while) are teams of lawyers.
Another thing revealed by the nearly twenty minutes of previews (a bonus entertainment of sorts), and one that reinforces my suspicions about the veracity of the typical theater offering, is the preponderance of what I call the “comic book effect” in present-day moviemaking, where video graphics technology has merged so successfully with the action genre that the two are indistinguishable from any story found in the typical super-hero comic book of youth. They’re animated comic books, these movies, and assault one’s senses with the wall-of-noise soundtrack that delivers a never-ending barrage of explosions, gunfire and ecstatic orchestration. They leave a person with no space to think, ponder or barely even breathe. But they are exciting deliverers of adrenal gland secretions, I will admit.
Le Carre’s stories, in contrast, demand that the reader intently ponder the meanings behind every word and turn of phrase offered. There is present little superficial language (“low redundancy,” in the Information Theory-speak of cryptography), no filler to pad out the volume of the work in order to fulfill some publisher’s contract. In these tales, characters subtly turn from loyalty to disenchantment to despair to treason in the same pace as the seasons turn from spring to summer to autumn to winter, the changes happening slowly, inexorably yet with a certainty revealed only through the depth of the language provided. Le Carre offers us the spy novel as literature, rather than as pulp fiction.
And so it was that, as I sat in that darkened theatre, in my steeply tiered captain’s chair, I witnessed art unfolding before my eyes in a manner that I’ve seldom seen in years. I saw pure, unspoken thought transpire between the characters of George Smiley and his old boss Control, for instance, that could not have been possible without the interplay of silence into the pace of the film. Just like musical rests play as much of an importance to a score as do the notes themselves, the pace of silent contemplation in this film served as a conduit for a type of communication to transpire between characters that would not have been possible otherwise. It reminds me that without spaces between letters there can be no words, and without spaces between words there can be no sentences, and without spaces between sentences there can be no paragraphs. The very structure of writing itself is built around a silence that divides an otherwise meaningless string of symbols into concrete idioms of thought. This also reminds me of that old saying about silence being golden, which is where I started this piece.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has a similarly mysterious and quiet pace as the Deep Throat parking garage scenes in “All the President’s Men,” or that of “The Conversation” (one of my all-time favorite films). Now, I must rate “Tinker, Tailor” up there with the very best of them.
You might not like this film, I will admit. Its pace might seem to drag on at the beginning; but never-mind, for that is just Le Carre once again weaving his magic, one that starts out like every good parlor trick does, with sleight-of-hand character-building and establishing backgrounds as smoothly effortless and believable as any you’ve ever encountered. The characters in Le Carre’s stories don’t inhabit steel and glass modernist palaces, but dingy, cluttered old decrepit pasts filled with the detritus of imperfect, half-lived lives, leaky steam pipes and all, and amidst all of this ruin there are those moments of silence, those golden gems, that serve to speak volumes, that bring the silver screen to life.
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Tuesday, January 03, 2012
Time. We have only so much of it. 24 hours per day, per person, in fact, regardless of who we are in life. I’ve been humbled by the thought that the greatest people throughout history, regardless of who they were or what they’ve done, had only the same amount of time each day within which to accomplish all it is that they’ve managed to complete. Think about that: the greatest artists, poets, scientists, theologians and leaders throughout human history were each given no more time within each day to manage, as a gift of sorts, than am I.
This is a sobering thought, and also one replete with promise, for it implies that what I need is not more time (that being a hopelessly futile quest) but rather a more efficient, purposeful, focused intent.
We live in an age when our tools of productivity are at their pinnacle, and yet our propensity to whittle away the moments on incessant distractions are also at their peak. The technology of the computer both multiplies our man hours of work and also offers instant escape into the nether world of the Internet or some entertaining diversion, limited only by our employers’ server firewall. The much-promised increase in worker efficiency brought about by the computer is at times very disputable.
In the age when the clerical office worker was known as a typewriter, could take dictation via shorthand and knew the ins and outs of the finer art of business correspondence, the knowledge worker could specialize and focus on the task of the business at hand. Contrast that with the present-day multitasking employee who must manage to not only perform their primary function for which they are employed, but must somehow also manage to create business correspondence with a skill not based on formal clerical training but rather on a software application that has been fashioned to mimic the skill of a trained secretary. The results can often be startling in their lack of refinement.
My wife was lamenting to me about this very thing, concerning so-called trained professionals who know virtually nothing about how to format a business letter intended for a client. Intervention is often required, by persons such as her who gained their experience not through dabbling with a word processing program - a do-it-yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps apprenticeship - but by good, old fashioned clerical instruction.
Correspondence itself is another confusing miasma within the business environment. There are such mountains of useless data within the typical electronic inbox that some businesses have taken to enacting moratoriums on email, instead forcing workers to physically leave the four gray walls of their cubes and engage in face-to-face communication with their peers down the hall. It’s that ages-old problem of time, and how best to manage it.
There are by now entire industries dedicated to improving one’s time-management skills, so much in fact that the term “time-management” has itself entered the lexicon of the business environment as another in a seemingly endless barrage of buzzwords that cycle through periodically in the form of philosophical management fads. We’ve got to “get things done,” we are told (which itself has become the acronym G.T.D.). Or, alternatively, “getter done.”
I recall the lyric to the Pink Floyd song that goes “kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown, fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way; the sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” The song, in fact, was named “Time,” and reminds me of the fact that my work schedule is structured around what is known as a “compressed work week,” meaning that I put in longer hours each work day in exchange for a contiguous block of time off on the other half of the week within which to do those other things that I like to do besides punching a clock. This is the virtue of the modern work schedule, it brought about enough free time in one’s life so as to permit more creative endeavors to be pursued. No longer did one require the benefit of a wealthy benefactor in order to succeed in some creative outlet, as in the day when people slaved six or seven days a week to merely survive. The modern work schedule brought about hobbies and other pastimes to the masses.
Recently, however, the economy seems to have permanently changed, as our culture has evolved into what economists call a post-industrial climate. More and more people are engaged in longer work hours at multiple low-paying jobs with fewer benefits, leaving one such as I with the impression that we have passed the apex of western culture and are now in some long, interminable downward slide into a new serfdom of sorts, where there are the extremely rich and the extremely poor, with little or no middle class between.
And yet, there is that time, ever-present, ever ticking its way into the unknowable future at its ever-steady pace, gifted to all, rich and poor alike, at a rate of 24 hours per solar day per person, with which we are left to deal with the challenge of how best to spend our finite resource of time as best we can. We can spend our minutes and hours in frantic gesticulation and frenzy, or we can spend it in quiet contemplation and prayer, the outcome depending on the wisdom of our choosing; yet time marches on, inexorably.
There is also this thing called biological time that interests me. It differs from chronological time in that it remains purely subjective, the duration and pace of the ever-unfolding present determined by the quality of our experiential condition. In some euphoric states time seems to fly by, while in misery and suffering it barely passes at all, just crawling by while the minutes barely tick and tock. Contrast this with relativistic time, which Einstein informed us depends upon our inertial frame of reference and our absolute velocity of motion as measured against the universal speed limit of light itself. We blast off the planet in some rocket ship, in these typical thought experiments, at a sizable percentage of the speed of light and return, decades later, having hardly aged a bit, while back on earth events have transpired at their normal pace and we find ourselves in a different age, out of sorts, out of time it would seem, yet with more time than most remaining.
The deepest mystery of time seems to me that it appears to be flowing in only one direction, from the past, through the present, into the future, and we seem unable to slow or halt or even alter its inexorable flow. Is this a figment of our physical bodies, and in some mystical afterlife called eternity we would find all events in history happening simultaneously? Or is the seeming linear flow of time a result of the ever-expanding universe?
It’s probably best not to dwell too deeply on these things. Or, alternatively, perhaps we don’t spend enough of our precious moments in this sort of deep contemplative thought. All I know is that, right now, the evening is drawing to a close, I’m getting tired, and running out of time.
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