Monday, October 26, 2009

Video Tape Therapy

During the week between Christmas and the end of the year 1998 I took a week's worth of vacation time from work, and holed myself up in my garage/studio to film a short documentary. I actually didn't "film" this short work onto photographic motion picture film, but rather video taped it as a low-fidelity, black-and-white, surveillance-camera-style of production; since video tape is actually a polyester film covered in thin films of metallic particles, the term "film" still stands as technically accurate; but we will use the term "tape" to distinguish the one medium from the other.

During the week of shooting raw scenes onto Hi-8 tape, I employed neither actors nor real sets, but instead created miniature diorama scenes from scraps of discarded paper and cardboard, gluing newspaper images onto stiff card stock to make buildings, cars and other props for the tape that would come to be called "City Central", a story loosely based upon events that happened to my brother in the seedy parts of Albuquerque known as the "combat zone", the eastern portion of the Central Avenue corridor.

In the summer of 1994 we received a phone call informing us of my brother's presence at the regional trauma hospital, in a coma. I was actually at work, on the night shift, when I received word. I took the rest of the night off and hurried down to the hospital. He was indeed in a coma, having been on the receiving end of a severely brutal beating, suffering from head trauma which had pulverized numerous bones in his skull, dramatically injuring his brain and causing his head to swell up to resemble a bruised basketball.

He would awaken from his coma ten days later, severely impaired, and would eventually spend months in a rehabilitation facility in Roswell, New Mexico, in the same building where the supposed crashed UFO aliens' bodies were studied and dissected. There, he had to learn how to be an adult all over again; how to eat and dress himself and take care of all the other aspects of being a sentient, adult person.

We (my wife and I) drove him down to rehab, and months later drove him back, where we made room for him in our home as he continued to mend and heal. Though I was involved in assisting my brother during his lengthy period of healing, and dealing with such things as his personal affects at the apartment where the incident occurred (I could still see the blood stains under the 2nd floor balcony), I really had not processed well the whole event, nor was there a sense of closure in any way healing to the family, since his resulting amnesia at the time prevented him from testifying in court, resulting in charges dropped against the three suspects. By the time his memories did slowly return, years later, the perpetrators would already have died violent deaths themselves. But closure for the family, particularly me, remained elusive.

Thus were the circumstances that led me to spend a week in the garage taping a paper-cutout, puppet-like video production loosely based on my brother's story. The results were not great, or even modestly good, but they served to provide not only a mechanism for my internal processing of the event but also led me to explore further this low-fidelity, black-and-white video approach to what could plausibly be termed "experimental video".

I had been interested in this genre from having seen Eric Saks' experimental Fisher-Price Pixelvision-derived short "Don From Lakewood". The "quality" of the video (here the term is used merely symbolically) was such that a recognizable image was barely evident, but the combined effects of the sound track (a series of phone calls to a furniture store, requesting that a couch be delivered to a house prior to actual purchase) combined with the quirky set style and puppet characters made for a highly entertaining production. I became convinced that, rather than ride the crest of the bleeding edge of avante-garde newness in film and video technology, I would explore the more serene backwaters, the barely-recognizable-as-valid consumer video formats like VHS; crash-editing from one tape to another, using less-than-consumer-grade video sources like miniature board-style surveillance cameras, and micro-cassette recordings for audio, whose ever-present tape hiss and telephone-quality bandwidth provided for a compatible counterpoint to the grunge-like video itself.

I produced, over a period of ten years or so, a drawer-full of tapes, using the moniker of "ad hoc productions", all edited onto S-VHS tape from source material first captured onto Hi-8, employing jump cuts or simple fade-like transitions, (film-making effects equivalent to the silent film era) using consumer-grade analog mixers. Photo Video Box; Shuttle Rider Punch Card; Window; Terra Firma; Mild West; Baby Takes a Ride; 60% Acrylic; Earthenware Psychosis; Video Surveillance One; Locket; First Generation; Least Significant Digit; Trampoline Art; these titles you will never find on Netflix or at Blockbuster Video. And probably for good reason.

Today my JVC brand S-VHS editing VCR sits on its shelf in my office, adjoining the video monitor on a side table (a Commodore brand intended for use with the Commodore 64 computer), with the mixers on the table in front, all connected via a maze of coaxial cables. I will on occasion dust off the various components, and run a tape through the editing deck to ensure its innards remain in good working order. Down below, on the floor under the desk, is a plastic bin filled with old Hi-8 analog camera gear, board-style surveillance cameras, microphones, micro-cassette recorders and other miscellany of the now-arcane craft of analog video production.

There has been talk as of recent, within my home, of an impending reorganization and redecoration effort targeting my office, which resulting activities will no doubt cause me to reconsider the continued maintenance of this analog video production facility that remains little-used. I need to make a clear decision, whether to relocate said equipment, perhaps out to my unheated, garage-based darkroom, to recommence the outdated art of analog video production, or let it all go, for pennies on the dollar, to someone on Craig's List or Ebay, and call that whole decade of experimental tape production a closed chapter, never to reappear.

Meanwhile, time has passed and my brother, although he's continued to heal and slowly regain his sense of taste, retains some profound handicaps, having permanent double vision, no sense of smell, numbness in his face and Parkinson's syndrome due to the neurological damage; yet he has healed emotionally better than I, such being the power of forgiveness. It is never wise to take on the offense of others, even in a situation as dire as this, with a person as close as a brother can be.

It's hard to turn loose of the past, and its implements, to which one finds oneself so permanently affixed, especially when these implements and artifacts have been the aegis of a process of healing and personal creative growth. Life moves on, and so must I.


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