Tuesday, October 28, 2008

László Moholy-Nagy, Tarkovsky, and Learning to See

I remember a conversation I had with my brother in the last months of my first year at college. I asked him if the Spring seemed markedly more stunning that year than in years past and I told him that, to my mind, blues were worlds deeper and reds vastly more red. I told him that things--all of it: a sky, a volvo station wagon, a sock, a donut--they were all coming together more beautifully than they had ever come together before. I remember thinking that the noise of the world was never so loud, so strangely and constantly present and I remember running on a trail through southern Minnesota prairie and being moved to some seriously silly tears thinking, Well, this is it. There is nothing more perfect. I asked my brother kind of self-consciously if it were possible that I was seeing, really seeing for the first time. I think, as remarkable as it sounds, this was true and I think it has a lot to do with watching movies.

I like this quote about László Moholy-Nagy from Michael W. Jennings' introduction to a book of Walter Benjamin's essays:

"For Moholy, the automatism of the camera lens is a crucial prosthesis, an extension of the range and power of the human visual apparatus that alone can reveal to human cognition new relationships between elements of the perceptual world. What Moholy is interested in here is not so much the representation of things as they are, not the true nature of the modern world but instead a harnessing of new media's potential for cognitive and perceptual transformation. Moholy's theories on photography as a technological prosthesis are inseparable from his anthropology; they remain rooted in a call for a continuous recasting of the human cognitive apparatus and the values and behaviors that are based upon it."

Moholy-Nagy was above all concerned with the "necessary relationship between technology, media, and the development of the human sensorium" and considered a work of art "productive" if it combined light, movement, emotions, and images to create a sensory experience that would teach us to see the world in new light. His famous question probably captures all of this best: "Space, time, material--are they one with light?" and it makes perfect sense he would make this piece from 1932 entitled Lightplay:

(For more on László, go ahead and visit with Fiona MacCarthy's article in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/mar/18/art.modernism)

Judging from my first impressions of Malick's The New World--recorded around the same time as my first realizations that I was fundamentally seeing the world differently--I was aware that watching movies was growing my perceptive ability and wreaking some big consequences for my life outside of the cinema and in the world. I wrote:

"Terrence Malick’s movies are meant to be seen on big screens, or maybe in the world all around us—in the sun and sky, in the people you love, and in the moments when our hearts are finally and truly struck. Is such an imposition of Malick’s vision on our daily lives impossible? Just an emotional fantasy of an overzealous moviegoer?"

I've been re-visiting and first-time viewing some Tarkovsky lately, and it feels like a million bucks for the same reasons Moholy-Nagy points out and for the same reasons Malick has had such a paramount impact on my little heart. I watch this stuff and I can feel the world shifting around me, some kind of perceptual tectonics.

Tarkovsky asks me,
What's the sound of rain! What's the sound of fire! How do they exist without their image parts?
What's the stuff of dreams! What's the stuff of life! What's a human being! Could it all be wind?
What does light do to the body! What power lies in water! What will it look and sound and feel like when the world falls apart?
What is 'empty' rendered tangible?
How can a movie be inside the world be inside a movie be inside the world be inside one movie?!


What can time do to our sense of something? Could speeding past the lights in a tunnel be a strip of film writ large? Don't wheels on pavement sound like taking off into outerspace and don't both of these things sound terrifying? Did we build something too harsh for us to live in?

Art teaches us how to perceive the world and this is a very small observation; of course we learn new ways to see, hear, and feel the world until the day we die. But in practice I think this just has to be the most exciting part of being alive.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Me and My Friend, Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio just flicked me off but it’s okay. I know he isn’t really mad. We just do this thing sometimes where we pretend to really hate each other’s guts, pretend to just stomp on each other’s hearts and not even care. But then by lunch break, at noon, which is in 32 minutes, then everything is back to normal and Leo D and I go get wine and sandwiches at PishPoshWich. That’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is. I shouldn’t have asked him about his long weekend anyway.

I’m an assistant to the assistant sound technicians for Martin Scorsese’s new picture, HalfBack. The one thing that I do, which is the same thing that two other assistants to the assistants do, is to make sure that all the signals from all audio sources are feeding without glitches or problems or any other interference type stuff. It’s a pretty okay job since the movie’s completely awesome. It’s all about big oil companies, hit men, and Scarlett Johansonn looking super pretty. In the end Leonardo DiCaprio steals Scarlett Johansonn away from the conniving and totally immoral Kevin Spacey.We’ve been filming for five weeks now, and Martin thinks things are going pretty well but that we might have to ‘rethink Leo’s action scenes--he looks too weak. He’s too wan and skinny to be leaping rooftops and jumping fences.’ Martin also thinks his wife is having a passionate love affair with Julianne Moore, but he can’t actually blame his wife because, if given the chance, he too would make love to Julianne Moore on the screened in porch while the spouse was away on business. I know all this because the microphones are always on and boom mics linger around and personal mics stay tucked and turned on inside jacket lapels even after scenes are cut so that when Martin chitchats or reveals his deepest darkest secrets to Spacey during breaks, I can hear just about everything. This is also how I know that at 2pm each day, Leonardo DiCaprio goes to the bathroom, unscrews his flask with a turn turn squeak squeak, takes two hard pulls of its contents, slaps the mirror with his palm, and sobs for 10 minutes.

Four weeks ago after one of these bouts, Leo D didn’t even bother to put some cold water on his eyes or pop an Altoid to cover the GrandDaddy Whiskey, and Spacey tried to have a conversation with him, saying stuff like, This happens to all of us. There’s a point when you’ve made it…and then you wonder, what next? And you have all this money and a society that trains you to spend it on booze, nice coke, and expensive prostitutes…But while Spacey was talking, Leo D was taking off his sandals and bending them in half so that they formed two big mouths in each of his hands, and then, right when Spacey was talking about expensive women, Leo D started opening and shutting the sandal mouths while saying “blahblahblah blah blahblahblah,” and then he screamed “shut the fuck up, Spacey! You don’t know anything about anything!” He screamed this in Spacey’s face and Spacey just looked to the side and shook his head slowly. And everybody was like, Who talks to Kevin Spacey that way? and What a jerk. Hollywood’s really chewed him up and spit him out. But I don’t know, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is. I think he’s still got a lot going for him. Because like, the Martin Scorsese cast him in HalfBack even though everybody said that Leo D was on his way out and all dried up with nothing more to give. Even though there are no pre-teen girls in love with Leonardo DiCaprio anymore and even though he’s in this total rough spot, Martin still gave him this sweet chance because I bet he remembers how great Leonardo DiCaprio can be. Leo D probably just needs to realize what he’s got and also stop crying in the bathroom with GrandDaddy.
There are two blonde girls named Mandy who hold clipboards and hover over Martin. One of the Mandys I think has extremely limited on-set responsibilities and this is the one that whispers into Martin’s ear and then he claps his hands together five times and stands up to tell us “Break for an hour. Back at 1:00 with scene 10, Leo’s entrance.” As usual, Leonardo DiCaprio goes in the back and takes off his suit and his loafers but keeps his white undershirt on. He puts on a pair of jeans and his sandals and then goes outside to lean against his trailer, light a cigarette, and wait for me to come out of the studio.
“Hey man.” I trot toward Leo D and think about which sandwich I’m gunna get.
“Samuel, why don’t you cut your hair man?” Leo D squints because the sun is in his eyes and he taps the ash off his cigarette.
I touch my layered brown curls, “This is nerd-chic, Leo! This is hot right now and you know it. Yesterday this really beautiful girl mistook me for the guy from The Strokes!”
He grins and he grinds out his cigarette on the smooth white paneling of his trailer and says, “Yeah okay. You smell like thrift store and don’t eat meat, so it all fits I guess.”
“Well, now, I mean…,” I start to mumble with the idea of talking about putting people into boxes, and how being judgmental is fun, especially when you’re hanging with Leo D, but then how maybe it isn’t very productive or nice in the long run. But, again, I don’t think I could actually go through with saying this to Leonardo DiCaprio especially when he’s about to buy me a sandwich and a glass of wine, and, once again, I don’t get the chance because he says,
“Let’s walk, we’ve only got 46 minutes,” and lights another cigarette.
After the Spacey-sandals incident, Martin stopped inviting

Leo D back to his private room where every lunch break, only a select group enjoys big jokes and a fine glass of wine from Martin’s very own basement-cellar. But, Leo D being Leo D, he tried to get back there anyway and that’s when I saw Scarlett Johansonn turn, stomp on Leo D’s toe, and slam the door behind her. Then, Leonardo DiCaprio held his foot in his right hand and stared at the shut door that muffled a shrill Scarlett Johansonn laugh and the classic three claps and deep chuckle from Martin Scorsese. I was trying to look busy putting away the assistant to the assistants’ headphones, but then I just blurted out, “Leo, do you wanna maybe get a sandwich?,” which was totally defying all this tacit and also not so tacit on-set etiquette!
Leo D was kind of limping down the hall because Scarlett Johansonn had been really serious and was also wearing heels. As soon as I said what I said, I was really nervous, and to make it worse Leo D repeatedly punched the air with both arms and both middle fingers as he limped away down the hall. A totally classic Leo D move, if I ever saw one. But then the next day, he was leaning against his trailer and chain smoking when I got out of the studio at 12:07. He yelled at me but I just shoved my hands in my pockets and kept walking because, like, he’d flicked me off so incredibly hard the day before.
But Leo D put out his cigarette and yelled, “Hey, I’m talking to you with those tight-ass jeans and pretty high-tops.”And I’m all like, oh shit, Leo D is yelling about my high tops! So I turned and was like, “oh, hey, Leo, hi.”
Leonardo DiCaprio walked towards me and he sheltered another cigarette from the wind as he lit it. He kept walking when he got to me but said, “What’s your deal?,” as he passed me so I knew to follow him.
“Umm. I dunno. My name is Samuel. I’m a sound techie for your movie…” I looked up and saw in the arch of his eyebrows that Leo D liked it when I said your movie, “and I’m wasting pretty much everything I’m earning on sandwiches and wine at this ritzy shop around the corner because I can be confident that PishPoshWich lists their peanut related products, unlike those bullshit caterers in there…,” here Leo D kind of smiled and nodded as he took a long drag, “and I dunno, I guess I’m just trying to make it or something.”

“That’s my whole thing too,” said Leonardo DiCaprio and then we walked into PishPoshWich and Leo D bought me my hot pepper and humus sandwich and we split the most expensive bottle of wine.
The cool thing is that it didn’t end there. Because Martin, Spacey, and Scarlett had formed this Leo-hating clique and they kept bringing more and more people into it. Even people that didn’t matter, like the second Mandy clipboard girl. They just wanted to make sure that the whole set knew that if you mocked Kevin Spacey and screamed in his face when he’s just trying to impart some of his totally awesome wisdom, well then you’re asking for a world of trouble. So Leonardo DiCaprio and I just hung out each and every lunch hour. And we talked about everything! I talked about getting the shit kicked out of me every one of my 12 years in the Los Angeles public school system and Leo told me about the torture he went through with all that totally harsh Titanic fanaticism. One time, Leonardo DiCaprio told me about when he did a line off of Madonna’s gold plated cigarette case in the women’s bathroom at the 1997 Academy Awards and about how him and Madonna still joke about it when they cross paths and also how we all could go out sometime maybe.

One Friday night we got off work at 8:00 and I went to the bus stop that’s four blocks from our studio to wait for the 8:24 bus, but then Leo D drove by in his really hot Jaguar and was all like, I’m going to meet Toby Maguire downtown at 10:00 but I have an hour to kill so do you wanna hang with me? And just to be too cool I was like, Mmm, I don’t know, I got a thing at home maybe. But then Leo D totally called my bluff and started to drive away! Yeah, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is. So I jumped up off the bench and caught up to the Jag and he unlocked the door.
Going out for drinks with Leonardo DiCaprio was pretty sweet but I felt kind of stupid carrying my backpack into such a stellar, red carpet kinda place. Leo D got me wasted on Maker’s Mark shots and when Billy Crystal came into the bar he pointed and winked at me and Leonardo DiCaprio. We were just two cool guys having some nice drinks after work and it was really nice. But then Leo D had to run so he slapped Billy Crystal on the back and took off, which was kind of hard because I felt pretty totaled and blurry eyed and I didn’t know what buses connected to that part of downtown. So I just got a cab but it cost me $42 to get home which is way more than I spend on bus fair in a week. But it was okay because I got home and the next morning I got to write down the parts that I remembered in my blog.

Today, we sit in our booth and I order the cheese and avocado, but Leo D claims he isn’t hungry. He orders us two bottles of wine instead. I’m like, “Leo, you’re gunna be hungry later and also totally wasted if you don’t eat anything now.”
“Yuck Samuel, I hate it when you act like my mother. If I wanted to hear from her, then I’d pick up the phone and interrupt her codeine cocktail hour and ask her if I should eat a fucking sandwich right now.” I kind of laugh but he just pours a glass of wine and drinks it pretty fast. I try to figure out in my head if it will be possible to drink all that wine in the remaining 34 minutes of our lunch break but as I’m working it out, I realize Leo D has already downed another glass and so I have to have complete faith that he will polish off the bottles. We sit in silence and I wanna ask him about his long weekend, but this is the subject that earned me a cross-the-set Fuck You earlier this morning.

This is the Monday after a four-day weekend in which Spacey went to his house in Maine with his wife and kids, Scarlett went to her Montana ranch to ride horses and exchange backrubs with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Martin Scorsese drank martinis with Quentin Tarantino in New York for 72 hours straight. I took advantage of this sweet time off by going home to my apartment and drinking nice beer, watching TV with my really sweet cat Paws II, and not getting ordered around for four days.But all of this was topped by Leo D who had, according to all these Tabloids, plus People Magazine, USWeekly, and the TV “taken L.A. by storm in a self-destructive whirlwind that landed him alone at 4am outside his Beverly Hills mansion having lost his mind, even more of Hollywood’s respect, and $800,000.”
On Sunday night I was watching TV with Paws II, who is this really special and beautiful orange cat I adopted, and we snuggled up and hunkered down for one of our favorite shows which is Entertainment Tonight. And oh man, we saw all these pictures of Leo D puking in the bushes outside of all the hot spots in L.A.. We also saw photos of the wrecked limo which he drunkenly drove home while his driver was smoking pot with Lindsay Lohan. E.T. also did this really impressive montage thing where they spliced together videotape of my friend, Leo D, arriving home on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. The videotape was in that green-tinted night vision and the wind was blowing branches in front of the camera lens but you could still see what was going on. Thursday night he threw up on his doorstep with one infamous Hollywood blonde under each of his arms. A giant red stamp that said “STRIKE OUT” pounded onto the screen. I winced and Paws II shifted positions. The footage from Friday night was almost the exact same picture but this time with two infamous Hollywood brunettes. Another E.T “STRIKE OUT” stamped onto the screen. Then Paws II and I saw the Saturday night footage where Leo D drove up in his limousine with David Bowie coming hard and loud through the speakers. We saw Leo D drive into his front porch at fifteen miles an hour. The airbag exploded and the car steamed out of its dented front for ten seconds and then the door opened and Leo D rolled out of the seat and onto the pavement. He crawled away from the car in this slow way where his head hung down and his blonde hair dangled in his eyes. He crawled to a lamppost on the walkway to his front door and curled his body around it. There were some nonsense words that he yelled when he was pulling off his shoes, his pants, his shirt, his underwear. I could tell by the white numbers at the bottom of the camcorder screen that the cameraman filmed for at least two hours and seven minutes but E.T. did a nice job of splicing it so you got the highlights: Leonardo DiCaprio throwing his pants and screaming “Spacey’s a … bitch…face,” Leo D peeing all over himself and asking the lamppost to “come on, help a guy out,” and finally, Leonardo DiCaprio crying violently and lying naked, his arms and legs spread wide, hugging the sidewalk. The big red ‘STRIKE OUT’ hit the screen again. Paws II and I turned off the TV and sat in silence. Then I took out my cell phone and looked up Leonardo DiCaprio’s phone number because I have it. I called but he didn’t pick up. I called again but he was probably sleeping off his totally intense weekend. That’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is.

We have eight minutes until we have to be back and Leo D is still working on the wine and I have had three glasses myself so we are both drunk enough that I can ask, “Hey, how do you feel about that totally nuts-o weekend you had, Leo?”
Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes narrow when he looks at me across the table and he thumps his fist down in these slow thumps when he says, “I don’t know what the big deal is, because,” Leo pauses way too long after this because right now he is too drunk to know what the effective length of a dramatic pause is, “because that is who I am now…that is what I do now. And they just…they were just there to see it this time.” Leonardo DiCaprio’s vowels are too long and slow for him to be able to deliver Martin Scorsese’s lines when we’re back at the studio in 8 minutes. Even though I’m tipsy, I’m getting a little nervous about this. It will just give Martin, Spacey, Sacarlett, the rest of their clique, and the rest of Hollywood more ammo! Leo keeps digging himself further into this hole!
“Yeah totally, Leo. I hope you’re not beating yourself up too much over this because these kind of weekends happen to everyone and it’s just that there are all these total jerks with camcorders snooping from your bushes and also hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of jerky-Americans who will eat it up on Sunday’s Entertainment Tonight. So like, it’s cool,” I wait for a second but then decide to go ahead and ask, “But, I mean, are you ashamed at all?”
“What the fuck, Samuel?” People in the restaurant are turning and looking at Leo D because he has his arms raised and he said the ‘fuck’ part really loudly. “This isn’t even any of your business. Don’t ask me, Samuel, if I am a…a…ashamed about my own business, that is my own business…and not your business, Samuel!” Leonardo DiCaprio is super drunk and totally screaming at me during PishPoshWich’s busiest hour. I was just asking if Leo D was ashamed because I think that if he did feel just a little bit of shame, just a little bit at all, then maybe he wouldn’t do so much stuff that kept him sad and drunk all the time. But Leo D totally doesn’t get that I’m not trying to be his mom or something but that I was only starting to talk about shame because I’m just trying to be his friend! It feels totally shitty that Leo D does not get this. But, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is.

Leo walks back to the studio and goes really fast and swings his arms a lot because he’s so ticked off. I follow behind him and I keep my head down and my hands in my pockets since it’s totally stressing me out that my friendship with Leonardo DiCaprio is on the rocks. I walk and mope and wonder what’s gunna happen to us. Then I remember this one time at lunch where Leo D told me a joke that went like, The other night I took this chick out to dinner. I had the Eggplant Parmesan. She had the Polish Sausage.’ Did I mention that I’m Polish?! I didn’t get the joke but I laughed anyway and then finally I did get the joke and I thought it was pretty disgusting and had to reassure myself that it was just a joke and probably not a reflection of how Leo D actually treated women in real life. But I just kept laughing, even though I thought all those things, I kept laughing anyways.

I get to the studio and I’m glad to be back because scene 10 is this brilliant restaurant scene where Spacey and Scarlett are having dinner and all like pretending to be a happy couple even though they’re not because Scarlett is secretly totally in love with Leonardo DiCaprio. And then Leonardo DiCaprio comes into the restaurant! And he sits at a table near them! And the scene gets super awkward because Scarlett and Leo D are trying not to let Spacey know about their affair but it’s hard for them because they are so in love.

We start from Leo’s entrance in scene 10 and even though Hair & MakeUp had at him for 15 minutes, Leonardo DiCaprio looks grey and gross. I check the signals on the personal mics and fix the faulty connection for the Boom over Scarlett and Spacey’s dinner table and when I put on my headphones, I absolutely catch Scarlett and Spacey in mid conversation.
Scarlett says, “He smells like late nights in Venice. No, no, close but not quite. Ah, he smells like sad people at weddings.”
Spacey shifts over so he can see Leo D leaning against a tensed-up Extra and snapping at his heavily eye-linered assistant Lacey to get him a cigarette. Spacey tells Scarlett, “He looks strange. He’s depressing. He needs help.”
When Martin says ‘Action,’ the Extra elbows Leonardo DiCaprio in the rib cage because Leo D doesn’t even realize what’s going on. But then his eyes get big and shoot over to Martin and Leonardo DiCaprio kind of snaps back into the moment and gives the Extra this big shove and then walks into camera one’s view with all this confidence. Leo makes it to the restaurant table but falls into the chair in this really awkward way and Martin says to do it again. The next take Leo D trips and the next take he sits in the wrong chair and in the next take he giggles the whole time and Martin then asks if someone could please get Leo a glass of water. For all these seconds nobody moves, not even Leo D’s assistant Lacey, which is definitely stupid because I’m sure ‘Water For Leonardo DiCaprio’ is totally in her job description. So I take off my headphones and wait one more second and then one more second and then bring Leo D my water bottle. I don’t like that I’m the only one who would bring Leo D water. And I also think it’s sad that right now I really hate bringing Leonardo DiCaprio water. After that lunch where he got so mad at me for nothing, should I even do my friend Leo D a favor? And then, with totally wasted eyes, he looks up at me walking over and the whole set is murmuring and minding their own business and Leo D kind of smiles at me. And his half-smile makes me want to help him again because sometimes he appreciates stuff and sometimes he’s a fun friend. I hold out the water bottle to him. But I totally didn’t realize the smile was a smirk. Leonardo DiCaprio just stares at the water bottle and keeps smirking. He doesn’t take it and instead he just says, “Who...the fuck…do you think you are?”
I stand and look at Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes, which are also looking at my eyes but his have slow blinks that cover them sometimes. I want to scream at him and tell him that over all these weeks he’s been pretty selfish about stuff and even though it was still totally fun and still totally worth it, well now here, in this moment when I’m a) just following Martin Scorsese’s directions and b) also just being a real friend to you, well then you should probably clean up your act and, like, find some respect for me or something. But I just drop the water bottle and stand there and stare at him for three more seconds until Martin calls, “Let’s try this again.”
In the next take, Leo D sways during his entrance but gets to the table. He gets to the table just in time to hear Scarlett say, “fucking ridiculous,” under her breath and Leonardo DiCaprio turns to tell her off but instead he just pukes all over. She screams because it’s on her and her dress and Spacey jumps up from the table so that his chair falls over and then Martin yells at the top of his lungs, “Leo’s done!”
I decide that I need a breath of fresh air because I know we won’t get going again for a while, maybe not even until Toby Maguire signs on to the role which might have to be after the next Spiderman, and because it smells a lot like red wine throwup in the studio. I go outside onto this sunshiny patch of pavement right next to the studio and I sit cross-legged on the ground and hold my chin in my hands. I’m looking at my shadow on the sidewalk and how the silhouette of my mop of hair looks kinda funny and kinda nice on the white pavement. The door opens behind me and I turn to see Leo D stagger outside. He changed his clothes but forgot to put on a shirt and his face is contorted and he’s flailing his limbs around like a total crazy. Leo D swears a lot and finds his keys in his jeans pocket and then walks right past me without even noticing, and I look up at him but he just makes his way to his Jag and climbs in. Leo D doesn’t see me! Me, Samuel, who’s spent so many lunch breaks with him and supported him through all his wild and totally serious shit. And he just climbs into his Jag totally out of it and he’s so drunk he’s probably gunna crash it and kill himself on the way home. But I guess, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is.