Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

The Velvet Curtain

September 19, 2011

One summer day in 1982 in a giant harshly lit too air-conditioned hall Lhary Meyer and I stood in front of a dark blue velvet curtain adorned with a large sign reading StereoGraphics Corp.  We stood behind a similar dark blue velvet cloth draped over a tabletop covered with our demonstration gear featuring a 19-inch CRT monitor that was big and murderously heavy to pack and unpack and to schlep especially in its godzillan case. We had the smallest booth money could buy and no seniority so we got stranded in a corner away from the main Siggraph action. We didn’t know it but we were showing flickerless 3-D images and the antecedent of CrystalEyes, the foundations of the electronic stereoscopic industry.  We were demonstrating tethered visors with electro-optical shutters through which one could see a stereoscopic image on that big monitor with a small screen.  Getting decent quality demo images was not easy because we did not have customers so we had to scrounge for stereopairs from contacts all over the country; we had stereoscopic weather maps and a random assortment of still images.

Lhary, our vice president of technology, was the first employee of StereoGraphics; there were only five or six of us then. Lhary (his spelling) was a good electronics designer who was self-taught without having gone to college.  He had been the youngest engineer to work at the ABC radio network responsible for the cross country feed. Lhary had a calm disposition and sonorous voice and he wore thick tortoiseshell glasses; although I do not think Lhary and I looked alike people would often mistake us for brothers.  The glasses and the beards were enough; just a couple of hippie anarchists spreading the gospel of 3-D.

We were alone in the hall; that is to say there were no other stereoscopic displays. Lhary and I waited for people to stop by and tell us what they thought of our wares.  Not all of them were polite; a number of people would say things like 3-D! ha! ha! pretty good for pornography or maybe you should have a giant gorilla sticking its hand out of the screen.

No matter what kind of crap was on display in the hall I cannot believe that it was greeted with outright disdain, disbelief, incredulity, and hostility; those reactions went on for years.  But after Silicon Graphics and Evans and Sutherland adopted our products we eventually had a large booth and because of the years of standing behind little tabletops we had seniority so our booth was adjacent to the likes of Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems. The mockery ceased. At one time I counted 40 booths in the hall at Siggraph featuring our products.

We looked like one of the big player, and in fact we had enabled a significant industry whose revenue could be reckoned at a few hundred million but we were only a $5 million company.  That was because many people were selling hardware and software-based on our products but we were considered to be a computer peripheral and we could not figure out how to properly monetize the value of our technology.

Lhary died a few years later but he did live long enough to see us gain acceptance.  I did scores of tradeshows after Lhary was gone but persistent into the beyond he stood next to me and calmly answered questions. Now the technology we developed is in use not only for cinemas but also in the home.  A couple of years ago I thought acceptance had come.  The stereoscopic medium was saving the film industry!  There were going to be 3-D TVs in every home! But now I am having bummer flashbacks behind the velvet (probably velour) tabletop once again flinching because of the barrage of articles in the press decrying the stereoscopic medium. It’s a seemingly unending stream of complaints about 3-D movies and television. The movies are dark, conversion is no good, the movies aren’t making money, 3-D TV is DOA because of the need for glasses and no content.

Today when I read what the skeptics have to say, so outspoken in their loathing of the technology, I have visions of the brothers Lhary and Lenny, standing in front of the velvet curtain, taking it on the chin for 3-D.

George Kuchar

September 16, 2011

In 1964, when I had been at Popular Photography only a few months, I was given the job of editing the movie section, an editorial sop to the ads that were run for 8mm cameras, projectors, and film, and for Super8, after it was introduced.  The movie section consisted of two or three articles a month — mostly mundane stuff like how-to film your pets or kids. I was discontented with such content and began to run stories about people in the New York filmmaking scene, which amazingly, the boss let me do.  I ran one story about Bronx filmmakers, brothers George and Mike Kuchar. who worked in 8mm.  They were narrative filmmakers who made over-the-top productions that were parodies of feature films and television shows that were satirical and anguished views of American culture.  The films were good – funny and moving and sweet natured and crude and sophisticated simultaneously.  The Kuchars were expressing themselves perfectly because, as I got to know them, I realized that there was no disconnect between what was on the screen and who they were. They were a couple of kooky young brothers who were living at home with their parents.  I lived in a dingy railroad flat on the upper Eastside of Manhattan in Germantown. I had access to movie gear including projectors and editing stuff and George would come by to screen his movies. And so we became friends.

I remember laughing so hard with George that I had to fight for breath.  I remember one occasion when George laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair.  Bob Christgau (now a music critic) and I ran a screening room, The Eventorium, on W. 100th St. near Broadway. We had open screenings (bring a movie and we’ll show it) on Friday nights that caught on and well-known underground filmmakers, if that is not contradiction, would attend. We had a couple hundred people packed in this little room watching movies.  Once Gregory Marcopolis showed up and I kept his $2 admission check as a souvenir. We were part of the underground or independent film scene and at that time an independent filmmaker was not somebody who made a feature hoping it would be a stepping stone to a Hollywood career. The term referred to a countercultural artist who either ignored or despised the film industry and wished to pursue an alternative path.  These were experimental filmmakers who were trying to find a way to express themselves beyond the theatrical cinema narrative structure – that was the doctrine. Cinema is capable of many things and only one of them is telling stories.  George and his brother Mike resembled today’s independent filmmakers because they told narratives and were developing their own sensibility, not any wilder than that of John Waters or Tim Burton.  George was a loony guy but he knew exactly what he was putting on the screen.  He was a fine comedian. I suppose Hold Me While I’m Naked is considered his Masterpiece.

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and a year later George came out.  There was a flourishing underground film scene in the Bay Area just as there was a flourishing underground film scene in New York.  The New York scene centered around The Filmmakers Cooperative which is located on the lower East side and the scene in the Bay Area centered around Canyon Cinema Co-op which at that time was located in Earl Bodine’s apartment in San Francisco near the Bay Bridge.  In New York there were filmmakers like the painterly Stan Vanderbeek and Ed Emshwiller, and sybaritic Jack Smith, who were championed by the indefatigable Jonas Mekas in his Village Voice column.  Jonas was the glue that kept the scene together. His diatribes awakened me to the independent filmmaking movement.  An odd movement it was since the filmmakers were so different stylistically.

In the Bay Area there were filmmakers Robert Nelson, part of the Funk Movement, the lyrical filmmakers James Broughton and Bruce Baillie, and collagist Bruce Connor. Canyon Cinema started as a screening society and became a co-op distributor. Under its auspices screenings took place starting in the little Bay Area community of Canyon and then migrated to San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church. The screenings were organized by Emery Menefee, a chemist with the United States Department of Agriculture. Emery was the editor of Canyon Cinema News and once a month or so some of us pitched at his house in Richmond and assembled the News to ship to the membership. The screenings at Glide were raucous. Once there was a man who would not shut up during a film and Bruce Connor, who sat in the row in front of him, turned around and punched the guy in the face; a response that was in excess of the crime. But haven’t you wanted to do it?

My part in this was writing a weekly film column for the Berkeley Barb underground newspaper and making films of my own. It was a great time of my life and a time of community when George arrived on scene.  He stayed with me for a bit and I showed him around and he liked the scene. He helped me with a film I was working on, Below the Fruited Plain.  He added a voice-over track transforming a mundane how-to-do it film, on sandal making (shades of Popular Photography), into the story of a broken marriage. He went home to the Bronx and then returned to stay. And one day after George had been in the Bay Area for a while a friend of his from New York and he dropped by my apartment and the decisive event in our relationship occurred. I do not know how we got onto the topics area but his friend launched into a diatribe against black people. It was a fulsome vituperation and I yelled at the guy telling him he was racist and a jerk. That ended the visit and, as George was leaving, he said to me: “You bit Bob’s head off.”

From that day, until the day George died only a few days ago, we never spoke again. I would see George at screenings and try to say hello but he would avoid me. I wonder if shouting at the dope was the right thing to do?  He was a guest.  Should I have let it pass? Was the response worse than the offense, like Conner’s punch? Sure, I thought I was on the side of the angels but was it worth it?

George I will miss you but I have been missing you for the past 45 years.

Remembering Chris Condon

January 3, 2011

I was manning the Super 8 Sound booth at a tradeshow (the name of which escapes me) in the mid-70s in Los Angeles. Set up in one corner of the booth were two Super 8 projectors mechanically interlocked showing 3-D movies on a small screen.  As people came by they put on cardboard glasses to have a look. The movies had been shot with a Super 8 rig of my devising. (more…)

Dark Country — An Interview with Thomas Jane

August 28, 2010

This unedited interview was recorded a couple of years ago at the Shanghai Grill in Beverly Hills.

LL:  What gave you the idea of shooting a 3-D, I’ll call it a horror movie?

TJ:  Let’s call it a thriller.

LL:  It’s a thriller.  Because “horror movie” is wrong.  Today it means gore.

TJ:  Yeah, this is much more…  a psychological thriller.  And the idea of exploring some psychological issues in the vein of film noir, where the heroes are typically conflicted psychologically and are working out some deep personal issues… For me, shooting the film stereoscopically was an allusion…  The depth in the picture gave me a chance to explore depth in filmmaking.  In other words, I felt like I could heighten the symbolism that’s inherent in the dreamlike narrative of film noir, with a heightened sense of depth and using the visuals in a way that would cast them in relief, bring some of the visuals to the foreground, and allow me to explore psychological issues in a visual way.  (more…)

The Godfather

August 26, 2010

Winter 1970: An expansive, charming, portly, and jovial Francis Coppola and sidekicks sat behind me in the North of Market screening room at American Zoetrope, San Francisco. Francis was talking excitedly, leaping upward to cast shadows on the screen, while my Peoples’ Park film, Let a Thousand Parks Bloom, was projected much too large and much too close for its little 16mm frame.  But  it’s Hollywood by the Bay, so go with the flow. Francis pointed out parts of the film that might be of interest to Zoetrope because he was planning to produce a film about the painful aftermath of People’s Park.  In particular, during a military/police action in downtown Berkeley (Headline: Pigs Hate Park), several hundred people were arrested, taken to Santa Rita Prison, made to lie in the sun for a day, and roughed up by the sheriff’s deputies. The people who’d been arrested had been ordinary citizens for the most part; a postman delivering the mail, people out shopping, and others going about their business, and mixed in with the common folk were commie hippie scum.  (more…)

THE FILM FROM HELL

August 25, 2010

The first money my new company StereoGraphics made in 1981 was from my consulting fees working on a 3-D movie called Rottweiler: Dogs from Hell.  Chris Condon, the president of StereoVision International (which was a Burbank-based supplier of stereoscopic optics for the motion picture film industry), and StereoGraphics formed a venture called Future Dimensions, in which I would help market his line of lenses and provide consulting expertise.  (more…)

Growing up with the Movies

August 19, 2010

My father worked at a mail order novelty company. Customers could by things like artificial doggy doo, soap that would turn your hands and face black, X-ray glasses, cheap magic tricks, and custom imprinted pencils.  My father operated the pencil machine that stamped words on wood, like Club Apache.  When I was in the second grade he brought home a 16mm projector from the mail order company that was a small toy of a machine that used an ordinary light bulb.  It projected a dim image on the wall and my recollection is that it had no shutter so there was a lot of travel ghost — but it didn’t matter.  (more…)

The Dreams of Childhood

August 15, 2010

I saw the first CinemaScope movie The Robe, which was billed as “3-D without glasses” at the Loew’s Pitkin.  It was three-dimensional in the sense that it had the usual monocular depth cues, but it wasn’t stereoscopic.  At that time the public, the press, and the marketing people used the term “3-D” to denote stereoscopic movies.  CinemaScope had a wider picture that could involve peripheral vision and for sure required a different kind of composition.  It was a simplified version of Cinerama which required three projectors which were out of the question for normal cinemas.  I was dumbstruck by the panorama and splendor of  The Robe; I loved seeing Richard Burton and Jean Simmons striding off through the clouds to the Christian heaven created by Jewish business men.  I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I know it has a plodding pace and shots whose long duration is exacerbated by their proscenium arch composition.  At that time the industry believed that rapid cutting or close ups in the Scope format just could not work and would be disorienting.  It’s the kind of caution advocated today for 3-D cinematography and post.  Long or medium shots and little or no panning were the order of the day, but forward camera motion was acceptable since it mimicked the roller coaster section of This is of Cinerama. (more…)

AT THE MOVIES II

August 13, 2010

But mostly it was cowboy movies at the People’s Cinema – Ken Maynard and the like – and some bizarre characters:  Toothless loveable geezer stooge Fuzzy Knight sitting around the campfire, and some cowboy who had a dummy – a cowboy ventriloquist (talk about an oddity, yet there it was), and  Gene Autry or Roy Rogers breaking into song.  I was a Roy Rogers kid at first but broke ranks. But I became converted to Gene Autry with his Radio Ranch serials, which were a combination of science fiction and the Wild West, like the TV series Wild Wild West or Firefly. The Gene Autry serials concerned the goings on in the underground city of Murania, and Gene and his radio cast would ride across the range after Muranians who wore helmets that looked like paint pails.  A giant trapdoor opened in the side of a mountain and in ran the riders, and Gene figured out how to get in there and then bravely descended in an elevator thousands of feet to the underground city.  It was there that Gene had many adventures confronting the Queen of Murania, and other people who wore leftover costumes from Biblical epics.  How wild it was, what a strange and weird time I had at the movies, and how much I loved it – and still do.  Best of all was the episode when Gene was brought back from the dead only to be speaking in reverse, a side effect that cured itself in time. A small price to pay for being reborn. (more…)

AT THE MOVIES I

August 11, 2010

The first clear recollection I have of going to the movies was with my mother going to the Ambassador Theatre on Saratoga Avenue in Brooklyn.  I was three or four years old when I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (more…)