Monday, October 17, 2011

S/M: Chapter 25

I was recently writing a journal entry today and noted that it was my half birthday--28 1/2. It reminded me of something--28 1/2 Cuts--which is the name of the student film a character in my second novel creates. The event is the subject of the 25th chapter. I figured it was time to publish an excerpt from this novel. It is too rare of an opportunity. I hope you enjoy it.

Self-mutilation starts to seem tedious when you force yourself to follow a structure, and you find yourself simply filling in the blanks, finishing something just to finish it, as if it were a paper in college that you really didn’t know how to write, so you faked your way through it as best as you could, and you handed it in, and were content getting back a C, because you could be sure that next time, you would focus in the appropriate manner and get an A. Is that the way I feel about this confession, reader? It’s average, not excellent? I wonder what separates the average book from the excellent book. Is it an economy of style or God-like knowledge of all things? Is it a page-turner of a story, or is it something that could only affect the most isolated reader in a highly personal way in their heart? I don’t know—book reviewers confound me. What do they hope to get out of a book—something that makes their critical assignment more fun? Is it more fun to write a positive review that everyone will agree with, or a negative review which displays a higher taste for art than the masses would understand? Most book reviewers are authors themselves—so is it only that they know how hard the publishing process is and all of their reviews basically attack the notion of whether or not the book should have ever been published? No—that’s outside the scope. Their reviews describe whether or not the book is a successful work of art.
I say a successful work of art is something that unites rather than divides. Of course, what unification is possible amongst the isolated spectacles of printed words? The unification is dependent upon a reader’s fine memory, a reader’s articulation, and a reader’s professed enthusiasm for a text. Who among us can remember printed words verbatim as they are read silently to ourselves in our mind, and who among us can quote films or television shows with the utmost veracity and imitation of the actors annunciating the words for us? I feel very hopeless working in this medium. And all I wanted to talk about in the 25th chapter of this confession was how nobody had the same idea of fun as me.
Am I to recount the specific experience for you? It started with Robby calling me in February or March. I had seen him over Thanksgiving and Christmas, but now he was calling to tell me he was going to take a road trip out to California as his graduation gift. His mom said he could do it so long as he devised a budget for the trip and allowed her to approve it, seeing how much money he had to his name and how responsible he could be in an independent arrangement. I told him this was great, as I would be living in L.A. for the 1st half of the summer between my freshman and sophomore year. I would continue to live in Dykstra Hall at a rent significantly lower than typical L.A. housing and I would take my first filmmaking course where our final project would be our first black & white film without sound. Robby told me he was going to leave from Highland Park on June 10 and he hoped to be in L.A. by the afternoon of the 16th. He said he would stay for only a few days—he had to be back by the 26th because his budget would not allow for any more loafing than that. I would be leaving L.A. by the end of June, and flying home, and going to Martha’s Vineyard after a day or two for the rest of the summer. My parents had no interest in staying in Northbrook, and they were not going to let me stay by myself there. Better for them to keep a close eye on my expenses.
So Robby would be there either as I was shooting my film, or immediately after. I would be busy working on it, but it was also the only class I had to worry about. I figured that Robby would be happy to see my work and help me to improve upon it. Maybe he could even be used as an extra in the film, and divert my notions of what the film would be about. Whatever the case, he was still my closest friend from whom I could never keep any secrets, and I looked forward to his company in California. Under these very different circumstances, who knew what we might accomplish?
By the way, the rest of my freshman year was decent. All in all, I was happy I had made some good friends and I was happy people were treating me normally. It was the first time in my life nobody was putting up obstacles to my success. (Only now do I realize, the problem with that was, the success I could accomplish there meant nothing to anyone). Nick and I got along alright, and he went back to the O.C. for the summer, and I stayed in our room by myself. Jake also stayed in the dorms over the summer, and we were the only two people on our floor to stay past graduation ceremonies. A few other students came in for the summer and occupied a few other rooms on the floor. I looked forward to my first filmmaking class immensely.
Samantha and I had signed up at the same time for the class. She was the only person I knew in it from before. On the first day, our new instructor Professor Wazir, who insisted we call her Jackie, explained the way the class would unfold:
“All of your equipment will be rented out from our film department, and all of the expenses for your film usage have already been included in the additional fee for the course. The first week we will learn all of the mechanics of operating the camera with real film. We will not be using digital film in this course. You will learn the basics here, and you will probably never use the basics again. For the last ten years or so, digital has become more and more popular. First there were digital camcorders and then there were DV camcorders and people started saying, the hell with film, this camera costs $700 and you can tape over and over a digital file infinitely and save it on your computer. Celluloid is for purists, and if you are going to be filmmakers, you must at least grasp the foundations of filmmaking, the history, and the techniques of all those that came before you.”
“We will not be using sound in these films because that adds a level of complication to the scenario that I do not want you to worry about. Your films will be silent, and whatever stories you decide to tell must be communicated by wordless gestures, or, if you so choose (though I must admit many find it eccentric and unseemly) by way of letter cards. Your films will have a cap set at seven minutes, so you will have to be very precise about how long each shot is held for, and exactly what image you want to capture in order to tell your story. Some of you may be saying, ‘That’s so limiting, I want to use dialogue, I want to tell an amazing story!’ and to that I am just going to say two things. Number one, seven minutes is a lot longer than it seems for a silent film. Number two, I say you go write that amazing story, with dialogue, with a long-running-time, with everything, and then you figure out a way to tell it without sound, and in seven minutes.”
“By week eight, we will begin showcasing your films. And, while silent shorts are generally ignored by the ‘industry’ at large, if any of your films turn out to be, shall we say, revelatory, I will use my connections to submit it for consideration at next year’s Sundance film festival. And regardless, all of your films will be showcased in one sitting at the end of the course, which everyone in the UCLA community this summer will be invited to attend.”
We went around the room, saying our names, where we were from, and what our favorite movie was. When they got to me I said, “My name’s Oscar, I’m from Chicago, and my favorite movie is Secretary,” which wasn’t true, but which I just wanted to say. A few people in the class who had seen it laughed appreciably. When it got to Samantha she said, “My name’s Samantha, I’m from Las Vegas, and my favorite movie is Annie Hall,” which nobody found very funny. We left class and she asked what I thought my film might be about and I told her I had already been planning it for a year and I knew exactly what its story would be. I found it amazing that I had only thought of one idea for a movie and it was going to be highly appropriate to make that idea a reality.
That night I saw Jake and asked him if he would be my lead actor for the film. He said he would love to do it and then he asked me what the film was about. Of course, I knew what the film was going to be about—the kid who ran away from home to L.A. after the SATs, before college. But, in that moment when Jake asked me, I had a brief vision of saying, “It’s about a kid who cuts himself.”
So you see, reader, the seeds of this document date back to my first significant creative exercise. I knew it was the only story worth telling, the only story not to exist in a conventional framework. It could go anywhere and it could do anything. It could be like the movie Waking Life or Slacker—not in its subject matter, but in its redefinition of what a film could be. So what if this kid just keeps cutting himself? So what if that’s not an exciting enough plot—it’s reality, man! And art, art must mimic reality if we are to find it revelatory, if we are to feel it deeply in our hearts and minds. All the other boys and girls that cut themselves would seek it out and idolize it, the same way I idolized Secretary, because no other movie could be so bold as to take up such abnormal concerns—except that film had focused on it from the female perspective, which just seems like its easier for a mass audience to swallow, for some reason. No, I couldn’t make a movie out of it—it was too dark and uncomfortable for actors. Also, I didn’t yet know how the story would end. Reader! People complain about despairing circumstances being clich├ęd, but despairing circumstances can often reveal the artist’s consciousness in its totality.
But I told Jake about the runaway story and he said it sounded good. We started work on it immediately the next week. I recruited Professor Diminico to play Jake’s father, and his wife agreed to play the part of the mother. We could not use dialogue, so I had to show Diminico speaking vociferously at a dinner table, Jake looking down at his plate, and Mrs. Diminico regarding the scene with a look of extreme concern. The actions were exaggerated so the meaning could not be missed. I decided not to use word cards—I wanted there to be a greater challenge.
The dinner table scene was the first, and the second was a short shot of Jake with his head in an SAT Test Prep book. The third was a short scene meant to communicate a meeting with a guidance counselor—I also recruited Professor Lang to play this part. Jake was handed a sheet of paper with a list of unimpressive schools. This was the hardest part of the film for me. I didn’t want to offend anyone by saying they were bad schools. There was a key on the sheet that said 1 = reach, 2 = 50/50, 3 = safety. Northwestern University was at the top of the list with an unprecedented 1+, Beloit College had a 1, DePaul had a 1, UIC had a 1, Loyola had a 1, Northern Illinois University had a 2, Columbia College had a 2, and Oakton Community College had a 3. There was a long shot of this sheet of paper as if it were in an old Looney Tunes cartoon and the viewer was meant to process all the information therein contained.
The next scene showed Jake at a desk in the library, taking a standardized test meant to represent the SAT. I could not recreate test-like conditions, so I did my best to gain the support of everyone in the section of the library where we were filming to re-arrange themselves four to a desk and to appear to be focusing on a test. I had roughly sixteen people in the shot and it succeeded in creating the illusion.
Next I showed Jake receiving a letter of acceptance from Northern Illinois University. Then, laying on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, pondering. Then, packing a large backpack, slipping out of the house at night (Diminico was kind enough to let me use his house as well), walking down the street, sticking out his thumb, getting picked up.
It was difficult to create the illusion that Jake was traveling from Chicago to L.A. when we were filming it in L.A. in the middle of June. Luckily, the script had him leaving in May, so the weather was not the problem. It was the rolling hills of California and the flat plains of Illinois. We went beyond the valley, up and around the most distant suburbs of L.A. County, finding roads far from the freeway, far from the insane crowds, giving the illusion that we were in the desolate Middle West. We did not worry about showing the different rides Jake found while hitchhiking—a few different shots of him in the passenger side with changing scenery in the window was more than enough to suffice.
Finally we showed him arriving in Hollywood, of course utilizing that famous sign, and shot a couple L.A. landmarks, which our tour (documented in the “24” chapter) had inspired in us. He had to get a room at the YMCA, so we showed one of those facilities, which the owners were very kind in letting us film. We showed him going into the Cold Stone Creamery with a Help Wanted sign on the front—the one in the mall on Hollywood Blvd, right by the Chinese theaters. We showed him in uniform, scooping out the cake batter flavor into a cup. Finally, we had to intimate that he moved out of the YMCA and into an apartment, so we showed him moving his stuff into an apartment with one of his co-workers as a new roommate. Then, to complete the film, we used the unifying shot of him collapsing onto the bed, looking up at the ceiling, pondering.
I was so happy with this movie! Jake also found my vision very precise—he was very impressed that I had such a clear notion for my first film. How economically we had told such an epic story. The only thing left was to come up with a good title.
Robby had arrived in L.A. the day we were filming the final scene in Jake’s new apartment. He had driven the same teal Toyota Camry he always drove the two thousand miles to California. It occurred to me that I should have asked him to take some footage, which I could have spliced into the film—but I was using real film, not digital, and Robby did not have a camcorder that I knew of anyways. After the last shot, we went back to Dykstra Hall, and Robby put his stuff down in Nick’s old place. I told him I had to go into the editing room tonight to work on the film, and Robby asked if he could come along. I said of course, but it would be boring. He said he didn’t care because he was really interested to see my movie.
We ordered Domino’s after we had been holed up in the editing room for two hours. Robby was assisting me with artistic decisions. It was a very epic story that had to be told in a very short time, and some three or four minutes had to be cut to make the seven-minute restriction. Robby said to cut back on the L.A. landmarks montage—Jake was only going to be working at Cold Stone Creamery—he was not going to be living the stereotypical L.A. lifestyle as traditionally depicted in American cinema. Just that section of Hollywood Blvd. should have been emphasized, Robby said, because that was Jake’s world.
Sometime around 1 AM, we left the editing room and went back to the dorm. Robby said he had a surprise for me. I could guess what it was. The drug box. He took it out of his suitcase. It had been transferred to a shoe box. Inside were twenty-five pills of ecstasy, twenty-five tabs of LSD, five grams of coke, a half ounce of shrooms, an ounce of weed, and two grams of heroin. Robby had kept it almost perfectly halved. To be honest, I felt it was something of a burden, but I also knew I could make a lot of money off it. I thanked Robby at least ten times, showed him the bong I had bought in Venice Beach, we smoked some of the weed from the ounce bag, and we played XBOX 360 until we couldn’t keep our eyes opened. We went to bed sometime after 4:30, because it was one of those rare occasions that we were able to smoke at 4:20 AM.
Robby was going to be in town for the UCLA screening of all the student shorts, which was going to be happening in just a couple days. My film had been finished, and all that was left was to publicize its screening. And title it.
I thought about it for a while, and decided 28½ Cuts would be the best possible title. There were many different variations on why this worked. It had manifold associations. Namely:
-It was in many ways an updated version of Les Quatre Cents Coups, only with Jake being a few years older than Antoine Doinel, and in him never ending up in a detention center, and in it being in English, not French, and translated more appropriately by the word for the purposes of its creator.
-At 7 minutes, it was roughly 1/14th the length of that aforementioned film. Thus, if the number four hundred were to be divided by that total in order to concentrate the essence of the film into a more action-packed short, it would be twenty-eight and a half cuts.
-I edited the film to exactly twenty-eight and a half cuts after I decided on the title. It was not very hard. That was pretty much what I had. How did I accomplish the ½ cut—isn’t, isn’t that impossible? Perhaps, but I freeze-framed the final shot as an homage, to make it even more apparent if anybody couldn’t have caught the more obvious references. The freeze frame may actually be a full shot, but its finality contains an abruptness that gives the illusion of an abbreviated cut (not unlike the final image in Fight Club).
-It ended on 8 ½ which probably made people think it was going to be a Fellini homage. Actually there was really nothing reminiscent of that masterpiece. It was merely a mathematical truth that coincidentally leant itself to multiple film homage interpretations.
And the night before the premiere, when Robby was playing XBOX 360 in my dorm room and I was taking a shower, I cut a film canister right below the surfboard, using the pocket knife. It was a circular shape with three circular triangular shapes cut out. Rather intricate compared to many previously, but this cut had meaning. My first film had inadvertently become named after a number not far from how many times I had marked down a blade upon my skin. I wanted to get closer to that number. 28½. Could I devise an homage to myself when I reached that point, a la my “golden” cut? I didn’t want to think too much about it. The natural course of events often led to the basic conditions necessary for complicated psychic gestures. The film canister was an easy one, like a photograph or journal entry, to remember a time when I was very excited because I had created something that was now going to be let forth into the public, for everyone to dismiss or praise. The film was an integral part of my life—all I had claimed to be studying for had led up to it, and I had finally proven that all was not a waste. So this was actually more of a “tattoo” cut, not necessarily done in a time of great stress or depression or sadness, but when I was actually feeling good (was really high, actually), and I thought it would be cool to see what it felt like then.