Sunday, May 30, 2010

On Location, Day Two

A 12-hour day, most of it spent waiting around in a seasonally-inappropriate costume, sweating out the day.

We shot outdoor scenes today around the house that is the setting for most of the film. The neighborhood is full of irrigation canals loaded with water, and today most of the yards were flooded, including the back yard where we are working. By sunset, the mosquitos were lively.

Despite a number of small problems that caused delays, we stayed on schedule and even had time to sneak in an extra shot.

In one little room of the house, someone has already started editing scenes, and invited me to watch one of mine. I accepted with trepidation, as I have a hard time looking at myself on video, but watched and was surprisingly pleased with my work although of course I gave myself quite a few notes.

We wrapped after we lost the sunshine, giving me enough time to drive the hundred miles home, where I arrived just in time to see my boy to sleep. (He fell asleep on my shoulder clutching the train someone had given him as a gift today. He is still sleeping with it as I write.)

Back tomorrow for more.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On Location, Day One

Arriving for my first day on location in El Paso, I found someone's home in a quiet riot of film equipment, props, food, laptop computers, scattered everywhere. A small crew of about a dozen and a couple of actors welcomed me and quickly ducked back into frenzied preparation. The sun was beginning to set and every minute was expensive.

Even so, the mood was happy. The week had gone well, I was told by various people. Apparently the worst mishap occurred during a scene where the heroine and the younger lead male break into a house by smashing a window with a brick. The window pane was far tougher than anticipated, requiring several assaults before the brick finally destroyed the glass and landed square in the director's chest.

Preparation and performance are both very different when working for camera instead of on stage. Being a theatre guy all my life, the film set is still an unfamiliar environment. The friendly atmosphere helps, with everyone moving briskly yet cheerfully along, and the director making decisions quickly and calmly; and, happily, giving the actors the best kind of notes: short, specific, and clear. "A little faster," he might tell me, letting me work it out myself. "Look from him to her, check them both out." I love notes like this.

We worked outdoors until we lost the sunlight. At times, the crew had to rearrange lights, camera, and dollies with all the speed of the Keystone Kops, yet the director sauntered around calmly, teasing his crew and gently deflecting the entreaties of his A.D. to move things even faster.

For the most part, when we had to stop it was because of the sounds around the neighborhood or the nearby freight train. Can't really have these ambient sounds in an end-of-the-world movie.

The other two actors were well prepared and focused, so our work went smoothly.

At one point, the actor playing our heroine squawked in protest. A bird had just crapped on her. Makeup was summoned to her rescue, restoring her dignity (and hair and makeup) in a jiffy.

We lost the sunlight at last, and moved indoors to film a kitchen scene. The lighting for this shot seemed to take forever, but I snuck a peek at the director's monitor and the effect is well worth it. Well past eight o'clock at night, we began shooting the scene, which takes place in the morning. With some deft lighting, they created the effect of morning sunshine coming through slatted windows as the other two actors cook breakfast. It's an impressive illusion.

Sometime before ten o'clock, the director called it quits for the night -- early enough for me to drive back to Deming. Back in my own bed by midnight.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bye-bye, MMG.

For a long time, the most popular feature of this blog has been the "Monday Morning Gabriel" series, wherein I post pictures of my son, Gabriel.

This was not only out of familial pride, though I am certainly a proud papa. There is also some aesthetic value -- he's a lovely child, really: a blonde-haired and blue-eyed boy with a soulful face that often reminds me of the putti from the art of the rinascimento. (Art that I love and find a great comfort, to which I return constantly, and now I can look at this boy and see that beauty everywhere he steps.)

One image I love was taken when he was a year old, in our backyard garden, turning his upper body around to look through the distance over the photographer's head in a beautiful pose. He is wearing a Led Zeppelin onesie and jeans. His body is long and lithe. It's a timeless, beautiful picture -- the more so for its spontaneity.

Another is a picture that almost looks like a posed portrait. My son is on one knee, grasping the neck of a ukulele in one hand, head tilted, very much a putto in pajamas, just gorgeous and innocent.

There have also been photos of him partly clothed or unclothed. I have practiced my best judgment in the selection of these images and there has not been any controversy before today. However, my son is now two years old, and a new concern has emerged.

This morning I posted a picture and it occasioned a rather anguished battle at the Burning House. One member of my family raised the specter of kiddie porn prosecutions. (A woman, I am told, was arrested in Boston for photographing her kid in the tub. How old? What kind of picture? Who knows. It almost doesn't matter when our country has become so sick and neurotic. It doesn't need to make sense. Welcome to Salem.)

Another member of my family envisions predators hunting us down somehow.

I emerge from this -- let's call it "spirited debate" as they say in Washington -- feeling embattled, bruised, and unjustly set upon. However unwilling I am to cooperate with this ethos of fear and repression -- in a land where attorneys general cover up classical statues that show bare breasts -- I also care about my wife and do not wish to cause her pain or anxiety.

So that picture is coming down.

There is, however, a painful consequence. (For me, anyway. Maybe nobody else cares.)

We could be having this discussion about most of the pictures I have posted. Once we start toying with the possibilities, once we start imagining what could set off the hypothetical pedophiliac manhunter, we could start to question even the fully clothed pictures.

As for the concern about legal or political repercussions -- one family member mentioned my teaching career -- this anguished enquiry widens even further. Might someone see a picture of me in Buddhist robes and start complaining to my school district? What about that glass of wine I am holding in one of my Facebook pictures? True, Facebook has privacy controls -- but those have been the subject of controversy as well. Nothing is really private on the internet.

The door has been opened. Things are different now.

And personally, I'm not willing to hash this out repeatedly. If this is about caution, then I will exercise caution by removing all images of our son from this blog, as well as pictures of our home. If this about being cautious, then let's be cautious.

This awful darkness that is inexorably shrouding our country, where we must look over our shoulder and watch what we say, what we write, what we look on as beautiful, and even what we think, has touched this blog and it will not be the same.

But I hope you'll keep visiting, keep reading, and comment freely.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

In Defense of Reality

When the comedian Stephen Colbert made his famous quip that reality has a liberal bias, he was actually kidding.

For some, it is no joke. They are concerned that the historical record offers too much aid and comfort to what is, in their view, a "liberal" worldview. This is certainly the opinion of the Texas State Board of Education, which this week mandated new curricular standards in history and social studies that make some stunning moves toward rewriting history to their liking and shaping a political viewpoint consistent with the reactionary right wing.

One concern raised by educators is a greater emphasis on learning data whereas critical thinking is not encouraged. For example, here is an approved essay topic: Explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict. Will students be allowed to question the premise and include a critique of Zionism if they choose? Will they even be permitted to consider the impact of settlements and blockades on the Palestinian people, and include their viewpoint?

One has to doubt it, looking over the other curricular standards. For instance, it calls for students to be taught that Senator Joseph McCarthy was eventually exonerated and that his claims about Communist infiltration of the United States government was based on reality.

Board member Don McLeroy is up front about what's going on here. The new curriculum is part of a culture war, and by rewriting history he will turn the education of our children into a theatre for this culture war. In his words: “The proposed changes have attracted national attention because they challenge the powerful ideology of the left and highlight the great political divide of our country. The left’s principles are diametrically opposed to our founding principles. The left believes in big, not limited, government; they empower the state, not the individual; they focus on differences, not unity."

Reality does not, in fact, have a liberal bias. Our founders did not organize themselves as "liberals" and "conservatives," although they certainly held a range of views on many issues. One of those issues was the relationship between church and state. A heated debate took place on whether we should be an explicitly Christian state (Madison and Jay were on this side among others) versus the concept that church and state would both benefit by occupying distinct and separate spheres (the Jefferson and Washington view).

Our founders did not all agree, and the political fight was won by those favoring separate spheres. This is historical fact. It is documented and settled. It is not a statement of liberal ideology. It is reality. One might disagree with how it turned out, but that is how it turned out.

In Texas, however, for the next ten years, students will be asked to "contrast the Founders' intent relative to the wording of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, with the popular term 'Separation of church and state.'" The very premise of the question rewrites history.

Don McLeroy and his culture warriors on the Texas State Board of Education have chosen to write their own version of the historical record. The debate, which has gone on on for months and been followed very closely by journalists and a concerned public, has been political in character and not academic. It is, in short, precisely what they falsely accuse "liberals" of having done: indoctrinating young minds into a political philosophy and thus handicapping them in the areas of research and critical thinking.

Washington Monthly blogger Steve Benen treated this rather well, writing, "This is not just a travesty for academic integrity and students in Texas, but it's also a reminder of what's gone horribly wrong with the twisted right-wing worldview. These state officials have decided they simply don't care for reality, so they've replaced it with a version of events that makes them feel better. The result is an American history in which every era has been distorted to satisfy the far-right ego."

[Photo: Board member Don McLeroy]

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Public In The Private [UPDATED]

[UPDATE at the bottom]

We speak of private spheres and public spheres when we debate politics, and what sort of barrier between these two spheres is appropriate.

The idea is that there are places government should not go. A hot example is abortion: some argue that this is a moral abomination that society must prohibit. Some argue that this is an intrusion, by government, into a private and personal decision.

One of the reasons we can't get universal single-payer health insurance in our country is a widespread unease with entrusting that responsibility to the public sphere. "Big government" is a pejorative phrase in our land. There is an assumption by many that large government programs never work well -- an assumption that is eagerly fed by the corporate sector to protect its business interests. Even so, the unease is real, and sensible. The public sector doesn't always operate efficiently or competently; but then, neither does the private sector, as we see from the state of our economy. We also see it in the largest oil spill in our history, which is still in progress as I write.

Last night, I watched a television interview with the Republican candidate for Kentucky's seat in the United States Senate, Dr. Rand Paul. (The interview is embedded below.) Dr. Paul took some heat during the primary campaign for comments he made about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although he takes pains to acknowledge and condemn "institutional racism," he has expressed concerns about telling the private sector what it should believe about race.

During this interview, Rachel Maddow worked hard to get him to clarify his views on this. He squirmed all over the set to avoid answering the question directly. What he did say convinced me (and if I'm wrong, he could always prove it by addressing the question) that he sees an absolute public/private split that bears even on the matter of civil rights.

What he stated repeatedly (again, the interview is below, you can check me if I misrepresent him) is that racism is very bad, and no public entity should ever be permitted to discriminate on the basis of race. Maddow asked the logical followup: what about private entities? What about, say, restaurants? Should a restaurant be permitted to post a sign saying, "We don't serve blacks?" Dr. Paul conspicuously avoided a yea or nay about this.

I wish he would. We are a country of free speech. I suspect that he views this is a right: that a private business owner should get to decide whether he wants to sell to a black person, or a gay, or a whatever. That government should leave that business owner alone. In this view, if government forbids such discrimination, it is imposing tolerance and therefore being tyrannical.

If that is his belief -- and it sure looked like it to me -- I wish he would say it. As a candidate for public office, one can't be surprised he would avoid a controversy if he can. It would certainly be controversial, but perhaps a profitable one for public discourse. A "teaching moment," to exercise a well-worn phrase.

Is it an infringement of private liberty to tell a business owner they must serve all races with the same facilities and at the same price? Was desegregation an overreach of government authority?

Nothing would be harmed from a little civic education on this point. A private business is not a separate nation. We need things like building codes and health standards to keep everybody safe, even though -- yes, we know -- the details can be tedious and inconvenient. So there is a permeable layer between the public and private -- separate, but in touch with one another.

We live in one nation, this republic, and a decision we made as a society in 1964 is that we will no longer be a nation where people of darker skin are made to feel like second- or third-class citizens every time they ride a bus or go to a lunch counter or go to their job or to school, etc. In order to do that, the public sector instituted a rule -- like a public safety code, if you will.

There is nothing in this interview that suggests to me Dr. Paul is a racist himself -- on that point, he seems very sincere. To my ear, he seems to hold (while trying to keep it a secret) an extreme libertarian position about public vs. private.

The part of this issue I think Dr. Paul has overlooked is that a privately owned business is still a public place, where every customer possesses full rights of citizenship.

Here's the interview:

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Today, interviewed by Laura Ingraham, Paul sadly expressed regret for even showing up on Maddow's show, and basically blamed any controversy on her and the rest of the press:

"...they can play things and want to say, 'Oh you believed in beating up people that were trying to sit in restaurants in the 1960s.' And that is such a ridiculous notion and something that no rational person is in favor of. [But] she went on and on about that."

Well, no, actually, as anyone who watches the interview knows. When Dr. Paul dismissed the question for being "abstract" and not "practical," Maddow asked if it seemed abstract to civil rights activists who endured beatings in order to desegregate lunch counters. She wasn't distorting anything he said; she was applying appropriate historical context and demonstrating this is not an abstract philosophical problem, but a real-life problem.

It would all too familiar if Paul decides to run away from this and blame the press for fabricating the controversy. Voters in Kentucky have a right to know what he really believes about this; and, as I argued above, it might be useful to air out this whole public/private thing in blunt terms.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Silhouette

At Marvimon, a venue for special events located near L.A.'s Elysian Park, a wedding took place last weekend and I was in town to do the honors. It was one of those awful, fast trips to L.A., where one doesn't even bother calling most friends because there is no time to see them.

The couple have an amusing story. They met on opposite ends of a job interview, or rather, a series of them. She was applying to a design firm for a job, he turned her down multiple times. She eventually won the job and the interviewer. Game, set, match? They are now starting a family -- and a design firm of their own.

It was a lovely wedding, albeit much too large for the venue, which slowed dinner down as servers squeezed through thin spaces between dining tables and guests pressed through one another to queue up at the single toilet.

Before dinner, as I crossed the room past the area where food was being prepared, a guest named Karen snapped this picture with her cell phone and caught the trip -- and my life at this difficult juncture -- in a single image.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

This Blog Will Be Silent For A Few Days

A great deal going on, friends. An offer for another film role this summer -- and at this point, I don't know if I can do it and fulfill my prior commitments. Might have to start turning things down.

On Friday, I'm leaving to do some travel and perform a wedding service in Los Angeles, California. There will be more posts to this space after Sunday night.

Be careful out there!

Monday, May 10, 2010

An Irresponsible Question

Why, you may wonder, do I repeatedly, in this reflection on the twentieth century, reach to the twelfth, and even beyond, to Socrates? Is this an intellectual fetish?

I would explain it this way. What does not change in human relationships are the basic choices that repeatedly face us. Those basic choices can be affected by material conditions, but they are neither created nor destroyed by them.

The basic opposition that lays out most of these choices was put in place during the heyday of Athens. It was and remains the opposition between Socrates and Plato. Socrates -- oral, questioner, obsessed by ethics, searching for truth without expecting to find it, democrat, believer in the qualities of the citizen. Plato -- written, answerer of questions, obsessed by power, in possession of the truth, anti-democratic, contemptuous of the citizen. Socrates, the father of humanism. Plato, the father of ideology. Plato's greatest flaw is also the secret of his ongoing political success. He managed to marry Homer's inevitability of the Gods and Destiny to the newly discovered mechanisms of reason.

. . .

What does all this mean for us in the late twentieth century? Well, it means that the humanist, individualistic, democratic argument has come to us in a direct, unimpeded line from the very first century of our civilization. With each successful expression of this argument over the centuries the language is clear, the idea of the disinterested public good is reinforced, the citizen is identified as the source of legitimacy. And this ethical, humanist, democratic line stretches across 2,500 years, free and independent of the evolving specifics of economics, technology, intellectual elitism and military force, among ther periodic expressions of the Western experience.

In Socrates's own words, his goal is "to determine the conduct of our life -- how each of us should conduct himself to live the most advantageous life." "What is the way we ought to live?" "Let no day pass without discussing goodness."

. . .

...let us ask an irresponsible question. If Plato had been Socrates's age in 399 B.C. -- that is, 70 years old -- and had been chosen for that jury of 501 citizens, how would he have voted?

--From J. Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization (1995)

(Note: I have corrected errors in the use of the apostrophe from the original Free Press edition -- shocking! You'd expect a reputable publisher to know.)

(Image: A section from Raffaello's School of Athens of 1510-11)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Gabriel Is Dreaming...

...and my guess is, he dreams of various animals running as hard as they can after bouncing balls in a field blooming with toothbrush plants, while boys and girls play drums.

That seems to include everything.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

In The Court of Count Vicodin

A tooth that I had repaired last month went bad: an abscess developed at the root. While I was filming Cigarette, I felt the toothache and popped Advil to deal with it until I could see my dentist. This coming Monday, I go in for root canal. In the meantime, I was prescribed an antibiotic for the infection. He also prescribed Vicodin for the pain, which became unbearable by Sunday night.

So I paid my first visit to the storied court of Count Vicodin, the well-known son of Count Acetaminophen and Lady Hydrocodone. Once introduced to the infectious Count Vicodin, some people go to extraordinary lengths to remain in his company.

Let's just say Vicodin did not agree with me. Besides the physical illness, which is said to be common among those who are not used to the drug, it put me into a rather disturbing frame of mind. The thoughts that came up were not unknown to me -- years of sitting have acquainted me with some pretty stinky stuff that goes on in my mind -- but they were rather more intrusive, perhaps even more persuasive, than I am used to. Besides nausea and intensified depression, I walked around feeling profoundly altered. The latter may simply be my paranoia about medications.

Anyway, we have put that away and gone back to Advil and just sort of talking myself through the day. The court of Count Vicodin is a dream. Now I'm in pain, but I feel alive.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Retreat Photo

Photos from retreats are pretty rare, as it's not an appropriate situation for anyone to be clicking away with a camera. When you see photos from a retreat, it is usually a group photo staged after the retreat is over.

Since we knew the Headlight wanted to do a story about the group, we arranged for a reporter to come in near the end of our last sitting retreat and take a few pictures during the circle talk that closes the event.

To my right is John, a Zen group stalwart who's been coming since the very beginning and sits all the retreats.

The photo was taken by Matt Robinson of the Deming Headlight and is reproduced with permission.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Zen Group In The News (UPDATED)

The Deming Headlight has come out with a story about the Deming Zen Group. Not bad, with a couple of nice photos. Click here to read.


Wow. I wasn't prepared for some of the hateful comments people would leave on the paper's website. If you click the link and scroll to the bottom of the story, you can see for yourself. People calling for me to be fired, calling me names. Skyoooooz me for livin', gang.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Wrapping Cigarette

We finished the shoot -- our second all-nighter at the 5 Brothers Chinese joint in Las Cruces -- Sunday morning at dawn.

Here's the wrap photo, one of our last moments together as a cast and crew. There were several people taking pictures at this point -- this may have been Michael Sheridan's work, as he was on set both nights. Anyway, I found it thanks to Torrey Meeks (in the photo, he is the bespectacled fellow obscured by a mike cable) and asked his permission to post it here.

There we are. Had a good time but man, we sure were beat.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Zen and the Feast of Violence

An anonymous commenter posted this question in reply to an earlier post, in which I talked about the roles I've been playing recently:

Work is good. But how does putting more images of/energy into violence jive with zen?

Good question. Are you asking about Zen as an awareness practice, or are you asking about the moral dimensions of the actor's work? I'll address the latter first.

The actor's job, almost always, is to portray characters in dramatic play. The essence of drama is conflict: "I want this, you are in my way, I need to get around you and obtain what I want." The violence may or may not be physical. We are acting out dukkha, the cycle of human craving and conflict, in story after story. Maybe this is why the Lotus Sutra warns Buddhists to stay away from actors. The conception can arise that actors are simply rehearsing and celebrating greed, attachment, and delusion.

I probably don't need to say what we all know about violence in popular culture. Commercial entertainment constantly, daily, celebrates and justifies violence. It instills the idea in us, from an early age, that violence is blessed and righteous as long as the right people are doing it -- which is an idea essential to militarism, terrorism, and nationalism.

It does put the actor into a moral bind. As an added bonus, women in this profession are routinely asked to objectify human sexuality and their own bodies. Men are, too, but it is not routine for us. There is an interesting perception, in fact, that nudity in commercial films is linked to power, as when we speak of a time that such-and-such an actress still "had to do" topless scenes. Younger actresses, especially early in their careers, are seen as more exploitable, in our expectation they will be more willing to feed the commercial appetite for naked ladies.

Actors can, and sometimes do, turn down projects for moral reasons. Sometimes they can negotiate about sex or stereotypes, and win concessions. These exercises of choice, however, do not alter the bigger picture. Commercial values and tastes reign supreme. Horror movies get made because they stand the best chance of making money. If you're an independent filmmaker, you're doing a horror film because that is what will get commercial distribution, whereas your non-violent movie celebrating wisdom, compassion, and peace will be labeled an "art film" and won't get distributed.

Sometimes an actor can find a way to change the content, going against the commercial narrative and commenting on it. These are rare, exceptional victories in a world where the actor must choose between commercial values and making a living. Unless one is in a position to create their own projects, it can even be a choice about working at all.

That is our moral predicament.

The questioner, however, asks about Zen practice. Zen practice itself is the true practice of gnosis, of looking without holding to opinions, of realizing a personal and intimate awakening to this very moment, and a commitment to returning to that awareness moment after moment -- a full awakening into just this. This is the beginning of taking responsibility for this suffering world. It is not a process of intellection or moralizing about it; it makes no comment on phenomena; it is about perception and bearing witness for the benefit of all sentient being.

(That's not a typo, by the way. Being, not beings, feels more accurate somehow.)

Actors, and the field in which they work, certainly own some responsibility for the problem we are discussing.

Now my question for you is, what can we do together?

Filming Cigarette

Who knew a Zippo lighter would be so hard to find?

The film is currently titled Cigarette, and the first of two nights of shooting took place in Las Cruces overnight. The film is a single-act drama that will probably run ten minutes, depicting an eventful conversation between two men at a diner.

Our location was the 5 Brothers Chinese restaurant and bar near NMSU, which agreed to let us film in their place overnight after closing. Closing time, 11:00 PM. Wrap time, 5:00 AM. A long night.

I got to town early enough for some dinner and to run what I thought would be a quick errand: procuring an old-fashioned Zippo lighter, an accessory most appropriate to my character, who smokes throughout the scene.

This turned into a tour of Las Cruces worthy of a short film in itself. Gas stations. Liquor stores. Several Pic-Quick stores. Target. Wal-Mart -- the biggest one I have ever visited. This Wal-Mart needs its own post office. I even tried an Albertsons. I can purchase butane to refill a Zippo at any of these locations; the lighters themselves, not at all. The closest item I found was a selection of peculiar, abstractly-designed lighters in an array of metallic colors that looked like they were designed by Jeff Koons.

Around 11:30, as the employees finished mopping up, the crew began laying dolly track through the restaurant and setting up the snacks and caffeinated beverages that would keep us going until dawn. Everyone was very polite -- even at quarter to five. I am not used to this.

We had rehearsed the piece all the way through several times, as one rehearses a play. By and large, we also filmed it that way, with long takes from various angles. As a theatre guy, I loved this.

Oh, and the continuity man lent me his Zippo. By the end, I was feeling great compassion for him. Cigarettes quickly pose a continuity nightmare: how low have they burned from shot to shot? Where's the smoke? Where is it resting in the ash tray? To say nothing of those little coffee creamers we deal with, splashes of milk on the table, and other little details.

The director of photography pulled much of his thick curly hair out over the highly reflective windows that surrounded us and kept reflecting him, lights, electric cables, etc. in his dolly shots.

The slate man took great delight in trying to embarrass us with suggestive names for each scene. For example, scene 1-M became "scene 1-M.I.L.F."

We did our scene again. And again. And again. Wrap time took me complete by surprise. Was it really 5:00 AM?

The sky doesn't lie.