(photo courtesy of Haewon Kye)
Ask around and you’ll eventually come across somebody that will tell you that (in certain respects) film schools are a waste of time and money. Frankly, you can count me as one of those people, although I don’t say that as somebody who attended the Film Studies program at Ryerson University in Toronto for four years (which last I heard was the most competitive of all university programs in Canada to get into, although perhaps that was just an urban rumour). I say that as somebody who prior to attending university figured that although practice is generally a very useful thing to partake in, there are some things that to a large degree you’ve either got or you don’t, and which practice can only help iron out a few kinks. As far as I’ve always seen it, and much like being a top-notch 100-meter dash sprinter (which most of us can never be), filmmaking – directing in particular – is one of those things. That being said, as far as I’ve noticed there is actually one "film school" out there that truly is above and beyond the rest, and which I inadvertently had the "fortunate privilege" of "attending."
That started at the age of 4-years-old or so when I was bought another one of those random toys that parents purchase for their children, this gift consisting of the Fisher Price Movie Viewer and Movie Viewer Theater, as well as several cartridges. To my "benefit" my parents never paid much attention to my utter fascination with them, probably because they were just glad that they’d found something that could reliably get their kid to sit down and avoid landing himself in the hospital for the umpteenth time. (When I was 6-years old and my family moved houses my mother chose the town that had the hospital in it.)
(photo courtesy of Haewon Kye)
The special thing about the Fisher Price Movie Viewer and Movie Viewer Theater is that while they worked with cartridges that looped a few minutes of 8mm film, they had to be manually cranked. And not only that, but while you could crank forwards and backwards, you could also crank frame by frame by frame… by frame… by frame… by frame. Back one frame, forward one frame. Back one frame, forward one frame. And while doing that you could dissect and play over and over again every little zoom, every pan, every tilt, every truck, every cut, every little effect (like when in Pinocchio the Blue Fairy appeared in a flash of light – or disappeared in an un-flash of light when you cranked backwards). Have a (visually inclined) child play around doing that for dozens – hundreds – of hours between the impressionable ages of four and six and you’ve possibly just created a filmmaking "monster" who naturally observes the world as if he were permanently looking through the lens of a motion picture camera where everything is a "shot" or an "angle."
So forget university or whatever, because no film school, no watching however many movies by the "greats" can ever match the inadvertent learning and training by repetitive, unintentional, osmosis.
My apologies for the personal conveyance there, which I’ll follow up by avoiding a detailed account of my accidental discovery of video class in my second year of high school, my eventual reference by schoolmates as being the "Steven Spielberg" of our school, my award for being the "best" photographer in my graduating year, etc. Just to be sure, I’m not mentioning any of that (in passing) for the purposes of bragging (I’ll also avoid recounting my early successes in my first year of university, because then I’d really be bragging), but I do so in order to point out that while not planning it in the slightest, I’d come to live and breathe film(making). In other words, and if anything, filmmaking is my forte, not writing.
(photos by Super 8 Man)
I will however convey one (relevant) story from back in my first year of university. While travelling on the subway one day with a classmate, it hit me that rather than running a strip of 16mm film (which we shot with in university) past a projector, a subway could act in the opposite manner. That is, instead of running the film past the shutter system, you could run the shutter system past the film. Supposing you could set up a bunch of sequential "frames" in the tunnels, then rig up some kind of a shutter system in the window(s) of the subway train(s), when the train(s) whipped through the tunnels each frame could trip the shutter system(s), resulting in the same illusion of movement one gets with film.
Although at the time I was (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) working at a high-end advertising agency in Toronto and could have brought my idea past the rather well-off owner whom I personally knew, I saw two main problems with my idea. For starters, its requirement of many moving parts interacting at very high speeds would have made it costly enough, but then add on top of that the constant need to laboriously change long strips of several hundred images every time one wanted to switch up the sequence(s) and the whole thing quickly becomes extremely cost prohibitive. As well, and although this was the year 2000, it didn’t take a dummy to foresee that flat screens would be arriving in the very near future and make the idea essentially redundant.
But my even bigger issue with the idea was that its primary application was bound to be for advertising, and seeing how I hated advertising I had no desire to add even more visual pollution to all the wretchedness already all around us. (Yes, I know. Why was I working at an ad agency if I hated advertising? Well, it turns out that a family member of mine was a childhood friend of one of the co-owners, and I ended up getting the job on a silver platter. But even though I was good enough at what I did that I ended up getting told that I had "reaffirmed our [their] faith in today’s youth" [I was 22-23 at the time], I didn’t like trying to convince 15-year-old kids to buy shitty corporate booze and to get people in general to buy mounds of junk they didn’t need, and so after a couple of summers left that [ridiculously perk-filled] job for a dish-washing job at an oyster bar and a job painting houses.)
Mentioning my idea years later to an old friend I was told "but you could have used it to get your message out!" Which is, of course, a bunch of Dr. Pooper. Supposing there was the occasional PSA included in the subway sequences ("Polar bears are cute! Save the polar bears! Please don’t pet the polar bears"), 95% or so of its content would have undoubtedly been vapid advertising which would have negated any socially conscious message(s). In other words, any token PSAs would have essentially served as diversionary whitewashes to the medium’s overwhelming content of which would have been necessary to pay for its high costs.[As a side-note, about four years after I got my subway-as-shutter-system idea I saw a segment on a TV program ("The New Media" on City TV?) and read an article in the Toronto Star relaying that my very same idea was being tested in New York City and Toronto subways. I never heard about it again after that, and doubt it got very far at all.]
Anyway. Soon after entering the Film Studies program at Ryerson University a rather uncomfortable issue began nagging away in my head. Or rather, three of them. While I of course had my favourite filmmakers, I was also the kind of guy that watched movies like Manufacturing Consent and The Corporation (with Naomi Klein!). And although I excelled academically and especially filmmaking-wise in my first year, for the most part I plummeted afterwards. Reason being, and for starters, one of the things nagging away at me was, if I had a problem with the centralization of power (and in this particular case into corporate hands), then how was it that I could justify film and videomaking with its unavoidable dependence on arrays of high-tech cameras, monitors, (high-powered) lights, digital editing systems, all the TVs necessary for the public consumption of the final product(s), movie screens, projectors, and on and on and on, all of which fed into the coffers of those corporations I wasn’t very fond of? Regardless of whether or not I one day ended up making any activist-type films along the lines of The Corporation, was filmmaking itself, as a whole, a net benefit or a net loss? Or like my non-foray into the subway-as-shutter-system idea, would any benefit be essentially negated by the overwhelming vapidity?[As another side-note, I did actually have a tiny bit of (relevant?) activist-type history as well. Back in April of 2001, and with video camera in tow, I made the trip over to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) protest in Quebec City. In the morning of one of my first days there I was walking down some street whose name I forget (but which was far from the police and tear gas shenanigans) when about fifteen meters in front of me a few plain-clothed men with batons quickly identified themselves as police and screamed at the dozen or two of us within striking distance to back away, proceeded to grab one guy from the crowd, threw him into a white van, and squealed away. "What country are we in?" I said to those I was with as we all stood there stunned. I never heard about that event ever again (and didn’t get it on video as it happened way too fast to have had a chance to react), until about ten years later when I read Naomi Klein’s book of essays Fences and Windows. As she put it (pp. 141-43), a well-known activist friend of hers was nabbed off the street and held on trumped up charges in order to keep him from the weekend’s events. Klein wrote that it was a beige van, I remember a white van. Do one of us have our colours wrong, or was there two separate snatchings? I don’t know. But I do know that I have an uncanny knack for crossing paths and stories with Klein and Lewis in various parts of the world.]
(photo from proxibid)
Anyway, once again. Second nagging issue: film and video production (as well as their consumption) are massive consumers of electricity – or better yet, of climate change-causing fossil fuels. Need to change a bulb on one of those lights? Well then slap on a pair of gloves first, because there’s a good chance that when you switch on that light after having touched the bulb with your (naturally) greasy fingers that the grease coupled with the astronomical temperature that that bulb is going to rise to (implying a massive amount of energy usage – and loss, via heat) might very well cause that bulb to explode in somebody’s face. No joke. Add to that all the other electricity-guzzling equipment required, plus all the advertising needed to make it all profitable, plus all the (conspicuous) consumption that that then induces, and film and television are a climate change nightmare.
So to make a long – very long – story short, after sitting on the fence regarding film for four years or so, and after somehow managing to avoid classes and assignments that would have required me to make a film of substance, in what ended up being my final year before I left university once and for all I got placed in a film production class where I had no choice but to either direct or produce a short film (of substance). While I could go on and on with various side-stories that went on during this time (my run-in with three Kodak executives from Toronto, Manhattan and Hollywood is a story for the ages), that film I directed – the first I ever made with the overt intention of entering it into a film festival – was, shall we say, rather warmly received.
Fast forward Jump ahead a few months and, hot on the heels of a former classmate who had a film of his accepted a couple of years earlier into the Short Cuts program of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), it was finally my turn to make a go at it. I had my film transferred from 16mm to the requisite video format, bought the proper envelope, paid for the postage, and had it all addressed and ready to go (which had some of my ex-crew members rather excited, since they wouldn’t exactly mind seeing their name in the credits of a film in TIFF).
However, those nagging issues that I’d swept under the rug in order to get on with making my assigned film still hadn’t gotten their answers: When it comes to centralization of power, and even more-so to climate change (I was still about two years away from learning about peak oil for the first time), is film as a whole a net benefit or a net loss? Due to my placement in a production class I literally had no choice but to make a film – and make one I did – resulting in me having to jump off the fence to the "film is a net benefit" side (or perhaps the "who gives a rat’s ass" side, "I’s like the bling"). However, having been "forced" to put together a (well-received) film of which was now in the can, an even creepier question found its way into my head: "Should I be sending away my film for consideration into the Short Cuts portion of TIFF?"
And what the hell kind of a thought was that? I mean, I’d spent about a decade from around 4-years-of-age (particularly the earlier ones) inadvertently learning my craft by osmosis, then another decade or so overtly honing my craft. And here I was, with that film which, although not exactly stupendous, was the one to finally get the "juggernaut" started. And I was considering not submitting it?
In another strange set of circumstances, and contrary to every other film made in that production class, that film I directed was the only film bankrolled by a single person – me (that’s another story). In effect, I had complete control over what was to happen with the film, and nobody but I had a say on which film festival(s) it would or wouldn’t be entered into.
And so with the film having to be postmarked by a stipulated day, and the clock ticking away, the deadline for submission drew closer and closer.
(photo by Pranceatron Toys)
Five days away.
What should I do?
Net benefit or net loss?
Yes or no?
Time’s up. No more thinking. Make up your mind!
So with twenty years of "work" invested, all I now had to do was walk over to the post office and drop off the film so it could be postmarked. And really, throwing a bit of caution to the wind was the rational thing to do. Everybody was doing it, right? So even though I still didn’t have the concrete answer I’d been looking for all those years, and still had no idea what I was doing, I of course wasn’t going to take the chance of screwing things up for myself.
Thinking about it that way, submitting the film actually turned to be much easier than I’d expected, because rather than having to walk all the way to the post office to make sure the package got properly postmarked, all I had to do was walk over to the kitchen. And submit the film to the garbage can.
It was accepted!
Adios film career
We all know what happens when you take a fish out of water, but what happens when you take a filmmaker out of film? Well, for starters they hit the methadone, and so with whatever student loan money they’ve got left they lounge around and spend upwards of 12 hours a day watching TV (sometimes even seven episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond seven times in a row on seven separate TV channels – methadone can be baaaaaaaaaaad).
One random day, about a month after I’d decided to leave my film with Oscar the Grouch, I made my way up north and visited my parents’ suburban place. When I got there I happened to find my brother and father in the backyard, the two of them – now three of us – staring at the exposed soil which was about to be sown with grass seed. Looking it all over a strange thought from absolutely nowhere that I could discern mysteriously passed through my head: "Why don’t we build a garden back here?"
Not three seconds later, what does my father then say – out loud – word for word? "Why don’t we build a garden back here?"
Long story short, I of course built a garden back there. I grew a bunch of things. I fought off the meth. But I still wasn’t sure about having ditched film, never mind what might come of it all, if anything.
A few months later, and still aimless, I was in Toronto with a Tupperware container packed full of cherry tomatoes I’d grown. I bumped into some friends on the street.
(photo by Dwight Sipler)
Want some cherry tomatoes?
"Sure. Hey, these are great!"
I grew them myself.
"Really! I had a friend who did stuff like that. She went WWOOFing."
WWOOFing? Never heard of that before.
As it turned out, while randomly flipping through the Toronto Star the following Saturday, what else do I come across but a rather fortuitously-timed article about – WWOOFing! So after four gruelling years (I really should have gone with my gut and dropped out after that first year), and having climbed back up that fence and blindly jumped over to the other side, I was finally starting to see what exactly it was that was even over on that other side. Which in short was the soil, in desperate need of hands to cultivate it.
You can then imagine my astonishment upon discovering the writing of Wendell Berry while WWOOFing in New Zealand less than a year later. And not only that, but with my discovery that because Berry didn’t want to support the very coal industry he wrote against, not only did he write strictly with a pen/pencil and paper, but that he wrote solely under the light of the sun to avoid using the coal industry’s products. "Holy Dr. Pooper, this guy’s the real deal!" (A year or so later when I unintentionally got into writing I actually tried out the Berry method, but after a day of seeing how slow and shoddy of a writer I was/am I realized that were I to walk in Berry’s footsteps that I was going to have to move to the North Pole for half the year and then South Pole for the other half, and so reluctantly gave that up.)
So after all this blathering on of mine about ditching film and growing a bunch of cherry tomatoes, What, you might be asking, has been the point of me recounting all this drama? Only the notion that if we’re really all that concerned about all the carbon we’re spewing into the atmosphere, that it might be time that we start to divest ourselves from the pipelines that I believe are making the greatest societal contribution to climate change of all – the pipelines of film and television. I’ll explain that, and finish this off, in part 4.
The encore has been cancelled – indefinitely! (background image by Farrin N. Abbott)
p.s. As it then turned out, about a year after I didn’t enter my film into the Short Cuts portion of TIFF, and during my second week in New Zealand, I ended up getting an email from one of my ex-crew members telling me that my film, being a Ryerson short, had by default been submitted into a film festival of sorts and had been accepted. According to our email exchange – which is one of the handful of email exchanges I kept from back in the day – I immediately ordered that it be yanked. "I beg you to reconsider," one of the replies actually pleaded with me. Yank it! It was yanked, and as far as I know it never did appear in any film festival.
p.p.s. Okay fine. Technically I hadn’t quit film just yet. What I’d so far quit was fictional filmmaking, as I was still holding out for the more productive (and less narcissistic – which was nagging issue #3) idea of documentary filmmaking. During the time that I was initially trying to decide which country to WWOOF in I also started doing research for a documentary on Zero Waste, and it was a Zero Waste conference in the coastal town of Kaikoura that made me choose New Zealand – an initial three days for the conference, the other 362 for WWOOFing. I met many people at the conference, one of those being a professor of sorts from up at Massey University. Long story short, they were putting together a Zero Waste program for New Zealand universities and needed a videographer to put that portion of it together for them. The job was mine. I’d be flown all across the country, and following that probably flown all across England to put together a similar package over there. The pay wasn’t amazing, but hey, it was eco-film! Problem was, if I accepted – and the contract was literally right in front of me, pen in my hand – I’d have to ditch my remaining eight months of WWOOFing. "Hmm, should I do it?" (Massey University dude was giving me one very unpleasant look for even considering not doing it.) "Ah stuff it! I didn’t come to New Zealand to make movies, I came to New Zealand to shovel shit!" And having stuck with the shit-shovelling, when house-sitting for a WWOOF host about a month later, what do I pull off their book shelf and read about for the very first time? Peak oil! Or in other words, I believe that it was because I took climate change so seriously – and drastically acted upon that seriousness – that I came to learn about peak oil and its dire implications. One must act on both of them, and neither negate the other.