Saturday, January 13, 2007

Rock the Sure Shot

Though my wife will NEVER understand why, I am a huge fan of The Beastie Boys. The verbal acrobatics, their swaggering nerdiness, the spastic rat-a-tat-tat of their Tourette’s Syndrome delivery - just a few qualities that have earned Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA a permanent berth in my news unit’s aggression rock CD stash. All of which makes me the target audience for their performance documentary, Awesome, I %&$# Shot That! - which is currently making the rounds of VH1.

For those who don’t know, the hip-hop pioneers handed out fifty Hi-8 cameras to their fans at a 2004 Madison Square Garden concert and edited the images into a mish-mash concert film that has to be seen (and preferably felt) to be believed. Like the Beastie Boys themselves, 'I Shot That' ain’t pretty. However expertly edited, the fan footage is shaky, grainy and inherently shitty. But it works - the glaring disregard for slick cinematography emulates the true concert experience in a way all those sweeping crane shots never seem to be able to.

Rent the DVD and see what I mean, but be warned: to the unitiated, 'I Shot That' will no doubt confuse and frighten everyone within earshot. If you’re a Beastie Boys fan however, its...well, 'like having a delicious me-al...'

Breaking Snooze

Roadside VulturesWhat does one wear to a nitric acid spill? That was the question I wrestled with just before six a.m. today as I stood in my closet, clad only in boxers and bed-head. Minutes earlier I’d been positively unconscious - locked deep within a watery dreamscape fraught with confusion. For some reason I was flinging donuts off the side of a pirate ship when my bride elbowed me - causing the pastry-wielding privateers to my left and right to vanish in a most unsatisfying ’poof’.

“Your phone’s buzzing.”

A low string of obscenities escaped my still sleeping lips, causing the wife to mutter her own disapproval, which convinced the cat to make a hasty exit from our pitch black bedroom. Not wanting to squash the family feline, I made a clumsy swipe for the flashing gadget and succeeded in knocking it out of reach. When I fished it out from behind the nightstand, I hit the ‘Talk’ button and immediately heard the background burble of overheating police scanners. Swallowing any further profanity, I made only caveman noises as the morning producer yammered excitedly about overturned 18 wheelers and toxic highways. That’s how I found myself standing and stretching before a sea of wrinkled cabana-wear. For the record, I went with a combination of blue denim and brown leather - a choice based on warmth, not fashion.

Two Old ProsComfy as I was, my utilitarian ensemble didn’t help me get past the roadblock. Neither did the rolling billboard I was piloting. In fact the sleepy-eyed deputy waved me away like any other motorist, forcing me and my live truck to abandon the promise of Highway 52 for the uncertainty of car-clogged back-roads. When the ribbon of slow moving cars ahead of me led me away from the highway, I pulled the first of many ill-advised u-turns and got the morning producer on the horn. She tried to help, but Mapquest or Google or whatever the hell she was using insisted the road I was on didn’t exist. It was then I squinted through the windshield, summoned all my Jedi-like photog powers and took a hard right on the next available blacktop. The winding road offered only seclusion at first, but a half mile later it brought me in view of the deserted highway. In the distance, I saw an impromptu parking lot of swirling emergency lights. Closer in, I caught sight of a competitor’s live truck mast slowly rising in the morning mist. For the first time since gaining consciousness an hour earlier, a smile crossed my furry mug. I love it when a lack of plan comes together.

Dude...My cross-town rivals barely batted an eye as I my rumbling live truck hove into view. They were too busy readying their own equipment for the hours of updates that would soon follow. Parking my logo’d beast behind theirs, I jumped out and commenced the frantic yet methodical set-up involved in a breaking news situation. Back at the station, a darkened control room full of sardonic colleagues glanced at a dark monitor, waiting impatiently for it to begin radiating scenes of smoldering wreckage and lost highways. Meanwhile I ran desperate circles around the live truck, flipping switches, pulling cables and cursing the buzzing cell phone on my hip. A few minutes later, I beamed an image of color bars to a lofty receive dish perched on a tower 12 miles away. This pleased the cabal of co-workers back at the shop and an excited voice poured from the tiny speaker jammed in my left ear. “We’ll take your shot in two minutes…” the producer said. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘that almost gives me enough time to set up my camera...’

George Harrison, EsquireThe familiar forms bent around the cluster of tripods hardly acknowledge my presence as I joined them there in the middle of the highway. Consumed with their own mission, they leaned into their cameras’ viewfinders and pushed their glass to the limit. Fifteen hundred feet away, acrid smoke wafted over a sea of police cars and fire trucks. Silence ruled over our small group as photog and reporter alike watched the plume dissipate. Two hours earlier, the bent metal at the base of that smoke had been a mechanized beast roaring up Highway 52 for parts unknown. When a fellow trucker hauling formaldehyde a mile up the road flipped his rig, the driver let off the gas to accommodate the slowing traffic ahead. Too bad someone behind him didn’t. A delivery truck traded paint with a late model sedan, which rear-ended an SUV , hitting another car until the whole lot of them slammed into the vessel in question. All involved managed to escape their vehicles before the fire started but the nitric acid on board the struck eighteen wheeler fueled the flames until a potentially toxic cloud hung over the suddenly crippled highway. Peering through my lens at the truck’s smoldering carcass, it occurred to me that someone else’s morning sucked a whole lot more than mine.

Still AsleepNot that my colleagues or I grew at all verklempt over the situation. Instead we beamed our live pictures and commentary to our collective mother-ships. In my earpiece, I waited for our bearded traffic reporter to mention the Highway 52 tie-up before I slowly pushed my zoom lens through its practiced creep. When the avuncular anchor threw it to a commercial, I backed away from lens and chatted up my friends and contenders. We didn’t talk about the wreck much. Instead we continued conversations we’d abandoned at press conferences a week before, we gave each other shit for parking in the mud, we helped each pull cable and bemoaned the breakfast we were about to miss. All in all, it was very much like the idle banter you shared with your colleagues around the cubicle this morning. The fact that we shared our well wishes, driving tips and dick jokes over the sun-baked pavement of some mild disaster isn’t the least bit odd to us. We’ve all shared similar ribbing at sundry other scenes. Inner city stand-offs, glitzy fund-raisers, early morning drug raids and late night body finds: name the calamity and there’s sure to be a news crew nearby, riffing on the twisted predictability of it all.

That makes us either voyeurs or vultures, I can never decide.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

One Burly Journalist

Via News Blues, word of a VeeJay doing it his way. Stanley Roberts was but a KRON photog when the station suits bought into the VJ Principle - you know, the assertion by Michael Rosenblum that TV news outlets should abandon the two person news crew for multi-tasking solo-journalists. Like alot of us, big strapping Stanley was skeptical of the wholesale shift to new age one-man-bands, but - probably fond of his paycheck - stuck around for the ensuing VJ bootcamp. I for one, am rather glad he did. Why? Because Stanely Roberts has clearly found his groove. In doing so he's helped forge a new form of television reportage that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with bubbleheaded bleach blondes. Witness:

In February, Roberts pitched a series to his bosses, street level examples of citizens brazenly defying the law and logic called "People Behaving Badly". They bit, he hit the streets and less than year later his quirky body of work has captured the attention of viewers in San Francisco as well as YouTubers the globe over. Now, this ain't your father's franchise piece. A bit stilted and far from polished, "PBB" focuses on young Americans embroiled in Darwinism at large. 'Think MTV's "Jackass" meets Candid Camera.' is how the surly editor of News Blues so aptly put it - and who'd disagree with him? I won't - even if the uncoventional camera management at hand does nags a my inner cinematographer. But then again, perhaps that's the point.

Talented individuals have been turning news storis all by their lonesome ever since Al Gore's forefathers hammered out the very first test pattern. Rather un-humbly, I count myself a proud member of that solo breed. But it's a much-compressed POV that's kept me at odds with Rosenblum's VJ model. I wish not to trade in my heavy lens for a toy. Neither do I want to watch a newscast comprised solely of magic laptop backpack schmournalists. VJ's - especially seasoned photogs who write and think - can be potent force-multipliers and bring a singular verve to the drabbest of 'casts. Stanley Roberts appears to be just such an example - a hulking lenslinger with an eye for the absurd. "People Behaving Badly" may not be masterpiece theater but it's a (dutch-oven) blast to absorb - especially when compared to the over-teased, toothless dreck that so often passes for broadcast news these days...

Consider me a fan, Stanley.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Snidely Whip-Pan?

Tonight on an all new episode of Charlie's Angels, the girls take a rare day off from high heeled crime fighting to try out a few new string bikinis by the pool. All goes swimmingly at first - until a shifty-eyed cameraman from a local TV station crashes the party with his shiny mini-cam and scary moustache. Will Kelly drop-kick the photog and look fabulous doing it? Will Sabrina use her gravely voice to seduce the lens-toting drifter into a pair of designer handcuffs? Will a topless Jill pop out of the hot tub and say something lucid? Tune in to find out!

Dead Van Squawkin'

With all the clamor over YouTube, camera phones and backpack journalists, I sometimes wonder what will become of the Sherman Tank of the newsgathering front: the mighty live truck. Okay, so I rarely give these logo’d goliaths a second thought - until I’m stuck inside one, squinting over an ornery laptop and editing from a script some reporter wrote on a KFC wet-nap. Then, I got plenty to say about these ‘mobile newsrooms’ - though usually with words I don’t use on the blog. But rather than spew any more live truck bile, I’ll save it for a healthier species, for it’s becoming clear these lumbering beasts will soon go extinct. Forgive me if I don’t spearhead a petition demanding their rescue. I got my reasons.

Soon after the arrival of videotape freed TV crews from having to pause between shoot and show to process their film, it occurred to some engineer-type how very cool it would be to take this new instant technology on the road. Suburbans, Econolines, old ice cream trucks - vessels of most any heft were fitted with retractable masts, oversized dials and never enough cup holders. The modern live truck was born - and somewhere an old film guy grumbled. Not that the suits heard him. They were far too consumed with dispatching their crafts to they very edge of disasters. At first, it was a noble pursuit. With only a truck or two per affiliate, stations reserved their fleets for the kinds of stories that deserved a live eye. But a terrible thing happened on the way to the broadcast. Live trucks multiplied, their glossy hides slathered in numbers and promises. Before anyone really knew it, even backwaters stations had a truck or two outback and the requisite for the every use came down to how quickly someone could drive it to a late-breaking bake sale.

Today, the overworked live truck is as ubiquitous as the frothy cross-talk between the anchor guy and the sports chick. Some live shots showcase the drama of the day like no other newscast component, but most serve as hollow window dressing for passion plays better left un-pimped. Yes, I’m no fan of the lowly live truck - and not just because they invariably extend my workday. An avoider of top news in general, I’ve always been more into telling stories than flipping toggle switches, more into caressing my every edit than pulling 500 feet of muddy cable up a courthouse stairway. Call me crazy - just don’t make me go live from the sanitarium’s lobby. The beefy dudes in the white coats get real pissy when I roll up in my billboard and start riggin’ up lights.

But like I said three paragraphs ago, live trucks aren’t long for this world. How can they - when cell phones capture sight and sound, when wi-fidelity blankets whole downtown, when even discount laptops troll for signals to leech from. Granted, I ain’t smart enough to predict which new and improved technology will replace the microwave truck, but one not need be a futurist to hear the air-hiss leaking from all those leaning, pockmarked masts. Hopefully, we’ll be smart enough to preserve these garish beasts for future generations to gawk at. Imagine the questions my kids’ kids will ask when confronted with the swooping hues of yesteryear’s paint schemes, not to mention the feint reek of a thousand unfinished value meals. Just don’t ask me. I’ll be way too busy tuning in my eyeglasses, trolling for a hot-spot or berating my robot to detonate the transponder. After all, a producer’s live shot lust won’t die with last month’s technology. They’ll merely morph into a more demanding gadget and give a whole new generation of newsgatherers something to bitch about.

I guess some things never change...

Monday, January 08, 2007

Book Review: Ship of Ghosts

Spend any amount of time out to sea and you’ll wonder what it’s like to abandon ship. I sure did. In fact I spent a lot more time pondering the implications of a watery horizon than I ever did memorizing surface radar interface manuals. Perhaps that’s why they never offered me SEAL training. That, and I get winded after thirty seconds of treading water. Whatever the demerit, I did leave the Navy with a pronounced appreciation for sailors in peril (plus a bunch of old uniforms I’d never be able to fit into again). Over the years, I’ve maintained a vigilant watch, scanning local bookstore aisles for toppled stacks and sun-bleached survivors. When I ran across Ship of Ghosts the other week, witnesses heard my sonar pinging all the way over in the cookbook section. In the next paragraph, I’ll try to explain why.

A favorite of FDR’s, the cruiser USS Houston was the first flagship of the Allied Forces' Asiatic Fleet. But that very designation made it a doomed vessel, for in the months following Pearl Harbor, the far Pacific was nowhere an American sailor wanted to be. In hostile waters brimming with enemies, the Houston dodged bombs and detection along the Java Coast until a near suicide encounter with the Japanese fleet in the Sundra Strait broke the gleaming warship’s proud back, spilling its crew of old salts and former farm boys into the great briny blue. The lucky ones died quick. Those that managed to escape the wreckage, stay afloat and swim to nearby shore were rewarded for their bravery with years of unthinkable suffering working as slaves on the Burma-Thailand Death Railway - all while a war-weary nation focused on actions a world theater away.

Nautical author James D. Hornfischer does a yeoman’s job of following the Houston sailor’s improbable journey: from their robust crew of a president’s favorite ship to the battle-tested veterans of countless torpedo attacks to the emaciated skeletons of P.O.W. camp atrocity. For most sunken warship books, the unlucky sailors' plummet into The Drink is the end of the line. In Ship of Ghosts, it is only the beginning: the opening salvo in a gauntlet of torture and disease that the corn-fed young men of Roosevelt’s cruiser could hardly grasp as they traded the hellfire of battle for the comparative safety of shark-infested saltwater. A scant few of the Houston sailors ever made it back home. Those that did went about their lives with the trademark resolve of the Greatest Generation, their distant heroics and deprivation a figment of their imagination’s buried past. Few are still with us now, but both their plight and powers of endurance still awe followers of nautical lore - even a flunkie peacetime squid like myself.