Saturday, August 04, 2007

In Search of Ill Chili

Ever bum-rush a convenience store counter with a camera on your shoulder and a health inspector by your side? I spent yesterday doing exactly that and while it didn’t shatter my malaise, I did giggle a bit. You would too, if you spawned the kind of reactions I did today. From the flock of migrant workers who fled their shade tree luncheon as soon as I popped the tailgate on Unit 4, to the young mother who threatened me with a beat-down should I foolishly point my camera at her ‘hot-mess self‘, to the geezer by the freezer who insisted on giving me unsolicited directions to US 421, it was a great day for a connoisseur of the absurd.

It began, like so many good stories do, with a hot dog chili recall. Seems the fine folks at Castleberry’s dropped a little botulism into their marquee condiment and before you could say ‘Roll that beautiful bean footage’, a full blown recall was in effect. Bulletins, buzzers and a few belches rang out as the Department of Agriculture scrambled their forces to yon horizon, in an all-out quest to find, document and eradicate the troublesome foodstuff. Trouble was, Castleberry’s makes an uncanny canned chili; its popular Bunker Hill brand considered an essential accoutrement for the self respecting frankfurter. Aghast at how much sour chili still sat on shelves, the Ag Department goons called for back-up. That’s where I come in…

“Sir, I’m from the Department of Health. Can you show me to your hot dog chili?” A tiny, otherwise wisecracking woman, Sandy Ellington was all business at the counter. It worked too. Every time she approached a hapless cashier with her just-the-facts demeanor, they politely complied, few ever asking about the goofy cameraman trailing her every move. I can accept this kind of reality suspension on an episode of COPS, where not once so they show the shirtless felon look directly into the lens and ask “Just who the &^@% are you?”. That’s happened to me plenty, so much so I’m a little surprised whenever it doesn’t. This time I’ll chalk it up to Sandy’s authorities softness. I guess when you’re being quizzed about the squalidness of your toppings by an insistent Den Mother, you don’t notice the dude behind her with the loud shirt and heavy lens.

In the end, Sandy got her ill chili and I got my story. Along the way we visited wildly diverse retailers, from the squat brick building at the corner of Crackpipe and Drive-By, to that roughneck outpost just off the highway, to the Middle-Eastern feel of the little gas station at the end of Dingleberry Road. Only twice did I get any static, once from a gentlemen who felt my presence was delaying the purchase of his forty ounce adult beverage (I acquiesced. He imbibed.) and an ugly brush with a cashier’s wingman (You know, that creepy old dude who hangs out by the register and pulls Marlboros through the hole in his throat?). Seems Tex didn’t like Sandy’s questions, the logo on my lens or the cut of my jib. Profanity ensued. Sure, I could have stuck his dumb ass on the news, but hey - I’m a uniter, not a divider.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Vaudeville In a Box

Shrinking lenses, magic laptops, on-line video - it’s an exciting time to be in television news ... then why the hell am I so bored? Wait! Don’t answer that. Just sit back and read and we’ll both get through this. See, I’m on the cusp of my Late Summer Malaise and the only recommended treatment is to pound out my every frustrations on this coffee-stained keyboard. According to my wife, it’s nothing new. Every time July turns to August I get waylaid by the crushing heat, the thankless grind and all those vacationing newsmakers. Soon I find myself skulking about the newsroom fully disengaged, cloaked in melancholy, utterly apathetic to anything outside the white-hot focus of my daily assignment. Yes Sir, I’m a real ray of sunshine this time of year.

Okay, so maybe it ain't all the weather’s fault. Rain or shine, I been over my chosen profession for a good five years or so now. Chalk it up to arrested development: a prolonged sense of career stagnation brought on by the feeling your best TV news stories are somewhere far behind you. For what it’s worth, I know that’s not the case, but its awful easy to feel that way when you’re babysitting hair-do’s at The Felony Factory. I’d much rather be off by myself in Unit 4 somewhere, erecting vignettes no one deems very important (not counting of course the newscast producer, who counts on me to fill ninety seconds of real estate each night). It’s on those solo forays only that I find redemption. For better or worse, I do my best work all by my lonesome, a condition I blame squarely on my very first news director Roy Hardee - who more than encouraged my loner tendencies.

Still, it’s tough being an unaccompanied auteur in a newsroom full of team players. See, most of the fine folk I toil alongside thrive on collaboration. Reporters and photogs plot their next masterpiece with unparalleled zeal, one focused on merging words while the other riffs on the visuals. It’s a great way to commit quality television but it so ain’t me. Having cut my teeth as a one-man-band who specialized in crime and grime or outright fluff, I got certain ideas about video architecture and rarely do they involve cloying two-shots or extended stand-ups. That particular shtick is all well and good I suppose, but its team coverage I’d rather view than produce. Having sad that, I must admit my co-workers regularly put their heads together to make for some very interesting Tee-Vee. Too bad I have such a hard time making myself watch any of it.

Reading back over those three paragraphs, I realize how disgruntled I must sound. I’m really not. What I am is a realist, a cynic too perhaps: a kind of reporter but mostly a photog. And therein lies the rub. Nowhere near as enterprising as our accomplished reporting staff, and not nearly as technical as our illustrious photogs, I am, if anything, justly underrated. That’s only just I suppose, payback for playing dumb camera punk whenever some toothless rube approached me with a passel of stupid questions. (‘Couldn’t tell ya man, I just drive the truck.’) Not that photogs are dumb. Far from it. But the public’s misconception that we’re merely caddies to the semi-famous makes it awful easy to go all Caveman. Sorry ‘bout that, Geico.

Let’s wrap this up, shall we? But before we go, what have we learned? Oh yes, August in the Carolinas is so muggy, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger fantasizes about life as a bank teller. I, Stewart Pittman, prefer to work alone (with nobody else!), a tactic that’s left me miscast me among my fellow broadcasters. I watch little to no local news, not counting the stuff I see in various edit bays. No longer a real enthusiast of the form, I now view my workaday life as fodder for an ambitious set of never to be completed memoirs. Resigned to the fact I may very well have peaked professionally , I still think I can out-news-gather you with one eyelid tied behind my back. I merely reserve the right to whine about it on-line when I'm done...

There - I feel better already!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Heckuvajob, Dandy...

Proving we're not all surly loners, Canadian cameraman Bert Dandy recently warned a group of first responders about a speeding fugitive headed their way. Once his station got hold of the tape they made great hay of it of course, but the resulting footage does serve as a kind of public service spot: If a dude with a TV news camera is urgently trying to get your attention, give him a listen. He's either trying to save your life, quiz you on an odd topic or bum a light. Either way, you're the hero. It all reminds me of the time I stopped a local traffic cop from blindly stepping in front of a speeding bus. It was the least I could do, as I was the one who distracted him talk of wireless microphones and fleeting stardom. Powerful thing, fame...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Back from Iraq

File this one under Rookie Moves I Shouldn’t Still Be Making

It was a simple enough assignment. Meet a local family at the airport as they welcomed their young Marine son back from Iraq. His flight was due at 11:15 and for once I was early. So early in fact I beat the family there. Entering a door by the Delta gate, I scanned the crowd for the telltale signs of a hero’s welcome. ’Welcome Home’ signs. Baby carriages. Cleavage. Seeing neither, I kept on walking, my lens riding low off a well-worn shoulder strap. All around me people passed, pulling wheeled luggage and clutching glossy magazines. Piedmont Triad International rarely ever feels busy, but today a decent flock of travelers made their way down the concourse as if they all truly had some place to go. Slowing my pace to people watch, I searched for any hints of giddiness among anyone loitering and came up empty. That’s when I saw him.

Mr. Carter, I think his name is. A man in his sixties with a gravely voice and a distinctive black eye patch, his kindly smile always reminds me of a Rooster Cogburn without the piss or vinegar. I’m not sure of his exact title, only that it involves airport security and returning military. The last time I saw him the arriving soldier was in a flag-draped box and small talk almost nil. This time however, the circumstances were brighter and we fell into easy conversation there by the cafĂ© with the eight dollar cheeseburgers. I find Mr. Carter fascinating. Unexplained eye patch aside, the avuncular security lunk is of considerably nimble wit. Somehow we got on the topic of Vietnam and the former Marine regaled me with tales of his time in Da Nang. A raconteur in his own right, Mr. Carter wove a ribald account of jungle R and R. - while the both of us waited to recognize people neither of us had met.

A few war stories later, they arrived - a smiling cluster of family and friends eager to receive their native son. They must have seen the fancy-cam at my feet, for they walked up unannounced and nodded like they knew me. Soon, they too became enamored of Mr. Carter, the wizened and retired Marine quickly shifting his anecdotes into more G-Rated fare. Standing over my camera, I resisted the urge to ask about the eye patch. Looking down, I saw the old man’s ID badge and realized it would probably be okay if I ever did. Surrounded by official-looking type and sanctimonious seal, the airport photo featured a smiling Mr. Carter, complete with a bright stuffed parrot sitting on his shoulder. I was still chuckling at the sight when three short words awoek me from my stupor.

“Here he comes…”

Wheeling around like the well-oiled lenslinger I claim to be, I scooped the camera off the floor and on my shoulder in oen fluids motion. I flipped a switch by feel and bright blue light filled the viewfinder. While my eyesight adjusted, I rolled the barrel of my lens into perfect focus, spotted a young man in desert camouflage at the end of the hall and plunged my thumb into the ‘Record’ button. That’s when two words filled the tiny screen and damn near took my breath. Disc Full. Disc Full? ‘How the hell?’ I asked myself as I dropped into a crouched position and fumbled for the camera’s controls. Opening a tiny door, and flipping a tiny toggle, I scrolled through countless menus as the young man in cammies drew near. Behind me, his Mom let out a great bug yell and it occurred to me how badly I needed to be rolling. But I couldn’t do a thing until I erased my disc, a process that only takes a second or two - provided you’re not being bombarded with breaking news. Cursing myself for daydreaming with Old Man Cogburn for a half hour, I stabbed at buttons and cursed, the heavy footfalls of the young Marine’s combat boots announcing his arrival. As he drew into unencumbered view, I completed the disc erase sequence and hit ‘Record’' - just as his Mom broke from the pack and enveloped him in girlish squeals and manly bear hug.

So, did I get the shot? Of course. I’m no rookie, ya know…

Monday, July 30, 2007

The End of Immortality

Four days after the Phoenix chopper crash, the debate over helicopter newsgathering continues - at the hangar, in the newsroom and on the internet. The questions are many: Should TV news chopper pilots stop doubling as on-air personalities? Should stations share aerial footage gathered by a single aircraft? Should the Federal Government step in and limit where the Fourth Estate can fly? Should industry leaders call for the abatement of high-speed pursuits? Dunno. All I am sure of is there’s no chopper pad behind El Ocho. Thank God. Don't get me wrong, there was a day I’d crawl in any cockpit and I’ll still strap in if the reason is right, but a weekly seat aboard one of those eggbeaters is, quite simply, duty I can do without. If that makes me a coward, then it is one of convenience - for if my station did have a logo'd bird parked out back - I'd be drawn to its insides like an addict to crack. Why exactly, I can't say - but as always, I'll give it a shot anyway.

I've said before on this very blog that a fancy-cam will get you into most any cockpit. When I was younger, I tested that theory relentlessly, worming my way aboard any airship that would have me and my lens: countless tiny Cessnas, an attack helicopter, a few hot air balloons, even the Goodyear Blimp. Hell, I came thisclose to scoring a ride with the Blue Angels once, but the reporter chosen to go in my place had much prettier boobs. That really burned me up at the time, schlepping along terra firma as she got to pull a couple of big-busted G's. But I got over it. How? By telling myself it simply wasn't meant to be. That kind of fatalism may sound strange coming from a card-carrying cynic like myself, but when it comes to assignment selection, one tends to believe in a kind of serendipity; a quiet belief that certain gigs come your way for the very reason others don't. How else do you explain the unnerving randomness of it all?

Of course, there's another factor at play. Call it Cameraman Immortality. I cannot fully explain its origins, but its the insidious opinion that society's norms don't apply to you - just because you happen to take in life through a tube. As a condition, it occurs in varying degrees. Most active in the machismo of our twenties, its a common misconception borne of most uncommon access. I use to have it bad. Cop cars, single bars, forest fars ... I ran headlong into each, simultaneously brandishing my camera and hiding behind its heft. See, as long as I'm rolling, nothing can hurt me. I'll simply stare at that tiny black and white screen until the improbable images flicker to darkness and reality slowly returns. Only then will I repair to the edit suite and review my footage, chuckling darkly at how close my camera and I came to the brink.

If that all seems a little overblown, well - you should be used to that by now. What I'm trying to say in my own hyperbolic way is that its easy to feel bulletproof when you're merely there to document. How many times can the average photog brush against calamity and come away unscathed, before he or she decides the laws of nature simply don't apply when the tally light is shining? I don't know, neither do I claim to know what ran through the minds of the Phoenix Four as they began what probably felt like just another routine flight. Chances are thoughts of a violent death weren't aboard either news chopper last Friday, as the men inside were too busy doing a job they enjoyed to mull over each other's mortal coil. That, I've learned is how life and death operate - with little foreshadowing and even less logic. Must be why the older I get, the less I realize I know.

So while a globe full of pundits decry the wisodm and hubris of aerial brinkmanship, I'll save my gray matter for the lowly photog's point of view. Unlike their pilot counterparts, the two young men hunched over camera knobs last Friday controlled only their viewers-at-large imagination. When the terrible collision occured and altitude was lost, their skills ceased to matter and their bodies ceased to be. This makes them no less than heroes in my book, for, unlike the myriad of managers that hurled them into the void, the legion of watchers egging it all on from the safety of their sofas, or the felonious schlub at the very front of the pack, photojournalists Jim Cox and Rick Krolak are devoid of fault and unworthy of your malice - for they performed a task they loved until the very act took their own lives. We should all fly so high...