Saturday, October 27, 2007

He Shoots, He Scores

I don't usually get caught up in laurels, but can someone please hand Casey Affleck the Oscar of his choice? While you're at it, find one for Brad Pitt, 'cause together the two held me down and spellbound for the better part of three hours. I'm talking about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - the movie based on the book based on the untimely demise of a living icon ... Jesse James is alive, but not well. He's only 34, but the famed train robber's glory days are behind him. Tortured by old wounds and his own demons, Jesse drifts from town to town with a leathery retinue of syncophants. One such lackey is Bob Ford, an unproven punk who at once worships, hates and envies the infamous outlaw. Writer Ron Hansen takes these bare facts and weaves together an existential account of Jesse James' final days. His gang's slow mutiny fills every conversation with dread, until the final act of betrayal ends the gunslinger's life and leaves his young assassin haunted by the audacity of the act.

Trippy stuff for a shoot-em-up, but Hansen's powers of description and gift for 19th Century vernacular keeps the reader's boots quaking up until the bloody, ugly end. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be much the same. Using whole chunks of narration and dialogue from the book, the screenplay pays tribute to the author's words in such a way I've not seen before. I don't know if cowpokes of that era really spoke which such wonderful formality, but I'll never think of the fabled James gang as anything less than eloquent. On hand to deliver those lines is a brilliant cast, anchored of course my Mr. Angelina Jolie. Pitt, as he's otherwise known, is perfect. His Jesse is an overly cordial psychopath, a heavy-lidded killer who is as scary as he is gregarious. But the film's real star is Casey Affleck, who submits a life-changing performance as the weasely yet likeable sniper who regrets his fate before Jesse James' corpse ever hits the floor.

Thought long and a ponderous by some critics, The Assassination of Jesse James... is the finest Thinking Man's Cowboy Movie since Clint Eastwood sought his own cinematic vengeance in Unforgiven. It's almost enough to forgive Hollywood for this abomination. Almost.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mr. Lassiter's Opus

Lassiter goes nuts!I'm telling ya, my Cameratology professor was TOUGH. He was all about the fundamentals, you know ... wides and tights, tripod reliance, shooting in the can. I learned a lot from him but only when I wasn't ducking hurled camera batteries. Rumor had it he'd suffered a beat-down during the great Food Lion Uprising and was never the same. You think Barton's grumpy, this dude was a menace! A single flashframe could send him into a frenzy and he'd start swinging tripod legs until everyone low-crawled out of the room. Once I saw him dropkick a Goth kid for 'breaking the axis', then half choked two frat boys with an old press-pass lanyard when they kept forgetting to white-balance. During the last semester some kids dosed his coffee with hallucinogenics, but he just turned off all the flourescents and ranted about mapbooks for an hour. Then there was the time I spilled Dr. Pepper on his save tapes. I thought he was gonna bust a blood vessel. Hmm?

Yeah, well - okay , so that's not my old Cameratology professor. Fact is, outside of a Masters in Ribbon Cutting Smotherage, I got no sheepskin at all. No, that's Tom Lassiter - certified camera guru and one heckuva nice guy. He was gracious enough to encourage my interest in his Why Most Web Videos Stink session at ConvergeSouth. The resulting hour proved quite popular and I got to use the term 'bowel movement' to describe a particular internet vid. Perhaps academia wouldn't have been such a hassle after all...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Suitable for Framing

Pity beFrank. Last week the L.A. photog was lamenting a lack of local action; now he's up to his bandana in breaking news, courtesy of the California Wildfires. Man, that must be a mother to cover - twisty roads, shifting fronts, leaning protagonists - not to mention the hordes of Pyro-razzi scrambling for the sweet spot. I've stalked many a big-ass woods fire, but never one with an entourage. Our Zen Master with a lens has apparently, for he''s nailing frame after perfect frame. Being beFrank, he'll shrug it off as happenstance but I predict the above print will hang in his next gallery exhibit. What he'll name that show I don't know, but he'd better not call 'em snapshots. Not with those lines...

Schmuck Alert: Plenty to Go Around

Ya know, he had me ‘til the end. Jeffrey Weinsier had every right to stand on the sidewalk outside Miami Central Senior High School yesterday. There to cover a story on local school violence, he handled himself with reasonable aplomb when police arrived to kick him off a public sidewalk. That kind of thing doesn’t set well with the American press . See, we operate under the assumption the Constitution is still in full effect. When certain officers try to amend those rights by pushing us off public property while Sally Joe Housecoat roams freely, we feel obligated to object. That’s seemingly what happened when, after retreating across the street, Weinsier joked to his photog about getting arrested and walked back toward the school. The next thirty seconds or so are fairly predictable: officer insists reporter leaves, reporter refuses, oversized bracelets come into play. When word of the arrest came across my desk, I almost rubber stamped it with a regulation Schmuck Alert. Then I read about the .38.

A loaded .38, tucked into Weinsier’s waistband. Police found it when they searched the reporter - whereupon he rightly informed them he had a concealed weapon permit that allowed him to hide a gun on his person. Seems death threats from a restaurant investigation had convinced Weinsier to arm himself and he just happened to be packing heat when the law accosted him outside the school. Y-e-a-h-h…Look. I’ve no real beef with concealed weapons. It ain’t my tactic of choice, but members of my family embrace the practice. (Hopefully they’ll be visiting the day Bin Laden pops out of his spider hole.) Station attorneys are quick to point out ‘that a concealed weapons permit allows a firearm within a thousand feet of a school, but not inside a school and that Weinsier never went into the school.’ But why didn’t Weinsier stash his gat in his whip before loitering outside the school, or at least rethink his insistence on being arrested, knowing he was armed. Perhaps I’m just a parent with an aversion to weaponry - or maybe I’ve known too many reporters to trust any of them around my kids’ schools with a handgun…

Either way, I’m issuing a Schmuck Alert for the five county region. Blame the officers involved all-right, but don’t forget to include Jeffery Weisner - who probably just lost his invitation to come speak at graduation. Schmucks!

Beautiful Disaster

Funny thing about Mother Nature. She’s always purtiest when pissed off. I first noticed it about her on the coast; she’d rearranged coastlines in a sniveling fit and I‘d race through her wake with a mouth full of saltwater. Then another one of her biblical winds flooded my very homeland and I floated over dead cattle with a stupid grin on my face. I can’t cipher why. She’s sent me stompin’ around icy overpasses at dawn and tried to fry me inside live trucks at noon . But no matter the infraction, I’ve never pressed charges, for I knew no matter how greasily she treated me, I would always be afforded one hell of a view. Just look at her. Heh - throw in an unseemly scanner fetish and the intoxicating scent of freskly bent sheet metal and you have my three best excuses for why I still chase this crazy bitch. I mean, just look at her...

Then again, it's easy for me to romanticize it all from the comfort of my laptop. I'd much rather hear what's going through Dave Malkoff's mind as he and his friends cover the California wildfires. No stranger to covering such events, the KCAL reporter and crew are weathering the firestorm and posting a staggering gallery along the way. More than mementos of these Fourth State, these ancillary images add to the data harvest in a such a way that was thought improbable as recently as 9/11. Can there me too many lenses perched on Cataclysm's Ridge? I don't think so. But one thing I do know - the end of the world will be the most visually documented happening in the universe.

Here's hoping we come away with more than a nice coffee table book...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Slim Short: Southern Giant

Slim ShortUpon stumbling into my very first TV station, I dropped to my knees and bowed at the feet of Slim Short. How couldn't I? I'd grown up watching this elfin, vested elder clown his way through two hours of live television every morning. The show was Carolina Today and it was as hokey as they come. As a snotty teenager, I often rolled my bloodshot eyes at the cornball humor of Slim and his hillbilly gang. But the day I gained entry to WNCT-TV, I quickly realized I was in the presence of giants. To Slim, I was just the latest in a l-o-n-g line of half-asleep cameramen. That didn't stop him however, from showing me kindness at every turn. Sunday, Slim - born Robert Allen - went to that great studio in the sky and I post this note through a curtain of tears. But since Slim never took himself too seriously, I'll try not to either. A few memories, however, do come to mind:

Every morning, Slim would do a number of live commercials. This entailed him sitting on the set with an art card on his knee. One camera would zoom in on the card while the other camera centered up on Slim. What followed was usually a rambling screed about the merits of said advertiser. It was supposed to last 30 seconds. It often exceeded two minutes. Director Walter Hearne would invariably come over the headsets and tell us to show Slim the 'wrap it up' sign. I never did. Would you rush Elvis off the stage?

Slim taught me volumes about celebrity and Southern grace. Whether in the studio, at various bar-be-cue dives or at the 30th anniversary of Carolina Today, his legion of fans pretty much genuflected in his presence. Slim no doubt enjoyed the adoration, but I never once saw him be anything but gracious, often deflecting the attention back on his supplicants. Sure, he didn't pay for too many meals back then (his money was no good in most local restaurants) but his goofball humour and trademark vests always made him a pleasure to be around - even when the bluehairs bum-rushed his table.

Slim lived to be 80. He was an avid bow hunter and a walking encyclopedia of all things Eastern North Carolina. But he was no health nut - at least when I knew him. Back then, he'd regularly slip behind the latticework set during commercial breaks and join his long-haired cameraman for a morning cigarette. He'd wolf down the massive cheese-laden biscuits that mysteriously appeared in the studio every morning - courtesy of some sponsor or another. One of my favorite memories of Slim is from a company pool party - in which I knocked back hefty swigs of Old GrandDad with this local, living legend.

I could go on, and as the scenarios reappear in my consciousness, I just might. I often refer to WNCT as the Roy Park School of Broadcasting and for good reason. I learned so much from Slim, John Spence, Jim Woods and others. They were all in the twilight of their careers and I was but the latest punk-ass to show up on set. But they took me under their wings nonetheless, taught me how local TV was formed and how it would never be again. I've benefitted from their tutelage ever since and hope to one day return the favor to those still struggling to fill Slim Short's shoes. Howdy Up, indeed...

A Tale of Two Mediums

Through my involvement with ConvergeSouth, I regularly consort with newspaper people. It’s an interaction I find most invigorating, for there are deeper subjects to broach in life than where to place that last wide shot. Still, I can’t help but notice the striking disparities in the ink stained wretches and the boob tube goobs. Thus, I offer the following relief - but please, no wagering...

Newspaper folk think TV news people are vapid and overwrought; arbiters of inanity and walking examples of everything that’s wrong with modern day journalism. TV news people rarely think of newspaper folk at all.

The cockiest of the broadcast lot never leave the building. Instead, they banter their assumed truths and stale bromides from the sanctity of their overlit cubicles. Newspaper folk are much the same - though their trademark smarm usually involves more syllamables.

Newspaper photographers live for their photo credit. TV news photogs live for their light kits (the good ones, anyway).

TV news people begin their day leafing through every print edition they can lay hands on in hopes of finding a story to scavenge. Newspaper folk rush to the nearest television set whenever there’s breaking news. Neither group likes to admit it.

Newspaper folk are better conversationalists. They read thicker books, harbor sharper opinions and can speak on a wide variety of esoteric issues. TV news people, on the other hand, throw righteous keggers.

TV news people have no idea what it takes to fill all that column space. They cannot fathom the amount of research and internal debate that goes into the average Sunday cover story. Newspaper folk couldn’t turn a five o clock press conference into a six o clock lead story if their families were being held at gunpoint.

Newspaper folk KNOW the media landscape is experiencing a tectonic shift. The twin tubes of the internet and a diminishing audience has forced them to rethink their very approach to information dissemination. TV news folk are still looking up the word ‘tectonic’.

TV news people - specifically the on-air set - are justly infamous for misplaced pomposity and unearned arrogance. Newspaper columnists are much the same - they just don’t dress nearly as well.

Newspaper folk are convinced their communities hang on their every printed world. TV news people know the sun only rises to illuminate the next broadcast. Both camps would do well to get out more.

Newspaper women are a vexing, intoxicating lot. They use bigger words than you and can outmaneuver many a male colleague - both in wordcount and hard-earned street cred. But TV news chicks, meanwhile, are a lot hotter.

And what could be more important than THAT?

Trumpet the ThunderDome

It may look like a scene out of Mad Max, but this apocalyptic landscape is all too real. It's Malibu, of course and the figure in the foreground is one of newsgathering's last forgotten heroes: The Soundman. These guys (and gals) have to follow photogs into the phlogiston, wrangle ornery booms and stay the hell out of the way. It ain't easy in the best of conditions - let alone an inferno such as this. So the next time you're watching a compelling network report, give it a closer listen and know the sound that drives all that emotion didn't stick to the tape by itself. Now go hug an audiophile...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

ConvergeSouth: The Buzz That Was

Soni & I at SessionWhen a shirtless Al Gore first twisted the internets out of molten lava, experts worried it would turn the people of the Earth into agoraphobic laptop addicts. Perhaps they had a point. Still, when used correctly, the series of tubes that is the web can actually bring people face to face - and I‘m not talking about those skeevy dating websites, either. I‘m talking ConvergeSouth. A (free!) tech conference centered around on-line creativity, CS takes place every October at NC State A&T University in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s a fortuitous locale, one that allows me to motor just a few miles from my house and engage in the kind of conversation I simply cannot find at my neighborhood picnics. It’s precisely this elocution that brings me back year after year, for I can find blogging tips and J-School debates right here on my PC - provided I stop playing Donkey Kong long enough.

Despite my affinity for the run-on sentence, I can’t possibly offer a comprehensive view of ConvergeSouth. And don’t judge it from my token photo. While much of CS does take place in college classrooms, there’s musical performances, a film festival and more than a few knocked-back highballs to add to the hip quotient. For visual evidence of said revelry, simply click here and peruse the gallery. But pack a lunch - there are already nearly 500 photographs! Better yet, click here and scan the entries posted by the participants - from the limp-wrested leftie to the screeching right-winger to that TV news boob who fancies himself a poet. Then and only then can you get a sense of why I chose to spend a beautiful October weekend bathing in the glow of a warmed-over laptop. Now, on with the shout-outs:

Early on in the event, I stumbled across a most engaging figure: 'Bill' the talented photographer known as Chathamshooter. Armed with a camera and a sense of history, Bill takes jaw-dropping shots of neglected relics, turning rusty metal into objects de'Art. I urged him to 'blogify' his Flickr collection and pointed to another gifted lenser for inspiration...

As hoped, the South Carolina contingency was in attendance, giving me the chance to put faces to a few favorite on-line personas. There's Myrtle Beach resident Dave Slusher of the Evil Genius Chronicles - who didn't seem evil at all. I assume he's pals with Dan Conover and Janet Edens, a married couple from Charleston who just might save their beloved newspaper industry- if only to scrap it for something more interesting - like Jell-o wrestling...

From right around town was Jayne England Byrne - the blogging breast cancer survivor Julie Luck and I profiled on television months ago. During that visit, I implored Jayne to explore the fertile Greensboro blogosphere. She did and after sitting through my session, approached me to say thanks. Thank YOU, Jayne - your comments warmed the crusty cockles of my photog heart - a piece of anatomy I rarely speak of in mixed company...

Other locals showed up as well. Potato Stew was magnanimous as always and Fecund Stench cackled on cue. Joe Killian donned a jaunty chapeau as Cara Michelle quietly forgave all trespassers. Joel Leonard opined the loss of maintenance engineers while Billy the Blogging Poet politicized his ride. While the rest of us chortled and preened, David Hoggard whipped up the best tasting pig this side of Dick Carney. Mmmm, buffalo...

Tom Lassiter is another local I've grown to groove on. A former newspaper guy who now does corporate video, Tom led a session on making sure your web video rises above that of the average YouTube lip-synch saga. He graciously asked me to take part in his schpiel and together we dropped many a tip on an appreciative audience. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you - just some common sense camera-management to make sure Grandma doesn't come out looking like she's runnin' from the law. Thanks, Tom...

Lastly, there is the matter of Soni Pitts. For months I've hinted that an honest-to-God editor type is helping me prune my blather into something publishable. That person is she - on-loan from a benefactor who will remain anonymous. Though I'd never met Soni, we've shared many an e-mail and phone call and will no doubt share many more. This weekend was a chance for us to share some air and lead a session called 'Blog to Book'. That went well, thanks to her industry expertise and my love for the sound of my own voice. Ever the editor, Soni reminded me at the end of ConvergeSouth that I do indeed owe her some text - which reminds me...

I gotta get busy.