Saturday, April 05, 2008

Rotgut Theater

"I have never served a drop of alcohol IN MY LIFE!” the old woman said with conviction.

I would have believed her too, had she not been surrounded by liquor bottles, shot glasses and plastic milk jugs full of homemade hooch. No sooner had the lady made her strange claim than a red light began flashing in the corner of my viewfinder. DAMN! Two minutes into my first ‘shot house’ bust and my camera batteries were dropping like flies. Shifting my weight, I pulled the camera away from my face, balanced it on the fanny pack strap slicing into my waist and traded one dead brick for a slightly newer one. As I did, deputies of every stripe squeezed past. By the time I re-shouldered my lens, a leathery old man in bib overalls began arguing with the interlopers trying to handcuff him, at which point they took him to the floor. Suddenly a giant ALE filled my tiny screen, as a behemoth in a windbreaker joined in on the dog pile. Shoved backward, I came to rest on a pool table, the petrified cue-balls scattering and clattering as I reached behind me to avoid falling. Contortionism aside, I squinted and grinned as the cops all but hogtied the inebriated senior. THIS, is what I’d come for.

It was early 1991 and I was in heaven. Actually, it was rural Jones County, North Carolina. A few hours after sunset I’d met a rabble of good ole boys in unmarked Crown Vics at the county line as they plotted the evening’s takedown. The target: a jacked-up shack smack-dab in the middle of Jones County's skeeviest trailer court. According to my new friends, the rundown structure was a den of sin, a gathering place known to all as a good place to purchase a snort of moonshine or a shot of illegally re-sold liquor. Truthbetold, I couldn’t give less of a shit what went down inside there. If the state wanted to spend resources making the county safe for self-respecting alcoholics, have at it. I was just a 23 year old photog high on police access. If the guys with the high and tight haircuts wanted to bum-rush Barney the Dinosaur, it was fine by me - as long as they didn’t block my shot on the way in.

The television show COPS cast a long shadow over my entry into newsgathering. Every Saturday night, a sofa bound nation leaned into their sets and chortled on cue as some shirtless buffoon protested his innocence before getting cuffed and stuffed. I was among those hanging on every televised arrest and so were my bosses. Though they never really said it, the landmark reality show and it’s cinema verite influenced the way we covered the local cop-shops. Suddenly, police agencies were granting the media all-access passes to drug round-ups, property seizures and the like - all in hopes they’d be seen striking heroic poses on the evening news. Young, dumb and with something to prove, I happily obliged. ‘Justice? Eff Justice,’ -- I thought. I wanted to ride shotgun in police department squad cars follow cops up crack-house stairways, and do cameraman pirouettes around the mad, the bad and the otherwise shackled. For longer than I care to admit, I got my wish.

So you can imagine my glee when a deputy buddy asked if I wanted to tag along on a shot house raid. I ran my fingers through my feathered hair and said “Damn skippy!” -- though at the time I didn’t really know what a shot house was. When it was explained to me I merely nodded, though surely it couldn’t be like my cop buddies described. It was. After rendezvousing with the authorities a block away, we descended on the aforementioned shack with lights, lens and logos blazing. Following the fuzz as they burst through the door, I all but guffawed at what I saw. The interior of the one-room shack looked like a scene out of Roadhouse. A few crusty customers slumped at the bar, one hillbilly bent over the felt in mid trick shot, the matronly old woman behind the bar - all froze in repose as The Man came crashing through. I was but a gnat in on the action, but the ensuing maneuvers added to my street degree and really spiced up the weekend news. I can still hear the sound of the liquid hitting pay dirt as a beefy deputy emptied jug after jug of rotgut on the driveway outside. So too can I recall the exuberance of my heavily armed hosts as they unmade everybody’s day.

But more than anything else, I remember the old barmaid’s claim; her wrinkled face and every inflection burned into my mind’s eye the moment it passed through my camera’s lens. I don’t know why some soundbites echo, but I’m betting anyone who’s slung a lens for more than a week carries around a few audio snippets they’d probably like to erase. Now if only I could remember all my computer passwords as easily...

Friday, April 04, 2008

Heffalumps and Noozles

Pachyderm Patrol
Crikey, look at the SIZE of that thing! No, not my big melon head; the heffalump grazing in the distance. He’s (she‘s?) just one of the new pachyderms you’ll find chewing the scenery at the North Carolina Zoo. Ten years ago I began making regular safaris to Randolph County‘s crown jewel, where friend of the show Rod Hackney would lead me and my lens through a living menagerie riddled by third graders. Back then we’d shoot four separate pieces in a single day and I’d leave the park totally spent and smelling of elderberries. These days The Zoo Filez is produced out of house and the only time I get down there is to shoot the occasional yak and pony show. Such was the case today, when zoo peeps unveiled the Watani Grasslands Reserve, an $8.5 million dollar overhaul of their venerable elephant and rhino exhibit. Expansive and interactive, the Watani Grasslands afford visitors a new look at the zoo’s marquee creatures - sometimes from as close as forty feet away. That’s within flying dung distance! Trust me, you do not want to be in the sights of these slow-moving sharpshooters when they’re feeling pissy. They can do things with a prehensile tusk that Major League pitchers can only dream of. Don’t worry though; they mainly just target hippies in PETA t-shirts…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go Photoshop more hair over my bald spot. No wonder the baboons were looking at me funny...

Thursday, April 03, 2008

They Killed Kenny!

Kenny Tased
Okay, so they only tased him. Still, you gotta give it up for El Ocho photojournalist Kenny Cravens, who willingly submitted to a Forsyth County zapping today - all in the name of local television. Not only did he take it like a man, but the photog known as Bluedog did so without the first curse - or any of the melodrama I've seen from other volunteer shock-ees. The resulting footage is the kind of G-Rated Torture Porn you won't find at your local Cineplex. Funny thing is, Kenny wasn't even on my list of 'Co-Workers I'd Like To See Probed With an Electro-Shock Weapon'. Yeah, I got a list. Like YOU don't. Pfft...

Confessions of a Lot Lizard

"'Scuse me Sir, you independent?"

The man said nothing, just lifted a bushy eyebrow and walked on past. I didn’t take it personal. I was already honing in on the gentleman behind him, a squat fellow in a too-tight poncho. Waiting until he walk into earshot, I faked an earnest grin.

“Hey there, you truckin’ for yourself?”

Poncho cocked his hooded head to the side as he passed, his cowboy boots skimming the sidewalk’s tidal pools.


I turned as if struck, but fired no retort at the truckers backside. ‘Hmph‘, I thought - turning back to catch my reflection in the Visitor’s Center glass doors. There I stood, a scruffy stranger in a green overcoat, standing in the rain by the Rest Stop’s bathroom shack. Nothing weird about that. At least my fancycam was dry; I’d parked it on its tripod just under the shack’s eave, the gutter’s steady waterfall missing it by a good foot and a half. Trouble was I had to walk away from it to catch the steady straggle of truck drivers as they left their idling big rigs for a chance to piss standing up. In the distance, a man and woman trudged toward me, he cupping a cigarette in the rain, she holding the world’s largest Rusty Wallace thermos.

“How ya doin’ folks, ya’ll wouldn’t be independent truckers, would ya?”

“Don’t look at him, Lurlene,” the man said as smoke drifted from beneath the mangled bib of his waterlogged hat. Lurlene obliged, her knuckles whitening around the thermos as she prepared to bludgeon the pervert in the raincoat. I wisely froze - my head only turning to make sure Smokey wasn’t going to double back and go all Walker - Texas Ranger on me. Instead he put his arm around Lurlene’s shoulder and headed for the snack room shack, glancing over his shoulder ay me before turning to satiate his sweet and salty needs.

I could only look back and smile weakly, knowing the trucking couple would have to walk right past me again to get back to their rumbling semi. Taking off my glasses, I grabbed my shirttail with the other hand and for the fifteenth time that morning tried to dry my heavily corrective lenses. It didn’t work, but as I rubbed them in soggy cotton, I traveled back in time. Ninety minutes earlier, I’d been fat, dry and pensive - my eyes darting between the box of Krispy Kremes on the conference room table and the dry-erase board that held my fate of the day.

“Truckers say they’re going on strike tomorrow.” the assistant news director said as he dismantled his own sprinkled donut. “Don’t you have some independent trucker buddies down in Denton?”

“Yup,” I replied with confidence - though with a half dozen reporters crammed in the room and a pegboard bursting with live truck keys, I would have agreed on any solo assignment, shy of a spot proctology exam. Little did I know then my trucker buddies would be out trucking, or that the local truck stop owner was still mad at the station for slights real or imagined. Thus, I was forced to troll the interstate rest stops in hopes of finding owner operators who were feeling verbose. On a Monday morning. In the rain.

Giving my glasses one last swipe, I placed them on my nose and profiled the driver climbing down from a bright red Peterbilt. What I wouldn’t give for a talking hair-do right now, I thought. - someone pretty enough to attract the truckers’ attention in a way that a goateed loner with not a stitch of logowear on could not. To my dismay however, not even an intern was available when I finally gave up on phone tag and hit the highway. Now, wet, hungry and increasingly irritated, I wanted only for my Monday to end. Or at least get started. Back at the station, good folks were already crafting promos touting the latest from local truckers about to go on strike. With that in mind, I scanned every feature of the approaching trucker, noting his Metallica t-shirt and budding mullet

“What up Lars? Gotta second to tell your local station how much trucking sucks?”

He did. As did others. Twenty minutes later, I stashed my soggy gear I new Unit Four and fled the rest stop, without a single contusion, phone number or venereal disease to show for it. What more can one ask of a Monday?

Hurricanes or Hollywood...

Hurricane Shannon
I don't really have any fresh commentary to accompany this archival shot, just the nagging sensation I've never really showcased it before. It was Hurricane Isabel and if memory serves me correctly Shannon Smith and I were on Live Shot number 4,362 when someone snapped this shot. Ahhh yes, I recall granola bars, lateral precip and a pier-side clutch of leathery locals. Of course Shannon and I would re-team years later to wade neck-deep into the swirling maelstrom that is the American Idol star-making process - an experience just a tad less stressful than dodging flying sheet-metal. These days Idol is the limpest of events and memories of our last hurricane are as crinkled and weathered as those 8 by 10 glossies Clay Aiken's Mom used to hand out. Come to think of it - I don't know which assignment is more perilous. Hurricane Smotherage features flash flooding, biblical winds and airborne shrapnel. American Idol however is rife with delusional wannabes, entertainment reporters and no small amount of body glitter. At least with hurricanes, there's no preeening blowhard in a muscle shirt trying to act all bad-ass...

That is until those prima donnas from The Weather Channel show up.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Perils of Evolution

Style and ProfileNetwork affiliates slashing staffs, print reporters willingly shooting digital video, gadabouts with laptops forging on-line personas…the tectonic plates beneath the Fourth Estate are shifting just as the pointy-headed set predicted. Professors, pundits and dunces have long been warning anyone who would listen that growing fissures in the media landscape were about to swallow us all whole. Newspapers felt the first jolts as the internet schism shook relevance and revenue from the very bedrock of their petrified methodology. Meanwhile, we broadcasters professed to be non-believers, washing our hands of our print brethren’s sins as we genuflected in the direction of our giant TV towers out back. Well, those popping sounds you hear overhead are guy wires snapping, as the relics of the past began to plummet and an entirely new electronic edifice emerges…

Okay so the imagery’s a little thick, but you get the idea. So much has already been written about the birth of personal journalism, the death of mainstream media and the afterlife of a plugged-in populace - it would take a curator to sort it all out. Me, I’m just a cameraman - but unlike that schlub leaning on his sticks at the city council meeting, I been paying attention. ’What would it be like if TV News grew up?’ I used to wonder. Could it ever get over its own reflection long enough to evolve? Would I spend the rest of my paltry career perfecting the erection of a hollow mirage? Until five years ago or so it seemed certain I would, but a funny thing happened on the road to Status Quo. The sky opened up, rained down electrons and filled the senses of all those foolish enough to cast their gazes upward. Now that the heavens are truly askew, the cross fertilization has begun. As old archetypes turn to dust, new media life forms are emerging from the Primordial News…

Despite my penchant for shambolic prose, I understand fully that people are hurting. The layoffs at CBS-owned stations across the nation have left both under-funded grunt and the overpaid icon suddenly unemployed. Even the highly gifted are susceptible to the cuts, a point made all too clear when NPPA Editor of the year Shawn Montano was among the number let go in Denver. My heart goes out too all who find themselves ‘on the beach’ and I trust those with such undeniable talent won’t be marooned for long. But we as a TV people will surely be doomed if we don’t embrace this strange new frontier. The bloodletting at CBS stations across the land are but the first sacrificial offerings to reshape our faith. I’m not suggesting we break any sacred any tablets, for the fundamentals of moving picture news will surely deliver us from exile. That said, its no time to rest on our convictions, not with new messiahs rising and old media deities turning to dust.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta drag this pillar of salt across one more deadline…

The Legend of Frankensticks

Don't tell anyone, but I'm a little worried about The Weaver. Normally a ray of unending sunshine, the big lug's been wandering around El Ocho with duct tape on his fingertips and a troubled look upon his face. Judging from the grease on his shirt, I'm guessing it's his sticks. You know, too much filler in his Miller; his Gitzo done got up and wentzo. Now I don't know the official medical term, but in the station parking lot that is our Photog's Lounge, we call it 'Tripod Envy' - that uneasy feeling you get after months of parking a tricked-out fancycam atop a junkyard perch. It's enough to make a photog shoot a circumcision totally off shoulder, for who wants to place their high-dollar axe on a trio of legs that won't stand up. Not me - which is why I absconded with Joey Flash's tripod before the giddy drifter ever left town. As for Weaver, he's been driven to cannibalism. Just this afternoon I walked outside to see him standing over an amalgamation of several sets of sticks, a thoroughly grusome creature held together with enough clothes-pins and elbow spit to launch a space shuttle. I tried to get his attention, but he just kept looking down and muttering "It's alive...." over and over and over. I'm ain't sayin' dude's tripped his lid, but should he show up for work tomorrow wearing a white lab coat, I'm hitting him with a tranquilizer dart.

Just sayin'...

Monday, March 31, 2008

(Rec)order in the Court!

Wanna feel the wrath of your fellow man? Stroll into a crowded courtroom with a TV camera and tripod on your shoulder. Actually, you'd better check with the judge first, lest you find yourself rolling in the pokey. The other day, I had permission. Hell, I had a three bailiff escort into the District Courtroom. Seems the D.A. was gonna deny bail to an accomplice in a murder case and someone wanted it televised. Thus, I was afforded an invitation to a high noon bond hearing, provided I show up early and submit to a thorough wanding. Hey - I’m down!

“Empty your pockets into the tray.” the dead woman said. Knowing better than to vex a cadaver with a badge, I complied - filling the shoebox-sized tray with my detritus. Car keys, wireless microphone, wallet, three Double A batteries, cell phone, $1.74 in change, headphones and a wide angle lens, perhaps I should have streamlined everything back at the car. Once the tray was full, I slid it aside and placed my fancycam on the X-ray machine’s conveyor belt. The zombie in brown polyester looked upon my Sony as if it were a steaming turd. She then looked up at me as if I’d cut said cheese. Then she called for back-up.

Flanked by two husky bailiffs, I stepped into an elevator that vaguely smelled of urine. My hosts seemed jittery - as if they were they were escorting a particularly vile defendant to the cavity search room. At first I tried to make conversation, but the young one to my left was flexing veins in his temple and the old guy to the right was furiously tonguing a toothpick, so I canned the happy talk and joined them in staring holes in the elevator door. Suddenly, the doors retracted. A hunched over woman in an orange housecoat tried to get on board, but Temple told her to scram and Toothpick jabbed at the Door Close button. It was then I began fondling the speed dial button on my cell phone.

The Chief Bailiff was waiting for me outside Courtroom 3C. Squat, bald and pushing sixty, the man had enough shiny black plastic hanging off his belt to give Batman heart palpitations. Stiffening upon my approach, he dismissed his subordinates with half a grunt and took in all the hardware hanging off my side. “Judge knows you’re comin’. Set up to the left of the stenographer’s table and make sure your cell phone’s off. Your man’s third up once the bind hearing begins.” Opening the courtroom door, he motioned for me to follow him before taking one long last look at my oversized lens. “Point that thing at me and we got a problem.”

The courtroom was packed. Not a single empty spot on either side of the fifteen pews was visible as The Great Unwashed shifted in their hard oak seats. Small time gangbangers traded glares as one out of three homeboys dozed. A woman in sweatpants and a Mark Martin t-shirt held her identically dressed toddler on her lap. A few greasy teens traded wisecracks in a language I’m pretty sure they made up. Mostly though, the defendants in waiting practiced their thousand yard stare as the layers slept walked through justice at the front of the room. Even the judge appeared to be catatonic. Only the bailiffs moved, scanning the crowd for anyone sleeping and finding quite a few. That is, until I walked in.

I’d barely made it two feet into Courtroom 3C when waves of disgust rippled up the row of pews. Weaves bobbed, mullets swung and Jerry curls gyrated as each and every seated occupant got a look at the leper with a lens. Even the fellas in orange jumpsuits twisted their necks what kind of dirt bag was bringing a TV camera into their courtroom. Once they got a look at the local station’s logo attached to my lens, they sunk down in their seats, hid behind their court ordered paperwork and cursed my very heritage. Even the shackled shrunk in their jumpsuits and tried to tuck their faces out of sight. The most brazen mouthed silent threats as I walked past the gallery, set my camera on top of my sticks and turned to scan the crowd behind me. What followed was enough eye-fornication to fill a peep show.

Of all the upstanding taxpayers clocking my every move in the courtroom that day, I was there for none of them. No, the object of my camera’s lust would only appear on an antiquated TV screen hanging from the ceiling; a jittery image of a sullen face, broadcast from the jail across the street. Still, with ten minutes to spare before my felon in question made his debut, there was time to spread the love. Placing one hand on my lens, I slowly searched every row as if looking for someone in particular. Those who ignored me received the same treatment, but I couldn’t help but linger over those looking back out of the corner of their eyes. Waiting until I got their attention, I scrunched my eyebrows as if I’d found my quarry, before moving on to the next Jerry Springer extra. Most tried to assume invisibility as I panned my powered down camera their way. A few stared back and grinned and I did my best to lift a single eyebrow their way, before pulling out my notebook and scribbling gibberish just to screw with the them.

Okay, so I poured it on a little too thick, but with thirty minutes of legal minutia in my immediate future, it was the only fun I was gonna have taht day. Besides, how else you gonna react when the dude charged with hiding crack in his kid’s diaper looks at you like you’re the lowest life form in the room? Blow him kisses? Not on MY watch…

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Release the Hounds...

Sports shooters: they're a funky bunch. They travel in packs, rarely use their sticks and can track a golfball soaring through a cloudbank from a quarter mile away. But don't take my word for it, just check out this photo taken by El Ocho photog Nathan Parsons at something called the NC Double A Regional Finals. I dunno - some kind of basketball tournament, I think. Anyway, even though I'm no proponent of organized athletics, I have to envy these guys a little. To a true sports fan, possessing press credentials to the Big Game must be like holding a backstage pass to your favorite fantasy. Me, I'd rather take a flying tripod leg to the eye socket than take part in this most physical flavor of elbow fiesta. Hey, I got an idea! Let's pin some sweaty jock to his locker door, shine three lights in his face and ask him to recite a few breathless clichés! That'll make for GREAT television! Seriously though, I dip my lens to all those photogs manning the sidelines - and not just because I recognize about half the fellas up there. Here's to you, Backward Hat Squad! If it weren't for you some pasty bookworm like myself would be forced to slog through the biblical funk that is your post-game locker room milieu. Now, PLAY BALL!

Glass Into Battle: William Perkins, Jr.

One cannot delve too deeply into the combat cameraman canon without hearing the name William T. Perkins, Jr. The son of a World War II bomber pilot, Perkins grew up nursing a passion for cinema and photography. But plans to attend UCLA's film school were postponed when the suburban teen joined the Marines in 1966. Initially assigned to Barstow, California. Perkins jumped at the chance to to take the US Army's Motion Picture Photography course. The only caveat: those attending the school had to put their new skills to use in Vietnam. Bill Perkins willingly agreed and - after training - arrived in Vietnam in July of 1967. Exactly three months later, he would prove himself a new kind of hero.

Once in country, Perkins quickly earned a reputation as a gifted combat cameraman. Shooting both stills and film, the Southern Californian captured both the mayhem and the monotony of modern warfare. Reticent in the beginning, Perkins' fellow grunts accepted him as one of their own - even if he did go into battle with one eye plastered to a viewfinder. What they never fathomed was the young cameraman's commitment to them. In October of 1967, that became painfully clear. A reconnaissance mission in the Hai Lang forest, Operation MEDINA devolved into a battle of hand grenades. Perkins was in the thick of it, shooting film as he and his buddies found themselves outnumbered 3 to 1. When an enemy grenade landed near his group, the young Corporal did the unthinkable. After yelling 'Incoming!', William T. Perkins, Jr. crawled on top of the grenade and absorbed its deadly blast. Saving at least three of his friends' lives, Perkins died with a Eymo motion picture camera in his hand. To this day, he is the only combat photographer to ever receive the Medal of Honor.

On paper, Perkins' life story reads like a distant tragedy. To his high school friend Craig Ingraham however, the young man's fate seared itself into his consciousness. Haunted by the loss, Ingraham began compiling material in the mid 90's, eventually laying hands on Perkins' own combat footage, dozens of letters home and nearly two hundred slides. The resullting documentary, ABOVE AND BEYOND tells Bill Perkins' story using the very images he gave his life to record. Watching it, I found myself instantly identifying with the young Corporal - especially in scenes that showed him goofing around, striking poses as an ammo dump erupted in flames behind him. It reminded me of the many silly things I did with a camera as a younger man; though never with death all around me. If you consider yourself a student of the moving image, a history buff or just a proud American, I urge you to order and watch this soul-twisting film. For a young man who yearned to express himself behind the lens, it is - however sadly - his life's work.

Ghosts of Mullets Past

Five Things I NOW Realize...

Christmas 90?
5. My older brother had a lovely home in Winterville y-e-a-r-s before I did.

4. Nothing looks more retro than an outdated television with rabbit ears.

3. In 1990 it was perfectly acceptable to give a heterosexual man a pink and black flannel shirt.

2. No matter big the box, Christmas presents are rarely remembered.

1. Having a cute wife is no excuse for acid-washed jeans and hockey hair.