Saturday, June 07, 2008

Masters of Their Domain

Stew Carolyn Paul Woody
Sure, it's just a dated photo - but this rather Seinfeldian snapshot features a few dear friends I still miss and emulate. You might say they were my mentors, but at the time I didn't think of them that way. Instead, they were my competitors; two photogs and a reporter from across the street. But they were so much more, for their collective guidance made me the news dork I am today. I don't know if I should send flowers or file a lawsuit, so instead I'll try and recall what each of them gave me. Paul Dunn taught me how to shoot a walkdown, how to talk your way up a widow's porch how to blend in among the junkies and flatfoots that populate the world of Cop Shop reporting. Woody Spencer taught me how to shoot - but strictly by example. Night after night I'd watch his version of a story we'd both shot and weep openly at all my missed opportunities. It was Woody who first explained to me what NPPA stood for, Woody who awed me with the power of the tripod. Though no longer behind the TV lens, his eye is still legendary Downeast and I consider my self lucky to have studied under him. And then there's Carolyn. Then a Kusbit, now a Dunn, forever a Yankee Paul's wife and professional partner taught me that no matter how many trick shots I pulled off in a piece, no matter which police dispatcher I'd sweet-talked at lunch, no matter how deftly I'd chopped my spot, it didn't mean dick unless my facts were straight and my delivery clear. Thanks guys, I haven't forgotten a thing. Nor have I failed to notice I'm the only one still in the business. Perhaps there's a lesson plan you failed to share with me...Thanks for nuthin!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Super Powers Not Included

Heads up!Though I’ve never witnessed bedlam, I can still spark a riot with the flick of a lens. Outdoor concerts and middle school gyms, late-night crime scenes or midday church services - give me the right crowd and a TV camera and I’ll have them reenacting ‘Lord of the Flies‘ before you can raid the refreshment table. Okay so that’s big talk for a guy who keep his head down, blank face buried deep in the ‘finder. In that sense the camera is my helmet, a storm-trooping rig bristling with switches and antenna .With it I’ll wade into any scenario - for while the fancycam on my shoulder makes other people jerk their necks, it renders me invisible. An expressionless face behind the glass, I skulk about the place like an assassin slathered in look at me logos. Yeah, when I shoulder my axe and swing into action, I’m no longer known as ‘Stew’. I. AM. CAMERAMAN. More flatulent than a local promo. Able to shoot whole stories from a single tripod spot. Fierce, I tell ya…

I’ve mentioned before how I used to attend Greenville’s annual Halloween street party dressed as an actual cameraman. Once I was chatting up a couple hundred partygoers outside a convenience store when fisticuffs erupted in the parking lot. The costumed crowd surged toward the haymakers and in a flash of brilliance I scrambled atop a large ice cooler to get a better shot. By that time of course the lopsided fistfight had subsided and the only thing for the crowd to claw and gnash at was me. That they did: screaming, slinging great arcs of draft beer and throwing the goat at the shaggy photog to stupid to turn off his camera‘s light. I may have died atop that icebox, ripped to shreds by a mob who’d mixed Heineken with too much Hootie and the Blowfish. But before I could unhook my battery belt and start swinging it at all comers, providence arrived in the form of a rugby-playing buddy named Mitch who appeared out nowhere and began peeling idiots off the icebox. The fact that he did so while sporting a Fred Flintstone loincloth and an incredibly hot cave-girl friend further cemented the images in my brainpan.

American Idol always draws a crowd and often they’re drenched in body glitter. This alone makes them more susceptible to bedlam than the average taxpayer, for if they’re willing to sleep in the park for three days if it improves their chance to you can sing for Simon, it should be no shocker when they pop and lock at my lens behest. At first I tried to tell them I was just a local, but the battered FOX sticker on my fancycam convinced them I was The Smarmy One’s top video scout. Hey, you try reasoning with a yodeling Elvis, a cross dressing boy band or any other fast food employees suffering from delusions of Whitney. Logic don’t apply. At the other end of the Idol food chain, many fans of the newly manufactured are out of their skulls. (Paging all Claymates, Paging all Claymates…) I remember the night Taylor Hicks won the kiss of death, I mean the title of American Idol. I was just outside the Kodak Theater when Seacrest ripped the envelope. Late for my tripod spot outside on the Plaza, I rounded a corner with a few other photogs at my heels. Suddenly explosions of light filled our sight and a roar of approval washed over us. As my eyes adjusted I returned the gaze of a thousand gape-jawed tourists, all frozen in mid euphoric letdown. Hoping to catch sight of the triumphant Idols, they got six schlubby cameramen instead. Still, I did feel like a Beatle for a good two seconds.

False adulation aside, I could sometimes do without the attention my lens and its logo brings. Then again, what other alliteration enables one to cross such boundaries? I have strolled from the warden’s office to the exercise yard and been equally accepted. I’ve quizzed inbreds in white pointy hoods before schlepping my gear over to a throng of black activists - all while distant sharpshooters held me in their sights. I’ve titillated quilting bees with thoughts of the publicity my visit would bring, strung heavy live truck cable through crowded soup kitchens and toyed with the attention of those who could buy and sell me. I’ve even faked my way through college dean chitchat, pretending to know why the hell I’m there even as I eyeball the crumpled printout in my palm. Without the benefit of my station’s gear by my side, it’s safe to say most folk would have kicked my clown-ass out long ago. Instead they bellow for my attention, cower from my gaze and preen and strut until they feel they’ve gotten the close-up. I just wish the gig paid more. Have you seen what it costs to dry-clean Spandex?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Photog Fights Back

While I sit around issuing silly Schmuck Alerts, a Florida photog is putting his modem where his mouth is. In February of 2007, Miami police arrested multimedia journalist Carlos Miller for taking pictures on a public street. They say he was obstructing traffic, but the photo he took seconds before being tackled and shackled seems to prove otherwise. Nonetheless, Miller now faces nine misdemeanor charges and is eagerly awaiting trial. In the meantime, he's channeling his outrage into advocacy by blogging vehemently on the subject of cops, photogs and Freedom of Speech. Unlike your friendly neighborhood lenslinger, Miller's Fired Up. You might be too if officers from your hometown bashed your head against the pavement, simply because you pointed a lens at them. No matter what you think of Carlos Miller or the merits of his case, there's no denying these troubling instances are on the rise. Why that is exactly, I don't know - but in a YouTube soaked post 9-ll world, too many folks behind the badge consider those of us behind the lens as the enemy. That goes both ways of course and I don't expect Miller's defiant site will soothe rumpled feelings on either side of the Thin Blue Line. Still, anyone who promises to 'mock, madden and maybe even muckrake' has my attention - especially when he's fighting for my right to plant my sticks wherever the Constitution says I can. We'll be watching...

(Photo by Danny Hammontree)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Stalking Placidity

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it to you or not, but I’m toying with the idea of enlightenment. Not the spiritual bliss I‘m told exists, but that earthier sense of well being that’s eluded me all these many moons. But before you brush past my flower stand at the airport, hear me out:

Sky full of MastsIn late 1989 I faked my way into a tiny CBS affiliate, lied that I was qualified and scored a low paying job. Soon though I was piloting my very own news-craft across the tri-county universe, swinging by scenes of controversy and pocketing adventures by the pound. Heady stuff for a humble bumpkin. Now however, I find myself one tired disciple, a thicker, balder, surlier Stew, who’s not nearly as enamored with the daily chase as he was when MC Hammer still had some cash in those baggy-ass pants. If I’m dating myself, well - someone has to. All I know is that in less twenty years I went from whippersnapper status to something of a village elder. No longer a wide-eyed ingénue, I come before you a hard-boiled auteur of soft news; a bellicose broker of feel-good fare. Sure, it’s too much too fit one a business card, but since when do we get to custom-order our daily fates?

Don’t answer if you know. Just take comfort in the fact that I’m learning to deal with my case of arrested development. In fact, I’ve stopped scratching the station’s call letters in the fleshy part of my palm every time the cell phone rings. Sure I still call the Hobby Store several times a week to see if the parts for my voodoo doll collection came in yet, but in the past couple of years I haven’t chained myself to a single live truck. That’s progress, people! Was a time the ‘utter futility of a life of spent slathering newscasts’ was a thesis I shared with every blown-dry hump unfortunate enough to draw my dance card. Sorry, folks! I was just cycling through the Seven stages of disillusionment we discussed in an earlier post. These days I’m well past the Acceptance phase, but I do find myself scanning the heavens at late day live shots, looking for answers in the horizon as my partner for the day lectures the lens. No wonder I miss all those cues…

Hmm? Yeah. Where was I? Oh yeah - on the cusp of epiphany! I hope anyway. Truth is, I’m racing toward my 42nd year, a seminal number for any Douglas Adams fan. According to the book I only need a brown towel, but it sure would be nice to slip into something … existential. Now I’m not requesting total Zen and a lobotomy is still out of my price range, but would a little felicity be too much too ask? Look, I’m even willing to fake it. In fact, I suspect most of the contented souls I tend to admire are doing just that; sleepwalking through their days with the simple opinion that everything’s as it should be. I know I’ll never get there, never walk the Earth with sand slipping from my fists, never deliver a soliloquy from atop some mount, never buy identical track suits and hole in some basement with all zombie friends and a fresh batch of Kool-Aid. So if you see me out in the field somewhere, gaping into the maw as satellite dishes twist behind me, try not to stare: I’m simply attempting serenity.

That or the live truck’s mast is stuck in the up position and I’m about to start throwing camera batteries at it. Heads UP!

Menace with a Lens

Dear Sirs... While my family and I enjoyed much of your company’s three day Caribbean cruise, I feel I must alert you to the behavior of your ship’s videographer - a troublesome young man identified to me only as 'Gomez'. Now, gosh knows the camera calls for a creative type, and I admire your company’s lax attitude regarding dress code, but Mr. Mez’s consistently shifty actions kept me on guard the entire time I was aboard your vessel. It was my understanding that we’d only encounter Gomez and his camera during certain ship activities, but it seems your little lenser took a special liking to my family - particularly my seventeen year old daughter Buffy. Twice he insisted on shooting video of her poolside, repeatedly uttering the phrase ’Senoritas Gone Loco’. Now I’m no Spanish interpreter, but I find the implications of his words troubling, if not downright prosecutable. There was also the matter of Mr. Mez’s continued pleas to teach my lovely wife a few native dances. What is the Lambada anyway? And why would your company cameraman strip to the waist for a simple dance lesson?

Most troubling however was his influence on our 12 year old son, Brighton - who unbeknownst to me accompanied your employee on-shore for a shopping excursion of sorts. Now I cannot prove what just happened on the safari, but upon Brighton’s return I came to suspect Gomez had somehow corrupted my little lacrosse star. Not once has Brighton ever addressed me as ‘Dude’ before and I’ve never even seen him eat Captain Crunch cereal, let alone polish off a like that. I don’t have to tell you how bad this looks, nor need I tell you how disconcerting it was to wake up from an afternoon nap only to catch your photographer squeezing liquid from a dirty rag onto my forehead. He claimed it was suntan lotion, but after lab results I’ve come to believe it was, in fact, rooster urine. Is this the kind of behavior your company condones for such a low-level employee? It is my sincere hope that you will reprimand this leathery little weasel for his actions, lest I be forced to use my considerable standing in your community to have his felonious hide deported. Also, should I catch him calling my home one more time, I may very well dispose of him myself - as my former debutante now favors Che Guevara t-shirts and her once promising younger brother is only happy when hand-rolling his own cigarillos. In short, don't make me come down there!

Respectfully Yours,
Senator Francis Q. Canady

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Rage Against the Machine

Portier in ReposeAND SO IT WAS that Portier squandered not his exile. Sorry to go all medieval on ya, but a certain Gulf Coast photog has been ablaze as of late. Since returning from banishment, the blogger known as Turd has been laying down some revelatory text. That includes the following passage - in which Rick explains why field crews love, hell - live - to lament...
Once in the confines of the mobile newsroom it's permissible for the team to bitch and moan about the story they are about to shoot. As a matter of fact, it's necessary for the storytelling process, for only after complaining half way to the story, can a photog give his best effort at polishing the daily turd.
Classic VarnerMan, he ain’t just sprayin’ grafitti with that one. From the moment I first pulled away from the station with a reporter riding shotgun, I noticed it. A news crew's gotsta expotulate. Be it the whimsy of our missions or the nature of our verbal souls, the proclivity to bitch is found in every newsgatherers' DNA. That includes me, of course. Barely an above average shooter, I can lay out the dementia behind a particular gig the same way Stephen Speilberg storyboards a car crash. Of course we shooters are known far and wide for our sour attitudes, but the Hairspray Brigade can more than hold their own when it comes to remonstration. I know one guy (not pictured) who wrote every single TV news script the same way, yet pioneered whole new ways in which to whine enroute. Or how about the gal who deadpanned every on-camera stand-up, yet routinely snarled traffic with wild gestures behind the windshield. And don't even get me started on that one shooter how thinks he's Shakespeare. How does he record any natural sound when he's constantly runnin' his mouth?

Grzybowski grays outDon't bother answering. Just know that your local news crew probably groused all the way to their story today. Whatever it was that ticked them off, they undoubtedly blamed The Desk. That's unfortunate, for not every street-level woe can be pinned on those back at the shop (not pictured). More often than not, it's just the nature of the beast. After all, our jobs are to rush to the center of something calamitous and demand answers, mug shots and if at all possible a live interview at five. No wonder we chafe around the edges while in pursuit. I'm sure plumbers also pout on the way to a bad hairball clog, but could it ever be as creative as a lensman gettin' bent? Or a former beauty queen stewing on the injustice of it all between power hits from her colossal can of Alberto VO5? I think not. What better way to jumpstart the juices that wipe away deadlines than to rue the day the very first test patterns were sewn together from old indian blankets? That's not mutiny you smell, Officer. It's the pungent cloud of adversarial magic. It'll dissipate once I get some sound on tape and prove to those %#@!&$@# back at the station that a Car Wash is a lousy place to quiz the citizenry about constitutional law. Now if you'll give me my license back, there's a guy in a Hulk Hogan doo-rag with some cogent thoughts on the matter.

Grown men I tell youStill, one must be careful when propagating rancor. Rant and bellow for too long and you run risk of becoming that guy ... the one who complains when his ice cream's too cold. Even if you escape a reign as your station's King of Pain, Instant Karma's damn sure gonna get ya. I'm reminded of a story I was told long ago: A reporter and photojournalist (not pictured) were driving back to the studio, frustrated from a day of thwarted effort. Neither man was much liked by his peers and after a little give and take found they had much in common. Mostly enemies. All the way back to the shop they lambasted their coworkers, detailed who they detested and why, complete with homophobic ire and ethnic stereotyping. By the time they pulled back into their affiliate's parking lot, they'd laid waste to all who deserved it and a few who didn't. Too bad they didn't realize the car's two-way radio microphone was keyed. With each diminishing mile, every syllable of their derision was washing over the inhabitants of the newsroom they so professed to hate. I weasn't there when the disparaging duo bee-bopped into the office but I would have liked to have been - as both men could be insufferable tools...

Come to think of it, both those fellas are out of the business now. One's a minister; the other one swore he was going to law school. Wonder what they rant about now?

The Gathering

Suited Mirage 2
1987. Tri-Star Pictures. PG-13. In this Highlander-inspired knockoff, bloodthirsty immortals roam an apocalyptic landscape while posing as small market TV news crews. Banished from his own Gaelic homeland, Levar Burton stars as Anderson - a wandering one-man band with a bad stutter, a busted back-focus and otherworldly powers he’s still just discovering. Special appearance by Dabney Coleman as Mr. Kamakura - ever livid news director / ancient samurai mentor. Unlike the sword-fighting Highlander, the immortal newsies duel with hardwired microphones, slinging them around like brightly logo’d nun-chucks Look for unbilled cameo by co-producer Tony Danza as break-dancing super villain. Lambasted for its blue and out of focus fight scenes, critics point to Danza’s insistence on scatting his lines for mangling the picture’s tone. A year in the making, a week in the theater, this stinker went on to score big with the college video rental crowd before being pulled from store shelves due to licensing disputes over its Rick Astley soundtrack. Not available on DVD.