Friday, August 15, 2008

Breakfast with the King

Cookin with KeithYou ever have that dream where you’re floating over a cooking show and out of nowhere Elvis barges in and bum-rushes the collard greens? Yeah, me neither. But now I won't have to, since I seared that very scenario into the fleshy tenders of my frontal lobe. But sleepwalking through someone else’s flashback while the rest of the region irons their pants is just part of the early shift. I know - having kicked off many a moonlit morning with lungful of generator fumes and one Jami Turner. Since then I’ve eschewed the A.M. gig, for I’d still rather chase calamity than babysit inanity. That said, there’s nothing I won’t shove my lens into, be it a SWAT team stand-off or a righteous plate of corn fritters. Maybe that's why I got orders last week to join a very pregnant Shannon Smith for a pre-dawn celebration of The King and the culinary wonders that helped kill him. Hey, it's not my idea of apppointment viewing, but after pressing RECORD a few grillion times, silly things like subject matter cease to register. I still got a thirst for a Murrow or two, but if I gotta camera-ambush Ronald McDonald to get through my Thursday, that clown is going DOWN!

But I digress...

Elvis BiscuitSomething I do alot of, which explains why - by the time I'd parked the live truck by the Culinary Building's dumpster entrance - I'd forgotten why exactly I was there. It all came rushing back to me a few minutes later, when - while innocently unspooling cable under a flickering streelight - Elvis Presley swaggered out of the shadows and extended a rhinestone-studded hand. I thinked I blinked twice, wondering for a moment if that leftover Pop-Tart I'd found in the pantry earlier somehow contained psilocybin. Then it hit me - What Would Elvis Eat? Next thing you know I'm high-fiving the Hillbilly Hepcat himself, or to be more exact, 'tribute artist' David Chaney. Now I'm no authority on The King, but I did devour every word of Last Train to Memphis AND Careless Love late last year. As a result, I can talk a little Elvis. So too could our impersonator of the hour. In fact he proved his mettle early on when, after setting up a little deejay booth at one end of the kitchen, he played Presley's schlocky gospel tracks and warmed up with a few heartfelt karate stances. Clearly, the man is committed.

Or should be.

Elvis DishesBut who am I to judge? I'm the schlub who erected a makeshift studio around a community college kitchen, traded highball recipes with a couple of amped-up chefs and talked babies with the Piedmont's sweetheart. All before sunrise. Compare that to a grown man shadow-jabbing pots and pans while dressed in tight white polyester and who, we ask you, seems schizophrenic then? Don't bothering answering; just know that Tupelo's favorite son would have approved of the whole endeavour - from the white boy doo-wap playing in the background to the barbituate free banana pudding on hand later in the show. By the time the sun was in the Eastern sky, we'd trundled out every cliche we could think of - which is something of a pre-requisite in morning television. As for David Chaney, he delivered just what our silly live shots needed and in the process proved himself a true Presley Apostle, and not just one of those jumpsuited supplicants mumbling in his spangled wake. Me - I left the location searching for a moral, but soon settled for the quiet knowledge that - when I least expect it - this job can still satisfy.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go dye my sideburns.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Slinger and the Sting

With a wake-up call of 4 am, I won’t be busting out any decent thesis tonight. But before I knock back that last glass of cognac, I’d like to issue an official statement: Never again will I scoff at the lowly yellowjacket. Not since one with the jaws of a small dog leapt up and bit the shit out of my left hand this morning. “Oh, SNAP!” I did not yell, choosing instead a few choice adjectives I picked up in the Navy to better express the sudden throbbing sensation in my thumb. Looking down, I saw that I was standing in a whole nest of yellow jackets! In fact, I think I interrupted some kind of striped wasp convention; that or they were just breaking for a nice catered lunch of sweaty photog flesh. It was then I began high-stepping it out of that nice lady’s backyard; leaving her and our newest reporter to marvel at the linguistic remedies I used to sate my newfound pain.

Come to think of it, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to those construction workers I made blush - even that foreman guy who shot Cheerwine out of his nose while watching the cameraman dance. Sorry, fellas! It’s just that … this doesn’t happens to me. See, I’m that guy who bugs never bite. I can roll around half naked in poison sumac and never break out in hives. I knock back a pot of coffee at 9 PM and still fall asleep by midnight (once I shave my tongue, of course). It isn’t that I’m all that manly (I’m not). I’m just usually impervious to all those niggling little inconveniences of the natural world. Or so I thought. Apparently, the little menace that took a hunk out of my hand didn’t check her voice-mail. Otherwise she would have known to leave me the hell alone. As it was she didn’t, and twelve hours later my thumb is still throbbing.

So there you have it, the exhortations of wounded word nerd. I know, I know: Mal James is ducking enemy fire with far less drama, but dagnabit(!) - my hand hurts and as long as it’s my blog, I’ll choose the subject matter, thank you very much. Besides, my wife’s a former ER nurse and unless I bring her my spleen in a paper sack, she doesn’t want to hear it. That reminds me, did I ever tell you about the time that rogue wave wiped the bottom of the Outer Banks with my unshaven face? It was a breezy autumn morn and I’d just watched a rain-slickered Dan Rather glower at an underling...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Scrum Thickens...

Crowded Field
Was a time a soft news specialist like myself could wander from story to story with little thought given to the competition. No more. Three network affiliates, a cable news outfit, an aggressive newspaper, two free weeklies and an ever growing squadron of YouTube goobs have made the Greater Piedmont Googolplex a crowded field in which to hunt. For proof, look no further than this recently unearthed photo, in which a half dozen rescue dogs draw the kind of scrum once reserved for a Senatorial visit. Oh well. Short of slicing open a sandbag and pouring it down my competitor's gas tanks (something I've chosen to hold off on), there's probably no way to thin the pack of lenses that now fester around just about any ole pooch with a decent backstory. Thus, I'm forced to pursue my lackadaisical fare with the eyes of a sniper, no longer can I shimmy from gig to gig unconcerned and covered in body glitter. Okay, so that was never a good idea, but can you smell what this dork is cookin'? I can't; the hippy chick with the camcorder went a little nuts with the little patchouli oil and all I can think of are old Blues Travelers lyrics. Now, why was I here?

Hazardous Mal

Mal James, Bad Ass

From Baghdad to Cairo to the Gaza Strip, Mal James has made a career of ‘acquiring under fire’. But that's the life of this international cameraman of mystery - one who dodges RPG's the way I duck late-day live shots. But the bloodshed that flows through his lens can't help but stain his psyche at times. That’s why he blogs, I bet: to hash out the particulars of a gig even he can’t believe at times. Four days ago Mal popped up in Gori, Georgia, picking his way through hostile territory with FOX News’ Steve Harrigan as the Russian Army rolled into town. That he even has time to log in and write is hard to fathom; that he can do so with such clarity is more amazing still. Sometimes though, there's no time to jot down your feelings, there is only time to run. Allow Mal James to demonstrate, courtesy of what he calls 'a crazed Ossestian'...

"A middle aged man with a pistol was screaming as he wrestled with a cameraman trying to get his camera. The pistol was swinging wildly and he was between us and our car. More shots sounded, a gun swinging around in the air... You do not stop or try to establish eye contact, you simply run, as fast as you can in a flak jacket. Each step seems to get slower. The distance to safety seems to become an eternity..."

Slicer of Life

EditingNo matter where the camera on my shoulder takes me, there‘s only one place I’ll be come late afternoon: hunched over a digital timeline. Some times those non-linear landscapes form in the back of a badly idling live truck, other times I’m safely sequestered in some nameless edit bay. Wherever I am physically, my every mental facility is poured into the board, for local television is regularly erected under great duress. Blame the post-modern news cycle all you want; but it’s been this way since chain-smoking men with Brylcreem in their hair used a system of levers and pulleys to make their deadlines. Today of course it’s a drag and drop world, but the gift of technology doesn’t come without a curse. Turn around times have eroded; it’s not uncommon for a reporter to waltz in my bay and cough up a two minute script a half hour or so before it’s scheduled to air. “Have fun with it’ they sometimes say as I throw my fingers into a trance and wish I could still smoke a cigarette. Passers-by will only hear interview snippets and sound loops, of course - along with a few mumbled curses and the occasional angry shout-out. But protest as we might, there’s rarely any doubt we’ll finish in time, for we are bred to ‘make slot’ by any means unnecessary. It’s no less than a matter of pride.

Truck EditIn fact, it’s this ‘balls to the wall’ model that holds so many photogs in sway. Sure - lights, cameras and interns are fun to play with - but if I couldn’t do so at breakneck speed, I’d most likely lose interest. Nowadays of course, any schlub with half a laptop can edit video. Just look around! Newspaper people with timelines on their hands, Hannah Montana fans with their pastel colored Macs, even that skeevy guy at the bus stop lords over his very own digital suite every night (once he finishes tinkering with his girl robot, that is.) Yes, what used to be the domain of a select few now belongs to the masses. But whereas Billy Joe Sixpack can whittle away on a Nascar epic from the comfort of his very own double-wide, can he do so while strapped into the bed of his pick-up truck as it hurtles down a mountain? Can he fashion nuance out of raw footage while his mother-in-law counts backwards in his earpiece? Can he slow-mo one remaining shot over a particularly troublesome closing soundbite - while totally rocking a free golf shirt? I wonder….or at least I plan to, just as soon as I click a box and send today’s masterpiece down the hall.

I still miss the mad dash, though.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Impervious to Verve

Manufactured AcclaimSay what you will about a certain internet marketing firm; they put on one hell of a show. That became evident the moment I wandered into the Greensboro Coliseum last week, longtime sight of their annual - ahem - convention. No sooner had my eyes adjusted from the blazing sun than a giant tower of white hot sparks shot upward from a stanchion hidden behind me. “Holy $#&%!”, I thought as my vision recovered from the pyrotechnic hit. Before I could fully regain my focus, I heard them: thousands upon thousands of shrieking distributors, all caught up in the clamor and glamour of this Mother of all Sales Rallies. Spotlights swung this way and that as what can only be described as a Power Couple strode out on the main stage. With a stack of speakers to my left and a coliseum full of mail-order supplicants in mid-genuflect to my right, I couldn’t understand a damn word the power couple said, but that didn’t stop the masses from executing back-flips over every distorted syllable. “Man”, I thought as I placed my fancycam atop its tripod, “I haven’t seen this kind of energy in here since Chris Daughtry busted out a little Bon Jovi at that American Idol tour stop a few years back. Oh well...”

Manufactured Acclaim 2Never one to let manufactured pandemonium get the best of me, I leaned into my viewfinder and began collecting the dozen shots I needed to prove I ’d been here in the first place. As I did, another pyro hit lit up the Coliseum from floor to rafters and I got a fleeting look at the crowd all around me. Many in the audience were Asian and wearing t-shirts featuring homemade slogans. I made a mental note to ask the PR flack why that was and began scanning the masses for faces frozen in semi-spiritual bliss. It didn’t take long, especially with the lady on stage ratcheting up the room with her own nearly intelligible shrieks. Watching her sales pitch make my audio needles dance, I looked around and repeated a phrase I’ve been saying since junior high school. Back then, I’d slump in my jean-jacket as the teacher droned on about some upcoming assignment and think to myself, “I’m sure glad this doesn’t apply to me.” As a mid-pubescent scholar, it was never a wise tactic. As a full grown photog, it’s served me well.

cameraman in blackThat’s when I saw him. Clad in all black, fancycam at parade rest, the on-stage shooter surveyed the spasmodic masses with a practiced lack of regard. I tried myself to get his attention, but was unable to pierce through his thousand yard stare. So I admired it. See, I’ve been on-stage enough to know you never lock eyes with an individual, lest you be forced to reveal any emotion other than lust for the next close-up. Besides, you don’t keep your spot on the lip of some corporate orgy by letting locals like me distract you. No, that would be unprofessional. You’re far better off keeping your eyes moving and your ears glued to the director’s voice in your headset. How else you gonna be ready when the production truck crew punches your shot up in the giant Jumbo-Tron? No one wants to watch unfocused kneecaps on a screen three stories tall. So instead of bothering my lenslinging elder, I popped off a few more shots before heading for the exit ramp, hoping to escape before another pyro hit lit up my goatee. Walking out, I thought I caught sight of the photog taking me in. Then I realized he was merely scanning faces, and thanking his maker that none of this silliness applied to him either.

Can’t say I blame him.