Saturday, November 29, 2008

Book Review: Agent Zigzag

Eddie ChapmanHistory bristles with heroes, cads and villains. Eddie Chapman was all three. A British conman who found himself a convict in the opening days of World Wart II, he volunteered to work for the Germans - if they'd spring him from the klink. They did and soon Eddie was whisked away to Paris - where shadowy spymasters trained him in the dark arts of espionage. The young grifter took to it, and quickly prepared for a top-secret return to London. But when a bungled parachute jump left the young spy muddy, bloodied and stunned in an English celery-patch, he stumbled to the closest constable and turned himself in. A double agent was born. In Agent Zigzag, Ben Macintyre unfurls the unlikely life story of Eddie Chapman - dashing adventurist, irascible liar, sworn horndog. Global infidelity was his specialty: staring down Nazi interrogators, sneaking around on his keepers, wooing trumpets in every port. Known as Fritz in the Fatherland and ZigZag in the UK, Chapman worked the war for fun and profit, pledging allegiance to who ever was paying the bill at the time. But in elegantly lecherous fashion, this bon vivant proves himself a statesman of sorts, a top operative of the Allies, a weasely hero, an International Man of Mystery. No wonder Tom Hanks just bought the rights. And as for who to cast as Zigzag? Ehhhh ... Matthew McConaughey - if he can master three languages and keep his shirt on. Good luck with that.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Scenes from a Turkey Shoot

By now, even the Vegan at your table has watched the Sarah Palin turkey video. You know – where the MILF that might have been King yammers into a lens while some leering farmhand lops the head off the family bird. Yeah, that one. For a week it’s flickered across the internets, convincing some the Alaskan Governor is evil incarnate while proving to others she’s got just the kind of pioneering student we’ll need in D.C. come 2012. But the clip in question hasn’t just riled up the partisan clowns; it’s made the week uneasy for the photog who shot it.

And what a photog! Scott Jensen is the National Press Photographer’s Association’s Photojournalist of the Year, a title even detractors of the polarizing NPPA cannot easily dismiss. He’s been lauded by industry press, turns powerful stories in major shops and enjoys legendary status among those who keep up with such things. But now a silly photo-op with the nation’s hottest hockey mom has thrust Jensen into a brighter spotlight. Among the chattering classes, he’s being both praised and villified for what he did - and - didn’t do. At, colleagues and strangers are debating the case with fundamental fervor, while over at Wonkette, they’re proclaiming him 'An American Hero'. That’s awfully strong mojo for what should have been a pretty forgettable gig.

So what do I think? I’m glad you didn’t ask. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, let’s review the facts:

By his own admission, Jensen horned in on another crew’s interview set-up and persuaded all involved to adjust the shot. That’s not the least bit odd; it’s a crowded field and I’ve sidled up to many a lenser from ‘across the street’ (though I usually settle for whatever background this lack of tactic affords me). Jensen then framed his shot just as it appears, even warning the Governor of the ensuing slaughter so clearly visible behind her. “That's fine,” Palin reportedly replied, “Let the people see where their food comes from." Did they! No sooner did the tape rolled than Alaska’s most ill-timed farmhand strolls into the shot and stares at the camera crew as if it’s an alien spaceship,all while wrestling plump, feathery fowl into the ole head remover. Alaska’s leader rambles on, the Grim Reaper of Turkeys earns his pay and yet another Alaskan bird meets its maker. Through it all, Jensen rides his wide shot. It makes for compelling television – but for all the wrong reasons. To his credit, the award-winning photog has not hidden from the onslaught of criticism. On’s raucous message board, he’s vigorously defended his actions, or lack thereof:
'I'm a photojournalist. It is my goal to convey every scene I shoot as close to reality as possible. I want truthfulness over tastefulness - every time. From my perspective the background dominated the scene. It wasn't way off in the distance. It was like ten feet away! Guess what?! It really was distracting! Askanyone who was paying attention. The video I made portrayed the scene exactly. I believe that is what we are supposed to do.'
Mayhaps. But a bedrock principle of television interviewing is the avoidance of distracting backgrounds. Some bug-eyed goon beheading livestock easily qualifies as such. Alerting Palin to the carnage absolves one of responsibility, I guess – but it’s just bad tee-vee to let ancillary action dominate a talking head shot. NOT zooming in opens you up to a world of criticism; even if you wish the Governor’s already tarnished reputation no harm, it’s hard to explain why you didn’t follow every cameraman’s instinct and clean up the frame. That said, it’s difficult not to let walking cartoons prove themselves worthy of all that two dimensional scorn. Protecting her image (and future) is the duty of her staff, not some TV news photog, no matter how highly a decorated one. Me – I would have zoomed in, not so much to hide the turkeycide, but to rob the looky-loo of his unscheduled stare-down. While no real fan of Palin, I would have filed her further embarrasment under shit I don’t need. Scott Jensen’s deservedly sterling reputation will survive this flap, but I can’t help but wonder if he wishes he’d tightened up. Perhaps he’ll log in and tell us.

Now do you see why I avoid covering politics?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Searching for Pergola

Screw Indiana Jones. I wanna watch a movie about this guy!

Here's what we know...
"James Pergola, 37, of Bronxville, New York, Pathe News cameraman, who was among the nineteen persons listed aboard the palatial 1937 cross-country airplane reported sighted at Evanston, Wyo. After being missing for more than twelve hours, the United Airlines westbound "mainliner" with 16 passengers and a crew of three, was last heard over Rick Spring the night of October 17. Mr Pergola joined Pathe News in 1930. In 1933 he spent five months filming the Cuban Revolution. In 1932 and again in 1935, he toured the United States during political campaigns with President Roosevelt."
A cursory search of the interweb turns up little else about this pioneering lenslinger, other than the fact that he was aboard the flight that killed him because he was filming a newsreel on... airline safety. Ironic, yes - but I'm more interested in how this swashbuckler lived than how he died. What little we do know could already fill a few sequels...

Anybody know more about the late, great James Pergola?

(Photo on loan by Amanda Emily)

UPDATE from Emily:

Mr Pergola, who was thirty-seven years old, was one of the leading camera men of his concern, specializing in feature assignments. He joined the Pathe staff in 1918 as assistant camera man, and had been a full fledged operator since 1924. Previously he had been connected with motion picture studios in Long Island City, joining Fox Movietone with the coming of sound films. Mr Pergola was said to have been the first to make a sound film of the late John D. Rockefeller.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bliss at the Abyss

In SessionShould a physician ever tell me I’ve only months left to live, I’m heading straight for the nearest City Council meeting - for there, time stands still. Take this morning, for instance. It was only thirty minutes or so, but the time I spent trapped in the innermost chamber of my fair burg’s municipal complex felt like something akin to waterboarding. Luckily, I had my imagination there to protect me. That and a well-honed ability to defocus my mind’s until I’m damn near catatonic was all I had to fend off the effects of a backwards traveling second hand. Yes, in the time it took the assembled incumbents to decide what kind of screws to use on the city’s new lampposts, I conjured whole operas out of tabletop dust motes, achieved Enlightenment Level 3 on the yoga scale and at one point, left my body altogether.

What else could I do? My reporter for the day was in the corner pretending to take notes, I already had a dozen shots committed to disc and that creepy dude from the Free Weekly was looking’ at me funny. It was either float up there by the ceiling tiles in some transcendental state or attempt a flying dropkick that would no doubt land me in some manner of incarceration. Thus, I chose to chill, drilling holes in the highly-buffed mahogany tabletop with my eyes while willing my leg not to twitch too much and upset the sheriff’s deputy wedge there in the corner. Yeah, that one - the one mumbling all of Charleton Heston’s lines from Planet of the Apes. You think I’m dangerous. That cat’s got most of a Big Gulp on board and more than a few bullets in his right breast pocket. Drop anything heavier than a briefcase in here and he’ll pop up like that fat kid from Full Metal Jacket.

I’ll be hiding under the Mayor should the SWAT team ask about me.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wrestling with the Vest

vest! 015As if there weren’t enough indignities attached to procuring video already, starting today we news shooters have to do so while dressed like a crossing guard. Okay, so it only applies when your alongside any ’federal-aid roads’ (whatever the hell they are), but the fact of the matter is the photog in your life has a shiny new addition to his or her wardrobe. I’m not talking about those shirts with the hula girls on it, and those mud colored corduroys have been a part of photog attire since the early seventies. No, I’m talking about the safety vest - that highly reflective armless wonder sported by road crews and parking attendants the world over. And to think I gave up an aborted career in radio for this!

The Vest Wrestler 2Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why wouldn’t a responsible, suburban father of two like myself be happy about a little increased safety? Really, I am. If swaddling my torso in neon green is what it takes to get me home each night, then bring on the day-glo! I’m just a little concerned that this new vest regulation is more about protecting someone else’s red tape factory than my lowly sack of bones. Then again, I’m well past the age of fascination when it comes to fender-benders. We got lots of interstate highways here in the Greater Piedmont Googolplex and I’m happy to keep off each and every one of them. It ain’t so bad at 70 miles per hour; but playing Frogger across six lanes just so I can shoot video of some jackknifed semi is no longer one of my career goals. Then again, my idea of proper rain gear is to stay the hell inside. Hey, aren’t we supposed to get smarter as we age?

The Vest Wrestler 1Don’t bother answering. Just know that I’ll rock the lime-green girdle ever time I think to dig it out of new Unit 4. I just hope I don’t miss getting footage of that smoking spaceship in the middle of I-40 ‘cause I’m still wrestling with the cursed thing! The other day it took me ten minutes to wiggle into it and that was without the smell of bent sheet metal in the air making me all dizzy. By the time I did get it on, that imaginary sinkhole had all but dried up. I can see it now: ‘This ninety seconds of silence brought to by photographer Stewart Pittman - who can’t seem to get his arms back up over his head!’ Just call me John McCain...

The Vest Wrestler 3Anyway, it ain’t like I got much of a choice. I’m told roving patrols of federalistas will be out looking for an media crews operating sans jerkin. What kind of fine or punishment they may levy is unknown, but I don’t want to be the first photog who has to do fifty push-ups while choking on live truck fumes. So laugh all you want, Mike James! I’ll be crawling over concrete barriers out on the bypass, fighting the urge to go round up grocery carts and hoping no stoner plows me into 60 miles to the gallon 'cause he thinks I'm the guy who helped him park his hybrid at that Widespread Panic show the other night. Now help me get this thing off, wouldya?