The Film Project

June 28, 2008 at 6:00 pm (Waxing Nostalgic)

Thirty years ago, I was a teenage wunderkind, a cinema know-it-all. A perpetual truant, I spent lots of time at matinees, read screenplays, idolized John Waters and Martin Scorsese, and wanted more than anything to make porno films for a living. (Aah youth!) While my delusions of grandeur never came to fruition, I did get to dabble a bit in filmmaking.

By age sixteen, the truant officers had caught up to me, and I was enrolled in a youth alternatives program. I had GED lessons one afternoon a week, but the powers that be felt I needed something more to occupy my time. If I fast-tracked my GED studies, I could join a government-funded program (CETA) which had a film project for juvenile delinquents behaviorally challenged youth.

My only crime being that I didn’t like my high school peers, I was odd man out at first. I was the only one in the group that didn’t smoke cigarettes, including the bosses. I wasn’t a doper or a drinker. (I’d done both, but experimentally, not habitually, like the rest.) I had no rap sheet, and hadn’t been in trouble with the police. But, if I’d been forced to go to Sandy High School, Columbine-style shootings would have started a couple of decades earlier. I managed to fit in better with the misfits than the so-called “normal” kids.

The Film Project was based at Marylhurst College, near CETA headquarters and nestled amongst the nunnery and Christie School. It took the nuns a while to get used to us, and despite our best efforts they saw things they probably weren’t ready for.

We used Super 8 cameras and film, had editing tools, a studio, sound booth and portable projection equipment. We spent a lot of time filming our own creations, learning to script, storyboard, film, edit and mix sound. As long as we put out a couple of films a year the county could use, we could have virtually unlimited fun the rest of the time.

Mary S. Young Park in West Linn was a favorite location. Our subject matter was often dark. We applied vigilante force to an attempted rapist. (Inspired by Robert Blake’s in-drag ball-crushing of a purse-snatcher in the opening credits of Baretta.) Postal Mortem was about a mailman/serial killer. A Death in the Family featured my counselor, an older, heavily bearded man, who looked like a rabbi. We intercut him with footage we’d filmed after hours, and turned it into a Troma-esque splatterfest. The victim, a fifteen-year-old who looked just like Fox 12 News’ Julie Grauert, was covered in red Tempura paint. Her only complaint? Having to explain to her mom why her bra looked like it had been run through a burger grinder.

Another time, we went to 3rd and West Burnside to film at one of the missions. As my co-worker, a pretty blonde girl, filmed the line of bums, er, economically and hygienically-challenged gentlemen, I saw something no one else did. As she panned down the line, oblivious, one fellow whipped out his kielbasa and waved it at her. When he got no reaction, he just put it away. When the film came back from the lab, I made sure to get that roll to proof. The ‘footage’ was excised, and inserted into the damnedest places, but only when we were sure nobody from the county was in the room. In a similar vein, one trip to the zoo provided footage of a masturbating polar bear, beating Conan O’Brien to the punch by twenty-five years.

It wasn’t all fun and games. During lunch, we were stuck on a Catholic college, heavily populated by nuns. Being teenagers, that didn’t hold us back much. The noon-time smoke-outs in the cemetery, or at the park, became a regular thing and before long I had converted to a pothead. Since I was the one with a vehicle, I was designated driver. I quickly learned to maneuver a ’64 Ford pickup with heavy lidded eyes, always watching for cops. Despite foolish choices, I was never stopped, even when three teens in front (and six more in the open truck bed) cruised through Lake Oswego. We were magic.

Our bosses were pretty cool. The second in command was a Vietnam-era ex-Marine, the main supervisor a professional photographer. Add in a couple of youth counselors with a fondness for beer in the afternoon and you’ve got a laid-back ship afloat. While this wouldn’t fly in today’s culture, they were good role models who had our best interests at heart. I have fond memories of all of them, and not just because they would sneak me the occasional stubby of Oly.

The ex-Marine, the mellowest guy in that category I’ve ever met, was a fun-lovin’ fellow. One day, after work, he was directly in front of us as we all left for the day. He sat at the on-campus stop sign, and waited. No one was coming, and we couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t proceeding. Feeling ballsy, I honked at him.

Taking ballsy to the next level, he shuffled around, got up on his car seat and stuck his big old ass against his window, mooning us. Motherfucker! Revenge was sweet, and instantaneous. He hadn’t seen the three nuns walking between our vehicles. They got a brown-eye full.

The driveway to Marylhurst College from the main road is a football field long, and on Friday at 5 PM everybody does the exodus. Ex-Marine Counselor just happened to be right behind us as we left. (Gee, wonder how that happened?) So were our bosses, their bosses, and god knows how many other innocents. It was time for revenge.

With just enough room to dodge between the oncoming traffic, I peeled out, laying on the horn. My two male friends and one of the girls dropped trou, pressing against the back window or poking over the tailgate, and gave a most excellent mass-mooning. It was probably a good thing the staff had all weekend to recover from that one. Nobody official said a word, but we had winks, nods and high-fives for days after. A symphony of horns played us out.

During the hot summer days, we were allowed to use the pool on campus. The dressing room was unisex, with canvas-walled partitions to create single dressing rooms. While we behaved remarkably well, considering our age and raging hormones, there were temptations. One gorgeous young woman would often join us during lunch swims, and she was very clothing-optional. It wouldn’t be uncommon to wander into the communal shower area and find her nude, rinsing out her swim suit. It might explain my fondness for brunettes to this day…

Eventually the project ran its course, and I was forced to move on. They got me an apprenticeship at the local PBS station, but after being in control of my own films I had little patience for being a gofer. I requested to be sent back to the Film Project.

Instead, they got me a job at PCC, working as photo editor for the college newspaper, The Bridge. I learned even more about still photography, including processing and printing my own stuff. I spent a year doing that, while taking courses and sitting in on ones I hadn’t paid for. (Free Journalism 101, anyone?) I made friends that are still in my life, and had more grown-up fun than most sixteen-year-olds should have.

Thirty years later, I’m back at it. 360 months. Full circle, as Art East puts it. He’s recently come into possession of some video equipment, and we’ve been messing around with it. Using the backdrop of work, we’ve been making short films and taking pictures. Today we made a short piece featuring one of my young friends.

She is ten, and earned the nickname Drama Mama years ago. She’s an accomplished singer, having soloed in front of a crowd of 400. (Watch out, American Idol.) She’s also a whiz at Guitar hero.

But can she act?

We met up at the store. After a brief explanation of what we wanted from her, we set up. Art filmed her entering the store from his perch at a nearby parking garage. Four takes, all identical, right down to the facial expressions. Numerous re-takes didn’t faze her. After getting the ‘Disney’ shots, it was time for some improv.

She placed her candy on the counter, and I rang it up. “Will there be anything else?”

“May I have a pack of Chesterfields, please?” (Subtle nod to True Romance.)

“May I see your ID?”

“Um,” she hemmed and hawed. “My driver’s license is in the car. The other guy sells them to me all the time…”

“I guess I’d better have a talk with ‘the other guy’ then, huh?”

“FINE!” She flicked the $20 bill at me, hitting me in the chest.

It was such spot-on behavior, typical for the crowd I deal with, that I lost it. Giggle fit!

After three more takes, with me unable to maintain a stern demeanor, we decided she should slam the money down on the counter instead. No Best Supporting Actor awards for me.

She, however, was as professional as a ten-year-old can be. She was even more enthused when I told her that, as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, the work she’d just put in could have earned her $500-$1,000 in the real world. She’s playing Veruca Salt in an upcoming camp production; I hope I get a chance to see it.

So, if I seem scarce around here, it’s not because I’m not keeping busy. I’ve been taking lots of still pics with my have-gun-will-travel Kodak digital, and assisting Art East on his various projects. It’s the thirtieth anniversary of my becoming a shutterbug, and I’m celebrating accordingly.

Say cheese!

1 Comment

  1. gee-no said,

    Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese!

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