Photo by Tyler Spangler
Disclaimer: I haven't done my research, and while I love doing research, right now, I just want to write about the feelings accumulating up inside of me. Here goes:
I'm starting to think that the idea of telling personal stories through film isn't the way to go (or very smart, maybe that’s a given). They seldom get financial backing and no one seems to want to watch them, especially if they come from a woman. It's like, they know. Also, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg didn't get their start by telling "personal stories" did they? I know the answer to this, but I'm feeling so insecure about myself, about being a woman working in the film industry, that I just can't say for sure. I'm sure they started by telling these cool high-concept stories. That's because men are less attached, less emotional. I'm not speaking specifically: I know many emotional, needy men, but I mean, as a whole.
I often wonder if things were always like this, but I just wasn’t tuned into the noise. Now, I'm so tuned in. I follow everything like a dog tracing a smell. It's distracting, but also inspiring, when I get lucky.
I work for two independent male filmmakers, and they have it hard. I guess getting financial backing to make a film is hard for everyone. But when I look at the broader picture, I know that women just have it harder. I read the blogs on the regular, and whenever there’s some rumor about a woman getting a big Hollywood directing-gig, it’s like a huge deal. So big you read it in the headline: “Marvel Considering Female Director For ‘Black Panther’ Movie”. You’ll never find a headline that says, “Disney’s Next Film Finds Male Director”. That just doesn’t happen.
Here’s where I insert a clip of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
I get so frustrated with myself about things like this, and then with the industry, which is more like an institution. I have great ideas all the time, but I shoot them down before I even begin the project because I know that all of the odds are against me. I know it sounds like a terrible defeatist attitude, but this is the reality. These attitudes and feelings have been embedded into my female DNA. No, I wasn’t alive during the 19th and most of the 20th century, when women couldn’t vote or go to certain schools or things like that. But it's like the chromosomes that make up my gender just know that these things happened to those that came before them: You’re a women, therefore you are less than. You can keep trying, but it’ll be a long time before you get what you want.
And this feeling of oppression and defeat often makes me feel like I have all of the anxieties of an artist, but no real talent. I feel like a ball inside a pinball machine, where the flippers are the blocks that continuously keep me from creating something. It’s a joke because I just get bounced from one to the other and then back again. Once in a while, I make it out, without hitting these walls. I get an idea and I start a project and I put it out there, but then I'm back inside the playfield, feeling insecure all over again.
I wish there was a place, a community where I could connect with other women like me, who want to be filmmakers, but feel the way I do about the whole thing. I guess, if you're out there, let me know.
I don't usually write about my encounters with "famous" people. And the one I'm about to tell you about doesn’t revolve around a particularly famous person. But he is special, and I read about him today so that's why...
It was 2009 and I was on my way to view Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces, the latest starring Penelope Cruz. It was one of my very firsts (if not my first) assignments as a film critic. Not that I was a film critic. I was actually just an intern for a film site. I knew I wanted to be an entertainment journalist, but at the time, I didn't really know what that meant. So I went to this screening, not knowing what to expect.
I drove into the Sony lot, and gave a burly guard my ID. And then the gates opened, and I fell in love. Not with the Sony studio, but with the feeling of being in a studio lot. (Thankfully, I've managed to hold on to this feeling of curiosity and excitement. It's somewhat magical, but also intrusive. Still, I can't help but smile whenever I get invited to one of these screenings. Movie theaters are great, but movie theaters inside studios are exclusive.
As I rushed to the screening room, I noticed two men waiting for an elevator. They must've noticed I was lost because one asked me where I was going. I told him, and he said, "This way," pointing to the elevator.
After getting on the elevator, I immediately recognized one of the men. He was a frequent guest on one of my favorite TV shows, The Rotten Tomatoes Show, which I would later intern for. I liked him, not just because he was a critic, but also because he was highly opinioned. Plus, anyone who knew that much about movies was very smart in my book.
Before the elevator doors opened, he turned to me and asked, "So, you're a critic?" He caught me off-guard. He wasn’t being rude or sarcastic. I’m good at reading people. But he asked in a way that also said, you're very young to be a critic. I was a teenager after all.
"Trying to be," I said.
"Aren't we all?" He said.
"In the same way that the original 1979 “Mad Max” was the “Citizen Kane” of gut-bucket Australian exploitation cinema, “Mad Max: Fury Road” may well be the “Götterdämmerung” of drive-in movies."
The first time I heard of the Salton Sea was in a coming-of-age indie movie called Little Birds. I'm only going off memory here, and what I saw, but apparently this ghost town of a place was once destined to be THE RESORT in the Southern California Valley. A body of water formed here, so developers came in and started building around it, or rather, in front of it, but then the fish started to die due to the increase of salinity in the water, and this brought about a pungent smell of, you guessed it, dead fish.
My boyfriend went to the Salton Sea during summer 2014 – without me because things were ‘complicated’ – and warned me of the smell and mosquitos, but when I got off the car, there weren't any mosquitos and the smell of dead fish was there, but very mild. I'm lucky. I went to the Salton Sea in mid-February, which is technically winter, but technically not because, c’mon, this is California. And so, without having to worry about the smell or mosquitos, I was able to focus on the true beauty of this place, this place that someone, sometime saw great potential in. They must’ve imagined a great future for this place, not to mention profit. But when things didn't go according to plan, they abandoned the Salton Sea and left it behind, along with all those hopes and dreams. And that's the reason I picked the Salton Sea over Joshua Tree or Salvation Mountain because it's a place that tells a very human story, tragic nonetheless. Still, it's a gorgeous and ghostly place that probably won't be there forever. I give it 20 years, tops.
I shot this video during one of my last trips to Fresno. It was on a Sunday, and Dianne and I decided to give the train-tracks a chance. I doubted them because of how cliche train-tracks have become, but Dianne insisted that it would look nice. She was right. She usually is about things like these. That Sunday, I moved my things back to Los Angeles and started what people call a "new chapter" in my life. So far, it's going well.
Parties fascinate me. The beautiful girls. The sour-faced photographers. The funky DJs. The drugs. The sweat and tears. I spend hours on LastNightsParty.com looking through archives of Merlin Bronques' wild days in Miami or nights in NYC. And I want to be there, maybe just as a wallflower, but there in the room experiencing this awesomeness first-hand. But then I remember that in pictures (and carefully edited videos), everything looks appealing. Everyone looks happy to be there. Everyone looks cool and interesting and cultured. And maybe they are. Maybe these parties are filled with the most beautiful, cool, interesting and cultured people – but honestly what are the odds of that?
I'm a homebody, but I haven't always been. I started partying at an early age, having friends who were years older than me. My life wasn't exactly like that Sky Ferreira song "17" but kinda. (Side note: Just realized that Sky Ferreira looks a lot like Reese Witherspoon… eerie!) And what I learned from all those years of partying is that being there isn't as cool as a picture of you being there. The dance floor is always fun, especially when the DJ starts playing your favorite song, but outside of that, the people truly just look interesting.
(I meet interesting people all the time nowadays, and most of the time, they're wearing cargo shorts and funky T-shirts. I'm not slamming people who dress well. I'm believe that if you dress well, you live well. But I am slowly learning to ignore a bad outfit and listen to what people have to say.)
Partying did me a great service. It helped me realize who I am not. I wasn't a drunk. I wasn't lonely or alone. I was a kid who didn't know any better. I didn't know what good movies were or good books. I had never had a glass of red wine. I didn't appreciate Jazz or hard work or family. I just wanted to be included. I didn’t want to miss out on the fun that others might be having. I didn’t want others to tell me about it, because I wanted to be the one telling the stories. I know this isn’t always the case, but for me, it was my insecurities that made me want to go out and party. I felt that if I didn’t go out, I was going to miss out on a bonding experience that would make me less important or valuable as a human being. It’s easy to feel that way, especially when the party pictures look so pretty.
I am not friends with any of the people I use to party with, except for maybe one or two. And I don’t care about those people anymore. I don’t know if I ever did. I do have stories about those days that I like bringing up every now and then, but they're not the ones that are important... are they?
I fell in love with a song recently and I've been listening to it on a loop. It's Karen O's "Rapt" and it's this sweet and soft folk song that reminds me of the old Western films my dad use to watch when I was a kid. It's short but somehow still heartbreaking, which is funny because heartbreak seldom feels short.
From the moment I heard this song I got the urge to make a little video so that I could just pour Karen O's lovely voice over it. I took the video footage earlier this summer, during a visit to Merced, CA, where my best friend/former roommate now lives. She has a pool. God bless her for that.
I like the suburbs, especially in the summer. The days are longer, the stars feel closer, and the sun shines brighter here. Before moving to what I like calling “suburbia,” I lived like 15 minutes away from Downtown LA (still in the district), in a stuffy apartment overlooking a busy street where flocks of kids walked by during the day and speeding cars drove by at night, always bumping some sort of gangster rap, which I am a fan of, just not at 3 A.M. This post isn’t about how much I miss Los Angeles, or how hard it was to get use to a small town after living in one of the most exciting cities in the world all of my life, but I will nevertheless admit those things:
I miss LA, and leaving it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.
But I didn’t go far, and I do go back all of the time, and I don't know, but I like the missing feeling I get. The "miss" is just right.
So like I said, I like the suburbs. Here I live in a spacious three-bedroom house, with big front and back yards. I have a tree house and a dog named Chloe. Though my neighbors like to yell obscenities at each other from time to time, it’s nothing compared to the sounds that would keep me up in Los Angeles. (Years ago, while I waited for a friend to pick me up from my apartment, I saw a car come screeching out of the parking lot of my apartment complex, followed by a man who aimed and shot a gun at the car. It was scary, mostly because seconds before that occurred, I contemplated going down by the street and waiting for my friend there. Thank God I didn’t.)
I love the city, I do, but right now I really dig the silent beauty of the suburbs. It inspires me all the time.
The other day I was hanging outside my house with my soul sister Arlene, and I took these pictures of her. She’s a silent beauty too, just like the suburbs.
I've also been listening to a lot of Arcade Fire lately. Their music reminds me of the suburbs. Anyway, I made a playlist, which I never do, but I got in the groove. It's not exclusively Arcade Fire, but that's okay.
Muslim Protest, Harlem, NY, 1963/Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks is one of my all-time favorite photographers. He did much more than take beautiful black-and-white pictures, or direct that 1971 movie Shaft. With his wonderful art, he gave the less fortunate a voice. And he took pictures that made people understand (or, at the very least, spark an interest in) situations they knew nothing about. I recently read an essay that Parks wrote for The Joy of Photography, an 80's book that I picked up from a thrift store not too long ago. As I read it, Ferguson kept popping into my head. Parks’ essay brought to my mind all of the people that are there, on the ground, in the midst of the upheaval: the protesters, reporters, policemen, photographers, and youth. Parks was a civil rights activist, and with his photography he campaigned the movement. He’s no longer alive, but his words and his photography still matter a lot today, especially under the current political climate. This essay isn’t so much about civil rights and politics, but rather about Parks’ challenge to use photography as a way of meaningful expression, like many photographers today. And since photography is one of my primary means of expression, this essay helped me understand my own personal struggle to use photography as a way to express myself as well as help people. So if you're a photographer or photojournalist, this essay is totally worth a read. I should also note that I began writing this post before the American photojournalist James Foley was killed by ISIS earlier this week. But I feel that this essay can somehow relate to him because he was also a photographer, like Parks, who travelled to dangerous places in order to share his experiences with Americans. So here it is, "The Personal Style of Gordon Sparks," published in The Joy of Photography by editors of Eastman Kodak Company in 1983:
"I experience, as everyone does, the pleasure and pain that come with living. But my utmost joy comes from the freedom to express my experiences through photography--to capture my feelings, the images of my fellow humans, and the nature of their conditions. I turned to photography not only as a way to make a liking but to pursue my desire to be somebody, so that I might have a voice that people would have reason to listen to.
One day in 1937, while I was a railroad dining car waiter working between St. Paul, Chicago, and Seattle, I wandered into the Chicago Art Institute. My reactions to the painting there were similar to those I had to the Fame Security Administration photographs–-those memorable documents of Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, John Vachon, rthur Rothstein, John Collier, Jack Delano, Carl Mydans, and others. At a movie that same day I saw a newsreel of Japanese planks bombing the U.S.S. Panay. The cameraman, Norman Ally, stayed at his post to the end, shooting the final belch of steam and smoke that rose when the ship sank beneath the Yangtze River. The grim directness of his film brought me face to face with the real horror of awe. Fascinated, I sat through another show, deciding then and there to become a photographer.
Back in Seattle I went camera hunting. Abe Cohen's pawnshop had better cameras on its dusty shelves, but the one that suited my taste was a Voightlander Brilliant. I liked its fancy name, and when Abe told me it cost only $12.50 I bought it without bothering to inspect it. I was midly surprised when he said I would have to buy film for it; somehow that particular necessary had not entered my mind. We spent the next half hour trying to load it.
That afternoon I shot scenes along the waterfront--buildings, people, signs, whatever struck my eye--confident that my efforts would be masterpieces. At a wharf, trying to photograph seagulls in flights, I fell headfirst into Puget Sound and splashed about, hollering for help, until two firemen fished me out with a long pole. I was dripping wet and shivering, but I held on to my Voightlander Brilliant. Undaunted, I dried myself off, bought two more rolls of film, and took pictures until the sun went down.
Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis developed these rolls, when I picked up my contact prints, a clerk complimented my first efforts. "Keep it up and we'll give you an exhibition," he said. Realizing that I wasn't taking him seriously, he added, "I mean it. You've got a good eye." Still cautious, I thanked him, saying that I would hold him to his word. In the coming weeks I photographed skiers, clouds, women, children, old bearded men, sand dunes, ocean fronts--just about anything I found in front of my camera. Six weeks later Eastman Kodak kept its word: My photographs were exhibited in the window of their downtown store. For me, that's the way it started.
Because of the frustrations of my own early life, I try to share, through my work, the problems of other people around me--regardless of their color or race. I feel a responsibility to point up the plight of those less fortunate than myself--to communicate the abuse of the underprivileged and the insensitivity of those who administer the abuse. Silent watching is not enough, however. I realized long ago that condemnation would have to give way to commitments and that photography was a splendid way to put commitment into proactive. My heart would help my eye select the subject of each photograph.
When a LIFE magazine editor asked me why black people were burning the ghettos, I loaded my camera with film and pointed it at the impoverished black families suffering through the brutally hot summers and the terrible winters. Their plight was evidence enough for anyone who seriously wanted to understand the problem. Yet, when I photograph these people, ensnared in misfortune, my problem is inevitably one of reporting objectively, without allowing my subjective feelings to take over.
My choice of photography for self-expression was not accidental. When I bought my first camera I was aware of its power to communicate my feelings. The problem was to learn to do it simply, so that I could be understood in China as well as in Missouri, and to release the esthetic and emotional impulses trapped inside me. But photography is different for different people, and rightfully so. To some, just the pleasure of catching the image of something that interests them is enough. Thankfully, all painters and poets are not inspired by adversity and all music isn't composed by those who sing only sorrowful songs. Otherwise few mornings would be worth waking to. I try to strike a balance--to affirm the good and condemn the bad…
Many people ask me about "American Gothic," my photograph of the black cleaning woman and her broom and mop. Fired by the racial insults I experienced in Washington D.C., when I first worked there with Roy Stryker in 1942, I found that using my camera against intolerance was not as easy as I thought it should be. To photograph a bigot who refused to serve me in a cafe or to let me enter a theater because I was black wasn't enough. Many bigots have the good fortune to look intelligent. Roy, sensing my frustration, urged me to talk with the black woman who cleaned the office on our floor.
This was a strange suggestion, but after Roy had gone for the evening I searched her out and introduced myself. She was a tall, spinally woman with friendly features. Her hair was swept back from raying temples, and a sharp intelligence shone in her eyes behind steel-rimmer glasses. Our conversation started awkwardly, since neither of us knew why we were talking together. At first it was a meaningless exchange of words. then, as if a dam had broken, she began to tell me her life story. It was a pitiful one--her father was lynched and her husband murdered, both by whites--and it was full of the poverty and hardship so familiar to many American blacks.
I finally asked her to pose for me. When she consented, I positioned her before the American flag, Grant Wood style: broom in one hand, a mop in the other, eyes staring straight into my camera. Stryker took one look at the blowup the following morning and was speechless.
"Well, how do you like it?" I asked eagerly.
He smiles finally. "Keep working with her. Let's see what happens."
I photographed her at home, at work, at church, and just about everywhere she went. "You're learning," Stryker admitted one evening when I laid the photographs before him. "You're showing that you can involve yourself with other people. This woman has done you a great service. I hope you understand this." I did understand.
Since then, I have tried to show--picture by picture, word by word--things as they are: the darkness and the light, the cheerful faces and the disgruntled one. And what I have photographed is, in large part, what I have come to know about our universe and the people who inhabit it. What I have not photographed is what I have yet to learn."
Gordon Parks, New York City
He reminded you of Shia LaBeouf before he became an asshole–before the Walgreens incident and all those confrontations with the paparazzi–when he was still the sweet kid starring on Even Stevens. As a young girl, all you ever daydreamed about was this boy who looked like the kid with curly hair from that Disney show that made you laugh so much. And now he's talking to you. He asks what you want to do, and you don’t reply. You still can’t believe what's happening, or about to happen. You notice your best friend run by–her beautiful, mermaid blonde hair all over her face and she’s laughing, looking back at the boy she’s been dying to make out with. It’s going to happen because anything Olivia wants, Olivia gets, and you love her for that. In the background, someone’s begun to play 90's rap music and that’s the moment you let the pot take over. You tilt your head back and close your eyes, and that’s when he kisses you on the lips and you just open your mouth. He tastes like cheap beer and cinnamon gum. You open your eyes and he looks different. You can’t really explain what happened but somewhere between “Lyrical Gangbang” and “High Powered,” your enthusiasm for this Shia LaBeaouf lookalike became lukewarm. That’s what happens when you set your expectations too high, but you didn’t know that. You’re only thirteen, and this is the first time you’ve ever kissed a boy. It wasn’t magical like your group of friends said it would be. But somehow he’s still kissing you and now his fingers are beginning to dig under your orange summer skirt. You realize you’re not drunk enough or high enough for this level of fooling around so you push him away and tell him you need some air, something you learned to say from all those romantic comedies your older sister watches. Outside, you lay on the soft green grass and you call your best friend’s ex-boyfriend and he tells you about the new shoes he just bought, and you listen. You listen because you care, and in that moment nothing else matters.