Episode 12

19 10 2010



NOTE: This is indeed the final episode of the series.  There was a previous blog post about what I’ve learned in doing the project and three more will follow over the next three days, the following though, is just the standard making of the episode piece.


The idea for this episode came from a combination of two sources.  The first was an article in the LA Times about Trona’s football team, (read it here).  The second was this poem by James Wright:


Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,

I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,

And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,

And the ruptured night watchmen of Wheeling Steel,

Dreaming of heroes.


All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.

Their women cluck like starved pullets,

Dying for love.



Their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October,

And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.


Now, this poem was written in 1963 back when there actually were steel factories in Eastern Ohio but the sentiment remains.  Clearly, high-school-football-as-expression-of-town’s-hope-and-pride is a shopworn cliché.  No argument here.


At the same time the visual draw of Trona, the notion that the very ground the team plays on is a reflection of the difficulty of living in the town, and the ability to root this truism in the modern American West were all too hard to pass up.


And, I think the viewing of the piece reflects our own experiencing in making it.  It begins with a sense of this eerie, forlorn town, then moves to an understanding of how extremely dire the economic situation in Trona  truly is and ends with an understanding that here football is not about sport, but rather about an expression of survival.  That’s very much how we came to understand the town in our time there.


Lastly, as devoted readers of these pieces know I usually offer some kind of comment on why this particular episode was tough.  And it’s been true, every episode has been really difficult to get done and each time it’s been for a unique reason.  Last night over celebratory beers my wife and I were remarking on the fact that this episode, episode 12 was actually not all that difficult.  There was a late night sure (stayed up until 5am) but that’s just par for the course in a project like this.  There wasn’t the endless gnashing of teeth on how to get the cut working, there wasn’t  a sense that this would be our worst outing yet, there was just the need to do the work.


It seems that after doing this eleven times before I had finally learned to trust not only the process and myself as well.



What Have I Learned, Part I

15 10 2010

I’m in the middle of cutting the final episode of Sparrow Songs and find it hard to gin up any of the reflection that completing a project like this would conceivably entail.  This is odd for me.  I tend to be a pretty reflective person, I know how to talk about my feelings to a fault and I tend to be honest enough with myself to generally know how I’m feeling about a given thing at a given time.


Not right now though, not about this.


If anything there’s simply a sublime sense of having completed it.  The goal was to make 1 film a month for 12 months and that goal’s in reach.  But I’m still too close to it – as I’m writing Final Cut Pro is the other open window on this computer for God’s sake – to have any kind of perspective.  When we began and started shooting I knew nothing more than that this project felt right.  Now, here, late at night I know nothing more than that it’s done.  I’m not purposely trying to be vague or reticent,  it’s just that the feeling that is there is layered and tinged with conflicting emotions and genuinely unlabelable.  Here’s what I can offer: I have a metallic taste in my mouth and when I post this last episode I’ll sit down, drink a beer and probably cry for about two hours.


Part of that is because I don’t have any real desire to stop making these films.  But that desire doesn’t have anything to do with the actual making of the films.


Let me explain.


Yes, when we began this whole thing I thought I would learn about filmmaking (and I did) but early on, somewhere around Porn Star Karaoke, I realized that anything I learned about filmmaking would be secondary to the act of getting out into the world and experiencing it.  The films then became an attempt to make sense of what we’d experienced and to replicate the feelings that the places and people we came in contact with inspired within us.


For example, the first time I went to the L’Arche house that would become the subject of our sixth episode I went with just my wife, no camera and only the intention of experiencing the place.  As is to be expected communicating with the core members was difficult, there were long pauses and stammering on both sides of all my interactions.  I felt ill-at-ease and couldn’t quite understand why the assistants had chosen a life in a house like this.   We sat with the core members and assistants, prepared dinner with them and then, after dinner, they asked us if we’d like to join in their Sunday prayer.  What followed was one of the more profound and moving moments in my life.  The core members felt no self-pity or shame at their disabilities and in measured and even tones one by one they expressed simple yearnings – for happiness, safety and friendship – common desires that rarely go spoken or acknowledged in the outside world.


The feelings then, as they are now, were layered and conflicting and genuinely unlabelable so the goal then becomes to communicate some semblance of it all, the little tugs in the heart and the little tastes on the tongue.


I think that’s why the word most often used to describe the films is ‘intimate.’ Chances are people watch them alone, on their laptops, in bed or at their computers at work, with headphones on.  And the stories — films rather — don’t labor to tell you what we experienced or to synthesize it down into some clear point, instead they merely ask that you experience them, that you meet these folks and see this place with us.


And when people watch the films, my sense is that they start to learn what I’m still coming to understand: that just about every person you come into contact with has a secret that would break your heart and that everyone — from people in a forgotten small town, to the disabled, to the former high school jocks grinding it out in Double A – has a wisdom about their own lives that can help you understand your own.




Did I Make a Campaign Ad?

21 09 2010

One of the more intriguing responses to Episode 11 came this week from the Star Parker campaign itself.  They didn’t write and email or call me or offer anything more direct, but the did embed the episode on the Star Parker for Congress website.

In many ways this speaks to me as a very real and tangible example of how far apart the various sides in this country are.

To me the film shows clearly that for all the talk of deficit-reduction and fiscal responsibility many Republicans are in reality paying lip-service to this while pushing a “values” agenda which focuses on bringing the doctirnes of Evangelical Christianity into policy decisions affecting the U.S.

My guess is that the people at Star Parker for Congress embedded the film because to them it shows the exact same thing.

Episode 11

14 09 2010

Over the last month, several times people have pointed out to me that one of the hallmarks of the films that make up this project is the compassion with which the subjects are approached.

After our screening in Tacoma a woman came up to me and said, “I just really want to thank you for honoring people’s humanity.” A couple days later I saw a write-up about the project that said, “the shorts are all united in their humanity and gentleness, the respect and empathy that they show towards each subject.”

Well, this month we turn our camera toward politics — an arena that’s remarkably compassion free — with a focus on the congressional campaign of Star Parker, a black, female Republican candidate for the 37th District in California.  In the rising tide of news coverage about the coming Republican landslide in the mid-term elections (a landslide that seems to have been predetermined) there’s very little reportage that simply presents the candidates and campaigns as they are.  Instead we’re given analysis ad nauseum about what the Tea Party means or video montages of interviews with the most ignorant and offensive amongst them.

My intention in making this piece was to show the candidate, campaign and town hall event as I experienced them. I believe that is exactly what I’ve done.   That being said, I do not think this is a particularly flattering portrait of the candidate or the culture that has allowed her brand of politics to gain legitimacy.

Over and over again what struck me while making this piece is that for many in the US “patriotism” has almost become a religion unto itself.  It solidly rests in a worldview that combines a view of America that goes no further than a third-grade social studies class with the passion and fervency of evangelical Christianity.  In this view both the Founding Fathers and the Bible are infallible and any contradictions – Jefferson owned slaves, the Death Penalty violates the most basic tenants of Christ’s teachings – are thrown overboard and dismissed immediately.  All of this is then combined with an unwavering fear of the government itself.

While I have my own thoughts as to what has brought this about, I know enough to know that I have no true insight into it.   So, with this piece I offer no analysis, no shrewd political intelligence, only what I feel is an accurate and honest depiction of the issues and feelings at the heart of a single campaign and single candidate.

Lastly, Michael was unavailable to shoot this month because he found himself on a nice paying gig.  The very capable Topher Osborn filled in with an assist from Jon Schwarz.

American Nobodies

31 08 2010

I was in Tacoma, Washington last week.  The reason for this is that Philip Cowan of The Grand Cinema in Tacoma had decided to put on an event showcasing the work of the young filmmakers selected by Filmmaker Magazine for this year’s 25 New Faces list.  13 of the 25 made the trip to Tacoma and very quickly it was clear that this would be a remarkable experience.

Often independent filmmakers – and I would say independent artists as well [although I do not think of filmmakers in general (and certainly not myself) as artists, but that’s for another post] — work in isolation. So to emerge from that isolation and find a group of like-minded folks from Michigan and Florida and Nashville and New York and Amsterdam all showing their work and all lacking the usual ego and preciousness related to it all, well, it must be what a meerkat feels when he eases his neck above ground and sees his other fellows all safe, uneaten and ready to begin the day.

Added to the sense of community I felt there was also the experience of watching each other’s work together.  I hadn’t seen any of the films previously. Each one was — in its own way and in turn — remarkable.  It is unbelievably flattering to know that people see Sparrow Songs on par with the work of the others on the New Faces list.

Still, at the risk of singling two guys out I want to mention in particular the American Nobodies series that Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian are doing.  These two guys are from Davis, California, which is a small city south of Sacramento that houses UC Davis, and is a central hub of California’s farming community.  It’s hard to get much further outside the Los Angeles – New York film system than that.  And despite or because of their own isolation they’re making some of the most striking and consistent work I’ve seen in a long time, not the least of which is their 24 part American Nobodies series.  The films, all 2-3 minutes in length, profile one person (we’re only given their first name) as that person in their own words speaks about themselves or their work.  In watching these what struck me immediately was the irony inherent in the title.  “Nobodies” has an aural similarity to “nobility” and swapping the requisite two syllables gets to what the series is truly about.

What’s more is that as the divide between political class and the rest of us continues to grow fathoms deep there’s a frequent habit of mainstream reporters congratulating themselves anytime they even interact with anyone who doesn’t make six-figures.  David Brooks – who I bet hasn’t made his own lunch once in his life – and Gail Collins put this oblivious tic on fine display here. There’s none of that with Rod and Robert’s work.  They neither trumpet themselves, the work or their subjects but rather simply put it on display.  The result is a collection that follows in the vein of Studs Terkel or Kai T. Erickson showing Americans in the present moment as they are.

It was refreshing and energizing to meet filmmakers similarly interested in documenting the American experience and creating a form in which to do it that works to remove any barriers or mediation between the viewer and the subject.

If you have a chance check out the series here.  It’s not This American Life, it’s much more than that.

Episode 10 – They’re All Personal

11 08 2010

With the last episode I consciously set out to make a ‘personal documentary’ in the vein of Ross McElwee or Jay Rosenblatt .  In the making of this one it occurred to me – or rather I’ve decided to share – that all of these films are personal on one level or another, and this episode is no different.

This has been a great month for the Sparrow Songs project in a number of ways. First we were named to Filmmaker Magazine’s annual list of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film, then we got a great write up in IndieWire.  And now, because of all this, people in the film world are emailing and expressing interest in helping with whatever is next.  There is no certainty, but there is potential.  It is a great place to be.  It’s also a little nerve-wracking.

So this month I wanted to speak with people in a similar situation, folks blessed and cursed with the onus of potential in a situation where their performance would determine their future.  Early on, I thought about minor league baseball players.   After a lot of leg work – including a day-trip out to meet with the Inland Empire 66ers only to have their involvement fall through – we were given generous access to the players, personnel and ballpark of the Lancaster Jethawks of the Class A California League.

You – of course – can see the results of all this in the new episode.  But, there’s more to it than that.  Listening to these guys, watching the way they played the game it reminded me that we do this because – to put it simply – it’s fun.  Making and exhibiting these films is a source of joy.  Sometimes the pressure, the praise and the desire to make something concrete out of the opportunities this project has afforded us obscures that.  It was nice to be conscious of just how much fun this project is, to be aware of how much I’ve learned not only about filmmaking but also about the world itself.  I think that line of thinking brought me to an understanding similar to what the players, coaches and broadcasters in minor league baseball all have: the work is the reward, desire and ambition are part of that, but the work is the reward.

Lastly, a little something about the experience of making this piece:  I love baseball and the chance to sit in a professional dugout for two games was a privilege.  It offered an entirely different perspective.  In the dugout, no one talks stats, you can’t hear the PA system or the incessant music pumped through it and the game seems much simpler, more pure – there’s the ball and the batter and the subtle drifts of the fielders and there’s a chance to start at home and a desire to make your way along the base paths and then return.

Working Away…

4 08 2010

Here’s our post-production set-up on the latest Episode.

It’ll be up on Monday (Aug 9).

A little into the month, I know,  but we’d rather wait for a Monday than drop it on a Thursday or Friday.