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.


False Starts or How We Ended Up Making a Piece About a Puppeteer

5 02 2010

False starts come with the territory.

False starts are inevitably part of the creative process.

My guess is I’m not alone in this.

False starts – the inevitable moment between the flicker of inspiration and it’s snuffing by the hands of reality, fate or your own standards – are unavoidable.  I know several people who’ve gotten knee-deep in projects only to have funding pulled or have a subject unexpectedly pull out or — even worse — come to understand that some one else had taken on a similar project and knocked it deep out of the park.

All of this is normal.  But, when you’ve set out to make a short film a month, a nonfiction film at that, these flame-outs and witherings are unmerciful.

Our portrait of Bob Baker in Episode Four was not our first attempt this month, nor was it our second, it was our third.  Early on in the month we were working to go as far from Porn Star Karaoke as possible to tell the story of a community that cultivates compassion on a daily basis both as a service to the world and as a spiritual exercise.  We still hope to do this piece (possibly, next month) but two days before we were set to travel and shoot we got word that due to some hesitation, shooting this month would not be possible, that was on January 21st.

Scrambling to come up with something else we landed on the idea of shooting my friend and extraordinary musician Emily Lacy’s site-specific residency at LACMA.  From the jump this posed a couple of problems for me: 1) We already did a piece about a musician and about a musician in the same Eastside / Machine Projects milieu and while that is a truly great world, for this project to take the shape that we’re hoping it does our world needs to be broader than that.

We actually shot a beautiful small segment with Emily — which we’ll post at some point – but all in all we knew it wasn’t there.

So feeling a little hungover, and more than a little defeated we drove down Wilshire Blvd.  At the point where Glendale crosses underneath the 110 we saw Bob’s theater and I pointed to it, looked to Michael and said ‘What about that?’

A week later we were shooting in the space.  The story we found there is – to me – well worth telling.

The beauty of the whole thing is that in making a piece about lessons learned from frustrations and disappointments we were learning lessons from frustrations and disappointments.

It helps to be reminded of that, to know that in making these films — month in and month out – there’s more to be learned than how to generate views or drive web-traffic, there’s something else at work too.

Episode 3 – Reactions

13 01 2010

Here are some of the reactions we’ve been getting to the last piece.  I’ve gotten a lot of emailed reactions as well, but won’t put those up without permission.  Thanks again to everyone for watching the films and being a part of this project.

“Jablonski and Totten’s third short documentary functions as an almost
perfect microcosm of pornography, encompassing nearly all sides of an
industry whose existence remains more, shall we say, problematic than
most. It is a subject so rife with moral, emotional, and intellectual
landmines that I fear even treading near it.” —

“One male fan in the (vaguely NSFW-ish) clip below says that by singing good, he hopes to make the girls feel good about themselves.  Well, by the clip’s end, I don’t think Bowie himself could make that happen.” — Dangerous Minds

“a beautiful, moving, and riveting must-see short documentary” — Susannah Breslin

“God, nothing is more demeaning than karaoke” – poster in comments section

This American Life means “I like it.”

1 12 2009

It is always there. Lurking.

It’s on the radio two times a weekend, it’s on Showtime, it wins Emmy’s, it’s on Netflix, it tells true stories better than you and you will always be competing.

It is, of course, This American Life. I don’t know if there’s any way to really calculate the impact this life-affirming radio show/ television show / hipster-first-date-conversation-starter has had on nonfiction storytelling, but I’ll try: I’ve made a number of short form documentaries and every time if someone likes it – really, genuinely likes it – they will inevitably say, “It reminded me of This American Life.” That phrase alone is short hand for “It made me laugh/cry/think about getting a divorce/etc.” There is no escaping it and God save you if your documentary has voice-over.

The only thing worse than hearing that the documentary you made reminded someone of This American Life… is not hearing it. If the name of the great nonfiction monolith is not invoked then you have failed. Miserably. You have not had quirky characters, you have not made me feel anything, you have not had good music cues, you have not made me think about This American Life.

Despite all this. I like the show. The television episode Escape is some of the finest nonfiction narrative filmmaking I’ve ever seen. That being said – it is all of a very specific style, and one aspect of this style is – for me – problematic.

In 2004, Ira Glass wrote a Manifesto for the journal Transom. It’s a journey through Glass’ experiences working in radio but it’s also meant to tell you how to tell stories. Some of the advice I’ve clearly taken to heart:

“Force yourself to do a lot of stories. This is the most important thing you can do. Get yourself in a situation where people are expecting work out of you, or where you simply force yourself to do a certain number of stories every month. Turn the stuff out. Deadlines are your friend. “

But the problems arise when Glass gets to the Big Idea (Glass’ phrase and capitalization, not mine):

“A person can walk through lava, cure a disease, find true love, lose true love, discover he was adopted, discover he was NOT adopted, have all manner of amazing experiences, but if he (or the narrator) can’t say something big and surprising about what that experience means, if the story doesn’t lead to some interesting idea about how the world works, then it doesn’t work.”

The problem is that often it’s the narrator saying something big and surprising about the subject’s experience. When the subject is less articulate or less educated than the narrator it takes on a form of condescension, “Let me help you understand your life in a way that you cannot on your own.” It’s also spoon-feeding the audience an interpretation or conclusion that they may not agree with or that may not even be valid.

So far we’ve avoided voice-over, and that’s been in no small part due to the angry-beast of This American Life hulking in that corner. It’s also because – again, for me – when I watch a piece and slowly pull the threads together in my own head and my own heart — without any help — I’m more involved, more engaged and feel like I experience the story instead of just hearing it.

Episode One

24 11 2009

I’ve known John Wood and Lisa tangentially for about a year and a half.

They’re acquaintances of the sort that you run into at a party or a show, but I don’t know them much beyond that. Still, in the limited time that I’ve spent with them, they’ve always radiated a certain happiness, a kind of energetic stillness. It was with this energy in mind that I approached John about doing a short documentary about his Learning Music project. This is a project in which he makes an album a month every month and a project that in many ways provided the inspirtation and groundwork for Sparrow Songs. But in order for the piece to work it needed to be something more than that or more to the point it needed to be about something more than that.

When we went to his house he invited us into his studio, which sits in a converted garage directly under the house. In the moment that I saw his studio the whole piece came together: It was like an engine room of a ship (and in my view of their relationship that’s exactly what it is). He heads down there and sings and bangs on xylophones and doubts himself and harmonizes and works and works and works. Then he comes upstairs to his wife and dogs and the house and the relationship is better for him having been down there.

It should be said that I got married at the end of June. Single friends ask me what it’s like to be married. Married friends ask me what it’s like to be married. I can’t really say, because I don’t know what it’s like to be married — it changes everyday. Still, those questions were rattling around as I approached this first piece. Lisa and John have a happy marriage and to me, they’ve found one of the secrets and they’ve found it early.

Episode One works to communicate all this, but more than anything I hope that in the brief, fleeting moment while they’re singing and harmonizing and trading looks, it shows how it feels.

This is me.

4 11 2009

God willing you’ll be interested in this project, in the idea of it and in the films we make.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, we’ve probably met.  If not, this is what I look like.  I look stressed in this photo and that’s pretty indicative of how I look generally.

If you ever see me at a festival, or around town and you’re interested in this project or the aims of it or anything else please come up and say hi.  After all, part of this is about community.