Flash-Forward & Run Lola Run

Several years ago, shortly after it was released, a friend and I sat down to watch the German film “Run Lola Run.” I’d heard lots of good things about the movie, the premise, and the execution, so expectations were high…unfortunately, the only copy we could find in Charleston, SC, was dubbed, not subtitled. I figured it couldn’t be that bad, so we grabbed a few beers, slid it in the DVD player, and proceeded to make it through all of about 5 minutes of it. The dubbing was horrible. Like kung-fu movie horrible, though, unlike kung-fu movie dubbing, there were no humorous qualities to help redeem it in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way.

Not wanting to waste the opportunity to catch some of the extremely easy to follow narrative, we decided to play some electronic music in place of the dialogue – and it worked for the most part. The film stands up as intelligible even when the dialogue is stripped away…not something that you can say about many movies (except maybe “2001″ and a few others.) What stood out to me the most as we watched the slight temporal offset between variations on the storyline were the polaroid-esque flash-forward sequences, showing the ripple effect of Lola’s encounters with passers-by as she, well, runs.

As Wikipedia describes it, “Each run contains various flash-forward sequences, showing how the lives of the people that Lola bumps into develop after the encounter. In each run, those people are affected in different ways.” The ability to show an audience how future events may transpire is easy to do badly, and just as easy to spend too much time doing. The brilliance of Tom Tykwer’s approach is that his flash-forwards are just that – flashes. Using a sequence of still images, we learn of the consequences of each otherwise insignificant character’s encounter with Lola on her quest.

We see a woman pushing a stroller in the present, eventually losing her child to a social services type agency and kidnapping another baby in one sequence. In another run, the same woman is seen becoming devoutly religious, all as a result of the time offset of Lola’s departure.

A cyclist’s brutal encounter with a gang places him in the hospital, which leads to him meeting his wife. And they take place in a matter of seconds – a huge amount of information condensed into a short burst of an easily repeatable framework. It’s a very memorable approach to enhancing the woven narrative as a whole, and stands out as one of my all-time favorites.

“And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes…”

Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album has left an amazing legacy since its release in 1973. It spent 741 consecutive weeks (14 years) on the Billboard 200 charts, and stayed on the overall Billboard charts for nearly 29 years straight (1,500 weeks). It explores themes such as birth, life, death, work, money, the nature of conflict, madness, and the human experience…and does it using the philosophically questioning approach that Pink Floyd became recognized for. The stories within each song are all strong, supported by equally strong production, but one of the most fascinating aspects of the album for me has always revolved around the “voices” that appear before, after, and throughout each of the recordings.

In an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on the album:

Snippets of voices between and over the music are another notable feature of the album.[48] During recording sessions, Waters recruited both the staff and the temporary occupants of the studio to answer a series of questions printed on flashcards. The interviewees were placed in front of a microphone in a darkened studio three,[49] and shown such questions as “What’s your favourite colour?” and “What’s your favourite food?”, before moving on to themes more central to the album (such as madness, violence, and death). Questions such as “When was the last time you were violent?”, followed immediately by “Were you in the right?”, were answered in the order they were presented.[8] Roger “The Hat” Manifold proved difficult to find, and was the only contributor recorded in a conventional sit-down interview, as by then the flashcards had been mislaid. Waters asked him about a violent encounter he had had with another motorist, and Manifold replied “… give ‘em a quick, short, sharp shock …” When asked about death he responded “live for today, gone tomorrow, that’s me …”[50] Another roadie, Chris Adamson, who was on tour with Pink Floyd, recorded the explicit diatribe which opens the album: “I’ve been mad for fucking years—absolutely years”.[51] The band’s road manager Peter Watts (father of actress Naomi Watts)[52] contributed the repeated laughter during “Brain Damage” and “Speak to Me”. His second wife, Patricia ‘Puddie’ Watts (now Patricia Gleason), was responsible for the line about the “geezer” who was “cruisin’ for a bruisin’” used in the segue between “Money” and “Us and Them”, and the words “I never said I was frightened of dying” heard near the end of “The Great Gig in the Sky”.[53]

Perhaps the most notable responses “I am not frightened of dying. Any time will do: I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it — you’ve got to go sometime” and closing words “there is no dark side in the moon, really. As a matter of fact it’s all dark” came from the studios’ Irish doorman, Gerry O’Driscoll.[54]Paul and Linda McCartney were also interviewed, but their answers were judged to be “trying too hard to be funny”, and were not included on the album.[55] McCartney’s band mate Henry McCullough contributed the line “I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time”.[56] 

The inclusion of these Q&A narrative snippets throughout the album really helps carry the theme…and in many respects, Titus Andronicus’ 2010 concept album “The Monitor”, which uses quotes from Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Walt Whitman, and Jefferson Davis, takes a similar approach to carry the themes of the album along through the songs. The line taken from Jefferson Davis’ “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” speaks volumes, particularly when taken in the context that the album suggests that, as in the time of the Civil War, and with nearly every civil war, it’s a short step from being agreeable neighbors to ideological enemies.

The audience was large and brilliant. Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers, but beyond them, I saw thorns and troubles innumerable.

Patrick Stickles references this disconnect in the song “Richard II”, saying:

Then you’ll swear that we’ve always been friends
And be unable to conceive it could ever happen again

I think that this mixed-media approach to blurring the lines between performance and reality is especially effective in these two examples, as the injected narratives support and ground the overarching themes, and when used as a transitional device in any type of storytelling, can be used to bring the listener or reader deeper into the experience being constructed and shared.

Strength in Numbers

I spend a lot of time traveling to meet with clients in different locations around the southeast, so, not surprisingly, I listen to a lot of music…I also listen to a lot of NPR and talk radio, thanks not only to the availability of stations around the country, but also to the incredible podcast selection available both on their sites and through ITunes. A few of my favorite programs are “All Things Considered”, “Fresh Air”, and “This American Life.” Although I’ve probably listened to more of the latter of these than any other program, the one that consistently surprises me more than any other is “The Moth.”

These are mostly just regular folks with a story to tell…some heartbreaking, some inspiring, some hilarious – all sharing an authenticity that’s refreshing, especially with so much noise and confusion in the messages we’re bombarded with each day. As I was listening to a recent podcast, featuring the above story told by Wanda Bullard in Savannah, GA, I started thinking about all of the stories hanging in the air around Charleston, from historical accounts to current events, and thought about how we need a central place to share stories here in the area. We have publications, of course, many of which carry some brilliant narratives, but there has to be a better way to focus on and share these stories.

Through spoken word, oral interpretation of both original and borrowed narrative, and by gathering to share these experiences with each other, we can strengthen the oral traditions that are so quickly being out-shined by new media. If we start with the oral tradition as the foundation, which is what “The Moth” does so well, the many extensions into different media become more of the icing on the cake. More a natural consequence of sharing something that someone finds worthwhile, something that we can identify with in some respect, and as a result, feel compelled to share with others.

Serendipity + Search Engines

I came across this nugget of wisdom while doing a Vimeo search for music videos by “TV on the Radio” in preparation for seeing them storm the Asheville Civic Center around midnight tonight on this first round of Moogfest. It has absolutely no bearing on what I was actually searching for, but now I can’t imagine NOT having found this. As usual, Ira Glass says it better than most anyone else could hope to, and I think anyone who is driven to express themselves creatively will recognize the truth in these words. Short, sweet, to the point, and spot on in my book…

Wanderlust + Treasure Hunting

One of my all-time favorite things to do is get up fairly early on a weekend morning, load up my camera gear, jump in the car, drive until stopping feels right, and just wander…this past weekend, Sunday morning was just what I needed. I woke around 9:00, made some breakfast, and as I was cooking, I noticed that “The Goonies” was on. Most anyone who has seen the movie can understand the significance it holds to children of the 80′s. So, of course, I cooked up my ham and eggs, got a big glass of OJ, and proceeded to watch the entire movie.

Shortly after the final scene, when the Goonies have saved the day (with pirate treasure) and One Eyed Willy’s ship is sailing out to sea, I started thinking about adventure, exploration, and most importantly, discovering a story. I thought about making a run up to the Francis Marion National Forest, which is beautiful, but decided it was a bit farther (and more dull) than what I was looking for…downtown’s always nice, but would be packed, same for Fort Johnson & Sunrise Park, Charlestowne Landing, Pitt St. Extension, etc….I wanted something more secluded, and none of the regular parks were getting me stoked. Seeing “The Goonies” that morning inspired me to revisit an old favorite pastime from my youth. Trespassing. I *needed* to be somewhere that I wasn’t supposed to be, away from the crowds, away from the tourists, just me and a few fences to hop, some barbed wire to duck…I headed straight to Folly Beach, where the County Park is still completely shut down due to the damage from Hurricane Irene. I hadn’t seen it myself yet, but had seen a few pictures, so I figured it would would be a perfect chance to get a glimpse with my own eyes, and document what I found.

I parked at 5th block West and started my way over the dunes, jumping from the third last step of the access with such force I temporarily lost a shoe…the weather was perfect, the beach wasn’t crowded, mostly a few happy looking couples enjoying each other’s company, kids getting their last swims of the season in, seagulls all around…and proceeded to head myself south, towards the end of the island where Kiawah is easily visible. The vibe of the small, sparse bunch was peaceful but energetic, as if we all were walking around with a secret, each of us knowing that the other was in on it, exchanging knowing glances as we passed each other, understanding that we were sharing in something really special. Kids ran past giggling wildly, fishermen were setting up their spots to cast out and spend several hours drinking beer, many of them destined to catch little more than a buzz, couples paused as they strolled leisurely along, stealing kisses when they thought no one was looking…just a beautiful scene to behold, enough to make me laugh out loud on several occasions and continue along with a grin, taking it all in as I made my way south…

As I got closer and closer to the County Park line, I kept a sharp eye out for park rangers as I passed the first orange on black “KEEP OUT!” and “For your safety, the County Park is closed to visitors” notices. The signs of erosion were remarkable…where there had been 20-25′ high dunes, with wooden stair accessess and free standing structures, there was little or no sand supporting them, looking eerily like what I’d imagine some leviathan’s skeletal remains would resemble . Where the large but gentle dunes had once eased their way down towards the shoreline, there were now sheer cliffs between 10 and 15′ high, losing more sand each time the wind would pick up, even startling me a couple of times as huge pieces of solid earth fell to the beach. When I got down to the old clubhouse, which will be lucky to survive another strong northeast storm, much less another hurricane, I thought about how futile the efforts we make to dominate nature really are, and how nature’s brutal indifference proves this over and over again. It’s happened thousands of times, for thousands of years, and it will happen thousands more.

As I was walking around the structure, scoping things out, I caught my first glimpse of  a blue-shirted ranger, clearly in charge of keeping folks from continuing on down towards the inlet. Over the wind, I could barely make out his trying to yell something down to me, but he was a good 200′ behind me, so even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have heard him…when he did notice me looking in his direction, he took the opportunity to wave his arms in the air at me to get my attention – to which I responded with a sincere wave back – more of a “Hey man! What’s up? See ya!” than anything else. Nothing personal, of course, I just had to keep moving. There was treasure to be found…I turned and walked further down the beach until I could no longer see him.

And I continued my way south. The sand was wet and felt great between my toes, and as there was little beach to make use of, I rolled up my jeans and hoofed it on down towards the inlet. The debris strewn across the south end was amazing – everything from parking space dividers and electrical conduit to barbed-wire fencing and cinder blocks…remnants of the best laid plans for the park’s boardwalk strewn everywhere among the mix of shells, horseshoe crab remains, washed up flip flops, sunglasses, and dock pilings.

I passed two separate sections that appear to be new inlets forming, and as the tide rose, the amount of water coming over what had been at least 5-6′ above sea level (at high tide) on my last visit was amazing, particularly the speed of the incoming current as it passed through the fresh gulley and over the sand into the spartina. It was a great glimpse into the origins of the many inlets that break up the barrier islands up and down the coast.

One of the reasons the surf has been so good around the Washout (consistently referred to as the best surf spot in South Carolina, which is really like saying Cataloochee is the best snowboarding spot in Georgia) is that the Atlantic Ocean is using a deep channel to try and create a natural breach at the Washout, effectively splitting Folly Island in two through a combination of tidal forces from the marsh on the backside of Folly Island and the swell push towards the beach from the Atlantic. Every few years, the city conducts a beach re-nourishment program, pumping sand in from offshore onto the beach to help slow erosion. Problems with this (and there are quite a few) are the expense, disruption of natural habitats for local wildlife, and the fact that if you look at the results over a long enough period of time, it doesn’t really work. As with other examples of trying to control our environment, Nature’s pretty good at winning…and has been doing it well for quite a while.

I came upon a solitary tree at one point, struggling, alive but still standing in a just a few feet of water, waves lapping all around it, and saw the whole scene as a metaphor–sometimes we’re the tree, standing alone, battered by wind and waves, with our strength being deeply rooted and firm, but not visible at a glance, while other times, we’re the ocean–the sum of all of the changes, experiences, friends, hopes, dreams – our own existential ecosystems. Though the two aren’t mutually exclusive, when I saw the scene, the duality made sense to me, and seemed to represent both independence and unity at the same time.

After walking along some more, I came to the southernmost point on the island up from Stono Inlet…which strangely enough, didn’t look much different than the last time I visited the area. There were some amazing shells that had washed up, and a few folks on a nearby boat out shrimping with a cast-net…I was working on trying to get a good shot of a bird hovering patiently for scraps when I noticed that, quite suddenly, I’d been almost completely surrounded by butterflies. Big ones, too. Hundreds of them flitting around in all directions, seeming to be wandering, just like me. I stopped for a couple minutes and watched them, and realized that they were feeding on these large clusters of bright yellow flowers, so I scoped out the area, found a good concentration of the same flowers on the far slope of some large dunes, completely shielded from the prevailing winds. Although there were only a few straggler butterflies at this spot when I sat down, after I’d been sitting for a couple of minutes, they began to congregate around this sweet spot. I was lucky to be able to get my camera within a few inches of several of them–it was one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen in my life.

I spent about 30 minutes getting shots of the butterflies before packing it in to head on back up the beach, and had traveled maybe 500 yards or so before I realized I’d inadvertently made a mistake I pride myself on being super aware of most all of the time – I hadn’t checked the tide chart before I left, and as a result, found myself crossing long sections of “beach” that were not only underwater, but under about a foot and a half of water with 2 foot seas on top of that. Not huge by any stretch, but enough to be cause for concern with the camera equipment I was carrying along…fortunately, I was able to maneuver around some of the some of the holes and debris without too much trouble, but I definitely walked the post County Park section of the beach back to the car with some wet pants. And it was totally worth it.

Here are a few shots from the day’s walk…

Tom Waits & The Art of Immersion

Tom Waits just released his first album in seven years, and from the sound of it, he’s been building up a lot of steam in the interim…I’ve always admired Tom Waits, not for his raw musical talent, not for his gravel-choked voice that sounds like a cross between a wailing dog and a steam-powered locomotive (though both are awesome), but for his ability to bring listeners into a narrative.

As far as storytellers go, I put Tom Waits and David Lynch in a very similar category. Someone once said of Lynch, and I struggle to recall exactly who it was, that with many filmmakers and directors, if a narrative revolves around a heartbroken or psychotic protagonist, you’ll get just that – a narrative about a heartbroken or psychotic protagonist. With David Lynch, they said, if the narrative revolves around the same protagonist, you’ll get a narrative from the perspective of that heartbroken or psychotic protagonist. I think it’s why many folks have such a hard time with his films – if you’re taking on the perspective of a tormented person, plot lines might not always make sense or be cut and dried.

Every time I hear “On the Nickel” or pretty much anything from “Rain Dogs,” I feel the same way about Tom Waits…he’s not singing about the characters in his songs–he’s become them, expressing all of their nuanced motivation, calling out intimate details that would likely go unnoticed in a passing glance. He swaggers back and forth over an invisible line between performance and total immersion, and the results are brutally beautiful, often heartbreaking or grim in their candor and honesty.

Tom Waits – “Rain Dogs”

“A Rain Dog is a dog caught in the rain, with its whole trail washed away by the water so he can’t get back home. A stranded dog, who wants nothing better than to get home.”

If that’s not a near-perfect metaphor for so many of Waits’ characters, I don’t know what is…

Poetry & Geography in Charleston, SC

Plenty of writers, directors, photographers, and other artists have used Charleston as a backdrop for stories of all sorts, but two of my personal favorites have an exceptional talent for translating the sensory experience of the Lowcountry into written word. Pat Conroy, in his novel “The Prince of Tides,” sums up nicely the feelings I’ve always experienced while away from the coast for extended periods of time…feelings that were exceptionally strong when I was landlocked for 4 years:

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”

Mr. Conroy has been a literary hero in the South for quite a while now, and describes the region so vividly that it’s easy for the reader to recognize that he’s an ambassador of sorts to the area. Several years ago, when I came across the poem “Longitude Lane” by August Kleinzahler and felt a familiar sense of place in the words, I thought I was reading the work of another excellent southern writer…only to find out he was from Jersey. I have no idea how much experience Mr. Kleinzahler has had in the area, but check out “Longitude Lane” and see if some of the lines don’t resonate the same feeling and perspective that Mr. Conroy brings to his work…

“The oleander on Longitude Lane
flares among the languors and fevers of June below the south-facing piazzas
the sea breeze find
or don’t quite find
along the corridors of ivy covered brick Carolina gray brick and wrought iron
that wind away inland from the Battery

History just sits out there, a kind of weather in the harbor and beyond
on the plantations and through the low country with its bogs and herons
its forgotten skirmishes

And the manners in town so antique, so elegant an underwater Kabuki in summer dresses
The old families and Huguenot names

The long siege and storied cannonades

Turkey buzzards over the market
water rats under the pantry

The precious settee and the wild, wild daughters”

-August Kleinzahler

I read this poem while traveling in Hawaii several years ago, and my mind was instantly transported back to the quiet cobblestone streets, the disappearing alleyways, the carriages led by horses click-clacking down East Bay, honeysuckle sweetness carried by the breeze…and for a few brief moments, in the middle of one of the most beautiful islands in all of the Pacific, I felt a homesickness that I could almost taste, one that still sneaks in when I’m away too long, seeming to whisper “We’ve missed you…”

Experimental Animation & Child-like Wonder

I’ve been a huge fan of both claymation and stop-motion animation since the early days of “The California Raisins” back in the ’80s, and in recent months have been working on some stop-motion experimentation on my own. It’s interesting to think about motion more analytically in terms of frames, keyframes, and frames per second…having spent a good deal of my early career as a graphic and interaction designer working with timeline-driven applications such as Adobe Flash and Adobe After Effects, I’ve found a huge amount of technical crossover between the primarily digital timeline, cell-based animation with translucent vellum, flip-books, and the process of sequencing still images on the fly to create the effect of motion.

When I came across a couple of stop-motion clips on Vimeo earlier, and it took me back to that childhood fascination with animating inanimate objects, recalling the first “film” I ever produced at around 8 years old. The premise was simple – I had a gargantuan VHS camcorder, a tripod, a life-size carved wooden duck, and a mostly empty carpeted room. Now, as a child, it was common knowledge that any carpet, anywhere, was much more than what it seemed. At any given moment, it could be ice, lava, fire, or any combination of various elements (depending on who was in charge). To begin, I wanted to make the duck “swim” around the room, and I placed the duck on the “water” (after checking to be sure it wasn’t actually “lava”). I then began to move the duck about 3 inches at a time, starting and stopping the camera after each movement. I continued to do this for about half an hour–move, start, stop. Move, start, stop. Eventually I wound up with a couple of minutes of footage, and can still remember the anticipation of waiting to see if it worked. After popping the tape in and watching the first choppy frames, the excitement of watching that lifeless, monochrome wooden duck seemingly move around on its own was amazing, like it had been given a kind of brand new freedom. The sense of wonder it stirred up in me led me to watch it over and over again for a good chunk of the afternoon.

So, this in the inspiration behind the nostalgia, via Vimeo & Laughing Squid - ftJelly’s “Digital Analogue”


Digital Analogue from ftjelly on Vimeo.

This one stands out to me for several reasons. First, both the concept and execution are beautiful. Great footage, great props, simple B&W scene…and secondly, the musical accompaniment sounds perfect in the composition–and for good reason. The producer (ftjelly) explains the unique musical approach very well and in more detail:

Since the introduction of digital technology the relationship between camera and photographer has altered dramatically. Speed and accessibility have come at the expense of mystery, intimacy and tactility – qualities exclusive to analogue photography. Initially, and in reaction to this cultural atrophy, I composed a piece of music made entirely from sounds that I had recorded from a collection of antique cameras. Constructed using the digital composition software Reason, this piece carried a strong hip hop feel and seemed to connect past with future technologies. To accompany this track I created a video response that captured traditional, analogue techniques yet also had a strong contemporary theme.

This short film is made entirely with stop motion animation, with over six thousand still photos shot and then edited together. The cameras are literally ‘brought to life’ here, while image composition and lighting is as carefully considered in each video frame as they would be for individual photo shots.

I can only imagine how it felt to get the first look at the end result of this one…stoked like a child, perhaps?

Stories & Common Ground

“We read to know we are not alone.” – C.S. Lewis

Of all the stories I’ve encountered in my life, whether in airport bars, bus stops, bank lines, beaches, or any other locale where people congregate (willingly or otherwise), the elements that consistently draw me in repeatedly are the similarities that cross all boundaries. Regardless of geography, ideology, cultural norms, or any other dividing factor, the human experience is so similar at the fundamental levels. I think back on Kurt Vonnegut’s reflection from “A Man Without a Country” on the nature of stories told, where he breaks down several tales of struggle and triumph to a very simple formula.

The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.

The number of stories to which this formula applies (with some obvious embellishment for effect) is truly amazing. And almost universally relevant. When we can relate to a protagonist in a story, we inevitably have that much more emotionally invested in the story, and the more we have invested, the more effective the story itself becomes. Regardless of the story being told, as storytellers we need to recognize the importance of leading the audience to an investment in what’s being presented, be it logical, emotional, or credible – this is where the strength lies…the strength to motivate, to change minds, to empower, to empathize, to entertain. We need stories to remind us that we are each part of a much greater whole, pushing on through times of victory, tragedy, joy, sorrow, love, loss, and the full range of emotions that make up our human experience. The more we share these experiences, the more we understand that no matter the circumstances, distance, disagreements or quarrels, we are all, truly, in this together, and therefore never alone.

Rites of Passage – Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell has been a great source of personal inspiration for a while now. His “Power of Myth” series, conducted with Bill Moyers in 1988, is probably his most compelling and insightful piece of work in that it explains how narrative travels through time & across cultures, preserving fundamental messages and key lessons while adjusting other details to better integrate with the culture or society of the time. The way that these narratives change and morph from one tribe, nation, religion, political party, etc. to another is akin to the linguistic / sociological concept of “code-switching.”

By definition, code-switching is:

…the concurrent use of more than one language, or language variety, in conversation. Multilinguals - people who speak more than one language – sometimes use elements of multiple languages in conversing with each other. Thus, code-switching is the use of more than one linguistic variety in a manner consistent with the syntax and phonology of each variety.

It applies to dialect as well, primarily as a means through which a message is more readily received despite perceived (and often trivial) differences. Code-switching is frequently used in exchanges between locals and visitors, where the latter may add a dash of the regional dialect in some cases, or change their pace and inflection as needed in others. The idea of code-switching is very important to “The Power of Myth,” though an explicit connection is never established. Joseph Campbell takes folklore, mythology, and parables from human history, stripping them down to their fundamental messages, and the results are surprising – that many rite of passage tales and rituals, taken from civilizations separated by thousands of miles and centuries of time, fundamentally express many of the same ideas using familiar symbols. He’s definitely a master of “connecting the dots” along the evolutionary lines of seemingly unrelated narratives.