Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Angus Young Rock You

Several months ago I was in a coffee shop catching up with one of A Life’s Work’s cinematographers, Wolfgang Held. I snapped this photo of this painting —

Angus Young and Sister Rosetta TharpeI put it on my computer’s desktop. I looked at it everyday. I wondered if it were for sale. Finally, I decided to inquire. I sent an email to the coffee shop. A week later they responded: they thought it was for sale, but weren’t sure. They gave me the artist’s email address. I sent him an email: a week later the artist, Dylan Speeg, directed me to his web site. The painting, one in a series of imaginary albums by unlikely collaborations, was indeed still for sale and the price was right. It now hangs in my bedroom.

The guitars are the link: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Angus Young are famous for playing Gibson SGs.

Angus Young Sister Rosetta Tharpe

But the painting’s real genius is the co-existence of the sacred and the profane. It’s a big theme with me. And here it is on one panel, and  it inspires one, or me at least, to consider the dual (duel?) nature of humankind in a light-hearted, almost anti-Kubrickian way. And I welcome that, because why does thinking about such ideas have to be so solemn?

Also, I enjoy listening to AC/DC (the Bon Scott years) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and it’s fun to imagine what this pairing would have produced in “Dynamic Stereo.” Heaven’s Bells is as good a title as any and could be the stand out track. The subtitle, obscured by the man’s head, is For Those About to Fit (sic) the Battle of Jericho, We Salute You.  Another decent title.

Okay, my clever friends, tell me what other tracks might be on this imaginary album.

Thank you, Dylan Speeg, for painting this. I’m so happy to have it in my home.




Mike Disfarmer and A Life’s Work

I recently had a conversation with one of my fellow artists here at Ucross about studio portrait photography and this led to Mike Disfarmer. It reminded me of this post and the great comment left by one of his subjects’ ancestors, so I thought I’d repost it. And re: the last paragraph, I’m still grappling.

I was looking through Disfarmer, Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946, a gorgeous book of Mike Disfarmer’s photographs. The following paragraph from the essay by Julia Scully struck me.

Detail of a portrait by Mike Disfarmer.
Detail of a portrait by Mike Disfarmer.

What distinguishes this product of a seemingly ordinary Main Street portrait studio from that of others on every Main Street in the United States? In seeking an answer, we must consider the character of his subjects, the time in which they were recorded, and the photographer’s artistry.

This set me thinking: is there something that distinguishes A Life’s Work from other documentaries? The character of its subjects  (unique) and the time in which they are recorded (now–there is no better time) are distinctive. But what about the filmmakers’ artistry?

Modesty prevents me from blowing my own horn, but I will say this: somehow I manage to inveigle cinematographers and editors of the highest artistic caliber to work on A Life’s Work. I like to think it’s the subject matter of the film that hits home–all artists want to create something that outlasts them. When the darkest clouds are hovering over the film, I think of my talented colleagues and their  belief in the project and then more often than not those clouds disperse.

But about the Disfarmer photos! I feel like there’s something else going on between Mike Disfarmer and his portraits and me and A Life’s Work, but I can’t quite articulate it. Check out his photographs  and if you can make a connection, let me know.

Endings, Happy and Otherwise

When I was at VCCA in October, I screened the A Life’s Work sample for my fellow residents. I introduce the sample as I always do, with a few caveats, including  the big one: the ending is not the real ending. A couple of days after the screening, one of the residents and I spoke about the film, and one of the things he said was, “That is not your ending.”

It wasn’t that he forgot my caveat, it was that he knew my tacked on ending wasn’t even in the ballpark of a real ending. Which is something I knew when we put it together, but had, up until that conversation, forgotten. He’s right, it is SO not the ending.

All of this has me thinking about endings a lot lately. And it made me recall this post from April 2011 about endings. Hope you enjoy it.

DL: 12/18/12


Long before the first “Will you finish it in your lifetime” joke was hurled at me, before the first day of shooting, before the first meeting with Paolo Soleri, I recognized a dilemma: How do you end a film that doesn’t have an ending? There is no election/video game event/spelling bee/etc. with a clear winner and loser. No character in the film comes to a greater understanding of his or her past/present/future or his or her parents/children/secret family.

So, how will it end? Not sure. And though this question may seem particularly thorny in the case of A Life’s Work, I take comfort knowing even more traditional narratives have similar quandaries.

Take, for example, the classic 70s noir, Chinatown. Apparently, there was a dispute between Robert Towne (the writer ) and Roman Polanski (the director) over how to end the film. Here’s Jack Nicholson’s take on the Chinatown ending and the Chinatown almost-ending.

I believe I was out of town for most of the discussions. At the time though, I did think it was more daring to have a neat ending where the villain is punished. I’m glad Roman’s point of view prevailed, but that was more what was happening at the time. That was the “no happy endings period” at that time. At the time, Robert’s [happier ending] felt more unusual. But I’m glad Roman prevailed. As he says, “If you wrap everything up, the audience forgets it before they’re at dinner. If you leave them up in the air, you have a chance that they’ll talk about it for a few minutes.”

I know this much: I would like people to talk about A Life’s Work for a few minutes after seeing it.

Why Artist Residencies

Here’s a post from the early days of the blog, December 2009. It was written at VCCA, where I am right now, though I am typing this in C2, a composer studio, and not in the corn crib. I think it’s as timely as ever and worth reposting. And this one has especially good comments.

Last week I had the honor of being asked by Sheila Gulley Pleasants, Director of Artists’ Services at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, to screen my film Tango Octogenario to the VCCA Board of Directors and say a few words about the value and importance of artist residencies. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it went something like this.

A name tag I didn't mind wearing at all.
Here’s one name tag I didn’t mind wearing.

Time and space are the most obvious gifts a residency provides, but just as important is the interaction between artists of different disciplines. I storyboarded Tango Octogenario at Centrum Arts and Creative Education. Could I have done that in my apartment? Probably. But while I was at Centrum I met a choreographer and told her I was making a dance film. She invited me to her rehearsal and asked me to videotape it. As I did, the ideas were buzzing in my head like bees in a hive. Many of those ideas then made their way into the storyboards. Could that have happened in my apartment? Not very likely.

Here at VCCA, I met a poet, Alex Chertok. I told him about A Life’s Work and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and he told me that his father owns a collection of rare jazz films. Did he have any gospel? I asked. Alex put me in touch with his father and sure enough, he does. Will I be calling on him for footage? It’s very likely.

And then there’s the deep stuff. Listening to the readings, looking at the sculptures and paintings, casually conversing in the bucolic setting or around the dinner table about art, travel, food, histories, who knows what’s seeping into our subconscious and how it will manifest itself in our work down the line? And the friendships that develop may be fleeting or lifelong, but they are always significant.

I hope that I give back half as much as I get from my fellow artists at residencies. I hope, too, that I can someday give back to these havens that have given me so much. For now, my screening and talk will have to do.

Thanks again for the opportunity, Sheila.

Los Straitjackets and Yasujiro Ozu

Los Straitjackets

Rerunning this because tonight I’m seeing Los Straitjackets (no Pontani Sisters) in Brooklyn, NY. Very much looking forward to it.

I recently saw Los Straitjackets perform (with special guests the World Famous Pontani Sisters, a burlesque act) here in NYC. I’ve seen them several times before and they always manage to entertain. But somewhere in the middle of one of Eddie Angel’s face-melting guitar solos the brilliance of Los Straitjackets struck me.

Angie Pontani and Pete of Los Straitjackets
Art by Rita Flores.

Los Straitjackets, in case you don’t know, play instrumental guitar-based music, mostly 60s surf style music and don Lucha Libre masks. Let’s put the masks aside and concentrate on the surf music.

Surf music has a very specific vocabulary, and honestly, that vocabulary is not very extensive, one might even say it’s simple. But Los Straitjackets recombine that vocabulary in fun and exciting ways, and they’ve been doing it for years! Each song sounds familiar, sounds like it might actually be coming at you from the mid 1960s, but not quite. The songs they cover retain their essence, but contain novel, and often humorous, elements. One schizoid solo by Eddie alternated between loud, messy Sonic Youth-style noise and jazz-flavored bits of “Maria” and “Somewhere” so tasty it made me want to weep.

So, there I was in the back of the Highline Ballroom, face melting from Eddie’s solo, thinking about how the band does so much with this limited vocabulary, when my mind made a leap to Yasujiro Ozu.

Ozu made essentially the same understated family drama over and over, and he did it with a simple, but non-Hollywood, cinematic vocabulary. His eyelines are “off,” he elides dramatic high points such as weddings and funerals, he breaks the 180-degree rule, “crossing the line” at will. His films tend to blur in my memory and they have a sameness to them, in part because he cast the same actors in many of his films. But despite the sameness, each film is distinctive, and in each film there’s usually one moment -— an exchange of subtext rich dialog, a reaction, an expression, a sigh — that will rip your heart out.

Los Straitjackets and Ozu do not blow you away with star power, expensive pyrotechnics, or groundbreaking experimentation. You will not listen or watch and say, “Wow, I’ve never heard/seen such a thing!” Here’s the music, it’s fun to listen to and move to, here’s the story, it’s universal and profound. And though they are both straight up, they are also not exactly mainstream. You will not hear a Los Straitjackets song on commercial radio, though you will hear them in commercials and on certain soundtracks, you will not see an Ozu film on primetime anywhere, though his films are revered by filmmakers and critics and Tokyo Story is on several “best films of all time” lists.

And so what does this have to do with A Life’s Work? I want this documentary to be hanging out with Los Straitjackets and Ozu, that’s all.

Here’s a video of Los Straitjackets doing a song from the soundtrack of Psycho Beach Party. It comes close to capturing them live. And Danny Amis, you were missed.


Thanks to Rita Flores for letting me use the image in this post. You can view more of her great work here.

[color-box color=”gray”]

What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

Art Films and Documentaries

1. Art Films

Many years ago I gave a screenplay to a producer, a friend of a friend who had then just partnered with another producer known for making some pretty fantastic, critically acclaimed, NYC-based independent feature films. His response to the script was, “It’s good, but it’s an art film. I don’t want to make an art film.”

Art film wannabe?
Art film wannabe?

What he meant was he wanted to make a film that would make a lot of money, like Titanic-money.

This was disheartening for two reasons.

A: I never thought Wigs by Coco could make Titanic-money — nothing I do will make Titanic-money. But this script is entertaining and, I believe, could be made cheaply, could find an audience, and could turn a profit. The problem is the Titanic-profit some producer types want to make.

B: Art Film. Like “art” was some kind of dirty word. And like  “art film” and profit were mutually exclusive. Again, the disconnect between me and the producer who rolls his eyes and tsks at the mention of “art film” is based on our perceptions of monetary success.

2. Documentaries

I recently took a gig as a crowdfunding consultant for a wonderful documentary called Humble Beauty: Skid Row Artists. I’m getting paid for my time and effort, but I’m not going to get rich. It’s a film whose message I believe in — the curative powers of art, the hidden lives of marginalized people, the ubiquity of art — and I’m honored that the filmmakers believe in my abilities.

No sane person thinks a documentary is going to make them rich. Some manage to make a paycheck from their work, others, like me, most of the time, don’t. Generally, people get involved with documentaries because they believe the stories are important and because they believe film is the way to tell these stories.

And this is probably why I no longer write screenplays.


Humble Beauty is a documentary about how art can help homeless and mentally ill people recover and renew their lives. It’s the powerful true story about how painting transformed the lives of talented, mentally ill homeless men and women in the worst area of LA, the homeless capital of America. Humble Beauty is an inspiring, empowering, and illuminating film that has aired on KCET, public TV in LA, and has been offered national distribution on PBS stations. The film is going the crowdfunding route to raise money for re-editing for time requirements, broadcast insurance, music rights, promotional materials, and other  necessary expenses.    

Click to visit the Indiegogo page.

Take My Advice, Don’t Take My Advice

Here’s a recent email exchange I had with Andy Bowley, one of the fine, fine cinematographers who worked on A Life’s Work. How we arrived at this point in our back and forth doesn’t matter. What matters is the content of this excerpt, which I think fits in nicely with the theme of the film and the blog.
Andy Bowley
Where’s in the World is Andy Bowley? Among the Allen Telescope Array.

when i was in high school, i was encouraged to write a letter to a fellow who was doing a lot of work in computer graphics/filmmaking. i was interested in this field, so i wrote him a dorky letter asking him many questions, among them: which should i study if i am interested in both filmmaking or computers? a few months later a letter came back from the guy.  in a dense and beautiful hand, he wrote that it was a miracle that my letter was delivered at all, as it was addressed to his loft space, where he never received mail. he gave me great advice, telling me that when it came to pursuing computers vs. art, he suspected that the choice would be “made for me” — and in closing, he advised me never to take anyone’s advice too seriously. anyway, i was so happy that a new york guy had taken such obvious effort to craft such a thoughtful reply to a high school worm like me.

i have always remembered his name. it was carter burwell. who, i was delighted to learn many years later, had quit the computer graphics/academics racket altogether to become one of the most successful film composers in hollywood history.

a nice guy triumphs.

i like that.

I asked Andy’s permission to use this email and because he’s a very nice guy, he graciously agreed. He also added:

i should mention it was his father charles burwell, a teacher at my high school with a similarly generous sprirt, who put me in touch with carter.

And then I asked if he still had the letter.

i believe the burwell letter has gone the way of the dumpster. you’ve heard of pack rats? i am the opposite-animal, whatever that may be.

i do get a twinge of regret when i throw stuff like that away, but then it’s rare that i ever think about it or need it again.  and then and there i have gained another cubic foot of free space  such are the inner machinations of a man who lived on a boat for 10 years.

The moral of the story? Write to people you don’t know and ask their advice, and if you’re the person written to, respond thoughtfully and seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Here’s some Burwell music for you, from the end credits of No Country for Old Men, a film made by his most famous collaborators, The Coen Brothers.


For more on the cinematographers who have worked on A Life’s Work, click here.

[cross-posted on Extra Criticum]

Steely Dan and A Life’s Work

Steely Dan and A Life’s Work? Wha?

A while back I was chatting with a friend about A Life’s Work and I said music influenced  it, and all my work, in a big way. My friend asked me to elaborate and I couldn’t really articulate it at the time, but here’s an example of what I mean, with apologies to those of you who can’t stomach Steely Dan. (I do understand why some folks hate this band, I really do.)

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, otherwise known as Steely Dan.

In May I stumbled upon a TV show called Classic Albums  and watched an episode devoted to Steely Dan’s Aja album. (My relationship with Steely Dan has been tumultuous: loved them in the 70s, hated them in the 80s, 90s, 00s, appreciate them now.) When it came time to talk about the guitar solo in Peg, my ears perked up. The studio solo by Jay Graydon is possibly my favorite rock and roll-fusion-jazz-whatever 26-seconds of guitar ever put down on vinyl. I would have said that no matter what decade I was in.

I went online to find out more about the solo and came across this intriguing montage on YouTube. It features five Peg solos, the original and four versions done by four guitarists who played the song live with Steely Dan. They’ve always worked with exceptionally talented musicians, and this clip is further proof of that.

[Sadly, the video has been taken down. No matter, the post is still relevant. And  here is the Krantz solo.]



Depending on how big a guitar geek you are, there can be a lot to discuss here. But I want to focus on how much each solo diverges from the original.

 Why this focus?

When we see a pop act perform live, we expect them to play the songs close to the recorded versions. We don’t expect radical reinterpretations. This is a broad  assumption, I know, but run with me on this. (This does not apply to jazz, blues, and gospel, where reinterpretation and improvisation are expected.)

Let’s use a handy-dandy scale. Let’s say 1 is an exact reproduction of Graydon’s studio solo, 2 contains a lot of elements (i.e., the phrasing, the rhythm, the glissando, the scale runs, the string bends) of the studio solo, 3 contains some of the elements of the studio solo, 4 contains a few elements of the studio solo, and 5 is a completely different solo. Again, I’m just rating how different they are from the studio recording; these numbers do not refer to quality, nor how much I like or dislike them.

I give Drew Zingg a 4, Georg Wadenius a 2, Wayne Krantz a number completely off the charts, something like a 99, and Jon Herington a 3.

When I first heard the solo from planet Krantz, I was very startled and couldn’t imagine it in the context of the song. I suspect there are several reasons why he might have played the solo the way he did — perhaps Krantz is an iconoclast and needed to destroy this very iconic guitar solo before he could make it his own, or maybe he simply did not want to be a slave to Graydon’s work, or perhaps he wanted to buck the listeners expectations, give them something radical. It’s sonic in a way that would fit in a free-jazz freak-out tune, but it’s strange sounding in the fusioney world that Steely Dan inhabits. It’s a bit experimental.

So, how do these solos influence A Life’s Work? Well, it gets me thinking about how far out there to go with the film. With a “commercial” film, you don’t want the viewer to be “taken out” of the film, whereas this is often what experimental films deliberately do. There are many commercial documentaries and many experimental documentaries. Applying the Peg solo scale, 1 being a commercial documentary and 5 being an experimental one, I’d say I would like A Life’s Work to be somewhere around a 3.

As the edit continues, I must continually ask, how far out is too far out? I don’t want to lose people, but I don’t want to lull(aby) them with the same old song, either. I’m not looking to redefine the documentary, but I wouldn’t mind challenging some of its conventions. In my fantasy world, A Life’s Work starts off in familiar documentary waters and gradually, imperceptibly, takes the audience to some more challenging seas, perhaps to a place where the shoreline is a little foreign, or maybe not visible at all. And how will the edit takes us to these seas? Good question.

As I see it, there are two main challenges: 1: Keeping in mind that my comfort level for strange waters is higher than most people’s comfort level. 2. Keeping my eyes fresh so that the strange does not become commonplace. If I edit with eyes accustomed to strangeness, I fear I’ll drift further and further into stranger and stranger waters until both the viewer and I are lost in a fog without compass or sextant.

Okay, no more nautical imagery in this post.

When I come across something like the Peg solos, it crystallizes these questions for me. And that is one way that music influences A Life’s Work, Rachel C.



Pinterest: Still More Social Media for A Life’s Work?

Is Pinterest for Me?

The latest bit of social media I’ve been trying out is Pinterest. Here’s what Pinterest’s  makers have to say about it:

“Pinterest is a virtual pinboard. Pinterest allows you to organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. You can browse pinboards created by other people to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests.”

My Pinterest boards. Looking a little thin.
My Pinterest boards. Looking a little thin.

I’m trying to find the best way to use Pinterest for A Life’s Work, but I must admit, I’m stumbling a bit. Is it just to collect Internet stuff that might be useful later? A glorified online bookmark with an image? With the added feature that  other Pinterest users can follow my boards … because … they’re interested in stuff I pin to my board? Right now, I’m using it as a reminder for things to write about here (Billy Gibbons), a place to collect images and sites I want to use on the Facebook page (“All 786 Known Planets”),  and a place to contain images that appear in some of my other work (“Words”). See the “Inspiration” board? There you’ll find Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, a link to an article called “Six Filmmaking Tips from David Cronenberg,” and a recipe for chicken katsu don.  What does that last one have to do with A Life’s Work? Not much, but I like chicken katsu don and that’s a good recipe.

If you’ve read this humble blog even sporadically, you probably know I have a semi-regular feature called “On the Corkboard,” so I feel like I’m already telling you about this stuff. Will I have to change that to “On My Pinterest Board”? Maybe. My physical corkboard is 5′ x 4′; my Pinterest boards can be significantly larger.

A Good Use

Robert David Sullivan, my fellow blogger at Extra Criticum, has found a great use for his Pinterest.

Robert writes, “Now I’m experimenting with Pinterest as another form of procrastination, but it’s actually helpful in arranging my posts so that they’re easier to browse. See the gallery of “Top 100 Sitcoms” here. ”

So, my question then: how do you use Pinterest? Or is this one you’re going to pass on? And do you have any ideas how I might make better use of it?

See also:

What’s It All About?




The Most Wonderful Thing in the World

I once tried to describe to my father what makes filmmaking so special. I couldn’t find the words. Then a scene from the film Gods & Monsters came to me and I described it to him. I remember the scene every once in while, sometimes when I can’t believe how fortunate I am and sometimes when I could use some reminding of how fortunate I am.

If you haven’t seen it, Gods & Monsters is a fictional drama based on a real person, director James Whale (Frankenstein, 1931). Here a retired Whale (Ian McKellen) talks to his gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), who is fictitious. The bits in parentheses are mine.

James Whale
Why should I spend my time working in this dreadful business?

Clayton Boone
Do you miss it?

James Whale
Oh, it was all so long ago. Fifteen years.
(big dramatic pause)
Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world.
Working with friends – entertaining people – yes, I suppose I miss it.

I think my father got it. Sometimes I get it.

Thanks, writer-director Bill Condon.