About the Clips

There are a bunch of original clips using footage shot for A Life’s Work on this blog. You can see a list of posts that contain clips by clicking here. If you visit the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel you can watch them without reading the text.

What’s With the Clips, Anyway?

Each time I put a clip up I have a little fear that someone will see it and think it’s part of the finished film. And then look at another clip and say, “Huh, what the hell are these two clips going to be in the same film?”

Editing at the MacDowell Colony, 2010.

Some are taken from the 36-minute sample editor Cabot Philbrick and/or I put together (“The Redwoods,” “Looking for Rare Gospel Vinyl,” “Jill Tarter on Growing Up in the 50s”), but most I edited especially for the blog. The film right now has a somewhat sturdy outline and many of those clips don’t fall within its parameters. Does that mean they won’t be in the finished film?

My Notebook

Some most definitely won’t be (“First Shots”)*, and others will most likely not be (“What’s My Favorite Tree,” though part of David Milarch’s answer and the archival footage might be). And the rest? Who knows? This blog has become a notebook for me, a way for me to focus what I’m working on and try some new things. Editing the clips makes me review footage and think of new possibilities. “Paolo Soleri Discusses Arcosanti Residents” is a good example of this. It’s quite possible that some of those shots and edits will make it in the final film, and that clip was really put together exclusively for here.

So, when you watch a clip, you might be seeing something like the birth of an idea that will be in the final film, or something that might make it to the DVD extras, or, in the case of something like “Ends,” just a favorite shot of mine that will only be seen here.

No matter where they wind up, it’s exciting for me to share them. Do you enjoy watching them? Let me know.

You can view most of the clips I mentioned and a LOT more by visiting the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel.


* “First Shots” and nine other clips are on Vimeo. These clips are mostly tangential, more like outtakes. They are usually just a series of shots or some weird little one offs such as this one: “Banter at the Allen Telescope Array.”



Time, Nature, Mortality … “A Life’s Work” by Guest Blogger John Yearley

Black Gospel Music Restoration Project
John Yearley
John Yearley

Fellow Extra Criticum contributor John Yearley heeded my call for guest bloggers, and I couldn’t be happier. Though to be honest, whenever I read anything John has written, I throw my fists in the air and curse the god of words. “Dammit,” I say, “why didn’t you give me the gift that you gave Yearley!?!” 

John Yearley is the author of Leap, winner of the Mickey Kaplan New American Play Prize (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Abingdon Theatre), and Ephemera, winner of the John Gassner Award (Summer Play Festival, LABryinth Intensive). His plays A Low-Lying Fog and All in Little Pieces are published by Samuel French. He has worked as a “script doctor” for New Line Cinema, and developed the animated series Mamu & Dinga. His new play, Another Girl, was read by the Naked Angels company in New York and selected for the PlayPenn conference in 2011. John is the author of the forthcoming book Daddy’s Not Tall Enough to Touch the Moon, a member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatists Guild, and a MacDowell Fellow. 

Recently I caught a few minutes of a nature documentary on TV. I’m not sure what the whole thing was about, but what I remember was the fish. Lying in a rapidly evaporating stream, it was just barely covered in water. The day was blazingly hot. It flopped around madly, but there was nothing to be done. It had only minutes to live.

I was riveted by this spectacle, horrified actually (I’ve dreamt of it several times). Thinking of it later, I wondered why this image so burned itself into my mind. Then it occurred to me – that fish is me. And not only me. That fish is EVERYONE.

We are all mortal. The water around us is, inevitably, evaporating. The only difference is how much time we have left.

A radio play of mine, entitled Like Christmas Morning, includes the following exchange. The subject is peppermint ice cream:

DUANE: It is so good! Why don’t more people make it?

CARLOS: I don’t know. Why does anybody do anything?

Why does anybody do anything? Well, there are a lot of reasons. The reasons for doing things that give immediate gratification are pretty obvious. I eat something, I have sex with someone, I feel good (hopefully). That part is easy. But why do people do difficult things?

The main reason is that they think they can succeed. One of the great narratives of our culture is the story of the person who undertakes a difficult task, perseveres against all obstacles (“they said I was crazy!”), uses their intelligence and hard work and just plain stubbornness to triumph over all adversity. If you turn on a TV right now and scan channels, I guarantee you that you will find some version of this story playing right now.

When you succeed, the narrative line is clear (“I did it!”). But what if you don’t? Are all your smarts and hard work and diligence only valuable in so far as the desired result is achieved? Pushing the question even further – If we are, as I have stated, all fish flopping around in our rapidly diminishing pool of water, how does any of this so-called “success” even matter?

These are questions I grapple with a lot. You know who doesn’t? The people featured in David Licata’s documentary-in-progress A Life’s Work. Why is that? Because they know they’re going to fail. The subject of the film is people who are engaged in work that cannot or will not be completed in their lifetimes.

So these people are, according to our triumph-over-adversity narrative, failures. Their work is bound to fail, at least as long as their water lasts. So why does watching these “failures” go about their self-appointed tasks – building their buildings, preserving their music, planting their trees, searching for life beyond the stars –why does it make me so happy?

A Life's WorkPart of the reason is the tremendous skill with which David tells their stories. The participants are filmed with care and love. They are given the space they need to talk about their work and what it means to them. What is so richly satisfying about the film, however, comes from something else. There is an almost ineffable sense of wonder in A Life’s Work. Wonder at these people who have thrown off the yoke of the conventional definition of success to just do their work. To believe that their work has value to the world no matter what. They are happy Sisyphus’ all.

That’s actually not true. Sisyphus’ story is a tragedy in that he accomplishes nothing. These people accomplish wonderful things. They just don’t finish. They work to work. Because they think it matters. Because it is important to them.

It is that particular aspect of this film, the serenity that comes with work done for work’s sake, that is particularly resonant to me. I am a fish, too. I flail as much as anyone. The things I long for (money, success, esteem) are ephemeral. I know that, but that knowledge doesn’t seem to stop me from flailing.

When I watch clips from A Life’s Work, however, when I am in the presence of its subjects, I am serene. I am able to hear the voice in my own head that I hear when I am at my happiest. It is a voice that says, “Just do your work. Live your life as best you can. Everything else is out of your control.”

Anything that can get that voice to speak up does me a great service. Here’s to hoping that A Life’s Work does that same service for many, many others.

Thank you, John.

Anonymous’ Life’s Work

On the administration page for the A Life’s Work blog there are all sorts of boxes full of stats. Like everyone else, I’m obsessed with the numbers, so the first thing I check are how many views the blog received. The next box I review is this  (click the image to enlarge):

Search Engine Terms
“i want to know” ?

In addition to giving me  insight into SEO (search engine optimization), I also just get a charge out of how people find the blog. I like imagining someone typing “i want to know” in their search engine of choice and winding up here.

On November 6, 2012, someone was doing some pretty inspired searching:

Search Engine Terms
“How to choose a life’s work”

There’s no way for me to know who searched for “how to choose a life’s work,” and I don’t know if he or she  found his or her answer on this humble blog, but I will say this: I believe your life’s work finds you whether you’re searching for it or not, as long as you keep your antennae up. Whether you choose it or it chooses you is another question.

Good luck, Searcher. May your work be your life’s work. May it bring you much joy and satisfaction. And when it doesn’t, for that’s the way the world works, may you be kind to yourself and may you realize more than 75% of the time that what you’re doing matters.

So, what about this idea of a choosing you life’s work? Do you think we choose it or it chooses us?


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.

What a D.P. Sees

I am always awed by how cinematographers see so much more than I do. We can be looking at exactly the same thing, the same angle, the same  frame, and they’ll register all sorts of details, big and small, on an initial viewing that I won’t see until I’ve viewed the footage they shot several times.

In July, cinematographer Andy Bowley and I went to Arcosanti to shoot some construction and conduct a follow-up interview with Paolo Soleri. Here’s what Andy saw through the viewfinder during the interview.

During David’s last interview with Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri, I was struck by what I witnessed through the camera – something rare and powerful and surprising. Initially our interview clicked along in the usual way: director asks question, subject answers.

But halfway through, David asked Soleri how he maintained his motivation — and then went on to admit there were times when he had difficulty maintaining his enthusiasm for A Life’s Work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director show such vulnerability to an interview subject during an interview. It was startling to me – a wonderful moment. But what put it over the top was Paolo’s silent reaction: he leaned forward to listen, smiling and avuncular and compassionate, and then went on to answer the question in the broadest philosophical terms anyone could imagine.

Soleri’s expression said so much to me about the relationship between the filmmaker and subject.  Sure they had been jousting all along – Paolo endlessly skirting David’s more personal questions, David dancing and jabbing as best he could, but underneath it all there was also a kind of artistic connection between them –  clearly (and wordlessly!) established during this one little moment.

It strikes me as such an important thing in any documentary: a nod to the audience, no matter how subtle, that there is a process going on. There are pointed cameras and hovering furry microphones, and most importantly a relationship, often rich and complex, evolving between the subject and the filmmaker.

Andy Bowley is a NYC-based cinematographer whose projects have won many national Emmys and one Peabody.

Andy’s other posts:

Charismatic Manhattan Pinecone Test

This Post Is For You, Gearheads!

Hardest/Easiest Work Environments So Far in 2010

E-mail Andy: a b o w l e y at  e a r t h l i n k d o t n e t

“Don’t you want to make a REAL film?” Redux

I was asked this question again recently, so I thought why not repost my response from two years ago. It’s not like my answer has changed.

On the set of Tango Octogenario, DP Wolfgang Held, 1st AC Eric O'Connor, producer Tom Razzano and 2nd AC Laura Hudock.

People have actually said that to me after I tell them I’m making a documentary. I’m usually rendered speechless and sometimes I can’t even manage to raise an eyebrow. Of course I know what they mean. They mean a narrative feature film with actors in it and lots of lights and cables crossing the sidewalk and grungy looking PAs with walkie-talkies and a table full of danishes and sliced fruit.

It’s a good question, since I’ve spent most of my life writing fiction–screenplays, short stories, the novel in my closet–and my short films were narratives. So why a documentary? (Not why this documentary? That’s a different question, one I wrote about in an earlier post.)

I decided to make a documentary because I wanted to make another film. I wanted to capture moving images and have those images tell a story. Most filmmakers can attest to just how difficult it is to get a narrative film made. So much time and energy is spent chasing producers, name actors, and money. Lots of money. When you’re trying to get a narrative film made, even a very small independent film with a micobudget, these elements have to fall in place long before a frame is shot. You might as well be waiting for all the cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City to line up at once. It’s enough to snuff out whatever creative fire you have burning inside of you.

My reasoning went like this: I could work on a documentary a bit at a time, which is something you can’t usually do with a feature (there are exceptions, like Roland Tec’s excellent We Pedal Uphill); I could make a documentary with a small crew and I wouldn’t need a steamer trunk full of Hamiltons to get it started. The big questions were could I live with making the film in stages and was I prepared to undertake the marathon that is making a documentary of this kind? Could I keep my enthusiasm up for years and years?

The answers so far: still alive after three good subjects interviewed, 70+ hours in the can, more on the way in August ’09; plenty of kick in me and as passionate as ever about this adventure.

But I haven’t answered that first question, have I? Do I want to make a real film? A narrative feature film, yes. But right now, I have this film I’m still excited about and that still requires most of my attention. When A Life’s Work is finished, and if I can rig it so all those cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City line up at once, then I’ll make that feature.

Photo: Peter LaMastro

[cross-posted at Extra Criticum]

And the Free Awesome Book Goes to…

John Yearley!

John is a subscriber to the blog and his name and those of the other subscribers were printed on a piece of paper, tossed in a hat, and drawn from said hat by my assistant. John will receive a copy of The Film That Changed My Life by Robert K. Elder.

Congratulations from A Life’s Work, John. I’ll be contacting you for your mailing address.

I’ll be giving away more free stuff in the future to subscribers, so don’t delay, subscribe today!

Welcome to the Terrific Twos

Last week, the A Life’s Work blog turned two years old. That sounds pretty insignificant, and in the scheme of things, it is, but to me it’s kind of staggering. I track, list, and calculate many things, as you’ll see if you continue reading, but one thing I don’t dare track, list, or calculate is how much time I spend working on the blog. (Let’s not even talk about the Facebook page!) I can’t even begin to guestimate. The answer that will have to do is, “a lot.” It’s a good thing I actually enjoy doing it.

Right, the stats after the photo.

My Favorite Posts? The Guest Posts.

What a D.P. Sees
Hardest/Easiest Work Environments So Far in 2010
Charismatic Manhattan Pinecone Test
This Post Is For You, Gearheads!
By director of photography Andy Bowley

A Report from SXSW
Top 10 Gospel Christmas Songs
“Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense: the creative act.”
By Robert Darden of The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

Sunset and Sunrise in Arcosanti, AZ: 24 Hours Amidst a Sea of Arcology
Photographs by Niall David, with an essay written by the photographer.

Why Would a 21 Year Old Be Interested in A Life’s Work?
By Haroon Butt

Arcosanti – City on the Edge of Forever by Nathan Koren
Resident of Arcosanti in the mid 90s

Mr. Pete’s Tree
by Jon Bittmann
The essay contest winner – Why Do We Plant Trees as Memorials?

Stop being so modest, what are your favorite posts, David.
Prometheus, Older than Methuselah: A Clip
Here’s a “Trailer”: A Clip
The posts that feature me playing classical guitar. Prelude 28 No. 7 by Chopin, transcribed for guitar by Tarrega; Adelita and Lagrima by Tarrega.

The Numbers for June 20, 2010 – June 20, 2011.

Posts: 121
Comments: 134
Clips: 16 A Life’s Work-related clips. (I haven’t done the math, but there’s probably at least an hour of edited footage available via this portal now.)
Total views: 8,457
Badly bruised finger tips: 0 (down 1 from last year)


This is the blog’s 200th post. That may not seem like much in 18 months (there are bloggers out there who do that in a month), but if you told me when I first started that I was going to have to some way put together 200 A Life’s Work-related posts, I probably would have canned the idea. Seems like a lot of writing focused on a somewhat narrow topic, and yet, here I am, 200 posts later.

This reminds me of other milestones. The first day of production. The first interview. The 100th hour of footage. Declaring production wrapped. At the time, these milestones seemed huge, and I suppose they were, at the time. Now they don’t really seem like much.

It will continue to be this way, I’m sure. Right now, the big milestone is raising enough money to secure an editor for a chunk of serious time. There will be many milestones after that. And once the film is completed, once it has been exhibited here, there, and everywhere, once I have moved on to the next project, all of these milestones will seem like nothing more than steps that were part a long journey.

What have been the milestones in your life?

Let’s Get Personal

[cross-posted on Extra Criticum]

I’ve been thinking about two documentaries: Scott Walker: 30th Century Man and Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. I loved Wild Combination and was luke-warm about 30th Century Man and there are numerous reasons why I responded the way I did to both, but as I think on the films it occurs to me that those involved with the Scott Walker film didn’t get close to him, while those involved with Wild Combination let us get very close to Russell. The titles, both referencing a song by the artist, should be a tip off: Is Scott Walker from the future and therefore unknowable to us 21st Century folks? Apparently so. “Wild Combination” is much more suggestive of what we’ll see: Russell the avant-garde composer and the producer of disco hits, the musician who lived and worked in New York City’s obscure bohemia but wanted to be as famous as Mick Jagger, the shy and awkward man who was uncomfortable in his skin but was forceful and uncompromising in his art.

I don’t know what level of cooperation each filmmaker had with the relevant parties. It’s very possible Walker didn’t want to talk about his private life; he is, after all, a recluse. He talks a little bit about an “imbibing” problem, but mostly we see heavy hitters (Bowie, Eno, Goldfrapp, one of the Cocteau Twins dudes and more) responding to Walker’s songs and touting his brilliance. Wild Combination spends a lot time with Russell’s parents, his partner, his friends and his colleagues. Russell’s insecure adolescence is covered, his burgeoning interest in music, his work habits, his drug habits, his sexual habits. Hearing all this we begin to understand not only this man, but his time and his milieu (mostly 1980s, Lower East Side, NYC). Simply put, it is, as the title says, a portrait. And the visuals are gorgeous and evocative.

Neither Walker’s nor Russell’s “serious” work is very accessible, but in understanding an artist, we better understand his or her work. So it is that Walker and his work remain an enigma, where as Russell and his work seems warmer, more human.

I think about these films a lot in relation to the documentary. In presskits and grant proposals I’m very quick to say “the film is not series of biographies,” and yet without some personal detail and history, we don’t know who these people are, why they do what they do, and why we should care about them. It’s a lesson I keep reminding myself. Scott Walker, I hardly know you and I’m okay with that. Arthur Russell, I wish we could spend more time together.

Below are the trailers for both films.

You! Yeah, you! Have you seen these films? What do you think?