The film business is born in Paris with the Brothers Lumières’ first paid public film screening on this day, December 28 in 1895. Among other selections, on the bill was La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (literally, “the exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon”, or, under its more common English title, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory.
At least one brother didn’t think the screening was that auspicious:
“My invention, (the motion picture camera), can be exploited… as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever.” — Auguste Lumiere
When making films at my scale, which is to say “human scale,” shooting on location is the only affordable way to do it. And by “location” I mean as close to home as possible. My new #indiefilm mantra is: “My hometown is my backlot.” And, as it happens, my hometown, Petaluma, CA, is also everyone else’s backlot too.
As I crowed in our fundraising package, we intended to “…insert our movie into the auspicious timeline of Petaluma’s cinematic history… Consider how this partial list of locally-shot films have contributed to the culture at-large: The Birds, American Graffiti, Peggy Sue Got Married, Phenomenon, Basic Instinct, Scream, Lolita (the remake), Inventing the Abbots, Pleasantville, Flubber, Mumford…” You can add Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why now as well.
Given the laundry list above, shooting Pill Head on location in Petaluma was essentially an act of reclamation, an attempt by a handful of locals to take back the town and the memories the movies threaten to supplant. But then, memories of Petaluma, at least for those of us townies who came of age in the late 80s and 90s, often are movie memories. Nine of the 10 films listed above were shot on the same streets we traversed in our teens and 20s, when production seemed ubiquitous and we were trapped in its stardust like the people of Pompeii.
Add to that the fact that Lucasfilm’s secret rebel base was once in rural Marin County (our backyard) and that Stranger Things mom Winona Ryder did hard time in our public school system, and — well, one can see how more than a few of us would be infected with cinemania. Being so close (like, downtown), yet so far away from the biz was galling. The sentiment bled over into my first novel, The Late Projectionist, in which a wannabe filmmaker laments:
“This is nothing short of hostile occupation…What gets me most is their tinkering with the tincture — shootin’ up the town in their motley. Technicolor twits. Lumaville is a black and white town, damn it.”
I too believe Petaluma/Lumaville is a black and white town. Hence, Pill Head is black and white. And for a fleeting, daft, moment, I thought it could also be shot on a back lot. I have no idea why I thought this was remotely feasible. Perhaps I was still in the honeymoon period of rewriting the script and overly dreamy about its prospects I suppose. Or maybe it was just a bout of Hollywooditis, a recurring viral infection I contracted when I lived there at the beginning of the century. Whatever it was it, led me to score a drive-on at Paramount just to A) prove I still could, and B) scout, ahem, locations.
Producer Karen Hess and I entered the Gower Street gate and were directed to the New York City set. There, we were met by a wonderful location manager who led us on private tour of the back lot’s back alleys from the driver’s seat of a golf cart. Near the “writer’s building” featured in Sunset Boulevard, we spotted an alley that was the twin-separated-at-birth of American Alley back home. But clean and with no graffiti or street art. Or people. It was like seeing a photo of a tattoo junky pre-needle.
The resemblance was uncanny, down to the loading bay doors that local artists Bertotti/Garlington laminated with a pair of post-Wonderland Alices a la The Shining. We got a rate and did the math — we could shoot a day on the lot (and th-th-th-that’s all, folks) or produce our entire movie in Petaluma. (Naturally, once we saw The Disaster Artist, the comic conundrum of shooting an alley set that looks like our hometown alley was put in high relief, per this glorious moment).
After about a millisecond of soul searching, I doubled down on the notion of shooting in my hometown. The reasons to do so were aplenty and obvious (we live there; ditto our lead actors; Karen is smarter than me, etc.). But even if I had the dough, I’d’ve shot on location in Petaluma anyway. After all, this is where the memories are, and if I’m going to make movie memories, I’d better make them here and insert our movie into the “auspicious timeline of my personal cinematic history.” Besides, it’s a black and white town, damn it — and everything else is just a technicolor trance when you remember there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
As far as literary bedfellows are concerned, the Marquis de Sade and Andre Breton make for an odd pair. With a gulf of 72 years separating the former’s death and the latter’s birth, they might’ve twisted a shared tongue with their work — both were French — but there was to be no bed between them. As of this afternoon, however, they share an auction block and a national accolade…
One of the world’s earliest and most sordid erotic novels — the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” — is recognized as a national treasure and pulled from auction.
…And, according to the Times article, André Breton’s Surrealist Manifestowas likewise designated a national treasure. Why France didn’t throw in Camus’ The Stranger for the ultimate French Lit turducken is beyond me. “Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir.” In the very least, some grad student should pen the thesis — I’m Gonna Melt Your Watch: From Sadism to Surrealism, One Hot Hand at a Time.
Factoid: Breton actually namedrops Sade in his manifesto — “Sade is Surrealist in sadism.” I’m not sure how seriously we should take this approbation — it’s followed by “Chateaubriand is Surrealist in exoticism.” (Note: Turns out Chateaubriand was a writer of exotic locales, not merely a steak as I had assumed — my bad).
All of this reminds me of three of my favorite old gags:
A) What’s the difference between a Masochist and a Sadist? The Masochist says “Hit me!” and the Sadist says “No.”
B) How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A fish.
And the natural synthesis of the above:
C) Monty Python’s Fish Slapping Dance:
If the Marquis de Sade and Andre Breton don’t ring your belles lettres, what does? How ’bout Baudelaire as stock art?
Two writer pals I esteem offer new works this week. I heartily encourage acquiring these reads from Christian Chensvold and Lisa Summers. Chens and I did time together in the SoCo newspaper racket and later Hollywood — he’s now in the Big Apple, where his longform short story takes place, albeit on the eve of the 20th century (though I kinda suspect he lives there too). Summers and I did beats in Wine Country during my five-year Lost Weekend in Sonoma and we share the same collective pub imprint. Her novel, which seemed to bloom overnight in our writer’s workshop, makes its official bow at BUMP Cellars at 6 pm, Thursday, December 21, at Bump Cellars, 521 Broadway in Sonoma! Click-thru the titles below and get this books at Amazon now!
A New Yorker-style short story, The Disengage is a kinky black comedy set on New Year’s Eve of 1899, cleverly satirizing the worlds of Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and fin-de-siecle decadence, culminating in a duel at dawn in New York City’s Central Park and loaded with cultural references for the over-educated. Both of the period and au courant, The Disengage (a fencing term), is rather quite engaging!
A set of false teeth hides a clue to the unsolved mystery of an ancient emerald necklace stolen from an Indian queen. Rachel Fischer-Alvarez, tired mom of five, is out walking the dog in Sonoma, CA, when she discovers evidence that may lead her to the genuine necklace but she must act fast before a gang of aging jewel thieves beats her to it.
I’m a firm believer in John Lennon’s observation that “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” Hence, my ambition to remedy life’s fissures with fictions.
At present, writing Lennon has been dead for 37 years — hard to fathom given the immediacy and omnipresence of his oeuvre, which still reaches me in some form at least a couple times a week. 37 years ago, I was eight, like my son Desmond. When he was younger it dawned on me that I’d eventually have to reveal the truth about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy et al, but most harrowing was that I would also have to tell him the truth about John Lennon. Back then, in his mind, the Beatles were presumably still a band and John sang him to sleep from an iPad. As I wrote in a column at the time:
“…Eventually, you will learn what happened to the singer of your beloved Beatles. I’m so sorry, man. I wish I could better explain why these things happen but I can’t.”
I still can’t. But in a weird mathematical coincidence, I was 37 when Desmond was born — so, today, I think I will try to explain why these things happen. And I will fail. But when I do, I’ll lean on another Lennon aphorism: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end” and explain how the story continues, and perhaps when he’s 37 he won’t complain that “Nobody told me there’d be days like these.” Strange days indeed.
In the meantime, here are a handful of baubles, I’ve written over the years that reference my favorite Beatle and acknowledge his obvious influence on me and my work.