Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, April 15, 2013

Eighteen Tables For Two

In which I relive my past as a movie theaters projectionist, renew my interest in filmmaking and vie to become a part of my shamanic counselor's movie project.

I Am A Camera

We can see now, that having lost the confidence and wherewithal of my ten year old self only to then loose the passion and faith in life that my 19 year old had achieved, there was little left of me to fend through my twenties. Just a nihilistic, romanticized posing, shored up by a suit of black leather standing in black steel toe motorcycle boots (with the requisite motorcycle to go with it). 

Shortly after I dropped out of College V, I worked as a projectionist at several movie theaters in Palo Alto. It was more than a job, it was how I was saving my hollow, soul-less, sorry ass self. 

"At least I'm not a heroin addict," I told myself. I had successfully failed all the expectations of my fancy prep school (funded by two frugal working parents and a partial scholarship the school had offered me). The high academic standards (three and four hours a night of homework plus weekend essays) had trained me to meet the goals of teachers who took a personal interest in me. College had been without such structure and my nihilistic peers, having taught me to scoff at passion in anything, had helped in my unraveling. All my equity in advanced placement credit was used up in unfinished classes. I needed a reboot.

I went home and lived with my dad. If I avoided asking my parents for money I felt I could start from scratch to shape my own life, find for myself what interested me. I did not trust my writing to the ethnocentric (and homophobic) literary culture I had encountered so I turned to art. Working nights at the movie theater funded my art supplies and tuition. 

Movies had informed me how life could be lived. I was still in high school when I saw Bob Fosse's Cabaret with its hint of easy bisexuality and tawdry, ominous picture of pre-war Berlin. "Divine decadence," said Sally Bowles waving her green fingernails and giving me my mantra for my youth. While Fosse's Lenny Bruce movie offered me my first scene of women touching each other, naked torsos beautifully shot in black and white. (The disgusted reaction of the audience informing me how such acts would be received.) Thus it was to the movies I returned to feel whole, to feel anything at all. At the movies I could live somebody else's life, house the characters in my body and feel their emotional unfolding. That high lasting for about a week before the effect wore off. 

The first theatre manager who hired me (and dated me) was a screenwriter. He taught me how to look at film from the writer's point of view, how to pick out why the filmmaker had made certain choices. As projectionists, we could watch our favorite scenes over and over. Midnight Express played then at our second run theater. I learned how suspense was created. How much the music and sound mattered so that only a closed door could be shown. What made a love scene unfold. The script said no to the homoerotic love scene, but the filmmaker said yes with the lighting and  the beauty of the two men together thus revealing the truth of the book. This was my film school. My dreams had tracking shots in them. 

I caught myself one day deep into my movie addiction. Walking down University Avenue, my eye tracking down the sidewalk like an establishing shot, I felt a momentary wonder at the 3 D ness of it all. "Reality is just like a movie you can walk in," I thought to myself then laughed at my own topsy turvy observation. But it was not a wake up call to return to reality for I could not imagine a future beyond the age of thirty.

Over the next five years I was a projectionist and manager of the Biograph, the Aquarius, the Bijou and the Festival Cinema. I sold concessions for The Palo Alto Square when China Syndrome opened 12 days before Three Mile Island had a near meltdown. (Life imitates art! Every show a sell out that week.) I also did graphics for The New Varsity calendar. 

All but the Palo Alto Square were within blocks of each other on and off University Avenue. Most showing one flavor or another of independent films, retro films, second run films, foreign films and the occasional left over block buster i.e. The Blues Brothers and Coal Miners Daughter. It was glorious; a renaissance era for movie theaters and we didn't even know it. Although I did refer to the Varsity as the center of the known Universe, my Universe because that's where I would go after closing to talk to my friend Tim, a fellow UCSC dropout, who tended bar there.

Nearly all my life long friends would come out of this period. I was happiest if every possible day could be spent in a movie theatre (especially the awkward, terrible holidays after my parent's divorce). Between working full-time and spending my days off going to see movies via the free pass system for theatre employees, I managed to achieve this goal. I loved nothing better than to stand outside a movie theatre under the marquee lights anticipating a new film.  

Piano Lessons

There was one other thing that I did during that time. I paid for piano lessons so I could imagine Ingrid Bergman sitting down next to me and saying, in that voice filled with longing, "Play it, Sam, play As Time Goes By". Hopeless romantic that I was. Instead I sat in the presence of a nurturing mother figure, a white woman who lived with a black man she wasn't married to and seemed to understand that I was queer without asking. I rode my motorcycle up to her house every week, zipped off my black leather suit down to my preppie LL Bean pinstripe shirt and blue jeans and she never made a comment about my appearance (except for telling me off for wearing jeans and sneakers at her annual piano recital). She grew up on a farm in the midwest, told me how she shrunk her Levi's by sitting in the watering trough and letting them dry on her. She married the first man who would take our out of there.

Once I came in at the end of another student's lesson. She was speaking sternly to this boy and I sensed that he must have said something derogatory about me (probably involving the word dyke) and that she was defending me. I was getting a lot more than piano lessons I realized. Someone, an adult and authority figure was defending my right to be. 

I did learn to play As Time Goes By as well as a simplified version of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue which was the opening music to Manhattan in which Meryl Streep plays a lesbian and the very young Mariel Hemingway slept with Woody Allen and defined love. "We care about each other. Your concerns are my concerns; we have great sex."  Tim and I joked that it was all true for us only we didn't have sex at all (having already been there.)

Sitting in the ticket booth watching the night life go by was my idea of being in the world. The lobby was my living room. Evenings filled with film buff friends standing around playing games of movie trivia. The walls of the lobby decorated with movie posters. Lots of time on our hands spent staring at those movie posters subconsciously looking forward to the promise of yet another new film experience.

American Ubuntu

The week I met Lenore for the training for the Solstice ceremony, she was in the middle of running a kickstarter campaign for her movie American Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Zulu word meaning I am what I am because of who we all are. The name itself speaking to community and she was asking each of us in her virtual community to contribute "as we found it in our hearts to do so".

I had never contributed to a movie fundraiser before though there had been several friends in my life making movies. I wanted to discourage them from such a Quixotic quest. All the filmmakers I knew were broke. At college V it was great fun being in their films. They were the nicest people I met, but because of their penniless example I did not even consider studying filmmaking myself; it was hard enough keeping film in my camera as a still photographer. So I never gave money to my friends' movies. But Lenore's movie had a poster. This made it half way to being real. All those years of lobby posters, of the promise of coming attractions kicking in.

The American Ubuntu poster was confrontational, gripping and provocative with a blockbustery air about it. A movie with a big story to tell embodied in the details and lives of its characters. A girl holding a drum, a man in a black beret, a man with an FBI badge. Only one of them white. The smoking twin towers in the background on the left; a pastoral scene of hand built adobe houses on the right. The people positioned in an interrelating triangle of strangers, a tiny smiling disembodied face in the center.  I could read it left to right. Conflict, political intrigue, racial tension, spiritual mediator heroine, a mystery from the past, post-apocalyptic resolution. The shamanic drum pulling me into the story. That part I knew something about, at least. And it had a panther on it. Definitely an independent film. In fact it was just the sort of film that would show at the Aquarius theater, the one remaining theater of my projectionist past. 

I knew that if I gave any money I would step closer to wanting to see this film get made, be drawn to get on board in a hands on way, perhaps. I thought about it for a while before I submitted my usual donation amount of $30. The campaign was a cliff hanger winning half the required $30,000 in the last twenty-four hours. This was exciting and significant in itself for it meant that a critical mass of people were on board with the film's story and wanted to see it made.


Three weeks later, after the solstice ceremony I entered Lenore's office as a client. As I walked in I wondered how many years it would take to spring myself from this change in status — five? However, long it took I would work through it I told myself. I had come seeking community, but now I felt I was in detention, possibly blacklisted from all future ceremonies of any sort. 

In the therapy contrived convention of our times, entering into a consulting relationship with someone who sits in the therapist's chair somehow removed you from life. It was not allowed that the two worlds would cross, the one inside the consulting room and the lived world outside of it. But this was different; a shamanic counselor was part of the community. And before long she invited her community to help her. She was going to do a stage production of the back story of her movie. I wrote in the Facebook comments of the announcement offering my help.

When I next saw her a few days later, it was her turn to look apprehensive. After I gave my report about how the integration of my soul parts was going, she asked what I wanted to do with the energy the returning soul parts had brought back with them.

"I want to do something collaborative," I said immediately, "in fact I want to work on your movie project if you'll let me," I added pleading my case. "Otherwise I'm trapped in this office—in this box," I said looking at the ceiling. I had not made myself into the world's most useful house elf for nothing. I listed off my skills.

She said okay we could discuss it. A shamanic counselor did not follow the model of therapy, she told me, but more the model of the ministry. And it was in the realm of the ministry for clergy people to mingle with their congregation outside of the functions of the church,  join them for tea perhaps. (Pictures of meeting the vicar came to mind. I was photographed with him at my grandparents' church in England when I was eight.) But we would not discuss her project on my time, she directed, marking the boundaries of this new layer of complexity.

"I want us to do this consciously," she said.

"Yes," I agreed. This was exactly the kind of border crossing I was used to making, slipping from one paradigm to another, from one defined role to another, one culture, one language, one class to another. I looked forward to the challenge. 

Eighteen Tables For Two

And so we walked outside after my session to the coffee shop next door. She bought us cups of tea because you always feed your crew, she said, and asked me to pick a table. Thus settling the customs of this new relationship, we sat down and she began to tell me what her back story required. It was to be performed at Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland, a theatre in the round experience. The story of young love in Kentucky in the '70s. A bold sixteen year old black girl venturing across the aisle—across the color line—to talk to a white boy. The white boy responding and treating her with such politeness and respect that I was won over by him as I listened to her describe the scene. Respect. How rare that word was in America. And to bring up race in our culture even more rare. (I know because I tried writing about it once and have the scars still from what I learned from the attempt.)

What Lenore was committed to do in a little over a month with almost no resources and no actors found yet, defied normal expectations. This just made it more intriguing to me, not to mention what she was attempting to do with a live audience to create an experience of racism (and healing with elements of shamanic ceremony). I was used to overwhelming impossible situations. Used to listening to the grand picture of what a client wanted to have happen. And then attempting to make it happen because I had been summoned to hold the space for this vision. And it was not just with practical skills that I could offer help. There was a part of my mind that took up watch at the perimeter of the vision and guided the energy to make it happen. Lenore needed videographers, stage hands, sets, props, refreshments, chairs and tables. Eighteen tables in fact to create a schoolroom. Two people sitting at each desk. Three rows of three on either side of an aisle.

I offered my skills as a videographer. She wanted the performance documented with two cameras, but the shooter had to have the skill of a photojournalist able to make a story from whatever was going on with a hand held camera. Very high standards indeed. She herself had been a photojournalist in her past. My experience was with tripod work on equipment that was now obsolete. But I had other skills. Memories of my teen years at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre and school plays coming back to remind me of the excitement of putting on a show. Theater production was where I had first wielded a hammer building sets. 

We did not decide anything at that meeting. She advised us to sleep on it. Then she let me take the initiative. So I wrote her two days later offering my continuing commitment. She wrote back that she would love to have me work on the project. Indeed love was what would fuel this venture. That was the fun part about crushes. How many different ways would love inspire? Transform? How many new things would be undertaken? I was happy now. My mind could be set into motion. 

I kept thinking about those tables. All eighteen of them. And then it came to me how I could get them for free. I could cut them from the hollow core doors that recently arrived, given to me by a contractor who knew how much I liked to make things out of doors. I had more than I could comfortably store. I worked out the details in my head late into the night, thinking about what could be used for legs and how to attach them. I wrote Lenore that I could get tables for free. I did not tell her I was going to make them for fear that she would say no, she didn't want me to go to so much trouble. But she didn't. Instead she asked me if I would be mad at her if this performance didn't come together quite as envisioned and the tables ended up not being used. 

"Well we would have them for another time," I said optimistically, casting into the future a series of events.

Then she told me that when someone makes something it sends energy out into the universe that compels the forces of creation to work in your favor. Well, now we were talking magic. And to be the maker of such magic was empowering. I was on. Suddenly it became exactly the project I needed to pull the stale energy of illness from my life. I cleared off my cluttered workshop bench in a matter of minutes and fixed tools that had been broken for years. What seemed overwhelming before was easily dispatched. I got stuff done in twice the speed and was focused enough to keep track of things I habitually spaced out about. By the end of the week I had a table assembled to show Lenore. I set it in the sun room to photograph.

"I'm going through my Zohar Dance phase," I told Catherine in explanation. Zohar was a non-profit that Catherine had spent a great deal of time helping out, enamored of the lead dancer. I had gone on many of the video shoots she had done for them.

I asked Lenore to tell me the make and model of the video camera she would be borrowing so I could study the manual. I was imagining a hefty professional level piece of equipment costing thousands. It turned out to be a consumer model that could be found used for a couple hundred off e-bay. As I researched it I learned that the Canon Vixia was a camera used by film students; just the mere association with film students was enough to ignite my lust. With digital technology, filmmaking was a medium now well within reach.

I bid on the camera and won it. Then one thing led to another in rapid sequence. I found a night course in videomaking that was happening during Spring Break when my martial arts school was closed. How perfect was that? It was taught at the Midpeninsula Community Media Center which turned out to be a terrific mentoring resource with equipment to loan out and its own cable channel. 

Two weeks later the table making project was nearing completion. And I had learned enough from my crash course to make my student video—a four minute movie about creative reuse, making —guess what?— tables from doors. You can see it on youtube.  (And I still had time to cook, entertain a house guest and help a client move.) Unbelievable. I impressed even myself.

But I was only one part of the elephant. How the rest of the performance was coming together was still a mystery to me, but coming together it would. Join me and see for yourself how it turns out. Cross borders. Be a part of the story. Sunday, April 28th at 3 p.m. at Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland. It's free. 

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Where The Wild Child Lives

In which I learn from my ten year old self, how to stay focused. How I made my first youtube video and how Catherine's illness changed my perspective.

To improve my Shamanic practice I was advised by my Grandmother Spirit to journey every day and write down questions. I was not a very questioning sort of person it turns out. There is an art to asking questions. Most big questions I didn't want to know the answers to; it required a different kind of mind. One that is concerned with shaping the future and I had been raised to allow things to unfold and to pounce when the opportunity presented itself. I wanted to learn to master the art of the question, but meanwhile I could just hang out.

My power animals were very affectionate when I came just to hang out. We moved languidly as if on vacation. On my first hanging out visit, Mongoose and I rode on Bear who made himself as big as an elephant and thus we sat on his back in an elephant chair much like the ones used on Thai elephants. We decided to visit Leopard. I told Mongoose I loved Leopard. "She is your heart", he said. 

We found Leopard sunning herself on her usual rock. She licked my face in greeting and I asked her what to do about Lenore. This was not actually a question on my list, but hey as long as we were hanging out I asked it as one would a friend.

After I wrote about my crush on Lenore I had sent her the link to the story along with all the other stories during those prolific few weeks when I was being reacquainted with my returning soul parts. I wanted to know if she minded being a part of my story. People do not always take kindly to being written about and I was prepared for this. Prepared to walk away. I had an entire flow chart in my head about how many ways I was prepared to walk away, but she gave me a big hug when I saw her next and told me how well I wrote. I did not expect her to follow the writing at all. I was so prepared to be rejected, I had to reorient myself to this warm reception and was not sure how to proceed; how to trust it. 

"Lenore will be there for you as long as you need her," Leopard said. "Stay open for what is offered," she added wisely. And so I let go of my second guessing mind. 

I asked Leopard if we could visit my 10 year old. We all walked down to the River and got in a small dinghy. The River drifted us downstream a little ways and stopped at the opposite bank beaching on a little spit of land bordered by some reeds. We jumped out and the 10 year old emerged from the reeds. She was eager to show us her house, a little round adobe house, whitewashed, with a single window and a thatched roof. I could build one myself from what I learned at a workshop in Northern Thailand. There was nothing inside.  

"It's round," she explained, "because it is more productive; it is the corners that are distracting and catch hold of extraneous stuff." I had to agree with that. Then she ran very fast around and around inside the house to demonstrate. We walked outside again and in the clearing next to the house was a little writing desk. She said she was the one who recorded everything and did the accounting. I had also been a very diligent diarist from the age of eight. I asked her what else kept her focused. She took from her pocket a sling shot with a carved wood handle and gum colored band. It was much like the ones I remembered from childhood. I had not dared own one for my mother was against weapons. I knew these slingshots to be lethal.

"I use it for target practice," she said pointing to the target on a tree 25 yards or so to the left of the camp. I looked at the circles of the red target. (It was much like the logo of the store of the same name.) And suddenly I felt I understood something about having goals and plans for action. It was a brief, but clear message for I was not given to goals or any kind of plans for myself though I admired it intensely in others. 

Before we left, the 10 year old also admitted that she hunted squirrels to eat. Such a wild child, I thought. I mused for a moment how this tale could be told from the point of view of the unincorporated 10 year old soul part hanging around for 44 years watching me live my life and waiting for an opportunity to join in—or not. I was reminded of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury

I went to e-bay and looked for slingshots. There were lots and one was even from Thailand with a lovely green stained hardwood handle. I was the only one who bid on it. I sent the seller a picture of myself when I was ten. He/she wrote back in a Thai sort of English, a tender note of appreciation.

Slingshot Productions

Meanwhile I returned to my leadership obligations and prompted by my conference team, decided to make a video announcement about the conference and all the great speakers we were having. A quick look at similar videos made by colleagues and others showed that there was much room for improvement. This always inspired me, but my standards were already high. I also wanted it to be memorable and entertaining. I could not pull off a professional business attire thing as others would do, but Jim at ICD headquarters encouraged me to go with the same mountain climber costume schtick I had created for my introduction at our last conference and that was enough to set me off and running.

I had no equipment to speak of. Just my iPod touch. Kids were using it to make their movies so how hard could it be? The only thing needed, said the after school tutorial I found, was something to hold up the iPod. I looked around my room and my eye fell on the movie splicer I had unearthed from the basement for my soul retrieval ceremony. It was now sitting on my desk like a giant talisman. Heavy and sturdy, it had flaps to hold the 35 mm film down on a flat bed. I discovered that the flaps would hold the iPod upright and allow easy installation and removal for downloading. I set the splicer on a stack of books on my sewing table in my room. The repurposing of this old movie technology to support the new, pleased me with its poetic symmetry.

I did not have a backdrop of our conference location in the mountains of Denver as I envisioned, but I had a world map someone gave me. I pinned it to my louvered closet doors which looked so obviously like closet doors it added to the improvisational aspect, plus closets have much significance for organizers. Over the doors was a mask of a whiskered wild cat of some sort. It gave my set an explorer flavor and a spirit protector.

I wrote the piece, did some takes and realized I would have to memorize it so my eyes wouldn't be tracking back and forth reading the words on a page. It was also hard to remember where to look since the camera lens was the size of a pinhead. By the time I was able to remember everything in one take, I was exhausted and it showed. I asked Catherine's opinion. She had owned her own videography company and was a good resource. 

"It drags," she said. It was better before when I was animated, but full of mistakes. Well at least it's done I thought and went to bed. I had already spent most of the weekend on it. 

Done was better than perfect as we say to our clients, but these youtube things were forever, would be who you were after you were dead, as I found out when Hester died and that was what we had to remember her by—a lovely series of videos of her talking about being a professional organizer and how she approached various organizing problems. None of us had any idea she had made them, but she must have had help because they were so warm and personable; someone was on the other side of the camera. Too many videos had that dull look about them from people sitting in a room by themselves talking to their computer. 

When it came down to it I had my pride, people to impress. My friends, my colleagues, my organization, not to mention Lenore—a filmmaker herself—would all see this thing. And some of my internet friends had never heard me speak. At least I could be more lively. Two days later, I decided to try again.

By then I had memorized my two minute piece. To liven it up I added expressions for each of the topics we were offering; I moved the camera back to make room to move so it would be funnier. I had an opening shot and an exit and little bits with props. Now there was a premise, a story. The mountain climber hefting a packed rucksack, heading out the door then stopping to talk about where she was going and who should come with. I worked so hard on this thing it took a total of ten hours to get it right after over 40 plus takes. But at least I had made it look easy. To seem effortless was a good marker of artistic competence. Catherine gave it the thumbs up.

When the video was delivered to members in an e-blast, a colleague who had been a long time president of our much bigger umbrella organization sent me an e-mail. "Cute ICD Video. You're quite the actress, ha ha," he wrote. Awe thanks Barry. I had hit my mark with my first attempt, fulfilled my obligations to my colleagues and left my stamp on something. 

The vision of the target in the10 year old's camp kept appearing to me. The simplicity of the slingshot representing a few well chosen tools. I could feel the satisfying connection of target and slingshot coming together. How a vision pulled energy to it. How the role of projects worked to sharpen my skills and move my thinking forward.

The Harpist

Before Catherine's diagnosis my ongoing project was to make emergency off grid equipment and practice self sufficiency. This entertained me not because I had fantasies of being a survivalist although I did read their blogs and write for peak oil enthusiasts, but because the simplicity of off grid living reminded me of home. Or what was home before it embraced globalization and became the mega-tropolis Bangkok of high end shopping malls emmeshed in grid lock traffic. Sigh.

My interests covered all the bases—tiny hand built homes, small boats, rainwater irrigation techniques, co-housing, vegetable gardening, solar oven cooking and living without electricity. Not that we didn't have electricity fairly reliably on my family compound and we cooked with propane, but it was there amidst the water jars, the ponds and extensive garden backing up against empty lots of high grass where old things were allowed to rust and fall into ruin, that I played and appreciated a life of simple handmade things. I had kept up an equivalent interest in California where orchards had given way to high tech. Building furniture from scrap wood, sewing my own designs and making simple home cooked meals kept me connected to that other life.

A lot of that is still there within our family compound in Bangkok. Tucked away beyond the sterility of the formal parlors of the three Big Houses, in the core of the half acre property, the staff live in one-room apartments adjoining an open air kitchen. Surrounded by a courtyard full of tropical plants kept tidy with borders of upended beer bottles, it was charming and anachronistic. When I visited I hung out there talking to our cook who remembered me as a child and told me what was really going on in Bangkok. Because I had left Thailand at such a young age, I never really gave up my affinity for that back kitchen living that was so full of life and things to do.

When Catherine entered into what would be a nine month cancer treatment schedule, I took up residence with her in the high tech, disposable, single serving world of modern medicine. Assisted by teams of competent, cheerful nurses there was nothing do-it-yourself about it. I would have to make something else—art. I amassed a collection of origami dinosaurs, a dragon, fish, a kangaroo, a space shuttle, two dogs and several traditional Japanese cranes. I particularly enjoyed folding my origami models when the harpist trundled her harp into the infusion lab and sat playing for us. There was something about the symbiosis of making art with our hands that made both of us smile secretly at each other. She was otherwise rather dour and made little eye contact unless someone clapped.

And as I whiled away the afternoon watching the cancer patients sit patiently reading, I came to appreciate  the value of art, music and fiction. Once Catherine felt able to read, she chose those simple, charming stories of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and I was grateful for their ability to comfort and amuse. From the point of view of illness as a personal episode of collapse, the power to entertain and relieve the mind of the angst at hand made the efforts of artists a form of life saving.

After Catherine's treatment was over, I  returned to my off grid projects, but I did not feel as compelled to tell myself the scenarios of technological collapse that supported the reason for my projects. It would always be a good idea to be self sufficient and handy and it would still be cool to have an off grid refrigerator, but the stories I wanted to tell now were very different.

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