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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At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I write about The Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, and still despite the odds, am an activist about finding a cultural tenant for the dark room, slated to become office space here (i.e. Save The Varsity 3).

Do you mind if I cut and paste some of your New Varsity artwork, to my blog?

I will give you a credit line of course.

Mark Weiss in Palo Alto
"Plastic Alto" blog


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