Classic Helmut Newton Photo
POST-OP WEEK 79
week of August 2
I like being “on set.” As a photo assistant on a still shoot. As a PA for a TV commercial. As an extra in “The Package.” Even as an ad guy.
I don’t have to be in front of the camera, in fact, I think I like doing that the least.
Let’s see if I can describe it…
There’s something about the illusion of it all. The big dark room with this space in the middle. It’s a living room at Christmas, even though it’s July outside. It’s kids having a picnic on sod we brought in that morning and laid in out on the studio’s cement floor. It’s the model in Sears underwear pulled back with clamps in back to smooth out the wrinkles. Yummy cookies. Cranky bus drivers. Shiny socket wrenches. Foamy glasses of beer.
Lights pulled in just off-camera to give the scene exactly what it needs, just the right highlight or warm glow. Bounce cards and clothespins. The camera aimed just where the frame is right.
[I took a two-day “seminar” (I guess you’d call it) with Helmut Newton, the famous fashion photographer with the prurient reputation. It was Helmut and a group of maybe eight young people: 18, 20, I was probably the oldest at 23 or so. Two, 8 hours days, just Helmut and us. He told us his feelings and philosophy on photography and we got to ask him questions. He went through everyone’s portfolio in front of the group, giving advice and critiquing our work. Then we went to a location to watch him shoot a model while he told us what he was doing and why. This is where he told us, as he held the camera down, to the right at an angle: “This is where the picture is, for me.” He held the camera up, “it is not here.” He held it over to the side, “it is not here. It is here.” And went back.]
It’s the buzz and the excitement all focused (no pun intended) on this one, little area one little object or person or place. It works the same for shooting on location it doesn’t have to be in a studio. There’s just something about isolating this one part of everything in this frame, a place, maybe, that no one else can see. Like Helmut Newton said, turn to the left and it’s not there, you can see the masking tape and the c-clamps. Turn right and there’s the tacky wax holding the cookie just at the correct angle.
It’s almost the same when I’m an agency guy at a shoot. Not quite but almost. It’s not quite like when you’re one of the crew. I’ve been mistaken for crew when I’ve been on shoots before; I kind of like that. A studio manager yelled at me once: “Why aren’t you on set?” when she found me in a back room listening to music tracks. “I’m— I’m with the agency,” I told her. She was very embarrassed but it made me feel good for some reason. Maybe because when I was a P. A., I always thought agency guys were pretty much jerks.
I like it when I set up my own shots, too. Back when I did movies for my website, Whoozwally.com, or the dopey CD covers I’d do sometimes. I liked putting all these complicated apparatus surrounding this one object and clicking the shutter.
POST-OP WEEK 80
week of August 9
My dad found a spool of green twine in the attic once. Actually it wasn’t twine, really. Twine is rough, with shreds of the stuff coming out at different places. This was smooth; it had a shiny feel to it. I guess this was more like string. Dark green string.
He was doing something in the attic, probably not fixing anything, he didn’t fix a whole lot. He was probably just up there, looking around. The spool was in with the crumbly insulation between the floor joists. He brought it down and handed it to me.
The spool seemed like it was never-ending. It took years before I finally used it all. If ever I needed to tie something, hang something up, make a device for my G.I. Joes: backpack strap, climbing rope, whatever, I’d just unspool a little bit and cut some off. I made, I don’t know what you’d call it— a contraption? to help me get ready in the morning. The kind of wacky thing you’d see in movies and on TV. At least that was the theory. I tied one end of the green string to a door of my built in closet in my room. The other end, I taped to the floor, next to the head of my bed, making sure it was very tight. Then I took a looped G.I. Joe ammo belt and made it so it’d slide along the string— all the way up to the closet and back down to the floor. I stuck a clean pair of underwear and a pair of socks through the belt and secured it at the top. I ran another string up to it and attached it to a “release” mechanism of some sort— the other end of that was attached to an alarm clock lever.
(I had this old alarm clock that had a lever on the back that you’d pull down, tightening a spring, to “set” the bell. When the alarm went off at its set time, the lever would travel from its bottom, set position, to its top, straight up.)
When the alarm went off, the theory went, the arm would make its half turn around the back of the clock, tripping the string that would release the belt at the top, my clothes would slide down, delivering a clean set of clothes for me in the morning. It actually worked a couple of times, bringing me underwear that was pretty much right there in the drawer anyway.
At some point in my childhood, the green string finally ran out. It was kind of sad when I got to the cardboard tube at the center.
POST-OP WEEK 81
Gene Hackman in The Package
week of August 16
I thought it’d be fun to be an extra in a movie, so I signed up, somehow, I don’t remember— I guess a talent agent. There was a movie shooting exclusively (except for a week in Europe) in and around the city. Their location scout knew how to get places in town that looked like Washington D.C., Berlin, you name it.
It was called The Package. Gene Hackman starred in it along with Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Franz, William Herd, and Joanna Cassidy.
Hackman played an Army sergeant who gets involved in a plot to kill a Russian general or dignitary while he’s transporting a prisoner from Berlin to the U.S. I played sergeant Wexler. Actually, the first day I showed up on set, they sent me to wardrobe to get an Army uniform. The woman gave me some pants, socks, helmet, MP armband, etc. And she gave me a jacket that had a name tag/pin that said “Wexler.” It was some kind of inside joke with the crew: there was a famous cameraman named Wexler (Haskell? I can’t remember), famous to them, I guess, so someone made up the name pin. And since they gave it to me the first day, they kept giving it to me every day I was playing an Army guy.
It was kind of fun. The main thing they’re looking for in an extra is that he or she is quiet and doesn’t make any trouble, does ask, “How long is this going to take” every ten minutes. I was there for however long they were shooting, I knew that. I knew how long things took. And the rest of the guys (and sometimes gals) who were there with me got it, too, so we had fun.
I was an MP the first day, holding back a crowd as they pushed in on generals and politicians, Russians and reporters, when they walked past us on the red carpet to go into a chateau for a summit meeting. It’s during the opening credits and you can see me, drifting in and out of frame if you’re watching the wide screen version.
The next day, I was Wexler again, in fatigues, walking back and forth behind Gene Hackman as he huddled up with his special squad of fightin’ buds. There weren’t a lot of extras, so the assistant director told us to walk past one way, then when were out of the shot to turn around and walk back the other way and if Hackman was still acting, turn back again.
I liked that, too. I learned how to march during that movie and salute, stand at attention. I learned how to “blouse” my pant legs at the bottom over my boots. The only thing was— it was January and just stinking cold! There were days that it’d be 27 below, I swear, not counting the windchill. After the first day of freezing, we all learned to just wear our clothes under our costume, long johns and all.
There’s a scene in the first ten or fifteen minutes where Hackman’s getting chewed out by his commanding officer and William Herd. He gets mad and storms out of their office and past the desk sergeant’s desk, where— Sgt. Wexler’s doing some paperwork!!! Without freeze frame, you really miss it.
I’m a shopper in Marshall Field’s, too, during a chase scene. I’m a guy reading the newspaper in Union Station when Tommy Lee Jones gets his sniper rifles from his accomplice. I’m a guy walking down Wabash. There was one day they didn’t use us at all because they changed their shooting schedule so I slept on the floor in this empty office upstairs from Union Station most of the day and went home. They paid me anyway.
I worked a couple of days on a Tom Hanks movie called Nothing In Common with Jackie Gleason and a TV actress named Bess Armstrong. We shot at Northwestern Hospital for a whole day one day before I was a patient there (years before I had my bypass there! It would’ve been 25, 30 years before!). I was a flower delivery guy walking through an overhead walkways 20 feet in front of Tom Hanks. And then I was half of a couple who’s leaving the hospital, walking down a sidewalk as Bess Armstrong and Tom Hanks put Jackie Gleason into a car to take him home. They paired me with a woman I had just met that day.
It was a movie about a father and son (an ad guy) who didn’t get along and, in fact, hadn’t spoken for years, then made up at the end because the father’s dying or something. It was the last movie Gleason made before he died. I went to see it in the theater the weekend it came out, sat through the whole thing, waiting for the part where Jackie Gleason gets released from the hospital and I’d get to see me in that last shot, and then— the movie ends, just before they get to me, the credits started rolling. Right after they make amends in his room, over. That’s show biz.
I worked as a stand-in on a Jessica Lange movie. (Music Box) I wanted to be on a set so badly I actually tried out to be the person who stands there while the lighting guys light me because the real actor was too busy and important to stand there. The only qualifications you need to be a stand-in is a similar build and height as the actor, and maybe coloring. Plus patience, lots of patience… I didn’t last long at that gig, mainly because I was sick as dog with the flu. We were in somebody’s old house on the south side, doors wide open in the middle of winter and I’m in 3 layers of whatever, shivering with a fever. I think I quit after a day. But not before I got to see Jessica Lange close up.
We were cautioned: don’t look at Ms. Lange when she comes on set. They were very emphatic about that, don’t look at her. Of course, the first thing you want to do, then, is to look at her, which we did, stared right at her as she shuffled in for her scene…
I was also supposed to be Richard Gere’s stand-in for a cop movie that came through town which made me think, some how, the casting people thought I looked like him, but I think we’re just the same height. Anyway, that one fell through at the last minute so I’ll never know.
POST-OP WEEK 82
week of August 23
There’s a tradition, apparently, with the kids in my suburb— a four-day “sleep-away” Camp. They pack all the 6th graders from the grade school and another school on the other side of town and they drive them 2½ hours up into southern Wisconsin to a YMCA youth camp to “learn about” forests and marshes and whatnot.
They did it back when my wife was in 6th grade, and they’re still doing it. The kids go in bunches and the school asks, pleads, really, these days for parents to come along as chaperones. When my daughter went, she didn’t want ANY of us to go. She made a pretty big stink that she didn’t want my wife or me there. And for some reason, we gave into her so we let her go alone.
When it was kid #2/son #1’s turn he sort of made it known that he probably wouldn’t have gone without one parent, and since we’re the same gender, that parent was me. None of my kids ever went to any kind of camp or stayed longer than overnight at anyone’s house. (Kid #4, in fact, as only made it through one sleepover so far— he hasn’t gotten through any of the other ones.)
When it was Kid #3’s turn, he wanted me to go, too, so, of course, now that it’s #4’s turn in 6th grade, I’m here in Wisconsin…
It’s not like camping camping, they have little cabins, with electricity and heat. And there’s a lodge/mess hall kind of thing where we gather to eat. But it’s a simple place. Each cabin has a little center space: 15x8, maybe, and then there are 12 “bunks” which is giving them a lot of credit. They’re really wooden platforms with a 6-inch pad-like mattress. No TV, no radio, they just now this year got Internet that you can only use in the lodge.
The food is bland, but there’s lots of it. Maybe it’s more like summer camp than I know because I never went to camp, either, as a kid.
They usually break everyone out like: 2, 3 dads in a cabin with 8 or 10 boys. For the most part, the dads have sons in the same cabin with them. Same goes for the girls with moms. There’s usually a shortage of dads, so sometimes they put some moms in with boys. One of those years there were triplet boys that got their mom as chaperone.
A lot of the parents complain about everything. The coffee stinks. The beds are hard. The food sucks. I kind of like it. The other adults here take off for little trips into whatever town is supposed to be beyond the grounds. They buy pie at some bakery. They skip the simple breakfast they serve us and go to this “little place” in town. So far, I’ve never left. 1st time, 2nd, and now— I just stay at the camp. (And this year, I have my own car!)
Every year’s been different. #2’s year I was a newbie but luckily one of the other dads in my cabin had been here before, so he knew the ropes. I knew a bunch of the parents because they were neighbors. It was kind of mellow and I really enjoyed the time hanging out or writing or talking with the neighbors when the kids were off learning. That would’ve been ’05 (four years before my by-pass).
#3’s year, ’07, was completely different! These kids had a whole other vibe. There a few kids who were downright mean. One kid from the other school, mistakenly put into our cabin, had some kind of psychological problem. He was sullen and I had to continually pull him away from the girl’s cabins, because he kept going in there. The kids would kind of do what they wanted even after you told them to do something. (They’re supposed to go to class, let’s say, their teacher announces it, but they start playing tether ball. The other parents really didn’t do much to discipline them, either. They’d give them a weak, “now, Bobby, stop doing that.” And then let Bobby continue doing whatever he was doing.
Something clicked in me, that year. The bouncer in me came out and I started making sure they behaved. (Besides bartending so many places, which included some “bouncing,” I worked at bar on Rush street that put me at the door, carding and bouncing for a week or so before they moved me behind the bar.) “Put down the tetherball, Bobby, you have to go to class now,” I’d tell Bobby who would stare at me, waiting for me to stop talking. “Put down the tetherball… Put it… down.” I wouldn’t touch him, not even his arm. That never worked in bouncing drunks, either; that would only make them take a swing at you. I’d give Bobby the stare and after the third “put down the ball,” he’d finally put it down.
These boys were also way too “sexual”, constantly going after the girls, looking in their cabin windows, “brushing up against them” (I found that out after, like, the 2nd or 3rd day before I could do anything about it). It upset me. I was making generalities about that entire generation.
But #4’s year, this year, is different. They misbehave, but it’s not the same. Or maybe it’s my attitude toward them.
Anyway, all the other parents complain about the beds, they complain about the food, complain, complain. I’m not being a brownnose or anything, but I kind of like it. The beds are boards, but I like a firm mattress. The food is plain, but it’s not so bad. There’s lots of time for the parents to hang out, nap, read, write. It’s quiet. I’m not at the office. I’m hanging out with my son and his friends.
This is my last year, my last sixth grader… I think I might miss this place.
POST-OP WEEK 83
week of August 30
I’m still thinking about the Camp in Wisconsin…
How quiet it was, and peaceful. But also how I “handled” my cabin differently than the other two years. I tried my best not to compare the years but it was more than I could do and comparisons came up every once in a while.
It was contemplative; I guess you’d call it, meditative maybe. I’d find myself standing outside sipping my coffee and just looking out over the place. No one was there, the kids were off at class. I was just looking, thinking I guess, but not thinking. I didn’t know most of the parents this year, there were none of the neighbors I’d normally talk to at block parties. I knew a few of the moms and none of the dads, really. I’m definitely not one to stand around jawing with the guys about what the Bears’ chances are this year. I knew some of the woman, so there were a couple times I was standing around jawing with them. But only once or twice.
Maybe it was that they had me in a cabin without another dad. Usually there were at least two dads per cabin and so 8 boys, 4 from each school. They had two dads back out at the last minute, so they juggled cabins around and I ended up by myself with just 4 boys from our school. I told them I could handle more, that I have 4 kids of my own, so 4 is nothing. But they kept us small.
So maybe it was that; I didn’t have another dad to “behave in front of,” there wasn’t that dynamic. I set the pace. And the pace this year was really laid back!
I put on a watch for the occasion so I’d know when to get them where they had to be, but we were still late to things. Our little printed out schedule told us we were supposed to wake up by at least 7 every morning to do I don’t know what for an hour before breakfast. That seemed a tad early to me, so I woke them up at 7:30. They did Bingo in the lodge one night and we were late because I let the kids finish their card game. (We walked in and they were already on the 3rd number…) I think I was supposed to get the kids sleeping by 10 but we went to sleep around 11 because we were watching a movie on my laptop (that was “forbidden,” too).
I know I was feeling a little nostalgic because I had been there with #2 and #3 and now #4, my last. It’s a tradition that I obviously never did as a kid, but here I was getting nostalgic because I’d probably never come back. I didn’t get weepy (for once) and I wasn’t sad, exactly. Just a sigh, I guess. My kids are getting older kind of thing? Kid #4 is going to continually signal the ends of things, the “lasts.” This is the last Halloween parade (at school), this is the last grade school talent show, that sort of thing… Maybe that’s all it was.
But on the other hand I sort of wasn’t there. My mind was floating elsewhere at times… I couldn’t tell you exactly where. I didn’t have any crying episodes. I just spaced out. I did take pictures for the 6th grade “video” they always have me do every year I have a sixth grader. It’s a tradition I started, an iMovie which is more than a slide show set to music. I do effects and video, freeze frames. My wife goes to their class and takes poignant pictures of them. We go all out. So I was doing that much.
It was just a real different time this time.
diary continues September 2010...