Monday, August 27, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Photo & Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution 

2. Take It To The Top 
by MJ Vilardi 

Marc Cherry was a musician with an an uncanny resemblance to Tony Orlando: a smooth swarthy look, 70's style mustache, white leisure suits, and an easy breezy singing style. His band played on a show at the station where I worked, and I chatted him up about doing a music video. They didn't have much money, so Oversight Productions agreed to do the video at cost, with a bonus if they signed a record deal and got some dough.

The song was "Take It To The Top," 
a jazzy ode to "going for it."
    So just Take It To The Top
 Cause if you lose your dream 
You lose the prize
            When you give it your best shot 
Give it all you've got
            Cause the only one who fails  
Is he who does not try... 

Of course in exchange for this great deal Marc agreed that we would have creative freedom, and we really pushed it. One might say we veered occasionally from the message of the song, but music videos were pretty new at the time, and nobody really tried to make sense of them. It was assumed that there might be cryptic images and non sequiturs. And so there were. 

Scenes included:
            • a crazy strip club with Ross as the sleazy MC, inciting the crowd
            • Marc rides through Georgetown in a vintage yellow Rolls Royce. In a wonderful synchronicity, at a stoplight another Rolls pulled up next to us! Delighted occupants of both cars rolled down their windows and inquired as to whether there were any Grey Poupon to be had.
            • Marc is portrayed as a bum, shuffling down an alley. We were lucky to catch a shot of someone throwing a bag of garbage out of a third floor window. Sweet!
            • At a disco party, shot at a nice hotel that (for reasons still unclear) agreed to let us use their dance floor, Marc cuts in on a rich old dude, and steals away his girl. The guy turns out to be super-rich and powerful.
            • Rich Guy phones Fidel Castro (played by a teenager with a chronic shaking condition, which actually helped) ... Fidel, puffing a genuine Cuban, in full revolutionary regalia, including a live chicken pecking around on his desk, agrees to help. "Si SeƱor, I will see to it immediately!" he mouths.
            • Marc Cherry, in his flashy white Tony Orlando outfit, struts down the street. He senses something, looks up.
            • An Oswaldesque figure wearing tele-specs leans out of a window. A rifle aimed at Marc! Zoom in on Marc's fearful face.
            • Marc awakens in a pile of garbage, a bum. Was it all a dream?

            The assassin at the end (played by yours truly) was a last minute inspiration, and Marc didn't know about it until we screened the video for the entire band. They loved it, and at the end when their leader got bumped off, they cheered! Ultimately a good sport, Marc looked confused for a moment but then laughed along with the rest of us. Thanks to my TV connections, the video aired twice in the DC-Baltimore markets on a Friday night video show. It's a cringe-worthy period piece now, but still fun to watch, especially if you look at it as a coded retelling of the Kennedy assassination.

           This project marked the zenith of the Ross-MJ Oversight Productions. We worked on a few other small projects, but tensions over sobriety, vision, and business practices caused things to unravel, and eventually Ross split for Russia. He came back to town for a while with his Russian "common law wife." They lived in a slummy apartment next to a coke dealer buddy, who shall remain nameless; the fellow got high one night and took a knife to his own girlfriend, who shall remain headless.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution 

3. The Projector 
by MJ Vilardi 

       Ross and I became business partners. Our new enterprise was called (after much negotiation) Oversight Productions. I had some reservations about that name, since we would be asking clients to trust us with complex projects and large sums of money do you really want the word "oversight" floating around like a nagging omen? But Ross said it was in the OTHER sense of the word, so...

            We didn't have much money for capital investments, so we bought a couple of beat up ARRI film cameras from a cantankerous but lovable retired filmmaker, Skip, who let us buy them on the installment plan; I think he just liked having a couple of novices to talk to every Saturday when we showed up with the cash. He doled out sage cinematography advice while quaffing the martinis that his doting wife, Jeannie, supplied him with. We didn't know exactly what was ailing Skip, but he had thin plastic piping running to and from various parts of his body, and his strap-on glasses were fitted with bulging lenses, like crystal balls. One of them was ruby red.

            Parked in their "Sunset Boulevard-ish" garage was a perfectly preserved early '60's red Cadillac convertible. Quite stunning. Skip said it was a gift for Jeannie, and that they had used it to film the very first music video, featuring Jack Jones singing "Got a Lot of Living To Do." 
"He's driving and singing. The car's full of pretty girls, real lookers. They go through the underpass. When they come out the other side, heh, the girls are all in bikinis. Jeannie! Bring me another one!"

            Thanks to my TV station salary and contributions from Ross' Mom, we soon had our cameras. Now we needed equipment to edit our masterpieces. We headed up to New York looking for a deal on Moviola editing machines. We met sound engineering legend and part-time porn producer Walter Sear, president of Sear Sound, located on the mezzanine of the (then run-down) Paramount Hotel. Walter was also a Moog synthesizer pioneer, and worked on classics like the Oscar winning film "Midnight Cowboy." He also scored such forgotten lusty classics as "Disco Beaver from Outer Space." Like Skip, Walter was a raconteur, and talked a mad streak. He showed us scenes from his latest slasher pic, "Blood Sisters," while all around us machines were transferring pornos from film onto the exciting new medium, videotape. (See "Boogie Nights" for more on this historic transition; it will also give you a sense of how gloriously sleazy the place was). We asked about slasher actress and sometime director, Doris Wishman, who we really wanted to meet. Utter contempt took over Walter's face.

            "When you see Doris Wishman you tell her she can KISS MY ASS really kiss it. I want tongue!" And he was off and running with the sins of Miss Wishman. We reminded Walter about the Moviolas (it was getting late) and he led us to a cavernous industrial loft filled with hundreds of the machines of every imaginable configuration and vintage. We packed two of them into my Izuzu Trooper and drove through pouring rain back to DC, laughing all the way.

            The next vital piece of equipment we needed was a projector we could use to screen dailies and have screenings for our friends. I had imagined something small, like the film projectors we'd used in grade school. But a few days later Ross called to say he found one, and could I help move it into his place. He was breathless. And when I trotted down to get a gander I was speechless. Except to say, "What the fuck?" about a dozen times. There, on the sidewalk at the foot of the stairs up to his front door, was an elaborate hunk of black Steel-age machinery whose scale would not have attracted undue notice at Stonehenge. 

            It was a vintage Simplex Movie House Projector, the kind of behemoth they bring in on a crane and build the theater around. And, they display 35mm release prints a film stock TWICE as wide as the 16mm we were equipped to shoot. But, all that aside, we faced a near-impossible task: getting it up those stairs and inside. Junior, son of Sam, came out to help, but, strapping young lad though he was, we still didn't have the power to lift the beast from step to step. But Junior pulled some boards out of the basement and we used them as skids. With ropes and grunts, shoves and pushes, we made like Egyptians and raised Pharaoh's stone. Once inside of course it had to go all the way back to the kitchen, so, despite an attempt to use towels as buffers, the hardwood floors took a real beating. 

            But once it was set up, the Simplex looked right at home. Those row houses are narrow but DEEP, so we had almost a forty foot throw. We put up a white bed sheet, threaded up a tattered old trailer, and BOOM! We blew a fuse. But we got the voltage thing figured out and soon we had our own movie house! Black & white faces of Ancient Hollywood flickered at the far end of the living room. Despite the slight whiff of electrical smoldering, we racked up an old Technicolor western, and proudly showed Sam and Junior. Junior thought it was cool, and ran off to get his girlfriend. Sam studied the machine as though it had just risen from hell, and left muttering about crazy white something-or-others... 

            Later that week Sam's wife woke up to a loud CRACK. Some part of a ceiling support beam was complaining, giving fair warning that the load on this old house was just too great. Trouble in paradise. Cracks in the old wood grew longer. Threats were made and ignored. Ross was on notice to get himself and his Iron Devil out soon, before the whole place collapsed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution

4. Working Woman

          For most of his life Ross received a modest stipend from his mother Buddy, a genteel Southern Lady who was as sweet and supportive as she was patient. She knew her son had a genius intellect, and was struggling to find out what he was supposed to do with it. She helped underwrite his trips to faraway places like Stonehenge and Moscow, and, she told me later, shared his adventures vicariously, through his stories and letters. But in DC there were a lot of expenses: film equipment, books, and partying.

            So Ross tried several Washington-style jobs, including a stint doing data entry on newfangled computers at a feminist magazine, Working Woman. He cleaned himself up, brushed back his longish hair, donned a rumpled but respectable blazer, and turned on the charm. He was a big guy, a former high school football player, and his rugged good looks and erudite observations evoked, at times, the image of one of his favorite film starts, Sean Connery. (After my persistent questioning Ross admitted that Connery was the man he'd choose if he "had to" go gay). Initially at least, some women were charmed by his hulking gentleness and soft spoken manner as he conjured up baubles of philosophy, ancient history, and the occult. Ross entertained me with stories of workplace flirtations, and even a seduction. For a short time he had these ladies mesmerized.

            His decline and fall in jobs like these would start with time-clock offenses; he'd glide into the office late, accompanied by the complex fragrance of a night of rutting, drinking and burnt chicken. Ross was pretty good at disguising his foggy mental state until a question was asked. His answers were circuitous detours past wounded neurons and around those parts of his brain that were cordoned off for repair. The ladies were not amused. They gave him a few warnings and a few second chances. Then the spell broke and the Working Women released Ross back into the wild.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Photo & Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution

 5. Hipster Heaven

            The scene at Ross's 15th Street place was always wild. Sometimes you'd find him loudly banging out ideas on an old typewriter. Other times he'd be loudly banging one of his girlfriends. He wasn't very tidy, so the kitchen was normally in dirty pot/pan gridlock. But then he'd get energized and spend the day cleaning. He invited me to share a chicken that had been in the fridge for some time. I passed. Ross tore into it like Henry VIII, but soon became violently ill. This actually happened a lot, and I used to wonder if the fridge was functioning properly, especially in the warmer weather.

            During DC's scorching summers the place became a brick oven. An overhead fan pushed the heat around, but days were almost unbearable. We took advantage of the slightly less hellish evenings by filming a loopy tribute to the first scene of 
"Apocalypse Now."

            HIGH SHOT looking down on Ross, soaked with sweat on a messy bed, lost in a fever dream, madly muttering: 
"Everyone gets everything he wants..." 
            CUT TO: CLOSE ON Ross's half closed eyes. They are dead eyes, under murky water. The Drowned Man in a Bathtub. Beat. Another beat. He's not coming up. He's gone.
            WIDER: Suddenly he bursts forth gasping for air, foul coffee colored bathwater (colored with old coffee) sprays everywhere 
(all over the lens dammit). 
Ross blinks, unsure. 
Am I dreaming or am I dead? 

            This sequence became part of "Roach Palace II," an indy short we made, using gritty nighttime urban scenes to create a mood of paranoia and desperation. The soundtrack was hiphop junkyard percussion, performed by a group of kids called The Northwest Young'uns, beating the hell out of upside down plastic drums.

 "Roach Palace II" was shown at a DC film festival, and the artsy audience loved it!      
As an independent filmmaker, Ross became popular, and acquired a following of down-on-their-luck writers, barflies, coke dealers, and aspiring actors. His shabby apartment became something of a salon. Evenings would always start out with great creative potential: 
a brilliant idea, and you could do this part and I could arrange for that and... But inevitably, like Coleridge's vision of Xanadu, it would disappear in a puff of fairy dust.