When my car got a flat on a country road in Vermont one chilly night back in 1997 my heart sank.  I'd lent my jack to my brother-in-law three weeks before and had forgotten to get it back.  I hadn't worried about it too much, because I had a new set of tires on the car, but I'd apparently picked up a nail on the road somewhere and now I was facing the consequences.

I saw the lights of a house through the trees and really had no choice but to walk up to it and ask to use a phone.  An older man with gray hair, a long face and large ears opened the door, looking at me suspiciously.  I described my predicament and asked if I could use his phone to call a local garage.

“What do you want from me?” he said.  I figured he was hard of hearing and started my explanation over in a louder voice, but he waved me silent.  “I'm not signing your copy of Catcher In the Rye,” he said, almost vehemently.

“I don't have a copy of Catcher In the Rye,” I said.  “I had a copy in high school but I couldn't get through it so I gave it to my sister.”

“What's your angle?” he said.

I started to explain about my flat tire again but again he waved me silent.  “You didn't like the book?” he asked.  “Not much,” I said.  “Why?” he asked.  “Well, I like David Copperfield a lot, for one thing,” I explained.  “I don't think it's crap.”

“I'm not answering any questions!” he shouted at me.

“Not even 'Can I use your phone?'?” I said.  I realized I was dealing with a total hairpin, but he didn't look violent and it was awfully cold outside.

He showed me to the phone, gave me the number of a guy with a tow truck in Cornish, the nearest town, and hovered over me while I made the call.  I asked him if I could wait inside until the tow truck arrived.  “Yes,” he said, “but no photographs!”

“I don't have a camera,” I assured him, which should have been obvious.  He fixed his gaze on me intently.  “So . . .” he said finally, “you're more into the later books.”  “What later books?” I asked.

He seemed totally bewildered.  “You can't write about this night until after I'm dead!” he said.  “If you do, you will hear from my lawyers!”

“You've got yourself a deal,” I said — and it's a deal I stuck to faithfully.


The first of the Noir Bars: New York series from Majestic Micro Movies will be going online in a few days.  Here's how they were made.  Beginning with a short written monologue, Jae Song cast an actor, worked with him or her on the reading and then recorded the monologue on a small digital device.

In the course of this process, Jae and the actor in a sense created the character, or found one of the many characters lurking in, made possible by, the written text.  What they did was prompted by the script but shaped by the actor's sense of it and Jae's sense of what would work as a voice-over on film.

They then repaired to a bar and began improvising behavior.  Since the camera Jae was using was so small, and since he was shooting with available light and not taking live sound (apart from ambient bar sound), no one really noticed that they were making a movie.  Drinking began.  Jae followed his instincts visually and when he had what he needed, or when his storage card or battery in the camera ran out of space or juice, drinking continued uninterrupted.  The whole shoot rarely lasted more than an hour or two.

Then Jae began the only part of the work he found tedious — editing.  Fortunately his roommate Joe Griffin, a fellow filmmaker who also starred in one of the films, helped out with this.

The films only last a couple of minutes.  The challenge was to create real characters and situate them in real stories.  Only a brief glimpse into the character's narrative could be captured, of course, but the idea was to come up with something beyond a character study, or an anecdote — something that would set the mind to wondering . . . how did this character get into this predicament?  What's going to become of this character?

When you ask questions like that, you are in the realm of a genuine story.


Yesterday at sunset two large Golden Retrievers ran down onto the beach
with their owner and proceeded instantly to two spots in the sand, as
though they were prearranged, and began digging furiously.  They didn’t
stop as long as I watched them.  The holes just got bigger and deeper.
Occasionally the dogs would pause, step back and bark into the holes.
There was nothing in the holes.

This was almost as strange as a couple in their thirties I saw a few
days ago, strolling along the shore.  The man had one arm around his
lady companion — in the other he carried a golf club, a metal driver.

Every now and then he would stop, disengage, address an imaginary golf
ball in the sand and “drive” it into the surf.  Then he would continue

Some fantastic act of defiance — like Cuchulain attacking the breakers
with his broadsword?  A man who cares far too much about his golf swing?

When we know what the dogs were digging for we may know the answers to
these questions, and many others besides.  Mysteries of the beach
revealed . . .


About six years ago, my friend Jae Song, a filmmaker, told me, in
abject astonishment, that with the new HD cameras just coming on the
market it was possible to fit the camera and lighting package for a
feature film into the back of a station wagon.

Today, he's shooting feature-quality HD video in New York bars with
equipment he can fit into a backpack.

The center of his current package is a Canon 7D still and video camera,
fitted with a Canon 1.0 lens.  That lens, no longer in production and
hard to find, and the sensitivity of the camera itself allow him to
shoot with ambient light (in bars that aren't too dark to start with)
and come up with footage that looks as good as most stuff you see in
Hollywood movies — better, as often as not, because Jae has an
eye, artistically speaking.

The camera shoots HD video at 1080 resolution and uses the h264
compression codec — an o. k. codec, as far as Jae is concerned but not
Final Cut Pro friendly.  He suggests transcoding it before editing.

The key to the look Jae gets, however, is a custom gamma contrast curve
that can be downloaded from the Internet for the camera.  Out of the
box, according to Jae, the camera's images are too contrasty, looking
like bad video.  The contrast curve he uses gives more info for
highlights and shadows, and thus more options in ambient lighting
situations and in post.  The downside, for some, is a softer image than
the one Canon thought people would prefer, but with care it simply
gives the footage more of the feel of film.  It works especially well
for Jae in
the bar settings, where the lighting can be harsh at times.

Jae shoots with the lens wide open to 1.0 at all times, at 24 fps,
sometimes varying the ISO and shutter speed slightly according to

Jae doesn't manipulate the images in post — what he gets at the
location, trusting his own instincts about the light and the capacities
of the camera, is exactly what he wants.

A series of short films Jae shot with this camera will be appearing
soon on the Internet.  You simply will not believe how good they look.


Drunk late at night in 1955, Jack Kerouac watched Frank Borzage's Moonrise on TV, and wrote this poem about it, in his notebook of religious meditations eventually published as Some Of the Dharma:


A snake in a pond
Slithers out of harm
Seeking the frond
Of the heavenly farm.

Jeb was your Paw
And this is the law
Of love and gore.

The blood of the bear
Is soaking in the swamp,
Such heavenly air
Overhangs his pomp.

Give yourself up
To the sheriffs of truth,
Fear no hound pup
No karma of tooth  

For your sweet smile
And meditations desperate
Are wine to the senile
And love to degenerate

Face the shroudy kitchen
Of the sea of the night
And make a pretty kitten
Of all this abounding blight

(Written after watching, drunk, Dane Clark on
TV in movie MOONRISE) —
Some cloth has that sin rip
This doesnt

My friend Paul Zahl (of The Zahl File) drew my attention to this.  He writes:

This is Kerouac's little riff on a surprising movie, with its
Prophet of Grace Sheriff and its Recluse of Wisdom Rex Ingram, its
insight about dogs, and its unsensational, unforgettable scene on a
very small ferris wheel.

I think I could preach three sermons arising from stanza four, and another two about the movie's not having “that sin rip”.  I'm not sure they'd be received all that well — but maybe on a park bench some day, as in Moonrise.

Kerouac, watching a late night movie on television and
drunk, manages to capture the theme of the film.  Does “blood”-destiny have to determine the outcome of a life?  Or can other
things, like love (the shaky and vulnerable heroine), a wise man for
father-figure (the Rex Ingram character “Mose”, who knows what's really
up before anyone else does, and who gives his hounds the dignity of
being called “Mr. Dog” and means it) . . .

. . . and a philosopher-sheriff, the
likes of whom I have never seen depicted in a movie — sort of a
small-town “zen-detective” (the phrase is Thornton Wilder's) — who is
able to convey a concrete quality of grace in unsentimental terms.  Can
the “sin rip” (Kerouac's phrase, not the movie's) be mended?  Mended in
believable terms, in a way that could actually happen?

Kerouac takes karma, and a dog's bite and faithfulness,
and the cabin kitchen at the end; and the swamp of the beginning and
middle; and comes up with a . . . kitten.  All while drunk!


The first story films were very short — either little gags that could last less than a minute or narratives lasting about ten minutes.  There's a reason for that.  Because movies were a new form, novelties, they fell into story frames that audiences were already familiar with — newspaper cartoons and comic strips, which could be read in less than a minute, and vaudeville skits, which lasted about ten minutes.  These familiar forms helped audiences fit story films into their habitual patterns of consuming entertainment.

In this era, movies and comic strips fed off each other, expanded each other's boundaries.

The first truly sensational American story film, The Great Train Robbery (see the frame grab above), appeared in 1903.  There had been story films before this, or anecdotal films with narrative qualities, but The Great Train Robbery was so popular that it almost singlehandedly created the new market for story films.  In a short time they had replaced gag films and actualities as the preferred cinematic form.

D. W. Griffith made his first ten-minute short in 1908 and at once began expanding the expressive range of the short story film.  In 1909, the first regular comic strip, Mutt & Jeff (above) began appearing in newspapers.  There had been multi-panel strips before this, along with single-panel cartoons that told little stories, but Mutt & Jeff signaled the emerging dominance of the strip.  Just as single-panel cartoon gags had provided a template for early gag films, so the longer story films helped pave the way for the popularity of the multi-panel strip.

In the YouTube era of Internet cinema, we are about where projected movies were before The Great Train Robbery.  The next step will probably be very similar to the next step projected movies took — into the territory of the newspaper cartoon and comic strip and vaudeville skit, all of which can be studied profitably as exercises in micro-fiction.  The idea that Internet cinema can leap from the cute pet or baby video into feature-length narratives is a fantasy.  People will eventually consume feature-length narratives via the Internet, but what happens between now and then will be intensely exciting.  This is when the shape of cinema to come will be determined.


How do you tell stories in images on the Internet?  Fast!

Is it possible to tell a real story in a micro-fictional format no
longer than a cute baby video?  A filmmaking collective based in
Brooklyn thinks so — and is trying to prove it.

Cinematographer and director Jae Song has been making a series of very
(very) short films shot in bars in New York City, working with unknown
but great young (and not so young) actors.  He's using a tiny Canon 7D
which shoots stills and HD video, and a rare super-fast Canon 1.0 lens. 
uses only available light, and doesn't take live sound (except for ambient bar sound) — the actors tell their stories in voice-overs.  (I've contributed scripts to the project and find myself amazed by what Jae and the actors have done with them.)

The series is called “Noir Bars”, and is part of a larger project called
Majestic Micro Movies, which will eventually include micro musicals and micro Westerns.  The idea in all cases is to create micro-stories, with
fully-imagined fictional characters . .. . brief flashes of narratives
whose larger arcs viewers will have to fill in for themselves.

Not all that different from the first brief story films that caught
audiences' attention back around 1903 — a bit more oblique, perhaps, but serving the same timeless appetite for fables.

Coming soon to your own private nickelodeon — not a tiny storefront
movie theater now but a window on your personal computer or cell phone!
  Parking no problem!


Although it has its defenders (Johnathan Rosenbaum among them), Nicholas Ray's 1958 film Party Girl hasn't got nearly the reputation it deserves.  On the surface it has a familiar plot — a mob lawyer motivated by love to break free of his past — and it's a period film, set in gangland Chicago in the 1930s.  It's shot in Cinemascope and Metrocolor.  For all that, it's pure Fifties, and very noir.  In traditional movies with the same theme, even Polonsky's dark Force Of Evil, a decent world is waiting to embrace the repentant mobster.  In Ray's film, as in all real noirs, things aren't so simple.  The cops are bunglers, the moral lines are always blurred — at the climax, the hero makes a last desperate attempt to save himself and his true love with yet another phoney lawyer's trick, just like the ones he used to save guilty thugs from justice.

The tone of the whole film is brutal, cynical — the world it depicts is a maze with no center, no escape . . . except one, the love of a good woman.  The good woman, contrary to the conventional wisdom, is a recurring type in films noirs — almost as common as the femme fatale.  We find her in classic noirs like The Dark Corner and Ray's own On Dangerous Ground — a force of salvation for the boxed-in, royally fucked male protagonist.  In this film, Cyd Charisse's good girl is not so good — she's as cynical and lost as Robert Taylor's corrupt lawyer.  The role is a perfect fit for Charisse's slightly opaque screen persona, and a perfect match for Taylor, who can be equally opaque.

Their somewhat wooden styles, as Rosenbaum points out, have never been put to better use dramatically.  It's actually touching when they recognize each other as kindred spirits — people in whom the flames of hope and passion have been all but extinguished.  Their psychic wounds are mirrored in recurring images of physical disfigurement — in Taylor's slightly crippled leg, in the threat of using acid to mar the mask-like beauty of Charisse's face.

The Metrocolor isn't used for glamor.  The colors are garish, lurid, sometimes deranged.  The film was produced by Joe Pasternak, who usually handled musicals at MGM.  Charisse, who plays a showgirl, is given a couple of production numbers that look like the covers of Les Baxter LPs come to life.  The choreography is crude but shows off Charisse's icy erotic quality to great effect — the numbers are almost like parodies of Minnelli's exotic style.

Ray uses Cinemascope brilliantly, with lots of subtle camera moves that quietly direct our attention to action unfolding within the wide frame.  There's a powerful gangland rub-out montage that almost certainly influenced the one at the end of Coppola's The Godfather.  There are first-rate performances in supporting roles by Lee J. Cobb and John Ireland.

It's a great film, one of Ray's best, and is now available on DVD for the first time through the Warner Archive.  Fans of Ray and of film noir in its last, Baroque phase (best exemplified by Welles's Touch Of Evil) shouldn't miss it.