Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Lessons in Art and Commerce

"I'm not a graffiti artist."


These are the first words out of James De La Vega's mouth, cutting me off as I'm in the middle of my standard pitch:

"Hi, I'm ---, I left you a message because I'm teaching a film class for kids and this year we're making a documentary about graffiti –"

The response, in case you missed it:

"I'm not a graffiti artist."

Er, okay. Only if you've lived in New York for a significant length of time you probably have seen De La Vega's name and his artwork and sometimes pithy words of wisdom like, "Sometimes When You Are Right, You Can Still Be Wrong" and "You Can Sell Your Soul And Not Even Know It" painted on walls and sidewalks all over town, since he's been putting them there for about a decade. But arguing a potential subject into submission is generally not a successful documentary filmmaking tactic.

"Right, so this would be your chance to explain to the kids what the difference is between what you do and what graffiti is."
"But being associated with your film would paint me in an incorrect light."
"But this is just a kids' project –"
"What would I get out of it?"

This is not the way it's supposed to go. I have been teaching these after-school programs on and off now for the past few years and normally, when you say "Project for kids," people say, "How high?" I start the class with my personal choice of Documentary 101 clips – a little Don't Look Back, a little Errol Morris - teach them some of the lingo (you don't know how cool it is to hear a nine-year-old say, "Get some b-roll of the dog pooping!") – then help them brainstorm and come up with an idea that interests them and teach them how to explore it. They learn how to interview people, how to shoot, how to tell a story, and how to be critical consumers of the deluge of media that they suck in through their little eyeballs every day. Well, that part's sort of my idealistic-to-the-point-of-unrealistic hope, at any rate. But either way, I get paid to make movies with kids. Which is especially cool since, as you might have noticed if you spend any time at this URL, I'm a little sick of working in production. Plus, these days I'm looking for a new apartment, and it's becoming more and more apparent that I am no longer able to keep myself in the style to which I have become accustomed. When did this happen? I mean, I accepted a long time ago that as a filmmaker I might be downwardly mobile. Take the income of my father, the lawyer, subtract that of my mother, who works for the state of New Jersey, and my brother, the economist, and then the difference? Take the square root of it and that's about what I make. I can only imagine what my children, assuming I can afford them, will do for a living. They'll probably be back working on an assembly line making ladieswear. (One of my great aunts quit the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory two weeks before the fire). Still, when it starts to dawn on you that the only place you can afford to live is a thimble-sized basement studio whose kitchen is a hot plate and a mini-fridge, living for your art begins to seem like a really stupid idea.

But back to the class, which I thought would be particularly good because we had an awesome, very visual idea: graffiti. My other group this semester is great too, don't get me wrong, but the idea they came up with is how people look like their dogs, and there's only so many places you can go with that.

"Do you think you look like your dog?"
"No."
"Okay...Um...Thanks. Ooh, get a close-up of the dog pooping!"

Plus, it was better than one of the other ideas, interviewing the hot dog vendor who hangs out outside one of the kids' schools.


"Okay, Andrew, what makes this idea interesting?"
"Because this guy? My mom hates him? She always fights with him because she says he's trying to rip her off?"

This is a kid who has a personal driver take him to class in a white, Cadillac Escalade. That his mother fights with a hot dog vendor about money tells you something about some of the parents I'm dealing with, here. I like to let the kids go with their ideas but I nipped that sucker in the bud.

When I first started researching graffiti on the internet, I was excited to find there was a whole community of people involved who cared deeply about it, people who actually returned my e-mails and phone calls. But I should have sensed there was going to be trouble when one graffiti artist named "PHOENIX" found out that another graffiti artist named "TURBOX" (they always write their names in all caps, it's a graffiti thing) had already said "yes" to an interview, and wrote me that while he didn't want to be involved in "petty squabbling between middle-aged adolescents," "I'll go straight to hell if I ever allow myself to be involved in anything that he's involved in." Of course, it turned out that he was somewhat right about TURBOX. When he wasn't at the location where we were supposed to meet him, I called him and found out he was still in bed.

"Oh, shit, I thought it was Thursday! All right, I'll be right there."

Well, I rationalized, this is one of the realities of filmmaking that the kids should learn: sometimes, your unreliable subject screws up their call time. 45 minutes later, during which we filmed a whole lot of graffiti, he showed up, a 40-something tricked out head-to-toe in hip hop, complete with bling. This was not a disappointment, but it was somewhat disconcerting when he started giving us direction and hawking his products.

"I think you should use both cameras on me at the same time, so when I'm talking and I'm holding something up, you can cut to what I'm talking about."

"Yeah, I'm in all sorts of things now, producing music, I make t-shirts, album covers, you can find it all on my website. Here, this is one of the toys that I design. Get a close-up the packaging."

"Yo, you have to keep eye contact with me. Otherwise it's like you're not paying attention. Hey, does he get graded? I want to talk to you about his grade on this."

Still, it was a good interview, managing to make graffiti art sound cool while discouraging all the kids out there from writing illegally. I caught hell from my favorite parent for not calling earlier to let her know the white Escalade would have to wait at the curb for an extra half an hour, but we had one in the can. Next, we tried to get the law-enforcement perspective. This time, I was going to make sure the subject knew all the details of the interview place and time and was reminded of them as many times as possible, so I checked in with him almost daily. Nevertheless, half an hour before class, I received this message:

"Hi, this is Andy from the Citiwide Vandals Task Force, I'm going to have to cancel since we have an investigation."

So I took this as an opportunity to explain another of the realities of filmmaking to the kids: sometimes, your subject bails on you because they think they have something more important to do. Like their job, say, enforcing the law. Jerk. Instead, we went up to Spanish Harlem and filmed the Graffiti Hall of Fame, a schoolyard with every surface covered in graffiti murals and tags, and did a spontaneous interview with the kids there - who were honest and quite articulate - about how they felt about the graffiti. Another lesson: cut your losses and think creatively and very often you'll get something just as good.

And we also shot a lot of what's all over Spanish Harlem: De La Vegas. De La Vegas of Celia Cruz, of Big Pun, of hearts, of fishbowls. Which brings me back to this:

"What would I get out of it?"
"Well, we don't pay for interviews –"
"It's not about the money. I'm just saying, your kids should find some creative way to do something for me. Barter. For instance, you could bring them down here and they could buy three t-shirts."
"I thought you said it wasn't about the money."
"It's not. But they should learn something about how the world works."

Should they? I mean, should they learn this particular reality of filmmaking? Because I see what he's getting at. All these graffiti artists - or graffiti artists, not - come from the street. The idea of never getting something for nothing, of survival being preeminent, is what they live by. Whereas for the kids I teach, something for nothing is the story of their lives. I guess they should see that reality's not like that for most people, that most of us can't just make art for art's sake. Some of us who might like our existence to be all about communicating an important point through the medium of film have to pay our rent working on ads for pharmaceuticals where the disclaimers take up at least half the 30-second airtime, or recording sound for interviews with Billy Graham and Henry Kissinger for the Reagan Tribute at the 1996 Republican National Convention. Yes, I actually did this. But the producers who called me for it were these two flaming gay men, one of whom was a friend of mine who'd produced the gay sex comedy which was my first feature sound recording job ever, and their rationale was that somebody was going to take that Republican money and use it for their own ends, so why shouldn't it be us? Which is a good point, or at least an excellent rationalization, and rationalizations, as Jeff Goldblum pointed out in The Big Chill, are more important than sex. So even if I'd rather be teaching kids from the Bronx who really need my help, somebody's got to educate the kids who go to London for spring break about what matters since most likely they, not the ones from the Bronx, will be running things some day. Therefore, I was not going to be the one to introduce them to the concept of selling out. Certainly not in our one remaining shoot day. No, I decided that the lesson of De La Vega would be: there are some people who will argue semantics and semiotics with you forever, but in the end, they're still going to say "no."

Instead, we interviewed two young graffiti writers, guys who aren't important in the graffiti world but who know everything about it and can (and did) talk about it at length. The kids got a little bored, but I learned a lot.

"Yeah, De La Vega's really not a graffiti artist. For one thing, he uses oil paint."
"PHOENIX, he was a pioneer. I can see why he got upset when he heard you were interviewing TURBOX. TURBOX is in it for the money, but PHOENIX, he was always in it for the love."

And there's the real truth of Filmmaking 101: always remember to do it for the love, because You Can Sell Your Soul And Not Even Know It.

But…sometimes it sure does help to have the money.

1 Comments:

Anonymous William Kozy said...

To Mr. De La Vega: graf·fi·to ( P ) Pronunciation Key (gr-ft)
n. pl. graf·fi·ti (-t)
A drawing or inscription made on a wall or other surface, usually so as to be seen by the public. Often used in the plural.

Maybe the semantic quibble should be not whether he dabbles in graffiti, but whether he's an artist. So I guess he's half right.

2:15 PM

 

Post a Comment

<< Home