The Early Style
Our art teacher loaned us the high school’s 16mm camera and my painter/friend and I shot a twenty minute film: his girl lolling on a bed in late day sun at first. Then 1962 railroad yards, city streets, alleys, these all moving views from his motorcycle, prowling about 20 mph. We had to wait for a day’s shots to be developed–took about a week–and we got only one print to work with.
I found two reels of overexposed Kodak stock in a cubby and we drew on that, on the emulsion itself, and scratched on the frames with razors and used Pelican inks on the scraped celluloid, stuck our fingers with pins and bled on the film. We were sixteen.
This was Eastman Color, and the film speed was slow so its coating was thick—it took intense light to burn images into that fat mixture—and scratching off the suspension was mean and left fingernails gummy, hands slimy with hues. Up on stools, we worked in the art lab beside the kilns.
We worked among Sherry Long’s paintings of cat eyed O-mouthed girlettes with bouffant hair, gesturing in supplication, and Bob Wanke’s uncertain abstractions, his missed stabbings, rickety rhomboids, botched boomerangs, bad skids and shapes grouted onto canvas with a knife edge, the pigment thick and so fragrant you could taste oils, pine turp, white lead.
But our strips of film were magical—Hollywood!—curly and clipped on strings overhead or spooled and taped and tagged: “Sunbather”. “Pontiac”. “Night Porch”. Wonderful too was the hinged stapler for sticking bits of this together with that. You were working with time. Five seconds fastened to two and those to ten. We had no movieola, no dupe, and no way to test anything so every splice was final.
Two weeks shooting, a month of edits and drawing. After school, tedious and thrilling, the threading of the big projector to watch our latest cuts and adds.
Glen lighting a Lucky, with Becky, his actressy girlfriend there too, mooching drags. He was a teenager who had already directed a play with adults for a summer stock company and he had conspirators, a cult, a lean, vulpine pack, all connected and knowing, sexual, and he had a British speed twin motorcycle: a BSA Rocket. He watched our movie, squinting through the smoke that he breathed, his hand on Becky’s rump.
“Making love in the afternoon is sensuous,” they had told me. I didn’t get on with anyone—not even Glen—no one, and I looked at the backs of the girls in the halls. I looked at their shoes or wrists. I could draw pictures and that’s why someone let me take a crack at film making maybe.
Glen sighing, “Well, I mean, dig, it’s footage. What can you do with it, Robby? It’s so second unit. I mean, like, film! Take it home, man.”
I sprayed the rough cut on the long white wall of my parents’ basement, moving the projector, which was heavy and which got frypan hot and smelled of hot metal, burnt plastic, I moved it way back, making things mural sized and the images from life were interesting and the color was beautiful and the gliding movement of the motorcycle was perfect so that the stuff shot from my steady hands came off smooth, linear, like an Ophuls tracking shot, long and involving and lucid. One lasted two breathless minutes: April light on city trees in colonnades birds swirling C&O brakeman hitching up dungarees warehouse warehouse bar park billboards cars dog bars dark.
When the hand-drawn parts came, flashbombs exploded and phosphorescent pinholes gunned the wall then blue needlehead stottle-dots, sheets of falling nails, lava lines, squiggle streams plunging out waterfalls of colors, indigo hail, blistered pebbled frames, amoeba forms seething and popping and shotblasts of black rain on white, the wall spattered and slurred, smeared until thousands of perfect triangles fell (what our blood looked like, fired by light on a frame magnified, we learned).
For the first time, a big moment, I had to determine, there and then, which half of the film was, not mine, but was me. There were grave days ahead and times when the earth would not stay steady underfoot, nor volumes hold gravity, nor would those streets own that sad luxury of emptiness.
James Robison’s works have appeared in The New Yorker and Grand Street, and The Mississippi Review dedicated an issue to seven of his short stories. He was awarded a Whiting Grant and his novel won a Rosenthal Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was Visiting Writer at Loyola College of Maryland and Fiction Editor of the North Dakota Quarterly.