Making Movies: storytelling a frame at a time

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TAKE ONE

My interest in movies goes back to one of the best gifts my parents gave us. Besides thoughtful individual gifts, there was always a special one meant for the three of us — my little brother Eddie, my older sister Sandra, and me. One such gift was a 16 mm movie projector and a collection of silent animated Disney Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts, along with some Mighty Mouse, Little Rascals, and Popeye films.

The only sound to these movies was the rapid whirr-clack of the projector as the actions of characters in the jerky, rudimentary animation held us rapt to the story being told.

There’s “happy” stamped all over those memories of my young parents making sure we were engaged in a way far different from children today lost to the one-way glare of electronic devices. In our case, there was a screen to roll out, film to thread and loop to reels, and the anticipation of seeing some of our favorite characters come to life.

BACKYARD EPICS

The acquisition of the family’s first movie camera, an 8mm Brownie, documented a trip to Disneyland, the State Fair, summer vacations on the Gulf, and time at the ranch. As we grew up, home movies and the Kodak projector replaced our interest in the animated shorts.

We used the Brownie 8mm in high school to craft movie vignettes in the backyard that were spoofs of not very scary movies like Mothra. I recall a rudimentary depiction in film of Texas Ranger Alfred Allee’s violence toward striking farmworkers who had left their jobs on South Texas farms and ranches in protest of poor wages and bad working conditions.

I would hand the film to Eva Mejia (Mrs. Escamilla) at Galo Optical downtown so that she could send it to San Antonio for processing, and she would give it back to me a few days later. My father kindly financed my foray into film.

AN INTRO TO FOREIGN CINEMA

When I was enrolled at UT in the late 60s and actually attended classes in between marches to end the war in Vietnam, I took an elective film class with Dr. Stanley Donner who introduced us to foreign films — The 39 Steps (Sir Alfred Hitchcock), The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio de Sica), Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni), The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman), and others.

In memory, that single class rates way up there in the feed-your-head department with the first time I read The Texas Observer or Ramparts or heard Molly Ivins speak about politics and journalism ethics.

The class culminated with having to make a short 8mm film. My father had upgraded to a really nice Bell and Howell that had an animation feature to the settings. I don’t remember much about my film except that it was set to Rimsky Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” and featured six beer cans walking convivially in animation on the shoulder of the road until a terrible accident befell them.

As you might suspect about a short film featuring beer cans as the actors, the plot never thickened. John Dromgoole helped me make it, probably near Mirando City. I aced the class with an A that sure helped my GPA.

LANDSCAPING A MOVIE SET: BASTROP, TEXAS

When I was married and we lived in Austin and owned an organic plant nursery on 29th Street called The Jungle Store, we lucked upon a landscaping job in late 1972 on the movie set of Lovin’ Molly, which was being filmed in nearby Bastrop.

The film, which was directed by Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network), was based on Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne.

The film featured Blythe Danner as Molly, Anthony Perkins as Gid, and Beau Bridges as Johnny. It didn’t exactly adhere to McMurtry’s excellent writing or to an accurate portrayal of Texas and cattle ranchers from the 1920s through the 1960s. The film asked its viewers to believe that the lushness of Lost Pines on the edge of the Hill Country was dry, flat West Texas.

Our job was to “age” the landscaping around an old ranch house by yanking out short shrubbery and replacing it with larger plants, so that it might seem four decades had elapsed. We didn’t know enough to charge Hollywood well, and despite bitter cold weather, we enjoyed being on the sidelines of what would become known as a prime example of Hollywood debasement of Texas ranching culture.

The departures from McMurtry’s story and the aberration of Texas ranching mores were wholesale, according to a March 1974 account in Texas Monthly by Larry L. King. He called the film’s setting Cliché Land. (You can still read this incredibly well crafted and hilarious critique online.)

King meticulously documented all the off-the-mark depictions of time, landscape, accents, cattle moving, fence building (using a sledgehammer to drive fenceposts into the limestone), and accoutrement. Mostly he focused aghast at Hollywood’s transformation of McMurtry’s story into “a Technicolor Turkey.”

Perkins’ and Bridges’ characters are cowboys in love with Danner’s Molly, who speaks in a “Texas” accent that harkens New England.

Bridges’ wears a colonial clip-on tie with his work wardrobe. Artfully tied bandanas are the accessory of the day. It’s the bib overalls that got to Larry L. King, and the grotesque makeup used to age the three principal characters at the end of the film. He said Perkins’ character appeared “two years older than Christianity,” “older than rocks or water.”

Our role to “age” the landscape around the ranch house had gone far better than that of the makeup artists.

FAST FORWARD; AND DON’T REWIND

It is 35mm photography that would document the spins and turns of my life for the next few decades — the birth of my son, the eventual divorce from a good man very different from me, being a single parent, working for a large herb/spice/and natural health products wholesaler in Austin years before Whole Foods became an empire, a move to Wimberley, fishing and travel with my child, adventures on the Blanco River, living a life that was a bucolic respite on our little ranch in Wimberley replete with horses, chickens, goats, organic gardening, and putting up preserves from the fruit trees in our yard. And then there was the serious work to finish a degree I started in 1966, and the move to the ranch in San Ygnacio, something that would nourish and enrich my life as a writer a thousand-fold.

LareDOS

I can’t begin to write here the adventure that was LareDOS from 1994 to 2014, but I can tell you that its own life, too, was recorded in still shots. I closed the paper in October 2014 because I no longer had the energy to lend it, oblivious until December 2014 that I was really ill.

After chemotherapy, perhaps as a measure to re-enter the life I’d had to put aside to get well, I started up an oral history project with videographer Johnny Vidaurri. We produced a beautiful short film about a woman named Carmen López who in the 1950s — from the tent city to which she and her family had been relocated from the historic Spanish colonial village of Lopeño — had spoken out against the travesty of the diaspora and displacement fomented by the construction of the 100,000-acre Falcon Reservoir.

With this prototype about López and a couple of others in the bag, we are working to find funding to complete a dozen oral histories relative to the dam and reservoir, and the politics that exacted vast personal, cultural, architectural, and historical losses that came with the inundation of hundreds of jacales (the first homes of the first settlers) and the Spanish vernacular architecture of the towns below San Ygnacio and above Falcon Dam, including Old Zapata.

Working with video in this way was the first time I was able to attach my writing to a moving image and to pull together beautiful archival photos to help tell a story.

RAPSODIA DEL RIO

Fast forward again now just a bit to Rapsodia del Río, the TAMIU/KLRN documentary for which I had the good luck to write the narrative.

KLRN produced the film for TAMIU with funding from the City of Laredo.

In March of 2016 I met with TAMIU’s Vice-President for institutional advancement Rosanne Palacios and then-President Dr. Ray Keck to begin the conversation for how to weave together two stories — one about an original composition authored by TAMIU organist Dr. Colin Campbell; the other, that of Laredo’s cultural diversity.

At a subsequent meeting I would meet some of the individuals I would work with for the next year, including the talented and taciturn KLRN camera man Sergio Gonzalez and Luke Dillard, an Austin documentary film producer and director.

I would end up learning a great deal from Dillard, someone much younger than I am.

On April 30, 2016, an army of KLRN staff taped the only live performance of Dr. Campbell’s beautiful original composition, Rhapsody on the Río Grande, which he played on the TAMIU Sharkey-Corrigan organ accompanied by the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán de Guadalajara. Seventeen cameras and 55 microphones recorded the performance for posterity and for the heart of the documentary that a handful of us would begin to shape.

The Sharkey-Corrigan organ isn’t just any organ. It was built in place — 3,998 pipes arranged in 69 sets or ranks, 52 stops, four keyboards, and pipes in three locations. The largest pipes are made of zinc, but most are made of alloys of tin and lead. Three sets of wood pipes are made of poplar, basswood, and pine.

Sixty-five members of the LPO representing 23 nationalities filled the stage along with the members of Mexico’s premier mariachi ensemble.

Hearing the composition for the first time gave me direction for how to begin developing the narrative.

The first phase of my work was to conduct pre-interviews with about 20 possible subjects in the green room at KLRN’s TAMIU studio.

The taped pre-interviews went to Dillard in Austin to determine which of the interviewees would best help tell the story of the cultural confluence of the borderlands and the Río Grande’s historic role in the shared culture of two cities and two nations — a story to be told concurrently and as a part of the story about the composition written by Dr. Campbell, a South African, performing with Mexico’s most renown mariachi, and an orchestra led by an Irish maestro.

Writing the narrative was a tall order in a genre I understood far less than newsprint. But it was an organically evolving tall order. I scouted locations and settings for Dillard and Gonzalez to tape final interviews with Laredoans who had a point of view about culture, music, identity, and language.

In addition to Campbell, Townsend, and mariachi director Fernando Martinez, we interviewed attorney and slam poet Armando X. López, Americana songwriter and performer Bo de Peña, lifetime music educator Hortense Offerle, writer and historian Dr. Jerry Thompson, conductor and music educator Elmo Lopez Sr., film maker Alfonso Gomez-Rejón, architect and preservationist Viviana Frank Rotnofsky, developer Cliffe Killam, and bankers Dennis Nixon and Renato Ramirez.

This is where the story found its consistency and where the narrative really began to suggest itself. From mining through many hours of interview video, Dillard set apart the gems that would tell the story he envisioned.

Back at the KLRN studios in San Antonio, sound editor Randy Allee mastered the work of the 17 cameras and 55 microphones that had recorded the original composition while Leigh Utecht edited and color corrected images.

Many more here and at KLRN played a role in the making of the documentary, a few already mentioned and others like TAMIU staffers Melissa E. López, Kike Botello, and Mayra Garza and her staff who taped the pre-interviews.

Laredo videographers Johnny Viduarri and Rey Fuentes provided exquisite drone and other local footage. Dillard and Utecht spent hours in edits that took the project to its completion.

There was a learning curve to being part of this project. I would come to understand that part of what we were trying to capture was tethered to the grace of the human spirit. It was rewarding to witness so many manifestations for the love of music and its value in our lives, as it was rewarding, too, to hear Laredo’s culture, history, and identity defined by Laredoans themselves.

Campbell’s music evoked a winding, downriver traverse that began at the headwaters of the Río Grande in Colorado, the tempo marking the subtleties of the river’s rhythms and beauty as it dropped from its cold mountain cascades to this wide bend in the river — that moment carried on a mesmerizing movement that built to a breathtaking crescendo of organ, orchestra, and mariachi. The brilliance of it brought the audience to its feet at the live performance in 2016 and the debut screening of the completed documentary in 2017, answering resoundingly once and again the mainstay question Luke Dillard had posed in all interviews — was music a universal language?

The music inspired work that was collaborative in all its aspects — calling up generous exchanges of creative energy and skills to produce a true account about a stirring piece of music, a storied river, and a place at the river’s bend called Laredo.

Rhapsody on the Río Grande has been nominated for a Lone Star Chapter Regional Emmy.

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