Found Stories

February 20, 2014

Some postcards are little stories in themselves and suggest larger real-life dramas. They provide answers to four of the Five Ws—who, what, where, and when—but leave out the crucial “why”. I found this postcard at the Aberfoyle Antique Market in Aberfoyle, Ontario, and bought it because I like to imagine what was in that parcel.

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My desk

I’ve never considered myself to be one of those people who seemed destined to write. Nature did not endow me with extraordinary powers of psychological observation, and for the first twenty-odd years of my life I felt no impulse to express myself in words. Words are not picturesque. I was very big on going to the movies at the time, so I made Super-8 films instead.

As I entered my early 20s, my attitude toward art became more passive. I read widely and majored in English at university. I tried my hand at writing and discovered that, while I had some facility with language, I had very little to say. Drinking with friends, playing darts, and shooting pool provided an attractive distraction.

The genesis of any creative endeavour is a tension that cannot be expressed by prosaic means. For example, I can swear at someone who has cut me off while driving, but that requires only that my vocabulary contains existing profanity. (And it does, believe me.) The source of tension might be one’s reaction to something external. Beatniks, hippies, and punks all created music (art) that was a response to their perceived sense of injustice and societal constraint. For others, the tension might be internal. An essential component of treatment for those with mental disorders is art therapy. The tension is eased when the internal becomes externalized, and one may feel reconnected with the larger world through the production of something concrete—something that can be shared. Seen in this light, art is not, as some claim, a frivolous luxury. There are, of course, scores of artists whose work is self-indulgent or derivative (enough with the Barbie doll installations already!), but that does not negate the necessity, the inevitability, of art.

It was not until I read Franz Kafka’s book, “Parables and Paradoxes”, that the true power of words became clear. The fragments and short stories that comprise the book are cloaked in ambiguity and spiritual mystery. Age-old problems of truth and meaning are approached tangentially, yet there is an undercurrent of wisdom that is beguiling, just out of reach. Kafka demonstrated to me that uncertainty could be met with still greater uncertainty, and that truth was not bound by the restrictions of logic.

Here is an example of a fragment from “Parables and Paradoxes”:

THE PIT OF BABEL

 What are you building?—I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.

We are digging the pit of Babel.

And so, between games of darts (priorities, here), I entered the world of metaphor, writing little meditations on loneliness and love without mentioning either by name. I wrote secrets to myself: impressions, half-thoughts, and contradictions—a kind of coded diary. I was pleased with the mystery of my own musings, taking comfort in the knowledge that any attempt to define myself to myself must remain vague. To use a darts analogy: I would never hit the bull’s eye, so why aim for the board at all?

But the charm of such introspection soon faded. After a while, it occurred to me that what I was doing was the literary equivalent of playing air guitar in front of a mirror. Wouldn’t I really rather be up onstage, playing to an audience? Well, yes. But that would require a separate blog entry.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin Campbell

That’s me in the middle

My interview with George Lucas was only tangentially related to Star Wars. In fact, the topic of the interview concerned the influence of an early Canadian experimental filmmaker on Lucas’s own work. Some background is necessary.

In 1958, Arthur Lipsett was hired by the National Film Board of Canada. He immediately found himself a home in the animation department, where he began to collect disused bits of sound track from other people’s films, transforming them into a jarring collage of dissonant sounds. These patchwork auditory assemblies impressed his colleagues, who suggested that he add a picture track. The resulting film, Very Nice, Very Nice, garnered him an Academy Award nomination in 1961. Shortly after, Stanley Kubrick asked Lipsett to produce the trailer for his Dr. Strangelove. The intensely personal artist rejected the offer.

I recently read that someone considers Lipsett to be one of the first “mash-up” artists. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but it’s a pretty accurate description of his work: stripping found video and audio of their original context to create a film with its own poetic power.

A young Arthur Lipsett

Somehow or other my friend and I (who were contemplating making a documentary about Lipsett) heard that Lucas’s films THX-1138 and Star Wars were influenced by Lipsett’s work (especially the powerful 21-87). Emboldened by the ease and relative anonymity of modern communications, we sent him an e-mail requesting an interview regarding the Lucas/NFB connection. Within a couple of days we received a reply: Mr. Lucas would indeed be willing to share his thoughts on Lipsett, and he would grant us a thirty-minute interview at Skywalker Ranch.

What follows is a partial transcript of that interview, which was conducted in February, 2003. Due to copyright considerations, I hesitate posting the actual filmed interview, or even the entire transcript. I don’t need laser-toting lawyers banging down my door.

George Lucas as he appeared on-camera for the interview

GL: When I was at USC film school we had a lot of people there that really loved the Canadian Film Board, the French part of the Canadian Film Board, and we studied a lot of films from there, right across the board, and one of the films we studied, especially in Film Grammar, was ”21-87.” That’s where I first became acquainted with his [Lipsett’s] work. It had a very powerful effect on me because I had made a student film that was in that similar vein, before I saw his film, and it was very much the kind of thing that I wanted to do. So I was extremely influenced by that particular movie.

CC: Did you have any particular interest in abstract or experimental film prior to seeing “21-87”?

GL: Yeah. Being from San Francisco we have a little underground here—a whole array of underground artists that were functioning in the San Francisco Bay area at that time, and so I grew up in that world, the world that I actually expected to be in. I didn’t really think about going into theatrical films until much later.

CC: Could you describe the circumstances surrounding your first viewing of “21-87”?

GL: Well, it was, as I say, it was in a Filmic Expression class, Film and Grammar. We actually ended up watching it several times, and you know, I was very taken by it, it was a very powerful experience for me in terms of the relationship between picture and sound, which is something I was very interested in at the time. I was just moving from becoming a photographer into editing, and I really loved editing. I was sort of fascinated with everything editing, and I was especially fascinated with the relationship between sound and picture. And, if anything that’s really special about what Arthur is doing, the fact that he was treating the picture and the sound separately, and putting different sound relationships with different picture relationships, which is what creates the power in those films.

CC: How long after you saw “21-87” did you begin to develop “THX-4EB”? Or did you already have an idea for that in mind?

GL: It was a year after I graduated, and I taught as a teaching assistant in a lighting class. And it was in that class that I actually made THX. And the original script was actually given to me by a couple of friends of mine – Walter Murch and Matthew Robins, who had this little short thing. They were going to do it for their senior production workshop, and then they decided they didn’t want to do it, but they had done this little two page outline, and they said, “You do it! Why don’t you do it in this class!” And I said, “Okay.” Because I split my class in half, and half the students were going to make one film, and the other were going to make a different film. So I took this one thing, and we made it into a film. My sort of obsession with number movies really came from “21-87”. And in some of my films, I refer to “21-87”. I use that number. I think it’s actually in Star Wars somewhere. I think it’s in the detention centre with Han Solo. I think he comes in and says, “We are in cell 21/87.” It’s a little homage.

CC: So you were actually given the script. Did Lipsett remain an influence, even though the script was written by someone else?

GL: Well, yeah, the outline was very basic. It didn’t really list shots or anything. It just said, you know, “Unidentified man runs through city, and eventually gets out, and reaches the sunset” kind of thing. So it was very, you know, very short, and the film is obviously very visual. So the style of the film and obviously a lot of the essence of that film is what I learned in the Film Expression class, in which Arthur, and a lot of the other Canadian Film Board people were a huge influence in terms of how we put films together.

That’s all for now. Any questions?

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

(And yes, I did get to see some of the props from Lucas’s films, including an AT-AT model from “The Empire Strikes Back”, an original lightsabre, and Harrison Ford’s signature Indiana Jones fedora.)

Fade to Black and White

June 29, 2011

At age 14, I developed an interest in photography. My father, ever keen to help, leaped into action, and we were soon plundering what my dad assured me was a deserted and long-forgotten darkroom in one of the buildings where he worked. My spirit was moved by the sight of so much neglected Bakelite, and the pounded metal casing of the enlarger could have been the work of a master Etruscan craftsman. Plunder schmunder. This was a salvage mission. We packed everything into the trunk of the car and peeled out of there, leaving no one the wiser.

One of the first pictures that I took, and subsequently developed and printed, is the photograph above. In time, after much fussing with the temperatures of various chemicals, I became a fairly good amateur photographer. As an adolescent who had yet to develop a rebellious streak, it was good to have a hobby. And the fact that I spent that time in a very dark room also served as a refuge from navigating the new social geography of high school, which, if rendered as a map, would display large flashing clusters representing high densities of girls. Yikes.

What interests me most about this photograph is that it’s really a snapshot of me at a particular time in my life. Like an art historian who can interpret the symbolism of a massive Renaissance canvas, I’m able to study this picture and identify what I was doing. Sure that sounds grandiose, but as a self-portrait, it reveals more about me than any blowing-out-the-candles birthday snapshot. See those egg cartons to the right of the white table? I had asked my mum to save them so that I could build a soundproof housing for my film projector. For this was also the time when I threw myself headlong into making Super-8 movies. You can see some cut film (or “trims”) on the right side of the photo, and a hand-wound editor on the left. And so on and so forth.

I recently came across some old black and white negatives that I’d developed but never gotten around to printing. They show Dillon Hall, one of the older buildings on the University of Windsor campus. Most of my classes were held in this building. When I recall my university days, it is this building that comes to mind. Keggers never enter the picture. Knowing full well that I’d never set up my darkroom again, I decided to scan the negatives and simply invert them in Photoshop. The results are shown below. Their ethereal quality reflects my own dimming memories of the place. 


Thanks for reading!

Calvin

“Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

— Woody Allen

And those who can’t paint, Photoshop scans of their brother’s paintings, turning once-melancholy artistic meditations into scenes of extraterrestrial carnage…

Port Hope, Ontario

UFO Invasion of Port Hope, Ontario

(Thanks to Jerry for being a good sport.)