Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Ten Foot Circle

Any O.G.s here at BS&T might recall a terrific two-part guest post from the keyboard of Peter McClennan, a retired camera operator, DP, and occasional director from the Great White North.  Although it feels as though "A" is for Aerials, "L" is for Lunch went up on the blog just last year, it was actually in 2014.

Damn ... this blog is starting to make me feel old.

If you missed that post seven long years ago, click the link and take a look -- then you'll understand why I've been hounding Peter to come through with another guest post ever since. And now ... drumroll please ... here it is.

                                            

                                 The Ten Foot Circle

                                                     by Peter McLennan

 Photo by Michael Uslan 

On every set you’ll find the ten foot circle, an imaginary radius of ten feet centered on the camera.  It’s the center of the action, ground zero for the entire cast and crew. In the past, to gain unquestioned admission to that holy ground you needed to be a focus puller, boom operator, dolly grip, an actor, a director, or a camera operator. It was a small, hardworking, intense and vital group, deserving respect from all who participated in the obscure, arcane, expensive business known as Principal Photography.

At the center of that circle is the camera operator. It’s not the hardest job, that title goes to the actor, but operating the camera is the best job on set, and possibly best job in the entire industry. The operator has the best seat in the house, be it on a cushy studio dolly, standing onstage between ZZ Top, or sideways in the open door of a helicopter.

Focus pullers share some of this “best seat in the house” aspect. There’s usually nothing but empty space between them and the actors, so they experience actors' performances like few others. The camera operator shares this intimate experience, but with the added input of directly controlling how the audience sees. Of course, as some wise man said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but there also comes great job satisfaction.

Many of the top-tier directors of photography refuse to give up operating, and for good reason. Roger Deakins insists on doing all his own operating, only excluding a few specialties like Steadicam. Emmanuel Lubeski (“Chivo”), the only DOP to win the Cinematography Oscar three years in a row, also operates, and for good reason. The degree of creative input is intoxicating, and the instantaneous, real time interaction with action and performers is addicting.

As an operator, I learned what I came to call “The Seven Word Rule.”  When the director calls “CUT!”, everyone on the set would turn and look at the operator to see what happens next. If the take is good, it’s the operator’s responsibility to approve it because nobody saw what the camera saw except the operator. That’s why the Society of Operating Cameramen uses the motto “We see it first”.

If it’s not a good take, the operator then has just seven words to explain where it went wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. Seven words, after which nobody’s listening.  Concision is mandatory, as is knowledge of the other crafts.  “The smoke’s too sourcy,” “The fireplace fire doesn’t match the master,”  “A stray hair was distracting,” “The boom dipped in,” “An extra looked at the camera.”  Or sometimes, “I need another one.”
 
The timing of lines or bits of business by the actors can vary from take to take. An important part of the operator’s job is to note where, when, and how things went wrong, or where a happy coincidence resulted in something special.

In addition to controlling, monitoring, and reporting on the technical issues that can affect a take’s quality, the operator is privileged to offer creative input, especially with the actors. Actors are not robots. Their performance can vary subtly from take to take. Their position in the set with regard to background, lighting and other actors changes with each performance.  and can greatly alter the character and quality of the product, rendering some takes useless and some superb. It’s part of the operator’s job to be aware of all of these factors and to offer input to all, including the director and the actors, to continuously improve what the camera sees. The English system, where the operator and the director work closely together, honours this shared responsibility and that’s why Mr. Deakins insists on operating.  It's another of the reasons why the operator has the best job on the set. Creative input.

But the job has changed, and from the operator’s perspective, not for the better. New technology has leached much of the fun from the job, but if the arrival of the digital movie camera cemented these changes, the beginnings appeared long before the death of film thanks to a long-ago intentional and unnatural act. Back in the early eighties, some bright spark decided it’d be a good idea to put a tiny television camera inside a film camera, and from that day life in the circle began to change. With the on-board television camera linked to an on-set monitor, everyone could see exactly what the film camera saw and the mantra “We see it first” was forever invalidated.  As a result, a large part of the operator’s technical and creative input was suddenly irrelevant. Now that everyone could “see it first,” everyone became an expert on actors’ performance, camera moves, lighting changes, smoke, density, random microphones in the shot and, yes, operator errors.

Of course the live video (and audio) feed has obviously improved the overall results of the shoot. The ubiquity of video village proves that, despite its complexity and significant expense. Now that everyone sees it first, problems are more readily apparent and easy to communicate. Many eyes are better than one.  And, like “We See it First,” the seven word rule has become irrelevant.
 
Freed from the necessity of peering over the operator’s shoulder, directors and DPs can relax in a comfy chair while seeing and hearing precisely what’s been recorded. In fact, anyone with access to the village can now experience the rare and special privilege once reserved for those behind the viewfinder.   

The biggest loser from the advent of video village is the camera operator, whose job has transitioned from one of a high status position requiring significant and continuous creative input to being a much smaller cog in the same machine. In fact, the operator is sometimes banished from the ten foot circle altogether and can be found in video village, operating the camera far from the action.

Gone is the electrifying close presence of the actors and gone is the commanding view from the best seat in the house right behind the lens. Gone is the delightful “ride at the fair” aspect of a seat on the camera crane.  And gone too is the cozy, private intimacy with the focus puller.  A tiny team of two, separate from the rest of the crew, working just inches apart, they experienced a unique shared viewpoint on the proceedings. Now they often work far apart.

For the camera operator, first the live “video assist” feed and now the digital cinema camera have removed much of the fun stuff and left all the hard stuff. Their on-set presence is still demanding and unrelenting, they still carry significant responsibility and they still have all the stress of the demands of unerring accuracy and repeatability, but with much less direct creative input.

It's a shame, really, but inevitable, and it all began when that guy put a TV camera inside a film camera.

It’s just an unnatural act, that’s what it is.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Rust

No photo this time, just a link to the latest (and rather thorough) LA Times piece on what went down on the set of Rust in New Mexico. The headline is technically correct, but in my not-so-humble-opinion, needlessly unsubtle: 

The Day Alec Baldwin Shot Halnya Hutchins and Joel Souza

Sure, that's what actually happened, but the headline could easily have been worded "The Tragedy on the Set of Rust" -- but like sex, sensationalism is what sells in the modern news media, and such is the world in which we live. We're all the poorer for that.

I subscribe to the LA Times, so was able to read it. I don't know if it's protected behind a paywall, but if so -- and if you want to but can't read it for that reason -- send me an email at the link on the blog (just under the gloves photo, on the right) and I'll send it to you in an attachment.  I write in Apple's "Pages" format, so if you're on MS Word or some other word processing program, let me know and I'll copy-and-paste the piece into the body of the return e-mail.  In that case, the photos might get lost in the jump through cyber-space, but they don't add much to the impact of the article anyway.  

Yes, I could just print it here, but that would violate the LA Times copyright, and I'm not going to cross that line -- not because they'd sue me (the LA Times has no idea this blog exists), but simply because newspapers are under assault all over our country these days, and I'm not going to further undermine the print media unless it's unavoidable. 

This is a tragic story that will haunt that crew -- some of them more than others -- forever.  I suspect more details and a clearer picture of that awful day will eventually emerge, but none of that will bring comfort to the family and friends of Halyna Hutchins. Like too many people, I know what it's like to lose a family member to needless, senseless violence, and it's something you don't ever get over. You find a way to work around it and go on with life, but it's always there lurking in the back of your mind.  

It's those people -- her family and friends -- that I'm thinking about tonight.


Update:

This weeks The Business (from KCRW) features an armorer discussing safety procedures that should be -- and usually are --  observed on set whenever guns are part of the action.  He wasn't on the set of Rust, but talks about the pressures that can arise and interfere with following established safety protocols. He doesn't point fingers, but raises several pertinent questions that have yet to be answered -- and he explains what happened on the set of The Crow the night Brandon Lee was killed, something I've never been clear about.  It's worth your twenty minutes. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Death in the Desert

 

                                                Scene of the crime

Ours is a hazardous business, an endeavor in which -- as the saying goes -- "shit happens."  Stunt people put themselves on the line every day working on films and television, and more than a few have paid the ultimate price over the years.  Early in my career, I witnessed the death of a stuntman in a high fall that went all wrong - and the memory of that day is burned into my brain.  A veteran grip I worked with on commercials was killed at the end of a long day by a heavily laden equipment cart when a newbie PA working the tailgate of the truck hit the wrong button on the control switch. A female juicer friend of mine fell thirty feet from a scissor lift seven or eight years ago, and although she survived after a long recovery, that ended her working career. Another juicer in my union fell to his death a few years back at Universal, and just a few weeks ago, a grip took a terrible fall in Hollywood when a handrail broke up high on a soundstage. He lived, but is in very bad shape. During one of the mandatory Safety Passport classes a dozen years ago, the instructor related details of several horrific accidents on set that killed a number of people -- stories I'd never heard before, because Hollywood is very good at throwing a blanket over such incidents.  

What couldn't be hidden by the studio PR hacks were the notable on-set fatalities of Jon-Eric Hexum (an accidental but self-inflicted demise), the beheading by helicopter blade of Vic Morrow (along with two young children) while filming the Twilight Zone movie, and Brandon Lee's accidental shooting on the set of The Crow.  

Still, the most common danger we face comes in the form of absurdly long work hours that have led directly to the death of at least two crew members I'm aware of, and caused many more to crash their cars after falling asleep while driving home. It's a miracle the body count isn't higher. Much of the impetus for the the recent IATSE strike authorization tally (which came in at an overwhelming 98+ percent vote) was from below-the-line workers fed up with the dehumanizing schedule of so many episodic and streaming network productions. Even if a crew gets through the grinding ordeal of one of those shows without drifting off at the wheel, medical science has made it clear: working excessively long hours for extended periods is detrimental to long term mental and physical health.  Although the last-minute deal worked out between IA representatives and the hired killers -- er, lawyers -- of the AMPTP ended the immediate threat of a strike, it remains unclear if that agreement does anything to effectively address the issue of working long hours. 

Last week's accident on the set of Alec Baldwin's low-budget indy film Rust was of a different order, a truly senseless tragedy that should never have happened. The how and why of the fatal shooting will be revealed at some point, but the bottom line is this: there's simply no excuse for it. Somebody fucked up in a major way, an error that killed the director of photography and sent the director to the hospital from a gunshot fired by the lead actor. 

As this piece from the LA Times points out, the warning signs on Rust are clearly visible in the 20:20 glare of hindsightThe film was to be shot in just twenty-one days, a ridiculously short schedule for any feature film. The last three low-budget, non-union features I worked on back in the late 1980s each had an eight week shooting schedule, and none of those films included scenes that involved guns being fired, which -- due to the elaborate safety protocols -- take more time to shoot. When you try to cram time-intensive scenes into an absurdly abbreviated schedule, something has to give ... and it did. It's been reported that the crew of Rust was working on a set fifty miles from their hotel, adding two more hours of travel time to their already long work days. When people are pushed too hard, the relentless accumulation of fatigue combined with a ridiculously ambitious shooting schedule can lead to fuzzy thinking -- and when people are too tired to see straight, bad decisions result. Apparently there had already been three accidental discharges of guns on that set in the first twelve days of filming before the fatal shot was fired.  

What the fuck?

As this article from Variety delineates, the glut of production generated by the digital/streaming revolution brought a flood of inexperienced people into the business over the past ten years. Inexperience on set and above-the-line -- newbie producers and UPMs drawing up overly ambitious shooting schedules -- can create a hurried, pressure-cooker atmosphere in which bad decisions and accidents are all the more likely.  

I wasn't there, and like everyone else, must rely on sketchy second-hand reports while trying to make sense of such an utterly senseless tragedy.  We'll learn the truth in time, but for now one thing is crystal clear, as expressed in the final line of that Variety piece:

"It's inconceivable that somebody gets killed on a movie set with a prop gun if everybody follows the rules."

Indeed. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Zero Hour

As of late Saturday afternoon, a strike has been averted for the time being, thanks to a deal reached late yesterday -- but as we've all learned the hard way, the Devil lies in the weeds of the details, so I'll withhold judgment until I know exactly what the deal really is. If it's not good, I expect we'll see pushback from the rank and file who will have to ratify that deal before it's cast in stone.  What many have feared since these negotiations began is that the AMPTP would make an offer just good enough to pass, but that doesn't seriously address the quality of life issues that sparked such widespread support for a strike. 

I had this post ready to go before the deal was announced, so even though it's no longer relevant (I hope),  here it is.  If the deal isn't good enough, these picket signs may yet be used -- but let's hope it's a deal the IA membership will accept, and that will make their lives less stressful.  

That's always been the goal.


                                          Photo courtesy of IA Local 728

Here we stand on the edge of the cliff, looking down into the abyss. Unless an agreement is reached between our IA negotiators and the AMPTP sometime today, the strike will commence at 12:01 PST tomorrow morning:  Zero Hour in Hollywood. 

From that moment on, the IA will be on strike.

It's tempting to assume that these negotiations will unfold in a manner similar to what happens every year in Congress, where the two opposing parties always appear headed for a deadlock until the last minute ... at which point the politicians suddenly remember how stupid such games of "Chicken" look to the electorate, and work out a compromise.  But there's the rub: for all its many faults, Congress understands the nature of this dance very well, and knows how to bring a deal home when push comes to shove. The AMPTP is so accustomed to extracting concessions from the IA that they've never had to learn the art of compromise, nor do they understand that this time is different.*

I see a similar disconnect with reality on much of the IA social media, where many have been loudly screaming to strike for weeks now. The consensus among those yelling the loudest is that once the work stops, the producers will fall to their knees and agree to the IA's demands in short order. That would be nice, but I'm not so optimistic. It seems that the essential lessons of life are only learned the hard way, which means the producers will probably have to suffer badly before they come around, and that's likely to take some time.  How long?  Weeks, certainly, and maybe months. With the holidays around the corner, the cessation of paychecks could bring a very bleak Christmas, especially for those below-the-liners with families, and the New Year may dawn with no end in sight. Rent and mortgage payments will keep knocking on the door, along with all the other bills ... and that's when the concept of solidarity will be sorely tested.  The first few days of a strike will be easy, but it'll get harder and harder with each passing week.

I'm not throwing cold water on the need for a strike.  If the producers refuse to bend, they must be made to understand the ugly reality that so many below-the-line workers face these days -- we have to get their full, undivided attention. As my dad used to say, "sometimes you need to employ a two-by-four to make a mule understand."  

The strike is our two-by-four.

I don't know how or when this will end.  I reached out to a couple of writer friends, asking how they felt about the WGA strike back in 2008, and wondering if what they gained was worth the economic pain of the strike. As of now, neither has responded, but if they do I'll update this post.

So the clock is ticking, and the two-by-four in our hands.

Now we wait.

*A glimmer of hope appeared yesterday afternoon, but we'll see if anything comes of it.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Moment of Truth

 

 

This is it: Sunday morning, the last day for those eligible to cast a ballot for the strike authorization vote to make their voices heard. It's a moment of truth, and maybe the most consequential vote you'll ever cast outside of a presidential election, so make it count. If there's an overwhelming turnout delivering a "yes" vote, we have a chance to succeed in making things better for everybody who works in the film and television industry. 

If we fail ... well, let's not fail, okay?

Last Sunday I participated in another Below the Line podcast hosted by Robert "Skid" Skidmore on the subject of this weekend's vote, along with Mike Loomer of Local 44 and David Tuttman of Local 600.  None of us spoke as representatives of our respective locals or IATSE, but were expressing our personal views on the current situation based on what we've seen and experienced over the course of our careers. If you're still on the fence on how to vote, or have any doubts about why it matters, tune in and have a listen.

More to the point -- do yourself, your family, and your union a favor by voting "yes." Doing so won't make a strike inevitable, but it will let the producers know that they can't expect to stonewall and bulldoze us as they've done so often in the past. This is a new era, so it's time to lay down new ground rules to ensure that those of you who still have ten, twenty, or thirty years left in your careers will be able to work, live, and eventually retire in more dignity and enjoy a better quality of life than is possible  now.

It's time.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Devil's Bargain


                                                    Same as it ever was

It's been 24 years since camera assistant Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and was killed while driving home from a nineteen hour work day, after which a lot of jaw-flapping ensued about the need to work shorter hours on set -- and although a few productions began offering hotel rooms to crew members after excessively long days, that was the extent of it. Despite a campaign by the late, great Haskell Wexler to institute a "12 On/12 Off" policy on set, nothing at all has been done to curtail abusive work hours. Film crews on features and episodics continue to get hammered with a long slog of 70-plus hour weeks capped off with the universally-reviled "Fraterday." This is ridiculous, especially now that medical science has quantified the obvious: that working excessively long hours is very bad for your health.  

Despite growing discontent among the rank and file (including cinematographers), a few people in our industry resist the push to work shorter hours. Some parrot the chest-thumping response of "You want regular hours, work in a bank," while the more thoughtful point out that the cost of living these days is such that they really need all that overtime just to get by. The hourly rates are decent for those employed on full-scale union jobs, but the film and television industry is a freelance, feast-or-famine world where all jobs on set are temporary. Every movie or television show comes to an end, at which point you're out of work until the next job comes along.**  Employment insecurity is a fact of life in the film industry, where we rarely know what is -- or isn't -- coming next, so it's no surprise that people want to make what they can while they can.

But this raises the question: at what cost? Should working in the film and television industry be like toiling underground digging coal, where miners have to accept the Devil's Bargain of becoming terminally ill with Black Lung disease before reaching retirement age simply to put food on the table and a roof over the heads for their families?

Working on set will never be a nine-to-five job, and truth be told, this is part of the attraction. There's a sense of mission that comes from being part of a crew making a movie or television show -- a "we'll get this done no matter what" ethos that sets it apart from punching a time clock in a factory or driving a keyboard under the fluorescent glow of a cube farm. I wasn't suited for -- nor did I ever want -- a normal job in the civilian world, and although this sounds remarkably idiotic now, I took a certain pride in working the 16, 18, and 20+ hour days that were common during my early career in the world of low budget, non-union features and music videos. It was all part of "paying my dues" to earn a place in the industry.  Still, it's one thing to make the best of a tough situation -- to do what you've gotta do -- and something very different to feel a perverse pride in enduring such ordeals. Looking back, I can see this was probably a form of the Stockholm syndrome, a coping mechanism that allowed me to feel good about being trapped in such difficult situations.  

Like the man said: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Escaping from the anything-goes, pedal-to-the-metal arena of low budget productions into the safe harbor of union work was supposed to fix all that -- and for a while, it did. Unfortunately, our union contracts have only gotten worse when IATSE and the AMPTP met every three years to hammer out a renewal. Those contracts once protected the rank and file from being worked excessive hours, with the first eight hours at straight time, the next four at time-and-a-half, and anything over twelve hours paid double-time. We'd receive a 15% "night premium" on top of union scale when taking a night call on a studio lot, and working weekends paid double. If you were on a show that worked past midnight on Friday (having already gone twelve hours), you then went into "double-double," or four times the normal hourly scale.  

These provisions weren't in the contract to fatten the paychecks of crew members, but as a financial sledgehammer to dissuade producers from working their crews abusively long hours -- and if for some reason a shoot really had to go long, the producers would have to pay dearly for the privilege. It wasn't a perfect system, but it worked a lot better than what we have now. I can't pinpoint exactly where the erosion in these protections began, but the real break in the dam seemed to come back when the IA signed a contract with HBO allowing the then-fledgling company to pay their crews 20% under union scale, then go into double-time after 14 working hours rather than 12. The rationale was that this new network needed help competing with the Big Three broadcast powerhouses, and cutting them some slack would allow HBO to hire union crews rather than non-union workers to support our health and pension plans. All this would have been fine if the negotiations included a "sunset clause" to limit the duration of the deal, so that once HBO got on its feet -- say, after ten years -- the cable-rate provision would expire, and they'd have to pay crews full union scale.  But there was no such clause, which is why many cable networks still exploit their contractual right to pay crews 20% under scale, and work them 14 hours before the producers hit the wall of double-time.

If you think it's fun to work 14 hour days, 5 days a week, for  a 20% cut in pay, try it sometime.

In every contract negotiation since that HBO deal, we've lost more of the protections that discourage producers from abusing their crews, and now union scale has been thoroughly Balkanized with half a dozen different rates, each less than the basic union scale that was once the lowest we could be paid. The producers arrived at each of those negotiations armed with a phalanx of well-paid lawyers, while our side had guys who -- figuratively speaking -- left their tool belts at the door before sitting down at the table. I wasn't in any of those rooms, and won't criticize our IA representatives, but it's clear that they didn't have the training, skills, or leverage to go toe-to-toe with the AMPTP lawyers, and the results were predictable. Concession after concession has been rammed down our throats over the last twenty-plus years, with each contract progressively worse than the last.

According to my local, the following are at issue in the current contract negotiations:

A living wage as well as annual increases, reasonable rest and meal periods, sustainable health and pension benefits, improved working conditions, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"Reasonable rest" means preventing productions -- particularly episodic television -- from working their crews into the ground, because a twelve-hour work day is long enough.  It also means allowing rest and meal breaks for the crew during each work day, which -- given the cumulative load of fatigue over each week of long days -- is a very real safety issue.

The following, which has been making the rounds of social media lately, sums up the situation.***

Friends and family across the country:  there's a very real possibility that Hollywood unions (represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) will go on strike, which would halt almost all film and television production across the entire United States. This would be a historic move, but one that's necessary.
 
Many of you are probably annoyed that you’ve cut the cable cord, only to find that you're now paying the same amount for a multitude of streaming services. Those of us who do the hard work required to make those shows are considerably more than annoyed that these streaming entities -- which are owned and run by some of the richest corporations on the planet -- are still pretending that streaming is an unproven business model they have yet to profit from.  
 
In a word, that's bullshit.
 
They want to pay us less to work on streaming shows than for shows that air on regular TV. They want to work us longer hours and have shorter weekends. They want to contribute less to our pension and health plans for streaming movies than they do for films that have a traditional theatrical release. They don’t even want to let us break for lunch during a 12+ hour work day. On top of all that, AppleTV+ is asking for a discount on our rates because they currently have fewer subscribers than the others, even though their huge hit "Ted Lasso" just won a truckload of Emmys.
 
The situation has reached a breaking point. The studios have now decided to end the negotiations, so our leadership is calling for a strike authorization vote in the hope that our show of strength and solidarity will force the producers to offer a fair contract and avoid a strike ... but if not, we'll have to strike for what we need.
 
I hope that you’ll stand with us in this fight.

The Devil drives a hard bargain, so it's no surprise that the AMPTP dug in its heels on several key provisions. I don't know all the specifics, but apparently they want to make it much harder to qualify for a pension, eliminate the existing structure of breaks (including meal periods)  in favor of "more flexibility," cut our annual (and minimal...) pay raise in half, and refuse to even consider the matter of working crews deep into Saturday mornings. The latter is a serious quality of life issue, because a work week that begins at 7:00 Monday morning and doesn't end until 5:00 A.M. Saturday renders the term "weekend" all but meaningless. 

With the talks stalemated, the IA has called for a strike authorization vote -- the first essential step towards an industry-wide strike. The next move is ours, and it's crucial for the rank and file to respond with an overwhelming "yes" vote to put the producers on notice that this time we mean business. As IATSE president Matt Loeb put it: "It's time to command their attention," and if AMPTP refuses to respond with a reasonable compromise, we'll have two choices: roll over and take another beating, or stand up and strike.

If push comes to shove, my vote is to strike.

This is easy for me to say -- being retired, I no longer wait for my phone to ring with the next job -- but if we've learned anything by now, it's that the producers only respond to pressure. It's been many decades since below-the-line unions exerted any real heat on the AMPTP -- to my knowledge, there's never been a widespread strike by the IA in Hollywood -- and the producers have made it clear that they won't be reasonable unless and until we force the issue. 

When I started working in Hollywood back in '77, many of the veteran crews I worked with were from a generation that came of age amid the privation and misery of the Depression Era, then went through the hell of World War Two. Having witnessed the worst life could dish out, they were happy just to have a decent job -- but that was a different era in every way. The cost of living was cheaper in real terms, and strong union rules protected the rank and file from being worked to death. A bitter cliché I heard many times on set goes: "If you're going to fuck us, at least give us a kiss," but the AMPTP won't even blow us an Oscar-style Hollywood air kiss, so maybe it's time to revive the battle cry of Howard Beale in the Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky classic Network:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" 

With so many still recovering from the Covid shutdown, this isn't a great time to go on strike, but if we roll over and take another contract beat-down, any concessions forced on us now will form the new baseline for even more drastic cuts when the contract expires in three years. We're now in something of a modern Gilded Age where the old and new media corporations are making money hand over fist while grinding the workforce they depend on into the dirt. This is as shortsighted as it is cruel, but rather than meet us halfway to agree on a fair contract, they're trying to divide, conquer, and break the unions. Sometime it seems they won't be happy until we've been relegated to First World slave labor toiling for minimum wage and minimal benefits.  

Fuck that.

There's no denying that an industry-wide strike would be ugly and painful, but what's our alternative? The AMPTP is so accustomed to kicking us to the curb on their way to the bank that they really don't believe the rank and file has the stomach to withstand a prolonged strike. If they ignore next weekend's strike authorization vote and refuse to compromise, we'll have to draw the line and show them that like the fictional Howard Beale, we really aren't going to take it anymore. 

Because if not now, when? 

 


* To bastardize a once popular C&W song, "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be film students."

** The studios are staffed by full time employees, but the union rank and file who work on set to make movies and television are essentially temp workers.

*** Somewhat massaged, of course, since the editor in me simply couldn't resist.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Day the Earth Stood Still

 


You hardly need another reminder that last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of a the day the earth stood still. It's a day we all wish had never happened ... but it did, and here we are two decades later, in a world still suffering the aftermath of 9/11. In the run-up to the anniversary, every form of print, audio, and visual media reviewed the events and ramifications of that day, from the intensely personal to the international. It'll take a lot more than twenty years for those wounds to heal, and in some ways, they never will. As individuals and a country, we can get around this immense tragedy -- for the survivors, life does go on -- but we don't ever really get over it. The sense of loss and pain is always there, but 9/11 goes even deeper than that, bending and shaping our country and the international community in ways we might never fully grasp. It united us like no time since since Pearl Harbor, but twenty years later Americans are at other's throats, with some some grimly muttering about a second Civil War.  

How the fuck did it come to this?

Lots of reasons, I suspect, but I'm not one of those giant-brained Ivy League media analysts who earn a living telling us the why and how, so don't look for explanations to an ex-juicer who got paid to lift heavy objects for a living. Besides, my role here isn't to discuss domestic or global politics -- that's way over my pay grade -- but life below decks in the film and television industry, which is one of the few subjects I know something about. Still, the media made an effort to shine light on the events and ramifications of that day, and some of those are worth your time.

PBS ran an excellent two hour Frontline documentary dissecting the political, geopolitical, and cultural aftershocks of 9/11, a sobering film dissecting our collective reaction to 9/11, and how that  led to rivers of blood throughout the Middle East, and exacerbated a divide in our country that now feels like the Grand Canyon. It's not fun to watch, but you'll learn something. 

Another worthy film is 9/11, a documentary made by two French brothers who set out to document the life of a young NYFD recruit who was still in his probationary period. As they were filming that day, the first plane hit and the fire company responded -- and at that point their film took a very different direction. This is modern cinéma vérité at its best, recording the horror as it unfolded that day -- but be warned: watching it is a shattering experience.  It's very real and very rough, but nothing else I've seen will take you into the experience of that day quite like this film. For those of us who watched the events of 9/11 unfold on television from afar, it's useful to understand what it was really like for the first responders and their families, who paid -- and continue to pay -- such a brutal price.

I waited almost fifteen years to watch Flight 93, a docudrama by Paul Greenglass about the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, who were the first to fight back against the terrorists of 9/11, and in so doing, made the ultimate sacrifice to save our country from more death and destruction.** The stories of first responders that day represent the noble tragedy of professionals dying while trying to do an impossible job -- true heroes by any definition -- but I don't know a word to adequately describe the actions of the passengers on Flight 93, who took just ten minutes to make a decision that would send them and the terrorists on that plane into eternity in the woods near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I'd heard that Flight 93 was an excellent film, but just wasn't ready to watch until recently, when it finally rose to the top of my Netflix queue earlier this year.*  It's very well done, with no "Hollywood" bullshit, portraying real people going about an ordinary day that suddenly turns upside-down, at which point they must confront -- and make -- the most important decision of their lives.  We know what happens, but still the tension is palpable. It's a gritty story wonderfully told, but again, it delivers a powerful and  emotional gut-punch, so be ready.   

It hurts to revisit that day, but that's not a good excuse. From my perspective, we owe it to those who died twenty years ago -- and to their families -- to remember and honor their sacrifice. 

It's the least we can do.


* Yes, I still watch DVDs -- so sue me.  I stream too, but old habits (and old people) die hard...

** Not to be confused with another film called Flight 93, directed by Peter Markle, which I haven't seen and can't comment on.