Remembering Kate Johnson, Visual Artist, Teacher and Editor of All My Films
April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.
Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.
Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.
In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.
Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.
The New Documentary, Part I: “Going Clear”
April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
In the late 90s, I took a UCLA Extension course in directing whose instructor declared, “There is no more objective truth in documentaries than [in] feature films.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Documentary films–as opposed to the opinion piece or docu-drama–are the converse of feature films, with a distinct set of rules:
1. Don’t make things happen. Rather than forming an opinion and then trying to prove it, documentary filmmakers shoot first and organize later.
2. The script comes last. Any narration is based on the footage, as is the structure of the film. Documentaries are made in the editing room.
3. Don’t mess with the timeline. With the exception of interviews, events are shown in the order of occurrence.
4. No pictures, no story. All narration must be illustrated by images, preferably moving images, followed by still photos and illustrations. Re-enactments, if any, are a last resort.
Because I’ve followed these rules in all my documentaries, I’ve had to make hard choices, particularly where images are concerned. When Jim Thompson’s heir failed to follow through on his promise to let me use family photographs, I had to cut short the section on Jim’s youth. Later, a total lack of photographs of Peter the Hermit, the original Hollywood costumed character, led me to drop his story from “Under the Hollywood Sign.” In the same film, I reluctantly made a re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s final hour because I lacked photos and artifacts. In both Peter and Peg’s cases, I later received a flood of photographs and information, some of which can be found on this blog, but in Peter’s case it came too late to be included in the film.
While I don’t regret my strict approach, it doesn’t jibe with recent trends. The preferred model for new documentaries is the three-act screenplay, which requires a dramatic arc. Stories unfold like police procedurals, with satisfactory conclusions, while unrecorded events are generously re-enacted, often in lurid slow-motion. All of this makes for compelling entertainment, but is it real?
Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is a good example of the new approach. Essentially a filmed version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film employs traditional elements–interviews, archival footage, B-roll of Scientology landmarks. But it is also loaded with re-enactments that tell L. Ron Hubbard’s story and those of his disaffected followers. So we see recreated auditing sessions using the E-Meter, typewriters, explanatory charts and lots and lots of stars (the planetary kind, though there are archivals of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as well).
Absolutely nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. To illustrate his subjects’ retelling of Scientology’s creation myth, Gibney creates a colorful montage of 1950s Americana, spaceships, volcanoes and planets. And in case the term “Operating Thetan” proves too difficult to comprehend, he inserts a shot the words, neatly typed, on a piece of paper. The paper is still in the typewriter, one of many such shots, lest we forget that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer.
Gibney’s treatment of the interviews is curious. Though his interviewees–who include not only Wright but former Scientologists Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and Spanky Taylor–are without exception eloquent, compelling and worthy of screen time, Gibney does everything possible not to show them talking. When not cutting to re-enactments, he cuts to graphics–anything to avoid screen time for a talking head. The result is an undermining of the interviewees, whose stories, after all, are the crux of “Going Clear.”
Next time: “The Jinx.”
The Journey Is Greater Than The Destination
September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
Beyond the films and moving house, why did it take me so long? There isn’t any simple answer, but it’s clear that reading novels doesn’t teach one to write them. And writing novels doesn’t equal finishing them: a previous attempt ended in frustration. (Recently I learned that Joyce Carol Oates’s late husband left a novel–his only novel, chipped away at for decades–unfinished when he died. It was not reassuring.) From a practical standpoint, the work would have gone faster if I had revised printed drafts rather than doing it on my computer. Because the novel existed only virtually, a number of gaps and errors went unnoticed for too long. But the biggest setback came during the summer of 2013, when a Time-Warner technician cut the power and crashed my computer. (He had assured me that I could keep working while he ran new cable to the house.) When everything went black, I lost the draft I was working on, including a substantial part of the last section. Although I had saved a previous draft on Dropbox, I was never able to recover what had disappeared. Worse yet, I was afraid to look at the manuscript, much less work on it, for several months.
But eventually I did. This summer I knew I had to finish so I soldiered on, finally getting to the end on Labor Day. This month I’ll send the manuscript out to some friends who have kindly volunteered to be my first readers. After that, I’ll work on selling it. One way or another, it will be published. But let’s face it: we’re not living in the Age of the Novel and no one really cares. So why did I bother? Because, with the exception of my (easily fulfilled) goal of motherhood, all my ambitions have paled in comparison to my desire to write a novel: it’s a dream I’ve had since the age of twelve. Accomplishing it has taught me many things, one of which is to love the process, not just the result. And even if only my friends and family read it, my reward has come already: I’ll soon be starting two new projects, neither of which would have come my way if I hadn’t persevered on this one.
My Documentary Feature, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” Is Now Available On Demand
April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
The documentary that inspired this blog is now available as a download, either for purchase ($18) or rent ($5). Under the Hollywood Sign explores the history and present-day life of Beachwood Canyon in historical pictures, new footage and interviews. Here’s the link:
To purchase a DVD, please go to: http://www.underthehollywoodsign.com
Reviving Bananas in Beachwood Canyon
September 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
For the Theosophical Society, Beachwood Canyon’s mild, frost-free climate was the deciding factor in its relocation here in 1911. The Theosophists wanted nothing less than to create a new Garden of Eden, and their colony, Krotona, was dotted with gardens. After the Theosophists moved to Ojai in 1926, their gardens became houses, forgotten except for a map and a few photographs.
Recently I decided that my living room needed a better view, so I planted four banana trees with red-green fronds outside. They instantly provided shade, color and movement, transforming the house as well as the hillside on which they were planted. Watching the fronds wave gracefully in the breeze has been a respite for me in an otherwise vacationless summer.
Because I was focused on appearance, I chose trees that produce a flower but no edible fruit. But my next purchase will be a fruiting banana–if possible the Lacatan, which produces small, creamy-textured bananas with red skins. (I don’t like the Cavendish, the yellow banana that has been the world’s commercial crop since the 1930s, but know it will grow in Southern California.) In time, I hope to have a small grove of banana trees–a living reminder of what the Canyon once was.
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