Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Raiders of the Ark was the first movie I can remember seeing more than once. I was eleven and lived on a horse ranch in southeastern Alabama. The Peachtree movie theater was almost an hour away in Columbus, Georgia. To see a movie multiple times meant multiple two hour round-trips across the state border. Not an easy thing to accomplish when you're in seventh grade. Fortunately, my family loved the film as much as I did, all of us watching wide-eyed and thunderstruck as the Ark heaved its sinister contents into the furious Cairo sky, again and again. After our fifth and final viewing, Mom bought the soundtrack so we could listen to our favorite scenes at home. My brother and I developed a rather complicated relationship to that tape. We loved listening to the scraps of dialog that littered the album, but, cranking the stereo dial to ten, our mother frequently used the now famous John Williams score to wake us up on Saturday mornings.

For my tenth birthday, my grandfather, an amateur filmmaker (he shot his vacations and screened silent reels of black and white Disney cartoons at family functions), bought me a super 8 camera. That summer, me and my best friend Aaron made several shorts which essentially consisted of animating action figures with a tedious technique called stop motion. We had modified the figures by detaching various plastic attributes from one figure (a shiny robot arm, a scaly dinosaur tail), then softening the edge or tip with a lighter and melting it to another figure. 1981, the year Raiders was released, we grew up. We quit animating our muscled toys and went live action, making movies we thought were wholly original, but which were, of course, Raider ripoffs. The films were shot in the legitimately snake-infested swamps (yellow-bellied moccasins and Eastern Diamondback rattlers) behind my house. Several trees had been upended by a recent tornado (a common occurrence in Alabama), and they precariously bridged a storm swollen brook, each trunk ending in a massive bomb crater of dirt and a jungle of splayed roots on the other side. Kudzu, an invasive, fast-climbing weed, covered an abandoned Dodge Dakota and scrambled over a tin roofed trapper's shack. Vines, as thick as garden hoses, lolled from branches. Spanish Moss made everything weep.

At eleven, I somehow considered myself a suitable candidate for the film's flinty, world weary lead. I was a newly minted JV wrestler and, accordingly, fairly fit for a tween, but I obviously imagined myself much burlier than my 98 pounds. Instead of Indy's leather bomber, I wore my stepfather's khaki field vest. It had a ruffled sash along the waist with a series of loops meant for shotgun shells, and this capacity to carry ammunition made it a rugged and reckless garment. I wore no hat. My stepfather had an expensive felt fedora called a Bogart that he kept in a round cardboard box filled with tissue paper. But borrowing his prize hat was risky, it could not end well, and we decided against it. My brother's barrel chested friend Scott, whose father owned one of the two gas stations in town, was our stock heavy. Scott was a varsity nose tackle several years older who got up at 5 AM to hunt deer in the woods outside of town before school. For reasons unclear to us, he agreed to participate in several of our shoots. One time we even got him to clench, between his teeth, the clay cherry of a smoke bomb, so that his character (inexplicably) belched billows of green smoke.

Aaron, at nine, was the cinematographer. When not hand held, the camera was atop a spindly tripod, the legs of which invariably sank to different heights in the boggy ground, canting shots and inadvertently introducing us to the somewhat noirish concept of the Dutch Angle. Firecrackers, which are legal down South, were wedged into crevices and poked into root tangles (a string of detonated Silver Salutes or Wolf Pack Crackers looks remarkably like exploding gunshots). Instead of a bullwhip, I carried an array of dressage and longe whips (used by my stepfather to train new colts), and occasionally a hunting crop. My weapon of choice, however, was a handful of throwing stars we'd bought at a martial arts expo held in a helicopter hangar at Fort Benning. The year before, my mother had taken my brother and I to Mexico, and the ceramic trinkets we'd bought at the Benito Juarez airport served us well, standing in for precious artifacts and archaeological macguffins, pressed into the soft mud of the swamp.

My brother, himself fired by the summer blockbuster, later majored in archeology at Auburn University and moved to South America (where the film's opening takes place). He once explained that Peru is to diggers what Hollywood is to filmmakers. I made a couple of films in my late twenties (most notably BARMAN, a feature inspired by my half decade as the weekend bartender for a central Jersey gutbucket called The Plum Street Pub), but nothing matched the exuberance of those early shoots. Aaron has since gone digital, upgrading to a silver JVC with an LCD monitor. Once a year he heads to New Orleans to shoot randy home videos of chesty college girls giddy with Bourbon Street exhibitionism, their necks thickly draped with Mardi Gras beads. And finally, Scott, perhaps predisposed by his recurring role as a gangster burping rags of green smoke, maintained a pack a day habit throughout his adolescence and ended up, I'm pretty sure, in jail.

No comments: