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Archive for May, 2019

“Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: ‘Love. They must do it for love.’”
Wendell Berry
Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food

The Biggest Little Farm is an extraordinary film. The documentary directed by John Chester works on many levels but I encourage you to see it a movie theater for cinematography alone.

The photo I’ve had at the top of this blog for the past 11 years is a farm I shot in Iowa while in route to a short film where I was the director of photography. It’s an old barn and silo and one I’ve thought about replacing often, but for some reason I never have.

From 2003 to 2013 I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa which is surrounded by farms. Soon after I arrived there I had the opportunity to see pigs being born while working on a production at a farm.  Farms are just flat out fascinating to me.

And Chester has tapped into something that will take me a while to process. Perhaps I write about it in more detail after I see it again and learn more about the production. For today, I’ll just relay that it’s an extraordinary film that you should see.

Scott W. Smith  

 

 

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Dust to Dust

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”
From the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer

The memorial service for my mother was held Saturday in the historic chapel part of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Maitland, Florida.  It was led by The Rev. Cameron MacMillian and was a beautiful and sacred time. I’ll just leave a few photos I took after the service to tell part of the story.

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Scott W. Smith

 

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Peter Hedges once met an actress on a subway in New York City who eventually told him the story about how some friends went to cook a Thanksgiving dinner but their oven didn’t work so they had to go around the building to get other people to let them cook their meal. Hedges thought, “That is a great idea,” and made a bunch of notes and then forgot about it until a couple of years later when he found out his mom had cancer. (A woman that informed everything he did

“As [my mom] was dying—or fighting to live at that time—she would always ask me what I was working on. And I was always working on getting her better doctors and trying to get her better treatments that would save her life. But she said let’s talk about what you’re working on and I said, Mom I can’t write anything, there’s no point in writing. And she said, well, there’s no point in anything if you’re not making something—so what are you making? And I opened up files and I found this file about the girl cooking the turkey and I asked that question that you ask as you’re writing your scripts or you’re making your films, Why is she cooking the turkey? And I said, because it’s Thanksgiving, that’s why you cook the turkey. But so what? And my notes said the reason she’s cooking the turkey is because she’s estranged from her mother and her mother’s dying of cancer. And I gasped. I couldn’t believe it, and I called my mom and said listen to these notes. And she said, Oh Peter, this sounds like a story you’re supposed to tell.”
Writer/ Director Peter Hedges
Podcast interview The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Hedges did tell that story—the classic indie film Pieces of April (2003). One of the early films shot on digital tape it was made for under $300K with a stellar cast. It’s a film I’ve written about from time to time on this blog. (It would be a good investment to get the Pieces of April DVD with Hedges director’s commentary to gather tips on indie filmmaking.)

P.S. A little bit of Screenwriting from Iowa trivia—Peter Hedges was born and raised in Iowa.

Related posts:

‘Pieces of April’ (Part 1) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 2) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 3) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 4) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 5) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 6) 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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My mother was tough.

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Sue Stautner doesn’t look tough in this photo. But she was tough.

She was born in the middle of the Great Depression and a chunk of her youth was taken up with the scarcity of the effects of a world at war. Those raised during the Depression and World War II were engrained with an exceptionally particular view that economic turmoil was always on the horizon and my mother was no different.

And despite my mother’s father having a job in advertising at National Cash Register (NCR) during those times of high unemployment he was an alcoholic. He died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 57. Having an alcoholic father is tougher than tough. It’s a wound.

Happy Mother’s Day, right?

But it is a happy Mother’s Day for me because I recall a woman who endured hardships and went on to have a productive life. I gave my mom her last Mother’s Day card a few days before she died last month.

Before she graduated from Fairview High School in Dayton, Ohio she had played field hockey, was a homecoming queen, and worked at the Dayton radio station WINK where she met comedian Jonathan Winters and humorist Erma Bombeck early in their careers. She also took classes at the Dayton Art Institute. 

 

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She met my father when she was a student at Ohio State University and part of the Delta Gamma Fraternity (Delta Gamma was formed in 1873 when what we commonly call sororities were called women’s fraternities). And to show how tough she really was—she taught art at South Seminole Middle School for 30 years.  Days before she died I saw a woman at Starbucks wearing a shirt that proclaimed “I ain’t scared—I’m a middle school teacher.”

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A student’s creation at South Seminole Middle School

She also raised two kids mostly as a single mother, and mostly on a teacher’s salary. Did I tell you my mom was tough? One year I gave her a Mother’s Day card featuring the iconic World War II art work of J. Howard Miller that originally encouraged women to roll up their sleeves and do wartime jobs in the defense industry.

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My mom was strong. And she was also loving, funny, and supportive. Looking back perhaps one of the toughest/loving/supportive things she did was sit through all of my football and baseball games. That’s part of her life spread over a decade just  standing or sitting in the Florida sun watching her son play sports.

My mom went to high school and college in the 1950s which was during the peak of cigarette smoking being cool. She started before the dangers of smoking were widely known, and unfortunately never stopped long after she knew the damage it was doing to her lungs.

 

 

I took the below photo sometime after she turned 80 and shortly before she was wearing oxygen full time due to having COPD. Living and dying with COPD has been called the long goodbye because it can be a long, slow process. For my mom it was a decline of six plus years from when she really began having difficulty breathing.

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Over those last six years my mother never missed a chance to tell me that this could be her last Mother’s Day. I knew one of these years she would be correct so I tried to maximize my time with her in person and on the phone.

My mom’s final act of toughness was enduring a month in various hospital rooms, an intensive care unit, and at a physical rehabilitation facility.  She always said she wanted to go peacefully in her sleep and she was able to do just that with her son and daughter on each side of her holding her hands as she took her final breath.

It was a sad and sweet moment. I’m thankful for my mom bringing me into this world and giving me the foundation to live a creative life. And I’m glad my sister and I had the opportunity to help her in the later stages of her life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there. The definition of tough is to “endure a period of hardship or difficulty”—so I think all mothers are tough.

And another group of tough women were the nurses, med-techs, and care workers at the assisted living facility where my mother lived in her later years. They oversaw her medication, brought her food daily when she after she could not longer go to the dining hall for meals, made sure she got her daily paper, joked with her, often has extended conversations with her, and maybe put up with a complaint or two from my mother.

My mother was an avid reader of novels, enjoyed well-done witty Tv shows (Young Sheldon was her recent favorite), and I look forward to watching Cannery Row again because that was one of her all-time favorite films.

It was a tough but human process to watch my mother die. And it will forever shade how I live my life.

P.S. One of the fringe benefits of having someone close to you die is you get to hear stories you never heard before. I just received a phone message from Vivian Hurston Bowden (who is author Zora Neale Hurston’s niece) and she commented on how much she loved my mom and enjoyed working with her at the junior high/middle school.  She also let me that my mom did the decorating for her wedding in Sanford, Florida back in 1971. A long time neighbor of hers told me how my mom bought her little gifts when than woman went through treatment for cancer.  I love hearing those stories.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I learned a number of things [working on my first firm]. I remember there is a scene in the film [What’s Eating Gilbert Grape ] that I was so proud of—it was about seven pages too long.  [The director Lasse Hallström ] said the scene is about six and three quarters pages too long. I kept rewriting it and I got the scene down to nine words. So I learn economy. About that time I heard a great story about Peter Shaffer the great, wonderful playwright had adapted Amadeus for Milos Forman. And there’s a very famous monologue in the play where Salieri rages at God—there are still monologues in the film, but this was a particular speech that Peter Shaffer really wanted in the screenplay. He’s like if you’re going to adapt my play as a movie you must have this monologue in the film. Milos Forman said no. Shaffer said, no, no, no you need to understand something, this is the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. Salieri is angry at God—it has to be in the film. No. And they went back and forth, and finally Milos Forman said Salieri there is a cross on the wall, Salieri grabs the cross and he throws it in the fire. There’s your monologue. And that is a great example of learning that you can use image or you can use a cut to tell the story. Whereas I came from the theater where I was always trying to tell the story with dialogue. So I learned a lot there.” 
Writer Peter Hedges (Pieces of April, Ben is Back)
The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith 

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Long ago I embraced grown the coninsidence that happens occationally on this blog. Yesterday’s post touched on the period in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an influx of Haitian and Cuban refugees to Miami. I even included a photo I took during that era in Hialeah, Florida.

Early this morning I happened to be listening to an interview with actor/director Vincent  D’Onofrio who’s life was changed as a ten-year old in Hialeah went he learned to do magic tricks from Cuban enterainers who’d immigrated to the United States and opened  a magic shop near D’Onofrio’s home. It was his introduction to the entertainment industry.

The above still frame features D’Onofrio as Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket in an iconic scene with Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). It was D‘Onofrio’s film debut and he spent 13 months on the shoot and this is one of the key take aways he learned from director Stanley Kubrick:

“Once you’ve worked with [Stanley Kubrick] it’s difficult to move a camera unless it’s helping tell the story. You don’t move the camera for the sake of moving it.”
Vincent D’Onofrio
Podcast interview on WTF with Marc Maron

In a day and age where moving the camera is pretty easy to do, it’s especially good to think through why you’re moving the camera. Here are some videos I found online of the photojournalist turned filmmaker Kubrick at work on various movies.

Scott W. Smith

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“In the early ’80s Miami was not the place to be.”
Photographer Gary Monroe

Last week I watched the documentary The Last Resort on Netflix and I found it fascinating.  The focus of the documentary is on photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe as Miami Beach transitions from a Jewish retirement haven, to home for Haitian and Cuba immigrants, to the trendy place it is known for today.

One of the reasons The Last Resort interested me is because I was in Miami in the early eighties. After I saw the doc I tracked down a photo I’d taken while I was in film school at the University of Miami that was my version of capturing that era for a photography class. This photo isn’t as good as the work Sweet and Monroe were doing, but hey, I was just 20 years old. (If I recall correctly, this shot was taken at the Hialeah Park Race Track in 1981 or 1982.)

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P.S. The video below on Gary Monroe was produced by Eric Breitenbach of Daytona State College. A talented photographer, filmmaker, and teacher who I met many years ago when I bought one of his photos to put on a set of a project I was directing.

Scott W. Smith

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