Special Thanks Angela Behm Iris Poole Jessi Bennett Cassandra McCollum
There Is No_System is a production of Brian Behm Creative.
Before I was anything else, at least any other type of geek, I was a movie geek. I don't know about you, but the number of hours I have spent disappearing into cinematic worlds is something that I couldn't even begin to enumerate. Movies have been an escape hatch to my, at times, mundane life. They've been an inquisitive look into other experiences and cultures, and they've often acted as a mind-expanding device. Of course, when a film works, it can be all three.
My wife and I live in Austin in large part due to movies. We didn't move to Austin for jobs; we moved here because it was where all sorts of amazing things seemed to be happening in the orbit of the Alamo Drafthouse. It was also where we knew that Robert Rodriguez, he of Machete, Sin City, Spy Kids, Alita, had decided to do what he did.
There's a lesson and stories to tell about being in the right place. We'll revisit those stories. Still, I bring up this history of loving cinema because of an experience I had with my daughter at the community pool.
It's not unusual to find us at the pool during the year. I was always obsessed with the water when I was a kid, and I guess my kids have caught the bug. On this most recent trip, while watching her swim, she said I had an interesting expression on my face.
"Oh? What kind of expression is that?" she thought for a few seconds and said, "I looked curious ." I took it as a badge of honor. I talked a bit about how curiosity may be the best thing you could be and that you should try never to stop being curious. I don't ever want to be preachy with her, but I've tried never to shy away from life lessons.
She's extra excited about swimming this year because she recently had a right of passage and earned her 'blue wristband .' She passed a swimming test to swim a little more openly and in deep water. Now that she's allowed in deeper water, she's learning to do things like walk on her hands and somersaults. She's gotten pretty good at the front flip, but she hasn't figured out how to twist her body to do a backward somersault. In the last episode, we talked about fear setting, and I was able to speak to her about that. "what's the worst that could happen if you try to do a backflip?"
"I could drown." Okay, that would be a bad outcome, but she wasn't diving in, and she wasn't even getting out of the water, so it wasn't a high probability. We went through the rest of the list. You could get water in your nose, fail at turning around, and get embarrassed if you happened to fart while you were doing a headstand. It wasn't exhaustive, but she's still fully at the age where a fart joke is the height of humor. The reality was that there wasn't a lot of downside to trying and failing to do a backward somersault.
She did it for a while, and then we started a new game about noticing. We each called out something that we saw. "I see our car," "I see a lifeguard stand," "I see a sign that says flammable," "I see a bunch of seeds from the tree," "I see lichens growing on the tree branches" If you haven't ever played this game, you don't necessarily need to play it with anyone else. Still, it can be a fantastic way to be present.
Paying attention to your environment and trying to soak up all of the details is a way to engage your curiosity. We can get so myopic in our day-to-day life. When you take the same route to work, watch the same show, eat the same meal, you can end up where, ironically yet again in our last episode, Tyler Durden came into being in Fight Club—going through the paces—just surviving.
But we were talking about film. One of the reasons I love cinema so much is because we can do the same thing. There's a columnist from Minneapolis who I grew up reading named James Lileks. James still has an incredibly sharp sense of humor and is worthy of reading. His site, lileks.com, is the repository of decades of writing about the ephemera of culture. There are pages dedicated to horrible cookbooks, awful interior decorating, and what he refers to as inadvertent documentary. Did you know that just because a film isn't a documentary doesn't mean that you can't use it as a documentary and use it to see the world in a new way?
It's not a movie, but I love that the music video to The Clash's Rock the Casbah was filmed in Austin. Many of the things that show up in the video don't exist anymore, but you can see that a few of the places (like a house that's home to a Wells Fargo on South Congress) are still there. Because I know that I've been past that place and can apply my sense of space to the location, I can use a shot from a music video to peer into the past and understand what it was like. Side note: the video director is a very young Barry Sonnenfeld. He was in town preparing to shoot the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple and met with the band for a weekend shoot.
A grocery store in Richard Linklater's SLACKER, (one of Austin's most famous 'film in Austin' movies) doesn't exist anymore. Most of the locations from the film (and it's 32 years old, so I guess it's understandable) don't exist anymore. The city of Austin has changed a lot. But I bring up the grocery store because I've been there, just not in the way it currently exists.
That grocery store, years later, became a location of the Alamo Drafthouse in South Austin. I never experienced the grocery store era of it. Now, even most of the original Alamo South Lamar has been torn down and replaced by the shopping center that has the current iteration of that Alamo. Going back and watching the film is a way for us to look to the other side of the lens and see what had been there. It's like watching ghosts. Set decorators are defacto documenting the present for the future, however, inadvertently, and that's what Lileks thinks is fascinating.
You can't do something like that with, say, Star Wars, right? Well, no, actually. As much as someone wants to go to a galaxy far away, you can't help but see the era reflected through the materials available to the people making the movie. For broadcast nerds, there's always a tiny glimmer of recognition when there's a grass valley switcher in the control room of the Death Star. Sometimes in a film, it's easier not to reinvent. It helps if you have a connection to the now so that people have some base level of understanding. Even if they don't know what a video switcher is, the buttons and the fader bar inform the audience what's going on. They're familiar with those things and how they work, even if they don't know the specifics.
It turns out that the switcher was at KCET, one of the public TV stations in Los Angeles. Lucas showed up and filmed some B-roll one day without saying what he was filming. It turns out it was the destruction of Alderaan.
Here's what the KCET website had to say about it
George Lucas needed to shoot footage of someone destroying Alderaan in the original "Star Wars" film. Lucas came to the KCET lot to shoot some footage, and he asked our technical director, who happened to be [a man named] Cal Slater, to move the fader bar on our Grass Valley Switcher back and forth. Cal had no idea what they were making him do this for, but he complied, and they got their footage that day. George went back to the studio and put that little shot in "Star Wars." It is one of the more dramatic scenes in the film, too.
When the staff at KCET saw the movie, they knew immediately what the shot was and whose hand had destroyed the planet.
It became a part of KCET lore that we passed on between us.
The full article is in the show notes.
Even the material that goes into clothing reflects the technology and influences available to the filmmakers. For example, Princess Leia's white outfit and hairdo echo the 70s, even if they're intergalactic.
But we don't have to go to a galaxy far away; I think it's almost better if we start here on Earth by getting used to reading subtitles. Until something like Neurallink, the easiest way for us to see behind someone else's eyes is to look through their writing or cinema. A Korean director like Bong Joon Ho can't help but show his cards when you follow him from The Host to Snowpiercer to Okja to Parasite. When you expand that to other Korean filmmakers, you can piece together a mosaic of experiences. I may not have ever visited Seoul (it's on my bucket list), but I've spent hours there taking in these stories, and they start to inform my sense of what Seoul is and what Korean culture is like. I can look past the story when I'm watching and try to take in the sense of place.
Beyond that, it creates empathy. I'm a middle-aged white guy. There are experiences that I will never have and that I can want to have empathy for but do not understand. For example, I felt bad a couple of years ago when a very active friend in Asian-American cinema was excited about Crazy Rich Asians. I didn't quite get it (again, I'm a middle-aged white guy), but I didn't get it for different reasons.
I was so immersed in foreign cinema that I'd never thought twice about an Asian lead actor. It didn't dawn on me how few there were in American cinema. So I'm happy we're seeing more people on screen here in the U.S. and seeing different stories made; Still, they may not have been speaking English in these foreign films, but I didn't have any issue looking through their perspectives. My life is better for it. My work is better for it because there are things that filmmakers in American cinema would never do. A lot of those things are just mind-blowing.
Look up the films of a Japanese director named Yoshihiro Nakamura. I particularly love a movie called A Boy And His Samurai, about a single mom and her son who discover a samurai who has, accidentally, time-traveled to the present. The samurai becomes a bit of a father figure and discovers a passion for baking desserts. It's a trip in multiple ways (and also really sweet.)
There's an extended friend of the Austin cinematic family named Mattie Do. She's a Laotian filmmaker who grew up in Los Angeles before moving back to Laos to make films that explore the culture of Laos. Mattie is great, and I wish that I knew her better, but I can see some of the things that matter to her through her films.
There hadn't ever been a horror film made in Laos before Mattie, and now she's directed three of them. I'm still looking forward to seeing her most recent film, The Long Walk. It's about a Laotian hermit who discovers that the ghost of a road accident victim can transport him back in time to the moment of his mother's death.
I'll probably never get a chance to visit Laos, but my world is better for me, having been able to see the country through her eyes and her stories.
One last story; We have a film festival here in Austin called Fantastic Fest. Like everyone else, they had to go virtual during the pandemic. A lot of my community connections here in Austin exist because of Fantastic Fest. My creative DNA is composed of a significant number of the experiences I've had at the festival and the films I've seen. I've helped for years with an event at Fantastic Fest called The Fantastic Feud. Imagine a movie-themed episode of Family Feud, and you wouldn't be far off.
My friends who run the event decided they wanted to make a virtual Feud happen. I felt it was important to do what I could to foster a festival-like experience. The initial idea had been to do a basic zoom call, but that would make it harder to figure out who was on whose team. Anyway, through my broadcast design skills, I discovered a way to turn it into more of an actual event.
With zoom, it didn't matter where people were. Mattie was in Laos, but she could zoom in and join the game. We had people hop in from Canada, every time zone in the US, Spain, and Laos. We also figured out how to have someone facetime in and surprise everyone. Yes, we Facetimed in a Zoom. It was wild. We had the person call the computer showing the game graphics and then used that to patch them into a Zoom call. It was very geeky. The person we zoomed in, Nacho Vigalondo (he's most recently directed a handful of episodes of Our Flag Means Death), happened to be in Barcelona with one of the other people on a team. They hadn't seen each other in months but were in the same town. For just a few minutes, the world was exponentially smaller, and people did feel like they were at the event. It's maybe the proudest I've ever been at being able to help with something. I could use my gifts to help people to use their gifts, and I could see that it really mattered to people.
So, leap. Find a film that you may not have been interested in and see what you can soak up from it. There are amazing things out there. Maybe you want to start with the anime films of Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Hosada. Perhaps it's Makoto Shinkai's Your Name or Weathering With You. Boon Jong Ho has made notable films besides Parasite; I'm more fond of his Okja than many others. Or, maybe instead, you could look up Jee Woo Kim and his thriller I saw the Devil. And while you're watching, look past the actors. Watch the locations. Pay attention to the people walking past. Look at the billboards. Project yourself into it and do more than passively take it in. You might be surprised at what you find.