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  • February 23, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Out of the Past

    by Sam Hutchins

    The four of us returned to the car wordlessly. Sharing that sunset was one of those unforgettable moments in life, and the raw emotion of Darius’s statement settled over us. I learned long ago that you don’t have to like someone to love them, and this is as illustrative example as any I could provide. We each had a litany of complaints regarding the travel habits and petty selfishness of the rest of us yet there were no others I’d rather be with at that moment.

    I took the wheel and blasted through the darkness. In a rare lack of foresight, I’d lost track of the next move. Usually I had mapped out each possible choice and done my best to be prepared for whatever decision we came to. Fixated as I was on making the sunset at White Sands I hadn’t been able to see past it. Now it was dark and we were in the wilderness, screaming westward down the roadway. At least our direction was decided, as the options were to continue west or cross into Mexico.

    My choice would have been to drive until we were exhausted, then find a fleabag motel to crash in. Hell, given my druthers I’d have us pitching tents and camping in the desert. Had we done that we would not only make better time, we would have so much more memorable a trip. The closer you are to the ground the better you can tell the story. I’m reasonable, and could see us alternating between camping and sleeping indoors so as to keep the truck from stinking too awfully. But my companions would not dream of such a move. They required a certain comfort level, and wanted to stop and figure our accommodations out.

    So against my objections we looked around Las Cruces for a place to grab some coffee. Not seeing a Starbucks by the time we reached the far edge of town, we pulled into a small strip mall. Light from a small storefront café beckoned to us. The sign read “Atomic Diner” and had the symbol for the Atom on it. What an odd thing to take pride in and a name from.

    Maybe it was all the time spent with my companions, but the place seemed so utterly and inexorably foreign to me, for lack of a better word. I felt like I was in a David Lynch film, only with brighter lighting. The place was stark white, bright, and completely spotless. Its owner was aggressively friendly and slightly effeminate, a Mexican-American fellow with plucked eyebrows and what appeared to be traces of eye makeup on. He grinned like an idiot the entire time we were there and insisted that we try the pie. We lied and told him it was good. It wasn’t. All of it felt like a fever dream and I was eager to put some distance between us and the weirdness of the place. It was decided that we would press on to Phoenix even though it meant arriving late at night. I surrendered my objections in order to facilitate as quick a departure from the place as possible. I wasn’t sure if the proprietor was about to hack us up with a knife or perform an elaborate lip-synch number to Leslie Gore but I knew the next scene in that particular movie was grotesque.

    Though I’d been driving hard all day I continued behind the wheel. Feeling energized by events I had no problem pushing us west on I-10. No one played any music, no one spoke. Our soundtrack was the wind buffeting the truck as we sped into the inky black night. Then, from nowhere, Kar Wai opened up.

    “I lived in Shanghai when I was young. Very good childhood. My parents were very good to me. Dad was distant, but that is normal for our culture. My mother made up for it by loving me very, very much. My sister and I were very close, but my older brother was my hero. He was the coolest guy I’ve ever known.”

    I was shocked by the words pouring out of him. Glancing at the rearview mirror I could see that Darius was as fixated as I was. So much so that he didn’t even meet my eyes but instead had his gaze locked on Kar Wai. I couldn’t see Stephane but could only hope he was hearing this as well.

    “My Brother was very fashionable. He wore tailored suits wherever he went. He always had the prettiest girlfriends and all the guys worshipped him. He had the greatest, thickest hair. A pompadour, like Elvis. I wanted to be him when I grew up. Then the Cultural Revolution came.
    “I was young, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. My parents tried to comfort me but I was very afraid. Suddenly it was dangerous to be noticed and everyone had to be quiet. The thing that scared me most was when I saw my brother did not wear his suits any more. I knew something bad was going on.”

    Kar Wai was staring off in the distance and letting the words fall out of him as if by gravity. He often went into his little fugues, but never spoke and always smiled when in one. He wasn’t smiling now, but he sure was talking.

    “One day they came to our house. They were there for my sister. Every family had to sacrifice for the common good, and they needed her. It was not uncommon. My brother fought them, though. He refused to let her go, even though my father was allowing it. Finally, and I don’t know how he did this, my brother convinced them to take him instead. He left with them and my sister and I got to stay.”

    “What became of him?”

    “I never saw him again. Just a picture, once. Years later someone who had survived the camps smuggled out a picture. It was taken a year after he left Shanghai and went to the countryside. His hair was all gone, he was bald. That’s the thing that really upset me. No more suit, he was naked from the waist up, bent over working in a rice paddy. His face had aged twenty years and all the laughter had left his eyes. That’s the last I ever saw or heard of him. Shortly after that my Mother and I moved to Hong Kong.”

    Now openly staring at him, I was completely overcome with emotion. A few sniffles emanated from the back seat. What an absolutely soul-crushing experience. I couldn’t imagine living through something like he had. Yet his visage remained stoic, and he stared impassively into the darkness as we pressed on. Ultimately that’s all you can do, right? Just keep going, if you can.

    We went.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • February 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Culture Clash

    by John Farr

    Guess who’s coming to dinner?


    Hester Street (1975)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After emigrating from Russia in the late 1800s, Jewish immigrant Jake (Steven Keats) has shed all the outer signs of his heritage, including side locks and traditional clothing, and settled into a bustling, profitable life on New York’s Lower East Side. So he is less than thrilled when his wife Giti (Carol Kane) joins him five years later, and seems unwilling to relinquish her Old World values. She, in turn, is dismayed by the profound change that has taken place in Jake.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A low-key, moving story about the conflict between tradition and modernity as it is played out in the confines of a marriage, Silver’s “Hester Street” is a lovely period piece that earned newcomer Kane an Oscar nomination for her sensitive portrayal of Giti, who must cope not only with Jake’s cultural transformation, but the fact of his new lover as well. Silver went on to become a busy movie director, but her authentic evocation of a woman’s struggles in turn-of-the-century New York in this quietly assured debut remains her finest work to date. Made on a modest budget, “Hester Street” has a homemade feel that perfectly suits its subject.


    The Namesake (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After an arranged marriage in 1970s Calcutta, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) moves with his bride Ashima (Tabu) to New York City in hopes of a bright future as an engineer. The adjustment is hard on Ashima, a homesick Hindi speaker only barely fluent in English, but they persevere. Years later, their Americanized teenage children Sonia (Sahira Nair) and eldest son Gogol (Kal Penn) present a wholly new challenge, as they resent their parents’ conservative values and seem disconnected from their Indian heritage. But family ties prove hard to break.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, Nair’s chronicle of the Indian-American immigrant experience is sensitive, intelligent, and surprisingly true-to-life, especially as it focuses on the rebellious Gogol’s conflicted relationship with Ashoke, whom he neither respects nor seems willing to understand. When he acquires a perky WASP girlfriend at Yale, Gogol finds himself poised between the world he wants to dissociate from (old India) and the one he feels he belongs to (mainstream America). Wisdom arrives, as it often does, in the form of a crisis, and Nair makes sure we earn the catharsis her excellent young actor eventually undergoes.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • February 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Feminist Films

    by John Farr

    John’s salute to empowered women characters.


    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Young widow Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is left to make a new life for herself and her young son, with no prospects and precious little money. With Alice harboring vague hopes of becoming a singer, she and her boy take an eventful road-trip west. Watching their challenging but colorful journey unfold is as satisfying as the hopeful outcome they ultimately achieve.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Here Martin Scorsese branches out into fresh cinematic territory, a world away from the gritty, urban, ethnic male preserves of “Mean Streets”. Yet the personal, heartfelt quality of “Alice” helps the director score a bulls-eye. The gifted Burstyn, noble yet far from glamorous, seems to personify every average woman forced to face a new life chapter on her own, while singer/actor Kristofferson helps spark some divine chemistry as Alice’s new, no- nonsense boyfriend. But Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s real-life Ma) nearly steals the picture playing Alice’s hard-edged waitress colleague, Flo. Also look for a young, predictably precocious Jodie Foster in a small role.


    The Goodbye Girl (1977)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dancer/divorcee Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) is raising a precocious daughter on her own, and suddenly learns that her recently departed actor boyfriend has leased their apartment right out from under her to yet another actor, one Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). After some predictable conflict on Elliot’s unexpected arrival, Paula and the new thespian in her life form an uneasy truce and start sharing the apartment. Cupid takes care of the rest.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Beyond Neil Simon’s sharp, knowing script, both Dreyfuss and Mason shine in the central comic roles-in fact, Dreyfuss even took home the Oscar that year. The adorable Quinn Cummings more than holds her own as Mason’s wisecracking daughter. Funny and touching, “Goodbye” is an ideal feel good movie. Appropriate for older kids.


    Norma Rae (1979)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After hearing union organizer Reuben (Ron Leibman) deliver a speech at the textile mill where she works, Norma Rae (Sally Field) joins the effort to organize workers. Butting heads with management, and alienating husband Sonny (Bridges) with her new activism, Norma Rae perseveres and becomes a confident, courageous fighter.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The diminutive but plucky Field, who got her start playing Gidget on television, achieved breakout movie stardom with her assured, Oscar-winning performance as Norma Rae, who evolves from pliant employee to impassioned agitator for workers’ rights. The interplay between Norma Rae and unlikely ally Reuben (Leibman) is interesting to watch, but ultimately it’s the emergence of Norma Rae’s righteous fire that’s most memorable, reminding us that in this country, fighting for the fair treatment of working people is both a right and necessity.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • February 18, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Brothers of the Road

    by Sam Hutchins

    By the time the guys returned to the truck I was itching to go.  The idea of Roswell had amused me but the reality was depressing.  We loaded up and headed west on Main Street.  As we neared the end of the main run things opened up and turned into a more traditional new American town.  The old storefronts gave way to strip malls and Aliens lost out to Applebees and Dunkin Donuts.  We passed Roswell High School.  How odd it must be to grow up in a place that attracts UFO tourists.  I was a little surprised by the scope of the sprawl.  Roswell was a much bigger town than I realized.  Soon we saw a Starbucks and I didn’t need to be told, but pulled in and parked.

    The Starbucks fixation was a funny thing.  Stephane and Darius were hung up on authenticity and local, unique experiences.  Yet when it came to coffee they were happy to embrace a homogenized national chain like this.  When I teased them about it Darius curtly replied that they made good coffee.  I could tell he was philosophically uncomfortable with his coffee choice, so of course I continued mentioning it every so often.  Kar Wai couldn’t care less; he was a tea man all the way.  He never had a Starbucks tea, but instead purchased cups of hot water that he used to brew his own.  He carried a briefcase neatly organized with dozens of different teas, each with its own purpose.  One extremely hung-over morning he prepared a special brew that he insisted I drink.  It tasted like tree bark and left me with the intensely irritating sensation of having my throat coated with dirt.  If the thought was to make me miserable enough otherwise to distract from the hangover then mission: accomplished.

    Waiting in line for coffee I had one a weird, transportive moment.  As usual, it involved a woman – a young woman, a very cute blonde who had one of those smiles that just blinds you with its happiness.  She was with friends, laughing sweetly, and never even noticed me.  I got lost in that smile.  Saw myself approaching her, politely interrupting and saying hello.  From there we chatted, she showed me around, and the conversation never stopped.  I discovered her world and told her all about mine.  Her family had some of the nicest people you could hope to meet, and I wound up going to work for her father.  The job was good and we saved for our marriage, kids and house.  It was that sweet of a smile that I could see all of this reflected in it.  So many different possible lives out there to be led.  As sweet as the vision was, I wasn’t nearly ready to get off the road yet.  I took my coffee to go and left a little piece of myself behind.

    We banged down the road west-southwest.  The land started to get really lovely, and I loved the rhythm of the town names.  Ruidoso just rolls off the tongue, as does Mescalero, Alomogordo, La Luz.  It wasn’t my scene, but the natural beauty around here was so great that I could see the attraction I suppose.  We made good time on the largely empty back roads, Kar Wai going into another of his wordless reveries.  Seeing that White Sands National Monument was just within striking distance I made it my mission to get there while some daylight was left.  I quietly pushed it pretty hard.  As usual Kar Wai and Darius were too lost in their own heads to notice but Stephane caught on.  Catching my eye, he silently looked at the speedometer and back at me while raising an eyebrow.  I smiled, looked away, and pushed a little harder topping 95 mph.  The truck was well built and cooperated without so much as a rattle or shimmy.

    The sun was low in the sky when we reached the entrance to White Sands.  The blissful ignorance of my companions which had so frustrated me initially had reached the point of absurd comedy, as manifested in Darius response to arriving at the Monument.

    “Oh, hey, White Sands.  We should look around.”

    That right there is the trip in a nutshell.  Hours ago I had noticed White Sands on a map and decided to check it out.  I had set course and navigated there without help from my three passengers, nearly doubling the speed limit most of the way. I resisted a few stops the others had suggested making in order to arrive in time.  Now that we were actually pulling past the ranger station Darius noticed the sign and decided we should have a look.  Thanks for the suggestion, pal, we’re already here.  As Mr. McManus says, I used to be disgusted; now I’m just amused.

    One other car passed us on the way out as we went in.  Otherwise the place was empty.  We climbed up on the most beautiful dunes I’ve seen outside of St. Bart’s and watched as the sun made its descent.  Darius and I simultaneously pulled out bottles of whiskey and we passed them amongst us as we watched.  It was an almost holy moment, it was so beautiful.  Maybe I should appreciate New Mexico a little more.  No matter what you have been through, a sunset as lovely as this will put a lot of pain behind you.  Taking a long belt Darius turned and addressed us.

    “My friends, we began this journey as four strangers.  We have been through so much together now, this can never be taken away from us.  We have a bond.  For the rest of our lives we shall share these memories.  We are brothers now, brothers of the road.”

    Okay, fine, maybe I teared up a little.  It was such a beautiful and unexpected statement.  We stood in the dunes and silently sipped whiskey as the sun kissed us goodbye for the night.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • February 16, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Roswell, NM

    by Sam Hutchins

    New Mexico is a very odd place.  It has some of the earliest Indian settlements we know of in the States.  The Anaszi people were living there as early as the 1500’s.  This brings only one thought to mind: why?  There are certainly some lovely natural features, but it’s hard to make dinner out of turquoise and quartz.  The landscape is frightfully harsh and barren, and even the best times there must have been hardscrabble.  Still the Indian (or First Nations, if you will) presence remains significant to this day.

    There’s also a significant Hispanic population in the state.  To be fair, the territory didn’t always carry the prefix “New.”  Before we swiped it from Mexico it was not heavily settled and remained largely unpopulated frontier territory.  Much of the current Hispanic populace can be directly attributed to economic hardships south of the border.  Sadly enough a line in the sand can represent the difference between prosperity and hardship.  Understandably many Mexican citizens made the move northward into New Mexico, doing their utmost to become former Mexican citizens.

    The question that vexes one is why the European Americans would migrate there.  The best answer I have is that many were just too weird to fit in comfortably anyplace else.  New Mexico seems to be a magnet for new age mystics, nutjobs who think they can assimilate themselves into the First Nations culture through the creation of bad artwork, and others who favor a hideous stone like turquoise.  It’s an ugly, garish, milky stone yet some people become fixated on it.  Odder still are the UFO fanatics.  Setting a southeasterly course, we headed straight for their Mecca.

    As we pulled into Roswell I could see that it had indeed been overrun by aliens.  The entire town was alien-themed.  What I saw was perhaps stranger than an actual extraterrestrial landing.  Roswell was once a charming old American town.  The Main Street there was as classic as one will find anywhere.  One and two story stone buildings line the blocks, fronted by old-fashioned streetlights.  Close your eyes and you can see what it once was.  Clearly there was once here a Woolworth’s, a soda fountain, a Szabo shoe store, etc.  Now, however it had been forever altered by alien life forms.  Without exception the storefronts had been converted to tourist traps catering to the UFO-whackjob crowd.  (Some more earnest than others, but all con artists in the end.)  Even the streetlights had alien features affixed to them.

    We wandered into a store and bought some gear like good tourists.  I got a shirt with a drawing of an alien on it for my sister.  She enjoys science fiction, but is smart enough not to take this crap too seriously.  Stephane bought an “I believe” t-shirt and put it on immediately.  He was getting much too much pleasure out of these people.  For my part I was just horrified.  People really buy into this garbage?  But I knew they did before ever getting to Roswell.

    A few years earlier I had been home in Cleveland for the holidays.  I made the acquaintance of a young woman and brought her home for the night.  Breakfast was a wee bit awkward as I was staying at my father’s house.  It quickly moved from awkward to painfully uncomfortable when my new friend told us, quite earnestly, of the time she had been visited by aliens.  It was clear that she absolutely believed that it had happened to her.  My father is the nicest guy in the world, but he couldn’t resist a few good-natured jokes at her expense.  She got angry, things got ugly, and I was mercifully able to get her out of the house and my life.

    Now we had found the place where all of these lunatics converged.  Somehow I found the place incredibly depressing.   Stephane led Darius and Kar Wai off to meet flakey Americans that they could feel superior to.   Splitting off, I wandered around until I found a liquor store.  Had a quick belt of whiskey and stashed the bottle in my bag.  Getting back to the truck I realized that one of the guys had the keys and I was locked out.  I sat on the curb drinking whiskey, taking pictures of the flies smashed on the license plate, and growling at anyone who got too close to me.  I wanted out of this city and this state.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

    • comments (0)
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