Fragments of the Living: A Short Film

I am excited to announce the completion of a short film, a personal project I tackled in my spare time.

Fragments of the Living is an experimental work composed of public domain home movie clips. The piece is a celebration of the American family, a nostalgic salute to the past and a meditation on the fleeting nature of life.

In researching stock footage libraries for a work project last year, I discovered several home movie files on the website Archive.org; most of the clips were dated from the 1940s to the 1960s. I became fascinated with the videos—the cinematic vestiges that originated from reels of old film stuffed in boxes and stored in dusty attics or garages.

I have always been enamored with the past, and the lure of nostalgia remains strong for me, with two examples being my love of Frank Sinatra songs and classic film noir movies. And I realized these Super 8 movies were the forerunners of today’s selfies and YouTube videos.

It’s worth noting I had no connection with the people seen on screen; the films were not my family’s home movies. As a result, I observed the images from an objective viewpoint.

I enjoyed watching the subjects’ reactions when they noticed the camera capturing their movements. Some of the people smiled and waved, while others acted coy and some girls even ran away from the lens.

One stretch of the film takes place on a street in the late 1930s or early 1940s. I’m not sure where the black and white scenes were recorded, but the place reminded me of a small town in Nebraska or Colorado, the type of community that could serve as the setting for a Kent Haruf novel.

And I wondered: were the people smiling in the frame really happy or were they just acting that way for the camera? Were they trying to present an image of a happy family because that’s what was expected of them? I wish I could have been there to see what happened when the camera turned away from them.

I also understood that many of the men and women on screen were now either dead or very old. Yet in the clips they are alive and joyous as they celebrate holidays, vacations and special occasions with their families and friends.

I wondered if the subjects realized at the time that they were experiencing the prime of their lives, that the events captured by the camera marked their happiest moments.

I wondered if it all went downhill from there? Did they watch their loved ones grow old, become sick and die? Did they suffer economic misfortune? No doubt some of the couples later divorced. Did the children in the videos grow up and leave their parents, severing family ties?

The snippets of film revealed the ephemeral nature of life. In editing the piece, I limited each clip to only a few seconds. So we see a bob of the head, a smile, a wave, a blink of the eye and then we cut to something else. And I guess that “cut to” serves as a reminder to me that time is slipping away for all of us living here in the present.

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Black Box short film premieres in NYC

Black Box, an experimental short film I produced and directed in 2012, makes its premiere today at the NewFilmmakers New York Screening Series at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. I’m happy to say the piece will finally see the light of day.

Dancer and choreographer Brandon Ellis. Photo by Michael Barletta/Courtney Rile.

The project originated with the music. A piece by Franz Schubert inspired me, sticking in my head for years and refusing to release its hold until I made something out of it.

I discovered the music of Schubert purely by accident. I was grocery shopping around the time of the Millennium at a Fry’s supermarket in Phoenix, where I used to live, and I saw a display of CDs featuring the works of famous composers. Mahler, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and others were on sale just a few feet away from the laundry detergent aisle and an in-store Chase branch. I think the CD cost me about $5; it’s called Classical Masterpieces: The Best of Schubert by Madacy Records.

The song that enthralled me is String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden). It’s about 16 minutes long and invites the listener to indulge in its melancholy bliss. I read that Schubert was aware he was dying at the time he wrote it, so needless to say, it’s not upbeat.

I was working nights at the time and I used to put the song on the repeat cycle on my CD player and try to fall asleep while the blazing Arizona sun invaded my room in the afternoon.

But what does this music have to do with a film? I had always thought the piece could be paired with images to create a powerful work of art. But it didn’t seem suited to me for use in a narrative film scene with characters and dialogue. And it wasn’t until I watched Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time a few years ago that I realized Schubert’s work could serve as the foundation for a conceptual video art piece that incorporates the medium of dance to express emotions.

So I came up with a concept for the film; but since I know nothing about dance I collaborated with a Syracuse-area choreographer and dancer, Brandon Ellis, who interpreted my vision and developed and executed the dance routine.

Dancer and choreographer Brandon Ellis. Photo by Michael Barletta/Courtney Rile.

Two things about the project were important to me: one was keeping the piece short and manageable, since it was a low-budget production and I was self-financing it (the edited master is about four minutes long). Secondly, I did not want the piece to be just a straight dance performance like you see on stage.

So here’s the basic premise:

The dancer in the film clutches a black box representing the human heart as a repository of life’s emotions. It is a metaphor for all of the turmoil and pain we carry with us inside. Through a series of movements, the character becomes free from the density of the black box, and he is able to leave it behind and thus arrive at a state of inner peace.

Dancer and choreographer Brandon Ellis. Photo by Michael Barletta/Courtney Rile.

For the production I collaborated with Michael Barletta and Courtney Rile, founders of the Syracuse-based production company Daylight Blue Media. Barletta and Rile served as camera operators during the shoot, and Rile also edited the film.

The project was filmed in an old industrial warehouse in Syracuse last summer and we shot the dance sequence from multiple angles to create a sense of dynamic action (or so I hope).

Dancer and choreographer Brandon Ellis. Photo by Michael Barletta/Courtney Rile.

One other note is relevant. I was concerned about using the music from the CD I owned because of rights issues, so I purchased and downloaded a royalty-free version of the same piece from Apollo Symphony Orchestra. ASO has a wide selection of classical music and it’s a great asset for filmmakers and artists looking for music for their projects. The version I bought cost about $40 and allows for multiple uses, e.g. online and DVD, etc.

Since I am submitting the project to other film festivals and art galleries, I will not post it on my blog at this time. But if you would like to see it, just send me an email at ffdhold@yahoo.com and I will send you the Vimeo link with the password.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and good luck with all of your creative endeavors.

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