Double Exposure

16mm: 1R vs. 2R You can get 16mm film perforated one of two ways, 1R or 2R.

Most cameras can use either type of film. All you need to know is that the older, less-common 2R is symmetrical, while 1R is not.

This spring, I was introducing my cinematography class to the use of 16mm cameras. Before they shot their own projects, I wanted to give them a chance to run some film as a group. I knew I had a hundred-foot roll of black-and-white Double-X that had been sitting in my freezer for years, and it seemed the perfect occasion to use it up. I took the film to class one morning and loaded the roll into our beautiful, state-of-the-80s Arriflex SR2 Highspeed—noting with some concern that the polyester base was quite old and brittle—and we went outside to shoot some footage. I stood in as the subject, and my students operated the camera.

• • •

It was four years earlier, almost to the day. I had been out of college for nearly a year, living with my parents, seeing little success as a freelancer. Kathy, my film school friend and former ill-conceived love interest, had invited me on a road trip with a mutual friend, a talented but similarly-unsuccessful illustrator. The purpose, she said, was to force us back into some level of creative productivity. I couldn’t afford to go. None of us could. Of course I said yes.

When Kathy arrived, she brought along several hundred feet of Double-X. She was sick of the film industry, and so she gave the film to me. I shot some of it on the trip, and kept the rest in my freezer for some unspecified future project.

The trip was, for reasons that I haven’t really been able to articulate, one of the most significant events in my creative life. Something about the shared hardship of three underemployed artists traveling across the country for no reason and sleeping on an air mattress in the back of the car shot me through with an urge to make art for the first time since film school.

Hand-processed 16mm, hanging in the shower to dryWhen I got back to Colorado, I stuffed a towel under the bathroom door, turned out the light, and developed the film in my bathtub. It was a tangled mess, sloshing around those pungent-smelling chemicals in total darkness. Fun. A couple weeks later, energized by the whole experience, I sat down and wrote what would later become the feature film Branches.

• • •

Last week, we got the film back from MovieLab, along with a hard drive full of transfers. I plugged it into the classroom TV and we gathered around to watch our footage for the first time. The first file on the drive was our camera test.

The first shot was something I didn’t recognize. Moreover, it appeared to be upside-down. A few seconds in, it became clear that the footage was also running backwards. Some sort of lab error? Then there was another shot. On top of the first one. It was me, walking away from the college. And upside-down beneath me, the Golden Gate Bridge: this was a double exposure.

Somewhere along the line, I had mislabeled a roll of film from my trip as UNEXPOSED, and had never developed it. So it had run through my camera once, head-first, and wound up with the end of the film on the outside of the roll. Because it was symmetrical 2R film, I didn’t notice the issue four years later as I loaded it into the camera a second time. Furthermore, the two scenes wound up overlaid head-over-tail, meaning that one scene was running upside-down and in reverse relative to the other.

I was transfixed. Occasionally the two images would interact in unexpected and delightful ways. Here I was, walking away from the college—over and over, as the setting sun rose in reverse behind me, silhouetting trees and brightening the sky.

Jason is a former student and current collaborator of mine, a member of the first class to graduate from our film program. He happened to be in the classroom when we watched the footage, and he made a comment that stuck with me: Imagine how much of your life is trapped between these two points, he said. It was a lot:

  • Failure. Adventure. Disaster. Bad love.
  • Success. Excitement. Frustration.
  • A relentless bedbug infestation that marked the most hideous six months of my life.
  • Good love, and the exhilaration that comes with it.
  • Success that becomes stagnant, that merges with frustration and becomes another day, on top of another year, until I don’t even know what this is anymore, this success that I wear around my neck and allow to define me.

You’re not trapped anymore, Jason said. And I believed him.

After three exhausting, thrilling years running the film program, I’m leaving my job. Today is my last day. My time here has been a long string of successes and failures and some very good times. I’m proud of the work I have done here, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. But I have become comfortable, and that is the death of art. I haven’t made a film in three years. That’s horrifying. Branches still sits unfinished. I need to do something about that.

I don’t know where I’m headed next, and I am terrified. But I’m not trapped between those two layers of film anymore, and anything is possible.

Telling the truth with movies

I started Fallen Branches as an exercise in generating pages, but as I dug into the plot, I discovered that I was writing what would become the most personal movie I have ever made. I’m fond of saying that every character I write is autobiographical in some way, but that’s especially true of this script. And when I was finished with the first draft, some of the things I saw shocked me. For a long time I had no desire to show the script to anyone. I kept telling myself that when I revised it, I would work harder to be less personal, to obfuscate and invent. I thought I would rewrite the whole movie, but when the time finally came to do a second draft, I found that there was very little I could change about the fundamental story.

Over the course of 125 pages, I had painted an unflattering self-portrait—and yet, I had to grudgingly admit, it was sincere. It was a movie about love and resentment, two emotions that are never far from my mind. It was a movie about the pressure I feel to live up to the expectations of others—and my own expectations, too. It was a movie about doubt, about regret. It was me when I was a bastard and me when I let people take advantage of me. More importantly, it felt like it was other people, too.

I’m a collector of great quotes, particularly about the nature of art. Here is my current favorite:

“The desire to avoid embarrassment is the death of art. To be human is to be embarrassing.”

~Young Jean Lee

So, after fighting with my ego for months, I told myself to let it go. When I released the final draft into the wild to be read by dozens of actors and crewpeople, I had made peace with allowing myself to be vulnerable.

I’ve been surprised at the response the script has received. It’s a little movie, after all, about a family. Grandma has died. They’re losing the farm. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times before. But we have amassed a scarily impressive cast, and it’s in large part by virtue of the script. The word that gets thrown around a lot is “honest.” I don’t say this to brag, my point is that a movie like this doesn’t get made unless the script connects with people. I don’t think that what I have done is particularly remarkable, I just set aside my ego and wrote down what was in my head, but… I guess maybe there aren’t many movies that do that. Maybe that honesty has resonated with others.

It used to be that I was loath to explore love or resentment in my films (or doubt, or regret, or fear, or… anything else, really) in any meaningful way, because I was afraid of what people might think of me. Or sex. Noooo, certainly not sex! Talking about sex was anathema to me! And yet here I was, writing about it in a way that was… honest. Not funny, not freaky, not titillating, just… honest.

I’ve never written a sex scene before. I’ve always let my embarrassment get the better of me. But I knew I needed to write one in this movie, precisely because it made me uncomfortable. Sexuality is too big a part of the human experience to put it out of mind or couch it in euphemism (as Hollywood is so fond of doing). There are a number of independent filmmakers now producing what amounts to art-house porn, and although I find their goals politically admirable, I think that they’re missing the point: sex in movies tends to focus on the ways in which the characters are different from us. In this way, it is a microcosm of a bigger problem: movies often otherize their subjects. That’s not something I have any interest in doing.

This otherizing is a symptom, I think, of our tendency for ironic detachment. Ironic detachment is easy. It lets us say things without meaning them. It lets us rely on cliché without seeming too earnest; to wink at the audience. See as an example every look-how-quirky-this-person-or-situation-is independent film ever made, the message of which is always: these people are not like you.

I recently saw an interview with the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He was talking about how astounding it is to realize that the atoms that make up you and me and everyone else in the world were formed in the crucibles of distant stars—how that one piece of knowledge ties us to the universe (and to each other) like nothing else.

That’s the kind of movies I want to make: movies that are predicated not on the idea that we are different from, but the idea that we are the same as. That’s how I wrote Fallen Branches, and I find that through that process, I have become—possibly for the first time in my life—comfortable in my own skin, and capable of taking these lessons with me to my next movie, and the next one, and the one after that.

I rarely do anything other than make movies, because I don’t like to do things that I’m not good at. Like telling you that I love you. But I vow to do things I’m not good at. I vow to tell stories that are not easy, stories that are honest. Going forward, I will never make a movie unless I believe that it deserves to be made, and that I can stand behind the film as an extention of myself. That is a director’s job. I don’t always know what I mean, but I promise that from now on, I will work hard to figure out what I mean and then say it. No excuses. No detachment.


Andrew Gingerich
January 28th, 2012

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