Tag Archives: Robert Caldwell

VHS, not Super-8, part 2: From Gettysburg to Vietnam

27 Jun

Since I was a child, I’ve had movies on the brain. My first efforts at home moviemaking have been detailed; my later successes have not.

In tenth grade, I took a cinema class. Ms. Moore was the teacher. She was serious, a bit dour, cynical and a touch subversive. We watched some good movies, including Gaslight and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (I also developed a crush on a certain brunette from the upper grades.) Halfway through the semester, we put ourselves into groups. I was in a group with Greg P. and Michael T. We had to adapt an existing work of literature into a movie. Greg and Mike—two funny guys, really—picked the Gettysburg Address over my objections. I was bewildered as to what type of movie we would make; they thought it would be hilarious.

I played Lincoln. We recruited all of our friends, shot on location in the woods behind Peyton Moseley’s house. The first half is an unknown assassination attempt on the president. Lincoln and his entourage are attacked while he takes a stroll in the woods. Why he would do this during a war isn’t explained. Robert played one of the guards, takes a shotgun blast to the chest. He held a glob of ketchup in his hand and smashed it into his shirt right in front of the camera. There was even some bloody spray. Others were shot, stabbed, had their necks broken. (And Peyton, in a moment of absolute absurdity, enacted a wrestling move and broke my nose on camera. True story.) Two people survived the vicious gunfight: President Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.

The author, circa 1993, with some baby.

The second half is the Gettysburg Address, and then the assassination of Lincoln. I gave the address by Peyton’s pool. Peyton wore some of his mom’s clothes and went as Mary Todd. He scratched himself, yawned, sneezed and so on during the speech. The camera caught everything. It was classic.

The whole epic lasted all of six minutes.

The movie was aces. Only, it was a minute short. So Mike T. had the idea of adding post-movie interviews of people who had just seen the movie. It was a great idea, really funny, but Alec Finlay got us a B on the project because he mock-punched Mike.

The teacher said it was gratuitous violence. (I told you she was serious.)

After this, we all stopped making movies for a while. We had drinking, parties, sports, studies, girls, that goddamned computer class—high school stuff through and through.

A year later, Robert was in the same cinema class. His group—I think he was with Matt Lemon and Ward Haliday—decided to do some story set in Vietnam. We dressed to the nines; everyone had army fatigues and realistic firearms. We shot the movie twice. The first print was lost. The story was an ambush. The characters were pulled from the Vietnam War movies we’d seen: Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Every take, Robert would repeat, “God, it’s hotter than a whore in church,” and we’d all crack up and have to reshoot.

We shot the second in the shallow creek bed at the end of Spanish Trail. We had fireworks—illegal in Florida, so we had to drive to the Alabama border for them—for the gunfight. There wasn’t much of a story. I died, Robert died, everyone died. The drifting smoke hung in the wind. It was almost artful. Like a Herzog or Tarkovsky film. The police were called, but the cop was friendly, cracked a few jokes, and told us to high tail it off private property, which we did, as soon as we got the last shot.

At one point, yielding two machine guns, Robert ran right up to the camera and yelled, “Die you filthy fucking gooks!” His group decided to leave this in. They won their class competition, and the movie was shown, unedited, throughout the close-circuit televisions in the school. We winced. The powers that be were pissed, we were at a Catholic school, after all, but art won out and nothing came of it.

The author, circa 2011; the face of raw genius.

We made one more movie and a few mock previews—more about these in a future post—but the VHS era was over. Life got in the way.

Jeff grew up first, became a Navy SEAL, got married, had children and then entered the State Department. Robert let go of his dream of working in special effects and instead became a telephone/internet technician; he’s happy. I never let go of my dreams of being a writer—I cling to them with the feral ferocity of adolescence—but the dream of making movies has inevitably faded. I know it’ll never happen. We were on the wrong coast. We were too easily distracted. We didn’t have good enough equipment. We didn’t have vision. Jeff got his first girlfriend, and that was that.

Jeff’s parents have most of the movies; the others are lost forever, alive only in our memories.

VHS, not Super-8, part 1: Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Doom

20 Jun

(three failed filmmakers and a nun.)

I saw Super-8 on Saturday. The movie follows a group of kids trying to make a movie with a super-8 camera. In the process, they witness a train wreck where something otherworldly escapes. It was tolerable, pleasant and benign despite (or because of) its excessive retro gazing, neoliberal politics and nerdcore sensibility. As a film, it’s just okay. But as an exercise in nostalgia, it’s superb.

When I was in high school, I made movies, too, with my friends Jeff and Robert. This was in the early ’90s; VHS had eclipsed super-8 and that was fine. Jeff owned the camera, so we filmed at his house and he usually handled the cinematography. Robert played the hero or villain or both. I filled in the other roles. We didn’t have scripts. We all came up with ideas. With a cast of 2 and ½ we were limited. We were also lazy. We had rudimentary costumes. We didn’t attempt to build or modify sets. A swimming pool in a gladiator movie? No problem. The only music we used was Les Miserables.

Jeff was rational, realistic and often reluctant to participate. Robert was madness personified, willing to do anything. I was game so long as we didn’t do anything immoral and/or illegal. (Besides being raised Southern Baptist, I also had the moral privilege of attending a Catholic high school; see above photo.) In other words: Jeff was the ego, Robert the id and I was the superego. While Jeff and I often switched roles, Robert was always (and remains) the wild-eyed id.

Jeff edited on the camera. He would rewind the VHS tape and then try again. It was an exhausting way to make a movie. We would spend hours on a 2-minute movie, and many of the screw-ups and false starts would end up in the final cut.

Our first movie was Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Death. Robert played a missionary/hero/assassin looking for the heart of a doomed castle, which looked suspiciously like Jeff’s bedroom, hallways, den and living room. I played cloned cyborg replicants. There was no plot. I don’t remember any speaking lines, either. The whole point was for Robert to kill versions of me in as many ways as possible, on his way to an epic finish. Basically Gymkata, plus robots but minus the karate. I was beheaded, stabbed, broken into pieces. My eyes were gouged. In one scene I wore a helmet. At some point my testicles were punted out of my mouth. Jeff disallowed any fake blood, so we had to mime each and every atrocity.

Here are some of the other titles from our freshman year:

Party of Death

Cyborg Cowboy

Time Travel Movie

Conan the Christian (co-starring Chris Creary)

Die, Vamp (with Chris Butler)

There were others, but you get the idea. Unlike the young heroes of Super-8, we had no aliens, only serial killers and androids (and sometimes android serial killers). Party of Death is a Halloween rip-off. Time Travel Movie (Jeff disliked this too much to give it a name) is a one-scene Back to the Future without the jokes. But, spoken with all humility, Cyborg Cowboy is a masterpiece. I played a cowboy taken to the future by an evil scientist, experimented on (the laboratory was Jeff’s parents’ garage) and then abandoned to a cruel dystopia that bore an uncanny resemblance to Pensacola, FL circa 1991. We were going to make it a series, but then Jeff started dating girls and Robert and I fell headlong into after-school horror movie Toaster Strudel marathons.

Two years later, we returned to moviemaking with a bang. We decided, for a class, to adapt The Gettysburg Address. It would be a sensational retelling of the untold assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. Read about the dramatic behind the scenes stories of this lost cinematic masterpiece in “VHS, not Super-8, part 2.”