The Lost Works (#2)

film slateWhen I was a college film student, one of the first classes putting theory into practice divided the students into groups of three. The class goal was for each group to make three films. The group would rotate among themselves the key positions of Writer, Director, and Cinematographer. This allowed everyone a chance to experience those roles.

Our group produced one that was silly fun, one that was weird and off-the-cuff, and one that was interesting and which affected people.

Sadly, I have only memories (so I might be making this up).

Our group consisted myself (obviously), Steve, and Diana (which may, or may not, be their real names, I don’t really remember and generally can’t be trusted with things like that). The first film we did — which we kind of burned ourselves out doing — Steve wrote, I directed, and Diana shot. I’ll come back to that one.

The second was a silly bit of fluff that I wrote, Diana directed, and Steve shot. (We all did the editing on all three, and that’s its own story.) What I wrote was a Monty Pythonesque modern telling of Little Red Riding Hood with as many other fairy tales thrown in as I could think of.

Not us!

Not us!

We borrowed a red convertible Mustang that our “wolf” drove while picking up a hitchhiking Red (who did indeed have a red cloak). Granny’s house was a nice Los Angeles suburban house whose owner let us use their backyard and pool.

Rather than granny sleeping in bed, granny was sunning herself out at the pool. (At one point we had a “knight in shining armor” — an actor wrapped head to toe in tinfoil — stuck on the bottom of the pool vainly swinging his sword.)

It was typical college-level pot-tinged humor such as in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Purgatory, another college script I shared with you recently. But we had a lot of fun doing it. It was almost all exteriors, so we were outside, and we had a pool to swim in.

I might still have the shooting script somewhere. If I find it, I’ll post it. Maybe. Depends on how embarrassing it is to read.

That second film pretty much used up what artistic resources we had left after the first one, so the third film was something we knocked off for lack of energy, ideas, or time.

film out

Hey! Who let the film out?

We took over one of the college conference rooms for a day and shot a film about three film students desperately trying to think of an idea for their third film. Essentially we filmed ourselves.

Literally. We three were the only actors involved. We got another film student to do the actual camera work. Yes, that was cheating (don’t tell the teacher). We also shot it as we went along, so there was no script.

As the “day” wears on, the film students become more and more frantic and more and more crazy. The whole thing is just a series of short takes.

It ends with Diana and I dead and Steve in fetal position gibbering in the corner. Diana is spread-eagle on the table, I’m buried under a huge mound of crumpled paper (which the room was filled with), and we’re all in our underwear.

In many ways it reflected the course of the semester for us.

The first film was a serious and well-done work (if I say so myself) that got under people’s skins and which made a sharp point (one I still ponder today). It really took a lot out of us, and we fought like cats through most of it. The film was extremely emotional, and so was making it.

not Diana

Not Diana!

But I learned that such battles can result in extraordinary results. For one of us to convince the other two that an idea was good, it actually had to be good. We fought over every detail, and as a result, every detail came out nearly exactly right. A very important life lesson for me on several levels.

The film is split into two parts: what you see, and what you hear. (We were shooting in Super 8mm and didn’t have synch sound, so any dialog had to be off-camera. One way we got around that is by having no dialog at all in the first two and shooting only reaction shots on the third.)

What you hear appears to be the soundtrack of some talk show with a moderator and two guests, one clearly a liberal and one equally clearly a conservative. The topic of discussion is the value of humans, in particular the value of recidivist criminals.

The liberal (a female voice) argues for the “unconditional value” of all humans (and the name of our film was An Unconditional Value) and for progressive, compassionate treatment. The conservative (a male voice) argues for strict, even harsh, measures against “people like that.”


We weren’t that young, although these days that’s about how young college students look like to me.

We actually did write and video tape our talk show. As you’ll see, we had to.

What you see was this:

We start with a man driving a car through an upscale part of town (Beverly Hills, in fact). He stops at the curb before one house, goes around to the back, and breaks in through the back door.

As he explores the house, we understand that he’s a burglar (the black gloves were a bit of a give-away).

Then he hears a sound outside, peeks through the window, and sees a well-dressed woman driving her Porsche into the driveway. He watches as she gets a bag of groceries from the car and approaches the house.

The burglar runs into the kitchen, goes through the drawers, and finds a large, heavy knife. (We were particularly proud of an over-the-shoulder shot showing him get the knife from the drawer. We lit it so a reflection of light runs down the knife as he lifts it towards his face.)

Mr Burglar then goes to the bedroom and hides in the closet. You can probably guess what’s coming. And you’d be right.

not Diana 2

Also not Diana. Just how old do you think I am? We had color!

The woman drops her groceries off in the kitchen, goes to her bedroom, and starts to change clothes. She’s in her slip when she goes to open her closet door, and out pops the Bad Guy.

There is a brief, violent struggle that ends on the bed, and we fade out on her hand gripping the sheets.

We fade back in on her dead bloody body on the bed. As we pan along her body we keep panning and end up on the small black and white TV by her bed. She’d turned it on when she first entered the room.

Remember that through all of this we’ve been hearing the talk show soundtrack. What we see (warning: heavy college-level irony ahead) when we end up on the TV is that the liberal we’ve been hearing is the dead woman on the bed.

The point, glaringly obvious, is to raise the question whether people all do have unconditional values. Were the Founding Fathers right about “inalienable rights” or can some make it clear they have no interest in being part of the human race? Can you, in fact, alienate your human rights?

I gotta be honest. Some people really make me think so. It’s a question I still haven’t fully resolved personally.


And then you spend a week arguing about how to cut (edit) the damn thing!

That film, irrespective of the other two, got us all an “A” for the semester. When we screened it for the class, a few of the women left during the rape scene. (Affecting someone that strongly is an artist’s dream. It’s a huge part of what we’re all about.)

Another lesson learned (or confirmed, anyway) was the power of imagination. The rape scene actually shows almost nothing. Visually, it was barely PG. The worst shot (other than the bloody final pan) was when he throws her against the armoires (we taped several bath towels to our actress’s back to absorb the impact) .

Suggestively it was a whole other thing. The best scary movies scare you with your own mind! No monster on film can ever come close to matching the monsters in our own minds.

We were very proud of that film, and I think we had a right to be. It was a very good piece of work (for college students, anyway), and it had something to say.

These days it would be so much easier. Technology has gotten to the point where everyone has a camera, and for not much money you can get a really good camera. And all you need is editing software for your computer, and you have most of what you need. But back in the 1970s it was rather a more difficult proposition. (As usual: Born way too early or way too late.)


Lights! Camera! Action!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “The Lost Works (#2)

  • dianasschwenk

    Wow, how creative Smitty! Do you still have the films? Or access to them? That would be interesting to watch. ❤
    Diana xo (not the one from the class)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Never took a film class. I suspect I would have been far too lazy in my college years.

    Excellent point about priming the audience’s imagination. Definitely the scariest movies I ever saw barely showed us the nemesis, whether it was a shark, vampire, ghost, or serial killer. I think it applies in writing just as much, if not more so in this age where anything can be shown.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh, well, for some Communications Arts (film and TV) was something of a “basket weaving” major, but for others we saw it as training for what we hoped to do in life. (In my case, after pounding the streets futilely for a while, I ended up following my Computer Science minor as a career.)

      Yeah, nothing is as scary as the ideas in your own mind. One reason I was never into monster movies was that when I was a kid I could tell it was a guy in a wet suit with monster bits glued on. Sometimes you could even see the seam between the upper and lower halves. Written descriptions of monsters can do better (I’m thinking of how creepy some of Lovecraft’s stories are), since a well-written description can let the reader connect a lot of the dots.

      Another form of this is the literary device of “things beyond description or imagination.” I’ve always seen that as a bit like “the sound of one hand clapping.” Just because you can string some words together it doesn’t mean they describe anything real. That’s kind of the fun about words!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Ha, I’d probably fail a basket weaving class. I’ve never been particularly good at anything that required handcraft.

        On writing about monsters, I think that’s a good way of putting it, enough to let the reader connect the dots. I remember reading a Terry Brooks book years ago where he described a supposedly fearsome demon in detail; by the time he was finished, the image in my mind was more farcical than scary. On the other hand, Tolkien describe the balrog so impressionistically that fans have been debating for decades whether or not it had wings. (I’m in the wingless camp myself.)

        I’m sometimes astonished by what people often get away with with just a play on words. Some people love that stuff in their fiction. But for me, it’s too often a smokescreen for lazy writing, particularly if used often.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, in reality, back then about the only really hand-crafty part was film editing, since you actually did cut and (literally) glue bits of film together. What really required a steady hand was cutting the original negative once you’d cut the film. Screw up there, and there’s no going back.

        Now film is transferred to video and editing is all done with computers. It wouldn’t surprise me if even the original negative is digitally transferred and “cut” for the final. The digital world has really changed that industry.

        I have no opinion on the Balrog, but both of those are great examples. Over description runs the risk of the “man in a rubber suit” sensation that just makes you laugh.

        (My mind just want from “monsters” as guys in rubber suits to Creature from the Black Lagoon (which is a classic example of just that) to a really goofy early low-budget science fiction movie with an alien consisting essentially of a beach ball and the feet from the Creature… Have you ever seen Dark Star (1974, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon)? And if so, more than once?)

        The opposite side of that coin, as you point out, is authors who do too much hand-waving and don’t really provide enough dots to connect. Some get downright impressionistic!

        It’s not what we mean here by “play on words” but it made me think of Robert Asprin’s MythAdventures books (which were a little punny) or Piers Anthony’s Xanth books (which were filled with puns and often based on them… Centaur Isle, Night Mare, or Isle of View).

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I have seen Dark Star. The first time I saw it, in the late 70s, I hated it, but that was mostly because I wasn’t expecting a comedy. I subsequently saw it again years later and did get some enjoyment out of it, particularly the self aware philosophizing bomb. I’d probably enjoy it a lot more today.

        I’ve also read a number of the Xanth books, although my memory of them is hazy. I read at least one of the Mythadventures; I vaguely recall a fast talking demon swindler as one of the protagonists. I think comedy is one area where it could make sense to describe the monster concretely, since it’s often the absurdity of it that is on display.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The reason I asked was that my buddy and I had a similar experience. It sounds like you may have had it in reverse (or could if you saw it again).

        The first few times we saw it, we loved it. As you say, the philosophizing bomb was a hoot. And the inertialess way the spacecraft moved was a grabber for both of us. But after seeing it a few times (for me it was the fifth time), suddenly it seemed really, really stupid.

        In my case I’d taken someone to see this really funny, really goofy scifi movie, and I could tell from her body language she wasn’t getting into it. At all. It made me see it through her eyes, and that was it for me.

        One of these days I may write a post on Piers Anthony and the Xanth books… I really loved his early (non-Xanth) stuff, but he began to move in a direction I thought was puerile. The best interpretation I could come up with is that he was writing for a much younger audience — grade school level. Worse interpretations were that he’d gotten really weird in an ugly direction (I’m sure that must be wrong, but it seemed that way).

        [Wow. Wikipedia is on again off again off-line today!]

        You’re remembering Aziz (I think… can’t look it up on Wiki!) from the Asprin books.

        Good point about comedy and monster descriptions! Sounds right to me.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually found the Xanth novels lightly entertaining. I knew going in that they weren’t serious pieces. No doubt that’s why I also can’t hardly remember them.

        A few years ago, someone told me that Anthony hated writing the Xanth novels, that he only wrote them for the money. I’m sure he was at least into the first one or two, otherwise how would he have discovered their money making nature? It wouldn’t be the first time an author found his career chained to a series he was sick of. (Sherlock Holmes became that for Arthur Conan Doyle.)

        I’ve only read one non-Xanth book by Anthony, but enjoyed it; its name escapes me but it was about humans at different stages of evolution. (Although maybe I’m confusing Anthony with another author. Just checked his wiki and he’s written a lot of stuff, but none of the non-Xanth names seemed familiar.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Xanth was originally supposed to be a trilogy, and it was those first three books that really caught on. Then he decided to write nine. The fans demanded more. There are over 40 Xanth novels now. I got off the bus around #14. The emphasis on puns was wearing thin (fans were sending them in by then) and the fanish nature of the series was, for me, a detraction.

        Along with A.C. Doyle, who wanted to write “serious” stuff, the fans kept demanding Holmes and Xanth; and in both cases publishers just echoed the demands of the fans. Anthony, at least, has a whole other body of work; all anyone remembers about Doyle is Sherlock!

        Not to be judged by Xanth (even though those are good for what they are), serious Piers Anthony is some good science fiction!

        The best of which, for me, might be the Cluster series, although the Incarnations of Immortality series plays a fairly close second (not entirely thrilled with the last books in the latter).

        Nothing rings a bell with “humans at different stages of evolution” for Anthony. Orn involved a bird with racial memories so it remembered its evolution. That’s the second book in the Man and Manta trilogy, which introduces a fourth form: mineral, vegetable, animal, fungal. That one has mushroom life forms. The third book had an energy life form patterned after Conway’s computer “game” of Life. But the people were just us, although there were some “other dimension” variations in the third book. Probably not what you’re remembering.

  • Steve Morris

    I do think that everyone has value, even your fictional burglar / opportunistic rapist. That’s not to say that such people don’t pose a threat and need to be dealt with by society, in order to protect others.

    I suspect I’m walking into a trap here, and you’re going to start ripping my assertion to pieces 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! But no trap, and I agree with you. It’s that some people really push that belief, you know? That was the point we were trying to make in our little film.

      As I’ve written before, I think morality turns on a concept of fundamental equality. For many it’s the “all are children of (some) god” idea that makes us equal. For others (I think) it could be that all humans are conscious thinking beings — the human mind itself is the “equality card” here.

      A physicalist view of the world does weaken the argument somewhat. There’s no objective requirement, only our will in the matter. And in some views, even the human mind is nothing special, just a point on a spectrum, which undermines my idea about the mind as basis.

      Back in college I was still very much in my atheist phase, so I was far more willing to contemplate ideas more based on nature and evolution (wherein morality doesn’t exist). And, as a college student, didn’t have the intellectual or philosophical depth to really contemplate physicalist ideas of equality (or even that some notion of equality was a basis for morality).

  • reocochran

    I liked how you explained your 3 assignments and how you all did on each of them. Your final one sounds real, since you played yourselves but also surreal, in its being a little over the top. As in underwear, one lying in fetal position, etc.

    This may not seen like it fits your post, but did you ever watch “Super 8,”Wyrd Smith? The teens filming it find a strange being or monster, while there is a pale blonde young woman who has a luminous face, which hides a fate (almost) worse than death. Her face transfixed me, even after a few viewings!

    On a whole other subject, I go to sleep early and dont have DVR to check on this TV show – The Stephen Colbert Show. Have you watched it, did you like it? Thank you for answering, W. S. 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Being over the top was the whole idea for how that one ended. Of course, in real life we never got that far gone (although we did have some spectacular rows along the way)!

      No, I haven’t seen Super 8, yet. It’s never come around on cable that I’ve seen. (I’m still waiting for Interstellar, too.) It’s weird, but the cable channels never seem to show certain movies. Super 8 is from back in 2011, so I’m surprised.

      I keep meaning to check out Colbert, but I’m not a big fan of late-night TV (too many commercials), so all I’ve seen it snippets. Then a commercial comes and I go watch something else. [shrug]

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