- Patricia Smith: performance, poet
- Eric Leonardson: music, audio mix
- Heintz: video, film camera, direction, editing,
effects design, "David's lover"
- Dave Parker: "David"
- ESS, Chicago: DAT transfers
- John Grod: production assistance
- Northwestern Medical Center: hospital location
- Bob Holman, WNYC: producer for Poetry Spots series
- 4 min 45 sec; stereo
- screened: WNYC, New York; WTTW, Chicago; DeCordova
Museum, Lincoln MA; 14th International Lesbian and
Gay Film Festival, Chicago.
As I write this (Dec 1997) this video has travelled more places, been seen by more
of the public, won more praise, and aroused more scholastic criticism than any of my other videos.
When the video's producer, Bob Holman, came to Chicago for his first appearance before the
Poetry Video Festival, he was my charge. On his way home, he took a moment to ask me a simple
question. If I had my choice of directing a video of
any poem at all by a living poet, which poem would I choose? I paused only a moment, and spoke clearly
when I knew the answer. A year or so before, I saw Patricia Smith perform "Chinese
Cucumbers" at the Second National Poetry Slam in Chicago, and her whole audience in a sold-out
Cabaret Metro fell rapt. That's what I wanted to do with television. Bob and I chatted some more on the
el train out to O'Hare, diverting ourselves to other concerns... about the poetry scene in Chicago, how
media and literature seemed to be mixing up each other, and so on... and that was that. I made a statement
of interest, but didn't expect much after that.
Not too much later, though, Bob came through. He asked me for a rough budget which I supplied, and
got in touch with Patricia about the video as well. Patricia and I called each other to line up some basic
bits of the video, but it turned out there was precious little to get. She had made a studio recording of
a whole suite of poems, about two dozen in all including "Chinese Cucumbers."
The DAT master of these poems was all that I had to start work. I got the DAT to Chicago, dubbed it,
and began trying to figure what to do. The studio recording was absolutely dry. There were no effects,
no music, no edits, and no layering. It was a one-take recording. The audio quality was excellent as was
Patricia's performance, but the sound quality felt barren
since it wasn't anything more than an archive-quality recording of the poet. Obviously,
this required serious attention.
I took a cassette dub of the DAT to Eric Leonardson and asked him for his input. He was proud to audition
the tape and consider developing it into a full-fledged work of sound art. In a sense, this was more of a
commission for Eric than an outright anything-goes project, but I let him have legitimate creative control
of the audio. I knew Eric since 1980, and he's always done fine work with sound effects, spoken texts, and
performance pieces, so there was a basic trust. We took some time to clarify the priorities of the audio
work and I let him go do what he needed to do. The audio work proceeded through autumn 1993.
About this time, network television shows like NYPD Blue began appearing. Partial nudity was not
such a big issue, at least not with the appropriate disclaimers. Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied had
also aired on public television. So there was precedent for same sex kissing on air. I began to think that it
was time to put them both together in a single piece. Men and women had been kissing and partially
undressed for years, even on daytime TV, so it seemed justifiable to try doing the same now that
permission -- in a broadcasters' code sort of way -- had been given to do both things, albeit separately,
with men only. Still, I didn't really know what to do about it. How to approach it? How to portray it?
In July 1993, Patricia came to Illinois with her husband Michael Brown, who is also a performance poet.
She and I took a day to shoot location and basic
monolog items. I had this vision of her literally being in a vegetable field, and my step-father's soy beans
seemed that they could pass for acres of cucumbers when shot the right way, so we went to the country.
It was a very sticky, hot day -- a dog day -- and there was no way to keep from perspiring outdoors.
This made Patricia actually glisten. I got some low-angle shots of Patricia looking rather heroic, some shots
of her kneeling to touch the leaves of the crop, and quite a few pictures of her surveying the land. Later
in the day, we left the farm to try to get shots near a creek, in a wooded place with a derelict bridge, but
the mosquitos drove us away shrieking from all the bites we were getting. None of these shots were used
in the final cut. Upon review, they seemed a bit contrived, too styled, a bit too much like Herb Ritts'
photographic technique which I was thinking about appropriating. (This would have been a sort of anti-Vogue gesture in my mind, and a far from fluffy response to Janet Jackson, for that matter.)
Long after she returned to Boston, and while Eric was working on the audio, pressure from Bob began
to mount. The executive producers at WNYC wanted to know what was happening. I had reached a point
with the video where I was stymied, but the execs had seen nothing from me since our initial agreement
to create the video. One might have called my state "director's block." After some revisions,
Eric dutifully finished his audio art. As the text was the backbone of the performance, so the audio
became the backbone of the visuals, our timebase and
source of inspiration. I had the basic shots done with Patricia for images, but little else. And I had a
huge mental obstacle to overcome to finish the video. In the process of assuming the hot seat I had also
surrendered myself to the judgement of others and their mythic systems.
Now, this last point may seem to be really silly. It is. But at the time, I feared that creating such a piece
as "Chinese Cucumbers" would mean I'd be running rough over the beliefs of people who
mattered very much to me. For one, I knew a radical faerie who was into all sorts of mythic things, and
I respected him very, very much. He was a brilliant writer and performance artist here in Chicago, and
his opinion mattered quite a lot to me. I didn't want this video to insult or hurt him, and I knew he was
fighting HIV, so early in 1993 I solicited his opinion of the text. I sent him a copy, which I'm fairly
certain he received, and asked him if he'd critique the poem. I heard nothing more from him after that.
I feared that he hated everything about the project, but was being passive aggressive with me.
It was this silence which was eating me, leaving me in a quandry as to what to do next. Whatever the
circumstances were, I had to find a way to get around the mental blockade. Bob gave me a drop-dead
ultimatum to finish what I had and ship it to him for review before Thanksgiving 1993. I did the best with
what there was. I cut shots of Patricia walking through the field taken with an improvised boom, actually
me holding the camcorder at full extension of the tripod overhead. The resulting video had an enigmatic
quality I liked. I lip-sync'd a few more shots taken with the dry cassette dub played back from a boombox
on location, so the lip sync over long takes was very bad. This forced me to keep Patricia's
vocal shots short. So I scattered these through the entire video, leaving black in between, and that
literally became the WNYC preview tape. To this day,
I'm not sure what the WNYC execs thought I was doing when they viewed this edit, but apparently it
was enough. I got the go-ahead to continue production with an air date early in 1994. In my favor, and
very powerfully so in the myth department, was the fact that I did all this first round of cutting during a
total lunar eclipse.
With the tacit approval of WNYC, I kept going. Over the winter of 1993-94, I had cultivated the idea
that it was a poet's prerogative not to act. That's to say that acting is for theater, but when
one is performing a poem broader rules apply. One may act or one may speak directly from the self.
One may portray a state of being or, if one is also the filmmaker, one may exhibit that state of being
itself. Over the previous
summer, I had seen a man with a catheter in his heart to assist in rapid distribution of his
medications. In a hospital this might not be so rare, but he was in public, in a bar.
(This was also before protease inhibitor therapy, so alternatives were different then.) He
simply came into the bar and began playing pool with only a loose athletic shirt covering his chest and the
vinyl tube plugged into the heart catheter. He wore this with a bare nonchalance I admired very much.
I asked him what the tube was so this is how I know. His image was
compelling and considered the possibilities. To this day, I regret not asking him to be part of the video. The
juxtaposition of medical hardware and the human heart worn so openly would have been perfectly in keeping
with the video.
The poet's prerogative suggested that I should find performers, and not necessarily actors, who were
themselves HIV positive and willing to be on camera as the two male characters in the video. This, it turned
out, was impractical to do. I posted an announcement with a local HIV support organization and did, eventually, attract one response from a willing individual. But by that time, which was February 1994,
I had moved on to cover this material in other ways. To fail the grace of the extended deadline, I feared,
would have been fatal.
In autumn 1993, I had a brief and troubled relationship with Dave Parker. It had ended by Christmas, but
I was approaching my wit's end for any kind of representation for the two men in
"...Cucumbers." In January 1994, decided to go for broke and ask Dave to work with me.
This proved to be the key. Dave was very patient and willing to pose with me in practically any situation.
We still had some degree of trust in each other, and it was enough to do some basic poses with him. All
the shots with Dave are either of him only, with the camera hand held, or of him and me with the camera
locked down. The video was always minimal crew, budget, and tech, and these shots were
no different. What I didn't count on, though, was with only him and me and a camera our guard dropped.
For some moments, our relationship's earlier energy flickered to life in front of the camera and
was legible and earnest. This reads so very well in Dave's tactile qualities. We were high touch, and that
In my heart, I was still waiting for the radical faerie to respond to my concerns about the potential
disrespect of myth in the video, but by this time I was too far along and too close to deadline to
worry any more. Besides, I had some encouragement from an executive producer at WNYC
who himself was HIV positive and entirely behind this piece, according
to Holman. He stood beside the love
expressed by the two male characters, and felt this was well worth demonstrating on TV. At last, here
was a convergence of interests I could feel which would push "...Cucumbers" to completion.
With the video finally coming together I faced a new problem, how to assimilate all the parts into a
meaningful whole. What began as a simple act of collecting the best parts built into what I call
"accretion editing." My videotape editing system had only a control track. There was
no time code. For what it's worth, I'm not sure I need it, either, except for the very most precise edits
which would require two or more sources. (I may be slightly eidetic. I can look at a picture and know
instantly whether I've seen it before, and can mentally compose it against other pictures.)
Rather than count frames, I simply kept overlaying new
material on top of old using insert edits. First I made sure that the largest black segments were covered.
Then, if there were shorter bursts of black, I'd cover those with short edits. After that, I'd choose even
more short edits to punctuate the longer ones. This is how the edits would accrete.
I would alternate between being literal and concrete, then being figurative
and somewhat open to interpretation in order to keep the viewer just a little off balance, and to keep
the video from being too flat. The first rule of poetry video is, "See does not equal Say."
Being literal, I would present images directly attached to the text by object, as in crystals keying on
the word "crystals" in the poem. Being figurative, I would use myself alone kissing the same
crystal while I was dressed in a suit, such that by inference I was kissing my lover after death, after his
funeral, the crystal being his proxy. The ramp of phenomena in Eric's sound track worked from Patricia's
own ramping up of energy as the piece progressed, so the degree of the accretion editing ramped up in a
coda-like fashion. There is a definite goose-flesh effect in Eric's sound piece as well -- a kind of wild
acceleration and simultaneous sinking feeling -- and with all the mad
cuts flying at the end there's no way out for the viewer. The intent was to drive the viewer into high
shock with too much to feel in too little time, a kind of mad pummelling of profound love mislead by
desperation and endless searching, with no escape until death. Annoyed by the myth battle I'd fought
to win the video's survival, I added an epilogue in title cards, outside Patricia's text: "Myth is
the opportunistic infection of the mind. It's cure is equal parts empathy and wisdom."
In spring, I previewed the finished video before an audience for Hyphen Live! at Phyllis'
Musical Inn on Division Street in Wicker Park. I declared at the same show that I was quitting the day
job to pursue art and video full time. It was a great night. A few days later, the Betacam copy of the video
was on its way to New York. By all accounts, Holman and WNYC were very pleased. A few words and
frames were cleaned up for the regular broadcast version, I'm told, but it aired nearly intact, and in
time for the Stonewall 25 celebration that year in New York. Some of the edge had been blunted, but
the video did its job. The next year, when the video was shown on WTTW/Chicago, only one word
was censored from the entire piece, and the visuals remained absolutely intact. So much for Chicago being a
provincial city with respect to New York... at least by my experiences.
There is one last detail about the video's production. About seven months after the video shipped
to WNYC, I discovered that my radical faerie colleague had died about the time I finished editing it.
Criticisms in the aftermath:
There has been mixed criticism about the video in its life since WNYC, and I want to take a moment to
address some of it.
First, Rachel Libert, who directed Patricia Smith's second poetry video, "Undertaker," praised
the video as a good adaptation of the music video form for poetry. At first I was really pleased to hear this,
but have since felt like taking issue with this praise. For one thing, it belies the fact that everything in this
production is descended directly from the poem, and particularly from the text. In some ways, it's built
more like an opera (with a libretto) than a music video.
"Chinese Cucumbers" certainly appropriates some
music video techniques, but it is absolutely a text first production. Before the visualization there
was the sound composition which, while musical, is not strictly music. Before the sound art there was the
dry recording. Before the recording there was the text. Each component built upon and amplified the
previous component, but was derived necessarily from the previous one as well. While I understand that
music video is constructed in a similar way, in no way do musicians or directors generally impinge upon so
many levels of a music video production as I did with "Chinese Cucumbers." I pretty much had
carte blanche authority over everything; Bob Holman was a faithful advisor, but he stayed out of the production process. My role as director was wholistic; I addressed everything. A music video director
simply doesn't get the opportunity to do all that, or if she does then she has essentially joined the band.
Another comment, this one from some Germans who saw the video in 1996, was that there is a lot of pathos
in the video. Their concern was that pathos wasn't necessary to make the point. This may be a legitimate
criticism, but one which I can't answer except in theoretical terms. Coming from a slam poetry heritage,
Patricia Smith and I share a highly charismatic orientation toward poetry. Poetry can, in the right moment,
make you dance in the aisles or humble you to tears. It can be a holy-roller kind of experience.
If you take the pathos out of the slam poetry, then
you probably don't have slam poetry any longer. You may well still have poetry, just something
a lot more tame. So while I agree that the pathos may be a bit strong for the job, it's also true to the
origins of the poetry at hand. I see no need to change that.
Michael Brown suggested that adding the epilogue was not necessary. He's right. It's not necessary.
But it's also my video to direct, so
I put it in. He didn't have to battle internal myths to finish a video about self-destruction through
unhealthy myth, but I did. It's as much a reminder for me of my own growth as it is a telegraph to
others of where the hazards lie in their own paths.
I should add that Patricia did not object at all to the epilogue when, at last, she was able to see the
video for herself.
- Kurt Heintz
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