Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Scarlet Tanager

I was walking to 24th Street to catch the J-Church to downtown San Francisco when I saw a man on his knees in front of a two-story home. He had something in his hands and he was crying. He didn't look homeless. He wore a silk button-down shirt with khakis and polished black shoes and he had several rings on his fingers.

Usually I'd walk past this kind of scene.  But as I neared the man he turned towards me and thrust his hands forward. He was holding a dead sparrow.

"Are you okay, sir?"

"It's so cruel," he answered.

He pointed to a car parked in the driveway.  It was a 1960's convertible Skylark and beside the driver side door were several dead birds.  "He electrocuted the car," the man sobbed.  "Look."  I saw a car battery on cinderblocks.  Attached to the battery was an electrical cable clipped to the chassis above the front left tire. Apparently the car owner was charging the steel frame with a low-level electrical surge.

"Why would someone do that," I asked.

"People were stealing his stereo.  He wanted to scare them away.  But he killed the birds."

"You know this guy?"

"He's my landlord."

This was how I met my neighbor Mike Hunter.  We began encountering each other at the local coffee house.  We'd chat about the latest political news or whether Steve Young was a better quarterback than Joe Montana.  Mike was a freelance accountant who worked out of his apartment. He grew organic vegetables in the backyard and he spiked his lattes with chlorophyll which he claimed "cleaned the blood."

Mike was a passionate birder.  He showed me an album filled with images of birds he'd photographed around the country.  He pointed out waxwings and thrushes and jays and loons.  The birds ranged in color from bright yellow to dark blue. Some were striped, others spotted.  One had a long needle-like bill, another a ruffled mohawk.  While Mike flipped through his journal, his energy increased and his posture straightened.  He became an evangelist spreading the word about the "angels of the sky soaring all around us."

"How many birds did you notice today while walking for coffee?"

"None," I answered sheepishly.

"Shame on you."

Several months later I found myself in the Mendocino forest with Mike.  He was searching for the elusive Scarlet Tanager, a red Cardinal-like bird found mainly on the east coast.  The Tanager had been spotted in Northern California and Mike was eager to see one up close.  I had no interest in bird watching.  But my girlfriend was out of town and I'd been in a bit of a funk.  When Mike asked me to join him I thought about how excited he became when he spoke of his birds.  I was hoping a trip to the woods would do the same for me.

I soon learned bird watching was actually tree watching.  Mike would hear a shrill whistle or complex warble and he'd whip out his binoculars.  He'd stare at the top of a tall redwood looking for some kind of movement or color variation. He'd admonish me to remain quiet and still.  His patience seemed endless.  I quickly grew bored.  By mid-afternoon I was starving, grouchy and exhausted.

"Eat some seeds," Mike recommended.  "That's what the birds eat.  They're perfect protein."  Mike finally tired.  We'd spotted several woodpeckers, blue jays and something called a Clark's Grebe.  But no Tanager.  We hiked back to the van. Mike began spitting at trees and softly muttering to himself.

"You okay, Mike?"

"The Tanager is a harbinger of good luck.  I guess I'm cursed," he said.

"Why do you say that?"

"It's just the way it is."

He sat down on a fallen tree and I sat beside him.  He pulled out a steel flask and took a deep swig.  I took a tiny sip and started coughing.  Mike launched into this crazy story about his time in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He was an artillery loader, a guy who lifted 40-pound shells into cannon-like guns.

"We'd cruise the coast about a mile off shore.  The spotter would search for circling birds overhead.  This meant dead Vietcong.  Which meant live Vietcong were nearby.  The spotter gave the coordinates and we'd fire ammo deep into the jungle. At the time I was shooting up heroin on a regular basis.  I kept a syringe and a stash of dope inside my cot.  If the stuff was discovered I'd be subject to a court martial and jail time.  One morning, about an hour into my shift, a soldier taps me on the shoulder.  'C.O. wants to see you,' he says.  I froze.  I was certain they found my stash.  I walked to the Commanding Officer's cabin and took a seat in front of his desk.  'Private Hunter, I have bad news,' he says.  I'm thinking to myself, twenty year prison sentence, ass-kickings, mental and physical torture. They're gonna string me up like a dead duck.  Then the C.O. says, 'We received word that your father committed suicide.  Jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Sorry to break the news to you, son.  That's tough luck.'  I never felt so relieved in my life.  I thought for sure they found the stash. Now not only was I off the hook, I could return to the States for the funeral. Best thing my pop ever did for me."

Mike took a deep swig from the flask and started laughing.  I was stunned and didn't know what to say. Mike handed me the flask.  "You know why I like birds so much," he asked.  He unrolled his shirt sleeve and showed me a tattoo on his bicep of a hawk with spread wings.  Beneath the image was the inscription Matthew 6:26.

"That's from the Bible.  It says birds don't have to do shit except fly.  God will feed them, God will protect them, God will give them a place to live.  Pretty sweet deal, right?"

"I'd say so."

We sat in silence.  I stared at a burn mark on the fallen tree.  The tree had been hit been hit by lightning.  A wide array of cracks and fissures spread forth from a black scar.  Mike finished the flask and started walking.  I followed.  I stared at the forest canopy above.  I visualized birds circling over dead Vietcong.  The sun was setting and it was starting to get cold.  I couldn't wait to be back in the city.
(6" x 6", Black Ink Print with Watercolor)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Documentary Director

Filmmaker Tommy Sowards does not do soft and cuddly. As a graduate film student at UCLA he directed music videos in the emerging gangster rap genre. Tommy became friends with renowned rapper Kurtis Blow who introduced him to several members of the "Rollin' 20's" Bloods gang.  Tommy spent the next decade documenting the underbelly of Los Angeles gang life. The resulting film Slippin: Ten Years With the Bloods offers a rare glimpse inside LA's gang culture.

Tommy first met the gang in 1992, the same year as the LA Riots.  After an introductory phone conversation, Tommy was told to wait at the corner of 56th & Western, a rough LA neighborhood.  A rickety limousine pulled up and Tommy got into the backseat.  Five gang members were "all flamed up" in red clothes and bandannas.  Within seconds, several guns were pointed at Tommy's head.  The young men wanted to know why Tommy was interested in them.  Was he a cop? Was he some sort of informant?

Tommy kept his cool.  He calmly rolled a joint, took a long hit and passed it around the back seat.  The gang members put away their guns and joined Tommy in a ceremonial smoking of "the peace pipe."

Over the next six months, Tommy hung out with the gang.  They played basketball, drank 40's, had barbecues and played cards.  Tommy met the gang members' girlfriends, their grandmothers, their babies.  A trust developed and Tommy was given a crash course in "the hood."  He learned the meaning of gang signs and how to discern between rival gang "tags" (graffiti).  He learned the cryptic slang unique to the Bloods.

Tommy told the gang of his desire to document their life on video in a non-judgmental fashion.  The gang members agreed.  Tommy traveled to Germany to obtain a small amount of funding.  He put together a six-person German crew and by the middle of 1993 they were ready to begin shooting.

On Day 1 of production, a German still photographer quit on the spot.  He wasn't ready for the real-world intensity of the South LA streets.  Tommy manned the main camera himself.  He wanted to capture something real, something deeper than the after-school special sensibility of Boyz N' The Hood.

The first part of the film covers the years 1993-1996.  We get to know the lives of Dig Dug, Jumbo, KK, Low Down and Twerk.  We watch as the men deal drugs out of their homes, explain their use of rap music and exhibit their fascination and knowledge of a wide array of weapons.  We see their preoccupation with killing and being killed.  We also see funny moments as when Low Down takes a job as a "court summons deliverer."

The men have no education, no structure, no functional family guidance.  Their lives are insulated and hopeless.  At one point, Dig Dug takes some of his gang money and hires a tutor to teach him to read.  But this is a rare moment.  Unlike Hollywood, there is little redemption or glory.

The emotional heart of the film occurs in April, 1993 when CK ("Crip Killer") Lil' Mike is killed by a rival gang.  After Lil' Mike's death, the gang members begin questioning themselves.  They pour 40's over Lil' Mike's grave wondering why they kill their own people, why they keep themselves down.

Tommy completed production in 2003.  He approached Christopher Koefoed, the editor of Menace 2 Society.  The two men cut 180 hours of footage down to a taut 84 minutes.  The resulting documentary won Best Film at the Montenegro Film Festival.  It played to packed audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival and ultimately screened on Showtime.

Some critics were offended that a white filmmaker had the nerve to make a first-person movie about black America.  But Executive Producer Kurtis Blow and editor Koefoed (who is black) helped give the film street-cred among gangs.  As Tommy said, "I'm just the white wall on a black tire."

Slippin' has since been shown at colleges, prisons, inner-city churches, police departments and army bases.  Tommy went on to make documentaries about prison rehabilitation efforts for Latino gang members and the world of extreme martial art fighting. His new film is about Wallid Ismail, a legendary martial artist who pioneered competitive MMA fighting in Brazil.  (5" x 7", black ink print)