Author Archive
Life cycle
Myths
Narrative

The House Stays in the Family

Informant Bio

My informant is a film student at USC who grew up in Pinole, California (Bay Area). She lived there with her mother, sister, and their dogs; her mother bred golden retrievers. Her mother had, and has, many friends among their neighbors, so my informant always seems to know the town gossip, even now when she is away at school.

My informant hopes to become a feature film director; her favorite film genres are historical fiction, film noir, and thriller.

The Haunted House

In Pinole there is a large Victorian house on a hilltop property that belonged to a friend of my informant’s family. The house had been built at the turn-of-the-century by the current owner’s ancestors. Other members of the owner’s family claim that the house is haunted by the previous tenants, all members of the same paternal line. Many claim to have seen familiar looking spirits roaming the halls. The family also claims that whenever a member of the current owner’s paternal line has died, a tree falls on the property.

My informant remembers that when she would visit there as a child, the house was so large and spacious that it was “spooky.” She also remembers that the house was never finished. When she used to go there with her mother the owner was actively involved in renovations, so strange things would seem to be missing or disassembled. “For a long time when I would go up there… so, the house was on a hill, so it wasn’t easy to get to, but still, for a long time there were no doorknobs. [He] took them all out. Anyone could reach their arm through the hole and open the door to come in the house.” My informant clearly found it unnerving that a man could go for so long with no doorknobs or locks on his doors.

One does not often hear these days of land remaining in an American family for generations upon generations. Clearly the story of the hauntings and the trees dying with the newly dead shows the strength of the family’s connection with that land, and their unwillingness to leave it. It doesn’t seem too far of a leap from saying that a family will never leave their property to, no member of the family (living or dead) has ever left the property.

 

Customs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Signs

Roses on the Pulpit

Informant Bio

My informant grew up in the small, rural town of Hanford, California. Her family owns a mill and is quite comfortably wealthy; she is very close with her parents and younger brother, and drives home from USC (where she attends school) frequently.

My informant has a strong faith in god though when she is at school she does not attend church services. When in Hanford however she attends the Lakeside Community Church, which conducts non-denominational Christian services. She was very close with her pastor there for many years, until his recent death.

Roses

Lakeside Community Church (slogan: “Come as you are”) is a small congregation with very relaxed services. The church-goers all know each other, and everyone helps out with the church’s potluck dinners and car washes, which are held to raise money for charity. These charity events are the largest events that the modest church holds.

The church does not require baptism, but does like to be involved in events like births of members’ children. So to commemorate the birth of a child, a rose is placed on the pulpit. I asked my informant if any announcement would be made during services, and she said no. Perhaps something might be put in the community newsletter at the request of the parents, but otherwise the only sign is the rose. The rose remains on the pulpit for about a week.

My informant told me that there was only one time that the rose commemorated something other than a birth, and that occurred this year. A rose quietly appeared on the pulpit on the birthday of the beloved pastor who had died the year before.

The adoption of the rose tradition to honor the loss of a loved one in the community touches me. Though I am not religious myself and I cannot know who decided or why it was decided to use the rose in this way, on some level I like to think that the gesture was an encouragement not to think of the pastor as gone, but reborn to a new form of life. It’s a comforting image in any case.

Legends
Narrative

Bob’s Frieghter Jump

Informant Bio

My informant is a student at USC who hails from Detroit, Michigan. He grew up in the suburbs around Detroit, attended a private Catholic school there, and has great pride in his city. He has a large family with whom he is very close.

Bob

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my informant’s family has a lake house that they use for family gatherings in the summer. His family is rather large, so these gatherings involve three or four sets of grandparents, anywhere from four to six sets of aunts and uncles, plus my informant’s parents, and up to ten of my informant’s cousins along with him and his two siblings.

At these family gatherings one year, someone brought up a story that they’d heard about a man who leapt off a freighter into Lake Michigan and had never been found. No one knew who that man was, or why he jumped. The family together tried to research the incident online, but couldn’t find a single news story that sounded similar.

Over time the story has been brought up at the gatherings and has become a joke for my informant’s family. Someone in the family decided that the man’s name was Bob, and that somehow Bob was still hanging around the Upper Peninsula. My informant’s sister along with some other young kids from a nearby lake house once came across a large slab of broken rock that they declared “Bob’s Tomb.”

The story has circulated around the lakeside community, and has become a popular legend of the Upper Peninsula. But to my informant, it remains a family joke.

Legends
Myths
Narrative

Child Spirits Still Haunt the Orphanage

Informant Bio

My informant is a USC student who hails from Detroit, Michigan. He grew up in the suburbs around Detroit and attended a private Catholic school, and has great pride in his city. He has a large family with whom he is very close.

He told me this story when I asked him about childhood in Detroit. He said that though sneaking into old buildings was not a huge part of his childhood, visiting the orphanage was something that he remembers doing more than once because he and his friends wanted to see a ghost.

The Abandoned Orphanage

Near where my informant lived in Michigan he recalls a fenced off compound of brownstone buildings that as long as he could remember had never been occupied. He never gave much thought to what it was until one day when a friend of his in school asked him if he wanted to explore it with her.

They were twelve years old when my informant’s friend (I’ll call her Marie) took him into the compound. He found out from her that it had once been an orphanage, but now it was abandoned.. They slipped under the fence at a place where it had been pulled up a bit. Marie’s sixteen year old brother led the way because he had been there before.

When they got inside, Marie’s brother began to narrate their tour of the dusty, empty hallways with stories about how the place was haunted. He said that the orphanage was still haunted by the spirits of the kids who were never adopted.

My informant couldn’t remember any stories specifically, but he does remember thinking that Marie’s brother was not telling the stories well. The stories didn’t have much of a point and it soon became clear that he was only telling them to scare his younger sister.

My informant never saw a ghost in the orphanage, though he, Marie and their friends did sneak back in on other occasions without Marie’s brother. The place large and empty – and they never found anything too interesting there. Barely any furniture or other items remained. Looking back now he’s quite relieved that they never came across anyone who had decided to squat there.

Other children also had stories that they had heard about ghosts in the place, and the ghosts were always the spirits of children. However my informant claims that none of the stories told how the children died, simply that “little Susan” or “Jim Bob” was never adopted, so they haunted the empty halls, still waiting to be taken to a good home. It seems almost as if the stories imply that the children were abandoned there with the building.

Myths
Signs

Miracle Mothman

Informant Bio

My informant grew up in Ohio in the 1960s and 1970s and lived there for much of her adult life. She attended college in Bowling Green, Ohio, and lived in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio for many years. Though she now lives in California, she retains a membership to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and has great pride in her heritage.

My informant is also a spiritual woman, though not in the religious sense. Raised Lutheran, she stopped going to church in her early 30s. She instructed her children to study many world religions and choose their own faith. She actively meditates and finds comfort in the teachings of the Buddhists, though she claims no one faith or spiritual path. She believes in some kind of higher power or energy, yet she is also very practical in her views of supernatural phenomena.

My informant told me the myth of the Mothman that she had heard while recommending to me that I watch the film about the creature that was released in 2002. She had just seen it recently and liked comparing the film to the Mothman stories she knew.

The Mothman

The myth of the Mothman that my informant told me is connected to the collapse of a bridge that crossed the Ohio River between West Virginia and Ohio in the 1960s. (My informant did not know the name of the bridge, but she was referring to the Silver Bridge collapse of 1967.) Apparently days prior to the event in the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia where the bridge was located, sightings of a creature that looked like a man with wings and glowing red eyes were reported. According to my informant most of these sightings occurred in an off-limits area of town that had once housed a chemical plant where materials were made for the military. In spite of being cordoned off, this area was still a place where locals would go to hunt and fish. After the bridge collapse, reports of the winged man abruptly stopped.

After the fact the connection was made between the sightings and the bridge collapse. Some believed that the Mothman vision was a kind of warning. Others believe that the Mothman is a demonic creature that thrives on tragedy.

When I inquired if my informant believed the Mothman was a real creature she responded: “No, I think when there’s any great tragedy people look back and try to think of some way to explain it or learn from it.” She compared the Mothman phenomenon to belief in miracles. “People love to say, ‘oh, its a miracle that I forgot my keys and was ten minutes late to work, because otherwise I would have been in that accident on the freeway. Someone must be looking out for me.’ People like to make connections like that after the fact because it makes them feel safe somehow. Me, I kind of like to see engineers looking at the bridge and saying, ‘oh, maybe we should have replaced those rusty bolts.'” Personally, I agree with her thinking. However it is still fun to speculate about what the people of Point Pleasant were seeing in the days before the bridge collapse.

The population of Point Pleasant has embraced the Mothman myth, and now holds a Mothman festival each year.

Authored Versions

The story of the bridge collapse and Mothman sightings was recorded in a book entitled “The Mothman Prophecies” written in 1975 by John Keel. Keel’s book was published by a known publisher of pulp sci-fi novels, however Keel’s lengthy investigation in Point Pleasant resulted in a book that straddles the line between speculative fiction and non-fiction.

The book was made into a film with the same name in 2002 starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. The film turns the event into a supernatural psychological thriller, and while it was hardly a blockbuster success, it has drawn new attention to the phenomenon. In 2011 a documentary called “Eyes of the Mothman” tracked sightings of the creature all over the world in yet another attempt to explain its appearances.

Cited

Keel, John. The Mothman Prophecies. London: Panther Books, 1975. Print.

Pellington, Mark, dir. The Mothman Prophecies. Perf. Richard Gere and Laura Linney. 2002. Columbia Tristar Home Video. DVD.

Pellowski, Matthew J., dir. Eyes of the Mothman. 2011. Payback Productions. DVD.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

How many…

Informant Bio/Context

The following series of jokes was told on the set of a USC student music video. My informant was helping out as a grip (crew member who works setting up lights and moving equipment).  She is currently a film student at USC and often works in the sound department, but like most USC film students she has held positions in other departments as well.

Jokes

How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb? One – they change it and the world revolves around them.
How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Do we have to change it?
How many producers does it take to change a lightbulb? Does it have to be a lightbulb?
How many electrics does it take to change a lightbulb? It’s not a lightbulb, it’s a “globe.”

Analysis

This series of jokes is best heard all together as my informant told them because it makes clear the comparison between the departments. My informant liked them because she herself has functioned in each of the roles mentioned above on a film set, and has noticed that her perspective on a particular task or issue does change with each job.

The joke plays on stereotypes of each role, but also simply their function as part of the collaborative process of making the film. Actors are viewed as vain and egotistical, however it is also true that all of the work done on a film set “revolves around” them, as its their actions that drive the movie. Writers are portrayed as those whose visions are trampled on by the changes asked of them by directors and producers, but they are also here seen to be defensive of the integrity of their work. The implication about producers here is that they will always look for an easier, and more cost effective solution than what it written, and it always shows them to be people who think outside the box. Electrics (film crew in charge of all electrical equipment on a set, including lighting) are portrayed here to have a specific way of viewing their equipment, and special terms for it, that differs from most others’ perception. The joke says that electrics are an exclusive group on-set, welcoming only to those who understand their methods, equipment, and terminology.

My informant felt that these implications about each department, both positive and negative, were accurate. Because of her experiences in these departments she enjoyed that the jokes clearly separate each department from one another, showing that no one on a film set is going to look at something the same way as anyone else will, because every department is in charge of considering different things. With actors its the performance, writers the story, producers the money, and electrics the gear.

I think the jokes also show that each department views their interpretation of the object as the one that makes the most sense and is most important to the making of the film. The humor in the joke comes from this separation of points of view.

Folk speech
Humor

F*** Sound

Informant Bio/Context

My informant attends the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts’ film production program. She is primarily focused on camera and lighting work and works often as a director of photography (crew member in charge of lighting scenes and composing shots in the camera). On a recent student film set she told the following joke while waiting for the director to finish rehearsing with an actor. The camera was already set and ready to go, and she reflected that it was a good thing that on this project they didn’t need to worry about recording sound.

Transcript of Joke

So this actress comes to Hollywood, right, and she’s having trouble you know, um, getting in. So she decides to sleep with a sound guy. And afterwards everyone’s all like, why’d you sleep with a sound guy? You should sleep with the director. Sleep with the director. And she says, well everyone’s always saying, fuck sound! Fuck sound!

Analysis and Background

After telling the joke the informant told a brief anecdote about a set experience she had where the assistant director (set manager) needed to find the production mixer (crew member who records sound on the set) in order to shoot a shot because in between shots the production mixer had fallen asleep and was not responding to calls. The informant herself took the joke as a humorous comment on the fact that the sound department has a lot of down time on sets. Like the actors, they are really only needed just before and through the recording of takes. Much of the rest of the time spent on a set changing lighting and re-dressing set pieces is time during which the sound department has nothing to do which gives them, according to my informant, the appearance of having an easy job and being lazy workers.

My reading of this joke however is more focused on the gender and position of power of the subjects in the joke. The main character in the joke is an actress who is portrayed as naive and desperate for fame. The joke plays upon a general belief that sex will help one, especially a woman with little experience, to get ahead in the film industry. The joke assumes a “green-ness” to actresses in Hollywood. The laugh comes from the understanding by film crews of  the truth behind the statement that “everyone’s always saying, fuck sound” and that newcomers to Hollywood would not understand why that is and would misinterpret the meaning. The actress who is new to town can hardly be expected to know the perception of sound technicians with film crews.

Also notice the use of the term sound “guy.” Rarely in the film industry does one refer to a crew member using a female pronoun – often the word “person” is substituted for “guy” or “man” if one is attempting to be politically correct, or even to refer to a female crew member. The gender dynamics of this joke indicate that it is young, naive girls who seek fame and fortune in a male-dominated work environment, where sex appeal is their only power. The desperation of the actress to break into the film business also hints at the brief shelf life of actresses, who seem to age quicker (and lose that sex appeal) in the public eye than male actors. This reveals not so much a gender bias among film workers as a tradition of acceptance of the fact that many roles in the film industry have historically been filled by men – particularly skilled crew roles.

The fact that the gender dynamics of the joke held even when being told by a female director of photography reveals that while the dynamics of film crews and the business itself may change, a stereotypical image of the film industry planted in the 1920s still holds in the public consciousness, and is source of ironic amusement even to modern film workers.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Warming up to the rest of the cast

Informant Bio and Context

My informant is a first year drama student attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Hollywood, California. This student has described his classmates as being dramatic even in their day-to-day lives, placing equal importance on weekend partying and writing character bios of their characters for plays in classes. The informant considers himself to be a writer, rather than an actor and speaks cynically of some aspects of the acting community.

At the Academy the students exclusively study acting techniques for the stage and screen. At each semester’s end the students are cast in “final exam plays.”

Before each play, the students gather on the stage and perform warm up exercises. This student described to me one particular exercise that was used before his play that was not directly related to limbering up the body or warming up the vocal cords.

Transcript

The first thing we would do typically is just free stretch, standing in a circle. Has to be a circle because if its not a circle you can’t, “feel the love.” You do a free stretch and you crack your neck, and your back a little bit. And then you hold out your hands [he stands with his legs spread and hands out at his side, as if to grasp the hands of people standing on either side of him] like this and everybody joins hands, so we’re in a circle, holding hands. First thing you do is you close your eyes, take a deep breath, connect yourself to the earth. Feel grounded. And you’re constantly aware that at the center of the Earth there is a great, glowing ball of fire. And you can feel that energy radiating through the surface of the earth. Whenever you’re feeling low energy, or negative, or making negative choices – character choices, not like “don’t do drugs” those kinds of choices – you just pull on that energy and you can feel it, lava, moving slowly like sap, through the surface of the Earth, into your body and out through your hands. And send that energy out your hands and into the hands of the person next to you. So you can send that energy so they can feel your warmth, and your energy, and your love.

Last thing you do, you close your eyes, and picture a blank white screen right behind your head. And whatever you’re feeling, whatever problems you have, emotional issues going on in your life, you can always go back to that white screen. It’s all that matters; its your emotional center point. Picture a star in the center of that screen, and the star is in complete focus. It is the termination of your energy, it is where your energy is going, the same energy you’re drawing from the Earth, which is that whole ball of fire. Yep. Okay. And then, open your eyes and picture in front of you a person, place, or thing that you love, just without reservation, that fills you love and joy. And look at that thing as you love it and now look at everybody around you in the circle and send them out, with your eyes – not sarcastic, warm, unmedicated, positive eyes – send them that love for that person, place, or thing. Any time you have to stand up and act, if you are in any way troubled, go back to that white screen, and white star and look at people with love and they will feel your love and your energy, and from there you can give them whatever emotions you need. [This last sentence means that the other actor will be receptive to you if you look at them with love, and that they will then be able to convey the emotions that you need from them to play your role.]

Then, give everyone’s hands a reassuring squeeze and radiate out that love, so that the person next to you knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love them, that you are there for them as an ensemble, as a cast. Then you let go, take a deep breath… and then we typically do articulation exercises.

Analysis/Background

My informant explained that this exercise is meant to ensure that every actor is connected to the other members of the cast prior to the performance. When asked if he felt that the exercise worked in this way he responded: “Not in the slightest. Total waste of time. Probably works for most actors and not me. I am a writer. I feel more connected to a character when I’m an actual person doing things that normal people do and this isn’t something people do. Well, it does create an emotional connection, its a fake emotional connection, but its there.”

This ritual, whether the actors feel it is silly or not, is a transformative one. The group performing it when they enter the stage are individual actors preparing to play roles. The ritual links each actor purely by virtue of the fact that everyone performs it together. As the last act of the group before they perform together, it allows everyone to cross the liminal threshold from actors to characters, and individuals to ensemble. The meditative quality of the ritual would help to clear the mind of concerns brought to the stage from the actors’ lives outside of it, bringing each person into the mindset of the job, so to speak. The individual is set aside to that that the actors can now act as a collective.

 

Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Assistant Directors Make No Friends

Informant Bio and Context

The following joke was told on the set of a USC student music video. My informant was a grip (crew member working in the lighting department) who told the joke to the assistant director (or AD: production manager who keeps track of time) of the set. My informant is currently a film student at USC and often works in the sound department, but who like most USC film students has held positions in other departments as well. She has also worked as an assistant director and producer, for instance. On this set my informant knew the assistant director from classes and by reputation, and likely felt that the joke would amuse the AD who works as an assistant director almost exclusively.

Transcript

Hey, so why are ADs bad in bed? Because they think two minutes is a really long time.

Analysis and Background:

Understanding of an assistant director’s job sheds light on the reason for this malicious sounding joke.

In the United States, the assistant director (AD) belongs to a film’s “production” department, meaning that they work for the director and producers in a non-creative capacity. Their job is to “run the set” so that the crew is able to capture every shot planned for that day. The AD is responsible for scheduling the order of the shots taken that day for maximum efficiency, communicating with every department so that they know what they need to prepare for as the day moves along, and keeping track of the time. This can mean that the assistant director needs to make decisions that place higher priority on one department’s work over another. For example, if the crew is running thirty minutes behind schedule, the AD may need to talk to the director about cutting a shot, or to the art department about spending less time dressing a part of the set, or to the director of photography about making the lighting on the actress’ face a little less perfect than he wants. Anything to save time. Because assistant directors serve the big picture, they are often viewed as the enemy of the individual departments.

This joke belittles the sexual prowess of the assistant director by using the AD’s primary function as the set’s time-keeper against him. The intention of this is clear – while the joke itself does not undermine the authority of the assistant director on the set, it separates him from the rest of the crew, and depicts him as being the same as, even less than, everyone else in other aspects of his life. The joke tells the crew that while the AD’s watch has power on the set, off of it, it would make him look like a fool.

My subject felt that the joke was humorous simply because it is, in her words, “accurate.” Assistant directors are always keeping track of the time, but off-set in many situations this trait is often inappropriate. In this way the joke also comments on another aspect of life within in the film industry, which is the necessary separation of one’s life in film production, from their home life or social life. The long, fast-paced, stress-heavy hours of film production work are often compared to being at war. One’s mental, emotional – and as this joke implies, sexual – health can only be maintained by a clear separation between life on the set, and life off of it.

Notice too that the joke seems to imply that the assistant director is a man. (Jokes revolving around the premise of climaxing too quickly during a sexual act are typically aimed at men.) This assumption within the joke is not entirely inaccurate as the majority of crew positions in the film industry have historically be held by men. In this particular case the joke was told to a female assistant director, who laughed in spite of her position.

general
Material

The Martini

In this image my informant holds up a slate for a video project titled “Two Portly Guys.” There are martini glasses drawn around the shot number “2” – this is meant to indicate that this shot will be the last shot captured on that shooting day.

It is a strange paradox of working on film sets that the experience on the set has little to do with the subject matter of the film itself. There is no way to extrapolate from a finished film the experience of the crew members working on the set.

In a set environment at a film school, students who have known each other and worked together for several years are often thrown onto crews together for a project. The familiarity of the students with each other creates a unity to the entire filmmaking process, from pre-production (planning of the film) through post (editing and sound designing the film) that does not exist in the film industry outside of school. For instance, on a USC project the on-set crew will likely know the students who will be editing the film. However, at the USC film school in particular, the way that some classes are organized require that the editors of a film not be present on the set. This results in some pranks played on the editors within the footage.

My informant (in the image above), who had held the slate for a USC undergraduate thesis film prior to the “Two Portly Guys” project, told me that drawing martinis on the slate is one way to bring the editors – friends of the set crew – into the set experience, albeit after the fact. “The martini” is the name given to the last shot of the day before everyone goes home. There are various stories about why the last shot has been named this, but it is an accepted and recognized term. It is common among film students at USC to indicate the “martini shot” on the slate by drawing martini glasses onto it. The slate, as the marker which tells the editors what shot and take of that shot is being captured after the slate has been shown, should be (if the shot was taken correctly) the only indication throughout a single shot that the film crew is there, thus it is the only time that the crew can communicate with the editors as fellow filmmakers.

I feel that the martinis on the slate can also be an indicator of set morale. On the “Two Portly Guys” set I noted that the crew was greatly enjoying their work because the scenes they were taping were humorous. My informant seemed excited when told that the last shot had arrived and quickly draw the martinis. However, my informant also told me that there were days on her undergraduate thesis set that she did not draw the martinis. Though she did not connect this to crew morale, she also told me that there was rarely a day on that set that she didn’t feel tired or stressed by the miscommunications among the crew, or the slow pace of the work. Thus I believe that a crew that is working together well and runs into few problems throughout the shooting day will be more likely to be in good spirits by the end of the day, and have the energy and inclination to take a moment to draw the merry little icons onto the slate. If the last shot of the day lacks martinis, it might be an indicator that by the end of the day the crew was too burnt out to have any fun with the slate.

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