George the 4th, I Salute Thee
Sketches from “My Life in the Media” #4
It was a Saturday evening when George the 4th came to our house for the first time. I was living comfortably with Tapan’da and Boudi. Shemade luchi and alur dum (chalupa and potato curry) every evening. When Boudi’s back was turned, Tapan’da and I would sneak off to Little Italy, my old stomping ground. The band I had played with welcomed me back. The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull were still in vogue and I jammed with the band on my flute. ‘Nice work if you can get it’ as it paid for our first round of beer. Counting out the loose change in our pockets, on occasion, we downed a few more.
Bar hopping proved too expensive for us. Tapan’da was drawing a graduate student assistantship. Boudi put in a few hours on the night shift at Texas Instrument. I made a few dollars, working as a factory hand at a meat packing plant, IBP. Throwing caution to the wind, I picked up a bottle of the cheapest scotch on the market, George the 4th, and headed home.
The presence of Royalty in our home prompted a new chapter in our lives. Much against her wishes, Boudi was persuaded to sip a few drops. She made a contortion with her face, clearly expressing her intense dislike for the taste of the exalted elixir. Nudged on by a few sips, Tapan’da started up on Robindra Songeet (songs by Tagore). Watching the 11 O’clock local news on the tiny black & white TV, Boudi pointed to the flickering image on the screen.
“Look, how well that boy is giving the news. He looks so nice. He is probably a few years older than you … but not very much older. Unlike your long, wild hair, he has a gentleman’s haircut. He looks so smart!”
“But I do not want to look like him,” I protested in a heartbeat.
The man in the stylish camel hair jacket came back on the air after the commercial break. True, he did have a clean-cut image. But something did not feel right in Boudi’s glowing compliment. I stared at the man through my whiskey eyes when all of a sudden the absurdity hit me.
‘Boudi,” I laughed out aloud, “that fellow is not older than I. He used to sit right behind me in Dr. Harp’s ‘Telecom Law’ class. That is Sid Allen and I know him.”
Both Tapan’da and Boudi were astounded. “You know him?” they chanted together.
“Yes, I do.” I asserted, a cavalier grin on my face.
Sid Allen was the news anchor at KLBK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Lubbock Texas. He was a local celebrity. My claim of proximity to such fame was perhaps accepted with a touch of hesitation. Now it was the George the 4th who was talking. “I will go and see him tomorrow.”
We poured another round of George the 4th for good measure and promptly I fell asleep on the sofa.
I could tell Sid was suitably impressed with my three-minute film from graduate school.
“You shot it?” he asked several times.
Hell yea, I nodded proudly. Unlike Melanie who saw no poetry or rhythm in my work, Sid immediately got to the point.
“Look Satya, we start off everybody around here at minimum wage, $1.60 an hour. Mostly, undergrads from Tech, you know. You’ve been to UT so I’ll ask Mr. De’tournillion to give you some more. $1.70 okay with you?”
I could not believe my good fortune. I was being offered a job as a news cameraman at a television station. Dumbfounded, I stared at Sid in disbelief. Taking my silence to be a bargaining point, Sid shuffled between his left and right foot and straightened his tie. “Okay, okay, we’ll do 1.80. But that’s the tops we can do.”
By this time I must have smiled at my good fortune and Sid seemed pleased. “Come back tomorrow at nine; Bruce will show you the ropes.”
Bruce was the chief cameraman at KLBK -TV and nobody’s fool.
“College boy. I saw your little film. Good work.” Then he just stared at my face.
I did not know what to make of his knowing stare.
“You shot everything in the late afternoon light. Looks nice. Do you think ‘news’ happens only at the magic hour?”
I got his point now. “Do you know what is a cameraman?” he asked in a flat tone.
I thought it better to keep quiet.
“A cameraman is a man with a drinking problem, who is divorced and lives alone in a trailer park at the edge of town. He has friends who are policemen or firemen. They call him when there is a wreck on the highway, a fire or a robbery in town. He races down in his pick-up and shoots off a roll of 16 mm film on his Bolex. We pay him a few bucks, process the film and put it on the air. That, college boy is ‘news’. Can you dig it?”
“That’s cool. I can dig it,” I replied enthusiastically.
“Okay. No fancy, mancy stuff. This is the news business,” Bruce warned.
I nodded in agreement.
“You get the Ford Pinto, parked out back. Gas it up at Eds. We run an account there.”
I checked out the car. There was a police scanner mounted on the dash. I could hear the police officers talking to each other as they raced about town. They spoke in codes. ‘10/20’ meant there was a wreck on the highway; ‘10/40’ meant, man with a gun. This is going to be fun, I thought to myself and I am even getting paid.
“College Boy,” Bruce shouted from across the parking lot, “try not to get shot.” And he drove off.
The job ranged from ‘real easy’ to ‘real boring’. Chasing police cars, fire trucks and ambulances lose their charm after the first few days. Reporting the proceedings of endless City Council and School Board meetings tests one’s patience. I thought, maybe it is not a drunk who takes the job of a television cameraman. It goes the other way around. A decent man takes this job and becomes a drunk, waiting for something meaningful to happen. ‘Hurry up and wait’ was the operational aphorism in the business. But I was shooting film and getting paid so I took everything in my stride. As I drove around town with the KLBK-TV logo boldly painted on the sides of the Pinto, there was a certain amount of notoriety to be relished. People stared at me when I stopped at traffic signal lights. I wrote back to my father in Calcutta about my job. He was pleased and hoped this experience would serve as the training ground for me for a future in feature films.
Monday morning, Bruce was waiting for me in the lunchroom with two large cardboard boxes from Sony. “College Boy, do you know what is a Porto Pak?”
By now, my self-confidence was running on top gear. I was not going to let Bruce push me around. I stirred the coffee slowly, took a sip from my cup and smacked my lips. “You tell me, Big Guy,” I responded with a knowing smile.
“You’ve been to college. You figure it out,” he said nonchalantly and pushed the boxes in my direction.
It is only in hindsight I recognize the enormity of that morning in my life. I opened the boxes and pulled out a video camera and a ¾” video tape recorder. Both items were bulky and heavy. They were the first generation professional video camera and recorder that were portable. Their use in the field eventually changed the way we recorded and distributed information. The little film cameras we had used till that time allowed us to shoot off maybe a minute or two of expensive film. Restricted by cost and the processing time required of film, we captured a minimum of images and got by. Reusable videotape allowed us to shoot endlessly and make a selection of the content by editing the images. I was stepping into the electronic age, the forerunner of the computer age that followed. Visual information was never to be the same again.
Even though I was making a little over minimum wage, my meager earnings allowed me to rent an apartment in a house next to Tapan’da and Boudi. Coming home one evening, I heard Boudi screaming out my name from the back porch of their house. Imagining a domestic accident of sorts, I rushed over to the back fence to find out the cause of the emergency.
“I have made mangsho and luchi (meat curry and chalupa). Come quickly,” she informed me with an impish grin.
I had crossed over to the modern world of electronics, and Boudi was not comfortable picking up the phone and calling me over for my dinner. She had to shout my name. This was the mode of communication that allowed her to convey the affection she felt for me. The telephone was for her, too impersonal! Much as I laugh, thinking back on that evening, I know that it is that warmth of family and friends that have helped keep my balance in the fast paced world of media. I had met the Tapan’da, Tripti Boudi and Badshah as friends and over time, they became my family.
We were getting into the ’ratings season’. TV stations compete with each other during this period to draw larger audiences to their programs, particularly the news. The driving force behind the competition is of course, ‘advertising dollars’. Advertising rates are pegged to the audience share or Nielson ratings, as it is called in the industry. That was, and still is, the holy grail of the television business.
Monday morning, I noticed Sid had a new haircut, the kind Boudi had liked very much. He took me aside and asked, “Do you know what is a rodeo?”
I had lived in Texas for almost a decade but I was still considered a ‘foreigner’ by the locals.
“I ride around in a Pinto all day, don’t I?” I replied. Sid did not laugh at my joke. I guessed the ratings period was more serious than I thought it to be.
“Friday afternoon, they’re having a rodeo at Lake Ransom Canyon. Pretty wild stuff; you’ll love it. Free barbeque and beer for the press, get it? The governor and all the big wigs will be there. Shoot as much as you can. We will run a five part series as ‘tail pieces’ to the news next week.”
Sid was not kidding when he gave me the assignment. Under the wide Texas sky, cowboys in Stetson hats rode angry, snorting bulls as the beasts bucked dangerously across the pen. If the cowboy managed to stay on for ten seconds, the crowd roared their approval. On the tame side, cowboys and a few cowgirls on horses threw spinning lassos to ‘cut’ young bulls as they sped across the ring. Miss Texas and her court of pretty beauties added color and grace to the evening. Young bucks vied with each other for their attention. Country Western bands filled the air with prairie strains as couples danced the Cotton Eyed Joe or the Electric Shuffle under the star-lit night.
I took it all in with the new Porta Pak from Sony. Exhausted from the party, I drove back late at night. Once home, I could barely sleep, eager to go back to the studio next morning to edit the series.
Saturday morning was particularly quiet in the studio after a hectic week. I played back all the footage from the previous night. I had a nice close up of the Governor Briscoe awarding 4H ribbons to youngsters. The snorting bulls and jumping bronco were there too. So were the Texas beauties, sashaying to the music of the Country Western bands. I edited the first short piece and stepped back to look at the first installment.
The pictures seemed to move in spurts. The flow of images jumped from one shot to another. I was nowhere close to achieving a smooth retelling of the evening’s events. There was barely a story on the screen an audience could follow. I could feel it in my guts, something was missing in the piece. As Melanie had pointed out earlier in Austin, there was no cohesiveness to the images to hold them together. Even with the band belting out a song that I used as a sound track, there was no rhythm to the piece. I was stunned!
Sid came by the studio. “Did you have fun last night?” he asked.
“Hell yea, “ I replied. ”I better get home and catch some sleep though. I’ll come in early tomorrow and start the edit.” I got away without telling Sid about my fiasco.
When I got home, sleep was the last thing on my mind. I could barely sit still. I lay down on the floor next to the large picture window, hoping to distract myself with a novel. Much as I tried, I couldn’t follow the story on the pages. The images of the rodeo on the videotape kept flashing through my mind.
I poured myself a cup of tea and made a second attempt to read. Same results; my mind was far away. The same questions kept surging through my mind. Each shot from the rodeo looked first-rate. ‘Why’ I asked myself repeatedly, ‘could the shots not come together to make a story?’
As I reached for my cup of tea, I noticed a crayon label I had made earlier in Austin. The label was glued to the side of a Budweiser cardboard cartoon and read, Film Theory. With a feeling of apprehension, I opened the box. Inside the box, neatly stacked against each other were my books on film theory. On a hunch that there may be something of value here, I reached in and pulled out the first book.
It was perhaps a bit of luck that I reached for that particular book. It was written by a German born psychologist, Hugo Munsterberg. The book was called, The Photoplay, a Psychology of Perception. The book predated the film culture at large. Munsterberg had conducted experiments with a control group of children to understand how adults perceived ‘film’. His insight was a profound eye opener for me. I realized I was going somewhere with his theory but was not sure of my destination. I raced on and picked up the next book, The Art of the Moving Picture by Vachel Lindsey. This was the first book on actual film theory. By the time I got through this small book, I could discern why my, ‘rodeo film’ was not flowing. I felt a great weight being taken off my shoulders.
There was no stopping me just then and there. As I picked up the next book and read on, I saw a lightening flash across the skies. I was a recent convert to film and this was revelation! I heard the great Eisenstein of Battleship Potemkin fame speaking to me with his monographs, Film Senseand Film Form. A thunder roared with dissent in Film Technique, Film Acting from his very student Pudovkin who saw films in a very different light.
There are arts that are physical and direct. To sing a song one has to only open one’s mouth and produce a sound. If it is a pleasing sound, we call it a song. The same can be said about dancing. It is a person in physical motion. There is no direct physical action called, ‘film’. A film is a result of many activities, brought together within a plan. It is the end result of an organizational process. Wading through the books that elaborated on that very process, I occasionally dozed off a bit but never gave up my spot next to the window. When it got dark, I just turned on the light and stayed glued to the book in my hand.
The dialogue on film theory that raged was for me no less than a battle of the Gods across the heavens. I had just to close my eyes and I could recall the films the theorists had influenced. Dziga Vertov, a Bolshevik revolutionary, saw films as motion and gave birth to cinema verité. There were the essays by Andre Bazin from Cahiers du Cinema with his vision of objective cinema that I drank deeply. Bazin had guided his young protégée Truffaut to tell revealing stories of youth like 400 Blows. As dawn broke, the gentle rain under English skies brought peace among the chieftains of the celluloid world. A young graduate student at Cambridge, VF Perkins brought me back to the present with his PhD thesis, Film as Film.
There was an unexpected knock on the windowpane. I looked up from my book. Tapan’da was standing outside in the morning light. I guessed, I had read through Saturday night. “Will you not go to work today?” he asked.
I felt light and euphoric. “Tapan’da, I am off duty on Sundays. Tell Boudi, I will come over for lunch in a little while.”
Tapan’da’s eyes opened wide as if his eyeballs were ready to pop out of their sockets. Was he seeing a ghost, I wondered? Steadying himself after the initial shock, Tapan’da looked around, a little unsure of himself. “It is Monday morning,” he said softly.
I jumped up from my spot by the window. My books on film theory lay scattered about the window. Empty teacups littered the floor.
As I raced to the studio in the Pinto, the shots from the rodeo played out in my head. They came together, edited themselves and made perfect sense. I was seeing the finished film in my mind's eye. All I had to do was put the videotape together in the editing consol. Yes; there was cohesiveness to the story. It flowed effortlessly. There was rhythm, … there was music. “Melanie,” I screamed happily, “there is poetry to my vision!”
And best of all, when the rodeo story went on the air that night, it made sense to the audience. They were entertained. We aired an episode every night as a tailpiece to the news. By the end of the week, our ratings went up dramatically.
From that day on, I had changed the definition of a television news photographer, at least for myself. It did not matter if I was chasing police cars or ambulances or sitting through meetings at city hall. At each and every stop, I was shooting a miniature feature film with a beginning a middle and an end. There was a story to be told. I would tell the story with accuracy, clarity and try to hold the audience’s attention in the process. I was a film director in training.
My colleagues reacted well to my work. I never held a protracted discussion with anybody regarding the finished product I brought to the screen every day. Before long, Mr. De’tournillion asked me to shoot commercials on Saturdays. I got paid an extra hundred dollars for these assignments.
Bigger assignments meant bigger technical challenges. With some effort I overcame most. I built light reflectors with aluminum foil and plywood sheets. The ‘fill light’ made the reporters and actors look like Hollywood stars. I learnt to hang a microphone from an actual fishing rod to capture location sound. But the Achilles heel was baffling. Time and again, I ran out of battery power in the middle of a shooting assignment. I asked the engineering department to check out the chargers and they gave them a clean bill of health. I was at a loss to explain the battery failures.
I guessed the problem lay elsewhere. Not everybody could be happy at my success, I reasoned. Somebody was discharging my batteries behind my back and sabotaging my work. I could not stay up all night to watch my batteries being charged to ensure their operation during the day.
At lunch I saw my colleague Harley across the dining room. He immediately looked away as I came in. I went over and sat across from him.
“Harley,” I said jovially to break the ice. “Have you ever thought of going on the air with the Farm Show?”
Doubtful for a moment, his eyes lit up when he realized I was not kidding.
“You know, Joe Robbins is going to win the elections and he’ll move to Austin. We’ll need an anchor for the Farm Show once Joe’s gone. Harley ole boy, I think you’ll do good on the air.”
I must have tweaked the right buttons for a Texas boy who grew up running among the rows of cotton. “If you like, I can shoot you a demo reel on the farm set. Show it to Mr. D; see what he thinks.”
After Harley took over as anchor for the Farm Show, pretty young girls would show up at the front desk at KLBK-TV to get his autograph. He loved the perks of stardom. I did not expect an apology from him. This is rural Texas; it is still the Wild West. It would be generations before Harley could see me as an equal. But he did come over and gave me a hug. He stepped back graciously and added, “Thanks Satya, couldn’t have done it without your help.”
“I’ll see your name in lights some day, Harley Marley.”
We both laughed and he tipped his Stetson in my direction. The batteries never failed after that morning.
It was a quiet victory. We failed only to get Boudi to enjoy the taste of George the 4th. She made a grimace every time she took a sip. Tapan’da evolved from singing the songs of Tagore to the songs of Sochin Korta. I had found a Spanish bodega on the outskirt of town by Mackenzie Park that sold fresh catfish. We invited a few Bangali friends who we knew would value such a find.
Boudi made fish curry that was fit for a king. Over Sunday lunch we felt we were all kings and then drifted off to our own sweet dreams of the years to come.
(Posted April 1, 2014)
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