Homegrown Cinema: telling your story, and loving your audience

I’m poor. That mean’s I’m frugal. I make home-made gifts, and grow vegetables. I like home-made things. They take extra effort, but they mean so much more. And fresh cherry tomatoes make those things you buy at the store taste like sawdust. My garden is an apt metaphor that could be applied in countless ways. But it is also a tangible, real, and demanding thing. It takes hours of work. But when you reap the harvest, it’s all worthwhile. I could write sonnets about garden-fresh cucumbers. They are heavenly. And I mean that. I fully expect the exchange when I arrive in Heaven to go something like this:
“Welcome home, Jen.”
“Thanks, God. It’s so nice to see you.”
“Well, we’ve been expecting you. The cucumber patch is this way.”
Then we laugh as we walk through a beautiful garden.

I’ve been making homegrown movies for a while now. When I was in college I started experimenting with editing VHS to VHS using a VCR and my mom’s camcorder. Usually my little videos are a collection of stills and clips, with music added in. I finished the video from our family vacation a while ago and my sister-in-law gave my a wonderful comment when she told me I’d really “captured great moments” because, after all, that is what movies do. They are full of moments. (It’s also why Jane Campion’s Passionless Moments remains my favorite short film.)

In the 1941 Preston Sturge’s film Sullivan’s Travels, the title character has been sentenced to a grim stint of hard labor.  Sullivan is a Hollywood producer who went undercover to learn more about the “common man” in order to get a good story for a film.  In a wonderful Hollywood twist, he is trapped in his guise as a homeless man, and wrongly convicted of a crime.  With the chain gang Sullivan (played by Joel McRea) really does learn the plight of the common man.  One night, the officers’ screen a movie for the prisoners.  In the most often cited scene from the film, the prisoners laugh hysterically. Sullivan looks around the room, and his eyes light up with epiphany.  He goes back to Hollywood (after the identity mistake is revealed) and tells fellow movie execs what an important and wonderful thing they do in making people laugh.

There’s a fine line there.  Movies can be an escape, but should they be?  I don’t think the answer is yes or no.  I think it depends. . . What are we escaping from?  What are we escaping to?  Is this escape a distraction that helps us dream of a better tomorrow, or is it an escape that denies difficult truth?

Last Friday I spent the entire day working on our church’s Vacation Bible School video. I’d been taking pictures and little videos all week and loading them on the computer.  I started editing in earnest on Wednesday, and kept working for the next two days.  I was tired.  I had shin splints from standing at my computer with my legs tensed, trying to get the video done in time.  I was stressed out and my temper was short.  I was drinking Kombucha tea and mineral water like an addict to calm my stomach.  I started the DVD burning at 5:30 Friday, did my chores, took a shower, and showed up at the church at 6:29, one minute before the program started.  I handed the DVD to my pastor and sat down in the sound booth, exhausted but happy, to burn several more copies for people in the church.

Then, this wonderful thing happened.  They screened the video for the myriad of parents, children, workers, and grandparents present.  And people laughed.  I could hear them.  I had crafted moments of the film, setting up certain shots and moments to play off of each other.  People responded.  For the first time I really realized why Segei Eisenstein was so wrapped up in the ways a filmmaker to influence the way an audience thinks and feels.  The storyteller has a power.  I’d not felt it that strong since I had played the lead in a farce while doing college theater.  You craft the line, the image, the voice, the face, the posture, and wait knowing full well the audience will respond.  It’s a strange power.

I think it’s abused.  By many people.  But it is power, and I believe that means it can and must be redeemed.  The VBS video will influence what and how people remember that week, that event, that part of their life.  This was cinema that was the audience.  People were looking for their face on the screen, and they saw it.  Homegrown cinema, like homegrown stories, give the audience ownership of the tale, and become a part of their consciousness in a new and important way.

And I, back in the sound booth, was looking around at the laughing audience with a Sullivan-like look of ephiphany on my face.  I didn’t want the stress that came with making the VBS video, but the stress was worth it.  I think, perhaps, I had been given the task and opportunity to bless people.   I don’t think I can ever truly deserve that gift, but by grace I will use it.  These, too, are the stories worth telling.

PS:  Sullivan’s Travels also stars Veronica Lake, sporting her famous drooping hairstyle.  Many women copied it, and as it was during WWII, there were reported incidents of the hairstyle causing accidents for female workers in factories.  Paramount gave her an updo in her next film, and it was dubbed Veronica Lake’s “Victory Hairdo.”


About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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2 Responses to Homegrown Cinema: telling your story, and loving your audience

  1. Marla Bowen says:

    Hi Jen!

    Love your writing — need to see any one of your films. I think they could speak to me.. Ever think of putting your stuff in a daily newspaper? You always lift my spirits. Thanks!

    • jenletherer says:

      Thanks Marla! I’m happy to show them. I should have you, Jim, and the girls out for dinner sometime. Then we could have a movie fest! I really appreciate the comments:)

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