Thursday, November 20, 2008

From Matewan

Squeaking, clacking and low rumbles of a mile-long coal train are echoing outside of my window as I write this. The tracks are only a quarter mile away and it is sound I have heard often over the last couple nights. The streets are shiny wet from a light snow that is falling but not quite sticking.

I'm in a decrepit hotel in Matewan, West Virginia -- the area famous for the Hatfield-McCoy feud, among other also-violent happenings, mostly involving coal mining and unions, sometimes a flood. We drove the poorest Appalachia to get here. Matewan, with a population of about 498 is actually quite a bit larger than the 'towns' we went through to get here. All no more than a quarter mile in diameter, restricted by the mountains, these collections of buildings exist only because of the railroad tracks that wind through the bases of the mountains – the tracks upon which is delivered the coal, coal, coal.

Most of the buildings in these railtrack-side towns are prefab or trailer homes. I think that carting things away is too expensive or too much effort for many. Junked cars, appliances, etc. pile up next to buildings and frequent burned out shells of homes stand next to still-occupied ones. There is no shortage of churches. The denominations one would expect in this land – Baptist, Revival, Methodist, Zionist, Fundamental, are all within walking distance of any domicile in these towns. But even the churches look sad and more than a handful have been abandoned; left to be devoured by the elements. No matter what your beliefs, a house of worship crumbling down upon itself, is one of the bleakest sites to see, especially in a town that is not quite dead.

The mile long trains laden with Coal frequently lumber down the tracks and the massive coal mines themselves, appearing suddenly as one goes around a bend in the road, are an impressive sight. In one place, we actually drove under a huge conveyor belt that moved coal from the mountain on one side of the road, to the tracks on the other side.

Disturbing to see are the areas where strip mining has occurred. Huge swaths of forest, hundreds of feet across – one seemed to be about a mile across, are gone, bare ground chewed into by machinery. They look like bomb blasts. And another form of mining that I was not aware of is also taking place: mountaintop removal. I leave it for the interested person to click on that hyperlink to learn more.

I took this picture not knowing what exactly was being said. Click on the picture to see it in full size -- then zoom in on the sign to see what caught my eye. Googling provided the answer. It is the sign of one Mick McCoy, an English teacher in these parts. Were it not for that sign, I would not have become aware of this insidious form of mining.

Tomorrow will be cold so I'm preparing as best as possible. It's hard to believe that I'll be back in L.A. in a few days. It seems so distant from where I am right now.

Another horn of a diesel engine has sounded. Another mile-long train, cars piled high with coal is beginning to pass. I'll go to the window to watch it, then to sleep.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What day, what hour, what state?

We are getting to a point where we really have lost track of what day it is. Since our day off doesn't fall on any particular day, certainly not the weekend, it is no help, chronologically speaking. Time, the actual hour, is also getting a bit tricky. Bouncing back and forth through time zones does that. And states? All I know is that I'm experiencing an east coast autumn this year. Twice. Much of the areas we are traveling look similar to where I grew up in Pennsylvania, though the moment the locals speak, it is obviously the deep south. Today was a dreary gray, rainy day. The temperature is mild for the moment, though I fear the inevitable plunge of the mercury for which I am not fully prepared. I'm hoping that I'll be back to sunny Los Angeles before that happens in earnest.

I am enjoying the hotel we are currently in. Little things like complimentary breakfast, a microwave in the room and decent internet make all the difference in the world. We were dreading the next location; a place that was quite unlikely to have these amenities (not to mention fitness rooms, a bar, LAUNDRY!, etc.) Once we discovered that the commute wasn't much different, we petitioned to stay in this hotel. Petition granted, we are happy that our current beds and bathrooms will remain the same. In a couple days we will be heading to the new location, Salley, South Carolina; a town with a population of 412. Our crew will actually, temporarily, increase the population of that town by 2% as well as completely screw up their ethnic demographic. Even the people who live here (here being Lexington, South Carolina) have, for the most part, never heard of this tiny burg.

Should be interesting. There, we will be shooting part of the "Chitlin Strut", the event for which this town is known.

Getting here from Austin, Texas was one of those trips one hopes never to repeat. At the airports we have a combined 36 cases of equipment and personal luggage. Most of these are massive cases that store lights, cameras and grip equipment. At the Continental gate, one of the first camera guys checking in was told that his personal check-in bag was too heavy. He was then given the bleak information that the weight limit was 75 pounds, well below the 95 pounds that other airlines had placed. We all turned to look grimly at the mountain of equipment cases looming behind us. This was very bad news.

The arguing of a harried producer with the airline resulted in nothing. This was not a problem that money could solve. It was either ship them by ground, or by Fedex or lower the weight somehow.

With about ten cases well over the limit and with a shoot the very next morning, we had no choice but to open up the cases and move things around as best as possible – shifting things from one case to another in order to get some of the 95 pound cases to weigh 75 pounds. It is certainly not a good way to move expensive equipment and with cases of open camera gear; tripods, large lights, cables, etc. spread out on the airport floor as we moved things around, it was not a great way to start the morning of travel. We hoped it was a final kick in the teeth from Texas, rather than portents of South Carolina. We did finally succeed in getting things on board and happily flew out of Austin. Hopping on another flight in Houston, we watched from the windows of quite a smaller plane as the baggage handlers below the wings argued with each other about the mountain of equipment that was supposed to go into the belly of the plane. The shaking of heads, staring at our cases, more shaking of heads, and furrowed brows shifted to the sounds of much thumping and banging as they loaded our stuff aboard. After about thirty minutes, this was interrupted by an announcement from the captain that 'some' people wouldn't be getting their baggage on this flight as ten 'random' bags were going to be removed due to weight issues. Our intrepid producer stomped down the aisle of the plane to the front, where the powers-that-be were getting off the intercom, and explained with frustration that if all our equipment didn't arrive with us, thousands of dollars worth of production were at stake.

I heard that it was a rough and bumpy takeoff, with more than one crew member cursing under their breath as they stared out the windows. I heard that it seemed to take a long time to get up to speed for take off. I don't know. I was asleep as something about being on a plane puts me to sleep as well as a tranquilizer dart. I did awake briefly for a jag of turbulence that really made one aware of just how fast we were flying. Arriving at a tiny airport, we finally, after much checking and cross checking saw that we were only missing a couple lights and a monitor. We got lucky and the show went on without hitch.

Meanwhile, some innocents aboard that plane didn't get their luggage because of us and our obnoxiously large cargo. We, the crew, apologize. Blame Continental. They should have known better from the start.

Now, it is eleven thirty (or is it eight thirty?). Tomorrow is another day. What day? Uh, I don't know.

I do know that I'm tired and the bed is calling.

Good night.

Friday, November 07, 2008

From Austin

Road journal? No, sorry. The days have been too long and I've been rolling into bed pretty quickly after shoots.

I happily watched Obama's victory in Mercedes, Texas. For our day off, I went to South Padre Island, waded into the Gulf of Mexico and had a Margarita and burger at an outdoor beach cafĂ© that, with the peeling paint, weather beaten wood paneling and 'Creedence' playing over the busted speaker – couldn't have been more perfect.

Mercedes itself is like a town out of Last Picture Show. Now, I'm in Austin, which is quite a cosmopolitan city. However, from the vantage point of a hotel room, there's not much difference between the two. We'll be having a day off in Austin, so I'm looking forward to a bit of fun. I haven't been here in quite some time, and am looking forward to it.

About the shoot itself, I really can't say much. Confidentiality contracts and all that. However, it's a doozy. Eventually, I may spill the beans.

From Austin, we go to South Carolina, and then Kentucky, or Missouri. I don't know which. Then, supposedly home, by the 24th. Wow, that date seems far off right now.

If something exciting happens, I will recap.

Sorry for the tepid entry. Gotta sleep.