Journal Snapshots
by Marvin Payne

Look at the back of a snapshot and tell me what shape it is. You might say “rectangular.” I ask, “What are its limits?” You answer, “I wouldn’t expect to see anything outside a three-by-five inch plane.” I ask, “How deep is it?” You answer, “Whadayya mean ‘deep’? You want that in microns, or what?” (Actually, such considerations are rapidly growing archaic. These days, all your answers to snapshot questions would be in megs and pixels. And the mere question of whether or not the “back” of a picture even exists would require the input of both a physicist and a philosopher to explore.)

But turn the picture over. Hey, it’s your daughter (who’s about to graduate from Weber State University) when she was two years old, standing in a tire swing with the afternoon sun roaring across the field out of the west and igniting her hair like a halo–about the brightest thrust of light that film can catch, except that she’s smiling at her dad, who’s holding the camera, and that smile is the brightest element in the picture. (“Brighter far than noonday sun” is a phrase that suddenly seems not the least bit like poetry, but perfectly comprehensible, even mundane.)

Now tell me the limits of the picture. Can you see anything beyond the edges? How deep is the image? How far can you see?

When you sit down with your journal, remember that you can’t write your life. You can only paste in snapshots of it. But to the extent that the snapshots are of things you really love, or that really affect you, the edges will recede, and your reader, even if it’s only you, will see far into a life.

Here’s a little suite of snapshots. About ten years ago, a couple of guys I got acquainted with on movie sets asked me if I would act in a little cowboy film they had in mind. One of the guys was Bill Shira. These guys were prop and art department guys, and they’d built a cabin (indoors) for a Disney film (which I also was in, called “The Witching Of Ben Wagner”). Disney was done with the cabin, and it was about to be dismantled. These guys wanted to re-dress it from the quaint cottage of a good witch into an abandoned miner’s cabin and shoot a movie in it, real quick–in fact, on the one night between when Disney was done with it and the morning on which it was to become a stack of lumber again. So in the course of a few hours it was stripped of quaintness and lace and adorned with dust, dead mice, and cobwebs. (Cobwebs are made from rubber cement spun off the end of a power drill. Rubber cement is also what pyrotechnic crews paint all over scenery that has to appear to be burning violently, which is what we did on another Disney picture, “Secret Of Lost Creek,” which I also was in, the mine set of which Bill borrowed for the cowboy film and magically re-installed under the witch’s cabin forty miles south which by then had disappeared.That’s the manner in which we made three short films over the space of a couple of years, all of which won festival trophies but no money. But they got Bill enough attention to attract some investors. Which brings us to these journal entries. I have the idea that most people think making movies is frantic, constant, bone-wearying work. Well, it is. Except for actors, whose experience is more typically as follows.25 July 2002Idaho panhandle, near Grangeville, population 3228, in a Bill Shira film. It’s called “Where Rivers Meet,” and we all hope it does well for Bill. Like all his films, this is a family project. The meals are all prepared by little old ladies in Bill’s mom’s ward. She herself is the executive producer, a widow with a flower shop. Heaven only knows what she had to hock to pay for all this.

We shot this morning in a little frame chapel with a steep tin roof, a hundred years old, that belongs to the Nez Perce Indians. “Nez Perce” means “pierced noses.” Some of our grips would feel right at home among them, being pierced to the degree that they would draw lightning and also might not be allowed to board airplanes.

The whole area is abuzz about a movie happening here. During a break before lunch an old cowboy came into camp enthusing about local talent. Bill and I hopped in his pickup and drove downriver a couple of miles to check out a bar for a possible location and listen to the owner strum us a couple of songs on his old telecaster. We are perceived as very important. Most of the locals seem tickled–others are looking for a fight or, even better, a lawsuit.

This is extraordinarily beautiful country. I’ve never seen anything like it. Fields of grain stretch out like oceans and then rise and roll in hills that are crowned with pine forests. Rivers run through this, and down occasional canyons like the one I’m sitting in now, waiting for a ride back to Grangeville.

The deer are a pretty brown. They are white-tails, and as plentiful as our gray mule deer. Driving home the other night, one of our crew almost hit a black bear.

Until now, my only memory of Grangeville is that nearly thirty years ago we were on our way to Portland and sort of got lost. After dark we came upon Grangeville and stopped for dinner. I asked the waitress what kind of soup they had and she said, “Chicken noodle and mine strone.” (Rhymes with “pine cone.” I’m really grateful that, regarding Grangeville, my horizons have been advanced.26 July 2002Writing that last entry is about the most active thing I’ve done in the three days I’ve been here. My part is small, but is played in several locations, so they have to keep me around.

I got here so tired and battered from work in Utah that the first day on location I slept for awhile on the back seat of a van, for awhile in the changing room of the trailer, for awhile on a sleeping bag under a pine tree, and for awhile on a church pew that had been carried outside to make room for equipment. I actually got the most sleep on the pew, and wondered if maybe it flowed from a long-stifled urge to sleep in church.

I woke up at 11:00 this morning after a 13-hour sleep and rode out to a new location, a tiny town on a ridge called Clearwater. When it became evident that I wasn’t going to be acting (they were still building my sheriff’s office), I sat down on a chair on the front porch of a disused store. There was nothing across the street, and I looked out on the descending landscape to the distant golden ridges beyond the Clearwater River, and into the sky, built of clouds. I sat there for four hours, gazing, dozing, letting my mind go wherever it would, letting it sleep. It became so clear to me that I’ve been wound up tight as a rattlesnake for a long, long time.27 July 2002Today the front porch of my Clearwater store was swarming with cast and crew–the site of lunch. Yesterday all I could hear from there was the flapping of a flag on a porch post, and the flapping of another flag over the volunteer fire station down on the corner. That and an occasional crow, an occasional cow, and, when an occasional car drove into town, an occasional dog barking. I can’t listen anyway, I’m acting all day, and into the night.End of journal writing, back to Meridian column writing.Something what frustrated me about my experience in Idaho was that I didn’t think I could capture the beauty of it to share with my family. On my last day I resorted to buying one of those little use-it-and-toss-it cameras from the drug store, just to bring home a glimpse. When I saw the pictures (before I left Idaho), I was still frustrated. Then that night I was watching some of the footage from the previous day’s work and a thought you might think obvious sort of fell on me like the proverbial ton of bricks. “Duh, we’re making a movie.” The whole reason we were the heck up there was to point a very high definition motion picture camera at it all and show it to people.But you can’t make a movie of your life. At least, few of us have dangerous or glamorous or morbid enough lives that investors would find them attractive. A few segments, maybe, but not our whole lives. So we take snapshots. But we can take them carefully, with an eye for what they might catch and reveal. (Hey! This could be a profitable bumper sticker: Catch and Reveal! Especially in Idaho.)

Here’s a kind of model, again from film. On every shoot, you’ll be acting along merrily and between shots somebody from wardrobe or script supervision pops out of nowhere, yells “Flashing!” and takes your picture with a clunky Polaroid camera. It’s so when you come back in two weeks to shoot the next couple of minutes of action, which is often the remainder of the same scene (twice in my career it’s been come back in a year), you’ll be wearing your turban right-side-front and have the emerald ring on your right hand and the ruby ring on your left, rather than the other way around. It’s all kind of technical and flat, but the power that drives all those Polaroids is a devotion to the truth of the story, or, of course, the appearance of truth.

Journal connection (with a whole new metaphor! This is called “value-added”): Relax, you’re not making a feature film, you’re only taking snapshots. You’re not building a house, you’re merely building a window into a house that the Lord has spent your whole life building. Honesty and care in the handling of your tools will ensure that it’s a clean window, one that doesn’t mess up the view. And there’s not one of you who isn’t more beautiful than the grandest parcel of northern Idaho.

(Oh yeah, my family loved the snapshots. And now, a month after my return to Utah, I do too.)

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