Tuesday, March 27, 2007

More Tales of AFI Volunteerism

I have been volunteering for the AFI film festival for the past few days. Volunteering is fun; you get to hang out a movie theater all day long, telling people to line up for THEATER 6 UP AGAINST THE WALL! NO that line is for PRESS ONLY! And then you repeat yourself for the next 127 people who also try to get into the press line.

One day, I was assigned to the role of Production Assistant. Production Assistant sounds a whole heck of a lot like Assistant Producer, a title I often read on movie credits. I was thrilled to have the job. Until I found out exactly what it entailed.

Production Assistant does not mean you walk around with a clipboard, telling people what to do, and having them do it with no back talk (i.e. every filmmaker’s dream).

No, Production Assistant means you get to to be part of the Production Crew. And what does the Production Crew do? It cleans up after all the parties from the night before, and it also sets up for the parties and events that are happening that night. The Production Crew lived in this little un-air conditioned closet of a space, huddled over their laptops and MySpace pages until the walkie-talkies started blaring.

My work day began with a stint in the hospitality lounge. Before we walked in, the person on the Production Crew warned me that the lounge was “totally gay.” I didn’t think of it in those terms as much as I looked at in terms of advertising. You see, the AFI Film Festival is heavily sponsored by Target, and the lounge looked like it was Target’s industrial sense of style. Everything was a mixture of red and white, and everything was… plastic. I am sure if I time-traveled from the 1960s to this moment and this place, I would be so excited to see that, in the future of 2007, everything would be exactly as I imagined – sleek, clean, and plastic.

I didn’t time-travel from the 1960s, though, and the plasticity of it all (they even had plastic martini glasses) made me think of patio furniture and cookouts. This is the type of furniture that doesn’t inspire you to mouse up your hair into that “just got out of bed” shape, clad yourself in black leather, and vamp; this is the type of furniture that inspires you to show up in flip-flops, slurp some Bud without wiping off the can first, and tell stories about how that cousin who accidentally set himself on fire while fine-tuning his illegal moonshine still because, as you pointed out before, that boy ain’t right.

The most valued area of the lounge was the snack bin. Part of being a Production Assistant means that I was responsible for keeping the snack bins full of chips, cookies, trail mix, chocolate, chocolate-dipped granola bars, and at least nine types of colored sugar water with bright labels proclaiming them as “energy drinks.”

The person responsible for the lounge inspired the volunteer staff by waxing poetic about how he has lost faith in humanity. “I have spent 23 years in the hospitality industry because I like to be hospitable. When people come in, grab a bunch of food, and leave, it makes my heart ache.” Shortly after hearing that speech some people came in, looted the snack area, and left without saying anything or making eye contact.

The whole point of being a Production Assistant is to help create this separate world between the elite (filmmakers, press, honored guests and dignitaries), and everyone else. Only the elite get to see the lounge. Only the elite get to walk the red carpet. Only the elite get to loot the free trail mix.

It is human nature to expect the elite to behave better than the rabble, and it is easy to become resentful when you see the elite behaving poorly. And while the production crew cleaned up the broken beer bottles after one of the swankier parties, the resentfulness came out in the form of gossip. Such and such person refused to walk the red carpet. So and so didn’t even show up to the Q&A. Can you believe the fit Important Person made over the fact the hotel bar didn’t carry the right brand of coffee?

The only bit of gossip I had really wasn’t all that gossipy – a bit of talent was upset because paying ticket-holders didn’t get kicked out of a screening to make room for an entourage of some sort. There was also the issue of Someone Elite wanting the movie to start late because Someone Elite was running late. The theater staff decided that, no, the movie would start ON TIME because if it started late the next movie in that theater would start late and the movie after that would start late. Needless to say, the limitations of space and time upset Someone Elite so much that a whole heck of a lot of people suffered the verbal assaults of the Handlers of the Elite.

My story did not impress as much as get an, “Eh, that’s typical… we need to wrap up here and start setting up the red carpet.”

I felt that distinct sense of blotches-on-the-neck discomfort I get when I’ve committed some sort of faux pas. And then I realized what it was – I was a volunteer. Here these crew people were getting paid $12 to $25 an hour to do this job and I was doing it for free. They had the right to complain about the cruddy work situations and the tedium of it all because, hey, it was their job, right? Everybody has the right to complain about the job, right?

But this wasn’t a job for me. I was doing this heavy lifting and manual labor for the cost of nothing, donating my time to a film festival because I love movies and I love film festivals, and to be a part of it, even if it is the part that cleans up broken beer bottles, was an honor. To complain about doing something out of love like it was just part of your job you hate… well, that is borderline insane.

I decided not to complain any more, and steadfastly march on. And I am glad I did. I am quite sure I lost a few pounds when all was said and done. One quick sniff at the end of the day would let you know that my nice little volunteer T-shirt was permeated with sweat and stink.

Because I worked four straight days on a film festival without watching an entire film, I felt this need to keep my sleepy eyes open enough to actually watch a movie.

The movie I picked was Shut Up and Sing, a documentary about those controversial Dixie Chicks who exercised their right of free speech and were subsequently demonized by bloggers, some people on Fox News who like to scream, and country music fans who decided to give up on their “South-Shall-Rise-Again/We Should All Be Secessionists Because We Hate The U.S. Government” rhetoric in favor of “Our President Should Never Be Doubted” rhetoric.

But when watching the movie, the number one thing that struck me was how the entire film is spent with the Dixie Chicks in this insulated bubble - separated from what the rest of us call reality. They have ranches away from everyone. They’re in recording studios away from everyone. They are all insulted in hotel rooms, surrounded by their laptops, cellphones, and Starbucks drinks. For a film that is nominally about the Dixie Chicks vs. their fans, there is no direct interaction between the Dixie Chicks and their fans. In fact, their manager carries a laminated photo of them one time when they weren’t kept in an insulated bubble, and he taunts the band with it. Before me, you played concerts where you had to interact with the commoners. Before me, you weren’t set to sail on a sea of professional handlers. You should listen to me.

I will have to admit that it made it difficult to feel sympathy for the ladies because their tour was only going to make $20 million instead of $60 million. As much as I am for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, the filmmakers seemed to reduce all of the intellectual and debates on principles to “Isn’t it sad when pretty girls are made to cry.”

I thought of the people who cleaned up their left over Starbucks cups and broken beer bottles. I thought of the people who set the lights for the concerts. I wondered if they did it to be part of the scene, or if they did it out of love.

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