Monday, October 26, 2009

An accidental genius (part one)

In the winter of 2006, my wife Leslie and I were in Berlin visiting our good friends, the talented and accomplished filmmakers, Lucia Palacios and Dietmar Post.
After dinner, around a bottle of J├Ągermeister, the conversation drifted toward some of the obscure films and filmmakers of our liking. At some point, Dietmar got up to tend the smoldering fire, then turning quickly around and pointing at us with the poker in his hand, he said: "Have you ever heard about Max Slim?" I had never heard that name before, and by the look in her face neither did Leslie. But just in case, none of us was readily answering, afraid that Dietmar, being the mercurial German director that he is would poke us in the head with the iron rod, metaphorically speaking, that is. So, we just kept staring at the revived flame, pretending the question was not addressed at us. "Max Slim!, the director of The Last Turn!" insisted Dietmar, finally resting the fireplace tool against the wall. It was only then that we dared to admit our ignorance about this little known artist in particular. Dietmar smiled, savoring the suspense and anticipation before telling one of those stories too good to keep to oneself, and emptying his pipe against the mantlepiece –which only made his wife, Lucia, roll her eyes in exasperation– our friend proceeded to tell us who Max Slim was.

Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schlimmstein, was born in the town of Bischofshofen in what in 1898 was still the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the summer of 1914, the sound of drawing swords and the billowing winds of war that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, terrified to death the sensitive nature of young Max. Afraid of being drafted into the conflict that would become WWI, (with the likelihood of getting wounded, maimed or even killed), Maximillian took, perhaps, the most important decission of his life, and acted on it. He sold his neighbor's bicycle and his own, his treasured books and stamp collection, put on the three best shirts he had, his everyday suit on top of Sunday's, and bulked up with conflicting emotions, barely able to embrace her, said farewell to his ailing mother. Three days later, Max sailed from Trieste as a stowaway on a steamship, reaching the port of New York the 9th of September of that year.
Maximillian wandered through the streets of the great metropoli, mesmerized by the sheer magnitude of buildings and endless avenues. He walked for hours against the tide of rushing crowds and maddening traffic, until he found himself –well past midnight– standing in front of a wondrous sight that turned the sidewalk into daylight: a marquee. Its hundreds of incandescent lights luring him to the darkness, inside. In bright colors, advertised with block letters and the painted likenesses of villains and heroines, the promise of thrill, adventure and emotion. He had heard about the marvels of cinema, but this was the first time he had seen a movie theatre in person. The little money he brought with him was soon to be gone, spent mostly on pretzels and all-nighters at the "Nickelodeon" (five cents cheaper than a movie palace but cleaner and safer than a flophouse). Not only was he penniless now, he was also mortally bitten, poisoned by the movies, but what Max lacked in funds, he made up with determination. After crossing half of the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic ocean, the fact that he didn't speak a single word of English, was not going to stop him from crossing the East River and getting a job as a gofer at the Kaufman film studios in Astoria, Queens. (It's worth noting that in the early days of silent cinema, spoken language was not an issue).
Max soon felt he might have made a regretteable mistake. Learning how movies were made could mean the end of the magic, the mystery gone, but interestingly, quite the opposite happened. Having "a peak behind the curtain", so to speak, only excited Maximillian's imagination even more. He wanted to learn the art and craft of filmmaking and the best place to start doing it was, he thought, right from up above, looking down from the rafters and scaffoldings. As fortune would have it, Max didn't last long at running errands; instead, he ran up the ladder, literally, finding what would be his vocation, overnight (this also literally), in the art of throwing fake snow over the movie sets. When chance presented herself, Max greeted her with open arms.

The script of the photoplay in production that day called for "snow falling on the barren fields", but the stagehand that usually took care of these chores was nowhere to be found. Overhearing the cries of the art director and always willing to lend a hand, Max casually offered himself as an "expert" on the matter (not a small feat to say in sign language), which to the art director's glee and relief proved to be not far from the truth. Back in Bischofshofen, Max had spent countless hours of his childhood winters looking at the snow storms from his bedroom window, and knew by heart the precise cadence, flow and pattern of real snowfall, only, in the movies, it was made of tiny bits of paper (or as the Italians like to call it: "confetti"). Max got the job, and he must have handled it well enough to keep it from then on. Strikes us as no less than ironic that, what to the eyes of his mother was a mere waste of time, ended up having a practical application in the land of opportunity. (Incidentaly, the missing stagehand was found later that night, locked by accident in the back of a truck where he was taking a nap).
Encouraged by this initial -albeit modest- success, Max quickly started showing signs of a preternatural knack for storytelling when he resolved to improve upon the standard –and crude– method used to recreate snow at the time. Max accomplished this by experimenting with a novel snow throwing technique "against gravity", and most importantly, introducing the use of rice paper (vs. customary newsprint), painstakingly hand-cut at his exact specifications. Max's innovations where put to practice in the now lost four-reeler The Lumberman's Daughter (1915), with the result of the snowflakes falling slower and more languidly in the needed scenes, or as a critic of "The Sunday Examiner" put it, "with great pathos". Whatever that meant, it had to be good, for it got him the most enthusiastic kudos from no other than the very D.W. Griffith himself, who admittedly had "never seen snow of such beauty on the cinema screen before, or in real life, for that matter." D.W. immediately took Max under his wing, hiring him as his exclusive weather artist, for the then extravagant salary of $24 a week and a one-way ticket in a westbound train to Hollywood, California.

(to be continued)

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