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|This short subject combines performance art, video, and political commentary into one unique package. Christopher Westfall plays nine distinct characters, each with a distinct opinion on the issue of gay marriage. The medium of video freed him from the limitations of a real-time performance piece, allowing him to create his characters by altering his own natural appearance over time rather than relying on makeup effects, wigs, and false beards. The end result is a poignant, humorous, and entertaining discourse on a pertinent topical issue.
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|Film Festival Screenings
Warning - may contain spoilers
Now that I had some experience under my belt, I knew that I wanted to do something that would showcase my acting abilities. I knew I could do characters, so I decided to make that the focus. It would be like a one-man show where I played a variety of characters expressing their various opinions of some topic. One thing I learned from having now attended three Gong Show events was that things that were in the news right then got a good reaction. I looked around the landscape of current events, and thought that the issue of gay marriage was timely. This was in the Spring of 2000. Little did I know that I would produce something that would remain relevant for the next decade.
I decided from the start that this would just be a showcase of opinions on the subject from all angles, and that I would not try to present an agenda of my own. The only structure I thought of putting to it was to have two characters who would represent the extreme point on both sides of the argument, with the intent of implying the extremists are bad no matter which side they're on.
I also decided not to map out the characters ahead. I would just grow out my hair and beard, and selectively cut and trim to create a new character. Similarly, I didn't try to script out anything for the character to say. I would have a general viewpoint, but then just improvise a lot of garbage in hopes I could cherry-pick some gems. The only thing I did was make sure that each character answered the question, "do YOU think gays should get married?" so that I could have a way to tie it all together at the end. And the one other thing I would do was to get one closeup shot framed differently from the shot where they're talking.
Doing all the different looks was the easy part of the process. I took great relish in coming into work every couple weeks looking like an entirely different person. What was tough was shooting it all by myself. Just framing the shot took forever. This was before the days when there were LCD screens that would flip around so you could see that the picture looks like. I had to set it up, shoot a couple feet, get behind the camera, rewind it, and see if it was any good. I had to repeat that multiple times every time I set up a shot. The good thing was that once I got it set up I could just babble on in character for as long as I wanted.
The toughest part was coming up with the character. It required finding an all new person to be. Sometimes I knew exactly who he would be and how he would sound. Sometimes I knew what his viewpoint was, but still needed to create the person who was expressing it. Sometimes I just started with nothing. In those cases I would just make my voice sound distinctive, and start rambling to see where it would go. All I knew was that when the tape started rolling, I had to start talking.
There was only one thing that didn't go as planned. I did the extreme right character like a closet-case preacher. The extreme left character was to be a bondage daddy type. When I got in the studio to record it, the first camera angle made the character look quite striking. It was intended to be a visually provocative character, but the angle the camera was at gave him a more credible appearance. I decided to change it up so that the most extreme looking character was actually the one with the most reasonable take on the subject. So I changed the character on the spot, and came up with entirely different things for him to say.
Finally I ran through the cast of characters, and I was ready to put it all together. Like with VoyEx, I wasn't sure where to start. I had so much to work with, but this time no direction to take it. But I had one thing doing for me. Apple had just come out with iMovie, and for the first time I was able to shoot and edit video with my home equipment. I had shot most of the footage on the Public Access analog equipment, but did the last character with my own, new, digital video camera.
So not only could I now edit at home, but digital editing allowed me to do things that would make putting together a mosaic like this a lot easier. In analog editing, once you put something down, it's down. If you want to go back and insert a couple more seconds of something, you then have to go back and redo everything that came after it. But with digital editing, you can create the little chunks, and just mix and match them any way you want.
So I just took each character, cut the footage up into usable clips, took only the best stuff, and tried to assemble it in a cohesive arc. It started with each character making his opening remarks, and then each character stating his personal opinion. In between I just kept hammering away at it until I liked the way it looked. I knew it needed to be a little shorter. The running time was too long, and it lost momentum about 2/3 of the way through. But I just didn't want to lose any of the content I had. There was nowhere I could make any cuts. So I decided to leave it.
The one big stylistic decision I made was to take the crazy looking guy and have him say all the reasonable stuff at the very end. It's like, let all the screwballs jabber on, and then bring it back to the ground. Then once around to silently reprise all the characters with the silent closeups, and closing credits. It worked in terms of structure, but I knew it had pacing problems.
I called the piece "Gay Marriage: A One-man Show." I liked the wry, oxymoronic twist. I packaged it up and sent it to MIX. They did accept it, but as part of an "installation." It would not be screened to a seated audience. It would be in the basement playing amongst other videos on a loop on a VCR among a battery of VCRs looping through work. Viewers were supposed to listen on provided headphones. It was enough to get me a presenter's badge and free access to the festival, but the installation was a disaster. Not was I only lost in a jumble of work, but the VCRs were never playing. Every single time someone was there to whom I wanted to show my work, I had to get a technician to cue up the tape and get the VCR working.
So when I got home from MIX that year, I had three years to reflect on. The first year I screened to a full house of engaged viewers. The second year I played to a tiny theater with no one in it. The third year I was on a broken VCR in the basement. I didn't like that trajectory. And to make matters worse, I got a similar reaction from the greater festival community. Every festival I submitted it to rejected it. Considering how much time, effort, and money it took to prepare these submissions, I finally decided I was over it. I had a good run screening all over the world. From here on in I would just submit to MIX, and if anyone else found it and wanted it, then they could show it too. But I was not going to allow myself to judge my work by how many screens it showed on. That was a liberating epiphany that has persisted to this day.
The irony is that the more time goes on, the more this piece has been appreciated. It was only in Obama's second term that the issue crested, and my video began to look dated. Until then, year after year, I could show it to individuals or groups, and it would be as if it had just come off the presses. And despite the pacing issues, it was extremely successful as a one-man show. My ability to disappear into each character was complete. I will always keep this one on my A-List.
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