Native American culture in film and more

This month we dive into Native American culture, starting with Dances With Wolves—a longtime favorite I’ve been eager to re-watch for a couple of years—especially after reading The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Then thematically, I’m taken back to a favorite CD of mine from 1995—Between Father Sky and Mother Earth. And finally—curious about the American frontier at the turn of the century—a new discovery: Photographer William Henry Jackson.

Film
Dances with Wolves (1990) led the charge for revitalizing the western genre after it died out in 1980 when bad reviews led to an unprecedented financial disaster for Heaven’s Gate. Cinematographers around the globe eagerly welcomed back the genre—ever nostalgic for the dirt, dust, mud, candles, lamps, campfires, vistas, legends, and every-man heroism that made for a tantalizing big-screen event. For Dean Semler, it wasn’t his first Western, nor was it his last. He had previously shot Young Guns 1/2 and Mad Max 2/3, while post-haste lensing City Slickers (1991), and eventually The Alamo (2004), Appaloosa (2008), and The Ridiculous 6 (2015) while continuing to shoot epics in other genres for industry titans such as John Milius, Randall Wallace, and Mel Gibson. With Wolves, he garnered one of the film’s seven Oscars—out of twelve academy award nominations.

The film was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. It started as a spec script written by Michael Blake in the ’80s. But after shopping it around, he couldn’t sell it. Costner—a friend from Stacy’s Knights (1983)—suggested he write the story as a novel. Blake conceded, however numerous publishers gave it a pass. Finally, in 1988, it got a paperback release, and Costner purchased the rights. However, development woes continued—due to the western genre’s dead flame—as studio after studio passed on the project. Finally, a deal was struck with Orion Pictures after some strategic management with foreign rights, and production started on July 18, 1989.

Indigenous peoples—mostly Sioux—played all the Native American roles in the film, and Indian communities largely embraced it. So much so that Kevin Costner was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. With a twenty-two million dollar budget, it grossed over four hundred million worldwide, and new interest in Native American culture began to manifest abundantly. It wasn’t long before the US National Film Registry selected the film for preservation due to its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

What strikes me most is the film’s authenticity. Costner wanted the film to look like it was a child’s view of the west—fresh, romantic, and painterly. And he thought the way to achieve that was to be as authentic as possible. Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft dedicated himself to extensive research to achieve it. And is forever grateful to Dean Semler, often commenting that “It feels like a painter lit it.”

Semler says the look of the film evolved, “Costner had very specific images in mind, and we built on that.” Costner really enjoyed working with Dean as his first experience collaborating with a DP, and he often talks about how gracious Dean was.

The film’s compositions evoked an undying admiration for the subjects and their place in the world. The camera placement, blocking, and lens selection precisely serve this—often looking at the Indigenous and Costner as heroes of great stature.

The editing served the performances. Neil Travis’s strategy was to let things happen without trying to hurry it along with cuts. But to approach the running time the distributor wanted, Travis admits, “it got to a point when cutting scenes felt like losing an arm or a leg.” Eventually, the distributor loosened its grip, and—upon picture lock—Travis found very little that was wrong with it.

Downloadable Resources 
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by Kevin CostnerJake EbertsJim Wilson
Written by Michael Blake
Based on a novel by Michael Blake of the same name
Starring Kevin CostnerMary McDonnellGraham Greene
Music by John Barry
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Edited by William HoyChip MasamitsuSteve PotterNeil Travis
Production Design by Jeffrey Beecroft
Production Company:  Tig Productions, Majestic Films International, and more
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Running Time: 181min, 236min (extended edition)
Aspect Ratio: 2:39:1
Camera and Lenses: Panavision Panaflex Gold II and Platinum, Primo, C, & E Series Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak EXR 50D 5245, EXR 500T 5296
Printed Film Format: 35mm, 70mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Country: USA
Language: English, Sioux, Pawnee
Reported Budget: 22,000,000

Book
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer aims to challenge Dee Brown’s claim in his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.” 

After a brief look at the Indians first exposure to Europeans, through to the Wounded Knee massacre, Treuer picks up the narrative where Brown left off—post-massacre in 1890. He takes us through the dark years following wounded knee—an endless barrage of inhumane practices administered by the US government in an attempt to “re-educate” the entire culture, literally stripping them from their families, languages, traditions, and existence. It’s an overwhelming and unbelievable accounting. But once he gets through it all, he takes us on a journey to the now—introducing us to thriving indigenous entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs, artisans, politicians, activists, businesses, and more—highlighting their resourcefulness and how they’ve carved their own path to reinvention.

The American Indian Dream is as much about looking back and bringing the culture along with it as it is about looking ahead. – Treuer writes.

Treuer grew up as an Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota. When starting college, he set his sights on a Ph.D. in anthropology—specifically studying Native American life—past and present.

From the NY Times to the Andrew Carnegie medal of excellence, his book has garnered consensual praise amongst the Nation’s most prominent literary critics.

Chapter after chapter, it’s like one shattered myth after another. – NPR
 
An informed, moving, and kaleidoscopic portrait… Treuer’s powerful book suggests the need for soul-searching about the meanings of American history and the stories we tell ourselves about this nation’s past. – New York Times Book Review

Photographer
William Henry Jackson was a photographer at the turn of the century. He was 47 when the Battle at Wounded Knee happened and lived to be 99 years old—dying in 1942. Like Brassaï and Orson Welles, painting was his first creative passion, and after fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg, he was able to forge a living selling his original works amongst post-civil war society. In 1867 he started a photography business with his brother and started documenting the Indian tribes in Omaha—the Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes, and Omahas. He then started working for the US Geological Survey, going on photography expeditions to Yellowstone River and the Rocky Mountains, making him the first photographer to capture all the landmark scenery in these regions.

The kit he traveled with included three different cameras; an 8×10 inch glass plate camera, an 18×22 inch glass plate camera, and a stereoscope camera. The glass plates had to be coated and developed onsite with exposure times varying from five seconds to twenty minutes, and he usually had five to seven men assisting him. It was a very fragile undertaking—he once lost a month of work because one of his packing mules lost its footing.  

Downloadable Resources
10 photographs

Music
Between Father Sky and Mother Earth is a compilation of indigenous music that I’ve enjoyed since the ’90s. My favorite track is the Healing Song—it never fails to help ground me in the present and often invokes a trance-like state. It’s also hard not to sing along and meld with the vibratory rhythms in harmony. 

The track is performed by a duo known as Primeaux and Mike in the Native American tradition of healing and peyote songs. Johnny Primeaux comes from a lineage of noted peyote singers. He is known as an Oglala, Yankton/Ponca singer and songwriter. Mike is from Kitsili, Black Mesa, Arizona. His Mother’s clan is Near the Water People, and his Father is from the Salt Clan.   

It looks like the tracks may have originated on Primeaux, Mike & Attson, an album of Healing and Peyote songs in the Sioux and Navajo languages. Healing songs are a newer style of a cappella harmonized chanting to facilitate meditation. When I first heard these songs, I lived on a street named Sioux Dr. while knowing very little if anything about the Sioux people.

Quote
That Native American cultures are imperiled is important and not just to Indians. It is important to everyone, or should be. When we lose cultures, we lose American plurality–the productive and lovely discomfort that true difference brings.—David Treuer

Related

Child Prodigies and Rennaisance Men – Orson Welles, Brassaï and more
Bruce Lee’s philisophical movies and more
Understanding racial division through cinema, literature, and more

The Look of Tumble – a short black and white film shot with a single lens

Antony Berrios was one of the first directors I worked with when coming to LA in 2007. I lensed a short for him called A Nice Day For An Earthquake—it was the first time I used black foam core as flags that I could staple to the ceiling. And that technique has gotten me out of a lot of jams. Tony and I started bonding over arthouse cinema and have remained friends. He is a sought after docu-series editor and writes for the screen and the stage in his spare time while also directing projects in both mediums. The themes that interest him most are mental health, challenging relationships, and awkward situations. He invited me back to shoot his second and latest narrative film project—Tumble—a short black and white film.

Inspired by the shooting philosophy of Gordon Willis (The Godfather), John L. Russell (Psycho), John A. Alonzo (Chinatown), and more. Tony wanted to shoot the film using only one lens—a 50mm. Gordon Willis’s lens of choice was a 40mm (equivalent to 50mm in the format we were shooting). He felt like that lens best expressed the way he saw things. It was a starting point on some films rather than a rule—giving him a basis from which to motivate other options. If he was going to use a different lens, it had to be motivated by a reason that served the story and the scene’s blocking. 

Tony also liked the creative challenge—using the one lens forced us to put the camera in places that we would not have considered otherwise. And because we didn’t take time to think about other focal lengths, the camera would often fall into place very quickly. In turn, this gave us more time to spend on “building the frame”—a time when ideas naturally presented themselves, capitulating on our prep work and understanding of the characters.

There wasn’t much in the budget for lighting and grip. After scouting the location, I decided on one bi-color LED panel—a litemat plus—to augment the Laundry mat’s overhead lighting. We went a little heavier on the grip side to flag off location lighting that spilled on the white walls.

While Tony was editing the film, he experimented with different LUT’s and grew fond of a black and white look for the film. It wasn’t our original intention. If it was, I would have done some things differently in production—tested some different wardrobe options for one. But I agreed with Tony that black and white served the story and location well. It really helped get into the heavy mindset of the characters. And in a literal way represented the predicament our protagonist was in—there wasn’t much room for error (limited grayscale), and if he failed, he’d be spending the rest of his life in prison (black and white).

On my end, when bringing the picture lock into the Davinci, I used the black and white LUT that I created for Butterfly Effect as a starting point. And Tony provided some references from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, shot by Robby Muller. There were few notes from Tony—he was thrilled to see his vision enhanced by a dedicated color-grade. And never hesitated to express his appreciation for the work I was doing for him:

There is a creative magic that happens when you can work almost telepathically with the people you pick. It’s an amazing feeling when things just click. It’s like being in a band improvising and riffing off each other seamlessly. That is the feeling I get when I work with Matthew Skala. The work he did on my short film Tumble is utterly amazing. Considering all the things we DID NOT have, he made the look of this short film really stand out. His ideas were always really spot on with the creation of this short film.
 
If a problem arose while shooting, Matt, in his meditative way, could get us through whatever the issue was and move on fast. We never had any big issues; everything on this project when very smoothly. The intuitive nature of how Matt works made the exploration and work on this film a great journey and a great process. -Antony Berrios

Frame Grab from Tumble a short black and white filmFrame Grab from Tumble a short black and white filmFrame Grab from Tumble a short black and white filmFrame Grab from the short film TumbleFrame Grab from the short film TumbleFrame Grab from the short film TumbleFrame Grab from the short film TumbleFrame Grab from the short film Tumble

Related:

The Look of Butterfly Effect – thematic black and white cinematography
The Look of Harmonia; making an experimental film
The Big Meet – a film noir short film

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Child Prodigies and Renaissance Men

I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. This month’s web of curiosity spins from a resolute whim to re-watch RKO 281— awakening interests in child prodigies and renaissance men, the influence of theatrical lighting on film, the influence of night photography on film noir, and more.

Film I’m Studying

RKO 281 (1999), directed by Benjamin Ross, is a reflexive cinema gem. The title is derived from the original production number for Citizen Kane. The first half of the film covers the genesis of Citizen Kane, and the second half chronicles a nearly successful campaign to stop the film from being released and to burn all the negatives and prints. Offended and disgraced by the depiction of himself in the filmWilliam Randolph Hearst led the charge. He had the studio executives in his corner–ready to accept bribes–but he was going bankrupt and couldn’t follow through. RKO 281 is based on the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. 

It opens with a beautiful scene that inspires and excites the filmmaker in all of us. A young Orson Welles blows out the candles on his birthday cake,” Orson…” says his mother, “come into the light, never stand in the shadows, you were made for the light. Always remember that.”

And soon enough, we are watching a twenty-five-year-old Welles (Liev Schreiber), wandering around Xanadu in the middle of the night, conceiving the idea for Citizen Kane. “I’ve got it!” He says in voice-over, “I know what we are going to do, imagine a man who shaped his time, a titanic man of limitless ambition, a man with an empire at his feet, controlling the perceptions of everyone beneath him—a modern feudal lord. The great American biography, a journey into the heart of the beast.” 

A sequence ensues with a rat a tat tat exchange of inspired and passionate ideas between writer Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Welles. Themes like “Love on your own terms” are pronounced with gusto and glory as we watch the vision for Citizen Kane take shape. Then Mankiewicz reveals that—for many years—he’s been keeping a file on Hearst, and their collaboration begins.

It captures the collaborative spirit with joyful nostalgia, leaving butterflies in the stomach. However, this is only one version of the story. In Frank Brady’s Biography, Citizen Welleshe writes how Welles—at first—was just focused on finding the right character to play. He was looking for a larger than life persona that could highlight his talent and reputation as a theater performer and radio star. Brady then recounts a court testimony by Mankiewicz which suggests he was the one to offer up Hearst as the film’s subject:

In a court proceeding years later, Mankiewicz gave his account of how the idea of the Welles film began, saying that it evolved out of a discussion of technique: a character would be shown in a March of Time sequence, and then the film would tell us about the person. “We were going to do The Life of Dumas,” remembered Mankiewicz,” and then I told him about how I would be interested in doing a picture based on Hearst and Marion Davies. I just kept telling him everything I knew about them. I was interested in them, and I went into all kinds of details. In an odd way it wasn’t really Citizen Kane at all, because we were going to do a great love story, which you remember Citizen Kane didn’t turn out to be…

Welles was under contract to write the screenplay, and the studio wanted it that way for publicity reasons. But Welles wanted Mankiewicz to write it. And Mankiewicz contractually agreed to write it without taking credit.

Serendipitous to my research, David Fincher just released Mank on Netflix this month. It centers around Mankiewicz’s experience writing Citizen Kane while flashing back to his life as a writer and his relationship with Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The film made it clear how critical Mank’s contribution was to Citizen Kane. And while I don’t recollect any reference to who suggested Hearst, it does address the credit in one of the closing scenes—starting as follows:

“You’re not going to like this Orson,” says Mank. “I want credit.”
“Come again,” replies Orson.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” clarifies Mank.

It’s unclear how Welles really felt about this. The scene continues with Welles taking offense and throwing a tantrum. But in the subtext, I think his outburst was just a way for him to reconcile with his ego, while deep down, he understood and wanted Mank to get credit. What we know for sure is that Orson excepted Mank’s script—American, at two hundred pages—knowing, as Brady writes:

For many reasons, Welles couldn’t use a great deal of the script of American, errors of continuity, logic, and motivation being the most prominent.

but then adding that:

What is known and agreed upon by all concerned is that Mankiewicz came up with the concept of “rosebud,” the enigmatic word uttered by the dying mogul, the verbal icon around which the film revolves.

Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but it only won for best writing of an original screenplay—both Welles and Mankiewicz received Oscars. Years later, Orson admitted he couldn’t remember all the details of who came up with which idea.

Downloadable Resources 
Excerpts

Credits and Specs
Directed by Benjamin Ross
Produced by Su ArmstrongRidley ScottTony Scott
Written by John Logan
Based on the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane
Starring Liev SchreiberJohn MalkovichJames CromwellMelanie Griffith
Music By John Altman
Cinematography by Mike Southon
Edited by Alex Mackie
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Production Company: HBO PicturesWGBHScott Free Productionsand more  
Release Date: November 20, 1999
Running Time: 86min
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Country: USA
Language: English
Reported Budget: 12,000,000

Book I’m Reading

Citizen Welles (1989) by Frank Brady is a detailed biography of Orson Welles. Brady spent a decade researching and writing the book resulting in the first definitive chronicle of Welles’ life, spanning from his birth to his death. Upon its release, the New York Times Book Review stated, “Citizen Welles may well be definitive.”

For me, the book really humanizes Welles, but still in a legendary way. The sticking point thus far is his serendipitous childhood—a time when angels seemed to be dropping out of the sky to nurture his natural talents while he exercised a knack for averting any traditional childhood protocol. 

His mother Beatrice was a stalwart of his speech, and by the age of two, he was speaking in syntactically polished sentences. In the same year, he garnered a mentor in Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who was enthralled by Orson’s burgeoning intellect. At four, he avoided Kindergarten by faking an attack of appendicitis. And was then homeschooled by his Mother, while Bernstein—with backstage access—took him to all the new plays. At eight, he wrote a scholarly paper called ‘The Universal History of Drama.’ At nine, his mother died. And at ten, he started smoking cigars while writing a critique on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

He continued to excel beyond his age level in many areas but was unable to add or subtract. When confronted with this weakness, he was known to shrug and say that he would always keep people around to do the math for him. But he did eventually learn.

His father—along with Bernstein’s support—sent him to the Todd School For Boys, where he turned his ambitions toward painting. But, Academically, his performance at the school was so poor, he barely graduated. And by that time, his father succumbed to Alcoholism.

Bernstein took Welles in, and at sixteen, he went to Ireland for a countryside walk-a-bout. He intended on starting a career as a painter but ended up joining the company at the Gate Theater in Dublin—making such a splash that it launched him into a theater career.  

After Gate, he spent a summer writing and illustrating a series of Shakespearean promptbooks. And when he was eighteen, they were published—to great success—by the world-renowned publisher Harper and Row. 

As his theater career continued, he began an adjacent career in radio, starring as an acclaimed regular on the March of Time radio shows. At this point, the Great Depression hit, and the US government started to sponsor theater projects. Welles—now twenty—was hired to run the Negro Theatre Project. And for the first time in American history, white people stood in lines to attend a black production. After 144 performances, Orson moved on to the Federal Theater, where he revived the great dramatic classics—several times a week—to great success. David O. Selznick—from Hollywood—came calling. But Welles wasn’t done with theater, and at twenty-two years old, he founded the Mercury Theater in New York. 

Welles learned a lot about lighting during these earlier years in theater, and the technology was advancing quickly. Abe Feder—master lighting technician—was a trusted collaborator:

Abe Feder was a master lighting technician—one of the best in the business—and followed, although not always agreeably, Welle’s dictates of helping to blend together the form and color of the set, the arrangement of the props, and the position and costumes of the actors, through the distribution of the variety of lighting. The slightly smallish stage caused design problems in creating the illusion of distance and perspective, and these, too, could be solved with nuances of lighting.

The light was the thing. As one writer pointed out two weeks after the opening, the effects were cinematic: as an actor moves downstage from under a shaft of light, his apparent size is seen to change most dramatically; in effect, the stage director is able to get more “shots” at distance and in close-up. When a sense of vastness was needed, the stage was more brightly lit; when compactness was necessary, it was dimmed. In all cases, the lighting followed the tempo of the play. To an audience brought up on evenly lighted rooms behind proscenium arches, the result was startling.

We haven’t even gotten to Orson’s famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds or come close to Citizen Kane. And this summary barely even scratches the surface of these earlier years. But the big question in the back of my mind is: Was he a child prodigy by nature or a child prodigy by design? His opportunities and influences seem to be so crucial to his genius; it makes me wonder.

Photographer that inspires me

Brassaï also intended to pursue a career as a painter and was a renaissance man like Welles. His name was actually Gyula Halász, but he wanted to save it for his “serious art” and used the pseudonym Brassaï for his writing, caricatures, and photography. He is best known for his night photography in Paris during the 30’s—published in the book Paris at NightHis dark and evocative imagery influenced photographers and filmmakers worldwide—feeding the aesthetics of an emerging film noir genre. Brassaï couldn’t escape his success as a photographer and made attempts—in his journal—to reconcile with his desire to be a painter: 

Even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing.

To monetize his burgeoning reputation, he worked commercially shooting everything from car tires to cigarette lighters—all while enduring an unfulfilled desire to paint.

I want absolutely to return to the plastic arts. This desire becomes more and more a physical necessity. Photography is more of a stimulant. A complete success in photography leaves something in one’s being unsatisfied. It is choice and not expression. Its laws involve limits, even if I know these laws and respect them in all humility. I am not unhappy to be able to maintain my anonymity. After all, photography enabled me to step out of the shadows to show what I see. That’s something. But even so, I must express one day what I am.

Downloadable Resources
10 Brassaï photographs curated from the web

TV I’m Watching

The Queens Gambitnow streaming on Netflix, is another story about a child prodigy. This one, however, is fiction. It follows an orphaned Beth Harmon as she falls in line at a draconian orphanage where each child is administered a daily dose of a tranquilizer to keep them calm. As addiction to the drug brews, Beth stumbles upon the building’s custodian while he’s playing himself at chess—sparking Beth’s interest in the game.

The series is based on a novel with the same name written by Walter Tevis. It loosely draws from Tevis’ experience as a class-C chess player—learning to play when he was seven years old.

The show has been received well by both entertainment and chess aficionados. The cinematography and overall design are on par with the best of today’s episodic cinema. “Cinema,” in this case, is used to describe how the use of lighting and other aesthetics profoundly serve and enhance the storytelling. A trend on the rise—for tv—during the last decade or two—in large part superseding the sitcom, reality TV, and soap opera.

Quote I am pondering

To have success in a particular domain incites you and constrains you to exploit that success and to practice professionally as a “specialist.” what you have done with the joy of an amateur. The dilettante’s passion for an art will always be stronger than that of a man who is gifted to practice it, for the dilettantes passion, like a love without hope, always remains unquenched. To protect the amateur’s freshness of vision and combine it each time with the knowledge and the awareness of the professional, that is what I have tried to accomplish all my life, whence my constant infidelities, diverse curiosities, my numerous and parallel occupations… that apparent incoherence was my coherence. -Brassaï

Related
October Musings – Bruce Lee’s philosophical movies and more
March Musings – A five course mind meal: a list of independent films and more
November Musings – Poetry of a long tracking shot, surreal photography and more

The Look of Butterfly Effect – thematic black and white cinematography

black and white cinematography in 'The Butterfly Effect'

When entering discussions with The Human Example about his music video for Butterfly Effect, he shared with me his perspective on climate change, concluding with, “What we do today affects their world of tomorrow.” And he was referring to our children.

He wanted to invoke a sense of missing, of gone, of what’s left is only in our dreams and imagination, but even that is limited because as children, their experience is limited. 

He shared his love for black and white cinematography with me and suggested we chart a course to achieve a look that is both authentic and thematic. I agreed immediately. We shared references and did some tests. And I created a black and white LUT that we used on set to make sure our lighting ratios and exposure were within the parameters of our final look.

Our primary lighting sources were large and soft. We dropped 12×12 rags of diffusion in front of 2K tungsten fresnels—which were often pulled back up to 20 feet behind the diffusion to enhance the softness. We used 4×4 floppy flags and 12×12 black rags to help control the spread of the soft light. Haze was used to envelop the themes of missing, gone, neglected, polluted, dreamt, remembered, and imagined.    

In post, I used the LUT as a starting point for the color grade and overlayed some 4K scans of 35mm film grain. With a scan of just one type of film stock, I was able to fine-tune the final result to further augment the themes and authenticity of a black and white look.

“The Human Example” is an emerging LA-based artist. Butterfly Effect was produced and released pre-pandemic as part of a compilation of LA based label/collective—Tone and Manor.

black and white cinematography in 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect'

Related:

The Look of Harmonia; making an experimental film
The look of Separated, a miniature short film about adventure and romance
The Big Meet – a film noir short film