The Charm of Distance: A Director's Statement on A Simple Game of Catch

Years ago, back when I was a film student making wee, twee student films, my only wellspring of "Earnest Content" was that of a somewhat older female friend with whom I enjoyed nearly constant company. She was (and still is) a solid friend and I have always found her a fascinating individual. I met her when she was an instructor at my university, albeit in a department completely different from my own, and had known her for some time when she suddenly resigned from her university position, having decided to move from downtown Philadelphia to a richly secluded country-house near Doylestown. I intently observed her as she literally counted down the days until her glorious retreat from all things urban. I asked her once on camera about the nature of her eagerness to flee the city without any form of looking back. She told me, "Down here in the city, you see the best in people and you see the worst in people, but good people are preyed upon -- and really, deep down, I prefer the sound of crickets to sirens." One thing that I certainly knew deep down was that her time in the city had wounded her in many ways. She was a woman alone, at the not-so-tender mercies of a place where people are supposed to be satisfied living alone together while keeping the charm of distance from each other. It was at that time that I began to become aware of an intrinsic, systematic method many people have of pushing all strangers away. At that point in time, I conjectured that it was out of a fear of getting too close, as to irrevocably alter the perceptions one has about their reality and their environment. This fear seems to emerge from the fact that these perceptions keep you grounded with a false sense of security in a place where personal security is sometimes all you've got to rely on. I don't want all this to sound like I am down on city living. I live in a city and feel quite happy living in one. New York is a nexus of great beauty and a goldmine for artists. So, for that matter, is Philadelphia, my previous city.

Nevertheless, this female friend's dilemma in some way resurfaced in my university thesis feature A Trip to Swadades, in which a 74-year-old man returns to the city of his birth and early life, and quickly loses his way, directionless and confused in a place that he no longer knows. He also observes the city that contributed to his brother becoming a strange old hermit. The character winds up taking an only slightly more familiar tour of specific places he once knew and loved, with the guidance of a salty old friend he happens to encounter.

When I first moved to New York City, I entered into one of the most profound emotional depressions I have endured in my life heretofore. Along with a series of rather traumatic mishaps (like having my U-Haul towed the morning after I moved in, and not having a license or a lot of extra money around to pay the heavy-duty bill), I knew that I had left behind another city with friends, familiarity and established comfort, and was thrown into having to cope with existing as an even smaller speck in an even larger pond. I acclimated slightly more quickly than I would have initially predicted, and when I was enjoying a summer Friday night dinner with a new friend in a small, but lovely garden on the Upper East Side, one of her other guests started discussing the above dilemma -- that of "living alone together" with heaps and hordes of others living in compressed chambers, like two puppies in separate compartments of a pet-shop window. She was harping on how many people in mega-cities like New York often will themselves stubbornly into isolation, while the others who want to break out of it are at the mercy of those who would find the act of reaching out (and attempting to hold on) dangerous. Closeness and proximity seem to demarcate a potential for danger. I've never forgotten this conversation, and it was something I tossed around in my head for a long time. It also partly explains the film's curious title, A Simple Game of Catch. When you're a lone urban-dweller, it's hard to catch something, and even harder to hold onto something.

On that note, I later began considering what a key role my cat played in my re-emergence into the world of the living. When I moved to New York, my cat Tirzah was sick and on the verge of death, with a disease called pyometra coupled with an advanced form of upper respiratory illness. I remember very well giving her medication after medication in the cockpit of the moving van, and nursing her back to health for some months after. After going on days of aimless job searches at the height of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, I would come home and see one of the most friendly felines I've ever encountered waiting there eagerly for me. My cat Tirzah is "dog-like" in her devotion to me (I believe as a direct result of my having nursed her back to health around the time of our arrival in New York), and has always been just happy to see me whenever I turn up at home. For me, during this difficult time, it was the feeling of "Well, at least someone's receptive to me after this day of being dehumanized into a specimen for prospective employers." I was so grateful for her companionship during that period, and almost felt that she was a lucky charm in my finally nailing a job that wound up being the perfect fit.

In the film and in life, pets often assume a role beyond just that of fur-or-feather-bearing friends. They are often lifelines to those people who harbor feelings of disillusionment and those who sadly squirm at the feeling of having been disenfranchised by the sheer vastness of their concrete environs. Among the most isolated, pets are often the source of sanity. When a friend of mine in Manhattan saw an early rough cut version of A Simple Game of Catch that I screened for her months back, she claims she was haunted by the experience of having seen it for days afterwards, as she strolled down Amsterdam Avenue on the West Side witnessing dog-walker after dog-walker engaging in intimate, detailed and one-sidedly full conversations with their dogs. That's a pretty powerful thing, if you ask me, and is indicative of a larger picture of urban-dwellers longing for a companionship that even they would find dangerous if it were offered to them by someone else feeling the same. Cities tend to do that, and that's the paradox that so befuddled and amused me. So, at its most simplistic level, my newest film A Simple Game of Catch is about the deeply human connection we share with the non-human sources of warmth, love and cameraderie, i.e. pets.

On a deeper level, however, the film is about the drawbacks of the natural human need for distance. Western society and urban dwelling often takes this need to amplified extremes, particularly if we are talking about Western cities, where this distance is compounded. We might very well know that others out there, maybe even the person living next door, share our isolation, if we do indeed feel it in some form, but we are too often powerless because we are petrified of being proactive in the act of eradicating that mutually imposed distance, mostly because of what such contact might entail. In some sense, I feel that most city dwellers see it as excess baggage in the daily struggle for survival. The film actually ends with a reggae tune entitled "Happy Survival" -- this song title is treated as a tongue-in-cheek quasi-salutation. The character in the film experiences and shares with us a variety of stories of realistic but whimsical (and sometimes even transcendent) moments shared with strangers. As you might have been gathering, she is a character driven by a need to connect -- with someone, with anything, with any being, even if it's means reaching out to a person whom she hasn't seen or heard from in twenty-some years (in one of the film's most excruciating socially awkward scenes, of which there are many). Like many characters throughout literature and film, she struggles to "catch" and to hold on.

With all these thoughts and themes spinning around my head, I thought it time to explore the period of my life when I first moved to New York, and to hold a mirror up to how I felt then, and also to hold a mirror up to this fascinating human need for "over-comfortable" distance. In January 2012, just having returned from San Francisco on a business trip and having right after been saddled with the task of taking care of an imminently traveling friend's pet parrot Tango, I began conceiving the project. As I was parrot-sitting, I started immediately to notice how photogenic and entertaining the little guy was, began shooting some dry footage with him playing, eating birdseed and preening, and soon after called up Alanna Blair, an exquisite and marvelously talented young working actress with whom, at that point, I had developed a particularly strong creative rapport. I simply told her, "Hey, Alanna. Are you free the next few days? Do you want to make a movie with a parrot?" With absolutely no hesitation and an almost unbounded enthusiasm that coaxed from me a mutually enthused laugh, the two of us set sail on A Simple Game of Catch the very next day.

I told Alanna the themes I wanted to explore, the mood I wanted to evoke and emotions I wanted her to hit and stir, showing her clips from the films The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) and the more obscure T.R. Baskin (1971) as character and theme references. In T.R. Baskin, Candice Bergen’s character observes, “It’s really cruel what cities do to people. It makes them look so small.” Much like my film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour before it, this is a film that grew and grew steadily and organically from a lively and (in my mind) perfect collaboration. I felt free in the process of working with Alanna to build her character from the ground-up, without ever feeling rushed or under pressure to hastily act on anything at the expense of the work. It was total freedom, and a filmmaking utopia to work with an artist who was an enthusiastic about the nuts-and-bolts character development and the process of a film's creation as I always had been. I also felt more adventurous with the camera, fully exploring what would be the most interesting vantage points for every scene. As a result, A Simple Game of Catch joins the ranks of the painstakingly planned and executed A Trip to Swadades as being my most "expressionistic" film in terms of camerawork. I was also able to finally complete a long-unfinished science-fiction project that I shot in 2008 with A Simple Game of Catch, and it appears in a key sequence as the movie within the movie. One can never underestimate the thrill of putting the wrap on something that has long lain dormant.

Alanna and I took the time to workshop scenes we would formulate, rehearsing movement and blocking, and discussing performance options in a variety of ways before entering our heavily improvised scenes. Not to boast, but I defy anyone watching the movie to name which parts are improvised and which were scripted beforehand. In my mind, it is seamless. As I mentioned earlier, this project just seemed to mushroom beyond the initial vision of it as a 20-minute "sketch-pad movie." Much the way The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour was made, I would come up with new scenes along the way, and we would shoot them when time and availability permitted, until it had become the feature-length film it now is. Editing the film proved one of the most difficult, mostly because there such a wealth of great material at which to chizzle away.

Part of the mystique about A Simple Game of Catch is that, as much as the film is about the city, it is also very much a chamber piece. After a time, the only thing to penetrate the walls of the piece’s chamber is the muffled voice of a chatty-to-herself neighbor. As the character stakes out the hallway outside the apartment, what she witnesses is an amusing crossroads of New York personalities. Sequences are comprised largely of watching the actor's emotions unfold in a very visceral sense. It is, for instance, in watching the character's post-traumatic stress stupor following a humiliating phone call. It is in watching the deep breath she takes to pull herself together following the job interview from hell. It is in watching her spazz when she wants so badly to act out in the film's climactic moment. It is in watching how her facial expression sinks when she realizes she cannot afford a couch she has agreed to buy from a hilariously peevish young dumpee. It is, for me the director of the film, watching all the amazing internal moments that Alanna Blair is able to manifest even in the littlest movements and gestures. One of the classic sentiments about acting is that is psychology manifested into behavior. Insofar as that is a performance requisite, I had an absolute blast watching every take of Alanna give it to me straight, real and true. In that much, I feel I have succeeded as the director of the film.

As the film nears completion, I'm left with the memory of what exactly I was drawn towards when I originally conceived the project. I think of the older female friend, who now lives happily and in peace on a secluded lavender farm in northern Pennsylvania where she also learns hapkido. I think of the lonely and lost character I created for my first feature A Trip to Swadades. I think of the great well of emotions I felt when I first arrived in New York as a new resident. I think of my cat Tirzah, who is still around, still faithfully sitting next to me as I edit all these films -- and to whom the film is dedicated. Yes, I dedicated a film to not just one cat, but two cats (mine and Alanna Blair's cat Preston, to whom she is likewise attached). So sue me! "My cat ain't just any cat, I tell ya!" I look at the delightful, heartfelt scenes that Alanna shares with Tango the parrot, who we grew to call the Olivier of Winged Actors (honestly, the parrot does things on camera that Slim Pickens would no doubt call "blind shit-house luck" -- either that, or perhaps the parrot was secretly trained at the Actor's Studio). Most of all, though, I look at a creative process that fostered the best out of all of those who worked on it. In the fact that, on this film, I found a creative kindred spirit in an actress who I find incredibly talented and full of promise, the "charm" of over-comfortable distance among those who live in cities is not nearly as charming and as comfortable as the simple act of creation and creative collaboration. That is something you can catch...and hold onto.

Special thanks should also be extended to Hanshi Stephen Kaufman (who appears in the film in a single scene as an actor) and his parrot Tango. Without them, there would certainly be no Simple Game of Catch.