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Blog Title Photo

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Set in the Mountains

I recorded at dawn, midday, sunset, and at night using the microphones I had put in trees, and at the bases of giant leafy plants, or dangling in midair from high branches. Each fed a long cable back to the spot I'd return to in the morning. I even put out a stool to sit on.

Before dawn I took position in my piece of forest. I plugged each microphone into a portable mixer and thence to my two stereo recorders. I dropped a soloist Quetzal on one channel, a Curassow on another. I heard Cocks of the Rock preening, shaking their wings. A capybara routed in the dark soil. Cicadas argued at a deafening pitch into one mike. And then came a sound of some creature chewing, I have no idea what it was. Then a ripping sound which I later realized were monkeys tearing the rinds off zapote. There were altercations between members of the troop.

The producer said, "I want the sounds of the jungle. I want to hear birds so close you can feel their feathers!" Then he left for two days sourcing fruits and legumes from markets and fish fresh from the jungle rivers. I captured symphonies set to movements of the sun and moon, insects and birds supplying bars of a fugue, or a solo to prove mastery of the verses of life.

Mastery of love, of craft, is understanding, I immersed in the music, cicadas and singing insects of a thousand species, bird lullabies and their wakeup calls, their soporific statements of the obvious, their cries of alarm. I also heard monkeys, and frogs, and jackals and occasionally at night, from the deep, a jaguar.

The music allowed a break from the set. I entered another world. I became unused to my cables and microphones, instead I pored through my field guides. What bird was that? What insect? Where did that howl come from?

The plunge into darkness changed the key of the symphony. The birds of day defended their sinking sun, with a mad crescendo of plaintive wails. Their light had gone. Somewhere in that transition, one conductor bowed and passed the baton to a darker master. One set of songs was forgotten. a futile silence, and in their lee, the drip of echoes, nightjars, monkeys, cicadas, a thousand singing insects, and owls, each claiming a piece of the cool jungle blanket as their own.

For what is life but the opportunity to attain some sort of mastery?

Late at night I played some of the magic of the jungle to Erica, Titanio's dark haired girlfriend, who had come to visit. It was a joy to hand her the headphones and see her as immersed in the stereo symphony of jungle life.

Erica watched the action as we filmed it, with languid eyes behind tresses of black hair. Titanio kept his eye on her, they didn't talk much. After two days of shooting, the only motorcar on the estate transported her down the hairpin turns to the airstrip by the river.

Days spent by the camera blurred, the cameras filmed so we remembered nothing. Exhausted after the last shot we slept, then the following morning we wrapped cases, put away lenses, coiled cables and lights, and tied the portable generators onto pallets.

The producer returned with a crowd of women and their husbands bearing poles hung with fresh game, sacks of fresh fish wrapped in banana leaves, crates of live chickens, and a pig that was tired and thirsty. He asked Titanio to butcher the pig and all afternoon they roasted it with Acai, and simmered the chickens in a mash of guava and chiles. Tucunaré fish was broiled with Alfavaca leaves, and Chicória, Maniçoba pork sausages were served with Guarana beer to wash it down. Pirarucu soup was enriched with Tacacá prawns and Tamuata. Tapioca with fruits cut open after dinner.

The producer knew how to throw a party.

We smoked. Titanio told stories. The sound man brought marijuana. The producer joked about coming back for his next production. There were laughs from some of the crew who hadn't been paid fully on the last one.

Then we slept in the same grand rooms we had used as our set. A sprawl of naked limbs heaped in piles of damp sheets and mattresses in front of the fireplace. Come morning, somnambulists exiled from the stage of a mesmerizer's paradise, we boarded lorries with the precious cases of footage and equipment, and descended the mountain switchbacks to the airstrip by the river. The DC3 was there, antiquated and empty, the Kid napping in the shade of the fueling shack.

Twelve of us got in, along with cases filled with equipment and lights. The engines coughed to life, then ran almost silently as the Kid checked his systems. Then he shoved both engines into full throttle. The roar in my rear seat was almost deafening.

The strip ran level alongside a still section of the river, and offered us a long lazy mile to get aloft. We lumbered into the air. The Kid shouted something to the assistant director who sat beside him up front. Patches of cloud swirled over the wings. The secret snows of the high peaks came into view.
 The dull roar of engines, silenced mystical looks that folded us into the roof of the world. The sensation of flight was surfing, where a wave is felt but not seen.

Then, as if according to plan, the right engine stopped. It seemed the Kid had done it on purpose. The emergency felt like an act of kindness. We almost said thank-you, for it was much quieter. We seemed blessed.

The Kid kid revved the throttle for his left engine and threw the plane into a descending bank. Loosing altitude the Kid pushed his one left engine hard, then something inside those cylinders blew noisily, sputtered and all was quiet.

We could hear each other, we could hear our thoughts.

It was all part of a plan. The quiet, peace and stillness, made the air rushing over the wings seem louder than our memory. We passed into a mist, then broke out, and saw the damp deep green of trees. More mist, enveloped by a soft blanket we could not imagine branch tops being a hard place to land.

I don't think anyone was afraid. All hearts were beating. The silent engines were just another interesting detail along the tour of life.

How far would we have to carry gear before we got to a road?


Across a section of forest where before there had been seats occupied by my producer, by Titanio, and the rest of the crew, I saw only ripped pieces of fuselage, sheared gumbo limbo trunks, and torn branches, midst a litter of shredded leaves.

I unfastened my seat belt, a formality amidst all these trees and flowers and raucous calls of toucans. My seat sat alone, by the open end of the tail, which had broken apart.

No part of the airplane was whole or entire.

Titanio a foot away from me, sat strapped into a collapsed seat his head toppled over. That muscular neck, looked slender and weak. He had no pulse.

 Some bits of the wing, shreds of luggage, bits of seat.

A section of wing hung from the branch of a copal. Too hard, too dense. Nearby there were lightweight branches that could have slowed our fall, and broken our descent. But then there are the heavy hardwood trunks that stand like giants and won't be moved. Such was our luck.

My daze induced a kind of pragmatic functionality. I had energy, felt strong. Hours I looked for specific things, the director's notes, the producer's briefcase. It was easy to decide what to find, and take back. I imagined search parties would be out looking. I'd arrive at my hotel, "La Preciosa". I'd meet with the La Policia, make calls, stamp letters, package precious items to family members insured. The wreck would be found. I was optimistic.

I thought, "I'll make a list."

I located other sections of the plane. Rene the script woman was in one of the seats that had dropped from the branches. She seemed to be breathing. My hopes rose, suddenly I felt like weeping. She might live. She had lost a huge amount of blood from a nearly severed arm. But her breathing stopped. Her eyes glazed like a fish taken from water. My elation fell earthward, my heart went leaden.

I found the Nagra, undamaged. The producer's briefcase had his list of crew. I saw my own name and telephone number in his hand, in blue ink.

I wasn't seeing anymore. My eyes glossed over views of the jungle. I couldn’t tell a tree from a bit of wrecked seat. I saw machine parts, but no friends. The jungle reeked of engine oil and fuel. The leaves dripped gasoline. Was it gasoline or blood? A dozen yards on another engine lay mired. The tip of a propeller was painted red and pointed skyward.

I borrowed cash from my boss's pocket. It made me nervous to take his money. I'd use it to send belongings to parents, brothers and sisters. There was a notebook in Polish belonging to Titanio, a necklace from Rene, a ring, from the Second Assistant. There were wallets and purses and wedding rings. I made notes. I had no interest in any of it.

Fully loaded I set off but wondered if I'd be able to make it all the way to the capital.

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