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Yukon King: Lee Post Mines Broken Heart into Comic Gold Written by Matt Goodlett

When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful. – Barbara Bloom, sculptor In high school I was named homecoming king, which I later discovered was voted on by the teachers, rather than the students, much to the student’s active and obvious disapproval (all of which I was oblivious of). Basically, I got up during a sparsely attended football game - our team at the time was the lowest ranked in the nation - to meek applause and rode around the track in a jeep, giving the queen’s wave to the audience. I walked up a long stretch of red visqueen to the awaiting cheerleaders, who gave me a large Styrofoam heart on a cardboard tube and a puff-painted sash. They then positioned a child’s soft plastic crown onto my head. The crown had pipe cleaner numbers hot-glued on the front that looked a bit wilted. The lead cheerleader leaned in and whispered, “The real crown didn’t come in.” All I remember following that was blankly wandering around the high school dance later that evening, dateless, holding my Styrofoam and cardboard scepter, wearing my proxy crown as I surveyed my subjects, then leaving after 20 minutes to watch TV at home alone. Lee Post, creator of Your Square Life A few weeks before Valentine’s Day 2008, Bloom’s quote and Post’s homecoming story collide on the streets of Kyoto, Japan. Post is traveling with his wife Alexandra, so you don’t have to feel guilty for laughing at his pitiful reign as king; things turned out all right for Post eventually. It was near the statue of Astroboy, the Japanese cartoon character, that Post and his wife were approached by a small band of young Japanese students wearing matching yellow baseball caps and red backpacks. At his blog Post states, “In broken English, they peppered us with questions. They asked us our names, what sports teams we liked, how we liked Kyoto. Then their hands shot out with folded paper cranes as a gift.” The kids even had the Posts sign their signature books. Sure, the story starts out innocently enough but it ends with hordes of curious schoolchildren enthusiastically chasing Post and his wife back to an escape by taxi. If there is a point to turning Bloom’s and Post’s quotes into a medley it’s that during his homecoming kingship you can almost hear young Post’s heart breaking, but a lucky audience has profited from Post’s aggrandizement of his once forlorn experiences with love and popularity in his comic strip Your Square Life. It’s nice to think that maybe the mob of Japanese children acutely perceived imperfections in Post’s history that translated into points of interest and beauty. If nothing else, this thought should make you feel less guilty for having laughed at his earlier misfortune in high school. Post said that YSL evolved from a zine of the same name that he’d produced for three years after graduating with a focus on cognitive neuro-psychology from the University of Washington. Post even got a big research award while at the University. “There were three of us on a panel meeting Nobel Laureate sand they’re asking us what we want to do,” Post said. There was the doctor who said he was going to do some research into cancer. There was the geologist who said he was going to become a professor and study rocks. “Then there was me, and I’m like I’m going to go back to Alaska and I don’t know what I’m doing. Silence in the auditorium.” And that’s what happened. Upon graduation, Post returned to his native Alaska, moved into a basement apartment, and was working overnight hours as a Mental Health Technician in the juvenile unit of a hospital, with little chance to date. “So it became, finding a girlfriend became a big focus and was one of the reasons that I started the zine,” he said. One of Post’s friends introduced him to Robert Meyerowitz, who at the time was the editor of the alternative newspaper, the Anchorage Press. Meyerowitz had seen some of Posts’ early comic strips in the zine and offered him a weekly strip in the Press. “What better way to have a weekly advertisement that I needed a girlfriend than to have a comic strip?” Post reasoned. It worked. Within six months of starting the strip he met and became engaged to his wife,

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Alexandra, a native of Belfast, Ireland who happened to be in Anchorage with an internship. The two were engaged only five weeks after meeting. Post said she left two months later, then came back to complete INS paperwork and then embarked on a trip around the world. Post said he’d periodically get a call from Australia or elsewhere in the world and the conversation would go something like this: Alexandra: I’m in the rainforest in an outdoor shower. Did you get the flowers ordered? Post: Yes, I got them Alexandra: I’m in New Zealand on a Harley with a guy named Bear. How are those invites coming? Post: They’re doing good honey.

A week before the wedding Alexandra returned to Alaska and the two have been together for five years. The 145-page collection that comprises Lee Post’s The Very Best of Your Square Life, is hard to describe but is probably best summed up by the following description of one of his comics: A menacing monkey cosmonaut riding an asteroid falls to earth and crushes a clown. Both clown and monkey share the same thought bubble: “My life has been a long strange journey. Ah well…C’est la vie.” Your Square Life is a strange journey, one that’s populated by lovable losers, unrequited love, blind ambition, offbeat humor, and of course, robots, lots of robots. It’s evident when talking to Post where the odd humor in YSL comes from. His anecdotes follow the same template as his comics. No matter how weird you may think the premise, in the last panel, last line, last sentence there is a punch line, or a payoff waiting, or sometimes just a sad, awkward beat but always a glimmer of humanity. Post has compared the structure of his comics to that of writing haiku. One of his comics offers Post’s observation, “Rather than being funny or insightful, I worry the strip tends to lapse into bad short poetry.” The accompanying illustration of a man with an octopus on his head picking blooms from a low-hanging branch digresses and the comic takes a slightly more ridiculous twist reminiscent of a commercial for Obsession cologne: “Despair…raindrops…sadness…octopus. (*insert fart joke here).” Describing his early comics Post said, “[They are] a mix between my pathetic cry for a girlfriend and basically me exploring my friends’ relationship problems through the strip.” Many of these people feared for the future of YSL when they heard that Post was going to get married. “I remember getting a lot of letters from friends at the time who were like, ‘Nooo! Your strip is going to turn into Ziggy.’ It was a big thing at the time with people saying, ‘What are you going to do if you’re actually happy and in a stable relationship?’” Post said. It was a concern that Post shared, but six years and 300 comics later it’s evident that more material was available. In the 145 comics offered in his collection, there is rarely one that doesn’t offer at least a smile and many in the bunch that force upon you unexpected laughter. Post has worked as a juvenile probation officer for a number of years and often wrote the strips during lunches and illustrated them on weekends. He said it was hard to keep incidents from work out of the comic. As an example Post said, “I got a call the other day from an officer, who is a little bit odd, about a kid who was like going around knocking people in the nuts.” Officer: You can’t let this go. This kid’s been hitting all these guys in the groin. And we need to arrest him. Post: You know, that doesn’t sound like an arrest-able offense. Officer: No, the kids are calling it sack-tapping. Post: So there’s a string of sack-tapping incidents? Officer: Yes! Yes, we have to do something about it! Post: (mumbles) Oh god, why are we here? There aren’t always moments of levity in Post’s job in juvenile justice, working with kids and teens in crisis. Early on, Post said he worked in child protection, which he refers to as “baby stealing” and as a juvenile probation officer he routinely fights in court “over what amounts to nothing.” On the other end of the spectrum, he also deals with cases that involve sexual abuse or violence. He said both his day job and art are rewarding and frustrating and part of the reason

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that he gave up the comic strip was so that he could focus on his job and family. An audience outside of Alaska is lucky that Post decided to end the strip after his 300th comic. If not for this, he may never have taken the time to collect the strips into a book. Post described the anxiety that working a full-time job and having a weekly deadline began to impose. “If I wasn’t drawing the strip, I was thinking about doing next week’s strip or trying to work drawing the strip around a camping trip or something,” he said. “Towards the end you really got the idea how some of those strips like ‘Beatle Bailey’ or ‘Garfield’ die on the vine.” If nothing else, YSL really was one of Post’s selling points with Alexandra. “It turned out she had read the comic strip and that was one thing that I was able to impress her with, other than my handsome smile…I’m looking at her right now,” Post said, pausing a beat. “Yeah...Yeah, she just flipped me off.” Is that a chink in Post’s romantic bliss? We can only hope that more comedic gold is on the way.

visit Lee Post’s blog at

Start a Magazine and What’s the Purpose?: A Letter to the Reader Written by Matt Goodlett

Aside from a cool but vague “manifesto,” written by someone else for issue one, Silent City has lacked the direction offered by a mission statement. Although my thoughts on the matter were clearly defined, there are a few reasons I was wary of putting them firmly into writing. During an interview with sculptor John Lajba for this issue, he spoke about downtown Omaha, and his words summed up my hesitation perfectly. He said: I think the ability to explore is very important. Our city should create a palette so we can define it through: people, though different ways of thinking, either through: music, creativity, performance. The less we can control the creative environment, and our own sense of self-expression, the better. I had hoped Silent City would define itself through its content. I wasn’t eager to put up walls; I didn’t want to hedge it in, because I knew Silent City needed room to grow. But I realize now that if you don’t clearly define what you are, someone else will try to mold you into what they want you to be. Early on there were those who constantly made references to literary journals, and even the Paris Review, saying that’s what this publication should aspire to be, that this was the ideal. I never had any intention of turning Silent City magazine into a literary journal. If I had, I would have printed off 100 copies and saved myself a lot of debt and grief. Even the few successful literary journals reach a very narrow audience of people that are a) interested in writing short stories b) like to read short stories c) want to look smart. Literary journals die everyday without anyone noticing or caring, and I’ve never seen someone reading a literary journal while at a restaurant, a bar, or on the street. I’ve never actually seen anyone reading a literary journal anywhere. I like what Silent City is and what it strives for. I don’t care about it having a reputation. I’d rather it be accessible; I’d rather have it read. This isn’t an underground publication, and it isn’t for elitists, or people that want to feel cool carrying it around; this is for the rest of us. Who am I? I’m nobody. No credentials. No reputation. I don’t want to attempt to talk over you, because I’d rather have a conversation. I would rather have someone come to Silent City to have a laugh and maybe stick around after to explore—to discover an idea, or a story, that makes them see things differently. I’ve steered away from a heavy stock cover or glossy pages to bring this publication to as many different people as possible. There’s not an inch of this magazine that was created as filler. It’s my honest intention that every article, essay, or story will entertain or engage you; otherwise, it’s a waste of space. My meager hope is that someone will read Silent City over a beer at the bar. She’ll come to a realization and shout out loud, “I don’t really hate reading. My 11th grade English teacher was just a pretentious bitch that force-fed me literature I didn’t like!” I envisioned Silent City as an ideal place where instead of talking, people were doing. I had no illusions about the odds when I started this publication. I knew that it was likely that this magazine wouldn’t take off. That’s why on the first cover of Silent City, I opted for the image of a Don Quixote figure galloping towards a looming city skyline. Producing an independent publication in this town is a

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little like tilting at windmills; it’s almost absurd to even try. There’s a line from Don Quixote that to paraphrase goes, ‘One man strove to reach the unreachable stars; and the world was better for this.’ Just because the outcome isn’t guaranteed, doesn’t make reaching for your dreams, or an idea that’s bigger than you, any less worthwhile. The artists interviewed in this magazine are examples of that, and talking to them has made working on this publication, despite numerous frustrations, bearable. They create something out of nothing, against the odds and in the face of disappointment. They get back up after repeated failures. They turn ideas into reality. I’m the first to admit that there are better, smarter, more qualified people to run a magazine like Silent City. I’ve had people tell me as much, insinuate it, or second-guess me. These people aren’t standing up, though. They talk a lot. It’s rare to see them act. So what is the mission of Silent City? Silent City will seek to introduce you to people and voices you may not have known existed. Silent City is a place for artists to mingle and will cover all forms of art without distinguishing between high and low. You’ll have an equal chance of finding: Filmmakers, Cartoonists, Sculptors, Writers, Musicians, Journalists, Painters, etc. between its covers. Silent City is for people that would rather do than talk. Above all, Silent City is a home for ideas, and a refuge for great writing and the written word. That’s the vision. This is the seed. Silent City. Come on in. We’re Growing.

Man Divided: Kyle Koliha Written by Matt Goodlett

Legend has it that at a crossroads one midnight, bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar as well as he did. Others believe he perfected the guitar through a year of reclusive living and intense practice, resurfacing only once he’d perfected his art. Kyle Koliha’s recent resurfacing in Omaha may inspire reminiscent rumors. Until recently, the last confirmed sighting of Koliha in his hometown was a show at the Sokol Underground over three years ago, where he accompanied the guys that are now Shiver Shiver. He was backup, didn’t sing, and played one small solo on an electric guitar. He was okay but didn’t stand out and would seem to have vanished from Omaha shortly after that show. This period of his life was a crossroads for Koliha, but he didn’t sell his soul outright. Over the three years that followed he did devote his heart and soul; he gave everything, everything that he could to perfect his guitar playing and make it as a professional musician. Fast-forward to early July and Koliha is back in the town that he grew up in, and is laying down roots. His homecoming show? An open mic at Mick’s. Koliha is starting over in Omaha, making contacts with venue owners, lining up shows. Sure, he could wait another few weeks until he’s gotten a paying gig, but in the meantime the hunger to perform remains and he’s got to feed it. There are probably 10 people in the entire bar. No one really pays attention to Koliha as he gets on stage, until he strums his first note, then the second, into a bluesy slide where he bends notes until they nearly break. There’s intensity to Koliha as he performs his folk-inspired tunes. At times, the audience chitchats as he plays. There are other times during songs like “Something Nice” that Koliha’s voice erupts, his guitar takes on a life of its own, and something tethered moments before soars. You can look around at these moments and see every eye on him, no one talking, no one moving or even daring to breathe. This musician with the demanding presence is not the same person that left a few years ago. As he plays, Koliha’s oblivious to the looks that the patrons give each other. The looks that say, “Why haven’t I heard of this guy, and where did he come from?” A better question is: Where did Koliha disappear to three years ago, and what happened to make him so freaky good at guitar?

Shortly after his performance at the Sokol three years ago, Koliha was calculating what he could exchange to make it in another city to study guitar. He was saying things like: “I think if I budget one and a half meals a day I can make rent.” Music and faith would be the remainder of his sustenance. Fed up with his current situation, Koliha auditioned for the McNally Smith College of Music, a contemporary music school in Minneapolis. He got accepted and went on to get a degree in jazz and classical guitar. Before that there were still a few small details: like getting a loan for college and finding housing, but he’d figure that out. The weekend before school started he packed a cooler full of food, his guitars, clothes and some pans into his ’94 Explorer and watched Omaha disappear in the

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rearview. He found a loan, but no job. Found an apartment, but couldn’t move in until a week after school started. So, Koliha crashed on the couch of a friend of a friend and lived out of his car. Over the course of three years, he’d land on various other couches. There’s a reason that it doesn’t seem cliché when Koliha says things like: “In order to make it as a musician you’ve got to live it, breathe it, eat it.” It’s because when he speaks about music, he talks about it with the passion and reverence that one reserves for a lover. It’s because the jeans he wears—that defy logic by holding together— aren’t designer. They fell to tatters from being one of the dutiful few in constant rotation over a three-year period. For all intents and purposes he was homeless for months at a time. Koliha mentions that because he couldn’t afford a parking permit he walked a mile to school carrying two guitars. During winters in subzero weather, he’d carry heated potatoes in his pockets to keep his hands warm. Sometimes, he’d also take a shot of whiskey in the morning to keep warm. Koliha delivers the punch line: “So then I became a raging alcoholic” and laughs at his own joke, shaking it off. Although his travails sound like enough to drive you to drink, Koliha has seen too many musicians’ blow performances because of intoxication. He didn’t find a regular job, sold equipment to survive, but eventually found that his diverse musical tastes allowed him to support himself with guitar playing alone. He was versatile enough to play classical guitar at upscale restaurants for $20 and a meal, or tour with a country singer —learning the entire repertoire in a week after her guitarist broke his wrist. He also did session work and taught guitar lessons to make ends meet. Koliha found that cover bands were a lucrative endeavor in the Twin Cities—he sometimes made up to $3,000 a month—but performing other people’s songs was slowly leeching his soul. “It’s great in the sense that people like to listen and sing along to their favorite songs. But at the same time it really sucks to play a song that you wrote, and poured yourself into, then right after have a frat boy come up and ask if you know any Dave Mathews. Or have some old guy come up and request “Sweet Home Alabama,”” Koliha says. He rolled with the covers though —sometimes, for fun, busting out an acoustic version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” or doing an impersonation of Roy Orbison. Koliha taught himself to sing when he had the house to himself during summer vacations as a youth. He would belt tunes at the top of his lungs, imitating the likes of: Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Axl Rose and Bruce Springsteen. While at Mick’s, Koliha notices that Nick Johnson is playing there later in the week. He says across the bar to Mike, the owner, that back when he was in high school, he watched Johnson perform at the Latte Lounge. Koliha would do his homework there every week and listen to musicians like Kyle Harvey, Sarah Benck and Johnson. Koliha recalls that Johnson used to play an acoustic version of “Sexual Healing.” Mike laughs and says, “He still does sometimes, and at the end of the night you’ll see people pairing off and leaving together because of that song.” From his stellar performance for an underwhelming crowd at an open mic, to more packed venues like the Barley Street Tavern and the P.S. Collective, it’s clear that Koliha takes every performance seriously. He plays for a group of ten like he’s playing to a crowded stadium. Nothing really deters him while playing either. He’s made it through drunken middle-aged women trying to dance on stage with him, hecklers, and the odd person, always inebriated, wanting to strum his guitar from behind him as he picks the chords. At Mick’s he breaks the high E string while tuning between his second and third songs. All he says about the mishap is, “I didn’t need that one anyway. That’s how you keep on going.” He doesn’t let it faze him. He modifies a few songs and steers away from others. “Being a musician is also about performance art, especially if you’re the singer-songwriter,” Koliha says. “You’ve got to live and die by it. It’s one thing to sing and it’s another to perform it. If you’re good at it, if you believe in it, you can get everyone else in the place to believe in it too.” This is why he says that even when performing a 4 Non Blondes cover he would “do [his] damnedest to really make them pretty flipping good.” Basically, he looked at every opportunity to be on stage as a chance to improve. “It helped in a lot of ways, just getting in front of microphones, becoming comfortable with that. I remember when I first started out I was really nervous on stage.” It’s hard to believe that Koliha can’t pinpoint his first performance until you consider that he played 26 shows in April alone; he couldn’t tell you where half the venues were. One of his earliest memories of performing was at an open mic at Sean O’Casey’s Irish pub in West Omaha. “I couldn’t drink [alcohol] at the time, so the owner gave me free Dr. Peppers,” Koliha said. “I must have had like 14 Dr. Peppers and couldn’t sleep for two days following that show.” Koliha does remember how his interest in the guitar grew. It started with Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin’s II. He recalls his dad playing the album and being captured by the way his dad talked about it and says, “The first time I heard the solo on Heartbreaker I was done. It floored me.”

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Then his dad gave him a 1970 Alvarez that Koliha describes as “cowboy chic.” From there Koliha’s tastes wandered more towards folk music and songwriters like Harry Chapin, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. The most enjoyable musical scenario for Koliha is still performing his original songs. Out of necessity he performed alone as a singer-songwriter in the Twin Cities. It was hard to put together a band, even with the pool of talent in the area. Though surrounded by exceptional musicians, they were often already involved in numerous projects. One of Koliha’s hopes as he returns to Omaha is that he can put together a band to flesh out some demos, which in their current state he calls “shells of songs.” He arrived back in town with a mission: to record an album. This wasn’t possible in Minnesota, where Koliha worked constantly just to make rent with little time or money left for an album. Koliha says he could make thousands of dollars in a month, but there were also months that he made $500 or less, which made paying rent on a $650 studio apartment interesting. If nothing else his time up there inspired a few incredible songs. “The Cathedral” and “Whatever’s Left Will Burn” are some of his strongest works that commiserate his time up north. Koliha said that it’s difficult to survive as a musician in the Twin Cities, because although there are many venues to play at, which cater to every type of music, it’s also oversaturated with many talented musicians and is “very cutthroat.” Silent City’s initial interview with Koliha took place over the phone at 3 a.m., musician’s hours. He was preparing to move back to Omaha in a week and the dissonance of a man torn could be heard as the conversation progressed. There was a longing in Koliha’s voice as he spoke of his hometown, but there was also an already wistful tone for the life that he was leaving behind in Minnesota. He missed the venues in Omaha, now demolished (The Ranch Bowl) or closed (The Cog Factory, The Music Box) that he grew up with. The musical explosion in Benson as well as the Slowdown encouraged him. Most of all, he missed the sense of community and collaboration amongst the musicians that he knew in his native Omaha. Then Koliha spoke about the commitment that music demanded and what he’d given up for it in Minneapolis. The lifestyle of the musician is notoriously difficult on romantic relationships. Music is a harsh mistress. When pressed if he’s leaving anyone behind in Minnesota, there’s silence for a long moment. Koliha says with a discordant tinge, “I’m leaving a lot behind.” For good or ill, Minnesota served its purpose. Koliha learned some life lessons and grew up while away. Up North he also worked with the best and says, “I didn’t know what good was until I went up there.” One of his instructors, Bobby Stanton, was a session player in Nashville for years, and played with Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins among others. “He was the best player I had ever seen,” Koliha says. “He could smoke you at anything and sight read music like it was a book. Being around players like that helped me grow as a musician. I also learned a lot about myself. That really helped me find my voice.” Professional musicians routinely visited the school. This is how Koliha got the opportunity to ask Ice Cube some important questions concerning the rapper’s career. During discussion sessions, students were asked to write a question and send it to the front. Koliha’s went something like this:

Dear Ice Cube, Since your initial cinematic work of art, what you’ve done in the Barbershop series has really made you into a top shelf thespian, almost an actor’s actor. How do you think that has prepared you for roles in Are We There Yet and XXX 2? Koliha said that despite the rapper/actors persona “he’s like a big Teddy Bear, and so happy and smiley. You just want to hug him.” Happy is the best way to describe how Koliha appears when seen in early July in the garden of Caffeine Dreams. It’s a picturesque setting with wind gently rustling branches and combing through the tall decorative grasses. It’s like the calm after the storm. Koliha seems refreshed in a subdued way and says that might be because, “I pretty much slept for the last 16 hours straight.” Koliha slept all through the fireworks and mayhem of the Fourth of July. He doesn’t mind missing the action. He used to enjoy fireworks, but is forced to be much more careful with his hands these days. Sitting at a bistro set, he looks relaxed. Something he perhaps notices because he shifts forward in his chair. Koliha realizes that comfort can be a dangerous thing for a musician. “I never want to be that comfortable. I’ve played guitar for 18 years. I got a degree in it, but I still practice for six hours a day,” he says.

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He isn’t paranoid; he’s seen many a musical career stolen by comfort. “The best piano player that I know works at Best Buy; one of my favorite songwriters teaches elementary school. The thing is, there comes a point in your life when you’re trying to do music or anything sort of artistic where you kind of have to put up or shut up.” Meaning, for instance, that Koliha’s had job offers where he could make $35,000 a year and have health insurance, but they had nothing to do with music. Once found, Koliha sees the draw of a decent living as something that makes it “really tough to pursue music.” He’s still not ready to take that chance. Koliha would one day like to settle down and start his own family, but not until he can support them with his guitar. Koliha emphasizes that music is a lifetime pursuit. There are still many lessons to learn but he’s ready for them. There’s a common adage claimed by nearly every genre of music that (insert genre) music is comprised of just two chords and the truth. While Koliha was recording at Electric Funeral Studios in Wisconsin, the recording engineer told Koliha that for as good as he played many of his songs were very simple. Then the engineer said, “That’s alright, all you need is two chords and the truth.” It’s an idea that Koliha took to heart. He recognized that everything a person feels could be divided into two chords: major and minor. “Major can sound happy and bright, and minor has a darker more somber sound to it. Everything you feel can be found in those two chords: sadness, elation, joy, anger and longing. All the rest just help to add a little more sentiment to what you’re trying to say,” Koliha says. Music has taught him the duality of the soul. The performance of “Please Keep Me In Time” at the P.S. Collective seems demonstrative. In the song, a delay effect is used and the fluid guitar melody cascades into itself, the next note batting into the last producing a cacophonous crisscrossing with Koliha and his guitar becoming a buttress wedged in between. As the song ends, it is completely out of time, tense, and then silence hits like absolution. Essentially, it’s one man performing a duet. In some ways Koliha seems to have been waylaid at the crossroads he came to three years ago. He seems perpetually split between comfort and frenzy, straddling the Twin Cities and Omaha. This is good. It keeps him relentlessly moving, steadily working to improve his art. For now, at least, Koliha continues to live and die between major and minor, inextricably torn between.

John Lajba Written by Matt Goodlett

Sculptor John Lajba’s favorite sculptures aren’t the high profile pieces he’s done for celebrities like basketball player Vince Carter or the memorial of Dale Earnhardt that stands outside of the Daytona International Speedway. Listing his favorites Lajba says, “I did a sculpture once that a homeless person slept beside because he felt secure next to it, a sculpture that a person would come up and hug, a sculpture that a man grabbed with both of his hands—and he squeezed this rock. I did “The Road to Omaha” sculpture at Rosenblatt, for the College World Series, that fans use as a rallying point.” Lajba keeps a few mementos from his career, like the NAPA Auto Parts sign with a picture of the first place trophy that he designed for the Daytona 500 race. Among these mementos is a Florida Tribune article. It mentions jet setting around the country in the middle of the night to meet with celebrity clients. Lajba gently dismisses the article with a laugh and says, “They portray me as some kind of secret agent.” Within a moment of meeting Lajba, hearing his deep resonate voice, robust laughter or his many apologies for “talking like a crazy artist” it’s obvious that Lajba is down to earth. The celebrity sculptures may be what Lajba is recognized for, but they aren’t his most important. Ask Lajba and he will tell you that his most important sculptures are the ones that people use without even knowing he’s the artist. He’ll tell you really, though; he hasn’t yet grown complacent enough as an artist to look back yet. Lajba, who has been a professional sculptor since 1982, turned fifty-one this year and he has much more work to do before he’s done.

A FAMILY SPACE Lajba’s studio sits on the edges of the Old Market, where slick cobblestone overtakes paved city streets. Traces of Lajba’s family linger throughout the 14,000 square foot labyrinthine studio space among numerous knickknacks and sculpting equipment. A note from one of his children is scrawled in marker on a wall inside of a heart: “I love mom and dad.” A rosary, also drawn, rests above it. On his large drafting desk business cards are piled high, phone numbers are scrawled

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in every direction on a white mat in black magic marker, and among these are sketched a pair of hands brought together, drawn by his daughter Hannah. In one room of his studio an answering machine blinks 26 messages: they’re messages left for Lajba by his children over the years. “I just can’t bring myself to erase them,” Lajba says. He’s looking to transfer them to a more permanent format, but until then they keep persistently blinking, a warm reminder of his children in his somewhat austere studio, where industrial heaters hanging from the ceiling clang to life in winter, and Carhart overalls and coat are still necessary in the colder months. Other items that suggest family litter the area: a “happy birthday” streamer hangs from a moose head in the small entry room packed with a piano, elsewhere a pair of blue Pumas rest atop a vice grip bolted to the ground, a bike with a leopard print seat that his daughter occasionally rides in the studio leans against it. A skeleton, used for anatomical reference, wears a fedora and has the stub of a cigar, positioned by Lajba’s son, Harrison, stuffed into its jaw. Hanging above a workbench, near the drafting table in the back of the studio, is a framed photo of Lajba’s late father. Lajba graduated from Bellevue University with a BFA in 1983, and took the photo while he was an art student there. In it, his father is gesturing for the viewer to come closer. There appears to be something cupped in his hand. A cigarette? It’s hard to tell. While scrutinizing the photo, you attempt to discern what it is, squint and inch closer. Closer still. It’s still not quite recognizable. A little closer until your face is nearly pressed to the frame’s glass. Then you can’t help but smile. The gesture has worked. The photograph is positioned over Lajba’s right shoulder as he leans back in his chair, smiles fondly and says that his love of sculpture began with his father, who he was influenced by, and also very close to. “We used to take clay when I was four or five-years old; he would make something and I would make something. It was just a way of communicating and enjoying spending time with my father.” Lajba continues to smile as he remembers. “Then it became a form of personal enjoyment and satisfaction for myself.” It’s understandable why Lajba would need traces of family in his studio, which he says has become like a second home for them; Lajba works 10 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. At any moment Lajba is juggling eight projects. Often when he describes his sculptures he speaks of the deeper idea behind them rather than their appearance. For instance, when he talks about the piece that he’s working on for the Sheriff’s Department on 156th and Maple he says, “It’s showing the whole idea of what it means to have that responsibility - to be there for the public.” Another project for Children’s Square USA in Council Bluffs will portray a father leaving his three children to the care of Reverend Joseph Goff Lemen. These were historically the first children helped by the orphanage on December 23, 1882. That’s what the scene portrays, but Lajba discusses at length what he hopes to convey with the sculpture. He cycles through the emotions that everyone in the situation must have felt: the father so hopeless for his children’s future that he’ll give them up in order to protect them, the children possibly feeling betrayed, scared or angry and not understanding the decision, and the Reverend entrusted with this responsibility. Above all Lajba says that it’s important to convey hope through this sculpture. To show “that when you’re at the bottom there is always a way up. It’s hard to do that.”

PROCESS AND MATERIALS Even when Lajba sculpts representations of famous people, he doesn’t put them on a pedestal. When sculpting a memorial to Dale Earnhardt he didn’t sculpt Earnhardt the racecar driver. Instead, he made the racing icon seem human and approachable to fans. Lajba also made a reproduction of the famous penny that was given to Earnhardt by a terminally ill girl before he won the Daytona 500 in 1998. This reproduction is now embedded in the wall at the raceway. When Lajba’s not able to know his subject personally, he doesn’t do representational sculptures reproduced solely from photographs, because he believes that would be insincere. Lajba says, “A lot of times, insight into a person is how they affect others. How they’re looked upon in life. I think one commonality that all people share is all human beings are important, all human beings have value and we all have flaws too.” Unpopular characters are not usually the subject of sculptures, but, if asked, Lajba thinks he could do it. In fact, he thinks it would be an important sculpture to do. One of the most important things that his mentor Father Lee Lubers, sculpting teacher at Creighton University, taught him was “not to be afraid of looking at reality, or afraid of responding to reality: the positive and the negative.” Lajba thinks that the tendency would be to make the piece pure propaganda, pure evil. He would approach it in a more complex way. One way in which he would portray the infamous person in sculpture is through isolation. “I would put the sculpture in a setting where it was alone,

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where it felt alone, not on a pedestal or in a beautiful setting. When you’re alone is when your thoughts, either good or bad, can consume you,” Lajba says. In a corner of Lajba’s studio is a terracotta fragment that was once ornamentation on the Masonic temple demolished in Omaha at 19th and Douglas. It has considerable weight and he hefts it across the studio. “What I found most interesting about it is not really the ornamentation of the fragment itself, but when you turn it around you can see how the worker put the clay into this mold with his hands and you can actually see his fingerprints on the clay. That’s where I see the value in it. It shows me human care, craftsmanship, pride,” he says delicately as he traces his fingertips over the tiny trenches left in the terracotta decades before. Lajba is developing clay bodies out of terracotta. He’s utilized various other materials throughout his career and says, “I use the most appropriate material to express what I’m trying to express. For any artist, you should never be afraid of materials or enslaved to them either.” Lajba is starting to work more in ceramic and has worked with granite, bronze and sometimes synthetic materials. Several of the sculptures at the Western Heritage Museum were developed by Lajba and made from resin painted with different glazes and washes to bring out their color. Lajba’s sculptures start simply. “I do it just as perhaps a writer might do it. I write down thoughts and ideas,” Lajba says. “Then a lot of times it’s easier for me to understand those thoughts and ideas by working three-dimensionally.” His sculptures always start with the face because Lajba says that’s where many of our most important senses are located: “there’s sight and smell and breath and life.” Lajba often prefers stone for his nonrepresentational pieces, finding feelings through texture. He enjoys working with stone, even though it’s labor intensive, because once it’s carved the piece is done, as opposed to bronze where there are multiple processes to cast and finish it. He also says, “When you’re working on stone you have the dust in the air and things like that. It puts me in a very happy environment. I feel very safe when I’m working with stone.” When creating a stone sculpture Lajba says: “I try to make them vessels, to make them places that you gather around. I try to make my stone pieces represent ideas of community whether they’re broken pieces to show perhaps how we’re not permanent…as people.” Environment is paramount. Lajba recalls a piece that he sculpted for a location near Lake Erie in Erie, Pa. His work was influenced by the violent motion of the water, in contrast to the tall stoic pines, like telephone poles that swayed and bent to the wind. The collision of these two elements is evident as he discusses the sculpture in one long sentence that eventually comes to a crescendo. “I would go out at night and these trees were maybe 150 feet tall, and they would be swaying in the wind, they were strong but if you’re in the forest at night with a full moon and…the idea of if you’ve ever touched the bark of a tree, the roughness of it, and the rhythm of the wind going through these trees, there’s the rhythm, there’s the pulse, and then there’s the undulations of the water on Lake Erie, it’s almost like an ocean and that was what the piece was about. It was actually about a community of people, but their community is because of their environment,” Lajba says. Lajba attaches meaning to all of his sculptures and says that he would never sculpt a piece just for decoration as an object. Rather, he’s constantly trying to communicate with his art. Lajba says: “Look at the world that writing puts you in, and visual art is similar to performance art, or writing; it’s just a way of communicating. I think that’s what it should be. It shouldn’t be an object; it should be the world. What object is there in dance? But it’s still great art. What object is there in music? Visual art should not be the object; it should be a vehicle like dance, writing, music. I really do believe that. Otherwise, then it’s just a bunch of stuff.” When making a sculpture for Clarkson Hospital, Lajba kept the idea of communication in mind. The bronze sculpture, weighing 1,500 pounds, is of two hands, one resting in the other. The inspiration for the sculpture came to him while visiting his own mother in the intensive care unit of a hospital. During these visits, Lajba witnessed the triumph and tragedies that unfold in a hospital. He realized while trying to communicate, and be there for his mother, that words were not always the best form of expression. “I would touch her shoulder, touch her hand, feel the warmth of her hand, and that was the way that I could communicate with her,” Lajba says. “I think that the most important thing about that piece is to show that you’re not alone.”

NOT FORGOTTEN Lajba thinks that one of the worst things that can happen to a person is when they are forgotten. He says, “I sometimes go to estate sales and I see boxes of photographs and artifacts of these people. You always wonder what happens to those people and if they had children or ever did something significant to be known.” Lajba got the sepia-toned, water-damaged photograph of a

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somber looking lady, in black stately attire, at one such estate sale. It rests above a metal locker filled with supplies and Lajba says, “Its eyes will follow you wherever you go in the studio.” They do. “But at least she knows that someone in 2008 is still thinking of her.” Even with all that he’s already accomplished, Lajba looks ahead to doing more work. “I want to do art about more things. I want to be even more productive. There’s just not that much time in the day.” There’s the reminder of impermanence whispering in this statement. One of his mentors, Father Lubers, passed away just this summer. Lajba gets a little more tired when hauling hundred pound bags of clay powder to make into clay. He remembers a time when he would carry them like they were nothing. Lajba’s sculptures will weather many, many years past his lifetime, but his unfinished work is not daunting for Lajba. “I mean all of my work, what gives me the passion, what gives me the strength to work as hard as I do is that I want to celebrate this wonderful human compassion that we all have,” he says. Above all, Lajba hopes people “look at the figurative sculptures, and the nonrepresentational sculptures that I do and see something about yourself, about our world, but also really see something about truth.” It’s obvious from speaking with Lajba that he’s had time to think about these questions; he’s developed a philosophy on life and through it art—or vice versa. This is why a rosary hanging from a pegboard in the kiln room of his studio, alongside other sculpting implements, doesn’t seem out of place. It’s seems a silent affirmation that for him faith is equally important to both.

Imitation Life Written by Matt Goodlett

Making Movies, Dropping Babies. An account of the Imitation Life shoot and the death of a dream. IT’S THE LAST DAY OF SHOOTING ON IMITATION LIFE, the feature film concocted and executed by Mark Booker about four friends making a movie. It’s also November in Omaha with a wind-chill factor that dips the temperature below zero, whips hair into faces and turns the crewmembers’ lips purplish, the rings under their eyes a similar shade. The sun, falling in the sky, keeps getting stuck behind grey clouds and threatens to be lost forever behind the rooftop of the apartment complex where the movie is filming its final, and arguably most pivotal, scene—the denouement in which everything is resolved over a game of basketball amongst friends. Matt Harwell, one of the producers, who also plays a lead role, explains to everyone that they must get this shot before the sun is lost. When I first meet Harwell it is at Booker’s apartment a month before production as he and several other actors are rehearsing. He’s wearing a black turtleneck and my first thought is: Is this guy a GAP model or something? Later in the shoot Chris Marsh, who plays the comedic role of Biznuts—a role that a pre-fame Dane Cook supposedly considered—whispers conspicuously to Harwell off camera that, “It looks like a J. Crew catalogue exploded all over you.” Harwell becomes offended. But funny thing, handsome man that he is, Harwell, like Booker, will go on to do some modeling after Imitation Life. Like the rest of the crew, I’ve been working on the film around twelve hours a day for the past four weeks, on at least two occasions working as much as 16 hours, but always with eight or more hours between the next shoot and typically with a day off each week. I’ll be told later that this schedule is light compared to most productions. And it is. Everything comes down to this next take. Uncharacteristically, the shot has been blown the last three consecutive attempts: there was a sound malfunction, a line was bumbled, the light was lost. Harwell says the equipment must be returned tomorrow or they’ll be charged extra and it’s not in the budget. The Panavision Elaine 16 mm camera, won through a Panavision New Filmmaker Grant, must also be shipped back. It’s scheduled for another production. All of this is moot, because twelve hours from now Omaha will be dumped on with the first major snow of 2005 making a re-shoot impossible. The crew clenches chattering teeth bracing for the next take, they cram necks into shoulder blades to huddle against the cold, the camera rolls, “action” is called, and everyone holds their breath…

BIRTH OF A MOVIE I’ve been on set nearly every day from set-up to takedown working as an apprentice Grip/

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Electric, which means I mainly hold things and carry heavy stuff, set up light stands and roll and wrangle cords. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had at a job. Booker, who is the screenwriter/director/producer/lead actor, has been with this project for over a year from initial idea to writing the screenplay—on the roof of his parents home in Ogallala, Nebraska—to pre-production rehearsals and the month of production. He’s also started his own production company Dropped @ Birth Productions and procured $110,00 in financing for the film, which will go on to cost $225,000. Although the camera rental is free, the film is costly and the processing alone will cost $15,000. All in the hope that one day Imitation Life will shape into something suitable for the festival circuit that might garner the interest of a distributor and go on to have a wide theatrical release. Booker’s more meager hopes, never uttered aloud, are then a straight to DVD release. After production is completed, Booker will also create some musical tracks for the movie. He’ll spend six weeks on a first edit of the film, while isolated in a cabin in the wilderness of Maine, where the immense Atlantic can be smelled on the breeze, and its rolling waves heard, but never seen through the thick trunks of barren trees. I’ve never received or read the script, but I’ve pieced together what’s happening as the scenes have been non-sequentially shot depending on what days certain locations can be booked. These locations are a diverse sampling of Omaha: an abandoned wing of Creighton University Hospital, Memorial Park, The Old Market, Benson’s Main Street, Club Nico. Nowhere in the shooting are the cornfields that American Idol went out of its way to find, or the dull and dreary cinematographic lens that director Alexander Payne applies to his Nebraska. Luke Eder, who lives and works in New York City, and who early in his career worked on The Professional, is shooting Imitation Life. His father Richard Eder wrote for the New York Times for over 20 years as a foreign correspondent and critic, subsequently winning a Pulitzer. When Imitation Life shoots at an apartment in the Old Market Lofts, Payne will visit the set wearing an In and Out Burger jacket. I’ll skip the second half of a night class to visit the set unaware that Payne is there. Entering the elevator as Producer/ Unit Production Manager Ellen Myer and a man are exiting, I’ll notice Ellen and say, “Hey!” enthusiastically, to which the man will reply “Hey!” in turn. After the doors have shut, and the elevator has begun its ascent, I’ll drop my head and wince before asking another Grip what has taken me a beat to realize. “That was Alexander Payne wasn’t it? He’ll nod. “I’m an idiot?” He’ll nod again. There’s no telling what Payne said to Booker on his visit, but several days later on Booker’s production blog, Booker will write something to the affect that he can’t wait until he’s a big-time director so he can come onto other people’s sets and tell them how to run things. Overshadowing my brush with Payne, this night at the Lofts is memorable because it’s the first time that I see the choreography of the cast and crew working in unison. Often, hours are spent lighting a set by the Grips and Electrics in conjunction with the cinematographer, and then small adjustments are made throughout shooting. This night, numerous hours are spent on this single shot that involves: three actors hitting several marks, one Grip pushing a dolly, one Camera Operator on the dolly and one Assistant Camera Operator, to change the focus as the camera and dolly arrive at certain points along the dolly track. The shot becomes an intricate dance between the cast and crew all performed in a very confined space; there is no room for error. My contribution to this six-headed monster is to hug the wall, keep the cord out of the dolly track and stay out of the way. Increasing the difficulty, this scene ends with Harwell convincingly breaking down into tears and it’s a shot that takes six attempts, in addition to several rehearsals without rolling, to get the rhythm right. As a result, Harwell has to generate the same amount of energy and emotion dozens of times. WHEN FILMING STARTS ON IMITATION LIFE IN THE FALL of 2005 it has a lot of promise. Napoleon Dynamite won the grant a year prior—for a 35mm camera—and went on to gross millions at the box office. It’s assumed that they have donated the camera that Eder comments is brand new. At a pre-production meeting with cast and crew, Booker will mention that when this movie “goes on to make millions” everyone’s contracts will allow for more money to be divided. He says this half-jokingly and many in the room respond with forced laughter disguising a little hope. People I mention the movie to aren’t ecstatic about the premise: it’s a movie about four friends making a movie. They say it seems clichéd, that’s it been done before. When Booker initially told the idea to his longtime friend and collaborator, Kevin Taylor, he even told him it was the stupidest idea he’d ever heard. I know it’s been done, but I’m happy for the opportunity to help out and be allowed to learn something with no experience in filmmaking. As a Grip, the script really isn’t my business anyway. Later, I’ll find out from the crew that I’m fortunate enough to be on a set where someone isn’t yelling at me all the time, to work on a film made by essentially a bunch of friends. Most of the crew met on a previous production in Cozad, Nebraska. Two of the Grips have come from North Hollywood to work on this movie. Another who moved to L.A. from Cozad to get Grip work,

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has gotten none in L.A., and returned to Nebraska to work on this film. Eder and Assistant Director, Anthony Marks are both from New York City. Most of the rest of the crew is local to Nebraska. The Grips from North Hollywood dream of getting into the Union so they can “get paid to sit on the back of a Grip truck.” During one lunch break I’ll watch portions of Volcano with them, their favorite film because it’s so bad. We laugh at portions of the movie that are unintentionally funny. Both of these Grips are also eager to light the female form naked, a challenge, but one they can handle. At the time of this article they had finally gotten their shot. This discussion brings up pornography. While interning in L.A., the Key Grip shot a commercial in which a porno set made to look like a dungeon was borrowed. She says, “It was surprisingly clean and there was a cabinet full of every imaginable toy or lube.” Most of the out of town crew is living at the house where a majority of the interiors are shot. Four people are living in the basement, a few more upstairs in the bedrooms. Others are staying at Booker’s apartment, all allowing for savings on lodging. Dropped @ Birth Productions has the house for a month while the owners are away visiting family in Nepal. The house perpetually smells like curry, an aroma that is more pronounced when the high wattage lights, and dozens of bodies begin to heat up a room; air conditioning is never used during shooting because it would affect the sound. Late nights after shooting has wrapped, members of the cast and crew will adjourn to the basement to watch dailies and have impromptu drum sessions with a pair of bongos and every pot that can be harvested from the kitchen. SINISTER SECRET ENDING One thing bothers me as filming continues. There’s a surprise ending and although I don’t know what it is, I’ve blindly signed a paper to the affect that I won’t reveal this super-secret to anyone lest I be sued or stoned to death. I never read the legalese, so I don’t know. I do know that everyone else working on this film has happily sacrificed a tremendous amount to be involved. The collaborative spirit of independent filmmaking on a low budget guarantees that. My meager sacrifice is sleep, but this too has its price. I’m finishing up my senior year of college, and in order to not fall behind I’ll take a lonely security position three nights per week from midnight to 8 a.m. at a shopping center. I’m still carrying a full course load and this demands some careful coordinating. I’ve scheduled one class with no attendance policy, strategically missed other classes the maximum amount before failing and moved my day job schedule around so that I’m only on for days that call for unloading trucks, or when filming isn’t happening. Consequently as the production persists, I’ll become increasingly sleep deprived, paranoid and one or more beat removed from the rest of the world. At particularly long red lights I’ll blink my eyes shut for just a moment and be awakened by angry horn blares. Then this document that I’ve signed, the one about the secret ending, will cause me to wake up from nodding off at the security gig in a sweaty panic with the feeling that someone is watching me. Sleep deprivation and isolation will also cause mild late night hallucinations—usually around 3 to 5 a.m.—such as the time a mannequin in a store window will wink at me and lick its ill-defined lips. I’ll spend the rest of the night barricading myself in the makeshift security office, pretty much a closet, with a wheelchair pressed against the door, blowing my trusty security whistle for no one to hear until my lungs give out. Occasionally, I’ll obsess about the secret ending and wonder: Is this movie really just a documentary about friends making a movie who are making a movie, BUT with— surprise!—people that think that they are helping make a movie? Think about that for a second. Now think about that after going 36 hours without sleep, caffeine animating your body and it will seem completely plausible. Three things further fuel this big ball of mistrust: 1) I’d recently seen trailers for the William Shatner project where he dupes a small town into believing that he’s actually filming a Sci-Fi movie there. The punch line is something like dumb hicks will believe anything. 2) On the second day of shooting, a “documentary” filmmaker, Mike Machian, arrives on the set with a bulky digital camera to get a “behind the scenes” look. Eventually, this will become the half-hour documentary Wake Up Filmmaker. Another contributor to the documentary, Rob Williams shows up occasionally with camera in hand. Three years later, this summer, when I see Williams again on the set of the local short, Love Owls, he’ll say he remembers me from Imitation Life. “Yeah, you looked really pissed at me.” Nah, I was probably just tired, I tell him and laugh. And wary of your plots, I don’t say. 3) On a film, you’re hanging around actors, people that are paid to believably deceive. So, who can blame me for questioning reality? At one point, Harwell finds out that I’m going to school for writing and says he’d be interested in seeing my work. He graduated with an English degree and taught overseas for a few months. I suspect he’s asking to see my work because he already

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suspects it’s going to be crap. I beat him at his own game telling him I’ll decline. I say, “I wouldn’t be able to trust your opinion anyways,” before narrowing my eyes at him, “Actor.” And odd things do happen on set to provoke my delusions. I walk into the house one morning after getting off of the security gig and grabbing an hour of unsatisfying sleep. Booker descends the upstairs steps bare-chested with a white towel wrapped around his waist. Without looking at me he walks past to a large case CD wallet stacked on equipment cases crowded in a corner of the foyer. He starts to make a selection and stops, picks a ladybug off of a case, and cupping it in his palms, walks to the door. Once there, he gently blows the ladybug into the breeze as if he’s blowing a kiss into the morning dew. As he turns back, he has a wistful look on his face like he’s just made a wish. He notices me. There’s an awkward moment as our eyes bump. I start to laugh nervously and scan the room. This has got to be some kind of candid camera set-up, right? Is it in the lamp? “What?” he asks, smiling. I glance suspiciously at the light fixture overhead, and seeing no lens, shrug my shoulders. Nothing. Nothing odd about that. At all. Unbeknownst to me, this morning has been reserved for filming some gratuitous nudity, but not the kind that the North Hollywood Grips would prefer. Booker has decided to get a shot of his man-ass, which the makeup artist complains she had to shave, as part of a post coital lay-inbed-and-chat scene. There were other signs of potential shenanigans, like Booker’s affinity for Andy Kaufman. The subject of Kaufman comes up on a marathon day of shooting that has the four friends interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine. Kevin Simonson—who in real life has been published in Rolling Stone, and whose interview with Hunter S. Thompson can be found on page 46 of this Silent City—plays the interviewer. Somewhere wedged in a 17-hour day of filming, interspersed with homoerotic frat boy humor between takes, Booker announces his love of the movie Man on The Moon and the biopic’s focus, Kaufman. He does a spot on rendition of a scene that takes place after Kaufman dies where Kaufman’s alter ego, lounge singer Tony Clifton, says to an audience, “You guys want to see Andy. Then you better get a flashlight and a shovel.” Although known as a comedian, and the funny talking guy from the TV show Taxi, Kaufman constantly needled his audience for a reaction even if it wasn’t favorable. He turned many fans against him—becoming the guy people loved to hate—after declaring himself the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World and offering any woman who could pin him in a ring $1,000. An interest in wrestling is something that Kaufman and Booker share. Booker started a backyard-wrestling league, the Championship Wrestling Federation, while he was still living in Ogallala. On a lunch break the last day of shooting, the crew watches footage of one of Booker’s wrestlers get hit by a car that was supposed to be going 20 mph. The driver accelerated at the last minute and the wrestler went flying. The camera operator shouts, “You killed him!’ The driver didn’t, but the footage made the cut on one of those infamous backyard wrestling tapes that were sold on late night TV for a time in the 90s. Booker says because the CWF events got so big, you can no longer have a public gathering outdoors without a permit in Ogallala. “You can’t even have a family reunion,” he’ll say smiling proudly. While discussing Man on the Moon, Booker mentions the scene near the end where cancerridden Kaufman travels to the Philippines to visit a medicine man to remove his tumors and realizes that the magic is just a trick. His whole life Kaufman has been manipulating the audience, making them believe what he wanted, and now he discovers that he’s been duped, as well. He smiles sadly at the irony. Booker will get so excited after recounting this scene that he’ll shout, “I love that! I love to trick the audience!” Ironically, at least for the initial edit of the film shown at a swank, unofficial premiere for cast, crew and friends at Club Nico on October 15, 2006 few understand the surprise ending of Imitation Life. It must be further explained after the movie has stopped rolling. The production of Imitation Life for me, the uninitiated, has an ethereal quality. One exaggerated by the disorientation of watching a sunrise bleed into a sunset, bleed into a sunrise without the lubrication of REM sleep, you witness everything become one big day. By night, I’m walking the same loop around a retail outlet three times per shift unlocking and locking the same 15 doors. On non-shooting days, I’m lifting boxes off of an assembly line. Lift, turn, stack. Lift, turn, stack. During shooting days, I watch people deliver the exact lines over and over again, with the same choreography each take as the single camera is moved to cover different angles. My entire life has become Déjà Vu. It’s a surreal experience that sometimes leaves you nauseous like a merry-go-round that won’t stop. Other times, you look up into the sky, see the stars spinning around, and the repetition lulls you into a waking dream that let’s you step outside of yourself, and watch your life like it’s a movie. You try to tell yourself, “Stop and pay attention. No matter what happens next, this time, right now, is important.”

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SCENES FROM A BORROWED DREAM Imitation Life for me is like a borrowed dream that I’ve become a part of, and that’s why I think I can talk about it with just an ounce of distanced objectivity. I never even quite remember my own dreams upon waking; they just leave me with a feeling. Three years removed from the movie, all that’s really left of Imitation Life for me can be summed up in small scenes, incidences, bits of dialogue spoken off camera. To wit: The night Imitation Life shoots a scene of one of the characters getting hit by a car on the main street of Benson, the keys will become locked in the van with the camera equipment. Marks is determined as hell, and unlocks the door with a coat hanger just as a locksmith pulls into the parking lot an hour later. The only reason a coat hanger can be snaked through the back window is, because vandals dented the back door just below the window with a pumpkin over Halloween. The next morning a body will be discovered in a dumpster several blocks away. There are minor friendly skirmishes between the crew members who are vegetarian and those who enjoy meat. One night I’ll walk past Pat, the Camera Assistant, voraciously devouring some chicken in front of the Script Supervisor, Tessa, a vegetarian. Out of the corner of his mouth as he gnaws the bone he’ll say, “Do you ever get so hungry that you eat the bone too?” Following a barbecue on a non-shooting day he’ll say to Tessa, “Jeez, there must have been nine different kinds of meat!” He’ll name them off on his fingers. “We had bratwurst, burgers, chicken…” Booker is now a vegan himself. Pranks involving wooden clothespins abound. These are also known as C-47s, and Grips carry them by the pocketful to attach colored gels to lights. By the end of the shoot it’s impossible to find one without some phrase written on it in magic marker. One actor will get offended on his last day of shooting when he discovers a clothespin with the words “Meat receptacle” pinned to the seat of his pants.

ALTHOUGH IMITATION LIFE HAS ITS FAULTS, IT’S AMAZING to look back and think that one person snatched this idea from the ether and transformed it into a reality, carrying it for two years, coordinating so many people and making others believe in this vision. It’s also amazing to consider that this person was the same age as I was, 23, when filming started on Imitation Life. He was young, made something out of nothing and he did so while naysayers discouraged him from their 9 to 5 jobs, while former friends asked him when he was going to give up this filmmaking nonsense. This may be the reason why Booker seems to insulate himself with humor, seems to keep rolling once the camera has stopped. There’s the constant jokester, the projected persona, that serves either to deter Booker from the negativity directed at someone taking on an immense creative project or that aids in the myth of Mark Booker. His self-mythologizing includes the story of how he and Harwell met: Booker claims that he met actor and friend Matt Harwell while partaking in a pharmaceutical study. Booker may have partaken in the pharmaceutical study, or just made the story up, to emulate independent filmmaking inspiration Robert Rodriguez and author of Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player. Rodriguez funded his first feature, El Mariachi, with money made from a medical study and also claims to have written the movie in a week while participating in it. Making a film with no perceived credibility is daunting. When filming in public there are times that people stop and ask if we’re filming a commercial or a student film. Or ask who’s in this movie, like if it doesn’t have some washed up B-list actor then it’s not legitimate. Eventually, I’ll adopt the responses I hear Booker give. He’ll say, “A bunch of up-and-comers. You won’t know their names yet, but in a few years.” Or, more often he’ll just name off the cast with no further explanation, with the implication being that the questioner should know who these actors are. The most recognizable name that the film has is Teresa Cassidy. Anyone of cartoon watching age in the 90s will fondly remember her as Teresa from the Fox 42 Kids Club. She’s a last minute substitution for an actress that was set to play the protagonist’s mother and had to cancel. While filming a scene at a fancier restaurant in West Omaha, an old lady who’s an extra asks Marks what his position is while he’s helping to clean a set up. Marks replies that he’s the AD, or assistant director. “Oh, the assistant director picks up trash?” the lady inquires sweetly. She’s playing up the part of the senile lady who’s aloof, doesn’t know what she says, but she does. I want to break this lady’s hip as much as I want to laugh, because Marks doesn’t deserve that. Marks just smiles without opening his mouth—you can tell he’s swallowing words—and notices something across the room, away from this “naïve” old lady, that needs his attention.

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9/4/08 2:49 PM - Features

DEATH OF A DREAM Filming for Imitation Life began just as filming for Out of Omaha wrapped. Out of Omaha had a much larger budget and a bigger production value. It had name actors like Lea Thompson, Dave Foley and, you know, the mom from Home Improvement. It’s also written by Linda Vorhees who has taught, if she still doesn’t, screenwriting at UCLA. So the script, the movie, must obviously be good. But it isn’t. It’s a terrible script with afterschool-special-par-writing. It plays up the stereotypes of Midwesterners and it makes Omaha’s population look universally stupid and quaint. Many of the characters are also stereotypically religious. I can’t recall the last time I heard someone exclaim, “Merciful Martin Luther!” This film also made me dislike Dave Foley, who at one point in his career—before the numerous estrogen injections he must have taken for this role—was funny. I do predict the movie will be salvaged as a drinking game. Anytime someone works the fact that they’re in Omaha into a sentence for no apparent reason—drink. Someone mentions vacationing in Branson, Missouri —drink twice. Anytime an outlandish statement is made like: “No one from Omaha goes to California. We’re not Beach people,” or, “This is Omaha. We’re husky people with hearty appetites”—drink till you can’t feel anymore. I’ll go one step further with my prediction: Once revived as a drinking game, the movie will be attributed to a string of alcohol poisonings and banned from college campuses in the state of Nebraska. For its bigger budget, the end result is about on par with Imitation Life. But, Out of Omaha did get write-ups in the Omaha World-Herald and fanfare at the 2007 Omaha Film Festival, at a packed screening attended by Ben Nelson. For its big budget and name actors, Out of Omaha, now known as California Dreaming, was released directly to DVD. The difference between its fate and Imitation Life’s may have been the recognizable names. Today, California Dreaming challenges Adam Sandler’s Going Overboard for the title of worst film that I’ve actually endured until the credits.

IMITATION LIFE IN FINAL FORM HAD ITS OVERDUE premier at the 2008 Omaha Film Festival, the only festival that would have it. While at the festival I overheard an usher talking about it. Even after a second edit, it’s the worst film she’s ever seen. Bad acting, bad sound, no musical score. It’s so sad, too, because the makers won the Panavision grant the year after Napoleon Dynamite. Some consider Imitation Life a failure, and commercially it is. It certainly has its faults. The acting is at times honestly bad; most of the actors were giving their first performances. At times the sound is noticeably off. Booker has said the movie was originally called The Best Day of My Life and some of the movie might seem like wish fulfillment. The premise is also dangerous territory for a first time filmmaker to attempt. Somewhat akin to a novelist writing his first book about a guy who’s writing a book. Booker says that his parents don’t even like the film. Still, there are also a few moments when a joke lands and it makes me laugh out loud. There’s a scene in particular where Booker is perched on the roof of a house with cardboard attached to his arms and leaps off attempting to fly—he did this stunt three times leaping from roof to ground with only grass to break his fall. It’s a simple scene, one that’s funny not just for the pratfall, but more because of the timing and reactions and the last little roll Booker adds at the end. Some smartass will make associations from this scene, intended or not, to Icarus— Booker thought he could make a film on his own, at his age, what hubris, etc. But Booker seems fairly pragmatic about the experience. Still, it must be disheartening to be so close to reaching a dream and falling just short. While recognizing its flaws, I can appreciate the ridiculous amount of work and time that went into making Imitation Life. Now, I can understand a fraction of the work that goes into making any film regardless of the end result. I’m a little slower to rush to judgment, although I still realize the importance of remaining critical. If you put your baby into the world there’s a chance that it’ll be praised or torn apart. It’s a risk you take. After holding out hope for three years it seems that Booker has finally written Imitation Life off as a learning experience, but he hasn’t given up on film. He’s never made a penny off the film, and likely won’t. He doesn’t apologize for the movie either; he loves it unconditionally. Even if it wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped, he stands behind his creation, his baby. Dropped @ Birth Productions has dissolved, but Booker’s focusing more on writing and acting these days, giving up directing for now, and has vowed to never take on so many hats in a production again, even if it will save money. Imitation Life has led to other opportunities as well, such as a role in Steve Balderson’s (Firecracker) latest film, and Dan Iske’s horror film, The Wretched, that received a favorable response at the 2008 Omaha Film Festival and has been selected for a few other festivals. Back on a cold day in November of 2005, the scene has played out and Booker has called cut. The Camera Assistant checks the reel. If hair or dust gets caught in a section of the camera the previous shot is no good. If the reel is clear he calls, “Gates clean!”

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9/4/08 2:49 PM - Features

With a somber look he shakes his head. The shot is no good. My jaw slackens. I’m crushed. I’ve been wrangled in from passive observation of this scene, been here for hours, watching it lit and actors take makeup. It’s like the game winning touchdown being dropped. Booker starts to smile. He’s holding back laughter. I want to punch the sonofabitch. This is serious. Then he’ll say, “We haven’t been rolling. We got the shot three takes ago.” I want to punch the sonofabitch. I’m freezing. The thing that gets me is that even while on high alert the entire shoot, Booker has managed to get one by me. This isn’t the last time he’ll prank the crew before they part ways either. At a dinner that precedes the wrap party, two days later, a mustachioed Italian guy with long straight hair tucked under a beret will nearly give several crewmembers a heart attack, after he enthusiastically and without invitation hugs them as they arrive. Luckily, this is just Booker in disguise as Paulo. So this last shot that’s been so built up is anticlimactic. It provides no closure, especially since there’s technically one more small shot to do back at the house. There’s yet a close-up that consists of a Rolling Stone magazine, with the four friends on the cover, being tossed onto a coffee table—on a larger production a second camera unit would have covered this. Finally, after this little shot, all of the energy, angst and exaltations stored up over the past four weeks will be expressed in three words spoken by Booker. Like a slow clap, these words will be taken up by each crew member in turn and grow into a huddled mass of bodies and energy hopping up and down in the living room of a borrowed home. This chant started by Booker will spread, growing louder, white-hot until it’s boomed in one voice. My last, best memory of Imitation Life is of the words “Burn it down! Burn it down! Burn it down!” expanding, rising, licking the eaves—raging, raging, raging past hope, into the silent curtain of night.

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17 of 17

9/4/08 2:49 PM


this thing does t work

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