Blog Index

• Pine Barrens by Nancy Holt Photos and Text
• The Making of Amarillo Ramp by Nancy Holt Photos and Text
• Links to Paper Tiger, Deep Dish Network and Waves of Change
• Keep Busy by Robert Frank Photo and text by DeeDee Halleck
• Bronx Baptism by DeeDee Halleck Photos and Quotes
• Bio and Photos of DeeDee Halleck

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On the Island Keeping Busy




















Bill Raymond and David Warrilow in scene from Robert Frank's film, Keep Busy
photo by DeeDee Halleck
Keeping Busy on Cape Breton Island: 
Journal of a Production Assistant
August, 1975  Edited: Oct, 1997
In the summer of 1975 I kept a sporadic diary during the time I spent helping on the set of a film by Robert Frank and 
Rudy Wurlitzer called Keep Busy.  Besides Robert and Rudy, the cast and crew included:  Joanne Akalaitis, Charles 
Dean, Alec Gillis, Joan Jonas, June Leaf, Roberta Neiman, Toby Raphaelson, Bill Raymond, Richard Serra, Jack 
Tibbolt, Helen Tworkov, and  David Warrilow. 

In the late 1950's Frank had made Pull My Daisy with Al Leslie.  The cast had included many of the artists and writers 
of the "Beatnik" decade: Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, David Amram, Larry Rivers, Alice Neel and Dick Bellamy.  Somehow 
that film encapsulated an era, with its  improvised stream-of-consciousness hipster script and merry prankster antics.  
In many ways Keep Busy was a similar reflection on the cultural scene of the 1970's .  The art scene was cooler and, 
like Frank, craggier in the 70's.  There was more self-concious"performance" and a deeper cynicism.   Frank's feelings 
about the U.S., so apparent in his classic photo essay  The Americans, had finally fueled his departure from the country.   
Pull My Daisy was shot on the Bowery and in lofts on Tenth Street, but Keep Busy takes place on the wind-swept cliffs 
of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in North Eastern Canada, where Frank has been a landed immigrant for over 25 years.  

In the 1970's the stark landscape of Cape Breton had become a refuge for many New York artists: Phil Glass, Lee Breuer, 
Pat Steir, Jake Barlow, Hermine Tworkov, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray, and  the above cast and crew all were 
summer regulars.  The local townspeople were poor Scotch former coal miners, now trying to eke out a living as farmers 
on barren land  or as fishermen in water heavily regulated by what were seen as oppressive fish and game wardens from 
the distant government on the mainland.  The Scotch culture was and is strongly present in Cape Breton in every word 
uttered in the rich brogue and in the lively Chaileh's (fiddle contests) held weekly during the summers.  In the film, John 
Dan MacPherson, an old fiddler, scratches out a lonesome tune which surpasses in poignancy anything in Pull My 
Daisy.  This tune and the "performance" of this "authentic local" old man on screen provide a telling counterpoint 
to the somewhat arch performances imported to the island direct from the New York art world.   Frank treats his 
Canadian neighbors with a tenderness and affection that he could never rally for "The Americans".

We are pushing a creaking hay cart loaded with hay up a narrow road.  Six people struggling.  The grade is steep and 
the ruts in the road don't make it easier.  The cart has tires from an automobile on its twisted axles. The right rear tire 
is completely flat. One of the kids runs to the barn for a bedraggled bike pump which is passed around as each of us 
tries various methods of pumping a bit of air into the formless rubber.  We toss the pump in the cart and continue 
pushing up the hill.  Doug, one of the Scotch farmers, squints at the 3/4 moon, rising in the late afternoon sky.  "To 
think of it: a man walked on the moon and here we are pushing this cart up the hill." 

We are finally at Doug's barn.  He has an ancient device for towing the hay in. It consists of two pulleys, a screw 
mechanism and a beat-up pick-up truck to pull the wench.  The screw looks like a big giant wine opener hanging from 
the loft door.  The hay is first twisted on the screw then raised up through the loft opening.  A large fluffy bunch is 
raising up to the loft.  CRACK! it falls back to the cart.  The rope holding the block and tackle has broken.  We splice 
it together.  Once more it tenuously rises, then sinks back to the cart.  The fence to which the second pulley is tied 
starts caving in.  They get a board and brace it.  All set.  The pick-up sputters, coughs, lurches an inch forward but 
then stops and its sputtering motor is silent--- the truck is out of gas.  Robert looks up at me grinning.  "These guys 
and their farm are too much."  We unload the cart with pitchforks and armfuls up the rickety barn ladder.  So much 
for mechanized farming.

Now that the hay is in the barn, the farm children have taken over the loft and are jumping from an over-hanging beam 
into the fluffy hay stack.  I take a few turns myself and find myself in a whooping pile of legs and arms and hay twigs.  
We laugh and tumble in the pile.  One of the kids, a girl of about nine, looks at me in curiosity.  My overalls, tousled hair 
and willingness to jump in on the fun confuse her.  "What are you, a girl or a boy or a mother?" she asks.   She seems 
disappointed when I say I'm a mother.

We walk up the dirt road to Robert's house.  It is my first time there.  He and June Leaf live above the farm, on a cliff 
overlooking the sea at the end of a rutted dirt road that used to lead to a coal mine.  The "town" is called Mabou 
Mines[1].  He is a heavy dude.  There is a presence he maintains that is quite intimidating.  I ask Roberta how she is 
able to remain so casual and easy with him.  "He's an old Jew," she laughs.  "He's just like my uncle.  When I realized 
that, I was completely at ease." 

Roberta and I are there to borrow his camera for a documentary we are making about a local woman horse racer.  Also 
I am to tell him about my connection in New York for getting cheap color negative.  Rudy wants to shoot their film
in color if they can get affordable stock. 

I am completely intimidated by Robert, whom many consider the greatest living photographer.  I rattle off film stock 
numbers, processing letters.  My speech is a garble of technical jargon.  Perhaps it will impress this bristly old pro.  
"Stop! Stop!" Robert protests.  "I don't know what any of those numbers you are giving me mean.  I never learned that
 stuff.  This film making business is complicated enough.  I can't bother to learn such things.  That's why I don't want to 
use that film.  I use black and white.  I'm used to it."

Robert demonstrates to us how to load and unload the Eclair magazines.  "You must be careful of these pins.  Look 
how little they are.  Little bits of wire.  The God damn French.  This shit French camera is so delicate you can't breath 
deep on it."  He watches while I open it and load.  I am usually very good with equipment.  I  handle machines easily 
and well.  But now, all of a sudden, my hands are made of granite.  I can hardly hold the magazine, much less open it.  
The spool on my lap falls to the floor. I bend to pick it up.  The magazine slides to the edge of my lap, but I catch it 
just in time.  Robert shakes his head and turns away to face the stove.  I know he can't bear to look at a clod like me 
holding his precious equipment.  And it is only a week before he will have to use it himself when he and Rudy start 
shooting.  I think to myself, he must be tremendously self-destructive to allow us to even touch it.

Dinner at Robert's house.  June is savagely swinging a hammer on the anvil in her studio barn.  "I wonder what's wrong 
with her," Robert asks.  After dinner while we are washing the dishes, June remembers how angry she was at Toby for 
taking pictures in their house.  Toby Raphaelson had come in, camera swaggering, and visited every room--clickclick,
flash....flash.  I think what made June especially mad was that Toby even tried to rearrange things to the most picturesque 
position---like leaning the ax propped up behind the woodstove a little bit more to one side so the handle was in frame.  
"STOP!" June had screamed.  "Get out of my house!" 

Robert says "I thought so. I thought so.  I knew there was something riling you up."  June denies any connection between 
her furious hammering and her anger.  But Robert counters, "Oh yes.  You see, I know you pretty well.  And it's true you 
often hammer furiously.  But this time, there was just a little half a degree more than usual." 

They talk about Toby.  Robert said, "When I saw her walk up the path, I thought to myself, 'Nothing good can ever come 
out of Hollywood.'"  June asks what Toby's husband directed.  "Five Easy Pieces," Roberta answers.  "Well, that was a 
good movie," June says.  Robert says nothing. 

I ask Robert if the Rolling Stones' film that he made (Cock Sucker Blues) will be shown in New York this fall.  "I don't 
know about that-- as far as I know there's only one print and it's on the West Coast"  I mention that I've heard that Ellen 
Hovde showed a print in her loft.  He says, It must be Susan's. (Steinberg, the editor.)  Robert doesn't have a projector to 
show it, even if he had a print.  The Stones are reluctant to release it-- too much drugs.  Robert didn't make a promotional 
film for them, but a searing look at life on the road, warts and all.  I wonder why the Stones would commission Robert 
Frank if what they wanted was a commercial.

After dinner he talks about the neighbors.  Especially one old guy, MacDougal, who lives alone on the top of the mines 
hill in a tiny shack.  His shack has only a bed and a table and one chair.  He cuts wood every day for his stove in the 
winter, fishes a bit for his meals and once a week walks eight miles to town to pick up his social security check.  He cashes 
his check and buys as much booze as he can carry back.  "Then for two or three days he's a completely changed man," 
Robert says.  "He comes over here and sits right in that chair and sings and carries on.  He is a very smart man and in that 
condition, he is wonderfully funny.  You know Doug who had the hay cart and barn where we were today?  Well, Doug 
came up the path once when MacDougal was here in the kitchen and he looks out the window and says, "Well here comes 
the minister of agriculture."  That line seems particularly good after the haying fiasco we have witnessed. Robert laughs 
until tears come to his eyes, remembering both the line and the scene in the hayfield and at the barn.   He sobers up and 
says, "But you know, when it's been weeks of snow and quiet.  It sure is good to see that guy.  We need him and I think 
he's glad we're here.  Doug and his brothers too.  They come over and drink coffee and we feel real close.  It wasn't that 
way at first, but now we're close, very close."  Since 1973, Robert and June have spent most of their life at the end of this 
road, in a desolate corner of Nova Scotia.  Unlike many of the New York artists who have found their way to the warm 
summer beaches of this starkly beautiful island, they do not pack up and head for the States in August.  Robert and June 
have spent many long winters watching the bay slowly freeze over.

After the weekend, Roberta and I have shot our horse races and it's getting time for Rudy and Robert's shoot.  Some scenes 
will be shot in Mabou, but most will be shot on the deserted Sea Wolf Island, where a light house keeps guard over the bay. 
This island also serves as a rookery for the local sea birds. The cliffs on the northern shore are white with bird dung.

Before we leave for the island, we are to help shoot Joan Jonas's part in a wreck of a shack there.   Robert's sound man is 
in Halifax, so I agree to take the sound.  I switch the Nagra on, but get nothing.  There is a short in the power pack from 
the 415 Sennheiser microphone.  While I am fussing with it, the ear phone's soldered connection breaks.  I retreat to 
Robert's house to fix it.  Roberta replaces some of the batteries and cleans the terminals.  We plug and unplug it.  I am 
terrified that we won't get the machine to work.  But there it is!.. for no reason it starts working and we trudge back to 
the harbor where the shacks are.  Joan is practicing: pacing around the shack like a restless wolf.    It is completely 
ransacked.  Only about 1/4 of the roof is still there.  But the hole in the roof provides an eery beam of light that pierces 
the center of the shack.  The floor is full of smashed lobster traps, rotten nets and buoys.  The beams hang low.  Joan 
practices swinging on them.  "OK," she says.  Robert starts rolling.  Joan lunges wildly, swinging from the rafters.  She 
climbs into a large trap and rocks back and forth with her hands on the edge.  Sort of like a mad baby does in a playpen. 
"Take one", syncs Robert.  Second take is done with a low shot of Joan who is crouched on the floor.  She is huddled on 
a pile of ropes.  She howls wolf-dog like.  The sun has reappeared and is streaming through the roof-less ceiling.  When 
she tilts her head back, her eyes catch the beam of light and glow like a cat caught in a headlight.  She has become an 
animal.  The last take is even more intense and when Robert stops shooting, we all look at Joan in silence, deeply moved.

"Where's the chicken?"  Robert asks.  "He didn't want to come," Alec replies.  Joan's shack scene was supposed to have a 
chicken in it, but we went ahead without, but before we leave for the island, Robert insists on taking some chickens .  
On Tuesday, as we are getting ready to leave for the island,  Robert asks me to pick up Alec and be sure to get his chicken.  
"OK". I say, "I can persuade it."  I used to raise chickens and I am not intimidated by their shyness.  Alec is a Gillis of the 
Cape Breton Gillis's.  But to his Scotch heritage he has added a bit of new age style:  He is a follower of the Maharishi 
and sometimes comes to Richard's shed to meditate.  Robert likes his Scotch characteristics.  Rudy likes his  spacey 
new-age eyes.  At Alec's shack, his old uncle is there.  He is an electrician if that's what you can call a Scotch farmer with 
some wirecutters and electrical tape.   He has done a lot of wiring for Richard.  The last time I saw him, he was a sour old man, 
as crusty and grumpy as they come.  Today he is grinning like a Cheshire cat.  Alec and I head off to the woods to try and 
catch the chicken.  "What's with your uncle?" I ask in wonder.

  "Oh, he's just stoned out of his mind," Alec says.  "A lot of the old guys around here turn on.  There's hemp growing all 
over this town.  It tides them over between social security checks."

We can't catch the chicken.  The plucky rooster is scrambling around in the noisy underbrush of the balsam forest.  For 
him there is plenty of clearance.  At our level it's a thick barricade of jagged boughs.  "Is there any place we can buy one?" 
I ask.  Robert Frank has asked me to get something and I don't want to come back empty handed.  Alec suddenly brightens.
We head for the canteen up the road.  Out in back is a ramshackle shed full of moth-eaten, louse-infested, hen-pecked hens.  
I grab two by their legs from their perch and we stuff them into a burlap bag.  Pretty sorry specimens, but hey, they match 
the shacks: half roofed.

Tuesday night is calm.  The sky, however, is full of rolling grey clouds.  We are supposed to leave for the island.  Alec, 
the only Cape Breton native in our crew,  refuses to go.  "No, I know what it's like.  We can't go."   There are A-frame 
cabins in a wide circle around the field and dormitory rooms in the main house.  Plenty of space for cast and crew.  So 
we head for bed.  The actors sit up drinking coffee and murmuring lines back and forth.

The next morning begins with a tremendous thunder storm.  The dogs are freaked and jump in and under various beds.  
The kids wake up, frightened by the thunder claps.  David calms the children with a long story about leprechauns and 
dragons and whales.  David is wearing a maroon silk dressing gown in the rustic camp bunk house.

The thunder shower subsides to a determined drizzle.   Rudy wakes Alec up for a native opinion of the weather.  "Alec, 
it's raining.  What do you think?"  Alec rises from his sleeping bag.  He is camping on the bathhouse floor. The windows 
are shuttered.  There is not even a glimpse of the sea or the sky.  Through the sounds of gentle rain drops, Alec listens to 
the distant waves lapping on the cliff below the bath house.  "It's OK.  We'll go."  Rudy scratches his head.  "OK, Alec. 
Whatever you say."

The gear is being stowed in the boat.  The two sorry chickens, half their feathers missing, are nested in the front at the 
prow.  An emergency flare rolls out of a knapsack and off the seat into the water on the wet boat floor.  Joan coughs--
her athsma is getting worse.  Robert says, "This looks like the beginning of a bad TV serial."

After a choppy ride across the bay, we are on the island.  We spent the day exploring the empty keeper's house and climbing 
on the dung dabbed cliffs.  Later, sitting around the campfire, I realize that I have left my sleeping bag in the bunk house 
on the mainland.  I search through the knapsacks for extra blankets.  Gathering a few together, I attempt to wrap myself up 
snuggly.  Robert has watched my preparations, but his familiarity with the cool Cape Breton nights make him skeptical 
about my make-shift arrangements.  "Look here", he says.  "Why don't you use this."  He has an extra sleeping bag. "It's 
light and old and not much use, but it's Swiss, so it can't be too bad."  I grab it gratefully and start to zip it up, but the 
zipper won't work.  He frowns: "The bag is Swiss, but the zipper was made in Japan."

The island's most imposing structure is not the lighthouse, which is a small cement silo with a tiny but powerful quartz 
light whose precision reflectors send out a laser-like beam, but rather the light keeper's house which was built on top 
of the hill next to the light-- built as they say "like a ton of bricks"  The government knows what the wind and weather 
can do in Northern Cape Breton and they meant that house to stay.  Therefore every civil service government bureaucratic 
effort was made to spare no expense but to build a keeper's house to last.  Its rugged and well painted and shingled 
structure is a stark contrast to the state of affairs within.  The floors are littered with scraps of paper and glass, bird shit, 
pieces of iron and the discarded remnants of plumbing fixtures ripped out by other island visitors long ago.  On one wall 
in the kitchen are stacked storm windows-- maybe ten or twelve of them.  Around their base is a bent and tangled strip of 
flashing.  Rudy is preparing for the kitchen scene.  He takes a chair and puts it in the corner, then stands back and ponders 
the effect.  He goes to the pile of windows and takes the top one and places it behind the chair, then goes back to survey 
his scene.  Robert has watched him do it.  "Rudy, Rudy.  Tsk Tsk." He moves the window back its pile.  "It took thirty 
years to make this place look like this.  You think you can improve on it after reading Better Homes and Gardens.  This 
interior is sheer genius. Don't presume to change it for the better."  Rudy grins sheepishly.

David always wears a white cravat around his neck.  Rudy has tried to outfit him in more scruffy clothes.  No matter what 
David wears he always seems to come out looking like one of the mannequins in an Abercrombie and Fitch window.  
The white scarf is one of the problems.  There's something about it that lends style to everything.  The kind of style 
that is conspicuously out of place in an abandoned house on a desolate island.

It is the second eating scene.  Alec has prepared a plate of potatoes and fish.  The idea is to start it with David's head on 
the plate of food.  He is then to raise it up and wipe it off.  Robert wants him to wipe it with the cravat.  David insists on 
his sleeve.  Robert acquiesces, but is vindicated by the fact that on the third take, the cravat finally succumbs and is 
sotted with food.  I watch Robert shoot and realize that the face in the plate hasn't been in one take.  The camera has stayed 
with Bill's arrival across the room, only panning to David after his head is already up.  The food sleeping sequence must 
be just for David's character building, or perhaps to get that white cravat into shape.
.
David is sitting at a table with Robert's dog, Sport, on one side.  No one is to get up in the scene.  Robert, at Rudy's 
urging, agrees to shoot it on the tripod.  This has been a point of disagreement between them.  Initially the entire scene 
in the house was to be shot with a tripod from a fixed position.  Robert balks.  Rudy is fearful of Robert's continuous 
movements.  He would like to see more tripod shots.  When we were back on the mainland, Robert had said he couldn't 
use one because he couldn't get a good fluid head tripod.   I had offered mine, which I had brought to Nova Scotia for the
documentary that Roberta and I were working on.  But Robert then admitted that even if he had it, he wouldn't use it.  
But now on the island, Rudy insists on using one and Charley the sound man has brought a state-of-the-art fluid head 
from Halifax.  Now it's on call.  We set it up in front of David's table.  Robert starts shooting.  He wants to do a pan back 
and forth, but the camera has not been secured tightly enough on the head.  It swivels on the legs and when his pan 
returns, the camera is tilted.  He motions to me to loosen the camera in the middle of the shot, indicating that he wants 
me to take the camera off.  We retake the scene with Robert hand-holding the camera.  That is the last time we attempt a 
tripod shot.

Charley the sound man has a gentle sweet way of reminding Robert of things.  Sort of as if he were reminding himself.  
"Like, so we'll sync it at the tail, eh?"  Nova Scotians have a delightful way of saying "eh!"  It's really a breath--  a gasp 
of breath drawing inward--usually with a sly smile. 

Robert always wants to sync it at the end.  He wants to let David get into his part and then he'll start rolling once 
David's going.  That way the syncing won't make him up tight.  "I know it's better this way, and I'll be sure to leave enough 
film to sync it up at the end."  Charley raises his eyebrows.  The scene rolls.  David is on the floor sleeping in the debris of 
the light-keeper's kitchen.  Sport, that good old dog, comes through just in time.  He leans over and licks David's face--
 just at the right moment.  Sport is savoring the remains of the fish and potatoes caught in David's bushy eyebrows.  Robert 
finishes the shot with a zoom to David's face.  A tell-tale flap, flap is heard which means the camera is out of film, without 
doing the slate and clapboard for the shot-- a problem in the future for some assistant editor to sync up.  Robert winks 
at Charley.  "Well, sometimes I sync it up and sometimes I don't.  That shit doesn't matter so much."

By nightfall the sky is completely clear.  Rudy is worried about matching scenes tomorrow if the sun is out.  The exteriors 
so far have all been shot under overcast skies.  Tonight the stars are crisp in the cool night air.  From soggy paper cups we 
eat mackerel and potatoes which were boiled together Cape Breton style in a big pot over the fire. Joanne waves two large
flashlights in hopes that the children are watching from the bunk house on the shore.  June and I trade fiddle tunes while 
the others dance.   Robert scratches Sport's tummy.   Gulls squabble for sleeping positions on the cliff edge. The light 
house beam sweeps a wide circumference of sky over our heads.





[1]This name was taken by Joanne Akalaitis, Lee Bruer, Ruth Maleczek and others who formed the Mabou Mines theater troupe after a summer in Nova Scotia developing projects.

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