Saturday, May 14, 2011

Movie Shoots Next-Door to Ferguson's

Breakfast Among the Stars — Sort Of
Movie Shoots Next-Door to Ferguson's Café

Northwest Corner of Garland & Post
Has Become
“Confusing” Spokane Movie Icon

— The Bogwen Report Finds Itself In Thick of Cinematic Inaction —

Text and Photos by Wally Lee Parker

(Reprint from the November 21, 2010 issue of The Bogwen Report)

               This last Monday — the 15th — the wife and I went to Ferguson’s Café in the Garland District for breakfast.  Ferguson’s is one of Spokane’s landmarks; having been in business at the same location since 1935.  Then too, Ferguson’s is just one door west of the even better known landmark currently called Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle — a uniquely shaped building that has stood on the northwest corner of Garland and Post since 1933.

The corner of Garland and Post.

               Ferguson’s main attraction is a good basic bacon and eggs breakfast at a working class price.  We try to make it there at least once a week.  But this last Monday’s visit was a little different.
               Headlines like those I’ve scribbled in above are a dicey thing.  Writing them reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite moves — The Shipping News.  In that movie Billy, the senior reporter for The Gammy Bird — the local Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, newspaper — is giving new reporter Quoyle a few hints on writing headlines.  Billy, played by Gordon Pinsent, asks Quoyle, played by Kevin Spacey, to look at the storm clouds hanging low over the Atlantic and describe what he sees.  Quoyle says, “Horizon Fills with Dark Clouds.”  Billy comes back with “Imminent Storm Threatens Village.”  Puzzled, Quoyle asks what happens if it turns out there is no storm.  Billy responds with the headline “Village Spared from Deadly Storm.”  And that’s a 20 second primer on headline writing that rings absolutely true.
               Considering all the unique headlines the editor of the Deer Park Tribune has used to cover my articles over the years, next time I see Tom Costigan I should ask him if he ever worked at The Gammy Bird.  Or maybe just asking if he’s a Newfy would do — Newfy (spelling varies) being Canadian slang for anyone from Newfoundland.  And when used by anyone from someplace other than Newfoundland, not intended as nice slang at that.
               Besides being a satisfyingly quirky story, another reason I liked The Shipping News was the presence of Julianne Moore.  I think Moore’s work in that movie was some of her best.  And because I like so much of her work, I was fascinated to discover that she is no stranger to Spokane — and specifically, no stranger to the northwest corner of Garland and Post.  And that means she’s no stranger to Ferguson’s.
               Some people might recall Benny and Joon — shot in Spokane and released in 1993.  I’ve only seen the last part of the movie, but I do remember all the talk when it was being filmed.  I believe it’s one of three films that have used Ferguson’s Café as a location.  Although most of Benny and Joon’s actors were not widely known at the time, that’s no longer true.  As well as Julianne Moore, the names Oliver Platt, William H. Macy, and Johnny Depp come to mind.
               In Benny and Joon, Moore played Wavey Prowse, a waitress.  According to internet sources, the Milk Bottle was shot as the exterior of the waitress’s workplace, while Ferguson’s was where the interior scenes — including the one with Johnny Depp and the dancing biscuits — were shot.

Ferguson's counter — at least the remodeled version of the counter — where Johnney Depp danced the biscuits.

               The Garland District itself is a quiet tidal pool of small town — a bit of the mid-twentieth-century somehow left unchanged while Spokane’s northward annexation swept over.  Garland’s two block core is anchored on the west by the Garland Theater — built in 1945, nowhere near as ornate as the art deco gems found downtown, but still a few notches above the basic boxes that came after.  The theater hangs on by showing second-run movies at reduced prices.  The core’s east end is clearly defined by the unique architecture of Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle.  The two blocks between are doing quite a bit better than most small towns — probably by playing on the village's identity as an historically independent community.
               Along this core, the small space set aside for ‘The Clock House’ holds a good assortment of intricate, antique wood and brass time machines.  The windows of ‘Cole Music Company’ — especially when winter sunlight is falling across the lacquered wood of the store’s antique acoustical guitars and cellos — tends to force even the worst of the tonally impaired to press nose to glass and stare.  And for the modern musical mind there’s ‘Mark’s Guitar Shop’.  The avant garde can find some degree of intellectual sustenance at the ‘Tinman Artworks Gallery’ and ‘Ruby Slipper Boutique’.  And for readers, there’s the thousands upon thousands of used volumes stuffed floor to ceiling in the ‘Book Traders’ — where I recently found a 1952 American printing of Arthur C. Clark’s The Exploration of Space.
               We usually try to hit Ferguson’s between 10 and 11 in the morning.  That seems to be the quiet time.  But as we drove in this last Monday, from some distance it was apparent that something different was going on.  Yellow traffic cones arced around the northwest corner — forcing traffic turning west onto Garland from Post to turn wide.  Several good size trucks were parked along Post, choking the two lanes down to one.  And then there was the three-sided tent set up just north of the Milk Bottle.  To top this all off, there were three vintage vehicles gracing the sidewalk in front of the Milk Bottle and Ferguson’s.  All very strange — unless you know that both the Milk Bottle and Ferguson’s just seem to attract movie crews.
               “I wonder if we can still get into the restaurant,” I said.  I had my heart set on bacon and eggs (I hope my cardiologist doesn't’ see this), and a man has to have priorities.
               “Let’s go over and find out,” Pat returned.  “At least if they turn us away we’ll be able to ask someone what kind of movie they’re doing.”
               We parked a block east of the Milk Bottle and walked.  Not quite cold enough for snow, and just on the edge of raining.  But like most every hour spent in Spokane from early November through late February, every second seemed just a tick away from feeling something cold and soggy falling out of the habitually overcast sky.
               The closer we got the more apparent it became that the clutter at the corner was a movie shoot.  What we assumed to be technicians, script people, and such — everything except really famous actors — were huddling in and around the three-sided tent.  Other than a lot of huddling, nothing much seemed to be going on.

The east side  the Post Steet side  of the Milk Bottle.

               What appeared to be an eight by ten foot rectangle of black fabric stretched inside a metal frame standing upright on the sidewalk turned out to be the back side of a reflective white screen similar to the old roll-up screens we projected our 8 millimeter home movies on.  The white side was facing the Milk Bottle’s entrance.  And for reflection, a set of those classic studio lights with large barn-door flaps were aimed at the screen.  I would assume the actors, wherever they were, were working a scene to take place just outside the Milk Bottle’s door.
               Heavy electrical cables ran along the sidewalk — in places taped down to reduce the chance of tripping.  And just to make sure, there seemed to always be a crewman or two keeping a careful eye on everyone walking by.  Liability I assume.
               Those crewmen didn’t act overly friendly — which would seem best when the alternative was having the same conversation with everyone passing by.  Or maybe it was just the side effect of standing out in the chill, well hydrated air for hours on end.

We threaded between curb and screen.

               We threaded between the curb and screen, stepping over cables, cords, and who knows what, to find Ferguson’s open as usual.
               The best way to describe Ferguson’s is to say it exudes no pretention.  The place was recently closed down for a few months for remodeling, and the result was more of a cleaning than updating.  The cooking area was de-cluttered a bit — opening the view from side to side.  New tiles on a lot of the surfaces.  It just looks nicer.  But other than that, much the same.  Which makes sense considering the hazard in restructuring something that has been doing well enough for three-quarters of a century.
               And the telling factor as to how retro this place is in a non-kitsch sort of way, they actually have real paper-napkin dispensers on the tables — along with a chromed wire holder for the menus, salt, pepper, sugar, catsup, and Tabasco.  How unlikely is that?
               Walk in the door and you’re greeted with, “Sit wherever you want.”  We settle in and I ask the waiter, “What movie are they working on?”
               “It’s something set in the 1940’s.  I don’t know the name.”  He yells over to a couple of kids sitting in a booth across the café, “What’s the movie’s name?”
               The young girl comes back with, “Camilla Dickinson.”
               “Camilla Dickinson,” the waiter says — puzzled.  “I guess that’s the name.”  It doesn’t really tell us anything.
               Of the two kids — saying they’re young adults might be better — the guy is outfitted in a double-breasted, pin stripe suit.  That would seem very odd for someone his age — unless it’s the 1940s of course.  The girl is wearing a pink and white waitress uniform.  Ferguson’s waitresses, waiters, or whichever wear jeans and logo t-shirts.
               “Besides those kids, who all else is in this movie?  Anybody we might know?”
               “It’s supposed to be some well-known actress, but they won’t tell us who,” the waiter grinned.  “I guess they’re afraid it might draw a crowd if word gets out.”
               “Or maybe they’re afraid it won’t draw a crowd,” I whisper.

On the Garland Avenue side.

               At some point the kids are called to work.  The boy puts on his fedora and walks by us on his way to the restroom.  Nice looking kid, but just normal.  He does spend an exceptional length of time in the restroom.  He was either powdering his nose or trying to figure out the button system on that double-breasted jacket.  I use to wear those before my protruding stomach ruined the effect.  You have to make sure to hitch the inner button or the overlap won’t hang right.  As he’s heading out the front door — looking properly dapper — the girl makes her way to the restroom.
               One thing different about Ferguson’s, there’s only one restroom.  Staff, patrons, men, women, actors, actresses — everyone waits their turn.
               As the movie-waitress walks by, I note she too is just a nice but otherwise normal looking kid — except maybe for the few extra layers of makeup, which, from the pattern of blemishes beneath, doesn’t appear to be doing her natural complexion all that much good.
               It reminds me of the complaint occasionally heard regarding the advent of high-definition television.  Sometimes you see too much detail — and too much detail can disrupt the illusion.
               When we leave, everything outside looks pretty much the same.  Everyone standing around.  Waiting.
               “Too bad I don’t have my camera.  I could get a few shots for the Bogwen Report.”
               “We’re not that far away from home,” Pat says.
               With camera in hand, we get back to the movie site just as a white limousine is pulling away from the sidewalk in front of the tent area.  “I bet someone important just arrived,” Pat says.  And then chides, “And you missed it.”
               “Maybe so, but if some big star did just arrive, they’ve certainly got them hidden now.”  I walk around and snap off a few dozen photos.  I keep my distance, and no one seems to pay me much attention.
               On our way home we stop by our bank.  It’s located in the shopping mall just north of Francis Avenue, between Monroe and Wall.  One door west of the bank is a small shop called ‘William Grant Gallery & Framing’.  Occasionally we check the gallery out, just to see what they have that’s new.
               “They’re having a sale,” Pat notes.
               “They’re always having a sale.”
               Okay.  I have to admit that a sale is a sale.  And I’m the one usually suggesting we go in.  So we go in.
               They most often have a featured local artist on display, and that can be good or bad.
               My usual yardstick for judging art comes from an explanation I once heard of how to judge wine.  Though I seldom drink wine, when I do I generally can’t tell the difference between something expensive and something cheap — unless I’m paying for it.  But I did hear that the first rule for telling if a wine is good is that there should be nothing unpleasant about it.  As stupidly simplistic as that sounds, it’s something people overlook when trying to figure out the difference between what they’re told they should like and what they actually like.  First rule, find nothing unpleasant.
               Becoming a connoisseur of either art or wine is largely a matter of gaining enough experience that your definition of unpleasant becomes less inclusive.  You learn to appreciate a wider swath of what’s available, though you still don’t have to like what you don’t like.  It’s a matter of personal taste — which is always changing in people open to change.  And you know you’re well on your way to becoming a true connoisseur — as opposed to merely ostentatious when contriving the stage-setting for your life — when you learn to dump the pretense.
               Most of the local artists I’ve seen displayed at the William Grant Gallery have been outside my zone of comfort — both in taste and asking price.  But the gallery also has a selection of limited-edition prints by artists who’ve built a regional or national reputation.  If you can’t afford originals — and who can — this is something to consider.
               The thing about a framed gallery print; you’ll not only have an opportunity to see the actual print up close, you’ll also be able to see the frame and matting.  The frame and matting can either complement or conflict with the print.  And when the galley itself frames what it hangs on its walls, then if you have a problem with the mat or frame you’ll have an opportunity to work out something more to your liking.  Just remember, the people in most frame shops have see a lot of art and have had a lot of experience.  Matching a frame and mat to a specific print is something of an art in itself.  And in that regard, experience counts.
               So — the first rule of buying art is only buy what you really like.  People who buy art with the expectation of future profit are generally considered idiots — especially those that buy art in the form of limited-edition prints.  To avoid being labeled an idiot, buy what you intend to keep until death does you part.  If you fall out of love with it at some point, well — C'est la vie.
               One of my favorite artists is Steve Hanks.  I’m told this guy works primarily in watercolor.  What he does different is he paints over a clay matrix.  The absorption characteristic of the clay makes his trademark near-photorealism in watercolor possible.
               Subject wise, Hanks is best known for his romantic nudes.
               Someday I hope to have a naked room.  Before my kids panic — since they’re most likely envisioning something similar to the scene from the movie ‘Failure to Launch’ in which Terry Bradshaw is standing in the nude feeding his aquarium fish — let me clarify that in this case it’s the artwork on the wall that’s going to be naked.  Someday I hope to have a controlled access area in our house where I can hang a couple of Hanks’ more revealing limited-editions.  While Pat’s not opposed to that idea, until that day whatever we consider buying is going to have to be at least strategically covered.  And Monday we found a limited-edition Hanks that we both like — and it fits that requirement.
               The watercolor is called “The Warm Side of Winter.”  The girl is obviously — underneath the blanket wrapped around her that is — nude.  She’s sitting in the light pouring in through a window.  It’s a snowy day outside the window — thus the title.
               During a telephone conversation with my daughter, Gwendolyn, (she lives on the west side near Port Orchard) she looked ‘Warm Side of Winter’ up on her Blackberry.
               “Dad, that’s erotic!”
               “Yes it is,” I admitted.  “But the eroticism is romantic in nature.  And that makes it art.”
               It’s similar to the idea that dance — ballet as well as modern dance — is very often sensual in the erotic meaning of the word.  Though looking at classical or modern dance that way may be a little too “French” for most Americans, any competent psychologist will tell you that it’s none the less true.  While ballerinas are remarkably well trained and skilled athletes, they’re also exceptionally healthy looking, long-legged girls — which has a lot to do with ballet’s survival via the very wealth men (and women) bequeathing funding on its behalf all these many years.  This is just to say that dance, as a performance art, derives much its beauty and energy from its sensuality.
               Sensual doesn’t necessarily mean erotic.  For example, one of the most inviting (and difficult) subjects for painters are scenes of city streets in the rain.  A competent artist, by reflecting images of people and buildings onto the wet cobblestones of his canvas, can evoke recollections of the sights, sounds, smells, even the cool humidity of a city in the rain.  That too is the use of sensuality in art.  
               And all that draws me back to the movie being shot at Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle.
               Art is something experienced.  It’s easiest to understand what that means when it comes to the preforming arts — which by their inherent nature we (at least some of the time) enjoy as a temporal experience.
               Film fits within the performance category.  Though Camilla Dickinson isn’t likely to rise to the level of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘La Dolce Vita’, at some level it’s still going to be art.  And a good portion of any art is illusion; as any crestfallen Frenchman can tell you once he’s seen his favorite long-legged ballerina standing out on the street — standing flat-footed and much shorter-legged in her everyday loafers.
               Camilla Dickinson is the title of the novel upon which the movie is based.  The character, Camilla, is a teenage girl in conflict with her parents.  She’s also drawn to a boy of somewhat unsavory character.
               Camilla is played by Samantha Mathis.  Her boyfriend by Gregg Sulkin.  The father, Cary Elwes.  And mother, Adelaide Clemens.  I recognize Elwes as the ‘dread pirate Roberts’ from ‘The Princess Bride’.  Seeing Clemens’ photograph, I seem to recall her from a few things.  The younger kids — other than seeing a person I assume to be Gregg in a pin-stripe, double-breasted suit and the same assumption for Samantha in a pink and white waitress uniform — they’re unknown to me.
               The real illusion is that the film’s Milk Bottle is located on Manhattan Island — New York City — circa late 1940s.  Spokane, as usual, is just a cheaper stand-in for someplace assumed to be more interesting.
               Supposedly Spokane can pull this off for Camilla Dickinson because the city has an abundance of buildings from the 1940s that haven't been noticeably updated as of yet — or more likely that the city’s fathers haven’t as of yet had time to tear down down to make way for another overpriced parking lot.  And likewise, the chilly overcast so common this time of year can stand-in for typical Manhattan weather.  Neither of those sounds as if they’re meant to be particularly complementary — although old buildings are always a plus as far as I’m concerned.
               Hopefully Ferguson’s and the Milk Bottle will continue on for a long time — not only as buildings, but as functioning parts of the community.  As for the films that have shot scenes there, those films weren’t necessarily fine art, but they do seem to have displayed a competent level of craftsmanship.  And as far as seeing part of a film being shot — at least seeing first hand part of the messy process needed to produce a few minutes of screen time — well, there’s something to be learned from that too.
               Seeing a finished project usually fails to reveal the intense effort needed to produce it.  Looking at the flawless polish of a Steve Hanks print shrouds what it took in skill and experimentation to get to a point where the careful application of pigments could create such a soothing illusion.  Reading a well-researched and executed article tends to suggest that writing is easy.  And watching a well-crafted movie totally removes the watcher’s attention from the small army of people that have commit tens of thousands of hours to create it.
               It’s probable that what appeared to be everyone standing around during the shooting of the Milk Bottle scenes for Camilla Dickinson was the result of artistic necessity — like an artist waiting for his last brushstroke to dry before applying the next.

Inside Ferguson's.

               The freedom required for true artistic expression is the freedom to get things wrong — again, and again, and again — and still be allowed to try again.  Perfect is the result of trial and error.  At one point a younger woman — possibly Cornelia Dury'ee Moore, the film’s director — came into Ferguson’s with what might have been the shooting script.  She sat down, pencil in hand, and scribbled.  I suspect something wasn’t working the way it should, so the director was experimenting with various takes; each take opening up another possibility that would be finalized in the cutting room.
               The truth of art is that it’s a messy process — kind of like using your fingers to eat Ferguson’s wonderful, cholesterol laden bacon.  A messy process, but worth it.


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