Fathers, sons, and film
Zach Greenbaum’s film, narrated by his father, focuses on the importance of stories in Native American culture
Published: July 31, 2013
It’s the kind of statement only a 19-year-old artist with his entire career ahead of him could make.
“I need to control everything,” says Zach Greenbaum, a film major at the Maryland Institute College of Art. “I hate making concessions . . . ”
No compromise! Total control!
And the kind of attitude—in a town like Baltimore, where dreamers are often blessed not to know what they don’t know—that it takes to make it in a field where many are called but the chosen are few.
“Film is the way I think,” says Greenbaum, who began fooling around with cameras in the third grade and has made 10 films, most of them school projects. “It’s my way of crafting a response to the world around me.”
Zach spent the first half of his life on South Exeter Street in Little Italy with his father, a Baltimore artist. From about the age of 10, he’s lived in Pikesville with his mom, a schoolteacher named Barbara Gayle Askinosie from Long Island, N.Y.
A 2012 graduate of the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology in Towson, he is on scholarship at MICA in Bolton Hill and somewhat resembles a young—an impossibly young—Stanley Kubrick, a hero of his.
“I admire Kubrick and Herzog and Kurosawa,” says Greenbaum, running down an especially masculine hallway of the canon. “I try to copy their intensity—they’ll stop at nothing.”
Zach’s own intensity exhibits itself in persistence (film is about all he does, constantly shooting and editing) and tends toward landscapes—running water, industrial sites, the odd piece of statuary—accompanied by the kind of spare, evocative music you might hear at a wellness center.
“My work is often a contemplation of ideas which, in typical filmmaking with a plot structure, would take a saga to articulate,” he says, speaking specifically of this year’s Chimera, an attempt to “create a symbiotic relationship between images and sound . . . something that takes you on a shuttle of emotions in each scene.”
Which means it is almost impossible to say what the film—complete with jarring scenes of a rusted, rural sculpture of a cowboy holding a beer—is about unless you see it yourself and come to your own conclusions.
“The cowboy is a metaphor for our primordial fear and our innermost feelings of angst and unease,” says Greenbaum. “He’s a gatekeeper for the unknown . . . our fear of the unknown.”
And then the film turns beautiful again—reservoirs and naked trees in winter; the viewer has made it to the other side.
Zach sits at a sidewalk cafe in Fells Point, trading stories of film and family with his father, the visual artist and actor Joseph Greenbaum, 56, a 1975 graduate of Milford Mill High School.
“My dad has never doubted me,” says Zach. “If it were not for his skill as an actor and dedication to my craft—as well as a mutual understanding as two artists—I can’t say I’d be where I am today.”
Joseph is known in Native American circles by his Cherokee name, Joseph Stands With Many, his Indian heritage rooted in the farmland of Purvis, Miss., via his full-blooded mother, Sheila Reese.
Joseph’s father—Jerry Green—was a journeyman “hoofer” who grew up several blocks north of the waterfront on South Ann Street. Joseph says his parents met in a New Orleans dance hall. When Joseph was a boy, his father would take him up the gangways of ships docked at the foot of Broadway and try to see if they could get a meal with the crew, not so much for free grub but for the adventure.
Also nearby, the Baltimore American Indian Center on Broadway, where Zach’s film The Tacit Tome is part of an exhibit called Stories in Form, along with works by Ashley Minner, Waylon Gary White Deer, and others, through Sept. 21.
Joseph appears in many of his son’s films. In several he is cast alongside his old friend and sometime combatant Keith Worz from the late ’70s and early ’80s downtown art and Marble Bar punk scene.
In Zach’s short film Out to Lunch—seven minutes of black-and-white inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 pastiche Coffee & Cigarettes—Joseph sits tableside as Worz spins yarns about conning a fellow patient at Spring Grove State Hospital.
The teenage Greenbaum on Worz: “I automatically knew this guy was fucking insane.”
Worz, 56, returns the compliment: “This kid has a really good eye for the camera. His IQ is so high—super-intelligent—that [the ideas] go right onto film.”
The Tacit Tome is decidedly less absurd, a nearly hour-long, partial documentary focusing on Native American culture and the importance of storytelling beyond entertainment. Joseph Stands With Many narrates.
“American civilization trivializes stories,” explains Joseph in voiceover. “There are stories for kids and adult stories.
“We have our religious stories and we save those for once a week. We don’t do that. It’s all one thing. Everything that we do is combined, a unity, a harmony . . . if you don’t have stories to tell, to share, to teach, to entertain [and] philosophize with, you don’t have anything.”
This year, on an early July vacation to Kentucky, where Joseph performed a traditional Cherokee wedding ceremony, Zach took time to film the skinning and butchering of a deer. Somewhere along the line, the footage will find its way into one of his experimental, avant-garde, pseudo-documentary productions.
He will wear every hat—cinematographer, writer, director, and editor—while choosing the music and figuring out a way to fund his own production company.
Total control, sans compromise.
“I have no choice [but to make films],” he says. “I attribute it to the universe.”
Good luck, kid.
Stories in Form, including The Tacit tome, is on view at the Baltimore American Indian Center Heritage Museum.
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