Jesse Jarnow

running into stonehenge

Running Into Stonehenge

by Jesse Jarnow

Paste, June 2008


I had a totally normal childhood. There was the time I ran into Stonehenge. Knocked myself out. I have no memory of this, of course, but it became something of a family joke, in as much as my father sometimes reminds me that this is something I once did.

The other family joke to come out of our trip to England in 1982, when I was three, is the line (spoken in a Monty Pythonesque chirp) “I’m sorry, sir, but can’t you film Stone’enge someplace else?” to be repeated whenever an event is threatened by inclement weather.

Its originator was a British weather services operator whom my father had asked for the conditions at the mythological site, where he was to shoot an experimental film titled Celestial Navigation. The result, as John Luther Schofill of the Experimental Film Coalition would proclaim, “captures, first person, the experience of being, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, ‘a passenger on Spaceship Earth.'”

To me, the filmmaking only meant chaos in the weeks leading up to our departure, which included setting up Dad’s high school buddy from Brooklyn, Paul, as a housesitter in our Long Island home. His duties included feeding the cats and operating the time lapse cameras tracking shadows across Dad’s attic studio, while Dad marked similar solar-seasonal changes across the ocean. “These are the means by which space describes its meanings,” Dad’s reverb-laden voice explains in the narration. “Touch, sight, and the echoes of distant walls.”

More exciting to me was the animation he did for Sesame Street and other PBS programs. On occasion, I even got to be in them, making my hip-hop debut in a series of number raps. (Yeah, they’re on YouTube.) Stuff from around the house turned up regularly — a toy train chugging with tumbleweeds across the frame, or even our cat, Banana, appearing in Real Cat Drinks Milk.

I wish I could say that being an animator’s son made me think all animation came from mysterious attic studios filled with zoetropes and homemade orrerys, or that any old toy could lurch into magical movement like a Michel Gondry movie, but this is not the case. I knew the harsh realities of children’s television.

Once, Dad brought me to the Sesame Street set (a place he rarely ventured), then located in Manhattan. Where I once imagined winding catacombs in the depths of Oscar’s garbage can, I saw a tangle of wires. Later, I saw Snuffalapagous hanging on the wall. True story. There are pictures of me sitting on the set’s central stoop, looking quietly mortified.

A parade of undergrad assistants became family friends. College students, perhaps, they were also filmmakers in their own right, members of a very real community, whom Dad was, in a sense, welcoming in. We attended their weddings, went on family trips with them.

In Santa Cruz, we stayed with another of Dad’s friends at a synagogue-turned-studio purchased with money made animating Luke Skywalker’s targeting computer in Star Wars. Below a mantel displaying chunks of the original Death Star, we watched a video of folk collector Harry Smith’s painted-on-film abstractions. In Boston, we visited Manhattan Project physicist (turned humanist peacenik) Philip Morrison and his equally brillaint wife Phyllis, who Dad worked with on their 1987 PBS series, Ring of Truth.

Had I been more conscious, I might’ve observed that culture — be it abstract animation or atom bombs or 4,000-year old stone calenders — isn’t a thing so much as it is people. But sometimes that can be hard to notice when art is life and life is art (and science and literature and history) and all are rushing towards you in the shape of monoliths in the British countryside near Salisbury.

Indeed, our trip abroad — partly underwritten by an American Film Institute grant — was worked into a family vacation with my parents, grandmother, aunt, uncle, and two cousins. After several days, crappy weather or no, Dad befriended the guards at Stonehenge. When Mom and I arrived, he asked if I could touch the plinths. The guard let me through.

At which point — perhaps drawn by the ancient power of the rocks — I apparently charged, knocked myself out, and made a family memory just as worthwhile as any experimental film, not to mention concisely answering the question of why one can’t shoot Stonehenge someplace else. If only I remembered it.

For more information about Al Jarnow, see Much of his animation has been collected on the Numero Group DVD Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow.





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