A Greyhound-style bus purchased on Craigslist for $8,700 rolls eastbound out of Los Angeles on Interstate 10, headed for Marfa, Texas, with 18 passengers. If a highway patrolman were to pull us over, he’d encounter a head-scratcher of a group. First he’d confront a big, bald white man named Cornfed, the driver, also acquired on Craigslist. Cornfed, a sometime rapper, is making a little money on this trip, biding his time until the release of his best friend from prison. The officer would look at the rest of us and be at a loss: a few longhairs, some hipsters, a rugged outdoorsman, a few Hollywood-looking pros, some hot-model types and a man with an awesome handlebar mustache that gets crooked when he’s drunk, everyone all mixed and matched as if collected onto the bus by a roll of the dice. Maybe he’d wonder if we were a bunch of paparazzi, what with all the cameras around. Or some sort of film crew. Nobody would claim to know anything about the liquid LSD. Perhaps a rolling porno studio? Certainly, with the inside of the bus newly gussied up with rugs, chairs, a table with benches bolted to the floor and a few strategically placed mattresses covered in plush blankets for lounging and reading, the place looks more like an opium den than a Greyhound.
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Marfa bound: Alex Ebert and the Masses on the road.
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Artistic freedom: Heath Ledger directing Ben Harper's "Morning Yearning"
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“It’s clear we’re not all in a band,” says the trip’s organizer, Sara Cline, reclining on a mattress as images from Michael Jackson videos, circa 1983, flicker on cube monitors. “And we’re obviously not a football team. So then, what are we?”
Some of the answers are packed away on the bus — in the DVDs tucked in duffels, on those big art prints leaning against the bus window, in the musical instruments crammed into the storage areas. And it’s in the heads of the group, a dozen-and-a-half musicians, directors, writers, photographers and producers, all of whom are connected in some fashion by an art collective and production company called the Masses. Many of the ragtag bunch are members of the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
In typical L.A. fashion, everybody onboard seems to be recording this trip, trying to capture the truth of the moment. A few prowl the den with high-def video cameras, some with dinky Super 8s, or still cameras. Wildlife photographer and filmmaker Tristan Bayer (of Animal Planet’s Caught in the Moment) points a camera with a burrito-size lens out the bus window and shoots like he’s triggering a semiautomatic, chasing distant objects plainly visible in the clean air. Already, there’s better evidence of this single day than the entirety of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But then, the Masses has always been about documentation, about harnessing the power of the camera to shine a light. It’s what drew the group together in the first place, and it’s what binds them now.
“That’s the goal, to see everyone’s point of view,” says Matt Amato, a director for the collective and one of its founding members, who will fly to Marfa later in the week. “With today’s tools, with digital filmmaking, it’s like what Godard predicted in the early ’60s. It’s the day the camera will be like the pencil, and everyone will tell their story.”
Members of the Masses are looking to tell theirs at the Marfa Film Festival, where they’ve been invited to showcase the music videos, photographs, illustrations and music they’ve created during its six-year existence. Birthed in a big loft in midtown Manhattan by one Los Angeleno, Amato, and one New Yorker, Jon Ramos, in 2002, the collective was transformed in the fall of 2006, when the members set up shop in Hollywood, and Amato’s longtime friend, Heath Ledger, started channeling some of his creative energy, and eventually, money, into the company. It was at the Masses that Ledger and his peers converged around a notion; taught each other how to shoot, light and edit; plotted out music and record labels; and sought to develop a little engine of creativity.
As the bus rolls on, 15 hours turn to 20, day turns to night and then to day again. At last, Cornfed pulls into Marfa, and when the group exits the bus, the silence of the West Texas afternoon is deafening. Out here, the creaks of the backyard windmills sound like mating calls of triceratops. Their wails carry across land unbound in all directions by hundreds of miles of empty brown hills woven with brittle weeds (and neatly buttoned with one ironic Prada store). James Dean and George Stevens filmed Giant in and around Marfa; more recently, both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were shot here. You know the kind of place: creepy, quiet America. It’s like Cornfed time-traveled us.
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