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Now in Marfa for the film festival, while a whirlwind of photographers and videographers machine-gun their way through the town digitally, Ramos walks the streets with a single-shot film camera. He has just one roll of film, and on this trip will take just 24 pictures, each framed, lit, exposed and imagined for the ages.
Ramos met Amato when he was working in New York City for an early online-concert concern. They had a mutual friend in Billy Zane, and Ramos, who lived in a three-story midtown loft, threw a dinner party to celebrate Zane’s Broadway debut in Chicago. Amato was tailing Zane with a camera as his video diarist and happened to land an offer that week to direct a video for L.A.’s Earlimart — but only if he could work on it in New York and deliver it immediately. Amato accepted, then turned to his new acquaintance and asked Ramos if he could borrow a bedroom, his roomful of computers and a hand with the animation.
A bunch of future Masses members happened to be in New York that week: Campbell, Mark Eitzel, singer/monologuist/actress Ann Magnuson and composer Susan Ellinger. “It was a full deck of Masses-related artists,” Amato recalls. “I think Jon got a real bird’s-eye view of what my life was about, and I think it really turned him on. All I knew was that I was really, really grateful.”
The two worked together happily day and night for a week. The future was sealed when the newly bonded team stood staring at the icy Hudson River with longtime Bob Fosse dancer Marc Calamia. “Marc took us outside and just shouted over the Hudson River, ‘the Masses! the Masses!’ in this real huge way,” Amato says. “We were trying to come up with an antidote. What’s a positive reaction to this bullshit we’re drowning in? Does it mean strength in numbers? Creating solidarity among like-minded artists and forging ahead? Is it that? Is it Marc Calamia, a spirited Broadway dancer, shouting our name over the Hudson River and breaking the ice?”
When they had finished the project — “The label hated the video, just hated it,” laughs Amato — the two committed to continue working together. To seal the deal, Amato borrowed $60 from Ramos in order to get back to Los Angeles.
Another key member of the Masses, Bryan Younce, was originally brought into Amato’s sphere through a meeting at the Los Angeles Film Festival in the late 1990s. Younce had been an admirer of Amato’s work, and soon, the two were hanging at South Orange, watching movies, listening to music and dissecting everything they took in.
“It just kind of blew my mind,” recalls Younce, who had ascended at an early age to become supervisor of Acquisitions and Program Planning for the Showtime network. “Matt just kept opening all these doors that I had never seen before, and kept showing me all this stuff. It felt like serendipity.”
Younce likens what took place on South Orange to a literary salon, and the evening-long tête-à-têtes ran late. “We would just sit and sip whiskey and talk all night,” he recalls. “It was such a dialogue. We were much less interested in business than we were in what these images meant, how they affected people, and what pop culture meant — what sort of effect it had on people.”
Ledger drifted in and out of the early Masses scene, which was jelling in Los Angeles. But in the fall of 2006, when Amato’s relationship with Campbell was on the rocks, and Amato was struggling to keep up a good front, Ledger sensed trouble. He’d been doing some editing at South Orange and realized firsthand the stress he was adding to the relationship. So he offered to set up a space for the Masses. “He said, ‘Let’s get an office,’” Amato remembers. “‘I want everything that’s in your office at home to be there.’”
When Amato and Campbell eventually did split, many tears were shed across Los Angeles — not only because their 10-year relationship had come to an end but because there would be no more dinner parties, no more all-night editing sessions, no more joy at South Orange. But in its place was something else, a new office in Hancock Park, where the Masses really took shape.
Building 98, a few blocks west of downtown Marfa, was originally designed as an officers club and quarters for Fort D.A. Russell, featuring a square, single-story construct with a courtyard in the middle, a half-dozen bedroom units and an L-shaped room that’s been transformed into a gallery and a bar. The building is now used as a multipurpose gathering place. On this early evening, with Cornfed’s bus parked to the side, the many Masses and Magnetic Zeros are in overdrive, zipping around the complex as the light turns from orange to rust, each figuring out a task that needs doing while adjusting to the surreal Texas vibe. It’s a different animal out here, where the absence of sound creates a kind of presence.
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