Stanton Kaye: Father of Reinvention
Stretching out between the 101 freeway and the glittering Pacific Ocean are the green fields of the Oxnard Plain, America's strawberry capital and home to Dutch families who have ruled the region's cut-flower industry for generations. Driving down Hueneme Road, near the Port Hueneme Navy base and the Point Mugu weapons-test center, we pass the Missile Bar's derelict shell, a steel rocket frozen in priapic launch above its parking lot.
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The right stuff? Scott Glenn in the future, circa 1970
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Hi-ho Silverheels, away: Jay, free from the masked man
"It was a military hangout with a lot of prostitutes," says my passenger, Stanton Kaye. "They shut it down because the septic tank backed up into the ditches all of the time."
Kaye, 64, is a huge, bearded figure who casts an Old Testament shadow. His pool-hall-philosopher voice tends to make even his smallest observations sound elegiac and a little mysterious. When he steps out of my Jetta, his side of the car springs up a few inches.
Turning onto Raytheon Road, we approach a Ventura County economic fault line, where an agrarian idyll meets the hard-wiring of tomorrow. Here, on 26 acres of a former Raytheon missile-research site, newly planted lemon groves reach toward sensible, mid-20th-century office and research buildings that have been relandscaped with exotic plants and tropical trees. It's ghost-town quiet here, except when sea breezes stir a large set of steel wind chimes into clanging rhythms resembling a chant. This is the headquarters of Infratab, an obscure tech startup owned by Kaye and his wife, Terry Myers, who with a small team of scientists have been pioneering the technology of radio-frequency identification tags.
RFIDs are the tiny transponders that have been increasingly appearing in passports, at toll-road checkpoints or in consumer items sold by such retail giants as Wal-Mart and Target. The tags, which can be smaller than a grain of rice, consist of a chip that stores information, and an antenna that transmits data to an electronic reader. Moviegoers got a glimpse of RFID potential in the futuristic Minority Report, when Tom Cruise's character walks into a shopping mall and is followed by an electronic wave of personalized ads offering him sale suggestions based on his purchasing history. While many in industry see RFIDs as a godsend, others view them as harbingers of a benign police state. (See sidebar, "Tag, We're It!") A pair of maverick tech heads, Kaye and Myers do seem unlikely enablers of the latter scenario.
Two decades ago, the couple ran Quarterdeck Corp., a Santa Monica DOS utilities-based software company that, before the advent of Windows, marketed an early multitasking platform called DESQ. In 1994, following fractious corporate infighting, Kaye and Myers fortuitously agreed to be bought out by their own company just before Microsoft took over the world. With some of their buyout money, the couple built Bouquet Multimedia, a digital film-editing/audio-recording facility in Pacific Palisades. They encouraged cash-strapped independent filmmakers to bring their work to Bouquet, where they could load their footage into the facility's Avid hard drives and edit off-site.
In 1996 Kaye and Myers reportedly spent $5 million to build a satellite Bouquet studio with sound stages on the old Raytheon site in Oxnard. In 2004 I began talking to Kaye for a profile on Bouquet. I quickly found that even the most routine phone call to him elicits long narratives of elliptical histories of Los Angeles, Hollywood and New York.
Listening to Kaye makes me feel like a passenger in a time machine whose brakes have given out. He seems to have known everyone and been everywhere. He played hangman with Ed Kienholz at Barney's Beanery, was an extra in Roger Corman movies, partied in Topanga Canyon with Jack before Nicholson was Nicholson and palled around with Kenneth Anger. One moment Kaye will tell you how the brother of Soviet film director Vsevolod Pudovkin ended up a butcher near the Venice library, then mention how he struck up a friendship with photographer Robert Frank after they met in a thrift shop. Then there was the time he directed the last videotaping of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whose work Kaye revered but who kept a hurtful, frosty distance between himself and his young admirer.
One day, in the middle of one of his hypnotic talks, I suddenly realize Kaye is speaking of Bouquet studios in the past tense. When I ask him if it's still operating, he says no — he'd closed Bouquet because not enough filmmakers wanted to bring their work to Pacific Palisades. There is, however, a much bigger story than Bouquet, Kaye then tells me, in his and Myers' work on RFID tags. Unlike other RFID technologies, their tags are based on time-temperature physics and can measure and record the temperature of perishable products (blood, food, film, flowers) and readjust their predicted shelf lives for up to 10 years every time a pallet moves from one point in the "cold chain" to the next.
"I took a Jungian approach to the light bulb," Kaye says of his lifelong obsession with experimentation, his voice lowering to a conspiratorial, Colonel Kurtz intimacy. "In the dark, a lot of things happen. History is nothing but what happens in the dark."
Kaye's commitment to Bouquet and his attempt to help young filmmakers were no offhand charity gestures. By his early 20s, Kaye had made two well-regarded experimental films, and when one hears about his history, an image forms of the Falstaffian Orson Welles. Their similarities are more than physical. Both men worked first in theater and then in film, and were considered 25-year-old boy wonders when they began their greatest cinema projects. The difference is that unlike Welles' Citizen Kane, Kaye's magnum opus, In Pursuit of Treasure, completed while he was an American Film Institute fellow in 1972, has never been shown and remains locked in an AFI vault.
As I begin talking to Kaye about RFID, it becomes obvious that In Pursuit of Treasure was a critical and painful turning point in his life. And the more he describes it, the more this project emerges from the sands of the past as not just a personal debacle but a lost artifact of moviemaking. During a few years in the 1970s, the fate of both Kaye's career as a promising filmmaker and AFI itself were inextricably bound together. Had his AFI-funded film been a success, it would probably have catapulted his career beyond the small circle of cineastes who had applauded his early efforts. Similarly, this first feature produced by the young AFI could have made the institute an instant powerhouse in the New Hollywood that had erupted in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde. None of this happened, however.
There's a decent chance RFID will make Kaye and Myers rich, but such success might only be a means to an end for Kaye, who may yet decide to make his mark on the moviemaking business he turned his back on many years ago. He came to time-temperature technology through the proverbial long, strange trip and knows that his most treacherous muse has not been temperature, gravity or even treasure, but a place called Hollywood.
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That 70s girl: A young Bonnie Bedelia
Stanton Kaye's moviemaking dreams were born in that forgotten cradle of Hollywood, the Yiddish theater. An uncle, Max Gabel, had been a luminary in this world whose capital was New York's Second Avenue, and Kaye's father, Edward, also performed in it as an actor. Kaye was born in New York, but father Edward moved the family to Los Angeles to break into films. After landing a few bit roles under the name Earl Tree, Edward settled into working mostly behind the camera as a dialogue coach during the early 1940s while running his own live theater on Cole Avenue. Kaye grew up in Beverly Hills, studying dance, putting on children's skits, and later writing poetry and plays.
By the late 1950s, however, Edward had declared bankruptcy and was selling women's clothes out of his car along a vast farm-auction circuit that ran up and down the rural spine of California, with son Stanton by his side.
"I'd take off from high school," Kaye remembers, "and go on grueling drives to all these backwoods areas in Fresno, Tulare, Hemet, National City — it was the raw end of 'country western.' There were Okies and Mexicans, black itinerants — foreigners outside the economy. Farmers would bring their harvests and livestock to these auctions. And they'd bring in their wives too, give them money to buy old pots and pans from vendors who would hang out there and prey on them."
While his father peddled schmattes, the artistic teenager would study these auction types: philandering salesmen, gullible farmers' wives and the down-and-outers who lurked on the fringes of the action. From them, Stanton Kaye received advanced lessons in human nature — and salesmanship.
"Explosives are weird stuff. The consequences can be severe."
I can't see Kaye but hear him chopping celery. We're in Infratab's main office, a big room where the Patriot missile was developed. It's now filled with Gregg Fleishman furniture and the walls are hung with African tribal masks, old movie posters and Robert Zakanitch's large impressionist paintings. Terry Myers sits at a desk, speaking on the phone as an enormous dog named Friday wanders in. CNN Headline News hums continually on low volume, and for now the wind chimes' mantra has been silenced. Kaye is in the galley, busy with a crock pot preparing lunch — some kind of Raytheon gumbo with lots of mushrooms, onions, garlic and cream. He's on a jag about time-temperature requirements for artillery shells.
"Temperature affects explosives," he says in his eulogizing voice. "It has to do with not having enough umph to make it over the heads of friendlies."
Like most small start-ups, Infratab struggled for a few years to attract investors but is now landing some impressive contracts with such global partners as Philips, DHL and IBM, and is beginning pilot programs with supermarkets and agricultural organizations. But it's been almost four years since I began talking to Kaye, and I have to remind myself that originally I had approached him about profiling Bouquet Multimedia, and only afterward, Infratab. My problem is that Kaye goes through long periods when he doesn't want to discuss his RFID company because he's busy trying to interest new investors. He's in one of those stretches now, although today I've learned that the Bouquet studios have been quietly resurrected, with filmmakers using new sound stages and editing facilities.
It occurs to me that the Infratab compound is Kaye's version of Xanadu, the San Simeon-like fortress of the newspaper tycoon in Citizen Kane. What would be Kaye's Rosebud — the carved-wood Chinese horse suspended from the ceiling above me? Or would it be In Pursuit of Treasure, the long-abandoned movie he's recently opened up about to me? Among all of my hosts' possessions in the big room, an Infratab visitor might stop on an old black-and-white photograph of a moody-looking young poet with untamed, curling locks — Stanton Kaye. Looking at the handsome 20-something in the picture, it's not difficult to imagine why so many women were attracted to him and how men could be seduced by his artistic vision.
"He was — oh, god, breathtaking!" says the film critic David Ehrenstein, remembering the first time he met Kaye, at Andy Warhol's Silver Factory in 1965. "I have no idea what he was doing there. Stanton was a very forthright and engaged personality. He had things to say and wanted to say them immediately."
Tom Luddy, a longtime executive at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studios and a co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival, was immediately impressed by Kaye when the two met while Luddy was attending UC Berkeley.
"We all looked at him, in those days," Luddy says, "not as simply 'avant-garde' but as a huge talent who had the drive to do things, and was charismatic talking about literature and poetry and art. We thought he'd be the next Orson Welles — Francis Ford Coppola revered him."
Between the time he dropped out of high school in the early 1960s and his move to New York in 1965, Kaye had knocked around Los Angeles City College, UCLA and USC, sampling a palette of film and philosophy classes. In 1964 he made the first of two films, Georg, that would eventually catch the eye of the fledgling AFI. The 72-minute black-and-white feature, shot in Topanga Canyon, is the fragmented story of a sensitive German pacifist who comes to Los Angeles and lives in a mountain bunker — only to discover an Army missile launch pad is being constructed in the midst of his Thoreau-like paradise.
While Georg did not belong to the kind of non-narrative, abstract cinema being made by Stan Brakhage and Bruce Connor, it caused a splash in experimental-film circles and became a staple at avant-garde movie festivals. In 1965 the 22-year-old Kaye was living in New York and painting theater sets. He soon began his next film, Brandy in the Wilderness, a dolorous autobiographical account of making a movie with Brandon French, a 21-year-old woman and fellow Angeleno who was also living in Manhattan when they met.
"Stanton was a tzadik," says French, referring to the Hebrew term for a righteous person. "He was an evangelical but quixotic figure. He wandered around every place he went. His bizarre behavior has drawn so many people to him. Stanton once had this idea to walk through upscale places like Fifth Avenue and Sutton Place in a giant snail suit. 'I will sell three escargots in a cup,' he said, 'but I will pronounce it "ess-car-GOAT" so that people can feel superior to me.'"
Tzadik or not, Kaye at first turned off French with his antics.
"I've never been in anyone's home where he did not walk right into the kitchen and open the refrigerator," recalls French, who went on to write about feminist film (On the Verge of Revolt) and became a Los Angeles psychoanalyst. "I hated him so much I couldn't stop talking about him. I hated him until the moment I realized I loved him."
Kaye moved in with French and, she claims, initiated a combative love affair that was battered by his many side dalliances, most of which he didn't bother concealing from her. In the end it was the promise of a movie that bound them.
"We decided the only way we could justify living together," French says, "was to make a film. I had an advertising job and he didn't work. I probably financed two-thirds of the film and probably half of Max's Kansas City donated the rest."
Brandy, a playfully neurotic film full of inventive visual quirks and narrative ironies (Kaye's and French's alter egos are played by them), unwinds episodically and shows, mostly from Kaye's perspective but also from his co-writer French's, the vertiginous ups and downs of the couple's real-life, cross-country relationship, which began as a creative partnership and ended four years later with a completed film and a baby daughter. In perhaps the film's most prophetic line, Kaye says through his character, Simon Weiss, "When I was 19, I made a very successful film, but all that success just fucked me up. I got scared, I was afraid I couldn't do it again."
"Brandy comes out of the diary tradition," says director Paul Schrader, who wrote an admiring appraisal of the film in 1971 and remains a devoted fan. (He included Brandy in 2006's L'Etrange Festival in Paris.) "The form had been floating around in the underground for years, and its best-known example is Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary. Stanton used the diary conceit and turned it into a terrific story."
In 1969 Kaye won one of the initial 12 fellowships to the new American Film Institute Conservatory, then ensconced behind the walls of Beverly Hills' Greystone Mansion — Brandy had been his front-gate key. His colleagues at Greystone included Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Schrader, the program's lone film critic. Even among these and other strong-willed talents, Kaye projected a formidable persona — a freebase of East Village cool and Topanga weirdness.
"Stanton," remembers school contemporary Carroll Ballard, "was one of the greatest hustlers on Earth — he was absolutely charming." Ballard, who would become a director (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home, Duma), had attended UCLA with Kaye and remembers his ability to talk himself into any party he wanted.
"He came by my place on the beach once," Ballard remembers. "We drank some wine, and he talked about LACMA's opening party. He said, 'Come on, let's go over there — I can get us in.' He somehow got us in — we crashed one of the damnedest parties I'd ever seen."
The AFI came into being in 1967 thanks to funding from Lyndon B. Johnson's newly created National Endowment for the Arts. AFI's founding director, George Stevens Jr., saw a chance to use federal money not only to study the history and theory of film, but also to fund independent films — and connect with the New Hollywood of the Warren Beattys and Robert Townes that was boisterously emerging from the canyons and flatlands to the east of Greystone.
"It was much different then," Schrader says of AFI. "Everything was free and it had a 2-1 teacher-to-fellow ratio. It was more like a club than an institute."
(Neither Stevens nor anyone associated with AFI, past or present, responded to repeated interview requests for this article.)
By 1969 Stevens was ready to undertake the school's biggest gamble — the complete funding of a film project chosen from among its fellows' scripts. The film would not simply be a big-budget student movie — the finished product would receive commercial distribution, people would see it in theaters. And money could be made — there was that too. Kaye, a high school dropout, signed a real director's contract to inaugurate the institute's golden age of federally funded filmmaking, beating out the bright young film B.A.s from UCLA and USC.
"I wasn't really annoyed, because I thought he was a genius who was going to be the next big thing," says Ballard, who at the time was hoping AFI would shoot a script he'd written about Thomas Jefferson.
Others were less sanguine.
"The AFI at that time, they had some really talented people," says veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, Titanic). "I just don't know why they picked him."
Paul Schrader feels he knows the reason. "AFI operated as George Stevens Jr.'s club," he says. "George's idea was that it would be a little boutique studio. And Stanton was his fair-haired boy."
Kaye had once wanted to make a movie about pioneers from the doomed Donner Party, but the story he and Stevens settled on was an allegorical Western concerning a mining enterprise on the frontier — though not any frontier that John Ford fans would have recognized.
"It was set in the scientific future, it had robots in it," Kaye recalls. "A small group of disenfranchised people in this small town come at night and try to tear apart the mining operation."
Specifically, the disenfranchised were a tribe of Indians who had been forced off their ore-rich land by private speculators who surrounded the mine with a giant red, electrified fence. The story focused on them and a young man who comes West and falls in love with the wife of the mine's overseer. It was inspired by persistent legends, fueled by Southwestern cave petroglyphs, of Aztec gold having been buried in North America.
In Pursuit of Treasure was shot over 11 weeks in 1970 with Panavision cameras in Kanab, Utah, with union waivers, a $220,000 budget and even logistical help from the state's National Guard. It featured young actors Scott Glenn, Elizabeth Hartman and Bonnie Bedelia, along with such veterans as Marc Lawrence and Jay Silverheels, the Mohawk* actor known as Tonto in the Lone Ranger TV series. Czech cinematographer Bedrich Batka would eventually shoot most of the principal photography, with Deschanel heading up the second unit.
Almost from the start, however, the project fell behind schedule, eventually imploding, its budget ballooning to $408,000. Everything seemed to go wrong. A wall constructed for a set blew down during a storm, and night scenes that had been scheduled to be shot on Hollywood sound stages were attempted on location — only to be ruined by the sound of crickets. One critical scene was shot with a grain of sand in the camera's film gate, resulting in a long scratch trailing down the middle of the footage. Kaye ended up firing his original cinematographer, Stevan Larner, who had once been his UCLA film instructor. In order to simulate a flock of dead sheep, live sheep had to be repeatedly knocked out with injections for numerous takes, with no clear prediction of when they'd awake. (Some didn't.) Kaye's girlfriend left him during the shoot, but worse, his father died. Kaye had cast him in the role of an old miner, but Edward never made it to Utah — although, Kaye says, the old man would recite his lines as he lay in his bed at the UCLA Medical Center.
Gill Dennis, an AFI fellow and future screenwriter (Walk the Line), was then married to actress Hartman and went to Utah to visit the shoot in Kanab, which had been used as a movie location since silent films. (Parts of Planet of the Apes were shot there.) He arrived to find AFI fellow David Lynch painting bricks gold and a crew that was completing only two setups a day. Not to mention a demoralized Kaye, who was curled up in a sleeping bag while his crew attempted the complicated tasks of lighting and shooting the insides of caves that figured in the story.
"It was a nightmare," remembers Deschanel. "You really had the feeling the movie wasn't going anywhere — virtually everyone involved felt the film was a mistake."
As the project slipped away from Kaye, who had never shot a feature in color, let alone with 35 mm anamorphic lenses, he realized he was in over his head — with no on-site producer or circle of friends to support him.
"I was very depressed," Kaye says. "I couldn't control the film I wanted to." Instead, he felt isolated in his tent as the film crew, in an effort to get the project finished, took over more of the decision making.
After it was nominally completed, In Pursuit of Treasure went through three edits, with still no final cut anywhere in sight by 1972. It had been a year and a half since the film had been green-lighted — a film that now climaxed with the massacre of the white miners by Indians, followed by preparations for an apocalyptic battle between the Indians and the U.S. Army.
"The first time George saw it," Kaye remembers, "he said, 'This isn't the film I thought we were getting. I thought this was a film about a boy who falls in love with nature.' After a while, we could not talk to each other."
AFI wrote the project off as a total loss.
"Cancer is terminal, but at least it ends," George Stevens Jr. is reported to have remarked about In Pursuit of Treasure's ongoing troubles. With that, AFI thanked Kaye for his effort and took the film away from him.
"They hated me because I was not a Hollywood filmmaker," Kaye says.
At this point Kaye might have been forgiven by the institute, his film debacle written off as youthful hubris. In an era famous for such chutzpah, his audacious failure might still have opened doors for him in Hollywood — on some level it was a collegiate harbinger of Heaven's Gate.
"Had In Pursuit of Treasure made money — had it been Easy Rider," says Schrader, "it would have been different, everything would have been validated."
Later in 1972, however, Kaye stole the AFI's work print and drove with the 10 reels in the back seat of his car to New York, stopping in Kansas City to visit director Robert Altman. Taking Altman's advice, Kaye arranged a showing of his work in progress in the basement screening room of Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan. Kaye's bad luck continued in New York, as his art-world audience was politely unimpressed with the very rough cut that had yet to be scored. Kaye had to borrow $20 just to get the projectionist to rewind his film.
"So there I was," he remembers. "Broke, busted — the film no good. When I got back [to L.A.], a friend told me, 'The FBI is looking for you.'" The suits at AFI had discovered In Pursuit of Treasure was missing.
Today, when he looks back on what went wrong, Kaye claims that the "older guys" who ran AFI wanted to keep Hollywood alive and viable in a new era but had no idea what was going on in that turbulent period.
"I was living in a time when revolution was on everybody's tongue," Kaye says. "Fashion was out the door, replaced by anything goes."
AFI's impulse, says Brandon French, who helped Kaye rewrite much of the Treasure screenplay from her Berkeley home, was to cut and run rather than work out a way to salvage his film.
"I was a very sensitive person," says Kaye. "Even though I might have been an outrageous asshole, what happened to me at the AFI was so inordinately wrong. I went away feeling pretty beaten up."
Kaye and AFI reconciled, with the institute regaining possession of the work print, while Kaye retained custody of his last edit. He says that his subsequent attempts to recut the film have put its sound almost hopelessly out of sync, and claims AFI lost the original magnetic soundtrack — making any attempts to reconstruct Treasure a Herculean (and expensive) project.
If you look at Kaye's silent fragments of Treasure today, it's easy to see his promise as a director. Once you recover from the shock of seeing a very young Glenn, Hartman and Bedelia, you're impressed by the maturity of the director's outdoor compositions and his ability to use Panavision — to create not voyeuristic pageantry, but a heroic landscape filled with Indians still trying, in a "scientific future," to win back their stolen land. These are not the claustrophobic urban perspectives of Brandy in the Wilderness but, occasionally at least, quotations from an imaginary dialogue between Ford and Eisenstein.
At other times, though, the film seems very conventional and commercial in its cutting — we're suddenly a long way from the experimental horizons of Kaye's early work. Kaye says that the more he re-edited under AFI pressure, the more he tried to please the institute with a mainstream product. Perhaps it's no accident that in Treasure, Kaye seems most at home in Utah's wide-open, arid spaces, whose silences speak for themselves. The very fact that Treasure looks like a "real movie" from 1970 suggests that Kaye, had he succeeded with his film, would've stood at an artistic crossroads: Remain true to the insular and narcissist temperament of Georg and Brandy, or embrace Hollywood? As it turned out, he would never have to face such a decision.
In Pursuit of Treasure would be AFI's first and last attempt to produce its own full-length feature films. Today, besides showering established movie personalities with awards, the institute is primarily known as a curatorial center and as the custodian of a number of copyrighted "best ever" lists. (AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Movies, AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Movie Quotes, AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Stars, etc.)
"Stanton played no small role in the downfall of the AFI," Schrader says today. "All of its resources and hopes had gone into his film."
French sees the consequences of Kaye's failure differently: "I believe it destroyed his life as a filmmaker."
After his AFI nightmare, Kaye bounced between Venice and the Bay Area, where Tom Luddy got him a dishwasher job at Alice Waters' Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. Eventually Kaye returned to film, joining San Francisco's guerrilla documentary collective group TVTV, then he was hired as a writer for Coppola's Zoetrope. In 1980 he wrote and directed a full-length film for PBS's Visions series called He Wants Her Back. The story concerns an idealistic architect who has to deal with a neurotic girlfriend and the spineless administrator of a new architectural institute who buckles under political and financial pressures, betraying the young master builder.
He Wants Her Back received good notices, although critics and viewers alike probably didn't know that the made-for-TV movie was Kaye's cinema a clef that was both a sequel to Brandy in the Wilderness and a savage excoriation of the AFI and George Stevens Jr. A better title might have been He Wants Payback, as Kaye's architect alter ego in the story lands a prestigious assignment to build a monument to the American Indian on the Capitol Mall, only to have the project sabotaged by forces beyond his control. The film is no veiled indictment of AFI, but a naked assault on the institute and its head: The actor playing the director of the "American Architectural Institute" is a dead ringer for George Stevens Jr. circa 1970.
Yet even as he made tentative forays back into filmmaking, Kaye returned to an earlier love, science, and began collaborating with research partners to patent time-temperature-recording devices. Today he owns or co-owns five patents dating back to the '70s.
"I was working in a small lab on 17th Street in Santa Monica," Kaye says, "right next to where Judy Chicago had her place."
Kaye joined Quarterdeck shortly after it had been founded by Terry Myers and Gary Pope in 1981. He entered as a "marketing guy" and immediately found his calling. Marketing, after all, is just a Madison Avenue word for hustling, and Kaye had lost none of his touch for that fine art.
"It's all about making yourself heard in a sea of noise," he says, noting that at one RFID trade show he raised $6.5 million in four days for Quarterdeck. Kaye would become Quarterdeck's president and marry CEO Myers, whom he had known for years. Within a decade, the couple left the software business to become pioneers on the RFID frontier.
There is some poetic irony in the possibility that Kaye will ultimately be validated by the work he and Myers have poured into a technology that is being attacked by some as an Orwellian threat to personal freedom. Kaye did, after all, begin his peripatetic career in the rebellious 1960s, and his films reflect that ethos, Treasure a milestone among them.
Kaye tells me that when Infratab really breaks out, he hopes to help finance young directors. Behind his declaration, though, he sounds like a man eager to make movies himself.
"The wild dream of being a filmmaker has never left him," says French.
If Orson Welles had the misfortune of making movies before Hollywood could appreciate his vision, Kaye's curse was to have been hailed as the next Orson Welles before he'd left film school. Yet, as Kaye says, in the dark a lot of things happen, and during his years of obscurity he wandered onto the frontier of a new technology.
"It's a tragedy I didn't stay in filmmaking," Kaye says. "The history of film is the history of invention. Preston Sturges' films are filled with inventors — Sturges invented a lipstick that didn't smear. Howard Hughes invented the wired bra for The Outlaw."
His most successful creation won't be time-temperature RFID tags, however, but the reinvention of Stanton Kaye.
I ask him if In Pursuit of Treasure would remain an unfinished curio if Infratab were to hit the RFID jackpot.
"I'll do something with it," says Kaye, his voice suddenly adrift with possibility. For a moment there is silence, then, outside, a sea breeze sweeps in and the steel chimes begin their chant.
RFID: TAG, WE'RE IT!AS THE TECHNOLOGY SPREADS, WHO WILL PROTECT US FROM FREEDOM OF INFORMATION?
EVER SINCE BAR CODES REPLACED packing slips, inventory science has been thinking small — so small that radio-frequency identification tags are barely noticed by consumers who purchase the T-shirts or aspirin bottles to which they're sometimes attached in department-store pilot programs. RFID tags fall into three categories. There are passive tags, whose data can be received and transmitted only when they're powered by an electronic impulse that's generated by a reading device such as a handheld scanner. This impulse travels through the tag's antenna and activates the chip. Data from passive tags usually can only be read anywhere between 9 inches and 30 feet from the tag. Active tags, which are the largest and most expensive, have their own tiny power sources (often paper batteries that utilize special inks) and can be read from greater distances (60 to 300 feet) — including, theoretically, by satellites. Semipassive tags (the kind made by Infratab) also have batteries, but only to power the tags' chips — data is retrieved in the same way as with passive tags. Unlike simple bar codes, RFID tags do not need to be individually scanned and the information they gather can be instantaneously transmitted to remote computers and accessed through the Internet. And, thanks to their use of airwaves, RFID tags don't require a human to be present to operate a reader.
RFID-tag technology, which can record and transmit information about a product's origin (i.e., its factory) and destination (a warehouse), along with assigning a unique serial number to individual consumer items, has evolved rapidly in the past decade. However, widespread application has been slowed by price considerations (initially, $1 for the cheapest kind of tag), by the commercial hesitancy that typically greets new science, and by privacy issues. Thus far, use of RFID technology in the U.S. has been relatively limited, appearing most prominently in Defense Department inventory systems. China, by contrast, is replacing its entire population's ID cards with ones bearing RFID tags. The ubiquitous bar code remains America's standard inventory-keeping tool, although this will certainly change if and when rolls of printable RFID tags cost as little as printed bar codes. (Mass-produced passive tags today average between 25 and 50 cents per unit, whereas active tags can cost upward of $50 each. Reading devices cost about $1,000 apiece. RFID costs go down every time a retail giant such as Wal-Mart requires that its suppliers stick RFID tags on their bulk shipments.
When attached to a single object, such as a library book, an RFID tag can prevent theft. If attached to an individual retail item (Kleenex box, lipstick tube, T-shirt), the tag can interact with a shopper's credit card, sending information to a computer that then stores the consumer's purchase history. One day every can of soda you purchase could be traced from the moment it leaves the beverage plant to its arrival at a recycling center.
How that history is used — and how an individual-item tag might continue to function in the home of the consumer — has given rise to anti-RFID movements in America and Europe. What alarms many civil-libertarians most is the specter of RFIDs being hacked by criminals or government spies through nascent UHF technology. Another fear is of tags being implanted in human beings. There are a small but growing number of people implanted with subcutaneous RFIDs (VeriChips) that store information pertaining to their identity and medical needs — as well as allowing some bearers to fire up their computers, operate garage doors or open their car doors with literally a wave of the hand.
There are fears that government or corporate entities will someday require that RFIDs be implanted in staff members or employees. To many people, not being forced to have an RFID tag injected into your hand is as basic a right as not being required to have a serial number tattooed on your arm. Yet in 2006, one surveillance company, Citywatchers.com of Cincinnati, compelled two of its employees to have VeriChips implanted in their arms, and there have been proposals to do likewise with America's alien guest workers. A few states, including California, have recently passed legislation barring the implanting of RFID tags as a job requirement.
Infratab's Stanton Kaye and Terry Myers shrug when asked about the possible abuse of RFID technology, pointing out that today most of the personal information people fear will be stolen by tags is already known through credit-card purchases.
"It's those terrible women," Kaye says about the controversy's origins. "That lady from Harvard."
The Harvard lady in question is Katherine Albrecht, the founder of CASPIAN — Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. Albrecht's partner in the anti-RFID crusade is Liz McIntyre, CASPIAN's chief publicist and campaign strategist. The two women are self-described Christians who have tried to enlist co-religionists to their cause, drawing scorn from critics who characterize their efforts as mark-of-the-beast hysteria. Still, Albrecht and McIntyre's 2005 book, Spychips, was a rallying point for anti-RFID activists and a migraine for the industry. (One of the book's scenarios has RFID tags being embedded in paper money, which means that a chain of cash possession can be established from the moment the money is dispensed by an ATM or bank teller.)
In 2006, EPCglobal, the nonprofit trade body that sets uniform technical standards for bar codes and RFIDs, held a trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center. A lead speaker was Elizabeth Board, EPC's executive director of public policy, who decried what she called "the scaremongering tactics of a few who say GPC is about tracking individuals." She likened some states' efforts to require stores to post entry signs warning shoppers of their use of RFID tags to a 7-Eleven being forced to post a placard announcing that bar codes appear on its merchandise. Board noted with satisfaction that her group's lobbying efforts have slowed down anti-RFID legislation during the past two years, although she anticipated a growing battle in Europe.
Board and the RFID industry as a whole probably know that public concerns regarding the tracking of tag-bearers and the potential for outsiders to hack into them must be addressed if RFID is to be accepted as quickly as bar codes were. The RFID industry is reluctantly considering offering consumers the option of "killing" tags at the store upon purchase so they can function only long enough to serve as proofs of purchase. But will everyone remember to exercise his or her freedom from information?
* Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jay Silverhels as a Mohican. He is part of the Mohawk tribe.
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