By Jonathan Kopeliovich
It was the first day of my high school film class when we were asked the question:
“What film inspired you to get behind the camera?”
Mr. Day, a kind-hearted hippie and composer of Indian music and classical jazz, had gathered the 13 of us in a claustrophobic brick room with one window and Dell monitors resting on two tables that boxed us in.
“2001: A Space Odyssey,” I answered.
His eyes twinkled. Later, he recommended “Koyaanisqatsi” to me. IMDB described it as “a collection of expertly photographed phenomena with no conventional plot.” God, not this.
I had lied about my interest in this kind of stuff. “2001” wasn’t my favorite film. That was bullshit. It was “Dumb and Dumber.” I told him I looked forward to watching “Koyaanisqatsi,” lying once again. He looked so proud.
The belly laughs rang through the small two-bedroom apartment. My dad and I gasped for air on our faded yellow couch when from our small TV, a bowl-haired idiot sitting in a truck outfitted with the fur of a Golden Retriever asked his irritated road trip buddy, Joe, the question that inspired me to become an artist.
“Hey! You wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?”
The donkey bray that came out of the idiot’s mouth sent me onto the floor. I rolled to and fro as my frizzy-haired mom stared at us, her face contorted into a scowl.
“OUR NEIGHBORS CAN HEAR YOU. YONI, YOU’RE GETTING CRUMBS EVERYWHERE.”
I was 12, and I was hooked on Jim Carrey films after that. In “Ace Ventura 2,” he has to crawl out of an animatronic rhino’s anus due to the sweltering humidity in the jungle. Moments like these are my origin story, and I couldn’t deny them. And for most of my life, I didn’t try to.
It was ninth grade. I was supposed to present the story of Job. I hand drew every frame of the parable in a film, and depicted God as a big happy face in a cloud.
In tenth grade, my friend and I remade a scene from the film “Apocalypse Now” for extra credit in our World History class. To play the role of assassin Capt. Benjamin L. Willard, I donned green face paint, swung a knife around and at one point, licked the ground to track my target. It was absurd and years later, a viewer said they thought that I was Shrek.
That same year, “2001: A Space Odyssey” was showing at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles for its 50th anniversary. You walk in and the first thing you see is a three-projector screen that curves 142 degrees around you. The black alien monolith in the film accompanied by ethereal chants booming through my ears still haunts me to this day and the existential terror that I felt lingered.
The next year, I enrolled in a community college cinematography class. I felt dwarfed the second I walked into the film studio for the first day. Rollie chairs were arranged around a whiteboard opposite a green screen that stretched to the ceiling. I couldn’t hold back the squeals as I saw the silver dolly outfitted with a black camera and gimbal.
As the 6‑hour class started and everyone went around introducing themselves, a feeling of dread replaced the excitement coursing through my veins. To the right of me was a music video director and choreographer. To my left was a stand-up comedian. I was the youngest person there. What did I have to show for my efforts? I’d made a handful of amateur films and was an extra with a few lines in a community theater play.
I tightened my black hoodie, closed my legs and sunk into my chair. A knot of self-insecurity formed in my stomach. That feeling led to the creation of my first film, Void, where the main character’s face is scratched out in every frame.
Then COVID hit. I didn’t touch grass for months and took shelter in my small room, sinking hundreds of hours into video games. My next film, “Metamorphosis,” was about climate change and nuclear holocausts.
Then there were college acceptances. My family jumped for joy when I got accepted into UConn, but what kind of film education awaited me at Zoom University?
After three semesters at UConn of being too tired to put on clothes, or to crawl the three feet to my laptop for online classes, in-person classes were back.
I walked into the college’s film studio for the first time with the rest of my classmates, preparing for the goosebumps. But it was a quarter of the size of the community college studio. I tightened my jacket and sunk into my seat, shivering from the AC. The cinematography professor went through the syllabus with us.
“Light Study.” “Visual Poem.” “Ten on 10s.” I rolled my eyes. Not one professor in our department had made a comedy. There was no funny media in the curriculum.
I hobbled into the Werth dorm laundry room, turning over bins and stopping drier cycles to look for the only jacket I had to brave the subzero temperatures in November.
People turned and stared at me. I dashed up the stairs to ask reception.
“No, sorry,” they said quietly.
I took to UConn’s subreddit and my fingers flew across the keys. Right before I posted about the missing jacket, several posts concerning stolen laundry flashed at the bottom of the page.
I opened a blank page and immediately started listing ideas. Could I make this into a positive? That manifested into my final project for that class, “Dirty Laundry.”
It was an overcast and windy Saturday. It was a chilly 45 degrees as my friend and I rushed to Horsebarn Hill after five hours of filming scenes for “Dirty Laundry.” In it, a student detective tries to track down his stolen laundry, which he finds dumped in Mirror Lake.
But this was the final showdown. Andre, the actor portraying the detective, stumbled drunkenly into the shot. The camera framed Andre Cedeno-Melendez and Brooklyn Green, the thief, like a Western against an overcast sky.
And to play the drunken fool, I told him to “act like Jim Carrey.”
When I showed it in class, my classmates could not stop chuckling and snorting.
I’d spent years worried about whether my film interests were serious enough. With their laughs, I felt that insecurity lift from my shoulders like a weight.