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Reel People : Videobiographer Turns Joys, Sorrows of Life Into a Visual Heirloom


SANTA MONICA — When J. Bruce Long starts his videocam, he is looking for the drama that lies beneath the surface of everybody's life.

Long, 56, calls himself a videobiographer. About a year ago, the Santa Monica man founded a company called Reel Life Stories that allows ordinary people to commit their lives to videotape. Usually hired by adult children to turn Grandma or Grandpa's life into a video heirloom, Long believes each of his subjects has a memorable tale to tell.

"Everybody's story is fascinating, full of high drama, agony and ecstasy," he said. "We are all on our own journey, and it has its unique perils, joys and pleasures. If you get below the surface facts--date and place of birth, where I went to college, how many kids I have--you get to the soap opera."

So far, he has made videos of two dozen lives, including those of an aerospace worker, a seamstress and an insurance salesman. As Long pointed out, they are people who might very well die without ever having their names in the paper and yet, with some skilled prodding, each had a compelling story to tell.

Often, Long said, even the family member who arranged for the taping is surprised at what Mom or Dad reveals as the camera is rolling. A businesswoman who lives in Encino had known that her Russian-born mother, who was Long's first subject, had lost her father in an anti-Semitic masscre and had later helped organize garment workers in New York.

But the woman was amazed when her mother told Long that she had fallen in love as a girl with her first cousin, whom she couldn't marry, and had been half in love with him ever since. "They tell me stories that haven't come up around the family dinner table," Long said of his subjects.

Long, who has a doctorate in history of religions from the University of Chicago, said he tries to get each subject to reveal his or her story. "Everybody's living out a personal and cultural mythology." That mythology consists, Long said, "of the stories that drive our lives."

Long said he has been interested in personal stories since he was a child in tiny Spur, Tex. To this day, he said, "Spur is a living set for a John Ford movie." The Spur of Long's childhood was filled with unforgettable characters like the Blue Man, whose skin had turned indigo after he was gassed in World War I. Long's grandfather, Early, an extremely unsuccessful businessman, was the local yarn spinner, who sat in a rocking chair on the porch of his half-empty store and tirelessly turned town gossip into shapely tales.

Not the least of Spur's characters was young Long himself. He was a boy preacher, in the Marjoe Gortner tradition, except, Long recalled proudly, "I wrote my own sermons." Long had two congregations of his own before he graduated from high school.

In college, Long said, he gave up his fundamentalist faith. "I decided I wanted to be a citizen of the 20th Century." Before starting his video business, he was a college teacher and a documentary filmmaker.

Long prepares his subjects for their video immortalization by sending them a questionnaire asking for specifics about their lives. He also asks them to choose favorite photographs from the family album to be included in the finished tape.

Sometimes, subjects do not want to be taped, at least initially. "They often say, 'I'm afraid I won't have anything to say' or 'My life hasn't been very interesting.' " Long said he can usually cajole even the most resistant subjects into opening up for his camera. In a few cases, subjects can't wait to begin. "They'll start telling their stories as I come in the front door."

What usually wins over even the most recalcitrant subjects, Long said, is the very fact that someone is interested in them. Most people's lives are sadly lacking in respectful listeners, he said. "This is the kind of attention they may have rarely gotten even from their kids," he said.

It usually takes 2 1/2 hours of talking and taping to produce an hourlong finished tape, Long said. Prices range from $395 for unedited tape to $1,500 and up for more elaborate, broadcast-quality videos.

Long thinks the videobiography is a predictable development in a culture that begins making a video record of an individual's life before the umbilical cord is cut. As he often jokes when pitching his product to potential clients: "This is more than Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. This is a full hour!"

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