In the entire city of New York, there is nothing going on for the cameras. Almost zero. Telegenic murder, Technicolor mayhem, and video violence are proving to be shockingly camera-shy.
The playwright who kept calling Action Mobie News promising and promising he'd jump off Brooklyn Bridge, has already done so, and is now recovering. Son of Sam of whom Action Movie News got the first footage is no longer at large. Even the dependably orgiastic fires of the South Bronx are acting skittish now that a steady rain is falling.
To show you how desperate things are on this night of nights, we take you to police headquarters at Precinct One where Action Movie News is reduced to shooting the booty found at a gambling raid in Chinatown: 25 rounded up and $8,500 in cash. Big deal.
Lt. Martin Kennedy and Sgt. James Sordi set the table for Action Movie News, the National Enquirer of television: one .38 Smith and Wesson, a bunch of bullets, a bullet proof vest (dark blue), cards, dominoes and a few plastic pebbles from the game of fan-tan, which Lt. Kennedy obligingly shows us how to play. Then he bows out, allowing his subordinate to take all the TV glory.
"I've been doing this for the last four years for the cameras," Lt. Kennedy confides, "and so I decided to break somebody else in."
As he speaks, the 25 people rounded up but not yet booked sit around in a variety of postures, playing cards, reading newspapers and muttering in Chinese. Actually, there are two sorts of attitudes displayed by the Chinese: The young ones look slightly put-upon and mildly amused; the older ones are hiding their faces with their newspapers.
"Don't worry," Lt. Kennedy assures them. "You won't be on TV."
"Aw s . . .," says a young Chinese, throwing down his cards.
His neighbor bites into a green apple. "Channel 4?" he asks hopefully. Getting the Gore
No, no, no. Not Channel 4. Nor Channel 5 nor 7 nor 2, for that matter. This is a mistake frequently made by the uninitiated who may however see Action Movie News footage on any or all of these stations. Action Movie News is a free-lancing company of five years' standing that goes out into the wicked city with its Ikegami video cameras, shoots the criminal, the victim, the snowstorm, the horror, the fire, the gore - and then sells all of it at $100 a pop to TV stations and networks.
You may ask yourselves why TV stations don't shoot their own gore. Well, sometimes they do - but generally only during union working hours.
Action Movie News, on the other hand, is at your service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as its people are fond of saying. And they are not at all coy about getting close-ups of the icky-sticky details either, although they do honor the (alleged) sensibilities of their clients be executing multiple shots.
"We've kind of like a legend, actually," explains Sheldon Levy with becoming immodesty inside the shelter of Minicam I. a large van equipped with a revolving light, a siren in case of theft and about $40,000 worth of TV equipment, including a monitor.
Sheldon Levy started this company a company that stood alone and unchallenged in the field until last month when two dissenters broke off and began the rival Broadcast News Service.
The adjectives Sheldon Levy uses to describe his own outfit are much like Sheldon Levy's body: Greatly inflated. "I suppose the others talk about us derogatorilly." he concedes around 3 a.m. when nothing is happening.
"I suppose if you asked them they'd tell you, 'Ya know, they're all crazies. Real crazy. Ya have to de demented to go out at night and round around. Has to be something wrong with them.'"
Not too crazy, TV fans. Levy says Action Movie News with its 13 employes grosses about $150,000 a year. And that's not including the $200,000 Levy makes from his other company which shoots the staid, straight stuff on assignment: like Begin's recent visit to the United States.
In Levy's bedroom are a bunch of police and fire radios - "They've replaced my wife," he says. The gore biz will do it to you every time. It certainly did it to news director John Delventhal who says, "My divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me. Now I can take vacations across the country, and it's also better for my kids."
Sheldon Levy, parked outside the Brooklyn courthouse as a thick smarmy fog cloaks the city, grows thoughtful trying to explain his intense devotion to the job. "It's probably some sexual thing involved. It's very strange. We're out here and millions upon millions of people are watching, depending on what we shoot."
He bites into a hotdog. A night in the gore biz is like spending eternity with Ronald McDonald.
"It's almost," Levy says, swallowing, "it's almost an overpowering feeling."
Marshall McLuhan, eat your Wimpy out. These are the people who have helped to change the face of TV news - at least in New York City.That, anyway, is their proud boast.
No shots of some charcoal-broiled shell of a building for a Action Movie News. Not if they can help it. Now you can see the fire in progress the bodies trotted out in green plastic bags, the remains of a flamboyant suicide.
"They have good footage," Edith Cahill, WNBC's feature assignment editor remarks. "Sometimes it's spectacular - especially the fires. They're very good at getting bodies taken out after a homicide. They get places, they jump around . . . I tell you this: They're saved our rears many times."
All across the nation there are indivudual free-lancers doing what Action Movie does, but (as best as can be determined) they were the first to organize themselves into a company. Tender tummies may kick and rumble ("Channel 2," says New York's Channel 2," has a problem in glorfying the grisly details") but as Levy points out, he doesn't make the news.
That's life. And that, of course, is death. Television has grown superb at pointing out the difference between the two.
Most intriguing about all this, though, is that the public has not. At every site, at every fire, at every crime scene most people on the street seem more fascinated by the cameras than the news event that is going on right in front of their noses.
It is as if the reality lies not in the fire itself, but in when that fire can be seen on TV. At every site, every accident, the recurring question is: "What channel?"
Of course Action Movie News doesn't cover everything horrible. Sometimes the victim's family can effectively dissuade them. "Like say when there's a Mafia killing and the family says, 'You film that, we're gonna blow your legs and arms off," Levy explains. "Then we don't do it."
And besides that. Action Movie News has to be picky about its coverage. "Harlem must have 10 murders a week," Levy explains, shrugging. "We rarely do one up there. They just don't sell.
"One the other hand, if a white girl is killed up there, we do it. Even in the good neighborhoods, if a husband kills wife, that's not a story.
"On the other hand, if like a 14-year-old kid murders his entire family, THATS a story."
He pauses to give an illustration. "Like where I live in a good neighborhood - Flatbush - a guy comes home, killed his entire family. Then he sticks his head in an oven. But you can't kill yourself in New York with gas any more."
Levy looks disgusted at the murderer's ignorance. "Naw, 'Cause it's natural gas now. All it does is make you sick." (Wrong, say the New York police, the gas is lethal.)
The reason Levy is parked at 3 a.m. outside the Brooklyn Courthouse is because he had a trip that Son of Sam would be moved there during the wee hours from his hospital.
As it happens that was a bum tip, and Levy is waiting in vain. But he waits without rancor. This is, at times, a waiting business. Waiting for jumpers to jump, which they almost never do, Levy has discovered, if they dawdle around on rooftops, undecided.
"Jumpers are really funny," Levy says disdainfully. "They give everybody a hard time. If a person's gonna jump, they jump right away . . . I've yelled, 'Jump!' cause I know they're not gonna do it. If they're up there dangling, they never jump."
Waiting for the body count: "One time this department store just collapses. They were searching for bodies for a week and a half, so we had a stake-out. I was waiting one night and some exhaust fumes came through the van and we got really sick. I mean they wanted to put us in the hospital. But we wouldn't go. Didn't want to miss the story."
Naturally, this kid of devotion is in the blood, you should excuse the expression. "My family are undertakers," explains Levy, the spirtual heir, who used to help out his uncle.
And Sheldon Levy was a fire dispatcher. That's important because fires compose about 60 percent of the business, and a lot of AMIN employes are fire buffs.
Karl, the 19-year-old audio man who used to drive a tow truck, explains the phenomenon. "You don't leave this job when you go home. I'll get out of bed to see a fire. This week there was a three-alarmer in a supermarket. I went right to it and watched it burn and walked around.
"And I felt very comfortable watching that supermarket burn. I mean no one was killed or injured. And thats what they call a buff." Somebody Get the Dog
"Can you put me on TV?" a small boy begs querulously in front of what was a two-alarm fire on Avenue C.
Action Movie News gets to the damaged building in time to catch shots of a few firemen, their engines and a man who lives in the building, sheltering a dog in his arms.
"Get the dog, let's get the dog," the cameraman hisses to his audio man. Umbilical twins, united by a cable, the two train their equipment on the man with the rescued baby cocker spaniel.
Then the rescuers bring out a corpse. You can't see the dead man - he's wrapped up in a green body bag - but Action Movie News dashes after the body, capturing it for videotape as it is pushed into the ambulance, while the dog-owner looks on.
"I always wanted to be on TV," says the dog-owner, smiling. He was the dead man's neighbor. "Eddie - his name was Eddie.He was once a bigtime musician."
Seeing where the camera is trained, a stranger man walks in front of it and kisses the dog smack on the mouth, while its owner watches, smiling paternally.
The small boy walks up to the men from Action Movie News once again. "What channel?"
"Channel 5," replies the cameraman with a scowl. You Shoulda Been Here
The favorite phrase of all Action Movie News people is "You shoulda been here." As in "You shoulda been here yesterday. Fire in Hoboken and an explosion in Clifton." Or, "You shoulda been here this afternoon. We had a jumper. Yeah, blood all over the street."
So after enduring a night of nothingness and knocking off work at 5 a.m., it's very trying to hear, "You shoulda been here at 7 a.m. Yeah. Guy took his family hostage over in Brooklyn, and Sheldon had to play mediator. Yeah. Guy want to speak to someone from the press. Yeah. And Sheldon was the only press there at that time."
Sheldon Levy is asked therefore if this was a very exciting moment for him.
"N-y-y-y-ea-h," says Sheldon Levy. Who means no. No More Corpse
Someone jumped, cameraman Richard Gottfried is told over the van radio, on James Street.
Richard Gottfried stares moodily at the rush hour traffic, inching his way toward the Village, stymied because he can't for the life of him find James Street.
That's because, as he is finally informed, the suicide really occurred on Jane Street.
"We don't have to worry," he consoles the occupants of the van, "because that body is going to be there for a long time. Oh sure. The coroner's gotta come . . . It'll be there a long time."
Richard Gottfried is wrong. Action Movie News arrives at last at Jane Street to find a lone police car and no more corpse. He dashes out of the van to question the cops. One of them makes a diving motion with his hand.
Gottfried, 22 and new to this game, takes it pretty philosophically. "We had another lady who jumped today." He mulls that over. "Hope her psychiatrist isn't going to get paid.
Since nothing is happening once again, Gottfried parks the van, and releases bits from his past. "We used to make films like that in college. Yeah, we'd call it, 'The Wide World of Suicide.'"
He chuckles appreciatively. "Yeah, we'd get some wooden mannequins and film them falling off a roof, and SPLAT!!! With a lot of ketchup, you know? And we'd also have these judges yo know, judging the suicides with little cards with numbers on 'em lime 7, 8, and 9."
And then there was the time Gottfried filmed a funeral procession, much to the annoyance of some of the mourners, and the other time he decided he wanted to catch Son of Sam, and the year he spent photographing children - which he still likes to do. Children and landscapes. . .
But enough. There's a two-alarm fire raging in Queens. Gottfried, his eyes boring through the windshield, speeds through three red lights in his anxiety to get there. There's a man, says the radio, a man trapped in that fire. PR Never Hurts
But first - a word from John Delventhal, AMN director:
"Whenever we get to the scene of an incident, if we see a cop with his hat off or a fireman smoking on a ladder we give 'em an opportunity to rectify matters.
"We tell 'em, 'Okay, the press is here and we're shooting.' It's terrific public relations to do that. If he does put out his cigarette, he thinks, 'Okay. These guys are halfway decent.' My philosophy is they can always do you more harm than good."
Action Movie News likes to keep its news tips coming. 'What Channel?'
It is raining in Queens, but the floors above Spettmann's Bar are still shooting long tentacles of flame, by the time Action Movie News arrives One fireman injured, but no one (as far as could then be determined) trapped or killed.
The competition is there, giving the Action Movie Boys the verbal equivalent of a Bronx cheer, "You guys go to the gambling raid in Westchester this evening? Ten million dollars."
Gottfried ignores the taunts, with the disdain of a prince toward a peon. But you can tell, as he walks away, that he is a wounded man. The gambling raid in Chinatown that he shot, only netted $10,000, according to police."Don't tell them about Chinatown," he hisses.
Alone among the crowd that gathers (sizable for an 11 p.m. fire), the gawkers and the buffs and the cops and the firemen, only one person seems to be mourning the blaze. He stares at the huge fire lighting the sky, his eyes moist. Finally he walks away.
He is the owner of Spettmann's bar. He is asked if he is Mr. Spettmann.
"No," the sad man explains in accepted English. "No, you see the transaction has been made not 50 days ago."
But Action Movie News does not ask these questions - the stations don't like that. They're there to catch the fire.
When it's doused, they leave, Spettmann's bar is still standing.
"What channel?" a policeman calls after them. Just Another Night
"I've got a way of thinking," says Sheldon Levy as a fog closes in over the city. "Most adults are responsible for their fate. Whereas children on the other hand - children are really innocent. The only thing that bothers me personally is when a story involves children."
A call comes in over the radio. Two-alarm fire in New Jersey."I've been to the same building several times to see it burn," muses Levy, as he speeds on his way.
The fog grows thicker as Minicam I speeds through the silent streets. Finally, visibility is stunted to a few terrifying feet.
"Good night for a murder," offers the audio man.
"Bad night for shooting," says Sheldon Levy, voyeur for the millions.