Filmmaker Robert Maier is captivated by the story of the Jack Dellinger and his family’s historic grist mill, and wants share the story with others.
Robert has produced numerous feature films, television documentaries, and educational films. He was senior producer at Charlotte’s PBS TV station, for eight years, and was head of the Broadcasting Department at Gaston College for nine. His own production company took him from Honolulu to Kabul, to a Trappist monastery in South Carolina.
His most recent project, concerning 86-year old Jack Dellinger and his grist mill, came about totally by happenstance. He and Katherine are avid mountain hikers. They had stopped at a country restaurant near Roan Mountain in North Carolina, when Dellinger delivered an armful of cornmeal bags. The Maiers inquired about his identity, and found that the old Dellinger mill was just up the road– and still working. They visited the next day, to hear the unique story of the mill, and Jack’s life. He had a surprising career, growing up on a fourth-generation family farm, joined the Air Force after graduating from high school, earned an engineering degree from NC State, and was selected by Werner von Braun to work on NASA’s Apollo moon rocket program. After several decades developing software for NASA and IBM on projects including the GIS system, the first email, the first hard drive, and the first PCs
In 1847 the Dellinger family built a grist mill on their farm in the North Carolina mountains. Jack Dellinger is the fourth miller. But Jack didn’t take over the family enterprise directly. He left the farm in 1950 at age 17 to see the world. He did that—and more. He was away from the farm for 44 years before returning to undertake a nine-year project to restore the mill. Jack is now 86 years old. The Dellinger grist mill is the last water-powered grist mill in North Carolina.
Dellinger Mill is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but it’s largely obscure and unnoticed on a dead-end country road. Maier has been working for the past two years to help it gain more visibility through the film.
With about 8 hours of film so far, Robert is editing and script writing, weaving the compelling history and culture of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in to Jack’s personal story.
The video on this page is a small bit of the work in progress.
FEMALE TROUBLE was my first film with Waters, and it is quite the piece of 1970s underground culture. Autographed copies of my book LOW BUDGET HELL: MAKING UNDERGROUND MOVIES WITH JOHN WATERS and LOVE LETTER TO EDIE Blu-Rays– and other goodies available on site!
Netflix has some great non-mainstream cinema to offer, but theycan hard to find in the thousands of ever-shifting titles. Google “best films on Netflix”, and you’ll get dozens of returns. Like so much Internet junk, many just use algorithms of the most popular titles, counting stars, likes, etc.– not very helpful. Others are click bait saturated with ads that make it nearly impossible to get any useful information– frustrating. I don’t like most algorithms, so by actually watching films, I’ve found many hidden gems. Here’s my newest list of titles, to help others find unusual, engaging, and informative pieces of cinema art that are very watchable.
NEWRECOMMENDED FILMS ON NETFLIX (12/21/2018)
ROMA BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER HAPPY AS LAZZARO BREATH THE CREW GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA OUTSIDE IN THE GIANT THE INFORMANT
After my many decades in film, I finally got to see a silent
film accompanied live by a large pipe organ.
The pipe organ has always been my favorite instrument. Probably because it is so loud, has so many
different sounds, and one note can be duplicated a dozens times in dozens of
different voices. Large pipe organs are
huge, with 10,000+ pipes, mounted in rooms hundreds of square feet in size each
with an individual switch connected to a massive console.
Many organs have pipes 32 feet long (a three- story
building) requiring ceiling heights of 40+ feet. The massive “earthquake” pipe creates such
low tones, that they are felt, not heard, and risk collapsing buildings with
subsonic pressure waves. Most
interesting, this analog technology is hundreds of years old.
In the digital world, many people believe a circuit chip and
a set of $100 headphones can emulate a large pipe organ. Many churches have
replaced pipe organs with 4-piece rock bands.
As if there weren’t already enough places to hear 4-piece rock bands—like
the grocery store.
I have been to many organ concerts across the US. Sometimes they can be bland, as the organists
spend too much time noodling across the keyboard making mellow meditative
tones, seemingly shy about what a big organ can really produce. But the performance
I attended last night was an all-out organ assault.
Dorothy Papadakos, an incredible performer and artist, is famous
as the first woman organist at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John The Devine,
among other gigs. For years, she has found
a comfortable niche accompanying 100-year old silent films, around the world in
churches and theaters with huge organs
in huge spaces. She writes all her own music, which guides her
through fantastic improvisations.
I saw her last night accompanying the 1920 version of the
iconic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring John Barrymore. The melodies pitted the ferocious against the
sublime, reflecting the dual personalities of the protagonist. Her improvisations enhanced the action,
growing in volume and complexity as Dr. Jekyll unravels from a generous, kind
doctor, to a demon addicted to hurting people.
When Papadakos “pulls out all the stops,” (which she does
frequently), the walls shake. She seems
to be physically crawling over the organ in acrobatic kicks, swirls, stretches
and flourishes to enhance the intense images.
I love watching organists racing across the keyboards with both hands
and feet, as the volume swells, and the tempo jumps by leaps and bounds. I swear that more than once, she actually
threw her whole body onto the three keyboards, attempting to hit every note at
Actually, the organ did shut down a couple times, crying
“uncle,” (never seen that before), but she coolly rebooted, missing hardly a
beat. After the show she asked if I
noticed when the organ “began to play by itself.” I sure did—and I sympathized with it.
For the first time I realized the genius of the silent film
makers who introduced the pipe organ as the ideal instrument to accompany their
big screen films.
Papadakos made it a point to say that she did not perform on
the classic “theater” organs like the Mighty Wurlitzers that included, gongs, cymbals,
snare drums, trombones, and xylophones, and organ pipes designed to “sound just
like” oboes, clarinets, and cellos, but were very bland compared to the actual
instruments. For some reason, they
usually used a heavy vibrato on every note— a ‘special effect,’ that gets old
very quickly. They were meant to mimic a
live orchestra. They never did a great
job of it, especially since they were meant to mimic a more expensive orchestra,
take away musicians’ jobs, and save the theater owners money. I guess, they’re just—cheezy.
Ultimately, church organs—without all the theatrical bells
and whistles—are ideal partners for silent films, seen on a large screen, in a
large hall, the way they were meant to be. They are original instruments with
unique, complex, thought-provoking sounds.
And the performers who play them, are in harmony with the sense and
presence of the ‘silent’ cinematic experience.
I wish every town had a repertory cinema that regularly
played the silents with a grand organ.
This seminar includes five uniquely cinematic films. They
are thought-provoking “art films” that explore filmmaking’s greatest potential
in acting, music, sound, cinematography, and innovative storytelling. They
are multi-award winners, critically acclaimed, and very watchable.
The films will be shown in The Warehouse PAC theater in
Cornelius, on its 10 x 20 ft. screen with 5.1 Dolby surround sound, to provide
an authentic large screen experience.
Each film will be introduced, screened, and followed by Q&A
Films and class schedule: All classes 6:00pm-8:30pm
Wed Nov 7TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL Documentary, US Independent, dir
Jeffrey Schwartz 2015
Wed Nov 28 MOLLY’S GAMEDrama, US, accurate reenactment of a woman’s venture into the
‘male’ business world; Jessica Chastain, dir. Aaron Sorkin 2015
Wed Jan 16KING OF MARVIN GARDENSDrama, US, 1960’s ground-breaking indie film about
small-time crooks. Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, dir. Bob
Wed Jan 30HUNTER GATHERERDrama/Comedy, US Independent African/American theme dir.
Joshua Locy 2016
Wed Feb 20 THE GREAT BEAUTYDrama, Italy, Oscar Best Foreign Language Film, in Italian
w/English subtitles 2015
Seminar leader, Robert Maier, is a founder of the
Davidson Film Club, Studio C Cinema, and The Warehouse PAC Cinema. He
worked 30 years in film production as a writer, producer, director, and was
chair of the broadcasting department at Gaston College. Maier has
published three books on film production, and writes and lectures on
Class size limited– early
Netflix has some great non-mainstream cinema to offer, but it can hard to find in the thousands of ever-shifting titles. Google “best films on Netflix”, and you’ll get dozens of returns. Like so much Internet junk, many just use algorithms of the most popular titles, counting stars, likes, etc.– not very helpful. Others are click bait saturated with ads that make it nearly impossible to get any useful information– frustrating.
I don’t like most algorithms, so by actually watching films, I’ve found many hidden gems, so here’s my first list of titles, to help others find unusual, engaging, and informative pieces of cinema that are very well done.
RECOMMENDED FILMS ON NETFLIX
Camp X-Ray What Happened Miss Simone? Slow West Hostiles Wind River The Constant Gardner All The Queens Horses Chappaquiddick The Angel Finding Vivian Maier Karl Marx City A Perfect Day The Trader 13th
To immerse yourself in a series for a month, try these two. Turn, a drama, puts a different spin on the American Revolution. Life Below Zero follows several people who choose to live in Arctic Alaska, and contrasts their lives with the cushy average suburban American’s experience.
I teach an on-line Introduction to Broadcasting course, and my teenage-20s students discussed vinyl vs. digital recordings in an assignment. I was surprised how many loved vinyl, because it created an emotional response in them that the music alone did not. The sight and sound of the visible mechanics were more important and heart-felt than the ease and convenience of Echo, i-phone, etc.
I mean, where is the emotional payoff to shouting a song title across the room and having a robot play it? About the same as eating a McDonald’s hamburger, I suppose.
When I was a teen, 33.3 vinyl hi-fi stereo was it. The physical ritual of unpacking the LP, respectfully putting it on the platter, carefully placing the arm on the disc and watching it’s leisurely spin was an important part of the music experience.
In high school, I bought one of these hand-crank non-electric phonographs and a stack of 78s for pennies at an antique store. We’d take it on picnics and be astonished — this was way before Walkman. The first time we heard “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, on a 78, all scratchy and tinny, dependent on cranks and gears and belts and springs, and… no electricity. It was a different world. It was life-changing. It opened new doors of perception.
I get what my students, 50 years later, are feeling, and I like it.
I read an article this morning about how unpaid internships may be the collapse of modern civilization. I get this, but on the other hand, sometimes an unpaid internship is a good route to a career. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at universities that may not result a paid gig in the field you think you’ll like.
It’s possible that a long unpaid internship will deliver the same or better benefits as a BA. As a working professional and college instructor, the most honest advice I give to some students is drop out of school, then research the best company that is busy doing what you think you want to do in life. Go to that company and ask if you can pay them to mentor you in their field– a ‘reverse paid internship’, except the intern pays the company, so you don’t feel guilty about taking their time for detailed instruction, when needed. If you’re not hired you after 2 months, you’re probably not right for the field, or you chose a company that is not very successful, and it’s time to move on. You’ll have to figure how to work this, because loan institutions only want to give educational loans to standard institutions. But that’s part of the education. It usually means leaning on family, or a flexible part-time job.
This won’t work in many fields, because degrees are a short-cut for HR departments– a cookie cutter measurement that may not show how good an employee will be. Colleges can be filled with unmotivated, self-entitled souls who prefer to kick back rather than do– and that’s the last thing competitive companies want.
When I was hiring entry-level people, I paid more attention to the menial jobs they had while in college than the name of the college, like Starbucks, pizza delivery, retail clerk, car mechanic, or call center. They had learned how to get along in the real world, and were ready for a real job. They proved they could be resilient enough to learn all they needed with on-the-job training.
Needless to say, this is not a popular viewpoint. But it is worth consideration. So many jobs I’ve had never cared to see my diploma, my course list, grades, attendance record, or letters of recommendation. Only the colleges!
In the summer of 2016, before we had ever visited High Cove, my wife, Catheryn, and I, after a morning hike on Roan Mountain, stopped in the tiny town of Bakersville, NC for lunch at Helen’s Restaurant. A fellow came in with an armful of corn meal sacks, and left them on the counter. I asked the server where the sacks came from, and she said there’s an old mill down the road. She said the delivery man, Jack, actually ran the mill, and we’d catch him there if we wanted a tour.
Cane Creek flows over the mill dam. This is right after a big rain, so lots of water in what is usually a very placid creek. Jack is walking up to check if the water gate into the mill race is clear.
We drove through a beautiful valley, alongside Cane Creek, where the mill got its power, but it was closed. The phone number was on the gate, so I called Jack about a tour. He said “meet me at the mill at 1pm tomorrow. “
We spent several hours listening to Jack’s stories, about his great granddaddy who built the first mill around 1847, about his plowing steep and stony fields behind a pair of horses as a teenager, about how he ran away at age 17 to join the Air Force, was trained as a bomber mechanic, spent 4 years in the Korean War, got an engineering degree at NC State, worked for Werner von Braun writing software for the first moon launch, and finally on IBM’s first PCs. Quite a life for a country boy.
Werner von Braun and team examine the computer that guided the first Apollo mission to the moon. It was one of the first digital computers. Jack was on the team that wrote the software.
When Jack retired from IBM in 1997, he returned to the mill he hadn’t seen in 44 years. It had been neglected since his daddy died in 1955, and was in ruins from floods, snow storms, hurricanes, and could barely be seen through decades of untrimmed trees and undergrowth. But something got to him, and he dedicated the rest of his life to bringing the mill back to the way it was in 1867.
Jack is now 86 years old, and grinds corn 2-3 days a week in warmer months. It is the last water-powered grist mill, of the hundreds that dotted creeks across North Carolina in the 19th century. I asked if I could make a documentary film about the mill. He answered, “Why not?”
Jack’s great-grandfather, his grandfather and father all ran the mill. All the mill’s machinery was originally built in the early 1860s.
I’ve traveled many places, working on documentary films. Jack’s was as wonderful a story as any—and it was nearly in my back yard. I returned a few weeks later to begin filming, and hear how his family scraped a living off the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for five generations. It was not unlike Medieval times, where everyone had to make or trade everything, and cash money didn’t exist. Summer quickly turned to fall. Jack shut down the mill in late October, and drove to Florida, to join his family. He’d return in April, when the mountains became more hospitable to 86 year old men.
Due to work and family commitments, I couldn’t return to filming until mid-August, 2017. I spent a few days every week filming, and living the adventures of a grist mill, while spending nights in the High Cove Community, which was just a few miles and 2-3 ridges away.
The documentary film has become a larger story than expected. The mill is an amazing machine, needing constant attention. Though driven by a little water brook, it is immensely powerful, and can kill you in an instant. Many times I put down the camera to help Jack maintain the mill, oil the gears and flywheels, and axels, push the 4-ton water wheel to give it a jump start, and adjust the various water gates. I joined the pace of the mill. It tells you what to do, and you go along with this ancient, creaking, groaning monster.
When a 40 ft. belt on the mill broke, we traveled up and down a dozen ridges, across two counties to find an old-timer—someone Jack had grown up with back in the 1930s. He operated sawmills a long time ago, but might have a big belt, stored in a barn filled with dusty doo-dads from a hundred years ago. Mountain people never throw anything away.
Jack Dellinger at the mill in August 2017. He’s smiling, which means the old beast is behaving.
Each short trip became an extended visit. When Jack met a friend (and he always did), I was in a foreign country, in another time, listening to another language. I felt privileged for such a first-hand view into Blue Ridge mountain culture.
Between the breakdowns, the visits, and storms that clogged the water works, there were many days I didn’t feel I was making progress. But as I met Jack’s numerous friends, neighbors, distant cousins, local characters, and casual tourists, the story became so much richer, and I thought, what the heck have I gotten into? Where is this film going? How do I manage such a rich culture? It started to become much more than a film about a mill.
The corn hopper revealed. The stick on the left is the ‘DAMSE;L’. Named in the middle ages because it chatters like a woman when shaking the corn kernels onto the massive grindstone.
Since the mill has now closed for the winter, I can explore the many hours of video, and make plans to fill in the gaps. I’ll drive down to Pensacola and film extended interviews with Jack—so all his stories get recorded. I want to interview others involved with the mill and other parts of Jack’s life, while the mill is closed. This includes Kate, his new 23 year-old miller apprentice, who is fast becoming an important character in the mill’s preservation (it is on the list of National Historic Sites) .
In the spring, I’ll return to the mill with my list of ‘must-have’ shots. I have been playing around with some shots set to music, which is the video attached here.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR INDIE NETFLIX STREAMING FILMS; EXCELLENT, BUT MOSTLY IGNORED BY CRITICS AND MEDIA.
Friends have asked how I pick them.
Here’s a list recommended by pro film writers. Begin with (*) titles, which I’ve seen and loved. In no specific order: HUNTER GATHERER*, A WOMAN A PART, I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS, KING JACK, MEN GO TO BATTLE*, MISS STEVENS, THINGS TO COME, TRAMPS, THE TRIP TO SPAIN*, LOOK WHO’S BACK*.