ZOOM with a view

Videographer Jeff Stroud aims his lens at the neighborhoods of Montgomery County -- a simple show that records where people live, work and play.

November 30, 1999|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

On paper, it's hard to picture.

Guy in rumpled Geo Prizm drives very slowly through neighborhoods in Montgomery County. Guy aims beat-up VHS recorder out the window of car. Guy videotapes a half-hour of houses. Guy then turns his video into a weekly cable access show called "A View From a Car." People watch it not knowing what they're watching.

But watch closely.

"It's a look at their homes, a look at their neighborhoods and a look at themselves. People forget to look at their own neighborhoods," says videographer Jeff Stroud. "We're just holding up a mirror."

In his mirror, we see houses upon houses -- but also kids playing soccer, moms watching kids playing soccer, yellow road signs, an old man raking leaves who looks up and salutes, snow on the ground, the leaves of spring, construction sites, basketball courts, schools, churches, geese, horses, dogs and, finally, other cars with their own views.

"So," Stroud asks, "do you think this is ridiculous?"

No, it's mesmerizing, for reasons that might require a psychological assessment. "View" is downright trancelike. "Some people use the term anti-television," says Stroud, 28, who resembles a film student -- poor in the pocket but rich in imagination.

He works at Montgomery Municipal Cable in Kensington, where he's the videographer, producer, musician, technician, you-name-it. A year ago, the program manager asked Stroud to come up with a cheap program to fill time between other cable access programming -- a 30-minute buffer between, say, "Municipal Notebook" and "Montgomery Medical." Stroud and his friend Cathy Grubman seized the moment, all 30 minutes' worth, and concocted an extremely local program.

They decided to videotape a different town in Montgomery County each week, just let the camera shoot straight. Nothing fancy and, more important, very cheap.

"All right, Jeff. I'll drive," Grubman told Stroud last winter.

Fool-proof

They hopped in her car and cruised the Washington suburb of Kensington. To steady his shot, Stroud propped a balled-up shirt under the camera as Grubman tried not to hit anything. They had no idea what they were doing, which meant they couldn't fail. There was no polish and none of Stroud's electronic music he'd later score for the show.

"You could see my windshield on the video. It was all dirty. You could hear the radio, too," Grubman says. "It was true cinema verite."

On the first Tuesday night in January, "A View From a Car" debuted at 9 p.m. on Channel 45/30 in Montgomery County. A viewer or two called to tell them they were driving too fast. Grubman had been driving about 50 mph, which looks like 100 mph in a view from a car. Another raised the possibility of getting carsick just watching the program.

Henceforth, the getaway "View" car would go as slow as possible. If they were stopped (they haven't been), they'd just tell the police they were shooting a TV program. Future episodes were taped in Poolesville, Garrett Park, Bethesda, Barnesville (shot in black and white, folk music background), Chevy Chase, Spencerville, and again in Kensington (a spring and a winter version).

People seemed to like the shows, except for the one woman in Poolesville who thought it "looked like the Indy 500." And why couldn't they have played Civil War music on the show?

With each shoot, Stroud perfected what would become the signature look of "A View From a Car."

There would be no opening title. "That would be too much like TV," Stroud says. The show simply starts with a view from the car. The rearview mirror would not be shown. "We're trying to make the audience less aware of the medium." And Stroud usually edits out people waving at the car, which people tend to do because theyhave to do something when they're on camera in their own front yard.

Frame-by-frame

Another Stroud touch has been the strobe effect. This involves slowing down the speed of the videotape, as you would film. "A View From a Car" is in slower motion. The homes seem to float by frame-by-frame, as if viewers are not in a car but in a steady boat. Also, electronic music underscores "the whole mood piece," as Stroud calls his 30-minute inventions. He uses local musicians and credits them at the end of each show.

Stroud even letter-boxed his Bethesda episode, giving it a film feel. In fact, every "View" feels like the beginning of a film or a documentary or a fake documentary -- "The Blair Witch Project" screams to mind.

"When `Blair Witch' came out, I called Jeff. We're hip, I told him. All this stuff we have been doing has now been legitimized," says Grubman. " `Blair Witch' looks like `View from a Car.' "

One year, 15 shows and as many other locations later, "View" could well be the No. 1-rated cable access program in Montgomery County on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Stroud knew the show had arrived when a man in a truck stopped Stroud, gave him a thumbs up, and said, "Man, I love your show!"

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