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Rummaging my computer, to post some stuff elsewhere, I found a folder of old talks/lectures and such, and thought perhaps they’d be still of interest.    So I’ll post in the coming months some of them here.  This one was sometime after 1993, but frankly I don’t quite know when, and I don’t recall just what the occasion was, nor where – clearly not in USA.   Somehow it seems to me as pertinent now as it did then – perhaps the names have changed, but the basic theme has only hardened and gotten much worse.

 

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LECTURE

To speak, is, by its nature, a social act. Whether it succeeds in its intentions – that of communicating properly from one organism to another – is dependent on a variety of factors: is the language shared? is there a common ground to point to the aim intended? is there an overarching reason why the communication should work? does the communicator possess the means to effect its purpose? Each of these questions is implicit in our first words.

So here, by way of laying a little groundwork, I’d like to back up, before beginning, admittedly at risk of seeming a bit academic, plodding, maybe overly precise.  After all, presumably I am here to talk about the topic of films, movies, cinema, and, while in some circles it is a topic given the gravity of serious thought, it is more often consigned to the realm of entertainment, of gossip, of frivolity. So the idea of trying to be careful in what one says would seem to run counter to the grain: doubtless, in most cases, we’d rather have juicy anecdotes about stars and famous figures. I am sorry to say I will disappoint those of you awaiting such revelations, albeit, like anyone experienced in the film world, I have my fair share of such tucked away. However, my interests for here are elsewhere.

Today, here in the United States of America, my country, and I presume also yours, we are in the midst of great shifts in our cultural, political, social, and economic worlds. In this way we are not any different than most places elsewhere in the world: across the globe the entire human species, in all its cultural and social subsets, is being severely tested. Ironically, the origins of that testing is within ourselves: the sphere upon which we reside, this earth, our home, is reeling from the effects of our human habitation. Through the means of our intelligence, our cleverness, our prehensile hands, we humans have quite literally transformed the world — it is not at all the world which would have existed without us. And yet, within the short span of our presence here – a few million years of identifiable homo sapien occupation, we have, imprinted deeply within each of us.

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CASUAL TALK

In the interests of clarity – which I hope will be an on-going phenomenon in the words to follow – I think it would help to let you know a bit just as to why I am here, and how it occurred that I would be here before you today. So, first off I was invited…      well, to be a bit more forthcoming the truth is that I was not exactly invited; rather, I invited myself. It is an occurrence which has been, frankly, rather common in my life — whether to sleep on some friend’s or acquaintance’s (or even a total stranger’s) couch or floor, or to find some elbow-room in the busy halls of public, social discourse: most often, whether in a discreet manner or a rude, blunt, fashion, most often I’ve had to materialize as a gate-crasher. It is little different here. There are of course reasons for this, which range from the most mundane, to the more complex of social/political minuets. I’ll try to explain.

Most often, to speak in public, to, as it were, be “given a hearing”, one must have demonstrated some expertise, some authority – preferably derived through personal experience, and preferably certified through some institutional stamp of approval – on some given topic. And then, as well, it helps to have provided some indication that not only do you know your topic, but also you have the wherewithal to speak coherently, cogently, and articulately, and if possible, even amusingly, about it. Many people who qualify for the former fail terribly at the latter. Though by a curious twist, oftentimes in our era, and one suspects in others as well, qualifying for the latter often gives the appearance of doing so for the former. Good talkers – among whom we might count actors and entertainers, showbiz con-men, razzle-dazzle businessmen and politicians (sometimes all bundled together) – frequently manage to get away with the flashy presentation of the appearance of saying something of substance when beneath it all the only real substance was the saying. It is an amusement to be observed all day, everyday, on television, or radio, or the halls of congress or academic conferences. You may, at the end of this, make your own judgment about me in this regard.

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Given the foregoing, you can fairly ask – especially as I confess my invitation was essentially my own – just what do I bring with me that qualifies your interest? Most often, these days, one would reply, quite simply, “Fame.” And, depending on exactly what realm we were speaking of this might mean one were a known hot-shot in sub-atomic particle physics, a local politico, a Donald Trump, a sexy up-and-coming rock star, or the like. In any and all instances, your case would be considerably enhanced by having graced the cover of Time magazine last week, having been on Good Morning America yesterday, and done a stint on Nightline or Arsenio Hall. Puncturing through the orb of the mass media, by good old American entrepreneurial logic, pretty much qualifies one for showing up and mouthing off: somewhere, someone is taking tickets, counting heads, and if one is not “famous” there will be precious few stubs to tear. Being known by multitudes bequeaths its own strange authority, for better or worse. Conversely, not being known is tantamount to getting censored. By such a logic we find, by one more turn of the screw, that the mass media is largely a mirror of itself: its open slots are mostly filled with those who actively engage in forms of mass media itself: with actors, writers, politicians, sports figures, singers, and even, here and there, “directors”. It is not often that those who toil in non-mass media find themselves enlarged through its mechanisms: Joe factory-worker, the shop girl, the bank teller, the telephone repairman, the farmer, the unemployed — all these seldom find themselves broadcast by multi-band frequencies back to the “masses”, except, perhaps, to play the fools on daytime quiz shows, or to stand in as representative “social problems”, or as icons of “everyman” in slick beer and car ads.

And so, then, in this instance, why me? By most measures I scarcely qualify as “famous”, not even within the rarified, narrow-band, community of experimental/avant garde film artists, so-called independent feature-film makers, or whatever other label one might wish to apply. While at times I’ve been vaguely acknowledged in both of these little communities, it has usually been reluctantly, with insinuations that, somehow, I didn’t quite fit in – and, being fair-minded about it, given the parameters usually applied by those slapping these labels on, it is true, I don’t really “fit in”, nor in fact do I wish to. I do though, work in a media customarily thought of as “mass”, albeit by that criteria certainly I have thus far failed badly in the arena. And hence, “fame”, that necessary but often elusive ingredient, has largely eluded me – or being a bit more accurate perhaps I should say I have eluded it.

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From the outset of my erstwhile career, I have always found myself thoroughly outclassed in this respect by the rushing passage of my peers: in the sixties, as we were all starting out, Paul Sharits, Scott Bartlett, Hollis Frampton, and a small host of others – the Mekas gang and friends among them, including ever famous Andy, held the limelight. The names you read about in surveys of the 60’s “underground” films were my peers, though, if you were to examine the literature of those years, you would be very hard pressed to find my name among them. At that time I lived in Chicago – the so-called Second City – where an inferiority complex comes with the cultural turf. And back then, during a few seeming pilgrimages to that perpetual American vortex of hipness, New York, I found myself, and my friends, casually, and I think causally, dismissed out of hand – even though in hindsight I could say some of them were considerably more talented and better artists than some of those I’ve just mentioned. However we were not in/of/and by New York, and hence clearly just didn’t know our asses from a hole in the ground. Or, in one bruising instance which I remember, in 1968, when the New York members of Newsreel – the radical-left filmmaking propaganda organization founded in 1967 – descended upon Chicago for the Democratic convention, we Second City members, having started our own Newsreel organization, also in 1967, found ourselves simply run-over by the Big Apple presumption of clout: we didn’t know where our asses were, but they sure kicked our butts around for our bother. Pity the poor souls stranded in, oh, Tulsa, or Houston, or, worse yet and god forbid, in some small town. Ever since that time I have harbored, in classic American fashion, a distinct prejudice against New York. It is, I regret to say, a prejudice which the intervening years have given no reason to discard, but rather quite the opposite, have only underscored.

In the seventies, with the emergence of far-from-Hollywood feature-filmmaking one found Mark Rappaport, Jim Benning, Yvonne Rainer, Amos Poe, and a few others taking the bow. One might again note a certain geographical bias – if they weren’t actually from there, at that point they were, having made the obligatory move, living and working out of there: “there” being New York, self-announced capitol of the American cultural high ground (LA proudly claims the low). Situated in the middle of the US art world, and its attendant media arms, those in New York stood to considerable advantage in the swirl of cultural and academic interest that surrounded the nascent “new narrative” film, as it got called back then.

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In the eighties, with the clacking PR-buzzword “independent” slicing through the cultural fermament, thanks to, among others, the IFP, at first came a few holdovers from 60’s – 70’s politics – Rob Nilsson and John Hansen, and Richard Pearce, along with a few others. And then suddenly, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Wayne Wang, Steven Soderbergh, Susan Seidleman, – all a lot, lot closer to Hollywood in their hearts (despite declamations to the contrary) and, duly, quickly a lot more famous than any of those I’ve previously mentioned. Within the ethos of the Reagan decade, these people, and a host of others who tried to follow-suit, had an apparent ace up their sleeves, which, neatly fitting the American cosmos, placed them at the heart of things — their stuff looked to make real money, which in the US scheme of things is the proverbial bottom line! Money talks/bullshit walks! And in general they even managed to get themselves into the pages of Newsweek or Interview, and into ads for GAP or American Express credit cards! This is the real thing! Significantly in hindsight one might also note that they were all, more or less, aesthetic and political conservatives – even for all his fire and smoke, Spike Lee.

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Throughout this whole time, now nearly three decades, the refrain which I’ve long grown accustomed to – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it – has been something like, “Oh, I’ve heard of or read about you…. (but I’ve never seen any of your films)”. I’ve heard this line echoed off the lips of regular film fans, directors of world-class film archives, other filmmakers from avant to big biz, and even from Hollywood lawyers and production types. So persistent is this that at this juncture I sometimes think I made one really major error in my career, which was that I actually bothered to make the films for which I have accrued a reputation built upon their having been “heard of” but never seen. Had I been really smart I would have perceived the possibility of simply crafting the aura and the myth of an ever-unseen body of work, and forget the rest of it! I mean making films is hard work and if one can have a reputation centered on unseen films… well…. The mind boggles.

Still, it is out of this – this stealth career – which, curiously, my presence here today is spun. Put plainly, I’ve been making films since 1963, some 28 years ago, and have managed, so far 20 some short films, mostly done in the sixties and early seventies, and since then another 11 finished feature-films, as well as 2 or 3 others awaiting completion. In sheer numbers, if the truth be told, it is considerably more than any of my contemporaries in America, younger or older. And when I say “I’ve made”, given the nature of the film business, maybe I should clarify a bit. In this case it means that: I found or didn’t find, or made, the money – usually very little – to make most of these films, meaning in the vernacular of the business that I produced them; then I thought or didn’t think, maybe wrote a script or maybe didn’t, took my camera out, loaded it and shot film footage – sometimes of things, sometimes of actors acting under my coaxing and guidance, synched the picture and sound, edited the results, sometimes wrote and performed the music, or otherwise, if there was any, supervised, carefully, just what kind of music; laid out the graphics and titles where there were such things, shot ’em on an animation table, cut the original for lab printing, the sound for sound mixing, did the mix myself or closely supervised it, and sometimes timed the lighting for the printer and finally hassled the thing through all the technical processes involved. By industrial film making standards one could say I wore a lot of hats, almost all of them. For myself though, as a craftsman and artist, I just felt like I was doing my job or jobs. And I will continue to do so, whatever the money at hand. Something in me feels there is a virtue in getting ones hands dirty, messing with the nuts and bolts and grease of things, and conversely, I see a vice in keeping ones hands clean.

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But, despite this near three decades of work, or probably in a way precisely because of it, none of the resulting films has ever been theatrically distributed in the US or elsewhere, nationally broadcast, or exactly made much ado about – with a few modest exceptions – even in the most esoteric of film journals. In point of fact some of them are maybe a bit too strange, weird or something to be appropriate to the usual theatrical, or even art-house, setting. On the other hand many of them would, or would have, fit in, but I was remiss in the next job, that of salesman. Or perhaps – and I think this is in large part the actual case – no matter how good a film is, even an accessible one, if it doesn’t cost a lot of money it is somehow tainted by its poverty. There are certainly a few exceptions to this, so it isn’t a hard and fast rule, just a generalization. But the odd actual low-budget film that does see the light of some kind of US distribution almost always has a between-the-lines note that one ought to see it despite how little it cost, and despite its gritty, grainy rough edges. The obverse is that a really expensive film, no matter how insipid and lame, at least offers the spectacle of extravagant waste and idiocy, in vivid wide-screen color. And almost without exception, the mavens of the mass media hype machine will encourage you to trot out for a look.

In my case I would guess that each of my films has been seen, in the United States, by no more than two or three or, oh, maybe four thousand people – with the exception of two films broadcast at some graveyard hour by WNET in New York, which perhaps were subliminally perceived by fifty-thousand sleeping bodies. All of which is to say, I have remained thus far, steadfastly and adamantly unseen and, following naturally, unfamous. And hence, my need here, yet again, to invite myself. I hope you will forgive my rudeness.

I should note though that while the things I’ve just said lend themselves to being interpreted as open to a kind of bitterness in regard to this “being famous” stuff, it is not really that way at all. Actually, way back when I was starting – I was nineteen years old – I was already quite aware that working in some mass media form, such as film or pop music, inherently set one up for “fame”, and for all the things that go with it: for wealth, and its subsequent isolation and distancing from the ordinary world. To be successful in such a field, – whether you are a singer, TV newscaster, actor, or even only a modestly successful director -, this phenomenon, in one way or another necessarily occurs. And, quite consciously, it was something I did not desire (though certainly I also did not desire to labor away in my work to have it virtually unseen by the world). In consequence, by means conscious and otherwise, I often did things which subverted and undercut whatever possibilities existed for me in respect to pursuing the career/fame ladder. And likewise, I also busied myself doing other things, for their own or my own sake, heedless of the potential effect on such a “career”: in the sixties, for political and moral reasons I spent a bit over two years in prison, for refusing to do military service, pretty much right through the height of the cultural ferment of that decade. On getting out I spent the better part of the next two years engaged in as much political mayhem as I could manage. I worked for the draft resistance, rabble roused, helped set up the left film making and distribution group Newsreel, was involved in setting up a film co-op in Chicago, and worked for the “Mobe” – the organization that led to the Chicago Seven trial. It wasn’t, politically speaking, really all that much, and certainly in hindsight it doesn’t seem to have moved things at all in the desired direction I seemed to have had in mind – but it did gobble up several more trips around the sun, and provide, as did the prison time, an interesting education. I suppose it also laid the foundations for a future reputation as a uncompromising, foam-at-the-mouth, hot-head.

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In the seventies, I retreated into a nearly six year stay in the woods – in California, Oregon and then Montana – far far from the cultural centers of New York or LA, or even Chicago. There, again, I was rewarded with a rich education – in raising animals, gardening, scavenging the garbage of Kalispell, implanting myself in a rural community, sharing life with a child (not my own), and living exceedingly frugally. I was, as is said, dirt poor, but we survived quite well and learned a lot, about a lot of things. I am not afraid of the next recession or even major league depression. Though again, I was far removed from any apparently useful “career moves”. Along the way, with the kind of insights that long solitary walks in the woods can open up, my awareness of the nature and effects of “fame” heightened, and my determination to try to avoid this increased. Looking at it now it seems a bit comical, this concern about “fame” while rummaging through garbage bins to keep three mouths fed. Immodestly, despite my circumstances, I knew I was very good at what I did, and that if I merely followed through and worked at it, pudding would prove.

While out in the woods, though, I did also shoot and complete a first long film, in 1973: it was called Speaking Directly. And while it took a another 6 and 2/3rds years to obtain a New York showing for it (in December 1979 – and not, I should add owing to my not trying – rather it was looked at by all the “right” NY people, who duly passed on it) it did, elsewhere, far away – in Canada and Britain – make some ripples. In consequence, for the first time for me, the walls of the cultural world were slightly breached. More importantly to me then, as now, was that it, along with my other work, showed to good effect in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Bloomington, Indiana, despite its quite non-commercial form and its direct critical, political, content. These days there are some, even in New York, who think of Speaking Directly as some kind of American masterpiece.

Subsequently, in the mid-seventies, feeling I’d largely absorbed whatever lessons were to be offered up by rural solitude, poverty and hard physical work, – not to mention long bitter winters – I found myself in southern California, where, after a deliberate lapse of four years, I resumed making films. In Los Angeles in 1976 I made a nasty but funny satire about Hollywood called Angel City, and returning to Montana in 1977 made a kind of contemporary Western road film, called Last Chants for a Slow Dance. Both were made for absurdly small sums, even for those days – $5,500 for the LA epic, and $3,000 for the Montana film – (and we’re talking about feature length, color films, with actors, aerial shots, some snazzy graphic effects and all, though of course in 16mm). As a consequence I was, momentarily, vaulted into the then-burgeoning independent film world, getting invited to festivals in Europe – Edinburgh, Berlin, Florence, Brussels. Back in LA in 1979 I made another film, Chameleon, this one for a whole $35,000, blown to 35mm too. It was a caustic, nasty tale about a spiritually corrupted dealer in drugs and fake art: a parable about Hollywood and LA. Briefly there was a little buzz spread about regarding my seeming talents: the hot air of the critics, without any apparent sense of contradiction, anointed me a new American Godard, an up-and-coming Wenders (never mind I’m a few years his senior), a this or a that. In the last few months I’ve been twice anointed a David Lynch acolyte or something. All this despite that a look at my work would show a perfectly consistent aesthetic and political continuum. I long ago gave up giving our friends the critics much credit for insight or intelligence. Back in ’79 one major Italian critic felt sure Hollywood would take me under its wing, and this being America, in some realms it was assumed I might make the only obvious next step and turn to Hollywood – or at least something like it. Never mind that my Southern California films, Angel City and Chameleon, had both been scathing critiques of Hollywood and its cultural parallels. One would have had to assume that either I was a total hypocrite, or that I was so naive as to not have any idea what I’d made.

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And so, with the apparition of a “career” right around the corner, a seeming foot in the door to some kind of real “deal,” rather than making the anticipated grown-up leap to Hollywood, I instead consciously made a handful of films which, in their deliberate smallness, in their aesthetic, political and cultural radicality, only reiterated my refusal to make the mainline move. At a time when the banners of The Great American Indie were being hotly waved, and organizations were sprouting from coast to coast in their support, and the concept was shifting from nickel-and-dime film making to heftier quarter and half-million sums, or more, I was off piddling around making films for $8,000 (Slow Moves) or $25,000 (Bell Diamond), as well as a few others for lesser sums that remain unfinished at this moment, and one, for German TV – Stagefright – which was just plain hard-core avant-experimental. So much for career moves. For a decade this seemed to shunt me, yet again, off to the margins of the great cultural Whoo Haa. My work, pretty much as usual, was somewhere off the cultural trend map: it did not emanate from the hip hotbed of Soho where the stylistic posturings culturally mirrored the Wizard of Oz politicking going on a few hundred miles to the south, or the fiscal smoke and mirrors going on only a few blocks down Broadway on Wall Street: the politics, economics and films were all of a piece, equally vapid and morally bankrupt, riding on appearances rather than substance. They were all duly applauded and adored while the country stuck its head in the sands of history.

My films contrarily were about the inverse of the hip — two films about some unattractive, decidedly unstylish unhip losers in Butte (where?), Montana, and Northern California (Bell Diamond and Slow Moves); Uncommon Senses, a sprawling, politically and aesthetically, radical critique of America at the height of the conservative Reagan years; and Rembrandt Laughing, a quiet, gentle, comedy of manners among the not-yet-fashionable near-middle-aged, set in San Francisco, done for $10,000, at a time when the concept of “independent” had moved into the multi-million range. As usual, for practical purposes these films were all but unseen in America. One might say it is as if one had willed obscurity; or, others might say, “failure.”  And, in part, I’d have to admit this would be correct: the longer I was around, the more I knew, the less interesting or appetizing the movie business seemed – whether in the knuckle-crunching version played out in Hollywood, or the back-biting, trend-conscious version played out in various Arts Councils, foundations and the like. If the measure of success was to be found there, then I didn’t mind passing on the whole affair. Though, being myself, given the odd public forum, I generally spoke my mind, called a spade a spade as I saw it, and – I think especially in the last, and current, conservative years – paid duly for the effrontery of actually using the supposed right of free speech.

Along the way, a new, and dubious tag was affixed to me. I had not faded away, but, apparently oblivious to the winds of fashion, or to that significant eighties imperative of making the honorable million or two, I had instead doggedly persisted to make my ever inexpensive and “unseen” movies. And in turn I was anointed “a” or “the” or an “independent among independents”, a “maverick”, an unruly outsider, a loner…. Finally the specific label doesn’t really matter, rather its function does: the point is to diminish one’s meaning, to marginalize, to push to the side; to, finally, walk over, dispose of, and try to crush. That is the real point of such labels, whether it emanates from the offices of some commissar in a defunct USSR, or from the pens of critics who are really little more than PR flacks of that big business – an ideological factory – called Hollywood. However it is couched, those who would call another a rebel, an enfant terrible, and all the other similar names, are really saying that one is an outcast, which, if we just reverse the order, says it more clearly: one is, thank you, being cast out. Of course, the more vehemently it is said, the more suspicious it becomes.

 

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And so, to, in musical fashion, return to the motif announced at the beginning of this, I am here, decidedly, as a self-invited gate-crasher. Having been cast out more times than I care to count, I’m back at the door, determined to get in, however undesired that may be. Sorry. I am here, despite innumerable things, small and large, which mitigate against the chances of someone such as myself getting to such a place; I am here in lieu of numerous others, not dissimilar to me, who either fell by the wayside invisibly, or chose – perhaps more sensibly – under the circumstances to find other things to do with their lives. In consequence, lacking a degree, or a pedigree, or other institutional packaging ribbons, I’ve had to make this little excursion into biography, for which I hope you will excuse me. I am a firm believer that one should know the background and situation of those who deliver messages, the better to make judgment on that message.
Having said all this, you might well wonder just what is it that makes me either want to be here, despite my obvious reservations and complaints, or what is it that allowed me to, or made me, persist. Or, you might also think, “where does this guy get off saying this – he IS famous, well sort of….” (meaning you have heard of me, and so you thought to come to this talk). Or maybe you think I kvetch too much, and, what after all is wrong with the way things work in America. In the movies? In life? I can, frankly, imagine a host of doubts swarming in your minds.

And so, then, I will try to tell you why I have invited myself, and tried, however lamely, to crash the party.

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HOW IT WORKS

In my previous words I tried, consciously, to be a bit conversational, casual, maybe even amusing; to describe a bit of a part of a life spent making films, living in the cultural milieu which surrounds that, and trying to tell you, and perhaps as well, myself, just why I took the paths I took. Along the way I tried, in a low-key manner, to provide the underpinnings of a kind of argument as to why you might wish to bother to listen to me, to consider and think about my experiences and the thoughts which they in turn have generated. I would not, otherwise, be here today, or have spent the time thinking about these things myself. So perhaps it would be instructive, if a bit academic, to go back for a moment here and look at the very word attached to my being here: I am here, formally, to “give a lecture.” In general such a phrase is likely to induce a recoil: for the most part to be on the receiving end of such – to “be lectured” is thought as a painful process, either because we made some damn fool mistake, or, because it seems to imply a bit of heavy, brain-damaging, thinking. Generally we regard it rather something like taking a bitter, even if just, perhaps, needed dose of medicine; we seldom though imagine it as “fun.” But, sometimes a bit of brain-tickling can be just that. So let me, an unschooled, self-taught, autodidact, if you will, spin a little bit of linguistic etymology. For those who might have found that a bit too much of a lexical torment, it just means I’d like to take a look into the history of the word we’re using here. Just what is a “lecture?”

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According to some etymological sources – mine was Websters Collegiate Dictionary a long time ago – in the Indo-European languages the word for lecture derived originally from “leech” – as in the medical practice of letting leeches suck the blood out of sick people, supposedly to help them.  This was, as many things way back then were, quite wrong-headed.  However the intention was to help.  Then the word morphed into “lecture” which originally meant a reading, one from which it was intended one would “learn.”  And from the process of learning, one would draw conclusions and the word morphs into “law.”  So, briefly, a lecture is meant to be a useful, healthful process from which one might learn and in turn draw certain rules, or laws.

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With this in mind then, I’d like to take a look at a small world, the one I’m presumed to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about, film making, and to try to understand a few things about it which are perhaps not customarily perceived. To do this I’ll draw on a life of experience, trying to reflect through that something more general and useful regarding our culture at large, and finally something you might find directly pertinent to your own lives.

I am, as you know, a filmmaker. By the measuring stick one might normally apply to this, though, I sit far off at the margins of the industry which film production constitutes, caught off in a little eddy, along with a handful of others, while the larger mainstream roars loudly and quickly by. So forcefully does this larger main branch go that it often picks up tidbits from my little eddy and takes them along, and does so so loudly that hardly anyone ever hears it. The inhabitants of this backwash in which I survive count for perhaps one in 25,000 film makers or people who in one way or another imagine themselves to be film makers. This is, of course, an assertion that begs for some clarification, which I’ll try here.

In America most film making – by which I’ll venture the guess that this means 85 or 90% of film making – is done in the service of a single, driving, motivation: to make money, preferably lots of it. This comes, though, in many guises: from the obvious example of the Hollywood blockbuster, carefully constructed with all the right “elements” – big stars, director, budget, hot script -designed to elicit the most bucks per theater, internationally, possible, on to the more humdrum routine of the daily fill of TV time, of advertisements, of MTV, and the like. Of the remaining little pool of 10 or 15%, most is devoted to utilitarian functions – to educational purposes, to scientific study, to governmental or corporate propaganda, or the like. Beside these two branches a last tiny little protrusion exists – maybe, being extraordinarily generous, 1% (though I suspect probably more like .1%): here the driving motivation is to make “art”, or something like it. The proponents of this are often screwball cases, like myself, who work away, heedless of such silly preoccupations as worrying about money, insurance, pensions and all the things that go with it. We may or may not give much consideration to our possible audience, and whatever our intentions, we often fail. But, most decidedly, we do not make films in the anticipation of thereby making money; quite the opposite we do so despite the fact that it most likely costs us money. The concept of the “deal,” with all its implications, sees us recoiling in disgust.

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Now I know that here I’ll likely be called into question, what with my numbers: certainly, given all you read about it, “art” covers more than 1 or .1% of film making. After all, what about all those “independent” films you’ve read about – you know, sex, lies and videotape, or Metropolitan or Spike Lee’s latest? What about the classier Hollywood product, like, oh what the hell, Dick Tracy, Henry and June or The Sheltering Sky, or, oh, I don’t know, some film where the director goes on TV and says he took a big cut and big risks, and the actors said it was real tough, and gee whiz, they all did it because, you know, “they really believed in it.”  And maybe Ebert and Siskel said two thumbs up, and Canby said “masterpiece.”  Isn’t all this “art?” My answer, as you might easily anticipate, is most likely a rude, “fuck no!”  Most such film  making, some made under the sincere rubric of “art,” is made by people who honestly confuse their earnest desire to “express themselves” with their equally earnest intention to make a good buck as well, and they know in their hearts all too well the formulas by which that buck is made. Their inner concept of “art” already has commercial intent and content built in: it is, from conception, kitsch, and has as much relation to art as Hummel dolls do to Michaelangelo’s Pieta.

 

This is not to say that art can’t, here and there, make money. Just that art doesn’t, and can’t, begin there – perhaps (and having little to do with whether it is good or bad art — probably most money-making art is the bad art) it can end there – making money. But when a big time (or little time) industry director takes it in his head to make “art” – say Steven Spielberg making The Color Purple – he makes a great to-do of the sacrifices, the difficulties, the mental and emotional torments involved; and, not having the vaguest idea of what art might actually be, makes the inevitable piece of overblown doodoo. Whenever the mighty powers of Hollywood begin to fulminate about art one can duly anticipate a certain heaviness of hand, a pre- and portentiousness, and most often an awful thud as it tumbles downward in the Variety listings despite the inevitable pages of free press rendered up by the national media, not to mention the 10 or 15 million spent for promotion. Unhappily, Hollywood seems not to know that one does not take a little time off from the unhappy rigors of commercial demands to make art; making art, or trying to do so, is a far far more rigorous a chore than anything the heads of Hollywood, or their hired hands, can imagine. When, as happens on occasion, Hollywood does make art (very very infrequently in our time) it is at best the consequence of a happy accident rather than consciousness.

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Given that the foregoing smacks of a tirade, of a bit of petulance, arrogance, and for sure a certain lack of shall we say, generosity, toward the likes of Mr. Spielberg, I can almost hear the chorus coming back, something to the effect: well, what’s wrong with – and then a compendium of titles, the ones you can remember from the past few years, the ones you liked, the ones you heard about that did big b.o. but you didn’t manage to see, and so on. Distilled to its essence, it comes down to something like, “I liked it/millions of others did also,” and, by a leap of illogic, ergo it is OK, and further, it is even, put under pressure, “art,” if “art” is the necessary legitimizing word we need. My answer is, forgive me, “bullshit!”

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I’ll cite, because it is vaguely amusing, a recent personal instance of this kind of thing. This past summer I was at the Telluride festival, high up in the Colorado Rockies, and as things happened I was placed on a panel composed of an odd mix of supposed “independent” filmmakers: they included, sitting at the far right, Clint Eastwood, who of late has busied himself with making imagined “art” in between stints at self-acknowledged commercial shtick; Taylor Hackford, a producer and the director of “An Officer and A Gentleman;” Abel Ferrara, maker of stylish, New York-set exploitation flics; our moderator, Annette Insdorf, a professor at Columbia and intellectual gad-about the biz; then Babette Schroeder, Euro-helmer transplanted of late to the US, director of Bar Fly and Reversal of Fortune; Richard Pearce, the maker of The Long Walk Home, and a string of similar liberal minded, do-goody films of no creative merit whatsoever; and lastly, at the far left, myself. We had gathered together, all present for having films in the Telluride festival, to talk, ostensibly, about the imagined difficulties faced, thanks to the harsh taskmasters of Hollywood and their even harsher taskmaster, the Market, for making – and I duly place this in quotes – “adult” films. Madame Insdorff opened up with a soliloquy on the vicissitudes of the market, though mentioning a handful of, in her mind, “adult” independent films that had miraculously squeaked through (in my mind these same films would qualify as puerile drivel, so it was clear we had some kind of semantic problems before us). Annette proceeded, duly, to toss the matter, systemically, right to left, into our expert hands. Clint, showman that he is, made the obvious “porn” joke which attended the seeming question at hand, and then waxed long, if not exactly eloquently or interestingly, on how difficult raising the funds for White Hunter, Black Heart, had been. The audience, slightly numbed, wept crocodile tears on his behalf. The baton passed to Mr Hackford whose very name renders up its own obvious appropriate joke, but he in turn waxed long and boringly on his own artistic pretenses, using the inevitable cliche “really-believed-in,” and stressed his profound artistic sincerity. Mr Hackford was present as producer of The Long Walk Home, a sterling example of mush-anointed-art typical of Hollywood’s liberal wing – though along with Mr Eastwood, Taylor purported to be a struggling outsider! Truly, he, director and cast all suffered mightily to make this wishy-washy tear-jerking commentary on the politically touchy topic of — uh, well, civil rights events of 30 years ago. Abel Ferrara came next and provided some streetwise humor delivered in good New Yorkese, which helped, if only momentarily to puncture the dubious solemnity of the event. In contradiction to the two preceding him, Abel was happy to wise-ass that now he was a hot-shit Hollywood director, and then, it was my turn.  Speaking more briefly than those who had preceded me, I laid into the pretensions of these Hollywood sorts with their sad stories of how hard it was for them and their ever-so creative impulses, to deal with the demons of the business.  I suggested that their laments were phony (and by implication that they were phonies), and to claim they were “independent” was farce.  Annette, looking vaguely shocked, saw fit to promptly direct the talk elsewhere. Whereupon – and I am not kidding – bursts of shouting and applause for what I’d said punctuated the thin Colorado air. Yells for “More! More!” echoed over the mountain top where we had gathered. Instead Ms. Insdorff shunted things back to celebrity and a thin gruel of talk where, in a spate of hyper-radicalism, Mr Eastwood – and this is a true story – said he was pleased that his new film had allowed him to quote John Huston complaining how the process of selling popcorn dictated what kind movie one could make, and so he thereby sort of agreed with this fella at the other end of the table, and boy, take that on the chin Hollywood: had Clint ever acted so limp-dicked in any of his roles he never would have left the mock West of Spain. The talk dwindled into sawdust, and after an hour was closed. In a discourse among presumed grown, adult, intelligent people, most of the talk had been self-serving bullshit, whining about funds, and thoroughly dishonest assertions of  “independence” from people who have long since been bought and sold and were, thereby, strangely, embarrassed about it all. To think that these people, carefully culled for presentation at this major festival, in some way represented the enlightened, intelligent face of American cinema, is at best a travesty.

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So I have cited this anecdote not for the intelligence or wisdom to be gleaned therefrom, but, sadly, for the opposite factor. There, gathered under the auspices of a prestigious festival, of some import in the wheelings and dealings of, at least, the US art house distribution and exhibition biz, were a small handful of people, presumably intelligent, energetic, experienced, who, given the opportunity to speak in public took refuge behind a veneer of liberal platitudes, of self-serving kvetches about money, and who did not dare look, even momentarily, in the mirror to their own image. Like those who populate the political spectrum in America, these people – perhaps marginally more sincere than their crasser peers – Freddy Fields, or Michael Ovitz, or other On High Hollywood bigwigs – are, as their cringing behavior, as well as their questionable words, revealed, thoroughly corrupted: intellectually, socially, morally.

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These are, I know, harsh words. In the present social atmosphere, they are in a way taboo. We are not supposed to talk like this, or, if and when we do, we are quickly pushed aside by various means. One is compared to the thundering know-nothings of the religious or political right – to Jimmy Swaggart or Senator Helms. Or one is ridiculed as a throwback to the sixties and the shrill “off-the-pigs” sloganeering of the left. Right or left, the intent and effect, though, is the same: to foreclose discourse, to shut off the option of public thinking. The purpose is to sustain the status quo, to silently assert that whatever is going on – especially with oneself and one’s own immediate world – is OK, nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing to criticize.

But, as the evidence of our everyday world insistently indicates, everything is not OK. However much we would like to think it is, and would like to think our role in it is OK, we cannot these days walk down a city block, take a drive through the rural back roads, or give a momentary honest look at the world around us, or our place in it, and claim, with any honesty, that all is OK. The evidence, simple and plain, is to the contrary.

 

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So, you might ask, what the hell has this to do with movies? This guy is here to talk films, and here he is talking something else. So, I imagine, you might be thinking.

So, while I will redirect these words back to film, I must note that they can and will, necessarily, erupt out from that world, and into the world at large.

Recently I read that in US exports, the entertainment business, of which I am certain movies and television make a very large portion, (along with popular music), stands second only to aerospace — which is a nice euphemism for a mix of commercial airliners, and, well, military exports – fighter planes, bombers, missiles, you know, those run of the mill exports that keep the economy humming, or at least running. It gives a bit of room to ponder, though it doesn’t, at least for someone who travels as much as I do, surprise: the marquees of Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, not to mention myriad other smaller burgs, bristle with the titles and stars of Hollywood: our exported shadow shows bring back, it seems, some very real very big bucks. I mean really really big bucks: this is, on a scale that you and I may find hard to comprehend, really big business, and, like its counterpart, the military-industrial complex, it would prefer to keep many aspects of its workings off-screen. It is pleased to make its stars house-hold names around the world, it is pleased to have its aura induce screams of delight from teenagers from LA to New York to Tokyo to Moscow to Rio; it is not, however, pleased to have its real business aired in public.

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Rothko’s New Clothes

In 2002, visiting Houston a first time, I went with considerable anticipation to visit the famed Rothko Chapel.  I had read of it, though I’d seen no pictures that I recall. In my mind I envisioned entering a space in which I’d be surrounded with glowing color – the signature intense hues of this color field painter – and I was flushed with a quiet excitement.  When quite young, I’d fallen for this painter’s work, standing at the Chicago Art Institute’s canvases, inches away from the surface, swimming in vibrant color, then pulling back to see the whole field of reds, oranges, blues; the delicate feathers of the borders between the simple forms, the soft painterly touches, the intensity of the subtle play of hues.  He was, without question, one of my favorites.

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15 years ago, on entering the Miesien-style building which the artist shaped and requested, I found myself dumbfounded: instead of the subtle but intense play of color I’d envisioned I was faced with a sequence of huge panels, of deep very dark gray-blacks, some framed with very very dark maroon, and the painterly qualities which enlivened Rothko’s earlier work almost banished, with rather crisp graphic lines defining these initially almost invisible frames. Almost as if Ad Reinhart had been shuffled into the deck.  Black on black.   I recall at the time being very disappointed not getting the burst of color which I’d imagined, and I suspect in my disappointment I did not exactly give it the time I would have otherwise.

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So this time, returned for a screening at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, I went – in part so Marcella might see it – to try again, and tried to clear my mind of my prior judgement.   Outside the chapel sits an bronze Barnet Newman inverted obelisk – the same one that occupies the lobby of the temple of MoMA, where the money-changers had long since invaded this sacred art ground and converted it into a high-end shopping mall.  This genuflection to another priest of high-modernism instilled a tart bite to my entry into the chapel, perhaps already tilting my already skewed view of what my previous experience had set.  (I note I am not at all convinced by Newman’s work, and all his literary explication does little to dispel my disdain.)

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Passing the entry foyer, with its admonition to set cell phones off, take no photos and to follow the rules and be respectful, I entered, and saw a woman sitting at a little desk, there to enforce the decorum requested.  Perhaps it was the flat overcast sky and the indirect light from overhead, but, once again, I was struck by the near colorless pall of the place.  To the front, three panels, initially appearing to be black and slightly gray, sit glumly together, edge to edge.  On the adjacent walls of the octagonal shaped room’s walls sit companion pieces, similarly colorless though some of these huge panels have nearly invisible dark maroon frames holding their leaden fields; the rear panel holds two equally dark leaden rectangles.

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A few people sat on the benches, one reading, following the instructions to sit silent for meditation.  I allowed myself to wander from canvas to canvas, allowing my eyes to slowly dilate, and after some minutes the slight modulations in the dark gray expanses revealed themselves, vague washes akin on some of the panels to layers of a dark gray fog, as if in some Asian landscape work.  The maroon framing areas slowly became more evident, clear graphic edges, sharply delineated unlike Rothko’s usual hazy transitions.  After some more minutes a closer inspection unveiled slight hints of painterly smudges along the edges of gray-on-gray areas.  20 minutes of such careful looking revealed little more, and whatever was there seemed hardly to warrant the effort.   As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there.

While I suppose one could construct some kind of intellectual or theological argument around these paintings – that the niggardly almost-nothing constitutes a Zen renunciation, or that the slow and reluctant unfolding of the panels’ “content” hints at theological mysteries, or…    But this teasing out of meaning is more squeezing blood from a rock than real thought.   The paintings in the Rothko Chapel themselves are simply a failure, a dead-end corner into which Rothko had painted himself, a null point wherein a rapturous colorist sucked the life out of his own work, and replaced it with vast leaden canvases devoid of the ripe energy of his earlier work.  The effect is not celebratory or joyous or spiritual, but funerary.

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Red on Maroon 1959 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01167

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And yet our art establishment has elevated the Rothko Chapel to an exalted status, a mecca for cultural tourism, where we are to genuflect as at the Sistine Chapel before the divine powers of an alleged masterpiece.   So our visitors come, duly prepped for a spiritual experience, hushed and reverent, and stand before these canvasses, admonished that they must respectfully fall into a meditative prayerful state.  While I was there the mumbo-jumbo appears to have worked as a handful of people filed in, sat, and remained silent.  A mother tried to silence her infant daughter.    One young man entered, sat before the left panel of the 3 piece “altar”, and facing outward, rather ostentatiously took a full lotus position, and presumably meditated.   I was prompted to think of the admonition of the Bible to not make a show of one’s prayerfulness.

 

Having given the chapel the due time to let my eyes adjust, pupils widening so as to discern the minimal modulations on the canvases, the maroon elements of some works emerging more clearly, and the large fields of gray-on-gray to show their slight shifts in tone, I nevertheless concluded that the appropriate tale to tell would be of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  The Rothko Chapel, despite the institutional hype, is a dud.  As art it is thin stuff,  requiring the viewer to tease out some “meaning” or feeling from the most minimal of painterly traces.  While the scale is indeed monumental, the actual art is miniature.

 

There is, by default, an admission by the Rothko Chapel organization, that all is not quite as they would have it appear.  In the brochure they hand out, it is noted the chapel was commissioned by the Menil’s in 1964, and opened in 1971, while Rothko died in 1970.  They neglect to inform the visitor that he died by his own hand, in his NYC studio.  His paintings had been leached of color; the last crimson Rothko red blossom of life was his own blood on the floor which surely dried to a deep dark maroon akin to those of the paintings he left behind as a suicide note.

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As I left the chapel, the young self-pleased man remained in his lotus position, and another man used some pillows to take a pious kneeling posture.  Enforced solemnity reigned, and the ghost of Rothko hung in the air, naked and despairing. And as well, the ghosts of high-modernism revealed their exhaustion.

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Ad Reinhardt

Guild 1982 Robert Ryman born 1930 Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07147

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lenin trotskyLenin & Trotsky; Lenin and no Trotsky

Back in the good old days, when the USSR existed, and America had a different monolithic moral threat to warrant the building of our massive military, it was a practice of the apparatchiks there to carefully, if rather crudely in pre-Photoshop days, edit history, or even the present, and indeed they had sufficient hubris to imagine they were actually editing the future.  Aside from the simple matter of deleting undesirables from the ideological narratives spun by Lenin and Stalin, and then by the lesser figures who followed them – by killing their opponents – they felt the compulsion to snip away at pictures and texts, to make such persons simply disappear:  if there were no pictures and no texts, the person was expunged from history.  They became, as the term was used in the Soviet Union, a “non-person.”

It was not only political figures who were subject to this treatment, but also cultural figures – some of whom were indeed dispatched with a bullet, but more likely, at least in the latter phases of the USSR’s history, they were exiled to some remote setting, and never mentioned again in public.  Out of sight, out of mind.  It was a regular practice applied to any who  diverged in their writing, painting, poetry or films – or even science – from the official  line.  In hindsight, of course, the figures subjected to this social banishment constitutes for the most part the best of Russia’s intelligentsia of the time, as well of the satellite members of the old USSR.   After all, the Soviet Union, like more or less all political and social entities, became totally corrupted, and the official story was that this was not so.  Anyone brazen enough to speak of the Emperor’s New Clothes would be exiled, silenced, and turned into a non-person.

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Of course in the USA, this supposedly doesn’t occur.  Never mind that our current President, surely like all those before him, doesn’t hesitate to liquidate American citizens, and others ungraced with this Constitutional advantage, under some legalistic rubric, just as Stalin did.  Politics at that level  – whatever nice verbiage we wish to drape over it and whatever deliberate self-delusions we like to entertain – is hard-core life/death stuff in which killing “enemies” is s.o.p.    And of course, in America’s culture the phrase and concept of “non-person” is not used.   As it were, “we don’t do that.”  Just like we don’t do “torture.”

Well, we may not use that phrase, but we do something almost exactly the same, and for largely the same reasons.  Probably we’d use a different phrase, with seemingly a different meaning.  The phrase might be “dropped out of sight” or, “well, fashions change,” or, if one is of a younger cohort, “she’s old.”  There are a lot of handy metaphors to supplant the “non-person” label of the USSR, though the effect is the same.

dekooning erasedDeKooning Erased by Robert Rauschenberg

Of course, the concept of a “non-person” begs a certain question: what is a “person.”    In this context it isn’t you or me, or just any bi-ped with a pair of eyes, and what not.   It is, rather, a person who is magnified and known through the media – a public figure, certified by being shown or discussed in public media.  To “be someone” in this sense means to cut some kind of public figure.  It might be a grand international one, like a famous movie or sports or rock star, or a politician, or more exotically, perhaps a scientist like Stephen Hawking.  Or more frequently in our day, a highly successful businessman like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet.  These are people who truly stride the global stage, and are recognized almost everywhere.   Or, stepping down a few notches from such broad renown and acknowledged personhood, perhaps a famous writer or painter.  And then to specialists in various areas – academic or business, or the many lesser sports.  Or media personalities heard or seen on radio or TV.   Essentially this kind of personhood is secured through the media, which these days is omniscient: there is hardly a public space left into which some kind of TV screen, digital scroll device, and speakers do not intrude to show a parade of public figures or to thump to a driven beat.   In turn we have developed a social pathology in which the personhood conferred by the media is sought after by almost everyone.   “I think, therefor I am” no longer suffices.   Rather we must ratify our existence by appearing in the media.

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In part I think this explains the plague of “selfies” which has descended upon us.  I sometimes wonder how many selfies are made any given second on a global scale – it must be in the multiple millions!  Each of these is a small little media certification that one exists, and each signals that the maker of the selfie perceives themselves as a non-person if they can’t see themselves in a picture or video.  Look, I am in front of the Grand Canyon! The Mona Lisa!  The Eiffel Tower!  I therefore exist and in my tiny little world, this is proof I am important.  The proof is in the photograph.  Or the video.  Or the YouTube item.  Or Facebook.  Or, up a step or two, that one is in a “reality TV” show, or on the news.  Each of these certifies one’s personhood, and of course, the more there is of this, the more of a “personality” one is, and the more the world swirls around you, hanging on your every word, each gesture.  Or so it seems. And of course as this happens the more likelihood that the central figure in this constellation will begin to take themselves as indeed bigger and more important and, yes, indeed, worthy of all that attention.  We need only observe the behavior of those who’ve been escalated to such positions. And we need only observe the behavior of the selfie-taker: one doesn’t actually spend any time in looking at Mona Lisa, in fact one’s back is to it, as it is to the Grand Canyon or any other famous thing or landmark.  The point is to be in front of something famed, and in some bizarre sense, it is imagined this fame rubs off on the selfied-person.

Unknown000193CCRPSMona Lisa at the Louvre

I am reminded of a lecture I gave at a State University in New Jersey – the best paying gig I ever had.  A one hour talk to students of the media department.  Introduced, I stepped up to do my one hour spiel, and gazed out at a hip-hop attired crowd of young people, utterly caught up in the styles of the moment.  Droopy pants, tattoo’s, Simpson-style hairdo’s, Nike swoops – the entire generational look.  And ditto, what came from their minds.  What they wanted to inquire of me – self-willed “failure” on so many levels – was how does one get rich and famous, instantly.  This was their desire, which, given the world they are surrounded by, is a vaguely understandable thought for a very young person bombarded with the glories of celebrity 24/7, along with the neo-liberal con that the only meaningful measure of value in the world is signified with dollar signs.   Unfortunately I had no answer for them – not the name of a reality TV show producer, not the magic insider’s trick the would work like Abracadabra Open Sesame.  Nope, none of that.  Taken aback by the bluntness of their inquiry I suggested that first they might want to learn how to do something, and to do it very well.  And that once they had done that, perhaps, with a lot of persistence, work, and luck, they might become “famous” and then “rich.”  I believe I was, no matter how carefully I had tried to phrase it, a huge disappointment for them.  They wanted, as Jim Morrison had it, the world, and they wanted it now.  Just by getting in front of a camera, on American Idol, or some “reality” TV show.   For them, life’s success would be measured by equal measures of fame and its partner, riches.    They could not have comprehended how disappointed I was to see that our culture has produced through its total educational system, the social culture as a whole, such a shallow and empty generation of dupes.   Though I am not surprised.

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 [To be continued, wherein my own non-personhood enters the picture.]

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RULING SPURS RUSH FOR CASH IN BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES

(New York Times Headline, April 4, 2014)

Returned to the US after close to four months away, I arrived to the cacophony of money.  It is, as the phrase goes, bottom-line American.  The All-Mighty Buck.  Follow the money.  Money talks, bullshit walks.  It’s the American way, just ask Justice Scalia, or his StepnFetchit, Justice Thomas.

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Money

Money is a kind of poetry.– Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

                               Dana Gioia

 

Adding insult to injury, following Citizens United, backing their decision with specious arguments asserting it wasn’t in any way a mode of corruption, the Robert’s Supreme Court this past week ruled that Federal caps on many forms of political campaign donations were unconstitutional (McCutcheon v. FEC.)  Just as the prior ruling had it that corporations are people, and hence have the same First Amendment rights as the two footed form.   And so the flood-gates opened, resulting in the NYT headline cited above.  Yep, money is, says the Supreme Court, a mode of “talk” and the First Amendment prohibits any clamps on our mouths by the government.  Let ‘er rip.  Of course the same Court has few compunctions about intervening at other orifices and apparently sees no contradiction therein, and I am sure in other instances the same court would happily rule to shut some mouths.

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Returning was a narrow and selective chance to see the effects of money in the real world.  Arriving in NYC, a ramble through the once hot artistic bohemian realm of Soho revealed an ever more glamorous shopping mall, to serve the new denizens of the area, awash in wealth. Gucci Prada Luis Vuitton as well as more local practitioners of sucking up the money from the very rich.  Nearby areas reflected a similar trajectory making much of Manhattan a play-ground mostly for the very well-off.  Some visits to Brooklyn showed a down-scale version of the same phenomenon:  Green Point, Red Hook, Williamsburg, Gowanus.  There the young hipsters, priced out of swanky Manhattan, have taken over run-down swathes of the city and, as in many other places I know, displacing the locals (poorer, most often of color other than Anglo) and bringing in their “culture.”  Soon enough condo’s sprout, the economic level shifts up a few more notches, and “gentrification” happens.  This is all done under the Mystical Invisible Hand of the Market, so it is, ahem, ideologically free, not racist, etc.  Once again the rumble of cash turns into a tsunami, wiping out all in its (s)way.

 

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945_BOSTON-FIRE_1978From Peter Hutton’s Boston Fire

Moving on from New York, where I got a few harsh reminders of the current economic trends as they apply to the likes of me, I caught a mix of Amtrak and buses on down to Columbus Ohio, a trip which put me in the company of the sorts shoved out of Brooklyn and who can’t afford airplanes.  At one point the bus had to stop as an altercation was going on, and finally the police were called and took the soul away.  He was not Anglo colored.  Another bus jaunt northward brought me back to Cleveland where I had a chance to see another once-industrial city dying as the slosh of massive money shifted to other climes in the name of “Globalization.”   This policy was put into effect at the behest of our larger corporations, with the assurances it would bring jobs and all kinds of good things to America.  Both our permitted political parties, eagerly embraced these policies, singing a siren song of praises for what it would do for the Nation.   It brought instead the ubiquitous Wal-Mart boxes and boarded up small town Main Streets, along with the larger decimation of places like Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo and a long string of other once productive American cities.  The children of old Sam Walton are among the richest people in the world, having sold their Arkansas snake-oil to the country while laying waste to it.  Ironically the country which most “capitalized” on this policy, China, has equally been laid waste with horrendous ecological damage, corruption, and sometime soon an economic crash as rapid and vast as its ascent.

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Other travels have taken me to the quasi-abandoned northwest corner of Missouri, and across Missouri, Iowa and rural Illinois to Chicago.  The seeming story remains the same: small towns sucked dry of their economic ground, family farms taken over by corporate ones, jobs swept away, leaving boarded up towns, a litany of For Sale signs, weathered and hopeless.  Meanwhile, our government, in collusion with our biggest corporations, secretly negotiates the terms of the TPP (TransPacific-Partnership), kissing cousin to NAFTA (of which the long forgotten Presidential candidate, Ross Perot, accurately predicted – to predictable ridicule from the establishment – that the giant sound you would hear would be the jobs being sucked away….).  Obama, the candidate who promised “transparency,” is fully involved in this scam, along with the NSA one.

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James Clapper

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As spring arrives, haltingly in many parts of the country, already the noise of the mid-term elections are upon us, and with it, the massive noise of money.  Money in the form of endless political TV ads, money in the form of bought and paid for “representatives” of the people: Federal, State, local.  Money in the form of long since paid-off Supreme Court “Justices” who bend to the siren song of capital.  The NSA keeps silent watch over us, as an army of co-conspirators, such as Mr Clapper, pull the levers, violating “the law” everyday, and suffering no response.  Just as did our previous President and his entourage.  We live in a criminalized Nation, with the great criminals residing, naturally, at the very top of the pyramid of power.

It is spring time in Tornado Alley.

 

 

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As I write, October 16th, 2013, the grand Kabuki drama of the nation rises to one of its cyclical peaks as the structural weaknesses of our Constitution come into synchronicity. In the next day or two this media orchestrated minuet will play out,  with a temporary collapse of the Tea-Party Republican extremist’s efforts to block so-called Obamacare, claiming the real concern is the Federal deficit, by threatening to defund the government, though most of the same people blithely upped the deficit, slashed taxes, and started two fraudulent wars without a care during the reign of George W. Bush – as VP Cheney famously said way back then, “Deficits don’t matter.”  But today, with a black man in the White House, they matter, if only as a rhetorical weapon-of-the-moment.  Or, instead, this dance may see the little hard-core of Tea Party Representatives willing and able to risk a global financial melt-down as the rigged “reserve currency” of the post-World War II era runs aground on the fractured politics of the nation which prints those famous old Greenbacks, as the “exceptional” USA defaults on its debts.  This in turn will accelerate the process where the great sloshing of globalized, unaccountable wealth is shifting its currency into what those with it imagine to be safer forms than silly old abstractions, like money.  Instead they buy “art” or real estate in places like London, New York, Abu Dubai, and other enclaves of the increasingly “only rich welcome” sanctuaries.

[Note: barring some last minute glitch, it appears the Republicans have blinked, and our grand Kabuki drama will carry on, with another riveting crisis being revved up off-stage at this very moment.]

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rothko1_2214608aMark Rothko painting, sold for $86,882,500koons01_Jeff Koons work sold for $33,682,500

A Rothko painting is composed of a thin sheet of canvas, and some thin layers of paint, and a wooden frame.  Materially it is both easily degraded (the red tones in this work are especially vulnerable to fading), or destroyed.  Materially it is worth perhaps $100.   Clearly what is being bought is something else – either the experience of looking at it, or, the assumption that its investment value in terms of money will increase faster, say, than the value of stocks, or interest from loaning the money.   While the Koons work is materially more substantial, the money to purchase it was animated by the same assumption: that the “art” aspect would multiply its “value” more rapidly than other investments.  In both cases, the reality is that, exactly as is the case with “money,” what is being assumed is that a social agreement that something “abstract” has material value.  Money, whether “represented” with things like gold or silver (chosen long ago because they do not readily oxidize and change their atomic structure), or paper, is in effect a social contract, one which says X currency is worth X material something.  When I was young a cup of (bad in the USA) coffee cost 5 cents.  Today in most cafes a cup of perhaps good coffee would run $3 or so. You can do the math on the inflation and figure out that the social contract regarding the numbers shifted terms rather drastically in my life-time.   In a similar way the social contract in America – between Americans – has also drastically changed.

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Two years ago Occupy Wall Street materialized, and shifted our political dialog sharply:  the phrases “we are the 99%” and its corollary, “the 1%” emerged from decades of suffocation with barbs about “class war.”  OWS was initially ignored by the press, and then briefly given coverage as it spawned across the country.  At the same moment the NSA, CIA and FBI, in a Federally coordinated effort, collaborated with local police departments to heavily clamp down and as best they could, destroy this movement.  But the cat had been let out of the bag and a broad social awareness of the ever increasing disparities regarding the grossly tilted distribution of wealth, topics which are now almost everyday conversation, and around which our thoroughly corrupted politicians must dance, had been birthed.  Hence today’s minuet, which, as I write, appears headed towards an absurd “settlement” of kicking the can down the road 4 months.  And behind the curtains, cynic that I am, I can see the next act in this American theater of the Absurd:  in the coming months, as the Congress sits down to “seriously” decide on the Nation’s budget for the coming years, decade, whatever they say, in a signal of his “flexibility” President Obama will agree to cutting Social Security costs, cutting Medicare and Medicaid costs, and doubtless many other things.  However our sacrosanct military, and its burgeoning adjunct of the vast security state which has blossomed since 9/11, will not be touched.  And perhaps, as a signal of its reasonableness the counter-party will admit to some tiny tax here or there, though preferably it would be along the line of a VAT, “so we can all share the burden.”  Bets?

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But, just in case the dog and pony show in the District of Columbia doesn’t provide enough sleight-of-hand to duly befuddle the citizenry, we can always count on mass media circus to do the job.

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As this scenario has essentially been going on since we started, at the very outset anointing ourselves as “exceptional” and telling whatever untruths were necessary to support our illusion, beginning with our blatant theft of an entire continent from its inhabitants under the ironclad law that “might makes right” – after all, what were “they” doing with all this except wasting its values?  And on through a founding document which asserted that “all me are created equal” which was written by wealthy men who owned slaves, and whose document actually only considered white male landowners as “men” and on through the rest of our sordid mountain of self-delusions, which we must confront every day, and which confound our politics and society as they historically have.  To untangle this mess of contradictions is certainly more than our institutions can cope with, which as the stresses of these days indicate, will lead to a breaking up of our Union, as the diverse interests and beliefs of our populace decide myth is not a good place in which to actually live.

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20130705-TRAYLOR-slide-DYTS-slideBill TraylorhalloTrick or treat!

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Last year, around this time, I received word that a long ago friend of mine, with whom I had sporadic communications in the previous decades, had died.  She was Shulamith Firestone, whom I met way back in 1964, in Chicago.  It was after I’d returned from bumming around Europe and then Mexico for around a year and a half, and had made some of my first films.   We met because she was the girlfriend of my friend Charles (Chick), from my days at the Institute of Design, (IIT).  I went to Mexico to be in a film for him – which if I recall he ended up cutting me out completely though I was, comically, his lead character!  On my return to Chicago in summer of 1964 we shared a flat at the south end of the Loop, immediately beside the “L.”  The trains went by, loudly, like clockwork, right out the window.  Through this I got to know, fall in love with Laya, (and the rest), Shulie’s younger sister.  I remained in touch with her through all these years, as, fitfully, I did with Shulamith, who went on to become a kind of shooting star of the then birthing feminist movement.  She was deeply involved, as the following material will show.  I saw her occasionally after she moved to New York, and once took a little trip with her from there to Boston, I think in the early 70’s – the reasons for which are lost in the fog of my memory.   I saw her a handful of times since, and corresponded with her a little.   The last email, perhaps less than a decade ago, said something to the effect that she – the Shulamith I had known – no longer existed, deleted by the meds and institutionalization she’d been through.

While I couldn’t say I’d been present enough to actually observe, I did see enough, and my experiences in the radical left of the time (one of the founders of the left group Newsreel; deeply involved in the Chicago convention, and many other things) showed me in principle how such things seem to work, and to surmise that Shulamith, way out front in what at the time was a social heresy, got chewed to pieces by the mass media, and then by her erstwhile radical sisters.   Such is the way of politics, of whatever tilt.  As noted in the following, she withdrew in consequence, though perhaps it did not withdraw from her.

With Laya’s OK, I post the following, as I think it provides a glimpse into the tenor of those times, and perhaps in turn a small bit of history for those who were not present then, and for some who were, but were not actively involved inside, a clearer picture of what happened in those years.

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Perhaps it is a function of time, age, experience, and of course a close personal connection – but as I read this my eyes tear.  I am thrown back upon my whole life’s trajectory, back to those fervid days of youth, one in this instance arbitrarily set in the turmoil of the 60’s.  For those who preceded me it might have been the trauma of the Great Depression of the 30’s, or of World War Two which left its stamp.  For those of the current younger generation it might be the shock of 9/11 (and perhaps realizing that their own government had a hand in it).

As I watch the age spots blossom across my skull and skin, and see the slackening muscle tissue of my body, and am proffered the clear message that death is next – be it tomorrow or 20 years – it cannot help but provoke reflection.  Talking with my peers these days, often we concur that it – life, this process we go through – all means nothing, that whatever success (or failure) we have experienced, at bottom, it means nothing.  It is a process, which goes nowhere, and finally is empty of any meaning.  Such is the wisdom with which a long and fully lived life concludes.  The day of Shulamith’s death isn’t really known – her body was found some days after she had died, perhaps of a heart attack, perhaps of starvation.   As in the old black spiritual, you must cross that river by yourself.   By necessity, Shulamith did, though in a real sense tragically, she lived much of her life in the isolation of herself.

I do not in any way believe in an after-life, or the other consolations we invent for ourselves to wash away the reality of death, or the termination of ourselves, and the final meaninglessness of our lives.   I wish I had had the opportunity in life to give Shulamith what she needed and deserved, a kind of comfort which life refused her.

[For an excellent article on Shulamith, by Susan Faludi, see this.]

_L.Ehrlich2010_2678xLaya Firestone Seghi,  and myself, shooting 1967’s LEAH (foto Linn Ehrlich)

packard_0491b_tmDetroit, photo by Mark EifertDSC09887Point Mugu, Ca.  –  JostDSC07186

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Winter has slipped by, leaving the Rocky Mountains and Sierra’s bereft of the “normal” snow-pack, and in turn predicting a grim summer of drought, fires, smoke-choked skies, and rationing of water down-stream in Arizona, California and throughout the West.  To the east, rain and snow has been more than usual, hinting perhaps at floods.  In the same moment our political dialog remains in stasis, the special interests of oil buying the airwaves to insist the evidence is not in, never mind the flooding of lower Manhattan and extensive coastal damage in the east caused by Hurricane Sandy some months ago – global warming is a myth, and it’s full steam ahead on the Keystone Canadian tar sands XL pipeline, despite the recurrent leaks and ruptures in the pipeline infrastructures around the globe.  Recall  Deepwater Horizon, BP’s little incident on the gulf?   Business as usual in the oil biz.

 

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The Presidential election over, and the rather convincing evidence of a culturally “liberal” national consensus being revealed, our Republicans are falling over themselves cozying up to same-sex marriage and other right-wing taboos, just as they fell all over themselves embracing evangelicals and tea-partiers not so long ago.  In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Ct., even the matter of some kind of gun control has become speakable in Republican language, though the NRA is doing its best to enforce its control.  And yet we seem intractably frozen in our large communal conversation, unable to actually even speak, much less act in the face of piles of problems, accumulating as time goes by.  Whether with the accelerating collapse of the “middle class” or the utter ignoring of the now 30% of the population who are “poor,” or the ever increasing concentration of wealth at the very top of our fiscal pyramid, or with the very real consequences which will visit us from global warming – water crises, evacuations of major urban concentrations, diminishing food supplies for an expanding populace – our inability to even begin a conversation will write our epitaph.  Cruising for a bruising.

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Ten years ago, coaxed by a massive global propaganda barrage orchestrated by the US government, and for the most part supported fully by our corporate owned and controlled mass media, the United States went to war in Iraq.  It did so under false pretenses, on the basis of willfully fraudulent “intelligence,” prompted by the attack of 9/11/2001, the story of which itself is highly suspect.  I refer the reader to the document of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which was signed by many figures of the Bush administration, including Richard Cheney, and which called, publicly, for an event like 9/11 to jolt the American public into actions like the war on Iraq and Afghanistan.  The initiation of the way was presented as grand spectacle, and was breathlessly reported by the “embedded” media.

Ten years later, having lost this war, and the war in Afghanistan, and having collapsed its own economy in process, America scarcely whispers a word about the catastrophic actions it took.  Though our military – demonstrating its corruption and incompetence despite its massive expansion and absurd costs – carries on with the top brass shifting from their executive roles as failures, directly into the lucrative corporate offices of the military-industrial complex.  When, if ever, they are punished for matters, it has to do with sexual peccadilloes and public relations scandals, and not with their incompetence as military commanders and strategists.  Exactly as are the golden-parachuted managers of failed American corporate enterprises, or the criminal officers of TBTF banks and Wall Street trading companies.  The corruption runs throughout America’s economic, political, military and cultural systems.

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George Bush, cod-piece strutting “pilot” of 2003, is 2013’s non-person, disappeared by our political mandarins and the media which is their servant, just as is the war with which he is associated.  The patriotic admonishment for the American public which he delivered in the wake of 9/11, “Just keep shopping,” now falls flat on the ears of a public which has largely been stripped of its income and wealth by the events of the last decade – not merely the negative effects of the war, but of the “neo-liberal” economic policies which have gutted America’s economy in the interests of corporate profits for the benefit of the 1%.

So as we enter this grim anniversary, and the cocky presumptions of PNAC’s neo-con fevered dream of American dominance has shriveled, it is perhaps proper that rather than silence, voices of those most deeply effected speak.   John Gianvito, who initiated and organized the making of a film, Far From Afghanistan, sent me today a letter he saw on Truthdig (one of the sad small minority media outlets which dot the internet in an attempt to counter the corporate mass media which dominates the world’s “information” system).  I thought it a good way to mark this dubious anniversary of America’s lunge into an immoral, dishonest and in the long run, utterly disastrous and failed warring.

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A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran

18 March 2013

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all-the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

 I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans-my fellow veterans-whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level-moral, strategic, military and economic-Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

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By the laws of the government which they controlled and directed, George Bush and his entire entourage, committed grievous crimes, crimes for which they have not and will not be prosecuted.  They will not be prosecuted, nor convicted, nor punished, because though the names have changed, that government is run and controlled by the same parties who brought us these catastrophes, and like our self-serving CEOs, who gut their corporations for personal profit, within the now fully corrupted system of USA.inc., one is rewarded for failure, however disastrous it is to the country, so long as it serves the 1%.

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sol·stice  (slsts, sl-, sôl-)

n.

1. Either of two times of the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs about June 21, when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer; the winter solstice occurs about December 21, when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest.

2. A highest point or culmination.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin slstitium : sl, sun; see swel- in Indo-European roots + -stitium, a stoppage; see st- in Indo-European roots.]

Encroaching on 70 circumnavigations of our nearest star, it is “natural” that life imposes certain modes of thinking, and feeling, for better and worse. The passing of years brings an accumulation of one’s own history, the threads which make up a life – events, relationships, joys, disappointments, tragedies. All the hum drum stuff of our daily lives is added up, measured out in a bloom of liver spots, shrinking flesh and wrinkling skin, aching joints and diminishing mobility. We see it in our friends and family, and, perhaps reluctantly, in ourselves. In a constant shift of perspective, life alters its terms within us. The gaping length of single spin around the sun, which in youth seemed endless and found one eagerly looking forward to imagined rewards of the coming year, now seems all too brief. Contemplations of “the next” are limned with a silent “if.” It all makes a perfect sense, and philosophers and poets have long since mined the realm to seeming exhaustion. One would think we collectively all understood.

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On some levels the human experience is collective, and we are able to store up the knowledge of our shared experiences in mechanical and intellectual ways, so that this experience is drastically changed through time.   150 years ago messages in the advanced world were sent by Morse code, and before that carried in letters by horseback or ship, while today vast volumes of digitalized information are sent in tsunami proportions at the speed of light. Likewise myriad advances in medical technology have turned once-fatal matters into mere annoyances. Thanks to these shared and cumulative realities, our lives are radically different (at least those in the so-called advanced countries, or those who are “rich”). And yet, as the old hymn goes, “you gotta cross that river for yourself.”  As that crossing approaches many markers point the way: friends and family begin to die, your own body shape-shifts, its asymmetries becoming more pronounced, and in little or large descending plateaus, your physical functions deteriorate.    And, at least to my observations, the kernel of your “self” solidifies.   Most of the people I know – and I presume it applies as well to myself – are essentially the same, psychologically, as they were 40 years ago:  those given to anger remain angry, those closed off from wider experiences are more closed off; those eager to learn and experiment continue to do so.  This observation inclines me to accept the Greek sense of Fate – that we are born and can do only what that original gift allows (these days it would be measured in genetic components, slivers of DNA intertwined such that one is a composite of mother and father).   I can point to the tooth of mine which is exactly as my father’s was, or the drooping eyelid that replicates that of my mother – and on down the genetic gifts or curses of each strain of my own DNA.  I see the same in my acquaintances.   Whether, in turn, one becomes more forgiving of the quirks of those friends, or whether one crosses them out of one’s life, doubtless marks one’s own in-stamped nature.

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In the past few years, in my own life, death has visited directly within my family, and more generally among acquaintances and friends.  Last December my father died, aged 98.  It caused scarcely a quiver in me, thanks to a near life-long alienation from him.   At a very young age – perhaps 9 or 10, I’d already checked him out of my life as best my circumstances permitted.  At the time I didn’t really seem to know why, though much much later I was told that he’d whipped me with some regularity – which he owned up to in a letter I demanded he write after my mother’s death, some 27 years ago.  That, along with almost all memories of my childhood were totally expunged from my mind, and even with that knowledge I cannot remember it at all today.  And yet, this year, I did imagine and shoot a new film, Coming to Terms, which in its manner is about a father dying and so, perhaps, in the manner of art, I absorbed this event and creatively transmuted it.

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FATHER IN HAWAII 97 YRS OLDcrpHarry Frederick Jost at 98, 2011Wilhelm Leibl

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Sensed far more closely and personally, in the last years, were other deaths which though in some senses far more distant, seemed to have touched me inwardly far more deeply.   Though it is not as if death had not visited before to leave its mark.  While in prison, in 1966, I received, sent by a friend, a black framed newspaper notice announcing the death of a young woman, Kathy Handler.  She’d been briefly a lover before I went in.  It was said she committed suicide, though other rumors had her having taken acid and going for a misguided swim in a cold Lake Michigan.  (And recently I learned that the friend who had sent the notice, who had been in an early film of mine, had died some time ago –  Laura Volkerding, by name.) Whatever the truth, my response – under the sway of reading a lot of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and other philosophers in my “free time” in prison, and having felt vaguely responsible – was to write a text which on leaving prison a year later became the film Traps, my first foray into sound.   The film is a rather devastating one, certainly it is weighted with deaths – not only that of Kathy, but in the tone of the times: those of the Vietnam war, the penumbra of violence which encompassed the era, and led shortly afterward to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and more locally, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, murdered by the Chicago police.

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TRAPS COLLAGETraps, frame grabsTRAPS17KierkegaardTRAPS19HeideggerTRAPS20JPEDCesare Pavese, notebooks

Robert F Kennedy lies in a pool of blood after being shot in 1968Robert Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968

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In 1978, another death left a mark, again with a sense of guilt.  The former partner of a close friend of mine had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, where we shared an apartment.  She later moved to San Francisco, and in 1978 I had a brief pass through The City for a screening.  I had meant to contact her and see if she would come to the screening – she was in the film world –  which I thought she might like, and also to see her.  In the rush of life I had forgotten to call her, and did my screening, and the next day left.  As I sat down in the plane, and opened the San Francisco Chronicle and leafed through it, my eye caught an item which was titled something like “Masseuse hit in crosswalk” or something like that.  In glancing the name caught my eye – it was my friend.  The time was the same period when she would have been coming to, or at, my screening.  She was dead. For years I have carried with me a consciousness that in some strange, indirect, irrational manner I may have caused her death simply by having forgotten to contact her.

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brendaBrenda Bierbrodt, 1945 – 1987, picture from HS yearbook_L.Ehrlich2010_2674Myself and Brenda, 1968  –  Photo © Linn Ehrlich

Some time later, in 1983, aged 70, my mother died of pancreatic cancer.  My father, who in my view had, in his manner, coerced her into participating in his post-Army evangelical fundamentalism, had tried “laying on of hands” and “talking in tongues” and belatedly had taken her to the military hospital in Niceville, Florida, where “exploratory surgery” revealed a terminal cancer.   In a phone call to me in San Francisco he said she had “a year of quality living” and they would go on a world cruise.  Then he put her on the phone, and I immediately heard the rattle of death in her voice and set off in my VW van, driving straight through as fast as I could, and arriving two days late.  So much for a year of quality living.  She was dead and shortly after my arrival, after a shower and shave, I went to her funeral services with the fundamentalists singing her praises, and a teenaged proslyetizer coming up trying for a conversion in this presumed moment of vulnerability.  I politely suggested he fuck off.  The rattle of death had become something familiar during my stint in 1978 caring for Nick Ray in New York, where I’d been asked to help him make a final film, but was cast instead as nurse-caretaker and cigarette run-boy.   He was riddled with cancer, and the toilet was often red with the blood he coughed up.

The eighties was the decade of the AIDS epidemic, and being in the arts world, gays were a given.  Many, including some of my friends, died.

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790px-Schadow_Grabmal_Alexander_2Grave marker, illegitimate son of Kaiser Friederick Wilhelms II, Berlin

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In 1987, I think it was, I met Jon A. English, in process of looking for someone to write some music for my film Bell Diamond.  He did that film, a very modest bit of composing, as the film needed, and along the way we became friends, and as time passed, he did the music for a number of my other films – Plain Talk & Common Sense, Rembrandt Laughing (in which he also played a lead role), All the Vermeers in New York, Frameup, and Uno a te, uno a me, e uno a Raffaele.   He was wonderful to collaborate with, and a wonderful person – and it didn’t hurt at all that he was a great musician and composer.  And we became very good friends.  Sadly, as the years passed by, his health slid down, step at a time, the consequence of an early diagnosis for Hodgkins disease decades before.  He was “treated” then, in the 70’s, at a very early stage of the “cure” for this, and way over-blasted with radiation.   In turn the areas that had been hit, were drastically aged, and his neck, esophagus and the whole upper area of his torso deteriorated as time passed, and periodically he’d be hospitalized, dropping to a lower plateau each time.   Asking him to work with me became a balancing act of gauging if it would be too much for him, versus knowing that his creative soul liked nothing more than to do music.  He died in 1996, at the age of 54, while I was living in Italy.  There were some people of my acquaintance whom I would have readily shifted places with him.

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english crpdJon A. English, 1942-1997

A year and a half ago, a long ago girlfriend from 1964, Laya (Firestone) Seghi, – with whom I have stayed in touch since, and very infrequently seen – wrote me a lovely letter describing a trip she’d taken with her husband, Tom, to see and meet family in Israel, where her mother lives, and in the mountains of northern Italy, near Venice, from where his family originally emigrated.   It had been a wonderful journey, and her description, elegant and simple, had a kind of unselfconscious literary quality which made the story she told all the more wonderful.  Reading it simply made me feel good – for me, and for them.   I recall being genuinely joyful on reading it.  Not long afterward I wrote expressing my happiness about their trip and lives, but also including word that in my own life things had taken a turn and my wife Marcella had decided she should go on her own way.  It wasn’t what I wanted, but at the same time I thought Marcella should do what she felt was best for her, and if severing our paths was it, then it was OK with me.  She was half my age, and I could understand only too well.   A few weeks later I received another letter, which as the previous one, had a literary simplicity and directness which marked it, but told a very different story, though written with the same disarming clarity.

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_L.Ehrlich2010_2678x

_L.Ehrlich2010_2679xLaya, in film Leah, 1967, fotos © Linn Ehrlich

On returning home to Miami, following their trip, a nephew of Tom’s was getting married in Chicago, and they went north for the occasion.  There, for the first time, he showed her the home he’d grown up in, in the Italian-American Bridgeport neighborhood – which happened to be adjacent to where I’d gone to college at IIT, and where I had lived a year and a half.  His home was now lived in by Mexicans, who welcomed them in, happy to know a little of the history of the house.  And they visited his brother’s grave in a nearby cemetery.   That evening at the wedding party, they danced, and following on the heels of their joyous journey to Israel and Italy, and their 40 years together, she thought, as she wrote, “I am truly happy.”   And in the same moment her husband had a heart attack and died, literally, in her arms.  Needless to say, she’s had a difficult time since – having to put into hard practice the things she does as a living as a psychological counselor.

And then, as if that were not enough, this past August, her sister, a long-ago rather famous early radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex), whose own life had taken a hard turn, and who was a friend of mine back in 1964 – the reason I met Laya was her sister was my flat-mate’s girlfriend at the time – died in New York City, apparently of a heart attack.  Laya, being close (as much that Shulamith allowed in her later years) to her sister, and being the family in the USA, became the person to deal with the aftermath, which included a memorial service attended by many feminists of Shulamith’s period, and those after.  [I will in a later posting publish the comments made at the memorial, as I think it is instructive, in many ways, of the tenor of those times.]

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Shulamith FirestoneShulamith Firestone, 1945-2012

When I returned to the US this past March, it was in some parts consciously to visit friends and family, in a kind of “last hurrah” –  to see, perhaps for a last time, those people still living, who were my friends in life.  I’ve seen a few already and hope to see them again – Linn and Marilyn and Peter in Chicago, Bruce in Minneapolis, Marshall in Butte, Terri in Livingston, Swain and Kristi in Missoula, and just today, Ron and Mary Lou here in Portland.  And as I anticipate traveling a lot in the US in the coming year, I expect and hope to see them all again.  We – all more or less in the same time-wise peer bracket – are aware, whether said or unsaid, that any visit could be the last.  As time brings its curtain over us, I think for those of us for whom the Fates accorded us the space, we’ve become closer, more forgiving and understanding of each other.  And in a manner not accounted for in the casual “love you”-speak which affects us casually, we have learned, in a very real sense, where love animates our relations, and, however obscure and difficult to pin down in a clinical sense, how much we have meant to one another.

As a person habitually transient, living in places scattered across the globe, for periods of a year here, 3 or 5 there, I have very consciously kept in touch with those people in my life who in that ineffable manner which over the years shows itself, left a deep implant.  I know well enough that probably, in most cases, had I not kept the lines open, dropped by this decade or that, that these thin threads would have been lost.  Such is the life which I chose or was given.

And, as life is capricious, and neither announces its beginning or end to us, to all those whose lives have crossed mine, in ways deep, however inarticulately we were able to express it, should my life end tomorrow, or yours, here’s thanks for having known and shared our brief time on this planet we are so busy violating.  I am a hard-core atheist and we won’t be meeting anywhere “else” some other time, so it is best to say it while here.  Love to you each, and I am glad our paths crossed on this brief journey.

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MoonPhases

Kurt, la famiglia Rebosio, Laya, Bill, Errol, Linn, Peter, Dennis, Marilyn, Susannah, Ron and Mary Lou, Elayne and Erinn, Barbara, Swain,  Robina, Bob, Roger, Tom, Marshall, Roxanne, Alicia and Morrie, Rick and Julie, Martin, Claudia, Alenka, Jon, Dan, Terri, Hal, Jolly and Bob, Michael, Jane, Steve, Kate, Lynda, Eugenia, Edoardo, Anna, Erling, Nancy and Howard, Hilary and Stuart, Clara, and Brad and Miki and children, and Joel, Rui, Jean, Steve and Todd, Jane and Mark, Marcella, and many others known briefly in passing or lost to memory.  And then there are a few people I suppose I’d prefer not to have met, left out knowingly.      

sun-3

In 3.5 billion years, our Sun will have boiled away all the water on earth, some billions of years after life became impossible on this planet. In 6 billion years it will become a red giant, and then collapse.  8 billion years from now it will be “dead,” an Earth sized diamond with the mass of a star. This is a white dwarf, and it will still be hot enough to shine with thermal radiation. But it will no longer generate solar fusion, and so it will slowly cool down until it becomes the same temperature as the rest of the Universe; just a few degrees above absolute zero. This will take about a trillion years to happen.  The Sun’s death will be complete.

            hound 1 

[Resuming Eli Elliott’s tale of riding the Hound]

DETROIT to DENVER (and onto BOISE)

(1Day, 7Hours, 45Minutes)  + (18 Hours, 45 minutes)

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PART 1 : “TATTERED”

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN ANN ARBOR and Jackson, Michigan, we picked up a guy with an old green army style duffle bag which had a million little trinkets, or “souvenirs” as he later called them, sewn onto the bag. One trinket I took note of was a small toy bus resembling that of a Greyhound bus, only the inside was gutted, or had slowly fallen apart, and only the silver shell remained.

I noticed how the guy, around mid 50’s or so, how his face resembled his self designed duffle bag, as his face was covered with tattoos. Just like the trinkets, the tats themselves were old and faded. Since  his skin was black, you may not see the dull green ink upon first glance. But look a second time and your gaze becomes locked in; the intensity strong.

On board the Greyhound the guy sat in the very back. A younger guy sitting across from him took a glance at the busyness of his bag, the inked up face, and right away said to him,

“So… you just living life, eh?”

Tattered oddly responded with, “Uh no I dropped out of college, joined the circus, then the carnival….” His voice trailed off in mumbles…

The young guy then made a drug reference assumption, saying,

“So you going to see the Wizard?” Which meant was he taking a trip to get some dope of some sort to get high on for a stretch.

Tattered responded, “No, I’m going to Texas.”

Tattered would spend much of the ride gazing out the window, occasionally talking to himself. At one point during our trip, the younger guys in the back included Tattered in a card game of Gin Rummy, which I thought was nice. Tattered seemed to hold his own, win a hand or two, but eventually got bored and said “I’m out.”

At our next bus layover I would speak briefly with Tattered, admiring his bag and all the knicks and knacks attached.  I asked him if he was an artist. He modestly responded, shyly, a bit soft spoken sweet even, “Not really…”

He told me that he just sewed a lot and all of the little trinkets were souvenirs of some sort. I pieced together that the decorated bag probably used to be his carney bag. I thought about how that bag must’ve seen some serious seedy  mileage, having been around the bizarre underbelly of the American Carnival racket.  About 20 hours later I would meet another Carney worker and his girlfriend aboard the Hound who just finished up the season working the southwest circuit. He would sum up the carnival scene to me with the following:

“You know the difference between the circus and the carnival? In the circus they keep the animals in the cages.” (Meaning that in the carnival circuit, the workers were the animals).

I think Tattered liked that I had thought he was an artist, and the way he responded hinted to me that perhaps no one had ever asked him that before; all the frowns and frustrations and put-off’ness I observed on peoples faces as they reacted to the presence of Tattered – bus drivers, passengers in line, and riders aboard — the souvenirs and symbolism’s permanently sewn all over his bag, and all over his face – it all spoke volumes on the difficulties faced now having to transverse through mainstream America, aboard a Greyhound, no longer protected by the  bubble of the traveling Carnival life. Retired now, responding to the seasons, going South for the winter, forced to carry his past with him, the only bag he owns, the only tattered up face he can wear…

hound3Woodmen of the World Building, downtown Omaha, Nebraska

PART 2:  THE ORGANIZER

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In Benton Harbor Michigan we picked up an outspoken guy, “The Organizer,” who hadn’t been back home to Benton for over 10 years, “been gone ever since I got out of ‘the P’.”  The P as in Penitentiary. I’ve noticed a common tactic used upon entering and establishing yourself aboard The Hound, is that you immediately make reference to jail time spent. The thinking is that a sort of instant respect towards the other hoodlums and back of bus no gooders whom one tries to impress will occur.

At 29, The Organizer was a contradiction in both sight and sound. He had dark corn rolled/braided hair, contrasting his pale white skin.  The dialect out of The Org’s mouth was as street black as street black can get. I frequently turned around wondering if the words I was hearing were really coming from a white guys mouth. Others also took double takes; his put on slang was so thick and admittedly very smooth.

The Org talked about how his last girlfriend was half black and half Mexican, “which is jus about as close to a white woman intimacy wise as I’ve ever gotten”, he boasted. He talked about how he grew up in the Benton Harbor “slums”, and now lives in Texas, occasionally going to New Orleans for work.

“My brutha in New Orleans who was called MONEY CLIP just got killed not long ago.”

The Organizer dominated back of the bus conversation. He seemed to now be trying to involve himself into politics. He seemed to want to be a “community organizer” of some sort like Obama once was. Perhaps there were presidential aspirations as well.

He spoke in vagueness and generalities which caused a few back of the bussers to challenge his stories at times. While Obama had already won the election a week prior, The Org claimed that Romney could still become the president as all the votes haven’t really been counted, referencing the electoral college system as well.

“I just attended a Democratic party meeting last night.  Romney could be our next president.”

Another bus passenger, “Bro, I’m pretty sure Obama won the election and Obama is the president.”

“Well like I said, I just got back from a Democratic party meeting last night and we won’t know until November 17th.”

After being challenged a bit too much he came up a few seats to where me and a short black man from Memphis named Ernest had been conversing.

“I’M AN ORGANIZER”, he declared to me and Ernest. He told us how he was concerned with the youth and schools not paying enough attention to the kids, and how he wanted to organize some accountability and steer schools in a better direction.

A mysterious text suddenly came in to The Organizer, from someone who said they were being “threatened by a bunch of brutha’s.”  In reaction to the text, The Organizer turned to me and said:

“Well now, I may as well just curl up into a ball. What’s he expect me to do for him – he aint give me no information whatsoever about this situation. C’mon, I can’t do nothing with no information – I may as well just curl right up into a ball…”

He told me the text came from a pilot in South Carolina.

I couldn’t figure out The Organizers angle. It was as if he was a call center for distressed brutha’s needing advice on how to deal with, or organize, situations which arise on “the streets”. Can’t call the cops? Can’t get your family involved? Well then, drop a text message to… The Organizer.

In Chicago, I had a couple hour layover and hoped for more mad conversing with The Org, but his Texas bound Hound was already lining up to board. Off he went…

hound5

hound6Car in Denver, bullet hole, Bradley Manning.

 

ON BOARD the Denver bound Hound were a couple of “young 20 sumthing guys,” who mainly talked about various kinds of drug use, losing drivers licenses, and fantasies of blowing marijuana smoke into the face of Colorado cops as the new law to legalize the green had just been passed in both Colorado and Washington.

One of the guys was trying to make it to his sisters in San Diego and had gotten his 92 dollar Denver Greyhound bus ticket from a waitress at a truck stop the previous night whom he had just met while trying to find something to eat for under 4 dollars on the menu.

“Wow, not many people like that in the world,” commented the other young guy regarding the generosity of the waitress.

Arriving in Denver, I stayed with my friend Jonathon. The night I arrived there were big news reports of a UFO sighting in town. The next day me and Jon poked around to “investigate”. I put together this little field report video.

 

PART 3:  Dumped In LARAMIE

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Upon leaving Denver, on our way to Idaho, the bus driver announced to our nearly full bus that a woman and her young child needed to sit together, and then requested to those individuals with 2 seats to themselves, if someone would give up their seats, and sit with someone else, so as the mother and daughter could sit together.  In typical Greyhound fashion, complete silence suddenly took hold. No one responded. Granted I was guilty, having of course already secured 2 seats to self, but I was hoping for someone in the front to step up so the mother and daughter didn’t have to be subjected to the usual back of bus swear word, drug use bragging debauchery.

The previous trip to Denver, the twenty sumthin clan in the back spent hours going through their laundry list of drug use and experiences from bath salts to 7 year crystal meth use. Seated just a few seats up were 2 young pre-teen daughters with their mom, who all got an unwanted “drugs are fun” sermon (to some credit, at one point the twenty sumthins woke up and realized who was audibly exposed to their drug diatribes and frantically started inserting lines like “don’t do drugs, drugs are bad,” all of which came off  in a too late comical haste).

Again, the driver asked a second time for someone to give up their seats for the mother and child. And once again, silence.

Finally myself, and some guy across from me spoke up at the same time. “BACK HERE, BACK HERE.”

I moved out of my seat and sat next to the other guy. Throughout the 20 plus hour ride the driver would thank me repeatedly, as not only he seemed to know the rarity of such a volunteered act, but was all to familiar with human nature, and specifically the character of the typical Greyhound Bus Rider.

I sat next to the other guy who had offered up his seat as well. He was Cody, a 145 pound mixed martial arts fighter, who preferred mostly to keep to himself.

“I generally try to just keep to myself on these things. People always ask each other ‘so where are you going’ and my attitude is like what kind of business is that of theirs!”

Cody was an interesting cat of sorts, having lived in Hawaii for a bit where he turned me on to the secret little hippy stretches where you could live good for 3 dollars a day. A few fights in Alaska and elsewhere, but originally he was from an isolated part of Oklahoma, an Indian res it sounded, as his mother was part Native American. Now he was on his way to Seattle to settle down some and train. He just learned his ex gal pal had also coincidentally moved to Seattle and there was the nervous boy/girl hook up excitement in the Greyhound air as Cody wondered how that situation was going to play itself out.

 hound8Bus break at the Petro Mart. Ogallala, Nebraskahound9 Dead Bucks, just shot. Ogallala, Nebraska.

 

We arrived in Laramie Wyoming at 4:30 a.m. for a scheduled 15 minute break, which ended up stretching into an unscheduled 45 minute episode.

Back in Denver I had noticed a young guy, middle eastern, 2 back packs on him, one in front and one on this back. He sat in the very far corner of the station, trying to keep to himself, which of course has the opposite effect, as isolating in a corner draws more attention.  On the bus, he did the same, went to the very, very back, last seat. A few behind me.

In Laramie I went to take a piss in the convenience store,  young bearded middle east also went in to whiz, then left quickly. I went outside and a few moments later I noticed Wyoming’s finest was casually cruising up to the convenience store in patrol car.  The officer got out and went to the side of the building, where middle east had decided to go after his quick whiz to light up some reefer to smoke.

Another cop car arrived and both officers began taking out bags of pot from middle east’s possession. Then they cuffed him up and took him away in the 4 am Wyoming night.

Greyhound ride ending, and Laramie troubles beginning for the failed middle eastern drug mule.

hound10

Another stop in Wyoming, Kik’s convenient store, where two young “Lizards” (slang for truck stop hookers), approached men while their boyfriends sat in their pickup truck with a sign on the window scrawled something to the effect of “Help Need $ Gas”…

In Salt Lake City we picked up a carney couple who hauled onto the bus a giant purple walrus stuffed animal that was to be thrown away by the Carnival crew, but the couple managed to proudly rescue the stuffed animal, promising they would sew it back up.  It seemed to be missing a leg.

Scotty and Mary were on their way back to Idaho as the not too lucrative Carnival season had just wrapped up. They were going to live with Scotty’s mother, and with her help they were going to try to get some disability checks going for Scotty, who proceeded to tell me:

“Physically I’m fine, my problems are all upstairs.”

This was confirmed throughout the trip.

Scotty was a truck driver and very smart in many ways, A.D. D. in others, and simply unaware the rest of the time. Remarking at one point how “all the Mexicans in North Las Vegas are just plain STUPID, period!” my gaze shifted directly behind Scotty where a well dressed Latino woman was sitting; now slowly and disgustingly covering her hand over her face at that remark and many others that would follow.

Scotty spent his time aboard the Hound alternating from trying to sneak his hand between his girlfriends legs to play with her pussy, then at times a dedicated nose picking session would take place where boogers would go from nostrils to tips of fingers, and just like his fingers would slip into his girlfriends pussy, his now booger laced fingertips slipped right in between his lips, as the tongue lapped up the tiny dried strings of mucous.

At one point a backpack was brought down from the overhead bin and when opened an enormous grocery store bought pumpkin sour cream streudle CAKE in plastic casing was revealed. It had already been nibbled on extensively and much of it was crushed and crumbled. Scotty would break off large chunks with booger stained hands, feeding it to himself and hand feeding to his girlfriend.

  hound11Scotty and walrus.

After manic phone calls to a manic mother, mad conversations with other Hound riders, eventually Scotty and his Girl attempted some shut eye, using the big purple walrus as a pillow.

I wondered how the two of them were going to make it. Then wondered how anyone was going to make it anyway. I thought how it may just take a lack of “upstairs” over thinking to plunder through the upcoming mystery landscape…

Arriving in Boise, Idaho and the two familiar Boise brothers, oddities of sorts in their own right, greeted me in the parking lot as I appeared wearing fake buck teeth, symbolizing the likely weirdo filmmaking we would engage in for the next few weeks.

Some of which is mentioned, and can be seen here.

Onto the familiar California terrain next..

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hound14kelly B. abstract

[ Along with his journey report, Eli sent along a little extra personal note:

A bit behind in the transcribing to story, this was a decent length run to Denver a few weeks back, and then quickly on to Boise, Idaho, where I just left several days ago and GreyHounded it into California. Currently I’m committing “GreyHound Adultry” as I’m on an Amtrak, where it seems a quarter of everyone is drunk (they serve alcohol), a Jehovas witness is preaching the good word, and the next to tracks shanty town living squabble scenery makes me reconsider the train for the interesting sociological observings etc. Thanks as always for looking.]

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