Winter Solstice, 2022


Dec 22 2022, Kolkata


Lying nearly on the Tropic of Cancer, Kolkata’s oscillations make for a hint of winter light, the sun slanted a bit and a diminishing of the heat. For someone accustomed to Northern US and European climes it is balmy. The locals put on a sweater.

Certainly in Riga, back 3 months ago, where I spent a 5 day stay before heading on to India (via a stop in London), they have a lot more than sweaters on now. I had a hard time recalling my previous visit way back in 1999 or so, doing a workshop with Michael Pilz, when the city seemed in memory far smaller. It was a nice 5 day stay this time around, walking the city and meeting a some new people.

London was a pit stop and then the long flight to Kolkata. Here I am staying thanks to my net-met friend Riddhi, who a few years back had sent me his film PARIAH, which I found quite good and powerful, and tried to help him get into a major festival. I failed, and found out whatever cultural clout I once had is diminished to more or less nothing. I can’t even get my films in a festival anymore: my most recently finished film, WALKERVILLE: A State of Mind, turned down by the Berlin festival’s “Forum Expanded” section, and in last years work has been rejected by others, though in my view it is among my best work.

Here I have a nice little apartment for myself in South Kolkata, on a little pond, one of very many scattered about the city. On arrival I had time to take a deep breath and then we went off for 5 days to Riddhi’s home town, Supur, a rural village about 3 hours drive away. It was Durga Puja, the major Hindu festival of the year, and I got a front row seat as it were to the festivities. Owing to Riddhi’s family status there, he had to officiate in some rituals. I found the village life fascinating – unless you’ve been to such places it is difficult to convey the basic nature of it – dirt streets, on/off electricity, questionable water, and a deep poverty which, being the norm there, takes on a “just-life” quality. Not having been in India for 12+ years, my first ride seemed a harrowing trip in hell, zig-zagging, dodging in the mixed traffic of cars trucks buses rickshaws bicycles goats cows pedestrians, horns honking and a general mayhem which here, in the countryside or the cities, is the same, and taken as normal. By my second trip I’d acclimated myself to it, and, as I told Riddhi, it appeared that either your driver was very good, or dead. No in-betweens on that.

Here in the city I walk around the neighborhood and ponder some kind of film. Have a few people – two young women, Aopala (dancer) and Tanika (actress) game to do something; now I must dream it up out of the city, life and find a film. Or not. Ok either way.

Also while here took a trip nearby (20 miles but took a few hours driving) to a place where a traditional form of Bengali boat was being built – to go into a museum. More of the endless village which seems to be a major part of India. Boat and all was of interest, perhaps because I lived a while, in Port Hadlock WA, for nearly a year, immediately across from a hand-made boat making school and saw what they did.

And another trip with friend Nilanjan whom I met back in 2002 or 3, when here for workshops in Raipur (one month) and 4 shorter ones here in Kolkata. He became my guide and friend back then and later wangled me into the film festival here 12 years ago. We went to his hometown, Bishnupur, 3 hours train ride away, and then drove to a resort place in forest, and visited a tribal village – a place I’d love to go stay a month or two and make a documentary of life there.

Otherwise slowly nosing around Kolkata – markets, different neighborhoods, though owing to the dicey modes of mass transit (buses, metro, “autos” – 3 wheeler motorized rickshaws; pedaled rickshaws or human kind, all requiring some inside know-how to use), the going on whatever is slow and going to place X is more or less enough for a day. Last weekend Nilanjan took me to all the Christian churches here (half were closed), and out for a good Bengali dinner. So it has been an interesting and active last 3 months, seeing new things, meeting new people and having a good time. Learning new things which is always good.

In early January I will go for a few days to the Sunderban, a mangrove forest area in the delta of the Ganges; maybe see a tiger. Or maybe not. A bit later I will be off to Dhaka, in Bangladesh, to spend nine days being a juror for Asian films section at the film festival there, which is a major one in the region. And then back to Kolkata until end of February, with a long trip to Cuba – with brief stop with friends in London, and then Habana via a layover in Madrid. Cuba to teach at EITVC again, as I did last year. And then, on Spring equinox, fly to Chicago, where have one screening lined up, and look to stay 3 weeks or so. After that my crystal ball offers no insights. Though perhaps to Galicia to shoot a film in May. Perhaps not.

Of life in the last 3 months, what is getting to be a “normal” once one reaches this age: the litany of friends slipping off the planet. One friend, a writer, Jim Nisbet, 75 at death, who had forewarned me after getting my summer letter that it wasn’t clear he’d be around for the autumn one, did manage to get to Sept 21, but the quick cancer he had took him on 28th. And as I write a few other friends are wrestling with cancer as well. I must have written now 100 poems which dance around the reality of death (not morbid poems I note – rather ones which simply acknowledge it is a natural part of life, and to embrace life fully, one must embrace all of it.)

Of other matters – politics and all – they seem to demonstrate our near infinite capacity for stupidity and self-destructiveness. Thanks to the war in Ukraine the arms business is kicking into high gear just when we should be taking steps to rapidly de-industrialize. We’ll go over our cliff in super high-tech style. We are so brilliant.

A poem from sometime in the last few years:

stepping out of the shower I caught a glance of myself
and thought of caravaggio’s saint jerome
not the one at the villa borghese in rome
which i saw some decades back
but the one i’ve never seen, in malta

the withered arms and pull of gravity
were there
the furrowed brow
but the skull was not on a table
for my contemplation
instead i wore it on my shoulders
slack as they were
and like jerome i’d lost most my hair

in the same moment i recalled another painting
better
on piazza del popolo
of st peter being hoisted to his baselitz-like end
and thought

at least i am not there
(just yet)

Actually St Peter there is looking to have more muscle in his bicep than I seem to have these days. Though I can do more than 100 pushups still.

With that I’ll wrap this up as we wrap up another year. Hope all is going well with you, and if you’re into seasonal follies (I am not), enjoy and have a wonderful whatever you celebrate. It will be getting lighter now for us up here in the northern half of our shared home.

Kindly write a note, however brief, is so inclined.

A hug from Kolkata

jon

AUTUMN EQUINOX, 2022

Ventspils, Latvia

Again, the day and night balance. Here in the northern latitudes, and southern, and everything in-between. 12 hours of day, 12 of night.


3 months ago, for summer solstice, I wrote from Madrid, where I stayed with a young friend, Diego – the one who invited me to Galicia to, as it were, look for a film. I found a could-be one, and presently am in touch with a young producer/filmmaker from there. He seems to share similar thoughts about making cinema outside the usual business and aesthetic range, so perhaps something will work out. If so would return to Galicia in April – May 2023.

I stayed on in Madrid two more weeks, giving ample time to nose around neighborhoods I hadn’t visited before, and go to museums, including a few I hadn’t previously gone to. A nice time, and I seemed to have dodged the really hot temps that came not long after I left.


Looking for a cheap B&B, and with a modest connection locally, I went to a town I knew nothing of, except that it was on a lake, and the price was good: 240 Euro for a month. I flew on Wizz Air, a cheapo line, and went from Skopje directly to Ohrid, given a ride by a friend of a friend (net-met) of mine, Ivica Dimitrijevic. Lake Ohrid was lovely, the town a bit touristic for my tastes, but not unpleasantly so – and I was there at height of season. The visitors were dominantly slavic, with a sprinkling of English and French, and strangely almost no Germans. I got the relative isolation I was looking for, and until the latter week, was pretty much alone. There was a little film festival there, in which Ivica had a hand, and he, and my friend Caveh Zahedi showed up for 4 days, latter being on jury.

I managed to get some editing on WALKERVILLE done, and write some poems as well as begin the job of sifting them to make a book (or more) of them. Went swimming, enjoyed the place, taking lots of photos.


August 4 I left, catching a flight after Wizz canceled my original one and forced me to scamper to find a new one which would get me to Luton airport outside London in time for already booked flight. Managed it though ended up 2 nights and a day in airport, sleeping on floor. It was busy at the height of tourist travels. Got my flight and went directly from Dublin on bus up to Belfast to see Marcella. Shortly after getting to Belfast I tested positive for Covid-19, surely caught on planes &/or airport. Having been vaxxed & boosted, it was akin to a not too horrible cold – a few days of modest temp. Not enough to put me in bed.

Of course Marcella got it too, though her sister and her husband did not – they’d already had it. I think Marcella’s was less bothersome than mine. August 15 flew back via Dublin to London for a few days, and then, cleverly losing my wallet the day before I was traveling on, gave myself a little momentary nightmare: lost cash (not modest enough), Oyster card and 2 debit cards. Rush to cancel, and then to figure out how in this day and age to live on road without a card. Borrowed 1000 Euro from friends, and started scramble to get renewed cards, which being on road tripled the complexity. Still don’t have them, but all going OK, should be able to pickup passing back through London.

Sans plastic I flew on to Latvia, landing in Riga and promptly moving on to a town I knew nothing about except that it was on the Baltic sea, and the B&B price was, if not as cheap as Macedonia, cheap enough for me. I wanted a place where I knew no one, spoke not a word, and otherwise could be unsocial so as to finish up the film, sift and organize the poems, and otherwise tidy up my computer and things left in the wake of a year plus of travel. Got a lot of it done over the last month, with long walks, taking photos, making little paintings. Today I go to Riga for 5 days there before a brief stop in London, and then going on to Kolkata for 4 months. Of which there will surely be many adventures and things to experience and learn from.


Of the big world, the realities grind on – the blitzkrieg war in Ukraine turned into slog, Vladimir’s assumptions of a quick decapitation failing and now another military quagmire for Russia – remember Afghanistan? Humans are so stupid and love looping themselves to prove it. Otherwise global climate change romps along, though not quite as linearly as one might think, with the Caribbean hurricane season, and Western US fire season seemingly off, or, my guess, just delayed. Europe had its fair share, and rivers around the world – most fed by snow packs and glaciers, are withering into trickles. As there is such a thing as cause and effect, the waterless farmlands will soon dessicate and…. and no food. Dang. Or there will be deluges on the dried up land and floods (already are – Pakistan, Nigeria, just look and you will see.) The endless laws of unintended effects.


My next missive here will be from India, where I am sure I will find many things to tell.

Hope you are well, and if inclined send a note – to the comments at bottom here.

Be well

Jon

SOLSTICE, Summer 2022

Madrid.

[A note: I have in the past decade and more written a “seasonal” shared letter on the solstice/equinox, 4 a year – telling friends, acquaintances and others interested about my last 3 and projected coming months. As I like to include photos and that often gums up email systems I’ve decided to post the link to the blog here for I send my seasonal notes.]


My last seasonal note was written from Essaouira, Morocco, from which I left for another week near Marrakech, a drab just barely suburban place, but interesting and nice, a vaguely hippy B&B redoubt tucked into a kind of getting-to-be urban squalor. I had a good time, explored a bit, liked my host Aziz.


From there flew back to London, and then directly on, after a long same-airport layover, to Milano, where my “family” there, Luciano and Tilde, met me, and took me “home” to Casina Amata. Stayed 3 days and then, taking some things I’d left there some years ago, including SONY HD cam, went to Lisboa. Lisboa is heavy with life history for me, so I went under the weighty penumbra of the past.


The basic impetus was to go for screenings of 5 films at the Cinemateca Portuguese, including Pequenos Milagres, the film I made about daughter Clara’s first 3 and a half years, during which time I was her primary – as in 90% – caretaker. The Cinemateca had seen and was going to screen it, a bit to my surprise, and then shit hit the fan. Teresa Villaverde, Clara’s mother, and Clara herself, it seemed, had asked Vimeo to take it down from my VOD pages there, and that the Cinemateca not screen it. Vimeo took it down and the Cinemateca, after a delay, informed me they would not screen it, though they had written this about it:

PEQUENOS MILAGRES 

de Jon Jost  

Dedicado à filha de Jost, Clara, PEQUENOS MILAGRES é um pessoalíssimo home movie que olha três anos da vida de Jon Jost, na década de 90, que coincidiram com o início das suas experimentações com a imagem digital e com os últimos três anos que passou com a filha. Um dos seus filmes mais emocionais, um retrato de sentimentos perda e de luto, com uma forte narração sobre as imagens do passado. 

Dedicated to Jost’s daughter Clara, LITTLE MIRACLES is a very personal home movie that looks at three years of Jon Jost’s life, in the 1990s, which coincided with the beginning of his experimentation with digital imaging and the last three years that he spent with the daughter. One of his most emotional films, a portrait of feelings of loss and grief, with a strong narration of images from the past.

In the process of all this, on Facebook, I got the first communication from Clara since she had been kidnapped, in November 2000. She asserted that she had indeed asked the Cinemateca to not show the film, and in process there was an exchange between us, a sad one for me (and I imagine for her) in which she said I had not been there in her life, and in effect confirmed she’d been subjected to the full “parental alienation” regime, taught that I did not love/want to be with her, etc., she’d not been kidnapped, and she remembered nothing of her first 3 and a half years. She ended the Facebook exchange by saying, “I have had a father all my life… I’m sorry, I will leave this conversation.” The “father” of whom she speaks is a man I met years before I met Teresa or Clara was born: Vasco Pimentel, who was Teresa’s partner before she jettisoned him having pursued me for several years. Vasco was involved in Clara’s abduction.

These are the things I wrote to her, following our Facebook exchange, on the blogs I have maintained for her for 13 years; you can read here:

Lisboa, Cidade do Fado

Family Stories

A Letter to Your Mother

Another reason for going to Lisboa was to do a workshop, but that fell through as the person organizing it essentially did no promotion and seems to have assumed my “name” would magically bring enough people. It was cancelled, and I bowed out of a return version later in May, having “no confidence” in the whole matter.

I left Lisboa for Madrid, to fly to Cuba, where I was scheduled for a workshop at the Escuela Internationale de Cinema & Television (EICTV), one delayed 2 year thanks to Covid-19. I spent two + weeks there, on the campus near San Antonio de Los Banos, about an hour away from Habana. It was an interesting experience – students all from Latin or Central America, no Cubans. The place has been famous for a good long time, with many famed directors and others going there to teach (short term). The setting is isolated, and it it hard to go anywhere from there, and in the present time things in Cuba are very hard – as the director of the school told me before I went, “we have nothing and nothing.” Which was pretty much the case. Food was pretty bad; students as usual with students, mixed – some interested/engaged, some not. But despite the limitations, had a good time.

After my time at EICTV I arranged to stay in Habana for 10 days, booking for myself a B&B in Veja Habana – the old center. It was a very interesting time, took a lot of photos (having been warned I might be a robbery target with camera, but wandered all over and never had a problem). Again owing to current economic and other realities, food was marginal, but experience was wonderful. Met some nice people. If things work out I will go back next year for more.

From Cuba was back to Madrid and immediately by train up to Galicia, being met by Diego, young Venezuelan now living (along with many compatriots) in Spain. He’d invited me to go stay at his grandfather’s big nice house in the countryside about an hour outside Santiago de Compostela, there to perhaps think about a film. The area was beautiful, and the people I met – some farmers across the street, some in Diego’s family, were all wonderful. And it did indeed trigger thoughts for a film, though whether that will happen or not is in the air – not really in my hands, it will depend on whether can/can’t go back in autumn.

I did shoot a little 11 minute prelude, which you can see here; it is not quite finished, wanting a little discreet voice-over and some minimal sound/mix work: https://vimeo.com/717507283 Pswd: CASA

Leaving Galicia a week ago, now in Madrid for the moment, staying in Diego’s small apartment in the Concepcion neighborhood, on the other side of the highway from the big bull fighting ring. Nice, laid-back area. Here now for another week and a few days and then fly to London for a brief stay, enroute to a flight to Skopje where later I will have a screening (The Bed You Sleep In, 1993, nice digital restoration by EYE film in Amsterdam), and go stay at a cheap B&B for a month on Lake Ohrid, bordering Albania. After that back to UK, and my crystal ball occludes. Likely stay in UK, somehow, for August, hopefully to N Ireland a bit to see Marcella. And then… See if return to Galicia is possible to shoot film there.

And also in hanging in limbo, though I think unlikely, is a film in Palermo. Awaiting (unlikely) word as to whether Roma-based producer comes up with the money, with the major problem being that I have no script and in the film world that is a requisite security blanket. The same guy did Peter Greenaway’s last film, for sure with a script in hand, and apparently it was so bad it got made and instantly disappeared. So much for the insurance policy of a script.


Meantime more or less have finished Butte-shot film of 2 summers ago, Walkerville: A State of Mind. It came out, a bit to my surprise, quite well. I need only to finalize mix on it and re-record a song written for it. Maybe send it to some festivals, but I wonder what the point of that would be, whether rejected or shown, means almost nothing.

Usually I’d have some solstice thoughts on the larger world – but it seems to be taking care of itself, with wars, famine, the ever-accelerating effects of climate change/global warming all hammering away while we dicker with inane politics as we collectively zip past any “tipping point” cliff. But, for a little levity, try

this:

Happy Summer Solstice and stay out of the heat!

Crossing Paths: Swain Wolfe (1939-2021)

Swain Wolfe

March 21, 2022

A year and a week ago a dear friend of mine, Swain Wolfe, decided he’d had enough of being on this earth and removed himself. From what I understand he kind of botched the job. He’d drunk a bottle of hard booze, taken sufficient painkiller pills, for which he’d had ready access, and “gone to sleep.” Apparently though it wasn’t the Long Sleep he’d been looking for, and he woke up, surely in a stupor of drugs and alcohol, and realized this wasn’t death. He went and got the pistol he had in the house and put his brain on the kitchen ceiling.


I can’t say I hadn’t in some ways seen it coming, as he’d pretty directly told me that when time came, he was ready to take himself out of our little game here. I believed him, though as he’d promised his mother on her deathbed that he’d care for his much younger sister, Carolyn, who had Down’s Syndrome, rather than allow her to be institutionalized, I was sure he wouldn’t do so while she was alive. She died in autumn, 2017, three and a half years before he chose to leave.

I’d known Swain a long time, since 1971, when on an impulsive instinct I moved with my partner of the time, Elayne Ketchum, and her daughter, Erinn, then just 3 and some, from rural Oregon, in the forests near Cottage Grove at the south end of the Willamette Valley, to Montana. Elayne and I said we were tired of “sunshine hippies” and wanted something a lot harder. So we moved way north. Enroute we passed through Missoula, with a tip from someone on the filmmaker’s grapevine, that we should drop in on a filmmaker there, who also had a 16mm lab. That was Swain, and his company Bitterroot Films. We took the advice, and were warmly greeted, and doubtless shared some beers and talk. While there another man visited, from up near Kalispell, and told us of an abandoned cabin he knew of, which we might be able to move into. He passed along the name of a woman we should ask, one Mrs. Gillespie. Heading north, we checked it out, got an OK, and indeed did move in: no electricity, no running water, and when we moved in, no floor. Elayne and I were rank amateurs at rural life, but after living there 5 years, we had a big garden, chickens, rabbits and goats, and a lot of real wonderful hard life lessons under our belts.

Left to right: my father, Elayne, myself, Erinn, in our cottage outside Kalispell

While there we’d visit Missoula, 130 miles to the south, once in a long while – 2 or 3 times a year, dropping in on Swain each time. We slowly became friends, and he loaned me his old PC 16mm camera to shoot parts of my first feature film, Speaking Directly. I don’t quite recall but probably he also processed some of the film for me, too.


Swain’s bread and butter back then was shooting the local High School and the University of Montana’s football games, for training purposes. He also made documentaries about ecological things, long before it became fashionable. His films were not very good (which he admitted later), being rather heavy-handed and didactic, and visually mundane, but several sold well in the educational market back then, and he zipped around in the film world looking dapper (and screwing his way around – he told me lots of stories of that).

Speaking Directly,1972

In the 5 years we lived in the Mission Valley, Swain never came up to visit us. We moved from Kalispell in 1975, or maybe it was 76, going to Southern California, where Elayne came from. And I thought to take a stab at Hwd.

In 1977 I decided to make a film rooted in a mix of my prison experiences, and the time I’d lived in Montana – tapping on the many things I’d learned. Working with Tom Blair, whom I’d met in Kalispell, and came from South Dakota. Tom was the theater department of the local community college there, and we’d get together to have beers, tell stories, and smoke really bad Montana home-grown. Luckily I never saw one of his productions, or saw him act up there (or anywhere), which I suspect might have turned me off working with him.


Going to Missoula to scout things out, Swain said he’d loan me his camera again, and that his little lab crew could help out if I wanted. When time came Michael helped record sound and do some gofer work. I rounded up some actors for the film at the drama department at U of Montana, and went back to LA, where I got one more person lined up, Jessica St. John, whom I met while making a little drug deal; it just happened she came from Missoula and was headed there to see family. In June I went back to Missoula to rendezvous with Tom, and the others. Last Chants for a Slow Dance was shot in a week, in part in Swain’s house.

Last Chants for a Slow Dance, in Swain’s bathroom.

Not for the only time, his memory and mine don’t coincide on things around Last Chants or other matters. In offering his camera, I think Swain also intended to do camera for me – for which I was not really open, but I did let him do the first shot, where both of us rode on the hood of an old pickup, no straps or safety measures at all, going 30 mph or so, on a real highway. I’d told Tom, who was driving, that whatever he did, he needed to do it slowly – accelerating or stopping – as Swain and I were subject to the laws of physics and we’d go wherever momentum dictated. For the shot I told Swain I wanted only a few short pans, and no zooms. While shooting I saw him do a zoom and decided for sure I didn’t want him shooting anymore. We survived the shot. Came the next take, in his bathroom with an argument between fictional husband-wife, I told him I’d shoot it. He got quietly pissed, and left town. I have never seen a camera operator with a zoom able to keep their hands off of it. I shot the rest of the film.


Swain’s version, told to me a few times in the decades since, was that Tom arrived, he’d sussed him out as a quasi-psycho, and promptly left because of that. I know that wasn’t true, as he did do that first shot, and my version is that he was angry that he wasn’t going to shoot film, and left town to go simmer or whatever he did. We wrapped the film in a week, and I returned to LA where I had it processed and jumped into editing, having promised a non-existent film in May to the Edinburgh Film Festival which was at the end of August. They’d invited it sight unseen, before a frame had been shot.

After, when the film had gone to the festival, gotten a handful of nice reviews, including an article in Sight & Sound, and all that – all for $3000, Swain decided a few years later, to make a feature himself. My guess is that he did that prompted by having seen me make a feature under his nose, with his equipment on almost nothing. He told me about his film a bit before, and one thing he planned was to shoot the bad guy (who he told me a few years back was some more or less famous right-wing government guy who’d done some dirty work for Reagan) always with this very long telephoto lens, actually more a telescope. I thought this was not wise on a few accounts – like how do you direct a guy a football field away? Or how do you cut to the totally flattened hyper-telephoto stuff to the other 16mm stuff? Terrible cinematic idea. But Swain went ahead, shot his film, and it was awful. Truly awful – stiff bad acting, klutzy story, really really bad. And the terrible hyper-tele shots flat as a pancake. I know I looked at it, but don’t remember if I gave him any ideas of how to salvage it (I doubt I did as I saw no way for that), or just told him to let it go as a loss. But he couldn’t let go and spent a decade trying to edit his way to something passable, which he never did. $100,000 worth of messing with it. Down the drain.

Deep inside I think he sort of blamed me, and for a few decades he was always kind of prickly with me, like I’d booted him from shooting Last Chants, and that somehow I had made him do his terrible film, and it was all my fault. He never said that, but I think he felt it. I also felt he was a bit jealous as my career, what there was of it, blossomed. For a good while he had a hard time saying my films were any good.

All water long under the bridge now. In his later years he admitted he’d made terrible films, and he liked mine a lot. And the prickliness he showed – he called himself an irascible old bastard and mean guy and seems to have had precious few friends – was just him, not aimed at me at all. I guess we could say I had been my usual Taurus-self in this regard and stuck through it, whatever. To my observation it seemed I was the last friend he had, who put up with him. The others all seemed to drift away.


Sometime in the last decade he gave me that awful telephoto lens. I messed with it – soft, drop-off on edges, a POS.

Little vignettes:


Swain, living right on the North Fork of the Clark River, had a canoe, though it seemed he seldom used it. I recall, I think at my request, going out on the river with him, nearby. At some point, don’t recall why, we went to shore and I got out to do something. He had been in the front, and I watched as he paddled not reversing himself, the back of the canoe wig-wagging back and forth and he seeming puzzled. I had always thought Swain – a big guy – was physically clumsy, but this suggested he really just didn’t understand some things. I kept my mouth shut in the instance.

Laurie’s garden in Swain’s backyard.

Another time Swain decided to make a film about hang-gliding as the mountain behind UM back then was a regular launching place for them, and often in good weather one would see them circling over the campus. I saw some of his footage – really pedestrian (especially if one had seen, as I had, footage from existing films on hang-gliders). As it happened, in order to pursue this, he decided to take lessons and take wing himself. Apparently, early on, he took a little nasty take-off crash, and came to think better of it. I recalled his lack of intuition in the canoe and thought to myself, yep, not a clue about these things. I am thankful he stopped before he really hurt himself. He did finish his film, a really bad piece.

After making Last Chants I ended spending some time in Europe and far away from Montana, but in 1982 I returned to the USA, and in 1983 or so I returned to Montana to shoot a film with Tom Blair and Roxanne Rogers, in Ronan, up in the Mission Valley, on the Blackfoot reservation. And again spent time with Swain, who processed the film stock for me, though the film blew up into a failure. Our connection deepened. On one visit to Missoula around that time, Swain went to Butte, a city I’d driven by at least 20 times but never gone into, to get some free 16mm processing machines from the local TV outfit, which was switching to video. I went with him to help, and got a non-Interstate glimpse of Butte – and was hooked.


Returning from another stay in Europe I’d decided to make a film about unemployed people, and chose to do so in Butte, which certainly had that in spades as the mines had closed. And I liked its run-down miner town looks – the looming head-frames, turn-of-the-century downtown, derelict abandoned mines. In this case I’d bought my own camera, a CP Gismo, and didn’t need his, but again we spent time together, our binds deepening. The film was Bell Diamond, named after one of the old mines and its head-frame.

Around this time, in the late 80’s, Swain asked me to take a look at a manuscript for a book he’d written. I don’t know why, as I had no cred in terms of writing, though I did myself write a fair bit, for myself. While I probably would normally have turned it down, and though at the time I’d long since not been much of a reader, especially of fiction, I said yes. And I read it and liked it. He asked if I had any suggestions for him. He’d written it in first person/present tense. As it was a once-upon-a-time kind of fable, I recall telling him to put it in past tense. He recalled me saying put it in third person. In any event he did both. I probably did suggest both. Sometime later, after he self-published, it had subsequently been picked up by a real publisher and officially printed in 1993, and had apparently done OK. I figured if he’d lucked out maybe he’d made 50K or so. Sometime in the last decade he told me it’d been translated in 17 languages or so, and he’d made half a million bucks from it !!! I jokingly asked him for my cut. None of his other books, of which he wrote four, did anywhere near so well.

Apparently somewhat flush, he told me a handful or more of years before he committed suicide, that he had gotten hooked on playing the market, thinking he had figured it out, and he played – his lady friend Laurie described it as “obsessively” – until they finally cleaned his clock and he admitted they played him, not the other way, and he’d stopped. I was surprised he’d do something like that, but… well people are full of secrets you’d never suspect they had.

After having made Bell Diamond, Butte became one of my homes – a place where I had friends, a place I could stay, and a place I liked. I returned recurrently, and being near to Missoula, I’d see Swain more often. I stayed either in my van in his parking place, or in Laurie’s live-in painting studio he’d built for her across the yard. Usually if I stayed overnight I’d whip up a dinner for them.

I recall one of the last times going with Swain out to the Costco store to pick up some things for myself, and to cook. He was clearly labored in crossing the parking lot, his artificial hip having changed his gait. Twice his hip had popped out, leaving him squirming on the floor in excruciating pain. Once he’d fallen down the stairway to his basement writing lair. As we were checking out I recall us bantering with the clerk that we were going back home and change each other’s Depends. All in good humor, but it was closer to the truth than perhaps we imagined.

In 2017 I went to spend the summer in Butte, staying at my friend Marshall Gaddis’ place up in Walkerville. As later I would be headed to the West Coast, I sent Swain a note that I’d be dropping by to see him on the way. He wrote me this:

July 7, 2017

Hi Jon,

I appreciate your offer to visit on your cross country tour. However, I  am in pain and it affects the way I think and behave. It would be better for both of us if you did not visit. Visitors frustrate me and I end up making things uncomfortable for everyone. I waited to write until I was  thinking clearly, otherwise it would have been a nasty bit of nonsense  and you don’t need that.

I’ve been writing, as you know, and that’s been going reasonably well, so  I’ll keep at it for a while. Writing tends to get me out of my body and  lets me ignore the facts of my life.

I wish you luck and money on your travels through Great Again America.  Never has it shone so brightly. But wait a while and they’ll touch off the nukes. Then: an even Greater and Brightly Land this will be.

  Love,
  Swain

A week before I was going to go I wrote and asked again and in an email he wrote simply:

I contacted Laurie, who sort of lives with him, and asked to know more, and said that at least I would like to see her as she was my friend as well. She said to meet her at the Butterfly Herbs Cafe on Higgins Street in downtown Missoula. And I did. I waited a bit, and finally she arrived, and behind her, walking slowly 10 steps behind, was Swain, who for some time seemed grudgingly there. I imagine Laurie had pressed him on the matter. And then, after ten or so minutes, he then loosened up over his tea and for two hours regaled me with stories.  He is a writer and a story-teller and I am happy to listen.   Afterward, as we went back to his place I offered to go get some stout, which I knew he liked, and he said yes. By the time I arrived to his house he’d already gone to bed, knocking himself out with pain-killers. But I’m glad he found in himself the willingness to see me. I tried to tell him how much it, and he, meant to me.  I left in the morning not seeing him again as I needed to get off to the coast, and I knew he was a very late riser. As I drove off I understood I’d probably never see him again. Nor, as it happened did I ever hear from him again, as he closed himself fully off to the outside world.

One of Swain’s backyard assemblages

Preparing to write this, I went back over past years of correspondence which Swain and I had over the years, as far back as 2006, though I know we had had much before then. Maybe his email changed. Reading underlined the depth of our friendship, and brought tears to my eyes.

When Swain died, I was informed a bit belatedly, by an odd route. Checking with friends in Missoula some weeks later, no one knew. The Missoulian, the local paper, published a terse obituary notice on March 26, and then published a full one on April 17, 2021. I read it and found it a bit odd, sending it to a friend there who had not seen it. He wrote me back saying it was quite a wonderful obit. As my curiosity was aroused and the obituary listed no author, I poked around – and it was something Swain had written as a promo piece for something. No wonder it was so glowing !!

I loved him and I miss him.

Auteur, Auteur! How To Be Hip. It Depends.

Up-front, here’s my bona fides: I hardly ever go to movies, or watch TV, or listen to music, or partake of my society’s normal activities, especially regarding “pop culture.” In turn I have never heard of Sparks, nor Marion Cotillard, and only by accident have ever seen or heard of Adam Driver. If this in your view disqualifies me from having views on what I do see, that’s OK by me.

[Detour 1: as I was having some virtually unattended screenings at the Torino Film Museum, and Jarmusch’s Paterson was showing in the other room so I got in free, I went to it – he had a long line of the hip crowd of Italia going in; it was “meh” for me as a film, as was Driver, of whom I’d never heard.]

Adam Driver in Paterson



I went the other day to see Leos Carax’s newest film, Annette, as rather by accident I’d seen his previous one, Holy Motors, and – with the exception of the last scene – had found it exhilarating and wonderful. I approached the new one, in light of the contradictory views and reviews coming out of Cannes with some positive anticipation.

As this film is scarcely about its “story” I’ll refer you to reviews, links below, to fill it in if you need. Briefly though it is big famous kinda ugly comedian, Henry McHenry, who does crude stand-up hooks up with petite famous opera singer, Ann, they fall in love, have a kind of baby, and then fall out. Perhaps he kills her. Somewhere another guy, a pianist/conductor materializes, perhaps having an affair with opera singer. He gets killed. The kinda baby, Annette, a beguiling puppet, acquires Ann’s voice and sings, becoming hyper famous and enriching now-failed comedian dad. And he ends in the dock, in prison, and does a duet with dead wife, and…. And the story basically is stupid, not really worth figuring out as it is merely a cheap plastic hanger on which to hang the libretto/lyrics of Sparks, which is credited with the script (sort of), and of Carax’s extravagant cinematic looks and tropes.

Perhaps in keeping with his hostile McHenry character (or saying something about himself), Carax opens the film with a voice-over abusing the audience, telling them what they may or may not do while watching the film, and that they mustn’t breathe the whole time. This is, I suppose, meant to be ironically/hip funny, but it sets the tone. Composed of a series of highly theatrical set-pieces, Annette opens with Carax at a sound studio mix board, manipulating the sound and audience, a kind of insider self-reflection which I guess is supposed to be hip/intellectual. OK. Sparks commences playing and before you know it they, the studio gang and backup singers, with McHenry and Ann leading them, are singing May We Start, (another self-referential hint), lyrics of the Sparks, down a Santa Monica street, a straight lift out of a better scene in Holy Motors. Hmmm.

McHenry leaves Ann, putting on a black helmet, mounting a black motorcycle, and roaring off. He re-materializes in the next set-piece, donning a fighter’s heavy robe and hood, waving his head and punching before going on stage for his “act.” His stand-up is done in a massive theater space, with his packed audience laughing on cue, as McHenry, the Ape of God, dishes out insults and bad words and unPC thoughts, while the spectators suck it up. It is a major spectacle, and presented as one. Seemingly a sly critique of celebrity culture.

While McHenry is going his shtick Ann is doing hers, opera, for a similar but higher-tone audience, which is as enthralled with her as the other is with her new boy-friend.

Collaborating with Sparks, the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, Carax has made this film as a musical, with the actors actually singing the lyrics. At the outset this is a bit charming, as neither Cotillard or Driver are actually very good at it, and at least at the outset it tends to deflect our attention from the actual “book” which the Sparks wrote. They are also not very good at what they do, or so thinks this jaded soul.

Opening, as he does in his first set-pieces, with high-energy scenes, Carax propels the spectator along, as in most spectacles, with, well, spectacle. Bright colors, loud sounds, swooping wide-screen camera movements. He issues pieces of his “story” in miserly bits, goading the viewer to put it together. McHenry and Ann inexplicably fall in love – they do, they do – and walk romantically hand in hand in a California paradise, singing “We Love Each Other So Much.” Yes, we do. They also get down to the dirty business of the sex end of things, still singing as McHenry works Ann’s labia with his tongue, emerging from down there to warble “we love… etc.” still again. Ann orgasms. Love love love.

I could go on in this manner, set-piece by set-piece, but it wouldn’t really help. Some of these episodes are charming and in themselves, work. Some are really bad and don’t work at all. Periodically these story sets are punctuated with pop news-like reports about the travails of our celebrity subjects, breathless National Inquirer-type TV reports, presented in a sort-of parody of such TV crap: they are a couple !! they are getting married !!! they are having a baby !!!! they are heading to splitzville !!!!!! These interjections, along with a few other ones – a multi-screen one of the 6 women who have belatedly come out with bad things about McHenry – are presented in a jolting different aesthetic, and are intended to be a critique of our shallow star/money oriented culture and its dubious qualities.

As the film progresses, the sound builds into constant bombast, the actor’s “singing” begins to grate, the Mael brother’s libretto and lyrics loop and creak and show themselves thread-bare in all senses, and the energy of the opening passages gets subsumed into exhaustion as it cannot be sustained. Arriving at a critical peak, when our couple are doing their “breaking up is hard to do” bit and go on a boat to patch up their problems, in a hysterically misguided set-piece of pure artifice, the film collapses, having ladled on the show-biz pizzazz without break, reaching this theatrically absurd scene in which, dum da dum dum, McHenry does in his wife.



I didn’t clock it, but perhaps this sequence was a bit over half-way into the film, which then carries on to this set-piece and that, none of which one might give a fuck about since from the outset Carax never gives us any reason to care about either of these characters, nor about the story/film they are trapped in. Instead we are dished out set-pieces of pure artifice, one after the other, chocolate on chocolate on chocolate. The bravura cinematic tricks run aground, and we find ourselves hoping this next one will be The End. No such luck. Instead Carax grinds on. As he does so the actors too seem to lose gas, their alleged singing turning to wheezing, and reading between the lines one can hear the plaintive “can we stop” lurking in the background. And indeed, when Carax finally decides to drop his circus tent, we are told – more self-referential BS – that we can “stop looking.” Thanks a lot, Leos.

[Detour 2: A few months ago, under vaguely similar circumstances, I went with anticipation to see Pedro Costa’s latest film Vitalina Verena, and likewise came away disappointed. For pretty much the same reasons I found this film a major let-down. In this case I haven’t seen Carax’s earlier films, though I have seen clips that suggest he’s done much the same things along the way, which would confirm my thought that obsessive type artists tend to curdle in on themselves, their artistic inventions or tricks folding in on themselves to become an inadvertent self-parody.

https://jonjost.wordpress.com/2021/08/08/san-pedro-and-vitalina/


Or perhaps it is that I am jaded and old and the middle-finger to society that Carax’s film imagines itself to be seems both stale and utterly compromised, as does the cutesy self-referential stuff, something that wore out long ago.]

It is clear that Carax intended this film to be a kind of Debordian critique of the society of spectacle, mass media, celebrity and all that, but in this he fails completely, as the means he uses are exactly the same as those which he imagines to critique. The attempts at satire are both too obvious and too much exactly like what is being satirized, and becomes grotesquely weighted down with the gravity of the setting – Our Baby Annette’s finale falls dead despite the bombast, or precisely because of it. In any of the arts, a sense of proportion is a major element, and Carax has none. Big stars (I guess), techno razzle-dazzle, bombastic sound, cinematic daring-do, and no sense of restraint. Etc.

From what I have read from our “serious critics” this would-be critique seems to either have flown over their heads or has been quashed by their far greater interest in operatic cunning lingo. Or since they make their bread and butter playing in the circus of spectacle, perhaps if they are conscious of it at all, they think better than to bite the hand that feeds.

A few random things, seemingly unmentioned by our critic friends:

Ann’s character is seen in an early shot, taking a bite of an apple; in numerous shots there is an apple placed near her, always with a bite out. Eve?

McHenry is seen scratching his face, with marks there becoming ever more visible until at the end it is like a birthmark – the mark of Cain, the murderer?

Is Carax a Lars von Trier fan? While I haven’t seen it some of the imagery in this film looks like shots from Melancholia.

Or is it all just a hipster thing, Rosebud?

In summary, this is a film which zipped along for a bit and then ran right up its own pretensions and hipness, sniffing its own ass until it disappeared. A fitting reward for Jeff Bezos and Amazon studios for funding an aging artsy filmmaker, who given a lot of money, some big stars, can give you a bloated piece of auteur in Depends. Can someone change his diapers?

https://www.artforum.com/film/amy-taubin-on-leos-carax-s-annette-2021-86173

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/08/leos-carax-annette-movie-review/619788/

Santo Pedro and Vitalina

This past week, after reading about it for several years, mostly in glowing terms, I had the chance to see Pedro Costa’s most recent film, Vitalina Verela (2019). It had screened at that year’s Locarno Festival, winning Best Film, and its lead character, of the same name as the film, won Best Actress. It subsequently became a hot item on the festival circuit. I haven’t been to festivals for some time, so I missed it. But, as things “opened up” here in Boston I was informed it would be screening at Cambridge’s famed art house, the Brattle, and I grabbed the brass ring and booked tickets.

I know Pedro a modest bit, meeting him a few times, chatting a bit. Not enough time to say “a friend” – more an acquaintance. He says he likes (some of) my films, and I have liked his and seen I think most of them. Haven’t seen the one about editing with Straub-Huillet. We shared together a quick recognition of what digital video offered, and both jumped on it early. Myself in 97, Pedro in 99.

So after the lavish critical praise, and the prelude of having much appreciated his past films, I went in anticipation of a cinematic treat.

Zurbarán still life

Opening with a long Lav Diaz type shot, looking down a narrow alleyway, distant figures slowly approach the camera and pass. Not clear at first, it is later understood this was a funeral cortege. In his opening gambit Costa sets the terms for this film: it will be slow and measured; very slow, very measured.

As usual in his more recent work, the film is far less about “a story” than about atmosphere and tone, and the poetic aura this generates (or doesn’t). In brief “the story” is that of an immigrant woman from the former Portuguese colony Cabo Verde, arriving 3 days late in Lisbon for her husband’s funeral, and from that unfolds in minimal form, a kind of backdrop, which we are told in voice over – her husband had left long ago, to make money; he was a scoundrel, and now Vitalina is stranded in Portugal where, as she is reminded, “there is nothing” for her.

Around this thin thread Costa constructs his film in a sequence of usually long static takes, carefully considered and lit tableaux, echoing for the most part certain art of the 18th century, most closely the work of Iberian artist Francisco de Zurbarán, one of the many artists of the time deeply influenced by Caravaggio. Set in deep shadow, Costa orchestrates his images as if paintings – much remarked upon and noted by critics, with exclamations about its “jaw-dropping” beauty. Like Caravaggio, the realist who used peasants and showed the grime and grit of “real life” in his work, while draping it in extravagant if subtle and discreet lighting. Costa and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões aim for a realism using carefully controlled and false lighting, no less so than Hollywood. However in a sense they invert Spielbergian back-lighting, with, in effect, the light behind the spectator illuminating the scene. Shadows tend to (very slowly) precede the entrance of a character, signaling with a kind of ghostly ponderousness the next utterance or silence on offer.

Costa at work.

Occasionally the static images are punctuated with a slow tilt or pan – but very seldom. Rather we are led through a sequence of very formal images, some of which recur as a motifs, with a religious solemnity given to the most elemental of things. Vitalina arrives off the airplane from Cabo Verde with bare feet. The preacher’s hand holds a pole, the frame of a door, passes by a wall. The frame of a crude confessional recurs a number of times. Doors creak open and closed, providing momentary slashes of light. Each image is given an iconic weight. Faces, hands, things, bodies – all heavy with gravity. With seriousness.

Step by step Costa builds his liturgy, establishing a slow and solemn cadence in which the film is transformed into a quasi-religious ritual, as if counting rosary beads. The rhythm is measured in repeated images. The characters are simultaneously monumentalized in long close-ups, their faces stoic and motionless, and rendered lifeless. The occasional voice-over is repeated in slow paced words, some incantatory; others filling us in on the background story of Vitalina and her errant husband Joaquin. Cumulatively these all combine to make for a vaguely hypnotic flow in which the characters float, devoid of control or decisiveness, hidden in Costa’s mostly oscura and very little chiaro. His seeming intention is to induce the spectator into a slo-mo trance, drawn along not by drama or “action” but by submission to the lethargic pacing, actors frozen in place in fixed tableaux, bodies standing in to represent or perhaps in Costa’s view, simply “being.” Following Bresson’s dictum, his actors are reduced to models, who shuffle listessly, casting diffuse shadows on the grim walls, muttering near indecipherable phrases (I sincerely doubt Portuguese speakers can understand half of what is said and subtitled), or standing immobile, staring out of the dim shadows to which they are condemned.

In this sombre shadow-play, sound is accentuated in a Bressonian sense: doors squeal shut and open; feet shuffle on rough floors, objects are set on a table; in the far distance from these distinct sounds the voices of the streets and alleyways float as if miles away. Costa’s figures are entombed in a claustrophobic world of shadows talking to themselves, most often in almost inaudible mumbles, such that the handful of times when a voice speaks out loud it comes as a shock.

Zurbarán portrait of Saint Francis of Assisi

In composing his film, Costa has, certainly intentionally, genuflected to the tropes of the religion of his world – Catholicism, particularly of the Iberian Peninsula. The film is a kind of Stations of the Cross, with Vitalina assigned the role of staring out mournfully from the screen, lamenting her fate, and the fate of her people, hidden in the shadows, hopeless. She kneels and sorrows at the foot of her own cross and crucifixion. In phrasing his film in these terms, Costa gives his work an built-in lever on the spectator, which is well-trained in how to behave in a cathedral, or a major art gallery: with hushed reverence. The hovering cloak of seriousness hangs overhead. We don’t buy popcorn when going to a Pedro Costa film. And we don’t make wise-cracks as a religious procession passes by, never mind the preposterous proposals that religion offers up: a virgin birth by a holy fuck (!) spawning a tri-part god who sent himself to save the world from itself and is crucified for his bother, and then ascends to the heavens there to dispense (depending on which sect of the subsequent established religion one chooses to believe) harsh punishments or “love” to those who embrace and follow him. Belief suffers no rational quibbles or examination – you do or you don’t believe.

In wrapping himself in the aura of religious severity, Costa has inoculated himself against criticism from his most ardent “fans” – Pedro can do no wrong. Hence one watches in sombre seriousness, as his procession passes by, and we watch as Vitalina watches her life go down the drain. The supplicants wash themselves in the sadness of her life, and her stoicism in the face of her fate; it is a form of absolution or flagellation: I watched, ergo I am good.

This is one of the tricks of the religious trade (and many others). If one does it – in this case watch a Costa film – it somehow makes one good for having watched the misery he is showing. Just like being of the slim minority of people who, say, watch a serious documentary about some serious subject, usually about something you already know about and already agree with its sociopolitical slant, and so you learn little or nothing, but you receive the benediction of a shared belief: it does nothing in the real world outside of Plato’s cinema, but it makes the celebrants feel good about themselves. In intimate relations this is called masturbation.

Unfortunately this all congeals, like the religious ceremonies it is aping, into an ossified ritual, emptied of the intended meaning. In religion this signifies the moral corruption of the institutions, reducing the original life-pulse which gave birth to the given religion into empty if solemn gestures. In art, including cinema, this often turns to an inward fold, in which the artist regurgitates their own tropes, and drives them toward an indigestible self-parody (Godard, Greenaway, Straub-Huillet and others), looping their particular look/shots/mode of presentation and purported principles, again and again – instantly recognizable as theirs, but increasingly less interesting except to disciples. In Costa’s case it has evolved into a form of very humorless self-parody, his apparent obsessions(s) having swamped the life out of his stoic subjects, now cast in tableaux in which they stand posing, or shuffle in the shadows, their faces often obscured, standing in for the weeping figures at the foot of the cross.

In attempting to illuminate the lives of his characters and their world, Costa’s severe aestheticism instead kills them. Where Costa says he makes these films to give voice to the lives of these immigrants, instead he confines them to a narrow aesthetic trap, his aesthetic trap, far more limited than the socio-political realm to which they are confined in reality. The truth is that precious few people will ever see this film, and of those who do most live in an esoteric realm in which cinema is a bizarre host, in which watching movies, it is believed, will give you insight into the truth of life, a delusion which they share with their fellow cineastes. Costa – by his own admission – grew up in a cathedral, the Cinemateca Portuguese, ingesting his communions there, where he learned the vast catechisms of the cinema and came away with a litany of things he’d learned. He puts these on display for those in the know, a nod to this great name and and that and then another, for the priests to decipher and nod approvingly. Like Biblical citations or the Torah.

As it happens, I have lived in Lisboa a bit, and in the late 90’s visited Fontainhas when it was alive, a favela of homemade houses, mostly of immigrants from Cabo Verde, but also others. It was indeed a place of drugs and booze (just like classier neighborhoods), and it was very poor. But as other similar places around the world, it was also lively, colorful, energetic. As it were, compared to the dour Portuguese surrounding it, it had “rhythm” which came with the African source of its residents.

In Costa’s portrayals, commencing with his early 35mm films, this liveliness is largely absent and in Vitalina Verela, it is utterly absent – perhaps the men playing cards in the suffocating shadows being the only exception. So while Costa claims to be giving these people a voice, showing them to the world from which they are hidden, he is not really doing so; rather he is imposing his grim dour view upon them and claiming it is their voice. Just like colonialists always assert they are doing good for those they have occupied, bringing them salvation through Christ or capitalism. Of course Pedro would counter that his entourage of regulars are full participants, voluntarily sharing this work, and hence it is an expression of themselves, and not just Pedro’s vision. And in the muffled confines of the inner sanctum of his church, this will likely beget assent. As colonizers invariably find reason to ethically and morally take the high ground in their own minds.

Pedro Costa

Vitalina Verela comes to its dour conclusion with a final entourage, heading to the cemetery, down the same alley which we saw in the first shot. We’ve come full circle, ashes to ashes. Only at the film’s conclusion do we find a glimpse of daylight, among the graves and mausoleums, where the immigrants’ burial places are marked with numbers, erased in life and in death. As if a flashback we are then afforded a glimpse of Vitalina’s home in Cabo Verde, a mountain top place of cinder-block and concrete, with vertiginous peaks behind it, the Valhalla she left behind to face her personal hell in Lisbon.

In Portugal there is a concept, which once you understand it, seems tangible in their society and culture – the concept of saudade. This is a feeling, a sensibility which draws from a nostalgia for something absent or lost, or even something which never was; it comes as a sadness to be heard in the music of fado (fate), and something which pervades Portugal’s culture. I was once told it derived from the disappearance of King Sebastiao in the Battle of Alcazar in 1578, and his failure to return, which, supposedly the Portuguese have waited for ever since. Or perhaps it is a reverie for the long collapsed empire. Whatever its sources, as one who lived there and felt it, it certainly pervades Portuguese culture, in its arts and in every day living.

Pedro Costa provides a perfect embodiment of this saudade quality in his films, most particularly in Vitalena Varela, where his solemnity pervades each frame. In turn we might say that he imposes his Portuguese colonial imperialism on his characters, dressing them in darkness, weighing them down with a somnolent pace in which they are suffocated and condemned to perdition, surrounded with a small chorus of extras who stand immobile as the glaze of sticky amber congeals about them.

In reducing Vitalina into a religious icon, the stoic body and face (which won “Best Actress” in Locarno) set in a looming darkness, Costa has sucked all her vita out and left an impressive shell. Some have suggested this film is a kind of horror film. Or perhaps vampire, the Portuguese empire still taking gold from its victims?

At the screening (late afternoon of two screening), with the beating heart of America’s training ground for the elite of its empire, Harvard University, a very short 3 minute walk away, the audience was composed of five people, including me and the two friends I invited to come see it. Neither of my friends liked it.



There is a cure for everything; it is called death.

Portuguese proverb

Streaming from Munich

All the Vermeers in New York

Starting a few days ago the Munich Film Archive is screening 12 feature films of mine, each accompanied with a short film. For the first program they are streaming a digital restoration of All the Vermeers in New York, 1990, companioned with my first film, a 12 minute silent short, Portrait. The restoration was done by EYEFilm, in Amsterdam.

You can find these films, streaming for free, at:

https://vimeo.com/showcase/8452100

Portrait

Each film will be available for four days, with Vermeers finishing on the close of May 16th. The next film will be Last Chants for a Slow Dance, 1977, companioned with a short, silent, from 1965, City.

Last Chants for a Slow Dance (Dead End)
City



KABUKI KAPITOL DC

The following are posts, in the order they were written, put on my Facebook page. They were a response to events in Washington DC of the last days, done in a short form appropriate for Facebook. Down and dirty, off-the-cuff, for a daily dose.

Jan 6 2021
The news of the day suggests that Georgia has elected two Democratic Senators, despite (or perhaps thanks to) The Don’s attempts to arm twist the State officials in charge of elections (both Republicans) and his “perfect” rallying of his troops by citing a litany of lies and falsehoods, whining for himself, and accusing anyone who hasn’t fallen on their sword for him of being weak, only maybe Republicans, etc etc The same tired old dribble falling from this pathetic occupant of the Oval Orifice in Washington.


Today Our Great Leader hopes to see a rumble in DC both in Congress, where a cluster of complete ass-lickers will line the halls to eat dingle-berries in full public view, thus to honor their Boss-of-Bosses, thinking to secure the allegiance of his many strident fans out there in the boonies – his base. One can identify them in part owing to their wearing of baseball hats, and sometimes dragging baseball bats or AK47 things to rallies. Out on the streets in our nation’s capitol (where residents don’t get to vote or have representation in Congress), The Don hopes a large number – larger than at his inauguration, the largest crowd ever – will materialize for a rally and brawl to overthrow the stolen illegal illegitimate fraudulent rigged election which he happened to lose in both total votes and in the archaic Electoral College.


I note that The Don and his cohorts have of late adopted costumes and poses signifying “strength” and masculine superiority. Perhaps today they will emerge in insurgent camo, guns at the ready. Real Rambo. It is called “fascion”.


Should be a modestly interesting day, full of amateur theater, and, sadly, Leni won’t be there to film it.

Jan 6

Today, incited and encouraged by Our Great Leader and his fascoid gang, a mob of Trump supporters marched to the ill-defended Capitol, overwhelmed the police force and invaded the halls of Congress. Some brandished guns, some looted. Few wore masks, either for Covid or to hide their faces. The politicians gathered to finalize the election process formally making Joe Biden President, had only begun and were hustled out to a “secure” place unnamed. Belatedly the police and National Guard cleared the mob from the building.


The nation is shocked, though it should not have been. Since the Bundy show-down in Nevada, the Malheur Oregon take-over of a National monument, (both under Obama), and then the armed invasion of State Houses in the last few years – all allowed to happen and lightly punished, if at all – it has been clear that right-wing militia groups and others have no compunctions resorting to armed force when they wish. Under The Great Don, they have been encouraged and today it came to a predictable head, as following his incendiary speech, the riled up, flag-toting anointed “patriots” marched to the Capitol to force the Congress to abdicate its Constitutional obligations.


We shall shortly see how our politicians and their (our) system respond. If the action today is not regarded as a serious insurrection, warranting arrests and trials of those who invaded the Congress, along with those who incited them – Giuliani, Trump & sons, et al, and they are not severely punished, then the slide into dissolution of the nation will be far more rapid than I thought some 20 and more years ago.


Today was essentially grand theater. Whether it will rattle the system enough to incur a sharp retort will essentially hint how much longer this frayed and corrupted society will remain whole. I am deeply skeptical. It is no surprise to me and shouldn’t be to anyone who has been awake and conscious the last 30 years.


All systems grow corrupted, especially empires, such as ours. And then they collapse. There is nothing sacrosanct about the United States of America, nor is it exempt from the usual course of history.

Jan 7

Having spent the last years deep in the rabbit-warren of internet conspiracy sites, wounded by the harsh rebuke of the recent election, The Oracle of the Oval Orifice yesterday emerged to incite his the yahoo base to “take back the nation” and march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and “show strength” and “demand that Congress do the right thing.” The right thing in this case meant, among other things, to overturn the Pennsylvania election results by force, since political and legal efforts to do so had failed.


And so the Congress was promptly invaded by his cult members, waving Trump flags, some brandishing guns, overwhelming the unprepared (willfully so perhaps) Capitol Police, and causing the meeting of lawmakers assembled to affirm the State Electoral College votes and anoint Joseph Biden the 46th President of the USA to flee. Police escorted them out of the chambers. Some hours later The Don tweeted meekly that his followers should go home.


The full Tweet:


“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”


Twitter took down this Tweet and banned Trump for a day.


The Congress reconvened after many hours, when the mob had been cleared from the building; many a humble talk was mumbled by now-contrite Senators and Representatives who had merely hours before been bellowing supporters of the occupant of the Oval Anus. Those who hadn’t been supporters expressed naive shock at what had occurred in their sacred offices, and some indicated the Oracle should be promptly charged and removed from office. In the early hours of Jan 7, the Congress declared the results of the Electoral College count.


The Oracle of the Oval Anus had overplayed his hand and began an unseemly retreat, though carrying on with his rabbit-warren claims. Many of his last-stand cluster-fuck gang resigned or were dismissed. Bluster and bluff had turned into an utterly predictable hard reality, and Trump, painted deep into a corner of his own making – though aided and abetted by most of the GOP, as well as by the media – was behaving like the cornered animal he is. His ProudBoy gangs had shown their ass-crack red-neck idiocy (maskless, not even to hide their faces from the myriad surveillance cameras of the Capitol area, begging for prosecution) and been sent back to Dogpatch.


If Trump is not removed from office by one of the mechanisms available (impeachment, 25th Amendment) and if he and his group are not charged, prosecuted, and severely punished, the final Pandora’s Box of the collapse of the USA will burst at the seams, and the Union will dissolve. This has been building in plain view for some decades now. Perhaps this event will serve to bring it into focus for those many millions who did not see it because they did not want to see it.


If Trump is not evicted from office, and imprisoned, along with others of his clan, one can be assured that within 20 years, or far less, the United States of America will no longer exist as a political entity.

Jan 7

Trapped in the lair of his own kingdom of lies and fraudulence, The Don yesterday far overplayed his hand, sucked into the vortex of Q-anon and the deep-mind sewers of the internet, where he swam comfortably among the many mentally ill souls damaged by the neo-liberal economic policies of the last 40+ years. Imagining that his rag-tag troop of religious crackpots, deranged generals and America’s Mayor, along with the eunuchs of the ProudBoys and Cucks of the USA, by storming the Capitol would vault him into Supreme Power, this fool of the Oval Orifice bumped instead into the hard walls of reality: a bevvy of his allies jumped ship, rats each and every one, and left our pathetic King Lear railing to himself, stripped of his Twitter and Facebook outlets. Lacking any meaningful character, his version of this role lacks any grandeur or sense of tragedy, but instead duly reflects the inanity of his followers who posed in their absurdist costumes, lost in a delirium coaxed on by their own Jim Jones. Swallow that Kool-Aid there, doing selfies to confirm both their crimes and stupidity.


To use one of The Don’s limited lingo loops, “lock them up” and “there’s never been anything like this before”. Believe me.


Over in a shaken Capitol the reckoning is coming and calls for immediate impeachment and Article 25 are in the air. Trump supporters within the Congress are “coming to Jesus” and ducking for cover. The great charade of the last 4+ years is crumbling in plain sight.


On the same day as Trump’s putsch attempt, Covid-19 deaths in the USA hit a record. MAGA maggots.

Jan 8

DC Kabuki Komedy.


The Great Trumpthing, having hoisted himself on his own petard, lost in the miasma of his “reality TV” realities, utterly misreading the situation has now come out of the closet, THE BIGGEST L O S E R. He is now playing the role of one with his tail-between-his-legs mock contrition, his fake appeals to peace etc. A coward, pure and simple. The Wizard of Oz behind his show-biz curtain, now desperately trying to evade his just due. He should be arrested today for accessory to murder in the explicit instance of the dead Capitol policeman.


The idiots of MAGAland likewise showed that they are mostly bluster and fantasy players, likewise caught in their own super-hero costumes and macho posing, as if it were all a grand backdrop for the necessary low-level selfie-narcissism, “look at me”! Taking photos of yourself in the commission of a crime is perhaps one definition of stupidity.


Whether Biden will now do what he should do – have all those folks identified, arrested, tried and given the hardest sentences legal – is another matter. Trump and Giuliani and the whole gang of abettors should be treated the same. Ditto Congress should strip a few people of their places where legally possible (Cruz, Hawley, the guy from W Va) or at minimum censor them. Etc etc.


However I think the system is too corrupted and not much will be done. Rather, following Obama’s example in failing to go after the Bundy folks out in Nevada and Oregon, fearful of another Waco type fiasco, Biden will minimize this event. Likewise he’ll play the good guy and not take the appropriate legal measures against Trump and his accomplices, saying it is better not to roil the country more, etc. etc. Appeasing, as history shows, seldom works out too well.


If Congress and Biden don’t take a hard position on this and do the hard unhappy things necessary, the US will fall apart in 10 years instead of 20.

Jan 10

For some years – no it is really decades – I have in public, in my work (films & writing), and in talk, critiqued the US, its politics, its culture. In some small circles this was, for a time, welcomed (back 30-40 years ago); and then not, so much so that I sense there is an unwritten blacklist on which my name can be found (grants and such things). In 1972-3 I made a film, Speaking Directly, which made explicit my views, in deeply personal terms. In 1985-7 I made Plain Talk & Common Sense, a kind of overview of the time, an essay-survey of where we stood as a nation. Likewise I’ve made a handful of fictional films addressing our malaises in less direct terms – Bell Diamond, Sure Fire, Homecoming, Over Here, Parable, Coming to Terms, They Had It Coming. Long ago I suggested that the stresses inside the nation were leading us to a breakup and collapse. Not long ago I thought and said this would be in 20 or so years from now. I now think it likely much sooner. The events of the past week, and since the election have seemed to accelerate things, such that I’d think 5-10 years are left for the US to carry on as a functioning geo-political reality.

The other day I watched, on C-Span, most of Trump’s “speech” in Washington. During it he mentioned the huge crowd before him and asked the news to reverse their cameras to show it; C-Span did not do so – I don’t know if others obliged or not. The image above confirms he did indeed have a massive crowd, one which he aggressively worked to generate (Trump tweeted on Dec. 19 “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”)

Doubtless encouraged by this turnout, he cranked up his rhetoric, along with his cohort Giuliani and son Don Jr., and others, and sent his would-be troops to the Capitol, and we know what then ensued.

Since then 45% of Republicans surveyed approved of the assault upon Congress; many GOP representatives and Senators in effect did so as well. While the GOP is a minority party, and not quite half approved, that remains a substantial number, enough to form the foundation for a fascist party. The crowd in DC confirmed a massive base, one enthralled with Trump, the stench of power and racism, and blind to anything contrary to it. He, and Fox, and his many abettors, have successfully produced one of America’s social hysterias – from the Salem Witch Hunts, to the McCarthy commie-under-every-bed Red scare. It will not be easy, and very likely is impossible, to dissipate this social movement. However to begin to do so, Trump, all his associates, the rabble which invaded Congress, the media (Fox, Limbaugh et al) all need to be harshly brought to justice, censured, and made fully accountable for their acts. I doubt that Biden is so inclined. Doing so would be difficult. Not doing it is more or less a guarantee that right-wing fascism will prevail, much as it did in Weimar Germany. In past comments when I suggested the USA is collapsing, and will do so in the coming decades, I noted that historically such things in modern times usually include a passage through fascism. While Americans have been taught they live in an “exceptional” nation, it is really no different than others, and is subject to the same cycles of history as any other culture.

Here as some in-depth views:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html

https://www.theguardian.com/…/trump-coup-capitol-attack…

Speaking Directly https://vimeo.com/135937136

Plain Talk & Common Sense https://vimeo.com/233124758

Jan 10

A friend sent me this post taken from a right-wing social network system, Wimkin (of which I had not heard). Snopes suggests this shouldn’t be taken too seriously, that it may be the spawn of a keyboard Cuckist in the basement, attempting to foment something to jack-off to. However, given the recent events in DC one might take it with a bit more seriousness. Until the formal turn-over on the 20th, Trump remains titular head of our military and hypothetically they are bound to follow his orders. Some days ago he declined following a request to do so, to order the DC National Guard to go the the Capitol to defend it from the mob he had generated and ordered to go “be wild” (an earlier Twitter had informed his 66 million followers that on Jan 6 would be a big rally and to be there and that it would be wild.”) Pence and Pelosi did the ordering to get the National Guard there.The events on the 6th make clear that Trump is willing and able to abet and approve such things, and being painted deeply in a corner, he may just contrive to invite his rag-tag, armed Brown Shirts to come and trigger a major conflict. This time around the police cannot, as they seem to have done regarding the events of the 6th, plead ignorance (though the net was full of right-wing info about their intentions, with Trump making the invitations). It appears that perhaps some of the Capitol Police were in on it, and perhaps there was some inside something going on. It appears January 20 will be another of those things that make this an “interesting” time in which to live. (The old Chinese curse.)

Jan 11:..

hoisted on his own petard

he looked down to the crowd below

moving ever more distant, they seemed but ants

amazed at this unearthly view

he imagined himself in some kind of heaven

befogged in wispy clouds

sweet cherubs whispering the things he liked to hear

a music as he’d never heard before

the voices grew into a thunder

brought to mind beethoven, or was it wagner

instead it was a baying herd

asking for his head

on this earth there is one way off a pedestal

Jan 12

As more information leaks out regarding the Trump mob assault on the Capitol, the Republicans find themselves required to go into ever more absurd contortions to defend themselves and their complete surrender for 4+ years to The Don. Their Faustian deal has come home to roost, which any person with an IQ of 50 would have figured out years ago was bound to happen. Among the things leaking out are indications that some of the Capitol Police were in on it; that many were told to stay home that day even though the FBI had warned, etc. etc. While not yet utterly clear, it would seem that this was orchestrated from very high within the administration, with the plausible deniability looking thinner and thinner. The two heads of the Capitol Police promptly resigned from their offices, the Homeland Security head followed suit a day later. Hmmmm… What do you do when your coup attempt fails?

Trump’s visit to the Alamo, and his belligerent statement today, denying responsibility, another “perfect” address he says of his Jan 6th fomenting job, all point to a deranged psychopath cornered by his own actions.Some Republicans – including McConnell now – indicate Trump’s actions have been impeachable, and there need only be 16 of them to vote to impeach and with McConnell pressing the reluctant, perhaps these slime-balls will read the crystal ball and bail.We’ll see how this plays out in the coming days.And then of course there are silver and magic bullets too, which have been known historically to exist.

Jan 14

The days politics detoured the muse, and still does. But on Jan 11, this blurted out, clearly under the sway of current events. Yesterday listening to the Republican chorus of “but they…” and uniform refusal to admit what happened a week earlier had anything to do with the Great Leader’s goading, was an exhibition of why Hitlers are in some ways normal: because there are soulless people who will follow the stupidest, craziest asshole because their Great Leader is just like they are.

Jan 17

In another few days we’ll get (or not) the spectacle of BoogalooBois, 3%ers and other armed militia deciding this is the moment to go full in or not. WGOWGA as they say. Those arrested from the 6th indicate an interesting mix of redneck militia to middle-class to off-time cops and military, to those with private jets, all streaming their way to some kind of fame. The real estate lady from Frisco, a Dallas suburb, and others, now pleading for pardon from the departing Don. She exclaims, “But I am facing prison…” As I recall the phrase from my prison days, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” May we live in interesting times.

Jan 17

Here in Boston, a handful of blocks away from where I am, a hundred or so police have gathered around the State Capitol building, taking the FBI warning regarding pro-Trump militias planning to surround state houses, etc. somewhat seriously. Trump in a last minute shift has appointed a loyalist as top lawyer at the NSA. Other things seem to suggest there may be a last gasp effort by his rag-tag MAGA shirts to disrupt Wednesday’s inauguration and install The Donald as prez-for-life.

News leaking out regarding Jan 6th’s attempted putsch suggests the sergeant-at-arms of both the House and Senate police, both of whom resigned immediately after the failed assault on Congress, were both – along with some others – in on it, having quashed a request for backup of the National Guard the day before. Plenty of other things point to a poorly organized attempt to actually take over the Congress, take hostages and execute some, etc. One by one the dots coalesce into a readable pattern of a serious, if maladroitly organized, effort to overthrow the government.

Given that his followers seem to think that Trump must remain President, and had the example of nearly taking the seat of American government by force, there’s reason to think they may, despite the now-assembled forces in DC and elsewhere, give it a try in the coming days.In some manner this may be a good thing, as it is likely strategically and tactically premature, and having shown their hands on Jan 6, they feel compelled to carry it out as without Trump to provide cover, they could be readily confronted with actual military and police force working against them. No match. In their minds perhaps it is now or never, and so…

I think it is quite reasonable to expect some real bloodshed this coming week. The boogaloo bois wish to ignite a race and civil war, and other militia groups, while having differing aims, would likely go along with this. So they may give it a serious go, though if they lose you can expect harsh gun and anti-militia laws, and a round up of those who participate in them. Conversely if that is not done you can expect the imminent collapse of the Federal Government and the USA as a political entity. Having predicted this for some decades now, I can’t say I am surprised.

As well, as someone who subscribes to “catastrophe theory,” at least in some instances, I note that a confluence of stresses are all reaching a peak, and the usual result of this kind of thing is a rapid collapse. The deep corruption of the US – decades in formation – has revealed itself in Trump’s ascension; the economic disparities of current capitalism; the social/cultural chasms in our society; global warming, the fragmenting effects of the internet, and now as a coup de grace, Covid, all gather together to place extraordinary stress on society, and it shatters, its seeming stability shown to be an illusion.

Do we live in “interesting times?” Fasten your seat-belt.

Jan 18

Today a stroll to the Commons and by the State House. Fenced off, a contingent of police. No Boogbois etc. Either they’ve been chastened by arrests of some of their folks and the FBI on the tail of others, or they’ve pulled back figuring taking on the military and cops wouldn’t come out too well for them. Flip side is they blew Jan 6 and if they don’t accomplish a coup for The Don by Wednesday, or at least trigger their wished-for civil/race war, there is going to be a very different attitude coming from the Feds in the coming years. Last chance for a quick dance for them, or, as was said back in the 60s, up against the wall mofo.

Here is an article somewhat succinctly summarizing the history that got us here:

https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-16-2021

Jan 20 2021 a.m.

In a spectacularly subdued anti-climax, The Don departed the White House and DC, with a gaggle of supporters at hand, and his family clan. His end talk was the usual blather of how great and wonderful and successful his administration was. While he put on a good front and pundits described him as almost cheerful, my reading of his face was different: he appeared almost emotional and sad, bathed in self-pity. He left with the Village People’s YMCA, a gay-pickup anthem on the wonders of the Y, a song I have a hard time fathoming in the context – it was a staple of his campaign rallies – entering Air Force One with his hand clutching Melania as if affirming “A love supreme”, arriving at the stair top to wave and self-clap as he entered the plane in defeat. His clan clambered up a minute later, minus Ivanka and Jared (reported to have entered some back way – by levitation?) The guard marched away and another contingent of military guys, smartly dressed, rolled up the red carpet, and Donald John Trump left Washington DC, a complete and total loser, sure to go down in the history books as the worst American president ever. His father would be proud. Or perhaps not.He promised to be back “in some form.” Perhaps he will morph into a literal POS.



Jan. 20 2021

It appears the boogbois and friends thought better than to take on the US military and (some) cops. Joe Biden was able to get inaugurated without bullets flying, and young poetess did her eloquent reading, the first black/indian/woman veep entered office, and it appears the event turned into a super-spreader as Garth Brooks did a redneck Amazing Grace hugging everyone on leaving, having never masked up, and subsequently, once the speechifying was done, the crowd mingled and hugged and doubtless contributed to a coming Covid spike. Hot damn.

Of course in some rabbit holes conspiracy fans have it that Jan 6 was a Deep State ploy, intended to trigger a “reset” by the Wizard of Oz (not Trump, the fake one, but the real one still obscured behind the curtain), and that a Patriot Act II will suffocate all dissent on our march to corporate fiat money tyranny, etc etc.So covered in All-American “we are the good guys” platitudes, in a multi-colored parade, lathered with patriotic song and self-congratulatory rhetoric, Trump’s “American Carnage” is supplanted with wishful “we’re all in this togetherism.” Pip pip pip as the Brits might twit(ter).

I am sure a vast swathe of America is breathing a great sigh of relief, and will promptly commence to ignore all the things which brought us to our current state, eager for our ever lethal “normality” of shop til you drop, credit card indebtedness, invisible empire, and other follies of our culture. The last words of Biden’s speech were “God bless our troops.” Tells you something.

Yesterday I duly watched Our Great Leader’s ignominious departure from the White House and Andrews AFB, a spectacle lacking the punch of Nixon’s V sign of yesteryear. And then the further DC Kabuki, the installation of Everyman Joe into the just-vacated Trump lair, and the expected liberal swoon as Political Correctness resumed its place in the Oval Orifice. And I thought, hmmm, deja vu all over again, thinking of 2008, and its real realities lurking behind the DNC show-biz wool pulling. I am putting these ponderings down in a bit more length for a blog post soon.

Exhausted with the political shadow-boxing I took refuge in my little pastime with color and stuff, and made this very mixed bag, just playing around. Mess around some more today (I think). Meantime for anyone interested in an in-depth you-are-there look at a mere 2 weeks and 1 day ago, Jan 6, in DC, look at this, which I am considering using as foundation to make something video-wise.

https://projects.propublica.org/parler-capitol-videos/…

20/20 : The Reckoning

At the very beginning of this Gregorian year of 2020 AD, life was its usual, with people criss-crossing the globe at the drop of a pin; airports were full; in much of the world festivities were in full bloom, celebrating the in-coming European New Year. Times Square and Trafalgar Square were crammed, as were other public arenas around the world. It was January 31, 2019.

On the same day, an announcement came from Wuhan, China, indicating a cluster of unusual cases of pneumonia. A week later, on January 7, Chinese authorities announced that the disease was caused by a novel infectious coronavirus, later to be named Covid–19.

In the world which we all take as “normal” the virus was rapidly transported, unknowingly, around the globe. Along with the package you ordered from Amazon or some other internet supplier, came this invisible virus, or perhaps when you picked up your friend at the airport, or some other commonplace matter.  Later research appears to indicate Covid-19 had actually spread around the world by November 2019. 

With the arrival of the new year, as the celebrants went drunkenly home, they did not yet know that their lives would be profoundly changed in the coming months, and doubtless, years.  Some would soon die, others contract long-term medical problems; jobs would be lost on a massive scale, and the entire world would shudder with the implications carried by this microscopic virus.  As people around the world joyfully rang in the New Year, they had little idea what awaited them.

happyny2020

It is not, though, as if they shouldn’t have had an idea of what the future would bring – the fire alarms and sirens had been shrieking for some time, for decades, and even longer.  However, caught up in the entrancements and conveniences of “modern times” we collectively chose to ignore the warnings we were issued.  Far back in the 19th century scientists understood that the pumping of CO2 into the environment would create a physical reality which would warm the earth’s atmosphere.  The entire world charged forward industrializing on a scale unimaginable to those scientists of 1870.  Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring what our use of pesticides, and all the other paraphernalia of industrialized agriculture would do.  Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert of the consequences of our treatment of the vast central realm of America.  And most recently David Wallace-Wells issued a forbidding description of the world impacted by global warming in The Uninhabitable World.  And many others, in myriad form, have duly issued us warning after warning of the consequences of our behavior.  Few, though, paid attention.  Instead we caught a flight to here and there, tossed plastic bags in the oceans; expanded our population like wild; injected antibiotics in ourselves and our food, and went on with our fanciful modern high-tech lives, and imagined some world in which all these things were cheap and there was no bill.

1918masks-superJumbo

Which brings me to the real impact of this epidemic, which is scarcely confined to medical matters. Rather as its impact ripples through the world, its many collateral damages – thus far largely masked for political reasons, just as the pandemic of 1918 was kept secret for a period owing to wartime circumstances – have been kept hidden or have had superficial palliatives tossed at them.

While scarcely “ancient history” the pandemic of 1918-19, for most Americans and others elsewhere, is a faded relic of a forgotten time. It was 102 years ago. At that time the world’s population was 1.8 billion people – today it is moving on 8 billion. It is estimated that one third of the population caught the H1N1 virus, the so-called Spanish Flu (though it appears it originated in Kansas), and 50 million people died from it. Should the coronavirus take a similar toll, it would kill 800 million around the world. While in its present form it appears far less lethal, and we have a far more sophisticated medical system to cope with it, we might note that back then the first round seemed modest, but it was on the second wave that the deaths accumulated. At present an estimated 41 million people have contracted Covid-19, which is a small drop in the bucket next to 8 billion.

Thus far Covid-19 has eluded any full comprehension as to its real effects and consequences, and is, as any such organism, mutating. There is no vaccine, and despite our vaunted medical knowledge, there is no good reason to believe it will fully shield us from the coronavirus.

The first of the visible impacts has been on the economy – millions of people have lost their jobs, many of which are unlikely to return. Particularly service jobs centered around tourism, and all the spin-offs from that: restaurants, hotels, travel systems. In many countries, tourism is a major income source, and in some it is virtually the only source. This entire industry has been sent to the mat. Cruise ships are being dismantled, Boeing, one of America’s major exporters is on its knees (in part owing to the self-created fiasco of the 737-Max debacle, but it still would be crippled by the collapse of mass tourism); restaurants across the globe are being shuttered. It is estimated that 1/10 of jobs in the globe are directly related to tourism. The era of mass tourism is finished, and with it millions of jobs.

Shuddering through the economy will be a wide range of effects, ones dealing with the most basic and essential aspects of our economy and our needs. In much of the “advanced” world, agriculture is reliant on transient imported labor; when its flow is blocked – owing in this case to restrictions owing to Covid-19 – agriculture suffers. Likewise those engaged in that labor are highly vulnerable to contracting this disease and being disabled by it, they are unable to do their work. This will drive food prices up as supply diminishes. And so on through the economy, the ripple effects may seem invisible, but they are real. The world of malls, department stores, retail sales will shrivel and collapse. At least for the moment, Jeff Bezos will profit from this, as have, evidently, most of our other billionaire (and more) class. Our friend Covid-19 has served to harshly underline the disparities in our societies, the ever widening chasm between the poor and the rich. This will likely carry on in the immediate future. 

As white collar workers are digitally dispersed, while on one hand relieved from the transparent insanity of daily commutes and its wasted time, it will cause a collapse of the entire urban infrastructure which lived off of it: cars and everything they require (gas, parking, highways), mass transit systems, cafes and bars, all which symbiotically live off the concept of a centralized urban setting of skyscrapers with a high density.  One by one these dominoes will fall – indeed many already have.

One could continue to itemize the myriad knock-on effects which will roll through our societies – material effects which serve to show how all the interlocking elements of our highly complex social system are mutually dependent, and once one unravels, the entire edifice begins to crumble.  It is a large structure, so inertia tends to slow the collapse, or at least the appearance of it.   

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is unravel.jpg

Many of the structures of our system are the product of a particular way of thinking of the world, a way which has been dominant now for a few centuries. It is called capitalism.  As the long history of this view shows, it is a fatal concept, illogical and tending to appeal to the worst of human instincts.  It is the concept upon which most of our current human world has been built, and has brought us to our present circumstance, and the precipice of extinction.  While the Covid-19 virus is a natural phenomenon, it seems likely that its emergence, and certainly its global spread, can be attributed to the nature of late capitalism, to such “efficiency” concepts as “just-in-time” practices, in which parts of some given object are farmed out to cheapest-labor, &/or cheapest resource settings, all to be shipped on tightly organized schedules to arrive for assembly and sales, via an intricate system which avoids, for example, the cost of storage.  Under capitalist logic this sounds wonderful and smart, and, while it works it seems magical. One goes on-line, and Amazon has whatever your object of desire to your doorstep the next day.  It is “cheap”.  Bezos and Amazon have wiped out a vast range of traditional retail systems, deleting millions of jobs, just as Walmart wiped out Main Street America.  Just in time.

onworld-map

The mantra of neo-liberalism, which asserts that free global trade is a universal good, and would raise billions out of poverty, has in truth been a catastrophe.  It has allowed wealth to move almost unfettered into every corner of the globe, disrupting traditional cultures, destroying agriculture, and addicting the world’s population to a lethal consumerism.  The Nike slash can be seen across the globe, along with the capitalist underpinnings of exploitation of labor, capital seeking places with the least regulation such that it can destroy the environment in pursuit of the ever-sacred “profit.” 

Yes, neo-liberalism has in many cases, in purely capitalist terms, raised large swathes of people out of “poverty” – along the way it has destroyed their cultures and societies, and thrust them into another form of poverty. And along the way a paper thin layer of humans has become insanely rich. And the process has indeed, driven them insane.  Despite now massive evidence that we are at the edge of extinction thanks in great part to the structural and psychic nature of capitalism, those titans of the system insist on plowing on – after all this system has made them fabulously rich and, as ever in human beings, this has blinded them.  Many of them, rooted in tech, seem to perceive a technical magic wand which will fix all the things which tech itself has made into a full blown disaster in the works. 

Remember when the internet and social media were hailed as mechanisms that would bring us all together?  Remember when one actually walked in a city or in the countryside and looked at the real world?  Remember when you went to a museum to look at paintings instead of at people taking selfies in front of them?   Our Silicon Valley wizards have promised a world of wonders to be extracted from their disruptions, yet far from doing that they have instead carelessly shattered a million traditions and replaced them with nothing remotely comparable.  The wreckage is to be seen all around us, if we just care to look. 

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And then along comes Covid-19, which not only was possible, but had indeed, in some form or another, been predicted and to the degree feasible, anticipated, and for which preparations had been made in the US and surely elsewhere. A real wrench in the works. While history is filled with similar such occurrences, some local, some nearly global, it is one of those things we prefer to ignore, placing them in some far away time when such things could happen, owing to the lack of understanding at the time, the dubious medicines, the lack of social hygiene, and behind such thinking was the thought that our mystical high-tech wizardry would shield us from such things, our medical system would find a miracle cure, we’d whack out a vaccine and all would be OK. Such things as the Black Plague just couldn’t happen to us. Nor the other of the posse of the Apocalypse – famine? pestilence? war? Not for us. Of course there is and has been famine going on the last decades, along with localized pestilences, and indeed plagues of locusts. This year. And war is an American staple, though we try to keep them far away and out of mind. I suspect most Americans – likely 90+ percent do not know that in the Black Plague Europe lost half its population, as did other areas of the world – China, the middle-east, and India.

In our highly fragmented and constantly distracted society, where we are perpetually subject to assaults upon our consciousness, usually for the purpose of extracting money/profit from us, most have lost all sense of history. We cannot remember last year, much less the lessons of the last century, or of millennia of human history. In turn we simply cannot believe that what occurred in the past can apply to us. In the past year we have been issued a sharp and rude awakening: yes, all the calamities of the past, which few of us know of, can and will visit us again. And, in keeping with the exponential explosion of our vast populations, and their behaviors, these will be equally scaled. In 1918, the year of the Spanish flu pandemic, the global population was 1.8 billion; today it is edging on 8 billion. Rather than relatively localized, the coming disasters will be global in impact, as is happening with Covid-19. And the death toll will be in the billions.

We have constructed a dense, complex system, which no one can really understand, nor can any organized group do so, in part because it is simply far too intricate, too enmeshed together such that tugging at any part of it disturbs in some ways all of it, and leads to an endless cascade of unintended effects. Where we do one thing, meaning that it should be useful for us and seems so in the short-range, we find it produces other undesired or even lethal effects. A simple thing, such as the convenient virtually “free” plastic bag at the super-market check-out, now gags the oceans. The synthetic rayon sweater or gloves reduce to nano-particles of plastics which are in everything now – the water you drink, the air you breath, the food you eat. As are myriad other human made elements of which we do not know the end impact on us and the world we live in. From what we do know, it appears many are lethal and toxic to virtually all life on the planet.

Largely evaded, certainly from our official commentariat – be they government/corporate spokespersons, or the intellectual media elite – are these grim realities which confront us. In part it is unmentioned because those persons are so within the existing system, and so invested in it, that they simply cannot imagine a world in which it doesn’t exist and function. Thus they blind themselves, their horizons limited to the world they know and in which they are comfortable.

Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

Matthew 15:14

Our predicament is not new, but rather ancient, and so the pithy admonitions of the past apply to us, as they did in then – thousands of years ago. The distinction is that owing to the vast technological system we have constructed, the gift of our opposable thumbs and our evolutionarily developed brain, those cautionary words which all human cultures have in one manner or another enunciated, apply now on a global scale. What was once locally disastrous is now so globally courtesy of our technical prowess, not only to we humans, but also to those remaining species we have not yet yet decimated. Our development though has been lopsided, and where our mechanical and technical intelligence has excelled, our moral and ethical sensibilities remain deeply rooted in the most basic core of our brains, those parts which govern our most necessary animal functions, our breathing, heart beats, digestion, sight, the most fundamental building blocks upon which our survival and success depend and upon which our instincts are built. They are primal and though we provide an overlay of learned behaviors which we use to “socialize” ourselves, to control and restrict those primal impulses, they remain active and ready to be triggered at the smallest disturbance of our “civilized” world. A glance around the world now, as always, shows us what humans can and will do if the guardrails of society are stripped away. Or in truth, even if they are not stripped away: while playing Bach and Beethoven, a sophisticated society at the same time constructed death camps. And in our day, the presumably civilized nation of the United States of America has carried on brutal wars – of late kept “off-screen” as much as possible – in Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Middle-East.

As the cumulative stresses of the collapse of our system combine, there will be, as always, a psychological tendency towards denial. This will express itself in many forms, already in America, and elsewhere, present. There will be a rise in mystical belief systems, in conspiratorial inventions, in extremism. While some of these will be a method of deflecting from acceptance that a whole belief system, almost universally socially accepted, is in fact falling apart and was in reality false and incorrect, others will rise in a blind defense of that system. Taken together all these impulses will unfold in conflict. Confronted with the negative collateral effects of this collapse we can anticipate – and already see – the worst of human behaviors.

Famine and disease, both products of global warming as well as misguided industrial practices, will prompt mass migrations, and in turn resistance to these, as is already occurring in Europe and the USA. These pressures will beget wars.

The apocalypse is here. We just prefer other entertainments.

For further thoughts along these lines, see the blog posts below:

The United States of Insanity (March 25 2020)

The Corona Conspiracy: A fable (April 1, 2020)

The Corona Conspiracy: Pt. 2 (May 5, 2020)