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I confess to being a total news-junkie.  I awaken each morning, flip on the Chromebook, and jump headlong into the day’s headlines.  In the last few years this has meant a wallow in the traumas of America’s official political landscape, a zombie horror show in which all the beasts which the system had imagined it had defeated re-emerged with a vengeance.  Glossed over in the alleged post-racial Obama era, though hiding in plain sight in Trump’s birtherism and McConnell’s “one term” obstructionism, liberal America waltzed through 8 years of self-love, thinking that in voting for a Harvard-trained upper- middle-class half-black man, they’d resolved the matter of the nation’s deeply rooted historical and institutionalized racism.  We were woke, or so they imagined.  Instead they awoke on Nov 8, 2016 to pull their heads out of the sand, realizing belatedly that they knew almost nothing of their country.  Zombies crawled out everywhere, undefeated and triumphant.

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None of this came as a great surprise to me, neither the roiling racism which raised it’s head as Trump pulled back the oozing scab that had politely hidden the cankerous sores on the body politic, nor the shock of the largely urban liberals for whom this came as a nasty revelation.  I’d been charting this for some decades in my work – films and blogs.  It was, after a manner, my self-chosen job to probe about in the American social psyche, albeit I tended towards the more oblique forms of art rather than the blunderbuss snarl of politics.   As early as the mid-60’s I’d done short films on the alienation of young people in the stressed out 60’s when the matter of racism was roiling the nation during the civil rights movement, and Vietnam was eating away at our social fabric.  I addressed those things in Traps, and 13 Fragments & 3 Narratives from Life, promptly after leaving two+ years in prison for the “crime” of draft refusal.  I then made a few other works, couched in counter-cultural terms, likewise pointing to the schisms in our society: Primaries, A Turning Point in China, and 1, 2, 3, Four, in 1969-70.

At the time the country was tearing itself apart with deep political rifts, and with a major temblor in our cultural sensibilities.  The  end result was a major shakeup in our social values, followed with Altamont, Nixon, and then, after the interlude of Carter, Reagan and a long slow shift right in politics and economics, and a harshly contested liberal drift in cultural matters.

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Deeply involved in the events at the Chicago Convention in 1968 (arrested early), I withdrew to California, and then in 1971 moved to Oregon and began a long essay work on the State of the Nation:  Speaking Directly.  It addressed in social and personal terms what was going on in the US at the time, and in myself. In what I think now of as slightly stilted leftist terms, it described, somewhat accurately, what was going on in US cultural politics and government foreign policy, and spoke of the fractures existing in the country at the time – cracks which ran through us individually as well as collectively.

Subsequent work delved deeper in fictional narrative terms into various specifically American socio-political realities: our form of capitalism, alienated men, Vietnam vets, and the broader nature of our culture.  The tonality and content was for the most part negative – things were not going so well in our country.

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In 1985 I returned to the essay form, making another long work of inquiry on the state of America, Plain Talk & Common Sense (uncommon senses).  In its indirect and artfully oblique manner it all too accurately traced and predicted the trajectory of our present history.   It is as pertinent today as it was when it was made, though it had made a cautionary and desperate plea for us to take a different path.  While securing arts world kudos, such as participation in the Whitney Biennial of 1987, obtaining numerous festival screenings, and being broadcast by Channel Four (which had commissioned it) in the UK, its real-world impact was for all practical purposes zero.

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In the late 80’s, the stock market reached new heights, and the financial world became a locus of fame and glamor, and art prices zipped to ever higher levels.  I recall writing a letter-to-the-editor of the New York Times noting how Souren Melikian’s “art” reviews had morphed from some discussion about the artistic nature of a work to a purely financial one and belonged more on the Economics pages than “culture.”  In 1989 I shot All the Vermeers in New York, a sweetly caustic comedy of manners glancing into the financial and arts worlds of the Big Apple and the havoc they bring to the souls involved in them.

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A few years later I set out to Oregon to shoot a new film, The Bed You Sleep In, which I confess I told some acquaintances before shooting that I intended it to be a “masterpiece.”  I think around the same time I read that Brian De Palma had said the same of his film of the same time, Bonfire of the Vanities.  In Toledo, a lumber mill town inland a bit from coastal Newport, I nosed around doing some research in my far from academic manner, arrived at some thoughts and clarity, got actors, a free camera from Panavision (thanks Bob Harvey) and in a month came up with the film done in what had become my usual manner of improvising mostly, with a few sections scripted.

It’s not for me to make the call on whether I succumbed to hubris, or whether I managed to get somewhere near my aim.  What I did intend, that this chamber drama of a family be done in a way such that it reflected the broader American society, apparently, with no explicit suggestion at all, seems to have worked.  Below I’ll post a handful of reviews for The Bed You Sleep In, which seem to support this view.

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I’ve written the foregoing as in the last year and more, as I’ve indulged my news-junkie habit, I have noticed a sharp shift in the tone and views of both “normal” folks, at least the kinds who respond in various newspapers comment sections (NYTimes, LATimes and other papers, various magazines on and off line), and of the talking-head opinion-makers, columnists, etc., from both right and center/liberal sides of our political spectrum (a real left basically doesn’t exist in the USA).  What I hear/read are words that less than a handful of years ago would have brought down the wrath of the pundits, and most others, with loud assertions that it was too “radical,” “fringe” or just plain nuts. They are views I have espoused now for far more than a few decades, and for which I was naturally kicked around as being ridiculous and absurd.  They are views articulated in my films, in poetic terms, and in my various blogs (see list below) and public discussions in sometimes more direct manners.  Those views were that America was and is corrupt – not a sudden Trump matter, but for decades – and that as a society we are deeply self-deluded and collectively more or less schizophrenic.  We cannot admit what we are and what we do, and in turn we have curdled into a society which is both utterly dishonest and in consequence self-damaging. The arrival of Donald Trump is a natural development in such a society, as is the hypocritical response of liberal opposition – an opposition which imagines that had a Democrat won – (Madam Clinton) – then all would have gone swimmingly well, the “post-racial” America would have remained comfy snug, with nice dollops of domestic policies keeping things in order.  Meanwhile Imperial America, the America that constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population, 7% of the world’s land-mass, but consumes 25% of its resources, would have carried on as usual, and all would be hunky-dory OK.  Our bloated military would receive its usual genuflections and the vast corruption carried on politely in the back-rooms would have remained nicely hidden.  Instead Trump has torn the scab off the festering reality of America and pundits and mere citizens now talk of the collapse of civility, of the approaching end of the United States, with dark hints of a coming period of fascism.

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I don’t pretend to be a Cassandra, but I do wonder what Americans have been seeing and thinking in the last 50 years, as the forces of capitalist commercialism, USA-style, have warped our society into its current state, in which the selling of poisons, literally and metaphorically, has produced an obese citizenry intoxicated with opioids, be they pharmaceutical or 24/7 shrieking talk radio or TV “news,” an out of control gun plague, and a stunted sense of community such that distrust is likely our most dominant shared characteristic. And a thousand other ugly realities, sitting in plain view, which define us. It is not as if these things mystically suddenly appeared with no foreshadowing.  From long before the Kennedy assassination white-wash on to the Gulf of Tonkin to the Nixon/Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia to Reagan’s backroom Iran deals; on through to the 9/11 white-wash, the Supreme Court one-time only selection of GW Bush, WMD, and a thousand other instances of governmental fraud and public lying, there is little reason why the American public should give any credence to the words of a government official.  This, doubtlessly, accounts for the large disillusionment with government which marks the right-wing of our politics.  It is understandable.

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On the other hand, the same can be said of our now ubiquitous and immense corporate over-lords, whose commitment is to profits and enriching themselves, whatever the social costs, and which lie in support of those aims as readily as does President Trump. The same corporate powers now own and control almost all the mass media, and it speaks in a voice as controlled and self-serving as did Pravda.  Likewise the internet, while offering an avenue to other voices, is also a system for thought control, as the recent evidence of Russian meddling in our election has indicated, along with the endless barrage of advertising it carries.

Caught in the cross-fire of this tsunami of “information” is it any wonder that the populace is stun-gunned into confusion, and easily led along fraudulent paths, whether by a born con-man like Trump, or by the suits which usually deliver the government’s version of things?  Or by the wizards of Madison Avenue who have made the arts of persuasion into a virtual science, the better to peddle endless needless things the sole value of which is to feed the capitalist necessity of constant growth and profit?  Under decades of such a reality there should be little surprise in seeing our social binds shrivel into pure distrust, and finally collapse into the deeply polarized present of Fox “News” and a President Tweeting inanities in the morning.  Fake !!  Alas it is true, but it has been “fake” all along.

America has lived by lies from the outset; they have grown now into a vast avalanche, such that even the most ordinary and imperceptive of citizens can see it.  The question is, why did it take so long?

You make your bed; you sleep in it.

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Below I print reviews of The Bed You Sleep In, a film made 27 years ago.

E.Johnson, original source unknown, but from a CalTech blog apparently:

One of the major discoveries I made in 1995 was the work of Jon Jost, whom I am tempted to call “THE great contemporary American filmmaker” (though he has recently departed for Europe). Perhaps I tend to this overstatement to compensate for the virtual non-existence of Jost’s name in any of the discourse on film in this country. What I will say is that Jost is, for my money anyway, “THE great contemporary *independent* American filmmaker” (where here “independent” truly means something, and isn’t just a marketing term; Tarantino et al. be damned). I have no doubt that most people would find Jost’s films like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I have to confess not-so-secretly that this makes me cherish him all the more….

The Bed You Sleep In is very much the work of the same individual but, as mentioned above, is very different in tone.  The narrative revolves around the character of Ray (played by the truly remarkable Tom Blair, whose only prior features to the best of my knowledge are Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Sure Fire), owner of a financially distressed lumber mill.  In a scene of astonishing power, Ray’s wife Ellen (played superbly, particularly in this scene, by Ellen McLaughlin) reads out a letter from his daughter who is painfully and emotionally accusing him of sexual molestation.  (The manner in which the letter is read and the way in which the characters’ emotions play out are so vastly different from the ways a similar scene in a Hollywood film would do them that I can’t even begin to describe their effectiveness.)  This event occurs just about halfway through the film, and the narrative threads leading up to and trailing from this scene are slowly, meditatively interwoven with masterful visuals of the landscape in and around the town and lumber mill.  The cumulative power of the film is devastating.

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“This extraordinary film offers a long hard look at the American Dream and what it awakens in Americans.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Truly independent filmmaker Jon Jost has completed his latest trilogy (“Frameup“/”Sure Fire“) about rural America and has since moved on to self-imposed exile in Europe, as reported in a film ‘zine. This extraordinary film offers a long hard look at the American Dream and what it awakens in Americans. The camera is held steadfast not moving for long periods of time, picking up all the appropriate nuances with a deliberate dispassion. It looks at an Oregon lumber mill whose owner Ray Weiss (Tom Blair) is faced with unsettling economic news about the business he has built-up and worked at for the last 50 years. It focuses on this man and tries to find out who he is, using him as a metaphorical symbol for America. It also contrasts Ray’s views on nature with Emerson’s, paraphrasing from his transcendentalist’s essays which are flashed on the screen.

By seeing who this man is through his thoughts, we get to see how Ray adjusts to his carefully scripted life: the fly-fishing he loves, his easy and almost genteel manners, and his very definite American persona. Ray is forced out of economic necessity to deal with the Japanese businessmen he inherently despises, and we get a picture of a rather complicated individual who has difficulty in communicating with himself and others. So the closer we get to him, the more we sense that there are a lot of things that remain unknown. The shocker about Ray’s life that is about to unfold comes after he meets a foreign stranger on the street who is raving about the day of atonement coming soon and of how God knows all, and that he should pray with him for salvation. But the street preacher is told by Ray, that he has no time to listen to his message. Feeling uncomfortable being around this religious zealot, Ray fumbles around with his wad of bills and thrusts a few dollars in the preacher’s pockets. This is not kindly received by the preacher, as he shouts that “he doesn’t want his money.”

Our perceptions of Ray as a Rock of Gibraltor type is squelched, as we see him come unglued in his very comfortable home. Ray slyly interacts with his second wife (Ellen McLaughlin), as she confronts him with a letter from her college-aged daughter, Tracy, who is his step-daughter via his first marriage. Mrs. Weiss insists on reading out loud a letter addressed to her from Tracy, which accuses him of placing his hands on her private places. Ray tries to respond indirectly to his wife’s question as she says: “All that she wants to know, is it true?” But all he can respond is that he wonders why Tracy is doing this to him, indicating that she is probably mixed up. What results is apocalyptic in tone as the film becomes disturbingly mysterious and evasive, never settling for sure who is telling the truth but, nevertheless, this scene destroys the family. It could be deemed as an attack on America’s soul exposing it to questions about truth and character, as one’s principles are put under the microscope but cannot be determined. The story builds from here to its very tragic outcome.

This is one of Jost’s deepest and most penetrating films to date, it could even be argued that he has made a classically great American film — a poor man’s “Citizen Kane.”  It forcefully and subtly tells an American story, replete with unanswered questions about family life that are haunting. It makes you think for a long time afterwards what is it about this country that is so raw and violent in nature — so much so that it becomes a part of the people’s own nature.

One of the most memorable scenes was when the camera panned to Ray dining with some co-workers at a diner and all we could hear, at first, was the muffled conversations of the patrons as the camera meticulously continued to pan the diner. This daily experience of eating out is routine for most Americans but it has rarely been captured so disturbingly exact on film, as we eavesdrop on the banal chatter and come away with a feeling that we heard nothing deeper than a conversation about the weather. But, at the same time, we are learning much about what it is to be an American and living where the frontier used to be. This time consuming shot is not attempted by commercial filmmakers who live in fear of losing their audience in a long non-action shot. That is one of Jost’s strong points, his willingness to explore territory others fear to go.

Jost’s film can probably be criticized for a few lapses in the story line it didn’t clarify more precisely–exploring in greater depth Ray’s relationships with family and friends. But, more importantly, the film should be praised for the poetry it brings to its story when telling about a malaise in the American culture that is difficult to come to grips with. What is clearly seen, is the American landscape that is perceived as so beautiful a sight to behold and the country as so wealthy a place when compared with the rest of the world. Yet, what must finally be asked: What does the American Dream mean…if Americans do not seem to be a happy people without their material comforts?

REVIEWED ON 3/20/99                                 GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”

© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED   DENNIS SCHWARTZ

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93. THE BED YOU SLEEP IN (source not known).

Set in Oregon timber country, Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In studies a family within the context of regional economic downturn in the mid-1990s. The opening image, of a lumber mill’s smokestack belching out smoke into the air, conveys both productivity and pollution. Logging cranes in operation, resembling gigantic metal insects, suggest both useful labor and something amiss.

Ray owns and operates the mill. In addition to a timber shortage wrought, in part, by stringent environmental laws, the mill must contend with the housing slump wrought by an overall ailing economy.

Ray and Jean’s marriage is happy and affectionate. However, Jean is Ray’s second wife, and their affair began while he was still married to his first wife. A lingering knowledge of Ray’s capacity to lie convincingly is thus further compounded by Jean’s own guilt for having contributed to this long-ago lie. Overcompensating, Jean has loved Tracy, Ray’s child from his first marriage, as her own. Nevertheless, her repressed guilt has erupted periodically whenever she and Ray quarrel, as accusations against him.

Disaster awaits the two, triggered by freshman Tracy, whose women’s support group at college has convinced her her father sexually abused her as a child. Memories are popping up in her head—not “memories” exactly, but “images,” she writes Jean, explaining she doesn’t know when, if ever, she will be able to return home. Driven to believe Tracy to assuage her own guilt, Jean demands Ray tell her “the truth,” which is impossible for him to establish, and which Jean is incapable of accepting because of its indeterminableness. The marriage unravels; each family member, between a rock and a hard place emotionally, commits suicide.

This film brilliantly charts the intersection of family and socioeconomic stress—a long problematic American history that’s taking its toll.

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The Bed You Sleep In Review:

The final film in an informal trilogy starring the phenomenal Tom Blair (the other two films in the series are Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Sure Fire), The Bed You Sleep In illustrates the deep frustration about America that drove director Jon Jost to relocate to Europe shortly after it was made. As in the first two films, this one tries to get at the roots of America’s social and political ills through the portrayal of one man’s life. On the surface, Blair’s character, Ray Weiss, is much more sympathetic than the ones he played in the previous two films, but his job as the manager of a lumber mill (albeit a nature-loving one) being driven out of business by foreign competition and clear-cutting places him in a can’t-win situation. He either has to destroy the nature he loves or lose his livelihood. His dual nature is reflected in the visual scheme of the film, which includes many landscape shots composed as diptychs. This is one of Jost’s most powerful portraits of the slow pace and underlying sadness of small town life, both of which are beautifully depicted in a remarkable scene in the town’s diner, made of a single, languid tracking shot encompassing the diner’s interior while life simply goes on both within and beyond the camera’s view. When the letter from his daughter arrives accusing Ray of incest, it hints at an even more violent split within his nature, one that, in Jost’s view, is symbolic of the violent divisions threatening to undermine America’s nobler ideals. Tom Vick, All Movie Guide

 

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” Jost also wanted to represent something quite general that was directly relevant to the contemporary United States. On repeated occasions, Jost has defined the film as a testament to the breakdown of social trust and dialogue within the United States, referring both to the hysteria surrounding issues of childhood sexual abuse and a more widespread deterioration of all areas of public discourse.[8] Shouting and accusation replaced listening and understanding.”

The Bed You Sleep In is available on VOD here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/123248

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Wrapping up five months in USA, mostly on road zig-zagging from West to East. Friends seen, new friends made; landscapes, cities. Overall a dispiriting time as the winter clouds were not only meteorological but of the spirit. The Trump era has cast its spell, though in my view it only revealed in crude form what was already there: a nation in disarray – self-deluded, half-naked, half-masked in complacency. From the spindly Manhattan billionaire condo spires to the pop-tent homeless encampments, the schizophrenia of America lay like splattered road-kill on the national psyche. The dull drone of corporate big box mall stores floated by like a nightmare of consumer constipation, an endless loop of faux Italianate facades and blocky corporate logo design, regurgitated from coast to coast. Along the arteries of commerce the toxic sprawl of automobile life – Quick Lube, Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, Auto Zone, Nissan, GM, Firestone, and a thousand other vehicular notices, from lawyer “accident” billboards, to the myriad gas stations peddling our most addictive juice and toxic habit. And there I was running up my mileage, adding to the lethal load of CO2, oil extraction, global warming death-warrant.

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I’d meant to carry on shooting for PLAIN SONGS but shot almost nothing while pondering why the hell? I’d started way back in 2012, and have taken now I think it is three or four stabs at this, but the same thing happened before. For more on that you can see the blog I did for it:

https://wordpress.com/post/americanplainsongs.wordpress.com/16

As I prepare to leave, the question remains. There seems no breathing space for speaking softly or for thought in this America.  As if we’d run up against a dead end, and in my case, personally, it feels that I have.  As in the old Dylan song, “You go your way and I’ll go mine.”

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I can’t say it was a sudden revelation – frankly I’d seen it coming for decades, this internal fracturing of the national psyche. It was, after all, the subject of most of my film work – essays or documentary or fiction. Once it held a fascination, an interest, and perhaps I had a little hubristic thought that by making works which reflected the State of the Nation, it might have some tiny little positive effect. I long ago gave up on that delusion. So now as this culture I hesitantly call “home” seems to drift to dissolution, and doubtless through many ugly stumbles in so doing, I think it wisest to let it go and turn my attentions elsewhere. Frankly I sincerely feel America will collapse in the next decade or two, splintering much as the USSR did. And this, given our real history, will not be a bad thing at all, for us, or for the world. We have told ourselves lies far too long.

On that note, I’ll go to the airport in a bit, and try to set all these thoughts about America aside and move along to other things.

 

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A few weeks ago, lured by past visits, and the promise of a certain seasonal quietude and benign weather probabilities, I went from the San Francisco area out to Death Valley.  I passed through the Mojave desert, by derelict towns and Air Force bases, old mining camps and their debris, then through the valley, passing famed Zabriski Point, and on to a town I’d visited before, Tecopa Hot Springs, there to bathe a bit trying to chase the flu or cold I’d picked up in the City.   And to scout and think, as it was my intention to shoot another landscape film in the Valley – envisioned in my mind a wide, vast and brooding image of this foreboding area.   I spent a few days soaking in the hot springs, surrounded mostly with Asians – Koreans mostly.  Nosed around the area taking photos, and then, drove north into Death Valley, taking the Badwater route.  As it happens the Badwater basin is the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level.   Approaching from the south the density of traffic grew, from the occasional 4 wheeler or snazzy van headed south, to a near traffic jam.  Badwater was filled with tourists, folks who came to take selfies or take a walk down into the saline bowl to experience America’s lowest.

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My casual observation was that most these tourists were Asian – Korean, Japanese, Chinese.  Most meaning perhaps two-thirds or more.  I assume they were lured by travel agents, pointing out that Death Valley was indeed a spectacular place, and winter was the time to visit to avoid being broiled.   And the world being as it is today, they have the money to be tourists, and America is certainly a prime location for spectacular selfie backgrounds.

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Seeing this herd of tourists out in the midst of the aptly named Death Valley also underlined the profound change which we humans have brought to “nature.”  Once a lethally forbidding landscape, this remote and harsh desert has in the last 30 years,  along with much else in our world, been converted into a play-ground, a part of the vast Disneyland into which the globe has been transformed: today we zip through the European Alps on highways which simply flatten them – tunnels or elevated bridges letting us literally fly through them, making them mere spectacle.  No zig-zag tortuous hairpin curve up-down required any more.  And the same is true of almost everywhere. Great and modest suspension bridges leap over chasms, four-wheel drive ORV machines churn up desert sands or swampy marshes; para-gliders swoop over mountain ranges or ocean up-rises; base-jumpers leap from cliffs and buttes and natural arches (as well as man-made towers); skiers are hoisted to the tops of mountains only to zip down once treacherous slopes as entertainment.  Cheap airlines jam the air with tourists who traipse en masse through once near sacred sites – the Parthenon, Machu Picchu, Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, and any other remarkable piece of architecture or symbolic totem of societies past.  All the world’s a playground, a kind of game.

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It had happened by accident, but looking out over Badwater, it made sense.  A month earlier I’d been to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, on the north western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.  It is the furthest western point on mainland USA.  As it happens Neah Bay is an Indian Reservation, the Makah Tribe.  Like most reservations it is a place of drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, trash and trashed housing – a lamentable if understandable response of a culture which has been simply squashed and destroyed by another culture.   A sad place.  And in a literal and geographic sense, The End of America.   I went to shoot for a film, Plain Songs, thinking I’d begin it with a shot of the Pacific, from there, The End of America, in the metaphoric sense – a desolate community destroyed by America’s ugly history.

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DSC04768crp.jpgNeah Bay, on the res

I found it oddly ironic that I’d accidentally come to Badwater, the lowest point in America, to watch tourists gather and gawk, at the same time my country had fallen into the morass of the Trump administration and metaphorically, at least for many of my fellow countrymen, we’re enmeshed in another “lowest point.”   I took another shot for the perhaps swan-song film on America, and wandered on, taking many still photos of the valley.  While the imagined landscape film escaped me, instead another idea came to mind, which, though far more work, might be a nice change of pace.

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Wandering from Death Valley I went to Beatty, Nevada, a small town scrapping to stay alive on the coat-tails of tourism, just outside the National Park.  Still chasing my cold, I hunkered down in a few motels, trying to think and perhaps write.  Neither came at the time, rather more diffuse thoughts meandered in mind.  At the same time clangorous “news” rattled the nation’s nerves – Trump Trump Trump, 24/7.  The rush of daily traumas ran into a smear – North Korea, Bannon, bigger buttons, vulgar statements – a non-stop litany of Trump’s obscenity, and his magical revelation of the utter corruption of America’s political and social institutions which appeared powerless in front of this pathetic man, thus showing their own decadence.   Beatty, a dead-end town of desert desolation provided a suitable setting to sour still more my contemplation of America.

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A VFW outfit offered a decent amber beer for $3, and an assortment, depending on the night, of grizzled camo decked vets, or other nights, a swarm of Asian tourists, sent there by the nearby motel – not that there were many options as where to go.  One wondered just what person would willfully choose to settle down in this town, or thousands of others I have traversed in my travels in America in the past decade or two.  The grim signs of failure littered the townscape in ramshackle housing, trailer homes, junked cars, abandoned stores, and the transparent poverty written on the faces and bodies of the people who live there.  The same is replicated with regional touches almost anywhere one goes in the United States.  Behind the hip gentrified facades of liberal America, or the closed gated communities of the well-off, or the distant penthouses or estate mansions of the very rich, there is a pervasive cancer gnawing away at our social accords.  It is a disease fraught with contradictions and confusions, one which breeds a mutual stew of contempt and hatred, and has long since embittered our national “unity.”   I think this largely accounts for our most American habit of flying the flag in the front yard – a kind of desperate wish for union which masks an awareness of our deep disunion.

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With such thoughts I continued my journey, passing derelict towns, juxtaposed to vast tracts of shopping malls flanking the sides of our cities, endless miles of Big Box stores, corporate logos dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see, and the goading shrieks of our media – television, radio, giant bill-boards – all urging us to buy buy buy and run up our credit card bills into the trillions.

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I await the imminent burst of this bubble as the stock market zooms past Dow Jones 26,000, and the homeless camp beneath freeway overpasses, and the fractured psyche of the nation intensifies its internecine squabble with itself, with precious few any more honest or self-aware than Donald J. Trump, our titular head of State.

The United States of America represents about 5% of the world’s population.  It consumes 25% of the globe’s resources.  There is an explanation for how this occurs, and it is not owing to our supposed brilliance, inventiveness, our “can do” attitude.  It is owing to other things.  Things which America at large is unwilling to acknowledge or address in any meaningful manner except to demand still more funding for our military.

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Trailing the dry cough of the flu I and millions of others picked up this winter, I moved along.  Some suggested this disease was metaphorical for the winter’s political and social discontent, and not merely a passing bug.  My own thoughts persisted, like the cough, to meander through the debris of now decades of seeing my own country through the eyes of a harsh critic, and seeing nothing has changed, really, for the better.  Rather it all appears to be coming to a bitter fruition as we collectively fulfill comments made long ago by a French visitor, or by some of our own sages.   In this case, being “right” in my own views, bears no consolation whatsoever.

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“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H. L. Mencken

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
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“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”  Alexis de Tocqueville

And the bitter truth is that America has never been good.

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Following a week of recording in Piangipane, Emilio Romagna, Italy, and a one day stop in London, I returned to the USA toward the end of October after an absence of a year and 8 months.  For me personally much had changed – a back operation, recuperation, a few friends no longer with us, and the usual thoughts that come with some many spins around the sun.  And America had likewise undergone a sea-change.  An election had been held, a new President had taken office, and it seemed as if for the social culture a long shadow had been cast, and a general air of gloom had taken hold, at least among the kinds of people I tend to know.  Others I understand are quite happy with the changes. On arrival my own immediate life was seized with mundane chores: grab the van, update the car insurance, new plates, head on to destination #1, and so on.  Hit the road, which was the plot and plan.

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Charles Therminy, August 12, 1934 – March 9, 2017, my roommate in 1963

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The last time I’d returned to America in such a way was back in 2002, after 10 continuous years in Europe with nary a visit back in that decade away.  Then I was prompted by the post-9/11 words of friends who cautioned the air was thick with unhappiness and the steady encroachment of a police-state regime.  I wondered, and on return had to agree, except it seemed worse than what I’d heard.   America was down, riled up with old hat arguments which seem our fated history.   We were paranoid, unconscious, in endless denial.  Was 9/11 an inside job?  Why would an Arabic group attack us?  Were we safe anymore? And on and on.   The schism between urban and rural widened, Fox took hold across the heartlands, and two America’s seemed to struggle to emerge.  Not a happy time.

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And now, a decade and a half later, the sour brew which had begun at the start of the Millennium has turned toxic.  A new President, not really elected by the people, but installed courtesy of an arcane system meant to reward slave-holders way back when, has done exactly what it was clear he’d do during the farcical election when with a childish petulance he revealed his Republican opponent’s vacuity with an infantile bullying BS, and they all caved, the hollow men of TS Eliot.  And then the DNC/Clinton Democrats were up, only to reveal their hubris and political deafness.  Since November 7, 2016, the nation has been in a state of shock, each day amplified by new waves of bull-in-the-china-shop actions taken by the Trump administration.  From the relative stasis of the long post-WW2/Cold War era, we’re now in a seeming terra incognita.

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That we have arrived in this state should in reality be no surprise.  The underlying grounds have been more than visible for decades, if one only chose to look.  Most people instead preferred the comfort of denial or ignorance, or both.   Since World War Two, when America took on seriously its role of global super-power, wielding its nuclear weapons, its manufacturing base cranked up for war-making, intact in not having been bombed as all the other were in the war, we have lived in a perpetual condition of illusion.  And we have been lied to by our government chronically, again and again, in all that time.  From hiding and denying the evidence that our nuclear experiments in fact had seriously dangerous side-effects, on through our lying about covert operations through out the world, from Iran to Cuba to Vietnam, to Central and South America, the American government has paved the way both for our relative wealth, and for the corrosive effects of having lied to achieve it.  The JFK white-wash with magic bullets.  Gulf of Tonkin. The World Trade Center collapse.  WMD.  The story is long and full of government lies-as-policy.

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“Globalization” has only served to exacerbate this process, loosening the regulations regarding corporate behavior which in turn sent jobs to the cheapest labor pools, and decimated middle-America, all under the rubric of neo-liberalism, promising great economic gains across the board while in reality culling the winners to the rich, and abandoning those lower on the totem pole.  All under the guidance of the government’s Brightest and Best, money sloshed loosely around the globe in a most un-benign manner. The whole process has resulted in an across-the-board corruption of our society – from the lowest to the highest.  From Wall Street to Main Street, from academic grade inflation to “safe spaces” for the coddled children of a misguided middle-class. The Trump administration is in fact a fair reflection of the society it represents, both “Conservative” and “Liberal” sides.   Like that society, it is corrupt – fiscally, socially, morally, politically. Trump could never have won office in a healthy society, but American society has been increasingly ill over the last 5 decades, or in truth far longer.   And the chickens are now home to roost.

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I came back to the States in part to see friends for a probable last time, and to try to make a bit of money.  The latter is proving a hard go – screenings promised and then cancelled, inquiries unanswered and such.  You can see a few other posts regarding that topic.  I also came back for a perhaps last look at America – its cities and landscapes.  And also perhaps to make a final essay about America, Plain Songs, a companion for my previous two films on the US:  Speaking Directly (1972), and Plain Talk and Common Sense (uncommon senses) (1987).    I’ve been back now two months, and while I have taken a few shots which I imagined to be for this new film, I sense it will not be made.  The one shot I made was from Cape Flattery, far out on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the farthest west one can go in mainland USA.   Nestled next to it is Neah Bay, an Indian rez town, and like most of them I have ever seen, a sad place of derelict homes, signs against meth and alcohol, and an air of final desolation.  I thought to begin with a first segment called “The End of America,” as this end-point of America, like the “Center of the Nation” in Plain Talk, is ripe with ironic meaning.   I took a shot, and inside something curdled in my soul.

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Each day here is greeted with an avalanche of “news,” whether it is of the machinations of the Trump administration or of an almost Biblical kind – hurricanes flattening islands in the Caribbean, or flooding Houston, or fires decimating California, or the huff and puff of Kim Jong-un, or the unmasking of yet another sexist man in showbiz or politics, or yet another gun massacre or cop killing another black man.  Each day seems to shriek calamity, and the social atmosphere grows dark and fraught with fear.  Amidst this cacophony one feels an aura of irrational hysteria, a society caught in the throes of a major change, one which might easily slip any direction, but seems headed for the worst.   I can’t say I am surprised, after all it is exactly what I examined in the earlier essay films [as well as in numerous fictional films – Sure Fire, The Bed You Sleep In, Homecoming, Over Here, Parable, Coming to Terms]  –  this decay of American society and the costs incurred by it out in the wide world, and inside, in the personal one.

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So I ask myself, what might I add?  And, honestly, I imagine there is ample room in my thoughts to toss in my two-bits.  But then I ask, and who would it hear it and how would that happen?  And my answer is that while perhaps a handful or even some hundreds or thousands might see such a work, in the present political reality that is tantamount to no one.   It would amount to a nano-second blip in the vast ocean of noise and shouting which envelops us daily.  And while I, and perhaps a handful of others, might derive some pleasure or learning from such a work, it would surely do absolutely nothing in the face of the tsunami of media, money, and cultural leverage which our society wields each day, every day, all day.  Socially, politically, it would be simply nothing.  Of that I am utterly sure, just as I am likewise sure – and history shows it all too clearly – that the prior two films, along with all the rest of my life’s work, have done nothing politically or socially in any way I might have intended.  Yes, a very very small number of people may have been personally touched, and perhaps even a few saw their lives slightly deflected by it.  But, bottom line, in the real world of society and its mechanisms, zilch.  Really nothing.

 

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Perhaps these are the thoughts of a banged-up burned-out doddering old geezer. Perhaps  – I certainly qualify for some of that.  Perhaps it is time to turn my attentions elsewhere, and leave the transitory stuff of politics to itself.  Or perhaps it is just a transitory quiver of doubt, long over-due.  Or perhaps instead of a filmed essay it will morph into another form.  Written, or….  well, we’ll see.  For the moment though, the idea of Plain Songs as a video essay has gone dormant.

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dsc02447-crpsmThe view from Caucana

Wrapping up nearly one year in Sicily – initially in Caucana, by the sea for 3 months, and then Ragusa since last January – I’m prompted by circumstances to draw an assessment as our lives move on now to another setting.

We arrived by serendipity:  summer of 2016 met a fellow who’d taken a workshop I’d done way back in 2003 in a small town, Gallo D’Oro, nearby Taormina.  It had been a very happy and successful 10 day affair, and those who took part in it had had a rich and good experience.  Giuseppe Tumino had gone on to other things in the film world here, making documentaries and organizing various events and he had a little festival on the Ionian sea, and finding out I was nearby, in Matera, recuperating from a back operation, he contacted me and asked if Marcella and I might play jurors.  We said yes, had a nice time, and along the way Giuseppe mentioned he came from Ragusa and would be going for the summer to his family’s beach house.  Knowing that such beach towns are full of houses that sit vacant for 10 months of the year I promptly and indelicately asked if I might stay in his family’s place in the off-season.  And so we did, from October to December.

dsc03353-sm-smAlong the beach from Caucana to Punta Secca, one of a thousand fotos of sand

I spent the time recuperating, taking long daily walks along the beach, making photos, and along the way we met a friend of Giuseppe’s, Raffaella Spadola, who had a nice small apartment in Ragusa with a modest rent, and in January we moved there.  Ragusa is one of a string of baroque towns – including also Modica, 10 miles away, and Scicli another 10, and then a fair bit further towards Siracusa, Noto.  These towns were all destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, and rebuilt splendidly in the style of the times, fully displaying the wealth that Sicily then had. Each town has a sizable Duomo (cathedral) and numerous other churches and Catholic institutional buildings – convents and monasteries, and palazzi for the church leaders and other wealthy people. And as well,  famed celebrations for patron saints, though these now seem mostly – like much else – mainly for tourists.  They are leached of the passion of only half a century ago, when the church still had a firm grip on society – a grip that has collapsed under the assault of modernity and consumerism.  The towns now are full of B&B’s and are busy during the summer tourist season, but largely dormant the rest of the year.

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On moving here, perhaps owing to Giuseppe’s local influence, I was the subject of fame’s aura – supposedly I was well-known, a big director.  Which once upon a time might have appeared so – 30 years ago I materialized in Italian newspapers with articles and photos, films in festivals and other such ephemera – and so quickly hovering around were those for whom this acts like flame for a moth.  They had “heard of” (but most likely not seen, even if they said they had) All the Vermeers in New York.  Or something else.  They asked to interview me.  To have me for a party.  Etc.  But quickly disillusioned by my willful failure to live up to their imagined expectations, the same people disappeared as brusquely as they had shown up – thankfully.   I guess I don’t exude Big Important Person, nor whatever goes with it.  Nor have I ever wanted to.

So I went about my modest business – took a ton of photos, did some collages, and began to shoot some kind of film. A kind of a reflex habit.  About Ragusa, or vaguely so, or maybe.

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At one point some people here thought to do a workshop and arranged a screening of a film, La Lunga Ombra, at a local cafe/cultural focus, Le Fate. Ironically, this place, intended to celebrate Sicilian culture, is run by a woman from Romania. At the screening I said I might be making a film set in Ragusa and said if anyone was interested in helping or participating, to let me know.  The screening attracted maybe 20 people, and when a workshop was suggested they couldn’t manage to round up enough people to bother. However one fellow contacted me, a self-described art critic, who proved more than interested.  He was the kind of opportunist I’d seen before, jumping to take a ride on whatever “fame” coattails I appeared to have, eager to help and insinuate himself into importance.  He was, as usual, helpful, in that he provided a few contacts to local arts people, but then dug in turning himself into the virtual producer of a non-existent project.  After he talked with Marcella about local witches whom he said he knew, and other such things, and took his role with far greater seriousness than warranted, I let him know in no uncertain terms that he’d far over-stepped his boundaries and that I was a private sort of person, and he should bug off.   He did, though he materialized later to say he wished to write an article on my painting and photos for some Italian arts magazine, and to set up an exhibit at a local art gallery.  And then he disappeared a few months, only to pop up again several weeks before we were to leave.  He said he’d arranged to do an exhibit at a gallery in Ibla for the last week of our stay.  Rather abrupt and fast in my book, but I went to the gallery, met the guy running it, and said OK, though it all seemed rather rushed to me.  Italia!  Last minute as usual.   After a little discussion about how to hang the paintings – I said in little passepartout cardboard frames and directly rejected putting them directly on the wall with little putty things – we agreed to an exhibit for a week before we were to leave. They huddled a week and said to come in on a Friday morning, the day before the “opening”, to see and approve the display.  Marcella and I arrived at the suggested time, and no one was there.  A glance inside suggested nothing had been done.  After a phone call the gallerist materialized 45 minutes later, and indeed nothing had been done and when Marcella inquired how he intended to mount the paintings he said, why with this putty.  I said no.  Things quickly degenerated and I said I could do without this hassle and to give me back my paintings. They wanted me to pay for the awful little postcard and poster things they’d made but had not put up anywhere.  I left with the paintings.  Marcella stayed another 20 minutes to listen and haggle, which resolved nothing.

 

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Meantime we’ve shot a bit of material for a film – an interview with a local photographer, Giuseppe Leone, who is quite good.  And we met with a painter, Giovanni Lisandrello. Perhaps this week, before leaving, we’ll go and shoot Giovanni.  At the moment we have perhaps 50 minutes.  There’s a few others I’d like to film, though I lack enthusiasm and wonder why I should bother.

 

My doubts seem to have to do with the less than positive sense I have that inchoately gathers around the material.  Since arriving I’ve been struck by the crippling psychological effect that a very deep provincialism seems to have on those we’ve met – whether the one’s hustling to attempt to use “famous” me as a stepping stone, or those artists, like Giuseppe and Giovanni, who in their talks with us have transparently resented their parochial setting, trapped in the small city of Ragusa, despite their talents, and (as is so common) not really respected as they think they should be in their own community.  The provincialism works into everyone and everything, and distills down into something akin to the thought that if you are here, in Ragusa (or a hundred other small cities or towns in Sicily) then you are nothing.  It is a disease that eats into anyone with the least of ambitions in this kind of setting, and condemns anyone who stays, no matter their talents and skills.  And they seem self-aware of this, but are unable to either escape by leaving, or by refusing the mind-set of provincialism.  Flip side is the tribalism which affects all of Italy, in which your town, contrada, region, and finally person, is necessarily better than those others. It seems that everyone either feels the doors are closed to them, or they themselves close the doors.

 

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When we visited Giovanni in his nice apartment nearby where we’ve been living, he was, along with his wife, gracious and kind.  We looked at his paintings – which I rather like – and talked.  He’s self-taught, and in fact worked with Giuseppe at the beginning in a photo studio doing retouching. Giuseppe turned to photography, and Giovanni to painting, each taking their own path.  Lissandrelli’s technique, which he learned doing more mundane house-painting as a youth, has a tactile sensibility which is quite strong in his paintings of the local landscapes.  Other works seem instantly archaic, like things dug up by archeologists.

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At one point, probably feeling the need to inflate his importance, Giovanni mentioned he’d had an exhibition in New York, and he went to find a newspaper clipping about it. He came back with a very yellowed and worn newspaper page, where his showing was announced – in the advertisement of a car dealership on Long Island, doubtless an Italo-American immigrant from Ragusa who had “made it” in America.  The pathos was visceral.

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13244002_1011873302212586_2477487878487431767_oPaintings by Giovanni Lissandrello

Leone, the photographer, has a lovely studio, with many wonderful photos on the walls – the better being from Sicily before it became modernized and lost most of its aesthetic and cultural frisson.  They are like stepping back in time, though within Leone’s life-time – showing how rapidly this part of Italy changed.

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So there’s some days left, and I think to think some more.  I don’t think there’ll be a film about Ragusa, though perhaps some of the things shot will materialize in some future work.  Or perhaps drift into the decay of digital oblivion.  Like everything.

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A final note: the night before leaving, the art critic fellow – Giorgio Giovanni Guastella by name – went in the night and deposited a deep key scratch on our car (actually Marcella’s mother’s car), doubtless in his mind exacting revenge for whatever my imagined crimes.   Of such stuff is provincialism made.

 

With each passing day the Trump White House Reality Show Saga staggers forth, drowning the public arena in plots and events which would leave a Brazilian soap opera in the dust of absurdist improbability. Each day the various spokespersons emerge to spew ridiculous lies, one after the other, with seeming shamelessness. Nearly each day Herr Trump emits a sequence of Twitter enuncios, often mangled in misspellings, grammatical knots, and, yes, the invariable Everest of lies which seem to be his singular reason for being. This grand drama has carried on ever since his highness descended the golden escalator of Trump Tower, greeted by a large gaggle of paid actors, and announced he was in the ring, running for President. It was in more ways than one a real class act.

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He’d laid the groundwork for this grand Guignol theater with decades in the trenches of the New York real estate biz, and then the tinsel glamor of casinos, draped with gambling’s usual cast of thugs and local Mafia which, in fact, was not a great change from NYC’s corrupt building industry. And then, having failed in both these endeavors, with a trail of bankruptcies to show for it, he moved onto TV’s reality-show sewer, and ever greater fakery.

As with his businesses, so it was with wives. Failing with one, he dumped her and moved to the next, littering the way with a string of children, the last of whom is named after the fake PR agent which Trump himself used to play to pass along juicy items to New York’s yellow press. Barron was his name, and he’d call to let the world know of Trump’s latest conquests in the field of fucking. His son now bears this albatrossian monicker. Lucky him.

 

And now looking more haggard with his vast comb-over and sagging flesh, eyes peering out from their odd white sockets from the fake tan skin job he applies to himself, The Donald is able to command the world’s attention, his stubby fingers but a code away from incinerating the whole globe, should the corrupted American system comply with a demented order from The President.   Thus far the theoretical “checks and balances” of the Founding Fathers scheme seem to be faltering seriously.


All of the above is appalling, and sadly true. The Rosebud of Trump’s psyche is clearly hidden in the massive chip on the Queens kid’s shoulder. Bruised with a silver spoon up his ass at birth, and apparently a harsh unloving father and mother, The Donald took his million buck wad from his father, moved into the Manhattan real-estate racket, and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, a real Horatio Alger American success story. Well, not quite. Hobbled with a bone spur in one of his feet, he forgets which, Donald blazed a pecker-track trail through the decadent Manhattan party scene of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, emerging, so he says, unscathed with STD, his own private Vietnam, risking AIDS with each psycho-sexual battle. Along the way he blew his million buck starter kit, had some bankruptcies here and there, and built a reputation as a scam artist, from high to low.  He moved on to Atlantic City casinos, and gambling there, lost again.  His dad bailed him out with a legally dubious multi-million dollar purchase of casino chips.  The Trump Taj Mahal recently shuttered its doors after being sold to another sucker. Along the line The Donald learned that old PT Barnum maxim, there’s one born every second.

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Failed but famous, he saw his name was the best product on offer, mystical and golden. Trump Steaks! Trump National Golf Courses! Trump Vodka! Trump University! He built a tower on 5th Avenue, asserting it was 68 floors when it was in fact 58. He installed a private Versailles on its top floors, a garish palace of fake Louis XIV and hauled his third wife up there to spawn his 5th child, dear Barron. And yet, despite all this, the Manhattan elite never accepted him and his brash, crude and rude ways, and the best tables at the classy restaurants were not reserved for him. In fact the boys on Wall Street finally declined to bank with him, and he turned his sights to other funding sources, and, along with other New York real-estate moguls, Trumpworld became a money laundering machine for Russian and East European dirty money, carefully funneled through an arcane web of  off-shore shell companies and banks.

 

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This fantastical story is no fable, but rather the unhappy truth, a real American novel writ large if crude.

 

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Though the still more fantastical story – no fable – is that this one could never have been lived if it were not for the world in which it has been played out:  America, circa now.  In an America where corruption on a vast scale is the norm, though not so long ago we primly lectured the world on probity. Where the once staunchly proper Republican Party lies supine, awaiting Donald’s allegedly very little dick, for a daily reaming. Where a party of pious moralizers about women’s bodies turn utterly silent when the most obvious of liars occupies the White House in their name, and tramples daily on the “values” which they once harped upon so loudly. The hypocrisy is so vast as to diminish the word “hypocrisy” to nothing. It is something else. It is something which has incrementally entered the American body politic in ways that, as ever in hindsight, seem so obvious now, though were invisible as they entered the bloodstream. A stealthy terminal cancer which does not reveal itself until it takes your life.

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Today the liberal world of Democrats is still in shock, unable to believe their most worthy candidate actually lost to the uncouth bullying braggart which Donald John Trump is. At the outset of the campaign they were salivating at the obviousness of their win, it was a no-brainer no-match. They’d take the Senate, clean up in once Red States, and waltz happily from the wonders of a black President to smashing the glass ceiling of sexism, and have a woman in the Oval Office. And, in a manner they did: 3 million more votes  went to Madam Clinton than Mr Trump received, just that, in the arcane electoral scam world of America, they were in the wrong places. Firm in her belief that certain fly-over zones, traditionally Democratic, were hers for granted, she declined to campaign in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and missed out on noting the collapse of these realms which Don the Con so expertly gamed into his head count.

And then of course there is the litany of GOP tricks of gerrymandering, of voting roll purges, and, so it seems, a bit of Russian cyber warfare to tilt the appropriate tables just enough to pull out a Trump Electoral College win.  Such is the Dem lament.  If, indeed, Putin had much to do with it (I’d guess he did, but the roots go far back into post-USSR oligarchic mafia money flooding into NYC and along the way bailing The Donald out of his business miseries), then in terms of grand real-politik, he’s already had an immense win:  the USA is in severe internal turmoil, and seems headed towards a dissolution similar to that which the good old USSR went through.

The bottom line, which it seems Democrats are unable to comprehend, nor did their GOP counterparts, is that the USA is, socially, utterly corrupted, top to bottom, and only in such a situation could a Donald Trump emerge triumphant.  With the GOP he acted like a juvenile delinquent, he huffed and puffed and called his opposition truly stupid bad names – and they all shriveled up and collapsed as they were nothing to begin with.  And once he won, having insulted them all, they showed their true characters and value and went to suck his butt.

clinton ghaddafi“We came, we saw, he died.” (Laughter.)

And while the Democrats imagine themselves somehow different, in truth it is their own corruption – for decades – which brought this debacle upon them, and upon the nation. For decades they have spoken nice liberal niceties, while wallowing in the trough of corporate malfeasance, and enhancing their personal wealth along the way.  Clinton (both) did half-million buck speeches to Wall Street honchos and said no quid pro quo was involved, while they backed the corporately-written trade agreements that have decimated American labor.  Obama, well-mannered Harvard-trained Step’n Fetchit did the Man’s bidding and let Wall Street off the hook for illegalities up the kazoo in the 2008 collapse.  Ditto did he say he was “looking forward” and not back in letting Bush and gang off the hook for lying the USA into a disastrous war, the consequences of which are still being played out. One of the club.  The list of Democratic dishonesty is equal to that of the Republicans, because, bottom line, they all belong to the same institutions and the same insider game.  That is the corruption which blossomed over the decades as the few became obscenely wealthy, and the many fell ever further behind, and the social infrastructure was effectually let to rot while the liberal-left of America mouthed platitudes about race, sexual identification, “safe” spaces, and all the rest of the fake stuff of “political correctness” which invaded our public commons, while the invisible hand of the market consigned a vast portion of the country to Walmart and worse.  While 22 veterans a day, left homeless, commit suicide each day – now far out-numbering those killed in combat.  While meth and then opioids cut a lethal swath across the nation’s failing economic casualties.    It is not as if these things were not visible, it is just that for the liberal world, the large mental “fly-over” country was dismissed as a yahoo red-neck Nascar wreck, unworthy of attention or care, and was left to Fox and friends to warp with 24/7 right-wing propaganda.  All in plain sight, but until it came to whack them over the head in the 2016 election, seemingly unworthy of giving the time of day.   And now the institutional Democrats are convulsed in an internecine war with themselves, fingers pointing blame at anyone but the person in the mirror:  It was Sanders’ fault.  It was the blind DNC.  It was Clinton’s ham-handedness and arrogance.  It was the Russians.  It was…..

 

It was anyone and anything aside from the rotted corrupt society that is America today.  A society in which corruption is such a norm that a great majority is blind to it, taking it as how the world is, and how it should be.  Grade inflation in schools, from kindergarten to PhD’s in Harvard.  Cheating as a necessary way to get ahead.  A medical system which is little more than an extortion racket.  Our vast and corrosive “entertainment” industry that feeds virtual death on a grand scale 24/7 – look at your TV and Hwd block-busters.  Sports which are but a step away from Roman gladiators killing each other for the pleasure of violence besotted spectators. A military-industrial-media system that functions as a quasi-religion and contorts the American economy in a death-lock. Look almost anywhere and the ugly specter of corruption materializes: social, economic, cultural, political.

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This should be no surprise in an imperial system which lies to itself, and has done so from its inception.  The United States of America comprises 5% of the world’s population and consumes 25% of its resources.  While America insists that it is “exceptional” and that this disproportion derives both from having a large landmass and brilliant creative entrepreneurial people, the brutal fact is that it has a vast military machine which enforces its economic sway on much, if no longer all, of the world.  It is imperialism, plain and simple.  But Americans, self-deluded, do not acknowledge it, just as they do not acknowledge that the US is almost always at war, supposedly defending “US interests.”  In such a system the moral rot is innate: no one wishes to admit their wealth is ill-gained, no one wishes to really admit the history which is that of America.  Almost no one in such a system will volunteer to relinquish 80% of their wealth to help even out the grotesque distribution of global wealth.  And so lying and self-delusion arise naturally and “normally,” and with it a fertile ground for corruption of all kinds.   And a hence, a field ripe for the emergence of Mr Trump and his cohorts.

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“A candidate for public office…does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or count himself lost. All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
                                                                                                                 H.L. Mencken

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd at the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce in North Charleston

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April 27 2017

A year ago I lay flat on my back, in a drugged stupor, recovering in a hospital in Matera, down in the south of Italy.  The day before a surgeon had removed a disk from my lower back, the resolution of some decades of chronic pain.  For many years I’d had to stand to work, and sitting was often toxic, especially at a computer or similar setting.  This pain had reached a crescendo in the previous year, prompting a visit to a doctor, MRI, x-rays, and a quick trip to the operating room. That was a year ago.  Now I  sit without problems.

And move.  And move we did: in autumn to Sicily, a small town on the sea, Caucana, where a friend offered an empty summertime place for us to sort of squat.  Utilities. I took long walks on the nearby beach, a ton of photos of it and surrounding areas. Kept up a regimen of exercises, though backing off a bit from my year earlier one of 100 pushups, 60 squats, yoga etc.  And then we moved to Ragusa, about 20 miles inland, where a small (but quite nice) apartment and winter contrived to persuade me I am indeed an older man, and I let go of the exercises altogether, except for long walks in this very up and down town.   Spring is still attempting to arrive, and once it does I suspect I will resume exercises, if not in the gung-ho manner of the past.  My body tells me it is plain and simple old, and things once readily done, are no longer possible, or just plain old hurt.  The usual places: hips, knees, shoulders, neck.  Muscles cramp up in my hands periodically (have done so some years) and of late leg cramps greet me in the morning as I get up. All the processes of the body breaking down, falling apart.

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Skin sags, bellies expand, muscles shrink, eyes fog.  The walking gait leans towards a stoop, and steps are slower, shorter.  Occasionally the hand shakes.  The hormones that once animated spring with illusions of love lie dormant.

Yesterday Jonathan Demme died; pancreatic cancer said one notice, another said throat cancer. 73.  A few weeks ago got notice that a friend in Butte, Dan Cornell, died in his sleep, no illness attached.  70.  Last year a few other friends bit the dust: Peter Hutton, 70.  A long ago lover for a while, Patricia Kelley, died February a year ago. Not sure of age, but under mine.  And of course myriad “famous” people likewise gave up the ghost in the past year, to the customary weeping of the fans. Prince.  Bowie. Haggard. Zsa Zsa. George. Cohen. Muhammad Ali. And a host of others, often said in their obits, to be “larger than life.”  Meaning they were famous and you heard of them.  When one of these dies, Facebook fills with “sorry” and RIP, and depending on the fame of the dead soul, endless weepy sentiments gush forth, which I suspect are forgotten tomorrow as life sweeps on, and the scythe guy does his work.

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On average these days, about 150,000 people die each day (double that are born – see a problem?).

Naturally, as time slips by, and one ages and the mirror or your mind no longer lie, the reality of things becomes ever so clear:  your number is coming up, as is that of your remaining living peers – friends and family, and the famous names of your generation.  Tomorrow’s assumption evaporates, and no, not necessarily will you “see you next year.”

I have, since I was quite young, been very attuned to death – the idea, the presence, the reality.  Not, in my view, in a morbid way, but rather a realistic one. We live.  We die.  We are animals like the road-kill on the highway, like the vast orchestrated slaughter by which we eat.  Live. Die.  It is axiomatic. For me it has always been a puzzle why people say they are sad when someone has died – those Facebook sentiments like Hallmark Cards.  To my mind it is as if one said, “I’m sorry so and so lived.”   To be sad about a death, is to be sad about a life.  That’s the deal.  To not cope, honestly and realistically, with death is the same as not coping honestly and realistically with life.  They are the same thing.

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Occasionally, spurting from me in some involuntary way, words arrive and I put them on paper or these days in digital 1’s and 0’s.  Perhaps these are poems.  Since I was a teenager these came to me – usually in waves which overtook me, and then subsided.  Many of these seem to center on death.    A sampling from a long sequence being prepared as a book.

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It doesn’t glitter anymore and gravity is mean
heartless pulls the pretty girls apart
and heartless lays them down
down there for physic frolics
fondling and fucking as ought to be when young
when the snap of muscles lifts to push and pull
the basic alpha-beta of oscillating sways
that confuses them with simpered love
and later lays them down in sullenness
the creases deeper, untended meats gone sagged
ragged now from head to toe
spirits dispirited to wonder where it went
or even if it ever was
miasmic snipping at most central cortex’s
as we and she forget who she was and is
a beauty dimmed to nearly nothing
not even there a glimmered eye
floating on her now-mustached face
as gravity lays her one last place

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I had a lot of baggage
A life time’s worth
Just like anyone else who’d spiraled the sun 70 times and more
Dragging all the debris of living’s mess
You’d been bad and good, or maybe just waffling along
Hedging all your bets, playing it safe.

And here towards the final verses
You found you’d blown it
All the savings, the careful steps
The well-considered investments all erased
Just like you’d be.

Looking in the mirror the flesh sagged like all your peers
Gravity was working on the same stuff
And likewise your spirit limped
No longer limpid when you thought you knew it all
And now know you know almost nothing.

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 what’s left is ever less

the yawning eons of childhood now shriveled as one’s skin

the seeming infinite closes in

time diminishes to imagined years,

seasons, days, hours, and less

until so little one is no more.

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01trump2-master675As we edge toward the fabled 100 first days of our newly-minted President’s term, there seems enough evidence in to warrant a modest appraisal.

“Holy shit!”

Peering through the rubble of this new administration’s record, we won’t recite the litany of Cabinet officers chosen to destroy, by one means or another, the departments to which they are assigned, nor those cronies – mostly family and friends – plonked down in the West Wing suites at 1600.  Nor the botched first week’s so-called not-Muslim ban, nor the great “repeal and replace” debacle of gutting the Affordable Health Care Act.  Or the other myriad fumbles which came from the small hands of our dear leader, and his cohorts of the moment: Bannon, Sessions, Hill, son-in-law Jared and daughter Ivanka, Hill, Cohen, and the quickly departed Flynn (and the many others who doubtless will be dumped from the team).

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These matters and others have been fully aired by our pundits left and right, with due respect given to the evident chaos and mismanagement with which the wizardly self-proclaimed dazzling NYC businessman The Donald Trump™ has commenced his stay in DC.  Nor mention the many millions of tax dollars spent to shuttle the Trump entourage from Washington to Mars-a-Lago, where the serious business of state is discussed over nibbles and golf.  Nor the Machiavellian intrusions of Putin and company and the many criss-crossed connections between Trump’s campaign and the Russians.  All these things and more have been duly covered by the purveyors of real news and “fake,” from Right and Left and middling in-between.  As was predictable, it is TrumpTrumpTrump™ 24/7/365. The castigation of Trump from the liberal left, as well as his elevation (for the moment) to savior by the alt-Right, can only have occurred in a particular setting – a setting which almost all sides choose not to discuss or investigate too deeply as the pointing finger invariable sends three back to the accuser.  In both cases, blame/shame is a diversion, a way to evade more fundamental matters, to elude one’s own responsibility in the serious matters at hand.  Invariably it boils down to “we are screwed” and it is always the fault of someone else, of a party external to one’s self.

In the simplistic manner which seems to appeal to the American public – not only now, but over the brief historical blip of the nation’s existence – we tend to boil things down to a binary sequence:  yep/nope, Dem/Rep, right/wrong, right/left, white/black, and so on down our either/or set up.  “You are either with us or against us.” Our value system leaves little room for a middle-ground, a space for contradicting beliefs and practices.  In consequence we tend to self-segregate, and whether “legal” or not, we live in clumps of mirror images: the rich live with the rich, the middle-class, the gentrified hipster, the educated, the poor, the black, brown, Asian, native American all coalesce into common groups, each with a particular set of blinders on, blinders seldom contradicted within the community.   Confronted with those outside one’s own community there is shock and dismay: they live like thatthey believe that!

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And so, as a society we are vulnerable to the easy division of us and them politics, which Mr. Trump, a highly successful TV personality, poll watcher and life-time con-man, easily played upon.   Though this could only have worked in a situation in which the various institutions of society were already hollowed out and rotted.  As the last 3 months have shown, indeed these institutions – the ones that theoretically are meant to serve as a check on wild societal swerves – have all shown themselves to be the proverbial empty suits.   The Republicans, those scolds of the past so concerned about Christian beliefs, and sexual propriety, or running up debt or — well, take your pick of the litany of GOP totems which Trump has smashed into a pulp of incoherence, while the party faithfully toed his line, but months after having asserting he was far beyond the pale, vile, insane and worse.  But now, no matter how much he has diverged from supposed Republican rectitude, the party has been in lock-step following his lead.  Principles?  Family values be damned.

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And ditto the Democrats, now subdued and powerless,  whimper in virtual silence, Clinton’s brilliant technocrats stunned by their defeat at the hands of a true impresario of the fetid American psyche, whose sort has graced our history since the start.   Our founding fathers wrote, in establishing the Union, that “all men are created equal” though at the time Native Americans, Blacks, women, and folks without land weren’t, well, quite equal.  They were instead genocide victims, slaves, chattel and not allowed a vote or a voice in the running of their newly founded country.  A little “original sin” of the hallowed founding fathers, supposedly corrected in the past 250 years, though most of those corrections were crammed into the last 100 years, and are under constant threat.

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American history is a long litany of lies, from its founding document, now enshrined in Philadelphia as a virtual religious document, which citizens are taught to revere, and to which they recurrently must swear to uphold and defend, more or less upon pain of certain banishment, or even death should they refuse.  Try sitting at a baseball game through the National Anthem, or declining to recite the Pledge of Allegiance when it is requested.

And so it has been since we commenced, a deeply ingrained hypocrisy, in which we moralistically mouth platitudes inversely proportional to our actions.  This is our history, which artists have told us in so many fables and novels, Elmer Gantry writ large across the two and a half centuries of our national life.  While we conjure up the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, and extol his purported honesty, it is only centuries later we get word of his black mistress, and the rest of the “story.”

Trump then represents a culmination of America, the place we were always headed, and the kind of person whom our national destiny designated to rise to the pinnacle of our society.

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P.T. Barnum

“The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72

 ”As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by an downright utter moron.”

H.L.Mencken-1928

“I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in.”

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

Alexis de Tocqueville

Of course most of our citizens would object to these thoughts, and insist matters are exaggerated, and that it is only those people who are at fault.  The blacks, the Mexicans, the Wall Streeters, the druggies, the banksters, the libruls, the racists, the rich, the poor, you know, “them!”

But as Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us.  For if one looks with a tiny bit of honesty, one must see that our society is utterly corrupted – ethically, morally, financially, politically, socially.   The corruption is so thorough, and our dishonesty about it so complete, that naturally we do not see it.   Or if we do, it is only in others. 

So, in the minds of perhaps a majority of Americans, Trump has been visited upon us by the red-neck yokels of back-woods fly-over country.  It is their damned fault.  And in the minds of said yokels, it is because those latte sipping LGBT welfare-sucking goddamned libruls were forcing their unChristian anti-job values on the country with big guvmint.

Yep, we’ve all got somebody to blame.

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So, to really understand how we arrived here, we need to – how unfashionable in these days –  look at history.  Our history.

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In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue

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Seizing, in increments, the larger part of a large continent – by “discovery” and “colonizing,” by war, by purchase, by military invasion – the United States consolidated its power and then expanded it to include the entire Western Hemisphere, enunciated in the Monroe Doctrine.  This ostensibly was to ward off European meddling in South America, but in truth was simply a carte blanche written by and to ourselves to meddle down south of the border whenever and for whatever reason we saw fit.  Most of those reasons were about resources and money.  Since World War Two we have expanded our self-declared “national interest” to more or less every nook and cranny of the globe and asserted our right to intervene where ever we like.   Naturally, to make ourselves feel good about ourselves, we tend to do this under cover of spreading “freedom” and “democracy” to those we are invading and whose resources we are taking.  We are, as we continually insist, “exceptional.”    And indeed we are: exceptionally powerful, exceptionally self-deluded, exceptionally selfish.  But, of course, we like to think we are exceptionally “good.”

While our Presidents are unable and unwilling to utter the word “imperialist” to describe US behavior, the Marine hymn, along with the thousands of VFW halls (Veterans of Foreign Wars) littered around the countryside, along with the American Legion and other militarist and corporate economic organizations testify loud and clear as to just what America does for a living.  As do our 700 military bases scattered around the world, supported by a military establishment which spends half the US government’s budget, and the cost of which is as large as what the next 11 nations spend on their military.

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From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine

Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

This is all part of a political process in which the United States, comprising 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of its resources.  #1 indeed. The disproportion in these figures is backed up by the US military – which spends 4 times more per year than our biggest competitor, China, and as much as the 11 following nations combined, all but one of which are allies, and buy much of their weapons from the US .  Both the Democrats and Republicans fully endorse this system, and what it requires of the United States to maintain it.  This same militant behavior is part and parcel of American culture in full.  It is seen in our sports, in our cut-throat capitalism, and across the full range of our society.  And, for the most part, it is supported by most Americans, who happily go along with the grand larceny, fraud and global violence which is the United States.   To do otherwise would be to choose to take an 80% drop in our collective living standard.  Not likely to win any elections with that on the party platform.

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This has been so for decades and the arrival of Trump merely rips off the mask of our self-delusion of apparent civility, and exposes us for what we really are. While our centrist and liberal/left people decry Trump’s vulgarity and evident stupidity, and recoil in horror at what appear to be his would-be policies (which do indeed change with each day), beneath the show of disdain and contempt, there is something far more unsettling: Trump is a perfectly natural outcome of America’s culture, something which was long ago figured out by de Tocqueville, H.L. Mencken and numerous other observers of our country.

So the question hangs – how did we get here, our elected President a man of such shallowness and vacuity, his political party utterly compromised and hypocritical and the other major party devoid of character.  The answer, shoved in your face anywhere you look, is the same one Pogo gave.  Us.  The us of Prius driving, solar paneled, “green” middle-class folks getting on the plane for a vacation in some far away place, perhaps an “eco” vacation in Guatemala, or off to their other house in the mountains or seashore.  The us of an SUV driving rip-roaring Nascar fan, headed to a race, with a Make America Great Again bumper sticker, headed to have a good beer-soaked time in Daytona.  The us of a vast swathe of Americans, whatever their political affiliations, who subscribe to the idea of “American Exceptionalism” (as, for instance Hilary Clinton did in her campaigning), and hence to the continued pursuit of our disproportionate wealth, secured by military violence and economic leverage around the globe.

Until the majority of Americans, from “left” to “right,” deal honestly with their own history, and with themselves and their place in it, we will remain as we are, mired in deceit and hypocrisy, ever willing to blame others for our own failures, and caught up in our simplistic binary two-party politics.  Of course this will never happen, and our grand experiment will unravel as has every other empire.  We are already well on our way.  Donald John Trump is merely a symptom marking a final step or two towards the collapse of the United States of America.

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“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

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Sequence 01.Still008Dan Cornell and Hal Waldrup, up on the head-frame (illegally) for Bell Diamond

I met Dan Cornell in 1986, not long after arriving in Butte, Montana, to make a film.  I had no script, title, or money.  Just a vague idea, my camera and things, Alenka Pavlin with whom I was living, and the decision to shoot in Butte, because of the looks, the history, and the unemployment.

Arriving in early summer we went at the suggestion of someone we asked about a good place to meet people to the Silver Dollar saloon.  In ten minutes we’d met Terri Williams (now Ruggles), who offered us a place to stay the night.  Things promptly rippled out from there, and as autumn approached we’d shot a film, with locals, in a “story” improvised as we went along.  And made friends, and a curious attachment to this battered little city.  It became, for me, another “home.”

Among those met and participating in the film was Dan, originally from Brooklyn, NY., but transplanted by choice at first to Bozeman to study, and then moved to Butte to settle in for the long haul.  Dan had been in Vietnam, a helicopter pilot, and had stories to tell and liked to tell them.  Not just about his time there, but about life.  A smart guy too.

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At the time Dan was a contractor, painting houses, building, doing whatever circumstances in Butte offered.  Later on he became a teacher at the local high school, teaching painting things other than houses.  He made himself at home in his adopted city, and as time went on made a little figure there.

I recall in 1987 developing the story for Bell Diamond, with all the actors participating, and incorporating aspects of his real life into the context.  One evening, Dan, Hal Waldrup,  Marshall Gaddis, Jim Duran (there to record sound) and I clambered up the rickety Bell Diamond head-frame ladder, quite illegally, to shoot a scene there at sunset.  In it he recounted that the height – a bit over 100 feet up – was just about where the VC would open up fire on his helicopter back in Nam.  During the shoot, a very quick hit and run matter, we had to duck twice to hide from a security guard patrolling the area in a pick-up.

Once the film was finished shooting, in September of that year, Alenka and I left for San Francisco where the Leo Diner lab promptly trashed my original material in the developing soup (the processing machine went down with my film in it), and added insult to injury on making the first print when someone threaded up one 30 minute reel improperly and punched sprocket dents into it.  Even so, damaged, it was invited to the Berlin Festival Forum, and got a mess of very nice reviews, 10-best-of-the-year mentions, and such.  When Dan later saw it he was disappointed and asked why I hadn’t made a film like the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona.  I don’t know how few millions that film cost, but Bell Diamond was $25,000 from an NEA Grant, nobody was paid, local non-actors were the cast and Alenka and I were the crew.  Sorry, Dan, no can do.

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After making the film I returned periodically over the decades to Butte to visit friends, staying once or twice at Dan’s house.  And in 2012,  I returned to shoot Coming to Terms, and attempted a quickie second film (never finished) in which Dan played a part.

In those last visits, Dan had stories to tell of a recent trip to Viet Nam, where he motorbiked into the mountains with a local guide and had a great time.  He’d also bought a nice BMW bike to tool around Montana, and one summer spent some weeks on the road with his son, touring the Rocky Mountains.  Back in Butte he’d built a nice green-house addition to his house, and some raised beds for gardening.   Settling in for the relaxed pleasures of retirement.

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Over the decades all my friends in Butte, who all knew Dan, fell out with him.  And on my last visit, in summer 2015, after he’d helped make a board for me to do pastels on in his shop, and otherwise been ever helpful, Marcella and I were going to house-sit for him while he took a trip.  We arrived from Missoula, having let him know we’d be a bit late to get to a what-needs-to-be-done look around his house.  On arriving – at most 30 minutes later than originally planned, he promptly informed us we wouldn’t be house-sitting, were not to be trusted, and otherwise did what my Butte friends said he’d done to them: seemingly arbitrarily turned on them over some minor matter and, at least for them, succeeded in dissuading them from any further contact.  He accomplished the same for me and Marcella in that last meeting.   Since leaving Butte back then, violating my usual habit, I omitted Dan from correspondence or personal letters.

Though I wondered, regarding what had happened to my friends, and finally to myself, whether these episodes were a kind of submerged Viet Nam induced PTSD behavior. Seemed likely to me.   Or maybe it was just that hot-headed Irish blood bubbling up.   I recall him mentioning to me more than a few times, how he had a list of 10 people he wanted to kill before he died.  It wasn’t said like a joke, and he did clearly harbor some kind of deep injury which seems to have prompted these thoughts.  I tried to get him to lighten up, but about this he was somehow seemingly very serious.

I had hoped to see Dan in the coming late Autumn, when I hope to pass again through Butte, to see friends perhaps a last time, to try to patch things up.  Seems he beat me to it.

At this age in life, at least for some of us, it is a time to try to wrap up loose ends, make amends where possible, and otherwise make a deal with one’s self about one’s own life.  Regret I wasn’t able to do so with Dan.

Dan’s obituary in the Montana Standard

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The Book of Butte – Photography by Jon Jost

articleLargeJames Rosenquist with his mother before a billboard he painted.

Once upon a time – seems like several lifetimes ago to me – in the sense mentioned in the previous post, I was a modest “person.” To say I’d made a little mark in the marginalized esoteric realm  – depending on the era and the POV – of American Independent film, avant-garde, experimental, Underground, or whatever names critics or academics cared to come up with. This began regionally – to say in Chicago, way back in the mid 60’s when I landed a little review for my first short film, Portrait, from none other than Roger Ebert. He liked it. And in the very constricted world of such filmmaking in Chicago, I seem to have emerged with a few others – John Heinz, Larry Janiak, Tom Palazzolo – as a little local name. Also in the press a bit later there was a picture of Kurt Heyl and me being arrested just prior to the Chicago Convention of 1968. A kind of “fame.”

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And then I left for the West Coast and vanished for a while, materializing once in a blue moon on some short film festival’s winners list. Big deal. And then, in 1974 or so, having made my first feature, Speaking Directly, and serendipitously having it invited to the Edinburgh Film Festival – at the time a hot festival for creative films – lo and behold it was reviewed, very favorably, by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the British film mag, Sight and Sound.  My “person” was greatly enhanced, and suddenly in the tiny realm of “new narrative”/experimental or whatever film, I became a modest “name.” I then got invited to festivals with my next films, Angel City and Last Chants for a Slow Dance, and these begot more print, which equaled more festivals, and more print. I became in the film worlds of the UK, Germany and Italy a little “name,” written up in newspapers, mentioned in magazines.  I did not become a name, for some reason, in France. But, in the terms meant here, I had become a real “person.” Around me a minor aura of fame attached. “Important people” deigned to talk to me, sometimes even to seek me out. In the words of a long ago friend from my brief sojourn in college, “You made it.” Whatever “it” was, it was having become some kind of public figure, a “name,” having acquired some kind of “fame.”

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Despite my disinterest in this phenomenon, or really my antipathy, and my peripatetic manner – moving always to new places where in one sense I had to start all over again, this new personhood grew, though modestly as the world in which it was housed was modest. After all, those who are interested in film-qua-“art” are few and far between. The dullest Hollywood hack has more of this kind of personhood than the biggest of avant-garde sorts. However, in 1989 I landed the modest funds from PBS to make a new film and came up with All the Vermeers in New York, done in 35mm, and which managed to get a very mismanaged commercial release in the USA. Courtesy of a personal note from me to Roger Ebert, it got 2 thumbs up in a national television mention, and my erstwhile “fame” squared. If nowhere near the Hollywood hacks, nevertheless I did find myself shortly thereafter on a podium with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Taylor Hackford (one of the Hwd hacks) and Abel Ferrara in the rarified airs of the Telluride Festival. Not long afterwards I was at the Beverley Hills Hotel, in the company of Kevin Costner and “the most powerful man in Hollywood”, his agent Michael Ovitz. I was being feted with a Lifetime Achievement Award (1991) from the IFP,  whose minions whispered in my ears that soon the studios would be knocking on my door. They never did, but following Vermeers, my personhood zoomed forward, little once-closed doors opened, and following a few more films – The Bed You Sleep In and Frameup, unreleased theatrically if well received critically, I had had more than enough of the total bull$hit of the film business, and I shifted to digital video when doing so was a film buff heresy.  My personhood and “fame” rapidly shriveled in the ever more money-minded ethos of the times, an era in which the sole measure of value was calculated in numbers with a dollar sign beside it. No big number there and you became socially worthless. In rapid order everything was monetized, and reviewers could only do reviews of big-time big-buck films with the aim of making more bucks.  Critics who once lavished praise on my work no longer could be bothered to take a peek – it didn’t have a “release” so the papers didn’t cover it, so they didn’t write about it, and hence did not need (or want) to see it.  It was all about money.  The rest could go die. And they did.

VER37wideSteve Lack in All the Vermeers in New York

It is getting on 25 years since my modest fame peaked, lets say around 1993 or so, though like an albatross around my psyche I still have people telling me they have “heard of” All the Vermeers, though most often they have not actually seen it, or anything else I ever did. Forget those 38 other long films and all those shorts!  Such is the nature of fickle fame, that it lingers as an echo, detached as it always was from reality. Increasingly over the decades, fame itself has become an end-all and be-all in our society.  Hence “reality TV” and YouTube and selfies.  And hence the general tone of my visits to various educational institutions where the general ethos seems to be wondering how to get rich and famous fast.  On Wall Street, or in Silicon Valley or in LA in the entertainment biz.  The examples are there to emulate, so as young people normally do, they wish to copy what they see.  Jobs? Gates?  Zuckerberg?  Kalanick?

And now, today, while in my own view (and that of some others) I am doing some of my very best work, my old fame/name is apparently so tarnished and worthless, such that people who once accorded me retrospectives, or introduced me at screenings with lavish praise, cannot be bothered to answer an email.  Happened last week as I was trying to rummage up some autumn screenings on the West Coast. Having written the same folks 2 or 3 times in the last months for the same purpose, this is what I wrote:

letter to cal arts

This was written to a place I’d been before, a few times and more in the last decades, and to people whom I apparently incorrectly imagined to be “friends” of the kind one makes among peers in this business. Ah well, live and learn. It is not, in the last years, the first time that such has occurred. MoMA, which once hosted a full retrospective of my work (1991) now declines to answer an email. I understand most the staff moved on and there are new people, but one would imagine institutional memory or rectitude would at least beget a form letter, thanks but no thanks. But instead plain old nada. Ditto with a few other such institutions I’ve dealt with over the years, in the USA and Europe. And people.

On one level I could frankly care less, except that this places large dings in my very minimal annual income, and having no pension, SS, or other fall backs, at 73 and counting, it is actually damaging.   Especially when those saying “no,” whether in word or silence, sit in comfortable institutional settings and are well paid.  And more so when one imagined them as “friends.”  Not that I am alone in America in this situation, which I think is rather more common than our national pundits would like to acknowledge. Hung out to dry.  Vets.  IT worker bees.  Factory workers.  White collar folks replaced with H1-B or AI machines.  The poor.  Artists.  Finally it’s all about the money.

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As an observer of the world, and particularly of the arts world, I know well that the fickle finger of fate (and fashion) flits bee-like from flower to flower, and nothing is so yesterday as someone older (though if your fame is hyper your decrepitude will be duly celebrated for having survived it all). And I know as well that for the most part my work has been “out of fashion” for some time, not that it was actually ever “in,” though that would scarcely seem to matter since most of “the people that matter,” to say many programmers, curators, festival directors, etc. haven’t bothered to even look at my work for more or less 20 years, so in fact they wouldn’t know if it were or weren’t “in fashion.”

Or perhaps it is my often caustic commentary in public regarding contemporary “art,” or my withering reviews of presently popular films (say those of Jarmush, or Reichart) which has silently worked, in effect, to produce an effort to silence me? Or the public engagements I have taken on of choice – such as defending Mark Rappaport in his battle with Ray Carney. Or perhaps my loud-mouthed and persistent sharp criticisms of America’s religion of capitalism, and all the mangling horrors it imposes on us, and on the world.

Who knows? Certainly not me.

I accept all these things, though not happily. One would like to think artistic quality had its own value. Or that “paying one’s dues” might accrue a certain respect. Ah, but I am just an aged curmudgeon, so what the hell?

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“In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
                                                                                         Alexis de Tocqueville

Frankly over the last decade or so I’ve pondered whether there is indeed some kind of blacklist at work. While I am seriously skeptical such would be, out on my loose tether to my society the feedback I receive certainly reads as if there could be one. I am certain in the small world of grants there is a rumor, which unfortunately I cannot elaborate on here, which has functioned as a black-list in that world since sometime around 1989 or so. As cynical – or is it realistic? – as I am about the nature of fashion, crowds, social politics, particularly in America which I know the best, I don’t quite think it is paranoia which animates my thoughts on this seeming banishment. Rather it seems something deeply enmeshed in the American ethos, something which has sent many of America’s artists and writers fleeing to other lands which seem more hospitable.

Today as the curtain of Donald Trump’s administration is parted, and his yahoo policies are unveiled, my sense is that if he manages to get his way, the blacklists will become very tangible,  if they haven’t already done so.  And I, and many others, will be as welcome as Muslims to the newly Made Great Again America.  And if he does not, and is booted from the White House in a few more months, it probably won’t change much anyway: the tenor of the times.  

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Money talks, bullshit walks.