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Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

HL Mencken

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As the dust settles from the electoral frenzy of the last 18 months, and the victor, Donald John Trump, begins to form the government of his choice, what had been made clear for the last decade in his behavior, spoken words, and actions, is being underlined in the exact same gilt packaging in which he has always shown his inclinations. His choice for his own Chief of Staff is Steve Bannon, the captain of a far-right website, Breitbart – where racism is the norm, and who himself has stated his intention is to destroy the government. (He was once a Leninist, so he’s said.) Thus for his choice for Attorney General is a good old boy of the South, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a man whose racism was so evident he could not be confirmed as a Federal Judge in 1996. His choice for Defense Secretary is an aggressive narrow-minded ex-general who has made his view of Islam blatantly clear.  For Secretary of the Treasury, and other financial positions, he’s chosen gilded Wall Streeters intent on dismantling the modest restraints imposed after 2008’s collapse.  And so on down the list, as DJ Trump spins us up a full-tilt oligarch’s government.

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Or…

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Oh, happy days. Or perhaps once the edifice is fully constructed and in place, and it begins its work, perhaps it will be:  Oh, unhappy daze. We’ll see.

static2-politico-comSteve Bannon, alt-right Chief of Staff (and apparent alcoholic)

Meantime the Republican party is showing itself, even more than in the primaries, to be composed of a collection of obsequious frauds whose only evident principles are to hold on to any straw, however obscene, to grasp at a shred of governmental power. Those who once preached of “family values” now suck up to a twice divorced self-confessed pussy grabber, whose track record in business is to have constructed a real estate and media empire out of serial bankruptcies, and who has, by his words, been “smart” to avoid Federal Taxes for 18 years while living the life of a prince. The trail of those come to his court in Trump Tower or at one of his golf courses is fouled with those who only months ago loudly declared Trump to be unworthy as a human or as a politician to occupy the office he will soon take. The hypocrisy is beyond measure, though it seems no one in the Republican party bats an eyelash at it: the party stands as naked as the King.

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Out in the heartland, those abandoned citizens of the the Rust Belt, of the million collapsed rural towns done in by agribiz, of the small factories wiped out with globalization and robots, all gaze towards the despised mecca of New York, and imagine (still) that this showman who has so fully conned them, will overturn the hated guvmint, and all its regulations and rules, and bless them with “freedom” along with jobs and good old all-American happiness wrapped in the red white and blue, as he “drains the swamp.” As they dream he’s stocked the swamp with all manner of class-A alligators hailing from Wall Street to the hallowed halls of corporate boards, with a good dose of military enforcers added to the mix. And, of course, the alt-right.

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These same denizens of the vast interior of America, who by and large are the major recipients of Federal largesse in the form of subsidies for agriculture, oil and gas, Medicare and Medicaid, military bases littered strategically about “out there,” siphoning off far more from Washington than they send in taxes, are likely in for an ugly surprise from their leader. Rather than jobs, their Social Security and Medicaid will be stripped away, replaced with vouchers which will line the pockets of still more for-profit services. Obamacare will be dismantled and replaced with more dubious and costly schemes. Meantime taxes will be cut not for them, but for the wealthiest among us, who will gorge themselves on yet more. This will all be done while the President twitters deep into the night, his own distraction-shill dazzling the victims of his charade as they are left ever further behind.

Out in the heartland for a considerable slice of the folks the real reward will be the general social OK to say “nigger” or “wetback” or “slant eyes,” and congratulate themselves that the White House once again is white, like it was meant to be. Yes, racism and myriad other prejudices, submerged in the coastal elite’s program of PCism, will roar back unfettered, though, as usual, wrapped in Biblical rectitude and patriotic gore.

article-kingsims-11253 White Supremacists wanted for murder this week of black man in California

Once the shock for the coastals and islands of inland urbanity to this election result has shaken off and a clearer eyed view is taken, some things stand out bluntly enough:

+ Of the electorate, of those eligible, barely half voted. Of those who voted, several million more chose Clinton over Trump nationally, but owing to the peculiar institution of the Electoral College (originally established to protect the interests of those founders who employed the peculiar institution of slavery), Trump won courtesy of the “winner take all” system, such that winning Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio by margins of 10,000 votes or less, he was able to pick up all the Electors. The bottom line is that a “loser” won, by gaining the approval of less than 25% of eligible voters.

+ The simple reality is that approximately half of the eligible electorate decided, for whatever their reasons, to sit out this process, pointing directly to the systemic rot of our political system and its two permitted parties. Each is so corrupt in its own way that half the could-be voters can’t be bothered with engaging them, and another third of the country – not eligible owing to age, to former felony convictions (a great percentage based on race matters), or being unable owing to dubious “legal” machinations designed to cut down voting rights, to being too old to function – are simply cut out of the deal, their views discounted 100%. The bottom line is that not quite 60 million Americans out of 360 million citizens voted for Donald Trump, and our corrupted political system bequeathed him the Presidency. Something is very wrong in this picture, and it is not just Donald J. Trump.

+ In the past decades the Republican party has done as much as it could, legally, to restrict voter eligibility in areas where it had the political power, or by gerrymandering, to control voting outcomes on a local level. It clearly intends to pursue this practice more fully now that it has control over all the elements of the national government. While mouthing platitudes about the virtues of “democracy” the GOP does whatever it can to restrict voting to their kind of people (white – suburban and rural, the very wealthy), and where unable to do so with “legal” rules, it has carefully gerrymandered many states so that “librul” votes are compacted into a few districts, and reliable GOP ones are spread “liberally” about. On top of this present matter is the old one of the Electoral College which tilts heavily to thinly populated rural places, like Wyoming or Montana, where each voters’ weight is proportionally far greater than those of voters in places like California, New York or Connecticut, etc. The GOP has no interest in altering this original scam.

+ Since Reagan’s deregulation of the airwaves and deleting of the requirement of equal time for differing political views, the right – financed by major economic powers – has constructed a vast communications system in talk radio, cable TV and Fox News. This system, used as a blunt propaganda instrument for 3 decades now, with no obligation to be even vaguely truthful, has, along with a willfully dumbed down educational system, produced a brainwashed public sold the Republican ideology as a near religion. It operates almost unopposed throughout the middle of the nation, being the primary “news” source for citizens from Pennsylvania though the mid-west and into eastern Washington, Oregon and inland California. It has worked wonderfully for those interests, if not really for the public to which it has been administered.

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Cumulatively these factors have allowed the right-wing of American politics to carry out a slow-motion putsch, or coup – culminating in Trump’s victory in which less than 20% of the population chose, through the warped mechanism of the Electoral College, to impose Trump upon the Nation.

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As The Donald assembles his cabinet and fills other governmental offices with a mix of strident Right-wing ideologues, Wall Streeters, and a few alt-right (aka neo-Nazi) sorts, we can figure we’re in for some very rough sailing. Rather than making any effort at unifying the country, Trump appears dead-set to do all he can to fracture it, the better for he and his cronies to, as it were, “make a killing.”

And so on January 20th, in the pundit speak of cliches, “No Drama” Obama will turn over the office of President of the United States to Trumpolini, the ultimate Drama Queen, who seems to need a daily fix of shock and awe to keep himself interested in himself. Thanks to a totally corrupted political system, which is emblematic of the society it is sourced in, the Nation and the world will be subject to a sequence of on-going shocks, the consequences of which could collapse the global economy, will be highly damaging to the fragile ecological state of the world, and even lead to a world war with nuclear weapons. Not so distant history has seen the catastrophic results of having sociopaths elevated to being the leaders of powerful nations. The 20th century is an object lesson in precisely that, though it appears most Americans now have a dim regard for history if it cannot be compacted into 140 characters.

Screen-Shot-2012-01-30-at-11.46.39-PMH L Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore

“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

— H.L. Mencken, “Notes on Journalism” in the Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept 19, 1926.

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Rummaging the computer in the interests of organizing its digital chaos, I came across this, from around 1995.  It is a Q&A done long distance, by email.  I don’t recall for whom, what publication, or if it was ever made public or not.  But scanning it led to reading, and as much of it seems pertinent to today’s world, I thought it might be nice to put it out here.

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A question as to why so many of my films have a death in them, and why?

1: Death: Hmmmm…. Is there a constant reference to death in my work? I guess from some view the answer would have to be “yes” since more or less most of them either have a death (or two or three), or talk about death in one way or another (even Bell Diamond touches on it), or… Actually one shot in Berlin, Liebesfall(e) (1), doesn’t, but… Why? Because I try to make work about life, and the thing that is significant about life is that it is finite – it lasts a while and then stops. For humans, who are conscious of this, it is probably one of the most fundamental building blocks of consciousness, which is usually socially suppressed, manipulated in various ways, or denied (as in religions that promise more life later), and taken altogether usually leads to the making of socially imposed death: wars, executions, murders, etc. So for something to be about our lives, if it is to be meaningful, it has to include this fundamental matter. That’s one way to look at it. Another could be that I have some kind of problem with it, that it is a pathology. Certainly in my daily life I seem to make many more comments, jokes, reflections and so on, on its presence and reality in our lives than the people around me do. So maybe it is my sickness. Or, maybe, it is a “healthy” way to perceive things.

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bd-heroineBell Diamond

And what do I think about “death?” The same way I guess I think about life: we are here, so it seems, as a kind of statistically unlikely accident — a planet circling a star (recently our astronomers finally came up with a kind of proof, the tentative discovery of at least one other star – a pulsar – encircled by some planets, though it seems rather obvious that this physical phenomenon would be commonplace in the universe) of a certain kind, at a certain distance, under certain conditions, times, which allowed (a reasonable speculation) some silicon and carbon atoms in the form of a clay (so the Bible says, no?), to rub against itself in a manner that gave rise to very very simple animate organisms which then reproduced in a myriad of ways, following more or less Darwin’s observations, leading to, among others, we humans, who in turn speculated on it, on our placement in the universe, and at the same time, clever as we are, learned similarly to manipulate physical matter in such a way that we have machines, hydrogen bombs, laser discs, and so on. So life got here. And life – yours, mine, everyone’s – will go away with an equal arbitrariness: we will poison ourselves off the planet with over-consumption, the sun will fizzle and die, a big meteor will impact, some yet unknown celestial burst will send out a cascade of high-energy rays and… And who knows, except that for certain this little planetary petri dish will surely evaporate, and we will go with it, whatever our efforts to migrate to some other place. And the universe will care less. As it cares less about the doubtless hundreds or thousands or millions of similar “life” experiments happening elsewhere in the universe. By this measure, what we think of as “life” and “death” doesn’t really mean much, and such is what I think. On the other measure, the here/now one which we each live, it matters emotionally, it matters biologically (we are designed to survive as best we can, and if we weren’t we would have disappeared long ago), it matters “personally.” I, like most of us, have a built in revulsion of a kind at the presence and vision of death: it’s a deeply programmed kind of survival response. On the other hand I have an intellectual indifference, a kind of detached, well-this-is-what-life-is, this temporary organic set-up which is very very complex, resilient, but finite, quite limited, wears out, and finally drops dead. Naturally or not; by accident or design. And I guess, in various ways, I implant this sensibility in my work, the impact of this primal instinctive flight from death in the name of survival conjunct with this consciousness that in a way it matters not at all, it all being a kind of grand joke, an accident, which it is our fate to confront. I suppose it is this quality which some critics refer to as the sense of detachment, or coldness, in my work. Which I find vaguely amusing since I’d say that most of my films are quite emotional in their impact, they provoke you to feel, and to feel as deeply as flickering shadows on a wall can. I am an ironist.

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A question about what being on the road means to me, and how it materializes in my films.

2. The Road. Well, I guess, yes, I am on-the-road, maybe, except for truckers and sailors and airline pilots, etc., rather more than most. I have been all my life as my father was in the military and as a child I was uprooted once every 1 – 5 years, moving from Chicago to Georgia to Japan to Georgia to Kansas to Italy to Germany to Virginia, in the space of 12 years. Moving got bred into me. And I have been moving ever since, like a bad habit. Or maybe a good one. Or maybe it is not so simple as that.

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Europeans have the idea that Americans “don’t belong” at least not in their terms. We Americans have the history of moving, from this house or this city to that, and around this is built a kind of theory of alienation, which probably has some truth to it. My trouble is not that I feel that I don’t belong, but that I belong too much – not just to America, but to anywhere I go. Culturally I’m “American as apple pie” in many respects, but in others I’m totally not. I don’t believe in any kind of nationalism or anything like it, nor about romanticizing “other” places. And I suppose this shows up in my work, wherever it is set. Ironically, it is very important to me to set my work in real places – to find a way to show in filmic terms some aspects of what a place is like. Not just how it looks, but how it feels, what it does to its inhabitants and what they do to it. I’m a regionalist of a sort, just that as it were I don’t really come from anywhere. Instead I go to “wheres” and camp in them, become a part of them, do my work, and leave.

A question about painting and painters, as I reference them sometimes in my work.

3. Painters. Yes, well I am very interested in certain painters, and learning about more and more. Good painters teach you to see – not just visually, but spiritually, beyond the surface of things on into things. In Angel City there’s Frank Goya, yes, a reference to Francisco. The narrative analogy is that Goya was a court painter, a kind of aesthetic prostitute, doing portraits for money. He was good at it. And he also hated it, and finally withdrew from that. And he had a dispassionate clear-eyed view of the world he did not flinch from, even if maybe finally it made him a bit mad. So one can see sensuous, passionate nudes, and stiff court portraiture, and Los Caprichos and the Disasters of War, and finally the black paintings, all from the same artist. He was amazing. In the film Goya is also a whore, a hired “dick,” working as usual for the powers that run things. But he’s also clear-eyed and goes to the truth. Another aspect of the name is that if you shift one letter, it becomes A Frank Goy.  Goy is Yiddish for a non-Jew. Goya is investigating Hollywood, which, whatever one thinks of it, was founded by and is pretty much run by Jewish men. Goya’s view is, uh, critical about the nature of Hollywood. Mine too, if not for that reason.

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Rembrandt Laughing was a kind of posthumous gift to Rembrandt, who, so his self-portraits (the only paintings of his I really like excepting a some other portraits) suggest, was far from happy as time went on. The film is a respectful suggestion to lighten up. But otherwise the film scarcely draws on Rembrandt.  With All the Vermeers in New York, I had begun to really look at painting, with Vermeer being my hook. He is a fantastic painter – a colorist of sensuous depth, an observer of the keenest eye, a psychologist and portraitist of the highest order. I look at his paintings again and again, learning anew with each viewing. Something only the best painters can offer. For the film, it was not only the sensibility for light which I learned from, and used in shooting, but also the way in which Vermeer (like Edward Hopper) takes “reality” and then clearly strips it of extraneous elements so only the essential remains, convincingly “real” though carefully orchestrated, organized, and unreal thereby. Vermeer goes for the essence of things, be it a room, a city-scape, or a woman’s face, and almost always with a subtlety which hides the origins of his effects. It was this which I tried in All the Vermeers (and continued to pursue, with very different visual qualities, in The Bed You Sleep In.)   Other painters of current special interest to me are Monet, Manet, Uccello, Lautrec and Degas, Whistler, Eakins, Corot, the sketches of Constable, Emil Nolde, and many others. And my next film will be called Albrecht’s Flugel (2) (Albrecht’s Wing – Albrecht being Durer). I am in fact not so interested in his oil painting, but in his water-color work of nature.  And The Bed You Sleep In was visually rooted in – along with the mentioned Vermeer/Hopper reference – also the American painter Richard Diebenkorn (Ocean Park series) and the photographer Joel Sternfeld. This is not to say there is any effort to copy, but rather they were things studied for a certain visual intelligence.

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A question about music in my work, and working with composers.

4. Music: I have worked closely now with two composers – Jon A. English (Bell Diamond, Uncommon Senses, Rembrandt Laughing, All the Vermeers in New York, Frameup, and Uno a te…) (3) and Erling Wold (Sure Fire and The Bed You Sleep In) (4). While Jon and Erling are quite distinctively different in musical terms, our working processes together are quite similar. Within the filmic frame I usually have quite clear thoughts as to musical qualities, needs, sometimes instrumentation for the music, and take an active part in forming the musical framework. On the other hand, respecting them as artists, I like to leave as much freedom as possible for them to write, and indeed I shoot the films, from the outset, in a manner that leaves large open spaces ready to receive or participate with the musical element. Examples range from the abstract blue footage in Rembrandt Laughing, to the columns in Vermeers, to the early yellow-stripe road shot in Sure Fire, to the cafe shot in The Bed You Sleep In. From the outset, in filmic terms, I begin, not thinking of a specific music, but rather knowing that music will be an essential element in a cinematic sense, and thus I think and direct and shoot with this in my consciousness. In terms of relationships – both Jon and Erling are friends, and work with them is casual, comfortable. I am unschooled in music and hardly speak a musician’s language but on the other hand I have an overall sense of various arts, and can discuss in general terms, enough to convey my ideas. And I am totally open to changing things around, putting in music where I hadn’t thought it was needed, shifting things a bit; and both Jon and Erling have been willing to let the editing knife slice, re-arrange, shift or delete things they’ve done. Jon is unfortunately quite ill these days. And Erling will be collaborating on the Wien film, working with a large symphonic scale group of musicians.

rembrandtjonsupertext1Jon A. English in Rembrandt Laughing

A question about my use of texts used on screen, on their own or over the images.

5. Texts on screen: In general it is my interest to make things with multiple layers of content, of meaning. I like to have things within my work run counter-point to each other, to establish spaces which suggest, but do not articulate, this in the hope of provoking the viewer to think, feel, to fill in those spaces with something active within themselves. So sometimes I find the use of texts, of various kinds, whether in voice-over, or in on-screen writing, to be useful for this: you are watching an image, maybe with music, and with it arrives some words, usually rather detached from any immediate significance. I think usually this prompts the viewer to look again, within themselves, to seek something more than they had been looking for earlier. The use of literary or philosophical quotes is, I suppose, to anchor the films in a historical context – as the quotes in Rembrandt Laughing refer to Kierkegaard, Vermeers to Proust, and elsewhere to others. Or maybe it is just a conceit…

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A question about working with writers, when I do so.

6. Italy/co-writer: Actually I have in various ways worked with co-writers previously – whether through the actors, who sometimes have “written” (literally, on paper) parts of their roles, or through improvising with acting. And in Last Chants for a Slow Dance there was a co-writer (Peter Trias, died 2006) who did a bit of the writing. But usually it is the actors. With Uno a te, Edoardo Albinati (5) collaborated with me in part because my Italian would scarcely let me “write” anything much more than “ciao” and in part because I felt it would be good to have someone intelligent, aware, Italian, to work with in checking my ideas and thoughts about Italy. We worked very comfortably together – I might write something which he’d translate, and check with me if there were things he simply thought wouldn’t work in Italian cultural terms. And I would say, well here’s an idea for a scene, write something up. And then we’d go through it, and I might change it a bit, do some editing, or soften the writerly tendency to clarify things I’d rather leave unclear. Edoardo was quite understanding of the process of jettisoning things for cinematic reasons, and sat in on some of the editing, helping to pare things down, move things, and so on. I fully expect and hope to work with him again, hopefully on an ambitious 3-film Roma project.

A question about the political situation at the time.

7. 80’s/90’s: I suppose I am a pessimist. Or perhaps a realist. The 80’s, in my view, were a kind of catastrophe. They represent the victory, however momentary it proves to be, of market capitalism, to which it seems all else has surrendered. Market capitalism is a disaster in almost every way except, for the moment, in providing “goods,” though it is a profound embarrassment to discuss at whose cost. The 80’s are arriving just a little later in Europe, in the form of Berlusconi victorious in Italy, and so on. Everyone wants a free ride, and so it is offered. I imagine though that the vast excesses of American-prompted “free trade” will beget its due backlash, whether in the form of deeper, more profound modes of religious fundamentalism as in the Islamic world, or recoils into primal regional groupings based on language, cultural roots, and so on. I feel like the world is headed into a new kind of feudalism, with small armed cities, with quasi-private police forces, people banded in small defensive groups, trying to hold off others. The economic inequities of American-style market-capitalism seem likely only to provoke different kinds of active opposition, be it violent, sabotage, or…. Well, history is a cyclical matter it seems, so now as the disruptions of so-called stable, familiar patterns get harsher, it seems we are in for a time of the “hard man,” the desire for a “strong leader” who will whip the unruly world into order. We only too recently saw what this all leads to and I won’t in the least be surprised to see it happen again, as it already appears to be happening in Italy, in Germany, in ….   So what do I see of the 90’s? More of the same, with the explosion in population, subsequent depletion of world resources (we all want to live in high-tech, consumer-fetishist fashion, so it seems), which very quickly will only heighten the clashes of economic divisions, as it comes down to a more primal matter of simply who-gets-to-eat, who-gets-to-breath. I am not optimistic, and as I travel the world, I get less and less so: there are too many of us, mostly wanting the same environmentally costly things – we have about depleted the oceans of fish, and are on the way to getting down to the end of forests, of killing off this or that species per day. We will pay the bill. But that I think is the ironic fate of the species – we are so damn clever, and we are so primitive, all at the same time: so while we can sit and not what we are doing, we can’t stop ourselves from doing it. I’m 51 now, and likely I will die before the really heavy plagues, famines, wars come along to reduce our numbers and issue a Biblical-level lesson in humility. If I am lucky.

About future projects in mind.

8. Future projects: If the financing holds up, Albrechts Flugel, in Wien, in the fall. More than double my last biggest budget, a whole $600,000. And maybe finishing up some old films left sitting. And perhaps, if I can get the funding in line, a 3-year/3-film project in Rome. (6) And meantime I am shifting, seriously, to take up painting, and, if my life allows, just a little bit of architecture. I am, quite seriously, very very tempted to quit making films as the climate in these days has reduced it to an exercise in futility. It is sad – as a medium it is so rich in possibilities for learning, for seeing, for broadening the social capacity to understand our predicament; and (ironically) precisely those rich qualities make it perfect for a vehicle for the most mindless of drugs. And money/power runs the show, so indeed it is the mindless drug peddlers who win the game. It is tragic, but so. And in human history it has always been like that.

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Footnotes:

(1) Shot, never finished.

(2) Partially shot, abandoned owing to utterly crooked producers (defunct Prisma Films, Wien).

(3) Jon A. English died in 1997.

(4) Since writing this, Erling also did the music for London Brief, Homecoming, and La Lunga Ombra.

(5) I note Edoardo received this year the Strega Premio, Italy’s highest award for literature, for his book La Scuola Cattolico.

(6) None of these projects came to fruition, and in 1996 when digital video arrived, I left the film world of money-hustling, narrative films, glamor, etc., and went to work in digital media.  I have been far more productive, creative, and happy since, though in turn the film world largely abandoned any interest in my work.

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In a profound miscalculation, the myriad powers-that-be in the USA have inadvertently ushered in a new era, definitively abolishing the general framework that governed America and the globe since World War Two.  Those powers – often masked from public view – had constructed a complex social/economic/political edifice composed of corporate business interests, the military-industrial complex (which naturally includes corporate interests), and media (corporately owned), all bound together with an ideological glue of American nationalism embodied in a kind of mindless patriotism of flag, (and for some Bible, guns and grits), and capitalism.  As famously stated, “The business of America is business.”

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It was the ideology of American Exceptionalism, which Hillary Clinton recently extolled, and as the heaving crowds of Trump’s fans echoed as they chanted USA USA USA!  This ideology is seen expressed in the countless VFW halls in small-town America, in the national genuflection to our military – “the finest and best” – and in the blind and usually totally provincial insistence that the United States is the greatest country on earth, goddammit!   Most insistently this is said by those who never set foot in another place, unless in the military.

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Since 1945, at the conclusion of the WW2, America stood as the singular industrial power still standing, with marginal losses, and wielding nuclear weapons to boot.  It had put the 30’s Depression era aside and largely unchallenged it proceeded to install itself as an unstated empire, taking most of Britain’s holdings and those of others.  The emergence of the cold war with the Soviet Union, and then the Chinese, propelled this process, which had moved rapidly in the 1950’s, such that the former general and Republican President, Eisenhower, cautioned us against the dangers of our emerging military-industrial complex.  We paid no heed, and in the following decades the linkage of the military, corporate interests and the media were bound ever tighter, as we expanded our military force beyond all reason aside from maintaining a stranglehold on global natural resources – especially oil.  And we sought to maintain political control with the installation of puppet governments game to kow-tow to Uncle Sam.  While we intervened in South East Asia, in the Middle East, in Central and South America, and Africa, our corporate controlled media largely dismissed what we were doing by simply not reporting it.  America was too busy imagining itself as Ozzie and Harriet while it stitched together its far-flung “business holdings” backed with its military might.   In the aftermath of the American loss in Vietnam, the collusion between the military-industrial complex and the media became such that for the most part our adventures abroad were simply not reported, as the body-counts in Vietnam had proved toxic to our imperial ambitions.  Instead the American public was led into a fog of permanent propaganda, whether officially, from the mouths of government speakers, or unofficially in the onslaught of 24/7 television, Hollywood films, and talk radio.  We were “exceptional” so we told ourselves, somehow exempt from judgement and from history, or from the consequences of our actions on the world stage.

Americans were constantly told theirs was the richest, best country on earth.  They were not told that they were but 5% of the world’s population while they consumed 25% of the globe’s resources.  They were not told that in order to acquire this imbalanced share of the world’s wealth that it required robbery, rape, mayhem and political knavery of the worst kinds.  Nope, instead they were told that America was “good,” a shining city on a hill, and that whenever we were forced to intervene out in the big bad world it was to be the White Hat bringing the blessings of democracy or freedom or something “good” to those we were bombing and robbing blind.

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When 9/11 came our slumbering public was blind-sided, completely unaware of American meddling since the early 50’s (and far earlier) in the middle-east.  In turn the vast majority were easy marks for Bush’s imaginary WMD and Rumsfeld’s it’ll-pay-for-itself easy war.  From the fraud of Bush’s failed Presidency, Americans leaped at the do-good chance to erase the stain of our slave state origins and deep racism, and elected a good Harvard trained establishment man, Barack Obama.  Nice as his outward appearances were, Barack was a company man, and did his duty while liberals swooned and ignored the brass knuckle business being quietly conducted – drone assassinations, more military meddling, economic strong arming, and, well, America as usual.  We were “defending our national interests,” however far from our own shores.  “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” is how the marine hymn has it, since forever.

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In 2016, still limping from the 2008 economic collapse with which the Bush administration departed, with many still seething at the failure of Obama to pursue those responsible (bankers, big corporate execs), and others likewise angered at the failure to bring Bush and company to account, the US political atmosphere was transparently smoldering with anti-establishment resentment.  The success of Trump in the Republican primaries, as well as of Sanders with the Democrats, was evidence enough for even the thickest minded.  And yet the Democrats, enmeshed in their narrow horizon Beltway vision, did backroom dirt to shove Sanders aside, and plowed on with their anointed one, HRC.  Backed with a phalanx of political pros, pollsters, billionaire funds, pundits, and their own arrogant presumptions, they poured hundreds of millions of dollars into advertisements, a slick convention, and endless polls – all for naught.  Like the CIA with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the professional wisdom in the world failed to perceive the obvious, and Clinton came up short in the Electoral College on November 7th.

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The shock waves still reverberate as Donald John Trump prepares to take on the Presidency, surrounded with sleaze in the form of Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, and a cluster-fuck of others, including the editor of a strident right-wing website, Breitbart, and a Vice-Presidential side-kick ready to attempt to impose mid-western fundamentalist Christianism on the nation.   I would not pretend to predict what Trump will or won’t do, or what it will do to our polity.  During the campaign (and well before) he did open a can of very ugly worms, and in doing so legitimized them as OK for public discourse.  I doubt he can, as President, make a U-turn, and stuff all the vile things he has said and done back into that can.  Welcome to Pandora’s not-nice box.  Of course the truth is that this can of worms was sitting there under the pressure cooker of the nice world of PCism.  Naturally it stewed and festered, and now we will have its off-spring running the White House – Mr Bannon looks to be Chief of Staff for President Trump, which promises a very rough ride.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd at the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce in North Charleston, South Carolina, September 23, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Who to blame?  Most obviously, first in line is the Democratic National Committee which was as corrupt as Trump suggested.  Hillary Clinton was their girl, and despite the obvious evidence of Sanders’ primary successes, and those of Trump, they stuck to their insiders game plan, awash with money, all those experienced “professionals” and drove themselves and the country, and perhaps the world, into a ditch.  They did it in plain sight, and carried on despite numerous warnings that it was not the season for more “Change You Can Believe In” nor for “Stronger Together” sloganeering, but for up-ending the Establishment.  Ah, but if you are the Establishment, what do you do?  As demonstrated in this election, you stick your head up your butt and pretend it ain’t happening.

But it was, and rather than taking the path offered by Sanders, the DNC persisted, and handed us Trump on a silver plate.

Some of the rest of the blame belongs to the American right-wing which, since Reagan, has flooded the national psyche with hysterical radio, Fox, et al, with 24/7 propaganda, and, aided and abetted by the Clinton gang, let corporate interests run roughshod over the public interest in the form of trade agreements, privatizing education and prisons and whatever else they could grab, producing a dumbed-down populace in thrall to celebrity and money and the miracle of capitalism.  Trump is the natural result.

That Trump, a Queen’s kid with a massive chip on his shoulder and a chronic loser himself, should pick up the chips may seem surprising but in the warped landscape of America circa 2016, it is perfectly logical even if his syntax and vocabulary aren’t.  Frankly half of America cannot speak English decently and I am not talking about the ones who happen to have Spanish or some Asian language as their first tongue.  Nor am I talking only about the uneducated whom Mr Trump asserts he loves, but rather the millions of dubiously “educated” college kids who are gifted with grade inflation while being unable to construct a coherent paragraph in our corrupted universities, many of which are more interested in football income than in the “liberal arts.”  Reading, writing and arithmetic hardly covers the bases.   These folks want “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in which to obscure their helicopter parented ignorance.   In this America Trump is a natural.  His vulgarity, sexism, racism all slides nicely in with a large portion of the population who in fact think and feel just like that, especially when put into the pressure cooker of the new gig economy.   Trump has given them their voice, and promises they they too will enter the Valhalla of a glittery gold-plated coal mine or factory, and a future in the New Again Great America.

Well, good luck with that.  Though, frankly, while there likely would have been some softening of the rougher edges for some had Clinton won, those who voted for Trump in anticipation of working in the West Virginia or Kentucky mines, are more likely to find out they’ve been mystically turned into canaries.   In fact it appears that all Americans have been so morphed, as we move into the post-WW2 “American Century” of the last 75 years, and enter a new era, with all the volatility which radical changes always bring.   Whether Americans will take kindly to being weaned from their imperially enforced quarter of the global goodies for their 20th of the globe’s population is doubtful.  Or for giving most of that “stuff” to a tiny minority of people – like their new President – while in time honored fashion, they feast on the crumbs falling from the table.

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Mr Trump’s first wife, Ivana, tells us that her ex-husband’s bed time reading when they shared their lives, was Mein Kampf,  the story of an aggrieved failed artist and corporal who went on to leave a significant imprint on history.  Mr Schicklegruber reinvented himself in a highly theatrical manner, in a period of extreme economic and political stress in his time and culture.  The sophisticated world of Beethoven, Hegel, etc. succumbed to his wiles and his prejudices.  And paid a price.

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Donald Trump was a kid from the Queens who got a nice head-start from his hustling father.  Bedazzled by the classier folks across the East River, he moved to Manhattan, out to impress those people, with his string of sexy babes, his golden towers, his beauty contests and casinos.  His nouveau-riche garishness failed to win their favor, and while happy to play with his money, Donald was never really accepted by the toney East Siders and Wall Street honchos. The chip on his shoulder grew bigger and bigger, and he had more and more to prove, revenge to take, scores to settle.  He ran for President, and despite being reviled by almost everyone – the Republican establishment, the pundits, the intellectuals, the security experts, Wall Street, the hipwasie, the Democrats, and the Hollywood clans and monster pop stars, not to mention the minorities whom he joyfully slandered – he won.

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My crystal ball is occluded, though history provides some clues where things might go.  That well thumbed book at his bedside might be a place to look.

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Item pertinent to this, worth the read:

http://forsetti.tumblr.com/post/153181757500/on-rural-america-understanding-isnt-the-problem

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In the frantic last days of our national election mania, in this year of 2016, each day awaits some new internet routed disclosure, private beans spilled into public view of the (alleged) perfidies of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. In the last weeks we’ve been treated to Trump’s sleaze on the Hwd Access tapes, to the coming forward of 12 ladies to accuse his highness of doing what he says he likes to do and can do courtesy of his wealth and fame, to Wikileaks revelations of inside dope on the Democratic National Committee’s machinations, and most recently to the Comey/FBI innuendos extracted from the dubious Anthony Weiner’s laptop lapdance. Each day seemingly offers yet another exposure of the sordid underbelly of America’s Id, as if we’d morphed into a TV noir in which Sgt Friday’s mantra is inverted, and it’s “the rumors, just the rumors” which are in demand. Facts, truth – WTF are those?

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In the hyper-acceleration of “information” thanks to the nano-second nervous system of our new digital world, ADDS shunts our attention around in loopy contortions: fact-free and factful merge into the same realm with no time to think. It is the political equivalent of high-speed trading in which a millisecond’s advantage can be leveraged into vast winnings. Never mind those winnings might evaporate in the next minute as ever new revelations sour the public consciousness. Such is the miswired collective neural system we have constructed for ourselves, like an elephant wired to regard a mosquito as a major threat instead of an almost unnoticeable irritant.

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Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s trek to the polls, what is sure is that the coming years will be a season in hell for the US, and sadly, as we are far too powerful on a global scale, a hell for the rest of the world. Should Trump win (not seemingly likely, but….) all bets on anything are off – he is simply too wild a card to predict anything except in Silicon Valley-speak, we can be sure he’d be a major disruptor, if only from an out of control ego and transparent incompetence at anything aside from conning. He has successfully so far proved a handful of American dicta: “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” If, as the polls thus far suggest, 42% or so of the American voting public are hot for Trump, the proof is staring us in the face. We’ll know on Nov 8 whether another dictum holds: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”

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Should Hillary Clinton emerge victorious, we will enter a presidential term utterly lacking the positive energy which attended Obama’s start. Instead the atmosphere will be instantly curdled, with a sizable contingent of the liberal/left having voted only to keep Trump away and not “for” Clinton, and with a Republican party in disarray with the apparently single unifying element to be as hostile towards Clinton’s term in office as it was towards Obama’s. Or more so. Already talk of impeachment, endless Benghazi, email server and other matters to be “investigated”, and a refusal to accept any Supreme Court (or other lesser ones) appointments. The Republicans have in effect said if they cannot govern, then no one will. This will make for yet another four years of governmental dys- and malfunction, in which certainly the House, and perhaps the Senate, simply decline to “do the work of the nation” with the intention of making Clinton yet another “failed President.”

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As America, and indeed the world, faces unprecedented pressures and emergencies in the form of population growth, immigration, resource depletion, and the ever increasing real life consequences of global warming and all its complex effects, we will have a government paralyzed for idiotic parochial reasons. Internally we are divided along geographic lines, along urban/rural, along regional matters of genuine import: water, economic disparities, then, perhaps most importantly, deep cultural rifts (including plain old all-American racism). The United States simply are not united. The fracture lines run deep, and seem unbridgeable. For some decades now my hunch has been we will fall apart much as the USSR did – owing to excess investment in militarism, collapsing infrastructure, vast economic divides between a ruling political/economic elite, and the rest of the populace. And, as in the USSR, wide cultural divisions among the members of “Union.” A prescription for dissolution.

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Of course Americans have been raised on the myth of our “exceptionalism”, and so they too perceive themselves as monolithic, powerful, special, “exceptional.” As do Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – on this I am sure they will agree big league, or bigly. Neither of them will level with the American populace, which itself is broadly not inclined to do so either, and acknowledge the ugly truth that the USA which constitutes 5% of the world’s population, and occupies 7% of the earth’s land, consumes 25% of the world’s resources. It manages this feat by operating a global empire backed by overwhelmingly the world’s largest and most powerful military, which enforces US economic policies, which are often extortionary and constitute theft in a suit, along with political and cultural leverages which gift America with one quarter of the world’s “wealth” while being only one twentieth of the world’s population. And, of course, within the USA the dispersal of this wealth is heavily skewed such that 1% own and control 80% of the wealth. A wealth which they use to distort domestic politics, and to dictate foreign policy. So yes, we are “exceptional” – in our voracious greed and the evils necessary to feed that greed, and in our communal self-delusion that denies this disproportionate wealth, and how we obtain it.

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Hillary Clinton is a firm believer in the concept of American exceptionalism, as well as in using our vast military power to enforce our economic empire across the world.  Should, as is expected, she win the office of President, she will surely pursue American foreign policy as in the past.  Having Kissinger as a friend and advisor, as well a other members of the neo-con and neo-liberal camps who have guided US policy in the last half century, suggests more of the same on tap.  The anger of both the left/Sanders people, as well as that of the right/Trump people seems unlikely to be assuaged by a Clinton administration, though surely she will try to soften the anger with domestic programs intended to help those on the lower rungs of our warped economic pyramid.  Whichever way the vote falls on Tuesday the immediate future appears fraught with the bitter tastes of the long electoral process now coming to a close.  The cleavages in the nation look to deepen with – as already demonstrated in the Oregon Malheur case – armed rebellions a clear possibility.  The crystal ball is looking rather opaque.

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A little item I found after writing this, pertinent:

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In the gray sky days of impending winter, I decided to begin the process of disentangling the chaos of my computer’s contents:  digital organization merely mirrors one’s own.  Chaos in/chaos out.  So I slowly fumble through my files, and find odds and ends which are often surprises, and for which, being realistic, I am sure there is no “use” in some imagined life of a published writer.  So I guess I’ve decided to put them out here.  Some stories, essays, fragments of once-upon-a-time scripts, snippets of ideas, and poems.  Some seem worthy of sharing, so I’ll do so here.  Maybe for a title it should be “Nothing to Say.”  I didn’t have one in the papers.

There was nothing to say, really.  Sure, it was usual to render up some mawkish sentiment, to burble with some high-sounding thought while choking back the tears.  It was sad.  It was supposed to be sad.  Though it seemed to me that sadness was usually misdirected, sent charging off bullheaded in exactly the wrong direction.  They’d say all the wrong things, showing right there, in their imagined most solemn of moments, how badly backward they’d got the whole thing.  It was pretty much the same at the other end of the event, when to get the whole damn thing started it took a vacillating swarm of fantasy images, and maybe a jolt of some inside drug, to kick the body into its shudders and sighs, and finally shoot the cream in.  Like this, it was something you really weren’t supposed to talk about, but just do the right handful of ritual gestures, mumble a few awful clunkers, stick the stamp on the Hallmark card, and move along.  Don’t make waves, don’t go against the grain, it ain’t the time to ruffle feathers.  Though it set you to wondering, if this wasn’t time to shake things up, when was?  So with them all hang-headed, with their hands clasped together, decked out in their darkest, I said it.  First I set it up, clearing my throat, like it was something serious and hard to say.

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“Dad was really a rotten son-of-a-bitch, and you all know it.  He never listened to anybody but himself, and bossed everybody around and everybody hated him really, but didn’t know what to do. And now he’s dead, and his mouth is finally shut, and you all wanna stand around telling lies about what a good guy he was, like he’d jump right up outta his coffin there and smack you if you didn’t say something nice.  Well, dead is dead, and he ain’t popping up, and the truth is he was a son-of-a-bitch, and you know it and I know it, except he probably did things a whole lot worse than what we know about, and that was bad enough.  Fuck him.”

 

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You could hear the whine of trucks working up over 101, headed north up the pass.  The sky was the usual blue.  Nobody said a thing.  Not a “shhhhh,” not a sound.  They just stood around a few more minutes looking sad.  Then Mom made a little move, and everybody shifted on their feet a little, nervous-like, making some sniffles, and then like they all knew, they turned and walked back to the cars.  Nobody said a word.  I stayed and watched as they pulled away, and then watched the workers – they were from Mexico or El Salvador, somewhere – take the little lawn tractor and shove the pile of dirt back down into the ground, tamping it with shovels.  Soon as the family was gone they started talking and laughing, and when they were done filling in the hole, they drove over it a few times with a roller ’til there was just a little mound of yellow-red dirt.  They came by with a little wagon and after they’d sprinkled the dirt and made it a dark color they laid turf on it.  Then they drank a beer and left.  I stayed, and I suppose they thought I must have been all ripped up, staying there until the sun had dropped and jet trails heading down to LA made orange streaks against the sky and the first stars started to come out.  I walked back into town, past the 7-11 and the gas stations by the Interstate, and went to the El Cajon and had a beer.  Al said he’d heard, and said he was sorry, and I said, “What for?”

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586Edoardo Albinati

Sept 30 2016

Not long ago, in May, my wife Marcella showed me a notice she’d seen in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a little polemic about all the five finalists for the Strega prize  (Italy’s most prestigious literary award) being from Rome in this year’s round.  Among those listed was my friend Edoardo Albinati.  This naturally perked up my interests, and I sent him a brief note, and not much later was prompted to send him congratulations for having come out the winner.  As a finalist he’d already been subjected to the literary press mill, and as winner he was due to be buried under an avalanche of journalists, critics, in paper and on TV.

And then, this month, came another round-about notice – he would be appearing in an event in Matera, Marcella’s hometown, where we’d been staying in or near since February. Last week we went to Matera to see him in company of a psychoanalyst and writer, Luigi Zoia, and field researcher and blogger, Luca Mori, along with, as it turned out, a somewhat too talkative moderator, Marino Sinibaldi who has a radio program on literature, Fahrenheit.  The event was called Materadio, and was a broadcast.

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Marcella saw Edo as he and his wife Francesca entered, and I went to briefly greet him as he worked his way to the front area in the cave-like space of the Casa Cave. We had a few words, and he advanced to the stage set and found his seat, looking rather, to my eyes, uncomfortable. After a while he came back out to talk with me a bit, and remarked how he wasn’t sure he could talk in the cave-setting there, as if the weight of the place would suffocate him. Old Matera – the Sassi – is composed of such places, houses and such carved into the soft tufo, formerly essentially caves, later decked out with facades, some ornately Baroque, but most very simple. Edo returned to his place on stage and had his 15 minutes of the 50 allotted. Afterwards he was hustled off for another hour of photos and short interviews with the press. I kept a discreet distance, and then joined by Marcella, we talked with Francesca while waiting for the press press to cease. Finally Edo emerged and we went to have a drink and some words before they returned to their hotel.

I met Edoardo in 1990, in San Francisco. A friend of his, writer Sandro Veronesi, (a Strega Premio winner back in 2004), had suggested he meet my friend Jim Nisbet – also a writer, of detective novels – who lives in San Francisco.  Jim had done a little part in my Rembrandt Laughing, and tried to work with me on Sure Fire.    And so fortuitously I met Edoardo there through Jim.  And – so Edo told me over our drinks – back then he piled into my VW van of the time, and we drove to the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and, he said, I had an accident on arrival. I do not recall this at all, and am certain I had no accident as I never had any in San Francisco, but maybe I bumped a curb or something.  At all events, I met him and he me.  Such are the odd ways in which I seem to meet my friends, living out of a van, a nomad on the earth.

Some years later, in 1994, having decided to live in Roma, we met again, and on lining up a film production, quite surprisingly to me, I asked Edoardo if he could help in scripting. It wasn’t really a script in the usual sense, since I don’t seem to work that way. Rather, as we went along, I’d have a scene in mind, and I’d ask – sometimes – either that he loosely translate a text I’d written and adjust it to be Italian, or I’d give him a vague generalized idea of what I wanted to convey, and he’d write out a long monologue or whatever. It was very much a collaboration, with me setting brackets, and Edoardo bringing his vastly greater knowledge of Italy – its cultural and political realities – into play, and writing what was needed.

 

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Interestingly, when I took the film – along with Edoardo and a few of the actresses in it – to the Venice Festival in 1995 – the Italian critics, who had rather rapturously greeted my earlier films, harshly critical of America, mostly recoiled at Uno a Me, a somewhat serio-comic critique of things a la Italia. They accused me of not knowing enough about Italy, about having a superficial view, and, well, of failing to make a variant of Roman Holiday, celebrating all things Italian, but instead of having made a critique of Italy after the Years of Lead, and in the midst of the corruptions of Berlusconi and the Mani Puliti era. The critique had been my idea, and in truth I thought I knew enough about Italy to make such a critique. But the more subtle, inside, critique, had been Edoardo’s – he wrote the dialogues and monologues that carried the argument I had framed. Italy is a tribal society, and while it is perfectly OK for a Florentine to harshly speak of, say, Siennese, or any other city-state/culture combo, should a goddam foreigner make a critique of la bella Italia, then the tribal antagonisms dissolve, and a national tribalism congeals in defense of the often indefensible.   Venice taught me that.  My cultural stock in Italy never recovered from this assault – I went from “the most important American independent filmmaker” in the Italian critic’s press opinion to Mr Nada. In hindsight I’d have to say my critique has held up well over the years, and back a bit Rai Tre, which funded it, apparently re-broadcast it a good number of times, so I was told, owing to viewer requests.

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uno-72Stills from Uno a Me, Uno a Te, et Uno a Raffaele

In the years since Venice, when in Italy, I’d see Edo when I could. While living in Roma (1993-5, and then 1997-2001) I walked not a few times from my place in Trastevere to his writing offices just north of Piazza del Popolo, to his home in the north side of the city , and visited him a few times outside Roma, once in Sperlonga.

In 2006, shooting a quick, no money one-week or so feature with the actress from Uno a me, Eliana Miglio, and Simonetta Gianfelici, and Agnese Nano, whom I’d worked with in a workshop in Sicily the year before, Edoardo played a role drawn from his recent stay of 6 months in Afghanistan. The film, La Lunga Ombra, was about the undertow effects of 9/11 on Italian and European “intelligentsia.” Edoardo’s role was essentially as himself, a person who’d spent time in Afghanistan, being interviewed by a television journalist. The film came out quite well, but I couldn’t get anyone in Italy (or the US) to screen it – turned down by every festival. My view is that the politics of it were simply too severe for kiss-ass, corporatized festivals to accept while the Iraq war was in full flow.  And probably a film made, however well, for $100 just couldn’t compete in the increasingly commercialized world of art.

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After I left Italy in 2002 and returned to the USA, I saw Edoardo far less – circumstances of life. Though whenever passing through Rome in the following years, I tried. Once a meal in his home with Francesca, and the last time we met at a metro station and had a quick pizza nearby in the north of Rome. And now again, finally, in Matera.

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I bought his book in the only bookstore in Matera likely to carry serious literature, and have promised myself to read it, in Italian, all 1,292 pages of it.  It might take me quite some time, but when it is over my Italian will be a hell of a lot better than it is now.  The book, so I’ve read, is about a famed and ugly case in Roma, the Delitto del Circeo, in the mid ’70’s, and is also a touch autobiographical.

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It came as no surprise. The doctor’s face revealed the clinical truth with rolled eyes and a wry smile, as he told me, that, basically, my back was a sizable train-wreck of a wreck. I’d known that for some decades, what with the myriad techniques of pain avoidance I’d adapted: dangling from railed corners, grabbing the back of a chair for leverage in twisting, standing while working, drinking. It had begun in 1976 with the first rear-ender in LA, when a young girl zipping along in Dad’s little Japanese car was busy looking at her cassette collection, likely going 25 mph when she hit me, stopped at a light on Laurel Canyon. Her front end crumpled, and my neck took the whip-lash, this in the days before back-headrests. I popped out of the car, advised her that her radiator was leaking and other damage, and suggested if it was nearby she might make it home. Exchanged info. The next day the whiplash hit, an ice-pick in the neck. There went disks C3, 4 and 5 and arrived a year of serious pain and a life-time of chronic lesser pain.

And then a year later, more or less healed, at least as much as was going to ever happen, from 2 weeks in traction at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla and the usual fistful of pills, a burly guy hit me a lot slower, somewhere in the flats of the Wilshire district, but with the heft of a big steel American cruise-mobile, ripping the seat of my old Volvo off its welded moorings, to mangle another set of disks. He jumped out and yelled, “short stop” while I’d been sitting there at the light at least 30 seconds. I wanted to floor him but didn’t, and knew resignedly from experience what would follow. Pain. The damage that time was mid-back along with the neck, whatever the letters and numbers I never bothered to find out.

I glanced at the X-ray, appreciating the somewhat ethereal beauty of it, and noted the snake-like line of my spine, left, then right. And the doctor’s look of resignation. The MRI image was more exact and solid, from multiple viewpoints, and detailed the squashed disks, the narrowed spaces, the herniated one, the pinched channel that sent pain piercing down my left leg – the good old sciatica which had haunted me, at varying levels, for some decades now. It was all of a piece, and the pieces were falling apart.

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Prescribing a regimen of pills – one to dampen the pain, another to relax the muscles, another to coat the stomach lining to thwart the toxic effects of the others, and another “natural” one to supplement missing trace elements to help bolster the body’s own self-care – and then a sequence of physical therapy things to do for a month, he then said “try this and….” And if this didn’t provide adequate relief, which his face said it certainly was not going to do, then it might require an “intervention.” To say a knife in the back. All this occurred in Italy, where I could afford these procedures – procedures which I could not have done in my own country without rapidly bankrupting myself, and hence had not done. My long acquaintance with Italy though made the thought of a knife in the back take on other shades.

So I and my back had shared a long experience of coping. As it happens, unlike some others for whom the languid enticements of opioids and other painkillers are strong, I prefer to be mentally active and find most of these drugs simply reduce my brain to a marshmellow state. I have, or have developed, instead, a rather high tolerance for pain. It’s been, for quite some time, a constant companion, often at levels that I know would send many friends scurrying to a doctor or a dealer to find some kind of alchemic relief. I instead tend to grin and bear it, so as to allow the cells of my brain to continue their minuet. I like to think, to ponder, to do, and sitting doing nothing is nearly impossible for me. If I really need a palliative a few bottles of good strong beer will do the job without closing down my mind.

However of late – the past year or so – the various jolts of pain were getting on the debilitating side, requiring periods of laying down, a modest stream of Advil or sometimes paracetamol laced with a touch of codiene. This declension had prompted the visit to the doctor, the subsequent X-ray and MRI, and naturally, the glance at the impending near future, which pointed, in one way or another, to life’s final denouement. Death, and often, if not always – a good car wreck, heart-attack, murder or other “event” can serve to short-circuit the process – the painful steps of getting there, issued out in myriad possibilities. The fading sight, the hearing gone, the broken bones, failing liver or lungs, each giving out at their own pace until the mechanism of one’s body can no longer sustain that thing we call “life.” Depending on one’s past and nature, one’s “character” or desires, one can shunt this all out, stumbling dull-minded to the end, or one can be ever more attentive with the dwindling means offered, acute until the curtain of consciousness closes. And everything in between.

Whichever path one takes or is taken on, the finale is always the same: your mind ceases and with it your “you” takes an infinite walk. And nothing remains but the traces left, the faint echoes of friendships and love to expire when their holders do, the tawdry material items acquired in these four score and whatever years, be they a house left in the will, a small empire of business, a studio of paintings, or nothing. Or, if one had acquired some grace of “fame” of some kind, a mythic shadow might envelop your name, which might become a much encumbered, and surely falsified asterisk in the brief trajectory of human history. But, finally, all arrives in exactly the same place as our selves evaporate and the simple building blocks of water, a fistful of chemicals reduce to the universal atomic levels which hide beneath our hectic comedy of life.

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April 22.

Returned from a week’s trip to Bologna, where I scrambled easily up the long San Lucas stairway and back down, and felt great, we did our last 3 days of doctor’s assigned physical therapy. On the next to last day, about half an hour after wrapping up, a stab of pain shot down my lower back and left leg. Nasty enough to require a hasty horizontality to elude the pain. The next day, hampered, did the final therapy session, with Cosimo, the therapist, doing some things which he concluded indicated inflamed muscle, and not nerve stuff. A bit buoyed by this idea, we went back “home”, did some water colors (dismal) and momentarily felt better about things. Foolishly. Then came the whammy of pain down the lower back, the happy-making pills providing no relief, I got some beers to dampen the jagged edges, and went, again, horizontal. Gravity is cruel when vertical, weight pressing down on shrunken disks, squeezing the thin lines of nerve tissue.

June 21.

Two months ago I was gently slipped into unconsciousness, so much so I hardly noticed. While gone a surgeon extracted my L 4-5 disc, which had been squished beyond use by life’s vicissitudes. While doing this he noticed a little fragment of the disc nestled against the sciatica nerve root, likely in hindsight the cause of some decades of on and off serious pain. He dug that out, though in process scarring the nerve tissue – of which more later.

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I awoke in a drugged stupor, oxygen tubes slipped in my nostrils, an IV drip in my left arm. Marcella tells me I babbled incoherently, asking what this crap in my nose was. Typical post-op behavior. Finally coming around I met my roomy, Rachib, whose leg had been mangled in an accident. He hailed from Bangladesh, one of Italy’s many immigrants. For four days we chatted in a limited manner, constricted by our mutually minimal Italian, while nurses came cyclically to change the drip bags, check blood pressure and such, and the dismal – even in Italy – food was brought in, all while my body recovered from the major intrusion it had undergone. Marcella thankfully came frequently, bringing bites of better food, and the comfort of companionship. The four days whisked by, and I was released with a bundle of drugs and “integrators” to take, off to convalesce. Within the week I was up and about, if a bit hobbled and slow. Fortunately my philosophy glands were working fine, and despite the daily requisite pains, I was of good, if typically for me, dark, humor. It’s my view that whatever ill befalls you – physical pain, psychic trauma, bad news or whatever – it’s better to take it with a smile, a nice lathering of humor. To do otherwise is only to make a bad deal worse.

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Rebounding well, after 2 or 3 weeks, with Marcella administering a special leg stretch of a 20 minutes cycle, twice a day, I was doing pretty well – walking, up and about for the day, busy painting and writing. Out of the woods. Until one morning I awoke, and attempting to exit the bed to take a pee, was administered such a jolt of pain, that I recoiled, trying to find a way to avoid it. It emanated from my left buttocks and hip, as if a muscle had spasmed and contracted in the worst of ways. However, after managing to get up, after moving about a bit, in an hour the pain subsided and then completely disappeared. At least until the next morning, when it resumed, worse still. Marcella and I had to figure a way for me to pee in bed, as getting up was pure torture. This went on some days – 4 or 5 – and I duly popped pain killers, until each day the pain subsided and things were “normal” again. The feeling was that a muscle in my buttock was seizing up, pinching the sciatica nerve, and then letting go. So it seemed. A post-op scheduled visit to the doctor arrived, and I told of this new thing, and he casually did a few pushes and pulls on my leg, and announced the cause was not muscle things, but that the scarring on the nerve, in process of healing – a growing process – would grab onto my spine during the passive hours of the night, and on getting up I would tear it, delivering one of Maggie Thatcher’s short sharp shocks. He prescribed some further pain killers, and integrators, and more of Marcella’s leg stretches.

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Though the pain continued – and here more than a month later still does – it slowly diminished, I imagine as the scar is healing step by step. What was interesting was that the pain was far more tolerable once I knew what it was. It had for a while the same intensity, but knowing it was tearing nerve tissue, and that it would subside for the day within an hour, made it much easier to push through it, get up from bed whatever the pain, and get on with life. Though I was puzzled why I hadn’t been told on leaving the hospital that this might happen. It certainly would have made that first instance much less worrisome.

September 7.

At the end of July, our beach town filling with summer’s mayhem, we moved back to Matera. The morning nerve tear pain has slipped away, and formal physical therapy done, I’ve almost gotten to my pre-operation routine of pushups, squats, curls and basic yoga stuff, with an added 20 minutes of walking. Along the way a few little hiccups of the hypochondriac kind showed up. For a period I had what I read as signs of an imminent heart attack: pain down the left arm, a kind of seizing in the left chest. I recalled once in a while having these long before, and figured the high blood pressure of recent years was taking over, ready to do me in. Though something about the pains I was having led me to doubt it was really heart attack stuff, so of course I went on-line to check it all out. Came up with the conclusion I was probably having acid reflux symptoms. But still went to the doctor, since here I am on Italian socialized medicine and the cost is a wait in a room and then a free doctor visit. The doctor twisted my arm a few ways, heard my view, took a blood pressure reading, and more or less agreed with my self-analysis. He prescribed some stuff for acid gut reflux and asked I let him know in 10 days how things were going. The pains went away after some days, my blood pressure danced around slightly high “normal” and the heart attack scare went away. Got myself back up to 60 squats, some curl like exercises and 80 modified pushups as normal on the ground ones are too much a stress on my lower back.  And got the yoga stuff back to my previous normal. The stay in Matera was mostly devoted to getting my body back into condition, building back the diminished muscle tissue, and with a good wi-fi in the apartment, way too much time on line. Now we’re back in the nearly vacated beach town, and I hope to wean myself from the toxins of Facebook, and the on-line non-life which comes too easily.

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Sept. 15

Of course, with the sciatica pain gone, I now note more clearly the something going on in my right sacroiliac/hip area, which had been there a long time. It’s a modest little pain, incurred with a certain twist of the torso, and I’d think nothing to be done about it but avoid that little twist or pop pain-killers. I live with it. And wait for the next shoe, among the many perhaps to come, to drop.

 

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I met Peter Hutton in 1974 (I think – can’t find sure info on it), during a wild trip from Kalispell, Montana to San Diego and on to NYC for my first screening (of short films) at MoMA , and then up to Hampshire College where he was teaching, and had arranged for me to screen Speaking Directly . I saw his films then – I think the first time – and loved them: In Marin County, July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971 ), Images of Asian Music. After seeing my film he was surprised I liked them so strongly, I suppose figuring I’d only like films like my own. Not so.

While staying with him I had the brakes on my VW van fixed – I’d rebuilt the engine with a friend in Kalispell, deep into autumn, and left with no brakes as we didn’t have tools to yank the wheel, rusted onto the spindle, off. The engine began blowing smoke by Portland and I threw a rod in Missouri. Luckily I found a junker in auto graveyard, yanked the engine myself and put it in my vehicle and it worked, if barely. Sputtered onto NYC for the MoMA screening, all with no brakes. A Porsche shop next to the loft Peter had in Amherst did my brakes in exchange for a lid of very lousy Montana homegrown. An adventure.

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Since that time we were friends, bumping into each other out on the rarified arts-film circuit, and I visited a handful of times in upstate NY, once he landed his job at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson. He’d show me work on his projector, some in editing stage. And we’d play cribbage in marathon bouts of 12 hours at a go, for nickels and dimes, beers in hand. Never talked about art or films, though once he took me to the DIA Foundation museum in Beacon NY.   Through the years he swore he always won at the cribbage, though I always seemed to walk away with a fistful of change I didn’t have when I’d arrived.

Not long after meeting him and seeing his films I wrote an article for American Film, the defunct magazine of the AFI. At that time Peter was a kind of filmmaker secret, known and prized in the more rarified world of experimental films, though his could hardly be called “experimental”. After all he made black and white silent 16mm films, with no “story” or narrative – just sequences of magical images that somehow cohered and made their own visual and emotional sense. Like the very first cinema.  He shot in Kodak Tri-X reversal, deliberately underexposing one and a half to 2 stops, getting a grainy rich image of a wide range of grays-to-black and almost no whites. He knew how to exploit the play of light which drew him like a moth in combination with the granular texture of the emulsion. His relationship with the stock and his sense of imagery was near mystical, and the results veered into the sublime.

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New York Portrait

In his earlier work – In Marin County, July 71…, and Images of Asian Music – his camera was sometimes exuberant, mounted on a skate board (way the hell back then), or under a cock-fight aboard a Cambodian coastal freighter, alternating with fixed shots. He also seemed to aim for willful “surrealist” shots. After these early forays, his camera stilled, and what moved was the light before it – subtle shifts in tones, the grains of the filmstock dancing. And he left behind the forced surrealist images and settled on the magic of his kind of “realism” which often focused on the mundane transformed by the divine dance of light and film grain.

[Peter’s shift to camera stasis reminds me of Parajanov, whose Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was delirious with camera movement, and who then changed to having long-take fixed tableaux, camera nailed to the floor – artists are hard to figure out.]

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Lodz Symphony

He pursued this line for some decades, gathering grants along the way (DAAD, Guggenheim, as well as other accolades like Whitney Biennial screenings). He was a regular at film festivals – Berlin especially, and the New York FF section for avant-garde films. He shot in Lodz, Budapest, and New York; moved to Bard he shot in the Hudson River Valley. And his reputation as a filmmaker’s filmmaker broadened such that, so he told me, Terrence Malick at one point asked him to travel the world doing shots for him in 35mm (turns out it fell through) and other such things. He shot a few features for others, worked with Ken Burns.

Then in 2002 or so, telling me he was doing so because Tri-X was no longer available, he shifted to color. And something happened.

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I am not one to mince words, or give deference to those who’ve done past work that was great but then slip into something else. When Peter switched to color (and Tri-X in fact is still available), somehow he lost that mystical connection between the granular structure of the film emulsion and the dance of light, and something else. Art-making is an organic matter, there’s no on/off button for it; it happens successfully when certain undefinable things align – often things out of the artist’s control. It happened with Peter when he left the Tri-X. Somehow the magic evaporated and his imagery became pedestrian – yes, nicely composed, and often with striking light, and yet lacking in that quality that was present in the black and white films. One might put it down to the fact that Peter was a little color-blind, though honestly I don’t think that had much to do with it. Something more to do with a certain kind of creative exhaustion.

Ironically, being more widely known, he became recipient to further grants, and traveled to shoot for them; he was shown more broadly at festivals. Through a friend of mine he was invited to Iceland, where he shot Skagafjordur. I recall seeing this film, a sequence of stunning landscape shots, glossy and gorgeous as in travel magazine fashion, and thinking it was missing the graphics of the month – June, July, August – up in the corner: calendar images. I recall visiting him in Annandale-on-Hudson, when he was editing At Sea, and his stringing up the edit to that point on his 16mm projector and screening it for me. To my eyes it was for the most part pedestrian; the sequences on board ship tragically vacuous compared to his own Images of Asian Music; the ship building sequences are ordinary documentary (though with Hutton quirks, like a little camera set-up or take-down movement at the start or end of a shot.) Only in a few sequences in the ship-dismantling section shot in Bangladesh did a few shots sing. Ironically, perhaps by critics who’d never seen his earlier work, At Sea was named “experimental film” of the decade. Aside from the simple matter that it is hardly “experimental,” it also isn’t a good film. That it was accorded this title, or screened in the Whitney Biennial, or then broken up to make a 3-screen “installation” at a gallery in NYC (to exclamatory good reviews), tells how far our arts world has fallen. And sadly, how far Peter’s touch had strayed.

I saw a few other later pieces of his – the one shot in Ireland, the last one shot in a desert area in North Africa – and they too are empty – perhaps nicely composed (a toxic notion), and innately “beautiful” (the coast of Ireland, the moody sky; the exoticism of camels in the desert), but beauty and composition don’t suffice.

The last time I saw Peter was in NYC, at a busy gallery opening of his two installation pieces, and one of James Benning’s, on the lower East Side – not far from where he’d lived and I’d visited decades earlier . It was full of art-world people, some few of whom I knew. I had a few words with Peter, as he was besieged with others. He passed on some comments about unhappy personal things, seemingly harried. At the time I thought he looked a little gaunt, something I’ve seen before in others. As if something were eating at him.

Peter died of cancer of the lungs on June 25th, 2016, at the age of 71. In May he’d sent me this note, after I’d sent him a letter about my own health. From this it appears he was rather blind-sided by his illness. The ending was quick.

May 7.  Jeeze! I came down with pneumonia the day I got your last message. My lungs are essentially shot, like swiss cheese the Dr says. I’m on antibiotics and feel slightly better.  Had a show in LA that just closed of Film Stills, sold a few which was good since my daughter is getting married in a month and I’m footing the bill. The digital thing has opened quite a few new exhibition opportunities, installations,trying to stay active but feel the grip loosening a bit . I’m trying to finish my Berlin film from 1980, which time has rendered “archival”. I’ll go to digital and maybe try another installation.I hope someone in Berlin will be interested. Carolina is down in Peru wandering around with a camera, “off the grid” at the moment. Do you know La Furia Umana. They are publishing a book about me, which will be out soon. Time and Tide……. stay in touch, glad you are healing. Best P

I regret there’ll be no more cribbage marathons (though I haven’t played for ages – last time with Peter), but I more regret that circumstances didn’t let me say to him how much his work meant to me, and how glad I was to have known him and had him in my life. I never did talk with him about my thoughts on his later work, though he was a modest sort and I suspect he would not have been bothered by my critique. In truth I think he knew inside himself, and that he carried on as a kind of necessary show. He’d done quiet and extraordinary work, and that was quite enough.

Sail on, sailor.

 

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Filmography:

  • In Marin County (1970)
  • July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971)
  • New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972)
  • Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-1974) (1973-1974)
  • Florence (1975)
  • Boston Fire (1979)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter One (1978-1979)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter Two (1980-1981)
  • Budapest Portrait (Memories of a City) (1984-1986)
  • Landscape for Manon (1986)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter Three (1990)
  • In Titan’s Goblet (1991)
  • Lodz Symphony (1991-1993)
  • Study of a River (1996-1997)
  • Time and Tide (2000)
  • Looking at the Sea (2001)
  • Two Rivers (2001-2002)
  • Skagafjordur (2002-2004)
  • At Sea (2007)
  • Three Landscapes (2013)

A nice piece written by Bill Stamets, Chicago friend

http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/reel-life-a-romantic-exulting-in-purified-light/Content?oid=878973

And Peter interviewed:

http://www.thislongcentury.com/?p=3385 

[I note I’ve met a few of Peter’s students over the years, and heard from others that he was a wonderful teacher – something from my own knowledge of him would be a given.]

 

Bard

To All:

It is with great sadness that I inform the community of the death of Peter Hutton, Charles Franklin Kellogg and Grace E. Ramsey Kellogg Professor of the Arts, on June 25 at the age of 71.

Peter began teaching at Bard in 1985 and chaired the Film and Electronic Arts Program for twenty-seven years. He also taught in the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.

Peter was born in Detroit on August 24, 1944. He received B.F.A and M.F.A. degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, and travelled the world as a merchant seaman, creating intimate studies of place from the Yangtze River to the Polish industrial city of Lodz, and from the coast of Iceland to a ship graveyard on the Bangladeshi shore. Anthology Film Archives presented a retrospective of his work in 1989, and the Museum of Modern Art presented a comprehensive, eighteen-film retrospective in 2008. His films have also been featured in the Biennial Exhibitions of the Whitney Museum of American Art for many years. He was named a Guggenheim Fellow and Rockefeller Fellow in the early 1990s and received grants from the New York Artist Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for his work on the Hudson River.

Peter was one of the most gracious, talented, original, and generous colleagues I have ever known. His contribution to the College was transformative. My deepest condolences to his daughter, Manon Hutton-DeWys ’06, of whom he was justly proud, and her husband, Donald McClelland; and his widow, Carolina Gonzalez-Hutton. He is also survived by his twin sister, Wendy Hutton, and brother, William Hutton.

A funeral service will take place on Tuesday, June 28, beginning with a quiet gathering at 5:00 p.m. at the Avery Center for the Arts, followed by a silent procession to Blithewood, where the service will be held on the West Portico, weather permitting, or in the Blithewood Foyer, if necessary. A reception at the president’s house will immediately follow the service.

If you choose to honor Peter and his legacy at Bard, his family has requested donations may be made to Bard College for the Peter Hutton Film Fund. Please do not send flowers.

Leon Botstein


Office of Alumni/ae Affairs
Bard College
845-758-7089
alumni@bard.edu

 

 

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In spring of 1960 I graduated from high school. Unknown to me, so did Cassius Clay, of whom I’d never heard, nor had most Americans or the world. A short few months later, Cassius had won the light-heavyweight crown at the 1960 Summer Olympics, and with a grand splash America and the world were introduced to the brash young man from Louisville, Kentucky. Cassius was anything but modest – he was the greatest, prettiest, fastest. He was, like America, the firstest with the mostest. He was the Louisville Lip.

Fame quickly gathered around Cassius, and he took to it like a fish to water. DJ Cassius, long before it became known as such, was perhaps the world’s first rapper. He spoke in staccato rhyme, and he spoke his mind. The world took note.

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In America, as Olympic champion, he was adored and honored. At least in the manner we honor black athletes: he won for “us” but he could go to the back of the bus, not sit at the local fountain store, and stay in his “proper place.”  He was a champ but he was, in the lingo of the times, especially down south, a “nigger.”

In short order Cassius Clay turned pro, put on a touch of weight and in 1964 he “whupped” Sony Liston, a fierce bigger black man, and became world heavyweight champion, and of course, vastly more famous, in America and the world. Promptly afterward he became a convert to an American form of Islamism and changed his “slave name” to Cassius X and then to Muhammed Ali.

America recoiled. This uppity black kid poked the USA in the eye, and just after he’d received one of the highest honors his country might bestow on him: fame and wealth. And just as the civil rights movement was roiling the nation. For much of America – the part that insisted on calling him Cassius – he turned into a traitor.

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I wasn’t, along with the growing inchoate substrate of the “counter culture,” part of that America. As Cassius won the title, I was in bumming in Europe, a college drop-out, disaffected and alienated from my own culture. When I returned to the USA in 1964 it was knowingly to go to prison, for refusal to serve in the US military. I spent two years and a bit there, and while in, in March 1966, Ali himself refused service. In the midst of the Vietnam war this brought vicious attacks on him, and in illegal manners, he was stripped of his title and vilified. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison, (which he did not serve) and forbidden to box. And in turn he became another kind of champion – of the alternative current running through America.

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I am not one for heroes or idols or stars, and Ali is no exception. I knew of him, respected his voice (and boxing skills), and over the years, as he changed in the eyes of America from loud-mouthed black boy hero to chump, to a mythic icon, I of course, like almost everyone else, followed his trajectory that arced into tragedy. Debilitated by Parkinsons and the horrendous damage of his sport, Ali appeared to mellow, and America’s view of him did likewise. No longer the brash arrogant man of his youth, the broad soft middle of America warmed to the almost silent mumbling man he became, such that today the media floods with ecominiums to this “ambassador of good will.” Such is the hypocrisy of my country.

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Boxing is a violent and brutal sport. To see it live (not live TV), as I have a handful of times – small-time boxers – is to be drawn into a primal world in which the visceral taste of death dances, as does our innate animal instinct for aggression. Watching the faces of ring-side observers is to watch the face of our most elemental viciousness. Boxing is our colosseo, and those who dance within its ring are our gladiators, issuing and receiving violence to enthrall us with the hint of death – and once in a while the real thing.

This was Ali’s world, for which he paid a deep price as the punishment he took upon himself, for our “entertainment,” took its toll. Today my society – America – schizophrenically gathers not so much for boxing, now a politically incorrect sport, but for football, where vast crowds cheer on a carefully orchestrated violence, as at the same time we discuss the brain concussions implicit, and all the other bodily damage which sees athletes reduced to hobbling cripples, stuttering with battered brains in their forties. As in boxing, a disproportionate percentage – way over the 12% of the population they represent – of the players are black. It is, perhaps, as some would say, their “natural athletic abilities,” which is not far from “they got rhythm.” Or perhaps it is their place in American society, in which one of the few escapes (another is showbiz) from the poverty of our vast black ghettos is through the avenue of sports – and so young African-Americans are channeled “by the market” to concentrate on dribbling, hoops, passing, catching, hitting, and if they are very lucky, “making it” into some major league, making a fortune, and limping into their premature dotage. It is, bitterly, a sometimes well-paid version of “keeping in your place.

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In the last 8 years, having entered a supposedly “post-racial” era in America, the presence of Barak Hussein Obama, a black man in the White House, has instead, through the agency of, among others, Donald Trump (and a long list of abettors in the Republican party), revealed the festering racism which remains an essential component of American society. It is something which is shown each day in the dark bodies which “play” ball for us in the avalanche of sports which serves to distract us from the disparities of our nation, the vast income chasms, the economic stratification, the vacant factories and towns, the growing legion of the homeless, not to mention the imminent violence which global warming begins to inflict upon us and the world.

Inadvertently Muhammed Ali, placed high on a pedestal as he aged, delivered vast homage in death, was in the end, “put in his place.” He boxed and danced for us, he taunted us, and named himself. And in doing so also named us. And, alas, he played his role – pugilist, gladiator. He fought in the ring and outside of it. He fought the culture he lived in. And at the end, he won, and he lost. America for now remains, beneath the veneer of multi-culturism and “post-racialism” much the same as it was back in 1967, when Ali said his provocative words, “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger.”

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The “N” word is now most politically incorrect, and we do our drone kills as best we can in secret. But racism in America remains alive and vivid as it was in 1960, just as does America’s global imperialism.

And in dying, Muhammed Ali, sadly, has been put in his “proper place.” He’s been eulogized by the President (who would see Edward Snowden in prison), reams of words have graced his name, most seemingly highlighting his ambassadorial role and his honorific awards. He has been embraced and his assertions about America  – it’s racist core, it’s militaristic impulses – have been discarded. He’s been turned into “a good boy.”

In any culture, each generation produces a handful of iconic public figures, people who somehow encapsulate an historical era, mirroring and reflecting the world in which they existed. Ali was one of those. For those of that era, the death of such a person coagulates a chain of memories and realizations  – not just of that person, but of one’s time and society, and hence of one’s self.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

                                                                               John Donne

Ali was saved by the bell a few times, and he came back to win. With the final bell, his Louisville Lip has been sutured, and history has molded him into an icon of its own desires. Present tense history is always a fraud.

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A friend in India wrote and asked me to write something on Muhammed Ali, after I’d posted a short note on FaceBook.  The above item is what I sent him, and post here.  Below is the Bangladesh front page of the piece.  (Thanks Nilanjan!)

ALI IN NILAJAN PAPER

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article-3058 Lucien Freud

 

Rummaging the computer again, came up with this, originally published in Senses of Cinema.  Little of it seems to have aged into uselessness, so I’ll print it again here.

End Game: Some thoughts provoked by recent exhibitions, and Godard’s Éloge de l’amour

Veering into my own 60th year, having taken a sharp (and for some it would seem unhappy-making) turn in my own creative work over the past ten years, I have in recent years given thought to the trajectory of the so-called “creative” life – primarily in the work of painters, but also in other branches of the arts, including cinema. The following are some thoughts prompted by recent exhibitions and JL Godard’s last work.

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Lucian Freud at the Tate Modern (August 2002)

At the Tate Modern (the older Tate museum) there was recently a retrospective of the work of Lucian Freud. I managed an hour during a rather packed Sunday afternoon, also the exhibition’s final day, not really comfortable, but all I was able to squeeze into my stay in London. Aside from having to elbow one’s way to see the paintings – past people clutching their lecture devices who don’t really look but stand three or five feet away listening to what I am sure is an academic facts and figures summary like dates, where he was living, and other not really so important things vis á vis the painting, with ready-made interpretations of the meaning of this or that – it wasn’t really enough time, but so life goes.

Freud’s earliest work (early 1940s) shows an immediate painterly talent. It is heavily influenced by surrealist qualities and mannerisms – juxtaposing odd things (zebra head coming in through a window), strongly distorted features, and so on. After a brief flirt in this direction he quickly settled in on portraiture, at first while very skilled, using thin washes, built up in layers, these works sometimes come perilously close to illustration – very good illustration but illustration. An early series of portraits limits the exaggeration to large eyes and a slightly bulging top of head (a well-known one from this series is among a group with excessively big eyes that goes dangerously into Walter Keane territory – a really trashy kitsch painter from ’60s America). For this period his color palette is if not bright, at least not so limited and muted as it would become. Clearly he is no colorist.

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Quickly enough, with some painterly hints from his friendship with Francis Bacon visible, Freud gravitated towards his idée fixe, which he then pursued with obsessive intensity for the next 50 plus years – portraiture, often nudes, in a palette of skin tones, earths, occasional reds, and when other “colors” enter, very muted. Here and there are a few images without people, of foliage. At the outset of this his paint is thin, washes built up to make a dense textural richness. This gave way to a thicker paint, in which in a meticulous manner he harnessed very fine aspects of the brush, with small little ridges of paint showing the traces of the individual hairs of the brush; this was done in a careful manner, heightening the richness of fine details. From a few steps back the images, like Caravaggio, seem somewhat clear and tight; with your nose in the painting, the fluid painterly qualities come to the fore. His balance in this is often perfect.

Such careful and meticulous detailing frequently (whether done in a painterly manner or more photo-realist one) results in a rigid and dead image. For several decades Freud pursued this aesthetic, certainly an obsessive and laborious process. Perhaps the best example is a large canvas of foliage, leached of color, a rich field of tan, slight earths, depicting leaves and the dense bramble of a bush. At a distance the sense of depth is amazing, one layer giving way to that behind it, several fold. Up close the depth vanishes, and what becomes clear are the amazingly small but very painterly details – the edge of a leaf defined by a meticulous fringe of thick paint trails of a stiff brush, applied with an exactitude which for anyone who has painted, seems astounding. It is a very big canvas, and its surface is completely covered. I cannot imagine how many hours it took, but certainly very very many. Unlike most such paintings, in which technique tends to overwhelm the painting itself, here the balance is immaculate, the push-pull tension between the “image” and the “painting” as precise as a tightrope walker’s step. This is just the opposite of the numerous examples in Western art of the ‘look-at-me’ still-life exercises of flowers, peeled fruits and glasses in which the virtuoso act of painterly perfection destroys the image, the tour-de-force sucking out any interest beyond an academic, yep, you sure can make that illusion.

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In his portraits, limited in his color range, Freud though engages in discreet but in fact very strong spatial manipulations. The space is normally flattened out, so that, for example, the legs of the sitter in the chair are being looked down on while the torso and perhaps face are seen frontally. Within this unrolled space are often foreshortenings pushed to slight extremes, such that one is not really aware, as one might be in surrealist work, of the spatial warp, but feels it is “natural” while in fact it is highly unnatural. Through this spatial play Freud imparts both a sense of monumentality to the most ordinary (a person in a chair or on a bed), and at the same time secures a rich sense of psychological penetration of the person (always a bit grim and unhappy – Freud must be approached with a buoyant spirit or he will fast take you down).

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A few decades ago this tendency toward monumentalizing in his work took a jump, and with it not only did the paintings get considerably bigger, but the poses, the foreshortenings, the nakedness took on an aggressive stance, the paintings clearly intended to shock the viewer: look at that cock, the folds of those labia, those BALLS! The willfulness of the intent to shock is a bit overbearing in these. At the same time the paint begins to thicken further, and the previous careful and obsessive detailing falls away, replaced by dense clotted clumps of pigment. The subjects are slowly subsumed into the paint, losing much of their psychological intensity along the way, with the scale and shock-value seemingly substituting for the loss in psychological penetration. Freud seems to get sloppy and indifferent, a sense of exhaustion pervading the canvases, as if he were saying “so fucking what?!” as the flesh sags, and the skin mottles into cellulite clumpiness. Surrounded by the hysterics of our media-hyped world and the slide of the arts scene into pure sensationalism (sliced cows, plasticized human bodies), the sense of shock has worn off, as well has the sense of painterly pleasure. By the end one feels he is doing it now for the big money, from habit, out of a dumb incapacity to do anything else. In the last room of the exhibit – mostly laid out chronologically – are some plain bad works. After 60 + years one must forgive, though perhaps Lucian should hang up the brushes, even if already a bit late. However the long mid-stretch of his career is rich and rewarding, with some incredibly good painting, albeit held tight within his very restricted range of interests and palette. As with most obsessive artists, the end result is a curdling inward finalizing in self-parody.

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Lucian Freud's Self Portrait, Reflection

Gerhard Richter at San Francisco MOMA (November, 2002) 

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A retrospective of 40 years of painting. I went a bit eager, perhaps over-eager, having admired the isolated picture seen in museums, and reproductions. The thought of seeing a large collection, spanning the career, seemed enticing. At first it was – the first rooms, in chronological order, having the eclectic mixture which I had known to expect: the soft-focus “realist” images, the raw and brutal scraped abstracts. In both cases these seemed to have the weight of seriousness. The images taken from newspapers, rendered in grays and black, their outlines softened with whiskered strokes, the facile rendering of mundane “reality” made mysterious with the reduction to monochrome and the distanced effect of the soft-focus. Juxtaposed against the harsh and large scraped panels, they played off each other nicely, as did the experiments in swirling paints done with a large and sometimes serrated blade. The early work harkened with its newspaper typography and imagery belonging to the American Pop art of the same time, but seemed invested with a German sense of gravity, and a more attentive painterly quality (a small gray roll of toilet paper casts a subtle shadow). Likewise the color panel experiments seemed a more severe case of Op art. Richter seemed ready to shamelessly touch all the bases, including nods to Abstract Expressionist Action Painting, and did so with such graceful ease that it seems almost a critique of these movements. Richter seems a born painter, able to hop from one mode to the next like a child. And yet…

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Gerhard Richter Flow

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And yet, as room followed room of essentially the same tactics, the radical shift from the hard abstracts to the gray and painterly city-scapes, Baeder Meinhof images, the gentle color land and sea-scapes, the saccharine portraits of his wife and child, the intermixing of soft-focusing and scraped smearing (his unpainting), the effect dulled, and slowly emerging from this accumulation came a powerful sense of obvious kitsch: what had seemed serious decayed into a shallow game, a kind of nose-thumbing “look how I can paint” sucked dry of any more meaningful content. The end result for me was a collapse into disappointment, all this obvious talent thrown away in a sequence of empty gestures. On quite another frequency, it is the same sense evoked by a Warhol, or Ed Ruscha retrospective: like Richter these are equally gifted with graphic talents, able to conjure the catchy image, to exploit a certain range of painterly or graphic quality and to hang it upon contemporary realities; and like these painters the more one sees, the thinner the content seems, until finally the enterprise folds in on itself, reduced to parody or self-caricature. Richter’s later images of his child and wife, unbearably kitsch in form and content, are not enhanced by the scraping then applied, rather the effect is as if Richter were assaulting himself, attempting to eradicate the facile manner in which he makes his images, as if scraping away the image would somehow rescue it from its fall into emptiness. It does not, but rather underlines the essential void which no amount of painterly talent can hide, and into which Richter’s entire career falls. The appearance of “significance” is a masquerade in this case, an accidental addendum to a lifetime of flight from such significance.

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Jean Luc Godard at End Game

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Which then leads to Godard’s latest, Éloge de l’amour. On the day of its release, I read the reviews in the Village Voice and New York Times (worthy of a look). I saw the film on DVD at a friend’s in London, certainly not an ideal manner in which to see richly visual work such as Godard’s. Éloge de l’amour certainly has an elegiac feel to it, the front 2/3rds in often lovely, if rather conservative, B&W imagery, much of it Parisian street scenes, a kind of documentary, but with a Huttonesque quality of being instantly old: lingering in the mind is that one has seen these images decades ago and draws to question the remaking of them – why? The camera is static, the compositions gelid, and lacking any originality. Rather they reprise a kind of history of photography of Paris, echoing rather directly a long sequence of photographers of the last 70 years. The “story” is one of the ones JLG has been telling for 40 years, starting perhaps with Le mépris (1963), and then repeatedly since: the story of making a movie that isn’t quite made.

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Beneath this is the usual movie-centric subtext about culture, love/hate, America/Hollywood. In the reviews one gathers there is a much more coherent “story” than there really is, with the supportive critics busy doing the stitching job which Godard has neglected. Rather what is really there is a blank notebook, being filled in, or not filled in, by a surrogate Godard. Literally there is a (note)book shown, pages blank, which the character peruses here and there. JLG’s confession that beyond the aesthetics, beyond the now heavily redundant “content” there really isn’t much there is made openly. It is the cul de sac of the cineaste, the dead end of cinephilia. Godard, a self-admitted child of the cinema, was always trapped in the celluloid box, hence his often errant politics, the expression of a worldly naiveté in which nearly everything revolves around the cinema. Thus the capacity of the film critics to unravel what is really a hermetic thoroughly ingrown discourse which Godard now loops (often gorgeously) over and over to himself, followed by an ever diminishing chorus of fellow cinephiles for whom the in-references to this film, that text, etc. constitute a quasi-religious experience, a cabalistic cult of knowledge that narrows ever more as time passes.

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The end result is a kind of decadence, in Godard’s case the inversion of the norm, where usually things get more florid and exaggerated. Éloge instead swerves to a severe Bressonian austerity until it suddenly breaks into a garish and somewhat schizoid and awful “video” which seems contrived to give digital video a bad name. Cranking the colors into not so bizarre extremes Godard actually does little but the most obvious with this medium, a severe disappointment in light of his past experiments in video and film. Juxtaposed to the careful black and white which precedes it, it seems a calculated (and misguided) jab, a backward lament for something about to be lost. One has no sense that he experimented with the new media for its own qualities, but rather attempted to impose filmic ones on it, and failing (as proper) then forced some dubious aesthetic pressure on it if only to laugh. Given his long ago work in video, long before it was in any manner fashionable, this is a bit of a surprise. On the other hand he is 71, and life takes its toll. One senses in the cumulative piece a tiredness of the work, of the failed (and illogical) fight, and of life. Godard was lost in Plato’s cave from the outset, so he should not be surprised when this illusory ersatz world of film proves unsatisfactory – as a replacement for life, it is indeed a very unsatisfactory substitute. One should not need 71 years to fathom that. In Godard’s case, the self-parody is, as perhaps it should be despite the Gallic setting, in Swiss Calvinist terms. You can’t go home again? Or you must?

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Meanwhile, in the titanic struggle which Godard has foolishly assigned to himself, it is Spielberg who is winning and laughing all the way to the bank (if himself intermittently showing signs of his own unhappiness with his periodic and pathetic attempts at “artistic seriousness”): the contest between art and Mammon is ever a losing proposition, and Jean-Luc’s perpetual battle has taken on the character of Don Quixote. Jean-Luc’s bitterness is palpable, though had he “won” – had Hollywood been vanquished from his constant jabs – there is no doubt in my mind he would be equally unhappy and bitter: shadows are a very poor substitute for life, and Godard has been shadow-boxing for his entire life. It is far too late for him to recall the original entry into Plato’s cave wherein he lost himself.

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Endgame

Amsterdam, January 15, 2003

I’m here, to give, tomorrow at a conference, a talk on digital media and its preservation (which, ever against the grain, I will suggest is a fruitless and unnecessary and even undesirable endeavor). I am in the Hotel de Filosoof, at a window looking out over Vondelpark, and perhaps by chance it is an appropriate place for these final musings. About ten days ago, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the last of a long sequence of screenings across the USA, a man, more or less my age, opened the post-screening discussion with a five minute long near eulogy, an embarrassing prelude of compliments on my past work, my seeming moral and ethical rectitude, all of which was difficult to accept – I am far more amenable to nasty criticism than cheerful slaps on the back. At the conclusion of his long list of positives he then landed what seemed in the context a sucker-punch, announcing that all his anticipations of, in his words, “enlightenment” had been dashed by the work I had shown, my last completed long piece, Oui Non (2002) being in his view an apparent complete failure, lacking the honesty of previous work, et al. I offered no response, aside from my apologies for having failed to live up to whatever expectations he had brought to the room, for which, frankly, I did not feel responsible. I chose not to note that I have never perceived myself as a giver of enlightenment, and have always been averse to either hero-worship or fandom, and decline to place others on pedestals or accept being put on one myself: the laws of gravity and the nature of human avarice both assure that there is only one exit route off a pedestal.

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But, along with many other comments taken in during a 14 city, eight week tour of the USA – my first return at all to my native land in nearly ten years – it served to underline a recurrent theme: the wish of those of the audience familiar with past work to be served up, in effect, more of the same. Where, it was asked again and again, was the narrative, the political directness, the this and the that which was liked of past work, and would I be doing another film like All the Vermeers in New York (1990), or The Bed You Sleep In (1993), or whichever was the speaker’s favorite. The frequent sense of disappointment in some for the new work – work which I willfully and happily and willingly did in a manner utterly unlike my previous – was vivid and palpable, almost a sense that I had betrayed the viewer, and hence myself and my own supposed talents. When I responded that I had grown bored with my own work – the process and the end result – even if perhaps it had been good, and that I had no interest in repeating myself as I saw other artists repeat themselves, this was met usually by those persons with dismay. When they insisted their desire for further narratives and on my seeming moral responsibility to provide it, I said that while I imagined I might in the future do something akin to my past narrative work, but that it would not look or be done in anything like the forms I had used before, and that I was not interested in making something I or they had ever seen the likes of before, this was met with a dubious air. In defense, not of the virtues or wonderfulness of my past years of DV work, I noted that in my own mind I had been, since commencing in DV, “playing” and that I thought, after 35 years of filmmaking, that I had earned the right to do so, as well as to shift gears and in a sense start anew, all over again. And that the “play” was fun, but also serious – an investigation and experimentation in a new realm, something I felt reinvigorated my interest in work, and through which I had learned a great deal. I did suggest, by way of pacifying my doubting Thomas’, and also telling the truth about my own thoughts, that I was – after six years of such experimentation – feeling just about ready to commence on a “serious” work which would embrace all that I had learned, but that this was not easy, since in effect I had no precursors to take as a guide or if I did, it was more in the realm of music, painting, poetry, than in the cinema.

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Of course, such discussion provoked for me a curiousness about the flow of the creative fluid, and a greater awareness of its volatile, living nature. Some artists commence almost full-blown, and tail-spin immediately; some slowly grow, maturing over time; some last, some don’t. I am self-aware enough, and a harsh critic of myself, such that I consider these things, and ponder my own nature, wondering where – attempting not to be vain and fat-headed – just where in this spectrum I might fit. And I ponder, as I have counseled in the critiques above, metaphorically, hanging up my own brushes when the due time comes rather than plowing ahead, whether encouraged or discouraged by others, as a matter of habit or pride or arrogance. In the din of the present world, especially in the shrieking media-saturated world of America and its copy-cat cultures East and West, it would seem perhaps the proper and wisest stance would be withdrawal and silence.

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Emil Nolde - Blonde Girl and Man

While I do not have any idea if my scribblings (kept largely private) constitute “poetry” the following was written a handful of years ago, a musing prompted by consideration of the career of Emil Nolde, a favorite painter in my eyes, never mind his erratic output and ultimate decline:

By then Emil’s song had stuttered ground-ward
the brush once free and risking, the palette ripe with pleasured chance
that birthed small friends and miracles
now hesitated, clumsy, unsure, daubing into cruder
compilations, red and yellow and blue and green which grumbled
only flower,
recalling those of long ago that blossomed magic from his brush
and now only aped the old song gone adrift somewhere

the rift was time, the battered cortex tired?
or boredom, as if to mutter,
“still another flower, Emil?”

descended to always present kitsch, once most often masked with
tragedy, the gravity of death and irony weighing in
with heavy elements – metals of uranium

now sickly child faces signaled here exhaustion,
earned, but begging now for silence
– lift not the brush, mark not the pristine papers –
unless to risk still greater disappointments.

O Emil, our fates to live beyond our gifts.

Emil Nolde - Sea with Colourful Sky

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