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Monthly Archives: April 2017

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April 27 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 what’s left is ever less

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

the seeming infinite closes in

time diminishes to imagined years,

seasons, days, hours, and less

until so little one is no more.

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

“Holy shit!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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P.T. Barnum

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

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

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

H.L.Mencken-1928

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

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

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

Alexis de Tocqueville

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

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

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

Yep, we’ve all got somebody to blame.

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

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In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

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

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

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

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

 Dan in Bell Diamond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan’s obituary in the Montana Standard

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The Book of Butte – Photography by Jon Jost

articleLargeJames Rosenquist with his mother before a billboard he painted.

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

P19Still from Portrait

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

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

VER37wideSteve Lack in All the Vermeers in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows? Certainly not me.

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

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

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

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

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

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Money talks, bullshit walks.