Skip navigation

Category Archives: Arts



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





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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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



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


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



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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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







lenin trotskyLenin & Trotsky; Lenin and no Trotsky

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

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



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

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

dekooning erasedDeKooning Erased by Robert Rauschenberg

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

hd lisi.

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

Unknown000193CCRPSMona Lisa at the Louvre

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


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


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

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


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

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


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




Senate Republicans Address The Press After Weekly Policy Luncheon

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


20111021-WARHOL-slide-KGYV-slideEarly Andy Warhol20130712-LEGENDS-slide-LLOS-slide - Copy

diet coke from Jordan Wolfson video (1)



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




kennedy assass 5

kansas city church

fracking in the countrycrpd





brain at work




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


3D Holga picture by Mark Eifert

As a little test run of new/old 1991 Subaru with ’95 motor alleged to have 110K on it, I drove with friend Jane Schreibman from Seatac on up the Olympic Peninsula to Forks and Port Angeles.  Properly greeted with a deluge of rain, she camped in tent and I tried out my new wheeled bed.  More or less OK for the coming year and more.  Subaru seemed to run OK, if smelling of oil spilled on motor, and not quite the MPG I’d like.   Had a good time, despite the rain-forest wetness, and spent a few days in PA with friends Steve and Todd.



Then on to some more camping near Port Townsend and a stay with a friend of Jane’s in the Skagit Valley.  Seem to have gotten a good start on new film, Plain Songs: American Essays, with a nice shot in Conway WA, 15 minutes of commentary drawn from a chance meeting with just another American.   Moving on to Seattle I stayed at a funky, if costly ($100 a nite, but I wasn’t paying) old hotel, The Panama,  in the former China  Town area.  It was a place with character, if limited old-time amenities.  If the lady running it charged $30 instead of $100 she’d fill the place – I was one of 2 or 3 people each night.



I went to Seattle to screen some films at the North West Film Forum, which had moved addresses since I’d screened there last.  Though, like the 4 screenings I had in Portland at the North West Film Center, it seemed to me like a bit of Kabuki theatrics:  in Seattle the first screening, of  The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima, was to all of 15 people, among them a few friends, and mostly of souls with grey or no hair.   One couple left right near the end, and the rest stayed for a nice conversation and we retired to a nearby bar to continue the talk.  The responses seemed dominantly very positive.  The next screening, of Dissonance was for a grand audience of 10.  It was split pretty evenly between old and young.  None left.  The first Q&A person, seemingly seriously agitated, said he thought it was awful – lazy filmmaking, with no purpose, that said nothing, and….   I let him have his say, acknowledged he was welcome to feel that way, and said there’s 7 billion people in the world, each with a little cranium crammed with zillions of synapses, and what you bring in the cinema with you is as important to what you see and experience as what is put on the screen.   Clearly still agitated, the young man persisted in insisting the film was a waste.  I pointed out to him that while he said it was boring and worthless, for some reason he didn’t leave, and that my only hoped for intention was to disturb the viewer and apparently it had succeeded well in doing so to him.  At that point others joined the conversation, directly contradicting his view that there was little or nothing, and saying in fact for them it was almost too rich with energies.   At the end he seemed alone, though he stuck around for the 45 minutes or so of discussion the film generated.  He waited at the door as a handful of us left and invited him to join us for a beer – he passed on the offer.



Back in Portland the screenings had been similarly sparsely attended, one there being only of a handful of my own friends.  And likewise the audience had been dominantly older.


Frank Gehry’s EMP Museum in Seattle


Which had me wondering just what explained this.   The urban area of Portland has about a half-million people, and the metropolitan area has 2.3 million.  Of these there is a large chunk which is more or less young, “hip,” into various kinds of culture and so on (they also have a culturally similar older population).  Likewise Seattle (660,000 the city proper; 3.5 million metro area).  Both institutions have been around many years.   I’m happy to figure I am an out-0f-fashion old guy (I wear a cowboy hat – though in Seattle as I was leaving an older black man passed me, returned, and asked, “Where’d you get that hat?”  I replied, “Valentine, Nebraska.”  He responded, “Man, you look good in that!”  Made my day.)    I know I’m an obscure figure in these days, though some 20 years ago I was very modestly “known,” and I know culture and fashion is very fickle, but I find it difficult to think that in a major urban area, rich with cultural interests, there’s only 10 or 15 people who are interested in some not-so-marginally known filmmaker and his work.  And while I concede that these days it is difficult to promote anything which doesn’t reek of “making money”  and that in general newspapers and television will not cover anything which is not “commercial,” (even “alternative” papers), I still find myself wondering where the flaw is.  First it would be in myself – for some decades I have done nothing to “promote” myself and my work; I have not genuflected to the altar of “the market” and made my work somehow more “commercial.”  For this I am 100% at fault.    Yet it is still difficult for me to think only 10 or 20 people, on any given night in these urban areas would find what I have to offer worth their time and a ticket.  Not when I know that millions flock to lousy movies, television and the rest.  I’d happily settle for an audience of .5% of the participating population, but somehow .000001 seems rather off.


I have my speculations on all this, but I’ll keep them to myself and save the ruminations for another time.  For now I have to console myself with the thought that 4 young people came all the way from Vancouver BC to Seattle to get a look at my work – so I can figure there is a tiny tiny little fraction of people who appreciate what I do – something confirmed by a nice flow of comments and notes I get from around the world, thanks to the internet.


Autumn has arrived here in Seoul a bit late – the leaves aren’t yet turned, though in the last days a hint of cold arrived.  Perhaps, as was this past summer, autumn will be truncated – a more direct shift to the oblique light and harder temperatures of this hemisphere’s winter.    In my life the change is also signaled other ways:  the body seems a bit more cranky, prone to morning pains.  On the left side of my torso a bulge near the groin suggests another hernia operation, slap in a piece of plastic meshing to do what the muscle wall no longer can.   Maybe next week.  And, as drifted by in previous years, autumn, at this age, induces autumnal thoughts – pondering if this may or may not be one’s last.   Other changes carry the same tonal shift:  singular again.  And again, no longer employed, back upon the tight-rope of fiscal insecurity.  In my case, it is something needed, and already I feel the juices of creative urges running – somehow my soul works better without a safety net.   Two weeks ago, shoved into a self-made corner, managed to shoot a new film – 60-80 minutes long I imagine, shot in less than 3 days on tsunami ravaged island near Sendai, Japan.  Devastatingly simple, I think it should be strong.  With help from Moe Toema, young woman who took my workshop in Tokyo and speaks English well thanks to 3 years in Australia.

We arrived in the morning, meeting up with a man who works with a non-profit organization.  He took us on a little drive around the island, introduced us to some people.   I did a handful of shots of the place, got a sense of things.  We stayed overnight in a kind of B&B guest home, slightly damaged by the quake – things out of line – but on high-ground and untouched by tsunami.  Excellent fresh seafood dinner.  Next day we went to shoot some people, not interviews but coaxing them to talk about their experience during the earthquake and then tsunami.  For the most part it worked well, with Moe figuring out how to keep them going without talking herself – lots of nods and smiles.  Lighting and set-ups were catch as catch can: I wanted blank backgrounds and in haste found what I needed; lighting was whatever was there.  Got six of these, ranging from 6 minutes to 15 minutes long.  Moe suggests what is said was interesting, so I think there’s a short feature in it.  I figure to round up some Japanese poems or haiku’s about earthquakes and tsunamis, find some old graphics or paintings around the same, and get it all done by the end of November.

The man above, a fisherman, was swept away by the tsunami, and managed to grab hold of something for dear life, and survived.   Shooting him was its own little adventure – a little ferry ride to another island to which he’d moved, Moe’s deadline to get back to Tokyo in time to make a medical appointment, and the crush of time.  When we got to his house Moe told me we had five minutes before we had to go back to catch the return ferry in time to make her train.  We walked in, I sized up a place to set him, shot for 7 minutes and as we were leaving to walk back the man said he had a little pickup truck and he’d drive us.  I shot from the back while he drove and Moe worried I’d fall out as we bounced along the ravaged once-road.  I had fun, it all reminding me of long ago days of shooting while sitting unharnessed on the hood of a pickup truck (opening shot of Last Chants for a Slow Dance) and other such things.  We made the ferry with about 30 seconds to spare.  The whole wham-bam two and a half day shoot seems to have rejuvenated my creative spirits.

Nakai-san and Moe TomoedaAbstracted tsunami

While I was in Japan, another kind of tsunami seems to have risen – an echo of the Tunisian, and then Egyptian and then Libyan uprisings: our own Occupy Wall Street.   Triggered by the mix of social networking tools, an economy in a deep swoon, and the utter arrogance and disconnected manner of our ruling elite – financiers, politicians and their courtiers all – a small minority of people have decided to speak and act out.   They occupied a small privately managed park near Wall Street, camping out.   At the outset it was a pitifully small number – a few hundred.  The press and local authorities initially simply ignored them as if they were unworthy of notice.   They stayed.  Slowly through the internet news was spread.  The mainstream press – including such allegedly “liberal” papers at the New York Times – then reported, but in a petulant and snide manner – both in articles and on their opinion pages.  Right-wing media began to ventilate.   And yet OWS grew, and branches began to sprout around the country – in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even in places where such protest was virtually unknown: Tampa, South Carolina, Denver.   Again the numbers were small, but despite hostile press and politicians, they kept growing.  Their tactics seemed to confuse the “authorities” who fumbled with evicting such camps, surrounding them with heavy police forces, and most recently attacking them.   As if they could learn nothing from the recent history of our Arabic friends, with each effort at suppression by authorities and the media, the participants grew, and a reading of polls showed that a majority (53 to 70%  depending on which poll) of Americans were supportive.  This, in contrast to the Tea Party of last year, which the press gave wide coverage, and where the police were invisible despite the many gun-carrying TP people, provided a clear lesson in how America is presently run.  In turn OWS and its off-shoots enlarged again, and finally the mainstream press began to report in something other than a negative manner, and started to pick up on issues raised by OWS.  Clearly it had grown too big to ignore.

Occupy Albany, NYOccupy Atlanta, Ga.Occupy ChicagoOccupy Wall Street

Occupy !

Confronted with a national uprising rooted in the real problems which beset the country, and which declines to enter into the binary Republican/Democrat so-called two-party system, the governmental authorities – acting at the behest of their corporate masters – are showing their impatience, and in the last few weeks have begun to carry out heavy-handed policing actions such as the entrapment on the Brooklyn Bridge and now in the forced closure of Occupy camps across the country.  The most visible case of such tactics was demonstrated in Oakland, where police used tear-gas, stun grenades, and seriously injured an Iraq war vet.  By such mis-steps do the government and the corporations it supports, show their hand transparently.   Like Mubarak, like Gaddafi, their recourse is to force when they are unable any longer to dissuade with fraudulent politics.

Police in Oakland, Ca.Oakland, Ca.

Scott Olsen, hit by tear gas bomb which fractured his skull

There is no question that those who rule America will behave exactly like those who ruled Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, when push comes to shove.  They will not leave willingly, nor admit their errors, nor concede any power.  They will if necessary deploy the military and declare martial law and institute a police-state.  They have already done many things towards this end.  Under Bush there were “free speech” areas cordoned off, where the Constitution allegedly applied – though “free speech” is a Constitutional right and should be allowed anywhere in the USA.   By such means are “rights” diminished – such as habeus corpus, which the Patriot Act deleted in many cases.  Step by step our corporate masters, acting under the guise of the government, are reducing America to a version of the USSR:  a defunct economy, a bloated military, and rampant corruption among the elite – socialism for the rich, and “capitalism” for the poor.

I encourage everyone to fully support the Occupy movement: with your body, with your voice, with whatever support you can give.

Samson Slaying The Philistine, Giambologna, V&A, London

Some time ago, while living in London, I’d visit museums – Tate, National Gallery, British Museum, the V&A, and others.   In my haphazard manner I was studying.  I’d take photographs, sometimes make sketches.  Occasionally I took notes.

, a Flemish sculptor working in Italy, did a number of mythological works, among them the Samson Slaying the Philistine at the V&A.  At the time this piece drew my attention I knew little of nothing of the artist, and not having had any kind of “classical” education;  having never read the Bible, I knew equally little about the story of Samson, only that when his hair was shorn, he lost his strength.   What drew me to the sculpture were its dynamic qualities, its psychological and physical capturing of a primitive hand-to-hand fight.  I both photographed it, and shot it with video, as well as did sketches.  Only recently did I bother to Google the story that lies behind it.

Also at the V&A there is a hall with plaster casts of Michelangelo’s Slaves series, which along with many other people, I find extraordinarily compelling.   Of them I did only sketches.

This past year, invited to Jerusalem for screenings at the Cinematheque, I was asked if I also had somethings suitable for a photography gallery, and I used the request  to finally transfer analogue photos of the Samson sculpture which I had long thought might make a  strong collage.   The two versions here were my first attempts, which for me are not quite satisfactory – in part because my understanding of Photoshop  is so limited.  I’d like to use  transparency masks to make the collages more subtle and organic.   One of these days….   These collages should be about 6 feet high.

Water seeking its level

Following the earlier Back Steps and Wood, the next of Leighton’s digital works expands on the aesthetics he was developing for this media, while the subject remained the same – the magical realm of childhood, and of the growing consciousness therein.  Water seeking its level, seen from one aspect, is again as simple as the earlier two works – a young boy stands in a rushing stream, the water dazzling, the rush of sound immersing us in some mystical world of impressionist’s color.  The back yard has moved to a park in southern France (though we don’t know this and little beyond the not-Iowa colors at the stream’s bottom suggests it, and the title note “St. Pons”).  Leighton swiftly orients us with his musician’s use of sound: we hear a rush of water, of a few steps into it  – audibly instantly recognizable, though the imagery which comes next is a swirl of abstraction which the sound “describes” and gives us our bearing.   A fluid passage of color quickly delineates the essential elements – a young boy’s leg, his touseled blonde hair, the boy’s feet standing as the water distorts them and the stream’s floor into a dazzle of color, a hand thrusting down, grabbing beneath the water and then holding a small stone, his small voice saying, “Daddy, look.”  

Daddy has indeed been looking, and looking deeply – not only at the little scene before him, but at the tools he is using to depict it.  Here a flourish of rich muted reds, modulated by the optical warping of water, blonde flesh and hair, are shown, but by the artist’s intervention with how he uses the camera and editing techniques he transforms the mundane into the cosmic in the most gentle and unpretentious of manners  (though using no corny “effects” menu items – all is done  organically directly with the image itself, in a manner more akin to a graphic artist’s multiple printing of the same basic image – say, see a series of woodcuts of Munch’s Madonna, or lithographs by Helen Frankenthaler).  The image caresses his son, the nape of his neck, his arm and leg, and embraces him in what is transparently a parent’s love.   Daddy is looking passionately.

And listening.  The water rushes by, the child’s hand is immersed in it, and his small voice comments how cold it is; the hand makes the water leap, and then clenches, the water stopped, and with it the sound.  Gentle hints of water drips, and in the subdued quiet slowly sound of liquid rushing builds, presaging a cut to the lip of a small waterfall, presented in almost pure abstraction but instantly identifiable.   And then slowly this crisp rush of water dissolves into a muted image not so readily understood – debris settling to the bottom of a lake?  Or….  it is snow, falling gently to the branches of a tree.  Water, in its varying forms, seeking its level.

Water seeking its level is a cinematic poem of a disarming simplicity of “content” which expands out to suggest the whole of a life,  our whole universe.  It is awash in love and stunningly beautiful.  Technically it is simply masterful in all aspects from its seemingly casual camera work, to its hidden and dazzling editing of both image and sound.  In five minutes it compacts, with a complete lack of pretentiousness or ponderousness, a whole poetics of life – its beginning, its future, its meaning.

Never once saying so, or pointing to the metaphoric possibilities of its primal source in water, Leighton’s film is drenched with the pathos of love, of our being here, of a parent’s deepest feelings and sensibilities for his child.   This is what makes this small five minute cinematic poem so rich, along with its truly masterful aesthetic and technical control.   He does not say so except in purely poetic terms, but within this joyous work there is the acknowledgement of Heraclitus’ wisdom:

πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” καὶ “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης”
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei … kai … dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies
“Everything changes and nothing remains still …. and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”

Hendrik ter Brugghen, Heraclitus

With Evaporation Leighton extends this theme, in which vapor and fog collude invisibly to suggest the ephemerality of childhood and youth, and by implication, life itself.   Here a young boy, who in this brief film becomes a young man, is seen looking out a window toward the sea, then near a harbor, walking on a pier, then gazing from the rails of a small ship.  A rush of liquid abstractly rushes over a fall, the shifting fractals of waves move mysteriously, a boat sets out from the mouth of a river into the hazy infinity beyond.   The boy looks pensively from the deck of a boat, the water rushing swiftly by.  And we return to the window which looks out upon the sea, now empty.


In a second passage we find the boy in a field, with grasses lit by the sun, on a pathway glistening with wetness.  He hesitates, turning to look towards the camera, and then turns to go forward.   Our gaze is directed to the swaying, wave-like motion of the grasses, from which emerges, in another time and seemingly place, a glimpse of a grown boy, seen intermittently, walking away.  His image at first is lost in the blurred shifting of foliage, and then we see him, clearly older, and, with a painful poignancy, receding to the distance, taking off upon his own life.  It is a father’s poetic farewell to his son, who now is on the path of his life, receding from the parental embrace, lighting out to his fate.   With Evaporation Leighton Pierce gracefully acknowledges this parting, and the film is a gesture of pure love, lovingly crafted, and a profound gift to both his son, and to us.

In a culture besotted with celebrity and bombast, where artists are advised, whether directly, or by the insistence of the clamor of the world around them, that to be heard they must make a grand splash with aggression and transgression, Leighton Pierce – like Nathaniel Dorsky – offers instead a counter-current of beauty and love of the world expressed in the greatest gentility.


So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

                                      Raymond Carver

[I am happy to relate that after 20 some years at the University of Iowa, Leighton is taking over the reins of the Media and Film Department of Pratt Institute in NYC.  I hope being in the vortex of America’s creative navel he’ll finally get the attention long overdue to him.  I hope to hell one of the major museums finally gives him the space to put up some of his extraordinary installation works.]

[Series to be continued as time permits.]

Egyptian room of the British Museum

When I was young, rather some time ago – the 1960’s – I had little experience in the arts, though a year or two in college in Chicago (IIT) quickly altered that, and I found myself drawn deeply into the vortex of contemporary art back then:  Warhol, Rothko, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, Clifford Still, Motherwell and the whole roster of abstract expressionists, pop, and others.   I had not come from a background remotely concerned with the arts, though my family had a few Gauguin prints on the walls, and I recall a big coffee table book of paintings from the Louvre of which a David Rape of the Sabines provided some bare-breasted masturbation imagery.  Otherwise it was a desert.  I left home at 17 knowing more or less nothing of the arts, or for that matter, life.

But something in me was drawn to the arts, and on my own,  I jumped in, full tilt.  The visual arts, music (I saw and heard Segovia from the farthest reaches of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and van Cliburn playing piano).   I was ignorant, but eager, though back then outside music in which I liked classical work, I found older art – meaning anything not contemporary or very close – something I could not look at.   Naturally, as time went by, this inverted, and in these days it is difficult for me to look (without acidic comments) at most modern and contemporary art, and I long since took a kind of refuge in things ancient to older.  In phases I’ve been drawn to Vermeer, Uccello, Duccio, Goya, Rembrandt (primarily graphic arts and self-portraits), Constable (sketches mainly), Turner, Manet, Monet, Munch (graphics mostly), Lautrec, Degas, and many others.

For some years I’ve fantasized of the chance to be in London for a month or two, with the possibility of going each day to the National Gallery, the British Museum, and other smaller such institutions, to look slowly and carefully at the vast collection of imperial and royal robbery and prerogatives.  To look, to think, to perhaps sketch and write.

The Elgin Marbles Room

Quick sketches at the British Museum and Victoria and Albert, 1996-7

Giacomo Serpotta, in another tonality, for the Oratorio de San Dominico, also in Palermo.  Here the sense is weightier in overall tone, if in turn the actual “content” seems lighter – a seeming procession of ladies of high society parading the metaphoric virtues (which one doubts they had themselves).

A belated bust of Serpotta, done with nothing of his skill

Palermo, Oratorio del Rosario in Santa Cita

Exiting from the clatter of the fetid streets of la cala in the center of Palermo, and entering a side-door to Chiesa di Santa Cita, one climbs a set of stairs and an open blacony welcomes with several young women chattering away, one of whom asks to see your pass for the Palermo Baroque church tour.   She glances, nods, and resumes her conversation.  A notice on the wall says no photography.   We enter into a flood of light, the sun bouncing off the white stucco walls and the dazzle of a wedding cake decor, so dense as to make the eye and mind whirl.  There is no one there.  Sedately, to the far end, a dark Carlo Maratta Virgin of the Rosary attempts and fails to distract.  You are in the Oratorio del Rosario of the Chiesa Santa Cita, caught in the delirium of Giacomo Serpotta’s rococo world, where a swirl of sculpture and ornament overwhelms the senses.   It is, in some ways, all too much – an assault so forceful that it seems to defeat its own purposes.  How is one to look at all this when it seems every surface is swarming with a delicate white meringue of whipped egg whites, all expertly formed into the most delicate of portraiture, as well as the customary billow of clouds and cloth, and an avalanche of putti?  The immediate response is almost to pass out, to flee from this overload on one’s senses, and perhaps, taste.

And yet, beneath this riot of plaster excess, there are myriad quiet corners, exquisitely detailed little stage-sets, telling, as usual in Italy, the same story to which Italian art was shackled for almost two thousand years.  Here it is told with a lightness of touch that amazes in its simple delicacy, especially when framed by the tumult of putti and angels which adorn this place of putative prayer.

Recently restored, this chapel is the work of Giacomo Serpotta (10 March 1652 – 27 February 1732), who specialized in stucco – a kind of plaster which he made more sophisticated by mixing in marble dust which gives it a more brilliant and hard surface.  Stucco must be worked quickly, while still wet.  Once set it may be carved, more easily in the mixture which Sepotta used.   A native of Palermo, the city and other places in Sicily are graced with his work.  Evidently he never left Sicily, and so is little known elsewhere.  I had never heard of him before despite a fairly reasonable acquaintance with Italian art.

In the same church, in a chapel adjacent to the center, reconstructed since major damage caused by bombing in World War II, is another dizzying chapel, this one with mixed marble in-lay.  As with the Rosario the initial sense is that of being overwhelmed, but if one stays, and looks with care, it is full of amazing and lovingly done details which seem literally to sing.

Bedda Sicilia !


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,554 other followers