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

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

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

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

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New York Portrait

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

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

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Lodz Symphony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sail on, sailor.

 

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Filmography:

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

A nice piece written by Bill Stamets, Chicago friend

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

And Peter interviewed:

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

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

 

Bard

To All:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon Botstein


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

 

article-3058 Lucien Freud

 

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

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

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

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Lucian Freud at the Tate Modern (August 2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lucian Freud's Self Portrait, Reflection

Gerhard Richter at San Francisco MOMA (November, 2002) 

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

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Gerhard Richter Flow

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

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Jean Luc Godard at End Game

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

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

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

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

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Endgame

Amsterdam, January 15, 2003

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

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

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

MAIS OUI .. LA MORT

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

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

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

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

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

O Emil, our fates to live beyond our gifts.

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“The pure products of America go crazy.”  William Carlos Williams

The endless cycle of the great American electoral farce is, once again, in full swing, this time with a menagerie of characters drawn from the deepest swamps of the national id.  On the Republican side have been up to 13 figures, each pandering to the furthest right-wing Tea-party strains of the once (at least to some) proud Grand Old Party, and each backed with the greasy fluids unleashed by the Roberts’ Supreme Court  ruling Citizens United which averred that we must avoid even the appearance of corruption, while instead, and perfectly in keeping with American tradition, we have leaped whole hog into the trough of billionaire slush money, tossed shamelessly and taken shamelessly by puppet candidates whose capacity to lie is equaled only by their pure venality.  Scrapping like poorly trained fight-dogs, snarling and posturing in a contest of who can rhetorically act “strong” while debasing themselves and the nation with true puerility.  Watching these would-be Presidents snap, and bark at one another, while chorusing their utter hatred for Obama (clearly because he is Other), is a spectacle suitable for….  For a nation hooked on Octagon cage-fights, guns, bloated SUV’s and war.

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While out in the wider world the consequences of American policies reveal themselves in manners oblique and blunt, our GOP candidates collectively stick their heads in the sand.  Refugees from AFTRA “globalization” wade the Rio Grande; refugees from the American-made war-ravaged middle-east flood Europe and beg admission to “the land of the free” which denies them (while its northern neighbor welcomes them); refugees from the early effects of global warming flee from drought-impacted worlds, soon to be joined by those fleeing from low-lands inundated by rising oceans.  Domestically these candidates stoke the flames of paranoid hysteria over “terrorists” while saying and doing nothing with regard to the 33,000+ Americans killed by guns each year.  Stats show each incident of gun-play lines the pockets of arms manufacturers with another spike of sales, as a minority of Americans arm up to Stand Their Ground, open and conceal carry, to take on the “bad guys” lurking in every theater, church, or Planned Parenthood clinic.   As the NRA asserts, “The sound of guns is the sound of freedom!”

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“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
—U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864

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A nation of immigrants, though from the viewpoint of the actual natives, of invaders, the US seems ever to have tangled with its origins.   From the very outset it imported Africans, as slaves, whom it used and abused for 500 years, and the nation still cannot come to a passable accommodation with this ugly original sin.  The vitriol aimed at its first half-African president in the last years has merely underlined the underlying racism which animates our society.  Primarily settled in the 1600’s by Anglo-Saxons, the nation recoiled when Europeans from other places began to enter: the Irish, the Italians, Jews, Chinese – basically anyone not fitting the profile of the original WASP settlers of New England and the East Coast.  It is a long, old, and very tired story.  It is, alas, us.  As is our electoral circus, and the process by which we select those who supposedly lead us.

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In the debased lingo of our permissible political language, there are only two real parties, though periodically, for very short terms, others try to horn in on this limited spectrum, and are hastily brushed into the historical trash can.  The two are our supposedly traditional parties of the Democrats and the Republicans, who curiously inverted themselves over 150 years.  The cleavage, crudely, has been a party “of the people” vs a party “of business.”   In recent times both these parties have been essentially taken over by corporate interests, with the distinction that the Democrats seek to mollify the resentments of an ever increasing left-behind class of blue-collar and middle-class sectors by softening the blows of economic consolidation and the concentration of wealth in an ever smaller circle, by offering social programs to make economic decline a bit more tolerable.  The Republicans on the other hand seek to exploit those resentments, casting race, religion and economic stations against each other, while stripping away the modest safety-net the Democrats offer.   The result, largely, is a Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum choice, which results in an apathetic electorate, in which real solutions to social problems are ignored, and our politicians tend to servile ass-kissing of the economic/corporate powers that actually determine our political situation.

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In this cycle, a modest wrinkle has been tossed in the mix with the participation of a self-named “Socialist,” or, a bit more exact, “Social Democrat,” running for the Democratic nomination against the heavily favored establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Bernie Sanders, despite the utterly dismissive treatment delivered by the mainstream media (statistical analyses show that he gets 20 seconds of air time for 82 minutes on Trump), in what is a transparent effort to censor him, in recent polls runs better than Clinton and beats any Republican in head-to-head contests.  However the corporate Democratic establishment has already convinced most the nation that she will be heading the ticket.  And, given the behind-the-curtain realities of American politics, they are probably more than right.  However, that despite the absence of coverage and the disdainful treatment his candidacy, Sanders polls remotely so well, is indicative of the deep undercurrent of unease which the body politic is showing – whether in support of Trump or Sanders.  Both tap into the economic squeeze which is in play: Sanders with programmatic solutions, and Trump with bluster.  Of course our corporate media gives the show-man all the coverage and does its best to reduce Sanders to a Pravda-style “non-person.”

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In Paris in recent weeks, following the terrorist events of the last year, the high-priests of the globe’s political caste all met to discuss, still again, the matter of global warming and its dire consequences.  Several weeks of wrangling produced an agreement a mere 50 years too late, and as customary, toothless.  Humanity will plow ahead, dumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere.  China and India will burn coal (as will the US and Europe and…), Americans will buy SUVs to run to the shopping mall, passenger jets will criss-cross the sky endlessly, VW will lie about emissions, the oceans will continue to acidify and rise, the Greenland icecap will melt, and perhaps in another ten years, as the catastrophic real price of foot-dragging shows itself (as if it hasn’t already), the world’s elite will gather again to discuss how to fortify their high-ground redoubts from the masses of people who are landless, without food, jobs, or the minimum requisites of life.  Though surely by then World War III will have begun the cull.

 

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APPLEPIE

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CAPKILLS

Back home, as our candidates mince around the real problems before us, and instead raise the specter of terrorism, promising to unleash the full powers of American military might on those ever present Others, to whom of course we have never done anything bad to arouse their anger, we are gifted with reminders that we are exceptional, the greatest nation ever, ever #1!   Such is the deluded rhetoric with which we dress ourselves, as we march over the cliff.  The coming elections, asserted (as usual) to be a turning point in our history, offer us, most likely, a Republican ready to scorch the earth of all Muslims, enlarge our already bloated military, delete as many social safety net programs as possible, and toss more $$ to the 1%, and then a Democratic corporate honey who, in keeping with party tradition will more or less retain social programs, though like her husband did, cut them here and there, make cozy with Wall Street, and more or less continue business as usual.  Some choice!  But it is the American way, the choice offered in our corrupted, decadent alleged Democracy which is really a Wizard of Oz show.  And most often a highly successful one: how many Americans accept that 9-11 was a carefully designed and executed scam, one even announced some years before in the PNAC document of 1998?

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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.

 

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LECTURE

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.

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CASUAL TALK

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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HOW IT WORKS

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Last year, around this time, I received word that a long ago friend of mine, with whom I had sporadic communications in the previous decades, had died.  She was Shulamith Firestone, whom I met way back in 1964, in Chicago.  It was after I’d returned from bumming around Europe and then Mexico for around a year and a half, and had made some of my first films.   We met because she was the girlfriend of my friend Charles (Chick), from my days at the Institute of Design, (IIT).  I went to Mexico to be in a film for him – which if I recall he ended up cutting me out completely though I was, comically, his lead character!  On my return to Chicago in summer of 1964 we shared a flat at the south end of the Loop, immediately beside the “L.”  The trains went by, loudly, like clockwork, right out the window.  Through this I got to know, fall in love with Laya, (and the rest), Shulie’s younger sister.  I remained in touch with her through all these years, as, fitfully, I did with Shulamith, who went on to become a kind of shooting star of the then birthing feminist movement.  She was deeply involved, as the following material will show.  I saw her occasionally after she moved to New York, and once took a little trip with her from there to Boston, I think in the early 70’s – the reasons for which are lost in the fog of my memory.   I saw her a handful of times since, and corresponded with her a little.   The last email, perhaps less than a decade ago, said something to the effect that she – the Shulamith I had known – no longer existed, deleted by the meds and institutionalization she’d been through.

While I couldn’t say I’d been present enough to actually observe, I did see enough, and my experiences in the radical left of the time (one of the founders of the left group Newsreel; deeply involved in the Chicago convention, and many other things) showed me in principle how such things seem to work, and to surmise that Shulamith, way out front in what at the time was a social heresy, got chewed to pieces by the mass media, and then by her erstwhile radical sisters.   Such is the way of politics, of whatever tilt.  As noted in the following, she withdrew in consequence, though perhaps it did not withdraw from her.

With Laya’s OK, I post the following, as I think it provides a glimpse into the tenor of those times, and perhaps in turn a small bit of history for those who were not present then, and for some who were, but were not actively involved inside, a clearer picture of what happened in those years.

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Perhaps it is a function of time, age, experience, and of course a close personal connection – but as I read this my eyes tear.  I am thrown back upon my whole life’s trajectory, back to those fervid days of youth, one in this instance arbitrarily set in the turmoil of the 60’s.  For those who preceded me it might have been the trauma of the Great Depression of the 30’s, or of World War Two which left its stamp.  For those of the current younger generation it might be the shock of 9/11 (and perhaps realizing that their own government had a hand in it).

As I watch the age spots blossom across my skull and skin, and see the slackening muscle tissue of my body, and am proffered the clear message that death is next – be it tomorrow or 20 years – it cannot help but provoke reflection.  Talking with my peers these days, often we concur that it – life, this process we go through – all means nothing, that whatever success (or failure) we have experienced, at bottom, it means nothing.  It is a process, which goes nowhere, and finally is empty of any meaning.  Such is the wisdom with which a long and fully lived life concludes.  The day of Shulamith’s death isn’t really known – her body was found some days after she had died, perhaps of a heart attack, perhaps of starvation.   As in the old black spiritual, you must cross that river by yourself.   By necessity, Shulamith did, though in a real sense tragically, she lived much of her life in the isolation of herself.

I do not in any way believe in an after-life, or the other consolations we invent for ourselves to wash away the reality of death, or the termination of ourselves, and the final meaninglessness of our lives.   I wish I had had the opportunity in life to give Shulamith what she needed and deserved, a kind of comfort which life refused her.

[For an excellent article on Shulamith, by Susan Faludi, see this.]

_L.Ehrlich2010_2678xLaya Firestone Seghi,  and myself, shooting 1967’s LEAH (foto Linn Ehrlich)

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Ten years ago, coaxed by a massive global propaganda barrage orchestrated by the US government, and for the most part supported fully by our corporate owned and controlled mass media, the United States went to war in Iraq.  It did so under false pretenses, on the basis of willfully fraudulent “intelligence,” prompted by the attack of 9/11/2001, the story of which itself is highly suspect.  I refer the reader to the document of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which was signed by many figures of the Bush administration, including Richard Cheney, and which called, publicly, for an event like 9/11 to jolt the American public into actions like the war on Iraq and Afghanistan.  The initiation of the way was presented as grand spectacle, and was breathlessly reported by the “embedded” media.

Ten years later, having lost this war, and the war in Afghanistan, and having collapsed its own economy in process, America scarcely whispers a word about the catastrophic actions it took.  Though our military – demonstrating its corruption and incompetence despite its massive expansion and absurd costs – carries on with the top brass shifting from their executive roles as failures, directly into the lucrative corporate offices of the military-industrial complex.  When, if ever, they are punished for matters, it has to do with sexual peccadilloes and public relations scandals, and not with their incompetence as military commanders and strategists.  Exactly as are the golden-parachuted managers of failed American corporate enterprises, or the criminal officers of TBTF banks and Wall Street trading companies.  The corruption runs throughout America’s economic, political, military and cultural systems.

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George Bush, cod-piece strutting “pilot” of 2003, is 2013’s non-person, disappeared by our political mandarins and the media which is their servant, just as is the war with which he is associated.  The patriotic admonishment for the American public which he delivered in the wake of 9/11, “Just keep shopping,” now falls flat on the ears of a public which has largely been stripped of its income and wealth by the events of the last decade – not merely the negative effects of the war, but of the “neo-liberal” economic policies which have gutted America’s economy in the interests of corporate profits for the benefit of the 1%.

So as we enter this grim anniversary, and the cocky presumptions of PNAC’s neo-con fevered dream of American dominance has shriveled, it is perhaps proper that rather than silence, voices of those most deeply effected speak.   John Gianvito, who initiated and organized the making of a film, Far From Afghanistan, sent me today a letter he saw on Truthdig (one of the sad small minority media outlets which dot the internet in an attempt to counter the corporate mass media which dominates the world’s “information” system).  I thought it a good way to mark this dubious anniversary of America’s lunge into an immoral, dishonest and in the long run, utterly disastrous and failed warring.

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A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran

18 March 2013

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all-the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

 I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans-my fellow veterans-whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level-moral, strategic, military and economic-Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

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By the laws of the government which they controlled and directed, George Bush and his entire entourage, committed grievous crimes, crimes for which they have not and will not be prosecuted.  They will not be prosecuted, nor convicted, nor punished, because though the names have changed, that government is run and controlled by the same parties who brought us these catastrophes, and like our self-serving CEOs, who gut their corporations for personal profit, within the now fully corrupted system of USA.inc., one is rewarded for failure, however disastrous it is to the country, so long as it serves the 1%.

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sol·stice  (slsts, sl-, sôl-)

n.

1. Either of two times of the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs about June 21, when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer; the winter solstice occurs about December 21, when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest.

2. A highest point or culmination.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin slstitium : sl, sun; see swel- in Indo-European roots + -stitium, a stoppage; see st- in Indo-European roots.]

Encroaching on 70 circumnavigations of our nearest star, it is “natural” that life imposes certain modes of thinking, and feeling, for better and worse. The passing of years brings an accumulation of one’s own history, the threads which make up a life – events, relationships, joys, disappointments, tragedies. All the hum drum stuff of our daily lives is added up, measured out in a bloom of liver spots, shrinking flesh and wrinkling skin, aching joints and diminishing mobility. We see it in our friends and family, and, perhaps reluctantly, in ourselves. In a constant shift of perspective, life alters its terms within us. The gaping length of single spin around the sun, which in youth seemed endless and found one eagerly looking forward to imagined rewards of the coming year, now seems all too brief. Contemplations of “the next” are limned with a silent “if.” It all makes a perfect sense, and philosophers and poets have long since mined the realm to seeming exhaustion. One would think we collectively all understood.

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On some levels the human experience is collective, and we are able to store up the knowledge of our shared experiences in mechanical and intellectual ways, so that this experience is drastically changed through time.   150 years ago messages in the advanced world were sent by Morse code, and before that carried in letters by horseback or ship, while today vast volumes of digitalized information are sent in tsunami proportions at the speed of light. Likewise myriad advances in medical technology have turned once-fatal matters into mere annoyances. Thanks to these shared and cumulative realities, our lives are radically different (at least those in the so-called advanced countries, or those who are “rich”). And yet, as the old hymn goes, “you gotta cross that river for yourself.”  As that crossing approaches many markers point the way: friends and family begin to die, your own body shape-shifts, its asymmetries becoming more pronounced, and in little or large descending plateaus, your physical functions deteriorate.    And, at least to my observations, the kernel of your “self” solidifies.   Most of the people I know – and I presume it applies as well to myself – are essentially the same, psychologically, as they were 40 years ago:  those given to anger remain angry, those closed off from wider experiences are more closed off; those eager to learn and experiment continue to do so.  This observation inclines me to accept the Greek sense of Fate – that we are born and can do only what that original gift allows (these days it would be measured in genetic components, slivers of DNA intertwined such that one is a composite of mother and father).   I can point to the tooth of mine which is exactly as my father’s was, or the drooping eyelid that replicates that of my mother – and on down the genetic gifts or curses of each strain of my own DNA.  I see the same in my acquaintances.   Whether, in turn, one becomes more forgiving of the quirks of those friends, or whether one crosses them out of one’s life, doubtless marks one’s own in-stamped nature.

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In the past few years, in my own life, death has visited directly within my family, and more generally among acquaintances and friends.  Last December my father died, aged 98.  It caused scarcely a quiver in me, thanks to a near life-long alienation from him.   At a very young age – perhaps 9 or 10, I’d already checked him out of my life as best my circumstances permitted.  At the time I didn’t really seem to know why, though much much later I was told that he’d whipped me with some regularity – which he owned up to in a letter I demanded he write after my mother’s death, some 27 years ago.  That, along with almost all memories of my childhood were totally expunged from my mind, and even with that knowledge I cannot remember it at all today.  And yet, this year, I did imagine and shoot a new film, Coming to Terms, which in its manner is about a father dying and so, perhaps, in the manner of art, I absorbed this event and creatively transmuted it.

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FATHER IN HAWAII 97 YRS OLDcrpHarry Frederick Jost at 98, 2011Wilhelm Leibl

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Sensed far more closely and personally, in the last years, were other deaths which though in some senses far more distant, seemed to have touched me inwardly far more deeply.   Though it is not as if death had not visited before to leave its mark.  While in prison, in 1966, I received, sent by a friend, a black framed newspaper notice announcing the death of a young woman, Kathy Handler.  She’d been briefly a lover before I went in.  It was said she committed suicide, though other rumors had her having taken acid and going for a misguided swim in a cold Lake Michigan.  (And recently I learned that the friend who had sent the notice, who had been in an early film of mine, had died some time ago –  Laura Volkerding, by name.) Whatever the truth, my response – under the sway of reading a lot of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and other philosophers in my “free time” in prison, and having felt vaguely responsible – was to write a text which on leaving prison a year later became the film Traps, my first foray into sound.   The film is a rather devastating one, certainly it is weighted with deaths – not only that of Kathy, but in the tone of the times: those of the Vietnam war, the penumbra of violence which encompassed the era, and led shortly afterward to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and more locally, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, murdered by the Chicago police.

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Robert F Kennedy lies in a pool of blood after being shot in 1968Robert Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968

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In 1978, another death left a mark, again with a sense of guilt.  The former partner of a close friend of mine had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, where we shared an apartment.  She later moved to San Francisco, and in 1978 I had a brief pass through The City for a screening.  I had meant to contact her and see if she would come to the screening – she was in the film world –  which I thought she might like, and also to see her.  In the rush of life I had forgotten to call her, and did my screening, and the next day left.  As I sat down in the plane, and opened the San Francisco Chronicle and leafed through it, my eye caught an item which was titled something like “Masseuse hit in crosswalk” or something like that.  In glancing the name caught my eye – it was my friend.  The time was the same period when she would have been coming to, or at, my screening.  She was dead. For years I have carried with me a consciousness that in some strange, indirect, irrational manner I may have caused her death simply by having forgotten to contact her.

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brendaBrenda Bierbrodt, 1945 – 1987, picture from HS yearbook_L.Ehrlich2010_2674Myself and Brenda, 1968  –  Photo © Linn Ehrlich

Some time later, in 1983, aged 70, my mother died of pancreatic cancer.  My father, who in my view had, in his manner, coerced her into participating in his post-Army evangelical fundamentalism, had tried “laying on of hands” and “talking in tongues” and belatedly had taken her to the military hospital in Niceville, Florida, where “exploratory surgery” revealed a terminal cancer.   In a phone call to me in San Francisco he said she had “a year of quality living” and they would go on a world cruise.  Then he put her on the phone, and I immediately heard the rattle of death in her voice and set off in my VW van, driving straight through as fast as I could, and arriving two days late.  So much for a year of quality living.  She was dead and shortly after my arrival, after a shower and shave, I went to her funeral services with the fundamentalists singing her praises, and a teenaged proslyetizer coming up trying for a conversion in this presumed moment of vulnerability.  I politely suggested he fuck off.  The rattle of death had become something familiar during my stint in 1978 caring for Nick Ray in New York, where I’d been asked to help him make a final film, but was cast instead as nurse-caretaker and cigarette run-boy.   He was riddled with cancer, and the toilet was often red with the blood he coughed up.

The eighties was the decade of the AIDS epidemic, and being in the arts world, gays were a given.  Many, including some of my friends, died.

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790px-Schadow_Grabmal_Alexander_2Grave marker, illegitimate son of Kaiser Friederick Wilhelms II, Berlin

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In 1987, I think it was, I met Jon A. English, in process of looking for someone to write some music for my film Bell Diamond.  He did that film, a very modest bit of composing, as the film needed, and along the way we became friends, and as time passed, he did the music for a number of my other films – Plain Talk & Common Sense, Rembrandt Laughing (in which he also played a lead role), All the Vermeers in New York, Frameup, and Uno a te, uno a me, e uno a Raffaele.   He was wonderful to collaborate with, and a wonderful person – and it didn’t hurt at all that he was a great musician and composer.  And we became very good friends.  Sadly, as the years passed by, his health slid down, step at a time, the consequence of an early diagnosis for Hodgkins disease decades before.  He was “treated” then, in the 70’s, at a very early stage of the “cure” for this, and way over-blasted with radiation.   In turn the areas that had been hit, were drastically aged, and his neck, esophagus and the whole upper area of his torso deteriorated as time passed, and periodically he’d be hospitalized, dropping to a lower plateau each time.   Asking him to work with me became a balancing act of gauging if it would be too much for him, versus knowing that his creative soul liked nothing more than to do music.  He died in 1996, at the age of 54, while I was living in Italy.  There were some people of my acquaintance whom I would have readily shifted places with him.

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english crpdJon A. English, 1942-1997

A year and a half ago, a long ago girlfriend from 1964, Laya (Firestone) Seghi, – with whom I have stayed in touch since, and very infrequently seen – wrote me a lovely letter describing a trip she’d taken with her husband, Tom, to see and meet family in Israel, where her mother lives, and in the mountains of northern Italy, near Venice, from where his family originally emigrated.   It had been a wonderful journey, and her description, elegant and simple, had a kind of unselfconscious literary quality which made the story she told all the more wonderful.  Reading it simply made me feel good – for me, and for them.   I recall being genuinely joyful on reading it.  Not long afterward I wrote expressing my happiness about their trip and lives, but also including word that in my own life things had taken a turn and my wife Marcella had decided she should go on her own way.  It wasn’t what I wanted, but at the same time I thought Marcella should do what she felt was best for her, and if severing our paths was it, then it was OK with me.  She was half my age, and I could understand only too well.   A few weeks later I received another letter, which as the previous one, had a literary simplicity and directness which marked it, but told a very different story, though written with the same disarming clarity.

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_L.Ehrlich2010_2678x

_L.Ehrlich2010_2679xLaya, in film Leah, 1967, fotos © Linn Ehrlich

On returning home to Miami, following their trip, a nephew of Tom’s was getting married in Chicago, and they went north for the occasion.  There, for the first time, he showed her the home he’d grown up in, in the Italian-American Bridgeport neighborhood – which happened to be adjacent to where I’d gone to college at IIT, and where I had lived a year and a half.  His home was now lived in by Mexicans, who welcomed them in, happy to know a little of the history of the house.  And they visited his brother’s grave in a nearby cemetery.   That evening at the wedding party, they danced, and following on the heels of their joyous journey to Israel and Italy, and their 40 years together, she thought, as she wrote, “I am truly happy.”   And in the same moment her husband had a heart attack and died, literally, in her arms.  Needless to say, she’s had a difficult time since – having to put into hard practice the things she does as a living as a psychological counselor.

And then, as if that were not enough, this past August, her sister, a long-ago rather famous early radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex), whose own life had taken a hard turn, and who was a friend of mine back in 1964 – the reason I met Laya was her sister was my flat-mate’s girlfriend at the time – died in New York City, apparently of a heart attack.  Laya, being close (as much that Shulamith allowed in her later years) to her sister, and being the family in the USA, became the person to deal with the aftermath, which included a memorial service attended by many feminists of Shulamith’s period, and those after.  [I will in a later posting publish the comments made at the memorial, as I think it is instructive, in many ways, of the tenor of those times.]

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Shulamith FirestoneShulamith Firestone, 1945-2012

When I returned to the US this past March, it was in some parts consciously to visit friends and family, in a kind of “last hurrah” –  to see, perhaps for a last time, those people still living, who were my friends in life.  I’ve seen a few already and hope to see them again – Linn and Marilyn and Peter in Chicago, Bruce in Minneapolis, Marshall in Butte, Terri in Livingston, Swain and Kristi in Missoula, and just today, Ron and Mary Lou here in Portland.  And as I anticipate traveling a lot in the US in the coming year, I expect and hope to see them all again.  We – all more or less in the same time-wise peer bracket – are aware, whether said or unsaid, that any visit could be the last.  As time brings its curtain over us, I think for those of us for whom the Fates accorded us the space, we’ve become closer, more forgiving and understanding of each other.  And in a manner not accounted for in the casual “love you”-speak which affects us casually, we have learned, in a very real sense, where love animates our relations, and, however obscure and difficult to pin down in a clinical sense, how much we have meant to one another.

As a person habitually transient, living in places scattered across the globe, for periods of a year here, 3 or 5 there, I have very consciously kept in touch with those people in my life who in that ineffable manner which over the years shows itself, left a deep implant.  I know well enough that probably, in most cases, had I not kept the lines open, dropped by this decade or that, that these thin threads would have been lost.  Such is the life which I chose or was given.

And, as life is capricious, and neither announces its beginning or end to us, to all those whose lives have crossed mine, in ways deep, however inarticulately we were able to express it, should my life end tomorrow, or yours, here’s thanks for having known and shared our brief time on this planet we are so busy violating.  I am a hard-core atheist and we won’t be meeting anywhere “else” some other time, so it is best to say it while here.  Love to you each, and I am glad our paths crossed on this brief journey.

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MoonPhases

Kurt, la famiglia Rebosio, Laya, Bill, Errol, Linn, Peter, Dennis, Marilyn, Susannah, Ron and Mary Lou, Elayne and Erinn, Barbara, Swain,  Robina, Bob, Roger, Tom, Marshall, Roxanne, Alicia and Morrie, Rick and Julie, Martin, Claudia, Alenka, Jon, Dan, Terri, Hal, Jolly and Bob, Michael, Jane, Steve, Kate, Lynda, Eugenia, Edoardo, Anna, Erling, Nancy and Howard, Hilary and Stuart, Clara, and Brad and Miki and children, and Joel, Rui, Jean, Steve and Todd, Jane and Mark, Marcella, and many others known briefly in passing or lost to memory.  And then there are a few people I suppose I’d prefer not to have met, left out knowingly.      

sun-3

In 3.5 billion years, our Sun will have boiled away all the water on earth, some billions of years after life became impossible on this planet. In 6 billion years it will become a red giant, and then collapse.  8 billion years from now it will be “dead,” an Earth sized diamond with the mass of a star. This is a white dwarf, and it will still be hot enough to shine with thermal radiation. But it will no longer generate solar fusion, and so it will slowly cool down until it becomes the same temperature as the rest of the Universe; just a few degrees above absolute zero. This will take about a trillion years to happen.  The Sun’s death will be complete.

Hurricane Sandy rolls off the American East CoastGrand Coulee dam, photo JostPhilip GustonGrant Wood

Above photos: J Jost

WeegeeJasper JohnsJost

Russell Means, AIMSusan RothenbergJostThe Real Thing

With the blessings of the Supreme Court’s  Citizens United ruling, which has sanctified money as a form of speech and proscribed any limits for it, the present quadrennial cycle of America’s political landscape has flourished as never before, with literally billions of dollars being spent to broadcast a flood of bile and lies, amplified by the corporate owned “press,” which now merely repeats the calculated sound-bites of the candidates and their PACs and party propaganda organs, and has unleashed a flood worse than that with which Hurricane Sandy inundated New Jersey and New York.  Our electoral system has gone berserk on a hit of endless greenback steroids, and a “politically correct” 4th Estate which seems unable to call a lie a lie, and is clearly in the pockets of our corporatocracy.  Awash in a constant dose of fraud and corruption, our citizenry is numbed, as is clearly the intention of the Wizards of Oz who manipulate this social landscape with the purpose of concentrating the land’s wealth into ever fewer hands and stripping any control of political and economic levers from anyone but themselves.  The Plutocracy is in full flower, shamelessly.   Their advocate Mr Romney, himself of minor wealth by comparison, is game for any contortion required, and the exhausted and corrupted body politic applauds this as if politics were a bizarre circus in which the greater the pretzel twisting, the more the reward.  America has descended in a political death spiral, as if instantly turning itself into a mode of Berlusconi’s Italy in which criminality runs the show and the larger part of the population gazes in admiration at the capacity of the crooks to bend the system to their will.  Where we once pointed to others as the ultimate in corruption – Italy, Egypt, some Central American “Banana Republic” – we can now only honestly point to ourselves.

Edward Hopper

Jost

Shulamith FirestoneEmily Dickenson and Kate Scott TurnerJackie and JFKBrooks Range, Alaska; Sebastian Salgado

Bikini Island nuclear test X-ray1Sol Lewitt drawing

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