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Category Archives: Personal Essays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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dsc02447-crpsmThe view from Caucana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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13244002_1011873302212586_2477487878487431767_oPaintings by Giovanni Lissandrello

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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April 27 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 what’s left is ever less

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

the seeming infinite closes in

time diminishes to imagined years,

seasons, days, hours, and less

until so little one is no more.

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

“Holy shit!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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P.T. Barnum

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

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

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

H.L.Mencken-1928

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

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

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

Alexis de Tocqueville

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

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

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

Yep, we’ve all got somebody to blame.

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

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In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan’s obituary in the Montana Standard

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The Book of Butte – Photography by Jon Jost

articleLargeJames Rosenquist with his mother before a billboard he painted.

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

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

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

VER37wideSteve Lack in All the Vermeers in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows? Certainly not me.

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

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

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

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

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

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Money talks, bullshit walks.

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In a few days, if all goes according to present schedules, Donald John Trump will be sworn in as the United States of America’s 45th President. After more than 18 months of the ugliest election in modern American history (way back when there were some equally nasty), the national mood is as soured as I have ever known it, right up there with the crackling late 1960’s to early Vietnam war/Watergate 1970’s. I can’t say I think the mood would be much different had Hilary Clinton’s political technocrats not blinded themselves and lost from their own stupidity. It reminds of those brilliant Harvard souls of the 60’s, the Brightest and the Best, who mired the country in Vietnam. Just as in his utterly vulgar manner does Mr Trump, who is convinced he is the brightest and the best, and the proof is how he blew away the pathetic hollow men of the Republican Party, and then out-smarted smarty-pants Clinton, perhaps with a little help of yet-to-be-fully-confirmed skullduggery from afar, and much closer – as in the FBI.

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In the past month, Trump has assembled his troops – appointing billionaire oligarch’s to fill out his cabinet, ex-soldiers to doubtless enforce the rulings soon to come – and surrounding himself with the subservient souls of his family, a shrill Harvard-trained neo-nazi as his chief of Staff, in company with GOP supplicant Reince Priebus providing a facade of respectability in the front office. Tweeting away in his past manner, Trump takes credit for re-directing corporate America to made-in-USA policies, all while aiming zingers at anyone who happens to offend him. And he is easily offended. The tweets largely re-direct press and public attention from the uglier steps being taken behind the smoke-screen of allegedly outrageous 140 character comments.  Donald Trump is a show-biz TV star, con-man extraordinaire.  Watch as he distracts with one hand, and acts with the other.

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Taken at face-value, thus far Mr. Trump’s behavior is by-the-book fascism. Win an election “legally.” Develop a cult-of-personality. Use whatever “legal” powers one has obtained to change the norms and rules. (See this.) And, as is Trump’s instinct, bully. The next steps are to simply break the laws and render them meaningless, sending out armed parties to enforce the new norms. Such things can only happen in cultures which are already hollowed out, the values of which have distilled to mere rhetoric. Like the old Soviet Union, in which the embalmed living of the CCCP stumbled forward, their chests heavy with ribbons and hammer and sickle pins, red flags behind them, and when pressed by reality, crumbled in a near instant.

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Such is America today, which now for some decades has lived a similar farce, with stiff well-coiffed politicians, spouting empty slogans, and ditto-head wearing their damn American flag pins, flanked with a backdrop of the good old Red White and Blue in Warholian repeats. Meanwhile, just like the old USSR, wealth is funneled up to a select few, and infrastructure is left to ruin, the wide social body is dismissed to fend for itself, and new platitudes and drugs are brought out to mollify the discontented mob. Following dead-man Brezhnev, came Gorbachev’s glasnost, and then the collapse of the Empire for a time run by a drunk Yeltzin, to be followed by bare-chested strong-man Putin, who looks to be there until he croaks.

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Obama was our feeble attempt at glasnost, a Harvard-trained company man trying to soften the hard edges of the system, and failing. Descending in his golden escalator, Mr Trump stepped into the political vacuum of the GOP, and the self-satisfied cloud of the Democratic party’s self-delusions, and while a teetotaler himself, doubtless will play a variant of the role of Yeltzin. The real strong-man in this scenario will enter in the chaos of Trump’s regime. Trump is, as long ago predicted by the Sage of Baltimore, the quintessence of our culture, a living character right out of the Simpsons, hair-do and all.

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The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

                                                                                                                                                              H.L. Mencken

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America is corrupt – morally, socially.  This reality is reflected throughout the culture:  in politics – high and low.  In our skewed economics.  In the halls of academy, high and low, where grade inflation is a norm and buying a high-end education is an accepted reality (as in the cases of Donald Trump and George Bush).

We have been corrupted a long time, and we have accepted that corruption as a given.  Look at our mass media and “entertainment.”  Look at our bread and circuses “sports” as billion-dollar businesses, and the absurdist  skew of extreme wealth for the .01% and the considerable wealth for the top 20% and the crumbs left for the rest, all accepted for decades as part of our capitalist ethos, and hence proper and OK.  Look at the obscene hypocrisy of our loud-mouthed “Christian” fundamentalists (e.g. Pence, Cruz et al) and how they supported Donald Trump, who is a clear liar, serial trophy-wife multiple divorcee, a sexist pussy-grabber and all out hedonist, a Midas who coats all he touches with gold, and is empty of any heart.  Look at the “family values” espousing Republicans who all fell supine before Trump once he won.  Look at the Democrats who bowed before the Golden Calf of corporate money, and embodied it in themselves, abandoning their interest in the diminishing working-class.  Across the board, our society is deeply corrupted, and even more so in that large swathes of the country – nice good liberals included – are unable to admit it.  Trump is the result, and we fully deserve it.

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Rubio: “Are you aware that people who oppose Vladimir Putin wind up dead all over the world, poisoned, shot in the back of the head…?”
Tillerson: “People who speak up for freedom in regimes that are repressive…these things happen to them.”

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It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.

Mark Twain

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It is the end of the year according to old Papa Gregory, whose astrologists jiggled the anomalies of the existing calendar and came up with a special one just for him, with which we’ve been shackled the last 400+ years.  So another New Year is here, and in turn the promptings to summarize the one past.  Here’s anecdotal evidence of mine, mixed in with other items of personal note.

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The above were mostly done while recuperating from this, a disk extracted in April, requiring some horizontal time and afterwards some physical therapy, done in Matera, and then Ginosa, in the south of Italy.  Thanks to their medical system this did not bankrupt me, indeed hardly costing a thing.  Grazie, Italia.

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And then endless photography, of which here’s a very tiny sample:

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And being of that age, some friends slipped off the planet, at a distance, and discreetly, so saying, “So long, it’s been good to know you” wasn’t an offer circumstances gave.  Wish I could have.

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On a happier frequency this year saw some nice things for people I know.  Friend Edoardo Albinati won the Premio Strega here in Italy, the highest literary award Italy has to offer, so in the company of Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia, et al.  Not bad company.   The book has a mere 1,250 pages, of which with my limited Italian I have so far read 250, which is more pages of a novel than I have read in the last 20 or 30 years.  I will finish it in the coming months, as my Italian is taking great leaps forward for taking the effort.  And as the book is quite interesting, it isn’t hard work, but a pleasure.

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The other oblique pleasure is that Nathanial Dorsky in the last year and more has been trotting around the globe for screenings of his work.  In Spain, Portugal, France, the USA and elsewhere.  As Nick’s films are remote from the commercial world, and he has never done the film-biz hustle and promotional stuff, it has been a joy to see the world, as it were, come to his door.  His work is as deep as his modesty.

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Finally closed in on finishing one film, Muri Romani II, an HD new version of the 2000 film of same title, minus the “II”.  And shot and am working on another film, Manahatta, hoping perhaps to wrap it up in the coming year.  Also editing Piccoli Miracoli, shot way back in 1996-2001, of my daughter Clara when I was raising her; hoping to finish by May.  And Marcella is editing Again and Again, a long documentary shot 5 years ago, which should end up as two films, one 80 minutes or so long, the other perhaps 3 or more hours. It’s about Korean choreographer Eun mee Ahn, as she develops a new work.  Aiming for a March finish for the shorter version, longer one by summer.

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Along with these things, did a lot of writing, mostly for my blogs, listed at the end of this, which also have many photos, and other things, if interested.

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Moved to Italy in late February, we were in Matera and Ginosa until October, and then moved to Caucana, Sicily – near Ragusa – living a 3 minute stroll from a nice beach.  I went walking on it most days, where it offered up quiet little philosophic pages for me to contemplate.

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For the coming year we’ll move back to Ragusa, a small but very nice apartment in the center of the city. We think to stay 6 months – Marcella to work on Bojagi and other sewing projects, and finishing the editing on Again and Again.  She’s also shooting a film on several musicians she met, perhaps a documentary portrait.  I hope to finish editing on the films mentioned, and if the spirit strikes, perhaps shoot some kind of long film there, with local people.  Also to paint/draw and lay out a book of poetry and several photo books – maybe to have on-line.  If the plot works out, we hope to head to a festival in Korea at the end of summer, and then on to Japan for one there. Then to the USA to travel 6 months seeing friends, doing screenings, and shooting more for a film essay.   Perhaps a swan song.

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Best for 2017 !!

Blogs:

www.acinemafornone.wordpress.com
www.cinemaelectronica2.wordpress.com
www.cinemaelectronica.wordpress.com
www.jonjost.wordpress.com
www.americanplainsongs.wordpress.com
www.paginasparaclarinha.wordpress.com
www.paginasparaclarinhavol2.wordpress.com
www.jonjostcomingtoterms.wordpress.com

www.jonjostphotography.com/

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Website:

 

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The long season of America’s electoral process has finally finished, and having dispatched at first the comical “best” of the Grand Old Party in an embarrassing sequence of primary “debates,” Donald Trump, regarded as the least likely candidate, and the easiest to beat by the Democratic National Committee, has emerged from the cultural rubble as victor.  Much of the nation appears to be in shock, having been told by most of the national media that Trump’s chances were nil.  The vast realm of what bi-coastals call “fly-over country” – the swathe from Eastern Pennsylvania on to the Rockies, and as well, all the West until you get to the sliver which hugs the Pacific Coast beyond the Sierras and Cascades – usually dismissively derided as uncultured and beneath contempt, all rose up to vote for Trump.  And given the oddity of the old slave-holder derived Electoral College, a minority of voters were able to secure a majority of the votes in this institution and hand the Presidency to Trump.  While geographically rather amiss, it appears indeed the South did rise again.  The irony that it did so through the hands of a Queens NYC crony capitalist is perhaps a bitter pill better left unmarked.

 

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From Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935): “But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’ and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”

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Having known back-road America – that fly-over turf – now for 5 decades, living there or passing through on one-laner’s or dirt roads, with many friends living “out there,” I am well acquainted with the slow degradation of life that has happened in rural America.  Railroad services stopped, Main Streets gone dilapidated and empty, family farms absorbed into giant corporations, dwindling wild life, pollution from big-ag run-off, the blossoming of WalMarts and Dollar Stores, trailer parks, a plague of meth and alcohol, and all the signifiers of genuine social collapse.   In the hinterlands of the country this is what globalization wrought – devastation.  And at the same time an ever increasing political and social marginalization of those areas which did not partake of the economic benefits of this process.   Or in the rust-belt as factories closed, either shipped abroad to cheaper labor markets, or robotized, those whose livelihoods were lost were simply ignored, racked up in the statistics as un- or under-employed.  The coastal pundits suggested more education (or re-education?) while they turned college into another profit generator while running up a gigantic student-debt tally.  In the last few years, as the meth and then opioid epidemics hit this mostly white sector of the country, along with the suburbs, there was a sudden bit of attention directed to this population, as the nation’s pundits tried to figure out just what was going wrong.  If they ever left their cocoons of upper-middle class comfort and pulled their noses out of the academic studies and books du jour, and stayed in a low-class motel while slumming in the sticks, they might just begin to get a glimpse of what Donald Trump so expertly manipulated into his electoral win.  As Michael Moore, and others who actually know this world, knew and predicted, Trump played right into the zeitgeist of the national discontent that has been building for decades.

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Having willfully stirred the hornet’s nest of the nation’s traditional bass-line of racism, Trump has brought to the foreground a social poison which remains broadly with us – however much the previous years attempted to gloss it over, and despite the purely racist behavior of the GOP when confronted with Obama.  Dance as they would around “policy” it was clear from day one that McConnell and company were driven by hard-core racism to oppose anything Obama proposed.   And now, with the genie let loose from a decade and more of political correctness suppression, we are seeing a rising wave of racist acts across the country.  I am not surprised.  On my back road trips I saw graffiti such as “Obama” with a rifle cross-hair in the “O”, and other such outward signs that we were not at all in a “post-racial” time.  Trump has played on this repeatedly, and will surely continue to do so as he consolidates his power.  While he meekly disavows such things, he simultaneously goads them on with scarcely an effort to mask his real intent and views.    His cabinet choices underline this quite clearly.

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America is at a crossroads.  Its decaying infrastructure is emblematic of a crumbling social contract, one that has frayed beyond recognition.  Were we a small country, like Italy under Berlusconi, it would be bad for many people, but manageable and to some degree even amusing.  But the USA is not a small country, and what happens in it impacts not only Americans, but the world.  As indicated by the last decade and more, as we oscillated from GW Bush, pressed under the sway of 9/11 (probably avoidable if it had not been desired by certain parties within the government) into a mindless war in the Middle-East, and then an economic collapse propelled by mindless consumerism and dirty banking, and then to Barack Obama, where for 8 years the tensions of the nation simmered under a cover of benign shoe shuffles from the White House while the GOP Tea Partied its way to a fundamentalist polka of racism, the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” on steroids, blanketed in a phony Christianity and “conservatism” dictated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.  I might note that in cross-country jaunts the only occupants of the radio airwaves are right-wing talkers like Rush, and sleazy Christian preachers, interspersed with today’s awful rock and roll and C&W.  TV is Fox and Fox only.  The great swath of fly-over country has been truly brainwashed, almost without opposition, and their embrace of the Republican Party – whomever it coughs up – is virtually religious, an act of unquestioning and thoughtless belief.   That’s what’s wrong with Kansas (and NE MO IND WYO etc.).

With the theatrics of the 2016 Presidential Election the dead rot of our political culture was laid naked – the vacuity of the Republican candidates, including Trump, was unfathomable in its shallowness, and while Clinton and Sanders sparred with some intelligence, it was still carefully within the range of the old era polit-speak, though Sanders sometimes stepped slightly outside the parameters of conventional Democratic Party parsing.   Trump’s vulgarism and crudeness swept all this aside, his yahoo base as sexist and crude for the most part as he himself.  And as he sold the snake oil, they bought, without reservation, taken in by a carnival barker from precisely the same elite, East Coast, moneyed people of whom they complained so loudly.  Trump would, so he said, be their spokesman, he’d take care of them, bring back the factories, put those people in their places, build a wall.  He loved the uneducated.

If his pick of cabinet members and other advisors is remotely indicative of the policies of the coming years, those fly-over folks have been taken to the cleaners like the rawest country rubes by a real New York city-slicker, as archetypal an American story as ever.  Mr Country, meet Rev. Gantry….

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