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Category Archives: Personal Essays

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Each day the headlines shout a new story: Hong Kong, Epstein, Trade War, El Paso…

The stock market leaps or plunges, a heat wave wilts half of Europe or the US. Our attentions are yanked this way and that, each event instantly transmitted across the globe and magnified in importance.   At the same time each event is instantly diminished, dwarfed by the next super-duper life-changing event.

And life goes on in its mundane manner, people talk and shop, they eat and make love and die.

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We all live, not in a Yellow Submarine, but rather in a vast collective schizophrenia factory, in which each of us, in more or less everything we do, make our offering to the god of Thanatos, though most of us are blissfully unaware of it.  We flick on our computer and go on-line.  It seems effortless, and some make the argument that it is so much more efficient, more “ecological” as we don’t need to chop down trees to make paper to stick in an envelope to put in a box to go in a truck to go in a plane back to a truck to your front door.  Nope, more or less at the speed of light you can have the world’s best library at your finger tips.  And indeed you can, and like most human bookkeeping the real bill is kept well out of sight.

The real bill for our convenience is that we are – well, probably it is already past tense, but we can’t see or admit that – that we have already destroyed the little planet on which we live.

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The above map indicates places in the world under severe water supply stress, places which in a few years will either have to magically find some other water source, or be abandoned.  There will be no magic.  One will note that many of these areas are among the most densely populated in the world (India, parts of China, the US southwest, parts of Europe.)  Lack of water also equals lack of food.  Great migrations will occur as those living there are forced to leave, or die from famine. This has already birthed serious political forces, giving rise to authoritarian regimes to fend off immigrants.  In the coming decade this will become far more severe, and there will be a mass human die-off (to join the other mass extinction of other living creatures already well in process), of billions of people.

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What we humans do, everyday, is what is responsible for this drastic change in the world.  It is our mix of religions, born in other times, which prompts us to reproduce, adding to the biological base-line which does so anyway, but religion socially sanctions it, even in the face of the obvious evidence of our over-populating the globe.  There are, plain and simple, way too many of us.

It is our intellectual wizardry which birthed science and its technological off-shoots, which has given us powers far in excess of our ethical capacities.  We are profoundly clever, but not wise.

And then our more recent religion of mercantilism and capitalism, which requires a belief in endless growth, and to which most humans these days subscribe.  It is as irrational as other belief systems, requiring a cinematic suspension of disbelief.  A virgin birth?  People with wings?  Sacred cows?

While powered by science which produces technological wonders, capitalism is as irrational as the metaphysical beliefs which governed humans earlier (and in many parts of the world, still do).  Detached from an intimate connection with the real world – the one of the earth and the biological processes of life and death in its cycles – our modern world has ravaged its own soil; it digs, extracts, and destroys the given world, taking its raw materials and making of them new elements, spewing these heedlessly about, poisoning the vast oceans and skies with toxins.  A great extinction, this one provoked by human actions, is already well under way.  We are drowning the world in the poisons of our cleverness. Along with most mammalian species and many others biological organisms, we will also be among its victims.

Uniquely, we can say we are responsible, for it is what we have done, collectively, over our long history (but a blip in deep geological time or even biological time), that has brought this upon us.  In the west the Greeks long ago gave this a name: hubris.

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Of course, humans being what they are, we always look for a scapegoat, someone else to blame.  It is those people who over-produce, it is those people who are different, who are to blame.  It is those people who look different, speak a different language, have different beliefs – they are to blame.

America is 4.4 % of the world’s human population; it occupies 7% of the world’s landmass.  And its society consumes 25% of the world’s resources.  It doesn’t do this out of some mystical capacity for innovation and invention and such: it does it by having, since the end of World War Two, a monopoly control over the global economy through economic extortion and blackmail in having a strangle-hold on trade through mechanisms which have made the US dollar the de facto means of exchange.  It has used this to force others to follow its dictates, and where the raw economic force does not produce submission, the USA maintains the largest, by far, military, with which it enforces America’s political diktats with violence.

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The truth is we are all to blame – some surely more than others, with Americans and Europeans especially, owing to their history, but finally it is all of us.  I suspect it was evolutionarily fated, and that in many other places in our universe the same experiment has been replicated and arrived at the same conclusion.

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Consciousness coupled to the basic requisites of evolutionary survival would always arrive in the same place.  We live, today, in a world which we are told is normal, the only possible world, and yet which is, with more or less every act we do – eating food brought from far away, receiving our convenient Amazon delivery, putting the garbage out in a plastic bag, driving here or there, turning on the light, or reading this – committing collective suicide.

 

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A year and some has passed since my last Pastoral, and in some sense it seems as if nothing has changed, though in truth much has changed.  For the worse. The Trump administration, dogged with endless scandal and corruption, simply doubles down. Mired in a cesspool of moral and ethical offenses and plain old crimes, the nation seems stunned, our political parties paralyzed.  Offense on offense is dumped in the public lap, a myriad of impeachable acts are done and while the air is sour with alarm, almost nothing has happened to confront the new reality.  Yet there is a reason for this stasis, one which curiously is what provokes it.

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The ascendancy of Trump, seen by many as an aberration,  a slap in the face to our sense of civil decorum, was in reality simply an unveiling of ourselves.  For decades America has been corrupt and rotted to the core – not just the hard-right business oriented sorts, but our nice soft liberals as well.  On the right the military industrial complex and its endless wars, was encouraged to expand since there was much profit to be made from it, and few raised a complaint.  Now President Eisenhower’s Farewell speech warning has come to full flower, and both Republicans and Democrats genuflect to the military, while civilians pay their taxes and utter “Thank you for your service” while veterans, utterly abandoned after that “service”, commit suicide at such rate that far more have died that way than in combat.

 

On the liberal side the corruption can be seen in universities which have become secondary to their football and basketball teams, where grade inflation and cozy “legacy” admissions warp the fabric of education.  It can be seen in the empty gestures toward “green” behavior, with recycling and hybrid cars and endless feel-good symbolic acts which utterly fail to address the reality that America is a vicious militarist/capitalist system which seizes 25% of the globe’s resources to serve 4.4 % of the world’s population.   To effect any real change requires a drastic down-sizing of American consumption, something which even the most liberal of Americans will not consider. They will say instead that the 25% must simply be more equitably distributed, not that we need to cut back 80% to properly fit our population.  It is a moral corruption no less damning than the rude billionaire’s club of the Republican’s.

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While many “good” Americans abhor Trump, and many others celebrate him, the brutal truth is that he is a symptom, an ugly scab which reveals the broad, deep decadence which has been building in American society for decades, and which while transparently evident for all that time, was discreetly ignored or minimized, as being something which a minority of other people did, and never oneself. Corruption was a flaw of 3rd world places, or Italy or Turkey. It was the kind of lie familiar in totalitarian states in which the official truth is known by all be be false, but has to be accepted for survival.  Americans imagined themselves mystically different but they were not. While the nation built a vast military empire, visible and obvious, everyone paid their taxes, and few protested. The unacknowledged benefits were simply too enticing, and besides, resisting would just be too much bother and risk.

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Since the end of World War Two, Americans have lived in a fantasy bubble, perceiving themselves ever as the good guys, the white-hat cowboy come to save the damsel in distress.  After all we’d gone to Europe’s and Asia’s defense, beating the Krauts and the Japs, sacrificing our youth for others.  Our story.  Never mind it was the Soviet Union which sacrificed endlessly more and did the job in Europe, and never mind it was Japanese over-reach which cost them their war.  But for we Americans, nope, it was our glorious GI’s that turned the tide, and won the day. Westerns.  We, in our own minds, come what may, were always the good guys.

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As the world slowly pieced itself back together after the conclusion of the war, America was essentially a back-door socialist society, recovered from the Depression-era ravages of capitalism run amok thanks to the WPA, Social Security and myriad other government props deliberately devised to save capitalism from itself.  Coupled with the steroid boost of vast government spending (debt) to conduct the war – factories for building ships, tanks, planes, all constructed on the government dime – the USA emerged as an industrial power-house with virtually no competition. It had all been leveled by the war, save for what was left in the USSR. Entering the ’50’s America propagated its myths to the globe, and to itself.

USA USA USA  #1 #1 #1.

And America, and much of the rest of the world, fell for it.  We were the shining beacon, the city on the hill, the biggest economy, the champion of democracy, the general all-around do-good guys of the 50’s.  Everybody loved us and we loved us. Or at least so we told ourselves.

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The fifties cemented America’s self-image as the benign biggest bestest country ever, the melting pot, the energetic inventive nation that had thrown off the shackles of old-world corruptions, tossed the aristocracy on the dung heap of history, and was innocent and pure.  We gave generously to others, developed the Marshall Plan for Europe, and turned Japan into a nation of Peaceniks.

We were a Norman Rockwell painting.

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We were, of course, utterly self-deluded, mired in the propaganda we had issued about ourselves to others.  We were the knights riding in on white horses saving the world from the scourge of Nazism and the Yellow Peril.  We wore the white hats, dammit.

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I recall in high-school having a final “civics” test which had 100 questions, two of which were the same question phrased differently – it asked why is/was/will be American foreign policy always be formed for the good of the other countries.  I replied it isn’t/wasn’t and wouldn’t be, citing some of the warped history they had taught me – for example, the Spanish-American war, which among other things was the first Gulf of Tonkin trick, to be deployed but a few years later.  I “missed” this question twice, and one other about who wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights.  3 questions of 100.  I was flunked.  As I recall I took the matter to the administration but I don’t remember the result.  The old lady teacher was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

 

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In the 50’s, creeping through the back-door of French colonialism, we took over their role in Indo-China, largely in secret. At the same time we overthrew the elected government of Iran, installing an erstwhile Shah who did our bidding and was duly celebrated as modernizing ancient Persia.  Our fingers were in Africa and Central and South America, propping up useful dictators.  This however did not show up much in the American mind until the 60’s.  Pieces occasionally slipped by the censors, but most of America’s dirty work was kept well from view, and what was not was always justified by the Cold War, in which the USSR, our former ally, was demonized. Anything was justified to stop “communism.”  And stopping communism was a good excuse to construct a global empire, all in the name of doing good.

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The 60’s brought an abrupt ending to America’s introverted dream of itself as the perfect Ozzie and Harriet-land of white-bread harmony.  Instead the fixed verities of the 50’s were up-ended as kids grew their hair long, disdained Mad Ave proprieties, and the civil rights movement flared into open warfare against the deep long racist reality of the nation.  The “cultural” war was on, challenging the status-quo assumptions of the country regarding race, sex, money, and myriad other “givens” of our society.  The seeds for a decades long tectonic shift in what America really is, and how it perceives itself, were planted.

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Even more frightening for those who found the 50’s a nirvana of normalcy, the actual demographics of the nation were changing colors: the country was slowly becoming non-white.  Women were demanding equal status.  The old verities of a patriarchal, racist culture were collapsing and anger was in the air.   It still is.

The Vietnam war coupled with the civil rights movement, rapidly joined by feminists and gays and other deprived elements of our society quickly ripped the veneer of 1950’s propriety to shreds and laid bare the hypocrisies of the nation.  It continues to this day, now shrieked out in headlines quoting the erstwhile President with racist diatribes and misogynist vomit.  The 1970’s roiled the nation in the wake of the 60’s and in rode a familiar figure, the cowboy in the white had, to the rescue. This particular cowboy was about as authentic as Wild Bill Cody, hailing from Illinois and Hollywood, a showbiz shill for General Electric and other corporate interests. Sporting an aw-shucks demeanor and an All-American down-home fake accent, Ronald Reagan offered respite from nearly two decades of turmoil.  He promised a Shining City on the Hill and trickle-down economics, though except for his own kind – the rich – he actually took a piss on the rest.  All the promised showers were golden.

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In America’s seeming zig-zag politics – Reagan begot a one-term Bush which led to led to “good old (liberal) boy” Clinton, a sorta two-term “left” wobble that boomeranged to a two-term “right” Bush, Cheney’s inside-job 9/11, briefly stunning the nation into a seeming unity until the real Bolton intent was made clear with a fraudulent WMD-claim war, the catastrophic invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the deep fractures in our social comity stepped up into the glare of the spotlight. Soured on Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” liberals united behind the unheard silver-tongued black candidate, and Obama, at best a center-Republican of yore inside, was readily voted in, the Establishment’s Harvard-trained Manchurian Candidate, who deftly pulled the wool over the fawning liberals so pleased with themselves for showing their I-am-not-a-racist credentials for having voted for him.  Of course he could move in next door, though a guy from the hood with a boom box playing rap at the BBQ might not be so welcome.

Obama policies, liberal on the identity politics side, pro-Wall Street and hard-core military-industrial complex War War War on the foreign policy side, (but for Obama discreetly, with drones, off-the-books, black-ops, not spoken of lest the liberals notice) managed to flummox the nation.  We were, said he and others, now “post-racial.”  For eight years it became socially unPC to murmur anything that could be interpreted as racist or sexist or any violation of someone’s norms.  While ample signs pointed to the volcano just beneath the surface of our shared politics, the elite of the Beltway chose not to see it. In private they spoke of “deplorables” and simply missed what had been going on for 40 years behind their backs, off in the backwaters of “fly-over” land, that “globalization” had decimated and left behind. (Read William Kittredge’s 1998 book Who Owns the West for a prescient early view of this.)

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The flim-flam snake-oil salesman is embedded into our culture as deeply as anything: American as apple-pie.  Right down to our bedrock myths of ourselves, the scrappy pilgrims who built up New World from scratch.  Forget about the millions of indigenous people who were already here; forget about the millions of slaves.  And so on – it is a tired myth woven of lies and self-delusion.  Presently we are experiencing its death throes, the shudder of a centuries old society as it faces the mirror and cannot face the image which returns its stare.  We are brutal. We are ugly.  We are evil.

We are 4.4% of the world’s human population sitting on 7% of its landmass and gorging on 25% of the world’s resources.  We do this by having had the economic weight and military force to seize these resources by blackmail, extortion, military threats and when those fail, pure military force.  We have done it for some centuries now.  We are an empire, and as usual, an evil one.  Like all empires we pretend we’re the guys in white hats.

An honest history of ourselves tells us this was always so, and that the heroic stories we concocted for ourselves were false.  But before we bow out, we have a last show-biz con-man to survive and his millions of followers, many of them allegedly devout Christians who wallow in resentment and hatred, while clutching the Cross. Hypocrisy, if one reads our history well, is as American as apple pie, too.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

                                                                                                    Walt Whitman

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Our poet laureate sang his songs, enticing, beautiful.  And they offered one of the many threads which make up the tapestry of our communal delusion.  These days his self-celebration has curdled, as it has now many times, into a narcissism of feel-good gestures – yoga and recycling and solar panels and panels of Norman Vincent Peale emulators speaking the newest hip phrases of the same old balm.  Atop the curdled pop culture of our time sits a vulgarian impressario, a narcissist of the first rank, ready to lead his base of last-gasp old white racists over the buffalo cliff, taking everyone with him.

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America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candy store.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable
private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles more so they’re all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor the Silk-strikers’ Ewig-Weibliche made me cry I once saw the Yiddish orator Israel Amter plain.

Everybody must have been a spy.
America you don’t really want to go to war.
America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia.
Him big bureaucracy running our filling stations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

                                                Allen Ginsburg, Berkeley, January 17, 1956

 

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Since last posting here, time seems to have zipped along with my geographic coordinates. From Belfast to Dublin to Amsterdam and Brussels, a jaunt to Ghent, Paris, Locarno, Cassina Amata near Milano, Piangipane near Ravenna, Bologna and now in Mondello, on the flanks of Palermo.  Each not only a physical place, unique to itself, but a node of personal acquaintances, people known decades and brand new, each in the midst of their own jangled worlds. I soak it in, inquisitive as ever, in the moment and then on leaving one place and entering another, into a new world.  It’s been ever so for me.

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In Dublin, generously hosted by Maeve Foreman, I was lucky to have a little inside edge. Maeve is well-connected with her neighborhood and her city, and that opened doors that otherwise would surely have remained closed.  Lucky me, I got a better glimpse of the place than I would have otherwise.  Thanks Maeve.

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The museums in Dublin are all free, so I wasn’t economically locked out as I am in many places asking 20 or 25 Euro to enter, so I had a nice look at what was available to see.  A pleasure.  For more on Dublin see this.

[Maeve is the mother of Donal Foreman, whose film The Image You Missed has been getting extensive and well-deserved exposure on the global festival circuit.  Once I again get settled down it’s my intention to write a long piece on it.  If you haven’t seen, try to – it is a wonderful, highly watchable, complex film and personal film which manages to expand itself into the universal.]

Next was Amsterdam where I was able to see long-term friend Errol Sawyer, since 1964, and stay a week thanks to Mathilde.  While there I got to see the people at Eyefilm, the Netherlands archive, which holds all my originals and is in process of making 4K prints of some of them.  Had a talk about what more needs to be done.  Slow going but going.

Museums… well, I was priced out.  And even in this way-out-of-season time, Amsterdam was crawling with too many tourists, warping the ambience of the city into a playground of a kind that is becoming all too familiar around the globe.

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And then it was on to Brussels, to visit with Peter and Karolina, now in a new place.  And where I had screenings at the old Nova-Cinema, where I’d done screenings some ages ago.  They went well, with nice audiences and good Q&A’s.  Thanks to Katia, who was running the place way back when and still does.  As well had a screening at the film school there, thanks to Justin McKenzie Peers, who, despite his name, is French, studying for now in Brussels.  He also helped organize the Nova-Cinema showings and is doing some translations for some of my films.  And also appears to be writing perhaps a grad thesis or something on my work.

A surprise for me was that in one of the screenings a 16mm print of Angel City was shown, which seemed pristine and clean.  I at first thought that Eyefilm had made a new copy and not told me, but it turned out it was one that I had sent them.  I urgently wish to get a 4K print of it, along with one of Last Chants for a Slow Dance, an archival print of which Eyefilm has made before either gets dinged up.  Things to do or get done.

Managed some museums in Brussels, including the Magritte one, which was a bit of a revelation, as it covered his early work, and his Warhol-like self-promotion.   He is, in my view, like Warhol in that he is less an artist than a graphics person – someone who illustrates ideas rather than actually “paints.”  A curious distinction perhaps, but one I think is valid.

The classical arts museum in Brussels has a wonderful collection of Breughels and other painters of that time and that snared me some hours.

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While in Brussels managed a day-trip to Ghent, not so far away – one of many places I’ve missed over the years, along with Antwerp and, oh hell, a lot of other places.

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And then it was on to Paris to visit Mark Rappaport, and get in just little bit of a city I’d lived in for nearly a year and a half back in 1997-98.  Mark was doing fine, busy making new video essays, of which I saw a handful I’d not seen before.  Mark is a wizard, making things about topics I don’t much give a damn about (arcane film lore and history) come alive and branch out far from cinemania into fascinating and engaging social essays. One of them had me in tears at the end, another busting my gut laughing!  The ones I saw were America’s Grandpa, about Walter Brennan, and soon to be available on Kanopy and I, Dalio.   He’s busy working on a new one now.

Also stayed a few days with Peter Friedman who was finishing a long documentary, a cinéma vérité portrait of a big time opera director, Robert Carsen, filmed working on an adaption Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. I got to see this film and liked it quite a lot. It covered both the technical and preparatory stuff of putting on a really big piece of theater, and then on working with the singers, the “directing.”  Fascinating stuff and well done cinema-wise.  A pleasure.

Like Amsterdam, Paris crawled with tourists in the no longer existent off-season, and seemed much the worse for it.  Mass tourism is a pox of globalism.  I wonder what will happen to all these places that now rely on tourism as a major cash-crutch when the economy goes poof, and the tourists disappear?  I know all too many places which put a lot of eggs in the tourism basket and are utterly vulnerable to this most certain collapse.

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Also managed to see Emmanuelle Chaulet, who played a lead role in 1999 in All the Vermeers in New York.  I hadn’t seen her in nearly three decades !  A nice talkative lunch with a lot to catch up on.

And I tried to rendezvous with the Gilets Jaunes, just to get a look, and went to where they were supposed to be, but did not see them.  I think they are being wily and saying they’ll be in place X to draw the police there, and then they materialize somewhere else. Here a month now since I was there they are still around though the media seems to do its best to ignore them – a little corporate commentary in that?  Especially the American press.  And Macron has enlisted the military to attempt to impose control.

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I took a train on to Milano for a quick stop to leave things with the Grassi/Rebosio’s before heading on to Locarno to do something for Lech Kowalski – I didn’t really know what he wanted, but was game for whatever.  On the ride through Grenoble, in the French Alps, I noticed there was only snow, and not so much, at the highest elevations of the surrounding mountains.  Normally there would be a lot of snow on the ground in the city at this time of year.

In Locarno Lech did a multiple camera thing of me talking, not being interviewed, on subjects he guided me towards, with his students manning the cameras and sound. Await word from him on just how it worked for him and am ready to do more on request. Along the way part of my job was to go with eager students enamored of the wonders of real film (celluloid) and shoot a bit – me, the grizzled old dinosaur of “real film.”  I have zero romance for celluloid, so it was a curious exercise.   I think the experience may have disabused them of any fantasies about it.

While in Locarno I noticed, there too, the mid-winter mountains empty of snow.  A dammed reservoir we went to see was maybe 1/3rd full.  The river below it was a not even a trickle.

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Back outside of Milano, in Cassina Amata, I stayed a week with Tilde and Luciano.  When Tilde was 10, in 1962, her family had picked my up hitch-hiking outside of Como, and taken me home and in a curious turn of events I returned and spent 2 months with them in 1963, shooting my first film as a portrait of Tilde.  A year later I returned another month and they (the Rebosio’s) somehow became “family.”   I tried to find them for some decades afterwards and failed, but courtesy of FaceBook, about 8 years or was it 7 or 6, we reconnected and I’ve visited a handful of times since.  To “family.”  Life is very weird.

The last evening there, Luciano and Tilde took me out to Monza, site of the famed Formula 1 racetrack, to a fish place were we had a wonderful and vast serving of fried (lightly) sea things, most delicious.  As we walked there we went by the river, the Lambro, which flows down from the mountains into the Po.   Except it wasn’t there, rather a concrete trench with a few puddles.  Luciano said he had never seen it like that.

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Then took a train on down to little Piangipane, a village not far from Ravenna, there to re-record music we’d done in autumn of 2017.  I’d not been happy with my voice or my guitar playing and asked Christian Ravaglioli if I could take another stab at it, having practiced in the intervening year and more, and feeling much more at ease and confident in both voice and playing.  We ended re-recording most of the songs and he agreed it was much better.  Albums are due out in June or so.   One solo and one a mix of my work and Christian’s.  When they do come out I’ll post word here.

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From Piangipane it was to nearby Bologna, to visit my friend Pina, who was just quitting her job after 15 years as a chef in a vegetarian restaurant in the middle of the city, to strike out on her own.  She has one book, Vegetaliana, a vegetarian cookbook rooted in Italian cuisine, and just collaborated on another project centered on Bologna’s most famous artist of late, Giorgio Morandi.

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And then it was on to Palermo, where I’d originally planned to spend the time looking around for a place to live for the coming year or more, before returning to the USA for retrospectives planned for autumn-winter 2020.  But in the interim a proposal came in from the US West Coast, which altered my plans.  So following a stop in London to see friends it will be on to Seattle and a new adventure.  See how it all works out.

In Palermo its been a mix of take-it-easy in Mondello, the next door beach town of Palermo, where off-season the weekdays have been quiet, though nice weather has pulled in hordes on the week-ends.

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And when the weather has been nice I’ve been going into Palermo, a city I really like, and nosing around.  And finding out my 75 year old creaking body ain’t like it was and finds a day of walking around, looking, taking a ton of photos, is rather taxing and am inclined to take a break the next day, whatever the weather.  Learning to be “old.”

 

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Palermo has passed through many hands over time, like all of Sicily.  Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, and on up to American GI’s not so long ago.  All those who seized it or just passed through left their marks, and the result is a rich intaglio of cultures, in contemporary lingo, a real culture-mashup, a mix-down.  But this one has passed through millennia, and is all the richer for the ripe patina of time.  Often this can result in an oppressive sensibility, that history weighs heavy on the present and acts as a psychic/creative block.  But I don’t sense this in Palermo, which, perhaps thanks to the many immigrants present – from North Africa, and black Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and many other places – seems alive and vivid.  It is a city once opulently rich, with a vast array of monumental buildings to show it, and then battered by poverty, the Mafia, and left in the wayside of history.   Not long ago it had been written off as a hopeless wreck, as destroyed as the cars of Falcone and Borsellino were by Mafia assassination bombs.

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Since then the city has recovered, in part thanks to a new mayor, Leoluco Orlando, who has largely been credited with the turn-around.    He was originally elected in 1993 and stayed to 2000; in 2012 he was again elected and is the current sindaco.  And surely also instrumental were large student demonstrations against the Mafia in the wake of the murders of the jurists.

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In the last 10 years there has been, as elsewhere in the world, a process of gentrification here, though frankly it seems not to have done much damage so far, and some perhaps has been good for the city, like two major streets in the center of town, Emmanuelle Vittorio, and Via Maqueda being turned into pedestrian areas for a bit, along with a few smaller adjacent streets here and there.

Palermo, Palermo, Palermo.  A riotous dream.

 

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And so much more, but for the moment I am out the door for a last go around in Palermo before heading off to London tomorrow.  Tickets in hand.  Moving.

 

CHICAGO-68-11Grant Park, August 1968

Nineteen-sixty-eight. The words slip off the tongue of those of my generation as a talismanic exclamation point, a vortex of nostalgia. Later generations have heard of it, and waxed romantic, and become latter-day hippies, or tattooed urban primitives. The year reverberates through our culture and politics to this day and beyond. It is celebrated by many as a great turning point, either seen positively or negatively, usually depending on one’s political inclinations. Among my friends it is often the locus of a deep sentimentality, the seeming high point of their lives. Among others it is seen a nadir, the opening volley of a deep culture war still being waged, and with Trump in the White House, seemingly finally being won, despite same-sex marriage, and the myriad other “civil rights” victories of the last decades. Retrenchment is back with a vengeance.

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A Prelude

Americans, being provincial and self-centered, tend to see the world with blinders. What is seen and known is all about America’s involvement somewhere far away. In 1968 that meant Vietnam, though most knew little of the place, only that we were at war there. The Tet offensive in Vietnam muscled the war front and center in the US.  Later on we’d learn a bit about Laos and Cambodia, which, of course, we bombed. Most of the rest of the world was invisible unless something about the US was involved in a way that brought it to the front pages of the newspapers and the nightly news leads.

In 1968 the world it seemed was in ferment, from China, deep into the “Cultural Revolution” begun by Mao Tse Tung in 1966, to Japan where student unrest spilled into the streets, from Argentina to France, from Germany to Mexico.  The stasis of the post-WW2 era and all its institutional structures were under stress and challenge.  Around the world people took to the streets demanding change.  In Eastern Europe discontent under the yoke of the Soviet Union burbled just beneath the surface and broke out in the open in Prague.   Across the Western world the same strains seemed to spread contagiously from country to country, bringing uprisings in Paris, Rome, Berlin, Poznan, Prague, Buenos Aires and elsewhere.  It seemed a great cultural and political uprising had commenced, bringing for many a great sense of both danger and hopefulness.  It occurred not simply in the political realm, but culturally – in music, theater, cinema, literature:  seemingly a kind of great awakening.

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In summer of 1968 I was just 25 years old, a touch more than a year out of Federal Prison, where I’d resided 27 months, having refused to comply with the Selective Service system. On getting out in ’67 I’d immediately jumped into the political fray, figuring I’d earned the right to do so having done time. I worked with the nascent draft resistance movement, and was deployed to talk about the prison experience and to encourage people to refuse induction into the military. Though as the clouds darkened I began to say that maybe it would be a good idea to join the military, perhaps learn how to use weapons and then go AWOL with this newly learned skill. I recall the draft resistance people, mostly pacifists, nudging me off the stage, dumping me as a speaker for their cause. Mine was not the view they wanted said on their behalf. At another time I recall giving a fiery talk at the Chicago Art Institute, when I suggested that perhaps the time for assassins had arrived. I remember a young female student coming forward after I’d spoken and asking if I had a copy of my speech and giving her the one I’d just read.

And I shot my own 16mm films – Traps and Leah, my first sound films.

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Photo to right: Linn Ehrlich 1967

In the same period, autumn to winter of 1967, I helped organize and set up the Chicago Filmmakers Coop, along with Kurt Heyl and Peter Kuttner and a few others. The three of us later set up what would turn into the Chicago branch of the left-wing Newsreel group. In early 1968 “The Mobe” was setting up in Chicago.  “The Mobe” was short for “National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam” which was a coalition of various anti-war groups, including the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which set out in early 1968 to prepare for organized protests at the Chicago Democrat Convention, primarily focused against the Vietnam war, but as well around civil rights and other leftist matters of interest.  They had rented office space, and gave our yet unnamed Newsreel group a room to work in.  In turn I became involved in the Mobe, meeting most of its organizers – Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and several others whom I do not recall – Lee Weiner and John Froines.  I recall talking with Hayden, telling him of my recent prison experience and having him say to me that he didn’t think he could do 2 year stint in the joint.  I recall thinking, “And so why are you one of the leaders?”

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While there I met Marilyn Katz, of the SDS and involved in the Uptown project, in which activists moved into a neighborhood of poor Appalachians and attempted to organize them.  I moved in with Marilyn and lived there, with a Chicago “Red Squad” police car often parked at the porch-steps.  In April a demonstration which I consciously did not attend was attacked by police, though Peter was there and made still photos, and there was some film footage.  I organized and edited a short film, April 27, out of the materialwhich turned out to be the only film made by Chicago Newsreel.  The police behavior on that date foreshadowed  what would happen in August.

Anecdote 1:  Sometime in spring of 68, I went with a group to stage some anti-war guerilla theater on the plaza of the Federal Building in the Loop.  My role was as an American soldier, pulling out a plastic machine gun to mow down the Vietnamese civilians, a la My Lai.  After the theater was done a cop came to arrest me for having a gun, however obviously fake it was.  Since leaving prison I’d had a pathological relationship to cops, leaving me quivering at their sight.  Marilyn and a friend of hers, an old time Pinko, Sylvia Kushner, came charging and in effect scared the cop away with legal threats, rescuing me from the arrest.

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The Mobe’s intention was to get at least ten thousand people to come to Chicago, and have a major visible presence during the Convention, and hopefully to influence the nomination process.  Hubert Humphrey, stalwart Minnesota liberal, was tipped to be the Democrat choice, though he’d fully signed on to Johnson’s Vietnam war policies.

Two weeks before the convention began, Kurt and I, having read that the Democrats were having a mini-White House portico built onto the entrance of the Stock Yard Convention site, decided it might be a useful image for the film we, and the recently arrived New York contingent of Newsreel, were making about the convention.  So we drove on down to the South Side in his banged up VW Beetle, and parked near the site, and went in the August heat, in shorts and long hair and beards, and set up our tripod and got the shot.  Returning to the car, as we arrived 6 or 7 police cars swooped in, surrounding us.  Arrested, we were taken to the nearest Precinct office, and interrogated, initially by the local cops; then the Chicago Red Squad.  Then the FBI, and finally by the Secret Service.  As we escalated up the hierarchy the interest lessened – it appeared two wild haired hippies weren’t exactly the would-be assassins scoping out some upcoming killing ground.  We called the Mobe office to inform them and as I recall they got a lawyer on it.   I was released, but Kurt spent the night in jail as the papers on his Beetle had some problem.

On getting out I went promptly to the Mobe office to report in full what had happened – the first arrests of the Mobilization.  My recollection is none of us made a big deal out of it, though it should properly have been a cue as to what the coming weeks would bring.  None of us seem to have picked up on it though.

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As the time of the convention rushed closer, the people at the Mobe were busy and concerned:  it was clear that 10,000 people were not headed to Chicago as hoped, and we’d be lucky if 1000 showed up.  It appeared the whole plan was headed towards a dramatic failure, a fizzle.  In light of the events of the previous 6 months – the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the riots which came in the wake of that event, including large swathes of the west side of Chicago which went up in flames and resulted in the National Guard being called in, and then the assassination of Robert F Kennedy, along with the massive protests in Paris in May and elsewhere around the globe – it appeared the Mobe’s efforts would look pathetic in contrast.

Anecdote 2:  Marilyn and cohorts went to the Federal Building to paint “CIA” on their unmarked door, having asked me to go to film it.  I declined, still very nervous about police.  I had been in the building 2 and a half years earlier, in a court room being sentenced to 3 years in prison.  Marilyn also sprinkled “guerilla mines” in the form of large nails to flatten cop vehicles, and others liberally sprinkled stink bombs in the Hilton Hotel, HQ for the Democrats at the convention.

A night before the convention was scheduled to begin (Aug 26-29) a small band, perhaps 500 to 1000 or so people who had come to Chicago, along with some locals, commenced a march on the Near North Side, where the Yippies, centered around Abbie Hoffman, had set up a camp in Lincoln Park.  Hoffman and the Yippies were having a Festival of Life, juxtaposed to what they said the convention was, a The Festival of Death.  The police – nervous and touchy, as Kurt and I had experienced – attacked with billy clubs and tear gas, chasing demonstrators and by-standers down the streets and alleyways and making arrests.  This was reported locally at first, on the TV news and papers.  The result was an instant swelling of the demonstrators to more in the realm of thousands – many of them young people from Chicago and the suburbs, drawn probably as much for the excitement as for any substantive political reason.  In the next days the news went national, and in short order there were the Mobe’s wished for thousands.

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Inside the convention center Mayor Daley fulminated against the demonstrators and the press, his beloved city shamed before the world.  His police attacked national press figures like Dan Rather, Mike Wallace and Edwin Neuman both inside and outside the convention hall, resulting in terrible international press.  During Senator Abe Ribicoff’s nomination speech for George McGovern, in which he commented on the action happening outside, Daley was caught on camera yelling, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.”  All in all a far from auspicious commencement for the presidential campaign around the corner.

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NBC News - 1968 Democratic National Convention

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Had the cops laid low the counter-protest to the convention might well have fizzled, a foot-note in history.  Instead, by August 28, as Hubert Humphrey was being nominated – defeating Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, the crowd had swollen to 10,000, including lime-light seeking luminaries including Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and all the way from France, Jean Genet.  Grant Park resembled a quasi-war zone, surrounded with National Guard troops with rifles at the ready, bayonets, and jeeps and trucks with barbed wire grates, hemming in the demonstrators.  The Mobe’s leaders and other addressed a vast chanting crowd picking up Rennie Davis’ comment that “The Whole World Is Watching.”   And it was.

Anecdote 3:  Watching at night-time some of the police actions around Grant Park, I thought of going to an auto supply store and buying a handful of emergency flares and driving to the west side and heaving them into lumber yards, a diversionary distraction for the police.  Didn’t do it, but I did think it.

I was among those in Grant Park, there with Bolex in hand to shoot, though I recall a strong sense of distaste for the behavior of this mass of people, all taking their cues from the podium, chanting as told, and given the actual mix of people – mostly young, many from the region, I had the nagging suspicion that had someone begun a chant saying “Let’s go to the South Side and kill n…..s” a good part of them might well have done so.  Since that time I have always avoided anything with mass crowds.

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The other thing I felt while in the park was fear.  The part of Grant Park we were in on one side was sliced by railroad tracks, maybe 30 feet down, sided by a vertical concrete wall and fence – no escape.  The other side, facing Michigan Avenue, was lined with National Guardsmen, literally fencing in the crowd with portable barbed wire mounted on the fronts of their jeeps and trucks.  The Guard was armed with rifles, and in my mind, fresh from my experience in prison, I could imagine the rules of the game being shifted, and those guns being fired.  While it did not happen then, only a few years later, in May 1970, at Kent State in Ohio and at Jackson State University, Mississippi, the Guard did open up and fire, killing students.

At the conclusion of the convention the delegates dispersed, having nominated the favored Humphrey who limped off, ham-strung, to campaign and lose to Richard Nixon. And likewise did the folks at the Mobe.  They’d done their job, and most assuredly had impacted the nation’s politics, in a manner still being debated among the survivors and participants.  Back in the office word came that a farmer out west of the city had seen it all on television, and invited us out to his place for a bit of R&R, a picnic in the quiet of the Illinois prairie.  Marilyn and I along with 3 others road out for this welcome break.  She and I, and Rennie Davis, were sitting in the back-seat, Rennie with a large visible blood-marked bandage swathed around his head.  He’d been clubbed by cops during the convention.  As we were driving out of the city, he turned to Marilyn and me, and said, “I guess I don’t need this anymore” and he lifted the bandage off his head like a hat and set it aside.

My soul curdled, and inwardly I thought to myself, “This is my side?”

Jon Jost_fog`69_©Linn Ehrlich_2018Foto by Linn Ehrlich, on a visit back to Chicago, 1969

In early September Marilyn and I drove her VW to California where for a while she joined up with Bruce Franklin’s radical group in Stanford and bought a Beretta.  I hung around the edges of the The Movement, visiting a tear-gassed Berkeley and slowly edged away from the organized left.  Nixon won the election ushering in a continuation of the Vietnam war and a long period of America’s recoil from the 60’s and a drift into conservatism, and finally a terminal corruption and corporatism, culminating in Donald Trump.  Marilyn went back to Chicago to continue a life-time of work as a social and political organizer and I retreated into a seven year hiatus in the woods in California, Oregon and Montana.  Today Marilyn runs a political consultancy in Chicago, and I carry on as a quiet anarchist.

Of the figures who led the Mobe their life paths were wildly diverse:

Tom Hayden married Jane Fonda (and divorced after 17 years), and became a Democrat assemblyman in California and died in 2016.

Rennie Davis became a follower of Guru Maharaji Ji, and later a venture capitalist and advisor on meditation.

Abbie Hoffman carried on as a social critic and theatrically minded activist, writing books and committing political pranks.  Wanted for cocaine dealing he went into hiding for some years, and in 1989 apparently committed suicide by drug over-dose.

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David Dellinger, a life-time pacifist born in 1919 carried on in his work and died in 2004.

Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippie party,  and carrying on as a political prankster into the mid-70’s Rubin morphed into a businessman, became a millionaire and advocated for Yuppies.  He died in 1994 following an accident while jaywalking in Los Angeles.

John Froines, an anti-war activist and scientist (chemistry) went on to a long academic career, retiring from UCLA in 2011.

Lee Weiner, continues to work for social causes, largely around Jewish issues.

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Bobby Seale, somewhat dragooned into the event very late while visiting Chicago on behalf of the Black Panthers, of which he was a founder, was bound and gagged during the trial and then severed from the trial to be tried alone.  He carried on with the Black Panthers until its demise and since has carried on in various social actions.

For Marilyn Katz’s take on the Chicago Convention see this:

https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/1968-democratic-convention-male-white-voter-chicago/

For a highly personal view, from a friend, Bob Boldt see this:

https://moristotle.blogspot.com/2015/08/third-monday-with-bob-boldt.html#more

For a good over-view with excellent layout and photos see this:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2018/aug/19/the-whole-world-is-watching-chicago-police-riot-vietnam-war-regan

For various other views see these:

https://newrepublic.com/article/136364/cops-kids

https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/1968-democratic-national-convention-chicago-protests-riots-50th-anniversary/

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/465036.html

https://greatcities.uic.edu/event/the-whole-world-is-still-watching/

For a good Magnum photo-essay on the times see this:

https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/politics/1968-power-protest-politics/

 

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And here is a summary of some of the major events which happened in 1968 prior to the Chicago Convention.

January 21

Around the world, 1968 took on a symbolic weight for millions of people, whether for cultural or political or other reasons.  I am sure many of those who were in Grant Park back then changed from Yippies to Yuppies, and some voted for Trump.  Some were permanently scarred, for better or worse.   I am a person not given to nostalgia or similar such sentiments.  When, on the death of this or that famous figure, I read the out-pouring of sentimental twaddle, the sending of “thoughts and prayers,” how that figure took such a place in others lives, I feel I live in another universe.  And so it is when friends wax on about sixty-eight.  Yes, it was a year in which many things rose to the surface and exposed themselves.  It was a year in which around the world many made valiant efforts to change the direction in which humanity was going.  It was a time for many of great hope.  And, in my jaded view, it was a time when we lost, and lost badly.  Not merely in the more or less superficial matter of politics, but on a far more profound and deeper level.  While the warning signs had already been made, we lunged headlong into a vast materialistic consumer insanity which utterly disregarded what we were doing to ourselves and the small blue planet on which we live.  Today we live in an opulent lop-sided world of fantastic wealth and poverty, we are surrounded with technological wonders that bedazzle us into a mindless tizzy of endless distractions. Today the world is on fire, fires lit by arsonists – by ourselves and our bottomless gluttony for things and the wonders of modern life, the imperatives of our religion of capitalism which demands and requires constant growth on a finite planet.  The skirmishes on the streets of Chicago (and Paris and Belgrade and Prague and Tokyo and Buenos Aires) all fade into nothing as we face the mirror and see the world we have produced in the last 50 years.  It is nothing other than a catastrophe, of which only the first edges have begun to show themselves.  The ancient four horsemen are riding headlong towards us – in truth they are already here, though for the most part well-masked, and deliberately so.  For what I am speaking of, as an example, see this.

 

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Traps, and other early short films can be found here:

Jost Short Films

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Made an offer I couldn’t refuse, spent two weeks, June 9 to 25th, with Marcella on the US East Coast, hosted by a long time friend, Charles Lyman (since 70’s).  First at an old New England sprawling 15+ bedroom old house outside Wareham, Mass., overlooking Buzzard’s Bay, which separates Cape Cod from Rhode Island.  Had nearly a week there, kicked back, minimal net access, almost relieved from the social mayhem happening out in “the real world.”  Then we packed up to go up north to a small private island located off the coast of Maine, near Bangor.  Got as far as Brunswick before a simmering problem caused a U-turn back to Boston. [Was a matter another person casting a black cloud over things courtesy of a complex relationship with our host and alcoholism.]

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Tucked in a little forest of Lyme’s disease tick-laden foliage we dodged that bullet – none to be found on us for the week.  Enjoyed a laid back time of doing little, chit chat, and trying to absorb something of the old New England vibe of a huge family summer house, and all the things implicit: boats, seashore, old-line connections and sensibilities.  Far from my American roots, and interesting for me to try to fathom.  Our host, invited in part apparently with intentions of shooting some material of me, though we spent way less than an hour doing that (thankfully). Instead we got a casual dose of his family history, old family photos, and a haphazard glance into a once-life. Interesting.

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Wareham and the nearby area were classic rural small-town USA, East Coast style, and like its parallels across the nation, a bit run-down unless a hot-shot tourist magnet.  We did a little jaunt to visit friends near Woods Hole, on the Cape, and another to New Bedford and its whaling museum.  Lazy days.

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Friend Charles shifted plans a touch, and instead of heading up north to Maine on a Thursday, things delayed to Sunday, which began to chop our trip into pieces.  Meantime a close friend of his, a regular in his life, became problematic with alcohol and maybe other psychological things, alienating Marcella.  This prompted a bit of guru Zen Jon, suggesting she just let it fly by and not bother her.  Boomerang properly came the day after we left Wareham, driving up to Brunswick Maine, a one-night stop-over enroute to Sutton Island.  There staying in a lovely New England coastal home, this one of the famed New England Cabot family, from which Charles’ wife comes.  Lovely place and setting, full of art.  There our companion in this setting disrupted things in the morning, blowing my trip-wire, and I talked with my friend saying neither I nor Marcella relished 4 days on an isolated island with this potential negative element ready to intrude at any moment.  He concurred, and we took the next train south to Boston.  Sorry not to have visited this island, and if life permits, hope another chance arises to spend a week or maybe more there, in solitude perhaps.

 

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In Boston, stayed with cousin Holly on Beacon Hill.  Couldn’t ask for a nicer location there, or a nicer host.  Nosed a bit around the city, bumping into a demonstration on the Commons.  A pathetic turn-out of 20 or so, chanting anti-Trump immigration stuff, reminding me of 50 years ago, the summer of 1968, and the chants done then:  “Hey hey, ho ho, LBJ has got to go” and so on.  Way back then in a very serious way “we” – me and my fellow confused socialists or whatever each person thought they were (not very coherent, to be honest) – lost and lost seriously. We were as nothing against the building corporate militarist state that had taken form.  Now it runs the show and verges towards outright State Fascism.   So passing this gaggle of protestors sent a chill through my soul.

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Likewise the deluge of Trump Era news seems to have swamped the national psyche, also chilling my soul.  The news repeatedly suggests the nation is headed towards some kind of denouement, whether a blunter police state, yep, Fascism some American-style, or a break down of civil order.  Or given the small crowds my skeptical mind imagines a capitulation along the lines of the good German burghers of the 30’s, heads ducked hoping to stay out of the fray.  There’s already ready-made Brownshirts about, eager for Our Great Leader to just give them (further) nods.  Charlottesville.  The other day in laid back hipster heaven Portland OR. there were street battles, with echos of Weimar where there were fights between Adolf’s forces and communists, leading shortly to… Well,  you should know the history.

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While in Boston saw a few friends, among them my old prison buddy Bill Cunningham, who has spent a life as a community organizer, and studied local housing in Cambridge, and is working now on a book about that issue.  We had a great time hanging with him – full of information, a wicked wit, and just a pleasure to spend time with.

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As a wrap up for our trip Marcella and I had a long day at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, slowly taking in their collection, a welcome respite from the swirl of political ugliness which has enveloped the country.  Though I know only too well that art is no refuge from reality.

 

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And yet, stepping outside, we entered again the toxic atmosphere of America in these times, and frankly I was relieved to be headed far away, even if the bloated importance of my nation necessarily follows where ever one goes.

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Since the last of these ruminations on the state of the American nation too much water has run under the bridge for the bridge to have accommodated it.  It’s inundated now, washed out by the tsunami of the Trump era’s endless bombast and show-biz shit-show. Having reduced our official politicians to the empty-suits they already were, Republican and Democrat, Trump entered the official institutions of government as the bull-in-China-shop, trampling everything in sight.  In doing so he has unmasked the emptiness of those structures as well as he stripped the Republicans naked and then left Hillary Clinton in shock and a majority of the public aghast.  On taking office he has carried out the same wrecking policies, in a blurred shuffle of names, placing a sequence of foxes in the hen house, such that the cabinet is in truth a dismantling organization along the lines of the quickly departed Steve Bannon’s desired “deconstruction of the administrative state.”  In practice this commenced in deleting regulations mostly over corporate behavior, de-funding of numerous social welfare programs, and now, coming to a peak,  direct attacks on the rule of law and the discarding of Constitutional restraints on executive power.  It is, in simple terms, an attempt to institute an American Fascism.

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Trump arrives in West Palm Beach, Florida

I spent the period from mid-October 2017 to March 2018, once again on the road in America, zig-zagging on back roads, visiting small towns and big cities.  It was a dispiriting journey which left me exhausted with America, its foibles and schizophrenia, its beauties and horrors.  The drumbeat of Trump’s malignant personality synchronized daily with the headlines in the news: school shootings, the stock market riding high, then dropping on an utterance or Tweet, the chronic postings of police violence against blacks, the ICE roundups of immigrants, and the scab of America’s built-in racism exposed and open, our psychic maggots swarming the dead corpse, all accompanied to the global warming “weird” new weather.  Through it all it felt the nation was floundering, flummoxed by its new Fuhrer who seemed to emit new offenses every day and yet remain unscathed. His alleged approval rate climbed from 33% to 40.

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My journey had been, in part, to attempt yet again to make a final essay film about America, PLAIN SONGS.  I’d begun in 2012, failed; attempted again in 2014, and failed again; again in 2016.  Each time the ever more incoherent mess of American society had reared up in my mind, numbing me into wondering what possible purpose would be served in making a critique of this phenomenon when it was clear the place was already drowning in the thunderous noise of its own illnesses, and that no matter what, no voice would ever puncture its schizoid death-rattle.  There was nothing to say as there would be no one to hear.

 

To Elsie

The pure products of America
go crazy–
mountain folk from Kentucky or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure–

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum–
which they cannot express–

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent–
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs–

some doctor’s family, some Elsie
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us–
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

William Carlos Williams

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Some years ago – well actually it was decades – I had publicly spoken and written about this likely prospect, of the break up of the American nation, its culture and society.  I was, of course, deemed crazy, “extreme,” unable to see the unique wonder and beauty of our experiment, our “Exceptionalism.”  Instead I rattled on about the dubious wonders of our mode of American capitalism, about our fraudulent hoist-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps hokey “individualism,” or about our original sins of obliterating the natives of this land and pretending we “discovered” it, and of slavery, or of the infinitude of other things which constitute the real America and its history.  I’d done this since I was 16 or so.  And now, as history is catching up with me I find many voices emerging, seeing this reality, and the horrible political and psychic bill which confronts us.

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I grew up in a military family and in turn had an early education in how its values work, as a corrosive system of obedience, submission to “higher authorities,” brutalization both physical and mental.  I read the journals my father had, his “professional” magazines, and suffered his military psychoses.  Those journals read to me like a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the totally crazed plotted out, inside the system they lived in, the most depraved of thoughts.  And they not only thought them, but did them with the authority of the government. Gulf of Tonkin. My Lai. Experiments on soldiers.  Hiding the mess of nuclear facilities. And on and on. After all, they were the “muscle” of the government, there to step in when more discreet methods – economic extortion, silent “ops,”  weighted “diplomacy” – failed.  The list of American crimes in this realm is near endless.  Of our whole history, we have not been at war for 22 years.   The US military today cannot account for 21 trillion dollars, which it allegedly received.  It, like the rest of the nation, is utterly corrupted and corrupting.  And of all the institutions of the nation, it is the military which is “most respected”!

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While this political cyclone whirls across the country, the superficial life-goes-on goes on. While it seems a dark cloud hangs overhead, a cloud of uncertainty, a cloud of astonishment – our police do this !  –  so many people think that ! – beneath all seems “normal.”  People go to their jobs, to cafes and restaurants and movies; they meet with their friends, make love, live, die and do all the things human animals always do.  But hovering around is something else, “normality” is disrupted.  The ghost of the dysfunction of the Weimar Republic lingers off-screen, and for most Americans is  utterly unseen.  After all, we are “Exceptional” and exempt from the usual forces of history.  And yes, we are indeed exceptionally self-deluded.

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For myself I had seen this coming for some time, in some form or another, though I could not have figured out just what.  The normalcy of most Americans is that they live in an economic and military empire, which wars endlessly (though it does its best usually to keep it hidden), in order to produce these figures:

The USA is less than 5% of the world’s population.

It occupies 7% of the earths land surface.

It consumes 25% of the earth’s resources.

America is chronically cited as the world’s biggest economy, the lynch-pin of the global economic system, the most powerful and richest nation on earth.   These things are all owing to our imperial economic/military status:  like a good Mafia system, we offer deals one can’t refuse, on pain of “regime change” or flat out obliteration by a military far bigger and more powerful than any other.  Our “normalcy” is built upon this hard, ugly reality, and making a corrective to this would involve such a major change of our lives that most simply cannot comprehend it.  Even nice liberals.

 “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”   –  Upton Sinclair

This needs only a modest bit of tinkering to describe Americans and their place in the world.  In fact it is used often in political talk employed to explain and excuse our frequent foreign policy of blowing up places which decline to roll over and play dead when we extort them for natural resources.  We say something about “our national interests” and threats to “the American way of life” and send in the military.  In the Sinclair quote we need only change the word “salary” to “life-style” or “American way of life.”

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“American capitalism is predatory, and American politics are corrupt: The same thing is true in England and the same in France; but in all these three countries the dominating fact is that whenever the people get ready to change the government, they can change it. The same thing is not true of Germany, and until it was made true in Germany, there could be no free political democracy anywhere else in the world — to say nothing of any free social democracy. My revolutionary friends who will not recognize this fact seem to me like a bunch of musicians sitting down to play a symphony concert in a forest where there is a man-eating tiger loose. For my part, much as I enjoy symphony concerts, I want to put my fiddle away in its case and get a rifle and go out and settle with the tiger.”                                          –  Upton Sinclair

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“The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”  –  Upton Sinclair
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Today’s newspaper, on the heels of certain balloon’s floated by Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, announced that the Maximum Leader declares that he cannot be indicted, subpoenaed, or anything else that irritates him.  He has declared that he is the law.
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The murmur of the pundits thus far has been muted; the public carries on.  The Brownshirts march.  (This is not metaphorical: Charlottesville, myriad cellphone shots of police-state behavior coast-to-coast, and Trump’s support of this all testify to this as an institutionalized reality.)
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“…realized that this country has gone so flabby that any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, can grab hold of the entire government and have all the power and applause and salutes, all the money and palaces and willin’ women they want.”     –  Upton Sinclair
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On leaving America a few months ago, I had already concluded that the film that had partly prompted my journey was useless.  Perhaps that was a function of my age, now 75, or perhaps of an over-due “artistic burnout”.  Or perhaps simply an exhaustion with a life-long hard look at the country, society and culture from which I had emerged.
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While in the face of the affronts which Trump and his administration deliver to whatever it is Americans imagine their country to be, one would normally be a bit sanguine, and think, “Oh, there will be a blue wave” and other such thoughts directed toward finding a “correction.”   Just as many imagined a Hillary Clinton victory would have kept the ship of state sailing pleasantly on – Hillary back in the campaign was eager to assert America’s “exceptionalism” and would surely have carried on with the empire as usual.
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As a life-long surveyor of American society and culture, as well as being quite acquainted with other societies, I am not so “optimistic” that America will “self-correct” in a manner that would actually be positive.  Instead I think it will shift into – more so than it already is – a form of fascistic state in which police-power intimidates the comfortable to silence, “undesirables” are rounded up or simply erased with power (happens everyday in petty transactions of those people in their dealings with police and other “authorities”) and rather quickly “polite society” joins in.  One of the more remarkable aspects of American “exceptionalism” is that it blathers in inverse proportion about “freedom” while being a desperately conformist society.   When the pressure is on, most will fall in line.
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It seems to be something of the nature of our species, and its behavior, that we collectively have a periodic need to have a major blood-shedding.  This compulsion seems largely related to our tribal instincts, marking off “others” from “our group.”  This is clearly what has overtaken America, and whatever connective tissue had for a while appeared to have bound us together, is now so frayed as to be non-existent.  We go through the motions of “national unity” but there is none.  We are at war with ourselves, a condition normally called a “civil war.”   Of course in wars of any kind, civility is usually one of the first casualties.  In wars people “naturally” do atrocious things.  There is no reason at all to think we’ll be any different.
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If interested in the thoughts and process of the attempt to make Plain Songs, see this:
To see the essay films which it was to be a continuation of, see these:

 

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I confess to being a total news-junkie.  I awaken each morning, flip on the Chromebook, and jump headlong into the day’s headlines.  In the last few years this has meant a wallow in the traumas of America’s official political landscape, a zombie horror show in which all the beasts which the system had imagined it had defeated re-emerged with a vengeance.  Glossed over in the alleged post-racial Obama era, though hiding in plain sight in Trump’s birtherism and McConnell’s “one term” obstructionism, liberal America waltzed through 8 years of self-love, thinking that in voting for a Harvard-trained upper- middle-class half-black man, they’d resolved the matter of the nation’s deeply rooted historical and institutionalized racism.  We were woke, or so they imagined.  Instead they awoke on Nov 8, 2016 to pull their heads out of the sand, realizing belatedly that they knew almost nothing of their country.  Zombies crawled out everywhere, undefeated and triumphant.

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None of this came as a great surprise to me, neither the roiling racism which raised it’s head as Trump pulled back the oozing scab that had politely hidden the cankerous sores on the body politic, nor the shock of the largely urban liberals for whom this came as a nasty revelation.  I’d been charting this for some decades in my work – films and blogs.  It was, after a manner, my self-chosen job to probe about in the American social psyche, albeit I tended towards the more oblique forms of art rather than the blunderbuss snarl of politics.   As early as the mid-60’s I’d done short films on the alienation of young people in the stressed out 60’s when the matter of racism was roiling the nation during the civil rights movement, and Vietnam was eating away at our social fabric.  I addressed those things in Traps, and 13 Fragments & 3 Narratives from Life, promptly after leaving two+ years in prison for the “crime” of draft refusal.  I then made a few other works, couched in counter-cultural terms, likewise pointing to the schisms in our society: Primaries, A Turning Point in China, and 1, 2, 3, Four, in 1969-70.

At the time the country was tearing itself apart with deep political rifts, and with a major temblor in our cultural sensibilities.  The  end result was a major shakeup in our social values, followed with Altamont, Nixon, and then, after the interlude of Carter, Reagan and a long slow shift right in politics and economics, and a harshly contested liberal drift in cultural matters.

SD CORPSESpeaking Directly (some american notes)

Deeply involved in the events at the Chicago Convention in 1968 (arrested early), I withdrew to California, and then in 1971 moved to Oregon and began a long essay work on the State of the Nation:  Speaking Directly.  It addressed in social and personal terms what was going on in the US at the time, and in myself. In what I think now of as slightly stilted leftist terms, it described, somewhat accurately, what was going on in US cultural politics and government foreign policy, and spoke of the fractures existing in the country at the time – cracks which ran through us individually as well as collectively.

Subsequent work delved deeper in fictional narrative terms into various specifically American socio-political realities: our form of capitalism, alienated men, Vietnam vets, and the broader nature of our culture.  The tonality and content was for the most part negative – things were not going so well in our country.

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In 1985 I returned to the essay form, making another long work of inquiry on the state of America, Plain Talk & Common Sense (uncommon senses).  In its indirect and artfully oblique manner it all too accurately traced and predicted the trajectory of our present history.   It is as pertinent today as it was when it was made, though it had made a cautionary and desperate plea for us to take a different path.  While securing arts world kudos, such as participation in the Whitney Biennial of 1987, obtaining numerous festival screenings, and being broadcast by Channel Four (which had commissioned it) in the UK, its real-world impact was for all practical purposes zero.

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In the late 80’s, the stock market reached new heights, and the financial world became a locus of fame and glamor, and art prices zipped to ever higher levels.  I recall writing a letter-to-the-editor of the New York Times noting how Souren Melikian’s “art” reviews had morphed from some discussion about the artistic nature of a work to a purely financial one and belonged more on the Economics pages than “culture.”  In 1989 I shot All the Vermeers in New York, a sweetly caustic comedy of manners glancing into the financial and arts worlds of the Big Apple and the havoc they bring to the souls involved in them.

VER86All the Vermeers in New York

A few years later I set out to Oregon to shoot a new film, The Bed You Sleep In, which I confess I told some acquaintances before shooting that I intended it to be a “masterpiece.”  I think around the same time I read that Brian De Palma had said the same of his film of the same time, Bonfire of the Vanities.  In Toledo, a lumber mill town inland a bit from coastal Newport, I nosed around doing some research in my far from academic manner, arrived at some thoughts and clarity, got actors, a free camera from Panavision (thanks Bob Harvey) and in a month came up with the film done in what had become my usual manner of improvising mostly, with a few sections scripted.

It’s not for me to make the call on whether I succumbed to hubris, or whether I managed to get somewhere near my aim.  What I did intend, that this chamber drama of a family be done in a way such that it reflected the broader American society, apparently, with no explicit suggestion at all, seems to have worked.  Below I’ll post a handful of reviews for The Bed You Sleep In, which seem to support this view.

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I’ve written the foregoing as in the last year and more, as I’ve indulged my news-junkie habit, I have noticed a sharp shift in the tone and views of both “normal” folks, at least the kinds who respond in various newspapers comment sections (NYTimes, LATimes and other papers, various magazines on and off line), and of the talking-head opinion-makers, columnists, etc., from both right and center/liberal sides of our political spectrum (a real left basically doesn’t exist in the USA).  What I hear/read are words that less than a handful of years ago would have brought down the wrath of the pundits, and most others, with loud assertions that it was too “radical,” “fringe” or just plain nuts. They are views I have espoused now for far more than a few decades, and for which I was naturally kicked around as being ridiculous and absurd.  They are views articulated in my films, in poetic terms, and in my various blogs (see list below) and public discussions in sometimes more direct manners.  Those views were that America was and is corrupt – not a sudden Trump matter, but for decades – and that as a society we are deeply self-deluded and collectively more or less schizophrenic.  We cannot admit what we are and what we do, and in turn we have curdled into a society which is both utterly dishonest and in consequence self-damaging. The arrival of Donald Trump is a natural development in such a society, as is the hypocritical response of liberal opposition – an opposition which imagines that had a Democrat won – (Madam Clinton) – then all would have gone swimmingly well, the “post-racial” America would have remained comfy snug, with nice dollops of domestic policies keeping things in order.  Meanwhile Imperial America, the America that constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population, 7% of the world’s land-mass, but consumes 25% of its resources, would have carried on as usual, and all would be hunky-dory OK.  Our bloated military would receive its usual genuflections and the vast corruption carried on politely in the back-rooms would have remained nicely hidden.  Instead Trump has torn the scab off the festering reality of America and pundits and mere citizens now talk of the collapse of civility, of the approaching end of the United States, with dark hints of a coming period of fascism.

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I don’t pretend to be a Cassandra, but I do wonder what Americans have been seeing and thinking in the last 50 years, as the forces of capitalist commercialism, USA-style, have warped our society into its current state, in which the selling of poisons, literally and metaphorically, has produced an obese citizenry intoxicated with opioids, be they pharmaceutical or 24/7 shrieking talk radio or TV “news,” an out of control gun plague, and a stunted sense of community such that distrust is likely our most dominant shared characteristic. And a thousand other ugly realities, sitting in plain view, which define us. It is not as if these things mystically suddenly appeared with no foreshadowing.  From long before the Kennedy assassination white-wash on to the Gulf of Tonkin to the Nixon/Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia to Reagan’s backroom Iran deals; on through to the 9/11 white-wash, the Supreme Court one-time only selection of GW Bush, WMD, and a thousand other instances of governmental fraud and public lying, there is little reason why the American public should give any credence to the words of a government official.  This, doubtlessly, accounts for the large disillusionment with government which marks the right-wing of our politics.  It is understandable.

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On the other hand, the same can be said of our now ubiquitous and immense corporate over-lords, whose commitment is to profits and enriching themselves, whatever the social costs, and which lie in support of those aims as readily as does President Trump. The same corporate powers now own and control almost all the mass media, and it speaks in a voice as controlled and self-serving as did Pravda.  Likewise the internet, while offering an avenue to other voices, is also a system for thought control, as the recent evidence of Russian meddling in our election has indicated, along with the endless barrage of advertising it carries.

Caught in the cross-fire of this tsunami of “information” is it any wonder that the populace is stun-gunned into confusion, and easily led along fraudulent paths, whether by a born con-man like Trump, or by the suits which usually deliver the government’s version of things?  Or by the wizards of Madison Avenue who have made the arts of persuasion into a virtual science, the better to peddle endless needless things the sole value of which is to feed the capitalist necessity of constant growth and profit?  Under decades of such a reality there should be little surprise in seeing our social binds shrivel into pure distrust, and finally collapse into the deeply polarized present of Fox “News” and a President Tweeting inanities in the morning.  Fake !!  Alas it is true, but it has been “fake” all along.

America has lived by lies from the outset; they have grown now into a vast avalanche, such that even the most ordinary and imperceptive of citizens can see it.  The question is, why did it take so long?

You make your bed; you sleep in it.

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Below I print reviews of The Bed You Sleep In, a film made 27 years ago.

E.Johnson, original source unknown, but from a CalTech blog apparently:

One of the major discoveries I made in 1995 was the work of Jon Jost, whom I am tempted to call “THE great contemporary American filmmaker” (though he has recently departed for Europe). Perhaps I tend to this overstatement to compensate for the virtual non-existence of Jost’s name in any of the discourse on film in this country. What I will say is that Jost is, for my money anyway, “THE great contemporary *independent* American filmmaker” (where here “independent” truly means something, and isn’t just a marketing term; Tarantino et al. be damned). I have no doubt that most people would find Jost’s films like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I have to confess not-so-secretly that this makes me cherish him all the more….

The Bed You Sleep In is very much the work of the same individual but, as mentioned above, is very different in tone.  The narrative revolves around the character of Ray (played by the truly remarkable Tom Blair, whose only prior features to the best of my knowledge are Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Sure Fire), owner of a financially distressed lumber mill.  In a scene of astonishing power, Ray’s wife Ellen (played superbly, particularly in this scene, by Ellen McLaughlin) reads out a letter from his daughter who is painfully and emotionally accusing him of sexual molestation.  (The manner in which the letter is read and the way in which the characters’ emotions play out are so vastly different from the ways a similar scene in a Hollywood film would do them that I can’t even begin to describe their effectiveness.)  This event occurs just about halfway through the film, and the narrative threads leading up to and trailing from this scene are slowly, meditatively interwoven with masterful visuals of the landscape in and around the town and lumber mill.  The cumulative power of the film is devastating.

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“This extraordinary film offers a long hard look at the American Dream and what it awakens in Americans.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Truly independent filmmaker Jon Jost has completed his latest trilogy (“Frameup“/”Sure Fire“) about rural America and has since moved on to self-imposed exile in Europe, as reported in a film ‘zine. This extraordinary film offers a long hard look at the American Dream and what it awakens in Americans. The camera is held steadfast not moving for long periods of time, picking up all the appropriate nuances with a deliberate dispassion. It looks at an Oregon lumber mill whose owner Ray Weiss (Tom Blair) is faced with unsettling economic news about the business he has built-up and worked at for the last 50 years. It focuses on this man and tries to find out who he is, using him as a metaphorical symbol for America. It also contrasts Ray’s views on nature with Emerson’s, paraphrasing from his transcendentalist’s essays which are flashed on the screen.

By seeing who this man is through his thoughts, we get to see how Ray adjusts to his carefully scripted life: the fly-fishing he loves, his easy and almost genteel manners, and his very definite American persona. Ray is forced out of economic necessity to deal with the Japanese businessmen he inherently despises, and we get a picture of a rather complicated individual who has difficulty in communicating with himself and others. So the closer we get to him, the more we sense that there are a lot of things that remain unknown. The shocker about Ray’s life that is about to unfold comes after he meets a foreign stranger on the street who is raving about the day of atonement coming soon and of how God knows all, and that he should pray with him for salvation. But the street preacher is told by Ray, that he has no time to listen to his message. Feeling uncomfortable being around this religious zealot, Ray fumbles around with his wad of bills and thrusts a few dollars in the preacher’s pockets. This is not kindly received by the preacher, as he shouts that “he doesn’t want his money.”

Our perceptions of Ray as a Rock of Gibraltor type is squelched, as we see him come unglued in his very comfortable home. Ray slyly interacts with his second wife (Ellen McLaughlin), as she confronts him with a letter from her college-aged daughter, Tracy, who is his step-daughter via his first marriage. Mrs. Weiss insists on reading out loud a letter addressed to her from Tracy, which accuses him of placing his hands on her private places. Ray tries to respond indirectly to his wife’s question as she says: “All that she wants to know, is it true?” But all he can respond is that he wonders why Tracy is doing this to him, indicating that she is probably mixed up. What results is apocalyptic in tone as the film becomes disturbingly mysterious and evasive, never settling for sure who is telling the truth but, nevertheless, this scene destroys the family. It could be deemed as an attack on America’s soul exposing it to questions about truth and character, as one’s principles are put under the microscope but cannot be determined. The story builds from here to its very tragic outcome.

This is one of Jost’s deepest and most penetrating films to date, it could even be argued that he has made a classically great American film — a poor man’s “Citizen Kane.”  It forcefully and subtly tells an American story, replete with unanswered questions about family life that are haunting. It makes you think for a long time afterwards what is it about this country that is so raw and violent in nature — so much so that it becomes a part of the people’s own nature.

One of the most memorable scenes was when the camera panned to Ray dining with some co-workers at a diner and all we could hear, at first, was the muffled conversations of the patrons as the camera meticulously continued to pan the diner. This daily experience of eating out is routine for most Americans but it has rarely been captured so disturbingly exact on film, as we eavesdrop on the banal chatter and come away with a feeling that we heard nothing deeper than a conversation about the weather. But, at the same time, we are learning much about what it is to be an American and living where the frontier used to be. This time consuming shot is not attempted by commercial filmmakers who live in fear of losing their audience in a long non-action shot. That is one of Jost’s strong points, his willingness to explore territory others fear to go.

Jost’s film can probably be criticized for a few lapses in the story line it didn’t clarify more precisely–exploring in greater depth Ray’s relationships with family and friends. But, more importantly, the film should be praised for the poetry it brings to its story when telling about a malaise in the American culture that is difficult to come to grips with. What is clearly seen, is the American landscape that is perceived as so beautiful a sight to behold and the country as so wealthy a place when compared with the rest of the world. Yet, what must finally be asked: What does the American Dream mean…if Americans do not seem to be a happy people without their material comforts?

REVIEWED ON 3/20/99                                 GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”

© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED   DENNIS SCHWARTZ

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93. THE BED YOU SLEEP IN (source not known).

Set in Oregon timber country, Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In studies a family within the context of regional economic downturn in the mid-1990s. The opening image, of a lumber mill’s smokestack belching out smoke into the air, conveys both productivity and pollution. Logging cranes in operation, resembling gigantic metal insects, suggest both useful labor and something amiss.

Ray owns and operates the mill. In addition to a timber shortage wrought, in part, by stringent environmental laws, the mill must contend with the housing slump wrought by an overall ailing economy.

Ray and Jean’s marriage is happy and affectionate. However, Jean is Ray’s second wife, and their affair began while he was still married to his first wife. A lingering knowledge of Ray’s capacity to lie convincingly is thus further compounded by Jean’s own guilt for having contributed to this long-ago lie. Overcompensating, Jean has loved Tracy, Ray’s child from his first marriage, as her own. Nevertheless, her repressed guilt has erupted periodically whenever she and Ray quarrel, as accusations against him.

Disaster awaits the two, triggered by freshman Tracy, whose women’s support group at college has convinced her her father sexually abused her as a child. Memories are popping up in her head—not “memories” exactly, but “images,” she writes Jean, explaining she doesn’t know when, if ever, she will be able to return home. Driven to believe Tracy to assuage her own guilt, Jean demands Ray tell her “the truth,” which is impossible for him to establish, and which Jean is incapable of accepting because of its indeterminableness. The marriage unravels; each family member, between a rock and a hard place emotionally, commits suicide.

This film brilliantly charts the intersection of family and socioeconomic stress—a long problematic American history that’s taking its toll.

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The Bed You Sleep In Review:

The final film in an informal trilogy starring the phenomenal Tom Blair (the other two films in the series are Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Sure Fire), The Bed You Sleep In illustrates the deep frustration about America that drove director Jon Jost to relocate to Europe shortly after it was made. As in the first two films, this one tries to get at the roots of America’s social and political ills through the portrayal of one man’s life. On the surface, Blair’s character, Ray Weiss, is much more sympathetic than the ones he played in the previous two films, but his job as the manager of a lumber mill (albeit a nature-loving one) being driven out of business by foreign competition and clear-cutting places him in a can’t-win situation. He either has to destroy the nature he loves or lose his livelihood. His dual nature is reflected in the visual scheme of the film, which includes many landscape shots composed as diptychs. This is one of Jost’s most powerful portraits of the slow pace and underlying sadness of small town life, both of which are beautifully depicted in a remarkable scene in the town’s diner, made of a single, languid tracking shot encompassing the diner’s interior while life simply goes on both within and beyond the camera’s view. When the letter from his daughter arrives accusing Ray of incest, it hints at an even more violent split within his nature, one that, in Jost’s view, is symbolic of the violent divisions threatening to undermine America’s nobler ideals. Tom Vick, All Movie Guide

 

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” Jost also wanted to represent something quite general that was directly relevant to the contemporary United States. On repeated occasions, Jost has defined the film as a testament to the breakdown of social trust and dialogue within the United States, referring both to the hysteria surrounding issues of childhood sexual abuse and a more widespread deterioration of all areas of public discourse.[8] Shouting and accusation replaced listening and understanding.”

The Bed You Sleep In is available on VOD here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/123248

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Wrapping up five months in USA, mostly on road zig-zagging from West to East. Friends seen, new friends made; landscapes, cities. Overall a dispiriting time as the winter clouds were not only meteorological but of the spirit. The Trump era has cast its spell, though in my view it only revealed in crude form what was already there: a nation in disarray – self-deluded, half-naked, half-masked in complacency. From the spindly Manhattan billionaire condo spires to the pop-tent homeless encampments, the schizophrenia of America lay like splattered road-kill on the national psyche. The dull drone of corporate big box mall stores floated by like a nightmare of consumer constipation, an endless loop of faux Italianate facades and blocky corporate logo design, regurgitated from coast to coast. Along the arteries of commerce the toxic sprawl of automobile life – Quick Lube, Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, Auto Zone, Nissan, GM, Firestone, and a thousand other vehicular notices, from lawyer “accident” billboards, to the myriad gas stations peddling our most addictive juice and toxic habit. And there I was running up my mileage, adding to the lethal load of CO2, oil extraction, global warming death-warrant.

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I’d meant to carry on shooting for PLAIN SONGS but shot almost nothing while pondering why the hell? I’d started way back in 2012, and have taken now I think it is three or four stabs at this, but the same thing happened before. For more on that you can see the blog I did for it:

American Plain Songs

As I prepare to leave, the question remains. There seems no breathing space for speaking softly or for thought in this America.  As if we’d run up against a dead end, and in my case, personally, it feels that I have.  As in the old Dylan song, “You go your way and I’ll go mine.”

DSC06136Jim Benning makes a 22 star flag for Alabama DSC06871Native American cemetery outside Espanola NM

I can’t say it was a sudden revelation – frankly I’d seen it coming for decades, this internal fracturing of the national psyche. It was, after all, the subject of most of my film work – essays or documentary or fiction. Once it held a fascination, an interest, and perhaps I had a little hubristic thought that by making works which reflected the State of the Nation, it might have some tiny little positive effect. I long ago gave up on that delusion. So now as this culture I hesitantly call “home” seems to drift to dissolution, and doubtless through many ugly stumbles in so doing, I think it wisest to let it go and turn my attentions elsewhere. Frankly I sincerely feel America will collapse in the next decade or two, splintering much as the USSR did. And this, given our real history, will not be a bad thing at all, for us, or for the world. We have told ourselves lies far too long.

On that note, I’ll go to the airport in a bit, and try to set all these thoughts about America aside and move along to other things.

 

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A few weeks ago, lured by past visits, and the promise of a certain seasonal quietude and benign weather probabilities, I went from the San Francisco area out to Death Valley.  I passed through the Mojave desert, by derelict towns and Air Force bases, old mining camps and their debris, then through the valley, passing famed Zabriski Point, and on to a town I’d visited before, Tecopa Hot Springs, there to bathe a bit trying to chase the flu or cold I’d picked up in the City.   And to scout and think, as it was my intention to shoot another landscape film in the Valley – envisioned in my mind a wide, vast and brooding image of this foreboding area.   I spent a few days soaking in the hot springs, surrounded mostly with Asians – Koreans mostly.  Nosed around the area taking photos, and then, drove north into Death Valley, taking the Badwater route.  As it happens the Badwater basin is the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level.   Approaching from the south the density of traffic grew, from the occasional 4 wheeler or snazzy van headed south, to a near traffic jam.  Badwater was filled with tourists, folks who came to take selfies or take a walk down into the saline bowl to experience America’s lowest.

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My casual observation was that most these tourists were Asian – Korean, Japanese, Chinese.  Most meaning perhaps two-thirds or more.  I assume they were lured by travel agents, pointing out that Death Valley was indeed a spectacular place, and winter was the time to visit to avoid being broiled.   And the world being as it is today, they have the money to be tourists, and America is certainly a prime location for spectacular selfie backgrounds.

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Seeing this herd of tourists out in the midst of the aptly named Death Valley also underlined the profound change which we humans have brought to “nature.”  Once a lethally forbidding landscape, this remote and harsh desert has in the last 30 years,  along with much else in our world, been converted into a play-ground, a part of the vast Disneyland into which the globe has been transformed: today we zip through the European Alps on highways which simply flatten them – tunnels or elevated bridges letting us literally fly through them, making them mere spectacle.  No zig-zag tortuous hairpin curve up-down required any more.  And the same is true of almost everywhere. Great and modest suspension bridges leap over chasms, four-wheel drive ORV machines churn up desert sands or swampy marshes; para-gliders swoop over mountain ranges or ocean up-rises; base-jumpers leap from cliffs and buttes and natural arches (as well as man-made towers); skiers are hoisted to the tops of mountains only to zip down once treacherous slopes as entertainment.  Cheap airlines jam the air with tourists who traipse en masse through once near sacred sites – the Parthenon, Machu Picchu, Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, and any other remarkable piece of architecture or symbolic totem of societies past.  All the world’s a playground, a kind of game.

DSC04761crpsmThe Pacific, off Cape Flattery on the Makah Reservation

It had happened by accident, but looking out over Badwater, it made sense.  A month earlier I’d been to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, on the north western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.  It is the furthest western point on mainland USA.  As it happens Neah Bay is an Indian Reservation, the Makah Tribe.  Like most reservations it is a place of drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, trash and trashed housing – a lamentable if understandable response of a culture which has been simply squashed and destroyed by another culture.   A sad place.  And in a literal and geographic sense, The End of America.   I went to shoot for a film, Plain Songs, thinking I’d begin it with a shot of the Pacific, from there, The End of America, in the metaphoric sense – a desolate community destroyed by America’s ugly history.

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DSC04768crp.jpgNeah Bay, on the res

I found it oddly ironic that I’d accidentally come to Badwater, the lowest point in America, to watch tourists gather and gawk, at the same time my country had fallen into the morass of the Trump administration and metaphorically, at least for many of my fellow countrymen, we’re enmeshed in another “lowest point.”   I took another shot for the perhaps swan-song film on America, and wandered on, taking many still photos of the valley.  While the imagined landscape film escaped me, instead another idea came to mind, which, though far more work, might be a nice change of pace.

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Wandering from Death Valley I went to Beatty, Nevada, a small town scrapping to stay alive on the coat-tails of tourism, just outside the National Park.  Still chasing my cold, I hunkered down in a few motels, trying to think and perhaps write.  Neither came at the time, rather more diffuse thoughts meandered in mind.  At the same time clangorous “news” rattled the nation’s nerves – Trump Trump Trump, 24/7.  The rush of daily traumas ran into a smear – North Korea, Bannon, bigger buttons, vulgar statements – a non-stop litany of Trump’s obscenity, and his magical revelation of the utter corruption of America’s political and social institutions which appeared powerless in front of this pathetic man, thus showing their own decadence.   Beatty, a dead-end town of desert desolation provided a suitable setting to sour still more my contemplation of America.

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A VFW outfit offered a decent amber beer for $3, and an assortment, depending on the night, of grizzled camo decked vets, or other nights, a swarm of Asian tourists, sent there by the nearby motel – not that there were many options as where to go.  One wondered just what person would willfully choose to settle down in this town, or thousands of others I have traversed in my travels in America in the past decade or two.  The grim signs of failure littered the townscape in ramshackle housing, trailer homes, junked cars, abandoned stores, and the transparent poverty written on the faces and bodies of the people who live there.  The same is replicated with regional touches almost anywhere one goes in the United States.  Behind the hip gentrified facades of liberal America, or the closed gated communities of the well-off, or the distant penthouses or estate mansions of the very rich, there is a pervasive cancer gnawing away at our social accords.  It is a disease fraught with contradictions and confusions, one which breeds a mutual stew of contempt and hatred, and has long since embittered our national “unity.”   I think this largely accounts for our most American habit of flying the flag in the front yard – a kind of desperate wish for union which masks an awareness of our deep disunion.

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25394780_10156088431644917_3377314356651848815_o.jpgJames Benning’s 22 star flag for Alabama

With such thoughts I continued my journey, passing derelict towns, juxtaposed to vast tracts of shopping malls flanking the sides of our cities, endless miles of Big Box stores, corporate logos dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see, and the goading shrieks of our media – television, radio, giant bill-boards – all urging us to buy buy buy and run up our credit card bills into the trillions.

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I await the imminent burst of this bubble as the stock market zooms past Dow Jones 26,000, and the homeless camp beneath freeway overpasses, and the fractured psyche of the nation intensifies its internecine squabble with itself, with precious few any more honest or self-aware than Donald J. Trump, our titular head of State.

The United States of America represents about 5% of the world’s population.  It consumes 25% of the globe’s resources.  There is an explanation for how this occurs, and it is not owing to our supposed brilliance, inventiveness, our “can do” attitude.  It is owing to other things.  Things which America at large is unwilling to acknowledge or address in any meaningful manner except to demand still more funding for our military.

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Trailing the dry cough of the flu I and millions of others picked up this winter, I moved along.  Some suggested this disease was metaphorical for the winter’s political and social discontent, and not merely a passing bug.  My own thoughts persisted, like the cough, to meander through the debris of now decades of seeing my own country through the eyes of a harsh critic, and seeing nothing has changed, really, for the better.  Rather it all appears to be coming to a bitter fruition as we collectively fulfill comments made long ago by a French visitor, or by some of our own sages.   In this case, being “right” in my own views, bears no consolation whatsoever.

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“As democracy is perfected, the office of 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 a downright moron.” — H. L. Mencken

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
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“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”  Alexis de Tocqueville

And the bitter truth is that America has never been good.

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