March 21, 2022
A year and a week ago a dear friend of mine, Swain Wolfe, decided he’d had enough of being on this earth and removed himself. From what I understand he kind of botched the job. He’d drunk a bottle of hard booze, taken sufficient painkiller pills, for which he’d had ready access, and “gone to sleep.” Apparently though it wasn’t the Long Sleep he’d been looking for, and he woke up, surely in a stupor of drugs and alcohol, and realized this wasn’t death. He went and got the pistol he had in the house and put his brain on the kitchen ceiling.
I can’t say I hadn’t in some ways seen it coming, as he’d pretty directly told me that when time came, he was ready to take himself out of our little game here. I believed him, though as he’d promised his mother on her deathbed that he’d care for his much younger sister, Carolyn, who had Down’s Syndrome, rather than allow her to be institutionalized, I was sure he wouldn’t do so while she was alive. She died in autumn, 2017, three and a half years before he chose to leave.
I’d known Swain a long time, since 1971, when on an impulsive instinct I moved with my partner of the time, Elayne Ketchum, and her daughter, Erinn, then just 3 and some, from rural Oregon, in the forests near Cottage Grove at the south end of the Willamette Valley, to Montana. Elayne and I said we were tired of “sunshine hippies” and wanted something a lot harder. So we moved way north. Enroute we passed through Missoula, with a tip from someone on the filmmaker’s grapevine, that we should drop in on a filmmaker there, who also had a 16mm lab. That was Swain, and his company Bitterroot Films. We took the advice, and were warmly greeted, and doubtless shared some beers and talk. While there another man visited, from up near Kalispell, and told us of an abandoned cabin he knew of, which we might be able to move into. He passed along the name of a woman we should ask, one Mrs. Gillespie. Heading north, we checked it out, got an OK, and indeed did move in: no electricity, no running water, and when we moved in, no floor. Elayne and I were rank amateurs at rural life, but after living there 5 years, we had a big garden, chickens, rabbits and goats, and a lot of real wonderful hard life lessons under our belts.
While there we’d visit Missoula, 130 miles to the south, once in a long while – 2 or 3 times a year, dropping in on Swain each time. We slowly became friends, and he loaned me his old PC 16mm camera to shoot parts of my first feature film, Speaking Directly. I don’t quite recall but probably he also processed some of the film for me, too.
Swain’s bread and butter back then was shooting the local High School and the University of Montana’s football games, for training purposes. He also made documentaries about ecological things, long before it became fashionable. His films were not very good (which he admitted later), being rather heavy-handed and didactic, and visually mundane, but several sold well in the educational market back then, and he zipped around in the film world looking dapper (and screwing his way around – he told me lots of stories of that).
In the 5 years we lived in the Mission Valley, Swain never came up to visit us. We moved from Kalispell in 1975, or maybe it was 76, going to Southern California, where Elayne came from. And I thought to take a stab at Hwd.
In 1977 I decided to make a film rooted in a mix of my prison experiences, and the time I’d lived in Montana – tapping on the many things I’d learned. Working with Tom Blair, whom I’d met in Kalispell, and came from South Dakota. Tom was the theater department of the local community college there, and we’d get together to have beers, tell stories, and smoke really bad Montana home-grown. Luckily I never saw one of his productions, or saw him act up there (or anywhere), which I suspect might have turned me off working with him.
Going to Missoula to scout things out, Swain said he’d loan me his camera again, and that his little lab crew could help out if I wanted. When time came Michael helped record sound and do some gofer work. I rounded up some actors for the film at the drama department at U of Montana, and went back to LA, where I got one more person lined up, Jessica St. John, whom I met while making a little drug deal; it just happened she came from Missoula and was headed there to see family. In June I went back to Missoula to rendezvous with Tom, and the others. Last Chants for a Slow Dance was shot in a week, in part in Swain’s house.
Not for the only time, his memory and mine don’t coincide on things around Last Chants or other matters. In offering his camera, I think Swain also intended to do camera for me – for which I was not really open, but I did let him do the first shot, where both of us rode on the hood of an old pickup, no straps or safety measures at all, going 30 mph or so, on a real highway. I’d told Tom, who was driving, that whatever he did, he needed to do it slowly – accelerating or stopping – as Swain and I were subject to the laws of physics and we’d go wherever momentum dictated. For the shot I told Swain I wanted only a few short pans, and no zooms. While shooting I saw him do a zoom and decided for sure I didn’t want him shooting anymore. We survived the shot. Came the next take, in his bathroom with an argument between fictional husband-wife, I told him I’d shoot it. He got quietly pissed, and left town. I have never seen a camera operator with a zoom able to keep their hands off of it. I shot the rest of the film.
Swain’s version, told to me a few times in the decades since, was that Tom arrived, he’d sussed him out as a quasi-psycho, and promptly left because of that. I know that wasn’t true, as he did do that first shot, and my version is that he was angry that he wasn’t going to shoot film, and left town to go simmer or whatever he did. We wrapped the film in a week, and I returned to LA where I had it processed and jumped into editing, having promised a non-existent film in May to the Edinburgh Film Festival which was at the end of August. They’d invited it sight unseen, before a frame had been shot.
After, when the film had gone to the festival, gotten a handful of nice reviews, including an article in Sight & Sound, and all that – all for $3000, Swain decided a few years later, to make a feature himself. My guess is that he did that prompted by having seen me make a feature under his nose, with his equipment on almost nothing. He told me about his film a bit before, and one thing he planned was to shoot the bad guy (who he told me a few years back was some more or less famous right-wing government guy who’d done some dirty work for Reagan) always with this very long telephoto lens, actually more a telescope. I thought this was not wise on a few accounts – like how do you direct a guy a football field away? Or how do you cut to the totally flattened hyper-telephoto stuff to the other 16mm stuff? Terrible cinematic idea. But Swain went ahead, shot his film, and it was awful. Truly awful – stiff bad acting, klutzy story, really really bad. And the terrible hyper-tele shots flat as a pancake. I know I looked at it, but don’t remember if I gave him any ideas of how to salvage it (I doubt I did as I saw no way for that), or just told him to let it go as a loss. But he couldn’t let go and spent a decade trying to edit his way to something passable, which he never did. $100,000 worth of messing with it. Down the drain.
Deep inside I think he sort of blamed me, and for a few decades he was always kind of prickly with me, like I’d booted him from shooting Last Chants, and that somehow I had made him do his terrible film, and it was all my fault. He never said that, but I think he felt it. I also felt he was a bit jealous as my career, what there was of it, blossomed. For a good while he had a hard time saying my films were any good.
All water long under the bridge now. In his later years he admitted he’d made terrible films, and he liked mine a lot. And the prickliness he showed – he called himself an irascible old bastard and mean guy and seems to have had precious few friends – was just him, not aimed at me at all. I guess we could say I had been my usual Taurus-self in this regard and stuck through it, whatever. To my observation it seemed I was the last friend he had, who put up with him. The others all seemed to drift away.
Sometime in the last decade he gave me that awful telephoto lens. I messed with it – soft, drop-off on edges, a POS.
Swain, living right on the North Fork of the Clark River, had a canoe, though it seemed he seldom used it. I recall, I think at my request, going out on the river with him, nearby. At some point, don’t recall why, we went to shore and I got out to do something. He had been in the front, and I watched as he paddled not reversing himself, the back of the canoe wig-wagging back and forth and he seeming puzzled. I had always thought Swain – a big guy – was physically clumsy, but this suggested he really just didn’t understand some things. I kept my mouth shut in the instance.
Another time Swain decided to make a film about hang-gliding as the mountain behind UM back then was a regular launching place for them, and often in good weather one would see them circling over the campus. I saw some of his footage – really pedestrian (especially if one had seen, as I had, footage from existing films on hang-gliders). As it happened, in order to pursue this, he decided to take lessons and take wing himself. Apparently, early on, he took a little nasty take-off crash, and came to think better of it. I recalled his lack of intuition in the canoe and thought to myself, yep, not a clue about these things. I am thankful he stopped before he really hurt himself. He did finish his film, a really bad piece.
After making Last Chants I ended spending some time in Europe and far away from Montana, but in 1982 I returned to the USA, and in 1983 or so I returned to Montana to shoot a film with Tom Blair and Roxanne Rogers, in Ronan, up in the Mission Valley, on the Blackfoot reservation. And again spent time with Swain, who processed the film stock for me, though the film blew up into a failure. Our connection deepened. On one visit to Missoula around that time, Swain went to Butte, a city I’d driven by at least 20 times but never gone into, to get some free 16mm processing machines from the local TV outfit, which was switching to video. I went with him to help, and got a non-Interstate glimpse of Butte – and was hooked.
Returning from another stay in Europe I’d decided to make a film about unemployed people, and chose to do so in Butte, which certainly had that in spades as the mines had closed. And I liked its run-down miner town looks – the looming head-frames, turn-of-the-century downtown, derelict abandoned mines. In this case I’d bought my own camera, a CP Gismo, and didn’t need his, but again we spent time together, our binds deepening. The film was Bell Diamond, named after one of the old mines and its head-frame.
Around this time, in the late 80’s, Swain asked me to take a look at a manuscript for a book he’d written. I don’t know why, as I had no cred in terms of writing, though I did myself write a fair bit, for myself. While I probably would normally have turned it down, and though at the time I’d long since not been much of a reader, especially of fiction, I said yes. And I read it and liked it. He asked if I had any suggestions for him. He’d written it in first person/present tense. As it was a once-upon-a-time kind of fable, I recall telling him to put it in past tense. He recalled me saying put it in third person. In any event he did both. I probably did suggest both. Sometime later, after he self-published, it had subsequently been picked up by a real publisher and officially printed in 1993, and had apparently done OK. I figured if he’d lucked out maybe he’d made 50K or so. Sometime in the last decade he told me it’d been translated in 17 languages or so, and he’d made half a million bucks from it !!! I jokingly asked him for my cut. None of his other books, of which he wrote four, did anywhere near so well.
Apparently somewhat flush, he told me a handful or more of years before he committed suicide, that he had gotten hooked on playing the market, thinking he had figured it out, and he played – his lady friend Laurie described it as “obsessively” – until they finally cleaned his clock and he admitted they played him, not the other way, and he’d stopped. I was surprised he’d do something like that, but… well people are full of secrets you’d never suspect they had.
After having made Bell Diamond, Butte became one of my homes – a place where I had friends, a place I could stay, and a place I liked. I returned recurrently, and being near to Missoula, I’d see Swain more often. I stayed either in my van in his parking place, or in Laurie’s live-in painting studio he’d built for her across the yard. Usually if I stayed overnight I’d whip up a dinner for them.
I recall one of the last times going with Swain out to the Costco store to pick up some things for myself, and to cook. He was clearly labored in crossing the parking lot, his artificial hip having changed his gait. Twice his hip had popped out, leaving him squirming on the floor in excruciating pain. Once he’d fallen down the stairway to his basement writing lair. As we were checking out I recall us bantering with the clerk that we were going back home and change each other’s Depends. All in good humor, but it was closer to the truth than perhaps we imagined.
In 2017 I went to spend the summer in Butte, staying at my friend Marshall Gaddis’ place up in Walkerville. As later I would be headed to the West Coast, I sent Swain a note that I’d be dropping by to see him on the way. He wrote me this:
July 7, 2017
I appreciate your offer to visit on your cross country tour. However, I am in pain and it affects the way I think and behave. It would be better for both of us if you did not visit. Visitors frustrate me and I end up making things uncomfortable for everyone. I waited to write until I was thinking clearly, otherwise it would have been a nasty bit of nonsense and you don’t need that.
I’ve been writing, as you know, and that’s been going reasonably well, so I’ll keep at it for a while. Writing tends to get me out of my body and lets me ignore the facts of my life.
I wish you luck and money on your travels through Great Again America. Never has it shone so brightly. But wait a while and they’ll touch off the nukes. Then: an even Greater and Brightly Land this will be.
A week before I was going to go I wrote and asked again and in an email he wrote simply:
I contacted Laurie, who sort of lives with him, and asked to know more, and said that at least I would like to see her as she was my friend as well. She said to meet her at the Butterfly Herbs Cafe on Higgins Street in downtown Missoula. And I did. I waited a bit, and finally she arrived, and behind her, walking slowly 10 steps behind, was Swain, who for some time seemed grudgingly there. I imagine Laurie had pressed him on the matter. And then, after ten or so minutes, he then loosened up over his tea and for two hours regaled me with stories. He is a writer and a story-teller and I am happy to listen. Afterward, as we went back to his place I offered to go get some stout, which I knew he liked, and he said yes. By the time I arrived to his house he’d already gone to bed, knocking himself out with pain-killers. But I’m glad he found in himself the willingness to see me. I tried to tell him how much it, and he, meant to me. I left in the morning not seeing him again as I needed to get off to the coast, and I knew he was a very late riser. As I drove off I understood I’d probably never see him again. Nor, as it happened did I ever hear from him again, as he closed himself fully off to the outside world.
Preparing to write this, I went back over past years of correspondence which Swain and I had over the years, as far back as 2006, though I know we had had much before then. Maybe his email changed. Reading underlined the depth of our friendship, and brought tears to my eyes.
When Swain died, I was informed a bit belatedly, by an odd route. Checking with friends in Missoula some weeks later, no one knew. The Missoulian, the local paper, published a terse obituary notice on March 26, and then published a full one on April 17, 2021. I read it and found it a bit odd, sending it to a friend there who had not seen it. He wrote me back saying it was quite a wonderful obit. As my curiosity was aroused and the obituary listed no author, I poked around – and it was something Swain had written as a promo piece for something. No wonder it was so glowing !!
I loved him and I miss him.
Up-front, here’s my bona fides: I hardly ever go to movies, or watch TV, or listen to music, or partake of my society’s normal activities, especially regarding “pop culture.” In turn I have never heard of Sparks, nor Marion Cotillard, and only by accident have ever seen or heard of Adam Driver. If this in your view disqualifies me from having views on what I do see, that’s OK by me.
[Detour 1: as I was having some virtually unattended screenings at the Torino Film Museum, and Jarmusch’s Paterson was showing in the other room so I got in free, I went to it – he had a long line of the hip crowd of Italia going in; it was “meh” for me as a film, as was Driver, of whom I’d never heard.]
I went the other day to see Leos Carax’s newest film, Annette, as rather by accident I’d seen his previous one, Holy Motors, and – with the exception of the last scene – had found it exhilarating and wonderful. I approached the new one, in light of the contradictory views and reviews coming out of Cannes with some positive anticipation.
As this film is scarcely about its “story” I’ll refer you to reviews, links below, to fill it in if you need. Briefly though it is big famous kinda ugly comedian, Henry McHenry, who does crude stand-up hooks up with petite famous opera singer, Ann, they fall in love, have a kind of baby, and then fall out. Perhaps he kills her. Somewhere another guy, a pianist/conductor materializes, perhaps having an affair with opera singer. He gets killed. The kinda baby, Annette, a beguiling puppet, acquires Ann’s voice and sings, becoming hyper famous and enriching now-failed comedian dad. And he ends in the dock, in prison, and does a duet with dead wife, and…. And the story basically is stupid, not really worth figuring out as it is merely a cheap plastic hanger on which to hang the libretto/lyrics of Sparks, which is credited with the script (sort of), and of Carax’s extravagant cinematic looks and tropes.
Perhaps in keeping with his hostile McHenry character (or saying something about himself), Carax opens the film with a voice-over abusing the audience, telling them what they may or may not do while watching the film, and that they mustn’t breathe the whole time. This is, I suppose, meant to be ironically/hip funny, but it sets the tone. Composed of a series of highly theatrical set-pieces, Annette opens with Carax at a sound studio mix board, manipulating the sound and audience, a kind of insider self-reflection which I guess is supposed to be hip/intellectual. OK. Sparks commences playing and before you know it they, the studio gang and backup singers, with McHenry and Ann leading them, are singing May We Start, (another self-referential hint), lyrics of the Sparks, down a Santa Monica street, a straight lift out of a better scene in Holy Motors. Hmmm.
McHenry leaves Ann, putting on a black helmet, mounting a black motorcycle, and roaring off. He re-materializes in the next set-piece, donning a fighter’s heavy robe and hood, waving his head and punching before going on stage for his “act.” His stand-up is done in a massive theater space, with his packed audience laughing on cue, as McHenry, the Ape of God, dishes out insults and bad words and unPC thoughts, while the spectators suck it up. It is a major spectacle, and presented as one. Seemingly a sly critique of celebrity culture.
While McHenry is going his shtick Ann is doing hers, opera, for a similar but higher-tone audience, which is as enthralled with her as the other is with her new boy-friend.
Collaborating with Sparks, the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, Carax has made this film as a musical, with the actors actually singing the lyrics. At the outset this is a bit charming, as neither Cotillard or Driver are actually very good at it, and at least at the outset it tends to deflect our attention from the actual “book” which the Sparks wrote. They are also not very good at what they do, or so thinks this jaded soul.
Opening, as he does in his first set-pieces, with high-energy scenes, Carax propels the spectator along, as in most spectacles, with, well, spectacle. Bright colors, loud sounds, swooping wide-screen camera movements. He issues pieces of his “story” in miserly bits, goading the viewer to put it together. McHenry and Ann inexplicably fall in love – they do, they do – and walk romantically hand in hand in a California paradise, singing “We Love Each Other So Much.” Yes, we do. They also get down to the dirty business of the sex end of things, still singing as McHenry works Ann’s labia with his tongue, emerging from down there to warble “we love… etc.” still again. Ann orgasms. Love love love.
I could go on in this manner, set-piece by set-piece, but it wouldn’t really help. Some of these episodes are charming and in themselves, work. Some are really bad and don’t work at all. Periodically these story sets are punctuated with pop news-like reports about the travails of our celebrity subjects, breathless National Inquirer-type TV reports, presented in a sort-of parody of such TV crap: they are a couple !! they are getting married !!! they are having a baby !!!! they are heading to splitzville !!!!!! These interjections, along with a few other ones – a multi-screen one of the 6 women who have belatedly come out with bad things about McHenry – are presented in a jolting different aesthetic, and are intended to be a critique of our shallow star/money oriented culture and its dubious qualities.
As the film progresses, the sound builds into constant bombast, the actor’s “singing” begins to grate, the Mael brother’s libretto and lyrics loop and creak and show themselves thread-bare in all senses, and the energy of the opening passages gets subsumed into exhaustion as it cannot be sustained. Arriving at a critical peak, when our couple are doing their “breaking up is hard to do” bit and go on a boat to patch up their problems, in a hysterically misguided set-piece of pure artifice, the film collapses, having ladled on the show-biz pizzazz without break, reaching this theatrically absurd scene in which, dum da dum dum, McHenry does in his wife.
I didn’t clock it, but perhaps this sequence was a bit over half-way into the film, which then carries on to this set-piece and that, none of which one might give a fuck about since from the outset Carax never gives us any reason to care about either of these characters, nor about the story/film they are trapped in. Instead we are dished out set-pieces of pure artifice, one after the other, chocolate on chocolate on chocolate. The bravura cinematic tricks run aground, and we find ourselves hoping this next one will be The End. No such luck. Instead Carax grinds on. As he does so the actors too seem to lose gas, their alleged singing turning to wheezing, and reading between the lines one can hear the plaintive “can we stop” lurking in the background. And indeed, when Carax finally decides to drop his circus tent, we are told – more self-referential BS – that we can “stop looking.” Thanks a lot, Leos.
[Detour 2: A few months ago, under vaguely similar circumstances, I went with anticipation to see Pedro Costa’s latest film Vitalina Verena, and likewise came away disappointed. For pretty much the same reasons I found this film a major let-down. In this case I haven’t seen Carax’s earlier films, though I have seen clips that suggest he’s done much the same things along the way, which would confirm my thought that obsessive type artists tend to curdle in on themselves, their artistic inventions or tricks folding in on themselves to become an inadvertent self-parody.
Or perhaps it is that I am jaded and old and the middle-finger to society that Carax’s film imagines itself to be seems both stale and utterly compromised, as does the cutesy self-referential stuff, something that wore out long ago.]
It is clear that Carax intended this film to be a kind of Debordian critique of the society of spectacle, mass media, celebrity and all that, but in this he fails completely, as the means he uses are exactly the same as those which he imagines to critique. The attempts at satire are both too obvious and too much exactly like what is being satirized, and becomes grotesquely weighted down with the gravity of the setting – Our Baby Annette’s finale falls dead despite the bombast, or precisely because of it. In any of the arts, a sense of proportion is a major element, and Carax has none. Big stars (I guess), techno razzle-dazzle, bombastic sound, cinematic daring-do, and no sense of restraint. Etc.
From what I have read from our “serious critics” this would-be critique seems to either have flown over their heads or has been quashed by their far greater interest in operatic cunning lingo. Or since they make their bread and butter playing in the circus of spectacle, perhaps if they are conscious of it at all, they think better than to bite the hand that feeds.
A few random things, seemingly unmentioned by our critic friends:
Ann’s character is seen in an early shot, taking a bite of an apple; in numerous shots there is an apple placed near her, always with a bite out. Eve?
McHenry is seen scratching his face, with marks there becoming ever more visible until at the end it is like a birthmark – the mark of Cain, the murderer?
Is Carax a Lars von Trier fan? While I haven’t seen it some of the imagery in this film looks like shots from Melancholia.
Or is it all just a hipster thing, Rosebud?
In summary, this is a film which zipped along for a bit and then ran right up its own pretensions and hipness, sniffing its own ass until it disappeared. A fitting reward for Jeff Bezos and Amazon studios for funding an aging artsy filmmaker, who given a lot of money, some big stars, can give you a bloated piece of auteur in Depends. Can someone change his diapers?
This past week, after reading about it for several years, mostly in glowing terms, I had the chance to see Pedro Costa’s most recent film, Vitalina Verela (2019). It had screened at that year’s Locarno Festival, winning Best Film, and its lead character, of the same name as the film, won Best Actress. It subsequently became a hot item on the festival circuit. I haven’t been to festivals for some time, so I missed it. But, as things “opened up” here in Boston I was informed it would be screening at Cambridge’s famed art house, the Brattle, and I grabbed the brass ring and booked tickets.
I know Pedro a modest bit, meeting him a few times, chatting a bit. Not enough time to say “a friend” – more an acquaintance. He says he likes (some of) my films, and I have liked his and seen I think most of them. Haven’t seen the one about editing with Straub-Huillet. We shared together a quick recognition of what digital video offered, and both jumped on it early. Myself in 97, Pedro in 99.
So after the lavish critical praise, and the prelude of having much appreciated his past films, I went in anticipation of a cinematic treat.
Opening with a long Lav Diaz type shot, looking down a narrow alleyway, distant figures slowly approach the camera and pass. Not clear at first, it is later understood this was a funeral cortege. In his opening gambit Costa sets the terms for this film: it will be slow and measured; very slow, very measured.
As usual in his more recent work, the film is far less about “a story” than about atmosphere and tone, and the poetic aura this generates (or doesn’t). In brief “the story” is that of an immigrant woman from the former Portuguese colony Cabo Verde, arriving 3 days late in Lisbon for her husband’s funeral, and from that unfolds in minimal form, a kind of backdrop, which we are told in voice over – her husband had left long ago, to make money; he was a scoundrel, and now Vitalina is stranded in Portugal where, as she is reminded, “there is nothing” for her.
Around this thin thread Costa constructs his film in a sequence of usually long static takes, carefully considered and lit tableaux, echoing for the most part certain art of the 18th century, most closely the work of Iberian artist Francisco de Zurbarán, one of the many artists of the time deeply influenced by Caravaggio. Set in deep shadow, Costa orchestrates his images as if paintings – much remarked upon and noted by critics, with exclamations about its “jaw-dropping” beauty. Like Caravaggio, the realist who used peasants and showed the grime and grit of “real life” in his work, while draping it in extravagant if subtle and discreet lighting. Costa and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões aim for a realism using carefully controlled and false lighting, no less so than Hollywood. However in a sense they invert Spielbergian back-lighting, with, in effect, the light behind the spectator illuminating the scene. Shadows tend to (very slowly) precede the entrance of a character, signaling with a kind of ghostly ponderousness the next utterance or silence on offer.
Occasionally the static images are punctuated with a slow tilt or pan – but very seldom. Rather we are led through a sequence of very formal images, some of which recur as a motifs, with a religious solemnity given to the most elemental of things. Vitalina arrives off the airplane from Cabo Verde with bare feet. The preacher’s hand holds a pole, the frame of a door, passes by a wall. The frame of a crude confessional recurs a number of times. Doors creak open and closed, providing momentary slashes of light. Each image is given an iconic weight. Faces, hands, things, bodies – all heavy with gravity. With seriousness.
Step by step Costa builds his liturgy, establishing a slow and solemn cadence in which the film is transformed into a quasi-religious ritual, as if counting rosary beads. The rhythm is measured in repeated images. The characters are simultaneously monumentalized in long close-ups, their faces stoic and motionless, and rendered lifeless. The occasional voice-over is repeated in slow paced words, some incantatory; others filling us in on the background story of Vitalina and her errant husband Joaquin. Cumulatively these all combine to make for a vaguely hypnotic flow in which the characters float, devoid of control or decisiveness, hidden in Costa’s mostly oscura and very little chiaro. His seeming intention is to induce the spectator into a slo-mo trance, drawn along not by drama or “action” but by submission to the lethargic pacing, actors frozen in place in fixed tableaux, bodies standing in to represent or perhaps in Costa’s view, simply “being.” Following Bresson’s dictum, his actors are reduced to models, who shuffle listessly, casting diffuse shadows on the grim walls, muttering near indecipherable phrases (I sincerely doubt Portuguese speakers can understand half of what is said and subtitled), or standing immobile, staring out of the dim shadows to which they are condemned.
In this sombre shadow-play, sound is accentuated in a Bressonian sense: doors squeal shut and open; feet shuffle on rough floors, objects are set on a table; in the far distance from these distinct sounds the voices of the streets and alleyways float as if miles away. Costa’s figures are entombed in a claustrophobic world of shadows talking to themselves, most often in almost inaudible mumbles, such that the handful of times when a voice speaks out loud it comes as a shock.
In composing his film, Costa has, certainly intentionally, genuflected to the tropes of the religion of his world – Catholicism, particularly of the Iberian Peninsula. The film is a kind of Stations of the Cross, with Vitalina assigned the role of staring out mournfully from the screen, lamenting her fate, and the fate of her people, hidden in the shadows, hopeless. She kneels and sorrows at the foot of her own cross and crucifixion. In phrasing his film in these terms, Costa gives his work an built-in lever on the spectator, which is well-trained in how to behave in a cathedral, or a major art gallery: with hushed reverence. The hovering cloak of seriousness hangs overhead. We don’t buy popcorn when going to a Pedro Costa film. And we don’t make wise-cracks as a religious procession passes by, never mind the preposterous proposals that religion offers up: a virgin birth by a holy fuck (!) spawning a tri-part god who sent himself to save the world from itself and is crucified for his bother, and then ascends to the heavens there to dispense (depending on which sect of the subsequent established religion one chooses to believe) harsh punishments or “love” to those who embrace and follow him. Belief suffers no rational quibbles or examination – you do or you don’t believe.
In wrapping himself in the aura of religious severity, Costa has inoculated himself against criticism from his most ardent “fans” – Pedro can do no wrong. Hence one watches in sombre seriousness, as his procession passes by, and we watch as Vitalina watches her life go down the drain. The supplicants wash themselves in the sadness of her life, and her stoicism in the face of her fate; it is a form of absolution or flagellation: I watched, ergo I am good.
This is one of the tricks of the religious trade (and many others). If one does it – in this case watch a Costa film – it somehow makes one good for having watched the misery he is showing. Just like being of the slim minority of people who, say, watch a serious documentary about some serious subject, usually about something you already know about and already agree with its sociopolitical slant, and so you learn little or nothing, but you receive the benediction of a shared belief: it does nothing in the real world outside of Plato’s cinema, but it makes the celebrants feel good about themselves. In intimate relations this is called masturbation.
Unfortunately this all congeals, like the religious ceremonies it is aping, into an ossified ritual, emptied of the intended meaning. In religion this signifies the moral corruption of the institutions, reducing the original life-pulse which gave birth to the given religion into empty if solemn gestures. In art, including cinema, this often turns to an inward fold, in which the artist regurgitates their own tropes, and drives them toward an indigestible self-parody (Godard, Greenaway, Straub-Huillet and others), looping their particular look/shots/mode of presentation and purported principles, again and again – instantly recognizable as theirs, but increasingly less interesting except to disciples. In Costa’s case it has evolved into a form of very humorless self-parody, his apparent obsessions(s) having swamped the life out of his stoic subjects, now cast in tableaux in which they stand posing, or shuffle in the shadows, their faces often obscured, standing in for the weeping figures at the foot of the cross.
In attempting to illuminate the lives of his characters and their world, Costa’s severe aestheticism instead kills them. Where Costa says he makes these films to give voice to the lives of these immigrants, instead he confines them to a narrow aesthetic trap, his aesthetic trap, far more limited than the socio-political realm to which they are confined in reality. The truth is that precious few people will ever see this film, and of those who do most live in an esoteric realm in which cinema is a bizarre host, in which watching movies, it is believed, will give you insight into the truth of life, a delusion which they share with their fellow cineastes. Costa – by his own admission – grew up in a cathedral, the Cinemateca Portuguese, ingesting his communions there, where he learned the vast catechisms of the cinema and came away with a litany of things he’d learned. He puts these on display for those in the know, a nod to this great name and and that and then another, for the priests to decipher and nod approvingly. Like Biblical citations or the Torah.
As it happens, I have lived in Lisboa a bit, and in the late 90’s visited Fontainhas when it was alive, a favela of homemade houses, mostly of immigrants from Cabo Verde, but also others. It was indeed a place of drugs and booze (just like classier neighborhoods), and it was very poor. But as other similar places around the world, it was also lively, colorful, energetic. As it were, compared to the dour Portuguese surrounding it, it had “rhythm” which came with the African source of its residents.
In Costa’s portrayals, commencing with his early 35mm films, this liveliness is largely absent and in Vitalina Verela, it is utterly absent – perhaps the men playing cards in the suffocating shadows being the only exception. So while Costa claims to be giving these people a voice, showing them to the world from which they are hidden, he is not really doing so; rather he is imposing his grim dour view upon them and claiming it is their voice. Just like colonialists always assert they are doing good for those they have occupied, bringing them salvation through Christ or capitalism. Of course Pedro would counter that his entourage of regulars are full participants, voluntarily sharing this work, and hence it is an expression of themselves, and not just Pedro’s vision. And in the muffled confines of the inner sanctum of his church, this will likely beget assent. As colonizers invariably find reason to ethically and morally take the high ground in their own minds.
Vitalina Verela comes to its dour conclusion with a final entourage, heading to the cemetery, down the same alley which we saw in the first shot. We’ve come full circle, ashes to ashes. Only at the film’s conclusion do we find a glimpse of daylight, among the graves and mausoleums, where the immigrants’ burial places are marked with numbers, erased in life and in death. As if a flashback we are then afforded a glimpse of Vitalina’s home in Cabo Verde, a mountain top place of cinder-block and concrete, with vertiginous peaks behind it, the Valhalla she left behind to face her personal hell in Lisbon.
In Portugal there is a concept, which once you understand it, seems tangible in their society and culture – the concept of saudade. This is a feeling, a sensibility which draws from a nostalgia for something absent or lost, or even something which never was; it comes as a sadness to be heard in the music of fado (fate), and something which pervades Portugal’s culture. I was once told it derived from the disappearance of King Sebastiao in the Battle of Alcazar in 1578, and his failure to return, which, supposedly the Portuguese have waited for ever since. Or perhaps it is a reverie for the long collapsed empire. Whatever its sources, as one who lived there and felt it, it certainly pervades Portuguese culture, in its arts and in every day living.
Pedro Costa provides a perfect embodiment of this saudade quality in his films, most particularly in Vitalena Varela, where his solemnity pervades each frame. In turn we might say that he imposes his Portuguese colonial imperialism on his characters, dressing them in darkness, weighing them down with a somnolent pace in which they are suffocated and condemned to perdition, surrounded with a small chorus of extras who stand immobile as the glaze of sticky amber congeals about them.
In reducing Vitalina into a religious icon, the stoic body and face (which won “Best Actress” in Locarno) set in a looming darkness, Costa has sucked all her vita out and left an impressive shell. Some have suggested this film is a kind of horror film. Or perhaps vampire, the Portuguese empire still taking gold from its victims?
At the screening (late afternoon of two screening), with the beating heart of America’s training ground for the elite of its empire, Harvard University, a very short 3 minute walk away, the audience was composed of five people, including me and the two friends I invited to come see it. Neither of my friends liked it.
There is a cure for everything; it is called death.
[See here for Pt 1]
As anticipated, the release of the viral mechanism was successfully spread around the globe by the means already at hand – the vast global shipping network that had been established at the behest of capitalist interests. At first undetected, by the time it had been discovered, it had already been disseminated around the world. As it took hold the expected behaviors amplified its effectiveness: governments initially denied it was present or a problem, and then, belatedly, took halting steps, banning some international traffic, then instituting local quarantines; all, as was to be expected, a few steps too late. In consequence the entire globe was infected, and when the necessary epidemiological steps were taken, and wide-spread lock-downs were made, the industrial base was closed down in steps. The skies cleared and pollution levels dropped. This was a blessing in some respects but would cause a spike in global warming as the blanket of pollution had acted to reflect sunlight, and now that protective cover was gone. However, it was considered that psychologically the presence of clear skies would act to effect the intended change in the public view of industrialization, and that a relatively simple technological fix could temporarily be applied to suppress the warming until longer terms measures were instituted to accomplish a natural cooling.
Los Angeles, March 28, 2020 as seen from drone over Echo Park
After an initial phase of public unity, a sense of “we’re all in this together,” had passed – in the space of 2-8 weeks – public cohesion began to collapse, and various elements began to tear at the communal sense. On one side were those whose deep vested interests were threatened by a global close-down of the industrial base which had made them rich, and which they fully believed in, despite the constant evidence presented to them that the system was simply not sustainable. As the old saw went: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” (Upton Sinclair).
It was also understood that there would be highly alienated segments of society which would resist any change, even if demonstrably for their own betterment, and would resist all logical and rational discourse, and would aggressively attempt to maintain their own status quo. However these were a distinct, if voluble minority, and while dangerous they would by their own nature tend to isolate themselves and while volatile and dangerous, they could be readily disposed of if necessary. It was not necessary to directly attack and eliminate these elements as they would retreat into their own enclaves and self-eliminate, following a very traditional practice in highly radical communities. These sorts tended to be highly deluded, both about the world around them and their own imagined powers.
Others, accustomed to the frenetic pace of modern life found themselves anxious, eager to rejoin the rhythms which had been their norm. Still others found life without their usual work to be empty of meaning. All these responses had been calculated, and to the degree possible mitigating elements had been provided. Mental health systems had been organized, though it was deemed for those who really did not have the capacity to cope with the changes needed, they could in effect cull themselves via suicide. For those able to make the transition governments digitally printed vast amounts of money; a global debt cancellation program was brought into effect; new laws were put in place to eliminate rents, and the collapse of many sectors of employment and other modes of generating income was compensated for by providing a steady flow of money to those impacted. These actions were taken as temporary measures before a complete revision of society and its behavior was accomplished. It was felt this would work to buffer the immense changes to be unrolled in the coming decades.
After this highly volatile period, when the whole of human society was forced to pass through the normal phases of denial, rejection, anger and finally reconciliation and acceptance of the new reality, and the process was no longer one of managing the irrational behaviors of emotions, but rather the more prosaic matters of every day living, and an educational process was brought into play. Having lived all their lives inside a completely delusionary system people needed, in effect, to begin at the most basic of levels, and be weaned from the cult-behaviors they had taken to be normal. This would be a long-term process.
It was at this point which humanity was offered a window to its own survival, or not, and which it could seize and take, or let slip by and condemn itself to early oblivion. If it did not change, it would be gone in the near future – 100 years or far less.
The members of The Dark could not coerce the mass of humanity to change, it could only attempt to educate it to its own reality and show that the manner in which humans had evolved to occupy the earth was in fact lethal to itself, and most other organisms present in the current era. It was a hard lesson to teach and harder still to learn and accept.
The ruins of Selinunte, a Greek city sacked by the Carthaginians
This fable ends here as it is still in play, and the evidence is too slim to hint at the conclusion.
Drawing by Stephen Lack
They met in utter secrecy, not in person but in cyberspace, protected with AES-256 encryption, the highest level available for their purposes. They did not know who the others were, as the protocols of their endeavor would not allow the possibility that one could betray the other: they were in The Dark. In the previous decades, as the evidence gathered that the human world was on a trajectory that was utterly unsustainable and fatal to itself, and to almost all present life forms, they had slowly coalesced into a secret grouping, broken off from those which gathered at Davos, or the Bohemian Grove, where the most powerful of governmental and business met to coordinate their global plans, and the less significant but still important G7 gatherings, as well as other gatherings where far more discreetly global matters were explored.
Albert Pinkham Ryder
Among them were a wide range of souls, of many walks of life – not merely the wealthy and powerful in economic and political terms, but the wealthy in real knowledge: scientists, social thinkers, engineers, historians and even poets. Their mission, as they saw it, was to act as the Dark Force of the Earth, an invisible element which was unknown and one could not see, but necessarily was required to maintain their species’ existence.
Thorough research had been done, reaching back decades, centuries, but in reality through millennia. These researches all arrived to the same conclusion: that the species had been seduced by its own cleverness, its intellectual wizardry, and evolved to a point in which it was utterly blind to the true world, to its own vanity, and in consequence was on the verge of destroying the very grounds of its own existence.
The existing structures of human culture and its societies – its political, economic and social systems were all deeply immune to all forms of customary persuasion. Its beliefs were cult-like, though treated as a form of materialism they were in effect “religious.” They were, as the slaves in Plato’s cave, trapped in a deeply complex illusion which they themselves had produced. Enraptured by the chimera they had constructed, they were utterly addicted to hubris, dazzled by the cornucopia of their technical prowess. They could communicate with one another in an instant, from one part of the globe to the other, or even to other planetary bodies. They could build crystal towers which dwarfed those of earlier human efforts, and had woven a dense skein of wires, pipes, and electrical fields which covered the earth and prodded it to their will. They could modify their bodies for aesthetic or utilitarian purposes. In their own minds the world they had built was truly amazing, the astounding consequence of their own highly prized and touted genius.
In their researches they studied human history and saw a constant pattern of rises and falls, civilizations such as the Maya, or the Early Egyptian, which had on their localized level developed sophisticated urban societies, raising pyramids and towers, and complex social systems, agricultural and manufacturing methods, only to destroy their own environment leading to a sudden, rapid collapse, leaving only traces of themselves. The researches saw this exact pattern in the present day world, but on a vast global scale, and making on a similar scale the exact same mistakes as had been done in the past. And now the myriad forces of decay in our own societies were converging, leading towards a colossal global catastrophe.
Accepting that the customary tools which might be utilized to change this lemming charge were hopeless, and that no politician or political system could propose what was truly necessary, so influenced were they by the economic and social forces and beliefs which had produced them and the problems at hand, the Dark Force initially examined the various traditional methodologies. One habitual recourse had historically been war, but in this time a war would let lose not only the dogs, but also a lethal exchange which would extinguish the species completely, as well as all present forms of life. This was ruled out.
Among the traditional means were famine, which in fact was already occurring owing to the irrational modes of industrialized agriculture, which had for nearly a century ravaged the land under the rubric, “The Green Revolution,” and was certain to expand as vast areas of the earth had already been rendered sterile for agriculture. In typical capitalist and “communist” fashion this methodology sought short-term gains in the form of bumper crops from the use of irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers and GMO plant-life, at the expense of the future. This method of agricultural production, in combination with modern medical practices, had led in turn to a profound over-population, which, as the food supply dwindled, could not be accommodated, resulting, along with small resource wars, in massive migratory movements of people seeking survival in the world’s richest areas – Europe and North America. Famine had been since the beginning of human civilization one of the tools weaponized in times of war or other major civil disturbances, as in the British forced famine in Bengal in the late 1940’s. Sieges, which provoked localized famine, had been used for thousands of years. Famine was already in play.
Victims of British deliberate famine policies in Bengal
The Dark Force explored alternative means, ones which could be readily disguised, and would work to provoke the virtually instantaneous change which the species required to avert a complete erasure of itself. To succeed, that method would have to appear “natural” rather than a human made policy, which would reek of “politics” and in turn provoke harsh resistance. It would have to work swiftly, to rapidly re-arrange social relations and with it all material relations. In consequence it would also require a disruption so forceful that the necessary culling of the species – for it had reproduced itself heedless to the real costs and so enthralled with its technological means that it imagined it could engineer its way to forcing the earth to host 10 billion and more humans – would occur at some levels. And it would require that it be applied globally, regardless of the political systems and other localized realities, such that the entire world would effect the necessary changes.
After due consideration, the task of developing a viral tool, one that was already known and taken as “natural” was chosen as the most likely to work as intended. It was one that would be lethal enough to prompt civil and governmental attention, and potentially dangerous enough to provoke major social responses – quarantining, closing down of industries, a radical if seemingly temporary shift in almost all aspects of society. A task force of suitable expertise was assigned to produce such a mechanism and to study the most effective way for its application. It was decided, that once it had been developed, that in order to best mask its source, it should be initiated in a locale already known for similar such phenomenon. Serendipitously, this also proved to be a locale which was one of the major offenders on ecological and population-size matters, but also had had, deep into its history, authoritarian governments and a largely compliant populace which would obey whatever strictures were required. It was a setting where it was probable that at the outset there would be an attempt to cover up the initial process, though there were many places in the world where this might also be the case. This period would give ample time for the viral tool to be unknowingly taken around the globe by normal transportation systems in effect in this time.
Philip Guston, “Shoe Heads”
Given the nature of corona-type viral mechanisms, the release was made in autumn, which would provide ample time for the spread, and optimal weather for self-breeding. As studies showed most traffic of all kinds historically moves horizontally, it was assumed the virus would spread through the northern hemisphere most rapidly and as the autumn of the southern hemisphere commenced would be established there in sufficient force to leverage the coming winter months. It was hoped and intended that this slow global roll-out would last at least six months or more, time enough to provoke extremely severe economic damages, such that the world’s industrial machine would be brought to its knees.
It was considered that the total roll-out would last a year, a speed fast enough to provoke a sharp social and politically appropriate response – the quarantines, closure of all but utterly necessary goods (food, water, electricity), and a sufficient number of deaths to instill a profound fear in not only the general populace, but in the ruling elites who would realize that they had actually lost control. It was intended that in that year the initial process of dismantling the toxic reality which the species had developed would commence by default. Shortages which were a natural by-product of the closure of the industrial mechanism would be drastic, but in such an emergency setting they would hopefully be somewhat manageable – more by directly local actions than overseen by a now thoroughly discredited global economic and political elite of all political persuasions. The period would be sufficiently long for ground-up reorganization of society to take its first steps. It was anticipated that the normal human behavioral processes would be enacted, albeit in an exaggerated manner owing to the extreme stresses imposed across the entire populace.
NYC,1918 Spanish Flu pandemic
An initial phase of incomprehension and denial would have much of the public thinking this rupture was temporary and that in some relatively short period, things would pick-up and resume as it had been before. This would probably last some months. In personal psychology this is a period of denial and it would surely be reflected in the broad public behavior – willing compliance with whatever protective regulations were applied.
As the reality began to sink in, and the public would realize that things would not return to as it had been, and there would be a deep anger, an inchoate sense of loss. This would be the socially riskiest time, as the anger would most likely to be misdirected purposefully by interested parties or by the natural human social tendency to seek scapegoats, to deflect self-responsibility. It is also the time when the discredited authorities would be most tempted to impose police-state measures, much more so than previously. In America this could readily shift into a chaotic mode of civil war, made worse by the profound lack of social cohesion which was already present, coupled with the wide presence of small arms. A break down of this sort would most probably force the government to attempt to institute a mode of martial law, however discredited those imposing this would be. Historical parallels suggest a less than sanguine passage. It would be bloody.
Emerging from the phase of anger, there would be a broad acceptance that the collapsed world which had merely a year before existed and was thought to be “normal” had in fact been a profound failure, the source of the trauma now being suffered. The former ruling elites, most surely defending themselves and their positions, would fall into rapid retreat, the illusionary sources of their powers having been revealed. Palace guards would turn on their masters. Some would be subjected to summary public justice and execution where ever found.
Drawing by Stephen Lack
As a “new world” was born from the wreckage of the old, it was considered there would be a slow and painful acceptance that indeed the old ways would not return and that, however high the costs had been in making this profound change, it was both necessary and for the better. There had been a deep culling of humanity, with many of the old and sick – even if they did not perceive their own sickness – being cut down in part by the virus, but also from their prior illnesses, and from the wide effects of social dissolution. Such a culling would never have been politically possible outside of war, but in the hands of “nature” it became acceptable and a necessary step was taken. The human herd dropped, over the period of a some years, from 8 billion to 5 billion.
The irrational practices of the prior system were exposed for what they were, deeply damaging techniques which had been developed not organically, but by the dictates of abstract systems detached from the real world of physics, biology, from nature itself. Ideologies, which resided in theoretical terms, but when acted out socially proved deeply flawed as they were human constructs which never considered that as human ideas they were inherently self-deluded. They were themselves a form of viral attack which had overtaken the entire globe and was in process of killing the biological essence of life. To salvage a livable world, the mechanisms which were making it an unlivable one had to be destroyed. Dismantling it was, from within its own structures, impossible by political or economic means residing within it – it was necessary to do so by an attack from outside.
The Dark Force was intelligent enough to know what it could and should do, but was wise enough to know that once it had set in motion its plan the end result was open, and could go in many directions, including ones which would be highly undesirable. But failure to make an attempt to re-direct the trajectory of the human project, and let what had been deemed “normal” continue was a sure suicide for the human species and nearly all the anthropocene epoch’s life forms. The Dark Force’s project offered only a window, a chance, for human survival by salvaging a living planet. It did not guarantee it. That they knew.
An unintended prelude:
This was begun in February, 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to lay safely off-shore, in Asia – far away. In truth it was surely here despite Herr Trump’s propaganda move of blocking travel from China as our globalized world makes both the delivery of made-in-China products like Apple computers or the sweater you are wearing and, as easily, whatever viruses or other natural organic things where ever made, show up on your doorstep, almost instantaneously, even without the help of Amazon, though this company surely helps the delivery be faster and more efficient, if, as it turns out, rather costly.
As it happens this pandemic slips easily into the ideas which I am mulling in this little essay as it has brought to the foreground much of our shared craziness, and how our intricately knit system actually works. Inverting the customary American paradigm of the rugged individual, “freedom” in our terms (I have the “right” to do almost anything I want to do), and so on down the litany of All-American beliefs, the Covid-19 virus has forced us into collectivist behavior, into, gosh gee, acting as a community. How un-American! It has also shown how intimately interconnected we are in almost everything: what you do impacts me and what I do impacts you. Our myth of autonomy, the self-made person, the libertarian do-what-you-wanna-do view of, say, Senator Rand Paul, who, bless his very little heart has contracted the virus, has been laid bare for the falsehood it is. As have many other things which our society takes for granted and behaves accordingly, which, in fact, is much of what has led us to this point. Perhaps the corona virus will be a very costly but useful lesson, which our political system could never deliver on its own.
These are some random observations written from inside an insane asylum, specifically this country which is called the USA. It happens to be the country of my birth and I guess we could say of my formative education, and certainly, like it or not, I am culturally and socially an American. Had I been born a few hundred miles further north than I was, I would be Canadian and a bit different as a person.
As in most such asylums, those within it perceive everything around them as normal and right, the way the world is and should be. Our customs, habits, our cultural etiquettes, our way of being in the world all seem as they should be. We are all conventional, bound by our well-learned rules, those we have been taught since infancy. And, of course, anyone who questions or challenges these conventions is deemed nuts.
Cars. And everything associated with them. Making them, fueling them, giving them what they need – highways and parking lots and parking buildings and gas stations, and garages and mechanics and tires and races and the entire panoply of things centered around cars. And trucks. And deaths: 37,000 a year recently in the country.
Andy Warhol, Pink Car Crash
To we Americans, and many others around the globe, cars are a natural thing, a given, and in many cases a life necessity. Our society is built around this, with our urban world largely structured around cars. Two cars in every garage. Living in a place like Los Angeles, where the car manufacturers bought up the local tram service and destroyed it, provides a perfect example, though almost any American city is the same. And in truth our car culture was carefully contrived and nurtured both by corporations seeing a bonanza, with subsidies from the government to build the highways and develop the oil industry. Win win win, as Mr Trump would say. And somewhere Americans conflated having a car with having that most vaunted of national beliefs, “freedom.” How many young men feel unrealized and not really a man without wheels? I spent a few years in prison with kids who had to have a car so bad that they stole one, crossed a state line, and landed in the joint for 5 years.
Yep, cars. In truth cars, and everything like them, are little mechanized packets of poison. They run on petroleum, and emit CO2. Even way back in the 1850’s, as England’s industrialization was kicking into gear, scientists foresaw and forewarned that tossing all that CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to global warming. Yep, way back then the red flag was waved. But hell, cars were so much fun and they gave you the freedom to wander the globe on your own. Americans took the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Detroit and the automotive industry, along with big oil, became the driver of our economy, and as they went, so went the economy. And not just of the matter of money and finances, but also for its mind-set: a car became an aspect of one’s personality, and they were marketed as that. Like cigarettes, they indicated class and sophistication, and with the right wheels you got the girls. And they spawned the American ideal of a house with a lawn of your own out in the ‘burbs, malls, strip cities and then after a while some of the collateral damages came in.
Silicon Valley, in its many forms, promised to disrupt business-as-usual in many fields, and it has successfully certainly done so. Along the way many professions have either been wiped out or severely damaged, not to mention more menial jobs. Steve Jobs’ invention of the smart phone has radically altered the lives of billions of people, who can be seen across the globe buried in them, or texting while they plow into an on-coming car. We can now talk “for free” with people across the globe using the internet. We can tap into the most glorious library ever imagined, or the grossest cesspool the human mind could plumb. We are still in the early stages of sorting out just what the digitalization of our world has done, is doing and will do. We can say it has truly, in the span of a few decades, drastically changed the world, whether at end for better or worse is still to be understood.
In 1993 Jeff Bezos had an idea, wherein using the very new internet, and computer systems and his knowledge of these, he would make an on-line book sales system. He named it Amazon. A decade later major bookstore chains were wobbly, as internet sales took off. And Amazon was flush, and soon branched to other retail areas. Today Bezos is regarded as the world’s richest man, and Amazon peddles almost anything and, if you pay to be a Prime customer, promises you next day delivery of nearly anything.
In a society trained now for 100 years that consuming things was a measure of one’s worth, this concept was like the yummiest drug ever for an addict. Consumption is 70% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the US. And today, private house-hold debt is about $38,000, and cumulative debt is 14 trillion. And corporate debt another 14 trillion. And US government debt is a mere 25 trillion [courtesy of another 3.5 trillion injected this debt it being pushed to the 30 trill level]. I have always wondered how the GDP could be debt and one runs an economy based on debt. I think the real answer is delusionary bubbles go until they pop, and in this case the balloon is a monster and the pop will be to the same scale.
Let’s face it, as they have been duly trained to do so, Americans like to buy things and they do, even if they can’t afford it. And Jeff is right there, ready to feed that habit. Things things things things. And for a tiny little surcharge Amazon can have it to you tomorrow. Or in some cases then the next day. All the little caged rats hit the “I want” button and get the goodies.
Amazon accomplishes this much as Walmart does, though to a very different clientele. Walmart is low-end, as a visit to your local one will tell you: it is full of cheap imported quasi-slave labor items, and its customers (I would bet 90% Trump supporters) are visibly of a certain class. Walmart, like Amazon, uses sophisticated software to organize both its warehouses of things, and to track the interests/desires of its customers. Both organizations in effect know a priori what it is you (will) want, and have them ready for you when you want them. Both organizations, being massive, have the clout of buying on a large scale, and leverage to get the best price, for themselves and for their customers. And both have been instrumental in destroying countless communities and their small businesses. But Bezos is hands down the world’s best dealer, putting the likes of El Chapo deep in the shade. And like El Chapo neither he nor his corporation appear to pay any taxes. Yep, making out like a bandit. Except for Bezos it is all “legal” with be best laws money can buy.
It is Walmart’s practice to pay its employees so poorly they are forced to shop at their employer’s business. Generously Walmart allows low-lifers (like me) to sleep over night in their massive parking lots, as policy. As a corporation it has inverted Henry Ford’s basic rule that his workers should earn enough to buy his product; Walmart’s practice is to pay so little you may have to sleep in the parking lot and have to buy its products, so poor are you.
Amazon’s clients largely occupy a higher economic strata, and while they generally buy from Amazon for lower prices, they buy higher-end items, and have them the next day for the longed-for instant gratification our society has carefully bred into the populace. In many cases, as internet commerce has largely destroyed many big-box chains and department stores, the buyer has little choice but to go to Amazon for many things. Amazon has been ruthless in price cutting to destroy competitors, often buying them once they have been weakened sufficiently. Predatory mercantilism.
So Amazon is successful in part because it has wiped out its competitors, just like Walmart, and because it does offer a genuine service for instant gratification. Buy today from your home and get it tomorrow. And cheaper than if you had to go to a mall or department store. What a deal! And it works. It does so by exploiting workers, minimizing pay, and using the most current business practices, which includes the just-in-time mantra, wherein storage times are minimized, things are received and disgorged as efficiently as possible. But this is done by the usual capitalist practice of cooking the books, most often seen in off-loading the debit side to society.
As well, Amazon’s business model makes a giant C02 footprint: trucks and trains and cars and planes to ship this or that item from an Amazon warehouse to your doorstep – such convenience ! The bill is whatever it is, seemingly “cheap” compared to the nearest local outfit who might provide the same thing, if there is a local place remaining that might be able to provide it, which very likely there isn’t as Amazon and Walmart drove them out of business. In the name of efficiency and cheaper prices. Amazon, and for all I know, Walmart, pay little or no corporate taxes as they are able to game the system, or better yet pay the politicians to write laws favorable to their interests. Meantime they use publicly funded airports, highways, shipping mechanisms, etc. without paying much for them, if anything. This model is typical corporate behavior in America where in effect these massive corporations speak loudly about the horrors of “socialism” while themselves in effect being government wards, using public systems without paying for them. Is it any wonder that Bezos is the richest man in the world, and the Walton family is one of the wealthiest entities on the planet?
If it were only this, it would be obscene enough. However the business models of both of these massive corporations actually finally comes to the destruction of the entire biological system of the globe. They are capitalist enterprises which require constant growth on a finite planet. They spew their toxins – whether directly as in the CO2 footprint of moving all that stuff around to get to you just-in-time, or in buying their merchandise, willfully and deliberately, from places with near-slave labor, places which have no environmental regulation, all of which cumulatively is literally killing the world. So you don’t have to go to the mall or can buy a massive LED screen for chump change. It is all so cheap !! Except it is quickly killing you.
[I note that today, as I write this, Jeff Bezos has announced he is giving 10 billion dollars to study methods to avert the disastrous climate change already upon us – of course he is not suggesting he’ll close down Amazon as a major offender; instead like a good conscientious whatever political stripe he imagines himself to be, he ordered a fleet of 10,000 delivery trucks, just as on a lesser scale nice middle-class liberals get solar panels and hybrid cars thinking this is doing something other than adding to the bill.]
The bill for our conveniences – flying here and there at the drop of a pin, for business or amusement, flying fresh food or flowers or whatever across the globe because we can, or having our package delivered to our doorstep tomorrow. Plastic bags, industrial farm production with its use of pesticides and fertilizers, current electronic systems wiring the world with a nervous system suitable for a tiny insect but applied to 10,000,000 elephants, our ever more sophisticated weaponry from delivery systems (hyper-sonic missiles), nuclear bombs, bio and chemical, all cascade to join in a massive catastrophic collapse which will trigger our absolute worst natures.
We were warned 150 years ago, in clear terms, what industrialized civilization was doing and would do so long as it carried on in its fossil fuel burning manner, emitting CO2 (along with many other toxins into the environment, and not only into the air but also our rivers, lakes and oceans): the earth would warm up. We did not listen because the things we got from industrialization were simply too tantalizing. Lots of toys, fantastic toys. It rapidly changed our way of living and being in the world. Trains, steamships, cars, planes. We could zip almost effortlessly around the world, and we did. Now mass tourism is a plague on nearly every beautiful spot on earth.
We were warned by Rachel Carlson in the 1963 in her book Silent Spring, what our pesticide and other agricultural practices were doing to the intricate weave of our environment and its biological base. We heard a little bit, and stopped using DDT, because our national bird, the bald eagle, was under threat. However “the Green Revolution” which promised bumper crops through the use of pesticides and massive fertilization to feed the burgeoning billions of humans which modern medicine was offering was more enticing, as later were GMOs. In 1970, a drive though spring time or summer rural areas in America would require periodic stops to clean the windshield from insect splat, and one could note the frequent road-kill of skunks, possums, deer, armadillos, birds, snakes, turtles. Today a similar drive begets a near naked landscape, stripped of its wild-life, and insects are largely gone. Fireflies do not flicker, nor bees buzz (and pollinate), nor swarms of Monarchs delight children and adults. All these things are in catastrophic decline thanks to we humans and our practices.
And they, along with millions of other small, seeming insignificant things, are part of the intricate and delicate weave which makes the tapestry of life. In our modern, technological way of life, while on many levels our wizardry allows us to see and understand this complex world, it simultaneously distances us in a living way, and we in turn act heedlessly and recklessly in this world. So much so that we have almost done with destroying it.
I could carry on with the endless list of unintended collateral damages caused by our society’s “system” as nearly everything we do is connected to the next thing. But we have been largely blind to this reality and so have gone as the proverbial bull in a china shop, and wrecked nearly everything we have touched. The Midas touch of consumerist mania.
Yes, we and our society are insane. All of it.
Wichita Vortex Sutra #3
I’m an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
but not afraid
to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
because not only my lonesomeness
it’s Ours, all over America,
O tender fellows—
& spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy
in the moon 100 years ago or in
the middle of Kansas now.
It’s not the vast plains mute our mouths
that fill at midnite with ecstatic language
when our trembling bodies hold each other
breast to breast on a mattress—
Not the empty sky that hides
the feeling from our faces
nor our skirts and trousers that conceal
the bodylove emanating in a glow of beloved skin,
white smooth abdomen down to the hair
between our legs,
It’s not a God that bore us that forbid
our Being, like a sunny rose
all red with naked joy
between our eyes & bellies, yes
All we do is for this frightened thing
we call Love, want and lack—
fear that we aren’t the one whose body could be
beloved of all the brides of Kansas City,
kissed all over by every boy of Wichita—
O but how many in their solitude weep aloud like me—
On the bridge over Republican River
almost in tears to know
how to speak the right language—
on the frosty broad road
uphill between highway embankments
I search for the language
that is also yours—
almost all our language has been taxed by war.
Radio antennae high tension
wires ranging from Junction City across the plains—
highway cloverleaf sunk in a vast meadow
lanes curving past Abilene
to Denver filled with old
heroes of love—
to Wichita where McClure’s mind
burst into animal beauty
drunk, getting laid in a car
in a neon misted street
15 years ago—
to Independence where the old man’s still alive
who loosed the bomb that’s slaved all human consciousness
and made the body universe a place of fear—
Now, speeding along the empty plain,
no giant demon machine
visible on the horizon
but tiny human trees and wooden houses at the sky’s edge
I claim my birthright!
reborn forever as long as Man
in Kansas or other universe—Joy
reborn after the vast sadness of the War Gods!
A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear
imagining that throng of Selves
that make this nation one body of Prophecy
languaged by Declaration as Pursuit of
I call all Powers of imagination
to my side in this auto to make Prophecy,
of human kingdoms to come
Shambu Bharti Baba naked covered with ash
Khaki Baba fat-bellied mad with the dogs
Dehorahava Baba who moans Oh how wounded, How wounded
Sitaram Onkar Das Thakur who commands
give up your desire
Satyananda who raises two thumbs in tranquility
Kali Pada Guha Roy whose yoga drops before the void
Shivananda who touches the breast and says OM
Srimata Krishnaji of Brindaban who says take for your guru
William Blake the invisible father of English visions
Sri Ramakrishna master of ecstasy eyes
half closed who only cries for his mother
Chitanya arms upraised singing & dancing his own praise
merciful Chango judging our bodies
Durga-Ma covered with blood
destroyer of battlefield illusions
million faced Tathagata gone past suffering
Preserver Harekrishna returning in the age of pain
Sacred Heart my Christ acceptable
Allah the compassionate one
Jaweh Righteous One
all Knowledge-Princes of Earth-man, all
ancient Seraphim of heavenly Desire, Devas, yogis
& holymen I chant to—
Come to my lone presence
into this Vortex named Kansas,
I lift my voice aloud,
make Mantra of American language now,
I here declare the end of the War!
Ancient days’ Illusion!—
and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
let the nation weep,
let Congress legislate its own delight,
let the President execute his own desire—
this Act done by my own voice,
published to my own senses,
blissfully received by my own form
approved with pleasure by my sensations
manifestation of my very thought
accomplished in my own imagination
all realms within my consciousness fulfilled
60 miles from Wichita
near El Dorado,
The Golden One,
in chill earthly mist
houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward
in every direction
one midwinter afternoon Sunday called the day of the Lord—
Pure Spring Water gathered in one tower
where Florence is
set on a hill,
stop for tea & gas
Cars passing their messages along country crossroads
to populaces cement-networked on flatness,
giant white mist on earth
and a Wichita Eagle-Beacon headlines
“Kennedy Urges Cong Get Chair in Negotiations”
The War is gone,
Language emerging on the motel news stand,
the right magic
Formula, the language known
in the back of the mind before, now in black print
Eagle News Services Saigon—
Headline Surrounded Vietcong Charge Into Fire Fight
the suffering not yet ended
The last spasms of the dragon of pain
shoot thru the muscles
a crackling around the eyeballs
of a sensitive yellow boy by a muddy wall
Continued from page one area
after the Marines killed 256 Vietcong captured 31
ten day operation Harvest Moon last December
U.S. Military Spokesmen
Cong death toll
has soared to 100 in First Air Cavalry
Division’s Sector of
Operation White Wing near Bong Son
Some of the
Language language soldiers
charged so desperately
they were struck with six or seven bullets before they fell
Language Language M-60 Machine Guns
Language language in La Drang Valley
the terrain is rougher infested with leeches and scorpions
The war was over several hours ago!
Oh at last again the radio opens
Angelic Dylan singing across the nation
“When all your children start to resent you
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”
His youthful voice making glad
the brown endless meadows
His tenderness penetrating aether,
soft prayer on the airwaves,
Language language, and sweet music too
even unto thee,
even unto thee
Future speeding on swift wheels
straight to the heart of Wichita!
Now radio voices cry population hunger world
if unhappy people
waiting for Man to be born
O man in America!
you certainly smell good
the radio says
passing mysterious families of winking towers
grouped round a Quonset-hut on a hillock—
feed storage or military fear factory here?
Sensitive City, Ooh! Hamburger & Skelley’s Gas
lights feed man and machine,
Kansas Electric Substation aluminum robot
signals thru thin antennae towers
above the empty football field
at Sunday dusk
to a solitary derrick that pumps oil from the unconscious
working night & day
& factory gas-flares edge a huge golf course
where tired businessmen can come and play—
Cloverleaf, Merging Traffic East Wichita turnoff
McConnell Airforce Base
nourishing the City—
Lights rising in the suburbs
Supermarket Texaco brilliance starred
over streetlamp vertebrae on Kellogg,
green jeweled traffic lights
confronting the windshield,
Centertown ganglion entered!
Crowds of autos moving with their lightshine,
signbulbs winking in the driver’s eyeball—
The human nest collected, neon lit,
and sunburst signed
for business as usual, except on the Lord’s Day—
Redeemer Lutheran’s three crosses lit on the lawn
reminder of our sins
and Titsworth offers insurance on Hydraulic
by De Voors Guard’s Mortuary for outmoded bodies
of the human vehicle
which no Titsworth of insurance will customize for resale—
So home, traveler, past the newspaper language factory
under Union Station railroad bridge on Douglas
to the center of the Vortex, calmly returned
to Hotel Eaton
Carry Nation began the war on Vietnam here
with an angry smashing ax
Here fifty years ago, by her violence
began a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta—
Proud Wichita! vain Wichita
cast the first stone!—
That murdered my mother
who died of the communist anticommunist psychosis
in the madhouse one decade long ago
complaining about wires of masscommunication in her head
and phantom political voices in the air
besmirching her girlish character.
Many another has suffered death and madness
in the Vortex from Hydraulic
to the end of 17th –enough!
The war is over now—
Except for the souls
held prisoner in Niggertown
still pining for love of your tender white bodies O children of Wichita!
Allen Ginsberg, 1965
All the Vermeers in New York, my 1990 film about the arts and stock market world of the time, along with other things, has been restored by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam and is to screen at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January 2020. This has prompted the usual congratulations and nice words, though those who do so probably have little idea that while, yes, it is a very good film, and so on, in my life it is also an albatross, a shadow cast across my path. So a little story.
As the 1980’s were closing down, in 1989, I was finishing up a new film, All the Vermeers in New York. It was my eleventh long film, and the first in which I had had anything remotely like a “budget.” $240,000, most from the now-defunct PBS program American Playhouse, and the rest from a little NEA grant. Against advice and the thoughts of some friends who know the “biz,” who had cautioned that AP was very script driven, and I had no chance at all to get money from them, I managed to raise all the funds myself, after two beers with Lindsay Law, then the head of AP. I made clear there was and would be no script, that I improvised, had no “story” and would find it while making the film. I said it would be about the stock market, the arts world, with a hint of deep New York history in it. He bought it and popped for their bottom-of-the-barrel budget of $200,000.
For the first time I shot in 35mm, with acquaintances inquiring if finally I would get a DP because 35mm was, well, 35mm and different, professional etc. I shot it myself, though I did have a camera assistant/focus puller. No lights. The way I always shot.
After it was finished, it was more or less mishandled, in terms of “business.” It got a berth, to premiere at the Montreal Film Festival, via a now-dead film world hot-shot who had assured my erstwhile “producer” – to be unnamed here – a prize was in the works. Instead it was greeted with puzzlement, dubious press, and no prize. (Somewhat later the head of the Venice festival told me he would have taken it.) It showed then in Berlin and later at Telluride. I personally contacted Roger Ebert (who had reviewed positively my first 1963 film Portrait) and asked him to look at it, which he did, and it got two thumbs up on Siskel and Ebert. But American Playhouse found it just too strange for their imagined audience and they broadcast it in the TV wasteland time of August. Opened commercially by the fledgling Strand Releasing company (no established distributor was interested), against my advice it opened in 4 cities at once – New York (in a Village cinema that a month before had been a porn house – I had argued to wait until it did BO elsewhere and then get a suitable setting), Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In LA it had 7 good reviews and none bad. And as luck would have it, the LA riots happened on the opening day and the city was more or less closed down, along with the cinemas, for the next week. And so no BO, and pulled from theaters the next week. As luck would have it, it was bad luck. While it ran for 6 months in Chicago and San Francisco, it flopped in NYC and LA, at least in $-terms, and nationally it made no money I ever saw, even though it sat on the Variety Top Grossing 50 list for nearly 6 months.
It did find some TV sales abroad and nearly recouped its costs which didn’t need to be given back to American Playhouse, so in effect it funded the next film, The Bed You Sleep In, which cost $110,000. For a brief period in the “real” film world I existed. The next few films did not get commercial release, and I moved to Europe where a few more unpleasant experiences inside “the business” confirmed my earlier view of Hollywood – that I just did not want to be around or deal with the people who made their living making or distributing films.
Emmanuelle Chaulet and Stephen Lack
Then, in 1997, shortly after it was introduced as a format, I had access to DV (digital video) through the Dokumenta arts exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and after having a camera in my hand for one minute promptly told myself I would never work in film again. I immediately began making work in DV, using its qualities for what they were, very different from celluloid. For some years I was deemed an outcast in the celluloid world, and treated as such. I proselytized for digital, saying before 1998, that it was the future, like it or not. And I began making films without worrying about money, figuring out how to make them for absurdly small sums (like a feature, La Lunga Ombra, with some modest name Italian actresses for $50 – of course no one was paid). Since then I have made 9 narrative features in digital formats. And 18 long films of documentary, essay &/or experimental forms. However, if one looked for public notice in reviews, articles and such, it would seem as if I had died 15 or so years ago.
6 Easy PiecesOUI NONHomecoming
The reason for this change likely had a bit to do with aesthetics – my work in DV tended to be freer, more “experimental” and less narrative. But it mostly had to do with money, which at bottom, is the driver for 98% of cinema. It is a business first. I had left, just as I had appeared ready for the cinema lime-light. And while there is, I am sure, no written blacklist, there didn’t need to be one – there was a censoring mechanism already in place, the magical invisible hand of the market: if it won’t make money it won’t be shown, and then it won’t be reviewed, and in practical terms it then more or less doesn’t exist. In the old Soviet Union something similar was called making someone a non-person. Here we use other mechanisms to accomplish the same effect.
And so while I continued to be productive, even more so than before, and while the creative/artistic quality of my work maintained and even improved, I slipped into the cultural shadows. Lists of independent American filmmakers of one kind or another almost invariably fail to mention my name. On the rare occasions that I exist in such contexts it is nearly always All the Vermeers in New York or Last Chants for a Slow Dance, which attach to my name. And never the long list of narrative features made in digital format since those times:
These films are all as good as Vermeers, if not as glossy – sez me. They are creatively all far more adventurous, taking risks and pulling it off. But they are decidedly not “commercial,” and often are sharply barbed politically. And they all cost one or two thousand dollars. Most were passed over by the festivals I sent them to – especially in America where the Iraq war trilogy of Homecoming, Over Here and Parable, each of which ends with a call for the impeachment of the Bush gang, was rejected by every festival they were sent to – ones that had shown my earlier work.
And the same could be said of my “documentaries” and “essays” which also for the most part fail to hew to conventional forms. I was at the Yamagata Documentary festival in Japan 5 times in competition since 1989, but if you saw a list of US or world documentary filmmakers I would never appear. Or similarly, were my landscape films Bowman Lake, Canyon and Yellowstone Canyon sent to a festival under the name James Benning, I would bet they would be shown. Under my name they have never been screened. Weird world.
A list of my “documentaries” and “essays”: Speaking Directly (1973), Plain Talk & Common Sense (1985), London Brief (1997), Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa (1999), 6 Easy Pieces (2000), Roma ritratto (2000), Chhattisgarh Sketches (2004), Rant (2007), Swimming in Nebraska (2010), Imagens de uma cidade perdida (2011), Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima (2012), Canyon (2013), Bowman Lake (2014), Yellowstone Canyon (2019)
And “experimental”: Muri Romani (2000), Vergessensfuge (2004), Passages (2006), Dissonance (2011), Muri Romani II (2019), Trinity (2012).
I, of course, have no way of really knowing why all this occurred, though to me it is pretty clear that the decades-long shift in American and European culture to raw dog-eat-dog capitalist business behaviors has taken root everywhere, including in esoteric film festivals which once at least provided a small shelf for less commercial work. No more. Instead festivals are concerned perhaps about their corporate sponsors, about running up a high warm butts count, and… And some of them seem to be scams, charging submission fees, getting thousands of entries and cashing in. Well, I could go on but I will stop. The basic reality is that society at large has become totally corrupted and there is little reason to think one’s own little puddle in it is not also corrupted. How it shows itself is varied, but it does so.
Below are my films available on Vimeo VOD. My website with information is
My website with information is:
For two blog posts on becoming a non-person see
Muri Romani II
Steven Holl’s St Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University.
For a year, in 1960-61, I studied architecture at IIT, the transposed Bauhaus of Weimar Germany. Just a few years before I had arrived Mies van der Rohe had run the school, and it was in effect a monastery of modernist values, with Mies standing at the fore, like St Ignatius before the Jesuits. Mies was a virtual religion, and his austere bare-bones internationalist style was the catechism, and students were inculcated in his values and style, and cranked out veritable clones of his architecture of the “International Style” which the corporate world had quickly found its own, and blighted cities around the globe with its severe boxes with ineptly done gridded curtain walls. This straight-jacket naturally gave birth far later to the Baroque flamboyance of, say, Frank Gehry.
I spent a year in school in this building, Crown Hall, on the Chicago IIT campus. It was elegant, with terrazzo floors, glass top to bottom, and open space broken only with low partitions and a central utility shaft. I could wander the entire school, seeing the models made by later classes and the graduate students: clones of Mies every one. In less than a year I determined that architecture was a business and that I was not going to fit into it; nor did I wish to become a Mies stamp.
[I note that while Crown Hall is elegant, during the winters it was impossible to stand within 10 feet of the uninsulated glass walls, in the summer it was a natural oven (at the time lacking air conditioning); the sun would glare off the terrazzo floors, and, well, Mies’ aesthetic classicism had little to do with living human matters – he did not himself chose to live in one of his glass box Chicago high-rises, but instead in a fusty brownstone abode.]
One of Mies’ dictums, paralleling that of other religions, was that “god is in the details.” While I dismissed the strictures of Miesienism almost immediately, attracted more to the flourishes of the heretic Corbusier, I did learn much at the Miesien altar. And one was surely, just where god resided.
The chapel at IIT, in which all things are reduced to open space boxes
In 1961, during a summer in Europe, I made a hitch-hiking visit to Corbusier’s Chapel in Ronchamp. I’d seen pictures and was drawn moth-to-flame to it. Arriving I was immediately disappointed in that it was surrounded by a scrim of tourist trap peddlers, religious and architectural, something none of the photos seem ever to show. Even so the building itself was a marvel, an architectural sculpture sitting on a large hill-top meadow, pristine and quiet.
It was, like Mies’ work, fully modernist, but infused with emotion, respectful of, if not believing in, the religious impulse which it was asked to express.
Since then my eyes have cast a harsh eye on other architects, almost pathologically honing in on them-damned-details. Today, Oct 4 22019, I sit in Steven Holls’ much lauded little St. Ignatius chapel here at the University of Seattle, a structure cited for its allegedly glowing color schemata, with veils of color-coordinated light gracing the walls, to presumably spiritual effect. To be utterly cynical I think I have seen big store hype machines deploy these things better, and certainly Holls’ deployment of color pales next to James Turrell, this place being at very best a very pallid matter.
James Turrell pieces
Structurally this chapel apes Romanic architecture with arching vaults overhead, and baffles blocking direct light in favor of reflected light, done in flat hues of blue and pink and soft oranges and green. Alleged to harmonize, instead they simply fall flat, like super-lame modernist would-be stained-glass windows, the old originals of which surely these dollops of color were meant to echo. In keeping with the architectural failure here, likewise are the pieces of “religious art” similarly deadening. And why not: the makers simply don’t really believe this stuff – not Holls, not the sculptor or painter. At best they attempt to ape and genuflect to long dead beliefs, this arch, this wanna-dazzle touch of light; this wants-to-be solemn space which if anything celebrates the spiritual vacuum of the times.
Living in Europe quite a fair time, I became a self-described church-junkie – because, like Willy Sutton said regarding money, that is where the art (mostly) was. I do not and never did for a second share the beliefs which animated the raising of the innumerable cathedrals, churches, bishop’s palaces, convents and monasteries, and such, that I visited. But while finding the background beliefs dubious at best, and abhorrent in the actual human behaviors they produced, I had to admit that whoever made these things really believed what they were meant to convey. One can see it in the most sophisticated of sculpture and architectural structure and adornment, or in the most primitive. The finger prints of belief, however misguided, are unmistakable, tucked into Mies’ “details.”
Whereas here, they are utterly absent, and instead a belief in doing as little as necessary to produce the effect, so we get ridiculous scraped stucco wall coverings, kitschy lights hanging overhead, piss-poor door frames and all the other signs of don’t-really-give-a-fuck’ism under the guise of a smattering of religious seriousness. After all, the Holls’ firm knew well what climate Seattle has and yet….. The religion here is bottom-line capitalism and it was willing to invest just enough to give the illusion of caring about this spiritual crap. Well, not really quite enough.
For his secular religiousity, Turrell tends towards pomposity, as if to ape the grandeur of a great cathedral, while not bowing to its symbols; Holls bows unconvincingly and fails to catch himself before landing on his face. Not that this seems to have disturbed the handful of architectural tourists who passed through, one a cluster of Asian folks accompanied by a serious looking, gesticulating professor. Though it seemed these people were less than overwhelmed as they wandered in, glanced around and departed in a matter of minutes, their opinion expressed by their feet. However, the perfunctory modernism of Holls’ chapel does fit in perfectly with the mundane urban landscape around it at the University of Seattle – unremarkable, ugly, utilitarian, a training ground for students to learn to not care about anything.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.