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A year and some ago, I received a note on Facebook from a young man from Kolkata, India. He asked me to look at a film he had made, a request which happens to me now and then. I assumed he had taken a workshop I’d done there some years ago, but as it turned out, he’d never heard of me. A friend of his who’d been in one of those workshops had suggested to him I was open, liked non-conventional films, and he should ask.

Most of the time when I get this kind of thing, I’ll say yes, and take a look – most often giving up after a few minutes of either truly inept and uninteresting work, or something utterly conventional which the maker thinks is somehow special. I admit I am not very tolerant in this respect, which I tell people at the outset when they ask.

If anyone reading this has a good connection to a major festival or showcase/event and could help secure a good screening situation, please contact me here.


In this case I hit the play button and was greeted right off with gorgeous very wide-screen black and white imagery, and a sharp cinematic sensibility to go with it – the editing, choices of camera movement, shifts from very close to distant, pacing. It was slow, and as some narrative began to emerge I was introduced to the main character: a grown man, seemingly mentally damaged, filthy, mute, wearing something like a badly soiled diaper. He squatted, his head swiveling this way, then that, his face showing curiosity and fear. He was not “attractive” nor in such terms someone with whom to “identify” sympathetically – a usual prime demand of most cinema viewers. The camera and film dwells on him, relentlessly.


Initially it was slightly off-putting despite the cinematic intelligence at work. But then, gradually drawn in to the cinematic qualities, and the near obsessive nature of the “story,” I watched to the end.  At the conclusion I was highly impressed and wrote the filmmaker, Riddhi Majumder.

I then found out that he’d not known of me, and on fleshing things out, was told he’d shot the film when he was 23, and this was his first film. It set me back on my heels to think such a mature work was made by someone so young, with such a serious subject and such an astute cinematic sensibility. In turn this begot an exchange of messages, and he told me how he’d submitted the film to many festivals and received no response, just the negative one of being minus the entry fees. The festivals were mostly marginal ones, ones of no utility, and in some cases just scams. I told him to stop, that he was wasting his money, and that I would try to help him get it into a meaningful festival. Which I did attempt, though my evidently totally diminished “clout” proved useless.


The film was turned down by Cannes, Locarno, Venice, and Pesaro, despite my acquaintance with people connected to those festivals and my firm words on the film’s behalf. I was surprised, since I felt the film was really very very good and should have been accepted by one of these on its own merits. Thus far the film has not been invited to any major or minor festival. In my view this is far more a testament to the dubious nature of festivals these days than about Riddhi’s film.

Pariah is a one-thread film: a pilgrim’s progress in the world, in which its main character, the unnamed pariah, moves from basic survival to humiliation followed with further humiliation, a prisoner of the world around him. Initially in a forest, we find him foraging for food – bird eggs taken from nests. Nearing a village he encounters a child, a little girl. He chases her and enters her village. There is something ambiguous in this chase, an almost childlike innocence, but with undertones of possible other meanings: might he rape her?




Entering the “civilized” world we hear a loudspeaker intoning in a cult-like manner a kind of mantra, and are introduced to an obnoxious satrap, a man full of himself receiving massages and showers from his minions who cower at his feet like whipped dogs. He lives in a palatial house, receiving visits from the villagers who beseech him for favors, and whom he treats with haughty disdain. We see men working in a well while the public announcement system speaks of an magic elixir, which binds the community together, a holy liquid.



The pariah, found sleeping in a hutch is captured and brought to the village, and tormented by the people there. He is brought to the satrap, who has him chained to a wall, and then, seemingly influenced by a young sympathetic woman, shows mercy and releases him. The pariah then joins the satrap on a hunting party, where he causes a problem and is duly punished in consequence.


Hung on the wall again, he manages to escape while the satrap is abusing a young woman. Later, found in the night in the woods, he is brutally twice raped by the satrap and a partner, and left, semen soiled, on the forest floor. In the morning he rises, like a wounded animal, and stumbles on, finally coming to a pond where he washes himself. Absolution. Moving on he comes across an old wise man who plays music and dances, and he himself dances, seemingly now free and delirious in joy.


The villagers, though, return and round him up, and in a frenzy go by torch light, leading him to a pyre.


As a story this is simple – the innocent and the evil juxtaposed, the herd behavior of the people bowing to suspect authority, the sway of cult beliefs governing society. But, as in music, in which the lyric is often simple and near useless on the sheet, but soars when made music, Riddhi’s poetry emerges in the cinematic qualities of the film in concert with its grim content. The rich images, beautifully conceived and shot; the sharp cinematic sense of when to move the camera and how, where to place it. And then the non-professional actors carrying their roles in a strangely Bressonian sense but the opposite, often in near iconic imagery. They stand as “models” but emote as actors, shifting the terms of this film from a seeming “realism” to a parable, a Bengali variant of Catholicisms’ Stations of the Cross, except in this case there is no redemption, there is no resurrection, there is no hope.


Pariah, aesthetically stunning, and thematically grim, offers little solace outside its artistry. Which, I suppose is why thus far it has been bypassed in favor of less demanding works and “audience pleasers”, even in so-called “serious” festival settings – which is a tragedy.

I have been at many festivals, and seen many truly bad films at them.  Especially ones by “name” directors who seem to get a pass, no matter what crap they do. (One I particularly recall is Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, a true piece of junk that I hope Korine coughed up to show how inane festival selection can be: big name, big shit = invitation.)

It would be for me a sad matter if Riddhi Majumder’s film were to be simply swept by in the vast river of cinematic junk which rushes by everyday, and that the failure of our cultural system were to put any kind of brake upon him.  He is a person of transparently natural sensibilities for this medium, a born filmmaker.  And from the evidence of this work he is someone taking life and our place in the world seriously, and making work to address that.  Perhaps this makes him a pariah in the sad corrupt world which much of the cinema circus represents.

If anyone reading these words can help Riddhi secure the kind of screenings this work deserves, either contact me here, or Riddhi directly:



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It happened as much of life does, rather by accident. My friend Jonathan Rosenbaum was in Tehran for some film conference, posting on Facebook, and I saw it and popped him a note asking he stick a foot in the door for me there. I’d for decades wanted to see Persian architecture, having once studied architecture and seeing many photos of the wonderful mosques and such in that part of the world. As it happened he’d already returned to Chicago, but the day of his arrival home he’d received a note from his hosts in Iran, inquiring who might be good to invite for a conference on digital filmmaking. Bingo. He in turn suggested me, and not inclined to wait, I wrote the party and made my case. I was invited.


This all occurred in the midst of other changes in my life. My wife Marcella and I are going separate ways, amicably – though that is a dubious word here. There is nothing “wrong” about our relationship, except that I am 75 and she is 42, and she needs and deserves things I cannot offer. A younger companion, and not to be be caught at 45 or 55 suddenly single because I have properly slipped the planet. With my encouragement and prompt to keep her eyes open for someone, and, also by accident she did:  Ryan Air put us in separate seats on a flight from Berlin to Belfast and her seat mate was a nice fellow she talked to and… .  One thing led to the next, all with my nod, and she’s now with a nice man of her age, things are going well for them, and it is time for me to leave go. I do so with a touch of anxiety but with love for Marcella. It is mutual. Though at 75, and a kind of blank canvas lies ahead, a little of a challenge – though my life has been like this all along. Used to it.  So I jumped into this journey, clearly but the first step in a longer one.


Sorted out the visa, which I had to pick up in the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, and on the first leg got snagged by travel snafus. Out on the tarmac in a Turkish Airline plane we wheeled to take off point, waited as usual, hit the accelerator. Whoosh, pushed back in the seat and then, not normal, the plane suddenly decelerated, braked and trundled off to some other area of the tarmac. Take-off aborted said the captain a bit later, with no explanation why. We sat a few hours with no further word until he announced the reason for the non-take-off was “operational problems”. I saw no vehicles come to do some fix, and surely along with the other passengers, pondered “wassup?” About an hour later, with no explication, we taxied and took off, the air slightly weighted with unexplained nervousness. I assume a computer programming glitch or perhaps air traffic control something.

Needless to say the long delay resulted in missing the next connection and a near sleepless night during the long early a.m. layover in Istanbul.  Airport slumbers not the best.   The wages of the present state of jet-setting. No party.

DSC00957 - MCopy

Arriving in Iran it was straight to my hotel through a bedraggled landscape leading into Tehran from airport: empty rusting billboards looming over desiccated sands, occasional cars wheezed out, intermittently parked their last time on the roadside, a few hitchhikers looking for a lift into the urban vortex. A weirdly placed golden domed mosque, for a not long ago immam, former head of the government, like a flying saucer dumped on the far edges of town, not much around it. And then into the southern flank of the city, reminding of the desolate zones east of LA, Hockney’s Pear Blossom Highway world.


The highway choked with dinged up cars, denser and denser as one approached the city center, the driving style Italianate in ignoring the marked traffic lanes, un-Italian in the lack of honking and cursing from the windows – a sign of resignation to the daily jam-up?

Checked into hotel, and a brief hello from Amir, my host from the National Film School. Shortly abandoned, I took an instant nap to try to make up for lost in-transit sleep. Outside rain blocked any view, which in the next days would prove to be a vast “modern city” array of vertical towers, here in uniform sand color, residences and office blocks receding endlessly into the distance, reminding me a touch of Seoul with its mountainous backdrops.


The conference for which I’d come, titled International Conference on Cinema in the Digital Age, under the wing of the Iranian National School of Cinema, commenced the next morning. A grab bag of figures, “international,” populated the list of speakers – myself (on the opening page as if I were “someone”), another American, Nicholas Rombes – an academic with a handful of books to his credit including one on the Ramones, along with “Cinema in the Digital Age,” several French game and virtual reality experts, Romain Bonnin and Bruno Massi; Ira Bhaskar, a woman from India, dean of a School of Arts & Aesthetics in Delhi; and Monica Manganelli, a woman from Italy – an art director whose credits include Cloud Atlas, and finally a Iranian American academic, Mehdi Semati, from Illinois rounded out the foreigner list. The balance of the participants were Iranians, both academics and film makers, producers and technicians from the media world.

As usual for such affairs the opening words were formalities, thanks and welcome and a string of speakers saying so. And then, in a rather crammed fashion, a few talks were given, simultaneously translated into English for those in need, and shortly it was my turn. I’d had a slight glimpse at what the other speakers were going to say, and tried to direct my talk towards the kind of aesthetics which Leighton Pierce and Scott Barley, myself and a few others took with digital tools.  Curiously the fellow who’d written the book on digital cinema had never heard of these, or, I suspect, of me.  (See my talk at the bottom).

I opened with a kind of apology for America’s dubious politics relative to Iran – since forever it seems, from 1952 overthrowing an elected socialist govt and installing “our Shah” and on to the current newly imposed sanctions and Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear treaty. I made clear I have not supported the US government in any of this and noted many other Americans share my view. This begot the loudest applause I heard during the conference.

DSC00911Mirrored mosque interior located beside the Tehran bazaar

During my talk I screened a handful of clips from my own work, little pieces which showed some of the variety of things possible in digital which are not “film-like”. One of these clips was a split- screen bit from 6 Easy Pieces, with a woman on the right shooting with a high-tech rifle, an Olympic competitive sport thing; and on the left a Portuguese dancer and performance artist, Vera Mantero, doing a piece in a body stocking, slightly see-through, but obscured by multiple out-of-phase layers. On the next clip, a painterly abstract thing of water the projection stopped, and I went to computer desk to see what had gone wrong. The clip was running on the computer, so it wasn’t that and I figured some projector problem. As a technician came up to me to check or something, he inquired if there were any nudity coming in next clips. Ah, I got it. I answered nope, no more neked girls, and learned a bit about current Iranian social realities.


DSC00977SMRoof of bath complex in Kashan

I attended some of the talks, but being academic or about things I am not much interested in, I skipped out on a good bit of it – perhaps bad form, but I don’t feel obliged out of courtesy to pretend I am interested when I am not.  Instead I asked to be taken to some museums and to see the city a bit.

DSC00920SM.jpgTina, on the right

My stay in Tehran was accompanied by a young woman of 21, Tina, whose English was virtually flawless. She was studying film and volunteering for the conference, and had read up on me. She said she was anxious about meeting me, that I’d be, oh…, some kind of demanding prima donna sort, and she’d practiced her introductory talk for meeting me. I think that got dispelled in a matter of minutes and we hit it off very nicely. She asked if I found her accent in English off, and I said she didn’t seem to have one, and except for the occasional word with maybe a misplaced accent I would figure she was American from the mid-west. She was very surprised at that and I asked how she learned the language and was her teacher an American native speaker.  She said she never studied and learned it all from watching movies since she was 14 ! Mostly American movies. I was amazed to hear this. We had some nice long talks, about personal things, which gave me a nice insight into Iranian culture. Tina had some visible tats, and was by the standards there, rather the rebel. A kindred spirit.



One of the museums Tina took me to was the calligraphy museum.  I had long been interested and curious about Arabic and Persian calligraphy as I had noted the varying styles and qualities, but knew nothing about it at all except that I found it beautiful.  So being curious I asked the person who was there about it – and found that, no, my assumption that the long lines in some did not tell you how to pronounce it or change the meaning, as, for example, in some Asian languages a dot, or squiggle will change the intonation and meaning.  I learned that it is read right to left, and that all the stylistic changes – in my Western sense of it, varying fonts – had to do with a kind of artistic boredom.  Islam prohibiting “graven images” artists were confined to writing texts of the Koran or prayers, or, for other work, concocting beautiful geometries and somewhat organic patterns.  With the texts, different regions would come up with differing modes of writing, and then the local governmental heads would act as curators and request that the text be written in this or that mode.   I suspect there is more to it than I was told, and imagine that as the society became more decadent, the calligraphy fell further and further into abstraction, with the Islamic text becoming more or less unreadable.  In some other life-time perhaps I will research this and write a thesis!


Towards the end of the conference, when I had skipped out, apparently all the guests were asked (if they would like) to go to the Holy War Museum, and a few balked, and being absent I had dodged it by absentia. However Tina was there and at some juncture asked whoever was prodding the visitors to go just why he had to inject (Islamist) ideology into everything. This begot an apparently heated discussion in which Tina accused the man of being a fascist, and she was summarily fired. I talked to her after this, and got the story and said I’d try to talk to whomever, but she demurred, though later, without my intervention, she was reinstated.  More lessons on the culture.


DSC00943CRPSMRabeahe, Hori, Uday and Ira

Wrapping up in Tehran, of which I saw little owing to rain each day, and the conference taking most the time, I and the Indian couple were taken first to Kashan for a short tourist stop at a famed garden, and then an old bath complex, and then on to Isfahan. This part of the trip was accompanied by another young woman, Rebeahe, whose English was not as good as Tina’s, but quite workable.  She though had relatives who lived in Isfahan, and so knew the city well.  This proved a nice virtue.


Put up in a rather luxurious once-upon-a-time palatial residence, gutted and converted into some kind of non-hotel, there were a few days to explore the city.  And what a gorgeous city at its center it was, well justifying its reputation.  And as well the famed “friendliness” of its citizens was similarly warranted, as we were stopped on the street for photos, for small and not so small talks.  It was wonderful.  As was the architecture, which had cast its spell on me 50 years ago.






With Rebeahe I was taken to the old part of the city, with its many stunning bridges (though these days they are not over troubled water, but no water), and a huge central plaza in which one could stick five Piazza Navona’s!  It was flanked with an endless bazaar and several huge and stunning mosques.



From one of these mosques, in process of being restored, I was drawn by wonderful singing which echoed off the domed ceiling.  Entering I saw a young man standing in the center of the dome, his voice beautiful, and enchanting.  He finished and a small cluster of people applauded, though shortly afterwards an official-looking man approached and seemed to berate him, and from that ensued a 20 minute or more argument.  I later asked what the story was and was told that one of the songs was from the Persian poet Hafez, and the other was from the Koran.  Apparently the official had found the secular song offensive, despite the reality that at least for now the place was not being used as a mosque with the religious aspects involved.   More cultural lessons.

DSC01042SM.jpgThe young man who sang HafezDSC01080CCRPSM.jpgReflecting pool in Meidan Emam, a UNESCO World Heritage site.DSC01073CCCRPSMcc.jpg




Ubiquitous, these images everywhere.

Under the press of the United States sanctions, the Iranian rial is in terms of international currencies, extremely weak.  Which, for an American with a few dollars, makes it very cheap.  I went to a pharmacy to get an over-the-counter antibiotic for an infection in my eye and for a tube that would have been $7 or so in the USA, the price was…… ten cents.  While not so exaggerated as that, food and most things in Iran, were, using the exchange rate (which changed hourly) absurdly cheap.  Nice for a tourist; not so wonderful for Iranians.









DSC01298SMOne of the 500 year old bridges, a kind of minimalist Persian architecture.

My time in Iran only whetted my appetite, and on leaving I offered up the thought of returning to teach at the National Film School, or to do some workshops.  Back in Belfast I reiterated that in an email, and the response was positive.  Hoping it will all work out and I can return in the late winter/spring of 2019, and stay for some months.


Talk given at conference, Tehran.

Hello and thank you for the invitation to be here. I know it is a time of heightened tension thanks to the belligerent but utterly customary behavior of the government of my country – the usual American practice of economic blackmail backed up with military threats. I do not and haven’t supported the American government for more or less my whole life. I hope you will accept my regrets for my society’s deep illnesses which tend to be inflicted on others – including you, ever since the early 1950’s (and actually before then). I don’t ask you to forgive, but understand there are many in America who do not approve the government and its policies at all. I am one of those.

And so to place my talk in perspective I’d like to offer a bit of biographical information so you can understand the context.

I have been a filmmaker since 1963 – 55 years. I’m self-taught, and have always worked far from the “industry” – I make films that make no money, either in the process of making them or afterwards. What I do covers a broad range which gets described variously as “new narrative” “avant garde” “experimental” “documentary essay” “indie” and many other such labels.

To me they are just “films” or “videos” – the way I happen to make them. Here and there I’ve been told what I do is worthwhile in some form or another – I regularly am invited to festivals, have received grants and honorary awards. In 1991 I had a full retrospective at MoMA in NYC, with 12 celluloid films; other institutions in America and Europe replicated this as well. After those I made a few more celluloid films – 35mm Panavision – but then in 1996, rather by accident, I got a DV camera and instantly decided I would never work in celluloid film again. And I haven’t. Since then I’ve made 25 long form films and many many shorts, and a few installations, all in digital video.

My reasons for shifting were mixed. It meant I could almost completely leave the film world behind – never have to talk to anyone about money, or have the pressure to make my work fit a formula that would make money once done. This was all because DV once one had access to a camera and computer was almost cost-free. And thus very liberating. The other major reason was because, even in the early phases, when critics described digital films as “gritty” or “ugly” and other such negative things, I found the beauty and aesthetic potential of digital media to be entirely enticing, and in my very first digital films I aggressively used the media for what it could do. At the same time the digital world was swamped with efforts to make it “film-like” with software and technical adaptations attempting to make DV and HD “look like film.”

Personally I was tired to death of the limitations which film imposed, which I think was very visible in my last celluloid works. I was though very excited and happy with the elasticity which digital media offered – in the camera, and on the editing time-line. The two aspects together opened a broad new field of aesthetic possibilities simply not possible in film. I jumped on it like a child. Few others shared this view – most sought that holy “film-look”. To me that was a fool’s errand – as if to make water colors look like oil paintings, as if the characteristics of each media was not itself of interest.

Technological changes – not only in media, but in any realm – always incur changes in society, and in how society expresses itself. To take an example in Europe: much of early visual two dimensional imagery was done either in frescoes, or if desiring something more permanent, mosaics. Mosaics, by their nature are somewhat rigid, we might even say a bit digital. The imagery derived from them tends to express the reality of what it is made of – little bits of colored stone or ceramics. Fresco is a bit clumsy, but still more fluid than mosaic, and this technological difference expresses itself with another mode of imagery. And then, as oil painting was developed, imagery shifted still more, giving birth to the Baroque era, and flamboyantly curved and shaded imagery which simply was not possible in mosaics. Later painting exploited this fluid nature such that the medium itself became the “content” of the painting.

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I cite these examples from one of the arts, to point to the technological shift which digital image making brought to “cinema.”

While celluloid cinema offers a very broad range of possible aesthetics which we can see in normal commercial/theatrical productions from Hollywood to Bollywood, and then in so-called “art house” films and on through experimental filmmaking, it remains bound to the limits of celluloid. Digital introduces other elements, rooted in technological aspects of the medium. So I’d like to go through these, and make the connections of those basic elements to what they have provoked in the media.

Economics. The first, and perhaps most drastic shift which digital technology has brought – as it has to many other realms – is a very radical change in the economics of making a film/video. These days an iPhone or Samsung will secure you imagery and sound that not long ago would have cost a fair amount of money. Just for the price of a phone and a simple cheap computer for editing. As well most any digital still camera or consumer level video camera will produce excellent imagery and sound for the cost of what, say, a 10 minute roll of 35mm film and processing would have cost 15 years ago. In sum, digital media has driven the costs so low that it is almost negligible. This in turn has impacted what is made. Now frankly most of what is made is of little aesthetic value, and literal mountains of shots, films, long and short, have been made which are only of interest from a sociological standpoint. One could write a long essay discussing why so many people spend their time making such vast amounts of pure garbage – survey YouTube and Vimeo, or just your Facebook feed to see what I am talking about. It is a plague of mental trash which unfortunately has real world consequences: it covers up and hides the occasional gems which are also made. The beautiful and wonderful things which are possible are buried in the volumes of junk.

So from this basic factor – the minimal costs of digital work – the production of material has exploded beyond real comprehension, for better and worse. Mountains of garbage, and then the infrequent magical work that otherwise might not have been made at all had the earlier celluloid financial hurdles remained.

Inside this bracket of low costs, some aesthetic matters have shifted.

One is that as shooting has minimal fiscal costs, new cinematic “movements” have emerged. In the USA one early one was so-called “mumble-core” which by and large involves rather conventional cinematic language and forms, and content, but in which improvisation plays a large part since it costs nothing to shoot and shoot and shoot. For me these films are mostly unwatchable. In Europe something similar occurred with the Dogme movement triggered by Lars von Trier and friends – again the works involved much improvisation and bare-bones technique, and though willfully a bit more provocative in intent, and more skillfully done, they still were basically conventional-theatrical works in filmic terms. Aside from the costs being shrunk to virtually nothing, the balance of these were traditional old-fashioned low-budget film-making, perhaps a bit looser owing to the low costs and the inexperience of many of the filmmakers involved.

Linked to this came another movement, also built on the low-costs, but harnessed to an aesthetic that embraced a specific technological change which digital brought with it. In celluloid, as a rule of thumb, one could do shots of a maximum of ten minutes before the film runs out. Digital has no such constraint – one can do a shot of 20 minutes or if you really want, 20 hours. Or even more.

A little tale: a good friend of mine, James Benning, when working in 16mm, had made a number of films in which the 10 minute limit on shots became part of his aesthetic: a static shot would last 10 minutes, and then the next and so on. For a decade I urged James to switch to digital for cost reasons but he resisted – he had more or less good reason as DV is a bit low resolution for landscapes and wide-shots, which were dominant in his work. On the arrival of reasonably priced HD however, he shifted to it. On his switch I found myself wondering what changes this would bring in his style and approach. On seeing his first digital film, a formalist kind of documentary on the German industrial area of the Ruhr – also the title of his film – the first hour of the film had maybe 8 or so static shots of various urban landscapes and things, the lengths of the shots not being rigidly fixed. The second hour of the film consisted of one static camera shot of a steel making industrial structure, one used to make coke. The structure is a 10 story block under which industrial sized train cars loaded with red-hot coal are pulled and then tons of water are then dropped on it, producing a massive steam cloud. On a cycle of once every ten minutes. I was transfixed by this shot (others left or fell asleep), and when the film was over I was rather irritated with myself in not having guessed that one of the changes digital media would bring to his style was that he would do even longer shots than 10 minutes – much longer shots. Since that film he has made many other films using really long shots.

So this long-take capacity of digital in turn gave birth to a movement called “slow film” in which long takes are one of the aesthetics given. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark might be cited as the first of such films, it being a single moving take inside the Hermitage in St Peterburg – though I would argue it isn’t really a slow film in its sense of tempo. Just as the Oscar winning Birdman, a seeming single take film, also doesn’t really fit into the “slow film” category.

Lav Diaz of the Philippines is a better example of this – he makes films 8 or more hours in length, and inside them are many extremely long shots and indeed, the sense of pacing is glacial. He calls it Malay time. It can be argued that this kind of film existed before in Bela Tarr’s work, but digital media has allowed it to flourish and develop its own strategies and qualities. Though once again, most of these are still well-encased in more or less traditional cinematic forms, and remain essentially theatrical. Like most of cinema.

What I have touched on thus far – the economic shift and its consequences, and on one of the changes technologically – shot duration – and how it has altered film styles in the hands of some makers (including a handful of Iranian filmmakers I am aware of), for myself these remain somewhat marginal matters, and are but modest alterations on traditional cinema – just variations on the historical record, nothing genuinely radical.

So I would like now to shift and discuss what can be done, cinematically, with digital technology, something which is not just a modest extension of what was, but is potentially a genuinely radical change.

As noted earlier, when relatively low cost consumer digital video cameras came out in the mid-1990’s, there seemed an urgent insistence in the filmmaking community to figure out how to make the images look more like film. Algorithms, and filters and such were devised in this attempt. In short order video cameras were produced that shot at 24 fps as if there were some sacrosanct cinematic holy grail to be found in that number. At the same time many of the early cameras had an array of settings which were purely electronic – one could shift the shutter speed to 1/3rd or 1/4 of a second, or conversely a 10,000th of a second. Or use an electronic solarizing setting, or break the image into clearly discreet digital clumps by shooting in “mosaic”. Or one could do an in-camera setting, usually called strobe, that functioned as a real-time live-shooting optical printer. There were many settings, and frankly used directly they were rather stupid, and clearly the idea of an electronics guy as camera designer and not a filmmaker. But they were there, and in fact, in the hands of a curious artist, beautiful things could be done with them, and by a handful of people they were. I was one of those people. Unfortunately in my view, 10 years later, in the name of “professionalization” those choices no longer exist, and one must fight with the camera to get anything but a very clean slick “professional” digital TV image. The charms of earlier DV have been stripped away in the name of a kind of conformity.
So I’d like to show a few clips of some of those early films of mine shot in older lower resolution digital video, as well of a few recent ones done in HD format.

(Clips of various DV and HDV films.)

If we can I will let Muri Romani carry on as I continue and finish:

I hope those give a hint of some of the qualities which I was speaking of. At the conclusion of this I’d like to show a few clips of works I think carry this much further.

The remaining aspect which digital media has radically altered is that of distribution and exhibition, which again, can change the nature of cinema. I have with me a hard-disk, a small portable one, and on it are files of  almost my entire life’s work: 40 long films, many of my shorts, a few installation works. 20 years ago to have brought all this would have required a small truck. In the form on this disk – digital files – this work can be sent across the globe in a handful of minutes, or, as I already have it all uploaded onto my Vimeo VOD site, they can be streamed or downloaded now. Those 2 decades ago one would have had to seek out some esoteric festival or exhibitor, to have a one-time chance to see them.

To say courtesy of digital media in all its facets, works such as mine are now readily accessible rather than hidden far away. Of course the same problem still exists as does on the production side: one must compete with the tsunami of junk equally available. But at least there is a space for work to be seen. And that is a radical change from the past. And again, that does impact the possibilities of what cinema can and will be.




Bronze casting of sheep entrails reading

Back in the good old days – to say the days of the Roman Empire – they practiced haruspicina, in which a person trained and practiced in haruspex examined the entrails of sheep or chickens and were said to divine the future therein.  Today we might say our endless list of bloviating pundits and columnists do much the same, from the “liberal” side of the spectrum to the rabid right: Christiane Amanpour, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, Charles Blow and a host of others, and then mincing to the middle perhaps Thomas Friedman or David Brooks (both formerly of the murmuring Right) and finally over to the farther Right, the shrieking of Limbaugh, Coulter, Beck and all the rest to be found on radio and TV talk shows, and regulars on Fox “News” – the official propaganda go-to broadcaster for America’s livid “conservatism.”




Since Donald John Trump secured the Republican nomination for President, the Republican Party has, in a grand, slightly slo-mo, display, disemboweled itself in full public view.  The Grand Old Party, once the home of the stodgy keepers of the flames of moral and political rectitude, where “character” mattered, and “family values” reigned supreme, and fiscal tight-fistedness was closely clutched to the breast and deficits were anathema, has done a U-turn on nearly all this.  Pundits and politicians, who previously foreswore Trump as unthinkable, uncouth, unfit, and otherwise utterly beyond the pale, now extol his wonders.  Newt Gingrich debases himself before the new Caesar; Chinless of Tenn, smarmily embraces him, and myriad others who pontificated loudly against the garish real estate criminal from New York now – as in the early cabinet meeting when each of the supplicants offered their absurdist praises – suck the slurry of his absent mind.  Others, having twisted themselves into pretzels to accommodate the inversion of all they believed, finally snapped and departed or were sent packing for failure to genuflect in sufficient depth.



This past week, in a demonstration of how yesterday were the old shibboleths of Republican propriety, the Senate rammed through the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, a privileged son of modest wealth, party animal, Yalie, and accused sorta rapist and self-convicted perjurer.  Once, in apparently some other life, he had complained forcefully of the disgusting behavior of Bill Clinton, while working with the Starr investigation for impeachment purposes.  In his papers from that other life he delved into what in hindsight seems a perverse delight into the very specific sexual nature of the former President’s actions:

Taken from a New York Times article on Kavanaugh’s notes for the Starr inquest:

“The president has disgraced his office, the legal system and the American people by having sex with a 22-year-old intern and turning her life into a shambles — callous and disgusting behavior that has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle,” Mr. Kavanaugh wrote.

“He has committed perjury (at least) in the Jones case. He has lied to his aides, he has lied to the American people.

“It may not be our job to impose sanctions on him, but it is our job to make his pattern of revolting behavior clear — piece by painful piece  Aren’t we failing to fulfill our duty to the American people if we willingly ‘conspire’ with the president in an effort to conceal the true nature of his acts?”

To that end, Mr. Kavanaugh wrote, Mr. Clinton should be asked extremely detailed questions unless he first either resigned or admitted to perjury and publicly apologized to Mr. Starr.

Mr. Kavanaugh listed 10 possible questions based on Ms. Lewinsky’s testimony, saying that he would “leave the best phrasing to others.” Among them were these:

“If Monica Lewinsky says that you had phone sex with her on approximately 15 occasions, would she be lying?”

“If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated into her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?”

“If Monica Lewinsky says that you masturbated into a trash can in your secretary’s office, would she be lying?”

During his confirmation hearings, in his new life, Judge Kavanaugh showed a remarkable imagination in giving new meanings to old words:

“Boofing,” which amongst his peers meant “anal sex” in his mind became “flatulence;” “The Devils Triangle,” among the peers meaning a sexual threesome of 2 guys, 1 girl, became a card game; and the Renate Club, known to his pals as confirmation you’d had Renate, became an honorific compliment to said Renate.

Mr Kavanaugh also lied to the Congress about numerous other things in his testimony, including rather serious matters. And yet, when the time came for a vote, 50 Republicans and 1 Democrat voted to confirm him for a seat on the highest court in the land, shortly after he’d committed a handful of crimes before their very eyes and ears.  It is rumored that President Trump is considering the appointment of a horse for candidate for the next Senate seat open.


roman horse black

raf,750x1000,075,t,101010 01c5ca27c6

In a harsh political calculation the Republicans clearly thought that having having a toady on the Supreme Court, as Kavanaugh has given his bonafides for such a role over his long public service, was worth burning bridges with half the nation’s population, or at least the part of that half that doesn’t take kindly to undesired sexual manhandling or other such symptoms of misogyny.  Senator Flake’s feint towards the women with his call for an FBI investigation added a small ripple of hope to the matter for those against the confirmation, while providing a few senators, including himself, for whom the vote was politically dicey a transparent fig leaf with which to vote “yes.”  Whether this calculation will prove wise remains to be seen in the coming election and beyond.  The Grand Old Party, always a stalwart gathering of men, has defiantly secured its position as a club for sexist white men (and house “niggers”) only, aside from those women who seem to beg for maltreatment, of which there seems an ample blonde supply.  The Trumpian change-over is complete, and the rank hypocrisy – formerly visible only to the moderately discerning – is now blatant and overt.  Family values and all the rest be damned:  grab that pussy.  And the Fundamentalist “Christians,” the most strident shouters of moral rectitude in the land, have shown their true colors, with a twisted “moral logic” which even the Catholic Church, a secret conclave of pederasts, would have difficulty accepting: hate the sin, love the sinner.  And boy do they love Donald Trump.  Of course there is a long and still present history of grifter ministers, from the fictional Elmer Gantry, to Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker on to our current “prosperity” televangelists flying in private jets, like Joel Osteen, and living the lives of millionaires, tax-free.  (Hmm, just like the President).  The religion of PT Barnum is alive and well in the Trump era.



And so, peering into the entrails of the now gutless Republican Party, what can we find?  First perhaps the vivid signs of racism, announced by Trump in his initial forays into politics when he took out a full page ad regarding the “Central Park Five” – a story ripe in American stereotyping, in which 5 young black men were accused of raping a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park, supposedly confessed and spent a long period in prison before the case was dismantled and they were proven innocent, their confessions coerced, etc.  Trump was instrumental in building up the hysteria around them, and when it was found he was in error, he never apologized.



As Barack Obama headed towards the Presidency, Mr Trump became a “birther” – someone who questioned the legitimacy of Obama’s Presidency on the grounds that he had not been born in the USA and was hence not eligible for this office.  The claim was completely fictitious – a lie, something which comes as naturally to Donald as breathing. Again, the grounds were pure racism.  But Trump kept hammering away and behind him a growing mob quietly mutated into a viable political mass.  It was his calling card for his future political intentions, built on the thick veins of deep racism running through America’s social DNA.  Trump was hitting the mother lode.

fire obamasm



Where earlier Republican candidates had deployed myriad forms of “dog whistles” to signal their racism, Trump was upfront and blatant about it – with regard to Mexicans, blacks or anyone else not as white as he is.  After the “politically correct” suppression of the Obama era, in which it was said we were in a “post-racial” time and the use of “bad” words was chastised, this new-found “honesty” burst like a major oil hit, opening the sluice gates of raw unadulterated All-American racism wide.  We are now drowning in a deluge of cellphone videos of racist harangues and attacks in public, harassment on up to the stream of murdered-while-living-black cop killings.  ICE is rounding up mostly south-of-the-border “POCs” and impounding 14,000 (seeming count of late) “illegal” children in internment camps.



detainment camp map.JPG


Mucking around further in the slurry of this Republican display one finds a remarkable unity of purpose, a submission to authority such that members are able to invert their supposed beliefs in an instant.  They can pontificate on the sanctity of the family in the same moment they kow-tow to a thrice married man whose vulgarity is unchained.  They can mouth platitudes about patriotism while dodging service with bone-spurs or class-born deferments.  They can rail about Jesus while lining their pockets with silver, and thread the needle slicker than a camel.   One can list a thousand things of this kind which all distill into a common ground: pure and utter hypocrisy, most appropriately summarized in their leader, who is the literal embodiment of falsity while bellowing loudly about the Fake News of all else.


German Americans Giving Nazi Salute



While I do not purport to be a Cassandra, nor do I believe in the reading of entrails to discern the future, I do foresee a few things – drawn not from such mystical sources, but rather a hard-nosed reading of history.  It has been said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.  I don’t really concur with this, rather I see history as sequences of patterns which rise and fall, like waves coming in at the beach.  Each wave follows the same law of physics as the next, and is modulated by whatever disturbances enter into the equation.  Each deposits a line of sand, looking much like the prior and much like the following, but each unique and different.  And so does history.  The rise and fall of empires follows a pattern.  And while the United States has never openly declared itself an empire, is has been and is one.  And it is following a similar process of all the empires which rose before and collapsed, only in these times accelerated by the technological means which mark our epoch.  Time does not go faster, rather we ourselves move through time more quickly.


The United States of America is already in the last stages of its undeclared empire.  It is internally corrupt, it is vastly over-extended militarily, it is bankrupt from the expenditures on that military at the cost of domestic infrastructure.   It is collapsing and as is customary in such imperial end-games, it is taken over by the most zealous, the fanatics, and will doubtless suffer a period of police-state modern Fascism as it crumbles. It is already doing so.   Fascism is not so farcical.

Police Suspension Hand Symbol



The tragedy is that while it is preoccupied with its internal turmoil, the wider world, deeply impacted by America’s dominant role in the last 100 or more years – the world’s biggest polluter over time (now matched by China in the contemporary period), the greatest consumer of the world’s resources (25% for 4.4% of the globe’s population) – is facing a vast terminal threat largely instigated by western technology and its political handmaiden, capitalism, uniquely embodied by the USA.  So while the United States is distracted with its political stresses, it carries on inflicting damage on the the globe, and with the current administration even doing so with gleeful intent.   The consequence will be globally fatal, at least for most species, including us, on the planet.  All for the god almighty buck, America’s true religion and bottom line.


For further reading on some of the things mention here see

thisthisthis, and this and this.









Following the conspiracy lead of Steve Bannon and Breitbart, Donald Trump has grumbled and tweeted often about the Deep State, the purported nefarious grouping of hidden government persons lurking in the depths of the massive Federal apparatus of myriad acronymic masks.  ICE NSA FBI CIA and on through to lesser known but equally evil entities.  These are alleged to be conclaves, variously, of members of the Harvard elite, Yale’s Skull and Bones, Jewish cabalists, covens of Christian Fundamentalists, or whichever cluster-fuck you wish to designate, surely there will be a website or more devoted to reading the tea-leaves of the signals emitted from these organizational black holes and their swirling galaxies.  Right and Left wing chatterboxes selectively cherry-pick whatever political tid-bits they wish and construct fabulist narratives around them, from the assassination of JFK to that of MLK to 9/11 and on to the Boston Marathon bombing.  The existence of the internet gives wide berth for these to spawn, however false or true they might be.



kennedy assassination


Extracted from these events come tomes from scholars, Hollywood movies, novels and the rantings of Limbaugh, Hannity, Alex Jones and a host of lesser names. There’s millions to be made from these, and those mentioned have made theirs and more.  Like America’s religious hucksters, there’s a lot of money to be made preying on the gullible and fearful, with which it seems our country is plentifully supplied.  Welcome to the world of QAnon.   It’s American as Apple Pie.


uploads1504017121881-OleHeadThe Lakewood Mega-church, Dallas TX

For decades – well actually far longer than that, for centuries  – America has been awash with conspiracy theories, reaching back to its founding.  There were always traitors loose in the land, lluminati, the anti-christ, double-agents for foreign powers, the entire gamut of customary political war-horses, broad-brushes with which to paint your enemy. Today’s landscape is nothing new, just that for brief periods we like to pretend it ain’t so.

But, myths aside, it’s all the same old same old.  As is governance itself.

Current CIA Director Mike Pompeo And Five Former CIA Directors Speak At National Security ConferenceTwo deep-state members, John Brennan and General Michael Hayden, former chiefs of the CIA

Conspiracy theories, to take root, need soil, and the United States government has been rich tilling land for as long as its been around.  Within long-term living memory those range from major matters, such as the concept that FDR and the government knew Pearl Harbor was coming, and let it happen.  Jump ahead half a century, and the same it true of 9/11.  In both cases there is ample evidence to suggest they are true, though the makers of American mythology adamantly insist that only a tin-foil hatter would believe such malarkey.  After all, who could believe that our own government would allow such events to occur when their job is to protect us?  Only a true nutter could believe such a thing, regardless of the massive evidence and logical reasons for such a thing to fit properly into a narrative.

And the same goes for lesser items from the assassination of JFK requiring magic bullets, and on down to such trivial things as using members of the military as guinea pigs for “scientific” experiments, or, well, hell, using whole cities like San Francisco to experiment with some new biological dispersal weapon.  Or letting St. George, Utah, knowingly be a nice down-wind recipient of nuclear bomb test radiation and then spending decades denying the cancerous downside.  In fact, the more one knows about Uncle Sam the more fertile the soil one finds for tin-foil hat thoughts.


Enter Donald, the wanna-be Queen’s tough guy sporting a giant borough-wide chip on his shoulder.  A self-made man, so he insists (that million buck starter kit from Dad don’t count), he broke into the hard-as-nails world of Manhattan real-estate and built a solid gold (well, at least gold-plated) reputation as a party-animal, womanizer, builder of garish towers, possessor of serial-wives and of serial bankruptcies.  And despite all that he wasn’t welcomed into the fold of the Manhattan elite, and here, decades later, bearing a grudge that deforms his face and body, and weighs on him like a WWF wrestler, he’s out to let them have it. Descending his golden escalator but 3 years ago, met by his adoring rent-a-crowd, he tossed his hat in the Presidential circus ring, and to wide amazement and laughter promptly vanquished the supposedly serious Republican candidates with school-yard taunts, and thereafter sent the world into shock when Hillary Clinton lost to him as well, if not in the general vote, then in the dubious Electoral College. The world has been aghast since, as The Donald charges like a raging bull, upsetting one institutionally rooted apple-cart after another, shredding the polite decorum and language of our traditional politics, and causing serious harm to the status quo.  Just like he said he would.

Well, almost.



Having promised to “drain the swamp” The Don instead stocked the beltway with more alligator sleaze than anyone thought conceivable, stacking his Cabinet with grifters ready to dismantle their respective departments, and to feed at the Federal trough as quickly and mercilessly as possible.  Having reduced his GOP Congressional majorities to the quivering sycophants they always were, our gangster godfather trashed protocols, ripped up treaties and obsessively uprooted anything having to do with Barack Hussein Obama while loudly bellowing his utterly unmasked racism.  Supposedly serious Republicans held their silence while the Tea Party wing cheered lustily and the Don’s racist base went bananas.  Doubtless never having actually read it, the man sworn to uphold the US Constitution, as G W Bush had suggested earlier, treated it as “just a goddam piece of paper.”   Toilet paper in this instance.

All of this behavior has transpired with little more than murmurs from the official opposition, the Democrats, who hide behind their minority status in the House and Senate whimpering there’s nothing they can do, their hands are tied until November, the mystical season of voting when the Great American Public is allowed to choose between corporately approved specimen A or B. And besides, they are as beholden to their corporate masters as the GOP, and should they speak too loudly the full depths of both-sides-of-the-aisle corruption would be fully exposed.   Until then the pages of YouTube and Facebook are awash with videos of virulent racists yelling and screaming on camera, police killing blacks for being black, ICE round-ups of alleged illegal aliens, children stored in ex-Walmart boxes converted to instant prisons, and other pleasantries of the present American mental landscape, the ugly id of the nation having been exposed by Trump’s tearing off of the band-aid of PC politeness imposed by the prior administration.


Faced with this rupture of politics-as-normal, the nation has contorted itself into the unimaginable:  the liberal-left now looks upon the FBI, the CIA and NSA as potential saviors, while the right, formerly the supposed champions of fiscal and moral rectitude, law & order, balanced budgets, goody-two-shoes ethics and virulent anti-Commie/Russiaphobes morphed instantaneously into Russiaphiles, haters of the deep-state combine of the FBICIANSA, and rabid pigs at the trough of corruption and racism.  And not only trickle down economics, but also trickle down ethics, in this case in the form of terminal corruption.  Hence the plague of YouTube racism and cop-killer videos.

170803104354-01-comey-file-0608-super-teaseYou’re Fired!  Former FBI Chief Comey

Enter the deep rumblings of the Deep State.  Famed for having intervened in an attempted Richard Cheney machination during a breathless hospital visit to then Attorney General Ashcroft who lay seriously ill, while Cheney-Bush henchmen sought to secure his signature for a program of dubious legality, wearing his cloak as Ashcroft’s chief assistant, James Comey, life-long Republican, became a belated liberal hero, as did fellow Republican, Robert Mueller, then head of the FBI.  See this for the full story.    And now, a decade and some later, these two emerge from the deep bowels of the government yet again in tandem.  As FBI chief, appointed by Obama and retained by Donald Trump, Comey was pressed by his new boss to swear a certain kind of loyalty, mob-style. Declining, he was summarily fired, though in a manner in which in the arcane convolutions of government he was able to secure the naming of a special counsel to investigate Russian skullduggery during the 2016 election. The Special Counsel named was none other than Robert Mueller.  And not only that, but Comey also also did so in a manner which required Trump lackey Richard Sessions, Director of the Justice Department, to recuse himself from the investigation.    All this served well for Trump to loudly complain that he was being undercut and back-stabbed by the Deep State, of which Trump cohort Steven Bannon and his program Breitbart had long complained.


lack ccDrawing by Stephen Lack37291739_10155910619829436_2679336775477886976_o

The news of the day of late swirls with the constant word of criminality in high places – the current Manafort trial pealing the skin off the fancy-suited world of business and politics, with fantastical numbers, a litany of off-shore banking havens, and enough moral sleaze to last forever.  Or until the next, around-the-corner, trial to reveal still deeper depravity.   Or Avenatti’s latest lurid spill of The Don’s hushed-up sex-capades.

GTY-james-clapper-jef-170308_16x9_992James Clapper, former head of the NSA

Legally, lying to a Congressional committee is a crime, whether under oath or not, punishable by up to five years in prison, or in some instances more.  James Clapper was head of the NSA,  (whom it turns out went to Annandale HS, Fairfax VA, 1956-60, same time I did, though I do not recall knowing him then, but my sister does); in testimony to Congress he lied.  Caught at it, he recanted in a Clintonesque manner, parsing the exact meaning of “spying” etc.

brennanJohn Brennan, Ex-Director of CIA

Mr Brennan, former director of the CIA, outspoken of late regarding Donald Trump -saying his comportment in Helsinki was “treasonous” – is himself in a problematic position, having also lied to Congress, just as did Clapper.  In his case regarding torture and such nice things.

And of course Mr Comey, fired director of the FBI, is also accused by some of lying, or at least fudging regarding leaks from his office.  All in all, a charming cluster of characters, all deeply enmeshed in governmental agencies which traffic in secrecy as a part of their function. Naturally a good setting for conspiratorial actions.  All lied to Congress, but skated.  So small wonder that thoughts of a Deep State tend to focus on this area, along with the military.

That this nexus of fellows engaged in the sordid arts of secrecy and executors of the dirty deeds of the US government should all re-emerge in unison, though this time wearing super-hero cloaks for some liberals, indeed raises a peculiar stench, the smell of something rotten deep in the bowels of America’s government: Yes, Virginia, there is a secret Deep State.


And yes, it seeks to defend its institutional status and powers, just as do almost all bureaucratic institutional organizations.  In this case, these institutions (and 14 other “security” organizations under the umbrella of the Unites States Government), all seek to carry out their jobs as protectors of the corporate/business powers for which and on behalf of which that government exists.  And when by some quirk of circumstance, something or someone inimical to those interests occurs, it is their function to work together to challenge and defeat that intruding force.  And such, in the instance of Donald John Trump, is the case.


Were the Republican Party a healthy political party in American terms, it would have never allowed Trump to emerge as its nominee for President.  In a “healthy” state it would have vetted him, researched his background, and done whatever was necessary to assure he did not become their candidate.  But the Republican Party, like the rest of the society it is rooted in, is, exactly as is the Democrat Party, utterly corrupt, and has been so for some decades, steadily rotting away until it became a steaming fetid swamp of oligarchism marinated in All-American racism. The Democrats were equally corrupt, utterly owned by corporate powers, and utterly out-of-touch with what neo-liberal policies – their policies – had done to broad areas of the American public.

And as were and are the political parties of the USA, so too all its institutions are corrupt:  the Congress, the Courts, the Executive Branch, the 5th Estate, the corporate world, Wall Street.  Every. Damn. One. Of. Them.

So it is little wonder that along with all these pillars of American society that the Deep State is likewise corrupt.  Any decent working Deep State would have some time ago arranged a plausibly deniable accident, be it on the ground, Air Force One, or a berserk White House Guard, and Trump would already be fodder for further conspiracy theorists to figure out who done it.   But thus far, confronted with the Keystone Kops of the inept, obvious, utterly corrupted government of the most comical Don imaginable, the hard-men of the Deep State have thus far fumbled the ball, and the Trump gang, though snookered by their own glaring stupidity, is still standing.

So yes, Don, yes there is a Deep State, and it is certainly out to get you.  But it is just like you, and is inept and as flaccid as your butt is, unable to shift from the SOP of the Cold War to a world in which Tweets shift the market up and down and idiocy rules the White House, and few care if the President consorts with prostitutes and stuffs his government full with nepotism and cronyism.  After all, most of them are doing exactly the same things.

Meantime America burns.

38612308_1896541237072837_546552833437073408_n.jpgTrump supporters, Florida37349381_10157676792769691_6852735318517350400_n.jpgPainting by Stephen Lack38412092_10157698753329465_1046501303162765312_n.jpgAlleged image of California forest fires seen from above the clouds


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












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



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

matera-collage-trans-march-25-sky-copy-sm-smCollage of Materadsc01460-sm








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

pat-kelleyPatricia Kelley111photoPeter Hutton

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


586Edoardo Albinati

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

rembrandtnathanialNathaniel in Rembrandt Laughingdd-hilite17_art_0502364875

nathaniel-in-museum Nathaniel Dorsky

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

muri-panelMuri Romani II




ballerini-compagnia-1 Again and Again

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


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








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



Best for 2017 !!




22greenhouseweb-superjumboInvasion of the Body Snatchers, 195614eganweb-master768


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







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

16allison-obit-web4-master768Mose Allison18-lens-civilrights-slide-o70t-superjumbo

15235857_10154871746439917_2879648844778042844_oMark Twain and John T. Lewis06america1-superjumbo

joes-fxPhoto by Joe Podlesnik, Phoenixf09f9b0ccfff6735a0466a578db7226d-908-580-opioid_databasefc5df1754



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



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25tltl-personal-spaces5-master1050Jim Harrison’s Montana writing room15241965_10154871833249917_5480780354052195706_n

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



jazz-festival-monk-ginsbergThelonius Monk and Alan Ginsberg25stoneweb-master768Standing Rock15541175_10154833559579691_2150227030082905662_nPainting by Stephen Lack06tp-cohen-inyt-2-master768



09scrantonjump-superjumboOutside Scranton, Pa.south-charleston-wvWest Virginiayip2016-january-slide-dw1t-superjumbo

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

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

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







In spring of 1960 I graduated from high school. Unknown to me, so did Cassius Clay, of whom I’d never heard, nor had most Americans or the world. A short few months later, Cassius had won the light-heavyweight crown at the 1960 Summer Olympics, and with a grand splash America and the world were introduced to the brash young man from Louisville, Kentucky. Cassius was anything but modest – he was the greatest, prettiest, fastest. He was, like America, the firstest with the mostest. He was the Louisville Lip.

Fame quickly gathered around Cassius, and he took to it like a fish to water. DJ Cassius, long before it became known as such, was perhaps the world’s first rapper. He spoke in staccato rhyme, and he spoke his mind. The world took note.


In America, as Olympic champion, he was adored and honored. At least in the manner we honor black athletes: he won for “us” but he could go to the back of the bus, not sit at the local fountain store, and stay in his “proper place.”  He was a champ but he was, in the lingo of the times, especially down south, a “nigger.”

In short order Cassius Clay turned pro, put on a touch of weight and in 1964 he “whupped” Sony Liston, a fierce bigger black man, and became world heavyweight champion, and of course, vastly more famous, in America and the world. Promptly afterward he became a convert to an American form of Islamism and changed his “slave name” to Cassius X and then to Muhammed Ali.

America recoiled. This uppity black kid poked the USA in the eye, and just after he’d received one of the highest honors his country might bestow on him: fame and wealth. And just as the civil rights movement was roiling the nation. For much of America – the part that insisted on calling him Cassius – he turned into a traitor.


I wasn’t, along with the growing inchoate substrate of the “counter culture,” part of that America. As Cassius won the title, I was in bumming in Europe, a college drop-out, disaffected and alienated from my own culture. When I returned to the USA in 1964 it was knowingly to go to prison, for refusal to serve in the US military. I spent two years and a bit there, and while in, in March 1966, Ali himself refused service. In the midst of the Vietnam war this brought vicious attacks on him, and in illegal manners, he was stripped of his title and vilified. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison, (which he did not serve) and forbidden to box. And in turn he became another kind of champion – of the alternative current running through America.


I am not one for heroes or idols or stars, and Ali is no exception. I knew of him, respected his voice (and boxing skills), and over the years, as he changed in the eyes of America from loud-mouthed black boy hero to chump, to a mythic icon, I of course, like almost everyone else, followed his trajectory that arced into tragedy. Debilitated by Parkinsons and the horrendous damage of his sport, Ali appeared to mellow, and America’s view of him did likewise. No longer the brash arrogant man of his youth, the broad soft middle of America warmed to the almost silent mumbling man he became, such that today the media floods with ecominiums to this “ambassador of good will.” Such is the hypocrisy of my country.


Boxing is a violent and brutal sport. To see it live (not live TV), as I have a handful of times – small-time boxers – is to be drawn into a primal world in which the visceral taste of death dances, as does our innate animal instinct for aggression. Watching the faces of ring-side observers is to watch the face of our most elemental viciousness. Boxing is our colosseo, and those who dance within its ring are our gladiators, issuing and receiving violence to enthrall us with the hint of death – and once in a while the real thing.

This was Ali’s world, for which he paid a deep price as the punishment he took upon himself, for our “entertainment,” took its toll. Today my society – America – schizophrenically gathers not so much for boxing, now a politically incorrect sport, but for football, where vast crowds cheer on a carefully orchestrated violence, as at the same time we discuss the brain concussions implicit, and all the other bodily damage which sees athletes reduced to hobbling cripples, stuttering with battered brains in their forties. As in boxing, a disproportionate percentage – way over the 12% of the population they represent – of the players are black. It is, perhaps, as some would say, their “natural athletic abilities,” which is not far from “they got rhythm.” Or perhaps it is their place in American society, in which one of the few escapes (another is showbiz) from the poverty of our vast black ghettos is through the avenue of sports – and so young African-Americans are channeled “by the market” to concentrate on dribbling, hoops, passing, catching, hitting, and if they are very lucky, “making it” into some major league, making a fortune, and limping into their premature dotage. It is, bitterly, a sometimes well-paid version of “keeping in your place.


In the last 8 years, having entered a supposedly “post-racial” era in America, the presence of Barak Hussein Obama, a black man in the White House, has instead, through the agency of, among others, Donald Trump (and a long list of abettors in the Republican party), revealed the festering racism which remains an essential component of American society. It is something which is shown each day in the dark bodies which “play” ball for us in the avalanche of sports which serves to distract us from the disparities of our nation, the vast income chasms, the economic stratification, the vacant factories and towns, the growing legion of the homeless, not to mention the imminent violence which global warming begins to inflict upon us and the world.

Inadvertently Muhammed Ali, placed high on a pedestal as he aged, delivered vast homage in death, was in the end, “put in his place.” He boxed and danced for us, he taunted us, and named himself. And in doing so also named us. And, alas, he played his role – pugilist, gladiator. He fought in the ring and outside of it. He fought the culture he lived in. And at the end, he won, and he lost. America for now remains, beneath the veneer of multi-culturism and “post-racialism” much the same as it was back in 1967, when Ali said his provocative words, “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger.”


The “N” word is now most politically incorrect, and we do our drone kills as best we can in secret. But racism in America remains alive and vivid as it was in 1960, just as does America’s global imperialism.

And in dying, Muhammed Ali, sadly, has been put in his “proper place.” He’s been eulogized by the President (who would see Edward Snowden in prison), reams of words have graced his name, most seemingly highlighting his ambassadorial role and his honorific awards. He has been embraced and his assertions about America  – it’s racist core, it’s militaristic impulses – have been discarded. He’s been turned into “a good boy.”

In any culture, each generation produces a handful of iconic public figures, people who somehow encapsulate an historical era, mirroring and reflecting the world in which they existed. Ali was one of those. For those of that era, the death of such a person coagulates a chain of memories and realizations  – not just of that person, but of one’s time and society, and hence of one’s self.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

                                                                               John Donne

Ali was saved by the bell a few times, and he came back to win. With the final bell, his Louisville Lip has been sutured, and history has molded him into an icon of its own desires. Present tense history is always a fraud.


A friend in India wrote and asked me to write something on Muhammed Ali, after I’d posted a short note on FaceBook.  The above item is what I sent him, and post here.  Below is the Bangladesh front page of the piece.  (Thanks Nilanjan!)




Remiss in posting here, verging on a year – more or less on the road all the time, Marcella and I.   For that time the numbing cacophony of American politics has rumbled as a background noise throughout the culture, interwoven with the other threads of our communal quilt: football, baseball, basketball, the now-customary gun massacre in a shopping mall or school, or even church.  The economy wheezes, sneezes, and we are assured is on a painfully slow recovery from the banker’s bust of 2008.  While the naked eye can read these things in the homeless encampments in any city or town, and the forlorn downcast faces of placard holding “losers,” academics scan statistics to inform us that the cohort of middle-aged white American males holds the distinction of having an ever diminishing life expectancy, with high suicide rates, and deaths from drugs and alcohol.  Pundits scurry to analyze this data, to ponder just why this should be so here in the world’s richest nation. Statistics demonstrate the grotesque disparities in the distribution of American wealth; demonstrators echo the mantra of Occupy, of the 1% and the 99%, and these are belatedly mouthed by our current presidential candidates.


Meanwhile in distant lands Predator drones, and C-130 armed planes, drift high over the landscape delivering American policy, in the sudden rush of a Hellfire missile or cannon blast from 40,000 feet.  The “target objective” is (perhaps) vaporized, along with the tangential collateral damage.  Our serious columnists and pundits sift the think-tank data and opinion and then theorize on why some elements of the world’s population are angry with us.  There is no denial so successful as self-denial, and the American elite, rapacious and vicious, believes (at least some of them do) that our nation is out “doing good” in the big bad world out there.  Building democracy (backing right-wing dictators), bringing freedom (to be vaporized if you differ in what is best for your own),  developing free markets (where corporations dictate the rules).  What’s not to like?

9_Andy_Warhol_Guns_198 _AWF

Moving down the coast through a bedraggled and fracked Pennsylvania, we passed through Gettysburg, the grim cauldron of American nationhood, where the Union was – ever so American – enforced at gunpoint and vast bloodshed.   It became a national instinct, which these days finds its expression in the gun lobby, and rural America’s love of guns which it seems to correlate with “freedom.”  About 300 Americans are killed by guns everyday.  Among the casualties are veterans of America’s endless wars, who take their own lives at a clip of about 22 per day, mostly with guns.  More collateral damage.  The monuments to these men are the VFW halls which litter the rural world, one in almost every small town and city, where hardly anyone notes the curiousness of what they mean: Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Of which we have plenty.




Meandering further southward, we passed into the Deep South, where the sense of poverty deepened, and indeed the statisticians who crunch numbers confirm, if necessary, what the eye already reveals.  Though it takes a bit more than surface evidence to understand that these deep fried souls of the south, the white ones, the ones whose lifespans are contracting, are indeed the same who vote hard Republican Right, for those who would strip them of health care, of, in due time, Social Security and any other “safety net.”  All in the name of less “guvmint” and more Bible.  And in the name of not giving a crumb to Those People – the black ones, the Hispanic ones  – the any other than one’s own cracker good old boys.  Down South the purpose of a university is to host a money-making football team, and education comes far down the totem pole.   The rewards are a prideful ignorance and stupidity, worn as a badge of honor.  Fuck them libruls, and them pointy-headed college kids.  Go NASCAR.





Sprouting from this fertile ground, the current crop of Republican Presidential wanna-be’s assemble on television for their “debates” and revel in a political vulgarity that in another time would have seen them promptly booted from the stage.  Instead, in this benighted time, their inanities are taken as if serious, and even the New York Times kow-tows to their absurdities: the world is 6,000 years old (because the Bible tells me so); global warming is a hoax (because the oil industry tells me so.)   Too much idiocy to redundantly list here, though these idiocies are taken in some perverse PC-warp as acceptable by our media.   Science is a “belief” on an equal setting with, say, “Christianity.”   Thundering from the podium, we are sold pie-in-the-sky as snake oil –  old as the nation is our addiction to delusion.


“No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”     H.L. Mencken





Through the Southwest of res towns and spectacular landscapes, we veered north to the dilapidated once-city of Butte, one of my American touch-stones.  The vast spaces are punctuated with pockets of mocking wealth and faux Westernism – places like Santa Fe, Taos, Cody, Jackson Hole – sparkling next to the myriad run-down abandoned places strung along disused rail tracks.  The res towns seem frozen in amber, desolate and hopeless, suffocated by the bowl of sky above and the empty landscapes around them.   Once thriving towns lie in ruins, roofs collapsing, stores boarded up and empty.  Desolation is transparent and real.


They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Robert Zimmerman



Landing in the self-conscious civility of Portland, where the invisible hand of the market masks racism, and the weird politeness of well-off hipsters hides its class-roots (those thousands of dollars of tattoos and piercings that “keep Portland weird” don’t fall from the sky), I felt exhausted, not of the thousands of miles on the road, but of the meanderings of my mind.  Road hum for me is something that loosens my thoughts, allows a vast free-flow of observations, perceptions, and experiences to intermingle, and opens up “thinking,”  which in its turn allows one to really “look.”

Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”  Goethe

Of America – boisterous, crazed, beautiful, ugly – I have seen enough to ponder the balance of my years.  Enough to guess its fractures now run so deep that it will, following in the wake of the USSR, stumble and collapse, and modestly soon – the next 30 to 50 years?  Enough to sense I have nothing more to add to the tumult of sounds which riven it, the avalanche of images and noises, which now run amok, out of all control, driving it towards ruin.   In all honesty I think nothing – certainly no political party, certainly no technical wizardry, certainly no “religious revival” (a recurrent American fall-back) – can thwart this spiral into dissolution.  Nor, really, should one try:  it is natural that things are born, grow, live, and then die.  As much for human constructs like nations and cultures, as for any living thing.

The pure products of America
go crazy–
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and

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

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

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

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

peasant traditions to give them
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags succumbing without
save numbed terror

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

Unless it be that marriage
with a dash of Indian blood

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

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

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

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

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

addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes

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

and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth

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

the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

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

Wm Carlos Williams








 lHnCMjS (1)

Rothko’s New Clothes

In 2002, visiting Houston a first time, I went with considerable anticipation to visit the famed Rothko Chapel.  I had read of it, though I’d seen no pictures that I recall. In my mind I envisioned entering a space in which I’d be surrounded with glowing color – the signature intense hues of this color field painter – and I was flushed with a quiet excitement.  When quite young, I’d fallen for this painter’s work, standing at the Chicago Art Institute’s canvases, inches away from the surface, swimming in vibrant color, then pulling back to see the whole field of reds, oranges, blues; the delicate feathers of the borders between the simple forms, the soft painterly touches, the intensity of the subtle play of hues.  He was, without question, one of my favorites.

 1331328564-rothko_untitled - Copy

mark-rothko_02 - Copy

15 years ago, on entering the Miesien-style building which the artist shaped and requested, I found myself dumbfounded: instead of the subtle but intense play of color I’d envisioned I was faced with a sequence of huge panels, of deep very dark gray-blacks, some framed with very very dark maroon, and the painterly qualities which enlivened Rothko’s earlier work almost banished, with rather crisp graphic lines defining these initially almost invisible frames. Almost as if Ad Reinhart had been shuffled into the deck.  Black on black.   I recall at the time being very disappointed not getting the burst of color which I’d imagined, and I suspect in my disappointment I did not exactly give it the time I would have otherwise.



So this time, returned for a screening at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, I went – in part so Marcella might see it – to try again, and tried to clear my mind of my prior judgement.   Outside the chapel sits an bronze Barnet Newman inverted obelisk – the same one that occupies the lobby of the temple of MoMA, where the money-changers had long since invaded this sacred art ground and converted it into a high-end shopping mall.  This genuflection to another priest of high-modernism instilled a tart bite to my entry into the chapel, perhaps already tilting my already skewed view of what my previous experience had set.  (I note I am not at all convinced by Newman’s work, and all his literary explication does little to dispel my disdain.)


newmanmasBarnett Newman (modernist magazine graphics enlarged)

Passing the entry foyer, with its admonition to set cell phones off, take no photos and to follow the rules and be respectful, I entered, and saw a woman sitting at a little desk, there to enforce the decorum requested.  Perhaps it was the flat overcast sky and the indirect light from overhead, but, once again, I was struck by the near colorless pall of the place.  To the front, three panels, initially appearing to be black and slightly gray, sit glumly together, edge to edge.  On the adjacent walls of the octagonal shaped room’s walls sit companion pieces, similarly colorless though some of these huge panels have nearly invisible dark maroon frames holding their leaden fields; the rear panel holds two equally dark leaden rectangles.



A few people sat on the benches, one reading, following the instructions to sit silent for meditation.  I allowed myself to wander from canvas to canvas, allowing my eyes to slowly dilate, and after some minutes the slight modulations in the dark gray expanses revealed themselves, vague washes akin on some of the panels to layers of a dark gray fog, as if in some Asian landscape work.  The maroon framing areas slowly became more evident, clear graphic edges, sharply delineated unlike Rothko’s usual hazy transitions.  After some more minutes a closer inspection unveiled slight hints of painterly smudges along the edges of gray-on-gray areas.  20 minutes of such careful looking revealed little more, and whatever was there seemed hardly to warrant the effort.   As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there.

While I suppose one could construct some kind of intellectual or theological argument around these paintings – that the niggardly almost-nothing constitutes a Zen renunciation, or that the slow and reluctant unfolding of the panels’ “content” hints at theological mysteries, or…    But this teasing out of meaning is more squeezing blood from a rock than real thought.   The paintings in the Rothko Chapel themselves are simply a failure, a dead-end corner into which Rothko had painted himself, a null point wherein a rapturous colorist sucked the life out of his own work, and replaced it with vast leaden canvases devoid of the ripe energy of his earlier work.  The effect is not celebratory or joyous or spiritual, but funerary.


Red on Maroon 1959 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969


And yet our art establishment has elevated the Rothko Chapel to an exalted status, a mecca for cultural tourism, where we are to genuflect as at the Sistine Chapel before the divine powers of an alleged masterpiece.   So our visitors come, duly prepped for a spiritual experience, hushed and reverent, and stand before these canvasses, admonished that they must respectfully fall into a meditative prayerful state.  While I was there the mumbo-jumbo appears to have worked as a handful of people filed in, sat, and remained silent.  A mother tried to silence her infant daughter.    One young man entered, sat before the left panel of the 3 piece “altar”, and facing outward, rather ostentatiously took a full lotus position, and presumably meditated.   I was prompted to think of the admonition of the Bible to not make a show of one’s prayerfulness.


Having given the chapel the due time to let my eyes adjust, pupils widening so as to discern the minimal modulations on the canvases, the maroon elements of some works emerging more clearly, and the large fields of gray-on-gray to show their slight shifts in tone, I nevertheless concluded that the appropriate tale to tell would be of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  The Rothko Chapel, despite the institutional hype, is a dud.  As art it is thin stuff,  requiring the viewer to tease out some “meaning” or feeling from the most minimal of painterly traces.  While the scale is indeed monumental, the actual art is miniature.


There is, by default, an admission by the Rothko Chapel organization, that all is not quite as they would have it appear.  In the brochure they hand out, it is noted the chapel was commissioned by the Menil’s in 1964, and opened in 1971, while Rothko died in 1970.  They neglect to inform the visitor that he died by his own hand, in his NYC studio.  His paintings had been leached of color; the last crimson Rothko red blossom of life was his own blood on the floor which surely dried to a deep dark maroon akin to those of the paintings he left behind as a suicide note.


RothkoMural4 (1).

As I left the chapel, the young self-pleased man remained in his lotus position, and another man used some pillows to take a pious kneeling posture.  Enforced solemnity reigned, and the ghost of Rothko hung in the air, naked and despairing. And as well, the ghosts of high-modernism revealed their exhaustion.

1969.47.71 0004


Ad Reinhardt

Guild 1982 Robert Ryman born 1930 Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996

Ryman-NYMOMA-11Robert Ryman





DSC03234 SM


(New York Times Headline, April 4, 2014)

Returned to the US after close to four months away, I arrived to the cacophony of money.  It is, as the phrase goes, bottom-line American.  The All-Mighty Buck.  Follow the money.  Money talks, bullshit walks.  It’s the American way, just ask Justice Scalia, or his StepnFetchit, Justice Thomas.




Money is a kind of poetry.– Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

                               Dana Gioia


Adding insult to injury, following Citizens United, backing their decision with specious arguments asserting it wasn’t in any way a mode of corruption, the Robert’s Supreme Court this past week ruled that Federal caps on many forms of political campaign donations were unconstitutional (McCutcheon v. FEC.)  Just as the prior ruling had it that corporations are people, and hence have the same First Amendment rights as the two footed form.   And so the flood-gates opened, resulting in the NYT headline cited above.  Yep, money is, says the Supreme Court, a mode of “talk” and the First Amendment prohibits any clamps on our mouths by the government.  Let ‘er rip.  Of course the same Court has few compunctions about intervening at other orifices and apparently sees no contradiction therein, and I am sure in other instances the same court would happily rule to shut some mouths.





Returning was a narrow and selective chance to see the effects of money in the real world.  Arriving in NYC, a ramble through the once hot artistic bohemian realm of Soho revealed an ever more glamorous shopping mall, to serve the new denizens of the area, awash in wealth. Gucci Prada Luis Vuitton as well as more local practitioners of sucking up the money from the very rich.  Nearby areas reflected a similar trajectory making much of Manhattan a play-ground mostly for the very well-off.  Some visits to Brooklyn showed a down-scale version of the same phenomenon:  Green Point, Red Hook, Williamsburg, Gowanus.  There the young hipsters, priced out of swanky Manhattan, have taken over run-down swathes of the city and, as in many other places I know, displacing the locals (poorer, most often of color other than Anglo) and bringing in their “culture.”  Soon enough condo’s sprout, the economic level shifts up a few more notches, and “gentrification” happens.  This is all done under the Mystical Invisible Hand of the Market, so it is, ahem, ideologically free, not racist, etc.  Once again the rumble of cash turns into a tsunami, wiping out all in its (s)way.




945_BOSTON-FIRE_1978From Peter Hutton’s Boston Fire

Moving on from New York, where I got a few harsh reminders of the current economic trends as they apply to the likes of me, I caught a mix of Amtrak and buses on down to Columbus Ohio, a trip which put me in the company of the sorts shoved out of Brooklyn and who can’t afford airplanes.  At one point the bus had to stop as an altercation was going on, and finally the police were called and took the soul away.  He was not Anglo colored.  Another bus jaunt northward brought me back to Cleveland where I had a chance to see another once-industrial city dying as the slosh of massive money shifted to other climes in the name of “Globalization.”   This policy was put into effect at the behest of our larger corporations, with the assurances it would bring jobs and all kinds of good things to America.  Both our permitted political parties, eagerly embraced these policies, singing a siren song of praises for what it would do for the Nation.   It brought instead the ubiquitous Wal-Mart boxes and boarded up small town Main Streets, along with the larger decimation of places like Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo and a long string of other once productive American cities.  The children of old Sam Walton are among the richest people in the world, having sold their Arkansas snake-oil to the country while laying waste to it.  Ironically the country which most “capitalized” on this policy, China, has equally been laid waste with horrendous ecological damage, corruption, and sometime soon an economic crash as rapid and vast as its ascent.

A customer leaves a Wal-Mart store in Rogers



Severe Weather WI

Other travels have taken me to the quasi-abandoned northwest corner of Missouri, and across Missouri, Iowa and rural Illinois to Chicago.  The seeming story remains the same: small towns sucked dry of their economic ground, family farms taken over by corporate ones, jobs swept away, leaving boarded up towns, a litany of For Sale signs, weathered and hopeless.  Meanwhile, our government, in collusion with our biggest corporations, secretly negotiates the terms of the TPP (TransPacific-Partnership), kissing cousin to NAFTA (of which the long forgotten Presidential candidate, Ross Perot, accurately predicted – to predictable ridicule from the establishment – that the giant sound you would hear would be the jobs being sucked away….).  Obama, the candidate who promised “transparency,” is fully involved in this scam, along with the NSA one.


James Clapper




As spring arrives, haltingly in many parts of the country, already the noise of the mid-term elections are upon us, and with it, the massive noise of money.  Money in the form of endless political TV ads, money in the form of bought and paid for “representatives” of the people: Federal, State, local.  Money in the form of long since paid-off Supreme Court “Justices” who bend to the siren song of capital.  The NSA keeps silent watch over us, as an army of co-conspirators, such as Mr Clapper, pull the levers, violating “the law” everyday, and suffering no response.  Just as did our previous President and his entourage.  We live in a criminalized Nation, with the great criminals residing, naturally, at the very top of the pyramid of power.

It is spring time in Tornado Alley.



Google Data Center in Council Bluffs