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CHICAGO-68-11Grant Park, August 1968

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

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A Prelude

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

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

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

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

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Photo to right: Linn Ehrlich 1967

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

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

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

marilyn-august-68.jpgMarilyn at the barricades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBC News - 1968 Democratic National Convention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For various other views see these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Last images of Traps

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

Jost Short Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You make your bed; you sleep in it.

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEWED ON 3/20/99                                 GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”

© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED   DENNIS SCHWARTZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bed You Sleep In Review:

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

 

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

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

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