Yellowstone National Park
Following a week of recording in Piangipane, Emilio Romagna, Italy, and a one day stop in London, I returned to the USA toward the end of October after an absence of a year and 8 months. For me personally much had changed – a back operation, recuperation, a few friends no longer with us, and the usual thoughts that come with some many spins around the sun. And America had likewise undergone a sea-change. An election had been held, a new President had taken office, and it seemed as if for the social culture a long shadow had been cast, and a general air of gloom had taken hold, at least among the kinds of people I tend to know. Others I understand are quite happy with the changes. On arrival my own immediate life was seized with mundane chores: grab the van, update the car insurance, new plates, head on to destination #1, and so on. Hit the road, which was the plot and plan.
Charles Therminy, August 12, 1934 – March 9, 2017, my roommate in 1963
Sam Shepard, November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017Dan Cornell, Feb. 11, 1947 – April 7, 2017
The last time I’d returned to America in such a way was back in 2002, after 10 continuous years in Europe with nary a visit back in that decade away. Then I was prompted by the post-9/11 words of friends who cautioned the air was thick with unhappiness and the steady encroachment of a police-state regime. I wondered, and on return had to agree, except it seemed worse than what I’d heard. America was down, riled up with old hat arguments which seem our fated history. We were paranoid, unconscious, in endless denial. Was 9/11 an inside job? Why would an Arabic group attack us? Were we safe anymore? And on and on. The schism between urban and rural widened, Fox took hold across the heartlands, and two America’s seemed to struggle to emerge. Not a happy time.
And now, a decade and a half later, the sour brew which had begun at the start of the Millennium has turned toxic. A new President, not really elected by the people, but installed courtesy of an arcane system meant to reward slave-holders way back when, has done exactly what it was clear he’d do during the farcical election when with a childish petulance he revealed his Republican opponent’s vacuity with an infantile bullying BS, and they all caved, the hollow men of TS Eliot. And then the DNC/Clinton Democrats were up, only to reveal their hubris and political deafness. Since November 7, 2016, the nation has been in a state of shock, each day amplified by new waves of bull-in-the-china-shop actions taken by the Trump administration. From the relative stasis of the long post-WW2/Cold War era, we’re now in a seeming terra incognita.
That we have arrived in this state should in reality be no surprise. The underlying grounds have been more than visible for decades, if one only chose to look. Most people instead preferred the comfort of denial or ignorance, or both. Since World War Two, when America took on seriously its role of global super-power, wielding its nuclear weapons, its manufacturing base cranked up for war-making, intact in not having been bombed as all the other were in the war, we have lived in a perpetual condition of illusion. And we have been lied to by our government chronically, again and again, in all that time. From hiding and denying the evidence that our nuclear experiments in fact had seriously dangerous side-effects, on through our lying about covert operations through out the world, from Iran to Cuba to Vietnam, to Central and South America, the American government has paved the way both for our relative wealth, and for the corrosive effects of having lied to achieve it. The JFK white-wash with magic bullets. Gulf of Tonkin. The World Trade Center collapse. WMD. The story is long and full of government lies-as-policy.
“Globalization” has only served to exacerbate this process, loosening the regulations regarding corporate behavior which in turn sent jobs to the cheapest labor pools, and decimated middle-America, all under the rubric of neo-liberalism, promising great economic gains across the board while in reality culling the winners to the rich, and abandoning those lower on the totem pole. All under the guidance of the government’s Brightest and Best, money sloshed loosely around the globe in a most un-benign manner. The whole process has resulted in an across-the-board corruption of our society – from the lowest to the highest. From Wall Street to Main Street, from academic grade inflation to “safe spaces” for the coddled children of a misguided middle-class. The Trump administration is in fact a fair reflection of the society it represents, both “Conservative” and “Liberal” sides. Like that society, it is corrupt – fiscally, socially, morally, politically. Trump could never have won office in a healthy society, but American society has been increasingly ill over the last 5 decades, or in truth far longer. And the chickens are now home to roost.
I came back to the States in part to see friends for a probable last time, and to try to make a bit of money. The latter is proving a hard go – screenings promised and then cancelled, inquiries unanswered and such. You can see a few other posts regarding that topic. I also came back for a perhaps last look at America – its cities and landscapes. And also perhaps to make a final essay about America, Plain Songs, a companion for my previous two films on the US: Speaking Directly (1972), and Plain Talk and Common Sense (uncommon senses) (1987). I’ve been back now two months, and while I have taken a few shots which I imagined to be for this new film, I sense it will not be made. The one shot I made was from Cape Flattery, far out on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the farthest west one can go in mainland USA. Nestled next to it is Neah Bay, an Indian rez town, and like most of them I have ever seen, a sad place of derelict homes, signs against meth and alcohol, and an air of final desolation. I thought to begin with a first segment called “The End of America,” as this end-point of America, like the “Center of the Nation” in Plain Talk, is ripe with ironic meaning. I took a shot, and inside something curdled in my soul.
Each day here is greeted with an avalanche of “news,” whether it is of the machinations of the Trump administration or of an almost Biblical kind – hurricanes flattening islands in the Caribbean, or flooding Houston, or fires decimating California, or the huff and puff of Kim Jong-un, or the unmasking of yet another sexist man in showbiz or politics, or yet another gun massacre or cop killing another black man. Each day seems to shriek calamity, and the social atmosphere grows dark and fraught with fear. Amidst this cacophony one feels an aura of irrational hysteria, a society caught in the throes of a major change, one which might easily slip any direction, but seems headed for the worst. I can’t say I am surprised, after all it is exactly what I examined in the earlier essay films [as well as in numerous fictional films – Sure Fire, The Bed You Sleep In, Homecoming, Over Here, Parable, Coming to Terms] – this decay of American society and the costs incurred by it out in the wide world, and inside, in the personal one.
Last of the now extinct carrier-pigeons
So I ask myself, what might I add? And, honestly, I imagine there is ample room in my thoughts to toss in my two-bits. But then I ask, and who would it hear it and how would that happen? And my answer is that while perhaps a handful or even some hundreds or thousands might see such a work, in the present political reality that is tantamount to no one. It would amount to a nano-second blip in the vast ocean of noise and shouting which envelops us daily. And while I, and perhaps a handful of others, might derive some pleasure or learning from such a work, it would surely do absolutely nothing in the face of the tsunami of media, money, and cultural leverage which our society wields each day, every day, all day. Socially, politically, it would be simply nothing. Of that I am utterly sure, just as I am likewise sure – and history shows it all too clearly – that the prior two films, along with all the rest of my life’s work, have done nothing politically or socially in any way I might have intended. Yes, a very very small number of people may have been personally touched, and perhaps even a few saw their lives slightly deflected by it. But, bottom line, in the real world of society and its mechanisms, zilch. Really nothing.
Perhaps these are the thoughts of a banged-up burned-out doddering old geezer. Perhaps – I certainly qualify for some of that. Perhaps it is time to turn my attentions elsewhere, and leave the transitory stuff of politics to itself. Or perhaps it is just a transitory quiver of doubt, long over-due. Or perhaps instead of a filmed essay it will morph into another form. Written, or…. well, we’ll see. For the moment though, the idea of Plain Songs as a video essay has gone dormant.