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Tag Archives: Dan Cornell

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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.

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Charles Therminy, August 12, 1934 – March 9, 2017, my roommate in 1963

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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Sequence 01.Still008Dan Cornell and Hal Waldrup, up on the head-frame (illegally) for Bell Diamond

I met Dan Cornell in 1986, not long after arriving in Butte, Montana, to make a film.  I had no script, title, or money.  Just a vague idea, my camera and things, Alenka Pavlin with whom I was living, and the decision to shoot in Butte, because of the looks, the history, and the unemployment.

Arriving in early summer we went at the suggestion of someone we asked about a good place to meet people to the Silver Dollar saloon.  In ten minutes we’d met Terri Williams (now Ruggles), who offered us a place to stay the night.  Things promptly rippled out from there, and as autumn approached we’d shot a film, with locals, in a “story” improvised as we went along.  And made friends, and a curious attachment to this battered little city.  It became, for me, another “home.”

Among those met and participating in the film was Dan, originally from Brooklyn, NY., but transplanted by choice at first to Bozeman to study, and then moved to Butte to settle in for the long haul.  Dan had been in Vietnam, a helicopter pilot, and had stories to tell and liked to tell them.  Not just about his time there, but about life.  A smart guy too.

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At the time Dan was a contractor, painting houses, building, doing whatever circumstances in Butte offered.  Later on he became a teacher at the local high school, teaching painting things other than houses.  He made himself at home in his adopted city, and as time went on made a little figure there.

I recall in 1987 developing the story for Bell Diamond, with all the actors participating, and incorporating aspects of his real life into the context.  One evening, Dan, Hal Waldrup,  Marshall Gaddis, Jim Duran (there to record sound) and I clambered up the rickety Bell Diamond head-frame ladder, quite illegally, to shoot a scene there at sunset.  In it he recounted that the height – a bit over 100 feet up – was just about where the VC would open up fire on his helicopter back in Nam.  During the shoot, a very quick hit and run matter, we had to duck twice to hide from a security guard patrolling the area in a pick-up.

Once the film was finished shooting, in September of that year, Alenka and I left for San Francisco where the Leo Diner lab promptly trashed my original material in the developing soup (the processing machine went down with my film in it), and added insult to injury on making the first print when someone threaded up one 30 minute reel improperly and punched sprocket dents into it.  Even so, damaged, it was invited to the Berlin Festival Forum, and got a mess of very nice reviews, 10-best-of-the-year mentions, and such.  When Dan later saw it he was disappointed and asked why I hadn’t made a film like the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona.  I don’t know how few millions that film cost, but Bell Diamond was $25,000 from an NEA Grant, nobody was paid, local non-actors were the cast and Alenka and I were the crew.  Sorry, Dan, no can do.

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After making the film I returned periodically over the decades to Butte to visit friends, staying once or twice at Dan’s house.  And in 2012,  I returned to shoot Coming to Terms, and attempted a quickie second film (never finished) in which Dan played a part.

In those last visits, Dan had stories to tell of a recent trip to Viet Nam, where he motorbiked into the mountains with a local guide and had a great time.  He’d also bought a nice BMW bike to tool around Montana, and one summer spent some weeks on the road with his son, touring the Rocky Mountains.  Back in Butte he’d built a nice green-house addition to his house, and some raised beds for gardening.   Settling in for the relaxed pleasures of retirement.

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Over the decades all my friends in Butte, who all knew Dan, fell out with him.  And on my last visit, in summer 2015, after he’d helped make a board for me to do pastels on in his shop, and otherwise been ever helpful, Marcella and I were going to house-sit for him while he took a trip.  We arrived from Missoula, having let him know we’d be a bit late to get to a what-needs-to-be-done look around his house.  On arriving – at most 30 minutes later than originally planned, he promptly informed us we wouldn’t be house-sitting, were not to be trusted, and otherwise did what my Butte friends said he’d done to them: seemingly arbitrarily turned on them over some minor matter and, at least for them, succeeded in dissuading them from any further contact.  He accomplished the same for me and Marcella in that last meeting.   Since leaving Butte back then, violating my usual habit, I omitted Dan from correspondence or personal letters.

Though I wondered, regarding what had happened to my friends, and finally to myself, whether these episodes were a kind of submerged Viet Nam induced PTSD behavior. Seemed likely to me.   Or maybe it was just that hot-headed Irish blood bubbling up.   I recall him mentioning to me more than a few times, how he had a list of 10 people he wanted to kill before he died.  It wasn’t said like a joke, and he did clearly harbor some kind of deep injury which seems to have prompted these thoughts.  I tried to get him to lighten up, but about this he was somehow seemingly very serious.

I had hoped to see Dan in the coming late Autumn, when I hope to pass again through Butte, to see friends perhaps a last time, to try to patch things up.  Seems he beat me to it.

At this age in life, at least for some of us, it is a time to try to wrap up loose ends, make amends where possible, and otherwise make a deal with one’s self about one’s own life.  Regret I wasn’t able to do so with Dan.

Dan’s obituary in the Montana Standard

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The Book of Butte – Photography by Jon Jost