March 21, 2022
A year and a week ago a dear friend of mine, Swain Wolfe, decided he’d had enough of being on this earth and removed himself. From what I understand he kind of botched the job. He’d drunk a bottle of hard booze, taken sufficient painkiller pills, for which he’d had ready access, and “gone to sleep.” Apparently though it wasn’t the Long Sleep he’d been looking for, and he woke up, surely in a stupor of drugs and alcohol, and realized this wasn’t death. He went and got the pistol he had in the house and put his brain on the kitchen ceiling.
I can’t say I hadn’t in some ways seen it coming, as he’d pretty directly told me that when time came, he was ready to take himself out of our little game here. I believed him, though as he’d promised his mother on her deathbed that he’d care for his much younger sister, Carolyn, who had Down’s Syndrome, rather than allow her to be institutionalized, I was sure he wouldn’t do so while she was alive. She died in autumn, 2017, three and a half years before he chose to leave.
I’d known Swain a long time, since 1971, when on an impulsive instinct I moved with my partner of the time, Elayne Ketchum, and her daughter, Erinn, then just 3 and some, from rural Oregon, in the forests near Cottage Grove at the south end of the Willamette Valley, to Montana. Elayne and I said we were tired of “sunshine hippies” and wanted something a lot harder. So we moved way north. Enroute we passed through Missoula, with a tip from someone on the filmmaker’s grapevine, that we should drop in on a filmmaker there, who also had a 16mm lab. That was Swain, and his company Bitterroot Films. We took the advice, and were warmly greeted, and doubtless shared some beers and talk. While there another man visited, from up near Kalispell, and told us of an abandoned cabin he knew of, which we might be able to move into. He passed along the name of a woman we should ask, one Mrs. Gillespie. Heading north, we checked it out, got an OK, and indeed did move in: no electricity, no running water, and when we moved in, no floor. Elayne and I were rank amateurs at rural life, but after living there 5 years, we had a big garden, chickens, rabbits and goats, and a lot of real wonderful hard life lessons under our belts.
While there we’d visit Missoula, 130 miles to the south, once in a long while – 2 or 3 times a year, dropping in on Swain each time. We slowly became friends, and he loaned me his old PC 16mm camera to shoot parts of my first feature film, Speaking Directly. I don’t quite recall but probably he also processed some of the film for me, too.
Swain’s bread and butter back then was shooting the local High School and the University of Montana’s football games, for training purposes. He also made documentaries about ecological things, long before it became fashionable. His films were not very good (which he admitted later), being rather heavy-handed and didactic, and visually mundane, but several sold well in the educational market back then, and he zipped around in the film world looking dapper (and screwing his way around – he told me lots of stories of that).
In the 5 years we lived in the Mission Valley, Swain never came up to visit us. We moved from Kalispell in 1975, or maybe it was 76, going to Southern California, where Elayne came from. And I thought to take a stab at Hwd.
In 1977 I decided to make a film rooted in a mix of my prison experiences, and the time I’d lived in Montana – tapping on the many things I’d learned. Working with Tom Blair, whom I’d met in Kalispell, and came from South Dakota. Tom was the theater department of the local community college there, and we’d get together to have beers, tell stories, and smoke really bad Montana home-grown. Luckily I never saw one of his productions, or saw him act up there (or anywhere), which I suspect might have turned me off working with him.
Going to Missoula to scout things out, Swain said he’d loan me his camera again, and that his little lab crew could help out if I wanted. When time came Michael helped record sound and do some gofer work. I rounded up some actors for the film at the drama department at U of Montana, and went back to LA, where I got one more person lined up, Jessica St. John, whom I met while making a little drug deal; it just happened she came from Missoula and was headed there to see family. In June I went back to Missoula to rendezvous with Tom, and the others. Last Chants for a Slow Dance was shot in a week, in part in Swain’s house.
Not for the only time, his memory and mine don’t coincide on things around Last Chants or other matters. In offering his camera, I think Swain also intended to do camera for me – for which I was not really open, but I did let him do the first shot, where both of us rode on the hood of an old pickup, no straps or safety measures at all, going 30 mph or so, on a real highway. I’d told Tom, who was driving, that whatever he did, he needed to do it slowly – accelerating or stopping – as Swain and I were subject to the laws of physics and we’d go wherever momentum dictated. For the shot I told Swain I wanted only a few short pans, and no zooms. While shooting I saw him do a zoom and decided for sure I didn’t want him shooting anymore. We survived the shot. Came the next take, in his bathroom with an argument between fictional husband-wife, I told him I’d shoot it. He got quietly pissed, and left town. I have never seen a camera operator with a zoom able to keep their hands off of it. I shot the rest of the film.
Swain’s version, told to me a few times in the decades since, was that Tom arrived, he’d sussed him out as a quasi-psycho, and promptly left because of that. I know that wasn’t true, as he did do that first shot, and my version is that he was angry that he wasn’t going to shoot film, and left town to go simmer or whatever he did. We wrapped the film in a week, and I returned to LA where I had it processed and jumped into editing, having promised a non-existent film in May to the Edinburgh Film Festival which was at the end of August. They’d invited it sight unseen, before a frame had been shot.
After, when the film had gone to the festival, gotten a handful of nice reviews, including an article in Sight & Sound, and all that – all for $3000, Swain decided a few years later, to make a feature himself. My guess is that he did that prompted by having seen me make a feature under his nose, with his equipment on almost nothing. He told me about his film a bit before, and one thing he planned was to shoot the bad guy (who he told me a few years back was some more or less famous right-wing government guy who’d done some dirty work for Reagan) always with this very long telephoto lens, actually more a telescope. I thought this was not wise on a few accounts – like how do you direct a guy a football field away? Or how do you cut to the totally flattened hyper-telephoto stuff to the other 16mm stuff? Terrible cinematic idea. But Swain went ahead, shot his film, and it was awful. Truly awful – stiff bad acting, klutzy story, really really bad. And the terrible hyper-tele shots flat as a pancake. I know I looked at it, but don’t remember if I gave him any ideas of how to salvage it (I doubt I did as I saw no way for that), or just told him to let it go as a loss. But he couldn’t let go and spent a decade trying to edit his way to something passable, which he never did. $100,000 worth of messing with it. Down the drain.
Deep inside I think he sort of blamed me, and for a few decades he was always kind of prickly with me, like I’d booted him from shooting Last Chants, and that somehow I had made him do his terrible film, and it was all my fault. He never said that, but I think he felt it. I also felt he was a bit jealous as my career, what there was of it, blossomed. For a good while he had a hard time saying my films were any good.
All water long under the bridge now. In his later years he admitted he’d made terrible films, and he liked mine a lot. And the prickliness he showed – he called himself an irascible old bastard and mean guy and seems to have had precious few friends – was just him, not aimed at me at all. I guess we could say I had been my usual Taurus-self in this regard and stuck through it, whatever. To my observation it seemed I was the last friend he had, who put up with him. The others all seemed to drift away.
Sometime in the last decade he gave me that awful telephoto lens. I messed with it – soft, drop-off on edges, a POS.
Swain, living right on the North Fork of the Clark River, had a canoe, though it seemed he seldom used it. I recall, I think at my request, going out on the river with him, nearby. At some point, don’t recall why, we went to shore and I got out to do something. He had been in the front, and I watched as he paddled not reversing himself, the back of the canoe wig-wagging back and forth and he seeming puzzled. I had always thought Swain – a big guy – was physically clumsy, but this suggested he really just didn’t understand some things. I kept my mouth shut in the instance.
Another time Swain decided to make a film about hang-gliding as the mountain behind UM back then was a regular launching place for them, and often in good weather one would see them circling over the campus. I saw some of his footage – really pedestrian (especially if one had seen, as I had, footage from existing films on hang-gliders). As it happened, in order to pursue this, he decided to take lessons and take wing himself. Apparently, early on, he took a little nasty take-off crash, and came to think better of it. I recalled his lack of intuition in the canoe and thought to myself, yep, not a clue about these things. I am thankful he stopped before he really hurt himself. He did finish his film, a really bad piece.
After making Last Chants I ended spending some time in Europe and far away from Montana, but in 1982 I returned to the USA, and in 1983 or so I returned to Montana to shoot a film with Tom Blair and Roxanne Rogers, in Ronan, up in the Mission Valley, on the Blackfoot reservation. And again spent time with Swain, who processed the film stock for me, though the film blew up into a failure. Our connection deepened. On one visit to Missoula around that time, Swain went to Butte, a city I’d driven by at least 20 times but never gone into, to get some free 16mm processing machines from the local TV outfit, which was switching to video. I went with him to help, and got a non-Interstate glimpse of Butte – and was hooked.
Returning from another stay in Europe I’d decided to make a film about unemployed people, and chose to do so in Butte, which certainly had that in spades as the mines had closed. And I liked its run-down miner town looks – the looming head-frames, turn-of-the-century downtown, derelict abandoned mines. In this case I’d bought my own camera, a CP Gismo, and didn’t need his, but again we spent time together, our binds deepening. The film was Bell Diamond, named after one of the old mines and its head-frame.
Around this time, in the late 80’s, Swain asked me to take a look at a manuscript for a book he’d written. I don’t know why, as I had no cred in terms of writing, though I did myself write a fair bit, for myself. While I probably would normally have turned it down, and though at the time I’d long since not been much of a reader, especially of fiction, I said yes. And I read it and liked it. He asked if I had any suggestions for him. He’d written it in first person/present tense. As it was a once-upon-a-time kind of fable, I recall telling him to put it in past tense. He recalled me saying put it in third person. In any event he did both. I probably did suggest both. Sometime later, after he self-published, it had subsequently been picked up by a real publisher and officially printed in 1993, and had apparently done OK. I figured if he’d lucked out maybe he’d made 50K or so. Sometime in the last decade he told me it’d been translated in 17 languages or so, and he’d made half a million bucks from it !!! I jokingly asked him for my cut. None of his other books, of which he wrote four, did anywhere near so well.
Apparently somewhat flush, he told me a handful or more of years before he committed suicide, that he had gotten hooked on playing the market, thinking he had figured it out, and he played – his lady friend Laurie described it as “obsessively” – until they finally cleaned his clock and he admitted they played him, not the other way, and he’d stopped. I was surprised he’d do something like that, but… well people are full of secrets you’d never suspect they had.
After having made Bell Diamond, Butte became one of my homes – a place where I had friends, a place I could stay, and a place I liked. I returned recurrently, and being near to Missoula, I’d see Swain more often. I stayed either in my van in his parking place, or in Laurie’s live-in painting studio he’d built for her across the yard. Usually if I stayed overnight I’d whip up a dinner for them.
I recall one of the last times going with Swain out to the Costco store to pick up some things for myself, and to cook. He was clearly labored in crossing the parking lot, his artificial hip having changed his gait. Twice his hip had popped out, leaving him squirming on the floor in excruciating pain. Once he’d fallen down the stairway to his basement writing lair. As we were checking out I recall us bantering with the clerk that we were going back home and change each other’s Depends. All in good humor, but it was closer to the truth than perhaps we imagined.
In 2017 I went to spend the summer in Butte, staying at my friend Marshall Gaddis’ place up in Walkerville. As later I would be headed to the West Coast, I sent Swain a note that I’d be dropping by to see him on the way. He wrote me this:
July 7, 2017
I appreciate your offer to visit on your cross country tour. However, I am in pain and it affects the way I think and behave. It would be better for both of us if you did not visit. Visitors frustrate me and I end up making things uncomfortable for everyone. I waited to write until I was thinking clearly, otherwise it would have been a nasty bit of nonsense and you don’t need that.
I’ve been writing, as you know, and that’s been going reasonably well, so I’ll keep at it for a while. Writing tends to get me out of my body and lets me ignore the facts of my life.
I wish you luck and money on your travels through Great Again America. Never has it shone so brightly. But wait a while and they’ll touch off the nukes. Then: an even Greater and Brightly Land this will be.
A week before I was going to go I wrote and asked again and in an email he wrote simply:
I contacted Laurie, who sort of lives with him, and asked to know more, and said that at least I would like to see her as she was my friend as well. She said to meet her at the Butterfly Herbs Cafe on Higgins Street in downtown Missoula. And I did. I waited a bit, and finally she arrived, and behind her, walking slowly 10 steps behind, was Swain, who for some time seemed grudgingly there. I imagine Laurie had pressed him on the matter. And then, after ten or so minutes, he then loosened up over his tea and for two hours regaled me with stories. He is a writer and a story-teller and I am happy to listen. Afterward, as we went back to his place I offered to go get some stout, which I knew he liked, and he said yes. By the time I arrived to his house he’d already gone to bed, knocking himself out with pain-killers. But I’m glad he found in himself the willingness to see me. I tried to tell him how much it, and he, meant to me. I left in the morning not seeing him again as I needed to get off to the coast, and I knew he was a very late riser. As I drove off I understood I’d probably never see him again. Nor, as it happened did I ever hear from him again, as he closed himself fully off to the outside world.
Preparing to write this, I went back over past years of correspondence which Swain and I had over the years, as far back as 2006, though I know we had had much before then. Maybe his email changed. Reading underlined the depth of our friendship, and brought tears to my eyes.
When Swain died, I was informed a bit belatedly, by an odd route. Checking with friends in Missoula some weeks later, no one knew. The Missoulian, the local paper, published a terse obituary notice on March 26, and then published a full one on April 17, 2021. I read it and found it a bit odd, sending it to a friend there who had not seen it. He wrote me back saying it was quite a wonderful obit. As my curiosity was aroused and the obituary listed no author, I poked around – and it was something Swain had written as a promo piece for something. No wonder it was so glowing !!
I loved him and I miss him.