March 4, 2013 § 5 Comments
The last months have seen me on the road – from a stay in Portland and then southward through Oregon and into California, all the way down to Los Angeles, zig-zagging from the coast to Death Valley, and back on up to San Francisco. Staying with friends, camping in the back of the ’91 Subaru, evenings looking for ever-harder to find discreet places to park the car for a night’s unhassled sleep. Along the way I’ve taken a zillion still photos, far less video than I’d hoped, and had ample time for thought. After a fashion I was mentally treading water, awaiting word on a could-be fellowship at Radcliffe – which would have meant September of this year though May 2014 in Boston, with some decent pay, help, and stability. This kept me from thinking too much about the coming year. A few days ago I got word that it was not to be. Last time around – three years ago – I managed to be among the finalists but not this time. I guess my stock is slipping. Coupled with a handful of other things, some minor, some rather large, I think I have decided to not proceed with making this essay-film on America.
Among the small things that have pointed me towards this conclusion were a supposed little partial retrospective at a supposed alternative cinema, The Clinton Street Theater, in supposed young and hip Portland. It drew a pathetic audience of 3-5 persons per night, mostly my older friends – despite the supposed normal attentions from the local press. Along with that a handful of the absurd “no thank you” letters from festivals – Sundance among others - arrived in the last months suggesting that what I do is no longer of interest even in the narrow world of film festivals. A passing glance at what does show seems to indicate a tilt towards the conventional, narrative things which look tame, and to me, boring, especially when compared to, oh, 50 year old films from a slew of filmmakers from around the world back then. And in my readings about the film and arts world, coming to the conclusion that by and large people simply don’t go much to the cinema anymore seems reasonable – something Hollywood has noticed as well. Especially my kind of cinema – non-commercial, artistic, intended to prompt you to think, to disturb in one manner or another in a deep way, not just a toxic jolt of sex/violence. Instead the current tendency is to surf the net, see things on tiny screens, or home cinemas, largely alone. And, of course, to be “entertained.” One can see this phenomenon dropping into any of the now ubiquitous cafes, whether in Portland or Seattle, or in some small town like Hollister, Ca. : people sitting with a coffee or tea, the glow of a computer or I-pad illuminating their faces – reading, watching some video, playing a game, texting a friend, enveloped in a virtual world defined by the net. It is something I understand well, as I too am a participant, addicted to the news, to researching via Google; snared in the compulsive matter of my voluminous email and blogs. I get it.
So the idea of spending a few years making a complex, long work about America, that would – like the previous ones – basically be unseen, though even less so now than back then, when at least they were shown on British TV (if not American), or had a little run of festivals and other such screenings. Today it is certain no TV would show anything in the same vein, and experience with festivals in the last 5-10 years suggests they too would be likely to pass – at least any festival that might make a small tangible impact. So to proceed to make it would be an exercise in futility – a lot of work for more or less nothing. Or at least “nothing” in one of the primary reasons I wished to make it: social and political reasons. These thoughts flitted around my mind as I drove through the American landscapes, and awaited word from Radcliffe whether there would be some concrete help in doing it. The email of the other day rather provided the conclusive logic to fold my hand. Some friends have urged me to do a Kickstarter or other crowd-funding attempt, though it is clear to me that for such a thing to be successful requires a considerable investment in work and time – 2 or 3 months – and at this juncture in my life I just don’t feel I should have to do such things, nor have I any enthusiasm for that kind of work. And besides, all the reasons which explain why there is no audience for this kind of work would equally apply to seeking funds: most people, overwhelmingly, are just not interested is such things. And probably that tiny minority which might be interested and wanting to help are more or less like me – lacking funds. It’s a kind of circular arrangement.
While this is a bit disappointing, I must note that most of my peers threw in the towel some time ago, perhaps discouraged by the diminishing interest, perhaps creatively burned out, perhaps just old and tired. I view all of those as natural, normal things for creative people (and others as well), a well-worn path in life. For myself I don’t at all feel creatively wrapped up – the last two films, The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima (now invited to this April’s Jeonju festival after a sequence of “no thanks” from Toronto, NY, Margaret Mead, Florence’s Festival dei Popoli, and Sundance), and Coming to Terms, (declined by Sundance so far) are among my best work, plain and simple. Nor am I tired or burned out. Rather a large cultural tectonic shift has taken place in the last decades, and where once there was a small little space for the likes of me – I am not alone in this at all – there is now almost nothing. Time’s changed.
I do have a view about this, which I have expressed here and there previously. It is the dubious triumph of our society’s drift to the right, in which the champions of the Holy Market Economy, have, at least for the moment, prevailed. The idea that something is of value only if it makes a profit, the more the merrier, has completely distorted our culture, squeezing out the spaces for anything else. One can see this nearly everywhere one looks. It is so pervasive that young people have scarcely ever seen anything else, and they are almost unaware that all their choices have been made for them, in careful deliberate corporate decisions, the only interest of which is to “maximize profit.” So they are drilled with the thought that without a university degree their lives will shrink to worthlessness. Then they are shackled with ever sky-rocketing student debt, while simultaneously being encouraged to buy buy buy, to become addicted to consumerism and more debt. They are bombarded with the shallow inanities of 24/7 celebrity-fame-riches propaganda, so that I have met students whose wish me (!) to tell them the secret of how to acquire instant fame/riches. When I suggest that first they might learn something and have a talent and skill that perhaps, with luck, might warrant such fame/wealth, they look at me as if I were from Mars. Such is the highly manipulated cultural fluid in which they have grown and experienced their lives. The idea that one might do something, because one enjoyed or loved to do it, even for no pay, is utterly alien. The idea of being instantly highly-paid is totally normal. Ironically now these people are ushered from their costly “education” into a world sucked dry of jobs, and must find refuge with Mom and Dad (who had a large hand in setting this trap.) In a country where 70% of the GDP is consumerism, no one seems to sense that this arrangement is essentially insane and unsustainable. But the High Priests of American capitalism, shrieking from the mass media which they own and control, wave their wizardly wand and the dumb populace imagines it is so. We are already in the swoon of a major crash, which will see all these absurd assumptions shattered to pieces.
So while I haven’t 100% decided to cancel this project, I am about 99.5% sure. Likely whatever social-political thoughts I had in mind to put into PLAIN SONGS, I will place here, in another form, for the tiny little readership that might be interested. And with a shifted degree of effort and work on my part, proportionate to the realities which face me – and all of us.
Presently I am casting about, pondering my other options, which at the moment seem to include a possible something to do in Tokyo, commencing in autumn, or perhaps a year in Kolkata, or I could go hole up with my friend Marshall in Butte. Meantime I figure to continue traveling, seeing old friends for a perhaps last time, and American landscapes too. It’s rather a different last American journey than I had looked forward to, but, perhaps a bit grudgingly, I must accept that the world, and my country, have changed in ways that make my previous thoughts rather those of a Don Quixote. As if it hadn’t always been so.
September 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
Sept 29, 2012 The skies finally cleared from the smoke, and I meant to take off earlier today, but I got snared with little problems of the internet kind – lost my email to an MSN snafu. Specifically I did a modest “mass” mailing regarding the Mark Rappaport/Ray Carney mess and the algorithms running Hotmail seem to have decided my address had been hijacked and was being used to spam. So I couldn’t access my email, and wasted the better part of yesterday trying to recover it – MSN makes it very hard to figure out how to communicate directly with them, so it took some dubious detours, including some places that promise help and then try to get in your computer for nefarious reasons. I should have known better since this happened once before. When I finally did get to the MS thing, I filled out a form trying to remember things my mind is not so good at remembering (like old passwords), and I sent in the filled-in form and it came back saying, “OK, you are you, now go to this URL to make a new password.” Except when one did this up came a note that the site is down, try later (how many times?), error 1080. There went the day. And a good part of today, during which I sent, I think, more or less the same info, and they told me this time they weren’t sure I was me. And said “try again.” At which point I rest now, waiting to see what new horrors are required to get my email back. True internet fun. Thanks a lot Microsoft!
And so, ensconced perhaps in Microsoft’s render farm in Quincy Wa., sits my 9 years of backed up emails, some of which I would really like to access. So while idea of “the cloud” seems rather ethereal and other worldly, it is in fact a huge energy sucking mess of computers all humming away, somewhere “out there.” Meaning in some place with “cheap” energy and land to plop these giant Big Box info storage systems. Perhaps it is time to return to the abacus.
Quincy, Washington, with Yahoo, MS, and Dell server farms
So I didn’t get along towards Yellowstone today, as I’d like to sort this out first. Meantime I re-organized my vehicle, shed a mess of stuff, and will be ready to roll in the morning, blessedly with smoke-cleared skies. Batteries are charged, and I’ve tidied up things so my traveling bed will be hopefully a bit more accommodating. I think I have figured out the GoPro cams, and have mounts on the side of the car for tracking shots. And Coming to Terms is all but finished – just awaiting the arrival of Jim Benning’s voice over, which should require another few hours of editing to slip it in, choose the images to go with it, and then render a final file to send along to the Sundance people. Frankly I am skeptical, since it is not at all an audience-pleaser, but I can never fathom the decisions of festivals. It is a dice-roll as far as I can see.
So, saddle ‘em up, and tomorrow I’ll make Marshall a good breakfast, and hit the road. Rootin’ tootin’ shootin’!
September 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
While I am not superstitious, I did note on leaving Butte to commence this large project (sort of the second time around as the start really was in Portland some months ago, except the Butte detour to shoot 2 features kind of side-lined this project) that it was September 13. A Thursday. I’d somewhat hastily crammed the car with tools – cameras, tripods, various attaching devices, along with an ample supply of dried fruits, nuts and granola, sleeping bags – and then sorted out things left here, if not in as orderly a fashion as I’d like. I wanted to leave, and had in the last days in Butte inadvertently set a short-term deadline: I submitted Coming to Terms, after they gave me an entry-free waiver, for the Sundance Festival. They need to see a showable cut by October 15, which meant I needed to get back here by the 7th to do a cram tidying up of the rough edit I have at hand. This sat in the back of my mind as I took off, and I felt its pressure immediately, warping the way I wanted to do this journey: slowly, stopping to take pictures, video, talk to people, and perhaps some painting and drawing as well. I was headed to Glacier Park, to loop through it, and then head towards Williston ND, where a Vegas-like casino world has come along with fracking, man-camps, high prices, and sort of the inverse of Glacier. It’s a long lonely drive from Glacier to ND, and I have a little rule for this trip that it’s 200 miles a day, max. Somehow, with that lingering something in the back of my head, I promptly broke the rule on day one: camped out in the Lake McDonald campground, though only because I couldn’t find one in the national forest nearby. Tipped me a few miles over my 200 mile limit.
On the way to the park – entering from the West Side, having taken highway 2 along its southern border – I passed through some truly gorgeous Montana landscapes: vast wheat-lands, very sparsely populated, small towns run down by the fierce weather of the region. It is the kind of place that makes one wonder of the character of the people who live in the isolated homes, surrounded by thousands of acres of land – land they plow, plant, harvest, as far as the eye can see. It is, so they say, the natural terrain of Republicans, firm believers in self-reliance, though, tracing through the historical records we find they obtained the land by the US Government Land Grants – which gave settlers the land quite literally taken/stolen from the native inhabitants – and their ability to live there is made possible by government roads, railroad grants, electrification and myriad other things, including large subsidies, grazing on government lands for cut rates, discounted public water, and so on. So a little cowboy and farmer hypocrisy lurks behind the facade of stoic self-reliance. And frankly, people in Montana, owing to the adversity of the weather and isolation, tend to be very helpful, almost even, kinda “socialist” – they help each other and strangers as well, because in the back of their mind they know if their car broke down in a blizzard or a hot summer day, out in the vast middle of “nowhere,” they’d want (and expect) some help. So in a karmic bargain, they give when asked.
Yesterday, Sept. 15, after a 40 mile ride on rough dirt road inside Glacier Park, and a stop at the shores of Lake McDonald to have a little sponge bath, I ascended the rather incredible Going to the Sun road, the last day it would be open for the season (there being zero snow so far, perhaps they’ll change this). It was like crawling through eons of time, these sedimentary mountains, a long ago sea bottom, the accretion of millions on millions of years of settling skeletons of sea creatures, sand, all deep in an impenetrably long ago ocean, squashed by the weight of miles of water into distinct layers, and then from tectonic earth-crust movements pushed upwards at angles to a height of 7,000 feet. If, as I do, one thinks of these things (and I also thought of the cosmic direction as well) it is an edifyingly humbling experience to understand that one is really not one iota more meaningful or valuable than any single atom of the distant living forms that now makes for this spectacle for our ever-so-brief moment of consciousness. I also noted that Glacier Park, from which I lived in 1972-76 only thirty miles away to the west and could not afford the drive over to see back then, had actual glaciers back then, but it no longer does, as, well, global warming, to which the Going to the Sun road, and me in my car, both contribute, has melted them all. All very humbling.
Descending, just past the peak of Logan’s Pass, my right front tire began to wobble, and at first I thought it was a wavy road (though it was freshly laid asphalt), and then I quickly thought, “Oh fuck, a flat.” I pulled over to inspect, and to my surprise, no flat. I pondered, and for three or four times, proceeded with heavy wobbling, the steering wheel oscillating ominously. I went slowly, pondering the consequence of a lost wheel or other such pleasures as the precipitous drop to the distant valley floor with no guard rail suggested very real danger. However, periodically the wheel would seem to right itself and I thought, dubiously, well, it’ll fix itself. On a last wobble, I pulled over, looked for some part hanging down or the like and there was none. As I tried again, hoping to limp to the nearest town, St Mary’s, I heard a clank, and the wheel righted itself. I went 30, then 40 mph. It worked OK. Upped it to 60 though my ears were suddenly sensible to any noise it seemed the car was making – a familiar stance to one who never had a new car or even one less than 10 years old. Ran OK. I decided I should try to get back to Butte, do whatever repairs were wise to do, and use the down-time to commence editing Coming to Terms.
The car ran fine though I was tense with expectation at any moment the wobble would return. It didn’t. I’m in Butte now, car unpacked, a Wednesday fix appointment lined up. All nicely humbling. I think the problem is perhaps a strut which supports the drive shaft (4 wheel drive vehicle) got banged badly in the rough road, and perhaps was rusted or otherwise vulnerable to a shift, and happily self-fixed – long enough for me to get to Butte and a proper fix. Didn’t want to find myself down in nowhereville in such a predicament. [Wed., 19th now - garage says worn front axles, $370 to fix both.]
While in Glacier I visited Bowman Lake, off 30 miles on rough dirt back-road. The lake was gorgeous, smothered in a haze of smoke from distant forest fires – one of the few times I thought the white gauze of pungent air worked aesthetically. There I felt the pressures of time subside, and began to find the kind of work-groove I want for this journey. I was tempted to stay a full day, camera parked from early morning to nightfall looking out over the lake to catch the luminescent shifts of light, but in the back of my mind was that damned self-set deadline, so instead I packed up in the morning and left for the day’s questionable adventures. As I left I was mentally kicking myself, and telling myself, “well, I’ll come back…,” though at this age the presumption of “coming back” is, well, a bit presumptuous. I passed through miles of burned out forest land – from a huge blaze in 2003, after the Park Service instituted the policy of letting nature do as it will instead of fighting back. Before I headed up the pass, I stopped at the shore of Lake McDonald to take a sponge bath and wash some socks, and was kicked back 4 decades as I recalled a similar setting, Loch Lomond, north of Glasgow, Scotland, where in 1963 I’d found myself on the shore there, washing myself and clothing on the pebbly lakeside. Now nearly a life has slipped by, and in some senses in myself not much has changed. I still live, mentally, “poor,” and do things like camping in $5 campsites, washing in a stream or lake, driving a 1991 car. On the other side of the pass, with the wobbly wheel a sudden concern, and Butte, not Williston ND, on my mind, I pulled over at a lodge in St Mary’s to try to get a message on the net to Marshall, letting him know I’d be there – if the vehicular gods graced me with the luck to limp back OK – the next day. While in the lobby of the place, failing to get on the net for reasons unknown, I overheard a woman telling her husband, “they say $300 a room….” I was a bit shocked by this and scanning the busy lobby, a “western” type lodge with animal heads on the walls, and somewhat old fashioned decor though it was a new place, I wondered to myself, “who the hell are these people who can pop $300 for a night, plus doubtless another $100 plus to have a drink, eat, and…” Ain’t me, that’s for sure. I slept that night in a rancher’s dirt road in the back of the Subaru. Same old, same old. I still don’t understand some things about this world.
VFW Hall, Choteau, MT.
On driving back to Butte, I kind of decided it was all for the best – this false start. I’d taken too many things with me, and need to weed things down to essentials, make my “bed” a bit more comfortable, get the car really road-ready. And get the damned deadline out of my mind so I can go on without the pressure of time.
Parking lot, Great Falls, MT
Time-line, Coming to Terms
A little note: soon – just when the hell I will find time for it, I can’t fathom – I’ll be trying out a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo or something campaign to help deal with the costs of this crazy plan to spend 12-18 months on the road, shoot a long complex sequence of unified films, camp out in a car, and otherwise do things my sister, two years older than myself, regards as, well, nuts. It’s time to retire so they say, but frankly, I want to die in the saddle with a smile on my face.
When the crowd-funding thing happens, of course I’ll post it here. Help deeply appreciated. Not just fiscal, but places to stay, people to meet and lots more. Regarding this kind of thing I’ll be posting thoughts and requests along the way. Thanks for reading.
May 22, 2012 § Leave a comment
Plain Songs will be an account of the making of a new work – or more likely and properly of “new works” – to be done during a long journey through the United States in 2012-2013 and perhaps longer. The intention is to make a portrait of America, in keeping with my previous works, Speaking Directly: Some American Notes, made in 1972-3, and Plain Talk & Common Sense (uncommon senses), made in 1986-7. Like those it will be a poetic evocation of the place, a people, and a time, and it will be in the same moment analytical – an attempt to understand what America is, how it became what it is, and why. It will delve into our history, our present, and attempt to find guides to our likely future. I anticipate a length of 8 to 12 hours.
In keeping with the new technology which will be used – HD video, the internet, and various social networking tools – this new work will be multi-faceted, and this blog will be an integral part of it. Here I will include writings, a diary of the process, photographs, and I hope a weekly video posting. We’ll see how the energy holds up.
For the moment I will make this blog available at no cost, and, depending on the results of a crowd-funding effort, I hope I can keep it so. However I may find it necessary to institute a subscription policy, making access available only with a payment. Sometime in the coming months I’ll try to raise funds to help cover the costs of this journey – 12 to 18 months on the road, living much of the time in the back of my 1991 Subaru, camping in Federal Forest campgrounds ($4 a night for seniors), in National and State parks ($5 to $25 a night), and with friends. If anyone would care to put me up, let me in on interesting local places/people/stories, it would be much appreciated (contact me through email@example.com). At present funding for this is coming out of my “retirement” funds – what I was able to save during four years of playing Professor in Seoul. I have no pension, SS, or anything else aside from these modest savings, my wits, and stamina. Any help in coping with this reality is welcome.