Down and Out?

DSC07037Sign east of Joplin, Mo.

I arrived back in the USA in mid-October, 2017, after a few years abroad, mostly in Italy.  And a back operation (disk removed in lower back), recuperation, and then a casual year in Sicily, recovering – doing lots of photos, painting, playing music.  I returned mostly to make some money, but also imagining a swan-song journey to see friends a probable last time, and likewise to say “so long” to America.  And, I thought, to once again take a stab at shooting for Plain Songs, the much delayed essay on the Nation.   The election had come and gone, Trump now trumpeted his Tweets across the internet, and thrashed across the political landscape like some orange-wigged Godzilla while Republicans deserted family values, fiscal rectitude and other “principles” in order to suck on Donald’s dingle-berries.  It would be interesting.  I’d more or less deliberately avoided traveling in the US during the election year as I figured the landscape would be disfigured with all the BS of electoral theater.  Instead I arrived in the post-electoral coital doom and gloom of the American melt-down of the present.

DSC04290Child’s note at the Big Hole National Battlefield, MT.

Arrival was a rush of things-to-do: train down to Portland from my Seattle flight to grab my tripod, then Amtrak to Dunsmuir, Ca., to grab the van that I’d left sitting outside Redding for 2 years, and then a sprint via Boise to Butte and a quick run to Yellowstone to try to make another landscape film, of the falls seen from Artist’s Point in Thomas Moran’s 1880 painting:


ys-thomas-moran-gr-canyon-smithsonian_wikipd_680x392Yellowstone Falls, by Thomas Moran

I’d thought to get there before the snows arrived and the park closing, and also imagined the late autumn day would be shorter and so make shooting easier – only 9 or 10 hours sitting beside the camera, instead of summer’s 12 or 13.  So I thought.  The sun sat low on the horizon, the canyon instead of dazzling with its colors, was shrouded in shadow. Aligned north-south, the sun refracted directly into the lens in the afternoon.  The image I’d imagined simply did not exist at that time of year.  And it was damned cold, so having bothered to set up for a look I promptly packed the camera and tripod back in the van and returned to Butte.  Perhaps I should have taken this mental mishap as an omen.

In Butte I saw and said so long to friends, most of whom I’d known since 1986 or so, when I had shot a film there, Bell Diamond.   Many were in or helped me make that film – Marshall, Terri, Hal, Jim Duran.  One missing was Dan Cornell who’d beat me to the swan-song farewell, having died from a heart-attack in spring, at 71 years.

DSC04503Jim Duran, self, Marshall Gaddis, Clark Grant, Hal Waldrup

From Butte I moved along to Missoula, having given advance notice to my friends Swain Wolfe and Laurie Urfer.  He’s been in much pain from back and other things, and sent me a blunt all-caps note: STAY AWAY.  Knife in heart.  I queried Laurie who arranged for she and me to meet at a downtown cafe.  I waited there, and she arrived, and slowly trailing her was Swain.  For a bit he stayed in a funk and then loosened up and regaled me with 2 hours of stories, clearly having a good time.  Swain had made films long ago, and shifted to writing a few decades or more back.  A story-teller.  Wrapping it up as he went to go home I offered to grab us a pack of stouts, to which he said “yes” but by the time I got there he’d gone to lay down and sleep – exhausted from his little outing.   He is a late riser, and I had to head early towards the Lolo pass and Idaho and did not see him again.   Swans singing.

DSC04560Swain in earlier days.DSC04575Lolo pass, after summer’s forest firesDSC04634Along the Lochsa River, Idaho

Taking back roads through Idaho, I visited friends from long ago – 1972 or so – outside of Potlatch.  Debbie and Tom and sons, on an off-the-grid place perched atop a big hill.  Just a night to say hi and possible bye.  And moved along toward Washington State with a pit stop in Walla Walla with a net-met new friend.  Overnight and on towards Port Angeles WA, for a stay with Steve Taylor.


DSC04652Tom OrdwayDSC04712crpsm


DSC04728In Eastern Washington, on the way to Port Angeles

For me the hum of the road is a time for thinking, shifting thoughts as the landscapes slip by and kick me into a kind of meditative state.  No radio, no shrieking right-wing voices, no lame country-western songs or shitty rock & roll; no radio preachers, no soothing NPR college-town liberalism, no endless advertisements  –  bill boards are bad enough. Instead the gray-noise bass line of tires to tarmac, and a sky and horizon ever looming ahead.  It prompts me to think.


And so as I passed through the battered towns of inland America, the collapsed economies of the once vibrant small-town heartland, instead of being, as once was the case, drawn in and engaged,  I fell into the stupor of a dull depression, not personally, but about my own country.  Somewhere along the way we lost the way and outside the gentrified and monied urban clusters, the rest of the nation was left to rot, its economic base ripped to shreds by big agri-biz, by the assault on labor and the collapse of unions since Reagan’s time, by the deep effects of “globalization” (translation: the right for big money to go where ever it wishes, unhindered by laws or borders, and unconstrained by the damages it imposes on society).  In rural America the consequences are shoved in your face in the form of boarded up Main Streets, abandoned houses and factories, derelict farms collapsing into the soil.  It is seen in the aged population, staying to their deaths while most of the youth flee to urban worlds and possible jobs.  It is seen in anti-meth murals, in the endless parade of bill boards looking for a quick mil – “accident” lawyers offering the hope of a fiscal killing for your car or work injury.  Casinos blossom where ever the law or Indian reservations make for the illusory promise of a quick arbitrary buck; of Check Cashing stores, pawn shops, thrift shops, flea markets, Family Dollar stores, Walmart, and the whole substrata of the economics of poverty sprawled out like a gangrene overtaking the rural world, sucking out the last dime from its angry victims.


Port Angeles, Washington, is a place now familiar, another “home.”  My friend Stephen Taylor lives there – he’s been in 5 of my films now.  I’m a periodic guest in his house – and shot one of them in it, Blue Strait.  I went there to pack up some things left in storage, to have it ready for shipping to Europe when the crystal ball has cleared and we know just where it should go.  While there I decided to once again go to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, the furthest north-western point in the contiguous USA.  I thought to metaphorically use it in Plain Songs – this extreme point, as far as you can go in this direction in America, where “go west” terminates.  It happens to be a small Indian res, for the Makah tribe, and like many such places, while located in a beautiful setting, it is a sad and unhappy town, riven with alcoholism, meth, and all the behaviors of people at the end of their tether.  Like other indigenous natives of America, they have been screwed over by white culture since Columbus landed in Santa Domingo, and it reads in their faces.  A defeated society, and still, not so metaphorically, a people placed right at the bottom of the American totem pole.  Our original sin is written large and everyday in this country.  While they may not fully understand it, these original inhabitants seem to be pointing the way towards the dystopia which awaits us all, our “future.”


DSC04764crpNeah Bay, Makah Reservation, WA.DSC04756crpCape Flattery, the furthest NW point in mainland USA

I returned to Port Angeles and one day Steve took me to his new offices, a non-profit outfit providing services for “family problems.”  Like abusive spouses, financial difficulties, sexual predations in the home, drug addiction and such things.  The organization has a sizable building, with various offices, conference rooms, and a play-space for families awaiting their appointments.  It has 12 other employees aside from Steve – people dealing with financial problems, legal aids, and such.  Steve is a counselor for psychological problems and informs me he has a long waiting list for people wanting or needing to see him.  I inquired how big was the community which this group served and he said about 25,000 people in Clallam county.  We did a little number crunching and figured that he saw but a small fraction of people needing help – under court orders, or reported by the police, or others, and those who came in out of their own volition.  Our conclusion was that perhaps one in five families had such problems, serious problems of sexual abuse, violence and such, and that he saw only 20% or so of those who should be addressed and helped.  When I contemplated the numbers and the ugliness of the problems I told him it was a sign of a very sick society.  He agreed.  I noted that it seemed unlikely that, say, the nearby Seattle/Tacoma area, far more populated, had anything proportionally like such services, though doubtless the percentage of people with the same “problems” were about the same.  He agreed again.  Ironically the native meaning for the word Clallam is “the strong people.”


I headed from P.A. down to Portland, along the Hood Canal, a terrain spotted with small Indian reservations, noted with fireworks stands and cigarette stores and casinos along the highway.  In the waters to the East side nuclear powered submarines, based at the Bangor Naval Station, hulked by, armed with enough explosives to destroy the world. The sky was leaden gray, as were my thoughts – this trip through America already seemed weighted with bad vibrations.


Arriving in Portland, I stayed with friends Jane and Mark, who’ve hosted me for long periods over the years.   Since I originally lived there with Marcella in 2005, the city has drastically changed:  gentrification, and a wash of money has altered it, as it has many other cities in the US.  Once working class neighborhoods are now lively hipster enclaves, jammed with boutique stores, cafes, bike shops, yoga salons, art galleries, and all the usual stuff of contemporary gentrification. Squeezed out have been minorities and anyone lacking the financial resources to stay, mostly shoved to the edges of the city, the suburbs now becoming the lower-class realm.  Homeless communities huddle under freeway over-passes, their pop up tents lined for blocks.  Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and on down the West Coast, both coastal towns and cities, and those in the Central Valley are pocked with these new communities.  Eureka, Redding, Fresno, and down to the sprawling Los Angeles megalopolis the same materializes.  In some parts of LA these pop-up tent communities go on for miles.

But, so we read, our economy is now booming, workers are hard to find and….  And I ponder where in the statistical data these people are located?  Lost in the shuffle?  Just deleted?  The collateral damage of our current mode of hyper-capitalism, US style?


I saw my Portland friends – David Bryant, David Gwyther, Greg Tozian, Pam Minty, Jane and Mark, Todd, and others – had a few screenings and then moved along to Newport to see Kate Sannella and Dennis.  A walk on the beach, talk over dinner and the perhaps final so long.  And then to Eugene to see long time friend Ron Finne, whom I’d called a week earlier and he’d said he was now singular: Mary Lou, his wife of 52 years, had died a week before.  I’d seen them several years before and had sensed her frailty and had thought one of these days I’d hear this.  Needless to say difficult for him, and he unburdened himself with a story about it, something I sensed he needed to do.  Swan songs.



DSC06971Newport, Oregon

Moved along to Dunsmuir, CA., to visit with Charles, another long time friend.  Hung about a few days and then went on to San Francisco where a cluster of friends still reside, and had a few screenings.  Slowly, as my journey progressed, my sense of the futility of making another essay on America, became more pronounced.  I tangled with myself yet again, as I had done before, questioning what possible political meaning there might be to making an essay about the State of the Nation, when I knew full well that almost no one would see it.  My experience of the last decade and more is that interest in such a kind of work, once the province of a little minority of souls, but enough to warrant some attention, and some small audiences, had dwindled to almost nothing. Audiences were tiny;  festivals were indifferent and even hostile; no television would ever broadcast such work.  I gritted my teeth, and the passing social landscape of rural collapse only confirmed my negativity.  What was there to say?  And who would listen or care?  Entering the cacophony of the urban world merely underlined the uselessness of attempting to speak.  We have constructed an insane world, where nearly everything is tainted with social (and physical) toxins, yet it is a world which overwhelmingly our society accepts as “normal.”  To speak against it is to be regarded as crazed and out of touch with the real world.   In such a situation, what is the purpose of speaking out?

DSC05091SMCCRPDunsmuir, CA.DSC04237

These thoughts circulated in my mind, and while I thought that, yes, one might do such things for one’s self, as I do with my so-called “non-political/artistic” work, doing so when reality clearly indicates it will be politically useless seems self-delusionary at minimum.


DSC05175Nathaniel Dorskytumblr_mjcw7eLvRy1s6z4s9o2_1280.jpg

DSC05188SMPin-hole photos by Julie Schacter

With such meanders of my mind I saw friends in the Bay Area – Rick Schmidt (run to bed from the season’s bugs) and Julie Schachter; Jim Nisbet (hanging up the writing spurs as the one time European sales shrivel to nada); Rock Ross and the folks at the New No Nothing Cinema, where I showed short films and had a nice talk.  And Nathaniel Dorsky where I spent an afternoon in his basement lair looking at his stunning recent films, and Barbara Hammes who’d acted with him in Rembrant Laughing, lo those many years ago. And then Nancy Karp and husband Peter,  Howard Swain and Nancy Carlin, Tom Luddy,  and a few others.

DSC05205Jim Nisbet in boat shop, Sausilito, CA.

Leaving the Bay Area, I headed south toward Death Valley, intending to hole up a bit a Tecopa Hot Springs, and perhaps do a landscape shot of the Valley.  As with Yellowstone Falls, the image in my mind did not materialize before me, though I shifted gears and instead took many still images of which I think something “moving” can be made.  When time allows.  Meantime I acquired the seasons flu bug, and while it did not force me to bed, it did ask for a slow-down, and some nights to ride it out in funky motels.  I obliged, and had time for more doubting thoughts.   I was just at the beginning of this trip and inside I’d already abandoned the idea of making Plain Songs.  It had become a fixed refrain:  there was no point.

DSC05814Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA.DSC05496

There was, however, Badwater Basin, the lowest altitude spot on the continent.  In mid-winter it was full of tourists, mostly Asian.   Inside I imagined a metaphoric use for this, as we were now about a year into the Trump Era, and what could be lower?  I hauled out the camera and took some shots even though I had pretty certainly set aside the idea of making the film.  Maybe for some other purpose.  And moved along to Beatty, NV.





Beatty is another of those desolate places of a left-behind America, and another explanation for setting Plain Songs aside.  For more thoughts on Beatty, and the cloud that was enveloping me, see this:

and this:





I wandered on, passing through Southern California, the Salton Sea – a place of genuine dissolution – and near Palm Springs, a place of illusionary comfort.  The juxtapositions of opulent wealth and deep poverty merely amplified the obvious stresses that are pulling apart whatever American comity that once existed.  The disparities dispirited me, and only deepened my sense of the uselessness of my imagined project, these Plain Songs. Once again, I gave up, tossed in the towel.  I was unable to take the camera out to shoot the seemingly required things – the endless sterile strip cities, the cascade of shopping malls and corporate big box consumer palaces, each blaring forth with giant corporate logos.   The gated communities, the string of pop-tent homeless, all the contradictions which are America.  It was all too brutally ugly – not only to look at, but to contemplate the empty society in which it existed, a society which was divided into sectors unable to speak with one another, or even acknowledge there was some kind of serious problem at hand.  There seemed nothing to say.




I plowed on, though no longer to make this film, but both to see friends a perhaps last time, and to punch the ticket which cynically prompted the trip to begin with – a few decently paying show ‘n tell gigs, enough to take back a little cash to my new home in Belfast, where Marcella settled down since this journey began.  Though since Trump took over that little dollar stash had already diminished 25% or so on the exchange rate and seems headed to shrivel still more.   Seeing friends was the plus side: James Benning in his house in the Sierras outside Bakersfield; and then a handful in Los Angeles – Alenka Pavlin, Alicia and Morrie Ruvinski, David James, John Cannizaro, and screenings at the Echo Park Film Center and USC.  And then after a talk at the Claremont Colleges, on to Phoenix there to see Joe Podlesnik and Ami, and in Tucson, Marianne Dissard.  Played some music in Tucson, recorded a few songs, and moved along to Santa Fe where a late addition to the trip – a 3 week kind of residency – gave a place to stay, a bit more money and something to do as winter slipped by.  And went to Albuquerque to visit net-met new artist friend Danila Rumold.  A little time in her studio and seeing lovely work.  Here and there a few pluses to relieve the general air of negative energies that have pocked this journey.


DSC06922Collage by Danila Rumold, AlburquerqueDSC06640sm

DSC06638crpsmTucson, AZ

Then a jaunt to Austin, where had a few days, seeing friends – Scott, Frank, Jason – and getting a few large prints done on Jason’s new printer.  He’ll do some of these in the coming month or so, 5 ft x 16ft or so.



And then to Shreveport, La., and a gig at David Nelson’s Mini-cine, the third over a few decades – music, screening and some photos on the wall.  Shreveport is another city on its knees, struggling to stay alive, another reminder of the not-so-hidden state of the Nation.

DSC07021.JPGDavid Nelson, in front of his wild-flower field at the Mini-cineDSC07014.JPG


From there drove on up through Arkansas to Eureka Springs, to visit Keith Scales, who acted in Homecoming back in 2004, and whom I hadn’t seen for 14 years.  He’d moved from Portland and was now managing the Crescent Hotel, said to be haunted, and for which there are tours and talks of ghosts.

HC END JEFF WITH FISTwide.jpgKeith Scales in Homecoming

And then I went to visit Blake Eckard and little Stanberry, Mo., where I’d shot (and acted in) his film Ghosts of Empire Prairie, and then done my own They Had It Coming. Stanberry, population 1,185,  along the way, over a decade and more, became another place in which I feel “at home.”

GENTRY CO. .Still019.jpg

GENTRY CO. .Still056.jpgBlake Eckard and Tyler Messner in They Had It Coming

I had to move along to Chicago to stay on schedule, for a screening at Filmmakers, and to see, again, long-time friends for the perhaps last go round.  Peter Kuttner and Gretchen, Marilyn Katz and Scott Chambers, Linn Ehrlich and Dianne, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Brenda Webb, Warren Leming and Laura, and a few others.   Chicago was once (as have been many other places) “home,”  and being the first one in which I was on my own, back in 1960, and was young, it has a particular place in my psyche – remembering streets and people in those formative years when one was becoming one’s self.  Ironically, this time around, I found it a rather brutal and ugly city, where once I found it architecturally impressive. How one changes.  Or perhaps it was the tail-end of winter, the colorless streets, the cold.  Or my own distanced view, now colored by having lived in Lisbon, Rome, London, Paris….

My trip hastened towards its end – a drive across the grim late winter corn-stubble  fields of Indiana and Ohio, a few classroom sessions in Columbus, and then into Pennsylvania and New York.  A stop with Steve Lack near Salem NY, and then into Boston, beating out a nor’easter to tuck myself into a cousin Holly’s Beacon Hill house, cloistered against the long winter wrap-up.

My thoughts about making Plain Songs dwindled to almost nothing.  In five months I’d taken almost no video images, though my mind had spun a thousand thoughts about this, my home “culture” and where it was seemingly headed.  Making a long video essay about it seemed utterly useless.   The daily news was filled with the tragi-comedy of the Trump era, each day a new affront to the sensibilities of most of my friends, though some of the people I know and like proved to be enthusiastic supporters for his wrecking-ball vulgarity.




As I prepare to return to my new home in Belfast, N. Ireland, a row-house Marcella has rented for us, I sense a letting go of this whole matter of America.  I have lived abroad nearly half my life, and the tissue of connection is withered.  The present political climate, which in effect I’d predicted in the earlier essay films, and in many of my narrative works, appears to me insoluble.  As I have spoken with my friends on this trip, I sense America will dissolve in the next 20 years, torn by its vast internal stresses which the present political constellation can barely perceive, much less begin to address.  It will be much as the old Soviet Union stumbled to its end, trapped in a deep self-denial, over-extended in military things, with an internal infrastructure rotted to the core.  An elite which lived well did not see it nor did it wish to see it.  Exactly as it is here.  And I do not speak only of the right-wingers, the GOP, or business here in the USA, but also of my liberal friends who do not wish to genuinely address some brutal realities:

The USA represents 6.1 percent of the globe’s landmass.

It represents 4.4 percent of the globe’s population.

It consumes approximately 25% of the earth’s material resources (oil, metals, water, etc.)

This vast imbalance is made possible because the USA spends as much on its military as nearly the rest of the world combined does; it does this for a reason, which is to enforce US economic policies on the world, which it has done especially since emerging from WWII as the globe’s dominant power as the others had decimated their industrial base in that war.


An equitable shift in these terms would require a communal down-sizing in the USA of more than 80%.  Even if our wealth were more fairly distributed – even if it were radically changed – it would mean for all but the very poorest of Americans a significant drop in living standards.   Politically this is a toxic reality which none of our political parties or thinkers have even begun to see or address.  Nor will they.  It will be imposed by our collapse.


I know that to say these things in America is to consign one’s self to a kind of oblivion, even among liberal/left circles.  It is too much to face, too much a demand: what, cut back?  But the figures are true and brutal, and when we do little modest things, like have a modern medical intervention, or take a vacation that we think “normal,” – so we think – we charge the bills to a hundred deaths somewhere else. That’s US.  And always has been.

DSC06146SMJames Benning copy of a Mozet painting.DSC07489cc

Winding down this journey I likewise wind down any thought of doing Plain Songs as a film.  Perhaps I will convert the ideas into a blog (perhaps with videos inside it), something to do piece-meal.  Though the underlying reality remains that hardly anyone would see it, and in any practical, honest sense, the political effect would be zero.  It might personally touch a handful of people; it would otherwise change nothing.  And so, I ask myself, what is the point of such an exercise?  Unlike many of my fellow media makers, I decline to fantasize that it would be “a good thing to do” and  hence I could feel good about myself.  I know far better.   It would be nothing in the face of the harsh real world it would address.

DSC06270smBombay Beach, Salton Sea, CA.DSC07039.JPGChurch front, Stanberry MO.

If I do proceed with a blog version of some sort, I’ll start a new one for it.  So I guess this will be the wrap up for this one.  On to Ireland and new adventures and thoughts.   Book closed.


DSC06673Wall in Tuscon, AZ.


For more thoughts on America, Trump and our current state of affairs see:


and follow links to other posts on the election


Als Ich Kan


van Eyck, self portrait

Seven months on the road, mostly in the USA, backroads, big cities, taking photos, video, meeting friends and family.  And duly pondering not only the State of the Nation, but also the state of the little bit of the cinema world I live in, and my own life.  I find the hum of driving the perfect place to think.  And while thinking about Plain Songs and shooting some things for it, I also thought about the apparent uselessness or futility of it, from many angles.  Certainly from the “as cinema” side, and its other more mundane aspect of distribution/exhibition, the thoughts were glum and discouraging.  Last autumn’s 12-screening tour which begot a cumulative audience of around 100 was pretty persuasive evidence that from a socio-political viewpoint, proceeding ahead would be dysfunctional and masturbatory.   And, being realistic, in these days the odds of getting any kind of television exposure is about nil, in the USA, in Europe, anywhere.  Sure I can upload it to Vimeo and roll the dice on finding a small voice in the avalanche of noise present on the net, and I bet I would reach many more people than with the screenings.  But…

But it would still be a tiny little sliver of our country’s population, and would in effect be self-cancelling:  those who’d come my way would be those who already see and know what I’d be showing and they would be there not to learn new things, but to reassure themselves they were not alone in their perceptions, (though they might appreciate or not my manner of articulating their feelings).   This is, frankly,  the case with almost all politically aimed media.  Just ask Fox or Michael Moore!



DSC02080 SM

With this mental backdrop, Marcella and I wandered from New York City, to Upstate, and on to Vermont and Massachusetts, visiting old friends and relatives, some of whom I had not seen in 50 years.  This too cast a certain shadow over my ruminations.  Perhaps as well did the climate – the east coast winter of 2015, one of seemingly endless cold, snow and ice.  Fortunately we were able to hole up with those same friends and family in comfortable warm houses, and very pleasant company, though not a few times did we find ourselves “Walmartians,” using the policy which the Walmart folks have of letting itinerant travelers park in their lots and use the 24 hour-available restrooms.  This corporation, the largest employer in the USA and one of the richest (Apple, appealing to a very different client-base, beats them in the final profit accounting), has inverted Henry Ford’s practice of paying his workers enough to buy one of his cars – Walmart pays its workers so little they have to shop there, and in the same moment, destroys smaller towns and cities, so that everyone else in town also has to shop at Wally’s World, as my friend Blake told me it’s called out in northwest Missouri.




With this as the backdrop we wandered the USA, where once again I was struck by the contradictions of its extravagant beauty, and the frequent warmth of its people, juxtaposed to the numbing sameness of its urban and small strip cities and suburbs, where the monotone litany of corporate big (and little) boxes compete for your brand loyalty:


Bed Bath & Beyond  


Burger King  


Home Depot  



Taco Bell  


ad inf


Transiting a thousand towns, while I told myself I should take shots, I found myself unable to do so:  I simply found myself paralyzed, inwardly declining to replicate the ugliness I found before me.  The same for the bloated max cubic foot housing developments that have blossomed on the flanks of every place where there is still a wriggle of economic life, the hulking roof-lines rising out of the suburban landscape like a misbegotten fleet of lumbering ships.  While in some cases a genuflection is made to “individuality” with a veneer of some “class” glued onto the 2×4, particle board, vinyl cladding, so one can have an Edwardian facade, or Greek portico, or some other signifier of once-fashionable “house” styles, others clone on with multi-unit condo modes, with small patches of green tucked between the housing clusters, or coiled around a golf course behind  walled and gated compounds.  When I think that the physical construction of these sprawling places is as fraudulent as the mortgages with which many were purchased, I shudder to think of returning to them in 30 years, and imagine the wreckage I’d find.  Both fiscally and physically they were built on the concept of minimum cost and maximum profit, lathered in a flim-flam of bullshit.  Like the good old US of A.

And where the last gasp of economic viability had been sucked dry, town after town showed boarded up main streets, abandoned houses with faded “For Sale” signs, a shriveled population of oldsters dying with their home towns, and a pall of despair hanging in the air.  Anti-meth murals blanket this world.  Coast to coast.

Meandering this landscape, unable to shoot its dominant realities, choking on the contradictions I found, I felt myself impotent and frozen.  Hadn’t I noted all this far back in 1972 with Speaking Directly?  In 1987 with Plain Talk & Common Sense?  And what was the result?  That the America I perceived and cautioned against became only more gross, ugly, socially vulgar and, on an international level, bombastic, economically manipulative and violent, though hiding (as usual) behind its official rhetorics of “freedom and democracy.”  To say this is demoralizing is to minimize it to something trivial.  America – the America of today – is a monster of profound proportions, hidden behind its facade of lies, dished out domestically and internationally, though the veneer is getting thinner by the day.


And so, having taken a long look, along the way paying close attention to the country’s politics – local, international – and surveying my own personal situation (little things like funding among the matters), I draw the conclusion that carrying on attempting to make this film is, well, folly.  Were I to spend the next few years it would take, at a minimum, to make it, the end result would be akin to what happened with the previous two:  a kind of oblivion, though I doubt with this I could get any festival to show it, and certainly no broadcast, in the USA or anywhere else.  So fundamental are the changes in my society, and the world’s, that what small niches once existed and might have provided a subsistence level of support, are now simply gone.  And still further gone is the reality that spending the time and effort to articulate what I have seen and thought about would have any even tiny impact on the world of the kind I might desire.  No, carrying on would be, in an honest analytical sense, sheer absurdity.

Such thoughts invade my spirit, and as I did once before, I incline to toss in the towel and say “stop!”     So either I will radically alter the idea for this would-be film, or perhaps find another way of approaching the underlying impulse – the desire to show and prompt thoughts about The State of the Nation.  Perhaps in a form suitable for the times and situation – on-line, streaming in short bits, Twittering, or, or……..

But no, the thoughts and sensibilities I wish to convey are not compressible to a few sound-bites or a brief few characters or the other fragmenting forms which our time seems to favor.



ALL MATERIALS BOWMAN.Still019Images from Bowman Lake

Or, just perhaps, in this moment, silence is the best antidote to the cacophony of our present world.

Snake Eyes

091808_snake_eyes_dice_1_300It’s been a while since I last made a post here – with much water under many bridges, from a jaunt across America, from Butte to New York, a month in Europe, and back.  Incised within was a nasty Barcelona robbery, meeting back up with Marcella, and much more.   And, rather as anticipated, also came up word, just in (when I started writing this, around March 10), that once again, on the fourth dice-roll (second time got into the finalists), I came up a loser in the grand matter of grants and fellowships and all that stuff:

March 12, 2015

Dear Mr. Jost,

Thank you for applying for a Radcliffe fellowship for 2015 – 2016. I do not need to tell you that we receive many applications. This year alone we received over 1,350, the vast majority of which are very impressive.

The selection process is, as you know, highly competitive. Decisions are made by a Final Selection Committee made up of scholars, scientists and members of the arts community from across the nation. This committee is given the daunting task of narrowing down many, many hundreds of competitive applicants to create a cohesive and diverse class of just 50 fellows. The decisions, as you can imagine, are very difficult.

As a matter of policy, we do not provide applicants with written or verbal feedback on their applications. Committee proceedings are confidential, as are the identities of the reviewers.

We regret to inform you that we will not be extending an offer of a fellowship for the academic year 2015 – 2016. We wish you well in finding alternative support for your project.

Sincerely yours,

Associate Dean

Not for lack of trying, or having what I would suppose are first rate “recommenders.”    In this instance I suppose I could imagine, among other things, that I am “too old,” or that 4th time around I am old-hat, or that I lack that proper academic credentials, and myriad other things, that all add up to “no.”   My more cynical side imagines that in truth a soul like mine isn’t really wanted around in the heart of the ruling-elite’s primary training school, from which a disproportionate number of our judges, politicians, corporate CEO’s and Wall Streeter’s hail, an insider’s club, a school which like Ecole Normal in France punches one’s ticket for a lifetime of the system’s “success.”  Our current president hails from Harvard, as does the master of Facebook, and numerous other luminaries of our ever-more economically polarized society.


The darker view I harbor derives from what is turning into decades of seemingly being cut out of various things which seem usual for my peers.  Though, with a very few exceptions, those people are all attached (teaching usually) to some important institutions in the firmament of the American arts world.  Those places intrinsically place you in a web of connections and lend an aura of authority to one’s doings:  one doesn’t just teach at Cal Arts or NYU or Columbia; one is then set into a rich matrix which, it seems, pans out in gallery invitations, grants, and other such things.  Not being a part of that institutionalized world (and probably worse, saying things critical of it once in a while) I am deemed an outsider – a position in America which is romanticized but simultaneously punished.  Our social culture likes to tout these “American” virtues – independence, freedom of speech, self-reliance, etc. etc. – but in reality to exercise these qualities is invite opprobrium.  The reality of America is that it is, like most societies, profoundly conformist.  Go along to get along is the operating motto.  Failure to play along, to celebrate whatever is fashionable, and in current terminology, “PC,” is viewed as deviant and heretical.  In my narrow little world – the one of so-called “independent” cinema and related things – my caustic views of much of the output of this realm (shall I name names?) seems to have landed me on a kind of blacklist.  As, I am sure, have other behaviors which run against the grain of the present cultural values of the nation – money money money as the measure of all value.

DSC03988And so this recent notice really came as no surprise.  I surely understand that in the cultural heart of our country’s training school they really wouldn’t want someone like me.  But once again, I am left to ponder, especially after the last 6 months of travels in which in 12 public screenings or so, I had a total, cumulative, audience of 100 persons (more or less), whether carrying on with this project makes even the most minimal bit of sense.  Accepting I am an “outsider” and that for sure mine is a minority view, to say the least, I still have to wonder whether the work and time involved in attempting to make this project, is worth the candle.  I have my severe doubts.

While I have long questioned the meaning of my own work, in the terms which I think are valid – to say that this is not meant to be a navel-gazing exercise but, at least with certain ones of them, to have some socio/political import – the combo of this social lack of “support” across the board has left its cratered impact on my psyche.  Or, as I note among (some of) my friends of similar age, there is a questioning of “what did/does it all mean”?  The answer, by and large seems to be, “not much.”

Such a view makes it a bit difficult to gather the energy to take on what is a massive self-assigned (and paid for) project which, ha ha, virtually no one would see.

Pondering.  The options.


The Wizards of Oz


Leaving behind the spectacular landscapes of the South West, I crossed the pan-handle of Texas and then of Oklahoma.   In Texas, approaching some 15 miles out from Dalhart,   the smell shifted from rural grasses to acrid.  To my left vast circular irrigation systems seemed to be watering alfalfa, and at first I thought of fertilizers. Then into view came the vast feedlot of JBS, with ten thousand cattle loitering in their own excrement – the smell was uric acid and manure.  Some modest mountains of cow-shit were covered with white plastic held down by thick black rings – old tires.   Then to the other side of the road a mile or two further came another such lot, Cargill. Industrialized agriculture – whether the giant irrigation systems sucking up the aquifer below on such a scale that they are rapidly being depleted, or the animal Auschwitz of JBS and Cargill – the mid-west announced itself and said, “there ain’t nothin’ romantic about farmin’.”  Not these days – it is agri-biz, the industrialized  making of vegetable and animal flesh to eat.  And I assure you, there is nothing romantic about the stench of 10 thousand cattle lingering in their own waste, shot up with antibiotics, waiting to be herded into line to have a slug of steel rammed with a blast of air into their skulls, and then hoisted, bled, skinned, gutted and sliced and diced into more “products” than you can imagine.



Driving smaller roads, as I entered this intense area of  agricultural “business” I was struck by the constant stream of 18 wheelers barreling down the highway, loaded with chemicals, hay bails, animals, oil, and all the things needed to fuel this kind of “farming.”  Pulling into the small towns along the way – Elkhart, Rolla, Hugoton, Wilburton – I noted the many abandoned houses, the forlorn Main Streets, all the inverse signs of the precipitous change in the world, where once a majority of people labored to make our food, and now, industrialized, only 2% do so.  Modern agriculture was the harbinger of robotisization, and the landscape there in the southwestern tip of Kansas, flat and naked, reveals it all.  The giant mechanized silo systems, the chemical making and distribution nodes, the trains laden with fertilizers and fuels, or with coal, running a mile and more long, tracing along the flat seemingly endless fields; the 1/4 mile long rotating spindles dispersing water in vast circles .  And the sad little towns, eviscerated of people, with I imagine a median age well into the 70’s.  And then the rural dose of things Mexican, the now common labor force from Georgia to Eastern Washington State, vaguely invisible until you walk into an AutoZone store and the lingua franca is Spanish.




Stopping in Greensburg KS, I was taken aback as everything was new – houses, city hall, a little art museum, the entire Main Street.   I figured it out on my own and had it confirmed when I had a nice long talk with a woman in her 80’s at the Museum (spanking new) of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well.   It cost $8 to see it, so I passed and instead had the conversation.  Greensburg was flattened in 2007 by a Force 5 tornado.  A town of 1300 then, 10 locals were killed (and 2 others from out of town), and rebuilt it now has 900.  A lot of old folks decided a new house there made little sense and they took their government handout and moved on.  The town’s appearance now is almost shocking – a glassy new (useless) art museum, the Well now surrounded with a big wrapper and (empty) shop; a downtown “Main Street” in current vernacular. The large new houses, all with basements I was assured, looking like a slick suburban housing tract; a huge new school.   I am sure it was it was all paid for by the Feds, whom I am equally sure the locals look suspiciously at, that Big Bad Guvmint.







I spent election night in Liberal, Kansas, in an older motel, run, as they all seem to be, by Indians from Gujurat.  Long – decades – ago I’d noted that out in the abandoned towns of the West, the most desolate motel might still be open, manned by a family from India.  I surmised back then (in the 80’s) that Mr Patel, famed hotel owner, had spied a good deal: he could buy up these closed down motels for nickles and dimes, get Greencard visas for his clan in India, and whisk them to the New World with a job, a place to live, and I am pretty certain, a kickback.  I suppose a family in India might pay a decent sum for such a deal, and I imagine something like an old American staple, indentured servitude, would be part of the package.  I, though, often wondered back then what the locals thought of these sudden strange new arrivals to some Wyoming backwater, and likewise what the Indian family thought of their strange new surroundings.  A big deal on both sides of the equation.  I though, was happy to see this, as it meant these places were open, and usually for very cheap.  I accepted the often heavy dose of disinfectant as part of the game.

As I kept up with the election-night news, the joke of “Liberal, Kansas” hammered in as Governor Brownback, who has bludgeoned the state into near bankruptcy with tax cuts, eviscerating the education system, and raising East Coast pundit hopes of a change when some opposition materialized, won his  election handily enough.  He promises his further austerity fiscal medicine will bring in business and soon the place will thrive as the corporations of the world spy his tax haven on the plains.  Probably he knows that fracking will shortly overtake corn, sorghum, alfalfa and cattle as the state’s Big Biz, and, if only for a short while, man-camps will swarm the landscape and a quick buck will be made and he can say “I told you so.”  What Kansans will be left with afterwards is another matter.






And so moving through this decimated landscape of emptied towns, boarded up Main Streets and abandoned homes, juxtaposed to the industrialized agri-biz of big rigs, irrigation circles, tanks of anhydrous ammonia, massive silos and feedlots, it all seemed something out of Dorothy’s nightmares: a rural world ripped apart by economic forces and technology, but one with no rainbow at the end of the golden brick road.  Dotting the fields were oil pumps oscillating slowly, and some places the giant white stalks of wind farms, and more recently the fenced in compounds of fracking sites.  Punctuating the vast flat lands were the delicate tethered towers holding cell repeaters, stitching the great seeming emptiness of what was once called “The Great American Desert” into a unified whole.  Beneath the surface, webs of pipelines paralleled the surface tracks which bore the mile-long freight trains hauling coal to generator stations.  And pumping through it all was the fluid demiurge of money, extracted from the Ogalalla aquifer in the form of food-stuffs, from the fractured subterranean zones of slate and coal seams, from the buried lakes of oil.  American as apple pie, this urgent need to suck the landscape of whatever seems of value, and once extracted, to leave it, wrecked and stripped of life.  It seems, as de Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago, as if it is stamped in our cultural DNA.




Grant_Wood's_Daughters_of_RevolutionGrant Wood, Daughters of the American Revolution

wizard-of-ozGoing to meet the current Wizards of Oz,the Koch brothers of Wichita.


Falling (Way) Behind

DSC07149CSMWalkerville, Montana

Boy, does time slip by.  Or perhaps I give myself more to do than life’s time allows.  I am behind on this.  So time for some catching up – it’s been 6 months since my last post here.  Which, as it happens, doesn’t mean I haven’t been (partially) working on this project.  Tick off some things:

+   Shot a 144 minute “segment” for Plain Songs Lake Bowman.

+   Bought a new vehicle for wandering the USA, a ’96 Ford Aerostar Van, with 118K on it; and have rigged it for  work/camping/living.

+   Applied, dice-roll #4, once again, for a Radcliffe Fellowship (find out in March 2015 if….)

+   Met Daniel Levine, over the summer, as he dropped by enroute back from the West Coast, following his travels with Brian Spellman shooting for (part of) their work on this.  Had a great time.  Curious to see their material (30+ hours they tell me).

+   And finally am on the road, starting two weeks ago, shooting for the film, slowly settling into a work-groove appropriate for it – the last days visiting Gene Youngblood, with whom shot a 60 minute sequence for one of the elements of Plain Songs.

DSC08221 crp smAt Gene and Jane Youngblood’s just outside Santa Fe

Foto: thnx Jane Youngblood

Those are the overt things.  Naturally my brain has been a stew of thoughts and feelings, tentative probes of figuring out how to articulate a mass of complex and often contradictory things, into some semblance of coherence.  The only thing clear to me now is that instead of the 12 or so hour length I thought this might become, it will clearly be far longer.  I suspect the landscape part(s) will be that long!

Travels so far:  Butte to Missoula, stop with Swain Wolfe; then on to Salt Lake, with a visit to Spiral Jetty, then through Navajo lands, Monument Valley, down to Phoenix/Tempe, and wanderingly to Santa Fe.  Coming up 10 days of wandering the New Mexico SW before heading up to Lincoln, NE., and to Chicago.

DSC07177CSMMonida Pass, MontanaDSC07183CSMSalmon River, IdahoDSC07221Clouds over Mt Borah, IdahoDSC07297jetty2smSpiral Jetty, nighttime, Salt LakeDSC07316 crp SMSpiral Jetty (Robert Smithson)DSC07361New tomato facility, southern UtahDSC07473 SMCanyon wall, Capitol Reef National ParkDSC07573 SMMonument Valley, UtahDSC07579 SM

DSC07776 SMPetrified Forest National Monument, ArizonaDSC07844 CSMCanyon du Chelly, ArizonaDSC07880

Observing myself – as occurred long ago, when out with Alenka Pavlin in 1985-7, shooting for Plain Talk & Common Sense (uncommon senses) – I find myself once again unwilling/unable/resistant to taking shots of the quotidian squalor of urban, suburban or strip-city America.  It is not a squalor of material poverty (though that exists as well), but a grotesque spiritual and cultural poverty expressed in the numbing “poetry” of Big Box corporate stores, a repetitious litany of brand names, looped it seems endlessly across and through the urban landscape:

McDonalds Wall-Mart Target Safeway Bed Bath & Beyond Staples Burger King Walgreens AutoZone Albertsons Menards Best Buy Cabelas Toys “r” Us Lowe’s Hobby Lobby Crate & Barrel Home Depot Office Max CostCo Fred Meyer Pier One Trader Joe’s Famous Footwear Kohl’s Fred Meyer Family Dollar La-Z-Boy Marshalls KMart PetCo JCPenney Taco Bell

Attached to these names are bloated vast warehouse spaces fronted with exploded facades hinting at “classical” architecture; within lies a vast array of things (largely made in China or SE Asia), the constant thrum of music, dancing lights, all intended to beguile the visitor and prompt partaking in the largest part of the Nation’s GDP: consumerism, otherwise known as “debt,” which is constantly sold to you by our banking business, ever ready to offer you a dazzling new credit card with perks and golden holograms, free deals and all…  for a little percentage to be compounded as you sink into the morass of debt.  Or, as in my case, to deny you “credit-worthiness” for not participating in this grand charade.  In the last year I was denied a rental car as inside the system information revealed I never run up debt, and hence the nimble pickpocket fingers of the financial industry fail to ram me for “interest,” ergo no rental car with my debit card. “Pay to Play.”

Naturally any sane view of an economy in which 70% of our glorious GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is consumerism would send up red alarm flags in a nano-second.  It means that we spend 70% and in some manner or another “make” something of the other 30%.  Obviously an unsustainable model, the realities of which we are only now realizing: the present “Great Recession” is essentially an expression of the fact that you can’t live on debt indefinitely.  The Piper is demanding to be Paid.   So jobs dematerialize, banks demand payment for mortgages, “interest” multiplies, and the system screws itself.   That is the landscape I see as the endless shopping malls, all virtually indistinguishable from one another, stamped with the same names, selling the same things, to a public largely pleased to turn themselves into billboards for “their” brands.  Writing from Santa Fe, a once lovely place now transformed into yet another American West strip-city, neon signs dancing to the horizon with that same litany of names, one sees that our “public” is exactly as the Sage of Baltimore (the likes of which has been long absent from our culture) said:

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  H.L. Mencken
DSC08187Downtown Santa Fe, window
DSC08196 sm.
And so, once again, I feel myself inwardly flummoxed, driven schizo by the contradictory impulses visible before my eyes:  the grandeur of the landscape, the frequent individual generosity and kindness of plain people, juxtaposed to the lethal construct of our society, and the invisible and visible demands that we participate in it.  Here in Santa Fe, with Gene and Jane Youngblood, we’ve had a good conversation about this, out on the rapidly suburbanizing flanks of the city where it is either silent, or given a wind-shift, one hears the vehicular rumble of I-25 a few miles to the south.
DSC08003By Window Rock, Arizona
DSC07898 CSMCanyon du Chelly
DSC07963Sandstone cliffs, Canyon du Chelly
DSC07977Near Navajo, NM
DSC07980Approaching Gallup, NM
DSC08010 SMRain, outside Window Rock, AZ
DSC08201 bwcc smGene & Jane

One of the driving forces and pleasures of this self-appointed “job” I have given myself is meeting good and interesting people, and re-seeing many I have not seen for some time.  Thanks Jane and Gene for the place to put my head, the conversation you filled it with, and the sometimes needed reminder that the world is full of kind people.  Thanks.

Below, images from Bowman Lake, which joins Canyon as one of the landscape films which will be a major part of Plain Songs.








DSC03234Tampico, Illinois (Mourning in America…)

April 22, 2014.

Following nearly 5 months of travels, mostly in Europe, but the last one in the USA, you’d think that one ought – perhaps especially at my age (about 71 now) – to be tired and ready to kick back and do some serious R&R.  And maybe I should.  But instead I seem to have re-upped for getting this essay actually done, despite the lack of “official” support thus far from those  few with whom I rolled the dice.  As written a while ago, this can be discouraging.  And, given the social and political whiff of the times, coupled with my wanderings through the derelict small towns of America, battered by our corporatized/globalized economic over-seers, it seems even more reasonable to toss up your hands in despair and say WTF!  (As in Why The Fuck?)     However….

Seems not to be in the genes, and prompted by the encouragement of one quite young veteran of Occupy Wall Street, who, in keeping with the times, was “net-met,” and the other who came to a screening some many years ago (200&) in Boston and talked with me, the past months have only seen me tilting back to withdrawing my toss of the towel of a year ago, and digging in to get this work done.  The two are Daniel Levine, who was a 2nd-day OWS participant and wrote a book (Every Time I Check My Messages Somebody Thinks I’m Dead: A Memoir of Occupy Wall Street) on his experience, and his friend Brian Spellman – whom I met again in person in NYC a month and some ago.   Daniel had helped a lot on my efforts to help fellow filmmaker Mark Rappaport, and prodded me not to give up on Plain Songs.  He, along with Brian, prevailed.  They will be heading out themselves to travel parts of the USA, shooting and exploring, trying to grapple with the State of the Nation, as I did decades ago.  Frankly I have never ceased to wrestle with this country – whether in these essay films, or the fictions which largely provide a portrait of my time, firmly rooted in place.

daniel & brian togetherBrian & Daniel

So we’ll give it another shot.  With their help and participation, and perhaps yours (I’ll be doing a fund-raiser later, as well as asking for other things, from a place to stay to information to contacts to people I would like to talk with and shoot), hopefully this will happen.

DSC04261Wisdom, Montana

OWS, in the nature of current times, seems almost of another era, so swiftly does “history” slip by in this electronically tight-knit world.  Some of my friends – of my era – have been dismissive of OWS, suggesting that it lacked the organizational stuff for staying-power, unlike the civil rights or anti-Vietnam (and draft) movements of my youth.  And while in my day, yes, red squad cops sat outside my north-side shared apartment, and yes, I spent a few years in prison for resisting the draft and what it fed, and yes the FBI nosed about to ill effect, I can still say that back then we didn’t face the quasi-invisible force of a coordinated national-security State apparatus in conjunction with a thoroughly corporate-own mass media system, which did indeed, once it decided to do so, crush OWS on a national scale, swiftly and somewhat effectively.  I doubt my peers would have withstood such a concerted, orchestrated attack.   For me, the mere fact that after OWS we have the public concept of the 99% and the 1%, and that our national political conversation includes the words “plutocracy” and “oligarchs” is in itself a really major step.  And my hunch is that many of those who participated in and were effected by OWS (even my sister!) are simmering away, off-screen, undefeated.


<> on October 5, 2011 in New York City.

Occupy Wall Street Activists Mark 2 Year Anniversary Of Movement

Dan and Brian figure to head out shooting sometime in May, east coast to mid-west.  They’re doing a crowd-funding effort to raise a bit to cover their travel costs – see this.  I’ll be starting again, shortly, enroute back to Butte, via a zig-zag route through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, southern Colorado and then on up north.  In Butte I’ll stick on the thinking cap and begin to organize thoughts, down-load material off the net, and begin to hammer the images, thoughts, and everything else, into something coherent, passionate, and accurate.  And try to find some help in the form of funding, one way or another.

I look forward to collaborating with Dan and Brian, and seeing what their perceptions are – helps to have a nice generational leap involved.

JON ASpeaking Directly: some American notes

Below I print the description of this project which I wrote in applying for a Radcliffe grant (turned down.)

Jon Jost: PLAIN SONGS: Essaying America
Proposal for Radcliffe Fellowship:

PLAIN SONGS: Essaying America will be a continuation of two previous essay-films, Speaking Directly (1973) and Plain Talk & Common Sense (1987), each of which attempted to wrestle with the idea of America, what it is, and what our relation to it is. The new work will update those works, shifting terms to fit electronic media and the possibilities it presents, and likewise shifting to accommodate the changes in America and in my perceptions in the intervening time. I anticipate a sprawling multi-part work, 8-12 hours in cumulative length, broken into a handful of separate elements each able to stand alone, but also to be seen together in a mutually supportive manner. It should function as single, if rather long, “film,” but elements would lend themselves to being presented as installation works, or in varying other forms, such as on-line Vimeo pieces, or as a mixed-media photo/audio exhibit. It will be blogged with photographs, writings and video posts as it is made.

PLAIN SONGS will be composed of a handful of distinct and separate works, which belong together, and could be seen as a single long work, but can also be engaged as individual stand-alone pieces, linked in theme, content and aesthetics. I anticipate a length of 8 – 12 hours total.
Of the sections, I am sure there will be the following:


A visual portrait, probably without comment, of the landscape of America – rural, urban, suburban, industrial, from north to south, east to west. This will include the majestic natural landscape, as well as the dense urban world, the sprawl of suburban megacities, and the ravaged landscape of industrial extraction. Imagery will be subtly re-worked in many instances, lending a near-mystical/epic quality to the work – a kind of symphonic landscape of “the good” and “the bad.” Included will also be passages of our social culture in its many facets.


100 one-minute video shots of Americans, against a black background. The selection will be statistically accurate as to age, ethnic background, economic status, location. Subjects can say their name, where they are or are from, and whatever else they may wish. The 100 shots will be selected from an intended collection of at least 1000 such images.

• America: a discourse

A 90 – 120 minute sequence of Americans of differing backgrounds telling their views of America now and its apparent future. This will include experts in differing aspects of our society – economics, culture, politics – as well as laymen. The sequence will be composed solely of close-ups of green-screened face shots, in which the subjects are asked to tell, in layman’s language, their vision, rooted in their particular expertise and/or experience, in about 30 minutes. These shots will be edited to compose a kind of national conversation of a kind which one could not attain by having the people all together talking.

Democracy in America?

A discursive essay, loosely reflecting de Tocqueville’s book, structurally similar to my previous American essay films. It will be a commentary on the State of the Nation, drawn from my observations of the year and a half during which the film will be shot (began in May 2012), and from a lifetime of critical engagement with my country.


A very likely lyrical coda for all of the above, composed as a kind of visual music, something to tie it together in an emotional summary. Much of the material may be drawn from the other sections, but certainly not all.


There may be other sequences discovered in the coming travels which are needed or found, which will be included.

I began shooting material for this work in May 2012, and will continue shooting until at least Oct. 2013, and most likely well beyond. Where possible I am editing as I travel, finding the form and content of the film as it is shot. It will involve a considerable amount of relatively complex editing and “post” work, the nature of which will reveal itself as material is shot. I expect the whole work to require around 3 years of time.

While often “intellectual,” my creative process is at this juncture highly intuitive. I liken it to a jazz musician: one knows deeply how to play, one takes a theme and improvises, in a sense, without thought – one simply plays. I have made films for 49 years, and I know my instruments.
The work will embrace, intellectually and verbally, as well as visually, a rich background of American cultural touchstones: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dreiser, as well as many other literary and socio-political sources, up to the present. Visually it will evoke a wide range of American sources from the Hudson River Valley School of painters, to Bierstadt, as well as more recent artists from Hopper to O’Keefe to Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, pop artists, to the sublime of James Turrell. Likewise the photography of Muybridge, Sullivan, Jackson and on to contemporaries, from Robert Frank to Walker Evans to Joel Sternfeld to Eggleston and many others will be indirectly acknowledged, as will the continuum of American music. All of these cultural and social referents will be subsumed into the work, rather than cited specifically, or shown. In a sense, they are America.

Note: Speaking Directly, (110 mins,16mm color), was made for $2,000 in 1972-3, under conditions of utter poverty, though it subsequently was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, and is in the archives of the Netherlands Film Institute, Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek, Berlin, and the BFI in Britain. Plain Talk and Common Sense, (100 mins, 16mm color), was made in 1987 for $25,000 for Channel 4; it was invited to the Whitney Biennial of that year and shown widely at festivals. Both films in my eyes are rough technically, courtesy of the very limited funding and the nature of 16mm film.



americans gramps andPlain Talk & Common SensesPT flag indian cemetery

PT postcards



daniel crp bookRead the book

[A last little note:  I hope in the coming weeks to get both Speaking Directly and Plain Talk, along with other films, up on a Vimeo VOD channel.  Meantime I am organizing a west to mid-west journey from Butte to Lincoln NE, where screenings of 7 or more films is planned for Nov 7 – 15 at the Ross Cinema there – I am looking for paid screening/talks/workshops anywhere along the way, including swings 1000 miles distant.  Please contact me if you can help secure such at  Thanks much.]


Tossing in the Towel ?

DSC02365XOSMShoshone, Wyo.

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.

DSC05498smPortland, OR.

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.

DSC02435CRPSMShoshone, Wyo.

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.

DSC07573 - SMTecopa Hot Springs, Ca.DSC08423smLa Grange, Ca.

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.

DSC06638 - sm


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 who 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.


DSC05935smCascade Locks, OR.DSC06634 - smNewport, OR.

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.

DSC07432 - SM


DSC07492 - SMTecopa, Ca.

False Starts – Coming and Going

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!

The Cloud

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’!

Starting Out

Berkeley Pit, Butte, Montana

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.

1991 Subaru Home Sweet Home

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.

Somewhere south of Choteau, MT

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.

Bowman Lake, Glacier Park

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.

Burned forests, Glacier Park

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.

Store, Bynum, MT.

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.



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   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.