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