The last months have seen me on the road – from a stay in Portland and then southward through Oregon and into California, all the way down to Los Angeles, zig-zagging from the coast to Death Valley, and back on up to San Francisco. Staying with friends, camping in the back of the ’91 Subaru, evenings looking for ever-harder to find discreet places to park the car for a night’s unhassled sleep. Along the way I’ve taken a zillion still photos, far less video than I’d hoped, and had ample time for thought. After a fashion I was mentally treading water, awaiting word on a could-be fellowship at Radcliffe – which would have meant September of this year though May 2014 in Boston, with some decent pay, help, and stability. This kept me from thinking too much about the coming year. A few days ago I got word that it was not to be. Last time around – three years ago – I managed to be among the finalists but not this time. I guess my stock is slipping. Coupled with a handful of other things, some minor, some rather large, I think I have decided to not proceed with making this essay-film on America.
Among the small things that have pointed me towards this conclusion were a supposed little partial retrospective at a supposed alternative cinema, The Clinton Street Theater, in supposed young and hip Portland. It drew a pathetic audience of 3-5 persons per night, mostly my older friends – despite the supposed normal attentions from the local press. Along with that a handful of the absurd “no thank you” letters from festivals – Sundance among others – arrived in the last months suggesting that what I do is no longer of interest even in the narrow world of film festivals. A passing glance at what does show seems to indicate a tilt towards the conventional, narrative things which look tame, and to me, boring, especially when compared to, oh, 50 year old films from a slew of filmmakers from around the world back then. And in my readings about the film and arts world, coming to the conclusion that by and large people simply don’t go much to the cinema anymore seems reasonable – something Hollywood has noticed as well. Especially my kind of cinema – non-commercial, artistic, intended to prompt you to think, to disturb in one manner or another in a deep way, not just a toxic jolt of sex/violence. Instead the current tendency is to surf the net, see things on tiny screens, or home cinemas, largely alone. And, of course, to be “entertained.” One can see this phenomenon dropping into any of the now ubiquitous cafes, whether in Portland or Seattle, or in some small town like Hollister, Ca. : people sitting with a coffee or tea, the glow of a computer or I-pad illuminating their faces – reading, watching some video, playing a game, texting a friend, enveloped in a virtual world defined by the net. It is something I understand well, as I too am a participant, addicted to the news, to researching via Google; snared in the compulsive matter of my voluminous email and blogs. I get it.
So the idea of spending a few years making a complex, long work about America, that would – like the previous ones – basically be unseen, though even less so now than back then, when at least they were shown on British TV (if not American), or had a little run of festivals and other such screenings. Today it is certain no TV would show anything in the same vein, and experience with festivals in the last 5-10 years suggests they too would be likely to pass – at least any festival that might make a small tangible impact. So to proceed to make it would be an exercise in futility – a lot of work for more or less nothing. Or at least “nothing” in one of the primary reasons I wished to make it: social and political reasons. These thoughts flitted around my mind as I drove through the American landscapes, and awaited word from Radcliffe whether there would be some concrete help in doing it. The email of the other day rather provided the conclusive logic to fold my hand. Some friends have urged me to do a Kickstarter or other crowd-funding attempt, though it is clear to me that for such a thing to be successful requires a considerable investment in work and time – 2 or 3 months – and at this juncture in my life I just don’t feel I should have to do such things, nor have I any enthusiasm for that kind of work. And besides, all the reasons which explain why there is no audience for this kind of work would equally apply to seeking funds: most people, overwhelmingly, are just not interested is such things. And probably that tiny minority which might be interested and wanting to help are more or less like me – lacking funds. It’s a kind of circular arrangement.
While this is a bit disappointing, I must note that most of my peers threw in the towel some time ago, perhaps discouraged by the diminishing interest, perhaps creatively burned out, perhaps just old and tired. I view all of those as natural, normal things for creative people (and others as well), a well-worn path in life. For myself I don’t at all feel creatively wrapped up – the last two films, The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima (now invited to this April’s Jeonju festival after a sequence of “no thanks” from Toronto, NY, Margaret Mead, Florence’s Festival dei Popoli, and Sundance), and Coming to Terms, (declined by Sundance so far) are among my best work, plain and simple. Nor am I tired or burned out. Rather a large cultural tectonic shift has taken place in the last decades, and where once there was a small little space for the likes of me – I am not alone in this at all – there is now almost nothing. Time’s changed.
I do have a view about this, which I have expressed here and there previously. It is the dubious triumph of our society’s drift to the Right, in which the champions of the Holy Market Economy, have, at least for the moment, prevailed. The idea that something is of value only if it makes a profit, the more the merrier, has completely distorted our culture, squeezing out the spaces for anything else. One can see this nearly everywhere one looks. It is so pervasive that young people have scarcely ever seen anything else, and they are almost unaware that all their choices have been made for them, in careful deliberate corporate decisions, the only interest of which is to “maximize profit.” So they are drilled with the thought that without a university degree their lives will shrink to worthlessness. Then they are shackled with ever sky-rocketing student debt, while simultaneously being encouraged to buy buy buy, to become addicted to consumerism and more debt. They are bombarded with the shallow inanities of 24/7 celebrity-fame-riches propaganda, so that I have met students 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.
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.