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.

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.







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.

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.