Als Ich Kan

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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!

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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.

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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:

McDonalds  

Bed Bath & Beyond  

Target 

Burger King  

Walmart  

Home Depot  

Sears  

Lowes 

Taco Bell  

Safeway

ad inf

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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.

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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.

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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,

xxxxxx
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.

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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.

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Prelude

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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 clarandjon@msn.com).   At present funding for this is coming out of my “retirement” funds – what I was able to save during four years of playing Professor in Seoul.  I have no pension, SS, or anything else aside from these modest savings, my wits, and stamina.  Any help in coping with this reality is welcome.

Thanks.

jon