And never the twain…

My trip to California was a marvel: I spent three full days on the train, from coast to coast, Boston to Emeryville, MA to CA, seeing some of what lies between. The rails lay across the country like tiny sketch marks on a piece a paper, through valleys and over peaks and there was such a solidity to the emptiness, a vastness so crushing and humbling as to make me feel tinier than ever. There were scenes of weathered decay, like the sad-eyed hunching cowboys of legend staring at the passing train with the moribund melancholy of an ant stuck on glue paper; windswept hamlets where prairie dust ghosted the air and the only whispers were those of the wind through deserted shacks. Especially one sight I remember so clearly in its bizarreness: a field of rusting yellow school buses, some covered by sand, as if being reclaimed by the earth, so to speak, most of them without wheels, their windows and lights broken; eyes bereft of life and soul. It was like a graveyard for elephants, a bone-dry beach covered with metallic beached whales. I saw it, as did everyone else who on the train who peeked out the window at that time, so it was certainly not an experience I can smugly call my own, but still…there it was. Closing in on the final destination, the train came in over the Sierras and even though the sun was setting and much was lost, I still saw enough to whet my appetite for a return; another journey for another year. That is how it must be.

The trip, though smooth, was not entirely without incident: Halfway between Chicago and Emeryville, the train had to stop and was delayed for hours, thanks to a mudslide that required the tracks to be cleared. It was during the night, and most of us were asleep, but I woke up, as is my wont, just in time to catch a glimpse of the thunderstorm outside. A bolt of lightning lit up the horizon and it was like staring into a nightmare, indecipherable shapes and forms reaching out for us, moving threateningly in the wind, with the rain whipping the windows, as if in a terrified frenzy to get inside. The moment passed and I went back to sleep, but the moment lingered, even if the next day was all sun and light. The second occurred when we were almost in Emeryville. The train took off from a station and the conductor apologized again for the delays. “But at the very least, nothing else can happen to make us later. The nest stop is the second to last, and we should be in Emeryville in about 45 minutes.” she said cheerfully. The train rolled into Emeryville about an hour and a half later, having spent about an hour at the second to last stop; it took time getting the dead guy off the train.

The point is: It was a bit of a journey, a journey that itself was a destination. I spoke to some people, watched the scenery, wrote some notes, read my book and stood cramped in the “bar” while Morris, the very entertaining bartender-cum-chef, failed to notice the smokers exhaling forcefully out the window, cradling their cigarettes close to their chest as inconspicuously as they could. Then again, I suppose the smoke from Morris’ unfiltered Lucky Strikes got in his eyes and blinded him temporarily. I felt fulfilled after it, replenished, as if I had done something worthwhile. One more thing to cross off the to-do-list. And one more to add: The return trip from LA goes through the deep south. And that, y’all, was my plan for the return trip.

Alas, it was not to be. I am writing this on the floor of my summer abode in New Jersey; Apart from an inflatable mattress and an armoire that I am convinced will topple and fall on me one night, killing me instantly, leaving me to be found by whatever new tenant in a few months. I do have a computer, though. An odd combination, but hey, we’re all post-modern people here, so we can deal.

My trip to Jersey was sudden, to say the least. I got a job and had about one month to get prepared, wrap up at the Rep, pack and move. As always, there was so much going on and it simply snuck up on me. I cleaned out my desk on Thursday, an oddly emotional experience (a week and a day after seeing “The Guys”, an oddly unemotional experience), then flew from Oakland to JFK the next day. Saturday would be spent looking for housing; two sublets had at that point fallen through my fingers, the second one just the day before, causing me no small grief. You can put the boy in California, but you can’t put California in the boy: “Chill out” never figured in my vocabulary too much, as my friends and acquaintances can attest to. In my view, the glass is often half full…draining away, drop by drop, just as the well of life inorexably moves towards that final emptiness… Erm…life as a pint glass, anyone? But hey: Resurrection in a refill! (If I’d only drink slower, eh?) That said, I had a brief period after experiencing Australia when I existed in a blissful state and “no worries”, the Aussie national motto, became my personal mantra as well. It lasted for a while, longer than I expected it to, but ultimately, I sobered up. To get around to the point: I arrived at JFK without the usual serenity this tends to instill in me: Weirdly enough, I go to New York to relax. Put me in an aggressive crowd of people, nasty bag ladies and profligate cabbies and I’m a happy guy. If I have problems, New York solves them; I walk down the streets, skyscrapers surrounding me, looking down the avenues, those corridor of steel and glass and reflected light, feeling dwarfed by the immensity of it all. Here, I am insignificant, a tiny speck of no importance, and consequently my problems are as insignificant as I am, even less so. It’s a fairly simple process, but it works. Plus, New York is a fun place to be. Good pizza, fashionable ladies and Coyote Ugly over on 1st Ave…hey, if it ain’t broke…

But now I found myself with no place to stay after the first two nights at the hotel, my job to start on Monday. I sighed, dragged my luggage onto the bus and set off for Grand Central Station. Once there, I collected my stuff from the milling people, waved off the hustlers, and waited for the hotel shuttle to arrive. It didn’t, so I hailed a cab instead. At the hotel, I was going to pay the cabbie: I had no money, I found. The 50 dollars that had until recently been in my pocket was gone. The bustle and scuffing of retrieving the luggage outside the bus was where it happened. It had to be. Great: I’d been in New York for about half an hour and my pocket got picked. For the first time. Luckily, my wallet and passport were still in my inner pocket, it was just the loose cash in my pocket. I travel with a large wallet and sometimes keep my cash in my pocket, so I don’t have to drag the thing out. Thank God. The cabbie was nice enough to believe me; after all, I had rather a lot to carry, so I couldn’t run off in the first place. The receptionist paid the cabbie with no fuzz and charged it to my bill. I was there, at least.

I could barely fit my stuff in my room, but I did, somehow, and sat there wondering what to do. I had planned a nice steak and a beer or two with my money. Fuck it, I thought, and went out anyway; the beer flowed, not too much of it, as I was tired and it hit me right away, but enough. The bartender, seeing me unable to concentrate on my book and generally looking miserable, leaned over and asked in a soft Irish accent if there was anythin’ wrong, like. It was a slow night and I was a long way from home and frustrated and somewhat lonely and I was suitably lubricated, so I started speaking, veering off the immediate problems at hand almost instantly. Having made some insightful and, for a serving establishment, original points about people (we’re idiots) and the world at large (it’s all fucked), I left with another beer, this one on the house, under my belt.

The day after, I went out to New Jersey, having but a tiny hope and a guy to see about a sublet. It worked out, as simple as that. I could collect the keys the next day in Manhattan, as the guy was moving to the city so nice they named it twice for the summer months. I subsequently spent a day meandering about Manhattan, which is always nice, but I was still antsy; I rented a car to get my stuff to New Brunswick, as there was no way in hell I was getting on the train with all of it. It would have been a nightmare, no doubt about it. So my driving debut on a Sunday on the East Coast of the United States of America took place in Manhattan; it was a grey day, the sidewalks filled with joyless faces trudging away like a thousand lonely funeral processions while the cabbies’ plaintive cries of “fuck you” and car horns ghosted the muggy air. It was grand. I went through the Holland tunnel and then I was in New Jersey, on that famous turnpike; the metal frames of the industrial plants all around me, smokestacks rising from the ground like parodies of flower stems, clouds of acrid smoke the petals to crown them; bony, arthritic fingers pointing skywards. I happily missed my exit and turned a 50-minute drive into a three-hour long adventure. I’m not sure, but I think I swung by Philadelphia: I have flashbacks of cheese steak and cracked bells. As I said, it was grand. The return trip the next day was even better, as I got to ride in genuine Manhattan rush traffic, but I digress.

New Brunswick is not much on first sight, nor on second, nor indeed, the third: Somebody said I’d love it, after all, I enjoyed Providence. New Brunswick is not Providence; for all its flaws, Providence has an actual city scene, you just have to get used to it. I guess the same goes for here, but I was hoping there would be something that leapt at me right away. But the sunset was lovely today, perhaps from all the smog, who knows? I wandered around, hoping to find some pub not milling with drunken fratboys. I was not successful. It’s out there somewhere, but the search goes on for the time being. There is something unsettling about streets full of young people and nothing but: It’s somewhat like walking into your own personal Stepford or something. Not a wrinkle in sight, nor a grey hair, just surrounded by one large, singular demographic. And yet, as I rounded a corner, glumly thinking about already missing Berkeley (if not the bums), which I’d sworn not to, at least not at first, I came upon something that made me giggle like an idiot. Rising from the ground, tall as two men, stood a silver tuning-fork. Did it hum to the vibrations of Mother Earth? Fuck knows. But there it was, some sort of sign.

I’ve only been here one week and a day now. My head is still reeling and will be for quite some time; I need to sit down and breathe, methinks. The other day, I woke up, thinking I was still in Berkeley; what the hell happened to my bed? I thought, before realizing where I was: New Brunswick, New Jersey. Alleged Armpit of America (the shaved part, thankfully) A most strange sensation, I must say. I can’t quite escape feeling somehow like a conqueror vanquished, or at the very least like an unsuccessful explorer; wasn’t I supposed to have left more of a mark or come across some profound, life-altering insight or something? Is it enough to simply say “I made some friends; I laughed and I cried. I rolled a strike and a spare and I sang a sad song and maybe, traveling through those months, I learned something on the way.” Is it really enough? Of course it is.

The itinerant soul has a nasty habit of constantly running after that greener grass, never quite stopping to compare the local greens with those in the Pantone book. Then you stop and look back over your shoulder and think “Hey, what’s that emerald sheen back there?” Hey…the show must go on, as they say in theatre and thus begins another chapter. There will be more, as always.

07.06.2003 • Permalink

The Grosse Apfel

The bustle of Grand Central Station a blur of yellow taxis and scissoring legs like always; I retrieve my luggage as well as I can amidst the tourists and the penny hustlers: Need a hand? No! And there’s a throng of bodies and sombody bumps into me on one side and again on the other and when at last I am at the hotel, I reach into my pocket to pay the cabbie and my cash is gone. I’m in New York for less than a minute and I’m out 50 bucks. Pickpockets; never happened to me before, and there’s always going to be a first. New York: The City so nice they named it twice.

In the hotel room, my luggage eats up the tiny space and I feel claustrophobia approaching; there is nothing outside but a brick wall and dark windows. I can hear the noise somewhere around the corner, far below. All my belongings in the room. I only lost cash, not my credit cards or anything, so I’m fine, but it still stings. I have no place to stay next week; I have two days to find a sublet and be at work as a happy new employee. I feel lonely and a thousand miles removed from everywhere; the TV offers a sort of companionship, but it’s not enough. I need closeness of some sort, a proximity to warm and breathing bodies, to conversation and laughter. But the money is gone, most of what I had for the week-end at least. I lock up and go out on the streets.

I wander aimlessly around midtown; everywhere, people pass by, laughing and talking, others beg for pennies, empty-eyed, while others yet have given up, collapsed on the street in a bundle of rags and themselves, the sharp stench of urine blending too easily with the passing Gucci and Armani. New York, the city I love and have loved since I first came here, is a crual place and I can’t escape that. I remeber the first time: A taxi bringing me from the airport and the legendary skyline moving steadily closer. And then, the many visits after that, approaching Manhattan from the north, always that same giddy feeling. The Empire State building…the icon of dated modern marvel. But like most, I now prefer the Chrysler building by far, though of course, the view of the city can only be enjoyed from the Empire State.

There was always solace here: Perhaps in the massive canyons of steel and concrete and glass, I can lose myself easily. I feel insignificant here, a mote among the giants and whatever ails me pales into the same kind of insignificance; also, the life, the vibrancy of a place that never quite settles down is a godsend. People getting on with it: It can be such a beautiful thing. The lights…the lights.

And yet, tonight, I can’t quite relax…there is an unease in me, an unhappiness that even a bite of the big apple can’t negate. I feel cast adrift, restless, hungry. This was to be an escape, but how can you escape yourself and your missteps? I stand on the top of Times Square and head back east…I walk up 3rd Avenue and am bemused to find myself amongst such a collection of Irish pubs that I might as well be on the Emerald Isle…it’s almost funny and they’re all too clean, too polished. I go over on 1st, look down toward the UN and walk further up to check out the bridge. It strikes me that I have never been this way and I am childishly curious. It’s massive, what can I say? Too tired to appreciate it fully, I decide to pack it in for the night, get some rest and save some cash, but I go to a bar anyway; it’s quiet in there, away from the genreal public that we are. I have brought a book and try reading, but I can’t concentrate, there’s too much going on in my head, anger and darkness and loneliness and regret and I sit here, right here, in the heart of this city, this country, this world, this universe, among all these people and still I’m alone and what am I doing wrong? and then the bartender comes over and asks, in his Irish accent, if there’s anythin’ wrong, like?

no home/pocket picked/nervous/new job/new life/alone

I put my book down, lifting my glass as he looks at me with, for whatever reason, some mild interest, and hey, it’s just a slow night in here anyway and my mouth opens and these words come spilling out like beer from the tap and stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“Well, there was this girl…”

15.05.2003 • Permalink

November

November

Damn the rear view mirror!

Drive on, Orpheus,
Don’t make that old mistake
of looking back;
You know there’ll be trouble.

They say
we learn from our mistakes.
But Orpheus, you of all people
Should know: It’s about trust.

Don’t look back.
You already know
the bridges are burned.

You say: “I know, but
There’s this voice…”

01.05.2003 • Permalink

Social Anthropology

Know what I really want to go away? What’s that? George Bush? Yes, him too, but I was actually referring to the didgeridoo. Yes, that fucking drone-monster blunt substitute that every bonged-out backpacker with a hippie fetish and craving for half-assed spiritualism buys when passing through Nimbin, Australia, in search of cheap dope ( make a left at the third ‘roo; ask for Barry) and/or God. I want the didgeridoo to go far away, for it to return to the sunburned, inhospitable plains of the Australian outback, and I want all the unwashed undergrads with their big, wooly hats from whence protrudes their oversized sideburns, their tie-dye shirts, their baggy pants and their Birckenstocks who insist on playing their didgeridoos in public (ie. anywhere near me) to join their groan-sticks on their journey to that distant place. Because when I go to open mic-night somewhere, or to the park to read a book, or pass the campus to ogle girls, that’s really what I want to hear: endless, monotonous droning (granted, that’s describing a lot of genres of music right now, but I digress), sounding like the drawn-out dying groan of a hyperventilating baritone with throat cancer and a bad cold wheezing his way through a nasty bout of hay fever. Fucking bliss. What’s with this “I’m in tune with the earth” hippie shit? Do some fucking research; there’s a ton of pre-Christian pagan cults and religions in your own cultural backyard to revive; what’s wrong with worshipping the sun, for example, or a snake deity? (Frankly, if it’s good enough for Alan Moore…) What’s that? You need to assert yourself as an individual? Here’s some advice, then: Take up the fucking tuba! Nobody, I mean nobody, plays one of those anymore. How’s that for originality? But then, you can’t blather like this, can you? “Hey, look at me, I went backpacking in, like, Australia, then I got this totally huge instrument, and now I’m like, in harmony with the Earth Goddess Gaia and stuff and I can totally relate to the aboriginals, you know?” Finally: don’t refer to it as a “didj”, asshole. You appropriate somebody else’s cultural expression to suit your own needs and you can’t even afford it enough respect to refer to it by its full name? Fucking colonialist!

UPDATE:
This piece generated my first – and so far only – piece of hatemail. The venerable mr/ms. Ilukens sent me this lovely message:

Hey Asshole
Bite my Big Yidaki

Cheers, mate!

15.02.2003 • Permalink

(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love & Understanding

rally06

A great thing about the current protests is the recycled nature of it all: with even the presidency being second-generation, there’s not even any need to make new signs. Just grab the ones you have lying around from 12 years ago and you’re good to go.

The train ride was chaotic; there was no actual need to get a ticket at Ashby, as the kind people of BART had, by necessity, simply opened the turnstiles to let the torrent of rekindled political activism flow through. But I bought a BART card before I knew that, so I enjoyed waiting in the ticket line while a black man was screaming threats into the pay phone: “I hadda gun, I kill you, muhfuga! See, I’m a playa, knowusmayin’, muhfuga?” etc. Then he made some remark about “a bomb in his backpack” and all of us in the line pissed ourselves. Welcome to the New Year, same as the old year. No bomb went off, of course, but the sudden, irrational bout of fear brought on by your average whacked-out street bozo made me realize that it’s getting more and more difficult to embrace weary cynicism, roll your eyes and complain about the crazy world.

I brought my camera and freely admit that I went more for the spectacle of a genuine San Francisco protest rally than to make some deep-seated political statement. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the rally and I think it’s brilliant that there are still people who believe in letting their voices be heard. That, however, is not about to stop me poking fun at them. So lock up your Birkenstocks and hide your macrobiotic foodstuffs!

rally07
rally01

The Embarcadero was awash with protesters. You could hear the drums and shouting from the subway. None of the people from the Ashby station had passes, as we had all just walked through. The BART personnel had only to hear “Ashby” in order to wave you through nonchalantly. They looked at the gaggle of placard-carrying protesters, commuters caught in the rush and the curious onlookers like myself with a weary melancholy. Alas, so many unsold tickets. Yet, what a meager price to pay to sponsor the dulcet ring of Vox Populi, eh?

You have to love the city of San Francisco. The liberal bastion of the West Coast, and arguably the entire nation, there is always something going on in this place. But on this glorious d
ay, even the beggars had switched their usual signs asking for spare change to peace signs. One bum I passed was busy being interviewed by a camera crew, patiently explaining the difficulties of the current situation as it pertained to the interests of the US and the world at large, given the negative curve of the economic climate and the subsequent re-emerging Reaganism.

Now, I’d have like to have seen this place in the sixties, when there were real protests going on. Berkeley, for example, still prides itself on being a hotbed of radicalism, though its glory days are long since gone. The fact that there is a Gap store on Telegraph that hasn’t been graffiti’d, much less torched, proves that quite abundantly. What greeted me was a mass of people, but orderly, cheerful and far too clean to be any real fun. No chances of things getting out of control, then. As it turned out, the real trouble would take place the next day, when the Oakland Raiders made it to the Superbowl and, by way of celebration, the supporters decided to riot and commit arson. As you do.

rally02

I remember going to Paris in high school, as you do; I somehow wandered right into one of those student protests that the French do so well and seem to do whenever they run out of McDonalds’ to trash. You couldn’t tell before you were on the actual street. But all of a sudden, I was sandwiched between French riot police (the average French Officer Plod is bad enough; the Riot police are rumored to shave their teeth) and angry French students. Or maybe they were lorry drivers. Or farmers. Anyway, three guys on rollerblades started towards the cops. They were armed with hockey sticks that they rapped against the ground before launching off. I backed up against the wall, oddly exhilarated, and kept enough wits about me to snap a photo of the guys. I still have it, if you don’t believe me. A few yards away from the police, the Rollerbladers turned and headed back. The police took one step forward, as did the protesters. I decided to make myself scarce and went back through the alley from whence I came. Almost back on the other street, I heard a loud thump; I didn’t look back and that was that. There was no mention of the incident in the paper or on the news. To this day, I have no idea of what it was all about.

However, back to the present: There were banners everywhere decrying George Bush and the current administration, the perennial “US out of ____” placard; some anti-Israeli slogans for good measure and of course, that decade-old chestnut “No Blood For Oil” It was like time travel. I was back in junior high and frankly, I was thrilled.

Oh, there were so many of them: Former hippies, current hippies, Yuppies…old folks and young folks. It was quite a sight. I started snapping photos of the proceedings, moving alongside the great human tidal wave. As I mentioned, they were cleaner and more orderly than I strictly wanted them to be. The chants echoed of the surrounding walls and a couple of drummers kept a steady beat as the earth goddesses swayed somewhat in sync. A girl, late teens, maybe early twenties, was flagged down by a camera crew and asked about her feelings about president Bush. “BUSH SUCKS!” she screamed, and staring down the camera, she continued: “He’s such a mother—”. The camera crew seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly as the air turned a deep blue around the passionate young lady, though I doubt the footage would ever make the news.

So where were we going? I had no idea, so I followed the stream. It took bloody ages to get from Embarcadero to Powell. I was getting tired if Birkenstocks and purple shawls. I decided to stop by Virgin Records. Hey, why not? Gotta stimulate that economy, you know. It was interesting to be in there. I could see the moving masses outside, but there was no sound, except for the usual bland R n’ B moaning on in the background. Should I look for Pete Seeger or something? Nah. Elvis Costello will do the job just fine. I paid and left. The sound of dissent hit me again and once again, the current swept me along. Having reached a saturation point (after all, there’s only so many pictures you can take of a bunch of people who aren’t even thinking of rioting), I decided to spend the last roll of film taking photographs of girls instead. It was less than successful. My lovely, yet unwitting subjects kept getting obscured by well-intentioned protesters.

At some point, there was a guy with a megaphone. There’s always a guy with a megaphone. He was getting properly worked up and I thought “This is more like it.” He sounded like a mix of Zack De La Rocha and Abbie Hoffman and made people sit down for some reason. Probably trying to incite some sort of civil disobedience. He handled the megaphone deftly, with the power and passion of the born rabble-rouser: “Let’s take the power back! Show the fat cats in Washington! We are not mindless sheep!” he shouted: “We are not mindless sheep”, replied the crowd in unison.

At long last, it became obvious that City Hall was to be our ultimate destination, which I should really have guessed. A veritable ocean of people had gathered there, so it was a total pain to move around. Vendors had set up shop, selling overpriced water and greyish hotdogs to hungry and dehydrated idealists. A group of people was sitting around singing “We Shall Overcome” while another bunch were meditating for peace, the sweet smell of pot hanging in the air. Most people wandered around aimlessly, though, many of them twirling their dreadlocks and looking generally confused.

The PA system started blaring and coughing. A guy (was it the same guy?) started talking whil

e everyone around started cheering; he sounded incoherent and bonged-out, so at least that was in the true spirit of the Sixties. After some mumbled exclamations, and some fairly enthusiastic responses, they managed to fix the sound somewhat and I got an comprehensible earful: “Please give it up for woman warrior poet Bonnie Raitt!” I had no idea if she was actually there or not, but she came on the PA and warbled about how the world could see that not all Americans were gung-ho types. (To be honest, most of us know whenever there is a large demonstration like this, since we read papers and stuff. Some Third World country papers have better foreign coverage than your average US one. No offense; it’s just the way it is.) The song that followed was an egregious, written-on-the-way-over number that went something like “Hey boy / The world isn’t your toy / There’s just too little joy / Waa-aar” It was every bit as rotten as Paul McCartney’s post 9/11-ditty “Freedom”. which is no mean feat. I love McCartney; worship the ground he walks on, as a matter of fact, but that song was just too far a slide into banality, even for me. Following that, somebody painfully respectable that I’ve never heard of came on and talked about fasting, Gandhi, and how fasting for a day and giving the money saved to the good cause could save lives and so on. Just thinking about this made me want to take off and go get a steak and a beer, which was what I eventually did. Joan Baez was apparently there, dancing with passersby: Sadly, I missed that. The march was over: I’d done my part. It wouldn’t change a thing, I suspect: The most perfect expression of social protest would be to overthrow the government, which obviously wasn’t going to happen that day. How would we all get to Washington on that short notice, for example? Still, an even dumber Bush in the White House is a sobering thought and the possible Armageddon even more so. The idea of Saddam Hussein with nukes is pretty scary, to be sure, but let’s face it: India and Pakistan having a few of those babies too isn’t much more comforting. Not all of us can count on being reincarnated, you know (although with the post-Armageddon options being either mutant or cockroach, why would you want to anyway?). “The world is nuts” will be my clever endnote. Then I left the crowds behind for the scowl of an Irish bartender who I apparently didn’t tip enough.

17.01.2003 • Permalink

The Original Unforgiven: The Man who shot Liberty Valance

When Eastwood’s Unforgiven came out, it was an instant classic, deconstructing (there’s that friggin’ word again) the Western genre and Clint Eastwood’s own familiar hero role, reducing Western archetypes from dusty opera to realism. Also, it was kickass movie, and funnily enough, a fusion of the stouter American western and the seedier Italian one. But never mind the ’90s. Liberty Valance, released in ’62 already commented on legend and myth-making. “This is the West.” says a reporter at the end; “when legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Directed by the legendary John Ford, Liberty Valance stars John Wayne, Jimmy (sorry –James) Stewart and Lee Marvin. Even Lee Van Cleef pops up.

The movie gets off to a rather sad start. It opens with Stewart and his wife, Hattie, arriving to see John Wayne get buried. At the end, we glimpse that perhaps it’s not just Hattie’s roots that tie her to the little hamlet, but something else. Stewart must come to terms with living a lie of sorts.

Ford states that the law must be enforced with action. Sad as it may be, it’s true: one can hardly expect the criminals to show up on their own accord. By force, the West was won, and it’s a mostly unromantic view he takes of the frontier.

Marvin plays mean like only he can and does a great job of it. There’s a gleam in his eye that tells you he is bad right to the core. He has a druken swagger that you expect to explode into violence and a vicious mean streak boiling just beneath the surface. Ironically, he would send up this type or role with his turn in the Jane Fonda comedy Cat Ballou but a few years later.

Wayne is the real hero (duh), even though he’s part anti-hero. It’s Stewart’s film; Wayne may be get the top billing, and his role more substantial than it looks. You know he’ll come through in the end. He lets Stewart take the “glory” of killing Valance; he willingly lets Hattie go, because he knows she loves Stewart more than him; if only a bit. He dies in penury (Stewart has to tell the undertaker to bury Wayne with his boots on), while Stewart, “the man who shot Liberty Valance”, gets rich and famous. And yet, Wayne knows what he gives up; he could easily take the credit for the killing, but he wants to be left alone; he is of the past, a loner of the frontier range, while Stewart is of the future, statehood and bureaucracy.

The movie is surprisingly brutal in places; when Valance whips Stewart and the editor, for example. All we see is Marvin’s enraged, starkly mad face and his arm coming down, down, down…suggestion still works great, and we flinch in horror. Even his men are uneasy, and Lee Van Cleef must restrain his boss on both occasions. Like in most old westerns, there’s less wild action than you’d think. The guncraziness that came later was mostly thanks to the Italians. Tempo-wise, it’s more High Noon than Django; a lot of talking, deliberating and then a brief moment of violence. Westerns can be quite the philosophical vehicles in the right hands. Like I said, the movie is as much about myths and legend as it ois about telling a cracking good story of a man who refuses to budge. You probably have seen it already, but if not, you should.


  • Director: John Ford
  • Cast: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin
17.01.2003 • Permalink

The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World

08.11.02,
The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Fransisco

It was the end of a frankly hellish week. Having spent the previous eight hours staring blankly at the computer screen, I hopped the BART and fled Berkeley. The Haight was shiny with recent rain which had seemingly washed away the acid casualties and chased the bonged-out white rastas from their stoops. I entered the store.

I was about half an hour early, so I took my time with choosing which cover I wanted for my version of “Dangerous Visions”. I paid and took my seat; it was still reasonably empty, save for a few diehards. I felt out of place. Slowly, the Booksmith started filling up. I didn’t notice it was full until it was about to start. There was a commotion at the back; then, a short, portly shape blurred past us:

“Jesus, it’s like a fucking church in here!”

Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Harlan Ellison. The fantasist’s fantasist. 68 years, 5 feet, 5 inches and a good potbelly’s worth of of ideas, of words, of attitude. Most importantly, some would argue; of genius. The man who told Bradbury “You’re not so much”. 76 or so books, screenplays, teleplays and 2 cardiac arrests to his credit.

“First off: Is there any old business?”

It took less than a minute: A guy my age, mid-twenties, at the back asked about Ellison’s involvement with “The Terminator”.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that, miss?”

“Um…”

“Oh, SORRY! It musta been the hair”

The impish grin. The fan smiled; hey, it’s Harlan! And he’s just like you’ve heard! So what followed was a spectacular putdown of mr. James “asshole king of the world” Cameron. Anne Rice got a thrashing too. Somehow he get her mixed in with Judith Krantz. Oh, my friends, it was truly wondrous to behold. At one point he even interrupted himself to ask if he was being too offensive:

“You know, I’d be offended by me.”

After getting worked up enough, he talked about his ongoing lawsuit to outlaw copyright breaches on the web; for three years, he said, he’d been tied up in litigation with AOL in order to not to implement, but siimply to uphold the copyright laws. The copyright laws that they have already implemented. For some reason, he’s pissed off with people stealing his livelihood. Then again, if you took my paycheck from me , I’d be pretty angry too. He went on about the CD-burning generation.

“I’m sorry, but you’re thieves. You’re fucking thieves. This generation…for some reason, they think the world owes them everything, that the world in fact owes the anything.”

Matter-of-factly. Can’t really argue, can you? Something about music, movies…we don’t care so much. We’re getting fleeced, right? Fight the power. Death to corporate domination: Defeat the soul-killers, the machinery of consumption, manufacturers of consent. Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me! But the writer? No such luck. Nobody reads much, so the word gets shafted. Not enough to make it worthhile pursuing, perhaps? Imagine what kind of overhead you have in order to let something like that slide. Not to mention your willingness to feed off yourself. I started feeling bad.

“And I’m talking about YOUR generation, boy!”

said Harlan, and pointed at right at me, eyes asmoulder. Oh boy. I felt the weight of a hundred disapproving eyes in the room; I threw up my hands and tried offer a sufficiently contrite countenance, but which I am terrified looked like smugness. A nuclear glow emanated from my cheeks; a mild Chernobyl, in fact. I could feel it. I often blush, I’m told, though I’m still quite surprised when people tell me this, as I’m usually not aware of it, it just happens. But this time I was very aware of it. Oh, very, very aware. Harlan went on to relate typical late-night phone call from the average bonged-out dorm jock who needed to tell him he was uncool for totally whaling on his right to partake of the work and how information is free etc.

“Information: yes, creative endeavours: no!”

It’s a mystery to me that more people are incapable of grasping that distinction.

“This guy was calling from Exeter…What the fuck? It costs something like 83 million dollars to even get in there and you’re telling me you’re too cheap to pay for a fucking CD?”

So: on to the story. I will not divulge secrets. Harlan would undoubtedly chase me down and cut my balls off, so suffice it to say it was offbeat and funny, very Harlan Ellison. Indubitably so: If you’re curious, buy the next edition of McSweeney’s. Half the joy was in the narration: No dull recital, this. He clowned, he lived in the words; we laughed; he had us in the palm of his hand, and he milked us for all he could.

After it was over, we dutifully got in line for his John Hancock: It took time. People had multitudes of things for him to sign. He knew half of them, spoke to them and inquired abour recent events: He may be lippy, but he cares. Then I was up. I handed him my copy of the book. He smiled slighly, probably because someone had actually purchased something rather then lug old shit over for him to sign. I said nothing, though it burned inside me. Look, no downloads here. I kept silent. He recognized the guy behind me and started talking. I stood there, helpless, my book in his hands, waiting for the nib of his pen to mark the white of page. He realized I was there, signed the book and gave me a sceptical look before returning to the conversation at hand. Who is this guy weird, quiet guy? I thanked him, even though he wasn’t listening.

I went to get my bag from behind the counter. The girl with looked up from her book. She gave me a smile:

“Sorry, just spacing out”

Quick, think of something.

“Don’t we all?”

Ugh. Both of us holding my bag now, justa smidgeon too long. A voice:

“Hey. John Constantine…you in the trenchcoat there…didn’t you hear me up there? Carpe the fucking diem, willya! It’s painful to watch you two.”

I looked at her, realizing I was blushing profusely, as was she. Oh, hell.

“So…would you like to go out sometime?”

“How about now? We close in twenty minutes.”

I blinked, the dayfream faded. But not her stare. Do something. I turned slowly and walked out the door. Ellison was yelling something, followed by copious laughter. In San Francisco, the rain stopped, again.

10.11.2002 • Permalink