The Fear IV: San Francisco

The Fear struck again in early 1986. This time it would stay with me for quite some time. I flew to California with my girlfriend. We were to spend half the time in the Bay Area for a few Grateful Dead concerts and a couple of university interviews at Stanford and San Francisco State for my intended M.A. program in film, and the other half in Burbank for an interview I had scheduled for my thesis at Walt Disney Studios. I felt off from the moment I stepped on the plane and found myself incredibly agitated while renting our car.

We got to a hotel in Oakland and walked to the concert hall. The show was all right; it would have been a lot better if I had avoided drugs. The notion of trying anything again – this was my first attempt since that dreadful night in Columbia – was a source of great worry for me, but as my belief in confronting fears was a bit of a mantra, I had no other choice. I suffered through waves of intense fear and doubt, but felt quite calm and somewhat relieved by the end.

I had a bath and found was horrified by the blue tiles. They were too even and clean, too polished for a sane person to consider. Panic descended. The worst part of it was I couldn’t corner it, couldn’t explain it; it was a shadow cast from nothing. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life. All of my writing belittled human existence. I was always trying to get outside of the human context. Who the hell did I think I was to do that? The notion was asinine. I had just something called Bare Cage which reduced humanity to a seventeen page one-act play with a naked man and woman, a dead bear and a machine housed in an impenetrable cage, while I was at work on a screenplay entitled Home which featured a house as the main character and the people that moved through as incidentals, while thirdly, I was writing notes for a proposed novel I had entitled Popo Know, the piece from my cat’s perspective. It was as if I didn’t think I was human, like I was above it all, like my vision was beyond the grasp of any other. It was totally fucked.

The next day when I went to the corner bakery, I felt as bad as ever. I was panic-stricken when a stranger asked me a question. I had no idea what he said. I just looked away and pretended he didn’t exist. I pointed to some buns and left as quickly as I could. I was supposed to get ice as well, but didn’t feel up to it. The rest of the day went fairly well. I looked at a couple of the sights in San Francisco, visited San Francisco State University – they had a decent program even if the campus was horrendously ugly – and went to the beach. We went to our second show; it was Chinese New Year’s and, for the event, the Dead had lined up the San Francisco Chinese Orchestra as the back-up. I weaved my way to the front and then thoughts of death and suicide crashed upon me. I wasn’t about to commit suicide, but my understanding of the notion was extremely precise. The gun, the knife, the rope, they were all emblems of clarity. Life was a waste; anybody with a mind could see that. Why the hell not wipe it out? All was blackness and doom. Concepts such as love and freedom were lies to make the imminent collapse of the universe digestible. The wise and loving gods were salesmen speculating on preferential stock. Music was a waste of time; life was a waste of time.

“Shit.” I lost my balance. The last thing I saw was a girl blacking out; I collapsed on top of her. I desperately tried to stand. I opened my eyes to find them clouded and the stadium shrouded in blackness. The houselights had gone out. The band was coming on. Some people helped guide me from the floor and out into the concourse area where I listened to the music float through the halls and watched the crazies and their children dance.

The next day I drove down to Stanford. I fought the feeling all the way down. It was pushing me very hard. We came onto the main, palm-tree-lined avenue into the campus. Sunshine blazed onto the impeccable scene of lush beauty. Hordes of happy cyclists crowded the paths…and then it assaulted me. What was stopping me from swerving the car and plowing through these joyous curs? What the hell was the point of staying on the road? The road was a fucking waste of time. These self-satisfied fuckers needed to understand the precious gift of life…and so did I. This was a farce. My little role in this pathetic jumble was a wasteful pursuit. All the cloaks and masks…why was I supposed to value this mass of conceit?

I slowed the car, forced simple thoughts of hockey and sex into my head and parked. We visited the film faculty, found out my program had been cancelled and left.

A couple of days later I had my interview at Walt Disney studios. I asked the woman my prepared questions and, as she answered, thought what a waste of time her and my life really were. Amazingly, I managed to ask her all of my questions and, a few hours later, when the necessity of the answers returned, wrote them down. I learned to control the feeling over the next few months until early that summer, when I went tree planting, and it finally went away.

The Banal Evil of Going Down the Middle

We live in a mess of a world. Nothing whatsoever points to anything working out for any of us. And, truth be known, we deserve come what may. That’s because we lie and cheat and steal and destroy. Each and every one of us do this, not in an occasional mistaken manner, but in a purposeful self-centered way.

We like to distract ourselves with food and drink, music and books, and even go on to think that there is hope as we look at the beauty in the words of Aeschylus or the brilliance of Hawking, and even think that we just have to get rid of this Trump fellow and it will be better .

But the answer to silly idea is a very hard no. It isn’t Trump to blame, as shitty as he is, nor even Putin nor Bolsonaro. These psycho-loons are just a symptom of what the real problem is: us, me and you, the ones who allowed it to be. It’s the evil of the middle road, making decisions to eke out a little bit for ourselves, convinced that no real harm is done by a trip somewhere nice or buying another bag of chips. That’s how the Nazis rose up. And it is how they will do it again.

I feel like I’m 10 years old. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. That’s my shitty excuse. I’m always looking to get away, avoid responsibility. I move from one thing to the next with no genuine aspiration, nothing true or wise. I like to write. That’s it. I like to live in that pretend world so that I can think that I know things. Yeah, I’m a stupid kid.

Anyway, the point is that we won’t make the right decisions just because we don’t really want to, not in our hearts, not in our genes. We want to go to Disney Land. And we feel good about that because anyone can do that. What else could there be?

The Greatest Films Ever Made: The Top Thirty (#1-10)

Welcome once again to my can’t-miss list of the greatest films ever made. To review, the criteria is as rudimentary as I can make it: a) The immediate impact of the film and b) The compulsive need to see the film again and again. Yes, these are films I will think of on my death bed. The top ten films ever made..:

1. Aguirre, Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1972)

Indelible line: “I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me?” (Aguirre)

Lasting impression: The futility of man’s desires

2. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, US, 2007)

Indelible line: “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” (Chigurh)

Lasting impression: Silent, relentless, unforgiving pursuit

3. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)

Indelible line: “If you want to eat me, eat this first.” (Chihiro)

Lasting impression: Train ride with spirits across the flooded plain

4. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, France, 1962)

Indelible line: “I always think everyone is looking at me, but I’m only looking at myself.” (Cleo)

Lasting impression: Adrift in the city

5. The Deerhunter (Michael Cimino, US, 1980)

Indelible line: “This is this. It ain’t something else. This is this.” (Michael)

Lasting impression: Not knowing what to do, knowing exactly what to do

6. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, US, 1939)

Indelible line: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.” (Wicked Witch of the West)

Lasting impression: Flying monkeys filling the sky

7. Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2017)

Indelible line: “Twelve and a complete savage. Cries for no reason.” (Zhenya)

Lasting impression: Caution tape blowing over the frozen landscape

8. The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, USSR, 1957)

Indelible line: “What the hell kind of mother are you?” (Passing motorist)

Lasting impression: Running from her self, finding an orphan son

9. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, US, 1998)

Indelible line: “In this world, a man, himself is nothing.” (Sergeant Welsh)

Lasting impression: The natural world in contrast to the warfare of man

10. Taxi (Jafar Pahani, Iran, 2015)

Indelible line: “They make your living a hell. Just let it go.” (Nasrin Sotoudeh)

Lasting impression: Who knew that defiance could have such a friendly face?

And, thinking you might want just a little bit more, here are the ten films that just missed the cut (in chronological order):

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, US, 1926)

Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1927)

Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, US, 1980)

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, US, 1987)

Superbad (Greg Mottola, US, 2007)

Gommorah (Matteo Garonne, Italy 2008)

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, US, 2017)

Shoplifters (Hirokai Kore-eda, Japan, 2018)

Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, Lebanon, 2018)

The Greatest Films Ever Made: The Top Thirty (#11-20)

Welcome back to my can’t-miss list of the greatest films ever made. Once again the criteria is basic, almost instinctual: a) The immediate impact of the film and b) The compulsive need to see the film again and again. In other words, these films are not only entertaining but will leave a lifelong imprint on your brain. And so the next ten of the greatest films ever made..

11. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, US, 2002)

Indelible line: “What if the writer is trying to create a story where nothing happens?” (Charlie)

Lasting impression: Kaufmann breaks every screenwriting rule to create an incomparable script

12. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, US, 2006)

Indelible line: “Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? Who am I?”

Lasting impression: Kylie’s eyes and lots of frantic digging

13. 2001 (Stanley Kubrick, UK/US, 1968)

Indelible line: “I’m sorry, Dave. I am afraid I can’t do that.” (HAL 9000)

Lasting impression: Silence, punctuated by breathing, in space

14. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, US, 2001)

Indelible line: “I don’t know why!” (Chuck Noland)

Lasting impression: Waves washing up on the beach, denoting prison

15. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2002)

Indelible line: “That’s that.” (Dean Trumball)

Lasting impression: The arrival of the harmonium and unexplained car crash

16. The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 1998)

Indelible line: “He raped us. Had sex with the little ones.” (Christian)

Lasting impression: Christian refusing to stop making his speech

17. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, US, 1976)

Indelible line: “1,100 men went in the water. 316 men came out. Sharks took the rest.” (Quint)

Lasting impression: A wide shot of the open ocean and then the music

18. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, Italy, 1946)

Indelible line: “Why should I kill myself worrying when I’ll end up just as dead?” (Antonio)

Lasting impression: The lone bicycle on an empty street

19. The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1986)

Indelible line: “Don’t worry. There’s no such thing as death.” (Alexander)

Lasting impression: The tiny house and then the big house burned to the ground

20. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, US, 1967)

Indelible line: “I can see in the dark, you know. I’ve been here quite a while.” (Mr. Robinson)

Lasting impression: The saddest of happy endings

The Greatest Films Ever Made: The Top Thirty (#21-30)

Looking for a film to watch? Welcome to my can’t-miss list of the greatest films ever made. Rather than employ a convoluted set of criteria, citing genres, eras, directors, etc, I use two basic guiding principles: a) The immediate impact of the film and b) The compulsive need to see the film again and again. In other words, these films are not only entertaining but will leave a lifelong imprint on your brain. Without further ado, here are films #21-30…

21. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, US, 1976)

Indelible line: “How you got to teach a course in anything is amazing!” (Marshall McLuhan)

Lasting impression: A marvelous array of one-liners and gags

22. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1973)

Indelible line: “Yeah, let’s talk business, Mike. First of all, you’re done.” (Moe Greene)

Lasting impression: Anti-heroes bathed in golden light

23. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov, Macedonia, 2019)

Indelible line: “I’m not dying. I’m just making your life misery.” (Hatidže’s mother)

Lasting impression: Isolation and silence

24. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, US, 1989)

Indelible line: “The story of life is this: static.” (Radio Raheem)

Lasting impression: The heat of an intense summer day

25. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, US, 1995)

Indelible line: “You had the last philistine. This one’s mine.” (Benmont Tench)

Lasting impression: The nearest truth to the Wild West ever offered

26. Being There (Hal Ashby, US, 1979)

Indelible line: “Life is a state of mind.” (President Bobby)

Lasting impression: A fable for the digital world

27. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, US, 1993)

Indelible line: “Now me and my loser friends are gonna buy some Aerosmith tickets.” (Pink)

Lasting impression: It’s remarkable how accepted and cool bullying can be

28. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, US, 2003)

Indelible line: “Fuck, anyway, Mr. Luce. Whatever.” (Eric)

Lasting impression: Mundane life punctuated by brief and shocking violence

29. Gilda (Charles Vidor, US, 1946)

Indelible line: “Gilda, are you decent?” (Ballin) “Me?” (Gilda)

Lasting impression: Rita Hayworth, the epitome of soft focus and key lighting

30. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, US, 1993)

Indelible line: “Marian, you’re not wearing any pants!” (Dr. Wyman)

Lasting impression: Everyone’s life is an utter mess

Pandemic Accomplishments: Week 18

I can now walk on my two new knees. There’s a long way to go, but rehab is in full swing and I’ve been able to get up the two flights of stairs to the roof.

I read John Elder Robinson’s Look Me in the Eye, an autobiography of someone living with Asperger’s Syndrome when there was such diagnosis. I knew I was some kind of misfit, but it was becoming apparent that some of the grown-ups who smiled sweetly and told me how terrible and fucked up I was were complete fuck-ups themselves.

I gained momentum on the writing front, mostly with these blogs, and plan to re-work Baller and Wave That Flag next week. Part three of The Cx Trilogy, Mina, awaits.

I reached Level 1208 of Fishdom, which means that I got through Level 1193, a level where bonus bombs, lightning and dynamite basically offer no help at all. 30+ attempts and I was finally moving on.

The Five Basics of Novel Writing

Basic #1 You need something gnawing at you, some sort of singular understanding of the key to existence or just a character in panda jammies.

The first book which I wrote was inspired by the image of a group of prostitutes being driven across the country in a tractor trailer. Don’t ask why, but that was the idea that came into my head late at night in a Parisian apartment. It developed into my first novel The Sacred Whore.

My second book was based on the impossible idea of a landowner refusing to mine a rich deposit of gold to keep his land pristine, which evolved into Manitou Island.

My latest work, a speculative trilogy about a generational journey to another planet, was borne out of an image of a serval by a watering hole.

Photo credit: Micheal Nichols, National Geographic

This image was the impetus for four books and some fifteen years of writing.

One thing to be careful of in your inspiration mode is the issue of the moment. Avoid delving into a topic that has recently impacted you. In other words, you need at least a couple more years before writing your Covid-19 piece.

Basic #2 Manage your work as it comes out of you, bit by bit. You need to write what needs to be written, which could be anything from a full outline to a character description or snippets of dialogue. Whatever it is, build out from there.

The key to this step is patience. You have to wait for the moment and/or characters to reveal themselves. I came to understand this when writing The Sacred Whore, I was stuck in the middle of the book and realized I had way too many characters (something like 20) and decided to eliminate half of them. The funny thing was that one of the characters I tried to eliminate – Chantal Deschampes – immediately wanted back in the story. It wasn’t my idea. It was hers. That’s when I knew I had something.

Basic #3 When you’re stuck, go back to the beginning and go through it again. Get the momentum you need to continue and just plow ahead. You have to face the simple fact that a lot of what you have already written is junk and will eventually be deleted.

It’s like being stuck in the snow or mud in your car. You’ve got to go back, dig out the rear wheels, clean the path, and get a little space to move ahead. You have to do this again and again, so much so that your first page gets rewritten a hundred times, which can be a good thing. Or not. But don’t worry about that now.

Basic #4 Leave the work alone for a long period of time, at least half a year. If not more. Let it ruminate. Your eyes need to be new. Let go of everything you held tight and see if it still works without you wishing it along.

This is probably the area that I personally need to work on the most. I can be impatient and move ahead when I should be waiting. I have only recently learned to enlist the work of a professional editor. Hopefully that helps me turn the corner at long last.

Basic #5 It’s time to share, to submit to agents, to attend conferences and workshops, to do that over and over again. You need a tanker load of luck with this. I’ve had the equivalent of a toy tugboat. I’ve tried for many years now and have even had a few decent conversations and follow-up emails. But then it ends.

Leaving me with the pictures of sunsets and goody bags of pens and paper. And so I take the hint and start all over again.

Woody Allen, Existentialist

I never bought into the whole religious thing. I thought it was all a big hustle. Didn’t ever think there was a God; didn’t think he conveniently favor the Jews if there was one. What were my sins? Kissing Barbara Westlake when I should have been hanging up my coat? God, there’s much worse. The Germans putting us in ovens. First attend to that. (32-3)

I envy people who derive solace from the belief that the work they created will live on and be much discussed and somehow make him “immortal”. All the people standing over Shakespeare’s grave and singing his praises means a big goose egg to the Bard. A day will come when all of Shakespeare’s play, for all their brilliant plots and iambic pentameter, will be gone with every atom in the universe. After all, we are all an accident of physics, not the work of intelligent design but, if anything, the work of a crass bungler. (73-4)

Excerpted from Woody’s Allen’s autobiography Apropos of Nothing.

Young Chronicles VI: Prince Edward Island to Montreal

June 1974

We drove right to the border of Nova Scotia and Dad said, “Let’s go to Nova Scotia.” So we did. It was cool.

We came to Hartland which has the longest covered bridge in the world. So we went into the covered bridge. It was neat-o.

We had to go across the Saint Lawrence River. Montreal is on an island. Well, instead, of going on a bridge over the river, we went under it via highway.

After we watched the election – which Stanfield lost and Trudeau won (Boo! Boo! Boo!) – we changed the channel and watched The Lucy Show and Dick Van Dyke.

This morning I woke up and somebody was knocking at the door. So mom got out of bed and opened the door. It was dad with the dog in his hands. Then he said, “She was sleeping on my stomach.” So we took her and mom went to the other room with dad.

Haunted by Her Pandemic Laugh

One thing that will haunt me from the pandemic is the sound of my therapist’s laugh on-line. It is the most awkward thing, blurting, loud and constant.

It was odd because I had hardly noticed it when we met in person. And yet it was a monstrosity over the computer, so much so that I eventually stopped showing up for my sessions. I paid her, but I just couldn’t listen to that fucking laugh any more.