My script, Wave That Flag, details my Deadhead days back in the ’80s. Quite simply, it’s just another coming-of-age, I-can’t-believe-I-did-that, Don’t-do-what-I-do-or-maybe-do-I-don’t-care, Those-were-the-days movie. It’s all about me, a plea for attention. Me. Aren’t you amazed by the things I did? Wasn’t I crazy? No one does it like me. That’s right. Look at me.
But that’s why it works. The big theme is chasing down the music. At its essence, it is about a sound, a path as it were, and I was on it, and I went in a direction that could be so clearly understood, that everyone can understand, and it was an incredible place to be. I was astonished that I was on it, just there in the middle of magical fantastical place, through the woods and fire, where nothing but amazing things happened.
It was a communal thing of splendor and everything was ahead. It could never end. That was the certainty. This eternity, the whole thing laid wide open, it would go on forever.
And then it didn’t. And so, it’s really about losing that, never having it, or remembering what it was like when I didn’t know what I know now, if I know anything. So, yes, nostalgia.
Davis and Baz bag up in the pre-dawn light; the horizon is purple and green. They both ingest mushrooms and take a long drink of water before going up to plant the burned ground together. Clouds of ash rise up as they begin to work. A montage series offers close-ups of the shovel blades going into the ground, the trees gripped in their hands, boots tramping over the burned-out ground, interspersed with helicopter shots of them, tiny figures in the massive dominating landscape of mountains and valleys.
DAVIS (Not stopping): Feeling it?
BAZ: Feeling it.
DAVIS: It’s good.
Montage of close-ups continues, including extreme close-up of the bright blue tape tied off on a branch, beetles scampering along the edge of a burn-out twisted stump, an abandoned chainsaw blade twisted among the weeds, a woodpecker perched on a tree at the edge of the block, sweat dripping off the nose and chin of Davis, a mosquito landing and stinging Baz on the shoulder, ending with a hard slap. They stop, look at each other, drink water, move their trees from the back bag to the side, and continue planting.
Davis and Baz continue to plant. The sound of their heavy breathing, scuffing boots and cicadas are the only sounds. They reach the back edge of the block and a band of shade, planting the very edge of the road like experts, the trees rapidly dropped in. They pause in the shadows, each eating nuts and dried fruit, drinking in heavy gulps that spill down their necks.
DAVIS: I almost like this.
DAVIS: There’s something….
BAZ: Being an animal.
DAVIS: A burrowing creature, like a…badger.
BAZ: At 11 cents a tree.
They both laugh stupidly,
looking at each other, and then go back to planting.
BAZ: I could never work at a desk.
DAVIS: Why would anyone do that? Insane.
BAZ: Look at my arm.
DAVIS (Looking at his dirty, ash-stained arm): I see it.
BAZ: Why is that part of me?
DAVIS: It’s crooked.
BAZ (Examining it): No, it isn’t.
DAVIS: I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing.
BAZ: It isn’t crooked.
DAVIS (Holding his arm out): Mine is too!
BAZ: You’re right. Your arm’s fucked up.
DAVIS: It isn’t fucked up.
BAZ (Taking a tree, rubbing the needles gently through his hand): My point is that this arm is mine. It’s
a part of who I am supposed to be.
BAZ: My brain commands, the electric impulses obey.
DAVIS: You’re just in your head? The master commander.
BAZ: Not even that. It’s a tiny point in the back. Or just outside, floating in the darkness.
DAVIS: That’s you?
BAZ (Planting again): Yes.
DAVIS (Following him, planting too): What about your nose?
BAZ: I don’t have a problem with my nose.
BAZ (Throwing his shovel in hard): That makes sense to me.
DAVIS: Your nipples.
BAZ: Nipples. Yeah.
DAVIS: What the fuck are you doing with nipples?
BAZ: I like nipples.
DAVIS: Your nipples?
DAVIS: You find that erotic.
BAZ: And my throat.
DAVIS: I don’t like that word.
BAZ: Throat. Man, I love a chick’s throat.
DAVIS: You mean her neck.
BAZ: No. Throat. That’s erotic.
They plant in silence, the sound of their shovels pronounced against the stillness of the day.
DAVIS (Reciting Hamlet, II, II, 228-331):What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in… Something or other. I forget… in apprehension how like a god… and yet to me, this quintessence of dust.
There is a long pause, the
shovels once again the only sound.
BAZ (Reciting lines from Ginsberg’s Howl in a deep and booming voice):Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch in whom I dream angels!Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! Invincible mad houses! Granite cocks!
There is another long pause.
DAVIS (Unwrapping packets of trees): Granite cocks?
Davis starts planting again
and joins in the chant, done in chorus with their boot steps, the shovels in
the ground, the tree dropped in. They suddenly hear another noise, almost the
same grunting, but deeper and louder. They look up together and see a Grizzly Bear
standing right in front of them, massive, only 30 feet away. The giant creature
considers them, chewing on something methodically. Baz and Davis notice a bear
cub on the other side of her. They waver and then, in unison, continue to plant,
Baz makes a grunting noise that almost sounds like he is continuing the chant. They
plant a number of trees in succession and look up again. The bear and cub have both
DAVIS: Jesus. We just had a fucking vision.
BAZ: Both of us? At the same time?
DAVIS: What did you see?
The Grizzly and cub come out
from behind the slash, walking away, and crashing into the forest.
BAZ: I saw that.
Davis goes back to planting.
DAVIS (Looking back up): What?
BAZ: I think I just saw your cat. (Pause) Riding the cub’s back, guiding it by the ears.
DAVIS: What was that noise you were making?
BAZ: What noise?
DAVIS: You were grunting or something.
BAZ: I was asserting my presence.
DAVIS: You sounded like you were having a seizure.
BAZ: It’s what the mountain gorillas do.
DAVIS: When’s the last time you think this bear ran into a fucking mountain gorilla?
BAZ: That stuff’s universal.
DAVIS (Laughing to himself): Joint. (Pause) Universal joint, remember? The van?
They continue to plant toward
DAVIS (Planting his last tree): Last one. How many you got?
BAZ (Looking in his bag): Same, man. The exact same.
Baz plants his last tree and
they walk slowly, languidly down.
DAVIS: What are your numbers?
They walk for a few moments in
BAZ: I don’t know.
DAVIS: Me either.
BAZ: Oh, shit. One more. (Pulling a tree out and planting it)
Davis leaves behind his easy-going university lifestyle to journey into the Canadian wilderness and a summer job of planting trees.
The learning curve is painful; the mosquitoes and black flies are a constant plague, the weather is by turns baking hot and miserably wet, and the specter of snakes, bears and cougars lurk at every turn. Davis is barely able to make $5 a day at the outset, while his pot-smoking pal Max concedes immediate defeat, hiding in his tent. The sole respite to the torturous work is the communal hot tub where everyone strips naked to drink, pontificate and listen to killer music, all the while dreaming of a better day.
Davis toils on, slowly discovering an inner strength. The repetitive routine of planting trees puts him into a meditative state where he can consider his place in the world, made all the more poignant as he surveys the stripped and burned hillside juxtaposed against the stunning beauty of the surrounding mountains. The crew finally gets a day off and celebrates their brief freedom in town with drunken antics, after which things take a number of turns for the worse, including Davis’ van getting wrecked. Davis grinds through his angst and exhaustion and, after a late-night rendezvous with the foreman’s girlfriend, goes back to town and gets into a conflict with a group of locals who accuse him of stealing their jobs. Elmer, a mysterious and spiritual planter Davis had only seen from afar, comes to the rescue by defeating their burly leader in an arm-wrestling duel.
Davis returns to work, relentlessly planting, breaking the camp’s record, shortly after which a forest fire appears on the horizon. The foreman insists that the crew stay to make as much money as possible, but Davis and his friends escape this madness by driving directly through the smoke and onto a music festival.
I had a glimmer of light on my screenplay, The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg, in 1996, when I piqued an agent’s interest by making reference in my cover letter to the assumed “teetering piles” of submissions on her desk. She liked the image and called. “Before you come down to chat, I would like you to address the title. The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg doesn’t work, does it? You need something that will catch the audience’s attention.” I was most pliant; I arrived the next day with my newly christened Manitou island. “What does that mean?”
“The Manitou are the Ojibwa spirits.”
“Spirits? That’s a start.” She scanned through the first pages. “Okay, and this. I’m not sure about these names. What’s this one? Asawsny?”
“Asawasanay. He’s the spiritual leader.” I pointed out the name to follow. “And Pamequonaishcung is an elder. They’re Ojibwa.”“Pamakon? Oh.” She turned the pages. “I’m not sure that’s going to work.”
“That’s what the story is about. It’s their spiritual return to the land.”
“Oh.” The meeting deteriorated from there, and there was no follow-up. I understood her point about making the story accessible, and changes of course could be made, but her approach was facile, like she expected an explosion of light. I was supposed to amaze and astound, to make the sale, so that she could sell another. I balked. Eleven books later, I’m still struggling with that. (And, yes, I changed the title back to The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg.)