Seaniebook 2017: Illustrating Words
A Year of Posts
You’ve got one lifetime to create, if you were born lucky enough, free of poverty or disease. One lifetime. On New Year’s Day in 2008, I wrote a friend that I intended to write one million words that year. I was taking too many photographs, and I was becoming alarmed by my lack of creative discipline. Photography is a bit too easy compared to other forms of expression, and with ease comes laziness, and I was getting lazy. I failed to write those million words, but I managed over 725,000. This is almost 2,000 words a day, and a healthy newspaper article is about 1,200 words. It was a monumental effort, and basically was a secret performance, unremarked to anyone and unseen by everybody. But it freed me from the banality of posting galleries of photographs online. But even that vomit of verbiage was inadequate to my ambitions. Time was ticking past, inexorably, and I had more to say than a lifetime could emit. I had to admit it: I’m a writer with an image problem.
It took a few years after that, but in 2014 I ended my social life, completely. No parties, no drinks, no gossip, nothing but the elaboration of my ideas and impulses. The output since that decision has been astounding. Novels, musicals, a ballet, movies and, yes, photographs, came out in a steady flow of inspiration. And then money problems stopped that flow in its tracks. I ran out of cash. I would have to work to pay for my creations, and the camera I had scorned came to my rescue. It was either work to pay the rent or play with my ideas, but all other interpersonal relations would end, completely. The decision to do this left me in zombie territory, I realize, friendless and silent, but I collaborate when working or designing, and plenty of personalities and opinions would help me shape my energies. My creative pursuits became whatever social life I had left.
And just as I established this equilibrium of time and imagination, my longtime creative partner Sandra was hit by a stroke to her spine, which left her on the edge of suicide, every day for the past two years. If she jumps off a building, so do I, creativity or no creativity. Time was my dwindling essence as never before in my life, even when our fortunes were reversed, and it was me in the cancer ward being left to die while Sandy recorded my every thought and fear. I was saved by songs and dance twenty years ago, and now I must do the same with Sandra. This collection of stories, songs, movies and pictures is a condensation of our salvation through creativity. Dance, motherfucker, or die. Yes, we get it. Perhaps seeing my frenzied rush to make what I cannot take outside my lifetime will inspire you to gather your thoughts and inventions in a similar way, as a loud shout of joy before you fall silent, too, forever.
Several years ago, when we were in Venice Beach with Peter and Steve, making the songs of what I called our Moonlight Project, Sandy stole a small riff from Helena and played it on the piano with a ghoulish flourish. “That’s creepy,” wailed Helena, and abandoned the riff to Sandy, who toyed with a song in her head for two years. I ignored her until she and Peter sat down and made a roughcut of Sandy’s poetic interpretation of the good witch stalking Hansel and Gretel. I was busy with other projects, but Sandy and Peter pressed me into the recording studio, where the lack of a chorus meant the song was not a song quite yet. They played their recording, and the chorus sung out at me like a choir trapped in an elevator, finally able to be heard: this is what this story needs, and suddenly there was a chorus and then a chorus to the chorus, and just like that the Creepy Song became the Lollipop Song about Hansel and Gretel, and a much larger conceit sprang to life.
A musical was born: Jakob Grimm. He was the older brother who survived the death of his outgoing and affectionate brother Wilhelm. Neither brother was interested in telling tales: they were putting together the dictionary of the German language, and a collection of fairy tales simply aggregated itself as the two brothers collected traditional stories told by the women in their neighborhood and, crucially, by the maids of those women, who often were impoverished immigrants from Slavic tongues. The fairy tales as we know them today were a happy accident for two men who valued words above all else.
As this collection of my public postings begins, I’ll set the scene with the music video we made in 2016 of the Lollipop Song, or our Hansel and Gretel story from our musical “Jakob Grimm,” by me and Sandy and Peter.
A friend of ours watched the Lollipop video and immediately referenced the musical by Sondheim “Into the Woods,” a stage production which became a bloated Hollywood mess starring Meryl Streep. A short catfight ensued with nasty putdowns of Sondheim while we marked our own territory of how we would approach the subject material.You can see a little of that dialogue by clicking on this sentence, highlighted in grey.
Can I describe how creativity is bottlenecked by the obligation of rent? Dare I even try? So many loose ends, begging for elaboration, snipped by other people’s schedules and bottom lines. I am learning more than I thought possible, working on three different fronts a day, but the things I imagine into existence howl at my refusal to pay them attention. And what things!
And then the rent and life’s basic necessities take a back seat as well as the creativity to the plots and plans hatched with Sandra. I am about to go shoot her dogs howling Silent Night, but we are on the second and third and fourth songs from the musical on the Grimm Brothers, and a music video from the Black Hole Buddha (“Barely Human” with 6 dancers including Sandy), and then her music video from the song “Crazy” from the Moonlight Project. But:
. . . I write this because it is Sandy’s birthday very soon, and I’ll be showing the first 20 minutes of the accidental documentary I’ve been making of her life since the spinal stroke a year ago. Peter, my creative brother, came to town the other day and watched it and in stunned silence afterwards said: “It’s the best thing you’ve done.” The movie is not just about Sandra, of course, but about how creativity heals. The attempt to create alone can do wonders, and just dancing saved my life and now will help repair Sandra’s, and the elixir of expression shapes your future with every syllable, yes, we get it, we all know this, and if we could be left to fingerpaint and sing the way we did when we were children, we could survive cancer and catastrophe better than we do as brittle adults, made cynical by the pursuit of property and our clutching for cash. Creativity is just as important as love and fucking and sushi for living in these strenuous times, but I’m talking about an effort to understand and relate our limitations that transcends creativity: infrastructural failure, the kind of missed shot that paralyzes limbs and kills inspiration, the high-wire act with no net, when you dedicate yourself to accomplishing a piece of art that you know is beyond your limits as well as something you have never seen before.
Who knows where the road leads, Sandrita, but I see you walking it ahead of me, attracted to the endless beauties of curiosity. We speed along, already crashed, screaming in glee at the sights we will never see. When is the last time, we shout, you have traveled a path without knowing where it leads?
The video at the end of this post is from my movie Luminous Nude, now 70 minutes long, and the music is a throwaway disco exercise from the Wildbird symphony I created with Ariel two years ago, two more pieces from the closet that always seems to spill its secrets at this time of year. If you know Sandy’s birthday, and mine, you know where we will be, watching the documentary on surviving life by making worthless art. I’ll toss a salad, Sandy will bring pizza. I’ll show a short piece from another documentary on riding the ring road around Iceland, and a piece of my heart from Wildbird, damning zoos, and then we can see Sandra on the screen in a way that she has never imagined.
Hal Hinson, the movie critic, watched Sandy in action at Blagden Alley and then confronted me when the crowds had gone: He would make an introduction to Lorne Michaels, because Sandra has “a spirit the whole country needs to see.” That spirit was crushed a year ago, when the blood flow to her spine fell to 20% of normal and left her facing a lifetime of continuous, unimaginable pain. From where I am standing, watching her baby steps and chimpanzee scamper, the spirit, like all spirits, is still lit, maybe puny in the shadows of pain, but fucking hell I swear the light is getting brighter, one of those physical laws of life, that the closer you peer into tiny secrets the bigger surprise you will find, and when I look with all the focus of a microscope I see that Sandra is literally on fire.
A series of small insights resolve larger issues, and in one day four projects gently break away from me to forge their own path to an audience. It feels like the most overwhelming day in my life. All directions point toward dreams and imagination. It is the second day of the new year, my real birthday, and I spend it as I always do, in silent hiding.
There is something symbolic about the new year, the new calendar, new debt and new thoughts that unlock whatever reservations I feel about the obscure pieces of creativity I am feeding, and this year the pregnancy is bigger than any other and whales land on the beaches of my ambitions. But what is missing in these eruptions is the organic context of joy and camaraderie. I slink away from the computer screen with Sandy and Mark and a scientist from Chile who is at NIH researching how pain actually works, who cannot quite believe the companionship she has found in Sandy and me, continuous suffering at unimaginable levels and continual concentration to explain our conditions, and there is only one thing to do to relax and laugh and cry, if you are as addicted to creative expression as we are:
La La Land.
I hate to use Facebook to promote Hollywood and entertainments that make us spectate rather than participate, so this is a rare exception. You’ve heard about the movie, friends are beginning to report back to you, or you have already seen it. Or you don’t really like musicals, especially in movies, and there are other good movies out now that you’d rather see. But La La Land is not a movie, it is a mind-flexing exploration of timing and rhythm that makes you stop thinking about what you are seeing so you can hear what you are feeling. Tears will stream, because you cannot help but put yourself in the shoes of both lovers on screen and fall equally for each of them, and their words become yours and you beg them to say this or that and you aren’t surprised when they say exactly this or that. You know every action they will take, you know what the writer will say, and what the composer will sing, and as far as stories and music goes La La Land is much better than Rent or Hair and not quite as revolutionary as Jesucristo Superstar or Sound of Music, but it has something its competition does not: La La Land is a dance, and you will dance with it in sheer astonishment at the moves and the awesome surprises the movie throws at you for two hours, a confetti designed to make you leap out of your stale steps and into the lights of a stage where you will sway and strut with everyone’s eyes glued to your glamorous joy. You will dance like you have never known you could dance.
Mister Bradshaw at the Guardian evoked Astaire and then apologized in his review, as if to check his superlatives from becoming lies. The two lead actors of La La Land are not Astaire or Rogers, but they are much more expressive human beings, and a single rise of Emma Stone’s eyebrow can give an insight that Astaire could never deliver: his times were simpler and sillier, yes, but Astaire walking into any scene from this movie would have had the good sense to melt in the shadows and stay out of the way of dancers who want you to look at their faces so that you know how to feel when they reveal their dreams.
Dances and dreams. La La Land exquisitely mingles these two engines of human evolution. Our ancestors walked out of the jungle to feed on the brains and the marrow of the carcasses on the savannah, that is the official story, but they also left because there is no music in the silent lives of gorillas and chimpanzees, our mute cousins. And in walking, we made the noise of locomotion, a sound we can hear in the womb. And to keep us calm our mothers hummed not in melody but in steady assurance that we are alright, no need to keep silent, because there is no prey in sight. We danced, we sang, and then we learned how to dream.
Run, dreamer, with popcorn and soda, and treat yourself to a flight of singular fancy. La La Land is playing near you, go cry and sing and clap your fool head off with strangers who will look at you differently in the theatre when the lights come on: Wasn’t that nice, and imagine if it was our turn now to flirt and fight and fuck, what would each of us choose as a weapon? A smile or a smirk? A twirl or a wink? Do your lips ache to sing a song that I can hear with ears tuned only to your frequency? This movie, for the lonely spinster or the loyally wedded in comfy but passionless matrimonies, is exactly the same feeling as falling in love. And the beautiful thing about that, remember, is that we are all experts at doing it.
It goes without saying that the movie will impact your rhymes and reasons, your colors and wonders, in every bit the same way as a love affair would do right now, if you had the time and the scorch in your blood to be the fearless fool a love affair requires.
La La Land. As soon as you possibly can, believe me.
I could draw when I was a kid. Fantastic, elaborate sketches, scenes from other worlds, a sort of time traveling without understanding time’s terrible limits. One by one, the teachers in my schools got me out of tune, and the drawings were replaced by stories, elastic eloquent scribbles, scenes from other whirls, a sort of time bending without respecting time’s temporary maximums. I wrote to illustrate my drawings, much as I write now to illuminate my photographs or movies.
In this picture is a painting by Helen Khal, treated almost as a snapshot in my careless wanderings, bruised and scratched and never once hung any place I worked or lived. She was a big fish in a tiny pond, a minnow in a puddle bossing the tadpoles, and we met again in Beirut when I went back looking for my nanny. “What happened to you?” she asked in Wimpy’s. “You were the real thing! You could draw like Raphael. How did you lose your way?” Somebody had told her that I was writing screenplays.
I flew back to the eagle’s nest in the Hollywood Hills and met my neighbor Penelope Spheeris, a movie-maker, on my doorstep: She wanted to know about Beirut. Is it still the Paris of the Middle East? And did you find your nanny? I told her how Helen admonished me for screenplays, without really knowing what I was doing, and accused me of losing my way. “You’re not writing screenplays, are you?” asked Penelope, the director of Wayne’s World, and more importantly the director of ‘The Decline of Western Civilization.’ Each time I saw her, she would remind me, “Don’t get lost in screenplays!” (Somebody had told her I was writing poems, “which makes you better than the rest of us, naturally.”)
And on the street in Chinatown yesterday I hear my name called by another writer who has realized she needs to make her own path away from her peers, on a motorcycle from Leipzig to Mongolia, alone, and we are astonished to run into each other only days after meeting over noodle soup at the Full Kee. Long conversation about writing, about the patience it demands: the longer you study the puzzle, the better you become at divining the next piece to put into it. But she wants to know, what am I doing here, packing gear into a taxi? I’ve got to shoot the empty arena where the Beatles played their first concert in the New World, I explain, a huge hangar-like building made of concrete with a roof only three inches thick.
I ask the superintendent of the site what would have happened if somebody had dropped a bowling ball out of a helicopter onto the arena’s roof. Wouldn’t the three inches rip like paper? The super looks at me in delight: “Do you have more questions like that one?” he asks.
In a cocktail party on the Corniche, the sons and daughters of the OSS all clap when my parents bring me into the room. My nanny waits nervously to take me back to bed, knowing I will be screaming in nightmares because of this interruption, because I am given candied almonds and lipsticked kisses by the frolicking adults as I dance like a gyro to “Let’s Twist Again,” and then to “Twist and Shout” as Skipper carefully puts the needle down on the Beatles new album, last song, second side. One of the ladies purrs, “He’ll be a dancer!” And Helen in the smoke of her cigaret, long stem in stained fingers, says, No, no, never, the boy can draw.
Puzzles without maps seem sometimes to shape themselves, but they don’t. They are fossils of imagination, left behind by ideas, one long thought at a time, patiently sculpted, and placed into your picture only when the piece perfectly fits.
The couch is from Sandy’s room. I stole it to film her performing one of our songs from the Moonlight Project. And also to film her talking about her long walk back to being mobile. She is learning patience, a dancer puzzling herself back into her future. There is some clue here for me: to let go of the picture, and simply describe the pieces. Where writers reveal their story on a toilet roll, spooled out to the end, nothing more to wipe, I am forced somehow to tell you how I feel by reflections of emotion on tiny shards of memory that sprinkle the air between us, like dust particles in a barn’s dusky light, speckles of truth and surprise, jetting past like spaceships between our orbits, something like that.
And here is my English teacher, frowning: “You cannot use the word “like” so many times and in that awful way, Dear Boy. Let’s make some corrections, shall we?”
The couch stayed in the studio for almost six months, and yielded a bevy of cool shots, some displayed below. I didn’t know it, but the couch series would lead me to a fascinating client who is one of the world’s leading authorities on modernist furniture. But more on that is coming further down the year’s scroll. Eye candy for now, starting in January and lasting ‘til summer.
Nobody reads Camus any more. Unless they’ve got grey hair, or unless somebody with grey hair and some sort of academic power tells them to.
But our minds are transforming, as surely as the weather changes. We are becoming polluted to death. The brilliant public health commissioner of Baltimore, where public health is critically ill, Leana Wen makes sure in every interview to drop the phrase “diseases of despair.” This is the phrase we will all be hearing for the rest of our lives. In the small town of Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania, I find myself daydreaming about a reality show I will call “Goodbye, America,” and as I check the web for facts about the town, I am repeatedly guided to nearby centers of drug abuse or health rehabilitation. These are the symptoms of the “diseases of despair.”
But the causes are existential, complex frustrations of time passing quickly, the toxicity of money, and the steady death of god. My generation, silver haired foxes, are stuck with mortality in surprise. And we are cursed to live longer in more brittle ways encumbered with greater pain and buoyed by caffeine and sugar and painkillers. Sandy and I should both be dead. If we were our parents, we would have been. We’ve been saved by chemicals, and machines. But our thinking has become terminally mortal.
It is not the act of dying that we fear. It is the state of being dead that dogs our lives. But what happens when this state is desirable because the pain you feel has numbed you to the joy of living? Every instinct to breathe and to keep moving is compromised: curl up in blankets, and let your senses go dim, and the end of the tunnel, darkened without senses, no sight or sound but most importantly for the animal no touch, suddenly becomes a destination and not a fall. You drive out of your existence, lonely marathoner, each step erasing who you were until you see the signs of how many steps you’ve got left, and you stop in fright and disbelief, because the future never looked so small.
Searching desperately for ways to keep Sandra creative, in my belief that creativity, a child’s play, not the idiotic monetizing of art that makes us idolize or collect as investment, can somehow keep her mind off her pain, I am spinning a web of music, hoping to catch her attentions. We sing to survive, as I am always writing, we dance to keep our senses sharp for hunting and fucking, those worries of the future, so I am sure another melody and a better beat can get our minds out of the tunnel and back into the skies where we met, two innocents walking their imaginations among the clouds.
Which brings me to Camus, that expert on suicide. And to the groove in music, which nobody can define. Daniel Levitin has tried to write about the groove, and gave up, in his excellent “This Is Your Brain on Music.” He couldn’t do it, nor has any other writer on music, including the scientists (Helmholtz to Huron), the brain experts (Patel to Sacks) or the most expressive musicians themselves (Gould to Keith Richards on his grandfather): the groove we all know when we hear it is a phenomenon without formula, uncracked by anyone who plays music or has tried to explore how the brain processes or creates music. You know the groove when you see it (or hear it!), but it cannot be formulated or transcribed. Maybe Kerouac, that hopeless misanthrope, came closest in his groovy writing about how to listen to music while escaping one’s responsibilities by hitting the road, but he wasn’t smart enough to make poetic what he wanted to intellectualize, which brings me back to Camus.
There’s only one thing you need to know about Camus, even though his writing (and his thinking, and his feeling!) rewards you with the deepest appreciation for being alive, for drawing a breath, even in pain, to have the pleasures of thought and desire. (And this is my own aside, because thought and desire combined equal beauty, don’t they?) But what there is to know about Camus is right here:
Death if we think about it without fooling ourselves would paralyze us in fright. We are mice frozen in front of the fangs of that great snake, forever, which will swallow us in this very next instant, so why do anything. What’s the point? You stand up in front of that snake and shout out your plans for a musical, or a movie, or a poem, or a little hum, pretty and precise, or you paint buffalo fornicating on the walls of a cave or cover your hand in beet juice and leave a palmprint before the snake strikes. You cheat death, says Camus, by creating. Because, what’s the point?
Creativity is our groove, Sandrita. It’s the only thing we have. And I see that we are trapped by poverty, crushed by responsibilities, timeless, forced to lockstep with everyone willing to trash their lifetimes in the name of their children’s futures, hoarding treasure in the crannies we back into as life streams by our caves. We are becoming lobsters even if we still think like gazelles or cheetahs. How is this happening to us?
The pulses they’re putting into your brain, five thousand of them into your cortex in 40 minutes, every day, a sledgehammer of hope breaking up the crusts in your consciousness, they’re trying to give you the time to find your groove. And you, gazelle, can still walk the far distances of our imaginations in the lilts and builds of our songs. The groove is still there, always lurking, never dependent on the audience, but wholly caused by the spirit of the players. We just have to sing and dance, and the groove becomes something anyone can touch. They are transforming your brain with those 5,000 zaps, and it’s working, because a few hours ago you told me you were at 7 out of 10 on the pain scale but you were not thinking of jumping off the building, and you admitted that is progress, even though I could hear your teeth gritted, grinding, making my heart stop, and when I hung up the sense of impotence was felt most in the silence of the studio. No music, no melody, no rhythm. We mustn’t let this happen to us.
I know you are crying in this picture, but ten minutes later when the Persian walked in you were performing, amusing her, dancing and employing your accents and personas, an absurd tiny theatre, just for her in her lab, and she was grinning like a fool, drinking you in, curing herself of whatever ills her own routine brings. I must say this very carefully: you are the only person I know whose audience is her stage. Wherever you go, there is the show.
They, the scientists, the only tweets that matter, have found new kinds of black holes, Sandy. One of these new types of black holes just ripped apart a star so violently that the light released by the explosion was 500 billion times brighter than the Sun. That’s astrophysics talk: what matters to us most is that this type of black hole has a great name, “super-massive.” And that’s the name of the show we still have to do.
The theatre is dark. We don’t know what to expect. The stage is a black hole, and the audience is a galaxy of hopes and dreams and feelings, willing to ride our tides into the unknown if we give them the groove we can imagine, a performance we can call super-massive, a piece of beauty lit up by darkness.
The actress has just been featured in a commercial on the Super Bowl, and is in demand for all the bridal magazines, one of which she will grace for the Valentine’s issue. But she hates the commerce. Where is the art in L.A., she wonders, where are the scripts that show me as a thinker with imagination and dreams? Look where I have ended up, she declares, and we look around my kitchen, adorned with lights for this scene, microphones at the ready, and she starts to read from the book in her hands, the wonderful “Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences” that has become an odd bible of inspiration for me. It is written by an obscure Ivy League professor, and it is an accidental work of genius. For all the wrong reasons, the professor got it right: the novelty of nature leads to the invention of art and science. The rainbow is always a surprise, he says. And for me, chaser of the aurora borealis, this is not correct enough, because no rainbow made by rain can match the auroras from our Sun. But what is the actress reading? I realize she is reading from the end pages of the book, and not from the professor’s text: she is reading my scribbled words, not his printed sentences. This is how I give actors their lines, in ink, at the very moment I want to shoot them speaking. This makes the actor the co-author of my words, and they are careful not to spill or bruise them, because they have given them birth. There is not much an actor will protect, but good lines are like helpless hungry babies which every actor must parent.
I am watching this scene last night, and I reach for the book and flip to the back pages, where my handwriting in red ink leaps out at me, written on Valentine’s Day:
“I used to think lovers were joined at the hip, twins, but I learned from you that every lover has his own weapon. And yours was your smile.”
I watch the actress pick up a sword and wave it at my camera, and she says: “Do I scare you? Do you think I can hurt you?” The camera backs away, and then I am running down the stairs and she is chasing after me, whipping the berber sword in my wake until we are trapped in the bathroom, the camera on the half-naked bridal queen who whispers: “Should I use this blade on you the way you used your smile on me?” Long, long pause as the camera quivers a bit and the edge of the sword comes closer. “How many times did you cut me,” she asks, “How many cuts!” And then the sword lowers, and her hand is on her ribcage beneath the jacket as I can barely hear her whisper: “Every cut made a leak in my heart, and now I’ve got nothing left to bleed.”
How curious that a creative act like this spins over a large part of your existence and slaps you with surprise when you encounter it in a different context than when you created it! The piece will slot perfectly into a current idea, of impotence and fright, as I have to admit that I would rather lie down with my synthetic confections than fall in love. Rather write than taste her skin, rather edit, of all things, than plunge into her mind and see myself reflected as delight. Rather make words strut and sing than fuck under a starry canopy, rather invent a string of syllables that praise or prick than flirt in the half-lit mysteries of misheard affections or misunderstood intentions. This is treason: I cannot be bothered to fall in love again, except in my memory, when falling in love was a continuous addiction of swell and break, of firework, deflated, of flames blown out and reignited. I fell in love with a glance, with a smile, with a glimpse of goosebumps, and now, I casually tell a friend, it would be nice to have a bottle of Merlot and kiss all night except the cost in emotion and energy is too great; more simply, I’ve got no time for that shit.
This is my Valentine’s Day. It’s the signpost of every year. I am always planning a musical or a movie or a book to be made public on this day of love and lust, and I always miss the deadline. But then I look at that end page in the Ivy League professor’s accidental book: the actress has written down my own words from our conversation later that night: “I can’t be bothered to have sex with anyone any more, unless it’s with somebody I don’t know.” Here is a gift! I make a note for later today, to send the Ivy League professor a copy of this handwritten exchange written on Valentine’s Day, with a new note from me to him, to say thank you for writing such a lovely book about wonder even if he needs to upgrade his rainbow to my aurora, and as I think this I know he will pause in small jealousy, wondering when he will ever get to be chased by an actress with a sword who wishes to make a crime of his smile.
At the covered bridge there are police cars and a black bus. In the destination plate on the front of the bus read the words, “Ladies Club.” Prisoners, under transport. One man in shackles sits on a throne in the center of the bus, and he looks at me with a smile. He is young, confident, but in a clamp. I see him watch me as I approach a copper and ask if I can say something to the prisoner in the middle. The cop shrugs and tells me to be his guest, and then adds: “Half the guys here would like to put a slug in his back and leave him here for the coyotes.” I don’t know if he is referring to the other officers or the other prisoners.
The bus windows are cracked open, and I speak through thick mesh to the prisoner, whose smile turns brittle, defensive. There are about a dozen prisoners, but only this guy is shackled in his own metal chair in the center of the bus. Other cops look at me with mild interest, but keep chatting among themselves when the officer I talked to waves his hand and takes responsibility.
“You’re trapped, man, and I’m not,” I say to the prisoner. “I’m out here in the sunset with doom above my head, driving to a city just to look at a woman.” The last word breaks his smile. The prisoner has stopped breathing, but his eyes do not blink. They are vivid, grey and metallic. I keep talking in my earnest way, and the other prisoners are listening, but it is to this killer that my words flow, and I know everything I say he will remember: cut by each of my syllables, he does not flinch, but his eyes shimmer. “I saw her on a street a long time ago, and got in her way, and stabbed myself in the heart trying to let her be who she was instead of what everyone else wanted her to be. She was a banker and about to get married and make a family and a home, and I was her excuse to run away into her imagination.” I pause to make sure he gets this. “Now I want to see her on the street just for a moment, years later, looking for something over her shoulder, as if she feels me watching. I want a glance from her, an invitation to stare, some reminder to me of her power.”
Another cop starts walking toward me and the bus. Perhaps I am taking too long to ask for a mailing address.
“She told me that she didn’t want to be an object of my imagination, but it was her imagination I’m interested in, because she walked through her life like a hunter in a cage, a leopard on a leash. And you know what she was looking for? Escape.”
There isn’t a sign of life from the prisoner. He might as well be marble, clenched fists and crooked smile carved in rock. But his eyes, unblinking, emit a signal. The brain receives data, and lights up the eyes with electricity; comprehension is a bridge, a path over the deep chasms that keep us fearful of what intentions lie across the valleys of our ignorance. The prisoner’s head is like a hard drive on my desk, and his eyes register the kilobytes of compassion and danger that flow across the bridge, both ways.
“Okay, okay, break it up now, ladies,” says the second cop. “You got his address, write him on the row and tell him about your leopards. But don’t keep talking here because you’ll get us in trouble.”
Cool, says me, cool, and I back away from the bus and its strapped-in passenger, stuck in malice or struck by bad luck. “No need to write, I said it all,” I say to the cop, but loudly, so the prisoners can hear. “I was telling him about a leopard on a chain, who looks for possibility even if possibility might hurt her, because her instincts are a blend of curiosity and hunger. So for some people, she’s poison, for others she’s a poem. You can read her a million times and you always get a different ending. Get me, man?”
The cop is smiling but with raised eyebrows, thinking you never know
who you run into on these country roads, as he stands between me and the bus as I walk away. A last glance at the prisoner shows him still smiling. What do I expect him to shout? That every purr has its claws? But he sits, locked, while I walk freely into my own traps, following danger’s scent and hoping it leads to the glitter of her impulses.
Who, really, is hungry when they launch themselves at the bait? How much of what I want her to tell me is my own appetite, and how much is simply my instinct for pursuit? But bait falls from every sky, continuously, as is the nature of living in the food chain; I want to swallow the hook, the metal of existence, proof that my own hunger is not about eating, but being fed. She is full of barbs and impossible to catch, and maybe she chooses what part of her soul I can bite, but at least I can point to some of her scars and say, “Those teethmarks are mine.”
I drive into the night, anxious to avoid hitting a coyote. They are everywhere, like rabbits, slinking from my headlights. And I keep thinking of what she will say, of how she will choose to remember herself to me since I am so far from her thoughts, a remote memory in the wilderness of her imagination, where I am still unwilling to admit that I no longer fit into the structures of her everyday life.
Talk about the gestation of an idea! I am only now grappling with 20K photos and 25 hours of video footage shot for a series of no-budget thrillers starring the Slovakian model. From Mexico to Spain to the Arctic to Montecarlo to Barcelona and Belize, this project about the burn and scar of love never gets completed despite a million starts.
This lizard is worth $10. It can feed a family of four for a week once it is turned into an iguana soup. The meat tastes like, well, crocodile. Somewhere between scallops and veal. Its mouth is wired together with a nylon string punched through its cheeks. If it bites a finger, you lose a digit. Its legs are hobbled. The man who caught him is lucky to catch one a week. The man has all his fingers. He has caught more than 200 iguanas and sold them all, usually to people who throw them in their trunk and give them to the maids to cook in the bigger towns toward the south.
In Chihuahua, I bought falcons for $10 a pair and let them go after driving a few miles along the highway to keep them away from their captors. I always insisted on buying the cages, which I would destroy and hide. The military pulled me over one day and an officer screamed at me about trafficking in wildlife and I screamed back that it shouldn’t be my fucking job to police the open-air market in falcons just two miles around the bend, and I’d be happy to go tell my version of the story to any general he chose. But to the birds, privately, who lay on their backs with their claws up in the air, between them and me, I had a sharp rap on the beak and a warning to not be so stupid and fly back into the trap because I won’t be here next week. Didn’t matter. As they flew away, I knew they blamed me. And next week they will be in somebody’s broth.
Turtle eggs sell for $3 a dozen. A ridley can lay 100 at a time. A full-grown Ridley can make a lot of soup, and needs a half-dozen whacks of the machete to be decapitated. I filmed a pretty scene for a movie on a beautiful beach in Mexico two years ago, and a week later some boys came on the beach and killed 80 mother Ridleys in an act so wanton it made the top five stories on Yahoo.
And yet, none of these creatures is any different from a Chicken McNugget or a beef burrito from Chipotle. The iguanas live lives of some freedom, after all, searching for mates and scrabbling for households, so who cares how they get caught up in the food chain? Why don’t I fly into a rage and liberate chicken coops? Or simply stick to soybeans and tangerines?
Can I trick myself into thinking the freedom I buy for this stupid lizard makes me any less the hunter?
Me singing, of all unexpected things, in the introduction to my 33 minute symphony “Wildbird” created with Ariel Francis. I am inching closer, day by day, to formalizing a full theatrical treatment of a combined four musicals in one show. The Black Hole Buddha, Wildbird (from which this small video is excerpted), the Moonlight Project, and Grimm, a musical about the last years of Jakob Grimm’s life, when he was hallucinating to images of the fairy tales he’d collected, of Snow White and Rapunzel and Cinderella. We’ve already shot the music video of Hansel and Gretel, and more is coming. With melody-maker Peter Fox, as always, and with Helena, our fountain of spirit and song, and with Sandra, forever the sprite in our imaginations!
(And then I append:) If anybody is interested in dressing up like a character out of Les Miserables for our music video of Namaste Papi, let me know directly: we’re shooting at a bonfire on March 4! (Several people get in touch, and we arrange for a bonfire in the early morning fog out near the Potomac, but I cannot quite pull it off, and the Namaste Papi video disappoints a lot of people who were looking forward to dressing in old coats and smearing charcoal on their faces.)
Had to laugh at this clip of Sandy at her finest. I shot the piece for her after days of her insisting and me complaining that I just didn’t get it. But I showed up, I shot it, and I still didn’t get it. The next day I was in line at the bank, and I heard Sandy’s voice. What was she doing in the bank? I looked around. No Sandy. And then there she was, on the screen, on the Ellen Degeneres Show, where this clip played to great hilarity!
It’s easy for me to shoot a documentary about the pressures of performance without actually feeling any pressure myself. Even as I begin to identify with the enormity of what these dancers are undertaking, it’s still simply shooting the angles and finding the emotions that lie beneath the techniques and technicalities of any artistic effort. There’s a dangerous physical aspect of dance, which the audience is thrilled by, watching as they might witness a bullfight, where there is no safety net. But I risk no injury, because the camera is protected by everyone. Without documenting the performance, it could be said that the performance never happened. Except last night I get to pause the camera and watch for a few minutes to think about how I can mark the progress this quartet is making.
It is a plum assignment, a ballet solo set to a song from “Aladdin” for a tribute to the songwriter and lyricist Tim Rice, Oscar winner and knight, who co-authored Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita and Chess, and Lilla’s ballet academy has been tapped to provide the choreography and dancers for a live show where the music is being provided by a full orchestra and choir. It’s at the Strathmore, PBS is involved, and it is a feather in everyone’s cap.
Except . . .
They’ve got three weeks to pull it off. We’re halfway there and last night the director of the Tim Rice show comes to a ballet studio in Gainesville to assess where the piece is in terms of ambition and polish. And the director, a veteran of the Old Vic and innumerable TV productions, watches the dancers while I film his face and only his face, as he bursts with delight at what he sees. They’re beautiful, they’re fantastic, it’s brilliant, he says to Lilla, who sits next to him, and at the end of the rehearsal he shakes everyone’s hand, kisses the women on the cheek, and then with a dramatic flourish pauses to lift Brittany’s hand to give it a small kiss of respect. This is theatre: the knight kissing the ring of the Princess, paying his allegiance to her throne.
The dancers will be alright. Brittany is a performer first class and I’m not sure she’s able to feel pressure when it comes to expression onstage. Piano, poetry, ballet, she’s been doing it all her life, says her father to me in the parking lot afterwards. Listen, says me, she must owe you about a million dollars for getting her this far, and you’ve got to remember to give her an invoice before she goes much further, and the father laughs; I can’t see Brittany’s face as this exchange happens, and I’m not sure I want to, because we’ve barely spoken and I might think I’m funny but sometimes I know I’m not. On the other hand, I have the camera. For any performer, I am not just the witness, but also the evidence. And performers always take this seriously.
Emanuel, standing next to Brittany in the photo, has just come from Sao Paolo. He is graceful muscle, speaking to us only in the language of ballet, until he realizes I can speak a sort of rudimentary Portuguese, picked up in the Amazon, and I tell him that he too is part of the documentary, since he has been thrown headlong into the boil of this dance for Tim Rice. He’s only been in the country for a month, and everything is happening quickly. About Brittany, he shakes his head and smiles and widens his hands to show the barely believable progress Brittany has made in a few rehearsals: “muito rapido” he repeats.
Rafiq is on the left in the picture, and he is the choreographer, charged with making the two dancers entwine and entangle not just to the rhythm of the music but to the song, where a girl sings and a boy sings and each dancer must elaborate the singer’s words. He is an accomplished soloist and stage director whose company is on the verge of blowing up, its first tours on the schedule, and here he has been handed this difficult task, of a deadline with no time, a show at the Strathmore with an orchestra and so many moving parts of which one is his responsibility, and each step Brittany and Emanuel take is potentially a dagger or a delight to his heart. And the director last night claps his hands and uses the words “marvelous” and “brilliant,” the way a train conductor would say “tickets!” and then says to Rafik, oh, I have a suggestion, which turns into three suggestions, and here is the camera studying how Rafik plots the moves to those new steps, finding where to cram them into the song, and he stands stock still, only his fingers twitching, circling the maps of his imagination until he has traced the contours of the limits he will put on the dancers: how far can they travel, to what border, before he must tell them to come back? The country gets bigger as the travelers get better, he finds, so the dance grows even as the time to travel within it shrinks; he, too, works without a safety net.
I tell Lilla this is what I love to film, these are the stories I love to tell. And she trusts me, I am her evidence, too, so I am given free reign to shoot as I please. The dancer’s feet whizz past my head, inches from a knockout, and Rafik laughs: “Don’t kill him.” The footage is mesmerizing in that special way that any backstage capture is fabulous to record (and to show), and I remind Lilla of this every time we speak, and she gets it: in ballet, a world of perfection, the blemishes cannot be shown, and yet she lets me hunt for them knowing the drama is what an audience wants, and it is in the build of the dancer, not her finish, that the story has maximum impact. And we discuss this, how stories are the fibre of dance and of music, and inevitably we wonder which caused the other: was music first, or dance? Out in the veld, where the hominids began to become us, the most important aspect to any animal’s survival is silence. When an animal hears danger, it freezes for a moment and listens for clues about its predator. Crucially, the animal turns to face the sound of danger, before it flees. Rhythm began as a series of humming for children to indicate that the world is safe; silence means danger, lookout. If you hear the humming of your mother, you can keep playing, but silence, look out. Music means safety. And dance became the language of our survival, not just to celebrate safety but then to be used as a weapon for conquest. Lilla listens to all this and wonders if there is room for it in the documentary, and my response is that I wonder if there is room for the dancers and the teachers in the documentary about a dance. Lilla laughs and laughs, and she has a formidable laugh, an infection she gives freely to her students, because she flies through the air, a ballerina aloft on the winds of danger and desire, performing for a lifetime, and this lesson she teaches now is about how to conquer a dance not so the audience is thrilled, not so the teachers are happy, but because this is what the dance itself wants: the dance can only evolve by being broken into parts and built again and again, over and over and over. The dance, too, wants to survive.
At least this is how I wish to tell it. I’ve got the name of the documentary, I say, and over donuts Lilla raises her eyebrow. Oh oh. Will it be too creative a name, or too commercial? What is it? “The Build.” She laughs and laughs, in that infectious manner. Every story needs its title, even if we don’t judge books by their covers.
And this photograph is built. Every limb and expression is fashioned and not left to chance. It is rushed and cramped for space and time, but the photograph is built as a metaphor for the speed and fire being applied to the dance that has brought the four of them together. Each person is shown exactly as this story needs them to be shown. These four performers, posed, are the bricks with which a dance builds itself.
. . . .
Lilla is the director of Séber Method Academy which is producing the Aladdin dance segment for the Circle of Life: The Songs of Tim Rice, directed by Hugh Wooldridge, with a performance at the Strathmore on March 12. The segment is choreographed by Rafik Hegab of the Virginia National Ballet, and features the dancers Brittany Yevoli of the Séber Method Academy and Emanuel Tavares of the Virginia National Ballet.
The actress can sing, so I use her for a song of mine. She could do cabaret, and she has been onstage for years already, basically a child actor in a family long filled with thespians. She has that awareness of where she is that is the secret of every performer: she doesn’t need an audience to know how to act as if she is being watched. But a singer is another level of acting. The singer is not after your attention or applause. A singer needs your empathy. A singer needs you to feel as you listen. And you cannot trick anyone with a song. If you believe in your song, the listener will know, and will share the leaks and stabs of your heart. Singing came to humans before speaking. To sing meant to survive, and other species of humans who could not sing died off long ago, even if they were better suited to the weather or to injury or to combat than us, Sapiens.
But I need a photograph of the singer so I can share it with the production crew and the cast of our music movie. The singer is the leader of a ragtag troupe of petty thieves hiding in the woods in a post-Apocalyptic scene that might as well be out of Shelley and her Frankenstein. With her husband Percy Shelley, the poet, and his hero Lord Byron, another poet, Mary Shelley rode in a coach through France after Napoleon’s defeat; the poets, both minor (Percy) and major (Byron), lamented about the state of beggars in the countryside. But Mary saw these were not beggars, but soldiers with nothing to fight for, living off the land, stealing from their countrymen. I wrote a novel about this time of Mary Shelley’s life, and now the words I gave my characters seem to be attached to the characters I want in the video, desperate, defeated people, a mirror to our current times, where impotent leaders attack the weak in the name of justice but in the service of their fears. The singer, the actress, is the Desert Queen, and she must be fearless, a bullwhip in her eyes and rhythm in her hands, and this is the actress and singer in these pictures.
Irinka, performer, plays the Desert Queen in our song “Namaste Papi,” beautifully recorded in Venice Beach years ago and ready for its unveiling when this video is complete. Irinka asks me for the style I want of her dancing, and I tell her that the style “I am going for is you.” We recorded her singing the song four years ago. It’s taken me this long to prioritize its visual interpretation, and Irinka was my only choice the entire time.
These two photos were taken 14 minutes apart. They appear to be of different people. In the same way that there is technique for dance, or for singing, or for acting, there is technique for inhabiting a role. The ballerina who has leapt into my life and challenged me to express my views about dance tells me the other night in an interview about another dancer that a technique is just as important for a role as it is for a dance. How can you be a character unless you have a technique for being human?
Without making this post one of my usual slogs of obscure facts and fancy imagination, let me briefly say that when Irinka came to the studio yesterday to shoot some green screen footage, I knew I would be taking these pictures, and I knew I would ask her to bring her hands into the frame. Because before words, and before songs, and just as rhythm was becoming a language, we had gestures. Our primate cousins, gorillas and chimpanzees, share some gestures, but their hands are woefully mute compared to ours. The more a child uses her hands while speaking, for instance, the wider her vocabulary and the deeper her ability to express herself. You can google it if you wish, it’s an exciting science.
When you speak to somebody in the dark, on your phone, to whom are you gesturing and gesticulating? Who sees the sweep of your arms and the curl of your fingers as you make your point, whether you ask for divorce or order Chinese? Why do blind people wave their hands as they speak?
A performer’s hands are syllables of intent, advancing or disguising the timbre of her tongue. A singer pulls and pushes, a dancer balances and follows the sweep of her hands, and now shooting so much ballet I have learned the first thing about the images I am permitted to use: the feet must be perfect, but the clue to a ballerina’s form is in her hands, not in their pose, but in their swell and wane.
I will need her hands. Irinka moves them into the frame, quarter inch by quarter inch, feeling for just the right position, drifting, diving, defining the boundaries between the performer, the performance, and the character who will tell us what to do next. She is used to big stages, while I am trapped in the tiny cell of my imagination, but every theatre is exactly the same, a place where an audience can watch or listen and judge the movements of your hands to see if the performer really believes in her performance.
The fatigue has come, and with it the expertise. How many times have I quoted Pablo Casals: when the string is just about to break, the cello sounds best. There is a physical exhaustion, and the day that Brittany accepted the role of the dancer in the tribute to Tim Rice which plays at the Strathmore tomorrow and then on PBS at a later date, her grandfather died. It was another sledgehammer on the camel’s back. But I told the producer of the dance, Lilla, that I suspected that Brittany would get better and stronger as the pressure mounted, because this is the innate force of a performer: If I am in it, the show must go on.
Yesterday, at the Strathmore, standing outside after a blocking walk-through with a huge orchestra, I do only the second interview with Brittany, after many silent recordings of her rehearsals, and I ask her to describe the relation of the audience to her adrenaline onstage. Her answer is so familiar, because it is expressed in geometries of size and containers, the same way so many musicians think, in blocks of emotion (sometimes of differing colors and hues which cannot be described), a sort of ‘middle-ground’ of concentration. In speaking to musicians who are trying to understand my autistic expressions about dynamics and timbre, I have resorted to drawing maps of sound, and when they look at these sketches, they get it, immediately, and are liberated to change a structure they liked or understood. And here is a dancer who grew up on a piano, and who is now enduring the constant correction and constructions of her choreographer Rafik Hegab and her own teacher Lilla, whose demand for balletic perfection is relentless and without compromise.
It all makes for great imagery. I have tried to keep the 21st Century sheen of our lives out of the picture, shying away from brand names and advertisements, the constant pollution of corporations begging us to buy, so that this small documentary about a ballerina coming to her senses at the last possible moment can seem to have sprouted from another age, before cellphones and bottom lines, when the chief ingredient of a performance was passion. The desire to do, rather than the comfort of watching, is the meat you throw down in front of a performer to see what strings she pulls to propel herself across the stage boards into her future.
I write the producers of the show just now, seeking permission to shoot in heavily copyrighted waters, where I have already been warned about Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s “formidable lawyers.” And as I apologize for making a request to shoot Brittany at the last possible moment, in the actual dress rehearsal tomorrow, I append my excuse:
“Being late is the curse of creativity.”
Every performer who reads this will know what I mean, and smile a tiny bit at their own misfortunes, fondly remembered now. The performer usually comes into being after the dancer. It’s the mathematics of craftsmanship. In Brittany’s case, the performer has always been there, and now she makes the ballerina, a bit late but right on time.
I tell Lilla yesterday that she must feel like Frankenstein, watching her small monster become powerful and cunning. But we both know that in Brittany’s case, the monster invents itself, and the scientist Frankenstein can only really shout her encouragement. This is the best teaching, isn’t it? When you allow the performer to become herself?
Have you been getting the vibrate sensation from your cellphone, even when your cellphone is nowhere near you?
My body rings, usually on my chest or waist, a little vibrating prompt: your phone is somewhere, recording your life without you.
And now two people I’ve spoken to about this have reacted in shock, yes, it’s happening to them, too. Sensations of getting a call on your phone when it is on vibrate, except the phone is nowhere near you.
But here’s the scary part: Next time you get that phantom ring, go find your phone if it’s in the next room or under the blankets or in your purse, and see if you missed a call at roughly the same time you felt the weird vibration on your skin.
We are evolving, one phone call at a time.
* * * *
Cellphone is a gift to me from the Pygmies at Bwindi, in the Congo, a dozen years ago, when I went looking for the birthplace of music, and the nautilus shell is a gift from Zina, who listened to me talk about how the eye drinks in the contours of a photograph in a nautilus-type swirl. And in this picture, the shell does indeed lead you into the cell, just as your eye would wish to be led.
In Tabatinga in the Amazon in a town where everybody had a gun but me, I needed to change a hundred bucks and found myself in a building filled with ten thousand bottles of one kind of shampoo, interrupting a transaction between bored-looking men trading heaps of money (with their guns politely leaned against the wall), with Ali the head guy looking me over before asking in accented Spanish, ‘Is it true you are from Lebanon?’ and when I told him my childhood had indeed been spent in the glory years of the Paris of the Middle East, he immediately sent out the bored-looking men and told me the story of his life for two whole days, at times crying, at times laughing, offering me drinks but not touching a drop himself and at one point, talking about his mother, he simply began to weep and covered his face in his hands and I realized he was trapped in this absurd confluence of river and coca leaf and moreover had never been to Lebanon himself, despite being Lebanese. While he wept I told myself to wait for the rest of his story: when he wants to you’ll get the rest of it, and finally I did.
His mother had left him here in the jungle and in the rainfall, and had gone back to the Cedars to drop dead, and he was alone in the world without a passport or a family, and I learned then that it doesn’t matter if somebody speaks Arabic or Amharic but you’d better be able to hear everybody as a human being, especially when their smiles and eyes leak telltale squeaks of pain. Ali would not let me spend a dime in the Amazon, and got me onto a mail carrier that barely cleared the trees but got me to Iquitos, and when I tried to give him the original hundred bucks in exchange for his bagful of cruzeiros he waved it away in irritation. “I am not a moneychanger,” he told me. “I am your friend.”
I went back, years later, through the Savannah and walked for three days to get to the top of Roraima, and looking south I thought I could make out the mighty jungle, refusing to believe that Tabatinga was thousands of miles away. I was there with a young woman who had just won the Jennifer Lopez Butt award at the local Oscars night, and who was a force of nature herself, steering me through the wilderness to the top of the tepui, the rock that formed the Lost World of Arthur Conan Doyle. Perhaps I was further at that point from anyone I knew than I had ever been, including my forays into the Himalayas and Kalahari. I was sitting with my legs over the edge, hundreds of stories above the jungle atop a sheer cliff face, when Simon, one of the guides, approached solemnly and held out a piece of quartz, huge, the size of my thumb. I want you to have this, he said. But it’s illegal for me to take it, says me. Simon is from Guyana, a Warao, one of the boat people, and he tells me the quartz is his, and his people’s, and not the government’s to give, and he wants me to have it so I won’t forget him. I take the quartz, and I have it still, sitting innocently atop a collection of sands from around the world, next to the door to confer powers of calm on anyone who visits or departs, and when I take it Simon tells me he will never forget me singing my songs about killing rich people, and he says it’s the first time he’s heard lyrics like that from a white man. We’ve got our songs about rich people, he says, and smiles. I put the quartz in my pocket as he says one last thing, “I am your friend, and now I know you are mine.”
I must find you the footage of my low flight back, in another mail carrier, with a pilot who insisted we go out of our way so he could fly us up Angel Falls. Literally, climbing the spume, feeling the jungle’s rains fleck our faces in the open windows of our four-seat Cessna. The plane falls away from the cliffs of another tepui, and we head back north, chugging over the forests and the savannah, to the place where the rivers meet, a tangle of opportunities too far for escape.
In Manaus, in another time, I stood on a porch and watched a rain fill the Amazon river to our doorstep. What would happen if it didn’t stop raining? The hotel clerk, a character from a Werner Herzog movie, said it wouldn’t matter, because anyone born here will die here, there is no escape from the river. He let that sink in for a bit, and then politely added, but not you, Jo-han, you are free, we can tell. I was, yes, then. The clerk said, You are like your own small boat, you will always float away.
It would not be seemly for me to complain about a trap, says David the other night. You used your freedom all those years ago, and now you don’t have any left, just as the rest of us are retiring and wondering what we’re going to do when all the brats are done with school. Everyone wants your memories, man, he whispers, and we’re too timid to go make our own.
And another friend adds to this, yesterday: You are like the escaped prisoner who breaks back into jail to tell us what freedom was like. I laugh at this, of course. Where next? he asks. I am going to Rockville tomorrow, I say, and he says without a trace of irony or wit, Oh no, don’t do that, don’t go back to Rockville. And we do not laugh at that, but there is a glint in our eyes. Until he picks up the quartz by the door and whistles in astonishment: “Where’d you get this little piece of magic?” I found it in Rockville, actually, on the sidewalk outside the 7-Eleven. His eyes are wide. Treasure, in Rockville?
My shingle as a photographer and video producer has been out for many years, but simply on a referral basis from friends and colleagues. Now I have put our services up on Thumbtack as Wonder 101, and an explosion of work follows. Every day, there are enquiries. It is disconcerting, because creative time shrinks as everyone else has a deadline more important than mine. But that fucking rent!
I edited this last night as a send-off to the Duskwhales, who leave town on a monster tour today, and who played a scorching set at Jammin Java last night to celebrate the release of their astonishing album. That’s a lot of superlatives I just dropped, but they warrant the gilding. The music is impossible to categorize, but it’s a far reach of influences packed with the tiny surprises that make listening to music such pleasure. They are modest, they are young, but they are already super professional and the best band in DC. They keep telling me about other bands, but I want power AND hooks, and the Duskwhales spin them out on what seems like a weekly basis, causing me the best of friendship at once, the gentle jealousy that comes with bottomless pride: I wish I could be like these punks, rather than me, and it’s rare if ever that I admit it.
It’s amazing how elemental music is to your health. I found reviews I wrote more than twenty years ago of seeing Joe Strummer and then Debbie Harry back-to-back, and I’d forgotten completely about those shows. But the reviews were all about how the music transported me to a different level of joy. And last night was a buoy in the general sinking of my life: thrown to me by the Duskwhales, who have the perfect balance between melody and ferocious groove. I took out a small crew and we shot, four cameras, and got just enough good sound to put together a half-dozen songs, but more importantly I was walking on air when I left. What a fabulous show. This video is the ending of one of their songs and it gives a glimpse of the rocket these guys can put you in live. Just a morsel for now, to say more is coming!
He writes me a very nice note as he leaves town. He feels your mood the way trees monitor the winds. The sensitivity is at the heart of the songs that spill out of his thoughts like confetti from skyscrapers. I thank him for his thanks and tell him that he is the embodiment of the Latin phrase ‘Sui Generis,’ which I have always interpreted as “following his own species.” There is no better way to describe Seth as that, an animal so singular and distinct that you hope he doesn’t go extinct as a result of being so rare. He likes the phrase and writes to me that he will embroider it on his jacket. Small expense, I think, to get him a jacket if he doesn’t have one, and look on Yelp for somebody who embroiders. But as any species would if it means to survive, he is probably a step ahead of me, even as he hurtles into his tour.
Here he is playing the guitar on Saturday night, at the Duskwhales’ release bash at Jammin Java. How many songs has he been part of, and still not legal age? Seventy? Eighty? And with a guitar as his weapon, massive bomb or silent dart, whichever is needed to impart maximum impact: affection, that wonderful virus he spreads, an infection you catch only with an open heart.
She is in pastels, wrapped, a candycane persona who should be what you see when you look into your fresh fruit smoothie, curled around the bottom of your straw, peering over the edge of her tiny sunglasses: “You gonna suck me up Sweetheart or you gonna stand there and gawk?”
The left gathers in the Imperial City and presents a sad, impotent scene. The shadow of the bully in the White House looms over the awards ceremony given by the country’s leading leftists. I’m hired to shoot video of the event, and as I do so I feel dispirited beyond expectation: the attendees are either old or crippled by a sense of doom, they are without a future. My thinking is getting worse by the minute until I meet this woman:
Does anyone reading this in Washington have some Alexander McQueen items? My epic song (squeezed out of Helena and sculpted with Peter) about McQueen’s suicide is leaping into edit stages in Dumbo. The music video beckons, and I’d like to have McQueen fashion items highlighted behind the actor who plays him fiddling with the belt he used to hang himself.
The actress is holding a sword, blade out, to my camera as she channels Catherine Deneuve for my quirky homage to Belle du Jour. McQueen was on my mind during this shoot, but so was Sandy, whose pain spiked at 9/10 levels for a nerve-wracking several days. If she cuts off her legs, the pain will still be there, phantom pistons sliced by daggers and scorched by fire. I don’t know how she bears it, and one night in the studio I ask her to describe how it feels, and what she tells is like a meteorite landing on my head. I walk her out, acting brave, but when she leaves I lie on the stairs in stunned fear, paralyzed by my feelings for another person’s plight.
But creativity dogs us, even as time ticks out. I speak in long streams of imagination, and these tendrils of color or rhyme entangle Sandy in stings of ambition, and our fanciful characters and songs blossom like flowers in poison. The pain is a weight that slows the step, but you travel in the ways that you think, and Sandy still is in flight, with me as a pilot searching for the bearable lightnesses of being, where ideas can sustain any thirst or hunger or despair.
The actress is distressed at this news about my creative partner, and I tell her to hold up the sword, twist it so I can’t see it, and smile, and here is my belle du jour; once only imagined, she now exists, just as I said she would.
Sandy grunts when she sees the picture of Azurea posing as Deneueve and says “more.” The pain is too great to say anything else, and Sandy’s encouragement is like a whip on my flanks. Prance forward, dancer.
But there is added
There are dozens of books on Amazon telling you how to stop procrastinating. How to get your shit done, now.
Original thinkers, people wandering between imagination and dreams, stumbling into inventions and abandoning intentions, are better off not getting the job done at all than trying to get it done on time.
I will not be pushed to make what you think you need right now. Leave me alone to take long showers and long naps and I will give you my short thoughts as baubles of creativity that your enterprise will not be able to use, but might spark your own solutions to problems that are not problems but opportunities.
As I shoot the executives of a German chemicals giant in Baltimore, the woman who hires me tells me to do what I want. “We’re here to learn how to think out of the box, and you’re so far out of where we are that we need to come to you and not the other way around.” It’s like a mantra and for three days I am left alone to shoot as I like.
We are given the fabulous aquarium in the Inner Harbor for a final dinner, and the executives line up in front of the jellyfish and the sharks and pretend to pose while I secretly take pictures not of them but the fish and sea life. They don’t like tripods in the aquarium, but the place is closed for us, and the guards tell me to do whatever I like, but the story has gone around for three days, that Sean needs pictures of jellyfish and seahorses for a ballet he is trying to do, and he needs us to pretend to be posing while he shoots them, and I get a flood of pictures, with one little penguin swimming back and forth against the glass following the rhythms of my drumming fingers, paddling in desperate circles to break through the looking glass to get on my side, and to this I edit Queen’s “Bicycle” that last night and drive back to the studio falling asleep, editing all night to deliver a 10-minute video for the executives at breakfast, so the woman who hires me writes, “It was a hit, thank you,” and then a few days later, “We wondered if we could get somebody who could capture 146 personalities in a slideshow and my boss told me it was impossible, and I showed him your quote, and he looked at it and said ‘Maybe.’ And I’m really happy I hired you.” And she writes thank you in capital letters.
And I spend the day looking at the penguins and the jellyfish and the sharks and other people waiting for their pictures get hot and bothered and I am fired all over again, unable to make money by obeying the designs of people trying to make money, one after the other, until maybe the fifth in five tells me, You’re our guy, you know what to do, so we’ll leave you alone and do it whenever you can. (And I take the failures as signs that I am doing something right: if I am inspired by you I will excavate a mountain, but if you bore me I won’t cross the street for a two-dollar bill. And I shoot an NGO function last week and the PR guy who looks like Charles Aznavour whispers to me, I chose you because it’s all about the reviews, like Trip Advisor, and he introduces me to his boss later that evening and the boss in dry humor says, ah yes, the ‘ravishing’ reviews, and the PR man’s face turns beet-red, but his boss smiles, and I am charmed by the huge gap between his front teeth and by his handlebar mustache, and I ask if I can make a formal portrait of him, not the event junk, but a real picture, a study, which I can do in less than five minutes if he can spare the time at such a busy function, to which he says, “When? Where do you want me?”)
My friends advise me to be more efficient, more productive, more profitable, but a couple of them who know me well simply laugh and remind me again and again to be myself and no-one else, and I am, always late, undependable, inconsistent, unreliable, exasperating. Might not work for everyone, but it’s the only way I can turn a penguin paddling in his prison into poetry.
I am standing next to the Supreme Court Justice in the middle of a private wine tasting. There are dozens of rich people in a small chamber in the Supreme Court enjoying the wine, at $800 a bottle, and I’m the official photographer, so of course I have been in the Justice’s face too many times, even though I think I am quite restrained. “You’re working hard,” he says to me, and he’s got an expression that is owl-like, not so much wise as inquisitive. I wish I could show you the picture I got of him, but if I posted it here I’d be fired, and I still have to shoot for the wine enthusiasts at the Belgian ambassador’s this afternoon and then the Sulgrave Club on Saturday night, where the Dame Maitre is trying to get me an exception from the suit and tie rule.
So I am in work-mode when the Justice makes his comment. “I’ve got a lot on my mind,” I reply to him, “So I guess it’s good that I don’t have the time to think about it.” The owl looks at me, thick glasses, a bit like Buck Henry in the Man Who Fell to Earth; and when I realize this resemblance I also realize that I must look to him a bit like David Bowie in the same movie. “Yes,” he says, “We all have a lot on our minds.” He is wrestling with a ruling he must make about allowing Muslims into the country, an absurd mess his president has laid at his feet, even though the chamber is abuzz with that morning’s testimony about the lies our president tells, and pressure is on the owl to make a hard truth out of a terrible lie.
We make little conversations, about my camera, about the gorgeous building (the only federal government building in Washington built under budget), and then about the wine; he doesn’t want to drink too much of it, or I will make him look foolish in my pictures. So I square away and look him right in the face: Would you rather look like Eastwood or McQueen, you tell me, but I promise you I never make anyone look foolish unless they’re fools. He laughs, he likes that! Eastwood or McQueen. It’s gotta be McQueen, I say, because he’s more honest than Eastwood, and the Justice says, “And a lot smarter,” and we part, the man who shapes the rules, the Justice, and the man who shirks them, me.
But as I shoot I watch him look at the waiters and the catering staff: here is an Ethiopian, she slips me mussels and oysters, here is a tall man that looks a bit like the justice himself if the Justice were from Mali, and here is a waiter from Oaxaca, and a barback from the Philippines, the engines of our society, bringing drinks and munchies while the guests talk about economics and the weather in Provence and of course about the irritating health problems on their carcinoma-flaked skin or the broken rhythms of their heartbeats or the crumble of brittle joints.
What are you thinking, I ask the Ethiopian waitress in the hallway, about this? About these people? She thinks for a moment: they must have worked very hard to get here, she says, because they are wearing expensive jewelry. And I interrupt to remark about her beautiful bracelet: “Oh, yes, my mother made it for me.” We look at the bracelet, admiring the twisted metal, hewn of copper from some broken kitchen utensil, the prettiest bling in the Supreme Court. And then she adds one more thing, and I wish the Justice was here in the hallway to hear it: “I haven’t seen my mother in seven years.”
Writing about my mother and how she was influenced by the Italian actress Monica Vitti in the mid-60’s.
The photograph I took in a hotel at JFK Airport of a small-town girl from Pennsylvania who is the spitting image of Vitti. And in a curious, oedipal way the Pennsylvania girl is also a reminder of my mother, with whom I had a stormy relationship. I didn’t speak to her for two years before she died, but then my entire life has been dominated by the attraction of women who have the guts to stand up and walk out of the lives of their men, as my mother did to my father. The curious ways in which a love affair becomes literature is a debt I owe my mother, I admit.
And then there is the metaphorical Earth Mother to whom I have twisted every story or song or creativity I’ve made. An editor at Taschen has tried intermittently to get me to give him pictures for an edition of “The New Erotic Photography,” and each time I play impossible to get, because without the words I will not allow the pictures to be distributed. What words, asks the editor. He wants to know what words are needed to accompany the “fake Monica Vitti pictures” I’ve created, and he says why not just write, “This chick looks like Monica Vitti who looks like my mother, who ran away when I was a kid and left me interested only in women who would leave me”? He offers to put in the captions himself, but then I send him the proper caption and the conversation ends until months later when the barrage of cheesecake he faces brings him back around, reluctantly, to me:
“I see a volcano. Baking energy fermenting into a killer force, a sort of melanoma of the Earth’s skin, except her sunshine burns within and not from 92 million miles away. The core of my being swells with the same frictions of the planet. The rigid plates of prejudice and hope shift against each other and create ruptures in my attitude, and when these ruptures explode with longing or fear, the landscape of my personality is altered by new protrusions of character. Sometimes the new addition is pretty or profound, but often I have nothing but a new scar or caldera to decorate my profile. A sort of moral acne spreads over my contours, I guess I should say, and in the pleasant slopes of the usual Me I see plainly these boulders of rage and pain.”
And it infuriates the editor to find out I have a fake Bardot project, and a fake Margaux Hemingway project, and a fake Amy Winehouse project, but all of them burdened with words! Why ruin perfectly good images with all that hot air?
I am learning that I cannot be generous with a small business. But this realization does not square with my personality. I don’t want to squeeze every drop from each client, and I don’t want to upsell, and I’d love to do something extra for each of them, but time is evaporating faster than ever: the puddle of imaginative thinking is baked by the sunshine of profit. Some of the clients, however, are supercool, and I luck into Pierce Kalteaux with a glamping organization in Chicago: he hires me to shoot Tiny Homes in Lancaster, and then again in upstate New York, in Lake George. He makes me a happy camper.
Revolution is everywhere, so I call the manager at Balkan Airways in New York and tell him I have a video camera and want to go to Bulgaria to shoot fossils and nature for the American tourists that are bound to come to Eastern Europe now that the revolution has made it safe. Ha ha ha, says the manager, and you call me just like that and expect me to give you a plane ticket for free? Ha ha ha. I was on my way a week later, and stopped in Berlin to hook up with a long-lost ballerina I’d met in Costa Rica who couldn’t believe I liked Madonna, but it wasn’t her music, I explained, it was the middle finger she was showing to the music industry that captured my attention. Julia let me kiss her in the dark alleys of San Jose whenever I talked about women in power, and now a few years later Julia was a ballet star in Berlin and I had a cameraman following me around for a TV show called Traveling Wild.
The Balkan Airways manager warned me before I left: “We don’t have any fossils or nature in Bulgaria,” and I said don’t worry about it, the show would be about how I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and he says Ha ha ha just like the Rolling Stones, eh?
There were pictures of the American president stuck onto the wall. Reagan’s lasting impression would be his demand of the Soviet leaders to tear down this wall, even though by then Reagan was suffering from a dementia so bad his handlers could barely keep it from the public. It was in his first term, not his second, that Reagan admitted he didn’t know where he was one day, flying over his ranch in a helicopter, and wasn’t sure for a minute or so of who he was. A bozo can be president and nobody is the wiser, as we know today, except the difference with our present bozo president is that we all know he’s a bozo but nobody cares because we’ve got sushi and Starbucks and heaven waiting too.
I went to Bulgaria and in a field to a group of Turks with bombs in their trunk I had to explain that the wall was coming down not because of some guy with balls and no brain, the president of my country, but because of blue jeans and rock and roll. Look at the way we are dressed I told these Turks, on their way to Sofia to blow it up, me in jeans and you guys like the Thompson Twins in Tintin. They didn’t get the Thompson Twins reference, but they understood when my words were translated about their shabby black suits and wrinkled white shirts. These are the best suits in Bulgaria! But the youngest of them pointed at my torn jeans and gave me a big thumbs up: the chauffeur then added his editorial about how every hotel we stopped into in Bulgaria the chicks were going wild for my jeans. My translator was my government minder, Rosie, and she was very nervous about the Turks: “We should go back to Sofia and warn the authorities. “ The Turks were pissed off that the politicians vying for the new presidency of the suddenly democratic Bulgaria would not talk to the Turkish population about their concerns. Turks were persons non grata in Bulgaria in 1990. Can they vote, I asked Rosie. She translated, yes, that they can do, they are citizens, and they are one fifth of the population. Then tell them to make a secret deal with one of the politicians: their votes in exchange for their worries. The Turks conferred. Rosie was nervous and I kept taking pictures of sheep in a field. Is this how it’s done in America, the head Turk asked me. You got some power, buddy, you trade it for what you want but do it in secret so nobody knows the politician has been compromised, yes, that’s the American way. The Turks clambered back into the Polish cars and turned back and drove homeward, away from Sofia, and Rosie spent the rest of the day exclaiming, “I cannot believe what just happened,” and I said “Rosie, you’ve gotta get out of that university more and look for fossils and nature.”
What happened to you in Berlin, she wanted to know. Did you find the ballerina? Yes, I said, she took me into the east side and it was like a movie scene of a decayed and abandoned metropolis, and it started to rain, and one of the local old ladies grabbed my arm and pulled me under shelter and said Watch out, don’t get your hair wet because the rain is acid and will destroy your scalp. Yes, said Rosie, nobody stands in the rain in Sofia, either, but did you fall in love, will you run away with her? Or will she run away with you?
And the ballerina came to Washington months later and helped me with a movie and died her hair purple and pink and went to a college in Arizona where the first three weeks you have to camp out in the wilderness alone, and she became a scuba diver studying the kelp forests off the Oregon coast and I think she would say now that the best thing that could have happened was that wall falling down and my phone call to the manager of Balkan Airways. But I couldn’t say all that to Rosie, the translator, who of course wanted to fall in love and run away because in Bulgaria in those times the map you followed did not have the destination of either love or running away, or at least that’s how Rosie explained it to me later when we drank beer at a surprise wedding: Look at these two, the bride and groom, said Rosie, like all bride and grooms getting married because they’ve got nothing better to do. It’s all changing, I said, and Rosie nodded but didn’t look like she believed me as much as she might have liked to. And I learned at that moment that even when revolution and freedom come, it is difficult for people to smile if they have not smiled before.
Like the feral wild child found alone scavenging in the woods, a child with no affection and no humor grows up without hope or imagination, and might as well be a mouse for all they will ever know about being alive. A stony face is tight with fear or hunger, and cannot bend into smiles. It takes a lifetime of compassion to be able to smile freely, without guile, with nothing but curiosity and pleasure, that wondrous mix that makes us human.
Izzy ad with Eames Lounge Chair
When the Eames lounge chair was introduced in 1956, it not only changed how Americans looked at their furniture, but also how Americans looked at their advertising. Ray and Charles Eames were determined to make their designs affordable, but the Eames Lounge Chair was the exception. They aimed it squarely at the high-end market, introduced the chair on a TV show, and it was a hit, possibly the biggest bang among consumers of all social classes until Ikea brought its plastics to the USA. The advertising included a grandma shucking peas on the porch of her gothic house, or the chair and its ottoman in an enormous empty hay field. The Eameses made a commercial, too: it was to warn the consumer of fakes or “knock-offs.”
When Daniel Donnelly brought me this reinvention of his, of the Eames Lounge Chair stretched into a sofa, I told him I would shoot it in a 60’s style with high grain and low-key lighting, and that I would be putting my signature oddities into the picture along with the models. (The conch shell!) He looked at me as if I was speaking Swahili. Do what you need to, Baby, and off he goes to the wilds of Pennsylvania to find miniature replicas of Greyhound buses in that state’s unique antique fairs. He is one of those people in my life that takes my tastes for granted, as I do his. We have never questioned each other’s abilities, which means I have produced a lot of imagery and imagination which has been almost useless to his firm. But as long as the work is original, we keep knocking on each other’s door. No knockoffs, Baby!
I can report that the Eames Limousine Sofa is beautifully comfortable, and everyone who sits in it lights up in a grin. The sofa is in the studio for a week, and then Dan hauls it away but makes the mistake of telling me he still has it in his studio a week later, when I propose to shoot it by the pool in a salute to the Eameses original 1950’s TV commercial. Dan practically lives by his pool in a Kontiki-style hut of his own design, surrounded by 30-foot palm fronds, so we haul the sofa to the side of the pool for some more promo shots, but without a model. I tell him I want to shoot underwater as the model jumps into the pool and the camera then focuses from beneath the water onto the Eames sofa while the words “Beware of cheap imitations” come up on the screen, and Dan gets it and says as he always says: Do what you need to, Baby.
Sheila calls in the middle of the night. This is 25 years ago. She is in a panic, and says she has something important to say, that she was with a boy in Malcolm X Park and she let him unzip her jeans while they were making out and she asks me if I know what she was thinking about the whole time. No, says me. I was thinking about you, she says, and hangs up.
The next time Sheila calls I tell her to be careful, that I am much older than she is, that I am not a replacement for her wounded father, and that what she fantasizes about is not something she necessarily wants to come true. She asks me if things will be different when she turns 18, and I say, No, I’m as horny as the next jackass but I have a line I will not cross, so she asks what is it we can talk about then? And I tell her, music, I’ve always depended on you for music, the songs you listen to. I don’t want to find out what to hear from the radio. If you want to express your feelings, tell me what you’re listening to, and we can have a long conversation that will make us both feel better about this strange summer.
The Smiths, she says quickly. That’s the name of a band? The Smiths. Why are you listening to them? Because they remind me of impossible situations, because they’re singing about what I feel, and . . . I wait for her to finish, another dawn phone call from a party of teenagers being busted by the cops in the background: I can hear somebody with authority saying ‘come on let’s go, let’s go,’ and I am reminded of my own wild adolescence, a freewheeling risk that came to an end in geography class when I was fourteen when the Guardia Civil came to my school with machine guns and hauled me away to the town hall . . . I don’t want Sheila encouraged by me, but I’ve always been a listener who knows when somebody is scratching at a scar, and Sheila is at a crossroads: pain in this direction and sunshine in that, so whatever she says I’ve got to react fairly and firmly and crucially without judgment. I wait for her to finish what she wants to tell me about the Smiths, and impossible situations and her feelings in their songs, with the cops louder in the background, getting closer to her, and she whispers . . .
“Because I always sing out loud to all their words and it makes me feel better because no matter how I feel I always want to be singing.”
And a few days later there is a tape cassette outside my door, adorned with hearts and smiley faces and a single word: “Listen!” I gave her space and safety, Sheila gave me the Smiths. And in retrospect it could only have been the Smiths, those wounded animals, helping all of us to get the splinters out of our paws by admitting to the limps we’ve become used to.
There are six contaminants that cause cancer at high levels coming out of the faucet where I live. There are actually 15 deadly toxins in my tap water, but six are above Federal permission levels. All six cause cancer, and only one of them is naturally occurring in Nature. So five poisonous elements in my tap water are the result of agriculture or industry or water treatment agents. All six of these levels are way above Federal guidelines.
Our fucked up government is quite willing to relax the standards of water safety, and they’re using the idiot in charge at the White House to begin dismantling water and air safety standards that businesses whine about with bribes every single day on Capitol Hill.
My utility is WSSC, and you can see what the toxins are in your tap water by accessing the amazing database of water quality that exists because citizens wanted to know what was in their water. Simply type in your zip code, and read the descriptions of the toxins in your water, the health threat they pose to you and your loved ones, and the level that those toxins exceed the generous Federal safety guidelines. Here’s the link:
Stephanie comes over to shoot a series about Courtney Love and Stevie Nicks, and this morning there she is on the text, with this language she speaks that is part generous and part gibberish, wondering where the pictures are. I’ve got other deadlines, pressed, no sleep, no time to do what I’m told and I realize she sounded yesterday like my cousin Julie as I ask if there is any Minnesota in her family, and her text comes back: “all we know in my family is greek.” So I write her and tell her I’m going to post that line on Facebook, and in her shorthand she replies, “I don’t have a Facebook so I’ll check on my Mom’s.” And I start laughing, we’re like two tourists in Venice, waiting for the sandwich shop to open up, one of us speaking the Norwegian jughead style and the other all dulcet and lilting like a Pacific Islander. “I don’t have a Facebook.” You’re on or off, but it’s not a souvenir. We can’t understand each other even if we were drawing pictures in pencil. She is the tourist wondering why this white dude is asking for a cigarette while me the Norwegian is patiently asking if she grew up with bombs falling out of the sky. Is there Christmas in Greek, I ask her, because I just sent two pictures, but she howls in dismay: these aren’t what we shot yesterday. Where is My Godsister’s Dress in Blue and the Joan of Archetype series?
This is a girl who if she sneezes she gets 387 likes on IG, so just go ahead and post a Frankie and see what you get, and I get this classic text back: “If I post art I don’t get as many likes, people just want the basics which really bothers me.” Meaning of course all her buds want her to be Barbie in perpetuity and you can’t have that, keep talking like Brad Pitt out the side of his mouth and put the random images up with good titles, like when you told me yesterday you were bringing a Chloe Sevigny outfit “and your whole Pinterest board” and I was gobstruck that any teenager would have Chloe Sevigny as her muse, and Stephanie asks me if I want to see the short movie she’s edited of Chloe highlights: walking the runway in fashion that never was, in a swimming pool with an outfit from the Flaming lips, or in an alleyway in leather with lips like Mick Jagger. Where was Stephanie looking when she found Chloe?
She comes over with the blue dress she bought for her Godsister’s wedding. Well, her parents bought it, still pissed about it because the wedding never happened, and she isn’t sure what the Godsister will think. We will just color it red in Photoshop and that will confuse your Godsister, I say, sort of a Chloe move, and we will call the picture “My Godsister’s Red Dress.” Stephanie has brought a friend named Victoria who listens to all of this and has just met me for the first time, and she thinks, that’s funny I thought Sean was a professional photographer, but this set-up is a lot cooler than that, and I tell Victora she can be in set number 3 with a samurai sword, in the background, sort of a fury behind Stephanie, which reminds me:
I parked my car in front of a daycare class and walked over to an Ethiopian restaurant and came out an hour later to find my car had two punctured tires, and a young woman runs out of the building, “I’m so glad you’re here,” and she hands me a piece of paper with a police officer’s name on it. “When you walked out of your car this old dude walked up behind you and pulled a sword out of his pants and waved it in the air, and then stabbed your car tires while you were still walking away.” I call Ace towing and he is laughing as he hauls up the car with two useless tires trailing cut rubber, I’ve known him for years and all he can say is “it’s always interesting.” I call the cops and give them my name and they’ve got the guy locked up, and I ask what kind of a sword was it? Dude was in Japan in the military and brought back a samurai sword, we’re going to classify this as a hate crime because he was yelling stuff about killing white people, says the cop. You white? I’m Norwegian, I say, and the cop says: That proves it, you’re entitled to compensation. Like what? Well, you’ve got two tires ripped to pieces, so I guess we can start there. But wait, says me, what about the sword? What about it. Can’t I make a trade? You want the samurai sword, Sir, I gotta tell you a weapon like that is illegal on the streets of our city, I can’t let you have that sword. Can I at least come take a look at it? The cop pauses a bit, and then says, Hmmmmm.
Your life is a map of songs, isn’t it? One note leads to another, pebbles shaping a path, and these become songlines, stories of a route or journey or a memory you get from staying in one place or moving to somewhere new, and those songlines become the soundtrack of your puny existence, that small passing in eons of silence that you wish to fill with shouts, loud ones, or giggles, full ones, the noise of your imagination and the pulse of your dreams.
Songs contain the history of your steps, don’t they? You can listen to one, and remember a self in a place that feels like you but is also tinted with the mystery of strangers. I was in Madagascar, in a rundown market, snooping with no money, when I found a toothless man selling packets of vanilla. Moist, soft, long vanilla bean pods. You could bend them like pipe cleaners. I bought three packets and lugged them back to DC and gave them to my mother who was one of a bevy of young American women chosen by Julia Child to form a cooking school in the south of France, with the noble goal of spreading their knowledge about the local cuisine back to the States, but I came along and ruined my mother’s plans, and two more pregnancies followed and there went Julia Child. When my mother saw that I’d brought real bendy wet vanilla from Madagascar, a species wholly unrelated to the small stiff stick you got in the supermarket for three dollars each, she began to cry; the cook had learned her trade with substitute ingredients, and now she made me a tapioca that I would pay one million dollars to eat if I had the cash and if my mother was still alive. But in that market with the fresh vanilla, I was listening to an amazing record that was the end of a five-year act of evolution that I’ve never seen in another musician. (Well, maybe in one.)
I’d been snagged by a pop song, heard in the sweat of a love affair, and then a few years later I was mugged by an album of songs that could not have been more different than the pop song, and the songs on that album became the ropes I held on to in my precarious steps across the Serengeti, talking an elephant out of trampling our little campsite, to Lake Victoria, where a hotel room with bloody handprints suggested we were in the wrong place but I told the hotelkeeper we’d take the room despite the Maribou stork on the rail of our balcony holding a long piece of intestine in its beak, Kampala under Idi jesus fucking christ Amin, and the music was blasting into my headphones as that stork flew off our balcony and across the city, long strand of entrail swinging like a rope over a pond of despair surrounded by the poisonous gardens of Africa’s emerald. Weeks later, walking back from an encounter with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, another rocket about to be lit by genocide, I was listening to the pop song: Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.” With a Japanese girl a few weeks later in a straw hut on the beach of Malindi we listened to the waves of the Indian Ocean and Talk Talk’s barely-believable album “Colours of Spring.” And on a balcony a few weeks after that in the archipelago of Lamu, women clad in body-length black sheets walked beneath me chanting slogans at the town’s terrified officials, and I heard the shouting but I was listening to Talk Talk’s “Living in Another World,” remembering another time three years before, on the nude beaches of Goa, when I had organized a listening party for a wild mix of Australian and Scandinavian backpackers, and an Austrian kid kept pushing a tape cassette at me and said you have to hear this song by Talk Talk, it’s better than all this, and I said yeah yeah but stayed in control of the music until I ran out of tunes, and then me and the Austrian listened to Talk Talk’s “Such a Shame” and at the end of it I smiled and hugged the Austrian and said yes, yes, it’s better than all this.
And then the guy who made Talk Talk just walked out. The music industry was a cesspool, which we all know, but it’s rare to see anyone act on that knowledge
. He walked out, disappeared, had a family, and hasn’t made a drop of music in the last two decades. Not even Glenn Gould, a performer and a producer and an editor but not a composer could not walk away from the music that way; he stuck around as an editor of classical music for a generation after he stopped playing in public.
And of course the evolution of this particular musician is a passage of one part of my life to another, a critical main road, unpopulated because it passes through long deserts of silence, unwatered by fame or cash, if you die on this route you’ll never decompose: your corpse will still be grinning hopefully at the future to anyone who stumbles over it. It was because he would head out to the desert that his songs burned so brightly in our hurly-burly chase through darkness to follow (and imitate) one pop hit after another. Mark Hollis is the musician who made the group Talk Talk, and he has become an endless fascination to students of music and pop culture who would all like to knock on his door and say, “What are you thinking now?” And I wonder if he would reply: “Good thing I got out when I did,” or would he say: “I was thinking of jumping right back in.”
You know the road is empty, dusty, and leads nowhere profitable. It should be marked ‘Waste of Time.’ But the tunes that you take onto it are compelling, something you’ve never heard before, and the idea is to get across the desert and find yourself in a new lush garden of melody and rhythm, because every road leads somewhere. A lifetime can only be partly a desert. Sooner or later you find a creek and a forest and a pond and a song that echoes from every stone and flower, and this song is new but familiar, and you find it easy to sing and remember, and often if you stop dancing to listen to the words you find yourself in a story about somebody’s long and lonely walk across the sands, alone, looking for love which you lost in the first verse but hope to find again by the third.
* * * * *
In the picture is the rock that anchors the “Beach of the Drowned Ones.” (Playa de los Ahogados.) Part of the famous Zipolite Beach, where you can walk around naked and smoke dope even in front of the Mexican police, and I have been here many times, but when I took the picture I was listening to an Algerian genius named Idir, and when the actor I was making a movie with drove us off the road and into the side of a mountain at 55 miles an hour, we were listening to the same song of Idir’s for the tenth time that day. With the car on fire and both of us limping, you could hear Idir singing about the monster in the woods and his daughter saying, Daddy I am scared, to which the Daddy says I am scared too
“little strange daughter, shake your bracelets”
and maybe we can drive the monster away. We survived the crash, and the car got rebuilt in Palenque, enough to take us to Belize, and the stereo worked just fine, and we crossed the dry, bristling Yucatan to swim with manatees in water colored like the actor’s turquoise eyes. She tried to apologize for the car crash and I told her to forget about it, that every path has its trap, and now she writes me as I finish making the movie a decade later and says she is still listening to Idir and every time she does she thinks about our car on fire in the jungles outside Palenque, and how Idir’s song sounded so perfect in the trees beside the slippery road.
In Calakmul, I wrote her a scene with the crash still on my mind, an aftershock spilling poetry from my tongue: “a small bird chases an eagle, a millimeter of rain wrecks a caravan of dreams, a puff of wind scatters a treasure of gold dust, and a single glance can inflame a heart, turning hope into a star that bursts at its seams.” The first time she read the lines, and I have the paper I wrote them on still, a large grey fox at the foot of the temple looked up at us to see if we were friend or foe, and I have that fox on videotape, still, peering nervously upward, into the sun.
She’s a clone with 13 letters from the person she was cloned from. The first letter she opened brought her to me. There was a line in the letter that predicted she had to dance for her life. Could I film this? Two years and many dances later, she’s still alive, and we go downtown to the mesmerizing electronic installation by Adrien M. and Claire B., and as we shoot the docents come up to me and express their astonishment at how she moves: the designers of the show are choreographers, after all, and here is this unicorn prancing through their patterns. They let us stay as long as we like, and here is the tip of the iceberg.
Shoot shooter, at the Artechouse, until September 3. The light and the space are both tiny and challenging, but it’s a set you won’t see again very soon.
Filming my favorite dancer Dani Seltzer let loose at the Adrien M. & Claire B. exhibit at Artechouse. You only get 45 minutes to visit, but the curators left us alone when they saw Dani circling through the displays. I’m lucky to have met a few unicorns in my life, and Dani is one of them, as rare as a species ever gets, her own singular self distinct in a world of derivatives and imitation. She sticks out wherever she is, and like all unicorns is made shy by people watching her as if she is in a cage. What are they looking at?
The music is by me and Ariel Francis, our 33-minute symphony Wildbird, rapidly transforming into a 33-minute dance marathon movie. More clouded leopard than unicorn, probably, but just as shy!
Dani showed up at my studio when she was 16, trying out for a shoot for an ill-fated magazine called ISO. I was reminded about a story I heard from a Manhattan agent detailing his shock when Uma Thurman walked into his office at 16 years old, and how he simply know this was star material. I could relate. Luminous, limber, lovely, Dani Seltzer has crossed my skies several times a year ever since, and is now off to the big university where they made her captain of one of the dance teams before she stepped foot on campus. Brilliant, rare creature. I cannot spill the details, but let’s simply put it that she was a byproduct of genetic engineering, and has suffered health issues because of it: she can’t dance more than 5 minutes without passing out. But it’s been a condition all her life, and she lives on, giving bliss. Here are some of the shots I’ve made of her over the years:
It’s quite a day to be an American.
Mother Nature swims out of the overheated Gulf of Mexico and lands a small storm directly into Houston, where 25 companies produced almost half of the world’s fossil fuel emissions for the past century, and that tiny storm, a ruffle a few years ago, turns into a fierce hurricane in just two days, and half a trillion dollars will be spent on repairs, mostly to put new construction right back into harm’s way.
And a missile that could have had a nuclear warhead attached to it flies over Japan and crashes into the sea. The last time a nuclear warhead passed over Japan was a lifetime ago, except that one landed in Nagasaki and killed 35,000 people in one second and left many more than that with the slow death of radiation sickness. That was a plutonium bomb named Fat Man, originally destined for another Japanese city except it was too cloudy to drop, so the planes went on to Nagasaki; also too cloudy, and the planes were about to turn back, except the clouds parted and there was the Mitsubishi factory. We are taught in American schools that the nuclear bombs dropped in our name were necessary because the Japanese would not stop fighting even if they’d lost the war. And this is bullshit, of course: the bombs were dropped so the Americans could show the Russians what we have. Japan’s emperor had already sued the Americans for peace, before Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
I feel the radiation sickness in my own guts and bones. Machines gone bad at Johns Hopkins 25 years ago burned me badly because it was Christmas and the experts were away for the holidays and it took a technician to save my life by screaming at a doctor that burnt flesh was dripping off my buttocks and the radiation had to stop right now. Johns Hopkins was very nice to me, but couldn’t help, and the last thing a doctor there told me was “don’t come back or we’ll have to put you on a drip for food, and if that happens you might never get out of here.” I weighed 119 pounds. It took a small bottle of slippery elm bark ($13.95 at GNC) to pull me out of that dead end, and in a month I’d gained 40 pounds and was back in flight, seeking out my targets, wounded but still aloft.
And now at the gravesite of America’s heroes, the radiation sickness gives me nausea and leaves me wishing I’d packed my ginger seasickness chewing gum. To shake the queasy apathy I concentrate on my surroundings, always a good remedy for feeling ill. I’d shot a Russian orthodox wedding in the colorful St. Nicholas church the previous day, and the bride fell to the floor. The groom caught her and the best men fanned her face or fetched water, and I kept shooting as her pale face struggled to stay conscious; she looked beautiful, her five thousand dollar dress and veil spread over the mosaics, a Juliet in her last moments clutching the Romeo who could not save her. I wrote the caption in my head: “overcome with emotion, the bride faints to the floor.” Outside, later, she tells me she was “suffocatingly hot” but that she prefers my description and agrees that should be the caption to the picture of beauty, assassinated, prone across the pretty marbles of the Ukrainian church.
So now before I faint among the guns and tombstones and medals, I concentrate on the details as I shoot. It takes two and a half minutes for eight men to reverently fold the American flag. The flag is the only thing in the soldier’s sights, and they fold it with the mechanics of a factory, precisely, minutely, like slow sewing machines stitching the fabric into a final triangle of stars, given to the family of the hero. Many of the family have flown out from Dallas, and they monitor news from Houston on their cellphones. The officer who gives them the folded flag says “a solider honors the flag with his life and service, and in death the flag will honor him,” and the emotions are shocking in the quiet breezes of a cold August day, the weather all barmy, and I am conscious of walking between the graves, stepping in the lanes between them and never above the remains, as my Irish blood warns me: never stand on dead people, son, because they aren’t happy to be there and don’t need the reminder of your freedom. I walk three times as much as I need to, stepping gingerly around the tombstones in between the ghostly spirits radiating from the people buried beneath. I am thinking of the top military man in the country, talking to the troops in a far away place: the news has just broken about his words, captured on a cellphone held waist-high by a patriot who shared the speech with the media, as the head soldier of the United States of America tells his men and women that the inspiration has been snuffed out of America and it’s up to the troops on the battlefield to represent the values that are no longer evident in Washington.
A soldier with more medals on his chest than the others asks if he can speak to me for a second, and we stand aside, me wondering what in the world would warrant his attention, and he whispers: “On behalf of all of us, I want to say thank you for not walking on top of the graves, because we might look like we’re not watching but we are,” and he offers his hand to mine. And when I get off the shuttle, equipment dangling from my shoulders, I turn to face the family and say “Thank you for the honor of letting me take these pictures of your family,” and the whole family, quiet and hushed for the occasion, sing out, ‘Thank you so much’ and I disembark with tears welling in my eyes.
It must look bad, the mess we’re in, we Americans. The Nazis, the plastic bottles littering our national parks, the astounding indifference we show to half the world’s starving or sick population while we stuff ourselves on Starfux and sushi, the terror we rain onto innocent bystanders with our guns and ammunition not to win a war but to fuel sales for the ‘defense’ companies we have invested in, and the disgusting self-enrichment of our politics, the idiot in charge, a gift from the previous elitists who oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle and lower classes to the rich in the history of our great great country.
Maybe it looks bad, but not to me. I am proud to be an American, a citizen of a country that was an idea before it was a nation, where the fight for free speech and scientific innovation is still ferociously waged. Our scabs, scratched raw for anyone to see, cannot deny the inherent decency of the American ideal, to be free and chase your dreams. That decency is being tested by philanderers who recognize the opportunity to cheat on everyone who is faithful to our ideals, and on every front the cheaters taste defeat. Immigrants are not just welcome, they are the secret ingredient of all American ingenuity. Come here, we have plenty of room. That little boy from Syria, blown up by our bombs, sitting in shock in a hospital chair, strewn with blood and dust, but politely calm, would be taken in to 100 million homes in this country and showered with affection and education and brought up to know that women are the equals of men in EVERY respect, that to let everyone have his say is the key to communication, which is all about listening and not about talking.
I was born in France. Raised in Europe and the Middle East. I wasn’t made in America. I was made BY America. I cringe when I see the Olympians waving the stars and stripes, because patriotism is not about defending your flag or folding it properly or standing to attention when a terrible anthem is played; these things are un-American. It’s the liberty to express yourself and enunciate your dreams that demands our respect. Let people say what they wish; common sense eventually surfaces in any contact between thinking people. And never ever belittle dreamers when they admit to the flights of fancy in their imaginations. The success of your neighbor is also the success of his neighbor, you.
I shot this video yesterday, my fourth time covering this great organization, and edited this piece for them last night to put up today as they visit literally hundreds of Senators and Congress members in an attempt to change a terrible discrimination policy that nobody in government likes but which is supported by bribes from the leading American high tech companies, such as Microsoft and Google. High skilled immigrants are put in a queue for their green cards when they come to the USA to work under this program, and they cannot change jobs or start their own businesses until they get that green card. The catch is that only 7% of any one country’s high skilled immigrants doing this can be awarded green cards, so applicants from India are unfairly penalized with surreal wait times for a green card: 70 years for some people now in the backlog. And during this time, they are fully indentured to their employer. Microsoft loves this situation, and flushes Capitol Hill with cash to keep the situation as is. Immigration Voice has organized thousands of these indentured servants, and twice a year at least they do their own lobbying in Congress, without corporate money, to turn the policy into a merit-based system rather than one that is simply based on what country you happen to be born in.
It’s work I love to do because they let me be creative, even if they can’t use many of my ideas. I do soft vanilla pieces like this video, but what I’m itching to spring onto the scene is a video with a series of Indian faces from Chennai to Mumbai looking at the camera saying, “I pay this much in taxes to the government, and I solve these problems in medical research, or I invent this chemical or commercial process, so you want to know who makes America great? Your friendly immigrant next door, me!”
As the fight draws longer, my odd ideas have more of a chance of breaking through. To one of the leaders of the organization yesterday, I painted this sort of Bennetton advertisement: of people huddled around a gravesite, burying a great friend, as a government official in a trench coat walks up and asks the group if there is a Doctor Patel among them, to which a widow points to the coffin, “He’s in there,” she says, and the government official takes off his hat and hands her an envelope and says: “Here’s his green card, Ma’am, and I’m terribly sorry for your loss.” The other mourners look at the widow and one asks, “when did he apply?” The widow says, “He’s worked for Microsoft for 48 years, that’s how long ago he applied,” and she tosses the green card onto the coffin as the dirt is shoveled on. And the tagline comes up: “How many other Doctor Patels does Microsoft have waiting for their freedom?”
The very weird aspect of this situation is that these high-skilled immigrants have children who are born and raised 100% American, and if the parents lose their status and have to return to India, so do the kids. There are an estimated 1.5 million of these high-skilled immigrants serving at the dictates of their employers under this program, none of them knowing how long that employment is good for, and powerless to do anything about it. Starting up a small enterprise on the side is grounds for immediate termination of your status, and a return to India. And these are some of the most ambitious and technically skilled people on the planet. They are the lifeblood of America.
And still we have a government that protects people who complain about immigrants! The Clintons and Bushes are responsible for this: under their administrations, people who shoveled coal should have been taken out of the mines and taught Cobol. Except these hapless rednecks and factory workers were never important to the elitists who plundered our nation in the name of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Cobol, not coal, should have been the economic policy enforced in Kentucky and West Virginia, and we got impotent dysfunction instead, a wave of painkiller-popping jugheads who voted for a snake oil salesman who would shrug his shoulders if he started a nuclear conflict that shattered the world economy and killed hundreds of thousands of people, as long as American soil itself wasn’t blown to smithereens. He would say what so many Americans say about other people’s problems: “It’s their own damn fault.”
The City of Women is in ruins. The earthquake has killed at least 40 people, and one third of all homes in the city are trashed. The women and their families are sleeping outside, waiting on supplies from the outside world they barely trust.
I have special relationships with many places: the very north of Iceland, the empty spaces where Catalonia and the Basques meet in north-central Spain where no tourists go, Death Valley, Belize City, Varanasi (Benares) which was a metropolis when the Buddha visited, Limerick, the pygmy lands of Uganda, and among the cedars of Lebanon. But for somebody as interested in the imbalances of power between the genders and the sexual games we play as civilized beings with uncontrollable urges of desire, no place on Earth beckons to me quite like Juchitan, the City of Women, leveled by an earthquake last weekend while we worried about hurricanes.
Juchitan is the only matriarchy on the planet. The forces of that matriarchy have caused an anthropological delight that few people have experienced because the place is such a secret. Juchitan is in the Istmo, the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Mexico, the skinny middle between the dry north and the jungle south of the country. Anyone who has backpacked in Mexico and traveled overland has changed buses or stopped in the bus terminal of Juchitan, which for transportation purposes in Mexico has the same sort of outpost importance as Omaha. More than 99% of the gringos who have been in Juchitan have never ventured outside the bus station, and the locals like it that way. So people pass through, and a wonderful secret stays secret while in plain view. The best secrets manage this trick, don’t they?
“If we want something from the outside, we watch it pass by and then copy it in our own style,” said Amaranta Gomez to me on my third visit there, when I brought the world’s top Internet pin-up star to shoot an ‘erotic thriller’ that was in reality a polemic about the demon seeds sprouting in the minds of every male. “We’ve never really assimilated into Mexico or into the rest of the world, even though we know how to converse with outsiders.”
There is a saying in the rest of Mexico about Juchitan: “Es ella quien manda.” This ‘dicho’ means “It is she who mandates,” and can be translated as “It is she who rules,” or “Women rule.”
I will write more about Juchitan and Amaranta and my now barely believable experiences there, and will try to get an email to which donations can be sent DIRECTLY to survivors rather than gouged for administrative bloat by the Red Cross, who still stonewall Congress whenever they are asked for an account of their spending, but this is what I would like you to know about Juchitan right now, the barest facts, as strange as anyone has ever written about a population without being accused of racial bias:
The women as they accrue wealth become much bigger than the men. They wear huge amounts of gold on their bodies, and they run the large central market. Men are not permitted, generally, to have business operations in the market, and work instead at sea or in the fields. Under no condition do the men in the market handle money. As a signal of her power, the matriarch of each family raises a boy (usually the youngest child) as a girl, and this boy becomes her social badge of authenticity as well as her aide in business. Many of the stalls in the market are manned by a lady and her muxe. The word ‘muxe’ refers to these boys raised as girls, and they are a beautiful, lovely subset of Juchitan’s population.
It’s been my deep honor to have been given access to this community of boss women, especially since I came in as an over-hormoned guy with a camera to shoot a fantasy movie about a woman who assassinates rapacious males, the very sort of bozos who usually adore me and envy my rapport with females. “What’s your secret,” they ask, these virulent boys, dying for conquest, and I tell them I simply want to know how they’re feeling, those ambitious women hobbled by social expectations. And the boys always dismiss this answer because they’ve got no time for that; they want a pill or a genie that makes them irresistible, turns them into George Clooney or Justin Bieber, permanently attractive.
Amaranta introduced me to a small forum of muxes and told them I had a plan to film the European model being dressed and undressed by them so I could interrupt the broadcast of a World Cup final game with 20 seconds of our footage, featuring the muxes talking in their distinctive Zapotecan dialect. Imagine one lonely Zapotec marooned in a bar in Tokyo watching the game, I said, when all of a sudden there you guys are stripping the model out of her jeans and Benettons only to dress her up in the clothes of Frida Kahlo, and that one Zapotec person in a bar in Tokyo realizes you’re speaking Zapotec, in his very own language, he will think he is hallucinating! The muxes were impressed with the possibility of this stunt. Mistica, the biggest of them, pointed to the model and said, “But couldn’t you have brought a woman with some meat on her self rather than this skinny waif?” And I said, “Mistica, that’s exactly what I want you to be talking about as you undress our model, about how unappealing you find this skinny beauty, to whom men around the world drool on their keyboards as they jerk off.” At this, the muxes spring into action, and we make the piece, freakily beautiful, and I regret I haven’t met the hacker pirate yet who can help me break into the soccer championship on TV and make two billion watching boys wonder about my strange scene and its hidden meanings.
In a moment of utter bedlam, the rock star looks at me as if to say “Can you believe this?”
He’s used to mobs wanting a selfie with him or an autograph or just a handshake and his acknowledgement that he knows how appreciative they are of his great musicals, In the Heights and Hamilton, which has made him the hottest property on Broadway, if not in all of entertainment. So the racket of fandom should come as no surprise to Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. Except for the location: this is Statuary Hall, in the U.S. Congress, and the clamor for his attention comes from Senators and Congress members and Hill staffers and other donors to the NEH and the NEA, as he is presented the Freedom Award for his unique services to education.
It’s a plum assignment for me, selected from a bevy of applicants to shoot the event for the host, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. I move quickly around the Capitol with my tripods, and the police watch me with canine attention until Senator Patrick Leahy winks at them and points at me and says, “He’s okay,” and the seas part to let me do as I wish. I get a fab fab fab shot of Miranda with his Dad Luis on the balcony of Leahy’s office, in glistening late afternoon light, the father on the side with his camera, laughing, as the son poses looking out over the mall with his hands up, as Evita, and we hear the crowds in tears in Buenos Aires shout his name as my camera clicks. I know I have something, and I keep my camera with me as I eat in Chinatown later, at my favorite dive; the waitress recognizes me and says if I take a picture of my Udon soup and share it with her she won’t charge me the $11 for it. All the fabric of the Universe wraps itself around me and says keep doing it, keep moving even if you don’t have any direction, keep making, Seanie, and die trying.
It is bittersweet to see Miranda’s acclaim at such proximity, the swirl of intentions that rush to him like iron fragments to a magnet. For four hours, I shoot him and his family and small entourage as he greets Congress. I see the cost of that acclaim: time, time, time, and he manages to stay interested in everyone’s story or request or compliment but I notice that he keeps moving, and if he stays in one part of the Hall too long, we get scrunched against a wall. While for me, there is utter leeway: I am expected to take pictures, but nothing else. My own three musicals stay well sunk, not limned with a shadow of limelight; my own stories are mute, they do not tug at my heartstrings or guilt. I am my own little secret, an undetected planet of possibilities circling around ideas in solar systems in faraway dreams.
But I tell the woman who has hired me, who stabbed her finger on my portfolio and brushed the others aside, that I will be busy tomorrow (today, perhaps right now as you are reading this), filming a scene from my own ballet, and that nothing will stop me from doing so; the ballerina will float in her tutu under water, into the sea, blinking up at the dark sky above the ocean surface, resigned never to fly again, and the woman who has hired me turns away from all the bedlam, and says to me: “A ballet? How interesting! You don’t come across that very often.” Am I a dancer or a choreographer? Did I write a story? Compose the music? Have an idea? Or am I the producer, that amorphous person whose duty is to admit to having no talents but able to recognize all talents in others? What is my role?
It is my role, Madam, to bleed. And now the crazy night of adulation in Congress makes sense. Of course, of course, we have just seen: to make anything, there is a cost, and if you’re not willing to pay it you make nothing. She looks at me a bit differently now, and if I have an idea about what to do with the footage of last night, she tries to see it the way I do, and she doesn’t spend a moment wondering if she’s hired the right person for the job.
In a crush of people around the Broadway superstar, I see a young woman trembling on the fringe of the crowd, too timid to step forward, and I ask her why she hesitates and she tells me she doesn’t feel entitled because of all the Senators and Congresspeople who are begging for a moment with the author of the smash hit “Hamilton”, and she bites her lip wondering if she should just tug on Lin Manuel Miranda’s sleeve and see if she can get a selfie, and then she says to me, I’m a Dreamer and it would be cool to get a picture wth him, and I lean into her ear to say, Listen man there is nobody in this place who he would rather pose with than a Dreamer so you are the person he’s waiting for, and the Dreamer looks around the U.S. Capitol where we are gathered to celebrate the composer and playwright, all these Senators and Congresspeople and their flunkies asking for autographs and poses, utter utter bedlam, a wreck of adulation, and the Dreamer nods, but still she is unsure of her status among the VIPs, and I say to her, Watch this man, it’s this easy and I turn to press through the crowd to Miranda and I whisper to him “she’s a Dreamer” as I point to the nervous young woman on the edges of his limelight, and the composer immediately surges toward her and gives her a hug and spins her around so they are facing her camera into which they can both beam their delight, and the Dreamer gets her picture and as he passes me back into the scrum Miranda has his own whisper for me, “Thank you,” he says, and I wish the girl had heard it and I look for her but she has melted back into her shadows, gone, so I miss the chance to tell her I have taken more than five hundred shots of him already that day and this is the happiest I’ve seen him but then it strikes me that in this one picture I get of her the Dreamer is the happiest she has been not in 500 clicks of a shutter but in a lifetime on the margins where she will never have the chance to be on stage in a spotlight with the world waiting to hear what she has to say.
From the Snow White song I am writing with Sandra and Peter, the second piece of our musical “Brother Grimm”:
In a clearing among broken trees,here comes my jealous queen,
pulling her pretty daughter behind her
dress askew and eyes full of fright,
You, Hunter, I need your help
butcher this girl and cook me her liver
in secret among the trees
feed all of her to your pigs
from her toes to her scalp,
and off scuttles my queen
leaving me with Snow White
in a clearing among the broken trees.
But how do I murder beauty
to feed a queen?
I must feed her my favorite sheep
and let the girl run free
but don’t go back to the palace
(I say to the lass)
because it is no longer home,
off into the woods with you
among owls and wolves you roam
at least you are free,
leave the queen’s appetites to me!
And the queen eats the liver
of my favorite sheep,
with pleasure between moans,
at last she is rid of her enemy,
youthful and pretty,
shat out into the gutters,
so she still reins as the fairest of all.
Gorged on this thought
the queen tips me well,
you have done us proud Hunter
and rid the kingdom of envy
for I will be kind now
as the Cleopatra of my lands
with the spirit of Evita in my plans
aid for the ill and firewood for the poor,
the kingdom is in happy hands,
thank you for the barbeque
you have made of Snow White’s liver,
I will digest her now
and bid you adieu,
the parasite has been cooked away
thanks to you!
So imagine my surprise
when the queen seeks me out
fifty moons later
in the clearing among the bent trees
to say she has heard of another beauty
better than hers
more fair and more complete
hiding in the woods somewhere
in my own kingdom,
and I need your help, Hunter,
to find this rival
and chop her to pieces
as you know so well how to do.
The wolves have not got to Snow White,
perhaps she has taken up with some owls
found her own karma police
and it is my neck on the line
so off I go in leather soles
and shit-dipped arrows in my bow,
looking for that pale creature
who has upset my queen
and now perhaps has hung me
for letting her go
to feed my favorite sheep
to my queen instead.
What on Earth was I thinking?
You can never disobey the queen!
Always obey the queen
no matter how cruel she seems!
Obey the Queen,
for peace in the kingdom,
and happy hunting in the trees,
obey your queen,
for beauty will not feed you
no matter the pleasure
when it is seen!
This time I will do as I was told:
Snow White’s liver in my skillet
or my life will not be worth
the torture the queen will give it.
Remember the truck in Iceland adorned with my photograph?
Here it is, what every photographer hopes for: my picture within the picture, winding its way around the country and then glimpsed here exactly where it was taken, the threads of your ambition rewarded as a jewel people see on the road and wonder about the place you captured. I took the picture three years ago, and now it is adorned on a truck that travels the Arctic on errands, my photo as the ad on its back, and now the owners of the hotel in Djupavik have caught the truck in passing, exactly where the photo was taken. The bay is in the bay, the fjord leads out to the Norwegian Sea on both the truck and in the fjord that envelopes it. And this would be the time to be there, at this moment, as tourism’s swell dims a bit, and the silent rhythms of the land can be felt in every step and touched in every breeze. The crows circle looking for their free grub, the water laps against the pebbles and shreds the beached steamship, and tonight the wisps of green lights in the sky will become a furious show of turquoise and lavender, as the elves keep an eye on you and your every move: Don’t step on my toes, Stranger, or I will splash you with mischief. Mysteries here are perfectly natural, as we see from the truck bearing its image to the place where it was born, a bit of beauty I took just for me, and is now anyone’s to see. These circles, don’t interrupt them, let them be cycles, so you can see yourself here in the next year or beneath the next moon, instead of this ominous feeling of being marooned, separated from the memories you have vowed to always remember but must admit become a tiny bit flawed by time, that tide of limits, that ruin of life.
The Dotard thinks allegiance to the ideals of the country is to wrap yourself in the flag and be proud to be great. No, motherfucker. Allegiance to the ideas that made this country the fabulous boil of talent that it is means you speak your mind and you let everyone else do the same, and keep god out of it: the blood spilled in our name has often been done in the name of profit for Lockheed Martin and Wall Street and arms manufacturers, but we fight to make sure people are free to do as they please, to speak without censure, to fuck without judgment, and to think with every fiber of your imagination about how to make the Earth prettier and safer than it already is. Keep speaking out. Don’t listen to a coward who wiggled his way out of military service because of bone spurs on his feet. Five times the Dotard shirked his nation’s calling and evaded the draft: four times to get a better education, and once because of those bad feet, despite the fact he played basketball at his military prep school. What was he scared of?
Vietnam! And the enemy watched the protests in America in the 60’s and 70’s and admitted that American life was worthy of their respect: You could defeat the U.S. military in the jungle, but you could never stand up and say what you thought in that society, and the sight of the beatniks raising hell in the USA made many Vietnamese fighters think they were on the wrong side.
In Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s amazing work on PBS about the war in Vietnam, it is obvious that the men who shot at Americans have a lot more respect for American ideals than our president has for himself, much less for anyone else, and certainly not for the country he plunders for profit.
Prouder than ever to be an American, and happy to see the swell of common sense that rises now in alarm at this jackass with his fingers on our trigger. Of course he will pull it: a couple of hundred thousand dead people in Korea won’t matter as long as no bombs sully American soil. Just another opportunity to cash in, he thinks. His fall is coming, fast. But at what cost to Americans? Where once we shined, now we stink of shit.
And a little housekeeping: that million dollars he pledged out of his personal bank account to help out the victims of Harvey, where the fuck is it?
The hand wringing over guns and American violence inflames the media, as usual, and the real criminals go scott-free.
Nobody symbolizes terrorism in America better than a piece of shit named Steve Feinberg. Do you know who he is? You do business with him almost every day, and he more than anyone else allows triggers to be pulled by impotent cowards who have no way of being listened to other than by murdering innocent people.
Feinberg went to Princeton and then to Wall Street, and in those two places learned to buy companies in trouble, where profit is greatest. He has been described as a financial “wunderkind” as he took his hedge fund from assets of $10 million to more than $30 billion. If you shop at a grocery store named Albertsons or Safeway, you’re giving him your business. If you finance your car through GMAC, you’re giving him profit. If you get paid by a government contractor named DynCorp, you’re making Feinberg a bit richer. He’s involved in real estate, of course, as all robber barons are, and in big drugs, transportation, financing, aviation, but in no industry does he exercise as much power as guns. He is a merchant of murder, through a consortium called “The Freedom Group.” Weapons made by Bushmaster and Remington are his products, and he has a stranglehold on Congress that does not allow for any discussion about what to do with our guns.
That’s bad enough. He’s a secretive fellow, and in 2007 told shareholders of his company “If anyone at Cerberus has his picture in the paper and a picture of his apartment, we will do more than fire that person. We will kill him. The jail sentence will be worth it.” He knows that toxic profit is best pursued in the shadows. So when a gunman shot up a small school in Connecticut and killed 20 toddlers in the process and Feinberg’s role in the gun industry was suddenly in the limelight, he did the right thing, he told the public the time had come to get out of guns. I’m editorializing here, because that’s not quite how it happened: teachers in California threatened to pull out their pension fund investments from his portfolio, and there are a lot of teachers in California so that meant losing a lot of assets, which gets the attention of moneysuckers. But Feinberg said he would get out of guns. As soon as he got the right price, he would sell.
This is what people with money do. Al Gore, that famous environmentalist, told his sister he would get the family out of the tobacco business as she lay dying of lung cancer, but he couldn’t do it until the sale was profitable enough, years after she passed away. Money, that fucking rot, renders us inhuman: people who chase it are boring to their core, but do we know when we are chasing it? Does eating sushi and sipping Starbucks mean we chase money? What’s wrong with wanting some comfort in our lives? We live in times of expanding feudalism, but hardly know it since we are plumped up with religion and pornography and sugar and caffeine and smartphones, but it’s not us, not you nor me, who actually pulls the triggers or puts our boot on the necks of the people who do without our pleasures. We eat strawberries, even though we know strawberries in the United States are likely to be picked by women who are raped repeatedly not just on the way north from Oaxaca but in places like Washington and Oregon. Avocados and almonds are also the products of violence and poison. I could go on like this for weeks and weeks without stopping, but you already know it and don’t need to hear it again.
It’s much easier to blame the people in charge. The Dotard, of course, who likes people like Feinberg (who by the way advises the U.S. government on international security issues), and who is a lightning rod for our disgust as he puts his foot in his mouth with every tweet. Or Hillary, in bed with the Saudis, who a few weeks ago decreed that women could drive cars without being whipped for it, though it is still true that the majority of Saudi girls will have their clitorises cut off with razor blades before they become teenagers, in order to make sure they are docile wives and not given to philandering after marriage. We suck up to the Russian mafia to finance our bad business habits, as the Dotard does, or we take cash from the house of Saud, as the Clintons do, and yet still they have the temerity to uphold American ideals as the reason to do business.
But you know all this. You know the gun industry lobbies Congress. But what does that mean? Cash in envelopes? And how much money? How much does it take to buy a Congress member and ensure your wicked products continue to bring you profit? Feinberg and other gun mongers can get their way for peanuts. It is utterly amazing what a few bucks will do.
Last year, the Dotard got almost a million bucks in contributions from gun people. That’s cash, not lobbying money. Direct gifts. Ted Cruz was number two at $360K, followed by Marco Rubio at $176K, and hot on their heels was Paul Ryan at $171K. Ron Johnson, Ben Carson and Paul Rand all got more than $100,000. But go down the list, and the numbers plunge: number 20 on the list only received $40K. This is chump change. And those numbers are inflated because of the general election: I’ll bet my bottom dollar that the amount of cash contributions to Senators and Congress members rises and falls in strict accordance to every shooting done by a “lone wolf”, and right now the grease is hitting the skids on Capitol Hill after Hurricane Mandalay Bay.
Feinberg is still willing to get out of the gun biz, but he wants to make a profit, amen. He turned down one billion for the Freedom Group in 2014. And he knows the longer he waits, the more he’ll make. Those moneyfuckers don’t miss a trick: if they keep selling their poisons, we will keep buying our pleasures.
It’s not up to Congress to change laws to stop impotent terrorists. It’s up to us, the victims, to stop giving our money to the people who directly profit from murder and violence.
I ask the receptionist: “Does Mickey Mouse ever get a hard on?” And she laughs before hanging up on me. The question is not whether Mickey Mouse has balls, but whether or not the illustrators and producers and marketers and packagers who sell these toxic plastic icons to children have any hormones in their bodies. I am in Coronado Springs, and if California to Henry Mitchell was an air-conditioned nightmare, then this place is a neutered hell. Nobody working here knows quite enough about what they are selling to get in an argument with the customer. Sandra thinks the people are really robots who go into sleep mode when you leave their booths or counters. I am making a comparison of public art in four places: the streets of industrial Asheville, the Wynwood District during the rapacious craze of art Basel, when artists and collectors unfortunately meet in a mutual rip off exercise, the national Gallery of Art, and this place, Coronado Springs, the flagship resort of the Walt Disney Corporation, that American scab applied to the world’s wounds of impotent imagination. Needless to say I am having a lot of fun! This is an image of the swimming pool, with its faux Maya style, inoffensively applied to a place that is more Indiana than Mexico, ancient or modern. Fake authenticity! The book comes out on Amazon in 2019 as “Art in Public Places: how decoration, design and derivatives replaced creativity in the collective experience.”
To keep them alive as I remember them, so I might hope that I too will be kept as a memory one day, I spend today thinking about the people I will never see again, my mother anxious about her stolen children, my father never knowing who he was, my uncle Mike who listened to my stories and asked questions so I could learn to be a journalist whenever I needed to be one which has been often, my boss Jaques who called my aunt for a reference and said all he needed to know was if I would steal anything from his store, and the Viking Ingo, who once said to me on a street corner as I described my plans to go north the next morning, “I miss you already,” yes, that’s the only line that matters, I miss you already, a perfect greeting on the day of the dead.
The hotel in Djupavik is not closed for the winter but it might as well be. It is a Viking outpost in the darkness, and a playground for Scandinavians in the midnight sunshine of summer. I do not know how I came here in winter, and I have only been to Djupavik in winter. I come here every time as a rat squeezing past hazard and maze to the reward of the borealis. And to the reward of the world’s most unbelievably perfect natural hot spring, which is not in Djupavik, but nearby, in a location I am sworn to keep secret, sorry.
The hotel was a herring factory for two decades in the middle of the last century, and a huge iron fishing boat lies wrecked on the shore as a warning that the best plans come with booby traps. The factory also is a concrete museum of hardy people working to the bone before failure and abandonment, before concession to the wind and water that cause humans to retreat to lives lived among thermostats and traffic lights. But there are some Vikings who might as well still be on the longboats, probing for a limit, looking for a boundary, for the edge of the Earth where further travel is either impossible or unnecessary.
Djupavik in winter, with its two residents and wooden hotel, is perched on that edge, where the Vikings have admitted their limits. To my friends, I say that I am traveling to the hotel at the end of the world, and my friends smile and nod and some of them point out that I have Norwegian blood, and remind me of the story I tell about my great-grandmother, who left Norway at five years old to live an odd life in Minneapolis and Los Angeles before returning to Oslo for the first time at 91 years old, 86 years later, to have coffee and biscuits with friends and family.
Maybe you don’t have to be a Viking to travel to Djupavik in the dead of winter. But it would help immensely to act like one.
It is that time of year when my thoughts turn to the Arctic. Why am I in the Imperial City, suffering the whims of clients and the banalities of both rush and happy hours? Silence beckons, the wide open blue sky shimmers in my memory, and I imagine myself in the turbulent weather of 66 degrees north, walking the slippery ice and patiently waiting for the northern lights to remind me of the insignificance of everything.
I have vowed I will not go back to Iceland until I have finished my eBook about traveling there in wintertime, and the video below is the sort of content I am gathering for that project, unfinished, as so many of my projects are doomed to remain:
Another year, passed. Where am I with my dead-end literary aspirations? What has been the result of my hermitage?
Another year, passed. Where am I with my dead-end literary aspirations? What has been the result of my hermitage? This piece is from “Light at the End of the World,” my movie about 22 trips to Iceland to shoot the aurora borealis and record my thoughts on our tiny temporary lifetimes. Music is by me and Peter Fox, produced by us and Steve McCormick and Sandra Bishop, with lead vocal by the fabulous Lisa E.