Posts Tagged ‘movies’

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.

Captain Fantastic

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Vito & Todd

Vito & Todd photo by Marcia

“We may divide thinkers into those who think for themselves, and those who think through others. The latter are the rule, and the former the exception.” Arthur Schopenhauer

As the inauguration of Trump fast approaches, many frightened Americans talk of moving to Canada, in much the same way frightened Americans spoke of moving abroad when George Bush became President. But Canada and other safe haven countries only want us these days if we are wealthy or possessed of highly desirable technological skills. Thus we common folk must consider other responses to the new regime.

One vision of a response to the madness currently gripping and deforming American life is the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, a California writer, director, and actor who lives in Berkeley. I mention where he lives because I seriously doubt that a writer/director living in Los Angeles could have written a screenplay as far outside the Hollywood box as Captain Fantastic. That Ross also raised millions of dollars to make this fairly outrageous movie and was able to land a distribution deal resulting in the film turning a profit is nothing short of miraculous.

I will not spoil the film by recounting the plot, but I will say that Captain Fantastic bears some resemblance to the excellent 2003 American film Off the Map, and the dreamy Swiss/Italian 2014 film The Wonders. All three films involve adult couples seeking to live independently of the dominant capitalist paradigm, and each of these movies focuses on the children of those seekers as they collide with the outside world.

I found Captain Fantastic by turns funny and sad and disturbing and uplifting and maddening and deeply moving; and twice during the movie I had to get up and go outside to catch my breath and calm down, but not because the film is violent; it is not, thankfully. Marcia and I have been talking about the movie for several days now, and that alone makes Captain Fantastic a rare American film for us.

Meanwhile, here in the so-called real world, we are facing a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court poised to wreak havoc on our already inadequate healthcare system, dismantle Social Security, remove constraints on industrial pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and enact laws to benefit the wealthy and further punish the beleaguered lower and middle classes as defined by income and assets. These same dangerous people are anti-women, anti-minority, anti-peace, and anti-anybody other than white Christians. And that is why so many people are afraid, and why so many people wish they could leave the country.

“There are three kinds of economist. Those who can count and those who can’t.” Eddie George

I am currently writing a new screenplay, having recently rewritten an old one for a director in Canada. I had not immersed myself in the screenplay form for more than a decade, and the rewrite got those juices flowing again. And though the odds of getting a movie made of anything I write are not quite as good as the odds of winning the national lottery, should I ever buy a ticket, I do enjoy the screenplay form and love imagining the scenes I write coming to life.

Yesterday, under the influence of Captain Fantastic, I read what I’ve written so far of my new screenplay and thought: I wonder if I’m writing this story in lieu of trying to flee the country.

Speaking of fleeing the country, it was recently reported in various mass media outlets that Ford Motor Company was about to spend a couple billion dollars opening a new plant in Mexico. Then President-elect Trump bellowed at Ford for being un-American, Ford cancelled the Mexico plant, and instead says they would invest 700 million dollars in upgrading a Michigan assembly plant. This would reportedly save at least 700 American jobs and give a much-needed boost to the Michigan economy.

Was any of this true? Maybe some of it was sort of true, but probably none of it was true. Ford Motors now says they are proceeding with plans to increase production in Mexico by enlarging their existing facilities there and not opening a new plant. Does this give us more reason to doubt Trump’s credibility? Yes. Ford Motors stated they prefer doing business in Mexico because they feel oppressed by so many federal and state regulations in America having to do with decreasing pollution and increasing safety and requiring the payment of taxes, and they are hopeful that under Trump they won’t have to worry so much about those annoying things.

So what are we common folk to make of all this? I think that henceforth we must assume anything we hear or see or read in the news (not counting really good fiction and neighborhood gossip) is probably not the whole truth, or even part of the truth. Did Donald Trump save 700 jobs in Michigan? Unlikely. Why did Obama expel dozens of Russian diplomats for something that may not have happened? We don’t know. Why are automobile manufacturers still allowed to make cars that run on gasoline? Because unregulated capitalism cares nothing about the environment.

The most popular American movies nowadays are animated films featuring animals behaving like goofy people and speaking English, live-action films set in other galaxies featuring humans with British accents, films about wizards and vampires rife with astonishingly bad dialogue, and films about impossibly strong and violent people who say very little as they run amok. Oh, yes, and films about morons and bimbos are popular, too.

Captain Fantastic is entirely about Now and full of real people dealing with the many and complicated challenges of being human. In this way, the movie reminded me of my favorite movies from the 60s and 70s, movies exploring contemporary society from the perspectives of people for whom the dominant cultural paradigms do not serve—movies about eccentrics and rebels and artists and innovators who are questing, as many of us were in those days, for ways to live healthy and meaningful lives on spaceship earth.

Solar Postage Socialist

Monday, November 21st, 2016

goldens

Goldens photo by Todd

“At a time when the Post Office is losing substantial revenue from the instantaneous flow of information by email and on the Internet, slowing mail service is a recipe for disaster.” Bernie Sanders

I recently sent a little book, not much more than a glorified pamphlet, to Switzerland. The least expensive way to send the little thing was via the Post Office for twenty-three dollars.  Not very many years ago, the postal service offered inexpensive international mail service, but that was eliminated because…

No one seems to know or remember why the slow boat option was eliminated, but I suspect the cessation went hand-in-hand with all the other things Congress, in service to the Evil Ones, did to wreck our once great postal service.

As a cottage industry artist who sells my books and CDs via my web site, and then ships those goodies to lucky buyers, I am grateful for the wonderful and inexpensive Media Mail option offered by our postal service, with free tracking, but I lose several international sales every year because the cost of shipping books and CDs abroad is more than the value of my products. International postage turns a twenty-dollar book into a forty-five dollar book, and a five-dollar CD becomes a fifteen-dollar CD.

Well, Todd, if you’d make your books available as e-books…no, I don’t want to. I understand why large publishers make e-book versions of books, but the books I sell are limited edition, signed and numbered, actual three-dimensional coil-bound books. Original intriguing well-written fiction. What a concept. I rarely sell more than fifty copies of each book, and I rarely make a profit. And with international postal rates being what they are, I rarely sell to people abroad who express interest in my work. Such is modern life.

Speaking of modern life, I’ve been reading about Morocco, specifically the Moroccan government, turning to solar and wind power to free the country from a dependency on imported energy. In just a few more years, Morocco will go from importing 97% of their fuel and electricity to importing less than 50% of their fuel and electricity. This government subsidized conversion is not only creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economy, but eliminating pollution, saving billions of dollars a year and…sounds like socialism to me.

Why can’t we have a massive conversion to solar and wind and tidal power in the United States? And why can’t we have affordable international postage? And why can’t we have Single Payer Healthcare? Well, we can. But we won’t.

Many people I know are still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I find it fascinating that most of these folks see the election of Trump as some sort of wholly unexpected and surprising event, rather than the inevitable conclusion to a long-developing process, the effect of a cause. This has been coming for a long time, and I think it behooves us to look beyond the person who got elected and remember (know) his election is the end result of a long-developing process of privatization and the decimation of our foundational socialist institutions.

Next in line for demolition are Social Security and Medicare. The Evil Ones encountered little resistance to wrecking the postal service, and they are having no trouble stalling the conversion to solar, wind, and tidal power. And now that they control Congress and the Presidency and will soon control the Supreme Court, we will watch them attempt to privatize/destroy Social Security and Medicare. Will we stand by and let them do it? I think we probably will, in the same way we stood by and let them do all the other rotten things they’ve done since 1980.

So now millions of Americans are looking into migrating to Canada to escape the corporate takeover of the United States. Canada, however, does not want Americans moving there and taking advantage of Single Payer Healthcare and other groovy socialist programs that benefit everyone. Create your own socialism, they say, but we won’t.

Ten years ago, I was contacted by a Canadian movie director who wanted to make a movie of my novel Forgotten Impulses, from a screenplay by an American writer, the movie to be set in Canada. The Canadian government was considering funding the project, but after much preliminary excitement, they decided there were too many Americans involved to qualify for Canadian government funding. Darn.

However, a few weeks ago, I was contacted by that same Canadian director, and he said he was interested in making a movie from an original screenplay of mine. He thought if the film was set in Canada and I was the only American involved in the project, perhaps the Canadian film board would this time be open to funding the project. Turned out not to be the case, but for a few days the possibility got me interested in the script again.

And while I worked on the script, I kept wanting to feel excited by the possibility of a movie being made from my screenplay, but after so many near misses with movie producers and publishers over the last thirty years, I found I was far more interested in my latest coil-bound creation that will actually come out into the world and be read by actual people. What a concept.

However, the fact that I was dealing with socialists, as opposed capitalists, gave me a nice tingling feeling—so I let my imagination run wild. I saw myself taking a train to Montreal to watch the filming of my script, the movie became an international sensation (with a cult following in America), and the Canadian government invited me and Marcia to become Canadian citizens so long as I promised that all my future books and screenplays would be set in Canada.

In reality, Trump really did win the election and I’m sending out my annual holiday shopping reminder to my few avid fans, reminding them that no matter how many books and CDs or art cards they purchase, shipping to anywhere in the greater United States will only cost them five bucks. Socialism strikes again.

Favorites

Monday, April 4th, 2016

sunstruck tw

Sunstruck painting by Nolan Winkler

“The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it—bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within earshot went to work.” Rudyard Kipling

Reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling for the tenth time in the last twenty-five years, I’ve been thinking about why this novel and no other of the thousands I’ve read calls to me again and again, and why, again and again, I am enthralled from first word to last.

There are books I loved in my teens and twenties I revisited in middle age—Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Parnassus On Wheels—and a handful of other novels I’ve read a second or third time over the years; but Kim is the only novel I am eager to read again every few years.

This is not a recommendation, however. There was a time when I urged my friends to read Kim and quickly learned that women, for the most part, do not like this book, and some women loathe it. A few men I touted on the book enjoyed the tale, but I was repeatedly cautioned that Kim was out of date, racist, misogynist, and juvenile. Never mind that the writing is exquisite, those charges against the book—none of which I agree with—are prevalent today, so I do not recommend Kim.

One friend suggested I love the book because the character of Kim resonates with some vision of who I imagine I am in relation to the larger world. Perhaps. But I think the greater draw for me is the relationship between Kim and the lama with whom he travels, and through whom he discovers the spiritual side of life. Also, Kim is beloved and revered by not one but four fascinating older men, something I did not experience with my own father or any older man, and I longed for that in my life.

The words in Kim sing to me—glorious prose poetry—else I would not return so often to those pages.

Kim got me thinking about movies I have watched multiple times, as in more than three times, and one movie jumps out before any other: The Horse’s Mouth starring Alec Guinness. I saw the movie when I was eight, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven, thirty-nine, forty-eight, fifty-three, and sixty. And I was enthralled from first frame to last, moved to tears, and greatly inspired each time.

Again, not a recommendation. Having touted this film to many people, I know The Horse’s Mouth is not to everyone’s taste and many women find the movie sexist. Be that as it may, The Horse’s Mouth is still the best film I’ve ever seen about what it is to be an artist of the kind Guinness portrays—a person for whom making art takes precedence over everything else in life. Everything. And the movie is screamingly funny in parts, as well as profoundly moving.

Another film I have seen four times and would gladly watch again tomorrow is Mostly Martha, the German film about a hyper-controlling German chef who is melted out of her emotional isolation by unexpectedly becoming mother to her sister’s young daughter, while having to share her high-end restaurant kitchen with her emotional opposite, a sensual funny guy chef from Italy.

The other food-related film I love and have watched multiple times is The Big Night.

Then there is Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. I have seen this movie at least ten times, from when I was a boy until a couple years ago when I couldn’t resist renting it again. I love everything about this movie. Never gets old for me.

In that same vein: Young Frankenstein.

I once knew a man named Jack who used a particular film as a preliminary test for establishing friendships and relationships. If the man or woman being tested did not like the French film Toto le Hero, Jack would have nothing more to do with the person. If the person being tested had not seen the film, which was usually the case, Jack would screen it for them and judge them according to their reaction.

As it happened, I loved Toto le Hero, but made the mistake of raving about it to many of my friends, and with few exceptions they hated the movie. I did not hold this against them, so some of them remained my friends, whereas Jack had almost no friends. But I understood why he felt as he did. When a movie or book or work of art is precious to us, there is undoubtedly something in the work representative of our feelings and spirit, and so another’s rejection of our favorite can feel like a rejection of us.

I’ve been struggling with this very thing regarding Bernie Sanders. I love Bernie Sanders. Yes, I know. He has this flaw and that flaw and he voted wrong on this and that, and he should be better than he is, but I love him. I have never in my life liked a candidate for President of the United States remotely as much as I like Bernie, and I have a hard time feeling friendly toward people who do not share my love for him. For me, Bernie is the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his opponent the female embodiment of the plutocracy.

Yet some of my favorite people do not love Kim, do not love The Horse’s Mouth, would rather do anything than watch The Court Jester, and do not think Bernie has a chance in hell of unseating the reigning overlords.

But one of the important things I’ve learned from reading Kim ten times is that it is far better to rejoice with others who share our enthusiasms than to waste our precious time feeling bitterly toward those who do not.

Two Good Movies

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

Just Old

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

if my head sinks beneath the sea site

If My Heads Sinks Beneath The Sea painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Samuel Ullman

A friend suggested that the reason I find contemporary American movies and books and plays and music to be largely junk is that I am just old.

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Crosby, and many other older musicians aver that contemporary popular music today is inferior to the popular music of their day, but that’s just because those guys are old.

Every writer I know over fifty decries the deplorable state of writing and editing today, but that’s just because we’re old. And when older poets recoil at the poetry of younger poets whose verses are rife with clichés, void of subtlety, and might be lyrics to rap songs, they are recoiling because they are just old.

If you ask young people about the movies of today, they will name dozens of films they think are light years better than movies we thought were great when we were younger. Young people are certain I cannot see and hear and understand what they are seeing and hearing and understanding because my eyes and ears and mind are just old, and they might be right about that, though I don’t like to think so.

My mother plugged her ears and shouted, “Turn that off!” when she caught nine-year-old me listening to Ray Charles. Maybe Mom was just old. She liked The Mills Brothers and Artie Shaw, and so did I, but she didn’t like Sam and Dave and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield because she was stuck in the musical aesthetics of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Little.

“Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.” Andy Serkis

I am sixty-five-years-old at last count. Depending on your view of things, I am middle-aged, old, or real old. Yes, contemporary cultural aesthetics are in constant flux, and yes, I am not enamored of most of the latest fluctuations. However, my estrangement from American culture did not begin when I qualified for Medicare and Social Security. No, my disaffection began when I was in the prime of my life, otherwise known as my twenties and thirties, and coincided with the lightning-fast conquest of America’s publishing industry by a few massive, politically conservative, morally bankrupt multi-national corporations.

To echo Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds in the publishing business fired by soulless corporate operatives and replaced by Yes people who only follow orders from the unimaginative number-crunchers above them, those orders being: publish books exactly like the books we already know sell lots of copies. Do not buy anything that might be too sophisticated for a poorly educated ten-year-old. Buy nothing remotely original. And only consider things sent to you by literary agents who agree to follow these same orders.

That merciless corporate blitzkrieg of America’s publishers began circa 1972 and the conquest was complete by 1980. Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think this takeover was part of a conscious effort by the ruling elite to snuff out the fires started in the counter-culture renaissance known as The Sixties, with the election of Ronald Reagan a direct result of their coup d’état.

Publishing was not the only branch of our cultural tree thoroughly infected by the corporate fungus during that same decade. Record companies, movie studios, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks were also conquered and gutted by the same multinational consortium, and we have lived in a culture shaped and controlled by this mind-numbing corporatocracy ever since.

I don’t hold this view of history because I am just old, but because I experienced this cultural takeover firsthand when I was a young and successful writer and screenwriter. When I refused to acquiesce to the new cultural guidelines imposed by the recently installed corporate managers, my career was effectively ended.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Before I was just old, I founded the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. Every summer for five years, my faculty and I would greet the fifty young writers we had selected from many hundreds of applicants, and we would invariably discover that all these bright young people were starving for something to read other than Anne Rice or Stephen King or To Kill A (expletive deleted) Mockingbird. I use the word starving because the nincompoops running our schools in collusion with the corporate overlords intentionally deprived those young people of varied, original, challenging and nourishing literature.

One of our first acts of compassion for these bright young people was to give them long reading lists of our favorite novels, short story collections, plays, and non-fiction works, as well as the names of hundreds of excellent writers and poets, most of those authors dead or just old. And for this simple gift of sharing the names of books and writers we admired, we were looked upon by our young peers as angels descended from heaven to end the vapidity of their cultural experiences.

Now that I am just old, I sometimes delude myself, just for fun, by imagining another totally neato renaissance happening in my lifetime. Or maybe, as a friend who is also just old opined, “The renaissance is always here, but like a whale, she dives deep for food and we can’t see her most of the time unless we happen to be watching when she comes up for air.”

Earth Of Foxes

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

earth of foxes

Fox Kit photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2013)

“‘Men have forgotten this truth,’ said the fox. ‘But you must not forget it. You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.’” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“The baby foxes are here again,” says Marcia calling to me from her studio across the hallway from my office.

We have a large old plum tree growing on the north side of our house, and in this first year of our residency the tree has gifted us with several hundred sweet red plums, which are ambrosia to deer, appealing to squirrels, and irresistible to a trio of baby foxes who visit the tree daily, scampering around in the branches like monkeys and going way out on the spindly limbs to get at the fruit. There is nothing I would rather do than stand in our living room and watch these tiny foxes, aptly called kits, climbing around in our plum tree doing their utmost to reach the sugary orbs.

Speaking of aptly named, the little canids have inspired me to read a bit about foxes, and among the many things I’ve learned about these delightful creatures is that one of the names for a group of foxes is an earth of foxes. Other expressions for gangs of foxes are a skulk of foxes, a leash of foxes, and a troop of foxes, but I much prefer an earth of foxes for the implication of what the earth once was and might be again if only humans would stop fracking and over-populating and despoiling everything.

Where did the expression an earth of foxes come from? According to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary, one of the definitions of earth is the underground lair of an animal. Since a fox den can also be called an earth, and since almost all groups of foxes are composed of family members, it would follow that a group of foxes emerging from the same earth within the earth might poetically be called an earth of foxes.

“All the intelligence and talent in the world can’t make a singer. The voice is a wild thing. It can’t be bred in captivity. It is a sport, like the silver fox. It happens.” Willa Cather

Curious about Willa Cather’s use of the word sport in the above quote, I looked up the word and found she used sport to mean a surprising mutation, an animal that deviates markedly from its parent stock.

We have been trying to think of a good name for our two-acre homestead ever since we moved here nine months ago, but nothing struck a loud and unanimous chord until the baby foxes arrived and we realized there is an earth nearby where the little cuties were born. Given that our house and land sit in something of a hollow, we have settled on the name Fox Hollow, which, if not particularly original, sounds just right to us.

Speaking of foxes in the plum tree, Marcia has now produced twenty jars of delectable plum jam from plums that the foxes, squirrels, and deer were unable to reach before I picked them. The labels on the jars read Fox Hollow Plum Jam, July 2013, Marcia & Todd. What a tree! Who knew? Well, the deer and the squirrels and the foxes knew, and now we know, too.

 “It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” Andy Warhol

When I was a little boy and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I usually answered cowboy or dump truck driver. I pronounced cowboy gowboy and dump truck drive dump twuck dwivoo. When I was twelve-years-old I saw Jacques Cousteau’s then-amazing movie The Silent World and became so enamored of Monsieur Cousteau and his oceanic adventuring that I decided to become a marine biologist. By sixteen I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer musician actor movie director, but in order to appease my parents who disapproved of such frivolity I told them and their inquiring friends that I wanted to be an anthropologist. I then dutifully majored in Anthropology during my brief stay in college, though I spent most of my time at UC Santa Cruz playing basketball, throwing the Frisbee, and writing poetry and short stories.

When I left the womb of academia and parental support, I began to write novels and practice the art of screenwriting. I was an avid moviegoer and considered seeing movies on the big screen a fundamental part of my life, not only because I was an aspiring moviemaker, but because the great movies of the 1960’s and 70’s were exciting and inspiring myths that helped fuel the counter culture in that revolutionary time. A Thousand Clowns, If, King of Hearts, Coming Home and dozens of other popular motion pictures gave us fascinating stories and compelling visions of men and women stepping away from the suffocating conventions of the old world order into much less restricted lives, an ethos that rejected militarism and stifling sameness and sexism and racism, while promising…well, we would find out!

I was determined to carry on the great tradition of humanist film artists who used this most powerful medium to show us possible ways we might live and relate to each other more lovingly and creatively as we roamed the cosmos on spaceship earth. Movies, the ones I loved and the ones I aspired to make, were heart-opening visions of personal change and resurrection starring all kinds of different kinds of people shaking off the powerful controls of their selfish lizard brains to escape the clutches of our violent greedy lizard-brained society and become emotionally, psychically and sexually liberated lovers with great senses of humor who walked lightly and tenderly upon the blessed earth.

As you undoubtedly have noticed, the lizard-brained humanoids who now control mainstream media as well as most of the side streams, no longer allow movies modeling social revolution and sharing the wealth and living lightly on the earth and rejecting materialism and embracing gender and racial equality into your nearby multiplex or onto your television screen or computer screen or phone screen. No, the movies we are allowed to see today are the quantum opposite of those movies we went to in the 1960’s and 70’s and inspired many of us to break away from the deadly gray sameness and stultifying hierarchies that ruled America in the 1950’s.

When my first novel Inside Moves was published in 1978 and was subsequently made into a film, I made the erroneous assumption that more of my novels and screenplays would soon become movies, too. But while two other works of mine, Forgotten Impulses and Louie & Women came tantalizingly close to being filmed, nothing more of mine has ever (yet) reached the silver screen or any other sort of screen.

However, despite the twenty-year delay in selling my growing stack of novels and screenplays, I have continued to write scripts and books I think will make fabulous movies. Indeed, just last week, hungering as I often do for a good new movie, and finding nothing of the kind to eat, I put on a little film festival and read five of my screenplays in three days, watching those movies on my mind screen as I turned the pages. Wow! They were exactly the kinds of movies I long to see. No wonder I wrote them.

Having made a multi-year study of the current movie scene by watching movie trailers on my computer, while skipping hundreds of trailers for horror movies, I know perfectly well why none of my scripts and stories have yet to attract anyone with sufficient clout and cash to make them. My movies are not about super heroes, vampires, zombies, murderers, gangsters, morons, aliens, bimbos, or materialistic narcissists and amoral sociopaths and their hapless victims. They do not feature painfully shallow dialogue, car chases, massive gunfire and explosions, the constant objectification of women, gratuitous violence, or toilet jokes. Instead, they model challenging funny sad dangerous transits through and away from the emptiness of self-serving separateness into the emotional and spiritual fullness that manifests when we share our wealth, whatever our wealth may consist of.

Our plum tree would make a perfect recurring symbol in a movie I long to see. The leafless branches in winter giving way to the nascent buds of early spring leading to the fabulous eruption of blooms followed by the coming of the leaves, the fruit, the green orbs turning yellow and finally red, the myriad creatures sharing the fabulous bounty of the earth—a little fox balanced on the branches at the very top of the tree and dropping plums down to his runty sibling—thunder sounding in the distance on this fabulous earth of foxes.

Todd’s novel Inside Moves is now available in a beautiful new paperback edition at Gallery Books in Mendocino and at Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah and online from all the usual suspects.

War On Global Warming

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

War Warm

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Winston Churchill

You have no doubt heard the sobering news that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million, a concentration last seen on earth three million years ago. This means that widespread climatic disasters of heretofore unimaginable magnitude are now a virtual certainty and there is little hope of keeping global temperatures from rising to deathly levels, and soon. Indeed, many scientists think there is no hope of keeping earthly temperatures below those deathly heights.

But if there is any hope of turning things around, only a concerted global effort will do the trick, with everyone on earth doing his and her part to help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. However, as of this writing most people and governments and corporations have shown little or no interest in working to reduce the production of greenhouse gases by swiftly and dramatically reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, which entirely underpin our systems of energy production and transportation and agriculture and manufacturing and just about everything that goes on in the so-called civilized world.

Why not? Why aren’t people and governments and corporations working day and night to turn things around when our very existence depends on such a turnaround? I think it is because the imminent threat to our very existence has not been made clear in terms we, all of us, both understand and resonate with. Saying that some invisible gas has reached 400 parts per million doesn’t mean anything to most people, just as saying the bankers and Wall Street crooks recently stole trillions of dollars from the American people doesn’t mean anything to most people. Parts per million of what? How could people steal trillions of dollars and not get caught?

“Western civilization is a loaded gun pointed at the head of this planet.” Terence McKenna

As a watcher of movie trailers on my computer, I have noticed over the last few years that nearly all the new huge budget movies are about people with super powers or super weaponry fighting super dark forces threatening to destroy the earth. In Harry Potter, Star Trek, Avatar, Star Wars, Oblivion, After Earth, Superman, Iron Man, Spider Man, Thor, The Avengers, Transformers, GI Joe, on and on, the super violent good guys battle super violent bad guys, with the fate of earth literally hanging in the balance. I have zero interest in seeing these movies, but isn’t it fascinating that they are by far the most popular movies of our time? I visited a web site that ranks the most successful movies ever made, and with few exceptions the top one hundred movies are all about super people fighting super forces of evil.

I was complaining to my brother about the virtual non-existence of any American movie made in the last many years that I care to see (not counting documentaries) and in my complaint I mentioned the overwhelming redundancy of these good versus evil super hero war movies. To which my brother replied, “Well, that’s the dominant myth that has been running the world, so to speak, for thousands of years—wars of good versus evil fought by larger-than-life male heroes and anti-heroes. We have been entrained for thousands of years to look at everything through the mythic lens of war, which is why we are so easily manipulated into supporting the War on Drugs, the War on Terrorism, the War on…”

And then it hit me: the way to get people to actively participate in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to declare a War on Global Warming. We must change the terminology, anthropomorphize global warming and climate change and make them our enemies. Remember the millions of victory gardens Americans planted to help win World War II? Why not revive the victory garden concept and add to it victory solar power cooperatives, victory car pools, victory mass transit, victory city planning, victory insulation, victory everything. The War on Global Warming could be the next big thing in American and global politics.

“Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” Gary Snyder

My fellow Americans, I am here to tell you that the enemies of the American way of life, of life itself, need carbon to fuel their anti-life forces and super heat the planet to kill us all. But if we can cut off their carbon supply, they are doomed. Don’t you see? Those evil forces feed on carbon. If we deny them their food, they will be powerless against us. And if you elect me to Congress, I will make sure that the War on Global Warming is fully funded. Heck, we spent at least six trillion dollars fighting useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The least we can do is spend that much to defeat the anti-life forces threatening our existence today.

How much is a trillion dollars in terms of our War on Global Warming? For a trillion dollars we could put twenty-thousand-dollar solar energy systems on fifty million houses, and for three trillion dollars we could solarize the entire nation and reduce the cost of electricity to such a low level that electric vehicles and electric transportation systems and electric heating and cooling systems would render the use of fossil fuels obsolete in America. We gave the too-big-to-fail banks several trillion dollars to bail them out in 2008-2009, so don’t tell me we can’t find the do-re-mi to solarize the nation and completely revolutionize the economy.

“What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Henry David Thoreau

I pitched my War on Global Warming idea to my savvy friend Rico and he said, “Several problems. First, in all those popular super hero war movies and in all media driven real wars we see our enemies. Your global warming anti-life forces are invisible. That’s a big problem. Second, in all those movies and in real wars, the main thing we do is kill each other. That’s what excites people, men especially. Men love weaponry, firepower, jets, tanks, explosions; and all those things require fossil fuels that cause global warming. Hate to burst your bubble, pal, but solar panels and car pools and vegetable gardens and walking to town and riding bikes and insulation and recycling and buying less and buying local just aren’t very sexy. Know what I mean?”

“I do. But what if we characterize the anti-life forces as carbon-sucking vampires? Young people would love that.”

“Can we see the carbon-sucking vampires? Can they kill us directly or only by sucking on our tailpipes and furnaces? Can they be killed with some sort of death ray or light saber or by muscular men blowing things to smithereens?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Then it won’t work. People need to see the enemy, or think they see them. And they need simple solutions. Kill bad guys before bad guys kill us.”

“So how do you think we can make the War on Global Warming work?”

“It has to be sexy,” said Rico. “And in America sexy means lucrative. Can people strike it rich fighting global warming?”

“Well, in Germany the government makes it easy for regular people to sell surplus solar energy for nice profits, and some solar and wind cooperatives…”

“I’m yawning,” said Rico. “This is not sexy. I’m losing interest.”

“What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister? Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her.” Jim Morrison

I still think it’s a good idea, the War on Global Warming, but perhaps women will have to take the lead on this one. Remember how in Lysistrata the heroine convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers until the men agree to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the big war raging at that time? Perhaps if we could persuade millions of American and Chinese and European women not to have sex with their husbands or lovers unless those men take an active role in the war on global warming and…

But the problem there is that women consume as much energy as men and are just as reluctant as men to make changes in their lifestyles and to actively work to reverse…

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Walt Kelly

How about this? What if we create a volunteer army of people dedicated to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases? An army of global coolers with a motto—It’s so cool to be a Cooler—displayed on T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards, and featured in the catchy chorus of the Global Coolers theme song. Weekly meetings and educational forums and potlucks and tree plantings and solar barbecues and acoustic dances and parades and solar panel installation work parties will be held to making cooling the planet enjoyable and exciting, and to bring Coolers up to speed on the latest technological, political and economic strategies available to accelerate both personal and societal actions to combat global warming.

And here’s the really cool part about this volunteer army: members will wear totally cool turquoise and burgundy pants and long-sleeved shirts and windbreakers, and totally groovy sun hats with fabulous insignias that identify wearers of such clothing as Coolers, soldiers in the local national global army dedicated to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases pronto. The army will be funded by every Cooler and Cooler-friendly business tithing ten per cent of his or her or their income to the cause, along with generous grants from Google, Microsoft, Oracle, myriad movie stars, groovy billionaires, and eventually the governments of the world.

Indeed, being an active Cooler will be so sexy that women will feel silly being with any man who is not a Cooler, and men will feel weird being with any woman who is not a Cooler. And, of course, nobody in his or her right mind is going to run for elected office if he or she isn’t a renowned and heroic Cooler with the requisite groovy clothes and hat, a totally solar home, an electric car or no car, and so on. Thus the Coolers will take over local state national and global governments, enact appropriate legislation and…voila, just like that we turn things around.

Creative Paradox

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
garth hagerman

Photo by Garth Hagerman

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Nadia Boulanger

During the four years in the early 1990’s when I ran the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I oversaw the work of two hundred teenaged writers and worked intimately with fifty of those talented scribblers. Three of the two hundred were, in my estimation, brilliant and original and highly accomplished writers; yet these three were so deeply introverted I predicted they would never succeed as professional writers. Sadly, so far, my prediction has proved true. In the publishing world of today, ambition entirely trumps talent, and believe it or not, ambitious imitators rule the narrow roost of your favorite bookstore, independent or otherwise.

We recently watched the first two-thirds of Robert Altman’s excruciatingly painful film Vincent and Theo about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo—two-thirds of the movie being all we could bear, and even at that I was an emotional wreck. Whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of the real Van Gogh, the movie conveys the very real suffering that many visionary artists feel in the absence of lasting emotional connections to other people and society, emotional connections these artists desperately want to make through their art. Yet because society is largely a manifestation of well-established perceptions and carefully regulated protocols for the presentation of those perceptions, most creative introverts are doomed to commercial failure unless they are rescued through the intervention of a sympathetic agent (catalyst) in the body of a functional extrovert.

The few moderate successes of my own writing career occurred because of the divine efforts of an extraordinary literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, the likes of which no longer exist, for she was wholly concerned with quality and originality, while caring not a whit about commerciality or the emotional idiosyncrasies of her clients. When Dorothy died, I was left to my own devices, which, for the most part, proved unacceptable to corporate operatives who care not a whit for quality and originality, and care only about their bottom lines showing large profits.

We want to think those elegant hardbacks awaiting us on the New Arrivals table at our favorite bookstore are the cream of a diverse cultural crop, the work of artists and original thinkers, but this is rarely true, for the source of nearly all of these books is corporate fascism, the antithesis of everything we wish our culture to be. Thus the most original of our writers and musicians and artists survive on the fringes of our cultural mix and remain largely unknown to you or to me or to anyone, save for a few friends, if they are fortunate to have friends.

This systemic isolation of original artists has probably existed since the dawn of urban life, when for the first time in human evolution large numbers of people came to live together in relatively small geographical areas. Certainly without the untiring efforts of Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother and agent and only friend, we never would have received the enduring gift of Van Gogh’s genius. And because in the course of my life I have been fortunate to read the unpublished work of a handful of contemporary geniuses that few others will ever read, I assume there are thousands of such writers and artists toiling away in anonymity; which assumption brings to mind the cultivation of carrots and how of the several hundred seedlings that sprout in the carrot patch only a lucky few will survive the seemingly random act of thinning so they may attain full carrotness, with only the rarest of carrots attaining carrot magnificence.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

Having published ten books with nine different gargantuan publishing houses, eight works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, and having had essentially the same dreadful experience with each of these corporate behemoths, I, the former Executive Oddball of the International Order of Barely Functional Introverts, finally decided to embark on the path of a self-publisher. Succeed or not, I would at least have some small control over my creations (if only to be in charge of hiding them); and best of all I would never again have to watch as my years and years of toil were relegated to the trash heap with the wave of some moron’s hand, before or shortly after what should have been publication days of joy and celebration.

Though it may seem incredible, even unbelievable, to those unfamiliar with mainstream American publishing, the entire system has, for over forty years, been based on the buying and publishing of thousands of books every fiscal quarter with the foreknowledge that most of these books will be intentionally killed before or shortly after their official dates of publication. How could such a bizarre system have taken hold in a field that most people still think of as a creative part of our cultural framework? A thorough explanation of how this self-annihilating practice came to be would fill a fat volume, but I will use the brief tale of one of my own books as an example of how the system operates.

In 1995, having gone nearly a decade since publishing my fourth novel, I sold my fifth, Ruby & Spear, to Bantam for a 25,000 dollar advance. A rousing contemporary myth, Ruby & Spear is about an impetuous white sports writer, Vic, and his adventures with a fabulous black basketball player named Spear, a sexy feminist named Greta, and Spear’s tough old mystical grandmother Ruby. When they purchased Ruby & Spear, Bantam was owned by Random House, which in turn had been swallowed by a massive multinational corporation that now owns most of the previously freestanding publishing houses in America. In truth, there are only three gigantic publishers left in America, each masquerading as several publishing houses, each in reality a tiny division of a multinational behemoth.

Why did Bantam buy Ruby & Spear? I would like to say it was because their editors and sales people were eager to bring forth an entertaining literary gem; but that would be untrue. Bantam bought Ruby & Spear because they were guessing (gambling) that the movie rights to the book would be optioned for the movies before the book was published, which optioning would result in thousands of dollars of free publicity for the book; and if, indeed, a movie of Ruby & Spear was made there would be millions of dollars of free publicity. Bantam hoped the book might be sold to the movies because another of my novels, Forgotten Impulses, was on the verge of being made into a major motion movie, and because my first novel Inside Moves had been made into a film during the Pleistocene, which film caused many copies of that book to be sold.

But when Forgotten Impulses was ignominiously dropped by the movie people, and that dropping coincided with a few stupid studio execs complaining that Ruby & Spear was strangely void of violence and chock full of strong complex women and atypical men (and it wasn’t set in either New York or Los Angeles, but in Oakland, for godsake!) Bantam decided not to bring out a hardback version (ending hope of widespread reviews); and then they decided to kill the paperback edition on publication day.

To kill a book, a publisher declares the tome out-of-print and ceases distribution before that book has a chance to live. This is the fate of the vast majority of books published by large publishers, and is especially the fate of literary fiction, a rare kind of writing that does not fit into any obvious target genre such as murder mystery, sci-fi, teen vampire, adult vampire, teen wizard, or bodice-ripping historical romance. 25,000 dollars, to a corporation making most of its billions from strip mining and manufacturing cell phones and buying and selling governments, is not much of a gamble, so….

So here I am, an introverted self-publisher, my first two self-published books winners of multiple independent publishing awards, yet almost no bookstores in America carry my books, and that includes those revered independent bookstores. Why? Simple. Many people who buy books have seen and heard myriad advertisements for the latest bodice-ripping historical vampire fantasy, and many of these same people enjoyed the previous seven volumes in that marvelous series, so they very much want to read the latest regurgitation; and they have not heard of Buddha In A Teacup or Under the Table Books, nor have the bookstore people heard of my unclassifiable tomes, neither of which contains a single vampire, though both volumes are mysteriously sensual. Thus we live with the painful irony that independent bookstores generally carry only the most popular mainstream gunk because they don’t have the shelf space for (or the knowledge of) less popular books.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

Long ago I had supper with one of the most powerful publishers in America who happened to be married at the time (ever so briefly) to the editor of one of those novels I published in the Pleistocene. And when this famous publisher was nicely lit after downing a few goblets of breathtakingly expensive wine, she raised her glass and proclaimed, “Every book that really deserves to be published eventually does get published.”

And though from a career-building point of view I should have raised my glass and cried, “Hear, hear!” instead I retorted, “Methinks you are rationalizing the actions of unscrupulous corporations,” which only made her hostile. Oops. Silly me.

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Gazing back thirty-five years through the telescope of hindsight, I realize that my editor’s wife, a great and powerful publisher (who was just a person, after all) was giving voice to what we all fervently want to believe, which is that great new creations will eventually find their ways into the lives of more than a few lucky people. And I think we harbor this belief in the inevitable ascendancy of excellent original art (which hasn’t been the case for thousands of years) because for most of human evolution, when our kind were much fewer and farther between, when we lived in bands and tribes and everyone knew everyone else, that when a good new creation came along, that song or story or painting or dance or myth or spear or drum or flute stood out like the only black horse in a herd of white horses, or vice-versa, so there was no way the glorious thing could be overlooked.

3-D

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

As the local and state and national and global economies continue to stagger under the weight of debt, real and imagined, and seven billion hungry humans vie for space and food and air and water on the besieged planet, and the Haves continue their eternal battle with the Have Nots, Hollywood has, in the last few years, been rescued from financial ruin by the advent of huge budget movies made in 3-D to be shown in special 3-D theaters and on special 3-D screens for audiences wearing special 3-D glasses. Yes, it was a close call. People weren’t going to the movies much anymore, preferring to wait to watch the junky new films at home for pennies on the dollar or pirating them off the interweb. Why drive to a multiplex and pay a small fortune to see crap when that crap can be delivered right to your doorstep, so to speak, like bad pizza?

But crap in 3-D is amazing. 3-D crap looks fifty times more real (and better) than real crap. And little kids, the second largest engine of movie ticket sales after kids slightly older than little kids, love 3-D, probably because their brains aren’t fully formed yet and the impact of watching massive multi-dimensional animated penguins and cartoon characters and toys and gigantic super heroes killing and killing and killing and everything exploding and mutant robots eating buildings is equivalent to multiple orgasms in adults. I don’t know. I’m not a little kid anymore, so I’m just guessing about the multiple orgasm comparison. But Hollywood knows very well the effect of 3-D on children and adults, and they can’t crank out this 3-D crank fast enough. I’ve only watched previews of 3-D movies on my computer since I don’t get out much anymore, but let me tell you, once you’ve seen a preview for a 3-D movie (even without the special glasses or special 3-D home movie screens that are selling like hotcakes and currently rescuing the electronics industry), non-3-D movie previews are pathetic. Soon, I predict, even low budget films will be made in 3-D. Or maybe even 4-D.

Despite my contempt for mainstream American cinema, not to mention American culture, I am currently a fanatical fan of 3-D reality because for the first time since I was a little kid, I have excellent vision in both eyes without the aid of glasses. Yesterday I walked on Big River Beach and I might as well have been inside a 3-D movie—everything was so amazingly multi-dimensional and beautiful and clear. The waves rolling in and crashing on the shore were more amazing and multi-dimensional than any waves I’d ever seen. Ditto the sea gulls, the clouds, the sand, the stones, the seaweed, the dogs, the earth and sky.

I walk outside and the huckleberries on the bushes are so round and blue and obviously real that I want to eat them. So I do. I understand the appeal of 3-D on a visceral level now, and I thank the laser gods for this miracle of clear vision with nary a frame around that clarity.

My mother was extremely nearsighted and three of her four children inherited that trait. My sister Kathy got our father’s eagle eyes and was thereby spared the shame and ignominy that befell my other siblings and I when we first wore our glasses at school. Indeed, I first heard the word Homo used as an epithet in reference to my wearing glasses. I was in the Seventh Grade in 1960, in northern California no less, when Homo was flung at me; and I did not yet know what a homo was. The little cartons of milk we bought at lunchtime in the cafeteria were labeled Homo, so at first I thought the slur might have something to do with dairy products. I soon learned what Homo meant and thereafter got into several bloody fights defending my honor and heterosexuality.

For some years in the 1970’s my mother was a Special Education teacher in East Palo Alto where the little boys and girls, especially the boys, who had to wear glasses were routinely harassed and beaten up for wearing glasses; and those precious and expensive glasses were often stomped to bits by the thugs assaulting the nearsighted ones. Indeed, many of my mother’s students were having trouble in school precisely because they could not see the blackboard and were afraid to wear their glasses or let anyone know their vision was weak. My glasses were never stomped on, but they were frequently snatched from my face so I had to chase down my abusers to get them back.

I was an excellent and highly competitive athlete in junior high and high school, and the prejudice against those of us who wore glasses was so profound that our coaches frequently started lesser athletes ahead of us. It seemed clear that these fools would rather lose games than feature athletes who wore glasses, probably because the coaches feared the derision and scorn of opposing coaches. I was on the second string basketball team as a consequence of my spectacles, as were two other superior players, and at practice scrimmages we so routinely dominated the starting team that even the starters lobbied our moronic coach for our promotion.

I have been told that things are better for myopic kids today, in part because a number of high profile celebrities beloved by the young, including Justin Timberlake, wear glasses in public. Contact lenses have improved greatly since the 1960’s and are more affordable now. Laser treatments for nearsightedness are common, and young athletes undergo such procedures routinely now.

I used to wonder why there was such a fierce prejudice against children who wore glasses, though not so ferocious an antipathy to adults who wore glasses. Certainly the wearing of glasses still got a person classified as a geek in college in the 1960’s and 70’s, but the violent animosity we experienced in childhood seemed to largely fade away by the time I was in my early twenties. I thought this prejudice must be genetic and have to do with the ability to survive in the caves and jungles of prehistoric times when being among the fittest must have included having excellent eyesight to avoid being eaten by lions or killed by snakes and other aggressive humans.

I theorized that the priests and shamans of ancient times were nearsighted people who figured out that the way to survive with lousy eyesight in a ruthless world was to invent captivating myths and fiery hocus pocus to harness the strength and loyalty of stupid people with good eyesight. And to this day I note that many of the smarter people in positions of power around the world wear glasses.

When I was twenty-three I got contact lenses for the first time, and a fascinating thing happened to me, a thing as fantastic as my walking on Big River Beach yesterday and feeling like I was inside a 3-D movie. And that fascinating thing was that women took notice of me as never before, so that for the first time in my life I was perceived to be, relatively speaking, a hunk. By the age of twenty-three, however, I was hardwired to think of myself as unattractive and unworthy of the attention of any woman I found attractive. I had been rejected by innumerable women I felt sure would have loved me if only they could have seen past my glasses. Which is to say I was wholly unprepared for the invitations, both subtle and overt, that came my way once I was no longer seen as a four-eyed nerd, if seen at all.

One woman who chased me down, literally, had theretofore shunned me as if I wore visible proof of leprosy. I can still vividly recall lying in bed with her in a post-you-know-what haze, marveling that such a gorgeous gal had not only consented but emphatically insisted we make love, when she said without a trace of guile, “Yeah, when I saw you without glasses I thought, ‘Better grab that fox quick before somebody else does.’”

It was true: when I wore glasses I was invisible, sexually and otherwise, to most women, and when I did not wear glasses, many women saw me in 3-D and wanted to learn more about me. And I do think that phenomenon is primal and about choosing a sperm donor and meat provider in those ancient times when our genetic infrastructure evolved. A man who cannot see might make a baby who cannot see, and will certainly not see the scorpion coming to sting us, or throw his spear as well as that big ugly guy named Eagle Eye. And so…

I was married in 1984 to a bright, ambitious woman. A year into our marriage, I was struck in the eye by an errant tennis ball going a hundred miles an hour and thereafter found it impossible to continue wearing contact lenses. And so I began wearing glasses again full time, which prompted my wife to say, “You know, I don’t think I would have given you a second look if you’d been wearing glasses when we met.”

Which brings me back to 3-D being the salvation of Hollywood and all the rage this holiday season. I wonder if our current version of human society, our hyper-technical, digital, staring-at-screens reality has attained such a high degree of unnaturalness that our inner human, the one that evolved as a naked ape in those times before agriculture and electricity, so deeply craves the feeling of being alive as we evolved to be alive, that 3-D, in powerful visceral synapse-stimulating ways, connects us to how we once perceived this miraculous world. I wonder this because as I walk down the hall or write these words or pull carrots or watch Marcia read the newspaper, and I do so with clear stereoscopic vision for the first time in my life, I feel much better equipped to do what I’m doing, not to mention more excited about doing it.