It was 20 years ago today, Ed Lowry taught the gang to play.
Working on the third story of a building with huge glass windows in Boston in the early Seventies still serves as the ideal illustration for the possible depth of my personal depression. During the winter it started getting dark at 3:30pm and was soon pitch black out. Which was bad but not the worst, which was when the ground was iced over, there was a fierce snowstorm, and it was already dark at 3:30. This meant getting home was going to be a nightmare as the public transit system was almost certain to be breaking down at many points. Which meant waiting, hoping the problem was being solved, then giving up and walking. Waiting as the freezing snow cut through your nervous system; walking as the wind whipped in from the harbor with its speed significantly amped as it went racing through the artificial wind tunnels created by block after block of multistory office and apartment buildings. Wave after wave of tiny ice-cold razors massacred pedestrians. Now I'm not even beginning to suggest this was the worst time in my life or the most terrible thing to ever happen to me, not by a long shot. But the visceral memory of staring out the window into the dark, knowing what was to come yet hopeless to avoid the torture, even in memory, still metaphorically defines just how empty my life can be with a total lack of possibilities for change.
I was thinking of that today, Tuesday, with the sky dark (though in a way I love, not dread) and the drizzle braiding it. In general, no one has ever accused me of paying too much attention to detail, and I manage to float through life somewhat obliviously, often losing track of all time, not just days but months and years.
Yesterday Marge Baumgarten reminded me that it was 20 years ago this week that Ed Lowry died. Marge had been at Monument Valley for the Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow Tour presentation of Once Upon a Time in the West. To be in Monument Valley is not just to think of Ed, with his passion for John Ford, who shot so many films there, but to be with him in the most profound ways. Thinking of this, of Marge and Monument Valley, of watching the never-ending desert sky above while Leone's brilliant reinvention of the Western screened was not a rational activity but one of drenching emotions and memories. Then the rush of the events of that October came pouring over me. Gasping for breath, drowning not in the drizzle but in the torrents.
An aside here, not really a flashback but more a consideration of events past: There is a remarkable new documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which played at SXSW 2005 Film and is currently making the festival rounds, set for a 2006 theatrical release. The film relates the emotionally complex story of Johnston, capturing his genius, his history, and the consequences of his illness. The filmmakers worked on the film for a number of years and made several visits to Austin to research, shoot footage, and conduct interviews.
Being very involved with Daniel to varying degrees over the years, I was interviewed. Almost as soon as we started I discovered that my memory was completely out of whack for dates, the order in which things happened, and even where certain things occurred. For example, for the life of me I couldn't find the place along Waller Creek on the UT campus where a few days before Christmas 1986, we pulled Daniel out of the water, turning him over to the UT police, who committed him for the first time.
I was absolutely dependent on the director's extensive notes to get the framing details right remember these are details of things that happened to me. I remembered the dynamics, essences, reverberation, and emotional conflicts, but not the dates.
This worried me, so working with old issues of the Chronicle I began to create an informal chronology charting some of the more important times. When I got to October 1985, I couldn't believe and certainly didn't remember that so many life-impacting, even Austin-changing events happened within a few brief weeks (see Appendix 1 on p.10).
The Chronicle was published on a biweekly schedule then, we were all broke, most of us not just financially but emotionally. The Chronicle, which had just started its fifth year of publication, was taking its toll on all of us. In the issue of Oct. 18, 1985, there is a notice in a small box in the "Public Notice" section on p.4 (of a 44-page issue).
It begins, "As soon as we get this issue to the printer, about half of the Chronicle staff is driving up to Dallas for a funeral. In the early morning hours of Oct. 14, Ed Lowry died. There's no reason that should mean anything to most of you reading this, except you probably wouldn't be reading this paper at all, if not for Ed." It ends, "Goodbye; we'll try to live up to you." I'm betting Kathleen Maher wrote it, although maybe it was Nick Barbaro. The truth is that any number of us, a few at the Chronicle, the rest scattered around the country, still try to live up to Ed each and every day of our lives some 20 years gone. Speaking only for myself, no matter how I've succeeded, just the attempt has made me a better person.
Ed was our leader, teacher, guide, and friend. Ed was once a film graduate student in the RTF department at UT, as were most of us (Nick Barbaro, Marjorie Baumgarten, and myself, of our current staff). Supposedly a peer, Ed was always more than just an equal. Most of the graduate film faculty of that time would probably readily admit they learned more from Ed than he did from them. It wasn't just his extraordinarily encyclopedic knowledge of film, it was his passion, intelligence, and understanding that all films are inherently political, so political and social criteria are always a legitimate way to think about any film. But, and he would insist on this, critical and theoretical approaches were ways of enhancing the absolute pleasure of watching a movie, ways of enriching the experience, definitely not a means of distancing either film or viewer and certainly not intellectual strategies to trivialize films or overcategorize them.
Ed showed us how to think, he taught us how to write, and through his example showed us who to be. He ran CinemaTexas, the graduate student film society where so many of us first met, and he was a founding editor of the Chronicle. But mostly it was about love: love of movies especially, but also of music, friends, ideas, thinking, talking, arguing, learning, and of being together.
Once I mentioned to Marge that I didn't think a week had gone by that I hadn't thought of him. Marge told me that for both herself and Michael Barker (indie and foreign film legend who is one of the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics) not a single day gone has gone by without Ed. More than anyone else it is still Ed whose sensibility most informs each issue of this paper and everything we do.
We drove up to Dallas after finishing the issue and slept maybe with eight people in one motel room. The next morning was the funeral.
Ed was the first person I knew to die of AIDS, though certainly not the last. The disease was just beginning to penetrate the consciousness of mainstream America, referred to as the Gay Cancer as much as anything.
Ed and I had been roommates for two years. The first year together had been one of the best years in my life. Ondine, the pope of Warhol's Factory, not only stayed with us but also had Sterling Morrison over, who for the first time since I had known him actually told stories of the Velvet Underground. Kenneth Anger visited, traveling with the latest "star" of his endlessly re-created Lucifer Rising, rough trade who mugged him before it was all over. Jonathan Demme came to Austin for the first time, and we all got to be friends. We had a projector set up in the living room (before home video or DVD), so we endlessly watched movies. We talked about, argued over, wrote on them, and even made a couple as well.
The Chronicle started at the beginning of the second year; everything, especially our friendship, immediately went to hell. The year proved as dark and ugly as the first year had been wonderful; we were barely speaking when we parted. When Ed died we had still not made our peace, something that I have regretted ever since, still carrying that weight.
NEXT WEEK: PART 2
Chronology October 1985:
Oct. 4, 5, 6: Rick Linklater and Lee Daniel present their first ever public screening at the Dobie, a program titled "Sexuality and Blasphemy in the Avant Garde." This is the beginning of what will become the Austin Film Society.
Around the same time: We discover that Ed Lowry is deathly ill. Marge Baumgarten goes up to Dallas to be by his bedside.
Oct. 13: Ed Lowry dies. (I know we said he died in the wee hours of Oct. 14 in the obit mentioned above, but in typical fashion, we were off by a few hours.)
Oct. 15: Much of the Chronicle staff heads up to Dallas.
Oct. 16: Ed Lowry's funeral
Oct. 24: Jonathan Demme comes back to town, and we meet Maggie Renzi and John Sayles for the first time.
The new season of 12 90-minute shows of "SXSW Presents" continues on KLRU. The fifth episode, featuring Sarah Price's Caesar's Park, is this Friday at 10pm. Episodes will continue to run through Dec. 2 every Friday on KLRU-TV. The show is co-sponsored by KLRU, The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW, and SXSW Film programmer (and occasional Chronicle contributor) Matt Dentler is host.
The remaining shows:
Oct. 14: Sarah Price's Caesar's Park
Oct. 21: High School Shorts Program
Oct. 28: Andrew Garrison's The Wilgus Stories
Nov. 4: Dan Brown's American Detective
Nov. 11: Emily Morse's See How They Run
Nov. 18: East Austin Stories Program
Nov. 25: Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin's "Bike Like U Mean It"
Dec. 2: Jenn Garrison's PrizeWhores
These 90-minute programs showcase local, national, and international productions, both features and shorts. There will be interviews and more with some of the artists responsible for making the films being shown.