Page Two: Lost and Found
'Tis the season when the future is used up yet then renewed by singing each morning out of each night
She dreamed she was pretty
And lived in a very cool part of the City
With a man who came home
Every evening at six
And begged her to play him
His favorite licks
On a steel guitar"
Danny O'Keefe, "Steel Guitar"
The opening shot of Orson Welles' 1958 masterpiece, Touch of Evil, starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, is one of the greatest long takes in the history of film. Minutes long, it starts as a man and his female companion get into his car and then drive across the border from Mexico into the United States (the scene was shot in Venice, Calif.). They stop briefly to say hello to the customs officials, then proceed into the States. Shortly after they cross the border, the shot ends as their car explodes into flames.
Immediately, there are the sounds of sirens, followed by fire trucks and city officials showing up. A car pulls into the frame, and the door opens. In a low-angled shot, we see Welles, as police Chief Hank Quinlin, getting out of the car. Welles is no longer the fresh-faced boy wonder of the industry at this point but has entered into his archetypal, enormously fat phase, his physical presence metaphorically in complete harmony with his grotesque outsider status.
Looking as deliberately ugly as possible, Welles plays Quinlin as a person so completely without moorings or hope that you can practically smell the putrid rot of his inner self dripping from every shot. The low angle introducing him emphasizes the contradictions between Quinlin's imposing physical presence and the inner man, hollowed out by physical and spiritual diseases. In the same way that Otis Redding, singing the word "weary" in the song "Try a Little Tenderness," so completely defines the state of "weary," Quinlin's presence in this shot defines "ugly." Not just as an abstract quality of physical unattractiveness, but in the most personal way, this shot captures a certain sense of self that I feel when I've not just hit but crashed through the walls that give my life purpose and by which I make meaning. All of my energy is gone, while my senses are shot. The dark seasons have come upon me; I don't want to be me but lack the imagination to be anything else. The days fade into weeks without any real definition, become times when I never wake up even when I stop sleeping, even when I'm at work or driving. These are the twisted passages of my life. I can't get out of bed, even when I'm not in it no matter where I am or what I'm doing, the sheets are torn and dirty, the pillows smell, and my body has abandoned me, growing into something foreign and twisted. I have no muscles, I can't remember belief, and hope isn't even present enough to be a contradiction.
All I want to do is rest, but I don't have even the energy to do that. I just wish I could wake up, that I could taste the day, ignoring the thousands of arrow pricks covering my body, out of which I am emptying. When sleep doesn't offer even the dimmest hint of rest, there is no way to escape except by accepting drudgery.
Later in Touch of Evil, there is a scene where Quinlin is talking to a gypsy fortune-teller with whom he was once involved romantically, played by Marlene Dietrich. There is no color but bare black and white. Her life seems to be there only because it is framed by the two-dimensional hollowness of his. The sheriff says to Tanya, "Come on, read my future for me."
"You haven't got any," she answers.
He asks her, "What do you mean?"
"Your future is all used up," is her reply.
In the dry seasons, I feel this way, and perhaps this way only that the sole way to define myself is by accepting that my future is used up. The worst part of this means considering my past, because that is the only way there can be no future.
"What a Pippin!!" Bimbo about Betty Boop in "Bimbo's Initiation"
She was a long-stemmed, American beauty rose, so deeply attractive while still completely at ease with herself that she was way beyond my understanding. I was living in a farmhouse in southern Vermont, and she'd come over a lot to sit on the bed, reading or sketching while I pounded away with one finger at my typewriter, trying to put words together in a way that made sense. Often, when I looked over at her, it was as though I was looking at a painting, not a person, a situation further emphasized by her having a Vermeer forehead.
She was deeply in love with a painter friend of ours, and he was, if anything, even crazier in love with her. He was raised in very rural New Hampshire, and his brilliance was always as much in evidence as any kind of social skills were not. He was by no means the classic, alienated outsider of literature; small-town New Hampshire was actually accommodating of all kinds of eccentricities and behaviors. He was the only person I ever met who had any number of personal J.D. Salinger stories, because one of his childhood friends did handyman work for the author. The stories were not of metaphysical poetry or Glass personalities but of blowing up tree stumps and moving boulders.
In a way, this unchallenging hometown acceptance hadn't forced him to develop outside-of-himself coping skills and navigating tactics. He was working his way toward figuring out how to romance her but really had no idea, often falling back on a kind of elementary-school, hyperkinetic acting out. Despite their obvious electric attraction, their romance proved one of the most excruciatingly awkward that I would ever encounter. During this time of passion without focus, romance without eloquence, she and I hung out a lot together.
At some point, usually rather late in the evening, I would say it was time to call it a night, offering to drive her home. Mostly, she would quickly agree and gather her things. But some nights, while I stood there silent and unmoving, waiting for her to get ready, she would exasperatingly mutter, "Okay," as though I was besieging her both physically and verbally. But I was not. To my ever-renewed amazement, she would then spend the night.
In the morning, she would act as though I had overwhelmed her against her will, leaving right after dawn, mad at me and, probably, at herself. If I really had pressured her in any way, then these would not be tales worth telling.
"Now her pa'd been a welder
During the war
And he played country music
Every night 'til four
With some drugstore cowboys
Who could pick and grin
And if you let it all out
They'd bring it all back in"
Danny O'Keefe, "Steel Guitar"
Then there are the days when you awake into life as though the new day has sent a charge through your body, has cast out demons and welcomed in light. A couple of years before I moved to Vermont, I had listened to the Byrds cover Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and had fallen in love with country music. There were long nights in Vermont that we'd sit around the living room listening to Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Bob Wills, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and Lefty Frizzell, among many others. Outside, it would be snowing, the flakes cast gentle in the moonlight; inside, listening to this music by a fire burning in the fireplace filled me with hope and nurtured belief. Listening became something more than just hearing music. I was a suburban kid, raised in New Jersey, so this was learning not just a new language but a whole, previously unknown way of life, of love, and of words.
I'll never taste an orange, drink Dr Pepper, or stuff myself at an all-you-can-eat barbecue for the first time ever again. In the same way, I'll never hear music again like I once did. There are things behind me that will always be dyed deeply by experience, any hint of innocence long gone.
Most days now are blessed; I love my work and the people with whom I get to do it. I can't believe how kindly luck has treated me, that wonder touches almost everything I do. I am thankful to God for the unexpected gift that my life is still, if not more than ever, an adventure and a journey into the unknown. I wake excited to begin the day.
But I know that the darkness is there and that it will come again, that, though mostly I am found, I can still be lost.
"my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height"
Right now, almost at the end of April, the cruelest month breeding lilacs out of the dead land, I know I need to go underground and get some heavy rest. It is time to accept the ugliness as a way of breathing, a time to stop my life to close my mouth, shut my heart, and turn off my mind. Still, during the worst of the bad days, I remember both the good times and those when I was stuck in between. It can still get dark; it can always get very dark, when the memory of light is hard to come by. But the knowledge of the memory of light never completely leaves.