Inspired by my experience with the Lawrence University Film Club, I planned to apply to graduate film school at NYU and UCLA when I graduated in June of 1985. But my complete absorption in books and films had also begun to feel limiting, so I decided to take a year off first. Under the influence of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Monty Hellmann’s laconic “Two Lane Blacktop,” I predictably chose to drive in the direction of American literary idealism: west to California and the Pacific Ocean. I returned to Amery for the summer, worked to save money, bought a beat-up 1977 Chevy Nova from a farmer for two hundred dollars and tried to convince one of my former Dungeons and Dragons friends to play Neal Cassidy to my Jack Kerouac. He was in a sensible mood, however, and declined.
I set out alone in mid-September, winding slowly westward, sleeping in the back seat of my car in public parking lots. Within a week I arrived in Boulder, Colorado where my friend Matt lived. Matt worked as a bartender and took classes at the Naropa Institute’s ‘Jack Keroauc School of Disembodied Poetics’ which conveys a sense of Boulder’s bohemian atmosphere at that moment. Upon arriving, I planned to visit for a few days; I stayed a month.
Naturally, after a week of exploring the town, I reverted to my college habits and started searching for cinemas. I discovered an avant-garde film salon organized by Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado where he taught. The first night that I attended, Bruce Baillie presented a program of his work. In retrospect, this evening strikes me as a remarkable introduction to the 1960’s underground film subculture with Stan Brakhage, perhaps the most celebrated experimental filmmaker of the movement, and Bruce Baillie, the founder of the production/distribution collective Canyon Cinema, both present. The film I recall most clearly from that screening was “Castro Street,” an impressionistic collage of shot documentary footage and abstract, optically printed superimposition. Just as “Summer with Monika” had introduced me to a European tradition that I’d never encountered at the Maplewood Mall or the Amery Theater, so too “Castro Street” asked me to travel outside of the conventions of narrative film language into small-scale, cinematic improvisation: movies as a reflection of individual consciousness.
A program of Les Blank films a few weeks later left an even greater impression. I saw “The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins,” “Sprout Wings and Fly” and “Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers” for the first time. I’d seen Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” at Lawrence University, in which the director documents the daily urban life of the young Soviet Union with manic inventiveness; I immediately regarded Les Blank’s documentaries as ‘Hippy with a Movie Camera.’ His films ingratiated themselves into one’s consciousness like a drug. The Lightning Hopkins film was so raw, intimate and uncalculated that I almost felt embarrassed watching it. Les Blank surrounded the spontaneous, single take musical performances with a background of ethnographic details: young girls dancing with abandon at a barbeque, the older women in their cowgirl finery staking their territory, cautious black faces planted artlessly in the square frame after church was done. He also captured the gravity and texture of the environment - the dirt, the dogs, a fence and the sky. The final effect amounted to Walker Evans and Alan Lomax smoking pot together and sharing notes on secret corners of American life. The cameraman became a part of what he shot with an open-minded empathy, and I felt as if there were truly something at risk in Les Blank’s films. These were the simple, admirable films that an honest man, capable with a camera and sensitive to people in their environment, could produce. In sum, all of the 16mm underground films that I experienced in the Boulder salon communicated a liberating can-do individualism. Cameras were growing smaller and cheaper all the time and the message was: get one and make a movie to reveal the world as you see it.
I left Boulder in early November, the day after watching “The Hills Have Eyes Part II.” The nightmares that I had sleeping in my car that night in eastern Nevada might be considered the revenge of ‘the tenderloin’ from the St. Croix Hilltop. I spent a few weeks in Oakland and San Francisco with Lawrence friends who were presently in graduate school at Berkeley, drove north to see Bodega Bay where Hitchcock’s “The Birds” had been shot and then drove south along the coastline to Los Angeles. I visited the UCLA campus and walked through the buildings of the film school, but because I didn’t know anyone in L.A. and got arrested for vagrancy while sleeping in my car, I left town after only two days to drive back north without getting any substantial sense of the city.
I stopped in San Luis Obispo where I slept in a motel parking lot, waking up in the middle of the night to watch as two men broke into cars; luckily my Nova looked too derelict to have anything of value in it. The next morning, I drove past a sign advertising San Simeon and the Hearst Castle. William Randolph Hearst had been the real-life Charles Kane and the Hearst Castle had been the historical model for Xanadu, the stately pleasure dome of “Citizen Kane.” Despite the fact that I was running out of money, I decided to take a tour. I drove up the long hill to the estate, which by this time had been donated to the state of California as a park. Hearst had kept a menagerie of exotic animals and I saw that there were still zebras grazing along the road. In the ticket office, I reflexively chose the tour that included a visit to the movie theater. The tour group passed an outdoor swimming pool with a Greek mythology theme and the guide told us that, decades before, a young Patty Hearst had hidden behind the columns here as visitors like us walked by. This Xanadu was a monument to American economic royalty, expressed somewhat haphazardly as a patchwork of European architecture and art: 15th century Flemish tapestry on the walls, ceilings from Italian churches and Roman mosaic on the floors.
In the theater, the walls of which were oddly lined with bookshelves, we watched black and white newsreel footage of Hearst and the actress Marion Davies entertaining famous guests in the 1920’s. The film conveyed a vivid time-machine effect; the tour group sat in the well-preserved theater of the estate, watching the activities that had occurred just outside of the same building sixty years before. Charlie Chaplin played tennis with Bill Tilden, a famous American tennis player of the time, with a serving motion rather like Jacques Tati’s in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.” While the movie played, I had the bright idea of hiding in the theater and spending the night there. I glanced at the tour guide, who wasn’t paying attention to me, and slid down from my seat. I lay on the floor as the lights came up and the tour group left. I strolled around the interior of the theater, pleased with my ingenuity, studying the book collection, naively unaware that my movements were observed on a monitor in the security office. Within minutes security guards ushered me off of the grounds with threats to press charges if they ever saw me again.
After the misguided San Simeon adventure, I had very little money left and I was tired of ‘seeing America.’ I wanted to settle again into something more productive and less arbitrary than roaming in my car. I passed through San Francisco, pausing a day to watch Lina Wertmuller’s “Swept Away” at the Castro Theater, and then drove twenty-three hours straight to Boulder through a snow storm in the Rocky Mountains. Toward the end of that long drive, I rolled down the windows and turned the radio up to keep myself awake, listening to the cadence of outdated cold war rhetoric on an AM radio station. As I fishtailed down the mountain into Boulder, I was nearly convinced that the United Nations was an instrument of communist subversion.
I arrived back at my friend Matt’s house, walked into a cloud of pot smoke and a circle of young men fixated in front of a television, watching a movie on VHS tape. They barely acknowledged my presence despite the fact that they hadn’t seen me in a month and a half. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep, but I was also curious as to what so captivated them on the television. I sat down and watched handheld footage of a man parachuting into water. The water boiled and turned red as the tails of alligators swung in the air. I picked up the VHS case and read the name “Faces of Death.” The exploitation film world of the 1970’s drive-in had evolved by 1985 into this nihilistic expression: a collection of purported documentary footage depicting the actual deaths of people. I crawled into a bedroom and fell into a dreamless sleep for four hours. Then I woke up with emotionless purpose and drove sixteen hours to Amery, Wisconsin to seek refuge in the house where I’d grown up.