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A Week in Culture: Jesse Moss, Part 2

September 9, 2010 | by

DAY FOUR, San Francisco

Visiting my father in Noe Valley, kids in tow. He announces his latest obsession. The founder of the Chinese Film Industry was a jew from Odessa named Benjamin Brodsky. My father’s planning to visit Beijing in October, and has secured permission from the Chinese State Film Archives to look at Brodsky’s papers. Apparently Brodsky lived through the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco and may have owned a chain of Nickleodeons. If Brodsky hadn’t existed, I wonder if my father might have invented him, as he conveniently embodies all his obsessions: early cinema, China, and Jewish identity. I google Brodsky and discover someone’s just made a documentary about him. Scooped.

On the coffee table, an old issue of Ramparts magazine. In his early, radical days, my father was an editor at Ramparts’ publishing imprint, and edited Richard Boyle’s Vietnam War memoir, Flower of the Dragon. Boyle was a wild-man, the inspiration for Oliver Stone’s Salvador. He used to come stay at our house and play marathon war games with my older brother, elaborate mock battles (The Siege of Khe Sanh was one) with toy soldiers on the living room floor.

It’s the July 13, 1968 issue of Ramparts. I read “Why We Lost the War,” an interview with the French General André Beaufre. The first question is “How do you explain why the most powerful, best armed and supposedly best informed nation in history could not achieve success in ground fighting?” I’ve just seen the Afghan war documentary Restrepo, by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington and read Junger’s companion book, War. The question echoes strongly. Counter-insurgency strategy has come to seem like nothing more than pseudo-science to me, 21st Century phrenology and publishing a manual about it doesn’t mean it works.

I browse an article about little retailers fighting big chain stores, and a piece about the brutality of the Oakland Police Force. All strikingly current subjects for a 42 year-old magazine. The ads however, are pure nostalgia (“Nudism Explained”). I find them oddly compelling, like the ads for strange novelties in old comic books, a window into an alternate universe.

I flip through a catalogue for a 1978 exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photographs at the Oakland Museum. The photos are beautiful. An alchemy of art and propaganda.

Dinner at the Universal Café, a foodie outpost in the outer Mission. We stare at the menu and talk about food. My wife accuses my father of being a self-hating foodie. On our last visit he proclaimed himself sick of talking about food with his foodie friends. He would eat it, he said, but not talk about it. But of course, like everyone here, he can’t help himself. I hail my wife for coining the phrase.

At Clooney’s Pub, a Lesbian dive-bar in Bernal Heights, we celebrate our friend Eric’s birthday. Eric and his girlfriend Amanda have just seen Dark Passage, the Delmer Daves film noir, with Bogart and Bacall. We talk noir, and Nightfall the Aldo Ray film we saw at the Film Forum.

We drive down to Old Bayshore Road to Silver Crest Donut Shop. It’s Eric’s birthday tradition. In the parking lot, he warns us to expect trouble in the donut shop bar. I think, what donut shop has a bar? It’s a rough place, in a rough part of town. The Greek bartender greets us warmly, and pours six shots of Ouzo. On the jukebox, I put in a quarter and select a track called simply: “Greek Music.” The shots are free. We chase the Ouzo with huge, greasy, delicious donuts. Read More »


A Week in Culture: Jesse Moss, Filmmaker

September 8, 2010 | by

DAY ONE, Solomon Islands

I’m on a flight from Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, to Brisbane, going home after a week long shoot for the World Health Organization. I’m finishing James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which my mother gave me just before I left. It’s a surprisingly good companion, and I return to it every night in my hotel room. On the nightstand next to me is an industrial sized can of Raid bug-spray that comes complimentary with every room in the hotel. They’ve just had elections here, and downstairs by the hotel pool, local pols are as plentiful as the bugs, drinking SolBeer and plotting the political future of the country.

A storm came through the night before, and when I stepped out on my balcony in the morning, I could see, for the first time, an island in the distance. It’s Tulaghi. And the body of water that separates us is called Iron Bottom Sound. It’s the gravesite of a huge number of American and Japanese warships. My wife’s grandfather was in the First Marine Division when they fought here, on Guadalcanal, in 1943. So I feel a strange and distant personal connection to the place.

Filming in the jungle, I see a man with a machete on a forty-foot pole. Jesus Christ. He’s cutting Betel Nut, and chewing it. He smiles at me, a mouthful of stained red teeth. I’m reminded of Michener’s Bloody Mary. I stand under the tree with my camera and pray a betel nut doesn’t fall on my head.

Michener’s book was the basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which I’ve never seen. I ask my colleague Elsie, a native islander, where Bali H’ai is and she gives me a blank look. I feel like a fool for asking. I stare at the map of the island chain in her office, hoping it will materialize magically, like Tulaghi, while a mechanic tries to repair our rental car. Later, while photographing the boat harbor in Honiara, I suppress a strong urge to book one-way passage on a local freighter to the remote islands of the Western Province. Read More »