A Week in Culture: Jesse Moss, Filmmaker


The Culture Diaries

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.

DAY TWO, Brisbane

The Emporium Hotel, Brisbane. The front desk asks me what paper I want delivered to my room: the Courier Mail or The Australian? “Which one’s conservative,” I ask her. She doesn’t know. “Why don’t we give you both,” she says.

No bug-spray by the bed. I pass out watching an episode of Season 2 of Deadwood. George Hearst is on his way to camp. I’ve spent $70 to download the show. It strikes me as a fortune, but I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. I’ve fallen under the spell of David Milch’s stylized dialogue.

I read Murdoch’s Australian, with a gory photo of a gangland slaying in Melbourne on the front page. I’m reminded of the photo later when I see David Michod’s brilliant first feature, Animal Kingdom, about a Melboure crime family.

Facing a Brisbane-Sydney-LAX-SFO flight, I wander over to Coaldrakes Bookshop, around the corner. It’s small but well appointed. I spend a deeply pleasurable hour browsing, and end up with Tinkers, by Paul Harding, a 2006 issue of Granta, called “War Zones,” and, Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich’s book about Facebook. In the children’s section, I find a Roald Dahl book for my daughter. It’s about an enormous crocodile who wants to eat a “juicy little child.” She’s four. I wonder if she’s too young for Dahl’s dark sensibility.

I finish the book about Facebook halfway through the flight. Trashy, but entertaining. In the Sydney airport I saw David Kirkpatrick’s book about Facebook – serious journalism, with detailed footnotes. I regret my choice. But there’s no way I’m reading two books about Facebook. An old friend wrote the definitive book about MySpace, which I bought from her at a reading a year ago, intending to give to my father in law, but never did. It’s still sitting behind my desk, neglected, much like MySpace itself.

I watch Deadwood till my laptop craps out. Sleep. When I wakeup, somewhere over the Pacific, frighteningly far from land, I watch the Coen Brothers A Simple Man on the flip-out TV attached to my seat. The bar mitzvah scene is brilliant. The Runaways disappoints. I turn it off half-way through, just as the band is making it big. Kristen Stewart is unconvincing. “Flipping your hair isn’t acting,” I want to shout.

Granta provides diversion, however dated. I read Wendell Steavenson’s article about the Israel invasion of Southern Lebanon in 2006, and Marione Ingram’s memoir of the firebombing of Hamburg. Simon Norfolk’s photos of a militarized Scotland are a revelation. Eerie, scary, beautiful.

I start Tinkers as the plane descends towards LAX.

DAY THREE, Pescadero, California

Pescadero is only 45 minutes from Facebook’s offices on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto. But it feels a century removed. It’s a coastal California farming town, about a mile inland from the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. We’re here here for our annual family pilgrimage to Duarte’s Tavern. Artichoke and green-chile soup, sourdough bread, dungeness crab and olallie-berry pie.

The coastal fog burns off, and the sun peers through. On our way home, we stop by Harley Farms Goat Dairy. The goats are in the pens so we try free samples. On the wall is Mark Doty’s poem, Pescadero:

The little goats like my mouth and fingers,

and one stands up against the wire fence, and taps on the fence board

a hoof made blacker by the dirt of the field,

pushes her mouth forward to my mouth,

so that I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth, and the bristle-whiskers

Another clipping on the wall, about “Pie Ranch.” It’s a working farm down the coast that promotes sustainable agricultural practices and educates young people. I recognize the name of the founder. My best friend in 4th Grade. I haven’t spoke with him since 1982. It feels like a rare moment of re-connection that doesn’t involve the internet. I send him a message on Facebook. He doesn’t remember me.

Driving back over the Santa Cruz Mountains in my father-in-law’s car, we listen to the soundtrack to Oklahoma, which my daughter loves. “All the cattle are standing like statues…” She’s developing an early fondness for show-tunes, much to my wife’s chagrin. I think of Neil Young, and my college roommate, who used to shower for hours while listening to “After the Gold Rush.” Neil lives somewhere up here in La Honda with the last hippie holdouts.

More Deadwood. Season 3. Hearst has arrived in camp. Played by Gerald McCraney. I remember him vaguely from 70s TV shows like Simon and Simon. I’m somehow disappointed he’s the great and despicable Hearst. But McCraney quickly wins me over.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment
of Moss’s culture diary.

Jesse Moss is a New York-based filmmaker and the founder of Mile End Films. His most recent documentary is Full Battle Rattle.