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.
My wife has skipped ahead on Deadwood, a violation of the marital code. I’m furious. I take my computer back.
My mother emails me about a live performance of Lincoln Center’s production of South Pacific on PBS tonight. Brilliant. But possibly terrible. I remember suffering through Richard Burton’s televised stage production of Hamlet on videotape, in my high school English class and again at a Wooster Group Production at St Ann’s Warehouse.
My mother joins us for the show. I’m enjoying it. Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot are great. My daughter is fascinated by the shower on stage. Kelli O’Hara is actually getting her hair wet, singing, “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair.” My father-in-law walks in and starts singing along. The curtain closes on Act I. The kids melt down and everyone flees. My wife comes home and curses at me for keeping the kids up to watch a musical. I spend an hour getting my kids to sleep and miss the second act.
So I sit in the dark and watch a documentary on PBS called Salt, about a photographer in the Australian salt flats. Its beautiful. I can’t turn it off.
Visting old friends in Encinitas, a little surfer town north of San Diego. Jerry’s a civil rights lawyer. His “Free Mumia” bumper-sticker stands out on the palm-lined cul-de-sac. They have chickens in the back yard and Christian neighbors. Jerry plays Bruce Springsteen all morning. I try to like Bruce, but can’t. Jerry’s the biggest book lover I know. I marvel at his ability to read, to concentrate, amidst the chaos around him: kids, a menagerie of animals, 300 pending cases. He finds the fragments of time, where most of us would fail to even look. I remember him on my last visit, on the elliptical in his living room, watching a “Great Courses” history lecture. He sent me a book about the murder of Fred Hampton months ago. I haven’t read it.
Jerry points to an enormous stack of books that publishers have sent him for free. A shard of time while the kids chase the cats. I pick up a book—a collection of essays—on the top of the stack. An Alice Walker poem stops me cold. The poem is Silver Writes, about the “daring ones”—the “black young man/who tried/to crash/All barriers/at once/wanted to/swim/at a white beach (in Alabama)/nude.” In the essay that follows she writes about her fraught relationship with a white civil rights worker in the South. I’ve never read anything by Alice Walker, and I regret it.
Jerry hands me an essay by Nick Turse called “Death on Your Doorstep,” about the documentary Restrepo. Turse says the film neglects the impact of the war on Afghan civilians and is “useless for telling us anything of note.” I defend the film in part for showing some of the most shocking combat footage I’ve seen in the last seven years, footage that is heavily censored in the mainstream media. I suggest Jerry read Nir Rosen’s unembedded reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. I worked with Nir earlier this year and have tremendous respect for his reporting.
I pick up The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh and quickly put it down. But I give him points for quoting a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Man to King Arthur: “you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.”
I skim a book from Jerry’s bathroom called Growing Your Own Vegetables, published by the US Department of Agriculture in 1977. The chapter is “The Popular, Cultivated Tomato and Kinfolk Peppers and Eggplant.” It sounds like a fairy-tale.
We go to the community pool. It’s some kind of party, and a band is playing AOR. They must be in their fifties. I’m in the pool with my daughter, when a middle-age woman informs me that the local sheriff has parked nearby and invited kids to visit his squad car. We stay in the pool. On cue, the sheriff hits the siren. And the band plays “I Fought the Law.” Jerry makes a joke about police brutality.
Later, we take the Avocado Highway east to Escondido, for a vegetarian potluck at La Milpa, an organic farm. I feel like I’ve stepped into a time-warp, like a Grateful Dead show at Frost Amphitheater. There’s even a VW bus parked in the field. Only in California. I ask Jerry if the bus is a prop. My daughter runs through the corn. I imagine her remembering this event, as a fragment of a memory, years from now. It reminds me so much of my own half-remembered early 70s childhood.
The kids are asleep. We stay up and talk Wiki Leaks, “Collateral Murder,” and Behind the Green Door, the “classic” Marilyn Chambers porn film, which I saw in 1982. My friend Seth Godfrey claimed to have found a VHS copy of the film in a field behind an adult bookstore, a field that is now the new Facebook Offices in Palo Alto.
On a bluff overlooking Swami’s, the famous So Cal surf spot, my daughter and I tape a farewell message on Neptune TV, a local Encinitas art project, or, as they describe it, “a community based interactive art process.”
On the plane home, I neglect Tinkers again, and read an airport impulse purchase, With the Old Breed, E. B. Sledge’s memoir of the Pacific War. I thought the Sledge story was the best part of the HBO mini-series. The book is moving and horrifying. I consider re-reading Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I remember it as a pretty square, old-fashioned novel. Oddly, Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific strikes me as the book Mailer would have written, and The Naked and the Dead, the book Michener would have written. The Mailer book is notable for its use of the word “fug” in lieu of fuck. My downstairs neighbor Tuli Kupferberg was a founding member of the The Fugs, the anarchic folk rock band (“Kill, Kill for Peace”) that took its name from Mailer’s book. Tuli died recently. At his memorial service someone gave me a lock of his wiry grey hair in a plastic bag—a true 60s relic.
I suspend reading the Sledge when my daughter dumps an entire container of macaroni on my seatmate. I read my (other) daughter the Roald Dahl book about the crocodile. I’d forgotten about it in my backpack while we were in California. She loves it. She wants me to read it again immediately.
My book group is meeting in Brooklyn. There’s something slightly embarrassing about it. Sort of like reading James Michener. But I love it. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the book—John Crowley’s Little, Big. In fact, I didn’t even open it. I didn’t even crack the cover to read the pull quotes, or the “readers guide.” This is a book club foul. I feel guilty. My host hands me a martini, and says, “So, Little Big…” and I consider trying to fake it. A moment of doubt. I confess. I feel more shame than I have in a long time. I slide into the couch, sip my martini, and try to look thoughtfully engaged. Later, we play the novel game, and compete to see who can write the best fake first sentence of the next book we’re reading. The book is Passage to India. I write:
Ritu had contracted polio as an infant and his parents, certain that he was destined to die, had given up on the sickly child, but he survived, miraculously, but not before he infected his sister, who slept beside him on a plain straw mat.
My entry is greeted with jeers. Too melodramatic! The funny thing is, the story is true. I borrowed the details from someone I recently filmed in India.
Jesse Moss is a New York-based filmmaker and the founder of Mile End Films. His most recent documentary is Full Battle Rattle.
Last / Next Article