Continuity of Motion

Robert Mitchum arrives

There used to be a Tower Video store near the corner of Market and Noe Streets. I loved dropping in on the way home from work on Friday nights. Sometimes renting DVDs, but more and more often buying them as prices dropped. In the weeks just before Tower closed their doors for good they had big bins of DVDs in the front of the store near the windows, and you could buy two or even three DVDs for just a few bucks. I began picking up armfuls of noirs, mysteries and classic horror movies – genres with a high melodrama quotient. And almost all the prints were in glorious black and white.

I’d stroll out of Tower carrying a bulging yellow bag or two, stop by la Mediterranee for take out of whatever amazing chicken special was offered that evening, then hurry home to lay the swag before my wife. We usually ate dinner while watching whichever of the movies I’d brought home she thought she’d like best…or mind least…then I’d put on the earphones and watch three or four more until I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

It was during one of these late night movie binges that I discover a 1951 RKO Pictures production called “His Kind of Woman.” It was included in a film noir collection, and it certainly has the look of a noir. But it’s also wildly comical. And there’s something wonderfully fresh about its hero in terms of what he confronts, how he responds, and the liberties he achieves as a consequence. Also, as I learned about the strange circumstances under which the film got made, I came to think of it as an extraordinarily willful act of self expression on the part of its producer, Howard Hughes.

An RKO Radio Picture

Hughes acquired the RKO Studio in 1948. Over the course of the next eight years he destroyed it. His opening move was dismissal of three-fourths of the studio’s employees. As the craziness that became known as McCarthyism gained traction, he did not try to shield the studio’s talent from the purge. Rather, he enthusiastically tossed suspected Communist sympathizers off the payroll. And from first to last, his imperious micromanagement undermined his creative teams’ control over their work. Lots of theories have been offered to explain why he would do so many things that could not help but gut the studio. For example, some contend that RKO was already losing money before Hughes took the helm, and because he really didn’t understand the movie biz, he did things he hoped would cut costs that actually hurt the business more.

My guess is he never really cared about the studio as such. Acquiring RKO was just a convenient way to get all the things he needed to create self portraits on a scale as big as the technology of the time permitted. Projected patterns of light on huge silver screens that brazenly offered for examination everything he knew about everything. Images of his world view and inner self that would live on long after he was gone. When it came down to it, such a project really didn’t need a whole Hollywood studio. And it certainly didn’t need other people with other visions trying to interject their stuff. He wasn’t in it for the money, or to provide employment for others. It was self portraiture in a medium only a Titan could afford. RKO Pictures was his pantry of consumable art supplies.

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Abandoned Farmhouse

Abandoned Farmhouse

When I was a child Telegraph Road was the boundary that separated the known from the unknown world. Most of what lay to the east of the highway was familiar – markets, schools, tracts of modest homes, and lots of churches – mostly seen from the backseat of the family car.

But to the west of Telegraph stretched a vast oil field, prickly with towering derricks that cast long black lattice shadows across amber-colored soil. The ground had been saturated with a deadly liquid, sprayed everywhere from the backs of tanker trucks to keep living things from sprouting. If the wind blew hard enough to get the grimy earth airborne its acrid scent would haunt you until you bathed.

It was a land of big things standing at a distance from each other. Massive moving parts. Perpetual mechanical labor. Never resting, or changing, or finishing their chores. Seeming to need and offer nothing. It was a place into which a child could not venture on foot because there could be no sensible answer to the inevitable question, “What’s that kid doing going into the oil field?”

So it wasn’t until I got a bicycle that I really saw the details west of Telegraph up close. Even if you’re a pale, quiet kid, if you ride with purpose, adults assume you are going somewhere. That something sanctioned is afoot. Something more than a near-automatic response to insatiable curiosity.

Each foray took me deeper and deeper into the wasteland. There I found an endless grid of dirt roads, old pumping stations, rusting chain link fences, and even the occasional incongruous cluster of small, unkempt houses with old cars or pickup trucks abandoned in the front yards.

The bleakness was an irresistible fascination. And going to see it was emancipating. I was where children were not supposed to go. I was exploring on my own terms. As long as I kept moving I had a free pass. It was the harsh counterbalance to the rest of my experience. To the dull, safe, swept-porch uniformity of life to the east of the highway.

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The Rabbit of Synchronicity

Sally by Beth Van Hoesen

It is no coincidence that too much has already been said about synchronicity, so I’ll “hop” straight into my narrative.

The most excellent bunny pictured at right is Sally, as rendered by San Francisco artist and printmaker Beth Van Hoesen. One day in the late 1980s, while walking west on Sacramento Street, Sally came to mind. I was on my way to see my shrink, Tanya, imagining what it would be like in a few minutes when I entered her office. On the wall just inside the door to the waiting room would be the handsome print of a rabbit.

That image always made me smile. The outright beauty of the creature, its composure, and, as I imagined, a look in her eye that seemed to say, “I’m going to have to think about that.”

As I strolled down Sacramento Street, something struck me that I had not realized before. Tanya’s waiting room was not the first place I had encountered Sally. I suddenly realized Sally used to keep me company while I did my laundry.

There is a coin launderette at the corner of Noe and 22nd Streets in San Francisco that I visited once a week during a period in which I was reading a lot of books on Jungian Psychology – and thinking that being in therapy with a Jungian might be a wonderful experience. On the wall above the driers hung an identical print of Sally.

One day while my laundry swirled, and I had my head in a copy of “A Primer of Jungian Psychology”, a pleasant fellow about my age approached and asked, “Are you a student?”

“Actually,” I smiled, “I’m thinking about getting into therapy with a Jungian, and I figured if I carried this book around long enough I’d meet one.”

I was kidding, or at least half kidding, but the guy was not amused. Rather, he turned suddenly peevish. “That is SO Jungian!” he growled and stomped away a few paces. But then he stopped and stood shaking his head. After a couple of deep breaths he came back, asked me if I had a pen, and gave me Tanya’s phone number.

“How funny,” I thought. Sally saw the odd encounter at the launderette that lead me to therapy with Tanya, and now Sally sees every time I come in for a session.

Something on the sidewalk in front of me caught my attention. I was in that block of Sacrament between Buchannan and Webster, on the north side of the street in the cool shadow of the California Pacific Medical Center. At my feet was a quantity of cedar clippings, some raisin-like rabbit turds, and even a trickle of milky rabbit urine – the entire contents of a rabbit hutch sans the rabbit. “Tanya’s gonna love this!” I recall thinking.

About fifteen minutes later when our session began I described the progression of recollections and discoveries related to Sally that I had just experienced. Tanya laughed and said, “The man who gave you my number is one of my graduate students.” I had not known that. “Did he tell you his name?” she asked. He had not. She laughed some more and told me her student’s name, but I didn’t get the joke so she explained. His last name – Lapin – is French for rabbit.

The Wikipedia tells me that “In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations that contradict prior beliefs.” Whew! Nonetheless, gentle reader, I confess that to my untrained eye, Sally looks very French to me. Perhaps someone who knows their rabbits will weigh in on the lovely creatures likely nationality. Merci !


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The White Mountain Crash

The White Mountain Crash

Part II
( Read Part I )

The White Mountains ranged low and drab to the east, and the Sierra Nevadas rose grand and snow capped to the west. Crisp wind rippling down the valley fumbled over a rusting gas station on the outskirts of Bishop with a sound like strong men shaking out great sheets of canvas.

“You see that little thing at the top?” The kid pumping gas pointed around the back of my VW van. “That little thing sticking up?” The crest line was rugged, but had no distinct features except for a very small projection where he pointed. “I don’t know what it is but somebody put something up there where the plane hit.”

He told me the fire had burned for hours. On dirt bikes he and a buddy had tried to get to the site, but even with all the blazing airplane fuel, the moonless night was so dark they could not see five feet in front of them. And if they kept going the chances were good they would have ended up at the bottom of one of the steep ravines that scar the slopes.

I tried to align the marker on the eastern crest line with the gas station and one of the Sierra Nevada peaks, then headed back the way I had come on Route 395. The first chance I got I turned left onto a dirt road that seemed to run almost directly to the base of the slope below the marker. When the road ran out I parked on the flattest patch of ground I could find and turned off the engine. I was already high enough above the valley floor to have an unobstructed view for miles to the north and south. The gas station was a small box a long way off.

It was about 2:00 in the afternoon. The crash had occurred in complete darkness between 8:24 and 8:28 pm. I reckoned I had maybe three and a half hours to find the point of impact and get my act together before it would be too dark to see my hand in front of my face. I donned my goggles, hoisted my pack on my back, looped the strap of the ice axe over my right wrist, and began climbing a ravine that seemed to run straight up the slope to a vertical rise just below the marker.

It occurred to me that I could easily lose course and waste precious time wandering around. The marker was already almost concealed by the outcropping on which it rested and I knew that very soon I would not be able to see it at all. I decided to remain in the ravine until it ran out, then try to stay aligned with it behind me as I approached the crest.

I could not have invented a more strenuous approach. From bottom to top, the ravine was full of sharp, broken rocks of all sizes that I climbed over and around, drenched in sweat, hands and feet aching.

Around 4:30 the ravine flattened out onto a slope from which rose a sixty-foot-high wall of rocks. I was pretty sure the marker – whatever it was – stood on a plateau straight above me. I was exhausted. Wearier than I had ever been in my life, and a biting wind seemed determined to carry away what little energy remained.

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The White Mountain Crash

The White Mountain Crash

Part I

On March 13th, 1974, a chartered airliner rose into a moonless sky and moments later slammed into a rocky outcropping of the White Mountains near Bishop, California. All thirty-six people aboard were killed instantly, including a young actor named Richard P. Ackerman.

I first met Rick while building sets at a storefront theater on Hollywood Boulevard where he was performing. He was disciplined, hard working, and a genuinely nice guy. He was also a bottomless well of nervous energy that made the strange characters he played sparkle.

His “day job” was selling cosmetics. Sometimes he would arrive for rehearsals straight from meetings with clients. Dash in wearing a business suit, his hair neatly slicked back, perhaps a little uncomfortable that his actor pals would see him looking so dignified. Then, moments later, he would emerge from backstage entirely disheveled, zipper down, one shirt tail protruding bizarrely from the front of his trousers, and his hair a frizzled tangle bristling straight out from the sides of his head.

Rick knew how to be very, very funny by remaining entirely serious in the midst of preposterous circumstances. And since that is the essential human condition, he was often wildly entertaining even when he was not on stage.

My fondest memory of him is the night he gave my wife and me a ride home from a party in Echo Park, an old hillside neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. It was late, no one was on the streets, and a copious amount of marijuana had been smoked during the course of the evening.

Rick drove a VW Bug. My wife was in the front seat, I was in the back. We turned a corner, the street before us disappeared, and we found ourselves poised at the top of a huge slide. Looking down, the perspective was acute. Street lights twinkled progressively smaller and smaller in converging rows closing in on an impossibly distant end of all existence far below.

Rick edged the front wheels over that point where one knows in their belly it is all down hill from here. My wife and I held hands between the bucket seats. We were off.

From where I sat, Rick and my wife were silhouettes, as if I was one row behind them at a movie. And the image on the screen suggested we were about to leap to warp speed. But the soundtrack was from another universe. “Cosmetics is mostly about improving appearances,” Rick intoned. “But it’s about scents too. Smells and stuff. My all time favorite scent is what you get when you open a jar of Oil of the Tortoise. No kidding. It’s a face crème with this really delicate scent that’s, you know, a tad unusual. But it’s also really, really… Well, let me give you a sample. You’ll love it. I know you’ll love it. It’s so, so….mmmmm.” The scary, giddy moment was strangely magical. A feeling like falling past blurred wisps of light in a dark, dark sky, while a sweet and funny guy with frizzled hair erupting from the sides of his head rattled on about Oil of the Tortoise.

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