Friday, December 31, 2021

Looking back, December 1971: homeless, stranded and cold

Very, very cold.

Half a century ago I was a few months into one of the greatest adventures of my young life, a Homeric struggle in terms of personal mythology, although at the time it appeared to me more in the light of a hole into which I’d fallen, or dug myself, and from which my extrication was by no means assured.

I had, two years earlier, applied for admission in 1970 to the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus. I learned later that I’d made every cut except the last, which meant that by the time I was turned away all my alternative choices—in those days one’s single application to UC permitted secondary and tertiary campus options—had all filled up, and I was remanded, to my horror, to the University’s Riverside campus, in those days the Siberia of the UC system, supplanted these latter years by its Merced campus.

I was not ready for prime time. I might have not done much better at Santa Cruz, but I flamed out in spectacular fashion at UC Riverside by my second quarter, following the conclusion of which one professor told me that he regretted giving me a failing grade—“Unfortunately the University doesn’t allow me to assign anything lower.”

Following this I was, I suppose, poised to go feral for the second time in five years, and still might have absent a couple of lucky breaks fore and aft, but in December 1971 I had been reduced—had reduced myself—to a state of discreet homelessness. Determined upon another assault of the citadel (really, went my thinking, what had I to lose at that point?) I had parked myself at UCSC, dwelling, in a fashion that would be impossible today, in the interstices of the campus residence halls, most nights in a narrow storage closet, not quite long enough to accommodate me at full length, which I shared with a couple of upright bedframes. This arrangement kept the rain off, for which I was grateful.

I had found weekend employment with the campus food service, a contractor called “Saga,” and took part of my wages in meals, which meant that I generally had no solid fare between Sunday evenings and Saturday mornings. This grew old fast, to judge from the written accounts I left, but one becomes accustomed to these things. Mind, this was not some whimsical regimen of asceticism: I needed my weeks free to hitch back to UC Riverside now and then in order to negotiate freeing my transcript from its grip. That’s a story for another time, perhaps, but I was ultimately to prevail in this unlikely enterprise, so yay, me. In the interim, though, I was near-starving.

So, in early-mid December the campus closed down between academic quarters, meaning no dishwashing for Rand and no four squares on weekends. I imagine that I could have survived three weeks without grub, but it was not an attractive proposition, and I reasoned that between the two components of my bifurcated nuclear family I could probably cadge some room and board, especially board, without wearing out my welcome at either venue. And so I prepared to depart.

I don’t know, or can’t remember, why I delayed my departure from Santa Cruz until afternoon, but I parked myself on Highway 1 with a mind to arriving in Southern California by evening.

It didn’t work out in the event. For one thing, the first ride or two slotted me onto California Highway 1, the “Pacific Coast Highway,” rather than onto the inland and more heavily-traveled Route 101. A couple of subsequent rides left me at dusk in the middle of Big Sur, with little traffic southbound.

I might mention that the previous month I had lost my cheap sleeping bag in a rainstorm on this same stretch of highway: it had become utterly soaked overnight, my attempted shelter having proved inadequate, and I was obliged to leave the sodden thing draped over a nearby barbed wire fence come the morning.

So: no sleeping bag, no rides in prospect, impending night and falling temperatures. I had a shirt, a sweater and a light jacket, nothing like enough for the bitter cold that was in prospect. I trudged down the highway, and presently caught up with, or was caught up by, a trio of teenagers similarly ill-equipped for the conditions. They presented themselves to me as “runaways,” although I imagine they were merely highschoolers on a lark. In any event, we proceeded along Highway 1, few cars passing and none prepared to pick up four passengers. Presently we arrived at a tiny settlement proclaimed by a highway sign as “Pacific Valley.”

Pacific Valley appeared to consist of a gas station and a coffee shop, neither of which were open for business. It included as well, however, an open shed enclosing a working generator, and this the teenagers and I huddled around for the rest of the night: warm air was emitted from the front end, and hot exhaust, almost certainly with a major carbon monoxide component, from a hose or pipe at some distance from the machine. One of the teens parked himself beside this, and passed out at intervals: the rest of us would drag him away until he came to, whereupon he’d reposition himself against the spew.

Dawn broke. Out came a bearded character in an army jacket with an embroidered stars & bars on the shoulder. He looked at us: “Out,” he grunted. We cleared out. We’d survived the night.

I can’t recall how I eluded my companions—perhaps they reconsidered and headed north again?—but I secured a ride by myself with an eccentric character who, as I dimly recall, hated the Hearst family. And I remember seeing whales breaching off the coast.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Cinema Geographica


he kid brother and I recently riffed together on the notion of film titles modified with countries/cities/states swapped in. Before we were through (Rand: “Do you suppose that we might be high-functioning autistics after all?” Greg: “I’m thinking”) we came up with about a hundred and fifty of these. Here they are:

India Heat of the Night
A Fish called Rwanda
Sweden Lowdown
The Hungary Games
Where the Buffalo Romania
Mali’s Game
The Yemeni Below
The Long Dubai
Heaven Kuwait
Brexit at Tiffany’s
Citizen Kenya
Who’ll Stop Bahrain
The Big Chile
Ghana with the Wind
Laos Horizon
Babes in Thailand
Norway Out
Johnny Qatar
Saudi, Wrong Number
The Unsinkable Malawi Brown
Belize Rider
Desperately Seeking Sudan
Angola’s Ashes
Oman for All Seasons
The Curious Case of Benjamin Bhutan
Chad Day at Black Rock
The Man in the Iran Mask
Fools Russian
Benin Black
Nepal Joey
3:10 to Uganda
Somalia Came Running
Japan’s Labyrinth
Sudan Impact
Taiwan Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Hello Delhi
The Big Lebanonski
Beirut Force
The Empire Strikes Bactria
His Gaul Friday
Burundi World in Haiti Days
They Died with Their Bhutan
Dutch Soup
Kiev My Regards to Broadway
The Browning Persian
The Ireland of Dr. Moreau
Romancing the Estonian
The Brest Years of Our Lives
Iran Silent, Iran Deep
The Belarus of St. Mary’s
Raging Bolivia
Blazing Saudis
The Ballad of the Chad Cafe
Finn Harm’s Way
Guinea Shelter
Tunis of Glory
My Brilliant Korea
Andorra’s Box
Picnic at Hanging Iraq
Thebes Highway
Algeria the Wrath of God
Wait Until Dakar
Our Man Finn
The Spain Mutiny
House of Sand and Prague
Two for the Rhodesia
True Brit
The Longest Dane
Aruba Runs Through It
Once Gabon a Time in the West
Djibouti and the Beast
Moldova, Darling
On a Clear Day Yukon See Forever
What About Zimbabwe?
The Maldives Falcon
The Men Who Stare at Croats
When Harry Met Saudi
Apocalypse Palau
Senegal and Sensibility
Glasgow on the Hudson
Night of the Uganda
There’s Something About Mauritius
Ride the Wild Serb
Balkan the Wild Side
Bringing Up Babylon
The Odd Kabul
Bell, Book and Canada 
Chariots of Éire
Doctor Chicago
Suddenly Last Sumer
Who’ll Stop Bahrain
Monty Python’s Armenia of Life
Das Botswana
The Swissfits
Viet Home Alabama
Ukraine Man
No Country for Old Yemen
Children of Paraguay
7 Faces of Dr. Palau
The Bride of Palestine
Provence Upon a Time in America
Same Thai, Next Year
The Hound of the Basquervilles
Two Mules for Sister Sarajevo
The Eritreahouse of the August Moon
Travels with My Antilles
The Greek Gatsby
Istanbul Durham
Ankaraman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Athens of an Ending
The Talented Mr. Tripoli
Crete Expectations
The Little Murmansk 
To Serb with Love
Seoul Survivor
Howl’s Moving Castile
Tomorrow Navarre Dies
Prague and Prejudice 
East of Edinburgh
Boys Don’t Crimea
The Bruges Brothers
King Congo
Zagrebel without a Cause
Hot Fez
Rome Alone
Bataan Begins
Qatar’s Way
Quebec to the Future
Return of the Jeddah
Godzilla vs. Mecca Godzilla
Lyon in Winter
Dublin Indemnity
Belfast Times at Ridgemont High
Perth of a Nation
Rocky Harare Picture Show
The Legend of Tarzana
Amsterdam Yankees
Ghent Shorty
Kilauea Bill
A Clockwork of Orange
I am Curious Yellowstone 
Coeur d’Alien
The Three Muscat-eers
Quito the City
The Belize of St. Mary’s

The posters are here.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The scary month of May; hinges of fate

Although nearly half a lifetime has elapsed since the last disaster I associate with this month, I still incline to tiptoe during the interval each year between April and June, because the darkest and direst episodes in my life have occurred in May. One such occurred half a century ago.

1971 was…eh, not the best year in a life less than abundantly provided with such years by that point. By mid-January my sweetheart had presented me my walking papers; by March the University of California had begun to get pissy about the considerable arrears that I’d accumulated fee-wise, and the professors of all three classes that winter quarter had flunked me out, at which point UC and I severed all relations save that of creditor-debtor, and the University notified the good people at Selective Service of my availability for the struggle against international communism then being conducted in Indochina. By the end of the year I found myself discreetly homeless, although I flatter myself that an onlooker would not have so identified me, and also near-starvation, eating just four meals a week.

So no, for these and other reasons, things weren’t going well for me by the first of May 1971, and that evening I stumbled into a personal contretemps I don’t propose to relate here, but which involved me in a spirited beat-down administered by uniformed public employees and the subsequent withdrawal of my freedom of movement for the better part of a day. That I somehow contrived to talk my way out of this fix while leaving only the faintest of audit trails—more, and I would certainly never have enjoyed my alleged career; less and I would likely not have completed college—seems remarkable at this remove.

Actually, I used to retail the anecdote rather casually, because it certainly had its droll and entertaining elements. I was twenty-one, about thirty months later, when I lightheartedly related it to a new girlfriend who startled me by appearing appalled by the tale, at which point it struck me for the first time that I might not really want the incident following me around forever after.

Still, I recognized at the time, in the aftermath of 2 May 1971, that I probably needed to order the course of my life in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of ever again landing in such a plight, and in this I’ve largely succeeded.

As to the “audit trail,” those ghostly glimmers of my indiscretion were sufficient to persuade some University of California bureaucrats (and I learned that year that a Department Secretary can be mightier than a Dean) to consent to allowing me a second bite at the apple, and that has made all the difference in my life. Another such hinge from that summer: I sat brooding at loose ends on a median of a then sparsely-traversed street in Southern California when a passing carload of high school acquaintances spotted me, stopped, and invited me to accompany them to the graduating class’s “one-year reunion.” There I fell into conversation with a classmate whose chance remark set me on a course that ultimately brought me back into UC’s good graces.

And had even one of my professors—I’m thinking in particular of the one who told me afterward that I was taking up space at UC that ought properly to be given over to “someone serious about receiving an education,” and who regretted assigning me a failing grade (“I’m only sorry that the University doesn’t let us give a grade lower than F”)—had only one of them given me a “D,” I could not have made it back in. Thanks, Dr. H!

The following decade, in my mid-thirties, weekends late in May occasioned, in the first instance, consternation and grief as a decisive blow was landed upon my domestic arrangements, and a year later a descent over the course of a day into chasms of wretchedness—the abrupt emotional implosion following a year of insupportable stress—such as I hope never to experience again.

I’ll allude to one other hinge of fate: in 1966 a customer at a Southern California coffee shop spilled a drink. I wasn’t there, and although the immediate consequences were unhappy, reverberations from this trivial incident changed the course of my life profoundly for the better. At fourteen I was going rapidly feral: I would likely not have completed high school on that trajectory; I would certainly not have made it to college. The entire course of my adult life has followed upon that deflection, of a few ounces of beverage making for a slippery floor. Funny old world.

But May 1971: fifty fucking years! Geez.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Annals of pop culture

As we close out the first year since this household, at least, became aware that something was rotten in the state of epidemiology, it seems fitting to look back on a couple of the less exalted cultural artifacts we’ve sampled (revisited, actually) during this extended period of house arrest. I mean, it can’t be all Antonioni all the time, can it? Under consideration today are two genre products, The Game (not to be confused with the considerably cleverer David Fincher film from twenty-five years ago) and Silverado, a sort of generic western.

I had supposed the Cold War thriller as a dramatic form to be extinct, like masques or passion plays, or at the very least moribund. After all, even John le Carré, generally considered the greatest master of the genre, felt obliged to move on to depictions of contemporary mischief during the latter years of his long career, although he returned to the classic milieu one last time in portions of his penultimate novel.

But after all, if Regency romances continue to be written and sold, and if an Edwardian costume soaper like Downton Abbey garners rapt audiences on either side of the pond, why should we not find creative spirits drawn to those fraught decades when the Soviet Union and “the West” were ideologically at daggers drawn, each side desiring the extirpation of the rival ethos; each in dread of the other’s intentions and of its ordnance? Now there was an existential threat worthy of some serious knicker-twisting! There’s still drama to be mined

The fact that we know how the story turned out—no one pushed the button; no one perished defending the Fulda Gap; the Red Russians renounced their wicked ways, or at least exchanged many of them for our wicked ways—does pose some issues for the storyteller, which brings us to the entry under consideration here, the 2014 six-part BBC series The Game. There will be minor spoilers in my discussion.

I have alluded to John la Carré, who pretty much holds the patent on Cold War spy fiction, and whose œuvre is the yardstick against which all contenders and pretenders are perforce to be measured. By its major plot elements the series does not merely invite but positively compels comparison with the 1979 BBC dramatization of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this juxtaposition does not flatter the newer production.

We are once again made privy to discussions in the upper echelons of “British Intelligence” (“The Circus” in le Carré’s world; here doing business as MI5—one of the series’ few unimpeachable touches of verisimilitude) as its senior officers ponder the measures that must be taken to thwart the latest covert assaults by international communism upon the British Way of Life as it is lived in 1972. There are the obligatory touches of moral ambiguity (“alas, we are obliged from time to time to undertake questionable measures in defense of our ancient liberties and our values, and it’s a jolly good thing that the latter are incontestably preferable to those of the foe, else our slumbers would be troubled by the prickings of such vestiges of conscience as we have retained”) that have been expected of British spy fiction since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There’s the long-time chief of the operation, like Tinker, Tailor’s “Control” an embattled, lonely figure who has to contend with swinish, obdurate politicals above and scheming, ambitious subordinates beneath. In fact, let’s meet our principals, shall we?

  • There’s the aforementioned chief, a shrewd, corpulent, raddled character known to his team only as “Daddy.”
  • Bobby Waterhouse, Daddy’s deputy: an aging, expensively-tailored (well, by the standards of 1972, I suppose. In one scene the points of his shirt collar terminate somewhere in the neighborhood of his armpits. I am obliged to recuse myself from any critical discussion of the fashion and grooming choices made during this period) nancy-boy who is itching to put the bureaucratic shiv in pater’s back. Bobby’s actual pater is not in the picture, but his formidable mother has a few scenes, and frankly, I’d rely on her to hold the Fulda Gap in a pinch.
  • Wendy Straw, Daddy’s pert secretary (the actress puts me in mind of the young Rita Tushingham), whom MI5 appears to be grooming for field work, being as how the outfit appears to be chronically understaffed (see below).
  • Alan Montag, the bearded Aspergerish tech boffin who can with equal facility paper a room with concealed microphones or wire an intelligence source with a transmitter so small you could fit it into a golf bag. This is 1972, remember.
  • Sarah Montag, Alan’s wife and one of the agency’s top analysts—she’s one of the first to raise aloud the possibility that someone on Daddy’s inner team might be playing for the other side—and a crackerjack field agent. A candy mint and a breath mint!
  • and finally, looking as though he has just arrived on the set from a GQ photo shoot, our protagonist, tousle-haired young Joe Lambe, an even better field agent than Sarah. In fact, he’s the star of MI5, Daddy’s golden boy, and I’m here to tell you that on the evidence of this series, if Joe was the best they had, the UK would have been a Soviet Socialist Republic by 1973.

These are The Spies Who Don’t Know Any Better Than To Come in from the Cold. The story relies repeatedly and unduly on the convenient “idiot plot”: “Yes, mate, we want you to meet a deadly Soviet assassin in this basement room and worm important information from him. And don’t worry. Me and Alan will be monitoring you from our listening post on the tenth floor, and if something looks to go wrong we’ll be down here in, like three minutes.” Or “So you’ve got vital information on a mole within MI5, have you? Well, you’ll be absolutely secure in this safe house—of course it is. Where do you think the expression ‘safe as houses’ comes from? How certain are we? Well if we weren’t certain, we’d have sent someone on ahead to make certain there wasn’t an armed Red concealed in the laundry room, wouldn’t we?” Intelligence assets perish, bad guys routinely elude surveillance (not surprising, since MI5 apparently has only Bobby, Wendy, the Montags and Joe, plus a policeman seconded to the operation, as field operatives to keep tabs on the Bolshies), and the Russians are constantly getting the drop on our heroes. Perhaps more ludicrously, the entire tale requires us to believe that forty some-odd years ago the senior echelons of the British intelligence community were worried sick about the possibility of an imminent Soviet military invasion of the kingdom.

The series has a few worthwhile set pieces, and the latter episodes proceed a little more briskly. Notwithstanding a few red herrings strewn about, I correctly guessed the infiltrator about halfway through. If you fancy a Cold War thriller (or plodder), and are prepared to withhold comparisons with more distinguished examples of the genre, you might be entertained.


Like many another child of my generation, I was raised on westerns, and I remain at least mildly partial to the genre, which I suppose is why I put up with Silverado, an unduly formulaic example of the form. This is something of a “paint by numbers” western: one senses the writer/director dutifully ticking off the conventions of the genre one by one. Barroom brawl, check. Free-range ranchers vs. farmers, check. Outlaw hideout in canyon, check. Wise and worldly female saloonkeeper, check. Oily gambler, goodhearted prostitute, check. Taciturn hero, check. Gunfights, check, check, check, check, check. Injuns, inexplicably MIA.

It’s not a bad approach to making a cowboy movie. Contrived, to be sure, and more than a little self-conscious, but those of us who esteem the western expect certain elements, and if your favorite trope has not put in an appearance at any point in the flick, another quarter hour will likely summon it forth. Add to this some decent set design and cinematography, a handsome cast that appears to be enjoying itself and a workmanlike if not altogether memorable screenplay, and it’s two hours well spent, although likely not among the first- or even second-tier of westerns I’ll screen again. Among the cast members, craggy Scott Glenn acquits himself well as the aforementioned taciturn hero, as does Kevin Kline as the hero’s diffident sidekick. Kevin Costner chews the scenery halfway across New Mexico to the Colorado state line, but he’s having so much fun that his otherwise annoying performance compels our indulgence. Danny Glover hits all his marks as the Magical Negro; Roseanna Arquette is briefly on camera as the Love Interest in a role so severely truncated that it probably ought to have been omitted altogether; John Cleese(!) shines in a small part as an honest, by-the-books sheriff who nevertheless maintains a realistic vision of his professional responsibilities, particularly where these involve his personal safety.

The soundtrack by Bruce Broughton is unobjectionable as music, but is deployed in an almost intolerably heavy-handed fashion, and served throughout as an auditory irritant. I appreciate directors (John Sayles in Lone Star comes to mind) who do not feel the need to punch up the orchestra to convey drama, excitement, romance that ought properly be carried by the actors and the camera. Lawrence Kasdan has not learned this lesson.

Summary: a pleasant western pastiche, ably performed and photographed. Not otherwise particularly memorable, and rather less than the sum of its tropes, but nevertheless a diverting evening’s entertainment for fans of the form.