Ernie Kovacs

A Crucible

1962.

To put things into context, it was the early ’60’s and a time of cultural ferment:

January 13 – Ernie Kovacs, died, in an LA Freeway car smash up,  comedian and actor (born 1919).

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I recall growing up in the 1950’s with Ernie Kovacs, the most original thing on TV back then, a surrealist who played with the media and your mind.  I suppose he had some influence on me, both in rebelling against the trajectory society had set for me, and later in my play with the media I ended up working in.  I of course did not know it at the time.

February 3 – The United States embargo against Cuba is announced.

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February 20 – Project Mercury: while aboard Friendship 7, John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth, three times in 4 hours, 55 minutes.

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March 19 – Bob Dylan releases his debut album, Bob Dylan.

June 15 –  The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)  Port Huron Statement was completed.

July 2 – The first Wal-Mart store opens for business in Rogers, Arkansas.

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July 10 – AT&T‘s Telstar, the world’s first commercial communications satellite, is launched into orbit, and activated the next day.

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August 5 – Marilyn Monroe is found dead at age 36 from “acute barbiturate poisoning”.

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As these fragments of the times floated by, naturally no one knew that around the corner lay a major historical trauma centered on Cuba, or that Sam Walton’s stores would expand to being one of the biggest businesses in America, or the havoc that it would bring to Main Street, USA. Or that the AT&T satellite would bloom into the internet, bringing its own “disruptions” throughout society.  At the time these blips were just “the news.”  It’s interesting how “the news,” accumulated in time, becomes the weightier matter of history.

At the end of summer 1962 my less than eager effort to find a job came up empty handed, and I returned to IIT to make a deal.  I went to the head of the Institute of Design, Jay Doblin, and had a talk, basically saying I would like to return, but not to get a degree, and only to take courses of interest to me and to use the equipment.  Surprisingly he agreed, and, having seen my freshman work, told me that I was leaps beyond what they had to teach. He gave me a carte blanche.  So I returned, taking courses in photography – taught by Aaron Siskind and Joseph Jachna, and drawing, and wood and metal working, and if I recall properly maybe sculpture or at least 3D something.  I took no academic courses – no algebra, no economics, no literature.   It was for me more a playground to taste various things and see what I found of interest.

However, at the same time, the bigger world was coming to a boil, a cultural shift was underway, and, as a fresh new generational icon had it, The Times They Are A’Changin’.  Along with my peers, we were caught up in the flux.

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September 22 – 21-year-old Bob Dylan premiered his song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall“.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

 

Oct 1.   The first black student, James Meredith, registers at the University of Mississippi, escorted by Federal Marshals.

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The civil rights movement kicked into gear, the rumble of music from swinging London – The Beatles, The Stones – wafted across the pond, and at IIT the Marines sent in recruiters.  I, along with a handful of friends, decided to contest this, and made signs that said such things as –

Travel to exotic places. Meet new people. Then kill them. Join the Marines.

– which in short order begot a summons from the Dean.  IIT was an engineering and technical school, where the students at the Institute of Design stood out as anomalies, a gloss of artsy frisson in a sea of rock-ribbed conservative business-minded mid-western Republicanism. Hauled before the school’s head, we were given a sharp lecture about the usual patriotism stuff, and told to cease and desist, or we’d be thrown out. My companions, all aiming at degrees, beat a hasty retreat.  On the other hand, knowing I had no intention of securing such certification, I was free to follow my gut, and I recall telling the dean that not only would I carry on, but that I knew the Armour Research Institute, a branch of IIT, was doing military research, and I would protest that as well.  I recall being rather dismayed at how easily my compatriots backed off, though I understood:  they still accepted “the system”; I had already in my mind opted out.

 

October 14 – Cuban Missile Crisis begins: a U-2 flight over Cuba takes photos of Soviet nuclear weapons being installed. A stand-off then ensues the next day between the United States and the Soviet Union, threatening the world with nuclear war.

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In the middle of October, Americans were jolted with the news that the Soviet Union had installed mid-range nuclear armed missiles in Cuba.  What ensued was a major crisis which traumatized the world. Along with millions of other Americans my friends and I seriously contemplated an imminent war, one which would incinerate vast parts of the earth.  The MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) policies which had been developed and practiced through the duck-and-cover 1950’s, snapped into reality.  While the politicians huddled and back-room diplomacy lay hidden in the fogs of Machiavellian plots, we ordinary citizens were left in the dark, our worst fears left to fester.

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For my friends and I this became a retreat into a fair bit of drinking really lousy red wine and smoking really lame pot.  We gathered together to await the sirens that would announce our deaths.  School was abandoned for the most part, and the nation stood paralyzed.  A truly traumatic event had overtaken the entire world.  For myself I did a quick bit of research and determined that New Zealand would perhaps survive a nuclear exchange in the Northern Hemisphere, and I went about selling all I had – mostly books on art and architecture – and raised about $800.  This, as it turned out, was about precisely what it would cost to take a ship to NZ.  I schemed to escape.  But by the time I had sorted it all out, had the money and the information to get the ticket and visa, it was already late in November and the Cuban missile crisis was resolved.  The world was not incinerated.  Life was going on.

November 20 – The Cuban Missile Crisis ends: in response to the Soviet Union agreeing to remove its missiles from Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy ends the quarantine of the Caribbean nation.

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Confronted with this turn-about I quickly calculated my realities.  I could go to New Zealand and arrive broke, knowing no one or anything.  Yes, I’d be safe from a hypothetical nuclear war, but….

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And in one of those fatal and inexplicable leaps which we humans can make, with no prior thought or desire, I decided I would make films.  Out of almost nowhere.  Yes, I’d seen some experimental films.  Stan Van der Beek had visited a class and shown some 16mm animation things he’d done, and talked about his work.  I recall him saying how simple it was, using his Bolex, and – perking my ears – how cheap.  I took note. Somewhere in that same time I’d gone with a few friends to underground screenings in the basement of a Unitarian Church down in Hyde Park, among other things to see a film touted by Stan Brakhage – the big man in that world – as the next genius filmmaker.  I think by then I’d seen Brakhage’s grand opus, DogStarMan, of which, frankly, I didn’t think much.  I don’t recall the soon-to-be famed filmmaker’s name, but the work was a sub-standard sort of Bergmanesque psycho-drama, with very clutzy atmospheric effects. I distinctly remember a scene in which “fog” was made by a thing with 4 cigarettes parked in front of the lens, sending up plumes of smoke – which I found truly lame, along with the rest of the film.  I recall commenting to the friends I gone with that if that was considered a really good film, with Brakhage’s blessing, well goddammit, I could do better and should get in that racket.  True story.  The hyped filmmaker disappeared into the advertising business I later read somewhere.

Having made my decision, and having utterly abandoned ID, I proceeded to write the Rebosio family back in Italy with a stick figure letter and some photos of them and myself, asking if I might park a footlocker of my things with them while I traveled Europe.  Snail mail.  Many weeks later I received a note, saying “si.”  I then bought a ticket on a Yugoslav freighter out of NYC, for Genoa, for $150, due to sail in latter December.  In the interim in I ordered a Bolex from an outfit in New York City for $500.

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And I began my crash course in film, going to the Clark Street Cinema (long closed), a rep house where they showed old Hollywood and European classics, the latest Euro and Japanese films, and sort of very soft porn – tits & ass stuff.  They showed two a day, or was it three, changing everyday.   I probably averaged 2 films a day for a month or so.  And while I don’t recall for sure, I imagine I had my eyes out for whatever experimental fare was to be found in the Windy City back then.

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And so I got my fill of early Antonioni, Godard, Visconti, Truffaut, Bergman, gritty English realism, Chris Marker, Kurasawa, Losey, Pasolini – the whole litany of late 1950’s and early 1960’s “art house” fare, with a dash of aged classics tossed into the stew.  Renoir, Welles, Ford.  A real mishmash.

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I was young, and duly impressionable.  The older classics left me mostly less than overwhelmed, though The Grand Illusion made a mark, as did Lady from Shanghai (mirror sequence!) and a few others.  My attraction was to more contemporary things, and those more extreme in aesthetic terms.  Vivre sa Vie, The Seven Seals, La Dolce Vita. L’Avventura.  I liked being challenged, even left in the dust.  I am still that way.

Along with the film education, the Clark offered another kind as well:  the men’s room was a notorious pick-up place for the at-the-time much suppressed gay scene.  I was, by the standards of the time, I suppose, a young pretty boy, and was duly cruised heavily.  I learned to try not to drink much before to save myself running the gauntlet.  And out in the cinema one might see someone jacking off down a row of seats, along with the sleeping bums, pickpockets and other riff-raff plying their trades or urgencies.

12219504_10153800295872474_6927690067993131937_nMaybe a few years later – don’t know the date.

And while taking this  cinematic cram session I had to tidy up a few more mundane matters.  Writing to my parents, with whom I had for reasons unknown left my passport for safekeeping, they refused to return it to me.  So I went to the passport agency and applied for a new one, stating I had lost or misplaced my not-so-old one.  In my mind it was true: I had placed it in the hands of untrustworthy people.  However, the new passport was only good for 6 months owing to the MIA other one.  It expired on April 1, 1963.   Which a bit later proved a kind of joke.

December 2 – Vietnam War: after a trip to Vietnam at the request of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield becomes the first American official to make a non-optimistic public comment on the war’s progress.

Ship ticket in hand, I took the train to New York City, my port of disembarking, watching the  snowy stubbled corn fields of Indiana and Ohio blur by.   Arriving in the big city I went to get my shiny new Bolex, and checked out the Bowery for a place to sleep, but then thought better of it, and surprised my parents by knocking on the door.  This time there was no order regarding my hair or look, and I went in.  I remember nothing except that the next morning I went to catch my ship without telling them a word.

As I left for Europe I had fifty dollars remaining of my $800 stash; the rest had gone to the Bolex and tickets.

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Prelude

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Unlike many filmmakers, I had no special childhood interest in films.  I do not recall being enthralled by them, or in any way drawn to their magic.  I think I was somewhat ordinary in that sense.  I do vaguely recall going to Saturday matinee screenings for kids – usually cowboy things, maybe the occasional Disney animation, Cinderella or Snow White.  And at a slightly late age, since my family was stationed overseas until 1954 or 55, I saw television, of which I recall a few things.  A Walt Disney hour, which perhaps initiated my loathing for this man and his perverse work.  And an hour in which Alfred Hitchcock introduced a program which supposedly reflected his somewhat macabre sensibilities.  Though my memory may be defective here, I think I also used to watch Ernie Kovacs in a morning breakfast show, and I quite liked his rather surreal and, especially for the times, bizarre sense of humor.  I suppose these days much of it would be cited as racist, or otherwise unPC.

 

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There are two little shards of memory which suggest a future in cinema.  One was that when living in Germany, in a suburb of Augsburg, somewhere around 1953-4, we spent a year not on a military base, but among civilians.  I have no memory how, but as it happens I befriended a young German boy, and his father ran the local cinema.  In consequence I got into Saturday matinees for free, and also got to go back into the projection booth.  I recall no more, though I suppose a young boy would have been fascinated with the mechanical stuff of projectors and big 35mm reels of film.  How could one not be?

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The other matter is rather different, and I cannot at all recall the likely year, except that I must have been quite young – 8 or 9 or so.  In school our class was given the assignment to work in little groups of 5 or 6 students, and to cook up and present a little play.  I recall that I must have seized the reins, thought up the story, and cast myself in the lead role.  The story involved a carnival or circus freak show, and the plot, to the degree there was one, or one that I can remember, is that the lead “freak” was kidnapped.  Presciently I cast myself as this freak as I had the “talent” back then (and still do to some degree) to roll my stomach muscles to make a profound ripple with my gut.  And so in our play, I removed my shirt and began to roll my stomach, I suppose to the amusement of the other children.  But not to the teacher, who promptly stopped our play, and there, in my first time out, I got the censor’s snip.  At the time I had no idea why, though in hindsight I suppose the teacher, a woman, perceived my “act” as highly sexualized, and hence, the curtains were dropped.  Again, a hint of my future.

This happened once again, in high school, in Annandale, Virginia, probably around 1958, where, while performing at a dance as a solo rock & roll act, I was singing a ditty I’d written that went something along the line of, “Hey Joe, we’re gonna go to the burly-que show…” and some lines about liking your girls short & fat, tall and thin, and such things.  Again, I was given the showbiz hook.

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And a last other item, which surely would have seen me punished far more severely than simply being censored, was a little animated drawing I made – for my eyes only.  Back then, in the mid-fifties, 3D was one of Hollywood’s lures, along with Cinemascope and other such gimmicks.  There was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a few others the names of which I do not recall.  Then the 3-D was in black and white, or more exactly in red and blue, and one watched with a pair of said glasses.  I turned these to another use.  While I had never seen such a thing, and porn in those days consisted of stag shows to which I was not privy, I suppose basically the matter is rather hard-wired into our biological systems.  And so I made a little line drawing of a couple, well, fucking.  Not in 3D, but in motion:  my figures were drawn in red and blue lines, and if I switched my eyes, open/closed, rapidly in left-right sequence, my little couple did, endlessly, the old in and out.  Maybe I showed my friends this clever little item,  but I don’t recall.  I only recall the dirty deed, as it were.

 

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Beyond these little shreds, there is nothing I remember of my youth which seems to point towards my future as a filmmaker.   Like others, of course I saw movies, though I think less than my contemporaries.   Of those films I do recall I think they are undistinguished and my memories of them are clearly faulty.  My vision of the desert area east of Los Angeles, the Mohave, was fixed by Them, a rather typical and stupid movie of the fifties, mixing nuclear fears with anti-Commie paranoia:  I have vivid images of the parched desert colors, pale yellows, palms, blue skies.  Except the film, as I found in seeing a slice of it on TV in the last decade or so, was in black and white.  And there is another sci-fi film which I recall, in which aliens from outer-space land and implant themselves underground, and suck their victims down via a sandpit.   Once in their clutches these souls are drilled in the back of the neck and sent back, infiltrating the middle-class world from which they were sucked, turned into dutiful zombie-commies).  I forget the title, but some time ago I saw it, or part of it, and was astounded by the wooden acting, the fake sets, the utter lameness of it.  Likewise Creature from the Black Lagoon, with its absurd aqualung-humped monster was cause for ridicule rather than entrancement.   Certainly those films, and the others I saw, did nothing to prompt me towards what became a large part of my life.

 

 

 

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