THE SADDEST FILMMAKER IN THE WORLD: Guy Maddin, interviewed by Kristina McKenna (No. 10/May 2004)

The Saddest Filmmaker in the World
Director Guy Maddin is highly resentful, terribly romantic and prone to melancholy. He also makes wondrous, utterly unique films. Kristine McKenna asks him how he does it.

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)

Guy Maddin was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1956. He’s of Icelandic descent, and his father was a prominent hockey coach who lost an eye as an infant when his mother pulled him to her breast and pierced his eye with the pin from an unfastened broach. Maddin’s mother ran Lil’s Beauty Shop, a salon she named after her beloved sister. As a child, Maddin received a piggy-back ride from Bing Crosby. When he was seven years old his teenage brother committed suicide; when he was 14, his father died. These losses can be seen resonating in the films he’s subsequently made.

After earning a degree in economics at the University of Winnipeg, Maddin became increasingly obsessed with film while working a series of crummy jobs that included house painting and bank telling. When he was 29 he played a character named Concerned Citizen Stan on the cable access television show, Survival!, and the following year he completed his first film, the 26-minute short, The Dead Father. A moving portrait of a young man whose dead father haunts him in daydreams and nightmares, the film contains all the seeds that would later blossom into Maddin’s mature style.

Maddin has described digital effects as “grotesque artifacts of the present” and his predominantly black-and-white films operate on one level as an homage to the silent cinema of the ‘20s. Artificially aged through the incorporation of jarring edits that suggest old, broken reels of film clumsily spliced back together, soundtracks riddled with cracks and pops, and the mannered, melodramatic performing style he coaxes from his actors, Maddin’s films seem to call out from a remote, murky past. At the same time, however, they’re clearly the work of a late-20th century man well acquainted with the astonishing trauma of that bedeviled century. Fraught with anxiety and dread that often erupts into black humor, his films invariably circle back to a thematic point you’ll never find in an old silent film: the inevitable loss of that which we hold most dear.

In 1988 Maddin teamed up with his longtime collaborator George Toles on the brilliant Tales From the Gimli Hospital, a wickedly funny study of male rivalry and romantic longing. Two years later he completed his second film, Archangel, after which he contracted an incurable neurological condition called myoclonus which causes him to feel as if he’s constantly being touched. He soldiered on, nonetheless, and in 1992 he completed Careful, the story of an alpine village whose residents must forever speak in hushed tones, lest they trigger an avalanche. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs was released in 1997, and four years later he directed the filmed ballet, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, which will be released on DVD in May by Zeitgeist Video.

Maddin’s sixth film, The Saddest Music in the World, is currently in theaters. Based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, it’s a Depression era melodrama set in Winnipeg, where a beer baroness (played by Isabella Rossellini) hosts a competition to determine which ethnicity produces the saddest music. Out this August will be Cowards Bend the Knee, a film installation Maddin premiered last year in Rotterdam that will be released as a single panel projection. Maddin has also completed 18 short films; they’re difficult to find and they’re all fantastic, so don’t miss them if they come to your town. I had the privilege of speaking to Maddin last month, and these are some of the things he said.

Arthur: What’s your earliest memory?
Guy Maddin: My mother showing me her naked breast and telling me that’s where milk came from. My mother is no naturist, so that’s a strong memory. I also remember being stuck to the floor of the beauty salon where I grew up because everything there was coated in layer upon layer of ancient hairspray. I’d play on the floor and crawl around the nyloned ankles of all the women sitting in a row under the hairdryers, and whenever someone spilled a tray of curlers I’d gather them up and build little castles out of them. I was pretty young to be glued to a beauty salon floor.

Do memories enhance or impede our ability to enjoy the present?
You couldn’t make anything of the present without memories, so they make our enjoyment of the present possible. We’re constantly building up our library of memories, but we’re constantly losing memories, too, because we haven’t revisited them enough and finally they fade away. It’s as if you’re building on a beach that’s constantly eroding, so memories don’t really provide much of a foundation.

To what degree do we unknowingly fictionalize our own past?
Most people have a small set of stories they tell repeatedly that take on the quality of tales told around a campfire by cavemen. Those stories do become more like cave paintings than an accurate recounting of something that happened, and they become more beautiful and useful as a result. I willfully fictionalize my own past as much as possible, but strangely enough, I find the more I attempt to mythologize my own past, the more raw and cathartically confessional I become. In Cowards Bend the Knee, the protagonist is a man named Guy Maddin who’s a triple-murderer, hairdressing, hockey player–none of which I’ve ever been. But in the way that fairy tales can be incredibly true, despite the fact that they involve talking wolves, the character feels like an authentic version of me.

Is it true that in directing The Saddest Music in the World you copied various descriptions of depression and synonyms for sadness onto index cards to create a deck of 52 cards, then had each actor draw a hand of cards every day and use the suggestions on them to shape their performance that day?
Yes. I’m willing to try anything because I’d be revealed as complete impostor if I tried directing my actors conventionally. So I had these beautiful little sentences from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and synonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus, and it was just a way of forcing the actors to channel their lines of dialogue and their gestures through the suggestions on the cards. It worked, too–I think it refreshed their approach every day.

What elements of Ishiguro’s original script remain in your adaptation?
I had a real free hand in adapting his screenplay. In his version there was a contest, as there is in mine, but his took place in London on the eve of Perestroika. I switched the place and time to Winnipeg on the eve of the dissolution of Prohibition. Ishiguro’s main concern, which he made sure I included in every draft of the script, was the heartbreaking irony of Third World countries who are already suffering under immense privation, but are still compelled to exaggerate their privations because the competition for world charity is so stiff. So you get this grotesque sight of a starving populace pretending to be even hungrier than they are so they can be the sexiest charity of the season. Ishiguro wrote his script in the early ‘80s when the Ethiopian drought sparked several all-star pop fundraisers, so his concerns were essentially political. I’ve never been a political filmmaker, though, and I wasn’t interested in making a political satire.

Is it possible to make a film free of politics?
If you succeed in being honest about your characters a political reading will always be possible, but I think you can have a story that’s more timelessly political and explores the way hegemonics invariably work out. Some countries have more power than others and it forces them into inevitable roles. That’s apparent in everything from Euripides to Archie Comics.

Archangel includes a scene where a shower of bunnies rains down on a group of people huddled in a barn. You’ve described the scene as being so delightful that it’s a portent of something bad, which suggests you feel that any high point of joy must inevitably be followed by a fall. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, I guess it’s that feeling you get right after the first time you masturbate—everything is cute until you’re on the far side of the parabola. Those white, fluffy bunnies seemed to fit so niftily into a phrase like ‘the white fluffiness of forgetfulness.’ I wanted everything to look cozy because forgetfulness can be as comfy as getting tucked in beneath a giant, goose-down duvet. In Henry Green’s novel, Back, there’s a man who loses a leg after being shot by a sniper hiding in a rose bush. There’s not just a thorn in the rosebush, there’s a bullet too—it’s fun to combine things like that.

What’s the difference between nostalgia, melancholy and grief?
Nostalgia and melancholy are relatively benign, but grief is something I’m terrified of. There’ve been times in my life when grief was called for and I just didn’t have it—when my father, my brother, and my Aunt Lil died, for instance. Instead of grieving in one big payment, I think I grieve on the installment plan in my films and in my dreams, where I encounter all sorts of unfinished business. The bill collectors come around almost every night, and I engage in uninhibited grieving in my dreams, then I wake up refreshed.

What do you think happens after death?
I’m afraid it’s nothing. It’s funny, if you believed it was nothing it shouldn’t be frightening at all. But then, no one understands what “nothing” really is.

You’ve said, “I don’t need anything to happen to me anymore. I have plenty of sadness in reserve. I can lie down with a fine, vintage memory and sip it all night long.” This suggests that sadness is a source of comfort for you. Most people go to great lengths to avoid feeling sadness; how do you explain your ability to embrace it?
I avoid pain like a normal person, but I digest sad memories the way other people listen to CDs or watch movies. I don’t do it so much anymore, though, because I’m such a busy adult with this movie-making, and melancholy takes time. You need big, white expanses in your daybook to enjoy it properly, and I’ve been a bit too busy. My girlfriend, who I’ve been with for four years, has sort of trained me not to talk about it so much, too, but it’s always been a major pastime for George Toles and I. Don’t get me wrong—we’re not just sitting around reminiscing about funerals—but when we’re screenwriting we’re openly fabricating our past and transforming it into an exotic blend of melancholy and joy, much in the way people blend whiskey or tobacco. When a sad song strikes someone at a point of the compass that’s so completely personal and unique that they can’t even explain why it’s so deliciously sad, that song has been transformed into a fantastic commodity.

Name a song that always makes you cry.
This is really sick, but some songs actually make me cry tears of pride. It has to be a song that’s not too good, because a really good song is beyond envy. But if it seems so simple and clumsy that I almost could’ve done it myself, I find myself sliding into a temporary reverie that I was, in fact, the author of this work. That’s why I like basement bands, early rock, and any period of the Ramones. There are primitive films that affect me that way, too–Bunuel’s L’Age D’or, for instance, or Jean Vigo’s Zero For Conduct.’

What was the essence of Vigo’s genius?
Some people have taste and aspire to make things, but they don’t have the technical skill or the experience to do it, but Vigo’s voice coincided perfectly with his talent. He was a primitive and he knew exactly what to do with that primitivity. He was probably aware he only had enough command over his actors to get stylized, blocked out performances, but he knew how to use that style of performance. And he gave his gifted cameraman and editor the same careless, open, free-for-all he allowed his actors. Every aspect of his work is so consistently primitive and out of control that it takes on a quality of control. Jonathan Rosenbaum made the observation that when some lost scenes were restored to L’Atalante it didn’t make the movie any better or worse, and you do get the sense that you could remove or reorder the sequence of the scenes and it wouldn’t affect this great movie at all. I’m not great at talking things out with actors, so my approach has always been to use broad narrative strokes, then try to cover up with lots of baroque effects and film grain. So I’m always looking for people who work in analogous ways.

You once commented “sometimes it’s liberating to be self-destructive.” Could you elaborate?
I may’ve been referring to a foolish decision I made a few years ago to have my diaries [From the Atelier Tovar] published. I happened to have them with me on an occasion when I met a publisher, and it came up in conversation that I kept these diaries. He asked if I’d ever considered publishing them and I replied no, then he asked if he could take a look at them. I said “Sure, take them–you can publish them as far as I’m concerned.” I regretted that instantly because I knew as I handed them over that a lot of people would be mad at me—and they were. But it sort of cleared the air, and I found out who my friends were. I’m really not sure what’s in the diaries because I’ve actually never even read them. The sound of my own voice, even written on a page, bothers me, so I don’t like the sight of my own handwriting. I’m kind of phobic—I’m about two steps removed from late Howard Hughes right now.

You’ve also said “you do the darnest, broad stroke, crazy things when you’re in agony.” When was the last time you were in agony, and what crazy things did you do?
There’s nothing like mad love to force you into a surreal experience of your own life, and when I said that I was probably referring to the agony of unrequited love. The first time it happened to me I was about 20 and I didn’t know how to deal with it at all so I made a jackass of myself. One of my favorite scenes in L’ Age d’Or is when its star, Gaston Modot, responds to getting jilted. He wanders around in an apartment, he tears open a pair of pillows and puts a handful of feathers on a windowsill, he picks up a giant plow, then he throws a burning Christmas tree out the window. It’s pretty liberating being that irrational because you get to blast things to smithereens. The second time I got hit I was old enough to have some dignity, which I unfortunately didn’t have. I was once at a party where this girl I loved was ignoring me, so I responded by phoning up a taxi for each person at the party—and there were about 50 people at the party. I remember pointing at people and saying ‘this taxi is for you!’ I finally realized I was making a fool of myself and got into one of the taxis myself.

What’s the most destructive thing about romantic love?
There’s all sorts of damage done, but it doesn’t feel like damage at the time because it feels so good to surrender yourself to the other person. It feels like everything you’ve been waiting your whole life for, and you give up so much of yourself in those early days without any sort of negotiation. But you’ve actually just signed over huge parcels of land that you can never reclaim unless you want to start a war at a later date. And maybe it’s just an excuse to have a war, because they feel pretty good too. It’s no mystery why love can turn to hate because those two emotions are extremely close when the stakes are so high and two countries are sharing a border. I’m in love with romantic love, that’s for sure, but there’s always a price and you have to decide whether it’s worth it. I’ve considered the alternative, which is being without my girlfriend, and that’s not an idea I’m crazy about. It’s not that I’m afraid of being alone—I can be alone standing on my head for 14 years and I’ve done it in the past—but I’d miss her and always be thinking of her.

What’s your definition of a bad decision?
Something that looks ludicrously irrational from the outside. But the thing about wild gestures and ill-conceived battle plans that cause massive collateral damage is that when the smoke clears, the desired result is often still attained somehow. Maybe the desired result was all the collateral damage, or to make a huge, imperialistic claim for your romantic self. There are many lessons to be learned from nature, so we’re well advised to remember those marshland mating rituals, with giant animals making bizarre noises while opening themselves up to their natural enemy.

Jung says we’re all archetypes playing out ancient, eternal fables. Freud says we’re simply animals enslaved by biological drives. Which sounds more accurate to you?
I’ve never been a very good student of either of them, but I have groped out a murky, working theory for myself that embraces aspects of both those positions. I believe there are stories painted on the insides of our stony heads, there for reading and re-reading and palimpsesting ourselves. But I also can’t help but see us as selfish alimentary canals sort of bumping into one another.

How selfish? Are people incapable of truly putting the interests of someone else above our own?
Probably, but that’s too reductive. If you love other people and are even willing to sacrifice your life for them, yet that somehow satisfies some need in you, are you selfish? I suppose you could call that selfish, but you’d be doing a disservice to the extremely complicated and inscrutable transistor-sized wiring of what’s really going on in our heads. But human nature certainly feels selfish enough of the time without it having to be selfish 100% of the time.

Is evil contagious?
It can certainly spread like wildfire, and it probably has a very short incubation period. Unfortunately, its symptoms usually aren’t so apparent to the host organism, even when they’re fully infected.

Your collaborator George Toles has described the impulses that swim up from the unconscious as “deliciously unsavory, unsightly and extreme.” Is the unconscious basically a fetid swamp?
Yes. It’s a bog filled with sperm and eggshells and old teabags and discarded statuary. There are lyrical things down there too, and every now and then, through an act of will and imagination, you can make something beautiful from those raw materials. But mostly it’s a roiling, furious, unforgiving and stinking realm.

You’ve commented, “Most filmmakers don’t have the nerve to be really cruel to their characters, to give them what they deserve and what the audience secretly wants, even of they don’t know it.” Do people enjoy witnessing the suffering of others?
Yes. A lot of it is just glee that it’s not them, and a chance to vicariously wonder what it would be like if it was them. That’s why people slow down around car wrecks. When I was a teenager I had this Lord of the Flies fantasy and I used to wander around the beach naked throwing stones at birds. In time I developed a really strong throwing arm, and one day I actually hit a sea bird in the head. It was surrounded by its flock, and all these birds cried as this bird floated off. There was an off-shore breeze that day, and the birds cried for hours as this bird slowly floated away. I’ve never thrown a stone since.

You’ve said that when you saw Eraserhead you thought “Wow, this is my biography. How did someone read my mind and project it onto the screen?” What aspects of that film resonated with you?
The general state of delirium Henry Spencer films himself in. I’d been a father of an unplanned pregnancy—I assume David Lynch had as well—and I remember feeling plucked from a state of quasi-virginal youth and stuck into this domestic situation with me as the completely impotent paper mache patriarch of a family. The tenor of my life during that period coincided exactly with the tenor of Eraserhead, which evokes those middle-of-the-night trips to the washroom where you don’t quite have your balance and you’re staggering and you have to brace yourself against a wall and you’re scared you’re not even peeing into the toilet. Then all of a sudden one of life’s truths comes swinging out of the darkness at you and says, “You’re 20 and you’re married and you have a child and your father’s dead and you’ll never see him again.” During waking hours when the sun is high all sorts of misty veils pile up and envelop you in a sort of amnesia, and your troubles seem somehow abstract or fictionalized. But in the middle of the night there are moments when there’s an unavoidable, painful truth right at the center of everything, and that’s what Eraserhead felt like to me.

How did you go about surfacing from that very deep lake?
I wasn’t aware that I had to because I kind of embraced it in a way. Parenthood has tremendous rewards and I loved it, just as Henry does. Every now and then he gives a little admiring look down at the baby–although mostly, of course, he just stares into his radiator. When you have a child you love that child more than anything you will ever love, and my daughter is a wonderful person. She’s a designer and someday I’d love for her to design a picture with me.

The actor Ross McMillan has said “In every scene George Toles writes there’s someone doing something to someone else.” How would you describe Toles’ sensibility, and what makes him an appropriate co-writer for you?
George is always doing something to someone else, and he’s never happier than when he’s manipulating a situation to create conflict. He treats every room like a stage in which a short scene must be played out, and he’s perfectly willing to fabricate misinformation or involve wives and lovers to get things going. George treats human beings like piñatas, and once you understand that about him it can be fun to be part of his ongoing theater improv involving real human stakes. I thought we would’ve broken up long ago, but we’ve only had one little bump in the road, and we both mourned each other’s absence so much that we decided to repress what we found annoying in each other. It hurt too much to be alienated from each other

Toles has described your third film, Careful, as “a pro-incest movie” ; do you see it that way?
I don’t think it converted many people to incest, but we did try to work under the banner of making a pro-incest movie. It’s hard to control an ideology, even if you’re a skilled propagandist, which I am not, and I think it ended up being a pro-repression movie that offers a patent lesson in what awaits you if you let yourself slip and do what you want to do. Everyone in the film ends up getting punished for letting slip.

A central theme in your films is male rivalry which you describe as a situation that’s homosexual without the sexuality; what sort of territory does this theme open up for you?
I’m just trying to make sense of male rivalry. I know that when I’ve been intensely competitive with someone they become a point of principle for me, and I actually come to my rival’s defense if someone else attacks them. There’s a certain jailhouse logic operating there, and it’s not much of a stretch to find some kind of sexual analog in it.

You’ve described yourself as highly resentful and competitive; who are you competing with now?
Right now I’m competing against the clock. I had a very elderly uncle, my Uncle Ron, who’s been in most of my movies, and he recently passed away at the age of 95. He tricked the system because everything went right for him—he lived a great life and died painlessly. But somehow, his death finally brought it home to me that you die. I can’t count on living to 95, so while I still have my health I’d like to make one masterpiece. That’s my dream.

What are the qualities a work must have in order to be a masterpiece?
It must have the quality of something that was always there, but was waiting to be expressed, and now it has finally been said. It carries an element of surprise with it because it’s obviously so right that it’s startling its gone unexpressed for so long. It doesn’t have to be big–in fact, my favorite writer, Bruno Schultz, is considered a minor writer because he didn’t leave a huge body of work. His complete body of work is, nonetheless, a masterpiece.

Which of your films is most fully realized in your opinion?
With Archangel I thought I was on my way to saying everything there was to say about how we love, but I was kidding myself and I confused myself and my viewers a lot in its execution. I was pretty happy with [2000 short] The Heart of the World, but it’s not trying to do as much as some of my longer films. I’m really proud of The Saddest Music in the World because there are moments in the montage sequences where the music works the way music is supposed to–as a mnemonic device that drags up all sorts of cargo. And there are things I really like about my hugely autobiographical film, Cowards Bend the Knee, which is a very primitive, low-budget movie.

What historical period is most compelling to you?
Although it’s true that all my films seem to exist in the past, I’ve never been much of a historian because I hate doing research. Every once in a while some historical episode does engage me, though, and at the moment I’m trying to learn everything there is to know about the Borgias. I’m drawn to them because they were bad and charismatic, they had cool, sexy names, and there were no small gestures in that family. There was fratricide and incest and it was all true–not that that should matter at all, because nothing’s really true anyway. I’m always amazed when a film boasts “based on a true story!” Who cares? Whether it happened or not, it’s how a story is told that’s important.

You lost many of your ancestors to an 1876 Pox epidemic in a Canadian town called Gimli, and you now maintain a Winnipeg scrapbook of newspaper clippings that include stories of mad dogs dragging off children, hockey stick bludgeonings, and a father shooting his children during a fight over a snowmobile. This brings to mind Michael Lesy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip, which in turn is evocative of the Bunuel film, Land Without Bread, the Brecht/Weill opera, ‘Mahagonney,’ and your second film, Archangel, which is set in a region of Russia that experienced a collective amnesia following World War I. All these works deal with places that seem to have fallen under a sort of dreadful bewitching; do you think there are places that are cursed?
Yes, and they’re there for anyone who chooses to see them. There are invisible cities piled up all over the place, and if you occupy those spaces with just the right focal length on your spectacles you’ll see the skyline in all its, horrific, lugubrious, glowering splendor. And all it takes is a population of humans to create one of these places. Artists have been trying to pinpoint our humanness for a long time, and we seem to be inexhaustibly cruel and compassionate by turns, but nobody’s ever figured out why.

One from the Desert Files: NOAH PURIFOY

Originally published in Arthur No. 11 (2004) (available from the Arthur Store), with photography by W.T. Nelson…

When artist Noah Purifoy died this past March, he left behind a remarkable desert masterwork.

by Kristine McKenna

Noah Purifoy was born in Snow Hill Alabama in 1917. By the time he died this past March in a fire at his home in Joshua Tree, California, he’d traveled many roads and re-invented himself several times.

For a Southern black man of Purifoy’s generation, being an artist wasn’t a readily available option, but Purifoy was a man of remarkable vision and patience. It wasn’t until he was 48 years old that he really got rolling as an artist, but by the time he died 38 years later he’d created a body of work of formidable power. Purifoy was a populist artist, a Surrealist, and a sculptor, and his masterpiece is a parcel of land in Joshua Tree which he landscaped with dozens of massive assemblages. Fashioned largely from scavenged materials, this dazzling environment was created without the help of assistants or interns; Purifoy was a lone wolf, and it was his joy to wake before sunrise and work in the early morning hours under an open sky, before the heat of the day settled in.

The tenth in a family of 13 children, Purifoy was the child of farmers who lived in Birmingham from 1920 until 1929, when they resettled in Cleveland. At the age of 22 Purifoy earned a teaching credential, but his teaching career was interrupted by World War II, which prompted him to enlist in the army in 1942. He was stationed in the South Pacific for three years, and after returning from the war, he earned a master’s degree in social work. He then landed a job at the Cuyahoga County Department of Social Services in Cleveland, where he worked from 1950 to 1952.

Purifoy passed through Los Angeles during the war and he’d always had a hankering to return, so in 1952 he relocated to Southern California. He spent the next two years doing social work at an L.A. county hospital, but the work didn’t suit him. In 1954 he enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute, where he earned a degree in 1956, and he spent the next eight years working in various capacities as an interior designer.

In 1964 Purifoy’s interest in civil rights led him to collaborate with musician Judson Powell and educator Sue Welch in the creation of the Watts Towers Art Center, a community outreach program in South-Central L.A. The next year he found himself in the eye of the hurricane of America’s racial conflict when the Watts riots erupted outside his door. It was at this point that Purifoy finally found his voice and sense of purpose as an artist; Purifoy scavenged three tons of material from the ashes of the Watts uprising and used them to create “66 Signs of Neon,” a massive group show of works created from the Watts’ debris that traveled to nine university galleries from 1966 through 1969.

The show was deemed an enormously successful marriage of art and social protest, but Purifoy found the politics of the art world distasteful, and in 1970 he turned his back on art altogether. Seventeen years later Purifoy’s longtime friend, artist Debbie Brewer, offered him permanent lodging on the land she owned in Joshua Tree, and it was then that Purifoy again felt the itch to make things.

I visited Purifoy at his place in Joshua Tree in August of 1995, and I remember my morning with him fondly. I arrived at sunup and we spent a few hours roaming the land, while Purifoy mused on the marvelous sculptures that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. By 10:30 it was time to get out of the sun and we retreated to the seriously air-conditioned mobile home where Purifoy lived. He prepared lunch, which is to say, he removed nearly everything from his refrigerator, set it all on a small card table, and offered it to his guest. He was a generous and gracious host. I assembled a sandwich, he poured himself a glass of wine, and we talked for a while. These are a few things he told me.

As a child I wasn’t conscious of racism, but I was aware something was going on. Once, when I was five, my mother was taking me to the store and there was a parade in the street. People had hoods on, and when I asked my mother what was happening she said, “That’s the Ku Klux Klan.”

I had good parents who tried to protect me from the trauma they knew I’d encounter soon enough, and they encouraged me to go to school. So in 1939 I earned a teaching credential—not because I wanted to be a teacher, but because that was the only thing accessible to me then. I majored in history and social studies but never taught either—I ended up teaching shop at a school in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the early ‘50s all my friends were social workers and they were horrible people. They thought they owned the earth because they doled out a few dollars to poor people, so one day I just up and quit. Later that same day I was driving and I happened to pass Chouinard Art Institute, and I dropped in and told them I wanted to enroll. This wasn’t something I’d been thinking about – I went in totally on a whim, but they admitted me because I was colored.

I was the worst student in the whole school. I refused to draw, because I felt that I had something and that if I learned to draw I’d be dead because I’d end up making oil paintings, which wasn’t what I was after. I’ve never been satisfied with little things that hang on the wall and I wanted to find my own way in art. I wasn’t making art then but I was posing as an artist. I wore a beret and spent lots of time drinking wine, eating cheese, listening to music and talking to people, and didn’t take any of it too seriously. I was seriously concerned about civil rights though, and I had a dialogue going with some people who shared my feelings about change that had to come.

I was in the middle of it but I wasn’t afraid. I thought it was great because it was overdue and it turned out to be a goldmine for me. I collected three tons of debris from the riot and began making art out of it. I was searching for my own idea and had been studying the Dada movement and how it had reversed the whole concept of art, and the debris from the riot is what finally launched me on my own course. From 1965 to ’69 I made lots of work, and I sold it as fast as I could make it. I was also reading philosophy then and was knocked out by [Martin] Heidegger and [Edmund] Husserl. I was looking for methods of problem solving because I had lots of problems, and I was able to alter my behavior because of those two philosophers. They were great thinkers who went into areas most people dare not go.

I dropped out of the art world because I was disappointed in art. I perceived art as a tool for change, and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential savior. But the dropout population there increased rather than decreased, and the art I was making started to become formulaic and too easy. I was never interested in earning a lot of money. I wanted art to be a means of answering questions like ‘what is growth?’ ‘What is change?’ Life isn’t worth living unless the individual is pushing to understand more, and art stopped being useful to me in that pursuit.

A lot of the stuff I use to make artwork I buy from a recycling place near here and it’s a horrendous cost—I spend a lot of money on materials. In 1994 a local paper ran a story on me, so I also get lots of calls from people who say ‘I’m cleaning out my garage. Why don’t you bring a truck over and take what you want?’

There’s no ecological message behind my use of recycled materials—I use them because that’s what’s available to me. People occasionally comment on how hard it must it must be living out in the desert by myself, but this is a breeze compared to many things I’ve been through. The most difficult period of my life was when I was a young adult. I was raised in the church and as a teenager I found myself in conflict about sex and religion. I gave up religion—and leaving the church didn’t hurt me at all.

Sometimes I wish I had a savior because I don’t know what happens after death, but I do know I don’t believe in heaven. I recently made a series of works called ‘Desert Tombstones,’ and while I was working on them I thought a lot about death. It’s been said that if you don’t accept death as an equal part of existence you’re in for trouble somewhere down the line. I’d never given much thought to any of this because I thought I’d live forever, but I’ve come to realize that’s not the case. That may have something to do with why I push myself so hard now to finally get the work out that’s always been in me.

Noah Purifoy:

GIFT IDEAS FROM ARTHUR MAGAZINE No. 2: "A Place to Begin: The Ferus Gallery" by Kristine McKenna

Click on the cover to go to a page on amazon where you can order the item…


“In 1950s California, and especially in Los Angeles, there existed few venues for contemporary art. To a whole generation of California artists, this presented a freedom, since the absence of a context for their work meant that they could coin their own, and in uncommonly interesting ways. The careers of Ed Ruscha, Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz all begin with this absence: Ruscha turned to books as a means of dissemination, Berman pioneered mail art through his magazine Semina and in March 1957, Ed Kienholz, in collaboration with curator Walter Hopps, co-founded one of California’s greatest historical galleries, Ferus. Within months of opening, Ferus, which is Latin for “wild,” gained notoriety when the Hollywood vice squad raided Berman’s first–and, in his lifetime, last–solo exhibition, following a complaint about “lewd material.” Shows by Kienholz and Jay DeFeo followed, but 1962 was Ferus’ annus mirabilis, with solo shows by Bruce Conner and Joseph Cornell, and the first solo shows of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol on the west coast. The following year, Ferus also hosted Ed Ruscha’s first solo exhibition. After Kienholz and Hopps parted ways—Hopps went on to mount the first American Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Musuem—the reins were handed to Irving Blum, who got Ferus out of the red and ran the gallery until its closure in 1966. A Place to Begin is an illustrated oral history of this heroic enterprise. With 62 new interviews with Ferus artists and more than 300 photographs (most previously unpublished), it retrieves a lost chapter of twentieth-century American art. Edited by [longtime Arthur contributor] Kristine McKenna, noted expert and co-editor of the critically acclaimed Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle.”

BRIAN ENO, interviewed by Kristine McKenna, with an appreciation by Alan Moore (Arthur No. 17, July 2005)


Available from the Arthur Store

INDOOR THUNDER: Landscaping the future with Brian Eno
by Alan Moore

Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics.

The first half of the twentieth century saw all energies and the agenda that had driven Western culture from its outset reach their logical albeit startling conclusions in the various fires of Auschwitz, Dresden, Nagasaki, after which we all sat stunned amongst the smoking fragments of our worldviews, all our certainties of the utopias to come revealed as flimsy, wishful, painted sets, reduced to vivid splinters, sharp and painful. There was scorched earth, there was shellshock, there was no Plan B. Hiroshima rang through the traumatized and anxious mindset of the 1950s, through Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture, its shuddering reverberation somewhere between funeral knell and warning seismic tremor. Our response to the bad news carved a division through society, between flat denial on the one hand, paralyzed hysteria upon the other; between those who doggedly refused the notion that tomorrow might be different from today, and those fixated by the mushroom clouds who scorned the notion that there might be a tomorrow. Both these attitudes, you’ll notice, have conveniently avoided any need to think creatively about the future, have dodged any obligation to consider the Long Now. Tomorrow is today with smaller radios or it’s strontium and ashes, and in either case there’s no need to prepare.

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A MAN THAT MATTERED: Joe Strummer, remembered by Kristine McKenna (Arthur No. 3/March 2003)


Joe Strummer was a spectacular, inspirational human being

Text: Kristine McKenna
Photography: Ann Summa
Design: W.T. Nelson

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (cover dated March 2003), shortly after Joe’s untimely death on December 22, 2002.

When the Clash first burst on the scene in 1977 I dismissed them for the same reason I’ve always hated U2. Their music struck me as humorless, self-important political blather that wasn’t remotely sexy or fun. Definitely not for me. Nonetheless, being a dedicated punk I had to check them out when they made their Los Angeles debut at the Santa Monica Civic on February 9th, 1979, and what I saw that night changed my mind—just a little, though. As expected, Mick Jones came off as a typical rock fop who clearly spent far too much time thinking about neckerchiefs and trousers. Joe Strummer, however, was something else. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d never seen anyone that furiously alive on stage. Legs pumping, racing back and forth across the stage, singing with a frantic desperation that was simultaneously fascinating and puzzling, he was an incredibly electric presence.

At the press conference following the show that night, L.A.’s ranking punk scribe, Claude Bessy, jumped up and snarled, “This isn’t a press conference—this is a depressing conference!” (Jeez, tempers always ran so high during that first incarnation of the punk scene—who knows why the hell our panties were in such a twist!) I remember that Strummer looked genuinely hurt by the comment. Mind you, he was a working class Brit so he wasn’t about to start sniffling in his sleeve, but he didn’t cop an attitude either. I was touched by how unguarded and open he was—and I was certainly impressed by the mans vigor. I wasn’t surprised when I subsequently learned that Strummer ran three marathons without having trained at all. His preparation? “Drink ten pints of beer the night before the race and don’t run a single step for at least four weeks before the race.”

That first show at the Santa Monica Civic didn’t transform me into a Clash fan, but Strummer interested me, so when the band showed up in 1981 in Manhattan, where I was living at the time, I decided to see what he was up to. The Clash had booked a nin- show engagement at Bond’s, an old department store on Times Square in Manhattan, and this turned out to be not a good idea. The place wasn’t designed to handle the crowds the band drew, and the engagement turned into a nine-day stand-off between the band and the fire marshals. I attended three nights in a row and can’t recall them ever actually making it to the stage and performing. But then, that was business as usual during the glory days of punk, when gigs were forever being shut down, aborted, abruptly canceled. This was political theater, not just music, and nobody embodied that idea more dramatically than the Clash.

Cut to June 14 of the following year and I finally saw the Clash succeed in a completing a full set at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. By then, I’d finally begun to appreciate the breadth and fearlessly experimental nature of the Clash’s music, and Strummer was at the peak of his powers as a showman at that point. The huge hall was packed, and it was as if Strummer was a maestro conducting this undulating mass of sweaty people, with the mysterious power to raise or lower the pitch at will. Boots, beer bottles and articles of clothing flew through the air, people leapt on stage, leapt back into the arms of their friends, Strummer stood at the microphone stoking the fire, and somehow managed to keep the proceedings just a hair’s breadth short of total chaos for two hours. It was a commanding display from a man who clearly knew his job and knew his audience.

Following the break-up of the Clash in 1985, Strummer charged head-on into a busy schedule of disparate projects. He acted in several independent films and composed six film soundtracks, including one—for Alex Cox’s lousy 1988 film, Walker—that was remarkably beautiful. I wrote an admiring review of the score for Musician Magazine, and a few months after it was published Strummer was passing through L.A. and he invited me to lunch in appreciation for the supportive words. We were to meet at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and though I was nervous on the way there, he put me at ease the minute we met. Strummer was such a genuine person that it was impossible to feel uncomfortable around him—I know it sounds corny, but he truly was a man of the people. He was funny and generous in his assessments of people, but he didn’t sugar coat things either–he had no trouble calling an asshole an asshole when it was called for. The thing that ultimately made Strummer such a spectacular human being, however, is so simple that it barely seems worth mentioning: he was interested in people. He wanted to hear your story and know what was going on in your neighborhood, he asked how you felt about things and was an empathetic listener—he paid attention! The other thing I immediately loved about him was that he was an enthusiast and a fan.

Just how big a fan he was became clear to me a few months later when he guest hosted a radio show I had at the time on KCRW. My show was at midnight on Saturday, and KCRW’s office is hard to find, so our plan was to meet behind the Foster’s Freeze at Pico and 14th at 11:00 P.M. He roared into the parking lot exactly on time in a car with four pals, and the lot of them tore into the record library at the station looking for the records on Strummer’s play list. His plan was play all the records that shaped his musical taste as a teenager in the order that he discovered them, and the show he put together was equal parts history lesson and autobiography. Included in the far-flung set were tracks by Sonny Boy Williamson, Lee Dorsey, Captain Beefheart, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and loads of fabulous, rare reggae and dub. His loving introduction to the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” brought tears to my eyes. Several fans crashed the studio when they heard him on the air and realized he was in town, and he welcomed them all. It was a wonderful night. He had fun too, and as he thanked me and said goodnight, he kissed me on the cheek and I blushed.

Strummer spent the next ten years struggling to re-start his career post-Clash and stumbling repeatedly. “The only thing that got me through was sheer bloody-mindedness—I just won’t quit!,” he told me when I interviewed him in October of 2001. We were talking on the occasion of the release of his second album with his five man line-up, the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go, which was rightfully hailed as the best work Strummer had done in years. He was happy with the record, and when I saw him perform at the Troubadour a few weeks after we spoke, he seemed happy in general.


Above: Joe Strummer leads an impromptu dancing-on-the-tables moment at a restaurant in New York City, sometime in the late ’90s. (Photo courtesy Chris from Hellcat/Epitaph.)

“I’ve enjoyed my life because I’ve had to deal with all kinds of things, from failure to success to failure again,” Strummer told a journalist from Penthouse Magazine in 2000. “I don’t think there’s any point in being famous if you lose that thing of being a human being.”

That’s something that was never a danger for Strummer. During that last interview (printed below), I asked him what the great achievement of punk rock had been, and he replied, “it gave a lot of people something to do.” I loved the complete lack of self-importance in that answer, however, this isn’t to suggest that Strummer ever broke faith with punk. “Punk rock isn’t something you grow out of,” he told Penthouse. “Punk rock is like the Mafia, and once you’re made, you’re made. Punk rock is an attitude, and the essence of the attitude is ‘give us some truth.’

“And, whatever happens next is going to be bland unless you and I nause everything up,” he added. “This is our mission, to nause everything up! Get in there and nause it out, upset the apple cart, destroy the best laid plans—we have to do this! Back on the street, I say. Turn everything off in the pad and get back on the street. As long as people are still here, rock’n’roll can be great again.”

Thank you Joe for bringing us the good news.

* * * * *

The following conversation with Strummer took place in October 2001, on the eve of his final U.S. tour during the winter of 2001-2002.

Arthur: You say the great achievement of punk rock was that ‘it gave a lot of people something to do.’ What was its great failure?

Joe Strummer: That we didn’t mobilize our forces when we had them and focus our energies in a way that could’ve brought about concrete social change—trying to get a repressive law repealed, for instance. We’re stuck in a kind of horrible holding pattern now, and it seems to me that the only way to change it is if we get hipsters to stay in one place long enough to get elected. The problem is that no hipster wants to get elected.

Arthur: I saw the Clash several times during their U.S. tours of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I remember the sense that something profoundly important was at stake at those shows, that they were about something much larger than pop trends. What was at stake?

Joe Strummer: In the rush of youth you assume too much—and so it should be—but we felt that the whole machine was teetering on the brink of collapse. Some amazing things went down in Britain during the ‘70s—the government decided they could disempower the unions by having a three day week, for instance. Can you imagine that? Monday morning you wake up, and suddenly there’s only a three day week, from Monday to Wednesday. There were garbage strikes, train strikes, power strikes, the lights were going out—everything seemed on the brink, and looking through youthful, excitable eyes it seemed the very future of England was at stake. Obviously, that’s very far from the feeling these days, when everything’s pretty much smugly buttoned down.

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