keep a-goin’

(Thinking about the recent death of Henry Gibson, I remembered this piece from a bit over nine years ago, which I decided to post here. More below on why.)

keep a-goin' (August 1, 2000)

I've been thinking a lot about persistence recently.

A member of Really Deep Thoughts Right Now (the Tori Amos email list where Bethany and I met) recently saw Patti Smith for the first time, and he was blown away. As he said, "so i got home from patti smith last night spent and wasted and ready to fucking change the world." I think it's great that Patti is being discovered by a whole group of younger fans these days, just as Neil Young was a few years ago. Fads and trends come and so, but Patti keeps on making the music that matters to her. Every time the entertainment industry extrudes one more plastic pop star for our listening pleasure, Patti Smith looks just a little bit better.

And there's Robert Altman, one of my favorite movie directors of all time. He's been in and out of favor in Hollywood, but he keeps on finding a way to make movies. Some have been good and some have been bad, and a few have been masterpieces (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, for two examples). He's usually not considered to be on a par with Coppola and Scorsese, though he's made more great movies than either of them. For a while, in fact, many of his best films were not even available on video. Somebody asked him how he dealt with that, and he said he dealt with it the only way he could, by making another movie. At seventy-five, he's still more interested in the next picture than in all the ones he's directed already.

And, finally, there's Orson Welles. He was 24 when he directed Citizen Kane, his first movie. It is widely considered the greatest movie ever made in the United States. Until then, everything in his life had gone right. He'd been a successful actor, director and producer on Broadway, and a popular actor and director on the radio, and he'd arrived in Hollywood with an unprecedented contract which gave him complete control over the films that he made.

Welles once said that he had the same amount of good and bad luck as anybody else, he just had all the good luck first, and then all the bad luck. And he did have terrible luck after he left Hollywood, and he made quite a few mistakes as well, but for whatever other mistakes he may have made, he never gave up. He could have lived quite comfortably by just working as an actor, but again and again he made money as an actor only to spend it as a director. But some of the movies he made in those later years were great Touch of Evil, Falstaff, and The Trial come to mind).

One of my favorite moments in the movie Ed Wood comes when Wood (at a particularly low ebb when the church that's backing his "grave robbers from outer space" movie decides to pull out, partly because they discover he's a transvestite) goes into a gloomy bar to drown his sorrows, and finds himself face to face with Orson Welles. They commiserate about how difficult it is to make a movie (Welles urbanely ignoring the fact that the other man is in drag), because somebody else always controls the money, and finally Ed Wood asks, "Is it all worth it?"

"It is when it works," Welles says, and tells about making Citizen Kane, the one movie where nobody could touch a frame of it except for him. "Visions are worth fighting for," he continues. "Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?"

I love that moment, partly because the idea of Orson Welles offering advice to Ed Wood (who had tremendous enthusiasm but no discernible talent) is hilarious, and partly because the message is true. And Wood, recharged by this encounter with his hero, goes back and makes the movie his way, and the end result is Plan 9 from Outer Space, widely regarded as the worst movie ever made by anybody.

But, as he says earlier in the film, "The worst movie you ever saw? Well, my next one will be better!"

I guess all of this has been on my mind because I've been thinking about a writing project I put aside a few years ago. It was a huge, open-ended story, with a ton of characters and plots, and I used to post it in installments on BBSs (computer bulletin boards). But then I decided it was getting out of hand, and that it really should be turned into a regular novel (you know, like the ones other people write).

Now I'm not so sure.

Anyway, thanks to Bethany for letting me sit in. I'll see you all in a month for the Hejira One-Year Anniversary bash. I'll be the one in the angora sweater.

(This was written as a guest entry on Bethany's online journal, and it's interesting to read it now, since it's about my decision to finish U-town, which was finished on my 50th birthday, four and a half years after I wrote the above. And the only reason I thought of it now was that Henry Gibson died, and I remembered his terrific performances in The Long Goodbye and Nashville, and inevitably I thought about "Keep A-Goin'," one of the songs he sings in the latter movie. And that reminded me that I'd written something with that title once, thought it took Google to help me locate it. So, I thought I should post it here.)

(Oh, and Bethany, who is mentioned above? She's persistent, too. Her current journal is ladypilot.org, where she says, "i have been writing online in one form or another since 1999 [that’s longer than you and way before the word 'blog' existed].")

Later: I wanted to add the story below, which I first told in a comment on this post on Jo Eberhardt's blog, The Happy Logophile:

Quick story about my ex. After she and I split up, she was living with this guy (we’ll call him Chuck). She called me one night, and as we talked she mentioned that she was taking karate lessons. She explained that it was just for exercise and because it felt good, that it’s very difficult to get a black belt when you start as late as she did (she was in her 30s), that most people who get a black belt start when they’re kids, etc. Then she paused and she asked, “Am I going to try for a black belt?”

I laughed. “Of course you are. And you’re going to get it, too.”

She laughed, and then she said quietly, “Chuck hasn’t figured that out yet.”

And she did get the black belt.

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2 Responses to keep a-goin’

  1. tpaulin says:

    I like the idea of an artist who is not content to sit back on laurels, but always strives forward to top the last project with an even greater one.

    That’s the kind of person I want to read/watch/listen to!

  2. I read one frustrated review of some recent Woody Allen film where the critic said, “Somebody should force him to direct a Western for a change!”

    (And even the fact that Woody was mostly forced out of New York for financial reasons did help get him out of his “comfort zone” a bit.)

    And Robert Altman, after I wrote this, directed Gosford Park, which was completely outside his usual films in terms of time and place and genre, and it is, and I don’t use this word lightly, a masterpiece.

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