man v myth

just finished mitchell zuckoff's fantastic oral biography of robert altman (titled, amazingly enough, robert altman: an oral biography). altman has long been a personal hero not only for the films themselves but also due to his image: renegade auteur issuing steady 'fuck you's to the suits in service of art. a filmmaker able to navigate between studio and non-studio - yes, w/ varying results - and enjoy rich decades of work.

however the book managed to puncture that mythic aura a bit (granted i'm at fault for allowing myself to play along) by showing the more human aspects: destructive habits, child-like self-regard, familial neglect etc. it's been messing with me. can you respect/love an artist who is an asshole in life? further, can you be a great artist without being an asshole in life? that is, do the particulars of art demand a certain selfishness, an exclusion of others at the expense of others? i'd really like to think not but as i reflect on great filmmakers that i admire (for their films that is) i do not admire them so much in life. they've either had strings of divorces, affairs, substance problems, monomanical treatment of subordinates on set, married their adopted daughters, or some combination. do you get a pass b/c you can make a film? or rather, do poor 'real-life' qualities invalidate, blunt, or otherwise neutralize art? there's no easy way to encapsulate this really, b/c you have to bring in context and history, but the short of it is, again, it's been messing with me.

the following is from an interview w/ patton oswalt and robert siegel about their film big fan which deals w/ rabid sports-fan adulation (and which you should see). it goes thusly:
Do you think someone obsessed with sports like this is different from someone who's really into, say, an actor?

Siegel:No, I think it's the same.
Oswalt: Yeah, especially in L.A., I've seen some really, really extreme examples of people who are fans of an actor. [Gestures to a picture of John Lennon on the wall] Over there, there's a picture of a wife, child-abandoning, heroin-using anorexic that everyone worships as this paragon of peace and brotherhood. They worship the image, despite the realtiy of it...
Yes, that kind of hits it.

back to the altman book, I came away from it w/ a deeper richer appreciation for altman and his films and - on that level anyway - i am no less a fan. as a director he did amazing things that won't be matched and if you can keep your focus only on work, not the man, he's incredible. but should your gaze drift to the human level,  he and his loved ones paid a price. so, what to do w/ that?

should you think of any good people who have made great art forward them my way



had the grand misfortune to re-see some of the movie twister on a recent flight. it features a divorced couple chasing tornadoes. suffice to say it is gloriously bad. putrid bad. end-of-the-world bad. the only thing that kept me watching past five minutes was the faintest tinge of nostalgia, as i'll always recall it as the first employee screening i attended at the broadway cinema in eureka way back when, but even that personal connection to it could only hold my attention for so long. i had to look away.

the next day at home i was going through an old Film Quarterly (vol 53, number 1, fall 1999) and lo and behold found an entire essay devoted to the movie, but with the measured consideration appropriate to great cinema. written with a straight face.  wherein a piece of writing goes:

"At least as quintessentially American as the film's heartland of America location and its central characters and plot  is the way Twister's Midwestern spaces are shot. Few films have made more dramatic use of the helicopter shot...These helicopter shots express the charaters' excitement about the adventure they're on..."

Blah blah blah. This kind of thing makes me want to puke. A tortured essay with academic language whose sole purpose appears to be to justify the author's job teaching film theory at wherever university. You don't need to write an essay about a turd. After all, it's a turd. Film criticism has no real function except film criticism. it's a closed loop. it's like majoring in philosophy or something. there's no real-world application.


puerto rico - concluded

we wake up and head to st. germain for breakfast. it's closed. it doesn't open until 11 am and it's currently 9am. we were just here last night but neither of us took note of the opening times. we wander and find la bombinerra cafe which has been recommended to us but when we enter it's nothing like what we were told to expect so we quickly duck out. we wander and find cafe majorca and eat a simple unremarkable breakfast. we buy some dumb souvenirs. they've all been made in china but someone has written "puerto rico" on the side w/ a sharpie as if that cements their authenticity. we wander and find caficultura and have double americanos.  we return to the room. we drive the rental car to its home. we take the shuttle to the airport. we step inside.


puerto rico - day 8 - vieques, el yunque, old san juan

we wake up early and walk w/ suitcases downtown to meet michael and jen, who are giving us a ride to catch the ferry in isabel segunda. we're down to six bucks cash so we head away from belly buttons, where they're eating, and pop in to somewhere that looks like they take cards. sadly it also looks like a denny's by the seaside and sadly i pour myself a coffee before we decide to get out of there so suddenly we're down to four dollars. michael and jen had left the windows to their rental car down by accident the night prior and it is like sitting in a mosquito nesting ground, seemingly hundreds swarming and biting. we make it, we take the ferry, we part ways w/ michael and jen in fajardo. we retrieve our car from the shady lot in tact and get back on the road toward san juan, planning a turn off to see el yunque rain-forest.

later, up tiny serpentine road. we park. we're walking on big tree trail toward el mina falls.

later we're in san juan, navigating highway drivers, unhelpful maps, unhelpful gas station directions, frayed. we finally find the old san juan sheraton (which m's mother has graciously gifted us via her airline miles) and check in. our room is exactly over an enormous exhaust blower system, kind of like a low-grade airplane engine rumbling non-stop. we switch rooms. it's around 4 and we're starving but we decide to go out for a beer and explore san juan and by virtue of exploration we'll find the right place to eat dinner. we'll come back to the room and shower and then eat dinner at our pre-selected place. it's the perfect plan.

we plan to have a beer at st germain, which our book recommends, but it's closed, not opening for a couple hours for dinner. we could come back for dinner or we could eat breakfast there in the morning. we find fortaleza st, which is a-brim w/ possibilities. we narrow it to two 1) marmalade (which appears upscale and well-regarded and was recommended to us by our host in vieques) and parrot club (which appears downscale comparatively but which sometimes has live music). margaret goes into parrot club and asks, turns out they have live jazz starting at 8pm. hmm. we sit w/ all that over beer on plaza. we return to room. we swim. we shower. we dress. we leave.

back on fortaleza street and we find ourselves in a strange mini-paralysis, unable to make a decision about which restaurant to eat at. marmalade looks nice but completely empty. parrot club is hopping. we walk between them several times unable to make a decision, perhaps owing to a long day of travel and the end of our trip, fried brains. finally we go to marmalade, decide to have cocktails and let their quality determine whether we'll stay there for dinner. perfect plan. in marmalade we suddenly realize that their dining room is hopping - we were only seeing the front of the establishment, a sort of ante-room w/ kubrick-ian lighting and couches where no one happened to be. we sit in the ante-room and order 10 dollar cocktails. they're weak and fruity and suddenly we feel we've made an epic mistake and we should not eat here. we down our cocktails and decide to eat at parrot club.

at the hostess station at parrot club. the hostess asks our name. margaret says 'margaret'. the hostess writes down 'barker'. i say, 'it's actually margaret, not barker'. the hostess cackles and lets on that she's been drinking and quickly changes the name. 'it'll be about ten minutes' she says. so we sit at the bar. 20 minutes later i survey the room, there are about five open tables. i go back to the hostess. she looks at me like she's never seen me before in her life. i say "can we sit now?" she says "do you have a reservation?". i remind her of the margaret/barker hilarity and she seats us next to an enormous potted plant, the leaves hanging exactly over our heads. after ten minutes or so a waitress appears. she recites a couple specials, making little effort to disguise her dis-interest in us. i ask her to recommend between two choices and she says "oh, definitely that one". no further clarification. we order and suddenly feel we've made an epic mistake and we should not eat here. but it's too late. the food arrives and confirms our fears.  also, there is no live jazz. there is no music playing at all. it is the absolute nadir of an otherwise amazing trip.

later we're at the nuyorican cafe with an hour to kill before the music starts.


puerto rico - day 7 - vieques

we wake up early and head to the main strip in esperanza to a breakfast spot called 'belly buttons'. their credit card ability is down so we have to use the last of our cash. this is mildly problematic b/c there's only one atm on the island and it's in the other town, isabel segunda. we see michael & jen walking down the street. i look at them but m says 'no, no, look away', b/c she's afraid they'll think we're stalking them. jen sees us and comes over. it's the last day in vieques for them too and they haven't done the bio-bay yet. they can't decide whether to do it or not. we're planning to do the bio-bay later this evening. we plan to meet that night at bananas for a drink. gary shows up, to rent us bikes for the day. we ride back to the room, grab fins and masks, slather spf. hit the road.

it's several miles up the road, thankfully flat, but the sun is a hammer. there's a map in my back pocket that we check every once in awhile. at last we find the main road to the beaches. the turn off to the 1st beach is blocked off with cement dividers. so is the next one. we can't tell if it's meant for all traffic or only vehicles so we ride bikes around the dividers and down gravel roads. the map seems to say we're near garcia beach. we come across a steamroller and paving equipment. we navigate our way back to garcia beach. it's completely abandoned. we can see the smoother waters of red beach in the next cove. we navigate back and figure our way to red beach. a road crew, having a break under a gazebo, whistles at us. the beach is closed, which is damn unfortunate b/c it's beautiful. we make our way back to the main road. we find our way to the next beach - which takes about 45 min of thirst-inducing, nettle-penetrating exertion - secret beach. not a secret apparently b/c it's populated w/ 10 or so people. no matter. we walk our bikes all the way to the end of the cove. we chain them to a tree (b/c m is convinced that men w/ machetes are hiding in bushes waiting to prey on tourists. a guidebook, she swears, advises this). we swim, rest. snorkel, rest. swim, rest. hours tock by.

later we're riding back to town. sun-soaked and salty skin, our water supply diminished. the ride back seems twice as long as there. it's like riding bikes in a sun-lit sauna. we flirt with heat exhaustion and arrive downtown at duffy's dripping wet, like we just stepped fully clothed out of the ocean. we split a veggie burger and drink beers and a couple pitchers worth of water.

later that evening. we're downtown, across from duffy's, meeting the contact from abe's who'll take us out to the bio-bay. we see michael & jen having someone take their picture. we don't say hi b/c we'll see them later. before long, we're kayaking at dusk, out into the middle of Mosquito Bay, then jumping into the water, flailing joyous arms. it's been a perfect day. at some point we realize that 5 years ago today I was having brain surgery. i breathe in deep grateful breaths because this day, 5 yrs later, is the reverse mirror image of that day. this liquescent once-in-a-lifetime kind of day.

back in town we see michael & jen at duffy's. they're sitting at the same table we had a drink at the previous night. we point out to them the table where hours earlier we had beer and water. that soaring feeling won't diminish.


puerto rico - day 6 - rincon to vieques

we wake early. barry adamson again. coffee and granola, furious packing. we need to make our way to the other side of the island to catch the 1pm ferry from fajardo to vieques. we pull out of villa orleans at 9 am  vowing to one day return. au revoir rincon.

it is a long day of driving. many legs. we choose to take the southern route versus northern since the latter we just took up to arecibo and it is putrid. plus the northern takes us straight into san juan and all attendant chaos/squalor. southern route has lots of legs, lots of uncertainty. we can't bear to listen to hall & oates again so we put in the other cd we bought at wal-mart, a collection of early hip-hop songs, or else we drive in silence. time tick-tocks. at one point it looks like we won't make the 1pm and will have to take the next ferry, the 4pm, but things break our way and we make it to fajardo w/ about 10 minutes to spare. we park the car in a shady-looking lot. we buy tickets. we're on the ocean, en route.

an hour later, we're stepping off the boat. we take a publico to the other side of the island, to the town of esperanza. publico drops us at acacia guest house. douglas, the co-owner, shows us our room, gives us a quick run-down of all the available amenities on the island. we are bone-tired but humming w/ excitement to be here. it is quite beautiful. we walk into town, check out the main drag, head toward sun bay, walk around the bay to the far side, lay in the sun, swim in the ocean.

we head back to the room. decide to splurge on restaurant douglas mentions. pricey but "you portland foodies will love it". we dress up and head down and i have the distinct sensation that we're about to run into michael & jen - the town is so small. few dining opportunities. and there, sitting in the window as we enter are michael and jen. m is adamant that we don't say anything to them since they're honeymooning and all, so we cross to a table at the back. later jen stops by our table en route to the washroom and says 'we saw you guys come in'. we make plans to have a drink the next night. later we see douglas eating at a table near michael and jen.

we sleep. or try to. there are dogs having barking wars and roosters crowing. all night. but it doesn't matter. b/c we're in vieques and it is like nowhere we've been.


puerto rico - day 5 - rincon

there's no clock so we set the alarm on m's blackberry ('something wicked this way comes' by barry adamson). we wake up early having spent the previous night at calypso w/ friends, drinking too much dead guy ale. we have coffee as the sun rises over the water. there's granola and oat milk but we pass, neither of us hungry. one of us (me) will regret this later.

we drive through rincon, very early, no one about, drive to the black eagle marina, we park, walk into taino divers. we're fitted for mask and fins. we buy an underwater camera. there's about 8 other people w/ us on the boat, plus the captain and mate. we're told that due to the wind we won't be going out to descheco island but instead will head toward mayaguez. once we're on the water the ocean chop is such that we stop and change plans again: we'll stay local and do 3 stops. all of which is fine except it is a very bumpy ride and for one who has had too much to drink the evening prior, only coffee the morning of, and zero food to speak of, the bounce can verge on unpleasant. at last we stop. anchor down. 2 people are scuba, the rest snorkel. we jump in.

i've never snorkeled before. the first ten minutes i'm in the water is spent spitting out salt water, adjusting against breathing instincts, but eventually i get the hang of it. the water is blue and warm. fish everywhere. we anchor up and move to the 2nd spot and m and i realize that we are dead in front of where we were 2 nights ago for the wedding. i can see the tree on the beach that we laid under that night. we're back in the water and i'm suddenly not feeling my best. i vomit in the ocean. i feel better. we anchor up and move to the 3rd spot. I'm back in. I take pictures w/ our underwater camera.

later we're at banana dang.
later we're back home, napping, exhausted and sun-burnt.
later we're at the lazy parrot eating dinner and we see a couple of snorkel-mates from Boston. they're enjoying dead guy ale.
later we're at tamboo drinking and then walking up the street
to the bar/restaurant that we had breakfast at a couple days prior. broken surfboards on the ceiling, window slats open. we're drinking w/ friends new and old.


puerto rico - day 3 & 4 - rincon & camuy/arecibo

we wake w/ the whole day before us. wedding is at 4 and no obligations prior. we have coffee and read oceanside. we drive thru town, head for a restaurant for breakfast. restaurant is actually a bar over a small market, window slats are open, broken surfboards on the ceiling. we're the only people there. groundhog day plays on the widescreen. we eat and head down to sandy beach. we read and swim, m quick to point out that at our lodging is on the caribbean but our present location is the atlantic ocean. later we make our way up the hill to banana dang and declare it profoundly mind-altering and moving. we go back home, shower, change and head to the wedding.

the wedding takes place. shortly thereafter the sunset is glorious. shortly thereafter the full moon glides out from the clouds. The DJ attempts to freestyle but it sounds like a skipping record, which is to say he is somewhat artless. drinks get drunk, people get drunk. there's dancing, cake-cutting. michael and jen are going to honeymoon in vieques, leaving in the AM, by coincidence where we're heading for a couple of days in a couple of days.

next morning. we wake w/ the whole day before us. the plan is to head back up the 2, toward arecibo
to see 1) camuy caves 2) the radiotelescope at arecibo and we are slightly hesitant here b/c going up the 2 again will re-introduce us to the long ribbon of red-lights and charmless testaments to commerce. but frankly when will we be in puerto rico again so we decide to do it. but first breakfast. we head up a steep, serpentine road to the english rose and, due to 2 parties of 9 ahead of us, there will be a 45 minute wait. we shrug and say fine, we're acclimated to breakfast wait times thanks to life in portland. this time expenditure will be important later.

we hit the road, en route for arecibo. we came to rincon on but still it looks like anywhere usa: burger king, wendy's, best buy etc. since the radio is still playing non-stop putricity we decide to stop to buy CDs and - sadly - we elect to stop at a place called wal-mart. it takes us about 35-40 minutes to park, enter, select, argue about selection, agree, pay, exit, return to freeway. this time expenditure will be important later.

back on the road, blasting the mellow jams of 'hall & oates greatest hits' CD at full volume for the rest of the journey to camuy, at long last we make our way to the caves. our guidebook trumpets the tight-ship quality of park management but this is at direct odds with our experience. we buy tickets. we wait. we wait. we wait. there are apparently two tours, one in spanish, one in english. when they finally announce a tour, it's in spanish so we sit back down and wait. and wait. at long last we are outfitted with hard hats and set on a tram, we are winding down serpentine switchbacks to the inner parts of a forest. certain members of our party confirm that loud, rude, self-centered tourists are not limited to the mainland american stripe. we enter the caves. and they are remarkable.

at long last we are out of the caves, back up top, heading for our rental car, en route to arecibo observatory. we check the time: moments to 4pm. we check the guidebook as an afterthought: arecibo observatory closes at 4pm. shit. we are suddenly tossed into split-second decision making. arecibo is a dot away on the map, but we are getting used to the twisty turns of the mountain roads and know that a dot is 30 minutes. we decide to roll the dice and head for arecibo anyway, thinking that maybe, even if the facility is closed, that we'll be able to at least look down upon the radio-dish and maybe that'll be enough. the roads twist and turn and go up and up, past generic squalor and rural squalor and homeless dogs and too-skinny cows, and we are marking time by the posts of the radio-telescope, huge and faraway, huge and getting closer, and then magically, finally we are at the main gates. It is 4:25pm and the guards are closing the gate. To our weary expressions they tap their watches, they say "closed at 4". What's more, the gate is a parking lot brick bunker and the dish is out of sight. there's nothing to see.

We start the long, twisty, oven-bake, red-light trip home, cursing, wishing we weren't hitting rush-hour traffic on the long slow roads, wishing we had not taken such a leisurely breakfast, had not violated our principles by entering a wal-mart at all much less lingering and purchasing, not chosen to see the caves first and most of all, not chosen future possible regret over what we want right now. we learn a valuable lesson: when in doubt on vacation, go for laying on the beach


puerto rico, days 1 & 2, rincon

vacation had hovered for so long that its actual arrival was a surreal thing. welcome and strange at once.

we take the redeye from portland to nyc, hr layover, snow on wings require de-iceing, finally into san juan, navigate our way to the rental car shuttle buses, heat like a blanket, freeway driving ridiculous. rental car agent upsells insurance but mm ain't biting. finally, we're in the car bound for rincon on the other side of island, sheer exhaustion under us, m driving and me fumbling w/ maps. there appear to be 2 speeds on freeway - dangerous fast and dangerous slow. we skirt the margins. after we hit arecibo, the freeway turns to road and w/ that come endless stoplights, strip-malls, blast-furnace heat, commerce-fueled charmlessness. we bring ipods but there's no auxillary jack so we're at the mercy of the radio which is unlisten-able and pounding so we drive in silence.

we arrive at our lodging in rincon, casa del artiste at villa orleans. by coincidence the main house - which sleeps 12 or so - happens to be vacant for the duration of our stay so we have the grounds to ourselves (the decks, the private beach etc) though we share w/ lizards and 2 sweet dogs who roam the property. we bring our stuff up the stairs and decompress, both of us tempted to flop on the bed but resisting the urge b/c a nap, even a 20 minute refresher, stands to blow our cycles widely off-course. (At this point we've been up for about 30 hrs not counting intermittent airplane 'sleep'). It's decided that the best thing to do is to drive into town, get some light grocery essentials (ie coffee, beer) and head to hotel cofresi to meet up w/ jen & michael and the wedding party for their pre-arranged cocktail party. We are warned about something called a pirate drink which we manage to drink anyway.

next morning, we down coffees and sit ocean-side. we make our way into town which looks completely different than we pictured and attempt to find a restaurant we've heard about but which apparently does not exist any longer. after eating in the new restaurant that exists in the same bldg as the old one, we head back into town for flip-flops. in an expatriate surf town this should be easy but it takes a long time. we find 45$ flip-flops in high end surf shop and 9$ piece-o-crap flip-flops in farmacia. neither are to my liking. finally find something in between. we head back home and swim in the caribbean.

later that night we go to tres palmas for pig-roast rehearsal dinner.