by James Killough
This is a part two of yesterday’s musings, so you’d best read that first if you’re going to try to follow my ramblings here.
My fellow contributor Eric Baker, a man I have tremendous respect for even though we have never met in person or even spoken on the phone, left a very sweet comment to yesterday’s post saying something to the effect of being proud of being associated with someone so “erudite.” The reason I have so much respect for Eric is not just that he writes superbly, with honesty and a great deal of un-cheap humor, it’s also because he’s like me, utterly dependable and delivers on time. And people who are, like, real mensches and stuff, are few and far between.
Erudite to me means academic, but Eric is probably right in using it in the context of my writing in this blog because it actually means “to show great learning,” which is distinct from academic, or specifically well read.
In honor of the hopeful revolution sweeping this country, let me digress a bit to talk about my own rebellion, which I consider more of a pilgrimage to my Self than a deliberate act of defiance.
I am a college drop-out, albeit from Wesleyan, one of the better universities in the country, and at the time I went there extremely fashionable and therefore extra hard to get into. I lasted a year, flunked all of my classes except theater and film, but put on two gorgeous plays, both at enormous extra expense to my father. Having been thrown out of the student-run Second Stage program for the first play because I slept through my scheduled meeting with the theater committee, I took the Bursar of the school to lunch and walked away with the use of the Honors College as a venue, something that had never been done before at Wesleyan. The play, a one-man show about a black drag queen, was a hit, standing room only, standing ovation for the fullback from the football team I convinced to do it, but that’s not the point of the story.
The next show I did was a black version of Medea (“Are you kinky for blacks?” my guidance counselor asked me). I turned it into an allegory for racism; Jason was played by the blondest jock I could find on campus, and Medea by Gail O’Neill, who went on to become the country’s highest paid black model. Because I was a freshman and unable to use the Main Stage, which was reserved for seniors in the theater department, I again used my family connections to erect an outdoor stage within the post-modern Center for the Arts. While it might not have been the greatest staging of Euripides’ classic, it was certainly very stylish.
I was able to pull all this off because I was a legacy at Wesleyan, and a strong one; my father was an extremely active alum, to put it almost euphemistically. So there was no question that I would attend, that I would leap frog over thousands of other far more worthy applicants; my SAT scores were at best mediocre, as were my grades in high school. My personal essay was astoundingly good, but that’s because an English tutor in New York was paid to write it for me while I dawdled over the early decision deadline.
I wanted to go back to Europe, where I had been raised. I couldn’t stand living in America.
So mine is the history of a spoiled brat’s rebellion. I knew what I wanted to be and do from a very early age—a director—so there was no point wasting time at Wesleyan. The irony is, it was the very best school for me to have attended for what I wanted to do. Had I stuck it out and completed the film program under Jeanine Bassinger, then the head of AFI, I would by now be well ensconced amidst the upper echelons of Hollywood filmmakers, as all her disciples were.
When I told our contributor Christopher Cramer that I went to Wesleyan, he said, “I would love to have gone there.” I still don’t know if he understands why I couldn’t. But one of my problems was my seat there should have gone to someone like him, who would have loved it.
So, I come from a world of rare privilege from the largest city in what is still the most powerful nation on earth. In hindsight, you would have to be an absolute madman to do what I did, to give up what I’ve forsaken, and I suppose I am not getting any saner as the years go by. I’ve just accumulated a lot of experience and some accidental wisdom, and maybe that equals erudition of some form. Regardless, for whatever it’s worth, I have had a life.
I returned to film school briefly, to NYU, again the best in the country, where I got the highest grade in my class, so I promptly dropped out from there, too. When I lectured at Tisch School for the Arts a few years ago, at the end of the class I asked if there were further questions. “Okay, well, I’d just like to say that twenty-odd years ago when I dropped out from this school I had a fight with my father about it. He told me I was an idiot. I was at the top of my class. I replied, ‘I won’t spend another dime of your money to go to that place, but one day, I will lecture there.’ Thank you very much for having me.”
I will never forget that applause. I felt like I wasn’t so mad after all.
I won’t enumerate the further random acts of self-destruction I have committed over what is almost a half century now. This article is about why it still takes me by surprise that a man who can string more than a few good sentences together like Eric Baker would consider me erudite. I consider myself as being unlearned. My step-father agrees, and was thrilled when I shacked up with a college professor because I’d finally get an education and know what I was talking about.
I’ve never had more than high school English, so I am a largely self-taught writer. I became a writer at Pamela Hanson’s insistence because she liked my letters so much. I muddled along and figured out how to write over the years, and it gives me great pleasure because my style is mine, free of teacher or mentor or muse influence. Yes, I have written a great deal of shit, and even had that shit published, but my voice even in screenplays is, according to industry pundits, very different from the norm. And that suits me just fine. I would hate to be the norm, creeps me out.
That this blog has been something of a revelation is an understatement. It has revised the way I view myself and my work. I do seriously mean it when I say I aspire for it to be fluffy and entertaining, because I know how heavy and didactic I can be. But that seems to have some entertainment value in itself, for some people.
When this blog first started, my friend Yvonne commented that my opinions were “rooted in a deep understanding of foreign relations and politics,” which also threw me for a loop because I would consider that description appropriate for someone like my evil twin Andrew Sullivan, or some other contributor to a real news outlet like The New York Times or The Daily Beast with a journalism or political science degree. I am the defiantly unschooled, the opposite of erudite. I don’t read RAND Corporation reports, I couldn’t write Syriana if I tried.
Whatever erudition I have is experiential, because experience something was the only way I was ever able to learn anything. Text books were meaningless to me and made my head hurt. But sit me down at a keyboard for twenty years or so, and I’ll figure out the writing thing. And there is really nothing more to directing that putting the obvious together and making a story. Just like relating an anecdote, but in moving images. Easy.
The way I know about Gaddafi, for instance, is because he probably assassinated by high school buddy Jowdat Rifat, and Jowdat regaled us with stories about the dictator of his country, and we were always aware of the little things he had to do to lie low, even as a teen, and what he couldn’t do, like go home and see his parents on school breaks.
I know a great deal about the situation between India and Pakistan because I was in Kashmir in 1989/90, when civil war broke out. I was also writing an historical film that took place there, so I’m an accidental expert on the history of the region. When troubles started brewing, the Kashmiri Muslims I had befriended over the year I was there started confiding in me opinions that they would never have voiced to Indians, surrounded as they were by Indian Security Forces, which were predominantly Hindu and Sikh, and not a very forgiving or tolerant bunch. I learned that the troubles were not being fomented locally, but were coming in from Pakistan, but not just Pakistan. Taliban Afghanis were infiltrating Kashmiri villages and inciting trouble.
One night there was a great deal of excitement and general kerfuffle coming from what Merchant Ivory would call the servants quarters of my house outside the capital of Kashmir, Srinagar. When I went to see what it was about, I found most of the production’s transport team (i.e., the drivers) packing away a bunch of AK 47s under one of the beds. It appears that my house was being used as some sort of weapons staging station for delivery to wherever insurgents were lurking. Which made sense: the security forces were unlikely to search the house of the young opium-addled American screenwriter of the high-profile Bollywood film being shot in the Valley. I want to remember that I imperiously barked that the weapons were to be removed the next day without fail, and then shuffled off to my rooms in my opiate haze. But the reality is I probably turned a blind eye and allowed it to go on.
This is the kind of incident that should and does happen to someone like fellow Wesleyan grad Sebastian Junger. He seeks it out. He wants to be in the thick of conflict, and has written well and profusely about it. Like most things in my life, I just sort of stumbled into it. This is why I see no erudition to it; there was no active interest on my part.
Months after the AK 47 episode, when I was running for the airport because our embassies had ordered all foreigners to leave the Valley—the UN had long since departed—and I was living the last scene from The Year of Living Dangerously, I was deeply involved emotionally in Kashmir and its fate, and now experientially aware of just what a monster lurked over the Himalayas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
My approach to US current affairs isn’t based in any in-depth research, either. It’s just observation and common sense. What is going on in America right now is, in many ways, a great thing. This isn’t just some politician’s campaign slogan. Real change is taking place because it has to.
Forgetting religion and other supernatural beliefs, which is just to idiotic for discussion much less debate, the only thing we can be sure of in life is evolution, from the Big Bang until now. The only constant is change. And one of the great aspects of our country is our capacity and acceptance, however reluctant, of real change.
Either you have government or you have anarchy, and the latter isn’t an option. We must have governance of some type. Whether it is big or small depends on the circumstances, and right now we need BIG. We need help, collectively. This is not a time to cling to pipe-dream Libertarian ideologies, there is only direct action, and only the government and the people can do it.
You cannot regulate some things and not others simply because it doesn’t suit your sense of how much tax you pay, or whatever other half-baked objections the right wing has to the triage the Obama administration and congress must perform on the ailing patient in intensive care that this country and Europe have become. You cannot regulate food and drugs and not financial instruments, which have the capacity to wreck so many lives. You cannot tell us what speed to drive and not tell Wall Street to put its foot on the brakes, or to stop driving off the road altogether.
The same goes with this ridiculous objection to “socialized” medicine. You cannot support socialized sanitation, security in the form of police and military, a postal system, the FAA, education, infrastructure in the form of the pavements you walk on and roads you drive along, without also providing all citizens with adequate healthcare. What greater enemy is there than disease? This opposition to universal healthcare is just plain corruption on the part of the health care and pharmaceutical lobbies, and they need to be contained. Yes, for our good.
The greatest hypocrisy is that most right-wingers who oppose these “socialist” moves such as financial regulation and universal health coverage, bow down on Sundays to Christ or some offshoot of his teachings. He was the ultimate socialist. The church in Russia was directly involved in aiding and promoting the Revolution that swept the communists into power. If there were no separation between church and state in this country, if we truly followed the New Testament as law, we would be at the very least radical socialists with probably no personal property at all.
So, yes, we must get off our fat asses and shake things up. There is nothing to fear about big government because the way the system in this country is set up, it will shrink again when these times are past. The only thing to fear is the lack of change, because that is unnatural and will simply contribute to our continued downfall.