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The Slump

Gregg Williard

Roger Ebert reviewing Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere in 2010: "Road to Nowhere plays like an exercise in frustrating audiences. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle where you assemble as many pieces as seem to fit, but have gaps and pieces left over. One of the pleasures of puzzle films is that we understand, or at least sense, the underlying pattern of their solution. Here is a film that seems indifferent to that satisfaction… I've rarely seen a narrative film that seemed so reluctant to flow."

Monte Hellman's recent death at ninety-one was from a fall. Not a big fall, just a trip and a fall, fall.  In a C/V of mostly blank spaces, he made five enduring films, models of economy and enigma, from 1966 to 2010: Ride the Whirlwind, A Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and Road to Nowhere. Hellman's films always come to the fore whenever "cult movies" are discussed, and highlight the most salient features of that sub-genre: movies that got made despite every impediment, failed miserably at the time, and still hang on, despite their reluctance to flow and indifference to satisfaction, or at least the satisfactions of understanding what we think are patterns. Maybe the work proposes different patterns, or nothing that we can recognize as a pattern at all. (Yet). And why do we sometimes—often way too late for the maker—extend a generosity of attention to such work? (And sometimes not?) Why did we, and do we, wait, and listen, and look, and read on, to Philip Guston, Arthur Russell, Robert Wilson, John Cage, (when they were raw and new and strange and unwelcome?) I think of Simone Weil, of how she was called "martian" by her school mates, how she insisted on being given a rifle to fight with the French resistance, though her nearsightedness and clumsiness made her lethal to herself and others.  The ferocity of her writing could burn holes in your soul, but the sight of her trying to wash dishes would reduce her friends to helpless laughter.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Monte Hellman

Two-Lane Blacktop escaped my notice in 1971 when it was released, and I only knew it through references in film essays over the years. When I finally saw the remastered Criterion Collection cut, I was dumbfounded at its spare beauty. It artfully bypassed all the tropes and tricks of the 60's-70's "new Hollywood" style—a kind of cut to the bone, anti-Easy Rider, and a more authentic picture of the era's unregenerate, grungy stasis in 1950's values. The authenticity and attention to automotive detail (even if, for me, car-culture is as thoroughly alienating as sports) was still moving and involving. And the stripped-down, primer-gray 1955 Chevy with the "tunnel ram" hood scoop seemed the most beautiful car ever made, almost the same car as the one my sister bequeathed to me after side-swiping a telephone pole to give the passenger door a sexy gash and dent. In a production photo of Blacktop's three leads, (James Taylor, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson, of the Beach Boys), Wilson sits on the ground leaning against the back wheel in apparent exhaustion. The image jumped out at me, crystalizing a specific posture, a way of sliding to the ground and propping up against a wall, a door, (or a car) that seemed to epitomize something in life and the world around the 1960's and 1970's and beyond.  I've come to call it The Slump. The Slump occurs in certain key movies or moments when the characters (or yourself) face a reckoning, a metaphysical shock, a resignation, imminent  or actual annihilation, or even strange victory: Robert Ryan at the conclusion of The Wild Bunch (1969); Steve McQueen at the end of The Sand Pebbles (1966); the doomed finale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Nick Nolte as Ray Hicks upright dead on the tracks in Who'll Stop the Rain (1978).

The Slump: Robert Ryan, The Wild Bunch (1969)

A Map of Bleeding Masks

While at Liberation News Service doing "political' drawings in 1975, I made a giant relief sculpture of the map of El Salvador. The main cities were marked with masks attached to the surface, crumpled and splattered with red paint like blood. The whole thing was a dirty thick puce, like bad meat. My partner Ash and I carried it once in a demonstration but it was too heavy and hurt our shoulders.

The Slump: Richard Benjamin, Westworld (1973)

New York, Lower East Side, 1970's

Later, a political poster artist from Guatemala named Luna, a visiting artist hosted by L.N.S., came to the office to talk about her work. She saw my El Salvador map propped up in the corner, and walked to it slowly, with her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. From behind she looked like Ash, with the same short black hair and small, wiry frame. When she spoke her voice was very deep, rough and authoritative. She said, "Who did this?"  I was slumped against the wall and wanted to disappear. I finally answered that I did.

The Slump: Elliot Gould, The Long Goodbye (1973)

When she turned, I was startled to see a different face than Ash’s (she wasn't there that day and we hadn’t been getting along), as well as by the mismatch of her voice and body and face; unlike Ash's sharp pale features, Luna's face was very round and almond shaded, with enormous mournful eyes that roamed over my face as she drew close. Her gaze was clinical, like checking the progress of a healing suture.

"Why did you do this?"

I think I shrugged and mumbled something about the death squads in El Salvador, aided and abetted by the U.S. military. "But…" she smiled, "it is… ugly."

Her voice was low and raw enough to suggest some violence to her vocal cords.

I said, "The killing is ugly."

"So." She tilted her head and her eyes went into an abstracted spot somewhere past my ear. "We should answer ugly with ugly?"

I knew she wasn't really talking to me at all but performing for the other people in the room, who were watching and perhaps hoping for a bit of ideological theater, or Lacanian-Marxist psychodrama. Such happenings, or an expectation of them, were often in the air. She asked the 3rd wall, "Have you been to El Salvador?"

"Are you asking me?"

She stared back with even bigger eyes.

I said, "No."

"You should go. I mean, when it's a little safer for you. It's a beautiful country. Even with the death squads."

"Yeah, I'd love to go. But what about a lot of 'political art'? It depicts ugly things, plainly. Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, or earlier, Otto Dix, George Groz, Goya…"

"Depicts ugly things." She waved back at my map of drooling masks. "But that is… just ugly."

There were some appreciative laughs, but also expressions of disagreement with Luna's pronouncements, from "Hold on," to, "You make it sound like distinguishing between showing ugliness and being ugly is somehow simple or obvious," to, "Who's to say that 'just ugly' isn't the whole point, after all?"

Luna said, "I think we should ask the artist," holding up her arms to quiet the room. She was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt that accentuated the thickness of her shoulders. Her hands were large and square. I imagined her dragging squeegees of bright inks over silkscreen frames beneath a Guatemalan sun. She brought her hands together under her chin as if in prayer and then tilted them down, taking aim in my direction. It was an odd gesture, suggestive of a referee's signal. It cut off my voice and my brain.

She continued, "Why did the artist put masks throwing up blood across the map of El Salvador? They look like generic Halloween masks, North American masks, no? And that color. Why that color? A Salvadoran would never use that color. Or those masks."

I listened to myself prattle on, "I don't know anything about El Salvador. Not really. I read news clips and pieces of stuff by Noam Chomsky and I.F. Stone and Howard Zinn. About how we train the death squads. How we've got a century or more of interference and exploitation in the southern hemisphere. And backing dictator S.O.B'.s as long as they are our S.O.B.'s, like F.D.R. said.  But why the masks and that color...?" (My memory of the moment is full of gaps. I know the space gets filled with lots of things, like doodles of monsters and mazes and machines and women, like in the margins of diaries):

The Slump: Steve McQueen, The Sand Pebbles (1966)

"…to tell you the truth, Luna, comrades, I don't really know! What's more, I don't really know if I need to know, but then again, the personal is political, and I suppose the political is the personal, I suppose, and well, I suppose that's the problem, isn't it? That my mask map is some kind of private fixation on masks: psychological symbol, ritual object, maybe even science fiction device for identity-transfer, or interdimensional transport. Or.

So what does any of that have to do with El Salvador, the death squads, American complicity in the torture and murder of innocent people? What can art really do here? I don't know, except right now, this is a map of El Salvador. It shows bleeding masks. That ought to be better than not looking at that. We are asking questions about that. And the country, and what to do. That's what I think. And are my idiosyncratic interests and even internal conflicts and struggles (the masks, maybe, something I've always needed since I was a kid to disguise my identity, to hide) something to motivate art making, or something to turn away from as bourgeois art therapy...?"

Later, as I was leaving, a small woman in coveralls and long braided hair approached me in the hall by the elevator. She could have been Luna's younger sister, but lacked Luna's grave, reproachful tone. She introduced herself as Nelia. "I just want to say that Luna is full of shit and you shouldn't care what she thinks or says."

"That's ok. These are critique sessions, so I expect…"

"That wasn't a critique. That was a come-on. She just wants to fuck with you, in several senses of the word. She's an asshole."

I gaped at her and tried to laugh.  The elevator arrived and the thick doors rumbled open. She blocked the door with her shoulder and pulled out a small notepad, wrote in it and tore out a sheet to put in my hand. "If you really want to come to El Salvador and help, call me." She stepped away from the door, I entered the elevator, expecting her to join me. She stood unmoving, bright smile going blank. I rode to the lobby, and then was out in the street, blinking at the note in the sun. I have not yet been able to write about what happened after I called that number, how I ended up in the sun, slumped against a hot adobe wall.

Railroad to Water Bugs

For a fleeting mid-70's idyll, the Park Slope section of Brooklyn was a "cheaper alternative" to Manhattan, so Ash and I ended up on another East 13th St., in an even longer, darker railroad apartment. We set about renovating with white paint and misbegotten repairs, but never made it past the front parlor. Every night I piggybacked Laura to the distant bathroom, dodging or squashing fat water bugs and roaches under foot. Her shrieks rang in my ears, followed by the ringing telephone bearing late night news from Ash’s bi-polar mother, Mary. Eventually it fell to me to listen, since Ash had long since done her best to cut Mary out of her life. I was next; she wanted an "open relationship" and I was closed to everything but her. After a while I came to enjoy Mary's monologues. I had worked as a psychiatric aide in Maine, and imagined myself, quite wrongly, to have some special rapport with the mentally ill. Even as Mary's stories unraveled into incoherence, I saw coded messages predicting Ash’s return, and our future happiness. Mary's growing trust and affection for me would lead to a world of complication and hurt.

One late night, near the end of our time together, Ash hadn't come home (presumably doing the work of opening our relationship) and I answered the phone. It was Mary with urgent news: "But I have to come there to tell you."

I thought of the water bugs and panicked. "I don't think that'd work, Mary."

The Slump: Nick Nolte, Who'll Stop the Rain (1978)

"That's exactly why I should come. I need to tell you what to do."

"Why not over the phone?"

"You've been getting messages over the phone all your life."

"What do you mean?"

"This is for your ears only, Tom."

"This line is secure." I regretted saying it almost before it was out of my mouth.

"Oh, really."

"It's not …appropriate."

Mary laughed, a low mirthless rasp like a file across the face. "My god, you sound like the psyche hospital again."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. I am inappropriate. I'm fucking nuts. And she's not for you."


"Who. Oh my god, my boy, my son, I'm talking about my daughter!  Ashley. Ash. She's telling you that you have to be more open, right? It's what she's told all her boyfriends before. It's why she's never been able to make any relationships work."

"Maybe I should be more open."

"Bullshit. You can't and you know you can't. Ash is too complicated for you. You don't need open. You don't need complicated."

I don't know what happened next. I started crying and couldn't stop. Mary was supposed to be the troubled one, and I was the rock. But the equation changed with that conversation. I told her I was lost and going nowhere, just occupying a space with nothing there. Like a zero in arithmetic. She told me that a zero is place holder with the power of ten. She said my job was to amplify the world. "Ten times ten times ten times ten, on and on, row after row, almost literally to the power of infinity."

"Mary, I can't get my work shown, or published. It's nowhere."

"Are you doing the work, Tom? I need you to tell me you are doing the work. Tell me you are holding your place and doing the work. Amplify me."

"Yeah, I'm doing the work, Mary."

"Amplify, me, Tom. Amplify me."

I checked for bugs, then slumped against the wall.

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Gregg Williard is an artist and writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.