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Archive for the ‘Sixties’ Category

A Home at the End of the World

I watched this because I listened to the audiobook of the novel and loved it, and when I found out there was a movie too, and that Robin Wright is in it, that really put the icing on the cake. I liked her ever since 1984 when the soap opera “Santa Barbara” started on TV.

Michael Cunningham wrote the novel and the screenplay. Cunningham is obviously an expert on the folks who practically invented the concept that, as the film’s tagline puts it, “Family can be whatever you want it to be.” This work comes from a mind saturated with Bloomsbury lore–Cunningham also wrote The Hours, a novel about Virginia Woolf that was made into a movie.

One of the central figures of Bloomsbury was the painter Duncan Grant. Apparently nobody ever said a bad word about Grant. He seems to have been universally loved by males and females alike, and the character of Bobby in A Home at the End of the World is what I imagine Duncan Grant must have been like.

When Bobby is nine, his big brother Carl gives him some windowpane, and they trip in the graveyard. Carl is a really beautiful guy, a true bodhisattva, and his relationship with his brother is probably the one he’s most present for. Of course Carl dies horribly and far too young. But rather than being messed up by that tragedy, Bobby incorporates Carl’s spirit into himself, and becomes exactly the same kind of loving and lovable person. (Carl is played by Ryan Donowho, who was in Michael Pitt’s band Pagoda, and for some reason that doesn’t surprise me.)

Bobby seems to be about 14 when he picks a friend and gets him stoned, out in the midst of lush nature, ahhhhh…..  He lends Jonathan his dead brother’s jacket, and Jonathan lends Bobby his jacket, and their bond is cemented. Jon’s mother Alice walks in on them getting stoned, and to Jon’s flabbergasted astonishment, Bobby induces her to join them. It’s a lovely scene, mother and son handing off a doobie to each other. Even more mind-boggling, Bobby slow-dances with Alice. Then they all dance. This is a dope-positive movie, and there aren’t enough of those.

Bobby pretty much joins the family. When Alice discovers that the boys are fooling around, she’s okay with it, but Jonny is uptight. Bobby is totally comfortable with the relationship. “It’s just love, man.” When somebody else is fretting about something or other, Bobby is likely to say, “This is perfect.” His best line is, and these are words to live by, “You can dance to anything.”

Now they’re grownups. Jonny (Dallas Roberts) has moved to New York. Bobby (Colin Farrell), who looks a lot like that iconic photo of David Foster Wallace, has stayed with his friend’s parents. But they plan to move to Arizona, and the father gently suggests that Bobby needs to be on his own. So he calls Jonathan, who is by now a full-fledged bisexual living in New York with an artistic wild woman named Clare (Robin Wright of course.). These are the kind of people who listen intently to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” several times in a row. The three of them form a coalition, and Bobby learns that Jon and Clare have talked about having a baby. Clare talks Bobby into losing the hippie look. She cuts his hair, then takes him to bed. It’s his first time with a woman, and his reaction is a bit extreme, unless you factor in the feelings he might be having about betraying Jon. Of course Jon has male lovers, but the woman he lives with is a different case.

And sure enough, Jon is upset with the new closeness of Bobby and Clare. He goes to stay with his parents for a while, and won’t even take Bobby’s calls. But then his father dies, and Bobby and Clare arrive in Arizona to reclaim the lost member of their triad. Clare is pregnant and wants them all to be a family. So they reconcile. Her inheritance will buy them a house.

They abandon New York City and fix up a house in the country, and open a café in town, with Bobby as cook and Jonny as staff. The baby is born. Jon fears that he has AIDS. There’s another exquisitely beautiful, wild, life-affirming scene where the two men dance. They are so hot together, it’s just magical.

There’s a lot of detail passed by in the movie that was probably in the novel – like, who is the baby’s bio-father? And does Jon ever actually get tested for HIV, and does Clare know about his worries; and if the little girl is his, shouldn’t she be tested too? Anyway, Clare and the baby get ready to go on a trip. Everybody pretends to believe it’s just temporary, but she’s leaving Bobby and Jonny alone. But we know Jon is going to die, so she’ll end up back with Bobby and a nuclear family eventually.

People who create unorthodox families are incredibly brave and admirable. It’s mean-spirited to be irritated with these characters because they couldn’t make it work perfectly, all the time. On the other hand, they did make it work amazingly well for an astonishing amount of time, which is more than most of us are equipped or inclined to do. So, bless them.

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history-of-teletimes

The History of the Tele Times is made from some of the 6,000 hours of film accumulated by wizard documentarian Claire Burch. The focus here is on B. N. Duncan, legendary underground artist of Berkeley, CA. We revisit the esteemed “Fred and Ned” comic strip that Duncan created with Wild Billy Wolf, and the zine they started, which later continued with Ace Backwords, a major under-appreciated genius of our era. (One of his songs is on the sound track.)

From 1978 to 1982, The Tele Times presented the ultimate in outsider art, in every sense of the word. Primitive artist Narayan, for instance. It’s said that life on the streets is many times more difficult for a woman than for a man. It is interesting to be introduced to such a woman, however briefly.

Duncan is seen constantly photographing the kaleidoscopic Berkeley ambiance and interviewing its dwellers. Burch recorded the historic meeting of Duncan and Backwords and the historic meeting of Duncan and uber-cartoonist R. Crumb. We hear excerpts from the lively feud between Crumb and a stripper, and meet his partner Aline Kominsky-Crumb.

The interview with Duncan is very ably conducted by Ace Backwords (who, if there were any justice, would have his own TV show. I’d call him an even hipper Dick Cavett.) They discuss Gypsy Catano, and the occupation of People’s Park, and a whole lot more besides. The conversation turns to the subject of vehicle dwellers or rubber tramps including Vincent Johnson, the founder of Rainbow Village.

Historically speaking, these are the people who later turn out to have genuinely made history, rather than the politicians and armies, as is generally supposed.

The back of the DVD case has a nice quote from Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer, venerable keepers of the psychedelic tradition. (A debate between Horowitz and Backwords would be an interesting event. The latter’s book, Acid Heroes, pretty much trashes the entire scene.)

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good-life2

The Good Life does not the good beginning have. There’s some voiceover narration employing the word “oftentimes,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, please.”

Miraculously, that teaser of a soliloquy, delivered by the protagonist, is the only false note. Once we’re past it, this quickly becomes a hella good movie. Plus, it incorporates the wonderful piece of oratory from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Jason (Mark Webber) is grand – the character and the actor, both. A painfully responsible young man, he parents his giddy, flaky mother. As if that weren’t enough, Jason also looks out for Gus (Harry Dean Stanton), an aging movie projectionist who can’t get over the death of his wife, among other things. Jason visits the beautiful old theater daily for the increasingly unrealizable purpose of keeping Gus on the rails.

The conversational topic is heroic pilot Amelia Earhart.
Gus: “They say she wore men’s underwear.”
Jason: “Who’s they?”
Without copping any kind of attitude, he says it all in two words. “Who’s they?” Jason is truly cool. As we used to say in the Sixties, he has his shit together.

He also survives brutalization by a psycho football player, and turns out to have a shocking medical problem. I remember hearing about a boy whose parents gave him, for Christmas, the same gun used by their other son to commit suicide. That may have been the inspiration for this package left to Jason by his dead cop father. He keeps it in a drawer, unopened, for quite a while. I know the feeling. I’ve received letters that needed to sit around and mellow; that couldn’t be opened until the right psychological moment. It’s all pretty grim, actually.

Then beautiful, mysterious Frances (Zooey Deschanel) comes along. At first, she seems like a blessing. There’s a scene between her, Jason, and Gus that rings true for anybody who has taken care of someone with a deteriorating mind. But heaven never lasts. Though Frances claims Jason as her soulmate, it is, unfortunately, his soul upon which she makes several demands. Frances is like Henry Miller’s wife, the legendary June: a totally unreliable fabulist and a magically irresistible femme fatale. There are such people, and one who’s really good at it can captivate victims of either gender, at will.

Half of Jason’s monumental obligations vanish when his mother finds a man, who will now presumably bear the burden of her unstable ways. As soon as Jason formulates in his own mind the intention to leave town, Gus dies. I can relate to that, too. I had a cat once, a creature of already-proven weirdness, who heard me talking on the phone about finding him another place. He sickened and died within days.

The truth comes out, about Frances, and it’s bad. But I like the ending.
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Written and directed by Stephen Berra

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leonard_cohen_im_your_man

First line written in my notebook: “Must get soundtrack.” I’m discovering musicians I never heard of before. Martha Wainwright sings “The Traitor” with exquisite textures and shapes of sound. Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen do a transcendent “Anthem” together, and I love Batalla’s old-fashioned-looking brown dress with pink sleeves. And Antony, how did I miss this guy so far? “If It Be Your Will” – is there a more perfect song? Even if he does mess up the lyrics? The guy who sings “Can’t Forget” is Jarvis Cocker, but he looks enough like Cohen to be his long-lost son.

There are songs here that I, a self-identified Cohen aficionado, don’t remember hearing before. The thing about his compositions is, they lend themselves to a wide spectrum of styles and interpretations. In 2005 a whole slew of great performers got together for a concert honoring the songwriter/poet/novelist. This is the beauty part: they’re getting seen and heard by people they never reached before, because of their purpose to express their admiration for one man. There’s something karmically satisfying about that.

The director of I’m Your Man is Lian Lunson, and the executive producer credit goes to someone I’d never have guessed in a million years – Mel Gibson.

An interview is interspersed. I’ve seen some sexy old dudes recently – Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening comes to mind – and now Leonard Cohen. There are short bits where he says some very illuminating things. He grew up on a diet of superhero comics. As a young man in Montreal, he hung out with a group of poets who mutually savaged each other’s work, as a learning experience. He quotes the immortal Shelley, who said poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” One thing he talks about is how he’s always been more comfortable wearing suits. (But probably didn’t when living at Big Bear, or in the Zen monastery on Mt. Baldy).

Even more illuminating are the tributes offered by other musicians. Nick Cave’s first hearing of the Songs of Love and Hate album was, he says, a life-altering experience. “It just changed things.” Rufus Wainwright says he grew up in environment where “the name Leonard Cohen was spoken frequently, with reverence.” He does a real good job here, with “Hallelujah.” Edge from U2 makes his worship evident, and then there’s Bono, who I never paid much attention to before, but now that I hear how he feels about Cohen, I like him a lot. Bono compares Leonard Cohen to Shelley or Byron, and that’s just fine

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boxcar-bertha

My top ten reasons why Boxcar Bertha immediately was a favorite the minute it came out, and stayed in the “I Heart This” category:

  • Memorable love scene
  • Horrible death scene
  • Released in what was for me the thick of the “Sixties”
  • Symbolizes the “Sixties” very adequately
  • Grandpa was a union organizer
  • Great-grandpa was an abolitionist
  • I love David Carradine because of “Kung-fu” on TV
  • In this role, Barbara Hershey reminds me of a girl I knew in Venice, CA
  • I adore Barbara Hershey
  • “Life made her an outcast. Love made her an outlaw.”

Bertha Thompson’s daddy is a crop duster, and a rich guy makes him fly even though the plane is in bad repair. Now she’s a homeless orphan, a real survivor with both guts and luck, caught in the Great Depression. She keeps running into union organizer Bill Shelly, who is characterized as a “nigger lover,” among other things. Bill is always getting the shit beat out of him by people who disagree with his politics.

They both ride the rails. Using her feminine wiles, she helps Bill and his friends escape from a chain gang. The set a car on fire on the railroad tracks so the train has to stop. They take all the money and steal the train. There are plenty of fights, car chases, crashes, fires, robberies. A newspaper story about their criminality offends Bill. To show that he’s a revolutionary, not a common crook, he decides to take his share of the loot to the union hall. Bertha amuses herself by holding two well-dressed men at gunpoint, ordering them to stand up, sit down, etc. This may have been Hershey’s finest cinematic moment, and I mean that in all sincerity.

Hershey and Carradine have both said that the sex was unsimulated, as in, they were really doing it. The movie was made at the peak of their real-life love affair, and it shows.

Bill’s sore spot is poked when people keep reminding him he’s no longer a union man, but now a common criminal. They get caught trying to kidnap a raiload tycoon. Bertha escapes, Bill is sentenced. He’s back on a chain gang again, still getting shit beat out of him.

Bertha is picked up by a woman who turns out to be a madam. An anthropologist rents her time and asks a bunch of questions. She’s reunited with Bill. They kiss, the G-men break in and capture him and nail him to side of boxcar. They put writing over his head, obvious Christ symbolism, you know, like the scroll at the top of some crucifixes. A black guy surprises them and shoots all of Bill’s enemies. The train starts to move, and he’s still nailed to the boxcar. Bertha runs alongside, “Don’t take him, don’t take him.” It’s an unforgettable image, like in Rabbit Proof Fence where the mothers run after the government goons who take their kids away.

Given the Jesus analogy, it’s kind of weird that Barbara Hershey later portrayed Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, which, come to think of it, was also directed by Martin Scorsese. Boxcar Bertha has been called “Scorsese’s exploitation flick” and he played a small part it in, as a john in a brothel. It was produced by Roger Corman, who taught Scorsese what a $600,000 budget can do. The script was loosely based on a book, Sister of the Road, which was loosely based on the life of a real person, but apparently didn’t have much in common with her at all.

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Perception

Houseless, not homeless

The Sixties is the era that just won’t go away. People who weren’t around for it, wish they had been. People who lived it, wish they could go back and do it again, and this time do it better. Today it’s trendy to dismiss Sixties people as caricatures, and the whole hippie lifestyle as a joke. Why are some of the most enthusiastic participants in the bygone era now ashamed of their youthful idealism and readiness to challenge boundaries?

Of course, the recantation isn’t universal. Ken Kesey never repudiated his younger self. This whole train of thought was kicked off by an indie film called Rubber Tramps, one of his last media projects. His commentary alternates with documentation of the ways and thoughts of people who live in vehicles and tend to move around a lot. Over all, it contains the distilled essence of the Sixties. For example, one vagabond tells how his mother asked, “What are you going to do with your life? How will you get the things you want?” He says, “I have the things I want now.”

Kesey guides the film crew into his woods to the resting place of “Furthur,” the noble bus that carried the Merry Pranksters and Neal Cassady. Their adventures provided a blueprint for others who acted out the paradigm of life as a never-ending journey. “Furthur” is cousin to the strange vehicles that occupy the side streets, parking lots and lonely spaces in so many cities. These rolling homes are a source of perpetual aggravation to many permanent residents. In them dwell people whose most important possessions are their wheels – individuals who preserve the idea of freedom for the rest of us, in case we want to get re-acquainted with it some day.

Sixties people felt the need to separate from the prevailing society, which was seen as toxic in all its manifestations. An enormous influence on young minds, at the time, was Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, a novel about a character who blew into town encumbered only by a big trunk plastered with labels from various exotic lands. His room was a disorderly midden of wine bottles, poetry books, paints – about what you’d expect to find in the bus of a modern-day rubber tramp. As mysteriously as the Steppenwolf had arrived, he vanished, leaving behind nothing but a manuscript that traced the development of his philosophy. Its main tenets were a deep craving for independence; hatred for all offices whether governmental or commercial; and refusal to sell himself for money, comfort, sex, or power.

In the Sixties, we had not the first, but certainly the most contagious, instance of a whole lot of people spurning the received wisdom of their society. Countercultures have always existed, and always will. People who prefer motion are a subset of the conformity-spurning class. Gypsies, theatrical troupes, sailors, traders, itinerant musicians, desert herders, shell-shocked veterans who can’t stay under a roof, all kinds of nomadic populations – they’ve been around forever, too. And sometimes a person just wakes up one morning and decides, “I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna start my day by tying a noose around my neck. I’m not gonna suck up to a boss. I’m not gonna squander my life buying status symbols for my relatives to flaunt, while I grow stomach ulcers.”

Fancy Van

We know where you live

For any government, there’s an advantage in having twenty zillion laws on the books, even if many of them are generally unenforced. When authority wants to harass you, it will find a reason. The trap is always there, jaws agape. Believe it: there are few adults in America who couldn’t be arrested for something. Everybody’s ass is up for grabs, all the time.

But first, Big Bro has to find you. He can’t abide a shifting population. That’s why he wants everyone locked into “real” jobs, marriages, and mortgages. People are optimally kept track of when they are neatly lodged at permanent addresses. The next best thing, from the tyrant’s point of view, is to have people un-housed, but contained in certain areas of the urban complex: designated parks, or Skid Row, or maybe even shelters. In the first instance, cooperation is secured because you have too much to lose; in the other, submission is guaranteed because you have nothing to fight for, or with.

At either extreme, householder or homeless waif, the bottom line is: the government knows where to lay hands on you at 4 a.m. That’s what it’s all about. What really irritates authority are the loose people, the ones who might be here or could be there, the ones who flit around. Like the rubber tramp who says, “I’m not homeless – my home is homeless.” And the one who says, “Freedom fixes most anything.” To authoritarians, restless folk are anathema, especially when the wanderers don’t particularly care to be accepted as citizens by the larger society. They like being alienated and disaffiliated. It doesn’t mean they’re evil. It means they want to be left alone.

Like a rolling you know what

In our day and age, the “floating anarchy” subculture is one of the last minority groups it’s okay to openly, unblushingly hate. The bureaucratic persecution never lets up, and yabbos entertain themselves by committing arson and assault against the rubber tramps. The non-traditionally housed are loathed and feared as much as the homeless. Especially when they are vonu by choice. That’s a libertarian-coined term for a philosophy whose primary goal is to become invulnerable to coercion. There are real-world components, techniques of withdrawing or disappearing from society. There are mental and emotional components.

For every person who actually unleashes the inner gypsy, there are a hundred who wish they had the balls to give up all the illusions and follow their hearts. Some rig up a vehicle and a lifestyle for a couple weeks annually, and take off for Burning Man or a Rainbow Gathering. Others live on the edge 365 days a year. Some go for the completely unplugged “acoustic lifestyle;” some have electronic amenities. For true vonuists, it becomes ever more difficult to live under the radar – even when you do absolutely nothing deviant except live under the radar, which has to be defined as wrong, for control to be as tight as a paranoid government requires.

Moss needs love too

The Sixties was the epoch of the rolling stone meme, as seen in the Dylan song; the rock’n’roll magazine; the band. Even then, the quotation was ancient: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” The trouble with the proverb is, it takes for granted that a question about the desirability of moss has been decided. But is moss bad? In a way, yes. It erodes a small rock just as surely as the roots of larger vegetation can erode a mountainside. Doesn’t sound good. On the other hand, moss is also part of nature’s grand design.

At any rate, a generation arose that avoided gathering moss, in the form of either belongings or obligations. One way to be invulnerable is to not have things that can be seized and forfeited, not have loved ones who can be used as leverage. Children are the most easily threatened hostages to fortune. One traveler in the movie is RomTom (that’s Rom as in Romany, or Gypsy), whose photographs validate the Phil Ochs line, “In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.” RomTom and his wife Ellie were on the road for decades, repairing bicycles, transforming life into art, and generally upholding the tradition of the eternal wanderjahr – and enduring the ongoing horror of having lost their three daughters to the social services machine. It’s been said that you can do anything you want, as long as you’re willing to pay the price, and there is a hefty price tag attached to life on the road. Sometimes the cost is much higher than your worst nightmare.

Despite the hazards of camaraderie, wanderers still value it, and some prize it above all things. The difference is, they form chosen families and communities through voluntary association, rather than by blood kinship or other arbitrary standards. In the movie, four rubber tramps spend most of their time playing dominoes, digging each other’s company, tall tales, wisecracks, and survival skills. So what? The famous prime directive for doctors – “First, do no harm” – is a good rule for us all, and these guys follow it. Four misfits choose to spend their time on a game, they’re not hurting anyone, and in fact the world would be a better place if certain people followed their example.

In a big city, a hustler can knock down one mark after another and move on. But vonuans, whose relationships are necessarily few, must value their human connections and treat them with integrity. The road may seem like an easy place to be anonymous, but in a sense it is one big commune without borders, shared by people you tend to meet over and over again.

In the Sixties, Baba Ram Dass told us, “Your teachers are anybody or anything along the way that points the path…” In the nomad life, you might find yourself living serially with different sets of people, as either guest, host, or partner. One guy in this movie says, “You never know when you’re feeding an angel,” an echo of the Arlo Guthrie lyric, “Maybe your ticket on the last train to glory is the stranger who is sleeping on your floor.”

A nickel and a nail

Here’s a strange thing. A person who makes a few million bucks, and then discovers “voluntary simplicity,” gets his picture on a magazine cover, and pontificates about how the real values of existence include watching the sunrise and milking the goat. Money isn’t everything and now, in the rat race of life, he’s a true winner. Whereas a person who has always known that money isn’t everything, and who has conducted himself accordingly all along, is known in our society as a loser.

A condition of mobility is that you don’t have much stuff, and what you do have is likely to be previously owned. Expertise in dumpster diving is optional. Society should be grateful to a subculture dedicated to keeping old vans and buses and pots and pans out of the landfills. Yet the amount of official obstruction that befalls these wanderers is a damn shame. With homelessness so pervasive in our deceptively rich-looking society, why not let people who can manage at least a vehicle, have it? And quit hassling them.

From the perspective of the big picture, they are not the anomalous ones. On planet Earth, most families don’t own a four-bedroom house with a two-car garage, and for millions, having a rusty van to live in would be a definite upgrade. In a global context, America’s rubber tramps are rich. But here in their own land, they are poor and scorned.

And they are the future. In the vision of tomorrow glimpsed in William Gibson’s speculative fiction, people own the clothes they stand up, in plus a few gadgets. In a Norman Spinrad story, the only survivors of nuclear doomsday are a caravan of Gypsies. Our rubber tramps are practicing up to be the teachers and mentors of tomorrow, when the “long emergency” makes scarcity more and more the rule in America. Today’s hardy minimalists will soon be coaching the rest of us in the art of getting along with plenty of nothin’.

Freedom

Freedom

Manifest destiny and the cosmic messenger service

In our country’s infancy the urge to Go West, always in pursuit of the next frontier, was the foremost and proudest American trait. In the old days, the government lavishly rewarded this desire to cover new ground. The more people who moved, the better, because it helped fulfill the Manifest Destiny concept of an empire that stretched from sea to shining sea. Now, there’s no more west to go. But the urge still exists. It’s like the problem with soldiers who come home after the war with serious anger management issues. Once you wind people up and point them in a certain direction, how do you shut them off? A lot of Americans really do have perpetual motion in their blood. Problem is, now the government finds it more useful to reward only those who stake out a little piece of ground and stay put.

Cosmo says he left home a long time ago because “My folks didn’t have no understandin'”: a summing-up that could be echoed by many of his road brethren. Cosmo and his arthritis share a leaky van, but he says living in a house would make him old before his time (he’s over 70). The prospect of being elderly, sick, in pain, and poor is what keeps most citizens in line, doing the 9-to-5 thing to assure future comfort. Cosmo would rather take the poverty and pain, than be confined. There are retirement home inhabitants who wish they could change places with him. When vonu works like it ought to, as another rubber tramp puts it, “You don’t get Christmas, you don’t get Thanksgiving …What you do get is every other day of the year.”

Without over-romanticizing, one can still recognize a lot of value in the mobile lifestyle. It’s a life that calls for great courage and resourcefulness. Constant motion is the ultimate transition, and the thing about transition time is, you can’t be on automatic pilot. You have to always be thinking: What’s needed right now, in this moment? As Kesey points out, it’s all about being here now. In the best case, having no home is synonymous with being at home everywhere. The ability to be at home anywhere is a great gift. Your center is internalized and travels with you. Imagine that: the whole world is your comfort zone.

Another maverick explains the importance of making time to “sit like a Buddha in the sand dunes and see if there’s any messages on our e-mail through the cosmic messenger service.” This is the bottom line, really: to create a life that encompasses the willingness and ability to listen for communiqués from the Great Spirit, and allows time to do so. Because if you let go of your soul, none of the rest is worth a hill of beans. That was the great message of the Sixties, and it goes a long way toward explaining why the era is so maligned.

“We are mobile beings,” says one of the rubber tramps. “We were meant to move.” Some of us, anyhow. Not everyone likes to move, but everyone should be able to. Whether or not the argument of a biological imperative is valid, the nomadically-inclined shouldn’t need it to back them up. When folks want to go, the fact that they are free people living in the free land of America ought to be all the justification anybody needs.

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directed and edited by Max Koetter, produced by Kenny Rosen

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