The faces are there, and smiling. I'm having trouble doing anything but grinning from ear to ear.
"So you back on the 4?" A brother asks.
"Yup! Back in the game!"
"'The game' is right for this route!"
I'm back on the 3/4, and it's been a long time coming. I did it for nearly two years straight, and then lost hold of it; I gave it up voluntarily for a 7 I wanted, and it was taken over by an excellent operator just under me in seniority. That was fine. But later on, every shakeup I would try to pick it, and it would be snatched out from under me. This doesn't make sense. Drivers are not supposed to like the 3/4. Unless you're completely nutty, like I am, and love lifts, overloads, hills, deadspots on hills, bad schedules, tight turns and narrow roads...please. My friends. Just let me get in there and do my thing. I need that stuff in my life. I don't like being in 3/4 withdrawal.
Anyways, I finally got my baby back, after probably the best non-trolley shakeup ever (on the 358), and boy, it's good to be here. Drivers at Atlantic are a little closer knit, since we have to look out for each other, and it feels good to be part of that family again; walking into the base is a welcome series of excited hellos as I see my wonderful colleagues after a long time away in the far North.
On the street, I have trouble containing myself. The first day was a mellow President's Day; it isn't until the following day that the onslaught is really there. An old Korean lady recognizes me at Union. She used to ride nearly everyday, and apparently still does; for some reason I've never talked to her. Today we discover our common heritage and language. I ask if she's finishing work, but she's actually just been eating, at her son's restaurant at the Market. "I have to eat," she says. She has a point.
"It's a number 4 for ya," I yell out to Jenny and her dog. She has a huge, genuine smile. I've never seen her wait for the 4 before.
"Oh good, a driver I know!" she says, upon hearing my voice.
"Now, normally I see you on the 7-"
"I moved!" Jenny's excited about it. It's an easier commute. "Don't have to take that 7 no more," she enthuses. We've hardly talked before, and you can tell she wants to speak further, but isn't sure what to say. She's just happy to be here, in a comfortable space.
Behind her is Dee, headed home to the Central District. Dee's an older woman with an inspiring, vibrant presence that defies her age. She stopped using the 4 after I left it a year ago; for some reason unknown to either of us she took it by chance today, and is amazed to see me again.
"You're back," she exclaims, with an air of surprise at the impossibility of it all.
"I decided to come back to work!"
"Where you been?"
"I been hangin' around, where you been this whole time?"
"I've been takin' that 27."
"Oh, you went over to the other side!"
"That's 'cause you weren't around!"
She's sitting halfway back into the bus. We have no business shouting like this, but we do it anyway. The others are smiling.
"You don't wanna mess with that now!" I say, about the 27. I mean, why ride the 27 when you could take the 4 and go past Harborview?
"Yeah, it aint' got nothin' on this!"
"Plus the 27's got that funky reroute."
"Yeah, Dee, you don't need that in your life!"
Jenny laughs richly from her seat a short ways back. I ask her about her new place. Jenny can't see, but she hears everything, and the three of us continue catching up, as the rest of the bus looks on smiling, laughing, and occasionally joining in. Riders who don't know me look nonplussed but excited; something is happening here, and they're new to it, learning what it is.
It's at Harborview that the bus erupts. Familiar faces abound, and I'm practically assaulted with good vibes. Even though it's been close to a year, they somehow remember me. "Shantae!!!" I yell, as Shantae says my name in surprise. Next to her is Favorite. I don't know Favorite's name, but she always calls me Favorite, and I gladly return the favor. She's an older black lady with a rich sense of humor, and in the past would always thank me "for my guided tour" of the Central District. "Are we gonna get to see Elvis Presley's house?" She'd ask, and we'd riff off each other in the afternoon sunlight.
Shantae asks if her sister can ride for free. Of course she can. "Just for today," I add in a mock serious voice, though my reputation precedes me- does anyone in earshot actually think I would turn someone down for a ride? Shantae smiles wide. It's good to be here. I feel like I don't deserve all of this.
Favorite and Dee move to sit by each other. It's clear they haven't seen each other since I was last around. I listen to Dee asking after Favorite's grandkids. Out here in the Central District, I'm reminded, people know each other. In the Judkins section, I wave at a Latino family's house that I haven't gotten to wave at in a year. The grandmother inside the window can't believe it.
"You still gonna make that stop at Alder?" Dee asks me. Back when I drove the route, there was a stop there, and after they took it away, I would occasionally keep using it- I learned from Metro that the stop was eliminated for political reasons pertaining to Garfield High School, and is in no way unsafe. It was always one of the silliest stop eliminations on the route.
"Oh, you know it!" I say. "We got you covered!"
"And how about Lane?" asks Favorite in her wonderfully gentle voice.
"Lane?" Lane Street was never a stop in the past.
"Yeah, you wanna make a stop down by Lane?"
"Ahm, lemme think about that," I say to an eruption of laughter. They know what that means.
"But what if I say like my granddaughters do and go, 'pleeeeeease?'"
"Oh, well now I feel terrible!" I say, laughing.
Jenny pipes up: "or like my grandkids do- 'pleasepleaseplease?'"
"Oh, that hurts!"
"You know," Favorite continues, "you could even just turn right on Lane and go three or four houses down,"
"Yeah, just if you really wanted to."
They're not giving me a hard time. They're happy to get off at the real bus stops. We're just having fun. I look at them in the mirror and think, these are the icons of decency. I see them on towering billboards. It's the altruism and persevering ardor in this trio of older women and people like them that I look up to. They deserve to be known- but maybe that would ruin the beauty of it.
"Man, Nathan, there hasn't been this kinda talkin' or laughin' on this bus since you been gone," Favorite says.
"Oh, I don't believe that!"
At my layover, I see Jimmy walking out of the Center Park Projects. I open the doors and leap out my bus, yelling: "as I live and breathe!"
He's one of the building managers there. I've tried to convince him to take my bus many times- it goes where he's going- but he favors walking to the light rail instead. Getting stuck in traffic on top of First Hill is apparently low on his list of favorite ways of getting home, and I try to make him see the error of his ways. "I know how badly you wanna sit at that red light with me at 9th and James," I remind him. I've spent up to 20 minutes stopped there in the past. I was able to get him to ride my bus all the way once, which bodes well: if you've get 'em once, you can get 'em again.
Ten minutes later I fire up the coach again to begin heading back north. It's close to 10am. Peak hour is long over, and it's now my favorite time of day to drive buses- everyone's already at work, and lunch hasn't started yet. Stores are opening, and the commuters are gone; it's mostly a miscellaneous cast of characters crawling out from the woodwork- the poor, the users, sleepers, dealers, the recovering, the elderly, truants, the tired, and the hungry.
This is why I work this job.
I turn the corner onto Jackson slowly, savoring every second. I'm mildly nervous, having never done the 358 at this time of day, but exhilarated at the chance to perform at my best. When people tell horror stories, it's always about their last trip of the night, or their last day on the route. You can't check out early. People can sniff that a mile away. You've gotta stay on, right there with everyone, until you pull back into base and turn the motor off.
I pull up to the Home Depot boys at Madison, the day labor folk, and I'm there for them. Eye contact and a smile. A sullen black man regards me with unfocused animosity as he trickles in change, but I win him over when I hand him his transfer saying, "lemme get you a little somethin.'
The man behind him hears this and smiles, saying, "ey, gimme a little more, dogg!" Meaning a longer transfer. My transfers are huge, in part because of the long route- you calculate them from the end timepoint.
"Aw, my friend, that's four hours!"
He laughs and gets along.
The lady at the front has been watching me. "You jus gotta great attitu,'" she says with motherly affirmation. "Even the way you handled that little thing right there, that could easily ha' gone south if you made it that way." I tell her she's too kind, but she won't have it- "I'm not bein' kind, I'm jus' callin' it out like I see it. Bein' truthful is all, that's how I go through this worl'. I'm just observing. Like my uncle John says..." We discuss the virtues of patience and perspective. Her Uncle John is a longtime operator at Metro. She then says, looking at me, "you're what, lemme guess, half Korean half white?"
This is such a complete about face from Will.i.am and Slur, earlier, that I practically stop the bus as I say "how did you know that?" I'm English no longer, dark hair be damned.
"Pretty cool penguin hat," I say to a senior with such a device perched on his head. "Take your time today," I remind him as he hobbles around. "We got no rush." Behind him, getting on the bus, is an Eastern European girl with blazing blue eyes. She's on her way to class at UW, and like Tuberculosis Man above, we find ourselves getting in depth after talking about bus routes and commute schedules. She's majoring in Business ("ah, serious!") and headed to Communications this morning. You get into their world, their moment, for a few minutes.
I stayed with her in the conversation, asking about class, as we talked about retaining customers in a business environment when they believe they've been slighted on your account. For example, a hypothetical old lady purchases bonds that turn out badly, and believes you, the broker, instructed them to buy said bonds. "The question," she told me with her blazing blue eyes, "is how would you resolve a conflict with her without losing her business." First there is the matter of recalling the tapes of the conversation, relaying to the lady that you never actually told her to buy those bonds, but finding a delicate balance- proving her wrong will merely drive her away. "You have to be showing that the lady was incorrectly remembering the conversation, and then make that seem unimportant. You stress the positive elements of retaining her with a second paragraph that buoys her up again..."
She's going to spend much of her day thinking about dilemmas like that, and that fascinates me. It's a world so far from my own.
Soon she is gone, to be replaced by another woman who is older. She's just moved into a new apartment east of Green Lake that she likes, and we talk about different ways of getting rid of mold, and what percentage of bleach and water to use. At 85th is a wheelchair who signals me like those men on the docks of aircraft carriers, marking where the planes should stop; he motions toward an imaginary line in the pavement. I almost make his stop bar, but am off by a few inches. He ribs me good-naturedly. The fog is now completely worn off, and sunlight streams into the morning with a benevolent force that warms everyone's mood. The wide spaces of Aurora recede into a baby blue sky, and here and there an airplane's contrails carve out a path of travel, a roomful of lives up there, traveling a world away.
"We must be getting old," the wheelchair says to the lady up front. "Oh, don't say that!" I say. I know they're talking about me. We all laugh, and they continue their conversation, with me intermittently joining in. The two of them know each other. The mood is that of a relaxing Saturday morning, in a living room with no worries; pure, quiet joy on a half-full bus. A benevolent sleeper nods into himself behind me, emitting a pungent odor that keeps us awake. Nine hours later I would see him again at the stop where he's about to get off, still wandering around in a pleasant daze.
Into the microphone: "Alright, let's make a stop at 165th here. This is our first stop for THS. Guys have a good one, be safe today."
"I've never heard a driver call out THS before," the wheelchair says.
"Hey, it's where we're goin,'" I say. There's good people everywhere, methadone or no methadone.
At 185th it's the man with big glasses and turquoise shorts again. I ask him if that 301 worked out. It did. He needs the lift, and starts to say "sorry,"
"Oh, don't apologize! That's why it's here, man. I like using the lift!"
There's no reason this guy should be apologizing for wanting the lift. It only takes a minute. I hope other drivers haven't been giving him a hard time, but all I can do is offer him a comfortable space, here, now. We do what we can in the series of moments called life.
My last inbound trip of the day, at 5pm, is like what all the other trips of the day have been like- busy, loud, involving, and invigorating. It's my last day at North Base, and I feel blessed to have been assigned double shifts on the 358. Why would I want to do anything else? Every trip has been a dream, and I work through the day in a mild state of wonder- how is everything so perfect? Moment after moment, snowballing on top of each other, an endless collection of slices of life, helping people, answering questions, rockin' the lift, making my goodbyes to departing regulars.
On a route like this there is so much being asked of you, all at once, and when you can perform at that level and not only stay above water, but excel, even if just barely- here is the exhilaration of a six-minute mile.
Jim, a passenger, and myself, talking ferries, commuting, and Korea, where a friend of his lives; Willy, a daily commuter who wishes me well with a generosity that floors me; Kevin, going out of his way to come to the bus and say goodbye. He didn't even need to ride that day. They and so many others walk into the disappearing twilight, fading into the humming morass of the human collective. The very last trip is one of those Twilight-Zone runs with no passengers, and I spend it reflecting goodness I've been able to be a part of. The humanity of a person who takes that moment to smile, or nod, or speak as he comes up the steps; these actions may not make us a better person, but they bring out the good we already possess. It's been a long, huge day stuffed with all the above and more, a collection of "small" interactions that makes me marvel at how I'm so lucky as to experience all of this. It is one of the best days, ever, and this post does it only a paltry justice.
At the end of the day I look down at at my bundle of transfers. I usually save one and scribble notes on it if it's been a particularly great day. Today, I have no words. I walk back to the base and try to live in the memory of all of it, savoring the joyous cacophony of the day in my head. The parking lot is quiet. Up above is another plane, its contrails perfectly straight against the rich, deep blue.
I always pull up early when starting an inbound trip at Aurora Village. There's something nice about sitting there with the doors open, in prep mode while people get on and situate themselves. I can recall a time on the 5 at Shoreline Community College when it was magical, or at least I thought it was magical, as I hung around at the front while students intermittently wandered on and relaxed after taxing their brains in biochemistry class. It conjoured up the sensation of a long trip, not unlike boarding a plane and getting settled in with your book or coffee.
Since then I do it whenever its appropriate, typically on a route that starts at a transit center. Spring is on its way, not quite here yet, and the days are lighter. I'm scribbling on a scrap of paper on my knee, making thoughts concrete. It's around 8am, gray with light fog, and here's a young black man, dressed like he just applied for Exeter, running breathlessly up to my bus. Behind fashionably thick-frame black glasses he asks, "how long before I leave?"
"Seven minutes," I respond. He asks if it's okay that he leaves his backpack onboard while he smokes a cigarette. Certainly.
Then, unprompted, he talks about how running in the wind "hurts my eyes, dogg, gets all in my eyes," with an expression of severe pain. I say "yeah, me too. It's like being on a bicycle, where after a while, your ears become sensitive from all that wind blasting in."
He looks at me with incredible surprise- "YEAH!"- as though we'd uncovered one of life's great secrets.
"What are you writing," he asks me.
Now, in truth, what I'm writing is the blog post below, 'Appearances.' I dont say that though. The meta-connotations would be too much- like breaking the fourth wall in film.
"Oh, I'm just workin out some stuff in my head, you know, figuring out my thoughts."
He explodes with a "Yes, I do that too!" We riff on the benefits of clearing the mind.
"Ah write about mah feelins," he says loudly and boldly, without embarrassment. Something about his sincerity makes me forget to laugh.
The fascination amongst youth culture with being "cool-" that is, with being aloof, askance, steeped in irony, experience and cyncism- bores me immensely. Coolness is defined by jazz historian Ted Gioia as "putting up a guard." Honest, open communication takes a backseat to a posturing and a preoccupation with trends and surfaces.* It's the opposite of letting down your guard, which is a prerequisite to any sort of meaningful relationship.
This kid is not being cool. He's being genuine. He wears his words on his sleeve, not in the least worried if he sounds silly as he says, "if I'm feelin' angry, I write about it. If I'm feelin' sad, I sit down and write about it. I get the pencil out and jus' get it all down on the paper."
'Cause then your thoughts are concrete,"
"Exactly, man." Excited. "Inside your head it's all swirling around, and it's hard to think. But you get the pen out, and it makes everything better. 'Cause sometimes you can be confused, but when you write about it, you look at it real, and it all makes sense, you've taken like this big jumble and unraveled into one long thing, and you can look at it and understand it. You wanna know what you're feeling, can't have all that runnin' around inside your head. You go crazy sometimes. I don't like that. Tha's why I write. Doesn't matter what I'm feelin,' what's goin' on, I write about it. I write about everything. I could be writing about that guy crossin' the street. I got so many journals stacked up-"
He's standing awkwardly at the front, not sitting in the chat seat, which is available. I'm held so rapt by his monologue that I don't suggest that he sit in the chat seat, for fear of losing his conversation. We're driving by now, passing 185th. A man with big glasses and turquoise shorts asks about downtown, and I suggest the 301.
I ask my standing friend, "What kinda stuff you been writing about? What do you wanna do?"
"I wanna go to Edmonds. But that's jus' part of the plan. I'm gonna be a film producer. I'm gonna make my own movies. I know a businessman in Chicago, he gave me his card. I know two businessmen. They're gonna teach me about notes. That's like stocks, keepin' track of the money. I wanna be a film producer with my own company, where I act in the movie, I direct the movie, I produce the movie, I do music for the movie, it a be a one man show but I gotta be trained. First I gotta learn about stocks and mutual funds, then I have enough to open my own restaurant, use that money to do that, then after the restaurant, I have enough money to make a small film, then after that movie blow up, I bankroll another film on top a that film using the profits-"
"Hell yeah," he agrees. "Step by step. Can't get right into film production now, I gotta, it's gotta be a process."
I want to reign this in a little. "Tell me about the restaurant. What kind you gonna open?"
He's still standing, right behind me, behind the yellow line, filled with enthusiasm.
"Fried chicken," he blurts out, after consideration. Then he relents and reconsiders. "No, man. Ribs. I'm gonna open a ribs- barbecue! You know, a real barbecue joint. Everybody gonna come." A blight on his smiling face as he realizes: "they a lot of vegetarians nowadays though." The guy looks almost depressed. I try to encourage him, reminding him that "tons of people like ribs. Always gonna be people eating ribs," I say in a consoling voice. "Everybody likes barbecue."
But he's not discouraged: "Maybe I can get them to give up vegetarian though. Like, they'll come in- exactly, everybody like barbecue. They gon' come in, it gonna be so good, my barbecue gonna be so good they'll try it and maybe start eating ribs again. Maybe give up veg. I'm gonna go sit down. What's your name its a plesaure talking."
I couldn't help but wonder if this was his ordinary way of talking- flitting from topic to topic with unbridled honesty and bursting naivete; was his an attitude that will hold, or will he look different in twenty years? I like when what little cynicism I have is proven wrong. Let's hope he matures into a place that works.
At 155th, we have an older Caucasian man with a cane moving with dexterity across the street. Jaywalking on Aurora is a life-or-death proposition that I've seen end badly. "Don't hurt yourself out here, man. Be careful. That kinda stuff scares me."
"Thanks," he says, noticing and registering my appearance. "Howyoudoingtoday?" Sometimes you can feel someone making a conscious decision to engage.
"I'm great, how 'bout your self?"
"Huimdoowinpittyguh (I'm doing pretty good)-" he says, in a tone of complete surprise, as though he hadn't realized this until I'd asked him.
"Ahainnevaseenyoubeefa," he slurs out. He's intelligible, but only just barely. I'm able to discern that he's speaking English, and from someone else's perspective, we must look quite the pair- one man making a series of garbled transmissions, and the other responding excitedly in normal English. We chat about my take on the route, and his childhood in Cherry Heights (Cherry Hill). It's like speaking a secret language. You can hardly understand him, but- you can. I resist the urge to speak in his voice.
"Is that so?"
"She lookin' out for ya?"
"Sounds like she knows what's up!"
The fog is beginnning to burn off, and sunlight wafts onto his face. There is light everywhere. I want to faint at how beautiful it is. Warm, incandescent tones make new shapes on people's faces, and shadows grow where they were none before. At 135th I look down the open expanse, between the tawdry landscape of K-Mart and Krispy Kreme, and the beauty of the light floors me.
"Look at that light," I can't help but say. The fog gives depth to the space, and a stillness filled with possibility. Albertson's never looked so good. I'm never sure if non-artists are into this kind of thing, but this oldster is. "Yeauissbeeayophu."
"Aenissgehhenwauhmatoo," he adds through bleary eyes. "Nawssoko enimo."
"You said it. I'll take every degree I can get!"
"That's a good-lookin' crockpot," I say to lady carrying a good-looking crockpot at 130th.
Somewhere further down the road, perhaps at 100th, Will.i.am, the rapper, or at least his doppelganger, gets on. "Uh oh, whaaattt? Not the lil' kid again," he laughs.
"They can't get rid a me!"
"Hot diggity dog. You guys best be checkin' for this boy's ID," he announces to the rest of the bus.
The trick is not to assert yourself over non-issues. Flow with the people, not against them, a driver once told me when I was new. Thus:
"Oh, you know I got my learners permit!"
"Learner's permit," he laughs.
"Yeah, you know they're desparate to hire people. Recruiting straight outta junior high school."
"Straight outta junior high school!" Repeating it for effect.
"I should be at home doin' chores! Gettin' my homework done!"
He's cracking up at the seams, laughing. We amiably continue. I see faces in the mirror, quiet but smiling. Somehow it comes out that I'm from LA. Sometimes people can tell by the way I find myself speaking sometimes. It happens without my realizing it. Shades of an earlier life, creeping out.
"You from LA?" he asks.
"South gate," I reply.
"That's the hood, man."
"Yeah, that's the hood. South Gate. SG."
We laugh. Nobody calls it SG. It's a parody of sorts of "CP," the designation for the neighboring area, Compton.
"Yeah, there's a driver friend a mine, Jerome, he also from down there."
"You know Jerome!" I say, becoming animated. I love Jerome. He has the character and patience to pick the 358 five days a week, and still be happy. I relieve him three days a week, and he's one of the best.
"Yeah! Jerome's awesome."
"Man, South Gate. Thats where Cypress Hill from, arent they?
"I believe so."
"They closed down that Maplewood Police department!"
"So where you from?
"LA too! course I am, how you think I know about the Maplewood Police?"
"Yeah, that's true."
"I was there, and I was up in San Gabriel for a while. The Other SG."
"'The Other SG,' oh, that's great. I ain' never it called that before!" We're both rolling around in the aisles- metaphorically, of course.
"What hospital you born in?" he asks.
"I forget the name, it was in downtown LA. It was a Korean name, Korean hospital, probably why I forget the name. My mom's Korean."
"Really?" Surprised. "You Korean?"
Slurring guy says, "you look English!"
"What?" I say, turning around. "I look English?" I haven't heard that one. I've heard Hawaiian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, but- English?!
"Yeahthedarkhairyeah," he explains. This explanation is news to me. How had I not known that the English are identifiable by their hair color?
"You dont look Korean," Will.i.am says.
"Shoot! I gotta work on that!"
"In downtown LA, man. 'Cause I used ta live off a Vermont Ave,"
"Yeah, I used to take the old 204 up and down Vermont-"
"And thats in Koreatown, a course, and I was wonderin' if maybe it was over there."
"Yeah, I used to hang around over there. I'd go over to the art museum at Wilshire and Fairfax..." You find solidarity talking about mundane things with someone from a common origin. There's no other reason to get excited about talking bus service on Vermont Avenue, but we sure are.
"Yeah, by the tar pits."
"Yeah, the tar pits. And the mammoth statues. 'Miracle Mile.'"
"Yeah, Miracle Mile."
"Though I ain't never seen no miracles happen there!"
"Hey, don't give up the faith! One day one a them woolly mammoths is gonna come alive-"
"And that sabre tooth tiger!"
"Yeah, so I speak Korean but I'm not fluent."
"Koombaya heenghow," he says in an Asian voice.
"Oh, I see you speak it fluent too!"
"Man, everyone wants to go to work today," I say, noticing the bus filling up.
"Yeah, its Friday, can't nobody call in sick. You gotta go to work."
"Thats right. You gotta have some nerve to do that. These are the good people, they didn't play hooky at all, even though its nice out!"
"Alright man, I wanna see a driver's license nex' week," he says as he leaves. We're at 45th now.
"I'm a do my best!"
At this point a Caucasian man in nondescript west-coast office wear comes up from the back to join me in the chat seat. He says nothing.
"How's your morning goin'?"
"Off to a good start."
"Talk about a beautiful day."
"Yeah, usually I bike in, but I had a flat tire."
I ask how far of a ride his commute normally is.
"I come in from around 145th."
"You bike in from 145th?? Where are you going?"
"I work in South Lake Union."
"Wow. Wow. That's a ride. Especially going home. Those hills!"
We talk about hills, and then I ask, "what kind of work do you do, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Excellent. Staying productive. In what field?"
"A worthy cause. Do you like it?"
"Yeah," he answers half-heartedly. "Sometimes you run into issues with funding. We're government funded-"
"Do you ever run into issues where the source of funding is determinate on the types of results you're being asked to produce?"
"That's exactly it, it's coming from a source that wants something specific, and we have to tailor to their needs,"
"They might have an agenda,"
"And the nature and trajectory of the research gets influenced by that?"
This is a major issue in multiple fields of scientific research, and we discuss it further. What's invigorating about this is the complete and instantaneous switch in gears from animatedly engaging with Will.i.am on subjects like undead woolly mammoths and riffing on being underage, to animatedly engaging with this learned gentleman about pressing dilemmas in academia. I'm equally fascinated by the undercurrents of both, and it's a thrill to move so quickly from one to the other.
I have much respect for educated people who meet others on an equal plane, and feel no need to foist their learnedness on them; implicit in this approach is the acknowledgement that no matter how smart one is, one can always discover more, from anyone, as long as one is receptive. As Da Vinci said, "Every man is my teacher, in that I may learn from him." I aspire for this mental framework. It's why I get so much out of not just Researching Tuberculosis Man, but also Slur and Will.i.am, and even Ah Write About Mah Feelins Guy. It doesn't matter if he's naive or younger. He's had life experiences I have not had. I can get something out of the interaction.
I wish Researching Tuberculosis Man a pleasant day at work, and then Real Change Willy comes over for a high-five at Denny Way. It feels good to straddle both worlds. I can feel the commuters thinking, who the heck is this guy driving this bus?
A homeless woman with a walker and warm pink hat (more on her here and here) gets off from her trip to THS. I ask her if she finished her Harlan Coben book- that's what she had last time. "Yeah, finally. Took me forever," she sighs. "I didn't like it at all." She has a new novel under her arm now, one of those sci-fi apocalyptic types. I didn't used to know homeless people read Harlan Coben. Now I do.
At Wall a group of excited high-school age girls get on, headed for the Amtrak. They have their luggage ready for a long trip. It's clear buses are not their usual mode of transport; the dynamic changes a little when bus newbies are onboard. You and your bus, for them, are representing all of Metro. I enjoy ushering them into a friendly 358 atmoshphere.
The crockpot lady from 130th, who is Caucasian, gets out at Columbia, and says thanks in Korean- "khamsahamnida!"
I get excited- "Chumuneyo!"
Mid-morning light streams into the bus, making everything new. I ask the girls where they're going. They're headed for Los Angeles, and it's going to take 35 hours! I don't know why I'm so excited, but I am. They're from Canada. We talk about the ticket prices, and whether they've been before. The noises are animated, our voices popping with a verve that comes from who knows where. At the end of the line I sigh with pleasure. It's been a good trip.
My dear friends, I find myself in a position where I need to take a short hiatus from the blog. I'm preparing for a solo art show in June, and my commitment to have this show be the best show possible has resulted in its demanding all of my available time.
You may have noticed the declining frequency of posts here over the last two weeks, for which I apologize; I put a lot of thought, and by extension, time, into these posts, and were I to continue them while in the midst of organizing my show the quality of both entities would suffer.
Having said that, if you enjoy my blog, I strongly recommend the show, which will be not just photography, but also all the other forms of art I partake in, including bus-related writings and other material. The Nathan Vass Retrospective, as it were. It'll be at the Blindfold Gallery on Capitol HIll and is slated for an opening reception on the evening of June 13th. Of course, I'll keep you updated as more details become firm.
I have every intention of staying busy and continuing to share the stories that I love telling so much. They just keep flooding in, and there is a massive backlog as well. I encourage you to subscribe to the blog if you haven't already, so you don't miss out on new stories when they eventually start piling in again.
It gives me great joy to know that there are so many of you who enjoy them as well. In that spirit, I will leave you with four more posts before hightailing it. Two are about my last day on the 358, and the other two detail my first days back on the wire, on the 3/4. Don't hesitate to come find me on the bus! Think of excuses to go to the Central District!
I likely won't have any film-related posts here until this holiday season, so I offer the following if you're interested: a detailed writeup on my take on the nominations for this year. I hope you enjoy. Check back soon for a massive post (or possibly posts) about my last day on the 358!
Oscar Predictions #1, by Nathan Vass
I don't always wait for runners. Most of the routes I drive run too frequently to justify waiting, but people still run- they'll run for you even if the next bus is literally stopped right behind you. This is an ongoing mystery to me.
Sometimes, though, I'll be feeling especially generous, and I want to wait. I've certainly ran for my share of buses. Today it's at the first stop on the inbound 41, outside Fred Meyer at 130th. Often a waited-for runner will thank me for my patience, or smile in gratitude as they catch their breath; it's a nice exchange. Today, however, is different.
This woman, overweight and middle-aged with a mullet straight out of a time capsule, doesn't offer a word of acknowledgement- even as I say hello. The temptation to say something snarky is overwhelming, but there's no need. She's my fellow human, not my daughter. I focus on other people as the route goes along.
We'll return to her in a moment. Later that same day, a middle-aged man, perhaps 55, steps onboard my 358. I've seen him before, and he always enjoys riding my bus. As is the norm, he's dressed in unassuming homeless garb- oversized beige winter jacket with layers underneath, a knit cap of indeterminate dark color; faded trousers and an overall weathered appearance. When you spend enough of your life battered by the elements, your skin ages in a way that's unmistakable. Today he steps on and I'm mildly surprised- it's Valentine's Day, and he has a bouquet of tulips.
"Those are nice lookin' flowers," I say.
"Yeah, thought I'd get a couple for the wife," he replies as I notice a ring on the appropriate finger.
"That's 'cause you're a gentleman!"
He smiles. Beneath his layers I spy the collar of a dress shirt. This guy's not homeless at all. I always knew he was a gentleman, but had no idea he was a family man. You just really never know.
Toward the end of the same trip, a young African-American man in a hoodie and dark jeans comes up to the front and sits down next to me. At 46th I'd greeted him with a decidedly uncool "how are you?" and he had still responded in kind. Now we're at 198th, looking at a man in the roadway with a sign that reads, "FOOD MONEY."
"Does he want food or money," Hoodie says. We ponder for a moment and begin swapping stories.
He goes first: "Man, I was standing in line at McDonalds,"
"And this guy comes up to me askin' for three dollars. He be sayin' he don't got no money, he gotta get the bus back don't have no fare, so could he please have three dollars then he be on his way. I said no, but my girl next to me says 'hey babe, come on now, give the guy three dollars.' So I give him three dollars. And then, he go right to the next person in line behind me, asks him for three dollars! Says the same stuff about bus fare and everything!"
"That's ridiculous. 'Cause you worked for that money."
"Exactly. He din't need that money at all."
"Especially in broad daylight like that, him askin' the next person while you still standing there. Shameless."
"I know, right?" We're not complaining, just marveling. I'm reminded of an incident that happened when I was a child:
"Okay, this one time, somebody ask me for some change, and I'm givin' this lady this big handful of change, and check this out. She takes it and picks out all the pennies and throws 'em on the ground."
"For real? Man that shit's messed up. Pennies not good enough for the penniless..."
His tone is interesting. He sounds not as if he's criticizing the "other," but rather just that he's disappointed in his fellow people. I can identify with that.
"Exactly," I say. "It was unbelievable. Or this other time, guy comes up to me,"
"Tells me this big long story about he's stranded out here and he needs to get on a bus back to San Francisco. A greyhound bus back to Frisco."
"Explains to me this complex set a circumstances, he don't got no money, isn't anyone he can call,"
"He just really needs this ticket to go get on the greyhound bus. I said okay, and I gave him the money. Now. Six months later, the same dude comes up to me, and tells me the exact same story!"
"Word for word! I couldn't believe it."
"No way! What'd joo say?"
"I said no, man. No way."
"'I remember you.'"
"Exactly. He probably tells that story to so many people he just forgot."
He looks at me for a moment and then says, "Ey, you probably been asked this a lot today, but-"
"-How old am I?"
We laugh. Our conversation moves on to bus driving as a job. He's 20. The conversation swirled and eddied with its own specific hum, building into the space something that wasn't there before. You felt whole, comfortable with yourself, like you were part of something that used to be ineffable. As I mentioned in an earlier post, diversity brings out commonality.
"'Cause I heard they're hiring, or something."
"Yeah, maybe. As long as you love people," I say with emphatic hand gestures, "it's the best job ever."
He affirms, but I stress it again: "I mean, you got to LOVE the people."
Sometimes people just nod when I say that, but he gets the enormity of it, shifting in his seat as he mentally puts himself in the position.
"Everybody," he says. You can hear the gears turning as he ponders the discipline. He's into the idea.
"Yeah, man. If you can do that, it's just, it's the best thing ever. It makes it fun."
What made the interaction special was the relaxed sensation that neither of us felt like we had to be anything other than ourselves, despite the difference in culture, dress, or attitude. There I was, in my tucked-in button-up and bus slacks, and there he was, with his Quiksilver beanie and "so fresh" jeans, meeting at a mutual level we could both reach. The idiosyncrasies didn't matter. I don't know what compelled him to come up from the back to talk; but when young people reach out to strangers, or realize they don't have to conform to a type- particularly an attitudinal type- it gladdens my heart. We shake hands as he leaves. There are a lot of variants of clasps and grasps and pounds in the handshakes of various groups; this one's made up on the spot, a bizarre hybrid of loping gangsta and decisive real estate broker. It works.
To return to the 41, earlier the same day, with Silent Mullet Lady:
She rings the bell at 123rd, and as I pull into the zone, I briefly consider not saying a word to her. For me this is unthinkable. I always say something. However, she didn't say a word ot me, or thank me for waiting, after all; but that's just a fleeting thought. Of course I'm gonna say something kind. People need acknowledgement.
When I say "thank you" to exiting passengers, I'm thanking them for quite a number of things. For not urinating on the seats, for not beating up passengers, or assaulting me, for riding the bus in the first place and thereby keeping me employed, for paying the fare or part of the fare, for acknowledging me by asking for a free ride... the list goes on. There's a lot for me to be thankful for, and this can function as a useful reminder for myself.
So, by choice and by instinct: "Thank you."
"Thank you," she replies. "And thanks for waiting."
No Way! She didn't have to say that at all- but she did! How wonderful! I'm elated, more at having my preconception of an unthankful person being proved wrong than anything else. Sometimes it's the little things.
Two and a half hours later, as I do seemingly endless rounds on the 41, she gets on again. This time things are a bit different: she has about twenty small children in tow. It's a field trip! She's one of a few chaperones, and she's in her element, laughing and helping, knowing just how to speak to each of her overexcited young charges. Professional.
I think to myself, Here she is. What a far cry from my intital impression of her, which was based mostly on her silence and her Reagan-era mullet.
Appearances. Often they don't count for too much.
As we count down to the last couple of days of the shakeup, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the part of town I've spent so much time in this winter, and which I will be sad to leave~
I've sided with my friends in the past when we deplored the visual aesthetic of Aurora. Was the an uglier strip of road in the city? This is what we asked ourselves, tearing down the six-lane expanse at okay, something rather above the speed limit, peering out from our cars in derision.
That was then. We were youngsters, and we thought we knew what we were talking about. We didn't. There are things- worlds, lives, and loves- that you'll never know if you only ever drive through a place. Get out of the car. Feel that wind blowing your hair. Know the feeling of the walking in the cold, on this day, these sidewalks. Birds, noise, exhaust, voices.
Let some dirt get under your fingernails.
I have come to love the iconography of Aurora Avenue. Here is a realm that stands outside of time. There is the egregious concrete expanse, nigh uncrossable, a rotating pulse of endless, ongoing life, rubber tires uniting to make a sound we can't reduce to a name. It's the sound of a thousand stories, elated, pathetic, tragic, energized. Normal. There are the decaying sidewalks and the stretches without, cement plates buckling under the onset of nature.
There's the veritable battery of motels and hotels, room after sordid room, and who's counting. Years of secrets lining the fading walls; how many times have these drapes opened and closed? Standing in an empty bedroom, staring nowhere. Sometimes you can hear an echo in the hum of a fluorescent lamp.
The landscape of Aurora Avenue holds firm against the leveling advances of technology. This could be the eighties. Or 1978, Mid-October. Tire rotation, junk removal, appliance demolition, the dollar store; block after block of chain-link fences and used car lots. The Elephant at 8800. Aurora Donuts; Dang's Hair Salon. St. Vincent de Paul- once a word for a man, now immortalized into another life. These are the edifices of our time. Lowes. Korea Times. Dilapidated tattoo parlors and auto wrecking offices that seem deserted. Men slink around in the darkened corners. (Refer here for background on Aurora's culture; elsewhere, a celebratory writeup on the corridor; and, if I dare to toot my own horn, search my name to find an article on me on the same site).
The receding concrete vastness rolls away endlessly, populated at all hours of the day. The detox and rehab facilities pepper the landscape. I remember a prostitute at 115th, turning down a free bus ride even though there was snow on the ground, choosing to look for work at 5am; another sorts through her plastic bag of condoms. Her mother is sitting next to her.
Craggy eyes and broken faces peering at me in the dark. A man gets on with a full-size camping tent, big enough for four people, like it wasn't any big deal. Just goin' up the street. Another fellow, middle-aged white homeless man, his face utterly destroyed, beaten to a pulp. The skin has turned black, and the cuts on the eyebrows are drying. He's lost his backpack with his his HIV paperwork and his last $100. Tough-looking character, but his voice is human. I can't tell if he's crying.
I do my best, staying with him, staying present. Another man and his friend thank me because I let him ride yesterday, though he was 60 cents short. Here's the methadone crowd, wide awake already, as I advertise 165th and 170th- "these next two stops both pretty good for THS," I tell them on the mic. "Good day today. Maybe see you on the way back!"
The reaches quiver with life out here. You have to talk to people. Connections mean something, however faint; the street denizens engage each other even if they're initially strangers. Sometimes they tear each other apart; other times they bond in ways they never knew- "small world," you hear someone say, with that familiar tone of welcome incredulity. What commuters there are often keep to themselves, perhaps out of fear, or perhaps knowing that this just isn't their element.
I help a couple with their six suitcases and duffel bags. "I should work at an airport," I quip, as they toss bags to me, which I heave onto the sidewalk. Laurie's sitting across from me, explaining about vomiting and Pepsi. Her day's better now than it was earlier. Sometimes her blood pressure's too low. "It says I'm dead, is what it says," she intones with listless eyes. "I don't believe that for a second," I smile back.
Here's a man with his own swivel chair, unidentifiable wooden cartons, and dog. Gent with a jacket that may have been yellow in another life, the putrid stench of urine clinging to him and his five bags. He's tall, and quiet; think Clint Eastwood if Rawhide had never panned out.
Often the thought comes up again- I wouldn't want to be spending time with any other group of people right now.
How can I want to be here, not as some mere passing anthropological diversion, but day after day, after day? What is this feeling that grows richer with the passing of time? What could I possibly be so enamored with? I mean, Aurora Avenue?! What?
To be here is to know the human organism, unadorned.
I want to feel the truth of life, the tactile earth of the ordinary. These are not extreme lives, but people like myself. A veneer that's present elsewhere has been stripped away, and my head feels clear down on the ground. Diversity paradoxically reminds us of how similar we all are. Commonalities show themselves. There is a confirmation of sorts taking place- yes, we are human. I find this deeply comforting. This is all on top of the fact that I can help someone, or perhaps alter the state of people's minds, even for a moment- something about that allows all this to work together; I haven't quite parsed that out just yet.
We often forget the savagely indifferent balance of nature. You are confronted with it out here. Classrooms teach children that there is an answer to every question. Only on the outside do we discover how little quantifiable facts count for in life. A line is brought to mind, from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris: "In man's endless search for truth, he finds only knowledge."
To be slapped in the face with reality, to live in realms of truth regardless of positive and negative- this is an affirmation of life that I benefit from. Despite all the things you might know or have seen, you can still look out at the world with a sense of wonder. There is something about physical reality that is inherently satisfying to me. Amazingly, it always has a new shade to reveal, if you're open to it.
A spry, tough older guy, John, told me one night- "You are The Beast, man. You're changing what Aurora Avenue is, just by being out here. Dude. I've watched you. Everything you say and act to these people... You are THE BEAST!"
To which I replied, "No, you're the beast, man-"
"No no no, I'm not the friggin' beast, dude. That doesn't make any sense. YOU'RE the Beast. Don't be modest, man..."
Do we give a name to the joy we feel, or do we simply revel in having been able to touch it? There is a quality you can discern that may not have a title.
I was doing the weave on Third, inbound, looking at the bus in front of me. It was another 358, my leader. His hulking, dirt-spattered 2300 dominating my field of vision, both of us bearing that infamous route number that blares the message out out for all to see- we have just come down from the mountains of madness, and we have passengers we want to share with you.
358. 6. 359. The numbers have lifetimes behind them, and going through downtown there's a similar feeling to driving the 7- you're at the top of the pyramid, commanding a moving what, hotel, insane asylum, living room...but you're making it happen. Mentally there is so much being asked of you- in this respect the job is almost exactly like film directing- it feels like a hundred jobs at once- and you're doin' it.
In fact, you're doin' it handily, you pro, you reigning overlord of Aurora Avenue, you benevolent wrangler of Club Cuckooland. You're keepin' it smooth like it wasn't any big thing, even though it is.
That's what I would think to myself riding the 359 (the old version of the 358) or the 7 as a youngster. I was in awe of those rare guys and gals who absolutely had it, those drivers who possessed some ability to be at the top of their game in what was obviously the tough gig in town. They were filled with life. I still look up to those drivers, and aspire to reach their lofty heights. What I never guessed was the massive satisfaction I would get out of being here.
Briefly we were side by side, my leader and I, and through the bars and windows I saw him wave- an easy full-blown grin, his arm laughing at the insanity of it all. He's a skinny Central American guy, older, with a rich smile- and the sense of outsized camaraderie accomplishes multitudes. Only another bus driver could grasp the full measure of what this hysteria is like, and we're both surfing on the exhilaration.
I've just had a ridiculous trip into town, filled with lifts, conversations, questions, laughter- an avalanche of sensory stimuli, all of it needing a response, and most of it having the importance of life and death, or at least peace and badness. The 358 in front of me has probably had something pretty similar- nothing's quite as exciting as a 358 that's more than ten minutes late- but here we are, laughing about it. What else can you do? We ricochet down Third, buses everywhere getting out of our way. When you're doing the 358, other routes give you a lot of room.
Respect. You don't need it to be happy, and it can vanish in a moment, and it's not at the core of why I'm doing any of this- but boy, it sure feels good while it's there. I'm humbled and grateful. And exhilarated.
Here we have the remainder- that is, top half- of my list of top films for the year. Again, a note on the numbering system- the films are numbered in tiers, a la Sight & Sound, which is why the first two films are both #1. Bottom half of the list is here.
1. Django Unchained (Tarantino)
A freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and his German bounty hunter friend (Christoph Waltz) attempt to free the former's wife (Kerry Washington). Trailer.
"Death Proof has to be the worst film I make," Tarantino told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. He was discussing the importance of maintaining a high bar of quality through the totality of one's oeuvre. At the end of Inglorious Basterds, one character says to another, "you know, I think this just might be my masterpiece." I'm convinced that's Tarantino speaking directly to us in the darkened theatre. Upon seeing that film, many found it hard to disagree.
Django is better.
The traditional line of thinking is that QT's best work is 1994's Pulp Fiction, a film we all know is great. Let us not confuse the influential with the masterful, however. And let us also not diminish the value of directorial craft and subsume it to our respect for content.
Far too many film critics arrive at film with a background not in filmmaking, and certainly not in directing, but in journalism or English. They are schooled in literature and theatre, and sometimes music; but they know precious little of cinematography, film editing, and direction- that is, the elements that actually make cinema a unique art form. How many reviews do you come across that discuss these aspects in terms beyond superlatives?
I don't mean to harp on so many otherwise brilliant pieces of film journalism, but merely to point out a void where a corrective is needed.
With respect to Tarantino, what can't be denied is that his direction has grown considerably with the newer films. Yes, Pulp was an undinable masterpiece of writing and structure. Yes, Jackie Brown is perhaps his most mature and considered work. But those were not visual feasts, featuring rather a competent but straighfoward visual sense.
Tarantino's films weren't visual feasts until he started working with Robert Richardson, the ace cinematographer who works regularly with Scorsese, and was Oliver Stone's go-to guy during the great Stone period. Richardson is most easily recognized by his proclivity for very hot top-down lighting and highly fluid camerawork. And this change, for Tarantino, wasn't just an upgrade in the quality a cinematographer of Robertson's stature could provide while being limited by a visually unimaginative director;* remember, it's the director, not the cinematographer, who determines the shots.
No, from 2003 onward Tarantino's work has been noticeably more refined in terms of visual craft. There are the complex tracking shots (the overhead shot following Uma Thurman walking through the halls to the bathroom in Kill Bill 1); the more clear designation of purpose to each shot and cut; his willingness to let a shot run on; a more refined compositional sense; and the beautiful range of colors and color tones; those rich blacks filling out the corners of the frame, or the gradation of subtle color shift on an actor's cheek. This is a director who knows he's shooting on film, and wants to make the most of it.
There's also been a maturation in content. People speak often of the violence in his films, but we can forget that though his characters may behave amorally, they all exist in highly ethical universes. The stance of each film falls unequivocally on one side of the moral argument. For example, in Pulp we have three story strands- Travolta trying not to commit adultery with Uma Thurman; Bruce Willis deciding to save Ving Rhames' dignity when he doesn't have to; and Sam Jackson renouncing his violent lifestyle, to "walk the earth like Caine in Kung Fu," as it were. You also have Thurman lying on the bathroom floor at the end of Kill Bill 2, saying, "thank you," repeatedly. Who is she thanking? What's going through her head? "I believe in God, but I won't tell you how," Tarantino once said.
In Basterds and Django, we still have a sense of the simplicity in clearly defined moral assignations to characters- but, those lines are more blurry now then they were before. The German soldier who's batted to death by Eli Roth in Basterds is depicted in a way that fits every definition of heroism. The man pulling the wagon in Django, described as a "bad man-" is shot in cold blood, yes, but in front of his young son. The moral delineation is not so easy anymore- or, if it even ever was, it's certainly less so now. We might think the revenge fantasy at the end of Basterds is juvenile, until we realize that we are being implicated as well- we, the audience, parallel the Third Reich audience in our reactions to the film rather uncomfortably.
Django furthers all of this. The 165-minute behemoth (his longest film yet) is the unique, delectable cocktail of verbose, writerly sensibilities that explode with the tension and violence we've all come to anticipate from the guy. In particular, he's gotten better than ever with these last two films at creating very, very long dialogue scenes that pull a situation taught as a wire before letting it all snap. I'm also compelled to make a note of how entertaining the film is. Aside from being quite funny in parts, the psychological shifts and growths that take place within the protagonist's heads are fascinating and enjoyable to work out. There is also a Wolfe-ian preoccupation with hierarchy and social structure that's never surfaced in a Tarantino film before, and lends credence to the depiction of the world of the Antebellum south. Great.
What elevates the film above his previous work?
Hou Hsiao-Hsien once said some truths are more clearly relayed through a fictional platform. Django is more than an exercise in writing and technique. In Basterds as well, but dramatically moreso here, one can sense a passion bubbling underneath the surface, as in: the author of this work cares about what he's telling us. He's got something to say. The visceral reality of slavery is communicated so potently here, albeit- and perhaps thanks to- the hyper-fantastic environment it's presented in.
Tarantino recently told Charlie Rose of the "arms-length distance" one feels when watching well-meaning films that attempt to tackle slavery realistically; here, he amply gets around that via a sensibility concerned more with emotional reality than physical. Everyone understands that slavery is horrific from an academic standpoint; this film pierces that complacency, using sympathetic characters and Conrad-ian descents to hells that were once quite commonplace, reminding us of the horrors of a chapter this country has never been able to move on from.
I also want to point out that Django strays from Tarantino's tried-and-true method of relying on revenge, that most tiresome of tropes, as his principal story motor; the revenge element is resolved early in the first 20 minutes! The remainder of the film is motivated by a need to reunite love.
*For an example of this, refer to Emmanuel Lubeszki's work on Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black. Actually, don't. The sight of Lubeszki- who shot Malick's last three films and Children of Men- being dog-collared into mediocrity by Bret's woeful shot choices- is just too painful.
1. Amour (Haneke)
Two retired music teachers (Jean-Louis Trintignant & Emmanuelle Riva) in their eighties find their bonds of love severely tested. Trailer.
We tend to conflate what we consider a "realistic" portrayal of love with a depiction of love that is problematic, flawed, damaged, or otherwise unhappy. Most films with a hopeful message of love do not in fact spend much time exploring a couple who've been together for years, but instead conclude with a union of love as it is beginning.
Perhaps this is because long-lasting, building love is so hard to find, in both life and film. I have a fondness for meaningful films about couples that've been together for ages; such pictures are harder to find than you might think. Too many films are about the beginnings of relationships, and not enough explore what happens down the road; and hardly any concern themselves exclusively with the closing moments of a union, long-lasting or otherwise.
Amour is such a film. I hesitate to describe much of what takes place in it, other than to say that it's as engrossing, sobering, and affecting a film as you're likely to come across. Trintignant's character, the husband, discovers that his wife has an ailment, and most of the film explores their attempts to cope. These characters are written beautifully, in that their asides and gestures reveal how long and well they know each other. The details reveal multitudes.
There is a loving combination of respect and weariness they each harbor for the other that is utterly plausible. They are not so perfect that we can't take the movie seriously; but nor is the marriage a pessimistic firmament of hatred. This isn't a Bergman movie. They work at being even-tempered, and strong feelings are revealed through silences or quiet tones of voice. The film gives space and time to the slower rhythms of their aging life, letting us be there for the sleepness nights or the drawn-out process of once simple things. Trintignant lying awake at night, unable to sleep. Riva figuring out how to read a book with one hand.
We find ourselves utterly engaged, noting every subtlety, as that's often all Haneke gives us to go off of. Achingly beautiful natural light wafts through the rooms, courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji, lending that particular awareness of time that only such light can bring.
Shockingly for those familiar with the director, Mr. Haneke's film is a kind one, with a view of humanity that is essentially warm. This, coming from the director of Das weiße Band, Cache, and The Piano Teacher is a complete surprise. It recasts all his previous films in a new light. He still retains his cold, unemotional approach to things, letting actions and events speak for themselves. There are no juicy Oscar-clip bawling scenes, no music, no statements told in overt terms- and yet, the ending packs an unexpected punch to the gut. It is largely this distance that elevates the value of the film as a realistic and meaningful piece.
I have trouble recommending the film highly enough. It may not sound that interesting, but it is. The dilemmas are relatable and relevant to us all, and to turn away from them is to ignore a part of life we get closer to with each passing day.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
Ten years in the life of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative searching for Osama bin Laden. Trailer.
What is there to say about this picture that hasn't already been proclaimed, loudly, by its supporters and detractors alike? The controversy surrounding the content is an implicit admission on the part of everyone- especially the naysayers- that ZDT is a film of accomplished, undeniable artistic competence. Shoddy films don't elicit such divided reactions.
I'll leave the ongoing discussion of torture to others, except to note what should be obvious: depiction of an act does not equal endorsement of an act. If a film adheres to reality without offering opinion, the only implicit advocacy taking place is manufactured by the viewer, as he might interpret the events in life. If a film deviates from reality to strengthen a cause-and-effect relationship, only then can it become a propaganda piece.
I argue such a claim cannot be leveled at Bigelow's film, which is resolutely ambivalent on the methods used in the early days of the bin Laden hunt. Some characters imply that they advocate torture; others do the opposite, and one explicitly states its ineffectiveness. There is no eureka moment where abuse leads directly to a capture. If anything, what's implicit is that the gradual shift in information acquisition methods over the 10-year period the film covers- a transition from torture to on-the-ground recon and sleuthing- resulted in more useful information.
In fact, the film is ambivalent about everything it portrays, almost to the point of frustration- it's even ambivalence carries through even to the murder of Mr. bin Laden himself. No jingoistic patriotism here. The murkiness of the moral quandaries proposed in the film are endless, as they are in the dark corners of the real-life realm it portrays.
What is celebrated is the dedication of the people involved. The film stands apart in that it's a portrait of people at their jobs. This is a film that lives in the day-to-day grind of boardroom meetings, arguments in hallways, and long hours in front of computers and prisoners. Like Fincher's Zodiac, we get a sense of the arduous, debilitating tedium of detective work- a nice corrective to the gift-wrapped hour-long shows we're accustomed to. There are no domestic moments, affairs, or heart-to-hearts; these people are focused. What we have is a dense, detail-oriented exploration of professionalism in an environment where it seems doomed to collapse.
That this exploration of people at work is applied on such a significant scale, involving so much time and so many characters, is exciting; but it's the fact that the center of it all revolves around a quiet, determined woman that makes the film unlike others. A film covering a decade of one woman's struggles at work- that's the element that makes this special. We've seen detective-oriented spy films before. We're familiar with the resolution of this narrative; but the journey, the faces, the approach- these are all new.
As has been mentioned elsewhere, there are some interesting self-reflexive layers at work here in this decidedly non-postmodern piece. It's a celebration of professionalism and craftwork on more than one level. In a way, Chastain's exemplary embodiment of these attributes is remarkably analogous to Bigelow's direction of the picture. It's a women's film, in a quietly celebratory and non-exclusivist way. Both are females succeeding in their respective male-dominated realms by sheer virtue of skill and determination. Maya accomplishes this by defining herself through her work, at the expense of any sort of personal life.
As well, Bigelow's workmanlike direction, what with its eschewing of music or overtly gorgeous shots, underlines the commitment of both herself as a content-based storyteller and the general no-nonsense attitude of Chastain's character. They both care about results. Bigelow's compositions and color tones are muted but effective, and carry their own stark beauty; images are perfectly exposed even in low-light environments, with an overall focus on natural light. The emphasis is realism.
Thankfully, minimal attempt is made to explain jargon or oversimplify the complexity of events; we feel less the effect of a narrative being imposed on reality than the reverse. We're confronted with an avalanche of small, short scenes spread across years. The effect is a kaleidoscopic embodiment of life over a long period of time. Bigelow's intimate rendering of a vast amount of material is impressive, as is her resolute refusal to provide commentary on what we're seeing. That the film ends with an unanswered question, not a statement of success, is appropriate.
In like fashion to Bigelow's directorial approach, Chastain remains opaque; she has a thick guard up, and hides her innermost feelings from most everyone, including the audience. Our interest is heightened as a result. There aren't that many films about introverts. We gaze at her, all the more curious, attempting to decode the secrets behind that enigmatic face. This is one for the ages. It's a notch below my top two here only because of how unpleasant some of the early scenes are.
2. The Master (P.T. Anderson)
A drifter and former WWII vet (Joaquin Phoenix) is intrigued by the ideas and charisma of a self-proclaimed teacher and creator (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a budding cult. Trailer.
It occurred to me while watching a 65mm print of The Master that this must be what it felt like to watch the great works of Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles when their films were first in release. To be confronted with a challenging, difficult, cerebral, beautiful, and technically proficient piece of art- and to know with confidence that this film would remain in the cinematic conversation for some decades to come. You feel like you're here, at the start of something.
To start off with, The Master looks absolutely amazing. Shot on 65mm, the film boasts an absolutely astounding clarity. As we know, film, especially medium and large-format film, boasts a dramatically, quantifably superior color range and resolution than digital cameras. Watching The Master on 65 doesn't just blow the look of most digital movies out of the water, as most shot-on-film movies do; it obliterates the experience even of watching most 35mm film movies!
You are in essence looking at a medium-format image (about 50 million pixels for you digi-folks) projected onto a wall the size of a house. You can see every skin pore on Joaquin Phoenix's cheek in ways you never thought you could (or maybe never wanted to). What surprised me about this was how the image remained filmlike without having any grain; I imagine this stems from the vastly higher count of colors film has over digital.*
In any event, having such analog technology harnessed by Mr. Anderson is quite a treat. More than mere gearhead fascination, the visuals arrest in their beauty and also in their transformation of a small-scale story into something that feels cosmically vast, and- dare I say the overused word- epic.
The effect is appropriate; the film's obsession with the inward, its exploration of what lies beneath the opaque, unpiercable shells of the two protagonists- the soul is an immense and mysterious thing, and the aesthetic here makes that notion tangible. Aided by the resolution of 65, Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (chosen for his skill with large-format; this is PTA's first outing without Robert Elswit) photograph people's faces as if they're gigantic landscapes.
Anderson's tendency to foreground the camera as a means of communicating information to the audience is on full display here; with his last two films this approach has become a little less manic, with a focus on long takes, elegant compositions, and subtle shifts within the frame.** Here there is a newfound focus on narrow depth of field, especially in close-ups. Note the shot of Phoenix being interviewed by the military psychologist, whereupon the plane of focus is so narrow that his ear is already a blur.
As for the actual content of the film- The Master is a tough sit. It resists letting us into the character's heads; we watch their actions from the outside and ponder their meaning. It's a different type of viewing experience, less emotional than intellectual, a la Kubrick or Fincher. It requires a bit more work on the part of the viewer, and, interestingly, although the literal action of any given scene is easy to decipher, the motivations and ramifications are not.
The mentor-protege relationship is explored in all its ambiguity here; there comes a point toward the end where Hoffman, the mentor, realizes that he doesn't exist as a leader without a "number one fan," who he's about to lose; the landscape of his face is touching as this loss registers amongst the forest of his self-confident braggadocio. It's also curious to try to trace the exact moment and trajectory of how Phoenix becomes disillusioned. As is often in life, there is no single decisve moment- or is there?
I will say my second viewing of the film was more satisfying than the first, and that the ending is a sobering one, with a conceptual thrust that I find uplifting (I read it as: "that's about what he got out of it."). I'm not sure how the piece would play in anything other than the highest resolution possible- if a 65mm screening comes your way, seek it out. Hopefully the Blu-Ray will function as an adequate stopgap.
*For a balanced exploration of this conversation- I hesitate to call it a debate, as the two formats have so little to do with each other they can hardly stand to be usefully compared- read here. There is also the wikipedia article that explains some basic terms and misconceptions here.
**Read film scholar David Bordwell's breakdown of one shot in There Will Be Blood, whereupon he explores how PTA directs the viewer's eye, here. Read here to see graphics of an experiment that tracked where viewer's eyes looked at a given time within said shot, with further analysis.
3. Anna Karenina (Wright)
An adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (with Keira Knightley). Trailer.
Why am I the only person who saw Anna Karenina- and, the only person who liked it? This film is a masterpiece. When Joe Wright said he could tell Tolstoy's 800-page novel in two hours, few believed him. When he made a last-minute decision to film the entire Tom Stoppard screenplay on a stage without altering any lines, people didn't know what to think. What's the result?
Perhaps the reason for the middling response lies in the film simply being too creative. Our Town this is not- Joe Wright swoops his camera in and out of the action with Richardsonian eye-popping dexterity, interpreting each scene in a new and unexpected ways. We never have an idea of how the next scene will be interpreted; the stage is opulent and busy, and some scenes maximize the theatricality, incorporating choreography or the architecture of the rafters; others make poetic use of things like snow to underline emotional truths.
In the ballroom scene where Anna first meets Vronsky, supporting characters freeze and fade into darkness as the two dance, literalizing the narrow focus each has for the other. It's an orgy of boundless creativity, and the decision to shoot on a stage invigorates the whole process, while also being thematically appropriate- far from theatricalizing Tolstoy's realist novel, the stage functions as an actualization of the hermetic nature of Russian aristocracy. Only Levin and Kitty have the ability to break out of this, which they do in both figurative and literal terms.
Incredibly, Wright and Stoppard retain all major story strands of the novel, somehow managing to relay the meat of it all in two hours without things feeling artificially condensed or rushed. I'm not sure how that happened. Seams McGarvey's camera and lighting are achingly beautiful- necessary to maintain our visual interest, given the confines of the theatre. This is perhaps the most beautifully shot film of the year, with rich orange and yellow hues permeating the lavishly decorated rooms; or consider the cold natural light in one of the closing scenes, where the walls are blue and the characters dressed in white. Simply looking at the film is a feast.
There is a tremendous amount of attention paid to all aspects- hair and costumes being noticeably luxurious, but also the grounded realities of the characters' journeys. Karenin, as played by Jude Law, is interpreted slightly differently here than in the novel in a way that is interesting. Levin's spiritual awakening at the conclusion of the book is retained here, functioning as the end note of optimism for both book and film (and helping fuel the ongoing question: why did Tolstoy title the book Anna Karenina?).
A heady celebration of creativity and humanity, and a pure, exhilarating joy to watch. I hope it's demise at the box office doesn't affect Wright's future film prospects; certainly there are one or two literary adaptations tat won't be happening because of how this turned out financially. I hope the film finds a life on DVD.
3. Argo (Affleck)
CIA operatives embark on a ridiculous, but true, plan to extract diplomat hostages from revolutionary Iran in 1980. Trailer.
Ben Affleck was, for a time, the butt of many a joke. We knew he was talented from the beginning, for co-writing Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting; he was a reasonable actor, certainly not a great one, in films like the underrated Changing Lanes. But it wasn't until after the Pearl-Harbor-Gigli-J-Lo period had died down that things began to shift.
It began with the best actor award at Venice for HollywoodLand. Then there was Gone Baby Gone, which surprised many with the realization that Mr. Affleck was probably a much better writer and director than actor. Gone proved his writerly capabilities, while The Town solidified Affleck's command of the camera; but it's Argo that's the first real masterpiece from the guy. Somehow, we all forgot that Ben Affleck has a degree in Middle Eastern Affairs from Vermont. He puts it to full use here.
Most actor-turned-directors make a particular kind of film: the performances will be excellent, the content interesting, and the aesthetics middling at best. Think of Tom McCarthy, Sydney Pollack, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty- even Redford and Clint Eastwood. Of course there are counterexamples (Chaplin, Welles or newer folk like Sofia, Gibson or Clooney) who spend a lot of time on visuals, but many of these guys understand cinema best as a storytelling medium derived from theatre. In my view, that's a reductive approach to film. If you're shooting a film, there ought to be a reason for doing so that justifies not simply telling the same narrative as a play.
The camera is a means not just for recording performance, as many of these guys seem to think, but for imposing meaning on the content. Composition, camera angles, movement- these are powerful tools that mean something. The counterexamples I mention take that to heart and create films with impacts on the viewer that could not easily be reproduced in plays.
Affleck is such a director. Argo is a directed movie. The camera and editing propel the ideas forward, give life to the inner states of the characters, and focus on details in a tactile way that only film can achieve. His command over the medium is not merely competent, but noticeable.
The man's practically showing off- albeit in the service of the narrative- when he kinetically cuts together conversations of different people in different places at the beginning of the film as the details of the crisis come out. The rhythms of physical movement of the actors and the camera during that sequence verge on the balletic, and the editing is economic to near-breaking point- there isn't a second of dead air through the whole film.
The film also underplays a lot of moments, to its benefit, helping to ground it. Note the moment Affleck's character rides past the Azadi Tower in a taxi. He looks away from us to take in the monument for a moment. It's a fleeting moment, but it tells us a number of things- one, this scene really is taking place in Tehran, not on a set in Fontana; also, it reveals that there's a human interest side to Affleck's character, who, were he not on this mission, might want to spend more time here if he could. He's curious. Character revealed through action, not backstory- it forces us to keep up.
An absolute triumph of craft, with a brilliant script and perfect balance of humor and tension. About the most you could possibly hope to expect from a studio picture. Back in 2003, it was discussed by some in the community that the time for large-budget serious dramas had come to an end; as the specialty divisions (Warner Independent, PictureHouse, etc) closed in the late 2000s, people said that the time for mid-level dramas was over too. With Argo at $117 million, and Pi, Lincoln, and Django, all crossing 100, and with Silver Linings and Zero both at a surprising $70 million and growing, this is no longer so. Quite a shift from when Hurt Locker topped out at $17m in 2009. This is easily the most entertaining film of the year.
That's the end of the first half of my list. I'm compelled to repeat that the order here is tenuous at best. As I write this, I'm tempted to place Anna Karenina at the top, move Argo up, bump Django down a spot.... I notice now that the films at the top of the list are the ones I've seen most recently. Hopefully that's not the only reason they're way up there. Suffice it to say that I feel this a list of 13 excellent films, each with undeniable qualities.
Oddly, The I most recommend are not the top of the list, but Amour, Anna K, and Argo. Please don't ask me what my single favorite film of the year is. I'm liable to spontaneously combust!