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MORNING FOG AND DRIZZLE will prevail along the coast today and Monday, with limited breaks of sun. Interior areas will be sunnier and warm. A storm system passing to our north may bring some light rain north of Cape Mendocino late Wednesday or Thursday, and briefly cool interior temperatures, with an otherwise warm week ahead. (NWS)
THE LACK OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING in Mendocino County has reached crisis proportions. To save affordable housing for their communities, other counties across California have implemented Short Term Rental (STR) ordinances that limit short-term rentals. It is now urgent for Mendocino County to assume this responsibility. In addition, the lack of affordable housing has a ripple effect on all aspects of our community's well-being. For example, qualified candidates for desperately needed healthcare, law enforcement, and public education jobs cannot find housing for their families and choose to locate elsewhere.
Because it is necessary to preserve long-term housing, we propose that the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors immediately create a Short-Term Rental (STR) Ordinance. The Ordinance should limit the number of commercial STRs when they are more than 2% of area housing, and allow licensing to resume only when their numbers are below the 2% threshold. Said licenses will expire upon sale or transfer of the property.
The proposed Ordinance allows existing STRs in good standing to continue operating. Over 500 STRs exist in the County -- 4% of all coastal housing. Setting the limit at 2% will mitigate growth and let us reclaim houses as rental properties sell. At 2% we could recover more than 100 permanent residences in the next few years.
Time is of the essence. Because Investment in STRs is increasing at an alarming rate, and creating ordinances across departments can be a lengthy process, we urge the Board of Supervisors to assign responsibility for the Short-Term Rental Ordinance to the CEO's office and that the Ordinance is submitted for approval by the BOS before the end of 2022.
To learn more and sign our petition, please visit: hatmendocoast.org and make your voice heard.
ATTENTION ASPIRING SHUTTERBUGS, Summer Photography Course
Introduction to Photography - Mendocino College Coast Campus (Fort Bragg) ART-282 - June 7th through July 28th (3 Credits)
This course will be an introduction to processes, principles, and tools of photography. Topics to be covered include the development of technical and aesthetic skills, elements of design and composition, camera technology, materials and equipment and contemporary trends in photography. Students will have access to both the film darkroom and computer lab, as both analog photography and digital photography are integral elements of this course.
THERE'S A NEW BATCH of my Mendocino History Exposed books at Windsong at 324 N. Main St. in Fort Bragg. The initial supply sold out. This is a fun store to visit. Call in your Mendocino History Exposed order to 707-964-2050 then set aside some browsing time when you drop by to pick up your copies.
If you are a bit bashful or your time is precious, Mendocino History Exposed is available through the easy online ordering site at gallerybookshop.com, though Gallery Bookshop (707-937-2665) on Main St. in Mendocino is another wonderful browsing experience.
Ever watch a lawman try to coax a mule down a seaside bluff. That's one of the amusing stories within a story in “Doc Standley's First Arrest,” Chapter Seven in Mendocino History Exposed.
— Malcolm Macdonald
ROCKPORT FLOOD, 1955
ANDERSON VALLEY VILLAGE EVENTS
An Interpretive Hike in Faulkner Park
Sun 05 / 15 / 2022 at 1:00 PM
Where: Faulkner Park
Tuesday Strength Training
Tue 05 / 17 / 2022 at 8:30 AM
AV Village Walking Group - all welcome
Tue 05 / 17 / 2022 at 9:30 AM
Where: Meet at the Community Park (near the AV Health Center)
Senior Center Lunch
Tue 05 / 17 / 2022 at 12:00 PM
Where: Anderson Valley Senior Center, 14470 Highway 128, Boonville, CA 95415
Osteoporosis - An Ashby Village Healthier Aging Spring Wellness Presentation
Tue 05 / 17 / 2022 at 12:30 PM
AV Library Open
Tue 05 / 17 / 2022 at 1:00 PM
Where: Mendocino County Fairgrounds, Boonville, 14400 Highway 128, Boonville, CA 95415
"Caregiving in the Valley" forum
Tue 05 / 17 / 2022 at 3:00 PM
Where: Zoom and at the Anderson Valley Senior Center , 14470 Highway 128, Boonville, CA 95415
UKIAH SHELTER PET OF THE WEEK
Saltine is an active dog who will need daily exercise and secure, high fencing. When meeting another dog, Saltine can be vocal and a bit reactive. After a walk, when she is more familiar with the other dog, she calms down and appears friendly. We know Saltine had a canine friend in the past. Ms. S is a lovely, medium sized dog who calms down quickly after getting some exercise and has good indoor manners. Saltine needs a home with no cats or chickens. Did we mention Saltine is quite the beauty?!! If you can’t adopt, consider fostering. Our website at mendoanimalshelter.com has information about our Foster Program.
And don’t forget our on-going Spring Dog And Cat Adoption Events at the Ukiah and Ft. Bragg Shelters. While you’re on our website, check out all of guests, services, programs, events, and updates. Visit us on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/mendoanimalshelter/
For information about adoptions, please call 707-467-6453.
by Mark Scaramella
CLOSE READERS may recall that last month the Supervisors, worried that millions of dollars of pot taxes were going uncollected from the legal pot growers whose market has nearly collapsed and whose permits are mostly still pending, asked Cannabis Department Director Kristin Nevedal to produce some updated numbers for the Cannabis permit program including some tax info.
We’ve asked versions of this question of various department heads in the past. And just like the responses to our previous inquiries (other than requests for specific County documents which the County is pretty good at), Ms. Nevedal’s “numbers” confuse more than they clarify.
Here’s a typical set of numbers from her response included in next week’s Board Agenda Packet:
I defy anyone, even its creator, to make sense of this chart.
The Department of Cannabis Control is a state organization with a title that sounds like a Monty Python skit. We have no idea what “AG” means, much less “Active AG.” (Applicant Grower? Administrative Genius? Almost Gloomy? Mendo AG, a new strain of OG Kush?) We have no idea how much overlap there is in these numbers; we assume none, but then again…
Let’s see, what else can we guess at? Um, apparently, 26% of Mendo’s “AG numbers” that are “eligible” for the County’s “30 day corrections portal” are delinquent in their taxes (which seems like a reference to state taxes due, not County taxes — but we have no idea.) It appears that the “In good standings” are less delinquent than the other categories, whatever that means and which at least is understandable. And it seems like the people who are “ineligible for the 30 day corrections portal” are more delinquent than any other mystery category. But that should not be a surprise: why would anybody who’s ineligible for correcting their apparently inadequate permit application pay taxes for something they will never be permitted to do?
OH WELL, it’s Mendo’s pot permit program so we don’t know why we even expected to make any sense of it. We’ll leave it to the Supervisors to figure this out for us on Tuesday. They and their many Deputy Counsel attorneys and ever-growing staff of Deputy CEO’s are well paid to know how to read pot permit gibberish.
* * *
ANOTHER BAD JOKE on next Tuesday’s agenda is the (partial, of course) results of the $400k consultants who are supposed to be helping the County set up a new version of the water agency. The consultant recommends that the County set up a new water bureaucracy with built in enlargements each year for the next three years starting at $415k per year and growing to over $1 million per year. After all, we all know that the worse the drought the more we have to pay for a water agency, right?
Remember, at its largest, the County Water Agency before it was deleted back in 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession, was never more than 1.5 people, a manager and a part-time hydrologist. They didn’t do much, but then, at least they didn’t cost that much. But now with the passage of time and under this rubberstamp board and a drought to worry about, they’re still not going to do much but they’re going to do not much with a lot more people: A $180k General Manager (rising to $340k at year 3), a $70k Department Analyst (rising to $126k at year 3), a $100k Hydrologist (rising to $180k at year 3); a $90k “future technical or administrative” (rising to $163k at year 3); and a $40k Inter County Labor Transfer (rising to $72k at year 3); plus office costs and “consulting support” for another $125k rising to $140k at year 3.
OH, the County doesn’t have $400k rising to over $1 million lying around, you say? No problem— the consultants suggest that the County float a tax measure to cover the cost.
Never mind that they don’t mention that all of these people should be applying for grants for actual water conservation or storage projects (which no one in the unincorporated areas has proposed besides the $5 million Mendocino town storage tank project which won’t “break ground” for five years). Funny, they don’t mention any grant writing staff, nor what they’d apply for, nor how much of the cost those grants can be expected to cover. But what do they know? They're just consultants who should know that.
GIVEN THE COUNTY’S history of ignoring the will of the voters who passed most of the measures the Board proposed in recent years, it might be a steep uphill climb to convince the voters of another sales tax for the sole purpose of funding a water agency which holds no water rights and steadfastly refuses to impose basic things like conservation targets or gaging requirements on the County’s many little water districts.
SO THERE’S ANOTHER $400k down the drain (ahem). To this day we have no idea which budget line item this particular waste of time and money was funded out of. But, like the Strategic Plan consulting contract (which has now magically ballooned to over $100k with nothing but platitudes and boilerplate to show for it), it sounded like a good idea to the Board at the time — they approved the water agency consulting contract on the consent calendar, unanimously, no questions asked.
* * *
IT’S VERY TIRESOME to report time and again about how much money the County wastes on their annual tourism promotion subsidy. This year the County plans to hand over another nearly $600k to the wine and cheese and B&B crowd for self-alleged “marketing” of Mendocino County. The promoter's main argument? Other counties do it.
You can spend a couple of hours on line reading their fancy marketing brochure about how well they’re organized and how well and how much advertising they do and how important they are and so forth, but you won’t find a single thing explaining how much their advertising on-line and elsewhere actually increases tourism in Mendocino County. (We’ve demonstrated before that the Transient Occupancy Tax, which they say their marketing helps to increase, actually tracks closely with overall sales taxes, meaning that there’s no measurable connection between their expensive promotion and local tourism ups and downs.)
The original purpose of the transient occupancy tax was to fund local services for tourists (like ambulances and cops who often pick up the misadventures of our visitors and which accompanies tourists’ arrival, not to be turned around and used to increase it. Tourism (i.e., wine and restaurants and associated events) is the only industry that gets its own direct marketing subsidy from the County, an indication of how well fastened they are to the County’s budget apparatus. In all our years of following this hand-out, only Supervisor John Pinches ever wondered why Mendo singled out one industry for a big subsidy out of the General Fund.
The Tourism Gang also assesses themselves for over $1 million a year which you might think would be enough on top of their individual business marketing. But no, Mendo just hands over the $600k just like they do to their top officials’ salary requests for no other reason than other counties do it so Mendo has to.
Just once, we’d like to see Mendo — especially this year when pot taxes are way off — put the money to underfunded local public safety services like it should be, and see if there’s any noticeable drop off in tourism. Of course, that’ll never happen. But we can dream, can’t we?
CATCH OF THE DAY, May 14, 2022
KARL BARTH, Fort Bragg. Probation revocation.
LUKUS BUZZARD, North Little Rock/Ukiah. Probation revocation.
DUSTIN CAVINO, Willits. DUI, resisting.
SARAH GRAY, Ukiah. DUI.
CARLOS GUTIERREZ-ALVAREZ, San Jose/Ukiah. DUI.
DOMINK IDICA, Redwood Valley. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
CHERYL MATTSON, Ukiah. Elder abuse resulting in great bodily injury.
TONY MCELROY, Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol. (Frequent flyer.)
MICHAEL PRESCOTT, Willits. Petty theft-merchandise.
SEBASTIAN RABANO, Ukiah. Domestic abuse.
JENNIFER SCHMITT-FELIZ, Covelo. Metal knuckles, probation revocation.
KENDRA STEVENSON, Laytonville. Failure to appear.
MCKENZIE WILSON, Ukiah. Controlled substance.
DAVID WOOTEN, Fort Bragg. Probation revocation.
SAVORING GREG SARRIS: A Review of Becoming Story
by Jonah Raskin
Greg Sarris—the Sonoma State University professor, who is also the longtime chairman of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria—has been spending so much time teaching and leading the tribe that he hasn’t had opportunities to write. And that’s a pity. His short stories published in Grand Avenue and his novel, Watermelon Nights show that he can really create powerful works of fiction when he puts his mind and his heart to the task.
Sarris's new book, which sells for $25, has just been published by Heyday in Berkeley. It offers no new work. Pintsized and about 230-pages, it fits snugly into my back pocket. The nonfiction pieces have all been previously published in magazines, books and newspapers from 2005 to 2020. It would be satisfying to know what Sarris is thinking now, in 2022, about the Indian past, the Indian present and his own life.
Over the years I’ve attended tribal events and listened to many of his stories, some of them about celebrities like Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol. While I haven’t been certain whether they’re true or made-up, that may not be what Sarris is after, as Becoming Story, his new book suggests. American Indians don’t have what they once had before Europeans first arrived on the continent, gabbed as much land and as many resources as they could and pushed West—if they started on the eastern seaboard—or north if they began their journey in Mexico. Some Indians, Sarris explains, are lost in places that were once home. Still, Indians do have their stories, which as Sarris knows provide a sense of history, identity and connections to space and to time itself which was once measured by particular “places, seasons, trees, and ancestors,” the four things mentioned in the subtitle to this book.
Yes, it's too bad Sarris hasn’t written about the pandemic, the Trump presidency and events like Standing Rock where Indians and environmentalists gathered to protect water and the sacred against big oil. Still it’s helpful to have these 13 pieces gathered together and grouped in four major sections. The sections are further divided into chapters about animals, people, the author himself and more.
So what does it all add to? Sarris clearly has deep feelings for northern California and he clearly wants to preserve the stories he’s heard, as well as stories he has created from the fragments of oral history told by elders. He doesn’t acknowledge his sources, and while he often provides useful information, he admits that he doesn’t have all the facts or all the parts of the stories. That seems to be good enough for him. He goes with what he has and asks lots of questions to which he often doesn't provide clear answers. But he also tells stories that have continuity and clarity. “The storied landscape,” he writes in the essay “Osprey Talks To Me One Day,” is a sacred text...reminding us not only of the world we find ourselves in but of how to live harmoniously with it.” More than any other “white” person I know he has transcended his “whiteness,” though he has also retained skills learned in the “white word” and plays a big part in the casino in Rohnert Park.
I once heard Sarris speak at the Petaluma campus of the Santa Rosa Junior College. A member of the audience, who was a middle aged white man, asked Sarris how Indians felt and thought about a variety of issues. Sarris smiled and said he could only speak for himself and not for all Indians and not even for all the members of his whole tribe. No two Indians had the exact same ideas, he explained. That made sense to me. It still does. The more I learn about Indian tribes, the more I've come to appreciate their differences from one another. After all, they have lived in places as different as the desert, the plains, and the Pacific NorthWest. They all have different histories, though they have some things in common, including wars with one another and with Europeans and Americans. And they all have stories they've preserved.
So how do Sarris' stories add up? Clearly, he has deep feelings for northern California people and places, for birds and lizards, and for the Indian past. Indeed, he seems to have a heightened sensitivity to landscapes, including the Russian River, the California coast, Sonoma Mountain where he lives and the area around Petaluma. He talks about the colonization by white settlers, but he doesn't demonize white settlers. In fact, he suggests that Mexicans often treated Indians with more brutality than the Yankees did.
“The Mexicans,” he writes in “The Last Woman from Petaluma,” [a title that sounds like The Last of the Mohicans] established an elaborate slave trade buying and selling Native men and boys.”
There's a lot about everyday Indian resistance to colonization, but he doesn't describe the dramatic occupation of Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s or the birth of the American Indian Movement. His tribe wasn't involved. In a way, Sarris is apolitical. Causes aren't his thing. He's at his best when he writes about Indian women, some of them basket makers. He acknowledges a man he calls his great-great-grandfather who was once called Tomas Comtechal and who became Tom Smith, but he doesn't explain how he traced the lineage and learned the genealogy, and curiously he doesn't mention his birth mother who was Jewish. He has told me stories about her. One wonders if he has consciously sanitized his own family history. Being Indian he once told me was a cultural matter that didn't have to do with race or ethnicity or one's DNA.
I mentioned to a friend who reviewed Becoming Story that I found it disappointing. Her retort: “he's done a lot for his tribe.” That's true. Also, I agreed with her that this book is worth reading. It's thought provoking, especially when Sarris writes about Sonoma Mountain and says that, “the place remembered me. Stories beckoned.” Sarris's ability to read landscapes and to describe his attachments to them is a wonderful gift that he shares. Becoming Story suggests that you don't have to be an Indian, a Miwok or a Pomo, to listen to and hear the stories that the trees, the rocks and the flowers tell. We have only to open our hearts and to be attuned to spirit. And perhaps it might help to let go of the stories told by settlers and their defenders, which aimed to justify invasion, occupation and colonization.
MARGARET ATWOOD, writing in The Atlantic magazine…
In the early years of the 1980s, I was fooling around with a novel that explored a future in which the United States had become disunited. Part of it had turned into a theocratic dictatorship based on 17th-century New England Puritan religious tenets and jurisprudence. I set this novel in and around Harvard University—an institution that in the 1980s was renowned for its liberalism, but that had begun three centuries earlier chiefly as a training college for Puritan clergy.
In the fictional theocracy of Gilead, women had very few rights, as in 17th-century New England. The Bible was cherry-picked, with the cherries being interpreted literally. Based on the reproductive arrangements in Genesis—specifically, those of the family of Jacob—the wives of high-ranking patriarchs could have female slaves, or “handmaids,” and those wives could tell their husbands to have children by the handmaids and then claim the children as theirs. Although I eventually completed this novel and called it The Handmaid’s Tale, I stopped writing it several times, because I considered it too far-fetched. Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?
For instance: It is now the middle of 2022, and we have just been shown a leaked opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States that would overthrow settled law of 50 years on the grounds that abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution, and is not “deeply rooted” in our “history and tradition.” True enough. The Constitution has nothing to say about women’s reproductive health. But the original document does not mention women at all.
Women were deliberately excluded from the franchise. Although one of the slogans of the Revolutionary War of 1776 was “No taxation without representation,” and government by consent of the governed was also held to be a good thing, women were not to be represented or governed by their own consent—only by proxy, through their fathers or husbands. Women could neither consent nor withhold consent, because they could not vote. That remained the case until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, an amendment that many strongly opposed as being against the original Constitution. As it was. Women were nonpersons in U.S. law for a lot longer than they have been persons. If we start overthrowing settled law using Justice Samuel Alito’s justifications, why not repeal votes for women?
Reproductive rights have been the focus of the recent fracas, but only one side of the coin has been visible: the right to abstain from giving birth. The other side of that coin is the power of the state to prevent you from reproducing. The Supreme Court’s 1927 Buck v. Bell decision held that the state may sterilize people without their consent. Although the decision was nullified by subsequent cases, and state laws that permitted large-scale sterilization have been repealed, Buck v. Bell is still on the books. This kind of eugenicist thinking was once regarded as “progressive,” and some 70,000 sterilizations—of both males and females, but mostly of females—took place in the United States. Thus a “deeply rooted” tradition is that women’s reproductive organs do not belong to the women who possess them. They belong only to the state.
Wait, you say: It’s not about the organs; it’s about the babies. Which raises some questions. Is an acorn an oak tree? Is a hen’s egg a chicken? When does a fertilized human egg become a full human being or person? “Our” traditions—let’s say those of the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the early Christians—have vacillated on this subject. At “conception”? At “heartbeat”? At “quickening?” The hard line of today’s anti-abortion activists is at “conception,” which is now supposed to be the moment at which a cluster of cells becomes “ensouled.” But any such judgment depends on a religious belief—namely, the belief in souls. Not everyone shares such a belief. But all, it appears, now risk being subjected to laws formulated by those who do. That which is a sin within a certain set of religious beliefs is to be made a crime for all.
Let’s look at the First Amendment. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The writers of the Constitution, being well aware of the murderous religious wars that had torn Europe apart ever since the rise of Protestantism, wished to avoid that particular death trap. There was to be no state religion. Nor was anyone to be prevented by the state from practicing his or her chosen religion.
It ought to be simple: If you believe in “ensoulment” at conception, you should not get an abortion, because to do so is a sin within your religion. If you do not so believe, you should not—under the Constitution—be bound by the religious beliefs of others. But should the Alito opinion become the newly settled law, the United States looks to be well on the way to establishing a state religion. Massachusetts had an official religion in the 17th century. In adherence to it, the Puritans hanged Quakers.
The Alito opinion purports to be based on America’s Constitution. But it relies on English jurisprudence from the 17th century, a time when a belief in witchcraft caused the death of many innocent people. The Salem witchcraft trials were trials—they had judges and juries—but they accepted “spectral evidence,” in the belief that a witch could send her double, or specter, out into the world to do mischief. Thus, if you were sound asleep in bed, with many witnesses, but someone reported you supposedly doing sinister things to a cow several miles away, you were guilty of witchcraft. You had no way of proving otherwise.
Similarly, it will be very difficult to disprove a false accusation of abortion. The mere fact of a miscarriage, or a claim by a disgruntled former partner, will easily brand you a murderer. Revenge and spite charges will proliferate, as did arraignments for witchcraft 500 years ago.
If Justice Alito wants you to be governed by the laws of the 17th century, you should take a close look at that century. Is that when you want to live?
COMANCHE LEADER QUANAH PARKER WITH THREE OF HIS EIGHT WIVES at his “Star House” in what is now Cache, Oklahoma, 1892. The house had been constructed just a couple of years before. Parker hosted many notables at the house, including influential ranchers Charles Goodnight and Burk Burnett and President Theodore Roosevelt. Quanah Parker had been a military leader of the Kwahadi, or Antelope, band of the Comanche in Texas, including in the Red River War in 1874, but later surrendered to the U.S. Army and moved the tribe to a reservation in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma. Sadly, the house today is in terrible condition and in danger of being lost forever. It was in bad shape already when a 2015 storm caused severe damage. The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates it would cost $1 million to restore it.
LAILA AL-ARIAN: “Saying Israel has ‘no reason or interest’ to kill a Palestinian journalist ignores the racism and dehumanization of Palestinians that has not only allowed crimes against them for decades but is the basis for the establishment of a system of laws and policies called apartheid.”
by David Yearsley
Ithaca, New York — Snowflakes had been falling two weeks ago, but Wednesday brought blue skies and temperatures in the 80s to Upstate New York. Classes had just ended at Cornell University, and after two years of pandemic restrictions and angst the undergrads were ready for their long-deferred spring bacchanal of booze and music: Slope Day.
Cornell spreads across a plateau “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters,” as the school’s famous alma mater puts it. The campus claims magnificent views of the lake so hymned. Among the best vistas are those enjoyed from the broad meadow that descends from the arts quad presided over at its western edge by the clock tower of the university’s first library. The grassy hillside below is therefore known as Libe Slope. In advance of the last day of classes, a bandstand is erected at the base of the Slope. Big-time artists are summoned to perform there—The Ramones came in 1984; Kanye West in 2004; Snoop Dogg the following year; Lamar Kendrick in 2013—and the students gather in droves to celebrate the senses by pounding them into submission with high decibels and even higher blood-alcohol levels.
Institutional memory is by definition short-to-non-existent among twenty-year-olds, many of whom might well assume that the rituals of Slope Day, minus the massive banks of speakers, are inscribed in the university’s charter of 1865.
In fact, the Slope Day tradition extends back only into the moralistic mists of the 1980s, though long defunct celebrations such as the Navy Ball of the late nineteenth century have been claimed by Cornellians as antecedents for the vernal revels in their current form.
Ronald Reagan forced states, among them New York, to raise the drinking age from eighteen to twenty-one. This idiotic scheme did nothing to curb drunkenness on college campuses, instead sending the illicit consumption of alcohol deeper into the beer-soaked dungeons of fraternities and other dens of debauchery. A lot of that drinking was done Slope Day.
When I arrived in Ithaca in the mid-90s Slope Day was largely unregulated.
Cornell sports team do business under the banner of The Big Red. Ithaca High School down near the south shore of Cayuga Lake is called the Little Red. A quarter century ago the Little Red tide coursed uphill come Slope Day. Indeed, the underage streamed onto the place from miles around. At the close of the afternoon’s music many revelers staggered and wove every which way. Many fell down and stayed down for a long time.
Those freedoms fell victim to the Age of Homeland Security.
Some years ago—I forget how many; working in a place where the overwhelming majority of humans stay the same age while you get older can be temporally disorienting—the influx of outsiders was stemmed.
Nowadays chain-link fences go up before Slope Day. Wristbands, to be obtained only with a valid Cornell I.D., are required for entry through the checkpoints. Bags are searched for bottles. The police and medical presence is, as they say, robust.
The morning of Slope Day 2022 I was awakened by the song of the the Littlest Red—the cardinal. Soon after that, music began to throb from the fraternities uphill from our house which is a short distance below campus. Whatever direction the winds of temperance or indulgence may blow across the years, the main points of the Slope Agenda remain unchanged: start drinking early and keep doing it so that you’ve enough joy juice in you to get you through the afternoon’s musical extravaganza.
Just before 9a.m. I started walking up the hill because I wanted to practice the organ at one of the university’s chapels. My route took me past two half-timbered fraternity houses, the sources of some of the pre-Slope musical pulsations I had already been hearing. SUVs with Connecticut and New Jersey plates were parked along the curb. Brothers were leaving the house heading towards other action.
Two young men of college age, but clearly not in college, were patrolling the fraternity’s perimeter with liquid chemical packs on their backs. They were spraying weeds—here a dandelion that poked up through the mulch, there a maple sapling. The tank-topped bros of Chi Phi moved past their weedkiller contemporaries without exchanging word or glance.
There is a big difference between underclassman and underclass. Soundtracked by the urgent beat, the scene took on allegorical significance, or maybe just surreal possibility. With the Ivory Tower distracted by Slope Day, now was the perfect opportunity for storming the educational citadels of privilege and power, not with Kalashnikov rifles but hand-pumped wands spraying Roundup.
Across the street at Delta Upsilon house—Kurt Vonnegut’s fraternity when he was at Cornell before he was placed on academic probation, dropped out and then shipped off to war in Europe—a spirited game of beer pong was under way to the same rhythm, though a different song.
Through this festive atmosphere I continued my climb to campus. Inside the chapel I ran into the custodian and asked if she was going to Slope Day. She laughed and told me that she used to go when she was in high school thirty years ago. Those were great times, different than now, she said, referring to the fences and other security measures. She had another couple of hours on her shift which had started at five in the morning. She’d be outside the Ithaca city limits heading home by the time the Slope got cranking.
I practiced the organ for a couple of hours, Bach mingling in the empty chapel with the boom of the party gathering outside.
I had made an appointment for a Covid test since I was travelling the next day out to the West Coast to see my mother. The testing site was in the Student Union inside the fenced and policed perimeter. With my faculty I.D. I got a wristband at a tent, but the line to get into the enclosure was several hundred feet. The students were packed together, all unmasked, as they pushed and shuffled through the gates.
At a staff entrance removed from the throng I talked my way through.
In front of the Student Union on the upper flank of the Slope a young woman was dancing in the blazing sun, her face red not from a sunburn. That would likely come later. She had wriggled mostly out of her Daisy Dukes, her friends laughing at her as she gyrated and sang.
Inside the building I found that the testing station was closed. That made sense, even though I’d been able to make an on-line appointment for that day. How could the place function in the midst of the mayhem?
Continuing down the hallway past the empty testing room visible through the mullioned windows, I went into the old Music Room at the corner of the building. On the wall hangs a large color of print of the Spring-Day of March 1901, one of those supposed predecessors of Slope Day. That event was a midday parade to campus of carriages with students decked out in their Edwardian finery and mingled with odd attractions. The Cornell student paper, the Daily Sun, reported that among the sights were scores of monkeys, a zebra, and the smallest and largest horses of Ithaca. Spectators were warned “not to annoy the animals.” The paper described these goings-on as a publicity stunt for a musical soirée with “Three Great Bands” that took place that same evening at the Lyceum theatre in Ithaca in the valley below the university.
The Music Room was bare but for a table and a few chairs. The piano was long gone. Not much music, if any, is made in the Music Room anymore.
The music was coming from outside. A door led from the Music Room out onto a broad terrace with a commanding view out over the Slope.
Alone on the stone deck, I watched the spectacle, mesmerized by the sheer volume, vibrancy, and density of humanity.
On Slope Day 2022 the number of Covid dead in America reached one million.
Somewhere back in Covid Time there had been lethal biker conclave in South Dakota. But this was a university, a beacon of science and reason.
Beyond the Slope Cayuga’s waters shimmered, mirage-like. Was the optical effect the result of great waves of hormones lofted on updrafts of a sound that to the mass below was much more than music, regeneration taking sonic shape in the spring that was literally in the air?
A cheer went up as if from a single heaving organism.
Super-Spreader Slope Day had begun.
THE LAWYERS WHO ATE CALIFORNIA, PART 1
Part One: The Feds. A small group of regulators out West tests out a new theory of corporate enforcement, with disastrous consequences.
by Matt Taibbi
A while ago I got a tip, suggesting a look into a high-profile lawsuit. You likely know the case: video game titan Activision, makers of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, sued by the state of California for discrimination and harassment. The firm was acquired by Microsoft earlier this year for a staggering $68 billion, and with regulators in countries around the world awaiting resolution of California’s action before approving or denying that mega-deal, Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) vs. Activision Blizzard Inc. now becomes perhaps the most financially fraught lawsuit in the world.
The company filed a lengthy motion in its defense last Friday, detailing its side of a sordid-sounding case it believes should be wrapped up in its favor. However, the self-defense pleas of a leading current corporate Nosferatu received little bounce in popular press, which in the moral mania era isn’t much for “maybe they didn’t” stories.
At first, this sounded like a straightforward story in which the only question was whether Activision is run by misogynist dinosaurs who deserve their brutal public fragging, or whether they’re merely rich gamers blindsided by unproven allegations in the latest example of social justice politics run amok. Not the kind of dispute where a disinterested party would have an obvious rooting interest. Someone would find the storyline fascinating, but that person, I guessed, was unlikely to be me.
Sometimes in journalism, however, a story you think is about one thing, turns out to be about something very different. The tale is barely about Activision. The real protagonists seem to be the regulators.
In the spirit of California, long the cradle of American innovation, a small group of government litigators spent nearly a decade dreaming up an aggressive new vision of corporate regulation, one that’s seen agencies like California’s DFEH act like high-end plaintiffs’ firms. They brush off mediation, jump quick as you can to litigation they may be mandated to avoid, then couple blunt public accusations with eye-catching damage demands that open at ten or fifteen times the size of previous record awards. Also in the California spirit there are ruthless box-outs of other regulatory agencies, private attorneys, and even the agency’s own in-house lawyers to control the rights to each of the target firms’ stories, told by media pals who act more like production partners than journalists.
Few noticed, because this was California, where every fourth-rate character actor breaking wind makes the front pages but the inner workings of the state governing the world’s 5th most powerful economy are left to a handful of overworked reporters at the Sacramento Bee. “With all due respect to your profession,” one source unconnected to Activision quipped, “it’s kind of amazing none of you have looked under the hood here.”
Sexual harassment and pay discrimination of the type once not just condoned but mandated in the highest corporate boardrooms has no place in modern America. Whether the offender is a senior executive who spent years overdue for a personal appearance on the dock (à la Harvey Weinstein), or a leftover from a bygone era who never got the memo about “compliments,” “banter,” “unwanted physical touching,” and inappropriate “jokes,” few dispute the issue needs dealing with, whether at Activision or anywhere else.
What follows is not about whether or not harassment and discrimination should be punished. This is a complex legal story of a debate within the regulatory community about, first, how such offenses should be proved, and second, how they should be remedied. An Obama-era initiative designed to make issues like pay inequity easier to address ironically ended a string of humiliating defeats for government investigators and would-be discrimination claimants. Meanwhile, disputes between federal employment regulators and their opposite numbers in states like California over whether to sanction individuals for alleged abuse, or to aim higher up the company directory for harder-to-define cultural offenses like the “failure to prevent” it, led to some of the bitterest bureaucratic turf wars recently seen.
The story also turns out to be in part about why California, which had a growth streak dating back to the gold rush, saw it broken in 2020, when the population shrank by 182,000, causing a first-ever loss of a congressional seat. More tellingly, over 265 companies moved their headquarters out between 2018 and 2021, with the rate of flight doubling just during those years.
Based on interviews with current and former executives, congressional and legislative sources from both parties, past and present employment regulators, a handful of public and private litigators with knowledge of the relevant cases, and review of thousands of excruciating pages of court records, here’s the background to sensational cases like Riot Games, Activision, and Tesla that no one told you about. Bear with me, for I fell way down the rabbit hole on the story of the Lawyers Who Ate California:
Part One: The Feds
Toward the end of Barack Obama’s administration, the West regional office of an investigatory arm of the Department of Labor called the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, or OFCCP, was asked to conduct a routine compliance review of Oracle, employer to over 130,000 and the second-largest software company in the world.
The OFCCP’s mandate among other things is to promote diversity and bar federal contractors from discrimination, and Obama had a vision for the agency which involved using it aggressively to correct the pay gap. “You are in a unique position to fix this problem,” Obama reportedly told DOL officials early in his term. “Why are you not fixing this problem?”
In establishing a “National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force,” Obama cited census statistics that showed women earned just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, which he called an “embarrassment.” The pay gap no doubt existed, but Obama’s claim earned a whopping two Pinocchios from future fact-checking demigod Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post. Kessler cited sources saying Obama was comparing apples to oranges, ignoring career and educational choices (men dominated the most remunerative majors like Petroleum and Metallurgical Engineering, while women dominated the least remunerative, like Studio Arts). Kessler cited a study from the St. Louis Fed that suggested that when women and men with similar educational backgrounds working comparable jobs were compared, a pay gap still existed, but it was far smaller than “most think.” This would become relevant at Oracle, where experts argued over whether to compare men and women with similar degrees and experience, or compare men and women with similar degrees and experience in the same field, among other factors.
In any case, the agency rolled out a new approach that more than ever before would stress using statistical analyses thanks to “access to more data,” to identify actionable pay gap issues. This led to some controversial results, including a settlement with Tyson foods that ended in a confusing settlement for $1.6 million for underpaid workers that among other things “revealed discrimination against black and white applicants when compared to Hispanic applicants.” Cases in the years that followed would accuse various companies of discriminating both for and against Asians, for and against Hispanics, even for and against white women.
In a case involving Palantir, the tech firm run by the Trump-supporting executive Peter Thiel, the firm was accused of discrimination against Asians because although 85% of the firm’s applicants were Asian, the company in one hiring round only brought on 11 Asians versus 14 non-Asians. The agency said this development had just a 1 in 3.4 million chance of occurring naturally. The odds were the proof. Palantir soon after settled for $1.7 millionbut also announced it was leaving Palo Alto for Denver, part of what would become a conspicuous pattern.
Companies ranging from hospitals to utilities to dairy farms to tool companies soon began entering into agreements with the agency, which in many cases didn’t allege discrimination, but rather failure to keep records that would allow the company to judge whether or not it had a discrimination problem. The OFCCP to conservatives especially was fast becoming a “widely disliked and widely despised agency… kind of like the IRS,” as John Fox, a former agency official now in private practice, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealerat the time.
When the OFCCP went after Oracle, the agency’s West Regional Director was a new hire named Janette Wipper. A former managing partner at a California “powerhouse plaintiff’s firm” called Sanford Heisler, she’d worked on a series of storied class action suits, against firms like Valero Energy Corporation, AT&T, and especially Novartis, where she helped the firm to a record $250 million award. That led to her being named a “Rising Star” in 2013 by Law360, and her appointment soon after to the powerful DOL post. Then-director Patricia Shiu’s letter welcoming Wipper to the OFCCP gives a sense of what was then considered large-scale action at the OFCCP (emphasis mine):
Janette will oversee more than 100 staff working 12 offices and responsible for enforcement across 11 states and territories. The Pacific is one of the largest and most diverse regions in our agency, and, over the past year, staff in the region were responsible for negotiating more than $2.2 million in back wages and 933 job offers on behalf of 3,685 workers affected by discrimination – the largest remedies in the nation.
The days of government boasting about collecting a few million bucks were about to end. The lead in the investigation of Oracle, regional solicitor Janet Herold, was a former general counsel for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Under Wipper’s leadership, and armed with the new statistics-based approach, they were about to enter a new era of thinking bigger. They took on not just Oracle but another huge California-based firm, Google, both of which were blasted in headlines at the outset of the actions and, in Oracle’s case anyway, told they would have to pay historically enormous bills to make amends. (Repeat requests for comment to the attorney for both Herold and Wipper went unanswered).
The action involving Oracle was incredibly poisonous even by the standards of corporate litigation. In early 2017, two days before Barack Obama was set to turn over the federal government to Donald Trump, the OFCCP filed an administrative complaint against Oracle. (The company’s co-CEO Safra Catz, like Thiel, was a Trump supporter who’d served on the Orange One’s Transition team). Oracle was accused of “systemic compensation discrimination,” the government reportedly having found a “pattern and practice of hiring discrimination” involving “gross disparities in pay,” not just paying men more but this time “favoring Asians.”
This resulted in sweeping headlines about Oracle’s bad behavior, often in conjunction with a record new financial demand and hints at proof to come. “Oracle allegedly underpaid women and minorities by $400 million. Now the details are set to come out in court,” read the Washington Post. “Oracle’s Pay Practices Cost Women, Minorities $400 Million, Feds Say,” read the San Francisco Chronicle.“Oracle Underpaid women and minority workers by $401 million, the Labor Department says,” read The Business Insider. Among major news outlets, only the Wall Street Journalpointed out that the OFCCP’s all-time record settlement was $14 million and its all-time biggest litigated award at the time was $7 million. In that year of 2019 the agency recovered a total of $40 million, then also a record. (The Journal’slonely take on this would soon look ironic given its future coverage). In other words, the Western office of the OFCCP was seeking ten times the agency’s entire record yearly haul just from Oracle.
Moreover, the $400 million was just a starting point. The OFCCP complaint against Oracle also sought “an order canceling all of Oracle’s federal contracts or subcontracts” as well as “debarment of Oracle from holding federal contracts or subcontracts until OFCCP is satisfied that it has come into compliance.” According to media reports that could have meant an additional $100 million loss per year, or more.
A detail few reporters bothered to explain was that the OFCCP lawsuits were filed before Administrative Law Judges, who are not members of an independent judiciary but technically Department of Labor employees. While regulators still have to prove their cases, these “administrative complaints” are filed under the mother of home court advantages, i.e. they were Department of Labor litigators arguing before Department of Labor “judges.” These judges don’t issue final rulings on their cases, but rather make recommendations that can then be appealed before another body within the Department of Labor called an Administrative Review Board.
In the rare instances in which companies choose to fight to the death against DOL actions, they typically wait until the case actually gets out of the executive branch. Return blows usually come afterthe ruling of the Administrative Law Judge, and after a loss before the Administrative Review Board, at which point companies might try their luck by pleading cases in federal court.
I mention this only because it underscores the sweeping nature of the rebuke these litigators soon after received in these huge cases. The OFCCP ultimately lost the Oracle case outright at the first stage of the process, castigated at length by the Administrative Law Judge — grade point average zero point zero — while Google in 2021 ended up settling for $2.59 million, or 1/12239th of the company’s profits that year, for the aforementioned “quite extreme” discrimination.
In both of these cases, as well as a third case involving a Massachusetts firm called Analogics, Administrative Law Judges went to great lengths to deconstruct and criticize the OFCCP cases. All three judges reached the bench before the Trump years and each sounded variations of themes that would come up in later cases like Activision: OFCCP litigators deployed high-handed tactics in seeming rushes to litigate, made inflammatory pre-judgments to media, and relied perhaps too much on dubious statistical analyses.
By this time the Pacific office especially was developing a reputation among lawyers used to dealing with the DOL. “The Pacific region,” says Denver-based lawyer Michael Silberman, “is almost a federal agency unto itself in its aggressiveness in approach.”
A former OFCCP official named Lawrence Lorber was critical of the decision-making that led to the OFCCP’s moves. “They’re making policy,” he told Bloomberg Law, “and calling it law.”
Google filed a motion to stop further federal requests for documentation from the company on the grounds that public statements by Herold about “extreme” discrimination showed the agency had already made up its mind and “completed” its investigation. Judge Steven Berlin didn’t grant Google’s request to shut the whole thing down, but he did have a lot to say about litigators who make early conclusive statements to media:
I question any extrajudicial statement that a Department attorney makes to the press while the matter is pending, if the statement goes beyond the public record in the pleadings and evidence adduced… Conciliation is a cornerstone of the regulatory scheme… Public statements such as those here could create obstacles to conciliation…
Google was initially asked to provide a “snapshot” of its current employment picture, so regulators could look at who was being paid what. Wipper soon after asked for records for all employees dating back to 1998 because “research shows that women don’t negotiate as well as men, and if starting salaries are negotiated, female employees remain behind the better negotiators for their entire career,” a phenomenon she described as “anchoring.”
A judge’s footnote later claimed that “OFCCP offered no academic literature or other research to support Wipper’s contention about… women’s negotiating skills.” Only “in its closing brief” did OFCCP cite “an article at slate.com and a Washington Post article.” Berlin noted there that had the information been offered upfront, it “would have allowed Google to submit opposing material and to object to OFCCP’s offers.” In other words, a titanic battle over hundreds of thousands of documents that took up thousands of lawyer-hours might have been averted.
Episodes like this led Berlin to conclude that Wipper was only “generally — though not uniformly — credible,” and that there were times when she was “evasive, as though she was advocating.” The judge ended up comparing the credibility of Wipper and deputy regional director Jane Suhr with the credibility of Google’s Vice President of Compensation, Frank Wagner, saying, “To the extent there is any inconsistency between the testimony of Wagner on one hand and the testimony of either Wipper or Suhr on the other, I give greater weight to Wagner’s testimony.” Again, for someone who was not a Trump-appointed pol but a long-serving Labor Department official to go to the trouble of saying publicly he trusted a Google executive more than twosenior Labor investigators was beyond damning.
The ruling in the Oracle case, by the San Francisco-based Administrative Law judge Richard M. Clark, is remarkable. At a dense 278 pages, it reads like the diary of a man reduced to his last nerve cell of patience, kept going only out of determination to record every detail of his journey toward madness before perhaps jumping out an office window or going limp in front of a BART train. More than one source I spoke to laughed about the ruling, with one attorney cracking, “Drink at least two highballs before you read the whole thing. It’s painful. Dude suffered.”
The lawyer Silberman emphasized the unusual nature of such a definitive ruling in favor of a company by an Administrative Law Judge. “For the ALJ to annihilate OFCCP’s case,” he said, “is pretty extraordinary.”
In Clark’s telling the Oracle case comes off as a historically noteworthy waste of human energy. Both sides spent years battling over every conceivable issue in what the judge ripped as “continual, voluminous discovery disputes,” concluding, “My role is to decide cases, which does not require adjudicating every quibble and quarrel.”
More importantly, however, he led the reader on a tour through the OFCCP’s case, the hostile nature of which clearly bothered him, given the OFCCP’s extensive history of settling with relative efficiency under both blue and red presidents. “The process at [the outset] between OFCCP and the contractor is meant to be collaborative, not adversarial,” he wrote. “The aim is to not litigate.”
It should be noted that not every judge feels pushing settlement — either to alleviate court clog or to avoid ugly public throwdowns — is in the public interest. Storied federal Justice Jed Rakoff, for instance, tries to avoid pushing regulators toward settlement, which he believes “tends to cut the baby in half,” especially when “the merits really favor one side or the other.” As Rakoff puts it, “My view is the judge should not put pressure on the parties to settle.”
However, in some cases there are laws or procedures that mandate attempts at settlement, and judges on both sides of the debate tend to look with disfavor on litigants that act like they want conciliation when they’re really holding it out to try to push defendants into missteps that might trigger early litigation. Clark’s ruling hints at this, citing a long list of instances where the OFCCP claimed to want to talk things out while issuing convoluted discovery requests with short-to-impossible deadlines, all the while apparently refusing to explain what they were looking for.
“On November 19, 2014, OFCCP sought a broad array of additional information, giving Oracle only until November 26, 2014, to comply,” Clark wrote. Next: “OFCCP requested Oracle policies on February 17, 2015, with only two days to comply.” Then: “At the end of May 2015, OFCCP demanded the personal contact information of all Oracle employees, giving Oracle one week to gather the information.” The OFCCP continually offered conciliation in return for more and more outlandish conditions, a pattern that would soon appear in other litigations.
In the end, the record-smashing $400 million discrimination claim came down, essentially, to two pieces of evidence: statistical analysis by one paid expert with a history of testifying for the OFCCP, and a single line of testimony.
In their initial complaint, OFCCP promised to show evidence of a senior Oracle HR executive “admitting to a strategy of hiring women ‘because they can pay them less.’” This turned out to be a recollection from one female executive of another female executive describing a vaguely remembered “chitchat” from roughly 15 years earlier, in which she’d observed to a colleague that “if you hire a woman, she’ll work harder for less money.” This, Clark wrote, “is the most direct anecdotal evidence presented.” While it’s true the executive in question went on to be director of HR at Oracle, she denied making the remark at all, and moreover at the time it was supposedly made, she did “not make pay decisions for the thousands of employees at issue” in the suit, per the judge.
That was it. The whole case, in which enough paper was filed that a stack would surely have escaped the earth’s atmosphere, came down to a memory of one distant remark made by a person without the ability to affect the discrimination alleged. The judge, who seemed irritated by everything about the case, recommended dismissal, chiding the OFCCP for “reaching its results by making powerful, but unwarranted assumptions” instead of finding “good reason” to conclude discrimination.
A few months after the feds lost the Oracle case, the Department of Labor issued new rules. These came in the wake of yet another setback in a discrimination case, struck down this time by Administrative Law Judge Colleen Geraghty, who in a 43-page ruling bluntly ruled in favor of against a Massachusetts firm called Analogics. The new rule would require OFCCP “to provide qualitative evidence supporting a finding of discriminatory intent for all cases proceeding under a disparate treatment theory.” According to multiple sources, this new rule was meant to prevent the filing of massive discrimination cases based mostly or entirely on statistical analyses. “You had to have something beyond a conviction that enough discovery requests would eventually reveal the bad thing,” is how one attorney put it.
The litigators in Oracle didn’t go down without a fight. Reports came out that the lead attorney clashed with Trump’s Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia over the matter, with places like the New York Timeswriting that the much-loathed Supreme Court offspring had tried to settle Oracle’s case for “less than $40 million.” News reports alleged that Scalia might have “abused his authority” by stepping in to try to secure a lower settlement.
This coverage obscured a pair of unlikely statistics. First, the OFCCP’s other settlements in the four-year period between Fiscal Year 2017 and Fiscal Year 2020 totaled $117 million, which reportedly exceeded the total recoveries during the nine years covered by the Obama administration. Second, the OFCCP brought in $40 million in settlements total during 2019, which was $16 million more than the previous record set in 2017. If Scalia had stepped in and managed, say, a $40 million settlement with Oracle, it would have meant more for Oracle employees than the zero dollars the agency’s own judge recommended be paid out.
“Instead of getting some number of millions of dollars to distribute to individuals who may have gotten discriminated against,” Silberman says, “they got nothing to show for it.”
Scalia appeared angry enough about the faceplant in the Oracle case that he reassigned Herold out of California to a job overseeing OSHA complaints in Chicago. One source I spoke with compared this to comedian John Larroquette’s feckless Captain Stillman character being dispatched to a polar outpost at the end of the Bill Murray movie Stripes.
Amid all this, a fascinating nugget emerged. Herold reportedly sent a letter at one point to the Solicitor General, explaining and defending the OFCCP’s legal strategy with Oracle. Oracle’s “real vulnerability,” it turned out, would be if the trial was made public. This, Herold wrote, would “damage Oracle’s reputation in the industry and hinder their ability to retain top talent.”
She went on to write, “I remain convinced that predicting how [judge] Clark will rule is beside the point in this particular enforcement action. The most critical part of this enforcement action is the public airing and discussion of common industry pay practices which depress the wages of women and people of color.” This was only made public when an outgoing Trump labor official, Joe Wheeler, sent a letter to House Labor Committee chair Rose DeLauro arguing against further investigation of her “whistleblower” complaint.
Ultimately, Biden turned right around after entering the White House and reinstalled Herold as the Western region’s chief legal officer for the Department of Labor at the outset of 2021. Moreover, he soon after undid the rule requiring “qualitative” evidence in discrimination cases, seemingly bringing the whole affair full circle. Except: Herold just months later left the DOL for the second time in less than a year, stepping down to take a job at Justice Catalyst Law, an outside firm that “focuses on social justice issues.” She would soon have high-profile company in private practice.
Several attorneys familiar with the case described Oracle as a “colossal loss” that rattled the entire cabinet-level department and ought to have inspired a major strategic re-think. This makes it all the more surprising that one of the Biden administration’s first moves was to undo much of the post-Oracle damage control at DOL, as if Google, Oracle, and Analogics had been anomalies. More to the point, the state of California was about to adopt an even more aggressive version of the Oracle strategy at home, launching a series of campaigns that would soon have even its own governor on the defensive. This is as brief as one could make the summary of the background needed to make sense of the sensational Activision case. An almost exactly similar legal story, only much nastier, was about to repeat itself on the left coast, only this time, everyone would be watching.
A DWEAM WIFFIN A DWEAM.
“I see the way you act around Cat Woman. It doesn't take a genius-level intellect to see you're hot to tap that. I mean, damn, look at 'er. I would flood Gotham just to hear that girl fart through a walkie-talkie.”
Here's the recording of last night's (2022-05-13) Memo of the Air: Good Night Radio show on 107.7fm KNYO-LP Fort Bragg (CA): https://tinyurl.com/KNYO-MOTA-0488
Thanks to Hank Sims for all kinds of tech help over the years, as well as for his fine news site: https://LostCoastOutpost.com
And thanks to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which provided well over an hour of the above 8-hour show's most locally relevant material, as usual, without asking for anything in return. Though I do pay $25 annually for full access to all articles and features, and you can too. As well as go to KNYO.org, click on the big red heart and give what you can. Radio is cheap, and while speech is free and electricity to run the transmitter is nearly free (50 cents a day), the rent and music publishers' and streaming fees and occasional replacement part and city water to flush the toilet are not, even if you only flush it once a day to be frugal. Nearly the opposite of every other radio station I know of, every penny you give to KNYO goes to actually maintaining the radio station. Zero of it goes into an owner's or manager's pocket. So, please. Also, the cheapest joy of all: email me your work on any subject and I'll read it on the radio this coming Friday night, tit for tat rather than quid pro quo, and no hangover.
Besides All That…
at https://MemoOfTheAir.wordpress.com you'll find a fresh batch of dozens of links to not necessarily radio-useful but nonetheless worthwhile items I set aside for you while gathering the show together. Such as:
Bridesmaids revisited. There's a faint chance some of the little ones might still be alive, dozing in a wheelchair in a care facility hallway somewhere, dreaming of whatever, all agency over and past. Somewhere in the distance three competing teevees blat, a push-cart clatters over a heater grate, and a nurse's station's desk phone rings nine times and gives up.
This is how this sort of conversation went in 1985, when people could still go whole minutes without freaking out and punching or shooting or stabbing someone who asked them politely to stop being a toxic nuisance to their neighbors. Also: the idea of a designated smoking section in an airplane is laughable. I can smell people smoking cigarets two cars ahead of me on the highway, and if it's allergy season, that's enough to be a problem, besides that if it's allergy season the whole countryside is a tinderbox and they'll be throwing that cigaret out the window into the grass and lighting another one to eventually throw out the window into the grass. Ugh, like it would somehow be okay because they went ten feet away to another seat, to the smoking section of the airplane, and kept smoking? But... I remember being fifteen years old, riding in a church-provided bargain bus full of kids to go skiing, five o'clock in the morning, smoking a literal cigar. The girl in the seat behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That is so not cool.” I said, “Is it?” Later I was in a four-person gondola going up to the upper slopes of Squaw Valley (that's racist and insensitive; they've changed it) with that same girl and her boyfriend and some other person, maybe my friend Jeff. We all smoked a joint, and right around then she started to come on to the acid she and her boyfriend had taken earlier. She was increasingly distressed, discussing her feelings about whether she could do this or not, and beginning to shriek a bit. Well, we were in a claustrophobic fiberglass pill hanging high in the sky in a Twilight Zonish cold fog, but that wasn't the problem; it was something internal. Her boyfriend boredly said, from experience, “When we get to the terminal, go in the bathroom and sit on the toilet till you feel better. It's just a drug. It'll wear off.” And, provided with a confident plan from a trustworthy source, she was instantly okay. We got to the top, got our skis and poles off the gondola's rack, everybody went our separate ways, and there she was on the way back down to Sacramento on the bus that night, none the worse for wear. Ah, youth.
And Bacon and God's wrath.
— Marco McClean, firstname.lastname@example.org, https://MemoOfTheAir.wordpress.com
WERNER HERZOG HAS NEVER LIKED INTROSPECTION
A conversation with the filmmaker about the place of literature, the toll of war, and the conviction that his writing will outlast his movies.
by Michael LaPointe
When I first corresponded with the filmmaker Werner Herzog, in January, 2021, he told me that lockdown reminded him of Boccaccio’s Decameron. As he put it: “Go into isolation in the countryside and let the storytelling begin.” During quarantine, he finished two films: a documentary called “The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft,” about a pair of French volcanologists; and another, “Theater of Thought,” about neurotechnology and artificial intelligence. Both are forthcoming.
He also wrote two books. The first of these, “The Twilight World,” will be published in English in June, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann. Part adventure narrative, part memoir, and part unclassifiable lyric, “The Twilight World” tells the story of Hiroo Onoda, an actual Japanese soldier who manned his post on the island of Lubang, in the Philippines, for three decades after the Second World War had ended, having convinced himself that it had not. During his thirty-year war—which Onoda described in a memoir of his own, “No Surrender”—he survived more than a hundred ambushes, all while protecting himself against the degradations of the jungle. (As Daniel Zalewski wrote in a Profile of Herzog, from 2006, the “canonical Herzogian tale . . . portrays a man immersed in a situation of almost surreal extremity.”) Onoda was also bombarded with an onslaught of well-meaning attempts to coax him from his post. Yet his delusion persisted. In “The Twilight World,” Herzog writes, “Onoda’s war is formed from the union of an imaginary nothing and a dream.”
I met Herzog in person, in April, at an apartment he maintains in Manhattan. He and his wife, the photographer Lena Herzog, were soon headed to Venice, where she would be showing “Last Whispers,” an immersive exhibit about the vanishing of languages. Her husband and I sat on opposite sides of a glass-topped coffee table that bore books about Bruegel and Goya. For four hours, we discussed Onoda’s dream, Herzog’s literary bugbears, and the genius of Buster Keaton. Up against a nearby wall were heavy-duty cases of virtual-reality equipment. When the interview was over, Lena allowed me to be the guinea pig for the V.R. version of her exhibit. Sitting in the living room, I travelled to outer space and through sinister forests. When I returned to the reality of the apartment, Herzog was seated on the couch beside me, quietly working on a piece of writing.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your experience of lockdown?
There were a few months when I hardly ever left my house in Los Angeles. I couldn’t venture out with a crew and actors and make films, and so that’s when I wrote “The Twilight World.” I had the story in me for twenty years. Sometimes you have something that is completely ready: you don’t have to think, you don’t have to lay out a plot—it is instantly there.
Once that book was finished, I immediately wrote the next book, which is three times the length. It will be published in German in a few months and then translated by Michael Hofmann into English. It’s some sort of memoir, but not in terms of an autobiography. Only part of it is about my life. It’s really about the origins of ideas. At age seventeen, for example, I stumbled across a valley filled with ten thousand windmills on the island of Crete. I had hired a donkey and was travelling in the mountains of the interior. When I saw this valley of windmills, I thought, This cannot be—I’m either fooled by an illusion or I’m stark mad. I knew my grandfather when he was stark mad, but he was an older man, and, I thought, It’s too early. It shouldn’t happen now.
I put myself together and walked down into the valley and there were indeed windmills. They were there to pump water for the irrigation of this entire valley. There was not a single building, just ten thousand windmills—it was completely insane. The book is about how an image like that lingers, and then, all of a sudden, connects with a story, and holds an entire feature film together—in this case, “Signs of Life.”
You met Hiroo Onoda, the main character of “The Twilight World,” in the late nineties.
I was in Japan to stage the opera “Chushingura,” composed by Shigeaki Saegusa, which is based on the famous story of forty-seven loyal ronin whose lord is wronged and has to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. The ronin avenge him, knowing that, for their deed, they will have to kill themselves in ritual suicide, as well. It’s the most Japanese of Japanese stories—every schoolchild knows about it. While in Japan, I received word that the office of the Emperor had stretched out feelers to see whether I would like to meet the Emperor in a private audience, but I had the feeling that I could speak only in formulas and polite, prefabricated dialogue, so I refused. To this day, I wish the ground had opened into a chasm and swallowed me up. There are benign silences, but there are also shocked silences and hostile silences, and there was a long silence among those with whom I had worked. Somebody then asked whom else I would like to meet in Japan, and, completely out of the blue, I said, “Onoda.”
For many years, he had declined to participate in a film about his life. But, he said, “If there’s anyone who should do it, it should be you, Herzog-san.” I was very moved by that, and, for a while, I thought his story could be a film. But something stopped me from doing it. I knew the story had to do with elements that are outside of movies—such as how a belief system originates from the observation of the tiniest details, which, all together, form a coherent world view with an almost religious intensity. For example, leaflets were thrown from small planes, trying to inform Onoda that the war was over and he ought to surrender. He would study these leaflets like papyrus fragments of the Bible, and find they contained a small error in one of the Japanese characters, or that they called his battalion by its former name, when shortly before the end of the war his battalion was renamed. For him, this was proof that the leaflets were the work of the enemy.
But I had the feeling that the tragedy of settling into a fictitious life may not have been such a tragedy after all. I have the suspicion that he lived a fulfilled life. And, of course, what fascinates me is not only how Onoda settles into a fictitious life but how basically all of us do, within our cultural norms. In his story, the deeper structure of what makes a human being becomes more visible.
Did Onoda prefer not to know the war was over?
I think he was reluctant, after thirty years of waging a solitary war, to acknowledge that there was no war. This is why he insisted that the young man who found him, in 1974, should return to Japan and mobilize a former major of his unit, who would then come back to the island and issue competent military orders for him to desist hostile activities. The end needed to be formalized and ritualized—only then would the war be over. But the astonishing thing is that he still hoped that the major would tell him, “This was all made up, we just wanted to test your perseverance.” He hoped that the end was an illusion.
The main characters of your films seem to be externalizations of forces within you. What in Onoda were you trying to explore about yourself?
It’s not easy to make any comments, because I don’t like, and I’ve never liked, introspection. But it may have to do with certain things that I’ve striven for: responsibility, a sense of duty, courage, many things that make a good soldier. Sometimes I’ve said I’d like to be a good soldier of cinema—which may be misleading, because people immediately think in military terms, when I’m not thinking in military terms.
What came to mind recently is that, when I look at my films and I look at my writing, I have the feeling that my films are like my voyage out in the world, and my writing is home. That’s where I’m home. I do believe my writing will have a longer life than my films, though I may be wrong. I have misjudged quite often.
Do you consider this your first novel?
It doesn’t have a real category. It probably comes closest to a novel. It’s something that borders poetry, or pure fantasies and pure language—language for itself.
It bears some traces of the screenplay form. It’s very efficient; when it’s nighttime, you just say, “Night.”
Strangely, my first screenplays were prose. I had no idea what a screenplay looked like, but I would write down something that you, as a reader or an actor or a financier, could immediately imagine as a movie on the screen. I would have trouble with actors who would say, “Where is the dialogue? What do I have to learn? What do I have to rehearse?” And I would keep saying, “Don’t rehearse.”
You’ve always had a fascination with people who stand outside of what the majority of us see as history. I think of someone like Fini Straubinger, who is blind and deaf and has no knowledge of the destruction of the Second World War. Or Kaspar Hauser, who spends his early years locked in a cellar with no knowledge of humanity. History as we conceive of it has missed them somehow. Do you see this as a precious quality?
There is something quite important in what you’re asking, and I can make only a very tiny step toward an answer. In my case, I have tried to live outside of the fashionable trends. This has got me into trouble all the time. I make my own observations, and, like Onoda, I create my own world view out of the knowledge that I derive from the world itself. When you travel on foot, for example—and I don’t mean backpacking or hiking, I mean, for example, travelling on foot from Munich to Paris—you are given a world view, an insight that is different or outside of the average knowledge. I have a dictum: “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.” I do not want to explain it any further.
Your work is distinctly unromantic in its view of the natural world. Do you perceive a new romanticism emerging in reaction to ecological collapse?
The vanishing of nature is also romanticized: the lonely polar bear on an ice shelf. Romanticism has trickled down through Walt Disney, and now we have the Disneyfication of landscapes, of human existence, of storytelling, of our relationship with wild nature. The bears are cuddly and you have to hug them and you have to sing to them. That’s the tragedy of Timothy Treadwell, in “Grizzly Man,” a tragedy of misguided philosophy. When somebody espouses New Age ideas, I always lower my head and charge.
In your films, you seldom have closeups of characters. You prefer to situate them in the landscape. And it seems as though, in the book, you are going for the same effect. The jungle is always pressing in on the men.
I think you’re right.
But the jungle is resistant to a vista—you can’t really create a vista in the jungle unless you’re above the canopy.
You don’t even see the sky most of the time.
Is that what you mean by “the twilight world”?
Yes, but it’s also metaphorical. In German, the title is “Dammerung,” which means “twilight” but also “dawn,” like Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” What is it in English, “The Twilight of the Gods”? We decided we should translate it like Richard Wagner would translate it.
It seems to me that one of the challenges of this story would be narrating the passage of time. The story ranges over decades, and there aren’t many events in a conventional sense. “The jungle does not recognize time,” you write.
The passage of time is one of the reasons why the story became a book and not a film. I spoke about time at great length with Onoda. He was fascinated by the notion that present time cannot exist. You take a million steps in the jungle. Lifting the foot out of the mud is already past, and setting it down in front of you is the future. There is no present time. We live in a convention, in a fiction of present time, but only by dint of declaration. Technically, it does not exist. We walk on crutches when it comes to time.
You have said, in the past, that, with filmmaking, you don’t care about beautiful images in themselves, only what a shot is about and how it fits into the story. Is content more important than form?
Yes, the substance. Stylizations and formalisms are not as important. If they were, then everything that is kitsch, everything that has perfect form, perfect harmony, would be the greatest of all literature and painting. But no, it is not.
Did the prolonging of the Second World War in Onoda’s mind resonate with your experience of the war’s legacy in Germany—the sense that the war continued somehow, and exceeded the boundaries of 1945?
No, I don’t think so. There was a very, very strong feeling among the German population of “This must never happen again.” Because the deepest of catastrophes was the First World War, and then only twenty years later or so you have the Second World War, and the complete destruction of Germany. Almost every single major city in Germany looked like the World Trade Center after its attack. And that sank in—and it’s in me. My first memory is of my mother ripping my brother and me out of bed in the middle of the winter night, wrapping us in blankets, and taking us up on a slope. In the distance, at the end of the valley, the entire night sky was red and orange and very slowly pulsing. She said the city of Rosenheim was burning. I was only two and a half. Normally, memories do not go back that far, but I know this was my very first memory, and it’s embedded in my soul.
Our conversation is taking place against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
War is always catastrophic. I made a film with Gorbachev, “Meeting Gorbachev,” and what still resonates in me are things that he kept saying about how many opportunities were missed between the West and Russia to come to “normal terms.” I have seen footage of him in Canada, where he was received like a rock star—that’s a different side of what could have been possible. It pains me. I worked in Kyiv many years ago, as an actor, and I worked in Russia, making films. That’s how I sense the depth of the catastrophe.
You said once that you felt as though we were entering an era of isolation. I couldn’t help but think of you when the pandemic was unfolding, and whether or not you felt as though things were getting worse in that regard.
I would like to see it from its quasi-opposite side: the enormous spread of social media. You can reach out to Nigeria and to New Zealand and to Uruguay with a single tweet, and it may be read by millions. So we are not isolated. You break through isolation. However, at the same time, I do believe that, on a deeper, existential level, our solitudes are increasing, in reverse magnitude.
You never use social media, I assume.
No, I don’t. You may find me, but they are complete forgeries. On the Internet, you find people giving advice for the burning questions of your life with my imitated voice.
How do you feel about all these tech billionaires going to space?
It’s a testosterone-laden competition. One person who sticks out is Elon Musk, because he builds reusable rockets, which I find a very fine and noble thing to do. But, at the same time, his idea to colonize Mars with a million people is an obscenity. We should look after the well-being of our planet, rather than make an inhospitable place livable. You don’t have to be a scientist to know a colony on Mars is not going to happen. As for this race with Bezos and the other billionaires, I think it’s a marketing design. It gives him the label of being—and I say it in quotes, several times quotes around it—a “visionary,” meaning that if you want to buy an electric car, don’t buy it from the Germans, don’t buy it from the Chinese, buy it from the “visionary.”
Do you remember the first time you came to New York?
Yes, I came to New York on a boat, on the Bremen, the same ship that brought Siegfried and Roy the year before. But they stayed and became magicians and moved to Las Vegas. I moved to Pittsburgh and had a scholarship there, which was not very well thought through. I had a vague notion that I would like to go not to one of the Ivy League universities but to a city where there were still steelworkers. I had worked the night shift in a steel factory, and I felt that was the place where I should go. But it was already the beginning of the Rust Belt. I left the scholarship very quickly and was basically homeless, and was picked up by a wonderful family who incorporated me within minutes into their family. I have seen the very best of America, so I’m very fond of my first experience here. Of course, there are certain things for which I have ambivalent feelings, but that’s O.K. My ambivalence toward Germany is even deeper, and you probably have a certain ambivalence toward your own country, Canada. Everyone has it, in a way. But I had such a crazy, wonderful, deep, and priceless time in America, with Americans.
You’ve said that film allows us to delve into the least understood truths of man, our dreams and nightmares. If that’s the level on which film operates, on what level does literature operate?
It somehow touches on a deep level that lives in all of us, in most cases, hidden away—a sense of poetry. People who do not read at all, and do not read poetry or never have had contact with books, still have that inside of them. I’m totally convinced. There’s something embedded in language that we can touch, that we can make vibrate, with literature, with poetry.
I still believe that literature is of very deep importance not only for our singular existence but for our collective experience. In the nineteen-seventies, while making a toast, I quoted a few sentences of Turgenev, and my host toasted back by continuing the Turgenev story for the next five pages by heart. Through language, you establish a togetherness of souls. I miss that. However, not long ago, I was in front of a room of thirty or forty people, and quoted a verse of Hölderlin. Suddenly, somebody was illuminated, and that person came forward, very close to me, and started speaking with me as if nobody else were in the room. So perhaps you still do have that, in a way.
What is the place of literature now, in your view?
Certain things we have to accept. Fifty years ago, prime-time American television showed Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer debating, almost coming to blows. That’s gone, and we have to acknowledge it. We can also observe something much more widespread: people read less. You even see it in academia. Students in the humanities, and not just freshmen, do not read, or do not read enough. They have barely any knowledge of literature and deeper reading. That’s more alarming. Things have shifted very much into forms like tweets or Facebook entries or short messages.
Does it bother you that people are now watching movies on tiny devices and laptop screens?
There is something big coming at us. Just as the movies shifted from silent movies to talkies, so the location of having a collective experience in the movie theatre is dwindling away in favor of streaming platforms. I’m not insisting on movie theatres—although, for me, a movie theatre is still the mother of all battles. But there are things I have to come to terms with. Very young people not only watch a movie on their cellular phone, they also speed it up to twice the speed if it’s too slow for them.
Charlie Chaplin always looks like he’s moving at twice the speed of a normal person.
Eighteen frames per second. But, of course, there was a certain beauty. My favorite character in movies has been and still is Buster Keaton.
There’s no illusion there—he’s really doing it.
Exactly. And it looks highly stylized, but it is not.
The moment when he’s standing there and the frame of the house collapses on him, and he goes perfectly through the window.
I rejoice for having seen that. It’s one of the all-time best moments in a movie ever.
Do contemporary novels interest you?
I read everything. I just read an autobiography, “Forget Me Not,” by a woman who lives in Montana and was married to one of the great mountain climbers of his time. He perished in an avalanche, some thirty years ago, and the best friend of this mountain climber survived, and, returning home, he immediately took care of the three boys of his best friend and took responsibility, and he ended up falling head over heels in love with his friend’s wife and marrying her. It’s not that it’s great literature, but I read it with fascination. Next thing, I reach for Hölderlin. And next I reach for Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Greek historian who is not very intelligent—he’s a dumb encyclopedist. But he becomes completely exuberant, and a phenomenal writer, when it comes to the father of Alexander the Great, Philip II of Macedon, and it’s like the most intense soap opera you’ve ever witnessed in your life, outdoing all the Brazilian soap operas. So I’m very fond of Diodorus Siculus for that.
Probably my favorite novelist is Thomas Bernhard. I know you’re a fan as well. Do you have any favorite books of his?
Almost everything that he has written. I never connected so deeply to his stage plays, but I was at the world première of “Heldenplatz,” named after the square where Hitler first arrived in Austria, after the Anschluss. The right wing threatened to invade the première of this play and incite fights in the theatre, so I got myself a mouth guard and went. At the end, they brought Bernhard out on stage. The actors took a bow, and then they walked backward and came forward again and bowed again, collectively. But Bernhard turned his back to the audience and walked with his face to the depths of the stage, and then turned around and came toward the audience again, in the opposite pattern of the actors.
He didn’t often go to the theatre himself. He spent much of his time in his big farmhouse going in circles on his bicycle. Peter Handke told me about him. That’s how I got into him—Handke gave me “Das Kalkwerk” and he said, “Read this, read this. We have a great, great writer emerging.”
His project has resonance with your projects sometimes. His characters are always toiling on these great works that will never get finished—
Or they end up in vicious circles, circles that could go on into infinity, inescapable circles.
I remember reading about your father, and that he was always working on a futile book that never got written. He seemed a very Bernhardian character in a way.
I never made that connection, but you are right. On a superficial level, the book was his pretext for not working and earning money; the woman had to raise the children and earn the money. But I’m absolutely convinced that he talked himself so deep into it that he believed in the existence of this fictitious great study—I think he really believed he was writing an important book, and he never wrote a line. He actually lived his fiction, and in a way you could see him in a context with Onoda.
You once said that you believe that English literature was brought to a sort of dead end by “Finnegans Wake.”
Yes, but I would say literature per se. I perceive a hard core of what constitutes storytelling, and I have the feeling that sometimes literature has gone into a cul-de-sac. “Finnegans Wake” was clearly a cul-de-sac. Joyce worked toward it, convinced that he would explore new terrain for literature, but I do not think he discovered it—because nobody followed up, number one, and it is in disregard of what I see as the central quality of storytelling, which you find in Joseph Conrad, Hölderlin, Virgil’s Georgics, or even the Warren Commission’s report on the Kennedy assassination.
Are you a fan of Joyce’s other works?
No, I’ve never been a fan. I see the poet at work when it comes to “Ulysses,” the different forms of speech, of language. The tools of the craft are being exposed, and he is trying to show you how new his form of writing is. I have the same problem with actors. I do not like actors—and some of them are considered great actors—when I can see how they are acting. Bruno S. is the quintessential opposite of this. I’ve never seen an actor of his depth. There is something in him that deeply resonates with us, something completely untechnical, unstylized, and unformalized.
How did your great collaborator Klaus Kinski feel about your thinking that Bruno S. was the greatest actor you’d ever worked with?
I think he understood it. Kinski himself was furious when somebody would call him an actor, because in a way much of what he does is stark-naked him—with a layer of training on top of it.
Does art need to be more direct?
I don’t know exactly—it’s so primitive to label it like that, but you immediately can tell when you read, for example, Emily Dickinson. You know it instantly: yes, there’s a great poet.
Your notion of “ecstatic truth” seems to have foreshadowed many trends of the twenty-first century: fake news, virtual reality. In a way, your theory has been vindicated by people’s attraction to these forms.
Yes, but I’m speaking of truth, not news. I’m speaking about something that you cannot easily grasp. None of us knows what truth is, so I touch it only with a pair of pliers when I use this word. But, of course, it has been caught up in many of the trends of today, fake news and virtual realities. For example, I read that Bruce Willis, who retired from acting, has sold the rights to his virtual persona for a commercial, which re-creates his facial expressions and his voice. That’s something new and fascinating and stunning.
It’s easy to see as well how ecstatic truth can be misinterpreted and run rampant.
Sure. And when I start to invent certain things—like quoting Blaise Pascal at the beginning of “Lessons of Darkness”—I declare myself. In interviews, I have said this Pascal aphorism was invented by me to give a cosmic feeling, the sense of a cosmic event taking place.
Or the mountain range surrounded by mist that is, in fact, a tire track.
A few inches tall. I do not conceal that I am inventing—but sometimes it’s good that you do not need to know that I’m inventive here or inventive there.
But let me say one thing about ecstatic truth. The simplest way to explain it is by looking at Michelangelo’s Pietà, the statue. Jesus in the arms of Mary is a thirty-three-year-old man, tormented on a cross and taken down, but his mother is only seventeen. It’s one of the most beautiful sculptures that was ever created. And my question now is did Michelangelo try to cheat us, did he try to give us fake news, defraud us, lie to us? The answer, of course, is no. He shows us a deeper truth of both figures.
Inevitably, you’re going to have a biographer.
I hope it’s not going to happen. One of the reasons I’ve written my quote-unquote memoirs is to prevent that. There shouldn’t be a biography—there should be somebody pointing out this film and that film, and how these films somehow make a person behind it visible. You don’t need to describe the person.
I always had the feeling that it would be so wonderful to be anonymous. You can do it in literature, like Ferrante, and it is possible in painting, like with Banksy. But I think both have been identified by now. Some miserable human critter published their real identities. Shame on them.
Are there moments in your films that you would take back?
There are, but I cannot. I threw away all my outtakes because a carpenter doesn’t sit on his shavings. But I’ve learned to live with all the mistakes. Every one of my films has certain mistakes, and basically I’m cringing at the première. Sitting and seeing the film with an audience, I wish I was not alive anymore. But within a week I come to terms with it. Yes, it was me, and nobody saw the mistakes anyway, or hardly anyone. I don’t want to go back and reëdit my films or do some reshooting. You can pay me as much money as you want—I won’t do it.
On the last page of Onoda’s memoir, he’s travelling away from the island by helicopter, and he looks down on his battlefield and asks himself a series of questions: “Why had I fought here for thirty years? Who had I been fighting for? What was the cause?” Do you have any answers for him?
No. No. But it’s beautiful that his book ends like that.
My new book, after this one, ends in the middle of a sentence. I thought of Onoda, who told me he could see a bullet coming at him from a distance, in a strange glow, and he would turn his body away, and it wouldn’t hit the solar plexus for which it was aimed. It would whirr by. And I looked up, because outside of the window I saw something shooting at me, shining in orange and green, and it was a hummingbird. Sometimes they shoot very straight. The moment where I was, in the middle of writing, I looked up and that’s it. The book ends all of a sudden, literally in the middle of a sentence.
So maybe you appreciate “Finnegans Wake” after all?
No, because in my book the moment is derived from solid narrative. It’s embedded in storytelling.
Do you find that the images exist in your mind already and you’re searching for the words to communicate them, or do the images emerge in the act of writing itself?
Quite often, I stumble onto images, like the ten thousand windmills, but very often also the image starts to glow in the distance. I see this, and I turn myself toward it. Where does this light come from? Where is this glimmer? Where does this glow emerge? I never have a plan. I never have any sort of board with yellow Post-its and the line of the story, neither in writing nor in films. The story somehow has evolved in me, or suddenly comes at me, and I can write very fast. When I don’t know how to continue writing, I just continue anyway. I walk once around the house for thirty seconds, and then I continue writing, and something emerges that was completely unknown thirty seconds before. It’s always worked.
Do you listen to music while you write?
Yes, most of the time. I blare it, mostly Beethoven piano concertos. Somehow it has a certain level of excitement and dynamic and push. But sometimes I would listen to choral music from the Republic of Georgia.
Do you prefer a room with a view, or without?
Mostly without. I see something outside the window, like the hummingbird, but it’s very narrow. When I wrote “Fitzcarraldo,” I was in San Francisco, and Francis Ford Coppola offered me the use of his mansion on Broadway. There was a little turret with almost three-hundred-and-sixty-degree windows, and I immediately decided to sit there and write. I gave myself ten days to compose the whole screenplay. From Coppola’s turret, I could see the entire bay and the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. I was completely mesmerized by what I saw out there, and, after two hours, I noticed I had only half a page. So I turned my chair around. There was one segment with no window, and with a ruler and a very sharp pencil, I made a cross on this segment, like the crosshairs in your binoculars. When I looked up from writing, I would stare into the crosshairs and then continue.