THE DEAD AND THE DYING

The heavy decrepit bodies of the great and not so, mingled with their offsprings, children too young to realise that this too would be their fate. Pathetic men way past their glory days paraded pretending that they still had it, while bored defeated women looked on knowing they didn’t.

It was another day at the enclosed perfectly temperatured salt baths. The warmth was comforting to the skin and the soul and made old bones and muscles feel rejuvenated. The inhabitants floated safe in this maternal womb away from the business deals that no longer mattered in a world that no longer cared and was on its last legs. Some old guys studied the racing form while younger middle-aged men preferred the stock market. Some gambled with their own money while others ventured with what they had married into, or had inherited. All in all there’d be few winners that day. There were no more lucky numbers to be had, or surprise gold and mineral funds in a world that had been looted, raped and gang banged so many times there was nothing left. Certainly not energy for outrage. Only resentment from natives who had been trampled under foot and squashed by the invaders who destroyed paradise without ever having taken the time to truly look around and realise the greatest wealth was above the ground. But like rats they burrowed lower and lower into darkness desperate for any shiny morsel of opportunity. Never thinking any further ahead than that.

We had destroyed the world without realising that such an abomination also destroyed ourselves. What we project outwards also implodes us. Given time.

I stood in the warm salt water as the floating bodies of the dead and the dying circled me.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

Sketch by Frank Howson.

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A WALK IN THE RAIN

He aged within the silences of our stilted conversation. His eyes were those of a man who’d seen his kingdoms fall and the survival mechanisms of such pain had turned him into a statue. Although he was outwardly pleasant and patient there was no one there. He was a ghost haunted by himself but chained to a place that had been familiar in his real life. I wondered if like other theories of ghostlore he was doomed to act out his past mistakes over and over again until they revealed something he hadn’t known before. And replayed to the incessant drumbeat of “If only I’d done this. If only I’d done that. If only…If only…

The dark circles beneath his eyes told me he didn’t sleep much and that the night was rarely his friend. To him there was no morning, afternoon or evening only awake time and dozing time.

It was those eyes that still haunt me to this day. They told me they knew the secrets of this life and that the knowing of such things begats a penalty far beyond any pain most humans experience.

He said his best writing came to him at 3am which was God’s favourite time to speak through us, when the night is still and the silence is that of eternity. The world at momentary peace with itself and you feel you can hear God’s breath within the comforting embrace of darkness. Such were the fleetingly magic moments when inspiration struck him.

He felt he was no longer a person, but a vessel. He had worn himself out in his search for a lasting kind of love and knew now that it was not written as part of his destiny. Hence he no longer sought it for it only carried disappointment in its train. and such disappointment sometimes took years to wash away. A penalty for those who cared too deeply. Furthermore he now feared he no longer contained the capacity to feel the emotions of normal people, and wondered why God had spared him and taken so many others. Sometimes it crossed his mind that the lucky ones died young, still hopeful with dreams intact. He mused that perhaps that old saying was true, “God calls home first those he loves the most.”

These days he liked to walk in the rain. It made him feel something.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

Photo by Raija Reissenberger.

THIS PRISON HAS NO BARS

From the mansions of sadness
To the bums on the street
From the highways of loneliness
To the halls of defeat
I’ve watched your ascendance
The road I never took
Girl, you’ve come a long way
On a smile and a look

From the poolside of stardom
To the kids on the run
From the mountains of compassion
To the things never done
I’ve watched your progression
With an assassin’s eye
I could have been there too
But my heart doesn’t lie

There are stars in cars on every corner of this town
You’re gonna need a lot of help
When you finally come down
You’re slept with the Caesars
And you’ve dined with the Czars
But none of them told you why
This prison has no bars

From the towers of power
To a broken man’s plea
From the face on the magazine
To the girl you used to be
I’m waiting for some answers
Beneath the falling stars
Wish I could’ve warned you
This prison has no bars

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE MEANING OF LIFE

He came with love in his heart for every living thing. His innocence had been untouched and his light force shone so bright that crowds gathered to see him but, more importantly, to feel his warmth. By gazing upon him they were somehow changed. “Was this the Messiah?” they mumbled to each other in hushed tones lest they be deemed blasphemous by some. For some can find darkness in every hope, every wish, every prayer.

And when this man spoke it brought some to their knees, others to tears. It was as if the calmness in his voice could heal every hurt and fear that had weighed them down and they were now somehow lighter.

The taking away of such anguish even brought back sight to the blind. As if all they had needed was to believe in something and were being granted the ability to see the world anew. Men who had walked too many lonely dead end loveless roads and were now crippled, found that they could walk again. And after those first awkward unsure steps they inched closer and closer to him growing more confident and accepted with each one until they were in his arms, and the safety and strength  of unconditional love made them sob for the joy of each precious moment. Time that they had, until now, misinterpreted and cursed for their burdens, and wasted, was now rediscovered and rejoiced over. All things were possible again.

In his face they saw no judgement, no impatience, no pity, only love. And his love became contagious among the people and they sang his praises.

He had not come to destroy the Romans, or hand out weapons, or preach hate. He was here to give meaning to our lives. What was the meaning of life? Love. For love opens the door to joy. And its light extinguishes all shadows.

But there were those, the shadow people, who were angered by us learning the meaning of existence and saw that this teaching could undermine their power over us. For they ruled by fear and threats, both of which were rendered insignificant when the masses walked proudly in the sun again unchained from their own mental limitations.

So they arrested this man, this dangerous man, beat him, whipped him, ridiculed him and his suffering, and sentenced him to an agonising death for the crime of telling us to love and forgive each other.

And in his final conscious moments he forgave those who had plotted his death, and the ignorant who had killed him. To this day it remains the greatest triumph of the human spirit.

Perhaps he was drawing evil into the light so that the world could recognise its face?

 
(C) Frank Howson 2019

Painting by Frank Howson (c) 2019

BOOZE AND DRUGS

There’s a great scene in “Breaking Bad” where Walt White and Hank, his DEA brother-in-law, discuss the thin line between what’s legal and what’s not. And that even good people can topple over sometimes onto the wrong side of the line for the simplest of things.

Much has been made of Robin Williams’ on and off drug problems and struggle with alcohol, but I would suggest when he decided to end it all he was straight.

On October 28, 1919 – a date that will live in infamy if not the annals of stupidity – the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act over President Wilson’s veto and prohibited the sale of alcohol to the public. And what was the effect of that? It made gangsters like Al Capone very wealthy men. By 1925, in New York alone, there were, estimated, between 30,000 and 100,000 speakeasy clubs. The moral of the story? If people want something bad enough they’ll get it. Making it illegal just insures that you have to pay inflated prices for it and deal with criminals and underworld characters that brings with it its own dangers.

When Hollywood previewed the Brian DePalma remake of “The Untouchables” they found they had a major problem with it. The audience were rooting for Al Capone over the do-good law enforcement Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness. And why not? The latter was hell-bent on denying the public booze. So the studio had to shoot an extra scene early in the movie that showed Capone’s men placing a bomb in a store that wouldn’t pay protection money and a little kid was killed, thus turning the audience’s sympathy from Capone to Eliot Ness.

So, in those dim dark ages, if you knocked three times on a speakeasy door and gave the right password, you were let in to have a scotch or a gin or whatever alcoholic beverage you were seeking. Oh, and you were considered a criminal.

Alcohol was banned to stop people over-indulging. That’s like banning food because some people over-eat. I think it’s always a very dark and sinister act when the government attempts to control what should be, in a free society, one’s personal choice and responsibility.

I would argue that cigarettes have killed more people than alcohol. Why don’t we ban those? And how ineffective would that be? Again, we’d just give a lot of criminals a new business opportunity and make them a fortune. And we’d end up paying $100 for a pack of cigarettes.

In 1922, during the alcohol prohibition years, cocaine was also banned and thus another substance, that had been legal and freely available, was given over to the underworld to boost their pockets.

The celebrated Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, himself a cocaine user, prescribed the substance to his patients believing it was a cure for depression and sexual impotence. In 1884 he published an article “Uber Coca” which promoted the “benefits” of cocaine, calling it a “magical” substance.

In 1886 it got a further boost when John Pemberton included coca leaves as an ingredient in his new soft drink, Coca-Cola. This new drink was also considered to be, ironically, a cure for a hangover caused by an over-indulgence in alcohol.

During the early 1900s, cocaine and opium-laced elixirs (magical or medicinal potions), tonics and wines were broadly used by people of all social standings. Notable figures who promoted the “miraculous” effects of cocaine included inventor Thomas Edison and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

By 1905 it became popular to snort it. By 1912 The United States government reported 5000 related deaths in one year due to an over-use of cocaine. By 1922 it was officially banned, which, when news reached Sherlock Holmes it probably resulted in his suicide by throwing himself off the Reichenbach Falls.

So, like alcohol, it was not the substance itself that was lethal but rather some people’s over-use of it.

Did you know if you drink too much water you can die from it? All we need is 5000 of us to do that in any one year and perhaps they’ll ban that too.

What I’m getting at is where does one’s own personal responsibility come into it? And where’s the line where the government intervenes into our lives and criminalizes something because some people are over-indulging?

I used to listen to a talkback radio guy in L.A who was a Libertarian. Their political philosophy upholds liberty as the principal objective. Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and freedom of choice, emphasizing political freedom, voluntary association and the primacy of human judgment.

A woman’s debate about the right to abortion is that “it is my body and the government does not own it and anything I wish to do with it should be my choice and not theirs.”

Well then, it you want to take that debate further, and not that much further, isn’t it also correct that if I own my own body then I should be allowed to do whatever I want with it? Is it not my own personal choice if I want to drink a gallon of scotch, or shoot up heroin, or snort cocaine, smoke a carton of cigarettes, or my smelly socks for that matter? And if I’ve had enough of this life isn’t it also my right to end it? Surely it only becomes a matter for law enforcement if we are intoxicated, or high or suicidal and get behind the wheel of a car? Because by doing that we are putting other people’s lives at stake. People who have chosen to want to live. Then, of course, it becomes a concern for society at large.

John Lennon once had a hit with a song that said, “Whatever gets you through the night is alright…”

I try to get through this life attempting to be as non-judgmental of others as possible. Unless of course they steal from me or attempt to harm me. If someone is struggling and needs prescription drugs to get through, or need to self-medicate themselves with something that makes them feel better, what business is it of ours? My sympathy is with those that need it, and also my prayers. But to judge Robin Williams or Jim Morrison or Heath Ledger or Elvis or any of the millions of people out there is an act of arrogance and shows a severe lack of empathy for the pain they may be carrying. Perhaps those people who sit in judgment in their ivory towers need to come down and fuck themselves.

How do you end the drug wars and get rid of the criminal element in one swift and effective move? You legalize it. At least then there would be some monitor on exactly what people are taking and what amount. And perhaps if it is noticed that some are in such pain they are over-indulging then maybe some counseling could be recommended. But again, it would be one’s personal choice as to whether they accepted that or not.

In California now and in some other U.S. states “pot” is legal with a medical prescription. Have people gone mad with it? Of course not. They buy what they need to get them through the week and go home. Like buying a 6 pack of beer.

Cannabis oil has also proven to be a great help in prolonging and enhancing the lives of cancer patients.

Believe it or not Richard Nixon was the first President that believed drug addicts should not be treated as criminals but instead needed counseling. It would certainly free up law enforcement officers to focus on more important crimes, like people murdering each other. Or the next terrorist attack.

And besides, I would’ve thought the Government would prefer us all to be medicated anyway, so that our anger would be numbed to what idiots they are.

Anyway, just thinkin’ out loud.

(c) Frank Howson 2014

THOUGHTS ON ROBIN WILLIAMS

It was always his eyes that got to me. No matter how hard he smiled or how manic his brain was working, machine-gunning out hysterical one-liners, most of which you missed because you were too busy laughing at the last one – his eyes were sad. The sadness of a man who possibly knew that the world was insane and he was just going to go with it.

To me all the great comedians have one thing in common – they see the world from a unique point-of-view. Sometimes it’s not even that the one liners are that funny. What is humorous is their perspective on things. They see the bizarre in the things we take for granted, the mundane actions we mostly do on auto-pilot without even thinking about. But they do.

Another great example of this humour is Ricky Gervais. We identify and laugh at how silly and futile some of the things we do and say really are under the light of scrutiny.

I know a woman who worked for a TV show in Los Angeles for some time and she said one of the many guest stars on the show over the years had been Robin Williams. She told me when he arrived he was rigid with nerves. He was concerned he wouldn’t be funny. He was intimidated by the guest star on the previous week’s show and that he couldn’t top what they’d done, etc., etc., etc. She said he got so worked up he almost walked out before the taping and she had to calm him down and assure him he’d be wonderful. Perhaps that explains his rapid fire delivery of one-liners. They were being propelled at us from the nervousness he felt inside. What a drain that must’ve been on him and how exhausted he must’ve felt after every show, like a champion boxer after every title bout. Ironically, that inner fear that ate him away like a cancer also made him great.

That is the way with many great artists. Their flaws or perceived disabilities are their strengths.

Having spent many years researching the life of Bobby Darin for a new musical I have written, I was struck by a comment from his son, Dodd. He said that the heart problem that had afflicted his father from an early age also propelled him to greatness. Bobby had overheard a doctor say to his mother, “If that kid lives to sixteen it’ll be a miracle.” Now, there are two ways you can go with that knowledge. Either you just give up and think what’s the use of doing anything or you can go the other way and squeeze everything you can into every minute you have left. Dodd Darin has said, “People think that disease killed my father. Oh no, it made my father.”

Robin Williams said he was once advised to go see a shrink. He made the appointment and went to the therapist, laid down on his couch and talked about his life and his problems. At the end of it, the therapist said to him, “I think I can cure you, but you may not be funny anymore.” Robin got up, shook hands with the guy and left never to return. The world thanks him for that decision but damn, what a burden he carried for our pleasure.

Like you I will miss Robin Williams not being in the world. His absence, like that of John Lennon, makes all our lives a little colder. All I know is I’m going to miss him for a long, long time.

Every time I hear Smokey Robinson and the Miracles sing “Tracks of my Tears” I will think of him, “…So take a good look at my face, you’ll see my smile looks out of place, if you look closer it’s easy to trace the tracks of my tears.”

Rest in peace, dear man.

(c) Frank Howson 2014

THE OUTSIDERS.

When I started making films in Australia it was a time when “commercial” was a dirty word. Seemed strange to me because I never set out to make bad films, only ones I thought more than a few may enjoy. I can’t tell you the resentment hurled at me for having such lofty plans. It became more than a little bizarre and as a result of the local critical slaughtering clouded some people’s objective view of my work. I found that my movies received far greater respect outside of my homeland which saddened me as I’d always been a staunchly proud Australian. It compounded my feeling of being an outsider. Probably not a bad thing for an artist but a weight nonetheless.

As the years rolled by and I became disenchanted with my business associates and their agendas my films turned inward and became more and more personal. A reflection of my own frustrations and isolation- with a good dose of anger thrown in for good measure. I had gotten to a place where finally even my harshest critics had to relucatantly admit that, perhaps, I was doing something right, given the overseas acceptance of my work. For example my family movie “What The Moon Saw” became the first Australian film purchased by Miramax; “Heaven Tonight” the first ever sold to the giant American Broadcasting Corporation; “Hunting” (my directorial debut) sold to Paramount Pictures, etc., etc. Unfortunately just as I was beginning to have a local critical re-evaluation of my work, my business partner did a few things that gave those with agendas, or just the plain jealous, all the ammunition they needed to justify their ill-feeling.

It took me 3 years to get rid of my business partner and then another 3 years to fight him in court. All I had to do at any point during this time, to continue my career and go on making films and money, was to back down and agree to resume my association with him. I did not. As far as moments go it was, integrity-wise, my finest. But, for that shining moment, I lost everything, my home, my family, my money, and all my work. Freedom came at a high price. What followed was 10 years in the wildnerness, alone, where I was forced to re-evaluate everything I was or had stood for. There were many times in my anger I cursed how principled I’d been, given my loss. Would I be as good a man again? I would like to think so, but having lived through the sacrifice and now knowing how high the cost, honestly, I’m not so sure.

Faced with starting again in Australia and having to humbly ask rivals for a job, I decided to go to Los Angeles. I needed a new environment for my mental and physical health. I was in a bad way and had lost a lot of my desire to live. Cutting a creative artist off from his work is like slashing a main artery.

Upon my return to Australia in 2006, I was honoured when Richard Wolstencroft asked me to be President of the Jury at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival. It was indeed a Festival for the Outsiders. The mavericks. People who’d made their movies on their own terms without wilting to the cocktail set of decision makers in the industry. It’s the people on the sidelines who kill your boldness. Once you lose your identity and begin making movies for your peers, your voice is lost. And tell me, honestly, how many experts do we have in this country who’ve ever made a hit film? If they could do it they wouldn’t be sitting behind desks being paid a weekly wage to be an industry expert. They’d be out making more hit films wouldn’t they?

Over the past 6 years I’ve spent a lot of time talking and helping young filmmakers and I couldn’t be more proud of them. They don’t carry any of the jealous resentment of the closed shop I broke into when I started out. What our industry is paying for now is the fact that the old brigade didn’t encourage the next generation. The fat cats just got fatter and as a result our product got thinner. Shame on them. Fortunately most of them are dead now, or retired, or living in large villas in France from the fortunes they accumulated from making shitty films that didn’t get sold anywhere. In most cases not even in their our own country.

Oh, and among the healthy signs for the future? Today’s young filmmakers don’t think “genre” films are a dirty word. To place any style over another is a meaningless and snobbish attitude. The real art comes not in the genre but in how bold and inspired you can be working within those restrictions. So, I salute all the brave, new, original outsiders who are finding their own voice and way in the current film industry. I salute their talent, their guts and lead the applause in their honour. They inspire me to be better.

 (c) 2013 Frank Howson.

 

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