I want to be Jon Raymond

January 4, 2009

Jon Raymond

Jon Raymond

I just opened the HOW WE LIVE section of Oregon’s daily newspaper The Oregonian (known to many of us as the “Boregonian”) to find a feature story written by journalist Jeff Baker about a Portland writer named Jon Raymond who, according to Baker, “With the help of his friends. . .sees the subtlety and emotional compression of his work realized in Oregon films.”

I’d be hard pressed to figure out exactly what that sentence is trying to say about Raymond’s work or about the state of Oregon, but I guess what really matters is he made a film set in Portland with his friends who just happen to include Todd Haynes: award-winning film director of Poison, The Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There; Kelly Reichardt: director, screenwriter and winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for her debut film River of Grass; and Michelle Williams: actress in the teen soap Dawson’s Creek who went on to costar and fall in love with Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain; Williams won a Golden Globe plus an Oscar nomination for her portrait of a cowboy’s wife confronting the fact that her husband is gay.

When you throw all these personalities into a pot of Portland soup and stir, out pops a new film called Wendy and Lucy based on Raymond’s story Train Choir, from his short story collection Livability. The film is directed by Reichardt and stars Williams as Wendy alongside Reichardt’s dog Lucy, who plays herself.

According to the International Movie Database (IMDB) the film examines:

wendy-lucy1“A woman’s life, derailed en route to a potentially lucrative summer job. When her car breaks down, and her dog is taken to the pound, the thin fabric of her financial situation comes apart, and she is led through a series of increasingly dire economic decisions.”

It is indie, it is hip, it sounds rather depressing (which is also hip) and takes place in and around the not-so-beautiful parts of Portland like the grimy, gray Walgreen’s Drugstore on North Lombard where much of the action takes place.

Lombard is a street that belongs in a city like Cleveland or Detroit, not the green, urban, cycling, hiking capital of the Pacific Northwest. Lombard is a four-lane major bus line that is a mix of gas stations, pawn shops, supermarkets, The Salvation Army Thrift Store, Master Muffler & Brakes plus homey little storefronts like The Orleans Candle Shop and Pastry Cat run by shopkeepers determined to personalize a street known for fast food joints and used car lots.

I haven’t seen the film, and although I love Williams as an actress, I’ll probably avoid it. Not because it isn’t good, it’s probably great, but because the thought of watching one hour and 20 minutes worth of Walgreens on Lombard with a dark-haired Williams wearing a blunt choppy haircut and a dog on the way to animal control seems like a prescription for Prozac. One reviewer happily noted that Williams only cracked a smile three times during the entire film. Frankly, I think I’d rather stay home and watch America’s Next Top Model as there is never any chance that the cheesy uber-model Tyra Bank’s ratings winner “Who Will Be America’s Next Top Model?” will ever, even remotely resemble my own life.

If I want to see Wendy and Lucy all I have to do is walk down Lombard to Walgreens with my pit-mix Ramona and stand outside the sliding doors and watch people come in and come out, clutching white plastic Walgreens’ bags as they face the depressing strip mall of a street.

I suppose I should find it moving that something ugly could be made beautiful through the proper viewfinder. That Raymond and his friends have discovered a way to illustrate the humanity in a big box store and a girl with three smiles. I wish I still had the desire to find that secret drop of truth buried in difficulty. Instead I prefer to take a nap or read a murder mystery, anything to block out the ordinariness of every day life.

Maybe I’ll be inspired again, but for now I’m just glad that someone like Jon Raymond is out there finding and uncovering those tiny flashes of grace that turn even the most mundane of moments into something divine.

Jon lives right down the block from me near Lombard Street. He is part of the NoPo ‘hood and I stare at his picture in The Oregonian trying to remember if I’ve ever seen him before. In the photo he is dressed in a forest green parka, hands in the pockets of his blue jeans leaning up against the trunk of a large tree; his short brown hair floats feather-like around his pale face which has neither a smile nor a frown. He just looks. . .for lack of a better word. . .nice. The kind of guy you’d find at Walgreens who would let you go first in line if you had less stuff then he did.

This is the guy, who with a small but very select group of friends, made a movie from one of his stories and now has his very own Wikipedia page. He is the guy that is nice and comfortable enough with himself that he doesn’t have to plaster on a giant smile for the camera. He is the kind of guy I want to be.

He is the guy who, with yet another group of cool artsy friends, was part of a plazm1 collective of Portland designers and writers who created and contributed to Plazm, a magazine documenting creative culture by creative people. As part of his work on Plazm, Raymond found himself running around Bagby Hot Springs with world-famous filmmaker Todd Haynes who was dressed in a Bigfoot suit for a spread in the magazine.

Haynes hired Raymond to be his assistant on Far From Heaven and in turn Haynes became a fan of Raymond’s writing which led to an introduction to Reichardt and Williams from which a creative collaboration was born.

It seems, according to Oregonian journalist Jeff Baker, that Raymond’s work and life are based on the theme of friendship. Baker writes that Raymond “mentions it repeatedly, praising his friends for their achievements and saying how lucky he is to know them. They return the favor. Haynes calls him a ‘close personal friend and creative touchstone’ and Reichardt said that she ‘can’t imagine making a film without Jon.'”

I stare at Raymond’s picture again and think of all the hours and days over all the years that I’ve wished for a creative partner, an artistic community, a mentor, a moment when everyone and everything comes together at the same time to blossom into a completed screenplay, a finished documentary, a self-published magazine or an award-winning book of essays.

I look at his face, mild and well-mannered in b&w newsprint and wonder how he has found these wonderful friends, these people who have helped him, as he has helped them, to take an idea from conception to birth and watch it grow up to a height where other people can share in his creations, comment on his books, watch his films and archive a copy of Plazm complete with Todd Haynes as Bigfoot, a collector’s item to be sure.

Lana Turner at the Lunch Counter

Lana Turner at Lunch Counter

Is it luck? Hard work? Talent? Or just being at the right place at the right time? Like the story of Lana Turner being discovered at the lunch counter at Schwab’s Pharmacy in Los Angeles. What made her go out of the house that day at that exact time to that exact lunch counter? If she’d overslept and stayed at home would another starlet have been discovered instead or would the agent have found her the next day or the next at a dry cleaners on Sunset Boulevard or working as a hat check girl at the Brown Derby?

I’ve spent my life collecting experiences and degrees in theater, drawing, printmaking, photography, design, filmmaking, television and writing. And although I have loved the first read-throughs, the messy black inks, the collection of lenses, the scripts and finally the carefully filed stories to be sent out upon request, I still have yet to be at the right place at that right time or, perhaps, to notice it when I am there.

When I grow up I want to be Jon Raymond. I want to work with people who turn their ideas into celluloid, print and paper and who want to help me do the same. I want to meet Michelle Williams, play Bigfoot with Todd Haynes and have Kelly Reichardt vow to never make a film without me.

In the meantime, I’ll be hanging at Walgreens with Ramona holding up a cardboard sign that says “Will Work For Jon Raymond,” hoping to catch a glimpse of Jon and his friends. And maybe, just maybe he’ll let me be hang with him on the sidewalk or at least let me go first in line, because I think that Jon Raymond is just that kind of guy.


To Everyone on New Year’s Day,

Yesterday I found something beautiful. Discovering it was like finding the perfect sand dollar washed up on the shore, bathed by the sea just waiting to be held carefully in your hand as you run back up the beach to the place you are staying at the edge of the ocean. You take the polished sand dollar home and place it gently on your desk so you can look up from your work from time to time and be reminded that something divine can happen if you open your eyes and your heart.

My something divine, my found object, my thing of beauty is a blog entry by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coehlo. He says the most complicated things in the simplest of ways and rolls out his prose without too many words or metaphors, periods or adjectives to give us a love story for the new year.

Here is his gift that I share with you.

“I have just had dinner, now I am having some coffee and contemplating the painting in front of me: it was put in a river and left there for a year, waiting for nature to give the final touch to the painter’s work.

Half of the painting was carried off by the waters and bad weather, so the edges are all uneven, but even so I can still see part of the beautiful red rose painted on a golden background. I know the artist. I remember 2003, when together we went to a forest in the Pyrenees, discovered the creek – which at that moment was dry – and hid the canvas underneath the stones that covered the river bed.

I know the artist, Christina Oiticica. At this very moment she is physically at a distance of 8,000 kilometers, and at the same time she is in everything around me. That makes me happy: even after 29 years of marriage, the love is more intense than ever before. Never did I imagine that this would happen: I had been in three relationships that did not work out right and was convinced that eternal love did not exist until she came along – on a Christmas afternoon, like a present sent by a angel. We went to the movies. We made love that same day. I thought to myself: “this won’t last long”. For the first two years I was always expecting one of us to give up the relationship. For the following five years I went on thinking that it was just an arrangement, that in a short while each of us would go our own way. I had convinced myself that any commitment of a more serious nature would deprive me of my “freedom” and stop me experiencing all that I wanted.

Twenty-nine years on, I am still free – because I discovered that love never enslaves us. I am free to turn my head and watch her sleeping at my side – that is the photo I have on my mobile phone. I am free for us to go out, enjoy a stroll, go on talking, discussing – and occasionally arguing, as always. I am free to love as I have never loved before, and that makes a great difference in my life.

Let’s go back to the painting and the river: it was the summer of 2002, I was already a well-known writer, I had money, I felt that my basic values had not changed, but how could I be absolutely certain? By testing. We rented a small room in a two-star hotel in France, where we began to spend five months each year. The wardrobe could not get any bigger, so we had to limit our clothes. We wandered through the forests, dined out, spent hours in conversation and went to the movies every day. The simplicity of it all confirmed for us that the most sophisticated things in the world are precisely those that are within everyone’s reach. All that I needed for my work was a portable computer. But it so happens that my wife is … a painter.

And painters need gigantic studios to produce and keep their work. By no means did I want her to sacrifice her vocation for me, so I proposed renting a place. However, looking around, seeing the mountains, the valleys, the rivers and the lakes, the forests, she thought: why don’t I work here? And why not let nature work with me?

And thus was born the idea of “storing” the canvases in the open air. I carried my laptop and went on writing. She knelt on the grass and painted. A year later, when we removed the first paintings, the result was original, magnificent.

We lived in that small hotel for two unforgettable years. She continued to bury her canvases, no longer out of necessity but because she had discovered a new technique. The Amazon, Mumbai, the Way to Santiago, Lubijana, Miami. Today she is far away, but tomorrow or next week she will be close again, sleeping at my side. Content, because her work is beginning to be recognized all over the world.

At this moment I see only the rose. And I thank the angel that gave me two presents on that Christmas of 1979: the ability to open up my own heart, and the right person to receive it.

A happy 2009 to all.”

Written by Paulo Coehlo

The original can be found on Paulo Coehlo’s website posted at http://paulocoehloblog.com/

Bijou recommends Sag Harbor

December 26, 2008

Read an excerpt from Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead in the New Yorker.  Set in 1985, it is the story of a group of young black teenage boys who spend each summer together at the beach in the tony village of Sag Harbor, NY in the Hamptons .  They play, they fight and challenge each other as they try to figure out where they fit in a world where private schools filled with white kids, a Harvard MBA and summer houses at the shore are what they’ve been raised to inherit.  In the background Run-D.M.C and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”  rap for their attention as they struggle to figure out where “Black boys with beach houses” really belong.

The Deeply and Talented Colson Whitehead

The Deeply and Talented Colson Whitehead

Whitehead probably knows of what he writes given his bio – from Harvard undergrad to a writer for the Village Voice to acclaimed author and short story contributor to The New Yorker – and is gorgeous to boot.  Beautiful man, beautiful stories.

Favorite excerpts:

 “First, you had to settle the question of out.  When did you get out?  Asking this was like showing off, even though anyone you could ask had already received the same gift: the same sun wrapped in shiny paper, the same soft benevolent sky, the same gravel road that sooner or later would skin you, pure joy in the town of Sag Harbor.  Still, it was hard not to believe that it all belonged to you more than to anyone else, that it had been made for you, had been waiting for years for you to come along.” 

[I love the way he sets you up to think we are talking about prison because of course, as a white lady reading the story, I’m going to assume – which I did – that these kids were doing time.  As the story continues Whitehead drops hints of a future where one boy dies and another ends up in a wheelchair, victims of their blackness and their blood.]

“My mother said, “We’re making good time.”  The L.I.E. had stopped slicing towns in half and now cut through untamed Nassau County greenery, always a good sign.  I tried to claw my way back into sleep until we’d ditched Route 27 and cruise control and weaved down Scuttlehole Road, zipping past the white fencing and rusting wire that held back the bulging acres at the side of the road.  I smelled the sweetly muddy fumes of the potato fields and pictured the cornstalks in their long regiments.  My mother said, “That sweet Long Island corn,” as she always did.  She’d been coming out since she was a kid, her father part of the first wave of black folks from the city to start spending summers in Sag Harbor.”

And finally. . .

“It was only a matter of time before we started posing for album covers.  Not one from innocent ’85, but one from a few years later, after the music had changed from this:

Rhymes so def/Rhymes rhymes galore/Rhymes that you’ve never even heard before/ Now if you say you heard my rhyme/We gonna have to fight/’Cause I just made the motherfuckers up last night

to this:

“Hey yo, Cube, there go that mother-fucker right there.”/”No shit.  Watch this. . .Hey, what’s up, man?”/Not too much.”/”You know you won, G.”/Won what?”/”The wet T-shirt contest, motherfucker!”

Lyrics from the aforementioned “Here We Go” and “Now I Gotta Wet ‘Cha,” copyright 1992, by Ice Cube, born the same year as me, who grew up on Run-D.M.C. just like we all did.  “Wet ‘cha,” as in “wet your shirt with blood.”  Something happened in those nine years.  Something happened that changed the terms, and we went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this earth).  How we got from here to there is a key passage in the history of young black men that no on cares to write.”

[And there he leaves us!  Aching for more dialogue, waiting and hoping to find out the truth from a man who is black who has lived his blackness who may finally break the silence and explain for us white folks in the world, “why do you keep killing each other?”  “Why do you hate each other so?”  “Is it our fault?”  The ultimate fear of white people everywhere.  “Is it because we segregated you to a corner of our cities and named your ‘hood a “ghetto” like the ghettos where they kept the Jews who were waiting for trains to prison camps and death by gas or gun?”  “Have we treated you the same way and when will it come back to get us?”  “Why do you shoot at each other instead of us?”  I wait for Colson to finally throw me the answer, a lifeline to years of embarrasment and denial, but the paragraph ends.  He gives me nothing, which my white guilt says is exactly what I deserve. ] 

Bijou signing off.  Bises!