Tuesday, August 16, 2011
The Cisco Kid
[This essay was first published in Slake, Issue No.1 ("Still Life"), 2010 .... http://shop.slake.la/products/single-issue ]
THE CISCO KID by Luke Davies
“How’s the ol’ universe?”
I am eight years old. I’m given a book of children’s poetry. I hurry past the poems. It’s the photos that I study, that I want to enter. There’s a girl stamping in a puddle, and I feel a terrific yearning for her, so terrific as to be painful. It’s that preadolescent anticipation of falling in love, and it’s the foreknowledge of the mysteries of sex. In that single image, in that barefooted girl stomping so joyfully in a puddle, there lies the possibility of eternal contentment, possession, surrender, sublimation.
But what else about that photo? It’s not the girl; it’s not the foreground that matters so much. It’s the house behind her that draws my attention, a house distinctly and completely American, the likes of which I’ve never seen in my own quiet neighborhood. It’s a two-storey gabled house with a deep front porch. The vernacular of American suburban architecture works as a great entrancing, hypnotic force in my life. I obsess for hours about all the perfection of form in my mother’s House and Gardens.
An inconceivable mystery: from where I stood as a youngster, the people all around me appeared to be more or less satisfied with the notion that they were living in Australia. They seemed, in fact, to embrace the idea! For me, Australia was a pale simulacrum of what reality should surely have been offering. The thought never crossed my mind that a physical continent — a country, flesh and stone, citizens and states, events taking place with, or more extraordinarily, without me present — could in any way be disentangled from the imagination. It was all one world. It was all one country, and it was called America: this place I was living in, in every way except the physical. The way to this land, this America, was television.
I wasn’t insane, not at all. I didn’t think I lived inside television shows. But television stood for that which was even more real than that which was. Television showed the way. It was a design for living. It was an aid to the imagination. It was the bridge of metaphor, or the metaphor of the bridge. It led me to the promised land.
I could understand, at thirteen, understand in some abstract intellectual fashion, that something altogether BBC-ish like Doctor Who was a show worth following; these episodes were smart. They contained story, in a way that Gilligan’s Island didn’t, not really: Gilligan’s Island was situation. Yet I couldn’t stomach Doctor Who, whereas Gilligan’s Island was like a nightly religious ritual. The Doctor Who sets were so cheap; sometimes you saw them shake. My imagination was no help here. I never wanted to be reminded of the stage machinery. Americans had budget! There was no stage machinery in America. It was the reality beyond artifice. The Brady Bunch, or better still The Partridge Family: now those interiors looked real, and solid. You could live somewhere like that and be happy.
“Real” life in Australia was messier. I felt I was on the wrong planet. Ceilings got moldy, and cupboard doors came loose. Something essential and perfect was missing from life. But the puddle girl: surely back in that house behind her, there would be a kitchen filled with all the wonders of the world: all the products in the advertisements in the American magazines. What on earth was a Hershey Bar?
Its unattainability was like a heavy weight on my soul.
“I’m a simple cat. I like that simple stuff, man.”
I’m twelve, thirteen. I’ve lost interest now in Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space. I’ve come to recognize their locales as sets. I’ve become more spatially aware. Now, I need shows shot largely on location. Thus, re-runs of Room 222 or a new show called Chico and the Man are mostly only good for the opening credits. I watch The Streets of San Francisco. It’s a bipolar viewing experience: whenever the action is inside, on a set, my attention wanders; outside, when the show is on location, I’m all eyes, devouring backgrounds, cars, shopfronts, extras. Where might I live? How will my life turn out? America becomes a slant of light.
I’m allowed to take the train to the cinema on Saturdays. With film, everything is different. With film, you can spend ninety minutes sinking into the “real” America as you might sink into a warm bath. I see Jaws, Macon County Line, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Now everything coalesces at once. I discover masturbation. I leapfrog from Steinbeck to On the Road. I seem to literally make a decision to become obsessed with drugs; and then I do. And a certain kind of drifting, American B-movie becomes my bible. For a while Billy Jack seems like the most important film ever made. Little Fauss and Big Halsy makes a kind of existential poetry of the motocross circuit in the Southwestern states. I decide I want to live in a trailer in Arizona after seeing Electraglide in Blue.
One summer holiday, I’m with my mother at a mall in Surfers Paradise on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and I scan the movies and I know from the poster alone that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More is the one we need to see. I’m intrigued by Kris Kristofferson for the first time. More and more I am coming to like rootlessness, Arizona, New Mexico.
On the one hand there’s this child still in me: I spend hours buried in the final volume, W-X-Y-Z-and-Atlas, of the old set of encyclopedias my father has picked up from a school fete. It’s a very American set, an American atlas: there are fifty beautiful, detailed double-page spreads for the fifty states, then about ten pages for the rest of the world. I continually invent the places where I will live. I invent entire networks of high schools, the team colors, team names. I work out obsessive methodologies of gathering quarterback statistics and game scores via a complex system of darts thrown at a target from three feet away. Every time I “move,” every time I create a new life (a different double page, a different state), the fantasy begins again. New notebooks get filled with statistics. It’s the OCD phase of my life: decisions within my imaginary world are made with obscure, rule-based alphabetical and numbering systems, and a 1970 pro football yearbook I find becomes, for many years, as talismanic as the I Ching.
When we travel north to the Gold Coast for those yearly family holidays, leaving Sydney behind us, the Pacific Ocean is always to the right. So I invert my world and imagine we are traveling south, from San Francisco, through Los Angeles (Brisbane) to warmer climes in San Diego (Surfers Paradise). The east coast of Australia replicates the west coast of America. The ocean remains on the right and, so long as I ignore the fact that we drive on the left-hand side of the road, a kind of plausibility is achieved.
On the other hand: there’s the continually frustrating fact that I long to be an adult and yet I have no control over the glacial speed of the passage of time. I’ve leapfrogged again, now from Kerouac to Faulkner, then on to poetry, and everything has changed, and yet nothing at all. I see myself as a poet from now on. I feel like an adult. I’m only thirteen. I want older friends. I desperately want to have sex.
The Partridge Family has long receded into the past. I discover Bob Dylan. Then, in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, there’s Kris Kristofferson again. I want to be handsome, and soulful, and laconic, like him. When girls take a mysterious liking to me or kiss me, or let me finger them, I don’t feel lucky or blessed for all that long; I don’t know how to take things in stride. Hovering behind my heightened yearning is the sense that this kissing or this fingering must surely only be some temporary malfunction in the workings of the universe, and that regular anguish will shortly resume. But if I were handsome and soulful and laconic like Kristofferson, then I would not be living in a world of malfunction. The future is waiting for me but not arriving fast enough.
Kristofferson is in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid because Peckinpah cast him after seeing him in Cisco Pike, the 1971 B.L. Norton film about a dealer/ex-rock star who gets out of prison and tries to go straight. Cisco Pike is a B-film, sitting square in the middle of the hippy-era outsider-versus-the-system movies that would wind up becoming the psychic sustenance of my adolescence. I don’t know what it is that I’m attracted to – it’s all instinct. Years later I will see the consistency of aesthetic in these B-movies – that pervasive atmosphere of a world waking all disillusioned and bewildered to a mean, sour hangover after the big party-gone-wrong that was, apparently, the sixties. Not that I would know, since in the sixties I was showered and pajama’ed by 6 p.m. every night.
Something clicks for me with Cisco Pike, and it seems to become, however gradually, the ur-film of my imagined America. “I miss everything / I’ll never be,” the Smashing Pumpkins will sing years later. And I fall in love, around 1977, with a Venice Beach that B.L. Norton shot seven years earlier, which no doubt no longer exists even as I fall. Venice is the sun-drenched America of all my nostalgia, all my lost dreams.
“You know where the groove is at.”
I’m hooked from the opening scenes, as Kristofferson ambles along the dilapidated Venice canals in the late sun, past slightly gone-to-seed houses that look like the kind of shared Sydney houses I often find myself scoring pot. They are the kind of weatherboard houses I’d been wanting to live in: no longer House and Garden, to be sure, no longer that surreal perfection of Leave It To Beaver, but still, even in Cisco Pike, it’s their Americanness that I want. The incidental background of films remains a dominant condition of my viewing them. But now my dreams are more sophisticated. I decide to be, if not handsome and soulful and laconic, then mysterious and aloof and slightly troubled. Hippy chicks like Cisco Pike’s Joy Bang and just-plain-mad but sexy Viva will surely bed me in rollicking threesomes. One day I will be mysterious, and aloof, and slightly troubled.
I want to live in a world where people speak like the characters in Cisco Pike.
“What have you brought me?” asks the man in the guitar shop. “A little coke from Cuzco?”
“I ain’t dealin’ no more, man,” answers Cisco, the first of a constant refrain.
“You mean you isn’t dealin’ no more,” the guitar shop man chides. It’s one of those films that takes its languid, minimalist time, and it lets whole songs play out as it rambles. “He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher,” sings Kristofferson. “He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned,” I’ve found a model for living.
Cisco lives with flakey girlfriend Sue (Karen Black) in a small, bright apartment across the road from the beach. When we first see her, she’s meditating on a table, in the lotus position. Cisco enters, comes up from behind. “How’s the ol’ universe?” he says into her ear. She remains immobile. He squeezes her breasts and nuzzles her. “Ommm, ommm,” he teases, before segueing into “Ohmmm, ohmmm on the range, where the deer and the antelope play…..” She giggles. Sue believes in astral projection and levitation and yogis who can “make it for twenty-four hours straight.” When Dragon calls him, Cisco says, “I’m through. I quit dealing. Yeah, why don’t you try Buffalo? I think he’s got something. Dig you later, man.” This is the territory. To this day I still have no clear idea how tongue-in-cheek it is.
“Are you sorry you quit?” asks Sue.
“No withdrawal pains?”
“Not on your nellie,” says Cisco. “I’m gonna do this thing.”
Then we’re watching a police parade and funeral, and Officer Leo Holland (Gene Hackman) is among the mourners. Soon Holland steals a hundred kilos of marijuana from some Mexicans, and with threats and coercing and a promise of some help with an upcoming court case, forces Cisco back into business. Holland gives Cisco the weekend only in which to offload the hundred keys for $10,000. It seems an impossibly low price - $100 a kilo, wholesale - even for 1971. But what do I know? (Pajamas, six p.m.) Perhaps Holland is simply in a hurry.
Thus the LA travelogue begins. We’re with Cisco in his rental car, a guitar case filled with bricks of compressed pot in the back, from Venice to Los Feliz, from Hollywood to the Valley. Cisco presses Officer Holland as to why he’s doing this, but Holland is evasive. “You do things and, er … one day you wonder why you’re doing things,” he muses. Hackman is excellent and sharp in Cisco Pike: all bitterness and paranoia. Later, we learn the real reason for his going feral. His medical is coming up, and he knows the tachycardia he’s suffering from will have him stood down with less than two years to go before he qualifies for a full pension. Fuck the police, indeed.
There are moments of ludicrous dialogue, but the film’s overall effect is not entirely ludicrous. There are moments that are unintentionally funny; I forgive them utterly at fifteen years old, and still do. Doug Sahm (of the Sir Douglas Quintet) is bizarre but hilarious: “You know me though, man, you know, I’m a simple cat, man, I like that simple stuff, man, I mean, you know, you know where the groove is at, that California thing don’t get it, that far-out-in-space music, man, play the real thing, man. You know, man?”
Near everything is framed in clichés like this. Sahm’s manager wears a suit, says to Cisco, “I saw you guys at the Forum in, what was it, ’68?” “Shrine, 67,” deadpans Cisco. “Oh yeah,” says the manager. “Big grosser, that show. You haven’t done much since then, huh?” Viva (of Warhol’s Factory fame), playing a spaced-out pregnant groupie, asks, “Will you sell me a pound?” “Of what?” asks Cisco. “Anything you’ve got,” she says. “I’m not choosy.”
But landscape, this celluloid geography, trumps clichéd dialogue any day. I’ve already lived entire lives in houses glimpsed for a second in the background of The Streets of San Francisco, so not much in Cisco Pike fazes me. I imagined I might live in a city like Los Angeles, the utterly exotic and the utterly familiar yoked together, the endless ugly sprawl of strip malls and neon.
Every now and again I might need to get my head together, so I’d probably go off to New Mexico for a while. (Doug Sahm to Cisco: “I saw Moss. He said he ran into Jesse in Taos.” I’d need to live in a world where phrases like that flowed freely.) I know all about New Mexico from Whole Earth Catalogue and Domebook. I might build a dome one day. There’s a porn mag called Gallery, and I steal from the newsagent the Gallery Girl Next Door Annual, which is basically the pre-internet version of the “amateur” category, 200 pages of home snapshots sent in by hot, lusty American women (or their biker boyfriends, more likely). I might one day take my flaxen-tressed, hairy-bushed, cut-off-Levi’d girlfriend and head off to New Mexico to raise kids, grow pot and live free. I am clueless, and near-divine.
“I’m lucky like that.”
“You been using?” Cisco asks his old friend and band member Jesse (Harry Dean Stanton), who has turned up unannounced and who doesn’t look so great. “A little speed for the drive down here,” admits Jesse. “Then I took an upper — no, I took a downer for the up. But I’m ready now, buddy, I’m ready now.” They hit the town — Jesse will accompany Cisco in his attempts to offload the bricks. Jesse has a shot of speed before they take off, and Stanton plays to a tee all the slightly-too-loud and slightly-too-fast, loopily extrapolating on the insurance money he has coming to him as a result of a car accident. “$10,000, just like that,” he says. “I’m lucky like that!”
But Jesse frets about his looks. If they get the band back together, what will the crowd make of his wrinkles? “Aw, Jesse, man,” says Cisco. “It ain’t your goddamned body they’re after, man. It’s your soul.” Jesse has just come from a failure-to-perform in the back seat of a car with groupie Joy Bang after meeting her at a gig at the Troubadour (“Goddamned speed, man,” he says, “that’s why Virginia left”). The ravages of time are weighing heavily on his mind. He will die of a heroin overdose before the movie’s end. Jesse makes me sad at sixteen, perhaps because at some unconscious level I know certain ravages await me, or perhaps because the center of the film, the great art of it, is Kristofferson’s immortality. Like Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Kristofferson attains — is granted by the gods — a moment of near-incandescent celluloid beauty. That moment is Cisco Pike.
Kristofferson is seventy-three now, and I am forty-eight, though very quickly this information too will be obsolete. For a long while, time stands still. In my twenties, completely beholden to heroin by this time, I watch the American football on TV — you can only see one game once a week at this time in Australia, on a free-to-air station, around eleven or midnight — and I still wonder if my fantasy might ever come true, that I might be the first Australian-born quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory.
I imagine a world in which it would be possible to be a quarterback who was also a good poet.
“I’m ready now, buddy, I’m ready now.”
When I finally make it to America, of course, at thirty-five, everything is both utterly familiar and utterly foreign. It’s exciting just being in a supermarket, in the corniest way, to get to touch the packaging at last. And there’s that moment of anticlimax too: the realization that all those cereal boxes, all the shiny mass of commerce and consumerism, telling their stories of a perfect America, that these too are just the stage machinery after all. After all that bother! (As when, at the end of The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard is unmasked.) And that you are always only wherever you are. And thus that some of Australia has been lost forever, frozen in those times when your head was in America.
In Los Angeles, the lostness of America becomes most readily apparent. The signifier is omnipresent but what it signifies is no longer so evident. The visual detritus of pure consumerism overwhelms the senses. The sameness stretches fractally, everything repeating to scale, to boundaries that are never quite clear; eventually, suddenly, you are simply in Las Vegas, pure money with no product, nothing manufactured there but yearning.
And yet, back west, here is Los Angeles, and here is the ocean. The same ocean that was to my east is now to my west. Not just time, which Einstein told us moves in curves, connects me there to here, but this endless ocean too. It’s been forever since that time when I lived so comprehensively in two-worlds-as-one. Was there a vacuum between me and my life, in which my real life lay unused? Possibly. It was the only life I knew.
One of the movie's posters announces: “Cisco Pike is a man of the west — west LA!” It seems inadvertently funny now, like the tagline for a remake of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but perhaps it meant something quite different forty years ago, when Venice was frontier as well as end of the road. In Cisco Pike there’s nowhere farther west to go for Cisco; at the end he’s heading east, out into the open space of the desert. I know that axis now: last year for two months I finally made it to New Mexico, looking after a cabin 9,000 feet up in the snows of the Sangre de Christo Mountains outside of Taos. There was no sense any more that life was awaiting me elsewhere. All that was long-gone.
Not everything moves in circles, but all the ellipses and curves are uncanny. And the funny thing? There’s still something dreamy and sun-drenched about Venice, something as trippy and marginal now as what you glimpse as background, as setting, as visual circumstance, in Cisco Pike. “Algiers,” wrote Camus, and he might just as much have been talking about Venice or my beloved Bondi Beach, “opens to the sky like a mouth or a wound. In Algiers one loves the commonplace: the sea at the end of every street, a certain volume of sunlight.”
I miss everything I’ll never be: that is the purest form of nostalgia, the benediction and burden of the commonplace. Cisco Pike as a dream of light. I haven’t lived in Venice yet. I live in Hollywood for now, possibly because I want to experience shallowness at depth, possibly because I want to live for a while in the last remaining nineteenth-century gold town on the planet. It will do. I can always take day trips to Venice.