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Michael Ventura
An Appreciation

by Pat Hartman

Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics #14 (Fall 1991)
Quotations from Ventura are green and bold

The major reward of being an editor is the chance to stand up in public and say nice things about my very own personal heroes. Michael Ventura is one of these Out of the myriad cultural attractions of Southern California, when I lived there, Ventura's writing was at the top of my list from the moment I first read one of his film reviews. What follows is an unabashedly worshipful assessment of the work of one of the finest minds I've encountered in print. If I were as good a writer - as good a thinker - I'd feel that my time on earth hadn't been wasted. He's right up there in my pantheon with Colin Wilson, Tom Robbins, Don DeLillo, and others whose sheer brain power and unrelenting refusal to accept surfaces always amaze me.

I'm indebted to Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc. for supplying a copy of Ventura's nonfiction collection, Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A.; to Judas Priest, for sending clippings, and to the subject himself for answering questions.

There was a temptation to title this piece "The Living Legend of Michael Ventura," but the allusion would be wasted on anyone who hasn't read his novel, Night Time Losing Time, which turns out to be a lot of people.

Why is this book out of print? The usual reason: publishing companies can't afford to keep books in stock because they're taxed and retaxed every year as inventory, and so have to be shredded instead.

Speaking of which, the only serious quarrel I have with Ventura is that he seems to believe that paying more taxes is the answer to our totally buggered education system. This is believed by many (otherwise sane) people. Others point out that if the last hundred billion dollars we've poured into that well haven't helped to raise the water level, chances are the next hundred billion won't either.

Personal disagreements aside, it is undeniable that Ventura is politically aware to an extent that few can equal.

In the autumn of 1974, I was passing through Austin, just drifting. Saw the Austin Sun, decided that for the first time I'd try my hand at writing professionally - up till then I'd written only poetry and one long unpublished essay about politics. I showed the editor, Jeff Nightbyrd, the essay. He never asked me for credentials, degrees, what-all --- just opened the essay in three places, read the three pages, decided I could write.

Ventura points out, for instance, that America got along fine without a president for eight years, and that Washington was chosen by the elite Constitutional Convention whose members were all men.

In assessing Walter Mondale, he defined the attraction of the presidential candidate as similar to that of an evangelist. 'America is good,' is the psychic message he broadcasts. "You have strayed, but it's not too late. Elect me and be GOOD again.' In a more recent political analysis, this time of the gulf war: The national psyche is bursting with shame at failure, shame at shoddiness, shame at collapse.

If we can't be happy or good, perhaps we can be, in the street sense, "bad."

Compared to the tripe that passes for genius (the current batch of alienated-youth books comes to mind) Ventura's body of work is definitely living-legend material. When history assesses the writers of the 20th century and pronounces Ventura among the foremost, I'll be there in the footnotes, as one of the first to have said so.

This is not to imply he's totally unrecognized. The cover of Night Time Losing Time is embellished with endorsements from Norman Mailer, James Hillman and Hubert Selby, Jr.

Salon: Who else thinks you're wonderful?
Ventura: It's not a word I associate with myself, though I imagine my editor at the Weekly, Kit Rachlis, thinks I'm wonderful because I'm the only writer he's got who, when his cover story AND his back-up cover story fall through, can come up with a printable cover-piece in less than 24 hours.

This is the L.A.Weekly, for which Ventura has written since its inception in 1978. During the first five years he reviewed hundreds of films. Then came the feature-length column, "Letters at 3 AM." The title refers to the time of day it is in the world. Citing Dr. Helen Caldicott's warning that it's ten minutes to midnight, he maintains that we're already into the new day, albeit the darkest, scariest part of it. In Whole Earth Review he wrote that we are living in an "age of endarkenment." What each of us must do is cleave to what we find most beautiful in the human heritage - and pass it on. The implied metaphor here links us with the monks of the Middle Ages: when the endarkenment eventually ends, ...those precious things we've passed on will still be alive.

There is a common and very well-grounded belief that no one should set himself up as a critic of an art form he hasn't tried himself. Ventura has earned the authority to talk about movies, having written some twenty screenplays and had three films produced. Roadie (1980), on which he shared writing credit with Big Boy Medlin (...we had a real good time....) is a very funny movie with a great sound track, which start Meat Loaf, Debbie Harry, Art Carney, Roy Orbison, and other luminaries. Disguised beneath all the foolishness, it has a profound theme: "Everything works if you let it." And the original script, according to an inside source, was way better than the movie.

Echo Park (1985) is a film which manages to be both amusing and meaningful, about people who are striving to make their dreams reality, something that happens everywhere but particularly in L.A. The pizza guy is really a writer, the strip-o-gram lady is really an actress - as one character says, "I love it that everybody is really something else." Identity is a theme that runs deep in this story. "I thought you were somebody else," says the female lead. Replies the male lead, "Even I think I'm somebody else sometimes."

As a film critic, Ventura educates and explicates rather than merely handing down opinions. Discussing pioneer director D. W. Griffith, he reminds us that though we now take the filmic technique of cross-cutting for granted, the audiences of Griffith's day were simply baffled by it. He praises Oliver Stone for The Doors because he structures it not like a play but like music. Seeing The Doors, you are finally really at the movies, having an experience you can only have by watching a moving picture on a huge screen in a dark room beside a lot of strangers. Never afraid to deal in ultimates, Ventura describes elsewhere the experience of tuning in to Dylan: ...you're in the right place at the right time, getting something you can't get anywhere else.

To me, the function of a critic is to call our attention to the good. Others see this as somehow improper. The L. A. Weekly has a rival, the Reader, which once employed a columnist who specialized in vituperative attacks on women, blacks, and gays. This writer - let's call him Mr. Malice - in one article stooped to ad hominem argument to slam Ventura, accusing him of having "the greasiest ponytail this side of Jerry Garcia." He went on to say that in ten years, Ventura would probably be a go-fer for John Cassavettes.

If it would have helped John Cassavettes live another ten years, I would have been proud to be his go-fer.

Cassavettes is undoubtedly one of Ventura's heroes, and again he explains why: because the director discarded a cinema vocabulary invented for the telling of epics and melodramas, and invented all on his own a cinema vocabulary suited to intimacies, privacies.

Salon: How did the 1984 documentary, I'm Almost Not Crazy, come about?
Ventura: I'd written several long pieces, including at least one cover story, on Cassavettes before we met in '81. Then I interviewed him for the paper as Mazursky's film Tempest came out. In the winter of '83 he called and said he was going to shoot a new film, Love Streams, and if he could get me a little eating money would I like to hang around on the set and write a book about the shooting of the film. That's what I was doing when Golan, the producer, told Cassavettes he wanted to bring a crew in to film him, do a documentary. I was in the room at the time - this was in the bar at Cassavettes's house late one night during shooting. Cassavettes didn't want a documentary made - just because of the confusion of "kids running around with cameras." Golan pleaded with him. Cassavettes suddenly looked at me and said, "Okay, then why doesn'the do it.?" Golan, who'd never seen me before, simply turned to me, said, "Good, you do it," and told me where to go the next day to hire a cameraman and an editor. The editor, Daniel Wetherbee, saved my ass. I knew what I wanted to shoot day by day, but I didn't know how to put it together and he taught me.

Ventura on Cassavettes's Faces: The eye of this film is merciless in its search for truth, yet its heart is unequivocal in its mercy. The tension between these two qualities almost tears you apart. This is an example of what Mr. Malice called his "obscenely impassioned" reviewing style, which Malice and a group of cohorts claimed to have regularly got together to read aloud and "roll on the floor, convulsed with laughter at this poor schnook's insistence on imbuing even the worst piece of doo-doo with meaning.

Well, it takes greatness to recognize greatness in others. Even the most abjectly lousy can of celluloid might have a shining moment, and if Ventura or anyone else can see it and point it out, so much the better. Someone who can find good in everything might also find sermons in stones and books in running brooks, as Shakespeare expressed it. And what's wrong with that? Nothing that I can see. The ability to find something to praise, in just about anything, is a good indicator for sanity and happiness. I like critics who deal in positive reinforcement. Rewarding the good stuff is not only a technique for training a dog or raising a child, it's a splendid way to deal with the rest of the world, too.

And when Ventura favors something he doesn't hesitate to use superlatives, as in this line about Dylan: No other American artist has worked as consistently, as deeply, as intensely, or taken as many risks, over as long a span. Maybe one reason I dig Ventura's work so much is that we share many idols. I wish I'd said this about Dylan - He saw his real subject not as the world but as the soul, and he described the movements of his soul so accurately that we got the words though they kept no worldly logic. He changed music everywhere by facing what is changeless: the part of us that is not of this world.

Ye shall know the truth,
and it shall upset ye.

But Ventura doesn't only praise the good. When he is displeased with someone's work he gives them hell. In Shadow Dancing he flays Lawrence Kasdan, who has a lot to answer for. He has just written a script about white profiteers having a grand good time robbing the holy artifacts of ancient peoples, another that cheapened the ideas of mysticism and initiation into a fantasy of easy outs for the good guys, and he had written and directed one more in the long line of American mystery films that suggest that people capable of sexual intensity must therefore also be capable of cold-blooded murder. Next Kasdan made The Big Chill, which Ventura finds pitifully bogus, reflecting that the remarkable thing is that people are hungry enough for some resolution to the sixties to endure this film's lack of feeling, often more than once, in order to feel spoken to about this hole in their lives."

Continuing to explore the "Big Chill Factor," Ventura goes off on one of his trademark consciousness rants (rant is not a pejorative term, but seems to be used nowadays to mean any passionate utterance):
I'm looking for a maturity more alive, a maturity that's not afraid to be desperate, a maturity that isn't terrified of looking ridiculous. A maturity that's still willing to get dangerous if that's what it takes.

Relating his Woodstock experience, Ventura speaks of the sixties as a time of offering love where love had never been offered, never been thought of, never been considered a possibility. Summing up the lesson of the era: To proceed in the face of one's own nausea is kind of courage no one ever told us about, but it is the courage we needed and still need.

One of the things Ventura notes about the subjects of his profiles is who their heroes are. In an article on John Cassavettes: He loves every Roeg picture he's ever seen...He speaks glowingly of Roeg's technique, and how there's a man who really know what it's all about. Ventura's own take on the vision of Nicholas Roeg is that he sees daily life as a fragile though massive construct doomed to break at the seams under any intense scrutiny.

I got the big picture down pretty good, it's the little pictures I'm having trouble with these days.

There is a lovely symmetry in all this - every hero has his heroes; every critic has his critics. Ventura's reaction to those who, in turn, criticize him, is to politely consider their suggestions. In response to those who say, "You're always complaining; what's your solution?" he wrote "The solutions to all our problems (guaranteed)." This modest list of 34 simple items was published first in the.... L. A. Weekly, then in the Utne Reader, where the editor's introduction says Ventura "weaves psychological, spiritual, and political insight as masterfully as anyone we know." I couldn't have put it better myself.

And what are some of these suggestions? Indulge in secrets (which is not the same thing as lying); make mistakes; don't be a fanatic about anything. Don't worry so much about being fat, he counsels. Fat feels great in bed. You gotta love this guy!

Your enemies can oppress you just as much by forcing you to maintain fidelity to your own lies as by any other means.

Another recommendation is to at least once a month read a book you have picked out on a whim. Finally, Ventura points out that history is not a spectator sport. Stop looking for other people to supply the solution. You're the solution. If you're not, there is no solution.

...many of us don't connect our heart's ideals to what we do for financial security...Artists passionately critical of the government will live off NEA grants.

He believes in demonstrating, not so much in the sense of taking it to the streets with signs and chanting, but in the true sense of demonstrate - to show, to manifest, the word made flesh, to give an example of a better way to live by living that way, each day in each transaction, right there in front of God and everybody.

Ventura admires courage in art: While mainstream artists are begging the government for NEA grants, the graffiti painters of these streets have for years been risking jail terms and beatings to make their murals on the subways and other forbidden surfaces.

He endorses the estian concept of living the question rather than looking for answers. (According to Werner Erhard, if answers were what we needed, surely somewhere in the last few hundred answers we've thought up there would have been one or two that worked.)

The audience phenomenon is the Western mind-body split at its most virulent, its most destructive.

Ventura is a shaman of the spoken word, believing in and creating its magic. We know so little about these things. And one of the only ways we can test the little we know is to speak of it. He quotes Nicholas Roeg as saying something that every artist should have engraved on his heart: "You mustn't be afraid of the audience not understanding."

One of the things we must speak of, whether the audience understands or not, is synchronicity, ubiquitous meaning, connectedness. In his appreciation of Roeg's Don't Look Now, Ventura says, By elaborate and rhythmically perfect intercutting he was able to connect, say, the breaking of a glass in one place with the setting down of a glass in another with somebody stumbling in another, and convey that these were not separate disconnected events but were part of the same extended, connected event. This gets very mystical. In Roeg's Eureka, at one time or another all the major characters are intensely attuned to signals and signs that ignite several points of the field of existence at the same time. The theme of universal significance is apparent even in the comedy Echo Park. "It's only a commercial," says one character. Replies another, "There's no such word as only."

Like any born critic, Ventura has something to say about almost everything. Video games, for instance, he labels as the ultimate no-win situation. They are deplorable in that respect, and because they train the young to regard pedestrians and Iraqis as as just so many blips to be eliminated from the screen. A related caveat concerns the amazing things that computers can to with photos. When any photograph can be processed this way, then all photographs become suspect. It not only becomes easier to lie, it becomes far harder to tell the truth." Nevertheless, Ventura refuses to take the role of all-out technophobe. Technology is a product of the human psyche, which is also a natural force, and an immensely powerful one. In this sense the computer chip is as organic a work of nature as a leaf. To those who wax nostalgic for the old days, he says If tribal life had been enough, it would have stayed enough.

A man should be able to do one complex thing very well, and one humble thing.

Ventura's work is not autobiographical in the sense of bringing in a lot of facts about his life, although for honesty concerning emotional reality he has few equals. He has been an actor, and picked up enough piano to play for his own enjoyment, and put in some years road-roving and commune-hopping. He demonstrates great loyalty to those who have become close comrades.

Salon: Your novel Night Time Losing Time is dedicated to Jeff Nightbyrd. Who is he?
Ventura: Under the name of Jeff Shero he was one of the most important SDS organizers of the sixties. Then he started Rat in New York, one of the crucial publications in the history of the alternative newspaper movement. Changed his name to Nightbyrd just because he felt like it, went to Austin, started the Austin Sun, an alternative paper. When the Sun went out of business he went to L. A. where his old friend Jay Levin was starting a paper. On Jeff's suggestion, Jay hired me. Jeff's now working for the Austin Chronicle. He's a superb editor, and even after we stopped working together he helped a lot with Shadow Dancing and the novel. And he's a great friend.

For those of us who came of age in the sixties with the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, it's usually one of the first two that dominates. For Ventura, the driving force is clearly rock'n'roll. The man has the music like a fever in the blood. (In his novel, the character Jesse suffered inexplicable, near-fatal fevers in childhood, a metaphor for the other fever.) In October of 1985 his choices appeared in the "L.A. Ears" column of the L. A. Weekly - "a random sampling of what some Angelenos are putting on their turntables these days." Ventura's current faves included the Kronos Quartet, Butch Hancock, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bo Diddley, and Lester Bowie.

Ventura is highly suspicious of music critics who won't dance, and claims that the average white man "moves like a constipated aardvark." In Shadow Dancing, he discusses the importance of rock'n'roll to our culture: it initiated the era of being able to move any way you want to, and wonders why this has attracted so little comment. If our anthropologists had discovered the same sort of change in a non-Western culture, many books would have been written about it by now.

He goes on to lament the fact that young musicians now learn from a product, not a living ground. In the longest chapter of Shadow Dancing, the linguistic connotations of rock'n'roll are explored and the role of rhythm in "primitive" societies defined: These people built their cathedrals and wrote their scripture within their bodies, by means of a system that could be passed from one generation to the next.

The chapter includes a profile of the powerful and mysterious Marie Laveau and a quite scholarly treatment of voodoo in general, comparing improvisation in jazz to possession by gods in voodoo ceremony.

Ventura's love of music even extends to sympathy with rap, and he can make an unbeliever at least intellectually understand the appeal - to see it as a community experience of people joining together in a blast of the energy that lets them survive.

However outstanding Ventura's handling of other subjects may be, it is in writing about relationships that he truly shines. One of the most baffling, infuriating, and rewarding experiences an adult can have is relating to the child of one's mate. More and more non-biological parents join the ranks every day, but for such a widespread phenomenon, it is explored surprisingly little in the arts. In Echo Park, the male lead slowly builds a relationship of trust with his roommate's little boy, by such means as giving him a more grownup nickname. In Shadow Dancing, Ventura devotes quite a lot of space to exploring the complicated dynamic of interactions between himself, his wife Jan, and her son Brendan. And in Night Time Losing Time, the relationship between Jesse and his (biological) son is a minor but important theme.

Male-female relationships undergo intense scrutiny. Partnership can be explained in such simple terms as a sports metaphor, a willingness to back the other's play. One essay in Shadow Dancing contains reflections on the "dynamically sane" marriage, along with speculation about some of the more arcane, subtle causes of divorce, summed up with, These forces can remain unknown, but they are never unfelt.

Chiefly, Ventura writes with astonishing power and beauty about sex. Even in the lightheartedEcho Park, one of the characters explains his theory of the body's holiness; Masturbation is actually an act of meditation. The essay "Notes on Three Erections" is a matchless psychological expose'. But we really get down to the basics in the novel. Ventura knows that transcendent sex isn't about pretty and nice, it's about sweat and tears and blood and other things too. He knows that righteous sex isn't something that only happens among the young and beautiful, and he makes you know it for what it is: another door to the infinite.

You never know who the craziest person in the room really is.

Night Time Losing Time is about some wild people, who play music that comes from places where they ain't got scales. People for whom what most of us think of as the edge is only a starting point. People who play for keeps - as one character says, I guess it's a waste of time to be with a woman who's not willing to kill you if she has to. People who explore many paths, including false ones; who open many doors, including those it would be better not to have stepped through. Just your typical god-ridden seekers in an age of chaos.

You gotta get out there beyond where your mojo's good anymore.

The novel's title derives from the wish of one of the characters to invent Night Time Losing Time, the opposite of Daylight Saving Time. Described by its author as a dirty metaphysical book, this work gives new meaning to the word "funky" and sends you to the dictionary looking for a word that means "intense" only multiplied by a factor of five of so. A pilgrim's twisted progress, it has something in common with Jacob's Ladder, with the Doors movie, with Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, and with Norman Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale.

There is a passage in Ventura's essay on Dylan which goes far toward explaining what Night Time Losing Time is about:

America had no traditions, recognized no authority, and just about the only thing the first settlers brought with them intact from Europe was the Bible. We were invented by people clutching Bibles and making up new religions and governments as they went along. America is the Bible running wild in the wilderness.

The novel is about a man who loses his wife to Jesus: There don't seem to be any love songs about this sort of thing. Jesse is a charismatic character, described by a woman who loves him as a contact high, an uncontrolled substance. He's a musician too old to be a star and too deep in to quit. Backed by a band that keeps playing as long as firearms aren't involved, he performs for an audience for whom a night at a club was supposed to make up for something else, something promised but not delivered... His best friend is Danny, who sings like an angel and brutalizes his women. When the two of them get together to talk their spacy brand of bullshit, the bartender asks, Why aren't you guys nonverbal like the majority of your colleagues?

Among the subjects they discuss are Henry, who is weird even by our standards - and we don't have any, and Elaine, a fortyish woman described as wearing all her ages like colors in a shawl. Jesse finally winds up with Kathy, who tells him, I just sort of decided to do anything for you.

How do we turn the noise of information into the coherence of vision?

The New York Times Book Review calls Ventura a "two-fisted man of letters." Although tough and streetwise, his erudition shines forth. He throws around such esoteric facts as the most sophisticated computer chips have an electrical charge so delicate that they're affected by the full moon. In an essay on Dylan, he mentions Thomas Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, in which the author deleted what he called "legend", kept what he considered "philosophy". He'll tell you that someone has found 61 biblical allusions in Dylan's John Wesley Harding album.

He can be poetic, as in this line from the novel: I think you got cave paintings inside you, girl, and the bones of things sacrificed long ago, bones with prayers clinging to them. Even in nonfiction work he shows a mystical side: ...the night can feel like one huge parking garage in which you can't remember where you left your car.

No matter how far afield he goes in flights of fancy or displays of knowledge, Ventura never loses sight of first principles. The future of the world is the future of the heart, he says. Our capacity for love will ultimately have more effect than our capacity to store information. I would be hard pressed to cite my very favorite Ventura quotation, but it might be this one, from an article about Carlos Casteneda:

His presence was an admission that every truth is fragile, that every knowledge must be learned over and over again, every night, that we grow not in a straight line but in ascending and descending and tilting circles, and that what gives us power one year robs us of power the next, for nothing is settled, ever, for anyone.

 

© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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