Tag Archives: Wim Wenders

Paradise As the Confluence of Uniontown, Pennsylvania and the Ramayana Monkey Chant

Photograph by Jose Padua
That evening, after dinner, we were listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant. Performed out in the open on the island of Bali by several dancers and about hundred shirtless men chanting “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak,” it’s more properly called tari kecak. Although it’s been repurposed, reproduced, decontextualized, made a tourist attraction. and on and on by the west, it is still a powerful piece of music. My daughter Maggie, who was nine at the time, was dancing to it while my son Julien, who was two and still yet to talk, waved his arms. My wife Heather and I swayed to a beat created solely by human voices as we stood by the dining room table at our house in Front Royal, Virginia. The tari kecak, of course, was my choice for after dinner music because it takes not just me but all of us far, far away.

Maggie and Julien, on hearing it for the first time that night, were hooked. Heather, being married to me, first heard it a long time ago. It was one those things I had have her listen to soon after we got together sixteen years earlier. Just as I had to have her watch Im Lauf der Zeit (aka Kings of the Road), Wim Wenders’s beautiful, plotless three hour film. And then had to have her read Harry Crews’s Feast of Snakes. These are, yes, some of the more pleasant things I’ve put her through.

In this photograph, Maggie, after listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant, has cloaked herself with a blanket as a way of concluding her own Monkey Chant dance, while Julien’s eyes are focused on the men performing the music. Behind them, only partially visible, is our framed print of the Remedios Varo painting titled “Exploración de las Fuentes del Río Orinoco,” which translates as “Exploring the Springs of the Orinoco River.” Remedios Varo, at least to my eyes, looked a little like the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, though perhaps it’s only a similarity in attitude and not a physical resemblance. Me, I’ve been told I bear a resemblance to Mexican painter Diego Rivera, though perhaps this is more a physical likeness, since he was rather portly and, although not balding, had an almost freakishly high forehead—like me.

The next day, after dinner, we were driving on Route 40 west, the gas gauge of our car slightly below empty, trying to get to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where we hoped there would be a gas station. Suddenly we were going uphill, and the sign above the dark road said, “Steep Grade Next Three Miles” and “Hazardous Mountain Road.”

We’d just left after the first evening of Heather’s family reunion, which that year was in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Family reunions are one of the first things Heather had me experience soon after we got together. It was, for me, something completely new. Heather’s family reunions bring together a group of around forty to fifty people (Heather’s immediate family alone includes a group of eight brothers and sisters). With most of my relatives being in the Philippines or far on the west coast, I had never experienced a family event of this size. I got used to them, though. And just like Heather, Maggie, and Julien had no choice but to learn to appreciate my musical, cinematic, and literary tastes, I had no choice but to learn to appreciate massive family get-togethers.

At the reunion, I’d spent most of the day running after Julien—since family reunions are rarely ever baby proofed—and eating. There is, in Heather’s family, a wide range of political views. Still, I was pretty sure that I was usually the only wild-eyed socialist in the room, which meant that most of the time I’d try to stay calm and silent. Back then, anyway. Nowadays, I don’t think I’d be able to stay at all quiet, but then it’s been years since Heather’s family has had a big reunion.

When I saw the sign above the road warning of the upcoming steep mountain road, I looked at the empty gas gauge and yelled… well, one can imagine the words I screamed, though Heather, Maggie, and Julien didn’t have to. At any rate, we were leaving the realm of surrealism and ascending towards the heights of its real world opposite, whatever that was. We climbed and climbed as the gas gauge seemed to sink even lower, but somehow we made it to the top. Then, just as quickly, we were going downhill, and I put the car in neutral, hoping that might save a little gas. At the bottom of the hill, we saw an exit for Uniontown’s business district. When we got there, everything was closed. One gas station, then the next: closed.

Finally, I pulled over so we didn’t end up stuck in the middle of one of downtown Uniontown’s streets (not that there was anyone driving by). We called AAA to see if they could get us some gas, but we couldn’t explain exactly where we were. We were on some road in Uniontown, but there was no sign. We gave them the name of a nearby landmark—we were down the block from a church–but they couldn’t locate it.

At last I saw, appearing out of the dark, a woman walking down the road towards us. I thought, what the hell, let’s ask her. Maybe there’s a gas station nearby that she’s knows about that’s open. Heather opened the back door and called out to her.

“Oh yeah,” the woman said. “Just go down to that light, take a right, and it will be on your left.”

“Is it within a couple of miles?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “it’s just around the corner.” Then she added, “It’s a bad neighborhood, though. You should just get your gas and go.”

Bad neighborhoods, however, were the least of my worries. I’d lived in places people thought were bad neighborhoods. I just wanted to get back to our motel and rest. I thought she might then ask us for a ride, but she started moving on. We thanked her, then drove down the road. The open gas station was right where she said it would be. When I got out of the car, I started hearing the music again, in my head. The Ramayana Monkey Chant. Tari kecak: “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak, “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak…” It was a beautiful night again.

I filled the tank, got some milk for Julien (that was why we were driving around to begin with), then went back to our motel, The Lodge at Chalk Hill. Old, out of date, and desolate, it was the cheapest motel we could find when we looked on the internet. One comment we saw about the place on some hotel search website sealed the deal for us: “It’s owned by foreigners, but they were nice.”

So we decided that yes, we would stay here. And let the owners know that we don’t think they’re foreigners. We think they’re Americans. And we don’t care if they’re nice.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Slightly Uncomfortable Seat at the Edge of the World

RoyalCinemas

I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies alone. This, I suppose, is a sign of how normal my life is now. Indeed, if you were to see a man my age at the movies by himself, you might wonder What is the deal with that guy? Because going to the movies, especially in a small town like Front Royal, is usually considered something of a social event; and to go to the movies alone begs the question, What, exactly, is wrong with you? Or Are you violating your parole by being here?

Since I was around fourteen years old, going to the movies by myself was a regular and quite normal thing—for me, unlike a lot of other teenagers, going to the movies was not a social event. Or at least I didn’t see any need for it to be one. It wasn’t that I never went to movies with my friends. But, more often than not, I went alone, because if there was a film I really wanted to see back then, I knew that among my friends there wouldn’t be a single one who’d want to see it too. After all, when you’re a freshman in high school, how do you get someone to go the theater with you to watch all 363 minutes of Louis Malle’s documentary, L’ Inde fantome (Phantom India). Or attend a showing of Joseph Strick’s film of James Joyce’s Ulysses to see how it compares with the book? Well, I guess there are other misfits out there who, at that age, had friends they could connect with that way, but I wasn’t so fortunate.

Still, I never felt that I was missing out on anything. It was with friends that I’d see things like The Exorcist or American Graffiti, films that were entertaining but didn’t exactly move me. But it was when I was by myself that I saw what I really wanted to see. And, sitting alone in the old Circle Theater in Washington DC—a theater notorious for its stiff, uncomfortable seats—seeing for the first time the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, or Robert Downey Sr. (a prince), I was having a great time. Alone with my thoughts and a cinematic masterpiece or two at a bargain price (admittance during the day was only a dollar), there really wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. Or, anyone I wanted to be with.

The first time I set foot in the Royal Cinemas on Main Street in Front Royal brought back that feeling of going to the movies alone—even though I was with Heather and Maggie. Because even though I wasn’t alone, we were alone. It happens from time to time that when we go there to see a movie at the Royal Cinemas—a new movie—we find that we’re the only ones in the theater.

KingsOfTheRoad

Call me anti-social, but I like it when we’re the only ones there. Plus, I like going to the movies at the Royal Cinemas anyway, because when you’re there you’re not at one of those slick, new multiplexes with stadium seating and a concession stand that sells cappuccino, flavored water, and appetizers like bruschetta with cherry tomato and avocado. No, the Royal Cinemas is one of those older, slightly decaying movie houses. Yes, the smell of fresh popcorn is in the air, but so is the smell of popcorn from several years ago. And, at the end of a movie, you’re more than happy to be getting up from your rock hard seat.

Every time we go there to see some popular film (and that’s all they show there—this is certainly not an “art house” theater), I’m reminded of what is probably my favorite film of all time, Kings of the Road. A film Wim Wenders made in 1974—its German title, Im Lauf der Zeit, translates as “In the Course of Time”—Kings of the Road is one of those films that a lot of people find unbearably boring, and when I first saw it at an afternoon showing at the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, less than half the audience that was there at the beginning of the film remained at the completion of its three hour running time. But for me, it was the most compelling film I’d seen since Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (yeah, another film that leaves a lot of people utterly bored or baffled) and it accomplished this without any special effects. And without much action or even plot.

Maybe that’s precisely why I find it so engrossing. Me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what effects CGI or Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar can produce—the cinematic spectacles so many people rave about (e.g., The Lord of the Rings trilogy) put me to sleep. And so what I remember about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that I slept through about a third of Fellowship of the Ring, over half of The Two Towers, and by the time The Return of the King came out Heather figured that maybe I should just take my nap at home while she went with her brother to see it.

Because, and I guess here I am going against the grain again, I don’t go to the movies to escape the real world or even to see the real world disguised to look like some happy acid trip. I actually hate that shit. As for Kings of the Road, this is the kind of trip I like. On the surface it may look like there’s little going on: Bruno, whose job maintaining and repairing film projectors takes him to run-down movie theaters in West Germany, close to the East-German border, travels for a while with Robert, a man who has just split up with his wife—and then they go their separate ways again. But the revelation comes from seeing how they interact with each other, with the people they meet during their travels, and with the sometimes beautiful, sometimes desolate landscape through which they move. It’s a landscape and a speed of life (or, rather, a lack of speed) that reminds me a lot of Front Royal. And the Royal Cinemas feels exactly like the sort of theater where Bruno would work on a projector.

Since the first time I saw it, Kings of the Road has always been at least somewhere close to the back of my mind. So it’s not surprising that, soon after Heather and I first got together in the mid 90s, I felt compelled to show this film to her. I found it on a VHS double cassette (Kings of the Road still hadn’t come out on DVD in the U.S.) at Potomac Video on Connecticut Avenue in DC, a store that, like all the other video stores, has since gone out of business.

Showing her the film wasn’t quite a litmus test for seeing how compatible we were, but seeing that she appreciated the film was, for me, a very good thing. We watched it in our apartment across from the Zoo. And although it was as compelling as ever for me, watching it at home on a television, I now realize that the perfect place to see this film would be the Royal Cinemas on Main Street. That, of course, will never happen. But just as seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at the decaying Foxchase theater in Alexandria back in the early summer of 2001 added to our experience of that film—a triplex, the Foxchase showed mainstream and indie films in two theaters and porn in the third—seeing Im Lauf der Zeit at the Royal Cinemas would add immeasurably to our experience of this film.

Landscape

Because there’s something about the Royal Cinemas, and Front Royal as a whole, that makes me feel like I’m actually living in an early Wim Wenders film. The wide open landscape, the silence, the way everything one does here feels like it’s taking place at the edge of the known world: it’s like if you take one more step—or perhaps the wrong step—you’ll be leaving the civilized world completely and be entering into Lord of the Flies territory.

Oddly enough, this is something I actually like about Front Royal. I like that living here feels like we’re living in some sort of limbo, that—especially in the dead of winter when all the bright fall colors are gone and all the tourists are safely back in civilization—it feels like a bit of a ghost town. Or a place where they forgot to tell the residents that, “Oh, by the way, the world has ended.”

If anything, Front Royal is a place on the edge of something. To simply call it a small, conservative, and rather backward town is to miss the point—even though Front Royal is, without a doubt, all of those things—and what it’s on the edge of, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I think it may be taking a turn for the better, even though most of the time I’m prepared for it to do the opposite.

All I know for sure is that feeling I get from being here. That feeling I got the first time we drove on one of those low-water bridges that cross the Shenandoah. Looking at it, this rough concrete strip that’s barely above the water, we weren’t sure that it was actually passable. We stopped to think about it for a while. We waited, hoping the answer would come to us like some strange revelation from the woods. Finally, we went ahead, slowly, over the muddy brown water of the Shenandoah River. Then, when we got to the other side, it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere—the trees on both sides of the road bore signs saying POSTED. NO TRESPASSING.

It was hard to tell where we were—were we on someone’s private property now? Someone who believes in shooting first and asking questions later? And had we, in fact, gone past the city limits? Sometimes I get the feeling that Front Royal never ends, that it continues simply because it doesn’t know how to go forward to some sort of conclusion.

We turned around and went back over the low-water bridge. We kept going—quietly, as if we were being followed— until we reached a place where we recognized our surroundings. We kept going, away from the river which, as it winds through the valley, always looks like it’s chasing us. Away from the low-water bridge, which always looks like it could collapse at any moment.

Yes, we kept going, as one must do in these parts, until we were sure, once again, that we weren’t about to fall off the edge of the world.

-Jose Padua