“A Death of Film” NOT Produced and Directed By Joel and Ethan Coen
“You got three seconds, boy, to tell me the definition of art?”
SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF THE CROSSROADS OF HIGHWAYS 61 & 49
It’s 1:45 am and you’re driving your rented car with a New York license plate down Highway 61 through the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans.
Your framed photographs from your most recent body of work are stuffed in your car and you’re on your way to the Big Easy for your premiere Southern solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
You’re listening to the “The Blues Hour” on the radio hosted by Mississippi Public Broadcasting and you’re feeling slightly anxious because you’re thinking about all your failed obligations up to this point in your life.
You left your home in New York state late and you took the scenic route because you wanted to do that Blues Highway travelogue thing so you would have something cool to photograph and write home about and post on your photo web log.
Right now you’re speeding about 30 miles over the speed-trap limit of 25 mph through the gumbo-dirt backwoods of Mississippi, desperately trying to make up for lost time because you were supposed to have been at the museum 12 hours ago to meet the curator to hang your show.
Suddenly, a lump forms in your throat.
Blue lights are flashing in your rearview mirror.
You pull over.
The police car behind you pulls up rapidly and forcefully bumps into your back bumper.
Before you can recover your composure, you see that a potbellied redneck county deputy has gotten out of his cruiser and is walking straight up to your driver’s side door.
Through your outside rearview mirror you see that this cop has a monster-size heavy-metal flashlight in one hand and a Smith & Wesson .500 Magnum Revolver in the other.
Sensing that all hell is about to break loose, you jump out of your car.
Before you even see it, you’re smacked across the face with the flashlight.
You raise a defensive hand to your face and the cop grabs it and spins you around and slams you face down into the roof of your car.
You hear the sound of your nose breaking.
You’re screaming now as the cop kicks your legs apart and smacks you on the back of your head with the flash light.
You can barely hear him when he asks you, “What da hell you got in dat car, boy?”
You’re on the verge of passing out, but you manage to tell him you’re an artist.
You’re now listening to the sound of the cop laughing at you.
You slowly turn your head down and look under your left arm and see the cop lifting his gun to the back of your head.
You’re now listening to the sound of the hammer being pulled back.
You start thinking now about how important your obligation was to be in
New Orleans on time.
“They’re going to cancel my show for sure,” you’re now saying to yourself.
Your adrenaline is pumping so fast that you think you have the super-human ability to hear the sound of the bullets in the revolver reverberating against their metal chambers.
It’s a deeply humid delta night and you’re smart enough to know that the sound of your screams won’t carry very far in this oppressive atmosphere.
You feel a cold sting when the cop presses the barrel of the gun against the back of your head.
You’re now thinking about that series of photographs that you always wanted to do but never started.
You’re attuned to the sound of the cop laughing at you again, “A damn artist from New York. Da last damn Yankee from New York dat made da mistake of drivin’ down har like a damn speed-demon dat I sent to heaven wuz a film producer.”
You remember your girlfriend telling you something about reading something about that case in the Village Voice a few years ago. Something about how this producer’s body was found on the side of the road in Mississippi; about how he was an apparent victim of a hit and run armed robbery.
Your head is now about to burst from all your overdue obligations: you haven’t called your grandmother in months, you haven’t told your mom you love years in years, you haven’t said a decent word to your father in living memory, you haven’t told your girlfriend that you’re cheating on her, you haven’t had an honest conversation with an honest person in your whole damn life and, most importantly, you haven’t produced that art you really wanted to produce because you convinced yourself that you couldn’t find a gallery or venue that would exhibit it, or for that matter, anybody in the world that would critically approve of it.
"Shit, even my damn library books are long overdue," you mumbled to yourself.
Your head is now swimming in all these damn obligations that you just can’t keep up with.
Your head starts to clear a bit and you’re now focusing on the faint wailing sound of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” playing on your radio.
You can’t help but think about the tragic irony of all these obligations you have, plus a gun to the back of your head, and yet still you can’t seem to find any answers to the riddle of life.
You now feel the redneck’s foul alcohol-drenched breath on the back of your neck.
“You’ve got three seconds, boy, to tell me the definition of art.”
Your spirits suddenly start to lift.
A wave of bliss comes over you because you know you know the answer to this psycho-fool’s question. "It’s the obligation of every true artist who's been to art school to know that answer, right?" you remind yourself.
The cop's drooling smile now meanders into an evil smirk.
“My god, man,” you say to yourself, “I didn’t need to go to art school to learn the answer to this idiot’s simple question.”
You’re now thinking there’s a possibility you might out think this redneck and walk away from this Mississippi nightmare with your life still inside your body.
But…you freeze up.
You catch yourself shivering from a fear you’ve never felt before and you can’t stop shaking.
Your voice is now seized up tighter than a golf ball inside an alligator’s mouth.
You hesitate with your answer…but you do struggle to speak.
And just as you start to mouth-off your astute smart-ass answer...
...you hear the sound of the cop’s greasy finger pulling the trigger and feel the vibration of the hammer when it hits the bullet…
…you are now relieved of all your obligations.
You didn’t get a chance to answer that damn cop’s question, but it’s alright.
A smile is on your face.
You’re listening to Robert Johnson singing over and over on your radio:
“I believe, I believe I’ll go back home.
I believe, I believe I’ll go back home.
You can mistreat me here, babe, but you can't when I go home.”
THE REAL MISSISSIPPI – The Birth of Obligation in a Southern Artist
“The only damn obligation I have to God as long as I’m walkin’ this damn planet is to be true unto myself. My church is outdoors under the sky and my flag is the sun. I don’t worship any man dead or alive and I don’t accept any man dead or alive as having any power over me.” - William Lindsey Bailey – Stewart, Mississippi – Farmer and small business owner. He was also my great uncle and my grandfather’s brother. From a genealogical interview I conducted at my grandfather’s home in July of 1984.
“My grandfather, Frederick S. Peebles, was a former slave who lived to be 110 years years old. I remember back in the 1960’s, shortly before he died, telling him how things were gonna change in Mississippi with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. How black folk in the South were finally gonna be able to register and vote for the President of the United States of America. My grandfather started laughing when I said that. ‘Boy, the only thang worst than bein’ a slave is bein’ a man who chooses his own master. What kinda man, dat God would give a choice to, would ever choose to have a master? Every man dat God has made has da obligation to leave every other man da hell alone. I don’t need to vote for no man to tell me how to live my life.’” - David R. Peebles – Kilmichael, Mississippi – African-American farmer and small business owner speaking about his grandfather, former slave and African-American farmer, Frederick S. Peebles. From a genealogical interview I conducted at Mr. Peebles home in December of 1980.