Polyester Road Diaries

My life in the bush of filmic ghosts

My father was a wonderfully outrageous Italian patriarch, a towering, lovable intellectual as comfortable discussing cold fusion as he was re-reading with real intrigue and wonder Green Eggs and Ham. He was a man known to family and friends not as Livio or as Mr. Davanzo but as Papa Livio. He brought our family to America when I was small. Physically powerful, cosmopolitan and brilliant, he was difficult to miss even in a crowded room. Though obviously Italian, there was nevertheless something very American about him: like the Romans centuries before him, my Papa aspired to greatness; unlike the Romans, Papa had trouble with authority. Enamored of American culture, he was in his hometown of Saletto di Piave America's greatest propagandist and most ardent defender.

Figuring him for an immortal, I was cut down by his sudden death two years ago. At 27, I was devastated, leaderless and hopeless, a young man whose life map is suddenly bereft of its most notable landmarks.

Days before he died, Papa and I took one of our last walks to a park where I played as a child. It was a listless summer afternoon, hazy, quiet and warm, and we took our time, stopping to appreciate the nuances on a pathway we had walked perhaps a hundred times. It was, I now see, a kind of vacation-restful, exotic, beautiful -in the space of an afternoon.

But the park was barren and sad. Much of the dark earth had been plowed; what remained were simply fragments of a happiness surrendered.

We sat in silence on our favorite bench, perhaps each of us reflecting on the transience of nature around Orange County.

Papa broke the quiet. "We should do something about this," he said. He quickly developed a plan to return later that evening and plant trees.

It was typical of him-a spontaneous act of personal responsibility for the beauty that once ruled. Guerrilla tactics in the name of love.

We returned later that evening with a shovel, a bag of soil and two small saplings no taller than a milk carton.

We named our budding garden Castelli in Aria-Italian for castles in the sky. But the words encompass more than translation allows. They are a euphemism for a place where all is well. A place where there is no pain or suffering. An earthly utopia.

Months later, after my father's memorial service, I decided to travel. Everyone deals with loss differently; losing my hero and inspiration in life, I wanted to drift.

Thus was born the Polyester Prince Productions 1998 Traveling Film Festival on Wheels. I would travel in my van for six weeks and, in the words of my manifesto, "show my films wherever and whenever possible-on barns, on sheets, on walls, on anything, always free, always different. All are welcome." I would manifest the spirit of Papa Livio through my travels. I would create countless castelli in aria.

May 12, 1998. Irvine. El Niño time. I head north on the 405 freeway toward the Grapevine, dodging whirling cars and sliding through raindrops and a haze of light on wet machines. I fling myself far from the lights and glitter. At sunset, I begin to feel free. My future lies ahead on seldom-traveled roads through the Central Valley. I look forward to Stockton, the mostly unannounced site of my first screening of the Polyester Prince Traveling Film Festival on Wheels. I get lost for a while on rural roads that lead nowhere and everywhere before finding myself in downtown Stockton. I assumed this would be a good place to begin exploring. I am wrong. Downtown is a place that time and humanity have forsaken. I roll in after dusk. The mood is unsettling: a post-apocalyptic world of destitution and squalor. A sea of transients washes up against the foundations of gorgeous historical buildings whose façades tell stories of passion, change and hope. I feel like a character in Escape From New York; I keep thinking Kurt Russell will come crashing down the street with machine guns screaming to the skies. The bitter irony is that while many small communities revere their old downtowns (if only as a means of attracting Hollywood film crews), Stockton seems to have walked away from its. The city is now perhaps more famous for a schoolyard shooting than agricultural achievement.

I spend my first night sleeping in the van in the parking lot of an upscale tennis club, unable to contact my friends.

May 13. Stockton. I pass the night gently in the grip of red wine and a head full of dreams. That evening, a modest group gathers in the living room of the lovely Madeleine Gonzalez, known to many as Maddog, for my first screening on the road. As her name implies, Maddog is a woman to be reckoned with-one part fire, 10 parts love. We met in grad school at Humboldt, where we spent many sunny afternoons floating down the Klamath River together, equipped only with wine and an accordian. Years later, she still opens her door to projects like mine.

A Filmography of Paolo Davanzo

By Paolo Davanzo.

Born August 16, 1970, in Torino, Italy. Master's degree in film production from Humboldt State University in Humboldt, California.

Castelli in Aria (1999): A visual poem of a father's legacy and the beauty he brought to the world. Edited with help from the filmmaker's father; shelved shortly after the father's death and completed in time for the 1999 Newport Beach International Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Executive Director's Award.

The Death of the Father (1997): Based on a story by Charles Bukowski, Davanzo's film depicts the attack of vulturous neighbors upon a deceased man's remaining material goods. The only purity is the vision of his three children who witness the attack.

Passive Anarchy (1996): A journey to Beijing during the summer of 1995 exposes the contradictions in the foundations of Chinese culture.

Pirates & Corsairs (1995): A brief visual history of freemasonry and its impact on the minds of young hipsters.

Tipo (1994): This short is the culmination of filming 10 distinctly American phenomena over the course of 10 weeks, from UFO conventions to cat shows. The filmmaker has concisely captured the perverse side of the American dream.

Gesu della Citta (Jesus of the City) (1993): The story of Jesus and Mary is re-created through the perspective of a contemporary barfly and his angelic girlfriend.

The screening goes well. There is laughter; there are tears. The seed has been planted. My mission to bring film to the masses has begun in earnest.

May 23. Bandon, Oregon. Besides seeing America, one of my objectives on this voyage is to scour every thrift store between LA and Canada to find those elusive treasures of gold.

I've been called the Polyester Prince in honor of my affection for the flamboyantly colored shirts favored by the men of my early years. But I'm also a disciplined thrift shopper. Before and after Bandon, with the film festival as my cover, I score the following deals on the road: an Elvis Presley macramé wall hanging, $5 (Coos Bay, Oregon); a pink tuxedo shirt with matching trousers, $7 (Tillamook, Oregon); a glow-in-the-dark clock depicting the Last Supper, $3.50 (Mill Valley, California); a 1983 Disco Mickey Mouse album in its original package, 50 cents (Seattle); a Kmart Super 8 camera with tripod, $15 (Olympia, Washington); three rolls of NASA rocket-test footage on 16-mm film, $1 (Livingston, Montana); the most beautiful polyester jacket you have ever seen, $3 (Las Vegas) ; a mint-condition 8-mm film projector, $3 (Nanoimo, British Columbia); a Cookie Monsteresque polyester jump suit, $4 (Hope, British Columbia); a 1983 Transformers lunch pail, $10 (Twin Falls, Idaho).

I seek refuge in the tiny fishing village of Bandon. At the entrance to the state park, a guard tells me it'll cost 20 precious dollars for the night. The park is crowded with holiday campers; kids on plastic Big Wheels produce a sound like the largest gravel crusher in the world. The guard directs me across the street where, for a more reasonable $3, a lovely, tiny old woman welcomes me into her private campground. I find a spot underneath a large redwood and settle in for the evening.

In this obscure spot on the Oregon coast, I figure the Polyester Prince Traveling Film Festival on Wheels will (as we say in Hollywood) go dark. I am cooking up a feast of tortellini (with a tomato, red pepper and tuna sauce), hunched over the stove. The Lakers' third playoff game against the Utah "Spazz" blares from my radio. I don't notice the approach of a neighbor until I hear: "Howdy there, fella. Where ya from?"

He's an RVer camping in a nearby lot. You may know the type: retired, transient, cruising in the Winnebago, lifetime membership to AAA and the Good Sam Club. But this man is different. African-American for one thing, and a huge Lakers fan for another. He introduces himself as William Jefferson.

William Jefferson and I commiserate in the sadness of a basketball season coming to an ignominious end. The conversation turns.

"So what are you doing traveling alone?" asks William Jefferson.

His words are soft, carefully calculated. A veteran of the road himself, a man who rode the rails in search of work during the Great Depression, it's clear he knows that simple pleasantries like "What are you doing?" can seem like threatening interrogations out here.

I offer him embarrassment and explain my mission of bringing film to the masses. As I begin talking about the road, I feel perhaps we share some sort of spirit. He settles into respectful silence, and I feel a lifetime of memories racing through his head. He looks at me like a father at his child and says: "Follow your heart, son. There is so much world out there for you to see."

As he begins walking away, I take a chance. "Do you want to watch some of my films?"

He smiles. I tell him to come over in an hour or so, and I will set up the projector to shine off an abandoned barn nearby. After dinner, William Jefferson, his wife and two other RVers set up lawn chairs, insert Budweisers into foam can coolers, and proceed to watch Passive Anarchy and half of Pirates & Corsairs under the misty Oregon sky until the projector begins acting up and we're forced to stop. I don't think they understand the films, but they are kind in their comments.

May 28. Portland, Oregon. One of my few urban, hipster adventures-if Portland can be called urban. It's either a large town or a little city, a sprawling coffeehouse. I had met my Portland contact just days before on the beach near Tillamook (a town made famous by cheese). Around a hellish bonfire, pumped up on the sort of alcohol that makes everything seem possible, Beth Stewart had invited me to help her organize a Polyester Prince Traveling Film Festival on Wheels in her downtown loft. I spend the hours before 8 p.m. papering her neighborhood with fliers to cultivate an audience for the screening.

We show a collection of films from various local artists along with my work. I introduce myself to a room of strangers and begin the show with Passive Anarchy, The Death of the Father and Tipo. Between each, I briefly discuss the works and describe my mission. The crowd likes my films and, honestly, maybe likes my mission more. Sandro from Mexico buys one video and a couple of my self-published zines SOGNI (Dreams). Total cost: $12. Sandro hands me a 20 and tells me to keep the change. By the end of the night, I've sold two more videos and countless magazines and collected a total of $26 to help fund the festival.

May 29. Seattle. Scott Eastman lives in a downtown a little like Portland's. Amidst the maze of abandoned warehouses, you feel humanity lurking, but you often don't see a soul for blocks. When you do, they're usually the displaced. The forgotten. Roaming the streets. Lost in the shuffle.

Scott has found an abandoned industrial shed downtown, one with an essential electrical outlet exposed. It seems perfect in all ways for guerrilla cinema: right next to a park, lots of grass to lie on, and an adjacent fence on which to hang a sheet for a screen. The perverse urban beauty is staggering: the space needle juts into the sky. And once you've seen them, the towering Olympic Mountains can almost be felt in the distance, like some giant standing at your shoulder. The radiating heat of a warm Seattle night makes the vegetation throb with life.

We lay on the grassy field watching films. I begin with The Death of the Father and follow with Passive Anarchy. I begin to feel like it's too much of a good thing-the warm night, the film, the 20 or so people gathered, including a small knot of homeless men who watch first from the shadows and then move slowly into the circle of light to join us. Is it my imagination or is everyone sucking at 40-ouncers?

I decide to end on a high note and cut the screening short before we are shut down by Seattle's finest.

June 10. Banff, Alberta, Canada. After 11 days, I look-and smell-like hell. The glamour is only temporarily off. Camping illegally or in squalid, Unabomber-style campgrounds; sleeping in my van; never finding a shower, I am determined to splurge this one evening. I camp at Tunnel Mountain Camp Ground, a fairy-tale land where deer and bison gambol in the rugged Canadian Rockies.

The night before, I had pulled off a guerrilla screening in the center of town after finding exposed outlets. A young woman there told me that the Canadian Television Festival was to start in town tonight. It was, she said, the video and digital technology equivalent of Canada's esteemed Toronto Film Festival. She told me to contact Susan Kennard, who would absolutely love what I was doing.

I bicycle from the campground the 3 miles to the Banff Center and track down Kennard. I am a little nervous about trying to win her over, but the fact that she has maintained blue hair into her late 40s makes me hopeful. At first, she stares at me, which I interpret as a psychological diagnosis: she thinks I'm a lunatic. But after I finish spurting out my entire manifesto and the recent successes of my screenings on the road, she smiles and says: "Simply brilliant. I love it. We would be honored to show your work tonight. Let me introduce you to some of the other artists."

Easy as that. She has never seen my stuff and has no idea about the subject, but her intuition and faith in humanity tell her to go for it. Angels are watching over the Polyester Prince Traveling Film Festival on Wheels.

She introduces me to the entire staff, and everyone seems to like what I am trying to do. In a tour that is entirely improvisational, we improvise: we decide that I will be the evening's "featured filmmaker," a kind of visual DJ, mixing my own films (no sound, please) and projecting them above the heads of the 200 well-dressed people at the 1998 Canadian National Television Festival. For two hours, I mix every one of my films and videos, including more than a dozen from my days as a college student. A DJ lays down drum & bass, house and ambient tracks. At evening's end, I walk away the happiest man alive.

June 11. Calgary, Alberta. I set out for Calgary, which is an hour away by car. I can feel the evolution from paradise to suburbia. After being lost in what may be the most beautiful spot on Earth, at this moment, I dread all cities-Calgary in particular. The stucco shops and shopping malls begin rising up at the road's edge miles from the city center. Everything has changed. I race through downtown. My neck bends at every sight and sound. I jet from the west side to the east side, and before I know it, Calgary is over-like that apocryphal town you miss while blinking-and I find myself in a suburb. I spot a sign hanging precariously over the street: OVER 10,000 ITEMS-COLLECTIBLES, ANTIQUES, USED STUFF. I slam on the brakes, and the van fishtails. After a few Starsky and Hutch maneuvers, I find myself on the threshold of thrift nirvana.

I circle the building, confused about where to enter. I am not sure if the place is condemned or simply funky with a capital "F." I see a small child with chocolate-laced lips, and I push on under a dilapidated sign-CALGARY CHICKEN WORKS-into an unbelievable vision. In an old chicken-bits warehouse, a city of used stuff has emerged. Life emerges from the ashes of chicken parts.

I throw myself into it. I immerse myself in aisles of cameras, toasters, Thigh Masters, and bits of this and that. I could spend all day in this world. This is the way a store should be run. I find old G.I. Joes for Marco, my comic-book-retailing brother, but I have trouble finding any film stuff. At the counter, I ask a woman who looks remarkably like Gilda Radner if she has any film equipment.

"Oh . . . No, you would have to ask my husband about that," she says.

Enter her husband, wearing a Calgary Flames T-shirt and faded jeans. He greets me with a crooked smile, revealing a good number of missing teeth. His demeanor is casual but reserved. He introduces himself as Thomas, but he waits for me to make the first move.

"This is truly an amazing place you have here," I say. "I've never seen anything like it."

I have come to discover in my travels that thrift-store owners are reclusive. Deep down, perhaps they believe they deal in junk, and anyone who praises them-particularly anyone young from Southern California -engages in mocking irony masked as praise.

Thomas is downright suspicious, but he smiles.

"I am from Los Angeles, and you wouldn't believe how well a store like this would do there." Once again, I lay it on.

"Los Angeles?" his wife asks. "Did ya' hear that, Thomas? He's from LOS ANGELES! You deserve a free gift."

She hands me an audio-cassette history of the wild West still in the package. Thomas' eyes narrow.

"Los Angeles, you say? Yeah, you're right," he says. "You couldn't imagine how much I could make." He pronounces every syllable as if he's reading carefully from a card.

"Yeah," I say. "Sooooo . . . I'm looking for any film stuff-old projectors, film prints, cameras. But I can't seem to find anything."

"If you can show me a piece of identification that proves you are from Los Angeles, I will take you into the 5,000-square-foot secret, members-only storage area."

I produce a California driver's license. He looks at the license, doesn't ask about the Irvine address, and hands it back. He motions me forward, and we walk past a hand-written sign stating, sure enough, that we're heading into the secret, members-only area.

Stepping over debris and discarded items, we enter a room overflowing with stuff. Largely crap, partly interesting, everything but secret. I spend more than an hour in this muggy warehouse with Thomas as he tells me about his various paranoid delusions (his world includes an evil landlord, abusive neighbors, prying eyes), his genius for thrifting, and the value of apparently valueless castoffs. I am a man desperate for water, and Thomas is offering me salt. I glance at my watch and ask, "So, where is the film stuff?"

He stops talking and replies dryly: "Oh, you want film stuff. Well, I don't have any right now."

I leave with my G.I. Joes, my wild West tape in an unopened package, and a winking, conspiratorial nod from Thomas. United States, here I come.

June 15. Gainesville, Idaho. Thomas apparently has kinfolk in Idaho. I arrive in town early in the evening and decide to immediately head west on a secondary road around the mayhem of highway traffic. There's a somber mood to this road, and I am uncertain why everything seems so artificial. The rain has let up, and a brilliant sunshine begins beaming through my window. These roads seem to go on forever, with no towns or vegetation in sight. I tune in to the local National Public Radio station and begin to lose myself in the world of politics and current events. I've spent the majority of my voyage shielded from all news reports; now the radio has me fixated like a man who has been incarcerated all his life and is suddenly released to the wonders of radical change.

My trance is broken by the screaming air brakes of a white-and-yellow charter bus rushing by. I glance out in time to read the inscription on its side: NATIONAL ENGINEERING LABORATORY. A few miles on, I notice an identical bus. And then another. And another. At one point, I count a steady stream of 36 National Engineering buses making their way in the opposite direction, east to Gainesville.

Perhaps it's the antiseptic aesthetic of this region or lingering memories of Thomas' conspiracy theories, but I begin to feel like a character in The X-Files. A few miles down the road, I approach the entrance to the National Engineering Laboratories, a shroud of security gates and barbed wire, a fortress of cement and secrecy.

What goes on out here in the middle of nowhere? There is nobody in sight, but I have this awkward feeling that I am being watched. I venture on. Ten minutes later, I pull into a rest stop. A hot desert wind blows, and there is nobody in sight. A makeshift information booth offers only trivia: there have been nuclear tests in the area, which presumably has something to do with National Engineering, a subject on which the sign is mute.

There is one marker of interest. A dilapidated sign directs me to EBR-1. The world's first nuclear-power plant, it says. I turn onto an unpaved dirt road and travel for a mile due east. I can make out some sort of structure in the distance -a quaint brick building no bigger than a schoolhouse surrounded by a vacant parking lot. There are no cars; it is almost 7 p.m. There's a welcome sign, a parking lot with handicap spaces, and a snack bar's neon sign.

I take out my cameras and begin walking around, hoping to see something others have missed, like Toto tearing back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. I walk around the entire structure and return to my car when I see something in the distance. From the direction I have just come, a cloud of smoke billows behind a small car and trailer making its way to the reactor.

I continue photographing the site and forget about the car. I go around the back side, and when I return, the car and trailer are parked a few spaces from my van. There's no one in sight. I load my stuff back into the van.

Over my shoulder, I hear a woman with a thick Southern accent. "Yoo-hoo? Yoo-hoo!? Pardon me. Sir, you got a jack or something in that van of yours?" she asks. "I think I got a flat coming down that road."

I turn to see an older woman fumbling through her purse.

"I am just really bad at these things," she continues. "Ever since my husband died, I just get so fearful of anything technical."

"Sure, I can help you," I say. I go to the back of the van, grab my toolbox and jack, and head over to the woman. She seems to be kneeling on the far side of the trailer and fidgeting with the wheel. But as I turn the corner, I notice the woman is hunched down-next to a perfectly undamaged tire. She's holding her fingers to her lips as a mother would to quiet her child.

"Don't say a word," she whispers. "They're listening to us." I stand there stupidly for a moment before she daintily tugs at my shirt, urging me to the ground.

She's whispering. "They got cameras all over this place, but they can't see us behind the trailer. Just keep pretending that you're fixing something." Her words are marked with precision and passion. I'm not sure what she is talking about, so I ask, "Are you serious?"

She shouts with youthful exuberance once again, using the voice of the stranded traveler I had perceived her to be moments ago. "So, do you think you can fix the flat? It looks like I musta run over a nail or something. Look, here it is! I think I got a spare in the trailer, but it's hard to get, so maybe you can come in and grab it."

She continues as the stranded traveler, as if she never heard my question. At this point, I am beginning to think she's crazy. I am more amused than scared.

She motions with her face to get into the trailer and quickly shouts: "Oh, you are such a lovely boy to help a little old lady like me. I think I remember seeing a tire in here somewhere."

I enter a trailer filled from floor to ceiling with maps, photographs, banners, fragments of earth, models, and graphs, like a college physics lab crammed into an 8-foot-by-14-foot space. I can't even begin to decipher most of what's in there.

She shuts the door behind me and says, "I am sorry if I freaked you out at first, but I can't let them catch on to me."

"What are you talking about?" I ask. "I thought you had a flat tire."

"I saw you back there at the road stop," she says. "I saw you taking pictures, and I could tell you were on our side."

"What side? I just stopped because I was curious, and I was trying to see where all those buses were coming from. It definitely gives me the creeps."

"That's exactly it. The buses, the fences, this token decoy reactor. It's all interconnected. It's too hard to explain, but I've been following the government's work in the area for the past 20 years. My husband was one of the first people to work with Enrico Fermi in Chicago, which is where all this mess started in the first place. Before you knew it, by the early '40s, this area was providing nuclear energy for the first atomic weapon that eventually leveled Japan. My husband and I have been working to expose the government's exploits for years."

"I thought you said your husband passed away."

"No, no, dear. He legally died in a car crash 10 years ago, but we actually made up the whole thing. Things were getting a little too scary-phones tapped, agents following us-so we had to fabricate his death. It was a little tricky, but we pulled it off."

"So where is your husband now."

"Oh, he is around just laying low," she says secretively. "We better get back to the tire-I almost forgot! Just pretend like you're doing something for a few minutes, raise the trailer up and down. You know the routine. Look convincing." She pauses a moment and then matter-of-factly offers: "I just wanted to warn you, son. Take down as much information about this area as you can and tell the world. However, be careful how deep you plunge because once you get in too deep, you will never get out. I'm Norma Jean. Take care of yourself, son. And keep questioning authority."

We go outside with me carrying the spare. "Oh, what would I have done without you? I probably would've been stranded out here for days," she says.

I run through her routine:fidget a little bit with the tools, raise the jack, screw some nuts as we continue in the tourist-meets-old-lady stage piece. After five minutes, I get her cue: "Well, thank you, young man. I wish I could give you something for your efforts."

I courteously, theatrically refuse, but she hands me a wad anyway. There's no money, just a tiny note that reads, "Trust no one."

June 16. Craters of the Moon National Park, Idaho. I sleep in longer than I had expected. It seems colder than usual; when I open the sliding door, all I see is snow. Snowfall from the heavens. Nothing but a sea of white. Blankets and blankets of snow wherever the eyes can see. Nothing but pure white snow falling from the heavens. It is June, but the ground is completely covered in snow, and more snow is falling rapidly.

I roll into a gas station a few miles away, the van bearing a dome of ice, like an immense snow cone in this parched landscape-there is absolutely no snow on the ground. I get crazy looks from the man who is filling his 1968 Cadillac with premium and love. "Where the hell did you come from, boy? The North Pole?" he asks, snickering at his own joke.

"No, Crater's," I say and walk away. The snickering slows, like a man who has just pissed himself. He is heading east, directly into the storm. I look back over my shoulder to see a man deep in thought, outsmarted by nature.

Inside the gas station's snack area, the owner watches me shiver. Freshly fallen snow clings to my clothe

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