Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Monday, September 10, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution

1. Skinner Box Part I

            Anyone who knew Ross for more than a a few days (minutes usually) came to the quick realization that he had a voracious appetite and Rasputin-like tolerance for intoxicating liquids and mind-altering substances. At Antioch when he flung open the Doors of Perception great things would swoop in and amaze us: the Space Brothers whispering secrets of the cosmos; Earth sprites and green fairies, like those Ross would encounter at Findhorn in Scotland, hiding behind the monster cabbages; and of course, shadow specters of ourselves, trying, from their vantage point outside of timespace, to offer a few tips on how we should be living. 

            But the DC Edition of Ross was different. He was drawn into the oblivion and little-death that drugs offered, and his writings and drawings became muddy, derivative, and disappointing. Sometimes, through the haze, he produced little gems, like his dark screenplay "The Reaper," based on a film he'd seen years ago. But even then, he had almost no patience or focus to discuss the logistics of getting a film produced. And I noticed something peculiar: every time we came close to a success, Ross would say or do something that would discredit our efforts. The pattern suggested a self-defeating dynamic that protected him against failure. If you never really try, you can't be accused of failure if things don't work out. I suspected this complex had roots in his troubled childhood. "I am not one of life's walking wounded," he said once, with sudden, inappropriate anger. Ross never elaborated, but it was obvious that something weird had happened with his Father. His Dad was a prominent professor of psychology. "He raised me in a Skinner Box in the basement," Ross said cryptically.  

            There was a point at which Ross felt he could extend an olive branch, and patch things up with the old man. He called to say he was going to visit them in Michigan. "Son," the Father said, "You should know that I keep a gun, and I know how to use it."       
The awful depths of this cruel story wouldn't become clear until many years later, when I met Dr. McConnell. At Ross's funeral. 
(Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon!)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Photo & Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution 

2. Take It To The Top 
by MJ Vilardi 

Marc Cherry was a musician with an an uncanny resemblance to Tony Orlando: a smooth swarthy look, 70's style mustache, white leisure suits, and an easy breezy singing style. His band played on a show at the station where I worked, and I chatted him up about doing a music video. They didn't have much money, so Oversight Productions agreed to do the video at cost, with a bonus if they signed a record deal and got some dough.

The song was "Take It To The Top," 
a jazzy ode to "going for it."
    So just Take It To The Top
 Cause if you lose your dream 
You lose the prize
            When you give it your best shot 
Give it all you've got
            Cause the only one who fails  
Is he who does not try... 

Of course in exchange for this great deal Marc agreed that we would have creative freedom, and we really pushed it. One might say we veered occasionally from the message of the song, but music videos were pretty new at the time, and nobody really tried to make sense of them. It was assumed that there might be cryptic images and non sequiturs. And so there were. 

Scenes included:
            • a crazy strip club with Ross as the sleazy MC, inciting the crowd
            • Marc rides through Georgetown in a vintage yellow Rolls Royce. In a wonderful synchronicity, at a stoplight another Rolls pulled up next to us! Delighted occupants of both cars rolled down their windows and inquired as to whether there were any Grey Poupon to be had.
            • Marc is portrayed as a bum, shuffling down an alley. We were lucky to catch a shot of someone throwing a bag of garbage out of a third floor window. Sweet!
            • At a disco party, shot at a nice hotel that (for reasons still unclear) agreed to let us use their dance floor, Marc cuts in on a rich old dude, and steals away his girl. The guy turns out to be super-rich and powerful.
            • Rich Guy phones Fidel Castro (played by a teenager with a chronic shaking condition, which actually helped) ... Fidel, puffing a genuine Cuban, in full revolutionary regalia, including a live chicken pecking around on his desk, agrees to help. "Si Señor, I will see to it immediately!" he mouths.
            • Marc Cherry, in his flashy white Tony Orlando outfit, struts down the street. He senses something, looks up.
            • An Oswaldesque figure wearing tele-specs leans out of a window. A rifle aimed at Marc! Zoom in on Marc's fearful face.
            • Marc awakens in a pile of garbage, a bum. Was it all a dream?

            The assassin at the end (played by yours truly) was a last minute inspiration, and Marc didn't know about it until we screened the video for the entire band. They loved it, and at the end when their leader got bumped off, they cheered! Ultimately a good sport, Marc looked confused for a moment but then laughed along with the rest of us. Thanks to my TV connections, the video aired twice in the DC-Baltimore markets on a Friday night video show. It's a cringe-worthy period piece now, but still fun to watch, especially if you look at it as a coded retelling of the Kennedy assassination.

           This project marked the zenith of the Ross-MJ Oversight Productions. We worked on a few other small projects, but tensions over sobriety, vision, and business practices caused things to unravel, and eventually Ross split for Russia. He came back to town for a while with his Russian "common law wife." They lived in a slummy apartment next to a coke dealer buddy, who shall remain nameless; the fellow got high one night and took a knife to his own girlfriend, who shall remain headless.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution 

3. The Projector 
by MJ Vilardi 

       Ross and I became business partners. Our new enterprise was called (after much negotiation) Oversight Productions. I had some reservations about that name, since we would be asking clients to trust us with complex projects and large sums of money do you really want the word "oversight" floating around like a nagging omen? But Ross said it was in the OTHER sense of the word, so...

            We didn't have much money for capital investments, so we bought a couple of beat up ARRI film cameras from a cantankerous but lovable retired filmmaker, Skip, who let us buy them on the installment plan; I think he just liked having a couple of novices to talk to every Saturday when we showed up with the cash. He doled out sage cinematography advice while quaffing the martinis that his doting wife, Jeannie, supplied him with. We didn't know exactly what was ailing Skip, but he had thin plastic piping running to and from various parts of his body, and his strap-on glasses were fitted with bulging lenses, like crystal balls. One of them was ruby red.

            Parked in their "Sunset Boulevard-ish" garage was a perfectly preserved early '60's red Cadillac convertible. Quite stunning. Skip said it was a gift for Jeannie, and that they had used it to film the very first music video, featuring Jack Jones singing "Got a Lot of Living To Do." 
"He's driving and singing. The car's full of pretty girls, real lookers. They go through the underpass. When they come out the other side, heh, the girls are all in bikinis. Jeannie! Bring me another one!"

            Thanks to my TV station salary and contributions from Ross' Mom, we soon had our cameras. Now we needed equipment to edit our masterpieces. We headed up to New York looking for a deal on Moviola editing machines. We met sound engineering legend and part-time porn producer Walter Sear, president of Sear Sound, located on the mezzanine of the (then run-down) Paramount Hotel. Walter was also a Moog synthesizer pioneer, and worked on classics like the Oscar winning film "Midnight Cowboy." He also scored such forgotten lusty classics as "Disco Beaver from Outer Space." Like Skip, Walter was a raconteur, and talked a mad streak. He showed us scenes from his latest slasher pic, "Blood Sisters," while all around us machines were transferring pornos from film onto the exciting new medium, videotape. (See "Boogie Nights" for more on this historic transition; it will also give you a sense of how gloriously sleazy the place was). We asked about slasher actress and sometime director, Doris Wishman, who we really wanted to meet. Utter contempt took over Walter's face.

            "When you see Doris Wishman you tell her she can KISS MY ASS really kiss it. I want tongue!" And he was off and running with the sins of Miss Wishman. We reminded Walter about the Moviolas (it was getting late) and he led us to a cavernous industrial loft filled with hundreds of the machines of every imaginable configuration and vintage. We packed two of them into my Izuzu Trooper and drove through pouring rain back to DC, laughing all the way.

            The next vital piece of equipment we needed was a projector we could use to screen dailies and have screenings for our friends. I had imagined something small, like the film projectors we'd used in grade school. But a few days later Ross called to say he found one, and could I help move it into his place. He was breathless. And when I trotted down to get a gander I was speechless. Except to say, "What the fuck?" about a dozen times. There, on the sidewalk at the foot of the stairs up to his front door, was an elaborate hunk of black Steel-age machinery whose scale would not have attracted undue notice at Stonehenge. 

            It was a vintage Simplex Movie House Projector, the kind of behemoth they bring in on a crane and build the theater around. And, they display 35mm release prints a film stock TWICE as wide as the 16mm we were equipped to shoot. But, all that aside, we faced a near-impossible task: getting it up those stairs and inside. Junior, son of Sam, came out to help, but, strapping young lad though he was, we still didn't have the power to lift the beast from step to step. But Junior pulled some boards out of the basement and we used them as skids. With ropes and grunts, shoves and pushes, we made like Egyptians and raised Pharaoh's stone. Once inside of course it had to go all the way back to the kitchen, so, despite an attempt to use towels as buffers, the hardwood floors took a real beating. 

            But once it was set up, the Simplex looked right at home. Those row houses are narrow but DEEP, so we had almost a forty foot throw. We put up a white bed sheet, threaded up a tattered old trailer, and BOOM! We blew a fuse. But we got the voltage thing figured out and soon we had our own movie house! Black & white faces of Ancient Hollywood flickered at the far end of the living room. Despite the slight whiff of electrical smoldering, we racked up an old Technicolor western, and proudly showed Sam and Junior. Junior thought it was cool, and ran off to get his girlfriend. Sam studied the machine as though it had just risen from hell, and left muttering about crazy white something-or-others... 

            Later that week Sam's wife woke up to a loud CRACK. Some part of a ceiling support beam was complaining, giving fair warning that the load on this old house was just too great. Trouble in paradise. Cracks in the old wood grew longer. Threats were made and ignored. Ross was on notice to get himself and his Iron Devil out soon, before the whole place collapsed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution

4. Working Woman

          For most of his life Ross received a modest stipend from his mother Buddy, a genteel Southern Lady who was as sweet and supportive as she was patient. She knew her son had a genius intellect, and was struggling to find out what he was supposed to do with it. She helped underwrite his trips to faraway places like Stonehenge and Moscow, and, she told me later, shared his adventures vicariously, through his stories and letters. But in DC there were a lot of expenses: film equipment, books, and partying.

            So Ross tried several Washington-style jobs, including a stint doing data entry on newfangled computers at a feminist magazine, Working Woman. He cleaned himself up, brushed back his longish hair, donned a rumpled but respectable blazer, and turned on the charm. He was a big guy, a former high school football player, and his rugged good looks and erudite observations evoked, at times, the image of one of his favorite film starts, Sean Connery. (After my persistent questioning Ross admitted that Connery was the man he'd choose if he "had to" go gay). Initially at least, some women were charmed by his hulking gentleness and soft spoken manner as he conjured up baubles of philosophy, ancient history, and the occult. Ross entertained me with stories of workplace flirtations, and even a seduction. For a short time he had these ladies mesmerized.

            His decline and fall in jobs like these would start with time-clock offenses; he'd glide into the office late, accompanied by the complex fragrance of a night of rutting, drinking and burnt chicken. Ross was pretty good at disguising his foggy mental state until a question was asked. His answers were circuitous detours past wounded neurons and around those parts of his brain that were cordoned off for repair. The ladies were not amused. They gave him a few warnings and a few second chances. Then the spell broke and the Working Women released Ross back into the wild.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Photo & Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution

 5. Hipster Heaven

            The scene at Ross's 15th Street place was always wild. Sometimes you'd find him loudly banging out ideas on an old typewriter. Other times he'd be loudly banging one of his girlfriends. He wasn't very tidy, so the kitchen was normally in dirty pot/pan gridlock. But then he'd get energized and spend the day cleaning. He invited me to share a chicken that had been in the fridge for some time. I passed. Ross tore into it like Henry VIII, but soon became violently ill. This actually happened a lot, and I used to wonder if the fridge was functioning properly, especially in the warmer weather.

            During DC's scorching summers the place became a brick oven. An overhead fan pushed the heat around, but days were almost unbearable. We took advantage of the slightly less hellish evenings by filming a loopy tribute to the first scene of 
"Apocalypse Now."

            HIGH SHOT looking down on Ross, soaked with sweat on a messy bed, lost in a fever dream, madly muttering: 
"Everyone gets everything he wants..." 
            CUT TO: CLOSE ON Ross's half closed eyes. They are dead eyes, under murky water. The Drowned Man in a Bathtub. Beat. Another beat. He's not coming up. He's gone.
            WIDER: Suddenly he bursts forth gasping for air, foul coffee colored bathwater (colored with old coffee) sprays everywhere 
(all over the lens dammit). 
Ross blinks, unsure. 
Am I dreaming or am I dead? 

            This sequence became part of "Roach Palace II," an indy short we made, using gritty nighttime urban scenes to create a mood of paranoia and desperation. The soundtrack was hiphop junkyard percussion, performed by a group of kids called The Northwest Young'uns, beating the hell out of upside down plastic drums.

 "Roach Palace II" was shown at a DC film festival, and the artsy audience loved it!      
As an independent filmmaker, Ross became popular, and acquired a following of down-on-their-luck writers, barflies, coke dealers, and aspiring actors. His shabby apartment became something of a salon. Evenings would always start out with great creative potential: 
a brilliant idea, and you could do this part and I could arrange for that and... But inevitably, like Coleridge's vision of Xanadu, it would disappear in a puff of fairy dust.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Photo & Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons  
May be shared with attribution

6. The Two Sams 

After Antioch I settled in Washington DC, working first at a news magazine, then a TV station. Ross was a frequent visitor, swinging through on his way to or from Oregon, Scotland, Connecticut, and other places. Eventually he decided he liked the place and moved into an old row-house just down the street from me. He occupied the first floor apartment; there were two other rented units above him, and the basement was occupied by a cranky old alcoholic, Sam, and his quarrelsome family. The landlord, who must have been insane, had anointed Sam as the resident manager. Chronically unemployed, Sam always had time to mess with Ross, whom he called "MistaROSS." 

            At any odd hour of the day or night Sam would appear, frequently without knocking, which could be quite startling. These intrusions would often occur in the early hours of the morning, like the time Ross was in a fugue state with his pixieish girlfriend Beverly curled around him. "MistaROSS! I TOLD you about keeping that music down!" Beverly jumped like a scalded cat, knocking over glasses, bongs, and other remnants of the night's revelry.

On such occasions Ross would get steamed, but he hated direct conflict. With his friends he used passive aggressive barbs and jibes, but that kind of subtlety was lost on Sam, who would just stare at him with glassy eyes and emit fumes.

            One day Ross acquired a very large black sheepdog too big, certainly, for an apartment, and maybe too big for anyplace. He was a cheerful, slobbery dog. Ross named him Sam, and immediately called me over for some playtime.

            "Here Sam! Come 'ere Sammy!" We threw him a tennis ball and, overjoyed, Sam zoomed to the front of the apartment, then scrambled back. All the activity (including no doubt the sound of nails on hardwood) brought Sam up from his lair. Ross was delighted to introduce his new animal companion. The two Sams studied each other.

            "Why'd you name him Sam? 'Cause he's black?" It was hard to tell if Sam was offended or honored. Two days later Ross left the front door open and Sam ran out into 15th Street and was killed. (Sorry about that part). 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Seven Moments of Ross

Photo & Text CC 2012 by MJ Vilardi, Creative Commons May be shared with attribution

7. A Universe

by MJ Vilardi

I first met Ross McConnell at Antioch College in the '70's; I was recovering from a long night of partying; laid out in my room in decrepit North Hall, my head was spinning, as college students' heads will do. BANG BANG BANG! The quiet of my darkened chamber was shattered by a noise too loud to be real. Someone was slamming my door with a hammer! That can't be. Through the peephole I spied a bearded shaman-looking guy with a fox's head in one hand, and a hammer in the other. I opened the door and asked what the hell he was doing. When he explained that he was trying to nail a foxface to the door I offered to help, and we quickly had the job done. We became fast friends, with similar interests, and taught a couple of classes together.

One warm night, hanging around in the common room in North Hall, I heard a scream. A girl ran by, pursued by the weirdest bug I've ever seen. Its body was long and thin, about three inches long, and it had big gossamer wings, like a dragonfly's wings. But its most shocking feature was the eight-inch red wire-like protuberance hanging from its rear end. This was some bug from hell! I sprang into action, heroically swinging at it with the magazine I'd been reading.

"MJ! Stop!" It was Ross. I hesitated. "That's a Universe," he said. We found a plastic bag and caught the strange creature, then took him outside and let him fly back to the Mountains of Madness or wherever he came from.

Years later, Ross and I heard that a good friend of ours, Jay Shepard, who'd been in the class we taught, and had joined us on the long trek to San Francisco for the class field trip, had died. Stabbed by a mugger in Pittsburgh. Jay was a great guy, and we'd had many of those late night dorm room conversations, speculating about the nature of life and death and reality.

"Just think MJ," Ross said, "Now Jay knows. He knows what it's like."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

This Day In Ross History

Michael Ross McConnell
b. Thursday 10 July 1952

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fall Quarter 1974, YSO

In Greywood
Ross memorized

Speck Rhodes (Comedy):

The first night I had this thing I was going down the street in Nashville and it was real busy, see. And I was in this traffic and there was a good lookin' blonde and she had a little yellow convertible. And she was right in front of my car and she was just a dartin' in and out of traffic just like that. And I was just a dartin' in and out of traffic right behind her. And we come to a stoplight and she just went to stop all at once. And that girl throwed the brakes on that car and stopped dead still in front of me. I like to hit her. Yessir. I bet you I wasn't that fer from her bumper when I got my car stopped. Sitting there waiting for the light to change I reached over and shoved my cigarette lighter in and that girl said, Whoop!

Porter Wagoner In Person
Recorded Live In West Plains, Missouri
(RCA album LSP 2840)
Billboard New Album Release 2 May 1964

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ross Left-Handed Cythereans

Big Eyed Beans From Venus
Don't Let Anything Get In Between Us
05 June 2012

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ross Victorious

Michael Ross McConnell
b. Thursday 10 July 1952
d. Orthodox Easter Sunday 27 April 2008

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ross Spring


5 + 100 + 40 + 8 + 200