Saturday, August 30, 2014

Just keep doing it

Many moons ago, in a past life as a young artist in Chicago, I knew a guy, a friend of my roommate, a cinematographer and experimental filmmaker, well-liked and well-respected in the artist community.  We'd gone to a screening of a film he'd recently completed, and everyone we knew was talking about it. The film was a three-part portrait of the filmmaker's grandfather. 

There's a scene where the grandfather suggests they pray together. The filmmaker admits to his grandfather, rather sheepishly, that he doesn't know how to pray, and then begins to weep uncontrollably.  As a young art student I had seen plenty of people reveal their own naked bodies in their art, but never their raw, naked emotions, and I was impressed with the humanity of this artist.

We hung out only one time that I can remember: my boyfriend and my roommate and I met him and his girlfriend somewhere near Maxwell Street; they invited us to their loft to watch films. They lived in a huge, old warehouse; I remember washing my hands at their bathroom sink and looking up thinking I’d never seen so many cobwebs in my life. But their life wasn’t about housework, it was about following your vision by making art.  At one point he asked me what I was working on, and I told him I wasn’t working on anything at the moment.  I had recently graduated and was working full-time in an office, and found myself too tired at the end of the day to do much else. He practically stuck his face in mine:


“I can’t; I just don’t have time.”

“Yes you can. Just keep doing it: keep filming, keep working on your stuff. Promise me you’ll do that.”

I hadn't expected such a strong reaction.  His manner was confrontational, yet kind and encouraging. Then he smiled as if to say: I dare you!  He was a few years older than we were, and we looked up to him as an elder brother figure/journeyman artist showing support for his newly-fledged artist brethren.

Over the years I lost touch with him, and I left art-making altogether. Then one day a friend sent me a newspaper article. Our friend had gone missing, and nobody seemed to know where he was.

When I met him he had been a film editor for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and then got hired as a cinematographer working with a German documentary filmmaker. That was as far as I knew.

Apparently in the early 90’s he'd left Chicago and gotten married.  Several years had passed by the time I received the article about his disappearance. There were rumors he'd joined a satanic cult and was buried somewhere out in the desert. It sounded so ridiculous I dismissed it as a load of crap. He was an experienced, globe-trotting filmmaker; he could be anywhere.

A few more years passed, I got my Master’s and left town myself.

Then one sleepless night, I thought of him and googled his name. There he was: tall, skinny, intense and quirky, just as I remembered him.

Every posting said the same thing: in 2000, his body was found in the basement of a house in Wyoming.  He had been murdered five years earlier.

There had been a documentary about his disappearance, made by his friend and colleague, but it was unavailable.  Besides written articles--including an online archive of the one my friend had mailed me several years ago--the only videos I could find were a short clip from NBC news and a 43-minute made-for-TV episode for a true murder mystery series that I had to rent in order to see.  I expected it to be a repetitive, over-dramatized affair, but when you lose touch with someone you once knew--only to learn bad things happened to them--you take pretty much any scrap of news you can find.

The story was centered on the woman he left Chicago to marry: a charismatic but mentally unstable leader of a religious cult who preached dowsing by swinging a pendulum. Her teachings were initially positive but grew increasingly darker as she began to believe she and her flock were surrounded by demons and zombies. In 1995, when things were at their weirdest, he decided to leave.  In the heat of an argument, she shot him in the head at close range, and buried his body in the basement with the help of another cult member.  By the time it was discovered and a formal investigation was launched, the leader had died, and the other woman was charged as an accessory.

Of all the people I've known, however briefly, he is the last person to have deserved such a fate.  He was a good, kind person, with many friends, and had he lived, one wonders how great his mark upon the world might have been.  Some artists become more renowned in death than in life, and I think it sad that more people got to know of him as a murder victim than as an artist.

When we read stories about people who ended their lives this way, we usually don’t stop to think about how it must feel for their loved ones.  The murder mystery genre is a form of entertainment for everyone but them. 

I wish he could have written his own story. But I’m so glad to have known him and for receiving his message:

Keep doing what you love.  Don’t give up.

My friend's name was Allen Ross.  A really cool guy.

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