I’ve known writers who are precious about what they allow in their media diets – the thought being that whatever goes into their minds will come out in their work. If one ingests the cultural equivalent of trash (reality TV, pre-fab boy bands, celebrity magazines and flavor-of-the-week teen comedies – all of which surely have their place in moderation) one can expect to regurgitate artistic landfill.
That said, I’ve long been fascinated by dumps, in the literal sense, as a place where cultural objects meets their terminus, ready to be absorbed back into the earth (or not, Al Gore tells us). Archeologists have been hip to this concept for a while. I recently heard a chap on NPR discuss excavating an intact hot dog that was at least a decade old. What does that say of our culture? I won’t hazard a guess, but I will share that I was exposed to dumps at an impressionable age and have resisted their evocation in my work on dozens of occasions. Today, I’ve failed. This is how it began: While remodeling a house when I was kid, my father would take me on dump runs, which, to my fevered imagination, were rather like visiting the edge of the world. To borrow from poet Shel Silverstein, it was a place where the sidewalk clearly ended. Like the beach (also tantamount to the edge of the world when one is pre-kindergarten, knows nothing of Columbus and, if asked, would likely reply that the world was flat), the dump of my youth swarmed with beatific bone-white seagulls. At Sonoma County’s refuse disposal site on Petaluma’s Mecham Rd., however, the birds did their acrobatics over a gaping maw of soiled diapers, toast crusts, chewed Nerf footballs, popsicle sticks and Chinese food takeout boxes. This association of the sublime and the sordid remains with me, reinforced perhaps by the media I encountered as a child – all of which came tumbling back to my consciousness on a recent field trip to the Sonoma Transfer Station on Stage Gulch Rd.
Not a dump per se, the transfer station is a place where local trash is heaped and aggregated, presumably organized by its content to be disposed of elsewhere. It also proved a visual playground for Sun ace shooter Ryan Lely, who invited me to join in the adventure. The resulting photo essay brought to mind several cultural touchstones, which I’ve enumerated below.
Besides being ersatz mirrors of our disposable consumer culture, dumps have also figured into the olio of more than a few artists. In Woody Allen’s seemingly autobiographical turn as a film director on the verge of career collapse, “Stardust Memories,” an opening sequence depicts the bespectacled Allen in a train car surrounded by clearly miserable people. He looks out the window and sees the “beautiful people” toting tennis rackets in another train (among them Sharon Stone who, in her film debut, blows him a kiss). Allen panics – he believes he’s in the wrong train – but it’s too late, he’s trapped as his train departs. Later, we see his final destination as he and his travel companions wade through heaps of trash. After a beat, the beautiful people also arrive at the dump, which, in this case, becomes Allen’s cynical metaphor for where we all end up.
I’ve revisited the film several times throughout my life and no matter how adolescent or obvious Allen’s commentary will at times seem, my inner-auteur remains smitten with the imagery.
Ditto a sketch in episode 23 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In this case, an attractive woman sits at a dump inexplicably holding a cabbage. Moreover, the cabbage is ticking like a time bomb. A young French swain approaches her – we know he’s French thanks to his black-and-white striped shirt, neckerchief and the Gitane dangling from his lip. He attempts to make small talk as the subtitles read: “I see that you have a cabbage.” More vague chatter ensues until the woman wanly says “I love you” and the cabbage explodes.
The episode, which was dubbed “La Fromage Grand” and originally aired in 1970 (re-broadcast stateside in the late ‘70s on PBS, where my dad and I watched it, perched on the family room couch) was an astute parody of the French New Wave films that had been filtering into art houses and film studies courses the world over. The Python parody reverberated with me not just for its absurd setting and general silliness, but also because my mom, at one time a film major at Sonoma State University, propped me on her knee as a toddler to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend.” Subtitled “a film found in a dump, it features a lengthy sequence in which characters trade sophistic notions in a literal wasteland. It’s apparently intended to mean something, though I suspect Godard’s use of the dump bears little in common with the dumps in less esoteric film fare.
Consider the famed trash compactor scene in the original “Star Wars” flick (though not a dump in the traditional sense, it was rather grandiosely interpreted by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell as analogous to the “belly of the whale” narrative archetype). The scene was recreated by toymaker Kenner in its Deathstar play-set, replete with space garbage made from harmless blocks of foam and a corkscrew hand-crank one could turn to crush its occupants. Without foreknowledge of the film, of course, the toy was merely a trash-themed torture device for action figures. However, those of us who regularly visited the film at the local multiplex knew that trash compactors could be places of camaraderie and redemption so long as your protocol droid had a finger on the kill-switch. Lely, our photographer, suggested that dumps are similar to cemeteries but “without the sentimentality of souls.” Perhaps they are, but I prefer to think of them as a sort of cultural collective unconscious and whatever is in them probably says more about us than we care to know. You may now recycle this paper.