Grapes of Wrath

Henry Fonda appears out of the ether walking down the middle of a deserted highway. Telephone poles line the road like tombstones. It is the perfect opening to a movie and a quintessential black and white shot. This shot was most likely filmed in 1939. It was done by arguably the greatest cinematographer ever – Greg Toland. The following year he would hook up with Orson Welles and change the game forever with a little film called Citizen Kane. But here Toland is just “slumming” it with John Ford. Yeah that John Ford. The one who did all those John Wayne westerns with doorway shots in Monument Valley. Movies should have just packed it in after The Grapes of Wrath. You had Toland’s otherworldly light and shadows, Ford’s immaculate composition, words by John Steinbeck and Henry Fonda’s acting at its zenith. I don’t know how anyone could have been so surprised by his villainous turn in 1968’s Sergio Leone jam Once Upon A Time in the West. Apparently they hadn’t seen his Tom Joad: the ultimate drifter, semi-good shepherd and anti-hero. He’s everything great about movies. How come I’ve never seen this?

I’m sitting here watching what is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time… one of the first ever films selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress. I am watching this because I listened to Van Weezer. That’s right. Weezer has a new album called Van Weezer. I sent a review of it to one of my friends in which I simply stated: “This doesn’t sound like Weezer or Van Halen. It sounds like Van Shit.” But a funny thing happened after I perused various hilarious internet reviews of this aural monstrosity. I found out that Weezer released two albums in 2021. The other one was recorded during The Great Pandemic. It was called “Ok Human”, a not so hilarious riff on Radiohead’s “Ok Computer”. From what I gather this album was some sort of Rivers Cuomo think piece on sheltering in place set to orchestral string music. I skimmed through it and found one gem called “Grapes of Wrath.” I’ve become obsessed with this song, I listen to it on the way to work everyday as well as on the way home. This has been going on for weeks. The song is essentially Rivers sing-talking about listening to Grapes of Wrath on Audible with his headphones on and mindlessly zoning out. This struck an immediate chord with me.

For the entirety of the Pandemic, and for that matter the entire 2.5 years of my sobriety, I’ve been listening to Audible books on the way to work. It started with tales of redemption from recovering addicts and lunatics, then morphed into books on business, celebrity, marriage self-help, the enneagram, you friggin’ name it. For whatever reason this stuff chills me out. It apparently chills Rivers Cuomo out too. After approximately 257 Spotify spins of the “Grapes of Wrath” (the Rivers version) I found myself wondering if I’d ever actually read Steinback’s The Grapes of Wrath. I didn’t think I had. In high school they force fed us Of Mice and Men like they were clumsily trying to breast feed an infant for the first time. It bred the kind of resentment that made me never want to look at another Steinbeck book as long as I lived. I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit through an Audible book like Rivers had. I had too much other junk lined up, like Willie Nelson’s autobiography, 23 hrs and 26 minutes of Barack Obama’s latest opus left, and on the horizon for some reason I preordered Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood...this is apparently read by Jennifer Jason Leigh and is 11 hours long.

So here I am watching the 1940 version of The Grapes of Wrath. Like Rivers himself I am all over the map. He talks some serious jive about Grapes of Wrath and the book 1984, then apes “Electric Avenue” on the earnest earwormy chorus. I might be the only human to visit a local AMC theater to watch genre slime like Mortal Kombat (2021) and then come home on the same night and pull out an iPhone to watch one of the greatest cinematic treasures of the 20th century. Does that make me an ok human? If anyone else has married these two things together in the same day give me a jingle and we will share war stories from our therapy sessions.

This 40s Wrath is some dark stuff. Amazing this came out only a year after The Wizard of Oz. It’s funny how things change, yet stay the same. Movies are our fantasy and our reality no matter what calendar year it happens to be. The Wizard of Oz of our time is candy-coated super hero and video game films. Extended universes for us to fall into and forget about our life tornadoes for awhile. Instead of Okies packing up their shit heap jalopies and running from a black roller Dust Bowl, we have an era of Baby Boomers who need to “find themselves” on the road to Nomadland. All the while woke Gen X and Millennials wallow in the mire of inconsequential escapism. I find it amusing that Zack Snyder’s Justice League was formatted in the same open matte 4:3 square postage stamp aspect ratio as Tom Joad and his load. As Henry Fonda states so eloquently in his farewell speech to Ma Joad:

“A fellow ain’t got no soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody.”

I’m pushing 1,000 days sober now. 959 to be exact. 1,000 was my “pie in the sky” goal during my first 30 days. It seemed so ridiculous, just hilariously unreachable. Now as I sit here it seems like it went by fast and was easy. I’m sure it wasn’t, but I’ve blocked that part out of my memory hole. I suppose I should reflect on some things in case anyone trying to get sober is reading this. I’ve really only learned 3 things:

  1. The “Us vs. Them” mentality is bullshit. When you’re down in the muck like the Joads working a job with someone it doesn’t really matter what they think about religion, politics or who their favorite Beatle was. All that shit is meaningless. It’s about how well you help each other to get the job done. Can you count on someone? Can you trust someone’s skills? Will you help each other when one of you falls down? It also means you may need to walk away from someone or something if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain. You don’t owe anyone anything in this world. I’m still working on all this of course. I’m terrible at it, hence the former numbing with booze.
  2. With an unclouded mind, you stop caring what other people think. This is true freedom. It sounds like an enormous cliché, but confidence soars without the crutch. You can really truly do anything you want to without the crutch, even become dependent on Audible like that cool cat Rivers Cuomo.
  3. You need some sort of creative outlet to feel like an ok human. You need to do at least 1 thing per week that has nothing to do with what you do for a living. You have to make something with your hands. It could be a poem about the birds you saw on your walk, it could be a list of your all-time favorite Nicolas Cage movies, it could be a rambling booze blog, or a side hustle in stained glass. It has to be for you and you alone though. Just 1 thing. Find your thing. Like Kano figured out he could shoot a red laser out of his eye in Mortal Kombat (2021). It can’t be something you consume though, it has to be something you spit out into the world….like Grandma Joad spits on California right before she croaks. That was a thing of beauty.

Sometimes I walk on people’s property to photograph old cars. I keep thinking someone is going to kneecap me with a shotgun when I appear out of the ether walking down the highway wearing a 5 layer KN95 mask (I just wear it for fun now, I’m fully vaxxed) and carrying a $35 plastic Holga toy film camera. “No Ma’am I’m not from the government, I’m just here to steal the soul of your precious old beater. Oh my! How did you ever find such a massive “F*ck Biden” flag? Did you make that yourself?”

I’m gonna rock my audible
Headphone Grapes of Wrath
Drift off to oblivion
I just don’t care, I just don’t care
Rock my audible
Headphone Grapes of Wrath
Drift off to oblivion
You think I care, I just don’t care
– Rivers Cuomo

4 thoughts on “Grapes of Wrath

  1. As usual, so much here to digest. I don’t think I’ve ever watched the Grapes of Wrath. I’ve read it a couple of times and you just inspired me to read it again. After that, I’ll watch the movie. I didn’t realize it was considered a classic – possibly lost on me, but I’ll give it a shot. It’s interesting that you say 1,000 days wasn’t hard (even if it was). I’m over 2000 and I well remember how hard that first 1000 was. I was in freaking pain.

  2. It was really hard actually. The first 3-6 months were bad. I just meant that the feeling of that had kind of started melting away.

  3. So since you wrote this, I read the book, wrote a blog post on the topic and I just watched the movie. I’m a book guy, not a movie guy, so of course I just compare the movie to the book. I think they did a fine job of boiling 600 pages down into 2 hours and I seriously enjoyed it (and because of you I paid attention to the cinematography which I wouldn’t have done without reading your blog post).

    The thing I didn’t like was the ending. How Hollywood to end on an upbeat message of hope. The book ends with no hope at all. The Joads have no money, no possessions except the sopping clothes on their backs. They’ve hit bottom, but the only direction to go is down. They’ll keep hitting a new bottom until they’re dead.

    Thanks for sending me on this path. I’ve learned an awful lot from the experience and it’s still going on. I’m about to read a series of articles that Steinbeck wrote about migrant farming that sent him in the direction of writing TGOW, I always get pretty excited when my blog makes an impact on someone. I hope you feel a sense of achievement knowing that I’m totally obsessed with TGOW because of you.

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