Amazon, which used to be an online bookseller, before which it used to be a rain forest (I have a guitar with a thin little slab of Brazilian rosewood on the headstock—I am allowed to travel away from the United States with this guitar but cannot return with it, on account of certain complex international laws arising from the “used to be” nature of the aforementioned rain forest), before which it used to be merely a large river, before which it used to be an unusually tall sort of woman (Ἀμαζών) of the personality type commonly designated “A” (standing for “Amazon”?),has become a company that makes movies.
Because Amazon is the quintessential “Let’s make it happen on the Internet” company, the idea is that all of us will make these movies together.
So Internet User “A” (not Ἀμαζών) submits a concept for a film and gets paid ten thousand dollars.
Then Internet User “B” (I. U. B) volunteers to re-write it and gets thirty-three thousand dollars, hoping that their name (“Internet User ‘B’s”) will appear in the credits, in which case he or she (or they) gets two hundred thousand dollars.
Then I.U. “C” volunteers to write “additional dialogue” and gets, maybe, half-a-million dollars, because, the way I read it anyway, every new creative participant appears to make a higher figure (sort of a backwards Amway).
Then I.U. “D” volunteers some old curtains and I.U. “E” says “My uncle has a barn!” and ta-da (!) there’s a show! Brought to you by you! And Ἀμαζών!
A month ago I was under a deadline to submit a proposal to become Internet User “B” (the two-hundred thirty-three thousand-dollar Internet User) and failed to deliver May’s Backstage Graffiti column. For that failure I apologize to you, my inter-galactic readership (who, if you each sent me a cashier’s check for a nickel, I wouldn’t have to be revising I.U. “A’s” film concept and instead could be writing a Backstage Graffiti column every single day because I’d be so “rolling in it,” as they say).
On the subject of failure, I want to tell you a story you’ve never heard before. I learned it from Clive Romney, whom his friends call “Biff” (it’s a thing in the Romney family, where guys named “Richard” are called “Stim” and guys named “Orville” are called “Smab”—there’s even a guy in there they call “Mitt,” don’t ask me where that came from).
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely scenario: a couple of hundred Jewish immigrants—butchers, bakers, cabinetmakers, tailors, furriers, merchants, accountants, clerks—only a couple who’d ever farmed—forming the Jewish Agricultural and Colonial Association and buying 6,000 acres of raw land in a high desert valley in central Utah (quite near Gunnison)—and setting up a colony, a colony with a Very Big Agenda—an agenda that, if it were a bank, would be called by the current administration “too big to fail.”
Let’s make it even crazier. Let’s say that the colonists range from Revolutionaries to Labor Zionists to devout Orthodox Jews to fugitives from the law, such as one who was wanted for punching out a Jew-baiting landlord. Many just wanted out of the tight, ratty tenements and sweatshops and corporate cubicles (just kidding) of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston—wanted a life where they controlled their own destiny.
Utah’s government was practically begging these folks to come, partly to justify the cost of the sixty-mile-long Piute Canal it was digging right past the site. The Board of Land Commissioners (hereafter “BLC”) promised a canal full of water, and Benjamin Brown and Isaac Herbst took that as pretty good assurance that their dream of a Jewish utopia in Utah would succeed.
On September 10th, 1911, exactly 100 years ago last, um, September 10th, the advance party was met at the Gunnison train station by an open wagon driven by Ben Brown. Nine men and two women jumped in and headed south through town, singing Ukrainian folk songs at the top of their lungs, letting everybody know that a new era in Gunnison’s history had arrived—and managing, somehow, not to get arrested.
After a few dozen choruses they saw in the distance four white tents that would be their home for the next eight months until they could build something a little more durable. They foresaw that for a time their life would be intense (“in tents,” little humor to lighten up history), but hey, it wasn’t a tenement. The wagon slowed to a crawl up the long hill. The raw earth was tree-starved and spiked with occasional sagebrush, shadscale, and thin grass. Small stones and large rocks littered the tract—you’ve heard of the “tip of the iceberg.” This was scary.
The first morning in camp, dressed in Russian workers’ caps and peasant blouses, they all went to work. Isaac Herbst led the surveying team, laying out roads and farms and castles in the air. The six-man land clearing squad hitched two teams of horses to an iron rail and began dragging the rail across the land to scrape off the sagebrush. Of course the rail just bounced over the rocks, so they had to go after those by hand.
They’d bought a new $4,000 gas tractor to scrape, level, plow, and harrow the land. But the tractor broke down so often that it was about useless, and since none of the colonists knew how to fix it, it was back to muscle and horsepower. They dug irrigation ditches, and in five months had 1500 acres ready to plant.
They didn’t work only to survive. There was something bigger, and this is what makes the story worth telling. All the men worked (in Ben Brown’s words) “twenty-five hours a day,” (would you buy land from a guy that casual with math?) because they felt their efforts now had implications for all Jews everywhere. They saw themselves as the vanguard of a movement that would change the direction in lives of tens of thousands of people. “Let us make a good go of it here,” said one, “and you’ll see the whole [Jewish] people returning to the land.”
These folks were wildly diverse, a whole lot more than Republicans and Democrats or Utes and Cougars, and way more diverse than their pretty diverse Mormon neighbors. But they were family, sharing blood that had bound them for thousands of years. Still, they were about as different from one another as any dozen people could be. But common purpose and the sheer mountains of work dwarfed ideological differences.
You could see the progress. Long days of sweat had reclaimed the desert and readied it for new life. Satisfied and confident, they snapped photographs of themselves and their accomplishments and mailed them east as postcards to family and friends.
Encouraging letters returned, inspiring the pioneers in their work. For people disgusted by the squalid tenements they’d left behind, the Utah environment was intoxicating.
Isaac Friedlander recalled a trip into the mountains to gather firewood which, in his words:“evoked in us a religious exaltation. We are amazed by the concurrence here of summer and winter. Below, Indian summer warmth prevails, while the wooded ridges and high crevasses are mantled with snow. But the ultimate thrill of religious ecstasy seized us when a sudden clap of thunder was heard to arise somewhere in the depths of the mountains, and then it faded away.