Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Lately a fair bit of traffic has been coming to this blog for a posting from 2013 titled “Pedestrianizing With Pynchon,” my response to Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge, wondering whether the great man is a New York flaneur – conclusion: probably.  That post can be found here:

And maybe that traffic is arriving because of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie of Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, which I saw at the weekend.  It’s a noirish tale, and there are a cool cars a plenty – the hero Doc Sportello (played by Jaoquin Phoenix) drives a 1964 Dodge Dart, and it’s definitely not a walking movie per se, but there’s some interesting walking in it: stoners detectives, cops, hippie chicks, dodgy dentists, dodgy doctors, dodgy lawyers, all moving in their own special way.

One big problem the movie had to overcome was to make sure that Doc didn’t resemble the Dude from The Big Lebowski too much – and I think it pretty much succeeds in that.  Did the Dude do any walking in the Coen brothers movie?  Surely he must have, but I can’t immediately recall much of it.  Does walking in a supermarket count?

For most of the 160 minutes of the movie of Inherent Vice, I was gently bored, then sometimes I was savagely bored, and occasionally I was quite entertained.  I have no desire to be a film critic, but I’d say (and my fellow scribe and psychogeographer Anthony Miller said this first and put into words exactly what I was thinking but hadn’t quite verbalized) the movie manages to be utterly unPynchonesque.

Still, seeing the movie did remind me how little I remembered of the novel. I deliberately didn’t reread any of it before seeing the movie, but returning to the book now, I see some very interesting mentions of walking, pacing, wandering and strolling.

Within the first ten pages Doc meets up with his pal Denis (it’s pronounced to rhyme with penis):  “They walked up to Dunecrest and turned left into the honky-tonk part of town.  Pipeline Pizza was jumping, the smoke so thick inside you couldn’t see from one end of the bar to the other.  The jukebox, audible all the way to El Porto and beyond, was playing ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies.”

A little later Doc meets up with Hope Harlingen, the wife of a missing sax player:
“She got up and started pacing.  She was not a weeper but she was a pacer, which Doc appreciated, it kept the information coming, there was a beat to it.”
I think this is a very shrewd observation about walking, talking and pace.  In the movie the actors just sit there and deliver the lines.

About a third of the way into the book Leo and Elmina (full disclosure  - I had absolutely no memory of who these characters were – they turn out to be Doc’s parents) are staying at the Skyhook Lodge, “which did a lot of airport business and was populated day and night with the insomniac, the stranded and deserted, not to mention an occasional certified zombie.  ‘Wandering all up and down the halls,’ said Elmina ‘men in business suits, women in evening gowns, people in their underwear or sometimes nothing at all, toddlers staggering around looking for their parents, drunks, drug addicts, police, ambulance technicians, so many room service carts they get into traffic jams, who needs to get in the car and go any place, the whole city of Los Angeles s right there five minutes from the airport.’”
         Yes! Hell yes! This is why we love Pynchon (if we do).

And then in Vegas Doc goes into The Kismet casino: “Doc got out and strolled under a Byzantine archway and into the seedy vastness of the main gaming floor, dominated by a ruinous chandelier draped over the tables and cages and pits. Disintegrating, ghostly, huge, and, if it had feelings, likely resentful.”

Sure, it’s going to be really, really hard to put that idea on film,  but if you’re going make a version of a Pynchon novel, I think you really ought to try to find some filmic equivalent.

Oh, and another, not really all that relevant thing, I did find this very sweet picture of Bridges and Goodman doing some fancy walking at a Big Lebowski event.

Friday, January 9, 2015


In an article by Greil Marcus titled “Heaven’s Gate” (it first appeared in the New York Times and is included in the collection Double Trouble) he tells the story of Bob Dylan meeting Pope John Paul II in Bologna in 1997.  The story may or may not be apocryphal but Marcus quotes the Pope as saying “You ask me how many roads must a man go down?  One road: the road of Jesus Christ!”

Of course, in this version, which is presumably a translation, the Pope misquotes the Dylan lyrics – it’s not how many roads must a man go down but walk down, and he omits the second half of the question “before you call him a man?”  So it looks like the Pope’s saying you can only be called a man if you walk down one road, with Jesus.  Well yes, I can see how that might be a papal view, but really John Paul, you know, it's a metaphor, right?

Meanwhile in the New York Times right before Christmas there was an article by Bruce Feiler titled “The New Allure of Sacred Pilgrimages” reporting that more and more folk “longen to goon on pilgrimages” (as Chaucer - and Pasolini below - would have it).  

Feiler is the author of Walking The Bible and host of a PBS series titled Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler. That's him below, he's the one rather conspicuously not walking.

He also reports that “of every three tourists worldwide, one is a pilgrim, a total of 330 million people a year,” which sounds both impressive and utterly impossible to prove or disprove.  2 million of these, according to Feiler are Muslims heading to Mecca for a walk around the Kaaba, though other sources say over 3 million.  Either way it still seems surprisingly low considering, again according to Feiler, that 20 million a year go to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Most pilgrims do end up walking one way or another.  If photographs of crutches at Lourdes, like the one above, are to be believed (4 million visitors a year says Feiler) many hobble in there but walk out with a spring in their step.

Feiler also reports the case of Brian Kwan, “a young photographer in Colorado Springs, (who) was born to Buddhist parents but converted to Christianity at 16. When his father died suddenly, he began to question his faith. He decided to hike the Jesus Trail, a four-day, 40-mile journey from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. He carried no luggage.
“At one point Mr. Kwan ran out of food and water and became disoriented. He wandered in the heat for 10 hours. ‘That was the scariest part,’ he said, ‘but I knew that God was with me, and that my dad was with me, too.’”
Well personally I’d have thought that one of the three might have had the foresight to carry some water, but what do I know?

Feiler finally quotes Kwan as saying “You’re either walking in the direction of God or you’re walking away.”  But I disagree.  Some of us trying to keep god at a safe and constant distance, whichever road we’re walking down.


Here’s Wayne Koestenbaum writing about Debbie Harry and walking, in My 1980s & Other Essays (and yes as a matter of fact I do think he’s “exaggerating or over-interpreting” but that’s OK).

“Whenever, in the early years of this already compromised century, I’d see Deborah Harry walk along Twenty-Third Street, the block we shared, I’d marvel at her solemn, hieratic pace. She didn’t trudge, march, rush, lope, stroll, or skip. In billowy pants, she led, slowly, with her hips, as if gliding through water. (Once, I remember, she wore army fatigues: couture khakis?) She explored with pilgrim curiosity the spatial zones her body passed through. Each step gestured acceptance toward the sidewalk; you may think I’m exaggerating or over-interpreting, but these memories—the sight of Debbie Harry promenading on Twenty-Third Street—are my possession, and they are not visions that will disappear, or visions whose meanings I can ignore by pretending that it makes no difference how a star’s gait seemed momentous and allegorical to a primed beholder. Harry seemed at home with each step, at home with her feet and her legs as they maneuvered air and pavement.”

Interestingly, it’s extremely hard to find decent photographs that show Debbie Harry walking in the street.  I’ve done my best.  I suspect this is because most photographers were so entranced by her looks that they simply asked her to stand where she was and pose, even when in the street, as in the one below.  Yep, it’s England, yep it’s a Wimpy Bar.