Sailing the Desert: Off the Map

Off the Map (dir. Campbell Scott, 2002)
Learning to sail into the blue.

Joan Ackermann’s play Off the Map[1] has successfully been translated into film by director Campbell Scott, formerly known for acting credits in such films as Big Night, Secret Lives of Dentists. I say “successfully” because the poetic language and dialogue are beautifully matched by artful pacing of the scenes and poetic landscape/skyscape cinematography. It truly is an enchanting film. Depicting a family of three–mother, father, juvenile daughter, along with their friends—coming to a crisis during their life of voluntary simplicity in New Mexico’s high desert, the story harkens back to a particular era many have characterized as the tail end of Hippie Romanticism. The Groden family has survived handily, living off the land, and in and with the land as best they could for a decade or so. No TV, no phones, no electricity, no frills. I find it most intriguing to revisit the times of the 1970s, the time before the onslaught of gadgets that have complicated our lives. Full of illusions and fictions as it is, the movie gives us a chance to compare and contrast that past age with the present frenetic pace of our cell-phone-commuter culture. As a neo-Luddite, I therefore watched riveted, for the intimate drama had much to teach about human nature. Thematically it’s focused on human dilemmas of loss, disappointment, disorientation, and the rites of passage towards re-enchantment and reorientation. Young viewers uninterested in late 20th century social history might rate this film low in value, considering it nostalgic fare for gray-haired hippies who still gripe about establishment values, corporate exploitation, and a world gone to hell. Ackermann’s story and script fascinated me in its social perspectives and philosophical depth, and in no short measure through its literary connections.

[Note: Those who want to learn the filmographic data about actors, director, and production crew should refer to Glenn Buttkus’s detailed commentary of Off the Map: (http://tacomafilmclubannex). My remarks will have a personal interpretive style and are meant for those who have already seen the film.]

Charley Groden (Sam Elliott) has been at sea for nigh on six months, all awash somewhere in his oceanic psyche, drinking H2O like a fish out of water, crying himself a river of tears, drowning out there in the high desert for god knows what reason. He doesn’t know, but he says, “[S]ometimes I think being dead would be easier.” Arlene (Joan Allen), his wife, has failed to resurrect him; she cannot motivate Charley back to healthful habits, back to his work as the dependable jack-of-all-trades he had been in their survival life off civilization’s grid. His eleven-and-one-half-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis), brought up in nature’s lap, home-schooled and bright-minded, is naturally confused at her father’s altered state. Upset and angry with her parents and their New Mexico desert life beyond the pall of culture, she’s expecting an American Express card any day to help her escape to somewhere normal. She tells her mom, she wants to “buy a one-way ticket out of this hell-hole.” Like Bo, Charley’s best friend, George (J.K. Simmons), is mystified. George frequents the Grodens daily after work and stares at mute Charley as though he were trying to find the bearings to meet his friend marooned far out on the shoals. George, himself a man of very few words, seems to be drowning sympathetically in a similar Sea of Despond, his friend’s anomie having shaken the guy-ropes free from terrestrial moorage.

Told by the reminiscing adult Bo (Amy Brenneman), the story of the Grodens’ summer of changes has predominant literary effects with the voiceover narrative at the scene hinges. In the opening narrative, Bo, living in a bustling city (Salt Lake City, Utah according to the drama notes), sits at a table handling some treasured mementos from childhood. She tells us, “I look to that summer for answers to great mysteries.” Returning to the past, an early scene opens inside the quiet cabin, the sun brilliant outside the windows, George stands stunned in wonder, studying estranged Charley who sits stock still staring transfixed. Young Bo finishes tying a trout fly, and then offers it before Charley’s gaze to lure him up from the deeps. No bites. Not a word is uttered—no praise, no recognition, not a nod nor an okay—nothing. Arlene barges in, bringing home an old accordion salvaged from the town dump; she’d heard it “moaning down deep,” a thing buried alive. However, the musical possibilities of the resurrected instrument needing repair do not budge Charley, who continues to sit frozen in ennui, staring off beyond disappearing boundaries of his own blueness. He acts dumb and disinterested in daughter, wife and friend and in the surrounding sunny desert life. Arlene confides to George that she is considering a chemical cure for Charley. Frustrated, nearly ready for drugs herself, she explains how Charley – “Mr. Sunshine” himself (play script, p.12)– can no longer tolerate sunshine. The past for Charley doesn’t seem to matter any longer. He seems more alive in the nighttime, roaming about the house, sitting on the deck with his telescope. There will be a new dawning, but how will that day arrive?

Charley has departed the familiar shore, has lost himself in mid-stream, but it is hard to find the proper sails to navigate on a high desert plateau. The future, says Narrator Bo, is the sky. The young Bo, trying every metaphor to raise her dad, points out the colorful hot-air balloons New Mexico is famous for as two or three rise above the rim of the escarpment. Charley, barely recognizing Bo, who temporarily has reinvented herself as Cecelia-Rose, misses completely the aerial splendor, glancing too late as the lighter-than-air vessels drop below the ridge. “Today’s balloon fest. You just missed it, Dad.”

Off the Map is a well-acted, quirky, complex movie about changing life on the edge. The Grodens had attained the “back to the Garden” state, but the vital hedonism, harmony, and enchantment of their experiment in nature are on the wane. Crises are on the horizon. Bo, in her “Dear Abby” letter about her dad’s depression, calls New Mexico her “Land of Disenchantment.” (Play script, p.38; “Enchantment” is used in the film’s text, making Bo’s language less cynical. ) The family scrapes by on a few thousand dollars a year and now they have to own up to unpaid taxes, having received notice they’ll be audited. When William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), the IRS agent who scouts them out in the boonies, becomes enchanted by the desert, Bo reminds him that “desert” is another name for “wasteland.” The young girl craves a change, to go outward, even to delighting in a picnic in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Even off the map, the way culture impinges upon the needs of idealists, natural changes have to be made and these changes require loss and suffering.

This family lives in a lovely hand-built cabin, specially designed for the movie. It’s beautifully set in the sunny, sage-y New Mexico highlands, a stone’s throw from Taos, where nature and culture have vied for centuries for possession of place. At the meeting or dividing of ways, the dichotomies of past and future, nature and culture, the earth and the sky play against one another on “the precarious line of the present where both meet.” “Precarious,” says Bo, “because we stand where it curves under foot. Ever changing” (Adult Bo summing up). It is a wonderful drama of a small community coming together at a crisis of loss and change for each character.

Water Magic
It’s an ironic charm of the environmental world of Off the Map that a family attuned to a water world inhabits the arid desert location. Charley weeps involuntarily so that he senses he’s drying up. He feels he must rehydrate himself constantly. Narrator Bo describes water as representative of the past life. Who can deny that human beings are born from an amniotic ocean? Of course, we are also walking water-filled skins? Consequently, Off the Map gives special mention to bodies of water, e.g. naming the seas of the world, which have great meaning for those living far from the majestic oceans. For entertainment, Arlene reads aloud passages from Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast, an ode to sailing ships and the watery main, and most especially the sails and the rigging. She savors in the several passages she reads descriptions of the wind billowing the sails, the canvass “perfectly distended in the breeze.” Arlene may have been doing this as a family ritual to stir the imagination for worlds unseen, but her purpose during this summer of Charley’s ennui is probably sharper: to re-enchant her husband and launch him upon a new voyage. Poetically the metaphors are central to this work. In Off the Map, literary allusions abound. In fact, symbols and poetic metaphors–the whole slate of literary analogies — are signposts of an old-fashioned magic at work in Joan Ackermann’s artistry. In the film, the natural beauty of New Mexico and the perfect Taliesin-West feel to the out-of-the-way cabin do the rest to draw us into this enchanted space.

Joan Ackermann’s movie script stays more or less true to the play’s form and characters. I liked the movie and the play too much to want to turn anyone away from viewing it. Nevertheless, Arlene does go somewhat overboard (pun intended) in front of the locked outhouse, striving to seduce Charley out of his isolation cell by suggesting they could have another kid, old as they are. Most of the time, the subtle downplaying of histrionic manners by the “family” of actors Campbell Scott brought together makes the charming story sail smoothly through its troubled waters. Jim True-Frost as William Gibb could have been more energetic, more expressive and less pathetic as the neurotic transformed from sick city boy to romantic desert artist. The overly precocious Bo is, for my taste, far too extroverted and verbally clever. But, what the hell! I should be used to this clichéd Americanism. Movies do it all the time with savvy children, making them super-bright and adult-scripted, saving the screwed-up world from collapse. (Let’s face it: One day soon the next generation will have to be exceptionally smart, not just smart-mouthed, to help save the endangered planet.)[2]

The Age of Feminism: Points of View
This film has a strong feminist bent to it. Why not? It is a story cast back to days when feminists established themselves. The work of a perceptive artist, the story is purportedly told from a woman’s point of view. However, the voice of Bo the narrator is not to be taken as wholly trustworthy. The glib remarks of juvenile Bo show the limitations of her perception and adult Bo is after all remembering the past through veils of scrim. Our memories do become our personal myths. Consider William Gibbs’ account of his childhood: the devastating effect of an invented past. Otherwise, as the film depicts the action, once the narrator fades, the point of view becomes more objectively third person and so the viewer can make up his/her own mind about the strength and weakness of characters. Primarily the point of view stays limited to Bo’s awareness. Great effort is made to have Bo eavesdropping on situations in almost every scene: e.g. spying from the windmill platform upon her mother, nude in the garden, when William arrives; overhearing from her upstairs room William and Charley’ confessions of their lost selves, as they sit weeping on the deck at night. How otherwise would we know what transpired in the intimate engagements? In actual fact, she cannot have been present to catch all the events the third-person camera’s eye perceives: e.g. Arlene and George’s late night whispered discussion; Charley and William’s quiet nighttime encounter; Charley’s long-distance run to town to meet George for a wrestle. In Off the Map there are clearly two or three points of view at work, which film fiction seems to get away with because we viewers give ourselves wholly to the illusion when it is well done.

The men, Charley, George, and William Gibbs, are unhinged, lacking in vitality: Charley has abandoned past habits, no longer interested in just patching up old junk, fixing leaky vessels. Thoughtful George is hanging on, working up on poles for Ma Bell, visiting his only friends, eating, sleeping, a little fishing, and back to work. Dazed William Gibbs, almost dying, nursed back to life by Arlene, is looking for structure, but instead he finds outer space, boundless freedom. The transformations from different degrees of depression to psychic balance in the men-folk around the house are the core experiences we focus on contemplating the play’s mysteries. How they come to their senses to re-enchant the world is the major inspirational theme.

The women are admirable survivalists. Arlene and Bo play the naturally balanced figures, still hinged to reality, responsibility, and imaginative sanity. They hold down the fort. Bo, at twelve-years-old, is the central figure of change, who must suffer a greater degree of loss than any other character. Preparatory to her own life change, she is bravely suffering her personal limbo between nurture and independence, and between nature and culture. She is angry and desperate for the challenge to come. Anxiety over her father’s depression, and later over George’s separation as he changes course, adds gravity to her predicament of coping with loss. Arlene could continue life as the course had been set, yet knows the rites of passage suffered in populous communities must be encountered among her own small family. In her nature, she acts non-judgmentally, adjusting to Bo’s addictive engagement with culture as the girl has learned to gull merchandising corporations and credit card banks for freebees. When Bo insists she’s going to attend a public school, Arlene gives her freedom, knowing the time is right. Silent as George is by nature, Arlene trusts his inner strength. Seeking his advice and aid, she finds him a sensitive interlocutor. She also respects William’s missions, both as an IRS agent after their taxes and as a refugee from the run-around of the cultural maze. With a firm grasp of human nature, she understands the way a magical place can work changes in the psyche. She tells William, who, newly revived from his fever, has confessed his deep love for her: New Mexico has this effect on people when they first encounter it. “Boundaries disappear,” she explains to him. Nevertheless, wise as she is, she cannot find the therapy to rock Charley out of the doldrums of his depression.

Nature vs. Culture
Arlene, with her buoyant spirit, has herself come to the hawser’s frayed end trying to keep Charley close to reality’s shore. A Mother Nature of Hopi ancestry, she gardens au naturel, keeping the land fertile and productive. She goes to town, she gets the mail. She goes to the library, being Bo’s home-school teacher. She also mentors at the prison. Working to maintain their cultural livelihood, she still scavenges discarded, useful goods from society’s detritus at the town’s dump. Taught by her father, Bo has learned archery and rifle sharp-shooting, important technologies for survival. Playing Artemis with her bow and arrows in the wild, she has begun to hunt the creatures she was taught to protect, showing her ritual passage from natural to cultural attitudes. This change is especially evident in her manipulation of manufacturers as she searches abroad for free cases of corporate branded crap, Ding Dongs and Butternut bars, she wheedles from companies by playing on society’s fear of rodent hairs and cockroach carapaces. Her delight is noticeable when her wiles work; she receives packages mailed from the mass producers in the outer world who think they’re mollifying her consumer rage with pleonexia—possessing more of the same crap. At home, she’s losing patience with simplicity and anonymity. Communally, Bo sees her innocent magic growing ineffective with the grown-ups: she comments sarcastically, rhetorically asking questions and answering herself, chattering on with a juvenile’s facile advice to urge either Charley or George toward animated existence. She has better luck playing lion-tamer, conducting imaginary circus animals to rise up on their hind legs. This kid really wants the cultural circus world out there. When she takes her cache of bankroll pennies to town, the Taos merchant of consumer goods is a Pueblo Indian. How the world changes in time.

Sweet William
When the lost, heat-stricken William Gibbs arrives –for Bo the arrival of “a saint”– life begins to vibrate differently, even though he appears as a shady angel, the Fed come to collect on unpaid annual taxes. He is the catalyst of change; though, one could credit either the sun, or the land, or a honey bee (Apis mellifera) as the spirit of transformation. William is stung by the latter. After suffering an allergic reaction and a serious bout of fever, he becomes a resident once Arlene mothers him with her Hopi nostrums back from his dream quest or delirium. His rite of passage is from depression according to a Freudian point of view through untangling his childhood history. Having found his mother hanging from a kitchen beam by bumping into her body after his show-and-tell class with a foam-core pyramid, he’s been depressed ever since. So he has been taught. No one of his family would ever discuss this horror with him. This man needs a past, to relive guilt-free childhood, adolescence, and youth, with an imagination unhampered by the neurosis of a pseudo-Oedipus Complex. Fortunately, he resolves his depression, talking it out with Charley and Arlene, re-imagining how he’d been scapegoated into guilt. The need a person has for a good cathartic, soul-wrenching cry to vent the shadows of the past plays a part in William’s coming to his senses. In contrast, Charley’s weeping is a shedding of idle tears, for they roll unwonted down his cheeks. William’s cure of his depression is of a different kind from Charley’s. William had to get outside mainstream culture and its ways of imprisoning minds. He simply finds himself off the map with the nature- and freedom-loving Grodens. After leaving his past, giving up his anti-depressant pills, William finds his future as a desert artist. He has come through and finds wings of artistic desire. He shows the way out. On a blue bus and with a telescope for looking far out, William sails blissfully for nine more years through his new wilderness, painting wonderful landscapes. What greater bliss in this pitiful span of years could one wish for?

To Feel Something
Scene 13, not used in the film, from the play script (p.29) reads as follows:

Lights come up downstage front on Charley who is walking towards the cabin. He stops and looks down at his foot. Bends over, unlaces a boot and shakes out a pebble. Puts the boot back on and starts going. Stops. Turns around, goes back, takes the boot off [again], puts the pebble back in, laces up the boot, goes inside.

Charley’s Ennui
Sam Elliott, best known as a rugged Western-type with a sonorous, honeyed voice, plays against type; his Charley’s mostly mute, weeps, and behaves believably depressed. He’s very good as a mystery man. How are we to discover the seat of his despair? Unlike some commentators who attribute his depression to Bo’s impending departure from home, I think the reasons are more complex and cover a wider landscape of his existence. It is the frustrated Arlene, after all, who thinks Charley needs greater humility and reminds him that Bo’s leaving home does not mean they’ll be losing her. Crushed by “loss” of Bo is really the only openly implied reason in the dialogue for his loss of self. Sometimes the empty-nest syndrome can bring a parent down, but Charley’s stuck in a much more difficult way. Something from Jungian therapy or Viktor Frankel (Man’s Search for Meaning) needs to be applied in his case. Talk therapy by itself has not worked. In a film that invokes powerful images–maps, horizons, disappearing boundaries–and has as a high point William’s magnificent wrap-around painting of the surrounding sky and ocean, symbol of flight from his past, long-lived depression, we might be expected to consider a more expansive setting for the conditions under which Charley’s life has come to this impasse.

The Oppressive World
The Vietnam Era was a pall hanging over the nation for more than a decade, to the bitter end a fiasco of government Cold-War policy and lying to the nation. Charley and George were Vets of the Korean Action and could not have had a high opinion of the government during this time. The world on the map that Bo would venture out into is the one marked by the U.S.’s pathetic departure from the Vietnam War combined with the collapse of American ethics with Nixon’s impeachment in 1974. What an abysmal time! Depression ought to have been a national disease. The Youth Revolution that sent many bright Americans into Waldenesque isolation was probably a crucial experience in the Grodens’ romantic relationship and life choices. Taking the politico-cultural setting into consideration, one can imagine the effect of this overarching element on the mind and soul of a Veteran of Foreign War like Charley. Truly, America was a distressed nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To my senses, America is suffering a similar depressing angst because of the protracted Middle-East chaos through the machinations of our politically unethical administration. I’ll admit to bouts of depressive behaviors over the state of our nation and over the world. Though an impeachment of President Bush is suggested by the congress and the vox populi, no one really wants to take on the job.

Old Rope
Whatever happened in Charley’s psyche also had something to do with his sense of meaningful work. Bo narrates that her father was a genius at fixing things with his hands. He could play every type of musical instrument. Now the hands that used to whisk her up in play are turned to “stone on his lap like two fine birds that had been shot.” George, too, though he’s gainfully employed for the monopolistic Bell telephone seems bored by his working life. When he has a chance to meet another woman—his counselor at first, when he seeks medicine for Charley’s cure– he thinks she likes him. His re-enchantment comes from a relationship with a Mexican woman he meets in town. Even though they do not speak the same language, George marries and decides to depart to Mexico for a more challenging life. My god! He eventually becomes a mayor. William Gibb has left the workaday life of the East Coast, where he was employed in the chaos of short–order cooking. His bet on a structured job was to accept IRS auditing in New Mexico, where the bureau took anyone, skilled or not. This job was for him a sentence to a sadistic, moribund limbo. On his accidental walkabout to find the Grodens, he “died” out of numbing establishment orientation. Following his rapture in a fever dream, he awoke to a new self. Once he discovered his emotional or erotic soul, his imagination soon caught fire. Having come to his senses, inspired by art, William was sure he would not return to the deadly IRS.

Charley, too, had died out of his regular life and the reputation of being a miracle fix-it man. The tedious, practical work of fixing stuff had killed Eros. In one scene centered on Bo inside the cabin, she watches Charley outdoors inspecting a piece of lumber on a sawhorse. He takes the board, looks at in disgust and slings it away vigorously. There’s no challenge for him in this, no new vibration. It’s the same-old manageable labor become sterile routine. This does not help create a vision for the future. Charley’s at a loss for something meaningful to do. Gradually, William’s recovery through painting has a direct ameliorative affect on Charley’s perception, for he admires the depressed man for his stamina to put up with life. The men do help one another to change, but none of it could have occurred without the women’s intuitive prompting.

The Need to Struggle
A clue to Charley’s re-invigoration shows up soon after he has ingested one of William’s anti-depressant pills. As William adopts nature and discontinues his prescription, Charley takes the drug, coerced by his insistent family, to test the cultural nostrum. Though the chemical change does not suit him, it does agitate him into motion. Charley takes off on a long-distance run into town to find George. He wants to wrestle. He has no reason to question George’s bond of friendship, but what he wants from George is some antagonism, someone to contend with. This is D. H. Lawrence’s philosophy, and also Norman Mailer’s theory about the power of boxing. The Charley-George contention is indebted to the wrestling scene in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Consider Lawrence’s description of the industrialist Gerald Crich’s ennui:

[He stood] as motionless as a man who is completely and emptily restless, utterly hollow. He has done all the work he wanted to do—and now there was nothing. He could go out in the car, he could run to town. But he did not want to go out in the car, he did not want to run to town, he did not want to call on [anybody]. He was suspended motionless, in an agony of inertia, like a machine without power.

This was very bitter to Gerald, who had never known what boredom was, who had gone from activity to activity, never at a loss. Now, gradually, everything seemed to be stopping in him. He did not want any more to do the things that offered. Something dead within him just refused to respond to any suggestion.[3]

In that novel, the wrestling match between Rupert Birkin, Gerald’s friend, and the depressed man is suggested as a cure for boredom. Of cures for ennui, other consideration is given to sleep, drink and travel. But they’re discounted as worthless. Finally Rupert brings up work, love, and fighting. Fighting? That’s the ticket! The men commence to wrestle to bring new energy into their beings. Eros, for Lawrence a spiritual force of life more than just the sort having to do with love affairs, comes in many forms, and one of them is struggle or contention. Likewise, when George is forced to wrestle Charley to the floor, Charley gets his wish for a good bang up the side of his head. He thanks George for pinning him down, asking him to just hold him down. The pacific, impassive existence, simply making do, held forth no challenge; there was no vigor, no new sensation, in routines. Charley had no sensuous life, no sensuality, no go. The wrestling match with George is the renewal of sensate existence for Charley, jump-starting his feelings.

Fixing the Sails
To emphasize Charley’s return to feeling, when he learns Bo has purchased through MasterCard credit a new yacht for his birthday, he doesn’t receive this as an absurdity, but rather as a pleasant possibility. When the expensive boat arrives, Bo excuses her audacity by adding that it doesn’t come with sails: “But I thought we could make some. I thought it would give you something to do.” (Play script, p. 44) He thanks her and wonders whether it will take a spinnaker, that coiled, triangular sail that resembles a hot-air balloon. That would be a buoyant activity! To make sails for a new boat is really something to do. It’s a creative challenge, using new materials to take one into a adventurous future. The metaphor resonates: each person needs to make the sails by which one can sail onward. Imagination comes alive; possibilities exist. It is a blend of culture and nature that makes a boat go, and the imagination directs where to go. For Charley the past has to be let go. His friend George is taking off, newly married, revitalized; his daughter is about to depart on her own journey through adolescence and youth; William has found himself and shows the way through artistic, imaginative invention. When Charley realizes he has to make new sails to make his vessel go, Eros returns.

At the conclusion, the movie differs from the play by having adult Bo who has been reminiscing nostalgically, return home by bus. Perhaps this was to be just a visit, but perhaps it is more poignant to imagine that Bo has found the rat race in the cultural maze not the paradise she thought desirable in those childhood days. There’s something to cherish in getting back to nature and simplicity where her parents continued to survive off the beaten track.

Appendix: From Nottingham to New Mexico

My boyhood in the English Midlands was a stone’s throw from Nottingham, D.H. Lawrence country. During my high school years in America I was addicted, for many reasons other than an obvious nostalgia, to the writings of D.H. Lawrence and have read most of his works, some twice and three times. Later, as a college instructor, I used his works in composition classes as well as in literature and mythology courses. While I watched Off the Map, motifs and themes of Lawrence’s works danced about in my thoughts.


Lawrence had an influence on the region close to the location where Campbell Scott filmed Off the Map. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lawrence went in 1922 to the American Southwest, like many health-seeking tubercular patients in the early 20th century, for the curative climate. Though he died in Vence, France, where his grave stands, Lawrence had passionately wished to return to New Mexico where he felt the sun and the air were alive. His ashes, though there’s some dispute about this, were buried in a chapel flagstone at Kiowa Ranch not far from Taos. The place remains a tourist haven to this day. Therefore, with such connections in mind, after my second viewing of Off the Map, I was intrigued by certain associations with the British author’s style and work that did not, the more I contemplated them, seem coincidental. My intuition may have run wild on this, but the wrestling match (mentioned above from Women in Love) looks far too apt to be coincidence, especially since it is connected with a cure for depression. Now I am more certain of connections and imagine Ackermann had a fascination for Lawrence’s fiction at some point in her education and career.In Ackermann’s play, animals have significant roles—bear, coyote, bees. Her use of animal images reveals a similar figurative handling to that in Lawrence’s style. The connection is in the way animals take on spirit lives and humans become spiritually bonded or antagonistic to them. Although many of Lawrence’s stories and poems illustrate the importance of animal symbolism, the short novel The Fox is one known by most readers. Director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, The Rievers) made a film of this work in 1967, starring Sandy Dennis, Ann Heywood, and Keir Dullea. In The Fox a young woman March (Heywood), living on a farm with her partner Banford (Dennis), has a strong attraction to a hen-thieving fox. March admires its beautiful wildness and cannot bring herself to shoot it. In Off the Map, this compares well with Arlene’s admiration and sensual attraction for the coyote. Lacking the sensual life with Charley, Arlene seems to be having an affair with neighbor Coyote. She admits to George about being aroused by Coyote’s wildness while she gardened: “Something that wild. I think I would have come right there.”(Play script, p. 11) William Gibbs arrival shakes her out of the erotic trance. He, though not a wild thing, is like the intruding coyote and becomes romantically infatuated with Arlene. In The Fox, likewise, a young intruder, Henry, enters the young women’s lives. Possessing fox-like features, he kills the fox and wins the hand of March. The other woman, Banford, is very jealous, wishing to spoil the love relationship. In Off the Map, something tamer, less erotic is going on. Culture-seeking Bo becomes jealous, keenly aware of William’s love attraction to her mother. Huntress Bo kills the beautiful, wild coyote as though solving the dilemma of the love affair. But on a more complex level, in defiance of the principles of her upbringing, this rash act against nature may also be taken as definition of Bo’s need for separation. In discussion of images, some film club members noted the same teary look of coyote’s eyes appears later in the close-up in William’s eyes in his death.

Beyond these comparisons, anyone familiar with Lawrence’s ideas about culture, nature and Eros will most likely sense other significant connections with Ackermann’s play and the film version. It is a multi-layered, complex work, poetically, psychologically, mythologically

[1] New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., c1999. The play was first produced in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1994.

[2] A sour note: the DVD commentary by Ackermann and Scott is an abysmal failure as a Special Feature. The rambling chatter of the duo does not help in any way to explicate or enhance the ideas of the story. This struck me as an opportunity lost by the writer. Ms. Ackermann does not even come across as a perceptive commentator. Her contribution expresses none of the magic she oncemust have felt in creating the play.

[3] Women in Love (New York: Viking Press, 1975), p.258.


One thought on “Sailing the Desert: Off the Map

  1. David: What a wonderful piece of scholarship and thoughtful introspection, sir. I was entranced by the connections you made, and the strong literary and symbolic motifsy you ferreted out.

    I am old, like many of us in the Club. I remember the 60’s like it was last week. I remember fondly the day at the University of Washington in 1969 when thousands of demonstrators marched down and closed off I-5, carrying those signs GET AMERICA OUT OF VIET NAM. You were there too, but we did not cross paths then. The cops came, and heads were smacked and asses busted, and you leaped off a part of the overpass and hurt your ankle and leg. Yes, much of the country was depressed at that time. How marvelous of you to link Charley’s ennui to the times, as well as the empty nest syndrome, and a father’s natural struggle to let go of his little girl. We differ, as is appropriate, in our analysis of Charley’s depression, but I love that you found a much deeper, more layered, more complex set of ingredients within in; like so many things in life, nothing is in black and white. I was listening to a radio talk show today on the way to work, and a reporter put out another newsletter promulgating the position that of course it was the CIA that killed Kennedy. His question posed to us was what kind of a world would it have been if JFK had pulled us out of Viet Nam, which was his intention, and we would never have lost 50,000 lives or thrown a whole generation into Hippie malstrom. There would never have been a Watergate probably, nor a Nixon resignation; no veteran suffering from PTSD, nor Agent Orange. Maybe Jimmy Carter would have had a second term. The possibilities are endless.

    What wordsmithing you accomplished. I loved that phrase, “Charley was frozen in ennui, staring off beyond disappearing boundaries of his own blueness.”

    Your ability to really lock into the Ackerman use of animal imagery, and the elemental importance of water were invigorating as well. There is no doubt that Ackerman, a former resident of northern NM, knew about D.H.Lawrence’s residence near where she assigned the setting of the play, and thus the film. In a few weeks, when I am in New Mexico, near Taos, I will hunt for the Kiowa Ranch. I also adore your personal connection with D. H. Lawrence country and characters, growing up there in Nottingham. When you first mentioned the connection to WOMEN IN LOVE I had not recalled the vary close parallels to Charley and George, and the wrestling scene. I had likewise forgotten that Norman Mailer liked to put on boxing gloves to reinvigorate himself, and smack away the blues.

    And lastly how appropo to connect to America today, and El Dumbo, El Douche, Junior the Bush bunny, our nearly first fascist President. Isn’t it ironic that the CIA never wants to assassinate the likes of him, or Nixon, or Johnson (who I believe was complicent in the JFK killing). JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, all gone in a hail of carefully orchestrated bullets. The cynicism that America settled into in 1964 has never left us, even during the rocking chair Reagan years.

    What a companion piece this writing of yours makes to my rough attempt at an OFF THE MAP narrative and review. Thanks so much for all the hard work and insights.


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