A debt of gratitude to the man who rarely gets it wrong. Make the most of him while you can because nobody is eternal and one wonders how many more films the great man has left in him. Let’s hope that when the time comes his last stand will be in the editing studio, just after the final cut of his latest work. Or perhaps it would be better for him to go at the beginning of a new project. It’s hard to imagine a better time for an old man to expire than while he’s immersed in a new adventure. No time for aches and pains, a curse upon the faltering memory and the creaking bones, let’s get out there and do it.
So here he is then, embarking upon, let’s imagine, a western. He’s out west, scouting locations deep in Monument Valley under a scalding Arizona sun, his caravan of Jeeps kicking up plumes of dust between the sandstone buttes and the crumbling rock needles that give this whole wilderness the appearance of a fetid giant’s mouth, decaying teeth exposed in a gruesome leer.
A helicopter dips down momentarily onto the flat top of a mighty butte, then peels away across the short stretch of plain separating it from the next butte, upon which it settles again, looking for the world like a giant honey bee grazing for nectar. The studios provide Clint with all the money and means he needs, they know he never exceeds the budget; their percentage is safe. They ask no questions. He won’t let them down.
Clint steps down from the chopper onto the polished sandstone summit of a likely butte, ducks down until clear of the decapitating blade then, slitting his scrawny neck with an imaginary knife, signals to the pilot to kill the motor. The silence is deafening up here, the slow whish-whish of the chopper blades as they coast to rest mingling with the whispers of the Apache wind. The air is cooler at this height. Clint gulps down mouthfuls of quiet, filling his lungs with Mormon oxygen from nearby Utah. He screws up his eyes and looks out over the valley. The desert surface is pockmarked with running shadows as fluffy dumpling clouds herd together and float noiselessly across the sky.
The rest of the small crew fan out across the red rock, taking light measurements, testing the surface, seeking shade to set up the generator. The chopper pilot steps clear of his machine, lights up a Marlboro and inhales deeply. His second of the day; the one he likes best. But where’s Clint?
Eastwood is perched on the eastern rim of the butte, a thousand foot drop at his feet. He shields his eyes against the sun. A glint has caught Clint’s eye. Heck, what’s this? Something big is hurtling straight as a die towards him from butte to butte. “My God,” whispers Clint, “it’s a white eagle”. His vision blurs, his legs buckle, his hearing turns to cotton wool. “So this is how it ends,” muses a calm voice, his own, down beneath him. “They’ve sent an albino eagle for me.”
“Hey Clint!” Concerned voices erupt left and right and dash about the summit.
“Where’s he gone?”
“Oh my God…”
Frantic calls down to the Jeep caravan down below. “We’ve lost him, he must have gone over the edge!” The voice is hysterical. Yet no-one on the desert floor has seen a falling body. The caravan splits, racing in different directions around the base of the butte. He must have fallen on the blind side.
Few places on Earth enable you to experience eons of time in the way that Monument Valley does. The red dust that clings to your boots has traversed countless ages of ages. Once it was part of a towering cliff until millennia of rain and frost weakened the rock face and sent the whole side tumbling down, to be transformed into a chaos of boulders. Further still back in time the great rock face was spewed up by primeval forces from the bowels of the earth and yet further back the molecules making up these motes of dust were washed back and forth by the lapping tides of a gigantic inland sea.
The careering Jeeps meet on the far side of the butte and spin around each other like rutting buffalo then come to an angry halt. There is no body, no mutilated corpse, no sign of life. Is this some kind of Eastwoodian prank? He could not have just disappeared into thin air. Search parties are organised, the butte is scrutinised from top to base.
A mile from there, in this light it’s hard to say just how far, broods a great flat-topped mesa. Its ochre flanks resemble pleated curtains, formed by the action of a million carving rivulets. Part of the crew is making its way there, who knows why? Surely Clint could not have gone that way without being seen. Leaving the Jeep is a cocky studio man by the name of Chuck, wearing a dark blue shirt with white chalk-stripes. He attacks a path leading up the side of the mesa. Chuck knows it will cost big money if Eastwood can’t be found. How he loathes artsy movie people! They spend money like water and kid themselves they are the key to great films. According to Chuck, movies get made despite such people, not thanks to them. Take this jaunt into the desert, for example. Why did they need to hire a helicopter and a fleet of Jeeps? A bus would have done just fine and then right now we wouldn’t be looking for our director! He fumes up the dusty path, punching numbers into his iPhone as he goes. Shit, no signal.
“What the…?” He has just seen a solid rock the size of a man cough and puff smoke from its mouth. Chuck does a double take. “God, this heat must be getting to me,” he says out loud.
Yet Chuck’s eyes have not deceived him. There is indeed a human figure sitting there, or is it a rock? It is hard to tell the difference. It might be an old Indian. The jutting chin, the hook nose, the hooded eye sockets, the ashen complexion, all argue in favour of a Navajo man not long for this world. Yet the form is immobile, barely distinguishable from the other rock formations about.
“What do you seek, white man?” If sawdust had a voice this is what it would sound like.
Chuck doesn’t know whether to be startled or relieved. “Hi old man, my name’s Chuck, maybe you can help me?”
“Foolish is a man who offers his name unbidden,” rasps the sawdust voice, “and you are indeed a fool”.
“Well, fuck you too, Mister!” This must be another of Eastwood’s pranks. More expense! Indian extras don’t come cheap these days, not since the red man realised there is money in myths.
“Did Clint come this way? How much is he paying you? I want to see if you are budgeted for. What’s your name?”
There is no reply.
“Look, don’t fuck with me, OK?” Chuck has had enough of these shenanigans. “I can get you taken off the cast just like that!” he says, snapping his fingers beneath the old Indian’s hook nose.
“More prattle, less speed,” comes the slow reply, accompanied by a puff of smoke. The old man is clearly cantankerous. As Chuck reflects upon what his next move will be, the smoke wafts its way into his eyes. Chuck yelps, a searing pain invests his mind, it feels as if an eagle has drawn its talons across his pupils. The torture is excruciating, he now sees the world through a liquid mist of swimming swirls. He tries to focus on the chiselled stone of the Indian’s face. Bravura is turning to fear, the old man’s eyes are like leaping flames, except that the flames burn turquoise instead of red.
“I, Fool, am the Keeper of the Eagles and I go by many names. If you will address me, Fool, you may call me Grey Ash.”
Chuck is not so cocky now. The pain in his eyes has abated but his head is adrift. He wishes he had not met this old Indian.
“Be that as it may, Fool, you crossed the path of Grey Ash and you will never forget this day. Now look down, Fool; see and be less foolish”.
Chuck does as he is bid. He has climbed higher up than he imagined, the desert stretches far away beneath his gaze. It is bathed in turquoise light, the buttes are glowing orange, the little fluffy clouds have blood-red fringes and two white eagles are flying in straight lines from pinnacle to pinnacle. This land, in fact, is many lands, Chuck can see this now. The buttes and mesas are the solitary remnants of an ancient sandstone plain which has been gnawed away. They stand like stray tufts of down clinging to the carcass of a plucked goose.
The forces which shaped these ancient lands to this day slumber beneath the crust of the Earth, occasionally crooking a little finger to cause an earthquake or flexing a calf muscle to unleash a towering tsunami. And to think that these pretentious human beings labour under the impression that they master the destiny of the seas, the clouds and the skies, that the foul gases they produce have some bearing upon the matter, when all along it is I, Primeval Evil, and only I, who decides all things! Do they not know that ’twas but yesterday I reversed the flow of their beloved Amazon river such that its waters now flow towards the Atlantic instead of the Pacific Ocean? One day I shall destroy them, too, when they amuse me no more.
Chuck’s teeth chatter.
“Now, Fool, look up and be less foolish.”
Cascading over the crest of the mesa upon whose flanks Chuck is standing, the wind flows billowy into the studio man’s vision. He can smell the sky and hear the sun. The bitter taste of turquoise tickles his tongue. This confusion of senses makes Chuck giggle. The fronds of wind up there look like a row of blond curls on a pretty child’s forehead. Chuck sinks to his knees.
“Now, Fool, why do you trouble the Keeper of the Eagles? Now is not your time.”
“Grey Ash, please. I am looking for Clint Eastwood.”
“Open your eyes, Fool.”
“But he has disappeared without trace. If he is dead I must bring back his body.”
“No corpses are there on Eagle Mesa, Fool, only the souls of the good reside here.”
Dusk is falling and Chuck is confused and disorientated. His senses are higgledy-piggledy, he is still tasting colours, seeing the wind and hearing the harvest moon now risen and cranking its mechanical way across the sky. The chalk stripes on his blue shirt are sodden with sweat, his iPhone is of less use than a tablet of rock, his brain is churning out of focus. He is afraid. And now, tantalisingly just the other side of earshot, carried on the downdraught from the mesa top, Chuck fancies he sees the infected respiration of a demented harmonica floating in and out of view. And so, as Chuck sinks deeper into delirium, the death rattle leers its eery song.
When they found Chuck the next morning, hollow-eyed and cold, he related the story much as I have written it down here. He was cowering, short of breath and muttering, at the foot of an outcrop of barren rock high up on the mesa trail. He seemed to be frightened of the rock. As the crew brought him down, they heard the bleak cry of an eagle circling high overhead. Chuck spent many months in the psychiatric ward, they said the pressure of work had got to him.
Clint Eastwood’s eyes glazed over when he heard the tale. He stopped masticating gum in mid-chew, put down the script he was working on and sat motionless for many minutes. His eyes seemed focused on something a thousand miles away.
“Hmm” he murmured finally, “it might work”.