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Praising Arizona

To arms, whatever…


Jonathan loved Indians. They were called Red Men. He had an Indian blanket that was red and a pink piggy bank that looked like Pow Wow the Indian boy. He loved his picture books that were full of pictures of Indians, hunting buffalo in the grass, or dancing. He would coat them with layers of red – lipstick, jam and Crayola crayon…

He was subject to fits of blinding rage.

He broke his Indian bow and arrow quite coldly out of hatred for something he did not understand. It was terrible because he had truly loved his Indian bow and arrow. He was stricken with remorse.
Geoff Ryman, ‘Was’. 7

‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
Maxwell Scott in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’.8

‘Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492': Geronimo, rifle in hand, with three other Apache braves, photographed before their surrender to General Crook in 1886.

Geronimo with three other Apache braves, photographed before their surrender to General Crook, 1886.

The sign reads ‘Old Town Boutique Shops’ and has done since 1993, when the Kiva movie theatre finally closed. The wooden building that stands at 7125-7219 E. Main Street, Scottsdale now sells the jewellery and Native American beadwork that are the staples of the tourist trade in this part of the United States. On my 2011 trip through the American Midwest and South researching this essay I also noticed many uses of the sepia image of Geronimo, rifle in hand, with three other Apache braves, photographed before their surrender to General Crook in 1886. The photograph is appended with the strap-line: ‘Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492’. Google that line and you’ll find many different designs based on the same idea.

I’ve seen this combination of image and slogan on websites, posters, t-shirts, and postcards sold in trinket stores and at county fairs, very often by Native vendors. The idea isn’t copyrighted or licensed by anyone as far as I can make out – no doubt explaining its prodigious memetic propagation – making it very much the ‘Keep On Truckin’‘ emblem of revisionist Native American history.

The subjugation of one people by another requires that all parties do degrading, demeaning things to one another, and to one another’s memory, ad infinitum. Colonialism isn’t over with the initial massacres and land clearances. There are long, lost decades that follow; of Jim Crow minstrel shows, mutterings about white devils, apprentice boy’s marches and Paddy jokes. Of squalid, mean-spirited caricatures (North Korean television propaganda, Fox News) or of hollow sloganeering and vainglorious jingoism (again, Fox News).

Bill Cosby in Geronimo Homeland security tshirt
In the final stage, there is either total amnesia – in Turkey, of the massacre of its Armenian population; in the DRC and pretty much everywhere else, of the genocide of non-Bantu-speaking peoples of the Congo Basin – or there’s romanticism.

We’re on the winning side by a mistake of history. The vanished people became us, at least in spirit, through recitation of stories about them. It’s absolution by empathy, on the victor’s terms; but where the underdog is always the hero, and where there’s always a happy ending.

Proudly, Parisians sing their rebel anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, even though today you’re more likely to hear Occitan – the language of the Languedoc and the south of France – at a folk festival than you are in a pub or café in Marseilles, where you’re more likely to hear Arabic.

What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conspiring kings want?
For whom are these vile chains,
These long-prepared irons?

They’re for your neighbours, mon brave.

Romanticism at least offers some hope of redemption for the world soul. It incubates within it romance, love, a kind-heartedness bundled up with the coronets.

A therapy for a civilisation’s forgetfulness is to go on a lengthy dérive, to explore an imaginative path back through the wilderness of our ancestors’ nostalgia and selective memory loss. Night in the desert is cloudless, cold and unforgiving. Out here on the margin between humanity and the wild nature of things there are no empirical facts, but there are wind-blasted relics. The desert is a refugium of lost peoples: we can reach down, anywhere, sift the sands with our finger tips, finding shattered micrographia recording the inchoate, diffuse realities of past lives.

We can re-imagine these weathered reliquaries, reconstruct them in imagination, to find a deeper empathy with the people who went before us; the structures they built, the animals and plants they shared the landscape with.

In this harsh environment, unfriendly to certainty, the only travelling companion that forgetfulness can hope for is laughter.

In 1979, when the wickedly great Serge Gainsbourg became the first white pop singer to record an entire album in Kingston, Jamaica – with Rita Marley, Sly and Robbie – his version of ‘La Marseillaise’ truncated the familiar version of the chorus by removing the more militaristic lines.

Aux armes, citoyens, // To arms, citizens,
Formez vos bataillons, // Form your battalions,
Marchons, marchons! // Let’s march, let’s march!
Qu’un sang impur // Let an impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons! // Water our furrows!


Aux armes et cætera // To arms, etc

At this, veterans of France’s involvement as aggressors in the Algerian War of Independence suffered a collective irony-failure. Gainsbourg received anti-Semitic death threats for desecrating the French national anthem. As Asterix the Gaul might well have observed, these Romans are crazy.

Serge, the immigrant Russian Jew in France, had the last laugh, not once but twice.9 Shortly after the controversy, he purchased the original manuscript of ‘La Marseillaise’ at auction. The manuscript clearly shows that the author Rouget de l’Isle did not bother writing the full chorus three times, preferring to shorten it with the word “etc” – “Aux armes et cætera…”

Meanwhile, the eponymous album on which the track appeared went on to become a million-seller in French-speaking markets; Gainsbourg’s first big hit as a recording artist rather than just a songwriter.

Localities construct complex collective myths, as nations do: belligerence directed at the past, yielding to reflection, remorse, good humour; then back to intemperance again.

Cab drivers hang around in front of the Kiva while they wait for fares (there are parking spaces outside in the daytime) and tell apocryphal stories that could be the basis of Scottsdale’s fabricated self-mythology. One driver I chatted to pointed across the road to a building with sturdy stone walls, indicating – he said – that it had been the jail. The Sheriff’s office was usually built opposite the saloon, right? So the site of the Kiva had always been trouble.

What, I wonder, was there when the first settlers moved in? Had it inspired the name ‘Kiva’, a memory of what was once an underground chamber for rituals built by the previous inhabitants? Was the act of building a bawdy house on top of it a deliberate act of desecration; a subjugation of the old magic by the new Trinity of Christianity, Commerce and Consumerism?

The theatre Spielberg knew as a child was originally called the Tee Bar Tee, and had been since Scottsdale’s first mayor, Malcolm White, built it in the 50s. This all changed in 1962 when the building was acquired by Louis K Sher. A film distributor originally based in Cleveland, Ohio, Sher moved his operations to Arizona when his wife developed diabetes and a doctor recommended the desert climate for her health.10

The Kiva became the headquarters of Sher’s Art Theatre Guild of America, a chain of cinemas which was a major player in distributing foreign and independent films throughout the 60s; and which carried on as an innovator in ‘adult entertainment’ till the Kiva’s closure in 1993.

Why did Sher call it the ‘Kiva’, a Pueblo term for round ceremonial halls in the South West? Kiva buildings are associated with the groups such as the Anasazi who live north of Scottsdale, nearer to Flagstaff. You can still see circular structures built by Indian communities next to the railway tracks, often combining traditional shapes with Buckminster Fuller geodesics, using modern materials like polythene.

The two major peoples who lived in Scottsdale before Europeans were the Hohokam and then their descendents, the Pima. For 1500 years or so, and in a more lush and verdant climate, the Hohokam built a complex grid of irrigation channels and canals for agriculture. Modern Scottsdale’s matrix of intersecting roads may be tracings of this earlier grid. At some time between 1350 and 1375, climatic changes deepened the Salt River Bed and flooded the canals. The large Hohokam communities broke up and the culture faded away.

The fragmented communities came to call themselves the “Akimel O’Odham” (“the river people”). “Hohokam” is an O’Odham word meaning “those who have gone before” and “the ancestors”. The O’Odham are better known by a short name, “Pima”, which came about through a misunderstanding. The phrase pi ‘añi mac or pi mac, meaning “I don’t know,” was used repeatedly in first contact with Europeans.

There was a traditional Pima dwelling in Scottsdale, still lived-in, on the southeast corner of Indian Bend Road and Hayden Road when Sher acquired the lease on the Kiva in 1962. Pima who live within Scottsdale now reside in new buildings rather than traditional ones. Small towns built by the government for Indian communities stand abandoned along the railway line from Flagstaff. Many live in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which borders Scottsdale to the east.

Sher’s invocation of ‘Kiva,’ a word from Pueblo culture to denote sacred space, is pure romanticism. He could equally have called his movie theatre the Luxor, or the Orpheum. Sher the showman’s instinct for the exotic, the esoteric and attractive would have led him to such a simple and evocative word.

If Sher had wanted to draw on O’Odham culture he could have done better by naming it the “I’itoi”, but try saying “let’s drop the kids off at the I’itoi this morning, honey, and go bowling!”

In O’odham mythology, I’itoi is the mischievous progenitor god who lives in a cave just below the peak of Baboquivari Mountain, part of the Tohono O’odham Nation. I’itoi brought the ancestors, the Hohokam people, to the surface from the underworld. He authored the Hohokam’s list of rules for living, the Himdag, guiding humanity to live in balance with the overworld. Visitors to I’itoi’s cave must offer a gift to ensure a safe return from the subconscious depths of history.11

Often referred to as The Man in the Maze, I’itoi dwells at the centre of a labyrinth design used commonly in Pima basketry and silver jewellery. Like Islamic mosaics, Pima baskets contain a “mistake”; rather than humility before the perfection of the Divine, the flaw ensures the spirit in the maze isn’t trapped in the object but is free to roam. Deliberate error – forgetfulness of craft – admits the ineluctable, the realm beyond knowledge, in to our world. A happy accident is a doorway between dreaming, speculation and empirical reality.

Nothing that’s left of the original building would reveal how important this space has been to half a century of film culture. The Kiva Theatre was the black box for the young Steven Spielberg’s imagination to receive transmission of the archaic remnants of cinema’s first fifty years, to descend into the maze of signs and symbols and emerge with rules for storytelling; and that wasn’t even half of the epic tale.

Nobody I talked to in Scottsdale knew that this building was the same place as the cinema where the young Spielberg went to Saturday morning matinees, though they were generally delighted and surprised to be told this. They knew the story that he went to a movie theatre somewhere in town in the 50s, but not that it was the one on Main Street, and definitely not the one with a reputation for showing racy films into the early 1990s. Not that this information caused anyone to bat an eyelid. This surprised me, in a community known for its self-consciously Christian values and Republican leanings.

“You have to be relaxed in Arizona, it’s so hot,” one trader opposite the Kiva told me, jokingly. “We’re all tourists here. When I came in 1958 it was a town of five thousand people. New people coming in were relaxed about it, but felt an adult theatre wasn’t really the done thing.”

Next… Underground Cinema 12


  1. Geoff Ryman, 1992, ‘Was‘, Flamingo, London, p. 227. []
  2. James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, 1962 ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ from a story by Dorothy M Johnson, Paramount, Los Angeles. []
  3. ‘In his 1975 album, ‘Rock Around the Bunker,’ the song ‘Yellow Star’ (Gainsbourg was obsessed by Anglophone culture, from Hollywood films to Gershwin tunes) recalls how it felt to be a young Jew wearing the obligatory Yellow Star in the streets of wartime Paris. Alluding ironically to the badge’s resonance as a prize (“I’ve won the yellow star”) and a badge as sported in Western movies by a “sheriff or marshal or big chief,” this bittersweet recollection concludes that the “law of struggle for life is difficult for a Jew.”‘

    Benjamin Ivry, 26th November 2008 ‘The Man With the Yellow Star: The Jewish Life of Serge Gainsbourg‘ The Jewish Daily Forward, New York, NY.

    The biopic ‘Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’ depicts part of Serges’s self-mythology, that as a child he lined up to be the first Jew in Paris to have the Vichy authorities pin a Yellow Star on him. []

  4. Craig Outhier, March 2011, ‘Scottsdale’s Kiva Theater‘, Phoenix Magazine, p. 52.

    Dewey Webb, 7th November 1990, ‘Too real for the immature! The raw truth about Scottsdale’s frisky Kiva‘, Phoenix New Times. []

  5. Dr. John Myers & Dr Robert Gryder, 1988, ‘The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indians‘. []