Last month my lifelong friend Ross McConnell died near Tbilisi, Georgia in a freak traffic accident. He was on his way to a Black Sea resort in Turkey, and had just stepped off the bus at a rest stop when he was struck by a speeding minivan. He died shortly thereafter, in the “reanimator room” of a nearby hospital. Ross was 55, and had been living in Tbilisi for several years. Here is a news report by Georgian State Television, with English transcript courtesy of Ross’s friend, the expatriate writer Brian Adrian, who also lives in Tbilisi.
NOTE: The remarkable life and untimely death of Ross McConnell is the topic of our first MJville podcast. If you knew Ross and would like to share your thoughts and memories, please leave a comment on this post and we’ll work out a time for a phone or Skype conversation.
I first met Ross back in the 70’s when we were both students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I was trying to sleep off the effects of a long night of partying, when I heard a loud noise at my dorm room door. It wasn’t knocking, not even pounding, but an insane hammering, like they were tearing down the building. I peered through the peephole and spied a big guy using a brick to nail something to my door. “What the hell-?” I yelled as I swung the door open. A preserved fox face fell to the floor. This is what the mystery man – obviously inebriated – had been trying unsuccessfully to mount. Without further comment I picked up the furry mask and held it in place, while Ross nailed it securely into the wood.
I will never know how he came to acquire that fox face, or why he chose my door for it. At the time, it seemed no stranger than all the other cosmic events happening constantly at Antioch, a school that seemed, at times, to levetate. Ross and I shared a beer etc. and talked about the cosmological knowledge of ancient civilizations… Mystic Crystal Revelations late night in an undergrad dorm room… a familiar way to pass the time. Typically talks like these are fueled by beer, weed, and the sweet imagination of youth… but Ross seemed to offer the real deal: primary experience of mystical forces and divine revelations. And he knew his shit!
Ross was tall and solidly build – not like a Venice Beach muscle boy, more like the frantic, impassioned heroes in the paintings of William Blake; naked or trailing wispy gossamer long hair and beards, these figures take mountain-high steps on tree trunk legs, and implore the moon with arms that almost reach it. But Ross’s arms were almost always filled with books: rare old tomes from the collection of his grandfather (a famous WWII general); astronomical journals, the works of Plato, even a history of Atlantis by the sleeping prophet of Virginia Beach, Edgar Cayce. Ross brought plenty of theories and challenges to get us motivated… I say “us” because almost overnight Ross had himself a following: smart kids looking for inspiration (and something more interesting than the predictable liberal art curriculum were were getting). Some of these kids had rich parents, so intoxicants were always available to keep our reality engine adequately lubricated…
Ross and I taught two classes together, and used our “instructor” status to rent films at educational rates for free showing to classes. But we’d publicize them campus-wide, and charge admission, using the money to rent better films. Extra profits funded extravagant pre-film parties with spiked punch and electric brownies … it was the 70’s, after all. Eventually we could even afford Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, which we showed in Main Hall with yours truly manning the giant projector. Tense moments (audience riot) when, during the crucial ape scene, the film got stuck under the hot-as-the-sun xenon bulb and some frames burned. At least one person in the crowd thought it was the end of the world, because there were screams. Ross calmly locked the projection booth door and together we figured out how to splice the film back together and get the massive Simplex projector running again.
Other films in our series included:
- Titicutt Follies
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
- Dr. Strangelove
- The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
- Greaser’s Palace (hard to find now, but truly worth seeing)
And then our season finale: The Paranoia Festival. Anyone unwilling to experience true paranoia should stay away, we warned. Of course the warning just made the event irresistible, and we sold out in two days.
We started with a huge party that, in one way or another, left most of the folks in an altered state of some kind. Then the first flick: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which a small group of friends slowly realize that their town is being taken over by pod people: they’re replicates from outer space that grown in pods to look like you — when they hatch, the human goes bye-bye. “There’s yours. Do you want to watch it grow?”
The second film was a campy ’50’s Cold War terror play, Red Nightmare, in which a nice suburban man (Jack Webb) wakes up one morning to discover that his entire town — even his own wife and son! — have become communists!!! A little scarier than the first film because of the political implications.
The final film was the French documentary Night and Fog, an award-winning and horrific, unflinching look at the worst atrocities committed by the Nazi in the death camps during WWII. The mood of the audience changed immediately. There was squirming, crying, jumping up from seats … especially when, midway through the film Ross and I switched on powerful searchlights mounted on the balconies and played the beams over the crowd.
The Paranoia Festival was designed to transition the audience from laughs and entertainment, to apprehension and gnawing fear, to the awful realization that sometimes the paranoids are right. Sometimes evil forces ARE out to get you, and if you don’t run away when you have the chance, you die. It’s a harsh lesson. For some, it was too much.
We got a little flack from the administration about the way we ran the film screenings, but that was mild compared to the ass-whipping we caught for our two classes. “Irregularities” and “non-conformance to College standards” were mentioned more than once. Threats of revoked credits and even expulsion were waved around for a bit, but in the end nobody was stung too badly. Stay tuned for the story of how we hijacked an entire class and took them 2000 miles from Ohio to San Francisco in the middle of a semester. I chat with Tim Leary’s wife, crack up Carl Sagan, and kiss the hand of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. Ross McConnell 2 — coming soon. Please check back in a day or two, or subscribe to our RSS feed so you’ll know when there’s fresh content.