Socialism as a Craft

Against the Current, No. 206, May/June 2020

Mike Davis

GENE WARREN AND I became friends in the late 1960s when I returned from Texas to LA, where I had earlier been the first SDS regional organizer. From the beginning, Gene fascinated me because he was quintessential LA but from a different galaxy than the rest of my LA friends. A high school dropout and veteran stunt man, he was then in the process of becoming a master of illusion.

With the arrival of computerized special effects in the 1970s, most of the traditional Hollywood craft shops that built and used models to simulate scenes went out of business. Faced with this digital tsunami, Gene resisted and stayed old school, that is to say, analog — a decision that was richly rewarded when the industry discovered that computerization was not quite the miracle that been advertised.

Everything from dog food commercials to the apocalypse, it turned out, still needed models and actual detonations. (In one of his most spectacular feats, Gene created the nuclear mushroom clouds in the film The Day After by setting off small explosions on his studio roof in full view of commuters gridlocked on the Golden State Freeway. A lot of fenders were dented that day as stunned drivers gawked at mini-doomsday.)

As a kid whose life once revolved around building model hotrods, I saw Gene’s studio as a demi-paradise, the Ultimate Model Shop. I loved visiting him at work and envied those who worked for him.

Only in later years did I discover that together with all his other political work — Friends of the Panthers, then the Socialist Union and later Solidarity — he was helping lead the fight to keep Hollywood’s blue-collar jobs from being exported abroad. He was a tribune of the industry’s embattled crafts.

The skills and ingenuity that would win Gene an Academy Award were also applied in day-to-day activism. In a new book on LA in the Sixties, coauthored with Jon Wiener, I recall his role in organizing the defense of the LA Black Panther headquarters just before the LAPD attack in December 1969 (think phonebooks).

He was amazingly clever but also an independent intellectual in the old socialist tradition. This dropout from Los Angeles High devoured socialist theory and could hold forth on almost any current topic. In recent years he impressed all of us with his original research on energy policy and eco-socialism.

Gene would vehemently disavow the idea that he was “leader,” yet he constantly inspired us. Whether sky-diving, climbing mountains, scuba diving or outrunning the LAPD, he had a wonderful daredevil sense of adventures. And adventures we had.

I especially relish the memory of one expedition: a trip to the two-mile-high Devil’s Peak in the middle of Baja. One of the earth’s great vista points (the Pacific on one side, the Gulf of California on the other) and there was Gene, dancing on a rock, threatening to turn into Icarus.

But in the final cut, as they say, what made all of us love Gene was that when the hard rains fell you could always count on him to be standing beside you. Over more than a half century he and Ron — and I mean this accurately, not just figuratively — punched the time clock on more protests, demonstrations and riots than anyone in LA history.

A typical example: In 1970 when local freight drivers and warehousemen rejected a sell-out contract imposed by the Teamsters’ national leadership and launched the biggest wildcat strike in the region’s history, I was a semi driver in a non-striking local.

I had friends, however, on strike at one of the most militant freight barns, constantly harassed by the sheriffs and Wackenhut thugs. After a crazy failed attempt to recruit Mafia muscle from Las Vegas (this is a true story), they phoned me and asked if I could send down “some rioters from Watts or commie student protestors.”

I called Gene and the next day the Socialist Union was walking the picket line: Gene, Ron, Ron’s wife Judy, Edith and Milt Zaslow. One helluva group of comrades. But if we had a “Jimmy Higgins” award for unselfish, dogged toil for the revolution, then it would be up on Gene’s mantle next to his Academy Award.

Finally, in remembering Gene, I can’t help from chuckling. Some old friends are only recalled in sadness, but the Gene in our memory remains the one who made us smile, dared us to adventure, and showed us the steel of comradeship. These are his gifts to us, and he expects us to pass them on to younger generations.

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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