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Film Maker Crying for a Vision : GHOST DANCING by James Magnuson (Doubleday: $19.95; 272 pp.)

June 25, 1989|Bob Sipchen | Sipchen is a Times staff writer. and

Jeremiah Gage is a Sam Peckinpah-like film director who stopped making the brutal, beautiful films that turned him into a legend and retreated into the tranquil shadows of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo mountains.

He now lives on a ranch with a second wife, 25 years younger than he, and their 6-year-old daughter. But much of his new life is spent dancing with ghosts from his past: characters and cast members from the films he made in the '60s; the first wife he probably helped along on a fatal plunge into insanity.

Then something happens that makes Gage wonder if the most vivid of the ghosts that haunt him is an apparition after all.

Just after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, after the release of Gage's blood-soaked classic, "The Outriders," Gage picked up a New York Post with an article announcing that his son Peter, an underground anti-war activist, had been killed attempting to destroy an ammunition plant.

Seventeen years later, he learns that the same article, with his son's picture meticulously inked out, was discovered in a car near Santa Fe, along with the corpse of a popular activist priest.

Like a shaman on a self-imposed vision quest, Gage wanders through the New Mexican landscape seeking clues that will lead him to the truth about his son.

As a boy, Peter was "a kid who had to be trained to keep his hands up. He seemed to be a child devoid of anger."

Gage is bursting with venom, which he releases in cinematic gunfights and slow-motion footage of children torching nests of rattlesnakes.

Peter was pained by injustice and disavowed the violence that overflowed his father's films, the jungles of Southeast Asia and the streets of the United States. He accepted the rhetoric of peace and struggled naively to change the world.

Gage is a man without principles. "He really didn't believe in anything he couldn't see." While he focused on his cinematic images, the '60s flickered past "as if there was a brawl in the back seat and Gage couldn't afford to look back."

The "vision" critics attributed to him is of violence rendered poetic through lingering close-ups. The day before the Kent State shootings, the Atlantic called "The Outriders" "an exorcism, a ceremony filled with the dark forces of the blood, the national myth laid bare."

But the film maker always doubted his own legend. "Gage was no philosopher, he just wanted people's attention."

At home, Gage existed "in the exhausted trance where ambitious men pass their private lives." Still, he took fatherhood seriously--perhaps because he longed, as ambitious men do, to re-create himself; perhaps because he hoped to rediscover in his son the lost qualities that might make him whole.

As Gage sees things, as he blurted out to his son, who had gone to Guatemala to work with the American Friends Service Committee, "man is a killer. He's never been anything else. Bottom line. And none of your do-gooder schemes for land reform are going to touch that."

Peter "felt for everyone." The two tangled, then and again.

And just as the older Gage exposed a flash of tenderness, the boy, increasingly embittered and confused, embraced the other side of his psyche, publicly citing his father's influence as he endorsed violence as a means to an end.

Two decades later, Gage's search for his son takes him through the mountain encampments and small desert towns where the "aquarian trash"--as one lawman calls them--have sequestered themselves, virtually unchanged. The aging hippies he encounters in "Ghost Dancing" are caricatures, but anyone who has wandered a few back roads knows the type. And anyone who has survived the '60s and '80s will see in Gage's quest an attempt to reconcile the eras and related opposites--idealism and pragmatism, empathy and callousness, weakness and strength, new and old.

As a novel of ideas, lush with intricately woven metaphors, "Ghost Dancing" thrills. But when it tries to rush ahead as a thriller, it bogs down. The dialogue lurches like TV cop-show banter.

Author James Magnuson might have used the twists at the end of his mystery to complete his portrait of a modern man.

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