Issue 94, Winter 1984
No sooner had I finished working, finished assembling the final cut of my movie, finished adjusting, finished revamping, finished splicing the last two images together, finished mixing the last two sets of sounds, finished adjusting the last two images to the last two sets of sounds, no sooner had I finished all this and resolved not to shift a single other image, nor to heighten or lower a single other sound, not even the merest chirp of a background cricket which can be so absolutely indispensable in the extramarginal manipulation of the poor moviegoer’s mood — the placement of the merest chirp, or of the wrong quality of chirp, over the wrong image, over a hardwood forest (say) instead of over a pine forest, or making that chirp too loud, or too soft, or too shrill, or too deep, can be devastating to the whole effect of the most lavish, big-budget movie, can create a vibration that shakes and rattles the whole structure of the movie, that causes that structure to sway, shudder, and splinter asunder—yes, no sooner had I brought the movie to as satisfactory a state of completion as possible, as coherent an order of images and sounds as I would ever find, than I had to turn my full attention immediately to the preparations for the big weekend party that I was throwing the next night at my country estate to celebrate the completion of this very picture. I felt spent. Indeed. For a year I had sequestered myself in my editing room with my editors and sound people, and after having pressed my crew to work first ten-hour days six days a week, then twelve-hour days seven days a week, and then sixteen-hour days for months on end, after having driven them like cattle, yelled at them like they were dogs, shouted at them that this cut doesn’t measure up, this confluence of dialogue and melancholy patter of rain falls miserably short, that this image of a single sickening tree against the dusk sky—so poetic when isolated —is found wanting in the larger context, after having made them do and then undo the previous night’s work not once but dozens of times, hundreds of times — and there were times when the slightest distraction would send me into a fury, when I locked into the movie with a singlemindedness they found frightening (but I found exhilarating)—for I worked without stopping, without pause, with a mania and ah obsessiveness for detail that is legendary in the industry (and legends can always press for more money), cloistered there in my editing room like a mad monk, because nothing matters to me but my work, others work to live but I live to work, indeed I am never happier, never more in love than when I’m working, and love comes from my finest work; yes, after having done all this and then, this past week, thanked all my technicians and ushered them out and then truly focused myself for a final one week stint of frightening intensity, of furious concentration, a week during which I barely slept, cutting, recutting, arranging, rearranging, not shaving, not eating, not washing, not changing my underwear, not moving my bowels for days on end, for the whole week, reducing my life to the utmost simplicity in order to complete this most complex, this most concentrated of movies, after all this—well! — after all this I felt ready to relax and party a bit.
I telephoned my personal aide, my trusted lieutenant, who had had the good sense, the great tact, the tremendous decency, not to disturb me during the past and final week, even after the five hundred invitations for the party had gone out and it wasn’t at all clear that I would emerge from my editing room with a can of finished film in time to attend the party celebrating my having emerged from the editing room with a can of finished film, yes, I spoke to my lieutenant and told him that I was about to drive across town from my editing room to my house, where I would then attend to some neglected business matters (the possible collapse of my independent studio if I went any further over budget, some niggling actor’s litigation over the profits from my last movie in which he had some points, overdue notes on my mortgaged country estate where the party was to be held, other minor irritants) and afterwards spend the night before driving up the next day to my country estate for the party, and he said “Good,” then mentioned in passing that a young visiting documentary director was staying at my house, had in fact been staying there the past few days while his film was screened at the local film archives and some other places. I said, “Fine, I’ll be driving over myself,” and hung up.
Actually, I already knew that this young filmmaker was staying at my house —I knew because I’d read about it in the so-called society column of our local newspaper’s “society columnist,” that prattling scandalmonger, that insufferable bilgebag, that war correspondent With his daily dispatches from the dinner tables of the very rich, forever issuing his snide or stupid or “clever” items about me from his regular column, from his little plot of turf in that weed patch he writes for, whether it’s to hint at my latest mistress (he makes me green with envy of myself), or to dispense the opinions of an “informed industry source” on my latest not yet released—always “unreleasable”—film. Let’s change the subject.
The ride across town was a pleasure. After the ardors and rigors of the past few months holed up in the airless, windowless basement editing room, it was a sheer pleasure to be negotiating nothing more complicated than traffic lights and wayward pedestrians in the cool afternoon sunlight. I felt like hitting a few—expendable extras in the over-budget production of life. So a young out-of-town director, a supposed upand-comer, was staying at my house! I was not looking forward to company. When visiting directors are in town they are always welcome to stay at my house, it is a common courtesy I extend to all without expectation of repayment of any kind — certainly not monetary (I don’t need it), still less veneration or idolization (hero worship nauseates me) —it doesn’t even matter whether I am home; in fact, to be frank, I prefer not to be home since these visiting directors—inevitably younger, poorer, unknown, and a bit on the touchy side —usually end up, usually start up, asking me for production money, one director I put up later complained bitterly that despite his international reputation in art film circles, in the art house ghetto, I wouldn’t even spare him ten minutes, which was true enough, his films disgust me, they reflect a certain crepuscular sentimentality, a hidebound romantic insularity—
Nonetheless, my maid is always present, the large refrigerator is kept well-stocked, and they are given the complete run of the house, the ingrates, and my lieutenant even arranges to screen a film or two of theirs in my comfortable basement screening room with all my staff invited.
But now I had to go home and attend to last-minute odds and ends before driving up to my country estate, and a young documentary filmmaker from out of town was staying over, his first film was being screened that week and, according to my lieutenant, had received extraordinary notices in the film quarterlies, which I could care less about. No, I was not looking forward to company. Most of these visiting directors are hopeless young hotheads bubbling over with powerful convictions, staunch theoretical beliefs, art directors who film an interview in which a single person talks in a monotone directly into the camera for a fortnight; and then the director has the nerve to babble to me after the screening about how the uncompromising neutrality of the camera in his film forces the viewer out of his old, easy, comfortable, bourgeois viewing position blah blah blah — the poor unsuspecting viewer for whom we should show more love—yes, these directors run on as if boredom is beneath them, is too banal for them to even consider.
Then another one, a very earnest young political filmmaker. starts telling me that the recurring images of women and violence in my pictures cannot be used, however critical my intent (and he assured me he did believe my intent was critical!), without some degree of complicity, a certain collusion that reeks of the brothel slaughterhouse. Of course, at a party that very evening, after prevailing upon me all afternoon to look at his film, our young political director was prevailing quite drunkenly upon the young beauty whose beauty I had made capital of in my last box office smash. Bad faith! It is easy to grow cynical in my position, where the supplicant’s contradictory demands on his master justify the king’s contempt. Yes, these artistic directors speak of how their concerns necessitate their making films that are strictly unviewable, and then they come and sniff around my mansion, poke their noses into my wine cellar, remove their boots and socks in the dead of winter to stick an experimental toe in my heated outdoor pool. For art and business, which might seem separate, are insolubly linked, you cannot separate the problem of finance from the problem of the frame, legal tender from the long take, cash from cutting, or the dollar sign from the dolly shot. Money is articulate. Something else: I find bankers more honest than your average “artistic” director, or your average cinéaste, or your average film archivist. At least the banker will let you know in no uncertain terms when your film stinks—money invested is money watched, that is, money whets the senses. Unlike purists and artists, bankers are not contaminated by quaint notions of purity and art.
But neither was this visiting documentary director, according my lieutenant, who laughingly had told me how this young man had received a large government humanities grant and then one week later received a duplicate check in the mail by mistake, which he did not return but immediately cashed. “A man after your own heart,” my lieutenant had chortled, but my lieutenant had better watch it.
I arrived home, parked my car, and went directly into the kitchen for a beer—there were none. The visiting director wandered in —sipping a beer. He was tall but walked swaybacked, no, hunchbacked, he had incredibly poor posture, in fact despite his height he gave exactly the opposite impression, the contrary impression, that of being a gnome, and his blue right eye, which was dead, drifted aimlessly in its socket while the blue left one simply, coolly, fixed on me; to be frank, this unsymmetrical, misshapen, ill-proportioned, twisted Human form looked like a cretin, a natural idiot if I ever saw one. He mumbled, “Hello,” then shambled past me, tossed the beer can in the wastebasket, opened the refrigerator, muttered disappointingly—and was gone. I stood there dumbstruck.
Nevertheless, I got on with my afternoon’s business. And over the course of the rest of the afternoon, whenever we would brush past one another, be it in the hallway, or in the living room, or in the kitchen, he would sort of shrink back—I won’t say he was exactly intimidated by me, but in his shrinking back I sensed a curious, mixed-up disdain, as though he scorned not just me but himself— and not because he was too timid to hustle me, but because he was weak enough, status-conscious enough, ambivalent enough, to be there in the first place instead of just putting up in some anonymous suburban motor lodge.
My lieutenant had recommended, very gently, that I view this young director’s film before driving up to the party; it wasn’t even a feature film but —of all things! —a documentary about the chicken industry and methods of fattening chickens. I made inquiries. An industrial short? Another tiresome expose of merchandising practices? No, my lieutenant said cautiously, not exactly; but then all he could do was mumble something about “rigorous” and “insidious” and “very funny” and “highly original.” But “rigorous” is a word only restaurant reviewers should use. This rigorous steak. . . . My lieutenant didn’t really push me, he knows when to push and when not to, he himself obviously felt diffident and defensive about it. Besides, he won’t go out on a limb for anyone unless he knows there’s a safety net spread taut beneath him, and anyway I was incredibly busy that afternoon what with money matters and calling the labs to arrange for answer prints of the film, which was already nine million dollars over budget and six months behind schedule, the studio executives were howling as usual; but as an older filmmaker once told me, “The eye that knows its business won’t be told to edit better or faster.” Let the interest on the bank loans accumulate; making films and making money are two different things, though to be honest my films have made a bundle. At any rate, this younger director didn’t try to sell me a bill of goods so much as skulk and slink around my house, and this to tell the truth got on my nerves worse than if he had been hustling me.
Night fell. Soon I was tired and decided I wanted to sleep in the second floor corner bedroom with the northeast exposure affording a view of the bay—no one bedroom is mine and depending on the seasons, and the weather, and the moon, and my mood, I will sleep in whichever bedroom pleases me. Actually, the more homes I own in different parts of the country the less I feel at home anywhere, the more I feel like a vagabond, a rootless wanderer, a forlorn nomad. But this is neither here nor there. I told my maid which bedroom to prepare, and she hesitated just an instant but an instant long enough to make me ask, “What’s wrong?” and she explained that nothing was wrong, nothing at all, it was just that the young visiting director had been sleeping in that room, but of course it was no problem, no problem at all, there were more bedrooms to spare —twelve of them in fact — and I nodded and said, “Don’t forget to change the sheets.”
That night however I felt uneasy. The corner bedroom, besides its own bathroom, has two doors which swing open into it, one from the hallway and the other from the adjoining bedroom —into which the visiting director had moved himself—and both doors have keyholes which yield full unimpeded views of the bedroom. For some reason, as I sat up in bed late that night reading over company finance reports, I imagined that damned documentary director’s single blue eye fixed on his bedroom keyhole watching, scrutinizing, analyzing, registering, my every move. I put down the reports. I got up. I turned off the light, climbed back into bed, and then burrowed deep down under the thick, heavy blankets. In the dark I kept absolutely still Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that his single damned eye was still glued to that keyhole, as if the eye came outfitted with an infrared scope. What a night-mare! Nor could I get up and check, for what if I should put my own eyeball to my side of the keyhole and suddenly find myself eyeball to eyeball with that screwball, then what?. I pondered my dilemma carefully. I thought about it long and hard. And then it came to me. I got up, tiptoed into the darkened bathroom, groped in the medicine cabinet for the box of adhesive bandages, and removed two one-inch strips. Darling BandAids! I taped one of these over the keyhole to his bedroom, and the other over the keyhole to the hallway—just in case. There! Not for nothing am I considered one of the most resourceful filmmakers in the business. Now I would be able to sleep untroubled.
But I didn’t sleep untroubled. I couldn’t sleep. I started thinking about the film and one cut in particular—from a shot of a seagull flying over a lake at dusk, to a shot of my protagonist staring out the lakeshore window—a cut I’d arranged and then rearranged and deranged dozens of times, to no avail, a cut I’d agonized over, and which now, thinking back, I realized was simply execrable. I had to get that damn film out of my head. I thought of the gross of my last movie, of my country estate where even now my dear wife was overseeing the last-minute preparations for tomorrow night’s big party in celebration of the movie I had finished this afternoon, that even now I was agonizing over, that I was just beginning to realize I hadn ’t yet finished. I thought of my vast real estate holdings, restaurants, bowling alleys, suburban motor lodges, my investment portfolio, my liquid assets, my frozen assets, the numbered overseas accounts, the gold coins and jewels secreted in various safety deposit vaults all across the country, and how everything was riding on the success of this movie — and I felt frightened. I remembered the days when I was a mere script reader and often found myself at the mercy of stupid superiors, inferior superiors, and how easy it is to be broken in such situations, how much self-determination and will it took to stay strong, to maintain my own vision, and how now it was my task to stay receptive to anyone around me who, though my inferior, might well indeed be my superior, and how I mustn’t destroy such a person but help him. And often had my wife professed that she recognized me in the strong-willed protagonists of my movies, be they gangsters or renegade soldiers or just a young boy coming of age, yes, my wife saw me, her husband, in my movies, she detected a vestige of personal flavor, of an intensely private sensibility, in those huge, impersonal, expensive, commercial blockbusters that I’d directed. If my gangster looked a police officer straight in the eye, expressionlessly in the eye, then my wife would claim that that was exactly how I went about intimidating her, not to mention the various studio executives I was always bullying into signing over more checks whenever I went over budget.
There is no peace for me anymore. And sometimes I think it would be so nice just to be a quiet, inconspicuous nobody, some anonymous editing technician with no ambition or drive; but of course it is far too late for that. Yet other times I think that nothing would make sounder investment sense than to purchase some small tropical nation on the verge of bankruptcy and simply transform the whole country into one enormous studio, a gigantic sound stage with video cameras all over the place —atop mountains, in trees, rotating in the middle of the desert to capture the vulture as it roosts in the cactus —ready to capture everything, night and day, with all the rain forests wired for sound, the incessant melancholy patter of the rain, and with tall transmitting towers set up on the country’s highest mountains so that I could then beam, by way of my own privately owned—nationally owned—series of telecommunications satellites, the ongoing movie, the ongoing j-Zory, of this country, my country, to the rest of the world outfitted with its own series of satellite dishes—imagine! —the movie of a country’s life —I couldn’t sleep. I was all excited. I got up and paced the room. I checked to see that the Band-Aid was still in place over the keyhole to the adjoining bedroom. I tiptoed up to the hall door and—flung it open. No one. It was four in the morning. I decided to telephone my wife. Sleepily she got on the line, but I was pleased to note that despite the hour she did not sound annoyed. I told her that I had finished the film, no, I hadn’t quite finished it, one cut was still troubling me, but that I was looking forward to the weekend-long party, that after being cooped up in the editing room for so long I was looking forward to sleeping outdoors in the pine forest beneath the starry skies, and that I hoped all my guests, all five hundred of them, would bring their sleeping bags too as suggested on the invitations and camp out in the woods instead of putting up in nearby motor lodges or at friends’ cabins in the area, and my wife said she and our children were looking forward to sleeping outdoors too. Then I mentioned that some one-eyed cretin was staying at the house, a young documentary filmmaker, and my wife, my darling wife, who loves movies and knows nothing about them, asked me how in the world the young man could make movies if one of his eyes was dead, so I explained to the simple, dim dear that that might well be to the young man’s advantage, that he sees the whole world as though through a camera lens, which is to say, flattened out, with less depth perspective, that the way we see images on the screen is how he sees everyday life, that with him life itself is nothing but a vast movie perspective, the whole world not a stage but a screen, and my wife said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and that was the end of that dismal exchange. I said goodbye and hung up more anxious and depressed than before.