NO SHELL, JUST A GHOST
I cried at Snoopy Come Home. This might have been in or around its release year, 1972, though I was a very young boy then. More likely it was a few years later, sometime in the mid-’70s, in some sort of revival showing. Though I can no longer recall the specific theater, I vividly recall its textured velvet seats and their crisscross pattern under my hands—hands which I might have been keeping warm under my thighs (a habit I have always had). I was with my cousins, likely only two of the three girls, and my sister: four smooth-skinned, round, brown, ingenuous faces—four sets of eyes. My sister Kim’s eyes were kindly, receptive, engaged. Terri, my eldest cousin’s eyes: inquisitive and skeptical, made even more so by her glasses and her demeanor, which often fell somewhere between pensive and grave. The eyes of Gayle, the middle cousin, were always exuberant and alive. My own eyes were most likely wandering about, pretending to look outward, but actually looking inward, never settling. I have the feeling we were unaccompanied by an adult—perhaps fittingly, given the absence of adults in Charles Schulz’s child-world. We’d been dropped off to be picked up later, and this may have exacerbated my sense of unease. Indeed, the overarching feeling from that day, at least as I now re-create it in my mind, is an anxiousness that teased me through the entire movie.
I remember almost nothing about the film. I know I didn’t like what was happening on-screen, and also that I kept it to myself. The film seemed too linear to me, too confined. The characters seemed shackled within the story; the movie didn’t project the freedom of the comic strips. It lacked the silence, and the curiosity; it lacked the beautiful multiplicity of magic and everyday moments from which the comic’s heart sprung. My second feeling, the more specific and wrenching one for me now, and the one I have nursed and monitored most closely for these many years, was a cocktail of fear, anger, betrayal, and the deepest puzzlement. These feelings all mingled together when, at some point in the narrative, Snoopy leaves Charlie Brown and goes to live with a little girl. I think it was at that moment that I started to cry, gently and furtively in my seat, but my recollection may be faulty; it may have been when Snoopy and Charlie Brown reunited at the film’s end. It seems wrong to revisit the film to test my recollection—I’m a little afraid to do it. But I quite remember the tears. I quite remember the confusion and dread of being in those moments, and I quite remember my cousins, at least one, maybe two of them, glancing at me and then away, in embarrassment and disbelief in the dim of the house lights, as if to say: “You’re crying? Are you kidding me?” And I have arrived at this memory in a roundabout way, not because of the film but because of the world outside it, and so all of this, as Dostoyevsky would have it, is apropos of the wet snow, then and now.
When we finally emerged, there were mounds of snow piled high just outside the theater doors, with gentle flurries coming down in the burnished light. How welcome they were, and how welcome climbing on them seemed. It returned me to something like normalcy. I was anxious that ridicule or betrayal was forthcoming from the girls, but that fear was promptly allayed when they joined me in the snow. No one spoke a word about it. It could be that they hadn’t actually seen me crying, though I don’t believe I’ve invented that. More likely they just cared a lot less than I think they cared—a lot less than I cared. And though I’ve cried at the movies many times since, this instance is stitched into me. You do not, as they say, forget your first time. Or the snow.
When I was young enough still to be considered young, but old enough to have muscles that could be put to use, I was my family’s sole clearer of snow. I spent a lot of time outdoors during the long winter months. There was, it seems, a lot more snow then, sometimes astonishing amounts. I might shovel newly fallen (and still falling) snow fifteen or twenty times or more over a winter’s course—though perhaps it only felt like that. Over time, I developed something of a secret rite. It was a kind of reward I gave myself for my labors, though more likely it was just the logical extension of my inward-looking disposition: While the snow was still falling, but after darkness had already come, I would make my way to the backyard and engage in a sort of spectacular meditation. (At the time, it was just a kind of pleasure.) Just me, my plastic boots, and wave after wave of snowflakes coming down. Standing there, or sometimes leaning on the fence, desperately trying to remain as motionless as possible, I would raise my face to the street lamp in the alley behind the garage. I sometimes imagined the flakes as an army on the attack, flowing rhythmically and unceasingly over the plain, or as people in a crowded airport or shopping mall, each one hurried and engaged in the business of life. They moved past, oblivious to me, their anchored observer, with my feet planted in the deep backyard snow at the foot of our giant maple tree.
Detroit in those years was a city of alleyways, though they have since been closed off. Alleys ran the length of every residential block, separating rows of houses on either side, and each had, at intervals, streetlamps which towered high above and illuminated them at night. One of these glowed just over our garage, and it often lights the memories of my childhood. It is that same streetlamp (or, more precisely, alley-lamp) that was visible across the yard through the window of the door that led from my bedroom out to the (second-floor, rear) porch, and from whose elevated vantage point I could survey a portion of our backyard (and the alley just behind it—in summer through the leaves of the tree, and in winter through its spindly fingers). The dampening powers of the snow in the air and on the ground heightened the singular, insulated effect of my reverie, as though my interior world, the unique alone-world we all, in some sense, live in, inside ourselves, had suddenly become the exterior one. And my every minor movement, every gentle swaying and exhalation, would, in cooperation with the cocoon of my layers of clothing, and the darkness, and the snow, create a strange, exquisite amplification of sound. Each breath sounded like a heaving, and each rustle of clothing was a bright, grating thing. I would stare for as long as I could and with as little movement as possible—sometimes fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch—at the flakes streaming down, passing through the glow of the lamp above and out of the light and down to me, the motionless boy in the snow below. It would sometimes happen that this sense-experiment, which engendered in me the most indescribable joy, would also cause a distinct spatial disorientation, and, having forced myself to stand there for so long, I could no longer take it and would fall back into a bed made of snow. I would lie there, cushioned in snow, and continue staring upward at the corona of the lamp and the attacking flakes creating an ecstatic screen of white.
It is night now and so, finding myself unable to sleep and rummaging idly in my mind, I am given to thinking about moments such as these, taking inventory, as it were, of my life in an attempt to slow it down and hold it close. It sometimes happens that when I am too full of my present, I methodically sift through the pieces of my past. On these nights I usually lie still in bed, eyes open wide, and stare at the ceiling. There I find memories, or images more precisely, and lay them out next to one another, as though they were on a table in my mind, searching them for clues to who I’ve been and who I’ve become. Comparing memories and images in this way one can sometimes arrive at intriguing connections. That blissed-out snow reverie from my childhood, in its hypnotic fascination and brilliant optical play, was not unlike the textured and sparkling surface of the Bell + Howell tripod movie screen onto which we projected home movies throughout those same childhood days. I had the same absorbed fascination when, on those rare movie nights, I stood close to it, watching the play of light, reflections undulating across its pearlescent whiteness with every gentle adjustment of my head. All this before the images would flow.
In Lillian Gish’s 1969 autobiography, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, the iconic silent (and, later, sound) film actress describes, with no small measure of pride, the extreme conditions that she and her fellow cast and crew members endured during the filming of Way Down East, one of D. W. Griffith’s—and the silent film era’s—great melodramas. The movie’s climactic sequence shows Gish’s character, Anna, banished from her employer’s family’s home, wandering out into a howling snowstorm. Grief-stricken and beset by the elements, she ultimately stumbles onto a river’s ice floe, where she falls unconscious, sprawled in a pose that has always reminded me of Procris in the painting by Piero di Cosimo.
Certain peril awaits her—the floe is fast approaching a waterfall—until, at the penultimate moment, she is rescued by the film’s hero in a dramatic hopscotch across the ice. The shoot for the sequence took three weeks outdoors in an unrelentingly harsh Vermont winter. As Gish tells it, she and her fellow filmmakers filmed
all day and night, stopping only to eat standing near a bonfire. We never went inside, even for a short warm-up. The torture of returning to the cold wasn’t worth the temporary warmth. The blizzard never slackened. At one point, the camera froze. There was an excruciating delay as the men, huddled against the wind, tried to get another fire started. At one time my face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.
She goes on to tell how Griffith, seeing her frozen, distressed, and ice-encrusted, shouted above the howling storm to his cameraman, “Billy, move in! Get that face! That face—get that face!”
I’ve seen the film several times, but, thinking about it, can’t bring to mind a shot which might correspond to Gish’s description. Assuming the cinematographer, George “Billy” Bitzer, was able to “get that face,” it seems likely the celluloid result failed to capture what Griffith saw with his own eyes, and it ended up on the cutting room floor. But part of what interests me most, aside from the anecdote’s obvious value as absorbing history, is the way in which elements of the story suggest aspects of filmmaking itself. Gish’s frozen eyes are like the camera; a broken machine for seeing and recording. Fiction and documentary are blurred in the experiences of the actors and crew members; experiences that are lived not for the living, but for the recording and representation of something meant to look as if it has been. A torturous, perilous experience is made fictional by its recording, rearrangement, and replay. Griffith himself, as stand-in for the viewer: his unfrozen, transfixed, hungry eyes gorging on Gish’s ghastly, fascinating, near-frostbitten face. Her features, elided and whitened, become a screen, and Griffith’s act of looking is like our own: brutish, voyeuristic, and hopelessly adoring.
I saw Serendipity on October 10, 2001, in Evanston, Illinois. I know the exact day because I saved the ticket for years afterward, tucked inside a book, and looked at it every now and again. That October 10, a Wednesday, I decided to play hooky from life. It was an abnormally warm and windy day, coming like a reprieve on the heels of a few early and unlikely cold days the week before. The wind carried the warmth on it like a blanket; it forced itself into your mouth and pushed you around, but it was a comforting, encircling liveliness, as if the world wasn’t yet tired from its summer exertions and was out for one last show, but with a hint of the sleep of winter coming in. It’s difficult now to capture the feelings I had that day, feelings that had been shadowing me, that I was finding hard to shake. There was a quiet distance within me, a timidity of spirit, and, against all evidence to the contrary, I felt precisely alone. Disconsolate, but at a middle place on the scale, where disconsolation hasn’t yet reached melancholy. Three days before, President George W. Bush, with what he called “the collective will of the world,” had announced the commencement of bombing attacks on targets in Afghanistan. That Sunday afternoon I heard the announcement on the radio just as I pulled onto the parking pad behind my apartment building, and I remember I sat there bewildered and afraid, with the feeling that I had suddenly been tipped upside down and emptied out. Three days later I still carried some of that emptiness—carried nothing, then—within me. And it was this troubling, nearly debilitating vacancy, coupled with the beauty of the day, that prompted me to skip work. I wanted to see a movie. Seeing a film alone has always been one of the few sure momentary cures for bouts of uncertainty.
I was drawn to Serendipity by John Cusack, whose charming, befuddled, romantic persona has always appealed to me. I’d never seen a movie with the other principal lead, Kate Beckinsale. About ten minutes in, the Beckinsale character slips while ice skating, and she lands in a pose that echoes Gish’s Anna (though she’s lying in the opposite direction). I found myself happily lost in the film’s tale of two star-crossed lovers who meet, fall in love, and separate within the film’s first fifteen minutes, then spend the balance pining and dissembling. I wasn’t in the least disappointed by the film’s more sterile, predictable, and shopworn elements. I had willfully turned off all my critical faculties; so many things about the world that afternoon seemed beyond my capacity to parse or understand them. The theater was nearly empty, and the chairs were plump. I sat there fully charmed, engrossed by Kate Beckinsale’s small features and large, bunny-rabbit incisors, her English accent, searching eyes, and gentle loveliness.
Though we often speak of it as such, remembering is not one single thing—it is more like a hulking, many-tentacled beast, covered with a host of effectors and receptors. Though it can approach from many angles, without any destination in mind, it always ends up in one place. It comes stumbling in, usually late, sometimes wearing a disguise. I felt the beast of memory coming on in a scene at the rink, with a close-up on Beckinsale’s face bathed in a warm filtered light. I had the pleased but puzzled feeling that I was seeing someone familiar. The tinge of memory assumed full hue a few minutes later, when Beckinsale’s character—who has kept her name a secret from Cusack—climbs into an elevator and, just before the doors close, leaving him on one side and her on the other, calls out: “It’s Sara. My name’s Sara.” Beckinsale plays the moment perfectly, with just the right mix of flash-eyed confusion, bashfulness, longing, and regret. There’s something about her face in that moment—how it almost reaches out as she twice slightly pushes herself up and forward on the balls of her feet. It was this “something” that flashed in me there in my seat, an involuntary memory akin to déjà-vu in the puzzling remoteness of its association, but more neatly linked to a referent; no doubt there was a specific person who matched it. Who was Kate Beckinsale in that moment for me? I finished the film in distraction, searching her face for more clues every time it was on-screen. I often caught the hint, but never the secret.
The mystery of the elevator scene occupied me for the following day or so, and then it faded. When I saw the movie again, months later and with other people, the magic was lost. Two years passed until, organizing the bookshelves by my bed, I found the ticket I’d saved as a souvenir of my reaction. I bought a copy of the film to give my reaction a more sustained and systematic investigation. Late one night I sat alone, exhausted and nearly in a trance, watching and rewatching the scene, pausing it to rifle through my brain, then starting it again, trying to will the connection. All the while the hazy object of recollection hung mockingly just out of reach, like a misplaced phrase or tune. I kept at it for a while, but it felt hopeless, and slightly helpless as well. I was in thrall to a moving image fascinating as much for what it didn’t show as for what it did. My hard work wasn’t rewarded: no revelation came, and I went to bed. The payoff wouldn’t come for another year or so until, casually flipping through my middle school yearbook, I came upon her picture.
Before a film’s story, there is the image. Before the image, there is the rectangle of serene and waiting white; a place for projecting. Years ago, when I was a (not very good) projectionist at a movie house in San Francisco, one of the parts of the work I loved most was seeing the beam of pure light projected down from the booth onto the screen below. The movie screen is an ideal frame for thought, and the play of light coming back out from the luminescent white is soothing. Holding a few strips of film in your hand, holding the images up to the light, you can better understand the power of the moving image. Even if one looks at the most banal film, each frame is a minor miracle, a small etched and painted mystery-world unto itself, with its animus frozen but, paradoxically, deeply suggestive of life. Like an insect trapped in amber, or a ghost trapped in a house. Isn’t the story just something to hang the images on, the words and sounds mere crutches? Isn’t the story just a skeleton, a necessary excuse to make the moving pictures in the first place—and to get someone to fund them?
I went to film school years ago because I loved movies more than anything else. It wasn’t the love of story that prompted me to study films and want to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t the need to tell tales or communicate. I wasn’t interested in the glamour of the movie business, or in movie stars. It was simply the fact that making films gives you an excuse to look at things for a long time without shame. The film business learned early on that people would be more willing to pay to see moving images if those images had a narrative thread; the grammar and language of “majority” cinema have evolved to their current position with narrative as their structuring force. But there are many ways of looking at a movie, and many kinds of movies besides. I enjoy overarching themes and well-designed narrative structures, snappy dialogue and smart characterization, but that’s not where cinema’s true power resides. We are all always making our own stories from the wealth of images we carry around inside of us. These images are collective and free-flowing and, somehow, transmittable. An image in a middle-school yearbook might, for example, through memory’s sometimes devastating acts of montage, take me back to the front yard of Kim Betty’s house.
In seventh grade she was all I thought about, and a few days before Christmas break, with dusk coming on quickly and the tiniest flurries drifting down, I got up the courage to walk her home after school, with the idea that I would ask for her phone number. We stood in front of her house in confused silence; time stretched to sagging. In my fear and wretchedness, though I couldn’t look at her face, I managed to ask what I had come to ask. My question was met with a new silence, and I remember staring hard for a long time at my plastic boots. Looking up, instead of dismissal or anger, though, I found beatitude: her face was a glorious combination of affection and empathy and puzzlement, and it seemed to be reaching out. It was a face I would find again, decades later, in Kate Beckinsale, somehow reappearing across space and time; each face was sent out into the world, in its own way, to save me.
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