The Cam­era­man’s Son

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Todd James Pierce

In his golden days, my old man, a cam­era op­er­a­tor, took home slightly less than most DPS pulled in for over­see­ing an en­tire crew. The job of a Dp—di­rec­tor of photography—is mostly about vi­sion: cre­at­ing and sus­tain­ing a picture’s vis­ual mood. An op­er­a­tor’s job, in con­trast, is largely me­chan­i­cal: know­ing how to set lenses, fil­ters, and stops. Ac­tors loved my fa­ther. He knew how to light peo­ple, not sets. He be­lieved that light should pool around ac­tors; that the cen­ter of the frame was more in­ter­est­ing than what­ever was hap­pen­ing at its edge. When I was a boy, he took my brother and me to a stage where he was shoot­ing a box­ing movie with Kirk Dou­glas. This was 1948, back when Hol­ly­wood was still re­cov­er­ing from the war. The pro­duc­tion didn’t have money to re­hearse cam­era moves, at least not to my fa­ther’s sat­is­fac­tion. A crew set up a shot, filmed it, then moved on. But on that day—the first day ac­tors worked the ring—my fa­ther squared up the shot, stud­ied it for a long time, then told the gaffer to bet­ter light the stage, take down some scoops, and fire up more arcs—maybe re­po­si­tion the boards as well. My brother turned to me, his face pinched with con­fu­sion. Even he knew our fa­ther was over­step­ping his role. The DP, a blond man with a ner­vous flicker around his eyes, shot my fa­ther a look of an­noy­ance, as this was of­fi­cially his realm. But by then, no doubt, he’d got­ten used to my fa­ther, to the things he re­quested to im­prove a shot. “This is how it is,” he once told me, “any­one can be fired off of a film—any­one ex­cept ac­tors. But if you make good de­ci­sions, a DP worth his salt will con­sider what you have to say.” When the arcs were in place—and the DP mol­li­fied—my fa­ther looked again through his cam­era. He di­aled down the f-stop, checked the bar­rel, then clipped an eye­brow, a thin flap of metal, to the end of his matte box. Sat­is­fied, he called me and my brother up to him. My brother—dickie, as he was known then—was the first to press his eye to the viewfinder. With his wide, flat face, he looked for a long time out at the box­ing ring where Mr. Dou­glas el­bowed into the ropes. His eyes, glassy and damp, strug­gled to un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of what he saw. Then my fa­ther pulled me up to the cam­era. All of my life, he’d taught me to see the world as he saw it. Each Sun­day, as my mother

cooked eggs, he laid the comics be­fore us. Start­ing with Dick Tracy, he asked us to pick the panel with the best feel. “Which one is it, boys?” he called out. “Twelve pan­els, twelve pos­si­bil­i­ties.” My brother liked this game, as for him it was filled with guess­work and luck. For me, it was some­thing else al­to­gether: a chance to prove that some of the dreami­ness in­side my fa­ther was in me as well. When I pressed my eye to the eye­piece, I saw won­drous things: Mr. Dou­glas, in satin shorts and gloves, nearly glowed, the world be­hind him dark­en­ing by de­grees into night. “You see there,” my fa­ther told me, “the light is hard, but not too hard. If the stu­dio wants to darken it up, they can do it in the lab.” Then his gaze fo­cused in on me, his voice be­com­ing soft, ac­knowl­edg­ing that I was still a boy, only twelve years old. “So what do you say—does the shot have a good feel? Ev­ery­thing lined up so an au­di­ence will take it in while eat­ing pop­corn?” “I think so,” I said. “You know what they say—‘one shot, one thought.’” “I’ve heard that,” I said. But by then I knew my fa­ther well enough to re­al­ize such say­ings meant lit­tle to him. He was an in­tu­itive man, look­ing to in­sert his cam­era com­fort­ably into the drama: he liked to make an au­di­ence feel more like a witness than a voyeur. Yet he also liked peo­ple to un­der­stand the role of the cam­era­man: he didn’t write the story, but he helped de­cide how it would be told. Stand­ing next to me, he moved his fin­gers roughly through my hair then nod­ded to­ward a bench, in­di­cat­ing where I should sit. Up un­der the lights, the trainer walked Mr. Dou­glas through some moves, re­mind­ing him how to launch a punch. The AD barked, “Roll sound”; a mixer re­sponded, “Speed”; then my fa­ther looked our way one more time—to­ward me and Dickie—be­fore fo­cus­ing in on the shot. The film, which was called Champion, fared well at the box of­fice, bring­ing in more than it cost. A few crit­ics noted the beau­ti­ful cam­era work, the way box­ing se­quences were slightly over­ex­posed, as though the char­ac­ter played by Mr. Dou­glas was only his true self in­side the ring. The DP, of course, got the lion’s share of credit—some­thing that never both­ered my old man, as most pro­duc­ers knew his work and could spot it on the screen. Af­ter read­ing one of these re­views, he smiled sourly then folded the pa­per into his lap. “Doesn’t mat­ter much what peo­ple say,” he told me. “You know what you can do and what you can’t.” “It doesn’t bother you that your name’s not in the pa­per?” “No,” he said in a rough bari­tone, “it doesn’t.”

The prob­lems in our fam­ily, as best I re­call, were cen­tered on my fa­ther’s ex­pec­ta­tions for us boys. He thought we should work for the pic­tures, that stu­dios had a way of tak­ing care of their own, and that with a lit­tle guid­ance, we would have ca­reers that soared all over town. A few times a year, he took us to screen­ings, pre­views of films soon to be re­leased with af­ter-par­ties held on the lot. We saw The Joe Louis Story and D.O.A. Af­ter one screen­ing, James Ma­son, who was a big star back then, walked over to see my par­ents. He stood talking with them, while Dickie and I palled around with other stu­dio brats, but then Mr. Ma­son called us over. “These your kids, Hank?” “That they are,” my old man replied. “Dickie’s now six­teen, and R.J. there”—lift­ing a fin­ger to in­di­cate me—“is a year be­hind.” Mr. Ma­son had a nice way about him. With a cig­a­rette in one hand, a drink in the other, he stood close to my par­ents as though they were old friends. I could tell my fa­ther liked movie stars, the glam­our of films as well. “This sum­mer,” Mr. Ma­son con­tin­ued, “you should set them up with work on the lot. Get their feet mov­ing as traf­fic boys. Or send them over to one of the shops.” It was then that my mother took my old man by the el­bow, cuff­ing his arm. We all knew her thoughts. She be­lieved stu­dio work was a hard life: long hours, lit­tle money, a shoddy way to set your­self up for re­tire­ment. Mr. Ma­son ap­par­ently saw this in her, too. He tapped ash ab­sently on the ground, was about to leave, but then turned to face Dickie and me. “Well, fel­lows,” he said, “I’ve got to make chitchat else­where. But there’s some­thing I want you to know.” He touched his hand af­fec­tion­ately to my shoul­der. “I don’t know much about the tech­ni­cal side of things, but your fa­ther pulls in ex­cep­tion­ally good shots, one af­ter an­other. And that’s more than I can say about most peo­ple in this town.” With that, he gave my fa­ther a wink, a good-na­tured ges­ture filled with ca­ma­raderie and warmth, be­fore slowly mov­ing off in the gen­eral direction of the bar.

When the school year ended, my mother in­sisted that Dickie and I stay home and en­joy our­selves, maybe catch up on our read­ing. I didn’t mind books so much, but Dickie was no reader. The only thing he en­joyed at school was sports. He’d taken up with boys who ran around in hot rods and spent af­ter­noons at the beach. By then he was a lit­tle over­weight, look­ing out at the world with con­fu­sion as though he didn’t know what to make of it. My fa­ther fig­ured he could get him on as a lamp op­er­a­tor, which was a fine place to start at the stu­dio and re­quired lit­tle train­ing. From there, he might work his way up to gaffing. My mother, how­ever,

would have noth­ing to do with it, es­pe­cially as Dickie had one year left un­til grad­u­a­tion. For a while that sum­mer, Dickie re­turned home with sand on his shoul­ders, his face rosy from the sun, but then the sand dis­ap­peared and his face whitened up. He told me he was just mop­ing around town, spend­ing time at the chop shop, but then he came clean. Over din­ner, he ex­plained that he was work­ing at a shoe store, log­ging de­liv­er­ies, dis­play­ing new items, man­ag­ing the stock­room. My par­ents were sur­prised by this rev­e­la­tion—my fa­ther in par­tic­u­lar. One of Dickie’s friends, it turned out, worked there, too. “You see,” Dickie ex­plained, “the man­ager down there says I can be a sales­man next year. If I’m good at that then maybe I can be an as­sis­tant man­ager. He says some­day, in California, we’ll have shopping cen­ters ev­ery­where. There’ll be towns in­side of towns. Be­cause of the weather, peo­ple will move from all over to live here.” This was, per­haps, the most in­tel­li­gent thing Dickie had said in years. We all knew he was sim­ply re­peat­ing an opin­ion of­fered by the store man­ager, but he said it with de­ter­mi­na­tion, as though he could see into the fu­ture him­self. My fa­ther’s gaze set­tled on my mother then tight­ened with ir­ri­ta­tion. “I thought we were go­ing to let him have his free­dom this sum­mer,” he said. Dickie ar­ranged his shoul­ders with a con­fronta­tional stiff­ness—an awk­ward pos­ture, some­thing new to his per­son­al­ity. “I like work­ing there,” he said. With this, he walked away, shuf­fling down to his room. My mother reached for my fa­ther’s hand. “Let him go,” she said. “What’s he talking about?” my fa­ther asked. You could tell he was pretty sore. “What kind of life is this for a boy? How do you find a sense of your­self in a shoe store?” “Who knows?” she said. “The world’s chang­ing.” My fa­ther let out a sigh and tried to com­pose him­self. With a look of dis­ap­point­ment, his eyes fell on me. “You find your­self by do­ing some­thing hard,” he said. “And do­ing it well. You find your­self by mak­ing some­thing in­ter­est­ing out of the world around you.”

For the rest of the sum­mer, Dickie went to the shoe store six days a week. He ran de­liv­er­ies and in­ven­to­ried stock, re­turn­ing each Friday with a wad of crisp bills in his pocket. Money did in­ter­est­ing things to him: it made him seem smarter; it gave him con­fi­dence. He of­fered the­o­ries about the busi­ness of shoes, ideas he’d over­heard at work or read in the com­pany magazine. At din­ner, Dickie told our fa­ther that—in his opin­ion—most peo­ple would pay more for a high-qual­ity prod­uct, with

hand-sewn eye­lets and bet­ter laces, than for shoes of av­er­age qual­ity, even if the style was the same. My mother, ea­ger to en­cour­age, nod­ded in agree­ment. “But ex­plain­ing that is tough,” Dickie con­tin­ued. “Most peo­ple don’t un­der­stand shoes. They think all shoes are the same.” “It’s tough for a rea­son,” my fa­ther be­gan. “Most peo­ple don’t want to be run down with a sales pitch.” “A good prod­uct,” Dickie said, “shouldn’t need a pitch, but with so many shoes out there, how’s a per­son to tell the difference?” My mother, who didn’t like ar­gu­ments at the table, shot my fa­ther a hard look, then turned to Dickie: “I’ve al­ways thought a qual­ity shoe was worth a pre­mium price, the same way a film re­leased by one of the ma­jors is of­ten bet­ter than those churned out by lesser stu­dios.” “It’s not the same thing at all,” my fa­ther said. “Maybe not ex­actly,” she replied, “but the anal­ogy is close enough to make a valid com­par­i­son.” “No,” my fa­ther con­tin­ued, “movies are noth­ing like shoes.” My mother’s voice deep­ened, touch­ing on tones of au­thor­ity that she rarely em­ployed when Dickie and I were present. She had been to col­lege; my fa­ther hadn’t. “Which parts of the anal­ogy do you think lack com­mon­al­ity?” she said. “Just the over­all idea,” my fa­ther replied. “Movies tell you some­thing about the world. Shoes are things you wear.” “But they’re both prod­ucts,” she in­toned. “Mar­ket­ing peo­ple at stu­dios sell movies much the same way that peo­ple at stores sell shoes.” “It’s not the same,” he said, but his voice was re­treat­ing, the fire re­moved from it. Years ago, he would’ve kept up the fight, in­sist­ing by a sheer force of feel­ing that he was right, but in re­cent months, a tired­ness had taken hold of him. Be­fore push­ing back his chair, he low­ered his voice into a type of sweet­ness. “Dickie, maybe some of the things your mother be­lieves are right. Maybe that’s just how the free mar­ket works. But this much I know: life can of­fer so much more than sales. You can make things. You can ex­plore a dif­fi­cult field and master it. That’s one thing that al­ways makes a per­son feel good.” A si­lence came down around the table: it wasn’t icy or mean, but there was an empti­ness to it, an at­mos­phere of dis­ap­point­ment. My fa­ther stood up, his eyes set­tling with dis­plea­sure on my mother who had am­bushed him with her ed­u­ca­tion. “Shoes can be in­ter­est­ing,” Dickie said. “They’re im­por­tant. Ev­ery­one wears them.” He waited for my fa­ther to move away then added, “Even you.”

Much to my sur­prise, by the end of sum­mer, Dickie wasn’t bored with shoes; rather, he stayed on at the store, work­ing Satur­days in the stock­room. That win­ter, he signed up for work-study and trained to be a sales­man. As far as I was con­cerned, Dickie’s job was a won­der­ful thing as it al­lowed me to spend af­ter­noons at the stu­dio. Some days I filled in as a traf­fic boy, cart­ing around the mail and de­liv­er­ing cof­fee. So long as a di­rec­tor al­lowed it, I vis­ited my fa­ther on stage. That spring, he was work­ing on a sub­ma­rine picture about the war. He was one of a few men who had a good feel for a cam­era fixed with a Cine­mas­cope lens: the Scope process, which was fairly new back then, cre­ated an im­age nearly three times as wide as it was high. It also com­pli­cated his job to no end. For that picture, my fa­ther worked with two first as­sis­tants. To change fo­cus, one pulled the prime lens, while the other pulled the Scope. Their ac­tions needed to fit per­fectly with cam­era move­ments and the position of ac­tors. Some shots re­quired hours of re­hearsal. As men on the rails ad­justed lights, my fa­ther mea­sured the dis­tance from the cam­era to each ac­tor, then cal­cu­lated for move­ment. “If we can put jets in the sky,” he told me, “you’d think crank heads could build a bet­ter cam­era.” “Maybe some­one will,” I of­fered. He looked at his rig—all of those di­als, stops, and gears. “There’s some­thing you should know about this busi­ness,” he said. “To make a buck, the stu­dio will buy all kinds of new equip­ment. But it falls on the crew to fig­ure out how to use it.” He al­lowed his face to re­lax, folds of skin giv­ing way to wrin­kles; then he called over a grip and ex­plained the dolly move­ments needed for the shot. For the next hour, my fa­ther and his crew prac­ticed their moves, wheel­ing a cam­era across rails, pulling twin lenses into fo­cus, un­til the di­rec­tor eyed him with ir­ri­ta­tion. Though once he’d wanted to be a DP, my fa­ther now ap­peared sat­is­fied with cam­era work. His job had changed in re­cent years, be­com­ing more com­pli­cated. The pullers on his crew eyed his job openly. More than once, as­sis­tants asked for rec­om­men­da­tions to TV where they could be op­er­a­tors, but my fa­ther al­ways ex­plained that movies made for the big screen were more im­por­tant than quickie pro­duc­tions des­tined for the box. He said he would train them to work as a team, to get a feel for dis­tance, which was an im­por­tant thing to learn. Much to their dis­may, when­ever I was on stage, he called me over to look at a shot be­fore the di­rec­tor brought in the ac­tors. My fa­ther loved those mo­ments, when dif­fi­cult cam­era moves were lined up, ev­ery­one clear on what they needed to do. “Just like the old days,” he told me. “But now the thoughts are a whole lot wider—and noth­ing gets done in just a cou­ple of takes.” “I see,” I said.

He put a hand on my shoul­der, squeezed a lit­tle. He stayed there for a moment, breath­ing softly, be­fore mov­ing back to his cam­era.

One af­ter­noon when I was seven­teen, my mother took me out to lunch, not far from where Dickie worked. “I want to have a lit­tle talk,” she said as a waiter brought us soup, “just the two of us. You’ve lived in California all your life. California’s a nice place. But life here is dif­fer­ent than what you find in other states, don’t you think?” “I guess so,” I said. “California has the movies and TV. It has a unique life­style.” “Other states have im­por­tant things.” “True,” she replied. “New York has the fi­nan­cial mar­kets. DC has pol­i­tics. But aside from that, as far as I see, the rest of the coun­try is mostly fixed on farm­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing, and sales.” She looked out a win­dow at a group of ladies mov­ing along the side­walk, all of them car­ry­ing shopping bags. “Your fa­ther is ter­ri­bly proud of his ac­com­plish­ments. He al­ways wanted you and Dickie to see him in the best pos­si­ble light. But your fa­ther may have led you to believe that stu­dios of­fer the best work a per­son can find.” “Some­day I’m go­ing to work for the stu­dios,” I said. “I know you are. But what Dickie’s do­ing is im­por­tant, too. I want you to un­der­stand that. His is reg­u­lar Amer­i­can work. What your fa­ther does is a lit­tle un­usual. It’s in­ter­est­ing, I sup­pose, but it’s dif­fer­ent, don’t you think?” I knew not to dis­agree. “I guess so,” I said. “Well, good. I’m glad you feel that way. I’m proud of both you boys, and I want you to be proud of each other as well.” When lunch was fin­ished, we walked down to see Dickie. He was now the lead sales­man, with a black tie and pressed shirt, look­ing out at the world with a prac­ticed air of help­ful­ness. When he saw us, he bright­ened. “Young man,” my mother called, “can you di­rect me to the best shoes in the store?” Dickie smiled in a play­ful sort of way. “The best shoes are al­ways up front. That’s where we keep the ones made with glove-qual­ity leather.” With Dickie at her side, she pre­tended to ad­mire the dis­play. “Are you sure the leather is re­ally glove-qual­ity?” “It’s soft enough to put on your hand.” He lifted a sin­gle shoe, a style called a round-toe pump. “Here,” he said, “feel that.”

That evening when we ar­rived home, we found a Cadil­lac parked out front. Two men waited on our porch, both dressed in black. One I rec-

og­nized—a slen­der man ev­ery­one called Kansas. Kansas was from the Cam­era­man’s Guild, the Lo­cal 600. He lifted a hand in a slow, thought­ful way, his eyes fo­cused solely on my mother. My mother, sens­ing bad news, stopped walk­ing. She brought her pock­et­book to her chest, clasp­ing it to her heart. “Did some­thing hap­pen on the set?” Kansas, with his gray hair and gray eyes, briefly turned to me for help. “Per­haps we should all go in­side,” he said. It was then that I took my mother by the arm and helped her into the house.

She re­ceived news of my fa­ther’s death silently: his heart had stopped beat­ing be­tween set-ups. Two fire­men, sta­tioned on the lot, couldn’t re­vive him. Kansas sat with her a long time, hold­ing her hand and ex­plain­ing that the Guild would help with nec­es­sary ar­range­ments. My mother was ut­terly still, al­most wooden. I sensed hid­den forces com­pos­ing her porce­lain face as she didn’t like to cry in front of strangers, but even­tu­ally a slack­ness moved into her shoul­ders. “I knew this was com­ing,” she said. “I knew it would end like this. Stu­dio work was too much for him. He was too old.” Kansas lifted his arm and eased it around her.

For me, the ex­pe­ri­ence was not one of loss—at least not right away. I felt silent fear, panic build­ing in my chest. A doc­tor left some pills. A min­is­ter came by to pray. That night, I ex­pected my fa­ther to step through the front door, to some­how make ev­ery­thing good, but of course that didn’t hap­pen. Dickie didn’t come home un­til well af­ter nine. He en­tered with red eyes and a blank face. He re­mained in the en­try­way for a minute, mostly lost, but then a lit­tle bit of the con­fu­sion drained from his fea­tures. He put his thick arms around me. We were not an openly af­fec­tion­ate fam­ily, but he held me that way un­til a soft an­i­mal sound, a whim­per of sad­ness came out of my throat. It was odd, the way he looked at me, those damp, dark eyes, as though he could see just how much I would miss our fa­ther, how much he meant to me. “Come on,” Dickie fi­nally said, “we should check on Mother.” With­out speak­ing I nod­ded my head. “We should see if she’s able to sleep.”

Long af­ter the fu­neral, af­ter the con­tents of my fa­ther’s locker were de­liv­ered home, Kansas fixed it so I had a union card, which al­lowed me to work as a sec­ond as­sis­tant, the low­est position on a cam­era crew.

“I fig­ure you know as much about the work as any­one.” He pressed the card into my palm. “If any­one asks, tell them you ap­plied the reg­u­lar way—with your hours logged and all.” “I un­der­stand,” I said. With his hand on the back of my arm, he guided me to the door. “Let me know if any­one causes you trou­ble. It can be a rough busi­ness.”

Over the months that fol­lowed, my mother’s opin­ion of movies gen­er­ally im­proved. When my fa­ther’s last picture was re­leased, I took her to an evening show at the Fox Wil­shire, where a page, dis­patched from the stu­dio, es­corted us to our seats. The film was Pic­nic, the story of a ro­man­tic drifter set­tling into small-town life. My fa­ther had shot in­te­rior scenes, lots of di­a­logue and flir­ta­tion, with the ac­tors il­lu­mi­nated by honey-toned lights. In the quiet of the the­ater, lean­ing into my mother, I ex­plained as best I could my fa­ther’s job: to help com­pose the shot; to track eye lines; to make sure his as­sis­tants hit their cues, pro­duc­ing a clear, well-fo­cused im­age. I talked with her qui­etly for the first twenty min­utes of the film, and then, as his fi­nal shot ap­peared on screen— the ac­tor Bill Holden lift­ing his face to the cam­era—i no­ticed that my mother was cry­ing. Tears pearled down her cheek. I asked many times if she wanted to leave, but she in­sisted we stay. When the picture was over, we walked out­side and waited for our car. “You know,” she said, look­ing off into the night, “mar­riage is a strange thing. You can live with a man most of your life and not re­ally un­der­stand him.” “Don’t give me that,” I said. “You knew him, even if you didn’t know all about his work.” “That’s the thing. For a man like your fa­ther, work was his life.” “Part of his life,” I said. She stud­ied the world around us with quizzi­cal eyes—the side­walk was empty as was most of the street—then her gaze lifted to me. “You don’t need to change the past to make me feel bet­ter,” she said. “I could be pig­headed. I know that.” “That’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. The two of you had prob­lems, but it wasn’t all your fault.” “I never liked how the stu­dio treated him. Di­rec­tors worked him too hard. At home I wasn’t very sup­port­ive.” “You were a good wife.” A valet an­gled our car be­side the curb. “I had good mo­ments,” she said, but then her face stiff­ened. “I could’ve been bet­ter.”

I was about to say some­thing, but she stopped me by rais­ing her hand. “A clear un­der­stand­ing of the past,” she said, “is a good thing to have. It gives you op­tions.” With this, a sec­ond valet opened the pas­sen­ger’s door and waited for my mother to seat her­self.

I worked for a year at Repub­lic then moved over to Paramount, where my fa­ther had a few friends. I was a sec­ond as­sis­tant: I loaded mag­a­zines onto the cam­era, I kept the logs, I man­aged the clap­per. The work was rep­e­ti­tious. The money wasn’t very good. But still, I loved it. I loved the smell of the cam­era, the aroma of oil and bat­ter­ies. I loved the si­lence that filled a stage when a di­rec­tor called, “Quiet.” Most of all, I loved the sense that I was cre­at­ing some­thing im­por­tant, some­thing that teth­ered me, in a small way, to his­tory. Ev­ery now and then the old guys of­fered ad­vice. “Don’t lose your sense of hu­mor,” one told me. An­other said, “Any job here is twen­type­r­cent know-how and eighty-per­cent diplo­macy.” They told me sto­ries about my fa­ther; how he would get into it with DPS and gaffers. One of the fel­lows I liked best was Carver, a short, stocky juicer who worked up on the rails. “Most fel­lows be­hind the cam­era love the tech­ni­cal stuff,” he said, “all the tricky moves, but your old man, he had a good eye. He knew how to paint up a picture us­ing lights and fil­ters. He was good at stuff like that.” Carver told me about one West­ern where the wind was so bad my fa­ther had to wipe an inch of sand off the lens be­fore ev­ery shot. On an­other picture, ac­cord­ing to Carver, my fa­ther wanted to set half the shots with only two or three soft lights. “Did it come out OK?” I asked. “Did what come out OK?” “The picture. Did it look good with the light my fa­ther used?” Carver’s face grew long with con­fu­sion; then he put a hand on my shoul­der, loose and play­ful. “Hell, the DP didn’t let him get away with that. Noth­ing on that picture was soft. We flooded that god­damn thing with light. Looked like crap on the screen.”

At home, Dickie ma­tured quickly, ask­ing that peo­ple call him Rich or Richie. He ap­peared se­ri­ous, like a mid­dle-aged man stuffed into the body of a boy. At the age of twenty-one, he took over the Pasadena store and made so much money sell­ing shoes that he bought a house up in the hills. Each Satur­day, he ar­ranged for a flock of gar­den­ers to de­scend on my mother’s yard. Each Sun­day, he ac­com­pa­nied her to brunch.

As for me, I could barely af­ford pay­ments on my car. Kansas ad­vised I take as­sign­ments for ed­u­ca­tional films. But I liked to work at Paramount, where the pic­tures went out to big the­aters. Carver and the oth­ers looked af­ter me. At the end of my first year, they got me re-rated as a first as­sis­tant. No longer did I have to load the mag­a­zines. In­stead, I pulled the cam­era into fo­cus, which re­quired a soft touch and a feel for dis­tance. Carver was happy to see me be­side the cam­era, di­al­ing in the op­tics, but he let me know that this was all he could do. He was re­tir­ing in a month, go­ing off to Ari­zona where he owned a house. “Be­sides,” he told me, “it’s not like the old days. The bo­nanza is over. Stu­dios are big busi­ness now. It’s hard to move up. Too many mouths and all that.” “I know how to work hard,” I said. “The rest I can do on my own.” We were walk­ing out to New York Street, with morn­ing sun fin­ger­ing down on to the lot. “You’ve got your old man’s op­ti­mism,” he said. “That much is true.”

I found it sad to think about Carver’s de­par­ture—like an­other piece of my fa­ther go­ing away. His re­tire­ment party was packed with old-timers, a few whose ca­reers went back to silent pic­tures. When the speeches were fin­ished, Carver called me over to the bar. He was perched on a stool, jit­tery with Scotch. I could see that he was sad, too, that he would miss California and all of the things that hap­pened here. He put a hand on the seat be­side him. “Park it,” he said. We sat there for a moment, look­ing out at the crowd—a bunch of drunks, a few wives as well. One fel­low tried to fix the juke­box with tools he kept in his pocket. An­other played songs on a pi­ano, songs so old he prob­a­bly learned them as a kid. “That’s the thing about re­tire­ment par­ties,” Carver told me, “they’re ei­ther pure bur­lesque or cheap melo­drama.” “I’m no good at these things,” I said. “I hate good­byes.” “Your fa­ther was like that,” he said. “He was all about the work. He liked to make things. He liked to sit be­hind the cam­era, even when the money wasn’t so good. That’s where he felt most like him­self.” I was about to stag­ger out to my car, but Carver hooked my col­lar with two fin­gers. “You aren’t done with the park­ing,” he said, bring­ing me back to the stool. Carver looked around, tak­ing stock of peo­ple. Men in work shirts, all of them with drinks and smokes. Sat­is­fied, he fo­cused in on me. “There’s one story I want you to hear be­fore you go. I want you to hear it from me, not some­one else.” “What kind of story?”

“A work story,” he said. “A story about work.” He sig­naled for an­other drink, which he put into my hands. “I met you once a long time ago, back when you were a kid. Your old man brought you out to a stage. I for­get the picture, but Kirk Dou­glas was in it.” “Champion?” I sug­gested. “That sounds right.” His eyes lifted, gaz­ing at smoke rib­bons above the bar. “Your old man, he was ner­vous. He kept ask­ing peo­ple to say nice things when you were there. The way I saw it—home life wasn’t so good, and he needed you boys, prob­a­bly more than you re­al­ized. We teased him a lit­tle, but that only made it worse. On the day you came, he gave us each twenty bucks. We doped up the stage with a few bad lights then let your fa­ther strike them. Twenty bucks was a lot of dough back then.” “Are you say­ing my fa­ther never called lights for a shot?” “Of course not. Ev­ery cam­era­man has a lit­tle luck fall his way. The thing is, he wanted you to see him do it—to pull down the bulbs and put them back the right way.” Carver touched his glass to mine. “By then, your old man knew he’d never make DP. Stu­dios are strange that way: you find your groove and get stuck in it.” “When I was a kid, I thought about that day a lot. I thought—” Carver stopped me by lift­ing a fin­ger. “Prom­ise me this: when­ever you think of that day—or if some­one else talks about it—you’ll re­mem­ber its true mean­ing.” He leaned in, a lit­tle drunk, and set an arm across my back. “It’s a type of love to let some­one see your dreams, es­pe­cially when they aren’t work­ing out. It’s a type of love to let some­one know your po­ten­tial.” With this, he folded his meaty hands into his lap. “He wanted you to know that there was some art in him, that it wasn’t just all craft and tech­nique. You think on that some, all right?” “All right,” I told him.

It was strange the way I felt as I drove away that night: the world seemed small and cheap. Street­lights cut a straight line down Mel­rose, and the road was a wide rib­bon of as­phalt slop­ing down into black­ness. I knew then that I would be an as­sis­tant for a long time—much longer than I’d ex­pected. The sen­si­ble thing to do was to take a job in ed­u­ca­tional films, like Kansas sug­gested, some­thing with money and prom­ise. I was try­ing to talk my­self into this plan when I came upon the stu­dio. Over at one of the gates was a film crew: a cam­era up on a crane, light op­er­a­tors, a young hope­ful with a boom. It was a night shot; there was a soft glow around the ac­tors, a few pep­per bulbs in the dis­tance. I didn’t know the picture, but this gate with its thin iron­work was of­ten dressed as the en­trance to a fac­tory or a prison or even a school­yard. I stayed at

a stop sign, watch­ing the cam­era swoop in for the shot; watch­ing the ac­tors lean in for a kiss. They shot the scene twice, ad­just­ing the light; then a fel­low with a clip­board walked my way. With ir­ri­ta­tion in his eyes, he waved me on. He stood there, wait­ing. As I pulled away, my car rum­bled be­neath me, and the wheels crunched out into the street. I was still telling my­self I would give up Paramount and do ed­u­ca­tional work. On ed­u­ca­tional films, I could be an op­er­a­tor, maybe an AD. I could dou­ble my salary. But then my at­ten­tion re­turned to the stu­dio. In the rearview, I saw the cam­era move in. I saw a sound­man an­gle his stick. I watched for a long time—all of those peo­ple out on the lot. I was still look­ing as the scene grew small, leav­ing only a speck­led glow, a cel­lu­loid dreami­ness that stayed with me as I pushed on to­ward home.

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