The Cameraman’s Son
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.