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Not me, her

In 1987, I found myself trying to write about a high school girlfriend that had been molested by her father when she was a child. I was 19 years old, struggling to find my way through a screenwriting assignment about delivering character. The idea was to describe messy young love between two Sid and Nancy want-to-be's. But that failed, as I could not stomach oversimplifying her complicated past, events that shaped her life as a 16 year old with a mohawk, a smart mouth, a lingering stare. I understood that I had to start at the very beginning.

No one wanted to hear the story. When it was my turn to read in class, it even came to be that some of the other students asked to stand in the hallway before they heard another description of what happened in that lonely little house in the middle of nowhere. I was trying, and failing, and trying again to get things right, to explain how this happened, how it could happen to this girl, how this man found his way to acts of selfishness and d…

the only thing that matters is what is in the picture

I press the tiny camera into E's hand and press the record button. 
"Is it on?" She asks me.
I nod yes and gesture for her to hold it up, not to shoot the wet rinok floor. 
We navigate around men in blue coats pushing shopping carts full of lamb carcasses. The back wall is lined with glass cases, with giant sturgeons that are ringed with bright yellow fat. There is one case with plucked birds. The man, Rachman does not recognize me. I point at the turkeys, and hope E is getting all of this. His smile flashes. Now he knows me. On Sunday he said 5,000 rubles for a five kilo bird. Today, seven kilos for 3,000 rubles. I agree, dropping bills on the scale and sliding the giant bird into a canvas bag that I sling across my shoulder. I would shake his hand, but it would not be right. Maybe after the next bird.
"Did you get it?" I ask her.
She shrugs her shoulders.
"Can I get a strawberry roulette?" She asks.

Outside I watch the video on the tiny screen. It looks like a seven year old shot it, all crooked close-ups of strange details. No wide shots, no faces. This is what she sees. 
"Is it ok?" She asks.
"It's great." I answer quickly.


On Thanksgiving, we wake up early and I start by roasting chestnuts.
"I want to cook with you." E says, her hands pulling at my elbow.
I kiss the top of her head.
"Especially the apple pie." She says.
"That will be later." I explain. "First we need to roast the sweet potatoes, then the turkey."
She skips out of the kitchen, her hair bouncing around her.

I set up the new camera on a tripod, and set focus on the dented metal bowls, filming my hands cracking eggs, peeling carrots, smashing cloves and chopping them fine. I imagine the story these fragments might tell, as the windows steam up, as the sun fills the bedroom with giant rectangles. This is not the best way to make little films, by shooting randomly without help. I need extra eyes to focus. I need extra hands, ears. This is a good way to shoot nothing, and I know it.


E is drawing a Thanksgiving card in the living room.
She asks me how to spell things.
I film her profile, the tip of the pencil, the page she slowly fills with curlicues and tiny hearts. This might be something, I tell myself.

The bird is roasting. Fat is spitting and sizzling in the pan. The cranberries taste profoundly sour to me. I think they may be a disaster. Some of the sweet potatoes have some soft spots I carve off of them. We did not get enough brussel sprouts. I chop shallot and celery, carrot and mushrooms for the stuffing and saute it in the giant pan that has come down from its hook on the wall. I add fresh thyme and sage, salt, pepper, and diced apple.
E runs in, and breathes deep.
She lets out a giant sigh.
I ask her to rip some sweet bread into little pieces and she does, standing on a chair and dropping them into the pan. I almost forget to add the cloves.


The afternoon is gone. A client calls and I have to talk for almost an hour. E is hopping around, writing on a piece of paper and shoving it in front of me. "Apple pie?"

I hang up, and we tear into the flour and butter, that secret spoonful of lemon juice, the unorthodox egg. The dough goes into the fridge to rest just as N comes in. She has bags of juice and water. She tastes the cranberries and tells me they are fine.

The vacuum whirs on, and I film her from the doorway.
The pie gets made.


N's family arrives and we coax them into the kitchen. I open a bottle of red wine from Georgia, some Saperavi. We squeeze everyone around the tiny table, and I turn on the sound recorder tucked above the fridge, the camera poised in the hallway on a tripod. I make a toast, and an explanation of the day. The camera is in focus, but the framing is off, and some faces just can't be seen.

We eat, and I watch everyone take a spoonful of one thing, place it on their plate and begin to eat. No, no I tell them. It all has to be together. The faces are lost. I load mine up, the gravy seeping into the meat, the brussels stacked on top of the stuffing. They follow my example, and everyone grows quiet.
"Now I understand." N's brother-in-law admits to me. "And this cranberry sauce is really something."
The children pick at white meat, and disappear into the living room at one point.
I sip my wine, rest one hand on N's knee and eat plate after plate.

After everyone has gone home, I film traffic outside the balcony.
I am grabbing at straws with all this.
The image does not forgive. It does not explain why it was hard to capture.
It tells a story, no matter what.

I was taught that the only thing that matters is what is in the picture.
Nothing else exists.

I wonder if I can cobble these fragments into something cohesive, something moving. I wonder if anyone can watch video shot by a seven year old and get something out of it.
It all seems desperate to me.
But in a way, this is the truth.



Comments

you say that the only thing that matters is what's in the picture, M. And you have just drawn a picture, created a series of images, with words that is, to me, more vivid, more alive, than anything a camera could manage. Glad it was such a happy Thanksgiving and I hope you wore your leather coat.

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