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the letter reader

It is the third time I sit down to record The Letter Reader. The laundry rack has been pushed back, the lights dimmed. There is a flat grey sky outside the windows. The song has changed key three times. I even tried it a capella, the guitar just resting on my knee. The words felt hollow and empty when I heard them playing back. Unlistenable. The struggle is a familiar one - between the glowing idea of something butting up against the reality is presents as it enters the world. We are all famous in our own minds - heroes, geniuses, rock stars and saints. In the real world, we are flabby, and fallible. We are painfully human, and no angels. How to align all of this? How to put yourself in front of a microphone, or an empty piece of paper, an open road, a classroom full of children, an office?

Maybe there are glimpses of greatness. Maybe there are little cracks of something magical, if you wait for them, if you nurture them, if you struggle for them. I often find myself yelling at tv sc…

candy (the cinematographer)

The news came and I was not entirely surprised. I thought she had beat it, hoped she had and imagined the best for the last five years. I saw her with a canvas bag in the streets in my mind, full of fresh cut flowers from the Union Square market. She was always getting on a plane, flying to Amsterdam or someplace with good coffee to give a lecture. Half Sicilian, half Cherokee, her face was round, her eyes round. She kept her hair short, and eventually I learned this was from the chemo but had just assumed it was her new style. 

I was fresh out of film school, shooting with everyone that asked. I had business cards made that said "cinematographer" all in lower case in red ink. My gaffer, B was dating a wild young girl, a bleached blonde. She was a receptionist, and he told me they made films where she worked, that I should go in to meet them because they were planning on making a low budget feature. All I had to show Candace was my thesis film, empty train yards and portraits of old people in their 90s that had worked on the railroad. I had walked in the darkness for miles, the wooden tripod on my shoulder, the Arriflex camera heavy in my bag as the fog rolled in and then I was shooting as the sun came up through it, broken fingers of old buildings standing like dead giants. They liked it. I saw a picture on the wall of Candace and David Bowie, a big black and white one. Her ex-husband and producer was there, his teeth a bit crooked, his face open and curious. The office was a loft in Soho, right on Broadway. It was a big bright space, and I was sitting in a low, soft chair. I found my hands waving around as I talked, cracking a few jokes. Candace asked me what I thought of shooting the body, naked bodies. I told them with a straight face that I had been drawing naked people since I was about 12 and there is nothing more beautiful to me. I said this without hesitation. Something clicked in the air, and I sensed that I should leave after that, let that be the last thing I said. My cappuccino sat on the table, not even sipped. It all happened very quickly.

The call came a few days later. I would be shooting my first feature at the age of 21. We would shoot in 35mm, and I could pick my own crew. The film was going to be erotic, maybe X-rated. It was set in a dystopian future when sex and expression is not allowed, just making babies and that's it. I don't think I ever saw the script, just a list of scenes and locations. They knew we could roll with whatever they threw at us, as long as we had one big light and fast lenses we would be fine.

The weeks churned past and I bought a black cap in some random moment. It had an ace of spades on it. The guys at the camera rental house picked up on it. "Hey Ace!" They called out when I come to look at lenses, to make sure the camera body was quiet enough. "One shot, that's all he needs. One take." They said, not joking so much as wishing us luck. I looked a lot older than my age but they knew I was green.

The relationship between the director and the cinematographer is complicated. There are boundaries, lines you do not cross. There are very different languages, and the result is one combined, messy, precise, emotional chemistry experiment. She had never worked in film, just with video people who followed a certain process that was far from what feature filming requires. I did everything to make her feel safe. I made sure things were fast and beautiful, that there was a little sparkle in every eye, that the shadows stretched long when they needed to. I was quiet. I told jokes when the day was over. My crew were a bunch of cracker jacks, all moonlighting to support me. There are few things in the world as mesmerizing as a small crew from New York. They are like cheetahs that can see the future. If I asked for a different lens, It was already sitting next to me. If I asked for some edge light, it was already being wired.

Ten days later, most of them 18 hours or more, we finished on time and under budget. I gave Candace my hat which she wore proudly. "Now, you're the Ace." I told her and she pecked me on the cheek, held me tighter than I can remember being hugged. We had a great party at her floor-through in Brooklyn. I cooked along with our producer and Candace told me she smelled like garlic getting off a plane three days later because of us.

The film never really made it anywhere, not even a real release but it didn't matter somehow. My name had been in Variety next to hers and that somehow meant something to me, a victory unto itself.  I saw the rushes - some of them looked like a Bergman film. No one would ever see the film we shot, and it did not matter for some reason. We had seen it.

Life went on. Like every film project, the intense relationships disengage, parting ways with a gentle understanding. We would meet in the street sometimes, faces bright and open, familiar. Some things can never be forgotten. They live right under your skin, forever. I think the last time I saw her it was in Spring. She had died her hair blonde (or so I thought at the time). She had that great gravelly laugh, as she said my name rolling the r. She looked well. I will remember her that way, with the wet smell of early morning rain steaming off the asphalt, the traffic on Houston rumbling around us, the sun whacking down into the alleys.

How impossible to hear she died, halfway across the world. If I was still living in New York I would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and do some small pilgrimage in her honor. Instead I am looking out the window eating breakfast after taking E to school. I come home, and play with V. She stands a little on my stomach if I hold her in the air above me. Her laugh is a little wave of gurgling sugary noises. I will look at N a little bit longer than normal today. I will watch her cheeks, her eyes lowered, the curl of her lips.


Thank you for sharing these stories, I feel like I have lived them now.
Portlandia said…
What a lovely remembrance, Marco. I am so sorry for your loss. Peace to you both.
liv said…
"Anything can happen to anyone at any time."

She sounds wonderful, such a sad lose for the world, for your world.
Sorrow, grief, peace - that's the hard path.

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