Dec 31, 2015

All bundled up in the wheelchair he looked like the father in Five Easy Pieces (his closest friend László Kovács shot that film). In the middle of the afternoon, we rolled him from one house to the other, up past the swimming pool, down the old driveway to the cabin with its fabulous view of the coast stretching south from Pfeiffer Pt.

Someone put on his head the baseball cap he always wore on the set and then his dark glasses. Someone else brought still another blanket. The sun was full on his face. I suspect it was too much; he hadn't had to endure the sun like that in months. He said nothing. I couldn't tell if his eyes were even open. Finally, after but a few minutes, I heard him whisper, "let's go back". The next day he was gone.

There was a time nearly 30 years ago when he first saw this view and imagined he'd found Shangri-La. Coming all that way from Szeged, where as a kid —his mother estranged, gone off with a lover never to return; his father away in Tangiers coaching a professional soccer team — his life had often seemed limited, lonely and drab.  And here he was on top of the world, with the most beautiful light.  In the end, that was the greatest attraction. Certainly it was spectacular to see the coast and the whole curvature of the earth, but it was the light that he treasured.
Today, out of nowhere, 12 vultures appeared high up in the branches of two California Pines. The trees stand next to a balcony where we go at night to watch the universe expand. The gigantic birds, in their cowboy long coats, barely moved, but you could see the eye of one, blinking as though electronically.  Another vulture extended his wing for a moment, like a big man looking to scratch his armpit. Another hung its head on its chest, the face particularly worn and ugly. "Does this mean today will be the day?" someone asked.

Dec 28, 2015

We stand around his bed, working out the details of his extraction from the hospital.  He has finally decided that he's had enough.  Last night he tore the catheter out of his neck that enables a connection to the dialysis machine, which he's been a slave to for more than a month, three days a week, three or four hours at a clip, and always as though the prey of an ambivalent and inept dracula.

And still he goes on.  The pacemaker demands it.  But now by withdrawing from dialysis, he has committed to a quick end.  The kidneys will shut down in a week, or less.  And just now, even with fresh blood he does not look well.  His face suggests 'The Scream.' Head thrown back, mouth open. You think of Munch's inspiration: "One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord — the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream."

Perhaps, the cinematographer is filming just such a scene right now: like a scene from The Deer Hunter, but more ghastly even, a true metaphor for his abhorrence of what's been done to him, of what goes on each day....  The nurses have surved him well; the doctors not so much, particularly the one in charge who had him come down to his office, in September... Or was it late August.  The 'managing' doctor is a small wiry man, with an air of

Nevertheless, the case worker is confident: "This is a great man, he has brought happiness to many people. You never know where people go in their minds." The case worker is a chubby butch with a Brooklyn accent and a camp counsellor's demeanor.   She offer a long monologue about visitations with the dead. "My guardian spirit is my mother, of course," she begins, "and whenever I see a butterfly I know she's around."

I wondered if the cinematographer could hear her.  His bushy eyebrows twitched, which they often do when he is trying to suffer fools.

"It's important to ask the patient, if you can," the case worker went on. "Of course, sometimes, you can't, it's always delicate, but sometimes you can ask how they imagine they will be reincarnated. I know someone who said they would come back as a moth and they did!"

Said as though reappearing as a moth was like coming back as a fabulous prince.

Dec 5, 2015

The great cinematographer is down to his last shots.  The lighting is no longer an issue.  The angle is not important.  No one cares what this will look like; only he can see what's going on.  He's the director now, and suddenly, from deep in his hospital bed, he reaches out through the hallucination, with his right arm — bruised to black, bristling with blood lines — with his gnarled craw hand, to adjust the picture. Not the camera, but the scene itself. He moves the actors around with his fingers; rambling on in Hungarian; his bushy eyebrows twitching.  And then he yells out, in English; "Where shall I cut this?"

"Anywhere you like," I tell him.

 "But where are the keys?"

"They're right here," I say.  The keys to your whole life, right here.  Everything is metaphoric at this stage.

"I  thought we'd lost them," he says.  But no, you assure him, Marceau like; no, they're right here, and they'll start up whatever you need to start up. He's now content.  And so we return to CNN.  He spent the Paris massacre in accute care;  the San Bernadino massacre, in palliative care. Tomorrow, more dialysis.  Tomorrow then will be a bad day.  So many bad days in a row.  Can we make it to Christmas?  That's the hope.

Meanwhile, he is back in his film. Maybe he's shooting Umberto D; one of his favorites, almost as much as many of his own films....  He's back in his film; everyone is part of it.  "It doesn't matter," he says suddenly.  But this is not a reference to the film; this is a broader recognition.  So it seems.  Would he trade this for all of his fame now?  His academy award?

And then just to squeeze every last drop of irony out of the evening, here on the monitor at the top of the room is Tony Bourdain in Tangier.  Why it was just a year ago that Tony was having lunch with the cinematographer, himself, in Budapest, talking about all his great movies, about what it was like  to escape in 1956. But here is the real irony:  it was in Tangier where the cinematographer's father once coached soccer; in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the son would come all the way from Hungry to visit, oh what fabulous visits those were, and the son would never forget his father.  There was no greater hero, in life or the imagination.

He watches it all out of one eye, with the oxygen pump making the sound of white noise, with the Filipinas remaking the bed in the other half of the room, with the slow realization coming, that no, no he may never leave here after all....

Nov 10, 2015

How unsettling is the face of the movie star long gone!  The worse if on a black and white poster. Let's say a woman in her prime. I'm thinking of Ava Gardner or Jean Moreau.  A woman with an edge.And isn't it remarkable how a certain photograph enables a great beauty to spit in the eye of death, and in the same moment capture the equivalent of a longing for the years before a great war.

Sep 4, 2015

The lighter is dimming.  The man who loved light is less and less loved by light in return.  He's gotten tangled up, like a dolphin in nets, tangled up in those tubes and wires, and all the paraphernalia that goes with living at man's end.  Meanwhile, the doctors won't say.  They're afraid to predict an outcome; afraid of being sued.  Afraid that when people find out the true consequences of say a pacemaker, they won't want it.  If the signs are stable, they say, then there's nothing to do.
Yet the lighter is in more and more pain.  The data is hopeful, yet he feels worse and worse. His knees are swelling; he can no longer walk; he's dizzy; he's losing his coordination, his ability to reason.  It galls him no end that he can't remember 'chicken, sauce, tea' five minutes after you tell him to remember those words.
And all the while he's kept in a resort-like rehab center where the admitters tell everyone that there are two Diebenkorns hanging on the walls. What they don't say is that the rehab area includes the forensic wing.  Down the corridor from the lighter, a woman goes through 108 bird calls every evening.  Then some occasional screaming.  Nurses shake their heads. Drugs are readily available, although it's hard to find a nurse to provide them.  Who knows what's wrong with these nurses? They find a bleeding sore on your elbow and then forget to take care of it.  Life goes on, but just barely. The light in this place is mellow and ghastly.  The cat wandering around is 17-years-old. There's nothing to be done. The man who has defined cinematic light is left alone.  His friends have largely deserted him.  Still, he's willing to play his part whatever it is, but he is as though without a director to explain the scene.  And all the while he listens to Gorecki's Symphony No. 3.  With Dawn Upshaw.  Not what you should be filling your head with at such a moment;  the tears roaring down his tough cheeks the color of a dirt road after a good rain.

Aug 16, 2015

"Is there any better coastal view than from Pfeiffer Pt.? asked the local Gatsby, a wannabe Gatsby. But then he shook his head. "But this is the problem; it's being discovered."You see that road to the beach down there. Well it's now filled with people making their way to Peiffer Beach. So many are dark skinned. They seem to be more South Asian lately, from places like Fremont and Concord.  But that's not all.  Did you hear about the two Chinese people run over on Route 1. They were walking right down the middle of the road taking photographs, oblivious to the traffic. I don't know what the were thinking."

Jay G shook his head and smack his lips.  "I'll tell you what's next: last week two Norteno gang members from Salinas robbed a golfer at Torry Pines, in Monterey. They took the man's $1,000 golf club.  It's a miracle he wasn't killed. And what were they going to do with that? Sell it.  But you see it's all turning out just as Trump says. It's the refugees.  The world is awash with people who aren't happy with their life somewhere else, and now they want to come here.  But America can't take all the people in the world. And anyway many were very successful where they were. Now they want more.  The foreigners always want more.  But then they don't want to work for it.  People in other countries, in other cultures, they're all just greedy. What other word explains it? But we know how to handle this. I've ordered two trained Malinois. Combat dogs.  They're the best. We're we're looking into barbed wire. The caretaker has an automatic rifle. 'Sure, you can keep that here,' I said.  We're all buttoning down. A package of food to last 10 years is arriving next week.  We've got a six-month supply of Kremlin Vodka from Costco. My wife is furious that we'll have to forego the kitchen remodel, but we just can't trust anybody now."

May 25, 2015

Where the airdale used to lay next to the fireplace, now a fine cigar box with its ashes.  Next to the bed where the husband used to sleep, a bill on the nightstand for July's hospice care.  And where the wife used to stand in the kitchen now stands a different woman, in the same skirt, making the same rice pilaff, still making all the ends meet, whispering to herself that this will be a good year.  She can always sense the future.  A good year bound to come after so many bad ones.  This will be the year , she is always saying to freinds at dinner, when the quantum coin toss will come up diamonds.  She considers it her rightful destiny, because after all she was born in the shallows of a river as her mother washed the sheets.

Philip Glass says he's come to see his life's arc through the music he's written, which is all part of some great lineage of music.  His place, his life's meaning, is somewhere in that lineage. And so the writer, the doctor, the professional of any kind has a place in the lineage of a certain craft. But what if you have no particular craft, merely a long list of dreams?  What if your craft is solely in the lineage of unfulfilled dreams.

May 17, 2015

Weeks ago, on the day the governor announced the water cuts, we went for a walk in Golden Gate Park. Twenty-five percent for San Francisco; well, that won't be so bad for us.  We said.  But then think of all the lawn people, the golfers, the corpses, the car washers, the little kid bodies at the public pools.

It was early evening; the wind subsided. Quiet set in. As we walked along, it suddenly occurred to us, to me at least, that the park itself seemed to have gotten Brown's message. As though the very thought of what was coming had gotten into the soil and dried it; just then as we were walking along, just as we were talking about it, and here was the moon glistening and the sea roaring, and yet the park seemed like the hopeful patient told he's cancerous and suddenly he's quiet, hardly breathing.

Feb 21, 2015

She's gone now.  It's been 8 years, or 9.  The truth is, I don't remember exactly.  I remember hearing the news.  I remember the airplane and the drive and confronting the Russian madame. I remember using some very foul language, in an effort to unnerve that little scene they had going; the Master's teachings; the whole communal conceit.  Well, not a conceit; it was a commune and it worked for the most part, but of course the politics were horrific.  A Canadian ranch and refuge for people on the run.  That's true.  Everybody there was on the run and she not least.  So after I had a my tantrum, which I enjoyed enormously, the Russian had me sit next to her at dinner, which I can tell you is never a boisterous affair.  Not even any slurping.  Just heads bowed to their soup bowls. "Could you pass the water?" someone might say.  After dinner, the Russian had me tell stories about who my mother had been before coming to the south of France and then later to British Columbia.  I told them and people were stunned — that she had once been a terrific tennis player, moving back and forth along the baseline like the lioness she imagined she was.... And some other stories.  But then I suddenly couldn't go on.  What good is it? And so now her memory is like a light down through the fog and I'm St. Ex, lost and not trusting, drawn to that light and trying to figure out what it means and how to deal with it, whether to see it as a landing light or a trick.