Look at Life

A Hollywood veteran with a secret returns to the South Sea Island of his youth.

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Public Domain

I can guarantee you’ve never heard of me but if you watch old B-movies on late-night TV you might have seen my work. Not that you’ll ever read my name on the credits. And I’m not exactly in a position to spell it right out for you. As a matter of fact I have trouble remembering that name myself. It’s been such a long time since anybody used it.

The few people who have heard about me are old studio insiders who worked their way around Hollywood and know about my special gift. I can make a good film great and a bad one bearable, and if you’re an actor I can bring out your best side like no-one else. It’s funny because when you’ve been on as many sets as I have sooner or later you see the worst side of just about everyone. The boss and me, we had an unspoken rule to cover the lens when that happened.

Wait, I’m forgetting myself, this is the movie business we’re talking about. I should be dropping names like confetti. Always work the room and leave a business card. You never know who’s going to be your next employer or investor. Those are the rules. So here are a couple of names to entice you right off the bat. Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracey. Big enough? That’s right, the guy you’re listening to is no slouch and there’ll be plenty more where they came from, my friend.

Oh yeah, and the astonishing thing is that in the fifty years I’ve been in this industry I’ve worked with the same cinematographer. There aren’t many people in this town who can make that claim. Sure, I’ve been hired out a few times to work on pictures he couldn’t shoot or knew he should stay away from. I’ve been called out at short notice when a picture was in trouble and they needed a different technical approach or simply because the producers were running out of money and had to complete principal photography before the studio bosses closed them down. But when it comes to the really deluxe material that’ll stand the test of time, just the one guy. We worked with a lot of different directors but you can always tell when we’re on board. If you know what to look for, that is.

Here’s an even bigger kick in the head. At this very moment I’m travelling on the boss’s yacht with him and his third wife on a sentimental journey back to the place where we met and made our first picture together. The one that won an Oscar and launched our careers. A little island in the middle of the ocean, a world away from Hollywood. I haven’t been back there since. I haven’t spoken to anyone from there since. It’s the place where I’m from. And you know what? This whole escapade makes me uneasy. I have no idea what I’m going to find there or how it’ll affect me. But I’m not ready to share all the reasons for that with you just yet.

These days we’re in semi-retirement. You figured that, I guess, or why would I be looking all misty-eyed down memory lane. We’re down to making one or two movies every few years. It’s a living, almost. Not bad like the lean years living on handouts from the boss’s in-laws and minimum rates from corporate films, not insane like when we were running from one exploitation picture to another, shooting a surfer musical, JD biker melodrama and a gothic horror all back to back on adjoining sets on Poverty Row. With mostly the same props, I might add.

They know that we’re coming. There’s going to be a screening on that little South Sea island and a presentation, followed by a grand banquet with all the local dignitaries, and anyone with the slightest connection to the original film has been invited. And there just about could be one or two people still around who were actually in the film. Will any of my people be there I wonder? They won’t recognise me, that’s for sure. So why do I feel like there’s so much at stake? It’s too late to change anything, what’s done is done but… like I said, I don’t feel so good about this. It’s different for the boss; he went to the island looking for adventure and beautiful images. I was just a skinny barefoot local kid with sharp eyes who was eager to please and got drawn into the action then discovered there was no going back. Not for fifty years anywise.

This boat we’re on, it’s beautiful. A sleek vessel of polished wood and burnished brass that slices through the waves and catches the morning sky in its greedy, impetuous sails. Not my words, I stole them from the opening titles on a two-bit pirate movie we made in the 50s. The boss’s son gave him the boat as a 70th birthday gift and he’s savouring every moment of this journey; briefing the crew, consulting the charts, never standing still. He’s no different when he’s behind the camera. Constantly comparing his exposure meter reading with what his eyes are telling him about the light, it’s like he can never entirely believe either, and everything remains fluid until the end of the take. So for me life is constantly in flux but I wouldn’t know how to work any other way. Never sit still is my motto.

We thunder around stealing the moment with a chunk of glass but we never put ourselves in danger for a shot. Not knowingly that is. There was that one time a very distinguished director wanted to put the audience’s heart in its mouth and the boss went for a low-angled shot of a train hurtling directly towards us. It’s all looking great, then the train’s brakes fail and the tripod gets stuck in the rails. Boss and the director dived out of the way in time but I got my casing bust open good, no permanent damage though fortunately. Gary Cooper was standing in the driver’s cab of that train and said he almost had a heart attack when he saw what was coming his way.

But that my friend was a piece of cake compared to the stuff we went through working for Orson Welles on It’s All True. That was one crazy trip man and it could have been such an amazing movie but stuff just kept happening. There was a war on, the biggest, but money and booze were flowing like there was no tomorrow and all the different technical crews, make-up and costume teams, everyone on the production kind of lost their hearts and minds to Rio de Janeiro. They’d walk off the set, which was the street, with the most beautiful women and men you’d ever seen and disappear for days. Welles did too but he was also soaking up the local scene like a sponge and each time he saw something extraordinary he’d want to reshoot and incorporate it in the movie. Well, with the carnival and all, something extraordinary walked into frame every thirty seconds and he just couldn’t find a way of bringing it all together. We were just one camera unit among many and nobody shoots faster than the boss but we couldn’t capture all that glorious incomprehensible celebration of life in the can. So we got a little wasted too then caught a boat back to the States before it all unspooled.

You know in all that madness one memory stands out. You wouldn’t guess it but I’m kind of a lost soul and I couldn’t connect with what was happening so I just went along for the ride as usual. One night, after a sumptuous meal and an outstanding show at the Cassino da Urca that had the comedian Grande Otelo and a wonderful singer, Linda Batista on the bill, Welles grabs me and drags me off down the streets with two local samba dancers, an émigré Hungarian Count, a Copa Cabana heiress and a fire eating Carmen Miranda impersonator. We pick up the remnants of a samba band on the way and start a long winding procession up the back streets to the favelas. People in the houses we pass throw flowers and ply us with drink.

It’s past midnight but children run out and dance in costumes and shower us with crazy carnival Yoruba trinkets. Christ is looking down from his cross up on high and every third street he reappears in the spaces between buildings. We turn a corner up another steep dark street and from nowhere two lithe, menacing jaguars appear. They advance towards us, undulating, liquid muscles, deadly glittering eyes. No one moves, no one screams, the Hungarian Count whimpers. The cats are barely seven feet away from us. Orson grabs me and thrusts the camera straight in their eyes. “Action,” he screams and the jaguars leap at him. Somehow mid-air they look into the lens but they see me. Something about me, I don’t know exactly what, but they’re shocked and coil either side of Mr Welles and fade into the shadows. For a split second Welles is silent, then he roars with laughter. “Remember,” he says, “you saw it here first.” There’s film in the camera, it’s developed and it looks indescribably amazing. Maybe it still does but the single, unrepeatable take is marked, logged and crated, and three weeks later mislaid along with three solid silver amulets, $30,000 in a hat box and 17 expanding files stuffed with unpaid bills.

I’ve been meaning to explain the way I speak, the gaudy patter, that is. It’s not really my voice, not the way I hear myself. The thing is English isn’t even my second language, Hollywood and Vine is. That and the hipster riffs and slang I picked up from the boss’s son and those groovy beatnik actors who starred in all the horror films we made. So bear with me. I’m trying to say something here.

The island is filling my field of vision now and soon we’ll be disembarking and making our reintroductions. The boss doesn’t notice me, sat here on a steamer trunk but then in 50 years he’s barely said a word to me. Does that surprise you? We started out with the model-L Debrie that saved the day on that first film. At some point he must have decided it wasn’t doing the job anymore. Maybe someone at the studios objected, I don’t know, I was out on loan at the time, anyway the boss’s instinct told him that he could trade up with the camera body but he’d never better the pictures he got from that lens. So he had a special adaptor made that could be fitted to almost anything and with a little re-calibration it’s been used, to some extent ever since. My good fortune, I’d never have made it back here to my island without it.

If I make my mind quiet the memories of that first film start to seep back into my consciousness. A lot of people thought the film was in trouble even from before the start. The money-men were happy enough though, until things got more complicated. A studio had made a film on the island already. So they knew it could work. And there were still enough supplies and facilities to keep a feature production on track and to process the film in a makeshift lab, screen dailies and edit a rough cut.

The writer had made ethnographic folktales his speciality and you couldn’t fail to be inspired by all the surrounding beauty. The locals were beautiful too, perhaps a little naïve, too vulnerable to deal with Hollywood. So that’s what he improvised for the story-line, except he took Hollywood off the hook and showed a pair of star-crossed lovers trapped between tradition and the attractions of the modern world.

The writer could direct as well but the studio heads didn’t trust him with their money so they pulled in a European director who had the magic touch. He had the magic touch all right, a certifiable genius, but the common touch, forget about it. The guy was a blue blood Prussian who put starch in his starch. He knew where to put the camera though and he never let anything or anyone stand in the way of making his picture.

So they all bedded down in tumbledown shacks while the Prussian had a comfortable summerhouse erected and filled it with everything he could wish for — armfuls of books, boxes full of fashion magazines, art and photography, a huge electric fan, an ice box and a Victrola. He had his own portable generator to run it all. So at the end of every long day shooting in intolerable heat he’d fall back on his satin divan, enjoy the breeze and listen to Wagner. The writer, who was Canadian, just couldn’t take this. He had his own little ethnographer’s moral code to live by. And whenever he heard music blowing out of the summerhouse he’d start plotting to murder the director again. The director was totally oblivious to anyone else’s needs of course and just didn’t see how riled the writer was getting. Worse, he actually liked him, which the writer just interpreted as more patronising condescension. To cap it all, the writer found out the summerhouse was slap on top of sacred ground. He told the Prussian he’d pissed off the local spirits and there would be consequences but he wasn’t taken seriously.

Something else that was of no concern to the Prussian was the unintentional damage the film was doing to the two young lead actors they cast for the film. Not that he would be around long enough to see what happened. Sure the kids enjoyed the challenge of acting well enough and were very happy with the results. And naïve though they may have been they didn’t fall in love on set or fall in love with themselves. But they did fall in love with Hollywood and, like me tried their hands in the business.

The boy had the harder time establishing himself although the boss wrote him a letter of introduction and got him some work. And the Oscar ensured that people remembered his face, if not his name, for a little while. His short-lived career rolled out low down on the cast-list playing renegade Apaches, Chinese coolies, jungle natives and so forth. And then he got some work as a stuntman and had a pretty comfortable life in Silverlake, so I heard, until he got a taste for liquor and had a bad fall from a horse. He figured the smart thing to do was go back to the island and use the money the studio insurers paid him to bankroll a future for his family. The boss is planning to visit his grave while we’re there.

The girl? Well, she was beautiful and could act but it was her singing and dancing that made her a tiny star in Busby Berkeley musicals. Twisting and gyrating along with dozens of other girls as they turned into giant geometric flowers or whatever other kaleidoscopic dance formations the director required that week. If you look hard enough you’ll notice she has a couple of memorable solo moments in the Dolores Del Rio feature In Caliente and later in Zigfield Girl. But she always chose the wrong guy and money was a constant problem. She never left Hollywood though. Someone said that years later she started hanging out with Eden Ahbez and his nature boys, running barefoot in a crocheted poncho and living on alfalfa sprouts and cactus juice up beyond Laurel Canyon. Yma Sumac she wasn’t but there’s a rumour she sang on his album Eden’s Isle and people say that the song Island Girl was inspired by her.

Hey, this is it. We’re approaching a long line of people dressed in their best. Young and old, some are wearing traditional tribal costume; some have bright floral surfing shirts and sneakers. They all want to shake the boss’s hand and he wants to get them all on celluloid. Ha! A few of them are shying away when he points his camera at them. Even now some of the locals are still scared of that contraption. But I wasn’t and look what happened to me.

We’re moving into a large hall with a brightly painted tin roof and large shady plants stroking the whitewashed walls with the gentle breeze. More travelogue I know but I want you to get the feel of the place where the film will be shown. Some of the audience are already seated. In the front rows there’s a large family of many generations. Do I know them? They’re pointing over at us and the centre of attention is an old guy with a faraway look in his eyes and a thin, faded, pastel patterned cotton blanket covering his knees. The boss has stepped front and centre before the film screen and I wish you could hear what he has to say. I could paraphrase but it wouldn’t do him justice. It’s just very powerful here feeling his emotions rise as he clings on to me.

He’s really touched the audience. They’re applauding wildly and some of them are singing an island song. If that sounds corny let me assure that it isn’t. That one old guy in the front row though he isn’t doing anything. Maybe he’s ill, maybe that’s why he’s just sitting there. I’m looking straight down the barrel of the lens at him right now to get a closer look. I can’t see any of my family out there. I guess my sisters are dead but that young boy next to the old man looks just like me. I guess the old guy’s about my age. Do I know him? Hell, would I recognise myself after the life I’ve led?

What I do know is that since I first stared into that lens I discovered that my people were right. That there’s everything to fear about the camera. That it can steal your soul and trap you. And the only thing that’s left for you to do is collect the beauty and the ugliness you see all around you. Make everything look like it’s being seen, all fresh and new, for the very first time. Then coil up all that brand new feeling in cans and send them halfway round the world so lots of other folks can see it roll out right before their eyes in all its glory again and again and again.

See, I told you I was a bit disconnected. I also had something extraordinary to tell about Spencer Tracey but with what’s happening here, right now, it just isn’t the time. You know why that old guy interests me, don’t you? It’s because he’s looking straight ahead but he can’t see a thing. Just two cloudy lenses with nothing happening behind that stereoscope viewfinder of his. I’m the spark he’s been missing and he’s the body I left behind. Yeah, you heard right, of course he’s me. If only I could get back into his head for a second.

Sooner or later the boss is going to recognise the old guy and remember how I suddenly became a virtual zombie when he filmed us all for posterity on his last day on the island. I’m praying that the boss lines him up with the camera for a group shot when the screening is over. He’ll stare right into my disembodied soul and just like that I’ll escape this glass prism that’s been my prison for so long. I’ll be able to stamp my feet and clap my hands and then I’ll holler at the boss, everything I’ve been meaning to tell him all this time. Finally, everything’s gonna be running in sync: one place, one time, one body, one soul.

John has worked in cinema, journalism and advertising and writes fiction when he can.

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