In December, 1985 I drove from Boulder, Colorado to Amery, Wisconsin and, when I knocked on the sliding glass door of my parents’ bedroom at 5 A.M., my mother let me into the house. My father was not on call at the hospital . . . he had died two years before. Two weeks after my twentieth birthday, I had been awoken by a phone call in my dormitory at Lawrence University; a family friend explained that my father had had a fatal heart attack. He died at age forty-six in the hospital where he was on duty. It is a common fate for small-town doctors, too much pressure and responsibility, too little sleep. He essentially worried himself to death. Daniel Schroeder, Jr. was a good man and had been an attentive father, with a vivid imagination for play with his three children. I inherited my love of movies from him.
If I presently try to recall my father, who’s now been dead for more than half my life, images from my family’s Super 8 home movies play in my mind. He’s young, with an army crew cut and 1950’s black-framed glasses, mugging boyishly by a bulky car, taking instructions from the camera operator who is presumably my mother. He’s running comically in the backyard of my family’s first Amery, Wisconsin rambler in the late 1960’s flapping his arms and chasing my brothers and me like a giant bird. He grabs us and we scream with authentic terror as he drops us in his ‘nest,’ which is the sandbox he built for us. These images have replaced any direct memory of the events I may have once had; the movies of my father have become my memories of my father.
Early in 1986 I moved to Minneapolis and found a job working in a publishing company. Within two months I met Sayer and we would marry in 1988. She was an aspiring filmmaker who had graduated recently from the University of Minnesota. I remember our initial meeting, of course, as a cinematic ‘love-at-first-sight’ scene. I knelt to help her pick up a few fallen pages on the ground and saw the peculiar look of recognition in her face even as I felt it myself, much like the coup de foudre of Gene Kelly and Françoise Dorléac in Jacques Demy’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort.” On my first date with Sayer we went to a movie. I remember the theater, The Cedar. I remember the name of the movie, “When Father was Away on Business.”
I wonder if that initial romantic recognition is conditioned by the movies we’ve seen or if the movie version of love derives from an innate psychological/biological phenomenon. I imagine that cause and effect in this case are circular, the sensation of love and the cinematic depiction of love each reflecting and shaping the experience of the other. Certainly, when I write about love in these essays, I automatically relate the experience to films that I’ve seen.
Martin Ritt’s “Hud,” for instance, will always represent my first romantic and sexual relationship. During my sophomore year at Lawrence University I secretly loved Sara, who, like the young women I had known in high school, seemed to regard me merely as a friend; I reconciled myself to that role because it was familiar. Sara and I went to a screening of “Hud” together at the Lawrence University Film Club; I believe that the exact date was January 23, 1983. I still vividly recall the stark opening composition of a car on the horizon line, a lyrically desolate shot by James Wong Howe in black and white, accompanied by an intense awareness of the woman sitting inches away from me. I remember the scene in which Patricia Neal makes the nephew Lon lemonade and encourages him to spit the seeds into her hand; she is simultaneously motherly and sexually alluring.
After the movie, I expected to say goodnight to Sara but she asked me, “Do you want to go sledding on the hill behind the student union?” We found a cardboard box, folded it into a sled and slid down the big hill together, spilling into the snow at the bottom, laughing. As we untangled ourselves, we paused, looked into each other’s eyes and shyly kissed. Even as I describe the moment, I connect it to movie scenes in which childhood play dissolves into a first romantic gesture between young adults in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
We have all internalized a rich inventory of visual metaphors for the rapture of first infatuation. A few of mine: the young lovers lying amidst flowers in Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn sparring in the playroom in “Holiday” or Marie and Henrik laying together by the sea in Bergman’s “Summer Interlude.” In a scene that I remember particularly well from this film (involving the only use of animation (at 1:01:30) I can recall in a Bergman film), Marie is possessed by a sudden terror in the night. Henrik reassures her that the sun will rise, the goblins will burst and all will be okay. But it’s the initial euphoria of love that bursts and the sunrise that reveals the repetition and banality of a daily routine from which we must actively contrive a meaning. The formal completeness of movies cannot adequately prepare us for our first improvised attempts at intimate relationship as young adults.
About a year into our relationship Sayer and I watched Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” together at the Walker Art Center. “The Tenant” is the third film in Roman Polanski’s ‘apartment dread’ trilogy, preceded by “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” No director, with the possible exception of David Lynch, so viscerally conveys the point at which the reassurance of our familiar domestic spaces transforms into anxiety.
Roman Polanski also stars in “The Tenant” and he plays his character, the immigrant Trelkovsky, with notable familiarity. Trelkovsky, having difficulties finding a place to live in Paris, finally takes the apartment of a woman who has attempted suicide. He initially assumes her living space, then her gender and identity, and ultimately her suicide attempt, not once, but twice, jumping from the same window. It’s a blackly comic film about a state of profound dissociation: social, cultural and psychological. Sayer responded most strongly to the scene in which Trelkovsky lies drunk on a bed, asking Isabelle Adjani’s character, “If you cut off my arm I say, ‘Here am I and there is my arm,’ but if you cut off my head, do I say, ‘Here am I and there is my body’ or ‘Here am I and there is my head?’”
The first inkling I had that I might be ill-prepared for the complexities of adult relationships occurred a few days after this screening of “The Tenant.” A friend and I returned to the apartment that I shared with Sayer and we found her unconscious on the kitchen floor, wearing only a bra, jeans and one sock. Confused and embarrassed, I told my friend that he should leave. I found a half empty bottle of vodka and put Sayer into a cold bath. She regained consciousness, muttering, “If you cut off my arm I say, ‘Here am I and there is my arm.”
Sayer had reacted similarly to Ana Torrent’s alienation from her aloof monster/father in Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive.” She explained that she was sometimes possessed by the memories of her dead father when she got into strong states of emotion. He had died when she was thirteen and had been a volatile and angry man; she even compared him to Dennis Hopper’s character Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet,” after we watched that film during its initial release. After such episodes I felt less that I lived in the playroom of “Holiday,” and much more in the catastrophic unease of a Polanski apartment.
Even as Sayer grappled with these occasional states of disembodiment, I was cultivating friendships with middle-aged men whom I labeled ‘anti-fathers’ in confused reaction to the loss of my own father. They were all lonely, lost men about whom I had a morbid curiosity. One man was a security guard for the publishing company in which I worked, who also preached in an evangelical church. He hallucinated beautiful vignettes that I pictured as short allegorical films when he described them:
“I’m washing my dishes and looking out the window at the parking lot in front of my apartment when suddenly a forest grows up through the asphalt. Into a clearing in the trees runs a small deer, breathing really hard like it’s been running from something. I see on its side that there are the bloody claw marks of a predator it just escaped. It turns and looks into my eyes and leaps out of the clearing.”
Sayer did not approve of my ‘anti-fathers.’ But she objected most strongly to my cinematic anti-father of this period, Dennis Hopper. He had just emerged from rehab to elevate “Blue Velvet” with his performance as Frank Booth and had regained cultural relevance. Early in 1988 The Walker Art Center programmed a series of his films as a director and actor, cleverly entitled “From Method to Madness.” The following is a diary account I wrote at the time:
Dennis Hopper was at the Walker this evening and I filmed three and a half minutes of his face on Super 8. It was quite a spectacle. He entered with his entourage, two men in expensive suits and a young woman, next to whom he sat and autographed books. There he was, after all his sins, all his excesses, well-groomed and amiable, polite and admired.
Of the films in this series, the brutally naturalistic films of mid-1970’s most affected me. For someone who claimed to have been snorting three grams of cocaine and drinking thirty beers a day at the time, Dennis Hopper had had a remarkably productive 1976. He flew directly to Berlin after his role in “Apocalypse Now” was completed, reportedly still dressed as the manic journalist in that film, to play Tom Ripley in Wim Wender’s “The American Friend.” That year he also shot “Mad Dog Morgan” in Australia and Henry Jaglom’s “Tracks.” I referred in the earlier “Star Wars” essay to the scene in “The American Friend” in which Dennis Hopper lays on a pool table and shoots Polaroid photos of himself as an example of autobiography penetrating the fictional space of a movie. In the films of this period, Dennis Hopper is playing Dennis Hopper, simply behaving as his rudderless and tormented self, with impressive, improvisational focus under the circumstances. It’s a tribute to the instincts (and patience) of the directors of these films that they were able to put Hopper’s personal disintegration to such powerful thematic use.
The Walker’s series dominated my attention for a month and scorched the landscape of any other movie. The day after I watched “Tracks,” in which Hopper furiously improvises his way through the role of a Vietnam War veteran, I saw “Moonstruck” in a multiplex theater and it felt utterly trivial by contrast. Beautiful, well-paid people with studied accents simply stood in the correct position and remembered their lines in front of a camera; I had no interest in this bloodless theatricality. The day after I saw “The American Friend,” I lay paralyzed on the floor of my workroom for ten hours, withdrawn and mute, while Sayer appealed to me to join her for dinner. It seems in retrospect that both of us were often literally 'floored' by the movies we watched at this time. This was not film as entertainment, but as confrontation and ordeal. I empathized with the conflicted sweetness in Hopper, inextricably bound in violent self-contempt, a longing for connection and the instinctive sabotage of that impulse. And I was shocked by the vulnerability of the man nakedly exposed in front of the camera. These performances evoked the emptiness and inarticulate longing I felt in the aftermath of my father’s death and my identification with these turbulent energies frightened Sayer. She saw her father in Dennis Hopper and she didn’t want to see Dennis Hopper in me.
Sayer and I were both haunted by our dead fathers in our twenties. We had specific, known ghosts, and our initial bond may have been the recognition that we could share our afflictions with each other. But presently, contemplating youth from middle-age, I think that almost everyone must feel dislocated in their twenties, watching the innocence of childhood recede and searching for a new confidence with which to replace it, an anxious rocking back and forth between two states, straining toward an arrival that will never really occur.