In January, 1986 I moved to Minneapolis and found a job working in a publishing company. Within two months I met Sayer and we married in 1988. She was also an aspiring filmmaker who had recently graduated from the University of Minnesota. I remember our initial meeting as a cinematic love-at-first-sight scene. I knelt to help her pick up a fallen notebook page on the ground and saw the look of recognition in her face as I felt it myself, much like the coup de foudre of Gene Kelly and Françoise Dorléac in The Young Girls of Rochefort. On our first date we went to a movie, Emir Kusturica's When Father was Away on Business at the Cedar Theater. I remember very little of the film because I was distracted by Sayer's presence next to me in the dark, a feeling similar to my horror movie outings at the Amery Theater as a teenager. When I write about love, I generally translate the feeling through films that I've seen.
We all have an inventory of visual references for the rapture and promise of love. A few of mine: the young lovers lying in flowers - The Seven Samurai, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn sparring in the playroom - Holiday, or Marie and Henrik lying together by the sea in Ingmar Bergman’s Illicit Interlude. In a scene involving the only use of animation (1:01:30) I know in a Bergman film, a sudden terror in the night possesses Marie. Henrik reassures her that the sun will rise, the goblins will burst and everything will be okay. Older now and chastened by experience, I know that it's actually the first euphoria of love that bursts to reveal the banality of a daily routine from which we must actively contrive meaning. The formal completeness of movies do not prepare us for our exploratory attempts at intimate relationship as young adults.
During our first year together, Sayer and I saw The Tenant at the Walker Art Center. This is the third film in Roman Polanski’s ‘apartment’ trilogy, preceded by Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. No director, with the possible exception of David Lynch, so effectively depicts the moment when the reassurance of our domestic spaces turns into alienation and anxiety.
Roman Polanski also stars in The Tenant, playing the wayward protagonist. Trelkovsky, having difficulties finding a place to live in Paris, finally takes the apartment of a woman who has attempted suicide. He assumes her living space, then her 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. Polanski was living, at this time, through the aftermath of the Manson family murders of his wife, baby and friends. Sayer responded 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?’” I overhead her a few days later, lying in the bathtub, repeating, “If you cut off my arm I say, ‘Here am I and there is my arm.”
Sayer had similar reactions to Ana Torrent and her aloof father/monster in Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive and to Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth when we saw Blue Velvet during the movie's original release in 1986. It became clear that she was haunted by the memories of her dead father. He had been a stern and angry man, whom she had helped nurse through the final stages of colon cancer; he died when she was thirteen. After watching Blue Velvet, she even compared his volatility to Frank Booth.
My father had died two weeks after my twentieth birthday. I received a phone call in my dormitory at Lawrence University; a family friend explained that my father 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 worried himself to death. Daniel Schroeder, Jr., unlike Sayer's father, had been an attentive and supportive man with a vivid imagination for play with his three children. I inherited my love of movies from him.
Even by my mid-twenties, when Sayer and I would discuss our families, scenes from Super 8 home movies looped in my mind. My dad is mugging boyishly by a bulky 1950's car with an army crew cut and black-framed glasses, taking instructions from my mother behind the camera. He’s running comically in the backyard of my family’s Amery, Wisconsin rambler in the late 1960’s, flapping his arms and chasing my brothers like a giant bird. He grabs them and they scream with authentic terror as he drops them in his ‘nest,’ which is the sandbox he built for us. Now, in my mid-fifties, these images have fully replaced any direct memory of the events I may have once had; the movies of my father have become my memories of my father.
While Sayer grappled with periodic states of disembodiment, I cultivated friendships with middle-aged men whom I called ‘anti-fathers’ in confused reaction to the loss of my own dad. They were lonely middled-age men who seemed to have lost their way in life. Jerry Lee, for example, was a security guard for the publishing company where I worked, who also preached in an evangelical church on weekends. He claimed to have been an extra in Robert Altman's Nashville, standing in a cowboy hat behind the would-be assassin in the final scene. He also hallucinated beautiful vignettes that I pictured as short allegorical films while 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 lion it just escaped. It turns and looks into my eyes and leaps out of the clearing.
Sayer did not approve of my anti-fathers and she objected most strongly to my cinematic anti-father of this period, Dennis Hopper. He had just emerged from rehab into his role in Blue Velvet and had regained the cultural relevance he'd enjoyed after Easy Rider. 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 security guys in expensive suits and a young woman, next to whom he sat and autographed books. There he was, after all his excesses, well-groomed and amiable, polite and admired.
The brutally naturalistic films of mid-1970’s made the biggest impression on 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, 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. 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 (cut to the scene in The American Friend in which he lays on a pool table and shoots Polaroid photos of himself). 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 saw Tracks, in which Hopper improvises his way through the role of a Vietnam War veteran on a train, I went to Moonstruck at a suburban multiplex theater and it felt trivial by contrast. Beautiful, well-paid people with studied accents stood on their marks and remembered their lines in front of a camera; Nicholas Cage's idea of 'method' played like jokey self-conscious theatricality. By contrast, the day after I watched The American Friend, I lay on the floor of my workroom for ten hours while Sayer appealed to me to join her for dinner. Both of us were literally floored by the movies we watched at this time. This was not film as entertainment, but as confrontation of personal trauma. I empathized with the conflicted sweetness in Hopper, inextricably bound in violent self-contempt, a longing for connection and the reflexive sabotage of that impulse. And I was shocked by the vulnerability of the man exposed in front of the camera. His performances mirrored 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. After such episodes, it felt less that our relationship lived in the playroom of Holiday, but rather in the catastrophic unease of a Roman Polanski apartment.
Sayer and I were both haunted by our dead fathers in our twenties. We had specific, known ghosts and our initial bond may have existed in the recognition that we could share our affliction with each other. Presently, contemplating youth from middle-age, I think that almost everyone feels adrift in their twenties, watching the innocence of childhood recede and searching for a new confidence with which to replace it; youth is a rocking back and forth between two states, straining toward an arrival that will never really occur.