Of Muses and Ghosts
By Matthew Cheney
21 January 2008
The last conversation I had with my father was about a movie. I called him from my cell phone as I walked home after seeing Sweeney Todd on its opening night in Manhattan, December 21. My father had emailed me earlier in the day, telling me to let him know what I thought, since Tim Burton was one of his favorite directors, Johnny Depp one of his favorite actors, and he and I had seen a magnificent production of the play in London in 1994. When I called, I told him he would probably love the movie, because it was strange and bloody, and though most of the actors weren't particularly strong singers, they could at least get by, and their acting choices were often compelling. I told him it was obviously a Burton movie in its design, that it lacked the darkly humorous tone of the play, and that I looked forward to watching it with him once it came out on DVD. Then my phone's battery ran down, and when I got home I emailed to tell him that I'd call him again soon.
Later that night, while watching TV, my father died, probably of heart failure. I've spent the days since then thinking about his effect on me. Ours was a difficult, often strained relationship, and most of the time I steered our conversations toward movies and music and history, three subjects on which our ideas led mostly to good exchanges rather than the sharp and silencing tension other subjects could summon. The effect of his absence now has been profound in unexpected ways for me, a quiet and undramatic grief that works its gravity not only on my emotions but on the deeper structures that guide my perception of the world.
Shortly before my father's death, I found myself in some arguments with friends about the ending of the recent movie No Country for Old Men, a movie, and especially an ending, I found immensely thought-provoking. I kept wondering why I cared so much, why I got so defensive when people told me they thought the film was overrated, the ending was a cop-out or a mistake, etc. I didn't think it was the greatest movie ever made, nor did I have any personal stake in what anybody else thought of it, so why did I care so much?
After his death, I realized why I was willing to fight anybody and everybody about No Country: I was getting ready to argue with my father. He liked the Coen brothers's movies in general more than I did, and I knew he'd like a lot of things in No Country, but I was pretty certain the ending would drive him nuts, as would Woody Harrelson's character, who barely affects the plot at all. I was ready to argue with him that these were among the things that made the movie infuriating, yes, but also an extraordinary exploration of the limits of masculinity and violence, as well as the awful ways hyper-masculinity and the seductions of violence so often get exploited for the sake of suspense and plot symmetry. I admired the way the story set us up to expect a more-or-less standard adventure movie and then, in the second half, refused to provide many of the pleasures such movies usually offer.
I don't know if my arguments would have convinced my father. Probably not. But my goal wasn't so much to convince him to view the movie differently than it was to convince him that I had thought about it carefully, and that I had paid attention to the details.
When all else failed, movies were what my father and I could talk about, and I can trace my passion for film to him—when my age was still in the single digits, he taught me about the mysterious people called directors and, without himself knowing what he was doing, indoctrinated me into auteur theory, making it impossible for me not to seek out all the films of any director who made even one movie I liked. (The first was George Romero. My mother insisted that the original Day of the Dead was too much for me, but we got some of the others past her sane and watchful eye . . .) In the early 1980s, we were the first people I knew to own a VCR, and I have vivid memories of the almost unbearable excitement of driving 25 miles to the only video rental store around and getting to pick my one movie for the week—Smokey and the Bandit or The Lone Ranger or Popeye (my first Robert Altman movie. His Vincent & Theo and Short Cuts would later be important films for me as well). One year the intrepid owners of our local movie theatre began showing classics at midnight—a nearly unheard-of event in rural New Hampshire—and my father made sure I got to stay up well past my bedtime to see Citizen Kane on the big screen. He also made sure that I and any friends who wanted to join us saw Rambo III on the day it arrived in town, because it would teach us how evil the Soviets were and what good things the noble Mujahideen were doing in Afghanistan.
As I grew older, my life became more and more dominated by writing and reading, but I read very different things from my father, and though he had written a couple of articles for Guns & Ammo magazine, his writing tended toward the pragmatic. In some ways, my writing about books was an endless and futile attempt to prove to my father that fiction could be worthwhile, because though he was a voracious reader of nonfiction, he never saw the point to reading novels. Other forces have affected my reading and writing, but film is the domain in which my father's influence has stayed strong, and it's rare for me to watch a movie and not try to guess what he would make of it.
As my tastes matured and changed, my opinions often diverged from his—I never understood, for instance, how the man who introduced me to the pleasures of both zombie movies and Monty Python could dislike Shawn of the Dead, nor did I ever figure out how he could enjoy any number of sequels to sequels of mindless slaughter-by-numbers slasher movies. Yet nothing gave me more pleasure than finding a movie we both could admire unreservedly—one of my last triumphs was getting him to watch Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, which he proclaimed to be one of the best World War Two movies he'd seen. This was the highest possible praise from my father, a man who spent much of his life obsessed with that time period, and who saw every film he could find about it. His critique of any such movie often began with details—the guns were wrong, the uniforms had inaccurate insignia, the Jeep was too new—and then moved on to show me why films that tended to pay close attention to such details also tended to be excellent overall (more than once he told me he knew Full Metal Jacket would be great just from the title, since only somebody aware of the details of ammunition would know that term). I was in high school when Schindler's List came out, and I saw it before my father—when I got home, he interrogated me for a while about all the details, and I described the movie to him with great passion, because I'd found it breathtakingly powerful. He seemed skeptical, and when he saw it later, he said, "Not bad, but it's too . . . too . . . clean . . ." I'm not sure even he knew what he meant, but through conversations that lasted years, we both came to think of the film as admirable in parts and too slick overall, and we shared a distrust of any attempt to replicate the experience of the concentration camps on film.
It's common to speak of artists as having muses, but don't we all have them—muses for our thoughts, for our dreams and desires, for the shapes we try to make of our lives? It's no surprise to me that parents should play such a role, since parents are, for most of us, the early legislators of our experiences and perceptions. What can we do, though, when the muse becomes a memory? My father's ghost will inhabit my mind for as long as I have a mind for it to reside in, and some of the shapes that ghost takes are terrifying ones, far more painful than any cinematic shock, but I am grateful that the most powerful ghost is the ghost I sense whenever the opening credits of a movie roll. I still haven't learned to think of that muse in the past tense—I saw one of my favorite recent movies, There Will Be Blood, two weeks after my father's death, and once the credits began my first thought was: I can't wait till Dad sees that! Then I caught myself. I sighed, sad that it would be this way from now on. I felt a cold, unfamiliar loneliness, but it lessened as I let the ghost become the companion the muse once was. I was content with the knowledge that my father would have loved the movie, would have been awed by Daniel Day-Lewis's extraordinary performance, and I knew the difficult father-son relationship in the story would have strummed the most sensitive chord we shared.
I'll never get to hear my father's response to that movie in his words, but his ghost has settled in to stay, and with each day I get better at hearing its whispers. Movies are ghostly things, too, flickers of light in a dark room, but among the gifts my father has left me is his presence—those whispers that assure me I will never truly be alone in the darkness before the light flickers on or after it fades out.