A friend of mine who directed one of my plays in New York was close
for a time with J.D. Salinger’s son. Over coffee at a bookstore
in Manhattan, he told me a story that was related to him by Matthew
Salinger about when he was visiting his father at his home in Cornish,
New Hampshire for Thanksgiving. After dinner, apparently the great Mr.
Salinger disappeared down to the basement and returned minutes later
with a few large boxes that contained unpublished manuscripts that he
had been working on for the past five or so decades. He then asked his
son to burn them after he died. As soon as I heard this story my heart
started to race, partly because I had just listened to what sounded
like a real story about perhaps our greatest American literary Sasquatch.
The increased blood pressure was also no doubt caused by the possibility
that one of my heroes had indeed been writing all these years. Also
involved with my metabolic swing, I’m sure, was the notion that
a man who has affected so many people with such potency, who birthed
what I consider maybe the greatest American punk rock novel ever written,
whose characters’ voices seemed to be begged to be listened to
by an audience of readers—that man—could suddenly and so
resolutely decide to stop sharing his work.
Around the same time I heard that story, I was reeling from a breakup
with a woman who had a fractured relationship with her father (the reeling
had nothing to do with their problems; we had plenty of our own mess);
a relationship in which there was very little said, even when they were
in the same room. I thought it was so interesting that she was a Juilliard-trained
actress with a facility for performing the elevated poetry of Shakespeare
and he was a former courtroom attorney who was known for his verbal
dexterity, but while sitting with them at his kitchen table you could
hear the lights buzz.
I love ’70s films because they give an awful lot of thought to
these kinds of unspoken, but charged relationships. Jack Nicholson in
Five Easy Pieces comes to mind. He wheels his invalid father
into a wintry field and can’t summon the words to tell him all
that has gone wrong in his life. The camera sits there for a long time
and very little is said. And then so much is said. Nicholson comes to
mind again in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. He and Otis
Young are transporting Randy Quaid via train to his inevitable fate
at the U.S. Naval Prison at Portsmouth for stealing a petty amount of
cash from a polio collection box. So little is said, but the looks between
Nicholson and Young speak volumes to their guilt, the bitterness for
their fate as Navy “lifers,” and all of the untold collusions
that bond them in a profession fraught with hypocrisy. Those long, distended
shots with their slow dissolves. I could have stayed on that train with
the three of them forever.
I admire the photographs of Nan Goldin, particularly her collection
in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. All of those lovers in
bed together. Prisoners to each other, even when they are making love.
Not knowing what to say. Smoking cigarettes and staring at the wall.
The way she can capture the moment of wordlessness that can be so huge
between two people who give their bodies to each other. The amber bedroom
light feels so sad and lonely and yet there is something that is aching
to be voiced. How her camera is never felt. Only the raw emotion (and
lack thereof) of her subjects.
I think faces make for fascinating, wordless stories. The lines on
a forehead. The surprising turn of a mouth. The heavy hang of a brow.
History under the eyes. I love film because the human face is perhaps
its greatest character. Watching Lynn Carlin in John Cassavetes’
extraordinary Faces is like reading a novel without text. As
the viewer you are called to collaborate, to imagine all the pain and
joy and yearning in Maria Forst’s life. Cassavetes doesn’t
tell us all that much through language, but rather invites us to perform
a kind of cinematic archaeology exploration of Ms. Carlin’s character
largely through her face. When Seymour Cassel finally joins her in bed,
does she want to be saved or devoured? Protected or simply held? Cassavetes
trusts that we’ll bring our own story to it and therefore we invest
more deeply; and he accomplishes this with so few words. As a novelist-turned-playwright-turned-filmmaker
who has mostly relied on language to tell stories, I have great awe
and appreciation for this.
I guess all of this somehow contributes to my impulse to make a film
like Winter Passing. There is a father-daughter gulf, a buried
novel in a box. A few lost souls, and a lot of things that go unsaid
for a long time. And then stuff is finally said and people move on with
their lives and do so in a way that I hope people can recognize. It’s
an attempt to trust and preserve the ideas of simple storytelling and