Excerpted from Tales Of The Patriarchs
He stood in the hot sun and stared. In some other ear that only he knew existed, an ear where he heard the secrets of his art, a clock was ticking. It was a sound he knew very well, a sound he could not get rid of, but it was not yet loud enough. So he ignored it and concentrated on the set where he was trying to finish up this film about The Great War, this tragedy of young men and their wives, soldiers going off to war never to return, others coming home to find that home is no longer there, heroism and cowardice in the face of death, despair and redemption and the love of a faithful wife. The problem was the tree. Only God can make a tree. Who said that? Some poet? The poet was all wrong. So was the tree.
Shooting a movie was like making a small war. Von Stern stood at the center of the conflict. He was the general and the tall young jewboy in faraway Hollywood, the one with the studio checkbook, he was his Minister of War.
“Von?” That little lizard of a stagehand interrupted him.
“Don’t call me that!” Von Stern snapped his riding crop against his boot. They all thought they could call him Von now. Little creeps.
“The drill sergeant has arrived and is waiting for you on the parade ground.”
“Sehr gut.” The little lizard skittered away.
Von Stern would go to the parade ground to see his army when he damn well pleased. He would not shoot his battle scenes until his soldiers looked like soldiers. They had said, give us a day, Herr Direktor. We will make them look like soldiers. Ha! A day. You cannot make a soldier in a day. You cannot make a soldier in a week. They must drill and train and face a little death. Until the slack in their walk is gone. Until the smiles are gone. Until the look of bored futility permeates their bodies, and in their minds there is a memory of fear, and you can sense it in the way they talk and eat and sleep. So let them drill another week. Another week and he might take a look. He did not want slop. He did not want precision. He wanted an army. And when he saw an army he would know it. And then he would shoot the battle scenes. And not a minute sooner. Tick tick tick. Ignore that. Until you can’t.
He didn’t feel closed in and that worried him. He needed to have his back against a wall, to have that clock ticking like tiny explosions in his head. That was when the good ideas would come. Right now his ideas were all shit. He had arrived at this farm location from San Francisco where he had been shooting in a beautiful mansion on Russian Hill.
“I don’t want no set,” he had shouted at Sidney The Infuriating Jew, whose last name escaped him always, impossibly tall, incomprehensibly young, as they walked the back lot at Metro looking at pieces of architecture left over from previous films. “I don’t want carpenters. I don’t want facades. I want a house with a roof and four walls and a ceiling.” Thrall, it was Sidney Thrall.
“It’s a movie for chrissake. It’s not the Sistine Chapel,” Sidney argued.
“It is my movie. I make it for the ages. I don’t make shit. I need a real house.”
“It’s just a lousy set, why are we having this argument?”
“It is not just a lousy set. It is a house. It is a character in the story. You have real actors. I want a real house.”
It occurred to Sidney this might be a wash financially. Locations costs, yes; but construction costs, no. He did some mental arithmetic and finally agreed. Von Stern went to San Francisco. Sidney called every day and shouted at him until he couldn’t afford the call anymore. Then he hung up.
Von Stern looked at his tree and recalled his wall. He had been trying to get a shot of his lovers standing in front of a fire in the fireplace in the mansion’s great room. He wanted to pull the camera back, pull back, pull back until he was outside and snow could fall as the lovers embraced in front of the fire. He needed that shot. It was his first good idea in days. But he couldn’t get it. He couldn’t get the camera out the small window as a shot, that was impossible. He couldn’t shoot through the window from the outside, the light was all wrong for that, and he couldn’t pull back and back and back the way he saw it on the flowing silver screen on the other side of his eye. He tried to light the scene a hundred different ways. A week of trying. A week of phone calls from Sidney, shouts, threats, vituperative, the two of them back and forth on the ragged edge of the English language, where it meets the Germanic and the Yiddish and the three attempt to bludgeon each other into some kind of understanding. He needed inspiration. He went to sleep and dreamt the scene, the actors, the cameraman, the carpenters, the raw light in his eyes. In the dream he grabbed a sledge hammer from the crew truck and pounded away at the vinecovered brick wall in a fit of fury. He hated that goddamn wall. That wall was the enemy, the same wall he always faced whenever he tried to accomplish anything creative, a wall of smallminded philistines, a wall of dead souls and their dead ideas, their lack of imagination, any spark of originality or daring. He slammed his hammer into the wall again and again and again, the wall that would not get out of his way and let him do his work, let him shoot the goddamn scene the way he wanted to shoot it, the way he needed to shoot it.
They found him at dawn, half dressed, muttering nonsense, wandering in a daze, dragging a sledge hammer. Then he collapsed with the hammer at his side and slept the rest of the day in front of a huge crumbling vinetangled hole in the exterior wall of the house. When he awoke he saw that he could pull back through the demolished hole in the wall, the wall he had demolished in his sleep. The lovers kissed. The flames leapt. The camera pulled back, then back some more, then right through the walls of the great mansion. Snow fell. The lovers embraced in the distance before the leaping flames. Cut. Print it. It was goddamn gorgeous. Fifteen blessed seconds of film. And it only took a week. Worth it.
But now there was this tree. Maybe he should just cut it down and to hell with it. What was it? Some kind of bastard California runt of a tree and what he needed was a beautiful precious apple tree in bloom. That is what he needed to make the scene. A boy comes home from war. A girl comes out to meet him. It needs an apple tree. Not this piece of shit tree stinking up his set. He looked and thought and smoked a cigarette.
He took an axe and chopped it down. There. Now get me a tree, he said. Get me a good goddamn apple tree and let me get on with it. So they brought him a Macintosh and planted it where the stump of the old tree had been ripped from the earth. He laughed at the pitiful thing. They brought him a Russet and planted it where the Macintosh had been. A whorehouse of a tree. They brought him a Golden Delicious. He pissed on it. They brought him a crab apple tree. He set it on fire. Bring me a goddamn tree for a boy coming home from war. Another week had gone by. Not a foot of film exposed. A hundred and fifty actors sitting around eating sandwiches and drinking whatever it was that actors drank, he didn’t know, he didn’t care, drunken louts they all were, even the children, especially the children. Tick tick tick. Tick tick tick. It was beginning to get to him. (Good.) Stop that. They sent for Rockefeller’s Japanese gardener from his Kikuit estate in Westchester County, New York. Hi-Ishihara was his name. They sent for a translator too. Hi-Ishihara was old, maybe ninety years old, as old as Rockefeller they said, and that was truly old. And tiny, maybe five feet tall. His face was covered in sun freckles and wrinkles, the skin wrapped loosely on his arms like tobacco leaves. He spoke in a cigarette smoke whisper.
“You need cherry tree.”
Von Stern looked at the mad little man and forced himself not to pound his Oriental mind into a Zen of nothingness. He looked the old man in the eye. Blank, he thought. He’s all blanked out in there. What is he talking about, a cherry tree?
“Get me a cherry tree,” he shouted to his lizard.
“Japanese cherry,” said the little gardener.
A hundred and fifty actors and extras played gin rummy and swam in the local river. The soldiers drilled till they dropped. Tick tick tick. He wanted to reach inside his head and smash that clock. (Good.) Mr. Rockefeller’s Japanese gardener went to Los Angeles to find a cherry tree.
In the meantime von Stern went to look at his troops on parade, the troops that would make a forced march in retreat, the desperate boneweary march of an army on the precipice of collapse, on the verge of a rout, resisting through iron discipline and will the urge to break ranks and run, an army marching under pain of death. Miserable. Pathetic. He donned a Prussian cavalry officer’s uniform. He strapped a cutlass to his waist. He mounted a horse and commenced to drill his troops on his improvised parade ground. He marched them for six hours until they began to reel in the heat and keel over in the vomit of the man who staggered and wretched in front of them. This was good. It cleared his head and calmed him. He knew Sidney would hear of it. He imagined their conversation. He could hear the clock in his head ticking very loudly now. He could feel the shoot coming undone, collapsing in chaos, willowy Sidney arriving on the set, the stench of indignation on his breath. Fear was in the air. He inhaled it deeply. He let the troops fall out and sleep where they fell on the parade ground. When they woke from the chill of the evening air, he fed them slop and drilled them by moonlight, a crazy Prussian on a horse barking a Teutonic drumbeat to his beleaguered, loyal troops. Now he dropped everything else and drilled, abused, coaxed, cajoled, pushed and praised his handful of men till their minds went dead as a Prussian infantryman’s mind, till they could walk and eat in their sleep and dream only of marauding and laying waste. When he noticed their underwear was not monogrammed with the insignia of the Prussian army, he had it replaced. For six days he marched them till they collapsed, then he marched them when they got up. On the seventh day, when they were bleeding and bruised, anguish on their sunburnt brows, mutiny in their haunted eyes, love in their barbarian hearts for their relentless commandant, he marched them past the cameras as the dawn came up behind them in the east. A week to get that thirty seconds. Ja. Sehr gut. The Japanese gardener came back with a cherry tree. He planted it in the earth. Von Stern looked at the tree. Yes, he thought. But no. Well maybe. They took a sofa off an interior and dragged it out to where the tree was standing in the sun. Von Stern sat and considered the cherry tree. The sun set behind the tree and rose in front of it. Von Stern studied the tree. He slept and woke and studied the tree some more.
What is wrong with this tree? Something. What is it? It is on the tip of my tongue. Von Stern stood in front of the tree, sat beneath it, climbed it, stroked it, talked to it. It was a lovely tree, but something was not right. The color was wrong. He ordered a set of oil paints, a palette and some brushes. He began to paint the leaves on one of the lower branches. He experimented with color and texture. Greens and yellows, an occasional red. He painted and cleaned, painted and cleaned. Yes, the color was all wrong. He would get it right. He would get the right color and paint the leaves, and then he would have his tree. And then he could shoot his scene beside this tree, this touching tender tree. It had to be just right. And he shouted at the little lizard to tell the studio to get off his back, get off his back or he would shoot himself and then where would they be? Tick tick tick. And get rid of all the clocks. I don’t want to see another clock on this Gott verdammte set.
But it wasn’t the color. It was so much more. It was the balance of the branches, the shape, the way it filled the space. Too many leaves on each branch. Too many branches here. Not enough volume there. He sketched the tree and made corrections. And something about the color of the bark. And the roots of the tree were too neatly buried, they ought to show like fingers sinking into the soil, the tree’s hand holding it in place. Like so. He sketched and sketched until he saw the tree he wanted. And he told the lizard they could take their lousy threats and stuff them up their Hebrew asses.
He ordered lath and plaster, chickenwire, muslin, glue, nails, hammers, saws, knives, shears and more oil paint. He went to work. Slowly meticulously with loving care he considered each leaf. If it was not to his liking, he cut it carefully off the tree and fashioned a new leaf from muslin, painted it, fastened it to the tree, examined it and tore it off again until he had got that leaf just right. He built new branches of chickenwire, covered them in plaster and sculpted them to get the texture of the bark just right before he painted them just so. Then he added leaves one by one until the branch was done. And then he tore the branch away and burned it and started over.
And every day he brought the boy and the girl and stood them in front of the tree and framed the scene and lit it and looked at it. And then he sent them away and went back to work.
He sat beneath the tree with a bottle of Burgundy. A silk apple blossom was drying in his lap. How long will you live, little blossom? How long till you fall? It could be a day, it could be a week. He held the blossom up gently and inspected it with a sharp and loving eye. How bright will you be when you slip away and float and fall? Will you twirl or tumble or plummet? You are just right, you know. Oh yes you are. So soft in the center, so sharp on the edges. I hold you up, I see right through you, the sun illuminates each vein. Where shall I put you? Where? He stood lightheaded from the wine and pressed his cheek into a lowlying branch. Right here? Shall we make this your home? Right here like this? Or here? No no I think this is the spot right here. I will lash you to the branch so gently you won’t even know you’re tied.
When the tall young man from the studio arrived, von Stern was gently talking to the tree, tears falling from his bright tired eyes.
“Von, Von. It’s me. It’s Sidney.” Von Stern looked up from so far away the young man almost gasped. “What are you doing, Von? What is going on here?”
He knew at once it was an enemy, a dead hand to hold him back. What did it look like? It was an apple blossom, a beautiful tiny delicate fragile blossom, and he had made it with his own two hands and the wits god gave him and he would make it live on this tree along with ten thousand more, a gorgeous cloud of apple blossoms, and every man who saw it would know what it meant because they would each and every one of them be reminded of a girl they left behind and the day they came back and how she looked and how the tree they had never noticed before smiled down on them like god in heaven. “You will go away, be gone, get out of my sight and leave me to my work!” He had work to do. “Take off that godddamn watch!” He would not listen to that sound. “Get out of my light and let me work!” They were destroying the light, the mood, this tree was a mood, a dream, a cloud of love and beauty. “Get out, get out!” He would smash this man’s face with that goddamn watch so help him god, if they didn’t leave him with his tree, his beautiful tree, and his cloud of apple blossoms until he got it right, he would get it right, and he would film it and the world would weep for the beauty of his vision. But first they would get out, “Or I will kill you all! Do you understand English?” He tried to get up and run them off, but he couldn’t get up. He wasn’t sure if he was up or down. He didn’t know what was wrong. He couldn’t feel his legs. He couldn’t move. He was rooted. He had roots. Of course. Because he was a tree. Not a man. A tree. He rose to the sun, his branches; he rustled. He lived on light and exhaled oxygen, a miracle. He blossomed and broke into color in the spring; he withered and shed in the fall. He was a tree. He had always been a tree, but he had never understood.
Sidney had them take the tree and uproot it with great care and transport it to Los Angeles to the grounds of the sanatorium, and he had them take von Stern and uproot him and put him there with his tree. Yes, he needs his tree, the doctors said. It is very obvious. We will let him have it. It will be good for him. And then we shall see. We shall see. These things take time and great great patience. Yes. But you must not come and visit. Not for a while. We’ll be in touch. Do not despair. Have patience. It is not a simple case. He is not a simple man. Complex, that is the word. It will be a great challenge.
When Sidney saw the test shots of the apple tree glistening in the evening light, each petal glowing with life, each breath of air stirring the tree to life like a lover stirred to life by a kiss or a caress at the end of a long night of lovemaking, he told no one. He sat in his screening room in silence and watched. And wept.