In a New Leaf

Three weeks before he died, my father acted as an extra in A New Leaf, a movie about an alcoholic, her lover, and a stranger who showed up and would, as it happened, try to save her. Cassavetes and May were making the film in Philly on 13th Street, using a defunct hotel, renamed The Royal, for the battles between the fucked-up couple. Night after night the crew would take their places–at the camera, yelling directions, searching for extras in the crowds lined up six deep around the roped-off set to watch Peter Falk (the stranger) do a scene in which he's passing The Royal on his way somewhere and a whiskey bottle flies out a window and hits the ground at his feet and he looks up, sees someone (the woman, I think) in the window and dashes (there's a scream) into the dark building. It seems the woman and her lover (Cassavetes) are holed-up there, planning a robbery. Falk is tanned, dressed in a custom-cut Navy-blue silk suit and delicate black shoes, Italian style, the kind tap dancers use because they're so flexible, nearly weightless. In and out, in and out he goes, repeating the scene, bottle after bottle arcing from the window, the pieces swept away each time by one of the crew, while none of the fans and gawkers really knows what the story is. It was like watching real life, it doesn't matter whose life, with one big difference: that scene lost all meaning because it was shot so many times. It was beginning to get hot the way it does in Philly in early June–thick greasy humid air, hanging on for days so every little thing feels difficult, everything looks like it has sweat and dirt on it. My father had had a massive, fifth heart attack and when we picked him up at his house he was wearing a raincoat, single-breasted with a full button-in camel's-hair liner, and under it a suit, tie and scarf. A gray felt hat and gray doeskin gloves lent the finishing touches. His face was the color of those gloves, it had a dull shine like solder, like those Philly skies before a rain when blossoming puffs of air cool your face but it stays hot, the sun has disappeared, everything is drained of strong color. Well, he walked, shuffling one foot at a time very very slowly, stopping between each step, as if on a tightrope, almost floating, with great caution and weakness and fear, to the car. Settled in the front seat, he barely spoke. We heard the movie was being made, thought it would be fun to watch the production, a rare distraction from all he had gone through. We drove the few blocks to the place, parked, walked over to the people at the ropes circling The Royal, and faded into the crowd. My Dad, for some reason of his own, drifted to another side of the crowd and stood at the back of it. Everything on the street was blue-white under the lights; the mist of humidity in the glare put a fine pearly veil between you and whatever you saw. Once in a while I'd glance around to see how he was. Inch by inch he had slipped from the back of the mob until now he was standing up front pressing against the waist-high rope–all gray: raincoat, glove, hat, face. Except for his Watch-plaid cashmere scarf. He looked like a Mafia Don: implacable mask of a face, a man with secrets and power who refused the world any hint of emotion that might reveal who he was. Was his mind silent as he stood there or did he hear one of those primitive, sourceless, pure, self-defining voices that haunt us, left over from the gods, telling him not to smile, not to speak, not to show anything to the enemy world, telling him to be no one as the line between death and the future evaporated and he edged closer to the playground of the gods by obeying them, by adopting the hero's impassive mask? The fact is he looked like Edward G. Robinson, not Oedipus or Lear immortalized in the revelatory aftermath of cosmic self-discovery. Reticent, masochistic, mildly depressed all his life, he stood there, to me awesome because of his ordeal near death. "He'll never walk out of the hospital," the doctor had said, and here, five months later, he was, as fate would have it, a passerby about to act in a bad movie, about to play one of the gods as they are today. By now Elaine May was pacing the edge of the crowd inside the roped-off area, looking for extras, picking people by their faces to walk past under an arcade twenty or so feet behind Falk during the bottle-throwing scene. She saw my father, nodded a questioning "Yes?" He ducked under the rope, which May lifted for him, and joined a group of eight people, then moved to the outside of the crowd. By now I was standing beside him, listening. All were told to begin walking, briskly, scattered apart, just before Falk reaches the front of the hotel when the bottle hits. Over and over he did it, briskly, until we thought he would drop dead. Over and over I watched his speechless face, betraying nothing, glistening under his hat in the lights, while behind me, off to my right–where the camera was, pointed away from the hotel at Falk and the extras walking by–Falk ran past into the hotel, yelling something, after the bottle crashed, and a woman yelled back at him from the window. Over and over. Finally they got it right and we went home. For months, I waited for the newspaper ads announcing the film so we could all see it. When it finally played, and we went, the scene wasn't even in it. The film was so mediocre it ran less than a week. I tried buying a copy of the scene but they wouldn't sell the footage. Several years since your walk-on part, and it happens anytime: the muggy summer night, the family, gauzy air, you doing what you're told by the director–I'll be teaching, washing dishes, reading, writing, talking with Millie and the kids, a middle-aged man, your son, watching his sick father, but not on the screen in a theater. It's still the street, the live, unknown people, you doing it over and over, over and over the scene being shot, the bottle, the scream, the lights, "Okay–try it again!" coming from behind lights and faceless faces, from the black steel bodies and silent blank lenses of the weapon-like cameras pointed at us.

Stephen Berg, New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 1991.