The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 11, No. 3

The Filmmaker's Father Prepares

by Jonathan Baumbach

A mythology of my career as a novelist is that I am a frustrated filmmaker who makes fictions because I am unable (for financial reasons, for reasons of personality) to make movies. Although I am addicted to movies in themselves—I spent an inordinate part of my childhood sitting in the dark on Saturday afternoons watching the shadows of my secret life—they have also interested me as a source for fiction because of their relation to the coded mysteriousness of dreams. Dreams, on the other hand, may have enlisted me as a writer because they share the haunting ambience of cinema. Between movies and dreams resides the liminal world my fictions attempt to make visible.
     So when my son Noah asked me to come to California to play a cameo in a feature-length movie he had written and would now direct, I immediately said yes and then had second thoughts. Since movies meant so much to me, my stake in Noah's achievement was bound to be disproportionate. Going three thousand miles for such a charged occasion seemed a dangerous and scary prospect. Of course I couldn't not go, though I rehearsed that scenario in my imagination more than once.
     I would be there to play a small role in the film and to observe the process. Under no circumstances was I to offer my son advice—no matter the temptation—unless directly asked. Kicking and Screaming, as it's called, is Noah's film, not mine, my presumptuous emotional investment in the event not withstanding. If I can't make a film myself, the next best thing, I suppose—perhaps the best best thing—is to have my son make one.
     In a way, Noah and I had collaborated on a project once before. My fourth novel, Babble, was based loosely on Noah's discovery of language as a child. It is a novel narrated by an infant protagonist, who tells his father a series of stories about his adventures in the great world. The book was imagined out of things Noah had actually said (or seemed to say), and it was about, others have said, how language invents a world. For much of his childhood, Noah felt that Babble was his book, presented it to people as his. As I had introduced Noah to movies, it pleased me to think that Noah's relation to Babble in some way paralleled mine to his movie.
     I flew out to Los Angeles in a state of exhilaration underscored by anxiety. Although advance reports concerning Noah's directorial performance were enthusiastic, I worried that the compromises he had to make to get the film shot (backers rose and fell in the preproduction days like extras in a Peckinpah western) might cause him to lose his way. Noah was more than a week into the five-week shooting schedule, and the limited budget would not allow reshooting. No matter, I was unhappily prepared to swallow whatever criticisms I might have. Besides, our roles were reversed here. The twenty-four-year-old Noah as director was the "father" on his set and I, playing a small part, was the son.
     Noah had cast me as a creative writing teacher in a class in which the hero and heroine meet, a cameo with a symbolic subtext. Since in real life I teach fiction writing at Brooklyn College, I would in effect be playing myself. The problem with playing oneself, as with writing about oneself, is taking one's attributes for granted and leaving the imagination in check. Still, that was the least of my concerns. I had done some acting in college and in home movies and I assumed, if I thought about it at all, that I would muddle through. Anyway, my small role hardly mattered. Its significance was only in private reference between son and father. After a virtually sleepless night, I caught an early morning flight to L.A.

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