Screen Studies

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Well, I can’t even count the number of pictures I have edited now for the Coen brothers filmmaking concern. A goodly few. A goodly few. The one whose script you now hold—for reasons that must be clear to you who purchased it but are obscure to me who was obliged to work on the film (nothing on the telly? no friends to chat with on the World Wide Web, as people do nowadays? no volunteer work one could be doing—at the local old folks’ home, say, wiping spittle from the chins of those still salivating but no longer minding much where?)—puts me in a mood of poignant remembrance. Not due to the qualities of the picture itself, which is a stale compendium of twice-told drug jokes, sixties pop songs, and low ethnic humour (I know that Hebrews, being Hebrews, have a special dispensation to make jokes about their own, but have they dispensation to make such feeble ones?). No, my feelings about this picture are coloured by its being the first movie in forty—two years I have worked on without my assistant Richard Hill. Lovely man, Dickie. He passed away some two months into the editing of A Serious Man but even at the outset he was far too ill to work on it. Yes, he sat it out—and now sits out the whole shebang, poor fellow. His death was shocking to me not just because of our long association, but because I was accustomed to thinking of him as “the kid,” twenty-five years my junior, in my mind ever the bright-eyed youngster with the cheerful manner and frightful cowlick whom I hastily hired on Destination Scapa Flow—when Adrian Llewyn-Davis let us down rather badly, ditching for a higher-paying job on Bunty atLarge (thanks so much, Adrian, I do remember)—and with whom I worked on every picture since. Now “the kid” is gone. And I remain. How strange that he should predecease me at the relatively young age of 67. Dickie Hill, gone. How strange.

If I were to inventory the ways in which I am indebted to him, I should not even start with his quite literally having saved my life—an incident which I shall recount in its place. I begin, rather, with this: he was cornerstone of my own career, indispensable adjunct to my own activities, faithful helpmeet in my working life. He was staunch. Whatever I did, wherever I worked, Dickie sat by in aid: Dickie at the rewinds, zipping a reel down through the synchronizer; Dickie edge-coding platter-sized rolls of dailies; Dickie compiling the log and meticulously transcribing the information from log to cinetabs; Dickie breaking down the daily rolls into crumpet-sized, one-take Moviola rolls, wedging into each its cinetab, slipping onto each its girdle of double-twisted rubber band, and then fitting the rolls puzzle-like into their shallow white boxes; Dickie handing me rolls, snapping up trims, hanging trims, finding trims; Dickie dumping the bins to look for missing “minnie-winnies,” as we called them—the trims of but a frame or two that would so often (and so mysteriously!) disappear from their pegs and reappear in the folds of the bin’s coarse linen lining once the bin had been emptied of the loops and coils of longer trims; Dickie wrapping the trim bin once a scene was finished, plucking the hanging remnants of each take and cinching them back into a roll by means of the fat flange on the left side of his Moviola, then refitting the roll with its companions back into its white box; Dickie slotting the boxes back into the shelving—two wide walls’ worth, floor to ceiling—that housed the whole of the film’s footage, and withdrawing the boxes for the next scene to be done. Dickie doing these things, all these things, on picture after picture, down the years, always of good cheer, never a complaint through the long days and on into evening and sometimes into night, never a bad word to say about anyone (and, in fact, rarely a word of any kind when others were in the room).

Dickie was, in so many ways, of a different time, a time when deference was the norm, when that presumptuous familiarity and sharp-elbowed ambition so accepted in today’s workplace was recognized for what it is: common boorishness. He was an assistant editor, cutting-room clerk, lifelong subaltern, and that is all, but that is enough, for there is gloire suffisante in any job well done. I believe he felt not the least regret at never in his career having made an edit. No desire to do so, no desire to supplant me, recognizing perhaps my greater charisma and accepting the niche for which his own quiet gifts suited him. He lacked my talents—no shame in that—and lacked the capacity to self-delude—great credit. He had none of the vanity of him aiming to advance. One thing Dickie Hill never sought: to be noticed. If the director came in for artistic conclave with myself Dickie would withdraw, or, if his work precluded it, would carry on at his bench as quietly as possible. It would never have occurred to the man to offer his opinions about the creative issues under discussion; what fell beyond the purview of his duties fell beyond his comment, and I suspect beyond his interest.

Not that he hadn’t a lively mind. But Dickie, aside from being by nature a modest man, was, I believe, though we never discussed it, deeply self-conscious about his stutter. The stutter became especially pronounced in moments of stress, as when conversation was called for with a superior (myself excluded, eventually). And so he did not put himself forward. But neither the virtue of modesty, nor the foible of self-consciousness, excuses the Coens for never, in more than twenty years of visits to our cutting room, having learned his name. It’s true that after the first eight or ten years Joel would, upon entering the room, grow shifty-eyed, giving Dickie a tight smile that betrayed an awareness that this man, somehow familiar, should be greeted by name—if only he could retrieve it from that remote and cobwebbed storage shed in his brain into which crew names were haphazardly tossed, and from which infrequently retrieved. Ethan, on the other hand, showed no such discomfiture. Eyes lighting upon Dickie, he would step up and vigorously pump his hand, and, in the manner of master showing staff he is above distinctions of station, would cry, “Ethan Coen, how are ya, fella?” Dickie, never betraying that they had met thus dozens of times over the years, would respond, “Richard Hill, Assistant Editor. Honoured to meet you, sir.” In later years—I would say from The Man Who Wasn’t There on—Joel at least came so far as to gropingly produce a name for the fourth man in the room, though he would usually come up with “Jim”. Dickie would, of course, acquiesce in the word Jim’s denoting himself and would even affect a gratified smile that the director was adverting to him.

As a rule, though, both Coens failed even to register Dickie’s presence—his modesty amplified by their egotism, two strong waves meeting. A case in point, the time on O Brother, Where Art Thou? when Ethan came in to look at some new visual effects of the flood that is the climax of the movie. Dickie had swung a chair round in front of the Kem for the younger Coen, who at one point stood out of it and leaned into the screen to examine a shot more closely. When he sat back down it was into Dickie’s chair nearby, with Dickie still in it. Feeling a human form beneath him the estimable cineast jumped as if having received 1000 volts, yelping, “Jesus, man!” Dickie leapt up as well—once the way was clear—with a mortified “So terribly sorry, sir,” and a gesture for Ethan to reseat himself in the chair which he, Dickie, had been so thoughtlessly occupying. Ethan Coen said, “Goddamn, man, well next time, you know—be careful!”

But this was the exception, in fairness; the Coens’ truck with Dickie, when there was such, was less often rude than condescending. The condescension was galling given that Dickie was their elder by ten years or more, and given the inanity of the conversation with which the Coens on the rare occasion honoured him. Galling, I quickly add, to me not Dickie, who showed no resentment. He sat equably by as the Coens’ gas expanded—just as the science fellows, with their clever burners and alembics and so forth, tell us it will—to fill the space available, in this case, our cutting room. Joel would lean back to clasp hands behind his head, shirt riding up to expose a roll of belly with dark hairs scrambling to its center, and delay our work with interminable pontifications about what he was “going for” in this scene or that, the scene invariably being so poorly blocked and covered that I had my hands full just moving the actors from A to B, never mind putting across emotional nuance. “Her line reading in the third take I asked for very ballsy, but with a lot of heart, because she has like a lot of heart and guts and stuff even in the presence of this fucking madman who’s been fucking with her” —I found it impossible, while the director was braying this and the like, to simulate the rapt attention that the Coens no doubt thought was their insights’ due. But dear Dickie was ever the picture of engagement. Fortunately, I suppose, Joel was as oblivious to my eye-rolling impatience as he was to Dickie’s more dutiful performance. And yet—and here is the marvelous thing about Dickie—it wasn’t a performance. Though Dickie, keen-eyed man, was surely aware that the directors were dunderheads, this did not in his mind diminish an authority not his to question. Their dim arrogance could not stir in him a boiling rage (as, after all these years, it still does in me), for he lacked the preening reflex that makes the rest of us refer all things to ourselves . No, the Coens’ authority was never begrudged, nor their oafishness taken as occasion to compare, and congratulate, himself. Such a lack of resentment and amour propre in the man. In his subservience, such dignity. And he had always been thus.

Spiritually thus. Of course, by the time we started working with the Coens “the kid” was older, and the frame that had been boyishly short had become short and stout. The lenses on his rimless glasses had grown thicker as well. And the hair that had once been that frightful cowlick’s medium was gone but for the isolated holdout. But the bounce never left his step, not a bit of it. And his mischief never left him, till the very end; I wouldn’t want to give the impression he was some sort of Johnny Drydocks. We usually ate lunch together, and well I remember how, in the 1980s, when eating sushi was a novel experience, Dickie would interrupt his chewing to lay an index finger along his upper lip, as people once did when imitating Adolph Hitler, and bark, in an affectedly gravelly voice, “I... am... TOJO!” Not as funny in the recounting perhaps, and you wondered what place the Hitler mustache had in an impression of the Japanese war leader (or did Tojo, in fact, have a mustache? I am uncertain), but with the Japanese meal it all made a wonderful sort of sense, and seemed terribly funny indeed. At other times, when our lunch was Chinese, Dickie would affect an oriental squint and use his chopsticks to shovel rice into his mouth, breaking off for a long, Confucian “ahhh” when he emerged from the bowl of rice—for air, as it were—and then plunging back in with renewed gusto and piglike grunts. Again, not much in the telling, but a source of merriment at the time. These shenanigans would stop short, of course, if someone should enter the room, but when it was just we two how the silliness helped us unwind. I am not aware that Dickie had a social life beyond this.

He never married, nor courted that I knew of. I saw him in a cinema once, alone, eating a sandwich. But I believe his life was by and large a satisfying one. If it did not touch as many others as do some, it touched mine in a profound way. The extreme case of course was the death-averting episode I have alluded to. We were working on The Hudsucker Proxy and I was at my Moviola trying to shape a very great deal of—what shall I say here—randomly shot footage into a designed-looking montage, depicting the creation of the hula hoop. Reaching for a grease pencil on my bench just behind the Moviola, I leaned across that machine’s cubiform viewer, which juts over the gearworks that advance the film. Ordinarily—and for good reason, as you shall see—the grease pencils are kept handy in a little molded tray on the front of the machine, but in this case, it happened, none were there. In the course of my reach across the chattering machine, through some fluke of bodily torsion and flap of fabric, the tip of my necktie was caught in one of the film relays beneath the viewer. (Dickie and I would no more think of reporting to work sans tie than we would without trousers. I have taken some chaffing for this latterly from editors who muster for work in denim jeans—their pants having such saggingly precarious purchase upon their hipbones that every move threatens to reveal their preference in knickers. These editors can have their wardrobe; I’ll keep mine.) At any rate, tie grabbed, the machine proceeded to feed it, as the machine is superbly designed to do, to succeeding relays, and thus, at the rate of twenty-four frames per second (however that translates from film to tie), my neck was yanked down toward the mechanism. My forehead smacked the metal brow that shades the viewer, but this quickly became the least of my worries. Chin pulled snug against the viewer but neck still being drawn in to the machine, my body bowed back to make a convex shape against the squat, implacable Moviola. My knees buckled and my knock-kneed legs made my feet splay beyond any possibility of use in operating the pedal brake. True, my arms were free, and the manual brake to the right of the viewer I had used—scores of thousands of times—to freeze the film at a point chosen for a cut (whereupon the viewer would be flipped open to expose the frame of celluloid, for a grease-pencilled X-ing of the spot). But that habitual motion of hand-to-brake, in each of those scores of thousands of instances, had been made from a comfortable standing position, not while being ratcheted down to give the machine this unwonted hug. Bent, now, right arm flailing, like a man afflicted with both hunchback and palsy, I made stabbing guesses at the location of the hand brake. No go. In this posture of grotesque intimacy with my Moviola, as the tightening noose of my necktie cut the flow of oxygen to my brain, and threatened to snap my spine altogether, I was at the point of losing consciousness, destined for a death of particular ignominy (or perhaps suitability?) for a film editor, when Dickie appeared, it seemed miraculously, at my side. He slapped down the hand brake and, holding it depressed, stooped and yanked the power cord. The murderous clattering was silenced. Dickie straightened, took a razor from the tray previously mentioned, and sang out as he sliced my tie below the knot, freeing me: “Dickie Hill to the rescue, sir.” My gagging abated and vision began to return, and Dickie murmured as he snapped open the machine’s fouled relays to pry what was left of two hanks of necktie from the gears’ teeth, “Decent burial for the tie, wouldn’t you say sir? But the editor lives to fight another day.”

Blessed man. I thought to relate this story, actually, at Dickie’s funeral, but on second thoughts decided I myself figured in it too prominently, and I worried also that it required more description than might suit the solemn proceedings of the workings of a Moviola. Instead I recited another reminiscence, slight and meaningless though it might have struck some. I remembered for some arbitrary reason (that is to say, for no reason), the occasion of Dickie’s twenty-eighth birthday, whereupon I treated him to lunch at a Lyons Corner House. Pleasant meal, cornish hen; joking comments—the standard ones, perhaps—comparing effort expended to reward earned when separating the flesh of that compact bird from its bones; and meal’s end, celebratory. Memory can still replay the Lyons orchestra rendition of “Happy Birthday” whilst the staff trots out a small cake, to Dickie’s mingled pleasure and embarrassment. “My my, this is something,” he says, and then, blushing, “Thank you so very much, sir, very gratifying.”

That is all. Not an important moment; perhaps one that Dickie’s own memory did not long preserve. Why, then, has mine? I don’t know; I only know it undoes me. I mist up even now (o reader, let it pass—what needs you I confess to more than “mist”!), mourning not just Dickie, but those bits of our past that he has taken with him. The repository for half our collective memories—now sealed. Very well. Those bits whose custodian I am, I shall cherish all the more.

Dickie’s funeral was on a weekday and was during, as has been mentioned, the editing of this movie. When I told the Coens that a funeral necessitated my taking a day from work, Ethan said, “Who died?” Your assistant editor, I huffed, of a quarter century. This drew momentary blank looks, and then Ethan’s eyes focused: “Oh—the guy who sat there?” Joel looked at the chair indicated, frowned, and said, “Jim died?”

It is in one sense fitting, and in one sense unfortunate, that this little remembrance should compose an introduction to this particular screenplay. Fitting: the story you are about to read is about mortality, not just because of its ending but because all memoir is—tacitly—about mortality. And not fitting: the Coens’ memoir, as you are about to discover, is that of a self-involved boob (or dual memoir, brace of boobs). Sadly fo the office of the Great Headmaster, where we shall have ouor the Coens, self-regard does not strengthen one’s vision, and the esteemed brothers have no more insight into their own history than they have interest in other people. “The guy who sat there,” indeed. Dickie Hill’s life has run its sprockets through the chattering gears of this world, and has rolled out; the Coens saw nothing. Their own lives, as this screenplay proves, are in process of doing same. Well, we are all born to roll out (myself excepted, it begins to seem). Time frogmarches us all tr shortcomings read out to us and a verdict rendered as to where we shall spend the eternal form. On the evidence, the Coens shan’t much understand that final reckoning, having failed to understand the run-up. They should have looked out; it would have helped them see in. Ah, Dickie.

Roderick Jaynes

Hayward’s Heath

September 2009