In the first scene of the film we made about dads, we caught them as children, well before they became dads themselves, when their own dads were full-on capital-D Dads-with-moustaches who had been in the war. We got some great shots of the dads at age eight swinging from the monkey bars on the school playground. Afterward, we interviewed them about their goals. The answers: astronaut, fireman, psychiatrist, florist, psycho killer, Oscar Robertson. We asked them, "Describe your dad in one word." The unanimous response was "mean."
Next we found the dads at sixteen, getting hand jobs on the couch. The dads were oblivious and said nothing, just rolled over on top of their lovers and, fully clothed, humped away until something damp oozed through their jeans.
In college, the dads grew beards. They bought cars and one night tried acid. We had run out of funding and couldn't shoot. "Remember this," we encouraged the dads, who were giggling at rain.
A few years later, we received a grant and resumed filming. By then the dads were done college and had found wives to marry. At the altars, the dads said, "I do," and the wives said, "I do," and the dads kissed their new wives and the wives kissed back and then they ran out of the church while people threw rice at them and cheered. The dads and their wives went to Niagara Falls, where they both stared silently into all that water and thought, "Hmm," and later fell asleep with their shoes on. "Maybe edit in some love," we told the post-production crew, who nodded and, later, did.
The dads and wives bought houses. The wives taught grade school and brought home children's drawings that they stuck to their fridges with magnetic fruit. The wives looked at the drawings and said, "Aw," in a pointed way. The dads were stuck in middle management; they built workshops in their garages. "That's my workshop in there," they told the wives. "That's my space." We went out into the garages and panned over the workshops, over the workbenches in the workshops and the tools that would rarely get used. "This is golden stuff," we said to one another. We were making a film about dads.
There were moments we didn't get. The dads told us about nights of laughter with their wives; they told us about moments of tenderness, shared joy or sorrow, a walk in the park and ducks. But the cinematographers' union only allowed us a cameraman for a certain number of hours. We would show up in the morning and the dads would say, "You should have seen us last night," but we could only shrug and say, "Sorry."
Then the wives got pregnant. The dads inseminated the wives with their sperm, which shot out of a dad's penis and into the corresponding wife's vagina, etc., and nine months later a baby plopped out like a prize. We had to find some stock footage for this, because the doctors wouldn't let the crew into the delivery rooms. At the hospitals, the dads stood in the hallway with unlit cigars wagging from their mouths, talking to anyone who would listen. "My wife is having a baby!" they hollered, thrusting a cigar in whoever's direction. The person, usually no one the dads knew, would decline the cigar and back away nervously, as if from a bear.
When the dads saw the babies, shrivelled and purple in their wives' arms, they declared, "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life," and then cupped the babies' skulls in their hands like they were testing a fruit. The babies cooed and gurgled and so did the dads; it was unclear who was imitating whom.
Two years later there was a plan for another baby, and the process repeated itself: the sperm, the vagina, the cigars, the unintelligible exchange of sounds. We used different stock footage this time, crosscut with scenes of the first child, confused and alone in a field of lavender (this we staged using a blue screen).
With two kids, the dads were really cooking. Along with the children, they had gas barbecues, station wagons, digital cable. They were no longer stuck in middle management; they were somewhere better. The kids got older, and the dads coached their soccer teams. The dads drank beer on Sunday afternoons and watched football. But the dads might add something incongruous. "I also have season tickets to the opera," they might say, or "It's fine if one of the kids turns out gay." This sort of business, we decided, our editors would later snip right out of the film.
When it was time for the children to move away from home, the dads were strong. The wives wept in the driveways as the children pulled away in cars with couches strapped to the roofs, and the dads held the wives and stroked their hair. In post-production it would be easy for us to erase the tears that ran down the dads' faces. We have computer programs for that sort of business.
Then the dads became granddads. Their sons were now dads. The sons brought the grandchildren over and the dads crouched in front of them on the floor and produced noises similar to those they had once made at their own children. The dads had cancer of the prostate. It was difficult to sit down. They were dying, also. We scored this segment of the film with a single cello, sawing away, sad and lonely. The wives hovered nearby and drank sherry.
When the dads died no one knew quite what to say. At the funerals, co-workers made speeches about dedication that left everyone feeling empty. This, of course, was impossible to convey in our film-you could just feel it in the air. There were flowers and open coffins with the dads lying inside, silent and still. People walked by, peering in, some of them sniffling back tears. "It was his time," declared the wives, sensibly. They left and went back home to stand in the parlours of their houses, where they nibbled triangular sandwiches, accepting the condolences of family and strangers with polite nods, whispering, "Thank you, thank you. Thank you, everyone."
When it was all over, when the wives were left alone in their houses, when even the children had driven away in their minivans, we rushed back to the studio to put together a rough cut of our film about dads. We had spent years making a film about dads. We had been there for all the crucial moments. There were reels and reels of film piled around us in the studio, and we sat there, looking around-at the stacks, at one another-not quite knowing where to begin.
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