A meditation on what it means to be the lens watching U.S. culture – even if you’re foreign. 1,757 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
A movie star had died. It used to be these things were good money, plus a relatively easy “get.” You had to have connections, sure, have been around for a while to make your way into the location, but Mick was an old hand and had been around since, what, 2007? The business was getting tougher.
Mick was from Slovenia. He had the body of a broken pen – slim, slightly twisted and with something coursing through it but it wasn’t always blood. He was a good paparazzo. The language barrier had hurt and helped him. It made him determined to listen, hear even the syllables, keep them straight: aah, eeh, eek, ooh. Also, to keep his receptors out at all times. He hadn’t always liked celebrities but he’d grown to do so, and even when he didn’t like someone — did anyone really enjoy working with Jonah Hill, Robert Downey? — at least he knew all their names. The shooting was a way to be independent at the same time that it paid the rent. If Mick had heard of legend Ron Galella, which he hadn’t, he might have felt a sense of tradition, even artistry. But he didn’t. Still, it wasn’t a bad gig. America was working for him.
The funeral was to take place at Westwood Memorial. He’d heard on E! that it was Hollywood Forever but no, Memorial was the place; his friend Rupert had confirmed it.
Rupert was another pap, and an ally most of the time. Mick himself got the name of the valet there — hey, you had to do leg work — and Mick told Jecky, I will help you if you help me. The words had been wrong, cracked in places of course, but Jecky didn’t care. Jecky would give him the go-ahead for a cool $250. Mick knew it might be a slice of profit but he would just have to up his game.
Mick put on his knockoff Boss slacks and white no-iron shirt from Target, plus the sport jacket he’d gotten from PayLess and his black glossy shoes. He would keep his distance, be discreet, but if he needed to get closer at least he’d blend in.
He threw the Nikon D3S in his bag. He’d take the foot-long lens today. Mostly you were photographing mundanity now — Ben Affleck with a coffee cup from Starbucks, Miley Cyrus jogging in Brentwood tongue out wagging and hand up in a peace sign. But even to get those shots you needed a camera that was fast and had focus. He also packed the wide-angle video cam, the pepper spray, a battery pack, his flash.
A few years ago, Mick had driven a beat-up Capri but now it was a 2008 Beemer with tinted windows. It looked like a rectangle of black gliding through the L.A. streets: Sunset, Doheny, Burton, Fairfax, Melrose, La Cienega. The routes were a graph and he was a line on it. He looked at the one cloud in the entire sky for a moment: get new aftershave at Barneys, he thought. He used Tom Ford Noir now. He’d read about the product in The Robb Report a while ago and at the time he’d just sold one of the first photos of George Clooney holding hands with Amal. The girl at the counter had a sparkle in her eye when he’d placed it next to the register: approval. He’d gotten hooked, that emotion was a rare commodity. Noir smelled like pepper and money.
Jecky turned out to be small — could he have broken five feet? — and wearing an A’s cap. He handed Mick a ticket to allow him onto the grounds to park. Mick handed the cash back like it was a drug. The transaction was smooth and invisible.
Greenery, concrete, grey, quiet. Mick got out of the car, into the emptiness. Pushed a cigarette out of the pack like he was shaking out salt. Slurped from the coffee thermos he’d brought — he’d brewed it that morning. It looked like dark honey.
Rupert’s lens peeked out from behind a topiary hedge. Rupe and Laird must have been setting up. Mick knew they’d staked out the place. He didn’t say anything but waved: They were all busy.
Funeral guests arrived. The group made a shape of sadness. They were covered up in every way with everything: Sunglasses, gloves, hats. It was 70 degrees, would be 75. But this was an event where you wanted to hide at the same time that you were visible. Martin Scorsese; Cate Blanchett, the man whose name Mick couldn’t remember but who’d been in the star’s last film Dependence.
Click click click. Mick — his lens — reached through the air and held each person in its gaze. Click click click. He was throwing spaghetti at the wall. The spaghetti was tiny stories of light.
The stars’ family looked ashen. His children were tiny creatures of grief. The friends looked like they were made of smoke inside.
Mick moved closer. It was a risk he needed to take, was the only way he’d get attention-grabbing pictures, even a modicum of success.
Faces. Emotions. He didn’t want you angry — or his nose, that would get smashed in, didn’t – but he did. He wanted human but, again, not.
Mick learned a long time ago that he had to be looking through the lens at all times, not just have the camera along for the ride. Things looked different when they were refracted by glass. A great picture could be no big deal in reality. He’d had a dream once in which he’d sold a bunch of pictures but an editor had called to tell him the event where they’d been taken hadn’t happened. His response had been giant in the dream, physical. “What? But they had been there — the stars, the situation.” It was all in the photos. “I know,” said the editor. “They look real but they aren’t.” Sometimes, he thought, the camera did the job for him. Gave things glamour and another reality.
Mick got a shot of the man’s kids crying, tears glistening like sequins. Of the star’s mother watching the casket being bought in — her body pieces of broken love. He caught Scorsese chatting with Jonah Hill, their open mouths like tiny Pandora’s boxes, everything in the entire world flying out.
The door to the chapel closed. Mick waited for round two. It would be a while.
Rupert came by. He smiled, sharp. Offered him a cig. Mick said why not. He had his own but he liked Rupe’s Parliaments. Once it was lit, Mick held the white stick aloft like it was a marker.
“You know where the wake is?” Rupe asked him.
“Nah.” It was true, he didn’t. But they were also like this together — helping but not, guarding information and then giving it. What to share, what to keep to oneself?
Mick got out his phone, pecked at it with crooked fingers. A cousin who scoped it out via Facebook had a few leads: Four Seasons, The Peninsula, a private Bel Air home. E! was reporting something else again — but what was the likelihood of that being correct? The problem, it was always the problem: several locations were mentioned. He shared the leads with Rupe. Smoke escaped their mouths.
They kept checking to see if anyone emerged from the chapel. It was like any Hollywood production: hurry up and wait.
Rupe’s smile was a slanted line. Laird’s eyes were darts. His wrist hurt.
Finally, the people reappeared. Shoes, umbrellas, tissues, legs — they were amalgams of purchases and limbs. The group headed into the cemetery for the burial.
Rupe was back behind the hedge; Mick was again alone. They were like characters in a video game.
Should he try to shoot the coffin? Get shots of backs? Turn on his audio?
His thoughts were spidery, sparky, undone.
The Enquirer might run pictures of a dead guy, but only if there was something extra: A leading man had started wailing at a sex symbol’s final resting moment, or a legendary producer throwing rocks on a director’s coffin. But even those images probably didn’t garner enough to make them worth it. They were too “inside.”
The Santa Anas came in like a too-blunt guest at a cocktail party. He tried to make his way to the grave, but it was too risky. He was pretty sure he was spotted. He heard a siren, the wail of grief somehow in the distance, and backed down.
In his mind he saw the lawns filled with gravestones, rocks carved to be eternal.
More time passed and then the guests came back, got into their cars. Mick did the same, a paler imitation because he was an imitation, a fake but still there, the shadow of the event.
Guests checked for photographers from behind the car windows. Mick knew he was unwelcome but a part of the equation anyway. He gave a sense of import, even immortality, to this memorial. Sure, he was rejected, but that looked crass on their parts. This was bigger than that. A man was dead. Photography: who the hell cared?
Joan Didion has written of driving in L.A., the cool clear lines of the smooth pavement, the non-thinking of hands on the wheel and one’s mind free enough to finally be elsewhere. Mick felt that, though he couldn’t have articulated it, as he followed the limos. Westwood to Sunset to the 405.
They were a Rubik’s Cube of cars. No one could unscramble them. The 101 was a cluster, backed up, unmoving. Some 20, 40, 55 minutes passed.
Hurry up and wait.
Cars took different exits. They’d be all over L.A. like confetti, he knew. The wake could be anywhere was the truth. For Mick, it was back to square one. He dialed Rupe, but got the white noise of nothing.
The sun fell out of the sky. The clock struck five. The faintest hint of moon was like the inside of an Oreo.
Mick checked the backseat: He hadn’t brought his night lens. Anyway, what would the money shot be now — people crying? Baying at the moon? The day’s potential disappeared like dollar signs.
Beverly flew past. Curson. Mick turned on the radio. Rihanna’s new hit. Mick gave it 10 seconds to hook him. He turned the sound up and rolled down the windows. The car flooded with air.
This short story first posted here on January 16, 2017.