Fade in on a man of about fifty years, his beard failing to mask a bloated, ruddy face, his t-shirt exposing reddened arms with wiry hair creeping from the shoulders like ivy. He sits in a skiff crawling through some swamplands we later learn is Skaggs Island, California, the northern sloughs of the San Pablo Bay. One hand guides the rudder of a two-stroke Yamaha engine. The other raises a bottle of George Dickel, 100-proof rye whisky to his lips. A great blue heron takes wing at his back, low along the water. He looks right at the camera, and in a smoke-rasped voice says, “Ever since I learned of entropy I been bummed-out on it.”
So begins a ninety-minute film trailing Harlan Goode—a man at times intelligent, at times hilarious, and at times maddeningly opaque—across the sloughs to his run-down trailer home.
Flash back to a few months ago when a writer received an email from a filmmaker friend, linking him to this film, called His Last Crack-Up Carried Him Too Far. Along with the link was this message: “I feel like it’s the first real film I’ve seen in years.” This filmmaker friend is successful in Hollywood. You know her name. You’ve seen her on award shows. The writer has been to her house in Laurel Heights, a house he’s tempted to call a villa. So when she sent him the link, and that message, he expected something glossy and expertly packaged. What he didn’t expect, though, is what the film is.
Throughout the early portion of the film, Harlan relates some of the more salient moments of his life—his stints in the Merchant Marines, as an underwater welder on the Gulf of Mexico, and most importantly for this story, the birth of his daughter, Mariana Goode. By nightfall, Harlan and a buddy of his, called Buddy, are pretty well plastered, firing shotguns into the night and slurring out obscenity-laced stories. This is the world according to Harlan Goode, some kind of apocalyptic vision, and just when you think you might be losing interest in the dissent into chaos, Harlan reaches a hand toward the camera and begins crying out for his “baby girl.”
And that’s when the film takes a strange turn.
The camera jostles and is propped so that you see Harlan lit by the trailer’s porch light. From behind the camera walks a girl in a t-shirt and cut-off jeans. She approaches Harlan and sits in his lap. Who is this girl, you ask. What in god’s name is she doing with these men? Harlan, in a sad drunken display, weeps and holds her. It’s hard to hear what is said, so subtitles pop up to help you out.
“You’re my baby,” Harlan says. “You’ll always be my baby girl.”
“I’m not your baby,” says the girl. “Never was.”
The porch light clicks off, and then back on, catching the two waving their arms to trigger the motion sensor. The camera never cuts away from this two-shot. It sits exactly where the girl left it, calling explicit attention to the film’s artifice. Is this real? A documentary? Or is this fiction?
“What’ve I done to you?” Harlan asks. “What the hell have I done to make you hate me? You want to kill me, I can feel it.” Behind them, just off to the right, a shotgun rests against the trailer. The girl kisses Harlan on the forehead, strokes his hair.
“Kill you?” says the girl. “Sure. Sometimes, sure.”
Harlan’s sobbing so intensely that all you understand is what the subtitles translate: “I can feel it right here,” Harlan points to his chest.
“That’s enough,” the girl says. Light clicks off again.
Light clicks on, arms waving. Harlan’s hand settles on her hip. She’s turned away from him, camera at her eye-line, as if she’s looking right at you, eyes forlorn. It’s a very uneasy scene—too intimate. Should I be here, you ask. Do I want to be here?
The girl is Mariana Goode, Harlan Goode’s daughter. As the writer, cinematographer, editor, and director of His Last Crack-Up Carried Him Too Far, she wants you to ask these questions. At sixteen years old, she’s made over a dozen short films and two features, many starring Harlan, and is perhaps poised to become the next auteur of American cinema.
The writer profiling Mariana Goode sat behind the wheel of his Ford Focus, snaking along the 121 past Sonoma Raceway, on his way to meet Goode at her home. She was born on the floor of a small two-bedroom cottage in Shellville, an unincorporated pastureland outside the town of Sonoma, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. Vineyards striated the landscape on either side of the road. Billboards pictured luxurious tasting rooms and boasted the best zinfandels. The writer had grown up in this area. But over the intervening decade had rarely returned for visits. He was no longer sure California could still be called his home.
He, Mariana Goode, and Goode’s mother, Tanith Duchamp sat in the kitchen of the cottage drinking coffee. Goode wore shorts and a man’s button up shirt, her hair cut in a bob, accentuating the long line of her neck, and dyed a blue-grey color, a look she called “faux-old.” The place was rustic and spare, as if they were in a small village in France rather than a few miles from one of the country’s major NASCAR racetracks.
Mariana Goode comes from a family of Bay Area artists. Tanith Duchamp is an experimental photographer of some renown who in the 70s pioneered a process of manipulating negatives to look like impressionist paintings. Tanith’s father, Benjamin Duchamp, was a painter and sculptor, part of the Beat scene in San Francisco in the 50s, and is perhaps most famous for dropping colored water on an overhead projector, effectively inventing the psychedelic light show that would become a cultural mainstay—and soon enough, a cliché—through the 60s and 70s. Mariana Goode acquired her first Super-8 camcorder while in elementary school, incessantly filming friends or spending days in her room creating painstaking stop-action films.
By high school she was making films on high def digital formats, posting them to YouTube and gaining a large following. By fourteen her films were doing well on the festival circuit, gaining critical success and stirring controversy. Her frank depiction of teenage sexuality and drug use in many of them—A Death in Boxton Canyon and Licked All Over (By a Tongue of Flames) come to mind—garnered reproach from religious groups and conservative Internet pundits. She’s a favorite target of the conservative culture blog returntomorality.com, in which culture critic and founder Saul Katz called Goode, “the embodiment of the eroded morality of today’s youth.”
When asked about this, Goode puffed her chest with pride. “Leave it to the stodgy old man to talk about today’s youth. What that guy knows about today’s youth couldn’t fill his own puckered asshole.” Her mother, barefoot with an ankle-length skirt, squirmed in her chair. “Today’s youth is an inane phrase, don’t you think?” Goode continued. “I make movies about certain kinds of experiences. To say they’re representative of anything more would be shitting higher than my ass.”
As they made to leave, the writer noticed a quatrain carved in the wood panels above the front door:
Temptation comes to an open eye
From newborn breath to funeral pyre
For how do the trays of the scale lie
When tangled with the body of desire
When asked about the lines, Goode peered at the poem. “Harlan wrote that,” she said. “When I was just a baby. Before he left the first time.”
EXT. SKAGGS ISLAND RD—MORNING
Mariana Goode and the writer drove to meet Harlan Goode, a Sony XDCAM with a few lenses and a MiniPro Digital Audio Recorder in the backseat. The writer asked Goode what her intention for the day was to be.
“I have some ideas,” she said. “But it depends on Harlan’s mood.” She explained Harlan would begin drinking beer as soon as he woke up. Then switch to whiskey sometime in the afternoon. The quicker they worked early in the day the more they would get done.
“You have a crew meeting us there?” the writer asked.
“We’re it,” she said.
This, according to several people with whom he spoke, is typical of Goode’s “process.” She likes her production teams small. “It’s a lot easier for me to move quickly if I’m shooting the thing,” Goode has said. “I can set up the camera and frame it myself, or I could take the same amount of time explaining the shot to someone, and then still not get what I want.”
Was this simply an excuse for being unprepared? Those Goode worked with said no. Ariel Blankenship, Goode’s friend and a regular in her films, said Goode holds a great deal of scenes, shots, and dialogue in her head without committing them to a script, feeding lines and emotions to her actors as the moment calls for it. She encourages improvisation and divergences, but she has her own vision of the aesthetic. This was the case when working on Licked All Over (By A Tongue of Flames). The film depicts two teenagers’ psychotropic (and sexual) binge while journeying through Northern California on a contraption that looks like a metal-framed go-cart affixed to railroad tracks.
The film itself is scattered and unfocused. However it must be said that certain scenes are shot with a remarkable eye for quiet tension, the erotic quality implicit in the landscape. In one scene, while high on some kind of designer drug they call “dancers,” Blankenship and a shirtless boy named Seth Spohr try to get the railcar running, the ridge above them meeting the pale sky.
Spohr tugs at the throttle cable of a small diesel engine fastened to the rear axle of the railcar. The engine sputters and makes an effort to kick over, then dies. Again, he tugs the cord. Again the engine fails to start. His long, tanned body is the paragon of youthful beauty. His hair seems more and more blond with each passing minute. You find yourself both enamored with and somewhat repelled by his blank prettiness. This is why Goode chose Spohr for the film. His face defies expression, and so any emotional development in the film belongs to Blankenship. Watching Spohr, Blankenship appears impatient, pursing her lips and blowing hair from her face, a face round and cherubic—freckles and big, wispy eyelashes.
“You flooded it,” she says, finally. Spohr looks up, wipes sweat from his face.
“What does that mean?” he says.
“It means come here.”
Blankenship leans in and kisses him in that awkward, neck-craned way you do when you’re young and think that any hesitation, any angling for comfort, will disrupt the unique magic of the moment. Tongues entirely too visible to the observer. Spohr’s hand moves slowly up Blankenship’s shirt. Goode’s camera moves in closer on the teenagers, so close on that hand cupped over a teenage breast. The fabric peeling away. A hint of skin. It all looks improvised to you, awkward and completely natural.
When asked if that scene with Spohr on the railcar was scripted, Blankenship demurred, as if it hadn’t yet occurred to her that others had watched that scene. “Mariana wanted that to happen,” she said. “I knew that, even though she never said it straight-up. It’s like mind control or something.” Blankenship described a trance-like feeling that comes over her when she and Goode are really in a groove. “I barely remember kissing him,” she said of that scene with Spohr. “And Mariana told me afterward that scene was perfect. Just what she wanted.”
This is what makes Goode’s films feel so intimate, if unformed—the fact that they are both willed by Goode and yet seem to occur organically. Goode calls this aesthetic “grub naturalism.” Her blend of spontaneity and consideration creates an immediacy of experience, even as it evokes the wonder of a sleight of hand artist smiling wryly at her audience.
And when you watch the scene between two teenagers in a pubescent rush of foreplay, you ache at the memory that you were once some version of that, and you will never be any version of that again. You know that the magic of that moment is not unique, that neck-craned kiss not rare but common, and so barely magic at all. Except in the movies. Because this, in essence, is what film is: not just a play of light over the emulsion, or pixels in a digital display, but time arrested at twenty-four frames per second—and Goode’s talent is in orchestrating time without seeming to do so. But then, this is also what makes her films almost intolerable at times. Because our senses are messy, often grotesque, and what we want of the artist is to interpret our sensual and emotional experiences and give them shape.
When Mariana Goode told the writer that they—as in, the two of them—would be the film crew at Skaggs Island, journalistic integrity (if that’s what it was) made him wary of becoming too involved in his own story. Yet the writer experienced a delight he hadn’t felt since the early 90s with a Bolex Crystal Sync 16mm camera rattling in his hand, tape measure on his hip, tracking focus with his subject. When he was just a couple years older than Goode, he’d packed his things (his mom’s house not too far from Goode’s place) and trucked off to New York, where you went in his day if you wanted to be an independent filmmaker.
He learned early on that he lacked the talent to make movies. He would love them, but falling in love with film is the easy part. Making a good film—innovative, fresh, and true—is near miraculous. Now, he would be helping to make a film with this hyped-up sixteen-year old “wunderkind,” this girl who puts images to screen that are raw and undeveloped and so very alive.
What he hadn’t taken into account was that he’d yet to meet Harlan Goode. He’d yet to experience just what Mariana Goode’s “process” really was.
At the end of Skaggs Island Road sat Harlan Goode’s trailer, a beat up old Winnebago with colored stripes in 1980s shades—browns and oranges and yellows—swooping along the fenders. A rusted trashcan next to the trailer was swiss-cheesed with shotgun blasts, a Newport cigarette brand lawn-chair in the weeds, a warm beer in the drink holder. No Harlan to be found.
“Maybe he’s already on site,” Goode said, loading her gear into a duffel bag. She’s thin, but with a buoyant strength that allowed her to fling the strap of the duffel over her shoulder and charge ahead, military boots clomping through the dirt. Measured against her youth the writer was aware of his distinct middle-age-ness, his soft dad-flesh, his baldness. He slid backward down the berm with each step. She, on the other hand, pranced upward. Soon the broad expanse of the sloughs opened up to them. A small sailboat sat moored in the water about forty feet out.
“There she is,” said Goode. “The Latin Lass.”
The writer stopped.
Goode turned back to him. “You don’t like surprises, do you, Chato?” (The writer’s nickname, pronounced chaw-toe).
“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s cool.” He recognized his affectation of hip-ness. He’d met, either professionally or personally, artists, gurus, and even rock stars. Why did he need Mariana Goode to believe he possessed the same exuberant vitality that she did, the same vigor for creation? With her, he wanted to be young again—a very dangerous feeling, one that puts ego above all. Or perhaps in her he saw his daughter, whose eleventh birthday was last week and he’d just now realized he’d forgotten to call. He thought of a bright summer day on St. Marx in the Village. His daughter is nine and begging to get her ear pierced. But when they arrive at the shop, a funky, brightly lit, art-house parlor, she’s scared senseless. To reassure her, he offers to go first. He’ll show her how easy it is. He wants to set an example for her. He says to breathe. It’s just a little pain. You can get through pain, he says. Pain doesn’t last. But when the needle slides through his lobe he’s shocked by how fierce the pain actually is. He shouts loudly and stiffens, blood draining from his face and dribbling from his ear like a burst radiator hose to the linoleum. His daughter recoils, wide-eyed, frantically crying. Has she ever before seen her father bleed? He goes to her, but he’s fixed on his own pain and can’t calm her.
The writer thought of this moment as he looks out to the boat moored in the sloughs, where Harlan Goode busied himself with the halyards, rigging the main sail. He stood at attention and saluted. He lowered a steel canoe over the side—a canoe nearly the length of the sailboat—dropped into it, and began rowing to shore.
“Don’t argue with him,” Goode told the writer as Harlan rowed closer. “He doesn’t like to be contradicted by other men.”
Harlan yelled at them from the shallows. “Who’s the schoolmarm?”
The writer pressed his glasses to his nose.
“He’s the writer,” Goode said.
“Writer? What writer?”
Harlan, beer in one hand, leapt into the reeds and sloshed to shore, pulling the canoe behind him. Goode kneeled and unpacked her gear, mounting the Sony to a shoulder mounted steadycam rig.
Harlan barreled toward the writer. “I’m a writer,” he said. “Did princess over here tell you that?”
The writer mentioned Harlan’s poem on the wall at the house.
“That?” Harlan said. “That’s nothing. I got novels, screenplays, you name it. Mar here’s gonna make one of my scripts, aren’t you hon?”
“Nope,” Goode said, continuing with her set-up.
“Don’t listen to her. With her it’s one way one day, another the next. You know how these artist types are.”
The writer raised his eyebrows and nodded that yes, he knew these types, and shrugged, what are you gonna do?
“What do you write?” Harlan asked. He got in the writer’s face, as if daring him to strike rather than answer the question.
The writer stammered that he writes about all sorts of things. Profiles of artists, athletes. About movies. He felt the importance of making a favorable impression on this man. Without that, the day might take a sour turn.
“About movies?” said Harlan. “What does that mean? Like a critic?” He turned to his daughter. “You brought a fucking critic to my boat?” Goode had the camera mounted to her shoulder and was filming the horizon.
“Not a critic,” said the writer. “Just an observer.”
“Hey,” Harlan said again, still to Goode. “You brought a fucking critic to our movie?”
“Quiet,” Goode said. “I need this ambient sound.” The writer wasn’t sure if this was Goode’s way of defending him, or if she was actually attending to her task.
Harlan turned to the writer once more. He said, “Well I’m sure as shit not gonna-”
“Shut up, Harlan,” Goode snapped.
Harlan shut up. He bent forward and rolled out his arms in a grand exaggerated bow, then stepped backward, one leg crossing behind the next — a jester exiting the queen’s court. When he thought nobody was watching any longer, he straightened, scratched his chest, and lit a cigarette.
Harlan sailed adeptly, manning the tiller, sometimes scrambling around the deck to check things. He delighted in the writer’s ignorance of nautical terms, and so barked orders at him in excess. “Shore up the lines.” “Crank the winch.” “Cleat knot!” “Cleat knot!” Goode filmed everything, also barking orders.
To the writer: “Back up. Don’t crowd my shot.” “Get the mic into the sail. I want the sound of it luffing.”
And to Harlan: “I’m going to pan by you. Look into the distance.” “Now close your eyes.” “Say your lines when I cue you.”
The lines she instructed him to say were odd without any context. “When your lover leaves you,” Harlan said, “It’s like when you lose your belt. But then your pants stay up on their own.” It seemed an insane way to construct a narrative, connecting abstractions by piecemeal.
At one point in the afternoon, Goode leaned so far off the bow that she required the writer to hold her by the waist. In this manner, she filmed the forward progress of the boat through the water.
“This is called a phantom ride,” she said. “Back in the day they’d attach a camera to the front of a train, so it looked like a ghost floating through the landscape.”
“What’s the effect of that, here?” he asked her.
“You see the world through disembodied eyes hunting for a subject. That’s film—the hungry eye.” Though she was still being held over the gunwale, she looked off poignantly to the horizon.
“What’s this movie about?” the writer asked. “Can you explain it to me so I have a better idea of what we’re doing?”
“About?” she said. “Pull me in.” He tugged at her jeans, sliding her backward and securing her on deck.
“That, I don’t know yet, not exactly. Most of the time I have it clear…” She pointed to her temple. “This time…” She looked back at Harlan, and said, “One thing I know, we’re going to scupper the boat.” Now, if you’re anything like the writer, you wouldn’t know that to “scupper” a boat means to sink it intentionally. According to Goode, Harlan had some insurance scheme going. He would sink the boat, and she wanted to be there to film it. She didn’t have much of a story in mind yet, but this was too good a visual to pass up. The oversized canoe was brought along for the return trip.
This was why the writer didn’t like surprises. But he didn’t say that to Goode. Instead, he gently reminded her that she’d agreed to this profile with no caveats. This clandestine sabotage would almost certainly soon appear in print.
“You think the Coast Guard reads Pop Fizz?” she asked. “Or the insurance company?” The writer doubted it.
Entering the mouth of San Pablo Bay, the shore was now far in the distance.
Goode talked. She loves Cassavettes, adores Kubrick, idolizes Korine. Tarkovsky bores her. Jodorowski: sublime. And Peckinpaw could kick the shit out of Tarantino. She shifted to talking about Praxis, the militantly avant-garde Bavarian filmmaking movement of the 90s. At this point Harlan entered the conversation. He smoked a cigarette and wielded a whiskey bottle like a microphone.
“They wanted to democratize movies,” he said, referring to Praxis’ manifesto—no effects, only practical lighting, shooting on location, no extra props, et cetera. “They wanted films that were of the people. Personal and honest.”
This, Goode said, left a major stylistic mark on her films. “But the rules are bullshit,” she said. “Rules should be a target for mockery, not something to bow to. A big movie production can’t be art? Tell that to Busby Berkeley.”
“Fuckin’ A,” Harlan agreed. “Gold Diggers of Nineteen-Thirty-fucking-Three.”
“We got nothing against decadence as long as it’s beautiful.”
Let this father and daughter, often at such odds, talk about movies long enough and they’re of one mind. The I turns to we.
The sun dropped below the foothills to the west—the magic hour in film when light plays on the landscape to the adoration of the camera. Faces looked softer now: Harlan’s puffy cheeks became noble, Goode’s wind-whipped hair heroic, the faux-old taking on a silver sheen, her eyes precise and clear. The three sailors shared beers at sunset, tired from the day on the water.
In the final scene of His Last Crack-Up Carried Him Too Far, we watch as Mariana Goode throws Harlan’s arm over her shoulder and helps him out of the rickety chair. He’s very drunk, and she’s visibly strained under his weight. Together they ascend the steps to the trailer, step by step together. Inside, she leads Harlan to his bed. He’s mumbling something, no subtitle now.
Don’t be mad, he seems to be saying. Baby, don’t be mad at nobody. I been mad forever. How they get you, he says. Or maybe, now I’ll get you. He mumbles more. Something about time. Share it? But then it sounds like heron. Time’s winged heron. At my back I always hear time’s winged heron flying near.
Goode unties Harlan’s boots and slips them off. She removes his socks. Then she lowers her head over him and tells him to go to sleep.
“You’ll wake up, and it’ll be morning,” she says. “You’ll wake up, and it’ll be the morning of your life.” She stands over him, and begins to sing in a soft lilting voice: “It’s only a paper moon, hanging over a cardboard sea, but it wouldn’t be make believe, if you believe in me.”
She walks through the trailer to the door, singing, “Without your love, it’s a honky-tonk parade. Without your love, it’s a melody played on a penny arcade.” She lowers herself down the stairs and walks to the shotgun resting against the trailer.
Cut to: a close-up of Goode blowing dirt from the rim of the gun barrel.
Cut to: Goode walking back into the trailer. We don’t follow her inside, but can hear her singing: “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make believe, if you… believe…in me.” The light clicks off. The shotgun blasts.
EXT. CAPSIZED SAILBOAT—PITCH OF NIGHT
The rush of water from the bilge of The Latin Lass was quieter than one might think. No torrential geysers, just a quick in-flow of water and a nearly immediate downward pull on the bow. Harlan had opened all the through-hulls in the head and bilge. He was now lowering the canoe, its steel skin silver and shark-like. Goode never pulled her eye from the camera, a floodlight fixed to the casing, her intensity focused. She leaned almost horizontal, elbow hooked around the halyards, just above the obsidian-black surface of the water. The writer’s job was to pass the rest of the equipment to Harlan in the canoe. But the sailboat was angling, the portside gunwales submerging now. The writer’s clumsy loafers slipped on the deck. He possessed no grace in the face of emergency. Harlan was very drunk, barely able to triage his instructions, first barking about his cigarettes left in the cabin, then about the flares and life preservers. The writer found the smokes, couldn’t locate the preservers or flares.
He was panicked, but except for the hollering the night was silent. How did the writer get there, in that one spot of chaos in a sea of dark stillness? Less than twenty-four hours ago he was in San Francisco researching a film by an artistically daring (perhaps over-hyped) sixteen-year-old girl. And he was thinking of his impending divorce, of his own daughter, whip-smart, unflinchingly sarcastic and cutting, who he would see less and less after the separation, who, after he moved out west, would come to know him more by his absence than not.
These young women: so vital and brave. And the writer: not brave, not so irrepressible as these women of his imagination. And now he was in the middle of the swamplands known as Skaggs Island, California — not five miles from where he was raised — standing on a 25-foot Ericson sailboat, sinking fast.
And Goode was filming — the hungry eye always hunting. Almost immediately after the water entered the cabin Harlan and Goode began to argue, about how to shoot the scuppered boat at first, but the argument quickly turned personal.
“She thinks she’s a genius,” Harlan said. “She forgets where it all comes from.”
“You?” Goode said. “Jesus, Harlan. Open your fuckin’ eyes. You’re a joke.”
If Goode believed this, she’d never expressed it to the writer over the course of their interviews together. When he’d asked why she’d filmed her father with such frequency, and specifically why she’d decided to track his dissent into an alcoholic blackout in His Last Crack-Up Carried Him Too Far, she’d taken great care with her thoughts about Harlan.
“Harlan is a brute,” she’d said. “He moves through the world with a sort of tunnel vision. He never looks back, never sees the wake he leaves behind. He’s always in the moment.”
Doesn’t this make her angry? He is her father after all. Harlan had left Goode and her mother when Goode was just a year old, only to return and disappear several more times throughout her childhood. What was unsaid, unimportant for their interview, was that this was more or less the writer’s experience with his own father — here one moment, gone the next.
“Am I angry?” Goode said. “Yes. Lightweight angry. Annoyed, more like.” She laughed. “But no, I mean, it’s not that important. The thing about Harlan: in moments of clarity, moments when he’s looking straight ahead, he’s completely honest. He sees right into the heart of it. I’ve never met another person like that. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another person like Harlan.”
This, she said, was powerful to witness. It occurred to the writer that this was why His Last Crack-Up could be, at times, so affecting. Goode’s camera is visually schizophrenic, but it’s Harlan’s brash perspective on life that’s so captivating, and for reasons the writer didn’t understand, it’s his death in the film that’s so moving.
But now, on the sinking boat, Harlan was more like a petulant child, in the canoe smoking, drinking, and fuming. The Latin Lass had sunk so quickly nobody had much time to think what would happen next. Goode retreated behind her lens. The canoe where Harlan sat was still roped to the transom. By the time the writer stepped into it, a vein bulged in Harlan’s neck. He tilted his head back and drank with furious speed.
Goode was filming — the boat half submerged, rolling portside. She kept her feet moving like a lumberjack on a slow lazy log roll. “It’s time to go,” the writer said. “You can film from the canoe. We’ll paddle around it.”
He looked to Harlan for help. “She’ll figure it out,” Harlan said. “I might be a joke, but she’s stubborn as an old fucking mare.”
He drained his bottle of beer, threw it in the water and focused on the whiskey. All the while he kept one eye on the writer sitting across from him in the canoe. “In fact,” he said. “I’ve had it with both of you, and this whole fucking night. Time to get to shore.” He wedged the whiskey bottle between his legs and quickly unhitched the canoe. He dipped a paddle into the water, beginning to row.
“Harlan,” the writer said, pointing feebly to Goode, who was still in the sailboat, almost fully tilted on its side now. “You can’t leave Mariana.”
Harlan said nothing in response. The writer picked up the second paddle and began rowing in the opposite direction, back toward Goode. Coming into the contest, the writer was not a strong oarsman. This he would readily admit. Harlan was more powerful, his work-muscled arms flexing impressively. But the writer stopped thinking and rowed with belligerent speed, leaning forward to gain more purchase on the water. By now, Goode had caught on to the battle taking place, Harlan rowing for escape, the writer rowing for rescue. She stood on a diminishing island of fiberglass, what remained above water of the sailboat’s hull, and turned her camera on the two rowers.
The writer’s strength was flagging, and the canoe started to drift farther from Goode. Fifteen feet away, twenty feet. He found himself looking up at her, wild helplessness in his eyes. Then he got a clever idea. He switched the direction of his paddling and, using Harlan’s momentum, spun the canoe one-eighty, and immediately switched again, pushing them back toward Goode.
“You weasely son of a bitch,” Harlan said. They were both winded and slowing considerably. That tricky move closed some ground between Goode and the canoe.
“Harlan,” Goode said. “That’s enough. Come get me.”
“You hear that?” Harlan said, wheezing. “Like her little lap dog. Harlan, go here. Harlan, do this. Say this, Harlan. I’m sick to death of it, princess.”
Harlan’s rage brought strength to his rowing. He was getting the better of the writer again. Again they were pulling farther from the sailboat.
“Alright, fine,” Goode said. “I’m sorry, okay?”
The writer was familiar with that tone from his own daughter. It had an edge of disgust to it, a begrudging manipulation.
“She’s sorry,” said Harlan. “Oh, she’s sorry now, when her pretty camera’s about to go under. Fuck your camera, princess. Fuck your movie. Fuck you.”
As an adult, the writer had found rare opportunity to consider striking another man. It’d always seemed a thought best left for youth. He remembered a fight as a teenager. He’d swung his fists wildly at Louie Giacomini, a boy a year older and much bigger. He remembered the sickening feeling of Louie’s braces through his mashed and mangled lower lip as the writer connected his one and only punch. He remembered afterward: his brain jostled in his skull, and Miranda Amoroso leaning in to kiss his cheek. He’d spent the afternoon digging gravel out of his scalp and feeling over and over the impression of those lips on his skin. And later when he arrived home, blood crusted above his forehead, his father holding a sweaty drink and watching an A’s game, turning to him, a slow lazy droop to his eyelids.
“A kid like you,” said his father, who other men in town called simply by his last name: Sepulveda. “It won’t be the last time.”
The writer had never imagined, however, not as a boy, and certainly not as a man, hitting anyone with a canoe paddle. But to faithfully report his thought in that moment, exhausted from struggling against Harlan, a man who — how else could it be viewed? — was trying to leave his own daughter to drown, the thought was this: to swing that paddle and strike the father across the head and knock him unconscious, and with the last ounce of energy sidle up to the sailboat for the daughter to leap aboard.
But then Mariana Goode’s voice leapt across the water.
“Dad,” she said. Harlan slowed his rhythm. “Dad, come back. Please.” Harlan stopped. Both he and the writer looked to Goode, who stood on the hull, the camera finally lowered from her eye. She was a sixteen-year-old girl in that moment, scared and in need of her father.
EXT. SKAGGS ISLAND LEVEE—NIGHT
The writer, Harlan, and Goode walked the levee trail toward Harlan’s trailer and, thank God, the writer’s car. The sloughs lay to one side of the levee, dark to the horizon. Goode was silent. At times the writer suspected she was surreptitiously filming him from the hip. Harlan, in high spirits again, bounced around singing and laughing.
“You two were really scared back there,” he said. “You think I was really gonna leave you, baby?”
“Naw, Harlan,” Goode said. “I knew you’d come back.”
“Yeah right. You were shaking like a shitting dog.”
The trail curled away from the water and soon the three had reached Harlan’s trailer. Harlan poured himself a whiskey and Coke and sat in the lawn chair.
“You want one, guy?” he said to the writer, holding out the bottle. Goode was loading gear into the rental for the ride back to her mother’s. “It’s a drink,” said Harlan. “It ain’t gonna kill you.”
The writer shook his head. “It’s time,” he said.
Harlan, triumphant somehow, was still talking when the writer and Goode pulled away in the rental.
Soon they’d put some distance between them and Skaggs Island. It’d been a long day, but the writer still needed to know something. Perhaps he needed to know how she came to every artistic decision she ever made.
“Why did you end His Last Crack-Up the way you did, with Harlan’s death?” the writer asked. Goode stared out the window for some time, the swooping headlights of oncoming cars throwing shadows around.
“The ending?” Goode said. “A while back Harlan took me to shoot skeet in the sloughs. He was explaining the action on the gun, how to lead the target, and it just hit me: Harlan’s burden. I was an accident, of course. He’d never been meant for it. And he had this everyday burden, even when he was a real shithead — drunk, gone for months, years, a derelict, right? He just is not a father, like, for real. There was no changing it. And I thought, well maybe that’s okay. I turned out fine. I put my finger on the trigger of the gun and I thought, I could release him from that burden.”
“You actually thought about killing him?”
“Not for more than a second. Not in real life, but in a movie. Symbolically. But of course, you can’t really release anyone. You can only release yourself, right? I mean, you have a kid, don’t you? So you know.”
The writer swallowed, nodded. He’d told himself he was going back east, eventually, soon. But he knew. He would not be going back. Perhaps Mariana Goode is right: she can’t release you from love’s everyday burden. You can only release yourself.
“Well, all I can say is don’t ever give her a shotgun,” Goode said.
“I’ll give her a video camera instead.”
Goode lifted the camera to her eye, pointing the lens at the writer. “You’d be better off dead,” she said, filming him in silence as he drove.