Two weeks ago David and I met at a dive bar in the deep Richmond. Pat came over. Smart guy with lots of knowledge. Pain too. He grieved a lot over the state of the world. Iraq. Afghanistan. Somalia. Really felt it personally and expressed guilt because he saw it, but did nothing about it. I told him that guilt about something he couldn’t change was a waste of energy. But Pat has empathy. You can see it in his face. And I knew what the real trouble was. Personal disappointment. He hadn’t found his direction and it bothered him. He told us he drank too much too, but… what could you do?
So David and I began our usual free form with Pat. David didn’t like to judge things harshly. I was frequently in his face about art, cinema, politics… testing him, and myself. Why pursue anything less than the truth? Don’t make do with mediocrity. Hold up standards. Be provocative. Speak your point of view with passion. You might learn something by being wrong. My thought was, “Attack, defend, forgive”. David saw what I was talking about but he had an easier take on things. He was more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.
But that night David was challenging Pat. He mimicked some of Pat’s ticks, one being a habit of massaging his left elbow as he expounded, bar fashion, inventing the idea just out of reach, looking for the elusive “Aha!” in full dress discursive mode. He played with Pat a little, maybe because the subject was music and David had been at Sunshine Studio in Memphis, and had written songs recorded by Elvis Presley. What did Pat know about music? Or maybe we were talking about acting. I remember David saying that when he needed to discover the thread of a role, or the button to push for a particular feeling, he would just look straight ahead. He nodded to the bar, where a patron sat with his back to us. “It’s right there,” he said. And I intuited where he was going with that. It’s always around us. With calm, and fear in check, you can pull Stanislavski out of the phone book.
I don’t remember exactly where we went then, but David was putting a kink in Pat’s usual languid delivery, attacking, probing, kidding in a serious way. Pat was back on his heels, but hanging on. David was sharp that night and I watched him closely… and admired. Then he had to go but I stayed a while longer. Pat was quiet for a moment and then he said to me, “That man is a force of nature.”
I was surprised. David was a friend I hadn’t thought of in that way. We were not into hyperbole when it came to assessing mutual strengths and weaknesses. But we weren’t afraid to get into it. If I thought he was prone to exaggerate from time to time, he thought I was too stoic and understated. Sometimes his New Age proclivities made me squirm. He thought I might want to loosen up a little and join the 21st Century. Then too he hadn’t been that well. He had recently overcome cancer and was struggling with a thyroid problem. His morale had been a bit shaky of late. Family problems. Professional doubts. The usual. “That man is a force of nature.” I thought about it.
David had been a member of the U.S. Rugby Team. When he was relaxed and took his time, he was an actor of rare sensibility. He was well known for his lead role in Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and an important figure in that genre. I remember being shocked when he came in to read for THE STEPPES. He showed us a quiet sensitivity and inventive word play I hadn’t seen before. I liked his role in GO TOGETHER, the last of the 9 @ Night movies, but he reached a different level the day we cast him in a major role as Olek in THE STEPPES. That film played in the Perspectives Competition at the Moscow International Film Festival this year and was nominated for all the prizes at the Syracuse International where David won a posthumous Jury Citation for his role. And then there was David’s music, good songs, admired by many and one, VAGABOND, I’ll never forget. I’ve used it in at least three movies. He sings it himself with a very tight band behind him and it is infectious. At any given moment, I can still hear it in my mind. It just keeps on tickling me.
Another thing: David grew up in Port Washington, John Cassavetes’ home town. As a young actor he met and talked with John in bars and probably had conversations like those we had with guys like Pat. I believe in bar culture. I think that if parliaments would meet in bars we’d be more likely to get rid of war. David was a good bar guy, always with that big grin, and a taste for the gab.
Last Thursday night was the opening of the Mill Valley Film Festival. We met there, as we always do, and David defended the film we had just seen, just as I slammed it. Our usual roles. True to form. And then I remembered what Pat had said. And I thought, “David’s got to hear this.” I reminded him of our last talk with Pat. “And after you left, Pat was thinking, and then he looked at me and said, “That man is a force of nature.” David was startled. It had caught him at the right time and in the right spot. Who doesn’t want to get a message of admiration from a secret sharer in troubled times? And in that moment I saw him transform himself back into the man Pat had seen. There was a validation of what he had always believed. He WAS a force of nature and a guy in a bar had seen it, even if others, sometimes these days, had failed to.
On Saturday morning I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my house. Warm sun. A good start for a good day and I was waiting for a colleague and a breakfast meeting to raise money for our next movie, WOMAN 1. I took out my cell phone and saw that David had called me. I hit “reply” but it wasn’t David who answered. It was his son, Jesse. In tears. That night David had died of a massive heart attack.
Life is pleasant in our times. We have homes and cars and food. Good coffee, brew pubs, places to drink and congregate, big things for the big people, and little things for those not so big. It’s better here than in most places, and infinitely better than in the world’s hell holes… Somalia being the worst we currently know about. We beat ourselves up because we’re not perfect and because we’re the strongest nation in the world. And at times we go into countries, as if we owned them, to kill our enemies. Why? Because we can. And if anyone thinks they “would not” if they were “able to,” don’t believe them. If they demonstrate their virtue in real time, with real life risks, and surrounded by, the requisite level of threat, then their actions prove their good intentions. Hypocrisy is truly measured only in the world of events. Until you act, you’re only a talker. The mirror is the best window available when you’re sure the other guy is wrong. You’re the unshakeable revolutionary one day, and you’ve got a dacha on the Black Sea the next. Virtue and vice share the same condo.
But… we’re never safe. We’re next… although we’re never sure what number we’ve drawn. I know that mine is coming up. But until that day I’m going to continue to pursue the road indicated by the inscription in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. “Know thyself” is a good formula for avoiding the trap of absolute certainty and its next worst step… blaming the others. David and I went over all of this many times. And we disagreed most of the time. And why not? A democracy is based on conflict and the importance of opposing views. Art is the only place where you hew to vision and conviction and never back down.
David was alive. And now he’s a memory. He was an optimist and a guy who knew how to be a good friend. His passions led him to lead a passionate life. And passion is the high road to agony and ecstasy, kisses and bruises, given and received. I don’t think anyone comes out of a life well lived without the scars to prove it. And vivid memories of people left behind. But, “Attack, defend and forgive.” I’ll remember his friendship, generosity and talent. Luckily it will still be there in the songs and albums and films. A force of nature is protected by the Laws of Thermodynamics, as Peter Coyote said in his elegy for Graham Leggat. You can’t create a David Hess nor can you destroy him. He’s just… there. Yes, in a different shape, but not one particle can be lost. That’s just the nature of things. Goodbye, comerado. If there’s a dimension we haven’t quite heard of yet, I’m sure we’ll meet up there one day. I’ll tell Pat what happened. He’ll be pulling on his elbow and… well, just remember what he said.