Ever get the feeling that, here at the dawn of the 21st century, the righteous wars have all been fought, the hiddenmost corners of the earth all brightened with flashbulbs and all the famous firsts spoken for? None of it’s true, of course—there’s still plenty of important work to be done, and perhaps never as much as there is right now. But you’re still to be forgiven for having these thoughts from time to time, especially when you’re talking to a man like Bill Gibson. Seen it, done it, sometimes twice, lived to tell about it—Gibson’s one of those Gullivers of the Greatest Generation whom you have to thank for occasional Lilliput feelings of everything done bigger and better. And first.
“Indiana Jones with a movie camera,” a friend called him recently. A perfect tag for the tireless Gibson—documentary cameraman, combat photographer, photojournalist, adventurer and raconteur par excellence, whose countless hair-raising escapades from Aruba to Zanzibar make for some most enjoyable reading in a long-awaited installment of the Scarecrow Filmmakers Series: No Film in My Camera.
As a writer, Gibson owes nothing to the kind of film writing in which the documentarian-as-writer tries to interpose himself as gently and neutrally as possible between objectivity and the world swirling around him. One way or another, he takes the situation by the horns and either gets on top and rides it or has to knee it in the face a few times until it’s safe to let go. Reading No Film in My Camera is very much like talking to Gibson in person: story piled on story, with the most casual of tangents diverting the reader onto incredible new adventures. Only a storyteller with the runneth-over experience of Gibson could follow the silver thread of an absentminded aside from the South Pole to the South Pacific to Southeast Asia in scarcely five breaths, which is practically what happened when I spent an afternoon with him last spring. Astounding, also overwhelming.
In print, at least the reader can hew to a comfortable pace to avoid being deluged. But No Film still commands your undivided attention. The prose is bare-knuckled, sometimes awkwardly tender, but always rich in raucous metaphor and salty opinion. There’s plenty of backslapping military humor here, but look between the paragraphs and you’ll also find a lightly absurd sense of comedy sluicing just beneath the broader jest. From the first page to the last, No Film is a rich blast of the kind of colostrum that only floats on the surface of some adventure memoirs.
As Gibson owes his 60-plus year career in photos and film to the outbreak of World War II, it’s only fitting that he would begin his reminiscences there. After a brief preface recalling how his ambitions were electrified by newsreels of Hitler and Mussolini while he was working as a theater usher in early summer 1941, Gibson plants you smack in the middle of the action: right on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet with Japanese planes closing in on all sides. He runs out of film with a torpedo plane scarcely a hundred yards from the ship:
“An explosion nearby lifted me off the deck, then a series of explosions followed. … [W]hile I engrossed in unloading and loading the film in my camera, I had missed at least four torpedoes hitting the ship, one kamikaze who crashed his plane into the island, and two bombs exploding on the flight deck. The U.S. Navy had sent a boy to do a man’s job.”
Some time later, after hours of treading water slick with oil from the sinking carrier and wondering who would arrive on the scene first—friendly rescue ships or a Japanese destroyer—Gibson finds himself on the Hughes, watching as the Navy puts the last holes in the Hornet so that the Japanese can’t tow it back to Tokyo. He makes a promise to himself never to be a party to history in the making without a movie camera to cover it.
And he did, indeed, cover a lot of history: battles in the South Pacific, the Baker underwater atomic test (using a radio remote and nine cameras mounted in a lead-shuttered 125-foot tower, Gibson took the famous shot of a mushroom cloud towering above a flotilla in Bikini Atoll, 1946), the Tet Offensive, the early setbacks and eventual success of the space program. No Film isn’t particularly exhaustive on any topic; it’s just a whirlwind tour from one historic event and personality to another.
For as grim as Gibson’s combat descriptions can be, the sobering moments of No Film are balanced by the lighter side of history in the making. Culture, too: On his first meeting with Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, Gibson recalls drinking two large goblets of wine at ten in the morning and getting in a pillow fight with Dali, who had filled all his sofa cushions with helium so that they floated to the ceiling when unhooked from the couch. Señor Dali became “Salvador” after that day, and after one more meeting he was just plain ol’ “Sal.”
No Film in My Camera flies past with newsreel quickness. You can literally finish it in a short afternoon, and it’s a temptation. But to give in to reading it all at once is like demanding all your favorite grandpa stories in one sitting. Anyway, you always know there’s more where those came from.