It’s going to end badly. I know this for a lot of reasons: the sound of Carter’s ice cubes clicking against the glass; the terrible and numinous glow coming from the muted television set; the smell of weed. But mostly I know because Carter is telling me that this time, it’ll be different. “This one,” he says, “is going to be a goddamn blockbuster, I swear to god.”
I’m already on my feet and heading toward the kitchen, but I assure him that I’m listening. I toss the empty and start searching through the liquor cabinet, pushing aside Carter’s whiskey and his six brands of tequila (not including the mezcals he bought last summer because he’d heard–incorrectly, it turned out–that swallowing the worm gave you erotic hallucinations) to find the bottle of Grey Goose I stashed there the last time I stayed over. I’m looking around without much hope for a bottle of tonic when I see Katje down the hall, just disappearing into the bedroom, pulling off her top as she ghosts through the doorway.
“Okay, okay,” from back in the living room. Carter’s voice drops an octave as he delivers his pitch, movie-trailer style. “In a world where love is for-bid-den, and the dead feast on the flesh of the living… one man dares to risk ev-ry-thing…”
“For the woman he loves?” Happily surprised to find an unopened Schweppes bottle in the pantry, I pour a drink, swirl it with my finger, take a sip. Katje moves through another part of the house in an indeterminate state of nakedness.
“No!” Carter sounds delighted. “Well, yeah. But I mean that’s not the twist.”
For more than ten years we’ve been getting together once a month or so to write a screenplay. Now and then we’ll write an opening scene or a snatch of dialogue or–more often–just spend three hours arguing about who will be cast in the film and (of critical importance) who will do the score. Once in a great while we glimpse the shape of a plot, but the whole exercise is usually derailed by Carter’s insistence on a twist, and then on making the twist “a little twistier.” With Carter, this means (almost without exception) that the protagonist is actually schizophrenic, or a formerly conjoined twin, or “a dude instead of a chick,” or secretly psychotic because of some buried traumatic incident. Or all of those things.
Carter gets up now, wobbling, to pour himself another drink as well. “That’s just the pitch, right, but the twist, get this,” pushing his whiskered face right toward me, “is that the hero is dead.”
“Ah. Didn’t see that coming.” On the muted television, Joseph Cotten is skulking around postwar Vienna, pleasingly desaturated.
“No, seriously man, think about it. Not like he doesn’t know he’s dead, we’re not talking about a, what did you call it—”
“Posthumous fantasy.” We once spent an entire evening talking about Bierce and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
I wonder if Katje is going to come back out. She can’t already be in bed for the night. Naked.
“Yeah, right, not that. He’s just a zombie, right? Just doing his zombie thing and all, huh, crazy little motherfucker. And he spends all his time fighting against the living just like the rest of the zombies, right—”
“So the hero is a cannibal,” I say, just pointing this out. I head back to my spot on the couch. Some unfortunate and preternatural characteristic of the apartment’s acoustics allows me to hear Katje in the bedroom now, rustling through drawers. Sublime on the CD player, singing: She takes her time when it’s time to get ready / Always has her way.
“Yeah, sure. Well,” considering this, “maybe not. People won’t sympathize with a guy who eats people, right?” He’s silent, thoughtful, and then (brightening): “But, you know, maybe like they would, huh? Like they wouldn’t want to, not really, but he sorta grows on everyone. Almost like… he’s got a good heart somehow? Even though he’s a zombie and all?”
I’m willing to concede this. “Sure. He can’t help who he is.”
“Exactly, yeah. And this is, get this, here’s the thing: he’s in love with a living woman.”
Carter has this way of shocking me sometimes with his innocent ingenuity. “You’re talking about Romeo and Juliet,” I say, genuine admiration there. “That’s fucking amazing, Carter.”
“Yeah, right?” He beams.
Maybe I’m just drunk, but still. “It really could work, in a stupid kind of way I mean.”
Carter keeps nodding, taking no offense at this.
“Two warring families,”–really thinking about it now, kind of despite myself–“I mean think of the symbolism, of what that could all mean, the goddamn binary oppositions…rich and poor, dominant and disenfranchised, the fucking saved and the damned…And you’ve got this, like, synthesis of love and death…plus the whole polarization of the country thing,” oh now I’m on a roll, “projecting the other side as lifeless to like dehumanize them and whatnot…”
“And,” Carter warming up to the Shakespeare angle, “we could have Tybalt, who’s like the country club guy, decapitate whats-his-name–”
“Right, and Romeo’s given up human flesh because of Juliet–he eats like rats and shit instead, right?–but Mercutio is his friend, you know? And Romeo saw his goddamn head fall off his shoulders. And the audience fucking loves Mercutio at this point, so they aren’t even too upset when Romeo goes off and eats Tybalt alive, while he screams or some shit like that…”
Katje reappears just as Carter is sitting back down. “It all sounds adorable if you ask me,” she says, passing through on her way to the kitchen. Carter ignores her and I try to avoid openly watching her ass (almost completely exposed beneath the Georgetown sweatshirt she’s wearing as a nightshirt) as she goes by. She pours herself a glass of water and stands there in the kitchen, drinking it all down in one long, perfect swallow, and I’m nudged a little farther along on some terrible and stupid continuum of heartbreak.
“…and then like halfway through,” Carter is saying, ignoring her, “we jump to this other story, where there aren’t any zombies at all, right? Looks just like our regular world, you know? It’s just this lonely guy who’s pining away for his ex, but it’s the same actors…”
Katje throws me a quick complicated glance, or else I’m just drunk, and then she heads back toward the bedroom. Sweatshirt riding up on her hips. “Going to bed,” she calls over her shoulder, “sweet dreams, boys…” with the ellipsis and everything. I wonder what’s going on between the two of them, but Carter isn’t saying anything and I’m not about to bring it up. He’ll tell me if he wants to tell me. I shove my own feelings back down where they belong.
“This lonely guy,” I say, thinking around the alcohol and the girl, “He kind of feels like he’s died, like he’s the walking dead. And she’s unreachable, somehow. Even if he sees her every day.”
With the words that burn like fire in my mouth, is what Sublime is saying.
“God damn metaphor,” Carter nodding happily at this. “And this part of the movie looks all different, hand-held cameras and everything, it looks kind of raw. And then just when you get all settled in again, and you think yeah, now I’ve got this thing figured out, it was all a goddamn metaphor, that’s when it really starts, man.”
I wait, but he doesn’t offer anything else. Finally: “That’s when what really starts?”
“It’s a head trip, man,” Carter says, laughing. “Fuck if I know.”
We talk for another half hour, debating the merits of Gael García Bernal over Leonardo diCaprio and Carter Burwell over Zbigniew Preisner, with Carter throwing Maurice Jarre’s name into the hat even though I’ve told him more than once that Jarre is dead. It’s getting late by now, and the story’s already suspect cohesion is dissipating rapidly. By the time we start arguing over the appropriate number of midgets in the film, and whether it’s more or less offensive to call them dwarves or even elves, it’s clear that the brainstorming session is over. Carter gets up from the couch mangling the lyrics to Santeria. “You’re crashing, right? Blankets and pillows in the closet, man.”
Nodding: “I know the drill.” I make a point of not watching him go to his bedroom and open the door. I don’t want to know if the light’s still on. And I don’t want to hear any voices. Or (just don’t think about it) anything else.
But there aren’t any voices, at least not by the time I’m settled in on the couch, staring up through a heavy, drunken darkness at the ceiling fan above my head. Some old or faulty mechanism in the fan makes it creak a little with every lazy revolution of the blade, and I tell myself that it doesn’t sound at all, not even the slightest bit, like a bed frame squeaking under the weight and motion of two circumspect lovers. It isn’t ominous at all. But the sound bothers me anyway, and I fall asleep with it in my head and in my dreams.
* * *
My dreams are of Katje. My Katje, for in the dreams she belongs to me and I to her. I dream we had a whole life together which I’ve forgotten, a secret history. I don’t dream these things, they’re just there, undersong: first glance date kiss fuck, breathless late-night phone calls, intimacies granted and withheld, her upturned face under cloudless September skies, road trips to her cousin’s place in Bethany, the masquerade party where she came dressed as a sylph and I said what’s a sylph and she told me she’d show me in the upstairs bedroom, the time we swam out too far into the midnight Atlantic and I thought we were going to die but she only laughed and kept swimming out farther (come on come on it’s only death, you fucking dope), the texture of her skin against my mouth, her tears in the mornings, secrets told in confidence, petty jealousies and silent understandings, betrayals real and imagined, drops of dried blood on the green-and-white checkerboard bathroom floor, the time we almost broke up or didn’t we really break up after all but it only lasted a day and I found her standing outside my apartment in the morning, smiling as if nothing had ever happened, and couldn’t we give it another chance, let’s go away somewhere just the two of us and start over, pleading, eyes full of promise but still with that crooked-sad Katje smile, come on what is there to lose, only my heart is beating too hard and it’s a sign but I can never figure out what sign exactly. But none of that’s in the dream, not really, in the dream we’re only lying side by side on the grass as the horizon swallows the August sun, listening to our daughter swing back and forth on a rusted swing-set that groans metronomically beneath her perfect, quantum weight.
(A hand on my face, waking me up. Quiet, she says, reaching down to grasp me. Visible only as a variation in the density of shadow, but solid, muscles trembling, radiating heat as she climbs on top. Overhead the fan blades creak, keeping time…)
* * *
I wake up feeling awful. Stumble to the bathroom, search half-heartedly and unsuccessfully for a bottle of Advil, then brush my teeth with a small glob of toothpaste and my fingertip. Quick glance in the mirror, You don’t look so great, and now wait for the world to catch up, or for me to catch up to the world, can never remember which is which. Pistons firing and misfiring and firing again.
And then I see the memory passing across my face in the mirror, the shadow of a cloud, and there’s an interesting progression there, recognition to disbelief to horror to self-loathing. I don’t remember everything, not exactly, but: her lips on my neck, her thighs squeezing around me, eyes and teeth flashing as she looks down, her moans soft and animal-like, everything else dark and alcohol-fuzzy (and did that really happen, I didn’t even know Katje was into that) and oh shit, what the fuck have you done? And to Carter of all people? The phrase since the third grade keeps flying through my mind, a destructive synoptic pinball.
I’ve got to (since the third grade!) get out of here.
In two minutes I’m dressed and standing, hovering really, by the door, wondering if I should say goodbye. I don’t trust myself to even knock on their bedroom door without projecting powerful psychic waves of guilt. Leaving a note is an option, but I know I’d torture myself getting the (since the third grade!) wording right, and by then they’ll be awake and it’ll look as if I’m trying to sneak out, which is exactly what I’m trying to do.
The thought occurs to me as I’m driving home. Maybe nothing happened. I entertain the thought, seriously entertain it, for about thirty seconds. All in my head. Has to at least be a possibility. I’ve had vivid, fucked up dreams my whole life, and a sex dream–especially with Katje–is nothing new. It doesn’t even sound like something real. Katje, having lost her mind, decides to screw her boyfriend’s best friend since childhood on their living room sofa, while said boyfriend sleeps thirty feet away. Let’s just think about that, okay? Let’s analyze it as a study in probability, you goddamn (since the third grade!) idiot.
(But no, it’s real. And do you really want it to be a dream? Do you really?)
Eventually the morning thins and stretches out, distances itself from the night like an ill-advised one night stand; and by noon I’m already thinking that the best approach is to just pretend, to convince myself, that it really was a dream. Maybe not in fact, but in consequence. Katje won’t say anything to Carter, she’s too pragmatic. In a week or so I’ll give him a call, and he’ll say, Hey, man, just heard about this new guy playing the Black Cat on Saturday, I hear he’s insane. You interested? And I’ll see Katje when I see her, or else I won’t, but everything will be back to normal, or as close to normal as it’s ever been.
I spend the rest of the afternoon down on the Mall, taking photographs, old hobby of mine. A year ago I bought a fast 300-mm zoom lens that cost a lot more than I could really afford, one of my few luxuries. It’s quiet and fast enough that I don’t need a tripod, so I can take candid shots, which is what I really like. I snap a few now, people walking around the Tidal Basin, couples, singles, kids stomping through the graveyard of yellow-orange leaves. Cloudy day, no contrast, but you never know what you’ll stumble on. All the women look like Katje, and the sky is the color of smoke.
My phone buzzes in my jacket pocket. Carter’s name on the screen, and the first few letters of his message: Do you…
I put the phone back in my pocket without reading the message, and search for something to photograph. A couple of twentysomethings are making out in front of a weeping cherry tree that’s starting to rot through in one of the main branches. I lift the camera, focus on the rotting branch, and click. Then a few more, changing the angle, trying to find the shot.
Do you have regrets? Do you know what you’ve done?
The guy hears something or just gets a vibe, because he turns and looks in my direction. He’s a lot bigger than me. Yells something that I don’t quite catch, most likely Hey, asshole. I re-focus on his face and take a few more photographs as he starts to walk toward me. Hey, I said drop the fucking camera, are you deaf? Through the zoom I can see that he’s older than I’d guessed, deep lines in his forehead, maybe older than me. Click. His girlfriend (mistress?) tells him to relax, he ignores her and keeps coming. Click. And now he’s starting to jog, maybe thirty feet away from me and getting closer, and still there’s an extraordinary lack of urgency to everything. Click. I hear my heart beating, unhurried, and my hand is steady around the lens. Twenty feet, and now he’s sprinting toward me, visibly enraged. Click, and the intervals between each fall of the shutter seem to be getting longer and longer even though I know they’re the same. Ten feet, click. Eventually the interval will be infinite, and we’ll just be suspended here in this moment, his apoplexy halted. His arm reaches out through the stasis, and I hit the shutter release one last time.
Now here we go, I think: this moment. This is the moment before the moment, but it only feels like “before”: everything that’s about to happen–could happen–has happened–is inscribed right here, in glorious, perfect silver.
The camera strikes me in the face as he yanks the strap from my neck, and then his fist drives my jaw and head backward. I stagger and barely stay on my feet, and then watch, wobbling, as he does his best to smash the camera into the sidewalk. I lean over, thinking I might be sick, not from the punch but from vertigo. Then I spit a small, bloody tooth into my hand. The blood is the reddest I’ve ever seen, the reddest anything I’ve ever seen. I’m thinking of Katje, and our daughter on the swing.
“Now fuck off,” the guy says. Close up, I can see the alcoholism and the perpetual anger and the unhappy marriage, the long weekends away from home when he meets up with one or another of his girlfriends. Do they all look alike, is there some secret pool of lean, thin-lipped, passive strawberry blonds from which he periodically makes a withdrawal? Do they all (maybe, no of course) even resemble his wife, back home in some expensive and depressing suburban prison? Is he only trying to resurrect a dead lover, that version of his wife who saw him as something more than what he always was? Isn’t he, after all, only a Frankenstein of philanderers?
I feel laughter bubbling up inside, and it worries me. Something jarred loose in there, maybe. And I do laugh, a short violent laugh that I’m helpless to stop, and I must still be bleeding because I spray blood over the guy’s pale suede jacket. Not a lot of blood, but then even a little would upset most people. Especially with suede. (Another unhinged laugh, there.)
He jumps back, and okay now I think I can imagine what lepers and plague victims must have felt like. “Fucking psycho,” shoving me backward with both arms, and this time I really do fall, landing half on my back and half on my ass. He pulls off the jacket in disgust, holding it away from his body, hazardous material that it has become, as he turns away from me. His girlfriend is coming in our direction but he intercepts her, grabs her upper arm and turns her around, nothing to see here, babe, just fucking walk and don’t even look at this dipshit, the situation is fucking handled.
It takes a few minutes before I start to feel normal again. I check the camera, and it isn’t in nearly as bad a shape as I would have expected. What idiot can’t break a camera? Cameras break all the fucking time. That almost makes me start laughing again, which feels like the wrong thing to do, what with all the blood and the missing tooth.
I walk to the car and sit down behind the wheel. Finally I look at the message.
Do you want to come by a little later maybe?
I stare at the letters until they make sense. Then I send him a note back, telling him I’ll be there at six. I wipe blood from my mouth and start the car.
* * *
INT. CARTER’S APARTMENT – A VAGUELY APOCALYPTIC DUSK
PROTAGONIST reaches for the doorknob and the door opens on its own, with you’d have to say a definite gothic quality. Creepy shit straight ahead, is the general vibe here. Inside the apartment the light is fading, blue, full of dust. Low-level ambient soundtrack (Tangerine Dream), building in intensity. CARTER is sitting on the sofa, facing straight ahead as if in a trance.
(As if there’s still a chance that everything is okay, as long as he acts cool.)
… hey, man.
(Closing the door behind him.)
(Looking a bit ashy, but maybe that’s just the lighting, the cinematography, hard to tell. Speaks with exhausted, detached, possibly insane hopelessness.)
PROTAGONIST stares at Carter from the entryway to the living room, frozen. Then finally steps inside.
(Voice kind of uneven here)
Gone? What…gone where?
CARTER looks down at his hands. ZOOM IN to show they’re dark and wet, but it all looks a bit blue because of the fucking artsy cinematography. PAN UP to CARTER’s right eyeball, which is twitching with menacing lunacy.
(In a rising panic, voice breaking)
Gone WHERE? What the…Carter, what the fucking hell…
(starting to gasp, as in a nightmare)
(ending with a primal scream)
I’m driving to Carter’s house. My lip is still swollen and my face is scratched up, and everything kind of feels like it’s falling apart. I know it’s not falling apart, I know the world is exactly the same as it was this morning–or yesterday morning, or tomorrow morning–but it all feels wrong. My heart feels broken and I don’t know why, not when the root cause isn’t sadness but guilt, as if we’ve got the wrong soundtrack going here, some dissonant but achingly beautiful score that suggests an unrecoverable loss, paradigmatic Loss if you can wrap your head around that, all exquisitely sustained melancholy and the unutterable grief of the hopelessly damned, when after all it’s just a guy who cheated and is terrified of being caught. And so we
EXT. CARTER’S FRONT DOOR – A PALPABLY LUGUBRIOUS TWILIGHT
PROTAGONIST reaches for the door and knocks tentatively. DUTCH TILT angle, nice homage to The Third Man. He’s sweating despite the cool evening, not the best sign, not really. Some kind of percussive, menacing industrial synth score here, with gunmetal lighting. ZOOM to the door handle with another crazy tilt angle, and the handle turns in SLOW MOTION from the other side, accompanied by a SLOW-MO sound effect of the latch coming free. (CLICK, like a lock tumbler falling into place.) The door opens, and we see KATJE, dressed seductively in a red bustier and garters with stiletto heels.
(in, yes, CARTER’s voice)
Hey…you look terrible. What the hell happened to your face?
KATJE changes to become CARTER, without the getup.
(in KATJE’s voice)
Oh, this is nothing. You should see the, the…
…the other guy, ha ha.
(stepping out of the doorway, looking more alarmed)
And what the hell happened to your neck, Jesus…
When we were ten, Carter saved my life. (I can’t really see the road too well. The landscape is edgeless.) It happened like this. We’re out at dusk (sun slicing down through blood-orange October skies), looking for my lost dog. The dog is a sweet-crazy black lab with mismatched eyes, and she’s always running away and then forgetting the way home, and it’s my job, with Carter as chief lieutenant, to carry out the search-and-rescue operation each time. Lately she’s been wandering farther and farther away, and on this particular day she’s out well beyond her historical orbit, out past the cemetery in the wooded hills northwest of town, where the older teens go to drink and fuck on the weekends. We wander into the sunset, Carter and I, wind-cooled and fatigued, and I’m calling her name, Katje, Katje, while Carter echoes me on the other side of a clearing, another version of me, and then I turn my head and look up just as she looks up, at the crest of a hill a hundred yards distant, somehow having passed us and now already on her way home. For a second our eyes lock on each other despite the distance, and she tilts her head, a question or else just a thought, puzzled and even (I think) sympathetic. I lose my bearings and take a step toward her and immediately I’m falling, tumbling gracelessly down a slope, gathering grass-stains and nascent bruises as I accelerate, and I end up crashing head-first into the trunk of an enormous spruce. I don’t wake up for half an hour, and that’s only for a minute, to find that Carter is carrying me toward my house, breathing hard, eyes straight ahead as he struggles under my weight. And I think he’s not really Carter, Carter’s just playing him in this particular scene; no, he’s really Death him-fucking-self, come to carry me across, and I’ll forget all of this in a day or a week or a month, but none of that (imagined future to this imagined past) will be real, just a posthumous fantasy, and how would you ever know it wasn’t? And wouldn’t it be that way after all (is what I’m thinking), that when death comes it looks familiar, like someone you’ve known your whole life, and I fall back asleep with that idea spinning round in my brain. The thought stays with me for a long time, even after I wake up and the dog is restored and the bruises have healed and everything looks normal again, the thought stays with me that my friend Carter is the incarnation of Death, my own personal incarnation (and maybe we all have one after all, our own Carter, wouldn’t that be something?) and I don’t ever really forget it.
SLOW DISSOLVE TO:
INT. A PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE – DAY
The office is empty. There’s the stereotypical leather couch and the desk, and the lights are all off. The furniture is dusty. The photographs on the wall (the good doctor with a smiling Federico Fellini…in faux captain’s attire aboard his yacht…in a pale blue suit at his daughter’s college graduation) are askew. The camera turns slowly, in one continuous motion, to pan around the room as the following conversation is heard (or rather overheard).
You called the dog Katje.
(waiting a Jungian beat and then continuing, prodding)
Do you think…maybe…
No, no…I don’t.
Okay, (name omitted with a beep). But at least, well…
…semiotically, you have to admit, we’re a bit lost here, as it were, between umwelt and umbegung. You don’t mind if I speak to you frankly like this, do you?
This is frankly?
(scattered laughter off-screen)
I pull the car up to Carter’s place. (Katje’s car, an ancient Gremlin she found at a junkyard and loved mostly because of the name, sits in a neighboring parking space, eyeing me with a rust-weary glance. Do you? it asks.) The apartment building isn’t in great shape, actually. Siding is falling off, one gutter hangs precariously off a corner like a ladder in a cartoon, frozen in that last liminal moment of comic perfection before the fall (Wile E. Coyote turning to face the camera with a hand-lettered sign, Gravity Lessons). The windows are spidery with cracks, the masonry chipped and bullet-ridden. As I walk toward the door, a cheap black ornamental shutter falls off the façade, landing only a few feet away.
(Or no. Just a door, a building, a gutter, a window, a dog. I don’t know why I thought she was my dog. Carter’s dog. I don’t even remember her name.)
Carter opens the door, face neutral, a cipher. “Hey man,” then seeing my face, “what the hell…”
On the Elements of a Twist
There are two critical elements in any twist, at least as it specifically pertains to a cinematic ending. The twist has to retroactively edify the film. Sounds complicated, but we just mean that it can’t come out of fucking left field. It should fundamentally create new layers of meaning in the already-seen, already-experienced, without obliterating the meaning that was already there. Something like a palimpsest, some faint original Truth that was always partially visible beneath the Story-as-Told–you thought it was a coffee stain, a natural discoloration of the paper, maybe?–but both Truth and Story are compatible with the chain of events presented up to this point. Of course this means the construction of a plot that is simultaneously intelligible and even dramatically inevitable from two fundamentally different readings, at least one of which is mistaken. And you think that’s a small feat? No, it isn’t, which is why there are so few really good twists. Something nags at you with the Story-as-Told, you just can’t shake it. Why did he give that look, why use that wording, it all seems just a bit off, doesn’t it? Why the pregnant pause there? (Hey, why the emphasis on pregnant anything?)
But, but (you argue), isn’t that only right? In the real world, whatever that phrase might mean, aren’t there twists? Aren’t there revelations? And when something truly is, unambiguously, then mustn’t there really be some trail of inconsistency, of essential wrongness, that marks the mistaken path, the accepted misreading? Mustn’t there (after all) be some residue of misbegotten fantasy about the whole thing?
Well, sure. But you see that leads us to the other thing, the second critical element of a twist. It has to shock you even when you know it’s coming. It has to have the texture of Revelation, no matter what specific little-R revelation it happens to be. For don’t we all feel some sense of nameless dread from time to time, aren’t we all at least occasionally reminded of some long-forgotten debt, aren’t we now and then troubled by some purloined fragment of the lost and perfect homeland that we left behind? Sure we do, sure we are. Ultimately the Twist represents not an unexpected turn, but a circling back toward the Origin. Charlton Heston on his knees on a beachfront, screaming upward in Lady Liberty’s corrupted shadow. God damn our souls to hell, is what he’s saying. A little obvious, but you get the idea. It’s the approach rather than the Revelation itself that we feel in the pit of our stomach, that gut-wrenching familiarity, the wind kicking under the door to wake us up (to what forgotten reality?) Wasn’t I here before (you think), did I not escape after all?
EXT. CARTER’S DOORWAY – STILL DUSK, NOW AND ALWAYS
(a little frazzled here, really)
I’m fine, man. How are you, huh?
(looking out past the PROTAGONIST at something invisible in the background, face calm, inscrutable)
You hear that sound, man? You know what that sound is?
(pretending to listen, and then)
Yeah, I don’t…uh, I don’t hear anything?
(smiling a True Believer kind of smile here, and not really looking at PROTAGONIST at all)
It’s the sound of revelation, is what it is, dude. Barely audible at first…and then an ultra-slow crescendo, and the dynamic is so subtle that you kind of miss it at first… but then, man, you realize your fucking hairs are starting to, like, stand on end?
I do hear it, though, now and (possibly) for real. It’s quiet and intense, not quite a melodic tone but something else, something closer to the sound of blood flow inside an arterial wall. Rising and falling, accelerando and crescendo coming soon…
“Took a little fall,” is what I tell Carter, who doesn’t hear the sound of revelation at all, because that’s how it works. “Worse than it looks, trust me. What’s up with you, though? Things okay?” Aware that I’m not sounding normal at all, here.
Carter nods, still unsure of me. “How about if we go inside, huh?”
“Sure, yeah,” although at this particular moment the last thing in the world that I want is to go inside. As I step into the house behind Carter, I say (aiming for nonchalance and misfiring wildly, instead hitting squarely on pregnant with meaning), “Saw Katje’s car out front. She still here?” As soon as the words are out I understand what I’ve done. The wave function collapses, and here we go.
INT. CARTER’S HALLWAY – AT THE BORDER OF THE COLLAPSED WAVE FUNCTION
CARTER doesn’t freeze, not exactly. It’s rather that he becomes still, and you have to understand the difference. We capture stillness by letting the camera linger on the back of his head, no quick cut here, and the score (such as it is, the arterial blood flow thing) doesn’t change, but now it’s isolated and so the effect is of an increase, not in volume but in pressure. When CARTER’s head turns back to face the PROTAGONIST, we see that he has no face. And when he speaks, his voice is barely intelligible, heavily digitized.
(as near as we can make out)
Didjoo cha hasda bow catchup?
(Carter is just staring at me now. “I think we should go sit down,” he says.)
I walk into the living room. Katje is there, seated on the couch where we were fucking only a few hours before. Wearing a cute baby-blue pajama set now, hands folded in her lap, eyes deep and dark. Her face is a question.
“Bottle of water?” Carter asks, walking toward the refrigerator, his back to the room. “Sit down, I just think we need to talk some things out, is all.”
Katje watches him go into the kitchen, then looks back at me. She mouths the words I’m sorry. I feel a little like crying, either because she looks so beautiful or because she looks so lost. She shimmers with some weird complicated vulnerability, impossible to read. She stands up, and for a moment I think she’s going to run to my arms, I didn’t even allow myself to imagine this one for a lot of reasons, but holy shit what if, I mean seriously, what if she really—
Well, no. She just turns and walks quickly (blurring as she goes) back toward the bedroom. I start to follow her because that’s what you do when a woman (your woman) runs off with that look on her face, but Carter’s voice stops me:
“Dude. Hey. Can you just sit down, for Chrissake?” He’s standing there holding two bottles of water.
“Sure, yeah,” stammering a little here, but I take one of the water bottles. I’m standing next to the couch, right where Katje was sitting, and as I sit down I notice flecks of dried blood on the cushion. My eyes fly back up to Carter’s face, but he’s not looking at me.
(Indications for Vascular Orchestra: accelerando, con fuoco e moto.)
Carter comes around to the chair facing me, and sits down. He looks a) troubled, b) guarded, c) sinister, d) deranged, or e) all of the above. “You feeling okay, man?”
It’s a little hard to hear him now, what with the pounding in my temples (György Ligeti). “What, uh,” I say, “what’s this about, then?” Watching his hands. If he’s clenching his fists, then there’s a good chance he’s about to lose his mind. But his hands are relaxed. Which may mean, hey, that he’s already lost his mind, oh shit.
“You left before I got up this morning,” he says. “I just didn’t know…did something spook you, maybe?”
He knows everything. Of course he does. If I look into his eyes I’ll know for sure, but then he’ll know that I know for sure. A cat and mouse game. One false move…
“Why,” and now he sounds annoyed but also (I think) a little freaked, too, “do you keep looking toward the bedroom?”
My heart jumps at the last word, funny little talismanic sound. And don’t I hear something else now, over my circulatory cacophony? Yes, I do. The noise I heard last night, though the ceiling fan isn’t spinning overhead now; still it’s the same vaguely mechanical whine, like a rusty helicopter blade coming to a halt in maddening slow motion. I know it’s in my head. Sounds like that don’t really exist in the outside world, they’re part of the whole fucked-up landscape of the forgotten unconscious. Everybody knows that. (But even so, it’s coming from the fucking bedroom.)
I turn my head to face Carter, and then sneak a look back down the hallway. There comes a heavy, muffled thump, the helicopter blade slows down, and then “Do you think,” really trying to sound like anything other than a madman, “that maybe someone should go check on her?” Because all of a sudden it hits me that something really, really awful is happening here. Can’t Carter see that? Can’t he hear the fucking score? I mean, it’s a dead giveaway.
“You mean Katje,” is all Carter says. He sounds tired.
“I’m just going to check,” getting to my feet. Breathing too hard.
This draws an “Aw, fuck” from Carter, and out of the corner of my eye I see him put his head down in his hands.
I walk toward the bedroom door.
INT. CARTER’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
The PROTAGONIST walks to the bedroom door. Blue-white light from a muted television inside the bedroom flickers under the door. He puts his hand on the door but doesn’t open it.
(in a slow, rambling, quiet voice, as if talking to a lover who has fallen asleep)
Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, huh? Fucking head trip is what it is, man…but then you knew that all along, didn’t you? Sure you did. You knew this was going to end badly. The signs were all there. And now here we are again, like with the camera, the clicks getting farther and farther apart as everything slows down…but you can no more escape the moment to come than you can escape the one that just ended, or the one before that, or the one thousands or millions of moments before that one…Sure, sure, maybe that’s why you feel as if you’ve already opened this door? As if you’ve always been opening this door?
(off-screen, as if he’s speaking on the phone, so we’re only getting his half of the conversation)
…the bedroom, yeah…I think so…How the fuck am I supposed to know?
I just wish this would stop right here. That I could just…wake up, you know?
There’s a loud DOUBLE-CLAP. At which point we
QUICKLY CUT TO:
INT. PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE – LATE AFTERNOON
We see the PROTAGONIST’s eyes fly open. He’s lying on the leather couch we saw earlier, a thin layer of pale dust visible on his skin. We hear but don’t see the PSYCHIATRIST.
Did you open the door, then?
You mean, just then, like, now? Or did you mean, uh…Hey, is this real, then?
Not all closed doors in the subconscious, or in dreams, represent death. Occasionally they represent the vagina or the anus. One of my colleagues used to joke, So then what the hell does an anus represent in a dream? Anyway, a common misperception. But I should tell you that in your case, it really does represent death.
PROTAGONIST jumps up from the couch and whirls around, but no one else is in the room. He notices the nameplate on the PSYCHIATRIST’s desk reads “Dr. Carter.” The walls shake and water starts pouring in through cracks in the ceiling, and the second (Largo) movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major is drifting out of an overhead speaker system. He runs for the Door and pushes it open.
LONG, SLOW DISSOLVE TO:
INT. AN OPEN BEDROOM DOORWAY – 7:12 PM
The penultimate shot. We don’t really see anything, or not much. It’s all about the interplay of light, shadow, and sound. We see only the face of the PROTAGONIST, looking straight ahead, upturned slightly. We hear an ordinary ceiling fan with a faulty, laboring motor, almost imperceptibly approaching stillness. And we see the shadow of a human figure, not quite rotating but also not still, present only as a restless negative space on the PROTAGONIST’s face. (Do we possibly also see, reflected at the bottom of a mirror just at the edge of our field of vision, one small feminine slipper, upside down on the floor beneath the fan? No, we probably don’t see that, although we may think we do. A silvered mirage.) Just hold the shot for a few seconds before we fade.
EXT. A PARK WITH A SWING – SUNSET, AUGUST
We see PROTAGONIST and KATJE, laying side by side on the grass, barefoot, their faces serene. Nearby but out of the camera’s sight, we hear a child on a swing. The camera slowly ZOOMS in to show only the PROTAGONIST’s body, and then only his head, and then finally one of his eyes, and then ultimately the black, unreflecting pupil of one eye, as he delivers the final voice-over.
How’s this for an ending, Carter. Not really what you expected, or what I expected either…ah, but it has something going for it, Carter, just give it a chance…You know I read somewhere, in some magazine, that scientists found that all your synapses fire at the moment of death…and who knows what that’d be like, maybe like your life flashing before your eyes the way people say it does. But it must seem strange…not like real life, no, but instead: just endless recapitulation of the same themes, inversions of the same dominant chords, until in the end there’s a dying away, perdendosi Carter, now that’s a word, a dying away…So maybe that’s me after all, standing there breathing in the ruinous shadow of some pointless death…or maybe I’m the one turning, almost coming to a stop, and all this is just me, waiting to catch up with myself at last…But if we could hold things still, Carter…just hear me out, I know we can’t but just hear me out…if we could, if the interval between moments–between all those yellowed and dog-eared yesterdays and the last blank end-page of tomorrow–if that was infinite, Carter, that perfect interval there…then couldn’t you hold off hell itself? I think you could, Carter…I think Bierce was wrong, and the plank would never drop, the watch hand would never come around…and if you figured out the game, you could just go back into those yesterdays and stay there, Carter…find the moment you loved and stay there, man…So why not this moment, right? One mythic landscape’s as good as another, or one reflected sky…so let’s just end it here, while the shutter is still open…not quite frozen, just 1/250th of a second, bound on both sides by that shutter click but what the hell…all the way back, Carter, to some Original fucking story, entombed and immortalized in silver…
(diminuendo al niente)
Photo by Stefan on Flickr
© 2012 Tom Howard. All rights reserved.