The projectionist’s heart broke as the spool of the film he was screening snapped, sending a thousand frames rocketing through the room. But we have elided crucial moments: the groping for scissors; the hands, known for steadiness, atremble; and a last look through the thick glass before the lunge. The first cut missed but the second connected, and then he’d watched the life exit slowly, like some enemy combatant dying in his arms, so close he could taste its breath, watch last prayers sputter on its lips.
He’d imagined innumerable iterations of this, foiling terrorists and rescuing his block, no, the whole city. In his imaginings they charged in in ski masks and released the radioactive xenon that glowed inside his projector, or forced him at gunpoint to put on their radical film, or one where the screen would go blindingly bright at some point, scorching every retina in the room as if they were all standing at White Sands, unprotected, followed by a sonic boom that would shred their tympana. His fantasies expanded and contracted but inevitably wound up with him as the guest of honor at some gala, Inez’s thin fingers entwined with his own under the table, “Wesssss …” engulfed in applause.
Now he gazed down into the theater that stretched out below, “the canyon,” they called it, as if it had been shaped by wind and water and time, the backs of heads anthropomorphic rocks. The rocks were looking back up at him. Instead of irate cries, an eerie silence welled up, a thin veneer over a thousand sighs. He could win them back, he thought. Some down there knew him, some loved him, maybe not in the way he loved Inez, but still, the word suited. It would take, though, a move as boldly restorative as this was destructive, and as he glanced down he could see the film was even now tumbling into the room like floodwater.
Wes was required by law and by the powers vested in him as a projectionist to get another film flung up there as soon as possible. An audience in the lurch, in cinemus interruptus, would grow restless quickly. Uncountable other films commanded the sides of buildings for twenty miles. If he was lucky they’d pick themselves up and march out, grumbling and shaking their heads, some to return never, none happy. His wall might get its first mark, and Hatcher would rail at him: “Wes, what were you thinking, this ain’t the boondocks. The Historic District. Diplomats, power players. At a debut, no less.”
But darker possibilities loomed. The rowdy, the addicts—all it took was one or two, plus swirl in a couple of drinks—who might come right to the door, and let’s say they began pounding and yelling about tearing him apart limb from limb? He gripped the scissors tight. It wouldn’t be the first time a projectionist had been treated to vigilante justice. Technically outlawed, such violence was, but judges tended to look the other way, as if they themselves were watching a film on the wall opposite. Case in point: that dude over in District 4.1.5.E who’d twisted the lens so that the film was flipped on its side, but still, these things happen, except that out of spite or obstinacy or simple boneheadedness, he’d refused to right it, sinking deeper into his lip’s curl when the boos and hisses reached fever pitch, and then when they’d yanked the bench slats out of the pavement and torn off the iron rests for battering, he’d still refused to right the film or even admit any wrongdoing. When they’d finished with him he’d been rearranged so that it was said that from that point on he would look at the world ever sideways.
Wes had always blamed the projectionist, but now he felt a shudder of empathy. Things happened fast. He thought of the opening of The Wild Bunch—lazy western town, women and children parading and singing down the dusty street. You knew it was about to be bad, but not how sudden and thick the blood would spurt. He reviewed his options. Under normal conditions he could change a flat in under a minute. Its seal broken, the emergency reel would hold him till he could get to the archives, and he had another film to change down the block, but he still had thirty-eight minutes to get to that.
But he stood paralyzed, stunned, not even sure whether he’d just seen what he thought he’d seen. Maybe he’d conjured the whole thing? Had that even been Inez up there?
Inez came home exhausted every evening these days, eyes bloated and hair mussed as she slipped past him into the tight apartment and made for the couch. Her stockinged feet pointed at where some ottoman ought to sit as she swigged her cognac and coke down to the ice in the imitation snifter, while he sipped coffee and geared up for his own shift. No, she didn’t really want to talk about her day. No, nothing was different, nothing she could pinpoint. They were putting her on more projects, true. She was competent, had proved herself, and now they had her editing like three or four things at a time. She had to work through lunch and mind her crumbs at the console. She stayed late. This was how things happened, how you got shunted up the ladder. It was happening. At once she was editing a documentary about people obsessed with hats, a murder mystery about a surgeon whose twin brother has slain him and taken over his office, and a comedy with indie leanings about anarchists in love.
Such gear switching was inseparable from what she loved about the job, what she loved about Palamoa. Why they stayed—born there, they’d been suckled alike on celluloid, barely blinked a blink without a film in their peripheries. (Film, went the song, you long, blinking train.) Till he was three, Wes had fallen asleep each night with Mothlight flickering against his ceiling: semitranslucent red-pink wings that burst into petals and veiny leaves and ramifying shapes that then broke apart into a red-pink snow, all of it fluttering above him gentle as a blanket. Brakhage, the incantatory name of the filmmaker he’d later learn from his mom, just as he’d learn that she always knew he was asleep when his cries faded and she could still make out the faint crackle of silent film wending its way.
Hard to picture Inez as “Julia” then, hard to picture her milking and bailing, sidestepping shit amidst the grunters and lowers on her family farm in what were then Palamoa’s outskirts. She still rose early. Everything else had shifted: Now where her farm was were the cineburbs, and Inez turned heads (human, not livestock) in stunning strapless things and camisoles you had to study closely to tell if you were seeing through them, while the handsome barn, a five o’clock shadow of paint peel, had itself made an appearance in several films. As kids do, she’d plotted escapes—New York, Ganzoneer, any elsewhere—and somehow gotten sucked right into the city’s center.
Once Palamoa had drawn ships and sailors eager to reverse scurvy and celibacy, rushing headlong for the inland markets, for memories and paid oblivion. While they got off their sails got replaced: The Palamoans redid ships from top to bottom, but it was sails that built her, giant factories attiring ships in blaring new canvas. Today’s waterfront shimmered, lobster boats sharp hued, whitecaps whispering of depth, but for the cameras, really. Wes and Inez, like many young couples, lived out by the factories, taking advantage of the laughable rents and cheap eats. As they walked past the old buildings they could hear the outsized machinery churning out screens, and a figure of speech had it that you could still cross an ocean with a Palamoan sail.
Inez must have seen things as malleable to infinity. Why scrub plates and ruin skin, when, with a slight rearrangement, you could put their dirt-bedeviled state at the front of the reel and their squeaky virginity at the end? Something like this must have been her thinking. How else could she justify such blatant neglect, like she couldn’t see the piles she was leaving, the clogs she caused?
Wes cleaned up after her in those early days, not begrudgingly—it was her he was cleaning up for. And it was a novelty to him—he’d always prided himself on his disheveledness, his clothes creases that blurred into rumples, scornful of those who cared about such things. He was gawky and had to duck under low-hanging doorways; his glasses were scratchy, and he projected for parties and knew where to score if he didn’t already have the substances you wanted. He was a hipster. His tattoo was unique. It ran up his right arm, like something in Sharpie, a hunter done in a few strokes, sneaking up on a bright red bison. When he showed it to Inez, she traced it as if she might feel the pigments.
“Is it static?”
Wes had smiled. It looked static, all right. The renderer, a friend from the art school Wes had dropped out of, had done it seamlessly; even Wes couldn’t tell where skin became screen. He twitched and she gave a little gasp as it activated, and the hunter pursued the bison, who snorted comically twice and then ran into a cave. The skin blacked out until, with a blast from the hunter’s torch, light returned. The punch line was the bison posed against the wall of the cave, holding preternaturally still, blending in perfectly with the paintings of animals already there. It was gorgeous, actually, this last scene, worthy of the Lascaux artist him or herself.
“Wow,” she said. “Play it again, Wes.”
After he did, she pulled up her own shirt to reveal hers, not animation but black and white on the center of her back, her family’s farm somewhere off in the country done as a home movie, retrochromed to look older than it was, her grandfather holding up a fish, languorous cattle in a field. It was tasteful, and the bump of her spine, jutting in the middle and stretching the screen in odd places, only added to the charm. It made his feel like an amateur sketch. Everyone had heard the stories about tattoos jarred into motion in the act of lovemaking, the lover helpless to turn them off, and he wanted this, now, to be the case for them, and, reaching out to caress the bump, could see her tattoo refract onto his fingers, felt himself connect to her then, something that could still happen, then.
And now he took deep breaths and strategized as to how to buy himself some time. Stress he was used to … they’d cut back—the economy, everyone hurting, probably inevitable if you could play reality backward as he did sometimes just messing around in the booth, but regardless, positions had been cut, and now Wes often did the work of, by his calculations, his gripe-boasts to Inez, two or three men— he says men even fully cognizant that there are fantastic women projectionists, Daniella Riordan, need he say more, though it wasn’t all that common, convention no doubt instead of anything deep down in the helices. Say “projectionist” and, as with “doctor,” the synapses summon up a male.
He’s no doctor, of course, neither the prestige nor the pay nor, indeed, the malpractice, though they treated him and the MDs and the shrinks as equals at the mandated trainings on cinaddiction. He still wasn’t sure where he stood on the controversy. Nervous systems so enmeshed with films that they were needed? Ask him before that party and you might’ve gotten a different answer. Some artsy guy whose name he can no longer call up goes to a film-free party and gets stuck in the bathroom, don’t ask how, and in there he just goes haywire, hyperventilating and rolling on the floor. When they pry open the door, his eyes are husks of glass, face flaring red, and his fists—these he’ll never forget—clenched so that his nails leave indentations in his palms. Random frat boy makes the mistake of suggesting he just have a drink and chill out. It takes six to pull the addict off him, face bloodied, and to drag him out to the quad where something is showing. In minutes, he’s calmer than a monk. Before that Wes’d been one hundred percent sure it was all mind, but the single incident brought matter neck and neck. It was a weird thing culturally. You could still joke about it but a growing number got classified and wore the wrist chains and took offense if you made light. Still, that’s what the emergency reel was for. By law and as a precaution, he needed to get something up there, and so, for the first time in his career, he reached for the bright red wheel.
Wes and Inez stayed in spite of what the world had to say about them, how it typecast them, the Palamoans—gluttonous image ingesters, perpetual dupes, back floaters in a lotus sea. Get a few drinks in her and Inez fired back, a side of her that drew him originally. He loved to sit back and listen: Yeah, navel gazers and deadheads, like you’re not going to find those everywhere? Come on, could we possibly be any more disillusioned? We gaze at more navels—see more, experience more. Innies? Outies? (She’d lift up her own shirt at this point to reveal her own adorable outie.) Tonight if I want to I can see a film about gay Indians or the sex lives of Mongolian sheepherders. I mean, everywhere people eat, shit, fuck, and live their little lives, but we … we live across history. We know elsewheres. He dug that she really did want to learn about all of those things, then, at least.
In soberer states, she’d extemporize about how Palamoans knew exactly where the cogs of illusion meshed and where the seams flickered by undetected, how life could be adjusted with the efficiency a tailor takes to a suit: a few seconds trimmed here, an inversion or two, a telling juxtaposition, voilà. Other cities may have known the wrath of monsoon and hurricane, but in Palamoa it was film, film coming down in torrents and pouring onto cutting-room floors, and it could unleash as much havoc as a force of nature, could sweep you away if you weren’t careful, leave you stunned and shell-shocked on your porch, wondering what had hit you. If anything, the Palamoans were consummate realists: none of that romantic crap for them, no waiting for rescue, no delusions of being on some grand hero’s journey. Their only deity was the mise-en-scène, the frame—the smudgy/hyperlucid/eclipsed/doub/led/fickle frame—that ushered in and closed out, made for happening and nonhappening. The line between abject cowardice and awe-inspiring courage might have everything to do with the frame and nothing at all with your heart. But, Gunther might have posed, what if you were outside the frame? Did you even exist then?
Inez could talk a streak, but for a while she shared her innermost thoughts only with Mervich, Henry H., who’d attained some celebrity with Reintegration Therapy, taking the splintered, shattered heap that contemporary life foisted on you and making you whole, gluing you back together. Guy’s all the king’s horses, Wes had thought. The treatments, from what he could gather, involved cooking and consuming a steady supply of veggie burgers sold by Mervich himself (they looked like Martian rocks) and taking long, hot baths. Mervich was a millionaire and was seeing Inez thanks to one of her work connections. But she swore by him. That went on for several months, and then one day his fees shot up inexplicably. From that day forward Mervich’s name was non grata around the apartment, and Wes wondered but didn’t pry, sure she would share when she was ready, but that was never to make it into the frame.
“Into the frame”—yes, metaphors froth in his consciousness up there in the booth. Things can get slow; once he’s seen the feature for the fifth time, even at a remove—muffled audio, twice reflected in the double-paned glass—his mind does some odd turns. So, for instance, the give-out reel and the take-up reel move at the same time, but never at the same speed or in the same direction. When the film is starting out, the front wheel spins rapidly backward, and the lower one advances slowly forward. As the film progresses, they switch roles, so that by the end the lower reel is zipping along and the top one has slowed down. But there’s that moment—an instant, technically—the absolute midpoint, when the reels, spooling in opposite directions, must be, laws of physics, rotating at the exact same speed. As that instant is perceived it is already gone. The screen betrays nothing; only the one in the booth could know.
And isn’t this he and Inez? In mind and body, they occupy almost separate realities. When she is working, he is sleeping in or running his errands, and when she gets home he’s headed out the door to project. Hours later he’ll stagger in, hopped up on cola and movie candy, or maybe his late-night perambulations have brought him to a peaceful place and he can simply steal under their sheets and listen to her breathe. Only at extremely rare moments are they precisely synchronized. And even then, opposites in so many ways.
Who, he wonders on occasion, is the one in the booth?
The projectionist’s nightmare: He is not in the booth. Well, then, the booth—who’s manning it? The film running, the booth empty. Where is he? Mired in vague dream coordinates. And the film is hurtling toward its end, which he senses, viscerally as you might intuit the imminent death of a loved one many miles distant. Shit, shit. Running and running, he can’t get there, anywhere. The booth stays empty.
In a snap, he was no longer in the booth, the emergency reel up and doing its job. He’d already lost part of his audience, but a sizable number were sticking it out. He’d always wondered what the red reel held, secretly hoping it would be Mothlight. It wasn’t—it appeared to be a history of film and the city: scene from Cinema Paradiso where old Alfredo rotates the projector’s beam out into the square. Voice-over: “… which some would call Palamoa’s moment of conception.” Cut to: workers hammering sail on a mast. Scratchy jazz, herky-jerky motion. The stilted quality of a flipbook, its charm. Talk flanked by quaint quotation marks. Pleats, dames.
“Thanks for your patience!” he called out, stepping onto the floor. “A first time for everything! Please enjoy the show while we work out the technical difficulties upstairs!” Should’ve been wittier, he thought, should’ve been Wes-ser, called the backup reel the reserve grapes, thrown in some innuendo about the busted sex scene. He was still way out of sorts, though. Anyhow, he could already see them sinking back into their benches, settling into a story that they could never get too much of.
But instead of returning upstairs he slipped away, crossed the street, and ducked into a hidden alleyway. He felt the liberation of a kid playing hooky. On the next block, something epic, Russian, wintry was showing, and beyond that? It was a funhouse, only a funhouse asked of you a single mind state, that peculiar to funhouses, whereas Palamoa demanded a continuous pivot, a peering into the pockets of life as they turned themselves inside out one by one. The films were free, of course, to Palamoans. It had been written into the city charter at the Dimming: They’d never charge their citizens— what next, tax their moonlight, nickel-dime them for the evening breeze?
The breeze, faintly briny, buffeted him along now as he walked. As a teenager he must’ve covered every block at least once. Ever revising his route, its logic. He’d do this time-travel thing, careful not to repeat any era, meandering through history decade by decade. Chaplin bumbling around inside the house teetering at the edge of a cliff in The Gold Rush→ the dank, misty tunnels below LA in He Walked by Night → the binocular dance of voyeurism of Rear Window → The Apartment’s sadlovely rows of corporate futility → the stills at the peerless opening credits of The Wild Bunch → the purple ambush at the close of Vagabond→ Pulp Fiction, any scene, really, but most of all the car, the car, the car → City of God’s featureless roof rows, sizzling tempers—he could gallivant over a century, cover the planet in a single swoop. If he timed it right he could hit most of his favorite scenes. It felt like being on a jet plane and watching a continent pass underwing—desert, mountains, lake, city, coast. Going in reverse had its own pleasures, and if you picked your route wisely you could find your way back to the Lumière brothers and Muybridge’s horse levitations, which felt akin to catching a glimpse of the Big Bang from the Hubble.
Usually there was no method to his travels beyond serendipity and his nose, free-floating in the zero gravity of visual possibility until something caught him and held him in thrall and denuded him of time and place. Sometimes hormones overcame him and he’d find himself down by the river amid the blocks of warehouses no one had bothered tamping up the paint job on. X-town, where the moans and grunts, feigned and surely some genuine, of couples and threesomes and beyond, would’ve carried for miles, but were mercifully drowned out by the sweeping sound tracks of less prurient walls. The streets here, darker, cloaked the pedestrian in anonymity, but once he’d spotted one of his teachers there, a Mr. Youngman. Youngman had nodded but said nothing, as if to suggest some shared understanding, some masculine code, though from that day on they averted eyes in the halls.
Past X-town sprawled the Memorial District, a veritable city unto itself. Here they showed solely home movies of the dead, and it was transfixing simply to stand here, taking in snippets of life, candid moments—a steaming blueberry pie outheld, a frilly bikini making its beach debut, gentle ribbing about an old clunker. Only the wealthy got their own walls; for most, an hour if they were lucky, and you learned to time your paying of respects, developed a fondness for the spirits who shared that brick space with your loves. Visiting his own dad’s four-minute, thirty-seven-second wall, he’d been struck at various times by:
—his dad’s gangliness as he held Wes aloft at the beach and did voice-overs of some encounter between Wes and a dauntless gull
—how even in this joy his expression was sad, as if he knew
—though they never spoke, the mourner who came after him, a woman whose age he could never place, who’d lift her black veil only in the blank seconds before her own father or husband came on, then lower it immediately after, like a curtain
—the awareness that the moths who’d brought him such comfort as an infant had been dead, allowed to live again only as long as the film played
—the notion that one day the Memorial District would run out of walls.
Now he crossed in front of some fire-spitting cyborg that appeared to be taking on a meteor shower with its fists, and he was filled with a surge of pity for the genre junkies, strung out on one block, the ones who OD’d on these sci-fi films nightly, or who dieted on a steady intake of chick flicks, or those who pitched camp on Lynch Row, imbibing Mulholland Drive for time umpteen (by sheer repetition it would come to make sense and ordinary vision go bent and surreal). Even now he would cross midstreet if he got too close to the horrormongers, their eyes fat with blood like sated ticks, their ears echo chambers of screams, their skin scabrous. They looked like they’d come right off the screen and would keep coming at you. A bit wiser than his teenage self, he realized that many of them scraped by as extras by day and just didn’t bother stripping off their makeup.
That you could live here and know only your own kind, rarely venturing beyond your own neighborhood … it amazed him, peripatetic who assumed that the city was sprawled out for him, a thousand gifts waiting for his tearing hand. Nowadays, he shuttled mainly between two booths, but at his core he was promiscuous, wanting it all. With films, that is; no such temptation with women, eyes for Inez alone, minus the occasional glance at a union meeting toward Daniella Riordan.
No question this walkout would cost him. His job was probably history. Maybe he could plead with Hatcher, but likely not. At the intersection he paused at the “Don’t Walk” clip with renewed appreciation for the footage of the guy waiting at a corner, his comical watch consultation and eye roll. More than a minor celebrity, “Don’t Walk Guy” was an existential hero. His “Walk” counterpart, who burst blithely into the intersection, was tougher to find abiding human connection with. When his clip came on, Wes simply crossed.
No, there was no going back. The very thought should have been terrifying, maybe a little exhilarating, but all he could feel was numbness. No longer was he that teenager. He wanted the allure of what beckoned around the corner, but could only feel Inez’s image behind, before, around him, her pale body, expansive, folded over edges, rooftops, fire escapes, exposed from angles that only he and a couple of others had ever laid eyes on, till now.
He rehearsed what he might say, tried out lines. “If you’d only told me …” “One nude scene, no big …” “So I’m a stepping stone …” “I feel …” “Fuck …” Outrage felt warranted but pointless. Saintly understanding rang hollow. Blood pounded in his skull. Maybe what cinaddicts felt, withdrawing. He felt his mental screen fracturing: It split, splintered—quadrants, ninths, shards. In one corner he had her by the wrist, in another stared her down, insouciant in the face of her confession; in one they were figuring things out. In one scene he entered, drew, and fired three bullets into her chest and watched the sheets absorb her blood, and in another he let her discover him screwing Daniella Riordan in his booth; in one he was loading his stuff onto a moving truck and in another he had her hauling hers up and in another she was weeping and begging forgiveness and in another she was even now with him, the other one—another begging— he who’d been visible mere moments ago on his own screen, a place as intimate in its way as his bed, and Wes recognized him at last, some producer she’d introduced him to once. Now he replayed the scene, foreign shadows slithering across her body’s dunes, but this time his own entered and intervened, and she clutched at the sheets in the universal gesture of the caught, and the film went on with him in it but he couldn’t see what happened next.
He needed a blank wall. A wall without image was a wall wanting image was a wall potentially anything. A wall was a screen was naked was stripped down was calling, calling for colored ions to dance up and down it, lick it caress it make love to it. Behold the naked wall. The wall without image, rare enough in Palamoa that it bore an element of eros, like women’s flesh in Muslim countries. A wall was a wrist, an ankle, a filament of flesh, an object of longing and craving, something with which one might have a brush but never possess.
The rain felt well timed, bracing. Maybe he’d been dozing through the relationship of late. Dots were there for the connecting. All along, he should have foreseen her betrayal. Clues peppered everything down to their jokes, obvious jokes, obvious clues. He, she claimed, was the stereotype of a projectionist: aloof, holding himself at a distance, never taking action, never revealing anything significant about himself and projecting—of course—onto others: accusations, quibbles, warts—able to see himself only via others. And he played into it, too—“Or maybe I’m just projecting here,” he would say, rolling his eyes at the lameness even while conceding its likelihood.
No kid dreamed of becoming a projectionist. It was akin to dreaming of becoming the person who cleans the space suits. Nah, the kid wants to be the astronaut, free-floating from a tether, waving to the marble world, next in peril, oxygen dwindling, some critical part burned to a crisp and the world holding its breath. The kid wants to be aboard the Apollo 13, second wants to be the actor, third to direct it, fourth do the makeup, fifth to hold the lights, tied with fifth to screen the film, tied with fetching water for the actors.
Always, she’d assumed she’d wake up next to a filmmaker someday, thought this whole projecting gig was one long temp job. And for a while he’d talked about going back to school. But it hadn’t happened. Over time he’d come to embody projectionism, fused with his projectors in a sort of Buddhist oneness. Some might have been ashamed of the job, but not Wes. He embraced it, went as far with it as you could go. Not just anyone could land a job at 1.2.1, right smack downtown against the smooth side of an old granary with the antiquated equipment, antiquated except that it was the only stuff that could really do the job, which he’d tell you about if you had an hour and nowhere to be. Did you know there were anywhere between three and nine (nine!) reels that had to be loaded on to get through the film? Did you know those things weighed ten pounds, that he had to carry six at once sometimes; who needed a gym? Or that Wes had two blocks and had worked five once when some exotic flu was going around? Anyone could operate the digital stuff, be a robot like the automated system they tried to replace them with every few years, but it took a special breed to do what Wes did. He mixed films into one another like a DJ, blending them together, running closing credits into opening ones, dissolving like his hands were acid. One night he took a nature documentary and draped it, like sheer fabric, over a thriller about investment bankers. The sharks, gray apparitions too long deprived of sun, wended their way through cubicles as if the office had just that day filled with water. Was that plankton in the vending machines? Marvelous.
Word got around—Wesley was one to watch. He fancied himself a grandmaster with chessboards lined up and down, snot-nosed prodigies from all nations put in their places as he slid his retinue of warriors and church officials around the board. Or a Vassilonian chef who juggled several complex dishes at once, undaunted by the dozens of burners. His mom boasted about him to her bridge club, that he had a girlfriend and a lease, and assured him that his father would’ve been “busting his buttons.” The only ones he couldn’t seem to dazzle were the only two he wanted to, Inez and Gunther. Dissolve into
Gunther. They are kids, still, on the tracks. They are, what, nine? Ten? In his memory it is a single, long take, the day endless, tracks extending through industrial complexes and abandoned fields and farmland, the ties never letting you settle into an exact rhythm, the boys hatching schemes for derailings, robberies, and kidnappings of secretly willing ladies.
Gunther grabs his shoulder. “Stop.”
Between ties, they pause, listening. Wes hears nothing. In the distance, the blocky yellow lights of warehouses and streets, not the single white one growing closer.
They walk on, Gunther chanting some hip-hop tune of his own devising.
Wes knows even then that Gunther wants the actual train, the giant projectile of steel bearing down on them. He knows Gunther will bail from the rails but wants the blowback of air, his clothes billowing outward, his hair splaying, intimations of death and danger. Wes wants these things but does not. He wants Gunther to like and respect him and hang out with him. He wants to go to movies with Gunther, but Gunther does not like to go to movies. Gunther likes girls, real ones.
Flash forward to full-grown Gunther, an avowed, unabashed anticinemite. “Just wait,” Wes’s mother had insisted, “he’ll come around,” which he’d always believed, but lately he’d begun to concede it might never happen. Gunther was staunch.
It was something of a cliché: You’d go anticinemitic in college and then become some industry clone a year after graduation. There were, too, the older ones who predated the Dimming and still spoke nostalgically of before, right up to the citywide debates that trialed their tongues and brought forth arguments of such verve and eloquence they were sure they’d triumph. But the darkness had gone forward. Some had had the wherewithal to leave, but for others where would they go; how would they relearn the topos of sidewalk and curb, find an edible knish, decent shoes, and so they stayed on, their grumbling a steady soundtrack even as film lashed at their laundry lines, and it was fortunate that many were hard of hearing and kept to their apartments.
Gunther was old at heart, Wes’s mom said, but Inez begged to differ, saying rather that he’d never grown up. Like Wes, he’d been steeped in film from the womb, his mother one of the balloon-bellied who spent hours of her pregnancy under the endlessly looping sonogram in 2.5.6. Just being there, the scientists told them, brought the unborn bliss, for they would sense always a womb that limned the world.
Gunther and Wes had played on streets that were studios and sets and theaters. How, then, to account for his demurral, his stoic resistance? Some wanted the zoning laws to be stricter, wanted to preserve some streets as oases of contemplation (as if there weren’t contemplative films. See Fog Line, see Tarkovsky passim). But Gunther wanted it gone, all of it.
Of course he and Inez butted heads. He’d stare into his plate when Wes tried to bring them together; “Dinner with the Dim,” Gunther had dubbed it. He’d held his tongue, at least, refraining from accusing her of “nocturnocidal tendencies,” part of his larger rant about how the wholecity was an anthill of cinaddicts, not just those with the wrist chains.
“It was like I wasn’t even there for your asshole friend,” Inez told him that night. “Your nut case, paranoid recluse of a friend. I don’t get it. I don’t understand the basis of your friendship. You’re going in opposite directions in life. I hope.”
“It’s largely racquetball based these days,” Wes told her, which bore some truth. Play they did, though ball whacks were interspersed with confidences and discussion of Deleuze.
She shook her head. “This boy loyalty, I don’t get it. If you were brothers it would be one thing. Tell him to grow the fuck up.”
He had the sudden urge to see Gunther, wanted his ear, wanted to talk to someone who’d known him since they were measured in inches. Maybe Gunther could offer something, make it go away. He changed course, ducked into another alleyway, little more than a crevice. Gunther’s neighborhood was riddled with these narrow old- city vestiges, too close quartered to squeeze films into. They were sanctuary for the Gunthers and, if you believed certain newspapers, terrorist breeding grounds. It was the most ethnically mixed part of Palamoa, neighborhoods that huddled close and went dark early. He hadn’t memorized the way but remembered a temple and a botanica, and if he could find one of these he knew he could find Gunther’s.
Oh but the darkness was a balm. At that moment he would’ve stepped straight into another one of Gunther’s meetings. The pitchest black he’d ever been in. Literally they’d led him underground, blindfolded, far enough down that street noise receded entirely. Somewhere in the city’s guts. It was cold, and even when his eyes adjusted there was nothing upon which to anchor his vision. That was the idea: light purge. They sat in silence for a while. He heard his own breath, no other, and felt attuned to the slightest twitchings of his brain. An ululation arose, followed by something hornlike, and then, one by one, like surfacing orcas, the voices broke:
“ … out of a hundred … maybe twelve to pursue further, two of whom said they might come not sure if they’re among us right now.”
“ … helped a seventy-two-year-old move to New York.”
“ … alongside scientists on studies of lungs and particulate matter.”
“ … book, Palamoaization and the Posthuman due out next year from … University Press … academic respectability … infiltrate the higher institutions of learning … the classrooms.”
Drawn originally by curiosity, Wes knew Gunther wanted to win him over to the whole shebang, including the orgy at the end, nakedness, and exploration of touch that shrugged off gender or orientation or background or number involved. Thankfully Gunther had warned him; Wes pictured Gunther himself reaching for him, or returning to daylight not knowing, and so he had opted out of this part of the night, which was fine. Plus he’d just started dating Inez at this point and had no intention of cheating on her.
“It’s not even sexual, really,” Gunther had insisted. “It’s a bracketing out of everything that Palamoa stands for and embracing all that it rejects.”
“Sure, not sexual.” Wes wondered whether Gunther had really deluded himself so thoroughly in the name of disillusionment.
Maybe he and Inez just needed to get away more. Inez had accompanied the higher-ups to a couple of festivals as part of her job, but the only trips they’d taken together were to Colorado, where Inez’s parents had retired after the farm sold. They’d flown into Denver a year into their relationship, made a vacation of it. Altitude or psychosomatic reaction, the first couple of days for Wes were a continuous migraine, everything too sharp, vertiginous. The third evening he strode into a moment as incontrovertible as déjà vu. They were on some street in Lodo closed to traffic, and after dinner and drinks they strode by a Cuban place where a live band out front blared a sweet old mambo, trumpets darting around a sultry crooner. A few feet ahead of Wes, a woman sashayed in a tight black dress, the correspondence between her movement and the sound track so exact he was spellbound, and he wanted to point it out to Inez, who, to his delight when he turned, herself looked like a screen star. She’d been watching with him and declared, “You want her,” and he’d tried to convey what he’d experienced but she wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re human,” she said. “It’s OK.” Then, suggestively, “Make it up to me later.”
As they’d gone on arm in arm by the light of the closed shops, headed back toward their hotel, the windows arranged and decorated to snare attention, lit to magic, he had the sense that he was watching a film slowed down, frame by frame, and a further epiphany came on, something that couldn’t be confused with sexual desire as easily as a woman’s swaying. It was something like: Every city desired to be Palamoa, to be at once frame and light and motion. Palamoa itself, possessing all of these, was yet unsatisfied, for it in turn desired to be a single film that encompassed all, an ideal one that ran through all projectors at once, infinite, one that you would clip at intervals only so that you could splice more, newer footage into the old. He felt that if he could’ve only expressed this he would’ve endeared himself to Inez forever.
Maybe he should’ve called first, was his thought as he rapped Gunther’s knocker. Gunther opened the door enrobed, like someone just awakened. For a bachelor he lived well. His unshaven face and the extra pounds, Wes supposed, would not be liabilities in the dark. Gunther always had some blue-haired chick on his arm, some girl who’d quiver, electrified by his “opiate of the masses” talk. Usually the relationship lasted till the girl wanted him to move away from Palamoa, and Gunther steadfastly refused, citing Socrates-like noblesse oblige.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” Gunther asked. Wes caught alcohol on his breath mingled with something from the kitchen that had once been in the sea.
He explained it to Gunther—what he’d seen, how he’d killed the film.
“You’re sure it was her?”
“Positive. I doubted it at first. I made sure.”
“A telltale birthmark? A chipped tooth?”
“It was her.”
Within, sure enough, was the girl du jour, her hair not blue but the ripped T-shirt and spiderweb stockings and the Che button and one with a red slash through a film icon.
“My oldest pal,” Gunther introduced him, and then, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe it, “a projectioneer.”
“Hey, man, I don’t judge,” said the girl, whose name turned out to be Aurora. “You’re just the hands of the system, anyway, not even like the kidneys, much less the brains.”
“Sorry,” she said. “You’ve had a rough night. Let me kick you when you’re down.”
Gunther spooned him some grilled scallops over salad and poured him wine, then launched into his spiel. Of course Inez had cheated on him. She was cheating on herself, living in a world of simulacra piled atop simulacra, nothing underneath, no foundation but for her makeup, sleeping her way to the top, but, as in an Escher, the top was the bottom, she was just a product of her society, her episteme, etc., etc., etc. Wes knew he should feel grateful but the rhetoric felt canned—he wanted something about Inez and only Inez, something that would make him hate her and leave the rest of the world unaffected.
“Frankly, no woman’s worth losing your job over.” It was Aurora.
Gunther nodded in agreement. This took him aback. He’d been sure Gunther was going to seize the opportunity to recruit him for the cause. And he was on the brink of signing on for the anticinematic resistance himself, ready to plaster a wall, to disrupt a screening, to grope and be groped in the dark.
Aurora went on. “How long ago did you leave? How quickly can you get back?”
“I don’t know …” He, always vigilant about time, having lost it. Had it been an hour?
“This ‘backup reel’ is still … backing you up?”
“Maybe,” said Wes, on his feet now.
Gunther sounded righteously aggrieved now. “Are you going to allow her to ruin your life, take away your means of production?”
At once he felt lucid, poised, coiled. To have allowed her betrayal to steer him astray, how foolish.
“I should go back, shouldn’t I?”
“It may be too late. They may have shut me down.”
“OK,” said Gunther, pursing his lips. “Look. Here’s what we do. Youcut the film, right? No, the film was already cut. A small-scale civil disruption. Our ensemble, we’ll own up to it. I’ll make the call. We do that, you know. Monkey wrenches in the works. Switched reels, power outages … hasn’t happened to you yet, has it?”
In Gunther’s eyes he could see that all this time he’d protected, spared. “No, it hasn’t,” he said as Gunther and Aurora stood there and waved him, parentally, off into the downpour.
He had braced himself for almost any eventuality, but not the one he found: both films still going—as if he’d never left. Methodically he switched the other film on the next block, then headed for the booth where he’d done the deed. He threw his full weight against the door to jar it open. Within was bedlam, since the first projector, never shut down, had been unspooling film all the while, hemorrhaging it onto the floor and the counters and every available inch—tentacles and tendrils of film curling and extending from floor to ceiling, a morass he could wade through, feeling it shudder beneath him. Like a drunk who stumbles across a highway unharmed, the film seemed to have avoided passing in front of the second projector’s lens. Thus it hadn’t eclipsed the other, had in some mysterious fashion altered nothing, and the crowd—the seats were still mostly full—watched on, blissfully ignorant. He tugged at random strands, knots, pulling on them and holding them up to the light. None yielded Inez. He could make out a house, some establishing shot, a strange beauty in its sheer repetition.
Releasing it, he flicked the switches, and both projectors fell silent. Soon enough this would become a crime scene. Maybe Gunther had already called, the authorities on their way. His time was waning. He flipped on the streetlights and could see their faces—Again?—and, film trailing behind him, he hoisted the giant reel and carried it down the stairs into the canyon.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “we’re all the victims of a minor disaster tonight.” He urged them not to panic. The anticinemites, it would appear, had struck. He searched their eyes for fear, rage, but found none, so, emboldened, he went on. Maybe they could help him find the spot where the film had been torn asunder. Together they could salvage it, reconstruct it. Maybe, he heard a new intensity infuse his voice, they could stand up to whoever had done this, show the film, damn it, through to its end. Wordlessly, then, they began to rise to their feet, some quicker than others, and reach out, tentatively at first, then with growing resolve, for the film, each of them taking a small strand, positioning their fingers carefully, pinching at the edges. To disentangle it they had to spread out, and the line that began to form went in both directions, up the stairs, down the block. He could envision a whole new way of watching a film, walking beside it, even zooming along at twenty-four frames per second—what a ride that would be! Their arms were outstretched: matronly women, businessmen with sleeves rolled up, a woman in a wheelchair, familiar faces and new ones, arms with wrist chains and bare ones. Even Gunther, it struck him, could get behind this. In the lamplight, they resembled nothing more than mourners bearing aloft a long, winding casket. All films, he thought— everyone—should be held like this once. Eventually they’d locate the end, the fatal wound, and remembering as much, he made himself slow in his movements, as if he might prolong this forever, might never find Inez, might instead slip inside one of the intervening frames and dwell there indefinitely, unknowing.