16 March 2005

Colson Whitehead's "Movie"

In the February 2005 issue of Harper's, the Readings section has the short story "Down In Front" by Colson Whitehead. The transcript at this site titles it "Movie." Either way, I've copied the content to my site. Stunning.

Movie, Colson Whitehead 2004

This is the part where we find our seats. Step on toes, suck in gut, make yourselves flat as a movie screen. People ask their friends easy questions like, Is this too close, and ask their strangers hard questions like, When is a coat a coat and when is a coat a person. Short man plus tall man equals vaudeville when it comes to line of sight. His split ends will polish subtitles. How far away are flying cars when every armrest is equipped with a cup holder. Fight over possession of armrests in warm little skirmishes and settle down, settle down, just in time to see the previews of better movies than the one you've paid to see. Everything good was sold out.

This is the part when the movie starts and it's too early to be disappointed. Except for the well-prepared, who always keep a little disappointment handy just in case. Still precious seconds to believe in enchantment. It's their first date and she has yet to discover that his laugh irritates her. In the getting to know you stage, we meet the main characters. He always plays the bad guy, something about the eyes. Years from now he will achieve his lasting fame as the host of a children's morning show, everybody's uncle. Like most of us typecast and never chosen for the leading role. People recognize themselves in actors and recognize faces from movies that are now beyond recall. Wasn't he in, didn't she play. Tip of your tongue. People who were important for a time are now complete strangers. So many movies over the course of a lifetime, how can we keep track. Pay attention. Little things you barely notice will be important later, will save us at the last moment, help us out in the clinch.

This is the part where nothing is as it seems. Some sort of mystery or complication has raised the stakes. A doomsday device or someone said, I love you. Certainly stakes have been raised. Certainly we face villains who will require us to tap our last reserves. If anyone can pull it off, they can. Just look at them up there. His trademark smirk. Her famous smile. When they were children they discovered that aspects of their faces could be parleyed into more candy, longer hugs, better toys. So well-cherished and well-squeezed that the stuffing spills out in places and eyes hang by threads. Who will begrudge them mansions and fans. In interviews they thank all the little people. According to tabloids he has predilections. They say she's had some work done. Giant Light Bulb is a magazine popular among moths. He's seen everything she's ever done and yet they are no closer than the day he first laid eyes on her. The career-making debut. Everybody needs a little attention every once in a while. I steal the scene. I chew the scenery. It tastes like chicken.

This is the part where they have sex. They just met but they have a lot of chemistry and it has been foretold on the poster. They know so little about each other, that's what makes it so realistic. America's Sweetheart wrestles the Sexiest Man Alive over who gets the next closeup. So much of life comes down to who has the better representation. This is the scene that has everybody talking. Geriatric double entendres hobble out on walkers. Pubescent boys are sexually imprinted. Fans for life. Make a move. Find a pretext. I'm reaching for your knee or arm or other approachable part of you. The lack of eye contact helps considerably. Kiss me you fool. Flattery will get you nowhere.

This is the part with the montage sequence. Their love grows, strategically pruned by expert editors. On the cutting room floor truth lies in snippets. Take notes, everybody: Maybe your relationship will blossom if you take the time to run through a field holding hands on a sunny day. Pass the JuJuBees, please. A jumbo-sized MacGuffin and a medium Coke, thanks. He likes it when the characters say things he could never bring himself say, and he mouths the dialogue, an echo in the fourth row. She likes it when the characters exhibit emotions she has never felt so that she will know what to do when and if the time comes. Critics and pupils take notes in the dark. All he's looking for is a big screen surrogate for his antisocial tendencies, is that so wrong. Here he comes, that's him with the axe. Fingernails scrape the bottom of popcorn containers. Palms cover eyes. Someone in the back row is really expressive. The actors pretend not to hear. Chorus of shush. So immature, all this talking at the screen. Crying babies should be taken to the theater lobby.

This is the part where me and my crew walk toward the camera in slow-mo. Dapper and composed. In a few minutes we will outrun a fireball. After the special effects team got through with this scene, no one could know that he was just a man in an empty room. Computers these days, you can't tell what's real and what's not, a dozen extras is an army, an empty theater is a sold out show. Who is that sitting beside you, how solid is their companionship. That's gotta hurt. Don't try this at home, kids. The stuntman says, I'm always falling off buildings, why can't I blow up for a change. He was a clumsy child, so this line of work seemed perfect. She points at the screen and says, I went to high school with that guy. Exquisite sadness of Cop #2 as he shoves the perp into the squad car. Aren't we all Cop #2 from time to time. The likely suspects sit handcuffed in the backseat and there's bulletproof glass to protect us in case they get free. Keep telling yourself it's just fake blood.

This is the part that has them throwing stuff at the screen. Soda cups full of lukewarm fluid, bits of candy, kernels of resentment from super-sized buckets. Time for the free refill. The critics did their best, warned them about the dangers. Four and a half stars, three stars, two thumbs up or down. The more complicated the subject, the simpler the rating system must be. Gimme a call when you devise a rating system for people, I have friends in the people-rating business and they're always on the lookout for new talent. None of this was implied in the trailer. Hard to escape the familiar feeling that is not what you paid for. Walk out to protest the unlikely situations, walk out to protest the weak motivation, walk out to protest the underlying assumptions of our culture. You get what you pay for. Should have waited for video.

This is the part where the villain lays out his master plan. Stand next to the globe, it will save time. He gets all the best lines and I wouldn't mind getting the number of his orthodontist. Check out the layout of the secret hideout, you'd think it cost a pretty penny, but he got that laser cannon used, and those curtains were on sale. The villain tells the hunchback, Never pay retail. Of course there's a hunchback. Remember this scene from commercials and savor that prelapsarian bliss. Human ambition so small compared to the immensity of the underground cavern. Must be a bitch to heat in the winter.

This is the part with the flashback that will explain it all. The back story. Faster than it will unfold over the years through my words and deeds, faster than it will be conveyed in my stingy revelations and incomplete confessions. Jesus Christ. Six writers listed in the credits and this is the best they could come up with. As if this scene could make up for all my shoddy character development in the first half. This plot is a balloon that slips out of the chubby kid's fingers and swims away. Can't follow it at all. Nature calls. What will you miss during the trip to the concession stand or rest room. The important clue or meaningful glance you've waited your whole life for. Something flickering ten feet high on the screen and impossible to misunderstand. Make a break for the exit light and sprinkle Excuse Me and Thank You along the way. When she gets back, she asks, What did I miss, and he whispers, Nothing.

This is the part with the impossible odds and the backs against the wall. Outnumbered and outgunned, out of bullets and passports and safe houses. Minor plot complications compared to the fact that you no longer love me. Screenwriters call these twists of fortune reversals but loss is one brute syllable and works for scale. All those cellos, I think the soundtrack is trying to tell us something. After 90 minutes of comic relief, the sidekick finally has something constructive to say. He says, You can make it. Not much, but his inflection really sells it. Pan zoom wash fade and cut, this is the celluloid jive, the lingo we use that we might see things better. What's the word for the camera direction that means, Let the camera rest anywhere except my face at this moment. Fade to black for a few seconds.

And this is my favorite part. This is the part with the final showdown between good and evil. Still time to gather my weapons before you surprise me with one last trick. Turns out this part of the country is chock full of cliffs. Weekends, holidays, last ditch attempts, any excuse at all and people are hanging off them. Even geological truth reduced to fodder for cheap suspense. Against all odds. After all these weeks, this is the part that always draws the projectionist back from his newspaper or pulp novel. Maybe this time it will turn out differently. Every showing he hopes that this time it will turn out differently, that this time you and I will stay down after this thorough defeat, and each time he is disappointed. Check your pockets for cavalry, escape hatch, convenient prop. What are we to do when the happy endings we trained ourselves not to expect arrive on cue to refute what we know about the world. They cheer or clap hands or become statues in the stadium seating. Yeah, right. Saw that coming. They don't make them like they used to. Still time to dry your eyes before you hit the bright light of the lobby. The jerks at the end of the row won't leave, hence this traffic jam. But wait, where are you going. This is the part where you look for my name in the credits. Wait, where are you going. I'm pretty sure my name is in the credits.

[ posted by sstrader on 16 March 2005 at 11:39:57 PM in Language & Literature ]