In lieu of a short story, here’s an experimental, existential short horror film that I shot on a telephone. Happy Halloween!
Rewatching all those old videos that we made as teenagers, those short films, is like having a viewable time capsule. Last weekend, I took the time to rip them from YouTube and Dailymotion, set up a shared Google Drive folder so that Matt and I could watch them whenever, so we could save them for posterity. Mostly I did it because I haven’t talked to Chris in years, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before he takes them all down. He already emptied out his YouTube account, so I had to rip the ones I had on mine and find the duplicates on Dailymotion where possible, come to terms with the ones that are now gone forever.
I realized watching them that it’s possible to miss the times you shared with a person while not missing the person you shared them with. To be nostalgic without being rose-tinted, with the years and the fights and the growing, all of it intervening. To miss the person they used to be. And if I’m being honest, how I used to be too. I make it a point every few months to travel back to Chicago–my home. I live a good 700 miles away now, so it’s an effort, but it’s something I do regularly. And there are those phantoms, those half-forgotten places, and the things I did there, but more than that, there are the people I miss.
When Matt and I meet up, we don’t endlessly turn over the past, although we definitely could. There are moody teenagers younger than our friendship. No, what we do is catch up with the way we’ve changed in a sentence or two, a look maybe, and we get back to the friendship timeline like nothing has changed, because it hasn’t. There’s that realization that I’d take a bullet for him, not a realization so much as a simple acknowledgment, and there’s remembering how we got here. The fact that I didn’t hang out with Matt as much as I would’ve liked to when I was friends with Chris, and that icky feeling that came with being mean, something I’d do when I hung out with Chris, and the fact that I knew it couldn’t last, not much past early adulthood, that I couldn’t let it last.
There’s also that simmer of feeling where once there was a boil, and the way it used to put a knot in my stomach but here, now, it doesn’t make me feel much of anything. Life has a way of moving on, a geologic smoothing away of the peaks and valleys that used to matter so much, the words both said and unsaid that would burn in my throat, now harmless and inert–something to be studied.
Sometimes I wish I had a chronovisor, a device with which to look into the past, to experience it without disturbing it. I think of time travel tropes in old movies and comics, and then I remember the comic Chris and I started working on that dealt with similar subject matter. But before it gets too wistful, I remember that I wrote several issues and Chris just never did the art for them.
In thinking of time travel, I forget the very real version we already have–the pictures, the videos. The stories both written and remembered. And even then, it’s the things kept out of picture and memory’s frame, the words shared before and after the shot. There’s the dizzying, beautiful, terrifying, wonderful realization that things truly did work out the way they were supposed to. That I’ve done these things and become this person because of, not in spite of, what happened to me. That had it not been for all of those events in that sequence, I wouldn’t be able to have this Doctor Manhattan vision, this way of seeing the future through the past, of understanding that I’m now surrounded by the people who are meant to be in my life. That I’ve made it without knowing I ever left.
I guess one of the things that’s fucking me up is that I’m supposed to be some mentor figure, some example, I’ve got the office hours and everything, but most days I’m just trying to get through without drinking too much, or if I am drinking too much, then without it showing.
I started out adjunct, shit pay, enough where I had to settle for the rotgut at the convenience store before I could afford the good stuff. I guess they were impressed by the fact that I kept shooting, that I was teaching filmmaking while still making films, like that was some exceptional thing, as if I had a choice. Because, truth is, I drink a lot, but I’d drink a lot more if I couldn’t make movies.
All the classes I teach are things I learned out of necessity, pretty much. Writing on a strict schedule (because I couldn’t afford to dick around), studying acting tech (because I’d often have to act in my own films starting out), microbudget filmmaking (that one’s obvious).
I didn’t have the luxury of film school, so I created my own with early internet forums and bootleg software and library late fees. I learned how to write screenplays by reading and writing screenplays. I submitted to contests, and I lost every one, but I got some encouraging notes once, when I scrounged up enough for the extra fee for guaranteed notes, and there was no way for that anonymous reader to know that the contents of their notes would decide my future, that I was just about to give it all up until I read that encouragement, until I realized that my scripts weren’t bad, they just weren’t yet as good as the other scripts. And that’s just something you have to learn by doing.
I get up around noon most days, tell myself it’s because my first classes don’t start until later anyway, but it’s really to allow myself time and space to nurse the inevitable hangovers. I don’t know. I’ll sit at home, in my chair, for hours sometimes, and just bite at my nails. I’ll bite till they bleed, till my fingers hurt when I wash my hands. I can tell that I’m changing.
I try to write something every day, even if I end up hating it, even if it’s shit. I’ll jot things down on paper first, even with the pain in my fingers from the pressure of gripping the pen, because it’s a different process, writing versus typing. I drink every day now, I guess.
One thing that’s interesting is to stay up past the effects of caffeine from earlier that morning, past alcohol when I get home and past the melatonin to help get me to sleep. To watch that liminal part of the brain start to take over. The part that makes you dream and keeps you there. I’ll sit down like that, and I’ll keep my eyes open, and I’ll look at things without actually seeing them.
I want to write something big, and bold, and dangerous. Something real. I want there to be something left of me when I’m gone.
On nights like this, working past the sleep, I’ll see only the transitions of a screenplay as I write, only the cues meant to begin and end, the FADE IN & FADE OUT that I guess is going on all around me. I write past these things. I write through them.
I used to try to track my dreams and force sleep paralysis. I’d do things like put on white noise through headphones and fasten halved ping pong balls over my eyes, to force sensory deprivation. When that did nothing, I’d keep myself awake for days at a time, blasting loud music and imbibing caffeine while making note of any aberrations in thought or mood.
I’d test my lung capacity and willpower by keeping my head underwater during baths, stopwatch ticking in my hand outside the tub. I’d go on fasts for days, taking in only water, not even tea, not even black coffee, dropping weight and going straight into starvation mode.
I’d bike for an entire day–twelve hours straight, then do the same thing but with walking. I’d spend whole days imagining life through the eyes of a city pigeon or a backyard squirrel. I would inflict self-pain in small doses (small at first), looking for the minimum effective dosage, journalling the process, always documenting, because if you’re documenting then it almost feels like you’re doing it all for a reason.
I’d spend entire nights outside, then days, at first trying to find out what the “homeless experience” was, but then of course discovering that there isn’t only one. Back at home, I’d do stuff like super glue my hand to the bathroom wall and see how long the adhesion would last. I’d put all my money save for five dollars in savings, then live off that five dollars for two weeks. I would sneak into a supermarket’s bathroom just before closing and see if I could go the whole night without being detected.
I’d rig an eye-opening device, like the one from that Kubrick horrorshow, and see how long I could go without blinking before my vision started to fade. I’d sit, and stare at a wall, and meditate for hours at a time, losing track of the passage of minutes, then hours, then days. I’d live in my closet for a week or so.
I had the idea that I was collecting these experiences for a book. It was fiction at first, but it became nonfiction eventually as time went on. Surprisingly, at least at first, the writing was undisciplined. There was no structure, no schedule, just word after word whenever they’d come. There was something about the truth, though, something lacking. You could spend an entire day looking at something and not really see it. For some of the experiences, I’d take them on for a month or more and have less than a paragraph to put down about them. Seeing is not reflecting. Feeling is not reporting.
I spend most of my days, now, eating when it feels appropriate, sleeping at night, and moving unrestricted during the day. I don’t write about this (I write about other things now), but I seem to get on okay. Sometimes, at night, images of experience will dance in front of my eyes as I try to sleep. I watch them pass as I breathe and breathe and breathe.
They told me, years later, that the guy had an entire galaxy in his mind. It was populated by nebulae and stars, planets and moons, some of them harboring life, others barren and wasted. He spent essentially all of his life cataloging his inner galaxy, and for all intents and purposes he was catatonic. His family took him for a vegetable. They’d pack him into the car for family trips and do things like sit him in front of mountain views, dip his feet in flowing streams, anything to get him back to the world, back to them, none of them realizing that he already had a world, or rather several trillion of them, and that every ounce of brainpower he had in him had to be devoted to exploring this galaxy, or else he’d be lost and insensate for the rest of his life. He’d tried to blind himself to the galaxy before, to come out and into the world, but he’d seen nothing but unending, featureless black. Heard nothing but the howling of an infinite wind. So he went back to his inner planets.
I guess I met him in 2005 or thereabouts, back when I was a grad student complete with bright eyes and bushy tail. They’d never gotten him beyond the occasional blink of his eyes, over there, at the center he’d been moved to, when his family had had enough of the family trips and the visits with experts and the hope that something would change. I’d take a lot of notes at first, observe vitals, notate scans, but eventually I just started coming to visit.
A lot of the technology was still nascent, and I remember picturing to myself, there at the foot of his bed, what this room might’ve looked like under the same circumstances 10, 20, 50 years before. What help could be given him, if it’d even be given. The doctors now did these scans mostly to placate the family, to assuage the inevitable guilt they’d accumulated after placing him in a home and coming first to visit daily, then weekly, then monthly, then only on holidays. I took to coming in on my days off from class, reading to him first from Kafka, then Wallace, then Murakami.
At that geologic scale of minute fluctuations of the body and micromovements, you begin to assemble in your mind a mental timelapse of the hours you’ve spent with the person, translating every twitch into something meaningful, prophetic even.
Sometimes I’d come in with a cheap bottle of gut rot and tell him about my day, pretend that he was drinking with me and commiserating, all the while popping mints after a finished bottle and accepting coffee when the nurses would offer it, not really needing it but not wanting them to smell the alcohol on me, to realize just how pathetic I was to be drinking midday and not facing any of my problems.
I’d been in and out of school, never settling on one thing in particular. Married and divorced before age 30. Aimlessly wandering in general, while doing my best to convince myself that the answer was right there, around the corner, or maybe after the next drink.
I knew this guy couldn’t really hear me, that even if he could it’s not like he could relate, but I kept coming anyway. I’d get a good feel for the nurses and orderlies as they’d come and go over the years, which ones actually gave a shit and which would be a problem–the ones who’d put him at risk of bedsores or worse. It sounds stupid, maybe, but he became like a little brother to me. I didn’t have any siblings of my own and had cut off all contact with my parents, so I guess he was really the only family I had.
He retreated from the world, physically left it, by degrees, intentionally, so that he could live in the world of his mind. I mean that in the literal sense. He didn’t wither so much as disappear gradually, nearly imperceptibly, to the point where I can hardly describe it even now, all these years later. But he did, he left of his own accord, bit by bit, until one day I came in and he was gone. He’d faded to the world inside his mind, physically departed, unalterably escaped, and he’d left me a note. Not a physical one, mind you. A mental note. He told me to find him. He didn’t leave coordinates; he left activities. He said I could find him in a night walk just past the edge of town. He’d be in the tire track of a motorcycle ride under open blue sky. Clear and vivid in the otherwise fading remnants of a dream broken by daybreak.
I guess the hunger never really leaves once it first hits, no matter how many achievements pile up, no matter how often, no matter how much older you get, etc. At least that’s my experience of it. You tell yourself not to get caught up in the endgame but to instead enjoy the journey, but the goalposts are always more interesting than the field. And so I vacillate, sometimes, between accepting and rejecting this tendency, sometimes scolding myself for killing the zen and not appreciating what I’ve got, what I’ve achieved, and other times acknowledging that this ceaseless drive, this endless hunger, is precisely what propelled me out of financial, spiritual, and emotional poverty. This push to improve, this refusal to accept my lot in life is exactly why I’ve gotten to where I am. That progress shouldn’t be a casualty on the road to happiness.
And that’s all good and fine.
Some nights, when the thinking becomes too much and mental defrag is impossible inside the house, I go, and I get out, and I get on my motorcycle, and I simply appreciate what it feels like to be propelled forward through the world, to shift and to vibrate and to feel and to see and to hear. The gears shift both inside and out these nights, maybe stuttering and awkward at first, but getting there, approaching normalcy, a smoothness, a vibrant coming together of potential and purpose, action and agitation. I feel myself recognizing the seasons of my life, now, as I near the end of my twenties, feeling the familiar old mental cycles repeat and experiencing new ones all the same, coming into my skin, and my body, and my heart, and my mind. I think these things without voicing their words as I ride, lights above and around me like staccato beats to a tune I know but haven’t heard in a while, so it takes a bit for my mouth-mush lip-syncing to segue into actual lyrics, vocal melodies, song. Sometimes you have to dust off your soul, and that’s okay.
You can get used to anything, including violence and struggle. For instance, my brain is in a constant state of hyper arousal as a result of persistent, ongoing, traumatic experiences. After years of that, it’s easier for your body to just flip the fight-or-flight switch on and leave it that way permanently. This has its perks, though, don’t get me wrong. For instance, when shit eventually does hit the fan, you’ve got it handled right away. The problem is having to remind yourself that here, standing in line at the grocery store, or there, sitting in a cafe, you don’t have to feel like you’re in a life-or-death situation. It might sound stupid if you’ve never experienced it, but it’s a thing.
So there is the one thing and the other, the wonder and the thunder, seamlessly transitioning between zen and meltdown, sometimes within minutes of each other, sometimes in the same moment. You get frustrated with your neurochemistry but then remember what it’s given you, what you’ve been able to accomplish with a little brain plasticity and a lot of perseverance. Because yes, it’s a thing. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only thing.
Casting a line off the edge of a barge micronation somewhere off the Adriatic, plum sky undulating like some childhood experiment with oil and water, and all of a sudden that seems so long ago, that 1990s childhood spent tinkering with PC parts, putting together your first computer, and now here you are thirty years later, in unclaimed waters, undisclosed location, starting some religion, maybe a country, you haven’t gotten that far, it isn’t clear yet, but it’ll be something different, whatever it is, so you return to these old practices and prepare the precepts for the initiates who will be here next day, their boat is coming in then and will promptly be destroyed upon their arrival, because there will be no need for transportation when everything they could possibly need is right here on this constructed island, when all of their needs can be met by the Almighty Godhead and all that he provides, on this barge that’s been assembled from the repurposed garbage floating aimlessly through the ocean, you’ve gone to great expense to have it collected, and you’ve studied all the major religions to make sure that you’re not treading over tired territory, that you haven’t accidentally plagiarized Zarathustra or anything, and you haven’t, not that you can tell, so you will now establish this colony in the ocean, this empire everlasting with yourself as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent leader who will rule for now and all of time, for you have teachings prepared on the nature of time, you’ve presented them to the internet and have been brutally ridiculed, but that’s the measure of a great idea, isn’t it, the ridicule of small-minded people, and that’s what convinced you that you were doing the right thing, convincing others to worship you as a god on a barge of garbage floating out in the ocean, this is what you’ve been working toward all your life, the unadulterated adulation of others, the drowning in their praise, happiness everlasting, it is all yours to take as you prepare your vestments you’ve created, a robe also made of reconstructed refuse, it still stinks even, but that is the last stink of the world to be washed clean from you, you’ve prepared the sermon, you can visualize the rite even now, with you and the others dipping into the ocean to rid yourselves of the scent of the world, to replace it with something unsmelled and unknown heretofore, it will be a glorious birth of a new state, a new state of mind and of being, you’re sure of it, or else you wouldn’t have sunk all your savings into this construction, wouldn’t have sold all of your things and left everyone you’ve ever loved behind, so you need to make something of that sacrifice, now, and here, you’re sure it will be worth it, so you look once more over that plum, undulating sky, that dark mass that will be either your salvation or damnation, and you sit on this barge, and you wait for the coming day, and you hope beyond hope that they will come.
Cigarette smoke filling in from out of frame, an ’80s filmic haze accentuated by a smoke break on a movie set, hair as big as her dreams as she reads her lines to her warped reflection in a pink-tiled wall, knowing that the plan is for her singing parts to be dubbed over in post but still hoping that the director will change his mind when he hears her sing, I mean really sing, not like she sang in the audition room, where her nerves messed with her pitch and she was too breathy but where she otherwise nailed the look, sound, and movement of the character. Up till now, they’d filmed a few of the final numbers, songs where her character was singing with much of the rest of the cast, where her vocals weren’t an issue anyway. But soon, just after this smoke break in fact, she was set to belt out her first solo. And the director told her to go for it when she asked if she could really sing it in the take. He didn’t exactly finish by saying that they’d just fix it in post, but the implication was there, that was certain.
The production has that New Wave feel that’s just now starting to come up, and she can almost see future shadowcasts playing her in sticky-floored auditoriums at midnight showings. Stranger things have happened, anyway. Everyone told her she’d fall flat after dropping her first agent, but that turned out to be just the push she needed to really put herself out there. Now she’s freezing her ass off in an on-set location with no heating in the middle of winter with next to nothing in the bank, but at least she’s living out her dream, right here, with tinny audio playback to get the timing right, wearing makeup and costumes she doesn’t think she’ll be able to afford even after she makes it big, which, let’s face it, if it isn’t this film that makes her a star then it’s just never going to happen, is it, and she has to push this thought away as she sings contralto in a corner, flipping script pages and letting the cherry of her cigarette burn perilously close to her fingers, holding the hand up, out, and canted on an angle like she saw in all those glamorous old pictures in the movie magazines as a little girl.
Her nerves are such that she has to periodically wipe her hands on something to keep them from soaking the script she’s holding, trying to remember not to wipe them on this expensive costume but more often than not forgetting, and so she’ll interrupt her own tiny-voice singing to swear at herself for ruining this totally bitching costume, sweating off her makeup and trying to convince herself that it’s fine, she’ll do a Nina Hagen thing, when in reality she knows she’s a mess, her nerves are shot, and it’s to the point where she needs a fifth of vodka every night just to get to sleep for the next day’s shoot.
She takes polaroids of her life on set and attaches them to postcards, sends them back to Kansas so Mother and Father can see just how big she’s made it, so there will be no doubt in their minds that their daughter has Made It and is Going Places. She’ll take these polaroids before going to the next party, her castmates treating every wrapped day like it’s a wrapped shoot, and she’ll take this powder she’s given at these parties, inhale this powder that she can only have at these parties because she couldn’t possibly afford to keep up a habit like that on her own, and she’ll catch her face in the mirror sometimes after one of these parties, try to avoid seeing it but sometimes do it anyway. She doesn’t like seeing her face most nights.
But here she is, turning the page, then putting the script down, getting the blocking right, seeing her movement in the frame before it happens, knowing every facial expression, every vocal flutter, all of it perfect, just as it’s scripted, a performance that’s apart from this long string of nights, that will transcend all of that, she can feel it, and her head is spinning from something, don’t know what but it is, and the mood in the room is shifting, the final preparations are being made, and she’s about to be summoned, will hit her mark and sing this song like she’s never sung it before, to the point where the director will have no choice but to keep her vocals in the film, she will so totally embody the performance that to segment it at all would ruin the whole thing.
She turns, and she walks, and she moves to a staccato beat in her head to where she needs to be, a true moving picture.
Pretending there are any ideas other than this one, any places beyond where we find ourselves, now, trading traumas and swapping family war stories in the dark, under the artificial moon streaming in through the window, flies buzzing around it as it buzzes back at them, glowing orange, now red, now white hot, and we are all of us children stumbling around and searching for reason in all this fallow grace, this sickly daze that we’ve created for ourselves, this human sadness, a self-created void that’s as warm as a security blanket and just as well-worn, eating up the land, and I tell you about when I was small, so small I couldn’t talk but could watch, could see these things as they happened in my home, these horrible moments that shaped me into the person I am now, heal(ing)(ed) from these wounds, recounting them to put them in a glass box where they can be regarded like a plague contained, quarantined from its host once and for all, and I watch the way the light dances on your face as you lay down color on paper, something on in the background, but fuzzy around the edges, like a dream, and I’m similarly drifting in and out of sleep, with that nonsense thought process that comes along with it, saying things I can’t remember later but which I’ve needed to say, not to anyone but just in general, needed to speak these stories out loud so they couldn’t hold me hostage any longer, that’s what trauma is, a hostage-taker, laying claim to your body, your mind, your soul, your sanity, until it’s not anymore, until one day when you realize that you can function again, have functioned for some time now, and just realizing this is terrifying, because you don’t want to jinx it, don’t want to lose all the progress you’ve made, don’t ever ever ever want to be broken in that way ever again, and your breath hitches in your chest, vision narrows, it gets harder to breathe, and you have to go to the bathroom to catch your breath, and dry your eyes, and remind yourself, again, as many times as it takes, that you are okay, that you have been okay, and you will continue to be okay, and maybe this isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of post-trauma feelings, maybe it can’t cover it all, but it covers mine, even as I stand years removed from the trauma, years removed even from the most dangerous of episodes after the fact, as I enjoy peace in my time as they’d call it, writing and working and living and enjoying, I can see that this little parasite might always be there, might always squeal its insistence, but it’s a hollow cry, a desperation that goes unheeded, and I walk on into the night with nothing more than the stars and the moon to light the way, here in these hills, and that is, now, more than enough.
That is all I need.
Shifting toward a redline you can’t see or hear, can only feel, the way Beethoven must’ve, delimbing his pianos, setting them down on the ground, to feel the vibrations and nothing else, probably turning off the light to starve all senses but the ones he wanted, the composition, the light that flicks on in the brain when a connection is made–a vital spark–a turning of gears toward something greater than oneself. All my life, I’ve wanted to create, and I’ve wanted to escape. Now I find myself in the position to do both at the same time. I’ve worked so many years at this, fostered the growth of others along the way, and here I sit, where it all began, watching the accumulating pages fall like so many raindrops in a summer storm, fogging up the glass to make a new face over the reflection of my own. I sit at the precipice of something great, but I have no idea what it is. I’m stumbling in the dark and figuring out how quickest to find the light. Stealing glimpses of unfiltered light through a window that’s just out of reach, gliding through mental pictures of other times and places, save points in this game I’ve been living, improv-ing and improving along the way, just going with it, trying to learn, staying hungry and moving forward no matter how agonizing it might be. Sometimes I feel like I am marching onward into a great and blinding storm. I know that there is light and clarity past this storm, but to find it I must move forward. Inexorably I travel this patterned ratchet-clank world, wandering Southern passageways toward a place I never expected but which I couldn’t imagine being without. Your life never ends up how you expect it to, and that’s a good thing. At least it was for me. So I climb plateaus and shift under tree boughs, sensing something beyond this plane I’ve been given, this flesh and blood monkey-body derived from retooled parts and millennia-old adaptations, with teeth that don’t even fit in my head. I had some sake earlier this evening, stood guard as it flowed through my body, put on some music by Koji Kondo and allowed the feeling to swell, the inhibitions to drop. These notes that fall like pieces into place on a grand and ancient puzzle, and I can do nothing else but accomplish these things that’ve been set for me, can only do what’s best for me, now and for as long as I’m here. So the notes crescendo, and I move, the stable waverings moving like something apart from physics, something beyond time and space. I am a human being, and I am glad to be so much more than that.