Monday
Jul092012

from BEAUTIFUL SOUL

Joshua Corey


 

In the heart of the night the new reader lies awake with the lights turned off and listens to rain tapping on the skylight. Were she to open her eyes she'd see the darkness of the ceiling and a different quality of darkness above her, a rectangle that gradually reorganizes itself into a gray filmy gleam, glassy surface blistered by streetlamps, and the little shudders of water that move across the bedspread, her husband's sleeping body, her own face. Like hieroglyphics or Hebrew letters they form and squiggle and dissolve almost legibly before her closed eyes. The letters are falling on her roof and the roofs of her neighbors: they fall invisibly into Lake Michigan, that vast unplacid text, and coat metal and glass and asphalt from Waukegan down to the Indiana border. Others too are awake and reading the weather, establishing degrees of correspondence between internal and external, the past and the present, what they expect from the day and what they haven't anticipated. She thinks of other bedrooms, other couples, men and women lying awake while their partners, women and men, sleep soundly. Alone, straining after legibility, for signs and portents, looking at clockfaces, windows, magazines, glowing screens, books. Her own book is on the nighttable where she left it, face down, straining the binding: she reaches with her hand and feels the rough skin of the spine, its slightly crumpled edge like a lip, and then the pages dividing reluctantly under the gentle pressure of her fingertips. Under the covers, on pages with slight but undeniable thickness, many folds, many pages, the unread words are marching. The book is mine while I read it, for as long as I keep turning the pages, and when I am finished  it dies to me but lives in the hands of other readers, and we might meet in a cafe or the supermarket or on a bus or in a hospital waiting room and discover, without title, that we share this blind insatiable need for print, ants at the picnic, words printed on the insides and outsides of our eyelids, passwords, like canceled checks bearing signatures negated by the loss of value, the transfer of energy from beginning to end, unceasing until the book drops from my hand, I close my eyes, the rain spools, lurches, stops. Let me live here ever. She is dropping to sleep, a few hours from dawn and the baby's cry, as her husband breathes evenly, wordlessly. The rain carries on past consciousness. The bed is a boat for strangers.

 

Follows the figure of a human, a man, her man, ours, his back, walking away from the camera and taking our vision with him. Beholds a man beholding the Alps, a battlefield, the sea, the sublime cityscape, an image consuming itself. The scene that includes him disincludes us and that is its perfection. We see him not seeing: antisublime of landscape defined as a portion of land that the eye can comprehend at a glance. And if an itch crawls up his spine to tickle his neck and the head hunches, snaps backward, accusing, what will he see? We are the audience. We are not there.

Poet or assassin, we follow the man. The camera could be a gun, the gun could be a microphone, the microphone could be a large, ungainly, leaking pen, the pen could be a telephone. Calls in the small hours, between two and four, gone straight to voice mail. In the morning she deletes them without listening, noting only the times and the country codes. Two fathers, one father, that's the goal, and then no fathers at all, no mothers. M. She is tense and alert before the page, the phone downfaced on the bed beside her, on vibrate. Her husband sleeps.

Fathers are depressing. Gertrude Stein.

Mother of invention, asleep or awake, she dreams him, Lamb: a tall black-and-white man in a simple lineless suit, a gray raincoat over it, a fedora, out of the airport, out of a cab, pulling a black wheeled bag behind him over the cobblestoned streets of a nameless European city. Call him anything, she does not pay for a name. She quit smoking but he still smokes; she rarely drinks but a bottle waits for him in his dry, small, clean hotel room, where the single window overlooks a trellis or an alley or a canal or a blank whitewashed wall. Tethered to her by cords of time: the daughter needs a man without appendages, isolate and unshaven, pair of hands, face closed. The camera is close enough to smell the back of his neck: tobacco, cornstarch, bay rum. On audio: waves' scumble, foreign voices, a kicked ball, shouts, a busker accompanied by electronic orchestra, handclaps, bumblebee scooter engines whistling and whining. He sits with his back to her, us, smoke drifting from his left hand, its bandless fingers. The right hand, the writing hand, the knowing hand is still. Rests tarantula on his knee. If we look closely at the back of a man's head, whose face we have never quite seen, seeing only the skin of his neck and the pattern of hair (black flecked by gray) and the two ears standing wide astraddle, and the barest movement. Is he listening. Is his breath, in exhale, part of the mix.

A woman's fantasy. A man.

Who goes out and takes care of things.

 

Exterior. A narrow street, black ribbon in a yellow canyon of blank-faced apartment buildings. Too narrow to be an American street, too few cars. Lamb in medium shot, seen from behind, wearing a black-brimmed hat, suggesting someone's idea of the past. His pace is unmodern: he slouches, he ambles, like a man with no destination or agenda. But he knows the crucial thing: how to ignore the camera. As he walks or shambles along there's a rasping sound, a grating noise, and as he shrinks in the frame we can see the plain black rolling suitcase that bounces and drags and skitters on the pavement as he pulls it behind him. Something paper in his hand, completing the image of a lost tourist. He pauses at a doorway, a wooden door with flaked green paint, a brass mailslot like a tarnished mouth. He folds the map and slips it inside. The map is a letter. The letter vanishes.

Interior. A woman in a severe black dress, in late middle age, bends down with a little grunt and picks up her mail where it lies scattered on the ragged tile floor. The strange envelope doesn't register at first because she flips through the letters looking at their right corners so that the postmarks blur by, and the hand-delivered letter of course has no postmark, and no stamp for that matter. Tight shot of the bundle of mail in her hand as she goes back up the dark wooden stairs, and drops the letter on the mat in front of a door, and keeps climbing. The camera retreats suddenly, staggers back like a drunkard and points up the stairwell to the next floor where another woman, also in black, stands watching. It could be the same woman, climber and watcher. We hear a door shut and the sound registers in her eyes.

Interior. A simple apartment, finely if anonymously decorated in muted feminine style. Closed French doors, a sofa, a vase with a tulip, a lamp. Doorway to a kitchen, to a bathroom, to a bedroom. Tidy, silent. Sounds from the street.

Meeting no other men wearing hats the solitary man continues dragging his suitcase down the narrow street. Does he wear it unselfconsciously? To scratch his bald spot does he raise the hat with his free hand or do his fingers creep under the brim? How can we know about his bald spot? Either the man is eccentric or his movie is. He pushes (he pulls) on.

The apartment is empty. But: there is a breeze. It stirs the curtains. A window is open. There is a whistling kettle in the kitchen. Extreme close-up of a smudged tall glass that fills with boiling water, with black particles that rise and swirl to fill the screen, touching the water with their color. The plain pewter kettle replaced on the stove with a clank. The specks like sparrows entering a black cloud, suddenly pushed down and pressed out of sight. Ceramic rattle, cube of sugar in a chipped cup. The coffee streams out of the French press into the cup and presses down on the sugar cube, breaking it down but not utterly: a sweet residue underneath the bitter surface. The cup is carried out of the kitchen.

The envelope on the table by the tulip. It could be a bill, billet doux, bringing news. Perhaps it's news from some man gone to fight in the war: which war. The camera is always before the war, never after or inside it. The camera is still, it's a wide still shot, but our eyes are drawn irresistibly to the empty hatrack. A shout in the street, can't make out the language, ricochet of a soccer ball off of someone's stoop, a short barking laugh. We are Americans and we call it soccer, a game for children. There is a woman here, of an age, a fadedness, a resilience we don't have a name for. Something Mediterranean or Semitic in the angles of her face, the prominence of her nose, the darkness of her eyes. The hair is iron gray. Alone she holds her beauty before her like a mask or a microphone, in one untrembling hand, so that we can't see what the other is doing. When she turns her back to us we are blind. Is she weeping? Is she whispering? Is she judging the time of day by the angle of the light? There are no clocks in this room. The envelope, torn.

 

The camera comes close to him, practically hanging on his shoulder, as he turns onto an avenue. There are cars now, there is traffic. He passes a group of schoolgirls in blazers and skirts, chattering to themselves in a language without subtitles; we only understand that these are schoolgirls on the near side of puberty, talking about what schoolgirls talk about: boys, or rather not boys but those other schoolgirls not present, schoolgirls who are or have been with those boys and what they've done or might be willing to do with those boys. Lamb lowers his head and bulls through them without looking back, and the camera doesn't linger either, but maybe he swivels that head a quarter-turn to the right, a little twist; blink and you'll miss that infinitely complex appraisable line or fractal territory suggesting a nose's wing, a stubbled chin, a heavy black eyebrow. A little further and he pauses in front of a window, turns fully, one hand still on the long handle of his roller bag, and the camera turns with him, so we can see something of his reflection in the spotless picture window, nothing to deter our sense of the fundamental monochrome atmosphere that follows this man like the lens itself, passing through a halftone world into which color, now, is starting to creep. Flashes now behind him of a red car, a green skirt, a blue policeman pausing to fill out a ticket, face a depthless shadow under the brim of his cap. Lamb studies an array of jewelry, nothing particularly expensive, without moving much, his face as invisible as the policeman's under the brim of his hat, but we can make out the outlines of a dark tie against a light shirt behind further layers of darkness: a suit coat, an overcoat, too heavy for the weather. There are watches, bracelets, brooches, necklaces, earrings, pins, ankle bracelets, chokers, armbands, wristbands, breastplates, or so it seems to the tourist and so it must seem to us, marveling now at the neatness of the trick, for we seem to be standing directly behind him and yet there's no camera or cameraman in the reflection, just the streaks of light that resolve themselves into cars or pedestrians and the twin pillars of darkness, the man staring unresolvedly at the many watches (none of which shows the same time) and the policeman, head bent over his ticket book, scratching away.

Terrain of sounds. A long scraping noise. Indistinct voices. Foreigners. Small engines, tires on macadam, whine and wheeze of a bad fan belt, receding. The grip and release of hard rubber soles, the rasp of leather, the inaudible squeak of sneakers. A motorbike's burr, dopplering toward us, getting louder and more aggressive, then its reflection whizzing past in the window, then dopplering away. Doppler, doubler, doubling, down. In this film this man is closely miked: we hear his slightly heavy breathing, the soft movements of his clothing, if he lights a cigarette we hear the heavy snap of the lighter and the audible combustion of the first strands of tobacco, hear him inhale, hear the smoke pouring down his windpipe, scratching up against precancerous polyps, hear him cough shortly, a bark, hear his blood and heart agitated by the nicotine, starting to beat more loudly and quickly, hear his pupils dilate, snapping wider with an audible click, hear the dripping sound as sweat glands above his hairline gathered moisture and salt to form beads of sweat to be absorbed by his hatband, a kind of reverse sponge-squeezing sound as that no doubt already stained ribbon of cloth takes on a further burden of the very essence of his tourist's anxiety, if he feels anxiety, if he is a tourist, anxiety becoming legible to the discerning eye of a hat salesman or the nose of his wife, if he was a wife, or as DNA to be extracted onto a slide and fed into a machine by a bored technician, along with a strand of the man's hair—a gray hair—found curled and tucked under the hatband like a little gift or sleeping animal. We have, we hear, so much. Lamb is almost a palindrome, almost a blade. He carries us.

 

The woman perches on the sofa's edge staring fixedly into a compact, fixing her make-up. It's discreet, made visible only by her application of it, or by her repair of it, for there's a little black streak of mascara under her left eye that even now she wipes away with a bit of cloth. She studies herself in the little mirror and sighs, not quite audibly, then bends again to her tools. As she reapplies her mascara we are struck by the absoluteness of her concentration, of her utter presence to herself in the mirror as simply a face, a severely beautiful face with lines at the brow and at the corners of her eyes, and slightly sharper edges around the cheekbones and the curve of the mouth. She gives herself the kind of scrutiny our films don't usually offer to women of her age, older than thirty, older than forty or fifty, a face without a place, an unperson's unBotoxed face made lovely by its mobility, though just now she's holding it steady, as steady as any starlet or woman holds her muscles when not being looked at, as if a woman were ever not looked at: so if she smiles or frowns because of that she does so invisibly, under the skin so to speak, a secret smile or frown that the enlarging of her eyes and the smoothing of her cheeks and the reddening of her lips only serves to further conceal, the face becoming a mask of the desirable female body, even a body flung like this one more than halfway toward death, past death, in death's gravity well around which this body slingshots, coming back to us: lip and cheeks and eyes to be looked at and to look back, coyly, slyly, frankly, in short anything but nakedly, for the eyes are never naked, as a woman is never naked, not truly, she wears our desire, masculine and feminine, men and women desire her also, that body rendered firm and erect by art, angle, though middle-aged or past it: a desire she cannot herself feel but bears the knowledge of, an abstract consciousness, as an astronomer's most sophisticated instruments help him understand distant bodies without perceiving them, that knowledge of desire that she holds at a distance because of what we might call age, what we might call experience, like a second skin, ghostliness: that hides the smile or frown or sign to render that face, M's face, intelligible, though it cannot quite hide her tears.

 

If the letter were blank? A single white sheet of paper, unmarked save for a pair of creases? And if the woman, austerely attired, made up, hair up, were to sit down with it at the kitchen table, with a pen? If she looked for a while out the window as her cup of tea grew cold? If she took up the pen? If she looked at the paper then away from it again, as though searching, looking round at the kitchen, the apartment, like a place she had never before seen? If she applied pen to paper? If she began to write. If she wrote for a long time, the camera never wavering, the whispery crinkle of the pen's tip crossing the page (she has filled one side, turns it over, begins the next side), clink of a ring on her finger on the teacup, sipping cold tea, putting it down again, applying herself, bent low, one manicured hand holding the paper in place, the other moving swiftly, fluently, not pausing for thought. If she stopped writing at last? No room for a signature, the paper completely full, no margins, a quick pass of the camera's eye revealing only the seamlessness of her script? Refolded the letter, now a letter, and replaced it in its envelope? Taped it shut? Addressed it? Searched a drawer for stamps, found them, applied them? If she stood now, in the center of the room, hands at her sides, tapping the envelope against her leg, deciding?

 

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

 

By now some people in the audience will have walked out. To them it has become apparent that, after a beginning that promised a degree of intrigue and the pleasures of vicarious tourism, that this is going to be, has already become, a bad film, a boring film, an errant attempt to translate certain American genre codes across the Atlantic in a mannered and pretentious effort to present one man's investigation of a past he has no stake in, a too-obvious, deeply shallow stand-in for the viewer, a tired and fundamentally hostile indictment of the visual pleasures you have come, wrongly, to seek. Lamb's outmoded factory-made charisma, passing through two dimensional space as shamus or cowboy, as shamurai. The shamus, a blind man proud of the keenness of his sight, whose narrative always begins innocuously and yet from frame one he is already in over his head, spending the rest of the film discovering violent facts and a conspiracy too vast to defeat or survive. He thrives in the decades of ambiguity, in pursuit of the fate that already has him in its clutches. American abroad, caught gawking, with nothing beside style to distinguish him from the throngs of other investigators wearing logo T-shirts and carrying cheap or expensive cameras, parading behind docents past stupefying centuries of sedimented and crystallized conspiracy: history: power. People with no grasp of scale, their own relative size in regard to a thousand dollhouse churches, castles, palazzos, piazzas. Lying down each night in fresh beds of innocence in penziones and hotels, rising each morning to put on their layers of protective coloration, impregnable behind portable screens. The shamus bears his innocence before him like a shield, but the cowboy wields his like a weapon. He penetrates the landscape, squint-eyed, the better to protect his pitiless vision. He is, his posture insists, an agent of fate, on the side of the righteous, will commit any crime in the name of his own proud disinterest. He dies obediently and rises again, returns as an old man to the beaches he renamed in his youth: Utah, Omaha, Pointe du Hoc: Dog Green, Easy Green, Fox Green. The cowboy is there to be seen, not heard: a living monument silhouetted against the historyless sun. Over the next rise stand the numberless unrepresentable: natives, Americans, women and children. Can a cowboy be a woman, an Indian a European? Under his buckskins. But his eye, like the shamus' eye, is best seen looking. The shamus' eye takes in the corruption, the conspiracy, the henchmen arranged on spider strands leading to the ultimate truth. The cowboy's eye only reflects, dauntless and unwavering, crinkled by faux epicanthic folds, refusing light, revealing an empty soul or no soul, till it extracts a flinch from the opposed searching eye and closes it forever. Diagonal, simultaneous, men, the cowboy and the shamus, the shamurai, servants of an ostentatious and palpable fate, native to the same foreign element, bearers of a fascination that leads them, us, on, on which adventures and investigations hang, are hinged, turn. They are here for the purposes of the darkened theater of enthrallment. Those who remain, isolato or in couples, testify by so doing: No matter that we've seen it before, done better, fresher: we are not children, we understand we can never again see these films, these celluloid bandages over our wounded and regenerating innocence, for the first time. Yet we are undaunted and unblighted so long as we, though fewer and fewer, more and more self-consciously archaic, put aside private screens and gather with strangers in the dark: speak the terrible affirmation of the open eye, follow the gazes of straight-bodied men with faces in profile or in shadow, men with guns, cameras to kill the objects of their vision, to sacrifice, to gift our eyes. Down these streets we must go, ourselves, accompanied, seeing how far down innocence can go before dissolving into air, thin air. We will go deeper yet. A hand dangles, the gun falls, the credits roll. Let's sit still for a moment longer under white lights before the white screen. Close your eyes. Listen to a voice, a man's voice, disembodied, spiritual, recounting what he or she has seen, what we will never see ourselves, like Moses turned to the rock, like Plato turned toward his cave. That story, appendix to seeing and antidote to innocence, is what this movie, this bad and peculiar film, is after.

 

She wraps a shawl around her shoulders, drops her keys into a simple black purse, followed by an envelope, a letter stamped and addressed. She deposits the letter into the purse which has a clasp and shuts the clasp with a click. Then she stands there a moment longer, as though solidifying. Then with abrupt decision she turns and marches toward the door and opens it a little hard so that it swings open and bangs into the wall—there's a dimple the knob has made—and we see her lit from below going down the stairs, her back and her shoulders and her head and then just a band of diffuse light, and around this time the apartment door swings shut and just before it shuts we hear the street door open, and then the apartment door shuts and we're alone in the living room. Dialed up on the soundtrack we can just make out her heels striking the pavement below but the sound fades as quickly, all sound, we linger in the unnatural silence, someone coughs. The camera doesn't move, abandoning us to this sparsely decorated room, with its bony sofa and wooden rocking chair, a watercolor or print of a watercolor over the sofa that looks like a negative Monet, and the tulip with petals continuing in their process of blooming, of parting, of drying, of desiccating, of dropping to the table and to the floor and the simple rug at the center of the floor, off-white, the color of an empty screen or page.

 

We accept trompe l'oeil as the truth of looking: we accept the deceit of appearances in the name of a higher truth. If the camera follows a man we discover what he discovers a moment after he sees it, registering how to see it in his stance: dully ambling, ambitiously striding, cautiously skulking, or bridled to a short, shocked stop in the face of the literally obscene, off-screen. If the camera precedes him we never see what he sees except as reflected in his face: he reacts to a reality we infer, the necessary fiction that when he looks at us, into the camera, he sees something that is not us, and yet we are his reason for seeing it: each of us in our seats are the stand-in for the beautiful woman, the blood trail, the nemesis, the dead-end. The man penetrates the mystery of the visible, always two steps behind the truth up until the moment it's too late. With rigid grace he navigates the labyrinth that he and we can see: mean streets, the planes and angles of treacherous faces, the weather: he's nobody's fool, he's the biggest fool alive, taking for granted as we do that there's a skull beneath the skin that will ultimately grin out at us, as skulls grinned from the spines of the books on the shelves when I was young: Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, masters of the locked room, the cozy horror. Does he return in the wake of footsteps, silent, squat down now by that same green door, that same brass mailslot, and glance around to see if he's alone? Does he take out a pencil and use it to lift open the mailslot lid and peer inside? From his point of view we see only the dim shabby foyer, the dark stairs climbing upward. And then a shaft of light illuminating where the letter had fallen, the letter that is not there. We don't see the American man's face, we must glean his satisfaction from the set of his shoulders and his slight grunt as he gets back to his feet. He has so little to go on, Lamb. A client's claims, almost undocumented. He has only the letter that he has himself delivered. That she, blank, writes. That will be sent across the sea. Ouroborous. Takes hold once more of the handle of his rolling suitcase and rolls on, away from, toward her, M.

 

Like a sightseeing bus pushing slowly through inundated streets. That's how he moves, deliberately, lugubriously, like someone who's walked this path a hundred times before without any appetite for the destination. Yet there's something or someone that he carries with him for whom it's all new, and so once again he patiently treads past the cathedrals and plaques and statues and fountains and squares and shops, pausing occasionally to discharge or take on some other passenger seeking novelty, a shade of distraction, something to photograph for the express purpose of forgetting all about it. As though tourist and guide were one. The guide remembers for the tourist, but if he too has forgotten all about it he has a script he can follow in one of several languages, and if this script has been repeated often enough he's free to think about other things, to daydream or worry or remember scenes from his own life, his own history, forever unnarrated except by himself to himself: there's the flower shop where I bought her roses when they were out of those magenta daisies she likes, and she laughed at me, with real scorn I thought, for my unoriginality; there's the auto shop where Hector works, who never looks me in the face anymore since I saw him one night with his trousers down in the alley behind the bar with another bloke kneeling in front of him, and Hector's eyes were closed and he opened them and saw me seeing him, but all he did was close his eyes again; there's the school where the nuns beat me black and blue but mostly black, black around the bone, until I thought I was becoming a nun myself; there's the office building where my sister was a secretary for just one little month to that bastard she married before he knocked her up with twins and knocked her down when he was drinking and then took her and the twins (Luis and Ramona) away forever to some fucking Spanish island, where they've never invited me to so much as visit; and all the time this secret narrative is unfolding, or jigsawing, through his mind there's another narrative, the history of the city, the layers of centuries peeling and disclosed to the bored, avid ears of the picture-snapping listeners on the upper deck, above it all, while all around them swirls the ordinary traffic and weary populace of the city of now, each of them unfolding or jigsawing the private narratives with which ancient history has apparently very little to do. So Lamb, weaving and pausing his way down the high street, pausing occasionally to tug his bag's wheels loose from some snag in the paving stones or a curb's edge, edging, it's clear, with steady trepidation toward some ultimate goal.

 

The apartment. Nothing has changed, everything is changing. The sun has crossed the street and blazes in through the lacy curtains, sending dust motes sparkling and rippling like a second, heavenly set of curtains. The tulip is in ragged bloom; gap-toothed, it discloses its stamen shamelessly, as death has crept an hour further up its severed stem. A phone begins to ring in another room, an ancient phone with an actual bell powered by an actual motor triggered by an electrical signal that travels through twisted copper wire from an analog elsewhere. It rings nine times. Each time the phone rings the tulip seems to tremble a bit in our vision, the curtains seem to vibrate, the dust motes shiver in time to the unanswered summons. We begin to notice that the frame is shrinking, the camera dollying in, so that we lose the doorframe, we lose the French doors, we lose the tips of the curtains, we lose the dust motes, we lose the lamp and sofa, the tulip gets larger and larger, but migrates too from the center of the frame, getting lower, moving leftward, and with the seventh ring it is abruptly bathed in voluptuous sunlight, setting afire its red depths and pink shallows. With the eighth ring the tulip is almost gone and we become aware of its shadow on the wall. With the ninth ring we see a little bell of color in the shadow's head begin to glow against the wall. As the last ring dies away we see the tulip's shadow born into color, a red patch on the white wall, a tumescence, a little cauldron, bubbling away its living secret in shadow form on the wall: that no one can see. That only we can see.