From 'Eye of the Moon': train-eating sun blinded by eclipse.
Thank you for calling Colonial Williamsburg. All our reservation agents are busy at the moment. We take your call very seriously. Please stay on the line. This message will not repeat.
The man next door hammered into our adjoining wall while singing along with the radio. Telephone wedged between ear and shoulder I reached for a pencil, but as I listened to him sing, and as I considered the deadlines I faced at work, the idea of a colonial village where tobacco was harvested, but no one smoked, where slaves smiled, baked bread, and walked unhindered by chains, these images loomed as ridiculous as they appeared pastoral on television. I've got you under my skin, my neighbor sang. Pocahatans played by students on summer vacation handed the villagers what looked like pemmican and peace pipes, then held out their hands and were given, in turn, strands of glass beads. The colonial family was buying most of the Chesapeake Bay. Terrified, I hung up.
How many stories could begin, "What are you doing here, you're supposed to be dead?"
The door opens and a surprised host, hostess, or resident looks shocked. Light shines into the dark hall; a face might be familiar. Other guests, innocent family members in the back of the room, don't notice the new arrival. You think it can't be possible that he or she might only be visible to you. No, it can't be. You shut the door, look up at the transom, then down at the gap between the bottom of the door and the threshold to be sure no shadow has slid back into the room.
The encounter might take place on the street, in a train station, a busy intersection, a back alley. You're supposed to be dead! What are you doing here? What do you want from me? Leave," alone, please. You're in trouble. Calling the police is useless because a history of guilt and complicity on your part isn't entirely buried or forgotten. Could the likeness be only a coincidental double, not the real person, not the actual birth-certificate-waving human, not the citizen who might have made your life a living hell?
A silhouette skating like a banshee over pebbled glass, a profile reflected in the rearview mirror of a parked car, I twisted around quickly, not believing it possible. Is that you? Wait a minute, let me be certain.
The editing rooms of Alphabet Preservation are in the Mayflower building downtown. You walk in through the main entrance, a double door centered like a mouth; windows are eyes. A sculpture, a large statue of Hermes, was built into its own recessed aedicule above the door; that's the nose. Hermes is sinewy, arms and legs are an abstract collection of metal rods, yet in his winged cap he is still identifiable as the patron god of rogues, gymnasts, and travelers. The facade of the Mayflower looks like a series of faces. Other mouths: curving balconies, Gaudi-like but functionless, no one goes out on them. More windows resemble other pairs of eyes. How is an office building like a human body? Banks of elevators function like arteries, the furnace is a giant sweat gland, air-conditioning ducts are drawn-out tissue, branches of lung. The building directory located in the lobby might be the brain, flat and simple, tin and industrial felt, a banal yet practical mind.
Alphabet is on the fifth floor. The labs where the films are treated branch out from the reception area and offices of the director, his assistant, and the accountant. The walls are covered with framed posters from a few of the films we have preserved: Go West, The Cameraman, Wages of Fear, Out of the Past, The Runaway Bride, and photographs of Julian, the director of Alphabet, as a boy shaking hands with Charlie Chaplin in one picture, Montgomery Clift in another. Chaplin bent over to meet Julian's gaze and smiled, cane stuck out behind, yet this was an older Chaplin, perhaps tired of little boys. Montgomery Clift did not look happy. He may have been pressed for time, the shutter snapped and Julian, a confused but polite boy, thanked him and disappeared back into the ranks of the crew. His mother did costumes or props. Julian had told me once, but he didn't talk much about his childhood weaving around this or that set. Like the posters and calendars that advertised film stock and various labs with pictures of easily recognizable celebrities, the photographs, the pieces of Julian's history seemed both rooted in public domain and anonymous. There was also a coffee machine, newspapers, and magazines in the waiting room along with a few plants, but only a few, since the work done in Alphabet is done in the dark. On a table near the receptionist are stacks of letters addressed to members of Congress and institutions that represent the motion-picture industry. These letters were printed to protest the colorization of old black and white films, a process Alphabet views with disgust and refuses to undertake, no matter how lucrative coloring might be. When she isn't reading or answering the telephone the woman at the front desk suggests that anyone visiting Alphabet should sign one or more of the letters and mail them to Washington and Hollywood. Washington and Hollywood, Washington and Hollywood, she repeats every few hours. This is where I work.
Old silent films are the most difficult to preserve or restore. They are brittle; shrunken images are distorted as if burned, or figures appear drowned under a bubbled, warped surface. The films' perforations, round or straight-edged with chamfered corners, won't fit on the Steenbeck editing table whose teeth are designed to accommodate only film with the standard square sprocket holes. Unless the teeth are filed down, the machine will only shred them. Prints have to be matched to the original, if possible, but in the case of some very old prints, no original had survived.
"Melies," Julian said.
I opened the can.
"Mealies," I said.
Inside were long shreds of film, glutinous and flaked. Single reels looked like hockey pucks, gummy sweat exuding along the edges. These were rare films whose footage was almost obliterated, yet they continued to cling to life. As if I were a child Julian told me to be careful and I winced. He took. the can from me and replaced the lid.
"In 1907 fifty negatives were stolen from the New York office of Melies's Star Films."
I imagined particles of nothing eddying into corners of drawers.
"For the lost negatives there was no hope, but between the wars Leon Schlesinger, producer of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, managed to acquire many of Melies's prints, believing, accurately, they would someday be worth a fortune."
Cans of film stored in a safe, next to diamonds, securities, the deed to the house and somebody's will accumulating dust and value.
"When he died, his widow kept them locked up. For years she sat on the Dead Sea Scrolls of cinema, allowing only limited access to Marionites in sunglasses, but finally the archive of prints was released." Julian waved at stacks of cans and boxes labeled in French and English. I'd seen Voyage to the Moon, but the others were new to me. He pointed to one box as if it contained a bomb.
"This one, The Trial, was banned in France until 1973. After its first screening there were riots in the streets; people were trampled to death."
I told Julian I would begin with that one.
"Do we have enough Wet Gate?" he asked.
"We can't use Wet Gate on these films." Wet Gate, a substance that takes out scratches and abrasions, is usually applied to more recent films. Every treatment has its risks, and it had been recognized for some time that old films treated with Wet Gate began to take on a Wet Gate look; images processed this way became too perfect and too sharp. The date on the can read 1899. Slippery and odorless, WG, as it was known, Was no blessing. I lived the archaeology of these crappy prints, and when making a copy of a film I photographed the whole surface, preserving whatever was there, including the dust and fingerprints. Relying on what the film looked like to the naked eye seemed important.
"The Trial isn't supposed to look as if it were made yesterday," I argued.
"Well, Frances, maybe it should." Julian's beeper went off, he picked up his papers scattered on the table before us leaving me with the eroded bits and pieces.
Looney Tunes of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, not Alfred Dreyfus or Esterhazy, known as Z.
I'm in the dark, huddled over a light box holding a magnifying loupe, looking over a strip of film. What happened to these actors? You're supposed to be dead, I tell them, you came within an inch of being taken out with the trash years after being lost, stolen, and forgotten, lying around in a warehouse or a Looney Tune archive. They were filmed in a glass house in Montreuil, outside Paris, a building whose interior I imagine as frozen yet full of potential for movement, a structure like the Visible Man who could be assembled and studied, organs glued together or snapped apart. Open jars of paint are blood cells, and Melies himself is iris, retina, and cataract. Under his critical surveillance set designers who fabricated volcanoes, lunar surfaces, underwater wrecks react to criticism like nerve endings about to explode. I've had it, Georges! Piss off!. The Oedipus of early cinema, Melies destroyed many of his films himself, behaving like those long flexible pencils you see in joke shops that can be bent around go you can leave a trail of erasure rather than a line of words. What am I looking at? A girl travels to the North Pole in a vehicle labeled Bus de l'Incenieur.
When work is slow Alphabet rents out some of the extra editing rooms. There are ten of them lined up on either side of a short corridor, each one behind a numbered door. They are rented out like any other kind of office space, but none of the doors is completely soundproof. Finding one's way down the hall, listening as each soundtrack runs into the next, is like walking past a series of apartments whose doors have all been left open so that arguments, conversations, polemics, and shouting matches can be heard, one after the next. I used to walk to school past one house then the next and even if they were dark and locked up, as I walked past I knew what went on in a few of them. In this house a bully slept, a girl who picked her victims at random but with the finality of a court sentence. With the sound of gravel underfoot, breath misting in a cold early morning, I ran past hoping she wouldn't be sitting on her screened porch or playing with her dog, an oversize high-strung Airedale named Little Rex. She didn't use her fists like scrappy or tough girls but was a master of the taunt delivered in private when no one else was listening, something you could take home with you and worry about like a time bomb that would go off in bursts over and over. In another house lived a man who shot deer and brought them home, strapped to his car. We watched from across the lawn while he smiled and called out to us to take a look at this or that beauty. They bled all over his garage.
There is a basic confusion concerning the newsreel film. They said that Lumiere invented the newsreel - it was Melies.
I stopped and listened. The soundtrack was in French, but someone was translating the dialogue aloud into English:
Lumiere photographed train stations, horse races, families in the garden - the stuff of Impressionist painting. Melies filmed a trip to the moon, President Fallieres visiting Yugoslavia, the eruption of Mount Pelee, Dreyfus.
I knocked and opened the door. Someone froze the frame. On the screen a woman's face peered out from behind stacks of Mao's little red books. Annoyed faces turned in my direction.
"We were told we'd have complete privacy and quiet here. This is the third time we've been disturbed," a woman in black glasses snapped at me. "I paid good money to rent this space. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry seems to have. a question to ask or something to announce as soon as they get to this door."
"I was walking by, and I wondered who was talking about newsreels and Lumiere."
"Jean-Pierre Leaud in Godard's La Chinoise." She pushed her glasses up on her bead in exasperation at my stupidity and pointed to the screen.
Before I could thank her, apologize for the interruption, or tell her I knew the name, I was shoved aside by a delivery boy from the La Chinita Linda, a restaurant down the street. He expressed frustration and in his agitation had nothing but disinterest in the image on the screen that held us transfixed. He had gotten lost and was sure the food in the bags he carried had gone cold.
"We ordered Mexican!" The Godard people rolled their eyes in disgust at collective ignorance then slammed the door in our faces.
We stood side by side in the hall. He was silent, holding the cold food by the edges of the bag as if it contained a dinner he would spend the rest of the night trying to deliver. I walked back down the hall with him, noticing he'd left his bicycle leaning against the receptionist's desk, handlebars shoved into a stack of papers causing a minor landslide. I moved it aside while he called the restaurant. It turned out the delivery was for Alphabet City Typeface. We looked it up, and I directed him a few blocks away. I wasn't in a hurry to get back to work. My eyes hurt, and I watched him until the elevator came.
As I walked back down the hall, the soundtrack of La Chinoise was followed by sounds of gunshots in dry air - a Western, I think, and then from the next door came rainfall and English accents implying a jungle or a London street, it was hard to tell what the situation was. A faucet dripped somewhere, a real drip, not a recorded one, and out a corner window, as I turned down the hall I could see lights begin to come on as night fell. Again I was reminded of how I would walk down the middle of the silent empty road when it began to grow dark early and just when there seemed to be no one in any of the houses for miles in any direction, I would hear a dog bark and a girl's voice ring out.
Sitting in the dark watching Dreyfus stand in a prison yard, I felt as if I were at the bottom of a tunnel, and somewhere at its end lay black and white figures, mute, moving stiffly, who didn't know mustard gas, dynamite, and the airplane were about to be invented, then touching the negative by the edges I held the brittle film up to a light. Dreyfus's face was faded to an almost featureless disk. The film, though once considered too explosive to be shown in France, was as sturdy as cigarette ash. I turned off the light table and opened the venetian blinds a crack. It was night, the street was almost empty apart from a woman looking under the hood of her car. She slammed it shut, wiped her hands on her pants, then walked to a phone booth to make a call. In profile she looked like a Roman senator. It was late, but even from the fifth floor I could read her expression. She was annoyed. She wiped her hands on her trousers, thrust them into her pockets looking for change, then got back into her car, rummaged around in the glove compartment and slammed out of the car again. Under a streetlight, she pounded a telephone. She couldn't have been more irked. I stretched my arms over my head, went back to the film. In school I had wanted to study Latin and Greek - as if dead languages might explain how images were first connected to words. I imagined hectoring mobs of things (lions, columns, arenas, aqueducts, toga pins, constellations) all marshaled into categories: nouns, verbs, syntax - but my family had insisted that I do something practical, so I studied the most insubstantial thing I could think of: light. Conserving film, a skill that relied on a steady hand and a life in dark rooms, a surgeon of lost performances and an ambulance driver for long-dead actors.
I turned from the window and noticed a note had been slipped under my door. At first I thought it might have been another takeout menu, or an angry note from the Godard people, but the envelope had my name on it. I unfolded the paper, luminous, and creased into thirds, and read:
There is some information you might need to know as you work. In 1937 Melies was asked to write his memoirs for an Italian magazine, Cinema, but what he wrote was in the third person, as if actualities, the brass tacks of daily life - coffee cups and ashtrays - belonged to someone else.
(When riots threatened his film production company, and assassins plotted to kill him, he continued to work on his preconstructions. Resolute and resilient even in the face of imminent shipwreck, he searched for the trick card somewhere up one of his sleeves or the rabbit that could somehow be pulled out of a hat. He believed he would bounce back even if bouncing back didn't take any recognizable form. Years later, when he was reduced to working in a toy shop in a train station he watched people loiter aimlessly, drunkenly, or as they rushed past; he looked at each with curiosity as if waiting for some cheerful metamorphosis.)
I'm making this up but you get the idea. If no object in Star Films was stuck to its identity, if everything was continually metamorphosed into something
else, then perhaps the author and producer of these transformations, Melies himself, didn't want to be pinned to one identity either. The distant third person was a stand-in. For a man fond of cryptography (especially cases where one set of words becomes a substitute for another set) and jokes with names, this makes sense. Are there more traces of cryptography in the actualities than in the preconstructions?
Both Melies and Dreyfus had granddaughters named Madeleine. Yours Truly,
Attached to this was a page photocopied from a book.
The Count and Countess Pecci-Blunt gave an elaborate costume ball in their house and garden in Paris. The theme was white; any costume was admitted, but it had to be all in white. A large white dance floor was installed in the garden with the orchestra bidden in the bushes. I was asked to think up some added attraction. I hired a movie projector which was set up in a room on an upper floor, with the window giving out on the garden. I found an old hand-coloured film by the pioneer French filmmaker, Melies. While the white couples were revolving an the white floor, the film was projected on this moving screen - those who were not dancing looked down from the windows of the house. The effect was eery."
Written on the back was Courtesy of Jack Kews.
I opened the door, looked down the empty hall. The note could have been lying on the floor for hours, but I'd only just seen it. I shut the door and leaned my back against it.
Dreyfus's court-martial splashes across someone's skirt. One of Melies's trick beads explodes at an elbow. A rocket lands in someone's eye. Apart from The Trial, which is somewhat stark, these films are crowded, packed with images. Melies nearly always filled blank space as if he had a fear of emptiness. No cave, room, door, or fireplace remained black for long, sooner or later something would emerge from it. In The Conquest of the Pole, a huge figure eats the explorers, but the barren tundra is soon inhabited when the monster throws them up again. I stood in the dark, relatively empty room. I waited for Jack Kews or anyone to burst in. Nothing happened.
On the Steenbeck Dreyfus had just been arrested. He is taken into a room that resembled an office. He appeared to write as General Paty du Clam dictated. I knew that the paper Clam held in his hand was written by the actual spy, Z. It had been brought in by the Ordinary Track, night cleaner of the German embassy. When the two letters were compared Clam indicated that the handwriting was identical although the invisible lines weren't the same at all. Dreyfus is handed a pistol. Go ahead, do it, kill yourself. He refuses and is taken away at gunpoint.
I put the note on top of the light table. It was typed on plain white typing paper. The letter J of Jack's signature vaguely resembled Julian's J - he began his capital Js and Ts with the same broad hook at the top, a kind of roof supported by the stem of the letter - but the ack Kews, the sneeze that remained, had a different slant and bore no resemblance to Julian's handwriting. Jack's K was angular. Julian's capital K always had a loop in the center as if lassoing a pole. I turned the note upside down and put a magnifying loupe over Jack Kews. The J looked like a fishhook or a nose in profile. I didn't suspect Julian. He wouldn't, I don't think, have tried to scare me in this way, leaving an oddball note, a few harebrained conclusions deduced from Melies's memoirs. The office tricks Julian played were blatant and obvious, like coming to work in a gorilla suit when we were preserving an old print of King Kong.
The note would have to have been left by someone who knew I was working on the contents of the Dreyfus can. I couldn't remember if it had been one of the films shipped from Looney Tunes; if so, many people would have known The Trial was destined for Alphabet Preservation. In spite of Julian's affectation that this bit of silent film had caused riots, looting, vandalism, and murder, there was nothing incendiary left in The Trial that I could see. The pair down the hall expressed open hostility while the note, though eerie, reflected almost patemalistic concern. I went to the receptionist's desk and looked through the telephone book.
Kew Gardens Florist
Through glass doors I could see the Godardistes waiting for the elevator, smoking, fuming, chattering like monkeys, brittle, hard as nails. Dreyfus waited for me, shackled to a prison bed, and I didn't know exactly what to do with him. Why was this worth saving? I could smell the coil of old nitrate film lying dormant in a can as it had for years and feel its crumbly sickness under my fingernail, but could make little connection between the life of a man delivering takeout food who had been smuggled into the city in the trunk of a car with holes punched in the top for air and the value of saving old film. Some part of me remained unconvinced. I step into the shoes of the man who shot deer, tied them to the back of his car, and waved with glee at the people who stared at him in disgust as he drove down the interstate. As if by knowing this neighbor well, by playing with his children, eating and sleeping at their house, I have more than a window into a life organized around utilitarian motivation; more than a glimpse into a house dominated by the maypoling twins: buyger and satisfaction, one continually chasing the other. There is no room for history, no reason to preserve the feeble or antique. Why not melt the films down for boot heels? This is a dangerous and actually false confession for someone with my job, but sometimes the cobwebs stick to my hands, the reasons elude me, and for a moment I'm watching deer cut from the back of the car or truck, fascinated by torn fur, looking over the surface of the carcass for the evidence of the wound. This confession might mark me as a slacker who sees only futility in the project at hand, but I'm not, I'm very good at conservation and very careful. I would never rub out an actor or a scene.
Why bother with Dreyfus taken away at gunpoint? New Dreyfuses are born every day. Julian traveled to Paris during the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution and returned with Charlotte Corday and Marat cigarette lighters for everyone in the office as well as condoms printed with pictures of Robespierre which he only claimed to have showed to no one. Will there be Dreyfus (innocent) lighters and Esterhazy (guilty) - or Z as he was known - condoms, already tom and punctured with sneaky pinprick holes? In their expensive black-leather coats, the women waiting for the elevator gave the impression they knew exactly what the relationship of their lives of freeways and tax breaks was to the task of examining films made on a kinetograph. In an odd way I envied them.
I tacked the note to the bulletin board above my light table, my eyes wandering up to it when tired of examining and preserving the fleeting images of tiny men and women. Dreyfus read a letter from his wife, Lucie, and looked as if he would disintegrate with anguish. His performance, troubled by grotesque moments of stage despondency, might make a contemporary viewer laugh, although in contrast to his Victorian histrionics he acted before a minimal gray set that appeared very modern in its barren simplicity. The prison as Melies had designed it in 1899 looked as if waiting for Vladimir and Estragon to step on to recite their lines. The emptiness of the prison cell wasn't the result of film stock degeneration. This part of the film was in good shape. Lucie's letter, a surprisingly stark white square, fluttered to the ground.
At the beginning of the affair Dreyfus was nearly released for lack of evidence. History hangs by a drying thread. The generals covered up for the real spy by inventing documents. Also, they blocked evidence which would have been damaging to them from ever coming to trial by claiming that national security was at stake.
When the Watergate burglars broke into the Democratic headquarters, the trial eventually went beyond middle-class lawyers and irked FBI agents. At first that case, too, looked insignificant: a matter of small potatoes, lack of evidence to prove otherwise. Nobody would talk. But soon the words dirty tricks, double-cross, and ratfuck entered the language in a new way. The unmasking of bigwigs wasn't easy. Extensive cover-ups were supervised by yon know who, documents were fabricated, lists shredded. Again secrecy was maintained on the basis of the claim that national security would otherwise be at risk. The word shredding became synonymous with the concept of cover-up.
Even John Lennon's file is still sealed. The FBI claims national security is at stake. Yours truly,
I imagined Jack Kews as a kind of turn-of-the-century Terminator, programmed, relentless, fixated on the twists and turns of a trial no one remembers, obsessively cracking bilingual puns, pretending he's Georges Melies disappearing around corners and reappearing already sitting in your chair when you open your door. On the other hand, why me? I was such a bit player in this. Why target an obscure silent film? It was as if by setting his sights small, as if looking for a toehold, he might find some new clue that might alter the course of things, or change how the meaning of the trial might be unraveled.
While in prison one of the General Staff's star forgers, Colonel Henry, slits his own throat. The print is very worn here. His razor emerges with a grand sweep, an arc of light. Henry's body is so blurred and grainy, the image gives the impression that a disembodied arm has appeared from the foggy atmosphere and severed a head that has already been guillotined. I rewind the film. He's only been sitting at his desk writing a letter to his wife. Doll-like and unseen, Madame Henry will be capable of hysterical courtroom outbursts when the judge refers to the late forger, Henry.
After Henry's suicide Dreyfus leaves Devil's Island, returning to France for a second trial at Rennes. He lands at the port of Quiberon in Brittany. I held the film up to the light. A storm has been brewing. The forks of lightning hand drawn on the film have all but disappeared, only traces of them remain. Figures of Dreyfus and his guard ascend steps leading to the quay. The scene is gray and static like a nineteenth-century sculpture garden. Prints from the 1890s are very dark. I turned out the light and laid the carefully unspooled strips across a light table. I wanted to jump ahead, but the storm needed repair. Many frames had degenerated to dotty atmosphere, pointillist and vague.
Next door to Alphabet was a two-story building that housed William C. C. Chen's Tai Chi Chuan Studio. At night when I looked up from the street I could see the silhouettes of men distorted against steamed windows moving slowly backward and forward. Its walls were covered by red banners with gold writing. Below Chen's was the XXX Video Store on whose narrow glass panels were painted the signs:
The words body and beats (no hyphen) took on new meaning in their isolation. Standing across the street, I watched the men who went in and wondered if Jack Kews might be one of them, killing time before he slipped another note under my door.
Alphabet Preservation was dark when I unlocked the door, and thinking it would be deserted, I was prepared to disconnect the alarm system. The red light on the coffee machine burned in the dark, although there was nothing left in the pot but a ring of sludge. The alarm hadn't been activated, all was quiet. Montgomery Clift glinted above a calendar. He wasn't shaking hands with Julian but turned to face the camera, his arm around young Julian's shoulder as if posing for a father and son shirt ad, except Clift wasn't smiling. Julian had said he himself smiled because he felt he had to, that was what you did as a guest on the set for whom a favor was being done, he felt he had no choice but to smile. There was a light on in Julian's office. I opened the door to find him slumped over his desk. I thought he had fallen asleep and called his name to wake him. I didn't want to touch Julian, didn't want to shake his arm or even be alone with him in Alphabet at night. The corridor was dark, light from the street came through two of the windows, and I made my way into my office, silently, without turning on any lights. I unspooled some of the other Melies films.
In A Terrible Night a man was attacked by giant bedbugs. There,is no peace in his bed, no possibility of sleep, only aggravation. He hits them with a broom. Tough luck. Did Melies intend the cardboard bugs as fore-fathers of G. Samsa? When is a bug not really a bug? My bed was haunted by an insect who sent notes, who held up a corrupting mirror, who would not let me treat the Dreyfus film as a job like any other, who wouldn't let meaning be. To everything I did he seemed to say, You think this is precious stuff.? It's all been recycled These shadowy, grainy figures left the refuge of the literal and abandoned the realm of the simple pictorial situation; he nudged them out. You think it's just a strip of plastic, he seemed to be saying in his notes, think again. He loomed over the sheets, laughing and pinching.
Every Man His Own Cigarette Lighter. A man, a pedestrian with good intentions, is unable to find someone who will light his cigarette. He gestures as if asking: puts his cigarette in his mouth, pushes his face slightly in their direction, but he's ignored. Flaneurs, boulevardiers, and street-walkers either don't understand his gestures or think he's deliberately offending them in some way he may not yet have figured out. There is no soundtrack. I'm just guessing. Desperate, he creates a double of himself who will light the cigarette for him. There are times when it's impossible to ask anyone for anything, all you can do is rely on yourself, split yourself in two. On the street, you're too paralyzed to get a word out, everyone passes you with legendary hostility. Who are you? Who do you think you are? Don't interrupt me with petty needs such as inquiry after time or lost directions. I don't like your face. Get lost!
French Cops Learn to Speak English. Four French policemen learn bilingual puns. The teacher writes on the blackboard What a fair fish! and Very well I thank you. The cops in turn write: Ve te faire fiche and Manivelle Saint Cloud. Within minutes their classroom is invaded by four English girls, clearly actors in drag who sit on their laps and dance with them, and then the whole scene degenerates into wild eartwheels and gymnastics.
Train-Eating Sun Blinded by Eclipse. A lewdly winking sun is about to swallow a locomotive when gradually eyes, nose, and mouth become overshadowed by an eclipse with a female face. I began to think about what men did or had done to them in these films, and who or what was assigned a female identity. Comets, selenites, keys, houris, and musical notes were female. An advertisement for Parisiana, Love on Credit came to life and the figure of a sinuous woman chased a few men around the set. Devils, astronauts, deep-sea divers, scientists, and planets were usually male, as well as travelers and most of the main characters. Men had things done to them, women were the agency of vexation. Women were more mutable than men, more susceptible to transformations that appeared painless, unlike the men whose bodies split or whose heads exploded. Men were tricked over and over with nothing left to do but raise their hats in order to scratch their beads. There were exceptions to this theory, but on the whole I would say parts were divided along those lines. Whether the stories were driven by the travels of a central character or by plot, the victims and travelers alike were generally men.
Picking up other cans I read their titles written on labels, one after another: Pharmaceutical Hallucinations, Dreams of an Opium Fiend, Delirium in a Studio, Scheming Gambler's Paradise, Melomaniac, Dislocation Extraordinary, Four Troublesome Heads. Not all the hockey pucks would unspool. You can easily give up or try to soften them, then make copies as quickly as possible. It's like Russian roulette. Once unsealed they disintegrate rapidly because the base is breaking down. Unrolling film is like following a map that might break diagonally at any minute. The strips are so brittle they snap under the force of a glance. You put the pieces back together again with Mylar. Dreyfus, the American invasion of Cuba, and dismembered body parts are all mixed together. Where is the real Melies? Does Melies ever turn to the audience or to his workers as they hammer, paint, split their sides over his occasional bursts of gallows humor, does he ever turn to them and say, sorry, I don't feel like myself?
I'm driving down Sunset Boulevard, Boulevard Montparrasse or the Cross Island Expressway approaching the Throgs Neck Bridge. I'm driving in an unassigned city, a city that becomes a character with arms, legs, hands, and feet of clay. This borough is the head, the people on this block will spill out and clog an artery, this comer was tom up and never rebuilt: the city, an amputee, erases itself. From a distance, it's a candy city, apartment towers look as if made of waffle sections. I drive closer and the metaphor of sweets falls on its face. Barracks-like buildings near a train depot have been gutted; fire escapes and catwalks dangle from crumbling walls; ailan-thus, sumac, orange hawkweed, and yarrow grow out of the wrecked foundations. An area of warehouses is transformed into expensive apartments: the city rewrites itself. Louis Kahn wrote that you walk around a city, and it tells you what to do with yourself. I'm driving, but I feel much the same way.
The radio is on, tuned to a talk station. General Schwarzkopf, the host says, and a caller picks up the topic, responding with the general's nickname, Stormin' Norman, he agrees, the Bear, but his voice has nothing to do with the view from my car window, and I listen indifferently. Image, meaning, plastic: I look at my work as three choices, three pools to dive into, and usually I pick the third. Assessment and repair of the material is my job, but meaning often throws me for a loop. For this job repairing 780 feet of incendiary film (thirteen minutes, the longest of the lot) I have found out one or two things about the trial of Alfred D. The windows are open as I drive, the radio is on, and I think of another soldier, Schwarzkoppen, carrying on a long affair with Madame de Weede, wife of a Dutch diplomat. In a careless gesture he tore her letters into twenty pieces, later collected from the garbage by a character code-named the Ordinary Track who delivered them to the French Section of Statistics. He and Panizzardi, the Italian attache, had a "mysterious informer" whom they called "Jacques Dubois" after the swindler who proposed to sell them "smokeless gunpowder." Dubois = D who was really Esterhazy also known as Z, not Dreyfus, at all, therefore D = Z. Panizzardi wrote to Schwarzkoppen under the name Alexandrine, calling him Maximillienne: My darling all yours and on the mouth. ... Yes, little red dog, I shall come for your pleasure. I would be capable of stuffing a meter of swaddling in you and all the fourteen-year-old commandants if needed
I pass a car with children fighting in the backseat of a '76 Dart, windows open, the driver tapping her steering wheel to a turned-up recording of "A Bitch with Attitude." The host makes a smooth transition from the war in the Gulf to the need to punish countries who support international terrorism. He speaks of them in terms of badly disciplined children who must be kept in line because they don't know what's good for them. Metaphors of weakness, femininity, lunacy roll off his tongue without, it would seem, second thoughts, rehearsal, or plan. All his speech has the impression of being delivered off the cuff. Hello, you're on ... Welcome to ... A caller points out to him that America had been pouring military assistance into Iraq for many years. Desert Storm, the caller said, had seemed to her to have been a very bad idea: misguided, all about oil really. He cuts her off. You've always had people like Patty Hearst around. People who are easily duped into believing revolutionary rhetoric. So-called revolutionary. Implying the caller is one of these, a woman easily fooled, he savors his own cynicism. What ever happened to Stephen Weed? The host asked with a fat laugh. His voice has a cunning know-it-all, yet slightly self-deprecating tone. It smells of old socks and tickets to the game. I imagine a moon face behind the microphone. No one ever sees him. The traffic moves quickly, and I turn the radio off. Pigeons or gulls fly overhead in patterns of boomerangs and lotuses.
So far Melies has appeared in many of the reels, especially notable as the leader of the Institute for Incoherent Geography. In this role I imagine him sitting in the passenger seat as I drive. He whistles along with the radio, comments on passing scenery, directs me to turn left or right. Let's get lost, I say.
The third note arrived a few days later.
The letter written by Maximillienne (Schwarzkoppen) addressed to Alexandrine (Panizzardi) is from the archives of the French Ministry of War, Secret File, dated February 1896.
Thanks to David Parker of the Library of Congress for sharing his exhaustive knowledge of film preservation with me, especially regarding the "mealies."