The Eternal War Is Here (excerpt)


Exactly how spooky were things?  I decided to find out, and I swung right on Jones, left again at a place we’d always like to poke our faces into on Halloween, a little alley called Macondray Lane.  Heavy on foliage and short on light, trees and vines always threatening to send tendrils and roots over and under the cracked, mossy brick path to swallow or strangle the rickety houses standing helpless on the other side.  That was how we liked it on Halloween, the demon-livened trees and the skinny witches’ huts.  Now it just looked desolate.

I saw the glow of a ten-watt bulb through flypaper windows.  And halfway down the alley there was a streetlight without a street, an ancient cracked globe atop a dented and swaying tin pole, planted a century ago to mark the city’s westward progress - mark it as with a stake, a point on a map; I don’t mean commemorate it - and not yet replaced.  It was like a wick waiting to be snuffed out with a pinch of thumb and forefinger the instant someone wanted to kill the lights and jump on a passerby.

The Eternal War is Here (excerpt)


I descended the staircase, and it was halfway down that I first noticed the smell.  How can I describe it?  It was as appetizing as anything that had ever filled my nostrils, but it was absolutely not a restaurant smell.  Or it was a secret restaurant smell, the smell of some exotic vegetable that had to be peeled and boiled and pureed before it was suitable for the tongue, but which scented the air beautifully, even freshly torn from the earth and smeared with soil.  It was the smell of coffee roasting in Freed’s when I was a kid, before I had to take the next, hard step and learn to drink it.

There was a simple wooden desk in the vestibule, and behind it a lovely young woman in a crimson cheongsam, watching a soap opera on a portable television with the sound turned low.  She looked up when I approached and greeted me with a smile that looked genuine.  I stopped in front of the desk.

 “You’re new.”  It was more a statement than a question.

“Is it that obvious?”

She kept smiling, but the smile didn’t broaden or show any teeth in response to my very mild humor.

“Three pipes for twenty dollars.  The best for beginners.  Not too little, not too much.  Are you working this afternoon?”


“This way you can work if you choose to...”  A dramatic pause followed by a smile that looked a little less genuine than its predecessor.  “...and you’ll like it more.”

I laughed a little.  At her, not with her.  But it didn’t matter.  I was reaching into my wallet and pulling out a twenty.  She took the money and slid open the top drawer of the desk, which was filled with mah jongg tiles and the proverbial little tin box.  She put the twenty in the box and handed me three tiles of genuine ivory, which might have been the oldest things in the place.  I looked at the red of her nails, deeper than the red of her dress, as her fingertips brushed against my palm.  I felt the erotic allure of opium before the first match was struck.  With the other hand she made a small but theatrical gesture toward a curtained doorway.

“Sing, O Muse!”, or, Creating an Establishing Shot from Your Seat Out There in the Dark

The method whereby the artist obliges the audience to build the separate parts into a whole, and to think on, further than has been stated, is the only one that puts the audience on a par with the artist in their perception of the film.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Persona opening.jpg

Out of the darkness emerge one, then the other element of an arc lamp, and the music grows louder, sounding like the concert hall at its unfriendliest, or a machine starting up.  And this machine does; the arc lamp catches fire, then we see and hear film moving through the projector, followed by five minutes of dark images: silent film spooks, a tarantula, a lamb being butchered, a hand nailed to a cross…

The opening sequence of Bergman’s Persona is one of film’s great puzzles.  But the arc lamp throws enough light on it for my satisfaction.  (I’ve begun more than one script with the image of a match being struck.  It’s a cliché, I know, but I don’t believe it’s an irredeemable one.)  This is the invocation of the muse.

But that’s not how films are made.  Or rather, that’s not how directors make films.

Bergman has described in vivid clinical detail how he wrote Persona in Sophiahemmet Hospital, suffering from double pneumonia, penicillin poisoning, and vertigo (that lovely, evocative term for one of the world’s least pleasant sensations.)  If Bergman had a muse, she emerged out of corridors graced by Bibi Andersson’s hospital white and haunted by crucified tarantulas reeking of offal.  By the time he put together that opening sequence, he’d long since written the script, shot the film, and moved in with Liv Ullmann.

There’s no quicker way to alienate some members of the audience than by leaving out an establishing shot.  Where are we?, they want to know.  Skip that information and they figure you’re just messing with their heads.  And the opening of Persona is about as far from an establishing shot as you can get.  Rather, Bergman is generously sharing his vertigo with you.  Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve suffered for my art.  Now it’s your turn.

Vertigo?  I suffered a bout of labyrinthitis once.  Six months of dizziness.  Not the happiest time of my life.  Not knowing where I am?  My recurrent anxiety dream (now that eighteen years – minus six months – of dedicated exercise has made the prospect of being naked at school almost appealing) is not being able to find my car in a huge parking garage.

But, as playwright John Patrick Shanley once wrote, “Theater is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done.”

Or, as Frank Loesser wrote, “Let’s Get Lost.”

So we can find our way out.

My mind wanders at the movies.  I’m glad it does.  The movies are a good place for that.  The exit signs are clearly marked. 

You might say that makes me an inattentive viewer.  Yes and no.  What it is, is me taking the parts of the film that fire the arc lamp behind my eyes, then starting the projector in my brain.  I tend to miss a few plot details when I do this.  That’s fine.  If a film is worth seeing, it’s worth dreaming with.  If it’s worth dreaming with, it’s worth re-plotting.

So that vertiginous opening sequence of Persona is your muse, o viewer, giving you permission and vision to dream the film to new life, bringing your own unconscious, your own desires, your own spirit to the task.  That is the film’s demand, and its reward.

Roll camera.

The Abramiad, Part One: "The Transvaal Horse Artillery" (excerpt)

Ponte Tower.jpg

This night the war deserted Louis at last.  How did he get here?  He couldn’t say for certain.  It must have been by train.  Wars began and ended in cars, on sidings, men boarding, debarking.  Boarding by ranks and files, debarking in ones and mobs.  He knew there was a train behind him.  This much was blood memory, somewhere below the eyes.  But there was no rattle or clank or whistle in his ears.  The tracks that had fed him into these city streets now rolled up into the fog and mist of August 1914.  In his dream he walked, through central Johannesburg, the core of the business district, past wide stone buildings of mining concerns, squat, pressed to the ground that produced their fortune, alongside the higher-reaching mock Greek temples of the bankers whose holy alchemy turned the ore into cash, pocket-sized sculpture and painting.  The monuments remained, but the earth-movers and artist-priests who’d raised them were now gone, vanished from downtown into forever Sunday.  In the doorways, in portico shadows, Africans sold thorny thick-skinned fruits and rock-hardy tubers from misaligned carts mounted on imperfectly round wheels.  Behind the windows the odd black face transacted unseen business, if any.  Louis felt a shadow brush his neck.  Now the buildings diminished, hugged the ground for lack of sky to fasten on.  The city was ending, and the tribute to its late efforts rose at the ends of half-built streets ringed out as spokes, a massing toward which gravity directed every paved tributary.  The shadow of the tower lay on the other side, so Louis had no warning, just a sudden wall on his path.  He’d seen this before, the early model, in a rich library volume, a Netherlandish Babel, its narrowing and unfinished upper reaches soaked in red danger light.  This was its modern perfection, perfect in its balance, equally wide at both ends, a number-straight cylinder with only white cloud light coloring its summit.  It was hollow, an empty tube, either by miracle of technology or genius in hitting on the easier path, the one that takes fewer bricks and girders and man-hours.  But if hollow were meant to rhyme with weightless, Louis felt the builders’ towering miscalculation pressing him deeper into his boots.  At the base of this concrete throat there was no vertigo, just pressure.  The tower turned inward, not radiating.  Scattered bodies and faces moving along its concavity.  All attention drawn away from the sky, sucked into the hollow.  The higher the reach, the stronger the pull.  Lungs drained.  No breath left in Sammy’s skinny wooden house or Joburg’s tower.  There was nothing coming now from the sky to thump or snap Louis out of sleep’s vacuum, only an effort of will from behind the eyes and under the back, a grab for the good air just an inch above his face, rescue only a stretch away.  His spine’s creak yielded a lungful.  Cool breath and eyelids drawn back to admit the day.  He was awake again.