The Unknown: The Red Line.

I had, since my earliest boyhood, been an avid fan of the cinema. Upon reflection, I had never seen a film that I was not, to some degree, satisfied by. All of that was about to change.

Trying to force all thoughts of Rettberg’s wife from my mind, I made my way into the theater and down the plush aisle toward the front row. The seats were full of people in tuxedos and evening gowns. They were chatting and laughing, and drinking Moet Chandon White Star champagne, which was being poured by impeccable wine stewards who moved up and down the aisles. There was the smell of swordfish being prepared for the appetizer. (There was to be a five-course gourmet meal served throughout the film.) I found myself a little put off by all this. I was, after all, a writer, and, as such, inhabited a different world than these people—the titans of Hollywood. I had always considered film as something secondary to literature—a tributary to the great river of literature, whose broad and powerful currents had flowed for hundreds of years. Film, I had always thought, existed to make literature richer. The thought that things were the other way around left rather a bad taste in my mouth.

I found myself alone in the first row. I suspected that I was the only one here to see the film, and that everyone else was here to be seen seeing the film by such-and-such famous director or other. Again, I tried to force these cynical thoughts from my mind, and tried to enjoy the popcorn. I found, though, that it had been flavored with some kind of garlic butter with capers, and, I suspected, tri-color pepper. It had a hint of anchovy. I briefly considered returning to the concessions stand and demanding normal popcorn, but quickly subdued my irritation. I was here to see a movie, I reminded myself, nothing more.

At last the film began.

The opening scene was set in a bookstore. The camera panned slowly over an anthology shelf. A quick scrutiny of the titles revealed to me that they were not real books—they were spines designed by studio professionals to resemble real books—and there was not a single anthology I recognized, nor did I see anything published by Norton or Sun and Moon Press. I found this bothered me for reasons I could not put a finger on. Finally the camera rose upward and, in a shot facing downward, panned over the tops of the shelves. The effect was admittedly stunning—that of floating across the ceiling of a bookstore looking down; as I had imagined the ghost of Kerouac had so often done.

The camera now descended to take in a man in a trenchcoat standing in an aisle reading. Because the man wore sunglasses and his face was concealed behind a screen of smoke from the cigarette he inhaled from obsessively (in a bookstore?), it took me a moment to recognize Willem DaFoe. The camera abruptly shifted focus as, behind DaFoe, the doors of the store opened and four figures strode in wearing sunglasses. The man in the trenchcoat slowly put the book away and turned to face the newcomers.

The man in the trenchcoat said, “Bill.”

A tight close-up of the mouth of one of the people entering the store revealed a sinister frown, and the man spit the words “Don’t call me that, Vollman.”The camera zoomed out to reveal that the actor who spoke was none other than Tom Cruise. The camera then panned over the faces of the other men: James Spader (Rettberg?), Sean Connery (Dirk??), Tom Cruise (with platform shoes) (William???), and Dustin Hoffman (me????!).

My heart sank.

There then ensued a fistfight between Tom Cruise as William and Willem DaFoe as, I reasoned, William Vollman. This fight was very brutal and not at all literary. The sight of Cruise repeatedly punching DaFoe’s face as blood splattered across some set designer’s idea of an anthology section, each punch sounding like a sledgehammer on gravel, a rock song I recognized as by the Tragically Hip rising to deafening volume on the theater’s 32-speaker Dolby surround sound, all filled me with a peculiar realization: that literature was indeed dead, supplanted by commercial sensationalism. And that I, and other writers who took ourselves seriously, were doomed to wander America as a sort of ghost.

After the two and a half hours of automatic weapons, high-speed car chases, incessant rock and roll, biceps, bikinis, cigarettes, and hard liquor, I was wild with exasperation. As the credits rolled and the crowd applauded and whistled and cheered, I stormed out into the lobby, determined to have words with Rettberg.

I moved through the crowd but could find neither him nor the other Unknown writers. Pushing my way into the men’s room, I was greeted by the sight of men in tuxedos passing mirrors. Fighting the urge to knock their blasted cocaine to the floor, I shouted, “Rettberg! Rettberg!”

The next thing I knew I was being roughly escorted to the street by two muscular bouncers. They threw me out onto the Sunset Strip and the theater doors fell closed and locked.

As I stood up and brushed myself off, inside the lobby, I caught sight of Marla. She was kissing Dustin Hoffman on both cheeks and everybody was laughing.

At that moment, I understood that I was to live out the rest of my empty years as a broken man.



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