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 Rettbergs 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 peoplethe titans of
Hollywood. I had always considered film as something secondary to literaturea
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 booksthey were spines designed by studio professionals
to resemble real booksand 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 stunningthat 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 Dont 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 DaFoes face
as blood splattered across some set designers 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 theaters 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 mens 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
At that moment, I understood that I was to live out the rest of my empty
years as a broken man.