Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Category: Fragments from a Writing Desk

Detective Story #1 — These Are The Clues

Life is a mystery and these are the clues: a woman (thirty-five) seated at a desk opposite an empty chair; a ticking clock.

Then the clues change. Or stay the same but rearrange themselves around a new clue: approaching footsteps on creaking stairs. Male by the sound. Heavy, dense steps with little of the tapping that comes from most women’s footwear, though I’m guessing. The interval between steps could probably be used to estimate height.

More steps, more clues. Will they stop at the door? Will they continue to the left, as most do, to the modeling agency? Or to the right to the empty office where the accountant used to be. The steps stop. A silhouette (male, almost certain now) through the frosted, dimpled glass. Then a knock.

Life is a mystery, these are the clues: a man in his forties wearing khaki pants, a black polo shirt (tucked in) and black sneakers walks into a detective agency with a book in his hand.

It’s a Saturday so he hasn’t come from work and this is, presumably, the way he thinks you should dress when you see a private detective on our your own time.

We exchange hellos and I gesture to the empty seat in front of me. He has short, dark brown hair that is graying above the ears. Blue eyes gaze out from behind little round, brown, tortoise-shell glasses. His expression is almost cartoonishly neutral: his lips flatlining across the bottom of his face.

I smile and ask how I can be of service.

He leans forward slightly and places the book on the desk between us.

“I’d like you to find the previous owner of this book,” he says and nods at the book.

I lean forward. Life is a mystery and this is a clue: a slender hardbound book without a dustjacket. I am not familiar with the title or its author: Peter Bunton Fulmerford, Out of Tomorrow’s Darkness. I open it, flip through the pages. Quality paper, the last numbered page is 153, the first page has a price written lightly in soft pencil: “15—”.

“There isn’t an ex libris stamp or anything like that,” he says and I worry that he thinks I’ve assumed he hasn’t checked for the obvious. But his voice is as neutral as his expression.

Taking care not to sound defensive, I say: “I assume that if you are serious enough to come to a detective you would have thought to inspect the book for any obvious indications of the previous owner.”

He nods and says, “No ex-libris stamp, no business card for a bookmark, no inscription, no marginalia. Unless there’s something written in invisible ink.”

I chuckle.

“So,” I asked, “may I ask why you’re interested in locating the previous owner if he or she left no noticeable markings on this book?”
“Well, there actually is a kind of marking—to use your word. Press your nose to its pages.”
I did.
“Do you smell it?”

I did. It wasn’t necessary press my nose to the pages, though I did for a few seconds. The aroma was strong but difficult to describe or comprehend. A hint of vanilla, perhaps. Or honeysuckle. Something citrusy, too. Lemon? Lime? Orange zest? The scents dovetailed into each other and drifted in and out as I tried to identify them. Compared to the eyes, the nose is an imprecise instrument.

Nevertheless, I chastised myself. Detection is the business of observation and observation is the business of all five senses. Six, some would argue. I had perceived the scent, momentarily, but I had not observed it. I had not, in truth, really noticed it. Clues are not merely pieces of the puzzle, they are puzzles in themselves. This clue contained smaller clues just as every mystery, once solved, becomes a clue in the larger mystery: Life.

Detective Story #2 — Billing Practices

“How much do you charge?” He asked.

I reached into my purse—it was hanging from the back of my wooden chair—and took out my smartphone. I tapped in my code, then tapped the small icon that looked like a old-fashioned taxi meter with a magnifying glass for a lever. I set the phone on the desk between us and rotated the screen so we could both see the ledger with two buttons, one red and one green.

“I charge by the minute. Whenever I am working on your case I tap the green button, when I stop working on your case I tap the red button.”
“That sounds expensive.”
“It’s like this,” I explained, “If I’m doing surveillance on your case—tailing a suspect, for instance—I tap the green button. If they go shopping and I follow them inside I will do my own shopping and tap the red button while I do. Then when I check out at the register, I tap the green button again. Let’s say I stake out a suspect’s apartment. I will bring a book and read. I don’t hit the green button until they do something that is potentially germane to the investigation. As much a possible I try to use the down time inherent in detective work to perform personal tasks that I would otherwise do on my own time. When I’m doing surveillance I also eat, catch up on my correspondence, take care of my nails, watch my favorite shows, read books, and so on.”
“Okay. . .”
“By the same token, if I’m eating dinner with a friend and he or she goes to the bathroom and I think about your case—not idle thoughts but productive ones—I tap the green button until my friend returns or I stop thinking about your case. Every minute of actual time I spend on your case is logged and, when possible, itemized. Other detectives charge you for sitting in the car for five hours eating salted peanuts while they watch a client’s wife watch TV for three hours. Some even charge for the peanuts. I charge only for the time and any direct expenses I would not otherwise have incurred.”
“What sort of expenses? What do you mean: ‘not otherwise have incurred’?”
“Suppose I’m following someone and they go to a movie. If it’s a movie I want to see, I tap the red button. Otherwise: green button. Or let’s say they go to a museum—if they go to a museum I’ve been intending to visit, I won’t charge for the admission fee and I won’t charge for any of the minutes I am inside until I am forced to pay attention only to the person I am surveilling. Or until circumstances change. For instance, if they go into a Special Exhibit I’m not interested in I will charge you for that entrance fee as well as for the time I spend in the special exhibit.”
“It sounds pretty subjective to me.”
I shrugged, “It is.”
“Do you typically charge less than other detectives?”
“I have no idea. My billing method isn’t a promotional gimmick and I’m not telling you about it in order to make a sale. This is just the way of charging for my services that makes the most sense to me.” I paused then added: “I can’t say for sure but I would guess that my rates are usually in line with what other detectives charge but occasionally much cheaper—some cases line up very well with my own routine.”
“It sounds fine,” he said and waved of his hand distractedly. Then he said, “I’m curious, though: what do you mean about some cases lining up with your routine?”
“I’ll give you an example: I was on a case two years ago that required I chase a suspect—he attempted to commit a crime while I was tailing him and I had no choice but to intervene. He fled and I chased him through a hilly park for nearly twenty minutes before I was able to apprehend him.”
“And you counted that as exercise.”
“Exactly. I run three days a week for twenty or thirty minutes. I tapped the green button when I finally caught up with him and made a citizen’s arrest.”

Lessons Learned

For the second straight year I have decided to share some of the lessons I learned during my 82-day hiatus from the workaday world. When you don’t have to spend 1/3 of your day five days per week performing tasks as assigned by someone else you have time for frivolous, human activities like learning about yourself, the world around you, and life. Note: Please do not expect these lessons to be especially profound. Just because an observation is true (or truish) does not guarantee that it is deep or even useful.

  • Life moves pretty slow, if you blink it can create a sort of strobe light effect that’s kind of cool
  • YOLO. Not that “you only live once” (which I figured out when I was six) but that this is what YOLO stands for. Somehow I managed to avoid learning this until June.
  • Wearing a Superman shirt to the gym is less embarrassing than one might think.
  • If you’re going to say “I’m so effin’ sexy” in a public place do it with authority.
  • Some people conceive of Heaven as an outdoor mall where the guardian angels are African-American women and a small delegation representing every waiter you’ve ever given a generous tip will sing you a Christmas carol.
  • If your strategy is to play the long-game make sure you know how much time is left on the clock.
  • Lucian Freud has been to my gym.
  • The area code for Wyoming is 307.
  • If someone takes the trouble to advertise that they’ve put cardamom in something it’s probably worth giving a try.
  • People who have spent time in Santa Fe are diplomatic about what they think of it until you’ve been there yourselfthen they’re far more forthcoming.
  • Breaking a world record is actually pretty easy.
  • Salt & Straw sells at least one type of ice cream that can cure a migraine. Not sure if this is true should you eat it with a fork.
  • There are more well-maintained vintage cars in Oregon than you’d expect.
  • You don’t really know a place until you’ve written a lengthy description of it.
  • There are no happy endings, only happy middlesand for some people even the prospect of a happy middle is slight.
  • Just when you think James Franco can’t get any more lame and idiotic you find out that he’s even more lame and idiotic than you think. Then he gets more lame and idiotic.
  • While I was overjoyed to have a good friend marry into my family some of my friends are less than enthusiastic about the idea of my marrying into theirs.
  • Tony award-winner and three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen spends more time in your bathroom than you do.
  • The essence of Portland cuisine is high-end versions of low-rent dishes and low-rent versions of high-end dishes.
  • “Women have roles. After you learn that you’ll stop objectifying them.”
  • Sometimes your penance takes the form of paying Facebook $1.
  • Washing your hands is the most important, rewarding thing you can do all day.
  • Russia has nine time zones. It used to have eleven.
  • The secret to drinking heavily without getting a hangover is to drink eight types of alcohol.
  • Nothing may not take up a lot of space but it takes up a surprising amount of timemore time, in fact, than most Things. I’m going to miss having nothing to do.

Works In Egress

Notes for a non-novel about not writing a novel

Title: Works In Egress

Description: A book-length collage (rhapsody?) of sentences, paragraphs, pages on the theme of failing to write a book. Include different drafts of various sentences, paragraphs, scenes. Include biographical anecdotes/sketches that represent intrusions of life upon art (insofar as there is any useful distinction to be made between the two). Include clips, scenes, false starts.

Examples . . .

Disclaimer: This is not an attempt to write a new kind of novel, nor is it meant to be groundbreaking or innovative. The result, whatever it proves to be, is simply the only book I can write.

Opening sentence: [Insert well-crafted, engaging opening line here.]

After trying to write a novel and failing, I’m writing about the failure. Is the result a novel? I don’t think so. Maybe. (I second guess myself a lot).

He never metafiction he didn’t like.

One problem with writing a novel is that you’re not the same writer — the same person — as you try to tell the story over the course of many weeks, months, years.

Every work in progress has slipped away, becoming a work in egress. Even completed stories are works in egress. Paul Valery, a French poet I haven’t really read, once wrote that “Poems are never finished, only abandoned.” Wikipedia tells me that after the death of his mentor, the poet Stephen Mallarme, Valery did not write for twenty years. (Digressions like this will help give Works In Egress length and, perhaps, depth.)

Ending: All our works are nothing but works in egress. They slip away: incomplete, abandoned. They slip away: forgotten, chronically neglected. They slip away: completed but falling well short of what we envisioned. All of it, everything, slips away. For what is life itself, dear Reader, but a work in egress?

It would be dishonest to end with the paragraph above. Chekhov (A Russian writer I have read regularly for years, albeit it only in translation) once said that it is in the beginning and endings of their stories that writers lie the most (should I use the actual quotation, as translated, or is this pararphrase close enough?). The paragraph above is true but to give it the weight of finality, the quality of crescendo and coda (too clever?) would be a lie. Life, people, even stories should limp along for awhile at the end, like a wounded dog: carrying on, oblivious that all the aesthetically pleasing moments have come and gone. Or maybe they should end abruptly. Or both. Yes, maybe

Bridges Freeze Before Road

Connecticut, 1959

It had been a slow, dark, cold drive back from the city and I wasn’t in the mood for any shit.

I’d been stuck following a snowplow through most of Fairfield County. I spent the whole night looking at taillights but whenever I turned a corner my headlights lit up the snow-banks in bursts of white and shadow, like a photonegative image of mountains. At a wide spot in the road the snowplow finally turned around to go back over its route. I sped up for a second, then swore under my breath and slowed down again. Up ahead two cop cars were parked on either side of the road leading across an old iron truss bridge.

I don’t like cops. I’ve hated any sonofabitch in uniform since I was in the Army but I hated cops long before that. They’re a bunch of bastards. Don’t believe all that line of duty, protect and serve, hero horseshit you see in the movies and on TV. Only an asshole would want to spend their workday telling people what to do. If every cop in the world got the shits and fucking died on the can it would be fine with me.

I pulled up between the two patrol cars and waited. A couple cops were standing around stamping their feet and blowing on their hands. They’re both wearing gloves but they keep blowing on their hands, like it’s going to make a difference. They were wearing those special issue peaked hats with the earflaps, too. Fucking adorable.

One of them noticed me idling there and waved me through but he did a half-assed job so I stayed where I was. Let him earn his pay. He waved me through again, this time with both hands. I kept my foot on the brake because, you know, fuck him.

Finally, he came over and shined his flashlight through the windshield. Then he came along side, put one hand on the roof of my car and lowered his face so I could see what a stupid, fat bastard he was. His face was a study in circles: round, pudgy, bulging circles of fat. He looked like an oversized baby. Officer Tidee-Didee. Officer Gerber.

He rapped on my window with the gloved knuckle of his index finger then made a spinning gesture with his wrist. I rolled down the window.

“What?” I said.
“Get a move on,” he said.
“What’s it all about?” I asked and nodded toward the bridge.

He told me some poor slob had drowned in the river and they were trying to pull the body out before the snow started up again and the river froze over.

“But the bridge is still open,” he said, “so you can drive on through.”
Like it was a big treat for me. Like I’d just won first prize at the county fair.
“What’s the rush?” I asked.
“You’re holding up traffic.”

I made a big production of looking back over my shoulder and seeing nothing and nobody. Then I said, “What traffic?”

He was done being friendly.
“Just get a move on, this ain’t no parking lot.”

I moved but I went slow. You got to be careful. Like the sign says:

There were three more squad cars on the other side of the bridge. Five cops were standing next to the railing with their hands tucked into their armpits. They were taking turns leaning over the side, looking straight down, then shaking their heads.

The whole thing pissed me off.

I drove across the bridge, then parked in front of a bar a few yards down the road. Some place called Mick’s. A dozen or so old-timers had come out to see what was going on. I told them about the body in the river and then we all walked back towards the bridge, lighting cigarettes and grumbling about the cold. When we got there the same five cops were still leaning over the rail but now they were all shining their flashlights on the body at the same time. I pressed up against the rail and took a look. The body was down there all right, face up and splayed across a rock in the middle of the river. One leg was tucked back under the body and one arm was bent at a crazy angle.

The cops all stood around doing what they do best, which is standing around trying to figure out what to. One of the guys from the bar yelled out, “Hey, how many cops does it take to get a body out of the river?” We all laughed. Then someone else yelled out an answer that made everyone laugh even harder but I couldn’t hear it.

We all stood around getting ten minutes older.

Then an old red pickup truck with a spotlight and a generator in the back pulled up. Some geezer wearing a hunting cap and a flannel jacket got out of the truck and ran round to the back. He cranked up the generator until it started humming and then tried to point the spotlight down at the river but the stand wasn’t high enough to get the right angle.

Then some other fat cop with a big moustache he couldn’t stop stroking rolled out of his car and decided to take charge. He must have been a lieutenant or maybe a captain. I couldn’t see any stripes on his shoulder because he was wearing a big leather bombardier jacket. Christ, he might have been the goddamned chief for all I know. Whatever he was, he was a big goddamn deal. Officer Bigshot. Officer Smugfuck. He barked orders. He took his nightstick out and waved it around. He strutted back and forth and pulled his belt up to his big, fat belly. He looked like some farmer’s pregnant grandmother. Then, after he’d thrown his weight around for awhile, he picked out the biggest cop of the bunch – a huge, dopey looking dumbshit with a head like a Yule log – and told him to hold the spotlight over his head with both hands while everyone else got a rope and pulled up the body. The big guy didn’t look too happy about it but he did what he was told.

Meanwhile three or four of the other cops tried to figure out how to tie a slipknot. Finally the old codger who had brought the generator went over and showed them how it was done and then they spent the next five minutes throwing the rope down at the body. The big cop with the spotlight started yelling about something but no one could understand what the hell he was trying to say.

“Just keep that light steady!” Officer Smugfuck shouted.
“But someone just stole my wallet!” The big cop yelled.
“I said keep that light up,” Smugfuck shouted back, “we’ve almost got him!”

I saw the whole thing. While the big cop was standing there holding the spotlight over his head with both hands, some wise-ass had come up behind him, reached in his pocket, taken his wallet, and walked off.

Funniest damn thing I ever saw.

The cops had managed to get the rope around the body and were hoisting it up using a pulley the old man had rigged up to one of the vertical girders. Even so they were having trouble. One of the cops saw us all standing around and said, “why don’t some of you Lookie-Lous give us a hand?”

So we all put our cigarettes in our mouths and started clapping.

A couple of the cops swore, then gave a big heave-ho and grunted so you could see their breath. The body shot all the way up past the safety rail until it nearly banged up against the pulley.

“Hold it there,” Officer Smugfuck yelled, waddling back and forth and looking up at the body. “Just hold it there!”

One of the cops had the bright idea to tie their end of the rope to the bumper of a squad car, so the other three pulled back on the rope while he scrambled to back up the car.

In the meantime the rest of us got to take a good long look at the body. Nothing special from what I could see. A man in his thirties, maybe early forties. Average height, though he might have shrunk in the cold. His white skin was shriveled. At least, I assume he was white once. Hanging there in the dead of night with the spotlight on him and water dripping from his arms and legs, he was as blue as a bishop’s balls.

It wasn’t until someone mentioned the strange tilt of his head that we realized they’d looped the rope around his neck.

“Is he still alive?” One of the cops asked after they’d tied the rope to the bumper and stepped back to take a look.
“Well, if he was he’s goddamned dead now,” someone called out, “seeing as you hung the poor bastard!”

Everyone laughed at that, even a couple of the cops. Then there was a dull snap and, a second or two later, a splash down below. The head had popped off and the rest of the body had fallen back into the river.

The head just hung there in the darkness for a few seconds, blue and bloated, then tipped forward out of the noose and bounced off the railing and onto the road. It settled on its side. A bluish ear poked out from dark, matted hair.

For a few endless seconds we all just stood there looking down at it. Then the old man in the flannel jacket snapped a wool blanket out in front of him and gently let it fall over the head like he was afraid it might wake up.

There was quiet for a few seconds, then some wise-ass said “Looks like we got a little a head of ourselves.” Everyone laughed but we all knew it was time to leave and we turned away and walked back to the bar.

I ordered a whisky sour.

Funeral (A Sketch)

Now that he was dead a room full of the people who had known him best stood in unconsciously formed groups and pensively ate little sandwiches and sipped free drinks. His colleagues from the firm, several of whom had been in the meeting when he collapsed, all agreed that his performance at work had dropped off considerably during those last few months. A few, those who had worked with him the longest, observed that he was never really the same after his daughter had died two years ago in a car accident. His former wives and lovers, many of whom had never spoken before and never would again, whispered that, though he could be distant, he was a genuinely kind and caring man. His second wife, absently stroking her ring finger, spoke with a trace of melancholy of how hard she had tried to reach him. A group of college friends stood near a table covered with upended wine glasses swapping stories about the countless times he had come to their aid and regretting that they had not done more when his father had died junior year. His brother and sister talked with a small group of family friends, comparing how long it had been since each person had last spoken with him. When he had gone to college everyone assumed he would return to help run the family business, assumed it for so long that they had only finally understood he wasn’t coming back after many years had passed. His mother, standing alone in a dim corner, felt a glow of pride as she gazed at the roomful of people and longed for the smiling face of the generous, wild-haired boy she had watched and loved as he slowly grew into the quiet, sad-eyed man who lay in the next room.

Crazy Quilt

During a phone call many months before when she ran out of questions to ask about her mother’s life—which now seemed to consist solely of walking to nearby lighthouses with Judy Meadowcroft—Audrey struck upon the idea of asking her to make a quilt, something she and her boyfriend could hang on the empty patch of wall in the center of their living room. Her mother had already given each of Audrey’s three older sisters a quilt and while she knew that a queen-sized comforter was out of the question (her mother would only do that much work for a wedding gift) a wall-hanging seemed a reasonable request. Besides, it was her turn and, more importantly, it was something to talk about.

Her mother was thrilled and spent nearly half an hour asking questions. What sort of quilt would she like? What color? Could she get a picture or, better yet, a sample of fabric from their couch—something she could match? It was the smoothest conversation they’d had in years and Audrey wondered why she had never thought to broach the topic before.

Audrey asked for a crazy quilt. This wouldn’t be the usual linear arrangements of geometric patches of fabric, she had explained to her boyfriend. “In the old days people used to make quilts by sewing together whatever leftover fabric happened to be around. Eventually, it became its own style: a patchwork of odd bits of fabric in all kinds of shapes and colors. A lot of crazy quilts look like stained glass windows.”

Three months went by before Audrey spoke with her mother again but every two weeks she still received a short letter, written on both sides of a tablet-sized sheet of paper in her mother’s spindly, nearly illegible hand. Audrey was always amazed at how tedious the letters were but she never had the heart to throw them away unread.

*     *     *

Dear Audrey,

A quick note while I’m catching up with some paper work.

I’m in the middle of my house hold face lift mess and will probably be so for several weeks to come. Dale and Tim were supposed to come today but got bogged down in another job. That’s fine. I expect it to take til Spring anyway.

Damon came last night to stay over. I always enjoy his company. He’s growing so fast. His last game (basketball) is today. It’s away so I won’t be going. He’s doing very well and having a great time.

We’ve had incredible weather for the last couple weeks, 40°–hate to go back to the single numbers.

Hope all is going well for you. I have started designing your quilt!


*     *     *

Dear Audrey,

A quick note to say “Hi!” Dale is here working on the ceilings. By the end of the week they should have the replacement ones completedmaybe even the rest done. Then off to the bath room.

Skip & Barb have rented a condo outside of Orlando for the month (Skip likes to go to the Red Sox Spring training games) so they were kind enough to invite me for a visit. I’m going from the 9th to the 16th. I’m looking forward to the warm sunshine and lack of snow storms. Another Northeaster is coming our way Tuesday!

How have you made out with all the rain on the West Coast?


*     *     *

Dear Audrey,

I’m writing at the dentist office – I’m running a little early. The tax preparation appointment didn’t take as long as I thought. Getting all my appointments completed before I head out to Florida for a week. Fortunately the snow is cooperating. It’s supposed to start this evening and into Tuesday. I fly out of Portland Wednesday evening. Perfect timing. I am more than ready to go to some where warm and sunny.

I’m spending this week cleaning up after the first phase of my home repair. The ceilings are back in place (the messiest part of all that I’m having done) and the electrical where needed. So far it looks great! They are taking a breather this week and will return while I’m in Florida to do the bath room. Dale and I went to home depot yesterday to pick out a new toilet and sink to match the tub.

Hope everything is going well for you.


*     *     *

Dear Audrey,

I’m trying to get used to the chill after a wonderful warm sunny week in Fl. It was nice soaking up the sunshine (75/80) and visiting with Carol. Coming back was easier thanks to “warmer” weather (40s) and sunshine. This is supposed to last well into next week! It should start to melt the enormous snow banks. I do hope this is the last of the winter weather, especially the snow.

Judy & Ray were here for corn beef and cabbage last night to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Did you celebrate the day?

Hope you have a nice Easter Sunday.


*     *     *

Dear Audrey,

My wrist is bothering me this morning so this note will be short. This week is school vacation. I think Damon is coming for over night tomorrow.

Judy’s supposed to come to quilt this noon but we are having a major snow storm today so she probably won’t make it.

It has been really busy here. Dale & Tom are working on the bathroom. Damon has been over at least once each week since Jan. I’ve had loads of drop-in company–Skip & Barb stopped by before driving to New Hampshire.

Of course I’ve been constantly quilting.


*     *     *

Dear Audrey,

I’m feeling a little light-headed today so I’m taking it easy. I even had to turn back from my morning walk to Bug Light with Judy. There are lots of nasty bugs going around so I may be have caught some kind of affection or another. Well, I can always quilt!

Dale spent all last week here finishing the bathroomthat looks greatand completing all but some of the woodwork in the living room. Still loads to do. They are finishing another job this week & plan to be back next week full force.

I have just a couple more squares (small ones) plus a corner section to complete your quilt so I should have that finished by the end of the month.

At this point I plan to take a break after I finish your quilt and do some reading. I have about 5 books I’ve had on hand for some time encluding the new Sneaky Pie book by Rita Mae Brown! I’ll enjoy the change.

Of course once they finish all the work I’ll have the house to put back together. It’s been nice not having all the cleaning that goes with having so much stuff around. Seems I get lazier all the time.


*     *     *

The quilt arrived in the mail carefully folded and packed into a small rectangular box covered with brown butcher paper and sealed along each corner with packing tape. Audrey was alone when she unpacked the quilt. She held it at arm’s length and cocked her head to one side, looking it over. Then she draped it over the sofa and stepped back a few feet. Finally, she took it to the bedroom and laid it flat across the bed. It was even lovelier than she had hoped. Beautiful. Yet as she gazed at its intersecting patches and squares she felt a swelling sadness somewhere deep within her. All those letters.

Knowing Audrey didn’t like anything flowery, her mother had chosen a backing fabric with a print of twining vines and leaves. Within the two-inch Fern green border more than one-hundred pieces of fabric had been sewn together and embellished using at least a dozen varieties of stitching. Audrey first noticed the diamond of green rayon near the center of the quilt because it was the same unique shade as her old Girl Scout sash and because her pins for Reading and Adventure were still attached. As she looked more closely she realized that many of the other pieces of fabric were also familiar. A circle of bright green satin was from the dress she had worn as a flower girl for her eldest sister’s wedding; the fuzzy, sepia-colored trapezoid outlined by golden feather-stitching was from the Pooh Bear doll she had carried with her everywhere when she was four; an indigo triangle covered with gold stars and a full moon with a silver, smiling face was cut from the blanket under which she had slept as a little girl; and a faded burlap square that still smelled faintly of sawdust was from the shop apron her father had worn; even the buttons that punctuated several pieces of fabric were from the peacoat she had worn throughout grade school. These remnants of her childhood—adorned with crocheted rosettes and swirls of lace; joined by zig-zag or chain or scalloped stitching—had become dashes of white and brown, pink and blue, green and gold, overlapping and jutting into one another as part of a new, vibrant, whole. In the bottom left-hand corner of the quilt, on a small ivory patch of fabric, was her mother’s signature: the image of a rose stitched in thick, blush-pink thread, a green stem arcing over the year—stitched in blue—and her mother’s initials resting just below a solitary leaf.

Where Credit Is Due

It was nearly over. It hadn’t been much of a movie—some talk of world domination, some fights, some explosions, and countless shots of the hero running through a hail of bullets while pulling a woman in a torn dress behind him. Now the villain was dead, his scheme thwarted. The hero and the woman in the flatteringly torn dress were attending to the obvious sexual tension between them. I crushed my empty Raisinet box and stuffed it into my promotional drink cup. The hero and the woman were walking along a beach, their backlit affection bleeding into an atomic sunset. They stopped near a bench and kissed. The fronds of a palm tree bristled slightly in the island breeze. The chorus of a song I’d heard while buying my ticket in the lobby burst into the foreground. Most of the audience stood up and watched the screen as they shuffled their way to the exits. I rose slightly in my seat, waiting for the credits before I made my way out of theater. I never leave before the screen goes black and the credits begin to roll. That way I don’t miss anything. So, I waited. Instead, the two lovers broke their kiss. The song played on for awhile and then faded until only the sound of the sea and seabirds remained.

I settled back in my seat, intrigued. Had the villain somehow survived being crushed by a flaming train car filled with explosives? Was there another, secret villain? Mid-way through the movie one of the hero’s best friends had been exposed as a traitor. Was there another traitor? Was the woman a double-agent? Walking hand-in-hand the hero and the woman, now mere silhouettes in the fading light, slowly crossed the beach, arms around each other’s waists, and strolled off-screen. The silhouette of a dog appeared, followed by a loping figure who lobbed a small dark circle into the shallows. The dog dashed in after it with a splash. Okay, I thought, I give them credit for not ending the movie on the usual high note.  The hero and the woman save world and the world goes on, blissfully unaware of what they have done. Interesting.

I picked up my drink again and leaned forward. A couple sitting two rows down stood up, draped their coats over their arms and headed towards the exit beside the screen. To my left I heard murmuring as another couple made their way down the aisle.

Instead of the credits, what followed was a shadow play. The dog paddled out a little ways, retrieved the ball and then turned back, its head bobbing rhythmically above the water. When it reached the shore it paused to shake the water from its coat and then ran towards its owner who patted the dog on the head, then threw the ball farther down the beach. The dog took off at a run and disappeared. The ambling silhouette of the owner followed the dog offscreen.

Swiveling in my seat, I looked all around me. Everyone else in the theater had left. On the screen the last light of sunset faded below the horizon. The black shapes of the bench and the palm tree framed the deepening blues of the sky and ocean. A seagull landed on the back of the bench and strutted there for several seconds before flying off towards the moon.

When had the moon appeared? There were stars, too, slowly brightening against the surrounding night. The distant form of a freighter appeared on the far corner of the horizon.

Still no credits. I considered leaving but I was convinced something was about to happen. Maybe they would cut to the deck of the freighter and a new set of villains would initiate some scheme that would be the subject of a sequel?

Another breeze rustled the palm tree. After awhile the figure of a man wearing a baseball cap appeared with slow, tentative steps. In the darkness it was impossible to see him clearly but his movements were cautious and elderly. Grasping the top of the bench, he lowered himself with deliberation. Then, dark and still, he sat and watched as the freighter continued its slow progress across the screen.

I sat and watched the man on the bench. Was he awake? Was he alive? Was he watching the waves or the ship or simply sitting and thinking?

I watched, still waiting. What was the point of all this?

On the screen the glimmering tips of waves bulged in the distance, beginning their sloping surge towards the beach. One by one the waves crashed and swept onto the shore, rippling into foam, emptily rolling in like credits that never come.

Real Reviews of Nonexistent Movies

(With thanks—and apologies—to Stanislaw Lem)

from http://www.synopticon.com


Director: Gilbert Manfred
Cast: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Scarlett Johansson, Ricky Jay
Rated: PG
Running time: 133 minutes
Writer: Gilbert Manfred

By Bethany Dale

When, if ever, is a forgery a work of art? That question looms large over the characters in Gilbert Manfred’s new film Timeless. Though he has yet to fulfill the promise of his debut (the sublime indie thriller Shadowing) Manfred has become a reliable delivery system for middle-brow, high-concept dramas like The Impresario (2006) and Privation (2009), the latter receiving an Oscar nod for best adapted screenplay. Manfred’s films have always dealt with the question of authenticity. With Timeless, his complex story of a time-traveling art forger, Manfred seems to be calling into question the entire idea of genuineness.

Christian Bale stars as Timothy Brechten, an art historian and forger who uses a time machine to make his counterfeit paintings more authentic. Initially Brechten imitates the style of past masters in his modern day studio, using pigments and brushes he has “liberated” from a given era to ensure that his paintings will hold up to scrutiny. He then returns to the past and hides the paintings in cellars and attics where he knows they will not be discovered until he to returns to the present day and retrieves them. The first third of the film is a fascinating look at the ins-and-outs of art forgery as scenes of Brechten creating several “original” Vermeers are intercut with examples of the battery of tests the paintings must pass before they can be sold. Trouble arises when a stylistic inconsistency in one of the Vermeers attracts the attention of art dealer Nicholas Feist (played with effete malice by John Malkovich) who becomes obsessed with exposing not only the painting but also Brechten himself as a fraud. When Brechten seeks refuge in turn of the century New York he initially hopes only to regain his composure and escape Feist’s accusations. Eventually, however, he hatches an elaborate scheme to establish himself as a master in the past so that he can profit in the present. Yet the longer Brechten remains in the 19th century, the more obsessed he becomes with the details of his paintings and the fuzzier the line between forgery and authenticity becomes.

Shot in lush colors by cinematographer John Toll, Timeless is beautiful to look at and works best when it sticks to its central plotline. Brechten’s love affair with an attractive socialite (Scarlett Johansson) seems to have been shoe-horned into the story for purposes of pleasing test audiences while Brechten’s rivalry with painter Thomas Eakins (Ricky Jay) is never fully developed. In the end, Timeless feels like a popular film that desperately wants to be more, an entertainment that tries too hard to justify itself as Art.

* * *

from Northwest Weekly

TeamKilling Exercise
87 min. | Rated R

TeamKilling Exercise, the latest rush job from Schlockmaster-General Shoj Kalesh, proves that even the shittiest slasher movies need a hook. Unfortunately, it’s all hook. No line, no sinker. The hook? During an office retreat the staff of a small tech company are stalked by a deranged killer. Not a bad idea as slashers go. Most people think company retreats suck and almost everyone fantasizes about killing a co-worker or two, so there’s loads of potential for campy fun. Yet somehow Kalesh and his small army of six credited screenwriters can’t deliver anything beyond the “strong horror violence, and language” promised by the MPAA rating.

Beginning with a nearly lethal rope course accident, Kalesh wastes no time maiming and/or killing one employee after another in a series of (you guessed it) team-building exercises gone horribly wrong. Why the entire retreat isn’t canceled after the first serious injury is anyone’s guess but eventually plucky receptionist Amber Bright (played with ample breasts by newcomer Chloe Bream) begins to suspect that her suffocated, impaled, and decapitated “team-mates” might be the victims of more than a series of freak accidents. As usual, Kalesh relies on a cast of scantily clad unknowns to do the heavy lifting while B-List celebrities and character actors receive top billing for brief (read: cheap) cameo roles. “Performance” is too generous a word for Kirstie Alley’s turn as a shrill office manager. “Behavior” is probably closer to the mark. And she behaves badly. The always reliable JK Simmons—who must have owed someone a favor—deserves an Oscar nomination for keeping a straight face while playing an accountant with lines like “something doesn’t add up.” The less said about Heidi Montag’s appearance, the better (oops, said too much).

Again and again, TeamKilling Exercise shows it is content to turn a first-weekend profit based on its premise and poster art. But whenever it looks like Kalesh might actually make the most of that premise he simply delivers another improbable and poorly lit death scene capped with a pun. It might have helped if Kalesh had been forced to endure a weekend of egg tosses, three-legged races, and trust falls. Then he would have some idea of what true horror should look like. At the very least he would have suffered a little.
— Mike Garry

* * *

from Metropolite Magazine

“The Chill” and “Dancing About Architecture”

Throughout their filmmaking career, Joel and Ethan Coen have returned time and again to noir. Their first film, “Blood Simple,” takes its title from Dashiell Hammett’s novel “Red Harvest” while “Miller’s Crossing,” their third film, is a masterful pastiche of elements from Hammett’s “The Glass Key.” James M Cain’s fingerprints are all over “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” The two Coen brothers’ films that have fared best on Oscar night —“Fargo” (Best Actress and Best Screenplay) and “No Country for Old Men” (Best Picture and Best Director)—are both textbook examples of the genre. Even the anarchic comedy of “The Big Lebowski” slyly borrows its rhythms from Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” Their latest film, “The Chill,” is based on a detective novel of the same name by another master of the genre: Ross Macdonald. Yet it would be a mistake to regard “The Chill” as a mere return to familiar territory.

Acclaimed by critics as the successor to Chandler and Hammett, Ross Macdonald (the nom de plume of Kenneth Millar) wrote nineteen books featuring private investigator Lew Archer over the course of five decades. Once praised as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American” in the pages of the “The New York Times Book Review,” the Archer books introduced complex new elements to the private eye formula. Archer’s investigations typically center on the uncovering of family secrets and his methods have less to do with wisecracks and beatings than with subtle questioning and dogged integrity. While most private eyes are avenging heroes, Archer is a vague figure—less character than catalyst. Only an actor with intrinsic charisma could pull off such a role and here the Coen brothers have made an inspired choice by casting the infinitely sympathetic Chris Cooper.

When “The Chill” begins Lew Archer is on the witness stand, testifying on behalf of the defense. We are in the early 1960s in Pacific Point, California—a coastal college town south of Los Angeles. Archer’s face and close-cropped hair are as gray as his courtroom suit. His baleful basset hound eyes seem to droop under the weight of a lifetime of witnessing. Behind him looms the blindfolded figure of Lady Justice, her scales sharply tilted by cinematographer Roger Deakins’ artful framing. Welcome to the world of “The Chill” where Justice is not merely blind, it is teetering on the edge. As he leaves the courtroom, Archer finds his way blocked by an All-American young man named Alex Kinkaid (Vincent Kartheiser, playing a more likable version of Peter Campbell, his character on “Mad Men”). Kinkaid, impressed by how Archer handled himself on the witness stand, pleads with the detective to find his wife, Dolly, who disappeared after their wedding a week earlier. Every line on Archer’s face speaks of a man who is tired, who needs a vacation, but young Kinkaid is desperate and Archer responds to his boyish insistence.

This might be a good time to mention that Lew Archer has been brought to the screen before. Paul Newman played him twice. First, in the successful 1966 film “Harper” (Newman insisted the character’s name be changed in hopes of preserving a streak of hit films beginning with the letter H) and then in the less successful follow-up “The Drowning Pool” (1975). Newman played Archer as a gum-chewing smart-aleck, a sort of proto-Fletch meant to appeal to a postwar generation who associated brooding detectives with the Bogart movies their parents had watched. Happily, the Coen brothers understand that Archer is no role for a star. He is a supporting character who happens to be in every scene. Instead, they have cast every other character as a starring role. This approach not only adds depth, it creates tension. When every speaking part is played by an actor of note, anyone can be the killer. When characters played by major actors suddenly turn up dead (as quickly happens in “The Chill”) every character seems vulnerable.

“The Chill”, first published in 1964, is one of Macdonald’s best novels and also one of his darkest. No doubt that is why the Coen brothers felt drawn to it. Also playing to their strengths is a complex plot that spans twenty years, at least two dozen characters, and several murders. Few other filmmakers can handle a plot this serpentine with such assuredness. Archer makes quick work of finding Dolly (Rachel McAdams), only Dolly is not entirely there to be found. She has suffered a nervous breakdown. Ten years earlier Dolly testified in court that her father shot and killed her mother. Now her father (Tom Wilkinson) is out of prison and making accusations of his own. Dolly’s situation worsens when she becomes the chief suspect in the murder of one of her professors. Ms McAdams plays Dolly with striking rawness as an Ophelia figure unhinged by the manipulations and betrayals of her supposed protectors. Yet she is only the bleeding tip of an old, deep wound.

“It’s almost as though history is repeating itself,” Alex Kinkaid observes early in the film and as Archer follows clues to Nevada and Illinois, he does also seem to be moving backwards in time. As the investigation gains momentum it collects people.  Dr Godwin (John Mahoney), a psychiatrist who treated Dolly as a child, becomes her most powerful advocate but his motives may not be as noble as they appear. Helen Haggerty, a college counselor whose playful banter with Archer masks a desperate agenda, is played with a perfect blend of intellect and nervous energy by Laura Linney. Wilkinson’s skillfully ambiguous portrayal of Dolly’s father, Chuck, unfolds with devastating subtlety while Charles Durning brings a pathetic menace to his role as a retired homicide detective haunted by memories of his own corruption. Frances McDormand and JK Simmons play a married pair of Nevada-based detectives who assist Archer. And on and on. There are many such performances; too many receive the attention they deserve here.

At the heart of “The Chill” is Matt Damon as Roy Bradshaw, dean of the local college. Again and again the trail of clues lead Archer back to the cantilevered house on the hill where Roy Bradshaw lives with his mother. This is Mr Damon’s most nuanced performance since “The Talented Mr Ripley.” Watching Bradshaw squirm as Archer steadily peels back the layers of his secret life is excruciating, especially when it begins to look like his lies have nothing to do with the case. Bradshaw’s elderly mother, a hobbled old woman who is simultaneously protective of her son and resentful of his deceptions, is Susan Sarandon’s meatiest part in years. Few major actresses over fifty are willing to play their age. Ms Sarandon is pushing sixty-five and in “The Chill” she plays older than her age and does so beautifully. Her performance is that rarest of gems in today’s pop culture malaise: pure acting without ego.

When a film has this much star-power it can easily become distracting. Somehow the Coen brothers have not only sidestepped this problem, they have made it a strength. There are no minor characters “The Chill.” Everyone matters. Each scene plays like a short film dedicated to a given character or relationship. Yet, miraculously, the entire film hangs together. What finally distinguishes “The Chill” from the Coen brother’s other noir efforts is that style takes a back seat to substance. If the Coen brothers have an Achilles’ heel it is their tendency to wink at the audience from behind the trappings of genre. “The Chill” is so natural, its surprises so genuine, that one can imagine this being what that first mystery, written so long ago, must have been like: not a contraption built to fulfill the requirements of a genre or the expectation of an audience but a story that captured our sense of wonder at the unveiling of the secrets we keep from one another and from ourselves. The result is a haunting film, a meditation on on the torments of those who hide in plain sight and the burden borne by victims, witnesses, and perpetrators alike when crimes are suppressed. There are no easy answers in the universe of “The Chill” and, when it comes time for the story’s final twist, its implications resonate backwards through the film with the pathos of a Greek tragedy.

Beginning its limited two-week run this Friday at the Film Forum, choreographer Nina Moncrieff’s documentary “Dancing About Architecture” (her first foray into film) takes its title from the variously attributed bon mot “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Recently, credit for this witticism was definitively given to comedian Martin Mull). What everyone else saw as a wry critique of music reviews Ms Moncrieff has taken as a personal challenge. Her response was last year’s dance program of the same name at the Joyce SoHo, a collection of seven works devoted to capturing the energy and spirit of architecture in dance. All seven pieces are included in the their entirety, framed only by a brief title card and a photograph of the architecture to be represented. Though the results are uneven—a tunic-infested contemporary dance interpretation of the Parthenon is especially tedious—at least two of the dance pieces are genuinely inspired. The imagining of the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao as a contemporary paso doble by Fernando Cercas and Natalya Estrofsky is as evocative as its performers are flexible, their lithe bodies contorting into countless protruding, arcing shapes while maintaining a steady, emphatic rhythm. The film’s finale, a tribute to the architecture of New York City, may initially seem like something of a cheat. The curtain rises to reveal a backdrop of the famous skyline so detailed it seems to undermine the entire project. Only when the buildings spring to life and begin a riotous, orgiastic dance does the viewer realize that they have been looking not at a backdrop but at the cleverly painted bodies of seven dancers. While one might wish Ms Moncrieff had cut one or two of the pieces in favor of interviews or rehearsal footage, at its best “Dancing About Architecture” calls to mind another famous quotation about the sheltering Art, this time from Goethe: “architecture is frozen music.”

A Parable

Most travelers do not notice anything unusual the first time they approach the village. In most respects it is unremarkable. Following the road through a gap in the crumbling town walls, one walks by rows of modest wooden houses with angled roofs. A little farther along the street broadens as homes give way to shops, cafés and taverns. Finally, at the foot of the hill, the road ends in a cul-de-sac ringed with imposing buildings hewn from white stone. At the top of the hill, however, where one expects to see the looming silhouette of a castle or a church, stands the Library.

It had been forty years since the Library needed a new apprentice. Word spread quickly throughout the village and then across the countryside on the lips of traders, travelers, and vagrants. Before long the village was overrun, its cafes and taverns packed with bearded and bespectacled hopefuls wearing the robes of foreign lands. For weeks the First Assistant of the Library read through stacks of books written by the candidates as well as the letters of introduction written on their behalf. Finally, he presented the Librarian with a list of four favorites.

On the day of the first snow these final four candidates were summoned to the Library. It took them nearly an hour to arrive, for along the way they were forced to weave through the throngs of disappointed candidates already making their way out of the village.

Each of the four had studied widely since their arrival. The Librarian was said to ask difficult questions, though none of them had been able learn what these questions might be. Yet when the time came for each candidate to speak with the Librarian they were surprised that he had only one question:
“What is the source of your desire to work in the Library?”

The first candidate stroked his thin beard as he considered the question.
Finally, he said: “I want to know.”
“Then I cannot help you,” the Librarian said.

The second candidate appeared as perplexed by the question as the first had been. She raised her eyes to the ceiling for several seconds before smiling at the Librarian.
“I want to understand,” she said.
Her smile faltered as the old man said, “Then I cannot help you.”

From the first it was plain that the next candidate, the youngest of the four, was earnest and humble. As the Librarian asked his question the young candidate gazed with wonder at the books that lined the walls.
“I want to learn,” the third candidate said without pause. The Librarian nodded. On a small slip of paper he inscribed a note granting the young man access to every corner of the library and handed it across the desk.
“You are welcome here any time,” the Librarian said, “but I cannot use you as an apprentice.”

It was the way of the Library to accept or refuse each candidate in turn rather than speak with them all and then select the most deserving among them. A given candidate was either suitable or unsuitable. Better to refuse them all and begin the entire process again than allow mediocrity into the Library.

“What is the source of your desire to work in the Library?” The Librarian asked for the fourth time.
The fourth candidate said only, “I want to be.”
The Librarian nodded. Rising from his chair he said, “Your apprenticeship will begin with a discussion of dust . . .”