Abandoned writing projects
by R.M. Berry
This is a film. In it, an actor we can't see is arranging small, irregularly shaped objects on a flat surface. The picture's a close-up, focus on what's just appearing, but sometimes the actor shows-his? her?-hand. If we're quick, we catch it breaking the frame. No one can tell for sure what's going on yet, partly because our focus is too narrow. The objects may not be significant; the movements could be a diversion. But we expect this action to lead to something. At the start, watching the film is following it.
The hand stops, the focus enlarges, and the objects lose their strangeness, become an eraser, three bottle caps, a foreign coin, some hair, etc. This change occurs in no time at all, as if underway from the beginning. The image is becoming clearer; the objects are clues. Before we know it, we're wondering: Why a foreign coin? Possibly beer caps? And just whose hair? But by then a voice has taken over, and our attention is being directed.
I say a voice, but not really. That is, the actor doesn't narrate. More like a murmur, run-on, oblivious, hardly more articulate than a groan. He-for with the voice (how has this occurred to us?) we know the hand is male-the actor doesn't address anyone, not even himself. If the film were comic, we'd expect his wife to clear her throat now, say, Dear, your whisssspering again! But no, the murmur, hand, objects-it's all we have to go on.
A pair of scissors enters the frame, blades slightly parted. The hand places them on the surface, then takes the eraser away. Of course, we know scissors are singular, but like binoculars and pants, we call them a pair. They lie on top of the hair now, establishing a connection. The paraphernalia of haircutting? The hair could be a fetish. Or are they for cutting something else?
Suddenly there's a loud thud. The voice rises sharply: Aaaaaay! We wait. Nothing. After several seconds, the hand takes the scissors away.
The surface before us is white. At first, it seems hardly distinguishable from the picture screen, as if all that supported the objects were the wall of the theater itself. Only the shadows of the bottle caps, intimations of depth, suggest a plane distinct from the visual one. But as the picture enlarges, the objects become material, extend into space. At last we can tell that the surface is a desk. Or possibly a drafting table. It stands in front of an open window which is set deep in another wall, this one of white plaster. The window's framed in light wood, hung with gauze curtains. From time to time the curtains stir. A breeze appears to be blowing.
Where? There's a voice. We can hear it. Objects are arranged on a desk. We can see them. A breeze appears to be blowing. We feel nothing. How much farther away this breeze appears than the surface of objects and sounds. Of course, we know projections can be deceiving. Everything before us isn't really happening just as much as everything else, and most of what we can't feel is merely absent, not missing. Still, when the actor's hand vanishes, it has to go somewhere. A frame isn't the end of the world, and most of what's really going on goes on behind the scenes. We sit in our obscurity; the actor labors in another; neither of us starts out with an edge. Can he feel the breeze?
A crumpled ball of paper strikes the white surface, or drafting table, bounces up against the wall, rolls to a stop beside the eraser. We tense for another outburst but instead hear-well, a sound.
Of course, there's no end of sounds. The actor's murmur, these chairs creaking, my heartbeats, someone behind me's sniffles, the crunch of candy wrappers under your feet. Even the silence amounts to a roar, discernible in the loud speakers whenever the voice stops. But this sound now is different. Both sharp and muffled, it comes from behind the wall. Two blocks of wood striking, or maybe a firecracker in a can, but happening again and again, sometimes in rapid succession. It reaches us through the window. And even as the actor's hand reappears, huge, ominous, grasping at something yet again, we're moved, or the frame is, translated above the surface, the action, objects, and entering the opening where the breeze blows through.
The film has become the window. The picture's now as big as all outdoors. We can hardly believe our eyes.
A massacre is underway. Wherever we turn, we see forms exploding, automatic weapons retorting, and lifeless figures covering the ground. From a barely visible structure in the distance, smoke rises skyward clouding our view, and moving left to right, a pair of murderers weave their way through the ruins, extinguishing every dying word. We can just make out the last voices, cries exhausting themselves in a final effort to resist annihilation. Everywhere is furor, mayhem, meaningless waste.
Drawn by fear, curiosity, compassion-what draws the eye to scenes of devastation?-the film is bringing us closer. Now the disposition of each body is evident, the tortured expressions, inclinations of head or hand. Nothing remains to be seen, but still we find ourselves almost wholly in the dark. How could all this violence be occurring while the actor in the foreground remains unmoved? Perhaps, in the aftermath of murder, such questions amount to nothing, for plainly any thought of intervening comes too late. Tongues of flame still flicker in the distance, and for a few seconds we hope to discover life among the ruins, but no figure is stirring. All those lying before us now seem inert, their mutilated forms arranged in grotesque attitudes, preposterous positions.
Surveying this holocaust, we can hardly avoid a suspicion of racism, for every character we see is black. Of course, in the heat of conflict, the flesh may have been consumed, or the tragedy, it occurs to us, might be happening elsewhere, in Zaire or Uganda. Not that its location is really material. Genocide is genocide. But we have no idea what state we're in, or why these dead have been sentenced. In the background an arid plateau stretches out of sight, and on the horizon we seem to make out a lavish habitation, although that could be a mirage. But however you look at it, the devastation appears so systematic, so total and unrelenting, that it can't have happened of itself. What plot has the film uncovered? Who's behind it?
No! No! No! the voice suddenly shouts. There's a crash of breaking glass, something strikes against the wall. We'd gotten so absorbed in the devastation before us that we'd lost sight of the actor. Now his proximity is alarming. We wait, the muscles in our legs tensed, hearts pounding. His murmurs don't resume. Was the crash a bullet? And we notice, faintly at first, a new sound, spasmodic, anguished, like panting. Nothing enters our picture. The new sound could be sobbing.
Is the actor's voice black? His ethnicity has never appeared to matter until now, but the identity of those outside the frame is becoming crucial. If the actor's himself a victim, that's one thing, perhaps eluding the authorities or fleeing a sentence awaiting him. Or maybe he's mourning the fallen. Our point of view will be his. But if he's framing this action, then he has a hand in it, and that's something else. Especially if he's white. There's no pretense to be documenting. The first fact is he's nearby and never shows his face. He fiddles with bottle caps, cuts hair, while on the other side of this wall, life as we know it ends.
I've neglected to mention that the film's not in color. This accounts for some of our vagueness. While handling the scissors, the actor momentarily exposed himself, such that, had the picture been other than black and white, we might've decided his race from the start, but now the gray hand has been withdrawn, and there's only a voice to go on. Can crying have a color? It can certainly have a tone. This crying sounds subdued. Hanging on each gasp, snuffle, wheeze, we listen, determined not to miss a word but quickly losing all sense of what's happening. Like static or white noise, we can't even be sure the voice is human, much less Haitian, Rapper, Anglo, Congolese. Although this ambiguity seems understandable enough-not every issue can be black and white-we know differently. Whatever's screened out, after all, has to be someone's doing, so that, staring at the unmoving figures below, we still feel compelled to make sense. Annihilation can't just go unaccounted for. And if the actor's identified with the murdered, then he's either threatened himself or duplicitous. Our involvement will be the greater. But if he's an outsider, then the film's racism has become transparent, and we'll want to distance ourselves.
The picture is moving again. The camera assumes a superior perspective; the outrage below grows more remote: our horizons expand in every direction. An urban sprawl now encompasses the massacre. We can see that the lifeless forms are lying about what appears to be a deserted project, or possibly a new development that hasn't been completed yet. The lavish habitation formerly on the horizon looks to be a convention center, stylishly made-up figures dashing off in all directions, and the smoking structure has become a hangar or terminal. In the foreground stands a badly aging edifice, its fa?ade almost completely worn away, and there are freeways, vacant lots, conflicting signs. Strangely, our higher vantage remains just as focused on the dead figures as before, as though, despite including so much more now, the film still emanated from the violence at its center. How we are to regard this paradox is impossible to say. Apparently, somebody's trying to make a statement, but the picture's tone seems as elusive as the voice's color.
Is our new point of view still the actor's? Up so high we seem to have abandoned his window, but perhaps we're just dreaming. The present perspective could be an unspoken wish, his or ours, to comprehend the devastation on all sides or to take the whole world in. But responsibility for what we see is becoming difficult to assign. For all we know, we could be God looking down on our, such as it is, creation, or perhaps this lofty vision is a birdbrain's. Of course, technology may have lifted us above ourselves again-Could that window at the edge of the frame be the opening we just passed through? And could the blank face looking this way be him? After all, the wish for transcendence is only human. But however you look at it, all we see is all we see, nobody else appearing to have a hand in our picture, and all we hear is the wind, fragile soprano rising and falling or the occasional explosion when a gust hits the microphone.
In the city, life goes on. An elevated train glides over the lifeless project, and traffic lines the freeway just as if genocide were an everyday affair. The occasional passerby can be seen to stick a head out-white? black? Up so high, which of us can tell? But there's no indication of alarm. Ambulances don't come screaming to the rescue. The only police car is mired in gridlock. It's as if down below everybody's watching a movie, or as if the dying forms had become invisible. We strain our eyes to detect the slightest movement, maybe a scavenger sifting the wreckage or a fugitive trying to escape, but nothing moves except our eyes. The gunshots have stopped, or anyway their reports no longer reach us. Among the lifeless figures, not a soul stirring.
One thing's impossible to miss, however: the disaster isn't natural. Perhaps it's the cosmopolitan environs, the modernity and nearby motion, or maybe it's that the tragedy appears so localized, but the unmoving characters look increasingly artificial. Whereas at first their dispositions seemed accidental, each falling as its gravity determined, now every demise seems arranged. The contorted heads and torsos parody a human being's collapse, and the attitudes in which the extremities are displayed appear ludicrously contrived. Even their expressions, which at our present distance we no longer try to make out, come back to us as staged. I have a confession to make. Gazing at these figures, I get the uncanny feeling that, at any instant, they could return to life. I find it literally incredible that lifeless forms are all I can see. If I'm to be frank, my hallucination will sound madder still. It's that the instant before I turn my eyes upon the figures, they are full of feeling, and that the instant I turn aside, they recover all their senses again, but that my eternal curse, or theirs or maybe just the film's, is that I have only to dwell upon them for all that holds my attention to be spirited away. Of course, this could be no more than my consciousness that, after all, I'm looking at a film, not out a window. Or out the latter only in the former, or the former merely figured as the latter, I mean figured formally, or as the latter formerly figured, or former, but all the same, the violence on the screen is being projected. Turn the lens aside and the dead will rise, make wisecracks and trouble, flirt, fornicate, renegotiate their contracts, demand artistic representation. If so much is obvious, why does it feel disappointing?
Suddenly in the theater-How's this possible?-a chair scrapes across the floor and someone nearer than the breeze blows his nose right in our ear. Footsteps are approaching from the loud speaker. Everybody tenses. What's happening? And then there's a tympanum-shattering crash. Our picture goes crazy. The city inverts, buildings and bodies start to whirl, the whole earth's spinning-Are we staring into a clothes dryer?-and the screen turns black. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit! we hear a voice, sounds like the same again, muttering. For a few seconds there's this repetitive theater-shaking thud, like someone beating his head against a wall. Then nothing. We half expect the credits to roll. We can't just picture ourselves sitting in the dark like this, but how can we tell if what started is over? Even this now could be more of it.
Maybe what feels so disappointing is that the actor is white. Just how we can tell would be hard to tell, but from his obscenities, all those in the know, both white and black, know. That the one in hiding is not among the victims is what nobody sitting in front of this blank screen can now fail to see. This alters everyone's perspective. Evidently, the individual who framed our picture expects us to find genocide entertaining. Doesn't he know that on our side of the lens the world's in color? Every second we remain in the dark our presence is compromising, but leaving at this point means never knowing what the killing makes all but intolerable not to know.
No roar of the sound track. The surrounding blackness isn't projected. People have started to talk. Seats creaking, somebody hissing, feet in the aisle. A candy wrapper whizzes past. Christ, what are we waiting for?
When the picture finally returns, it's moving again. Rising above the city and its dead, we watch as our world's edge slips away, revealing a limitless horizon. For an instant the screen feels unsupported, as though the theater were no longer backing it, leaving us giddy-are we free at last or falling as never before?-but as the unbroken vista expands, we gaze out at just what is hard to say. Everything appears illuminated, but nothing's particularly enlightening any more. As far as the eye can see is neither light nor dark nor white nor black nor admixture nor absence but only what, unpictured, appears to go without saying and, pictured, hardly matters at all. Does this mean the film has covered everything? Looking at nothing in particular we seem to detect a universal brilliance, a slick sheen on every surface that makes the picture's object hard to grasp. We want to get a grip on this film, peel it away, but not to discover what's behind it-So far into the reel, we aren't still hoping to uncover a plot-nor to expose the actor's hand-Could anything be emptier? The screen appears so lucid and unobjectionable now, so precisely as we'd like, or anyway, so precisely not as we'd not like, that what's still the matter is hard to put your finger on. The surface of our planet down below appears so smooth, so glossy and seamless that, if its balance were ever disturbed, we'd have nothing to cling to. Or only politics, since the film's racism, if racism's what it projects, can hardly prove as groundless as the film. But the killer is, nothing blocks our view now but our view. If, in spite of all, we find ourselves still wanting, how can we tell if what we want is more?
Before us is the screen.
Seconds pass. Unbroken vistas, limitless expanse, unimaginable brilliance.
We wait. Nothing appears to hold our attention. Air enters my lungs. My blood stirs. Air escapes my lips. What's happened to the breeze?
Then without our knowing, we're off. Horizons start to converge, the light's vanishing point vanishes, the earth edges closer, clouds, smoke, former perspective returns, overlooking cityscape and genocide, focus narrowing on ruins, black figures, smoldering remains, until, startling us with the window's familiar confinement, our frame and wall, we alight at last on the white surface from which we departed. There's a tangle of dark string or yarn beside the bottle caps now, one end passing out of the frame at the right. Also a green dispenser of cellophane tape. The coin is missing. A fourth cap has been added. For no apparent reason, I find my body relaxing.
The sound of a voice.
Look, how much longer do you expect them to wait?
It's a woman's. Maybe not Anglo, but maybe nothing else. Her words are the first-the first since no and shit-to reach us.
Three seconds, a long sigh. Is there something I'm supposed to say?
It's just a picture, for God's sake, not the end of-
They're dead. Don't you get it? All of them. Dead.
We hear her pace. How do you stand it in here? It's so stuffy!
Something's happened. If you'll go back to the beginning-
The beginning? Mother of God.
The window sash sliding. Where'd this broken glass come from? she asks.
Open, closed, you never feel any breeze, he says.
Altered tone. No matter what you think, people aren't oblivious. Really. They care. But these problems are just yours, and you can't expect-
But they're my problems....
Exactly. And you can't expect-
But they're my problems....
Exactly. And you can't expect-
Stoppit stoppit. Between me and...okay, I know you know, but there's this white rectangle. From where I sit, it's in front of everybody else too, as if, like, we'd all have to overlook what's staring us in the face just to get through to each other, but I feel, and I can't account for this, I know it's crazy, I feel-wouldn't it be crazier to never say so?-I feel completely abandoned, or nearly, or anyway that's what I call how it feels whenever I face the rectangle, maybe it's how everybody feels, but who knows why, I simply can't get around it. I mean it's a goddamn white rectangle! Well, since the only thing we see eye-to-eye on is that no white rectangle, however you figure it, will ever hold anyone's interest long, it does nobody any good to say, hey look, it's a white rectangle. But since the white rectangle's all I can ever see, well, it's not like I can just say, how 'bout them scissors!
There's so much more to life than string and bottle caps.
Do you really think I need someone to tell me that?
Peremptory snort. All right then, I'm giving you ten lines. Let's see what can you do?
Aaaaaaaaaaargh! The door slams, footsteps echo down a hall.
Our focus narrows, the hand appears again, huge now, filling the picture. It fiddles with the yarn, picks up the scissors, hesitates over the yarn, puts down the scissors. Three more seconds. Then the sound of a chair scraping, door opens, closes, footsteps-heavier this time-fading in the hall.
We find ourselves abandoned. The objects before us mere objects. The breeze, if there's any breeze, unfelt. No telling what's to follow. Only the frame still moves, or perhaps the tape, yarn, caps do, no more than a shiver at first, then everything goes wobbly, focus slowly traversing the seam of desk and wall, horizontal to vertical, or theoretically, since hovering who knows how far away now, our third dimension has collapsed, picture going flat, so that, gradually inverting us, depending on where we are, that is, our picture simply leaves everything up in the air. The wall becomes the wall. Roar of the sound track stops. On all sides black or white. Or nothing.
This is not a film.