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Projections

SITTING IN THE DARK, NEXT TO A MAN, ESCAPING INTO PICTURES

Projections

Leyla Ertegun
17 Snaps

I Loved You So Long

One day I started going to the movies. It was a Wednesday and I had worked all day but there was a movie I had in mind to see and I went to see it alone and this accomplishment for me—not going to the movies alone, but making a decision that involved the outside world and carrying it out—made it possible for me to go to a dinner afterwards, and soon another movie on my own again, and one with my brother, and then I accepted an escape with a man into a series of pictures as he called them, after which I left him to go to a film festival with my brother.

Then the movies stopped and something else began between the three of us.

If the movie had been that the woman had really killed her son—not killed him to save him from death—the woman would have had a truer reason to be so silent, so erased. But as it stands, her only reason, not as true and not as interesting, was to torture herself and those around her with her impenetrability and, as it turned out, a misleading sense of the magnitude of her secret.

It was, nevertheless, an enjoyable torture, which had as much to do with her acting as with the graceful features of her face.

If a woman were to really kill her son, would there be more people­ who would ask why than would not want to know?

And then there would be those who would ask something else entirely, something that as the movie played I asked, before I found out that the woman had not really killed her son: why not.

I did not know that Wednesday would mark the beginning of something, a conversation, an entrance into myself by distillation of character. That’s what this film felt like: the woman who had not really killed her son had invaded me. And her revulsion to even those closest to her.

After the film I sat in a warm place while I debated whether or not to go to a dinner I was invited to. I felt strong because I felt I had this character’s strength, so I went into the world of my friends so foreign to me hoping to revile them a little. I offered them the frozen face she had offered me for two hours. I may or may not have created some effect, some questioning in their minds. What mattered was that I had gone to bring myself closer to that character, because to be her I needed an audience. By trying to be her, I was left with a sense of strength at the end of the dinner, strength that you can show up at someone’s birthday, have a secret, and not hide it—hide yourself behind it—entirely.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

The man who was killed was telling a story into a video camera—the friend who’d filmed it had made a movie out of this footage, and interviews surrounding the murder. The man’s story was about his move to a small town in Canada, his first experience camping there. He said he had ­gotten in trouble for setting up a campfire and was fined a certain amount of money for doing so. However, the fee for camping in the first place, which he had not paid, was more than this fine, so in the end he had come out on top. But the best part—the man paused—was that when the rangers had discovered he’d set up this fire and called the fire department, they’d gotten an answering machine.

This, he said in closing, was what he liked about living in Canada.­

And then there was his statement at a friend’s wedding, at which he was the best man: how “best man” is a strange way to put it because really, the groom is the best man.

From these two reels I could tell this man had a good heart.

The woman who shot him did not have a good heart, but what was worse than her murder of him was her murder of their son, conceived during the visit that had left the man face down in a park with five bullets in his chest. And, though some might not agree, her suicide was worse: both this and the murder of their son could have more readily been stopped. Though maybe I’m wrong, maybe so could his ­murder—the woman had revealed herself, to him and to his friends, to be somewhat off.

All fingers pointed to her in the man’s murder. Canada let her walk, be a mother.

It could have been—like the continent of North America, as it says in the Barnes & Noble ads on the subway—that the son, when discovered, was not wanted. But the woman had kept him until, exactly thirteen months after giving birth, she changed her mind.

I am interested not in why she killed again and killed herself, not in whether it was out of guilt or malice, but why she had done the keeping. It could have been these same motives, redemption or retribution. But giving birth could also have been the surest way to the truth—is this what the judge who had given her her freedom, and the psychiatrist who had put up the money to enact it, had presaged? What about the man’s parents who talked daily on the phone with their son’s murderer to arrange for their grandson’s care—until the day she disappeared with him?

Maybe it was only through giving birth to a baby that she could say, I am a killer.

Because when the detective called to tell her that the man was dead, her answer was, Are you sure?

I’d talked about seeing this one with some friends who share my penchant for a good murderer—they’d been the ones to bring it to my attention. I decided not to wait. Not because it wouldn’t show long, but because I needed my fix more often than they.

When I came across it on ­cable the next week,
I did not regret ­having gone to the theater. It takes two similar experiences to begin a routine.

Tell No One

There were twists and there were turns and they were possible to follow, but a few questions at the end remained. They were the kind of questions from which answers might be generated, so it was decided that we would ask others who had seen the movie. When we found they hadn’t even posed these questions, that they’d stumbled in an entirely different way, we were forced to decide whether we agreed with them, or whether they ought not to have stumbled thus and should redirect themselves to our questions, which were:

How did the woman escape the authorities at the airport? And, How did she mount that webcam so that her husband could know she was alive, not murdered?

The story was that she had killed a man she worked with when he attacked her after she’d discovered he was raping young children. Her father had given her an escape by making her fake her death and relocating her to another country—which he was only able to do by telling her that her husband had been killed in a mugging.

What they stumbled on was:

How could the woman really have killed the man? And, How could she have not known that her husband was still alive, because aren’t doctors easy to look up?

I said a woman can kill a man—it doesn’t take that much.

I said a woman can have complete faith in her father and believe without questioning his words.

What a woman cannot do, I said, is escape the police, or connect a webcam.

We were myself and my brother. They were a friend and her date. I had talked about going to the film with this friend—I would have done the same if I’d had a date.

My brother and I went on a Saturday night after dinner out. My brother and I have had our share of dates.

Slumdog Millionaire

In this film about two brothers orphaned in a city with no limit on poverty or desperation, one in the end escapes. Yet with its depiction of them sprinting early on, like in Run Lola Run, music pounding to their footfalls and the camera swinging wildly around narrow street corners, it established itself as a sort of comedy or comic book, the children heroically ahead of their fate.

Later, for one of the two, escaping means not just being ahead of his fate, but winning a maximum amount of money on a game show while getting the girl.

It is written. This is the answer to the question posed at the beginning, the question the policemen tried to drown or electrocute out of our hero: How did he know the answers?

He does not know that for him to get the girl, his brother will have to sacrifice his life. Are we to think this too was written? And will he?

Whenever someone says an event happened for a reason, what they are not saying is that something has had to be given up.

The movie evades this by ending before the hero learns of his loss.

The other problem was that I found myself falling into the trap of, Is this based on a true story? Would I have liked the film any better if I had known these people had truly existed?

If I was falling into that trap, it meant I needed something more for the film to work. There are other things I could have wanted: a slower camera, more silence. What does it say that I did not think of these?

It could have something to do with how a film can seduce you with its form even when the content is insufficient—just as an answer to a question can be unsatisfactory, the fact that it is answered can sometimes be enough.

It did not surprise me that this film was not to my brother’s taste: he is not one for the dramatic, easy heroes, heroes at all.

The Wrestler

I met a man at a holiday party, a party I wasn’t sure I would go to but which, out of a mixture of thankfulness for being invited and one small part desire, I did. Though I’d met this man before, I had little memory of him. We conversed. A week later my phone rang.

He was inviting me to view this picture—it was his second time—in a matter of an hour.

I was with my brother.

We planned for the next night and met for a few drinks before in the rooftop bar of a hotel I did not know existed until then. When we went back for a few after, the place became embedded in the text of the film we had seen and both loved.

What else would we both love,
I wondered as we walked out.

I sat in the dark beside him and tried to see the movie through his eyes, to see what he had seen when, like me, he was watching it for the first time. To learn about someone through an object they love: what remains is to discover some of the things the object refers to.

But of course I was seeing it through my own eyes, and followed the character as the camera walked behind him: square shoulders over a wide back, long bleached hair, a steady gait. I liked that the director refused to show his face for some time—using first a distanced and low shot to behead him, then this perspective of trying to catch up with him as he walks out of a fight. The director returns to this technique, and with other characters. We are following only to chase again: the wrestler not confined within the ropes. At the end, his heart still healing from surgery and the rest of it, he becomes a wrestler again. Here I would have liked to see him from the front, to feel what it was like to walk to his death by the expression on his face.

After, in the hotel bar, the man from whom I had accepted an invitation to see this movie asked me if I thought the film had a pessimistic message or an optimistic one. Because I wanted to sound smart, I said optimistic.

The lack of a face in the beginning suggests the importance the body has had in this man’s life—the film takes place at the moment his face becomes his strength. Because he has only been looked at and not seen, he seeks the company of a stripper but not for her body, his daughter but not because of her connection to him as a daughter.

But he was so unsuccessful, the man protested.

Even though the end result may have been a return to the ring, I said, he had spent his time outside, on the move. It did not sound like me to defend the means against the end; it sounded even less like me to see redemption in a sad story.

At this point this man I was sitting with at a different table in the rooftop hotel bar declared himself an optimist.

So I spoke a truth back: that I was not.

If I kept up trying to sound smart, if that continued to mean seeing the light in the dark, would I start to believe in my fabrications?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

My feeling was that the child, when looked after by the old lady who had once been his lover, had not taken long enough to go from man to boy, not long enough to die. And when he had been an old man—at the beginning of his life—too long to mature.

Also, what would it have been like to be the old lady, getting old like everyone but watching her lover get younger? Although he leaves her the way his own father left him, she comes back to find him and care for him. Their daughter must have been a young woman by then—so many questions remain. And because this end of the film yielded not one actual scene, and only a voiced-over summary, we could not learn how the man as a boy related to his lover before losing all ability to know, speak, remember. Did he regret his abandonment of her and his daughter? Did he ask about his daughter? Did he want to meet her, ask to, get denied?

How did it feel when his bones were contracting?

He could have wanted to die without his lover caring for him.

He could have wanted to kill himself, not wait to become more and more of a baby.

What was his last loving gesture to the woman he loved and who had loved him since the night she woke him so they could go hide and be, girl in pigtails and old gray man, together?

The man’s feeling was that the movie simply told the story of how everything is impermanent.

I started to notice it was a word he used with frequency. Along with: distended, mission, adventure.

Gran Torino

He growled too much.

The film’s concept wasn’t a new one—an old man whose bitterness hid in Hemingwayesque fashion a sentimental soul—someone whose most treasured possession, once his wife died, was a vintage sports car. The plot of the film relied heavily on contrast, and when contrast is featured so prominently, contrition becomes the hazard.

Naturally, upon his death the man’s family did not inherit the car—not the granddaughter who came to her grandmother’s funeral, midriff exposed, licking her lips for nothing at the reading of the will. The Asian boy in the corner takes over, driving off as the credits roll and the camera floats up above Lake St. Clair.

There was the fact that the old man had worked in an automobile factory to excuse him his sports car. And that his sons left nothing to be desired added to his choice of whom to leave it to. Yet that could be attributed to his failings in raising them, the fact that he had learned late how to be a father, to the Asian boy living next door.

Regardless, of course he was going to leave the car to the kid whom he’d saved from gang life by catching him in the act of stealing it. Of course he was going to die for him.

During the holiday party we’d met at, our mutual friend’s father had raved about this film. So as we left the theater we started to wonder why. We recalled that he’d said something about how well Clint Eastwood seemed to capture race relations, class difference, and what was so wrong with Americans today. We agreed the narrative had been terribly heavy-handed.

If anything, I said, what he captured was trauma.

I liked that I did not have to explain.

I wasn’t sure what he meant when he first used the word distended, but it turned out I didn’t have to ask him to explain. It was in reference to the demands of his childhood, how he too had been more than a child to his parents, or a child at the wrong time, or more than a brother to his brother.

Milk

The next day I took my brother to the movies. I picked something political, because otherwise he really only likes documentaries.

He told me the politician would die—I should have guessed it, but you never know. Sometimes movies featuring politicians don’t end in bloodshed.

As it turned out, the film revealed this man’s death in its opening minutes. One of my favorite techniques, and one of the oldest—Antigone announcing in the prologue her own death and how her battle will continue beyond it: “It is the dead, / Not the living, who make the longest demands: / We die for ever…”

Used to good effect in today’s novels too: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” This is the opening line of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I read it years ago with the same fervor the college student protagonists got so caught up in they killed one of their own.

Knowing of a tragic ending creates more suspense than not, and not just because there’s still the mystery of how that death came to be, but because a story coming to death raises the stakes.

And that we continue to watch—implicates us in the killing.

Revolutionary Road

The next time the man who’d been taking me to the movies took me, he told me that when he saw me at that holiday party he knew before we talked what kind of state I was in. I already knew this. There’d been a moment soon after I arrived that I was with him in a hallway and he’d said, Where have you been? By the way he said it, I felt seen. Having a glass of wine before this picture, he told me he’d decided then I would be his mission.

In this film, the couple’s defeat of one another had come as no surprise to him. I asked, But what did you think about how?

I could have asked, Do you think about how will we come apart, or is the fact that we will where you stop?

We had only met a few weeks earlier, and all we’d been doing is going to the movies. I guess you could say I’m one for preparation.

The how hadn’t concerned him, he explained, the characters not evoking enough empathy to look at the specifics.

I told him they had gotten to me.

Why?

Because I’ve known the kind of coming apart that involves the pain of wanting too much from someone when you’ve got him trapped in hate.

But this isn’t what I said. I didn’t

know him well enough to say something like that.

What I said was, You’re right: the characters are selfish, immature. And I used the excuse of the book, which I had liked, told him its language brought the characters to life in a more dimensional way.

All this while we’re standing outside the theater leaning against the glass to avoid the rain. I wasn’t sure if we were going someplace else so I kept the conversation going as I could.

While we talked I thought about how what I wanted was for him to kiss me and I thought about doing it myself, but something about the film, the leaning against the glass in the rain, and how we had just seen two people come to an unhappy ending made me think twice.

In the taxi he gave the driver my street, but did not come up.

The next time I saw him we did not go to see a movie.

Wounded Knee, The Queen and I, Burma VJ, and Kimjongilia

As an ensemble, the documentaries were a testament to the importance of soil, how the land man stands on gives him his claim to what makes him a man: the stand-off of Native Americans reclaiming the town of their final defeat; an exiled queen who responds to letters with phone calls to her native land so she can hear the voice of someone still there; people who live in a repressive regime with no ideology other than the renewal of violently seized power; those who live in a regime with an ideology it chooses not to match.

Wounded Knee is in South Dakota.

The widow of the Shah of Iran lives in Paris and cannot return to her country.

The video journalists in Burma are sponsored by a Norwegian company that sent them the cameras with which they shot the riots­ of 2007.

Kimjongilia is the name of a flower created for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in 1988.

I was at a film festival with my brother, an aspiring documentarian. The other category, so-called narrative features, was more up my alley, but we came away with a healthy balance. Also, because I think it’s easier to make a bad narrative than a bad documentary, I thought I’d hedge my bets and not take too much of a risk, both for my brother’s­ sake and my own.

The risks I hope my brother will one day take filming documentaries about people caught by political systems are different from the risks I take with the stories I ­create, but how different are our characters really—who does not, in the telling, reinvent?

In our four days at the festival, I saw seventeen films, my brother nineteen. I skipped a morning because of the film I had seen the night before.

Helen

To see yourself so wholly in a character: to be transfused by the blood of a woman who never existed. Maybe this was why my tears started the next day, because I needed time for hers to mix with mine.

And I needed to be alone. How do people cry when not alone? The woman next to me made sounds of disgust throughout. She did not understand when a girl threw her arms at a window to cut them—declared to her companion as the credits rolled that she just was not there.

And I could not risk my reaction sooner because of my brother on my other side—how much was he watching with me in mind? When we walked out he said he thought the movie had been long.

I wanted to say: Imagine lifelong.

But he had put his hand on my arm when it was through. But he was my brother.

I did not have to look for the character: I knew what she felt because I could feel it before she did, and isn’t that how an identification works—you have to know because you have to see it coming in order to experience it when it does? She suffered, I suffered—an achievement, that sense of company. But this character came at me like a blow, the way depression does. She caused me to double over at the summit of a ski mountain the next day, to have to keep stopping on my way down by the trees alongside the run because crying into my goggles on the chairlift up had not been enough. My brother had decided not to ski that day, but friendly men on the double-chair wanted to chat and I obliged as I could.

I cried about her just as much as about the part of myself in her.

I cried not just for our suffering, but for the relief that is a beautiful possibility. Then I found I was crying only about that beauty—that my tears poured forth sheer happiness.

The disbelief that I could have such belief: I had not actually experienced it.

The film opens at the character’s surprise birthday party, thrown by adoring husband and child—her face is feigned joy that soon can no longer be feigned. Depression is not a gradual descent. She is asleep during the day, unable to breathe while giving a lecture, crying on her kitchen floor at night with a knife to her throat.

I know what it feels like to get lost in time, to be suddenly suffocated, to pick up a household instrument and use it in a new way.

The doctor says to the husband, Your wife is not unhappy; she is ill.

There is merit in the distinction, but what does it matter why Helen and I stop wanting to live?

Then Helen finds someone else who has stopped wanting to live, the girl who cuts herself. I saw myself in her too: identification doubled. I did not find someone who knew not to say things like, Take a trip, take a yoga class. My friends said exactly that. But I also did not have the trappings of wounded husband and neglected child.

I cried for their friendship. I cannot say why one lives and the other doesn’t. I cannot say I don’t understand how someone can jump off a roof. I also cannot say I don’t understand that some people who want very much to kill themselves do not—that part of me is borrowed, and it was also for the woman from whom I borrow, not a friend but more than one in a certain way, that I cried.

House of Saddam

Over the course of the time we go on our adventure, the less hesitant he becomes the more I am afraid. I hide this, along with my elation; if Kristin Scott Thomas in I Loved You So Long has something to hide frozen across her face, mine is the picture of the real criminal she turned out not to be.

That course of time turns out to be longer than planned, though there was no plan really. A simple agreement made over dinner to get in my car sometime over the weekend and drive away.

We spend a night and a day, decide to stay one more night, the whole day, and into the night after that.

Right before picking him up to leave, I visit my brother. Not wanting to part with him is standard. This is almost as bad.

Sometime during the second day I suddenly feel I am gone from myself: as soon as I realize it, the feeling disappears. It’s the fear there is no way back that lingers; and the feeling we’d been gone since the beginning of time, that there had been nothing before, no such thing as time.

This happens when we are in my car driving around, me driving him talking, the afternoon ahead of us, likely our last on this adventure. Is that what brought it on: impermanence, coupled with how we couldn’t go back to going to the movies?

Later, we park the car at the beach the way we had the day before, at the end of the afternoon, so that by the time we turn around to retrace our steps the sun will have disappeared and there will be that brightness of when it is gone but still daytime. The glow this second time is an icy pale blue, the ocean darkening as we walk alongside, closer than the day before.

What also lingers is fear that the realization of my disappearance from myself will hit again. If it does, it will be worse because it will hit the same place.

Disappearance is the worst kind of hiding.

When we get in, I call my brother. Because I am with someone else I am afraid he will disappear. We speak briefly, but it is enough.

On TV that night we watch a drama, not a documentary, about the life of this dictator. My brother would say it’d be better as a doc. This man and I enjoy saga.

The House of Saddam fills the promise of any Sunday night. Men break each other, trust and lose trust, break themselves. Men believe they are alive when they have already died. What I am thinking about in the car on our way back is how this leaves them the time to figure out who killed whom.

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