the human condition is just the beginning
This text is based entirely on a mixture of direct observation, information gathered from sources near to the subject and a reasonable amount of embellished inference.
Before he hurt his back, he went running every Saturday morning, no later than 8am, no earlier than 7:30 am. He’d appear in front of the glass door to his building in the slightly comical outfit of shiny purple tights, a loose black top and a white or yellow headband. He stood out. He was an easily identifiable character of the neighborhood and to some its running joke, no pun intended. His earnestness made him a target. If you can’t laugh at yourself from time to time then others are forced to, for you. This is the unserious American iteration of a very old Greek lesson.
He would touch his toes, twist from side to side with his hands on his waist, check his watch and take off in a leisurely lope up 5th avenue, headed west, in the general direction of downtown and the ocean beyond. The bedroom, living room and kitchen windows of his narrow flat were of the old fashioned, crank-out design and overlooked the boulevard. Because traffic at that time of day on Saturday was very quiet, a radio could be heard playing from the wide-open windows in his absence during these runs, the open windows the flies and bees and gnats used freely, the radio on to stimulate his houseplants (according to outmoded theory) or to (naively) simulate a human presence in order to ward off potential burglars, despite the fact that there was little or nothing of any possible interest, to a professional thief, among his possessions.
We see four framed vintage movie posters on the living room walls and a dozen others still rolled up and stacked in a pyramid on the lowest shelf of a plain bookcase housing at most two hundred books. A small table, with a computer machine under it and a computer screen and keyboard upon it, to the right of the book case, with a view of the street. In the bedroom: nothing to speak of but the unwieldy black plastic cube of a medium-sized Television set, hooked up to a now-outmoded machine for playing videocassettes. A stack of these videocassettes on the Television. A futon from which to watch the Television.
His morning run would take him in a long rectangle, the first leg ending near the southwest corner of Balboa park, where he’d take a right up Grape Street, jog up Grape until 1st Avenue, veer right on 1st Avenue and sprint back toward University, which crosses 5th Avenue at the corner of the block he lives on. Not much of a run and puzzling considering the obvious opportunity to run through Balboa Park instead, up El Prado and over a magnificent bridge, under towering palms, through narcotically-fragrant jasmine, toward the world-class Zoo.
Returning from his run after 45 or 50 minutes, carrying a bag from the Java Pit and a cardboard cup of coffee, he’d let himself in the bevelled glass door between the Burger Meister and Nature Boy Apparel , climb the stairs and re-appear in his kitchen window above the boulevard, one hand covering the street-ward side of his face as he read a free newspaper, the free hand alternately lifting the coffee or the pastry.
Imagine the trembling image of his sun-struck hand captured by binoculars… the sandy hairs on his freckled fingers, flaring in the light. Imagine the obscured facial expression never entirely free of the self-consciousness of the American’s fantasy of forever being watched, if not by the government, or foreign governments, or talent scouts from Hollywood, then by the figure of a dreamed-of Woman or God Himself. The free newspaper he’d be reading was from a pile of free newspapers stacked every week on the bottom step of the carpeted stairs leading up to his second floor hallway. The free newspaper often carried 150, or 300, or 500-word pieces (book, movie or restaurant reviews) he’d written himself, frowning over the glowing screen of his PC in the living room window at night.
On the shelves of his bookcase, among the books by or about auteurs of the 1960s, and the required reading, in popular philosophy and middlebrow fiction, that remained in his possession after college, there were innocuous biographies of some of the 20th century celebrity politicians he had grown up, with utter predictability, revering.
Back when a fleshy, youthful, leeringly corrupt-looking pseudo-progressive, therefore, ran for office on the eternal platform of a brighter tomorrow, the year our subject moved into his apartment on the boulevard, he began wearing the candidate’s eye-catching campaign buttons on the backpack he used for shopping at the branch of the whole foods grocery chain up the street.
He was even to be seen taping glossy red, white and blue flyers on telephone poles, and thumb-tacking them to the bulletin boards of the record shops and cafes in the area, with a spring in his step and a zealot’s smile. The evening of the election he stayed up all night drinking beer, monitoring the accumulating election results on the Television in his bedroom. He stayed up all night, that night, working on a piece of commemorative writing, one supposes, seated in the window with the fleeting body language of total triumph, of optimism and success, working on a very long piece that has never, as far as one knows, been published.
When, eight years after this collective political pseudo-victory, his disgraced pseudo-progressive candidate was replaced with a supposed opposite and the country promptly entered a war, as though the “progressive” President’s time in office had been a confusing dream, our subject withdrew from any outward involvement in politics, driven deeper into his unhealthy obsession with films. Cinema and sex and related qualms about his personal life became his only concerns.
The Saturday morning run became his habit for the next four years.
Before the running habit he’d had a mountain bike and before the mountain bike he’d had an immaculately well-preserved automobile, something with rare character, that he’d lucked into purchasing. He bought the car for a ridiculous price, from a financially-desperate foreigner. The foreigner was well aware that the price was obscenely low, but he was in the country illegally, needed the money rather quickly and was in no position to haggle. This unethical windfall happened during our subject’s third week in the city. He was clinging to the last days of his twenties when that deal went down and his natural callousness as an obliviously comfortable American youth meant that the transaction troubled him not one bit. His surge of good luck overlapped the long tail of the seller’s ache of misfortune (although, like the young fool he was, the subject eventually sold the German-made auto, for half of its value, not long after, needing the money, cancelling out the good fortune of acquiring the vintage car so cheaply, without managing to cancel out the sin).
That was back when he still couldn’t get over the unreal sensation of the obscene abundance of good weather that might put any genuine student of film in mind of Mr. Welles’ invidious parable of the cuckoo clock and peace-blessed Switzerland. Most every day he would drive the automobile to The Beach and lay for eight hours on an enormous striped towel under a sky-blue umbrella beside the massive lullaby of the ocean until, one day, he had little choice, because of dwindling funds as well as the boredom of sitting alone on the beach, but to seek steady employment.
For twelve years, since shortly after moving to the city (and that bored epiphany on the beach) he’d been able to pay the rent by writing book, movie and restaurant reviews , supplementing the cultural production with house painting. The vast majority of the money came from the house painting. He found a place to which to sell (or barter) his writing and he found a house painter looking for a “partner” (a subordinate). For twelve years he painted houses, watched films or rented videocassettes and wrote his 500-word opinion pieces and reviews. The most he ever received for a review was fifty dollars and a thirty-dollar bottle of wine. His average pay for house-painting was twelve dollars an hour, higher than the minimum wage. Sometimes he earned as much as twenty dollars an hour, on a house-painting job, and felt rich.
If there was any drawback in the house-painting, beside the physical exhaustion of it, it was this: much of the work came in new housing developments as the city, the fastest-growing city in the country (as it advertised itself), expanded, in widening rings up the coast and toward the mountains, like a shock wave of bad taste. The houses in these often-gated communities tended to be large, rapidly-made, identical and irrationally expensive. In every other house there seemed to be an attractive wife or girlfriend attached to a lawyer or an engineer or a media professional who was absent, at work. Some of the women stayed home all day, watching Television or chatting on the phone by the medium-sized pool or consulting with Interior Designers or other craftsmen while the house was still full of plastic sheeting and plaster-dust boot prints … and for these attractive women he did not, and could not, exist. Not as a man. Not in his painter-whites and free paper cap from the paint store while another man in a free paper hat gave him orders. He recognized, soon enough, the traditional pornography-scenario of the tradesman seducing (or being seduced by) the attractive young housewife as a fantasy belonging to a long-gone era. Wealth has been the governing erotic motif of American Life since the lipsticked corpse of the Reagan administration.
Still young enough to remember when attractive women had noticed him (had even been known to pursue him; had called at all hours and invited him to movies and had, sometimes, at the end of a fairly quick and unremarkable process, provided him with sexual relief) his new status as a non-sexual worker ant to people who were not quite wealthy (but very comfortable) was difficult to swallow. He could quite vividly remember sex, the gratification of conquest, the physically-pleasurable validation in being wanted and submitted to. But he was now years down the road from all that. Sex was no longer a given. He was still young-ish and fit and not-bad-looking and he wasn’t ready to concede that a beautiful woman, a mysterious and beautiful woman, was no longer in his future. But it began to seem incredible to him that he had ever known, intimately, and had sometimes avoided the company of, young, beautiful women. Too late, he realized that his So Cal paradise was a trap in which he’d traded easy sex for easy weather and the devastating narcotic of the accelerating passage of Time.
Then he hurt his back, stopped running or walking or appearing very often outside the box of his bedroom. He was forced to live off his savings. He was forty one that summer.
He called it back pain but where he bore the terrible brunt of the pain was in his leg. He could visualize the pain as an electrical schematic that connected the nerves in his spine to nodes in his lower back and the anterior of his right thigh above the knee. On a really bad day it made walking, standing, sitting, or reclining impossible. It’s only too fitting that the word “excruciating” hides within itself a reference to the crucifixion. On a good day he could walk to the corner and back, with a limp. The condition is called Sciatica, a word he remembered hearing when he was young. He always associated the word Sciatica with old people and now he had it. He remembered exactly how and when the pain started.
He remembered that on that particular morning the radio people were discussing chronic pain. An expert discussed it with Mal Ivers, the avuncular, typically American and often glibly-infuriating host. With that American sort of grin built into his grainy voice that the audience can see over the radio. The expert detailed the case-histories of various sufferers until then they fielded random call-ins in the second half of the hour. He remembers thinking, as he listened, there’s a lot of pain out there. He remembers very vividly thinking (as reported to a woman he’d had an affair with) knock on wood and there but for the grace of god etc. A caller had had them discussing what doctors refer to as “suicide pain”. Mal Ivers said:
“You’re listening to Smart Talk, I’m Mal Ivers and this is NPR, National Public Radio.”
He remembers how it happened. At the work site they were setting up a forty-foot ladder, a heavy and dangerously unpredictable object. As they extended it fully it began to get away from them and something necessary tore in his back as the two fought to keep the ladder from smashing through the plate glass windows on the third floor of the building. It didn’t hurt so much at first but, by the end of the day, after he’d been doing nothing but making his condition worse for nine hours, lifting heavy objects and reaching over his head for extended periods of time, he was in agony. By the end of that day, he realized, work would be impossible for weeks and months if not years. He would be forced to live off his savings. When his painting partner dropped him off in front of his apartment building that evening he was obliged to crawl up the stairs on all fours, praying that he would have the hallway to himself until he came to his door at the far end of it and managed to stand high enough to get his key in the lock.
It was lucky for him that he signed the lease on his apartment years ago, before the recession, when rent was cheap. He only spent money on rent, food, utilities and books, as a rule. The monthly flat fee he paid for access to The Internet took care of his Entertainment needs. From the classic movies and vintage albums and soft-core, arty porn he favored, all of his Entertainment needs were covered for a reasonable and unchanging fee. When he had been able to walk he sometimes saw real movies on real screens for free, invited to share a dark space with other humans and write a positive review of a free movie, invited by the editors of the free magazine they distributed at the pueblo-themed mall across the street from his apartment.
He always looked forward to the foreign films, which were rare at the cinema in the mall in the building across the wide boulevard from his apartment. For years he’d entertained the relatively feasible fantasy of quitting everything and living in a simple little flat in Europe for a few months or longer. He saved his money diligently with that goal in mind. Only to find himself using the carefully-hoarded power to live on an ordinary street he had known for years, in an ordinary apartment he’d known for years, hearing and seeing and tasting and smelling the most familiar things and doing so in terrible pain.
It was within this context of dissatisfaction with reality that he met an older woman in a movie theater, a woman nearly ten years his senior, a “handsome” woman who found his walking stick charming and decided, she later told him, to seduce him. She decided this as she watched him make his way down the gentle grade of the aisle, past her aisle seat, as the theater lights went down. “Wincing heroically”, as she put it.
Let’s call her “Marta”. As she called herself.
The ghost of her former beauty subtly haunted Marta’s face.
The original outlines of the narrow waist and trim ankles and the high breasts and elegant posterior had become rather difficult to trace under time’s glutinous cladding. She hadn’t taken care of herself. She wasn’t slender in the way of an aging, self-disciplined beauty of the American or Western-European upper classes. To preserve the lingering illusion of fading youth, Marta relied rather on her corsets and clever clothing and scented silk scarves wrapped carefully around her neck than on self-discipline in the maintenance of her face and body. She wore painterly makeup (heavy on the eyeliner, which was drawn to give her eyes an “exotic” slant), afraid that anyone should uncover the open secret that she was no longer a girl in her twenties but a woman nearing fifty.
When Marta and her younger man eventually made love, she was pretending to be drunk (although it took a lot more than she had to drink that night to lay her out) and he was on his back (any other position for him was impossible) and they did it in a very dark room, as dark as the cinema they’d met in but with no film to accompany the soundtrack of his grateful groans and her theatrical breathing and the ridiculous screams with which she announced the grand finale of her performance. Yes, he was genuinely grateful that first time and they repeated the blunder more than once. Many times. Too many times. It’s safe to say that he felt marginally less grateful every time they did it.
His erections lost their ardor. After years of deprivation, his cock had been initially rage-hard and greedy as a teen’s in Marta’s living presence (the miracle of any woman’s living and willing presence) desperate for her to do everything to him, and let everything be done to her, all at once. But, soon after, soon after the drought broke, ironically, the erections began to flag. Infinite opportunity bred diminishing ability and his embarrassment irritated him: it was her fault, after all, but they both had to pretend the problem was his. For her sake. The sake of her feelings. The true meaning of chivalry having nothing to do with courtly behavior toward young, beautiful, desirable women, which even the crudest murderer is easily capable of.
He felt increasingly resentful of the fact that he couldn’t find a woman of his own age (or younger) to sleep with. He blamed her for no longer being capable of inspiring his potency and for keeping, supposedly, the right woman, or women, out of his reach. Of course, on some level, he knew his resentments were delusional. He knew he was in the sinister grip of the great joke of the common male delusion. If Marta had never existed, he simply wouldn’t have had sex with anyone (not a female, at least) in this natural post-sex phase of his working class life. Still, he began to resent Marta as though they’d been married for twenty years and he longed to be free.
Marta, on the other hand, appeared to him to think of the situation as a great romance.
Marta was the mother of a child fifteen years younger than he ( something he wouldn’t discover until later). She had been through it before, the problem of a lover’s fading enchantment. Still, she failed to read the signs properly. Her delusion was the female equivalent of his: ie, its complementary opposite, driving them ever more rapidly, and irreversibly, in opposite directions: she toward him, he away from her.
“Do you remember the day we met?” She asked.
They were sitting in the Java Pit up from the street from his apartment.
He had walked there with her with great difficulty. Sometimes his back pains were much worse than others and he used one very bad two-week period as a reasonable excuse to stop sleeping with her. Still, she reached across the table and placed her hand over his as she asked the question about whether he remembered the day (evening) they had met. Having no courage to remove his hand from under hers, his hand instead behaved as though it was disembodied or paralyzed.
“Yes,” he said.
“A special showing of Radiance.”
“A great film.”
“A milestone. Yes. There were only a few of us in the audience. There was something beautiful about that, I always thought. The few. The special. We were some kind of an elite, don’t you think? Gathered to watch a lonely masterpiece. You were there with your friend.”
“Yes. We all talked after the film. You were leaning on your walking stick in the aisle as the other people of the audience filed out of the theater in a trance. It was a dreamy time. There was some kind of recognition, an instant recognition, between us. I always worried that Noland felt left out.”
He sipped his coffee and avoided eye contact and said,
“Yes. That was the first time I had met either of you.”
Her attempts at romantic reminiscences were nauseating to him but he smiled.
It’s too easy to feel wounded, on Marta’s behalf, for the unflattering bluntness of her portrait thus far but what is a novel? A novel isn’t a lullaby. The novel is our only hope of sharing some Truth. A novel worth the time of a truly intelligent reader must be as pitiless in its frankness as it is unsparing with its wit. Barring one, it should double up on the other.
It’s too easy to feel wounded on Marta’s behalf and on behalf of all of female mammalia, perhaps, for Marta’s apparent condition as a love-object of fading desirability. Cruel Man, discarded Woman. The unforgivable sin of a woman living too long (more than forty years), yes? This is one of the culture’s cherished tropes, no? And poor Marta embodied it.
Like any human of a certain age, however, Marta was not a symbol or a notion but a complicated character with a history, a history heavy with men, abortions, diets, bladder infections, divorces and restraining orders. And Marta was not a legally single woman when she met her young man that pre-ordained night in the hall-of-mirrors of the cinema. She was the legally-single woman’s opposite; her younger self reflected in a warped gilt mirror in which the silver backing has peeled off. She was married.
Marta’s husband was the man who sincerely loved Marta, loved her in the most creditable sense of the word. The man who loved her in her genuine flesh and loved the thoughts illuminating the flesh, her living and aging and perfectly human flesh and her speech, her gestures, the rural smell of her vegetarian shit when she forgot to open the bathroom window after voiding her bowels every evening when they had lived together. This was the man that Marta herself considered of fading utility and for this discarded man, Marta’s apparent martyrdom in the world’s dumb eyes could be nothing but the cruellest joke: your readerly empathy particularly galling; an irony and an illusion. There is no woman on Earth that a man somewhere on the same planet is incapable of sleeping with at least once. Whereas terminally unfuckable men are as common as pigeons in Prague. There are continents of terminally unfuckable men, many as young as thirty. To be unfuckable in the terminal sense is to be useless on any level that qualifies us, unquestionably, as human.
So what if Marta’s pointed tits sagged and she had a puckered bum like a fallen quiche and ankles with the diameters of beer cans and the roots of her black-dipped hair were white as a furrow of ashes? He loved her. Her husband loved her. Marta’s discarded husband saw Marta as the female mirror of his own elegant decay and increasing vulnerability, his mortality’s complementary opposite. The red and brown markings on her white flesh were a diagram, the codes of the butcher, notes meant to come to Death’s eventual attention. They were also his own because his love had put him and Marta on the same clock and locked them in the same calendar to be delivered to the same table, one day; neither one would survive the other by more than a few weeks, he liked to think. He saw himself with Marta forever.
He fantasized about serving her tea and very carefully going down on her with the warm tea tray balanced on his shoulders (driving her to the grudging ecstasy so familiar from their twenty years together; she sometimes struck the sides of his face as she climaxed, unable to stop him) after even her bristly cunt hairs were white as snow. He often imagined a thick white patch between her legs, the cunt hairs finally allowed to grow out, a thick white patch with a pursed slit of faded deco pink. He imagined the patch growing sparser, longer hair and the cunt finally bald and wrinkled to match his own Time-battered equipment. The glorious wreck of his naked presence, which was little more than pure Will wrapped in twisted sinews. It made him hard with the ego of identification: this was a cunt he had sculpted, side by side with Time and Marta’s own intermittent self-abuse, matched to a cock that she had twisted to its final shape in their fatal Threesome.
Marta’s husband told her so and it horrified her. He said,
“My love has put you and I on the same clock and locked us in the same calendar to be delivered to the same table, one day; neither one will survive the other by more than a few weeks, I like to think.”
He whispered it tenderly to Marta and she tossed her tepid tea on him.
Which is no metaphor. She literally tossed a cup of tea on him, soaking his pajama top. She didn’t want a priapic old goat who would love her for being old and clutch her bones for all eternity in a double-grave, she wanted a young man who she could fool into believing that she was young. She wanted a hard young selfish cock demanding her slavish attention. Nothing less dramatic than erotic crucifixion would do.
Embarrassingly, Marta’s husband, the old goat, attempted suicide, the ultimate repulsive act, which gave Marta the necessary excuse to find her own little flat and pack her treasures and begin her ludicrous adventures on the short road to destroying herself.
And so we cut to:
Incapacitated, with his back pain, he reminded himself of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, trapped in a chair and staring out of his window at the windows in the apartment building across the street. The apartment building was in the architectural style of the ancient pueblo dwellings, with curving soft-edged stucco walls, painted in south-western earth tones, five stories tall, the shell encompassing a shopping mall with a central atrium, an open-air market where they sometimes held cultural events like outdoor screenings of classic movies or fashion shows for local designers. From his chair on the other side of his blue Venetian blinds he aimed borrowed binoculars at the curving brown outer wall of the complex.
He thought of himself as the Jimmy Stewart character in Rear Window but the Jimmy Stewart character in Rear Window, “Jeff” (whose initials are LBJ), is interesting primarily because Grace Kelly is his girlfriend. No Grace Kelly, no interest, no suspense, no movie.
In the psychosexual stock market of Western Civilization, Grace Kelly (“Lisa”), was a blue chip stock, valued higher than any sexy, large-breasted strumpet, in a low-rent slasher film, could ever be. This was the thesis of some unpublished amateur film criticism he’d written on the side.
Her face, her posture, her manner of speaking and her probable smell: Grace Kelly, in her young prime, was pure platinum and added that value to every film she appeared in. The unspoken and rarely-noticed subtext of Rear Window being that the Raymond Burr character, the character of the killer, the wife-murderer who chops his wife up and puts her in a trunk, Thorwald, kills his wife precisely for not being Grace Kelly. The movie is about a have’s comparison to a have-not and what they each do with their respective lives, given their respective conditions. The film isn’t really about voyeurism, as it’s often claimed. The film is about exhibitionism. LBJ flaunting Grace Kelly as his girlfriend, Thorwald flaunting his Hitchcockian willingness to kill and dismember a human. Why would a character, who can claim as his lover one of the most beautiful women in film history, be interested in anyone else’s life? Except to make gloating comparisons?
Our subject had no Grace Kelly to make his story interesting. He couldn’t make gloating comparisons to anyone as he sat in his bedroom with the venetian blinds slanted to hide what he was doing with his friend Noland’s binoculars but he thought of himself as Jimmy Stewart anyway. The longer he went without being able to reality-check in a mirror, the more his self-image shifted in that direction. The luxury of sitting around all day in the Southern California heat in his bathrobe with binoculars in his lap and an occasional wince on his face made him feel wry and worldly and upper-middle class, for some reason. To be sure, it wasn’t as though he was the perfect opposite of Jimmy Stewart. He was tall and white and his parents had been middle class.
His best friend Noland scored for him a big baggie full of extra-strength pain killers. Noland got the pain killers from a rich Indian he had built a computer for. The rich Indian belonged to the Sycuan tribe, a tribe that went from colorful poverty to vulgar wealth, almost over-night, when they were awarded a state gaming license. Too little too late but not for that tribe or that particular Indian, who drove a Porsche Boxter sports car and wore blue contact lenses and ate and drank like a Roman Emperor, undergoing liposuction a couple of times every year, changing the shape of his body, in extreme ways, as a result. Noland said,
“This’ll do it,” and tossed the baggie across the bedroom at “Jimmy Stewart” in his imaginary wheelchair.
Noland had a key to his friend’s apartment so he could let himself in because, sometimes, just getting out of bed to answer the door was out of the question. Other times, Noland let himself in and found his friend seated at the bedroom window with Noland’s binoculars in his lap. The painkillers were eight times more powerful than full-strength aspirin but the first time he swallowed one he felt precious little pain relief and thought the pills were a cruel practical joke or an accidental batch of placebos.
“Give it time. What you’re supposed to do is take one every four hours until eventually you start building up a resistance to the pain, like you’re training your body to forget all about it. It’ll take a few days to kick in but it will make a difference. Trust me.”
Noland was right. It took about a week for the cumulative pain-killing effect to kick in. The funny thing being that the pain only went away when he was not thinking about it, even when he was full of horse pills. It was as though the pain was a horrible pop song he could only keep out of his head as long as he didn’t notice he was not singing it to himself. The moment he noticed he was not singing it to himself, he began singing it to himself. But things were generally better after Noland got him the pills. He still couldn’t walk very far but sitting became bearable. Sleep became possible.
“What about when the pills run out?”
“I’ll build the kid another computer.”
The joke of it was that Noland didn’t know a thing about computers. It was just that the rich Indian, who was 20, knew even less and trusted a white male to be able to see to it. The computer was the white man’s magic, after all.
Noland told him, “Stewart”, that the Indian’s whole family originally lived in a shack with a corrugated roof. When the casino deal went through, they built a luxury compound around the shack, a single-story compound with thirty-two times the square footage of the original shack. What was once the entirety of their ramshackle shelter on the patchy, rocky Sycuan reservation became their rustic kitchen at the heart of a sprawling showcase for modernist architecture. The compound was so vast and labyrinthine that the boy could smoke pot with Noland in a storage room at the compound with no fear of detection by the parents. The room was full of supplies: hundreds of pounds of Del Monte canned fruits and vegetables, thousands of gallons of cooking oil and water, hundreds of boxes of paper napkins.
“There’s an irony in there somewhere but I can’t be bothered to dig it up,” said Noland, as Noland often said. Stewart probably told Noland, referring to Noland’s propensity toward what his popularly known as “conspiracy theory”,
“In your head, the worst case scenario is the only scenario available.”
Noland probably responded,
“Most people call me a fruitcake or a malcontent, but some people agree with every crazy theory you lay on ’em, which is disconcerting. It makes you question the validity of the worldview. But you don’t do either. You just listen and consider. You’re the opposite of jumping to a conclusion. It’s weird.”
He was holding a drink when he said that and he toasted his bedridden friend with it, sloshing coffee on the carpet.
Noland was baby-faced, short in stature and slightly pot-bellied in a way that made it quite easy to imagine exactly how he had looked as a child. Noland was forty-something but could easily pass for twenty from a distance.
Stewart and Noland were an odd couple in physical appearance. They became friends because they were both fanatical in their high estimation of the cultural value of the rarely-seen Val von Vellum film called Radiance, the only film, as far as anyone knows, that von Vellum ever made. Because there are very few masterpieces in Film History, any director can be proud who can claim only to have made a single one. Stewart and Noland were both quite deeply in love with Lola Baedo, the lead actress of Radiance. They were in love with her in the way that film buffs are often in love with the Kim Novak of Vertigo or the Anna Karina of Pierrot Le Fou or with Natalie Portman in Leon, elevating the actress above the gender and species, synonymizing her with Perfection, aestheticizing their own chronic male heterosexual loneliness with noble feelings of the unobtainable and masturbating , every night, to identical mental images of their target. Arithmetically, in a sense, making love to one another.
He’d been singing the obscure film’s praises on the film forum they first “met” on and Noland had complimented his critical style. Both had had comments disparaged as “pretentious”, at one time or another, by others on the Flix Fax Forum, where professionals sometimes posted their opinions or came to talk shop and snub the students and amateurs. There is a Flick Fax legend that Rex Reed himself deigned to indulge in a so-called “flame war” on the site; there are those who are of the opinion that the “Rex Reed” appearance was a clever hoax pulled off by a brilliant insider. Still, that it was even plausibly Reed himself indicates the kind of cache that the site had among the cognoscenti of the Art.
Stewart had commented that Radiance was like a Tim Burton film with all the ingratiating whimsy scooped out and replaced with Chris Marker’s palpable disgust. Noland had thumbs-upped his comment and replied with a “spot-on”. This sparked a passionate online engagement between the two terribly single men. Their many, long-winded conversations on the Flix Fax Forum are there for anyone to read and are a more accurate record of the style and substance of their friendship than any instances of overheard small talk the two exchanged “in real life”, over the following weeks and months, sitting in cafes or on a bench at Balboa Park.
Stewart had assumed that Noland (who habitually used the word “shite”) was writing from London or another large city in the UK . It turned out that Noland lived right up the street, under the same benevolently idiotic sun that pissed its cheap gold on the local surfers most of the year. The same strong simple sun. It seemed like Fate itself was bothering to intervene when, a few days after their exchange on that contentious Radiance forum at Flix Fax, a cheaply-printed flyer advertising a midnight showing of Radiance, in a “guerilla cinema” on the other side of the city, slipped itself under Stewart’s door. Stewart stooped with some difficulty to retrieve it (he could imagine the person hired to distribute the flyers hearing, with some alarm, the tremendous, quasi-sexual, groans of his effort). One imagines he read the flyer with the confused frown of an American who can’t believe his good fortune. He had Noland’s email address and logged on to invited his new friend along, with great excitement, after reading the home-made flyer with its lurid, Dix-like drawing of an impossibly beautiful woman in flames.
Noland, as Fate would have it, had a car to drive them out to see the movie.
by Jay Stewart
Radiance is what they call an allegorical film from the 1980s. It was released in 1979 but, like a lot of the cultural production of 1979, it belongs less, tonally, with the late ’70s than with the early ’80s. It was rated R but there are film-forum legends that an X-Rated version exists.
The film is the story of Nada, played with just the right numbness by impressive newcomer Lola Baedo, a beautiful woman of mysterious origins. Nada is so beautiful that there seems to be a glow to her. People (men especially) are drawn to that glow, as the cliché would have it, like moths. In fact, the glow is literal: when Nada is in love she emits a palpable light and the stronger her love the brighter the light. She meets Cal, the Artist, a poor but promising young painter, in the film’s first scene, in front of a movie theater. Cal asks Nada to model for a painting.
“I can’t capture a tenth of your beauty but maybe I can paint a fitting tribute to my total failure to do so,” says Cal. Cal has a faint Irish accent. The accent is an effective cliché for indicating his good, honest, beauty-struck soul. His natural gift of the gab. We then see Nada, as shot tantalizingly from behind, in Cal’s charming studio with Cal’s Schiele-like nudes all over the walls and propped along the floor as her garments drop and Cal gets his first overwhelming eyeful of her perfect beauty. We then get the pretty montage of young love somewhat enhanced by the understated supernatural element of the film. The way that Nada seems literally to sparkle beside Cal at happy moments. The golden light she gives off when they kiss.
All is wonderful, of course, until things, as dictated by the dramatic form, must necessarily go bad. When Nada and Cal finally make love at the end of Act One, the light Nada emits is so brilliant that it blinds Cal. Horrified and grief-stricken, Nada becomes Cal’s helper and his nurse. We see a montage of the weeks going by as Cal attempts to adjust to his condition in Nada’s loving care. Things appear to begin well but his blindness eventually overwhelms and destroys him. Having only lived for his Art, the blinded Cal is useless to himself and commits suicide by the middle of the film. A striking scene: Nada at Cal’s funeral, standing at Cal’s grave, long after the few other mourners have gone. The sun is setting, the darkness encroaching, Nada shines like an otherworldly torch over Cal’s pathetic grave.
The next scene we see Nada dressed like a widow, in dark glasses, prowling a touristy singles bar like Catherine Deneuve in that other (slightly inferior) classic, from the same decade, The Hunger. Nada has realized that she can never allow herself to be with a man who loves her and who she will love in return. She has gone dark, totally dark. She no longer glows but seems, through the clever, creative but lo-tech, special effects of the film, to absorb more light than she emits. First, she seeks the company of banal souls she could never fall for. You know, the agreeably lumpen nobodies who drink beer and watch Television and work on their dented cars every weekend. But, she finds, even men like that can begin to inspire a dangerous affection, even fondness, in her. Nada finally comes to the conclusion that it’s only safe to seek out the most hateful men to sleep with. She beds a succession of total assholes, glowing more blackly with every distasteful encounter. Everything is hinted at but left unseen, though there are film buffs who insist there’s an X-Rated version that shows everything.
One night she finds a truly hateful man, Rudy, a wealthy plastic surgeon, played with finicky, (initially) understated evil by a very young and then-unknown Vincent D’Onofrio. Rudy is a well-dressed, Gothy sadist who brags to Nada, over expensive drinks in an upscale pick-up joint, that he owns a chain of tanning salons but that his hobby, his real passion, is a collection. A very special collection. Maybe the only one of its kind in the world.
“What kind of collection?”
“Oh, you’ll see,” he says coyly.
He brings her home. It’s a big, dark, gothic house, surrounded by high hedges, alone on an isolated country road, the house of a man with money. Even the house seems evil. Rudy ushers Nada through its sinisterly-furnished rooms with mocking courtliness. The rooms are each as sumptuous as a turn-of-the-century New Orleans brothel or funeral parlor; each room features a portrait of Rudy on the wall, each portrait in a different style. One is reminiscent of Rembrandt, the next reminiscent of Bacon, and so on, a detail the camera understates as it sweeps through the room as Nada’s POV. Up a spiral staircase Rudy leads Nada to a door labelled nursery.
The filmic tension that builds before the door opens is harrowing.
Within this windowless, candle-lit room, in jars of various shapes and sizes, on little plinths and shelves and in recessed settings in the walls, are perhaps three dozen fetuses, floating in formaldehyde.
“My collection,” he says. “Aren’t they hideous? Nothing symbolizes the eerie pointlessness of existence like these waxy blobs of pre-human protoplasm floating in jars in my trophy room, wouldn’t you agree?”
Nada reaches and picks up one of the jars with infinite sadness and tenderness.
Rudy crosses the room and takes it from her. “Whore,” he says, “did I give you permission to touch?”
He twists Nada’s wrist until she’s on her knees. Forced oral sex is implied as the scene blacks out with a close up of a single, jewel-dark tear. And so the ugly affair begins. Nada gives herself to Rudy and Rudy abuses her for days or weeks or months. The timescale in the film is perfectly vague. Their lovemaking escalates in its hateful, violent and degrading nature. Nada absorbs light like a black hole at this point in the film, wrapping her in an increasing amazing visual effect worthy of the greatest of Sci Fi flicks of the 1950s; as breathtakingly as anything in Forbidden Planet. The lost art of Conscious Kitsch.
What we don’t learn until the end of Act Two is that the fetuses are all Rudy’s children. The fetuses were harvested from abortions Rudy has forced on dozens of beautiful women, abortions performed by Rudy himself in a chamber in the cellar of his house of horror. Do the women die during the abortions? This question is left open-ended. Rudy, in either case, is a serial-killer: the film has suddenly jumped genres.
The bigger twist comes at the end of the film. Nada, you see, has grown, gradually, shockingly, to love the abuse. She has fallen completely in love with Rudy. Doesn’t she know that to make love in these circumstances is dangerous, at the very least, to Rudy’s eyes? Of course she does. And, of course, she knows Rudy deserves whatever happens. She loves him but she will deliver justice.
Rudy beats and rapes her in The Nursery in the most degrading way imaginable (for 1979) and the orgasm Nada has, as a result, is so brilliant… even more brilliant than the radiance she emitted blinding Cal, please note… that she incinerates them both as she comes, screaming. Screams of agony or ecstasy: we’ll never know. Rudy’s mansion burns to the ground. The credits, in gothic script, scroll upwards with rising smoke at daybreak.
It is in a shot a good ten minutes from the end, at the beginning of the sequence of the flames rising around The Nursery, that we see into the poetic heart of the film. For the camera looks dispassionately (with a fish-eye distortion) upon the burning room through a jar, a profile floating in the foreground, a fetus like the face of the Starchild we see at the very end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the technical high points of 2001: A Space Odyssey is the poetic detail of the fact that the embryonic Starchild’s face, with astonishing realism, resembles Keir Dullea’s. And so in the waxy little face we see in the penultimate shot of Radiance. A nod to Kubrick. The face in the jar seemingly, very subtly, to smile at the flames we see around the glass. We are struck by its breathtaking beauty and its resemblance to Rudy and Nada both and, most of all, by Val Von Vellum’s auteurist attention to detail in this flawless allegory of the human condition.
After five weeks of ignoring her, Stewart found a new message from Marta in his in-box. It was a rainy morning at the beginning of San Diego’s dark-but-temperate winter, a winter of lush green lawns and misty sun and three weeks of relentless drizzle. The subject header was one of her off-puttingly old fashioned phrases: “Hold onto your hat”.
This was the fifth attempt of Marta’s to communicate with him in as many weeks, and each message had contained progressively more desperate attempts to bribe Stewart into seeing her again. The first message had offered lunch at his favorite 5th Avenue restaurant (Chez Guevara), “my treat”, the second had dangled tickets (and drinks) to an irrelevant solo concert of a former guitarist of the band Heart, the third wondered, coyly, if Stewart “had any use” for an “old camera” she was about to throw away, a camera, he realized, after reading the specs she included, that could only have been brand new. If he’d had more of an interest in still photography, perhaps he’d have cracked and responded to the message. The fourth message said something about a vacation in Europe. Together, presumably. Paid for by Marta, obviously.
But travelling to Europe with Marta was exactly the same as going up the street and sitting in the Leaf & Bean with her. Or walking around the block with her. The problem was being someplace, anywhere, with Marta, his walking symbol for temporary (unnecessary) erectile dysfunction. But this fifth message intrigued him. What could she be offering now, after his long silence had so inflamed her (the opposite of the effect he sincerely hoped to have on her), that was worth appreciably more to him than an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, the motherland of all his pretensions?
—I know where Nada lives
He hesitated before typing a reply. Then he typed,
—In the reality of the film?
He hesitated to hit the “send” button, then hit it. Despite the fact that Marta’s latest message had been sitting unopened in his in-box for twelve hours, her reply was instant.
—In the reality of the reality
—Someone I know on FFF says his GF saw Nada from Radiance sitting in a GYN/OBN’s office in Palm Desert. More than once. First Thursday every month. That’s Tomorrow. 11am. Dress for the occasion
—Interesting, he wrote, noncommittally, but his hands were trembling as he typed. He followed that quickly with,
—Can I tell Noland?
Five seconds later:
—I like Noland. Invite him to come with. We’ll pack an ironic I mean iconic picnic
Noland emailed a response to Stewart an hour later. “Why not,” Noland wrote.
—I don’t have a problem with Marta. She has great stories. She’s not Grace Kelly but who is? And guys like me with low standards have all the fun, mate. Wink.
Stewart smiled as he typed his response,
—Be my guest. Just make sure you screw her with all the lights off. Not even a night light. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The next morning, Stewart and Noland were waiting for Marta at the curb in front of Stewart’s apartment building. It was a breezy, overcast morning, and Noland’s hands were in the pockets of his khaki shorts. He did the fidgeting two-step of a Southern Californian pretending to be cold. He wore a hooded navy blue USD sweatshirt with the khaki shorts and discount trainers. Stewart was also dressed like an aging college student. From a distance they looked very much like hapless young fraternity brothers waiting for an ill-advised adventure to commence.
There were preliminary jokes and greetings as Stewart and Nolan climbed into Marta’s car. Because Marta’s car was a two-door, whoever chose to ride in the back seat would have to climb in first, and there was an awkward moment as Stewart insisted that Noland sit in the front. After Marta put the idling car in gear and eased it into the constant flow of San Diego traffic, there was a long silence that Marta finally filled with music from one of our old cassettes.
[transcript from tape]