At Sunset Theater

Most of my day working at the theater is spent referentially. We are quoting movies, impersonating actors, improvising new lines. Then we hit a bump: someone hasn’t seen this movie, or doesn’t remember that one pivotal scene (pivotal for that person anyway). There is indignation from one or a few of us. We move on to the next movie.

Sometimes we spend the day suggesting B-movie horrors, the unsung heroes in the history cinema. But our feelings about these titles are even more fickle. One of my coworkers got mad at another because he told our manager he didn’t like a movie called Cemetery Man, or Cemetery Zombies. Something like that. It was our manager’s favorite B-movie horror. He relegated my coworker to the Box. That is, the box office.

I spend my day getting suggestions for my Netflix queue. It is the unassigned homework of the job. What we’re really doing is building a vernacular. We have to speak the language of 2001 or Terminator, skirting the technical aspects, grabbing moments from the film that epitomize our love for it. The moviegoers—our customers—yearn for it. They seek it out from us.

A woman came to the ticket booth last week with a man. He seemed meek, or at least unhelpful. “What movie should we see?” she asked me. I inquired into their tastes. What movie might suit her? They aren’t made equal. But she wasn’t buying it. “What movie’s good?” I sold her two tickets to the next movie playing.

Another man and woman, a young couple, came to buy tickets. It was nighttime and they were too friendly to be sober. The young man shielded his eyes to disguise himself. “She’s making me see Into The Woods.” A musical. The woman didn’t say a word, although the man thought he might escape embarrassment of buying tickets through mock shame. He was seeking my approbation and then my confirmation that the movie was not worth seeing. I gave him neither.

There is certainly a psychology to the movies we watch. Some, like the young man, show shame at this fact. The movies we watch speak to our inner selves. They represent us. And I guess this is true, but only to a point. More and more our media-consuming selves are visible to our entire social network—the internet of faces. Online we are self-consciously manicuring our avatars. We put up a confident digital façade.

But there was always a guy or a girl sitting in the booth giving you your ticket. Which movie you see in the theater has always been a public decision.

It’s common courtesy now, as a measure of privacy, to put our phones facedown on tables. (Our phones have faces.) It’s actually an added measure of security, on top of lock screens that need a code or our thumbprints for access. We are hiding incoming messages, which might be embarrassing or considered too private. Our phones—as private as our rooms. Sometimes as disorganized, but also as spatially known to us.

I trusted her enough give her my passcode. My room for you to look around in, even if you’re looking for just one thing in particular. You can’t find a shirt in my room without tripping over one of my notebooks. You can’t play music without finding Springsteen’s Nebraska or every song Kanye West has ever recorded. Eventually she invited me into her room too.

Another sign of romance in the modern age: pictures of your loved one on the lock screen. Profile pictures with your loved ones. Sharing your Netflix password, your Spotify username, the subreddits you frequent. Sharing gifs. The emoji trade. What YouTube channels you’re subscribed to. Your methods for mapping, your ways of navigating Wikipedia, which mail app you use. Do you play Words With Friends?

She was the kind of girl who called when she couldn’t text. I loved that about her. I loved her presence, her internet presence, the way she postured and searched online. She found the greatest videos. And then: she knew when to put her phone down.

I want to write a book inspired by and sourced completely from Wikipedia. I want to spin off with wild Wiki-connections. The book would follow a thread for only as long as it was interesting. It would read like skimming. Boring articles skipped over, not even present. The brain of a Wikipedia user. Maps and graphics too. Somewhere between a book of aphorisms and sprawling, connect-the-dots constellation.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger provides part of the model. The short statements are interesting and like a chain extending further down various rabbit holes. The technological age’s equivalent of Nietzsche’s books of aphorisms. Saul Bellow’s Herzog, at the other end of the spectrum, is full of long sections, but they are forever shifting from one related subject (most the time people the narrator knows) to another. The rabbit hole: memory. Subjective memory, in a time before Wikipedia. Now the memory is collective, crowdsourced, and written by peers. We pretend not to notice, until we disagree with the Wiki-facts.

According to Wikipedia, Time Magazine named Herzog one of the 100 best novels in the English language “since the beginning of TIME” (1923-2005). Under trivia, Wikipedia notes the Coen Brother’s movie A Serious Man, in which a middle-aged Jewish man’s wife has an affair with his best friend and then leaves him, has a similar plot to Herzog.

One of my favorite quotes from the beginning of the book, when Herzog is writing a letter to the president:

“Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of bookkeepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has every seen. Man’s life is not a business.”

Today, the letter might start “Dear Mr. Zuckerberg…” Troubling to think we might be tools for Mr. Z to sell our information to companies. Google wants us to have a more pleasant experience using their engine by customizing our searches and allowing companies to advertise according to our needs, companies from which we are more likely to buy something. More disturbing than being businesses ourselves, we’re the tools of business where the hand working us is invisible but friendly.

The train was going twice its normal speed when it crashed. In the aftermath, once night had disappeared and we faced it from shots taken in helicopters in the grim light, the cars looked like glittering and twisted weeds. No different from the surrounding field except for the metallic glint, and because it was centered in the cropped photo. The headline said “100+”. I thought at first of wind speeds. Next was the casualty report.

Another photo showed the car ripped open. I imagined people in their seats, sleeping upright, mouths lax, a man’s wet snoring. A boy behind the snoring man, listening to headphones but no matter how loud he plays the music that throaty slap of mucus is in front of him. He’s wide-awake, traveling to New York City, where he lives now. Over the weekend, he’s been visiting his old friends in Philadelphia, the place he grew up and loves even more now that it’s gone. He can’t sleep. The whistling wind outside seems to get louder. Without warning, there is a bang, pressure is released as if you are opening the pop top to a soda can. But louder because of the size of it and because you are inside the can. He did not know but, in accordance with the laws of physics, his body wants to be released from the car and from his seat.

The boy somehow stays put, grasping at the last moment to his arm rests. Over his head the snoring man sails. Then the man is underneath him. One brown leather dress shoe, which he has worn to sleep, is spinning in the air above the boy’s head. When the car stops turning, the man has disappeared. He is somewhere in the wreckage, out of the frame, a mangled part of the landscape. I scroll down.

In 1957, A Day Called X was filmed in Portland, Oregon. It’s what we might call today a docudrama.

These kinds of films became especially popular in the ‘80s as the Cold War was wrapping up and the USSR was collapsing. We had a renewed sense of fear (or marvel or ennui) concerning nuclear destruction. The epicenter of nuclear disaster in the made-for-TV movie The Day After (1983) is Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. PBS’ American Playhouse aired Testament the same year, a TV drama about a nuclear attack on a fictional suburb of San Francisco. Panic In Year Zero! (1962) and Miracle Mile (1988) take place in Los Angeles. Another made-for-TV movie of 1983, Special Bulletin, is set in Charleston, South Carolina. (*Note: movies about nuclear don’t stop with the Cold War, though they often still focus on conflicts between the United States and the former Soviet Union in the wake of their collapse.)

A Day Called X is different. Intriguing not only for the year it was made, the thirty-minute docudrama is the praxis of realism on the fledging medium of TV. The film provides the real details of civil defense protocols leading up to an attack. They include the actual Emergency Operations Center. And everyone in the film was a citizen of Portland, dramatizing the events. Even Portland Mayor’s Terry Schrunk gets in on the act.

It also hints at a missed opportunity. Why didn’t more cities get in on the act? It would have been easy to show the townspeople of Boise, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Pittsburgh fictions of nuclear attacks on their towns. We could have had films from every town, tailored for local markets. And the films would have been educational—if not completely terrifying and scare mongering. In the ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan’s administration began to focus on the prospects of nuclear Armageddon, they missed an opportunity to scare even more Americans. Let’s lament these missed opportunities of government’s civil plans for destruction and art intersecting.

I want to make three movies that share the same plot (or, one movie designed for three separate audiences, as I look at it). The plot would be the most profitably commercial plot imaginable. The three audiences would be three different age ranges: children, the young and middle aged, and the aged.

Here’s the rough skeleton: a soldier escapes a WWII POW camp in Nazi-occupied France and makes it to Paris. Inside the camp, the soldier has gotten wind of a device of mass destruction. Although he hasn’t seen the plans, the soldier knows they are somewhere in the camp and, being the trooper he is, wants to go back and retrieve them. The United States Army doesn’t think this a grand idea, but what choice do they really have? So after a few days traipsing around Paris’s Nazi-stilted social scene, a team is assembled to infiltrate the camp. One of the men chosen turns out to be a German spy, and warns his army of the mission. The Americans, not to be outwitted, are aware of this plan as well and try to use it to their advantage. But a few soldiers on this top-secret mission are killed anyway. Eventually the team captures the plans from the camp, somberly make their way back to Paris, drink wine, and live enough years to tell their children and grandchildren about how they won the War.

First thoughts: Nazis are instant box office winners. For the oldest crowd, the war is depicted in brutal realism. There are scenes of torture in the camp our hero soldier escapes from (a la Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken). Most of the scenes are filmed in drab beiges and bitter, winter European greens. Our hero’s trek to Paris is also shown at length. Smutty and hungry, he faces a less-than-friendly countryside in France, as if the people are not appreciative of the American effort. This bitterness he will hold with him for the rest of his life. But, being the patriotic soldier he is, knows he will sometimes face horrible tragedies, and might even die for an ungrateful people.

Although his compatriots are happy to see him in Paris, he is sullen, unable to enjoy the women and booze while other Americans are dying. He has, after all, left friends behind in the German camps. He finally has an outburst, trading in his Eastwoodian silence for a passionate speech about sacrifice. (Audience members who served in the armed forces are reminded here why they served.) The night before the mission to capture and destroy the German’s Apocalypsewaffe plans, a Gollum-type German spy drifts off to the German-controlled section of Paris to reveal the American mission.

Scenes of gritty, Spielberg-esque battling ensue. The Nazis, dirty and sad and young, cower at the might of American soldiers. They take every chance—being the slimy dogs they are—to deceive the Americans. The band of soldiers has split up, in anticipation of German knowledge of the mission, to surprise the Germans. But in the course of action they lose a soldier, the youngest man on the mission. A boy, really. The long scene happens in slow motion, silent until a swell of orchestra has the other soldiers tearful. One man removes a picture of the boy’s wife from his pocket and promises to write her when they are back in Paris.

The Americans infiltrate the POW camp, angry and regretful they had to lose a soldier to do so. They find the plans and eventually liberate the camp. The finale is a bitter lesson on the trials of war. (Suggested title: Bitter Patriot or Bitter Patriot (based on a true story).)

In the hallowed halls of our American Democracy, where every vote counts and is counted, there is a team of old ladies leading the charge of our proud tradition. Put more simply, little old ladies (with the help of some machines) run our democracy.

The proud, world-weary women sometimes have to wait two years to come down to election headquarters. But when they do, it’s always a joyous reunion. Presiding over elections, protecting democracy, paying tribute to the flag and American ideals If not at the forefront of every mind, it is certainly evident in her passion for the work. Down in the basement of election headquarters where the ballots come to be hand counted—machine counts are only trusted when there are no stray pen marks—the women scan the ballots with their finger condoms. They banter and joke with each other, settled for twelve hours counting.

The basement is hot. There are a lot of bodies in it, a lot of movement, camera crews sometimes. Independent onlookers to ensure the electoral process is not tainted. And the women working diligently, growing sadder as the day goes on, as their reunion comes to an end. But still they work with objectivity.

Perhaps one day the speedy shredding of envelopes with votes enclosed will slow down, the women will take stock of this happy event. They will take more time to joke, drink coffee and break out their crocheting needles. But not today.

There are politics pervading throughout the building, but not something you vote for. It could not be marked (D) or (R) on the ballot. It is the politics of personal responsibility. How one conducts oneself to bring our American ideals, our reverential ideas of Democracy and letting every vote count, of giving every woman and man a voice in the process. The women always conduct themselves in the same way, ripping envelopes in the same way, scanning ovals, piling ballots according to their creases, sometimes caught up in a routine to the point of inefficiency.

Upstairs, the fleet of ballot runners drives to drop boxes and libraries to collect the ballots. The ladies like to stand by the drop boxes and talk to the voters. During slow elections, They complain. “We need more ballots,” they say, not wanting the day to end.

Still, they understand. There is something distinctly American about their passion for elections. The country might unravel if the process were tampered with. Everyone who works with ballots works with a partner, supervising each other, in what is called “double custody”. It feels almost un-American to watch someone work in “single custody”. No short cuts are taken. The vote counters and election workers are responsible for the minute fibers of our democracy that we only think were assembled some long time ago.

A literary note from the news: as the judge was reading the decision to sentence the Boston Bomber to death, one of the jurors reached for his water bottle. As he came up and sipped the water, he began to cry. Another juror was already crying.

In the parlance of Oregonians and Oregon travelers, the sand and rocks that abut the Pacific Ocean is called “the coast”. On the East Coast, we call this shifting boundary of shining yellow sand “the beach”. In Oregon we don’t take trips to the beach. The border is a sharp border, and rarely anyone violates it. The waters are people-free. We go to the coast in order to marvel at the beauty of evergreens shooting up from cliffs high over the cold Pacific. We gird ourselves with raincoats and protect our eyes from the wind. We listen to the power of the ocean, sloshing back and forth, the largest on earth, its immensity foaming against the rocky coast. Japan isn’t visible, but its distant coast is palpable in the swells.

On the East Coast, we go on daytrips to the beach. We sit on blankets on the sand in our bathing suits. (There is such a thing “swimsuit season”. The preseason involves training to look your best when the season starts.) We have coolers of Corona, footballs and Frisbees, stereos, sandals, suntan lotion, visors. We cruise through the sun-bleached sand, feeling it between our toes. And most of all, we swim. That is what the Atlantic is for. Only occasionally does the Atlantic show its power. Mostly, it’s an ocean of leisure. The clear blue waters wander from the coast of European resort towns and African tropics. From the beach we can almost see the Caribbean islands, where everything moves slowly under the sun and everything can wait for a day at the beach.

Some changes for the young and middle-aged movie: less time spent on soldier’s escape from camp. More like a comic: dark, fast paneling, snappy dialogue. The band of heroes charged with finding the plans for the Apocalypsewaffe are snarky, partying Renaissance Men. (Suggest titles: Renaissance Soldiers, or Renaissance Soldiers (based on a true story), or Based On A True Story.) The leader of the group is George Clooney, or someone similarly funny, grey-haired handsome, and seasoned for war. Many jokes are told at the expense of Nazis (some jokes prescient for World War II, as if added later on when the story is retold in old age.) The Renaissance Soldiers also seem to possess supernatural powers. The Nazis are portrayed like Bond villains. The ending is basically unchanged from Bitter Patriot.

The local Texans call it “Wacko”. It’s impossible to ignore, the little Texas town on I-35, halfway between Dallas and Austin. Hard to avoid without driving thirty minutes out of your way. But you could do it, travel west and pass through Crawford, where President Bush now paints portraits on his ranch.

Down from Dallas, you see the red-tan college bricks of Baylor University rising from either side of the interstate. The rest of the town could be a shopping mall, were it not for the ghosts. Nearby in the ranchlands in 1993, the FBI stormed the Mount Carmel Center, home to David Koresh and his Branch Davidians. They met their end; seventy-six people died, including Koresh. Sadly, it may have only been reinforcement. Koresh knew they would meet a violent end for their beliefs. Two years later, Timothy McVeigh would cite the federal government’s actions in Waco as motivation for the bombing in Oklahoma City.

Over twenty years later, the violence persists. Now its bikers—mean, uncivilized, careless brutes of the road. The shootout began at the Twin Peaks Restaurant, south of town toward Austin. The hundreds of male bikers had gathered at the Twin Peaks for for scantily clad waitresses and were reportedly from five different gangs: the Bandidos, the Cossacks, the Leathernecks, the Scmitars, and the Boozefighters. But mainly it was a dispute between the Bandidos and the Cossacks.

The bikers were like a gathering storm and police were already staking out the Twin Peaks in anticipation. The fight may have started over a false accusation, a boy crying wolf. In this case, crying, “He ran over my foot!” Ostensibly, if this juvenile biker is right, nine people then died for it. By the time the high-noon shootout was over, another eighteen were headed to the hospital and 192 were being booked in the Waco convention center. The jail couldn’t hold them. Bail is currently one million dollars. Some of them might be heading to a Texas electric chair.

No matter what they say in the coming days before their arraignment, the Waco Shootout was not over a smushed foot or a parking spot at the Twin Peaks. The shootout happened over a dispute that could have come straight off the catwalk in Milan. Nine bikers are dead because of a disagreement over fashion.

You see, the Bandidos are the dominant outlaw motorcycle club in Texas. Those lesser boys, the Cossacks have had to deal with that fact. But this spring, their attitude seemed to change. They wanted to rule Texas. And to assort their dominance, the Cossacks were going to add a bottom rocker to their leather jackets. Bottom rockers are patches sewn in a swoop to the bottom of jackets. The Cossacks wanted rockers that said “TEXAS” in big letters for everyone to see that the state was their territory too. The Bandidos poo-pooed the idea.

It raises the question, where are turf wars fought? For these overly-masculine men, its fought on jackets and then, irrationally, with bullets in diner parking lots. What are these outlaws, really? Angry fashionistas.

For the youngest audience: All the soldiers are now dogs and cats. The camp at the beginning of the movie is a pound. The Apocalypsewaffe is a more effective way to capture stray dogs and cats on the streets of Paris. The movie is free Nazi insignia. Cats, seemingly portraying Germans, turn out to show up in the “American” army, teaching the audience that we shouldn’t judge a person (or a cat) because they look different or speak with a funny accent. Weapons are replaced with flea bombs. (Suggested title: Out of Pounds.)


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