I’VE SPENT THE PAST TWO MONTHS living in the actual-size replica of the Hotel in the fetus shantytown — specifically inside the actual-size replica Room that corresponds to my original Room in Dodge City, which somehow both exacerbates and alleviates whatever homesickness I might be feeling — working on a script for what I hope will be the first of several movies I’ll make out here with the reanimated fetuses.
They certainly seem up for it.
My script, about a trio of best friends who unwittingly hire a suicidal prostitute and then stage an elaborate funeral for her in the Suicide Cemetery, where they end up breaking their own hearts by pretending she was the long-lost love of their lives — reading out the eulogies they’d originally written for themselves, to be read by one another many years hence — is overlong, full of digressions I know I’ll never film, but I’m proud that it is, if nothing else, a substantive piece of writing, my first since my entanglement with Branson Entertainments began in earnest last summer.
I’m inventorying camera and sound equipment, trying to determine what we’ll need to assemble before we can start shooting, when a green siren in the replica town square brings all activity to a halt.
I turn to face it, as do the fetuses, their pickaxes resting on the cardboard cobblestones. A screen above the altar in the replica Church comes to life, showing a newsfeed so surreal at first I think it’s a short film:
I watch as Blut Branson emerges from the Dodge City Private Crypt, dusting himself off and blinking through harsh sunlight at the town he left behind. As Dodge City TMZ reporters shove microphones in his face, he says, “Look, everyone, all I’ll say is this: I, like Dante, had to go to hell for a while. That’s where I was. Now I’m back, ready for my Late Career Renaissance.”
With that, he pushes past them, hurling a reporter out of his face with enough force to send the rest scurrying. As he marches out of frame, I have the inexplicable but unshakeable sense that he’s coming straight for me.
FOR A LONG TIME after he’s gone, the camera lingers on the facade of the Dodge City Private Crypt, a two-story stucco building somewhere in the Outskirts, its glass doors clacking less than gently in the breeze.
I first heard about the Private Crypt back in 2012, when there was a lot of talk about reapportioning our cemeteries, what with the new custodian of the Suicide Cemetery stirring up trouble and a rash of desecrations of the graves of formerly luminous directors, Branson’s foremost among them. So, as far as anyone knows, his body was moved to the Crypt after this and has been there ever since.
I’ve always thought of it as an even lower-brow Chelsea Hotel, catering to a dead rather than a down-n-out client base. Though I’ve never been inside, I picture rows of rooms along a dingy tile hallway, doors shut but not locked, the dead luminaries of our town posed like junkies on the nod.
It’s not lost on me that I’m using what may well be the last of my time before Branson shows up to think about the Private Crypt instead of making any push to set my film in motion, so as to appear to have become a real director in his absence. I feel like a teenager whose house party has spun out of control: I’ve just gotten word that my parents are on their way home early, and there’s no time to clean up, or even to separate whomever’s still screwing in the laundry room.
But that’s the way I am: when I start thinking about something, I tend to keep thinking about it in lieu of taking any action.
More than a man back from the dead, I think of Branson as a man just released from captivity, as if the Private Crypt were an asylum or a rehab, his bill of health finally clean.
I wonder what’s drawn him back — what business does he feel he’s left unfinished? What more could he want from us, given that, in the years since his supposed death, biopics, retrospectives, and conferences on his work have become a cottage industry in Dodge City, employing the vast majority of our scholars and journalists, not to mention a good number of our lesser filmmakers as well.
I can feel myself swaying on my feet, looking at nothing in particular, as the fetuses bustle around, dressing the set, oblivious or indifferent to the fact that production’s about to be shut down. My script hangs by my side, dangling between my thumb and forefinger, which are sweating through the pages.
I’M STILL IN THIS STATE when Branson snaps his fingers in front of my eyes. I open them and feel my script land on my foot. Slowly, almost robotically, he bends down, picks it up, and begins to page through it.
Then we look at each other in earnest. I feel my lower back convulse. Something’s wrong: it’s him but it’s not him.
Up close, I see that he’s grown a thin white goatee and his eyes are strikingly bluer than I remember. Minty, frosty blue. I can’t say what shade I remember them being, since I never made a point of noticing, but I can tell they’re off. These are not Blut Branson’s eyes.
I can’t decide which is stranger: that he really has died and come back, or that he’d insist on such an improbable story, instead of whatever the truth is. Neither jibes with the Branson I knew. But maybe, I think, if he’s undergone some other change, something fundamental, the fact that he’s become a liar is the least of it … I spit up a little at the thought that the most drastic of his changes may only reveal themselves gradually, when it’s too late to shun him as an imposter.
“Hey,” he says, looking up from my script to survey the shantytown. “What’re you up to out here?”
This is my set! I want to yell in his face. I’m directing a movie is what I’m up to out here! “Nothing,” I say. “I just, uh …”
He nods, like this is all he needs to know. “Well, I have to get back to work.”
He bustles off among the fetuses, telling them what to build and criticizing what they’ve built already, checking my script every few seconds.
I know that if I don’t start moving right now I’m going to freeze in place. Then, at best, I’ll thaw and trudge back to Dodge City at dawn and chalk this whole venture up to experience, telling Big Pharmakos how we learn more from our failures than our successes over ten or twelve beers at the Hotel bar at noon, until they kick us out to clean before the evening rush.
I close my eyes and try to think. I think about gouging Branson in the back of the head with a pickaxe and dragging him back to the Dodge City Private Crypt, telling the door-person, “This one wasn’t ready for life on the outside.”
By the time I’ve thought this scenario through, Branson — or the Branson-lookalike — is already deep in rehearsal, reading aloud from my script like he wrote it, the fetuses gathered at his feet.
I suffer a moment of complete aloneness, overwhelmed by the vastness of the desert surrounding me and how far from home, security, and any kind of legitimate employment I’ve wandered, or let myself float.
THEN SOMETHING BEHIND MY FOREHEAD CLICKS:
No, I think. It doesn’t end this way.
I leave the shantytown behind, striding into the black desert surrounding it, convinced that if I stride with enough purpose, at least a few fetuses will follow.
And I’m right: at least a few do.
Several, even. More than I can count in the dark.
With my loyal troupe in the open desert surrounding what’s now the set of Blut Branson’s new film — the first of his Late Career Renaissance — I begin to improvise a scenario of my own. It will be a counter-film, a film made in tandem with his, designed specifically to refute it.
A film about an imposter, a simulacrum-Branson who broke free from his Private Crypt to hijack the passion project of his acolyte.
In a fugue of sudden and temporary confidence, I decide that as well as writing and directing this film, I’m going to star in it.
I stand before the fetuses with this resolve firm in my mind: However uncanny it ends up making me feel, I’m going to play Blut Branson, the real one, the one I remember. I’m going to plunge down until I find the thing in me that’s the same as the thing in him, and then I’m going to bring it back to the surface and express it for whomever ends up watching this to see.
The imposter-Branson who’s forced his way into our midst is a blessing in disguise, as I see it now, my doorway into the realm of greatness. I explain, in the best Branson-voice I can muster: “The Blut Branson I knew and loved is dead. Or was, for a long time. Now he’s back. I am he. He is me. You are looking right at him, and he will be your director from now until we finish the work it is finally time for us to begin.”