HAVING RESOLVED TO TAKE MY STAND on the ground of Blut Branson’s abandoned film set, I gather up my flashlight and the camcorder and memory stick I bought at ULTRA MAX over the weekend and make my way out of my Room and past the Hotel’s front desk, where a man who attempted suicide by poison but was resuscitated after 72 hours is haggling over his bill. “I shouldn’t be charged for that time!” he shouts. “Not full price anyway! I didn’t think I’d ever be in this position, so how can you expect me to have saved for it? I didn’t even bring my wallet. That was the only kindness I showed myself!!”


“As a Hotel, our business is to rent you a room, at a fixed rate per day,” replies the implacable concierge. “What you do in there is your business.”


The man grows so livid he opens his mouth without producing any sound, and leaves it open. Perhaps, I think, far from thanking a higher power for his miraculous recovery, he’ll simply default to suicide again, here on the spot even, if he has any poison left.


I make my way out, wondering if we ever learn from our mistakes.



By the time I make it to the Outskirts, it’s late dusk. I turn on my flashlight, sweeping the terrain for any sign of Branson’s set, which the locals often refer to but superstitiously refuse to visit.


For a long time I don’t see anything but lean-to’s and shanties, rundown houses and former stores, car bodies without wheels and, twice, piles of dead dogs. For reasons I can’t explain, I have the thought, on both occasions, that these sinister piles are concealing something even more sinister — that the gross mass of rotting dogflesh is more decoy than travesty.


I don’t explore this thought beyond filing it away for use in a possible future film.


Finally, just at the point where I find myself debating whether to turn back, maybe shoot some footage of those dead dogs and call it a day, a row of torchlights appears on the horizon, making me feel like a medieval exile, seeking succor in the territories. The idea excites me: perhaps, as a Director, this will be my identity. I’ll show up at defunct sets along the road and, under guise of seeking shelter, take charge of the situation.


I’ll be somewhere between a Mayor and a Director, I think, imagining a series of abandoned towns lined up and waiting for me in a long row between here and the end of my life. I wonder who will witness these films, or is that the fatal question, the one that will keep me from making them? I file it away, for now, under maybe.



I CROSS INTO THE CIRCLE OF LIGHTS, keeping my shoulders back and my chin up so whomever’s here doesn’t pounce, if they’re the type to. When I did karate as a child, that was the takeaway: well-trained people don’t win fights, they avoid them because of how they carry themselves.


All around me are plywood facades, half-finished buildings, marquees bearing two or three letters at most. Pickaxes piled in wheelbarrows. Like a miniature Dodge City, built by Blut Branson and his assistants in preparation for a film that never happened.


It’s impossible to tell if the disrepair is due to the buildings never having been finished, or if they’ve degraded in the years since preproduction ceased. Either way, it’s a shantytown now.


So here I am. In the main square I see nothing but children, and not very strong or well-looking ones at that. They lurch around, falling to their knees every few steps, carrying plastic plates away from a fire where the biggest among them are doling out what looks like squash and rice. The scene reminds me of the charity dinners the Quakers used to set up in front of their meetinghouse on summer Fridays downtown.


I approach the fire, figuring I’ll ask for a plate and thereby ingratiate myself by breaking bread, etc.


But before I get there, a searing pain in my left ankle brings me down. I find myself sitting on a piece of foam painted to look like a cobblestone, surrounded by tiny peering faces, not so much deformed as unformed. The one that bit me is now chewing a knob of my flesh. The gesture seems self-contained: I do not believe it will be repeated.


The others simply open and close their mouths like they think they’re breathing underwater. It takes me a moment to see them for what they are, or were:




They look almost like babies but not. Their faces are — I make a note of this phrase in the verbatim section of my brain — too innocent. I immediately consider this as a possible title for my film.


As I sit with them, listening to their low, mournful chatter, I remember a story Big Pharmakos told me when we were very drunk one night early in my time in Dodge City:


“Not that long ago,” Big Pharmakos began, in the bar of the Hotel, which I did not yet know would be my residence for the next four years at least, “there was a scandal at the abortion clinic. After decades of protests, attacks, even a few murders, the Dodge City Pro-Life League came up with a far more radical approach. Instead of killing the aborters, who, after all, would simply be replaced with others just like them, these Pro-Lifers thought, why not address the problem itself by reanimating the aborted fetuses?”


Here, sitting on the foam-cobblestones of the shantytown, I look at my companions — my cast & crew, I think, a bit prematurely perhaps — the living embodiments of Big Pharmakos’ story which, at the time, I’d had more than a little trouble believing.


“So, using a technology the nature of which no one understands,” Big Pharmakos continued, “these Pro-Lifers snuck into the trash behind the clinic late one night, after a big haul of fetuses had been deposited, and took them all out, brought them back to a lab somewhere and, well … as far anyone knows, regrew them in tanks, under heat-lamps.”


The strange thing about these fetuses, I think, studying them more closely now, is that they were given the chance to gestate for far longer than they would have had they remained in the womb. For them, there never came the point of “now it’s time to make your way out” … they just grew on and on in there, getting bigger without ever crossing the line between fetus and baby … and now here they are, fending for themselves in a world they were perhaps never meant to inhabit.


Aware that I’m close to the point of having done enough thinking for one day, I yawn, close my eyes, and watch the rough framework of my film fall into place: If I can only get these fetuses to portray the children they never were and will never be, I think, limping toward the facade of the pretend Hotel in search of a place to sleep, there will be a built-in sense of drama, inherent beyond whatever ability I may or may not have as a Director.


You were given a second lease on life, I imagine telling them, from offscreen, as the opening scene unfolds. Are you glad? What use have you made of it so far, and what plans, if any, do you have for the future?

IT’S WELL KNOWN among those who follow the lives of the Great Directors that, from 2005 to 2011, Blut Branson was dead.


Though no one knew where his body was, exactly, no one, not even Big Pharmakos, was optimistic or superstitious enough to consider him still-living. All anyone ever told me was that one day he stormed out of Dodge City, echoing David Lynch with the claim that “Movies aren’t really my bag these days,” and sent no further signal.


I’ll admit that I’ve had a similar thought on occasion, what with today’s seemingly infinite, and infinitely disposable, online content streams competing endlessly for our diminishing attention … it’s almost enough to motivate one back into literature, a party that, poorly attended as it’s been since the end of the 19th century at the latest, hasn’t grown any more poorly attended in recent years, contrary to claims made by certain experts between 2008 and 2012.


Anyway, the set of the film Branson had been working on became a paralyzed village on the outskirts of Dodge City, the cast and crew hanging around, eating craft services until they were all gone and then beginning to eat each other, waiting for instructions, refusing to accept their project’s demise.



TO BACK UP, in fall 2011, I was in my apartment on Dana St. in Cambridge, MA where I lived before moving to Dodge City, listening to Fresh Air when a Q&A with Branson, whose films I’d discussed in my college thesis, came on. Believing him to be dead, I snapped out of my slight torpor, becoming for once in my life fully alert.


The first thing I noticed in this new state of attention was that the broadcast was structured like an old-school audience call-in radio show, where Terry Gross kept stopping to announce the phone number, inviting listeners to call in with “those burning questions you’ve always had for Blut but never known how to ask.”


Various people from around the country called in to ask “where do you get your ideas?” and “who the heck was that guy behind the dumpster?” And one woman who wanted to know if 35 was too late to embark upon a creative career (“You’re still a baby!” enthused Branson, his tone unusually warm) — until, strange as it seems now that I’m writing it, I heard my own voice come on the air.


I perked up even more, checking myself for signs of splitting or doubling. “What about your unrealized Zoos of the Infinite Blue Horror Hole script? Any chance of that seeing the light of day?” I asked.


“Well,” Branson began, as Terry Gross coughed politely in the background, perhaps aware that we were straying into uncomfortable territory, “now that you mention it, I have been thinking that maybe …”


Thus began a long, sometimes frightening discussion of Branson’s great unrealized project. The thing I didn’t understand until much later was that this broadcast was actually from 2005, the year before his supposed death, and that it had come back on the air in 2011 to cover a rare medical absence on Terry Gross’ part.


So, in 2011, I ended up re-listening to my 2005-self discuss the legendary “lost Branson masterpiece,” which in the intervening six years I’d come to think of as my own idea, one of what has often felt like an infinite number of unrealized projects, riding with me from town to town.


Listening to the broadcast in Cambridge in 2011 provided a much-needed jolt of fresh air, no pun intended, into what, I’ll admit, had become a fairly stagnant period of time.


“The idea,” Branson explained, “is to consider an infinite recurrence of zoos: endless sets of higher, or supposedly higher, species watching the behavior of lower species, while one of them is imprisoned and the other is free. Each zoo spectator is the zoo animal for the next-higher species, so that each is at once knowing subject and unknowing object … but what’s interesting to me is the idea that it’s not the behavior of any given species that entertains the next higher species (and by proxy the film’s eventual viewer, if it were ever to be made), but rather the attention that each species pays to the lower species … the mode of attention, if you will, the specific qualities of it, the nature of each species’ prurience and perversion when it comes to the lives of those less fortunate  … do you see?”


“Yeah,” I heard myself say, Terry Gross coughing again in the background.



“Of course, stories where characters believe they’re the zoo visitors only to discover they are in fact the zoo animals are a dime a dozen, but what sets my idea apart is its infinitude … how the pairs magnify out, across spacetime, to a dizzying level of complexity, as the creeping suspicion that there can never be an end of zoos begins to dawn on the viewer.”


I sat on my bed in Cambridge nodding, listening to my 2005-self wait for Branson to continue.


“The only real problem,” he continued, after a lengthy pause, “is that I don’t yet have a suitable linking concept … nor any real characters to speak of. But the set in Dodge City is built and ready to go.”


“Then how will you work through the next phase?” Terry Gross interjected, a tad confrontationally, probably attempting to regain control of her interview subject.


“That,” said Branson, his voice harsh and defensive again, “is the kind of question that can make a filmmaker disappear.”


Which, of course, is exactly what he did, not long after.



AT THIS POINT the broadcast went dead, but no matter — I was already scribbling in my journal:


Patchwork of childhood influences — all the fairy tales I absorbed as a child were, for me, literally true — my parents and teachers were trying to make me into what I needed to become in order to take Branson on, the minotaur in the labyrinth of my own influence … the giant between me and my becoming.


Now I’m liberated, on the prowl, like a samurai hero figure who doesn’t yet know his own power, or his own freedom to wield that power … Somehow I need to create for myself an avatar within Branson’s world, a better self to be as I explore his baroque imagination …


And thereby eviscerate him from this inside out …


The last line in that journal entry was: “Looks like I’ll be moving to Dodge City to take over the set Branson abandoned.”


Little did I know then that he’d come back from the dead barely a month after my arrival, but oh well. At least I shook off the torpor of Cambridge, and academia generally.



NOW, THE DAY BEFORE HALLOWEEN 2015, with Branson having been back from the dead for four years, I happen to reread this journal, which I’d forgotten about until now.


Taking a beer from the fridge in my Room — where I’ve been deposited after my return from Kazakhstan — I walk out to the balcony and look across town, all the way to the lights of Branson Industries … and I wonder if the set he abandoned when he supposedly died is still there, out in the desert …



Stuffing my notebooks into a backpack and finishing my beer, I decide to find out for myself.


As I ride the elevator down to the lobby, I try to tally up all the time I’ve wasted here, and decide, as the elevator doors ding open, to make the film myself. Whether or not it’s exactly what I’ve always imagined myself doing, it’s what I’m going to do right now, I decide, trying to make my voice sound non-negotiable in my head.


MY RESISTANCE IN THE M-TOWER is even shorter-lived than I’d sort of feared it might be.


As soon as I say aloud, “My M-Tower isn’t yours to take, Blut Branson,” agents swoop down from the sky — I can’t remember if they’re on ropes or parachutes — gag me with an ether rag, and load me into a truck as I’m passing out.


I wake up what feels like years later, though it must in reality be a few hours. I’m in a bed that’s actually pretty comfy, with a blanket pulled up to my chin and, though I don’t reach my hands up to check, a tightness that feels like a sleeping cap on my head.


In front of me is a combined TV/VCR unit in a wall-mounted frame, with an empty VHS box on top. The box says DEAD RINGERS 2: A David Cronenberg Film, though I immediately have the cold, creepy feeling that it’s actually a Blut Branson film, perhaps one I’m now seeing for the second time, given how familiar it feels.


Still, I fall right in, as I always do with Cronenberg films, even apocryphal ones.


This one involves the same twin duo from the original, again played by Jeremy Irons, though by this point he looks well on his way to aging into a poor man’s Jeremy Irons.


In this scenario, the twins are film professors at a shoddy rural college, sort of a Miskatonic University vibe; it’s maybe even shot on the same set as Re-Animator, now that I look closer. The professors teach a Monsters of the Korean New Wave course, though all the clips they screen are blacked out — probably, I think, because Branson (I mean, Cronenberg) couldn’t secure the rights. So we see the students reacting in awe to what we know is nothing.


As in the first Dead Ringers, the twins make sure that only one of them is ever seen at a time, so as not to let on that they’re not the same person. Their angle is to sleep with as many students as possible, same as in the original (here I begin to wonder if, unless it’s just the ether talking, perhaps this is the original, questioning my memory of that film taking place in a gynecology clinic in Toronto, though this is exactly the kind of wormhole-bound thinking I’ve been trying to train myself to nip in the bud) …


The heart of the drama, once the film has established its premise and reached the point where it needs to ratchet up the conflict, centers on the problem of one twin growing more infatuated with a certain student than the other twin wants him to be. (And by extension less infatuated with his twin than their symbiosis requires.)


In this case, it’s a Goth girl with a very conspicuous nerve disease: like the worst case of shingles ever contracted, her nerves have grown outside her body and are hanging down her face like a mane of dreadlocks. I picture her being played by Sheri Moon Zombie, but even in my semi-delirium I’m fairly certain this isn’t actually the case.


One twin wants nothing to do with her, but the other, either locating a genuine fetish in himself alone, or simply eager to torment his twin by acting on a non-shared desire, decides to try to sleep with her anyway.


He seduces her in a quickly dashed-off “office hours” montage, at the end of which they go back to the bungalow that he, Elliot (the names, too, are reprised from Dead Ringers) shares with his more sensitive, self-protective twin, Beverly.


While Beverly sleeps in the spare bedroom they call The Nursery, Elliot has sex with the Goth girl — whose name, he learns, is Chloë, a double-major in film theory and Japanese — in the tub.


SHE LEAVES IN THE MORNING and Elliot struts into the breakfast nook, ostensibly to gloat to Beverly about last night’s conquest, but before he gets a chance to speak, we see his face: riven with worm-like, protruding nerves, his lips crawling, bloody fluid dribbling from his nose into his mouth.


Beverly butters his toast with a derisive I told you so smile as his twin writhes. Soon he’s nothing but a rubber-band ball of nerves, tangled in himself, shrinking. Even his voice is swallowed up, struggling to croak.



I DRIFT OFF at this point in the video, waking to find Elliot shrunken to the size of a child, Beverly now in the position of caring for him, as if this new entity were his son, not his twin.


Chloë is back in the picture as well, living with Beverly as a sort of mother to the baby-Elliot, as if he were the natural offspring of their night together in the tub. It’s not clear whether she understands that the man she’s living with isn’t the same as the man she slept with — perhaps their perfect twindom has her fooled more than anyone, though she must know she hasn’t given birth.


I get the sense, from watching Beverly’s performance in these scenes, that he’s jealous of his shrunken twin, wishing that he could’ve been the one to regress and be cared for instead … Even a horrible nerve disease like that, I imagine him thinking in voice-over, it’d be worth it if I could have back all the years I’ve wasted in the process of becoming whatever I am now … a sundered twin … an unwitting father … a rural film professor doomed to irrelevance.


I can’t help hearing Cronenberg himself, now the vaunted elder craftsman of such highbrow but somehow toothless fare as A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, likewise wishing he could have back the gory, sleazy years of his youth … If I could just get myself back to the 80s, I think, pretending I’m him, and make Videodrome and The Fly and Dead Ringers againjust one more time, I’d … I’d … I’d …


I nod off wondering what I’d do if I were Cronenberg, granted permission to return to the 80s for one day only. When I wake up, Blut Branson’s leaning over me with a scalpel in one hand, shining a laser pointer in my eye with the other.


This dislodges a new, frightening supposition, just as the tape begins to auto-rewind: what if I’ve been shown this video as a form of infantilization, before my reckoning with Blut begins … a sort of video-anesthesia … a forced regression to my own helpless infancy, same as the twin onscreen …


As he scours my face with the laser pointer, the phrase that keeps moving through my mind is softening me up … softening me up … he’s softening me up …


I’m still thinking this as he focuses the laser pointer someplace behind my ear, and makes the first incision with the scalpel. I know I should be grateful, but all I can access is terror when I realize the pain I’m ready for isn’t getting through.


I also realize, as he’s doing whatever he’s doing, that I’ve been so totally taken in by his sequel to Dead Ringers that all I feel is regret at not having laid my M-Tower at his feet after all. What use is it to anyone now? I wonder, aware that the scalpel is inside my skull, probably erasing my memory of this whole episode.

DEAD BROKE, BORED, LOST IN MY HEAD, I finally decide, after months of stewing in my Room, to put myself out there. Make myself available to someone other than myself. “Use me for what you will,” I think in the direction of the world at large, knowing I don’t entirely mean it.


My own thoughts, my own interests — the open question of who do I think I am — will always be primary in my life, for better or worse, but for now I’ve decided to siphon off a little attention in the direction of the the highest bidder, or any bidder at all.


I describe myself on the Dodge City Craigslist as an “all-around film assistant with razor-sharp instincts, if not exactly rock-solid skills,” and modestly set my minimum desired salary at $15/hour.


Amazingly, one of Blut Branson’s assistants calls me the next afternoon, waking me from my 3:05-3:15 nap. “Can you come by?” she asks, like I ought to know where she means.


“Sure,” I reply, like I do.


She hangs up without telling me when.


I lie still until my alarm goes off at 3:15, then get dressed and head down to the concierge. Like a German tourist, I ask where Blut Branson’s headquarters are located. Taking obvious relish in being asked, she takes out the Local Attractions map and draws a tight circle at the outer edge of the official Walking Tour path. She reminds me to take sunscreen and plenty of water on my walk, like I really am a German tourist and not someone who’s lived in this hotel for the last four years. To be fair, I don’t know who she is either, but I can’t help feeling it’s more her job to recognize me than my job to recognize her, even though, I allow, there are exponentially more faces on her radar than there are on mine.


When I get over this, I take her map and set out. After a hot, disoriented wandering spell, I arrive at what the map calls A complex of refurbished hostels, originally intended for those Civil War deserters enterprising enough to make it this far West. The premises are surrounded by a giant wrought-iron fence supporting a sign that reads BRANSON ENTERTAINMENTS in rusted metal letters. The similarity to Lars von Trier’s ZENTROPA ENTERTAINMENTS on the edge of Copenhagen is naked enough to read as homage.


I’m considering rattling the gate to announce my arrival when an assistant rolls up on a golf cart, opening the gate from inside with her iPhone and gesturing for me to climb aboard.


“You got the call?” she asks, in a voice that might be the same as the one that called me.


I nod and climb onto the cart beside her as she puts it in drive, taking us straight into the heart of the complex, which contains five large buildings and a number of smaller ones, like sheds, in clusters around the periphery. I can’t believe I’ve lived in Dodge City since 2011 — a period during which I viewed each of Branson’s nine films at least twice — without ever coming out here. This speaks, scarily, to the separation I’ve fostered between myself and the outside world since my arrival. The image-world inside my computer and the flesh-world of people, places, and things out here have never seemed less related or further apart.


“OK, get out,” she says, jerking the golf cart to a halt and returning me to real-time.


I tumble to my feet, dizzy, like I’ve just been on a plane, and follow her along a concrete path and into the bunker. We pass through a thick plastic curtain and into a cement-smelling cavern, where the only lights on are red. I get the sense that unseen plant life is growing.


I follow her further in, past tables laid out with what looks like guns and cash, into a side room with a door that requires a fingerprint scan to open.


Inside sit at least fifty other people, applicants like me, I’m assuming, on plastic chairs under more of that harsh red light. At the focus of everyone’s attention sits Branson himself, in fatigues, combat boots, and a safari hat.


He turns and looks me over, calmly, and when he turns away I have the feeling that he’s seen all the way in.


I take this as my cue to sit down.


“OK,” Branson begins, once I have, like my sitting down has reactivated him from a brief deep-freeze. “The time has come to determine who, if any of you, has what I’m looking for.”


He leans to the side to reach into his back pocket and removes what looks like a plastic hood, which he unwraps and stretches over his head, sealing it around the neck. Then, stoic though it doesn’t look like he can breathe, he presses a button on his iPhone and hurries out of the room.


Gas hisses down from a sprinkler and we all nod out.



WHEN I COME TO, I’m in a glaring white room with six other people. We’re laid out on cots, tied up inside sleeping bags so we can only wiggle.


“The seven of you,” says Branson’s voice over an intercom, “have been selected as location scouts for my next film, working title Grassland Mastodon. The others have been let go. This is, needless to say, an immense honor. Your one shot at the big time, to put it lightly. The jets leave for Kazakhstan in half an hour. Each of you will receive a written description and a sketch of the location you are to find.”


He pauses to swallow whatever he’s chewing.


“I have never in my life dreamed of a location for one of my films,” he continues, his voice turning grave, “and failed to find it somewhere upon the earth. What is in me is also out there. This is my brand, my claim to fame, my greatest asset.”


I’ve seen this claim made before, in a book of Branson interviews I read on the plane en route to Dodge City. Its metaphysical hubris impressed me even before I’d seen his films, and impresses me still, perhaps more than the films themselves ever quite have.


“My chronic fear of flying has been well-documented for decades, so it should come as no surprise that I require your assistance in tracking these locations down.” His voice keeps getting louder. “Suffice it to say, if you find the location you have been tasked with finding, its inclusion in my body of work will serve as a source of pride for you for years to come. It will be your life’s crowning achievement. You will not be credited outright, but you will know in your hearts, when you see my film, that the credit is yours.”


As he’s saying this, an assistant enters the room with a scissor and, after asking each of us if we consent to execute the job we’ve been selected for (we all do), cuts us free. “Scout the area you’re air-dropped into,” says the assistant, “overlooking no corner of it, relentlessly seeking out the location described in the file you’ve been given. Your $15/hour will be paid upon your safe return, bearing photos of the location and its exact coordinates. You will be paid for 20 hours per day. Do not let Mr. Branson suspect that any of you have worked fewer.”



IN A FEW MINUTES I’M AIRBORNE, leaving Dodge City behind for the first time since I found myself briefly in Scotland with Big Pharmakos in 2012. I can’t see the other planes, but I picture us all taking off like some air force squadron departing to bomb a distant continent. No, I think. Not to bomb that continent, but to pillage its natural resources, to dig them up and bring them back to Branson so that he might continue his career as a world-class visionary without ever leaving his Room.



I look out the window at the landmass becoming a speck until the co-pilot rushes over and shuts the blind saying, “Branson requires his location scouts to keep their minds clear until arrival at the designated site. Finding a Branson location is as much a matter of tuning one’s inner landscape as it is of scanning the outer. You’ll see. May I suggest a sleep-mask?”


He pulls it over my eyes and I give up trying to resist, letting it put me to sleep as we cross the North Pole.


AFTER THIRTEEN HOURS, the co-pilot returns to pull the sleep-mask off my eyes and inform me that we’ve touched down in Kazakhstan. I’d been expecting a concrete bunker airport on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, but it looks like we’ve landed on a dirt patch in the middle of the steppe.


“Ok,” says the pilot, handing me a heavy backpack. “You’re in charge from here. Read Branson’s description of the location he’s seeking, then walk in whatever direction you feel it lies in. If you didn’t have an innate sense for where that is, he wouldn’t have chosen you. There’s a phone in the pack that will ring when it’s time for your pick-up. You are to take pictures with that phone as well.”


Before I can ask anything else, he’s back in the plane with the door locked. I can tell that pounding on it will only exhaust me and annoy him, so I put my head down, shoulder the pack, and trudge off into the grass, holding the file that Branson gave me. I adjust the pack’s straps as I go, taking in the vastness of the landscape I’m about to get lost in.



AFTER A FEW DAYS of walking through rocky fields and sparse grass, with nothing in mind except the location that Branson described in the file — a lone tower in the midst of a rocky field, jutting into the sky — I climb over a small hill and, on the other side, find exactly what I was afraid I might find: the M. Tower, jutting into the sky.


The M. Tower, as I’ve called it since I was a child — due to the large stone M of its roof, which I always assumed stood for me or mine — is the structure I’ve gone to most frequently in my mind when I needed to exit the reality around me and enter a place of pure cerebral calm. The running water inside the M. Tower is a self-renewing spring of fresh thought, where all of my ideas have come from, where the dream of every movie I’ve ever dreamed of making has been born. I’ve spent whole days in here, drinking from the faucet on the top floor, looking out over a vast inner landscape absolutely identical to the one I’m standing in now.

mtower 1

Am I in my own mind? I wonder. Have I gone nowhere but deeper in?


If nothow did Branson find this place inside me? What did he do to me while I was gassed?


My skin crawls. Nothing feels more important than protecting the M. Tower from Branson’s influence. It’s not his to steal, I think, my voice regressing to that of a child in my inner ear.


But what’s the alternative? Trudging on, into more grass, until my supplies run out? I imagine picking up the phone when it rings and lying, telling Branson’s people that there’s nothing out here. I reach in the pack and take out the phone, put it to my ear and practice lying, but all that comes out are stammers.


I’ve never been a good liar, even in low-stakes circumstances. The thought of convincing an operation as militarized as Branson’s of anything but the truth is more than I can hold in mind. So I give up on this possibility.


To keep from hyperventilating, I sit down where I’d been standing, and feel the M. Tower’s shadow wash over me, cool as the sheets on my childhood bed when I’d lie down for my 3:05-3:15 nap and spend it doing nothing but thinking about movies.


It occurs to me that this must be how Branson operates — each location scout he hires has an inner landscape of their own, which he somehow unearths while we’re under the gas. Then, he claims it as a product of his own imagination and sends us out to locate it.


I try to follow the logic through … If I’m inside my own mind now, I think, what would it mean to emerge back into objective reality and lead Branson’s people here? And after that, how would they film it and convey its reality to a mass audience?


Perhaps they’ll make a scale replica, I think, and bring it back to Branson Entertainments to be used on-set there. The thought of the actual M. Tower, here and real before me for the first time, being turned into a replica of itself is too grotesque to dwell on. I spit to clear the thought, watching my dehydrated saliva trickle off the side of my shoe and into the steppe-grass.


Getting back to my feet, I creep around the bottom of the M. Tower, looking up at its majestic stone flanks, listening to the spring of pure thought flow through its piping, making my mouth water.


Bowing my head in reverence, I go in.


Inside the M. Tower, I take my first gulp from the faucet and think: I’ll spend the night alone in here, on the very top floor, surveying the landscape.


If, in the morningI still can’t bear the thought of surrendering it to Branson, I’ll prepare to take radical action then.

ANOTHER LONG SPELL OF AMBIENT MEDIA CONSUMPTION as I roil in a crater in the heart of my mattress, eschewing any thought that lands with too much smack of real life. Off and on I notice myself considering becoming a filmmaker, though I’m careful not to formulate any concrete idea of what this might entail, nor to consider the odds of there being a place for me in Dodge City’s increasingly insular and self-referential film industry, if that’s the right word for what goes on here.

But I do watch a lot of films, many of them TV movies.

The only one that sticks with me sufficiently to reproduce here is one that played, I think, very late last night and then again early this morning (or else was very, very long and repetitive), starring a pedophile on a regimen of highly-specialized psychotropic drugs.

The moral premise of the film was that pedophiles and child molesters are radically different beasts: both have the same innate, societally abhorrent urge, but one resists it with all its might, while the other gives in, either gladly or under substantial duress. The first category, according to the film’s drowsy narrator, “is to be commended for its efforts to deny its basic wiring, while the second is to be punished to the full extent of the law.”

The name of the male character in this film escapes my memory, so I’ll call him “George,” while the female character, his girlfriend, has a name I remember: Chloe, after an Atom Egoyan film I’ve been meaning to see, though I’ve heard it’s not that great and there’s no reason to think it’ll play on Dodge City TV anytime soon.

George, a pedophile of the type that’s determined to deny its wiring, has been prescribed a trial dose of a psychotropic drug designed to induce temporary hallucinations in which adults appear to him as children, so that he might perform the typical sex act with a consenting adult while at the same time accessing the sense of peace and inner wholeness that only sex with a child affords him.

I remember feeling his pain, however hard I must have found it to empathize with its source. This man too, I remember thinking or hearing the narrator say, is after all a human being.

The plot twist comes early: Chloe — who, until now, has been unaware of her boyfriend’s practice of selectively transforming her into a child — accidentally ingests one of his pills, left out on the bathroom sink, believing it to be one the anti-depressants that she has long insisted she doesn’t take, but in fact always leaves out on the bathroom sink in order to take just before sex, when she needs them most.

When she returns to the bedroom and witnesses George transforming into a child before her eyes, she is naturally (not being a pedophile herself) shaken up. She pulls away, desperate to find her bearings in a room that’s closing in on her, fast ceasing to feel like home.

She crawls backward as her boyfriend — fully-aroused at the sight of her as a child, still under the impression that all is proceeding as usual — pursues, knocking her into a bookcase which falls on them both, rendering them unconscious for a five-minute period of screen time, during which I pass out as well.


WHEN OUR CONSCIOUSNESSES RESUME, the two of them have entered an almost sweet regression into early childhood infatuation, though fraught in this case with the memory of intercourse rather than a faint, unvoiced premonition thereof.

I can tell that not only do they look like children to each other, but, thanks to their shared perspective on the other’s regression, they feel like children as well.


Like a co-ed sleepover gone slightly off the rails, I think.

THE MIDDLE ACT finds them in a state close to bliss, living in their apartment as if it belonged to a much older cousin, someone cool and grown-up and out of town, who would be glad to guide into the mysteries they’re just starting to long to explore if only he or she were present.

They raid the pantry for Frosted Flakes and Swiss Miss, acting like they’re on the world’s longest snow day and nothing’s impossible.

I phase in and out during this section, part of me waiting for the other shoe to drop, part of me fearing it never will or that it already has. I’m wondering if the pill she took will eventually wear off and she’ll be forced to watch George revert to being a man, like some terrible switch-out has occurred and she’s now in a situation she very much shouldn’t be in, while he goes on taking the pills so that she remains child-sized in his eyes, or if they’ll both grow addicted, endlessly re-upping their newfound perspective on the other, until one or both of them OD’s, if that’s possible in this case, or until their supply runs out, which surely one day it must.

Perhaps an excess of these pills will culminate only in a mutual regression to apparent infancy, each squinting in the dark to make the other out.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS comes from further out of left field, drawing me back out of myself for the third act: Chloe is so overcome with terror at the conflicted nature of her relationship with this man she sees as a boy that she becomes convinced he has killed her father:


reads an unexpected title card in the center of the screen.

This dead father, the narrator informs us, is none other than George, the man she used to live with and now cannot find.

Falling into her psychic disturbance, the boy-George mimics her fear, behaving as though his mother, Chloe, is also gone, replaced by this girl-child he can’t help but lust after, despite the competing depth of his desire to wail in her arms.

The memory of their parents lingers in the apartment, growing so oppressive it forces them out into the hallway.

NOW THE CLIMACTIC JOURNEY BEGINS: they fall to roaming the massive apartment complex, charging from room to room, knocking on doors, squeaking in baby voices at the neighbors, begging to be taken in or given a clue as to the nature of their orphanhood:


reads another title card.

By this point, they’re convinced that they’re brother and sister.

It’s a tribute to the director’s generosity of spirit, I suppose, that he never has them turn hostile and assign blame to one another. They remain united in their search, convinced that a tragedy has befallen them both in equal measure, scouring the building from top to bottom, then spilling out into Dodge City, off the screen, which remains blank, since the movie has ended, or I’ve fallen asleep.


AS I SLEEP, I hear them knock on my door, as I knew I eventually would. I get up slowly and let them in, saying, “Sit. Sit here for a while.”

They do, still naked on towels on the the footstool I’ve set out for them, looking exhausted and shaken up. I let them sit like this a long time, the TV silent between us, as I put the kettle on to boil, though I have no teabags or instant coffee.

I wait for the boiler to click before venturing to ask what I’ve wanted to ask since the TV Movie began, which is, “Got any more of those pills?”

I’m afraid they’re about to say, “What pills?” but instead they nod and each hands me one, from separate vials, like they’d each had their own prescription all along.

“Are you our father?” they ask, and I realize, with the pill on my tongue, that their doses are wearing off. Soon I’ll see them as children but they’ll see me and each other as the adults that none of us wants to be.

“Not for long,” I answer, getting up and taking a new pill from each of their vials, putting one on each of their tongues like a communion wafer and taking the kettle off the boil, pouring three mugs of hot water for us to wash them down with.

THE GLUT OF NEWBORNS following the arrival of the Criterion Truck bearing the first official Blut Branson Criterion DVD sends Paul Broth back to the tree he hangs himself from once a year.


Nothing spooks him more than newborns and nothing calms him more than hanging himself from this tree.


The original myth, as I’ve received it, is that Paul Broth founded Dodge City as a community of deserters from some inland war that’s no longer on the books and hung himself when that war caught up with him, remaining in the air for several months until the branch broke and he fell back to earth, into what was by then a semi-functional, if isolated, community.


Now he’s known only for the periodicity of his going up into and coming back down from the tree, neither state a permanent antidote to the other. There’s some debate as to whether he dies and returns from the dead each time, or if he’s found a means of hanging by his neck without turning all the way off. Either way, the observable fact is that he takes to the tree and depends from it once a year, coming down a few months later to resume his quiet, private life among the living in town.


Over the course of the months he spends hanging, Paul Broth makes a series of pronouncements about life in Dodge City, ever more finely delineating its innermost nature, rewriting our laws, our history, our religion in a stream-of-consciousness which a rotating crew of stenographers is on hand to record, until the branch breaks, returning him to the land of the living and the same blindness as to the true order of things that the rest of us live in year-round.


EACH TIME HE HEADS for the tree, which looms above a swamp at the edge of town — the only structure in sight is the Welcome Center, at the far edge — a procession that includes the hangman and a few spectators follows behind.


This year, the procession includes three of the newborns who’ve occasioned his flight, crawling through the swamp, growing indistinguishable as the mud covers them, as well as me, Big Pharmakos, and the hangman, who has nothing to do but hold the rope until Broth is ready for it. He wears his hood, though we all know who he is.


When we reach the tree, we stand back, reminding ourselves to see Broth’s hanging as a predictable natural phenomenon, no stranger than the reopening of a century plant or the return of an errant bird population after a winter away. He climbs with the rope already around his neck, creeping out onto the branch that has grown in place of the branch that broke after he hung himself from it last time. This is the most precarious moment, as he’s still mortal here, subject to the normal laws of physics: if he falls without the rope to catch him, he could easily break a leg.


I can’t watch. I close my eyes and think, If only I could climb that high, maybe I could hang myself with impunity too.



I DON’T OPEN MY EYES until I hear the loud crack of the rope breaking his fall. He hangs with his hands in his pockets, gagging, kicking his feet.


When he’s recovered from the shock and entered whatever state of equilibrium he enters, he looks down at the newborns and begins to speak: “There are several of you down there, I know. But, to me, there is only one. One of me up here, one of you down there. All things being equal.”


He continues: “Yours is to be a grave and tremendous fate. A life’s work that very few in this town, or in any town, even any city, any country, will come anywhere close to realizing. Since it is well known that he doesn’t fly, under any circumstances, and will thus never visit us here in our place of exile, I hereby dub you the Dodge City Lars Von Trier. The entire filmography of that august world figure is hereby commuted onto you, as a birthright. Whatever else you may do in the years ahead, in all the time you still have, it will be in excess of the vast accomplishment already behind you.”


He gags, kicking his legs, spittle running away from his chin like a strand of wet dental floss.


“To think of having made all the films of Lars Von Trier, as well as the legendary television series The Kingdom, at three days old … the mind boggles.” With this, Paul Broth coughs and goes silent. He hangs like an actual hung man, urine streaming down one pant leg and onto his shoe, and we turn away fearing that, perhaps this time, he has died in earnest. Every year, we remind ourselves, feels like the year when he’ll finally die for good, and we’ll never again have occasion to believe in the invincibility of our founder.


Naturally, this freights his pronouncement with considerable gravity. Though there’s no consensus as to which newborn he anointed — assuming we are incapable of seeing all three as a single being — the fact that the Dodge City Lars Von Trier is among us now, crawling at our feet, is no small thing. The significance of having fleshed out that body of work, at so young an age, with so little self-awareness and next to no resources, makes us feel we are in the presence of a saint.


A saint, though, with an awful burden on his shoulders, a lifetime of asking himself Where, after having created the life’s work of Lars Von Trier in three days, do I go in the years and decades to come?


A saint who, perhaps, ought to have been martyred in his moment of greatest potency, already receding into the past as we crawl through the swamp away from the hanging tree. We look down at the newborns and think I wouldn’t wish that fate on any of them, while, at the same time, trying to decide which of the three to venerate, casting the other two into the same mediocrity we have cast ourselves into, never to emerge except vicariously through the one we vest with our yearning for the divine.



AS WE CROSS THE SWAMP, three official stenographers hurry to take our places at the foot of the tree, where, for the time being, Paul Broth hangs silent and listless. We refrain from sharing his pronouncement with them, so as to keep the revelation private, if only for tonight.


We make our way to the Welcome Center, where there’s a midnight breakfast on Tuesdays and Thursdays, all the pancakes served on paper plates printed with Paul Broth’s face, the syrup dispensed from pitchers in the shape of his head, and a life-size plastic hanging tree in the center of the concourse, its branches ever full of crawling children, their mothers stuffing down pancakes with one eye on them, ready to pounce the moment they crawl too close to the noose.

IT’S TAKEN A MONTH TO PRODUCE THE FIRST BLUT BRANSON CRITERION DVD, but now it’s spring and the Release Party is upon us .


What’s more, two of his most celebrated shorts have been included as special features — 2 Old Ppl, about two best friends who, upon growing old, discover that one of them has turned into two old people while the other has turned into none; and Our Beloved Carefree Child Was Murdered, about a man whose profession it is to accept responsibility for having murdered teenagers that actually committed suicide, so their parents don’t have to feel guilty about not having been there for them.


In advance of the Release Party, the entire downtown is converted into an Anything-goes Zone. Professor Dalton has been on the prowl with Big Pharmakos since last night, drinking, finalizing his speech, and fending off paparazzi demanding to know whether the rumor that Branson himself might appear has any basis in fact.


THEN, BECAUSE WE CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER, THE RELEASE PARTY BEGINS. We’re tearing half-naked through the streets, eating fresh-killed hocks of goat and lamb, crushing boxes of wine on our faces and lapping it off one another, bellowing at the smoggy sky as the Criterion Truck pulls in. We hurl ourselves upon it, tearing open the back before it’s stopped moving, burying ourselves in DVD’s, basking in the canonization of our first genuine saint.


The Truck opens beneath us, spewing boxes like confetti. We’re buried, writhing in glory, heedless of suffocation.

criteriontruck 1

It’s all good until a slimy bursting overrides our glee and we fall silent as hundreds of repressed babies tear through the women among us. They rise from their mothers’ shoulders, armpits, faces, and scalps, crawling out of the afterbirth to push aside DVD’s and howl at the lights of Dodge City, the first they’ve ever seen.


SOME CONTEXT: 17 years ago, Professor Dalton pioneered a non-abortive family planning technique whereby fertilized embryos could be shifted out of the mother’s womb and into another part of her body — the shoulder, the armpit, the face, the scalp — and sit there, inert as benign tumors, until such time as the mother was ready to birth them, when the embryo would simply be pushed back into the womb with a pool cue and allowed to the develop there as normal.


Dodge City women have been availing themselves of this treatment since then without incident, until now, when, it appears, the absurd excitement surrounding Branson’s Criterion Release has caused the embryos to develop and hatch all at once, exploding from the places they’d been stored, emerging fully-formed from the wreckage of their mothers.


I’m no expert, but they look larger than newborns should: more like two-year-olds, standing up and yelling to announce their arrival.



AS WE STRUGGLE TO EXTRICATE OURSELVES, Blut Branson himself appears from on high, camera out and ready, barking: “Test them for the fear of death! Test them for the fear of death!”


He’s shooting frantically, wading barefoot through the destroyed mothers among his pile of DVD’s. There’s a full crew behind him, people I’ve never seen before, and I start to wonder how much of this has been preordained for the sake of producing his next film, and how elated I ought to feel if it has been, given that I’m here to witness it, perhaps even to partake.


He is everywhere at once, swirling among the newborns, attaching mics to their bare chests, making sure their voices can be heard in his headphones.


Then he turns to us and says, “Your job is to rank how scared of death these newborns are. On a scale of 1 to 10.”


No one moves.


“Now!” he shouts. “Do you want to be part of the next Blut Branson film or not?”


Still no one moves.


“How are we supposed to find out?” someone finally asks.


“Ask them!!” he shrieks. “How do you think? Look at that pile of corrupted flesh … that is their mothers. Show them that. Say, One day that will be you. What do you think about that? How does that make you feel?”


Aware that my chance to have a hand in a Branson film is now or never, I run up to the nearest newborn and ask it these exact words. It doesn’t respond. I try the next one, and likewise get no response.


“What do we do if we get no response?” someone else asks, sparing me the indignity.


Branson pauses, checking his rage before replying. “Speechlessness is a 10. Highest possible fear of death. They’re all 10’s! They’re all 10’s, aren’t they!” he shouts, standing outside the Criterion Truck, crushing the DVD’s, indifferent to his old work, focused utterly on the new.


“Perfect! Every Newborn’s a 10! That’s the title of my next film!!”


If there is such a thing as a God, it never addressed its Creation with more conviction than this.

THERE ARE THOSE IN DODGE CITY who claim that Blut Branson has, after a lifetime of struggle, at last reached the distant shores of the Criterion Collection.

There are many among them who maintain that this has been his life’s sole ambition. “Getting a film into the Criterion Collection is,” they claim, “for Blut Branson literally synonymous with entering heaven.”

There is fear that he’ll die as soon as it happens.

When the email arrives that two of Branson’s films have made the cut, the police have to put the town square on lockdown to keep us from rioting with joy. “Criterion’s gonna turn Blut Branson into DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s!” we scream, juddering with excitement until tear gas blacks us out.

When we come to, we’ve been transferred to a medical tent where Professor Dalton sits behind a laptop, writing the official Criterion introduction to THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA, the first Branson film to cross over.

“Shh,” says Dalton, looking up from his screen. “Don’t make me shush you again.”

We crowd in as quietly as we can to watch him write the following text:


THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA tells the devastatingly simple story of an ordinary man whose only calling is to murder a child.

Cannily, this is all that Blut Branson, in what I maintain is his most daring and original film, conceived when the director was only twenty-eight but not realized until his mid-forties, allows us to know about his central figure, whom he terms Dan, a name we learn from a single shot of his prison intake file more than thirty minutes into the film. So, if you will, he begins his screen-life as an unnamed everyman and only upon incarceration does he receive the nearly-meaningless moniker he’ll casually bear for the rest of our time with him. He has no last name, as Branson characters — except those either too saintly or too demonic to figure into the moral vortexes at the center of his work — never do.

The child he dreams of murdering is named, famously, Nicky Teensma, after Branson’s first and, according to a press statement from Cannes ’89 upon the film’s tempestuous release, “last best friend.”

“I have made the film. I will say nothing more about what happened between us,” his statement concluded.

It is telling that this name belongs to the director’s — not the character’s — childhood best friend, though the childhood resentment is expiated strictly through the director’s work, never in his life. (Dodge City residents with young children will recognize the real-life Nicky Teensma as a substitute third-grade math teacher and occasional youth soccer coach.)

In the film’s opening scenes, we see the-man-not-yet-named-Dan going quietly insane in an unremarkable southern California apartment, picking things up and putting them down, staring at the clock, grazing from the refrigerator … all while drawing picture after picture with the caption THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA. These are beautiful in their way, but more disturbed than disturbing, a mess of mutilated child bodies that never achieve the aesthetic cohesion.

These early scenes present an unadorned but absolutely convincing portrait of fantasy wearing itself down, as our man approaches the point at which he will be irresistibly compelled to do the thing he has for so long nursed in ideation, shunting his compulsion into the symbolic.

“NO!” the thing inside him will soon shout. “No. Now you must make me real.”

The first of several decisive moments comes when his neighbor, an elderly lady with whom we’ve seen him interacting once before, dies and leaves him her modest fortune.

He quits his soul-numbing office job, where we’ve seen him sitting at his desk, slowly cutting his upper thigh with a piece of paper, and spends the next ten minutes of screen time in an excruciating funk, deep in the darkness of the one room that is not his bedroom, fully untethered from the normalizing routine of work.

In a shot that is quintessential Branson, a ray of light glints off his left eye in such a way that it remains unclear whether he has generated this light or is reflecting it from some inexplicable, perhaps trans-dimensional source. To any viewer who’s already seen a Branson film, there can be no question that a grave decision has been made.

He stands up and walks to the courthouse.

In the next shot, he is seen sitting down with the county judge — in Branson’s universe, all business is meted out on the county level — and explains his proposition:

“I am willing to spend the majority of my remaining life in prison for the privilege of murdering a child with impunity upon my release.”

“So,” the judge replies, in what has become a catchphrase among Bransonphiles all over the world, “you are in a sense conflating the child’s death with you own, insofar as you are sacrificing your own life at this relatively early stage in order to efficaciously sacrifice another life when yours has already been squandered, and thereby renew yourself through the child, hoping to be reborn as him in the moment of killing, and thereby live on purged of what you yourself will never manage to purge yourself of.”

“Yes,” says our man. I can hear audiences in revival cinemas from New York to Tokyo to Capetown sighing in apprehension as this word is uttered.


IN A CHARACTERISTIC ELISION, we never see the judge’s deliberation. The second act opens on Dan in prison (after his name has been revealed on his intake form).

With the stylized inscrutability of many a Branson protagonist, Dan refuses to answer when the other inmates ask what he’s in for, and there’s something just menacing enough in his bearing that they leave him alone. We never even learn if the guards are aware of the peculiarity of his sentence.

We know only that he has been sentenced to forty-seven years, the exact age that Branson was when the film was finally released, only to lose the Palme D’or to the much more easily assimilated, but, I maintain, more easily forgotten sex, lies, and videotape.

Dan spends the decades aging before our eyes in near-silence, praying to a hand-carved soap statue of the child he will kill upon his release, having already named him NICKY TEENSMA, in a kind of divine soul-congress straight from Blut Branson himself.

As twenty years served become thirty, Dan enters an almost mystical state as his worldly concerns recede into the deep past and he is kept company only by the promise of what he will do when the time comes.

Forty years into his sentence, with seven to go, Dan celebrates a quiet birthday alone in his cell. He dances in a slow circle and whispers, kissing the the soap statue, “Today, Nicky Teensma is born. When I am released, he will be seven. Today my life begins in earnest as well.”


WHEN THE DAY of his release arrives, the film can be said to properly begin, though the preceding forty-seven minutes have of course been one of the most riveting prologues in Branson’s prologue-heavy oeuvre.

Dan walks into the blazing sunshine of a world he barely recognizes, a man of seventy-five, played by B. Sanford, father of G. Sanford, who’s played Dan until now.

The look on B. Sanford’s face was wisely chosen by Criterion as the cover image for their deluxe, fully-restored edition: relief to be freed undergirded with something closer to terror at what he’s consigned himself to do. It is through this look — not through any dialogue or narrative cue — that it begins to dawn on us that Dan is no longer driven to murder a child in the way he was as a young man.


A kind of despair comes over him as he realizes that it is now only his duty to his younger self that spurs him forward … in the film’s only instance of voiceover, we hear him think, “And I figured, since I’d invested my life in it, I’d better follow through, though I sure wished I could’ve taken a pass, or even that I’d died in prison.”

He stares deep into the camera as he walks uncertainly down a hill. I read his expression here as one of tempting fate, profoundly wondering what might become of him if he didn’t follow through on the thing to which his life has been consecrated.

The next ten minutes are, in my opinion, the most excruciating and unforgettable that Branson has ever committed to film. In near-silence, we watch Dan wander through the suburban Los Angeles he’s been released into, perhaps objectively not much changed since his incarceration, but we know something is irreparable in his relation to it. The combination of the toll the years have taken and the awful duty that he must now fulfill is enough to freight Dan’s steps with a sluggishness that threatens to drag the film to a halt.

We watch him wander from one drab location to another — a tire shop, a fast food window, a secondhand clothing store — for no apparent reason other than to look people over, holding their gaze too long, daring them to look back at him. Anyone who’s seen the film will have an interpretation of this sequence — some claim it’s superfluous and should simply have been cut — but I believe that here Dan is trying to warn the people of Greater Los Angeles, through a sort of telepathy, to keep their seven-year-olds far away.

Don’t let me get what I want, he thinks at everyone he passes, in what amounts to his final attempt at Grace.

And it is as if these people have received the message: no children at all are seen in this sequence, not even in the background, where, on repeat viewings of the film, one notices they have always been before, seemingly oblivious of the camera.


ONCE DAN’S WANDERINGS have taken him as far into the San Fernando Valley as he (and we) can bear to go, he discovers a seven-year-old completely alone, sitting on the bench of what appears to be an unused bus stop.

Of course, as viewers of a film, we are aware that the boy has been posed like this, but, immersed as we are in Dan’s perspective, stumbling across this boy with no adults around and no agenda of his own is significantly uncanny. To this day, I cannot watch this sequence without stopping to watch it again and then taking a fifteen-minute break before continuing into what I know is coming.

Without a word, the boy slides off the bench and follows Dan into the dusty afternoon, deepening toward the west, preparing to set over an ocean neither of them will see.

Now Branson tries for the first time a technique he will use throughout the rest of his career: he freezes the screen on the road just after Dan and the boy have disappeared around its only bend, and holds the image for a full minute.

Then he cuts to Dan and the boy in a motel room so sparse the set looks undecorated: there’s a mattress with no bedding, a linoleum floor with no carpet, a wall with a single window and a single ratty curtain blocking out the twilight. They’re sitting on the mattress surrounded by groceries in bags.

We don’t want to see what we know is coming, but we can’t help feeling grateful that the minute-long hold on the previous image is finally over. At least, we think, we’re back to watching a movie.

As they go on sitting there, about a foot apart, snatches of a grocery store force their way in, like the two of them — independently or together — are processing their memories of shopping in lieu of facing the future.

We see Dan picking up packaged cakes and brownies and holding them out to the boy, enticingly, almost begging him to accept these treats in a reversal of the typical interaction wherein the child demands what the parent insists he cannot have.

The boy simply nods, holding the packaged cakes like the inanimate objects they are, responding with neither relish nor disgust.

Then, intercut with the increasingly painful image of the two of them sitting in the motel room as nights falls behind the curtain, we see them at the checkout counter. The girl scanning the treats smiles at the boy and says, “Your grandfather must really love you.”

Without meeting her eyes, the boy mumbles, “He’s my father, not my grandfather.”


WHEN WE CUT back to the motel room, Dan is crying, perhaps remembering the moment we’ve just seen, or perhaps he has finally, fully arrived in the present, and knows he can delay no longer.

Dan looks at the boy, turning his back on the camera, as if to shield him from us, demanding a moment of privacy that we are more than inclined to grant.

Then, with one of the great tragic grimaces in Branson’s filmography, Dan reaches under the mattress and pulls out a long, curved boning knife. The film offers no explanation of how it came to be here; it knows that by now we are past the point of expecting realism to spare us what’s coming.

Dan holds it up, waving it through the air, trying to get the boy’s attention. The boy stares downward, seeing the knife when it passes through his line of sight but making no effort to follow it. We watch as he gets increasingly livid, waving the knife like it’s on fire and he’s trying to put it out.

“Look at me!” Dan finally shouts, revealing how very long it’s been since any word has been uttered. “You are Nicky Teensma. I’m sorry, but you are. And for that, you have to take what’s coming. You did something to me. Now I do this thing to you.”

His voice falls to a whisper, as if he’s trying not to hear himself.

“Nicky, all I did I did for you. I sacrificed my life for you. What happened when we were kids would have been repeated on and on through ages, to both of us in every form we ever took, if I didn’t do what I’m about to do.”

THEN, for the second and final time, the frame freezes on Dan and Nicky Teensma on the bed, the knife stretched between their bellies like a placenta.


A HOWLING CREEPS under the frozen image and then we cut to paramedics kicking down the door of the motel room at dawn.

Inside, the devastation is so complete it remains indescribable for several seconds, a kind of phantasmagoria of the type that Branson would stage with increasing fervor — some would say to the point of derangement — throughout his later career.

When we’re finally able to make sense of the room’s interior, what we see is the boy drenched in blood, leaning on the long knife like a cane. There is something old about him, but, no matter how many times I watch the film, I’ve never been able to explain what it is. I’ve attempted to ask Branson, to which he’s replied only, “We are all heading in that direction.”

The paramedics approach warily at first, but Nicky Teensma is beyond violence now.

There is no sign of a second body and there is no sound until one of the paramedics clears his throat.

Without blinking, the boy says, “My name is Nicky Teensma and I’m ready to spend my life in jail.”

The screen freezes again, but this time the credits roll, the boy’s face slowly turning into that of Dan as a young man, which we remember from the film’s beginning, as though some awful cycle whose nature we will never comprehend has just completed a revolution.

By the time the screen goes black, the man staring at us, drenched in blood and ready for jail, is unmistakably the young man whose face the film opened on, his eyes aflame with the compulsion to murder a child.


If you watch the forthcoming Criterion disc on repeat, you will be treated to a fully, insidiously seamless experience. Soon, you’ll forget how many times you’ve seen the film, or even where its beginning and ending points are. Just don’t indulge too many times or what happened to me will happen to you.

IT’S BEEN A LONG WINTER IN WHICH NO ONE’S had a better idea than to keep up with the TV Movies that a few insomniacs churned out while the rest of us slept.


My favorite is Finger Torture, about a guy who, believing that his dreams have prepared him for torture, signs up to be a Scarecrow, which is someone who is hired to be tortured in place of someone who can’t take it. The idea is that the Scarecrow will either withstand the torture with a modicum of dignity intact or else determine that it’s excessive and lucidly deliver the information the torturer is after, rather than devolving into the histrionics of a Scared Crow, as those who melt under the torture they have been singled out for are called according to the TV Movie’s prologue.


I read Scared Crow as Sacred Cow until the narrator said it aloud.


“In those days of sudden, random torture,” concluded the narrator, “the Scarecrow business was unsurprisingly booming.”


The guy who volunteered to be a Scarecrow in the TV Movie claimed he’d had a series of dreams in which a duo broke into his room and removed his fingers joint by joint, night after night, each time more painful than the last because his fingers had regrown imperfectly in the interim, but also each time less traumatic than the last because he’d been conditioned to expect it.


“Finger Torture was the only thing I’d been made ready for,” he told the camera from behind a veil.


This struck a nerve with me because I had a similar experience, years before coming to Dodge City.



DURING EVERY NIGHT OF THOSE YEARS, I slept alone in a rented room similar to the one I was tortured in once the dream began.


When it did, they turned on the lights I’d been sleeping under and pulled me up in bed, always the same two agents — a guy and a girl, in matching blue T-shirts and khaki work pants — stuffing my reading pillow under my back so I wouldn’t slump over when they let go of me.


Their method was to cut my fingers joint by joint, starting with the thumb of my left hand and working toward the pinky of my right. The guy sliced the pads of the fingertips with a serrated kitchen knife, then, once they bled out, the girl cut off the first joint with a pair of garden shears.


“Is the code a woman’s name? Is it Heather? Is the dial just a switch?” Every night, these three questions.


Without giving me a chance to respond, the guy slices the skin on all my second joints and the girl comes through with the shears. Then it’s on to my third joints, until all 30 are in a pile in my lap.


They spray the pile with a water bottle like it’s seeds they expect to grow.


This happened every night, and the pain I felt was real. It leeched all feeling from my days. If I’d been able to get out of bed and run away, either out of the dream or past them within the dream, I would have, but the pain was so acute it locked my knees under the sheets. I couldn’t even slide off the reading pillow.


So, as they cut me, I took to tunneling into my head, into a dream within the dream, which I perceived as a daydream since in the dream I didn’t know I was dreaming. The place I was trying to reach was the parking lot just through my door and down the single flight of stairs of the housing unit.


In the daydream, I push the door open with minimal noise and step onto the landing, where my neighbor is smoking, oblivious to the gasps coming from my room.


I feel like one member of a duo who’s left his partner behind — I know that someone is still being tortured in my bed, but it’s not me anymore.


Down the steps to the parking lot, under the mosquito-clogged light, past the outdoor laundry station and the pool with its deflated raft and the jammed vending machine, into a waiting car.


I buckle my seatbelt beside a hooded boss who asks, “Do you have it?”


I say “Yes,” and hold my hands out. The fingers fall off, painlessly, into his leather kit bag.


We cruise up a wide, empty boulevard to a bank deposit box, and I get out and dump the finger bag in.


“The balance is in your account,” whispers the boss through the car window, not letting me back in. “Soon you’ll be ready for L.A.”


He drives off.


The dream ends when I make it back to my room on foot, which can take until well past dawn. When I wake up in my bed, my fingers are swollen and throbbing, and my reading pillow is propped behind me.



THESE DREAMS TOOK PLACE YEARS AGO, but the TV Movie makes me consider the possibility that I’ve never stopped having them, despite the memories of other dreams I often awake with now.


Decoy Dreams, I think.


As the credits roll, I start thinking about where to get a serrated kitchen knife and a pair of garden shears, and how to convey to Big Pharmakos my desire for him to cut my fingers slowly but ruthlessly one by one when I’m asleep tonight, so I can see if I still have it in me to leave my body and get in that car, cruise up the boulevard to the bank box.


Because God knows my account could use a deposit.

AFTER FAILING TO DISCOVER enough compelling reality around Dodge City to substantiate its claim of having always been a reality show, UNHOLY FAMILY resorts to a “new” script for its season finale, which we all know was actually written by Big Pharmakos back in 2011, when it wasn’t filmed because no one was into him yet.


Anyway, the finale’s on now and I’m watching it from the Hotel fitness center, where I retreated after storming away from a holiday dinner party.


The episode features a group of eight at Xmas dinner. They’re sitting around the table nursing scotch with their napkins piled on dirty plates. It’s Shep, a grandpa whose wife has died and left him with terminal esophageal cancer, Carlene, a single mother with a skyrocketing investment firm, her newborn Milo, who has one hand of all thumbs and no other hand, that baby’s Rilke critic older sister Rita, a 42-year-old test pilot named Marx with a sense of taste that only kicks in an hour after contact with food and drink, Marx’s wife Sue, who has swallowed enough Percocet to end things within the hour, Sue’s son from another marriage Devon, a world-class juggler, and Devon’s college roommate Sterns, who intends to study botany if his self-service app doesn’t take off, which all signs indicate that it will.


The conceit of the episode is that, now that the meal has been eaten and all the graces and toasts have been said and thanks duly given, each family member will draw a symbol on an index card representing who and what they currently are, and then put these cards into the hands of the UNHOLY FAMILY HOST, who will shuffle and hold them back out to the family members, who will each choose one in turn.


Whichever symbol each person chooses determines who and what they will be for the coming year, no questions asked. For example, if Shep, the grandpa with terminal esophageal cancer, chooses the symbol of Rita, the Rilke critic, he gets to be her for the rest of the year, no more impending doom, no more dead wife, just long slow days alone with the poems. And if Rita, the former Rilke critic, chooses the symbol of the newborn with only one hand, then that’s who she is, starting her clock back almost at zero, freeing up the newborn (assuming he’s able to pick a card at all) to pick the card of, say, Sterns, the college botanist and possible app-phenom. As for Sterns …


Anyway, that’s how it works.


Soon, all the cards have been chosen. Almost everyone is someone else. Marx, the test-pilot, chose the card of his Percocet-swallowing wife and died, while his wife became Carlene, the ultra-rich single mother, and left with one of the college boys, who chose his own card and thus remained himself for another year.



AS I WATCH from the fitness center, I find this all moderately exciting, but it’s not what rivets me. What rivets me is an inconsistency in the numbers. All the characters remain onscreen, all eight as they accept their lots for the year to come, but there’s someone else behind them, a kind of fleshed shadow.


A woman in her late 40s with a shaved head just starting to show stubble.


I can’t place her … maybe I’ve never seen her before, or else she’s always been in the background of UNHOLY FAMILY, emerging from the overlap of the scripted characters, whispering secrets in the ear of the HOST.


When the eight scripted characters are led away, this woman lingers, staring out at me from the screen. I look around the fitness center to see if anyone else is here to confirm or deny what I’m seeing, but no one is. There used to be other people, but they must have left when the show ended … except it hasn’t ended. The camera lingers on this woman, leaning against the wall of the kitchen set as the staff clears the bones and gravy from the table and throws out the index cards that served as the basis of the episode.


I pedal my stationary bike faster in some attempt to escape her gaze, aware that I’m starting to freak out but unsure how to stop. I grip the handlebars and the screen tells me I’ve burned 104 calories.


I close my eyes to wipe sweat on my upper arm, then open them again. When I do, the woman on the screen holds up an index card, displaying a symbol I don’t have time to make sense of. Then she’s gone.


UNHOLY FAMILY is over. A commercial for Giant Chinese comes on, then another.


I go back to my Room, get in the shower.


In the shower, I press my face against the tiles and try to remember the symbol she held up. I know that I saw it, even if it wasn’t long enough to read consciously. I feel the card inside me, face-down against my spine.


I start to obsess, yelling at myself for having blithely assumed she would hold it up longer. If only I knew for sure what she was trying to tell me, I’m thinking, my 2015  would be off to a very different start.


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