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.
Am I in my own mind? I wonder. Have I gone nowhere but deeper in?
If not, how 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 morning, I still can’t bear the thought of surrendering it to Branson, I’ll prepare to take radical action then.