DR. GENTLE AND I spent the first week of our allotted production month spitballing in my (our) Room.
“It could be a … ”
“No,” I’d say.
“What about a … ”
“No,” I’d say.
“Oh, I know … what if we had these two … ”
“No,” I’d say, growing frustrated with him, and by extension myself, since I’d so far failed to come up with anything better.
Room Service trays piled up around us and my bill at the Front Desk became one more thing I was refusing to think about.
Every day around 4, Dr. Gentle would ask if he could go to the health center and blow off steam, and I’d say, “No,” then regret it, then a few minutes later say, “Ok, fine.”
I’d watch English-dubbed Kurosawa films on pay-per-view while he was gone, one eye on the duffel bag of cash, half-expecting it to turn on me after so long unused. I could picture it climbing out of its shell and onto the bed, somehow wet, dripping green sludge, forcing me to eat my inability to spend it.
Dr. Gentle would come back sweating and happy and ask, “what did I miss?” and I’d point to the TV screen, where usually the first Kurosawa would just be ending, or the second ramping up.
THIS FALLOW PERIOD COMES TO A FORCED END when Dalton calls on the Room’s landline and says, “The kids are getting picked over. If you want any, I’d suggest you get yourself to the school today.”
This gets through to me. “Why don’t you watch something,” I tell Dr. Gentle. “I’m going down to the health club to blow off steam.”
By the time I come back, flushed and grateful — does one ever regret going to the gym? — there’s no time to shower before the school closes, which Dalton has called back to inform Dr. Gentle is at 3pm sharp.
So, sweaty and spent, I grab a Powerbar from the kiosk in the lobby and we hurry across town.
The school’s abandoned, though whether this is just because it’s summer I can’t say. I’ve never thought about life in Dodge City in quite those terms before.
Nevertheless, we push our way inside, following the yellow paper signs on the wall that read CASTING with arrows pointing first to the left and then, after rounding a corner, to the right.
We come down a half-flight of stairs into a cavern with a more permanent sign outside that reads ART ROOM in English and Braille. Posters of waterlilies, haystacks, and Picasso, shirtless and feral in his studio, adorn the walls.
No one’s around, not even Dalton, whom I’d somehow expected to see here. No one but six glum children sitting on carpet squares inside a wire enclosure like bored llamas, surrounded by wrappers and crumbs.
They barely look up when we enter and begin to circle.
“So which one’s you?” Dr. Gentle asks, after we’ve seen them from every angle.
I stop short, clear my throat. “Excuse me?”
Dr. Gentle shrugs and does one of his self-deprecating smiles. “Nothing … I just meant, er, don’t you want to cast one of them as you and the others as your friends, so the movie can be about your years growing up in Dodge City?”
I can’t tell if Dr. Gentle actually thinks I’m from here or if he’s just having this idea now, but it’s the smartest thing either of us has said since this whole process began. It only seems obvious because it should have been.
“Oh, right. That’s what I meant,” I say. “That’s exactly what I had in mind.”
Dr. Gentle shrugs, seemingly happy for me to take credit. “How about this one? Were you a fat kid?”
He points to a fat kid in goldenrod corduroys and a purple shirt with a dinosaur egg hatching over its front pocket.
Was I a fat kid? I can barely remember. Then I think, yes. Yes, I guess I was. I must’ve been.
“Okay, you,” I point at the fat kid. He doesn’t respond until I walk directly into his line of vision and snap my fingers. Then he yawns and leaves his mouth open.
“What?” he says, his voice high and phlegmy.
“You, you’re cast. You’re gonna be in a movie! Isn’t that great?”
He yawns again and begins to pick his nose.
I feel myself losing my cool and decide to leave the area before I lash out. “Bag him up, Dr. Gentle.”
“What?” Dr. Gentle asks, pulling me back from the precipice of mania.
“I mean, here, give him this and tell him he’s hired.” I pull five 20’s from the duffel bag and hand them over.
It’s exciting to feel anger rise in me, approaching the edges of my body without going over. As if I were capable of the kind of hyper-masculine rage I’ve seen Blut Branson exhibit. As if, all along, that had been latent somewhere within me.
I wait by the rotten-smelling milk cooler, trying to remember my own school days, wherever they were, whatever the schoolhouse looked like then. Did I ever have art class?
BACK AT THE HOTEL, we install the fat kid and the three others we’ve hired in the health center, abandoned except for a custodian refilling the water cooler who hurries away when he sees us.
“Okay,” Dr. Gentle says, hoisting the duffel bag with our cash onto his shoulder, appointing himself its de facto guardian. “So let’s start blocking out scenes.”
I try to think back on what in Amarcord moves me most. The deranged man in the tree, the peacock in the snow, the Grand Hotel the townspeople are never allowed to enter …
“Okay,” I tell the fat kid. “Let’s rehearse a scene where you’re in your room, dreading another indoors summer alone with your Primal Father, when you hear that your cousins will be visiting from California this year.”
Now I see the direction my film will take: it’ll be an origin story arguing for the legitimacy of my presence in this town, making it seem as though this were the site of my upbringing and gradual coming of age.
A propaganda film, in a sense.
There’s something I have to shore up here, some backstory for myself that I have to get clear on before going any farther into time, and this seems like the place to start. If I tell my story convincingly enough, I might come to believe it. And then I’ll know who I am.
And by knowing who I am, maybe I’ll finally know what to do.
“LET’S FIND SOME CREEKBEDS,” I say after our third day of rehearsals, mustering Dr. Gentle and the crew out of the health center and into the parking lot behind the Hotel. “Some cornfields. A candy store. A comics store. The old train station where I used to sit on lazy Saturday afternoons and wait for the Silver Bullet to roll through. The rack where I used to wait salivating for the new month’s dime novels to be unloaded off the truck. The ones I read in a day and stuffed under my bed, into a paper-mass slowly growing into a lifelong imaginary friend. All the halcyon signifiers of a ruddy American childhood in some imagined Dodge City of the 50’s, gathered here at last, all in one place, projected across the drive-in screen for all to see.”
I stop to catch my breath, expecting something to happen. When nothing does, I clear my throat. “I’ll scout locations with the kids,” I say. “You go to Town Hall and get the equipment from Dalton. We’ll meet at the fairgrounds at seven.”
Dr. Gentle nods.
We depart, the fat kid who’ll play me followed by three others — two girls and a boy, who will play my cousin Anne, my cousin Denny, and my best friend Corinne, all names and roles I’ve made up on the spot.
OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, we film the canonical scenes, all set during the summer when my cousins and my best friend and I were all between 9 and 13, and we had the experiences that made us who we then became. In my case, this meant creeping out of the shadow of my Primal Father and into the loose but authentic skin of my future self, a sentient, autonomous being at large in an entropic universe.
The Rubicon Summer, after which none of us would be the same.
With Dr. Gentle behind the camera and managing sound, I direct the kids in poignant scenes of loss and discovery — they see their first dead body, crushed under a trailer at the back of the fairgrounds; their first sexually-entwined couple, on a bench we drag to the center of an otherwise abandoned clearing in the woods to one side of the park at the edge of town; they try alcohol in the lot behind Giant Chinese, sipping at a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam we plant in a trashcan for them to find; they discuss ghosts and eternal life while lying under the stars by the edge of the dry canal that runs through town (which we refill for the sake of the shoot); they meet a wildman with a permanent erection and glowing red eyes scuttling from rooftop to rooftop in the most trailer-trash part of the Outskirts; they find a suitcase full of money (all the 20’s from our production budget wrapped around stacks of 1’s) in the burned-out hulk of a Volkswagen and have to decide what to do, devolving into mutually deceitful factions when no consensus can be reached; and, finally, they skinny dip together in Meyers Pond, leaping into the air on the count of three to display their nascent genitalia for a split second, concretizing their heretofore fluid notions of sexual difference, the harsh reality of being one thing or the other.
At the end of the summer — the end of the Movie — they go to the circus one last time, walking past the rides in the early autumn twilight as the clowns and trapeze artists break down the tents and pull up the stakes, preparing to say goodbye.
When the new school year begins, my cousins will go back to Petaluma while my best friend Corinne is moving away with her parents on short notice. Even she barely knows why, or where. Somewhere up north … Misconsin, Winnesota … something like that, as we called them then.
Leaving me alone to grow up in Dodge City with only my memories of this one magical, melancholy summer to speed through middle and then high school in the House of my Father, and then into adulthood, through odd jobs and debt and uncertainty, eventually to take up the mantle of filmmaking, first as a fledgling, trying out techniques, searching for my voice … and then, finally, as the Greatest Director this town has ever known, a force of nature fit to take on the legacy of Blut Branson himself, to …
“Okay? Should I turn this off? Um … I’m turning it off now?”
I look up and see Dr. Gentle powering the camera and mics down. Still high on my Branson fantasy, part of me wants to scream at him to keep filming, but I resist. He’s done nothing wrong. The film’s wrapped. I’ve made my Amarcord, cementing myself into the Dodge City past as firmly as I ever will.
I nod. “Let’s get these kids some Dairy Queen then send them on their way.”
THE DAY OF THE FILM FESTIVAL ARRIVES.
After a frantic week of editing in the A/V room at the school, helped by some old man whose name I never learned but whom I referred to privately as ‘my beloved first film teacher,‘ we have a rough cut ready to screen.
Unsurprisingly, it’s accepted into the Festival, along with everyone else’s.
The surprise is that it was selected to screen first. The Opening Night gala. Black Tie, Red Carpet.
Dr. Gentle and I dress up in rented tuxes and get to the drive-in early, ready to field interviews and pose for pictures, but aside from two reporters from the Dodge City Eagle who ask us where we get our ideas, there’s not much doing.
Many of the food and drink vendors from the last time we all gathered here are back, or here still. Everyone’s milling around, eating meat off dripping paper plates.
Then it’s time to begin. Dalton strides through the grass in front of the screen, takes a cordless mic from his suit pocket and says, “Alright folks, here’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The time for our collective mythology to be refreshed. The long draught of Branson’s absence is over. The dawn of the New Branson is nigh. Please enjoy.”
He turns off the mic, slips it back in his suit pocket, and walks back into the grass as my film starts up.
FOR THE NEXT HOUR AND A HALF, I’m the closest thing Dodge City has to a genuine Fellini. My vision matters, my version of childhood touches the canon and begins to redefine in.
It’s an incredible rush. It’s like everything I’ve worked for all these years is coming to fruition. Like I’m passing through the narrow gateway between being no one and being someone.
I’m so deep inside this feeling that by the time I hear my name, I have the feeling that Dalton’s been calling it for a while.
I snap to, rolling to my feet when I sense that he’s motioning me into the circle of light beneath the screen.
When I get there, he claps me on the back and produces a second mic from his other suit pocket.
I take it and tap its head to test if it’s on. It is.
“Well, that was just extraordinary,” he says. “I had no idea you were from here.”
I nod, then say, a little timidly, “Yeah.”
“Well, I’m sure the audience has questions. Why don’t we cut right to the chase here and open it up to … ”
AS I REMEMBER IT, this is the exact instant when I look out on the crowd and see, instead of hundreds of rapt faces, a tall lurking madman in torn jeans and a cowboy shirt.
He’s like the raving king from Kurosawa’s Ran, his beard tattered and white, his eyes full of hate and hellish vision.
Branson, I think. Back from the Desert.
“H-h-hi Blut,” I stammer into the mic, just before he grabs it out of my hand and pushes me back into the screen.
The crowd is riveted on him like a field of sunflowers on the sun as he clears his throat and begins to speak. “You’re all probably wondering where I was. I know it’s been a while. I did time in Dead Sir. I went down in that swamp and did some thinking. I came to some conclusions. I got my strength back.”
Here he pulls off his cowboy shirt and his jeans, and then, naked, begins to peel his skin away, starting with his face and working his way down. It comes off like wet paper, piling up by his feet.
Beneath, he’s thin, strong, young, wearing a sleek tailored suit and white sneakers.
Probably younger than me, I think.
“I saw things down there,” he continues, his voice supple and fresh now. “On my film set in the Desert, and then down in Dead Sir. I got some things straight in my mind.”
He kicks the pulp of his old self into the grass. I can smell its porky reek from where I stand propped against the screen.
“I came to understand that what all of you here, tonight, consider to be the real Dodge City is nothing but a simulacrum. A Movie set at best. A version of someone’s memory of Dodge City that you’ve all tried to convince yourselves is real. I believed it too once, but no more. No! No, I tell you tonight. This is not the real Dodge City. This is the traitor’s Dodge City. The American Babylon.”
Here he turns to look at me, unrepressed violence in his eyes.
The return of the Primal Father, grown superpotent, I think, remembering my Freud, or my Lacan, whoever it was that said that way back when, in a book I read on a bus, or in a bus station, once. If you knock me down, you better kill me, says the Primal Father in a rare moment of weakness. Because if you don’t, I’ll come back twice as strong and three times as angry.
“No, good people. The Real Dodge City, the genuine one, the one you all deserve to live in, where life is good and full of meaning and still in its early days, is in the Deep Desert, past the horizon, past Dead Sir. Follow me and I will lead you there. Follow me now.”
With that he drops the mic and strides back through the grass.
As he goes, the people — my audience — rise entranced to their feet and fall in line behind him, their backs to the screen.
I watch them go, Dr. Gentle among them. He was only ever in it for the Desert travel, I think. He was never tied to me in particular.
Even the kids who played me and my cousins in the Movie follow. Even Dalton follows. Even Big Pharmakos, who I’m just now noticing in the crowd, follows.
Soon it’s just me and the pulp of Branson’s old body, left in the shadow of the empty drive-in screen.
SO THIS IS MY KINGDOM, I think. My dominion.
I have won the mythic struggle, I tell myself, as I walk out of the drive-in field and into the empty lots and warehouses of Branson Entertainments.
I explore the sound stages, the mixing boards, the recording booths. The intake room where I was interviewed before my location-scouting mission to Kazakhstan. The means of production are mine, I think. All of this, relinquished, left in my charge.
I am the Minotaur in the labyrinth.
Emboldened by this thought, I show myself into the office where Branson made all his directorial decisions, modeled after the glass enclosure where the dwarf-director in Mulholland Dr. sat in his wheelchair and commanded his goons.
I get in the wheelchair now — Branson-sized, naturally — and lean back, putting my lips to the microphone that wraps around the chair’s edge.
I clear my throat and whisper, “Play.”
The entire wall across from me lights up and begins to boil with static. Closing my eyes, I imagine I’m watching a Movie detailing my future here in Dodge City, just as my Amarcord detailed my past.
In this future Movie — entitled The Real Blut Branson — I am the great exalted visionary and Dodge City is full of my acolytes, the false Branson abandoned in the Desert, cast off as the charlatan he is and always was, my flock returned to me, my eminence unquestioned now, beyond usurpation.
I nod off. When I wake up, the Movie’s over. Yawning and stretching without leaving the chair, I clear my throat and whisper “Rewind.”
END VOL 2.