I’D LIKE TO BELIEVE I’ve spent enough time in the Deserts around Dodge City to realize that, while they’ve never fully consumed me, they’ve also never spit me out as I was. In fact, they’ve never spit me out at all until I’ve consented to, in some non-trivial capacity, change.

 

So the past two months of Desert travel with Dr. Gentle have been sufficient to knock loose in me the following revelation, qua non-trivial change: why not rejigger the stakes so that, by the time we make it back to Dodge City, I’ve become Blut Branson and Dr. Gentle has become me?

 

I mean, given that I can’t return as myself, why not return as someone better?

 

As this thought takes shape and substance within me, I begin to draft a treatment for what I hope will be my first film as Blut Branson, now that the burden of being me has evaporated, or, to be more precise, has been shunted, however unwittingly, onto Dr. Gentle.

 

Rather than counting for nothing, my earlier, aborted film project will, in this new scheme of things, count as a sacrifice to the old power structure — so that, now, with the Real (and I should instead start saying ‘Old’) Blut Branson busy Directing what I’d once hoped would be my first feature — the one he stole from me on the set I was forced to abandon two months ago — I see no reason not to unburden myself further by stepping in here as the Real Blut Branson, the one and only, at least until the Old One comes back and tries to fight me for his name.

 

So until then, call me Blut.

 

“Okay, tell me your life story,” I think I hear Dr. Gentle say at this exact moment, though I admit I may be conjuring this out of him, or simply misreporting what I wish I’d heard.

 

Nevertheless, taking this as an invitation to talk through my still-developing concept for the film I’m tentatively calling ‘The Real Blut Branson’ — which, if completed, will stand as my actual first film as well as a sort of mythic origin story for the person I wish I were and am looking for the courage to pretend I am — I pick up in speech where my thoughts are now leaving off:

 

“Diagnosed with a terminal illness,” I begin, “Blut Branson (played by me) retreats to a hospice set up in his childhood home, deep in the heart of Dodge City. Here, he decides it’s time to reveal the full truth about himself, the 3% that he’s so far left out of his harrowingly autobiographical filmography: for his final film, he’ll Direct an entirely unfabricated biopic about himself, shot on DV in the most straightforward possible style, a style-without-style, if you will, revealing his true origins, the agony of his early years, his fraught, ambivalent reaction to fame, and his subsequent reclusion and even more subsequent reemergence.

 

“There are, in short, certain things he’s determined not to take to the grave. But first he has to choose who will play him in this film-within-the-film, as he’s far too sick to both Direct and play himself at the same time, though as a younger man you’d better believe he would have in a heartbeat.

 

“As it turns out, Dodge City is full of Blut impersonators … indeed, his influence is so pervasive that every citizen is an impersonator to one degree or another, many of them unwittingly.

 

“Some would even go so far as to claim that all aspects of Dodge City life — going to school, going to work, going shopping, coming home — are, in their own ways, forms of Branson impersonation, if by ‘impersonation’ one also means ‘worship.’ He has cast such a voluminous shadow over the people of Dodge City that there is no means of existing there outside of it. So the people of Dodge City are, in this sense, more a fungal than a vegetal race, living as they do always in Branson’s fertile dark.”

 

“Why not call the town Branson then?” I think I hear Dr. Gentle ask.

 

“Because there already is a Branson, and it’s a fairly specific place. Anyway, as I was saying, the 3% of the truth that hasn’t yet been revealed by his films is the only margin of creativity these impersonators are given — the only window through which they might insert their own subjectivities and inhabit his story as actors, rather than audience members. Without this window, impersonation would be mere recapitulation, sterile and automatic.”

 

Dehydration is making it hard to go on speaking at this rate, but I’ll try.

 

“Now that his days are numbered, however, Blut decides to close this gap by setting the record fully straight. To preclude all speculation once he’s gone by leaving behind a filmed testament so canonical it will be impossible to question any aspect of his life once it is no longer, in the conventional sense, underway.

 

“In short,” I slow down here, making sure Dr. Gentle receives the full point of what I’m trying to say, “Blut Branson wants to make it so that only a dogmatic impersonator can take his place after he dies, weeding out any upstarts who might put their own spin on his legacy in the vast Wild West of the future.”

 

*****

WE TRUDGE ONWARD in silence while I lick my teeth, trying to wet them enough to go on talking. Eventually, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be:

 

“So it falls to Blut to select an official impersonator to vest with his legacy, since the biopic he’s making will end with this impersonator — played by you in the film I’m planning to make, Dr. Gentle — accepting the burden of being ‘The Real Blut Branson,’ taking a solemn oath to continue the master’s filmmaking career and thus, in essence, deny that the Old Blut ever died.

 

“The early scenes of my film,” I continue, “will detail the process by which Blut winnows his impersonator from a horde of applicants, Directing each one in a few sample scenes from his life — ‘First Kiss,’ ‘Going Away to Film School,’ ‘First Job Interview’ — trying to determine which vessel he ought best to reveal the full truth about himself and then live on through.

 

“But soon he finds that those impersonators who most clearly bear the traits that make him who he is — self-pity, melancholia, past-hauntedness, loneliness, shyness, luridness, sleaze — are so distasteful, when viewed in the harsh of light of the audition room (the kitchen of his childhood home/hospice), that he can’t bear to cast any of them.

 

“He can’t handle the truth,” Dr. Gentle says.

 

I go on without acknowledging this. “Just as he’s about to vanish entirely into despair, Blut agrees to see one last audition. All or nothing. The atmosphere inside the hospice is like that scene in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, if you remember, where one guy comes into the nursing home and shoots the other guy in the face while he’s visiting his mother, except in this case the tension is palpable from the start of the scene rather than coming as a surprise at the end, as it does in the film. And, of course, Branson’s hospice, as I’ve said, is set up in his childhood home, rather than in a nursing home in Belfast, so … actually, this isn’t like that, sorry.

 

“All I mean,” I’m getting flustered here, as I do when I feel myself coming to the point, “is that Blut was literally at death’s door, or in death’s living room anyway, when you walked in.”

 

“Me?” Dr. Gentle seems disturbed, like he’s heard me talking all this time without grasping any of what I’ve said.

 

I nod. “Right. Because you’re going to play the impersonator who derails Blut’s plan to cast himself with an authentic lookalike. You’re the proverbial breath of fresh air in this story. The mystery element that saves it from predictability and stagnation.”

 

Dr. Gentle looks at me warily.

 

“Can I go on?”

 

He nods.

 

“So, as he’s dying, Blut (played by me) meets one final impersonator (played by you). He’s immediately moved by this impersonator’s grace, his unthinking self-confidence, his seeming immunity to introspection and looping neurosis. Most of all, he’s moved by the impersonator’s seeming imperviousness, even obliviousness, to the whole audition process. This impersonator barely seems to know that he’s here with hopes of being cast in a film, let alone one revealing the Truth about Blut Branson.

 

“The audition lasts less than 5 minutes. Despite the total lack of resemblance and the disapproval of his producers, Blut chooses this last impersonator in a fit of whimsy the hospice nurses wouldn’t have imagined he still had in him. He casts you, Dr. Gentle, as the Real Blut Branson.”

 

As I describe this process, imagining myself playing the dying Blut, the volume of my voice fades in my ears as the volume of my thinking takes over: there’s something about you, Dr. Gentle ... something about you that makes me want to cast you … and that thing is that you don’t know who the Real Blut Branson is, nor even the 97% real one … you come from outside that whole paradigm, from some other town, or no town at all … you’re living proof that there is an outside, that the Dodge-City-Mindset isn’t the only one.

 

Which is why, I catch myself continuing, it is my duty to rope you in. To quash your difference by engraving your face onto a film created squarely within the confines of the Dodge City Film Industry … thereby turning your innocence into yet another form of Branson-worship, rather than allowing it to go on existing as some external, unaffiliated thing.

 

*****

“Is there more?” Dr. Gentle asks, after what I gather has been an overlong silence.

 

I shudder and come back to myself, realizing I’d rather not go on because I no longer like the direction my thoughts are headed. But Dr. Gentle’s so expectant I can’t leave him hanging.

 

“Yeah,” I say. “Now, the film goes off in a new direction. No longer will Blut close the 3% window of mystery on his life before dying. Rather, his plan is to open it further. To die with, ideally, 100% mystery about his true nature — stretched as it will be between the Blut people think they know and the Blut-impersonator they will see onscreen — firmly in place. So the people of Dodge City will never know for sure what kind of soul, if any, their idol and guiding light really had.

 

“From here, the film details the process by which Blut prepares to hand over his legacy to his successor, high on the fantasy of being transformed into a totally other type of man, one far less hobbled by doubt, while also regretting that the conditions which have made his art possible will cease to obtain if he undergoes this transformation: the actual font of his genius will run dry if he entrusts its safekeeping to you, no offense, Dr. Gentle.

 

“All this time, remember, his illness is progressing, clouding his judgment and further blurring the already-blurry boundaries between past and present. So he doubles down inside his childhood home/hospice, determined to Direct the biopic and then die without ever going outside again. He’s even designed a burial plot for himself deep in his winter coat closet, beside the ashes of his beloved pug Sparky.

 

“So, Directing from his childhood bed — itself a poignant symbol given all the times he was sick in this bed as a child without its being, as it is now, his deathbed — he retells his life as if he’d been you, Dr. Gentle, all along. He films scenes from every stage of his childhood, adolescence, and young manhood, all within this same house, or on sets built to resemble other houses while still being situated within this one. In the process, he begins to forget that this mild-mannered cipher isn’t really him.

 

“In his last days, he enters a kind of third-person trance, in which he believes he’s watching himself from a disembodied outside perspective. The illness makes his whole body numb, so he can’t feel anything except what he imagines his impersonator feels. He’s like Dr. Mabuse Directing sleepwalkers from his asylum, if you see what I mean, Dr. Gentle, except in this case he’s Directing you.

 

“Meanwhile, on the streets of Dodge City, the other impersonators celebrate the final days of Blut’s myth in one last Carnival-style pageant before the full truth is revealed (as they still believe it will be) through the biopic’s broadcast, to which a ticker on every TV channel steadily counts down. When this happens, the impersonators plan to march en masse into the Desert, alone and unwanted, sundered from their lone source of relevance and replenishment, believing that a Dark Age will then overtake Dodge City, one in which all impersonation will have been reduced to rote blasphemy.

 

Not one of them suspects that the actual film will have the opposite effect.

 

“But perhaps,” I say, looking at Dr. Gentle again, sweat I can’t afford to lose pouring off me, “you, as the chosen impersonator, have your own mysterious agenda. Since you doesn’t even know who Blut is, perhaps you have some other reason for trying to impersonate this dying man to whom you bear no resemblance. I mean, why did you show up at that audition, really, if you didn’t know what it was for?”

 

“What audition?”

 

“Maybe it’s more than a neutral favor you intend to pay your symbolic father, maybe what you really want is to … ” I catch myself rambling worse than usual here and think I know why: I’ve slipped into talking about me and the Old Blut, rather than the new me-as-Blut and Dr. Gentle-as-me.

 

The conversation has glitched back to its origin, like a bowling ball that the reversion machine has spit back out at the start of the next round.

 

*****

I KIND OF LOSE IT HERE.

 

“At the very end, as it’s all going dark,” I hear myself say, feigning composure, “with the faux biopic completed and about to air, Blut can’t stand to see the source of his art run dry: he has to somehow torment or terrify this impersonator into finding a wellspring of insecurity within himself, before it’s too late.

 

“Otherwise there will be no more Branson films and Dodge City will enter a Secular Age for which, let me tell you, it’s far from ready.

 

“The idea of replacing himself with a cheery, well-adjusted avatar, which had until recently seemed so compelling, now seems a fate worse than death. So, fighting through the delirium, coughing up any painkillers the nurses try to feed him, Blut calls his crew back together and demands the film be reshot.

 

“It doesn’t matter how. All that matters, Blut thinks, is that he die while the film is still in progress, so that its release will forever after bear the tag Uncompleted Final Masterpiece, thus leaving it open to specious interpretation and Internet whinging, as all the key final masterpieces seem inevitably to end up being, many to their benefit.

 

I feel myself reanimating the Old Blut as I speak, suddenly doing all I can to avoid killing him, even in speech, even in thought.

 

“Overall, my film’s about the perverse desire to have it both ways: to be both well-adjusted and also a great artist with the kind of warped personal language that only develops through a lifetime of alienation. You know? And, on top of all that, to be both alive and dead. To overthrow the whole paradigm that forces us to choose.”

 

Now I’m panting, my mouth drier than the cobblestones of Pompeii, my eyes trying to water and finding it harder than it sounds. The thing I have to make sure never to stop asking myself, I think without saying it, is how much do I really want Blut Branson dead?

 

Given the chance — which it’s looking like I have in this case been given — am I really ready to go on without him, taking over the full burden of the Dodge City Film Industry, with all that that presumably entails?

 

What scares me more than I care to admit is the possibility that my ambivalence about killing him comes not from an emotional quirk in my own nature, but rather, somehow, from Blut himself — as if he were Directing me from afar, forcing my thoughts to conform to his even as I believe my intention is to come, finally, into my own.

 

“How free from him can we ever really be?” I hear myself ask, thinking, he’s like some vengeful woken spirit rushing across the Desert to silence me.

 

Dr. Gentle stops, eyes filling with mellow concern. “Free from whom?” He looks up at the sky, like it’s God I mean. I think I know what his answer in that case would be.

 

*****

SOON AFTER this break in the conversation, a distant skyline comes into focus.

 

As we keep our pace up, it only grows closer.

 

The Desert is nothing but a distance that exists for as long as it takes to reach a certain decision, after which the next location rolls out to take its place, demanding only — and this is no small thing — that one do whatever one spent one’s time in the Desert deciding to do.

 

Now the skyline resolves, predictably, into that of Dodge City, and soon enough we’re in its Outskirts, myself and Dr. Gentle, Don and Sancho, a Branson impersonator and his understudy, or the Real Blut Branson and his impersonator.

 

I can see the whole town unfurling around us, ready to serve as the set for the shoot of the film still tentatively entitled The Real Blut Branson, my first mature Directing gig, assuming I find it within me to step up to the plate and see it through, whatever the psychic consequences may be.

 

“The first order of business,” I tell Dr. Gentle, treating him for the time being simply as my assistant, “is to build a scale replica of my childhood home so I can cozy up in bed there and begin to pretend I’m dying.”