Archives for posts with tag: Blut Branson

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.

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“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.

nickyteensma

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.

NB:

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.

Now that Blut Branson is hard at work on his novel down in the time capsule we buried him in, everyone in town is summoning their shit back together.

Big Pharmakos announces his plans to rebuild his menagerie.

“Remember,” he starts in, “I’m still this town’s main pimp.”

To tell the truth, I’d forgotten. Or just about.

He’d been into various things in the time-peaks and -troughs of the past however long.

“I did the Silent Room for a while,” he fills us in like we’ve all been under sedation for years and years and no one thought we’d ever wake up, “but all who ever came was the Silent Professor, and no one liked not knowing what his deal was.”

The answer to the question “What was The Silent Room?” would have been found in the grassy shadows at the far back of the party tent implied by the word “Brothel,” so to speak. It was as far from being that as something could be while not being closer to being anything else.

The main thing was the Silence. That meant no talking, no giggling, japing, carousing, gaffing, singing, bellowing, belching, etc. No noise or sound of any kind. You came in, paid for your person, and off you went, across rubberized noise-canceling floorboards.

No surprise, I’m thinking, that the Silent Professor was the only taker.

“I had a few good employees,” Big Pharmakos continues, addressing what he seems to take as a group of people although, far as I can tell, it’s only me.

“But they all said the same thing. They said, ‘The Silent Professor comes into the rooms with us and just sits there, totally Silent, not moving, not looking at us, certainly not touching us … but, soon enough, we start to feel weird. Like something isn’t right, maybe physically, maybe in some other way. Like we’ve woken up wrong from naps that went on too long, you know, and we can’t tell how long we’ve been asleep or even how awake we are now, whether it’s as awake as we’re going to get or if it’s still low down on the scale of waking up, and we have a lot more still to look forward to, or to fear … ”

Then the Silent Professor would rub himself down, head to toe, with Purell (from a bottle in his suit pocket, although there was a free dispenser on the wall), then leave.

“They claimed,” here Big Pharmakos lowers his voice, “that he had something Noboru Wataya-ish about him, the whole way he made them feel in there, the whole deal he put them through after he’d paid up front to do whatever he wanted.”

There’s a collective shudder and then some, what you might call, finger food comes our way.

*****

The curtains draw tight. The lights go down.

“Shh,” says Big Pharmakos. “Moving on … ”

I start to feel weird and don’t know why until I allow myself to suspect that the Silent Professor is behind me.

I feel confirmed in grounding what I’d hoped would not remain groundless.

The screen lights up.

There are no trailers.

After the opening salvo a title lets us know we’re watching “Dispatch From a Bag of Mucus Lost Somewhere in California.”

Whether it’s a short film or a feature I cannot yet say.

It’s images of animals being crushed in the shower.

They’re in there showering — like geese, giraffes, lizards, voles — until, all of a sudden or on cue, Big Pharmakos (or an actor portraying his better self) busts in with two big hands and a heart pumping blood and smashes the little things against the soapy tiles on the side farthest from the spigot.

It’s not as gruesome as you’d expect. He cracks them only until a nice seam opens up and then he peels their skins or shells away to reveal not gory viscera but a smaller, younger, healthier version of the same animal inside.

These renewed animals he collects in a pen. They look away from one another; it’s like they know where this is going.

It becomes clear that the film is an advertisement, or more like an informercial, for Big Pharmakos’ new venture.

The voiceover:

I won’t quote it verbatim, but it basically explains that he’s been collecting the youngest, lithest versions of all possible animals, two of each — the Ark references are neither egregious nor subtle — and is planning to put them on offer to the citizenry in what he euphemistically terms the Dodge City Latter-Day Petting Zoo.

At this Petting Zoo, customers are invited to do what they please with one animal of the pair while the other watches, in sympathy or in terror, according to personal taste.

COMING SOON! it concludes, atop a montage of showering animals, now in the shower stalls at the Petting Zoo, as if to imply that the flow of customers has already begun.

*****

“Any questions?” Big Pharmakos asks.

“Yeah, where are the sloughed parts? You know, the old skins. You scrape ’em out of the shower or just leave ’em around or what? That’s the shit I dig.”

I picture these skins breeding slowly in a landfill along the strip of highway between Springfield, MA and Hartford, CT.

I miss Big Pharmakos’ actual answer.

“Any other questions?” he asks.

“Yeah, what’s with the title? Where was this ‘Bag of Mucus’ we were all waiting for?”

“A concession to the director.”

One eye looks a little wistful, a little wry. The other scans the audience, like what wiseass just asked me that?

 

Mass dissociation in town, people wandering to the edges, putting in giant orders over the phone, toting it to undisclosed locations. Bingeing in its several forms. A wave of charlatans tears through, gets what it can, and is gone, off to another county or genre.

 

The newspaper, in a slow, passive panic, resorts to printing boilerplate headlines like “Six Babies Pregnant From Kissing Dirty Towel.” Everyone glances but no one takes a copy from the box. More, nearly identical, copies, stuff the box every day until they congeal into an inseparable mass.

 

Masked custodians dressed, to keep our spirits up, to resemble the slaughterers from Stokoe’s Cows, hustle in and clear the gagged boxes away until there remain only a few drafty fliers for concerts that were canceled without notice.

 

Everyone has by now fed all the time that will go to all the things that will eat it. When there’s no longer any alternative to Professor Dalton coming down from the hills and declaring an auction, he comes down from the hills and declares an auction.

 

We flock to it, changing into clothes and pregaming it however is best.

 

On the way there, I run into a young butcher who lays claim to having written “She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak,” but could not afford the rest. I have no special credits to my name, but I’m new to the Auction Block.

 

On the way in, taking peanut butter treats from the concession table and signing into the Sign-in Book, we pass Jose Saramago, David Markson, and Clarice Lispector. They give a general, head-swivel nod, taking us in without singling us out. They take their reserved seats in the Auction Hall beside Umberto Eco and Kenzaburo Oe. I wonder how much it cost them. I don’t even know the scale. It doesn’t look like anyone around has serious, serious money, but maybe they did before they got these names and the associated boxes and boxes of work. Dodge City seems to need its own version of everything — if you’re going to read David Markson, he’s going to be a guy in town with a day job at the hardware store. Same goes, even, for Bill Gaddis. He’s someone’s buddy; someone has a hard-to-enforce restraining order out against him.

 

Professor Dalton takes the podium. A children’s bell choir starts playing, on some cue, then stops in the middle and goes away. We’re in like a chapel. There’s a teenager at the back with a camcorder on a tripod.

 

Dalton begins with all the “it’s my solemn duty” stuff. “To come hard to the point,” he says, after having evaded it as long as possible, “we are gathered here today to auction off not only the name and the works but the larger role in our society of the formerly formidable master of long-form fiction known as Blut Branson, who has so let us down.”

 

A whisper works its way through the crowd from the mouths of Dennis Cooper and Travis Jeppesen.

 

There’s a comical element whereby whoever was in charge of making the nametags made everyone’s first name Steve, so the tags read “Steve Cooper,” “Steve Jeppesen,” “Steve DeLillo,” “Steve Le Clezio,” “Steve Murakami,” etc.

 

I suppose someone will walk out today wearing a “Steve Branson” tag.

 

Professor Dalton: “I won’t say the ‘real’ or even the ‘original,’ but the initial Branson has proven inadequate. It is time for the series to advance, evolve. Which of you will step up?”

 

Then comes a certain amount of “The Crying of Lot Branson” histrionics. Steve Pynchon winces gamely at the shout-out.

 

The bidding is heated and hardcore. I sit back, wiping spit from my face with a constant back-and-forth motion. An old Dogs Die In Hot Cars song plays in the far background.

 

In the end, “Blut Branson” goes to a man formerly known as DJ Rabbi Lizard Wolf. He ascends the podium in a hail of jeers and spitballs, kneels before Professor Dalton to receive his “Steve Branson” nametag.

 

“So much for the ‘Wolf,” whispers Elfriede Jelinek.

 

So much for Blut Branson, I think. I wonder what’ll become of the actual guy, wherever he is, aware that this kind of thinking has no place in Dodge City.

 

*****

It turns out it isn’t over yet. We break for lunch, the bell choir comes back for another part of a song, and the teenager with the camcorder changes his tape or chip. Then it’s time for the Ceremony of the Subsumption of DJ Rabbi Lizard Wolf into the Totality Of Being of the Disgraced Supreme Novelist Knowable Only As Blut Branson.

 

This is hard to watch. If Elfriede Jelinek hadn’t been sitting so near me, I would have looked away.

 

When it was over, it still wasn’t enough. People were wound up, demanding further action, desperate to shock the town out of its funk.

 

“Let us proceed to the Time Capsule,” Professor Dalton declared to general applause.

 

 

OUT BACK a hole got dug. The Time Capsule was a big black trash bag. There were straw wrappers, ketchup and mustard packets, loose Skittles, and Blut Branson inside. In a rare display of perspective, someone removed his “Steve Branson” nametag so as not to cause undue confusion down the road.

 

Blut Branson flinched and squirmed. “C’mon guys!” he shouted. “It’s me, Rabbi DJ Lizard Wolf! You know me, I MC’ed your kids’ Bar Mitzvah’s! Don’t do this guys, seriously!”

 

Professor Dalton crushes the Blut Branson bag down to the ground, says the valediction. The Time Capsule is sealed, some special water or something is sprinkled on top, and it’s lowered into the hole.

 

“May the good people of the New Dodge City know how we lived now,” he proclaims. “Tell them how it was, Blut Branson.” The bag squirms some more, sucking in and out.

 

*****

A few days later, the ground over the Time Capsule is still talking. Blut Branson, down in there, sounds to be still alive, even, some speculate, hard at work.

 

Crowds gather, on their lunch breaks or kids after school, smoking and drinking sodas on the ground above the Capsule, listening to it jabber and pace. A punkish looking 14-year-old dubs himself the new DJ Rabbi Lizard Wolf and amasses a cult following, earning Best New Music on Pitchfork within the hour.

 

“Maybe he’ll finally get his novel done down there,” says Big Pharmakos, who was Steven Millhauser through the aughts but had to give it up when the recession hit. He leaves and comes back with a large coffee which he waters the ground with, watching it get absorbed. “There you go, buddy,” he says, with a rare and sincere benevolence.

It would be no exaggeration to say —

 

I don’t know, nothing comes close. The people of Dodge City are upset enough to do something beyond what they can even think of to do.

 

You promise people a novel and deliver a couple of short stories? I’ll admit that doesn’t sound so bad to me, but I’m not from around here and my taste is forgiving. Not so the people of Dodge City. Not when it comes to Blut Branson’s novel. Maybe people, some people, aren’t ready to give up on him altogether, but the general feeling is, “The next time he shows his face it better be Light in August.”

 

Dogs wander with their heads down and their tongues hanging so slack they almost scrape the sidewalk. Citizens sporadically shoot them then call their neighbors and shout “CLEAN IT UP!!”

 

Michael Shannon is long gone (another midnight convoy). He’s either safe or in a kind of danger that we can’t be held responsible for, unless we’ve rattled him off his center and he’s consequently lost his … man, I can’t focus at all. I almost just abandoned this whole thing I was about to write and free-associated about Palmer Eldritch instead. A waiter at a bar once told me that was the most terrifying thing out there, but really it was him that was terrifying and I got out of there as quick as I could, though outside it wasn’t much …

 

Sorry. Things have been weird. Ever since I passed out at the Blut Branson short story reading after eating all those K. City ribs and … in any case, we’re all arranged in an auditorium now and the Mayor is saying how we all need to settle down and take it easy on ourselves and each other and just give ourselves (and each other) a little time to heal after the trauma we’ve all been through, and not to rush these things, and not to discount them, and …

 

It’s like a big high school guidance assembly where everyone’s supposed to get together and just mope until something’s over.

 

The Mayor shows two videos, “positing other towns,” he explains, “to help take our minds off the tragedy that has befallen this one.” He looks out the window at the half-mast flag as he says this, and his eyes linger agitatedly on it for a moment, like he’s not sure it’s quite at half mast and is debating asking someone to go out there and work on it.

 

THE FIRST VIDEO STARTS UP: It’s pretty short and I get woozy. I feel like I’m acting in that Sebald scene about the herring fishery when he was a boy, and how deep and dark the water was … but the film’s about a town functioning under a disease or other science-fictional condition. It makes it so that everyone there went to high school together. Like there was only ever one class, and everyone around was in it. There’s that uneven aging thing going on where all the people that graduated together at 17 and 18 have spread out in age to fill all the roles — some are children, some are high schoolers again, some are those high schoolers’ parents (this gets a little rise out of us), some are the teachers, some are retirees, some are ancient, and quite a few are dead of natural causes or soon to be born (in many cases to pregnant high schoolers).

 

“It’s just a film about a feeling,” says the director in the DVD’s Q&A feature, which starts up automatically when it’s over. “The feeling that I went to high school with everyone I know … you know?”

 

THE NEXT VIDEO STARTS UP after a prodigious fumbling-with of equipment and myriad audio issues. It tells more of a linear story. 

 

It’s the story of a hometown kid from like Nebraska or one of the Dakotas whose big ambition is to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina. “All he ever wanted was to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina,” is the tagline. So he practices a ton of covers, writes some of his own stuff, plays nonstop, wins the admiration of most people by the time he’s 17, even changes his name to Jason Molina, and then — this is the big plot point — mails in a demo and wins a NATIONAL SINGER-SONGWRITER CONTEST.

 

The prize is that he gets to spend the next summer at a Singer-Songwriter Camp in the Catskills. “The Iowa of Singer-Songwriter Camps in the Catskills” is its tagline.

 

So he goes away. This marks the end of PART I.

 

PART II opens with Jason Molina’s return from the Singer-Songwriter Camp at the end of the summer. He’s a completely new man. He’s been cast in a new image, rebranded. He’s been scrubbed clean of his whole sensitive-bro rural American vibe and turned into a wistful English balladeer with a few brawly / laddish aspects mixed in, for edge and sex appeal. He’s changed his name to Frank Turner, has a couple of albums out already, and claims not to recognize anyone in the town.

 

He comes back with a manager to do a show, just one stop along the Frank Turner: Badlands Tour, and people accost him. “Jason!” they shout. “You’re home! What’s with the British accent? Why are you singing about blacking out in strange flats in East London and being a Wessex Boy and drinking with your friends on the cathedral grounds in Westminster?”

 

His manager restrains them from charging the stage. He leaves town in a midnight convoy.

 

It should end here, but it doesn’t. As his career gets huge, especially with his new album Tape Deck Heart, and especially on the Scandinavian and Eastern European Festival Circuit, the people of his hometown in Nebraska / One of The Dakotas start transforming things to match his songs. They change the names of stores, tear up the asphalt and put down cobblestones, start serving rural English fare and ales, chuck out their old racisms and acquire new ones.

 

They tear down the Jason Molina graffiti and pull his albums from the stores. Now it’s all Frank Turner all the time.

 

 

I sneak out of the auditorium, holding my belly in a sick-looking way at anyone who looks.

 

*****

Out in the parking lot, I reach in my pocket for a tissue and pull out a wad of printed pages. It takes me a while to see what they are: a third Blut Branson short story. Michael Shannon must have slipped it in my pocket when I was passed out at the reading.

 

Here’s the flash version:

 

As I’m backing out of a parking space I feel my back tire squish something biological. Fuck, I think, a cat. I put my hazard lights on and get out. I expect to see a tail under my back tire, but instead I see the edges of a diaper and a pool of baby-filling. Fuck, I think, a baby.

 

As I’m looking around, trying to determine if getting quickly out of here is my best move, a woman carrying a bag of groceries appears behind me. She takes in the damage. “Sorry,” she says. “I just parked him there for a minute, while I ran in.” She indicates the convenience store.

 

“You parked him in a parking space?”

 

“Yeah,” she replies, eyeing the meter like maybe the reason I’m surprised is that the time’s expired.

 

She shrugs, hands me the groceries, and bends down to scoop up the baby-material. Strange but true, it all hangs together, even though most of it’s liquid. None is left on the ground.

 

She clutches it against her chest and I give her her groceries back. “Sorry about that,” she says, looking at my back tire. “It won’t happen again.”

 

The thing is, it does. The very next day, in a different part of town, I back out and run over a baby again.

 

The same woman comes out, this time with a pair of boots she’s had resoled, and again gathers up the crushed liquid and says it won’t happen again.

 

It keeps happening, day after day, in what becomes a rhythm. The woman and I become casual friends. “It was,” I get in the habit of proclaiming, “the only constant in my life during those years.”

 

THEN, THIRTY YEARS LATER, I’m shaving at a sink at the YMCA when a young man takes the sink next to me, laying out his cream and razor. He looks at me several times, as if trying to make sure I am who he thinks I am.

 

When he decides that I must be, he says, “Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say hello. You probably don’t remember me, but you used to run me over with your car all the time when I was a baby.”

 

I smile. Shaving cream glops onto my T-shirt. “Of course I remember you,” I say.

 

He smiles too. “You know, back then, I never understood why my mom kept parking me there, knowing what would happen. But, over the years, I think it’s started to get clearer. Just part of growing up, I guess, right?” he says, and is gone.