Archives for posts with tag: David Cronenberg

THERE’S NO QUESTION THAT THE TIME TO ABANDON WHAT I’D BRIEFLY REFERRED TO AS “MY FILM SET” HAS ARRIVED. Even if Blut Branson hadn’t commandeered it quite so aggressively, the simple fact of his presence would in short order have goaded me into leaving.

 

So here I go.

 

Head hung, I march into the distance, leaving him to make whatever he will of the set I’d once hoped would serve as the locus of my feature film debut.

 

Ashamed, as usual, of my cowardice, I decide to cross the entire desert. If I make it to the far side, I figure I’ll be glad to emerge into whatever place happens to be there.

 

All I know is I’m not going back to Dodge City, at least not willingly.

 

Maybe, I think, as the last lights of Branson’s set vanish behind me, I’ll manage to leave this part of the country for good, thereby setting a new adventure in motion … one that, I hope, will have little or nothing to do with the Dodge City Film Industry.

 

Or any film industry at all. Those days are — if I have any say in the matter — well and truly behind me.

 

I walk in a straight line for what feels like longer than all night, but there’s no shift in the dark overhead. I’m hoping this isn’t the kind of desert where it’s night all the time.

 

*****

TIME TO SLEEP. I find a declivity in the sand and settle into it, staring up at a sliver of moon.

 

As soon as my eyes droop shut, I feel a pair of hands tugging at my sleeve. I keep my eyes closed, hoping it’ll go away if I don’t acknowledge it. But this only works in certain stories I’ve read, and maybe in other parts of the country, in other deserts.

 

Not here. My sleeve goes on being tugged until I open my eyes.

 

When I do, I see a mild-looking, grey-haired man wearing a headlamp. It illuminates his features like the text on a page under a flashlight. ‘Mild through and through’ is my read on him — ‘a  man either with no malice whatsoever in his system, or with malice so deeply buried and so well integrated it casts no shadow on his surface.’

 

Defenseless as I am, I decide to assume the former.

 

“Dr. Gentle.” He extends his hand. I take it and he tries to pull me up, but he’s too weak. I end up pulling him down instead. I close my eyes against his headlamp’s glare and crawl out from under him, get to my feet, and then help him to his.

 

When we’re both standing, he laughs and adjusts his headlamp. “Phew,” he says. “For a minute there, I lost myself.”

 

I tell him not to worry, though I can’t say he’s made a heroic first impression.

 

“Look.” He points his headlamp at a tethered donkey, which moans at the dawning awareness that soon it will be responsible for two riders.

 

Though I’d like to ask where he’s headed and make a show of considering whether to travel there with him, I’m not exactly in a position to act like I have a route of my own mapped out.

 

So I climb aboard, behind Dr. Gentle, and off we go, our donkey wheezing pitifully beneath us, one of us Sancho to the other’s Quixote, though I can’t yet say which is which.

 

*****

AS WE SLOG ONWARD, the sun starts to rise in the distance. I have the suspicion that it isn’t cresting the horizon on its way toward overtaking the sky, as usual, but rather that we’re approaching a country where it’s always day, leaving the one where it’s always night behind.

 

I decide to keep this suspicion to myself.

 

“So, Dr. Gentle,” I say, hoping to change the subject, “what exactly’s your deal?”

 

“Well,” he begins, turning around on the donkey to face me, “people around here call me the Gentile Cronenberg.”

 

Around where? I think. But I just raise my eyebrows, encouraging him to go on.

 

“As you likely know,” he goes on, “all souls are divided at birth between Jewish and Gentile aspects. These are not, as has been popularly assumed, singular properties that manifest in individuals to the exclusion of the other. At least not at first. Before a soul reaches maturity, there is a pitched battle between these two manifestations. Only one can achieve dominance.”

 

“And the other?”

 

His face slackens under a weight of sadness. “The other, well, exists in a sort of under-expressed limbo. A half-life, you might say. A living byproduct of the process by which a soul becomes most fully what it is.”

 

“So this byproduct of the soul becomes another person?”

 

Dr. Gentle nods. “Correct. A new person is born, sometimes in adulthood, once the Jew/Gentile battle, within a given soul, has reached its conclusion.”

 

“So in your case …”

 

“In my case, the battle was won, in no uncertain terms, by the illustrious Jewish filmmaker David Cronenberg. I, well … I’m what’s left. The runoff. The Gentile Cronenberg. A small-sized person, and I don’t mind saying it. I was born in my mid-thirties as a Youth Pastor named Dr. Gentle. With no soul of my own to speak of, I’ve pledged my years on this earth to shepherding the souls of others across this vast desert.”

 

He sighs and looks me over for understanding, which I feign.

 

“I content myself in the knowledge that I am not as badly off as the Jewish David Lynch. Now there is truly a man with nothing to live for.”

 

I nod, beginning to feel my feigned understanding harden into something real. Or maybe it’s just the look on my face that’s hardening.

 

 

“Are we almost there?” I ask.

 

“Where?” Dr. Gentle looks at me with extremely concerned eyes.

 

I shrug. “I’d assumed there was somewhere we were going.”

 

He turns back and grips the donkey’s reins and mutters, “They always do.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*****

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

THE ART CRITIC ONLY MAKES IT TO #61 in his canonical 800 Dodge City Artists speech before the Dr. splits his last AIDS dose among the three of us and starts telling stories about his days in Euthanasia.

 

After a hard ascent in the field, complete with two advisers who rescued his self-confidence at crucial junctures, his breakthrough came in the form of a 12-tier system with which he was able to send his patients to 12 distinct levels of death.

 

“I killed them all, but some I killed more than others. I killed each one in the right way for them, and sent each to the right place. It was very personal.”

 

Astrally, he clarifies, his Euthanized patients were all over the map — if there was a map, of course — while corporeally they remained in a tank in his office, stacked in 12’s. Bereaved relatives were permitted to visit on Thursdays from 2:30-4:30pm, and sit quietly by the part of the tank their loved one had departed to.

 

Only Young, his lab doll, could reach into the tank to rotate them, which he did once a week.

 

“Maybe Young was never precisely a doll,” the Dr. adds after a morose-seeming pause. “Maybe he was always more of a lackey, almost human. Though without much personality to speak of, no offense to him. He was the only one who could remember which body was which. Once in the tank, I lost touch with who they’d been. That side of things never interested me.”

 

This was all before the advent of the Suicide Cemetery, in late 2012. When that happened, the Dr.’s practice came under attack.

 

The Suicide Cemetery director claimed that all those he’d Euthanized over the years must now be considered Suicides and thus be removed from the tank and buried accordingly.

 

“I mean, they’re dead because they wanted to be, right?” the Suicide Cemetery director asked while visiting the Dr.’s office on its last afternoon of operations.

 

Knowing he’d be forced to dismantle his life’s work if he didn’t abdicate on the wings of a substantial malpractice suit, he Euthanized a child who’d shown up for a consultation. The mother was right outside, reading National Geographic. The Dr. ushered the child in, said, “Make yourself comfortable on this chair so we can talk things over,” then went straight for the Euthanasia supplies and sent the child to Tier 7, where there was an empty slot in the tank.

 

He left his office for the last time that day, having pinned a note for the Suicide Cemetery director on the tank’s side. It read, Sort it out yourself.

 

All he kept was Young, his first lab companion and now his last. Actually, his only.

 

*****

THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED WERE HARD. “I made my way into AIDS, where you see me now, but my only real passion was Movies.”

 

For years, Movies and Euthanasia had combined in him like white and red blood cells, in perfect harmony, but now, mired in the drudgery of AIDS, Movies were his only lifeline.

 

“I started going to Toronto every year in hopes of Euthanizing Cronenberg. I touched Guy Maddin’s shoulder once.”

 

He shudders at the nearness of the memory. “What I’m saying is, there are more Movies than time remaining in my life. So Young helps out. While I work in AIDS, he sits on the couch filling with everything that can be streamed. All of Soderbergh. All of Pasolini.”

 

All the Euthanasia chemicals Young absorbed over the years made him immune to the tragedy of the Dr.’s situation. They also made him unable to stand. Combined, they made him ideally suited to rebirth as a Movie Surrogate. “Young is home right now,” the Dr. boasts. “Watching Movies while I waste my time with you two.”

 

“His head swells as the Movies seep in, growing soft and rich, until it’s time to pluck it. When I do, I bite in like a plum, sucking out its seeds like those of a pomegranate. Each of these was once a Movie, and will be again in my lower intestine.”

 

The Dr. tears up as he describes the Euthanasia taste of the pomegranate seeds, inching him toward his own death with a minimum of friction.

 

“When Young’s head has been consumed, I open a vein and transfuse some of me back into him. Only a stranger’s blood allows him to grow a new head and go on watching Movies. Thought it’s humbling to think of myself as a stranger to him, I’m glad we have a system that works.”

 

“And Young never takes a break?” the Art Critic asks, like he’s been waiting this whole time to interrupt the Dr. after the Dr. interrupted his canonical 800 Dodge City Artists speech.

 

“There’s a subtle answer to that question. If he watches too many in a row, he begins to develop his own consciousness … a little too much for his head to retain its ideal plum flavor. Gets too sweet and juicy. Starts to ferment. On the other hand, if he watches too little before I pluck it, the head is sour and hard. It’s like winemaking. You go by feel. And taste.”

 

As he talks, I start to taste the plum. Then millions of plums, all Movies juiced into one. It has the same trajectory as a smoothie: the fruit makes me strong but too much all ground together and I blackout in a sugar crash.

AFTER FEMA DEPARTS WITH ITS NEW CRONENBERG IN TOW, bound like a Christmas Tree in the back of its truck, there follows a non-period of the kind that has become familiar. For every incident, it seems, there are at least ten non-incidents, or maybe just one ongoing non-incident, depending on whether you want to break it up.

 

I sit in my Room, arranging my materials, shaving a little of my face at a time, waiting for news. When news finally comes, it comes in the form of a DELIVERY ANNOUNCEMENT from the Mayor:

 

“DEAR PEOPLE,” the email begins, like some update from a talky college dean:

 

“Every few decades, as you likely know, the Horror in this town gets old. Like sitting water, it gets cloudy and full of, well not literally, but pine needles and insects of a non-literal sort. That’s the natural way of it. It turns tepid, or turgid, or both … neither-here-nor-there, you know? Not really Horror at all, just a general unease that imbues our lives with a gross quality, instead of the really sharp and riveted feel of living with True Horror, which is what we all want, whether we know it or not … or at least what I want, which is sort of the same thing when you really think about it, don’t you think?

 

“So, I’m very pleased to announce to you all now that our application for an influx of Fresh Abject Horror has been granted … it’s been years on the waiting list as funding got cut again and again, during which we all had to bite our tongues and watch as wealthier towns, in wealthier counties, got serviced before us, but at last our turn has come. This is a time of renewal for Dodge City. It’s a, not to mix metaphors, freshening of the ground upon which we all stand.

 

“POUR YOURSELF SOME CHAMPAGNE BEFORE READING ANY FURTHER,” the email commands.

 

So I do. This entails leaving my Room and going to buy some (assuming there’s a brand I can afford; otherwise I’ll just get more beer), and taking it (I found a brand) into the street, where the Horror Delivery is already underway.

 

I uncork the champagne (Cava, technically, now that I read the label and not just the price tag) and stand in the crowd in the town square to toast the truck as it unloads the boxes of Fresh Abject Horror that the Mayor is so proud to have secured for us … I see him standing by the off-ramp of the truck, taking selfies with his phone while the crew piles up the boxes, already emanating serious dark energy.

 

The delivery crew wears oven-mitt gloves that reach their shoulders and handles the boxes with the kind of attention that makes it clear they’ve all been bitten/burned/etc at least once before.

 

WHEN ALL THE FRESH HORROR HAS BEEN UNLOADED, the delivery crew quickly siphons our degenerate, stagnant Horror (much of it still person-shaped) into a plastic tub, loads it into the truck, and departs.

 

*****

The people of Dodge City, all drunk on the same Cava, stand around looking at the boxes, waiting for the Mayor to tell us what happens now.

 

He looks like he’s thinking about it.

 

When he’s done, he says, “Alright everyone, go back to your Rooms. All of your old neighbors, you’ll notice, have been evacuated, melted down and carried off, to make room for the new neighbors that will sprout from these boxes. You will each have new, genuinely horrifying neighbors before the night is out. None of you will sleep in peace.

 

He steps back like he’s expecting applause, perhaps already beginning to hear it in his head, but it doesn’t come. We shuffle away in a weird mood, unsure how to pass the time between now and tonight.

 

*****

I’M BACK IN MY ROOM, eating vending machine snacks and reading movie reviews, when I hear a crackling and rumbling next door. My new neighbor is here, I think, giddy despite myself. Maybe some Fresh Horror is what I’ve been needing for a while.

 

I hear a tapping against the wall. Thinking of an old Mitch Hedberg joke on this subject, I look in its direction and notice a discolored patch in the otherwise off-white paint. It appears to be a hazy window.

 

When I go up to it, I see a shape moving on the other side. It’s like extremely dirty glass, showing only the basic outlines of my new neighbor.

 

He looks like a blob, maybe just obese in the belly, or maybe equally large through the shoulders and neck. Maybe he’s still taking shape after his time in the box, or else this is how he is.

 

A sound like a burp traveling through the esophagus before it reaches the throat comes through the wall. The sound is about as grainy as the image, like I’m playing a very old VHS on a VCR that’s sat out in the yard for years before being taken back in as a relic.

 

“Is this a Confessional?” asks my neighbor.

 

Before really considering the question, I reply that it is.

 

“Good. I’d like to tell you about my anal marriage to a nun in Sardinia.”

 

I pour more of that Cava and wheel over my computer chair.

 

“Let me know when I can start,” he asks, after a while.

 

“You can start.”

 

So he does:

 

“I fell into this anal marriage during a period of soul-seeking in my early thirties. I’d just left my job at Bain & Company on the verge of a sizable promotion, and set to roaming southern Europe, as far north as Bavaria and as far south as Crete, focusing on the south of the main Catholic countries — Spain, France, and Italy.”

 

“What about Portugal?” I interrupt, not sure whether I’m supposed to participate in this process.

 

He ignores the question, continuing: “It was in Sardinia where I fell through the final floor, into a basement of self I’d always known was there but hadn’t thought I’d have to inhabit at such a young age. I thought I’d spend my life preparing to inhabit this basement, not actually inhabiting it. I got confused about which life was which, so to speak.”

 

Since I can’t see him well enough to tell, I imagine him sighing behind his hand here.

 

“I was on a beach in Sardinia, outside some tiny town whose name I don’t remember, kicking up sand while considering my low state, when I met the nun. She and I immediately felt a kinship, she fleeing the convent and the circumscribed life of chastity and prayer she’d pledged herself to, me fleeing Bain and the circumscribed life of profit and acquisition I’d pledged myself to. We were in different models of the same boat.”

 

He pauses. “So, that night, with the help of the local olive oil, we entered our anal marriage. She craved connection on a very sincere and human level but was not yet ready to cast off her vows. You know that trick, right? The old anal workaround, to preserve technical virginity for God?”

 

I nod, imagine him able to see me.

 

“Well, each time before we began, she reiterated, like saying Grace before a meal, that her vagina was reserved for God, whenever He chose to make His entrance … during the act itself, she prayed loudly for God to enter her at the same time, as if by my example God might take notice and consent to participate.

 

“It went on like this for most of the summer, us scrounging up what food and drink we could and sleeping on the beach, until, one night in late August, He appeared. The nun and I were having anal sex in our usual way, after a dinner of canned dolma and bread, when I felt a foreign presence within the familiar sheath of her anal canal. Something pressing from the other side, exerting a strange sort of dizzying heat.”

 

“God’s penis?” I guess.

 

He pauses as if shocked by my prescience, or pretending to be. “Exactly,” he finally says.

 

“God’s penis was pressing toward my own, drawn as if by some sublime inevitability, in the middle of this nun.”

 

He stops, and I think his confession may be over. Then he continues:

 

“And the nun seemed cognizant on a base animal level of the event taking place within her. I could tell that she was reaching a kind of total fruition, beyond earthly orgasm … she was host to the union of Man and God, like that famous finger-touching fresco, you know the one I mean? We thrust toward one another, straining to break the flesh-wall and touch, and finally we did. Our penises made contact, and some conversion occurred.”

 

I pour still more Cava and wait.

 

“I’m not a religious man, but there’s no denying that I was altered permanently. In the moment of mutual orgasm, God’s semen flowed through the rupture in the nun’s belly and down into my penis, nullifying my own emission and seeping deep inside, into my testicles and seminal vesicle. It killed my human sperm, severing my bloodline, and made of me a proxy for the unborn progeny of the Creator.”

 

Another pause.

 

“Then what?”

 

“Well,” he replies, cagily, like he hadn’t intended to say more. “The nun died, and God withdrew, disappeared. I buried her in the sand, and found myself alone, fraught with God’s semen and no instructions for how and where, or even whether, to use it.”

 

“I see,” I say.

 

“So the years went by,” he continues, in a conclusory tone. “And I grew ever more uncertain, aware that if I were ever to ejaculate inside another mortal woman, I would kill her, were it anal or oral, or impregnate her with a God-spawn that she and I could by no means raise, were it vaginal. I was in a bit of a bind.”

 

We both pause here.

 

“And, all the while, the pressure in my testicles was mounting. I was descending into a new kind of madness. So I roamed the earth for many long years, afraid even to masturbate lest the seed be found where I left it. When your Mayor’s order for Fresh Abject Horror came through, I applied for the post and got it. That was a Salvation.

 

“I was boxed up and sent here, told I’d be given a Room where I could masturbate freely, releasing the God-seed a little at a time until I was free of it and could die in peace. It’s been a terrible burden to carry. I have come to Dodge City to relinquish it, at long last, in the service of Horror, for the sake of the town. It may take years of dedicated masturbation, but I believe it is possible.”

 

“Huh,” I say, thinking out loud. “And you call that Abject Horror? Seems more seedy than horrifying, to tell you the truth. Not really any less degenerate than whoever was in your Room before you. Kind of amusing, in fact. I feel a little cheated, not that I blame you.”

 

“What are you, some kind of Secular Jew?” he scoffs.

 

I nod that indeed I am and walk away from the Confessional, aware that he can’t see me and is perhaps talking still, trying to justify himself.

 

Or maybe, I think, logging back into my email, I’m the Fresh Horror and he’s its object, unwitting and defenseless in that little Room of his next to mine. I almost go back to the Confessional to propose this possibility to him, but I figure I’ll burn off a little more time first.

 

Then the sounds of his awful masturbation start up and I know we won’t be talking any more tonight.

 

I know that soon I’ll be praying for the sound to abate, and that it will only get louder the louder I pray.

AS WE REACH THE DODGE CITY ANNEX, where FEMA hopes to find its new Cronenberg, the Mayor fills in some backstory.

 

He starts with the Dodge City Annex Civic Fund, which provides opportunities for its citizenry out of a private fortune. Over the years, there’ve been a variety of projects funded this way, all with the aim of affording the citizens of the Annex a higher standard of living than those of Dodge City, still delimited by a Real World after all these years.

 

As we make our way along the dusty trail, a few prone bodies start to complicate our footwork. From the way they’re crawling, it’s hard to tell if they’re living or dead. I feel a bit square for imposing this distinction where it’s most likely not welcome.

 

Hanging over the entrance to the Dodge City Annex is a banner that reads: “YOU TOO DESERVE A CHANCE TO MAKE VIDEODROME.”

 

The bodies, plentiful now, moan like katydids. They churn and grind the ground.

 

In the distance, we see the gigantic hulk of the State Prison, which farmed me out to work on that chain gang about two years ago, if you remember.

 

A huge mass of these bodies crawls toward us, across the field in front of the Prison. They start organizing themselves into a line.

 

“Ah,” the Mayor says, trying to remain gracious in front of FEMA. “They’re lining up in hopes of being chosen as spokesperson for what’s going on here. Each situation gets precisely one spokesperson. That’s the law.”

 

The Mayor chooses the first one in line.

 

The others fall upon each other in a free-for-fall. We know they’ll be destroyed soon, so we start ignoring them now.

 

The chosen one begins, usurping the Mayor’s narrative in a tangent that may never return to where it started:

 

“So we all got this grant money to make our own Videodrome, you know, from the Civic Fund, and we knew what an opportunity it was for us to be able to make it, and not just go on with our little tiny lives, but then we get sidetracked. A veil was lifted, one that we never thought would be, or even knew was there … and it made us a little power-mad. We started to think that if it was possible to know what it felt like to be Cronenberg, it might not be too much to believe that we could find out what it felt like to be immortal. Very quickly, we grew obsessed. The Cronenberg-state came to seem a very long way beneath us, like some stage of evolution our distant ancestors had transcended in their sleep.”

 

FEMA types this, some of it, into its iPad. I recede into a listening mode, letting the things I was about to say go soft inside me.

 

“So,” the spokesman continues, “we’re all sweeping our Videodrome storyboards into our compost piles of juvenilia when word comes to us, via the Annex Internet, that the State Prison is selling off its lethal injection supplies, having chanced upon a “third method” that will no longer involve the torments and humiliations of this one.

 

“One way or another, as these things go, assuming you  believe that ideas have an organic life of their own (which, if you don’t: goodbye), all of us would-be Videodrome directors became convinced that these deadly chemicals, if administered properly, would make us immortal.”

 

“A sort of zombification ritual?” FEMA asks, looking up from its iPad.

 

The spokesman, visibly not pleased at the interruption, nods. “Correct. Of course, there’d been plenty of word around the Annex as to the misuse of these chemicals in the prison system, the botcheries, paralyses, etc … but, in the state we were in at that time, this was music to our ears. This meant one thing to us: TRANSFORMATION. We came to believe, abetted as ever by the Internet, that these chemicals were never intended to cause death, but rather to transfigure the body and spirit on their most fundamental levels, boil them down to their simplest components and start over, at last getting right what biology has for so many millennia gotten wrong.”

 

The Mayor can’t hide his dismay at being cut out of the conversation. He looks like he knows he could leave now and FEMA wouldn’t even turn to watch him go.

 

The spokesman, shaking off two bodies curled lazily against his shins, continues:

 

“Each death row inmate had his own special brand of lethal injection chemical, specifically calibrated to both his body and the moral fiber behind his crime and subsequent reflection upon it. No two doses alike. So, at this point, we underwent a period of interviews and investigations with the inmates, to see which of us fit most perfectly with which of them, ideally to match each one of us with one of them, in a deep spirit-bond, so that in the end we’d buy their doses and they’d go free, living on as us while we’d become superhuman.

 

“Anyway,” the spokesman continues, “I’ll fast forward since I can see you fellows more or less get the picture. We bought our doses, exhausting our Videodrome budgets, and paraded into this field here” — he points at the field which is now littered with bodies in all states of agony and mayhem, the inmates loosed from the State Prison rampaging among them — “to administer our doses, separately in the final moment, each of us turned inward, picturing what we’d come to understand as the locked box of immortal life in our centers, normally stored for subsequent lives, but now about to come unlocked.”

 

“Needless to say, you found it harder than you’d imagined to administer it properly,” FEMA adds.

“Needless,” the spokesman agrees. “A total disaster, as you can see. Zombification in the lewdest possible sense.”

 

We all look at the field, which is truly a sorry sight. Some lie on their backs and howl at the sun; others dig uncontrollably at the dirt, opening pits that still others fall straight into. Some are bleeding from their eyes, others from their ears; others look so pale it’s as if their blood has turned to water.

 

“If you’re so fucked up, shouldn’t you talk weirder?” the Mayor interrupts here, trying desperately to reinsert himself into the conversation. FEMA and the spokesman exchange looks of disdain.

 

The inmates, spared their executions, frolic like children through the field, dancing on the groaning bodies, singing in high voices, crushing the chests of the fallen like grapes in a wine press.

 

*****

THERE’D BE NO DRAMATIC EXIT FROM THIS SCENE were it not for the one guy with the video camera.

 

He appears only belatedly through the desecration, running behind and between the zombies and inmates with his camera rolling, shouting, “Great!! This kind of thing is just great! Let’s get even more of that if we can … ” as if he believes he’s directing the scene, everyone behaving according to a script he’s written two or three drafts of.

 

“That guy,” the spokesman explains, “opted to just still make Videodrome. He said it was enough for him.”

 

FEMA confers, checking its iPad and making a few phone calls.

 

“Great,” it finally says. “Forgive us if our tastes skew traditional, but we’ll take that guy. In terms of delivering a new Cronenberg to the people of this nation, finding one who’s actually willing to still make Videodrome, in spite of everything, will do us a world of good.”

 

“Very well,” the spokesman replies, like a slaver at an auction who’s just made a sale. “I’ll bag him up for you and bring him right over.”

NEWS IS SLOW to reach us in Dodge City but when it does we take it to heart.

 

 

There is no news for a while. Then there is:

 

 

David Cronenberg has been deemed “unsustainably long in the tooth” after a two-year investigation spearheaded by the Dept. of Fish and Game. A full survey of his works by a “panel topheavy with experts,” as the report puts it, has determined that the drop-off in filmic vitality between his early-to-middle works and his middle-to-late ones is regrettably sharp enough to strip him of his National Hero status, which is not, the report takes pains to remind us, a matter of opinion but rather one of National Policy.

 

 

“A matter of National Security even,” pundits add, “since surely you’ll agree that a nation that chooses its Heroes unwisely is not one bound for stage lights and lear jets.”

 

 

Cronenberg’s obsolescence is mourned nationally, though there is also some shamefaced relief at the making-public of what we’ve all secretly known for years. Vietnam-style news footage of burning Cronenberg effigies paraded by gloved hands through the streets of Washington, and of self-immolating Cronenberg impersonators in the backwoods of California and Oregon, floods our TV sets and RSS feeds.

 

 

FEMA and the National Guard, we learn, have been deployed at strategic locations around the country, to quiet unrest and force a certain amount of solace on the population as we go through the several stages of grief.

 

 

We wonder if and when they’ll come for us.

 

 

The Mayor has decided to take all National Directives literally, so he orders a work crew to turn up one morning and take down the 30-ft Cronenberg statue in the town square.

 

 

Naked children run after it, crying and rubbing dirt in their hair, as a truck drags it to the dump. It looks like that elephant funeral scene in Santa Sangre. Along the way, the statue’s head cracks off. A hundred sobbing widows bear it away to a shrine in the hills.

 

 

This is where FEMA steps in.

 

 

They show up in a long row of vans to pry the head away from the widows and drag it down from the hills and again to the dump, where they smash it to gravel.

 

 

“Let this be an example,” they say.

 

 

THEN they lead everyone back to the town square, where they set up a stage on the site where the statue used to be.

 

 

They demand our attention and we give it.

 

 

FEMA explains that a pageant is to be held — here in Dodge City, as elsewhere around the nation.

 

 

“Due to technicalities arising from the fact that Cronenberg is what is known in German as a Grenzgänger, or border-walker, being at once a Canadian citizen and an American hero, the task of replacing him is not as easy as the layman might expect. People always expect things to be easy.”

 

 

FEMA takes a moment here to compose itself, apparently surprised at how emotional this all is.

 

 

It continues: “So, rather than appointing a replacement on the national level, behind closed doors, we are putting it to you, the people. The Cronenberg-spirit, loosed from its former housing, is now at large in the country, free to settle and reassert itself where it will. Mothers, fathers, abductors … anyone with access to promising young folk, we urge you to enter your little boy or girl into the running. Out of all the applicants, one New Cronenberg will be chosen, to pick up at the exact point where the Old went downhill. All applicants must be under twenty, to ensure a maximally long and fruitful career. The first pageant, on the town level, will be held here in the square a week from today. Now get busy!”

 

 

FEMA shoots a .45 into the air and everyone scatters.

 

 

*****

Over the course of this week I roam Dodge City at random, intrigued to see the rehearsals underway. Parents with kids aged 5 to 11 occupy all available space, in stores and restaurants, at the mall, and on all the sidewalks and sometimes even in the road, trying to devise and rehearse a Cronenberg Routine that will catch FEMA’s eye.

 

 

People around here don’t need to be told twice or think hard to know that opportunities like this come rarely if ever. A life as Cronenberg is considerably more than most would’ve allowed themselves to dream for their children.

 

 

The school hangs a huge CLOSED sign over its front door, though I’m the only person I ever see within eyeshot of it.

 

 

Elsewhere in town, teenagers work unsupervised, the atmosphere around them seedier, more Larry Clark, less junior beauty pageant.

 

 

Lots of small animals suffer — moles, lizards, sparrows … many people have the idea that torturing animals will bring them closer to Cronenberg in FEMA’s eyes. They implant these animals with household chemicals and stray bits of trash, metal … anything to compromise their biology, prejudice it toward the toxic, the bionic.

 

 

Other children do it to themselves, some even going so far as to poison or amputate their own limbs, or pieces thereof, forcibly stamping sexual orifices into parts of their bodies where there had been none, and never would have been had nature proceeded undisturbed, which of course in Cronenberg it never does.

 

 

I see several girls with dog and cat penises stapled or sewn into their crotches, and wonder whether FEMA will disqualify some of them for infringing on the ideas of others, and, if so, how it will choose.

 

*****

WHEN THE DAY COMES, we all gather in the square, the air ashy from the wave of immolation that’s flared up this past week.

 

 

Above the stage, FEMA has hung a banner that reads “Pageant of the New Cronenberg.” It’s already ash-colored.

 

 

The applicants are all lined up, checking each other out, trying to avoid eye contact, pretending they’re only worried about themselves.

 

 

One mother shows up with a huge pile of battered VHS tapes spilling out of her arms. “My son’s in here,” she says, when a local reporter asks. “Trust me.”

 

 

I feel like the show has begun, though I was waiting for FEMA to shoot its .45 into the air again.

 

 

A SUCCESSION OF CHILDREN passes across the stage, yanked by the strings of their parents’ aspiration. I root for them all, but I can tell that some core factor is missing.

 

 

Not one of the twenty-two performances I’ve seen strikes a real chord. The fundamentally alien nature of selfhood and embodiment feels as abstract to me now as it did before, a stasis which no item of genuine Cronenberg can afford to permit.

 

 

Whatever would enable a child to impress FEMA as a genuine candidate just isn’t here. As each one deploys the act they’ve been working on all week, with their parents hovering nervously behind them, it feels like they’re tracing the outline of an empty circle, describing the void at whose center resides the essence that made Scanners, The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, et al what they are … before drying to a trickle for A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis.

 

 

I get fried broccoli and water from a stand and watch the scene devolve.

 

 

Soon, FEMA has called off the pageant, clearing away all the variously costumed and self-mutilated kids and pulling the banner down.

 

 

The Mayor clambers onstage to beg for a second chance. His feet are lost among fallen animal parts and screws, bolts, and staples, non-standard body substances and foam rubber.

 

 

“I’m sincerely sorry that what we had to offer from our main town stock wasn’t … and I agree that it wasn’t … um … but, what I’m trying to say is … give us one last chance. Please. Okay? Let’s all take a trip over to the Dodge City Annex, where, and I speak for all of us here, no one’s been since before Y2K … and see if anyone over there is more to your liking. The citizenry there is much more characterful. There is another spirit that resides there. This much I can promise.”

 

 

The Mayor stutters and looks around in loops as he talks, but he gets it out. FEMA seems mildly intrigued. It’s clearly not in their interest to leave town without a few contenders in tow.

 

*****

SO, IN ANOTHER PARADE, with all the defeated Cronenberg-hopefuls taking up the rear, we set off, out of town along a road no one ever uses because it doesn’t lead anywhere except to the Dodge City Annex, which I hadn’t even known existed until now.

PLANES OVERHEAD make such constant, unseen noise that the sky seems to be on a one-track program of belching and grumbling. It seems to be in disagreement, or trying, maybe too hard, to get something across. Maybe some of it’s heat lightning; maybe some aspects are echoes of other aspects.

 

Under such a thing, we make our way back and forth to an exciting brand-new Dodge City venue called BERGMAN ONE.

 

No one knows how it came about or who opened it, or even who runs it — sometimes, it seems, the things we think of or wish for turn out to exist, as if reality were more in the catering-to-our-whims business than it usually gets or takes credit for being.

 

What BERGMAN ONE is is a place to discover the (unparalleled, unsurpassable, super-human, etc etc etc … etc) films of Ingmar Bergman.

 

But not just to, like, watch them. That’s easy enough to do anywhere. No, what BERGMAN ONE is is a place to discover the films of Ingmar Bergman for the first time, again and again, every day if you come that often.

 

It’s a place — it does, I’ll admit, look like an ordinary theater — where you enter and, no matter how many times you’ve been there before, it’s always your first time. You’re 22, a junior in college, at that point in your life where sex has started to seem not just cool and brag-worthy but also tied to slashed hives of writhing monsters, the irrefutably dual existence/nonexistence of God, doom, dark snow, silence, outrage, madness, viciousness … the persistence of the medieval throughout the supposedly or avowedly “modern,” the way we all play our roles, never more so than when we “refuse” to play them … the way in which the transcendent ideal can be renounced but never escaped … the myriad cruelties required to achieve true selfhood and dignity, more undignified with every step … we’re at the point, every morning at BERGMAN ONE, where we’re just starting to feel a burgeoning totality to life, a sense that we’re not all just ebulliently on the up-and-up-and-up, but that there are countermovements and counterweights fraughting things in there as well, secrets from ourselves, unpopped bubbles of derangement … and the dimness of the woods, the harshness of Protestantism, the nearness of the Arctic, the depths that people crouch in and pull each other down to so as not to be so alone, resentful though they always are at the intrusion …

 

I could go on and on like a real 22-year-old, but I won’t. But I’d like to. That’s how good it feels to hang out at BERGMAN ONE.

 

Every day it’s the same rotation — Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring, Wild Strawberries in the morning (the early months of being 22), then a heavy middle period of Shame, The Silence, Winter Light, Through A Glass Darkly, The Hour of the Wolf, culminating in Persona, which we tend to watch a good 30 times in a row (this is the swollen heart of our collective 22nd year), then an attenuated later period where we get through the whole TV versions of Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny & Alexander, and some of the color ones like Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata (when we’re all coming to terms with the nearing reality of turning 23 and facing Senior Year, applying for post-grad stuff, etc etc), then a kind of stunned postlude where we watch the not-even-all-that-good stuff like The Serpent’s Egg and The Passion of Anna, just hoping to come enough back to reality to carry on with our in-comparison hopelessly minuscule and low-energy lives.

 

We write the same furious, revelation-juiced notes in our journals every single day. Then, exhausted, we all go out for late-nite Chinese and DISCUSS: “He’s just so right … about life!!” we all agree.

 

We are self-consciously aware of ourselves sounding like Woody Allen acting out Woody Allen talking about being obsessed with Bergman in the actual 70s, but this only adds to our wattage.

 

All summer, we start each day as 22-year-olds and end each day as 23-year-olds. That’s the cusp we toggle on and around. Amazing what a world of difference Bergman makes between them.

 

*****

I WOULD HAVE SPENT THE REST OF THE SUMMER in this state, starting every single day with The Seventh Seal and ending it in rapt awe at what a testament to a life split between or trying to unify God, pain, and art Fanny & Alexander truly is, and would have done so gladly, like one of those rats you always hear about that just keeps triggering its dopamine center until it dies from dehydration, had it not been for the RABBIT INFESTATION.

 

But the rabbit infestation, and its — I’d say — strange results, put me in a different mindset. It returned me, for one, to my natural age of 26, forcing me to let go of 22/23 like dropping a guy off a cliff or building after losing hold of his fingers in one of those stock action movie set-ups.

 

What happened was that all these rabbits were around everywhere — like everywhere, like you almost couldn’t get your feet through them to the sidewalk. You were crushing one or two with every step, wearing a compacted mass of five or six as shoes before long.

 

Perhaps the rampant sexuality of the Bergman worldview had spread to their species, and this was what it had gotten them.

 

It got gross quickly; then it got weird.

 

The way in which it got weird was that, overnight, all the dead and living rabbits were removed and replaced with glass replicas. There were replicas of the intact rabbits, in the positions they’d last been seen in, as well as replicas of all the crushed rabbits, in the exact positions (don’t ask me how they got the glass to mirror the crush of flesh, fur, bone, &c) they’d last been seen in.

 

It was like a display set up by the Dodge City Police Dept. for Future Police Generations to study, in hopes that they’d figure out, historically, what the problem had been, like a recreation of a crime scene … or perhaps, more hermeneutically, to determine whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it had been a problem at all.

 

*****

I WAS OUT exploring this exhibit one night, imagining myself to be a member of that Future Police Generation, filing a report to myself, reminiscing on my now long-bygone-feeling Bergman days, when I was approached from behind.
He appeared behind and then beside me on a dark residential street exactly like the villain in The Flame Alphabet does.

 

I was trying to think of that villain’s name (Molloy? Malone?) when he told me that his name was Internethead.

 

He didn’t ask my name and I didn’t try to tell him.

 

He told me, kicking a glass rabbit aside with the toe of a boot, that he was the only man alive who’d “made it to the End of the Internet.”

 

“Just as you would a book or a workout,” he said. “Or a series of Chemo sessions, or a list of Names.”

 

He went on to say that, now that he’d put the entirety of the Internet behind him, he was about to dive “back into the flesh pool.”

 

I took a step away from him.

 

“Ha,” he said.

 

His head bulged, especially in the region of his left eye, in a simultaneously internal and external way, as though a second head were in the process of bursting up and out through his first, main, one.

 

If he started bleeding frantically right now — or at any point in however long this scene ends up going on — I would not have been (will not be) at all surprised.

 

He displayed, I realized, the exact symptoms of the New Flesh from Videodrome, as if the whole Internet amounted to no more than what VHS and TV, in the end, amounted to. He was a character cribbed literally from David Cronenberg, without even minor adaptation or reinterpretation — like an actor made up to star in one film who, because shooting got done a bit early one day, wandered across the lot and onto another set and slipped into the shooting of a completely different film, in exactly the same role, to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.

 

It’s a relief to be so totally open, for once, about my influences.

 

Waking me up from this reverie, he says, taking in the sweep of the glass rabbits surrounding us, “You know the little-known story of the Dodge City Genocide?”

 

I have to admit that I do not.

 

“Well,” he says, his bulge fulminating, “it was one of the worst.”

 

I can tell that we’re walking, on our way somewhere.

 

We pass through endless fields of glass rabbits, regarding which he says, “Try to let this metaphor support rather than obscure my point.”

 

I agree to try.

 

“It was,” he says, “an untraceable Genocide, as the worst ones always are. No visible bodies, no one to say for sure that it happened.”

 

My silence inspires, or at least permits, him to continue.

 

“In the middle part of the last century, some Elements came to Power in Dodge City that set about purging the place utterly of what they termed Ghost Detritus. They were heavily influenced by the theology of Daniel Paul Schreber, who wrote endlessly and, for them, convincingly, about, depending on what translation you use, a highly undesirable demographic of ‘Floating Trash People.'”

 

Internethead buzzes and shivers in a way that I’d describe as Nearing the Edge of the Human. Then he goes on:

 

“This Element turned its dark attention to this demographic in Dodge City, dubbing it Ghost Detritus so as to avoid any translation ambiguities, and set about radically exterminating it. The thing is, this Ghost Detritus left no record. Their bodies — living and dead alike — do not show up in photographs. There is no record of their ever having possessed residences or objects of any kind … families, jobs … no trace. So, you won’t be surprised to hear, this Genocide has been especially easy to Deny.”

 

We’re standing beside a car now, and I know it’s only a matter of time until Internethead tells me to get in.

 

“Most of the citizens of Dodge City, if you ask them about it, will manifest no difficulty in Denying that this Genocide ever, in any form, occurred. The chilly presence of Ghost Detritus drifts naturally in and out with the winds of history, is the most you’ll likely hear, from anyone, on this topic.”

 

“Aw, I bet you say that to all the towns,” I half want to tell him, but he has a gravity that’s hard to interrupt. It’s hard to know whether a man who’s made it to the End of the Internet ought to be the first or the last one you listen to.

 

Now he’s opening up the car, dabbing his New Flesh with a handkerchief. He might be crying.

 

He says that he’s going to drive me way out into the desert, to see the remnants of the City that once was. “It’s some Prelapsarian, if that’s the word, shit,” he promises. “From before the Genocide. You will not, I promise, feel like Denying what happened after you’ve seen it.”

 

I initially express concern about being driven “way out into the desert” by a complete stranger such as he, but he just laughs and says, “Man, where I’ve been, I’ve seen and done it all … all I ever wanted to do and then some. It’s out of my system.”

 

He makes a fluttering motion with one hand, to show that “It,” whatever had been in his system and that I’d been afraid might pose a threat to me, has gone off to join the other air.

 

“Sorry about the mess,” he says, indicating the Qdoba bags that I’ll have to clear away to sit down on the passenger seat.

 

I exhale as he starts the car. Glass rabbits crunch as he backs up. I worry about the tires, surprised to find that I now very much hope we get where he wants us to go and aren’t halted by a flat on the way.