Archives for posts with tag: Work

DEAD BROKE, BORED, LOST IN MY HEAD, I finally decide, after months of stewing in my Room, to put myself out there. Make myself available to someone other than myself. “Use me for what you will,” I think in the direction of the world at large, knowing I don’t entirely mean it.


My own thoughts, my own interests — the open question of who do I think I am — will always be primary in my life, for better or worse, but for now I’ve decided to siphon off a little attention in the direction of the the highest bidder, or any bidder at all.


I describe myself on the Dodge City Craigslist as an “all-around film assistant with razor-sharp instincts, if not exactly rock-solid skills,” and modestly set my minimum desired salary at $15/hour.


Amazingly, one of Blut Branson’s assistants calls me the next afternoon, waking me from my 3:05-3:15 nap. “Can you come by?” she asks, like I ought to know where she means.


“Sure,” I reply, like I do.


She hangs up without telling me when.


I lie still until my alarm goes off at 3:15, then get dressed and head down to the concierge. Like a German tourist, I ask where Blut Branson’s headquarters are located. Taking obvious relish in being asked, she takes out the Local Attractions map and draws a tight circle at the outer edge of the official Walking Tour path. She reminds me to take sunscreen and plenty of water on my walk, like I really am a German tourist and not someone who’s lived in this hotel for the last four years. To be fair, I don’t know who she is either, but I can’t help feeling it’s more her job to recognize me than my job to recognize her, even though, I allow, there are exponentially more faces on her radar than there are on mine.


When I get over this, I take her map and set out. After a hot, disoriented wandering spell, I arrive at what the map calls A complex of refurbished hostels, originally intended for those Civil War deserters enterprising enough to make it this far West. The premises are surrounded by a giant wrought-iron fence supporting a sign that reads BRANSON ENTERTAINMENTS in rusted metal letters. The similarity to Lars von Trier’s ZENTROPA ENTERTAINMENTS on the edge of Copenhagen is naked enough to read as homage.


I’m considering rattling the gate to announce my arrival when an assistant rolls up on a golf cart, opening the gate from inside with her iPhone and gesturing for me to climb aboard.


“You got the call?” she asks, in a voice that might be the same as the one that called me.


I nod and climb onto the cart beside her as she puts it in drive, taking us straight into the heart of the complex, which contains five large buildings and a number of smaller ones, like sheds, in clusters around the periphery. I can’t believe I’ve lived in Dodge City since 2011 — a period during which I viewed each of Branson’s nine films at least twice — without ever coming out here. This speaks, scarily, to the separation I’ve fostered between myself and the outside world since my arrival. The image-world inside my computer and the flesh-world of people, places, and things out here have never seemed less related or further apart.


“OK, get out,” she says, jerking the golf cart to a halt and returning me to real-time.


I tumble to my feet, dizzy, like I’ve just been on a plane, and follow her along a concrete path and into the bunker. We pass through a thick plastic curtain and into a cement-smelling cavern, where the only lights on are red. I get the sense that unseen plant life is growing.


I follow her further in, past tables laid out with what looks like guns and cash, into a side room with a door that requires a fingerprint scan to open.


Inside sit at least fifty other people, applicants like me, I’m assuming, on plastic chairs under more of that harsh red light. At the focus of everyone’s attention sits Branson himself, in fatigues, combat boots, and a safari hat.


He turns and looks me over, calmly, and when he turns away I have the feeling that he’s seen all the way in.


I take this as my cue to sit down.


“OK,” Branson begins, once I have, like my sitting down has reactivated him from a brief deep-freeze. “The time has come to determine who, if any of you, has what I’m looking for.”


He leans to the side to reach into his back pocket and removes what looks like a plastic hood, which he unwraps and stretches over his head, sealing it around the neck. Then, stoic though it doesn’t look like he can breathe, he presses a button on his iPhone and hurries out of the room.


Gas hisses down from a sprinkler and we all nod out.



WHEN I COME TO, I’m in a glaring white room with six other people. We’re laid out on cots, tied up inside sleeping bags so we can only wiggle.


“The seven of you,” says Branson’s voice over an intercom, “have been selected as location scouts for my next film, working title Grassland Mastodon. The others have been let go. This is, needless to say, an immense honor. Your one shot at the big time, to put it lightly. The jets leave for Kazakhstan in half an hour. Each of you will receive a written description and a sketch of the location you are to find.”


He pauses to swallow whatever he’s chewing.


“I have never in my life dreamed of a location for one of my films,” he continues, his voice turning grave, “and failed to find it somewhere upon the earth. What is in me is also out there. This is my brand, my claim to fame, my greatest asset.”


I’ve seen this claim made before, in a book of Branson interviews I read on the plane en route to Dodge City. Its metaphysical hubris impressed me even before I’d seen his films, and impresses me still, perhaps more than the films themselves ever quite have.


“My chronic fear of flying has been well-documented for decades, so it should come as no surprise that I require your assistance in tracking these locations down.” His voice keeps getting louder. “Suffice it to say, if you find the location you have been tasked with finding, its inclusion in my body of work will serve as a source of pride for you for years to come. It will be your life’s crowning achievement. You will not be credited outright, but you will know in your hearts, when you see my film, that the credit is yours.”


As he’s saying this, an assistant enters the room with a scissor and, after asking each of us if we consent to execute the job we’ve been selected for (we all do), cuts us free. “Scout the area you’re air-dropped into,” says the assistant, “overlooking no corner of it, relentlessly seeking out the location described in the file you’ve been given. Your $15/hour will be paid upon your safe return, bearing photos of the location and its exact coordinates. You will be paid for 20 hours per day. Do not let Mr. Branson suspect that any of you have worked fewer.”



IN A FEW MINUTES I’M AIRBORNE, leaving Dodge City behind for the first time since I found myself briefly in Scotland with Big Pharmakos in 2012. I can’t see the other planes, but I picture us all taking off like some air force squadron departing to bomb a distant continent. No, I think. Not to bomb that continent, but to pillage its natural resources, to dig them up and bring them back to Branson so that he might continue his career as a world-class visionary without ever leaving his Room.



I look out the window at the landmass becoming a speck until the co-pilot rushes over and shuts the blind saying, “Branson requires his location scouts to keep their minds clear until arrival at the designated site. Finding a Branson location is as much a matter of tuning one’s inner landscape as it is of scanning the outer. You’ll see. May I suggest a sleep-mask?”


He pulls it over my eyes and I give up trying to resist, letting it put me to sleep as we cross the North Pole.


AFTER THIRTEEN HOURS, the co-pilot returns to pull the sleep-mask off my eyes and inform me that we’ve touched down in Kazakhstan. I’d been expecting a concrete bunker airport on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, but it looks like we’ve landed on a dirt patch in the middle of the steppe.


“Ok,” says the pilot, handing me a heavy backpack. “You’re in charge from here. Read Branson’s description of the location he’s seeking, then walk in whatever direction you feel it lies in. If you didn’t have an innate sense for where that is, he wouldn’t have chosen you. There’s a phone in the pack that will ring when it’s time for your pick-up. You are to take pictures with that phone as well.”


Before I can ask anything else, he’s back in the plane with the door locked. I can tell that pounding on it will only exhaust me and annoy him, so I put my head down, shoulder the pack, and trudge off into the grass, holding the file that Branson gave me. I adjust the pack’s straps as I go, taking in the vastness of the landscape I’m about to get lost in.



AFTER A FEW DAYS of walking through rocky fields and sparse grass, with nothing in mind except the location that Branson described in the file — a lone tower in the midst of a rocky field, jutting into the sky — I climb over a small hill and, on the other side, find exactly what I was afraid I might find: the M. Tower, jutting into the sky.


The M. Tower, as I’ve called it since I was a child — due to the large stone M of its roof, which I always assumed stood for me or mine — is the structure I’ve gone to most frequently in my mind when I needed to exit the reality around me and enter a place of pure cerebral calm. The running water inside the M. Tower is a self-renewing spring of fresh thought, where all of my ideas have come from, where the dream of every movie I’ve ever dreamed of making has been born. I’ve spent whole days in here, drinking from the faucet on the top floor, looking out over a vast inner landscape absolutely identical to the one I’m standing in now.

mtower 1

Am I in my own mind? I wonder. Have I gone nowhere but deeper in?


If nothow did Branson find this place inside me? What did he do to me while I was gassed?


My skin crawls. Nothing feels more important than protecting the M. Tower from Branson’s influence. It’s not his to steal, I think, my voice regressing to that of a child in my inner ear.


But what’s the alternative? Trudging on, into more grass, until my supplies run out? I imagine picking up the phone when it rings and lying, telling Branson’s people that there’s nothing out here. I reach in the pack and take out the phone, put it to my ear and practice lying, but all that comes out are stammers.


I’ve never been a good liar, even in low-stakes circumstances. The thought of convincing an operation as militarized as Branson’s of anything but the truth is more than I can hold in mind. So I give up on this possibility.


To keep from hyperventilating, I sit down where I’d been standing, and feel the M. Tower’s shadow wash over me, cool as the sheets on my childhood bed when I’d lie down for my 3:05-3:15 nap and spend it doing nothing but thinking about movies.


It occurs to me that this must be how Branson operates — each location scout he hires has an inner landscape of their own, which he somehow unearths while we’re under the gas. Then, he claims it as a product of his own imagination and sends us out to locate it.


I try to follow the logic through … If I’m inside my own mind now, I think, what would it mean to emerge back into objective reality and lead Branson’s people here? And after that, how would they film it and convey its reality to a mass audience?


Perhaps they’ll make a scale replica, I think, and bring it back to Branson Entertainments to be used on-set there. The thought of the actual M. Tower, here and real before me for the first time, being turned into a replica of itself is too grotesque to dwell on. I spit to clear the thought, watching my dehydrated saliva trickle off the side of my shoe and into the steppe-grass.


Getting back to my feet, I creep around the bottom of the M. Tower, looking up at its majestic stone flanks, listening to the spring of pure thought flow through its piping, making my mouth water.


Bowing my head in reverence, I go in.


Inside the M. Tower, I take my first gulp from the faucet and think: I’ll spend the night alone in here, on the very top floor, surveying the landscape.


If, in the morningI still can’t bear the thought of surrendering it to Branson, I’ll prepare to take radical action then.


When I start to get wound-up, Big Pharmakos sits me down and spoon-feeds me a little, what he calls, Shtetl Noir:

“They’d just given birth to their first baby, a beautiful, healthy boy they named Noah, duly blessed, when they decided to move from the capital to a distant, isolated corner of the provinces, hot in summer and cold in winter, where, it was believed, a certain letter of introduction that the husband and father, Jakob, had managed to procure from his advisor in the city, would help him find a job in his field, one that would afford them, at the very least, a daily means of scraping across the threshold between one day and the next.

So, with this letter in hand, Jakob moved with his wife, Leah, and the baby, to this distant, shabby little town — like a prelapsarian (if “prelapsarian” can be taken to mean “back when things were even worse”) Dodge City marooned somewhere in the far outskirts of the Pale.

Upon arrival, they parceled out their little savings — the dregs of a student stipend, a cashed bond, and the proceeds from the sale of their furniture and a rare Spinoza volume that Leah had been given by a now-defunct grandparent years earlier — in order to establish residence in a small, cloudy cottage on the edge of this parochial nowhere where circumstance had forced them to believe their fate lay waiting.

While Leah came down in her nightclothes and settled into their one chair in their drafty (or seethingly humid — Big Pharmakos hadn’t decided what season it should be) living room, suckling baby Noah and brushing his several brand new hairs, Jakob set out for his first day of work.

There were several layers of smoked cod, a whole onion which he’d eat like an apple, and two slices of toast with a small jar of apple butter, arranged quietly in his lunch bag. His gloves (he did it always by hand, as this all took place before The Age Of Wire And String) and his mask (a sober, form-fitting burlap affair) were in a leather sack he kept slung over his shoulder, the same one he’d carried during his student days in the city.

He kissed Leah and the baby, and set out into the smell of woodfires and steaming pack animal breath, stepping gingerly across jagged floes of ice marooned on the dirt road’s dirt sidewalks, or else fetid, sweaty piles of … if it was summer.

This was all before dawn. There would be, he knew, no sleeping in now that his new family life had begun in earnest. No lazing about and dreaming of the day’s openness, of long strolls in sunlight and leisurely cups of coffee and philosophical debate, as there had been in his student days. Even Leah’s rare Spinoza volume, for many years his unwavering companion, was gone, melted down in the furnace of capital.

Walking down that pre-dawn dirt lane, alongside the other working men, both young and old, he thought with a twinge of those bygone days, the feral seriousness they’d had about them that, now, had come to seem like innocent boys’ play: all those belabored, first-pounding debates of the tangled intersections of the immanent and the transcendent, the coded demonology and eschatology of Isaac Luria and Sabbatai Zevi, seemed now as harmless as supping noodle soup through a warm spoon in a paper gown in a hospital bed.

On that first day of his profession, putting such childish things behind as well as any man can, Jakob strangled three people: two of the town’s three bakers, and an old lady.

One by one (head still masked in burlap, hands still gloved), he dragged their bodies discreetly through the streets and into a shed that his letter of introduction had helped him secure. He stacked them neatly on shelves, making sure their arms and feet were not dangling, trying to minimize the  grotesquerie of the job as best he could, putting his city training to work. He covered the bodies with blankets and switched off the light he’d worked under, seeing then that it was already dark outside.

He trudged home weary and spent, stopping at the butcher’s for a meager cut of pork and some day-old chicken legs. This was all his hard work had amounted to.

At home, Leah boiled these in a pot with a dash of salt and part of a carrot, masking her disappointment that there wasn’t more, or better. They ate this with a few radishes and shared a bottle of milk.

Jakob’s hands were so worn out from the day’s labor he could hardly hold his fork, and he was so tired inside he could hardly feel the joy he knew the sight of his wife and baby son ought to have summoned in him. That night, after soaking his hands in a bowl of warm water sprinkled with anise seeds, he fell asleep while Leah was in the bathroom brushing her teeth, and she could not rouse him.


Their life continued as it had begun. Over the course of that first, lean year, Jakob strangled one hundred and eighty people, including the postmaster, the deputy mayor, eight of the town’s twelve doctors, all of its dentists, seven of its eight kosher slaughterers, nine of its thirteen schoolteachers, and all of the neighbors on their street. He even, in what had for a moment felt like a definite step forward, strangled both of the rival stranglers who’d been operating in the town far longer than he had. Neither had ever worked as hard.

All of these he stacked, all neatly, in his shed, which, to his chagrin, grew fuller by the day. Soon, he would need to invest in a new space, or else begin burying the bodies in a field or a pond, practices which his training had taught him to regard as shoddy.

He returned home each night and together he and Leah ate their crust of pork and leg of chicken, the heel of a loaf of bread or perhaps a single portion of kasha divided in two. They watched the baby grow, his face so full of hope, so full of light and life … though, Jakob couldn’t help but fear, creeped over also by a cloud of suspicion, which Jakob could not deny even for the sake of his son, a suspicion that life would not meet his expectations even if he lowered them, that life could never be for a man what it had seemed to a boy that it could, that it must, be.

Still, though, day in and day out, they persevered. Jakob came home and soaked his hands in that bowl of warm water and anise, watching the tension ebb out of the knuckles that had strangled so tirelessly all day long, and, together with his wife and child, and a new baby on the way, they prayed to the Almighty. On some nights, they believed their prayers were heard, and, if not answered, at least taken under consideration. On those nights, Jakob slept easier, flexing his hands under the sheets, gathering into them from On High the strength to wake up into a new day, set out before dawn with his lunch packed, and do it all over again.”


I sit and listen as the story winds down. If my temperament were slightly other than it is, my question might have been: “How does one make a living from country strangling?”

To which Big Pharmakos’ answer might have been: “That, my boy, is the whole point. One barely can, try as one might. That’s the whole tragedy of it, the whole moral, the whole inroad into life’s cruel but persistently beating heart.”

Instead, me being me and he being he, Big Pharmakos stands up and says, “OK, time for a snack.”

And off we go.