Chapter Ten of Below the Line, a saga that begins with a prologue, a little life, interrupted
Stover knew, soon as the crate hit the ground with a thud, that the day would continue to stink. Before los trabadores de las peliculas had dropped his brand new moviola, even back in the hotel, back before breakfast, things were not well in Mexico City. Not well at all.
They’d given him a room formerly inhabited by a smoker, some atavistic Neanderthal on an expense account with a solid-gold lighter, no doubt, and an endless supply of American cigarettes, the numerous pinched-butts of which still cluttered a cut-glass ashtray shaped like the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán when he checked in.
The drapes stunk, the carpet stunk, the sheets, towels, and upholstery stunk, and everybody smoked in the dining room at breakfast. The cab driver had gone through ten Camels by the time he’d dumped Stover unceremoniously in front of Estudios Azteca. The pall that embraced the District Federal at dawn was as much a product of Ligget and Meyers as it was half-burned hydrocarbons and fallout from Popocatépetl, the smoking mountain, the volcano which you could barely see on the southeast horizon even on the best of days.
Is it necessary to mention that Will Stover was an ex-smoker? Like alcoholics, dope fiends, politicians and romantics everywhere, he protests the most who has most transgressed.
He hadn’t had a cigarette in two months, and as Smiley’s amigos shouldered the cracked crate upright (well, upside down, but higher than it was wide definitely) Will felt that old familiar need surge upward from someplace under his armpits. It traveled along the back of his neck, seeped into his throat muscles, and insinuated itself under and around his tongue, settling finally on his lips. He moistened them as Smiley said:
“Oops! She fall down, hey maestro?
“Si, Smiley. Si, si.” Best to leave all expectations at the door.
“No problem! No problem!”
Smiley rattled out some ejaculations and orders and—for all Will knew—death threats in Spanish to the SIX men who were doing this thing. Badly. They shoved a yellow dolly with a broken wheel under the crate, smashed the whole thing against the truck as they wrestled it over the curb, and as Will watched his no-doubt-trashed moviola recede down the sidewalk, Smiley offered him a cigarette:
Geezus. “No. Not anymore. No—”
“Fumar. No smoking. No fumar”
“Si,” said Will. “I am a alcoholic.”
“Nothing. Joke. Carry on. Whatever it is you say.”
Smiley grinned, teeth white as a picket fence.
“I say we should have a beer, eh Señor? ¿Una cerveza?”
He took UNTITLED’s editor by the shoulder and guided him towards his laboratory, his home-away-from-home, his editing room in the building they called Officinas Producciones.
A beer at nine o’clock in the morning in an unfamiliar foreign capital is not necessarily a bad thing. It can promote relaxation. Camaraderie. A sense of well-being.
In Will’s case, it gave him something to do with his hands as the Mexicans opened the crate. There was a miserable tinkle of glass as the final 1X3 was pried away. The hand-made crate fell open to reveal one sad green machine: its screen was shattered; ground glass lay in shards on the plywood box-bottom. The entire viewing mechanism—the prism, the lens and its focusing ring and vertical-travel lever—lay broken, like a bird’s neck before dinner. The light-box milk glass was cracked, and the reverse pedal was broken in half, as though it had been made of pot-metal and snapped over somebody’s knee.
“That fucking airline, eh Señor? She was broke long before she come here, hey?”
Smiley said something to los trabadores, because they slipped quietly out like thieves with rolodexes. Smiley knelt and opened the back of the machine.
“Oh oh,” he said. “Look:”
He swiveled the moviola around on its wheels, and Will could see there was more than one broken tube in the amplifier.
“But this is no problem, Maestro,” said Smiley. “Come. Let me show you something.”
As they walked out the door, Junior, Smiley’s stripling assistant, appeared in flip-flops and boxers, his shaving kit and towel in his hands. Looking sheepish, Junior motioned towards Room 202, across the hall. The shower. It was a full-service post production facility, no question about that.
“He is very clean, Señor, said Smiley. He sniffed. “Irish Spring?” Junior nodded happily:
Smiley shrugged and the boy shouldered open the shower door. Steam and welcoming cries from other…bathers?…issued forth.
Will took another slug of Dos Equis. They trudged down the hall a ways, and Smiley took the big ring of keys from his belt and swung it absently, whistling a tuneless little dirge softly. They got to the end of the hall, swung an immediate left, and stopped in front of a door without a number. Smiley knocked, cocked his head a beat as if expecting Snow White to answer, then keyed the lock and pushed the door open.
He had to push hard, cause there were film benches piled against the door. Film racks. Film rewinds. Film cores, cans, boxes and baqs. Film editing chairs on wheels and…yes...no less than fifty moviolas, stretching off into the dark recesses of the room like metal Pterodactyls. Smiley switched on the lights.
“I tell Don North we got machines,” he said. “I wonder why he don’t want to use them, but…”
Will examined the closest moviolas. They reposed at awkward angles, as if they hadn’t been touched since Cortes was a pup. They were old and old-style to boot. Small screens, take-up arms instead of cutter-type. Wheels were missing, as were sound heads and switches. This was a junkyard, nothing more; a moviola necropolis.
“These are all perfectly good Motorolas once, Maestro. You leave it to me, OK? I BUILD you the moviola of the gods.”
As if by magic, los trabadores appeared at the door. Each carried a Dos Equis, opened, and a spare. For later, which would probably be sooner. It seemed like the punchline to a joke had just been told because los trabadores were giggling like teenagers.
“Go! Go Maestro! Leave it to Smiley!” said Stover’s best new friend in Mexico.
Will squeezed past the men, wishing, in a way, that he’d never left home.
Leaving home, however, might have kept Will Stover out of prison. It had certainly kept him out of the insane asylum, or at the very least an expensive neverending psychotherapy session a deux with his nutcase wife. Anyone who tells you life is simple has never met Laura. Simultaneously he hated her, loved her, was appalled and embarrassed by her, and wanted to have her shot.
She was that sort of woman.
They had married too young and in haste. The length and breadth of the divorce was making up for that indiscretion. Stover’s lawyer was predicting the worst—California; community property state; the judge wouldn’t care if Laura made two hundred grand a year blowing the head of the studio (actually, she did it for free); Stover would be ending up in a furnished single out in the Northridge. But at least he’d be rid of his headache legally.
Four months in Mexico was just the beginning of the endgame, and Will was trying not to think about that.
It was some kind of miracle that Sir Anthony had picked him to cut UNTITLED in the first place. World class director, he could call his own shots, hire Dede Allen (BONNIE AND CLYDE, DOG DAY AFTERNOON) or Anne Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, BECKET) to cut his picture.
“Why me?” he’d asked the director over dinner back in New York the day they’d first scouted the statue.
Sir Anthony settled comfortably into his Chassagne-Montrechet, Premier Cru, some great year or another, responding in that expansive way he had:
“I always like to have an old cinematographer around, Will. A man like Lazlo will, sooner or later, serve to extract me from trouble of my own device.”
“Yes,” nodded Will, “but why a young editor?”
Essex smiled, sipped thoughtfully, memories of a dozen thousand hours in editing rooms flickering past the wine’s bouquet:
“Ah, well, that’s quite a different thing, you see. I always become friends with my editor and…”
The rest came out, resounding and—Will realized some days after the fact, when the wine wore off—definitely cautionary:
“…An editor’s job is to show me where my shit is.”
Sir Anthony Essex had never used the word since. He was not a vulgar man. His point was that important. On that particular night and on every workday occasion since.
Will had never known a more thorough filmmaker. Anthony’s prep was meticulous. His instructions to cast and crew painstaking, beautifully-considered. He’d wait out an entire morning just to get the color of the sky right. Give Deirdre the day off if she weren’t feeling well. Spend an extra fifty grand to make Jacques De Cuir’s set perfect. And after all that gruntwork—Anthony called it—he would do the damnedest thing: he’d wing it. Throw it all to chance, to the gods if you can believe that. Take after take after take. For days if necessary. Experimenting. Giving the actors their heads. Playing.
“It’s what the audience comes to see, Will. To discover. They don’t care about our sets. Our sound effects. Our music or, God help us, our ideas. They want people. Real, good, bad, scary, funny, honest. People. Let’s always keep that foremost, right?”
God, it was fun, working like this. The six weeks in New York, shooting the Coney Island sequence and the brownstone chase, had been Will Stover’s film school. But Mexico, he would soon discover, would be a lot more like Vietnam than USC.
He floated back down the hall towards Smiley’s. The day had somehow disappeared right before his eyes. Late afternoon sun slipped furtively through the casement at the end of the hall like a hungry thief. Smoke from a second meal in Smiley’s cutting room hung in the air like the end of a battle for a landing zone whose name he’d forgotten.
He keyed open the door to his cutting room. Tangled Up in Blue had been auto-rewinding all day long. His bench looked lonesome without a moviola standing in front of it. He sat heavily on the couch, a little tired, consumed in complicated thought.
There was a torrid ragged rasqueado from a guitar. Will looked up, startled, to see Smiley and a pair of peones following the guitarista, whose insanely difficult fretwork completely drowned out If You See Her, Say Hello.
The peones were wheeling a pristine moviola across the floor, as if they’d somehow just personally witnessed its immaculate conception. They stopped at Will’s bench and plugged in the machine. Smiley turned it on:
“For you, Señor,” he said proudly. “She is perfect.”
Will, a bit shaken by the intrusion and the presentation, crossed to the machine. He took a shot from the rack, a hundred-foot outtake from the last of Coney Island. He began to load up the machine. The track-side clicked reassuringly as Will closed it. He noted that the picture head moved smoothly on fresh-oiled runners. The slate SCENE 64, TAKE 18 glowed, zebra-striped in the ground glass, crisp as the noonday sun seen through an ultraviolet filter.
Smiley and the peones grinned like jungle animals recently domesticated. The guitarista sequed into some sort of Aztec fanfare. Will checked the switch positions, noting that the enameled bezels resembled obsidian mirrors, vaguely from another time. He stepped on the forward pedal.
And the machine ran backwards, tearing the picture brutally and irrevocably as it went.
Smiley sheepishly offered Will a Marboro Red. A golden Dunhill lighter appeared. Fire issued magically forth. The virgin-white cylinder flamed like a bride alone. There was a rumble of combustion, a microcosmic Popocatépetl come to life, and UNTITLED'S editor, miles from home, unhappy, realized as he inhaled the sweet, sweet poison—yes, he could quit. Anytime.
All he had to do was stop.
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers