May 1, 2019KR OnlineNonfiction

Later, in Filmmaking II

I seem now to recall thinking it would all be very easy and that I would be so favored and adored. Or admired? What was it a film director won from the hearts of his public? I had an ego. I had certain desires. I had what I thought was the right equipment for the job, and I had the right opinions on how to do the job well. I had above my dorm room’s door a sign, printed off the computer, that declared my ambitions for success by age thirty. I looked at it every time I left the room. If I wanted something bad enough, my suitemate had told me, I could will it to happen. I could manifest my future in this present.

• •

My second year of college, I lived with athletes in a tight suite of dim rooms. They were mostly boys who’d been on my floor the previous year, plus two of their friends. Three wrestlers. My roommate, Stineman, was on the baseball team. For Christmas he got a poster of Jenny McCarthy in a bikini, and I got a collector’s edition VHS of Fargo that came with a novelty license plate. Stineman hung his poster on our cinderblock wall: Jenny on all fours crawling toward us, her cleavage a long line pointing to the earth. One night I tacked the license plate right over her breasts, as though it were a wide pendant necklace she had on, and then I took a picture with my camera.

My first film project was due in two weeks. We were to find a space, indoor or out, to document cinematically. Our professor, Grace, a young woman whose long skirts billowed around her legs when she sat on our front table, hadn’t given us any restrictions on what kind of space we could film. We needed at least ten shots. The film and video nonprofit where I took my classes loaned me a Super-8 camera for the weekend in a heavy, hard-shell case the size of a hamster cage, as well as two lamps with strong alligator clips at their ends. I had on my desk two Kodak Tri-X film cartridges I bought from the humorless boys at the school’s equipment counter who wore dirty clothes and smoked.

Now that I was living in the city, I wanted to capture the rhythms of city life, which I felt were night rhythms, the city most alive when the darkening sky got warded off by its electric beacons and when its freed and hungry citizenry clamored outside in search of sex and art. I had come here to be among them. Dusks I’d stand by our one window, the drapes pulled all the way open, and look to the hills, ready to document this teeming city pulsing out to every horizon.

On shooting day I chose to film the stairwell in our dorm.

It was spooky, I’d decided. With the right shots it could be granted a certain Lynchian quality. I loaded the Tri-X into the camera and snapped it shut, screwed it onto the tripod Dad got for Christmas a few years back, and carried it across the hall. Fabiano was at the sink cutting his own hair. “Makin’ movies?” he said, shirt off and wearing just a pair of workout shorts. As he snipped, he held his thick arms over his head, as though posing for a panel of judges.

“Yup!” I said, and I darted out to the hallway.

I wasn’t comfortable around Fabiano. (I called him this, his full name, though everyone else called him Fabian.) He was one of two guys in the suite I hadn’t known the previous year. Also, he was visibly on his way to becoming a kind of man I couldn’t be. His Italian background gave his skin a golden gleam in even the harsh blue lights of our bathroom sink, where I—standing shirtless to shave—looked like a popsicle stick someone had dropped on the ground. All the boys I lived with in that suite were brash and at ease with their bodies, and when I’d moved to Pittsburgh, where I knew nobody, they were friendly to me and invited me into their group that trolled the streets for raucous house parties each Thursday, each Friday, each Saturday. I had fun with them. It was fun to drink beer in a row-house basement until one of us threw up so hard it came out his nose. It was fun to get a knock on my door at three in the morning to find Damon standing there saying, “Smell this,” and putting under my nose the two fingers he’d reportedly worked inside a girl that night at the TKE house. It was fun because it was novel. They were so unlike anybody I knew back home. I wanted to be one of them, one of the boys with haircuts and gym bodies that matched the boys I saw in movies, boys whose lives were easy and funny and formed the arc of every story ever told. I wanted to make those movies. I wanted to get behind the camera so that I could be in control. That’s what I thought I wanted.

Alone, I carried my gear to the stairwell, which was all cement and cinderblock. The walls were the off-white of cereal milk, ringed at the top with a stripe of dirty maroon, and fluorescent beams covered in corrugated plastic glared above the doors and across the landings opposite. I hoped they’d do enough to light the space; I didn’t want to have to run in from the hallway the extension cords I’d borrowed, because then I’d have to unfurl the extension cords, and I could never refurl the extension cords the precise way Grace had taught us to. Down on the landing of the fourth floor, where I didn’t know anybody, everything looked the same as on the fifth floor. I leaned my tripod against the wall and wondered what would make for a good opening shot. I formed my thumbs and forefingers into a widescreen frame and peered with one eye through it, the way I once saw Spielberg do in a photo. As soon as I settled on a shot of the railing rising up and to the right, I set up the camera and peered through the viewfinder, only to remember that the Super-8 frame wasn’t widescreen.

My stairwell looked tighter and more claustrophobic through the viewfinder, but this was nothing new. This was what happened every time I made my movies on the camcorder I’d brought from home, the one nobody used anymore now that we kids’ band concerts and field hockey games were over. What was new was the whir of the Super-8 camera, the way it kicked into furious motion the instant I pulled the trigger. It echoed off the hard walls and sounded just the way filmmaking sounded in movies, but rawer, with more of a rattle. It wasn’t Hollywood magic, exactly, it was just a man with a movie camera. Getting my ten shots, plus a few extra to fill up the cartridge, took an uninterrupted half hour.

• •

Stineman had morning classes. Whenever his alarm went off, I’d wake up, too, rolling over to face the room. Stineman was sluggish and lumbering. He slid from his lifted bed, wearing the black boxer briefs and white A-shirt he slept in, grabbed his towel, and staggered out to our shower rooms. I watched him do this every morning and tried not to fall back asleep as I waited to hear the shower turn off. I didn’t think about why I did this, or what it meant. I thought sometimes about the morality of it, but if it was a crime, I’d decided, it was a victimless one. In time, I’d hear our door open, and that was the cue for me to lift one eyelid two or three millimeters. Stineman was in the center of the room wearing only a towel. His frame was thin but broad, like a sun-bleached surfboard. From his dresser he pulled out a fresh pair of underwear and stepped into it, facing away from me. This was the moment I was waiting for. My eyelid tremored. My heartbeat picked up. The hard part was not letting my breath audibly change as he flicked open his towel and pulled his boxer briefs up to his waist, and I got a half-second flash of his ass. White and tight. Symmetrically set above his strong legs. A two-inch birthmark just above his right cheek, like a tasty morsel. I was aroused and ashamed; I’d done this just yesterday. I never gave the guy a morning alone. After he was fully dressed and out the door, I’d jerk a quick load out into the roll of toilet paper we kept by our beds, thinking of Stineman and Fabiano and Brad and Damon, and seeing in my shut-tight eyes their bodies, not with mine, or under mine, but at a distance. A long shot in three-point lighting.

• •

The weekend after my Tri-X came back as a small, white spool of raw footage, I booked time in the editing room at Pittsburgh Filmmakers with all my borrowed tools. It was cramped in there, and windowless, like the kind of tightly packed cabinets phone operators used to work in, except here it was kids in thrifted clothes peering into little filmstrip viewers the size of jewelry boxes. Dim lamps pooled warm cones of light around their narrow workspaces. It’s time, I told myself. Time for me to take my place among my peers. Editing, I’d learned from World Film History classes, was the soul of cinema, and I was ready to finally breathe life into my vision of the west stairwell of Sutherland East.

It wasn’t like in the movies. My stock was eight millimeters wide, and I had no software, no machinery I didn’t operate with a hand crank. Everything required precision and little delicate finger movements. I knew I wanted the shot where the camera traced the line of the railing down a set of stairs to cut on motion to the shot where it followed a vertical line of plumbing, so I fed the railing take into the viewer to find the precise frame to cut on, positioned the strip such that this frame and the one next to it lay on either side of the cutting line, and brought down the 1.5-inch blade to make a clean cut. Then I did the same with the standpipe take. To put them together, I laid them on the splicing doohickey, fitting the sprocket holes over the fixed bumps, and pulled out a wee striplet of scotch tape to seal the splice. The spool of tape wasn’t as wide as the Super-8 stock, but it was just as thick, and Grace had shown us how if the splice wasn’t taped just right, with clear cut sprocket holes, then our filmstrip would pop out of the projector feed and make our art shake and shimmy on the screen, and we’d get points off.

Hours later, I still hadn’t got my ten shots taped together. The air in there was steamy and breezeless. Swampcrotched, I ran what I had through the viewer, trying to keep the crank turning steadily. Aspects of stairwell appeared in murky grays. So grainy! On takes where I’d moved the camera on the tripod, the motion was stuttery, but it was motion. It was a motion picture I’d made, and suddenly here I was at the start of my fabled career in Hollywood. Or outside it, maybe. It was art I wanted to make, not entertainment. Not the sort of schlock I saw in theaters back in Herndon, back when I still wanted to be a high school English teacher, and where all I knew of film was whatever they had at Blockbuster. The plan back then had been to major in English. Maybe get a master’s. Teach kids to love books. Then Mrs. Stern suggested one day in AP Lit that Joyce’s “When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold” might be about something more pubescent than urine, and I thought, No. This is not what the book is saying to me. It felt like a slap in my face, my whole head dunked in water, but I was ready to sacrifice my future in the name of old notions. For the first time since I could talk, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know what I wanted to study. Just to think about starting that fall without a major to declare, without a plan, sent my body into fits of panic I hadn’t felt since Coach Weaver had threatened to make us boys shower after gym, so I took out the brochures from the six schools I’d already applied to and read the lists of programs. German Language and Literature? No. Renouncing the study of literature had to apply to all literatures. Could I be an art historian? Could I cut it in mathematics? Halfway down Pitt’s brochure I saw it: Film Studies.

Of course. I’d direct films when I grew up.

It had taken two seconds to decide.

Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ school/screening room complex was at the end of a long road in the deep northern depths of North Oakland, almost to the river. On screening day I walked with my reel tucked in my backpack over sidewalks busted up from root work and old plumbing, past low, brick buildings with grimed-up glass-block windows and curb-parked cars with flats and citations. Our classroom was a cold, thin space, the last down a long, dark hallway. I took my seat, and when Grace asked for volunteers I kept my mouth shut. One girl’s film of Schenley Park included two shots where she freehand swirled the frame around the trees, like Linklater did at the end of Slacker. This was the first it occurred to me that I could’ve held onto my camera, like a toy or pet. I could have had some fun with it. Another guy filmed a stairwell, too, and I panicked, but his stairwell was outside and downtown somewhere, and I told myself his film didn’t have the range of Eisensteinian montage methods that mine did. When my turn came, I got up and threaded my spool into the projector. “This is the stairwell in my building,” I said, unceremoniously, and flipped the switch. My motion picture lit up the screen at the front of our dark classroom: an open door, through which we could see the stairwell glowing with drama. The film cut to the shot of the railing and then to the shot of the plumbing, and that fluid motion I was going for was hobbled by an imprecise edit. Then a faulty splice popped the strip out of its sprocket, and the shot of looking down through all the floors, the rack-focus shot I’d been so proud of, sputtered on the screen. “Oops,” I said, and backed up the projector to get the strip reconnected. Grace gave my project an A-.

• •

Weeknights when I wasn’t reading my Urban Studies homework or practicing vocab with Brad—he and I were taking sign language, he for a requirement, I because I needed an elective—I worked on the script of a short film I was calling Folly: three vignettes of a man and a woman in various stages of falling in love. Are They The Same Man And Woman? was a question I was leaving for my biographers to answer. One vignette consisted of a single take in an elevator—I imagined it as the elevator in our dorm—of a LADY  getting on while GUY and DOLL aggressively make out in the corner. We watch LADY, a “gaudy, cheesy-looking housewife,” try not to watch them, try to keep her distance. She becomes visibly uncomfortable, and after, as the script reads, “both groan slightly as GUY’s hand starts to move down to DOLL’s breast, and then DOLL moves GUY’s hand down to her crotch,” it’s enough to scare LADY off the elevator and onto the wrong floor. The door closes, and we fade to black with the sounds of the couple’s passion continuing long enough, I hoped, for my audience to get uncomfortable.

I hadn’t figured out how to do that last bit with my camcorder. I was planning to shoot this on video because I’d written dialogue, and we didn’t get to learn sound until Filmmaking II—and even then it was asynchronous sound. I needed actors, I knew, but other than that everything would be in my hands. Until an idea came to me for the third vignette, I was focused on perfecting my middle one, where GUY and DOLL are in bed wearing very little, clearly post- coital, and little loving episodes rubberband between them, jump cut and freed from any time sequence. In one, GUY simply writes “hand” on her hand, in ink. Others had minimal dialogue.

GUY repeatedly kisses her stomach as DOLL lies there 
and looks out the window.

Is it raining?

She looks down at him, sighs and looks away.

Near the film’s middle, GUY runs a finger along the landscape of DOLL’s body and sings a little tune: “She takes a stance outside her name. She’s wondering where she will go. She will always find a group of friends.” This was from a Camper Van Beethoven song, “Folly,” which had given me my title and something of my approach. If anyone had asked, I’d tell them I wanted to create a classic, a masterwork, and this, I knew, was what classic masterworks were: a strong guy and a beautiful gal coming together. Casablanca. Chinatown. Even the nouvelle vague followed this formula; “Folly” was lifted directly from the bedroom scene in Godard’s À Bout de Souffle. If I’d learned anything in one year of course work it was that cinema was about love and youth and sex and danger. I even had Kael’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on my shelf as proof.

But I didn’t know a lot of people. To cast this picture I’d have only my suitemates to draw from, and the other athletic folks we went to parties with. I was not one of these. I was the boy my friend set her Tri-Delt sister up with on a sorority outing after she’d just been through a breakup and wanted someone “safe” who “wouldn’t try anything.” I was the boy who’d had to practice fitting in: I didn’t talk about the albums I listened to or the books I loved, and when we went out in groups I wore the right XXL T’s and flannels tucked loosely into cargo cords. But I didn’t lift, couldn’t remember the names of Steelers. I wouldn’t ever hack it in front of a camera. Elise, though, was one of the pretty people, tan with the lean legs of a long-distance runner, and dark hair that spilled over her shoulders. She was funny and daring, and three of my friends had hooked up with her. She, I decided, would be perfect for DOLL in the elevator scene, and Fabiano, also single, would be perfect for GUY. But how would I convince them to make out for two solid minutes enough times for me to get the take exactly right?

One evening during SportsCenter I told Fabiano about a friend of mine I thought he’d hit it off with, and later I told Elise about a friend of mine I thought she’d hit it off with, and I told Fabiano that, according to a drunken, laughing confession at a party last term, Elise liked balls, and I told Elise that, according to something his roommate Mischler once told me, Fabiano could suck his own dick. Magically, it worked. Elise joined us Friday night for a party we were all heading to, and soon I saw her and Fabiano from across the basement, dancing all up in each other with twin plastic cups raised in the air. The following night she slept in his room, Misch crashing on our floor. I didn’t press Fabiano for details, but one weekend afternoon, all of us playing pinochle in Brad and Damon’s room, I brought up the script I was writing and the scene I wanted to shoot. “It’s going to be funny. Over the top. I just need you and Elise to make out in the elevator for like, no more than an hour.”

Our cards were on the upturned bottom of a Rubbermaid tub, and a spent UTZ pretzel jug half-filled with chew spit sat just to my left. We all looked at Fabiano, who was looking at his hand. I was hopeful but nervous. As much as I’d liked our differences when we first met, now that we lived together, with shared bathrooms and cleaning duties, my difference was starting to get joked about. “What if Dave has, like, a massive hog?” one of them said to the room a few weeks back, and everybody laughed at the idea, so unthinkable as to be absurd. I was that guy, always bringing out his camera, the one who wanted to turn hanging out into performance art. I knew my role, here, and I was OK with it, but I couldn’t do it alone. If I could just get these guys to play along, if I could get them to do what I wanted, then I could become the man I was meant to.

Fabiano looked up from his cards. “Fuck, if she’ll do it, I’ll do it,” he said, but within a week he and Elise had split up.

• •

Grace taught us how to make credits by backlighting text printed in negative on celluloid. She taught us about gaff tape and framing and the 180-degree rule, which I already knew about from last year’s Film Analysis screening of Tokyo Story, but half my fellow students weren’t taking Filmmaking I as cocurricular credit at Pitt or Point Park College. They were here independently. I’d watch them in class; they never had notebooks on their desks. Two guys, my age, maybe a couple years older, who always arrived and left at the same time, didn’t even come with backpacks, they just sat each week and paid attention, pulling cig packs out of their flannel coat pockets whenever Grace called for a break. I imagined they could’ve gotten jobs at the equipment counter no problem. Their first projects were inventive and rule-breaking, in that one of them designed an imagined dreamspace that looked angularly on screen as though we were inside a prism. He risked all kinds of pure-black elements in the frame, whereas I was everywhere in my stairwell with the little eighteen-percent gray card they loaned me to capture proper exposure.

I’d resolved after our first screening day to do better, so when Grace announced our next project—make a film of a short poem—I thought hard about choosing something dark and impressive. My favorite poem was “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but that would require so many costumes. My other favorite was “Jabberwocky,””, which ditto. But they were such old poems, British and fussy, and as I walked up the hill of Centre Avenue to my room, the sun just having set, I looked down to my left and saw most of North Oakland lit up, and I looked down to my feet and saw the sidewalk’s concrete sparkle under the streetlamps, and I remembered I was living in a city to tell stories of the city. Then I remembered the book of poems on my desk, self- published by the singer of a band I liked, all of which were about being young in the city at night. I hurried back to my room to find the book and find the inspiration for my next film.

Instead I found six dudes watching a porno.

This happened regularly; Stineman and I had the largest TV in the suite. I was irritated, but I couldn’t get mad. I wouldn’t have known how. One swarthy freshman the size of a watercooler sat at my desk with a spit cup in his hand. “Could I uh?” I said, and he got up and crowded in with two other guys lounging on my bed. I sat down in front of my computer and pretended to work. Buried in an obscure system folder deep in the C: drive was a cache of stories I’d downloaded, stories where guys like the young athletes filling my room got drunk, then naked, then sweatfully entangled in each other’s bodies. There were JPGs in there of exotically hairy men my father’s age and JPGs of hairless Latin musclestuds. The one salient feature of the porn I looked at was that nobody could know I looked at it, whereas here in our room everybody stared at the TV together, and with no other options but to leave, I turned and joined them, watching as two women moaned into each other’s mouths while spray-tanned beefcakes humped them from behind.

Nobody was jerking off. That wasn’t what this was about.

• •

Everyone was late the night of my poem film shoot, including me. I should have done this a week ago. I needed to drop my film in the mail tomorrow if it was going to come back in time to edit before our final screening day. Again, I had just two rolls of Tri-X to get everything I needed. I’d chosen a poem titled “Bedspins,” about a drunk woman thrown into pillows, because it was the shortest poem in the book and thus would need the fewest shots. My storyboard sketched about two dozen of them, but I hadn’t had time to make a shooting plan. I knew the bulk would be filmed in Fabiano and Mischler’s room, because they had the most open floor space for me to fit my tripod and lamps, so I set up in their room and waited for Lisa, my female lead, to arrive. I needed to film her dancing in the middle of the room, a bottle of vodka in her hand, to establish that she was drunk. Brad and Misch would be in the background, sitting on Fabiano’s bed, to establish that this was a party and that they were watching Lisa get drunk. Right now, Brad and Misch were watching Springer in another room, waiting for me to call them. Mark, who lived on our floor freshman year, was on time, waiting with me, and here I was excited because Mark was actually In Theater. Mark actually Could Act. Lisa, however, was the first girl I’d asked who said yes. Now she was tardy. There were two shots of Mark alone that I could set up and film while we waited. One of them required him to reach over and turn off the stereo playing the music Lisa would be dancing to. I moved the lamps so that Fabiano’s stereo was lit, checked it with my gray card, and it looked all right, but Mark’s face in frame was too dark. I moved the lamps and changed my f-stop, but then the stereo was indistinct. I settled somewhere in between, pulled the trigger of the Super-8 camera, and said, “OK, action.”

Mark steps into the frame. He’s looking at something just off screen to the right and then reaches to turn off the stereo.

“Cut,” I said.

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s the shot,” I said. “But can you look angrier? Or more upset maybe? Here’s your motivation: you’re seeing your girlfriend drunk and dancing for a bunch of random dudes, and you don’t like it one bit.”

“It’s just weird because there’s nobody there,” Mark said. He told me how live theater was different, how so much of acting was reacting, how it would help him if I filmed the whole scene from the different angles I needed, and then cut it all together.

Like I had the time for that. Or the money.

The troubles continued once Lisa finally arrived. Lisa lived upstairs in a suite with other girls we walked to parties with. She was usually the last to leave a party, and this had led me to think she’d be outgoing and easy to direct. Her hair that night looked good, hanging just above her shoulders, and she had the usual makeup she wore, but though I’d told her to dress like she was going out, she came with a sweatshirt and jeans on. I insisted she go back up to her room and change. Meanwhile, Brad and Misch were both completely incapable of making their faces look excited and aroused. “There’s like a really hot chick right there,” I said, “and she’s dancing alone and you’re totally into it. Like this.” I mimed for them, bugging out my eyes like a wolf in a cartoon. We tried it again. Then Lisa came back in the same jeans but a tank top this time, and I gave her the empty vodka bottle I’d fished out of Brad’s trash and told her I just needed her to dance. I yelled “Action,” and she wiggled her hips like a toddler for three seconds, then stopped and looked at the camera.

“Like that?” she said.

I took my finger off the trigger. “Cut,” I said.

I explained that I needed at least ten to fifteen seconds of footage to intercut the shot of the guys watching her. “I’ll tell you when to stop,” I said, “and don’t look at the camera.”

“I feel stupid,” she said. “Can I at least get some music?”

I looked through Fabiano’s stack of CDs, but none of them was matched to the right case, and the only one I could find to put on was License to Ill.

I yelled “Action” above the music, and Lisa gave me about eight seconds of hip-wiggling before she looked at the camera again.

“OK,” I said. “Cut. Let’s set up in the next room.”

The next room was my room, the room I shared with Stineman. Here was where the bulk of the poem took place, where Lisa was to be thrown into a bunch of pillows I’d gathered and piled on the floor. As Mark began to have sex with her, she’d stamp her foot on the floor “to keep the world / from spinning away from her / like a troubled childhood.” For the scene to be realistic, I decided that Lisa had to have her shirt off. My storyboard included a shot of Mark pulling his shirt over his head and approaching her, bare-chested. I shot that first. Mark was quiet and compliant, and his back was broad and fuzzy and almost filled the frame. Now he was supposed to lie down over Lisa, who was lying on the pillows, and work his way, kissing, down her body as the camera panned to her stamping foot. That was my final shot, the only one where the camera moved, and it was critical that Lisa not be wearing her shirt.

“I’m not going topless,” she said. “That wasn’t the deal.” “It’s not topless,” I said. “You’ll be in your bra.”

I’d watched thousands of sex scenes on TV. This was the convention.

“I don’t want to do it,” she said. Mark was off in the corner, still shirtless, staying out of it. Lisa asked if she could just go home, or if we could do it with her shirt on, or if Mark’s body could just block her body in such a way that it was clear that she was only in her bra but that we couldn’t actually see—

Just take your shirt off,” I yelled. Then I quieted down. “It’s just, this is the way I wrote it.”

Lisa looked at the floor.

“I promise you it’ll look good.”

• •

Later, in Filmmaking II, my final project will be a neo-noir about leggy girls with long hair and knee-high boots who use the city’s network of payphones to operate a drug cartel. It’ll steal shots from The Graduate and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and I’ll call it Belle Atlantique.  My new girlfriend will do all the offscreen voice-over work.

• •

I broke my promise to Lisa, I saw, days later in the editing room. The shot of her in her bra was underexposed—as was most of the film, the lamps I’d rented too dim to light our rooms—and because the workings of Dad’s plastic tripod were so tight, the camera pan following Mark’s head down her body was creaky and jumpy. I decided this better replicated the anxiety and danger of the moment. On screening day I got another A-.

At the end of class Grace sat again on the front table and told us all she was no longer going by Grace. “That’s not my name,” she said. “My real name is Wenhwa, and that’s what I’d like you to call me from now on.” She wrote it on the board, and I wrote it in my notebook, wondering what it had taken her to make this choice. In her eyes was a kind of fire I hadn’t seen before.

That night I lay in my bed in the dark. We had the window open a crack to let a breeze through, air out the suite’s funk, but I was under a blanket my folks bought at Caldor and an afghan my grandmother crocheted, my limbs held tight against me. I couldn’t sleep because I had so much to imagine. What if I were to remake Star Wars but cast all my friends in the roles; who would play whom? What if I wrote a movie about four aging gangster brothers, could I cast all the Baldwins? Could I someday do for Dustin Diamond’s career what Tarantino did for Travolta’s? Who would I ever take to the Oscars? From Stineman’s bed I heard the snap of an elastic waistband on skin. Was he playing with himself? I couldn’t imagine joining him. Next semester I’d be in a screenwriting class, and I already had the basis for the feature I’d write. It was about a guy named Carl, a former high-school athlete, who moves into a trailer park he inherits from a recently deceased uncle and falls in love with the groundskeeper’s daughter. I didn’t know what else was going to happen, but I knew I wanted a scene where Carl is watching TV. He can’t find anything on, so he starts flipping through the channels, commercial after commercial, soap opera, SportsCenter, Star Search, and even though different people on each channel are saying different things, what they say strings clearly together into a message, one just for Carl. I didn’t know what they’d say yet, but I knew it’d be important. It’d be just the thing he needs to hear to fix what’s wrong with his life.

Photo of Dave Madden
Dave Madden is the author of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There and The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. He has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the MacDowell Colony, and he currently directs the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.