Chapter Four of Below the Line a saga that begins with a prologue—a little life, interrupted
Will the sun shine, will it dawn?
How will the people move, how will they stand?
For they have gone away, they have carried off
the black and red ink, the painted books.
How will the people exist?
How will the earth continue, the city?
How will there be stability?
Who is it that will govern us?
Who is it that will guide us?
Who is it that will show us the way?
What will be our standard?
What will be our measure?
What will be our pattern?
From where should we begin?
What will be our torch, our light?
________________Códice Matritense de la Real Academia, fol. 192 v.
They were fighting a war
and they didn't have a battlefield
Sir Anthony Essex was vaguely amused. The situation would have claimed all of his considerable good humour but for the fact he wanted to finish his crossword before they landed: Sunday London Times; ten letter word for "passive resistance." Elementary. Editors loosing their touch?
He entered "SATYAGRAHA" carefully, neatly, in ink. Large capital letters, the Mount Blanc fountain pen he had carried for forty years. Sanskrit. Beautiful language. All ohs and ahs. Devised by the ancients to affect both body and mind when spoken. Language of mystics; lovers and poets.
"Would you care for another drink Sir Anthony?" The stewardess was Aragonese, from Zaragoza she said. Dark and tall beauty. Blue eyes. Amethystine; from the Greek amethustos—not drunken, the stone supposed to prevent intoxication. Utterly charming girl. Married. Many of them are these days. Airline doesn't mind. Strange we call it 'getting stoned.' Ironic language. Ironic life.
"Yes. The same, thanks ever."
Sir Anthony gazed fondly over collapsible half-reading glasses as the girl smiled, curtsied, and returned to her station at the rear of the forward cabin. Rather a young Elizabeth Taylor, though much taller. Aragonese disco I.B. Elizabeth. It was the eyes, really. Elizabeth hadn't been that svelte since they'd worked together.
He set the crossword aside. There were two or three hours still. Removing the glasses, folding them—thrice—at the midpoint of the bows and nose additionally, finding his jacket on the seat next to him, placing the glasses in the breast pocket, Sir Anthony turned to the window and gazed thoughtfully below.
Such a large grand imposing country, this. Rich in oil; rich in both base and precious metals; unbelievably rich in human resources; yet we term it 'Third World.' History. Politics. There but for fortune....
Sir Anthony Essex was farther past sixty than he'd care to admit, though it was only the salt-white hair that made you think about it. His eyes looked young. They were gray, the color of gloves diplomats wear for an armistice. His face was deeply-tanned and more like what a mystery writer would call 'craggy' than lined. Such a tan—he would tell you over drinks in the lobby—could only be attained through a life of creative leisure. This, paradoxically, he had had to work for.
He was from money, but not enough. He had been lucky in business, but only modestly. He had come up through the ranks of the British Film Industry during its most productive and creative period, after the war, and in the early days he had made as many as four pictures a year. Such an output now, of course, was impossible. And not only because he was older and more particular either. The fact was, the business had changed. One spent more time tap-dancing on studio desks than directing motion pictures. This was lamentable, but it had resulted in a year-round suntan for the man who was arguably the world's greatest action director.
Sir Anthony held little esteem for superlatives, especially when they were hurled haphazardly in his direction by studio flacks and third-rate journalists. The fact of the matter was: he had an affinity for working with large groups of people on grand and difficult undertakings which consumed a good deal of time and money and resulted in, mostly, little more than a smile in the dark. It was a small but lucrative talent. Anyone who made it out to be anything more was a fool, and Sir Anthony did not suffer fools.
He had agreed to do UNTITLED because he recognized it, quite simply, as Money in the Bank. The picture had been done, what, perhaps a dozen times before and it had always worked. Upon analysis, one could see that it always would work, because it probed basic human questions and emotions. The rest was all style. Sir Anthony believed in style. In theatre, style was the only original thing; all else went back to shadows on the caveman's wall.
What they were doing, basically, was For Whom the Bell Tolls in 22nd century drag. Young freedom fighter, idealistic, tired of the war raging back and forth across America for two decades, is sent to sabotage the Statue of Liberty, headquarters for the evil Republican Army. The topography of the harbor has been changed, significantly, to reflect the sort of all-out destruction which would result from what is—effectively—a Second Civil War.
It wasn't the story or the dramaturgy that kept Sir Anthony up at night, every night, for what has now been—since they were near to shooting—three months. The script was, as its gifted energetic young author had declared on the day they'd met, "lean, mean, and terrific." It ought to be, since he'd plagiarized most of it from Hemingway anyhow. But look what the lad was asking him to do: first, Manhattan doesn't exist. The city has been destroyed, utterly. This required a year's worth of matte paintings and seventy-some odd sets. They had filled every stage at Chiliverde with interiors and built forty acres of city streets full of twisted rubble on the back lot and in the hills above the District Federal.
At one point, early on, Anthony had suggested that since the boy, Robert, was approaching the city from the west, fighting his way through two divisions of tanks and assorted tactical weaponry, wouldn't it make more sense to merely see the city from New Jersey, in long shot—a simple matte painting—rather than traipse up and down her ravaged boulevards?
That would never do, he was told, since the war would never be perceived as total. Blowing up the Statue of Liberty, wasn't that indicative of total war? 'That's the irony!' cried the author. 'He has to blow up the symbol of freedom to obtain the possibility of the reality of freedom!'
Well. A decidedly bleak proposition. And an expensive one. Creating a devastated New York City was fully one-half of the budget. Along with the cost of fielding two armies, which in Anthony's opinion was movie enough for anybody, Jacques De Cuir's Second Civil War sets had made it unthinkable to shoot in the United States. The film would have come in at a hundred million dollars, easily. Below the line. Unthinkable.
"Here you are, Sir Anthony," said the stewardess, refreshingly. "Scotch, neat."
"Ah, bless you dear!"
"Will you be staying long this time, sir?" she asked. They had made this flight together ten or twelve times now in the last year. Air Iberia was convenient, a thirty minute flight from Mallorca to the capital and direct to Mexico City. Much easier than going through London, which he had done on occasion when he had business there and which he did not enjoy.
"Yes, I'm afraid this is rather the beginning of the end of it. We shall shoot for four months here and then I'm to Los Angeles for the editing." He sipped the smoky warming liquid.
"It is thrilling to be filming after all this time?"
"One might call it thrilling, I suppose, though the effect is more akin to heartburn than it is to ecstasy."
The girl blushed. She was, after all, a very pretty young girl from a very Catholic old country.
"This is excellent, my dear." said the director, enjoying his whiskey. He was reflecting on why such a young woman should be a stewardess in First Class on a trans-oceanic flight. Usually, on Pan Am or Try Walking Across for example, they were biddies near their deathbeds, all starched hair and tired mien, the most senior of the airline's seniors. It was a puzzlement.
He latched upon a very contemporary approach to selling fares: Air Iberia, the Beautiful Young Airline. Handsome pilots, culled from the creme of the military. Gorgeous stews, snatched from fashion plates. Designer uniforms...No...they'd tried that, years ago. Some Texan had even had Alexander Calder paint his airplanes. Still...damned refreshing to see a pretty face at the end of an eighteen hour flight.
A pretty face...what a pain it had been, casting Deirdre. She had always been his first choice for The Girl, but he'd had to engineer an elaborate ruse, lest the studio think he hadn't done his best for their picture.
They had thrown every blonde from Malibu to Manhattan at him. The picture, it seemed, had to have something they called HEAT. The Girl had to have a body, since there were nude scenes. She needed to be instantly recognizable from a billboard. If she sang it could be helpful, since the videos could feature her.
The videos! The vision of some teenager in leopard skin shimmying up the arm of the Statue of Liberty had crossed his mind briefly one night when he'd tuned into that horrid Em Tee Vee station accidentally. He had almost pulled out of the production the next day, since they were also giving him problems about Jeff Brock as Robert. They wanted to use some rock and roll cretin, whom he was sure was a perfectly nice-enough lad, but who couldn't act his way out of the proverbial air-sickness bag. Again, it was the Videos! With this caterwauler, they could sell records! It was appalling.
Of course, he had casting approval contractually. There was nothing they could have done had he approached it unilaterally. But it would have been a battle, and Anthony Essex, who never fought a battle he couldn't win, would far prefer not to fight at all. That's why God had made Producers.
Sir Anthony smiled at the memory of Gerry Gold auditioning two hundred girls in bikini bathing suits. Gerry had been so busy "casting" he'd missed half a dozen essential preparatory meetings and therefore allowed Jacques and Anthony and Laszlo to actually go about the business of readying this "lean, mean, and terrific" script for shooting.
Gerry reminded him rather of a small ill-trained dog, a lap-dog say, a pomeranian for instance, or a miniature poodle. You would give him a simple task and the poor little animal would wear himself to a frazzle going about the job. It was, for Anthony, an extremely endearing trait, for it was the thing that would allow him to get this picture shot expeditiously. He had lots of plans for Mr. Gold. He would one day buy him a rhinestone collar as a memento of their time together. And perhaps a bowl of cream for him to piss in, since that was what the man did best.
The Americans had a naughty way of putting it: he or she could "fuck up a wet dream." When Sir Anthony's old school chum, Jimmy Johnston, had heard that Essex was doing a picture with Gerry Gold he'd said, right on the money as it turned out: "Oh yes. Gerry Gold. Stupidest white man in the world." Jimmy had since put three million pounds in UNTITLED. Show business. The business there's no business like.
Even though the studio had thought, deep down inside its best and worst-case scenarios, that maybe—just maybe—they had a hit in the making, the money men couldn't resist hedging their bet. It was a bit more than the difference between the paper budget and the real budget, you'll note, but they had Gerry covered like Custer at Little Big Horn, and he was going to go out there, miniature terrier that he was, to the wilds of Mexico and try to pare the budget even further. It was a delight; the height of conceit.
In three days it would be the New Year. With luck and effort, he would make this picture and another, and perhaps yet another before Terminal Black-Ass caught up with him. Black-Ass... Sir Anthony smiled. Thirty years ago he hadn't known the meaning of the word...
The plane had ended its flirtation with the crescent gulf coast of Mexico. They were south of Veracruz. Anthony Essex was remembering the albergue near Logrono on the road from Burgos to Madrid. It would have been '54. The year of his second location picture and his first cinematic disaster. He had been pissed to the eyeballs.
"You know," he could hear himself saying to his two Assistant Directors who'd had the good sense to temper their intake, "this is where Fiesta took place. Wouldn't it be a scream if old Hemingway was in here having a drink?"
As life will imitate art, badly and with an amateur's sense of irony, the voice boomed from the crowd, unmistakably gleeful at this opportunity:
"What will you have, gentlemen?" Papa. In the flesh. Grinning ear to ear. You could have knocked the First A.D. over with a dustjacket. For his own part, Anthony ordered more of the same, without, he was proud to say, missing a beat.
Ernest bore little resemblance to the famous photos. He was still recovering from his African plane crash. His beard was spotty, his shoulders hunched. He wore moccasins and steel-rimmed glasses and his eyes were jaundiced. But he was in the mood for merriment. He and his companion were Madrid-bound, for the fería.
Sir Anthony turned to search out the stewardess. He fancied another Scotch. He had switched from Scotch to absinthe the night he met Ernest. They had just wrapped that infernal picture—five weeks in Logrono, which is not nearly close enough to Madrid—and it seemed now that he must have been trying to forget. He had the Black-Ass and he hadn't even known it.
An American came up to them that night, shortly after Hemingway had poured drinks all round. The man was lugging a new 16mm Bell and Howell and he made a pest of himself, asking Ernest and Anthony and the AD's to pose for him. The Second noted there wasn't enough light for movies, but that seemed to deter the fellow not a whit.
Hemingway was angered, but he kept it in amusingly check. He started in on the Yank's wardrobe:
"I say, new-friend Anthony, is that not the most sensational jacket you've ever seen? Where'd you get such an item, mate?"
The American was flustered at first, but soon he was preening like a peacock while Ernest went on and on about that damned jacket. Yank never did get his movies.
"Jacket made by Johnson and Johnson from reject Bandaids," said Hemingway after the man rejoined his party. "Un otra vez, señor," to the barkeep and turning back to the director: "Just made a film? Any good?"
Anthony confessed that he thought not, and Ernest had been remarkably sympathetic, considering his own problems at the time. Then, also, he was no stranger to bad movies:
"Mucked up mine. Still, don't blame Hollywood. Liked Hollywood. For a long weekend. Owe the whore a great deal, and not just money."
It took six days in the summer of 1954 for Ernest Hemingway to teach Anthony Essex to hate bullfights. Anthony was forever gratified to have known the writer, and they corresponded from time to time, feverishly when it appeared that Anthony might direct The Old Man and The Sea, but bugger bullfighting—it was a wretched sport.
Sport was the wrong word, he knew. It was less a sport than an Affirmation of Courage. And it was not the matador's courage, per se, that had the customers turning handstands, but rather that of the bull. If the bull fought well, and clung to its life tenaciously, then it had the honour of being dismembered and handed out to favoured fellows in the audience. It was practically a metaphor for the film business.
Anthony couldn't see it. In the beginning, during the first day or two, in the flush of wine-soaked lunches off the Plaza Santa Ana at the Cervecería Alemana, he had at least had the elements of novelty and gaiety on his side. After all, Ernest and the matadors and the impresarios were full of what Ernest called alegría, a zest for life that cannot be killed. And the pageantry of the corrida, the size and scent of the crowd, the colors, the choreography, the timelessness of the procession, these things interested him; it was theatre, after all, and theatre was his first love. But what came after, the 'death in the afternoon,' was for the director simply butchery.
At the time, being a young man, Anthony had wished there were some way his abhorrence for the corrida might be made less consequential, that he might therefore be counted as one of Ernest's true pals, part of a truly "good fería mob." But that was not to be.
The girl came with the Scotch. Anthony was remembering Ernest discoursing passionately on the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls. They were in the restaurant of the Hotel Victoria, Anthony's modest digs and a hangout for the lesser matadors, at a good table overlooking the Plaza. It was the day before the Festival of San Isidro. The weather was dreadful. Leaden rain-soaked clouds hung over the Teatro Nacional, where Lope de Vega's last play was being performed. Anthony was lucky to get the room. The play was sold out. Ernest, of course, was staying at the Plaza, within crawling distance of the Prado.
"Must've had Hayes himself on the set the day they shot the love scene," he was saying, in reference to the Film Censorship Office at the time. "Boy makes love to girl in sleeping bag, doesn't know if he'll live or die in the morning, doesn't care for that matter, and he never takes off his jacket! Hell of a way to make love!"
"It's directing, Ernest," Anthony had said. "There's a way to stage it so you don't care if he's wearing a jacket or a feather boa. It's the art of misdirection, actually. One must put the audience's eye where it should be, rather than where it'd like to be."
Anthony removed a hundred pesetas from his pocket. He held the coin in his left hand for the writer to see, then slapped both hands quickly to the table. He cocked his head, waiting for the older man to make a choice. Of course, the trick was, the coin would be under the right hand. But Ernest hadn't seen the exchange. He pointed, resignedly, to the left, which Anthony lifted to reveal: nothing. The coin had migrated. An elementary display, but it illustrated Anthony's point:
"We're magicians, is all. Use machines and misdirect you. Editing. Rhythm. Special effects."
Hemingway squinted at him with those poor old yellow eyes like a sick lion's. It occurred to Anthony that a matador had need for much the same skill, misdirecting the bull into giving up his life. Ernest reached behind Anthony's left ear, producing a rabbit's foot that had seen better days. He held it, suspended gently on its chain above the table between them, then drew it slowly to his cheek. He stroked a bare spot, a place where his beard had not yet grown back in, and then finally he said:
"So how'd you do it son, they gave you the chance?"
Anthony was four-fifths pissed, but he could see that boy and girl in that sleeping bag as if he were there.
"Movie acting is all eyes," he enthused. "You get the eyes right, you've got em."
"Remember, the ground is covered in snow, though it's stopped falling." Ernest closed his eyes. "The moon and stars will reflect off that snow; there's a natural fill light, we call it, so we don't have to use so many lamps that we think we're on stage at the Follies Bergere. We place Robert on his back, and he's got the mantle pulled up to here, and the point is, we never see him take off his coat at all. We can cut back inside the cave, where the girl is trying to leave the others in the first place, to be with him, and they won't go to sleep, and she's in agony and he's in agony."
He looked at Hemingway, who still had his eyes closed. "I mean that's what the scene's about, isn't it? Don't you go on about how it doesn't matter whether she waits for Pilar and the others to go to bed or not?"
Ernest nodded, massaging the cleft above his nose that had seemed to deepen perceptibly as they sat there.
"This could be their last night on this earth and what the devil do society or morality mean when you're a man and she's a woman and the stars are out after a storm?"
"Bugger, Ernest, one's got to stage the reality! They spent so much time on that bridge and the action that they forgot the humanity of the piece. Don't get me wrong," he hastened to add, "I really want to direct action. I think it's what the cinema does best, but all the action in the world isn't going to bring tears to an audience's eyes, and you can put that in the bank!"
Hemingway nodded again, sipped at his Scotch thoughtfully, and turned towards the Plaza Santa Ana. It was raining. Bad sign for the fería. It was apparent that he wanted to let it go, the memory of making the book and then watching others tear pieces of it away when the film was shot. But Anthony couldn't let it be. In those days he was still impetuous:
"And by the way, I love her, but I think Ingrid Bergman was all wrong for Maria."
"Young Mr. Essex," said Ernest Hemingway who was turning uncharacteristically maudlin now, from too much booze and too much life, "promise me, when you've made your success in life and you have the chance to finally Do Things Your Way And All The Others Be Damned, promise me that you will remember our afternoon here in your Hotel Victoria, in this City of Ferdinand and Isabel, and that I told you that I think you will go very far in your business of shadows and light."
He pressed the sad old rabbit's foot into the director's hand. Anthony felt immediately the sharpness of the claws, which were predominant because the fur had all but worn away.
"Keep this for fortuna. And don't worry about losin' it, there's plenty rabbits in the world."
Anthony smiled and held out his hand in promise. Hemingway took it, but there was nothing like the power in his grip that Anthony would have hoped. There was none of the hunter, nor of the soldier. Madrid, Spring of '54, was the beginning of the writer's sad, six year decline, the start of the Blackest of Black-Ass times.
Anthony had the Black-Ass for the rest of that year. The editing of Sands of Time had gone abominably. The studio wouldn't let him shoot pickups that he should have gotten first time around but couldn't because of the weather. After five months of scimitars and the perfumed robes of Hays-era Moorish mistresses littering the cutting room, the film was released—one might say it escaped—and Anthony swore he'd never do another costume drama.
Anthony Essex was a stubborn man who did not suffer life's lessons lightly. But he'd worn out the pockets of a hundred trousers with that goddamned rabbit's foot, and he wondered if his life would have been different if Ernest had pulled a small smooth horse chestnut out of his ear.
Twelve letters for 'artful, insidious.' Sir Anthony Essex allowed himself a small smile and inked in the word 'MACHIAVELIAN.'
The litany of landing had begun. No need to check his seatbelt, because he always wore it. The stewardess on the P.A. had a heavy Castillian accent. Anthony took a deep breath as the airplane slipped beneath the inversion layer that had developed over District Federal in accord with the rising temperature.
The time of preparation was ended. He and his rabbit's foot were about to go to war, providing, of course, that Ana Maria had found a battlefield. For ninety-six days he would be operating on instinct and experience. When the shooting started, the thoughtful businessman he had been must step aside to allow the artist room to act. Emotions. Reflex. Subtlety. Chance. These were his allies. The luxury of thought he would leave to the others, his A.D.'s and his cameraman and his editor and his stunt coordinator. Gerry Gold would be trying to think too, but his brain was muscle-bound and Anthony knew he could not rely on him.
The co-pilot made a poor landing and Anthony's stomach lurched with the aircraft. They used up all of the three-mile runway slowing down, and as the jet hove itself back towards the terminal, Anthony was fighting the Black-Ass still.
Perhaps UNTITLED should be his last film after all.
Past — Future
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