A wannabe filmmaker who once showed promise now finds himself failing and flailing. 2,109 words. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jumping was a stupid idea, but it was only one of many stupid ideas that lately he had begun to seriously consider. Max stopped at the edge of the palisades of Santa Monica on a bluff overlooking the beach. A crumbling split rail fence — the top rail gone — stood between him and a drop of some 300 feet. The afternoon was warm and a mild salt breeze came off the ocean, the water glinting like the reflection of a million tiny mirrors. It was the kind of Los Angeles afternoon that made people believe they could do anything, live forever, stay forever young.
There was some quality in the light that touched him. He had seen it before in the films of the masters — Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini — his idols that no one appreciated now. All of them captured that quality. He tried to resist the impulse to lift both hands, thumb and forefingers spread, to frame a shot, but he couldn’t. He surveyed the ocean through the matte imposed by his outstretched fingers, and understanding came: the light had the quality of flawless diffusion, filtered by clouds and smog. It didn’t so much illuminate as caress its subjects, letting them stand out against the background.
Max pictured the opening. Glittering ocean, boats with sails billowed, skidding over the quicksilver surface. The camera begins an endless pan, inching left to right, faultless composition, brilliant framing. That rare combination that together produces Art.
Kael would say, "A genius with the lens."
From Denby, "He moves his actors like chess pieces."
Canby: "He achieves a new American sensibility."
The truth was sunset has always been his passion, the moment before the world plunged into darkness. And those reviewers? They were all dead now. Well, Denby wasn’t, but he might as well be.
He nudged a clump of dirt off his scuffed shoe that had seen but one or two shines in the five years he had owned it. He was barely scraping by in a rent-controlled apartment, barely making a living by reading other people’s scripts and giving his comments. "Story Analyst" was the fancy title; "Reader," the industry pejorative. Dog-work paid by the page, wading through the often semi-literate efforts of so-called writers who could hardly string four words together into a sentence. Always someone else’s work, never his own. Any idiot could do the job, and many did.
Max was a genius with the lens or he had been a long time ago in college. He could achieve a new American sensibility, if he ever had the chance.
He shivered and glanced over the edge. Far below, he saw traffic on the coast highway zooming along. There was something attractive about leaning over the cliff, some force drew him. He had only to lean a little further, just a little further. The ground rushed up, his head swam, he was terribly dizzy. He felt himself falling, saw the surprised look on the faces of the drivers as his body splayed out on a car hood, bending the sheet metal under his 175 pounds. The camera would capture it all with an aerial shot from a helicopter hovering over the highway.
He leaned further and felt his balance shift precariously. He had another rush of vertigo. Then he straightened up and leaned back, feeling better immediately.
Jumping was a stupid idea.
Max stepped backward a pace, shuffling as if the ground had waves. He banged into a tree, wrapped his arms around the trunk, clutching the bole for support. Leaves from an overhanging branch brushed his face and he swiped at them.
He was six feet even, with a slim build, a shock of brown hair, and what was a called a "lantern" jaw. That jaw protruded now and the mandibular joint — the hinge where jaw joined skull — hurt him.
"Tension," was his doctor’s diagnosis, and that will be $50 for the office visit, another $50 for the tests that proved nothing, thank you very much. This was the same doctor who treated Max for a variety of illnesses — loss of appetite, inability to sleep, headaches, general lethargy. Some of them were real, most imagined.
"You’re not losing your mind, Max, you simply have too much on it. And when are you planning on paying my next installment?"
The doctor found evidence of nocturnal teeth-grinding which he attributed to this tension. Certainly there was cause: calls from collectors, from the IRS, from worried family. Max received a dunning letter from the doctor only that morning. He’d have to find a new internist right away.
Max glanced out to sea. The light had changed. The sea and the boats and the beach appeared dull, almost out of focus. Now he peered through air which had grown thick, stacked in layers of gradient brown, darkest at the bottom. There was no perfection here, just smog, and clouds the color of dry leaves.
Far off he could barely make out the boats, tiny in the distance. They tacked off the coast, unrestrained, following only the dictates of the wind. Max had come to Los Angeles fresh from graduate school, with a vision, eager to make his mark, to record that vision in celluloid for all to share. Things didn’t quite turn out. His vision was twenty years old now and in the smog filtered sun, it wavered in the background. Max turned his head away and saw a retirement home, the porch filled with old people rocking or simply staring off into space. When he turned back, he too, stared off into space.
In the beginning, Max had possessed the energy and the stamina to face what appeared like an endless stream of rejection. Every day he woke at seven a.m. and threw on his running clothes. With great enthusiasm and controlled breathing, he did three miles at a good clip around the neighborhood. Back at home, he brewed a pot of coffee through the dripper in the part of the studio apartment he called "the kitchen"; it was but a couple of shelves and a hotplate. After that he settled in for a morning of phone calls, the coffee eventually going cold by his side. He followed up the calls with letters, carefully crafted.
Max received his mail at noon every day. "Keep plugging," the mailman told him. "I was in the Business once. It just takes time."
Max never asked what part of the Business. He simply took the advice. Keep plugging. Max wrote the words on a slip of paper over his mirror and referred to them every morning as he brushed his teeth, every night as he prepared for bed.
He went through the mail, the rejection notes he pulled out and diligently filed. The notebook containing the letters and corresponding rejections grew to the point where he could not close it, the binder creaked in protest and refused to lay shut. The first was joined by a second, then a third, and even a fourth.
In the afternoons, Max read the classics and wrote feature screenplays. Evenings, he did typing at an entertainment law firm somewhere downtown where in the dark all the buildings looked the same. There were many well-known names on the contracts he typed — actors, directors — but the non-disclosure agreement he had signed prevented him from talking about them.
On the weekends, he saw movies; his favorites were the foreign films. He saw them alone. He preferred it that way. He wanted no distractions as he watched closely, taking notes, marking down special shots. Learning. Absorbing.
There was little time for anyone else in Max’s life, save for his dreams. Those dreams gave him a kind of inner luminescence, directing a glow to his eyes that made him attractive to women.
"Can you read this," a tall blonde asked him one night at the supermarket. She had shoulder-length hair, a small chest, and tight gray sweats that were absolutely smooth down the back. She smiled at him, offering a package. "This," she said again. "I left my glasses at home."
He was pushing a cart along, not really watching. Occasionally he plucked something from the shelf and threw it into the wire basket. He released his cart and came to her side. "Corn Flakes," he told her, turning immediately to his cart.
The blonde was unwilling to release him so fast. "You’re Max Gindi, aren’t you?" she said quickly.
"Yes. How did you know that?"
"We work for the same law firm. I work days. I see you if I put in overtime."
Max nodded but said nothing. He started to walk away.
"I’m Julie. Julie King." She put out her hand. Again, Max stepped from his cart and shook. "How about dinner, Max," she said hesitantly. "It doesn’t have to be tonight. Anytime you’d like."
Max held onto her number but it somehow got mixed up in the many documents in his apartment. He might have used it as a bookmark and forgotten. He did see her again at the law firm where she repeated her invitation. "Some other time," Max always told her.
She stopped asking, put off, perhaps, by that inner light which she might have recognized as the fire of the zealot. Max ran into her at the office Christmas party which he attended with great reluctance. It interrupted his schedule. Julie cornered him in one of the offices.
"So, Max, how’s everything?" she slurred. She held a glass by her side and an amber liquid slopped out. She brought the plastic to her lips and licked its side, her pink tongue flicking out. She giggled.
"Everything’s fine," Max told her. He glanced at his watch and saw that he could leave in another quarter hour. There was a Godard festival at a theater not far from his house which he hoped to take in.
"Am I keeping you from something?" Julie demanded.
"Well," Max said.
"How come we never went out? Huh? What’s wrong with me? I wanted you. Didn’t you know?"
"There’s nothing wrong with you."
She slipped against the desk turning on the switch to a small desk lamp. Max thought she looked sinister in the brief glow. He imagined a shot from a low angle. He imagined her with a weapon, the camera following the arc of her arm as she raised it. Very noir!
"Then what’s the matter with you? Did you need an invitation? You must be gay or something. Is that it?" She laughed but it sounded more like a small cry. "Are you gay, Max?"
"You’ve had a lot to drink."
"I’m just busy, not gay. Things to do. I want to direct, you know."
"Oh, is that it? So how’s it coming? What have you directed already?"
She had him there. He was trying to figure what he could say to mollify her enough for him to leave the office. He took another glance at his watch.
"Stop looking at your watch."
"I could call you," he said.
"No you won’t. I think you’re gay."
If it took her thinking that to let him get away, then he was fine with it. There were plenty of law firms that needed typists, and Max found another one which had the advantage of being closer to his apartment.
Max kept to his routine. Women made advances: at the theater, in line at the bookstore, at the supermarket. Men too. Max, in what he thought was his politest manner, turned them away. He had to stay focused. There would be opportunity for relationships afterward.
Sometimes Max would make 60 phone calls a day. More often than not he got the same answer, only the voices changed.
"No." "No." "Don’t call us again." "I don’t have time to speak to you. What do you think, I’ve got nothing else to do than talk to you?" "No." "No." "We get a thousand calls a day from people like you." "No." "No."
The plastic of his landline grew heavy in his hand and the receiver slipped in his sweaty palm. His ear ached from pressing too hard. Sometimes they wouldn’t even say no. They’d hear his pitch and hang up. Max began to wonder if there was someone spreading rumors about him that made finding work this difficult. But he never despaired or gave up hope. It was simply a matter of time and timing. He had the background, he had the intellect. Time and timing that was all.
KEEP PLUGGING he wrote on another slip of paper, pinning it beside the door to the apartment.