Two actors meet in a bar and discuss a Hollywood Boulevard performance noone has seen. Not yet. 2,321 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I was working the afternoon shift in a dark empty bar called 8½ Monkeys. The owner thought the name would appeal to cult movie fans, but he’d been wrong about that. It was the start of happy hour, though looking around at the thin skim of customers hiding from the sunlight, it didn’t seem that anybody was planning to get happy anytime soon. Least of all me.
The bar was at the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard right before it meets up with Sunset, and there’d been a phase in my life when I’d thought that sounded very glamorous. But that was a long time ago. I’d come to L.A. a good few years back, as a bartender who wanted to be an actor, but now after all the usual auditions, rejections, bit parts, disappointments and rip-offs, I reckoned I was probably just a bartender.
Some people sit alone in bars because they don’t want to talk to anybody. Some people sit alone in bars because they do. As a bartender you have to be able to cope with either. The guy sitting on the stool across the bar from me me was obviously a talker. I could sense that long before he opened his mouth.
He looked like he might once have been a somebody. He was just about middle aged, greying elegantly, and good looking in an out-of-fashion TV cop show kind of way. Maybe one of those guys who’d been the best-looking boy in his small town in Wisconsin, and he thought he’d come to Hollywood and capitalize on it in some way. And he’d got here and seen that his small town back in Wisconsin actually had pretty low standards of male beauty and realized he was never going to make it big. But he’d gritted his teeth and hung in there, made a living one way or another, because anything was better than the humiliation of going back home. It was a story I knew very well, but I wouldn’t have paid money to see it on the screen.
And maybe another problem was that the guy’s voice didn’t match his looks. It was too thin and brittle in too high a register, especially when he said to me as an opening remark, “Never date an artist.”
“OK.” I said. It didn’t sound like much of a conversational gambit, but it sounded like perfectly good advice.
“And definitely never date a performance artist,” he added.
The second statement struck me as superfluous. If you were never going to date an artist, then by definition you were never going to date a performance artist. But I didn’t say that to the guy. He’d have thought I was a clever dick. I preferred to let him think I was a good listener.
“OK,” I said again.
“You know who Marina Abramović is?”
I wasn’t lying, but the guy looked me as though he thought I was.
“She’s a performance artist,” I said. “Serbian. Does things with knives and nudity and sometimes catatonia. Sometimes does it on film. Did some stuff with Lady Gaga a while back.”
“OK,” the guy said, satisfied. “That’s the one.”
A lot of people think, or want to think, that Los Angeles is some kind of cesspool of vacuity and Philistinism, but you tell me how many bars there are in America where you can have a conversation with a complete stranger about the films of Marina Abramović?
“You dated Marina Abramović?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I like trouble, but I don’t like that much trouble. No, I dated one of her acolytes. A woman named Xetera. That was just her professional name, obviously. You ever heard of her?”
“No,” I said, honestly.
“Well, nobody’s heard of everybody,” he said and the thought amused him, though only a little. “Of course I’d never heard of Marina Abramović till I met Xetera. She taught me a lot. Really. She was younger than me, smarter than me, hipper than me. That was OK. I didn’t feel threatened by any of that stuff.”
I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. True, he looked like the kind of guy who wasn’t easily threatened, but if he was an actor then that could just have been his own performance.
“I never thought it was going to last forever,” he said, “but I wanted it to.”
And now he sounded vulnerable and hurt, and I had no way of knowing whether he meant it or not. It seemed to me he was overplaying it. He stared into his drink for a while. I felt kind of embarrassed.
“The population of the world is divided up in all kinds of surprising ways,” he said, and now he was playing a craggy world-weary part that Sam Elliott might have done better. “Divided between believers and non-believers, conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites. But you know there are deeper divisions and deeper connections. A black man who reads books is probably going to get on with a white man who reads books. A hard-drinking conservative isn’t likely to get on with a conservative teetotaler. Xetera and I – we were drinkers. Heroic drinkers.”
“It’s good to have a shared interest,” I said.
He stared at me unhappily.
“Are you cracking wise?”
“No,” I said. “I’m agreeing with you.”
He wasn’t immediately convinced.
“Look,” I said, “I work in a bar. I understand all about the heroism of drinking.”
That placated him a little.
“Xetera and I, we drank together,” he said. “Boy, did we drink. Derangement of the senses, that’s real important in certain kinds of performance art. That’s one of the things I learned from her. We drank and we talked and she educated me. How about that?”
“Sounds OK to me,” I said, trying to sound sincere.
“So she told me about this performance piece that Marina Abramović did with her boyfriend. It was filmed and called ‘The Lovers.’ Quite a big deal. You can see it on YouTube. They started out with one of them at either end of the Great Wall of China, and they just kept on walking day after day till they met up in the middle. You heard of that?”
“Kind of,” I said, and again I wasn’t lying.
“So Xetera said we should do our own version of that. Like a homage. We’d do it starting at opposite ends of Hollywood Boulevard, and we’d each have a film camera and shoot what we saw.”
I didn’t say a word.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the guy said. “You’re thinking the Great Wall of China is five and a half thousand miles long, whereas Hollywood Boulevard is only about four and a half.”
He was right, that’s pretty much what I was thinking.
“We knew that, obviously. We knew that walking the length of Hollywood Boulevard is not the greatest test of endurance. We knew – or at least Xetera knew, she being the artist – that she needed to come up with something bigger and more poignant to give the whole thing scale. After some serious thought, she said, ‘OK, we’ll do what we said. We’ll start walking separately from either end of Hollywood Boulevard with cameras, but every time we see a bar we’ll go inside, knock back a drink, then carry on walking and filming.’ You get the idea?”
“Sure,” I responded.
“We couldn’t hang out in the bar, obviously, but if there was something to see, or something happening, then we’d linger for a while, observe it, take notes, and document it. Documentation is half the game with performance art, as I understand it. Then we’d leave and walk on till we found the next bar, and so on. Sooner or later we’d be bound to meet up with each other, either on the street or in a bar, and we’d both be drunk as skunks by then, and we’d film each other and fall into each other’s arms and it’d be… great. I was quite the romantic back then.”
I’d heard worse ideas for movies and performance art, way worse.
“And I know another thing you’re thinking,” the guy said. “A woman walking alone, drinking by herself in bars, in many bars, getting drunk in Hollywood – anything could happen to her, and mostly not good things, right? I thought the same way. But I didn’t argue with her. I didn’t want to come on all patriarchal. She’d have hated that.”
“I imagine,” I said.
He gave me a look of quietly controlled hostility. “What do you imagine?”
Calmly, evenly, I said, “I imagine that most female performance artists aren’t big on patriarchy.”
“Damn right,” he said. “And it seems like risk is a big part of performance art, too.”
“Seems that way,” I agreed.
“So we picked a day to do it. We had rules, of course. It had to be done right. We didn’t live together, though I’d have been happy if we did. She had her apartment with a bunch of roommates, and I had mine to myself. So the deal was we’d spend the night apart in our separate places, then we’d get up and each head off to either end of the Boulevard. We had to use public transport, because taking our cars would have been asking for trouble. And there’d be no cell phones, because that would have felt like cheating. We synchronized our watches the day before so that we’d both be in place by noon the next day and we’d set off precisely then.
“I was starting at the west end, she was to start at the east. And you know there’s no bar to get a drink, nothing commercial at all for about the first mile of Hollywood Boulevard. If you’re coming from the western end, it’s all residential. Whereas coming from the east, there are plenty of bars right away.”
“Including this place,” I said.
“Sure. I knew you’d get it. Maybe she came here. Maybe this was the first place she came. But I have no way of knowing.”
“I set off on the appointed day at the appointed time. I walked, I shot some footage, then I drank, and I walked some more, shot some more, drank some more, and so on. I got completely smashed. By the end I could barely hold the camera. No surprise there. And you know what? I never found her. Our paths never crossed. Not in the street, not in a bar. Not anywhere.”
I thought maybe that was interesting in itself. And although I wasn’t sure of the exact logistics, it struck me as perfectly possible that two people could miss each other on an expedition like that. One of them could be in the bar while the other was walking or crossing the street or in the bathroom or whatever. Maybe that was the whole point of the performance piece — sensory derangement with people who pass in the night and fail to find each other. I knew more than I realized.
“And I’ve never seen her since,” said my drinking companion. “Never. Not in the flesh, not on screen, nowhere. What do you think that means, smart guy?”
“I don’t know,” I said. And I really didn’t.
“You think maybe she got lost? You think maybe she got picked up in a bar by somebody she liked better than me? You think she got kidnapped and murdered?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Or do you think she never started the walk? You think she was just fucking with me, setting me up for humiliation?”
“No,” I said. But I really had no idea what I thought. “So what did you do?”
“First thing, I went home and sobered up. Next day, I tried calling her. No reply. Thought about calling the cops, but I knew they’d tell me I had to wait 48 hours before I could file a missing person’s report. So I went to her apartment and talked to a couple of her roommates. They were even more pissed off than I was. She’d done a bunk the previous night — taken her stuff and her car and left owing two months’ rent. I was devastated.”
He adopted the facial expression and the body language of an actor playing the part of a man who was devastated.
“And then I looked up this performance piece by Marina Abramović – ‘The Lovers’ — and it wasn’t what I thought it was. They didn’t walk the length of the Great Wall of China to prove how much they loved each other. They walked the Great Wall of China as a really stupid exhibitionistic way of splitting up. Once they met up, it was all over. They called it quits.”
“Better than doing it by text message,” I said, then wished I hadn’t.
I saw the guy’s glass was empty. I poured him a drink on the house.
The guy said, “Once upon a time people would look at a thing and say, ‘Yeah, but is it art?’ Nobody asks that anymore. Xetera taught me that. She told me that anything can be art. A walk can be art. Taking a dump can be art. Me sitting here drinking and talking to you, that can be art.”
I saw no point in disagreeing.
“Of course, is it good art? That’s the real question, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well is it?” I said, and I let the question float in the air for a while. “You sitting here drinking and talking to me. Is that good art?”
“I have no idea,” he said.
“Maybe it could be a short movie,” I suggested.
“Yeah?” asked the guy, and he looked me up and down in a way I’d been looked at often enough before by directors and producers and casting agents. Then he said, “But who would we get to play you?”