A follow-up to The Auteur, the murdering filmmaker seeks an audience of one. 2,938 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The Auteur’s troubles began when he finally attended a screening.
He knew it was a risky move, but other directors watched their films with an audience. Why should he deny himself? It was a Hollywood tradition – from the test audiences with their comment cards, to the gala premieres with the klieg lights waving their vertical proclamations into the smog of the nighttime sky. Sitting in a roped-off section of the theatre among peers and feeling the charge in the air when sound and image mingled with the brain chemistry of a thousand strangers. Such moments were nerve-wracking but necessary: part triumph, part trial by fire.
It was more than that, though. Screenings also were social occasions, part of the communal life of filmmakers. And the Auteur had exiled himself from that. It was lonely doing what he did. True, there was a nobility of purpose. But he wanted respect, acknowledgement of achievement, applause.
Of course it was impossible. He had to remain anonymous. He couldn’t risk revealing himself. He knew his ego was getting the better of him. It was a weakness, and he despised weakness.
“I want to watch people while they watch my films,” he said to Andrew Lake over dinner one night at Musso & Frank’s. “I’ve been working in a vacuum for too long. I feel sometimes like a monk illuminating manuscripts for future generations I’ll never know.”
Lake laughed. “That is the most twisted metaphor I’ve ever heard. You’re a monk now?”
“In my own religion. Christians worship life. I worship death.”
“I think I heard a terrorist say something like that once.”
“It’s a big tent, Andy. There’s room for Muslims and Jews and pussy little agnostics like you.”
“Thanks for that.”
They ate quietly for a few minutes. The steak was rare, the potatoes were crisp. No one in the noisy restaurant was paying any attention to them. The Auteur took a long slow glance around to make sure. The nearest patron was yelling to some reluctant client: “The back end? You want to know about the back end, Larry? The back end is, you get a career.”
The moguls who saw his movies in secret called themselves members of the A.V. Club, like geeks in high school. Lake handled recruitment.
“But it’s a small town. Most of them know each other,” Lake was saying.
“Tell them I’m in from New York for a few days. A hedge fund guy who wants to finance movies.”
Lake shook his head. “No way. They might not know you but they know about you. Unfortunately, you were one of those UCLA film teachers people remember.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“I suggest you shitcan the whole idea. It’s dangerous. You have a secure set-up now. Why fuck with it?”
“Because I just want to be a fly on the wall.”
“More like a scorpion in the corner.”
The Auteur smiled. “I’ll go as myself. Hide in plain sight. They’ll never suspect a thing. They’ll look at me and just see the mousy little professor who’s trying to join the cool kids. No one’s going to be investigating the new guy. That’s your job.”
“Anyway, once the movie starts…”
Lake perked up. “Can you tell me about it?”
“Rest assured, it’s a very unusual effort.” The Auteur glanced around again. No one was listening. The Auteur spoke in a whisper. Lake had to lean forward to hear him. “The girl brought her boyfriend to the shoot. He was suspicious. I had to fight him off and kill him before I could begin on the girl. I cut his throat with a scalpel. I used the halogens to blind him so the whole fight scene is over-lit and bleached out. Very strange and disturbing. Very artistic. I tried to keep my back to the cameras, and I cut it so you never see my face. I still had to pixilate a few shots. But that just adds to the cinéma vérité mystique.”
“Like the voice distortion.”
“Exactly. I sound just like Jigsaw in the Saw movies.”
Lake sat back. “I have a bad feeling about this. I get these feelings sometimes and, when they’re bad, I’m usually right.
“I’ll bring my lucky rabbit’s foot.”
And my syringe of succinylcholine, the Auteur added silently. It never hurts to be prepared.
The screening took place on a dry cool night after a week of rain. The storm had scrubbed the smog and laundered the air. The evening was sharp and bright as crystal. The Auteur smelled firewood burning as he turned off Sunset and onto Carolwood Drive. He almost ran a stop sign, twitching with impatience. He pulled the car over and did deep breathing exercises. By the time he entered the driveway, he was calm and ready to enjoy his latest snuff film.
The host for the screening was a director named Douglas Gelb. He was always at war with one studio or another, gleefully outraging executives and producers over budgets and — on one occasion — the ‘censorship’ of his film. He made humongous hits but also disastrous flops. He was best known for his four Harry Trank movies based on a once-obscure series of novels. The titular insurance claims investigator invariably discovered some massive corporate conspiracy or government plot or military coup, and always wound up toe-to-toe with the powerful culprit, facing down evil, on a cliff or a yacht or in a train station. Audiences and critics alike loved those iconic confrontations. Of course the scenes made no sense: with a scrap of incriminating evidence in hand, anyone with practical intelligence would simply call the police. It seemed like a perfect exemplar for American culture to the Auteur — a filmmaker being praised for a lame plot hole repeated again and again.
Personally, Gelb had been through three acrimonious divorces and every few years the Hollywood community was treated to the sight of yet another beautiful woman labeling Gelb "a monster", "a sadistic pervert" or most infamously "a malignant sociopath with the morals of a sewer rat.” They won gigantic alimony and palimony and child support payments. His children, both legitimate and illegitimate, demonstrated their hatred of him by totaling his expensive sports cars, burglarizing his houses to pay for their drugs and writing nightmarishly graphic tell-alls excerpted everywhere.
But the tabloid carnival that had been Gelb’s life had changed. His most recent marriage to a high school sweetheart rediscovered on Facebook had ended tragically when the woman died of breast cancer. Now their 21-year-old love child had disappeared into the maw of the city, foul play suspected. Gelb had spent countless dollars on posters and websites and TV ads hoping someone would recognize her and make that crucial call to the police who were on the verge of deciding the case was a lost cause.
The Auteur had seen the girl’s picture online. But the name in the caption was Stephanie Gelb whereas he knew her as Carla McGinnis who had gone to his film shoot at the renovated meat tenderizer plant with her boyfriend. She apparently had changed her name to get out from under her father’s shadow, nobly shunning the taint of nepotism. How did that work out for you, honey?
The victims of the Auteur usually weren’t human to him. Just like Gelb’s movie crews didn’t pass muster as full-fledged homo sapiens. Gelb treated them like pack animals and laughed when they all hated him. To him, they were growling dogs contractually forbidden to bite, muzzled by money and union rules.
Gelb’s daughter was human to the Auteur, though.
Gelb had stepped up the investigation in recent days, doing the talk shows and spreading his grief like a ghoulish buffet for the gossip gobblers, pleading for calls to help him find his child.
Well, tonight Gelb was going to find her at last, and the Auteur was going to be there to see it. Close enough to study the man’s face as the truth revealed itself on screen and reality hit Gelb head on. It was going to be a once in a lifetime crash, worthy of the wrecks Gelb conjured for his own movies. But infinitely better because it would be real. Weta, ILM, Digital Domain — eat your hearts out. Gelb would be his own special effect when he watched his daughter on the killing bed.
Gelb’s driveway looked like a used car lot in Qatar: a Bentley, several Mercedes, including a 1957 300 SL Gull Wing coupe, a Jag, a Hummer, a perfectly preserved cherry red Buick Roadmaster, a Prius and even a pre-WWII vintage Harley Davidson EL. The Auteur parked his Ford Taurus near the street. The car seemed ordinary, but its super-charged engine could smoke most of the fancy competition lined up inside the mansion gate. Early birds were trapped until the place cleared out. The Auteur could back into the street and be on his way in 15 seconds, tops.
Lake’s Opel GT was parked under the port cochere; he must have been one of the first to arrive. He was scurrying around inside, setting up hors d’oeuvres, checking the projector, opening wine.
The Auteur oriented himself. Beyond the swimming pool, the lawn ended abruptly and the land plunged into an immense ravine, full of pinyon and juniper brambles, poison hemlock and sagebrush, along with rattlesnakes and coyotes, no doubt. The Auteur had always liked these patches of untouched wilderness in the middle of wealthy neighborhoods.
“Adam Bissinger? Andrew said you’d be joining us tonight. Come over and get yourself a drink and meet some people.”
It was Gelb, pontificating about rolling break evens and foreign versus domestic film rentals to a small group nodding and sipping. Gelb was taller than the Auteur had expected, thin and tense, with an unusually large head and a tangle of orange-red hair caught in a ponytail.
Gelb introduced him all around. “My DGA trainee took Adam’s cinematography course at UCLA. Good to meet you at last, Bissinger,” he said, turning to the Auteur and grasping his hand. The Auteur didn’t like being touched and generally avoided hugs and handshakes, but he didn’t want to seem odd or memorable here tonight.
But Gelb held onto his hand. “You can tell a lot about people by their hands,” he said.
“You read palms?”
“No, that’s bullshit. You can tell much more from the back of the hand. Check it out.” He turned The Auteur’s wrist like a door knob and stared down at the knuckles, the cuticles and the vein-laced bones. The others edged in closer. Gelb tilted the Auteur’s hand into the light from the house and squinted down.
“Interesting. I see high intelligence, discipline, imagination. But also isolation, coldness, vanity. Difficulty in making connections.” He looked up and smiled. “You don’t like my holding your hand.”
Gelb let go and patted the Auteur’s shoulder. “Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to be rude. I just get caught up in the game. The hand tells the truth and the truth can sting. Forgive me.”
The group moved inside. There was a buffet set up in the grand two-story living room: smoked salmon and caviar, goat cheese and crackers, Empanadas de Carne prepared by Gelb’s Argentine chef as well as salad and crudités. The Auteur wasn’t hungry or thirsty. He ate nothing and poured his wine down the nearby bar sink,
“Not up to your standards?” Andrew Lake had found him.
“I want a clear head tonight.”
“Smart move. Did you see the papers today? The story about a new FBI ‘violent pornography’ task force?”
“Let me guess. They’re cracking down.”
“Big time. The head’s name is Phillip Kennis. You might want to keep track of that. He says snuff films are real and the people who make them are committing heinous crimes by turning unforgivable sin into unwatchable entertainment.”
“Sounds like most Hollywood movies to me.”
“Very funny. But this dude is on the warpath. Keep an eye out.”
The Auteur drummed his fingers on the bar. “He’s missing the whole point. It’s about being on the brink of extinction. I’ve collected the images of people jumping from the World Trade Center on 9/11, black box recordings from more than two dozen plane crashes, those moments when people know they’re going to die. They fascinate me. A present with no future. That’s what it’s about. Not cheap thrills.”
“I can feel it in your movies.”
“Thank you. I suppose I couldn’t expect some fed with a badge to understand me.”
The Auteur noticed Gelb approaching. He was standing behind Lake, who flinched a little at the sound of his voice.
“Do you know the man who made our film tonight?” Gelb asked them. The Auteur could feel the force of his mind, like a needle pushing through cartilage.
“We’ve exchanged emails from time to time. Nothing more than that.”
“Can you get me in touch with him?”
“Not without his permission.”
“Can you ask?”
“The next time I hear from him. It may take a while.”
Gelb pulled out his wallet and handed the Auteur a card. “My cell number is on there. Call it any time.”
The Auteur smiled. This was precisely what he had wanted: to move invisibly among his admirers, aloof and invulnerable.
Gelb lasted 10 minutes into the movie. Perhaps Gelb was in denial or shock at first. But when the Auteur drew the scalpel up the inside of Stephanie’s thigh and the camera moved up to her face, contorted with pain and fear, the head-on collision of reality and dream happened. It was everything the Auteur had hoped. See, this human flesh I’m slicing open? The flesh of your flesh. Gelb’s ragged bellow split the room.
“TURN IT OFF! Turn this fucking thing off now!”
A second later the film was gone and the only sound was the clicking of the reel as the projector died. A few of Gelb’s friends must have known Stephanie. They understood. But none of them were hanging around.
“Everyone out!” Gelb screamed. “Just go.”
He was crying. The Auteur wanted a camera in his hand. Gelb was waiting for him in the big circular foyer. “I need to talk to you.”
Gelb took The Auteur’s arm and walked him out the French doors and across the yard, skirting the shallow end of the pool toward the edge of the wilderness. Of course: Gelb knew this one link to the murderer’s identity. The man was distraught and therefore easy to stall. The Auteur could hear crickets and what must be a coyote deep in the ravine moving through the brush. The air was cold on his face.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the Auteur started to say in his best tone of baffled concern.
“You made that movie tonight. You killed my daughter.”
“Have you been drinking? Because that is the most — ”
“It’s the truth and we both know it. The others are gone. You killed her and I’m going to kill you, I’m going to stab you like you stabbed her and I’m going to watch you die. Just like you’ve done to others but this time it’s going to be you.”
Gelb pulled a switch blade out of his pants pocket and took a step forward.
“How did you know?” the Auteur asked, reaching into his own pocket and easing the rubber tip off the needle.
“Your hands, asshole. Your perfect prissy manicured little hands. You forgot to pixilate them. I see things other people don’t. That’s my fucking job description. You should have worn gloves.”
“But that would spoil the sensation,” the Auteur replied, easing his hand with the needle out of his pocket. “Like wearing a condom. And I don’t need the protection.”
Gelb lunged at the Auteur. But he slipped on the wet grass and missed his only chance. The Auteur plunged the needle into Gelb’s neck and pressed the plunger hard with his thumb. Succinylcholine: the perfect poison. It paralyzed the entire breathing apparatus. Gelb would suffocate to death and it would look like a heart attack. The needle mark would never be noticed after the coyotes were through with him.
Gelb knees buckled and he dropped the knife. The director had wrongly assumed his one-on-one confrontation would resolve itself in his favor. Trank never failed in these climactic scenes. The Auteur shook his head. It was poetic justice, in a way, this slice of reality for Gelb: live by the plot hole, die by the plot hole.
The Auteur dragged Gelb to the edge of the ravine and pushed him over. Brush crashed under the body as it tumbled down the darkness. Then the busy silence of the city at night flooded back.
Inside the house, Andrew Lake had waited for the other cars to clear the driveway. He watched the struggle and the murder, transfixed. He had nailed it perfectly at lunch the other day: the scorpion in the corner. Now Lake had seen the scorpion strike.
The Auteur started to turn and Lake knew if Bissinger caught him here, he’d be the next body to fall. The Auteur didn’t like witnesses. He didn’t do live theatre. Lake stepped back from the door, then broke for the hallway, running for his life.