This Part 1. Start reading here.
Impossibly old and wrinkled, the Camera looms out of the darkness toward a young girl. Myria Dawn Ashton watches him descend until a chill spiders down her back; she looks away. On the floor before her, a man lying in a pool of blood winks at her and wipes some bloody hair out of his eyes.
The Director appears, already talking. “That was good with the blocking, guys. Of course, there’s no telling how you’ll do it under the Amnesiac, but nine out of ten the rehearsal kicks in unconsciously. If not, it’s almost never a big deal.”
“I know,” Myria says. The bloody actor on the floor, propped up on one elbow, nods.
The Director speaks to another crewman. “We’re bringing the camera in through here, yes? Ok, good. I want to get him very, very close to Myria before he sees the body. Her emotion should come before the audience realizes why she’s feeling it. I know we can shift the timing of Feels around in post, but I want to try to capture it in sequence, okay? I like the way this is laid out.”
Myria watches the crew buzz around the stage, making last-second preparations for the shot. Twelve-years-old, she has the self-aware poise of someone decades older. Her face always bears a serious, weighty look that, for reasons she doesn’t understand, always makes adults ask her if she’s sad. For this scene, she wears pajamas with feet and carries her own favorite stuffed animal, a large floppy-eared-and-limbed rabbit.
She also wears a patch across the base of her skull, held on with medical adhesive. A cord runs from one end of the patch into a transmitter clipped to her jammies. Away and above, nearly invisible in the dim rigging of the vast sound stage, in what everyone calls the “Mind Control Booth”, a tech watches her intently, keeping a meticulous realtime map of what short-term memories will be erased by the Amnesiac, and which will stay. The more recent the memory, the more accurate his aim. His maximum reach is about two days – past that, erasures are partial, wear off quickly, and often end up altering the wrong memories. Before this next shot, he’ll erase the memory of the rehearsal, of the Director explaining the scene, even the actors’ memory that they are on set; while performing, they will be unaware of performing.
Myria knows all this. It’s her job.
Myria won’t be able to see the Camera once under the Amnesiac, but she can now. The Camera terrifies her. He’s slung in a frame of metal tubes with soft leather pads that cradle his body completely, including his head and neck. Clamps hold his skull perfectly in position. Tubes feed him and discretely dispose of his wastes while he’s working. Dense clusters of wires sprout from his scalp, and a rig like a robotic pair of goggles sits over his eyes. Right now, the shutters of his goggles are closed. To Myria, his face looks like a skull – eyeholes empty and sightless. When the shutters snap open during shooting she is always under the Amnesiac, so she’s never seen the Camera’s eyes. The rest of his face never shows any expression or indeed any movement at all. His old thin lips always press tightly together. He never moves any part of his body during a shooting day, sometimes for thirteen, fourteen hours at a stretch. Myria wonders if he gets bored, what he’s thinking. Or is he somehow dead inside, like the catatonic people she had seen one time in a mental hospital?
Mostly Myria wonders what his eyes look like. Is he cruel? Kind? She has nightmares about his face, in which his eyes are exposed and become larger and larger, until saucer-like they covered his face. Terrible glaring eyes, full of horror, bulging from his head.
Though the Camera never moves his body, he moves all over the vast soundstage, high and low. His chair, attached to the end of a long articulated arm, could take him high overhead for a bird’s-eye view, or snake him along corridors just above the ground. The arm mounts to a pair of robotic tank treads. It requires four men to operate the Camera, plus a medical team to keep him in good health and attend to his bodily needs. He is the most expensive camera system ever devised – a living human being, his whole life devoted to one task, a monk before the God of Cinema. Perhaps it’s that — his fanatical devotion to so dark a god — that gives him a vaguely satanic aura.
Myria watches as the crew moves the Camera over the wall of the kitchen set, angled downward for a three-quarters view of the room.
The Director says, “That’s good, camera crew, but you’ll have to get him in there from over here by the kitchen door. The arm will have to come in at eye-level, then pull up to the three-quarters wide shot. Yeah, you’ll have to move the dolly over here, sorry.”
Modern novels have a narrator who talks to you in first-person. These days we call stories narratives, which automatically implies a subject, an eye or “I”. The old days when epics and myths seemed to spring fully-grown from life are gone. What I am getting to is that by talking to you directly, narrator to reader, I am merely trying to stick to convention. Convention is what brings people together, right?
Plus, I want this to be a classic. I want a vivid moment, set open by the wicked lightening of disgrace. I want time to stand still. I want to be famous and haggard, iconic and near death. I’m sorry, I’m indulging myself. Anyway, a classic has an Introduction — written by someone eminent — that tells you how to frame the book, how to think of it. That is how a book becomes a classic: generations of people writing Introductions, accreting layers of wisdom on how one should read the book, what one should think of it, what it means. Otherwise, a book is a flimsy thing, a long, narrow string of words, thrown at you lengthwise. Only after a culture has fondled a book for some time does it soften and become voluptuous. So I’m providing my own Introduction, to kick-start me on that process. This is it. You got that, right?
Please, after you read the whole book, help me out and write me an Introduction, if you like it and especially if you’re eminent. Okay, thanks.
Listen, I’m going to tell you a story of how people become objects, and objects become people. It begins with the second known man in the world to be named Dziga Vertov. He had disappeared once already, from some earlier protozoan life. He would disappear three more times before he finally became a real person. After that he disappeared for good.
For the purposes of my story, Dziga appeared as if from nowhere. He disembarked one spring day from an ancient Greyhound bus at the central station in the Sovereign Free City of Los Angeles. Stepping down the steps and through the door of the bus, he realized that he remembered nothing before the bus ride; the trip itself he recalled only as a vague, warm world of vibration. He emerged into the bright, broad streets blinking and squinting like a baby otter.
He was hungry. He looked himself over: sport shirt tucked into jeans. Comfortable sneakers. He checked his pockets. Nothing. He knew he’d need money to eat. He wandered aimlessly for a bit, taking note of cheap-looking places to eat. He pondered panhandling with half a heart. He also noticed the way certain men looked at him, lingering over this tall, lost man with such broad, lean shoulders. He wasn’t sure how, but he knew what to do. Sort of. He made eye contact with one man who had been hanging out in his vicinity for awhile. The man came over and they talked for a moment. After a few minutes in the restroom at El Crazy Chickeño, he had enough cash to get himself a chicken burrito and some coffee. He tried to bite into the burrito, but winced in pain. His jaw was sore.
It would get more sore over the next week, and his clean clothes became creased and dirty from curling up to sleep at bus stops when he was lucky and in loathsome hidey-holes when he wasn’t. He crawled into a storm drain one night, mostly out of shame; the streets were full of tourists and young people. The dirtier he got, the harder it became to solicit clients. His arms and shoulders ached from the hard bus stop benches and the pavement. He awoke one morning starving, the world spinning hazily around him.
Hungry, confused, mouth hanging open, he turned in circles as he drifted down Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood’s cracked streets and buildings surrounded him, like wolves closing in for the kill. A man with a thick black goatee walking down the sidewalk saw him, stopped. Is he alright? Would he like something to eat? Yes, he would. The man says his name is Krevich. Dziga had to think for a moment.
“I don’t remember my name,” he said.
“Isn’t that a shame. Let’s give you one. You can be Dziga Vertov. Because you seem to be spinning like a top. Ah, that’s not a great joke.” Dziga sobbed a weak “ha ha” and Krevich grinned at him. He took Dziga to a cafe, bought him a sandwich and told him all about the original Dziga Vertov.
He explained that Vertov was a pioneer of cinema, who had expounded the radical power of the camera to lay reality bare, to see “life as it is”. Vertov famously said, “I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies….My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world.”
“But the old commie was a fraud!” guffawed Krevich, “By ‘life as it is’ he meant Soviet social propaganda. His films show only what the Party wanted people to see. He was an ideologue. He adopted the name Dziga Vertov. It translates very loosely as, ‘Spinning Top’. That was the joke I made, you see.”
Joke or not, the name stuck to Dziga Vertov #2 as it had to the first one. After lunch that day, the day of his birth, he went home with Krevich in his Porsche to a sky-rise apartment and quite easily became his lover.
Krevich told Dziga he ran an agency for models and photographers. He dandled Dziga in a sleek, apartment suite on the sixteenth floor of a glass edifice in midtown L.A. Placed at the corner of the building, two whole walls of the apartment were windows, with a view of downtown. The apartment had a kitchen swathed in black marble; the walls of most rooms bore at least one large screen showing slowly-shifting A.I. artworks. An elevator ran straight from the apartment to the parking garage underground.
Once he moved in, Dziga almost never went out, even during the long daytimes when Krevich worked. He relaxed into the luxury of this life with the ease of a suckling baby. The days seemed endless and cool, and Dziga watched life outside as though it were a vast aquarium.
Krevich came and went each day, not through the elevator, but through another door in a remote corner of the suite. All Dziga could tell was that the door opened into a small, brightly-lit room. Krevich always locked this door from the outside after he left.
Dziga became obsessed with that door. Where did Krevich go? What did he do on the other side of the door? Where did those streams of yellow light come from? Dziga imagined a magic toy factory, spinning out impossible gizmos that glowed and flashed and fluttered. He never asked Krevich about it. He didn’t dare – it seemed beyond the scope of the unspoken contract between them. He didn’t feel that Krevich had any desire to share the larger scope of his life with Dziga.
Sometimes, during evenings or lunchtimes together in the apartment, Krevich spoke on the phone with someone about some urgent matter or another. He always spoke in furious Russian. Whenever these conversations happened, Krevich usually had to go immediately afterwards, and always through the mysterious door.
One particular time, Krevich had one of these urgent phone calls, actually a series of them, each more and more urgent. It was after ten at night, and they had been drinking wine together, but Krevich dressed irritatedly and made for the door. As he opened it, Dziga heard another door opening from the luminous space beyond the door. A woman’s voice speaking Russian, hurried and tense, Krevich grunting in response, then the sound of their voices as the outer door closed and they moved into whatever space lay beyond.
But the inner door, it stood ajar.
Perhaps surprised by the other woman’s sudden entry, Krevich had forgotten to close and lock the inner door. Dziga had never revealed his intense curiosity about the door to Krevich.
For ten minutes or so, Dziga sat on the floor, clutching his knees, looking through the gap in the door into the bright beyond. Then he hopped up and slipped through it.
It was just a small intermediate room, the size of a bathroom. One end, near the opposite door, was stacked high with files in long-term storage boxes. A couch and a fake plant sat against the wall that the room shared with the apartment. The opposite wall was translucent glass, patterned into a pebbly texture. Closer now, Dziga could see that beyond it was a large white space, brightly lit. He could faintly make out figures moving about, even as late at night as it was.
Without really thinking about it, moving under a sort of momentum now, Dziga opened the outer door, and walked slowly out into the rest of the sixteenth floor. The whole floor lay open, an open hive of meeting areas, computer workstations, and photography studios.
On the left, more translucent glass screened off a row of offices. Dziga could tell from the darkness behind the glass that the offices had windows out into the dark city night. In one office, a man pacing, stabs of conversation. Krevich and the woman. Dziga cringed away from the offices. In the other direction the space opened up into a vast alcove where the floor curved smoothly into the walls, all white – a cyclorama. The space stood somewhat dim and gray, as the big lights on stands and hanging from an overhead grid were turned off. Dziga wandered into this twilight of blankness like a child into a fairy wonderland, his arms and face open.
Presently he noticed other things on the stage. A series of low risers on the floor. On a table, a large half-rolled flexible display screen, battery chargers, and several cameras.
One of the cameras slipped into Dziga’s hands, heavy and quiet. He fiddled with it until it turned on. On the screen, an image lit up. A woman, wearing an elegant black gown and a diamond necklace, a stormy background, hard lighting. She had her hands on her hips, which were thrust forward, and she gazed over the viewer from behind dramatic makeup and a haughty, hawklike expression.
She had sleek, dark hair pulled back and up, with a few curls dangling down in front of her ears. A kind of guardedness shielded her wide-set eyes, making her eyelids seem heavy. The pout of her upper lip had a crook to it, one side more pouty than the other, and though her mouth was closed Dziga knew that one of her front teeth was chipped. Something else too…she hid a secret in her body. The way she held her weight, she was either hiding an invisible wound or a pregnancy. A flood of impressions: Her name was Donna, she had grown up a military child mostly in the South, she hated big dogs.
Dziga barely had time to register the strangeness of these impressions. Far away across the vast studio space, an office door opened.
Krevich stomped out, followed by a stolid middle-aged woman wearing capri pants and a blouse. Dziga froze. Krevich walked straight toward him for some paces, not looking up. Then he veered off, went behind a barricade deeper into the hive. The woman glanced briefly at Dziga as she followed Krevich, and then they were out of sight.
The camera tucked itself under Dziga’s arm. He scurried back through both doors into the darkness of the apartment and closed the inner door behind him.
He took off his clothes and crumpled them on the floor next to the bed with the camera hidden underneath, crawled into bed, and fell asleep.
Krevich returned to the apartment in the early hours of the morning, his shirt unbuttoned and his eyelids puffy. He crash landed in bed, but did not reach out to Dziga. Dziga did not reach out either, for his mind swarmed with the image of that woman in the camera.
How had he known so much about her? But that was silly, he thought. Who knew how much he really knew about her. Just some impressions.
Nevertheless, once Krevich had woken and gone back to work, Dziga scurried to the pile of clothes and retrieved the camera. He rocked it softly in his hands, feeling its weight. As he held it, he had a tangible sense of light reflecting off the woman in the picture and being captured by the box in his hands. He could feel it happening.
He turned the camera on. Intuitively, he rotated through the images on the memory card. As he flipped through them, another impression formed: that the girl felt hidden behind the makeup and jewelry and clothes, and that she hoped no one would see through the disguise. There were several photos of the same woman in slightly different poses, then a sudden candid shot. The photographer had caught the girl laughing at something off or behind camera. Her eyes crinkled, her lips curled back from her teeth. Dziga looked closely and found that her left front tooth had a chip out of it. Just as he had known.
Whatever crisis had Krevich in its jaws bit down tighter. He came in halfway through the day in a state of panic Dziga had never seen. Several shots of vodka slid into him, and he hugged the wall, his arms over his head, moaning. Dziga peeped over the covers at him, but Krevich didn’t seem to notice. He paced, muttering. He bent and looked under chairs, under the bed. He started to root through the laundry hamper where Dziga had squirreled the camera.
“Ah, ah. Um. Sweetie?” Krevich snapped his head around, smeared his eyes blindly across Dziga.
“What?” he spat, went back to digging.
“I threw up in there. Don’t dig, you’ll get it all over you.”
Repulsed, Krevich stumbled back.
“You what? Why in the…?” He shook his hands, sniffed them. “You disgusting slut.” He pressed the intercom button. “Get housekeeping up here. Laundry emergency.” He went into the bathroom, washed his hands, wet his face. He came back into the bedroom, wiping his hair back, staring at Dziga.
“What’s wrong?” said Dziga.
“That cunt. Donna Cuntinglips, Summersault, whatever, the one named after the old disco star.”
“Yes. Donna Fuck Cunting Summers. The harpie, the ruiner, god damn it. Fuck her, Dziga. Fuck her, do you hear me?” He pointed his index finger at Dziga like a weapon. “I don’t need this kind of crap.” He went on and on, meaningless angry vulgarities.
“What happened, my dear faggot, is that she’s a member of that Sleazekinder group. The ones who staged the underage fuck-in at the Louvre? The little piss bags. I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to take her on. Nothing means anything anymore. Those little maggots should be sent to a frigid island somewhere until their cunts rot. God damn…” The river of rage flowed unceasing through the flat valley of Krevich’s panic, until he looked and saw Dziga watching uncomprehendingly. He struggled to relax, sat down on the bed.
“Someone stole her footage. One of her cohorts, or her slimewad boyfriend. Who knows. She brought quite the entourage with her. My best photographer shot her, Gretchen art directed it, and now those shots will no doubt appear on Little Donna’s feed. The client cannot sell underwear with photos that have already gone viral.”
“Why would they go viral?” Dziga said.
“She’s underage,” Krevich said, cupping an imaginary pair of breasts on his own chest. “You know how it is. People enjoy their jerk-off better when they’ve told everyone how reprehensible their jerk-off material is.”
“Can’t you reshoot her?”
“What for? She’s only good for about one viral sensation. It would end up seeming like Cotton Fux was trying too hard.”
“I’m sorry,” whispered Dziga, looking down at the Cotton Fux label on his own underwear. He had a good guess that Donna Summers had a chip out of her left front tooth. He dared not tell Krevich where the camera was. He didn’t want to be thrown out, back out onto the bus stops and shelters where his jaw got sore from sucking dicks. They’d come, they’d take the laundry, the camera would… What would happen to the camera? Housekeeping would notice it. They would keep it or return it. Would they keep it? They might return it. He remembered suddenly the woman who had seen him in the studio, the woman in capri pants. Krevich’s assistant? Did she know who he was? Dziga pulled the blanket all the way over his head.
“Dziga. Dziga.” Krevich sounded gentle now. “Dziga, where did you go?” He dove under the blanket from the foot of the bed, swam upward, grabbed Dziga’s sides with his fingertips. Dziga writhed in an agony of giggles. He kissed Krevich, forgetting, but the tension in his chest wrenched him away. His eyes rolled in his head, he gasped for breath.
Krevich stroked Dziga’s temples. “You silly little man. What am I going to do?”
“That too.” And having overcome his panic, having regained his natural state of command, he left.
Dziga leapt out of bed and plunged into the laundry hamper. He stood regarding the camera in his hands for a moment, then stuffed it under the bedclothes. He sat next to it and started counting upward from one in his head. Somewhere around five hundred he lost count, and looked toward the door to the studio.
He opened it, saw nobody. Still in his underwear, he crept on bare feet across the storeroom with the couch. He peered through the pebbled glass of the opposite door, trying to detect some movement. Finally, not sensing anyone out there, he opened the door.
Like the last time, he could see shadows moving behind the doors of the offices on the left. The cyclorama on the right lay dark and empty. He crept toward it, keeping his head swiveled back toward the office doors and the camera hidden behind his body. What would he do if one of the doors started to open? Run? Where? Back inside the apartment, he supposed. He looked back. The door to the apartment seemed miles away across slick marble flooring.
There came a point where he had to step over some electrical cables and a riser to get to the table in the cyclorama. He stepped on the risers slowly, soundlessly. He reached the table and set the camera down, trying to remember how it had been situated. But this was ridiculous. The camera just reappeared? They would guess it had been him, it could only be him. The table was empty now; they could not have failed to look here for the camera. He picked the camera up again. He’d sell it. He didn’t want Krevich to lose a client, but he didn’t want to suck any more unbathed dicks either.
Krevich embraced him tightly from behind. Taller, his chin fit neatly on Dziga’s shoulder. Dziga’s knees gave way, but Krevich propped him up, supporting him on his own body.
“I caught you,” he whispered into Dziga’s ear, wrapping one hand around Dziga’s hand, the one that held the camera.
Dziga could feel the hard cement benches of the bus stops against his side. He could taste canned corn and dry noodles. He fell away from Krevich’s embrace, tumbling, spinning. He covered his face and tried to run. Run where?
Continue to Part 2.