by Liam Scheff
Note: This conversation may or may not have taken place, yesterday, soon or tomorrow. This “Argument Review” is a story in the Fragments series.
Jeff is stalling – still. Still waiting for me to say it for him.
“How is it possible that you can’t just say it? It…?”
Jeff looks at me and says nothing, just raises his eyebrows ever so slightly, knowing what’s coming. I lean into it more, “iiiitt!” Letting the “t” pop like a soda can at the end. “IT!”
“It didn’t — ”
“Suck,” we say at the same time.
He looks directly at me to let me know he’s aware of the joke and says, “If that’s what you want me to say.”
“You already said it. ‘Suck,’ you said. Just now.”
Jeff stops looking at me and feigns disinterest, leaning his head on his neck as if relaxing. “No,” he sighs, “I’m not going to play rhetorical games.”
“Oh, ‘rhetorical,’ he says! Impressive word.”
He perks back up and counters. “It didn’t suck. It was just not…”
“I was going to say, it was just not great.”
“Ah. Not great. Which part was not great? The part where they live in a billion-dollar plastic and glass New Mexico Frank Lloyd Wright clear-walled house on top of a 50-story flag pole jutting off the top of a…what, a mountain top? And they’re not being struck by freaking lightning every 15 seconds?”
“Look…” interrupts Jeff, with the voice of gentle correction – but I’m rolling.
“Oh, or the part where they have a glass-bottomed swimming pool in said glass house on top of said flag pole, which somehow doesn’t weigh the six tons that normal water weighs?” A thought hits me mid-way and I tack it onto the end: “Normal, non-Scientology water?” I raise my eyebrows in mock victory.
“Oh,” says Jeff. “We’re getting to your objections. Religion.”
“No, no.” I correct him, not knowing if he’s right. “No, it’s not gonna be that easy. I don’t care what his religion is. I’m saying…Okay, forget the Scientology water – just call it, six tons of water in a glass-bottomed swimming pool on the top of a freaking flag mast jutting into the sky.” My speech is rapid, words are clicking together – I’ve got him – I continue, turning it into a question, “And that’s not a lightning rod? The water isn’t struck by lightning every other second in the middle atmosphere? Is that a non-religious enough criticism for you?”
“Hm. Fascinating.” Jeff pauses, steely and dry. “And how do you know how much the water weighs?”
I realize at once that I have no idea. “Jeff…” I say, stalling. I tighten my mouth in visible thought. We both know that using first names is a deflection (making it personal always is).
He raises his eyebrow slightly, to let me know he’s already caught me. I continue a little more mindfully. “How much do you think a swimming pool worth of water weighs? That was maybe.. half an Olympic pool, right?”
I have to vamp now. What does a swimming pool weigh?! What a ridiculous question! Who would ask such a thing? It’s not a swimming pool. It’s water. A lot of it. But a collection of…gallons. How much does – a gallon – of water weigh. (‘That’s the right question,’ I hear myself say.)
It hits me from an ancient conversation I can’t recall, written on a napkin in the back pocket of a pair of pants I long ago grew out of: eight pounds.
Am I certain? Doesn’t matter, it’s good enough. So, how many gallons in a swimming pool. 10,000? 20,000? Times eight. So, 80,000 pounds plus. Two thousand pounds per ton. Ten divided by two. At least five tons. Probably more. I feel secure and sling it back again:
“So, what magical material can hold,” I take my time phrasing it,”Aloft. In the sky. At least…” I go for broke, “100,000 pounds of water, and the glass house it’s sitting in. The kitchen, the dining room, and the Ikea furniture.” I lean in, “I’m betting it’s the high end stuff. Real wood.” I lean back, “At the end of a flagpole? High in the sky? Up…in the air?”
I let the question trail off, the “r” of air curling its way into my ear, and his. Jeff says nothing but looks amused with the rhetorical flourish. I finish the trick with sarcasm: “I know. Pure will. Pure hope.”
Jeff is smiling. He knows the swimming pool in the sky is weak, gimmicky sci-fi crap. “Stupefying,” he’d say, if he been making the point. I’ve won that round. Jeff’s turn. I sit back, waiting for him to unravel it and he begins:
“But that’s window dressing. They could be in a hut, and I take it you would have hated the movie.”
“Hated? When did I say ‘hate?'” I pause just long enough to formulate another argument. “I… just said, “sucked,” which it does,” and I’m careful here, anticipating his next move, “in a very specific way, which I will…” I slow down each word as though slightly reprimanding him, “explain. to. you. If you let me finish.”
Jeff smiles again. The smile says, “You idiot, you’ve been talking the whole time.” I know it and so I stop. Jeff’s turn. Again. Now he gets two, because I interrupted. He recommences.
“Let’s review. Plot matters.” He’s picked up his pencil and his hands are beginning to sketch on the clip-board in front of him. He draws when he talks to you, which is a little weird, till you get to know him. It’s how he pays attention – he may (or may not) be drawing something related to the conversation. It’s odd and a little distracting, but that’s Jeff.
“Plot matters” is Jeff’s stand-by. It’s what drives him into our strange coffee clutch – Jeff’s a fucking genius, and I’m the only other person in town who reads about movies – old movies, new ones. About the history of celluloid, Hollywood, European art film. He can talk about anything – I can talk about movies. So, I’m his movie friend.
He’s a more careful critic – maybe a more honorable one – than I am. I’m more emotional, and I take that as a point of pride. Movies are supposed to make you feel. Even feel hate, or disgust…sex, want, desire, anger, fear, frustration. I like that in movies. He likes the machinery of it: the plot. ‘Plot matters.’
“Okay,” I repeat. “Plot matters. So, break it down, Eisenstein.”
One of my little jokes. Most people don’t get it, but it’s a no-brainer for Jeff. “Einstein” was a guy who did mostly fake math and worried about the atomic bomb, but “Eisenstein” was a Russian who worried about the peasants who were getting ground into the dirt under the wheels of…whatever was happening in the 19-teens.
Russian film-maker – “Battleship Potemkin.” All film students, nerds, geeks and dorks watch it. Coppola – no, it was…whoops – sorry – De Palma. He used a clip from it – a baby carriage rolling down this giant outdoor palace staircase, like a city stairs – wide as a building – in Potemkin, it was about the baby dying; In “Untouchables” it was so we knew that De Palma had seen Potemkin and new his film history.
And that, precisely, is what’s stupid about homages. They don’t mean anything to the story you’re telling, they’re just a lazy aside, with a little polish, because a vase reminds you of a pyramid, which reminds you of something else you saw. It’s just a memory loop.
Jeff breathes in, looking like he’s gathering himself to do some kind of mathematical treatise.
“Plot,” he pauses, “matters. “The writer is the engine of the story. He or she is the author of the text that is being brought to life by the actors, cinematographer and director. What we are viewing on the screen is, in fact, more like a ballet performed by an entire dance troupe, most of whom are in service to their long training, their history of performance, their ability to move within the line described by the writer.”
“The writer gives us plot. The plot is a structure that seems invisible, but is, in fact, the spinal column and musculature of the story. The plot must adhere to a tested mechanical structure to function.” He pauses and looks at me.
“My question to you, is does this plot function? Does it move the limbs, does it make a convincing machine?”
I shake my head and breathe in. “You know,” I say, “I kind of … really hate the way you suck the joy out of movies. It’s like saying that a person has a soul and is lovable because their knees or their hips or their liver works.”
“Well?” he asks.
“Well, if someone’s liver and knees and hips and heart don’t work,”
“I didn’t say ‘heart…”
“In any case, if someone’s body doesn’t work, then are they really here?”
“Jeff.” I say, dropping my expression.
“Okay,” he says, “That is, perhaps, a weak argument. Yes, one can be here and be in bad physical form. Your point, though?” I suddenly have to think, because he granted me a win when I was expecting a fight. I have to backtrack.
“My point… was… knees, structure. Plot. Plot!” That’s the thread. “You said, does it work?’ So, does it? I mean, you tell me. Does the plot of Oblivion work?” It’s the question he just asked me, and I didn’t answer. I’ve handed it back to him, and in fair play, he should push it back to me until I resolve it.
He turns his mechanical pencil slowly in a small circle on the paper in front of him. “Well, let’s see.” He’s drawing now, circles and bubbles and lines, as he talks – he’s diagramming what he’s describing.
“Plot: Alien landscape. English speakers. White. Male and female. In a building that does not exist in today’s architecture.”
“Check,” I say, following along, grateful that he suspended debate rules for a moment. He continues:
“A couple. They are sexual. She is nude from behind in a full-dorsal view.”
Dorsal? It takes me a minute. Dolphin. Dorsal fin. Dorsal equals view from behind. What a nutter, I think, describing a nude chick in a movie like a fish. Mammal. Whatever.
“Dorsal,” I repeat. He continues.
“The man is in charge of policing the environment in a ship.” He holds up his finger and looks intently, like marking a spot in the air. “But we’ll get back to that. The woman seems to be in charge of activities. She monitors his scheduled routines through a large, glass-screened desk-cum-computer. She is the brain. He is the muscle.”
“Okay,” I say. That’s fair. He’s the muscle. He gets in a ship and flies around New York.”
“Wait,” says Jeff. “What kind of ship? And you don’t know it’s New York till much later.”
“Right, okay. True. So, what kind of ship? A flying kind of jet pod. Very ‘cool.’ We’re supposed to think it’s pretty cool tech. It’s the hook for the whole thing, if you think about it.”
“Spot on.” Jeff says, “The hook is the plane. Movement. We are sold on this world by flying through it. The podship lets we, the audience, have a first-person experience in exploring the world – which is a wide geology, and climate in a small area, varying from ocean to desert to mountain to mystery tower.”
“Mystery tower? Oh.. the Empire State Building.”
“Right,” he says. “But what is the plot? It’s quite thin, isn’t it? Very little dialogue. The interactions are visual, when they are spoken they are short and cryptic. This is planning. This is designed to give the audience just enough information to allow them – to force them – to write their own version of the relationship between Cruise and Riseborough.”
The actors – Tom Cruise and…is that her name? Riseborough? The red head?”
“Yes,” says Jeff, “Andrea Riseborough.” He’s apparently disappointed that I had to clarify.
“We are told in voice-over in the opening scenes that Cruise is flying his white, clean-lined, podship to hunt the remaining aliens who have destroyed Earth. We know that it is Earth. We have this confirmed when what he is dreaming – this scene on the observation tower of the Empire State Building – becomes a physical location in the film.”
“That wasn’t bad,” I say. “Because you didn’t know – the Empire State Building was buried in sand. Only the top stuck out. It was in a hill diving down into a canyon. That was kind of clever..” I think for a moment, “But I don’t’ know how .. what would have to happen, geologically, for Manhattan to be buried in that much sand. I guess we’re not supposed to think about it.”
“No, we’re not. It’s window-dressing. The ‘sci-fi’ elements are always subtext.” Jeff is instructing now. I let him unravel it for a moment. “The plot is this: a man and a woman are in a relationship in which both parties are not being honest. The man – Cruise – isn’t in love. He’s moving through motions. The woman is in love, but hiding a secret from her partner, so he does not leave her. They are not really partners – the line which is echoed to us is, “Are you a good team.”
“So, we’re ignoring the ship, the visuals, the hook, all of it, and going right back to man-woman relationship drama?” I say it more than ask it.
“Man. Woman. Woman.” Jeff says.
“Because there are two women. Okay.”
“Because there are two – the one he is with, living in a self-imposed blind spot, and the one he loves…”
“Who he dreams about,” I interrupt, “and who comes crashing down to Earth in a pod for some reason.”
“Because the rebel fighters signaled the ship to crash.”
“Oh, is that…Okay. I was wondering about that bit.” I think for a moment, then add, “convenient, huh? That we step into this movie just as the action starts.” I laugh, “I mean, what would Tarkovsky* have done? He would have…”
Jeff takes over the thought, “He would have shown us nothing happening for two hours but the workings of the ship, the house and the landscape.”
“Wow.” I say. “Maybe we got lucky.”
Jeff’s doodling something – a thin line around a…it’s upside down so I lean in and tilt my head. “Is that the ship from the movie?”
He nods and shrugs. “Yes. It’s a very evocative design, isn’t it?” I look again, seeing if I can see what he means. “It’s entirely derived from Moebius.”
“Oh,” I look. “The ”70s sci-fi artist? Okay…Yeah, I can see that. Pretty good.” I sit back in my chair. “So, plot. Where were we. Boy is with girl, but not in love. Girl is lying to boy to keep him. The ‘right’ girl is out there and drops from the sky, so… they live happily ever after. But they can’t, because that’s boring and the movie isn’t over. So, what’s next?” I think for a moment. “We forgot the adversary – the mega-corporation with those massive floating city water-collector things.”
“Fusion generators?” Jeff says.
“Right, I think so. So…they have fusion – which is like saying that they have as much energy as they want to have, from sea water. That’s what they’re saying. So…”
“So, what’s this movie about?”
“Right.” says Jeff.
“Right! Why are there any conflicts in a world where a technology exists that provides an infinite energy source? Why do writers shoot themselves in the ass with this shit? Constantly! There’s always an infinite energy source. Warp drive, Faster than light travel…Who is going to…to build a clone army of Tom Cruises to monitor…what? The dregs of the remaining human population, when they have endless energy? What do a few rats matter when you can travel through space in giant pyramid ships and park them on a planet to collect sea water for infinite freaking energy?”
“Okay,” says Jeff, slowing me down. “The question is, why do anything when you have everything?”
“Exactly!” I say. “Why hunt people when all you want is sea water to make fusion? Why clone a billion Tom Cruises and Mrs. Fake Tom Cruises to work in however many flying Frank Lloyd Wright glass houses on flagpoles in the sky when all you need is a little freaking sea water to make infinite fucking energy?”
Jeff sits quietly, scribbling. He purses his lips. “I don’t know. There is no good reason.”
“Not for the plot. Not for the ship. Not for the movie.” I say. “Which is why it…”
“It didn’t suck,” Jeff says.
I exhale frustration for a half second and then reconsider. “Okay Jeff, tell me. Why didn’t it suck? Why didn’t this movie, that has no reason for being, no conceptual basis, in fact Suck?”
“Because,” he says, “it was often beautiful.”
I breathe in slowly and my eyes lean to the right. I think for a moment.
“I don’t know. Beautiful? Creative in some ways. A big ‘borrow’ from six dozen other pieces of work. I mean, it looks good, that’s true. It’s pretty convincing – the scenery.”
“The scenery is very convincing,” Jeff corrects me. “The sci-fi elements are less so. But the ground, the scrub brush, the altered landscape – it was very serene. It had a personality.”
“Yes – the terrain. I think it was the deeper message in the film. Do you want to guess at it?”
I think. “Uhm…that…that there is beauty after apocalypse? No.. no. That… the world goes on without us?”
“Something like that,” he says. “That this horrible, complicated insane world that we are forced to live in, this calamity of wires and tubes, people and noise, that even invades our private spaces…”
“That it ends,” I say.
“That there is an end to a certain kind of madness. Yes, I think that’s what the movie is about,” he says. “I’m not sure the producers of the film understand that – but the art director did. And that is why, my friend,” he says, waiting for me to interrupt. “That is why it…”
“Doesn’t ‘suck,’ I say.” I laugh an exhale of breath, and think for a moment.
“Okay,” I say. “You win.”
– – –
Liam Scheff is author of Official Stories, The Geneticals, and co-author of Summer of ’74, and its teaser comic – all available on Amazon and/or Kindle. This short story/review is the first in the “Fragments” series.
* Jean Girard is the artist known as Moebius.
* An Olympic swimming pool actually contains 660,000 gallons of water. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. How does that house stay up on the flag-pole?