Nov 29, 2013, 06:58AM

What It's All About

Fiction: A life lesson about creativity at film school.

Rsz film projector.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

January 1964, Los Angeles—Len had some places to visit. Luckily, Kevin was predictable. He would not be in his suite—last spring he’d missed the deadline for off-campus and now lived with a den of business majors who threw footballs and milk crates at each other. Second, he wouldn’t have left the city, because his parents had stopped payments on his car. But you assumed, third, he was the greatest distance possible from whatever work he had to do.

The script had 30 pages to go, which was too bad since tomorrow was the deadline. Len might have tried handcuffing Kevin to his desk (no handcuffs). He certainly should not have let him leave the apartment. Usually Kevin would wheel about the streets and carom back to the place toward dawn; three hours on the couch and he could be pushed back to his desk, where he would deposit the final batch of words. That was their arrangement: Kevin had ideas; Len got things done. But dawn came and went; more hours went by. Now Len was pacing fast up South Hoover, his eyes open and searching as late-morning smog prickled him.

He’d started with a phone call to the girl from San Marino. He’d seen her a couple of times and the second time, two weeks ago, had been with Kevin and the girl’s roommate, Sako. Sako was from Japan and spoke about 50 words of English, so she could only pretend to keep up as Kevin’s motor mouth rushed along. “She doesn’t love me,” Kevin had said yesterday, knuckles digging at his temples. Len suspected she stayed away from him just because her face ached from holding that smile.

“Last night?” the San Marino girl said on the phone. “We saw him in the lobby, but then he ran away. I think he’s peculiar.” She added, “Sako’s in her room, writing her Dewey.” It was a term paper that education majors held in superstitious awe.

The girl, voice lifting, reminded Len that this time of year it was so much fun to go for a walk in the park, just pay a visit to the fountain and the roses. She waited.

Len said something noncommittal and got off the phone. The San Marino girl was all right but nothing special.

The Briarwood Theater didn’t have Kevin start his shift as usher until six; that made it a good enough bet. Len took the bus and then jogged five minutes along a side street. The marquee sagged; the letters on the marquee also sagged. They spelled, just about, Monika (not bad early Bergman, racy poster) and Black Sunday (Italian horror, good decor, painful dubbing, lots of cemeteries and nightgowns). Sometimes Rodan movies showed up here, or European films with thigh, or A Summer Place. Stepping into the lobby, you stepped on cement, and the air conditioner could be heard choking away in the dark. Kevin, in certain moods, liked to snub Thursday night showings at the school (Magnificent Ambersons, maybe, or La Belle et le Bête) and go to the Briarwood instead. On other nights no mood was necessary. He and Len would share Camels, and Kevin would stretch his legs over the seat in front of him—a problem only if he were supposed to be ushering—while he jabbed his cigarette toward whatever spot on the screen would settle their argument. “Shut up,” someone would offer from a row ahead of them. “Yeah. Good point. Yes!” Kevin would answer happily. He always thought he had been whispering; it gave him some extra excitement to see the faces turn toward them.

“Yeah, Kevin friend,” Mr. Podpirka said. He pushed a hand vacuum cleaner along the reddish stretch of carpet between the orchestra doors and the lobby. “Sure, you look. No movie, just look!” he added warningly.

Two people were in the auditorium, neither of them Kevin. Kevin wasn’t in the projection room, the Gents or the Ladies, the basement, the alley out back. Len ran through the lobby; ash was dropping from Mr. Podpirka’s cigarette as he pushed the vacuum cleaner along.

Len caught the bus as it pulled out. Plans. His mind sorted through a map of the campus, arranged according to probability of Kevin hangouts and minimized travel time between them. Physical Sciences rec room, Hoffman courtyard, editing room, Moench’s office. Moench, Screenwriting Technique, was the one waiting for their script. In Kevin fashion that made his office a possibility: the quarry, with the script unfinished, might choose today to drop in for some bull with his pal on the faculty. Or not.

If, contingency, Kevin could not be found—if he had disappeared—Len could… “Could” was not the right word. “Would have to.” The script would be up to him to finish. Skyscraper, man climbing. Two girls inside, slamming windows shut, trying to keep out the man, the killer. They… one calls to the other… But nothing came to him. It was like poking your finger at a lock.

He’d do it if he had to. A bad last resort.

Fifteen minutes later, he veered around a couple of corners and down a pavement meant to resemble brick, then through the standard double doors of chicken wire glass aproned by chrome. About a third of all the rooms on campus lay behind doors like this. Behind these particular doors was the space where shy or loud graduate students gathered to strand themselves on squat, low-backed chairs whose vinyl coatings had already begun to peel off their frames. Kevin had surfaced here more than a few times, knotting his arms and sinking the hinge of his jaw level with the chair back as he played chess or argued about colonizing Mars. “Kevin been around here?” Len asked. “Kevin Mulligan?” A few strays blinked back at him and he moved on.

Ten minutes, striking through a zone of brown grass and tubs of oversized pebbles, brought Len to the film school buildings. These were plain wood, two buildings thrown up side-by-side when the army needed someplace for typists during the war. They’d made it to three stories and never been pulled down. Cement intervened between them to form Hoffman Courtyard, and then continued on as a fake brick path to the nursing school. Kevin and the other film students spent a good deal of time in the courtyard to survey the traffic.

Barry Ruth stood on a picnic table, a red expanse of cloth tied around his neck and a big red S sewed in the center of his blue shirt. He ducked low, knees and hands swanning out before he bounced up and added a couple extra feet to his drop. Len enjoyed the reaction Ruth got from the others: it was film school. There was a collective shrug, an indifferent, disheveled equivalent of the shudder that works through a knot of car accident witnesses. Like the witnesses, the guys couldn’t manage to look away—in their case, because thinking about anything else meant thinking about work.

A half dozen of the guys stood around, and that was out of a class of 47, about half of whom faced project deadlines. Halsey was there, Rosnick and Yamura, and the kid from New Jersey who cracked his knuckles. Len didn’t consider any of them stupid. What struck him about the place was that everyone there operated from the idea of having a great project in life; and then, in most cases, they got busy trying to avoid knowing what that project was. Ruth here, Superman, was a little different: he blazed through his assignments, assembled crews, got them fired up, turned out some good product—Len considered him a rival. But what he chose to put together: “Captain Orbit vs. the Crab Centurions.” Ruth had got kicked out of the screening room because he’d been showing old serials after-hours; but he still filmed his own versions and expected the professors to watch those. Len appreciated this variant on futility: resourcefulness carefully routed onto a dead-end path. Ruth had told him over beers that after school he’d make training films back in Kansas City. “You heard what they said, the teachers, there’s the guilds and everything. No one works out here unless you’re a son or a cousin. Back home you can make good money. GE’s been sending a lot of work.” He looked at Len sidewise, no longer goofy for this interval. “You could do pretty good out there. Work with me on Captain Orbit for the weekends. I’ve been thinking about it, a bunch of episodes, the way the serials did. He’s going to meet beatniks.”

“Where do you show it?”

Ruth had plans for a projection room once he bought his house. None of this sounded bad, if you liked Kansas City, training films, and showing mixed-up versions of old serials to people drunk on lots of beer.

“You’re staying out here,” Ruth said after a while, seeing there’d been no sale. “A professor?” He made a face without even meaning to. Len understood. Their professors weren’t professors, by Len’s standards. They had no tenure, no doctorates. By the same token, they had no experience actually making money by putting films together. They were guys who had somehow wound up beside cameras and sound equipment long enough to know, pretty much, how the things worked. Now they argued about short films from Yugoslavia.

“No,” Len said. “The industry.”

“You’re going to give that a try.”

Len smiled.

“You and Kevin, huh?” Ruth said, his sarcasm growing. “The terrific two. You’re going to light up the skies.”

“What are friends for?” Len asked.

Now Len stood at the edge of the courtyard and watched Ruth clamber back on the table. “Banzai!” Ruth shouted and feinted a pretend jump, then another. A few pairs of eyes shifted away from him; the guys had sensed Len was there. A few scattered “Hey’s” and “Hi’s” came Len’s way and everyone stood and waited, as if he would provide the next show just by standing there. The guys in the school took him very seriously.

“Mulligan?” said one. “Haven’t seen him,” another said. The knuckle-cracker looked as if something was about to burst from his mouth, but then he subsided. “No,” he said sadly. “Thought I, but…” Ruth began flapping his arms, willing his audience back.

Len pulled open the building’s door and edged past the metal shelves with their padlocked boxes of film canisters and misassembled cameras. Light died in here but sound grew; the room’s plywood walls trembled when you marched by them, and the shelves scraped the walls somewhere high up beyond reach.

At the end of the corridor, the editing room (two Moviolas, three chairs). “Put the glass down and—” a girl’s voice said. “Put the—” She had the high, uncertain sound of an actress trapped in a sentence she couldn’t manage (hard to predict what group of words would have that effect on a student film’s recruits). The voice came out of the nearer Moviola; a first-year kid (Hyner or Heitner) crouched in front, his eyes hard on his machine’s little rectangle of glass. The kid had a stomach and mossy hair; he seemed to go a minute here or there without breathing. Heitner, or Hyner, snapped his fingers in time with whatever cut he was trying to accomplish. “Freedom is a funny word,” said a boy’s voice. It was the other Moviola. Williams, a tall kid in Len’s year, was trying to patch something together; he took a swig from a quarter-gallon carton of milk and dragged a hand across the red colony of pimples above his shoulder blades. Williams had never made a film Len liked, but he staked out the Moviolas like a big game hunter; the other kid must have gotten up at dawn to grab the newer machine.

The new kid snapped his fingers again. “Do you mind?” Williams said. “Do you mind?” The kid looked over, startled, and shrank down; Williams smiled to himself.

“See Kevin?” Len asked from the door, stepping into view. Williams jumped. Tipping his glasses back onto his nose, he gazed at Len with a bashful pleasure that Len couldn’t get used to; Williams liked girls, but he melted with Len around. “Mulligan, no, no idea, haven’t…” Williams gathered himself. “Getting a cut of ‘Ich Bin,’” he said, and thumped the side of the editing machine, though it was an awkward reach. Len gave him 90 seconds of conversation. Meanwhile, the other kid was snapping his fingers again, lost; you had to respect the obsessiveness.

Up the stairs to Moench’s office. Len knocked once and pushed in; Moench didn’t think much of Len’s writing, but like the other professors (Ryder in Lighting, Holloway in Editing, Lebinsky in Kinesthetics of Cinema) he found it comfortable to talk with him about the sad nature of the adult world.

Inside, Moench was straddling a chair on which he had balanced a wide cardboard box of cans. In fact the box was too wide for the chair. And it had split from being overloaded; the professor had his fingers under its edge. “Len, this is a fucker,” he said.

Len knelt and reached under Moench’s arm to get at the box. By the time Moench staggered away from the chair, wide-legged and throwing his hands up in renunciation, Len had shifted a critical mass of cans onto the floor.

“That was a load,” Moench said. “Up those stairs. But you can’t leave the stuff in the car. The parking lot, you get the negro kids coming in.” He believed the faculty parking lot was unsafe, despite the security guards and the 12-foot fence. “It’s too bad about the negro kids. Desperation.”

“You’ve got quite a supply here,” Len said. They were cans of horsemeat.

“Five cents off each. You can’t beat that, and the stuff keeps. Maybe Bessie can shut up for a while. Len, don’t get married.” Bessie wasn’t the professor’s wife; she was his Great Dane. But his wife loved the dog and insisted on providing it with comforts that only Moench could track down and bring back. Len had heard all about the situation.

“I guess I could take a few cans down with me each time,” Moench said. “As needed. Not going to hump that load again—you can rupture like that.” He found his way behind his desk, a big chestnut entity notched with black scar marks along its edge; cigar burns, Moench had once told him, explaining that the desk had come from a telegraph office. A lot of the school’s furniture had been bought at auction.

Sitting down, a change came over Moench. His hands and movements became sure. He cast a sly look at Len, and then meditated with his eyes toward the ceiling. “What were you looking at just now?” he said. “Can’t walk from the door to my chair without you sizing me up. Looking and you think. Kind of creepy, in a way.

Len smiled.

“You look okay doing it. A handsome fella. But knowing you’re doing it. Yeah.” Moench grinned.

“All right, I pay attention,” Len said.

“Len, what about marriage? You think you’ll ever get married?”

“No plans on my part,” Len said.

“Nah, marriage is out.” Moench was smiling up at the ceiling, hands on his potbelly. “That’s my news for you. That’s my fortune cookie. No wife, no dog. Nothing slows you down.” Moench hiked himself up in his seat. “Len, how’s your partner?” he asked, and he pulled a Coke bottle from a clinking desk drawer. He kept a lot of the stuff on hand. It had been either seven or nine years since his last drink—he forgot—but he said he needed something in the afternoons to feel wet.

“Kevin?” Len asked.

“Your partner,” Moench said. “I like what he did with that screwball comedy thing. Did you read that? Good to learn from. He’s a clever kid—inventive. You’re a sharp guy, but clever… well.”

Moench liked giving him this talk.

“No gift for dialogue. Eerie, when you consider, because of what I said before about your listening. You sit there, and so on, and you look. But you can’t… But I’ve told you this.”

“Yes,” Len said. “You have told me.”

“No gift for imagining, for… No gift for writing.” Moench preened. “Great job, huh? I can tell people they stink. Job can’t be all bad, you do that.” There were stories about past students who cried in the hallway outside Moench’s classroom.

He pushed a coffee mug of warm Coke in Len’s direction. “So how’s your partner? He finish your script yet?”

“We’re working on it. Almost there.”

“Tomorrow’s the day, nine a.m. I never forget a deadline.” Moench had worked professionally in movies, making him unique on the faculty. He took great pride in his deadlines.

“We’re almost there,” Len said.

“Hate to see you get derailed. Still, that’s a lesson in life.”

A silence. Len gave up on any subtlety. “Have you seen Kevin around?” he asked.

Moench threw his head back and laughed. “Oh boy. ‘Almost there,’ huh? So it’s you and the typewriter tonight. Sure hope the ending doesn’t stink. That can kill a project, sticking on a lousy ending.”

Len tucked a small smile on his face and waited him out.

“No, I’m just saying. Can’t write, can always be a producer. I mean, as long as you’re wishing, wish for a million dollars. Selznick, that asshole—” Moench hated David O. Selznick. As far as Len could tell, they had met twice in Moench’s life for a total of seven minutes, all of them far in the past.

Moench began a story about David Selznick and his eyeglasses and what a jerk he was and how the studio bosses and producers always stepped on the writers. He could go a long time on that subject.

Len stood up. “Guess you got to hurry,” Moench said, rather amused. “I guess. Now, have you seen Kevin?”

“I have seen Kevin. I have seen Kevin this morning. He wanted to talk about existentialism and what-does-it-all-mean. You know how his head rattles around. Fun, though. He always has something popping.”

“And where did he go?”

“Oh. I have no idea. Good luck,” he called as Len headed out the door. “Hate to see you get derailed.”

At 3:50 Len found Kevin in the last possible place, the floor of Kevin’s bedroom. A leg and an arm stretched out from under the bed, and the rest of him was out of sight. Outside the door, the roommates were arguing about a pitcher of martinis one of them had knocked over. They were big fellows, football players, and they broke things in the ordinary course of a day. It had taken 10 minutes of knocking before one of them opened the suite’s door. The guy filled the doorway and he looked down at Len with small brown eyes; but they shifted as Len looked back at him. “Kevin,” Len said. “Is he here?”

“Oh, that guy. His room, I guess.” Len took a step forward and slowly the football player eased out of the way.

Len had never seen a suicide attempt before, but he had to believe this was not a good one. A bottle of aspirin, a gallon of ale, neither of which had been emptied. He moved them aside and rolled Kevin into view; stray aspirins crunched under foot.

It was only when he’d been sat up against the bed that Kevin’s eyes opened; a trail of drool reached down his neck, and his face was white. Experimentally, Len took his jaw and wagged it.

“When’d you take them?” Len asked. “Yesterday,” Kevin said, from a great distance off. Even when un-drugged, he had difficulty with time. It had probably been an hour before or even less, because the aspirin came up in a few white-gray clots, like fistfuls of curdles. Len braced Kevin’s bony rear end against his own stomach and drove his hands up under Kevin’s ribs. Kevin was crying, but they were the sort of tears that show up when the body has a lot of vomit to move. After 10 minutes Len let Kevin slide back against the bed.

Len settled the wastepaper basket on the windowsill, the window open wide. “All right,” he said to Kevin. “Act II.”

Kevin’s face sagged against his fingers. “Jesus oh Jesus,” he said. “Jesus.”

“We’ve got a lot of pages left. I don’t want to screw this up. Come on.”

Len walked Kevin back and forth, shoulder under his arm, and Kevin vomited some more. The wastepaper basket was getting heavy.

“A movie. What’s the point?” Kevin said. A nest of paperbacks slid out from under him as he sat down on the bed. “You ever ask yourself that? That’s an important question.”

“No, it’s not,” Len said. “Not if you’re in film school.”

“There’s a temple outside Kyoto. They take Westerners. That’s what I should be doing. I could be doing that. But, no, movies. ‘Act II.’”

“Yeah, Act II. Now look, I want it to open this way—”

About three minutes later, Kevin said, “No, you can’t do it like that.” Len had drawn him into an argument; it was the equivalent of walking him around the room until his system got going again.

They kept talking past dark. The roommates went out for beer and came back, thudding and crashing; glass broke and the TV set went up loud. Kevin had started typing, though his fingers had trouble finding the keys. Len would have taken over, but he didn’t want Kevin out of his line of sight. Instead he leaned over him and batted his arms when they were going especially off course. The roommates had another fight and then fell asleep.

“She doesn’t love me,” Kevin said from time to time. “She doesn’t care who I am.” Around two a.m. he began talking about the temple again. “I want to peel the layers. I want to find out what’s inside me.”

“Nobody cares what’s inside you,” Len said. “They don’t care what’s inside them, they don’t care what’s inside you. Come on.”

They finished at four a.m. Len let Kevin sleep, head resting on more paperbacks at the wrong end of the bed. The covers showed guns, jungles, winged men, night skies layered with stars, elaborately tapered rocket ships like spires from the Middle East.

Len read through what they had, and except for the typos it was pretty good—Kevin had picked up some momentum toward the end. He started retyping the batch, and after a while the door began to thud. It was the football player with the small eyes.

“We want to sleep here,” the football player said.


“You’re typing.”


“So knock it off.”

“When I’m done,” Len said. “I’m writing a script. You write a script, you type.” He waited, and then raised his eyebrows. The football player’s eyes flickered away.

“Jerk,” the guy said, but he didn’t do a thing. Len closed the door.

Kevin was still asleep when Len handed the script in. Moench flipped through the pages. “Yeah, this is all right, this is all right. Have to look through it some more, but… You found him, huh?”

“We worked together,” Len said.

“You’re a producer,” Moench said. “God, I hate producers.”


Register or Login to leave a comment