From The Paris Review’s vaults, “The Joycelin Shrager Story” by Tom Disch–
When people asked what he did, Donald Long’s standard riposte was, “I’m a mechanic of the dream.” Meaning, he was a projectionist. Actually few people had to ask, since Donald had been around since the first black-and-white flickerings of the Movement early in the fifties. With the money he earned at the Europa he produced Footage, first as a quarterly and then bi-monthly. For years it was their only magazine, but gradually as success changed the Movement into the Underground, Footage was supplemented and then supplanted by newer, more commercially oriented magazines. Donald Long’s reputation as the Rhadamanthys of the underground film was undiminished, and possibly enhanced, by reason of this failure, but there was one consequence to be regretted—he had to continue full-time at the Europa, from one in the afternoon till the early evening, six days a week.
The Europa is on 8th Avenue, just below 49th. Originally it had been a showcase for Russian, Polish, and Estonian movies not otherwise distributed in the city, but then, imperceptibly, without a change of owner (or, so far as Donald could see, of clientele), the Europa drifted toward a policy of nudism and the exposure of organized vice, especially the white slavery traffic. By the end of ‘69 the Sexual Revolution had swept the October Revolution into oblivion.
Something of the same thing had been happening in his own life. Donald was forty-two, and after decades of honest homeliness he was finally coming into his own. What had been even ten years ago a boney kind of face was now rather striking in a severe way. No longer did he dissemble his baldness with a few iron-gray strands brushed up from the sides. No, he let it declare itself, and what hair still was left to him he grew, boldly, down to his shoulders. But best of all, his somatotype had become trendy, and he was able to fit into all the skimpy pullovers and striped pants that most men couldn’t have attempted after the age of thirty.
Not that he became a satyr quite. He simply began taking advantage of the opportunities that had always offered themselves to him from time to time. At parties he was less diffident. He would even dance. (He had gone to a Reichian therapist and redirected some of his energies from his head down to his balls and, concomitantly, his feet.) He got rolfed, and laid.
But he didn’t fall in love. He kept waiting, alert as a seismograph, for some tremor of affection, warmth, whatever. All he ever felt was a great glow of health and, toward his partners, benevolence, a degree of gratitude, a lesser degree of curiosity. But love? Never.
He knew what love was. Twice before he’d been in love. The first time, at twenty-four, he’d made the mistake of marrying his love-object, the black actress Cerise Miles. That was 1949, the year of Kazan’s Pinky, and among enlightened Manhattanites love conquered all. By 1951 Donald and Cerise had come to hate each other much more passionately than they’d ever loved. As a result, his memories of the early, positive period of the relationship resembled, in their deliberate fuzziness, the one film Donald had ever made himself, Tides of the Blood. Among much else, Tides was a record of his marriage’s collapse. (And, by implication, of Western Civilization’s.) Cerise had played herself, improvisationally, a performance that even after Donald’s editing was considered a limit-case of what underground cinema could do along the lines of honesty.
The second time he was luckier and fell in love with the wife of his best friend, Gary Webb. The necessity of concealment kept Donald and Grace Webb in a state of zesty suspense and made their few rare moments alone together lyrical in the extreme. Then, after the adultery had gone on some two years, Grace felt she had to tell Gary. There was no question of divorce, since both Webbs were renegade Catholics who still believed in the sanctity of the marriage bond and the natural law. It was just her unconquerable candor. Gary was wretched and furious by turns, and Donald and Grace were rapturously guilty and more in love than ever.
Gary Webb was at that time (the late fifties) the most prolific (and, according to Footage, the best) director in the Movement. Film for him was less an art than a religion. He was its priest, and his camera was the sacrament he carried through the world, hallowing it. He filmed everything: snowfalls, muggings, Grace in hal asana position, trees in Washington Square, football games on Channel 5, a friend’s stoned, staring iris (a shot he was sure Hitchcock had plagiarized in Psycho), a dripping faucet, cars on the street, and the natural births of all six of his sons. He also filmed, with Grace’s connivance, representative moments of her adultery, and this footage became the basis of his most revolutionary and well-known film, Reel 16 (1959).
The affair ended when Gary inherited his grandfather’s farm in western Kansas. The Webbs moved west, with their cats and children and cameras, and in a few months Grace had been absorbed into the irrecoverable past. Years later he was to get a postcard from either Grace or Gary, he could never be sure, to which was glued a snippet from the ad for The Great Gatsby: “Gone is the romance that was so divine.” The card showed a motel outside of Lebanon, Kansas.
On Sunday mornings, thanks to its owner, Norman Brodkey, and to the tax laws that make such transformations so profitable, the Europa became the Foundation for Free Cinema. The Foundation’s screening policy was egalitarian, even kindly in a careless way, mixing established old masters like Anger and Brakhage with whatever else happened along, and throwing in an occasional reel of the Europa’s indigenous beavers when their directors or actors had credentials in the Movement. This policy usually guaranteed a minimum attendance figure of twenty-five or thirty, comprised mainly of fledgling filmmakers, their casts and close friends.
On this particular Sunday, May 17, 1970, the Foundation was showing two works by Anna Congdon: Stigma (1954, 48 mm.) and Dreams of Eurydice (1967, 13 mm.). Because these combined running times precluded more than a token representation of films by the Foundation’s regular customers, because Miss Congdon had never ventured from her native Australia and so lacked the social leverage by which to muster the fiction of a coterie, and finally, because the weather was more than ordinarily unacceptable, the turnout stopped just one short of none at all. That one was Mike Georgiadis, whose oeuvre, long since completed, shared a common mythopoeic strain with Miss Congdon’s, and at whose urgings Donald had at last agreed to give the old girl her crack at America.
Mike was propped on the stainless steel ledge of the ticket booth, coughing, joking, and smoking fifteen-cent El Productos. It was an evil, evocative cough, but pardonable when you knew that Mike was dying of emphysema, had been dying of emphysema now for all of fourteen years.
They passed the rainy minutes gossiping about colleagues, the waxing and waning of their incomes, marriages, entanglements, and reputations. Mike, who was firmly established at the waning end of all scales, had a knack for interpreting any scrap of news so as to make his friends seem morons, martyrs, or, if the news were incontestably good, thieves. Donald, whose style was to be magnanimous, praised whom he could and forgave the rest. Donald’s exculpations incited Mike to ever fiercer judgments, and these in turn provoked Donald to still more ingenious charities. They worked well together.
A damp, large, lardy girl in a yellow vinyl poncho with a Bolex Rex-4 pendant from her neck like some mammoth ankh had parked herself before the Foundation’s mimeoed schedule, which was scotch-taped over the glassed display of stills for Lust Party. As she read her mouth and eyebrows ticked an unceasing commentary of pouts, sneers, frowns, and grave suspicions. Disturbed was the word that came to mind.
Mike vanished into the theater.
Donald couldn’t take his eyes off the girl’s Bolex. Its fittings were rusty, the leather was peeling from its sides, and its carrying strap was a doubled length of twine: a camera as woebegone as the wide, wet, hungry eyes of a Keane puppy. He was smitten.
She looked at him and looked away. She scrabbled in a tiedyed cotton satchel and brought out a dollar bill compactly folded into sixteenths. She undid the dollar regretfully and pushed it into Donald’s cage.
“Has it started yet?” she asked.
“No, not yet. We’ve been waiting for more people to turn up.
“Then maybe you could do me a favor?” She bared her small brown teeth in a defeated smile, like a teenage panhandler’s or a Scientologist’s, that no rebuff could dismay.
“Certainly,” said Donald.
“I’m making a film.” When he did not contradict her she went on.
“And I need some footage of me coming down the street to the theater here. All you have to do is aim the camera at me and look through here.” She pointed to the viewfinder, from which the eyeguard was missing. “And touch this when I say to. Otherwise it’s all wound up and ready to shoot.”
Donald consented to be her assistant. He came out from the ticket window and took the wounded camera in his arms.
“Be careful with it,” she thought to insist, seeing that he was careful.
“These things are very expensive.”
Then she walked up to the corner, turned around, fussed with her poncho, squared her shoulders, and fixed her wide, meaty lips in a smile representing an irrepressible buoyancy.
“Now!” she shouted.
Through the viewfinder he watched her advancing toward him with a sinking certainty that Fate had come in at the door without knocking. He knew she was not beautiful. Indeed, her face and figure and bearing passed beyond mere homeliness into the realm of absolutes. She was sinfully ugly. Nevertheless his whole frame was in a tremble of sexual anxiety such as no beaver had ever roused him to.
When the film had run out, she said, “You’re Donald Long, aren’t you?”
He admitted he was.
“Wow, that’s terrific. You know, I’ve read every word you’ve ever written?”
“Yeah.” She nodded her head solemnly. “So this is really an important moment in my life.” Then, offering her hand: “I’m Joycelin Shrager.”
Joycelin’s film, The Dance of Life (or rather, this latest installment, for The Dance of Lifewas conceived as a film fleuve, ever flowing on, the unexpurgated and amazing story of her life) was screened by the Foundation for Free Cinema three Sundays later. There was a good turnout. One reason was because this was an open screening, and where there is hope there is good attendance. The other reason was because Donald had been sending out signals and his friends had rallied round, as to Roncesvalles. Jesse Aarons, a director who was making a name in porn, had come, and Ed Gardner, who reviewed sometimes for The Voice; Louise Hiller, the modern dancer who had rolfed Donald, and her latest boyfriend, Muhammed Kenzo, a black painter who’d had a painting in the Whitney; the Bachofens, of the Bachofen Gallery, and their son Arnold; Mike Georgiadis, Helen Emerson, and Rafe Kramer (survivors from the older, Maya Deren era of the Art Film); Lloyd Watts, the conceptual artist who’d come to doing street signs and traffic lights by way of his underground movies about cars, and three poets from St. Mark’s, one of whom had had the bad fortune to be wearing the same lime-green leather pants as Jesse Aarons. In all, an imposing assembly.
Joycelin’s three best friends were also at hand, eager to see themselves as stars on the Europa’s screen. There was Murray, a tall, lean, aging, gay Satanist with frizzed hair; his roommate Eric, an office temporary; and Doris Del Ray (her stage name), who’d met Joycelin at a New School film history course in 1968. Doris now studied Jazz Ballet with a teacher in Brooklyn Heights who had studied at Jacob’s Pillow, long ago, with Ruth St. Denis. Consequently there was always a special sequence featuring Doris Del Ray, with choreography by Doris Del Ray, in each new installment of the Work-in-Progress. There she would be in her black tights, clawing at the air, or convulsed into an expressive ball of pain, or solemnly mounting and descending staircases swathed in remnants of sheer rayon, her long hair unbound, a priestess. This time it was a kind of temple scene, with Murray wearing his Satanic vestments, on the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. Murray also had a longish moment reading the Tarot. The camera studied each card intently while the sound track continued to play the temple theme, “Anitra’s Dance.” Eric’s big moment came after “The Tower” was turned up. He picked up the card, scowled, and returned it to the deck. The music changed to “Asa’s Death.” He looked still grimmer: slow fade to black. As Eric’s most salient character trait was an uninflected, sullen resentment that Murray regarded as butch, in The Dance of Life he symbolized Death and other negative vibrations. He never did much more than smoke and glower, but there was always a moment of him doing that somewhere in the middle of each reel, like Harpo’s musical interludes in every Marx Brothers movie.
Contrary to the practice of Gary Webb, who scrupled, Godlike, to efface the evidences of his own directing presence (even editing out footage into which his shadow might have strayed), Joycelin appeared abundantly in The Dance of Life—was, in fact, nearly co-extensive with it. Here she was, at the start, striding down Eighth Avenue toward the camera and into Donald’s life. Now (with Donald still aiming the camera) she was fiddling the dials on the phonograph. (In tribute to the Orpheus of Cocteau.) Holding up the record sleeve ofRevolver. Feeding a squirrel in Central Park. Standing in the empty band shell and clapping her hands with enigmatic ill temper. (They’d had their first argument, and she was making fun of him.)
Here was Joycelin glueing acoustical egg cartons to the walls of her bedroom, and re-glueing them as they fell off. Here she was coming down Eighth Avenue again. You could see the smile being jarred from her mouth as she walked. The expression that lingered in the closeup was one of mild, moist avidity. Someone in the theater (it sounded like Helen Emerson) actually snickered, but then it was time for Doris and Murray to do their thing on the temple steps, a sequence so typical of the Foundation’s offerings that no one dared say boo.
Joycelin next accepted a bouquet of pilfered tulips from Doris’s hand, Doris having become a statue. Cut to joycelin’s favorite M.C. Escher poster, then pan down to Joycelin arranging the tulips in a glass. Then, in a moment of understated candor, the camera (with Joycelin guiding it now) examined Donald’s clothing draped over a semi-deflated inflatable chair. Clouds scudded, Squirrel Nutkin nibbled away, the Hudson flowed softly by, and she ended her song with a reprise of herself advancing in slow motion down Eighth Avenue, while, voice-over, she intoned a stanza from a poem she’d found in Strengths, a mimeo magazine of feminist poetry:
i love you
for the way you see
i love you
for the strong caress
of your fingers in my heart
& how they always seem to know
what parts are spoiled
pass them over
to pull out treasures
that I never knew were mine
until you gave them to me
The terminal closeup of Joycelin’s face slowly faded to white. As the last wisps of eyebrow evanesced, a wee small voice went on:
i love you
for the self-beauty
gleaming like diamonds
in the priceless setting
of your eye
The applause stopped short of an ovation, and after that in the discussion period no one had anything to discuss. Ordinarily Donald could have got the ball rolling, but the poem, which had been added to the sound track as a last-minute valentine surprise, had thrown him off his usual moderating form.
He started the next movie, a slapstick parody of Star Trek by a ninth-grader at the Bronx High School of Science. People laughed at it perhaps more than it deserved. Joycelin got up in the middle and left the theater. After a short argument with Eric, Murray followed her out.
One forgets, during one’s own romances, that it is a curse to fall in love. This time, for Donald, this had been apparent from the start, nor would it ever cease to be apparent. He was appalled at his heart’s election. But there it was—he loved her. Worse, he lusted after her continually with the fixated, somnambulistic desire of Peter Lorre in M or a bride of Dracula. Waking he thought of her, sleeping he dreamed of her. It was the real thing, which there is no resisting.
After hours at the Europa, if he were not in demand at her apartment on East 13th, he would watch, entranced, reel after reel of The Dance of Life (which earlier had borne the title, Dance of the Moon-Girl) and wonder: Why? Why me? Why Mimi?
Mimi was his pet name for her (Squirrel Nutkin was hers for him), after Puccini’s Mimi, and in particular after the Mimi of Marguerite Ruffino, of the Ruffino Opera Company, which put on grand operas at an Off-Broadway theater on Monday nights, when it was closed. The company was financed by Marguerite’s husband, a retired fireman, and in every production she sang the leading soprano role with a headlong, bussed-out inadequacy that kept her fans coming back steadily for more. Donald had seen her in Aida, in Norma, in Cosi Fan Tutti, and in La Gioconda, but her greatest role, surely, was Mimi. No Boheme had ever been sadder, nor truer-to-life, than the Ruffino’s.
Pity—that had been Donald’s downfall. All his life he had loved losers, losing, loss. At zoos his favorite animal was the yak, yearning hopelessly behind its bars for the peanuts no one wished or dared to feed it. He had pretended to find a higher wisdom in the more kindly varieties of ignorance, a Woolfean beauty in faces that were unarguably ill-formed, and hidden forces throbbing in the filmic daydreams of the weak, the lazy, and the incompetent. Seeing this vice apotheosized in the love he felt for Joycelin did nothing to diminish his passion for her, but it did enable him to see how thoroughly he resented everyone else who took up space in his life. His friends! He wanted nothing but to be rid of them. No, even more he wanted a revenge for the decades he had spent praising their meretricious work—and he began to see how, beautifully and without a single overt betrayal, he might obtain it.
Unless she were filming and needed the light, Joycelin slept till two or three o’clock. This, together with the penchant of most twenty-year-olds for self-examination, allowed her, even after a second bout of love-making, to go on talking all night long—about her past, about her latest ideas for The Dance of Life, about what she’d do with his apartment if it were hers, about Murray and Doris and her boss at May’s Department Store, where she worked four nights a week in Accounts. Her boss had it in for her.
“Because,” she explained one night, “I’m Jewish.”
“I didn’t know you were Jewish.”
The burning tip of her cigarette bobbed up and down in the dark. “I am. On the side of my mother’s grandmother. Her name was Kleinholz.”
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean—”
“People think Shrager is Jewish, but it isn’t.”
“It never occurred to me to think so. You don’t look Jewish.”
“People can sense it in me.”
She was fired three days later. Proof, if any proof were needed, that anti-Semitism had struck again.
She was certain that Donald was concealing his true opinion of her. The books in his bookcase, the records on his closet shelves were unlike her books and records. Chance remarks required long footnotes of explanation. His friends were inattentive, and she didn’t find their jokes funny. He said their humor was just a shorthand form of gossip, but that was no help. If they talked in riddles, how could she ever be sure it wasn’t her they were gossiping about? Anyhow (she wanted him to know) her friends didn’t care much for himeither. Murray thought he was a phony. He’d done a chart of Donald and found out terrible things.
The easiest way to calm her at such times was not to urge the sincerity of his admiration but to make love. She seemed to take his uxoriousness as her due, never offering any of those erotic concessions that a typical underdog believes will earn the ravished gratitude of the beloved, just lying back and yielding to his ardors. It astonished him, in his more reflective moments, how accepting she was of her own substandard goods. A Nigerian tribesman who has come into possession of a Land Rover could not have been more reverently admiring of his treasure than was Joycelin of the machineries of her flesh. Mirrors never fazed her, and she could pass by any shop window in the city and instantly translate its mannequins into images of self. She wasn’t (she knew) pretty, not in any conventional way at least, but the fairies who’d presided at her birth had made up for that lack with other gifts, and the light of them shone in her eyes. This was how her father had explained the matter to her in the once-upon-a-time of Cleveland, and that mustard seed had grown into a perduring, mountain-moving faith.
And yet she was uneasy. She revealed that in high school she had been known as Miss Bug. Once she’d taken a beginners’ class with Doris’s teacher in Brooklyn Heights and realized that the woman was making fun of her behind her back.
“That’s what hurts, you know. Because you have to pretend you haven’t noticed. Why couldn’t she just come out and criticize me in the open? I know I’m no Pavlova or anything, but still. With a little more encouragement I’d have got the hang of it. I’m a born dancer, really. Murray thinks I must have been a ballerina in one of my previous lives. There’s certain pieces of music that when I hear them it’s like The Red Shoes all over again.”
“You shouldn’t let one person’s opinion get you down like that.”
“You’re right, I know. But still.”
She waited. He knew what she wanted from him, and it aroused him to be able, expertly, to supply it. It was easy in the dark. “You know, Mimi, the simplest things you do, just walking across a room maybe, or sitting down to eat, they have a kind of strange gracefulness. It is like dancing.”
“Really? I don’t try to.”
“It’s probably unconscious. Like a cat.”
She wanted more, but he didn’t have any immediately at hand. All he could think of was Cupcake, his super’s fat spayed calico, who rode the elevator up and down all day in the hope of getting to the garbage in the basement.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she insisted.
“I was thinking about us.”
An egg carton fell from the wall.
“I was thinking how sometimes it’s as though there’d been a disaster, like in The Last Man on Earth, if you ever saw that?”
“I feel like that at times. Completely alone.”
“Except in my scenario you’re there too. Just you and me and the ruins.”
“Why you dirty old man! You’re the one who’s like a cat—an old tomcat. Stop that!”
“I can’t, baby. Anyhow, we’ve got to get the world repopulated again.”
“No, seriously, Squirrel Nutkin. You’ve just given me an incredible idea for the next part of Dance. And if I don’t write it down I might forget.”
She was up till dawn. Scribble, scribble, scribble.
He would arrange get-togethers with his oldest, dearest, so-called friends and let the fact of Joycelin sink in as they ate her parsimonious stews and meat loaves. Then, when the dishes had been cleared away, they’d watch The Dance of Life. With a soldier-like pleasure in his own remorseless fidelity, he squeezed wan compliments from his boggled colleagues. There were years and years of debts to be collected in this way, and Donald was careful never to exact more than the interest on the principal, so that in a few months he might press for renewed courtesies.
With Joycelin, increase of appetite grew by what it fed on, and when the first faltering praise trickled to a stop—the strained comparisons to Merce Cunningham or tantric art—she would nod demurely (making a note of such novelties in her mental notebook) and then ask for criticism. She admitted she was young and had rough edges. While in one sense her faults were part of her Gestalts (and therefore sacrosanct), on the other hand she was still growing and learning, and so any advice was welcome. For instance, in the long tracking shot of Doris, did the degree of jiggle perhaps exceed the ideal? Did the uncertainty of what was happening detract from the Vision she’d meant to get across? Most guests survived these minefields by adopting the theory offered them—that all their hostess needed was a little more know-how vis-à-vis equipment, a little polish to bring out the natural beauty of the grain.
However. There were, inevitably, a handful who lacked the everyday aplomb to conceal their honest horror. Of these Mike Georgiadis was the most shameless, as well as the most cowardly, for he didn’t even wait for the bedsheets to be tacked up screen-wise on the wall before he was in flight, leaving poor Helen Emerson and Rafe Kramer to cope on their own. Helen in her day had soaked up God only knew how many fifths of Donald’s Jim Beam, and Rafe had been dumping his little abnormalities into Donald’s all-accommodating psychic lap for half their lifetimes, like an eternal festival of the murky, lubricious movies for which he had once won, with the wind of Donald’s reviews in his sails, a Ford Foundation grant no less. Even they betrayed him that night. Helen first, by bursting out, at the end of the jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, with the awful pronouncement that Joycelin’s case was hopeless. That she was not an artist. That she never could be an artist, and that surely in her heart of hearts she must know this too.
In the face of such gorgon truths what use was there talking about camera angles, shooting ratios, film stocks? Joycelin became tearful and appealed to Rafe.
Rafe was mute.
Helen, with implacable good will, said was it so important after all? People fussed too much about art. There were other things. Life. People. Pleasure. Love. Enlightenment.
Joycelin turned to stone.
Donald bit the bullet. “Helen,” he said, echoing her tone of creamy reasonableness, “you know that what you’re saying just isn’t so. When you consider the budgets that Joycelin has had to work with, I think she’s made better films than any of us. They’re utterly honest. They’re like doorways straight into her heart.”
Better than any of us?” Rafe insisted with mild amaze.
“We’re the has-beens,” Helen declaimed, slipping into her English accent. “The bankrupts. The burnt-out cases. Isn’t that so, Donald?”
“I didn’t say it.”
“And Gary?” Rafe demanded. “Is he another has-been?”
“You know how much I’ve always admired Gary’s work, Rafe. But yes, I do think The Dance of Life is right up there with the best things Gary Webb has ever done. And Joycelin’s still growing.”
It was enough. Joycelin’s composure was restored, and she it was who smoothed these waters with the assurance that nothing was worth old friends losing their tempers over. The Sara Lee cheesecake must be thawed by now. Why didn’t they eat it?
The September issue of Footage had a long essay by Donald about The Dance of Life. He waited till it was in print to show Joycelin. As she read the article, a look came into her eyes. A look such as you might glimpse on a baby’s wholly contented face, when its every need has been fulfilled: the understanding, for the first time, that there is a Future and that it will suffice.
Afterwards he regretted that he hadn’t thought to film her at that moment, for he was beginning to think of The Dance of Life as his own movie too, and even, in an odd way, to believe in it.
Donald had three rooms in a brownstone around the corner from the Europa. Since he’d been there time out of mind his rent was less than Joycelin’s, though she had only a narrow studio with a bathroom that she had to share with Murray. Donald’s apartment, though no less ratty in its essentials, was of a less effortful kind of grunginess than hers. The furniture was off the streets or inherited from friends. Never had he deceived himself into attempting improvements, not by so much as a pine bookshelf. Things piled up of their own accord, on windowsills and tabletops, in corners and closets, and increasingly they were Joycelin’s things: her stereo (after it had been repaired); her paperbacks; her seven coleus plants; the Escher poster, a rug, a chair; most of her clothes; even the precious Bolex Rex-4 and the rest of her equipment, since his neighborhood was marginally safer and the windows had bars.
At last after a serious talk they agreed they were being ridiculous in keeping up two apartments. Even if it meant forfeiting her two months’ deposit, wasn’t that better than paying rent forever for a place that they spent so little time in and that had never been more anyhow than a temporary expedient?
So they borrowed Lloyd Watts’ station wagon, and early one Tuesday morning they loaded it with whatever was still worth salvaging from East 13th Street, which was not a lot. Most painful to relinquish was an armchair that Joycelin had schlepped all the way from Avenue A, but she had to admit it was too bulky and probably (serviceable as it still was) full of roaches. There was a problem, too, with the toaster and the electric coffee pot, since Donald already had the best Korvette’s could offer. But you can’t just leave armchairs and appliances behind, like the old bags and paint cans under the sink. So, even though he didn’t answer his door, it was determined that Murray was to be the inheritor of these and other orphaned articles: a lidless blue roasting pan, some empty flower pots, a can of turtle food for turtles that had died, a wealth of coat hangers, and a bicycle pump. Joycelin didn’t have a key to Murray’s room, but she knew how to jimmy his lock.
The room was painted a uniform, Satanic black—floor, walls, ceiling, window—and all the lightbulbs were gone from the sockets. They might very well have moved in all the presents without seeing Murray at all if Donald hadn’t thought to light the room by opening the refrigerator door.
Their first thought was burglars. But burglars would not have dressed Murray so carefully in his cabalistic coat and hat and left him in the middle of a pentagram. No, it was Nembutals, as it had been twice before.
The reasons were not far to seek. Only a week after meeting
Jesse Aarons at that fatal Sunday screening of The Dance of Life, Eric had got a part in a gay porn feature called The Boys in the Bathroom, and now he was living in a sadomasochistic commune in Westbeth. He wouldn’t even talk to Murray on the phone. At the same time, more delicately but no less definitely, Joycelin had left him to mount the ladder of her success. He couldn’t even be her cameraman now. What was left?
They got him to Bellevue in the station wagon and his stomach was pumped out in time. All the way back to 13th Street, where they’d forgot to close the doors, Joycelin couldn’t get over her awesome intuition. What force had led her to Murray at his darkest hour and made her break down his door?
Then she remembered the Tower. Right there in The Dance of Life was the answer, plain as day. From the moment he’d turned up that card, she should have known. Perhaps (was it so impossible?) she had!
Next day she was back at Bellevue with Murray’s billfold (he needed his Medicaid ID), a pillowcase full of fresh underwear and socks, and the old Bolex Rex-4 around her neck. The guard wouldn’t let her into the elevator with her camera (these were the days of the Willowbrook scandal, and warnings were out), and so the only footage she could get to illustrate this momentous chapter of her life was some very dark shots of the lobby and her argument with the nurse, and a long, careful pan of hundreds and hundreds of windows, behind one of which, unseen by Joycelin and never to be seen by her again, a pacified Murray in clean blue pajamas was playing dominoes with a Jehovah’s Witness, who had threatened to jump from the balcony of Carnegie Hall during a Judy Collins concert until an usher could convince him not to.
At Christmas Donald spent a small fortune on Joycelin, his Jo. In addition to such basic too-muchness as perfume, an amber necklace, and a Ritz Thrift Shop mink, there was: a cased set of Japanese lenses and filters, a four-hundred-foot magazine for the Bolex with sixteen giant spools of Kodak Four-X, a professional tripod with a fluid pan head, three quartz lighting heads in their own carrying case, a Nagra quarter-inch tape recorder, assorted mikes, and a mixer. He’d stopped short of an editing machine, reflecting that there’d be time for that extravagance next time.
When all these treasures had been neatly wrapped in the most expensive gold paper with bushy red satin bows and stowed beneath and about the Christmas tree, itself a monument to his fiscal incontinence, he felt, supremely, the delirium of his own self-inflicted loving-madness. O sink hernieder! And he was sinking. At last he could understand those millionaires in Baizac who squander their fortunes on floozies, or those doctors and lawyers in Scarsdale and White Plains whose savage delight it is to see their money transmogrified into tall gravestones of coiled hair surmounting their wives’ irredeemable faces, into parabolas of pearls declining into the dry crevasses between two withered dugs, into the droll artifice of evening gowns, whose deceits, like the sermons of Episcopalians, no one is expected to believe.
The unwrapping began as a responsible masque of gratitude and surprise and ended in genuine anxiety infused with disbelief. Without working out the arithmetic, she could not but wonder how, unless he were a stockbroker in disguise, Donald could have afforded all of this.
At last, when they were sitting down with their eggnogs in front of the electric Yule log, she had to ask.
“It’s simple. I sold the magazine.”
“You sold Footage. That’s terrible!”
“I’m keeping my column in it. That’s down in writing. All I’m giving up is the drudgery, and Jesse is welcome to that.”
“Jesse Aarons?” she asked, as he snuffled in the loose flesh of her neck.
“You see . . . ” He curbed the stallion of desire, leaned back in the nest of hand-crafted pillows that had been Joycelin’s merry gift to him, and exposited. “Jesse had the idea, some while ago, that there should be a serious magazine about skin flicks. Something that would do for porn what Cahiers did for Hollywood, make it look intellectual. At the time I’d used a couple of his articles along those lines, but I couldn’t see taking the whole magazine in that direction.”
“I should hope not. But then why—?”
“Five thousand dollars”
Joycelin set down her eggnog on the new Nagra and became serious. “But just last week, Donald, Jesse borrowed eighty dollars from you.”
“The money doesn’t come directly from Jesse. Harold Bachofen was the purchaser, but his name won’t go on the masthead. Though Arnold’s will, of course. Harold screwed Jesse out of the profits on Ear, Nose, and Throat last year, and he’s giving him Footage byway of an apology. I think he wants a slice of his next feature now that Jesse’s star is on the rise.”
“I still don’t think you should have done it. I mean, Footage was worth a lot more than five thousand dollars. It’s the most respected magazine in the field.”
“Every issue of that respected magazine puts me two hundred dollars in the red. When I’m lucky. We’ve got better things to do with our money.”
“You should at least have waited to find out whether I get my CAPS grant or not. If Helen Emerson can get a CAPS grant, I don’t see why I can’t.”
“Absolutely, Mimi, my love. All in good time. But meanwhile, five thousand dollars is five thousand dollars.” He poured the last of the eggnog into her glass.
She sipped and thought. Fake firelight from the Yule log rippled over her Art Deco negligee. She struck an attitude elbow propped on the arm of the couch, chin resting on the back of her hand-suggestive of close attention to music not audible to other ears than hers. At such moments Donald was sure she was thinking: “Is he looking at me now?” But this time her thoughts had truly been on a larger, philosophic scale, for when she came out of it, it was to declare, with all the hushed solemnity of a presidential press secretary, that Donald had done the right thing and that she was proud of him. And very happy.
The first issue of Footage to come out under Jesse Aaron’s aegis had for its cover a still from The Dance of Life that showed Eric in a denim jacket, squinting at the smoke of his cigarette. It looked every bit like a face on the cover of a real magazine. Joycelin gazed and gazed, insatiable. There was also another nice little mention in Donald’s column.
“I wonder. . . .”
“What do you wonder, my love?”
“Whether I shouldn’t try and get in touch with Eric again. I mean, he has been so much a part of Dance right from the start. Just because he isn’t with Murray anymore—”
“What about Murray? Did you ever find out his address?”
“No, and I don’t care if I ever do. The bastard.”
Murray had gone off to San Francisco without ever saying good-bye, much less thanking her for his life. The transition between concern for Murray’s mental health to bitterness at this snub had been difficult to accomplish.
“Well, I wasn’t going to tell you this, but you know how Murray was always telling everyone how he was a Scorpio? He’s not. When I had to bring him his things to the hospital, I looked in his billfold. Where it says date of birth on his draft card, the date was January 28th, 1937. An Aquarius! His moon isn’t even in Scorpio, for God’s sake. I looked it up, and it’s in Capricorn.”
“He probably thought he’d be more interesting as a Scorpio.”
“Of course that’s what he thought. But that doesn’t make it right, does it? There’s one thing I can’t stand, and that’s a liar. I mean, if your own friends lie to you, how can you believe anything?”
The wedding was in June, at St. Mark’s In The Bowery. Joycelin’s parents were to have come, but at the last moment (not unexpectedly) her mother came down with shingles, so Harold Bachofen acted in loco parentis and did very well. Joycelin’s gown was a collaboration between herself and Doris Del Ray—a white silk muumuu swathed in tulle, with a veil and train that were one and the same. Donald dressed white tie, as did Harold Bachofen. Everyone else came in whatever they regarded as regal, which included, in at least one instance, drag.
The theme of the wedding, in any case, was not to have been fashion, but film. Everyone who owned or could borrow a camera was told to bring it to St. Mark’s and shoot, the resulting trousseau of footage to be incorporated into a single grandiose wedding march inThe Dance of Life. Since the invitation list included everyone in underground film who hadn’t actively snubbed Joycelin, the results were gratifyingly spectacular. Donald stopped counting cameras at twenty-three. As a final dollop of authentication, a news team from Eyewitness News appeared just as the bride was being led to the altar. (Donald’s former brother-in-law, Ned Miles, was now an executive at Channel 7.) The wedding, alas, was squeezed out of the news that night by an especially sinister double-murder in Queens, but the news team made it into The Dance of Life. They were the only people in the whole church who seemed at all astonished at what was happening.
And Joycelin? She was radiant. True movie stars, Donald had theorized once in Footage, actually receive energy from the camera, or from the cameraman, like plants getting energy from the sun. They become more alive, more definite, more completely who they are, like the dead on the Day of judgment when they arise, wartless and cleansed of all the local accidents of character: the skeletons of their essential Selves. So too Joycelin, whose special and enthralling awfulness always awoke to greatest vividness when she was being filmed. And today . . . today with cameras springing up like daisies in a field, today there was no reckoning her transcendency. Roland Barthes says of Garbo that her face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced, a state in which “the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.“ In this respect Joycelin and Garbo were much alike.
The filming continued at The Old Reliable, where the reception was held. As Donald had been temporarily overwhelmed, Joycelin and Doris took it on themselves to collect the contributions to the Foundation for Free Cinema, which was what they’d requested in lieu of conventional wedding gifts. People got drunk too quickly, a crush developed, and Jesse Aarons got into a fight. The bride and groom left early.
Joycelin was kittenish, not to say petulant, in the cab, and when they arrived home she insisted on a bride’s prerogative of having the bedroom to herself. Donald undressed down to his shorts, and then passed the time drinking from the bottle of Asti Spumanti he’d rescued from the reception. It was flat. He didn’t feel so wonderful himself. Great and long-awaited events do take it out of you.
He tried to get into the bedroom but Joycelin had locked the door, so he watched Eyewitness News. They showed the actual bloodstains in the stairwell where the woman had been stabbed. Forty-seven times. And the woman’s niece as well.
At last she said to come in.
The dear old Bolex, on its new tripod, with its four-hundred-foot magazine in place, was set up facing the bed. The quartz lighting heads blazed down on the turned-back sheets like the desert sun.
“Surprise!” She was wearing nothing but the one-piece veil and train.
He could not pretend to disapprove on either moral or esthetic grounds. Joycelin had not only seen Reel 168—she’d read Donald’s reviews of it. The principle was the same. But still.
“Mimi, darling . . . I don’t think I can. Not at this moment.”
“That’s all right, Donald. Take your time.”
He went and sat at the foot of the bed, facing the eye of the lens. “Any other time, but not tonight. That reception got me down, I think. Seeing all those people I haven’t seen in so long.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me. Just sit right where you are and say what you’re feeling. Whatever it may be. Now that we’re married it’s like we’re just one person. Dance is yours now as much as it’s mine. Really.”
She started the camera rolling. Unconsciously he’d placed his hands in front of his listless crotch. He could not look up.
She held out the directional mike. “Just say anything. Whatever you’re thinking. Because whatever is—is right.”
He was thinking about failure, which seemed, tonight, the universal fact of human life. But he couldn’t say that. His thoughts were sealed inside his head like the documents in the cornerstone of a building. They could never come out.
“Hey there! Squirrel Nutkin! Look at the camera, huh? Say cheese.”
He looked up at the camera and began to cry. For her, for him, for all his friends—for the dance of life.