“The Movie” — Don DeLillo

“The Movie”

the overture for the novel Players

by Don DeLillo

Someone says: “Motels. I like motels. I wish I owned a chain, worldwide. I’d like to go from one to another to another. There’s something self-realizing about that.”

The lights inside the aircraft go dim. In the piano bar everyone is momentarily still. It’s as though they’re realizing for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble. Beyond the windows not a nuance of sunset remains. Four men, three women inhabit this particular frame of arrested motion. The only sound is drone. One second of darkness, all we’ve had thus far, has been enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition. In the cabin just ahead, the meal is over, the movie is about to begin.

As light returns, the man seated at the piano begins to play a tune. Standing nearby is a woman, shy of thirty, light-haired and unhappy about flying. There’s a man to her left, holding the rim of his drinking glass against his lower lip. They’re clearly together, a couple, wearing each other.

The stewardess moves past with pillows and magazines, glancing into the cabin at the movie screen, credits super-imposed on a still image of a deserted golf course, early light. Near the entrance to the piano bar, about a dozen feet from the piano itself, are two chairs separated by an ashtray stand. Another obvious couple sits here, men in this case. Both look at the piano player, anticipating their own delight at whatever pointed comment his choice of tunes is meant to suggest.

The third woman sits near the rear of the compartment. She pops cashew nuts into her mouth and washes them down with ginger ale. She’s in her early forties, indifferently dressed. We know nothing else about her.

Without headsets, of course, the people in the piano bar aren’t able to hear the sound track of the movie being shown. Early light, some haze, surfaces burnished with moisture. As the final credit disappears, the flag marking a distant green lifts slightly and ripples and then men appear, golfers and their paraphernalia, at the left edge of the screen.

Feeling his way, still tentative in these introductory moments, the pianist is rendering a typical score for a silent film. This amuses the others, although their smiles and expressions aren’t directed toward anyone in particular but are instead allowed to drift, as happens among travelers in the initial stages. The stewardess alone seems disappointed by the limits of this logical association between music and film. True, the movie they’re viewing is in effect a silent one. But she gives the impression she’s been through this routine before.

Between the piano bar and the screen, the rows of seats appear to be empty, the top of not a single head visible over the high-backed mechanical chairs. We assume people are sitting there, motionless, content to sift among the images.

The woman near the piano begins to yawn, almost compulsively, a mild attack of something. She yawns on planes just as she used to yawn (adolescence) seconds before getting on a roller coaster, or (young womanhood) when she was dialing her father’s phone number. Her companion, with a stylized jerkiness that’s appropriately Chaplinesque in nature, brings his left foot way up behind him and boots her lightly in the rear, an act so neatly conceived it makes her laugh in mid-yawn.

The golfers plod onscreen, seven or eight in all, white, male, portly, several driving golf carts, bumping slowly over knolls in single file. They’re all middle-aged and wear the kind of rampantly bright sports clothes that suburban men favor on weekends, colors so strident they might serve as illustrations of the folly of second childhood.

The piano player adds an element of suspense to his sequence. His face, although lined about the eyes, has been slow to lose an appealing openness, the objective emblem of a moral competence we associate with young people who make pottery or do oceanic research.

Moist surfaces, light breeze, the mist beginning to clear. The golfers cluster around a tee and the members of an improvised threesome drive in turn, twisting their bodies to the flight of the ball. They set off down the fairway as their companions take practice swings, one of them (yellow cardigan) tucking the club head into his armpit and sighting along the shaft, briefly, in a rifle-firing jest, this wholly offhand moment shading away into borders of surrounding activity.

The older of the homosexuals leans over the top of the ashtray to give his companion a theatrical nudge. The piano player has also noted the nearly concealed gesture of the golfer in the yellow cardigan and responds with a series of bass chords. Import, foreboding.

It’s worthwhile to point out that the characters and landscape are being seen through the special viewpoint of a long lens. This is a lesson in the intimacy of distance. Space in this context seems less an intuitive experience than a series of relative densities. It intervenes in compact blocks. What the camera shares with those watching is an appreciation of optical cunning. The sense of being unseen. The audience as privileged onlookers.

The piano music, a substitute sound track as well as a medium of autonomous comment, begins to express a deepening degree of (sly) apprehension that blends well with the film’s precisely timed sequence of shots, each slightly briefer than the one before, a suggestion of routine events about to give way to some unforeseen pressure.

The young woman has managed to stop yawning. The man alongside studies the fingernails of his right hand. He does this with fingers bent in over the palm, thumb extended. The woman, without taking her eyes from the screen, reaches over, grabs his thumb and begins to bend it back. He looks up and away, eyeballs rolling. In time he begins making the sound either or both of them make when troubled by anxiety, critical choices, nameless dread, the prospect of boring dinner guests, his job, her job. The woman in the rear looks on without expression. It’s a prolonged hum, the speech sound m.

The golfers on this sweet green morning attend to their game. Together again momentarily on a particular fairway they appear almost to be posing in massed corporate glory before a distant flag. It is now that the vigilant hidden thing, the special consciousness implicit in a long lens, is made to show itself.

A man, his back to the camera, rises from the underbrush in the immediate foreground, about two hundred yards from the golfers. When he turns to signal to someone, it’s evident he holds a weapon in his right hand, a semiautomatic rifle. After signaling he doesn’t reassume his crouch. One of the golfers selects an iron.

Another man comes up out of the shrubbery, rising to his full height. We don’t know his precise location as it relates to any of the other people. He faces the camera. Behind him are deep woods. His clothing is diverse—baseball cap (peak up), threadbare paisley vest, work shirt, garrison belt, white trousers fitted into high boots. Bandoliers crisscross his chest. He carries a cut-down Enfield.

The long lens picks out a man and woman standing at the top of a small hill. More bass chords. Accumulating doom. At this distance they appear to be built into the sky, motionless, both carrying rifles. Another woman, in a much tighter shot, stands alone in a sand trap, barefoot, wearing a tank top and fringed buckskin pants. One leg is bent, all her weight on the other, the left. She holds a machete back up over her right shoulder, resting it there.

The piano player moves to the end of the bench and sits up on one haunch for a fuller look at the screen, his fingers not straying from the keyboard. The first of the terrorists begins the long run across the fairway.

Most of what happens next takes place in slow motion. The terrorists are seen running, one by one, out into the open and toward the golfers. Being young, and dressed as they are in jeans and leather and attic regalia, and running, they can hardly fail to be a lyrical interlude. The subnormal speed at which their bodies perform makes them seem creatures of gravity, near animals struggling toward some fundamental transition, their incomparable crude beauty a result of carefully detailed physical stress. On the hill a single figure remains, man, hands in pockets, shotgun under one arm.

The first runner starts firing as he approaches the group. A man in a sweater falls, golf balls rolling out of his pockets. The terrorists, trying to isolate their victims singly or in twos, have three men dead almost immediately. Bodies tumble in slow motion. There’s blood on golf bags, on white shoes, spreading over tartan pants. Several men try to run. One swings his club and is shot in the groin by the man with the Enfield. He topples into a pond, clouding it with blood. The stewardess serves mixed drinks to the male couple and a ginger ale to the woman in the rear.

It isn’t until now that the silent-movie music reveals the extent of its true relationship to the events on the screen. To the glamour of revolutionary violence, to the secret longing it evokes in the most docile soul, the piano’s shiny tinkle brings an irony too apt to be ignored. The simple innocence of this music undermines the photogenic terror, reducing it to an empty swirl.

We’re prompted to remember something here, although this act of recall may be more mythic than subjective, a spool of Biograph dreams. It flows through us. Upright pianos in a thousand nickelodeons. Heart-throbbing romance and knockabout comedy and nerve-racking suspense. History this weightless has an easy time of it, we learn, contending with the burdens of the present day.

In the piano bar the small audience laughs, except for the woman drinking ginger ale. Despite the camera’s fascination for the lush slaughter of these clearly expendable men, the scene becomes confused, due to the melodramatic piano. We’re steeped in gruesomely humorous ambiguity, a spectacle of ridiculous people doing awful things to total fools.

What conceivably makes this even funnier (to some) is the nature of the game itself. Golf. That anal round of scrupulous caution and petty griefs. Watching golfers being massacred, to trills and other ornaments, seems to strike those in the piano bar, at any rate, as an occasion for sardonic delight.

Bodies are blown back into sand and high grass. If it’s all a little bit like cowboys and Indians, so much the better. One of the golfers tries to escape in his cart, steering it toward the woods. The young woman with the machete sets out in pursuit, arms pumping in slow motion, hair sailing out.

The piano player introduces a chase theme. His mock-boyish face carefully qualifies every smile—a grimace here, a shudder there. The violence, after all, is expert and intense. His fellow passengers laugh as the golf cart overturns on a slope and the woman skids down after it, her arm slowly raising to deliver a backhanded slash. The man tries to crawl away. She walks calmly alongside, chopping at his back and neck. Here the chase music gives way to a lighthearted lament. The woman leaves the machete in his body and heads back to the others.

The man who’d remained on the hill walks down now into this scene of fresh death. He is liberation’s bright angel, in watch cap and black slicker, coming out of the sun. He wears lampblack under his eyes and thick white pigment across his forehead and cheeks. The others stand around, taking deep breaths, consciously intent on nothing but their own exalted fatigue. He holds the shotgun out away from him, as nearly parallel to his body as he can feasibly manage, muzzle up. The golfers are strewn everywhere. We see them frame by frame, split open, little packages of lacquer. The terrorist chief, jefe, honcho, leader fires several rounds into the air—a blood rite or passionate declaration. Buster Keaton, says the piano.

And now the stewardess serves drinks to those who need them and everybody gradually moves to different parts of the piano bar, their loss of interest in the movie manifesting itself in this nearly systematic restlessness. With the configuration thus upset, the piano silent, the film ignored, there is a sense of feelings turning inward. They remember they are on a plane, travelers. Their true lives lie below, even now beginning to reassemble themselves, calling this very flesh out of the air, in mail waiting to be opened, in telephones ringing and paper work on office desks, in the chance utterance of a name.

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