May 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
My once good friend Benets has this place in Tangier; an apartment that isn’t all that cosy, that has a pair of bedrooms sized like halls and a balcony that overlooks a skyline of cracked still-cracking walls and peeling paintjobs, domes and lanky minarets. We rest our elbows on the stone balustrade and run our eyes along clotheslines that span buildings, bridging windows, hard to tell from telephone lines or lines strung up for reasons long forgotten. We drink our drinks, he scotch and I port. We admire the remains of Spanish-run days and of the sun, and then we move inside to take ease on his leather settees, in the evening heavy and cool.
‘Couldn’t you just eat this view?’ he says to me.
I tell him I doubt it could fit in my mouth even if I tried. I take the two-note noise from his throat to be some sort of a chuckle.
‘Scotch?’ he says sitting up and holding a position.
‘It’ll do me, Benets. I don’t mind port.’ We call him Benets to his face.
Benets grunts his way out of the hollow in the settee made by his ass. The patter of his loafers peters off into silence, but I know he’s only a little way off, by the coat stand pouring what he wishes was a scotch and what I’m hoping is just port.
I look out towards the balcony at the purple sky and I see a pair of minarets peeking over the railing. Below, between the uprights, I can see the rest of Tangier and it looks glorious as far as the bay. Has a rundown charm even in silhouette. I pull back my focus and fix it on the womanly curves of the balcony’s plinths. My gaze washes over the whole thing, balustrade and all, and I think – in a fit of melancholy – that I haven’t a thing in the world to stop me throwing myself off of it.
‘What was that?’
I say, ‘what was what?’ surprised that my thought could have somehow been made word.
Benets is back with scotch on the rocks in one hand and port in plain glass in the other, wearing an uneasy face.
‘I didn’t get everything but I don’t think I liked the gist of what I think I heard, Moss,’ he’s saying as he struts to his spot on the settee.
‘Benets,’ I laugh, ‘I didn’t say a thing.’ I really want my port and want it in me now.
I laugh. ‘No.’
Benets sits the glasses on the glasstop table but doesn’t sit. Gives a one-note chuckle.
My breath is cordoned. His gaze lacerates me, but then its edge blunts and his face softens and he picks up his drink and seats himself stiffly; glances at me and then away.
I watch him suck on the tan booze, see ice hit his lip and melt a little. He groans (perhaps from pleasure), elbows rested on his knees. Leaning forward I slide the petite glass my way and lift it and knock back a drop; my eyes they never leave him.
‘Must be so nervous I must be hearing things,’ he says to the darkening outside. To the crystal glass at his mouth.
I pitch in by clearing my throat and sipping more port. Benets asks if I ever hear things when I’m nervous.
‘No,’ I say. ‘But my bowels they go funny sometimes.’
Benets says, ‘that’s not so odd.’
I don’t feel quite settled where I’m sitting, like my ass is in the clouds. I ask him what’s gotten him so unnerved; if it’s not just the wedding.
‘Bah…! Anouk’s a big girl and so am I,’ he says.
So as not to laugh at this slight misspeak I roll booze round my mouth. But I find that I’m really not that amused.
I say, ‘maybe the bigger the girl the bigger the nerves. Is that something people say?’
Benets silently shrugs.
‘I’m not nervous,’ he says with sudden verve, after an extended post-shrug silence. ‘Do I look nervous? Maybe anxious, but that’s a different thing to nervous.’
‘Well,’ I say, ‘I hope it’s just anxiety and not nerves.’
Anouk, Benets’ bride to be, hasn’t an anxious bone anywhere anyplace. She’s a French expatriate whom Benets met on a boating trip, the kind well-off folk take to remind themselves how well-off they are and how much less well-off they could be. They talked as they sailed from Boumerdés but that’s all I know of how they encountered.
My first encounter with Anouk was at a newsstand, on the cover of a magazine. She would later disarm me with her deathly sense of humour and her dissertation on the benefits of being underweight. Benets is crazy about her and I think I am too.
The laces draped over the French doors leading onto the balcony beat softly in the tepid sundown breeze as though fanning Benets. I watch Tangier blacken all around him, watch the laces fall still again, still as he stands. For whatever reason, I get up and amble here, amble there. I eventually stop and stand.
‘I wish there was some way I could say thank you,’ I say.
‘You could just say it.’
‘Been saying it since yesterday, since the airport.’
‘And you think I don’t think it’s enough.’
‘Enough. Such a shit of a word. Is it ever enough for anybody?’
I feel like a hatstand he’s hung his gaze upon. And then I feel naked when he reclaims it and casts it upon the view from the balcony. All is silent for not too long. I’m briefly amused that the glint of the city might outdo that of the stars.
Now past my amusement, I give a quaint laugh. Benets doesn’t ask ‘what?’ as I’d hoped. I step forward once, twice, till we are in effect level-shouldered. I clear my throat of muck. ‘I’m still trying to figure out the catch,’ I lightly say with a hint of a put-on chuckle.
Benets quarter turns and I can see, in the glass he’s holding, a thin film of gold clinging to the rocks now reduced to mere hailstones. His look is blank as he says, ‘what catch?’
‘Feels a little like winning the lottery. Being your best man.’
Benets stares at me. ‘You want out.’
‘Alec,’ I declare. ‘Alec. Please. Not at all. I’m just saying.’
‘I’m just listening.’
‘It’s only – it was odd that you found me, is it not? Hell, remembered. What were the odds?’
‘You forgot me.’
‘If I ever did I can’t recall when. All due respect, but how could I forget? I’d hear your name around…the names of the women you were with…blah, blah. I’d read it in the paper and think to myself I knew that guy. A tower your namesake…Then I’d remember how we were friends once.’
‘You say once as if it’s permanent. I’m not so changed, Moss, just not so stupid, and broke. For sure not broke.’
‘No.’ I feign a smile. ‘It’s just — this is the kind of good thing that doesn’t happen in forever.’ Suddenly, the melancholy.
He has this way of stating questions.
‘Maybe I exaggerate.’
‘Come outside with me for a sec.’
In the darkness of the night on the balcony we are without drink and it all seems so very honest. Far, as far as the bay, I see something queer on the water and think it would be nice if it were the sail of a yacht that was out for a late stroll.
Fifteen floors underfoot on a two-way street that should be a one-way, two cars duck each other like ex-lovers in a grocer’s aisle. I choose to follow the one on my right with the one dead taillight that’s readying for a left turn but then slows at a junction for a stop sign. Benets chooses to rest his chin on the hair-darkened arms he’s lined up on the balustrade, like a child gazing down, taken with heights.
‘If you leapt,’ he says out of nowhere – and my ears prick – ‘that’d be it.’
I consider the drop with a welling pulse and it is truly quite a drop. ‘So much time to think.’
‘If you leapt you wouldn’t be thinking.’
‘No. But two-thirds down you’d begin.’
‘Huh,’ he says. ‘I wonder what of. Maybe,’ he continues, ‘all the things you’d be leaving behind.’
‘Maybe for some,’ I say despite my suddenly leaden throat, ‘all the things you don’t have to leave behind.’
Benets’ brows collide and his forehead creases and he frowns. ‘You don’t have to. Then why do you?’
‘No no. You leap because there’s nothing to leave behind. Because you don’t have love or money or a daughter or a son or something to fight for, and you don’t have a clue about anything.’
I notice my lungs have emptied and that I am without breath. But I let air leak slowly in as though I don’t need it so much.
Slowly Benets’ lips ease and his forehead skin smooths out and his brows tease apart. Now he is upright and his hands are nestled in his pockets, hidden from this cheeky breeze, this breeze that carries with it the rumpus and spices of Casa Barata, the thieves’ markets. I can almost hear it, the heckling and friendly insults.
‘It’s a sad thing,’ says Benets, ‘that you had so much to gain.’
I’m thinking it’s a sad thing that I still do.
‘A sad thing,’ he says,’ but a good thing. Somehow.’
I look at him.
Two days before the wedding, Benets throws himself from the balcony and drives his skull into the ground. People can’t believe that he fell, how on earth he could have fallen, how drunk he must have been. I can’t believe it either because I know for a fact that he threw himself.
He is survived by a few things ¶.
I was meant to spend the next five days celebrating a marriage. These I end up spending wandering the thieves’ markets or lying in bed reading, in my bedroom in a four-star chain motel. This is when I’m not being summoned to the police station to confirm answers to questions that I’m certain I’ve already been asked.
I know no-one, none of the other guests, certainly not anymore if once upon a time I in fact did. And, from what I hear, none of them are eager to stay much longer in Tangier.
But for me this is free time that I could never pay for out of pocket, and I find that I’m unable to complain, but for the tragedy.
Five days later, I board the return leg that Benets paid for and I fly back to where I’m from, with the knowledge that he chose me to be his best man but ended himself before I had the chance to do him the honour.
¶ Benrhine Systems Inc., currently down 0.38 per cent on Bloomberg, the presidency of which is soon to be filled by one of a number of very worthy candidates; 714 100 in-car GPS systems worldwide, two million units of a now discontinued line of android smartphones, roughly 8300 sets of security gates installed in stores all along the west coast of the United States and spreading, the IFE (in-flight entertainment) systems of the entire fleets of two international and seventeen regional airlines, the patronage of a well-known Perth-based oil exploration company; Benets Towers in south Seattle, home to 86 offices and 115 residential units including a penthouse featured in Luxury Home Magazine last year; two ex-wives, both of whom remember him as a good man but a bad husband, and barren; nearly three dozen ex-lovers (a love affair being arbitrarily defined as having lasted more than a month), most of whom would describe him as a decent man and a good lover, but incompatible with commitment; a Cessna Citation Sovereign business jet, and a Cessna Corvalis TTX that he was learning to fly with, which looks avocado green in the right light, usually late in the evening; two godchildren; homes in 5 out of 6 major continents numbering 8 in all, homes being properties that do not earn rent in the owner’s absence – his personal property investments number in the tens and fetch tens of millions; a weeping, head-turning beauty of a fiancée who I suspect will never again betray her vow to never invest herself, her time or her heart in people, fickle people.
November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s difficult to view and appraise – without growing resentment – a film that is considered by some prominent critical voices (Jonathan Rosenbaum being chief amongst them) to be the or at least one of the crowning achievements in renowned B-picture producer Val Lewton’s relatively small but influential filmography. Said difficulty presents itself not too long after director Mark Robson’s “The Seventh Victim” hits its stride, if one can call it that – more like a slow, anergic trudge – and morphs into a resounding disappointment by the time the literally clunky final shot rolls around. The film is frequently noted for having a bizarre plot, an odd assessment of a narrative that can be synopsised thusly: high-schooler Mary Gibson (played by a serviceable Kim Hunter) goes in search of her death-wishing older sister Jaqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks looking very much like her surnamesake Louise Brooks), a cultist who has gone into hiding after evoking the bloodlust of her brethren by seeing a psychiatrist and possibly exposing their secrets. So plot-wise, this is no “The Big Sleep.” The film has also been praised for its noirish poetry though there is not one shot or sequence worth recalling, unless perhaps the creepy scene during which Mary Gibson re-encounters Lou Lubin’s dead detective in a deserted subway car, or the admittedly haunting shot of Jacqueline Gibson sitting in a chair, surrounded by black-clad ex-fellow Satanists, debating whether or not to commit suicide on their terms or on hers. Betsy Connell’s eerie jungle sojourn in “I Walked with a Zombie” and Alice Moore’s high-heeled jogs through chillingly empty New York City streets or her night-time pool swim in the brilliant “Cat People” evoke a thrilling and protracted sense of dread matched by nothing in “The Seventh Victim.” The soundscapes in the former two pictures, both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (for Val Lewton), are simply rich enough, detailed enough to complement the visual sparseness and simplicity that renders those films perfect for preying upon a viewer’s jumpy imagination. Conversely, “The Seventh Victim” seems somewhat deprived, as though the film begs that the viewer pretend to be terrified by the mystery of a missing woman or by the presence of the occult in Greenwich Village, rather than enticing them to give in to the terror that should already nag at them, incited by the contents of the movie itself. Where the best of the best B-grade horror productions from the forties and fifties – and all periods for that matter – circumvent their lack of funds/resources by turning want into ascetic efficiency and poetic minimalism and ensuring that silence and stillness manifest as resounding emotional disquiet, this 1943 film simply feels demoralised by its low-budget status.
“The Seventh Victim” seems to be frequently described within the same breath as being both a horror and a noir; perhaps a noirish horror or a horror noir? But where exactly does the horror reside? Assumedly, its credentials as a chiller are founded in its occult/supernatural leanings, but this picture desperately needs an injection of “Rosemary’s Baby” or even “The Wicker Man” where Satanism is concerned. The band of cultists at the centre of Jacqueline Gibson’s disappearance may be portrayed in the way that they are – refined in a callous way, bourgeoisie more than bohemian – in order to capitalise on the notion of ‘the banality of evil’; that these people are frightening precisely because they may very well be your folks’ lawyer or your aunt’s obstetrician but that they would also gladly feast on your dripping, severed neck (though they probably wouldn’t). This is exactly the case with “Rosemary’s Baby”, the only palpable dissimilarity being that there is a chasm of difference in the energy that the two respective groups of actors bring to their portrayals of ‘evil’ with an urbane face. This is not to say that every actor must dominate their scenes like Ruth Gordon does in Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, but how can one be terrified by a tired band of tarot card enthusiasts – which is how Jacqueline Gibson’s mob come across, either this or the ‘passively’ powerful illuminati – or whatever demonic force it is that they represent, especially when their ineffectuality if confirmed in a hokey scene towards the end of the film in which the Lord’s Prayer is wielded like a paper sword against a dead adversary?
Maybe the noir angle is the most interesting element of the film, the depressive rut that Jacqueline seems to be in for the film’s entirety and which culminates in a final moment that so desperately wants to be bittersweet but which seems rather blah. It must be said that the idea of a key character who maintains a room with a noose and stool in place so as to maintain her sense of self-determination is worthy of sitting up and taking notice, and it is somewhat surprising to hear ‘suicide’ and similar terms bandied about with relative candidness in a picture from this period. One can only imagine that such a morbid outlook would have made hairs stand erect on the backs of neck and arms when the film first premiered, and that the deeply coy depictions of ‘sordid’ lifestyles and realities – lesbianism, the occult, suicidality and fatalism – would have made for a potentially potent stew of fear and dread in a then contemporary audience, but once this era-dependent effect is made redundant with time, the film must maintain its powers of terror on either an intellectual or a deeply primal level, or at the very least possess undeniable artistic merits, something that a film like “Cat People” does with such elegance and assurance.
The dismay this movie inspires is sadly not allayed by the acting. Jacqueline, when she appears, not only fails to live up to her apparently heart-stopping beauty but bears none of the eeriness of the titular character from Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, though it must be said that she is at least a moderately intriguing presence, the same of which cannot be said for anyone else in the picture, perhaps apart from down on his luck poet Jason Hoag or Dr Judd, the psychiatrist. There is an element of exhaustion to the performances, particularly after the film hits its midway point. Movies from this period, especially American studio ones, display a certain type of acting that seems very conscious of blocking (the way in which actors move and position themselves within the confines of set and the camera’s view of it). In the best pictures from this period, this very ‘staged’ approach is simply part of the artistic fabric. There is a certain theatre, a formality and structure to the dance of actors around each other and across the set that compliments and is complimented by all other elements in these films; it can be like beholding a tango or waltz, appreciating how grace and beauty can be supported, even enhanced, by such stricture and rigid technique. But when there is something lacking – be it actors with range or presence, a screenplay with narrative originality or linguistic flair, or bold, visionary images – this ‘blocking’ becomes transparent and rote and it becomes clear how little else there is.
How many things are more disheartening than sitting down to view an apparent masterpiece and walking away having seen what you’d swear was a dud? It’s enough to make one doubt what one even considers good cinema.