Of course we are jealous of you. To be enclosed forever inside a great film like a singing bird in a silver music box! To be known! To get those glances! To wear those clothes! To have your surfaces polished smooth by attendants, until any encroaching imperfection is gone, and you are once again primed for the light. Or to have your flaws venerated, turned into something distinctive and holy. But, sometimes, what we feel for you is pity: exposed as you are to our endless grubby gazes, you are like the breasts of public statues eroded by the rubbing of infinite hands. How terrible, to have your life overrun by those who think they know you but only know your roles. How terrible, what you have to do for your roles. To spend your days kissing strange, hard lips, chewing cold, decorative food, catching already-dead fish, and this: enduring traumas not your own, crying all the strength out of your bones. Then, lying in bed at night, looking up through the grainy darkness wondering who you will be next. Fearing that no one will ask you to be anybody again. Wondering who you are if you don’t get to be anyone else. Only you know that obscurity is a desert you are always walking through and the work of keeping the sand out of your boots is endless.
But mostly, we adore you. Bigger than us, and aglow with light: on the movie screen, you are like the haloed figures in medieval art who tower over the townsfolk they cure or bless, the townsfolk who bow to them or shoot arrows at them. We grew up falling in love with you, seeing every movie worth seeing. We are grown up and still catapulting our longing against the screen.
The violin, the promising clop of horseshoes on the cobblestone… The actor playing the detective looks out his window, cocks his head, bemused at London, like the god who wound the music box of London. We are enraptured: the aquiline length of his nose, how his nostrils flare, the circles like moats under his eyes, eyes the green color of moats, hair slicked back like some kind of vampire, the pallor of his skin like some kind of vampire. He walks fast, speaks, moves, laughs fast. Outside a stately manor, he walks on his tiptoes, all black angles of knees and elbows, then falls to his belly to look at footprints in the grass. Often he is intolerant, unless he has a lady for a guest, in which case he tosses up his coattails, sits down. Tell me pre-cise-ly, he says, lavishing her with the kind of attention he usually reserves for syllables. We do not listen to his guest, who is dull; we watch him. His eyes that close to listen and open and squint and widen to listen. We wish she wasn’t there: we want to see him alone, be the suspect, the witness, the victim, to have all the clues somewhere on our person. It is because he sneers at common sentiment that we want to stir him to loveletters. It is because he always takes command that we want him to take command of us. He is the first of a litany of difficult men, and we remember him, his lavish roll to each “r,” his finger to his lips, his ear to the wall of the bank vault, waiting for criminals to criminally enter, whenever we find another untender man we wish to make tender.
The Western Hero
This actor’s sunburnt face becomes more rifted, more canyoned, until it finally contains topographical features from most of the western states in which his films are set: mountain peak nose; square butte chin; eyes like lakes glinting impossibly in a cracking desert. It is a face he has not cared about: he does not care about anything. He does not care about anyone’s problems. He does not want to get involved. This is his quality: unwillingness. He drags his heels. He does not want. For the beginning of every movie he has ever been in, he is the boulder that everyone is trying to push up the mountain. How will they ever get the boulder to move? When they get him to grudgingly do what they need him to do, the avenging, or the defending, they are so thankful they cry. We learn this is what a hero is: not willing, but unwilling. Even after a great success, he is not happy, at best he is unsurprised, always he is hungry to once again retreat, for no triumph is a match for the desolation in him. If we could, we would clasp him to us, press our ears against his heart, block the wind that is always blowing the tumbleweeds inside the dry, white bones of his chest.
His face conveys things, without his meaning it to convey anything, and that is the best part of watching him, what leaks out, the dissatisfaction or the disdain between smiles. Fortunately, somebody saw what he barely hid, and knew too that this scornfulness of his was unearned, that his belief in his own capacities was unfounded, and decided that this entitlement gave him the divine right to play a king, which now does with regularity and an accent made up of liquid vowels and a chomp of consonants. He stands there and lets himself be dressed, undressed, fed, cleaned, despised. He is as petulant and demanding as a child, but, like the greatest of actors, he is unafraid of being insufferable. He disrobes ladies-in-waiting with an impatient flicker of his eyes, passes judgment with the twitch of a lip. At least as often as we dream of being the queen that he would keep, the queen that would keep her head, we think about what it would have been like to be his mother, and how much we would have wanted to slap him.
The Saloon Owner
Tough man in a plywood town, even his limp is a strut. His boot heels threaten the thin floorboards, his cannonball voice is too big for the just-made rooms. It happens again. The camera moves to another saloon, and we want to stay here, with him, in his office after the whores go, and have him swear at us and not mean it. We want to see up close his ravined cheeks and eyes with underbellies, the I-dare-you lift of one eyebrow, the oh-do-you lift of one eyebrow, stand with him as he looks down from his balcony. And what if we did come to town? Who would we be to him? Would our stockings be ripped and our parents dead, would we have no recourse but whoring, or would we be petticoated, buttoned, gloved, with a waist the size of a bracelet and the best claim in the town? Either way, we would be at his mercy. We would not mind. We trust in his essential goodness. Yes, he has no patience. He uses words our mothers would not like. (Our mothers do not like this show.) But this man, who has servants, chooses to scrub the blood from the floorboards on his knees. Out of compassion, or for penance. In other moustacheless roles, he looks ridiculous. This role was his apotheosis.
He is an actor, at once muscular and pot-bellied, who never thought he would be a leading man. When he was younger, he aspired only to be the flunky with the most screentime. He lifted weights, to look a certain broad-shouldered way. In his peaceful middle age, without warning, just as he was beginning to regard the duration of his cameos and the span of his shoulders sufficient, he was cast as a leading man, the toughest tough guy, and once he realized that the offer was not a joke, he reluctantly shook off his complacency and took the role of a lifetime. The new job is almost more than he can bear. In his previous movies, he did not have many lines; he leaned back against walls and gave an impression of strength, occasionally punching a man down in an alley, never really touching him, occasionally lifting something that looked heavy but was made of painted foam. Now he is exhausting himself just learning his reams of lines: his memory has never been strong. His character is often angry, and the breathing exercises he has to do in order to sound angry wear him out. The pressure the character is under and the pressure of the actor is under are one; we can see it, exuding from his pores. We can see it as he struggles to hoist the bagged corpse over his shoulders; we can see it as he digs the hole, as he stops digging to listen for sirens. We want him to do more. We want to shovel roles on top of him. How much can he take, this strong man?
The Starship Captain
There is the twinkling sound of buttons being pressed, buttons pressing themselves, in the spaceship that is discus-flat, like a moon on its side. The captain, slim and aerodynamically clad, like a dancer, looks up at the large screen on the bridge—so like a movie theater!—and sees a moon pushed out of orbit, rolling shipward. The captain barks urgent orders to his motley crew who show with their swaying bodies that the ship is imperiled. We, too, have bodies that could sway, and we, too, have peculiarities and competencies so far unembraced: though we have never belonged anywhere, we are sure we belong onboard. We wish we could be there to help save the ship, save the moon, which is, after all, of some importance to the planet below, but the moon is saved without us, as everything always seems to be. It is only in our dreams that we and the captain dance a triumphant, low-gravity dance on the powdery surface of the rescued moon. Unhelmeted, in an atmosphere that smells metallic, like silverware, we’d be afraid, but the captain would bring his naked nose near our naked ears and tell us his secret to breathing any air. A gasp—ours. And the rest dissolves into a column of crystalline light.
We admire his face. This playboy is playfully handsome. Handsomely playful. We watch how he mugs for the camera, the oh, yeah? look he makes, how he makes this look so slowly, how he lets the camera linger as he puts on his hat. What is he doing? He is putting on his hat. And we are watching because we have never seen a hat put on so well. For all his seeming wildness, he is a great technician. He knows where to stand so that the sun is always setting in his hair. He knows how to find the light with his eyes, so it looks like the light is coming out of his eyes, and how much to squint at the horizon, and at just what upward angle to slant his eyebrows when he talks himself out of trouble or, just as often, coaxes someone into it. He has flaws as an actor: he overuses his tongue; he mumbles; he cannot do an accent. But we forgive him. He slants his eyebrows up, and we forgive him everything. We don’t we begrudge him even his medley of lovers, on screen or off: we want him to have many children, so that the world will be beautified by his descendants. Already, since the appearance of this one man on screen, isn’t the world better than it was before? Don’t horizons stretch out like beds, and isn’t the sun about to stroke our lips with its thumb?
There is nothing to him. The actor playing the superhero is clad and cloaked with comic-book vividness, but his face, neither attractive nor unattractive, is monochromatic, its bone-structure ill-defined. As soon as we look away from the screen, we cannot remember how he looks: he dissolves. His acting, too, is unnoticeable. It is as if anyone of us walked onto the soundstage, unschooled, unprepared, yes, untalented. He is our representative. We are disappointed to have the world saved by a hero so innocuous. But we remember the movie later. And when we remember it, this actor has disappeared from it. Instead, in our memory, we are in his place; it is our own cape flapping in the dark wind, as we bend our knees to jump…
The Odd Couple
It is an odd pairing. She is particularly short; he is particularly tall. His face is square, hers narrow. (We can’t believe they are both humans.) Moreover, unlike him, she can act. The real tears running over her mottled face contrast with the solitary tear that rolls from center of one of his eyes down a remarkably undistressed cheek. She is in it; he is above it. On the one hand, she makes him seem amateur, incompetent; on the other, he makes her look like she is taking all this too seriously and has invested too much. Her energy seems to him misspent. Why bother, he thinks. I am only an actor. It is our job to believe, not his. And isn’t the show itself absurd? Can we really believe in extraterrestrials, in telepathies, in conspiracies of bees, but not in a single glycerine tear?
He is an actor who is essentially fluid; he is indefinite to the point that his joints can rehinge, his girth can redistribute into something variously lanky or stout, and the bones of his face can assemble and disassemble into something handsome or plain. Looking at him we perceive something we decide is an ineradicable quality (he is strong), until we see no trace of that same quality in his next film (when he is weak). The timbre of his voice turns out to be variable: oceanically wide, or up the canals of the nose, or just in the grotto of his mouth, words made of teeth and breath. It is not a comfortable feeling we experience, watching him. We realize that even the aspects of ourselves that we have accepted as givens are in fact open to question. We recognize in him the truth of the mutability of all beings; we feel ourselves growing formless. We aren’t sure quite how to talk or move. But then, we have it, we find one thing that is constant: in every role, he apologizes with his eyes. I am sorry I am this way. And this way, this way that is different from every other way I have ever been, I am sorry for being this way, too.
This actor starts each movie deferentially. He walks forward, a small man first encountering the large world. He is in awe of its masters. He defers to them, and they show a flattering interest in him. He is humbled at the thought that he could be among them. For a time, they include him, and pass him cigars. But eventually he realizes that he is a pawn, and is now tangled in something nefarious. He should’ve seen it coming, should’ve stopped it, but he has not. Cannot. His eyes are hexagons of disappointment. There is nothing left that he can hope for. But we have one hope, because he gives it to us: the hope that nothing is in vain. If horrors befall us, if we find ourselves imprisoned, our executions imminent, we would want him with us. Not because he could save us. He couldn’t. He is too slight. But he would be our witness. Our travesty would be tempered by his knowledge. Our hurt less, because he would share it. This actor, who is cast to enact disillusionment again and again, would walk away from the world with the little orb of our hurt heavy in his pocket.
The Fragile Beauty
She is the most beautiful person we have ever seen. But there is something uptight about her beauty. We see how she controls herself, how she watches her steps and her enunciation. We can’t entirely relax when we watch her, though our efforts—our way of sitting up straighter, our attentiveness, our worry when she’s onscreen—are nothing compared to hers. Acting for her is strenuous: her thin voice sounds like it is straining, the wishbone tendons in her neck strain, her smile, even, strains to be bigger. From her feverish eyes, it is evident that she may be unhinged or unhinging, and there are rumors of her fainting on set, like a curtain dropping to the floor. Her fellow actors, who are always ready to catch her, speak of her with a protective devotion. We are less protective. We demand to see her play artists and writers, depressives and madwomen, even as these roles burn up something necessary inside her. Our guilt plays innocent: isn’t it right and good that she should sacrifice herself for us?
The Wild Girl
She is young and rich and beautiful, and she has the privilege of our attention, but she is she is dying unnecessarily in front of the world, the splatter of her all over the tabloids. There is something haggard about her face already. This is why we watch: because she is ruining herself. We can see that someday, soon, she will not be young, rich, or beautiful at all, she will be us, but with a sense of loss, of lost privilege. But that, too, is like us, for sometimes we feel that we once possessed fortunes we have since lost; we can almost remember a time when we too demanded and received, when our house seemed to us palatial, vast, a time when presents came from people we never had to give presents to, when strangers tried to touch us and take our picture, our picture, our picture again, a time when we slept all day, slept our hair into tangles we could never untangle, and were dressed by others, when we went outside wearing sunglasses too big for our face. We almost remember a time when our face was the perfect face; it almost broke our own hearts to look at our own face, to look at our own profile, which we did, mirrors in mirrors, for hours. Was that us? At moments, unleashed, we ran into the streets naked, expecting always, hoping even, that someone would grab us by the wrists and stop us.
The Doomed Actress
She starts now, in this decades-old film, with the word introducing. In chipped seraphim font, while the piano is still playing, up floats the name of the woman who became famous, and died, abruptly, in middle age, after a fall on set, leaving her more famous husband shocked and grieving. Introducing: a rug unrolls to her death. Here she is, teenaged, walking in the door, in an unbecoming wig, her irises too small for such large eyes, her mouth too small for her still-round face—tight, and composed, like a mouth at the end of an argument. She speaks without much movement of her lips. She is not a great actress, not yet; we are sure she was cast simply for how she gasps in fright, the heaving, stormtossed movements of her chest. And yet…we are drawn in by the unsettling expression, or lack of expression, that falls over her features from time to time: she seems to have turned herself off; the light in her darkens. During these moments, we can’t help thinking of how her face must have looked… There—does she almost trip over a wire?
When we think of her, we see one big diamond. Her mother is a famous actress. As with royalty, the crown moves to the daughter’s head. She is riches to riches, that story. She never waited tables, swept up hair, applied makeup to corpses, never moved to New York with nothing, knowing no one. She is not like us. Because of her privileges, we want her to fail. On the other hand, who is more prepared for the job than someone who has grown up like this: by the pool, servants waving palm fronds over her reclining body, her long tan arm dangling over the side of a lawn chair to pluck a melting chocolate truffle from a box, a murmur of film conversation over the water, the cameras always churning somewhere, the photographer already in the bushes? She has been groomed into grace and watchability; she has learned, from her mother, who was not, to be cautious with interviewers. Her performances are graceful and cautious, though there seems to be hints of a wideness under that caution, a wideness that caution is guarding, an expansiveness that contains more than just herself. Certainly, she contains at least scraps of her mother. We are twice-interested in her face; for how it works on its own, and how it works in relation to her mother’s face, which we remember loving. It is possible that tucked tight behind her heart, a version of her mother’s talent lies, waiting for the role that will unloose it. We wait for a lesson about what is hereditable. If she disappoints us, that is the disappointment we expect, the disappointment of ashes. But if her mother’s talent exists in her, might we not remain, the best of us, in someone?
We see a film that is unremarkable except for the woman in it, who is possessed of a mischievous beauty. Her lips are full, as though she has something behind them: a butterscotch or a secret. We clamor for her. She gives interview after interview, and magazines with her face on the cover sell out. We can’t understand how her face works; it looks like one face when she’s serious, and one face when she smiles, and we could stare at it for hours trying to figure out how its planes function in relation to each other. Why isn’t she in more movies? The studio heads hear our interest, like popes on a balcony, and put her in every movie: she is an indulgence they will grant us. We are glad! We all write fan letters! We go to all her movies, we get to stare at her for hours, and do our best to make sense of her face. Then, one day, not much later, as if by a pact, we all stop writing fan letters, and stop going to her movies. Her face, which we now understand completely, sickens us.
She is never in anything else. We do not understand this. This distresses us. We can find out nothing about her. But that movie was a long time ago. She could have changed her name or died. Her face is a sunrise. Open, and aglow. The broad planes of her cheeks seem specially designed to reflect light into her eyes. She is like a dream of herself. She has no breasts to speak of; we love that she has no breasts; she makes breasts seem ludicrous, the meaty appendages of peasant women. She has no breasts because she is thin as can be, and yet, she gives the impression of not only softness but also of abundance. This is unlikely but true, and has to do with her long coiling and uncoiling blonde hair that seems to move in its own wind. She has an impossible face; how could eyes be so big? How could cheekbones drop so precipitously into jaw? And yet, preposterously, she has a slapped-puppy look about her, a pushed-in nose and swollen lips, which she bites, and, we will say it: something stupid in the farset eyes. The gaps between her teeth make us think of other gaps. She is altogether so improbable a creature that it seems likely that she never existed, that this movie called her into being for the purpose of this role, created her out of its own longing for her, before letting her disintegrate into an emission of pixels, a spray of sparks.
The essential quality she conveys is one of daughterliness. She has warm, dark eyes like warm, dark wood. She dresses her curving body modestly, speaks in a low, reasonable voice, her hair often ponytailed, revealing slightly protuberant ears. She is not funny, but she is a good listener. Quick to laugh. We are sure that she would be a good wife, a good mother, for all good daughters contain that promise. She would be a good best friend for us, and we would like a best friend. We want to sit with her and tell her our secrets. She would laugh so easily that we would feel brilliant. She would touch us as if we were easy to touch. We often find ourselves hoping that she is not acting, that this is how she is (for she must herself be someone’s daughter).
The Woman in Charge
Even dressed innocuously, she is conspicuous, of course: a woman walking into a fluorescent room of men she outranks. Disgruntled, they will sabotage her, though never as ruthlessly as she sabotages herself. She doesn’t pretend competence in her life afterhours: what she is is good at her job. Her hand rakes through her hair, unsettling it, as she has unsettled this world of men. But her hair resettles, foretelling that order will be restored with her at its helm. She knows the course and stays it, fixes herself to her purpose with a strength that seems to shoot up from her sturdy legs, a strength that is evident not in what she does as much as what she doesn’t do: flinch, blink, go blank, sink, stammer, show fluster, hesitate, waver, quail, supplicate, surrender, make excuses, apologize, self-castigate, trip over her own feet, all things we do. It is easier with a script, we tell ourselves; it is easier to be prepared for what is coming if you have read what is coming, if you have your lines in hand. Out here, we don’t know what’s next. But this isn’t true. Often we know what the next minutes hold, more or less. We have enough time to anticipate, to determine a route that will make us proud of ourselves. We too could be ready. We too could be certain. Couldn’t we?
You are in the public eye again, tie wide, pants pulled up high, saying something wry while biting your cigarette. Your affect is protective, like your rainjacket: you try to be hardboiled only because you are so soft, so trusting. You are unable to see the truth when it has ankles. You are blinkered, blinded, like the windows. The requisite pattern of stripes at this slant and that across walls tell the same story as the black and white of the film itself: the sunny city has a shady side; the kid, the baby, the dame, the sweetheart, something rotten at her core; there is a strict line between right and wrong, or the opposite: there’s not; the two exist a once, inseparable, in the same spot. There’s always a pattern; there’s always a fragrance; tell us what flower you smell, what perfume: jasmine, gardenia, hibiscus? You are always doffing your dimpled fedora, sipping any cocktail on offer, spouting the worst metaphors for a chance with a woman who is patently not yours: your courtship can only be made of sallies and ripostes. We’ll watch you watch her ankles as up the stairs she goes. We’ll watch you watch her shake her hair. We understand your fascination; it’s hair we can’t bear not to touch. Same, the satin, the skin like satin. We too are seduced by her thorny eyelashes and the shadowy chevrons they cast like a veil over the sequined eyes, the teeth like white petals inside the brash, black-lipped mouth. Yes, we’d do whatever she’s asking. The two of you plan a murder in a way that now seems mild, plan a getaway, a rendezvous one of you is unlikely to make. We are holding our breaths as if we are about to plunge inside the pool, break the mirror, kick through the stained-glass, catch her before she absconds, before you shoot her, before she does herself in. Not to bring her to justice, but to keep her with us. So what if she’s a villain? So what if we’re a pawn? So what if she casts us off as easily as her diaphanous nightgown? At least we will have had her once. For the record, we meant to stay on the side of the law; we meant to be loyal not to her but to you. It turns out you were wrong to trust us; we were wrong to trust ourselves. We have a dark side we never knew.
The Unattractive Actor
Left alone with his face, our eyes adjust to its logic. The stubble on the preternaturally round head, the powdery pallor that must indicate some illness, the eyes burrowed back in the skull, cautious as rats; the teeth that outjut, the twist of the lip, the tight wrinkles encircling the neck; all these things seem valuable. He is proof that there is no pattern, proof that the unlikely face can be the most loved face; proof that the world is not always tyrannical in its love of symmetry and charm, and perhaps can love us.
The Bit-Part Player
Life takes a great effort and repetitive movements. That is what this actor teaches us. We can see his disappointment, as he plays the New York bartender again. We can see it in the way he puts the drinks down on the bar: Take it. Take your drink. His character is weary of serving drinks but must eat. He himself is weary of playing a character who serves drinks, but he must eat. No one knows his name, though he has been in more movies than many famous actors. He does not tell anyone that he wants to play the hero because no one asks; he works on his accents in secret and waits for his chance. We suspect he does this and dislike him for it. If he could content himself with his lot, we could content ourselves with ours: we don’t want him to play the hero. Maybe, one day, we’d consent to him playing a bartender who is not from New York.
As a young woman, her performance was polished but her face wasn’t. In this movie from the seventies, her teeth are crooked and yellow as she smiles and slouches in the back of a New York taxi. Oversized sweaters and a childish softness obscure the bones that later became iconic. Her hair is not blond so much as dun-colored, and poorly-cut. Her eyebrows are everywhere. Her eyes are already that iridescent blue, but the lighting designer hasn’t yet discovered the secret to lighting them so that they appear kaleidoscopic. These days she is elongated and groomed. Fame has sharpened and straightened her. It has made her aware of herself, and now she stands austerely upright, in angular, expensive clothes. She is like New York itself, the New York that has become a famous actor, playing itself. It used to be windswept, trash blowing, metal trashbins on the corners, the bricks grimy and the signs paltry, few and dim. Now, swept clean, hosed-down, built up, it is sharp-edged sculpture of brick and glass, a jewelchest of self-conscious lights that all say New York, New York, New York. Why, then, do we think that something has been lost?
There is a movie that we all watched when it came out many years ago. Now the same studio has put out a remake of the movie. The remake is not good, but it leads to so many comparisons with the first movie, which we now remember and miss, that we all watch the original again. There are two lead actors in it: a handsome older man who was one of the great actors of his generation (recently dead and widely mourned), and a younger man who, while equally handsome, seems wooden by contrast and aware that he is being bested at every turn by his elder. The older man plays an advisor of sorts, shepherding the younger man into a life of crime. When we first saw it, the movie belonged to this whisperer, this coaxer, who manipulates the young man from the shadows. The older man’s expressions are subtle, but clear; he is unsurprised by even the most surprising events and sure of himself. His voice is seductively resonant with s’s that hiss. He seems to know everything, not just everything his character knows, not just that this other actor was wooden, not just that this movie was great in a way it would take us decades to fully apprehend, but everything there is to know. The older man was on all the latenight shows. When asked what he liked in a woman, he drew an hourglass shape through the air with his hands. He chomped a rose between his teeth on the cover of magazines. By contrast, when the young man talked with the latenight hosts, he shifted in his seat and blushed. He went on to inconsequentiality. But now, we all find ourselves watching, with acute interest, the earnest young man in his discomfort that now seems understandable. The older man is still handsome, but we notice now that his voice is a stagey and marked by his decade, and we notice an obtuseness to him, an impenetrability. He seems not to listen. The young man listens to everything, as if trying to absorb this greatness of this actor through his eyes. He is just what we need now: his guilelessness, his malleability, his gentleness, his awe. And hasn’t he got the dust of the departed great actor on his hands? The career of the younger actor, who is now quite an old actor, experiences a deserved resurgence.
A synthesizer begins to play. We were young to this music. Now: the wounded young dancer is in a wheelchair, face tense with determination as she attempts to rise. Now: walking with her hands on low bars. Now: she falls! And the music knows she falls. But the saxophone enters, the music lifts, the dancer’s hands lift up the bars, the music has lifted her hands up off the bars! A triumph! In another, later room, a room with mirrors, she looks again like a dancer, legwarmered leg up. She stretches her arms as if she could somehow hold the still-swelling music, and we have tears are in our eyes as she dances her first steps, her sweatshirt falling off one shoulder. There is something tantalizing about the strong round of her visible shoulder, something that desperately makes us want to show our own shoulders. How could we have forgotten this kind of beauty? Why did we stop cutting off our collars? Why did we forsake the synthesizer? We remember all the feelings we used to feel, that the synthesizer helped us feel, and again we let ourselves be carried on the shoulder-baring heartswell: we let ourselves be healed.
The Scream Queen
She is in horror movie after horror movie because her lax blonde hair looks best unwashed; because she looks prettiest when she is anxious (tension seems to hold her face together, and bring out her deepset eyes); because she always seemed to move fast, too fast, in life, as if adrenalized—her turns are sudden, her neck twisting sharply as she glances over her strong shoulder; but mostly because of her piercing scream. The camera moves away from her scream as if repelled by it, backing down a hall—dark, red, long. In between takes, she drinks tea to calm her shredded throat. Then, back to work: Chased, in the darkness, she hits the dead end of a shed wall, where, thank goodness, her fingers find an axe. She heaves the axe over her shoulder, lobs it this way and that. She can’t see, but we can: She is grunting and crying and swinging the axe through the air. Blood spurts! She teaches us that the world is a place to go into armed. When she goes out into the world, no one recognizes her uncovered with blood, hands held by two children she does not let watch her films because she doesn’t want them to be afraid of her. Because she doesn’t want them to be afraid of the world. No one would recognize her in her vegetable garden, her hobby, the thing that slows her down. She is shaking carrots out of the earth, collecting them in a basket….when out come her two young children. She stands up, smiles, takes a step toward them; they flinch, and she knows that they have seen.
A Paralytic Performance
We watch this immobile actress more closely than we watch anybody else on screen, looking for the smallest signs of life. The first day on set: What must she have said? I am confused: I have no lines? They tell her role is that of a woman suffering from complete paralysis. And yet she is a formidable actress, or she was in Russia, and they have asked her to play the part, asked her, without even an audition—which now makes more sense. She must have been ruffled, ready to leave in a huff. But she went back to her trailer, and read the lines surrounding the lines she did not have. Perhaps she remembered that when she was a child, she painted Ukrainian eggs with a brush that had one hair. When she emerged, she had fully committed herself to a new smallness of scale. She melted into on her bed, drooped her head to one side, dropped her mouth slightly open, and proceeded to gaze, unblinkingly, at nothing. She still performs miracles in miniscule. Her immobile eyes fill with tears, her immobile irises burn with intensity or glaze over with boredom. At times, the whites of her eyes clearly express horror, her jaw drops a millimeter lower, intimating a scream.
All actors are dirty paintbrushes, the canvases of their new roles streaked by every other part they ever played. Now she is a vampire, but wasn’t this actress a terrified child, lost in a forest once, lost and mute, or was she deaf? We still see her forest lostness every time we look at her, and pardon her vicious teeth. The pop star this actor played compounds the glory of the king, bedazzles him more than any jewels could, and we half-expect him to rise from this throne and grab a microphone. The nanny doubles herself, again the sweet, singing caretaker of children, and we can almost taste the sugar in our mouths. The cad is cast as the hero, and so we don’t entirely trust him to deactivate the bomb. The white paint of the former hero is still on the brush, and we expect this actor, even in his new blackbrimmed role, to let loose the stolen horses and come back and save us.
When we watch the newest films on the newest screens, we do not know what is wrong at first, why we don’t believe this actor, or that one. We pause. We look more closely. We can see everything. We can see too much. Here, his pupils are not dilated with interest, and so we know he does not love her; there, her pupils are not pinpricks, so we know the light is not real light, the light of the explosion was added as an afterthought. And now, there are folds missing at the corner of her eyes, so we know that smile is not a real smile. Even movements are more sharply defined, and we can see that a gesture (come with me) comes a millisecond after the words (come with me) and looks rote rather than impulsive. They all look like bad actors.
We turn to the old, old movies. Our hearts slow. We grow sleepy at this pace, this distance. We can hardly see the eyes of the actors, the cameras are so far away. We stare at the actors standing in front of their painted backdrops, in their pancake makeup, and we wait for their hair to move, but there is no wind. We try to listen to their metallic voices, flattened between bosomy orchestral swells, but we keep getting distracted, praying their hair will move. It turns out that their hair will not move, so we don’t believe anything they say. At the end of the final scene, the darkness at the edge of each frame encroaches, tightening its noose around each face.
The Aging Actor
This actor is making us think of death. We saw him in a movie last night, surrounded by hourglasses; this was a time when women still wore corsets, before their bodies became their corsets. We were captivated by his face: his cheeks smooth as a sculptures below his Technicolor eyes. The corseted women enacted our captivation, their plump arms lacing over his shoulders, their plump fingers in his hair. The men in this movie liked him, because he was fearless, the way they were at his age, the way they’d want their sons to be; they called him kid. We resolved to see all his movies, in no particular order. Today, in another movie, again young women—more sinewy now—surround him. The camera closes in. We are alarmed! The same actor looks as if he has been ravaged by grave illness, dipped in acid, etched with a grinding tool! Then we realize it is time that has done this; this movie is from decades later. Our youth seems suddenly, alarmingly, fragile; something that could degrade overnight. We watch this actor with a cringe inside us. We wonder about his decision to continue to act; his old face undoes the miracle of his young face, layers on top of it something harsh and inevitable. We decide a certain age we will hide ourselves from view; we do not want to inspire regret or fear. We don’t want anybody to look at us and think, How terrible, life. We are conscious that as we watch this movie we are aging. We think we should not be watching this movie. We should be settling our affairs. We wonder at what age we will give away our mirrors
What we thought was a movie isn’t; it is a series of interviews that we keep watching because there is nothing else to watch. A philosopher is being questioned by a man who is not philosopher. These men are from two different decades, sitting knee to knee. The elderly philosopher knows he is dying. He is calm. The young interviewer seems agitated; he skirmishes with his pages of notes and asks questions that make philosopher laugh. With an arcing gesture of one hand, the philosopher talks about heliotropism, the plant consciousness that follows the sun. The interviewer is distracting. He is trying to understand. He is trying with his whole face. The philosopher says the whole planet is conscious, and we are its eyes. He says there is an invisible plane behind the visible plane. The interviewer squints, as if trying to see the invisible plane. In the last interview, the interviewer has no notes. He has given up. He just listens. We can see how much the interviewer has come to love the philosopher. We watch the interview again and again, like plants following the light. We think it too bad that anyone who knows anything is dead.
What is left at the end of a movie? Seconds out of hours. An arm through a red sleeve. A coffee pot drizzling. The scatter of papers on the sidewalk. The wind moving in the grass; the curl of hair; the curve of a nose; the cusp of a fingernail tracing the route on a map; the tear that drops down from the middle of an eye; the line of men grimacing as they lunge forward in battle; the match lit on the stairs; the heave of a chest; the doff of a hat. The actor panting as he runs; the actor rolling under the lowering door; the pole that barely holds the enclosing walls apart. The way the man looks at the horses; the way the horses look at the man. The cape in the wind. The twist of the lip. The tip of an iceberg. The steep mountain face. The ballgown spinning. The lovers locked. The fire that gobbles up the night. The night. The fish that we could tell was already dead, by how it refused to wriggle in the hook.
It is sad to want to watch nothing. We feel empty. We lean back, bored in our thrones, royalty about to behead court jesters. Glumly, we watch the news. Men with reassuring faces relay disturbing events. The broad face of one commentator comforts us most. His smile goes from ear to ear; his head goes from shoulder to shoulder. His ties remind us of our father’s ties. He tells us what he thinks. He thinks the world is ending. We agree with him. We laugh at ourselves, for ever having thought the world was savable. He laughs like a clap, and when he laughs we feel that it might be all right that the world is ending. We never want the news to end. We wish the commentator would come over, after he is done with the news, and have dinner with us and take off his tie. We can imagine him falling asleep in our recliner as we watch a movie together, his large head drooping. We know he would snore. We can imagine taking off the commentator’s shoes, revealing his red socks, or his green socks, and draping an afghan over him. We would sleep better with him in the next room.
The New Actor
What is it that brings us back to the movie theater? We cannot say. It feels like a tug. And then, here, out of a prosaic film, a truthful performance; out of the masses, an individual; out of the generation rising up, an essential, unmistakable face, a face that just came into adulthood, a face we cannot believe we ever lived without. We want to remake all the old movies, with this actor: he will make all the old stories new. He is already making us feel what we’ve been forgetting to feel, and what we’ve been hoping to feel, and what we wished someone would know that we felt all along…It is as if he is revealing us to ourselves: our singularity, our particularity. How does he know what he knows? The longer we watch him, the more certain it seems that this actor has been watching us our whole lives with eyes large enough for us to sleep curled up in, has been watching us before he was even born (he is young enough to be our son), is watching us even now, in the crowd of us, in the dark, identifying the unidentified in us. Isn’t that our intonation, our expression, our gesture, our longing, our disappointment, rarefied and turned into light? Look at you. I see you. I’ll show you who you are. And just like that, the screen dissolves, and we will go with him anywhere.
After working for a decade as an actress in New York and LA, now Amber Burke works fulltime at UNM Taos, coordinating the Holistic Health and Healing Arts Program and teaching writing as well as yoga. She is a graduate of Yale (B.A.) and the Writing Seminars MFA Program at Johns Hopkins University. Her creative work, some of it Pushcart-nominated, has been published in magazines and literary journals including The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Barren, Raleigh Review, Superstition Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Quarterly West.
She is a regular contributor to Yoga International, which has published over 100 of her articles, and she is co-author of the forthcoming book Yoga for Common Conditions. Follow her yoga writing on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/amberburkeyoga.