By Nicholas Rombes.
It seems to be a road movie. From the sixties. One of those. The open landscape splintering into shards and fragments that only further alienate the screen protagonists from the audience. Golden sunsets. Lens flare. Blood. Sand. I’m sitting in the velvet plush seats of a cavernous theater with a girl who seems intent on getting me ejected for open displays of lust. There are people smoking six rows up. The light from the projector is blue and visible. Nothing much happens in the film for a good ten minutes. Then in the heated flash of a jump cut it comes to life. The New Wave pretense drains away. The fuck of denim. Motorcycles on an American highway, the highway of serial killers, so they say. The engines sputter to life. Gasoline from one of the open overtopped motorcycle gas tanks splashes across the screen. The napkins are soaked in butter grease. The girl’s thoughts are combustible.
Three motorcycles with black-leathered and blue-denimed helmet-less characters. Two men and a woman. Roaring across the desert. The first twenty minutes are like a mash-up of outtakes from Easy Rider. The screen goes black for several seconds. When we see them next the three chopper riders are in a dingy roadside diner. Their bikes parked outside the window. The name of the diner, we see from a menu insert shot, is Contina’s. The characters talk to each over plates of pancakes and bacon and coffee in white ceramic cups. Man #1 wears a red bandana. Man #2’s hands are tattooed in red and purple geometric shapes. The Woman is the one who commands the scene through her silence. Only fragments of dialog are clear:
“. . . still following us . . .”
” . . . came in and that he took that money . . . ”
” . . . said she’s being watched all the time . . .”
“He’d destroy us if he could.”
The level of disengagement from the audience is palpable. The waitress is impossibly thin in her cornstalk yellow outfit. She clears the table. With her skeletal hand she casually drops what appears to be a folded note in the lap of the one with tattooed hands. He doesn’t acknowledge the note. He slips it into the pocket of his denim shirt without looking at it. The woman biker notices this. She murmurs something that’s not audible to us. Whatever she says infuriates the tattooed man. He slaps the table hard with his palm and leans forward as if challenging her. But then the man with the red bandana says something to calm him down (“let it go, for now . . .”) and puts his hand on his shoulder in a way that can only be described as tender.
Finally a character we hadn’t noticed before, sitting alone at a table at the far right edge of the screen, gets up to pay. He has a terrible limp. The tattooed man notices and tips his head to the others. Without speaking they get up, casually, and follow him out. The film cuts to a shot originating from across the road. The restaurant is framed in the middle of the screen like a lonely outpost. The wind has picked up and dust and tumbleweeds move across the screen in the direction of time. The man being followed limps up to a dusty yellow Datsun. He gets in and takes off in the direction of the blowing sand. The three motorcyclists talk animatedly and point in different directions. The woman tries and fails to light a cigarette in the wind. She throws the lighter to the ground. The tattooed man leans down to pick it up. The note falls out of his shirt pocket. The wind carries it away. The only sound is the sound of wind. Then they get on their bikes and head out in the same direction as the Datsun.
The next scene looks radically different from what has come before. It’s the familiar three bikers. They are in the same diner as earlier. But everything is a little larger, cleaner, brighter. They sit at the same table. Instead of leather and denim they wear uniforms of some sort. Navy blue uniforms. This time the audio is clear.
“We should say that he’s still following us,” the woman says, stirring her coffee. She pauses. “And that Mr. Cyclone or Mr. Destroyer or what ever the girl calls him came in and that he took that money.”
“How can we?” the tattooed man asks. “Steadman already suspects. The girl’s on record as saying she’s being watched all the time. In every transcript I’ve read the girl refers to Mr. Cyclone or Mr. Destroyer as ‘it.’ Not as ‘him.’ I have a feeling it’d destroy us if it could. If only to get at her.”
“I wonder if it knows we’re talking about it,” the woman says.
A red line appears in the center of the screen, from top to bottom. It’s about the width of a pencil at first. It vibrates ever so slightly as if etched on the film itself. The line slowly widens, splitting the screen in two. And if that isn’t remarkable enough, this: the characters–now divided by the red line–try to reach each other but can’t. The line is real for them. When the woman reaches across the table she jerks her hand back when it approaches the red line. She shakes her fingers to cool them. She tries again, and the same thing happens.
The red line widens. It takes up the middle third of the screen. It bubbles like lava. Shimmering waves of heat push out toward the edges of the screen. The characters–the two men on the left and the woman on the right–back away from the center. They splay their hands in front of their faces, palms out, to shield themselves from the heat. Eventually they retreat off the screen, to the left and to the right. Presumably into the implied story space of the film itself.
As the line expands it destroys everything. The screen itself is eradicated and replaced with molten red. It leaks out of the frame. It hisses when it hits the theater floor. We want to leave but it’s hard not to watch. It’s hard to think. Something else is being destroyed here. Not just theater seats and empty popcorn buckets.
We want something more.
We want something more to be destroyed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Rombes writes for The Rumpus, The Oxford American, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor and writes the Blue Velvet Project. His work has appeared in The Believer, Wigleaf, Exquisite Corpse, and other places. He teaches in Detroit, Michigan, and can be found here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 28th, 2013.