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Tome On The Range

Short Fiction By: Nicholas Rombes
Karl Smith , October 12th, 2014 17:02

This week's new writing comes in the form of an edited, self-contained extract from Nicholas Rombes' forthcoming novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, in which the eponymous cinephile Laing is interviewed regarding the destruction of a rare film

I make a move as if to say it's time to break but Laing gets up and walks over to the blue velvet throne-chair in the corner of the motel room and comes back to the table with one of the VHS tapes, unmarked. Then he takes something from his pocket, a small object whose shape and function I still don’t understand. Bright red and cone shaped, or like a metal insect that had been melted down and reshaped as a cone, about the size of a spark plug. He sets it on the table between us. For the first time I think of Laing in relation to that other Lang, Fritz, whose Metropolis had transformed everyone who saw it into detectives of film. Either the German Lang or the American Lang, depending on whether the films in question were made before or after he fled the fucking Nazis in 1934. Lang, for whom in M and the Mabuse films there was no such thing as truth, only illusions, pitiful illusions, his characters pretending to be one thing when they are in fact another, a duplicity which lasts only so long, until the character betrays himself. Laing brings one of the tapes back to the table.

It’s been two days in this wrecked, abandoned motel in remote Wisconsin, interviewing Laing about the rare films he destroyed, and I feel like I know him less now than when we first began.

"In those days," Laing says, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms across his chest, as if the red, insect-like object has somehow renewed in him the stupid, blind confidence of youth, or as if the sun—which is directly overhead now, sending its rays or whatever they are down through the Wisconsin sky—was actually like the sun we had imagined as children. "In those days," he repeats, "the only way to see David Lynch’s early, short films was to start or join a film club, pool resources, and rent them from someplace like Facets in Chicago. It must have been around 1978, or maybe earlier, when they finally arrived, in brown metal canisters stamped—into the metal itself with all the finality of tombstone—with the words PROJEKTOR CORP. They were the usual suspect early Lynch films: The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970). 16 mm prints, threaded through the projector by the president of Radiant Union. Because shipping was free, we had also ordered a third film, from 1948, called The Blood Order. It didn’t star anyone famous. It turned out that after the Lynch films screened, everyone wanted to go outside to talk about them, so I stayed behind and was the only one—no, there was other person who watched it with me, although we never spoke, a girl who should never have been there—who watched The Blood Order.

“It's in black and white, except for the flashbacks, which are in color. Maybe colorized. An American pilot has crash-landed in a wet field outside a French village and is taken in by a family whose daughter, the pilot comes to suspect, is a Nazi collaborator. She's beautiful, and not in a movie actress way, but rather in a way that draws attention to the dark circles beneath her eyes and a severe scar that cuts a channel across her chin, and I remember thinking that maybe this was an Italian neorealist film, but it doesn't make sense that it was set in France and that the dialog was in English. There is a dog with a limp, I remember, that's poisoned and that dies terribly and melodramatically, clawing at its own stomach and churning up foam, and that’s when the pilot begins to suspect that the daughter is on the Nazi side, and that she has murdered the dog—her own dog from childhood—to prove her allegiance to the Reich somehow.

“There's a factory in the film,” Laing continues, “that looks like a castle, or a castle that looks like a factory, I think, not far from the farm house that shelters the American pilot, and that’s where he and the girl go to have long, philosophical conversations (the French girl speaking English in a beautiful, broken, menacing way that suggested she knew English better than she was leading on), conversations about being and time that inevitably turn into Production Code-era love-making scenes that are interrupted by machine-gun fire or the breaking of dawn. The pilot and the young woman fall into deep discussions that touch on the war, of course, but also methods of torture (the girl says her uncle was tortured by the Germans who broke his kneecaps with a hammer that he himself was forced to provide), the indifference of God, Hollywood movies, the persistent and insane theory that Vladimir Lenin and Sigmund Freud are brothers, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and whether evil is a constant or only something that flowers (they kept using that word, I remember) when conditions are right.

“These passages of the film are shot in long takes, the camera quietly, almost undetectably, passing through the same space that they share in the factory. They sleep, and the film actually shows them sleeping. It’s remarkable. At dawn, as the factory engines began to ramp up for the day (it was a secret factory where bullets were manufactured for the French Resistance, although I can’t remember how the film conveyed this), the flashbacks begin. In the first flashback, The Blood Order switches suddenly to color, and it isn't a nostalgic flashback like you’d expect, but a bloody one that shows the slow, methodical slaughter of a pig by two men whose faces are obscured on a farm from what appears to be the American pilot’s childhood memory, although why his dreams are presented in color in the film is never clear. One suspected that the filmmakers were secret experimentalists or avant-gardists subverting the war-movie genre from within.

“Then the screen goes black and we’re brought into the second flashback in full color,” Laing continues. “The film's aspect ratio shifts and I remember feeling sick and light headed. An open meadow bathed in orange sun, a blue sky, the meadow-grass and wildflowers moving in the wind, and a man on a black horse slowly crossing the meadow from screen left to right, the camera stationary. One thing that’s always bothered me about that scene: it was silent except for what appeared to be a gunshot. At least that’s what I remember from that night, watching the film that no one else wanted to see because it wasn’t by David Lynch. The gunshot. But no corresponding action in the scene. Neither the horse nor the horseman react to the sound, as if it was meant only for the audience, some sort of secret signal from the filmmakers to us.

“After this, The Blood Order falls back into the expected patterns: the American pilot, on the mend, begins to suspect with more confidence that the young French woman is a Nazi sympathizer, or even worse an out-and-out collaborator; he lies and tells her that he’s Jewish in hopes of catching a reaction from her, and that his presence at the farm endangers her family; the girl goes out for a walk in the woods in the middle of night, unaware that the pilot watches her from the window of his room. Just then a shot rings out in the forest and, although the pilot’s first thought is that it’s a trap, and that perhaps the girl has indeed seen him watching from the window, he pulls on his wool coat and dashes out into the cool night. For the next several minutes, the film goes black. Instead of images, there is nothing except the sound of the pilot running blind through the night, his labored breathing, his footsteps across the field, the call of an owl.

“Twice the pilot calls out the girl’s name breathlessly as he runs, until another shot rings out, and the moon clears from behind the clouds. There at his feet is a young man in a torn soldier’s uniform that appears to be German, although it's hard to tell in the dark, and the uniform from what I could remember wasn’t even World War II era. The soldier grasps his throat, obviously dying from gunshot wounds. In the moonlight, the pilot leans down to listen to the man’s dying words.

“'She can’t . . .' says the German soldier before breathing his last in a gurgling whisper. Before the meaning of this settles in, the screen grows brighter, in flickers, and the pilot looks back over his shoulder to see—in a point-of-view shot—a fire in the distance. He takes off running back to the farm, and within a few seconds it becomes clear that all is lost. By the time he arrives the farm house is engulfed in flames and the pilot falls to his knees and slumps forward. Then something very strange happens: the film switches to color again, but not because it's a dream or flashback. Bathed in the yellow light of the fire, the pilot remains hunched forward in sorrow and despair as a shadow—the shadow of a human being—emerges from frame right.

“It's the girl, in color, wearing a bright red beret. For the first time you can see that her eyes are blue. She kneels down beside the pilot and puts her hand beneath his chin and gently lifts his face toward hers. By this time the color has become almost psychedelically saturated, with both the girl and the pilot bathed in the hellish, red light and black leaping shadows from the fire. The camera slowly pans down, revealing her clenched fist, which she slowly opens, palm up. In her hand she holds a small, silver swastika, which gleams in the light. It seems to move imprecisely in the palm of her hand, as if animated. As the film switches again back to black and white, and the familiar Hollywood music begins, signaling the end. The camera slowly pans up to the pilot’s face, which wears an expression of agony or ecstasy. After holding there for a moment, the camera continues panning up to the sky, revealing the moon, partially obscured by the black smoke from the smoldering farm house.

“At the time, I thought the ending was clear: the girl had torn the swastika from the uniform of the German soldier she had shot in the woods. She was a double agent, working for the Resistance, and murdered the German before he had a chance to sneak into the farm house to murder the pilot. But later, as I thought more about the film (which I only watched that once) I wondered if the swastika might have been the girl’s confession, an affirmation of what the pilot had suspected: that she was a Nazi and worse yet, a Nazi out of choice, not coercion. There was also the fact of the burning farm house, which seemed to me symbolic of the irrational terror of total war. But back then we found symbols in everything. The truth is the ending of the film was too terrible, too truthful, to ever really talk about, involving a technique that used multiple split screens, a technique I’d never seen before that literally split the screen into not two but four or five panels of action, each one divided by a vertical red line.”

Laing stops here, abruptly. The light has shifted outside the motel room. There is the low moan of a bird or what I assume to be a bird. The red object on the table has changed, ever so slightly. It has decayed, or aged, somehow. “The film had to be destroyed, you understand,” Laing tells me, “it had to be,” looking me in the eyes as if what he’s saying is a confession.

Or a threat.

The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is published November 11th by Two Dollar Radio

Nicholas Rombes is the author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor. He is also the author of Ramones, from Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. He works in Detroit, Michigan.