In 1965, the actors playing the Von Trapp children march down the split staircase of their house. They march noisily in time to tweets from the Captain’s whistle. The camera follows them, step by step, down the stairs into the large foyer, until they march in place while presented in a line for their new governess. Their chests and chins shove forward. Their arms swing. They stop and right face. Brigitta, lost in a book, wanders in and finds her tardy place in the line, a place left empty for her all the way down the stairs and into the foyer.
These actors are fixed in time and space. They performed this action in life a limited number of times (several takes, perhaps) and then they were finished performing it, but their shadows go on marching down the staircase in theaters, VCRs, Blu-Ray players, data streams, synapses until The Sound of Music passes out of human knowledge.
Look at them. Down the stairs they go, again. And again. In 1965, in 1972, in 1981, in 1994, in 2008, in 2015, in 2027, in 2033, and so on for the foreseeable future. Down the stairs, and down the stairs again. It has happened before, and it will happen again, in places and contexts unfathomed. In an Ohio basement. In a Moscow movie-house. In a shack in Texas. In a mansion in Seattle. On a tiny cold-adapted television in Antarctica as a treat for the visitors on Christmas. In Sweden. In Kenya. In Beijing. Everywhere.
Down the stairs. They move, and are affixed in a single place; they breathe and live, and are trapped in a single moment. They are two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and four-dimensional at once.
This, then, is immortality.
First, we must understand cinema as movement through space and time.
First, we must consider Plato’s allegory of the cave. The watchers of shadows on the wall are cinema-goers. (Do they elect to be fooled by simulacra? Or are they naïve enough for such pale trickery to work?)
First, we must realize that every frame of every film is the result of a thousand choices.
First, we must recognize our removal from the machinations of the shadows. The screen stands between us and the internal world depicted on it. There is no communion.
(Between thee and me, reader, there is communion. I have made a thousand choices to bring you here, but the walls between us are mere pixels and data. I strain to touch you. There, or there. Are you allergic to me? Scratch your skin.)
First, we must accept the fundamental fakery of cinema.
First, we must believe the Wizard: he is great and powerful, and he is a flimflam artist: both.
First, we must know what we enter when we face the cave wall.
Put yourself in a car, driving to work down a suburban street in the San Fernando Valley: four to five lanes, brisk 40 mph speed limit, trees and houses on either side. The sketchy 7-11 is coming up on your left. The church marquee that occasionally offers decent life advice is back there on the right. A couple of the houses on this street are terminally being worked on, enclosed by fencing, unfinished. Before one of them is an older woman holding the leash of a small fluffy dog. You drive by at 40 mph, so you don’t see everything, but flashes linger: the woman’s stance (bent slightly forward); the ferociousness of the little dog, barking inconsolably; the tautness of the stretched leash. It was a Bichon Frise, maybe, and her shirt was pink, maybe, over jean shorts with barrel-width openings.
A few seconds down the street, you drive by a girl on a bicycle. Flashes: it’s a lady’s bicycle, the kind that forces one to sit up regally instead of hunching over handlebars placed parallel to the ground. The girl hovers between child and woman—maybe twenty. She carries a gray messenger bag slung across her back. It shifts to and fro as she pedals, which must be annoying.
The girl on the bike is riding toward the Bichon. The Bichon is barking in the direction of the girl on the bike. You’re fairly certain that the humans in this tableau are obstructed from seeing each other, because of the hedges that protrude onto the sidewalk, the construction fences, and so forth. You could see the barking dog, and the bike, and know that one is reacting to the other. You could predict what would happen when the two trajectories met. The dog would bark and bark, working itself into a frenzy, and the dog’s owner would shout and yank on its leash and holler inaudible apologies to the girl on the bike as she rode by. But neither of the two participants in this waltz (three, if you count the dog) could see it coming at the time you could.
You feel like God. You feel like you are peering at ants. Yet you feel impotent: you cannot alter or affect the collision of these two (or three) parties, even if you can see it coming. You giggle at the comedy of dog on leash, girl on bike, and riding by before the thunder but after the lightning, all morning, but you cannot connect it to the bell of meaning that strikes in you, considering the God’s-eye view, until you remember the Von Trapp children.
I invent two people, a woman and a man. I call the woman Beth and the man Spencer. I don’t know anyone by these names. I find it easier to make up stories about people I don’t already know. I know three Melissas, and I don’t think I can make one up who has nothing to do with the other three. I need blank slates. Or I need to hide who these characters really are, to save embarrassment. Either way, names can’t correspond to real people or it won’t work.
Beth hunches in front of a mirror upstairs in her parents’ house. She applies mascara. Spencer sits on her parents’ sofa, hands possessively covering his knees, clearing his throat about every fifteen seconds. As I write this paragraph, the figures take shape in my mind: they’re teenagers headed for a dance. Homecoming, or prom. Spencer has a crew cut. Beth’s dress is trendy and awful. Her parents hover and whisper in the kitchen. I don’t like any of this, because it isn’t interesting; if I can make up the details this easily, see it so clearly, it’s probably pointed in the direction of cliché.
So let’s try again. Beth is still upstairs applying mascara, but it’s a condo she owns with Spencer, to whom she isn’t married. They’re going on a date. He stands in the kitchen with a wineglass, trying to slow his heartbeat. I must decide why he’s nervous, but I’m stuck, at the moment. I know they will have conflicting motivations at this dinner, and I will tell the reader of them, in this way creating tension that will keep the story humming. For instance, Spencer wants to propose, and Beth wants to confess that she’s cheating on him. Or Spencer wants to tell Beth he’s bisexual, something he’s kept secret for the length of their relationship, while Beth has been hiding for three months that she got a promotion which makes her better paid than he is. If you are informed of these burning secrets before Beth finishes putting her makeup on, before Spencer drinks the last of his wine, you will probably want to keep reading, to see how dinner goes. There will be a climax. There will be a denouement. Something unexpected will happen, like the couple’s car hitting a deer, or a hobo, or a child (depending on how perverse I’m feeling) on the way home. And nothing will ever be the same again.
These are two avenues. I may choose a third.
Maybe Spencer sits in his living room, a widower, watching The Sound of Music on a rainy night. The hour grows late. Captain Von Trapp’s whistle tweets. Spencer should have gone to bed even before starting, but he kept saying to himself just until the next song, just until the next song. He glances up and Beth walks down the stairs, fastening her watch. He shuts his eyes tight and she walks down the stairs again, stooped, leaning on the rail so hard it creaks. She walks down the stairs, her hair in an updo, her wrist left bare for a corsage. She walks down the stairs a shaking Medusa after guessing the password for his laptop and checking his browser history. She walks down the stairs before they’d ripped up the carpet and then after Belloq scratched the shit out of the new laminate in a fit of nerves. She walks down the stairs and he watches her. He doesn’t know all of these Beths, but he knows some of them bones-out. Sometimes she looks at her feet, hunting for the next step, and other times she could be sleepwalking. Spencer watches her and watches her. Down and down and yet down.
That paragraph doesn’t come from a writer who lives and dies by Joycean structure, Chekhovian strategy, Freytag’s pyramid scheme. I’m not interested in whether Beth is a ghost or Spencer is hallucinating. I followed the sentences, is all. I don’t know what it means.
How many times did I walk down the stairs in my Maryland townhouse, where I lived for seven years? I imagine all those descents superimposed on one another, a holograph, me with innumerable Hydra heads, my clothing so varied it’s just a brown splotch—like when my mother and I melted all the leftover bits of crayon together. My voice a dull blat, a Babel. I talk on the phone to a dozen people. I call out to my husband or my guests or the mailman.
Who’s there? I ask.
If Nietzsche is correct, the Bichon Frise and the girl on the bike have met many times and will meet many times again. An infinity of collisions. You will have seen the moment after the lightning but before the thunder an infinity of times, too, but you will never have seen the collision itself. You will remain impotent to alter the outcome of the incident. Driving by—despite seeing down the road a little further than either party—you are not God. God can alter; Cassandra can only see. Both have witnessed enough patterns to understand their outcomes, but one is a playwright and the other is an actress. Cassandra has read the script but she must play her part. Which is, I think, why she coaxes all the Greek women into suicide.
Cassandra should have been a writer.
When a dog barks at a bike down the street, will one inevitably topple to the other? Or is that not snappy enough to be a koan?
Here’s another thing I know about Joycean short stories: the writer can duck out before anyone has to do any hard work. Consider upper-middle-class Beth and Spencer, at a dim and tony restaurant on the brink of drastic confessions. If I were writing this story, I would pick one of them to unload his/her secrets, and the other party would hold her/his tongue to salvage the relationship. In life, the one who kept her/his mouth shut would almost certainly live to regret it, and the relationship would go down the toilet anyway. But in the story, this person will evanesce into netherfiction before the consequences slam into her, truckload-heavy and long visible. We end on that breathless harmony of tension, sacrifice, secrets, rather than coping with the low, slow tuba line of separating his kitchenware from hers while the moving truck idles outside.
Life and its consequences have little to do with the consequences in a conventional short story, which must bear two characteristics: they must be inevitable (the only way the story could have ended) and unexpected (the reader never saw it coming). The best traditional stories achieve this and they are lovely. Veer too hard to starboard, and the story’s predictable; too hard to port, and the story is confusing. As if a football careened out of left field. It’s not easy to strike this balance, which is why so many stories are either confusing or predictable. The good ones leave you trailing along after the characters, wanting to know what happens next, like a toddler whose parent is trying to leave him at daycare.
As an experiment, imagine for yourself what a character undergoes after the story concludes. You may have done this many times, but let’s try it anyway. If you pretend that The Sound of Music is not based on a true story, and that Maria is young and beautiful and Georg Von T. is a silver fox, and they take the kids into the Alps to escape the Nazis, well, what then? Do they arrive in Switzerland still beautifully dressed, in their lederhosen and colorful headscarves, clear-eyed and well-nourished?
No. They do not. The kids complain the whole way there. Gretel has to be carried most of the time, and only Liesl agrees to help Maria and Georg with this burden. There’s some bodily unpleasantness; for instance, one morning Kurt takes a handful of his own waste and menaces Louisa with it. She falls and cuts her shin quite badly, and her limping slows them all down. Maria is vomiting most of the way there and ultimately miscarries. There is never enough to eat, swallowing snow to keep hydrated leaves their faces numb and their teeth hurting, and they run out of matches only a quarter of the way into their journey.
You’d prefer to think of them singing their way to freedom, I know, but that’s why the story ends where it does. The reality of a journey across the Alps with seven children makes for poor fiction and even poorer Hollywood.
Climb ev’ry mountain.
I’m not trying to ruin The Sound of Music for you. I’m trying to note that stories are stories and life is life and the leeway is minimal. But the tension between the two remains an interesting contact zone. Sometimes, in life, the ending is inevitable but unexpected. The real Von Trapps really did cross the Alps, after all.
Now that we have faced the cave wall with open eyes.
Now that we have accepted its limitations.
Now that we have erased Freytag’s triangle.
Now that we have dispensed with the story about Prom Night and the story about upper-middle-class dinner tensions.
Now that we know reality and truth to be distinct.
Now that I have reached out for your hand in the dark, pointed and said you, implicated your existence in this narrative.
Now that the Wizard is out from behind the curtain.
Beth walks down the stairs. She cannot do this in two dimensions. It takes you time to read those words; the language takes up space on the page. Whether I invented her or not is beside the point. Her existence is only as concrete as yours, love, because you’re not sitting here with me as I write these words, and she is. She walked down the stairs several hundred words ago, and now she does it again. I can tell you what’s in her mind and heart, and it’ll be up to you to conjure her, as I am conjuring you. It may not be worth it. You may be better off with a movie. May I suggest The Sound of Music?
Here we sit together in front of the movie screen. The actors play their parts. I’ve seen this before, so I know what happens. Poor Baroness Schrader. If only I could stop the car and go back and tell the woman with the dog to hang out in someone’s yard and kneel to keep a tight hold on the dog while the girl on the bike rides by. But behind the safety glass of my windows, beyond the impassable scrim of screen between me and 1965, I am powerless.
With you, this is not so. With you, I am not Cassandra; I am God.
Beth walks down the stairs. There is no Spencer in this version of her story; not yet. She walks outside. She gets her bike out of the garage. The air in early morning smells of dust and smog and slight moisture. Citysmell. She gets on the bike. She pedals down the street. A blue SUV passes her, going in the opposite direction, just before she hears a dog up ahead, barking, barking, barking inconsolably.
Original artwork by Araceli Colato.