BASS 2012: Adam Wilson, “What’s Important is Feeling,” from Paris Review #199, Winter 2011

JooxGraphix: "Trapped.Behind.The.Screen"

JooxGraphix: “Trapped.Behind.The.Screen”

We knew Felix was coming, but we didn’t know when. He’d written the script and was the associate producer. He’d been nominated for an Academy award. Some people said Felix was a genius. We (the L.A. people) had read the new script. It was good, better than good. Better than the other crap we worked on: thirty-second spots for regional fast-food chains, student shorts, overfunded indie twee…. Felix’s script was different: sexy, savage, utterly bleak. In short: Art.

It took a few pages for me to get into this, but once I realized it wasn’t another incompetent-but-arrogant-young-man-blames-everyone-for-his-problems story, I had fun with it. Take a couple of grande artistes trying to realize competing visions, a bunch of working stiffs just trying to make a buck, and an artiste-wannabe, mix with behind-the-scenes intrigue on location in Texas (complete with chiggers), and you’ve got a pretty good romp; it reminded me of Postcards from the Edge, from the point of view of the male crew.

There were problems. The director and the star hated each other; everyone hated the first AD; the first AD was a cokehead and running out of Coke; the star had fucked the costar, then her assistant; the production was out of money; the DP had also fucked the star’s assistant; the dailies looked amateur; the food was shit; the Texans thought the L.A. folks were homosexuals; the LA folks were mostly homosexuals and took umbrage.
By the time Felix showed up, hope was lost.

Who does what is kind of unimportant. What’s important is feeling (hey, didn’t you read the title?). Wilson on Wilson in The Literary Review: “I feel like these characters are almost battling for autonomy against the overwhelming voice of the zeitgeist, and often losing the battle.” I can see that, the zeitgeist of the story being the insanity of a movie set where the dog has failed and it all rests on the cat (I’ll get there, don’t worry). And then there’s his comment at The L Magazine which is technically about Wilson’s novel, Flatscreen but seems to cast light on this story as well: “Especially now with multi-function cellphones, it seems to me that the defining characteristic of our era is the amount of time we spend looking at screens. As both a cultural observer and a[n] opportunistic comedian (not to mention, a screen-wielder myself), I’m certainly interested in writing about what ends up on those screens and how it gets there.” It doesn’t hurt that the antics of those behind the screens make for excellent snark. And that it’s fun.

But the story. Well, there’s Felix, the screenwriter, who’s arrival will fix everything on the dysfunctional set. There’s the narrator, who may have a name but I didn’t circle it and it isn’t the type of story where it matters (at least not to me), a film-school grad whose job on this project is… well, I don’t know, he’s there with his film-school buddy in some technical capacity. It’s not important, what’s important is that he buys weed to calm Felix down, gets him a haircut (and has his head shaved in solidarity), and reassures him about the cat (I told you, don’t worry, I’ll get there. Have a little patience).

But first there’s Francisco.

I didn’t know what to make of Francisco, the talent. He’d been a child star of the Mexican stage, and later the hunky adulterer on a popular telenovella. His mother was an opera singer, and his father handcrafted violins. Rumor had it his maternal grandfather had made his nut in munitions.
Francisco played seven instruments and was fluent in as many languages. He’d grown up in a fenced-off estate with verandas outside Mexico City, Ferraris, and armed guards – all the gaudy signifiers of cartel superwealth. Still, he played himself off as a man of the people, spoke Spanish with the Mexican grips and electricians, kicked a soccer ball between takes, smiled a humble, punchable smile at everyone he passed. His acting was iffy, but his face was an exemplar of symmetry and composition. My jealousy was undermined by my interest in star fucking.

That’s some character there. This is why I’m unconcerned about the narrator’s name or his job title or any of a hundred other plot details. The story is about Felix and Francisco; everything else is the canvas for them, and the narrator the microphone. So you’ve got the Texans and the chiggers and there’s the haircutter and there’s a bunch of other stuff, but it all comes down to Felix’s obsession with the cat (we’re here – see, didn’t I promise):

The scene where the dog runs into the road and Francisco doesn’t stop the car until Monica screams and grabs the wheel. We’d spent four hours on it because the dog kept running the wrong way.
“This fucking dog – too pretty. Of course he wants to run it over. Who doesn’t want to crush that smug bitch? Dog’s not even running right. This is supposed to be suicide. We need an ugly dog, some kind of mutt, runt of the litter, nothing to live for. I want him lingering on the shoulder, contemplating, then dashing out. Francisco sees the trajectory of the dog’s life, refuses to alter its course. It’s an act of mercy. An act of love.”
“I could love a dog,” I said.
“The thing that worries me isn’t the dog,” Felix said. “It’s not the dog at all. What worries me is that if they fucked up the dog, how are they going to deal with the cat?”
Felix took a deep pull, ashed on the carpet.
“The cat is the whole picture; the way he moves through the house at the end. If they get the cat right, then maybe this thing can work.”
He passed me the blunt.
“Promise me something,” he said. “Promise me you won’t let them fuck up the cat.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
“I like this guy,” Felix said to the TV.

This sounds so much like movie nonsense, I laughed out loud, not something I usually do. This is where the story got me.

I’m sure there’s a lot of other really great stuff happening. I believe the underlying struggle-against-zeitgeist theme, and the screen-anxiety, and all the rest. But for me, it’s about the dog and the cat, because that’s what leapt off the page.

And you know what’s going to happen with the cat. It’s like the animal wrangler says: “Cat can’t read your script.” Felix can scream all he wants. He can present reasonable arguments – his job is animal wrangler, that’s what he’s supposed to do, get the animals to do what it says in the script – and the guy’s still gonna tell you, “Cat can’t read.” There’s just no argument for that.

I’m sure very important symbolic stuff happens in the remaining few pages, bathing the narrator in epiphanies (something about someone named Anne) and shifting his life forever. Probably not; it’s not that kind of story. The story ends with him watching the film on DVD with his recently-acquired New York friends. But for me, the story is about the dog and the cat. That’ll be in my mind every time I see a movie. I’m already flashing on my memory of the Audrey Hepburn TV-biopic with Jennifer Love Hewitt explaining the symbolism of the cat on the set for the last scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s under Michael-Burg-as-Truman-Capote’s surprised but approving eye. I’ll never watch Tiffany again without laughing. Out loud.

Maybe I don’t read any better than the cat.

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