They first met at a casino — him filming his debut, a “lesbian-lover slow-burn finance-punk drama” (his quote), she delivering medicine to her grandmother, who sat every other weekday and tried to dislodge a clog worth millions from a slot machine by stubbornly flushing the lever over and over again. The floodwaters of retirement were rising and left their high-marks as varicose veins on the ankles — Covered security cameras hung from the ceiling like swollen-shiny black buboes.
She was caught walking back and forth in footage of a tense discussion at the hotel bar. Such was her presence that critics wasted much time arguing whether she was intentionally asked to appear six times, whether she was wandering aimlessly, whether she was a manifestation of the couple’s desires — The Director spliced in footage of his leading ladies saying the same lines over and over again just so he could see her trot out from behind a bank of payphones one last time. After the day’s wrap he dismissed most of the staff, grilled the floor staff about an “Irish beauty”, and after much consternation was directed to the only red-haired person they could find on-site. He offered to buy her dinner but only if they dined right then and there — She went through the buffet and had a salad. He ordered trout once, sent it back to the kitchen for some reason involving “blood about the gills here,” ordered trout the second time.
“What’s your name?”
“Jo, you’re going to be in my movie because I cannot stop looking at you. Do you know what that means. Do you know how photogenic you are.”
“Let me tell you a little about myself. I’m just getting started in Hollywood, but very well connected- all those guys you saw down there, my guys. I’m kind of taking the Eli Roth approach, y’know, sleeping on my feet, constantly hustling… uhh, I’m a capital-C Communist, I collect cassettes. What do you do.”
“I’m in school… studying design, fashion design. I’m rereading De Profundis.”
“Wonderful, just fantastic. Are you seeing anybody?”
“Yes. His name is L-”
“Ah good for you. What’s he like.”
“Well, he also has a moustache…”
“I didn’t ask what he looked like, I asked what’s he like.”
“He’s a good man… I’ve known him for a while. Also has a moustache. Also a filmmaker.”
“Oh really. Have I seen anything he’s made.”
“No, it’s just his own kind of private stuff. His experiments.”
“So you’ve been an actress before.”
“In a sense…”
The sense was “Soliloquy of a Young Girl”, in which a younger Jo stands in a white dress and stares directly into a camera for seven hours. Accomplished by careful study of the techniques and contraptions used by statuesque street performers, and clever lighting designed to make it appear the same time of day throughout, it is widely considered unwatchable for the following reason : looking at yourself in a mirror for any more than ten or twenty minutes causes your reflected face to become distended, disarranged, Picasso-esque, take on the visage of someone else entirely. Meeting yourself reflected in this way so disturbs the viewer that psychoses have broken out specifically around this concept. There is no agreed-upon reason for this- your brain finding your face left-right swapped disturbing, a stimuli feedback loop your subconscious tries to break, seance spirits inhabiting whatever is left too long in a mirror- all theories tossed around. But apply these ideas to staring at someone else’s face- you can envision what might happen. The intrepid, when Soliloquy is fully screened, leave red-eyed at hour two or three, some in tears, some with muscle aches from clenching the armrests of the theatre so tightly. Viewers past this hour report her subtle smile growing into a grim rictus around hour five and her pupils swelling beyond their limits and becoming black pools which threaten to drown in psychic self-reflection, none of which can be observed if you skip to that hour’s mark. Scholars recommend a half hour each day for seven days. Curiously the effect only happens in the unbroken atmosphere of the theatre or in a darkened room; a rip of the footage has some rather derisive comments on YouTube, but its power abides.
“So what we’re gonna do is you’re going to leave this guy. Whatever would you categorize him as.”
“A friend…. A lover, I think I would say.”
“Ok. He’s gone. He’s in the dust. I’m going to take you and get you involved in some stuff going on, I have a friend, he has a zombie film going right now, you would make a beautiful corpse. Is that your natural hair color?”
(And she was, in Endpoint of Our World, sequel to Death to All in Our World, a zombie apocalypse movie with an environmental-activism bent- pale and naked from the thighs up and clavicle down.)
“And after that you’re gonna star in my movie after this one, it’s a kind of passion project, basically about a witch who curses a village and causes them to go mad and start sacrificing their own. It’s a bit of a commentary on the modern situation.”
“Am I the witch?”
“Oh no, the sacrifice. Nobody likes the villian. But you’ve got the face of a martyr, babe. It’s gonna be stunning.”
A red hair fell onto the salad plate and formed a perspective line, out to the horizon of one veiled/veined spinach leaf.
“Why can’t I see this man if I’m going to be in all your movies that don’t exist yet?”
“It’s my deal. Romance, it’s too distracting. What we’re doing is real. I don’t believe in fiction. Everything that happens in the movies I make, happens for real… We all live in the dream together. Nobody has any external influences. You’re special, but you’re no exception. Come into this world, you leave everything behind. And I’m gonna make you the focus, the lens of this dream. Nobody sees this million-dollar dream except through you. I promise you.”
She took the bait. Eight months later she was shivering on-set in northern California on a prop graveyard, and unusually, it was snowing.
Introduction to a man who wore shirts sans sleeves out of necessity : “Ma’am, it’s my duty to inform you that I am going to hit you with this shovel as hard as I can, but I am a professional, and I mean you no harm.”
The scene everyone fast-forwards to — slow pan across a silent crowd, dressed anachronistically, priest & peasants, ladies & gentry; some weeping openly, some stone-faced, none blushing or ashamed — the blush being on the inside, red heat eagerly circulating through the system for the show. A lone white dog lopes across the scene. In widescreen, assembled, chalk cliffs lurk beyond focus in the background, with an empty cross already having consumed its victim. Priest murmuring deo gratias. Part the crowd and lead to the grave, Jo on her knees in sheer white before it- an acknowledgement and perversion of the truth- before the shovel swings. There is a noise like a twelve-gauge slug impacting a pumpkin. She topples- head, chest, limp arms, waist, legs, feet- into the pit. Move to confirm the dropped instrument at the foot of the grave is bloodied- move to the head of the grave- an alabaster-white headstone, an angel carved in relief, tearfully glaring up at heaven, no name or date. An inscription reads “LORD, ACCEPT THIS VIRGIN.” Stop- at the foot- tilt- downward- her body at the bottom. First shovelful of dirt- the precipitation of Hell. After a few more one particularly thick load contacts her head wound, which stirs her- shifts her body back upright- convulsions taking the shape of a horizontal waltz- more soil now, more soiling- opens her eyes, all white, tears her dress, white stripes, white rags, muddier and muddier- the earth is moving in faster now- She arches her back and screams- still screaming, now writhing about in the pit, now gleefully showing snow, earth, blood, slush, into each and every orifice, unstoppable in her orgiastic frenzy, desperate to fill herself with her own death or become one with the instrument of it — Four or five extras shoveling dirt from above, each spurred by the reaction below to out-compete the other, to direct their bombing raids to the valued target of their choice, to cripple their newfound enemy in the most entertaining and profitable way. All while out of frame the Director, only his head over the rectangular opening, locks trailing past his cheeks, smiled so brightly it made the stars dim.
The camera does not turn until you can no longer see the outline of her body beneath her burial, it does not turn after the grave is full, it does not turn after the soil it stepped on, compressed, the village crowd slowly starts to disperse. The canine returns and on instinct urinates on a corner of the engraved slab. Only then does it turn.
“How was it accomplished? You know my objective is realism- practical effects in everything. Everything that you saw onscreen tonight was really performed and enacted. I suppose your question is really- how did she survive? I’m considered uncultured if I reveal this to you, as if a magician’s guild will suddenly spring up around me and punish me if I say anything besides the details. Months of training, I’ll say. Finding the right people. Prayer.
What’s beautiful is that it’s all real. She was murdered and buried alive- real. She walks before you today- also real. The unreality is all of you refusing to believe that both could be occurring at once.” – The Director
She spent five weeks at a premiere recovery center stashed in Napa, attended only by a nurse who began each day by signing a non-disclosure agreement. Occasionally a lawyer would bluster in with a rewritten document, sometimes with edits still on the page in various shades of pen, hurriedly blowing on the pages to set the ink before the nurse was forced to sign again. Jo was released from the center immediately after she was informed that she was pregnant.
“You’re sick thinking you could do this. I don’t know how the hell you got out after being in a coma, then bedridden, then practically strapped down. Is it his, did you go find him? You know he’s in a hospital too, right? Something wrong with his fucking head. You break out in the middle of the night and ride his dick? You forget that we got married after your big break? After you were a corpse? I’ve brought you back from the dead twice now and this is how you think you should behave. Get up, we’re going on tour. We’re making a fortune whether you like it or not. You’re gonna get what you deserve. What you earned. My movie, my coma, my kid, now. Come on. ”
The release tour was marred by Jo’s long-suffering pregnancy – eleven total months. Sometimes she would dry heave, sometimes she would grit her teeth and spit up pebbles, like an avian, coughing up ice shards like a cold front. When the child was born it was doughy, hard, with eyes like fisheye lenses. In custody court she chose no representation and muttered something over and over about “gingerbread” and “harmonies”. The judge’s decision was short and overwhelming.
Following her pregnancy Jo retired, separating from the director and investing her money in a repertory theatre, which screened a collection of the L—-’s work every Easter. She did not have any contact with her son and left his rearing to a swarm of foreign mothers, prim staff, balding tutors, and The Director when he found the time.
L—- made his living at phone bank centers and his life recording long shots of blinking bridges and shipping docks in darkness. He died young of a brain aneurysm and in debt to a Los Angeles film equipment rental service which Jo paid in his stead. She also attended his funeral, hollow and streaked with grey. His most celebrated work is a twelve-hour-long shot of a Midwestern lock-and-dam structure at nighttime.
The Director woke up one morning to find himself blue and his pudgy infant son’s belly smothering his nose and mouth, ankles locked around his neck, tufts of hair held by small fat twin fists.
— Will says, “If cremations were the norm, this kinda thing just wouldn’t happen.”