Actaeon at the Movies

Eric Lundgren

A trenchcoated man staggers toward the marquee. The secondhand coat is only a slightly different hue from his mottled skin, rumpled and creased as parchment. He attends every screening at the revival house.

            The same film twice a night, plus the matinee on weekends. Upon arrival, after flashing his monthly pass to the bored teens in the booth, he proceeds down the counter to exchange a few wrinkled dollars for the awaiting tub of buttered popcorn.

            He arrives half an hour prior to showtime to avoid encounters. This is part of his arrangement with theatre management, which has deemed him an “unsettling presence.” But they are in no position to turn down the revenue from his monthly pass, paid on his behalf by a trust fund in Greece. Technically, by now, his picture should be enshrined with the other patrons of the theatre along the hallway leading to the art-deco ladies and gents bathroom doors. But if you’d seen him, you’d know why not.

            It is a single-screen, neighborhood cinema of the kind that no longer widely exists. Figures from the margins of society take refuge here, while their compatriots stream the latest programs to their home plasmas. Its lobby is lined with period mod furniture and its walls adorned with smoked-glass sconces.

            Some nights, it is nearly empty. He doesn’t mind in the least when management schedules a thorny subtitled art film or a bleak documentary. He’s happy to take in these obscurities ten to twenty times with a sparse assortment of film snobs, whose talk tends toward self-congratulation, with gestures and mannerisms that remind him of the philosophers strolling the agora in Athens. On such nights he can spread out.

            Despite his best efforts, his chair, isolated in a short accessible row near the back, is always coated in a fine gray dust.

            He’s grateful to be far from the screen. Even at his advanced age, his vision remains painfully perfect—unlike the heap of his numb, claylike flesh, assembled into a rough approximation of face and hands outside the trench coat. He can barely feel a thing anymore, but his eyes are two bright orbs, as sharp as they were that day in the forest long, long ago.

It is April in the cold northern city that he inhabits, and while the temperatures have warmed for his evening walk to the cinema, there are still residual traces of snow along the curbs. The residents of his neighborhood walk the streets with a light step, trailing their terriers, their beagles, their hounds and retrievers. The dogs look back at their masters, tongues askew, and strain at leashes to sniff the first signs of new growth, looking slightly crazed.

            It is a “dog-friendly” neighborhood, and they are allowed inside more or less everywhere. Not the cinema, however.

            Living here, he has developed a preference for winter. The cold gives a certain brittle integrity to his limbs. In the winter months, his back corner of the theatre is pleasingly chilly, and his sartorial choices give no one pause. If the brown nubs of his legs should collapse during the screening, he can massage them discreetly back into place without too much embarrassment.

            Cruel April also brings the Hitchcock Festival, an annual tradition that stretches back to the limits of his memory, such as it is, and encompasses several theatres in the city, each playing different highlights from the master’s oeuvre. Some years he gets off relatively easy, if his cinema plays Rope or Shadow of a Doubt.

            But this year it is a double feature of his two most feared films, Rear Window and Vertigo. He has been dreading them since the schedule was first announced, and for the past month, during previews, has been reminded of them twice every night, three times on weekends. Even the trailers can cost him a finger or two, which he must fish out of the bed of his buttered popcorn and reaffix to his hand.

            This could be almost as bad as the Rita Hayworth retrospective. Don’t even ask.

            The children on the street take furtive glances at him as he passes, tentatively, teeth gritted, toward the cinema in the lilac-scented evening.

He is not alone in the cinema—that is to say, alone among the mortals. The popcorn sellers, the moviegoers who come in, hand in hand or solo, for a nostalgic evening of immersion under the silver screen, are all a part of the temporal world where 7:00 PM or 9:40 PM are significant numbers to keep in mind. Likewise $8, the cost of a ticket (up to $12 for the Hitchcock Festival), and $6 the cost of a large popcorn. In the mortal world, these numbers must add up to a sufficient number to keep the theatre in operation.

            The theatre has kept its prices low. He can only hope that the theatre’s financial mismanagement and strange scheduling choices will lead to it being condemned and shuttered. Now that a bronze plaque affirming the theatre’s historic status has been affixed to the side of the building, it seems unlikely. But he still dreams of release.

            He and the others who share his condition.

            For the usher is always waiting there when he arrives. She was captured well in Edward Hopper’s painting New York, 1939. Her downcast elegance and symmetrical beauty just starting to pale, very much in line with the surrounding décor of the cinema, she stands on the threshold, back to the screen, handing out programs.

            No one seems to see her as they come in. Perhaps to mortal eyes she is nothing more than a rack, an inert container holding programs. No one thanks her for the program she places in their hands, nor responds when she tells them to “enjoy the show.”

            He spoke to her once. He asked her quite bluntly what she had done in her past life to bring her to this place and fate. She stiffened immediately in her pressed maroon uniform, raised her eyebrows in alarm, sure signs that he had violated protocol. They would both likely be punished for this, but he had to know.

            “I don’t remember anymore,” she whispered after a long pause. “But I think I was a cruel person who excluded others. That is why I am always outside, with my back turned to the show.”

            He reached to touch her hand. Numb as he was, he could still sense the coldness of her skin. Behind her, the screen trembled with ghostly whiteness. 

His existence is not all bleakness and repetition. There are the hours, after all, when the cinema is closed, and nothing is showing. At these times he obtains a sort of freedom.

            He has tried to skip the screenings—this is also something he is technically allowed to do, although when he steps outside, a light breeze blows him in the direction of the cinema, and his much-reconstructed body finds it hard to resist. It has been years now since he last tried to avoid the cinema, and when he does, his circumstances turn against him in a vague but thorough way. His pipes clog, his mattress begins to sag, birds fly in through the open window, roaches scuttle across the floors of his studio apartment, the landlord starts knocking angrily at his door, etc.

            For a while he even audited a few extension classes at the city’s university. He took a course called “Classical Backgrounds,” intended mainly for retirees, so he could revisit some of the old scenes and characters. Memory lane. The professor, himself retired, who looked quite at ease in his slim-cut blazer, bounced past the chalkboard in his jeans and New Balance sneakers and expostulated:

            “Think of Sisyphus, even! There’s that moment when he’s pushed the stone up the hill and it rolls back down yet again. You think he doesn’t draw that out a bit, stop to savor the moment?” And the professor mimed a man at ease, strolling down the hill to retrieve the stone, but mainly enjoying the hillside, the sun, the grass, the sheer aliveness.

            He fit in well with the retirees. A couple people even asked him to join their book club. But he declined. He had conflicts. 

            What he does now in his free time is, he follows his nature. He hunts. Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, Half Price Books. Being on a fixed income he must mind his budget. But every day he brings home little adornments for his studio apartment a few blocks from the cinema. He finds worn paperbacks on film history and theory on the clearance shelves.

            He found a nice reading chair of pink velvet for $5. A lamp. He is on the lookout for a new trench coat but these are not frequently available in his size. Sometimes in the afternoons, he puts on 45 rpm records of 1940s popular tunes and dances around his room imagining that the usher is dancing with him. He sometimes dresses up as if for a party, but the scratches and fuzz of the records remind him it’s a party for which he is decades late.

            From the film books he picks up an occasional useful scrap: Hitchcock, for example, used the green hotel neon in Vertigo because green light had been used on the British stage to signal the appearance of a ghost.

He doesn’t bring his penis to the cinema anymore. It’s always the first part to detach, and it is more of a distraction than anything. He doesn’t need it to process the buttered popcorn and small complimentary plastic cups of water the theatre provides to sustain him. He keeps his penis in a small glass display case on the windowsill, where it gestures grayly toward the light outside in a state of semi-erection. He spritzes it with water every few days.

If you were to ask him how many times he has seen Rear Window, he would say “about 300,” but this comes with a caveat—he has seen the first half hour of Rear Window about 300 times. He has read about the remainder of the film, the mystery that unfolds in the stage-set apartment courtyard backdrop, but this is not something he can experience firsthand in any way, much less “watch.”

            The way Grace Kelly descends out of the darkness, pure goddess, with almost no warning. No matter how many times he sees it, he is never prepared for it. Her slow motion descent to kiss the hobbled Jimmy Stewart in his wheelchair detonates him, though sometimes a stray eyeball can still focus sufficiently to watch her circle the room, turning on three floor lamps in succession while reciting her name, “Lisa . . . Carol . . . Fremont.”

            But that is all. At this point, one of his eyes is fixed on the ceiling of the theatre, which features a large trompe l’oeil rendering of the muses, and Apollo, and the skull of Zeus disgorging Athena, and other defining moments in the pre-history of cinema: these early movie theater designers were so grandiose! They’ve got little winged Mercurys up there, and cherubs strumming lyres, just throwing everything together haphazardly!

            His other eyeball, unfortunately, has rolled several rows forward and now rests at the dirty heel of a young woman in flip-flop sandals who is flexing her foot in a repetitive motion which tenses the slim curves of her calf.

            His “reconstitution procedure” involves a visualization of his own body sitting comfortably in his cinema chair. The work is intensive and slow. He must fill the stained and spattered trench coat gradually with the parts of his body that have gone astray. When the stitch job is complete, he recalls the eyeballs with an intense concentration that exhausts his will. Rolls them back up over his knotted legs, over each fold in the trench coat, up the ruts in his neck until they settle back into the dry sockets.  

            It is a shame because as cinema heroes go, he relates quite strongly to L.B. Jeffries, as played by Jimmy Stewart, the hobbled war photographer who must expend his voyeuristic energies on his neighbors while recovering from injuries received in the field.

Even Ovid had to admit: “But if you look closely, you will find that it was the fault of chance and not wickedness. What wickedness was there in error?”

            But then at the conclusion of his tale, the exiled poet hedges his bets. 

            “The debate is undecided: to some the punishment is more violent than just, merely for seeing the face of a goddess, while others approve it and call it fitting because of her strict vow of virginity. Both can make a case.”   

            If only he had been turned into a tree or something, gnarled branches groaning in the wind.

Vertigo is a different story. 

            While there are moments throughout the film that cause him to collapse slightly, such as when Kim Novak wakes in her bathrobe and realizes that “Scottie” Ferguson (again played by the necromancer, Jimmy Stewart) has seen her nude after rescuing her from the water under the Golden Gate Bridge, the pivotal moment does not come until late in the film.

            When Kim Novak reemerges, after being painstakingly reconstructed from the painfully Midwestern Judy by Jimmy Stewart, with the blonde bun, and the gray suit, in the green hotel neon through the window, and the full swell of Bernard Hermann’s score singing out. 

            The goddess moment.

            So for a full two hours he is a more or less normal spectator, allowing the strings of his anticipation to be pulled taut, in the slow gradual and dreamlike build.

            The experience of watching Vertigo folds back on itself, so it is impossible to say how many hundreds or thousands of times one has seen it.

            He has read that at the end of the film, Kim Novak throws herself from the clock tower in fear, leaving “Scottie” i.e. Stewart trembling with fear on the heights, reprising his unprocessed trauma—one could see the film just beginning again from here.

            We could say, with Ovid, that to some the punishment is more violent than just, while others approve it.

            This is not to even mention the scene in Muir Woods, one of the most dreamlike in all cinema, where Stewart and Novak descend into deep time, the centuries written in rings on the severed and opened trunk of the sequoias, always green, ever-living. Kim Novak tracing an inch with her finger: Somewhere in here I was born . . . and there I died.

            It comes to him at night sometimes, in his narrow studio bed, his punishment redoubled by his own subconscious. And in his bed, upon waking, he must reconstruct himself.

            His surprise at seeing a more or less intact, recognizable human face in the mirror, rather than a Picasso assemblage of features jumbled together. The dogs had not really eaten his face, because there was not much meat there. Just scratches, really.

The thing was, he had just been going about his business that day, wiping the blood off his spear with the edge of his tunic as he took an afternoon walk.

            The dogs were finishing off the stag that he and his buddies had roasted for lunch, and a few of them were already napping in the shade. Blanche and Wingfoot, always the closest of comrades, were getting comfortable side by side in the grass.

            The light filtered through the trees prismatically to touch his skin. He felt warm, abundant, blessed. He followed the light’s spidery suggestions through the forest, going no direction in particular until the laughter of his buddies and the sated grumbles of the dogs feasting on stag guts faded away.

            In its place, something sweeter and airier, like lyre strums. The water lapping at the edges of the reservoir, light tipping the little waves as they collapsed on the rocks. The musical, lilting sound of laughter and water splashing.

            Nymphs! he thought.

            With his hunter’s silent footsteps he crept to the water’s edge and positioned himself behind a large olive tree with trunk splayed at eye level. He saw blonde hair cascading over a creamy shoulder and a toothy giggling smile. Plump white swells of flesh glistening in the clear water. 

            But as he positioned himself for a better view, he discerned something in the background of the scene: a grotto, which Ovid refers to as “something not man-made,” with an arch-like entrance leading to a dark void in the rocky shore, a precursor of the theatres in which he has spent his long centuries. 

            It was then that the nymphs dispersed, revealing the naked goddess and her black stare of pure hatred that pierced him across the water, even at this distance. Looking down at his reflection, he saw not the splayed tree trunk but two stag horns jutting from his head at the exact same angle.

            Behind him, his friends calling out his name, and closer, the barking of the dogs. It was no surprise to see Dorceus (Quicksight) and Dromus (Racer) at the head of the pack. But it was little Asbolos (Sooty) who took the first bite. Playful, the way they wrestled around the fire when he was a puppy. Until he felt the searing pain and saw the bloody hunk of flesh between Sooty’s teeth.

            The eyes that had gazed at him with love and devotion now contained nothing but the black and immortal hatred of Artemis. Sooty grinned with his cute little crooked tooth through mouthfuls of blood.

Perhaps we have overlooked the organist. He takes the stage most evenings to play a few tunes before special events (i.e. the Hitchcock Festival). The organ is installed on a platform that rises out of the stage somewhat magically—a fine reward for those who have made it to the cinema this early. And he is always early. The old man wears red suspenders over a white shirt that seems large for him, that might ripple uncontrollably were it not for the suspenders. His thick glasses and bald pate gleam in the stage lights.

            With great enthusiasm, he plays songs that no one recognizes—at best vaguely familiar to some of the older cinemagoers. The songs speak of people and places that have long vanished, and so it is better to let the sounds wash over you with a warm nostalgic glow without working too hard to place them.

            He has seen no signs that the organist is in the process of training an apprentice, and it is hard to say who the cinema could find to replace the old man, as he seems to be the only one who knows how to operate the organ’s elaborate system of pedals, knobs, and buttons. If or when the organist dies, the organ will have to stay permanently concealed in the stage on its sunken platform, vibrating slightly with the memory of these old, forgotten songs.

            Still, when the organist plays, he allows himself a few moments of happiness, even though he knows what is coming. So maybe the professor was not entirely wrong. He is descending the hill to collect the stone. He crunches his buttery popcorn in his gums and taps the nubs of his feet on the cinema floor, sticky with a residue of spilled soda. He looks over at the usher, her programs ruffling in the breeze from the lobby, her back turned to the spectacle as it always must be—swaying slightly to the music.

            The old man turns around at the end of his performance, faces the audience through thick-rimmed glasses, and receives a scattering of applause. Latecomers are still making their way in. The organist stands weakly as the platform descends back into the stage, and when the old man waves goodbye to the crowd, Actaeon always feels he is waving to him. 

            As the organist descends out of sight, he wonders what the wrinkled hand has touched and what the deep-set eyes have seen. Then the old man is gone, the curtains judder and part, and the lights go down.

Eric Lundgren is the author of the novel The Facades, published by The Overlook Press and named a fiction finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. His work has appeared in Tin House, Boulevard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions. He lives in Minneapolis and works for the University of Minnesota Press.

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