A man died of old age. The only heir, a male poet of some recognition, cleared out the man’s, his father’s, house. He found a cassette in the VHS player. It was probably the last thing his father had watched before he died. Out of curiosity, the poet, the man’s son, played it. The unlabeled cassette appeared to contain a late 70’s – or early 80’s – thriller/detective movie. There was no clear plot, no main characters and it started and ended in the middle of a scene, as if the cassette only contained the movie’s middle section.
The years passed by, and the poet worked hard perfecting his poetry. In the 2020’s his style fell out of favor and it became increasingly difficult for him to publish his work. He took to drinking. His wife left him. A brief and shameful episode involving one of the students at the community college where he taught cost him his job. He stopped drinking and took a part time job as a translator for a German electronics company and spent most of his time, outside the office, in his Greenpoint apartment, reading, masturbating and watching old movies, writing nothing.
The poet found the cassette at the bottom of a cardboard box, as he searched for his old pop’s collection of vintage issues of Hustler. He ended up watching the peculiar movie once again and this time around he found it profoundly inspiring. Each scene radiated a strong poetic sensibility and a queer emotional tension, transcending, even, the art of filmmaking as such. He read the scenes as rich and delicate poems. And soon, in a violent fervor, as the blue softness of dawn rolled in, he was writing those poems down.
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy called the poet early in the morning, as he was getting ready for his keynote address at the ”2031 Gathering of Writers,” to be held later that morning at the Indiana State Library. “Congratulations,” the permanent secretary said, and continued to read the Academy’s statement: “The Nobel Prize in Literature goes to” – she said the poet’s name – “who, in lucid yet imploding narratives, recodifies the tenets of our ethical and aesthetic inheritances, thus pragmatically reaffirming the power of imagination, notwithstanding the arbitrariness of human nature.” The poet thanked the permanent secretary very much and replied that, yes, he would probably be able to go to the award ceremony a few months from now. They hung up and the poet went into the bathroom to perform his morning jerk-off.
”What about the yellow octopus in the pinkroom?” The question came from a bald-headed gentleman wearing round glasses, sitting at the other side of the table, just within hearing distance. A few hours ago, the poet had received a medal from the Queen of Sweden. Five minutes ago, he had held a speech at the banquet that arguably marked the height of his literary career. And he found the question about the octopus rather disturbing.
He had, way back when, actually tried to identify the strange movie that his father had left in the VHS player. But with no success. In those days, the methods for accessing public information were crude and underdeveloped, with none of the simplicity and accuracy enabled by the innovation of predictive user-hardware ecosystems. So, upon rediscovering the movie, he renewed the effort. This time around, he could simply upload parts of it, enter “find” and let the system do the rest. It found absolutely nothing. And the scary bit was that it found absolutely nothing. The movie itself could be an obscure side project, or a student project that never had been registered in any database and whose only copy, however incredulous this sounded, his father had been in possession of. But what about the actors? The props? The lighting? The sound quality? The words being used? Normally, the system could analyze an ordinary photograph taken a hundred years ago and, with high accuracy, tell the place, the date the photograph was taken, the origin and use of objects that appeared in it and, if this information was not in some way sensitive, the people on it. But the system could not pin down any component part at all, at least not with a higher degree of certainty than 20%. It was not only as if the movie didn’t exist. It was as if it had been created in a vacuum.
The mention of the yellow octopus in the pinkroom was without a doubt a reference to one of the scenes in the movie – a scene that the poet had written down but never published. This meant that the bald-headed man had seen it. The movie created in a vacuum. The movie that had inspired… no, in essence constituted the latter period of his oeuvre, labeled by the New York Times as “a serene and absolutely novel attack on the sanctity of human life.” The poet could hardly breathe. The feeling of having been exposed choked him.
A man enters a room with pink walls – which in this scene also functions as a general practitioner’s office. (The pinkroom recurs throughout, representing various settings to different scenes.) The man is unable to talk since his entire face, including the mouth, is covered by a yellow octopus. The only sounds he manages to produce are muffled grunts and hoots. The doctor, quite naturally, assumes that the man wishes to have the octopus removed. And proceeds to remove it with a scalpel. With the octopus gone, the man’s unnatural twisted face is revealed, a hideous inhuman face, a knotty and meaty abomination, an uneven lump of raw flesh. It has no eyes, no nose and no mouth, only very white, and sharp, teeth. The thing assaults the doctor, bites his throat and eats his torso. The camera filming this is static. A loud bang – a gunshot? The thing stiffens for a second and crawls out of the picture, repeating a strange sound: ”Mugu. Mugu. Mugu.”
At midnight, as the banquet was wrapping up and the poet was getting ready to leave for the comfort of his hotel room, there was a hand on his arm. Someone was calling his attention: the bald-headed man.
– Do you want to see it?
The poet overcame fear and disbelief. This was, possibly, a chance to learn the secret behind his father’s VHS tape. He accepted the invitation.
They headed north, in the Scandinavian winter night, a frosty one at that, 14 degrees Fahrenheit and falling, the trees all glitter and darkness, the stretch of unbent streetlights a pulsating reassurance.
They were silent for a while, and then they talked.
– Do you mind the protesters?
– I’m used to them. I live in New York.
– It was the biggest police detail in the history of Nobel banquets. It’s quite a feat, you know, to be able to bring together radical feminists, libertarians and orthodox Christians to rally against you. You really do “recodify the tenets of our ethical and aesthetic inheritances.”
– I’m just amazed that people, in this day and age, would still care about some guy’s poetry.
– Heh. You know the scene where the accountant plants the cocker seed?
Of course he knew the scene.
– Well, I’m thinking about that scene right now, how something small and insignificant can grow into something huge and important just by force of life.
– The cocker plant grows to destroy an entire town.
– So where are we going?
– The more pertinent question is: Who are you going to meet?
– They all picture him differently.
– Yet they all search for him, in their own ways.
After two hours’ drive, they arrived at a giant concrete cistern in the middle of an abandoned industrial area. Time had been rough on the surroundings. The black eyes of glassless windows stared at them, the air was thick with rust. Trees lined up on the other side of a chain link fence. Like soldiers, silently waiting for orders. The cistern had an entrance. Inside, there was a whirl of activity. There was noise. Warmth, and light. Actors scurried back and forth between the different floors, set constructors drilled holes, electricians carried lightning props and makeup artists were having coffee breaks. Someone shouted “Action!”, and a scene begun.
The poet wandered about the inside of the silo, baffled and deeply immersed in what he saw. This was – in flesh and blood – the movie that he had found in his old man’s VHS player. The characters were the same, the props, the costumes and the settings looked the same too, and he even recognized some of the actors, although they were visibly older. But the scenes were new, or slightly altered. As if the movie was in fact a continuum of which his father’s tape was a mere fraction.
The final scene on his father’s tape takes place in the pinkroom. In it, two women fight over a large and very sharp piece of glass, tearing up the setting and their costumes in a violent rumble. Yet none of them ever gets cut by the glass. It is not an action scene, nor a choreographed dance, but more like some kind of athletic ritual the rules of which are brutal and crystal clear. That scene is cut to black in the middle of the fight and thus ends his father’s copy of the movie. There are no credits, no musical score, no nothing.
The poet entered the pinkroom. It was empty, except for two cameramen standing in opposite corners. They pointed big, heavy cameras at him. The room felt smaller than it appeared in the movie. The bald-headed guy, who had been following him around in the beginning, was nowhere to be seen. There was a door, a black door that he did not recognize, and brown, uneven tracks that disappeared under it. Dried blood? He opened the door.
“Yet they all search for him, in their own ways.” That phrase had confirmed a strong suspicion the poet had had, aroused by having watched his father’s tape innumerous times: The movie’s heterogeneity and lack of dramatic structure and coherence was an illusion necessary for the creation of a much deeper narrative in which everything that happened were the consequences of a clear and terrifying motive. The characters, each and every one of them, in their own, idiosyncratic way, sought complete submission to an alien entity. Some got close but not close enough, leading to a gradual annihilation of their humanity, like the guy with the octopus on his face. Successfully submitting to this entity led, according to the characters incessantly played by aging actors in the silo, filmed by aging crew members and instructed by aging directors and screenwriters, to a pure reversal of human desires, logic and imagination. A successful, and complete, reprogramming of the human code. This is impossible in real life – but fully possible as the ultimate perversion of human aspiration. And thus fully possible, yet challenging, to make a movie about.
Hence, the silo.
Behind the black door was a flight of stairs. The cameramen did not follow him. The last we see of him is his back disappearing into the darkness.
To come into existence is in essence unfathomable. Our habits, our beliefs, our culture, our language, all that which makes us human, shields us from the incredulity of existence. Art fucks with the protective shield of humanity by seeking paths towards the possibility of the impossible. His art, the poetry derived from the movie, had come close, perhaps closer than ever before, to a great anti-foundation for existence, casting us into the complete unknown. Had he succeeded? Perhaps he was no longer human? Perhaps there was a much bigger silo, producing DVDs, within the smaller, VHS-oriented one? Perhaps he was going to be punished for what was an inevitable failure? Perhaps the stairs simply led to an exit from the silo?
He may have been thinking these thoughts, and others like them, as he descended. Or maybe he just stopped to masturbate. We can’t know.