As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
– Proverbs 26:11
Thinking about Cam, the recently released movie by screenwriter Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber (streaming on Netflix), I’m struck by how long I’ve been trying to do the same things.
- I keep wanting the world to be other than what it is.
- I keep imagining other ways it could be.
- I keep trying to figure out how to move the world, or some small corner of it, from what it is toward what I imagine.
- I keep realizing that I can’t do it, or that it can’t be done.
- I keep making phase shifts, from imagining changes in the world-that-is to imaginary alternative worlds-that-aren’t.
There have been times in my life when I’ve allied with others who also want to change the world incrementally from what it is to what it could become. Mostly those efforts proved disappointing, to me at least, and arguably also to the world, though lots of people have made their careers that way.
A prototypical conversation between my father and mother:
Father: I did my best.
Mother: Your best stinks.
Father: Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.
A prototypical conversation between me and myself:
Me: No reason it can’t be.
Myself: No way it ever will be.
If you’re chronically dissatisfied with the world as it is, don’t you at least once in a while have to acknowledge that the problem might be yourself as you are? It’s more adaptive to take what the world gives you by making the world a little bit more like itself.
Take Cam. Alice the cam girl is taking what the world gives her by giving the world what it wants. She’s good at it, but she’s insatiable: she wants more. The world is insatiable too: it doesn’t just want what she can give; it wants all of her. She resists. With no allies and no resources other than her own ingenuity and pluck, she reasserts herself as an autonomous agent in the world. The movie is smart, arty, engaging, exciting. It might be the sort of movie you make if on some level you’re satisfied with the movie world as it is, if you can take what that world will give you, if you’re prepared to make that world a little bit more like itself. Maybe you can resist, can retain your autonomous agency while immersed in an insatiable world, can climb the charts to a position where you’re able to call the shots. Maybe, if you’re prepared to do what it takes, you deserve what you get. You have to work at it, but you also have to want it. Not only do you have to accept the world as it is; you have to love it.
I can’t do it. I lack the drive, the energy, the desire. I lack the love.
When I started writing fiction it was mostly because I loved the world of fiction. Not pop genre fiction, but what for lack of a better adjective has to be labeled literary fiction. I wanted to adapt to that world of fiction, to exert personal agency in that world by writing my own fictions, to make that world more like itself through what I wrote. In retrospect I concede that I misread that world, that I was adapting to a fictional version of the world of fiction, a world riddled with holes and lumps and contorted by digressions and loops, unreal as psychosis, as science, as theology. Since coming to that realization I’ve wanted to make the fictional world-as-it-is into something closer to my imagined fictional world-as-it-is-not. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked. My best stinks; expect the worst and I won’t be disappointed. No reason it can’t happen, no way it ever will.
When I first met Danny he was a senior at our daughter’s high school, introduced to me by Isa, the older sister of our daughter’s best friend from early childhood. At the time I was thinking about starting a film project among high schoolers who wanted to make movies, not for class credit, not as a program they’d have to pay for, but as an endeavor motivated by shared enthusiasm. I imagined a project called Reruns — here was the gist:
It’s a zombie world. Sitting zombified on the couch, you click through the TV channel changer. Every channel is showing reruns of old zombie programs. The collaborative project is to write and film these short clips of zombie TV shows, assembling them into a simulated trip through the channel changer. The clips will be short — from 5 seconds to a minute long — and fragmentary. All genres of programming are fair game: drama, comedy, reality TV, quiz show, news, documentary, sports, ad… The unifying structure or narrative isn’t imposed on the fragments; it emerges from flicking through them one after another.
Sounds a lot like Son of Strands. I presented the idea to Isa and Danny, both of whom were adept at cinematic art and craft. They liked the idea and were prepared to help me get it going. Around that time, out for an afternoon run, I came across the father of one of our daughter’s other childhood pals. The dad was a PhD physicist who worked in a government alternative energy lab but who had toyed with the idea of quitting to become a science teacher. Figuring him for a fellow traveler, I ran the Reruns idea by him as we ran along the Boulder trails together. Now’s the wrong time of year, he said; you should wait till the summer. And do you have any experience with filmmaking? with teaching? I told him to go fuck himself, to shove it up his ass — the last conversation I ever had with him. But I abandoned the project shortly afterward, having decided that I was attempting to manipulate kids into doing something that I wanted to do. It would be better if the high schoolers themselves initiated and ran their own project — as Danny had done a couple of years earlier, starting and running a kids’ theatre troupe.
Son of Strands. Do I write short stories? No. Have I ever edited a literary magazine or anything like it? No. Go fuck yourself and shove it up your ass. But you’ve got a point. I’m an outsider to that world; I don’t like many aspects of that world; I’d want Son of Strands to take shape in an alternative world of short fiction that’s more to my liking. Shouldn’t this sort of project be launched by people who already live inside the world of short fiction, who love that world, who want to carve out a niche in that world by making it more like itself? I’m the wrong guy for that job.
Around the time I was sketching out the Reruns project I wrote “Looking Up” for an Open Mic event at a nearby bookstore. It’s a 2,000 word story about an unknown novelist who suddenly achieves worldwide fame, reading long portions of his work in progress aloud to a vast and rapt audience, a novel that seems to be writing itself as he turns the pages. I asked Danny to read my story, giving particular attention to the ending: should the writer continue reading his self-writing novel and increasing in renown, or should a sniper from the audience shoot him dead and take his place at the dais? Danny thought ending A was better. I posted the story on my blog: most of the commenters preferred ending B. I went with ending A for the Open Mic reading, but in subsequent rewrites I stuck with the B version. Analogously, in my imaginary ending to Cam Alice wins the competition against her AI döppelganger by snuffing herself on-screen; the audience, oblivious, celebrates AI-Alice for having staged such a clever CGI performance, propelling “her” to the top of the charts.