by Dennis Calero
I was woken up by my cell phone. For a second, my heart thudded so hard I could actually feel it pound against my Close Encounters t-shirt. Was it Rita? Had something happened to Paolo?
I unplugged the phone from the power cord and squinted at the name. It wasn’t Rita calling about our son. It was John Dixon, my editor. It was six in the morning. I don’t normally get up until eight and John never calls me at this hour.
I hit the answer button.
“Dix?” My voice was hoarse and my head thudded from a night of drinking alone, something I did a lot since I moved into the apartment. I cleared my throat. “Is something wrong?”
“Kevin! You’re not going to believe this. Turn on your TV!”
He sounded terrified.
“Dix, what’s going on? I’m a movie critic. What could be so important?”
I looked around for a remote before I remembered. Even though I had been in the apartment for nearly three months, I didn’t want to buy a TV. Somehow it would make the separation more permanent.
“Hold on.” I looked around for my ear buds, put them in and made my way to my desk in the living room. I found my chair, sat and opened my laptop. I brought up Chrome and typed in “cnn.com” I didn’t bother with my site. If Dix was on the phone with me, my guess is www.hitflix.com hadn’t been updated.
The site loaded. I read.
I read again. I sank back into my chair. I looked to see if I had typed in the right URL. I had.
“Dix, what the hell?”
“I know,” he said.
“This is a joke.”
“It’s impossible,” I said.
“It is,” he said.
“Hold on,” I said.
“I have to see.”
“Okay,” he said. “Try Star Wars. Go to the middle somewhere.”
I turned on the desk lamp, wandered to the digital projector. With a blu-ray player and a ROKU box, I could get a pretty decent ten foot image.
The projector was mine for work so I had taken it.
Rita had the TV. She never really liked movies anyway.
I turned on the player and projector and as the standard image appeared, I used the reflected light to look through my blu-ray shelf. I found Star Wars (I refuse to call it A New Hope) and put it in the player. I was going crazy waiting to get through all the menus.
Finally, I found the scene selection menu and just went to some random scene in the middle. It was the trash compactor scene. The movie played.
There was a sense of unreality that I can only compare to the first night I was in the apartment, after our last fight. We had been married for almost twelve years. I felt lost and alone, like being dropped on an alien planet with nothing but the clothes on my back and not being able to speak the language.
God help me, this was worse. It was funny. It was crazy. But it was also terrifying and it was true.
I was looking at a scene that had been familiar to me since I was a child. Star Wars was the first film I can remember seeing in the theater. It made me fall in love with movies and though I never had any illusion about making them (even as a young man, I knew I was far too solitary by nature to work in that sort of environment), it was, as they call it, a transformative experience.
I knew every frame. I knew every set. I knew every ship design, every costume detail.
I knew the music. So I knew it was the right scene. The trash compactor, with the swimming eel ready to take Luke Skywalker down into the murky depths of filth-ridden water before our heroes were to be almost squished and then rescued by C3-PO, the golden android.
Yep, this was precisely the scene. Except no Luke Skywalker. No Luke. No Leia. No Han. No Wookie. The room was empty. The music cues played at the appropriate time. The scene even cut to the control room which formally had held Threepio and his companion, the diminutive R2-D2. But that room was empty, too.
The characters that were indelibly ingrained in the brain, in my soul, the icons of my childhood, and the childhoods of billions of others, were gone from their own film.
I’m a writer. I write words for a living, and a pretty good living, at least according to Rita’s lawyer. But at that moment, words utterly failed.
“Dix,” I said. “What the ever living fuck?”
The next six or seven hours were a blur. Dix wanted to put a consistently updated list of “affected” films on my site. I own copies of thousands of films, from Birth of a Nation to X-3. I started with the AFI top 100, at first running through the films at four times the speed, then smartening up and checking the last scenes to see if there were any major alterations.
At first I kept emailing Dix, then we decided to just stay tethered to our phones.
The Godfather Part I had a new ending: Vito Corleone was still alive, having been warned of the impending attempt on his life. Thus hothead Sonny, never the second target of the conspiracy against the familia, was still alive and Michael never became Don.
A quick check of Part III (a guilty pleasure) showed the Corleone’s puttering about their legitimate businesses and playing with their grandchildren.
2001: A Space Odyssey concluded with HAL 9000, the sentient computer carried by the completely automated Discovery space ship to Jupiter, transmitting a polite “thanks but no thanks” from the people of Earth, grateful for the creation of their species but unwilling to go on an LSD trip to another dimension.
I found over a dozen classic movies with new, rather boring endings. Even Casablanca somehow ended with everyone at Rick’s having a fabulous party, assured the war would end imminently.
But it wasn’t just the classics. Star Wars wasn’t the only populist film that was altered. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfus’s Roy Neary, shamed by his forlorn wife for considering abandoning his family, decides to stay on Earth. Superman is way ahead of Lex Luthor and when the bald antagonist launches his missiles at Los Angeles and New Jersey, they both explode harmlessly in the atmosphere, the Army having been warned about the theft.
On a lark, I checked out the 1989 Batman, which I always enjoyed, but which was now about a philanthropist whose father foiled a robbery when he was a child, inspiring him to crusade against poverty and wealth inequality as a way to prevent crime.
Indy stays home and Hitler opens the Ark, killing himself and the entirety of the inner circle of the Third Reich (I kind of liked that one).
An impossibly young Dustin Hoffman alone on a bus with a copy of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” on the way to a life of emotional independence.
Even cartoons weren’t immune. Having thwarted his brother, Scar’s, evil plot, the Lion King Mufasa gets to watch his son Simba grow up in an environment of warmth and love, and eventually take the mantle.
By lunch, we were up to more than sixty films.
“But Dix, how is this happening?”
“It’s kind of hard for me to care, seeing as our site is the only one keeping up, and getting all the hits.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Well you’re going to have to get someone else for a while, I need to lie down”
I wasn’t just tired, my brain hurt. I closed my eyes and laid down on my futon. But I couldn’t stop seeing it.
No Vader. No Ark. No Scar.
Something…or someone…was ruining films. Making them nice. Making them safe. Making them boring.
Against my better judgment, I put in The Godfather again. Same ending. I ran it from the beginning. I was so busy trying just to catalogue the affected films, I hadn’t had a chance yet to run through one, beginning to end.
I turned the lights down, and sat down with a beer, which I promised myself would be my only one. I’d be taking Paolo today after school.
I hit play on the remote and started watching.
The opening credits, the logo, the famous indelible score by Nino Rota which said so much about family, love and danger in just five notes. All of it was intact. The Corleone family hosting the wedding of the Don’s only daughter, Connie. Michael introducing his girlfriend. Yes, all there. Even Sonny smashing a paparazzi’s camera and dismissively tossing him some money for the damage.
I found myself getting into the film. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, The Godfather always grabs me. It’s not just the music and the scripts; not just the acting and the cinematography. It was everything.
The best films are always more than the sum of their parts. A minor film can be elevated by a nuanced performance, a good chase, or even the music. Star Wars is the epic it is due in large part to John Williams’ classic score.
That’s why I never tried to make a film, even in school. I always saw it as an alchemical process; almost magical. And I still do. It’s easy to point out problems in a film after the fact, but impossible to predict that magic.
I was simultaneously enjoying Coppola’s masterwork, mulling these things over, and thinking about Rita as well. Was I a critic of our marriage? Not doing enough, but pointing out where things went wrong? Probably.
And then I saw it. I saw him.
After Don Corleone, required by tradition to grant any reasonable request on the day of his daughter’s wedding, had just promised his first visitor that the men that had assaulted his daughter would be dealt with. Next was supposed to be Luca Brasi, come to bless Don Vito and hoping that their first child would be a masculine child.
At least that’s the way it was every time I had seen it since the first time. But not this time.
A small man in a hat burst into the study, his hands up. He’s clearly unarmed.
“Don Vito, I have very important news for you. You must listen. It’s a matter of life and death!”
The Godfather, Tom Hagen and Sonny all look at him like he’s crazy. And I don’t blame them. The man’s hair is askew, his skin is pale, even under the yellow-orange tint of the lighting. He’s sweating profusely under the various layers of his faux 1950’s suit.
“You want to me to get rid of this kook, Pop?” Sonny asks.
Tom starts to circle the desk, clearly looking to escort the man out before any violence can occur, but Don Vito looks more closely. He looks up from his desk. There's a pin prick of light in his eyes over those famous jowls.
“Let him stay,” he says. “I want to hear what the man has to say.”
“One thing,” the man says. “Please close the door. This is only for you, Fagen and Sonny.”
“Hey, no one calls me Sonny but family,” he protests.
But the Don agrees and they usher everyone else out and move to close the door. But just before the door closes completely, and before a strange uncinematic delay of at least 20 minutes, I see the crazed man’s face clearly. I pause the film.
It’s a face I recognize.
Later that day, I was rushing to catch a plane at White Plains airport. It was more expensive than JFK but slightly closer and they had direct flights to Atlanta.
I paid the car fare while on the phone. I adjusted my duffel bag and headed towards the terminal doors.
“I won’t be gone long,” I said into my phone. “It’s an emergency.”
“Jesus Christ, Kevin. I was expecting you to pick up Paulo from school. I even paid for after care so you could have more time to work!”
“I’ll pay you back.”
She sighed. A great sigher my ex-wife is.
“Oh by the way,” she said, “I got your little link last night to that parenting article. Passive aggressive much?”
I was sticking my credit card into the Delta terminal kiosk and getting my boarding pass. “I noticed Paolo was having trouble concentrating at meal times. I was just trying to help.”
“You were criticizing me and my parenting, Kevin,” she said. “If you spent half the time building something of your own rather than telling everyone else how they could improve —”
The machine was being difficult. I had to swipe three times. I was tired and my fuse was short.
“Enough, Rita! I have a lot going on.”
She stopped, detecting the tone in my voice. Even during the worst of it, Rita and I never really yelled at each other.
“You said an emergency? What’s wrong?”
“Haven’t you been on the internet today?” I asked. “Someone’s been changing all the movies.”
“Kevin,” she said, her voice disinterested, “you know I don’t really like movies.”
I tried to sleep during the short flight, but couldn’t. I was tired enough but the events of the day kept spinning in my head…that, and what Rita said. Stop criticizing.
But criticism wasn’t criticizing. She never quite got that.
I always felt there was value at looking at a piece of work fairly and assessing it on its own merits. How does it fit into the social fabric both as a piece of art and a reflection of social values? But, let’s be honest, I don’t really think of film as art. There’s too many hands, too many considerations and it all has to do with money.
When you looked at the top grossing films of all time, most of them just told the audience what they clearly wanted to hear. Challenge was not what people went to the movie theater for. And that was okay. But it wasn’t art. But through criticism, we can extract what is artful in a film and thus deepen its value and our understanding.
Was I really hyper-critical of Rita? She really tried. I know she had. Had I too often asked her to mop the floor again? She was an artist at home, her job at the ad firm notwithstanding. The floor was often littered with bits of paint that would fly off her brush in her studio onto the adjoining living room floor.
Was I not enthusiastic enough when she cooked? God knows, she wasn’t very good at it, by her own admission, but she tried. Was trying enough?
I did my part. She never complained about that. She never really complained about anything.
Except my criticism. About my need for constant improvement.
Someone was changing the most beloved films in history, somehow, and all at once. Every film canister, every dvd, every download. An archivist friend of mine at Universal even told me the master Avid files of several films in the vault were somehow altered with no record of any editing.
And always to the benefit of the characters, saving them from death or humiliation with a word here, with a revelation there. Making their lives better, by making them boring.
Would someone write my story and save my marriage? Did I want them to? Or would that be too boring?
Someone had changed the films that had supported me, uplifted me, and millions of others, when life had become dark and too difficult to bear. I could retreat into the cave of imagination and be thrilled, delighted, driven to awe and exhilaration.
Someone. And I had a pretty good idea who.
I had the taxi leave me in front of a quaint two story townhouse. It was getting dark and I was exhausted after a long day. I could have checked into a hotel and started again in the morning, but I had to know.
The lawn was unkempt and the house a little run down. It didn’t vary from the mean average of the neighborhood. I mean, there were no broken windows and the gutters were clear, but I still had a sense of unease as I shuffled up the walkway.
As I raised my fist to knock, the door opened suddenly and I nearly tripped over the threshold and right into Archie Simonson.
He tried to prop me up, but I was already steadying myself with the door jamb. Besides, it wouldn’t have helped anyway. It only took a moment’s contact to realize the man had no strength. Though he was inching towards seventy, I had only seen Archie at a conference a few years before and he was hale and hearty as ever.
“Hello Kevin,” he said. “Watch your step.”
We sat down in his living room. It wasn’t so much a mess as that it had an air of neglect. The windows were drawn. The surfaces were dusty. There were a few coffee cups scattered around. I glanced at a framed photo of a handsome older woman on a small table. It was dusted, I noted.
“I heard Pamela passed on.”
“She died, Kevin. She’s dead,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Never mind that. You’re here because of the movie thing.”
I was incredulous. “The movie thing.”
He rose. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
We moved slowly up two flights of stairs. Both he and the stairs creaked during the journey.
“By the way, I read your article on studio notes. I thought it was pretty funny,” he said between deep, wheezing breaths.
“Thanks. I always imagine what some exec might say about a classic movie. ‘Does Jaws have to be a shark?’”
“Yeah, I said it was funny. Don’t overstate it,” he said. He reached up a scrawny arm. “Help me with this.”
I pulled down the unfolding stairway to the attic. As my head popped over the threshold, I couldn't help but gasp.
It was a home theater the way that Niagra Falls is a faucet. The walls were lined with scalloped red velvet, for sound minimization. Twelve speakers lined them in a space at least fifty feet long and thirty feet wide, almost the entire footprint of the house. Four rows of four, perfect movie theatery seats, and, in the back, a projector. It was a thing of beauty.
Not a high-tech digital projector like mine. This was old school; a big boy, a Ballantyne Royal Sound master.
“Is that an X160?” I said, my voice weak and tinged with awe.
“It is,” he said. “And…it isn’t.”
I saw it coming.
“You’re going to tell me this thing is magic?”
“Look,” he said, “believe what you want but I bought this thing last year, had the whole shebang installed when my wife died. Thought I’d start writing again. Make the whole thing something to fill my time.”
He sat in one of the chairs. I sat next to him.
“I started with a digital projector, you know. Surround sound, pull down screen, but it just wasn’t the same. So I bought this baby, installed the extra speakers, the silver screen, wired the whole thing myself.
“I started buying up 35mm prints. They were cheap. No one wanted them anymore. Everything now is a file that they transmit via interweb. Might just as well be home.”
I smiled and he gave me a look. “Yes, I know it’s the ‘internet’. I was being a smart ass, smart ass. I don’t know how Rita puts up with you.”
“She doesn’t,” I said. “Not anymore.”
He looked down at my ring finger, saw it was bare. “Ah, I see. That’s too bad.”
He sighed. “Anyway, I ran a print of the Wizard of Oz. I sit down, and before I know it, I’m in Kansas sitting on my ass in a sepia cornfield with a beer spilling all over my shirt.
“I thought I was having a stroke, an aneurysm, something! I thought, well, Pammy being gone finally drove me over the edge. Any second now, it’s all going to fade to black permanently. But then…it just kept going, the entire first act happening in front of my eyes. And it wasn’t like a sound stage. I could see painted backdrops but they went on as far as the eye could see.”
“But Archie,” I said, “that makes no sense! How could it look like a movie from the 40s and still be real?”
He gave me a look like I was the dumbest man on the planet.
“It’s magic,” he said. “If it made any sense, it wouldn't be magic.”
I sat back. Couldn’t argue with that.
“I got scared, and all of a sudden I was back. I didn’t know if it was this particular reel or the projector, or a dream or something. So I started getting more prints.
“And I started going into all sort of old movies. Dark Passage with Bogart. The Magnificent Ambersons. I realized it didn’t happen every time. I sort of had to will it. When I was watching Oz that first time, not long after Pammy died, I really wanted to escape into the film.”
He took a deep wheezing breath. All of this talking was clearly taking it out of him.
“And I did.”
Later, we were having coffee at his kitchen table.
“You look worse than me,” he said.
“It’s been a long day,” I replied. I eyed him closely. His skin was ashen, his hair looked unkept and wild. His eyes had lost the luster I had always seen in them.
“Is it the projector? Is it…taking something out of you every time you use it?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” he said. “This isn’t the Twilight Zone. I’ve got lung cancer. I really am dying.”
I went to put my hand on his.
“Knock that off,” he said. I pulled my hand back. They don’t build ‘em like Archie anymore.
“So then what happened?”
“You can guess the rest,” he said. “One night I was in the living room watching TNT and the Wizard of Oz came on. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t see myself lurking in the cornfield behind Judy Garland and Ray Bolger.”
“You changed the movie.”
“Yes,” he said. “And it got me thinking about why I quit writing about movies. I know I’m an old man yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, but you get to be certain age, and things happen to you.”
He took a sip of his coffee, although by now it had to be cold. “People divorce. People die. Children leave. So much violence happens every day. And you have these friends up there on the screen. And for me, I would wish things could be easier for them. Could be easier for me.
“So I started making some changes. It didn’t always work. You should have seen how many times I tried to get into the Corleone compound to see the Don.”
“That’s where I saw you.”
He nodded. “That one, I had to pretend I was the father of a rival hood who was afraid the plan would go awry and endanger my family.”
“Wait, so every time you enter a film…”
I sat back. So it could all be fixed. All those classic movies people all over the world were currently tearing their hair out over could be restored.
“The Godfather,” he said. “You told me once it was your favorite movie.”
“Well, I have a lot of favorites, it’s hard to—“
“Cut the crap,” he said. “We all have a favorite and we know which one it is.”
I smiled. “Okay, it’s my favorite.”
“I had hoped you would see me,” he said. “That it would make you visit.”
I shook my head. “You could have just called.”
“You wouldn’t have believed any of this,” he said.
He was right of course.
“I know,” he said. “None of it makes any sense.”
“Well,” I said, sitting back, “if it made any sense, it wouldn’t be magic.”
We didn’t talk that much longer, but Archie made it clear he wanted me to take over the house; the projector, really. He had already met with a lawyer and it was all arranged. His son would inherit a hefty sum, he wouldn’t miss the house.
He said there was a trick, but it was simple, sort of like half falling asleep on purpose. It made sense when he told me.
When I mentioned calling a cab and checking into a hotel, Archie wouldn’t have it. I crashed into the bed in his son’s old room.
I tried to sleep but something was bothering me. I made it clear to Archie that I intended to undo what he had done. He understood.
But it occurred to me that while Archie was trying to make movies more like he wanted life to be, I had perhaps been trying to approach life, specifically my marriage, more like the way I do the movies I write about.
But being a critic makes you realize nothing is perfect. No film, no book, no person, no relationship. Didn’t I often look for the good in the schlockiest of films, some glimmer of talent or insight? Why was it sometimes so hard for me to see that in my wife?
My phone still had a bit of a charge left. I texted my wife and wrote, “I don’t appreciate you enough. You were a good wife, and you are a great mother. I’m sorry.”
I probably should have waited until the morning. It was late, but what the hell. In movies, the hero never waits until morning.
I woke up the next morning and found Archie in the attic. The projector was playing A Star is Born from 1937. Archie was sitting in the front row. He was dead.
I went to call someone on my phone. There was a text from my wife.
“Thank you,” it read.
I leave A Star is Born alone. Sometimes I watch it on TNT and I catch a glimpse of Archie in the background, decked out in a sharp charcoal suit, strutting around with a woman that looks a little like Pammy.
It took a while to fix all the films. Usually I just phase in (that’s what I call it), look around and phase out. When I run the film again, it’s all back in place. Luke, Han and Leia almost get crushed in the trash compactor. Sonny meets his ignominious end at the toll booths. Life…and movies…are as they should be: difficult, thrilling, scary, and in the end, hopefully, satisfying.
I go back and forth between New York and Atlanta. I actually like using the projector, but not to make classic movies safer or happier. That’s something to do in life.
I prefer to go into bad movies and try to make them better by sprucing up the plot with a good jab of exposition here, or sometimes I even pick up a gun and add some action. I’m more spry in action films, I noticed.
It’s a lot of fun and it’s very creative. Rita thinks I’m crazy when I tell her about it, but I can never get her to watch the movies so I can prove it. Unless asked, I keep my opinions to myself. And she does ask…sometimes.
I see my son more and Rita and I are talking about reconciling. Maybe whoever is writing my story wants me to be a little happier. I hope so.
We even left Paolo with a sitter and went out on a dinner date in Manhattan. We held hands and talked.
Not about movies, though.