Real to Reel

When an old friend told me she had produced and directed a major motion picture, I was pleasantly surprised. Then she told me what the movie was about.

In the basic boxing stance, you stand with your left foot out in front of you, toe pointed toward your opponent, and dispatch a series of quick jabs with the left hand, eventually shifting your weight onto your back foot, swinging your shoulders, and delivering a thunderous right-hand punch. Between punches, you can dance, slip, slide your feet from side to side. As far as I was concerned, Julie was in stance. The first disclosures -- the letter, the poem, the character -- were jabs. The premiere and dog talk was all fancy footwork. The right hook came just before we hung up the phone.

"Oh yeah," she said softly. "The character is named Ben."

Julie's movie was real. The newspaper said so. It had to be true. But I needed to find out for sure. A few weeks after speaking with Julie, I called MGM, the studio that had recently bought the Samuel Goldwyn Company and all its holdings.

"The movie will be out in early 1998, about a week after Valentine's Day," explained Larry Gleason, MGM's president of distribution. "At the moment, we're debating whether to open in art houses or multiplexes. It's not an easy call."

"Why not?"
"Well," Gleason said, "it's not really a critic's picture, although many critics like it. What I mean is that it's more mainstream in tone, more broadly comic. It's the kind of movie that would do well in wide release. If it were a Woody Allen movie, this picture would be a big hit. But it has no stars and a first-time, no-name director, so it's risky to release it wide. Movies need marketability, something to intrigue the potential audiences into becoming audiences. Julie is very personable, and she made this movie for next to nothing, so that's something to build a promotional strategy on."

Gleason noted that MGM planned to spend approximately two million dollars promoting Julie's film, roughly twenty times the movie's budget but a paltry sum in the world of major-studio releases. "The challenge with Julie's movie is to make it look like it's a big deal in the cities where it's opening," Gleason said. "If it does well, we'll move it out to other markets. If it grossed five million total, that would be great."

"Do you think it can do five million?"
"Have you seen the movie yet?"
"Not yet."
"Oh, you really should."

I knew he was right. But getting to see the film proved difficult, because Julie wouldn't send me a videocassette. I begged. She dodged. I bullied. Finally she sent along a video, but only on the odd condition that I promise not to open it. And thus it sat in a manila envelope on my bookshelf, heating up the place.

Julie's reluctance to allow me to see her film, I eventually learned, was a fermented form of a fiercer enthusiasm: She wanted to see the movie with me. "Why don't you come to Los Angeles?" she said. "Or else I'll come to New York. I would love to see you again, and this way you can see the movie."

Now it was my turn to dodge. The thought of seeing Julie set my pulse racing, but I couldn't be sure whether it was racing toward passion's flashpoint or cardiac arrest.

There was also the small matter of the character named after me. In graduate school, where I once labored excavating meaning from dead and dying texts, they'd take one look at what was happening to me and they'd give it a fancy label, something like "ontological logic remastered by onomastics." Scrape away the jargon and this is what it means: By naming a character after me, Julie had jammed a stick between the spokes of my bicycle wheel of being.

A part of me was proud, of course. At first I spent weeks jabbering about the movie to anyone who would listen. But then I started to worry that I was speaking too soon. Maybe the character wouldn't even be recognizable as me. Maybe Julie had misrepresented, out of kindness or callousness, what was in fact a composite portrait. Or worse, maybe I had intentionally misinterpreted her words to feed my ego, never a small eater.

Then I started to worry that the character would be recognizable as me, and that he would be a fool, a blowhard, a reprobate, or all three. The longer I held on to my hopes for the movie, the less certain I was whether I was holding on to a bond or a grenade. I had never felt so nervous about a piece of art that wasn't mine.

I tried to discourage Julie. I told her she wouldn't even recognize me. I told her that I was totally bald, that I had lost an arm in the war.

She wasn't buying. In fact, she was selling a new, improved plan. "I'm going to be in Miami around Thanksgiving," she said. "How does early December look for you?"

"Okay," I said finally. "But don't blame me if this weekend changes your life. You're going to meet the seed of your film."

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