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.

None of this happened, of course. If the scene had been in a movie, it would have, and then some. But this was real life, where propriety often shoves aside desire, where passionate impulses are predisposed to disappear. Entirely socialized, somewhat consternated, with separate lives to protect and fragile self-concepts to manage, Julie and I didn't -- couldn't -- lunge across the seat at one another. Instead she went on about her house in Los Angeles and I talked about my writing and fiddled with the radio buttons, which served as surrogates of sorts. Neither of us courted the other's eyes; we were genial. Eventually this prattle rasped against the day's earlier magic, and I drove her back to her parents' house.

The next day Julie and I drove to the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami for the screening. The three reels of I Love You ... Don't Touch Me sat simmering in a metal case in the trunk of my Sunfire. I tried to lift the case. It weighed at least 65 pounds. "I wouldn't want this monkey on my back," I said.

"I know," she said. "They had to break it up for me when I took it to Dartmouth." Inside the theater, we quarreled briefly over who should sit where -- she was scared to sit next to me, but I prevailed -- and then the lights went down.

The movie opens in a tattoo parlor, where Katie is getting a tattoo of her boyfriend's name. Proudly marked, she goes to her boyfriend's apartment and catches him in flagrante delicto with another girl. Horrified, she runs into the street and is hit by a car. "I consider that car accident a metaphor for my love life," Katie says.

I swatted Julie on the shoulder. "Hey," I said. "You fed me that line like it was part of your real life, not part of your script."

"Shut up," she said. "I'm trying to watch the movie."
A few minutes later Katie goes to dinner with her best friend Ben. Ben seems like the perfect guy; he's interested in Katie, but she can't return the fervor. "Here," Ben tells Katie as he drops her off at home, "I have something for you." He hands her a folded piece of paper. It's a poem. My poem.

The poem begins as it began when I wrote it a dozen years ago: "When she is happy her hair bucks and crackles." I hunched down into my seat, pinching my shoulder blades, crimping my neck. It's embarrassing enough to hear old love letters when you haven't gone on to become a writer. When you have, it's like being roasted alive. And in this case, roasted alive in theaters across America.

"That's yours," Julie whispered. "Do you recognize it?"
"Now it's your turn to shut up," I said.
The poem was the same poem it was a dozen years before in more ways than one -- not only was it overzealous and overwritten, but it brought Ben no closer to the object of his desire. As played by Mitchell Whitfield, this Ben was shorter and balder than I am. But he had the same analytical bent, the same mordant neuroses. And he was a writer. It was a remarkable portrait, considering that it was painted at more than a decade's remove.

And yet as compelling as on-screen characters were, I found the real-life ones more so. When I turned to watch Julie, I found that she was watching me. When I glanced over my shoulder to make sure there wasn't a film crew recording us, I realized that I was the film crew, and that this article would be the documentary that would explain the dizzying cat's cradle of this scene.

In fact, there were so many ways in which life was imitating art, and that art was intimidating life, that I can only catalogue them in an expansive run-on sentence that will almost certainly sound like the ravings of a lunatic, or the dream of a particularly perceptive child. Here goes: I was sitting in a room watching a movie, and in the movie there was a character who was a version of me, and he was talking to a character who was a version of the woman who was sitting next to me in the room in real life, and she was the same woman who had directed and written the entire film, with the sole exception of a love poem, which in the film was written by the version of me as a show of affection for the version of her, and which in real life was written for the woman in the room by the man in the room, who was me.

If parallels were land mines, the entire room would have been live. And who says they aren't?

There was only one way to deal with this: I rose from my seat, walked purposefully up the aisle, and dove headfirst into the screen, landing in a heap at Katie's feet and leaving Julie, Katie's creator, alone in a darkened theater.

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