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.

No. What I actually did was far less cinematic: I took out a notepad, jotted down some notes, and tried to treat the movie as if it were just a movie, not a beam passing through twin prisms of subjectivity -- first hers and then mine -- into infinite scatter.

I maintained my critic's pose long enough to notice that the more Katie struggled with her lack of attraction to Ben, the more Ben fought back, the more the film ripened. The plot skipped along briskly. Katie loved, lost, and learned to love again. Then the lights went up.

"Do you like it?" Julie asked me almost immediately.
It's a flat and dull word, like. But it's also elastic and durable, and it helped me bind shut the Pandora's box of things I felt. I was amazed that someone I know had created the film. I was enthralled that I was seeing it with her. I was repulsed by her imagination: What a maudlin and melodramatic thing it is. I was enraptured by her imagination: What a powerful and lyrical thing it is.

Her movie was imperfect -- there were scenes that were too talky, visual conceits that were too gimmicky, characters that were too mannered. And yet the movie was far stronger than I had expected. The script was sharp. The direction was confident. The production values were superb. Most important, Julie's movie made me laugh. This is high praise. Laughter is incompatible with lifelessness, and not to be taken lightly.

Afterward we looked at the cards from the test screenings, held the previous week in Santa Monica. The most common complaint of test-screen audiences was that the movie was predictable. What was not predictable was how many different ways educated Americans can misspell predictable -- "predictible," predictably, but also "predectable," "predactible," and even "prabictall."

I happen to agree that the movie is prabictall. But I don't think that its prabictallality is a problem. This is a film that has a constructive relationship with, almost a faith in, its genre. It is a romantic comedy through and through. If I had made this movie, it would digress into pop culture, literary theory, boxing. The characters would bounce around like superballs, discussing how the cover of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain is slyly recapitulated in the Clash's Give 'Em Enough Rope. I would need these devices to convince myself that I could hold an audience's interest. I would never be brave enough to execute a straight love story.

"I guess I'm a simple person," Julie said when I told her this. But a simple person doesn't smile like a sphinx when she says that.

Driving back from the screening, we struggled to find something to talk about other than the movie's existential echo chamber. We finally settled on Artie Shaw, the great swing bandleader whose "Special Delivery Stomp" floats over the opening credits of Julie's film. Shortly after he became a household name with "Begin the Beguine" in 1938, Shaw wearied of celebrity and dissolved his band. He went on to form other bands, but his entire artistic career was characterized by a profoundly agonistic relationship with fame.

"It's such a cliche," Julie said, "the artist who gets famous and finds out that it's too hard. But I understand completely. This last two years has been everything I dreamed of, but these days my self-esteem is in such a weird place. There's so much to keep track of. I don't know whether this movie is going to be a big hit or whether it's going to tank. Plus, the more success you have, the more people start to pull at you." Her voice became small. "It sounds stupid, but I'm not sure who to trust." What was unspoken between us filled the car. I wanted to call her Katie in jest, but the joke got stuck in my throat.

With the Sunfire idling in her parents' driveway, Julie asked me a simple question that was the oddest thing I had heard in a day full of odd things. "What do you think of Ben?" she said. We were sitting in the car now, but it might as well have been then.

"I like him," I said. "He seems like an important part of Katie's life. Is he really based on me?"

"Of course he is," she said. "I mean, there are pieces of other people in there -- a friend of mine from college, a guy I wrote with when I came out to Los Angeles. But he was always named Ben, because you've always been in my mind. I think you were the first boy who truly cared about me, and the first boy who made me feel those feelings -- being close to men in the ways that matter, but not being able to merge it with romance. I think he's sort of the hero of the movie."

Throughout my long relationship with Julie, I have responded to her romantic rejection in various ways. I have been hurt. I have been angry. I have smiled so broadly that it was clear that my face had nothing to do with the rest of me. I had never, until that moment, been grateful.

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