Real to Reel
Julie Davis left Miami in 1986 the same way I did, with new clothes, a halogen desk lamp, and her high school diploma beaming from a fancy lacquered frame purchased by her parents. Four years later she graduated from college the same way I did, her brain buzzing with the impractical dream of making a career out of her creative obsessions.
Some people wake up from their dreams. Julie Davis didn't. In 1996 she wrote and directed a film called I Love You ... Don't Touch Me that will be released February 20 by MGM. Julie is already the rarest and most glamorous of creatures, a successful filmmaker, and one day soon she may be a star. She may be the young indie director all the major studios court. She may grace the cover of a national magazine, proclaimed, in hyperactive text, the Next Big Thing. One thing's for sure. Julie Davis is a real live wire. How do I know?
Because her movie is about me.
They say that in love stories you should play to the endpoints, the extremes of exhilaration and misery, while in stories of friendship you should emphasize the ordinary. Given the byzantine nature of my relationship with Julie, I'm splitting the difference.
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After I graduated from college in 1990, I returned to Miami and went to work as a staff writer and film critic for New Times. That fall I ran into a high school acquaintance who told me Julie Davis had been in a car accident. "Well," he said, "not really. She wasn't in a car."
Julie had been doing the film-biz rounds in Los Angeles, looking for work wherever it might be hiding. One night she was leaving the set of Twin Peaks, David Lynch's attempt to foist his eccentricities upon network TV. It was late and she was exhausted, so exhausted that she didn't see the headlights. Ten seconds later she was flying through the air. The damage? One pelvis, fractured; four ribs, cracked; one lung, collapsed; two pints of blood, transfused.
When I heard about the accident, I considered calling Julie. What restrained me was the simplest form of stupidity: I didn't know what to say. The best I could come up with was, "Hey, it's me. I wasn't driving." Instead of calling, I sent a get-well card with a picture of a cartoon cat in a hospital bed. I remembered later that Julie was a dog person.
I thought about Julie only occasionally until this past summer, when my mother, in the midst of a perfectly routine phone conversation, said, "You remember Julie Davis, don't you?"
I almost dropped the phone. After all, I had endured an erotically charged, platonic friendship with Julie for most of high school, had spent hours sitting in her silver Trans Am in the parking lot of Palmetto High School, ears cocked for the sound of her bare back peeling off the hot vinyl.
"Well," my mother said, "she made a movie." According to the two clippings my mom sent me, Julie's movie was a romantic comedy, a "delightful romantic comedy" called I Love You ... Don't Touch Me. Julie had not only directed the movie but written and produced it. In January 1997, at the ripe old age of 27, she had sold it at the Sundance Film Festival to the Samuel Goldwyn Company. The film, which starred Marla Schaffel, another high school classmate of ours, was the story of "a young woman's search for the perfect relationship and, less obviously, for a special someone to free her from her virginity."
This made sense. The Julie Davis I remembered, the girl I knew in high school, liked to talk about the sanctity of virginity and her determination to keep hers until she found the perfect relationship. I would say that she talked about these things constantly, but all I know for certain is that she talked about them constantly to me. At the time, I thought that her preoccupation was a stratagem for neutralizing my romantic interest.
That Julie had stayed obsessed well beyond high school, that she had even written a screenplay about these matters, came as something of a vindication. That she had managed to film that screenplay was a surprise. That she had sold a finished film at Sundance -- well, this was cause for celebration. I called Los Angeles information and left Julie a message.
She called back the very next day.
"It's incredible that you called me," she said. "I was hoping you would. In fact, I was just about to call you."
"Well, not a whole letter. It's part of a letter. I used it because one of the characters in the movie, the best friend of the main character, is sort of based on you."
I'd like to be able to report that I reacted to this news waggishly, that I delivered a lightning-quick comeback that had Julie helpless with laughter. The truth is that I was struck dumb. I held the phone and breathed while I watched the second hand on my wall clock sweep slowly around the dial. Julie scrambled to take up the slack. "It's so good to talk to you," she said. "You have to come to the premiere of my movie. You remember my dog Pepsi from high school? I have another one just like him now. He's so cute. His head is bigger than his body."
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."
"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?"
"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."
"And you're going to meet your maker," she shot back.
Beneath this bravado, I could detect traces of the truth, and more than a little fear on both our parts. Julie could too. "I really hope you like the movie," she said. And then: "I can't sleep so well since we started talking again. All this nostalgia is making me jumpy."
"Crucial to any understanding of me is how I was in high school. I was a misfit. Always." Julie Davis, auteur, director, star-in-the-making, was speaking on the phone from her home in Studio City, California. I was in my apartment in Brooklyn. I was interviewing her about her film, weeks before we were to meet in Miami. This was one way I had decided to deal with my trepidation about that meeting. I would write a story about the whole twisted business.
She cleared her throat and repeated herself. "A misfit. A fucking misfit."
This was true. Along with 2700 other suburban teenagers, Julie and I spent the better part of the mid-Eighties incarcerated at Palmetto High School, a huge institutional building in east Kendall's strip-malled darkness. At first I wasn't friends with Julie. I was too busy indulging in the smart-alecky remarks that teenage boys trade so that they can make sense of the world. (Jon Kessler, during a discussion of William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," was asked by an overtaxed English teacher to define "catatonia," and he answered, "It's a pasta dish with a delicious light cream sauce." He was sent to sit in the hall.)
Julie was a different kind of clown -- she didn't mouth off to teachers, she rarely played the fool in class -- but she was a clown nonetheless, as much as you can be when you're a beautiful young woman with obvious assets and talent. Her clowning was visual. She dressed like a cartoon starlet, all plunging necklines and push-up bras. One of her favorite outfits was a cherry-covered replica of the dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. She showed cleavage, and lots of it.
As a teenage boy, I admired cleavage greatly. I started to talk to Julie, to write her letters, to stuff those letters in her locker. The letters became more elaborate; they incorporated stories, drawings, poems. To my everlasting shock, she responded in kind. After a while, cleavage wasn't the only draw. We were friends.
Many days after classes we sat in the school parking lot in her silver Trans Am, a lean trout of a car. Behind us Palmetto rose out of the flat terrain like an aqua behemoth. The side of the building was emblazoned with the logo of our school's sports teams: the Aqua Behemoths. Or was it the Panthers?
Memory intensifies details -- makes them funnier, sadder, more ironic, or more significant than they really were. And nostalgia reupholsters memory. Still, we were there. I am sure of it. We sat in the car and talked. I flirted shamelessly, and Julie told me that she wasn't interested in sex for sport or self-exploration, that she would find her way to sex only through love. I understood what she was saying, but my libido wouldn't let up. My attempts at seduction bounced bonelessly off her resolve.
I don't remember much about our graduation. I know that it was held at Miami-Dade Community College. I know that I delivered the salutatorian's address in an incoherent mumble that was amplified to greater incoherence by the shabby sound system. I know there were tearful scenes with friends, and that I overcame my sadness with sarcasm. I remember only one conversation with Julie from graduation week, a short exchange on the phone in which she told me she was worried about college, scared that the people there wouldn't understand her any better than the people at Palmetto.
What I took away from that conversation was this: Being misunderstood was Julie's skeleton; remove it, and she would fall.
Her senior year at Dartmouth, Julie left the cold of Hanover, New Hampshire, and traveled north into the even harsher climes of Quebec, where she directed an hour-long adaption of Sartre's 1952 film The Respectful Prostitute for her senior thesis. The movie, shot on Super VHS and starring Marla Schaffel, set forth the themes that would be central to Julie's later work: the war between self-knowledge and sex, the difficulty of trusting others, and perhaps most important, the supreme importance of control.
Weeks after graduating from Dartmouth, she moved to California, hoping to make her career as a film director. She went to parties. She started to network. She got involved with an older man, a director. But she couldn't crack Hollywood. Then she got hit by the car.
"That was like a metaphor. I had been crashed into by a relationship, by my career. But the accident steeled me. At a time when I was so confused by adversity, it reminded me that life is short and that filmmaking is something I love." After three weeks in the hospital and three months of rehab, Julie was revitalized, and opportunities started to knock. She went to Germany to work on a film, and back in L.A., landed a series of gigs as a stand-in.
Julie still wanted to direct, but she was rejected from the American Film Institute's directing program two years in a row. The third year, AFI offered to admit her as an editor. Once there, she made a short film called On the Virge that was a precursor to I Love You ... Don't Touch Me. But after AFI, it was back to the grind. Julie temped, edited low-budget action flicks, directed a straight-to-video softcore horror film called Witchcraft 6, and eventually took a full-time job as an editor at the Playboy channel. Amid all of this she was trying, not always successfully, to rework On the Virge into a feature-length script. ("Here I was, working on a script about a virgin and cutting porn movies.") In April 1995, after a real-life love affair crashed and burned, she returned to the script and finished it in less than two months.
But aspiring directors with completed scripts are nothing more than serious amateurs. A year after she finished writing, Julie was still laboring at Playboy, still trying to get her script before the cameras. An old family friend, Marilyn Shapiro, donated $20,000 toward the production of the film. Rolf Erickson, an L.A. businessman who ran a video equipment rental business, kicked in $5000. Julie drained a trust fund her parents had created for graduate school. She withdrew her life savings.
With that money, she could afford a cast. She could even afford a crew. But she couldn't afford to start shooting. "There was a diamond ring my grandmother had left for me when she died. I asked my parents if I could sell it to make the movie. They said okay. The ring went around the world looking for a buyer, even to Israel." It sold just in time, for $15,000.
Production began January 17, 1996. With $60,000 in the bank, Julie could hope for three weeks of shooting at most, with no room for error.
Ten years isn't forever, but it's a long enough time to worry. Who has succumbed to time's depredations? Who has gone wide in the middle? Who has failed to keep the dreams a step, even a half-step, ahead of the disappointments?
In June 1996, I attended my high school's tenth reunion, in an antiseptic chestnut-paneled banquet room at the Sonesta Beach Hotel. Everyone looked young but tired, which is to say that everyone looked like me. I went to the reunion with my friend Harold Oster and his wife Angie. One woman wove unsteadily through the crowd toward us. "I hear you married a beautiful woman," she said to Harold.
"Yes," he said. "And then I remarried." Angie laughed at the joke, the way it put the sting of irony in everything. The drunk woman didn't pick up on the finer point. She just tipped her drink in a tipsy salute and disappeared.
Most ten-year reunions are little more than an opportunity to re-create the dynamics of a decade earlier. There are a few key reversals, of course -- the prom queen ill-used by time, the geek reborn as a master of the universe. But most of the members of my class, most of us, remained largely unchanged. The girls who made us shy then made us shy now. The boys who made us uneasy then made us uneasy now. Evolution, when it happens, happens slowly and between individuals, but these group events are a kind of shell game. The promise of maturity is held up so that the group can see, and then the sleight of hand begins. Is it here? No. Here? Guess again. Well, it must be here, right? Sorry, brother.
I spent most of the evening talking to Harold, who I talked to twice a week anyway. I also spent a considerable portion of the evening craning my neck to look for Julie and asking old classmates if they had any news of her.
We hadn't spoken in five years, only exchanged the occasional letter, and I was eager to catch up. I wanted to see how her film career was going. I wanted to see what she looked like. In the film loop I was screening even as I scanned the room, I saw us sitting at a side table trading stories about our lives -- the difficulty of a creative career, the doubts, the compromises, the rare moments of triumph. Maybe when we were a few drinks gone, we would sneak to a secluded corner of the room and discuss matters more intimately.
But Julie wasn't there. A few folks told me they'd spoken to her that summer, that she was still in Los Angeles. What they didn't tell me is that she was at the end of her rope, editing a movie she wasn't sure anyone would ever want.
The shoot that January and February had been swift but severe, three weeks of exhausting work followed by three months of editing. By spring Julie had cobbled together a rough cut. Despite the fact that she had economized everywhere -- gotten the film stock on the cheap, shot on a loaned camera, et cetera -- she had run out of money. "I couldn't get out of bed," she recalled. "Here I was with a film, and I couldn't afford to finish it. Plus, I wasn't sure if anyone liked it."
But then Meredith Scott Lynn, one of the cast members, found more investors. Julie managed to finish the film by shouldering almost the entire burden of postproduction. She was so strapped for cash that she couldn't even afford to make a workprint of her film; she had to send the original negative out for editing. "It was the riskiest thing I ever did," Julie told me. "One false cut and the original negative would be ruined. The whole time it was out, I couldn't sleep." The film came back in perfect shape.
Oscar season was beginning, but Julie managed to book the Harmony Gold Theater, one of the L.A.'s prime screening rooms. She sent invitations to distributors, acquisitions people, agents. Her parents flew in from Miami. On October 17, 1996, I Love You ... Don't Touch Me premiered in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 425. "That was the best night of my life, and also one of the hardest," Julie said. "I thought my movie would sell from the screening. But no one was interested in distributing it."
Comedy is light. Comic films should be light things. But without a distributor, Julie's film weighed on her: "It was driving me crazy that there wasn't more interest. I mean, this is a movie about an adult virgin. No one had ever done that before. And a woman directing her own script? Plus, I was only 27. I had achieved this incredible thing at such a young age, and I couldn't get it sold." In desperation, Julie shot the rapids of last chance: She applied to the Sundance Film Festival.
The flagship in Robert Redford's pro-independent-film armada, Sundance is also an indie kingmaker. Steven Soderbergh ascended to the throne after debuting sex, lies and videotape at the festival in 1987, and other years' festivals have anointed Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley, and Quentin Tarantino.
After Julie mailed her application to Sundance, she took a vacation -- first to Miami, then to Toronto to visit Marla. "When I got back I had twenty phone messages on my answering machine. I listened to nineteen of them, and nothing. Message twenty was Geoff Gilmore from Sundance. He said I should give him a call." I Love You ... Don't Touch Me hadn't made competition, but it would be screened in the festival's American Spectrum series, a showcase for new directors.
In the months before Sundance, Julie had been a one-woman filmmaking machine. Now she became a one-woman marketing machine. In six weeks, she spent nearly $10,000 emblazoning her movie's logo on T-shirts, jackets, baseball caps, and condoms. There were even boxer shorts that said "I Love You" in black type and "Don't Touch Me" in glow-in-the-dark green. On January 17, exactly a year after she had started shooting, she met her parents, her cast, and her crew in Park City, Utah, for the ten-day event.
As it turns out, Sundance 1997 was another banner year for indie films. Mark Waters's black comedy The House of Yes was the first to go; Miramax paid $1.9 million. Star Maps went to Fox Searchlight for $2.5 million. On the fourth day, Julie screened her film to a crowd that included reps from Goldwyn and Touchstone. Goldwyn showed the most interest, but with two screenings left, Julie wasn't ready to commit.
Thanks to excellent word of mouth and a glowing review from Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, the second screening of I Love You ... Don't Touch Me was packed with studio reps. Suits from FineLine, Miramax, Fox Searchlight, Warner Bros., and Touchstone all showed up, brandishing checkbooks. Unfortunately, the screening was booked into one of Sundance's worst rooms. "They're not even using that room any more," Julie explained. "It's not raked, so you can't see over people's heads. The sound was terrible. And it was ten in the morning on a Tuesday." Julie gladhanded tirelessly, but her stomach was knotted. Her rosy face was the peach around the pit of her panic. "The screening flopped. I walked out of there crying hysterically. I thought I had lost my chance to sell it."
Goldwyn, however, remained interested. After two days of negotiation, including an eight-hour overnight marathon, she inked a high-six-figure deal. For an independent filmmaker, she had just achieved the rough equivalent of winning the lottery. "I called my mom in Miami. She started to cry. I called Meredith, who had gone back to L.A. She started to cry. Then I went back to the condo and went to sleep." If selling her film had given Julie new life, she was only four hours old, and newborns need their rest.
In adolescence, every day is a car wreck -- noisy, painful, and costly. But time is more like space than unlike it, and from a distance, what was once tremendous can seem trivial. That was my hope, at least, as I flew down to Miami last month; as I met my parents at the airport; as I fell asleep in the same room where I had slept throughout high school; as I woke; as I showered; as I went out the door to collect Julie for lunch. I was driving a rental car, a maroon Pontiac Sunfire. I would have preferred a silver Trans Am, but Avis doesn't rent props.
I can describe the Julie who answered the door only by comparing her with the Julie of a decade ago. Hair lighter. Hips wider. Face thinner. She was still pretty, still neurotic, still tentative when she embraced me. Julie had said that she would be ready at noon, but when I got there she was in a bathrobe. She brought out two outfits and asked me to help her choose. One was a skintight aqua dress, the other a pair of shorts and a tiny Miami Dolphins T-shirt. I picked the dress.
"It's a ten-dollar hooker dress I bought on Sunset Boulevard," she said.
"Ten-dollar hooker or ten-dollar dress?" I said. Julie laughed at that, but was silent the entire car ride, sizing me up. "You look great," she said, when we were safely seated in the restaurant. "You look very handsome." I returned the compliment. We beamed at each other like idiots or lovers. We were neither, of course. She had a boyfriend back in Los Angeles, a piece of intelligence she had delivered over the phone the week before, presumably as a preemptive strike against the power of memory to seduce.
Julie didn't want to talk about I Love You ... Don't Touch Me. Not right away. Instead she talked about The 411, a movie she was directing for the Playboy channel. "It's a softcore film, and the scenes are really erotic," she said. "I did it partly for the money, because my check got delayed when Goldwyn sold to MGM, and partly for the work. I love directing. It doesn't matter what the project is like. You can't ever think you're too good for the work."
"So," I said. "What is your movie like?"
She sighed. "Do we have to talk about it? I mean, it's not that I don't want to. It's just that this movie isn't easy to talk about. I mean, I wrote it four years ago. I filmed it two years ago. Sometimes I worry that I'll never go on and do anything else."
"Of course you will. You did this Playboy movie."
Suddenly she came to life: "There's this one scene where the lead actress is having sex with this guy she's just met. They're on a table, and I shot her from above, and her leg bends like this --" here she crooked a finger calligraphically. "It's one of the nicest shots I've ever filmed."
"Let's talk about your movie," I said again.
Her gaze spiraled down into her wine glass. When she looked up, the gravity was still in her face. "I'm worried that the studio doesn't know how to market me," she complained. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote that Daisy's voice was full of money. Julie's was full of breakage. "They say there's no hook, but this is a movie about an adult virgin. Plus, there's never been a straight woman this young who wrote and directed. And the movie looks so good for a $60,000 movie." She ticked off these achievements in a detached voice, as if she were someone else praising a promising young director, and the list seemed to buoy her a bit. "Listen," she said, "I can talk about the movie, I guess, as long as we don't talk about that and nothing else."
"Okay," I said. "Say you had $30 million, or the $12 million it cost Tarantino to make Jackie Brown. Who would you have cast?"
"Let me think," she said. "I would probably cast Sandra Bullock as Katie, the lead. Definitely Richard Gere as Richard, although I'd have to consider playing Katie so I could have a love scene with him." There was a hint of a pause, and then she charged ahead. "As Ben, Jason Alexander."
"Jason Alexander? Isn't he a little squat?"
"It's his personality. That funny, neurotic energy. It's very attractive."
"It wasn't in high school," I said, in a tone that suggested I was joking. I was pretty certain that I was.
Julie seemed less sure; she stared at me with a look that mixed curiosity, care, and what I hoped was a grain of guilt.
Hoping to smooth things over, I changed tack. "By the way," I said, "I meant to ask you how my letter is used in the movie."
"You'll see," she said. "And anyway, it's not a whole letter. It's a poem you wrote about my hair."
"You're kidding," I said. Julie was laughing. "You're laughing because you're kidding."
"Close," she said. "I'm laughing because I'm not kidding."
That afternoon we crisscrossed South Miami, crosshatched the Gables, and then devised a plan to wind up in the Palmetto High School parking lot. When we got there the sun was dropping, and we sat in the car and talked. A few kids were in the parking lot, and one boy was up on the hood of his BMW, talking on his cell phone. The color of the light was pitched somewhere between salmon and scarlet.
There, in the lot, as the evening came down across the school's etiolated aqua exterior, I moved toward Julie, inching bit by bit into the past. The past was about eight inches to my right, because there I found a knee -- Julie's knee, I assumed -- and traced its contour with my thumb. Hands nearing 30 know their calling so much better than those still in their teens. Fingers found faces. A shoulder lifted itself to a pair of lips. And then there was a suggestive fade to black.
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.
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.
We hugged goodbye, and a hint of something hotter flowed between us -- not enough to make a difference, but more than I had expected. Progress. She stepped out of the car. Her hair bucked and crackled. I think she may have glanced back once, Orpheus-like, but maybe not. Then she was gone.
I didn't think I would include this scene in my article. It seemed too simple. But I'm reluctant to leave it out. If there's one thing Julie's movie reminded me, it's that life is lived, and then captured. If you don't capture it, someone else will. There's no other definition for art.
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