Negative Time

I

When Samuel Wentworth heard that Arnold Rump was nominated, along with himself, for the Academy Award, he put down his morning coffee, looked out the window at the long stretch of buildings beneath his Manhattan penthouse, and wondered if his whole life had been a series of mistakes.

Wentworth was a well-respected documentarian. For the last 15 years he’d been arguably the best living documentarian alive. He’d already won three Academy Awards for his work, revolutionized the art with his neoclassical decadence, and worked from the same basic premise for the last thirty three years: documentary was simply a high art form of propaganda. And the further he’d taken this premise toward its logical extremes, the more successful his work had become. But this morning, over coffee, a newspaper, and a fine cigar all of that was about to be challenged by Arnold Rump.

II

Arnold Rump was born on June 16th, 1971, son of Gordon and Samantha Rump. They were a modest family living just North of Boston, in the suburbs of Malden, Massachusetts. Arnold’s father was carpenter, and Arnold’s mother was a nurse. Arnold was an only child. They weren’t wealthy, but they were happy, spending cozy evenings together in their cramped little apartment. Arnold’s father was always building new furniture around the house, and Arnold’s mother was always reading to him as a child. Later, growing up, Arnold’s mother would sit with him in the evenings in front of the television, and they would discuss the programs they watched. From an early age Arnold was fascinated with television. More than anything though, he was fascinated by documentaries. His mother would find him up all hours of the night watching PBS, documentary after documentary.

III

Samuel Wentworth was born on August 23rd, 1941 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The son of two New York socialites, Wentworth grew up among well-known artists and celebrities. From an early age, Wentworth showed a talent for reading and writing. It was only when he reached his college years, however, that he began to pursue a career in film. His then college sweetheart, later to become his lifelong companion, Sheila Maxim, a talented young photographer convinced him he should try his hand at making documentaries. Wentworth, who believed in doing everything to the full, dived into the art with fervor. He studied the history of the documentary, spending days and nights watching film after film, taking notes, and in the meantime, writing a dissertation on the theory of the documentary. His dissertation,“Documentary and Propaganda: A study of the History of Filmmaking”, was published in 1965. It was greeted with much critical acclaim, and a few years later, Wentworth produced his first full-length documentary on the 60’s youth culture.

IV

By the time he was in high school, Arnold was filming his own documentaries. All his teachers said he had a wonderful eye, and a wonderful gift for telling a story. His journalism teacher said he was a natural. His photography teacher said he was the real deal. Arnold just said he was pursuing his passion.

Arnold would go on to receive a full scholarship to the New School in New York City, where he continued to follow his passion. Two years into his college career, he shot a documentary on the history of the East Village. This documentary premiered at a small film festival in the city, and caught the attention of documentarian giant Samuel Wentworth. After seeing the film, Wentworth arranged for a meeting with Rump, saying: “this kid Rump may very well be the future of the documentary.”

V

By the mid Seventies Wentworth was already a household name. His neoclassical, black & white documentaries were meant to strike an emotional chord with his viewers. He almost always hit the mark, winning him his first Academy Award for best documentary in 1978. When accepting the award, the host smiled, shook his hand, and said: “Wentworth, you know, you may very well be the future of the documentary.”

VI

One afternoon Wentworth took a car out to meet his agent. His agent confirmed the rumor. “They say this kid Rump really is onto something. He’s challenging everything you built. Call me paranoid, but I say this kid is gunning for you. He’s not just after your spot; he’s after your vision.”

His agent pulled out a copy of the Daily News. “You see what he says right there? -‘The documentarian who views documentary as propaganda is not an artist. He’s a dishonest journalist. If he’s any kind of artist at all, it’s nothing more than a con artist.’”

“Well…” said Wentworth

“Oh, it goes on. Look: – ‘Any true artist is dedicated to the truth. The documentarian bears the burden of relating history to the generations. A propagandist is a liar after the public’s reality. Such a man is no artist at all.’”

Wentworth’s agent looked up. “There’s more, too. See:”

“I’ve heard enough.”

VII

From the very beginning Wentworth and Rump had differences, but Rump was learning a lot from his mentor. He was the most talented person Wentworth had ever had the pleasure of tutoring. Rump caught onto the nuances of the craft like he was born knowing them. “Like he just had to recollect them,” Wentworth said of his protégé.

VIII

The first time Rump shot a documentary in color, Wentworth was upset. “Color upsets the balance. It lets the viewer see things that you as the director might not see. Documentary, more than any other film is about holding your viewer hostage. You have a perspective you’re coming from, and you cannot leave anything up to the viewer. It is a dictatorship, a documentary.”

IX

In 1999, Wentworth and Rump had a public falling out. Wentworth called Rump, “an arrogant young upstart.” Rump said Wentworth was, “a dinosaur in the industry. One that needed to die off so younger artists could breathe.” Each announced they were at work on a documentary of the other.

X

When Arnold Rump heard that Samuel Wentworth was nominated, along with himself, for the Academy Award, he put down his morning coffee, looked out the window at the long stretch of buildings beneath his Manhattan penthouse, and wondered if his whole life had been a series of mistakes.

 

-Whit Frazier, 2005

Scratch Dancing on Your Grave

and I was reading a book that was also on television at the same time. The story was about two old men who lived in apartments facing each other in a building with no other tenants. The hallways were long and gray, and wound around a square of empty rooms. Age is a cycle, you are born a fool, and you grow old into a fool, and these two fools lived off supplies in the empty building; five flights of empty rooms.

A wave came through the curtains at night, once two years back, and flooded and floated dead bodies into the ocean leaving only the two old men. These men had never liked each other, and seldom spoke pleasantries to or about each other even though they’d lived across from each other for fortysome odd years. They watched each other grow up, and grow old, and suffered alternate joys and failures and disappointments, and before long they began to see each other in the other’s face.

Each man was a hermit in his own way, and they disliked other people, horribly, the television pictured them in hazy scenes from blue tint in the beginning, grudging smiles at strangers and each other, to yellow tint ten years or so later, two middle aged men, one scene one man opens his door, hears the other turning his lock, and slams his door closed quick and frowns. A gray tint flashes through a scene of two old men, each alone in an empty apartment talking to walls and not talking to each other as they pass in the halls; finally the film tints white with sharp black outlines defining the old men passing in the halls one day and each stopping, surveying. Finally one of the men, the man who lives behind the red door, sticks out his hand and says flat: “My name is Turner.” The man who lives behind the black door takes Turner’s hand, half frowns and half grins, so his lip line looks like a breaking rollercoaster ride, and says, “Philip.”

The book has no chapters and no dividing sections, but the film chapters here into a black screen, “Two Weeks Later” in white letters; blue tint, the building flooding with the waves from the flood, washing people out of windows, screaming; the building shudders and totters like the leaning tower. Loud sound. Blackout. “Two Years Later”: white letters. Blackout.

Turner and Philip are friends, or at least as much as they can muster. Philip comes over to Turner’s apartment, enters without knocking, sits down and says: “Turner, do you live off the stuff in the rooms left by other people like I do? If so, you can tell me. We need to come up with a plan, divide the territory. Lately I’ve noticed stuff disappearing. Stuff I’d sort of planted in rooms. That worries me.”

“What kinds of stuff.”

“Nevermind that.”

“Very well. I will have the first three floors, and you will have the top two.”

“How is that fair? We should divide one floor in half, and then it is equal and fair.”

“But it is fair. Since we live on the top floor, you have the prime real estate. You’re on the fifth floor already, and the fourth is only one floor down.” Turner frowns. “I have to go all the way to the third floor for my supplies.”

“What happens when I run out?”

“We will share.”

“Now that sounds fair.”

For a while Turner and Philip live in peace. They pass in the halls, half-smile and nod. They live quiet, mysterious lives. No one ever comes by the building. The film is punctuated by long scenes of the hallways, silent, climbing around corners, and the clod, clod, clod quietly in stereo as it passes the red and black doors. The story is written in short staccato sentences. The pace slows down. Two ghosts climbing around corners; clod clod clod. Or something like that.

The film segues into scenes of the old man behind the red door, Philip, pacing the apartment one night when he hears Turner’s door close. He knows Turner went out for supplies just that afternoon. Why would he be going again, and if he’s not going for supplies, why would he be leaving his apartment? Where does he have to go? Philip leans close to his own door, and listens. A moment later he puts on a pair of soft slippers he found on the third floor, waits to hear Turner’s footsteps fall down the hall, and then he follows him out.

He follows Turner around two corners, when he sees Turner turn one way, then the other. Philip falls back into the shadow of the corner. Turner, satisfied he’s not being observed, turns back to the door, and quietly, deftly even, opens it and slips inside.

Philip can’t believe his eyes. A little moonlight is coming through cracks in the ceiling, gray rusted steel and concrete, turning the moonlight ash yellow, and pale, and seeps Turner in an eerie glow; close up on Philips’s face; eyes wide, mouth drawn back; yellow teeth in slowly browning moonlight.

Philip’s first thought, wrapped in wrath, is to storm into the room, grab the first blunt object he sees, and strike Turner dead on the spot. He moves forward, mumbling death threats to himself, when suddenly something really troubling occurs to him.

No one ever goes into the straight jacket nicely. In the film, flashback sequence, Philip struggles against three thin men in white coats, as they fit him nicely into a backwards white jacket. Blackout.

The year is fifty five years ago, and Philip is on a ship at sea. Blue tint, sky blue sky, waves like the flood through the windows, which hasn’t happened yet. In the belly of the boat there are rows of hallways winding around corners where doors lean into the walls. Behind each door there is a living quarter, small room, a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a couple sea scattered chairs. Philip sits smoking in his room, a much younger man. His eyes are whitish green; in the film he looks out a porthole onto the sea, and can almost see the waves reflecting back a long lost stare that goes all the way back where there’s a quick cut flashback of Brooklyn streets. Gray and red buildings, black asphalt, children playing while a fire hydrant showers a sidewalk. Back to Philip’s face, looking back at the ocean looking back at him.

The book tells the story of Philip’s childhood in Brooklyn; talks about his mother. He even had friends. The film focuses on Philip’s face: his eyes and the way the wrinkles on his cheeks meet the teeth of his frown, but it gives no more backstory. Philip is alone on the sea, Childe Harold, says the author, and Philip’s face sings a lonely song on film.

Something strange is happening on the boat. Passengers disappear and reappear. Sometimes they reappear as other people. One man disappears and comes back as two: Oscar and Gary, completing each other’s sentences, complementing each other’s thoughts, sometimes getting in loud angry irrational shouting matches back and forth no one else can follow. No one else can follow: Philip tries explaining the disappearances to other people. Passengers at first. Just the quick comment over dinner: “Did Daniel disappear?”

“No. He’s right over there -,” Where Daniel would be sitting, eating dinner, only as another person.

“Is that Daniel?”

“That’s him all right. Just look at how he moves.”

&

Later on he decides to keep a notebook of disappearances. As passengers disappear, he notes the name and date. On their reappearance, he notes the date, and renames the person appropriately, as suits the person’s new demeanor: “Daniel Damien.” Or some such. It seems there is a constant rotation of seven people missing at any given time. Sometimes two people count as one, as in Oscar and Gary. There is at least one disappearance every two days. It can take from a day to a week before the reappearance as someone else. Victims have no knowledge of their disappearance. Philip deliberates this for a few days. Finally he decides to take his findings to the crew; even to the captain himself.

No one ever goes into the straight jacket nicely. We’re back to where we were before: in the film, flashback to flashback sequence, Philip struggling against three thin men in white coats, the sea blue sea and sky blue sky pan out in a view as the doctors fit him nicely into a backwards white jacket; screaming across the waves. Philips body surges like the rolling sea. Next paragraph.

Cut back to Philip, dark around the corner watching Turner go into the room. He realizes that he’s afraid to walk into the room and find Turner missing. There is a shot colored in imagination sick green, Philip walking into the room like in the green glare of night goggles, and finding it empty. No sign of Turner no where. The artifacts stuck in corners. Another man missing.

The artifacts stuck in corners compels him out of the corner, up to the door, opens it. Inside Turner turns from where he’s crouched in the corner. He’s holding one of Philip’s notebooks. He looks at Philip in a way that is both alarming and familiar. “What the hell is this?”

“Nevermind that,” says Philip. “What are you doing going into one of my rooms?”

Turner ignores the question. “What does this mean?” he demands. “Turner disappeared a few days ago, and has come back as someone else I’ve named Turner Sheisty? Who are these people disappearing in an already empty building? Who are you?”

And then something unexpected happened. Philip himself disappeared. On the screen he simply flick off the scene. For a minute there’s Turner, wide eyed in the corner, and the room sinking into imagination sick green tint, and then a loud sound. Blackout. The book is more ambiguous: “And then something unexpected happened. Philip himself disappeared. The End.”

A wash like the waves through the windows woke me up in a dark blue room, dark blue sky, five in the morning. The feeling, sitting up in bed was like I shed years with each increasingly acute angle. Ninety degrees in the bed, arms propped back, sweating. For a minute I didn’t know who I was. The room was unfamiliar; I had no immediate frame of reference. Running through my memory, trying to remember why I might be waking up in an unfamiliar room, I got caught in a loop in the dream: something absolutely vital to the life of the story, what it was trying to tell me. Somewhere between Philip looking out the porthole and people disappearing. And the more I tried to remember what it was, the more it disappeared. Age is a cycle, you are born a fool, and you grow old into a fool. Somewhere in those minutes of limbo, between losing my dream and groping for my memory I felt like I was losing something metaphysically essential to myself on the other side. Supposing I believed in such things. Supposing I didn’t. Supposing both at the same time.

Whit Frazier, 2007