The demilitarized zone outside the Academy was teeming with gowns and guard dogs. We made our way past the goosestepping sentries, past the white-columned totalitarian facade, and into the fairgrounds where the picnic tables were arrayed for the festive banquet. I scanned the crowded benches for someone to sit next to, but everyone was talking to everyone else and I decided I’d better go home. As I got outside there was a commotion in the DMZ, and I saw–barely saw, it happened so fast–my unglamorous brown dog herded into a truck along with the guards’ German shepherds, flying off to some crisis with flashing lights and sirens blaring. I flashed forward to my desolate future life, searching the city for my only friend like Umberto D, but before I got there a few days had passed and my dog had come home with a new companion, a chipper shepherd from the Academy force, proving that there are still happy endings in Hollywood.
I happened to notice the white van parked outside, with “Exodus Transport” lettered on the back doors in a nondescript hand. The driver was leaning against it smoking a cigarette. “Exodus?” I asked tentatively. “Yeah, we’re here for the Apocalypse,” he replied. “Uh, I don’t remember really well, but aren’t those different parts of the Bible?” He took a long drag and eyed me thickly, then looked away and said, “I just work here.”
I wrote a review of a recently rediscovered Preston Sturges film in which Joan Fontaine and Ray Milland were being held in a dungeon by a group of small-town right-wing Christians. It turned out that they had been mistaken for their identical twins, who arrived at the last moment to spring them from the dungeon, and everyone rode off together happily bouncing on a flying bed. The review got picked up by the Ann Arbor Gazette; they were kind enough to send me a clip, but instead of using an envelope they folded the newsprint itself into a tight little package and covered it with tape so all I could see was the dateline “ANN FRANCISCO–.” I wonder what I said about the movie.
Outside the shack of Pedro Malo (Pedro Infante) is a wicker bull wrapped in Christmas lights. Inside, on the floor in the half darkness, is Jorge Bueno (Jorge Negrete). The camera follows Pedro’s dimly lustrous cowboy boots as they creak across the boards to plant their toes in hog-tied Jorge’s sides. The toes are pointed, the kicks repeated. The charismatic boots almost fill the frame. Pedro staggers out the door and the camera goes with him, leaving Jorge moaning quietly to himself as the wicker bull’s lights flicker in mysterious patterns.
Inside the cheroot is where God resides. Everyone watches for a sign, but if there is smoke, it’s invisible. Is it lit? Nobody knows.
We finally figured out a way to kill the old man. It was simple, really: wait till he starts talking again, then quickly pour the pills in his mouth, hold it shut to make him swallow, stroke the neck a little like pilling a cat. It worked. He (played by Nick Nolte) was dead, and in a panic we (me, played by me, and you, variously played by John Cusack, Samuel Beckett, and several actors I didn’t recognize) fled the country. Nobody at the airport noticed that our only luggage was a suitcase full of corpse. We scampered across Europe in a quick, madcap montage, flitting from Amsterdam to Zurich in the blink of an eye. After a few minutes it seemed that nobody would ever catch up with us, because nobody was trying to, and so we headed back to the States to continue our adventures on the family houseboat on the Bay. We were finally free — except for the dog. I forgot about the dog. The one-eyed mangy poodle had been there when we did it, and he was still there on the houseboat, waiting for us. He knew everything. He blinked that rheumy eye at me, and I knew he’d told the cops; he didn’t care about the old man, he didn’t care about us, he didn’t care about justice, but he turned us in anyway. Damn dog! Why won’t he let us be in our carefree romantic comedy? Why does everything have to be a thriller or a tragedy?
Traveling through a Japanese movie, we stumbled upon the International Kitten Cemetery outside Kyoto. Its only signage was a small, weathered wooden cat statue on top of a fencepost in someone’s back garden. Kittens of all nations were buried there, with cocktail-toothpick flags marking the little graves nestled among the vegetable rows. A kindly old man was tending the plots on the quiet hillside. Part of his job was to drown the kittens in the stream at the bottom of the hill before burying them. A few mangy cats hung around the graveyard keening for the young ones who died before they learned how to see.
Charles Boyer invited me to visit his family’s farm in France, and of course I said yes. I wandered among the picturesque hills and quaint stone outbuildings, noticing that all the animals seemed deeply contented. Even the pigsty was fragrant and cheerful; the hogs wore expressions of joy as they rooted in the dirt. I complimented the swinekeeper in my perfect French. Charles arrived to take me on a haycart tour of the fields while the farm workers enjoyed their midday rest, drinking wine and boasting about their asparagus: “You’ll never find anything like this in California!” At the village inn that night Charles bashfully asked me if I would share the farm, life, everything with him. Of course I said yes. If it weren’t for the war. . . .
Zombies love fireworks. In the lobby of the multiplex after the movie, over the sounds of arcade games and exploding popcorn, a voice on the PA system was reciting, “To say thanks to those who have given so much to protect America…”
When I was an actress, in the early 1930s, I played a girl in love. In this movie I wanted to marry you, but social issues kept getting in the way. Labor struggles, for example: once we had a wedding, but the minister had to go out on strike before he could put the ring on my finger. We chased him through the halls of the apartment building and into the street, but lost him in the crowd of striking preachers. After that you got disillusioned about marriage and started dating other people, including a tall, dark and sullen girl who worked at the candy counter with me. (I used to be a lot smaller and blonder back then.) We all went out to dinner at a restaurant, and to teach you a lesson I decided to disguise myself as the waitress. I became even smaller and blonder, and more intriguing; everyone wanted to dance with me. But you kept getting distracted, and eventually I was so discouraged I turned into a piece of candy in a plastic box. Not a very appealing candy, either — I was lumpy and misshapen, and my chocolate coating was a pale streaky brown. However, the minister eventually returned from the picket line and offered to finish the ceremony. We all met again at the restaurant and the preacher got ready to put the ring on my hand, but it was so huge it fell right off again. So the minister had to run to the restaurant’s coal-burning stove, melt the ring down, and re-shape it to fit my dainty finger. I thought things might fall through again at any moment. I thought, “This wedding is even more suspenseful than the one in Hold Your Man!” (Although this movie was otherwise pretty dissimilar. I was less glamorous than Jean Harlow, and not in a reformatory.) But finally the wedding was complete, and we were both overcome with joy — all our doubts and struggles were past. You gazed into my eyes and told me, “Now you’ll be my lover forever. Though you might not realize it yet, you’re going to die soon. But you’ll be a beautiful ghost, my beautiful lover from beyond the grave, so you see nothing will ever change.” That’s what I call a happy ending.