The Making of
The Making of the Illusion of Gravity
The movie screen, like any screen on which bright light is played, is white. It darkens, but only very slightly: the first image in The Making of the Illusion of Gravity is of the Los Angeles City Hall Plaza carpeted in nineteen inches of new freak snow.
“Qanuk,” says the narrator’s voice-over, slowly and distinctly, in a language that you probably don’t recognize: “Utvak. Navcaq. Nevluk. Kanevcir. Muruaneq.”
City Hall dissolves slowly to the deserted Venice Beach Boardwalk, lined by palm trees whose fronds sag under a layer of snow (“Qanisqineq,” says the narrator, the syllables tolling in slow regular strokes like a church bell); to Rodeo Drive (“Qengaruk,” the narrator continues); to Disneyland’s Matterhorn (“Qanikcaq”); and finally back to City Hall (“Qerretrar”), all wrapped in an eerie white winter coat.
“Snow,” the same voice tells you, as if you didn’t know what you were seeing. “The Yup’ik Eskimos of Central Alaska have eighteen words for it.”
Now the snow begins slowly to vanish from the Los Angeles City Hall, from City Hall Plaza and from the cars parked there — not melt, vanish, as if it is falling upward — and then it does the same from Rodeo Drive, from the Venice Boardwalk, from the Matterhorn, until they reveal themselves and Los Angeles as they normally are, awash in sun and smog. It’s time-lapse photography played backward. The film stock isn’t matched; the Rodeo Drive sequences are even on videotape. Such are the exigencies of shooting a feature film on twenty-four-hours’ notice.
The title comes across the bottom of the bleached landscape in black block letters — the making of the illusion of gravity — and rises to the top of the screen, as if to mark the entry into a world in which gravity has no sway.
“Hello? Hello?” says the voice-over.
If you’ve seen an English-language version of a Konkowsky film — Death, for example, or Infra-Red or Malmö; any of them except the silent Music — you’ve heard this bland unaccented American male tenor, and probably wondered where Konkowsky dug it up.
“Hello?” the narrator goes on in his after-shave voice, “Am I on? Is this a live mike? Testing one two three four. Phtt phtt” — now he’s actually tapping the microphone — “Testing one two three, testing.”
a fILm bY kOnKOwsKy, reads the screen, and yes, it is as odd to write this way as it is to include the narrator’s sound check in the movie. In previous films the director misspelled flamboyantly, inserted quotation marks around subtitled lines of dialogue, piled mountains of stately images on banal commercial slogans (“Taste the Pleasure!”), and generally amused himself by mangling and masticating language. Apparently Konkowsky’s grown tired of it too, for the corrections soon appear onscreen:
a fILm bY kOnKOwsKy
And finally the corrected version:
A film by Konkowsky
American audiences remember the weird snowfall last Christmas in Los Angeles: how the meteorologists predicted one to two feet, how TV weathermen donned Santa Claus suits to read the forecast.
Snow in Los Angeles. You can imagine the expression on Konkowsky’s face when he heard about it. You can imagine it, but you don’t have to: an extreme close-up of that face, coming sideways across the screen, is the first thing following the credits of The Making of the Illusion of Gravity.
Or maybe Konkowsky says “snyek” or “yuki” or “snö” or a mixture of all three; as a Russian émigré making Japanese films in the Swedish language, Konkowsky often gets a little confused. Russians, Swedes and Japanese also have trouble understanding him.
Snow in Los Angeles. The news spreads across Konkowsky’s face, a face that spreads across the screen, a face made for easy reading, like a large-print book: fat purplish lips, a squat dumpling of a nose, and oversized and slightly protruding eyes, mutant eyes that seem to perceive more than the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. They are eyes that might indeed see infra-red, see heat, see sound, even see the past of an object in its present form. Konkowsky long ago muffled the cartoonish vividness of his features in a beard and long hair, both of which have gone white in the years. Age, too, has framed the perpetual ecstasy of those popping blue eyes in a network of fine softening wrinkles. It must be admitted that Konkowsky has himself come to resemble a diminutive St. Nick. And his features arrange themselves, successively, in surprise and enterprise, and say:
“Eh? Snow? In Los Angeles?”
You can stop worrying about the language he’s speaking: there are subtitles that say, in English: “Snow? In Los Angeles? Is this some trick of the American film industry? Is this one of their diabolical special effects? Do they now seed the very clouds? Will they not be satisfied until they force nature herself to behave as idiotically as the characters in their movies? Straighten all noses! Enhance all breasts! Print a T-shirt! Make a doll! Only 1421 shopping days till the turn of the century! Toyotathon!”
“Nyet,” says a voice from offscreen, but it is unclear which question it is answering.
“Snow in Los Angeles,” Konkowsky repeats. “Imagine the light! Imagine the opportunities!” He brings his fists to the sides of his face; they burst into ten shivering fingers as he ecstatically declares: “Open City!”
A blizzard in Los Angeles presents for Konkowsky the same kind of filmmaker’s paradise that postwar Rome did for Roberto Rossellini. If Rossellini could go to Rome and shoot in eight days the film that founded Neorealism and launched the director and his star, Anna Magnani, to international prominence, can Konkowsky do less? Those Santa-Claus-in-the-bughouse eyes leave no room for doubt: Konkowsky must go to Los Angeles, there to do as the Romans did.
The camera pulls back: Konkowsky, a tangle-haired gnome of ambiguous national descent, is in the workshop where he and his assistants create his props, knife in hand and cells of Styrofoam flecking his coarse linen sculpting smock. Konkowsky’s been working in Styrofoam lately, carving up that ersatz stuff into primitive elongated faces twenty and thirty feet high, reminiscent of the ancient heads of the Easter Islands. There must be flecks in Konkowsky’s beard too, but there is no way of telling: the beard is as white as snow or Styrofoam.
The giant face rests on the parquet floor of Konkowsky’s workshop, and many others are around it, all surfaced to resemble black stone. Konkowsky himself ... well, Konkowsky is sticking to the white wall like a fly.
The entire image begins, sickeningly, to turn clockwise, until you can see that Konkowsky is not clinging to the wall like a fly, but standing on the floor like any other human. The floor is whitewashed like a wall; the parquet floor in the background is actually a wall parqueted like a floor. It’s a version of the effect Astaire used in Royal Wedding to make it seem he was dancing on the walls and ceiling. In Royal Wedding, however, the camera and the room itself rotated together, at the same speed; here it is only the camera that turns. Konkowsky likes to roll up his sleeves and let the tricks of his trade clatter to the floor.
Another Styrofoam face fills the screen, engraved in an expression of permanent fright, terrified, perhaps, of the enormous flesh fingers gripping it.
Those are Konkowsky’s fingers and this face is a miniature. The director paces the aisles of a 747, babbling in many languages. Men and women in seats 17F, 10A, 12B and 12C hold up cameras and open flight bags full of film and lenses. The aircraft’s public address system gives three electronic dings, and passengers rebuckle their belts. Konkowsky, however, is not to be stopped by such a timid little peep. He is counting heads, cameras, reels of film; taking inventory of the resources available for The Making of the Illusion of Gravity.
Like Konkowsky’s other titles, this one is deceptive: his film is not only about the making of the “illusion” of gravity, but also about the creation of the film itself. By rights it ought to be called The Making of the Making of the Illusion of Gravity, and a story about the creation of the film should, in turn, be called “The Making of The Making of the Making of the Illusion of Gravity.” But there can be too much of a good thing.
A stewardess puts a hand on Konkowsky’s shoulder — which comes up only to her chest — and tells him, in English, “Please return to your seat, sir.”
The director throws back his head and roars, “Open City!” It has become his rallying cry.
Stock footage of workmen decorating Wilshire Boulevard for Christmas: black-and-white video from a news broadcast at least twenty years ago.
Los Angeles looks hopeful and ludicrous in its holiday regalia: outsized fake candy canes wrapped around streetlight standards, giant plastic snowflakes strung up in intersections, their tinsel tendrils moving in the artificial breezes caused by traffic. But Christmas never comes to Southern California. Festooning Los Angeles in this fashion is like setting plastic flamingoes on the Siberian snow in the hope that palm trees will grow up around them.
A jet screams across the sky. Zoom in on the zooming jet.
An outlandishly, audaciously phony establishing shot: the 747, plainly a model, waggles and jerks through fish-tank storm clouds like the toy it is. Fake lightning stabs its wing.
On the 747, the stewardess still hasn’t got Konkowsky into his seat. “Nyet nyet nyet,” the director murmurs, wagging a stubby little index finger back and forth.
Konkowsky’s interpreter, a tall lean Japanese woman with black-rimmed glasses and hair gathered into a severe ponytail, tells the stewardesses: “He says ‘no.’”
Now the captain makes an appearance in the cabin, his epauletted shoulders swiveling peremptorily down the aisle. “What seems to be the problem?” he asks.
Konkowsky says a few words, beaming at the captain. Among the stern-faced adults towering over him, he seems a mischievous child.
“In the widest sense, the problem is gravity ... ” the Japanese interpreter begins, appearing as puzzled as the captain.
“Da!” Konkowsky ejaculates. He rattles on until the interpreter raises her hand.
“He says gravity is God’s law,” she tells the captain, “but this plane has exposed gravity itself to be only a cheap illusion, for which he offers you his deepest congratulations.”
Konkowsky bows low and comes up grinning. “Mazel tov!”
“He says further,” recites the interpreter, “that although ordinarily he might listen to orders from God, today, on this aeroplane, even God’s law of gravity has been suspended. Thus, even if he were ejected in mid-air, he might rise through the air rather than fall to the ground. So he is quite deaf to the laws of man.”
“Nyet,” says Konkowsky, nodding emphatically. “Open City!”
The captain addresses the interpreter. “It’s just that we’re heading into a storm, so we’re expecting a bit of turbulence — ”
“Turbulence?” Konkowsky interrupts in horror, all the anarchy and philosophy draining from his face. Tamed, he takes his sear and buckles his belt.
A prefab airline dinner is waiting for Konkowsky, mummified behind steamy plastic wrap, looking vaguely fowl. Konkowsky poises his miniature tiki at its edge, where it regards the dinner and turns its face of frozen fright back to the director.
Konkowsky leans forward to whisper into the tiki’s earless face. “You eat it,” reads the subtitle.
Crane shot of the baggage pickup room at Northwest Airlines: Konkowsky’s minions scamper in fast-motion over the black-and-white checkerboard linoleum, unloading suitcases from the carousel, opening and closing them. It is like speed chess played with too many pieces.
The camera returns to eye level and the film to normal speed: Konkowsky’s crew stands in ranks in front of the baggage carousel, rigid and saluting. Konkowsky marches down the rows, coming to a halt at a large map of Los Angeles sitting on an aluminum easel.
“We will board this city like an enemy ship!” says the director, or the subtitles say he says. “Take no prisoners — take only footage! Shoot before you see the whites of their frames! Shoot first — ask questions later! When in doubt, shoot! When not in doubt, shoot! At all other times, shoot!”
Actually Konkowsky hasn’t said a word in any language; but that’s the way it is with subtitles: you have to trust them. They are the pilot of your airplane.
Konkowsky and cinematographer Yosei Mura barrel toward the gates of Universal City Studios in a golf cart with a fringed fabric roof.
Spikes jut out of the pavement near the guard kiosk at a man-eating-shark angle. severe tire damage, warns a sign. A uniformed black man steps out and asks them what they think they’re doing here.
For answer Yosei Mura points his camera at the guard. The guard is seen in blurry close-up, horrified and incredulous, his face widened at the edges by the lens’ distortion, as he yells: “You can’t film here!”
“Either you shoot us or we shoot you,” Konkowsky tells him. “Open City!” The golf cart lumps over the spikes, goring itself, and goes on, tires flattened.
The cart is riding on its rims, its roof fringes jouncing gaily in the air. The world as seen by the camera of Yosei Mura has become a jolting, bumpy place. Konkowsky, offscreen, cackles wildly as they ride through a 50’s Anytown, USA; a Renaissance courtyard; a Western frontier town: card-house facades that look as if the first good breeze will send them tumbling down.
The movie sets are hibernating, silent and deserted, beneath their heavy blanket of snow. Everything between the cloud-knotted sky and the cart’s asphalt tire tracks is white. Today Konkowsky is the only one shooting here.
A Mexican boy in a ski cap pulled down too low is shoveling a snowdrift from an East L.A. sidewalk. His excavations reveal a pile of yellowing newspapers, a corroded car engine, and a boxlike brown shape.
The boy turns up the brim of his hat to mop his brow. Music is coming through the box’s muffler of snow.
As the boy digs down, a television screen becomes visible — Bing Crosby is crooning — and when the boy bares the speaker, the lyrics ring out clearly: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas ... ”
Bing Crosby freezes, turns black-and-white, turns into a chalk drawing on a blackboard, but his singing continues: “ ... just like the ones I used to know ... ”
The camera pulls back: Konkowsky slumps, asleep, in a director’s chair, and the chalk drawing of Bing Crosby floats above him on a blackboard. The director is dreaming; and dreaming, he reaches up and wipes the slate clean.
A new dream-drawing, this one in color, appears on the blackboard, and the camera zooms in. Konkowsky has put a comic strip in the middle of this movie. It’s in color, with word bubbles in Swedish, and it’s called detektif. Naturally he’s made himself the central character. One by one, the comic’s panels silently fill the screen.
First panel: Konkowsky the cartoon, in trenchcoat and deerstalker cap, peers out through a magnifying glass that grossly enlarges his left eye. The subtitle reads: “52 murders in 4 days? A killer who smuggles his victims’ remains into meat processing plants in the dead of night? Millions of innocent Swedes unknowingly eating human flesh? Hmm. Yes, I am interested in taking the case.”
The second panel is as terse as the first was verbose: “ ... Very interested!” says Konkowsky, bent over in hot-on-the-trail position, his magnifying glass inches from the ground.
In the third panel clues are collected in a box. “You see, Lieutenant?” Konkowsky’s word bubble says. “An English penny, 1863, condition extra fine. A cigar butt. Two hairs from a mature female Ornithorynchus anatinus. But most revealing, the culprit leaves behind traces of a very unusual substance!”
The police lieutenant asks Konkowsky in the fourth panel, “What substance is that, Detektif?”
“Quicksilver,” Konkowsky replies. “All of which leads, of course, to 194A La Cienega Boulevard, where, if I am correct, we will find ... ”
In the fifth panel the Lieutenant and Konkowsky kick in a door. “As I suspected ... ” Konkowsky says in a jagged-edged word bubble, “Weather instruments!” Barometers, thermometers, meteorographs, anemometers lie scattered around the floor.
The last panel is exactly like the first: Konkowsky in trenchcoat and deerstalker, magnifying glass upraised. Only the words are different. “For who is truly more criminal,” Konkowsky asks, “than he who predicts the future?”
A man kneels on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. He is flocking Christmas trees with fluffy white artificial snow from an aerosal can.
The snow appears not only on the spindly pine trees, but on the man’s head and shoulders and all around the sidewalk. It is real snow, falling from the sky.
Oblivious, the man continues to spray fake snow onto his little severed saplings.
A factory assembly line cranks molded plastic snowflakes toward the camera. They are gold, two feet high, just like those the workmen were stringing up in Wilshire Boulevard in the black-and-white video footage seen earlier.
A man wearing blue coveralls and a badge that says inspector no. 299 throws a lever and the assembly line screeches to a halt.
“Oh my God!” he shrieks. “These snowflakes are all exactly alike!”
Beach scene. A volleyball floats through the screen, back-spinning in slow motion. VOIT, it says, upside down.
Just as the ball is about to hit the sand, a man throws his arms beneath it and lofts it with a perfect dig. His teammate hits an overhand set, and the first player leaps into the air and spikes the volleyball.
The two men across the net jump up in unison to block the spike, arms outstretched, smoothed by slow motion into a pas de deux. The ball sails out of bounds. All four players are blond and tanned and clad in skintight bathing briefs.
The spiker tosses up the ball for a serve. “Pushkin to Cortazar, Proust point.”
“Proust point?” shouts one of the opposing players. “No way!”
“Buńuel to Ophuls, then,” says the server, throwing the ball up again.
“Hold on!” his teammate interrupts. “The score is apples to oranges.”
“Apples to oranges?” asks the server. “How can you compare apples and oranges?”
“If that’s true,” says one of the opponents, crossing beneath the net, “how can you compare sand to snow?”
“Snow?” repeats the server, looking down and lifting each of his bare feet from deep footprints. “If this is snow,” he says slowly, “why are we playing volleyball?”
Murmuring assent, the other three players walk off the court. At courtside the server sets the volleyball on two huge balls of snow piled one on top of the other. The volleyball thus becomes the head of a snowman.
A snowman holding a 35-millimeter movie camera.
The snowman breaks apart, quakes apart, and Konkowsky, dressed in a loincloth, emerges from it. The only sound is the rush of the ocean. The director positions the camera in the snowman’s ruins, tilted up at himself.
Konkowsky brushes the snow off his chest, bends down, makes a snowball, and throws it at the camera.
As the snowball explodes onto the lens, slides down the lens, the scene wipes away to another kind of beach: sand where snow was, sun where snowball. The beach and Los Angeles are as they were before the blizzard.
Konkowsky is where Konkowsky was, still in his loincloth. He walks toward the sea. At water’s edge he begins tugging and shaping strands of seaweed and other ocean flotsam into a pattern known only to him.
Konkowsky wipes the sand from his hands and regards the finished arrangement. It is dark. He rubs his arms. Teeth chattering, the director continues along the seaside to a coat rack of winter clothes standing in the smooth dark sand that marks high tide. He dons a Russian black fur hat, a woolen overcoat, mittens, and an extravagantly colorful scarf, leaving the coat rack bare, like a tree in winter. Konkowsky goes on his way, muttering a string of obscenities that you will not fully understand unless you speak Russian, Japanese, Swedish, and perhaps Eskimo.
Konkowsky produces a box of wooden matches and strikes one. “Nyet,” he says, according to the subtitle, “better to curse the darkness than light a single match.”
He tosses the match backward over his shoulder. The camera swoops in and follows the end-over-end flight of the matchstick in slow motion and extreme close-up. There is no sound at all.
Just as the match is about to touch some large black object, the image freezes; freezes and recedes, and recedes again. The match becomes the size of a match and Konkowsky becomes the size of Konkowsky. The black object is one of the giant Easter Island heads from Konkowsky’s workshop.
With a great rush — the soundtrack is back — the thirty-foot tiki catches fire, flames up spectacularly, and burns in the way only Styrofoam can burn.
Konkowsky goes on, turning up his collar, seemingly unaware of what is taking place behind him, the back of his white head gleaming in the reflected light of destruction. As he passes between two rows of his pseudo-stone sculptures, the great heads leap into flame in succession, as if ignited by mere proximity to Konkowsky. Finally he pauses between two giant masks that face each other, the respective hollows of their mouths turned upward and downward.
“Comedy and Tragedy,” remarks Konkowsky. “Let us see how they differ.”
The two enormous theatrical masks flame up and Konkowsky stands placidly between them, his face demonic in the firelight. The masks contort, go red, warp, go black, seem to inhale themselves into themselves. Finally both ruined cavernous mouths droop in pained grimaces. Konkowsky shrugs, and trudges on.
The camera does not follow him: the burning, melting, writhing, oozing, shrinking masks remain in the foreground as Konkowsky continues slowly on his way. One of the faces collapses, revealing embers that glow like wood, but cool quickly.
When the director is a receding speck, white letters rise up from the bottom to the middle of the screen, line by line, growing larger as if coming toward you. The narrator’s voice-over suavely reads along:
eleven years ago my mother died
as i am old, she was very old
she always used to play the soundtrack album from fiddler on the roof
this was the kind of music my mother liked
she would hum “sunrise, sunset” until i had to take a walk to get away from it
our tastes in music were not the same.
one day not long ago that same tune came on the radio
along with it i heard my mother’s voice faintly humming the melody
yes yes, i am quite sure about this.
i turned down the volume on the radio until only my mother’s voice remained
thus i know:
the illusion of life continues after death
or the illusion of death continues after life.
if the film is looped, how can we escape from this movie?
It is sunrise on the beach. The huge faces are huddled black clumps of melted plastic. Konkowsky is gone, but his handiwork of the evening before is still intact: the camera pans across the giant letters formed by seaweed, shells and driftwood:
( i s i t e v e r ) t h e e n d ?