Seen from inside a bus window, bouncing: the bones of a dinosaur, fluorescent forest green in a field of wet green grass. The bones are vast, too broad and flat to be from any known animal; the skeleton is hundreds of feet long, like the fossilized remains of a great ship with a skull and tail. The color is so bright it bleeds into the background, painfully bright to look at. The narrator says nothing yet.
The camera pulls back now, is outside the bus, a yellow school bus with black lettering in English. The bus jolts across the screen in a series of blurry freeze-frames, each held for several seconds. Through the bus can be seen the green beached dinosaur – through it unobstructed; there is no one in the bus, no one at all, not even a driver.
MALMÖ, say simple sans-serif letters across the screen, and then in smaller lettering: A DOCUMENTARY. The crowd laughs at the idea that Konkowsky would make a documentary. There is a certain kind of art-house chuckle which is the accumulated product of feigned sophistication, real sophistication, and having read reviews before going to see the movie. It is precisely the kind of thing Konkowsky would hate. He says he’d prefer his films to be viewed by audiences of children. That wouldn’t work, of course; they’d demand a story line. Babies, maybe.
A FILM BY KONKOWSKY. The letters are alternating black and white. At least Konkowsky’s no longer mixing capital and lower-case letters as he did in his last three films: kONKoWskY, you’d read. In early films like e.g. and Infra-Red, Konkowsky misspelled relentlessly: A JAAAAAAPANESE-CYRILLIK CO-PRODUKZHEN. In his directorial debut, the silent film Music, the words were easy enough to read, but they were crossed out on-screen, changed, deleted, retracted as you watched. Now at last Konkowsky seems able to use words cleanly, without maiming them, without hatred.
So: the tail end of a school bus, the green bones of a boat dinosaur, A FILM BY KONKOWSKY.
Now, inside the bus: the floor, what looks like a gum wrapper, and the film’s first sound: a brittle rattling. The source of the sound comes into view in the same choppy freeze-frame shots: a yellow pencil rolling this way and that on the floor. MONGOL, it says, upside-down. You read it because everyone able to read does read everything put in front of him; someone is probably annoying you right now by reading out loud. “Mongol,” murmurs the man behind you, and you think of things to say: “I wouldn’t be in a movie theater if I was blind,” for example. But you don’t want to get into a fight, so you watch the film.
The yellow pencil is huge on the screen, the size and color of the school bus in the credit sequence. The pencil has a broken point. You could interpret – a movie without a point? – but you’ll be better off if you don’t. Never try to figure out Konkowsky. You know when the doctor dilates your pupils so they admit great amounts of light? Try to do that with your mind when you watch Konkowsky’s films. The goal, he says, is to watch so closely and listen so carefully to what is around you that you make a dream of everyday life – or a nightmare; Konkowsky doesn’t seem to care which, so long as it’s vivid.
He tried to force the issue in his fourth film, Death, appearing in a white lab coat and telling you, in Japanese- and Russian-accented English, to concentrate on his penlight, that you were very relaxed, that your eyelids were getting heavy, heavy. When you had been “hypnotized,” Konkowsky’s only instruction was this: “You will think of nothing but what you see on the screen.” It was sweet and pathetic, as if he was begging you. You actually had to sign a release when you bought a ticket to Death. The film closed after only three days when a women in Montreal went out of her mind and drove her car into the display window of Eaton’s department store, due, her lawyer claimed, to the influence of Konkowsky’s Death. The North American distributor settled out of court and the film was re-released without the first reel. A small but insistent black market sprang up for videocassettes of the original version.
The camera, still in extreme close-up, tracks up from the pencil on the floor of the bus across the black metal back of a seat. Etched into the enamel, painted on it in all colors, are graffiti scrawled in many languages. None of it makes sense, at least in English. Up the scratched black metal the camera goes, moving sideways toward the window.
Out the window, in a field, is some kind of airplane, glowing orange, its top torn and twisted open, overgrown with vegetation. It is a modern craft; more than modern, like no jet plane ever built before. Inside, a row of full-body flight suits, silver, with helmets, in perfect condition, hangs motionless from an overhead bar. Not quite motionless: the flight suits move slightly, and eyes low in the face plates, eyes where mouths should be, dart from side to side.
The narrator’s voice is startling. It is a bland unaccented American male tenor, almost comically commercial, as if it is always about to change the subject and start telling you about all the great options that come standard on next year’s Buick LeSabre.
“The Swedish aborigines hide when they sense an intruder,” says the narrator in this voice of his. “They believe the flight suits have the power to protect them from evil. Their legends tell that when a terrible enemy appears the great flying animal will come to life and transport them to the sun. There they will be safe forever.”
The camera pans into the sun, and the screen fills with light, bleaches out, fading back in on an enormous white building set in a desert of white sand. You see it over the shoulder of a man in a striped uniform and cap, with numbers stitched across his back: a building shaped like a snail shell maybe a quarter of a mile in diameter. A title appears: THE STORY OF THE MAN WHO ESCAPED FROM MALMÖ PRISON.
The escaped prisoner begins to run toward the strange building, but in the way of dreams, seems to move no closer as he runs. The camera pans down to his feet. The man is on a treadmill. He steps off it and quickly reaches the snail-shell building.
There is no massive entrance, as might be expected, but a hundred or more tiny doors. The escaped prisoner throws one open and ducks to enter. The interior is a giant spiral consisting entirely of a wide ramp curling clockwise, getting narrower and going downward as it curls. The building is full of children, in threes, alone, in large groups. The escaped prisoner begins to run down the ramp.
A small boy stops him. The boy laughs and kicks as the escaped prisoner hoists him into the air, then sets him down, and the two continue to run, hand in hand. “Because the escaped prisoner did not speak English,” intones the narrator, “and because the child did not speak Swedish, they could not talk to each other.” Down and down into the spiral the two of them run, the ramp curving clockwise and getting narrower.
“The Guggenheim,” says the man in the seat behind you, who seems to think one narrator isn’t enough. You have a fleeting fantasy of jerking your drink over your shoulder into the man’s lap.
Finally the escaped prisoner releases the child, and the two wave goodbye. The escaped prisoner keeps going down the spiral passageway until it is only as wide as his shoulders, until it becomes so narrow he must turn his body sideways to advance. He presses against a door and falls through.
“There is one escape from every prison,” says the narrator, “and that is death. There was rumored to be another escape from the Malmö compound, but no one had ever returned to tell of it.”
The room in which the escaped prisoner finds himself is empty except for a three-foot square of red rubber set into the floor. There is a low hum, and the escaped prisoner bows his head to listen. He tests the red square with a finger; it gives to the touch, and the hum grows louder.
The escaped prisoner steps onto the red square, sinking in up to his knees. There is a sucking sound and he is drawn in whole.
Encased in the red membrane, the escaped prisoner lands on a platform in a closet-sized room. The vacuum goes out of the membrane, and it falls to his feet, wrinkled like a spent balloon. Two surgical steel pincers come out of the wall and hold the man’s neck and waist. A long gleaming knife comes out too, but behind the man, so that he cannot see it, and makes a shallow incision from his neck to his ankles. His clothes split off, exposing his flesh. The knife pauses and makes another cut the length of the man’s body. He opens his mouth to scream; before you can hear him or see what has happened, the red membrane sweeps back up from his feet and envelops him again. It covers the camera, too: the screen is red.
The red chute dangles in a bright cloudless sky. As the camera pans down you see the setting: the chute ends about ten feet above rocky bluffs at an ocean shore. You can barely hear the waves; the beach is far below. Now the top of the red chute bulges like a snake that has swallowed a rat: the bulge slides down to the end, and out slips the escaped prisoner, pink and naked and somehow different than before. No, not naked, but wearing a skintight, flesh-colored garment that extends from under the rib cage over the knees. He lands hard on the sandy soil, stumbles, gets up and looks around. He touches his face with his fingertips.
“Only his eyes were the same as before,” says the narrator. “Everything else had been changed, even his fingerprints. His first reaction was embarrassment because of what he was wearing. He still remembered how to run.”
The man runs toward the ocean along a ribbon of sandy ground between the rocks. The waves crash louder. Shouts are faintly heard.
On the beach hundreds of people are running, swimming, batting inflatable beachballs, lying on the sand, all of them wearing skintight, knee-length, flesh-colored garments. The camera recedes over the ocean, and the shouts fade into the distance, are swallowed up by the sound of the sea.
Water splashes the lens, destroys the focus. You can’t tell what you’re looking at. The camera pulls back in a slow reverse zoom. This water is not the sea; it’s coming from a brightly glazed pitcher. A pitcher full of holes. There’s Konkowsky, the same as always: squat, with a wide and wide-featured head made wider by the old-fashioned sideburns curling around his jawline, which is bulldoggishly obstinate and dotted with coarse black whiskers. His eyes are tiny behind thick, distorting wire-framed glasses (he’s said he likes bright colors and big close-ups because they’re all he can see); his long kinky dark-and-gray hair protrudes beneath a black Russian fur hat, and the hair is lighter than you’ve seen it before, almost completely gray now. He wears a baggy black shirt and an ancient Japanese farmer’s vest, the fabric’s woof narrow twisted scraps of cotton in many colors.
Konkowsky scoops up water in the pitcher that will not hold water and hurries alongside a stream, the camera still pulling very slowly back. Not a stream but a gutter about three feet wide, yes, a long sluice with a right angle. Konkowsky follows the sluice, climbing stairs around another right angle, and still another: a square rimmed by stairs. It’s impossible: Konkowsky has gone completely around the square, yet he has never stopped scaling stairs, and the water has never stopped flowing downhill. It wouldn’t matter where Konkowsky poured his water had he any water in that pitcher to pour: the water would continue to flow around and around. Konkowsky looks directly at the camera, his little eyes blinking irritably, and says, in English shot through with so many accents it sounds like a foreign language, “Turn that projector off!”
Konkowsky appears in each of his films, and never unobtrusively hidden, so that you have to look at every customer in every pet shop, every half-man on the edge of every frame, for fear of missing the cameo. In Music, for example, Konkowsky was a garage mechanic, examining a station wagon on a hydraulic lift. He shined a trouble light to reveal that the car’s underside was a tangle of weather instruments, animal intestines, chess pieces, bicycle brakes, playing cards, radio tubes and artificial fern leaves. In Death he played hypnotist. In Infra-Red he stood on a high ledge threatening to commit suicide, “Unless all of you believe in me.” After a pause, he raised his hand melodramatically and gave a little sob: “It’s no good.” Konkowsky jumped – and landed in blue water just a few feet below. The building’s facade had been built over a swimming pool. An alternate conclusion was shown immediately afterward: Konkowsky was back on the ledge, but this time he said, “No, wait,” and beamed at the audience. “Thank you!” he declared. “I’m saved.” He stepped back off the ledge – and fell thirty stories to his death.
The impossible sluice disappears, the screen goes black for several seconds (Konkowsky calls it “clearing my throat”); the next image is edge-to-edge asphalt, the focus so sharp you can see every grain and pebble in the surface. The camera begins moving swiftly along the pavement, and letters sweep by, yellow and elongated like a warning to motorists. You read one word at a time:
The camera comes to a halt at the words
Shoes rush across the yellow letters: tennis shoes, high heels, wing-tips, sandals, work boots, and last, hooves. A drop of liquid, red, thick, falls on the yellow paint on the black asphalt, then several drops. It’s blood.
A white deer is running. The deer is hurt: a patch of skin flaps loose at its side, and you can see muscles and ribs.
The camera follows swiftly, jolting along, as the injured deer runs through a zoo, panicky, pursued by two men in what looks like a golf cart, one driving, the other with a gun.
The white deer’s gotten away, is in the middle of a city, maybe Malmö, maybe Stockholm; it looks like an American city, perhaps Chicago, but the signs are in Swedish. The white deer stands in an intersection in Stockholm-Chicago, stopping traffic, looking up at skyscrapers, confused by stimuli, then begins running again. The only sound in the sequence is a solo piano playing a piece by Erik Satie, quirky, simple, sad.
Another quick choppy shot of the deer’s pursuers: the driver is Konkowsky, the man with the gun is Yosei Mura, his cinematographer and alter ego, and what seemed to be a gun is only a camera. The deer lopes across a street in slow motion, and just as it touches the curb, the deer freezes and the city around it seems to melt, to run, until parts are real and parts are watercolor, until even the parts that are real begin to melt, to run. The backdrop congeals into a future city, a kind of Japanese Jetsons’ city, an animated city of spires and suspended highways and air-cars and a live injured running white deer.
The deer, its photographic image isolated, runs across a series of animated backgrounds: Bugs Bunny, with gun and hunting hat, stalking Elmer Fudd, in a bunny suit; a Japanese TV commercial for a superhero action figure; a back alley from a 30’s cartoon, where round-lipped black jazz cats, eyes popping, play trashcan drums and blow into trumpets, and the necks of the trumpets stretch out like geese: the real bleeding deer runs across it all, superimposed over cartoon.
And back in Stockholm-Chicago or whatever it is, the deer is seen from a distance as it runs in front of a church. Pedestrians jump out of the deer’s way, while on the other side of the street, they stop and stare. The buildings grow sparse as the deer begins to move jerkily, to weaken, to stagger; grow sparse and disappear. The deer comes to a stop at a wide gate of vertical iron bars. There is no music any more.
The noise of the city, heard now for the first time, rushes up around the image: motors, horns, brakes, sirens, voices; rushes up so loud it’s painful – and cuts out. The deer must have found its way, once again, to the gates of the zoo.
No. There is a metal sign in the middle of the gate, in Swedish, the letters stamped in relief. A subtitle appears – MALMÖ PRISON – and vanishes. The screen darkens very gradually. The end credits roll.
But this is only the false bottom in the magician’s hat: stay put for the postscript.
Out of the black screen comes the narrator’s voice: “He dreamed of a castle.” A painting of a medieval castle on a mountain materializes against the black screen, and with it comes a soft, ethereal ringing.
The narrator’s voice comes again: “The phone in his apartment began ringing, and he woke up.” The screen goes black, but there is no telephone ringing. After a moment, the narrator says: “He ignored the phone and fell asleep easily. He concentrated on the castle, though he knew that trying to reenter a dream is as futile as trying to go back into the past.
“But the castle appeared for him again.” The castle comes back onto the screen. “After gazing at the castle for some time, he felt himself beginning to awaken. He started to paint the details of the castle with a protective gold paint, knowing that only the parts that were painted would remain.”
The turrets of the castle become gold, the drawbridge, the rectangular tower windows.
“He had to paint quickly,” says the narrator, still sounding like there is a product to sell. “The castle had begun to deteriorate.” And the walls of the castle slowly crumble away, the golden turrets and windows remaining suspended in blackness. The camera zooms slowly in on the gilt-covered drawbridge.
“When he awoke he could clearly see all the parts he had painted, but had no memory of the rest of the castle. It did not help to try to remember.
“He would devote his life to becoming a better painter. Some day there might be another castle.”
The background slowly lightens, goes beige, and the castle’s highlights lose their luster and pale to the same color, until you cannot tell the castle from what is around it.
Very slowly and after a long while, as even the jaded moviegoers rise and head for the exits, an image seems to be fading into existence on the screen; you can glimpse a piece of it around the couple getting up in front of you, already discussing the film. Soon all the people see the screen and begin sitting down again, coats and newspapers in their laps. It’s the first time you’ve seen an entire audience switch seats during a movie.
The image appearing on the screen comes up slowly, in undulating waves, like a photographic print awash in developer. It is the same beach shown earlier, from the same aerial view. The beach chairs, colored towels and beachballs still remain, but the people in the flesh-colored bathing suits have disappeared, and the beach is deserted.
The camera moves to the smooth wet-dry sand at water’s edge, where large capital letters are dug deep, deep enough that they’ve hit the water table, deep enough that each letter holds its own still sea water. The camera swoops along the shoreline, stringing a message slowly together, one letter at a time, then faster. You recognize the letters, even the languages – Spanish, Swedish, French, Russian, Japanese. The camera moves across an enormous pile of tin sand pails and toy shovels, klieg lights and lens filters and tripods, and finally across some more letters, in English, but you are not used to reading this way. It’s like learning to read all over again, like decoding a message in cipher:
T H E E N D , W H E R E I S I T ?
The screen goes white and the film flaps in the projector.