The Medium Is Not the Message
When you came home for Christmas after your first semester at college, you wanted me to watch Tout va Bien. Mom tried to watch it with us, but then got bored and wandered away to make a sandwich. You had anticipated our boredom, had prefaced our watching of the VHS rental with a mini speech about Goddard and other art directors and the necessary “active viewing” required by their audiences. I stuck it out for ninety-five of the longest minutes of my life.
You were the smart twin, the one on a free ride to an elite college in the Northeast. I could read and write and do the math, but was more cut out to work with my hands. You were the theoretical one, I was the technician. You wanted to be a filmmaker, a director. I bypassed college to take a two-year degree even though I was already working at Winslow’s changing oil and brake pads, repairing tires, and occasionally doing the more complicated things like replacing a timing belt or rebuilding a carburetor. Even the assorted pets we had grown up with seemed to anticipate our future personalities. You’d had a multi-personality cat who’d turn into a ball of claws and teeth for no reason and a lizard who spent much of the day hidden beneath a rock outcropping and most of the night crawling around his glass case eating flies. I had a series of drooling, lovable dogs who were too stupid to stay out of the road.
And now that you’ve reached the culmination of all of your years of hard work—doing time as cameraman or script doctor or editor on subpar indie films or straight-to-video noirs—I can’t help but see signs in those earlier differences in our personalities even as we looked so much alike physically. And that’s part of why I couldn’t bring myself to stay with you at Cannes with all the other directors and celebs in some five-star hotel near the festival. I knew that Charlotte and I would be more comfortable here in Fréjus in our boxy little yellow concrete hotel over the tourist office, next to a medieval cathedral, surrounded by palm trees. We’re under the radar and we like it. No reporters stick microphones in our faces. The nuns at the café down the block barely exchange glances at our bad pronunciations when we order lunch.
You weren’t impressed by Charlotte, had barely known her at our little high school since she was a couple years younger than us. But by that year of watching Tout va Bien, she was already publishing her short stories in some good little magazines: The American Review, O’ahu, Ascertain, The Eastern Quarterly. I suppose you know, although you’ve never mentioned it, that she’s continued to publish away, even a collection of stories on a university press a few years ago. I wanted to give you a signed copy for Christmas that year, but she insisted, instead, on what I thought was a very ugly and expensive tie. There was even a story of hers in the airplane magazine on the trip over here. She hadn’t mentioned it or, if she did, I didn’t remember in my fevered preparations to shut down the shop for a week so that we could travel to France for your big moment. We’re going to the premier of The Entity, your big-budget, brooding sci-fi art film, tomorrow and sit with the rest of the family and friends. We’re both very proud. I’ve got my rented tux for the occasion, Charlotte bought a new dress. We’re happy for you and excited and hope that everything turns out the way you wanted, even if your film doesn’t win an award.
When you came home from school that first break, it seemed like you had all the answers and you were ready to share them. But you didn’t have any questions which is why I didn’t tell you that I’d already seen a Goddard film, Breathless, his first and the only one that Charlotte liked. Her dad was a French film buff. At her house, we had watched movies by Agnès Varda, Jean Renoir, François Truffaut, and, our favorite, Jean Cocteau. By the time I saw Tout va Bien, I had seen Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast a half-dozen times. I never got enough of that magical castle with arms coming out of the wall holding candelabras, Josette Day as Belle moving without walking down a nighttime hallway. Cocteau does so much with a five-page story, likewise, with the myth of Orpheus. He was a filmmaker, poet, novelist, and visual artist, understood something you never seemed to have gotten, that form is secondary to the vision, that good work comes in many containers, that genius and accolades are good, but the work, the work is the thing. I couldn’t believe that you would say that you didn’t like short stories to a short story writer years ago, the last time our two families spent Christmas together. Charlotte’s got too much class to say anything, but I wanted to punch you in stomach since I can’t imagine punching you in that face that looks so much like mine.
A ten-minute drive from our hotel, there is a little chapel, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem, which was designed by Cocteau. There are semi-abstract images of knights and dragons and fire in the stained-glass windows and the floor is a colorful blue and red tile. But it’s the walls that are most striking with Cocteau’s flat paintings. If you look at one of these over the door, a depiction of the last supper, you can recognize Cocteau and his good friend Jean Marais—the star of Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus—as two of the disciples. Charlotte hadn’t known about the chapel and was delighted when I took her there today. It’s pretty outside, was a nice place to eat our lunch of baguette, soft cheese, and olives, to share a delicious and cheap bottle of red table wine. Swifts flew through the trees and there weren’t even that many tourists until right before we left, when a bus pulled up. It was the kind of quiet moment that might have happened in one of Charlotte’s stories. But then you don’t know what those are like.
John Talbird is the author of the novel The World Out There (Madville) and the chapbook of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar). His fiction and essays have appeared in Potomac Review, Ploughshares, Ambit, Juked, The Literary Review, and Riddle Fence, among many others. He is a frequent contributor to Film International, on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and Associate Editor, Fiction, for the online noir journal Retreats from Oblivion. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and son in Queens. More of his writing can be found at johntalbird.com.
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