Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing
By William Peter Blatty
Part One: The Psychiatrist Speaks Very Briefly
Did you hear that mysterious rapping, Siggie?
-- Carl Jung, Correspondence with Sigmund Freud
TAPED MEMO TO FILE
May 20, 1994
THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD subject, Jason Hazard, a serious and highly acclaimed director on the American motion picture scene, presented today as acutely hostile, suicidal and paranoid with delusions, thus marking a major and welcome improvement over our previous appointment in which he completely denied my existence, a position he abandoned solely for the purpose of suggesting that I emulate piblockto, a bizarre and hysterical pathological outburst commonly seen among Eskimo women in which they dash madly about the igloo destroying the furnishings and decorations, and then run outside, rip off their clothes, throw chunks of ice at their pursuers and finally plunge into freezing waters. Seemingly reasoned, alert and well-focused, Hazard paints an anomalous and aggravating picture, interweaving real persons and actual events with fantasies, masks and delusional flights that are obviously camouflaged attacks upon myself: for example, his complaint of "DeMillephobia," a "paralyzing fear of talking to extras" which he sought to control, he doggedly insists, by attending a ten-day camp in Ojai set up by the Directors Guild for this purpose, not to mention his claim that we are in "Happydale," the asylum, if memory serves, in the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, and not in my of office on Central Park West. He appeared for his three o'clock session today in the regalia of a corporal of the Bengal Lancers, circa 1881, and brought me a gift, if one relies upon the label, of something called Mother Kali's Own Gin, with the further enticement and allurement underneath it: "A Favorite of Stranglers All Over Mother India." Clearly, this is more of his ferocious resistance in the guise of convincing me that he is ill and in the hope of prolonging these futile proceedings. My initial suspicion, therefore, remains -- that Hazard is a man who has solved his problem but utterly loathes and detests the solution. However, this weekend I'll review our first session; maybe something's on the tapes that my notes have missed.
Part Two: The Patient Speaks The First Tape
Some men need adversity to shape them; others respond to shapes adversely, especially in cases where shapes are unseen.
-- The Suppressed First Draft on Shakespeare's "Hamlet"
I'M A QUIET-SPOKEN MAN, a man of taste and modest judgments and not given to hyperbole or passion, but I want to state as clearly and as firmly as I can that my involvement with the seeming demonic possession of Barbra, my wife's Himalayan cat, and the subsequent and vivid attempts at exorcism by a legion of Jesuit priests, Warren Beatty and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, were all part of a mad fucking plot to destroy me, Doctor, a hideous and fiendish conspiracy which, as I recount it to your dumbfounded ears, will doubtless seem to you more tortured, labyrinthine and brazen than any one attempt at self-justification since Attila the Hun met Pope Leo I in the middle of a river and explained to him his concept of "eminent domain."
May I smoke? I heard you scribbling again: "Paranoia." Fair enough: that I once mistook Salvador Dali for a private eye could be true, I suppose, in some limited and esoteric technical sense, and is in any case a rumor that I'm tired of denying, though what Dali would be doing in the Russian Tea Room watching me intently in the midst of my divorce is a circumstance that also deserves to be mentioned. There are sometimes two sides to these stories.
Oh, God, I'm so tired. Where do I begin? The Big Bang? "Christ, we made that," Harry Cohn would have growled: "Lana Turner, Errol Flynn. I said bring me something fresh!" Good old Harry: at Columbia he put in a time clock -- swear to God! -- and the writers had to punch in and out, they had to prove that they were working from nine until five. One day the Epsteins -- Phil and Julie, "Casablanca" -- well, they turned in a screenplay that Harry didn't like. "You bestids," he shrieked at the brothers, "this is writing? How the hell could you wound me like this, how could you sheft me when I've been like a patron to you boys, like a father, you esps, you goniffs, you stabbies in the beck!", raving endlessly on and on like this while spinning upward toward the ceiling in a cyclone of curses and making things somehow a Jewish King Lear until, finally, panting and frothing, he stopped, the huge whites of his eyes glaring up at the brothers like in one of his early zombie movies. "Mr. Cohn, I feel ashamed that the script is so rotten," Julie offered contritely, all earnest and abashed, and his kindly elf's face had this puzzled, lost look as he groped, "but I'm sure that I'm speaking for Phil here as well when I say that I really just can't understand it: check the cards -- we were here from nine to five every day."
Harry's well-known creed was, "Give the people what they want!" When he died, they held the funeral service on a sound stage, stage Number Five on the old Cower lot. Groucho Marx leered around at the crowd in attendance, so many there was hardly air to breathe, the place was packed, and said, "You see -- you give the people what they want and they'll turn out." There are eight million stories in the naked city, Doctor. Is that your red Rolls out in front? The Corniche with "ID DOC I" on the license plate and the voodoo doll dangling from the mirror? I think you would have liked Harry Cohn, he was given to excess. On his deathbed he said "Rosebud" twice.
"Get to the part about Warren?" Nice. Ta guele espece de connard, you who sits there with all of the moral authority of a surreptitious fart, looking rapt and concerned while pretending to be listening and all the while anxious for this day to be done so at last you can hie yourself over to Sotheby's to bid on the garter belt worn by Freud and then fondle it nightly in that secret little room where you pen all those blackmail letters to your patients, the ones signed anonymously, "A Friend." This is my analysis, Doctor, my story, and I'll pace it as I please. Understand that? Good.
I first met Warren in the Egyptology Room of the British Museum in London where he was browsing while taking a break from his arduous study of the comparative incidence of "moveable nu" in the Odyssey and in Greenblatt's Delicatessen. Glancing up cooly from the silent ponder of a curiously nonresponsive sarcophagus, he fixed me with squinty ice eyes as he softly inquired, "You fuck my sister?", a theme he would frequently come to revisit as our friendship thickened on our march through the woods and to which we may return for explanation later on, for this is neither the time, I would think, nor the place.
"Is any of this true?" Are you utterly cracked, my liege? If I knew what was fact from froth would I be here in this private little laughing academy chatting it up with Norman Bates? Maybe it's illusion versus reality. Yes. Did you ever see a movie called Blow-Up? It's about a photographer who obsesses about what he suspects is a murder in the park where he was doing a shoot a few days before. He repeatedly enlarges a section of a photo where he thinks he sees the murderer lurking in some foliage. The film was a smash, I loved it, but some of the reviewers said there never was a murder, that the theme was illusion versus reality. This made me feel dumber than wheat. One night at Jim Bellows's house in Brentwood I met the director of Blow-Up himself, the most pleasant Michelangelo Antonioni. "Was there really a murder?" I asked him bluntly after shaking his hand and praising the film. He looked at me oddly, and then answered, "Well, yes; I mean, at least I thought so." I hauled out Life magazine's big clincher about "illusion versus reality" -- the scene at the end where some revelers are playing an imaginary game of tennis with invisible rackets, balls and net. "What about that?" I said; "what did it mean?" Antonioni gave a diffident shrug and said, "Nothing. I once saw some people doing that in Hyde Park and I just thought it might turn out to be interesting footage."
Exactly. There is more to the eye than meets it. The truth is I've never met Warren, I don't know him. I lied. I did it to get your attention; Warren is "interesting footage," Warren's "hot." Does that mean you're going to punish me again, Doctor Larry? more shock treatment curiously focused on the anus without anaesthesia or a cigarette afterwards? Well, alright then, I have staggering news to air out: yes, it's true that Warren Beatty didn't figure in this story; but in fact it was someone even grander than Warren: a giant, an immortal and legendary swordsman who surely would have toppled every one of Warren's records were it not for his startling and bizarre disappearance while alone on a private submarine ride at Disneyland: Yes, that's right, Doctor Larry -- Floyd God!
Remember all the hullabaloo? The sub surfaced, but Floyd wasn't in it; they found only his clothing in a neat little pile, a list of the Rockettes in alphabetical order with all but the bottom two names checked off, and an unopened packet of "pre-owned" condoms that mysteriously vanished from the evidence locker, spawning rumors of a sinister murder conspiracy and tasteless allusions to "the smoking gun," even talk of a UFO abduction, which I daresay is the champion of mind-ebbing concepts: Floyd screwing his way through another whole planet? Never mind, he is dead and now a stamp but not forgotten. It was Floyd who helped me out with the Himalayan exorcism. Are you satisfied? Now may I smoke? That's alright, a non-filter would be fine, Herr Settembrini. Oh, how nice -- I don't think I've seen a Domino since grade school. Your Grace, do you collect these or just pass them out to paranoids to help them feel they're probably on to something big?
I met Floyd through his sister, Sprightly God, who at the time was more celebrated than Floyd. I'd written a script or two that got made, and I somehow wound up in Sprightly's studio dressing room pitching an idea for a thriller with laughs. Sprightly was bankable; if she liked it, the film would get made. "How are you?" she said to me when we met. This of course was precedent to her days as a "chamleler," or else she would have told me, "Good seeing you again," having known me from a previous life in Egypt when she was a pharaoh constructing the pyramids and I was a salesmall from outer space selling anti-gravity devices to help with all the lifting of "all those blocks." "Things really haven't changed all stomly day. that much? she would have added with that waiflike pixie dimpled grin that made you want to immediately pick her up and unambiguously slip her the Constant Admirer while holding her aloft with both your hands so you could hear the steady clicks of the four-inch heels on her kiss-me-fuck-me shoes against the floor. Of course, I said nothing of this at the time. Instead, I was doing my Scheherazade act when the trailer door opened and Floyd stared in, looking somehow distracted and worried, yet inscrutable. When Sprightly introduced us, he nodded at me curtly, and then gravely and deliberately instructed Sprightly that if anyone identifying herself as either "Ramona or Trixie Montenegro" were to call to confirm that Floyd was really her brother, "Just be sure you tell her yes no matter what the hell she says." He then asked for the keys to Sprightly's new Jag so he could "take it for a spin" to the Springs "to buy dates." Accepting the jingling keys in silence, he threw me an unreadable, enigmatic look, and then quietly closed the trailer door and was gone. I finished my story, Sprightly liked it and in days we had a green light at Artery Studios, which happened to be run by Sprightly's husband, that ever iridescent mad sonofabitch and destroyer of movies, Arthur Zelig. More of this amazing beauty later. Anyway, that's how I came to meet Floyd.
I saw him again at Sprightly's Christmas party. I found him to be bright and engaging and soon we were buddying around together; in fact, for six stupefying months we were roommates. On the eve of divorce, I'd packed a bag and left my wife in the wilds of the Valley. Correction -- it was really my wife who packed the bag. Her problem, if you really must know, was jealousy, which is the feeling we tend to experience when someone we utterly loathe and detest is having a wonderful time without us. Never mind. In the meantime, Floyd had rented this house, a stately colonial mansion on Carrolwood Drive in Beverly Hills in advance of a visit by a young French actress, the gaminous and beautiful Lili Malraux, and I knocked on his door with my suitcase in hand looking miserable and happy and rich and broke and just asked him if he minded if I stayed with him awhile. Floyd didn't hesitate, he motioned me in. I was soaking; I had planned this for a stormy day.
The house had two wings, three pools and two tennis courts. Floyd kept a wing and gave the other one to me. That's the way Floyd was, spontaneous and generous. I hear your pissy silence, Doctor. That isn't what you wanted to hear? Very well -- I was also the author of a script that Floyd wanted as a vehicle for Lili and himself and he wanted me under his eye and control until the deal had been made and the contracts signed; Floyd wasn't himself at this point, not God, just as I was not America's Ingmar Bergman yet, and he feared that I might sell out without insisting on approval of the film's director. But now listen to this, my idealist, my optimist, my Miranda of the Deeply Disturbed Ward: As it happened, Columbia wanted the script, which at the time was in something referred to as "turnaround," a term of art that is used when a studio decides to abandon a project and lets the author try to set it up somewhere else. Columbia'd agreed to Floyd and Lili as the leads but they craved a director that Floyd didn't like. Mike Frankovich, the head of the studio then, had invited me to come to his office for a meeting that had somehow been scheduled for eight P.M. when the building was certain to be otherwise empty. "Let's relax without the phones ringing," Mike had said gruffly. At the news, Floyd squinted and asked to come along. When I said, "What for?" he slouched away and shook his head, meantime breathily muttering in that leaf-rustling tone of his that makes half of what he says indecipherable; it could have been either "For luck" or "'They have Kleenex."
When I entered his office Mike Frankovich exploded. "What the hell is Warren Beatty doing mousing around up and down the damn halls at this time of the night!"
"Warren Beatty, Floyd God, what's the difference?" Mike bellowed. "Neither one of them was asked to this meeting!"
"Sir, he really isn't at it," I meekly evaded; "we're headed for Martoni's after this, he's just waiting."
"He's lurking!" the executive thundered.
This was true. In the silence of the building at that hour, you could hear Floyd's crepe-soled shoes squishing softly up and down along the carpeted studio corridors. Once I heard the water fountain running down the hall. Iron Mike tried to get me to focus on a deal but I found I couldn't think. I was a nervous wreck.
"What happened?" Floyd asked me when the meeting was over.
I said "Nothing." Floyd grunted and might have said, "Good."
The next day I slipped away undetected from Manderley and returned for a meeting at Columbia, this time with a man that the studio had chosen to be the producer of the film; I had promised Mike Frankovich I would do this. The canny producer went straight for the groin "I've got a contract right here on my desk," "if you'll give us the rights to the script right now, I've been authorized to write you a check immediately for eighty-five thousand dollars." He must have seen the blood drain away from my face because all of a sudden he was smiling like Iago in a Cosmo ad for silken handkerchiefs. He took a checkbook from a drawer and started writing. A million things occurred to me; one was an image of me grabbing the check and then running from the room without signing the agreement. The rest of the images were modeled on that one.
I said "I can't do It." I heard my voice quaver.
The shithead looked up at me blandly, full of hubris, as he toyed with the poison-tipped platinum fang that Columbia issued to all its producers for purposes of honorable hara-kiri should one of their pictures fail to open. How did they know that Sony was coming?
"You can't?" the producer echoed, bemused.
I said, "No, sir, not unless it's written in blood that no TV director is assigned to this movie, most especially the one that Mike Frankovich mentioned as your absolute far and away first choice."
The producer's frozen stare was impenetrable; he looked like a stunned Sitting Bull after hearing from a scout that General Custer had snidely referred to him as "that spic."
"You have a problem with Roger Slime?" he questioned.
I told him, "With any TV director. I've promised Floyd and Lili that I wouldn't allow it."
For a moment the producer stared up at me intently; he was wearing that earnest, honest frown that gets issued with the fang and the truth-serum antidote directors of films take before they talk to actors. "I give you my promise," he intoned at me gravely as he held out his smooth, soft hand for me to shake, "that no TV director will be hired for this project! My oath, my word!"
I pumped his hand, took the money and ran.
The next day when I entered the producer's office to have our first meeting concerning the script, he said lustily, "Hi, disappointing news: Floyd and Lili are out of the picture and Roger Slime has been set to direct."
As it happened, it all ended up rather well: I went back to Mike Frankovich's office, where I tore up my check into bits and pieces that I'd prudently outlined and numbered beforehand in case of a blubbering change of heart. When he heard my story Mike voided the contract, and later the film was set up at Seven Arts. The point is that even after all of this happened, I remained Floyd's more-than-welcome guest, which would have been fine, except that really it wasn't, since the name of the guest, it turned out, was Hindley and Floyd was doing Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. You think you've heard nightmares, Doctor? Wait.
The shriek-inducing perils of life with Floyd were not apparent until after pretty Lili had left. While the tasty Parisienne was ensconced, I was busy with yet another project for Sprightly and would see the bright lovers only at breakfast, or sometimes in the evening when, drawn by the sound of Floyd playing the piano, I'd amble down for a glass of wine, then discreetly withdraw or go out to find dinner. In the days that preceded Lili's arrival, I would normally slave away all through the day, and some mornings, through the mullions of my second-story window, I would glimpse Floyd stretched on a chaise in the garden tanning his upturned puckish fiz which he'd cup between aluminum-foil reflectors while butterflies crazily flapped through the air piping, "Holy shit, it's him, it's really him, I'm going to die!"
Those were the halcyon days, Your Grace. At night I would wander the town with Floyd, "roaming and patrolling the earth," one might say, and wherever we went every woman would ogle as if shot in the ass by a pygmy blowgun previously blessed by a Coptic priest. Even if the stares had been for me as well as Floyd, I would have made no moves: all my id was in my work. But Floyd's was not so easily misdirected. Now and then he'd answer back a young woman's bold stare and then whisper in my ear, "Do you think I ought to fuck her?" He'd be frowning at these times, thinking terribly hard, like Hamlet in the grip of paralysis of will, always making me uneasy, even terribly nervous, since I never knew what he was going to do next -- go and offer the girl an exchange of goodies or jump up and stab some old guy behind a curtain. He often did neither. But he knew that he could have almost anyone he wanted. "Every man should be a movie star for six months," he once told me as we drove along the Sunset Strip. "I was stopped for a light by the Whiskey one night," he recalled by way of inspiration and example, "when I picked up this girl who was hitching a ride. She jumped in, did a double take and screamed, 'Floyd God!' I said, 'Right. Now how would you like to go down on me?' She thought it over for about three seconds, then reached for my fly and began to unzip me. 'Listen,' she says to me, 'I'm no fool: I'll never get another chance like this in my life.'"
The odd thing was that Floyd could be had by any woman. Once he was talking about his "instinct" that there was a "helluva film" to be made if it were built around the theme of a compulsive Don Juan -- he even had the title already, Hairdryer; and it was then that he chose to confess he was unable to refuse any woman who wanted him. Correction -- any new woman who wanted him. For later that night we were alone in the house when the telephone rang and Floyd answered. Some girl. Floyd mumbled through an awkward and brief conversation, then banged through down the phone and cried out in disawe, which is a mixture of awe and disbelief, "I've already fucked her! Why would she think I'd want to fuck her again?" When I murmured something chideful one time about his infinite chain of one-nighters giving something of the lie to his love of Lili -- Translation: "Why do you keep getting laid and not me?" -- Floyd rorfled, "The difference between Lili and these women is the same as it is between cheese and shit. What the hell am I supposed to do?" he exclaimed. He stood up and put his hands behind his back, bowed his head and started pacing back and forth in extreme agitation "I'm in my hotel suite minding my business," he huffed, "the telephone rings and I answer. 'I'm your biggest, biggest fan,' some girl tells me. 'I'm here in the hotel, in the lobby. Do you mind if I come up for a while?' I say, 'Fine.' " Floyd approached me with a glower, cheeks reddened, indignant. "She comes up and I tell her to undress. She undresses. After that I say, 'Meditate on this for a while' She sucks me. When I'm hard I make her turn and bend over and I screw her from behind standing up. It's impersonal!" he roared in my face.
This shut me up for a while.
By the time Lili left, my screenplay was finished, and all of my creativeness dove to its source down in groinus exoticus nervosus. This was the beginning, I suppose, of the trouble, for soon I was flirting with strange young women and bringing or inviting them to the house. But I never scored. Never. Not once. Somehow Floyd would be innocuously lurking around, maybe playing the piano or just walking down a hallway, or maybe he'd cough, that's all it ever really took. My date would bolt upright, eyes glassy, thinking Hark! and the bullfight was over, I'd be bleeding in the sands. It always happened very spookily, like in a Hitchcock film: all I'd do was turn my head for ten seconds, and when I looked back it was The Bimbo Vanishes, the girl would be gone without a lipstick's trace. Well, I'd search in the powder room first, then the closets -- Floyd had told me of encounters in the rest rooms of planes -- and then twenty minutes later my date would appear, walking wide-eyed and dazed down the steps from Floyd's wing with this vaguely triumphant look on her face like some goofy Bette Davis at the end of Dark Victory. Floyd would be directly behind her at these times, perhaps to show me he was still fully clothed and zipped, although I've never been certain about this point; and once, to suggest that they had only played rummy, I suppose, he was riffling a deck of cards, a tableau that, had a prize been projected for futility, would surely have garnered my solid vote.
This began to make me nuts. Telling Floyd that this was not the way of Zen had no effect. So on nights when my date would be coming to the house, I began to conceal this intelligence from him.
"What do you want to do tonight, Ange?" I would yawn at mine host of the Tabard Inn as I listlessly thumbed through an old magazine. "Oh, I dunno, Marty. What do you want to do?"
"Geez, I think I'll just stay in tonight and play a little autochess. Why don't you go out and get a hobo steak and some chili at Chasen's for yourself -- right now?"
In an effort to bolster my credibility whenever I told him that didn't have a date, I spent a number of nights at home with Floyd. These were evenings of heartbeat-skipping excitement: Floyd would come home from his session with his analyst darkly withdrawn or just muttering "Douche " and we'd shoot a game of pool with him scowling and silent or I'd listen to his voice droning down from his bedroom as he mumbled and murmured through telephone calls from a thousand importuning women. It was like sitting at home with Hans Castorp quietly studying X-rays of lungs.
Yet my ruse went for nothing; Floyd never went out, it seemed, unless it was with me. So I started telling dates that they were not to use the doorbell, they were to wait until I came to the door. "Never mind, I'll know you're there," I would tell them; "I'm psychic." There was also an instruction to cut their engines and "coast for the final thirty yards." Sometimes I would wait for them out in the driveway, where I would make them take off their shoes and then tiptoe behind me up the stairs to my wing. It was useless: Floyd always managed to manifest, he had some kind of sonar in his dick. You want to talk about divining rods, Doctor? Spare me. At the end of his life Freud believed in the occult.
One night I was standing at the Morton's bar when I met a young actress who was sitting there alone. Within minutes it was clear that we were getting along for we had each had used holistic in a sentence more than once. We made a date. But I'd discovered that, as happened so much of the time, she shared her apartment with a roommate.
"Oh, so Thursday's okay?" I said. "You'll come to the house?"
"And you say you're a really good actress."
One of her hands lay at rest on the bar and gently I covered it with my own in a gesture of trust and warm affection as I asked, "Could you possibly come as a hunchback?
So. And you ask if I knew Floyd God.
When the lease on the Carrolwood house was ended, Floyd and I moved to the Chateau Marmlont where I importuned the management unsuccessfully to provide me with a barricaded room. Weeks later, our film was set up at Seven Arts. They shot it in London and left me behind. From then on I wouldn't see very much of Floyd, at least not until he saved me in the matter of the cat, which, of course, was long after his deification and several years following his bodily death. Be at ease; we shall come to that part in due bazonga.
In the meantime, I first met the archfiend Zelig at the Sherry -- Netherland Hotel in New York where he was wetly encamped like a snail on a peach while untangling production snafus with
Made Martians, his film about aliens who infiltrate the Mafia. He'd summoned me to talk about some innuendoes and sexual double entendres in my script with a view to revising them for the censors. How shall I describe this vile fuck? Short, with a Napoleonic complex? He greeted me dressed in a gold silk kimono, a Cuban cigar clamped firmly in his teeth. He didn't shake hands or say "Hello" or "Want some coffee?", he just grunted and beadily looked me over, squinting with cold black fox's eyes. "I'm going to fight them, he announced to me grimly; "I'm going to shut the bastards up." He gestured to a huge composite photo spread out on the surface of a table beside hill: vivid with angels and heroic nude figures, it swarmed with innumerable red circles drawn with a crayon still gripped in his hand. "Wait until I hit 'em with this," he defied me, eyes loony with triumph under squirrelly brows: "Did you know that there are eighty-seven pricks on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?" he boomed.
I said "At least."
Is the man not an intergalactic treasure?
He is also the reason I've become what I am, Jason Hazard, the maker of arty little films that are easily financed outside of the system. Yes, Zelig was my chief inspiration, you could say. A self made man who'd amassed a fortune leasing and selling the affordable Tirana, an automobile manufactured in Albania and sold with a thirty-second warranty on parts, he was able to establish his mini-major, then convinced himself he knew a denouement from a bagel and was David O. Selznick's Second Coming. A Roman legion in Shaw's Cleopatra is described as a creature with "a single head, a thousand arms and no religion." The same can be said about makers of movies, except for the part about the head: you've got to be "collaborative," Doctor Larry, the new and entirely nauseating euphemism for artistically interferable, meaning that anyone who can speak English and has seen a few movies can be Kurosawa. But no one abused this delusion more crazily more despotically, than Zelig. If the Leaning Tower of Pisa were a film, Arthur Zelig would tell you to straighten it up. He thought Savonarola was "soft on writers."
Directors have a Guild that can protect you from the Zeligs, but just to a point and only for a moment: you are safe until you've had your "director's cut," your edited version of the film which you screen for a "selected" preview audience -- most of it composed of the teenage group which today would call The Wild Bunch "precious" and an "art film" -- to see whether changes might have to be made on the basis of audience reactions and comments which of course means that twelve-year-olds reedit your movie. And this is how Zelig always worked his will. Did you ever see a film of mine called Voices? It was meant to be a psychological thriller with a complex plot and sophisticated dialogue, and with the mayhem occurring off-screen, or even -- illusion versus reality? -- entirely imagined by the hero. The first clue to clear and imminent danger was Zelig's selection of the preview theater, the Seat-Rip Cinema in Torrance, a fact of aorta-icing terror second only to a numbing appraisal of the audience, which, except for some zombies from Haiti who had to be constantly admonished by the ushers throughout the running to remain in their seats, was made up of glassy-eyed adolescents, most of them members of rival gangs, and a large group of "Skinheads for the God of Job." There might have been a mummy in the audience as well, unless one is prepared to discount the report that a person "withered" was in line for refreshments and had asked for the "juice of sixteen tanna leaves" before grumpily accepting a Coke.
Zelig took the stage before the start of the picture, and, once he got his bullhorn functioning properly, craftily announced to the raucous audience that "the film you're about to see makes Chainsaw Massacre look like Heidi;" then, after the screening, when he'd paid for all the damages, he shot me an exasperated look and said, "See?"
When a film had been tailored to his satisfaction -- you did it or he brought in another director -- at the end of the screening of the final cut, Zelig leaped to his feet and declared to his aides, "It's going to make a profit of thirty million dollars." It went out and made a profit of twenty-three million. Zelig said, "We lost seven million dollars!"
I'd sold out and signed a seven-picture deal with the creep; I was insecure and felt lucky to be working at all, overjoyed to be able to direct. I even had a gross participation in the profits. How I lasted through all of those shoots, God knows, for soon Zelig was proposing ideas for scripts. Have you any idea what this meant?
You do not.
Looking back on it now, I suppose I should have had some idea of what was coming when Zelig approached me about the documentary that he proposed I should write and direct. I was to do it without any pay "It's a short, you'll knock it off in three days," he told me, "it's a philanthropic work, a good cause, it's for Israel. Zelig was apparently genuinely furious over the press the Israelis were getting citing frequent reports of the Israeli army blowing out the brains of Palestinian demonstrators while claiming they'd been firing into the air. "Damned lies!" Zelig howled. "It's a goddam setup!" He explained that some Arabs in the territories had been spirited to secret training bases in the by the PLO where their legs were being strengthened with help of steroids while Michael Jordan and NBA players were teaching them to leap to astonishing heights with a view to intercepting with their skulls the bullets that in fact had been fired into the air, thus inflicting embarrassment upon the Israelis. My task was to document this theory.
"Pharaonic fucks! Who the hell are they kidding?" roared Zelig, all aquiver like Lionel Barrymore in any scene in which he got news. "Well, they won't get away with it," he swore; "This movie will be seen around the goddam world! Fuck the New York Times! Fuck Michael Jordan! Let him go sell his sneakers in Trucial Oman!" Not the least stunning aspect of Zelig's mad proposal was the fact that he was neither an Israeli nor a Jew, nor had he ever given money to Israeli charities, his anger, as it later turned out, being rooted in his pathological jealousy stemming from rumors of a past romance between Sprightly and Omar Sharif's stunt double, a certain Fuad Ibn Liteupyourlife, during filming of Irving of Arabia: The Truth, eliciting his enigmatic warning to Sprightly, "I see you near a camel again and you're dead!" When Zelig sought to clear his ideas with the Israelis, their consulate, dumbfounded, turned him away. "Guess they didn't like the package," he grumbled at me later. "Too bad. Guess I should've gone for Kubrick. Fucking Jews."
As to what came next, may I first say that Zelig's impoverished childhood, his courage and the wit to make his mark against daunting odds, deserve a certain respect? His money hard-earned, he might spend it as he wished; but whatever inspired him to approach me with the notion of remaking the original Frankenstein with a monster and an Igor who were gay, not to mention their footwear, specified as "thongs," still hovers in the ether as an unsolved mystery, unless the notion had come from Jeff, a pet cobra that Zelig had raised in a tank inside his luxurious office suite and to whom, it was alleged by more than one witness, he frequently spoke, often asking for advice on nettlesome casting decisions or other creative matters, then nodding his head as if in assent to some hissing and delphic telepathic reply. Sometimes the snake showed up at screenings of the rushes.
And yet Zelig succeeded, his films made money. Can reason account for this marvel? Maybe. Once, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras season, I lounged on a French Quarter hotel balcony watching what was surely a psychic phenomenon. Below me in the absinthe streets jammed so tightly with revelers they barely could move, these thousands of people who were strangers to each other were directed against a girl who had appeared from her apartment onto a balcony opposite mine. While the crowd screamed approval and urged her on, she was laughing and slowly performing a strip. When the moment to remove her bra arrived, however, she teasingly held back and the crowd took to chanting, "Show -- your -- tits!" again and again for several minutes while the girl shook her head but then toyed with her bra straps, giddy and coy and fulltitted with power. What she did not know -- and the crowd gave no hint of -- was that on an adjoining balcony behind her a girl far more comely and sexy than she had already completely stripped to the buff and was doing her impression of Fitness on Mars. In the streets a Crowd Mind had sprung up autonomously and decided to put the girl on. Zelig's secret, his knack for pleasing teenage audiences, was the half-witted brother to that: somehow, through genetics or some trick of dwarf stars, he was linked to the Universal Acned Brain.
Well, I took all I could, which I admit was quite a lot, for I'm a man of weak will and was in love with the vanities, the action, the glory of glamorous command. "What is it that drives you to write and direct?" someone asked me at a seminar back in those days. I answered, "If I don't, I feel guilty; I must." Translation: "I want Table Number One at Elaine's." Ah, God, I'm a wretch, wretch, wretch, Alyosha; give me pineapple jam and slam a door on my finger. In the meantime, one other thing gripped me to Zelig:
I had fallen in love with Sprightly God.
It happened on that trip we made to Switzerland, Dmitri. We were in pre-production on WHAT?!, in which Sprightly plays a Rain Forest aborigine who under hypnosis by a French psychiatrist recalls repressed memories of abuse by Albert Schwetzer ("Think he'd use his real name?" the girl sneers in the script). Zelig wanted Peter Ustinov to play the psychiatrist and so had despatched us to Les Diablerets where the famed actor-author was writing a novel. We arrived in the morning to learn that the Ustinovs were invited to a party that night by Princess Grace and Prince Rainier at one of their two chalets in Gstaad. The Ustinovs checked with their hosts, who said to bring us. Shall we say that I was nervous as hell? We shall. Inside I'm still the kid from the Lower East Side. After numerous Sea 'n' Ski's on the rocks, I got disgracefully drunk, danced close with Grace and was heard at some point to utter deeply and sonorously, "Take the Princess and the Wooky to my ship!" Yes, Grushkin, your servant, the perfected asshole.
The next day, right after chocolate-fingered dawn had smeared the sky, I took a walk up the ski slope alone with Sprightly while Ustinov penned himself up with the script and his promise to give us an answer that day. It was now the off-season; few people were around. When two women walked past us, one of them did a little double take at Sprightly, but then waved away her thought with, "No, it couldn't be her." It caused me to turn to the dumpling and see her. "My God," I thought, "I'm trudging up the Alps with a superstar, an international idol." With her openness of heart and an unassuming reticence, Sprightly always made you forget who she was. This was also a partial result of the Process: On the set there is a deadly and sedated frenzy like the war room of the Japanese carrier Akagi preparing to strike at Columbus Pictures, for once you start shooting what you've got is a Ninja Turtle by the tail with the result that your focus is singleminded, you see nothing except what can be glimpsed through the lens. But now, in the gullies of our silent walking, hearing nothing but the crunching of our steps on the snow, I was feeling an unnerving self-conscious shyness, an acute awareness of Sprightly's presence. This is not to suggest that winning visions of coitus interruptusandyou'redead with the woman had not previously visited my id; I believe I might have made this rather clear once before. But these thoughts were only fleeting bemusements, never serious, and entirely ceased once I got to know Zelig, since the mere contemplation of her choosing him to mate with was to prove an invincible penile depressant. What could any woman worth having ever seen him? Fine, I've failed to mention that he looked like John Barrymore and also had this resonant, sexy voice that I'm sure could be seductive and terribly romantic when saying something other than "Dick-faced exhibitors!" and "Blood-sucking mongoloid IRS fucks!" But how often was that? Even Sprightly made gifts to the colorful air. Once, while in the midst of a soon-to-be aborted reconciliation attempt with my wife, Sprightly asked me with an offhand but frowning concern, "And so how is the marriage going, Jason? I mean, fuckwise." It padded her image as the Bride of Zelig. Oh, she seemed to be a sweet enough person, alright. Very generous. Once, when we were filming in New York, I said, "Sprightly, it's the birthday of a grammarschool pal. He's in the charity ward on Welfare Island and I'm going out to see him. I thought that as a present I could bring him a movie star. You want to come?" She didn't hesitate a second.
When we got to the hush at the top of the mountain, I turned and saw that photogenic, girl-next-door face staring thoughtfully out at a range of Alps that were straining abortively to resemble that breathtaking shot in The Razor's Edge when Tyrone Power ascends to a summit somewhere in India and finds the Transendent, though they cut out the part where he falls to his knees and begs God to prevent Bill Murray's remake. Her brow a little puckered as if in confusion, Sprightly said the view had reminded her of something, and she thoughtfully proceeded to recall a trip she had made alone to the Himalayas, explaining that something had "happened" to her there. She had met with a Buddhist monk, an old "teacher," and together they had sat in contemplation in the sunlight while attendants and acolytes scurried back and forth to keep refreshing the warm, sweet drink they had given her. She said this went on for about four hours. And then suddenly, without any signal, startling her, she saw the monk levitate into the air. "I was sitting really close," she continued in a reverie, dreamily staring off at the snows, "and I'd guess he was two feet off the ground." Then she turned and said quietly, stricken with guilt, "I've never told any of this to Arthur."
I about fell down. My closest encounter with the supernatural was hearing of a man who had a piece of net profits and thereafter had actually received a check; anything more marvelous than that I rated bunk. As for Sprightly, I had always perceived her thinking to be solid and plain as a can of peas. And now suddenly this drivel. I didn't know what in the hell to say.
Perhaps taking confidence from my silence, which I assure you, m'lud, was stunned, Sprightly launched upon a fervid and ranging exploration of in-your-face whacko paranormal phenomena; astral projection, out-of-body experiences, reincarnation, crystals, clairvoyance, all of it the wingiest stuff I'd ever heard; but as she was going on and on about this garbage, at some point I realized I was getting an erection. And the loopier her statements, the harder I got. By the time she got to "channeling" a spirit named Pareena, I thought I'd have to jump either her of off the mountain. I had fallen impossibly, incredibly in love!
Later I would come to know the truth about her marriage. What had held her to Zelig was a loyal heart. He had years ago picked her up out of chorus line and sculpted her into a star. Zelig notoriously philandered and during the marriage had bedded more women than the Simmons Mattress Company; yet whenever Sprightly talked about divorce or separation, Zelig fell to his knees and would cry and beg, puling he would kill himself if she left him, and, at one point, in an effort to make this seem credible, he erected a gas chamber on his estate overlooking a muddy and ill-kept pond that contained a few scruffy, insurrectable flamingoes who skimmed about cursing him in guarded little grunts. At the top of the structure a neon sign repeatedly flashed the threat, THIS IS NO SHIT! But my knowledge of these matters would not come until later when at last I would steal her away from the prick.
I'm tired. Can we finish this up tomorrow? I'm getting that apple-corer headache again and I promised a man in the ward who raises moths that I would read to him from Dickens again, Little Dorrit. He likes it but it always makes him cry a great deal. Ah, well, "All a part of life's rich." That's one of two lines that Peter Sellers once told me he would try to work into all his films; the other was "Be silent when you're speaking to me!"
Peter saw ghosts. When I asked him why he'd sold the home he loved so very much, he explained, "Oh, well, haunting is good clean fun, but the day I saw my socks levitating to a level that was even with my eyes I think I'd come to my limit."
Maybe he and Sprightly saw the world as it is.
Maybe there really are ghosts.
We shall see.
Tomorrow I will tell you how it all began.
Donald I. Fine Books
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