Thursday, October 4, 2018

Ezzelino Live Cams, Part Two

I was hooked. I'd entered a door into a magical realm that couldn't have contrasted more with the beer and bratwurst outside. I was Alice in Wonderland, and everyone surrounding me was young, fun, and infinitely creative. Sleeveless Black T-Shirt finished his introduction and I asked if I could look around.

"Absolutely," he said. In a dressing room to my left, the white-faced woman was painting a big red heart on her face. To my right, the costumed couple lazily lounged in the "kitchen" set, continually chatting but without emotion, their faces devoid of expression. I walked over slowly, mystified by their stilted acting and flat dialog, but Black T-Shirt Guy followed me. "A Swedish man sent us a script that we are acting out here," he explained. "It is about a young girl and her grandfather."

I stared for probably ten minutes. I couldn't understand anything they were saying but I was pretty sure I loved it. It definitely wasn't your grandma's Swedish cinema: while those movies are inarguably brilliant, they don't really comment on the world today, with eight hours of talking about truth and beauty before everyone dies on a beach underneath a burning scarecrow.

It reminded me of a play I saw last year called the Borderline Procession. A bunch of people sat around around in a bunch of full-sized houses constructed in a huge warehouse. One by one they were replaced by Britney Spears lookalikes. After everyone was replaced, they sang "Oops I Did It Again" and then the whole place went dark.

Because, you know, after you examine life, what's left to say? Nothing, really. There are no conclusions. So you'd might as well sing.

These two didn't exactly look like Britney, but I loved their postmodern clothes. I love it when characters are portrayed untraditionally to express the weirdness of their persona -- like having a person play a dog, or a bag of rocks portray a man. I was dying to know more but the German was impenetrable. Was the grandfather gay? No, that would be too obvious. He probably represented her burgeoning adolescent desires. With his porn mustache and hairy chest he certainly reminded me of mine.

Black T-Shirt Guy got involved with Heart-Face Actress so I walked over to a small room where a man and woman sat in front of a control panel. Mounted on the wall were eight small monitors, and a mixing board took up most of a table. They wore microphones and headphones but when I peered inside they stopped talking and waved me in.

The man introduced himself as Merkur, and he said his assistant was Amanda. He said he was the producer, which was a pretentious way of saying he sat there all day watching the rooms, making sure the actors followed the script, and sliding knobs up and down.

I glanced around the small office, overwhelmed. I couldn't begin to imagine the technological scope of this setup, even ignoring the artistic side. The TV screens, the microphones, the cameras, the internet setup: someone had a serious vision and the chops to back it up. I felt like the few scraps of information I had didn't really explain anything, and every time I talked to somebody it just raised more questions. Were the actors reciting memorized lines? Did the writers pay to get their work produced? How many subscribers did they have? Did they stick to avant-garde, allegorical pieces and hope people would appreciate them? In German I can barely ask people to point me toward a library so I started at the beginning here.

"So how did this end up in an abandoned shopping mall?"

"This is actually my second try," Merkur said. "I set up something similar but couldn't make it work. I had a job here, at the Spielhalle, when they went out of business, and they let me take over the lease. We've been here over two years."

"And now you work here full-time?"

"We all live here," he said, "in a big room in the back. We wake up at 4:30 in the afternoon and we work all night."

I absorbed this new piece of information and tried to add it to the picture in my head. Instead of explaining anything, though, it just made it seem more impossible. They lived here? For two years? The dedication, the artistry, the sheer edginess made Andy Warhol look like Chris Pratt.

"And all of this is happening because of some Swedish man?" I said, referring to their new script.

He shot me a surprised look. "Yes," he finally said. "Because of him. But we have had other customers before."

A red flag flew inside my head. I'd assumed the Swedish man had become recently involved, but his answer implied far more. Considering they'd had six studios for two years I'd assumed there'd been a lot of customers.

I sensed I'd worn out my welcome so I said goodbye and explored further, ending up at the communal bedroom. Yes, they clearly lived here. The refrigerator, the dirty clothes and the squiggly slashes of paint testified to that. It was three-quarters Salvation Army thrift shop and one-quarter artistic endeavor.

Eight beds sat side by side. Like in some demented Goldilocks set, names were painted on the wall above each bed.

While I was taking in all the details, a spunky young woman grabbed me from behind. "You speak English!" she said. "I speak English! I will explain everything to you!"

Melanie talked non-stop, mostly incomprehensibly. One thing I've learned in Germany is that the more someone insists they speak English, the less likely it is that they do. Maybe in her head she was fluent, but the sounds coming out of her mouth didn't even come close.

Melanie brought out an iPad and I thought I heard the word "chatroom." I still didn't know what their subscribers got for their money, so I looked with interest. The screen was completely blank.

My curiosity bumped up another notch. Melanie looked at it, then at me, and shrugged her shoulders. "No people yet," she announced. "I just turn it on."

One more question got added to the end of the list. How did this make sense? Wasn't it supposed to be a twenty-four hour operation? I assumed they had thousands of subscribers supporting them, so shouldn't there always be somebody in the chat room?

Still, I wrote it off. I glanced around the room and felt envious that people believed in art so strongly that they subjected themselves to this. Melanie practiced her English for a few more minutes and then held up the iPad again. "Busy now!" she said.

It wasn't busy. Two people were exchanging small talk. They clearly couldn't have been "subscribers," because instead of discussing art or film their conversation consisted solely of the lines "Where are you?" and "I'm in Australia."

We were staring at the iPad when we heard a scream. Melanie smiled and shrugged her shoulders again, not moving from her seat on the couch. I thought about ignoring it too until another scream followed, and then another. I ran toward the sound and discovered they came from the kitchen. The "young girl" was now sprawled on the ground and her "grandfather" stood over her.

He was trying to kill her.

The grandfather grabbed a hot iron and swung it at his granddaughter. She tried to fight him off but he was stronger. He pressed it against her face and she screamed again.

He grabbed the free end of the electrical cord and wrapped it tightly around her neck. He pulled on it, choking her, as she gasped for breath. That's when I noticed she was pregnant, probably five or six months along. He screamed in German. I didn't understand. He was mad about the pregnancy, maybe. She was too young. Maybe he didn't like the dad.

That's when he picked up a knife and started stabbing her in the stomach.

Or ... is it -- could he be the dad? I thought.

I took one last look at the pair and walked quickly for the door. On the monitors in the entryway the scene was playing out. I walked through the blackness of the abandoned mall as the questions circling inside my head were answered much too abruptly. Merkur had admitted it: there was no global audience that supported them: no, it was all for the Swedish man. He'd heard about Merkur's first, failed business, and then had him build the studio. He paid for everything. He scripted everything. These kids stayed locked away in this hamster cage and acted out everything he wrote. He had them perform everything he couldn't do in real life.

And so we abandon the Spielhalle, and our new acquaintances. We brush off everything we felt that afternoon: the jealousy, the admiration, the sense of adventure and fun. We abandon the young woman dying on the ground and we find our way back to the mall. It is dark and everyone is gone but noises still rattle the plywood boarding up the broken windows. Now the sounds evoke new images, of actors and a play about incest and infanticide. The meta-image of the author is also there: with his money, his power, and the lives he controls with his whim. Creating a world and then watching it, from far away, unfolding on the internet.

We glance over our shoulder for one last look. We know we've seen something we shouldn't have, as the images start to flash and swoop in our head like buzzards waiting for a kill.

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