‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ by Larry Smith

soft cartel may 2018

OPENING SHOT
Total silence. Split screen. Credits on the left. On the right, a naked woman facing the camera. She is surrounded by a small group of fully clothed men and women, slightly moving toward each other and milling about as if at a cocktail party, but not speaking. A few glance at the naked woman. A few glance away. A few smile slightly. The woman’s face remains impassive.

REVERSE SHOT
The credits conclude on the right. The woman and the others are on the left. None of the people seen in the opening shots appear at any time in the scenes to follow.

BLANK SCREEN
A guttural and intense male voice is heard singing the refrain from Old McDonald’s Farm, incanting “eee eye eee eye oh.” He sings it three times.

MEDIUM SHOT
Four couples in a tasteful but not luxuriant apartment sipping drinks. The men are dressed in jackets but no ties. The women are well-dressed, a little more than casually dressed but not at all formally. There are photographs and a couple of paintings on the wall. Rear left is a bookshelf full of books. Sounds of their conversations filter through to the audience but it is more of an indistinguishable low murmur. Among the words that do become audible: “Everything there is delicious” (male voice); “She’s going to be 12 next month” (female voice); “They’ve got this one painting that was extensively damaged” (female voice); “How many blue states are at risk?” (male voice).

CLOSE-UP
Meg and Mark on couch, Jack standing by couch, Melissa in chair. Melissa is a pleasantly plump, pretty woman in her thirties. Meg and Jack are in their thirties too. Mark is grayer-haired and looks older. The murmur of other conversations is still heard with occasional words being audible, such as “he was elected in any event” and “the question is whether or not they actually believe what they’re saying.”

Jack: You pick up so much baggage.

Mark: You do, Jack

Jack: Total clutter. Your life is a clutter of names you can’t remember. Of things you don’t even know you have

Meg: He blames me.

Mark: You’re a pack rat, Meg?

Meg: Not really, no. I just don’t have his passion for throwing things away. Every time Jack goes on a tear and starts his spring cleaning, I get nervous. It may look like garbage to him, but it might have value for me.

Jack: Sweetie, how can a power drill I used when we were still living on Traymore possibly have any value for you?

Meg (smiles): You know what I mean.

Mark: Every time I feel overwhelmed by all the crap, and I don’t know where to find something I actually want, I comfort myself by remembering this old Japanese silent film I once saw called Face of Madness or Page of Madness or something like that…by the same guy who later directed the famous movie, Gate of Hell. That was decades later…The madness film was a silent film he made in the 1920s…he found it in his garage forty or fifty years later…

Meg: Nobody had been looking for it all those years?

Mark: I don’t know…all I know is that I went to see it in New York and that’s what it said in the little pamphlet that the theater handed out.

Jack: No matter how big your house is, it fills up until you’ve got stuff stuck in every nook and cranny.

CLOSE-UP
Camera angle shifts so the focus is on Melissa with the others on the edges of the frame. We see a slight twitch in Melissa’s eye as the dialogue is suddenly inaudible because a guttural, intensely suggestive voice-over is heard incanting the refrain from Old McDonald Had a Farm. All that we hear is a voice, almost Arab in its throatiness, and almost pornographic in its suggestiveness, incanting “eee eye eee eye oh.” The guttural refrain is repeated three times as the camera moves in on Melissa’s face until her immediate companions are now barely in the shot.

MEDIUM SHOT
Meg, Mark, Jack, Melissa as before

Mark: But can you imagine…you direct a whole film…a whole film!….and you lose it for forty years in your own garage!

Meg: So we shouldn’t complain about power drills.

MEDIUM SHOT
Julie and Linda, John next to Ian, all sitting on art deco chairs, a marble table in the middle with cheese and crostini. They are all in their late thirties.

Julie: It’s one of those things you just don’t know what to think about…I mean you can see it from so many angles…I mean, here’s this woman, Carla…

John: And how do you know her?

Julie: I don’t know her. My brother knows her from work.

Ian: It’s a terrible story, a terrible thing.

Linda: The woman died, Julie?

Julie: She did die. But Carla wasn’t drunk or driving crazy or anything like that. She was just momentarily distracted and, the next thing she knew, this woman was in front of her car and frozen there, or too crazy or drunk herself to get out of the way.

Ian: A crazy, helpless bag lady.

Julie: And Carla’s whole life was upset. There were police inquiries and even talk about an arrest. And Carla with her whole life ahead of her, and this other poor old woman…I mean, I’m sorry for people like that, so sorry, but what was the point? Carla with a full rich life ahead of her, and so much to contribute…

John: Usually you’d think the authorities would know that, and they wouldn’t press it. I mean…

Julie: I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why things got so difficult. Like I say, I don’t actually know Carla…

Linda: But it’s scary.

Ian: It is scary.

CLOSE-UP
John and Ian are talking quietly to each other. Murmur of conversation in the background. An occasional stray word imposes on John and Ian’s side conversation.

Ian: I hear Julie tell that story a lot.

John: I guess it haunts her.

Ian: Last time she told it, I got this idea into my head for a story or film…A group of people are listening to Julie tell it…There are passages or flashbacks to Carla’s life, to the old bag lady’s…Everybody is listening intently to Julie…When she finishes the story, two of the people listening are magically transformed into Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing jazz together…and that’s how it ends.

John: I don’t get it.

Ian: I call the story, “The Reagan Prosperity.”

John: Why not “The Clinton Prosperity”?

MEDIUM SHOT
Mark and Jack and Melissa are sitting at their end of the dinner table. Salad and cheese are on the table, closer to the camera.

Mark: Jack, I didn’t know you were a military buff.

Jack: It’s mostly…

CLOSE-UP
Melissa, apparently looking toward Mark and Jack. All we see is her face, impassive. Then all conversation is drowned, and Jack’s last sentence interrupted by the same guttural refrain from Old McDonald Had a Farm. Melissa arches her eyebrow as the low voice incants, “eee eye eee eye oh.”

MEDIUM SHOT
Linda and Melissa in foreground. Others are sitting further back in the frame, their voices from the back a tangled murmur: left to right, Jack, Ian, Mark, Meg, Julie.

Linda: Nowhere else but Rome, Melissa?

Melissa: We left it open, we had thoughts of Paris too. But it was only a one-week honeymoon, so Mark and I didn’t want to waste any more time traveling.

Linda: Understood.

CLOSE-UP
Melissa listening to Linda. Melissa’s eyes and face showing a subtle strain. Linda’s voice drowned out by the same repeated guttural male refrain of “eee eye eee eye oh.”

MEDIUM SHOT
Ian and Mark dominate the frame. Others tangentially visible.

Ian: It’s all about opposites juxtaposed. Sometimes something new, a third thing comes out of the opposites as they collide. But sometimes they don’t collide, they just sit there juxtaposed.

Mark: Life and death, good and bad, that sort of thing?

Ian: Yes, but also even in the way people talk about such things. They say, “Life is short,” and everyone knows that’s true. Then they use the metaphor that life is a “long, long journey,” and everyone knows that that’s true too.

Mark: Did you ever read The Guns of August by Tuchman?

Ian: Not really. Jack probably has.

Mark: Interesting to hear what you’re saying, because it occurred to me while I was rereading it recently that, on the one hand, you had the British guy’s famous remark that the lights were being turned off on Whitehall Street and that we shan’t see them lit again in our lifetime. But then you had this general feeling everywhere that the war would last only for a few weeks. Both were ingrained perceptions, deeply ingrained at the very same moment.

Ian: The British guy might have had a point.

CLOSE-UP
Dark room lit from side. Melissa, crouched. Only her head in half-profile and shoulders are visible. Her face registers both apprehension and eagerness. There are two male hands on her shoulders.

BLANK SCREEN
The low voice is heard incanting, “eee eye eee eye oh.”

LONG SHOT
Dinner is over and the full company is back in the living room. Left to right, grouped by couples: Meg and Jack, Julie and Ian, Melissa and Mark, Linda and John. Melissa is in the center of the frame.

Meg is talking to Ian, Jack to Julie, Melissa to Linda, Mark to John. Except for Jack and Julie, the conversations thus crisscross the spaces where each of them sits. The following close-ups are a composite tracking shot, with the close-ups moving left to right and back again, the progression interrupted by the next two Melissa episodes.

CLOSE-UP: MEG
Meg: I don’t worry about it…He’s already shown that he knows how to pick advisors.

CLOSE-UP: JACK
Jack: My first wife was considerably older than I was at the time.

CLOSE-UP: JULIE
Julie: I didn’t know that.

CLOSE-UP: IAN
Ian: I agree.

CLOSE-UP
Dark room lit from side. Melissa crouched with head in half-profile and shoulders visible and two hands on her shoulders as before. The guttural voice sings from behind her, with extraordinary slowness.

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh
And on this farm he had a cat
eee eye eee eye oh
With a…

Melissa: Meow

Voice: …here and a

Melissa: Meow

Voice: …there.
Here a

Melissa: Meow

Voice: there a…

Melissa: Meow

Voice: everywhere a…

Melissa: Meow

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh

CLOSE-UP: MARK
Mark: I love reading jacket copy on books from some publishers. It’s almost a kind of poetry itself, a weird kind of marketing poetry…I don’t mean the blurbs by famous people…

CLOSE-UP: LINDA
Linda: Theodore Roethke is now my favorite poet. Usually I don’t like poetry that uses the first person so much, that’s so self-preoccupied in that way.

CLOSE-UP: JOHN
John: I know exactly what you mean. Exactly! I remember the back of a Dover edition of a novel by William Dean Howells, no less, called The Landlord of Lion’s Head, and I remember saying to myself when I read it, ‘Who wrote this? It’s as good as a small little critical essay.’

CLOSE-UP: LINDA
Linda: One famous one called The Far Field…

CLOSE-UP: MARK
Mark: Right, right, like they were written by somebody who was a member of some sort of Cultural Society of 19th Century America…Then there were the great New Directions and Grove Press books…I remember ad copy describing a book by Beckett that talked about the ‘paretic embattlement’ of the characters. Can you imagine? – a copywriter using a phrase like ‘paretic embattlement!’

CLOSE-UP
Dark room lit from side. Melissa crouched with head in half-profile and shoulders visible and two hands on her shoulders as before. The guttural voice sings from behind her with extraordinary slowness.

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh
And on this farm he had a cat
eee eye eee eye oh
With a…

Melissa: Bow wow

Voice: …here and a

Melissa: Bow wow

Voice: …there.
Here a

Melissa: Bow

Voice: there a…

Melissa (with embarrassed exuberance): Wow

Voice: everywhere a…

Melissa: Bow wow

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh

CLOSE-UP: IAN
Ian: FDR didn’t really talk much about how he was going to fix the economy either. Not during the campaign.

CLOSE-UP: JULIE
Julie: Maturity is the key thing.

CLOSE-UP: JACK
Jack: You’re never as mature as you’re going to be.

CLOSE-UP: MEG
Meg: All I know is that I’m so tired of having my intelligence insulted.

LONG SHOT
Everyone still sitting, except Julie stands up to go say something to Linda. Julie and Linda walk slowly off to the right, still in the shot.

MEDIUM SHOT
Julie: Linda, what did you think of her?

Linda: She was nice enough.

Julie: Linda, please…

Linda: Well, I thought she was hostile in a way.

Julie: Yes, she is, and after all these years, I’m beginning to realize just how hostile she was to me when I was at my most vulnerable, and I needed her the most.

Linda: I don’t blame you for being angry.

MEDIUM SHOT
Julie and Ian, Melissa and Mark half-turned to their right as if listening.

Meg (off screen): Melissa agrees, don’t you, Melissa?

Melissa: I do.

Meg (off screen): When you say you’re going to do something, you should do it.

Melissa: Yes.

Meg (off screen): I don’t feel I’m being unreasonable.

Ian: Absolutely not.

Meg (off screen): Thank you.

Ian: And when you say you’re not going to do something, then you should not do it.

Julie: It’s not about reasonable or unreasonable. It’s about…

Meg (off screen): Honor.

CLOSE-UP
Dark room lit from side. Melissa crouched with head in half-profile and shoulders visible and two hands on her shoulders as before. The guttural voice sings from behind her, with extraordinary slowness.

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh
And on this farm he had a cat
eee eye eee eye oh
With a…

Melissa: Quack quack

Voice: …here and a

Melissa: Quack quack

Voice: …there.
Here a

Melissa: Quack

Voice: there a…

Melissa: Quack

Voice: everywhere a…

Melissa: Quack quack

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh

CLOSE-UP
Jack, very close to John, not exactly whispering, but being discreet.

Jack: It’s all too much, John, too much of a burden. We’ve got to let ourselves off the hook, let each other off the hook. Don’t you agree?

John: Sure.

CLOSE-UP
Dark room lit from side. Melissa crouched with head in half-profile and shoulders visible and two hands on her shoulders as before. The guttural voice sings from behind her, with extraordinary slowness.

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh
And on this farm he had a cat
eee eye eee eye oh
With a…

Melissa (her eyes widening): Hee haw

Voice: …here and a

Melissa: Hee haw

Voice: …there.
Here a

Melissa: Hee

Voice: there a…

Melissa: Haw

Voice: everywhere a…

Melissa (heatedly): Hee haw

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh

HIGH-ANGLE SHOT
Julie and Linda at top of stairwell. The others are seen below.

Julie: Is it too much to expect, Linda? Is it?

Linda: No.

CLOSE-UP
Dark room lit from side. Melissa crouched with head in half-profile and shoulders visible and two hands on her shoulders as before. The guttural voice sings from behind her, with extraordinary slowness.

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh
And on this farm he had a cat
eee eye eee eye oh
With a…

Melissa (wistfully): Oink Oink

Voice: …here and an

Melissa: Oink Oink

Voice: …there.
Here a

Melissa: Oink

Voice: there an…

Melissa: Oink

Voice: everywhere an…

Melissa: Oink Oink

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh

CLOSE-UP
Ian and Meg. Sounds of the others create a backdrop to their exchange.

Ian: Can you blame me for that?

Meg: I don’t know.

Ian: I mean really, Meg, think about it. Can you?

CLOSE-UP
Julie and Mark. Sounds of the others create a backdrop to their exchange.

Julie: I understand what you’re saying.

Mark: I hope so.

Julie: Yes, I think I understand.

The further sound of their conversation is then drowned by the voice-over, the guttural voice slowly incanting, “eee eye eee eye oh.”

BLANK SCREEN:
Mark’s voice, growing more passionate as he delivers his peroration.

Mark: Melissa, Melissa, my darling. I’m reading Anna Karenina and I think about it constantly. I think about the first line, the famous first line about how all happy families are alike and how unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. It’s astonishing to me how such a famous line as this book’s first line is so untrue, so untrue. The exact opposite is the case. Unhappiness is always the same. It’s too much sex or not enough sex or too much money or not enough money. Oh Melissa, unhappiness is nothing but endless dreary variations on the same theme. The nausea that eats at us, the sudden realization that you don’t love your brother or that your mother is a stinking bitch…It’s all the same. But happiness? Happiness! Tolstoy wants happiness to be always the same because he was seeking the great spiritual explanation of life that would lead us all to happiness, and there can only be one key, one great revelation of happiness, and it’s all the same, the one port in the storm, the explanation, the singular state of being, the one happiness that unites us all is all that’s needed, and it’s always the same…But it’s just not true, it is happiness that is so different…from one happiness to another, so different, because there is no God and there is no answer and so every happiness must be always different from every other…

CLOSE-UP
Dark room lit from side. Melissa crouched with head in half-profile and shoulders visible and two hands on her shoulders as before. The guttural voice sings from behind her, with extraordinary slowness.

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh
And on this farm he had a cat
eee eye eee eye oh
With a…

Melissa: Bawk Bawk

Voice: …here and a

Melissa: Bawk Bawk

Voice: …there.
Here a

Melissa: Bawk

Voice: there a…

Melissa: Bawk

Voice: everywhere a…

Melissa (ecstatically): Bawk Bawk

Voice: Old McDonald had a farm
eee eye eee eye oh

BLANK SCREEN:
Mark’s voice

It’s the unhappy families that are all alike with their cousins who drink too much and insult you in front of your children, or husbands who sneak off to prostitutes, or the sister who is hostile to you at the moment when you need her the most. It’s all the same…But happiness, oh Melissa, happiness is different from family to family because happiness is different from person to person, and from moment to moment…Anna’s husband says, “Happiness may be variously understood.” Maybe Tolstoy has him say that because he wants to show us the man’s human vacancy, and that his saying something like that is just another example of how really vacant he is, but Tolstoy is wrong…It’s Karenina who is transfigured when everyone thinks his wife is dying…he loves and truly forgives…only later does he descend to that awful degenerate religiosity…Spiritual awakenings, moral transformations don’t necessarily last so very long. Tolstoy knew that…

CLOSE-UP
The same shot of Melissa crouched, her head in half-profile, but now her shoulders and the hands on them are not visible. A distressed and yet luminous gaze on Melissa’s face as we hear the slow, slow “eee eye eee eye oh” sung three times by the guttural voice.

BLANK SCREEN:
Mark’s voice reaching a passionate pitch

Imagine happiness, Melissa, happiness! Imagine, imagine! A child laughing and making little gurgling noises: a child, our child…there is no happiness like it. The honeymoon communion of lovers in the maze of piazzas between Navona and the river…they’re lost and walking and not caring that they’re lost in the great safe warm maze way…no happiness, no happiness like it! Waking up, waking up inside the one you love, not knowing you were asleep, not knowing you are still conjoined, until you wake up and know it and rejoice. The sweet light in the morning, the galaxies at night. All happy families are different…all happiness is various because there is no God. There is instead this, this treasure trove of happiness…

At least thirty seconds of pure silence as the screen remains blank.

CLOSING SHOT
Total silence. Split screen. Credits on the left. On the right, a man with wild deer-like horns on his head facing the camera. His face is at first distressed, then impassive as if numb. He is surrounded by a small group of men and women, slightly moving toward each other and milling about as if at a cocktail party, but not speaking. A few glance at the horned man. A few glance away. A few smile slightly. The man’s face remains impassive.

Larry Smith’s novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published by Outpost 19. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Sequestrum, Low Rent (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, Curbside Splendor, and [PANK], among numerous others. Smith’s poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others; his articles and essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Social Text, The Boston Phoenix, and others. Visit Larrysmithfiction.com.

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