Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Dead Art Form


by Calvin Jennings

“Debray!” screeched Fulton, the echo of his harsh voice reverberating up and down the tunnels. “Debray, are you up there? Toss down the ladder! I came all the way from the village in the rain to make sure you weren’t dead, and for all that you had better have a cup of tea ready for me! I mean it you damn Yankee bastard, I’m going to be very fucking upset if you’re dead and there’s no tea to be had!”

In spite of the acerbity of his words, Fulton’s voice was edged with a friendly sarcasm, the kind that develops between two men when they’ve had years to learn how to rag on each other without causing offence. And because of this Debray took his time in responding, pausing to compose another sentence and then to light the burner for their tea water. With these tasks accomplished he picked up a lantern and headed down the tunnel towards the sound of his friend’s voice.

“Okay, I hear your shuffling,” continued Fulton. “You’re alive. I’m still going to be angry if there’s no tea, though.”

Approaching the end of the tunnel, Debray looked down at Fulton, who stood some twenty feet below him in a wet raincoat and with a grimy old duffel bag tucked under his arm. In the thin light from the electric bulb he could see Fulton smile at him as he used his free hand to wring some of the water out of his bushy gray beard.

Debray unhooked the rope ladder and tossed it down to him. With amazing spryness for a man in his mid-seventies, Fulton proceeded to climb it, the arthritis in his knees barely slowing him. When he reached the top of the ladder he extended his hand to Debray, who helped him step off and into the tunnel. They shook each other’s hands before letting go and Debray took Fulton’s coat.

“I see the rain hasn’t yet let up,” he remarked as he hung up the slippery, dripping garment.

“Of course it hasn’t let up. Why the hell would it let up now? It isn’t June on this damn island unless your basement is flooded and your roof is leaking,” Fulton muttered, following Debray down the tunnel towards his living quarters. “In all seriousness, please tell me that there’s tea.”

“Give it fifteen minutes.”

Debray’s living area was large compared to many of the other rooms carved underneath the mountain, measuring perhaps forty feet by thirty. Fulton sat down at the table and emitted an exasperated grunt, once again wringing raindrops from his beard. The water for the tea was almost ready by that point and Debray remained standing while they waited, even though standing was becoming increasingly difficult for him. Every time he stood, every time he moved, every time he stayed on his feet for more than a few minutes the pounding in his chest returned and his breath became short. If he breathed too deeply he would cough uncontrollably, and if he started to cough uncontrollably he would also become dizzy. So as they waited for the water to boil he tried not to inhale too intensely, even though he felt a cloud of phlegm again growing in his lungs. Yet a moment came when he could not control it any longer and the coughing fit that followed ripped through his body with such force that he doubled over, grabbing the table for support.

After perhaps thirty seconds of hacking and gurgling he managed to subdue the cough. He spit out a cloudy yellow ball of mucus, only to then look up and see Fulton staring at him warily, sizing up the state of his health. Fulton obviously knew how sick his host really was, even though he chose not to mention it.

“I brought your mail for you,” he instead remarked in an absentminded tone. “You got a package and don’t worry, I made every effort to keep it dry for you.” He then produced a thick wad of letters from his bag, followed by a rectangular parcel wrapped in waterproofed materials. Pulling these off he saw the shipping envelope had a Portsmouth postmark. He knew that it could only be one thing, and so he gingerly tore it open.

Inside was a black rectangular case, the kind of plastic container used to protect videocassettes. It was dingy and well worn, but the label was entirely readable in neat, black type:

RUNNING TIME: 52:35:18
1920x1080 (P) – 23.976 fps

Debray smiled. Yes, he had been waiting for this one for a long time. His hands were dry, yet as a precaution he wiped them on a towel and carefully opened the case. Inside was an HDCAM SR videocassette. Considering its age the tape was in excellent condition; more than likely it had only been played a few times over its life.

“I can see this is a good one,” remarked Fulton. “I can also see that our tea water is boiling, so let’s perhaps hurry this up.”

Over tea the two men caught up, with Fulton providing him all the relevant and irrelevant information from the village. In truth there wasn’t much to tell, for the past eight days of rain had kept people mostly indoors. There were however press reports about yet another political scandal embroiling the ruling party in Halifax, and despite the unending downpour the bridge to the mainland was now almost fully repaired. Then, with their tea finished, Debray picked up his lantern and beckoned for Fulton to follow him.

The tunnels underneath the mountain were not natural caverns in any respect. They had been dug and blasted out by the rebels, who had been given almost four years to work on the project before the old United States government had made a serious move to capture the island. Even with that time the effort had remained far from complete, with only five of the island’s twenty-odd mountains having been excavated when the Marines had landed, and with three of those excavations still incomplete at the time. This mountain they were under now – Norumbega it was called – had been one of the smaller efforts, and so it had been fully finished at the time of the invasion. With its network of carefully laid out rooms and passageways, electrical wiring and drainage and ventilation systems, it had remained remarkably intact despite the bombs and shells raining down overhead. The tunnels were all high enough for fully-grown men to walk through, with smooth floors and vertical corkscrew-shaped alleys that had allowed supplies and weapons to be transported on wheels. Following the end of the war a speculator had purchased all of the excavated mountains in the hope of turning them into tourist attractions, but he had found that few people were interested and had sold off all but one of them. Norumbega was too steep and barren for farming or lumbering, and too far from the village for it to be an attractive home, which had allowed Debray to purchase it very cheaply.

At the entrance to the archive Debray put the lantern down and flipped the light switch. His own personal rule was to never bring a candle or a lantern through that door, even though the electricity for the lights was quite expensive. For the benefit of visitors he kept a single bulb burning at the front entrance of the tunnels, but otherwise he mostly used candles and lanterns for his personal illumination. But the archive was different, for the candles and lanterns could start fires and the archive was filled with irreplaceable items.

He pulled out his keys and unlocked the door. Entering the enormous, chilly room the two men gazed upon a collection nearly forty years in the making. Once this had been the sleeping quarters for sixty rebels, their bunk beds stacked high against the walls. Now those same walls were lined with shelves, their contents organized by format and title. On one side were the celluloid films, starting with 8mm formats and continuing to 16mm and 35mm and even one lone random reel of a 70mm print. To another side were the “home” formats – DVDs, Blu-Rays, Laserlight discs, videocassettes of every size and format. Still to another side were stacks of hard drives, small projectors, spare parts, splicing machines, batteries, obsolete disc players, ancient televisions and antiquated cameras, all sealed in dustproof containers.

Fulton retrieved the ladder and Debray let his friend make the climb towards the middle shelf, pointing him to where the tape needed to go. But as Debray went to hand it to Fulton he descended into another fit of coughing. His lungs burned with every exhalation and he closed his eyes until it was over with. When he opened them again he found himself staring at the case in his hand, which was dripping with phlegm and dark blood. He locked eyes with Fulton.

“I have an extra,” he said in an embarrassed manner. Searching for and finding a case of the same size, he copied down the program information onto the new label and transferred the videotape to its new receptacle. The cassette was fine, none of his bodily fluids had gotten onto it, but Debray was genuinely mortified.

“Yeah, you’re not staying here, man,” Fulton said to him in the most direct manner possible. “You’re coming back to the house and you’re staying with us until that cough is under control.”

Debray went through the motions of protesting. The archive needed his attention, he said. His work wasn’t finished and he was in the middle of too many projects. Yet he didn’t put up too much resistance, for he knew that Fulton would insist and in truth he no longer had a desire to stay in these awful, cold tunnels. Yes, his work wasn’t finished and yes, he was in the middle of too many projects. Yet he didn’t particularly care any longer if he was the one who finished them or even if anyone ever did. His body was overtaxed, his mind was cluttered and his ability to concentrate was waning. His resistance was a mere formality.

“Fine, I’ll go with you if it will shut you up!” he finally exclaimed after Fulton threatened to knock him over the head and have him carried back to the village.

They exited the tunnels into the worst downpour that Debray had seen in years and their progress was slow. The wind was howling, the rain was coming down at extreme angles and their feet and pants were thoroughly soaked as they made their way down the winding path through the woods.

Like the other settlements on Mount Desert Island, the village of Northeast Harbor had begun its life as a fishing and farming community near the end of the eighteenth century. A hundred years after it was settled it had started to grow into a summer colony, first as a seasonal getaway for clergymen and professors, then as a haven for Astors and Rockefellers and other prominent families. Now nearly three centuries later it had returned to its roots, for despite its increasing prominence as a commercial port many of the families still derived part of their livelihood either from tending the land or harvesting the sea.

Unlike Debray, Fulton was not a native of the village, or even of the province of Maine. He had been born in Georgia, now several national borders to the south. As a U.S. Marine during the war years he had been sent to the island as part of the garrison that had kept order there after the invasion. But as the U.S. government itself began to unravel, so did its far-flung military units. “Getting anything out of the government was like trying to get something out of one of those old credit card companies,” was the way Fulton had always described it. “Towards the last of it you could barely even get a human being on the phone at the Pentagon.” Unable to find a way back to Georgia, Fulton had simply taken off his uniform, walked into the nearest village and asked for a job. Forty years later he was still here, making a steady living repairing machinery and fabricating metal parts and tools for the sailing ships that gathered in the harbor.

Fulton’s house was too large for a single-family home, but of course he did not inhabit it alone. Besides his wife the structure was also occupied by his youngest son and his daughter-in-law, plus their three children and eight of Fulton’s interns. The couch in the living room pulled out into a bed, and it was here that Debray found himself. For the first two days he was weak, yet he still had an appetite and was able to move about the house and sit at the table for meals. That lasted until the doctor came and saw his condition, ordering him to get into his sofa bed and stay there. Debray – with Fulton’s vaguely threatening encouragement – did as he was told, and on the third day he burned with fever and slipped into a delirium.

The days that followed were barely noticed by him, for he passed in and out of consciousness at irregular intervals. And sleep was easy for him in his weakened state, despite the activity around him. The noise from the workshop gave a rhythm to his waking moments as he lay there on his back listening to the sounds of grinding and spinning and welding and Fulton screaming at the interns to bring him his tea. The rain on the roof, the door to the house opening and closing as customers came and went, the never-ending drone of the weather radio, the scuffle from the shoes of grandchildren who had been cooped up inside too long, these bothered him not at all.

His grip on the physical world wore thinner with each passing day and soon the doctor returned. Debray was vaguely aware that he was being examined, for even with his mind in a far-off place he was still cognizant of the stethoscope’s chilly touch and the pinch of the blood pressure cuff around his bicep. The physician administered a drug to control the delirium, and during the ensuing period of lucidity he managed to overhear what the doctor told Fulton:

“There’s no sense in putting him in a hospital bed. At his age, in his condition, there’s nothing anyone can do,” the man explained in a dour voice. “He’s got a week at the very most.”

So, it was official: he was going to die soon. Well, it was about fucking time, he thought. At this point he was only too happy to cross over to the other side. No matter what waited for him there at least he wouldn’t be here anymore. Nobody cared, and with his end so close he wasn’t going to either. Yes, death could come for him any time now, and damn everybody else. Not even Fulton, his best and only remaining friend, understood.

- - -

From the youngest age possible to remember, Debray had loved the movies. He had grown up in Northeast Harbor when it had still been a summer colony, and the winters had brought boring, bleak stretches in a depopulated community. He lived for after school and for the weekends, when he could escape to invented worlds. He would watch movies on Netflix and on DVD and Blu-Ray and he would download them onto his iPhone and iPad. And when new films didn’t interest him he turned to old ones, devouring the classics of every decade going back to the early years of the twentieth century. It was such a wonderful way to escape. His childhood had been materially comfortable but it would have been psychologically unbearable for him had he not had these to help him cope with the drudgery of school and the never ending pile of homework that stalked him through afternoons and weekends and summer breaks.

After college he had naturally gravitated towards Hollywood, although when he had arrived he had found a city and an industry in deep crisis. Nobody was making a profit except for the biggest names in the business, everyone was trying to get you to work for free, or, if not for free, then for some piddling, insignificant amount of money. He prostituted his talents for contacts and experience, dodging debt collectors and landlords at the same time. He worked eighteen-hour days on shoots, he spent hours hunched over at his computer editing and sound mixing for projects. He barely paid attention to the problems outside of Los Angeles, to the political dysfunction ripping apart the country or to the epic drought that was slowly killing the southwest. And after years of writing and re-writing his script, of taking meetings and asking – no, begging – for money, he finally got the chance to direct a feature film of his very own. And although that film had not turned out as well as he had hoped and had not received distribution outside of a few festival screenings, he had still been immensely proud of it.

But that had been so long ago now. He had been forced to move back to Maine, back to Northeast Harbor, not long after that. Then the wars came and the island had been taken over by the militia. Debray himself had been a corporal. Not by choice, as an able-bodied islander he had simply been conscripted. He was lucky though, for he had ended up as a POW after being wounded by a mortar shell. Many of his friends had not lived to see the end of it.

Both his Hollywood period and the war period played through his mind as he lay expiring on Fulton’s sofa bed. But so did the time after the wars, the time when the Republic had been first founded and he had set about to see what could be salvaged of the film work that he and others had done. He was never able to find a copy of his own movie, but he had collected anything else that he could get his hands on – equipment, tape masters, consumer video products, hard drives, film reels. But the job got harder and harder as the years went on. It had been called the film industry after all, and all the complex pieces of equipment needed to produce and to watch movies, all the software and computers and cameras and projection systems, almost all of it had been made overseas, and after the wars it had become frightfully expensive to import what had been needed. And then one by one the foreign factories began to close, and soon there came a day when it could no longer be acquired at any price.

Realizing that his preservation efforts required more time and money than he could supply he had, some five or six years earlier, taken the ferry to Halifax in the hope of securing parliamentary recognition and funding for the archive. He managed to arrange a meeting with a representative named Stockton, MP for the northern district of New Hampshire and chairman for the Committee on the Arts. Stockton was a tall, gangly man in his early forties who reeked of pipe tobacco and inhabited a dreary third-floor office with frosted windows.

Stockton listened politely as Debray made all of the familiar points. He started by asking, in a rhetorical sense, what was culture? Culture was the great conversation between the dead, the living and the yet-to-be-born he explained. It was the conversation that carried on over decades and centuries, which crossed borders and passed on the best values of the deceased nations – the United States and Canada in this case – into the living realm of the new ones, especially their own. He reminded the man of the importance that motion pictures had once had to the two cultures that had preceded them and explained the deplorable state of preservation of that art form. He described the tragedy of digital technology and the film industry’s embrace of it. Sturdy, modestly priced film cameras and film projectors that could be used for decades had given way to obscenely expensive digital cameras and digital projectors that required complex and pricey maintenance every couple of years. Stable motion picture film stocks with long shelf lives had given way to less durable videotape formats and then finally to computerized storage on hard drives that had to be constantly maintained and monitored. He told of how many movies had never existed on film at all, how they had been shot and archived on video and had then been left to rot on those same hard drives and imprisoned on cassette formats for which there was no longer the equipment to play. He told of how, even for the motion pictures that did exist on film, that film was often rotting away too.

“Mr. Debray, a seat on my committee is not something that one aspires to,” Stockton said in reply. “Nonetheless, I try my best to fulfill the responsibilities that it is tasked with. However, there is scant funding available for an initiative such as the one you propose. Our appropriations for individual projects rarely exceed fifty thousand dollars. Look at it this way - ten years ago we had a cholera outbreak in my district, thousands of people sickened. Two years after that we were at war in Estrie and Labranche’s army shelled my district. They shelled it repeatedly. They killed hundreds of my constituents and did millions of dollars in damage and – by the way – they destroyed the drainage systems that had been put in place after the outbreak, the result of which was a return of cholera. And that cholera is still with us, every year hundreds sickened. Now you come to me and say you want three million dollars for this project. You seem to assume that I can raise that kind of money from my colleagues. Yet even if I could get them to allocate money for your project, how would I explain to my constituents that, even though I was able to get someone three million dollars to preserve movies in another province, I was not able to get them a comparable sum for the repair of the rest of the drainage systems? And how would my colleagues explain their support to their constituents? Most of them represent districts where there is some other vital need that is only being attended to slowly, if at all. No Mr. Debray, it will not happen. I do understand the importance of your work. If you wish to fundraise for your archive I will be happy to write a letter for you extolling its importance. If you schedule an event within reasonable distance of me I will be happy to speak at that event and extol its importance to an audience. But I can provide no help through parliament at this time. I’m very sorry.”

Stockton had a way with words; never before had someone told Debray to fuck off in such a polite manner. Well, no matter, it was over now. He was leaving and he was glad, and with the last bit of energy left in him he opened his eyes and smiled. The years spent building a career that had fallen flat, the years spent trying to preserve what had once been, it was over now. And it had all been such a god damn waste.


At half past two Fulton awoke, feeling the familiar tightness in his pelvis that always manifested itself about this time. He lit a candle and went downstairs to the bathroom, where he urinated with the expected difficulties of his age. Finishing the process, he made a detour into the living room to check on his friend.

Immediately upon entering he knew what he was about to find, for the room had an awful stillness and silence about it that it had not possessed on all the other nights when Fulton had checked on Debray. There wasn’t the slightest movement now, nor the slightest sound apart from the rain on the roof. Fulton went to the couch and pulled back the blanket.

Debray’s breathing had long since stopped, but the smile was still on his face and his eyes remained open. Glassy and lifeless now, they gazed up towards the ceiling. In death the expression was ghastly, and Fulton used the palm of his hand to shut his pupils and then he sculpted Debray’s mouth into a neutral position.

Yes, he thought, it was better that it had happened at night. Not better for Debray perhaps, but better for Fulton, for Fulton would have been too self-conscious to cry if it had happened when the family and the interns were around. But here, at quarter to three, in an empty room, he felt no shame in taking hold of his friend’s hand and weeping inconsolably.

“Damn you for making me sob like this, I ought to throttle you for it,” he whimpered. And then after some time had passed he broke free of the grip and covered Debray with the blanket. He locked the doors to the room so that no early risers would get a surprise from the body and he returned to bed, tears still welling up in his eyes whenever he thought of the long decades he had known the man.

- - -

Debray’s will left Fulton with a very unwelcome responsibility:

“To my dear friend Arnold ‘Warrant’ Fulton I leave the Norumbega Motion Picture Archive, along with the property it sits on, with instructions that he care for it until some individual or entity can be found to take over its operations on a permanent basis.”

It was the last obligation that Fulton wanted, so for a time he ignored it and concentrated on other matters, especially the arrangements for Debray’s funeral. It was not until a few weeks later that he began to give the task some serious thought.

Fulton knew that Debray had not been alone in his efforts, that there were others out there who ran similar operations. They were listed in Debray’s address book, he had been in contact with all of them at one point or another. While none of the other archives were in the Republic itself, a number of them were in other parts of North America. And so Fulton composed letters informing the proprietors of Debray’s death and inquiring about the possibility of their institutions taking possession of the archive’s holdings.

As the replies came in over the weeks that followed it became obvious to Fulton that he was never going to disperse more than a fraction of the archive in this way.  All of the replies offered praise for Debray and condolences at his passing, but none of them offered the kind of help he needed. Some of the replies cited a lack of space, others explained that they were in serious financial jeopardy and could not guarantee the safety of their own holdings, let alone Debray’s. Some of the institutions were interested in taking possession of specific movie titles held by the archive, but none of them could accept the whole collection.

When Fulton had a problem he couldn’t figure out, a problem that nobody living could help him with, he would imagine himself in conversation with the people who were no longer living, people whom he had respected during their lives. His parents, his sister, his dead friends and commanding officers from the Corps, he had asked all of them for help at some point. And now that Debray was dead he could join the chorus. He imagined his friend standing over him while he labored in his workshop, he pictured him walking alongside of him as he trekked into the village to collect the mail. For days he simply did this without imagining a dialogue. He didn’t know how to start it until he thought of one question to ask:

“Why should anyone care about the movies any longer? It’s a dead art form.”

“Because this was an enormous part of our culture,” the imaginary Debray explained and then he launched into his familiar spiel about the conversation between the dead, the living and the unborn. It was all familiar – and banal – to Fulton, so he cut off the monologue and tried a slightly different line of questioning.

“Okay, but why did you care? What did they mean to you?”

“They were an escape,” the imaginary Debray responded after a long pause. “They gave my dreams a form. A form for all my fantasies about what it would be like to be a man, to be out in the world, to finally be able to leave this awful place behind me.”

“Nobody wants those dreams anymore,” Fulton snapped, suddenly angry. “They’re dead, and good riddance. Those dreams were always a cruel joke, I’m glad that I lived long enough to find that out. They weren’t real. They could never, ever be real. But they seemed real, so real that you believed the promises they made.”

Fulton then thought of the glamorous, sexy women that he’d seen in so many movies, then he thought of the plain, unattractive island girl he had married. He remembered cinematic action scenes, superheroes battling to save the world and sports cars drag racing to techno music, and then he thought of the skeletal automobiles rusting in junkyards all over the Republic. And he remembered the antiseptic old war movies that his grandfather had always watched, then he recalled the rebel officer he’d seen in one battle, vomiting blood and desperately trying to prevent his intestines from spilling out of his punctured gut. But most of all he remembered the promise of a happy ending, without which no movie seemed complete, and which always came no matter how grave the problems of the plot. And to Fulton that was cruelest part of the movies because it was the greatest betrayal, the broken dream that stung the most.

He felt so unexpectedly emotional that he was uncomfortable with himself, and he abruptly ended the imaginary conversation before he could picture Debray’s response. He knew he was being unfair to an art form that had been incredibly diverse and that there had been plenty of movies that had not conformed to those narrow classifications. They had existed, even if he had never bothered to watch any of them when he was younger.

For many weeks he didn’t return to the discussion, and perhaps he would never have returned to it at all except for an encounter at a social event in the village. Fulton had trimmed his beard and put on his best suit to attend a wedding ceremony, and at the reception that followed he had encountered an acquaintance of his who had asked how the movie archive was working out with Debray gone.

“What are movies?” asked the man’s daughter, who was perhaps seven years old and was standing nearby. Her father then launched into a confusing, convoluted explanation. He started off well enough by describing movies as stories made up of photographs that moved so quickly that they looked like they were really moving, but lost his train of thought when he attempted to provide specific examples, finally asking the child to imagine her school pageant displayed on the video monitor she had seen on a tour of the RNS Truro, a naval vessel that had made a port call in Northeast Harbor the previous Christmas.

Fulton could have explained it much better, yet he simply listened to the man’s feeble attempts. This was a person who had not yet been born when the last movies had been exhibited on the island, and who had probably been no more than a small child when television had ceased broadcasting. The man did not know the language necessary to explain the concept to someone who didn’t understand it at all. And that reawakened an idea in him. He returned to the house, gave his interns the rest of the day off and headed off towards Norumbega Mountain.

In the archive he stared at the shelves, his eyes ignoring the video and disc formats – which he knew were completely unplayable to him – and instead focusing in on the 35mm reels, and then in on the wooden crate against the far wall. He knew that the crate held Debray’s disused film projector, a device that had never quite worked properly. Retrieving a crowbar, Fulton proceeded to pry open the side of the container, the heavy slab of wood creaking away from the box and falling to the cavern floor with a muffled thud.

This was not a new idea to him, although he had spent months resisting it by telling himself that he knew nothing about the technical work of running the archive. Yet he had to admit that he had spent three decades watching Debray at work here. Surely he had absorbed something of that. And so he peered inside the crate and there, wrapped in clear plastic sheeting, was a large black and silver film projector, and taped to the interior side of the crate was a stack of papers. Fulton took them in his hand and realized they were the operating instructions for the projector, along with a set of blueprints for it and a list written in Debray’s neat, cryptic handwriting, a list of parts that he had believed needed replacing.

Fulton felt a wave of excitement sweep across him. Yes, it was by no means certain that he could get the projector working again. But the island still had a steady supply of electricity, expensive as it was, and it was entirely possible that he could fabricate new copies of the faulty parts in his workshop. After all, he had tackled tough repair jobs before, and this one could even be a good learning experience for the interns.

“These 35mm films,” Fulton began, summoning the imaginary Debray once again. “There are different types on the shelves up there. Which ones can’t be projected?”

“Negatives and internegatives,” came the reply.

“Which ones shouldn’t be projected?”


“That leaves regular old prints, the kind used in theaters before everything got computerized,” was Fulton’s triumphant reply. Yes, he did know a thing or two. He pulled the ladder towards the film shelf and began to climb. Debray had collected hundreds upon hundreds of film reels and many of them were final release prints. Yet he knew that Debray would have been aghast at the idea of projecting any part of his collection, and he knew exactly what the man would have said to him:

“You can’t project any of those films, Warrant. I don’t have duplicate film copies of any of them, and for all you know each one of those might be the last celluloid copy left in the entire world. If you were damage it that would be it, a part of it would be lost forever.”

“How will I damage it? What if I’m careful?”

“It’s not just about being careful,” Debray would have pleaded. “These prints only have so many projections in them, each time you run one you bring it closer to the day when it will fall apart on you. You understand? Each time you play it you damage it. You might not be able to see it but the damage is there, that scratch at the end of the third reel just got a little bigger, the sprocket holes on reel ten just got a little wobblier.”

Fulton replayed these words several times over as he examined the reels on the shelf, then temporarily put them out of his mind. The labels on each canister included not just the title and film format, but also the year of release, the director and the principal cast members. His eye was caught by one that starred an actor he remembered, and so he pulled out the first reel and brought it down. Putting on a pair of cotton gloves just like Debray had always worn, he got out a magnifying glass and began to examine the film. It didn’t take him long to realize that it was actually a pornographic film, and that the actor in question looked incredibly young compared to the way Fulton remembered him.

“If I can get that projector working I’ll show this one to the men around here,” Fulton said to himself. “Discreetly, of course. Hell, I could probably charge double admission.” Yet even as he said it he was haunted by the specter of his friend and his adamant disapproval. Debray had been obsessive about protecting his collection, inventing and refining more and more elaborate precautions to keep it all from harm. That was why he had never made any serious attempt to get the projector working, he had had no motivation because he wasn’t comfortable projecting any of his films even once. And even with his friend gone, Fulton knew that he would be uncomfortable in doing what he was planning unless he could justify it to himself. Was his idea necessary? Yes, he thought that it was, and he thought he knew why it was, and so once again he summoned Debray before him and asked why it was so important that the prints be kept from any and all damage.

“You’ll be risking a lifetime of work. My work. And the work of everyone who made them,” he pictured Debray saying. “All of this needs to be preserved for the day in the future when it can be resurrected again.”

“I’m two years older than you are – than you were,” was Fulton’s response. “I could go just as quickly as you did. If I died tomorrow, do you think my wife would care about this place? Do you think my children would? I’ll tell you what the future of this stuff is, it’s all going in the trash unless someone who cares takes responsibility for it. And nobody is going to damn well care unless they know it has value. Do you know why you could never make anyone care about this place? Why no one ever gave you money to help run it? It’s because you have all this awesome stuff up here but you would never show it to anybody. You were too afraid it would get damaged. All of these things that people could have enjoyed were locked away where nobody even knew you had them. The villagers themselves barely even knew what you were up to out here.”

A question strayed into his mind: why was it that Debray been so obsessive about protecting his collection from any possible harm? It was a silly question, really, for deep down Fulton knew the answer. After all, Debray had lost almost everything. He hadn’t just lost most of his family, he had also lost his identity. He had dedicated his career and his life to an art form, only to watch it shrivel and die, his own film, the product of years of work, probably gone forever. He could only imagine how much that had hurt him. It wasn’t surprising that he had spent the rest of his life frantically trying to protect the works of others. It looked like his way of coping, but he had never really come to terms with it. No matter how he tried to hide it, Fulton knew that his friend had died a deeply embittered man.

Fulton knew that he was bitter too. Maybe not as much as Debray had been, but it was there, sealed deep within him. He too had lost almost everything. He knew that he had stayed in Maine because he couldn’t deal with the prospect of going home and facing what was left, or more accurately, acknowledging all of the things that weren’t left. He didn’t even know when or how his own parents had died. And like Debray, he had lost his identity. It was not just because he had lost his career but because he had also lost his flag, and that had been what had given his service meaning. He had loved his birth country so much, and after all he had gone through for it he would be damned if he ever loved another country that way. The younger generations didn’t understand any of that. They couldn’t understand it because they had been born into the cold, gray light of reality and were growing up in a world where life promised meager returns. They had no idea what real loss was or what it felt like to be promised everything and then have it denied.

Thinking about these things brought tears to Fulton’s eyes, and he allowed them to come, for the concealment of the archive made him willing to be emotional in ways that he would not normally have been comfortable with.

“God damn you, Debray,” he cursed under his breath, wiping tears from his eyes and looking over towards his imaginary friend. “The moment that I cross the Styx I’m coming to find you, and when I find you I’m going to kick your eternal ass for putting me through this.” He then closed his eyes and banished Debray to the rear corner of his mind, where he would live alongside all of the other ghosts until needed again. And then the tears stopped.

He went back to Debray’s living quarters, where he retrieved paper and pencil and spread the projector blueprints out on the table so that he could copy them. He didn’t really need back-ups, but doing this would familiarize him with the inside of the machine and make it less likely that he would accidentally damage something when he did open it up. He would do this several times until he felt ready to start working on it physically. And if he could get it working he would watch what Debray had collected, he would find the good ones, the ones that were worth the time of others. And while some of them might represent dreams that deserved to be dead, surely there were at least a couple worthy of a second life.

Then when he found the ones that deserved to be seen he would show them. He would show them to the village, to the other settlements on the island, to the merchant seamen and the navy crews who visited. He would make sure as many people as possible knew about them, and if he was lucky he would find some young person who would be entranced enough by them to take over the work that Debray had started. And if he had to mangle a few irreplaceable film prints along the way that was just how it was going to be. These remaining movies were going to die someday, they could not last forever. And when they did flare to life for the final time perhaps they would do so while providing form to a dream in someone else, just as they once had for Debray.

But of course before he did any of this he was going to make himself a cup of tea.

© 2014


  1. Calvin, got it -- if you can put through a comment to the Archdruid Report marked "not for posting" with your email, so I can contact you if your story gets chosen, that'd be great.

  2. While your story did bring up some of the difficult issues with preservation that have been rolling around in my mind, I enjoyed reading it!

  3. Having worked in Hollywood for a decade back in the 90s I like the idea of someone saving the films. Good job and best of luck. I'm updating the list at the Green Wizard's website and adding your story to it.

  4. Fascinating. Glad to have stumbled across this. :)

  5. Thank you all so much for your kind words! :)

    This piece had its origins in some of my own experiences in Hollywood, but was also inspired by two stories, one read in an article and the other overheard by me. The article was about an international conference of film archivists and one of the experts in attendance was the representative of the official film archive of a country in west Africa (I believe it was Ghana). He told of how difficult it was finding resources to do his job among all the other urgent priorities that his government had to fund, and used the example of a recent cholera outbreak in his country that had sickened a good many people and diverted resources from nonessential needs.

    The other story, the one overheard, was told by an employee of a post-production house to his girlfriend while they waited for a screening to start (I was in a seat behind them). This post-production house had many of the big studios as clients and much of their business came from said studios bringing them their old films to be digitally scanned and restored in preparation for TV and home video releases. The scanning was done on these devices called telecines and there was an overnight shift who handled much of that work. Well, Sony brought them the original film elements for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to be scanned, and at some point during the overnight shift the negative got jammed in the telecine. Nobody on the shift was willing to go and clear the jam because there was always a chance of damaging the film and nobody wanted to be the one responsible for that, so LAWRENCE OF ARABIA remained jammed until the next morning when the supervisor came in. I had to delete this to save space, but that was going to be one of Debray's jobs, the overnight shift as a telecine operator, and one of his dying memories was going to be of him and co-workers freaking out when the irreplaceable negative to some immortal Hollywood classic got jammed in the machine!

  6. Your story brought to mind a favourite movie of mine - a British film, Shooting the Past. It's revolves around an amazing photographic archive that is about to be sold and broken up. Highly recommended!
    Thanks for writing such a great story, it was thought provoking and moving.

  7. You've got a real contender here. Good luck. I really enjoyed the read.

  8. Great job. I sometimes find myself amazed at how enormously complex a thing like a movie actually is, and stunned by how ephemeral such a thing actualy is. Your story captures that feeling beautifully.