Celluloid Afternoon

A teenaged, suburban-bred Mormon girl wrestles with doubt, and one day she decides to take a risk.
She knew neither her parents, nor any of her Sunday School teachers, would approve of what she wanted to do.
What she didn't expect to find was a soul-sustaining source of unimaginable beauty... more powerful than any "scripture" she could ever read.

 In a svelte city of coffeehouses, bridges, and boulevards, there stands an old cinema with a tall, skinny electric sign that once blazed.

 In the lobby there stand a popcorn machine, a rotating glass pizza baker, and a row of colorful candy dispensers. On the walls are glossy posters for 'Super Size Me' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11'.

 It is 2004, but – as though it possesses a recalcitrant spirit of its own – the physical structure of the theater does not acknowledge this.

 An adolescent girl sits in the back rows, cloaked in the shadow of the balcony. She sees looping wires that snake up the walls, past several missing panels. The high ceiling is lost in darkness, from which ageless red velvet curtains cascade to the floor: the sexy, elegant dress donned 80-some-odd years ago, and never relinquished. The gussied-up date that got stood up and never lost the scars.

 Well-dressed guests, either seated or presently arriving, pointedly choose seats at least 10 feet from any strangers. They come single, or in pairs. An anomalous clutch of five students wears thick black glasses and stridently discusses Buster Keaton. If anyone looks at the girl, none of them stare.

 That's nice for a change, she thought.  Probably for the best... could be someone I know.

She reconsiders the notion that anyone she knew would dare step into a place like this. She laughs to herself.

 The darkness descends and covers everything. The UFA logo flickers across the screen and bodiless organ music leaps up. The girl can no longer see her own hands in her lap, but as a pinprick of light opens on a wintry, colorless garden, an onlooker would see the girl's pale face turned up to the screen, her eyes glazing over with a growing sensation of wonder.

 She came because of the playbill: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The tale of a sinister old man who travels the German countryside, showing off a fortune-telling somnambulist at town fairs, always leaving a string of murders in his wake. The girl had been delving deeply into Tim Burton's oeuvre for months now, and in her ad hoc exploration of films that her matronly Mormon supervisors would certainly deem unfit for her tender eyes, Caligari was the next step.

 In the garden, two men huddle on a bench; the young man whispers his tragic story to his gray elder. Without warning, the woman the young man had once hoped to make his wife glides past in a pure white sheath. Her eyes are deep, dead black pools; she sees nothing. The boy gazes at her with bated breath, his feverish eyes yearning at her. The tempest of his face and the pungency of his pure feeling – completely lost on the young woman – flow out of their celluloid prison, trapped there ninety unbridgeable years ago, straight into the Mormon girl's heart.

In the little half-timbered village of Holstenwall, the houses and lampposts twist into tortuous shapes. Men in suits and derbies and women in coats and cloches clamor at the carnival, where a hunched man with lingering eyes cranks a hurdy-gurdy and feeds the vested monkey on his shoulder. The man who calls himself Caligari, with a cape and top hat and an unpleasant smile plastered across his face, waves innocent men and women into his tent, urging them to inquire of his sleeping man about their futures.

 And then… those eyes: large, clear, piteous and pleading. The Mormon girl has never seen magnetic eyes before, and these are magnetic as no other pair has ever been. Vulnerable, feminine, empty of agency.

Poor little Cesare, wisps up from her subconscious like smoke. She thinks he is as beautiful as every man and woman that ever lived. When his silhouette against Alan's bedroom wall stabs the shadow of the ill-fated student with a huge knife, the girl imagines the sleepwalker's better half chained up in a deep, damp cellar… and guarded in the cigarette light by a jowly, bitter old schemer.

 She is enamored of every wide-eyed stare, every gasp from black-painted lips cleft into statuesque faces, every trembling white hand… all beautiful artifacts from the lives of once-people, who now can only stare back from the grave and yearn for sound to come out of their mouths when they scream.

The End

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