Harp & Altar
Eugene Lim

Paul Winner

Michael Zeiss
Notes Toward a Supreme Action Movie

Notes Toward a Supreme Action Movie
Michael Zeiss

The Pitch

— The soul of the Indian who sold Manhattan to the Dutch possesses the creaking copper body of the Statue of Liberty and rampages through New York City. A young man attempts to save the city by transferring said Indian’s spirit from the statue into his own body. It’s Godzilla meets Frankenstein meets Ghostbusters meets Dances with Wolves.

— Will the hero be a scientist type?

— Yes. In the first scene we see him playing chess with an old man in Central Park.

— Beating him?

— Trouncing him soundly.

— The hero trounces old men?

— But after the trouncing, the old man smiles wistfully.

— For the old man was once like him.

— Yes.

The producers compare the grosses of movies that do not feature the destruction of New York, and the grosses of movies that do. A slight dip in the line was supposed to begin an age of entertainment without destruction or irony, but this age did not occur, in fact the line streaks like a missile to the upper corner of the graph, so the producers are sold. The movie is to be made.


The Supreme Action Movie

There is a supreme action movie that, in between its vistas of destruction and its absurd, simply solved labyrinth of event upon event, also follows a minor character’s morning routine; portrays our hero, between gunfights, using a public restroom and recalling a childhood event absolutely inessential to the plot; and shows the villain, after his dastardly plots are set in motion, tending his garden, watching reruns of Buck Rogers, and reading the collected Colette. In a supreme action movie, Mel Gibson, in the midst of one his spurting, homoerotic death-dealing orgies, takes an axe or bullet in the skull and suddenly slumps down dead, a spontaneous eruption of reality makes the screen go dark, the lights go up, and return us to life forty-five minutes too soon.

Typically we are only allowed to see a meniscus of character above the sleek surface of the plot. The hero will go from playing chess in Central Park, through an hour and a half of scene after scene of action, which ends inevitably with the love interest throwing a windbreaker over his shoulders as they walk arm in arm away from the flashing lights of police cars. Unless the hero dies, in which case a friendly policewoman will throw the windbreaker over the shoulders of the love interest, but the hero can only die if a very specific martyrdom scenario is followed in which he stands up for what is right and true and the love interest is pregnant with his child.

Perhaps these movies are popular precisely because such a story-arc will never blaze like a meteor through our lives. The ninety minute triumph of right, the just punishment of evil, and the merciful redemption of the guilty are rare sights indeed in real life’s wilderness. Yet whatever inside us craves these insipid fantasies, is there not also a part of us that longs for an action movie more supreme—that asks of our heroes, who among you, like the rest of us, will shit and eat Cheerios?


We Meet the Hero Playing Chess

In the original script the hero’s name was Jim Stalker, of course the director was not satisfied with that, the hero is not just a sack of testosterone, he needs to be more than a Frank Dux, Dutch Schaeffer, Martin Riggs, Gabe Walker, John Matrix, Frank Martin, Jack Hall, Jack Bauer, John Cutter, or John McClane—so he chooses Kelvin for a hint of science and Barrow for a darker, icy, Tolkien/Viking feeling. Kelvin Barrow, then, is twenty-six years old, pursuing a Ph.D. in physics from Columbia University. We first meet him at a chess table in Central Park, playing against an old man. Kelvin thinks simultaneously about the game going on before him and his thesis on victims of multiple lightning strikes. The old man across from him sips from a silver flask. He is getting trounced.

Kelvin is one of the most promising researchers in the field. He has poked and prodded his subjects, put them through CAT scans and measured their electrical fields with tiny, painful prongs attached to each and every part of their bodies. He has found that multiple-lightning-strike victims hum along at an increased level of electrochemical activity that provides a perfect grounding spot for any lightning fork flailing about in the sky. Glenn Ford from Akron, Ohio, is one of these unfortunates: struck by lightning fourteen times while working farms and orchards these past ten years, he has recently changed careers from drunken laborer to a less itinerant (but no less drunken) gig as Kelvin’s lab rat. He lives off his stipend of fifteen dollars a day, sells his blood plasma when he needs cigarettes, and stays at a shelter for homeless men in Queens.

Tonight a vicious storm system is headed up the eastern seaboard toward New York. Glenn is to meet Kelvin at Battery Park during the storm. Kelvin will watch from a safe distance while Glenn, beneath a specially constructed dome of lightning rod poles arching up ten feet over his head, tempts fate by studying a laminated sheet of word problems, thus increasing his brain activity and amplifying his electrical signature. While doing this it is important that he stands very, very still.

Kelvin glances at his watch—four o’ clock! There is no time to waste. He moves his piece one last time, knocks down the opposing king, and salutes his opponent with a bow. Then he is off on his mountain bike northwest through the park.

The old man smiles wistfully as Kelvin rides away—he was just like that young man once, a real whippersnapper, full of vigor and vim. Now his mouth is dry and dusty always, and his tongue feels like paper. Like I’m already in the grave, he thinks, and takes another sip of whiskey.


An Island Is Destroyed to a Catchy Tune

Oh, to be young in the grandest city of all, riding a mountain bike through its unnatural preserve! A catchy tune follows Kelvin, high and jangly: featuring mandolins and woodwinds, African thumb piano and bass viol in counterpoint to wailing electric guitar and the sound of a muezzin moaning on his minaret. He weaves his way through joggers and rollerbladers by the dozens, all fit and happy, the young rollerblading women wear skimpy clothing, the older women walking with their husbands are frumpy but cute. Kelvin rides on, paying them no mind: in his head he studies equations for cloud charging, formulas  for the average number of negatively charged leaders trailing down from a storm, the number of positively charged streamers likely to rise up to meet them. Maybe for a moment he studies the outrageous breasts of the woman who just passed wearing a thong (an extra imported from Venice Beach), but only for a moment. Though the sun shines, and the citizenry is exultant and partially nude, a storm is coming. There is work to do.

A stray cloud obscures the sun, and the catchy tune shifts. We hear, in the bridge, the low moan of a wooden flute. As the cloud’s shadow falls over the park, the rollerbladers and joggers and dog walkers fade and the surrounding skyscrapers melt into fat taffy-tufts of mist.

For we have ordered up from the virtual set department a complete and exact rendering of the isle of Manhattan, circa 1626, every last tree, bit of moss, branch, rock, hill, and stream. Outcrops that were leveled rise groaning back; springs and rivulets once stagnant and brown rush by swift and clear; and a dull roar heralds the rippling green rebirth of ten million trees up and down the isle. The city disappears. Kelvin now rides alone, a dim figure through the phantom past.

The producers ask:

— Was that the destruction of New York? Was that it?

— The movie has three destructions, this is the first. Very soon, a city of concrete and steel will burst back through this wilderness, and later Liberty will attempt to destroy the city yet again. There is also a modest mention of eminent domain near the story’s end.

— Three destructions and eminent domain besides? Have a fucking cigar!

With the producers mollified, the shot may now pull back and let us glimpse the wild isle entire, bristling with bedrock and glinting here and there with falling streams and low-lying swamps. Then we pan north, and zoom in again, down to the island’s topmost tip. We make out two figures, at first dim but growing clearer. One figure is fat and white, out in a grassy clearing, the other young, slim and brown. What’s that—a handshake? An exchange of goods? Some beads? A bolt of cloth?

After the deal goes down, the young Indian heads south, through the wild wondrousness of the enchanted isle. We see his figure flit below the forest canopy, and follow his progress by the deep crimson color of the cloth he carries and the glint of beaded glass. Soon he reaches the eastern shore of the island and uses a small boat to paddle to Sewanhacky’s shore.

The pale, flabby Dutchman leaves the clearing and walks west through the forest, down to the Hudson where a ship waits to take him south to the island’s tip, where there is already a settlement, but now one with enough legitimacy to keep other European powers at bay.

We come back to Kelvin in the modern-day park, but intercut to the sound of the flute-flutter, we see the young man on the larger island now, huffing as he hurdles low branches, bead and blanket and trinket slung over arms and shoulders. Guitars thrum. The flute wows and screeches. Kelvin reaches Broadway. The young man reaches home, a seasonal camp on the shore. He extends a bead chain to an old sachem and throws his red cloth down. The wrinkly-eyed, wise-looking chief stares at him. There is always a wrinkly-eyed, wise-looking chief who stares. Kelvin unsnaps the front wheel of his bicycle, and with a criminal proof U-shaped lock, locks it to the back wheel and the gate in front of his apartment. He looks up. Storm clouds gather above the skyscrapers. The sachem looks up. Storm clouds pile up above the unbroken green glade; mists congeal into a thick wall of fog. Kelvin runs up four flights of stairs, unlocks three bolts on his door, and is soon sitting by his window, watching the storm with anticipation, sipping a glass of water. Soon the city will be streaked wet with rain. The first huge drops fall and strike dirt and pine needles. Lightning flashes, illuminating the sachem’s face, and then the young man’s. They speak, and we read in the subtitles:

— You are Canarsee; you had no right to trade the land across the river.

— The People there are weak, old father; they do not fight the strange men, nor do they seek to profit from them.

The old sachem has a vision, he raises his arm and tells it to the young man, and as he tells it, we see it, in a wide shot of the entire land as it shifts, groans, buckles and rumbles. From underneath its skin come streets, steel spikes, water-tower tops, cut cornices of granite, marble, and brick all exploding apart the forest floor. The waters of the rivers boil and from beneath rise bridges like the skeletons of leviathan, fanning wiry fins and cables to the sky. From that one little ship and that tiny southern fort flabby forms spill out like grubs, pupate wildly in every form and color, and start buzzing incessantly in all the languages of the earth.

The young man is stunned.

— I hope by showing me this vision, old man, you do not imply that I am responsible for these things that will come to pass.

— Why else would I show it to you?

— You are blind and a fool. The strange men will have the land with or without our agreement. We are lucky to get even these trinkets. And if you have known this vision in your heart and have done nothing then I curse you and say the People will get what they deserve.

The young man takes a knife from his belt, the flute screeches in the upper octaves now, guitars and bass below it thrash to a frenzy, but the old sachem calls on the power of the Great Spirit; he clenches his fist and a great fork of lightning breaks from the clouds and sucks the young boy’s soul screaming into the night sky. In the dirt, a broken, smoking knife, a burning bolt of cloth, and dollops of molten glass are all that remain.

And then quiet: before us, the city entire, lights winking in the night, a beacon on the hill, the golden door beneath the lifted lamp. It has settled on top of what-once-was, crushing it all with the quiet weight of time’s passage. The only sounds we hear from this height are the distant bleats of car horns and the deep timpani of purple thunderheads cruising monstrous through the sky.

In one of those buildings, by one of those lighted windows, Kelvin’s pensive face peers out. He hopes the storm has not done its worst; he needs more rain, more forked fire blasting to the earth in crooked streams.


Suspensions of Disbelief and Belief

We are told the suspension of disbelief is important to maintain throughout all fictions, and it is especially important to keep this disbelief at bay during an action movie, where terrible acting, clunky dialogue, confusing plot points and poor editing all threaten the seamless totality of the viewer’s experience. (This leads us to wonder if the proper attitude toward reality is the suspension of belief: one for the studio philosophers in their basement cells to go to work on.)

In this action movie the viewer will be asked to suspend their disbelief in:

·         The Great Spirit, punisher of souls

·         The transmigration of souls via electricity

·         The animation of large statues (colossi)

·         The ability of a simple boy to triumph against the odds

·         The real lives of action-movie characters (aka, a movie gone supreme)

Later, an answer comes from the studio philosophers, it is scribbled hastily and rolled up into a pneumatic tube, where it whooshes to the surface: “suspension of belief important to experience of reality? (theory derived from converse: suspension of disbelief important to experience of fiction)—indeed, to understand reality at all one must keep belief constantly at bay—what you believe to be a chair—and indeed, yourself—is only the most recent collection of ten trillion screeching immortal muons; we are limited by input from the thin spectra of our senses, which unified by blips in our brain illuminate our world much like a projector through successive frames of film. As the clunky mechanics of the cinema pale in comparison to our rich experience of reality, so do the sad chemical bleatings of our brains compared to what actually, obstinately, is.

P.S.—Send call girls, Old Crow, Doritos.”


On Case Management

Meanwhile, the director is filming a meeting between Glenn Ford and his case manager at Lives Transitioned Limited. 

— So you have a check for one hundred twenty-two dollars. Let me make a copy of that.

— Sure.

(The case manager, Mr. Roy Vincent, returns from the Xerox machine and pokes his fingers at the rim of his glasses, pushes them up on the bridge of his pudgy nose.)

— That was for one week’s work?

— Two.

— Two. You know, Mr. Ford, it is wonderful that you are employed. It really is.

— Thank you.

— But.

— But?

— But we would really like to see you get into another line of work.

                — Like what?

                (Glenn scratches at his bushy gray moustache, and knocks up the brim of his feed company baseball cap with his knuckle. He frowns.)

                — The field of the janitorial arts is really booming right now. Think of all the office buildings in New York, how many wastebaskets, recycling bins, dusty hard-to-reach shelf tops, dirty restrooms, are just waiting for the men of this shelter to reach out and grab. Think of it. It’s like money in the bank, practically.

— Except it’s just a bunch of shit that no one wants to clean.

— Yes, Mr. Ford. There is that difference.

— I was a janitor once.

— When was that, Mr. Ford?

— Back in ’86, on the West Coast. I was a bit of a meth head back then, bikers used to cook it but the Mexicans started getting into the market big, moving it up the coast, so you could get if for practically nothing. When my money ran out or I got too strung out I’d crash at a shelter, one time I stayed clean awhile, got that janitor job. I was sweeping off the front stairway of the office building once, and I come across this huge pile of shit. It was winter, and I could see, like it was still steaming. So I go down the steps and look to the side of the stairwell in some bushes. There’s this bum there. I shook the guy, he looked like some troll, he was hairy and his skin was so dirty it was green. “Look, buddy,” I said. “I gotta clean this building, but I’m not going to clean up your shit.” He was drunk. “Leemeealoneman,” he says, and his words were gurgling up in his mouth. So you know what I did?

(Mr. Vincent has no idea what Mr. Ford did.)

— No, Mr. Ford. What did you do?

— I kicked him so hard in the temple he passed out!

(Mr. Vincent says nothing in reply, but makes a note on his legal pad: SOME PREVIOUS JOB EXPERIENCE.)

— Anyways, Mr. Barrow says my electrochemical signature is unique.

— Is that right?

— Yes. There are only one in a million like me.

— That is probably true.

— So with all due respect, Mr. Roy, I’m not going to be no fucking janitor. Now sign in that log-book that I gotta work late tonight. There’s a big storm coming through, and science needs me.

The producers call. They are upset, this scene seems like a distraction, if it has to do with some supreme-o movie theory they do not like the supreme-o  movie theory, Glenn is such a noble fellow despite his being down and out, he can’t be high on meth and kicking his fellow unfortunates in the head. Just a few pages on in the script, they say, when Glenn gets on the subway let’s say it’s empty save for a good-looking guy in a suit, Glenn doesn’t notice him at first, he’s too freaked out, but the guy keeps staring at him, finally the guy says were you a janitor at the so-and-so building? Then Glenn realizes – it’s the guy! He’s all cleaned up now, has a job, a family, and he’s coming across the car now to Glenn with his fists raised. Then we cut to a shot of the guy leaving the train with Glenn splayed out on the seats beaten to a pulp, how about it, you can’t just leave this hanging, there has to be some sort of comeuppance, doesn’t there? Doesn’t—hello—hello?


Liberty Comes Alive

Up above the lapping green waters of the harbor, a soul has been first flitting, then flying, and now flopping from airwall to airwall and gust to gust. We see its dim white outline against a gray thunderhead, and Liberty’s spiked crown below. Then a flash—blinding white, terrible, it splits through the shadowy figure, contorting it in a gruesome gesture of pain, arms and legs spread as the bright bolt impales it through the chest, and streaks down to the statue’s copper head. The figure curls inward, into its heart where the white bolt is blasting, and we can see it curl further and bend into the crackling stream, and all at once it is sucked through. The fork bottoms out on Liberty’s solemn head, illuminating it like a flaming crown.

The statue turns its head for a moment, this way, that way, and then, for the first time in more than a hundred years, the lifted light, Liberty’s beacon, is lowered. The huge plates groan—rivets pop—undergirders buckle—beams bend. The statue rubs its shoulder with its free hand. Never has a weathered piece of copper felt so sore!

But rage—rage lights the eyes of the statue and howls through the empty stair from its head down to the back of its left leg. Quickly, it steps off the pedestal, strides in four steps to the edge of the island, and slips quietly into the sea. The lamp is lifted again (with the other hand, while the weary arm is given a rest) and crests the waves, shooting off white sparks, moving like a ghost ship as the statue’s feet stride the seafloor toward the bottom tip of the island of Manhattan.

— You see that?

Kelvin and Glenn have been at the tip of Battery Park these past few hours, Glenn beneath his strange tent of lightning rods, studying his laminated sheet of word problems, Kelvin with his video camera and electrical instruments trained upon Glenn, ready to capture and measure the first strike that comes.

Glenn looks at Kelvin.

— See what?

Kelvin saw it start to move, he saw it walk off the island into the water, he keeps filming. Glenn turns and sees first the torch, and now as the statue nears the shore the upraised arm, and then the crown crests the water in a foaming flood, and the terrible face emerges. Glenn runs, leaving the laminated sheet of word problems on the wet pavement, runs as fast as his pointed cowboy boots will carry him to the South Ferry subway station.

The statue now steps on land, a girlish Godzilla streaked with brine and seaweed. Kelvin films it walking to the park’s northeast corner, where a flagpole rises from the bronze plaque at its base. The good lady reaches down, uproots the pole, tosses it aside, and with one huge foot (still trailing its broken shackles) crushes the pedestal and plaque. It cannot roar, the statue is not equipped with anything like vocal chords. But Kelvin watches through the viewfinder as it tilts its head back and opens its mouth, and the sound of metal groaning and plates straining under immense stress rushes from inside, filling the night air with sharp and dissonant vibrations that pummel Kelvin’s eardrums.

Now it looks up Broadway, takes two massive steps, and with an almost casual backhand blow of the torch, swats Wall Street’s great bull, sending it spinning end over end into the harbor. Another step, two, with gigantic feet, it is in the labyrinth of glass it flew above for so long, aching to touch, break, smash, shatter. Then Liberty raises the bright torch high like a dagger, poised to stab and slash, and the destruction begins.

Back at the South Ferry station, the train arrives, the doors open and we see that the car is empty, for the man who might have been there actually died of hypothermia the same winter that Glenn kicked him in the head. This is not to say that he wouldn’t have kicked Glenn’s ass up and down the subway car if given the opportunity, he just would have needed a few other opportunities in order to take advantage of this last one, and those never came.     


Years Hence

Who else is Kelvin’s girlfriend but a stylish, petite young blonde with a collection of snappy scarves in her closet, who works as a perky television reporter on the late night news? How could it be otherwise?

Kelvin has followed the statue uptown, filming all the way. But soon he stops filming and leaves the statue to go to the offices of Channel 26 news, where he knows he will hand to his girl, sweet Shelly, footage for the year’s most sensational story.

Years hence, we find her sitting on her porch swing in a nondescript subdivision of a nondescript suburb of a normal, wholesome American city. It is a five-bedroom house, with a two-car garage. The children have left it now, are off to college perhaps or even beginning their careers, and she has time to remember the night when Liberty loosed herself from her moorings and went out for a night on the town.

— They gave me the story that night. It was all because of Kelvin. He had the footage of the statue coming alive, you could see it right behind the shoulder of that homeless man. That was my big break. Soon after I got the evening news co-anchor position, and went national a few years after that. He was soaked through with rain. He came into the office and plopped the tape down on my desk. By that time we had sent a camera crew out, but to have that first footage. It meant my whole career.

— Later that evening? Yes, I was there. I know they say he had a backpack with wires and everything but I don’t believe for a minute he was going to do what they said he was going to do. He was trying to help, I know he was.  I think he was going to deactivate it. And then I—I—I’m sorry, I usually don’t cry about it anymore. Can you turn the camera off for a minute?


In the Situation Room

After Kelvin leaves the newsroom two men in dark suits and sunglasses stop him on the street, grab him under the armpits and rush him into a waiting limousine. They take him to a situation room in an undisclosed location.

As the disciples must have been both pleased and envious to see Jesus ascend to heaven, so the sight of some regular guy being whisked away in a limousine to the center of earthly power stirs these feelings in us. It may be rooted in the need to know that somewhere out there is a center of control, efficient and ruthless, a secret senate that excludes the weak and unfit and insists that it does so only to more efficiently pull the levers and spin the wheels of the world-machine. And if we were asked to join it—if it somehow needed us?

On his way there (we cannot tell you where, who knows what kind of people you have contact with) Kelvin asks the men if they can make a stop at the public library, and after that short errand is done, Kelvin is taken to a nondescript building, past a gray doorway, offered a seat on a comfy couch, given coffee and pastries. A general comes to meet him, gives him a hard-assed, squinty-eyed look as he brings him back to the situation room.

— Barrow, you witnessed this thing’s coming to life. As of this moment Liberty is at work down below in the streets, destroying the heart of the empire. We need you, son.

We hardly need to go into the look and feel of the situation room; it is the same one used over and over again. The aides are there, they have very few lines; they shuffle papers, take notes, and if they wear glasses, they take them off and chew on the ends of the frames. The chief of police is a competent fellow; but he would rather not butt heads with the DHS or the Pentagon. The camera focuses on the buzz-cut, square-jawed general of the New York National Guard, jabbing at the conference table with a thick finger and barking out orders. By looking at him one assumes the existence of three or four less fortunate siblings, who were left in their infancy on an exposed hillside to wail, wither, and die. He is a veteran not only of the first and second Gulf Wars but also of Vietnam, and the producers have put him here to remind us that not all veterans go crazy, become heroin addicts, lose jobs and families due to PTSD, wander the streets homeless, or wait interminable hours at the V.A. hospital for dentures or an explanation of why an unhealthy diet and too little exercise has cleared the branched forest of their nervous system, and not a government defoliant, or chemical weapons which were in fact, not used, so why would they even think that. So broad-shouldered, bold, and pleasing a form he has, that we almost don’t notice—until the camera pans in for a close-up—his fake leg. It is a gunmetal blue hydraulic-looking thing, with a combat boot on the foot. It is obvious this is a more recent wound. God bless him, and may God bless America.

Kelvin takes a seat in an out of the way corner, flips through the library book and marks pages with post-it notes, then gives it to an aide who scrambles to scan the pages and put the pictures in PowerPoint. As the aide does this Kelvin dictates a few concise bullet points that the aide takes down and puts in the presentation.

The general addresses the team assembled at the long, polished conference table.

— What does she want from us? Why Liberty—of all things on this goddamn earth that we have watched for, drilled for, revamped our plans and prepared for, why her? Why one of ours? NSA, CIA, are you sure you have no clandestine statue animation programs?

— None, sir, none we know that we can recall being aware of.

— Sir, the military potential of this development is huge, I mean, it’s just in the wrong place now, imagine letting a few of these ladies loose in Falluja, Pyongyang, Tehran, Hollywood . . .

— Perhaps we’re on the wrong track—maybe she is looking for a mate.

— The Colossus of Rhodes, perhaps.

— Where is that? Rhode Island? Rhodesia?

— It does not exist any longer.

— It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

— It bestrode, with pendulous genitals hanging, an inlet on the islet of Rhodes.

— Will the Washington Monument do?

— Too big.

— Too pointy.

— Still, if we filled it with explosives and enticed her to it . . .

— Gentlemen, gentlemen.

— There is a brief silence, and Kelvin now speaks:

— I saw it rip apart the flagpole that commemorates the sale of Manhattan, heard it give a low, steely, hollow-sounding howl.

— What what?

— Who let him in here? Who’s that boy?

I had him picked up, the general says. He was an eyewitness to its coming-to-life. Figured he knew something.

Now, he says, walking over to Kelvin, gripping the back of his chair with rough hands. What does the flagpole have to do with all of this?

Kelvin motions to the aide, who dims the lights, and he says:

— First slide please. I first made the connection between the rampaging statue, Lady Liberty, and the Manhattan island bead-deal when I saw the statue stop, for a moment, and rip this flagpole and pedestal, known as the Netherlands Monument, from the ground. It heaved a howl through its steel ribs—a strange, sad, melancholy groan, like the creak and crank a rusty tanker ship must make on the high seas.

But, gentlemen, let me take you back a year or so. Next slide. My girlfriend and I had always wished to make love in a library. It was at a public branch, in the evening time, when we went to prosecute this secret desire in the far, obscure stacks of old dusty history books: you know, the kind of books you may find in a garage sale, that for some reason have swastikas on them, written in ninety twenty or so, “History of the Actions and Inactions of Certain Masonic Societies of the American West” or something else like that, anyway, reaching behind her to unclasp her bra, my hand hit a stack of books, and one fell open to the floor. We hit the ground, too, and later I read the open page, which my head lay flat on, my nose stuck in the open crease by the spine, a dew-drop of love-sweat hanging from the end, about to fall. Next slide, please.

I read that the West India Company’s director, Minuit, after being sacked by the Dutch, started working for the Swedes, founding a new settlement farther south, by the Delaware River. In 1638, on his way back to Sweden, he stopped in the Caribbean to pick up a load of tobacco. There Minuit’s ship was swallowed up in a hurricane and he and all hands perished. But then I gazed cross-eyed down to read these italicized lines that sprung roughly from the part of my face between my nose and upper lip out to the edge of the page, next slide, thank you:

There is a legend that the young native who sold the island to Minuit for a handful of beads was damned by the Great Spirit to fly ghostly above the island for all time; and twelve years after the deal, was so angered by the success, prosperity, and trenches running with the piss and waste of New Amsterdam, that he filled up his ghostly lungs with the cool Atlantic Air, blew it out, filled them again, blew, as a great spirit-bellows, warming the air and the currents and sending them south, to form a great hurricane where his enemy now sailed, and it fell upon him, dashing and splintering the ship and all of the men therein to pieces so small even the worms of the sea could not nibble upon, being so small, and not tasty besides. And many say this spirit still hovers above the island of Manhatto, biding its time until it may take further revenge—

Gentlemen, I propose to you that it is this same vengeful native that stalks our streets tonight in the guise of Liberty!


Barrow Off the Case

Usually we would make sure to show reactions of the people in the situation room to Kelvin’s speech so the audience knows how to react. Who would let them judge for themselves, when they’re sitting in a multiplex in a part of town zoned only for airports and discount malls, having just come from a meal at the quaint gas-lit French bakery that sits in the middle of a field of home improvement stores and parking lots? We should not trust them too much to figure things out. We need some close-ups of a few military men saying, upon Kelvin’s revelation that one of the isle’s original inhabitants is behind the current mayhem, “That boy is good,” or, “By Jove, I think he’s got it,” or, by far the best, “He’s right, and may God help us all.” It is better this way, for all of us. This way no one gets confused. (Oh life! Oh America!)

But the general just sighs and says: 

— Bullshit. Get him out of here.

The same two men in dark suits usher Kelvin out of the room, through left turns, rights, up and down stairs, to an elevator, out of the elevator, into another and out of it, up a flight of stairs to a door; the door opens to cement steps, which Kelvin walks up. At the top he finds a pair of metal doors blocking the way above; he pushes at them, and comes out of the cellar door of a corner market on 72nd and Broadway, but you must not tell anyone, and even if you did, this location changes quite frequently, so it would be of no use to any of the unsavory elements you may find yourself chatting with online.

Surrounded by a mass of people, commuting, walking, staring ahead with fixed eyes and minds, amid the bleat of cars and cabs, the thump-thump of signal boxes changing, Kelvin is alone. He takes the subway back to his apartment, all the while spinning plans and schematics in his mind, he still thinks he is right, and he thinks he knows a way to stop Liberty once and for all.

For these movies are not any good at all unless the hero is taken off the case, but keeps on it anyway, the boss man be damned. If Kelvin has to shoot his way, he will do it; his aim will be true for twenty minutes, and those who spray bullets at him will always miss; if he has to build a machine (he will build a machine) he will build one that two large research foundations and a hundred brilliant scientists could never discover the physics of; if additional bumbling officials dare to warn him of the dangers ahead, he will go into those dangers willingly, and before and after he will say smartass things to the bumbling officials. Order, government, and society are useless, it is these white men with three-syllable names who are our only protection, and have not researchers funded by conservative think tanks long told us of distantly related but nonetheless similar thoughts found in the blown-open brains of angry postmen, high-school shooters, mad dictators, disgruntled lovers, and suicide bombers? The threads of society snap and fall, and from the loose, frayed pile spring madmen and action heroes, finally, fictively, sometimes dangerously isolated and alone.


The Zoo of Leaves and Branches

Liberty is still on the rampage; it has followed an old Indian trail uptown and is now closing in on the former Plaza Hotel, and beyond the Plaza, looking longingly toward the unbroken green of Central Park.

The Park! How the spirit howled and hooted when they first built it! Because the good gentlemen and ladies of New York needed a fashionable place to take their evening carriage rides and strolls—to see and be seen—the land was cleared, property owners were evicted, eminent domain was used to shoo away the people of Seneca Village, who walked north despondent as the spirit’s ancestors once did for another place to make their homes, save this dangerous rabble of freedmen who dared lay claim to a swampy patch of dirt received neither bauble nor bead. The spirit cried foul and fakery, he visited Olmstead in his sleep, whispering ancient curses into his ear as the invented ponds were filled, earth was scraped to form the fake rock faces and simulated hills rose that spilled carefully stepped streams to meander by the newly gouged pathways.

But eventually he succumbed, his disbelief, like the rest of him, suspended. He learned to enjoy the days when the winds blew him to the park and then died down so he could float there for a while, the police keeping the drunken hooligans out while the ladies went a-riding through the glens and groves, to indulge a fantasy of return: the wish for trees to be trees and always trees, and rocks rocks and ponds ponds, unchanged by what after all are certainly only the mild effects of human habitation, though as much as he and the ladies enjoyed the park, the boy knew it for the sad little zoo of leaves and branches that it was. He only had to look out at the furious never-ending eruptions of streets, corruptions of steel and stone that had blown out as far as his eyes could see. The trees that gave the ladies shade were orphaned, restless, penned in behind the avenues; in the quietest hours of the night he could hear them gasp for air.

Now, tonight, he decides to give nature, the original sex and death crazed libertine, king-rotting, stone-chewing, steel-rusting, and all-things-growing, a small head start on the road to its high-entropy return. Up and down the blocks he storms, twirling the torch, stabbing, shocking, spark-shooting, he shatters glass and twists girders, steps with heavy feet through the pavement to the N/R line underground; turns the leg and pulls to get the foot out again, and marches on, with a subway car like a clown shoe stuck awkwardly to his foot, and people flee and tanks roll toward him in the streets.


The Death of Ms. Swan

The statue has just put its foot through a fashionable boutique and sent Monique Swan, twenty-four, a shapely, miniskirted retailer with a navel ring glinting below the tight fabric of her cropped top, with high cheeks, bright green eyes, long lashes, nice lips, a good smile, in a word, a beauty, radiant and pure: a beauty the shop’s older, richer, better-kept women envy with every swipe of their gold cards, who has just been sent, well, let’s not mince words, screaming by the filmmakers to a horrible and bloody action movie death.

It was Monique who we saw on the subway just this morning, an apparition straight from some divine realm, some cloistered corner of New York as inaccessible to we vagabonds as the snows high upon Mount Olympus, where the gods in sport make love, play jealous games, and drink sweet ambrosia while plotting, scheming, and spying out over the flatlands for winsome mortals to bed, and make of the infant offspring bright-helmed heroes of law and gorgon-slayers of fashion and finance; we admit, Monique, to being blinded by the white-white marble flash of your thighs, as you, in your daily descent to the realm of the merely good, the merely pretty, stared past us the whole ride long, out into the clattering blackness to meet the incomparable reflection of yourself with a gaze long stoned on the food of the gods. That look told us you could never come to a place where we might chat even once, much less live out the changing of the seasons together, no, we only had this brief sojourn in the underground, this silent, we-don’t-acknowledge-each-other instant, and we will even admit that we took the subway one stop longer than usual because you were that good looking.

And now this green ungainly foot clumsily controlled by a damned-spirit-brain crashing through the plate glass and the fall collections, this senseless loss of life and beauty.

The director is so moved that he instructs his cinematographer to use a special lens, one that will reveal invisible spectra of grief, anguish, and pain, and tells him to slowly pan the camera down the long avenue using a crane shot that as it zooms also rises above the destruction this twisted spirit has wrought, yet when the producers ask later about this footage, because they think this would be a perfect place to use Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the director mumbles and pretends to answer his cell phone, and the Italian cinematographer Vittorio pretends not to understand, for the footage was too unbearable to watch let alone show anyone, especially these money-grubbing producers. Everything was made of darkness, but differentiated in different hues and thicknesses, so the first thing they noticed was that the sky was dark and had been dark, and would continue to be dark, a kind of cosmic background radiation of suffering that would always be and would never leave until the last human expired; superimposed then were sphered hatreds the color of dried blood, crashing like ball lighting down the street; vicious green spirals of fear squeezing people’s skulls till they burst; grief, in mists of light-eating black that hissed in jets from vacant gazes; physical pain dribbling like mercury from stunned mouths and slackened jaws that flowed, dividing, joining, dividing until joining again in the gutters to form a mirrored, smoking stream; and mental anguish that geysered through wormholes puckering space itself with the yellowed purple of unhealing wounds. In the foreground, Monique’s absence formed a ragged gash around which the spirits of everyone who now thought or who would ever think of her dimmed inconsolably, and something like a thorn-covered vine reached out from that absence and reached across time to grab Monique’s mother by the ankle, cinching its barbs deep, and pulling her down puffy-eyed and still in her robe, though it is a late afternoon six years now since she had first heard Monique was dead, she is dragged inexorably into the darkness that this taking of her daughter has created, into which she disappears, not even resisting, for there was now and for some time had not been a reason to live, when she is up to her waist she slackens completely, the despair is comfortable but unnatural, sickening, like an overdose of opiates, her head now disappearing, until there is only her hand, which drops a coffee mug with a picture of Monique on it when she was six and dressed as Tinkerbell for Halloween, the mug as if demonstrating the obstinate persistence not of grief but of love and memory, which are grief’s parents, does not shatter but lands on the black asphalt with a sharp clink and wobbles to a stop, and then the hand too is pulled down into darkness.

Holy shit, thought Vittorio when he first reviewed the footage, if this is just one death seen this way, then how much more terrible an attack, a battle, a war.


The Machine

In the meantime, Kelvin has built his machine.

We have chosen not to show the machine-making scene; it has been done before, and parodied before, and done again with the parody in mind. All we must know is that the machine exists, and all we must believe is that Kelvin is competent enough to construct it.

After he is finished, we do not see too much of it—just some wires, cables, strange gauges—before Kelvin puts it in his backpack. He cinches an old leather aviator’s cap on his head, and strings wires from the cap down to the machine in the pack. Then he lifts a pair of gloves from his worktable, each glove also wired to the pack, the thumbs and pinkies of each poking out to allow two very large crab-like banana clips to protrude, and he puts on each glove and now weighted down by the backpack he practices squeezing the clips together, scuttling back and forth across his living room. When he is satisfied he turns on his television to get the latest location of the statue—it is now just entering Central Park—and then he leaves his apartment. He takes a cab to the Museum of Natural History, then jogs across Central Park West, under forest arches of branch and bough, down a dark path into deeper shadow, where light in purple fluorescence spills from black lampposts and pools on the pavement. Across the park a green foot carrying the weight of 450,000 pounds of copper and steel steps west to meet him.

Kelvin has been so driven, so focused on the coming fight, that he has not noticed the two men in dark glasses following him at a distance, who have actually been tailing him since his eviction from the situation room. But now it is fair to say that they are extremely agitated, their pistols have been out since Kelvin left his apartment, in the cab behind him they debated whether or not to shoot out the tires and take him down, now they are constantly receiving instructions and frantic questions in their earpieces; they lose him for a second in the shadows, they radio ahead to keep clear of him, any sudden movement could set this guy off, these days it is not a good idea to walk around wearing a big backpack with wires sticking out of it, you’re liable to start a panic, or get yourself killed. 


Forces Against Liberty Arrayed

The general and the police chief have decided that the Great Lawn is to be the place for the showdown. The tourists and joggers and corporate softball teams and trust fund hippies playing ultimate Frisbee and hurriedly stuffing their joints in their pockets have been evacuated, and now as Venus rises in the new fallen night snipers shift in treetops and on the battlements of Belvedere castle, and in the center of the lawn sixteen tanks squat on their treads as their turrets rise and take aim at an imaginary point one hundred feet in the air.

Liberty passes southwest of the Metropolitan Museum, sees Cleopatra’s Needle rearing its pyramid-top to the evening sky and then the horde gathered to meet it on the wide expanse beyond. It steps across the trees and joggers’ pathways into the field.

Steady boys, steady, the general whispers into the radio.

The whole construction of the statue is in revolt under the tremendous pressure of the walking, rivets pop from the copper sheets, some dangle and fall, but the statue stays intact, supported not by a spine but by the staircase that has been built from its base up through one of its arms.

I’ve got it in my sights, general, the tank captain says. He aims right above the tablet, still clutched in the statue’s left arm, at the heart that would be there under the thick robe if there were not only a pocket of empty air swathed in metal sheeting. The captain has told the other tanks to aim at the joints, the head, and the torch. Just one word from the general and the screaming shells will burrow into their target and explode it to pieces.

Liberty steps full and clear now into the field and the searchlights go on and raze its body with cutting white cones. Liberty raises the torch as if it were a knife or a hatchet, its mouth creaks open and blares out a groaning, hollow bellow.

Ready, the general says.

The statue takes another step.

Aiiiimmmm, the general says.

The police chief holds a cheap Statue of Liberty postcard in his hand, two for a dollar, six for two dollars, twenty for five. His face has reddened and his eyes are swollen as he says, “May God help us all.”

And then the FBI comes in on the radio: Sir, we have someone coming through the perimeter, it’s that boy you talked to earlier today, appears he’s wired with explosives, we’re keeping our folks clear but our snipers have a clear shot, just say the word.

Put him on the radio! the general says.

He has no radio, sir.

Well give him one!

A tank hatch opens, a corporal jumps out and starts toward Kelvin, who has just come out of the tree line into the field. Liberty is slowly stepping with great crashes and creaks toward the line of tanks. The corporal approaches with his arms out and slowly, carefully puts a walkie-talkie on the ground about five yards from Kelvin.

Take this, he says. The general wishes to speak with you.

The corporal runs back to the tank. The walkie-talkie squawks.

You are in the middle of a top secret military operation, the general growls. You must take off that goddamn backpack and clear the area immediately.

General, Kelvin says, you must listen to me. That is not Liberty, I told you before, you must believe me, an impostor has taken over its hallowed form. I can save her, just keep your guns aimed and ready to fire if anything goes wrong. I need five minutes.

On the other end, silence.

General? Kelvin asks. The statue is very near, its footsteps boom and the shrieks of its plates grinding as it moves pierce Kelvin’s ears.

OK, the general replies, you have five minutes.


The Hero Triumphs?

Hey, big guy! Down here!

What do you want?

Put down the torch and lift me up. Do what I say or these guys will blow you back to 1626.

Why should I do what you say?

If you put the torch down I will give you a different body. But first I really need you to put down the torch. 

All right, all right, the torch is down.

Now put your hand on the ground. I’m going to step onto it. After I step onto it, raise me up to your mouth. You make any moves to crush me or squish me they’ll open up on you.

Now here we are little strange man, face to face. Ouch! What is that?

Some clamps. Do they hurt?

A bit.

Do you know how you came here?

In the storm.

I am going to start another one to help you leave.

Where will I go?

Into my body. You will have to get to know me. I love a girl. I study science.

And if I refuse?

Then I leave you to deal with the general.

 Little strange man, first let me tell you some things that I have seen, and then you can tell me what I should do. Not long after your ancestors first settled here, they started a dishonorable war on the flimsiest of pretexts. Some Dutchman had his head cut off by a Wickquasgeck, it is true, but that native’s whole hunting band had been set upon by Europeans some years before and slaughtered, and he was the only one to survive. I saw this with my own two eyes. He waited a long time for his revenge and he took it honorably, even though that one death did not make up for the deaths of twelve of his people. Yet because of this your ancestors attacked. They were without mercy; they came without warning in the middle of the night. The men were cut down with steel. Infants bound to boards were taken from their mothers and thrown into the river to drown. Then their mothers were raped and slaughtered. Even after being set upon, many made their way to the fort, they were confused, not sure who attacked them, they thought they might be protected there, some of them carried the ropes of their own entrails in their hands, some of them carried their own limbs that had been hacked off. They found no protection, they received no care, they were left to die or if they happened to live they were taken captive, some of them were tortured and mutilated, one was castrated and his own privates were stuffed in his mouth, then he was laid on a stone and his head was beaten until it fell off. I saw a Raritan sachem tortured in the genitals with a split piece of wood, until he agreed to betray his people and give up his land. And the craziest thing about your people was that they walked among us after that as if nothing had happened, as if they had done nothing wrong. Over the years I watched the fires of the people’s summer camps and gathering grounds wink out one by one, until in just a few years I needed only my two hands to count them, and these were people who had once been as numberless as the oysters in the water.


At this point the general cuts in on the walkie-talkie:

Barrow, let me make one thing clear, it has been four minutes. It appears that you are negotiating, and you need to understand that we do not negotiate. It appears you are also talking about harboring, and you need to understand that we do not harbor. The only way to not get killed is to kill those who would kill you.

And the statue says to Kelvin:

Little man, I agree with your general.

But then it will never stop.

And the last thing Kelvin hears in his life on this earth is the statue saying:

What makes you think it can?

And the general:

What in all human time disposition history or memory?

Then with a quick snap the statue closes its hand, and the general fires his guns.


The Movie Ends, the Lights Come Up, the People Go Home

Shelly, Kelvin’s girl, is there with her camera crew and sees the strange form on the statue’s hand, wait, zoom in, she says, and then, my God, it’s Kelvin, and just seconds later the statue is bathed in sheets of flame and fire and explodes in thirty places; people scream, the tank shells are so powerful the statue doesn’t even seem to fall, it just disintegrates in the air, and people start running, but Shelly’s knees go out and she hits the ground sobbing hysterically.

Among the swarms of people running stand the producers, watching, looking behind the cameras for the director. One of them stops next to the actress who plays Shelly, he says, you aren’t even pregnant, are you, we can’t even have a scene years later, with you in the country, where we clearly recognize Kelvin’s features in a butterfly-catching three year old.

No, Shelly says, I don’t think I am, I don’t think that will happen.


If the statue had stayed its hand, if the general’s guns had not fired, Kelvin would have activated his machine and brought the boy’s spirit into his own body. A fire truck would have extended its long ladder to Liberty’s kiss-blowing hand and brought Kelvin back down to earth. He would have met Shelly with open arms, grim but smiling.  She would have sensed the chill in the air, taken a windbreaker from a firefighter and wrapped it around him—and now around that other boy as well. And it would be different for him, and for us too, at the end of the movie, to occupy not just a form but a body, to see what life looks like and how life moves while we watch behind two human eyes.

But for now the cops in the park are moving the perimeter back, the lights of approaching squad cars are flashing red and blue. A policewoman sees Shelly on the ground, she takes off her windbreaker, wraps it around Shelly’s shoulders, says come on girl, let’s get you on home, it’s not safe here, it’s still not safe.