Justin Wolfers is a writer working primarily in essay and prose. He is interested in the intersections between fiction and non-fiction, and particularly how writing on something a person is especially interested in – for example, writing about a writer you love – can have a strong effect on the tone, the language, and the mode through which the writing takes place.
For example, the character of Maelor and Corris – the weather, the language, the happy isolation, the interaction with other artists – would all make for a certain kind of writing that would not exist in another place.
Justin is currently a PhD candidate studying these elements in fiction, particularly that of hyper-mediated subjectivity, and self-narrativisation: the kind of characteristics in fiction that are reflective of the contemporary moment, the kind of writing that describes, and enacts, the feeling of living in a city with constant visual stimuli, commodities, screens and sensations.
http://justinwolfers.tumblr.com // twitter.com/jbwolfers // facebook.com/wolfers
The following piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #23: The Ego Issue.
Don goes to the cinema to watch whatever is on. Today he sits towards the back, with his coat draped over the adjacent seat. The trailers end, the reel clicks over, and it begins, all dust and grain, the masterpiece. Retrieved from the family’s estate, restored, but thankfully not digitised, still flickering.
But Don is distracted, he can’t help but think that the man who has just walked in, three rows in front, blazer over his hoodie, might be Bret. Why would he be here for this black and white artefact, this old-time fuzz? What could he see in it?
On screen she picks up the teapot, pours it, puts it down gently – unaffected, exquisite. And, Don thinks, that man watching: so commercial, so pop-culture, so irreverently contemporary.
As he watches, Don, thinks about a story he is researching for a new collection. In the story the man watches films, haunts them, four a day every day, a ghost to himself. He follows a fellow movie-goer from cinema to cinema, to her house and back, before trapping her in the women’s bathroom. He stands there next to her, thinking about what he should do. Neither person moved, he thinks, before making an offhand remark about the faucet. He has spent the day stalking her, but this is what he says: the faucet.
Don can’t help but wonder why Bret looks so transfixed. The woman on the screen is eating a crumpet. There is a crunch as she bites, and the tinkle of china as she gets up from her chair to answer the door. Don wonders what Bret would imagine is behind it.
What a beautiful film this is, thinks Bret. Her grace as she walks along the hallway, the click of the lock, the way the man in the doorframe is lit so splendidly from the side, the way the black and white palette gives a retroactive meaning to the scene, emphasising the shadow.
Bret is pleased he has come on his own to see this, so he can watch it for himself. All these people are so tiring, he thinks.
He remembers how palpably his cinema-going was affected when he and the 27-year-old were first dating – watching alongside someone who had never seen any Fellini. Bret used to make a point of seeing all the new releases at the ArcLight, the mainstream Hollywood films, the indies, the high-end European stuff, everything. But watching with the 27-year-old, everything artful seemed slow and dragging, ruining the simple pleasure of being able to just feel what he feels about a film and then to tweet about it.
But watching with the 27‑year‑old, everything artful seemed slow and dragging.
Framed in the doorway, the man on the screen has a glint in his eye not matched by the woman’s. Does this represent attraction? He has the glint, the viewer follows her eye line to look at it.
The beauty, Bret thinks, of this closeted Hollywood heartthrob. Revered for embodying a masculine trope that he performs, not for himself, but for the trope,for the perpetuation of the trope within him, which gives him capital that he need not identify with.
They’re in the car, man and woman, driving along a winding road. Her hair flops mechanically in the wind.
Don is starting to enjoy himself. He steps out of his head—as much as he can—and starts to let the film flow through shot for shot, trying not to filter the images, to just watch them.
They arrive at a restaurant. He orders a bottle of champagne and they clink glasses, a double-glint, their attraction now equal. They are happy, but there is no tension, Don thinks.
Soon the man starts to look sullen, fidgety, and Don works it out before she does. The war. There is such gravel in the way he says the word duty. He wants her to tell him not to leave, to beg him to stay, so he can miss her more, remember her face for longer. That might just get him through it. Don thinks that she perceives this, he knows what she should say, but instead she just says, Oh darling, and puts her hand on his.
He asks her to dance one last time. Don is welling up in spite of himself, as if it’s chemical, objective, irrespective of whether he is even paying full attention. He can’t help but wonder whether Bret would find it soppy. Don finds it soppy but he’s streaming nonetheless. She’s looking up at him so fondly and he’s looking at her with a promise—a guarantee to the audience—that they will see each other again.
Bret hopes they never see each other again, or that he’ll get half his face blown off and really make it interesting. Or that he comes home with the actor’s real-life partner and says, But I still love you, too.
But this never happens in films. He can see it all laid out: war, honour, courage, tests, capture, escape, glory, reunion, sunset, credits. Or if told through her eyes: hardship, needlework, rosemary beads, hope lost, a letter, hope restored, reunion, sunset, babies, credits. How beautiful and how delicate does the story have to be to follow this inevitable sequence and yet still affect him?
Bret’s drifted off and now the man is on the ship. She’s waving at him, and he has her handkerchief in his breast pocket.
He thinks about his own novel-in-progress, the prequel to American Psycho, set in the eighties, Patrick’s college years. This is his first venture into a non-contemporary setting, and a first-person voice younger than he is. Will it work? Can he write convincingly about being twenty, now? Sometimes he feels like a dinosaur, a fuddy-duddy, especially with the 27-year-old as his closest companion. He doesn’t feel like writing about the past, he wants to write about now. But he is afraid that he doesn’t really understand now, anymore, not the way his audience will want him to. They may sense a gulf between how he perceives now and how they do, killing his agency. Morrissey was charming at 24, but now… All he is sure of is that there are more adaptions, sequels and remakes than ever before, and he hasn’t been touched by a new film in ages. And yet here he is, thinking about his prequel.
The ship steams away. Don thinks about his ex-wife. She’d be at work by now, reading the traffic reports for the radio. He wants to be serious, ponderous, to just watch the film, but he’s scattered today, at least compared with Bret, who’s sitting so still and seems so contented. Don thinks that his wife would like this film. Ex. She would enjoy it wholly, instead of splicing it up and analysing her enjoyment like he can’t help but do. He wants to be stoic, watchful, but.
He starts to wonder who is over his shoulder, watching, envisioning him, assuming his physique. He starts to repeat himself inside his head, and cannot get out of the loop.
He thinks of Bret, wonders whether he is getting teary, not for the actual hardship they’re enduring on the screen but for some inexplicable something, some site of loss he can’t quite pinpoint but cries for anyhow.
She’s standing at the window, waiting. Or she is looking? She looks out the window at the empty driveway. Bret is feeling strangely nostalgic. Where did this come from? He isn’t sure.
The mysterious pathos of the film goes on as she spends evenings without him under murky lighting. Don isn’t sure whether the heroic war scenes are real or just in her imagination.
Don thinks that his wife would like this film. Ex.
If Don is going to write a story about this cinema voyeur, really write it, the man needs to ooze creepiness. A dusty, broad man, who loves to watch too much. He follows the girl to her house up in the Bronx, all the while projecting his view of her onto her. He pretends to be a cinephile, a real purist of the screen, but he can no longer separate the two, screen and life, and he is so attuned to watching that he remarks upon himself as if he isn’t there. Neither person moved.
What would Bret think? Would he think the war scenes are a figment of her hope for his return? Or is this just straight up, the front and the home front. Him, battling through the shrapnel, penning notes to her; her, staring off into the distance, completely without agency but the film is ancient and so it slides.
A stray bullet gets him just under the armpit. He falls back, and lies there, staring into the distance at the blasted sun. She comes to him in a vision, which is perhaps corny but then, Don thinks, maybe not, maybe this is her affirmation, her validation: imagining him off at war, staring into the sun, praying to be returned to her.
Bret is in a total drift, elsewhere, in plots and murders, how many is too many, how to pad the violence with so much nothing that it really cuts through, what brands, what college-wear—but this is all so antique, he thinks. He should be writing something radically contemporary, virtualising, hip—but he still thinks with words like hip and this is the problem. He will have to write the fuddy-duddy novel, the Harvard Dad, if he is going to write anything. And the prequel is more bankable.
He has woken up in a trench and is covered in rubble. He crawls along the ground and in his desperate eyes is the promise he’s made to her. Don really wants him to make it, though he’s not sure why. He knows it will likely be disappointing, their reunion, that it will fail to affect him quite how it should, but he will try.
Bret doesn’t want it to end, ever, really. He doesn’t enjoy endings, or at least not big ones, and he doesn’t want to have to roll his eyes at such an exquisite film. He would happily have it wash over him for a few more hours. But the score suggests otherwise, so many strings, even some trumpets.
She is at the post office slamming her fists on the desk while the attendant tries to explain that nothing has come. She bursts into tears, her eye line almost crossing the camera, the viewer implicated: where is he and when is he coming home? She drives back to the house in a rage and leaves the front door wide open and fumbles with the bloody teapot and ends up smashing it against the wall. He comes up the front stairs and straight through the wide open door and says, Honey, but that was such a nice teapot.
Don is in a blubber no worries at all and Bret is almost there, he’s balling his fists, trying to squeeze something out. He can feel it, he can feel it, but it’s just not, quite…
He has her in his arms so tight and their eyes are closed. She lets him go and looks him up and down, the two shiny medals, the far-off stare mixed with ardour and relief, the machismo and the gentleness, and he looks at her, such brightness, such caring, so worth waiting for and thinking of.
Bret is enjoying the pan of the crowd at the wedding, so many flowers, so many stiff postures, thinking of what he needs to write and how he’ll try to make it seem modern.
Don thinks of his ex-wife and the distance between them, even living in the same house. He hopes he won’t have to talk to Bret in the foyer, he’ll be a mess.
The faucet is not working and neither person has moved. Someone else enters the bathroom, a third, a witness, and now she can get away from him safely. Don thinks this is a good moment, full of suspense, the voyeur caught in a freeze-frame, reality setting in and thwarting him. At the end he will walk up the stairs to his house, thinking of another time he found himself in the same act, time looping, the watcher caught out of touch, horrified at the seams between himself and his view.
In the foyer he still isn’t sure if it’s Bret, walking past head down, thumbing his iPhone. In fact he thinks maybe it isn’t.