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35

The Frank Charles standing before the camera is not quite as overweight as his cadaver. I think he must have filmed the introduction to his movie at least a year before he died. He appears to be looking directly at me when he says, Hi, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep-unless something has gone badly wrong, you are the one watching this movie, and, from what I know of you, you are probably alone.

I guess you never expected to hear from me, huh? I am assuming you are the one running the investigation into my murder, because you always get the farang murders in District Eight. But even if Im wrong, you have certainly heard of me and my spectacular manner of death. You are aware of the existence of a film. If you found the DVD in my safe, you also discovered it was just a set of preliminary shots of Nepal: not what you were looking for at all. You and your colleagues have also failed to discover whodunit. That will all be explained in the next two hours. What you need to know right now, though, is: why you?

What is interesting to me right now is that the camera follows Frank Charles as he paces a little with his jaw in his hand; he is not alone, therefore, although you would never know it from his posture of total self-absorption. He carries his weight well, as a big man can, and does not thrust his gut forward in arrogance; one gets some sense of what it must have been like to have lived in the skin of that big, male, energetic, once-superb American animal. From his body language one understands that, before something went badly wrong, the world had belonged to him. Now he thrusts his hands into the pockets of his oversized denim overalls; there is a microphone attached to one of the straps.

Its ironic, because there is someone else who thinks shes the muse behind this work. Lets say shes mistaken. Shes not the muse. Shes what you might call a point producer-the one who makes sure certain vital props are at hand. No, I needed someone with your eye, Detective, the one I could not fool, even when I tried my damnedest.

He pauses and makes an almost comic gesture of humility and defeat. I swear to God, Detective, that as far as I know there are only two people in the world who didnt think much of my first full-length movie. You and me. You saw the plagiarism-so did I. And in your review you had no mercy. The little scene I stole from Truffaut, those long interior shots that Bertolucci perfected, playing with color `a la Robert Altman, outdoor shots from John Ford, suspense from Hitchcock-and a lot of other thefts, too: you saw it all. You must have had one hell of a teacher at film school. Except you never went to film school, did you? Thats another thing about you that told me you are the one: your permanent pariah status in your society. Not only are you a leuk kreung, a half-caste, but your mothers illustrious lovers taught you way above your station. One of them must have been an old-style French-movie buff, a real Cahiers du Cin'ema type. Whatever. Ill never know what you will say about what you are about to see. Thats not important. Whats important is that you understand.

He lets a few beats pass. You know whats tough about being a voice from the dead? Jealousy. If you are investigating the case, Detective, have you gone up to Nepal yet? Have you met Tara? Have you slept with her? Or is this all just gibberish to you? Ill never know. But what I do know is that youre a Buddhist, and quite a serious one. That also weighed on my decision to show you my beloved masterpiece. You see, my other muse is too much of a cynic; she will see the point but not the pain. You, though, with that uncanny intelligence and sensitivity everyone says you have-you are ideal. I bet you experience my movie just as if it were all happening to you.

He takes his hands out of his pockets and holds them behind his back.

But the kind of Buddhism I almost got into doesnt bear much resemblance to yours. Vajra, the Tibetans call it. Thunderbolt Buddhism, usually translated as Apocalyptic or Tantric Buddhism. Its pretty heavy stuff, and that mantra Tara gave me really did my head in. He pauses. But at the end of the day, you know, a man like me isnt going to be satisfied with mantras and mandalas; Im just not that cerebral. And anyway, I belong to the great Western tradition of dramatic expression-and theres no drama in Buddhism, as far as I can see. No, this is how it happened to me.

He seems to falter, like a man shifting gears in his mind and fumbling a little-those might be tears in his eyes, its hard to tell.

I was up in Nepal one time, looking for Tara, who had turned invisible on me yet again, and I was that far gone in the disease we call love that I thought maybe if I meditated and spent time at Bodnath and generally turned myself into a Tibetan-maybe she would come back to me. And that, my friend, is no state of mind in which to meditate or make a movie. So I gave up, like a good spoiled Yank, and just wandered around Kathmandu for a while. It happened to be a holy day, that one in October when they make a lot of animal sacrifices. I stood in a crowd of Hindus and watched while the Brahmin priest slaughtered a goat by clamping its head in a stock and cutting it off with a big knife. Then he threw some of the meat on the fire in the center of the shrine. And it was all Technicolor, of course, the great orange flames, the huge vertical crimson tikka in the middle of the priests forehead, his fantastic robes, the chants, the incense. Then when I looked around, I saw the whole square had been converted into a giant slaughterhouse, wherever I looked I saw shrines, priests, smoke, and goats-and for one dizzying moment I realized that most bourgeois of words, surreal, was not going to cut it; the squeals of the goats did not permit such an escape route.

He takes a moment to think.

And it so happened there was one of those Hindus standing next to me who you meet all the time over there: the kind who wear old-fashioned spectacles, speak perfect English with a Welsh accent, and never tire of explaining their culture to you whether youre interested or not. And he told me that, properly understood, the priest officiating at the sacrifice was Brahma. Also, the fire was Brahma. Also, the god to whom the sacrifice was directed was Brahma. And also, the sacrifice-the goat-was Brahma. And Brahma was life itself, the whole cycle.

He stops to close his eyes in concentration, then swallows and begins where he left off.

And in that tiny moment I understood. I understood how easy it is for a Westerner to play the priest, the god, the fire-anything but the goat. As Brahma, in other words, we are inauthentic; the big joke is that everyone else knows it except us. Lets face it, we much prefer to sacrifice others. Our extreme-you might say homicidal-aversion to pain and suffering makes us the ultimate apostates in the business of life, and this was what was making me so unhappy as an artist and as a man. I never really got to the ecce homo moment, when I might have stepped forth from the stone they made me out of. I guess an awful lot of men feel that way in their hearts at the going down of the sun, but Im one who couldnt give up the struggle, though I tried to suppress it for thirty years and produced a whole bunch of schmaltzy junk in the process. So, for better or worse, this is me. Enjoy.

It is one of those movies which begin at the end of the story, then show you how everything has led up to the present moment. After the beginning, which is also the ending, we find ourselves in Kathmandu seven or eight years ago. It is possible to tell the age of the footage by reference to the body weight of the director, who is also the male lead. Here he is in his fifties, but looking quite a bit younger. Beardless, smooth-faced, handsome; he has about him the bounce, the enthusiasm of a much younger man. He is also smiling a lot as we follow him around Kathmandu. There is a light in his face which might be a form of insanity; the mountains seem to have gotten to him the way they got to me: that sense of landing in the cradle of consciousness itself. Theres no doubt about it, that is a very attractive man, glowing with a kind of metas, or loving-kindness, which has nothing to do with Buddhism, but is part of his natural state. Perhaps he doesnt know it, but it is that inner glow of his which has brought him success in life-and right now has brought him all the way to the Himalayas.

I am surprised at how early in the film Tara appears. It seems she is the liaison at the agency he is using for local support for his film. We see her by way of interpreter, using her UN English to listen to the famous Hollywood director, then translating back into Nepali and Tibetan. There is a silver vajra hanging on a simple nylon string around her neck. The director explains that he wants to do some filming up near the northern border, maybe even cross over into Tibet if he can get a visa from the Chinese. She explains that conditions are very harsh on the border, which is fifteen thousand feet high. People get altitude sickness at that level. And there is the problem of China itself. They do not much like Americans with movie cameras on the loose in Tibet.

The scene shifts to the mountains. We are very near that high border with Tibet; the landscape is unremittingly barren, with vast flat areas of purple shale fading into gray glacier and then snow. The shale fields aside, nothing is horizontal; mountains rule wherever you look. And up here our director-hero isnt looking so good. If he is not holding his head he is holding his stomach. He has almost no energy and even talks in slow motion. The only cure is to go back down a few thousand feet and wait for his body to adjust. But he is an impatient American, he wont wait. Anyway, he has only so much funding and he cannot afford a break in shooting.

These scenes take place in the presence of the supporting cast and others on the team. From time to time the camera focuses on the other actors, all of whom seem to be ragged Tibetans from the highlands. Unlike the director, they are unaffected by altitude or delay and seem unlimited in their capacity to hang out. Tara here is not merely an interpreter of words, but also an interpreter of men. She is suddenly the central figure, helping the Tibetans to understand the director, and insisting at the same time that the director try to understand the Tibetans. But theyre all so damn spiritual in the way they think, its hard to get a practical idea across, he complains, only to receive a lecture from Tara to the effect that he isnt going to get anywhere if he doesnt show more respect and sensitivity. Sure we dont think like you, she seems to be saying, and theres a damned good reason for that: we know better. Eventually things reach a point where the director is too ill with altitude sickness to work. If he doesnt get out of the mountains within the next twelve hours he risks brain damage and death. Now we accompany him on the back of a yak led by the Tibetans, with Tara walking by his side.

The shots here are deliberately reminiscent of Jesus riding a donkey on the way to Jerusalem. We see from his face and posture that he really is very ill, and it is in this paranormal state that most of the rest of the film takes place. We enter flashbacks within the main flashback, but the collage is cleverly executed so the device does not intrude; on the contrary, the way he cuts scenes of his childhood with flashes of him in the Himalayas is brilliant.

But its a strange kind of brilliance; you might call the whole movie the product of plagiarism taken to the point of genius. At some point in the editing he must have decided that the film would not go on general release, and therefore he was released from any need to obey the law of copyright. As a consequence he does not merely imitate, but blatantly cuts in whole scenes from other movies; for example, the mountains are often invoked by retro shots of James Stewart hanging in space in Vertigo. He even manages-and here we cannot deny his eccentric gift-to lift scenes from Truffaut in the original French, without jarring the viewer. You could say one of the subplots is his own obsession with cinema, which is almost pathological.

As the journey down the mountain progresses, however, with Tara walking effortlessly beside him as hes slumped over the yaks neck, we realize in the subtlest possible way that the incomparable Tara (we have already seen her remove her prostheses from her fingers: one of the many things about her, along with her vajra, over which the camera obsesses) is slowly but surely replacing film itself as his control center.

I think that to convincingly show a man dumping the obsession of a lifetime for a woman he has only recently met must be very difficult. Frank Charles succeeds only because he is telling the truth: this is exactly how it happened, one has no doubt about that. But his problem is that carnal desire competes with spiritual thirst: he yearns for her with every chakra, but especially the second. (The crotch chakra, farang.) And so it is in this near-death fragmented state on a narrow track in the high Himalayas that we are shown the various strands of personal history that have made the man. We see the barrenness of his early life in the Midwest, where his family owned a hardware store. His father is largely ignored; we focus on his Italian mother, from whom he inherited his Latin good looks and his passion; she is portrayed as an exotic Mediterranean songbird trapped in a utilitarian cage. We see him as a kid masturbating in protest against the uncompromising vacuum of a world filled with nuts, bolts, and screws, DIY and plumbing accessories, welding torches and huge stainless-steel hoppers for seed. We see him retreat into film, which can only be viewed in theaters in those distant days. He almost takes up residence in the towns only cinema.

I wont spoil the movie for you, farang. You never know, it might find its way on to the black market one of these days; I might even upload it onto one of the illegal file-sharing Internet sites. Suffice to say we are led by an ingenious sequence of cuts and shots to intimately understand the directors psychology, about which he is uncompromisingly honest. One surprise is the violence of his mind. His adolescence is not only filled with erotic imaginations, but moments of extreme rage as well. He knows not where this tendency originates, much less his bizarre gift for marrying exactly the wrong women. By the time we get to the end we are convinced that for him there is no other option; there is no way for him to retain his fragmented self, nor has he acquired the strength to change at root. Can art help?

Well, now Ive taken you this far, I guess youd be vexed if I didnt at least let you have the first scene, which is also the last:

It is that squalid room on Soi 4/4 where we first encountered him. At first his bearded face-he is at his most obese now, the beautiful young director buried under a flesh mountain-fills the whole screen. As he retreats from the camera, he mutters, Anyway, its less expensive doing it this way, a dummy would have cost too much.

The camera follows him in a brief tour of the room before he climbs with difficulty onto the bed, and now, finally, I understand the books. They were the one item whose purpose eluded me. I had thought they were a perverse tease by a deranged mind; now I see their amazing innocence. They are a confession not to murder, but to a crime which scarred his soul far more deeply: an inauthentic life.

Once he has propped himself up, he says, Okay, focus the camera on the top of my head, make sure youve got me from the eyes up, I dont want any nose in this shot, but you have to angle it to take in the ear when the saw cuts above it: drama, I dont want this to be a boring shot, ha, ha. Now get the saw and come over here and wait. Remember everything we practiced during rehearsals. Dont duck down as you work, because the camera will catch your face and youll be incriminated and this scene cannot be reshot, ha, ha.

A few moments pass during which he keeps his eyes closed, then: Okay, I can feel the drugs working, my whole mind is slowing. Thats when she said to start. Leave the camera now and come over here. If my head starts to slump youll have to pull it back into the frame. Now, it should be possible for me to use my own strength to dig out the first few spoonfuls from the left lobe, the one thats been causing all the trouble for sixty years, but if I cant, youll have to help me. Use one of your hands to guide mine, but make sure I keep hold of the spoon.

The hands holding the buzz saw are sheathed in surgical gloves of the ultra-thin, almost transparent kind; it is not possible to be sure, but I would say the hands are female-long, slim, and porcelain white. The glove successfully obscures the details of an unusual ring on the index finger of the right hand, which appears to be quite broad with tiny protuberances suggestive of gems. She proceeds slowly, taking great care not to damage the spectacularly filmatic arachnoid mater, with its great crimson webs of veins and arteries which feed the brain. When she is finished, she raises the skull, much like a waiter at Maxims might reveal a great dish by whipping off its cover.

Did I just experience liftoff? Frank Charles asks in a groggy voice.

What am I thinking? Im thinking, Poor Sukum. Ive solved the case for him after all, and with the best Buddhist will in the world its going to be hard to let him take the credit. Anyway, its a suicide, so what credit is there to claim? This isnt the stuff that leads to fast-track promotion. Its kind of funny in a sense, but Im not laughing. The film might be a masterpiece in its own weird way, but for my money, the genius lies in the introduction. The straight, honest, naked confession of a life of luxurious failure has hit a nerve with me; Im haunted. I send a copy to the FBI by e-mail attachment, then I call Sukum.


| The Godfather of Kathmandu | c