Excerpt

It begins in late September, when you first see the car. It is raining and you are happy for the rain because you have grown irritable with so much sun and the rain soothes you somehow and reinforces the fact that you were not born in this sun-bleached emotional wasteland, but back east where people are moodier and unapologetically disenchanted. The sky is grim, the air cool, and you are driving home from the studio as on most afternoons around this time, only today is different because of the rain, the long line of traffic down Los Feliz Boulevard. The car is parked on a grassy corner, adjacent to one of those prehistoric mansions, an enormous, mushroom-colored Spanish Colonial entrapped in vines. It is a blue BMW, an older model, a For Sale sign taped on the windshield. You think of stopping, but in truth you are not the sort of person who buys things from strangers—you have come to rely on the expertise of people you trust for getting you what you need, when you need it, and you are not really comfortable pursuing things on your own. For the several weeks that follow, you notice the car as you pass by, as the grass grows up around it, dappled with fluffy dandelions, and you begin to dream about owning it, driving home in it, showing it to your colleagues at the studio, your small collection of important friends.

Then, days later, again on your way home from work, you happen to notice a van parked in the driveway. It is raining again, the clouds hauntingly black, a yellow fluorescence to the light as if the sky, the air, is sick. The driveway runs up off of Delacroix Avenue, a side street off the boulevard. The van is black with gold lettering: COUNTY CORONER. Instinctively, you take your foot off the accelerator and turn onto Delacroix, pulling up alongside the curb with the car idling. They are bringing a body out. It is covered with a black water-repellent sheet. It is an eerie thing to witness and you watch with apologetic fascination as they load it into the van. You have felt the same uncertain empathy whenever you pass an accident on the freeway—that morbid anticipation—you can’t help thinking of the famous scene in Weekend, the Godard film, a ten-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam caused by an accident—or when you are behind an ambulance and can see inside, the EMT’s diligent face, his solemn concentration as he works on the patient. It is an expression reserved for the saving of a life, and it is rare, and fine. As a filmmaker, you have come to know about expressions and there are certain expressions that are not for everyone and that are difficult to duplicate for the camera. You have come to realize that both saviors and executioners wear the same expression and there is, of course, a heady irony in that.

The rain begins to fall harder and you see a woman come outside with an umbrella. She is Mexican, in a housekeeping dress, holding the umbrella over the coroner’s head. At one point he takes her hand and guides the umbrella over her head, and she smiles gratefully. It is a brief and touching exchange and you make a mental note to work it into a movie. Thinking about the car, the strange dark house, the alarming appearance of the body, you drive home to your rented bungalow. Death is something you fear and you can never gauge its proximity. Sometimes you sense it encroaching upon you like some thief in the night, looking into your windows. Sometimes you lay in bed, brittle, waiting for evil to find you. Images sprawl through your mind, arbitrary scraps of terror that have become all too ordinary. To some degree, you have been nurtured on fear.

Stopped at a traffic light you review the facts of your life: You have achieved so much, and yet your heart is empty. It is the truth; it is something you know. You have come to a point in your life—success has garnered certain privileges—you are grossly overpaid, and yet you are overworked; you are rarely alone, and yet you are intensely lonesome; you have accomplished what you set out to, and yet you feel your ideals have been compromised. When all is said and done, you feel a weary sense of ambivalence.

You are forty, which in Hollywood is not a good thing. Not that you are actually old, because of course you are not, but you have begun to feel slightly invisible at meetings with certain people, the younger directors for example, most of them men, who grow impatient with your lengthy discussions of character and plot—your questions about context and rationale—and your desire to tell stories that resonate in the hearts and minds of the American public—yes, it is true, your ambitions are lofty—and some of them actually rush you through lunch. In a town like this, where passive aggression is something of an art form, you have invented your own special version of subliminal espionage. In order to survive as a female you are forced to behave like someone with a personality disorder, limiting your range of expression to a deadpan grimace. The smile, that old-fashioned symbol of genuine assurance, has become obsolete, replaced by its nasty cousin the smirk which, when coupled with the cruel but effective once-over, conveys to its recipient that he or she is a complete waste of time. The only time people sustain a genuine smile is when they are certain you can make them money. On your way up you had acquired your own battle scars. And even now—even with all your success—you are besieged with doubt. You have not entirely outgrown the need for approval, the lavishing praise of an expert. Doubt is your compass. It prevents you from feeling happy. Your unhappiness is a strategic part of the mechanism that drives you, the feverish self-loathing that shoves you forward, toward that shimmering light of your destiny.