I like to watch. You think you know what I mean when I say that. I can see it on your face. Titillation, revulsion. Recognition. You think I’m like you. Don’t you? And you think of hunched circles of cars in remote woodland. You think of two-way mirrors in perspiring basement clubs. Curtains not quite drawn. You think you know what I mean. I want you to trust me when I tell you; you don’t know. You haven’t got the first idea. But that’s alright. Honestly, it’s fine. Because I’m going to show you.
There. The most beautiful thing you will ever see. Of course you want the context, the build-up, the anticipation. You want to wait for it. I understand that. But just look at her for a second. Broken glass laughing in her hair and her nails done up in blood and asphalt. One frame earlier and her eyes are open, her mouth gaping in an agony of disbelief (they are always surprised, it’s endearing, it warms the parts of me that can still feel warmth.) One frame earlier and all you have is the body in pain, abject and chaotic and ugly. Look at her. I am giving you perfect order. I am giving you the moment everything falls into place. The workings of the most perfect and elaborate lock. The one that secures the only door that matters. Watch.
As she steps off the kerb the key begins to turn. A taxi
accelerates around the corner, a mobile phone screams,
is answered, is dropped. You can hear the mechanism
clicking slowly into place. The moment of impact is not
to my taste, though there are some who prize it. Look.
It possesses its own elegance I suppose. Like a cut-throat
razor or a grenade. She rolls up the windscreen, a flag
unfurling. She is colonising a new territory. You can see
her clawing at the tarmac as she hits the road, trying to
arrest her momentum. Her head hits the central
reservation with a thud you have to dub in and there it
is. The lights go out just as certainly as if she had been
turned off at the wall. Now and at the hour of our death.
You can watch the aftermath if you like. Maybe that’s your thing. No need to blush. You wouldn’t be on your own. The parade of ambulances, traffic helicopter vultures picturing the flesh from her bones. But it’s not for me. I just like to watch the lights go out. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. It is my experience that humans do not generally make such a meal of dying as to allow it to last an hour. We are persons and then things. There is perhaps a second in between. The gasp after the gunshot. The shock of the shutdown. When I was a child I collected butterflies. Pinned life, wriggling, to a board. I was a great collector, it’s the completist in me. Now I amass those seconds in between and my collection, you must admit, is impressive. Are you alright? You look a little pale.
There is a very famous photograph, taken by Robert Capa. You’ll know it as ‘The Falling Soldier’, you probably read about it in school. You’ve finished school? Oh. Well. Never mind. In it a Spanish Civil War soldier is seen in his dying moments, blown backwards, handing his rifle to an unseen eternal doorman, a late surrender. The scrubby ground is coming up to meet him. His face is hauled into a hybrid of pain and passion. It is a fake. But like all good fakes it betrays a universal truth, exposes an innate desire like a strip search. The title of the photograph is ‘Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerra Muriano, September 5th, 1936.’ At the moment of death. Capa was on the money there. We all want to think that in that moment we can stare into the face of non-being, remember it, a photo fit that we could wallpaper our houses with. So we can recognise it, see it coming and make our escape. I am still looking. I think I am getting close now. Look at you. You could be in the movies with eyes like that.
Chemical spills and explosions, acts of terrorism, industrial accidents. They leave me cold. It’s too much. ‘One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.’ I want to see them. I want that connection, to be able to see the space they took up. I want to see the look on their faces.
‘Hey Man, Nice Shot’
Sometimes they oblige you. Budd Dwyer was one such man. If I was a novelist I would tell you that Dwyer had a tragic life. That he was an American politician, innocent as a baby in his own bland Pennsylvanian mind but corrupt, more or less, according to the United States Attorney who found him guilty of accepting bribes. That on January 22nd, the day before he was due to be sentenced, he called a press conference. But I’m not a novelist. Play. Six different television stations are filming as Budd Dwyer takes the stage. He looks nervous and agitated. He gives a speech. ‘My life has changed for no reason.’ ‘People who call and write and feel exasperated and helpless.’ ‘People have said why bother, no one cares, you’ll look foolish.’ He’s sweating, agitated. He gives an envelope to each of his three staffers. He opens another envelope, pulls out a Smith and Wesson revolver. A classic choice, the choice of a man looking for the right tool for the job. Look at your face. Don’t worry he’s a thoughtful man. ‘Don’t, don’t this will hurt someone!’ He doesn’t let anyone near him. He knows exactly what he’s about to do. A man who spent 47 years working for the American justice system is about to choke on it. Having pushed the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger, Budd Dwyer draws a bloody veil over his face and his decades in office. His suicide is broadcast across America to a midday audience.
In the Absence of St Christopher. Rewind. Pause.
This is one of my favourites. I found the cassette at the side of the road like a dead animal. Took it home and played it over and over. Always from the beginning. Forty minutes of anticipation. Can you see it raining? It registers as static on the recording. Difficult to clear off. It’s CCTV footage: we have a God’s eye view. (You’re shaking? That’s alright. It used to have the same effect on me. Try not to move.) See the headlights in the distance now. That key begins to turn in the lock again. The car is already starting to aquaplane as it approaches the junction and when it passes under the streetlamp furthest from the camera you get to see the driver’s face imploding in panic. The second street light reveals a small boy in the passenger seat. Five, maybe six. No seat belt. Easy to miss him. I did. The first time. By the time they reach the third street lamp they are wildly out of control. Like a lover kept from his beloved for months, the car bonnet wraps itself around a traffic signal as the windscreen explodes, ecstatic. The frame rate on this one is slower, you barely get to see the miraculous flying child, momentum chewing on gravity, before he bounces to a stop on the dumb stripes of a pelican crossing. An object lesson in irony. Black and white and red all over. Walk. Don’t walk.
(You’ll just feel a small scratch. Don’t move.) Sometimes you don’t need the visual at all. Sometimes you can just listen for it. It’s more intimate I think. Which emergency service do you require? The men and women that take those calls. Putting you through. I wonder sometimes how many of them are like me. The tapes are easy enough to get hold of. Not premium rate, not X-rated, they are as soothing as an opiate. The hysteria that melts into a smothered silence. Sometimes a gunshot, sometimes a gurgle. You know. You always know. Are you cold? You look cold.
Method Acting. Play.
Tommy Cooper died on stage. You are too young to remember him I think. Caught on camera in the act of bowing out. Somewhere in my collection there is a film of a music hall performance. The camera is static. Theatre goers file in, take their seats folding themselves into appropriate shapes. They watch the show, the lights fade up and down like the swell of the sea. Applause. They stand and leave as if on rails. Leave the auditorium empty. Almost empty. One seat at the back right remains occupied. An elderly lady who metamorphosed from actor to prop at some point in the performance. You might think it is too dark to see exactly when the Hamlet to Yorick switch takes place but I watch this tape especially carefully. Even in the dark it’s possible to hear that key turn in its lock.
Still with me? Good. Try to stay awake. I don’t think you liked that one very much, did you? That’s OK, it’s not for everyone. You’re a modern boy after all, perhaps you would prefer something a little more immediate. Disappointing but perhaps I can re- educate your pallet. This is my newest acquisition. Closed circuit is all very well. I have all manner of disks and tapes and hard drives. Lifts, hospitals, the backs of taxis, the foyers of cinemas. Planes, trains and automobiles. Every so often catching someone as they are slammed face first into that door between here and nowhere. Smile for the camera. We’ll shoot you from your best side. I am grateful. The supermarket heart attack, the council estate stabbing. They all have their place. But all truly great films need a director. I think you’re beginning to understand that. You’re doing very well. Not long now. People watch their whole lives through a screen now. Isn’t technology wonderful? Everyone’s a Hitchcock, a Tarantino, a war correspondent. A police officer friend of mine pushed this in my direction. He knows what I like.
Lessons in Human Physiology. Vol 10. Play.
This is in the Midlands somewhere. A warehouse I think. The kind of place a certain kind of person is taken to die. This would never have happened to you. See how the camera shakes to start with. Nerves, excitement. Difficult to tell. The first time I watched this I wondered how long they had been beating him before someone picked up their phone, perceiving the big exit. It must have been a while, don’t you think? That much blood. He is still conscious at this point but it’s a close run thing. He’s just going through the motions now, a clockwork toy winding down. Can’t stand up anymore, he’s crouched on the concrete like a pilgrim. Refreshing don’t you think? See a man on his knees for once. You’re so young, you wouldn’t understand. It is a shame. He brings his hands up in front of his face and gets all his fingers broken at once. The pipe they’re using is hollow, can you see? It makes it last longer. You can kill a man with a baseball bat in a few seconds but it’s such a mess. And here comes the artistry, a close-up accurate enough to frame his face, dragged up by his hair like a corpse from a ditch. He sees it coming, this one. You can tell, that howl of disbelief only truly comes from the condemned. You don’t get to see the gun pushed into his mouth, by the time the camera shifts he’s already gagging on it.
Are you crying? Why are you crying? You saw, there’s nothing to be frightened of. There’s this. And not this. And in between, really not very much at all. I thought there was nothing you were afraid of. That’s what you said when I found you. Or is it nothing you are afraid of? Its confusing isn’t it. I know. It’s alright, shhh it’s alright. You’re going to look beautiful. I’ll make you look beautiful. All I want to do is watch.