I fully acknowledge this is not very good. I like the story, but not the writing. At the time I hadn’t done any prose writing for a few years. This was for a Mcsweeney’s contest to finish story ideas left behind by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
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based on premise: “There was once a moving-picture magnate who was shipwrecked on a desert island with nothing but two dozen cans of film..”
There was once a moving-picture magnate who was shipwrecked on a desert island with nothing but two dozen cans of film.
“Not even fucking film anymore,” he told himself as the South Pacific surf pounded him under again and again.
“All fucking digital now,” he complained to no-one as he found a safe landing place on the rocky shore of the island, using a technique he had once seen on a television survival show hosted by a man named “Grizzly.”
And then later (he remembered as somehow he pulled himself up onto the jagged rocks), he had met this “Grizzly” at a party, some thing up in the Hills, naked girls in the Jacuzzi, people snorting powders off of each other, the same old thing he told himself he’d had his fill of in the seventies, but that he always got pulled into anyway, because somehow he always got the vague feeling that it was expected of him.
“You could have been more than this,” he now remembered (as he collapsed on the beach, overpowered by the stench of burning jet fuel and what had to be seared human flesh) saying to himself, silently, as he lowered himself into the Jacuzzi. But he wasn’t more than this, he told himself, as he regained consciousness hours later and found himself staring down the beach into the dead eyes of the pilot of what until recently had been his private jet, reserved for his use by the studio for travel anywhere in the world at any time of day or night. He knew exactly what he was as he staggered to his feet, fell, vomited, then rose again, took a few steps and fell once more to his knees.
Two hours later he regained consciousness to find that he had somehow pulled himself above the tree line. Surrounding him was a motley assortment of his coworkers and business associates: men and women in torn and burnt business suits, screaming, crying, or just staring blankly into space as the shock took over.
The metal cases were scorched but basically intact, and he dragged them into the clearing where the others sat. Inside, he found two cameras, a microphone and boom pole, and 24 of the high definition videotapes that were slowly but inevitably replacing his beloved celluloid.
It was a week later when he decided to make the first movie. Three of the executives were dead already, the rest existing in some kind of walking suspended animation- staring straight ahead, their brains simply refusing to accept their circumstances. The Mogul was the only one who seemed to thrive here. He hadn’t known it himself, but he had been waiting for something like this for years.
The first movie was “The Great Gatsby.” It had always been his favorite book, and the studio, just before the start of his tenure, had made a merely passable version, where the actors spoke the words but somehow omitted the magic of the story. He had always said he could do it right, and they had always nodded politely, and then left the room, laughing to themselves, and greenlighted another adaptation of a schlocky, thirty-year-old TV program.
But now, here he was. He had once hand-cranked the old film cameras, but this new thing was covered in a thousand buttons and knobs he couldn’t begin to guess the purpose of. Fuck it. He had no appointments.
He set the camera on the tripod and, after some guesswork, inserted one of the tapes. He found his Gatsby (a former marketing executive) lying, indolent as a solider on leave, under a coconut tree. Later, on the beach, he spotted his Daisy, a lithesome executive assistant he had casually admired around the office.
They didn’t question him; he was head of the studio, after all, and his word was law, even here. They took their places, stood on their marks, and did their best to read the lines, which the Mogul fed them from memory, as best he could.
Four dates later, “The Great Gatsby” was finished, committed to high definition tape and edited by playing back on one camera and selectively recording to the other. Two days after that, Daisy died, from dysentery the Mogul suspected, but there was no doctor. Over the next month he recorded four more movies, all remakes of classic books and films that had somehow been butchered before- by the studio system and the whims of the test audiences, by incompetence of writers and directors, or by the hand of the Mogul himself in fealty to his shareholders.
There were only four people left when the classics were finished: the Mogul, the “Gatsby” executive, and two women from the office: he didn’t know their names or jobs and never had, although one was older and smiled warmly at him when they passed, and one was younger, and smiled a different smile at him when she brought his coffee or the trade papers.
They were all sick now; dying. No one mentioned rescue. The Mogul retreated to a cave in the highlands and wrote the script for his masterpiece. Once, before he had been a Mogul of course, there had been a suburb, and in this suburb there had been a girl.
He dreamed of it now, and he dreamed of her, beneath the incredible celestial blanket that fell over the island each night. Once he had looked up at stars like those, on a school playground at night, as a teenager, with the only girl he would ever love, no matter how many threw themselves at him later.
Once, after more than a decade on the coast, he had talked to someone from his hometown, and he had been told that the girl, far from being impressed when reading of the Mogul’s ascendancy to the pinnacle of his profession, now spoke his name as a joke, a mocking byword for the perceived crassness of his entire industry. He had gotten drunker than he ever had in his life that night.
But now, he would put it all right. The script was the story of the Mogul, his parents, and his lost love. Gatsby would play the young Mogul, while the Mogul himself would take the part of his own father.
He walked down from the cave towards the beach. In his hands he held the script, everything that had ever met anything in his life scrawled crudely onto the backs of 30 pages of scorched marketing presentations.
When had he been happy? The Mogul couldn’t remember a time. He had had writers bodily thrown out of his offices for less egregious clichés, and yet it was the truth. He had never been happy. But now, he would tell his story. He was dying. He was happy.
As he walked towards the beach where he knew the others waited, he smiled. Somewhere, halfway around the world, the girl was going to bed, with her husband, in a quiet bedroom town less than five miles from where they had grown up together. He had never been further from her, and yet by moving always away from her, finally he had circled back to her. She was so close now he could smell her on the wind, taste the taste of her he had never forgotten even for an hour on his lips, even as his throat shriveled closed from thirst.
On the last day of filming, the Mogul and Gatsby quarreled. Gatsby had always been a company man, but now he insisted that their rescue remained possible, that this moviemaking at the ends of the Earth was dangerously insane. The Mogul ordered him back to work with a brutality that surprised even himself.
As the Mogul looked through the camera lens at the final scene of his film, he saw the tropical sunlight making tiny motes of light in the hair of the office girl who was being transformed by the camera into his love.
He looked at her through the lens, and when she looked back she smiled so sweetly he thought that his heart would burst. In a moment the scene would start, and the young Mogul, played by Gatsby, would finally win the heart of his long-lost love and erase all the intervening years- it had all been a mistake from the start, but there had never been anything for him to do but press forward– and now, finally, it was so hard to swallow now when had he last had water but she was here yes that was her not a trick it was her smiling back through the lens at him with that smile that a thousand starlets had failed to match, but finally this was her this was it finally it was real.
Even with his preternatural focus on the girl, his training was such, his instincts honed so sharp by decades on unflinching focus on his craft, that the movement in the corner of the frame could not have failed to draw his eye.
He looked away from her smile and there it was: the side of the ship as broad and wide as the whole world, sending flares of light into the lens as it cut across the ocean less then a mile offshore. “It can’t be,” said the Mogul to himself, and could not help but smile that it should happen this way, and he was still smiling as the blow came like a bolt of lightning into the back of his skull.
Gatsby, long jealous of the Mogul’s position at the studio and the ease of his success with the women they worked with, had snuck up behind him as he framed the shot and struck him in the head with a length of steel pipe culled from the wreckage of their plane.
The Mogul lifted his head one last time from the place where he had fallen in the sand. He had struck the tripod on the way down, and the camera lay next to him. Through the blood and tears he saw the small boat moving towards the shore.
They would take the tape to her. Somehow, he opened the camera and pulled himself to his knees, clutching the tape. The men in the boat were helping Gatsby and the two women onboard now. One of the sailors pointed to the Mogul and said something to Gatsby.
The pain blinding him now, his legs shaking, the Mogul got on his feet. He only had to give them the tape. They would take it to her. And now, the boat was stopping and coming around, back towards the beach.
They would take it to her. They would.
On the boat, Gatsby produced a roll of cash he had plundered from the bodies of their former co-workers during those first chaotic nights on the island. He passed it to sailor, who laughed and produced a pistol. Gatsby looked at the girl, now just an office girl again, a girl who was smiling back at the handsome marketing executive with an intimacy that could not be mistaken.
The sound of the gunshot echoed off the cliffs of the island. The Mogul fell face first into the surf and did not stand up again.
Halfway around the world, the girl slept with the American Midwest, under a blanket of cold and distant stars.
The tape bobbed a few times on the sapphire waves, suspended in space and time, and then sank to the bottom of the ocean.