Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Girl With The Chloe Tattoo

You are only coming through in waves.
 Then you should make this quick.

Do you think you’ll ever find someone?

Do you think you’ll ever be happy? Truly happy?

Do you think that everyone else on this planet has known that happiness and contentment of finding the right person?

Are you proud of the alternate path you took?

Would you throw it all away?

In order to give you Chloe I’m forced to trespass the boundaries of fiction and criticism. She is only available to us in a strange middle ground. I remember feeling like a crime had been committed the first time I read Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. How could an author simply say, “I’ve invented these characters, I invented them when I was standing here. They are fictional creatures.”? If I want to bring Chloe to life I’m forced to do the same thing. Fiction and criticism should normally be separated. Organic didacticism kills a novel. Similarly, lyrical flights and stabs at “Poetry” have no place in critical evaluation.

Yet Chloe as I’ve conjured her desires this form of writing. I don’t give myself full credit for her, either. I saw her by chance, in a streaming porn video a friend of mine had left open on her computer. I met Chloe in early morning, as my friend slept the sleep of the beautifully contented. I didn’t see her at first, but once I did I couldn’t forget her. She wasn’t having sex. Instead, Chloe watched as five nude women tangled and tightened against each other, her blank face resting on her knees, those knees webbed in stylishly torn fishnet stockings. Chloe’s hair was dyed Nuclear green. She wore a mercenary bandana. Her nose was cutely pierced. At first I was distracted by the Sapphic knot, until I saw Chloe at the borders of those bodies. The others were lost in a wet white blur as I waited for the (obviously male) cameraman to come to her again, fix her in his crosshairs.

She didn’t look aroused. Her face gave you the option of scribbling any emotion you wanted upon it. She could have been lobotomized, or alternately contemplating the mysteries of our vast universe. She could have been operating with the intellectual capacity of a child, disturbed by the orgy in front of her, at the stage of childhood where sex is animalistic, traumatizing. One thing I knew, the moment I saw her hidden inside this 8 minute pay-site sampler: this woman shouldn’t be here.

I named her Chloe. I found the page again later. I paused and zoomed into Chloe’s bottomless face. I journeyed to the start of the clip. The other women have been playing a strip party game with vaguely defined rules. Balloons, confetti, wrapping paper surround them. There’s a blushing redhead, a mousy girl with horned-rimmed glasses, a boyish girl who looks like the actress Emily Browning, a voluptuous ringleader-all naked, with words and arrows scrawled on body parts in magic marker, words like Pussy and Fun Spot. The handheld camera pans slightly past the curvy girl, who holds a card in her hand. She reads, “the people still wearing clothes can join in. All you nudies, don’t stop until you are completely satisfied.” Chloe smiles, but it’s a false smile, the kind of smile people make when they aren’t entirely sure what’s going on.

The Nudies suck into each other. Yet this doesn’t feel like a private, utopian exchange between a circle of lovers. This feels like a handful of confused young women corralled by men. Their kisses are too hard, like they’re trying to loose themselves in each other and lock those men out. Despite the nakedness of each woman their adjustments are uncomfortable, almost sad. They’ve only met that day. They have boyfriends who don’t know. They are single and have roommates who don’t know how they were able to make their half of the rent. The mousy girl could use what she’s paid to shirk off student loan debt. The redhead might be doing this because she bought cocaine from the wrong person, a townie, and this was the only way she could pay him back. The Emily Browning lookalike is hungry and forceful. She wants to be here.

That leaves Chloe, as inexplicable as the teary-eyed prostitute sitting on a bed in a dingy hotel in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Like that film’s Greek Chorus of ethereal women beyond time, we’re compelled to ask, “Who is she?”

Who is she?

Do you lust?
 I do.

Can you have the people you lust for?

Are they within reach?

Do they want you, too?
 I think so.

Why can’t you have them, then?
 I don’t know.

Do you think you’ve misdirected your love and your lust?

Can you help yourself?

Do you think people should run away from you?

Why is that?
 I think you know.

How do you get revenge on the people who don’t want you?

What do you mean by “Magic?”

My favorite Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails albums are the quietest, the ones that are more the expression of a talented musician than a wallower picking at his wounds. That’s why I love his ambient album Ghosts, the rare Still, where Reznor reconfigures his own songs in spare arrangements, and the concept album Year Zero, possibly the only work of art inspired by animus towards the Bush Administration that still holds up today.

I would also rank Reznor’s recent film scores in the highest tier of his output. Composed with Atticus Ross for two successive David Fincher projects, the soundtracks for The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo join the short list of film accompaniment that stands apart from the movie as great individual music. The Reznor and Ross music joins the ranks of Bernard Herrmann, Tangerine Dream, Johnny Greenwood’s amazing work for There Will Be Blood.

I like to play a game. Pretending the films themselves don’t exist, I approach the soundtracks for There Will Be Blood, Social Network, and Dragon Tattoo as albums released by these artists. The music is so good it demands this. Now tracks like Network’s “Intriguing Possibilities” or Blood’s “Future Markets” become standalone masterpieces as vital to the discographies of either artist as “Hurt” or “Everything In It’s Right Place.” When we listen to music in this capacity our bodies become affected by what Peter Guralnick calls the “cushiony” power of the medium itself, but now that we aren’t imagining scenes with Jesse Eisenberg or Daniel Day Lewis, our minds can go anywhere, the music can take us down 80 miles of bad road.

In the case of Dragon Tattoo, it leads me right to Chloe.

What happened to you?
 I can’t say.

Look at them. They’ve all boarded the ship. And that ship is taking off without you.
 I know.

What do you do now that you’ve been left behind?
 I let them think things about me when I’m performing secret magic.

Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is the definitive execution of a story already told in a compelling but problematic novel and a good, slight Swedish film of the same name. Fincher understands this is pulp, and endows it with the same obsessive minutia of his masterpiece, 2007’s Zodiac.

The soundtrack by Reznor and Ross is a three-hour Industrial labyrinth, music autonomous enough to disengage from the sleuthing of Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander and carry into the story of Chloe, who found herself in this video that only a few wild-eyed perverts will see. The music is ideal for lost young women. It lends them grace, and the will to fight their fights and love the men or women they love. I don’t know if Chloe can ever hear it. If it exists in her head, she doesn't have the means to let it out. She’s not one of the nudies. She doesn’t know how she ended up here. Certain songs on the official soundtrack to Fincher’s film become her. Karen O’s guttural yawp on the kickoff “Immigrant Song” cover puts the scream in Chloe’s voice. The sonorous “An Itch” could be the covert music of Chloe’s passion for one of the sexgame girls, possibly the redhead, or even the bookworm who never removes her glasses.

Chloe doesn’t know what she wants out of life. She’s one of those cogs dropped from the programmed machinations of the factory system. When I think of where she could live my creative impulse instantly bellies up Pittsfield, a sprawling town forty minutes away from where I’m writing this now. I drive there at least once a week with friends to see new movies and purchase any CD or Blu-Ray of note. The spruced up Main Street is where you’re safe, but if you explore alternative byways you realize the town eddies into deep, boundless pockets of threaded residential neighborhoods, closed businesses languishing dustily like dead cockroaches, overheard details of the ghastliest crimes. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in this other Pittsfield when I interned for an acclaimed NYC based photographer who shot this rundown Americana, poeticizing it before returning relieved to the city.

When I think of Chloe, which is every night, I see her more vividly than I’ve ever seen a character in any novel I’ve written. She’s in her room at the top floor of one of many neighborhood apartment buildings, leaning against her window, gazing at dusk. She’s just woken from a nap. Her mattress is lying on the floor, the sheets rippling off, a single quilt blanket mashed up. There’s an outdated PC on her desk, sharing space with heaps of clothing. Under a small desk lamp one large textbook is opened; she’ll need to get back to it soon, but not right now. Chloe’s eyes are static. She hates waking in the evening. If she had stayed awake through the day, she could have distracted herself. But now, regaining bare consciousness, Chloe remembers how finite she is, how lonely and frightened. She could be new here. She could have grown up somewhere else and moved here for college. Or she could have had this apartment for a week after leaving her home, mere blocks away. A single parent, her single parent, would have told her that since she was going to school now she should be living on her own. That parent provides most of the rent money. Chloe has a part time job. I don’t know where. The flashlight only brightens areas of the dark room that welcome my sight.

The heating system is bad. Chloe shivers. She’ll have to put on pants and a coat soon. She’ll have to use the bathroom at the end of the hallway. There’s an intense argument somewhere in the building, in a language she doesn’t understand. Chloe shouldn’t go outside after dark. She’s been warned about it all her life (unless she came here from another place), but Chloe has to do something because now it feels as though her soul has been tampered with, or stolen directly by a mollusk that crawled in through the radiator.

It’s the time when the sight of an empty parking lot becomes your life accusing you of wasting it. Glinting mica and a single empty red truck measure what will never be. Chloe checks her cell phone and finds no new messages. She stops thinking about a cute girl from class that she’s too shy to approach. The bandana is on the floor, along with the skirt and stockings she’ll slip on and the jacket that isn’t enough to protect her from the rigid cold. Chloe doesn’t know where she is going to end up.

The car with the man, the bookworm girl and Not Emily Browning intercepts Chloe after she’s passed the rotary. The man, in his forties, black crew cut, tells Chloe that if she wants to walk all the way to the Berkshire Mall she won’t get there until morning. Bookworm laughs loudly. Not Emily Browning is squashed beside her, goring Bookworm with her eyes. There’s room for one more. Chloe gets in back, stiffening when Not Emily Browning reaches between her legs. Chloe pulls away. The car goes. Chloe is aware this isn’t the way to the mall, but she doesn’t say anything. She hasn’t spoken for days.

“Let’s play a funny game,” Emily says to her. “Maura and I love this game. It’s called, ‘who has the dorkiest photo ID.’ Maura's looks very professional, right?” Bookworm flicks Not Emily Browning’s ear, which causes her to bite her lower lip. “Me, I look like I just got my hair done by Stevie Wonder. So how about you, cutie? You aren’t too ashamed to show us, right?”

Chloe reaches into her jacket and pulls out her wallet, passing it to the hungry elfin girl. Not Emily Browning activates the car’s sepia overhead light, inspects the card thoroughly, holds it to the dim glow, finally handing it back to Chloe and saying, “You look…strict. Damn, I feel so silly. My picture is fuckin’ lame.”

They pass a Dunkin’ Donuts. Chloe stares out the window. The car radio plays a Taylor Swift song that occasionally fuzzes out. Chloe just barely catches it when Not Emily Browning leans forward and whispers, “She’s all clear” to their driver.

Where did you find yourself?
 I was lost. Trapped.

 I don’t think so.

Was it the magic?

Did you think they would help you?
 I guess.

Specifically her?

Did you want her to be a home for you?
 No. Yes. Stop.

Ok, let’s move on.
 Thank you.

What are other people to you?
 They are…

Hard to describe? Difficult to encapsulate?

I think it was Sartre who said, ‘hell is other people.’
 I like that.

If you’re an atheist, other human beings are possibly the closest you have to a hell, or a heaven. That’s a lot of faith to put in someone.
 I thought it was going to be worth it.

But it wasn’t. Is that what you found out?
 I don’t know.

 Do you get sad?
 No. I become very, very tired. Because those really great things aren’t supposed to happen to me. And I keep getting reminded.

Which one of those girls did you want the most?
 That’s private.

Was it Bookworm?

Or the Emily Browning facsimile? Did you want her to be a home to you?
 You’re losing me. I’m lost.

Perhaps the most fiendishly audacious musical moment in Fincher’s film-a murderer of women plays Enya’s Orinoco Flow while one of the heroes is trapped in his torture dungeon-is not included on the official soundtrack. When that music is used to score Chloe’s story, Enya’s New Age pap would have no place alongside Reznor and Ross’ dense, metallic compositions. Let’s use “Hidden In Snow” during the car ride to a house on one of the nicer streets, across from an ocular surgeon’s office, so far from Chloe’s little nest.

Hornygamegirls is the website. The content is taped here in the house belonging to Allen K. and Malcolm R. They are in their mid-twenties. The man in the car with tonight’s girls doesn’t have a name because I can’t think of one. K. shoots and edits with R. The site has been online for one year. It is R.’s brainchild. Every video takes place in the “party room,” where Balloons are taped to the wall and the plush rug hosts the games. They use a revolving door of women, students they troll from Berkshire Community College who need extra money, local 18-year-olds volunteered by boyfriends with a site membership, prostitutes from Albany they find and call from the backpages of Capital Region freebies. And there’s always the option of a girl on the street. For the most part, the videos are all-female, though R. has sat in for a few, but he doesn’t go any farther with the girls than petting and light spanking. The curvy girl is already there, along with the redhead, and they shake hands with Chloe in the kitchen. They’re all wearing bathrobes and eating crackers. Bookworm and Not Emily Browning have gone to the bathroom to change. K. and his partner sit around a dining room table packed with cameras, wires, laptops, an oversized modem. The curvy girl and the redhead begin to see that Chloe isn’t talkative and exclude her from their conversation. Chloe walks over to the brains of Hornygamegirls. She hears the word, “Paypal.” K., unless it’s R., looks at her and smiles.

“You D.T.F.?” He asks her.

Chloe shrugs. The other brain says, “I think they plucked a retard.” He shouts, “Nice job!” to Not Emily Browning who has come to the kitchen with Bookworm, completely naked, tugging at Bookworm’s robe. She approaches them. Chloe looks at the floor.

“She’s hot,” the girl tells them. “What does it matter?”

“I think she’s disabled,” K. says, suddenly thumping his arm to his chest and mock-drooling. “We can’t use her.”
Not Emily Browning steps up to Chloe, lifting her chin so their eyes lock. “Are you D.T.F., baby?”

Chloe doesn’t know what that means. She doesn’t say a word. Not Emily Browning starts kneading her breasts and Chloe leaps backward, almost knocking a hard drive to the floor. One of the songs on the soundtrack is called, “Please Take Your Hand Away.”

The driver clears his throat and says, “the girls are talking. We won’t have them all forever. We have to do this now.”

K. takes off his glasses and rubs his tired eyes.

“How about she just sits in the corner and watches,” Not Emily Browning says, acting like she’s one of the brains now. “In tonight’s game, some of the girls keep their clothes on. The ‘tard can be the one who didn’t remove a single article of clothing. She can watch.”

Because they have to roll and figure the weird girl doesn’t look retarded and they can’t just drive her home right now the brains decide to keep her, telling her she doesn’t have to do anything. The pack move into the party room, set up lights that gash science fiction orbs into Chloe’s vision. The driver takes the robes. Chloe is suddenly among the apocalyptic remains of a child’s birthday party with half a dozen buck-naked young women. The heavy smell of cleaning fluid stings her nose. Her own hands feel like they don’t belong to her. Never in her wildest dreams. As the brains make final tweakings and the driver watches from the doorway, the girls draw naughty words on their bodies with marker. Before they all sit and begin, Not Emily Browning leans close to Chloe, whispers, “If you want, I can eat you till there’s nothing left,” and licks her cheek. Chloe shudders. She wants to do everything but can’t. The girls divide and morph into the castoff clothes and beached mattress in her room across town, and she knows that’s what she’ll be able to touch, not these immediates.

The game begins and movie history is made, at least for me and my singular nomad canon. I’ve lived with Chloe for months, but it wasn’t until I listened to the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack that I conceived a way to write about her. I love her. Unlike Lisbeth, she can’t handle herself against the world. I think I took to this random stranger because when I look at Chloe I see everyone who has ever viewed pornography alone, seeking the world’s treasures but prostrate to claim them. Her smile is the result of finally understanding the sickest joke. The others ignore her because she is the basement ghost they’ll eternally perform to. Chloe overflows with life. It’s fatal.

She was transmitted through the web dungeon’s endless tract of doorways and mirrors. I want to think she’ll be safe with me. Chloe dropped a dime in the water, and it made a ripple that only a few of us could feel. The black water is still again. I reached far and couldn’t find her twinkling currency. I can submerge and stream more people sharing this planet with me. But they aren’t her. Chloe isn’t her either.

You never had to take off a thing to be the most powerful human being ever involved in a work of porn.

Don’t worry. I know how it feels to be heralded for things you’ve accomplished almost by accident, when your real ambitions run free, unwrangled.
 I’m sleepy. Can I leave?

Soon. I think when this ends I’ll have to let you go for good.

I’m calling this essay “The Girl With The Chloe Tattoo” because it’s more than just a play on the album and film. The name I’ve given you is a sort of tattoo, right?

I cannot put my finger on it now. The child is grown, the dream is gone.
 I don’t know.

Is your name Chloe?
[shakes head]

What is it?
 You’ll never know.

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