Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
Our relationship was founded on good ideas. We opposed injustice, inequality, and plastics. As we learned about the world and each other, we discovered many truths we didn't like. And we resisted them despite finding ourselves responsible for the solution and the problem. Through Neli, I recognized making films could be our ticket to building a better world, but I was discouraged.
I was an actor—at the time. She still is. One big lead after another. She started with television—commercials. Something the opposite of capitalism was our personal agenda, yet we continued to take small handouts from the enemy. I tried to be a purist. I wrote and directed short films. I did music videos for friends. I did a lot I hoped was going to make a difference. And so, I had no money. She managed to get two or three gigs a month for a commercial about facial cream or some optimistic version of the future where you see, far ahead, that despite being 28 years old at the time, one day, you would be 80 and your partner was going to die. Why not start investing in a life-insurance policy ahead of time? It seemed like a good idea, but who could invest in a nonexistent future?
Neli looked at her fictional husband with longing. He smiled at his fictional children sliding down a plastic playset in a fictional backyard. Will they save enough for the future? Well, with Mutual Reassurances Company, we can all know the future is certainly blunted. Whether we jump from our careers or fall from them at 65, our wealth will cushion us.
I told Neli she looked silly staring at a man with gray hair. Tom, she told me, you look silly with your youth. That's ridiculous, I told her. Neli tended to disagree with me—it was part of our foundation. I believed in antiquated reassurances, and she believed in future hypotheticals. He was a fictional husband after all, but nothing about the scenario was fictional—our children would play on something created by ingenuity, constructed by capitalists, and globally distributed by modes undoing our planet. Neli told me in the script for the commercial, she and "Harry," the silver-haired fox, would divorce once their children graduated. Their policy would protect them both through this challenge.
To me, it was more important to make movies to dismantle the patriarchy, push racism in the face, and support the hungry. My movie, Under Where, was a fictional documentary about a guy who never wore underwear because they were made in Vietnam and he was against the War. It was set in 2004. Neli told me it was a stupid premise. The film itself was funded by the luxury of having fallen directly from the tree of the patriarchy; it was built around the notion the developing world was a fixture of manufacturing, struggling under the malnourishment of cheap beer, cigarettes, and packaged food—all weapons of capitalism.
I couldn't defend the project. No festivals accepted it. It received 2,007 views on Vimeo and died there.
Only a week after Under Where failed on the Internet, Neli stared into the camera with beautiful eyes reflecting hope. They shimmered blue-gray; studio lights created a sparkling effect. Neli's hair was dyed from black to blonde for the commercial. The producers deemed it softer with a totally white-washed heroine. Neli was instructed to playfully move her now blonde bangs from her forehead. She grinned a cute smile. Cut. Later over this image of our plebeian heroine, the confident narrator said, "If you experience discomfort or swelling after four hours..."
A year later, I took a job with my friend Will in Los Angeles. He hired me as a boom operator on a series of short films he was doing for a local clothing store called Terra. I spent hours with my hands overhead, holding a microphone directed at the mouths of several of the company's founders, all of them beautiful women around the age of thirty. They said the same thing: sustainably sourced, local, Mediterranean, imagine an avocado on a blue Portuguese plate next to a banana, community. One after the other, they planned to answer these interview questions the same way. One of the founders was a woman from Venice Beach. She was one of those lucky enough to remember the old Venice. I wanted to ask her if it resembled the beach from Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man. I realized she was born after he died. It must have been a different Venice after all.
After the first shoot, Will asked me to please not ask the subjects questions during the interviews. I apologized—it felt like a documentary shoot to me; I wanted to know what they were actually thinking. Will said I was naive if I thought that was why we were there. "This will be content." That was all he said. He rolled down his window as we drove out of the parking lot and lit an American Spirit. "Do you know how much a pack of these costs in Los Angeles?" I didn't answer. "Twelve bucks. You know how much they cost to make?" I didn't answer. "Neither do we, Tom." I figured somewhere inside of Will's filmmaker mind he was telling me: Nobody wants to know the truth.
Three nights into our shoot I made a joke to one of the last subjects. Her name was Erica. The joke was simple. I said, Erica, does Terra mean we are all searching for the other half, Firma? Will shot a look at me—Shut up, moron. I did. Erica thought it was cute an assistant like me would speak out of turn. At that moment, no one laughed. A grin crept onto Erica's cheek. I made a note to be quiet and to ask Erica out for a drink after the shoot.
She accepted my offer. I borrowed Will's 4-Runner and we drove into the mountains surrounding Los Angeles. With the windows down, we shouted at each other over the rush of air and Kamasi Washington blaring from the speakers.
Eventually, we found a pull off and stopped. Los Angeles' evening glue was applied in the warm rays of the setting sun. The city seemed to draw more tightly to the earth as the smog dissipated into the cool air and the pink sky softened the harshness of the daytime light. Evening in those hills feels like a porn scene. And I was trying to set the scene as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Erica was wearing indoor soccer shoes, wide legged pants, a crop top Eagles t-shirt, and an oversized camouflage jacket. To me, this was a sign she was ready for any adventure. I pointed over the railing—there was the ledge Will had told me about. A westward view unobstructed by trees, houses, or people lay just out of reach. I told Erica we needed to walk through the trees. She said, Either you are about to kill me, or that damn mountain lion will.
After reaching the small plateau looking out over the city, she agreed I wasn't going to kill her. We sat on a blanket, and I presented her with a bottle of cheap champagne, cherries, and cocktail peanuts. She looked at me like I was some sort of manipulative jerk. I quickly realized I misinterpreted her look, though, when she shoved me onto the blanket and started violently kissing my neck.
It all happened during the golden hour. Her ebony skin emanated a glow of energy. Her hair had a light orange halo around it. Her eyes were mainly shut, but when she opened them, she looked at me like I was her personal plaything. I liked that. Fuck the patriarchy, I congratulated myself.
Some time later, the sun had set and we were talking. Our conversation bounced between ethical farming to an ethical textile and clothing industry. I was skeptical, considering how many chemicals were used in the process, how much water was needed, how much energy used. Then she answered me somewhat belatedly, Fuck the patriarchy, man. Just because I wanna have sex with you...
Erica told me all about her life. In that way, I understood a little more about being a black woman in Los Angeles. I understood a little more of what breaking into the fashion scene was like. I understood Erica and her team, Will and myself, were all buying into the lie: black women needed to be more white, and videos are marketing tools. Erica reassured me when I dropped her off at her apartment—Don't worry; you'll never understand.
It was a really nice date. Back in Atlanta, I told Neli all about the shoot. The light, the hills, Erica's body, remained good ideas of my own. I told Neli, I wish we could go places without flying. She agreed. It was so bad for the planet.
A month later, I'd written a script for a short-film vaguely resembling my experience with Erica. Neli was to play the woman. Our friend Daniel was to play the man. Only one thing kept the film from being shot—no such location resembling Los Angeles existed in Atlanta.
Two months later, my money from the shoot with Will had vanished. It was all 1s and 0s as far as I was concerned. But when my bank statement read zero, I had no choice but to utilize the positive numbers given to us with credit cards. The number my American Express showed was misleading—it was not money I had, but it looked so appealing. Twenty grand in credit I could spend. So, I started spending.
I also started looking for more work. My friend Jake was making a short promo film in Neptune, Florida, for a local surf shop. Our first day on the shoot, we captured drone shots of attractive people gliding across waves. In clockwork fashion, off-camera, C-130s and other large military planes landed in the base just inland. One flew particularly low, distracting me from the low-flying drone I was flying, and I barely managed to fly the drone over an oncoming wave. It was an accident, but it became the opening shot of the film.
Jake and I drank beers on the balcony of the motel that evening. A young boy threw a gator-shaped float into the vaguely blue-green motel pool and dove on top of it. There was no adult near the pool, but we assumed the obese woman shouting from the balcony at the boy was his mother or responsible relative. Jake asked me how my films were coming along. I told him they never seemed to make much of an impact. He asked me who my target audience was. I stared at the boy in the pool. A C-130 was approaching from the ocean. The air started to crack under its pressure. A man pulled into the parking lot. His white Chevy Astro had a magnetic sticker stuck to the door saying, Hanks the Painter. I wondered if his name was Hanks or if the apostrophe was simply discardable from a business name. The plane passed overhead. The boy stood at the edge of the pool, dropped his pants, and started peeing in a drain, missing its top. The woman shouted he was swimming in the same water he was pissing. I lit a cigarette and said I hoped everyone was my audience.
Jake reassured me a universal audience was impossible. I should try to narrow it down. Surfing videos were for surfers. Clothing videos were for fashionistas. And videos of AK-47s being fired at watermelons were for racists, bigots, and conspiracy theorists. Jake told me I was dramatic. I told him he was realistic. He said, Never put your audience in a box. I told him I didn't really think I had an audience anyway.
That night, I lay in bed drinking Budweisers only as cool as the ancient mini-fridge could make them. The bedside table was covered with cigarette burns and the room reeked of smoke. With this cue, I lit a cigarette and ashed into an empty can. I flipped through local television. There was news about an upcoming launch at Cape Canaveral. There was a documentary about the Miami club scene. There was a nature show about pythons in the Everglades. There were three or four variations of the same television melodrama. I stopped flipping at a show about a man murdered in the '70s. The case was still open. The man's penis had been cut off, his nails peeled off; he was raped and then hung from a lightpost on the outskirts of New Orleans. I wondered how news like this wasn't widely known. How was it so many horrible things happened and no one seemed to do anything about it? The show cut to commercials. I was too tired to flip, so I watched.
There was a commercial about a dolphin show in Orlando. Their torpedo bodies seemed strangely out of place gyrating through the air. The commercial ended with show prices and locations. The next commercial was for a Hardee's burger. It oozed with so much grease, no one could possibly think it was good for you. They added value by informing you "a deal" could be had if a soda, fry, and milkshake were included. I was drunk enough to know I needed a milkshake to help push the burger through my body. I didn't have a car, so I just lusted over the greasy food.
Next, from behind, a young woman waded into the ocean, arms outstretched. Cut to her husband locking the door of a red sports car before entering a coffee shop. Cut from him to a school. Cut from the school to a sports field. The woman is doing yoga under a tree with three other women. Cut from the field to the white kitchen of a nice house. The woman is facing the sink. She turns with a bouquet of freshly rinsed salad greens. Her eyes are blue-gray. She smiles at her husband who's off camera. She slowly comes more and more into focus. Neli's smile is perfect for the camera. It lingers on her face. Cut to Neli rolling in a bed of clean white linens. The husband jumps on top of her. A voice speaks over their slow-motioned foreplay: "If bleeding persists for more than two weeks, contact a medical professional..."
Get out of this country. I stared with horror at Neli's face on the TV. Through the television, she was trying to tell me I was never going to get anywhere with my art. I needed to pursue security. The future was most assuredly a dangerous, horrific place. But it wasn't so scary if we planned for it.
I woke up to the sound of Jake beating on my door. Day two of the shoot was starting in an hour.
After grabbing a quick breakfast from a drive-through, we pulled up to the surf shop. We briefly went over what our objectives were that day. We were interviewing the founder and two surfers from the area. I set up the mic. While I was adjusting levels, it detected a C-130 shaking the air in the distance.
I lived off my earnings from that shoot for another two months. Neli and I celebrated when I got back to Atlanta by going to our favorite expensive restaurant. We knew the chef, so we got a few starters sent to us for free. We also knew the bartender, so we got a few shots for free. By the time we were ready to order, we were giggling about how funny we must look—we couldn't afford any of it.
After a plate of oysters, two more cocktails, and a light salad, we were kissing slowly under the dim light of the nice ambience in the restaurant. The food started to look less appetizing as we became drunker and hornier. We decided to scrap the meal and go back to our apartment. We talked loudly in our Uber about how gentrification was ruining the city. I wondered if I meant the city as I knew it or the city as my grandparents knew it—either way, it was a different Venice.
Atlanta had become a deformed version of Los Angeles. There were highways, pollution, and racism. But there were also new Netflix series, Marvel movies, and studios. It was the place to be, until one day, it wouldn't be. But that's the beauty of being young: the future doesn't mean anything to you, because you couldn't possibly hope to leave where you presently are.
We were unable to consummate the feeling from dinner because Neli's friend Kelly showed up with two other girlfriends and two bottles of white wine. We drank the wine, and the women successively teamed up and trashed the patriarchy. I sat silent. What could I say? What do you have to say for yourself, man—Neli's friend Tasha asked me.
I chose the muted blindness of near-blackout. I was worried about Tasha's question, but I was more worried about another of the women, Emily. Two years before, she had convinced me sex was not something to be confined by rules. It became a tool for misuse as soon as someone was wielding or restricting it. I agreed at the time and chose not to defend myself. We slept together twice before Emily told me she didn't have the time for "an artist."
I never told Neli about that experience. What good would it do? She didn't really like Emily anyway. Lucky for all parties, it happened before Neli and I were dating.
By that winter, I felt like I was no kind of artist if I was producing art nobody saw. I started to look for jobs. I sent 30 applications and got one interview. Strangely, Emily provided the connection to the tutoring company that would be interviewing me. That morning I wrote a poem. I hadn't written a poem in years, but thinking about how a woman I detested was putting me in touch with a future job I would detest that would take my time away from the woman I loved and would render my art useless spun me into a depressive cyclone sounding like gasping for air at the bottom of dirty bath water being sucked into the drain. I couldn't get this job.
At the tutoring school, Brian (he's so cool, Emily told me), a failed musician, and Ted (a really nice guy, Emily said), a former high school administration specialist, interviewed me. Brian started with the "tell us about yourself" portion. I told him I'd had a band in college, started shooting music videos, then got into the movie industry in Atlanta. He nodded. "And what makes you a good candidate for this job?" usually comes later in the interview, but it was clear Brian had already made up his mind. Ted gave a little more room to me by asking, "In your opinion, what is the best way to teach a high schooler to prepare for college."
I suggested the Socratic method would suffice.
"Okay," Brian said, "pretend I'm a student."
"How can I understand this math problem?" Brian pointed to a theoretical question on a blank sheet of paper.
I looked at it and said, "First, isolate the terms."
He asked what that meant.
I said, "Well, in the absence of an x or a y, we're looking at infinite terms. What do you think this says about nothingness?"
Brian didn't like my answer. He said, "But I'm a 17-year-old girl. What does nothingness mean?"
I started to sweat and said, "In the absence of terms, our answer is both nothing and everything at the same time." Brian grinned—he knew he had just lost the job for me—and said, "How do I solve this problem?"
I looked across the table at Ted and asked, "How many of your students are deaf?"
After we had a silent dinner of lentils and eggplant, I asked Neli if I could cry in bed.
The next week, I wrote my first short-film that wasn't trying to say anything. It was a non-statement. It was a simple relay of facts, objects, and faces. It felt good to not say anything—without anything to prove, I could simply show the world.
My film, at 43 seconds, was my first to be accepted to any festivals. It didn't win, but at least I could say it was an entry. The first line sticks with me to this day: "Everything changes into Nothing."
Neli told me I had been reading too much. I told her if reading couldn't transfer into film, then film was as pointless as corporate finance. If something is only upholding something else, then what is supporting it?
Nonetheless, I had a burst of creative energy. I did six videos for non-profits around Atlanta. I tried to deny being paid on the first one but the executive director told me if I didn't take my own work seriously, then nobody would.
After a year of mild success, I hit another dry spell. Neli told me she needed a change. She'd been trying to land roles in a few short-films being shot in Europe that year. My friend from LA, Will, had moved to Berlin. I told her maybe something was happening in Berlin. She told me of course something was happening in Berlin. Since the 1920s, Berlin had been the hotbed for everything in the West. I started to think about how I could make money there.
Neli was full of good ideas, and applying for grants in Berlin was one of them. I got one for three months of paid living to shoot a documentary about the people who live on the bank of the Spree in the summer. I would already be attached with a fixer and a completely German team. All I had to do was write the story and direct. It was a huge compliment. The group giving the fellowship told me they really liked the absence of motifs, the exactitude with which my short-film, Re, told a story. They asked me to tell this story as if nothing were going to change except that everything would change. Infinite possibility, I mused.
But I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how everything diffusing into nothingness was such a pretty picture. Surely, everything is pitching to an edge where it's collected into a sea of perfection, or being perfected?
In my apartment in Kreuzberg, two members of my crew, their significant others, and my Italian friend, Evangelina, sat in the kitchen. We'd been drinking since four that afternoon. The days got dark so early, the nights became ambiguous, fleeting reality.
Evangelina rolled a large joint and lit it. Hans, my boom operator, made a line of cocaine on the kitchen counter. Lo-fi beat music came from an ineffective small speaker in the corner. Uwe, my fixer, was loudly proclaiming the end of the EU from the kitchen table. I took the joint from Evangelina and chose to remain silent on the subject. Uwe's girlfriend said, "I already pay taxes to take care of people in Germany, but more come." The people on the river had become an analogy for the needy. We left them there with their drugs while we did ours.
The conversation escalated into an argument when the question of race came up. My friends stopped respectfully blowing their smoke out the window and started blowing it to the center of the table where the argument broiled like a volcano. Evangelina went to the bathroom. I followed her to the living room to see if the sound of the record player would reach the kitchen. I put on a record by CAN and turned the volume to a nice level.
Evangelina snuck up behind me and said, "Where is Neli?" I opened the living room window to create a draft to perhaps drag the German debate out the window. I turned around and told Evangelina she was on a film shoot in Romania. She smiled.
Looking back, I like to think she disappeared. Somewhere in the sea of nothingness, she became nothing just as our night became nothing. But I couldn't resist the tugging notion that everything changes. It wasn't just that Venice changed or that Atlanta changed—everything was suspended in a state of perpetual change. My short-film about nothing, saying nothing, was only nothing because I allowed it to be. If I'd attempted to affect change, then I might have.
Evangelina left the next morning after pastries and coffee in my kitchen she bought from the bodega at the bottom of my building. She said she loved local bakeries. I thought glumly as I pulled apart a croissant, what difference does it make if there's nothing?
Rather expectedly, I received an email from Neli:
Hi, the film's been great; I love my life; how's your film?
In essence, the first half of her email purported that life was the same.
Three weeks ago I...
Then I felt myself starting to tremble. The email began affecting me.
I like to think at that moment I looked down the Spree and saw all the homeless people, all the capitalists, all the ex-lovers, floating downstream, just to become someone else's problem. And then, I saw the end of the river was nothing—just black screen. Nothingness. Cut to a face. She turns around slowly in a rainy street scene. Her eyes are blue-gray. And in those eyes, in her infidelity and my own, I realized all rivers flow to oceans, and we can only hope our ideas are good ones.