By Don DeLillo
Hardcover, 128 pages
List price: $24
Richard Elster was seventy-three, I was less than half his age. He'd invited me to join him here, old house, underfurnished, somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether. Not a long visit, he'd said.
Today was day ten.
I'd talked to him twice before, in New York, and he knew what I had in mind, his participation in a film I wanted to make about his time in government, in the blat and stammer of Iraq.
He would in fact be the only participant. His face, his words. This was all I needed.
First he said no. Then he said never. Finally he called and said we could discuss the matter but not in New York or in Washington. Too many goddamn echoes. I flew to San Diego, rented a car and drove east into mountains that seemed to rise out of turns in the road, late summer thunderheads building, and then down through brown hills past rock-slide warnings and leaning clusters of spiny stalks and finally off the paved road and onto a primitive trail, lost for a time in the hazy scrawl of Elster's penciled map.
I arrived after dark.
"No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall," I told him. "The man stands there and relates the complete experience, everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings. You're the man. There's no offscreen voice asking questions. There's no interspersed combat footage or comments from others, oncamera or off."
"A simple head shot."
"What else?" he said.
"Any pauses, they're your pauses, I keep shooting."
"Camera with a hard drive. One continuous take."
"How long a take?"
"Depends on you. There's a Russian film, feature film, Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov. A single extended shot, about a thousand actors and extras, three orchestras, history, fantasy, crowd scenes, ballroom scenes and then an hour into the movie a waiter drops a napkin, no cut, can't cut, camera flying down hallways and around corners. Ninety-nine minutes," I said.
"But that was a man named Aleksandr Sokurov. Your name is Jim Finley."
I would have laughed if he hadn't delivered the line with a smirk. Elster spoke Russian and he pronounced the director's name with an earthy flourish. This gave his remark an extra measure of self-satisfaction. I could have made the obvious point, that I wouldn't be shooting large numbers of people in textured motion. But I let the joke live out its full term. He was not a man who might make space for even the gentlest correction.
He paused and drank and paused again.
"What are we?"
"I don't know."
"We're a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough. The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field."
I went in for ice. When I returned he was pissing off the deck, standing on tiptoe to get the emerging stream to clear the rail. Then we sat and listened to animal cries somewhere off in the thickets and we remembered where we were and didn't speak for a time after the sounds died away. He said he wished he had remained a student, gone to Mongolia, true remoteness, to live and work and think. He called me Jimmy.
"You'll have every opportunity to talk about these things," I said. "Talk, pause, think, talk. Your face," I said. "Who you are, what you believe. Other thinkers, writers, artists, nobody's done a film like this, nothing planned, nothing rehearsed, no elaborate setup, no conclusions in advance, this is completely sort of barefaced, uncut." I spoke these lines in a whisky babble, half aware that I'd said all this before, and I heard a deep breath and then his voice, quiet and contained, even sad.
"What you want, my friend, whether you know it or not, is a public confession."
This could not be right. I told him absolutely not. I told him I had no intention of doing anything like that.
"A deathbed conversion. This is what you want. The foolishness, the vanity of the intellectual. The blind vanity, the worship of power. Forgive me, absolve me."
I fought off this notion, inwardly, and told him I had no special ideas beyond what I'd described.
"You want to film a man breaking down," he said. "I understand that. What's the point otherwise?"
A man melting into the war. A man who still believes in the righteousness of the war, his war. How would he look and sound on film, in a theater, on a screen anywhere, talking about a haiku war? Had I thought about this? I'd thought about the wall, the color and texture of the wall, and I'd thought about the man's face, the features that were strong but also collapsible in the show of whatever cruel truths might come spilling into his eyes, and then I thought about Jerry Lewis in closeup in 1952, Jerry ripping off his tie as he sang some weepy Broadway ballad.
Before he went inside Elster gripped my shoulder, reassuringly, it seemed, and I remained on the deck for some time, too deeply settled in my chair, in the night itself, to reach for the bottle of scotch. Behind me, his bedroom light went out, brightening the sky, and how queer it seemed, half the heavens coming nearer, all those incandescent masses increasing in number, the stars and constellations, because somebody turns off a light in a house in the desert, and I was sorry he wasn't here so I could listen to him talk about this, the near and far, what we think we're seeing when we're not.
I wondered if we were becoming a family, no more strange than most families except that we had nothing to do, nowhere to go, but that's not so strange either, father, daughter and whatever-I-was.
Excerpted from Point Omega by Don DeLillo. Copyright 2010 by Don DeLillo. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.