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The Enchanted Prince

 

Robert Coover

Artwork by Rafael Melendez
 

The Prince is in his private chambers, sitting at his writing desk, parchment before him, inked quill in hand. Perhaps he is writing a letter to his beloved, a Princess from a rival kingdom who is forbidden to come here.

True love, however, always finds a way, even if it is not clearly explained. She bursts through the door, grinning expectantly, prepared to throw herself into his arms. This is not easy on a walker, especially after having dropped her spectacles and stepped on them. The Prince is in the room somewhere, but it’s all a blur. The Prince is no longer able to stand without falling down, so he has to receive her in his wheelchair. Will the cutie make it that far? She won’t. She does the last stretch on her hands and knees, having fallen from her walker. Her bony knees knock the faux-marble floor like little hammers, her pale scrawny rump the highest part of her, cheeks decorated for the occasion with bright red clown spots. Give her credit, she’s a gamer. The Prince ogles her, or something in her vicinity, leering contentedly, his crown down around his ears. He is supposed to embrace her and feverishly undress her, item by item, but he cannot even undress himself, so the Princess has been sent in with nothing on to make it easier. She reaches the desk, striking her head on it, but she has missed the Prince by a yard or two. She wags her head back and forth, sniffing. He can’t be far away.

“What is this piece of shit?” asks the original Princess with customary demureness. She is sitting with the director in the screening room, watching a batch of unedited dailies on a large video monitor. It’s her job to provide a voice-over script for the finished film.

“It’s a romance,” he says.

“It’s a disaster movie,” she says. “I can’t talk about this.”

“It’s the final remake of the film that made you famous. Which was also of course a piece of shit.”

“It’s not a remake, it’s a travesty. You should be ashamed.”

The director winces behind his scraggly white beard. “OK,” he says, “it’s not a romance. It’s a comedy. It’s very funny.”

“You think senility is funny?”

“Cracks me up,” he says, clawing morosely at his crotch.

“I hate it. It’s as funny as the inside of my fridge after I’ve been away for a summer.”

“Exactly. Hilarious.”

“The best thing I’ve seen so far is your use of old clips. I could talk about those. We were young then. We were hot. And in good shape. We didn’t have to hide our bodies.”

“We’re not hiding them now,” says the director.

“No, you sure as hell aren’t, you heartless bastard. Look at her! No one her age, in her right mind, would crawl around naked like that in front of cameras. But of course the twit’s not in her right mind. You took advantage of her.” The director sighs as though aggrieved. The Princess has found a chair leg and is stroking it. One can only hope she doesn’t think it might fit.

The bewildered Prince is still fumbling with his breeches. They didn’t have zippers in fairytale times, but the wardrobe crew could have made an exception. One of them comes in to help him, a young starlet whom the director is grooming. She has done well with ingénue roles, if they can still be called that, and now she has a big hit with her first grown-up part in a “Catwoman” remake. The way she arches her back while baring her claws seems almost beyond ordinary human capability. The director watches her appreciatively. She’s probably going to get an acting credit for this walk-on.

While the Prince’s doublet and trousers are being removed, there’s a cut to the same scene, shot several decades ago, of this same Princess momentarily escaping captivity and flinging herself with a tearful whoop into the arms of the young golden-haired Prince. It doesn’t belong in this tape of the day’s takes, but the director might have tucked it in to help her with the voice-over. The ex-Princess was already skinny back then, the romanticization of junkies at the time making skinny fashionable, so long as it was underslung by an invitingly plump butt. Extra eye shadow on the emaciated face, rouge accents on the butt, ruthlessly parodied today by the director’s makeup crew. She was no kid. Either the Prince had lowered his demands or, easy mark that he was, they conned him. A couple of remakes later, she was cast as the witchy stepmother, a more apt role she kept for years, bitterly envious enemy of every new Princess that came along.

This old clip is taken from a film that was also a remake of course. Until a dozen years ago, when the Prince began to lose it and they had to resort to reruns, there were as many remakes as the market could bear, and, thanks to a clause in the Prince’s contract, there was a new Princess for each of them. But there was only one original Enchanted Prince movie, and this bimbo was not in it.

The movie’s plot was a folktale cliché. Until the box office tallies came in, critics treated it as a joke. A Prince on a knightly quest to liberate an oppressed and bewitched people comes on a runaway Princess of the corrupt kingdom and they fall in love on the spot. The Queen has died and her father the King, under a spell, has been trapped in marriage by an old harpy with brutish unshaven sons who grunt like hogs. The Prince whisks the Princess back to his place, but on her wedding day she’s abducted by her badboy stepbrothers, with black-magic assistance from their mother, and forced to work in the scullery. She’s eventually rescued by the Prince, and they fall into a forever-after kiss at their wedding.

Such plots appeal to the studios because, if they strike on a monster hit, a thousand variations suggest themselves without disturbing the storyline. One remake turned the Prince’s heroic rescue of the Princess from her stepbrothers into a battlefield action movie, another complicated the love romance with shape-shifting temptresses. There was one early remake that featured the Princess getting her ass blistered by her stepbrothers, and it was such a huge success, girl-torture became a permanent remake highlight, though she herself was thankfully well out of it by then. Young males turned up in the audience to grunt along with the brothers, hooting with laughter with every stroke, which in turn inspired a weird musical, with the hog-brothers doing a hunh!hunh! song-and-dance number that topped the charts for a month or two. By that time, the abused butt was bare, and the world was changing.

 
 

His beloved, her wedding gown in shreds, is being cruelly whipped before his eyes. She cries out, as he cries out. She is too slight for such punishment, too innocent, too tender. The tears in his eyes are tears of pity, but also of fury. He is in a doorless room high in an isolated tower, chained to the wall by his wrists, watching in a magic mirror this ruthless lashing, far away, of his betrothed by her abductors. Someone who called herself his fairy godmother told him she had installed the mirror, hoping it might provide him some consolation. He asked her simply to free him and set him back on his horse, but she said she was powerless against the superior wizardry of the witch, who had conjured up this bleak wilderness tower with him shackled inside it. Bringing him the magic mirror is what she could do. Evil is always stronger than goodness, she said with a melancholic sigh. Or else a triumphant one. And then she flew out the little round window, leaving him to his suffering.

 

In the archive snippet they’re watching now, the tearful reunion of the skinny Princess and the handsome young Prince has evolved into something more like advanced petting. Heavy breathing, dry humps, busy hands. “See what our generation enabled with its radical high-minded ideas. Full frontal pathos.”

“Yup. Giant leap for mankind.”

“Not all mankind. When the Code fell like leaden underpants, a lot of heroic careers came up a few inches short. But not the Throb’s. He rose straight to international stardom.”

“The Throb?”

“Short for Heartthrob. His name among his fans before Enchanted caught on at the box office and everyone started calling him the Prince. We fought over him, boys and girls alike, a mass crush. It was the era of the weepy squealers, and we followed him around, weeping and squealing.” The young Prince has his paw under the Princess’s thick scullery-maid skirts, which she has conveniently hiked for him. His face is flushed, hers is not. “The Throb was a lousy actor, but beautiful in his parts. I was crazy about him myself, even though you could have a livelier conversation with a dildo. And kissing him was a nightmare. His breath could knock birds out of the sky. My major acting achievement was not to gag in the final clinch. Uh oh. Here we go again...”

The archival film clip has been cut short, just as the Princess’s blushing cheeks were coming into view under the rack of her scrawny back, her thumbs hooked in the waistband of her pantaloons like a sheriff’s in his gunbelt (stimulation and frustration, fort and da: it’s only the dailies, but the old metacineast is at it again), and it’s back to the current rushes of the ancient Prince in his wheelchair and his spindly ex-Princess. She has been planted sideways on his soft naked lap like an unstrung stick puppet, simpering mindlessly. Neither of them seems to know where they are. For variety’s sake, past remakes experimented with different causes of the Prince’s enchantment, and here, in what’s probably the last of its kind, the magic spell seems to be galloping dementia. The director hates fantasy, considers himself an intransigent realist, even if of a grotesque and hallucinatory sort, so maybe he’s making a statement. But one wonders why he’s even directing this thing. Probably because he needs a paying job, and has to take what the industry offers. It’s not that his own films aren’t grossing enough. They’re not grossing anything.

“The original,” she says, “was scripted straight from the fairytale: The magic elixir was love. The Prince was enchanted by me.” The director already knows this. She’s not talking to him. She’s trying out images, phrases, looking for a way to get started. Romantic nonsense is not her scene, hasn’t been for nearly seventy years. This is like being dragged back into an embarrassing childhood. “There was blood then, you know. Real blood.”

“Blood?”

“I was fourteen. I was in love. Those were benighted times. I don’t know if I knew what was happening. We were out in the woods, filming the Prince’s discovery of the Princess, our first scene together. I was alone, kneeling by a brook, wearing nothing but my little crown of wilting wildflowers and a glittery see-through Princess gown.” Her memory is slipping but she remembers the gown. It was like wearing air. “The Prince was very agitated, couldn’t wait. Took about three minutes. Everyone watched, cameras humming. Then, though I could hardly walk, they cleaned me up and reshot the scene.”

“Ah, that might explain...” the director muses, combing his beard with his fingers. “I wonder where the old footage is...”

“Old footage was a fire hazard. They’d have shitcanned it long ago.”

“Maybe. Anyway, blood shouldn’t be hard to work in digitally.”

“You can do techy stuff like that?”

“The brainy kids helping me can.”

“Do you think it’s something little children would like?”

“They’d love it.”

 

“The daffy old thing on the Prince’s lap is squirming and whimpering. They lift her off to see what’s niggling her. The Prince has an erection! It’s a kind of miracle! The crew gather round to take pictures on their smartphones, applauding the apparition. The Prince smiles at all the attention, showing the gaps in his rotting teeth. He doesn’t know what he’s done, but he knows it’s something good.”

 

When he first came upon the princess, kneeling beside the murmuring brook, braided wildflowers in her hair, he felt like one chosen. At his worried parents’ request, he had ventured forth to the kingdom on the other side of the mountains to look in upon the king and queen, from whom nothing had been heard for many months. On the way, he’d had to fight off wolves and unicorns, killer trees, fanged serpents, and beasts too improbable to be of nature conceived, tasks he’d welcomed as glorious knightly adventures. But on crossing over the peaks, he’d been shocked to discover the kingdom’s ruined state, laid out in the valley before him. He’d been there as a boy, and he remembered it as a lush, well-tended playground. Now, as if under a curse, it was parched, partly ravaged by fire, brambly. There was only one green place he could see, a lonely stand of graceful willows swaying over a brook. He remembered the spot from childhood and was drawn to it, and he found her there, weeping. Your devoted servant, he said with a respectful bow, as she looked up.

 

Given the phenomenal success of The Enchanted Prince, she expected to be asked back for a sequel, but after a few months of the usual movie hype, they dropped her without so much as a thank you bump for her lost maidenhead. She didn’t have an agent yet, so there was no contract, she was on salary and the job was over. But the Prince adored her, didn’t he? He’d said so over and over during the shoot with tears in his eyes. It was just like the fairytale: they were keeping him away from his true love. So she put herself in his way one day with a big welcoming smile on her face. Got knocked on her ass. He didn’t even know who it was he’d run over.

On the monitor, the Prince is chewing on something. His mouth is inky. “Good grief, is he eating the quill? Why didn’t you stop him?”

“Still a sucker for symbolism, I guess.”

“Typical of a film-school airhead. Digging for hidden treasure. You must know it’s exactly what it is, or it isn’t anything.”

Symbolism was how critics, after uniformly dissing Enchanted as juvenile rubbish, tried to explain its immense popularity. Film schools had become booming industry accessories back then, talent and audience farms for the sponsoring studios, and all those students and their newly minted profs had to write about something. But the making of symbols requires a thinking mind, and the only busy heads associated with that movie’s production were those of the bookkeepers, money the single symbol that had their attention. Counting remakes, sequels, prequels, reruns, and all the profitable spinoffs, The Enchanted Prince was the most successful film series of all time. Fairytale magic, a royal damsel in distress, choreographed heroics against a savage enemy, and a happy ending sealed with a power kiss all had something to do with it, but the filmgoers’ mysterious addiction has never been fully deciphered.

And now this final remake is intended as a series wrap, and as a promotional introduction to the new animated series being made so that the Prince in his virile beauty can live on forever. That’s the story she has to tell. The director is shooting scenes that are supposed to help, but so far she hasn’t seen them.

The daffy old thing on the Prince’s lap is squirming and whimpering. They lift her off to see what’s niggling her. The Prince has an erection! It’s a kind of miracle! The crew gather round to take pictures on their smartphones, applauding the apparition. The Prince smiles at all the attention, showing the gaps in his rotting teeth. He doesn’t know what he’s done, but he knows it’s something good.

“Nauseating. Coffee break.” Leaning on her cane, she stretches up out of the screening room’s plush seat, salvaged from some demolished movie palace. She and her bad back can get along without the stick, but it helps clear space in front of her, and lends her stagger a certain false dignity.

 

“Breaking the fourth wall in a drama was not original, but it was not yet a cliché. … Nostalgia was anathema to him, a dirty word, worse even than the lap dissolves he loathed or orchestral happy endings. But his personal bête noire was, then as now, continuity, which he dismissed as a falsifying gimmick of naïve fiction films.”

 

He is visited daily by a raven who flies in through the tower’s single round window and pushes half-chewed food through his bruised lips as though feeding a chick. It tastes like rotting flesh, but when he refuses it, the raven pecks his lips until he opens them. Who is this creature? A divine helper? A disoriented bird? The shape-changing witch herself? There is a slow drip of water from a crack in the ceiling, and, by straining against his bonds and sticking his tongue out as far as possible, he can catch an occasional drop, but it only intensifies his terrible thirst. In the mirror, his bride is on her hands and knees in the scullery, scrubbing the stone floor, watched closely by her tyrannical stepmother, who is mockingly wearing the girl’s dead mother’s crown. The stepmother points to a spot on the floor, slaps her hard enough to make her head bounce to one side, then slaps her fiercely from the other side. Blood leaks from her mouth. She is trying not to cry. Her stepmother hits her again. It’s more than he can bear, but, no matter which way he twists his head, the mirror seems always to be in front of him.

 

All afternoon, she has been watching the rushes, looking for a handle for her narrative. There have been headshots of the director making esoteric remarks about cinematic time, which might be useful if she understood them, but like everything else these days, they only confuse her. The producers’ plan was to retell the story by sorting the clips and interviews of ex-Princesses in the order of the original film’s plotline. Everything she’s seen so far, however, would only alarm the studio moguls she knows. She asks the director about it over coffee, but he replies by telling her that he’s just acquired the rights to a video clip of one of the ex-Princesses shitting for the camera, something she did or does for a living at porn’s fringe, and then he excuses himself, saying that reminds him.

Her fading memory of her own Princess moment is like a bad dream, best forgotten. Her father, a sound technician in the industry, was a heavy boozer, dying finally of a ravaged liver, and her mother, without a glance in the rearview mirror, ran off with some bald guy in a mobile home. Another movieland cliché. She was taken in by a dotty old great-aunt who’d had a minor career in the silents and was looking for a slave to see her through her end times. Auntie subscribed to all the in-house scandal sheets, which was how she learned that they were casting for a fairytale Princess in a new film. The old lady still had a few aging contacts, enough to get her an audition and screen test. Her family story and that of the Princess were different, but there were enough echoes to get them interested. When they questioned her age, Auntie produced a doctored birth certificate. It looked hand-drawn, but they didn’t even glance at it. Instead, they asked her point-blank if she was a virgin. She wasn’t sure what the right answer was, but her confused blushes probably told them all they wanted to know. She got the part. That she had no agent other than her great-aunt probably also helped. She’d often dreamed about getting rescued from her crappy life by a shining prince, and when they cast the Throb for the part, she could hardly wait.

A different Princess for each remake was illogical, making a joke of the closing smooch, but it added to the films’ popular appeal, providing an ever-changing stream of starlets to be worked over by the grunty boys. The Prince was always the marquee attraction, while the Princesses, after their moment in the bright lights, were disposable, a serial cautionary tale about trusting love at first sight. The chosen actresses were usually introduced in the publicity as gentle maidens with innocent smiles, but everybody knew what was going to happen to them. The emeriti Princesses are mostly old ladies now like herself, their golden tresses gone gray. Happens overnight. One’s a kid, and then not a kid. Like getting caught in a sudden lap dissolve. A couple of them have been fattened by lucrative divorces, a few of the younger ones are still employed by the industry, or something like the industry, some are institutionalized, others are on the street or in a homeless shelter, none are happy.

She had no future as a screen beauty, she was too angular and flat-chested, even as a freshly raped virgin she knew that. So when the Prince team dumped her, she took up acting instead, linking up with a new generation. It was a generation that liked long slow takes, deadpan improvised monologues, choppy storylines full of temporal and spatial incongruities, a lot of deep thinking about nothing, and sex performances that were cool and easy, on- or off-camera. She didn’t always get the point, but she was good at these things, fit right in, became famous among the vanguard cognoscenti. Filmmakers wrote scripts for her. Her movies turned up on university syllabi and at international metacinema festivals, where she was occasionally the guest of honor.

The director was at one of these festivals, it was how they met decades ago, he then a young unshaven student with raw ambitions, one of them being to bed as many filmstars as he could. He was anything but a romantic lead, already beardy, balding and growing a belly, but he was possessed by a manic enthusiasm for filmmaking that she found seductive. Her featured new release was a Freudian indie, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” a Snow White takeoff already being heralded as another underground classic, in which she played both the girl and her stepmother, the evil Queen. The celebrated auteur director of the film, drying out at the time, begged off, and she was invited to the festival in his place.

In the film, the Queen is the writer of the scenario of the film they are watching, her stepdaughter Snow White the devious young ingénue who threatens her place in guarded time. The two, herself and herself, confront one another from time to time in the mirror on the wall. That was about the extent of low-budget movie magic in those days. The Queen believes that Snow White is planning to steal the mirror, so, to thwart her, her script has Snow White committing suicide. If she won’t do that, she’ll have to be murdered. Snow White has read the script, of course. In fact, in a sense, she wrote it. Is this real murder, then, or something more metaphysical? One of the film’s philosophical mysteries, growing out of the paradox of a story in effect writing itself. She had ambivalent feelings toward both her characters and wasn’t sure how she wanted it to come out. Probably she favored the one who needed the least makeup, just as she would now. Near the end of the movie, while she is confronting herself in the mirror, the mirror, in a ghostly voice, puts in its own two bits’ worth about guarded time, which it describes breathily as a clouded funhouse mirror that reflects little of the light entering it. It offers, the mirror whispers, the illusion of immortality, thereby sustaining a crippling myth. She also supplied the mirror’s voice, electronically warped for androgynous ambiguity. Snow White and the Queen, who are competing for a place in guarded time, are both certain the mirror is lying, and start shouting at it and at each other, an argument that evolves into a vicious fist-hammering brawl (“Ow!” says the mirror), each of her selves disappearing explosively from the other’s view as the mirror between them shatters. The camera lingers portentously on the empty mirror frame, the scarred and barren wall beyond.

The student had the audacity to call the festival guest of honor’s film retro, and then, in the same breath, to challenge her to act in one of his little classroom exercises, Murder in the Library. Because he was brassy and the ideas he had for it sounded like fun, she did, though her agent was furious when he heard about it. The script was based on a popular boardgame, and they were asked to improvise their interactions, based on the boardgame characters they were playing. She was the game’s and film’s femme fatale, a hot ticket with a steamy reputation. When his cameras bore down on her, she launched into a potty-mouthed screed on the senseless game of life, while slinking around in her scarlet tights, spouting obscenities, looking dangerous and innocent at the same time. “No one wins! We’re all dead!” she cried. The student actors laughed and applauded, but the director was enraged. Did she think this was just a joke? he roared. He berated her for her frivolous performance, called “Mirror, Mirror” a soft-porn film about group sex with gnomes, said she was just another commercial phony. When finally, in disgust, she gave him the finger and turned her back on him, he lunged forward and plunged a knife in it. She fell with a ghastly cry, blood spurting. The others screamed, some ran away. He yelled at them to stay where they were, goddamn it, get back to their characters and this time make them believable! Movies aren’t art or entertainment, they’re a matter of life and death! They backed away in horror. This was a reaction he’s had to deal with his entire career. She rose and, licking off the blade, turned and winked at the camera.

Breaking the fourth wall in a drama was not original, but it was not yet a cliché. After she turned her face toward the camera in his student film, he began to use it more aggressively, along with midfilm switching of actors and roles, long irrelevant tracking shots with intense voice-overs, erratic sound design unrelated to the images, abrupt scene changes without establishing shots, all the iconoclastic tricks of the new metacinema, many of which he invented himself or pushed to new extremes. What he called “going beyond the frame.” Nostalgia was anathema to him, a dirty word, worse even than the lap dissolves he loathed or orchestral happy endings. But his personal bête noire was, then as now, continuity, which he dismissed as a falsifying gimmick of naïve fiction films. To make his point about continuity, he created a love story meticulously pieced together from other directors’ rejected clippings found on the cutting- room floor. It was his funniest and most popular film, though he shot none of it himself and saw none of the profits after all the vindictive lawsuits that ensued.

Not that he was widely credited for all that he invented. Other writers and directors stole freely from him, while sneering at his own rarely released films, few of which were shown in theaters. And as soon as they were shown, he disowned them. His modest but misunderstood success with the film made out of cutting-room rejects landed him a couple of genre films, which he tossed mockingly into his own peculiar blender. After a holistic Western about a cowpoke who gets beat up by an empty town (it is the town that rides off into the sunset) and a waterfront gangster flick in which no one survives, not even the director who intrudes upon the scene, trying to stop the mayhem, he turned off the money guys once and for all with an unresolved nonstop three-hour chase sequence in a movie that may have been about spies, but probably wasn’t. The film didn’t even make it into the video-rental shops, though clips from the perpetual chase often turn up on underground blogs.

 
 

Of their first encounter under the willows, what he most remembers is the look of adoration on her tearful face when she looked up and discovered him, the delicate feel of her little hand in his, the sweetness of her breath when, stunningly, she kissed him. He had, though young, known many women—he was a prince, a knight errant, a mighty warrior, a future king, they fell at his feet—but when she appeared before him, though she was little more than a child, he was as nothing before her. He knelt and proposed immediately, and she, after the briefest maidenly hesitation, joyfully accepted. When they kissed again, they seemed caught up in a timeless moment, a moment when everything that had happened and that would happen were happening at once, and their kiss would never end.

 

Scrolling back and forth on the editor one day, he told her: “You see? Time’s spread out there in front of you like a highway map. You can point to any moment of it, and go there. Time is space, not flow.” When she argued that might be true of the past, but not the present, he growled: “Ah! But the present is not time! It is the incomprehensible condition of mortality!”

He was born gloomy, destined to live unhappily forever after, but he perked up briefly, surprising everyone, when digital filmmaking came along. He had rejected the new technology from the outset as a gimmick, a toy, a distraction from the hard-earned truths of real filmmaking. But what finally drew him to it, he told interviewers, was that it gave him the layering he wanted. Everything—past, present, and imaginary—could happen at once, and viewers could choose what they wanted to look at, kill whomever they wished, destroy whole worlds on a whim. That was not exactly reality either, but it was closer to it than linear narrative, which led only to a half-truth, the whole one locked away in the unconscious like a kind of bogey-man. He hoped the digital world might set the bogey-man free, whatever the consequences. There was no storyline in it, he said, there were only video-gamelike choices, which, though also illusory, were what might give life a semblance of meaning. That was his rationale. Others saw it as a betrayal of principles. Time, for the generation of metacineasts, had been something whole, fixed, oppressive, absolute. It didn’t move and nothing moved in it, even though it was constantly on the boil. The only thing that moved was thought, but it had no place to go. One could only watch the soup bubble up and think about that. Digital tools, he argued, helped him think outside the bubbles.

“Well, the world is full now of your egoistic bubble-heads, flooding the earth with their stupid little videos of each other,” she snapped, when he told her that. She’d made a lot of movies in the old way by then, and she wanted to go on making them. “The image has lost all value. Everyone’s a movie star.”

“Big improvement,” he said. “Radically new distribution system. Not much money in it, but fair to everyone. We were too pretentious, too elitist. All those self-conscious movies we were so proud of were probably due merely to the medium’s exhaustion. Digital filmmaking came with a restart button.”

“Right. Back to the old economy and its enchanted masses. Yay.”

“I know. Camera tricks for their own sake. Old movie plots blown up with high-tech grotesqueries. The slow mindless death of entertainment. But my kids aren’t doing that. They aren’t even shooting from scripts. They’re writing directly with imagery, creating their own apps, stealing stuff, warping it, recombining it, seeing where it takes them.”

Where it took the director in his last project was to a budgetless film made out of other people’s videos and selfies, downloaded off social websites, a kind of sequel to his cutting-room comedy, and also pretty funny. He always had the owners sign release forms, and, if they tried to negotiate a price, he simply dropped them, ignoring them if they came crawling back, begging to be included. He had millions of downloads to choose from, and, in his mind, they were all more or less the same infantile crap. But what he liked about them was that they had no scripted plot, no trajectory. They just were what they were: stuttering discontinuous time fragments, free of meaning. Like her own memory now. Such realism she can do without. The director, with his usual rigor, provided the fragments, not false continuity, but an embracing aesthetic. The film was ignored by the media and viewers alike, but it has been referenced under “filmography” on countless film-school applications.

For the director, the whole higher ed ritual was a vocational distraction. He didn’t stay on for his degree, but plunged straight into making his wonky flicks. She understood that. She was a high school dropout herself. Production money has been hard for him to come by, but his young crew are devoted to him, many of them working for nothing, just to be near the legend. She has occasionally collaborated with him, less and less as the years have passed, each of them finding the other too difficult; but when he got stuck with this final Enchanted Prince remake, she agreed to be a pal and help him out. She had been there at the beginning, knew things no one else did; he needed her for scripting and narrating the voice-over. And she could say whatever she wanted to say. That was the deal.

When he finally comes back to his cold coffee, however, he asks her to do some of it on-camera. “Your fans will want to see you, not just hear you. Since your voice has begun to croak, it isn’t all that recognizable anyway.”

“My fans all have cataracts and hearing aids, they aren’t able to see or hear anything,” she says, but he’s persistent, and she finally agrees, with the proviso that there is to be no makeup, no alteration of the images, no editing of her remarks. Just the cranky little old lady, wrinkles and all, shooting from the hip.

He smiles at that, a rare experience for his dour curmudgeonly face, which cracks like it might be breaking, and he takes her down a hall past several boarded-up doors with NO ENTRY signs on them to an abandoned lab for a screen test. It’s a grimy room where they used to do the A and B rolling for projection prints in the old celluloid days. Half the lights in the room are burned out. Film scraps and cigarette butts litter the floor. Ancient tripods lie about in the thick dust like the bones of dead animals. Might work for a horror movie, she thinks. Which, in reality, this seems to be.

“Perfect,” the director says, moving about comfortably in his old domain, switching on equipment, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. His recent dark mood lifts a little. “Last chance in here. They were going to convert this collapsing shit-heap into a tourist hotel, but now they’ve got something happening in the basement. New kind of filmmaking. Needs space. A lot of it. This room is the next to go.”

“It’s a scary place. Reminds me of a nightmare I had recently. We were in the middle of a shoot, the set was a haunted room like this, cluttered, dimly lit, and I was being raped, maybe murdered, I was screaming. Then, while I was still screaming, the scene began to fade out—and did fade out, right when the horror was at its worst, as though to say, tough shit, my dear, no one cares what happens to you.”

“Terrific. If I were still making movies, I’d film it.” “You’re making one now, aren’t you?”

“Last one.”

 

“‘ The world is a bad B-movie,’ he says. ‘We try to make better ones, but it probably can’t be done. Still, we go on cranking them out. Nothing else to do. ’”

 

He refuses to eat, preferring the raven’s sharp pecks on his lips to the rotten meat. He has lost all appetite, including his appetite for life itself. The mirror is showing the unrelenting punishment of his bride. Even when he closes his eyes, she is still there before him. He rattles his chains, shouting out angry oaths. The raven cocks its black head to one side, as if listening to him, and then it begins to peck at the wall where his chains are anchored. It pauses to watch him, waiting. He opens his mouth and accepts the half-chewed flesh. The raven pecks at the wall again and flies away. After that, whenever the raven returns, he waits always for it to begin pecking at the wall before opening his mouth to the foul offering, but he no longer refuses it.

 

The director perches her on a high dusty stool. She has to use her cane for support not to fall off, which is no doubt why he sat her there. He has humiliated the other ex-Princesses, why should he spare the first one? On the monitor, she sees a very old lady, stern, bitter, half-lens spectacles on the end of her thin nose, a face lined like a geological survey map. That doesn’t bother her. She’d like to live forever, but her body, young or old, has always been just a tool. “Don’t worry about the voice-over for the film,” he says, delivering his canned prep speech. Is he really retiring from filmmaking? Nah. What else would he do? “This is only a test. Say something, so I can check the light and sound levels.”

She knows nothing’s ever “only a test” with the director. He uses everything, the rawer the better. But this film is supposedly for the kiddies, right? An intro to the animated Enchanted Prince to get them hooked. She’ll give him something that he can’t possibly use for it. Her own game of fort and da. She turns from the monitor to look directly into the camera.

“You may find this hard to believe,” she says, speaking softly as if in nostalgic remembrance of a lost past, “but the camera once loved me. This is often said about actors as a metaphoric explanation of stardom. Why it happens for some, not for others. In my case, it wasn’t a metaphor. Wherever I went, the camera followed me with abject adoration, and dragged the viewing world along with it. No matter what might be happening in the frame, I was its focus. It feasted on me. I was young then and proud, a bit arrogant. Well, not just a bit. I decided to test my power over it. I had a minor role in a thriller as a young friend of the lead actress, who was the jealous lover of a playboy racketeer. I had read the script. I knew what was supposed to happen next. The heroine was carrying a handgun in her purse and was about to confront the racketeer in his nightclub office with his most recent infidelities. I was not in this scene, but I drifted onto the set through the missing fourth wall and, with the sheer magnetic pull of my body, drew the camera away. Off-mike noises suggested the scene was turning violent, perhaps guns were out, but the camera was captivated and saw nothing but me. It drew close to my face, seemed almost to touch it, our lenses locked in mutual regard. I opened my mouth, licked my lips. It felt almost like kissing. I began to undress for it, baring myself to its ravenous gaze. It explored my whole body, front and back, ever more closely, ever more hungrily. I don’t know what happened to the racketeer and the heroine, they were no longer in our movie. I pulled down my underpants and spread my legs. The camera teasingly scanned what was between them, as if licking at it, then shockingly zoomed in. I cried out. I could feel it worming around in there. It was scary, but it was also fantastic. I was suffering orgasm after orgasm and wanted more—but, as suddenly as it had entered, it pulled out, started scaling my body again. It really didn’t care for my cunt. What it adored was my face. My eyes.” She pauses a tick. “It wanted to fuck my face.” She looks away, hesitates, does a double take, addresses the camera suspiciously. ”That wasn’t you, was it?” There’s a bark, which is probably the director’s imitation of laughter.

She pivots back to the monitor, and sees the wrinkled octogenarian that she is, looking pleased with herself. “It still loves you,” the director declares solemnly as the monitor goes dark, and he helps her down off the stool, walks her back to the screening room. “The world is a bad B-movie,” he says. “We try to make better ones, but it probably can’t be done. Still, we go on cranking them out. Nothing else to do.”

“You haven’t lost the passion. It’s how you seduced me.”

“I seduced you? Not how I remember it. I was just an innocent kid in film school.”

“You were never innocent.” He takes her elbow to guide her back down into her movie seat. “Nor a kid either.”

 
 

On their way back to his homeland from their magical kiss by the brook, she on the horse, he leading it by its reins, she told him of her mother’s sudden mysterious death, her bewitched father’s remarriage, and the danger she was in. The new queen may be poisoning her father, she said, and if the poor man died, she’d be at the mercy of the witch and her barbaric sons. It was why she’d run away, though they’d sworn to kill her if she did. Don’t be afraid, he said, taking her hand. I’m here. It was a long voyage, and hazardous, but he felt invincible in their love. Evil is powerful. But it never wins.

 

The clip the director runs next is that of the most recent Princess, a raven-haired beauty in her prime, sumptuous target for the whip. Nowadays, under a different name, she takes bit parts as an extra in TV soaps, playing the sympathetic older friend, the worried mother, the lady on a park bench with a melancholic tale to tell. The director says the woman was willing to be interviewed off-camera to help celebrate the Prince’s career, but nothing else. She’s added a chin and put on a few pounds in the wrong places, she’s embarrassed about that. And she’s found Jesus, so there are limits to what she can say or do. As the director knows, she also has an expensive drug habit. In this take, the director leans close to the woman and can be heard describing, in an augmented whisper, the scene he wants to shoot, while offering her a sum that’s vastly more than she’s earning in the soaps. She waves it away. He shrugs and, with a gentle farewell touch to her shoulder, stands to go. She remains sitting. She asks for more details. He sits down beside her again, takes her hand. There are close-ups of her trembling double chin, her slumped shoulders, her sad baggy eyes. Still young, too. A pity. He tells her that bodies are bodies, they always let us down. It’s not her fault, it’s not anyone’s. Time’s the only bad guy in town. It’s who he’s after in this final remake. She can help, just by being herself. He promises to manipulate the images to make her look as distinguished as possible. This is not an infantile sex movie, we’re all sick of those, he says. It’s a movie about truth, spiritual truth. He tells her they’ll all strip down for the shoot if that would make her feel more comfortable.

He shows the woman the scene from her own Enchanted Prince film that he wants her to perform again. Before there is a cut to it on the dailies, he can be seen surreptitiously slipping her something, which, even while turning her pained face away, she snatches at greedily. This particular remake was notorious for the perverse brutality of the stepbrothers, the Production Code having long since been neutered, the series itself coming to an end, the Prince in a terminal fadeoout, all restraints off. The Actors’ Guild protested the film’s excessive cruelty, thereby guaranteeing its blockbuster success. By this time, there were no longer any romantic escape scenes, only variations on the unremittent torture. But the clip the director has chosen (it’s not that these old film clips don’t belong in the dailies. the fucking dailies don’t belong in the dailies) is of the young Princess, alone and naked in the scullery, following a lacerating stretch in the punishment room. There’s a full-length mirror improbably hanging in this dismal workroom behind the kitchen, and the royal Princess, thick servant skirts and pantaloons around her ankles, is standing tearfully in front of it, examining her wounds. A voice over explains that it’s a magic mirror, supplied by a fairy godmother, by way of which the Prince, chained in a spooky tower conjured by the witch, can watch his love remotely, his point of view in effect merging with that of the mirror. To see and not be seen: voyeur’s delight. Moviegoer’s as well, of course. The Princess looks straight at the mirror and thus at the camera, the Prince, the audience. She’s tearful, but also excited. The inch-by-inch exploration of her voluptuous wounded body is carefully orchestrated, immaculately lit. For the spellbound Prince, it’s like watching artful slo-mo porn, which is how they apparently intend to use the new footage, coaxing the Prince in his befuddled condition to reach out and touch the woebegone blob on the screen. There and not there, one of the director’s trademark leitmotifs. The blob herself won’t even need to be present.

Cut back to the dailies. Though of course they’re not mere dailies. There’s a lot of editing going on. A sequencing of chiming images and expressions. Provocative juxtapositions. Old footage spliced in. Her mind has been incrementally dulling down of late, leaving her only half-awake at times. But she’s finally becoming aware of what he’s doing. She should leave now.

 

“The film theory hacks called what we were doing metacinema because they didn’t know what it was and needed a snooty name, but it was the moment that film finally looked at itself and began to grow up. The world has moved on, but I wanted to make one last conundrum for their messy little metaheads.”

 

Each day, as the raven pecks, the wall seems to loosen its grip on his chains, but he fears it is only an illusion. Like so much of life here in the tower. Night follows upon day, day upon night, with no apparent pattern, sometimes abruptly, sometimes repeatedly, never predictably. It never rains, so why is water, if it is water, dripping from the ceiling? How was he brought here, where there are no doors? And the mirror: it is far too large for the little round window. The fairy godmother told him the mirror was the size of a cow patty when she brought it, tucked in her apron pocket, but she was able to press it out with a rolling pin, revealing the magic mirror. The raven is his only companion in this lonely place, and, to keep the bird pecking at the wall, he accepts the vile tidbit it pushes into his mouth—but what is this game that he and the raven are playing?

 

On the screen, they’re getting ready for the shoot and the preps themselves are being filmed. The director has, as offered, stripped to his bulbous belly and collapsed arse, both as hairy as his pate is bald. He’s been in and out of most of the clips—in many ways, she realizes with a start, he’s the main character, has been all along. This is both true and confusing, like so much of life these days. He orders tall mirrors to be placed about, creating a broken panorama of reflected flesh, he himself in some of the reflections. Frames framed. The cameras are in the reflections, too, staring wide-eyed at themselves. They are actors in the director’s movie. And they’re not the good guys. There’s more than one shot of the naked young crew setting up the mirrors, taken simultaneously from different angles, but seen sequentially on the dailies like action replays. The starlet seen earlier appears on the set to help out. Also bare-assed. All in all, it’s a cute display. So much for the director’s disavowal of adolescent sex movies.

The former Princess meanwhile is peering round to see if anyone is watching. No, just the naked production team, passing back and forth, moving cameras and mirrors about, conversing quietly, as if she weren’t there. She’s the only one with clothes on. She hides behind her own sagging backside to pull her dress over her head. Of course, in a room of mirrors, hiding isn’t really possible. In the archive clip she’s just seen, the woman had a classic sculpted quality and her self-confidence was high. No longer. She’s in tears, surrounded by distressing images of her ruined body. It is lumpy and needle-tracked, and there are rolling folds in her matronly belly. The director would have his hands full, if he tried to repair this wreck. Clearly, no intention of that. Where there used to be keycode markings on the film, there’s now a running clock. Which can be reversed, slowed down, speeded up, fragmented, overlaid. Time is space. And it means the scene is being timed for use in a film. Maybe the clock is part of the film. Sure, it is.

The crew enters. They lipstick her backside with crude imitations of welts. The naked director is seen in the shadows, filming them doing this. There’s a cut to his point-of-view, but there he is again in the shadowy background with a camera. A trick he’s used before, tucked in here like a signature. The woman asks if they’re going to whip her, and the starlet says they’re not doing that scene. She drops her head. The starlet shrugs, whacks her large flat backside playfully with her clipboard, and the woman shyly thanks her. Her high has evidently kicked in, and neither she nor Jesus now seems to give a damn. She’s becoming more talkative in a lugubrious way. She says she remembers the first Enchanted Prince and how beautiful and inspirational it was. Her parents gave her the video tape as a birthday present when she was a little girl, and when she saw it, she knew that all she wanted was to grow up to be a Princess. And she did that, but it was not a very nice experience. The Prince truly loved her, he told her so, she says, and he still did it in the usual way. But not the crew. They could do whatever awful things they wanted to do. She describes some of it. Indeed, awful. “It wasn’t play-acting! It really hurt!” she says, wobbling around in front of the cameras, appallingly naked, a pale sad-eyed middle-aged fat lady with a lipstick-striped heinie, tears drying on her puffy cheeks. Spiritual truth. The director produces from the costume locker the same raggedy costume the actress wore as a scullery maid in the film. She pulls it on gratefully. He reminds her that she’ll have to take everything off again soon for the mirror scene. She gives him a tearful pleading look, but he turns his hairy back. The mirror scene, of course, is almost over.

“That’s enough. I get it now,” she says, pushing herself up out of her seat with the cane. These are not unedited dailies she’s been watching. It’s a rough cut of the newest Enchanted Prince remake. “You’re up to real mischief.”

The director switches off the equipment. “I’ve got something to show you,” he says, and leads her out of the screening room.

“If it’s anything like what we’ve just been looking at, I don’t want to see it.”

“I think you do. It’s the first Enchanted Prince. The one that made you a star. Come on.”

“Unless you’ve stolen the original print from the mausoleum so we can burn it, no thanks. It’s late. I’m tired. Let’s go get a drink before the hotel bar closes.”

The director says nothing, but takes her elbow and walks her to the elevator. “Something I should tell you,” he says. “I didn’t have to direct this fucking film, I asked for it.”

“Ah. So that distress signal you sent was just another lie to lure me here. And now you take their money to make a film that can never be shown. That makes perfect sense.”

“No, I’m making a film that has to be shown. The film theory hacks called what we were doing metacinema because they didn’t know what it was and needed a snooty name, but it was the moment that film finally looked at itself and began to grow up. Didn’t last long, and now the idea’s as outdated as the casting couch. Just a few tired relics left behind for the film studies mob to misread. The world has moved on, but I wanted to make one last conundrum for their messy little metaheads. No, I had to make a last one, a whole film, with a beginning, middle, and end, in whatever order. Then I could quit. But I was broke and locked out. Strange as it may seem, they didn’t trust me. I needed access, tools, and a budget. Nobody else wanted this silly self-promoting company job, so I grabbed it. It worked.” He pulls some keys out of his pocket briefly and rattles them, as they step out of the elevator in the basement. “They agreed to give me a free hand, figuring they could kill any film they didn’t like. So, all I have to do is make one they can’t kill.”

Fat chance. This so-called remake is his usual contrarian helter-skelter sort of weirdness. No beginning, no continuity, no ending. In whatever order. No way any movie theater, even an artsy one, would ever pick it up. “You’re such a damned romantic,” she says.

“Pretending I might be able to make something watchable out of a meaningless reality. My own kind of make-believe. Only way to get through this shit.”

 
 

Though his aged parents were saddened by the news he brought from the neighboring kingdom, they welcomed the princess all the more warmly, and began immediately to prepare for the royal wedding. A great feast was laid, and citizens and noblemen came from all over the kingdom to join in the celebrations. There were musicians, jugglers, clowns, acrobats, and poets. There were knightly jousts, and turtle races for the children. His parents knew the girl had suffered greatly, and hoped to heal her with their loving largesse, and indeed she was as happy as he had ever seen her. Fairies, trolls, and prophetic birds confirmed that the marriage boded well for the kingdom, and there were toasts to its future heirs. Then, in a cross-eyed stupor under his loose crown, her spellbound father turned up, accompanied by his new wife and her two large bristly sons, and a dark cloud fell.

 

He leads her on her cane, one hand still gripping her elbow, down a shadowy cement-walled corridor with hanging bare bulbs. “The keys opened most doors, but I still couldn’t get in down here. Didn’t even know I wanted in. But it’s where everything too hot to share is housed, stuff that was invented tomorrow, including their ritzy motion-capture gear. My assistant was brought here to do the special effects for ‘Catwoman.’ She tipped us off.”

“Motion-capture. Like caging a wild thing that’s not even there. But it’s what we do, isn’t it? What the movies are.” He harrumphs. Can mean anything. “So she came and got captured.”

“No, she’s a dancer, a good athlete, but not good enough for what they needed. Nobody is. They filmed a real cat and mapped her face and body to it. It’s the cat, in effect, who’s in disguise. So, when she slinks, she’s a cat slinking. When she leaps, it’s the full-stretch muscular leap of a cat. Mappable faces and bodies, that’s what acting mostly amounts to nowadays.” In the film, she’s found dead in the street, looking like roadkill. Eyes milky, lips pulled back over sharp teeth. Did they kill the cat for stillness- capture? Decomposition-capture? She doesn’t ask. “Actually, they don’t even need new faces. Famous old actors, long dead, can be resurrected for new movies. All it takes is someone to provide a voice, facial expressions, and a moving body. Doesn’t have to be the same person.”

“Creepy.”

“It’s a creepy world.”

“Do you think we’re just out of synch with the times?”

“Never been in synch.” They arrive at a locked door with a sign on it: DANGER: DO NOT ENTER. “A couple of our crew have managed to pick up real jobs in here. Gave us access to the daily changing keypad codes. We use it after hours when everyone’s gone.” He presses a silent button. “My assistant showed me a motion-capture clip of her licking her own asshole with one foot behind her ear that’s fucking amazing. You’d love it. I only wish I could find a way to use it.” The starlet, now in jeans and unbuttoned chambray shirt, opens the door. “My assistant director,” he says by way of introduction.

They step into an enormous three-story cube hacked out of at least four low-ceilinged basement rooms and the matching space on the two floors above. Steel beams support the new ceiling at the top, and the insulated side walls have also been pinned back with steel. That explains the boarded-up doors she saw up there. Most of the space is taken up by what looks like a huge gray circus tent, elevated several feet off the floor, with a curved door on the near side for access. Neat ranks of little glassy-eyed projectors encircle it at a distance like an inquisitorial audience.

“Welcome to the true underground, owned and operated by a cabal of asshole billionaires,” the director says. “VIRGIN360, beta version.”

“360 and beta, I get. Who’s the virgin?”

“Your blood got this show on the road, so it should be you. But it’s an acronym for Virtual Interactive Reality Graphics Installation. Motion-capture is only a side-bar down here, not the heavy stuff. The gear in here is so advanced, they don’t even want anyone to know it exists.”

The director’s assistant swings up onto a circular catwalk to affix something to one of the aluminum bars of a regally gleaming crown at the top of the construction. In a far corner, seen through the stanchions and projectors under the floor, two young men are worrying over a stack of computers. One of them leaves the stack to run up the metal steps to a workstation near the entrance of the circus tent. “We don’t want to leave our own programming up there on the kiosk.” the director murmurs softly. “That large cluster over there provides the computing power for this rig, but it more or less runs by itself, no one ever looks at it, so we’ve put a toggle switch on it. Allows us to hide things while we’re making them. I’ll be up at the kiosk. When you’re ready, come on up.”

The projectors blink awake. The translucent circus tent lights up with imagery, inside and out, as the room around it darkens. What she sees from below is a confusion of overlaid geometries, most of them doubled, slanted up at odd angles, and wrongly sized for what they seem to represent. Catgirl drops back down in the weird light. “The floor’s also a movie screen, so you should take off your shoes,” she says, crouching to help. She glances up at her boss. ”He has often talked about you,” she whispers. “He was so hopeful you’d be here. All his other friends have abandoned him. They say he’s crazy.”

“Do you think he’s crazy?”

“Sure, a little. Like most geniuses. I got a quick peek at the segment you recorded for us today. It’s wild! I can see why he likes you.”

The assistant fits what looks like a thick condom on the end of her cane, then it’s slowly up the high flight of metal steps in her stocking feet, one step at a time, past the director, leaning over a young computer programmer at the workstation, and onto the elevated floor, a vast pale circle of confused imagery like the surrounding wall, aglow with projected color. The girl gives her stereoscopic glasses to wear over her spectacles, and when they’re in place, she finds herself in a deep sunlit overgrown forest, the trees above casting leafy shadows, though they are themselves made of light. She can see her stockinged feet on the floor, but at the same time there are high grasses around her ankles, wildflowers, fallen branches, a poised squirrel, an acorn in its little paws. The wall of screens around them has seemingly disappeared. They are afloat in an illusory world that stretches up and out as far as the eye can see. Down, too: behind the trees, there’s a brook below floor level, and one can probably get in it and look up at the fishes.

The director’s assistant hands her a small instrument that she calls a wand, and shows her what the buttons on it do. The trackball in the middle is for moving through the scene while standing still, so, with her arthritic thumb, she commences an exploration, moving forward, turning left, right, speeding up (it’s a magic wand, she can run again!), pausing for a closer look. She doesn’t recognize any of it, but, after what the director has said, she’s probably on the imaginary estate of the enemy kingdom, so she stays brookside. The original film’s budget didn’t allow for a set, so for the shoot she was taken into some nearby woods. Nothing like this lit-up place. She was told to kneel by the brook. The Prince mumbled something about trespassing, and then what happened happened. They douched her in the brook, while the Prince went to the studio trailer to don his shining armor. Tinfoil on cardboard. The sniggering jerks with cameras said the Prince was only exercising his royal rights, and she should be grateful that he didn’t behead her after. She should have told them to go fuck themselves, but she was a shy little girl and still intimidated by snarly grownups. Once upon a time.

 

“She senses the Prince nearby. She uses the wand to swivel the forest and there he is, standing, as scripted, in awed enchantment. And there she is in front of him, a luminous child, on her knees, picking flowers above the rippling brook, and she feels for a moment a trace of her childish expectations, her belief in princes and the power of a kiss.”

 

Sometimes he can see himself in the mirror. He is not a pretty sight. His nose is broken, his ragged beard streaked with dried blood, and one eye is missing. He supposes these must be moments when the princess is sleeping, the mirror, its light dimming, then sleeping, too. But now she and the mirror are awake, and she is running away. She reaches the brook and, holding up her heavy servant skirts, splashes across. Her stepbrothers are waiting on the other side, malicious grins on their brutish faces. They easily subdue her, strip her, and hang her by her ankles from a willow tree. This time they use supple willow branches on her. The branches whine and pop over and over, but she does not cry out. She is perhaps too weak, too despairing. He rattles his chains furiously. He has so little time. Once, trying to reach a sleeping maiden to awaken her from a spell cast by an evil fairy, he was caught in a briar hedge, the thorns seeming to feed on his flesh as the hedge grew around him. Valiantly, he braved the pain and tore through them, reaching at last the maiden. But, though he kissed her over and over and from head to toe, she never awoke. Maybe he’d arrived too late, he thought then. His worry now.

 

She senses the Prince nearby. She might lose her balance if she looks over her shoulder, so she uses the wand to swivel the forest instead, and there he is, standing, as scripted, in awed enchantment. And there she is in front of him, a luminous child, on her knees, picking flowers above the rippling brook, and she feels for a moment a trace of her childish expectations, her belief in princes and the power of a kiss. But, actually, the brook is not rippling, the flowers cannot be picked. Nothing is alive here. It’s a frozen tableau of the opening scene from the Enchanted Prince, in which the Prince comes upon the Princess, kneeling by a brook in her sparkly diaphanous gown.

“Nice. Like a giant playground set. Not where it happened, though.”

“What you’re seeing is made with a new high-resolution 3D conversion program for old flatscreen movies,” the assistant says. Is this high-toned baby-babble how they talk now? “With it, they’ve been able to grab and convert a lot of the main action from the digital remaster of your original movie, which is still the best one. What you might call the innocent one, before the Prince became an industry.” Little does the child know. “The forest was too dark and blurry, though, so they went with the photoshopped version used in the remakes.”

“The original was filmed in the wild. Why didn’t they just go back there?”

“It’s not wild anymore. It’s been a suburban development for more than half a century.”

She’s sorry she asked. Using the trackball, she pulls the virtual image of the little Princess closer. One can pass right through her. There and not there: the director must love this stuff. “She reminds me of me as I was then, but she’s different,” she says to the assistant. “Of course, my eyes aren’t what they used to be.” Her phantom double. Eerie. Her Princess body is outlined by the gossamery folds of the gown, her little bottom clenched with fear. She didn’t know what would happen next. She was right to be afraid. “I really was just a child, wasn’t I?”

“They say the Prince always demanded a virgin, younger the better. Different one every remake. It was in his contract. Of course, all that’s ancient history, way before my time.”

Impulsively, feeling faintly nauseous, she kicks the Princess in her provocatively raised tail. Which is a stupid thing to do. Like kicking light. Fortunately, the assistant catches her before she hits the floor. Her 3D glasses fall off, and she’s back in the luminous puddle of flat geometries. “Pratfalls are funny,” she says with a grumpy laugh, putting the glasses back on, “when they’re not fatal.” She settles herself on the cane and uses the wand to put the Prince in front of her again. Golden locks, big blue eyes, body to die for, bulging codpiece: she was a naïve teenager, she was excited by such things. “I thought he loved me. I thought the cruel thing that he did to me was love,” she tells the assistant. She should shut up. She’s embarrassing the girl. Is “love” even a word they still use? When the Prince said she was the girl of his dreams, he was only reciting his lines, she knew that, yet she chose to believe him. The Prince was pretty, so he was good and wouldn’t tell a lie, that was the rule in those days, just as his stepbrothers were ugly and therefore bad. And, as an actor immersed in his role, he probably did love her, at least for as long as the shoot lasted, in the same way that he loved all the other Princesses.

She pulls him closer. With the help of her cane, she gets down on her creaky knees (the floor is not meadowy, it is rock-hard), leans forward and pokes her head into his codpiece as though to give him a blowjob or bite the thing off. Nothing inside or behind. As she had always suspected. She looks around. The Prince is gone. She’s alone in the forest. She pulls her head back and he’s there again.

So is the director, more substantially, stepping up behind her, looking like a blind beggar behind his dark stereo goggles. “What are you up to, you scandalous old tart?”

“I was examining the root cause of his enchantment,” she says, as he helps her to her feet. “But, what do you know, there’s nothing there. Is this part of your film?”

“Not really. Our cameras can’t see in stereo. But we’ve shot some footage in here. We’re shooting now.” He points up at the camera inside the crown at the top, fixed to one of its aluminum struts. What Catgirl was up to. “We’re streaming live on the internet. You’re streaming live.” He waves expressionlessly at the camera. “We’re being downloaded right now on hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of different devices. The new distribution system. But this is not my movie. The movie’s not quite finished yet. Maybe today. What’s streaming is more like a behind-the-scenes preview of a coming attraction.”

“To tell the truth, it scares me. Seeing ghosts from the past is what happens to people when they’re dying. In the movies, anyway. Haven’t tested it out yet in the verité world.”

It can be scarier. Click that red button on the controller.” She does so, and it sends out a red laser beam like a kind of ray gun. “Aim it at the Prince.”

She shoots for his bright white teeth and—bing!—everything starts to move. “Whoa!” she exclaims, and totters back a step as the Prince, his silvery cuirass gleaming, slowly approaches. There are scurrying sounds and she can hear a light breeze ruffling the tree leaves, each now animated. The weeping willows sway gracefully. Little white butterflies are flittering about. The squirrel with the acorn scampers by, and a blue bird flies right past her nose, making her jump. Her kneeling teenage self is also startled, caught by surprise in the adoring gaze of the Prince. He doesn’t push her down and shove her legs apart. He takes her hand and kisses it, tells her to rise. A mellifluous off-stage voice quite unlike his own, at least as it is now, but, yes, that’s probably what he said. Music swells up in the background. The Princess shyly does his bidding, floating up with the rising music and curtseying, head bowed, but peeking up at him. “Look at me! I’m so damned graceful! How did I do that?”

“You didn’t. You’re being worn by my young assistant. You had an awkwardness that the producers thought was too amateurish, and they used motion capture to switch her in when she was here for her cat movie. Of course, they were right, your performance was amateurish. It was beautiful.”

The director takes the wand and stops the motion, backs up to the moment when the Princess first sees the Prince. “Here’s something we noticed this afternoon during the coffee break.” He raises the kneeling girl up to their eye level, pulls the face closer, and starts the motion again, slowing it down to single frames. “Look.” Mingled with her expression of happy surprise, there are flickers of something else. Terror. Pain. Tears. “We thought that was amateur acting. Today, after your story, we took a closer look, and found those additional frames spliced in. Some joker probably, inserting a bit of documentation from the rape he filmed.” The director lowers the figure to floor level again and hands the wand back. “Probably thought of it as funny for those in the know.”

 
 

There was deep consternation when the uninvited witch and her sons appeared at the wedding party, but her father could not be turned away. The stepmother had brought, as a gift for the bride, the ring the deceased queen had worn at her own royal wedding. He stepped forward to warn the princess, but when she slipped her mother’s ring on her finger, he was stopped in his tracks, as were the rest of the wedding party. Only their panicked eyes moved. The musicians, their instruments poised, stopped playing, acrobats were frozen even as they leapt, the jugglers’ balls dropped through rigid fingers. He remembers with horror and shame his love’s look of utter terror, as her stepbrothers carried her off, he and the wedding party hopelessly staring with fixed smiles on their faces. It must have looked to her like unforgiveable betrayal. When the spell wore off, his father ordered up a mounted pursuit to try to rescue her, but he couldn’t wait. He chased after them. They were waiting for him with clubs and chains. He woke up in the tower, battered, clapped in iron, and set before this mirror to witness the heartless punishment of his bride.

 

The computer program is still running. The Prince has taken the starry-eyed Princess’s hand to lead her toward his horse and eventually to his own palace. They’re not watching where they’re going, and they both walk right into her, startling her again. She pivots to see them walking out of her and away. “Hit the blue button,” the director says, and, squinting through the goggles to find it, she does. The girl’s gown disappears and the Prince’s hand reaches down to squeeze her bared behind.

“We didn’t do that. Somebody’s been tampering.”

“The producers’ X-rated version. Probably no longer even you. That’s not the ass of a fourteen- year-old, is it? Your click on the blue did it. Time changed with what we did a half century or so ago. It stopped flowing and showed itself in its awesome entirety. We stopped narrating and started seeing. Of course, we were horrified, but we kept looking, lost in time’s deadly grandeur. It’s what movies were then. Now, time’s changing again. It has become a game element, subject to the gamer’s choice, and it’s creating a new kind of movie-making, more suited to a skeptical age when nothing’s real, not even living and dying. No moral choices, only those that affect winning or losing a meaningless game. Like that game in your Murder in the Library rant,” he adds, flattering her by remembering it. As she cannot. “The old cinemas are being refitted for projection, not onto a screen, but into virtual-reality helmets, rented at the ticket window. Everyone will have their own individual game controllers, each helmet experience unique. Actually, I like the idea, but only if all versions can be seen simultaneously, without headgear.”

She takes that as a cue, and removes the stereo glasses. The images shrink back into the tent walls and floor. Everything’s jittery, still moving like mice under the carpet. “What you’ve made here is, what can I say, very entertaining.”

“Don’t blame me. I hate it. Escapist spectacle. It’s how they’re planning to exploit the film beyond the animateds. There are billions to be made. After the moviehouse excitement has been milked, it’ll be on to the selling of headsets, with apps for downloading the films at home. Big tag, massive market.”

“So, all this fancy construction in here is just a temporary lab for developing another industry product.”

“Everything’s temporary. We’re temporary. This installation’s only a prototype, but the Virgin, or something like her, will outlast us both. Your body’s not inside a headset, it’s just an obsolete appendage of your eyes and ears and, remotely, your fingers. But in here, you can walk around, pick things up and move them, stoop to look under them, step into them, zap them. You can pick up a virtual whip and lay it on the Princess’s virtual bum until it virtually bleeds, or try to rescue her, which involves some righteous killing, always fun. One of our programmers made it possible to stamp on the butterflies, triggering scream and squish files. He thought of it as subversive, but the producers caught him at it and loved it, asked him to make a game of it for the PG viewers, gave him a promotion. With data gloves on, you can palpate the Princess’s flesh. Or the Prince’s, for that matter. A porn merchant’s dream. They’re banking on audiences so lusting for the Virgin that they’ll pay a fortune for a private demo. Like buying a ticket for a rocket flight into inner space. ”

“And you’re helping them out.”

“Put your 3D glasses back on and click on the green button to restart it.” She does that, and there’s the Prince again, standing awestruck over the kneeling girl. “Double-click the blue. This one’s ours.” The Prince’s huge tool rips out of his codpiece and rises slowly with a harsh grinding like that of a creaking castle door. The Prince ignores the Princess and, grunting like his stepbrothers, grips his virtual cock in his virtual fist and commences to jerk off, his face showing anger, ecstasy, worry, shock. The girl looks up at him with disgust, with longing, with a stretched grin and crossed eyes. She wags her behind, thumbs her nose. “It’s realtime facial and body manipulation. My assistant and her friends are creating all that now, out there at the kiosk, using a webcam and an animation program, a few sound effects. One of them twists his face up in pain or scratches his ass, and the target character in here does the same. Even the erection was live. Take a bow, son!” he calls out.

“I’m bowing!” comes a shout, as the Prince bows. The director applauds, and she does, too, laughing. No idea how it’s done.

“You’re really hard on our poor Prince.”

“The Prince represents everything that’s sick about the movies. Feeling sorry for him is like pitying a turd getting stepped on in the street.”

“But how about me? Am I just a turd in the street, too? That was my face they were messing with. Don’t I have any rights?”

“None. You were a juvenile. Somebody signed away all your rights. Unto perpetuity is, I think, the legal phrase.”

“Auntie, damn her,” she says, seeing the old biddy with a smirk on her face. “I was sold.”

“Think of yourself as part of our guerrilla operations,” he says, turning his back to the overhead camera and lowering his voice to a gruff whisper. “The live manipulations can be produced remotely, so the programming for it has been hidden away in the cluster, ready for the producers’ inaugural performance. The team will be in a room overhead, ready to launch it and provide the source gestures. Should be a crowd of excited children here. They’ll love it, but their parents probably won’t. Activating the manipulations triggers a disabling of the off button, so the only way they’ll be able to stop it will be to shut the Virgin down entirely, and when they try that, it releases a suicidal worm hidden in the code that eats everything, including itself. Terminal VD.”

“Holy shit! They’ll sue your ass!”

“They’d be wasting their time,” he says in his normal voice. “My ass is so massively in debt, I only have it on loan.”

“Well, they’ll find some way to get even. They own everybody. They’ll get you sent up for life!”

“I don’t think so. That’s not how the movie ends.”

“What do you mean? How does it end? You never followed a script before.”

“I always follow the script. Not the words maybe, or even the scenes, but the desire inside, pushing out. I always begin with that, stay with it to the end.”

“And what’s the end now?” She’s fearing the worst. He’s been dropping dark hints all day. “Are you seriously ill?”

“Mortally. With ennui. Cancer of the spirit.”

“Ennui I can live with. But I still don’t get it. Are you abandoning your film?”

“No. Finishing it.”

 

“Movies aren’t art or entertainment, they’re a matter of life and death. And nothing more than that.”

 

Then, one day, the princess is not being whipped. She is in the chapel, dressed in the rags of her old wedding gown, crudely mended. It would seem that she is being married to both stepbrothers at once. They are grinning around broken teeth, grunting obscenely, each with a hand under her tattered gown. He cries out to her, rattling his chains, but she does not respond, even though she seems to be looking straight at him. There is no expression on her face at all. It’s as if her heart were turning to stone, and he must witness it, the worst punishment of all.

 

His assistant brings a chair out and sets it in the center of the circle. She and the two programmers look up at the overhead camera and discuss angles and lighting, turn a spot on the door and stairs. “Each film has its own inner necessities, its own trajectory, its own inevitable ending, even if nothing ends. I hadn’t planned to have my final remake of The Enchanted Prince wind up here in the Virgin, I didn’t even know about her, but she’s perfect. We’ve tagged and numbered all the takes, scripted their order, all my assistant and her friends have to do is assemble it and get it into circulation. It’s their film now. Nothing left for me to do but provide the punchline.” He nods to his crew. “OK,” he says. “Get our stuff out of here and run the old movie. Let’s do it now.”

One of the young programmers gets busy at the kiosk, the other runs down the stairs, probably to the cluster. His assistant brings in a heavy double-barreled shotgun, and leans it against the chair. “Wait a minute!” She’s trying not to panic. That shotgun is the realest thing she’s ever seen. “What the hell are you doing?

“You know my old principle. Central metaphor rules. Right to the end.”

Omigod! Is this some old weepie I’m stuck in?” Under a panoramic view of the enemy kingdom taken from high in the sky, the titles of the original Enchanted Prince movie are now scrolling on the wall—the backdrop, from the wide-angle camera’s point of view, for the empty chair. The questing hero can be seen far below moving through the vast desolate landscape on his white steed. Her own name is up there somewhere. She can’t look. “This is crazy! Let me out!

“The crew will be leaving in a minute or two. You can leave with them.”

“Don’t be stupid! You can fake it! Use motion-capture or something!” She’s beginning to scream.

“I never fake anything.” She’s still sputtering, but he ignores her. “OK, call the billionaires!” he shouts. “Tell them the Virgin has been penetrated! There’s blood everywhere!

Wait! Hit the pause button! Let me think about this!” she shrieks. Maybe someone can hear her and stop this madness. “These kids may screw it up! It’s your film! How will you be able to see it! Help!

”Hah! You think I want to look at all those ruined bodies again? Listen to their whiny complaints? I never look at anything I’ve made.” The opening titles are explaining the noble quest, as the camera zooms in on the handsome Prince, erect on his horse, entering a wooded area in battle armor, bearing his lance. “Anyway, I can’t do anything about it. This is the way the film ends.”

Is that your damned punchline?” she screams.

“No, my punchline is: The film begins now,” he replies with unnerving calm. In the film on the wall, the young Prince has dismounted, having spied something in the trees up ahead. “Listen. This is between just me and the Virgin. But I wish you’d stay.”

You want me to fucking hold your hand?

“No, calm down, I need a second camera. Somebody with a steady grip. How about it?”

No! I couldn’t bear that!”

“It’s not me I want you to watch. I want a close-up of the producers barreling up the stairs, responding to what they see.” He grins as though imagining it. “It should be pretty funny.”

They’re on the way!” his assistant shouts as the crew, in tears, rush in for farewell hugs. She also gets hugs. The assistant, helping her load the camera onto her bony shoulder, thanks her for staying to do the hard part. She doesn’t remember agreeing to this, but it’s clearly what she’s here for, forget the voice over and all the rest. She’s been lied to again.

“Are you just accepting this crap?” she demands. “Why aren’t you trying to stop him?”

“It’s his script, not ours,” the assistant says. “We’re only performing it as best we can.”

“Fuck. You’re crazy, too,” she says, feeling terminally defeated.

“Well, like he says, movies aren’t art or entertainment, they’re a matter of life and death,” the girl replies with a sad little shrug. “And nothing more than that.”

 
 

The wedding ceremony is over, the gown is being ripped away. The stepbrothers drag her toward the altar. Apparently, they intend to consummate the marriage there in the chapel. He knows the mirror is going to show him everything. Intolerable. He pulls with all his remaining strength on his iron bonds, and at last they burst away from the wall. Wearing them like heavy bracelets, he smashes the mirror—it doesn’t splatter, it splashes, but it disappears just the same—and staggers to the small round window, peers out. He’s a mile up in the sky and no way to climb down. But maybe, like everything else in this world he’s in, it’s only an illusion. Is the window big enough for him to squeeze through? It is.

 

And with that, they’re gone, leaving open the curved door at the top of the spotlit stairs, and she and the director are alone in the Virgin. On the wall, the Princess is picking wildflowers, watched by the Prince. “You’ll probably be arrested, you know, as the only person they can get their hands on,” he says. “They may even try to charge you with murder.”

“Fame at last,” she grumbles. She’s pissed off, revolted, scared. She can’t run away, he knows that. She can’t even get down those damned stairs in her stocking feet on her own. But the overhead camera is still on her, so fuck it. Audience of millions, if he’s to be believed. And improv, what she’s best at. When she’s not shitting herself.

“You’re already listed as a camera person in the credits,” he says with a mischievous grin. The lovestruck Prince in the movie is offering the Princess his hand. She rises, curtseying. “Do your job well. Don’t make me have to edit the fucking thing.” The cocky asshole. He takes his seat, cradles the shotgun between his legs, stock resting on the acrylic floor. He licks the shotgun barrel as though judging its taste, winks at her. “OK. Now for my last trick: my disappearance into time.”

Stop, you motherfuckers!” shout the men in suits, banging in below, shielding their eyes against the spotlight. ”It’s the police!

“Damn!” she can hear the director mutter behind her, as she turns, leaning on her cane, camera on her shoulder, to face the intruders. “I just figured out how to use that ass-licking clip! Oh well...”

You’re all under arrest!

“Oh, please, behave yourselves,” she scolds them, filming them as they come clattering noisily up the flight of metal steps. That wink: how she’ll remember him. “Put some glasses on and enjoy the movie!”

 
 

It’s a fairytale, he thinks, letting go. Anything can happen.

 

You’ve arrived just in time!” the director shouts behind her. On the wall, the Prince and Princess are embracing tenderly. Their open mouths meet. The intruders fall back at the top of the stairs, their faces registering the shock of what they’re about to witness. One last fort and da moment. And the director’s right. They are pretty funny. “The film begins NOW!