Excerpt from “The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing”

The following is an excerpt from the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes. It is reprinted with the author’s permission. Be sure to check out our interview with Rombes as well. — The Editors

Laing is not so good at transitions. As soon as he finishes describing Destroyer he starts in on another film, Black Star. At the time I chalked this up to his age, but even then I knew there was something else at work, and that Laing’s rough transitions between films — his inability or unwillingness to provide connective tissue — was really the equivalent of the rough jump cuts in the films he loved, the films he loved so much he had to destroy, and that my own desire to fill the void of her loss (a void that had nonetheless given my life its shape) was the very reason I had come out here to find Laing as if somehow he could replace the blank and final fact of her death with something else, some mystery, the mystery that her life was or would have been had she lived. The earth is stuffed with the dead. This I understand. In a perverse way, I suppose, I had refused to be sentimental about the death of my daughter. I had been deep into Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette during that time, and there was a line that was so powerful that for many years it extinguished all other belief: “A new creed became mine — a belief in happiness.” Lucy Snowe writes this as she is falling in love with someone she knows she cannot love and I can say this now, after exiting the dangerous orbit of Laing: I had not loved my daughter fully in order to protect myself from what I feared most: her loss.

Black Star,” Laing says, “was simply too close to the truth. It had to be destroyed. The film was shot and is set in the ‘80s but it used 16 mm Eastman Kodak stock from the ‘40s. While the magenta and yellow dyes that form the image fade in other stocks, the Kodak stock from that era is persistent, so the film has a weird vibrancy to it, so strong and intentional, if that’s the right word, that it’s almost like it’s the film that’s watching you, rather than the other way around. ” There’s a sadness or a false sadness as he says this, a lilt in his voice, and while at the time it seemed to be rehearsed I’ve come now to believe that describing the movies to me involved a genuine loss on Laing’s part. I’d go so far as to say that it was a slow method of suicide.

The knife-shaped sliver of sunlight coming through Laing’s motel room window is there on the floor moving and slowly elongating (though he and I can’t see this happening) like a weapon made from light. I remembered something that had happened after I first arrived in Wisconsin at my own hotel not far from here a week prior to meeting Laing. I had gone to a small tavern across the black river. The waitress — thinking back on it now — resembled an older version of the waitress Laing described from the Destroyer film, wearing the yellow server’s outfit and looking so ravaged and thin as if in her mind there was a continuously running blast furnace. Of course it wasn’t the actual waitress from the film because I hadn’t seen Destroyer, and yet because I hadn’t seen it I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t her, as if somehow she, or the phantom possibility of her, had leaked into my life just prior to Laing’s recollection of a movie that featured her as a bit character. No matter, there I found myself at the tavern where a version of the Destroyer waitress brought me my drinks in a ritual that was absurdly formal, as if I couldn’t fetch them from the bar myself, or as if I needed a new white napkin with each glass of beer and in fact it was this last detail — about the napkins — that led to our brief and cryptic conversation, one that I won’t repeat here except to say that it touched on the local children who had disappeared and who had been the subject of the news reports and flyers stapled to telephone poles and even one small billboard along the road that pictured a heavily pixillated face of a young girl with the words FIND ME next to her face. She said that she understood like only a mother can (but what about a father? I wondered) the void of losing a child like that and the terror of not being able to shut off the part of your brain that speculates on the details and that my journey to and from Laing’s motel was much more complicated and treacherous than it appeared.

Black Star begins with a color-saturated Polaroid that fills the screen,” Laing says at last, and with a sort of stupid authority that I would come to understand as a form of concealment. “It’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s most coherent film, as if he had decided to make a movie whose style went against his every instinct as a director, or as if he had split into two men, one who directed the incoherent elephants-battling-elephants sequence in Tusk (1980) and another who directed Black Star which, despite its madness, is grounded in reality. Which is to say that it’s absurd, but absurd in a way that’s familiar. The Polaroid is of someone crouched next to what appears to be an archeological dig, pointing into a shallow pit and smiling, as if he had just unearthed an artifact. He looks to be of college age, or maybe a little older. He’s in a desert, and the light is yellow. His dark hair is windblown. The Polaroid is accompanied by this voice over: ‘Diego was into the distribution of goods, and the acquisition of labor. In this way he acquired slaves, used them to produce distributable goods, and acquired more slaves.’

It’s voiced by a woman — Diego’s girlfriend or wife? — who has a slight southern accent. You picture her telling this story sitting on the back stoop of some remote cabin, smoking a cigarette, as an owl watches her from the woods. The way she says slaves, it sounds like slayves, the ay coming from the very back of her throat. Then the screen goes black for a few seconds before the Polaroid appears again, this time blown up so that what Diego’s pointing toward is at the center of the screen. What he’s pointing at doesn’t matter though because it’s his finger that draws our attention, bent at a weird angle, an impossible and painful angle, as if broken. And tattooed on the back of his hand is what appears to be a small black star.

At least that’s how I remember it,” Laing says, as if there’s anyone to question how he remembered it, or as if to distract me from the sliver of sun shaped as a knife which has now taken on an orange hue, a persistent orangeness that suggests a secret passageway beneath the motel to a furnace so enormous that it could only be understood in terms of Miltonic Hell. “I saw the film only once, on late-night cable, in a distant country where I didn’t speak the language. I had been sent by the university in Pennsylvania to Warsaw, of all places, to learn about the latest methods in humidity stabilization as it applied to microfiche and other silver-gelatin and vesicular film-based storage devices. This was in the spring of 1987, or the fall of 1988. It was the first English I had heard in days, and so I watched it straight through. The story was convoluted and hard to follow but just when it verged on the ridiculous some small dark moment kept the film frightening enough to keep watching.

It turns out that the kid in the Polaroid — Diego — has been sent to Mexico to live with an aunt after his parents were killed in an auto accident. The aunt, who attempts to seduce him, is a former model who goes around her apartment in a pink silk robe and with rollers in her hair and a cigarette whose ashes she taps into the clay flower pots scattered around the apartment. Diego runs away, working various jobs at the tourist hotels up and down the coast of Zihuatenejo, Mexico, and where he eventually befriends a rich, childless couple from Germany whom he manages to con, after an elaborate weeks-long performance that begins innocently enough but that ends with an act of violence that leaves stains on the walls that, in another setting and another context, could be viewed as abstract art. The movie suggests that Diego discovers that the couple are Nazis, not neo-Nazis or Nazi sympathizers or far-right extremists but actual Nazis, which is impossible because it’s the mid-1980s, and yet when Diego discovers their Nazi uniforms in the hotel room closet on a rack hidden behind the main closet rack it’s clear the uniforms aren’t antique or vintage but new, new but worn, so it’s not like they’re collectors. They actually wear these things. And this shot — as Diego parts with both hands the first set of hanging clothes to reveal, behind them in the closet, the Nazi uniforms with their bright red armbands and the black swastikas (which seem to be in motion, as if marching through history) — this shot, especially, looks as if it was filmed not just on film stock from the 1940s, but in the 1940s. Just how he escapes their hotel room with over one-hundred thousand dollars isn’t exactly clear but I do remember that in the next scene he’s in disguise, or else time is supposed to have passed and he’s grown older. He’s gone deeper south yet into the remote mountains north of Tarija, Bolivia.

Years pass in the movie. Maybe a decade. We’re in the 1990s now because Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box,’ probably unlicensed, plays on the soundtrack. The transitions don’t seem linear. It’s as if the movie was edited by people who have a mixed-up or perverse sense of time. Next thing you know, Diego is the owner of three indigenous Bolivians — two men and a woman — who look like their costumes (such as they are) were designed by someone with a poor memory of those anthropological photos of tribesmen and women from 1970s issues of National Geographic. We assume Diego has purchased them with the money filched from the Nazi couple. The movie uses English subtitles when the slaves talk in what sounds like a made-up, mixed-together language of Spanish, Quechua, and Tacana, but the subtitles are riddled with spelling errors, and Diego’s name is spelled at least three different ways. There is a quickly edited, heavy-handed sequence (really the only Jodorowsky-like part of the entire film) that I think is supposed to depict the slaves’ increasing love and devotion to Diego, although maybe it’s intended as a metaphor for hegemony itself: how the oppressed often internalize the very values of the oppressors thus becoming compliant in their own disastrous fates. In one shot, a naked slave smashes his iron ankle chains with a stolen hammer and instead of fleeing or using the hammer on the unarmed Diego, he drops it and embraces Diego with tears in his eyes. ‘My master, mi padre,’ he says, sobbing.

One morning, Diego — who has grown a full beard and looks like you’d imagine a character might in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel — wakes up to find a letter pinned to his nightshirt. The letter — shown in close-up and read in voice-over by the same woman’s voice that first introduced us to the Polaroid of Diego — is, in effect, a ransom note for a kidnapped German priest who had been in Bolivia to establish an orphanage. Diego has no idea who delivered the letter and, worse yet, has never heard of the priest. He goes outside and there’s a terrible screech in the forest trees and Diego watches as an enormous bird attacks what appears to be a brown sloth which, after a struggle, tumbles crashing through the branches to the forest floor. Diego understands, we are made to see in a close-up of his troubled, sweaty face, that to use his slaves to rescue a priest would be the sort of culminating paradox that his life had tilted toward and the particulars of such a rescue-action would make his mark on history. The next morning, swatting away the flies, he inspects the base of the tree and finds the sloth’s body, already shredded and mostly devoured.

’Kill them all, including the priest.’ That was the deal, as Diego understood it, ‘them all’ referring to the nameless others who had also been kidnapped so as to disguise the fact that the priest was the real target. And how to recognize the priest? The slaves would recognize him, the slaves in the aluminum canoe pulling across the river in strokes. The priest scarred by acne and humbled by one leg shorter than the other, from childhood polio, his pretext for a life defined by self-pity.

The movie switches back to the present and goes quiet as Diego and his three slaves navigate the wide, glassy, green river deeper into the hot jungle. The strong current pulling time itself downward into the river-bottom muck. The peeling bark on the shore. The fungal, persistent stench of decaying jungle. A grouping of sloths in a tree, a congress of fur and shiny brown marble eyes. The film turning into a nightmare, a real out-and-out nightmare. This is all shot from the point of view of the boat, and we see as the metal and twig cabin on the river bank comes into view where the priest and the others are held. There’s a smash cut and suddenly the assault on the cabin is underway. Images on the screen burst forth like explosions. The camera is in on the action, its movement as violent as what’s happening on the screen. The cabin, of course, is not well-guarded, as the whole point of the plan was for the kidnappers to allow the priest and the other hostages to be murdered during the so-called rescue.”

Laing stops here. He stands up from the table, untucks his shirt, and takes a small red object that had been attached with white adhesive or hospital tape somewhere on his lower back. It’s about five inches long and is shaped like a cone, narrowing to a sharp point at one end. He sets it on the table. This doesn’t come across as a threatening gesture, as you might expect, but rather a protective one. I’m somehow grateful and relieved to see the object there before us.

Of course, I would deeply regret not leaving — not escaping—at that moment, when I was still capable of taking such action.

31HSkqqRp7L._UX250_Nicholas Rombes has written about film for The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he is a contributing editor. He is also author of Ramones, from the 33 13 series.

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