I stand idle on the set, serene in my peasant togs, my feathered headdress, my suit of armor. Celluloid ash dusts my eyes. As the cameras roll I lumber into action, gathering force with the mass of my company, many-bodied and faceless as an Asiatic horde.
Invisible in my visibility, I stare out from the screen with the equanimity of a nobody. I am a supernumerary.
The Brothers Lumiere premiered me, strolling out en masse from a warehouse. Vertov captured me unawares, head turned the other way, shuffling to the rhythms of the Soviet quotidian. Act natural, don’t ham it up, don’t look straight at the man with the movie camera.
The director abhors self-consciousness. Self-consciousness abhors a crowd.
Like Poe’s man of the crowd I wander from reel to reel, seeking heat and action, following the surges of humanity that repeat from one frame to the next. When the epics faded I vanished into the backdrop of an opulent speakeasy. Gangsters and their molls bantered at top speed as I populated shot glasses and whiskey bottles, a glint of moonshine to illuminate the peripheries of my non-speaking part.
Remember how Cagney and Muni swaggered into their spotlights of crime, Public Enemy and Scarface brutal in their moxie, deathless and unkillable? I was right there behind them, feeding them ammunition, polishing the rapid-fire words of their machine-gun talkie.
The women come next. The women who follow nobody.
I became a mote, a sign of excess. See me take up residence in the waves of Barbara Stanwyck’s hair in Babyface, a hard-knock girl with a hard-knock life serving up bootleg to a clientele of sweaty, horny factory men. The father who bosses her, the father who molests her. Her only allies: the whimsical black girl who busses tables, and a kindly, avuncular Nietzsche enthusiast who urges her to make her own way in life. Use men! he exhorts. Use men to get the things that you want!
When her father perishes in a fiery explosion of grain alcohol, freedom and hope light up in her face, flickering with the flames that dance out from the ruined tanks.
In a train yard, the whimsical black girl (who will later become the whimsical black maid when the goings get luxe) grins with satisfaction as Stanwyck lures the night watchman to a bed of hay, in exchange for safe passage in an empty boxcar. I pack my bags and move into the shine of the black girl’s grin, the bright starched collar of the black maid’s uniform.
Race, class, sexuality. Ambition and revenge.
I’m not supposed to be here.
Three years before Mata Hari, Garbo plays another spy-seductress in The Mysterious Lady. Soundless and implied, her silent voice assumes a higher pitch as she sings at the piano, head thrown back in assured triumph. Her song tempts the appetite of a sensitive young man, an army officer entrusted with a top-secret document. She lures him back to her apartment, bedecked with luxuriant curtains and polished china, a stack of poetry on the crystal nightstand. A woman’s power is enfolded and covert; empires and campaigns are decided in her bedroom. She leads the helpless officer to the supper table, sets out a pair of candles. As she lights a match her silent face fills the screen, ravishing and sublime behind the faint veil of rising smoke. How many conquests will it take to win this war? Her lips curl up in a knowing smile. She blows out the light.
Did they call it a church, a temple to the celebrity of fleeting spirits? Did they call it a black box? A theater of projected potential?
Figures trudge across the monumental face of the screen.
Not a line of flight but a line of sight.
I resurfaced in the Technicolor musical, cast in a chorus of Navy nurses, prairie pioneers, Yiddish village folk. But the New Wave auteurs spliced me out of the picture. I was the missing shot in Godard’s jump cut, the cardboard telescope tube that guided Jean Seberg’s gaze to the enclosure of Belmondo’s rogue smile.
The blur of trees as the boy runs through the woods at the end of Truffaut’s 400 Blows. The blur itself.
Desperate and determined, running to the sea.
The teenage quartet in Techine’s Wild Reeds, three boys and one girl, caught in a slow snapshot of changing youth. Sensitive François who sleeps with his roughneck friend Serge, and mutters I’m a faggot, I’m a faggot over and over again to the bathroom mirror. His best friend Maïté, the headstrong daughter of a Communist feminist intellectual. She despises Henri the French-Algerian colonialist, but can’t stop her attraction to him. Beneath a grove of trees, they lose their virginity together. He’s about to leave town, leave forever. She will go home, but it won’t ever be the same. Overcome by the experience, overcome by the tremendous knowledge she has just been given, she jumps to her feet. She’s about to burst, she needs to be seen.
Naked, her face wet, she runs downriver, reenacting the flight of Truffaut’s boy hero, only her flight is not an escape but an offering. She runs straight to François and collapses in his stupefied embrace, willing him to help her support this consciousness, this overpowering consciousness that she has taken into her body like a fire. François stops in his tracks and glances over at Serge who has also stopped short, stunned by the sight. They exchange looks of half-confusion, half-understanding.
This is Roz Ito's first published creative piece, although one of her dreams recently appeared in the Annandale Dream Gazette . She lives in California where she rides the rails daily and tends the blog Supernumerary.