Something Good #77: Reconstruction of a Motion Picture
Recently I discovered a screenplay that does not exist for a movie that does. Let me explain: There was a movie I saw one precious time. It meant something to me, but then it disappeared. Because I couldn’t find it, I tried to reverse-engineer it a decade later by writing it down as I remembered. I gave up after a few pages, and only last week, some 12 years after the first attempt, I found a printout while cleaning out my desk. This re-ignited the desire in me to will the missing film back into existence again.
In this newsletter’s tradition of attempting to either remember or reconstruct half-forgotten works, things or places that impressed me deeply, I will once again try and describe it, this time for you.
I’ve always just called it the “New Year’s Day Movie.” I don’t actually know what it was actually called, who made it, or who it starred. Not the language of its production, nor the country, although in my head it’s always been set in Montreal, but that could be a function of me discovering it just as I was begin to explore the city, and specifically its weirder, more abandoned-feeling neighbourhoods.
The story, to the best of my recollection, goes like this: a man wakes up amidst the ruins of a wild New Year’s Eve Party to find himself locked inside the building where it took place. Bleary, hungry and confused, he tries to escape, but only manages to make his situation worse and worse. The building does not seem to want to let him go and he goes to desperate lengths to disentangle himself. By the end of the film, not only has he not escaped, but he’s somehow lit everything on fire, literally. The sun is setting on New Year’s Day. The end.
It’s not so much the plot that’s stayed with me, though, as a handful of individual moments and images that have lived, frozen, in my memory for decades. I can remember the opening shot clearly. The movie starts in a full-blown snowstorm. A real one, not faked; we are outside, in an industrial area that I have always associated with a certain neighbourhood in Montreal between the train tracks, but could have easily been Buenos Aires or Pittsburgh or Nowa Huta. It seems to be early morning, the streets are empty, and we slowly zoom in on the top floor of an industrial building from a high angle.
We can make out the remains of a party through the big windows—a New Year’s celebration, by the looks of it. There are streamers, colourful balloons, etc, and a still-spinning disco ball1. Somehow, despite the falling snow, stray rosy rays of dawn manage to refract off the mirror ball, scattering around the room in a moment of accidental, unobserved beauty. Years later, after a night of excess, I managed to not only witness a similar moment, but preserve it, in a photo (above), taken by my friend Mike Winder. It’s one of many uncanny connections I’ve always felt to the film.
The perspective shifts so we are now inside the room.You can practically smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke, but in these morning hours the large open space is empty of people, save for a single body lying face-down on the floor. This shot seems to go on forever—are we looking at a corpse?—until the man (for it is one) stirs, and very slowly picks himself up. I’ve always pictured this guy as Paul McCartney in his bearded phase, to the extent that he’s just who imagine when I remember the movie. Absent any other info, I’m just going to call him Paul.
We watch Paul as he tries to leave. He is not successful. The doors are either locked or blocked, and, disquietingly, there’s a sort of alarming… presence rumbling and padding around in the corridor outside. But eventually Paul escapes via a window and climbs up to the roof. The door on the rooftop is snowed over, so he makes his way across a perilous gap to a neighbouring building of the same height. There’s a door there, too, but the knob is frozen solid. Paul tries to warm it with his lighter and the whole ramshackle door frame goes up in flames. He flees back to the first building and finds his way back in somehow.
(Vaguely, in the background for the entire film, through windows, out of focus, you catch glimpses of this other building, which appears to be burning down.)
Paul cannot escape. The doors to the stairwells are locked. An elevator, summoned, opens, but disgorges him back onto the same floor after a very long “trip;” every button he presses takes him back to the same starting spot. We watch in exacting, real-time detail as he uses the objects he finds lying around the place to try and unscrew the hinges of doors, pry open windows, etc. All to no avail, but his silent labour somehow makes for compelling viewing; it’s always fascinating to watch process at work, whether it’s a prisoner trying to escape from a labour camp, a gang of thieves drilling into a safe, or just a guy trying to get home from a party.
All the while, Paul hears, or thinks he hears, sounds of a mysterious entity lurking nearby, scratching at doors, breathing heavily on the other side of the wall.
Finally he fishes a sledgehammer out of a utility closet and starts smashing through drywall; one particularly memorable one-take shot follows him as he crashes from one vaguely industrial space (an old-fashioned garment sweatshop, a sculptor’s workshop, etc) to another.
That’s when we get the film’s biggest surprise: a second character. The man knocks through a wall and into a bathroom, where he encounters a very surprised woman, sitting alone on the floor. If the man resembled Paul McCartney, the woman always reminded me of Brazilian singer Maria Bethânia: long, dark hair, big eyes, aquiline honker. As soon as their eyes lock, the film jumps backwards in time and tells her story up until the present moment.
In flashback, we see Maria in a totally different context; an apartment complex, somewhere vaguely Mediterranean, but modernist at the same time. (When I first passed through Place Raoul Follereau in Paris, with its brutalist arches, I was reminded of this sequence.) This sequence, like the rest of the movie, is essentially wordless. Maria receives a letter in the mail; an invitation. She packs a small bag. We see her boarding a plane.
She gets out of a taxi outside the building. It is nighttime. Snow is already falling. It is dark in every direction except the top floor, where, if the lights and sounds of music are to be believed, there is a party going on.
She goes in, and up the stairs. Then she is standing at the door to the party. But it won’t open. No matter how much she knocks, bangs her fists or tries to force the door, she is denied entrance to the party raging just feet away.
Exhausted and despairing, she loses consciousness, slumped against the wall.
That’s when the camera tracks as if it’s moving right through the wall and we see what’s on the other side; the party whose ruins Paul woke up in. But, save for Paul himself, drunk out of his mind and dancing to the tremendously loud music, it’s empty. He is the only “guest.” He perhaps always was the only guest.
Before we can really process that, we jump back to the present. Paul and Maria lock eyes for the briefest of moments. But before either can utter a word, something crashes through another wall. A beast of some kind, its features and outlines obscured (probably, in reality, an actor in a modified gorilla suit) appears in a cloud of plaster, grabs Paul and tosses him over the shoulder, sack-of-potatoes-style, and carries him away. We never see him again.
In the film’s last shot, we track Maria walking away from the building as the snowstorm continues to rage. The entire block is up in flames, an inferno. The end.
The New Year's Day movie came from a audio-video dungeon in the basement of my university’s Arts building, where I discovered an entire library of films on VHS tapes available to be lent out to students. They probably had 8mm and 16mm films too, and I wish I had thought of that at the time2, but what interested me the most was the extensive collection of videotapes in iconic (to me, at least) red plastic cases. I borrowed it one day in lieu of attending class.
A story from that era may put my existence as a student into perspective, and I think it somehow explains why this movie spoke to me. One day during undergrad, I was excited to go for a drink with a new friend, Scott Gilmore, one of the maybe two friends I made at McGill. (Scott’s recently re-formed band, Black Ox Orkestar, was mentioned in my year-end roundup). I’d barely eaten for days—very weird for me—and so, beforehand, I went to a diner we all just called “Restaurant” and ate a big club sandwich. I arrived at the bar, an upstairs dive called the Miami, early, and began to drink beer. Scott showed up and we chatted over more beer, then decided to leave. As we walked up St-Laurent, I felt something terrible happen inside my body—empty stomach meeting club sandwich meeting too much beer. But instead of excusing myself in front of a new friend to go off and throw up, I just casually turned my head and vomited, then returned to our conversation. This happened about five more times on our way back to my apartment, and I steadfastly refused to acknowledge it.
Scott and I became great friends.
Recently, I managed to find a catalog on McGill’s website, titled vhs_collection_0.pdf, featuring about 150 titles, which has to be what remains of the once-mighty, rooms-filling collection. I can’t imagine who might be accessing it now. The titles definitely seem like a cross-section of film course syllabi of the era: Pasolini, Tati, Rohmer, Scorsese, Ford, etc. But there is nothing at all to suggest the movie I remember.
As I write this, snow has been coming down outside my window for days. It reminds me of the movie’s storm. It puts me in a blissful alpha state; I never want to live anywhere that doesn’t have a winter. And it makes me wonder how much of this movie is real, and how much I imagined.
On Substack Chat, I asked readers about their own lost works of art. If you can help identify them, or if you have a lost work of your own, please let me know.
Sam from Uncoppable writes: “I read a book, presumably a children's book, perhaps by Betsy Byars, although I've never found it in searches, about a woman who is born and dies in the same house. As a child she complains about a black spot on the ceiling but her parents are never able to get rid of it even after repainting and replacing the roof. It grows slowly but steadily over her lifetime, and when she finds herself on her deathbed in that same room, the black spot finally comes into focus: it was the Angel of Death, patiently waiting for her this whole time.”
From mh: “There was a book in my elementary school library of horror stories for young children, that had a cover illustration of a leg being fed into a meat grinder with a creepy man to the side. I checked it out multiple times, but I can’t remember the title nor the stories, but I suspect they’d be familiar if I read them again. I was probably in the third or fourth grade, and the book was not new, so it had to be from the mid ‘80s or far before that.”
Corri-Lynn: “There was a song on the first mix that my ex-husband had given me when we were dating. Twenty years later, I have never been able to figure out what it was. It was by Polvo and it described being alone on a raft and for some reason it meant a lot to me and I listened to it over and over. Still bothers me that I can’t figure it out. I wasn’t a Polvo fan, but I’m pretty certain it’s great song.”
Bonus track: Found it.
When André Fraigneur asked Jean Cocteau what possession he would rescue if his house were on fire, Cocteau replied, “Je crois que j’emporterais le feu”—“I believe I would take the fire.” This has been the second Something Good of 2023, making it effectively our two-year anniversary issue. Thank you for reading along so far.
The film above may nominally be a work of fiction, though I am philosophically aligned with the great Cardassian spy Elim Garak on these matters. If you like what you’ve read here, please tell a friend or subscribe below.
At first, I thought the disco ball could help date the movie, until I did some research and discovered that they date back to the early 1900s; you can see one in a nightclub scene in Some Like It Hot and there’s even a glimpse of a mirror ball in Walther Ruttmann’s silent classic Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, at 59:01 at the provided link.
I once read somewhere that the last Hollywood film released on Super-8 for home viewing was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. God, I would love a copy of that.