Writer in Residence · 12/10/2013

Last Screening Of A Hoax Cantana

When we watched it, on basement televisions after parents had gone to sleep or on a high school monitor after classes had ended, we were never less than convinced that it had been made locally. The hotel where most of it was set, we believed, looked like a place that had burned down on Route 36 years before. The office park where it opened was the one just north of West Park Avenue. The flat accents of the cast, the anonymity of their surroundings: this was central New Jersey, we were sure of it. Later on, after time and subconscious consideration, it seemed less likely. Those general spaces through which the film’s cast moved could have been any motel, any flourescent-lit office, any strip mall greeting card store. It could have been the state in which I was raised, sure — but it could just as easily have been Oklahoma or Alaska or Wisconsin.

Everything about it seemed truncated: there was a ghost of a note in the opening credits that seemed absent; the title itself — A Hoax Cantata — hovered a beat too briefly, the text wavering and elliptical. Maybe that was what first drew us to it: its damage; the unknown names; the fact that it always seemed to exist in a hazy VHS world, a dub of a dub of a dub even in its first generation. None of the names in the opening credits seemed familiar, from director Eilud Smythe on down. There always seemed to be a few of us in our high school who watched it: knowledge of it was passed down from year to year, a generational thing like some obscure split seven inch.

It was seventy minutes long and claustrophobic and funny in places and — let’s not ignore this — incredibly dirty in others. That, too, might have been part of the attraction. A Hoax Cantata was a film obsessed over by, if we were any indication, a lot of straight dudes. There were exceptions, but by and large, the owners of elusive copies of the film were always always someone’s older brother, the guy someone used to skate with, the classmate who spent most of his time at the A/V club.

One of the things people were fond of saying about the film was that it was, in its own way, a kind of cinematic education. And maybe that was it, that was what we were all looking for. Maybe it was the endless pages of Xeroxed commentary that we all found so fascinating, that drew us in, that left us feeling somewhat righteous. We came for the titillation and stayed for the analysis, the news of allusions, and the endless conversation. It pushed us to new places or it simply gave us something to discuss. Or maybe it was just something weird, something impossible to pin down, something strange that we could call our own.

Theories abounded and were duly circulated. It borrowed the setting of a mid-century Argentinian story, one went, translated by the screenwriter into English because no such translation existed at the time. Or its color palette was a direct homage to something Italian — The Leopard, maybe, or a Sergio Leone period piece. (Given the way the color had degraded by the time the tapes got to us, who could be sure?) One theory, all but certainly debunked, was that it had begun its life as a workplace sexual harassment video that had spun wildly out of control. We also heard the whole thing had been improvised. Or that it had been written as a game of exquisite corpse — this was, by the way, how a lot of us learned what exquisite corpse actually was. No one knew. Well, assumably Eilud Smythe knew, but no one had any idea of how to get ahold of him.

In the film, there was a man and a woman and a motel, and they were trapped there. And there was another man, called Norris, and he was half memory and half demon, and the man stuck in the room might well have been part memory himself, and that was what we watched, him falling apart, him careening into objects trying to get at what was true about himself or whether he was just destined to dissolve in the air and sunlight. The woman was the rational one, the audience surrogate in a world without any space for audience surrogates, using logic to piece together what had happened, piecing together who she was, where they were. Looking for rational answers to irrational questions.

There was an office and an apartment and a strip mall, but they were rarely seen. There was a framing sequence, and there were flashbacks, and other than that there was the motel and nothing else. It was composed mostly of interior shots, featuring dirty fluorescent lights and their all-encompassing hum. Which, one theory went, had actually been dubbed in after the fact. All of the sound had, one commenter had written. And it fit: sometimes mouths didn’t quite match words. Though whether that was a failure of process or a failure of technique or a deliberate choice, no one ever quite knew.

The thing was: this looked like a version of home that was both more compelling than our own lives — a weirder, more dangerous version of the landscapes we all knew — and one that was much more mundane. You spend enough time in a room like the one where the two main characters sat, you start to know the intricacies of the place. The weird foam core in the ceiling, the peelable wood patterns on the furniture, the way chairs only bent back so far, the places on the air vents where bendingly hot heat would emanate at regular intervals. You got that from A Hoax Cantata. One mimeograph we saw called it “an Eraserhead for the office,” and that seemed just about right, though few of us had seen Eraserhead at the time.

Sometimes I think I dreamt the whole thing. Friends I’ve met since then didn’t have the same cults around it that we did. Most of the Xeroxed theories I’d amassed had been lost in moves over the years; I had a list of the names of some of the cast, but that was all. It gave me something to search, at least, but even that was inconclusive. Mina Patrick, the film’s lead, had moved home to Delaware and was now a favorite to win a seat in Congress, I read. Avery Adams, the guy who played the demon? He later foreswore acting, and resurfaced somewhere in Oregon to make evangelical films. Be involved in A Hoax Cantata and it would inevitably lead you to politics, some said. Some thought. I thought, anyway.

People had VHS tapes of it, once. And for all that it might have been a local thing, it wasn’t simply confined to my hometown; it wasn’t something that someone’s older brother had made that spread out into a nestled space. I remember being at a party in Pennsylvania with some folks I knew from punk shows; I was sitting in the dining room drinking a Coke and suffering through a bad sunburn and I looked over towards the television and saw A Hoax Cantata on and drifted over towards the room with the television in it. I said to someone, “Who put this on?” and they didn’t know. And the host didn’t know. Someone else had brought it, they told me. And most of the folks watching it didn’t know it the way I knew it, though maybe one of them did. Or more than one. Maybe they all knew it and they just weren’t mouthing along with half the lines the way I was.

That was a year or two after I graduated from high school. I never had a copy of my own, and so I kept an eye out for it when I was up at college; I’d look for it at video stores that specialized in the obscure, and even in the handful of record stores that had a small section of oversized videotape cases — housing hardcore shows and skate videos — that might’ve carried it. Sometimes I even asked the people working there; I got a lot of blank stares in return. Mostly, they pointed me in the direction of bootleg Abel Ferrera films and, on one occasion, Brewster McCloud.

There came a point when I reached out to a couple of friends of mine who’d shared my enthusiasm for A Hoax Cantata. In the case of one, it was the first time we’d spoken in over a decade; for the others, we’d exchanged the usual infrequent emails and social media dispatches at an irregular pace. It seemed strange to begin a message with a reference to A Hoax Cantata, but that was how it went. My little interrogations, trying to bring the whole film back through a series of evocations. Short punctuated things based on memories over fifteen years old. It never amounted to much.

Sometimes I wonder where the film’s last screening had been. I still scan the websites of obscure film festivals in out-of-the-way reaches of North America in the hopes that I’ll find some nod to it, some tribute or homage, or simply an acknowledgement of its existence in the credits of some other filmmaker. Without that, all I have are scenes and shots: a hazy figure moving down a hallway, a tender caress on a carpeted floor, a face turning into a painting yet still emitting words. The more time passes, the more it invades my dreams, and the more my dreams evade it. The right film can colonize you. This one only disappointed me in its own eradication. Nothing ever vanishes, and yet this has. Still I type and search and delve, hoping some evidence of it will return; hoping this increasingly private mania can once again rejoin its natural expanse, hoping memory’s promise can be relied upon again.

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Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His fiction and criticism has recently appeared in The Collagist, Joyland, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll and online at www.thescowl.org.

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posted by Nicholas Rombes