Written by Brandon Leclair
Part 1: Crazy Uncle Istvan
There is a quality that silent films have which is impossible to capture in the digital era. Committing images to Nitrocellulose was like leaving a sepia toned relief of the soul, like conducting the ghosts of the period into a choreographed dance of pirouetting projector spools, preserving the director's vision of the times, leaving the artist's dreams congealed in feverish amber light. For cinema enthusiasts like myself, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film vault fire was a bigger tragedy than the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and the intentional destruction of “unmarketable” silent films that were too costly to store was nothing short of wholesale genocide on the part of the film companies, who would rather commit their own poor guncotton children to the landfill than find a home for them.
Whenever a rumour surfaces that any such historical film has been unearthed (be it either salvaged from a landfill's foul undertow or found ungracefully ageing in a private collector’s cellar), a host of amateur cinema sleuths (myself counted among their number) can be relied upon to investigate in hopes of extracting such a lost treasure from its charnel house, for the public to revere it once again. This being the case, when my uncle Steve provided me with an anonymous tip (he called it anonymous, although he imprudently betrayed his privacy by encrypting the message using his and my own private system) as to the existence of a cache of lost films, I could hardly contain my rash excitement, gathering my fellow film aficionado and the most adventurous of my cohorts, one Susan Landis-Welles, in order to seek my uncle's counsel immediately.
Although being dragged through the familiar mossed-over railyards of eerily calm and scenic Poughkeepsie, New York, was hardly her idea of an adventure, Sue was always enthused to visit my eccentric uncle in his trailer tucked away under the wooded canopies. My hermetic uncle Steve had the uncanny ability to make you just the right kind of uncomfortable to form fond memories of your time together, granted you were the type of person who could spurn halcyon small town days in favour of an unhealthy exposure to the singular interests of a man consumed by ravenous popular culture.
Sue tripping over the gutted remains of a discarded barbeque was the sign that we were entering uncle Steve's territory. Like a wild animal marking its turf (and yet somehow managing to remain hidden from Poughkeepsie authorities despite syphoning all his utilities), uncle Steve had carved himself an expanse in the woodlot near the derelict train tracks on the outskirts of town, trimming the place with skeletons of lawn chairs, out-of-season seasonal decorations, discarded garden gnomes, and other miscellaneous kitsch memorabilia. At the very back of the clearing, practically built in to the forest wall, was his trailer, with an archaic projector perpetually focused on the broad white face of it.
Upon our approach, likely in response to the sound of us stepping onto (or, more accurately, stumbing over) what could be considered the trailer's porch, the slide to a metal peephole skated open, and a voice that sounded like it decided to forgo smoking and just eat the cigarettes altogether, echoed from just beyond.
It was more of a demand than a question. I checked the date on my watch and quickly responded, “My bones are tin, and my blood is nitrate.”
“Is it October already?” the voice from within mused, barely audible under the sound of a multitude of clicking locks.
Finally, the door slid open to the right, revealing my uncle from the nose down. His lanky figure, like that of a smaller man that had been stretched out like taffy, caused him to just barely loom above the door frame, his eyes comically out of sight.
“Are you ready to cross the threshold of sanity once again kiddos?” He crouched down to greet us, indicating the door frame at his feet with a sweeping motion, the threshold of sanity as it were.
“How are you, Uncle Steve?” Sue greeted him first. Everyone among my friends referred to my uncle as though he were their own family.
“That's Crazy Uncle Istvan to you, miss!”
Pushing aside various obstructive beaded curtains, and duct-taped boxes of movie paraphernalia, Uncle Steve led us through the single narrow corridor of his trailer, into what I suppose he would call his home theatre, which was actually set up in what was originally the trailer's kitchen. Against the wall was pressed a refurbished (by some loose definitions of the word) sofa, opposite a grid of CRT television screens nestled in a tangled web of wires, protruding with a mess of antennae. Makeshift shelves stored an unorganized slew of VCRs, each of which was adorned with a valuable replica or statuette from about any horror franchise you could name (I spotted each of the dolls from Puppetmaster, and at least three bloody hockey masks on stands), all out-of-package and caked with admiring fingerprints. All at once, the sight would make an avid collector of movie merchandise envious and disgusted, stifling their cringes and winces at the disregard for the trade value of such items.
The entire trailer interior was a monument to an era of film entertainment that I'm sure some professor would decry as the death of cinema as an art form. However, despite my half-decade of film school conditioning me to elevate the medium as a second intellectual renaissance, my heart still remained with my upbringing in exploitation horror films, a passion which was cultivated by my Crazy Uncle Steve. Under his watchful eye I witnessed my first pair of breasts, during a six part marathon of the prolific Night of the Living Co-Eds series of slasher flicks.
“You kids came at just the right time to give me a hand with something,” my uncle began rambling, rifling through a re-purposed shopping cart full of old VHS tapes, “I think I've almost gotten to the bottom of the true identity of this Alan Smithee character. Do you two have any idea how many films this fellow has directed? And over so many decades...”
I didn't have the heart to break it to him that he was chasing after a pseudonym, so instead I inquired about his message.
“Actually, Uncle Steve, we're here about that note you sent.” Upon hearing me bring it up, my uncle froze, still hunched over his collection of films. There was a long pause, one that I had a feeling he wasn't going to willingly end, so I continued, “Did you really find a stockpile of old film reels? I'm surprised you didn't immediately invite me to crack it open and haul them back here.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” my uncle sidled over to the window to drop down the blinds, peering nervously in between a small opening where they had gotten tangled in their own chord.
There was a beleaguered expression on my uncle's face that I hadn't seen since we decided to sit through all four of the horrendously vile Trolls and Goblins series of schlock films.
“Why else would you have sent me that note?” The only way I was ever able to get anything out of my uncle while he was in his paranoid state was to corner him until he broke down either in admiration of my tenacity, or in realization that he couldn't move the goal-post any further back. “I know it's you who sent me that message. The encryption we worked on is water-tight, you said so yourself, one-hundred percent uncompromisable.”
“I was really hoping you'd have let that letter remain anonymous,” my uncle sighed, defeated, “It was only supposed to be a hint to push you in the right direction, but I should have known you better, you're too inquisitive for my own good,” he gave a sarcastic laugh, collapsing on to the couch in exaggerated slow motion before continuing, “Alright, I'll let you two pick my brain to your heart's content.”
“You almost sound reluctant to tell us anything,” comically understating the facts was a strong suit of Sue's, “Why would you bother sending us such a cryptic tip if you didn't want us to follow up on it?”
“Well, to tell you kids the truth,” my uncle paused, his eyes wandering without him moving his neck in the slightest, as if seeking a teleprompter's support, “Initially, I was unsure whether or not what I'd found was genuine. I mean, a collection of film reels older than the building they were stashed away in, somebody must have moved them there as a bundle, so somebody must know that they're there. And that got me thinking, maybe these were left there on purpose.”
Uncle Steve paused to examine both mine and Sue's obvious confusion, “It may have just been my old nerves, but something didn't sit well with me when I looked over those reels. They were almost all silent films, and not just local ones. There were French ones, German ones, Swedish ones, all that kind of hokey stuff you academic types are enamoured with, which is why I thought I would do you the courtesy of letting you in on the discovery. But, you see, when I first sent you that note, I wasn't sure as to whether or not I wanted to trifle with these tapes any further myself.
“Because of the way those films...” another pause, this time completely still, as my uncle tried to find the right words, “Haunted me. The way they haunted me for even looking upon them, I know for sure now that I want no further involvement in this. You see, I was scared of what I'd found. Those film tins carry far more personality than objects ever should. Of course, your generation is far less superstitious than mine, so I doubt I'd be able to keep you from poking your nose into this with or without my help. So, the least I can do is make sure you two are prepared.”
My uncle concluded his rant by flipping the top of his coffee table over, revealing a tourist's map of the greater Poughkeepsie area that had been pinned to the underside. The map was marked with several key locations- a small star marked off our current position, which was accompanied by spots circled in blue indicating places to syphon electricity from (in rotation, so no one location would become suspicious and catch on to his mooching utilities), establishments boxed off in green to indicate that the proprietors of those shops or restaurants were most likely aliens, or at least reptilians, black crosses over every video store in town, and finally a single red question mark on an out-of-the-way spot of no immediately apparent importance some way down the train tracks from my uncle's trailer.
“Now I'm only going to ask you this once,” anyone who didn't know my uncle better could have sworn that the seriousness in his voice was simply a charade, “Are you two absolutely certain that you want to investigate these film reels?”
Clearly something had deeply disturbed my Uncle Steve. Whether it was the onset of senility causing his paranoia, or something less tangible, I had to find out. My goal then became not only finding the films, but also setting my uncle's mind at ease.
“Of course,” I nodded, “If there's a chance that even one of the reels you stumbled upon is a film that's supposed to have been lost or destroyed, then it'll be a huge discovery,” Placing a hand comfortingly on my uncle's back I urged him on again, “So where did you find them?”
With a deeply ridged finger my uncle traced a line down the train tracks of the flat 1:1000 Poughskeepie before us, “Quite a while before you two were born, the railroad tracks were still being extended into the state forest. Back then not every single standing structure in Poughkeepsie was an official historical landmark, so occasionally an old university building or two that was in the way of development would be torn down. Now, one building on the forest's edge was sitting right where they planned on rebuilding the Metro Train Station.”
His finger finally made its way down to the red question mark on the map, and he continued, “This was the Hudson Memorial Library, which went up back in the fifties. Now when some old alumni found out that the library was set to be demolished, they tried having it named a historical landmark. The only thing the rail company could do at that point, if they wanted to use the land, was have the building condemned as a safety hazard, which they did, albeit through some pretty illicit means. They set fire to the interior.”
Part of me wondered if any of this were grounded in reality, or if it was just an elaborate fantasy that my uncle constructed to give some kind of history to an old husk of a building he found along the tracks.
“Now when it came to finishing the job and tearing the rest of the library down,” by this point I finally noticed that my my uncle had been gradually leaning in to us and lowering his voice, “there were so many accidents reported, that eventually even the construction crew wouldn't go near the place. The rail company ruled that it was far too big a hassle to use that location for the new train station after all, and the remains of the Hudson Memorial Library were abandoned, to eventually be reclaimed by the surrounding forest. Now all you see from the tracks when you go by is a wall of overgrowth, perfectly masquerading the old husk as a natural rock formation. That's where I found the old film reels- in the storage cellar connected to the projector room in that old dead building.”
My uncle let us borrow his Poughkeepsie tourist map for our expedition and, satisfied with our intel and equipment, we did our best to leave early and hang on to the midday light for as long as the journey would allow.
“Now I want you kids to be careful, keep your wits about you” my uncle sent us off with one final apprehension, “You need to be prepared for anything when visiting a stranger's home.”