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There’s still a little behind-the-scenes turbulence here at the cabal in the aftermath of a server migration. (Which would be why you’re seeing Alex’s story for a second day.) Please bear with us for another day or two while thing settle down.


I’ve heard so many comments about The Glass Flames in past months, all opinion without substance: “so strange, so sexy, you must see it.” But my curiosity eventually sent me to the marketplaces where homemade films are sold on DVDs with purple backs.

The opening scene is of a prostitute lying on her back, wearing only jewellery. The camera is from the viewpoint of the person having sex with her, who must be crouching. This continues long enough for me to notice small, red and orange pieces of glass tied into her black hair. The glass flames of the title? And there is a word tangled in jewels around her throat.

After she has come, the scene changes: a drabby block of flats with the title painted on the side. ‘this is a true story’ appears in small letters under the title. (I love fake true stories.)

More instances of the word. I still can’t read it.

The story unfolds: a break-up, a mutual turn to prostitutes, except it’s always the same one. When the girl visits her, they use a two-way glass dildo with small, smooth-tipped flames sculpted up its sides.

Why this repetition of images? A pretence at heat? Hot and fragile at once?

Halfway through the film, I’m thinking that the quality of the film-work speaks of webcams and cameras fastened to necklaces: low quality visuals, shaky camera movements, poor focus. And the dialogue ranges from brilliant to the banality of everyday life.

“I like fire,” she says during one sex scene, and it must be a trick of light but it looks like there’s a brief flame in her hair.

No wonder so many people watch this film: it’s half sex.

Near the ending. She’s masturbating to a camera (on a shelf?). Someone bangs on the door, over and over, shouts in a foreign language. She looks frightened.

She takes the glass flames from her hair and arranges them in a circle around her bed. They turn into fire. (This bit can’t be real.)

“My name is,” she whispers to the camera, and the repeated word comes into focus when spoken: a strange mess of sounds, ‘cz’ and ‘kh’ and ‘fl’, and I can’t say it properly.

She smiles as the flames burn brighter, higher, consuming her bed. Shouts, “I’m running away!”

The final scene: a fireman enters the room and finds no body, only the glass flames and a glass woman-shape, completely hollow.

During the credits, there are photographs: the flames on sale in a charity shop, the hollow woman-shape on display in a gallery, an orange-winged bird perched on a wall. (The bird, like the glass turned to flame, is a marvellous piece of visual fakery, made to seem more real by the lack of CGI/illusion elsewhere in the film.)

I don’t mind telling you that I am great at what I do. All it takes is a little creativity and a seething hatred of the rich and powerful. I was born with an eye for composition, and I inherited a propensity for the second.

My parents were French immigrants. As a child, my mother told stories of the Revolution that had been passed down to her by her mother, all the way back to France. She said Robespierre was the great, great grand uncle of her father’s father. My childhood toy was a miniature guillotine. I held trials for my sister’s dolls.

An uncle bought me a camera. I liked it better. Liked taking pictures of people at their worst. I was there when Jacko dangled that baby out of a balcony. I was there when Lady Di bought it in the limo. Got some great low-angle shots of that one. Someone offered me a job. I don’t know who. The paychecks are deposited directly into my account. Anonymous email delivers my week’s targets. I have my theories as to who my bosses are, but it doesn’t matter, and I don’t actually care.

They gave me a computer with the job. The computer has a database containing the contact information for everyone connected to the entertainment industry. Even people that are supposed to be dead. Yeah, even him.

Most celebrities are dull. They work long hours pretending to be someone else, so much that they don’t even know why they are themselves. Not one of them has anything interesting to say that hasn’t been written down for them.

Stupid primates, we are. We’re conditioned to respect and admire the beautiful people. They’re our alpha apes. That they’re boring and shallow is what makes them dangerous. A clever bastard can manipulate celebrities, use them as pretty mouthpieces. The rest listen to what the pretty people say.

So? I destroy their respectability. Spread rumors. Upload sex tapes. The only rule is that I can’t do anything to affect their profitability. I’m sure you’ve seen my work. The hamster story? Mine. That last sex tape? I leaked it. Gay rumors? Always true, but I’m responsible for you hearing about them. America is desperate for royalty, and it’s my job to make sure nobody is suitable for the title.

And I fucking love my job.

So Jack walks into a bar and he says “I’ve got 5 beans. Who’s with me?”

Nobody says anything at first. But then some guy says “lemme see ‘em.”

Jack shows him the beans and the guy says “You pay for these?”

“These ain’t no ordinary beans,” says Jack “these here are magic beans.” He goes on like this, and pretty soon a few guys go with him.

*

The next morning we see this giant beanstalk coming out of the ground. Five trunks are braided and they’re covered with throbbing veins that pump water up out of the earth. The dang thing shades half the town. Jack’s mother says she doesn’t know where he is.

So we wait a few days, but nothing happens except mushrooms are coming up everywhere and the corn isn’t growing, what with dense shadow covering most of the arable land north of Jack’s mother’s house.

At first light on the seventh day we start in on the beanstalk. It’s slow going. Then we get the idea of cutting through some of the vein-like things. Water spurts out like blood, and after a while the whole stalk kinda starts to deflate. We also mix up some salt water and squirt it up some of the tubes. Late in the evening a couple of things fall out of the sky. Some kid comes running up a few minutes later to tell us that bean pods 12 feet long are falling on the north side of town. One of them crashed right through the roof of the dentist’s house. We gotta stop he says.

“No way,” I tell him. “You tell Doc Wilson we’ll be over to fix his roof after we’re done here.”

We keep going, and sometime after dark the thing starts to give. Longitudinal fibers are cracking like cannon shot and soon the noise is so steady we are half deaf. Maybe that’s why, it already being dark and all, we don’t realize at first when the stalk comes down.

The ground jumps and a tremendous cloud of dust explodes away from the stricken stalk. Things get quiet, and we feel pretty good until Jimmy the butcher, said “Where you figure it landed?” Don’t really know what to say after that.

*

The beanstalk took out a good fifth of the town, but I still say it was a small price to pay. And we did get a few tons of beans out of it. But I do wonder what happened to Jack and the others, up above the sky.

The end

She lost her name on Stiltskin 9, another casualty when the reputation economy crashed. She made it offworld with a few credit cubes and a broken-down matter fabricator.

From the first, though, her new planet turned out to be just wrong. The fabricator’s nanotech assembly was stuck, would only convert straw to gold. And she couldn’t find any straw, just caldera of a steaming, congealed, or lukewarm porridge. The last of her cubes bought her way into a domed city, but it was nearly hibernation season, and the super-intelligent bears shunned her, in spite of her fur coat and matching gloves.

The bears favored semi-communal open-plan architecture, so wandering the city felt to her like wandering a single immense home. Soon enough, she was completely alone, the bears having all retreated to the privacy of their winter dens. She made herself at home, helping herself to the leftovers in the bears’ kitchens, snoozing warily in their summer beds, and whiling away hours in their virtual reality entertainment chairs–at least, whenever she could find one with a neural helmet neither too large nor too small.

One day, she met an insomniac. His was the only brightly-lit living area. Where she’d heard white noise forest-sound lullabies coming from the dens of other bears, he had a frantic electro-fiddle hoedown screeching from his speakers. He was sitting at a bark-covered kitchen table with a mug of coffee as big as her head.

“I get nightmares,” he grumbled.

She hadn’t asked.

“Humans in my house while I sleep. Touching my stuff.”

She folded her hands in her lap.

“Never seen a human.” He shuddered. “I hear they’re mostly hairless.”

She’d noticed the VR entertainments were redacted so that all other sentient species appeared as bears.

She tugged her fur-lined hood forward. “I can’t sleep either. Just moved from the other hemisphere. Biological clock still off.” The quick-spun tale surprised her. “I could keep a lookout for you. Let you rest.”

There was gratitude in the bear’s bloodshot eyes. “I couldn’t pay you, except in trade.” He motioned toward stacks of crates. “I’m import. High-end porridge bowls.”

She shrugged, “Sure.” It was safer than serial housebreaking.

“Didn’t catch your name,” said the bear.

She saw an open crate, a bit of packing material spilled out. Straw.

“Call me Goldy,” she said. The fabricator was a restless weight in her pocket. “I’m in export.”

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