Vic was fully absorbed, examining a display of Guatemalan worry dolls on a rectangular folding table when I walked up behind him. The dolls were made from colorful thread wrapped around wire armatures. Each one had a price tag pressed over its eyes like a tiny blindfold and its unseeing arms groped outward.
Vic picked one up, swiveled, and pointed it at me. “Promise me you’ll never buy this kind of junk,” he demanded, well within earshot of the vendor.
I hadn’t realized he’d been aware of me standing behind him.
He tossed the tiny doll back onto the table, where it skittered across the faux-wood laminate and collided with its cohorts. In something of a double-take, he snapped his head back to look at me and extended his meaty hand to flick the collar of my shirt. “What the hell are you wearing, man? You’ve got to dress down for something like this. You show up wearing a suit like that and suddenly all these guys are going to double their prices.” I hadn’t thought to change out of my slacks and tailored shirt after working the morning at the firm. I looked at Vic’s outfit. He was wearing a short-sleeved pink shirt and hair furred the V exposed by its unlatched top button. He shook his head at me scornfully. Vic’s jaw line was so square that it obscured all but the outermost edges of his ears.
I had first met Vic Graburn a year and a half earlier during late 2002 when he’d hired Lemoine, Eliasburg and Sommerstein to litigate a breach of contract suit he’d filed in relation to his film The Leverage Point and I’d been assigned to the case. Afterward, in a gesture of gratitude, he treated me to a performance by the national ballet company of the Czech Republic. In it, elegant Eastern European dancers still managed tightly wound spins in toe shoes despite the dark jetlagged circles under their eyes—visible from our front row seats. As he watched, Vic became so exhilarated by the trans-cultural, non-verbal narrative possibilities of performance that he pulled a black marker from his satchel and began redacting all of the dialogue except for a few boys’ clubby one-liners from the script for his sequel to A Man Above. His determination to make a box office hit nearly stripped of conversation was so intense that the tip of his marker squeaked against the paper throughout the remainder of the performance.
Vic Graburn had first attracted the attention of the major film studios after directing a series of highly successful multi-language ad spots, first for Nabisco, then Ford Explorer. The ads avoided culturally specific signifiers and instead took aim at a global target demographic. The commercials relied on voice-over narration rather than on-screen dialogue in order to facilitate translated re-dubbing. The commercials for Nabisco eventually aired in a staggering 37 countries.
In Hollywood circles, Vic Graburn is known as “The Overseer” because his films, despite being test-marketed among American audiences, have consistently tended to gross far more ‘overseas’ than domestically. If they had been released only to the U.S. market, most of his films would have been financial disasters, but once international ticket sales were tabulated, they consistently recouped their initial investment several times over.
His critics often mistakenly assume that anyone who makes films with that many guns in them—and I can assure you there are a lot of guns in Vic Graburn’s movies—must be a person of strictly lowbrow taste. I am lucky enough to be a close personal friend of Vic’s and I can assure you that this is false. Vic loves ballet, classic silent films, pantomime, and comic books. No one loves non-verbal narrative as much as Vic Graburn. No one else is as excited about the ability of art that is not rooted in language to communicate across national, cultural, and linguistic barriers.
Partially in defiance of his critics’ assumptions as to his unrefined taste, after his initial commercial success, Vic had positioned himself as an expert collector of third world art and often shopped for imported craftwork, not just at galleries, but at more unlikely venues as well. Commercial shipping lines often supplemented their revenue by packing small-scale objets d’art into the nooks and crannies of unused storage space on the freighters that brought cantaloupes up from Central America and compact cars from humid East Asian factories. After arriving at the Long Beach shipping yards, these carved trinkets and collectible indigenous masterpieces often journeyed a few miles inland to the flea market where I’d agreed to meet Vic.
Vic abruptly departed from the table of Guatemalan goods and I followed him into the crowd that was browsing at the stalls packed onto the narrow street. As we walked past, battery-powered toy dogs emitted high-pitched yaps amidst the bogus jewelry and plastic watches. A woman sold hand drums ranging in size from about that of a coffee can to nearly that of a 42-gallon barrel of oil. Given the often unbearable sun, many vendors had built PVC-tubing structures draped with acrylic tarps onto the backsides of their minivans and hatchbacks to create makeshift sales booths.
Graburn paused at a fabric-draped display table. He held up a carved wooden crescent shape from a grid of trinkets. “See this? It’s a ceremonial dagger,” he said, pulling the knife from its sheath and running his finger along its edge. “It’s not for cutting or stabbing. The edge of the blade is intentionally dull.” He flipped the iron knife’s wooden holster over in his hand. “This one was clearly designed for export sales and tourists. Observe the cross-hatched pattern on its sheath: loose, sloppy. The authentic carving would have a tighter, more intricate pattern. When the Yoruba make daggers for their own community, the stipple pattern interlaces itself again and again. Cultural artifacts made for export, such as this, are, more often than not, worthless—caricatures of themselves, built on broad comedy and broader brushstrokes.”
He handed over his Visa and there was the crack of a pre-electronic carbon paper machine. I was confused that Vic would purchase an item which he had just critiqued as trash and sent him a questioning look.
“It’s a gift for Peter Taubin. He’s Goldwyn’s senior VP for west coast marketing and promotion—best thing the company has going for it.” The breach of contract suit I’d handled for Vic had resulted in a sizable settlement but, from a career standpoint, it had been a disaster. It had established Vic as a volatile and difficult talent and estranged him from the studios that had once courted him. Vic had recently made the questionable decision to sign a three-film contract with MGM, a studio that had strung up a series of losses while wringing the last residue from their few still-marketable franchises. So far Goldwyn’s marketing and preliminary screenings for Vic’s upcoming film Undone had been handled with professionalism—in fact, earlier that day as I’d merged from the 405 onto the 10, I saw, on the billboard to the right of where the lanes combined, an image of a man falling down a shaft—an ad for Graburn’s latest. “Billboards, Taubin understands,” Vic continued, still holding the Yoruba dagger, “but sub-Saharan craftwork: kitsch or museum quality, he’ll never know the difference.” Vic pressed his finger against the tip of the knife and added, “This one does have an added tourist attraction—the point is razor sharp. He can use it as a letter opener.” For an era in which everything from business communication to film production was transitioning to digital, a letter opener seemed an oddly obsolete concern.
Staring at the carbon paper and indicating where it ought to be signed, the salesman glanced again at the credit card. “Are you Victor Graburn?” The salesman looked at the card again and a smile began to cross his face. “Man, the Vic Graburn! Your movies are amazing. I’m from Ibadan in southern Nigeria. Where I’m from everybody loves your movies—ask a cassava trader in Orita-Merin market, a programming director at the NTA network, or a dental student at the university—any man in Ibadan will say that your movie Crunch Time is awesome. The best is the part where the warlord from the criminal underground comes up to Jan Vandermeulen and says, What are you going to do about it? and Jan Vandermeulen just stands there and says nothing—both of them are totally silent and the silence is awesome,” and the three of us—Vic, the salesman, and I—just stood there in a silence of our own. I looked over at Vic to gauge his reaction. I hadn’t yet seen Crunch Time. “—then BAM!” The vendor slammed both his hands down on the folding table. I jumped. Vic didn’t. “He shoots him in the chest!” the salesman said with delight and Vic and the man laughed together. They laughed at my reaction or they laughed at the scene from the movie or both. The hand drums, figurines and wooden knives still wobbled on the table’s thumped surface.
“I like your work,” the vendor said with an almost embarrassed honesty and Vic, in turn, gave a little smile, a nod, and a downcast gaze that, to the untrained eye, might have resembled shyness or humility. “I’ve got something I want to show you,” the vendor said. “You’re a man of high-quality,” the salesman continued, “so I’d like to sell you things of high quality.”
The vendor pulled a cardboard box from beneath the table and set it before us. Archaic Dalkon Shield IUDs had been bent and painted to look like various animals: dik-diks and anteaters, mandrills and lemurs. The contraceptives’ long, dangling strings had been stiffened with wheat paste to form the creatures’ tails. There were also miniature sculptures made from tin cans of Similac infant formula that had been cut and folded into toy canoes and tiny strollers. The brand’s printed gold ribbon squirreled around the objects’ exteriors and one ear of the teddy bear logo peaked up into the prow of the boat. “My brother originally made these for his daughter,” said the vendor. “After his injury, he couldn’t work and began to sell them for a little extra money. He sent some to me to see if there were potential buyers here in the U.S. I thought a man of your intelligence and taste might be intrigued.”
Vic gazed at them with genuine appreciation. “I haven’t seen much like these in the catalogs or collectors’ auctions,” he said. “These are rather unique.” Vic purchased the entire set.
“Thank you, Mr. Graburn,” said the salesman. “It’s an honor to pass these objects into the possession of one of America’s finest film directors.”
As soon as we were back amidst the throng of shoppers, Vic said to me, “Man, that guy was a real gentleman. A real high-class guy.” Graburn fondled a dik-dik out of the shopping bag to admire it. “All these liberals who supposedly love the third world sooo much, they accuse me of making violent, escapist clap-trap. But you know what? Meryl Streep weepies don’t get half the box-office sales in Nigeria that my pictures get. Do you know why? Because the world is at war. Everywhere. All the time. Endlessly. My gun-toting escapism has far more to do with these people’s lives than a dying pale hairless Meryl Streep’s relationship with her radiation oncologist. These people don’t have doctors. When people die there, they die fast not slow. I have more to do with their lives—guns, violence, manhood—than all the interpersonal relationships with radiation oncologists put together. Everywhere is at war and everywhere just happens to be their biggest blind spot.” He gestured at a space in front of him as if his critics were assembled there.
I scanned my mind for any recent political events, current economic conditions—anything—from Nigeria that might confirm or deny Vic’s claim, and came up embarrassingly blank, and I suspected Vic was advancing his claim from a similar absence. I considered challenging the truth value of his statement but, given my uneven legal performance over the last several months, a close friendship with a major client like Vic was an asset too valuable to endanger.
We heard the distant clack, clack of people flipping through silver disks in plastic cases. We walked up to a display table that had rows of pirated DVDs arranged under its makeshift canopy—’80s horror movies, Flashdance, porn, Hong Kong action movies, classic rock concert footage. As we browsed, our pink fingertips smudged away the thin exhaust residue that coated the clear plastic sleeves, each of which had a laser-printed internet jpeg of the movie poster or a black-and-white Xerox of the legit version of the DVD case. Graburn pulled one of the DVDs out from the row and angrily smacked it against the tops of its brethren. “Goddammit.” It was a copy of Graburn’s forthcoming production Undone, which wasn’t slated for release for two weeks and yet had already been leaked and duplicated.
Given Graburn’s litigious disposition, this likely signified the start of—at the very least—a civil case and so, aware of the importance of documentation, I snapped a series of cell phone pictures of the sales booth and its proprietors and instructed Graburn to purchase the DVD as evidence. He did so with barely concealed rage. When he demanded a receipt, he received only a blank stare until something was eventually sketched in foreign characters on a scrap of paper.
As was typical of these flea market sales booths, operations were run out of the back of a vehicle behind the display table. The vendor’s DVD overstock filled the bed of a pickup truck. For ease of unloading, the glass flap of the truck’s camper shell yawned upward and the tailgate hung open, obscuring the rear license plate. I walked around to the front of the truck to jot down the number. Crouched and scribbling the final digits, I looked up to see Graburn pull the Yoruba dagger from his shopping bag and stab the truck’s rear tire. Vic had made an abrupt categorical shift from his role as a potential plaintiff in a civil case to a potential defendant in a criminal one.
Vic withdrew the blade from the black rubber then jogged over to where I was crouched, slapped me on the shoulder and, fearing police or paparazzi, we dashed off through the maze of vendors. Graburn was giddy from his stunt and I realized the discrepancy in our responses: my sense of urgency compared to his. Mildly illegal behavior was conceivably an asset to the public persona of a successful director like Graburn, whereas, for me, potential disbarment loomed as a plausible outcome for involvement in any sizable destruction of property.
As we ran, the rattling of the Similac cans inside Graburn’s shopping bag resounded even amidst the noisy flea market. Behind us the truck’s rear tire had been quietly hemorrhaging PSIs and the bed of the pickup began to sag. We had sprinted a good block and a half before it drooped to such an angle that—like some epic dam bursting in one of Graburn’s movies—illegally copied DVDs began to slide down its incline, loudly clattering into the street, cascading onto the feet of passing shoppers.
Vic tossed me his keys, which I bobbled, then dropped, picked up from the ground, and pressed the button that unlocked his car with an automated chirp. We both climbed in and, glancing over my shoulder, I extracted Vic’s car from its tiny parallel-parked crevice. Unaccustomed to driving clutch, I stalled twice then peeled out onto East Ninth. Graburn pulled his laptop from a black satchel underneath the passenger seat, opened the screen, and inserted the disc with his film’s title Sharpie’d across it. As a low-resolution version of Undone’s opening credits appeared, Graburn growled and punched his own dashboard. “Never—never—have I been so upset to get what I actually paid for.” Although for different reasons, Graburn for once watched one of his own films with the same level of disgust and horror as his critics.
Ben Bush is a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, Poets & Writers, San Francisco Chronicle, Yeti, and Conversations with William T. Vollmann (University of Mississippi Press).