SOS. . . A wireless code-signal summoning assistance in extreme distress, used esp. by ships at sea. The letters are arbitrarily chosen as being easy to transmit and distinguish. The signal was recommended at the Radio Telegraph Conference in 1906 and officially adopted at the Radio Telegraph Convention in 1908 (See G. G. Blake Hist. Radio Telegr., 1926, 111-12).
– The Oxford English Dictionary
… _ _ _ …
Billy Reston glides into frame, paying no attention to the equipment which Navidson over the last few weeks has been setting up in the living room, including though not limited to, three monitors, two 3/4″ decks, a VHS machine, a Quadra Mae, two Zip drives, an Epson colour printer, an old PC, at least six radio transmitters and receivers, heavy spools of electrical cord, video cable, one 16mm Arriflex, one 16mm Bolex, a Minolta Super 8, as well as additional flashlights, flares, rope, fishing line (anything from braided Dacron to 40 lb multi-strand steel), boxes of extra batteries, assorted tools, compasses twitching to the odd polarities in the house, and a broken megaphone, not to mention surrounding shelves
already loaded with sample jars, graphs, books, and even an old
Instead Reston concentrates all his energies on the radios, monitoring
Holloway as he makes his way through the Great Hall. Exploration #4 is underway and will mark the team’s second attempt to reach the bottom of the staircase.
“We hear you fme, Billy” Holloway replies in a wash of white noise.
Reston tries to improve the signal. This time Holloway’s voice comes in a little clearer.
“We’re continuing down. Will try you again in fifteen minutes. Over and out.”
The obvious choice would have been to structure the segment around Holloway’s journey but clearly nothing about Navidson is obvious. He keeps his camera trained on Billy who serves now as the expedition’s base commander. In grainy 7298 (probably pushed one T-stop), Navidson captures this crippled man expertly maneuvering his wheelchair from radio to tape recorder to computer, his attention never wavering from the team’s progress.
… _ _ _ …
By concentrating on Reston at the beginning of Exploration #4, Navidson provides a perfect counterpoint to the murky world Holloway navigates. Confining us to the comforts of a well-lit home gives our varied imaginations a chance to fill the adjacent darkness with questions and demons. It also further increases our identification with Navidson., who like us, wants nothing more than to penetrate firsthand the mystery of that place. Other directors might have intercut shots of the ‘Base Camp’ or ‘Command Post’ [110-There’s something weird going on here, as if Zampanô can’t quite make up his mind whether this is all an exploration (i.e. ‘Base Camp’) or a war (i.e. ‘Command Post’)?] with Holloway’s tapes but Navidson refuses to view Exploration #4 in any other way except from Reston’s vantage point. As Frizell Clary writes, “Before personally permitting us the sight of such species of Cimmerian dark, Navidson wants us to experience, like he already has, a sequence dedicated solely to the much more revealing details of waiting.” [111-Frizell Clary’s Tick-Tock-Fade: The Representation of Time in Film Narrative (Delaware: Tame An Essay Publications, 1996), P. 64.]
Naguib Paredes, however, goes one step further than Clary, passing over questions concerning the structure of anticipation in favor of a slightly different, but perhaps more acute analysis of Navidson’s strategy: “First and foremost, this restricted perspective subtly and somewhat cunningly allows Navidson to materialize his own feelings in Reston, a man with fearsome intelligence and energy but who is nonetheless-and tragically I might add -physically handicapped. Not by chance does Navidson shoot Reston’s wheelchair in the photographic idiom of a prison: spokes for bars, seat like a cell, glimmering brake resembling some kind of lock. Thus in the manner of such images, Navidson can represent for us his own increasing frustration. [112-Naguib Paredes’ Cinematic Projections (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 84.]
As predicted, by the first night Holloway and the team start to lose radio contact. Navidson reacts by focusing on a family of copper-verdigris coffee cups taking up residence on the floor like settlers on the range while nearby a pile of sunflower seed shells rises out of a bowl like a volcano born on some unseen plate in the Pacific. In the background, the ever-present hiss of the radios continues to fill the room like some high untouch
able wind. Considering the grand way these moments are photographed,
it almost appears as if Navidson is trying through even the most quotidian objects and events to evoke for us some sense of Holloway’s epic progress. That or participate in it. Perhaps even challenge it. [113-Navidson’s camera work is an infinitely complex topic. Edwin Minamide in Objects of a Thousand Facets (Bismark, North Dakota: Shive Stuart Press, 1994), p. 421, asserts that such “resonant images,” especially those in this instance, conjure up what Holloway could never have achieved: “The fact that Navidson can photograph even the dirtiest blue mugs in a way that reminds us of pilgrims on a quest proves he is the necessary narrator without whom there would be no film; no understanding of the house.” Yuriy Pleak in Semiotic Rivalry (Casper, Wyoming: Hazani United, 1995), P. 105, disagrees, claiming Navidson’s lush colors and steady pans only reveal his competitiveness and bitterness toward Holloway: “He seeks to eclipse the team’s historical descent with his own limited art.” Mace Roger-Court, however, finds In These Things I Find, Series #18 (Great Falls, Montana: Ash Otter Range Press, 1995) that Navidson’s posture is highly instructive and even enlightening: “His lonely coffee cups, his volcanic bowl of shells, the maze like way equipment and furniture are arranged, all reveal how the everyday can contain objects emblematic of what’s lyrical and what’s epic in our lives. Navidson shows us how a sudden sense of the world, of who or where we are or even what we do not have can be found in even the most ordinary things.”]
Time passes. There are long conversations, there are long silences.
Sometimes Navidson and Tom play Go. Sometimes one reads aloud to Daisy [114-Ascher Blootz in her pithy piece “Bedtime Stories” (Seattle Weekly, October 13, 1994, p. 37) claims the book Tom reads to Daisy is
Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Gene D. Hart in his letter entitled “A Blootz Bedtime Story” (Seattle Weekly, October 20, 1994, p. 7) disagrees: “After repeatedly viewing this sequence, frame by frame, I am still unable to determine whether or not she’s right. The cover is constantly blocked by Tom’s arm and his whisper consistently evades the range of the microphone. That said I’m quite fond of Blootz’s claim, for whether she’s right or wrong, she is certainly appropriate.”] while the other assists Chad with some role-playing game on the family computer.” [115-See Corning Qureshy’s essay “D & D, Myst, and Other Future Paths” in MIND GAMES ed. Mario Aceytuno (Rapid City, South Dakota: Fortson Press, 1996); M. Slade’s “Pawns, Bishops & Castles” http://cdip.ucsd.edu/; as well as Lucy
T. Wickramasinghe’s “Apple of Knowledge vs. Windows of Light: The Macintosh-Microsoft Debate” in Gestures, v.2, November 1996, p. 164171.] Periodically Tom goes outside to smoke a joint of marijuana while his brother jots down notes in some now lost journal. Karen keeps clear of the living room, entering only once to retrieve the coffee cups and empty the bowl of sunflower seed shells. When Navidson’s camera finds her, she is usually on the phone in the kitchen, the TV volume on high, whispering to her mother, closing the door.
But even as the days lose themselves in night and find themselves again come dawn only to drag on to yet more hours of lightless passage, Billy Reston remains vigilant. As Navidson shows us, he never loses focus, rarely leaves his post, and constantly monitors the radios, never forgetting the peril Holloway and the team are in.
Janice Whitman was right when she noted another extraordinary quality: “Aside from the natural force of his character, his exemplary intellect, and the constant show of concern for those participating in Exploration #4, what I’m still most struck by is [Reston’s] matter of fact treatment of this twisting labyrinth extending into nowhere. He does not seem confounded by its impossibility or at all paralyzed by doubt.” [116-
Janice Whitman’s Red Cross Faith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 235.] Belief is one of Reston’s greatest strengths. He has an almost animal like ability to accept the world as it comes to him. Perhaps one overcast morning in Hyderabad, India he had stood rooted to the ground for one second too long because he did not really believe an electrical pole had fallen and an ugly lash of death was now whipping toward him. Reston had paid a high price for that disbelief: he would never walk up stairs again and he would never fuck. At least he would also never doubt again.
[117-Though this chapter was originally typed, there were also a number of handwritten corrections. “make love” wasn’t crossed out but
“FUCK” was still scratched in above it. As I’ve been doing my best to incorporate most of these amendments, I didn’t think it fair to
suddenly exclude this one even if it did mean a pretty radical shift in
By now you’ve probably noticed that except when safely contained by quotes, Zampanô always steers clear of such questionable four-letter language. This instance in particular proves that beneath all that cool pseudo-academic hogwash lurked a very passionate man who knew how important it was to say “fuck” now and then, and say it loud too, relish
its syllabic sweetness, its immigrant pride, a great American epic word
really, starting at the lower lip, often the very front of the lower
lip, before racing all the way to the back of the throat, where it finishes
with a great blast, the concussive force of the K catching up
then with the hush of the F already on its way, thus loading it with
plenty of offense and edge and certainly ambiguity. FUCK. A great by-
the-bootstrap prayer or curse if you prefer, depending on how you look
at it, or use it, suited perfectly for hurling at the skies or at the world, or sometimes, if said just right, for uttering with enough love and fire, the woman beside you melts inside herself, immersed in all that word-heat.
Holy fuck, what was that all about?
“Love and fire”? “word-heat”?
Who the hell is thinking up this shit?
Maybe Zampanô just wrote “fuck” because he wasn’t saying fuck before when he could fuck and now as he waited in that hole on Whitley he wished he would of lived a little differently. Or then again maybe he just needed a word strong enough to push back his doubts, a word
strong enough to obliterate, at least temporarily, the certain vision of his
own death, definitely necessary for those times when he was working
his way around the courtyard, trying to stretch his limbs, keep his heart
pumping, a few remaining cats still rubbing up against his withered legs, reminding him of the years he missed, the old color, the old light. The perfect occasion, if you ask me, to say “fuck.” Though if he did say it no one there ever heard him.
Of course, fuck you, you may have a better idea. I went ahead and paged Thumper again. Again she didn’t call me back. Then this morning,
I discovered a message on my machine. It startled me. I couldn’t remember hearing the phone ring. Turned out some girl named Ashley wanted to see me, but I had no idea who she was. When I finally rolled into the Shop, I was a good three hours late. My boss flew Offthe handle. Put me on probation. Said I was an ass hair away from getting
fired, and no he didn’t care anymore how well I made needles.
Unfortunately, I’m not too hopeful about improving my punctuality.
You wouldn’t believe how much harder it’s getting for me to just leave my studio. It’s really sad. In fact these days the only thing that gets me outside is when I say: Fuck. Puck. Puck. Puck you. Fuck me. Fuck this.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. –
All the images Navidson finds during this period are beautifully concise. Every angle he chooses describes the agony of the wait, whether a shot of Tom sleeping on the couch, Reston listening more and more intently to the nonsense coming over the radio, or Karen watching them from the foyer, for the first time smoking a cigarette inside the house. Even the occasional shot of Navidson himself, pacing around the living room, communicates the impatience he feels over being denied this extraordinary opportunity. He has done his best to keep from resenting Karen, but clearly feels it just the same. Not once are they shown talking together. For that matter not once are they shown in the same frame together.
Eventually the entire segment becomes a composition of strain. Jump cuts increase. People stop speaking to each another. A single shot never includes more than one person. Everything seems to be on the verge of breaking apart, whether between Navidson and Karen, the family as a whole, or even the expedition itself. On the seventh day there is still no sign of the team. By the seventh night, Reston begins to fear the worst, and then in the early A.M. hours of the eighth day everyone hears the worst. The radio remains an incomprehensible buzz of static, but from somewhere in the house, rising up like some strange black oil, there comes a faint knocking. Chad and Daisy actually detect it first, but by the time they reach their parent’s bedroom, Karen is already up with the light on, listening intently to this new disturbance.
It sounds exactly like someone rapping his knuckles against the wall: three quick knocks followed by three slow knocks, followed by three more quick knocks. Over and over again.
Despite a rapid search of the upstairs and downstairs, no one can locate the source, even though every room resonates with the distress signal. Then Tom presses his ear against the living room wall.
“Bro’, don’t ask me how, but it’s coming from in there. In fact, for a second it sounded like it was right on the other side.”
… _ _ _ …
Ironically enough, it is the call for assistance that eliminates the jump cuts and reintegrates everyone again into a single frame. Navidson has finally been granted the opportunity he has been waiting for all along. Consequently, with Navidson suddenly in charge now, declaring his intent to lead a rescue attempt, the sequence immediately starts to resolve with the elimination of visual tensions. Karen, however, is furious. “Why don’t we just call the police?” she demands. “Why does it have to be the great Will Navidson who goes to the rescue?” Her question is a good one, but unfortunately it only has one answer: because he is the great Will Navidson.
Considering the circumstances, it does seem a little ludicrous for Karen to expect a man who has thrived his whole life under shell fire and
napalm to turn his back on Holloway and go drink lemonade on the
porch. Furthermore, as Navidson points out, “They’ve been in there almost eight days with water for six. It’s three in the morning. We don’t have time to get officials involved or a search party organized. We have to go now.” Then adding in a half-mumble:” I waited too long with Delia!. I’m not going to do it again.”
The name “Delial” and its adamantine mystery stops Karen cold. Without saying another word, she sits down on the couch and waits for Navidson to finish organizing all the equipment they will need.
It takes only thirty minutes to assemble the necessary supplies. The hope is that they will locate Holloway’s team nearby. If not, the plan is for
Reston to go as far as the stairway where he will establish a camp and handle the radios, serving as a relay between the living room command
post and Navidson and Tom who will continue on down the stairs. As far as photographic equipment is concerned, everyone wears a Hi 8 in a chest harness. (Short two cameras, Navidson has to take down one of the wall mounted Hi 8s from his study and another one from the upstairs hail.) He also brings his 35mm Nikon equipped with a powerful Metz strobe, as well as the 16mm Arriflex, which Reston volunteers to carry in his lap. Karen unhappily takes over the task of manning the radios. A Hi 8 captures her sitting in the living room, watching the men fade into the darkness of the hallway. There are in fact three quick shots of her, the last two as she calls her mother to report Navidson’s departure as well as his mention of Delial. At first the phone is busy, then it rings.
_ _ …
Navidson names this sequence SOS which aside from referring to the distress signal sent by Holloway’s team also informs another aspect of the work. At the same time he was mapping out the personal and domestic tensions escalating in the house, Navidson was also editing the footage in accordance to a very specific cadence. Tasha K. Wheelston was the first to discover this carefully created structure:
At first I thought I was seeing things but after I watched SOS more carefully
I realized it was true: Navidson had not just filmed the distress call,
he had literally incorporated it into the sequence. Observe how Navidson
alternates between three shots with
short durations and three shots with longer durations. He begins with
three quick angles of Reston, followed by three long shots of the
living room (and these are in fact just that – long shots taken from the
foyer), followed again by three short shots and so on. Content has on a few occasions interfered with the
rhythm but the pattern of three-short three-long three-short is unmistakable.”
[118-Tasha K. Wheelston’s “M.O.S.: Literal Distress,” Film Quarterly, v. 48, fall 1994, p. 2-11.]
Thus while representing the emergency signal sent by Holloway’s team, Navidson also uses the dissonance implicit in his home-bound wait-the impatience, frustration, and increasing familial alienation-to figuratively and now literally send out his own cry for help.
The irony comes when we realize that Navidson fashioned this piece long after the Holloway disaster occurred but before he made his last plunge into that place. In other words his SOS is entirely without hope. It either comes too late or too early. Navidson, however, knew what he was doing. It is not by accident that the last two short shots of SOS show Karen on the phone, thus providing an acoustic message hidden within the already established visual one: three busy signals, three rings.
In other words:
… _ _ _
[119-Pretty bitter but I’ve said the same thing myself more than a few times. In fact that word helped me make it through those months in Alaska. Maybe even got me there to begin with. The woman at the agency had to have known I wasn’t close to sixteen, more like thirteen going on thirtythree, but she approved my application anyway. I like to imagine she was thinking to herself “Boy does this kid look young” and then because she was tired or really didn’t care or because my tooth was split and I looked mean, she answered herself with “So?” and went ahead and secured my place at the canning factory.
Those were the days, let me tell you. Obscene twelve hour days cradled in the arms of stupefying beauty. Tents on the beach, out there on the Homer Spit, making me, not to mention the rest of us honorary
Nothing to ever compare it to again either. An awful
juxtaposition of fish bones & can-grime and the stench of too many
aching lives & ragged fingers set against an unreachable and ever present beyond, a life-taking wind, more pure than even glacier water. And just as some water is too cold to drink, that air was almost too
bright to breathe, raking in over ten thousand teeth of range pine, while
bald eagles soared the days away like gods, even if they scavenged the mornings like rats, hopping around on gut-wet docks with the sea at their backs always calling out like a blue-black taste of something more.
Nothing about the job itself could have kept you there, hour upon hour upon even more hours, bent to the bench, steaming over the dead,
gouging for halibut cheeks, slabs of salmon, enduring countless
mosquito bites, even bee stings-my strange fortune-and always in the ruin of so many curses from the Filipinos, the White Trash, the Blacks, the Haitians, a low grade-grumbling which is the business of canning. The wage was good but it sure as hell wasn’t enough to lock you down. Not after one week, let alone two weeks, let alone three months of the same
mind-numbing gut-heaving shit.
You had to find something else.
For me it was the word “So?” And I learned it the hard way, in fact right at the very start of that summer.
I’d been invited out on a fishing boat, a real wreck of a thing but supposedly as seaworthy as they get. Well, we hadn’t been gone for
more than a few hours when a storm suddenly came up, split the seams
and filled the hull with water. The pumps worked fine but only for about ten minutes. Tops. The coast guard came to the rescue but they took an hour to reach us. At the very least. By then the boat had already sunk. Fortunately we had a life raft to cower in and almost everyone survived. Almost. One guy didn’t. An old Haitian. At least sixteen
years old. He was a friend too or at least on his way to becoming a
friend. Some line had gotten tangled around his ankle and he was dragged down with the wreck. Even when his head went under, we could all hear him scream. Even though I know we couldn’t.
Back on shore everyone was pretty messed up, but the owner/captain was by far the worst off. He ended up drunk for a week, though the only thing he ever said was “So?”
The boat’s gone. “So?”
Your mate’s dead. “So?”
Hey at least you’re alive. “So?” An awful word but it does harden you.
It hardened me.
Somehow-though I don’t remember exactly how-I ended up telling my boss a little about that summer. Even Thumper tuned in. This was the first time she’d paid any real attention to me and it felt great. In fact by the time I finished, since the day was almost over anyway and we were locking up, she let me walk her out.
“You’re alright Johnny,” she said in a way that actually made me feel alright. At least for a little while
We kept talking and walked a little longer and then on a whim decided to get some Thai food at a small place on the north side of Sunset. She saying “Are you hungry?” Me using the word “starving.” Her insisting we get a quick bite.
Even if I hadn’t been starving, I would of eaten the world just to
be with her. Everything about her shimmered. Just watching her drink a
glass of water, the way she’d crush an ice cube between her teeth, made me go a little crazy. Even the way her hands held the glass, and she has beautiful hands, launched me into all kinds of imaginings, which I really didn’t have time for because the moment we sat down, she started telling me about some new guy she was seeing, a trainer or something for a cadre of wanna-be never-be boxers. Apparently, he could make her come harder than she had in years.
I suppose that might of made me feel bad but it didn’t. One of the reasons I like Thumper is because she’s so open and uninhabited, I mean uninhibited, about everything. Maybe I’ve said that already. Doesn’t matter. Where she’s concerned I’m happy to repeat myself.
“It takes more than just being good,” she told me. “Don’t get me wrong: I love oral sex, especially if the guy knows what he’s doing. Though if you treat my cut like a doorbell, the door’s not going to open.” She crushed another cube of ice. “Recently though, it’s like I need to be thinking something really different and out there to get me crazy. For a while, money made my wet. I’m older now. Anyway this guy said he was going to slap my ass and I said sure. For whatever reason I hadn’t done that before. You done it?” She didn’t wait for my answer.
“So he got behind me, and he’s got a nice cock, and I love the sound his thighs make when they snap up against my ass, but it wasn’t going to make me come, even with me touching myself. That’s when he smacked me. I could hardly feel it the first time. He was being kind of timid. So
I told him to do it harder. Maybe I’m nuts, I don’t know, but he whacked me hard the next time and I just started to go off. Told him to do it again and each time I got worked. Finally when I did come, I came really-” and she held out the “reeeal”-“hard. Saw in the mirror later I had a handprint right on my ass cheek. I guess you could say these days I like handprints.
He said his palm stung.” She laughed over that one.
When our food arrived, I began telling her about Clara English, another story altogether, Christina & Amber, Kyrie, Lucy and even the Ashley I have no clue about, which also made her laugh. That’s when I decided not to bring up my unreturned pages. I didn’t want to get all petty with her, even though secretly I did want to know why she never called me back.
Instead I made a plan to stick exclusively to the
subject of sex, flirt with her that way, make up some insane stories,
maybe even elaborate on the Alaska thing, make her laugh some more, all of which was fine and good until for some reason, out of the blue, I changed the plan and started to tell her about Zampanô and the trunk and my crazy attacks. She stopped laughing. She even stopped crushing ice.
She just listened to me for a half hour, an hour, I don’t know how long, a long time. And you know the more I talked the more I felt some of the pain and panic inside me ease up a notch.
In retrospect it was pretty weird. I mean there I was wandering into all this personal stuff. I wasn’t even sharing most of it with her either. I mean not as much as I’ve been putting down here, that’s for
sure. There’s just too much of it anyway, always running parallel, is that
the right word?, to the old man and his book, briefly appearing, maybe even intruding, then disappearing again; sometimes pale, sometimes bleeding, sometimes rough, sometimes textureless; frequently angry, frightened, sorry, fragile or desperate, communicated in moments of motion, smell and sound, more often than not in skewed grnnnr, a mad rush broken up by eidetic recollections, another type of signal I suppose, once stitched into the simplest cries for help flung high above the rust and circling kites or radioed when the Gulf waters of Alaska finally swept over and buried the deck for good-Here Come Dots . . .-or even carried to a stranger place where letters let alone visits never register, swallowed whole and echoless, in a German homonym for the
whispered Word, taken, lost, gone, until there’s nothing left to examine
there either, let alone explore, all of which fractured in my head, even if it was hardly present in the words I spoke, though at the very least these painful remnants were made more bearable in the presence of Thumper. At one point I managed to get past all those private images and
just glance at her eyes. She wasn’t looking around at people or fixing on
silverware or tracking some wandering noodle dangling off her plate. She was just looking straight at me, and without any malice either. She was wide open, taking in everything I told her without judgment, just listening, listening to the way I phrased it all, listening to how I felt. That’s when something really painful tore through me, like some old, powerful root, the kind you see in mountains sometimes splitting
apart chunks of granite as big as small homes, only instead of granite
this thing was splitting me apart. My chest hurt and I felt funny all over, having no idea what it was, this root or the feeling, until I suddenly realized I was going to start sobbing. Now I haven’t cried since I was twelve, so I had no intention of starting at twenty-five, especially in some fucking Thai restaurant.
So I swallowed up.
I killed it.
I changed the subject.
A little while later, when we said goodnight, Thumper gave me a big, sweet hug. Almost as if to say she knew where I’d just been.
“You’re alright Johnny,” she said for the second time that night. “Don’t worry so much. You’re still young. You’ll be fine.”
And then as she put her jeep into gear, she smiled: “Come down and see me at work some time. If you want my opinion, you just need to get out of the house.”]