Writing Project 1: Critique Excerpt from Going Down by Chris Campanioni
NOTE: The following is a scene from a published novel. We are posting these excerpts for our readers and students to give critiques concerning three areas: Emotional Impact, Clarity, and Storytelling Cohesion. Our focus with these critiques is on the artistic facets of writing. We look forward to your feedback.
Excerpt from Going Down by Chris Campanioni, published in 2013 by Aignos Publishing
“You’re more James Franco than James Franco,” the man sitting across from Chris Selden gushed. “I mean,” he paused, pointing over Chris’s shoulder. “Does James Franco have one of those?”
He was pointing to a sparkling JVC ProHD, which Dave had purchased a day earlier at JFK’s Terminal 7 Best Buy before going through security. “Deleted scenes,” Dave had remarked matter-of-factly at the register. “The DVD version needs bonus material.”
And now Chris had just finished talking about his particular interests, literary ambitions, general dreams for the future, or at least the next three months while the gray-haired, freckled and bespeckled man sitting across from him in a green Lacoste shirt and khaki Dockers, talked about the movie he wanted to bring to Cannes next year.
“… now see the problem normally might be you’re too much of a natural. Too good at all this nonsense for your own good. Am I right?”
“What are you saying, Bob?” Chris said, pointing an accusatory straw at the producer.
“Well, I see you on TV and I see you in Cosmopolitan and I see you at Cannes and I see the same person,” he paused, drawing an imaginary box around Chris’s face. “And you can sing a little, dance a little, flex a little, act a little, and do everything a little, but not too much,” Bob said, glancing toward his half-empty basket of limp French fries. “You’d think they’d taste better in France.”
“And when you are in my film, you won’t be acting,” Viktor cut in. “You will be reacting. You will have forgotten all about ‘Chris Selden.’ You’ll simply be Sam.”
“Duncan,” Bob said.
“Really?” Viktor said. “I pictured him as Sam.”
“So what’s the story again?” Chris cut in.
“Okay, picture this: think Super Size Me meets Bigger, Faster, Stronger but more,” he glanced at Viktor, “Eastern European.”
“We are talking about creating an art film,” Viktor said, petting the thick tufts of dark gray hair hanging from his rotund chin. Chris thought Viktor looked like Rasputin, at least on Google Images. Maybe Viktor did too because he was channeling him, gruff and barbaric one moment, and tranquil and sage the next, and eerie, almost otherworldly in the way he stared at Chris, the way he paused before each word, his and everyone else’s, all the time. “We are talking,” Viktor said, his accent thick and strangling in the air-conditioned restaurant, “about bringing this message of consumption to the world.”
“In a very funny way, of course,” Bob interjected. “Oh no, this isn’t Terrence Malick. I heard he’s still working on his ‘history of life’ …” he turned to Viktor, then back to Chris. “Is it debuting today? Is it even done yet? Who knows … no, but this is going to be real funny. A true satire. Eye Candy,” Bob spread his hands wide. “Or do you like Beefcake?”
The two men looked sideways at Chris for a split-second, which was long enough for Chris to form a response, except his was: How did I get here?
He thought about the morning he left, the interminable telephone conversation with his parents, Ana’s list of precautions, his haphazard packing, everything flung breathless into a single navy blue Goldman Sachs duffel bag, Selden etched in gold across the center; a gift from Robert.
“But you can’t go to France!” Ana had yelled. “They don’t like Latinos! Anyone with Spanish blood! And it’s so far away—and, well—how will we reach you? It’s just too far away. And the flight! Mijo—I cannot tell you!”
Ana was always saying, “I cannot tell you!” And then she’d tell him anyway.
“Too dangerous. And oh—”
“And did you swim across the Caribbean, mamí?” Chris asked. “Or were airplanes much safer back then?”
She sighed. She consented. “And besides,” Chris added, “I have never been to France before. Maybe they will like me.”
“Bring back photos!” Ana cried, resigning herself to fate. “Lots and lots of photos, por favor!” Ana could only imagine the scene, Chris knew, but what good were photos against the euphoria of the mind, pure thought? An image burned on the retina for posterity. What good was a photo except something you could hold; something you could touch? But touch and sensation—wasn’t that everything? Imagination and pure thought didn’t stand a chance.
The conversation echoed in his thoughts now.
“Eye Candy,” both men said simultaneously, visions of candy canes and Jolly Ranchers and even sweet peaches dancing into their round, little heads, each of them sweating. “Eye Candy.”
Bob paused, clearing his throat with a cocktail. “Where are you from anyway?” He inched closer and Chris caught the odor of sweat and an overnight flight from wherever it was Bob himself had come from.
Chris’s surprise that this conversation was taking place in an Applebee’s was only surpassed by the surprise that one such Applebee’s existed in Cannes at all, a few blocks east of the Rue Croisette.
“Oradell,” he said.
“Where’s that?” Bob asked.
“A place where people get old.”
“Oh,” Bob mouthed, paused, took another sip, steadied himself. “Another VAT please?”
When the waiter swooped in to replace his empty highball, Bob was already drinking out of Viktor’s glass.
“You know,” he said, stroking his flappy ears, alternately glancing between the camera and Chris. “You really know how to look at someone. You know the exact angle to display, the way to shift the light on the face. Where did you learn to do that?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Like,” Bob laughed, pausing for a moment to collect himself. “Is the camera ever off?” He peered over at the man situated behind the table and Chris thought he saw a flick of the wrist, a raised index finger, a thumbs-up, any sort of signal. “Exactly.”
Chris felt appalled, like Bob had just told him something about himself he had never admitted to anyone. And maybe Chris knew how to look at a person, the exact angle to display, the way to shift the light on his face, but now he looked vacant, empty, naked … and for a fraction of a second—maybe more, maybe even a full second—he gave them fear, and finally, as if a reel of film had been removed and he’d been waiting for a new one to be inserted, he smiled again.
“You see,” Bob went on, while the wooden fan looped lazily overhead, and the slender, brisk waiter swooped in once more, and the French fries crinkled and extinguished in someone’s mouth, and the breeze picked up from an open window. “You’re a natural. A rare talent. Unique,” Bob said, and turned his head to the television situated at the bar, radiating a French sitcom. “You resist stereotype and yet you’ve become the ultimate model. And now everyone is giving off their own brand of imitative Selden; producing it, marketing it, taking the profits, reinvesting them. Socrates was right,” he laughed, banging his fist on the table, nearly bowling over. “Beauty is the useful.”
Bob looked over at rotund Viktor seated to his right and both of them shook their heads. Chris still smiled. In the vast and trackless land of make-believe, Chris Selden was the biggest faker. And his greatest accomplishment, he realized, and perhaps now the world had too, was acting like he felt happy all the time. Oh the places your mind goes when it stops to
“What?” Chris asked. The room still spinning, unless it was just the wooden fan overhead, the table even, beginning to tremble—was the balance off?
“I mean,” Bob continued. “Just think where we are right now. Cannes! How weird the world works. How weird and how wonderful.” He kept shaking his head, marveling at the scene, the way the light reflected off the windows, the way it created new shadows and angles, the way it framed them. “I mean, you still carry a flip phone,” he pointed to Chris’s mobile on the table.
“It’s a Motorola,” Chris said, thinking about Ana, who had one just like it. They had bought them together, on special, a two-for-one at the Radio Shack in Garden State Plaza. He wondered if he was affecting the physiognomic pattern for longing.
“So old it’s new,” Bob broke in. “I fucking love that.”
Resplendent. Serene. And yet—
Teeming with the activity of the whole world … the whole world converging on a long stretch of road along the Azure Coast. Throngs of people, cameras, big balloons floating through vestibules and shops at each appointed stop, the oooh! and ahhh! of everyone taking a peek beyond the red carpet.
Dave Goldstein was setting the scene. He had hired the first English-speaking employee he found at the JW Marriot and the free hands gave him ample opportunity to conduct his latest symphony.
Saps rising, buds sprouting, the hum of rubber. Slow-motion automobiles, heavy breathing, murmur of wind.
A bird passes.
“Not bad, roll the camera.”
Chris’s experience of travel had been limited to all-expenses-paid-for vacations as a child, gliding through the Caribbean with a whole cruise ship’s worth of tour guides or else, daydreaming gently at a resort, pampered and nourished and finally, upon returning home, perplexed about where exactly they had just been, the vulgar news printed on a T-shirt souvenir for three American dollars: Same Shit, Different Island, which Ana had promptly used as a rag for cleaning the kitchen. He might just as well have been watching it all unfold on TV.
He had never really traveled outside of Ana’s watchful eyes and yet, now that she was gone, he still felt arrested by the glare of the camera lens. It followed him across the Croisette, toward the rows of yachts and the pale sand of the rocky beach. Cannes was the first place Chris had been to which seemed more real in person than in photographs or on film, and, as a vaguely familiar melody by New Order wafted over his ears by the drift of memory, or the receding waves, or the Riviera breeze, Dave tapped him on the shoulder.
“I turn sideways to the sun, keep my thoughts from everyone …”
“Let’s talk off-camera for a moment, okay?”
Dave pulled Chris aside and began coaching him on every possible question he could expect following the market screening of “—” tomorrow. According to the news, there would also be a pre-screening session, a rotating series of speakers dedicated to instructing the audience on the event it was about to witness and the powers behind it, thrusting leaflets and guides at every passing body on the way out.
“… hear me talk but never speak …”
“And another thing,” Dave continued, patting Chris firmly on the shoulder, adjusting his own Cannes le cinéaste broad-rimmed hat. “Say we met at an art exhibit or something. MoMA. Something like that. The allure of Chris Selden relies on chance.”
“… I turn sideways to the sun, and in a moment I am gone …”
“But why?” Chris asked, raising an upturned hand.
“It sounds better that way,” Dave said, fixing Chris’s gaze, delicately pushing a strand of dirty blond hair over his hazel eyes. “Everything is accidental.”
“… in a moment I am gone …”
“You are the face that launched a thousand myths,” Dave said, and his eyes traveled past Chris toward the docks, toward the yachts. “Or was that ships?”
And he was so happy and so excited and so nervous all at once, so enlivened or enraptured or both but at the same time or in the back of his mind, the back of his mine, the mine of his life (memories; a wellspring), the far reaches of his thoughts, he knew this was just another episode, another chapter, another thing to call his own and yet it was only a cover, a cowl, a blanket in which he could smother himself, enfolded with the comfort and consummation of the NEXT NEW THING and forget for a moment that what he was actually doing was choking. But he wasn’t thinking that now. Not now, not yet.
Just as in the fashion world, where everything was new and old and new again, time itself seemed no longer to pass linearly but to run instead in a circle. So Chris was not visibly surprised when, upon returning to the lobby of the JW Marriott, he was met with the boisterous greeting of Dennis Romero, king of caterers, sporting a Panama straw boater hat, a blue and white striped bathing costume, a sunburn on his forehead, nose, and arms, and gripping a chalice of red wine in his hand.
“Pinot from Willamette Valley,” he smiled, flashing a set of protruding gums and wine-stained teeth. “They’ve got it all here. You know, except of course …”
He put his arm around Chris, staggering forward. “Wines by the glass …” He lurched still further and then clapped his hands. “To be an American in Cannes. Oh God,” he puffed, looking toward the ceiling briefly. “It’s unbelievable. One step away from The Rat Pack. Americano. Here! Of all places.”
The mouse-like concierge looked at them, shaking his head and pursing his thin lips as Chris whispered an apology.
“It would be wise to get your American friend to his room,” he said, feigning a smile, his mustache stiffening at the edges where sweat was beginning to form.
“My room!” Dennis cut in. “Why, that’s just the problem, señor.”
“Excuse me, sir,” the concierge’s voice rose as he straightened his skinny black necktie and maintained the same expression of unruffled calm on his pastel face. “Please lower your voice.”
Chris glanced around the vast lobby, arranged with couches and a divan and a resplendent piano with porcelain keys at the center, where guests were shuffling closer to the desk, curiously eyeing the spectacle. “Un acteur!” the voices squawked. People were pointing now. Throngs were forming. “Un acteur! Le premier role.” And finally, “la vedette!”
“Oh, you speak perfect English now, don’t you? Now when you want to kick me out,” Dennis cried, taking another pronounced sip from the bottle which, by now, was nearly empty. “Oh, go ahead. I’m a paying customer. I get it though. I am an American and so naturally you don’t like me. Us.” He put his arm around Chris’s shoulder and sipped the remnants of his Pinot Noir, all the way from Oregon. “Yes, well we will be on our way then, won’t we? And we will be talking to your manager tomorrow morning.”
Dennis stood up straight, slapped down 33 US dollars on the counter and proceeded to walk toward the elevators. Chris followed him and when they were both around the corner, Dennis shouted back:
“Remember Waterloo, you French bastards. World War II. Algeria? The whole country is without balls. You know that when—”
Chris put his hand over Dennis’s mouth and pushed him into the elevator.
“What was all that about?” Chris asked.
“Oh, Humpy, don’t mention it—and you’re welcome,” Dennis replied, sliding his fingers over the digits on the door. “Which one is it?”
“Oh, I’ll explain later,” Dennis cried, impatient. “I’ve got claustrophobia damnit! Now, which floor are you on?”
“I’m staying on the sixteenth,” Chris said. “Why?”
“Oh, well you know …” Dennis turned away from Chris and spoke under his breath. “I’ve essentially been—how does one say?—kicked out of my room. These French fairies are racist, sexist, and homophobic. Long story short …”
“You need a place to stay?” Chris ventured.
“Oh gosh, I thought you’d never ask. Listen—it’s only for two more days. Just until the end of the festival, you know.” Dennis put his arm around Chris and beamed. “I need to do the whole tour. The whole walk-around-the-Croissant thing.”
“Croisette,” Chris cut in, but Dennis kept talking. “… Pick up baguettes at the Farmer’s market in Nice. Carry ’em on my shoulder like a boombox. You understand, right?”
Chris nodded faintly and when the doors opened he led Dennis into the room, knocking twice before sliding his cardkey through.
In the daze of a two-hour layover in Frankfurt and the short tram ride from Nice to Cannes when they had arrived at the Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur, Chris and Dave had met the Russian director, the American producer, the Saudi financier, all of them traveling separately and in the same orbit and everyone had more or less stuck together. It had always occurred to Chris he’d never really “met” anyone; instead, his path crossed other paths, or paths converged, then diverged, only to resurface months later in the pages of a Men’s Health editorial or Budweiser commercial, or a chance meeting aboard a yacht in Villefranche. He had read a great many books and knew a lot of good words and understood things like feelings and was well-versed on life, but of people, he knew hardly anything and so he continued to pick them up like they were set pieces in the ever-involving drama of the day.
“Jesus!” Dennis exclaimed, staring in awe at the suite. Sliding doors and red curtains separated each of the five bedrooms. The salon opened to a deck overlooking the scene below. During the morning, there had been a mass of flashes and chatter which managed to block the intersection, everyone waiting to see who would walk through the revolving doors of the hotel’s entrance next. “Can I cater your next birthday party?”
Chris smirked and introduced Dennis to everyone. Farid was spread out on a couch watching Bloomberg on his laptop. Viktor was talking to Bob about Neorealism and the emergence of Spaghetti Westerns in Italian cinema, both of them standing over the makeshift mini bar, wondering when Lars Von Trier would arrive. Dave was on the deck, tinkering with his new toy. Everyone paused for a moment of recognition directed at Dennis, and the sounds and rhythms of daily movements seemed to pause too.
“So which floor were you staying on before?” Chris asked.
“Oh, here? No no, I was over at the Best Western in town,” he belched. “Horrible staff. Awful transportation services. I really don’t recommend it. Well, actually the crepes at breakfast …”
“Is he the new assistant?” Bob asked, approaching Dennis with a manila folder and his credit card. “I need business cards made ASAP.”
“Business cards?” Dennis asked. “Oh, you have the wrong idea. I’m in the business of throwing parties. Wild ones.”
There was a long pause before Dennis pulled out his business card from the breast pocket of his striped swimsuit.
“I make memories goddamn it!”
And with one raised index finger, he collapsed on the floor.
“Is your friend alright?” Dave asked. He looked at Chris, placed the camera down, and pointed to the figure rocking steadily, arms outstretched, on the floor.
“Well, he’s snoring, isn’t he?” Bob returned, tucking in his green Lacoste shirt and readjusting his silver-rimmed glasses as he glared at Chris. “You keep some strange company.”
“Another legend to add to the myth,” Dave said, indicating Chris with his camera.
“A myth?” Chris asked.
“But a myth belongs to everyone.”
Journalist. The word floated like dandelion seeds at the party on the Croisette, right on the docks, a few feet from the waves, on the beach, the sand kicking in the breeze. From 210 to 480 RPM.
The word pollinated the smiles, the hand signals, the vibrant eyes and hearty laughs (too hearty) and Chris was being whisked back and forth too, looking around with the intensity of someone who wanted to remember all the details.
“Did you know he is a journalist too?” “Journalism!” “A newsman!” “Credentials!”
Journalist. And people shouted into people’s ears, bending slightly and inching forward, shouting over all the other people shouting, over all the music, and all the glasses and silverware clinging, and the waves were rolling, and so was the film.
The word floated over Chris and around Chris and behind Chris and Chris shook his head and kept walking, losing Viktor and Bob and Farid (Dennis was still asleep) and—Chris wondered—maybe even Dave, finding a spot on the edge of the docks, roped-off and quiet, minus all the harsh lighting and all the glare, and he only saw the moon. The moon was on fire, red and brilliant, and Chris was thinking he would never see the moon like this again, and someone else shouted JOURNALIST and he was thinking how people are impressed by the oddest things, things which they hardly knew anything about, things that signaled a “Golden Age” that never happened, a newsroom that was never there or simply nonexistent news (and all of it was like kissing a beautiful woman with bad breath; the disappointment, the shock) and he was thinking that journalism and modeling were not so different after all—weren’t they?—recalling lines from a poem he had composed about an article he’d once written: My first assignment was five inches on a fire at the corner of Post and Leavenworth. (The Ledger was cutting corners.) His story, her story, my story, my-stery (That’s classified). I interviewed five bystanders who gave me five different eye-witness accounts of what occurred. I later discovered one bystander was blind and despite last-minute over-the-phone conversations with his optometrist, spouse, next-of-kin that clarified one detail, more-or-less minor, my headline still read FIRE DESTROYS PROPERTY, MEMORIES—he had only ever been in the same business, the business of fabrication, the business of culture, the business of cranking out culture, the culture industry, and he looked up at the moon again, red and brilliant, sheathed in a blood orange peel, and maybe he was thinking he would never be here again.
Even when he returned.
Chris Selden stared at his reflection in the ovate mirror opposite the Jacuzzi and the shower and inspected the architecture. He was not thinking about the mica tiles and the pinwheel patterns of the bathroom. He was thinking of his person.
“All a matter of proportions,” Chris said, pressing his hand down firmly on his cuffs, rolling and unrolling the blue sleeves, undoing one button from the collar, then one more. Overhearing Chris, Dennis poked his head through the open door. “Did Coco say that?”
“Coco?” Chris asked, unbuttoning another, as nascent chest hairs threatened to peek out.
“Didn’t she also advise to take one thing off before you leave the house?”
Chris shook his head, staring blankly at his own gaze. “I’m not sure.”
“What’s wrong?” Dave called. He had been pacing the room in various tempos since he had emerged from sleep and now he had paced into Chris’s purview.
“Nothing,” Chris said. “It’s just a matter of the ol’ Clark Kent-Superman syndrome.”
Chris turned sideways for a brief moment and took off his big black Fossil chronograph watch, opting instead for the thick-rimmed eyeglasses he had recently been fond of wearing to affect contemplation.
“I haven’t decided which one I am today.”
When they got outside the JW Marriott’s revolving doors, Chris was smiling, walking in the direction of the Salle Du Soixantieme and Cinema Les Arcades 1, where the press Q&A would follow. Dave hurried ahead, always five feet in front, filming reactions, applause, cat-calls, the general exuberance of the scene from a plunging panoramic view. Cars leisurely strolled in circles around the Croisette; honking cars, smooth cars, BMW coupes and Cadillac SUVs and most of all, candy-red jet rockets, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, sauntering gently with the breeze and Chris never realized a sports car could go so
s l o w
Everyone wanted to be seen. Chris thought Cannes would be different somehow, immune perhaps to the desperation, the frenzy of the façade, but it was Manhattan all over again, it was Castings Central, everyone fawning and pawing to touch each other, or themselves, any chance to get on camera, to come into contact with its gaze. It was Manhattan, except more picturesque, but even the French Riviera backdrop couldn’t occlude Chris from seeing this. “We roll through the town in an open car. And nobody knows exactly who we are.” A soundtrack somewhat muted by the frenzy of the crowd.
Out of the mosaic of faces came a tall, bony, brown-haired girl running into the crowd encircling Chris. Panting. Breathless. Perhaps even perspiring. It was Sarah Martha Greenberg, the Third. She was wearing too much makeup and too much perfume and she had on too many accessories, Chris noticed with a shrug, wondering if Bailey would have condemned her, wondering if the people here would. Should he tell her?
“Peter—” she looked at Chris again. “I somehow knew I’d run into you here.”
“Sure,” Chris sighed. “Gemini PR, right?” Two faces, he thought. Two-faced. He had recently abandoned correcting her, or anyone, on their mistaking him for someone else. Chris Selden had wandered from Mark Van Etty’s cramped basement shrine to vanity into the boundless Hall of Mirrors, where appearance was everything and yet nothing at all. Mise en abyme.
“It’s been awhile!” she cried, and moved in for a hug.
“Too long,” Chris replied, shaking her loose. He glanced in her pale blue eyes once more, hoping for some semblance of contact, something to produce some authentic remembrance of him. But all he saw on her face was the absence of the mole above her upper lip; it had finally been removed.
When the credits rolled and the lights faintly flickered on, and the padded plastic seats emptied—everyone standing and clapping—and Chris himself, standing, too, on the orders of Dave, to take a bow, when all of these things occurred seemingly at the same time, a moment frozen to be relived infinitely and always, on repeat, in slow-mo, and perhaps, even, with added sound effects—because Dave was filming—the sky opened outside the amphitheater and announced its applause with a shriek of thunder.
Dave looked at Chris, who nodded back, bowed once more, and waited for the procession to file out the doors and into the storm, but they stayed, standing, clapping, perhaps even shrieking. Chris’s experience of re-watching “—” was identical to the disconnect he felt weeks earlier, except much worse. Because this time, the whole world was watching, digesting his whole life, all of it, every instant and image worth capturing in twenty-three years of them, in two hours and twenty-four minutes.
And they liked what they saw. Later in the evening, “—” won la Palme d’Or, Dave Goldstein took home the Prix Un Certain Regard, and even Dennis Romero accepted regard le second role in a short blurb in the following morning’s SCREEN, for his stirring portrayal of a hopped-up caterer for the Manhattan elite. “—” had become a certifiable buzz word—incommunicable of course—and there was a consensus of “—” being the high-water mark for cinema, for art in general; the fashion industry had transcended clothing and advertisements. Chris Selden was trending.
“The movie, exhilarating in its wild complexity, constantly transits between documentary and fiction, actors and characters, black-and-white and color, 16mm and 35, past and present. That there is more than one way to perceive and inhabit reality is the most basic of the film’s many truths …”
Chris put down the morning’s issue of SCREEN and took one last glance out the deck, looking toward the Croisette, the sea, the promenade eerily quiet and empty, while Dave gathered the rest of their belongings from the room, strangely devoid of action for the first time in a week. Everyone had already left town, and the only movement Chris could see were the waves rolling endlessly back toward shore. He felt the foam as if it was at his feet.
“You think we’ll be back next year?” Chris asked, turning to Dave, looking into his old friend’s dark brown eyes.
“Doubtful,” Dave said, zipping up his camera bag and slinging it over one shoulder. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before the sequel hits.”
“I meant Beefcake. Eye Candy. Whatever they were calling it.”
“Oh, Chris … ” Dave paused, shaking his head, chuckling some more. “Bob and Viktor? Farid? They were just three guys I met while you were in the crapper at Heathrow. I needed texture, you know?”
Something in Chris’s stomach sank to his bowels and he felt as if he was about to shit himself, or spit up his eggs Florentine. Or maybe something worse.
“Look …” Dave said, approaching Chris, even offering his hand. “I used their real names, okay?”