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K. Robert Schaeffer was awarded Third Place in Fiction in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Schaeffer is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.


Of Arrestable Professions

Diversionary spectacles had been few and far between in the year of SCI—Bentham, that is, at least until the advent of self-proclaimed film prophet Gustachion Amfitheatrof, a stout and elderly Greek well into his 40th year of incarceration. For those who even cared, rumors abounded concerning Gustachion’s life story, crime, and sentence. The man himself was known to absently rebuff such inquiries, telling nosy inmates that his mind was so crammed with filmic scenarios that he could no longer distinguish with any certainty the events of his own, actual life. For nearly 25 years, Gustachion happily and contentedly devoured tens of thousands of films, watching them on the 13-inch Keisuke ViewPro personal television in his tiny cell, eyes locked in rapture, until one day, during an inauspicious viewing of Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, when he finally developed unsustainable corneal abrasions and soon after went blind. A harrowing depression followed, during which time Gustachion shunned all company (he was never that sociable to begin with) and took to wandering the yard alone, stumbling around the quarter mile track in a dizzying void, occasionally mumbling to himself. But then he found solace with the realization that hundreds, even thousands, of the films he loved so dearly were preserved in his mind, complete with shot-by-shot descriptions and cast facial recollections, picture-perfect images screening upon the inner dome of his skull on a near ceaseless basis. He took to setting himself up below the loudspeaker, the round block of concrete at its base one of the few places in the yard to rest his aging hips (the bleachers being under the dominion of various noisy broods of hooligans), and recounting to unseen crowds the films screening for his perpetual enjoyment, intermittently interrupted by the tinny, garbled P.A. announcements from the speaker overhead.

Initially, it’s safe to assume, he was scoffed at, subjected to pointing fingers and indiscreet jeers, in time even coming to the attention of the mildly concerned psychiatric staff (his recommended medications being stoically refused). And so, to empty venues, to deaf ears, the man offered beautiful renditions of Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony and Smith’s Abstraction #2, of Dimensions of Dialogue and Meshes of the Afternoon, of Tarkovsky’s Rublev, Lynch’s Lost Highway, Goll’s Ham Diluvial, of the silent classics of Keaton and Méliès, of all form and variety of New Wave, of impoverished, convoluted noirs and the heady choreographies of Busby Berkeley, of films, essentially, transcending genre and classification. Some of these transitioned seamlessly from one plot to another, surreal blends of Ford and Godard, of Kaurismäki and Kiarostami, and on certain rare occasions Gustachion even recounted entirely fabricated films, either intentionally or not, molded together from the formulaic bits and pieces scattered throughout his cerebral archives. In other environments, perhaps, in those more culturally-advanced societal systems found at times across the world, such pure poetic genius might be deemed worthy of commendations and pensions, recognized as the kind of noble figure suitable to adorn various-sized currencies and to serve as the namesake of schools and government buildings, but within the feeble-minded, philistinic ambience of Bentham, Gustachion’s supposed lunacy went entirely unappreciated for nearly 10 years. Countless epics lost on the wind.

In fact, it was not until 2026 that the man’s talents were finally recognized, said re-evaluation ultimately prompted by the downfall of cable television. Following a long struggle, networks were finally overcome by a deluge of advertisements, all of which were sorely needed to balance the disproportional costs of modern-day broadcasting, until eventually the programs themselves, after being sliced into smaller and smaller segments, became nonexistent and the medium collapsed, its brittle infrastructure already worn thin after decades of growth in the personalized online media marketplace. Meanwhile Bentham, notoriously lethargic in the adoption of new technologies, fumbled for a replacement, and it was only when every television screen in the prison went dark and the hordes of fiendish inmates became starved for traditional forms of cinematic entertainment that crowds gradually began to accumulate around the ranting cineaste, slumped as always upon the concrete block under the loudspeaker. A good-intentioned neighbor, Blagoveshchensk, eventually stepped in to help coordinate the events, catering to popular requests and in general tending to steer selections away from the moving, auteuristic pieces favored by the prophet toward edgier, more violent and lascivious commercial fare. At some point, and unbeknownst to Gustachion, Blagoveshchensk was strong-armed out of his role as master of ceremonies, in a nearly bloodless coup, by a group of highly disreputable neo-orphic fanaticists, charging admission fees and subliminally directing the old man toward explicitly erotic recollections during select times of the day. But for Gustachion this all made little difference. In the cinema behind his darkened lids, it was business as usual. Reel after endless reel.

But so today, for instance, for the afternoon yard double feature matinée, and for the reasonable cost of either a 1.32 oz. can of Cattle Brand smokeless tobacco or a 4 oz. bag of Señora Encarnacion freeze-dried premium coffee (net value $4.33 U.S., of which, by the way, Gustachion saw nothing), an average Bentham inmate might enjoy the eloquent recitation of V. Secundra Roychowdhury’s Bollywood action classic Sahib Shabatai, on the (not entirely historically accurate) rise of purported judaic messiah Sabbatai Zevi, and (though never delivered on the particular day due to a sudden termination of yard resulting from adverse meteorological conditions) Jack Arnold’s Incredible Shrinking Man. And it ends up being a pretty good turnout, the rapacious neo-orphics literally cleaning house in terms of impending nicotine and caffeine consumption. The crowd, surly and rambunctious as usual, assembles in a malformed globular mass around the speaker post, and after several chaotic minutes devolves into a sudden, hushed silence, parting reverently as the old Greek meanders blindly up to the concrete block and assumes his usual position, babbling to himself all the while, those pressed up in the front rows sporting drooping, starstruck mugs. A nearby event coordinator passes forward a megaphone of rolled cardboard, which is ultimately pressed against the man’s chest, Gustachion groping for it comically and then lifting it into position, his voice resonating in a deep and scratchy baritone, proclaiming thus:

August 1, 1626. Tisha Báv, the holy day of mourning. The camera descends from on high in the heavens to a modest home in the city of Smyrna. Mordecai Zevi paces frantically from room to room, his wife’s labor screams seeping up from the top floor. The man is a poultry dealer; this his first son. Murmurs finally escape from upstairs, an irritated wailing, and Mordecai races up, sees the midwife holding a child in the air, seeming to radiate with holy light. A flurry of Hebraic oaths escapes the man as he runs into the street, praising the Unnameable. A dazzling crane shot scales back as a host of townspeople flood from their homes. Mordecai breaks into song, and his friends and neighbors join in, dancing elaborate multicultural numbers in the streets, on rooftops, hanging from opened windows, the newborn floating upon a sea of upturned palms. A series of moving scenes follow, the young Sabbatai (played by the delightful Chetan Gopalakrishnan, in his first credited role) beginning to display signs of his future calling as divine conduit: lighting menorah with a wave of his hand, calming an angered schoolmate with a gentle touch, resurrecting a dead bird. Then a scene in the synagogue: the boy discovering mysticism, the Kabbalah, a means of communicating with both God and lesser angels, of predicting the future and performing miracles, the young initiate guided to the concealed texts by haunting, off-screen whispers. Whirling hallucinatory close-ups of the ancient texts, of the boy standing stationary in a fastly-rotating temple chamber. The boy develops a disposition toward solitude, wandering the outskirts of the city, aging instantaneously (into the superbly charismatic bengali megastar Ritwik Mukherjee, with playback singing by Lil’ Gyan) in mid-catchy pop psalm, accompanied by angelic back-up dancers and a chorus of animatronic woodland creatures. He is married by decree of filiopietistic necessity, the camera flashing red, cutting to the still-taut-sheeted nuptial bed, close-ups of sweat beading on his forehead. He shuns impurity, is divorced. (A scene of Zevi neurotically scrubbing himself clean in a shallow stream lost to time as the P.A. croaks dysphonically for inmate D’Agata, #QR5682, to return to his housing unit). By the onset of young adulthood that lad is overwhelmed by oscillating whims of ecstasy and depression. Montage of his erratic behavior, committing holy sins: eating non-kosher foods, uttering the forbidden tetragrammaton, slamming his bedroom door in Mordecai’s face, the ashamed father burying head in tear-stained palms. A tragic, lulling, nondiegetic zither plays. He becomes nocturnal, reading the occult Zohar by candlelight over a frenetic fortnight, the text telling of the impending arrival of the messiah in the coming year, 1648, when Zevi will be 22. He assembles his closest friends for a festive birthday celebration, declares to them via intoxicating tenor that his is the chosen light, the foretold-of messiah spoken of by the millenarians in their apocalyptic tenets, the one come to redeem Israel before the year of the beast, 1666. The hall is surrounded by the faithful, somehow already tipped off to Zevi’s heretical proclamation, led by his former teacher, the elderly Rabbi Joseph Escapa, who declares in grumpy falsetto that he hereby invokes a ban of cherem upon the apostate and his followers. The two crowds face off, glistening tiles of no-man’s-land running betwixt them down the hall. Foes pair off in unspoken consent, engage in flurried mixtures of dance-off and hand-to-hand combat. Various close-ups of glaring eyes, beading sweat, karate-chopping hands, and rolling hips gracefully fleet bipedal motions. Then a sudden silence befalls the mob, people freezing in mid-thrust and chop, as Zevi steps forth, quells them with promises of non-violence and swift departure. He and his band leave, traveling the region. Salonica, Athens, Alexandria. He meets the frazzled preacher Abraham ha-Yakini (Bibhutibhushan Sippy, in his final screen appearance), who confirms his messianic mission. He founds recruitment centers for new adherents. He publicly weds the Torah. Cities banish him in a repetitive montage of Zevi departing through similarly-shaped gateways. In Cairo, meets wealthy patron Raphael Joseph Halabi of Aleppo, staying five months at his lavish palace, where he dazzles followers with his mystical abilities: doing triple somersaults in the air, summoning bolts of lightning, performing card tricks. In a subconsciously induced somni messianic fit, summons angelic serpents to strangle Escapa and other non-believing exilers as they sleep, scenes of ghostly wisps soaring across the Mediterranean. Jerusalem: begins doing penance, cleansing and fasting, visiting the graves of ancient saints, whose spirits arise and perform encouraging choreographies. An endearing scene where he meets his right-hand man and own personal Elijah, Nathan of Gaza (Mehboob Mehboob, typecast yet again as the comic sidekick), who saves Zevi when the man is beset by a gang of (anachronistic, potentially time-traveling) hasidic thugs in a darkened alleyway, Nathan dispatching the adversaries effortlessly, yarmulkes and phylacteries flying, and then kneeling at Zevi’s feet, offering a bouquet of torn curls, the glowing messiah erupting in ebullient chuckles, clutching his now-bulbous gut. Zevi holds sessions with the city’s people, hearing of the problems inherent there. He resolves disputes, passes civil ordinance, (the P.A. screeches incoherently, urging Miss Eckstine to dial extension 4-5-2) boasts to the assemblage that he will conquer the world without bloodshed and lead the 10 lost tribes home to the Holy Lane, aback a majestic lion. A peasant woman, just as the day’s session is closing down, rushes up to his dais, spouting out the hagiographic tale of the devout Sarah (played by the nubile Durga Premchand, or maybe her sister Suprabha). Milky dissolves to flashback montage of Sarah’s life: orphaned at the age of six in the Chmielnicki pogroms; sent to a convent by her Christian captors, where she was beaten with rods by towering nuns and forced to scrub the floors beneath their feet; escaping via miraculous teleportory event after a decade of blasphemous immurement, by then a fully-grown, voluptuous woman, to Amsterdam and then Livorno where, pious but penniless, she is impressed into a life of prostitution until one day, while being unskillfully patronized by a middle-aged huguenot, she has a vision destining her to be the wife of the messiah. Dissolve back to Zevi, tears glistening in his eyes. He raises his hands and, with a clap of thunder, the girl is spirited to Jerusalem upon a cirrocumulus palanquin, toted by kindly cherubs. Setting down seconds later in the council room, the two lay eyes on each other, trumpets sounding in the distance. The world melts away, back scenery pulled out of frame by countless supernumeraries, as the two sway in sensual, at times blatantly erotic, serenade. Cut to their wedding day, the happy couple disrupted mid-vow by yet another crowd of exile-hungry townsfolk, chasing Zevi et al. out of town on the double, the man hoisting bride over shoulder, derrière wriggling in the air, Nathan and others tossing bits of grain and shouting praises as they go. He heads north, accumulating uncountable numbers of proselytes in every town and village he passes through, from rabbis to goyim. He makes a triumphant return to Smyrna, where he’s throned like a king. Mobs of hysterical girls, holding standards adorned with his likeness, swoon at the very sight of him. A tender reunion with the now-decrepit and senile Mordecai, on his deathbed. He speaks to huge crowds, assures them the awaited moment is approaching, urging them to do penance and prepare their souls for salvation. He confides in Sarah and his chief followers that he has received oneiric instruction to travel into the lion’s den, into the beating heart of the Islamic faith, Constantinople, in order to surrender himself. The somber procession leaves Smyrna, Zevi trailed by miles of adherents, A standoff ensues at the Constantinople gates, Zevi finally greeted by the grand vizier, Ahmed Köprülü, who hospitably escorts him to Migdal-Oz, the Tower of Strength, at Abydos, where he lives in royal splendor, his cell palatial in size and accommodation. Scenes of jovial relaxation with his followers, Nathan leading the troupe in a series of reassuring ditties. Behind darkened-hued tapestries, upon a gigantic bed, Zevi ravages his wife, drawing impurities from her corporeal being. At times he takes to flying through the countryside, visiting remote villages and strengthening their resolve with impassioned sermons. Finally, he is brought before the sinister sultan, Mehmed IV (the classic villain, Mrinal Ghose), hallucinatory horns sprouting from his head. A cold staredown follows, minutes long, temps morts infused with a heightening flurry of zither-plucking. Without a word exchanged between them, Zevi is taken away, relocated to an isolated, luxury-free cell in Adrianople (hoots of sympathy being elicited from the crowd). He communicated with Nathan via speaking messenger birds and is alerted that his followers remain strong, assembled, and at the ready. A dark night passes, in which Zevi is inundated with prophetic visions. Arcane symbols pass over the screen to the sounds of cackling daemons. Fiery Hebraic characters shaping into an elaborate schematic of the Tree of the Sefiroth. An inverted ladder, descending from the empyrean floor of heaven into the gaping mouth of the sultan, angels creeping down its rungs. The temple aflame, erupting climatically in inexplicable mass explosion, pillars and tabernacle flying. The next morning he’s roused early, tossed at the feet of the grand vizier, who gives him the ultimatum he’s already foreseen: convert or die. Tears stream from his eyes as a flourish of crosscutting shows a medley of his followers’ faces, his wife and Nathan among them, stalled in overwhelming anticipation. Zevi breaks into ardent praise of God, chanting Hebraic platitudes a mile a minute, and then suddenly tears the robes from his chest, grabbing the turban dangling from the vizier’s hand and hysterically wrapping it around his head so as to—

A crack of thunder sounds, the sky suddenly darkening, startled inmates momentarily uncertain if perhaps it’s all part of a new special effects package, somehow brought on by the old man for dramatic effect. But the realization sinks in as the plot is interrupted yet again, the speaker actually rattling upon its posts as the P.A. barks of the yard’s termination. The crowd emits a communal groan as gigantic droplets pelt them from the sky. Guards appear in amphibious-looking rain gear, herding them back to their housing units. A flash of lightning touches down in the distant woods. The film’s climax—in which Zevi, while on duty at this new post as the sultan’s doorkeeper, witnesses the floor tiles morph into a stairwell leading deep into the fiery netherworld; descends and there wrestles Muhammad upon an ashen plateau, surrounded by taunting infidelic ghouls; returns triumphant only to find the world mid-apocalypse, humanity being brutally raped and pillaged by untold forces of evils; confronts the sultan, now a massive, many-horned, clawed, and bearded chimera, and does battle with the things over the bubbling, molten waters of the nearby sea, ultimately smiting it with the sword of En Sof previously retrieved from hell; the beast collapsing and the resultant tidal wave wiping out legions of invading daemon hordes as Zevi and his few remaining followers, converted after him by a steadfast Sarah and Nathan, who persuaded the wavering votaries that it was the only way to weather the impending rapture, float up through the various levels of atmosphere to the seraphic ululations which typically accompany heavenly admission—that climax, and not to even mention the entirety of Incredible Shrinking Man, not being delivered as they had been promised, provokes waves of resentful whispers among the increasingly dampened inmates, some of the bravest even venturing to invoke the inflammatory, unspeakable-of Refund, that hope-instilling deity of the indigent. But, in any case, the cold, entrepreneurial hearts of the neo-orphics prove unmoved, as they shield their elderly moneymaker with a makeshift umbrella of cocoa brown sweatsuits and escort him through the throng. Though, to be fair, they do leave behind one of their number to placate the disgruntled mob during its inclement exodus, the excessively muscular spokesperson explaining essentially how the prophecies of Gustachion, by their very nature transitory and subject to sudden whims of fancy and environmental vicissitudes, proved fittingly analogous to their predecessors, the cherished televised photoplays of yesteryear, the absorbing climaxes of which could be suddenly superseded by power outage or breaking news coverage, and that therefore, out of a sort of respect for the past if nothing else, the generous entertainment providers comprising the Reformed Temple of Orpheus Descendent chose to uphold a clear and simple policy regarding refunds and all other forms of customer dissatisfaction: Shit happens. Do something about it.