Maude Mackinaw walked through the courtyard of a faded art deco apartment building off Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood and tried not to step on the zigzag shoots of black-green ivy that had bolted across the paving. An unlikely welcoming committee of eccentrically-formed feline residents observed her with detached interest. Mackinaw was used to Angelenos’ preference for extravagant and esoteric pets but she’d never seen cats like these: a shaggy floor brush with tiny square sofa legs, an etiolated melancholy ginger creature with strange wiry fur, and a car crash survivor with gangly, misshapen limbs, translucent grey hair and vivid blue human eyes. The car crash survivor trembled almost imperceptibly and was the first to retreat to its owners’ ground floor apartment, which was in fact two adjoining apartments, 35 and 37, bearing the nameplates Carpel and Stamen. This was where Mackinaw was headed.
Carpel and Stamen’s names were texted discreetly in Hollywood boardrooms and their services were restricted to the favoured few. Their audience research agency was close to being the only organised religion some senior production executives had ever known. And with some justification. Their techniques were said to be extraordinarily advanced. Their predictions were said to be uncannily accurate. And their secrets were unfailingly guarded. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter couldn’t even get a contact number for them. If they thought they could help you and you could afford them, they’d find you. And curiously not one company or individual had ever claimed to turn down their help.
Mackinaw was a well-regarded producer/distributor in the fast-fading commercial end of the independent sector. She’d graduated from film studies at Tisch in New York and instinctively gravitated towards making low budget arthouse films after picking up production skills on genre movies for people like Walter Hill and Abel Ferrara. She’d also spent time working on production classes and market events for Sundance and had acquired a reputation for showing the right amount of integrity and a talent for discovering and nurturing talented young directors.
Now she was in danger of being swallowed whole and chewed into small tax deductible pieces by one of the Majors after her last three pictures scraped into profit more by luck than design. She maximised every income stream from DVD to VOD but she was still coming up short. And what bothered her most was that the tracking on all three had been so wrong and the opening weekend gross box office predictions close to a joke. She knew that the research agencies she’d used were over-reliant on audience ratings cards and coverage in traditional media and that unlike some of their rivals they weren’t even beginning to capture vital social media data, let alone interpret or influence it. What she didn’t know was why she continued to waste good money on them, or why C&S had contacted some small-time like her to offer their services.
A small squat Filipino house-servant of indeterminate gender, wearing charcoal overalls and clumpy exercise shoes, ushered her into a studiously neutral room furnished with bland but not displeasing art objects that were flanked discreetly by tomorrow’s technology, and indicated a tall man with translucent grey hair and vivid blue eyes that shone behind thick black oval architect’s spectacles.
“Pleased to meet you Ms Mackinaw, I’m Carpel.” He smoothed down the nap on his refined navy chalkstripe suit and gestured towards a chair. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us that we’re very excited about.”
“You’re sure you’ve got the right person?” nonplussed Maude.
“Absolutely Ms Mackinaw, your work is of acute interest to us. You see, our business depends on two main strands of activity: we gather market intelligence and detailed qualitative research that enables us to make forecasts within the film industry but we are also developing a network of spectators, creators and opinion formers who can help us to refine its product designs.”
“OK, still not with you but I’m flattered to be here,” said Maude.
Carpel smiled. “My colleague Stamen will join us in a moment and together I hope we can clarify our intentions a little further for you.”
The Filipino servant reappeared with green tea and tiny pink gluten free wafers. Five minutes later Stamen walked into the room, a slender technocrat in a monochromatic Ann Demeulemeester suit with a geometric crimson haircut and possibly one leg longer than the other. Maude noticed with unease that she and Carpel shared the same exophthalmic eye condition, which gave them the slightest resemblance to the actor Steve Buscemi.
More confusing for Maude was the fact that her hosts spoke in the same contralto pitch and their sentences overlapped and intersected, so that after about five minutes she was no longer sure which of them was speaking to her. The mathematical formulae and sampling theory were starting to go over her head when Carpel said: “We’d like to show you how our ideas work in the real world, if you have the time today?” Maude phoned her office and rescheduled the rest of the day’s meetings.
Stamen took the steering wheel of a silver electric BMW and smiled at Maude in her rear view mirror. “Ms Mackinaw, Maude, we’re going to drive across town to show you how our initial fieldwork is conducted.”
Twenty minutes later they parked on a side street in Westlake and walked over to the kind of large anonymous vehicle you see in the movies on a police stakeout. A small group of locals of different ages were queuing behind it.
Stamen opened the sliding side-doors and Maude peered inside. Three local youths were staring at a series of large screens and simultaneously talking to middle aged women touch-typing on iPads about the films they were watching. Maude laughed. “You’re seriously getting the word on the street.”
“That’s but the half of it, Maude,” replied Carpel. “We can deploy up to twenty of these units and they enable us to bring in whole sections of the marketplace that are usually overlooked by more cost averse researchers, the kind you can’t reach on Twitter and Instagram. The thumbs up thumbs down information we get here is very useful but far more importantly, this is where we find the kind of respondents we are looking for the long-term panels we use to model more sophisticated research projects.”
There was something charming in the way the tough-looking, hard-up local folk chatted with the ultra-conventional middle-aged women researchers and the uniformed driver like old friends over coffee, thought Maude. And in the pleasure and pride on the faces of the interviewees as they emerged back on the street clutching white envelopes which proved someone would pay good money for their thoughts. For that moment at least their opinions counted.
“OK, so after the commissioning meetings with our clients this is where the real work begins,” said Carpel as they sped away downtown. “Now we’ll show you the next research stage.”
The car stopped on Spring Street in a rejuvenated area of downtown LA and the three of them entered what looked like a former clothes factory. Inside was a central atrium full of light and air. People milled about between large seating areas or walked up and down a central glass and steel staircase that led to a mezzanine area that seemed to contain most of the desk space. Further rooms surrounded the central open space but it was hard to determine their size.
Stamen opened the door to one of these rooms. It was much larger than Maude expected, more like a lecture hall. A group of people sat informally in a circle on ergonomically designed chairs. Discussion seemed to be led in a relaxed manner by three of the people in the circle. They looked like bright postgraduate students and were wearing lightweight GoPro cameras and headphones. Maude noticed how delicate their responses to the conversation were and how they deftly manoeuvred the lines of argument that developed. It was all incredibly detailed and precise. People were talking about how their clothes felt on their bodies in a certain scene and what they could smell when the lights came up at the end of the film. One particular response generated a lot of excitement and the circle swung their chairs into two rows, the lights dimmed and the relevant film sequence was projected onto the wall in front of them. Everyone was intent and focused, they were hugely engaged in their endeavour. When the lights came up the conversation continued and opinions were refined further.
Maude was fascinated. “This is like the best film class ever, a mise-en-scene theorist’s dream,” she said.
“Yes a few of our clients have made that remark,” said Carpel. “And we have made some quite important discoveries here that have paid dividends at the box office and, without blowing our own trumpets too much, brought a handful of Oscars.”
“I knew I was out of the loop but really this is too much,” said Maude.
“Well, we’d really like you to be part of it. You know we’ve examined your films in this arena and the responses were extremely positive. Do you realise that no other company comes close to producing the kind of profile we’re trying to develop here?”
“So where are my academy awards?” said Maude.
“Oh, your films are capable of far more than that, Maude,” said Stamen. “It’s as if you’ve anticipated some of the values and desires that have been coming up over and over in our research findings. You’ll find out more about that in our close reading sessions, which we conduct nearby.”
“These are one-to-one sessions that really get into the finest grain of the films,” said Carpel, “and we’d be honoured if you would participate. There’s no better way to appreciate what we’re really about.”
Maude was given something to eat in a quiet lounge area while Carpel and Stamen excused themselves to prepare the next stage of the tour. By the time she’d eaten and checked her social network updates they returned and took her round the corner to a smaller unmarked building, a former hotel with large translucent windows and grey painted walls. Inside she saw a small reception and a two pairs of black wrought iron art-nouveau elevators. There was a large open space on the third floor and small huddled groups of people talking quietly. ‘They are preparing to break into close reading pairs,’ said Stamen, as small silver boxes were distributed and people filed off upstairs.
Two floors above, they walked along a conventional hotel corridor and entered an unexceptional room. It hadn’t been much altered from its original purpose. There was a day bed along one wall and a small table with two chairs.
“Stamen will show you exactly how we conduct this stage of investigation,” said Carpel, and placed one of the silver boxes on the table. “It’s a simple recording device,” he said, and left.
Stamen picked up a remote control and a screen dropped down on the far wall as the curtains closed. She and Maude swivelled in their chairs to watch one of Maude’s recent films.
“You know, I don’t have that much influence on what you see,” Maude said.
“Oh but you do,” said Stamen. “We’ve found consistent tropes in the films of all your directors. But perhaps we should look at something you’ve not been involved in to show you the process a little more clearly.”
A second later a recent film produced by one of her rivals started screening. As Maude watched a fairly conventional low-budget indie drama, Stamen opened the silver box and took out a small desktop microphone and a metallic sensor that she placed on Maude’s left wrist.
“Have you seen this, Maude?” asked Stamen.
“No, only the trailer and poster, I try not to look at the competition too much otherwise we all end up making the same film.”
Stamen jumped to a scene in the third act. It was dark, lights twinkled on a porch on Long Island. It looked like the cover of a Yo Le Tengo album. A couple in their thirties were having an intense soul-searching discussion about their relationship. The woman was telling the man she was leaving him since he wouldn’t get a real job when a beat-up SUV pulled-up hard by them on the lawn. A man jumped out of the vehicle, ran up to the couple and pulled a gun on them.
You fuckin’ promised me, man, you promised me everything was going to be all right… and it fucking ain’t.
Cut all this bullshit, said the man on the porch, you’re a carpenter, not a fucking bank robber, Dwight.
But I stole, man, I stole.
You stole a stack of Norwegian pine from your ex-boss’s yard that was surplus from a job he was already paid for and doesn’t even know is there.
Yeah, but it was to help pay for Sally’s nose job and now I can’t even look at her. Dwight turned the gun on his SUV and shot out two of the tyres. I’m not leaving, I’m gonna live here on your front lawn until you make everything OK.
Porch Guy offered Dwight a can of beer. Dwight dropped the gun, reached out for the beer then Porch Guy hit him on the side of the head with the can.
What the fuck?
“Yep, your standard offbeat indie fucked-up slacker comedy drama,” said Maude.
“No, it’s not an exceptional piece of work, but it suits our purpose very well,” replied Stamen. She asked Maude about every object and piece of clothing she could remember from the sequence. She probed every aspect of sense memory it conjured up: colours, flavours, smells, temperature, breathing rate, heartbeat. She asked Maude to recall her emotions and examine where the film led her in her own personal experiences, her phantoms, fears and fervent hopes. Her parents’ deaths, a string of failed relationships and the emotional vortex that was her older sister, and a raft of other life issues all floated before her and then receded.
“Ok, so far so Freudian, or do I mean Jungian?” said Maude. She glanced at her watch and saw with some surprise they’d been talking only fifteen minutes and yet she felt like she’d opened up every moment of her life and pore of her skin to Stamen. It was a disturbing sensation yet she felt slightly euphoric, warm, aroused even, but most of all optimistic, like she was setting aside the nagging tiny doubts that interrupted her efforts and held her back.
“One of your directors would have had Dwight shoot two tyres, pause, step around the vehicle, then shoot a third,” said Stamen. “Then the woman would have hit the guy with the gun while he offered Dwight a beer.”
“Not that I have a much of a say at that level of the script but, actually, yes.”
“Part of the resonance,” said Stamen. “We’ve been picking it up in all your product.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that that slightly fuzzy positive vibe you’re experiencing now, thanks to the extraction process we just completed, is there in all your work, not intrusively, not calculatedly or embarrassingly, but it’s communicated as background noise to your audience and helps them digest their experience, and it brings them back to the next movie. And it so happens that you’re on the same wavelength as us. At Carpel and Stamen we want to enhance our audience’s film experiences in a number of ways, but we also hope to influence their post-screening behaviour. In an entirely beneficial and ethical manner, let me say. And for those enlightened film companies who can see our bigger picture, this approach has led to higher grosses and critically appreciated work.”
“Despite my professional scepticism, I find I’m quite attracted to your methods,” said Maude.
Stamen smiled as she removed the metallic sensor from Maude’s wrist and returned her recording apparatus to the silver box. “Now we’re ready to bring Carpel back and talk over the fine print, metaphorically speaking,” she said. A low-slung sleek grey cat brushed past Stamen as she opened the door.
“Where the fuck was that?” said Maude to herself as she moved chairs and tried to get a signal for her cellphone.
Stamen brought back Carpel and laid out an offer for their services. They would take only a nominal fee for their tracking services on Maude’s next two films, with an option to do more, and in return Maude and other selected members of her creative team would engage in Stamen and Carpel’s close reading groups, one-to-ones and beta research efforts. Maude was anxious to snap up their offer but she still wanted some clarification on what the company’s greater purpose might be.
“How familiar with the history of market research terminology are you, Maude?” asked Carpel.
“Not very,” she replied.
“Well, anyway, we like to think we’re breathing fresh life into some of the oldest concepts,” Carpel said. The grey cat sat on the table between them as he continued his explanation to Maude, who was now sitting upright on the day bed. “As you’ve seen, we’re not part of the market research establishment, the one that serves rather than enlightens the film industry.”
“Our ideas and methods are alien to them, what little they care to acquaint themselves with, that is. We’re trying to take cinema to another level,” said Stamen.
“To make it a truly transformative experience,” said Carpel, “in which audiences transcend their existence and unite on a higher plane of understanding.”
“We want to take them to another place.”
“A place that’s already home to us.”
“This is where the future lies.”
“That’s why we’re always searching for individuals who already possess or are receptive to those ideas.”
“Our selection processes enable us to understand how audiences are responding–”
“–and to elicit and reinforce those positive traits–”
“–that will allow Hollywood to flourish and achieve its true potential.”
“You see, in statistical terms we are trying to populate a new universe–”
“–one far beyond Hollywood’s current horizons–”
“–one beyond the familiar spinning globe we see at the start of every Universal film–”
“–and without even knowing it you and your films were already assisting us in that goal.”
“From our perspective the sky isn’t the limit, it’s merely a point of departure,” said… said who?
Carpel and Stamen’s dulcet contralto tones were so closely dovetailed Maude couldn’t tell them apart but she was pretty sure that, actually, it was the grey cat that was now talking to her. She stared at its unwavering blue eyes, and the glimmer of a thin woven mesh collar that seemed to be made out of the same material as its optic fibre-like whiskers. How could she have not noticed such peculiarity before? Maude gripped the edge of the day bed but the fast approaching panic she felt as it dawned on her that she was probably having an extra-terrestrial encounter stopped when a pulsing, twisting column of densely interwoven lights descended from the ceiling.
“This is what you’ll be helping us to develop and take to new dimensions,” the cat continued.
“What is it?” Maude asked. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s an accurate map of The Culture, the big artistic picture if you will. Every bending iridescence represents a fresh inflection of social expression, every blink or flash a new contour in the contemporary artistic landscape or the coalescence of an emerging social or political cluster.”
Maude drew in a deep breath and tried to compose herself. “This has been a truly extraordinary meeting,” she said, “and I know that with your guidance my company is going to attain great creative achievements.”
“We’ll make films that are beyond beyond.”
“I don’t know what else to say, I’m just totally overwhelmed, the scope of your ambition is so extraordinary.” She swivelled her legs round, onto the day bed, and rested her head on a cushion. “If it’s OK with you, I just need a few seconds here to come back down to earth.”
The cat turned its head slightly and stroked its whiskers, then moving with languid grace slid out the door with Carpel and Stamen following.
© 2017 John Mount
John has worked in cinema, journalism and advertising and writes fiction when he can.