Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dreaming of a Plan to Feed Myself on Batter, Possibly Plan 9

Hiding out from a crew of Mexican roofers, I spent the morning at the Bazaar Café working out the script for a burlesque review based on William Empson’s famous book. Tentative title: 7 Types of Ambiguity, Count ‘em 7. The idea is that the audience can never quite decide whether they can see anything or not. After that, inspired or perhaps maddened by the Mariachi music still reverberating in my ears, I came up with a project with even fewer commercial possibilities, a script idea for a SciFi channel Saturday night movie. Here’s the pitch:

A literal-minded but brilliant physicist decides to settle an old theoretical question by actually performing the Schrodinger’s cat experiment. In the set up, the inevitable other scientist, older and wiser, tries to explain that the experiment won’t settle anything whatever happens. You’ll just have a dead cat or a live cat on your hands. The younger man is contemptuous, implying that you can’t make omelets without breaking paradigms. Unfortunately a PETA activist catches wind of the project and attempts to forestall it by breaking into the lab. He gets past the security system successfully but drops the vial with the cat poison as he attempts to destroy the experimental set up. Dying in anguish in the arms of the scientist, who has rushed in a desperate attempt to save him, the zealot curses the experimenter and seals his doom by giving him the evil eye with an extremely evil looking eye, at once frosted over and bloodshot, presumably from the effects of the poison.

Of course the incident sets off a huge public debate about the ethics of the experiment, and the university where the scientist works forbids him to continue. The scandal only makes him more determined to proceed, though it eventually costs him his job. Since he doesn’t happen to own a castle, he rents a room in a seedy motel and enlists the help of an affirmative action student, a white kid from Atlanta named Floyd, who captures a mangy stray cat to serve as the experimental subject. The cat, by the way, is not a black cat but a gray Manx—no clichés here. There follows some business about the scientist’s fiancée, who is a law professor but for some reason always wears fuck-me shoes like every lady lawyer on television, none of whom have any fear of hammertoes.  

After the statutory minimum of heterosexual subplot, the fateful night arrives. In lieu of thunder and lightening, the scene is accompanied by the usual urban noises: police sirens, guys mansplaining something or other to their date or spouse in the adjoining rooms, gunshots that are probably from a TV show, etc. The unfortunate cat is put in the chamber along with a fresh vial (saucer?) of poison and a tiny sample of radioactive material connected to a switch so that there is a 50-50 chance that the cat will be poisoned. At this point, faithful to tradition, the lights dim even though the set up only requires a couple of AA batteries. After the appropriate interval, the doctor opens the apparatus, which the audience has realized by now is an old microwave oven in heavy makeup. You can’t see what the Doc sees, but his unhealthy excitement is obvious as he shrieks, “It’s alive? It’s alive?” while Floyd looks on with an uncomprehending smirk. Alive or not, which of course is the question of the day, the cat is certainly not quiet. It utters an unearthly scream, rather as if it were in heat, and leaps out of the device, badly scratching the scientist’s face as it bounds past him and out the door, but not before bouncing around the makeshift lab and trashing the place like a rock musician. The two rush outside to recapture the cat, but it’s made a clean get away. Good time for a commercial.

The next morning, the doctor wakes in the wrecked motel room like a guy with a hangover. His face is bandaged on one side; and you can see, although maybe he doesn’t realize it himself, that blood or some more dubious fluid has soaked through the dressing. He’s not doing so hot, and it doesn’t help when somebody starts pounding on the door. He’s almost relieved, if only for a moment, that it’s the cops and not the motel owner. It seems that the body of a hooker had been discovered in a nearby alley. The cops don’t think the scientist was involved—they’re just doing a routine canvass of the neighborhood—but looking over his shoulder at the lab equipment, they jump to the conclusion that they’ve stumbled across a meth lab. 

That afternoon, the action resumes at the police station where the fiancée is picking up the scientist after what we can only assume was a day of long and difficult explanations. The explanations aren’t over with, either, since the woman, who, incidentally, is still wearing high heels, is steamed. Her man keeps insisting that he made a great discovery, that the danger and embarrassment was worthwhile because, you see, it turns out that the quantum wave function can actually collapse half way. It isn’t just that the cat is both dead and alive while the experiment is in progress. It’s both dead and alive afterwards. Which, apparently, also accounts for its extremely bad mood. While the guy rambles on about all this, giving us an extended example of cable-channel physics, he’s getting more and more excited and also keeps pawing at his bandaged face. She’s not buying what he’s saying, but her anger is mixed with concern since it’s obvious he just isn’t right. She suggests he needs to forget about the cat and go to the hospital immediately. As she reaches over to touch him and he shrinks back, you realize that he’s pulled off the bandage. She recoils in horror from the ravaged eye which, naturally, is clouded over and bloodshot. The scientist collapses.

At the hospital, the doctors can’t decide what’s the matter with their patient. Some of them think it’s a rare form of cat scratch fever. Some of the assume that it’s the result of exposure to the poison meant for the cat. One older doctor even suspects classic hysteria, but that diagnosis is rejected since time travel is even less likely than quantum indeterminacy. The fiancée tries to explain the experiment, but they surely aren’t going to buy that story. Of course, it doesn’t help when they admit that whatever it is, it’s very serious and that their patient is hovering between life and death. They can’t spend too much time on this one case, though, because the city is in the midst of a sudden crime wave. Bodies are turning up all over the place, each shredded to ribbons; and street people, still alive but badly clawed, are staggering into the emergency room raving about a demon cat. 

The fiancée calls the scientists senior colleague begging for help. He’s the same sober old man who tried to warn him off doing the experiment in the first place. He agrees to look over the lab notes; and, in a brief interval of comic relief, interrogates Floyd, who obviously never understood what was going on, having only been accepted to a PhD program in the first place because there were so few white STEM students. Despite Floyd’s dubious help, he believes he has figured things out and goes to see the physicist in the hospital. The patient is now completely gorked out, or so it appears, so the conversation is actually a soliloquy featuring yet more SciFi explanations. “I was wrong about your theory. Too bad you can’t hear me confess how closed minded I was, etc.” While this is going on, the camera, but not the older man, notices that the patient, though hooked up to various drips and wires, is actually beginning to twitch. In fact, while the distinguished professor faces the other way and continues his lecture, his young colleague sits up in bed, tears off the leads and tubes, and very quietly rises up behind him. We don’t actually see what happens next. The camera pans down the deserted hallway outside while we hear ferocious mewing coming from behind the closed door.

The fiancée has been doing her own investigation and eventually returns to the motel room—apparently it was paid up for the whole week. She realizes somebody is there already and assumes it was the assistant. “Claude! Claude!” she calls out, having somehow gotten confused about Floyd’s name. No one answers; but she hears a scrabbling noise, which sounds like some one were pawing at sand. When she enters the room, she finds what’s left of Floyd lying around the room and turns towards the bathroom. We see by a convenient clock that it’s half past midnight, and then the shadow of an enormous cat looms up. The lady screams. Just then some one else enters the room. It’s the physicist, though in his undead state he’s a little hard to recognize. “Branes! Branes!” he cries, and that gets the attention of the cat, which springs on him from the darkness as the lady falls back in a swoon. Depending on the CGI budget, one is treated to a more or less memorable but definitely desperate battle as the adversaries wallow this way and tumble that employing every tooth and claw in the awfullest way you ever saw.

In the last scene, a dog-faced police lieutenant is trying to debrief the fiancée, but not getting very far with the almost catatonic woman. He tells his partner that the scientist was probably abducted by gang members in revenge for the trouble he had caused what with the cops all over the neighborhood investigating tales of cat attacks. “Either that or the two cats ate each other up, heh, heh.”   

I’m not sure if there’s enough here for a theatrical movie, but it’s not my fault if the cat didn’t have a long tale.

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