The First Screening
The city of Costa Vista sprawled for miles, from the hardscrabble mountains in the east to the ocean’s foamy, green waves in the west. The entertainment district in the city’s north end, called Silver City, was spotted with giant, tin-roofed warehouses and open backlots that spread out for miles into the scrubby mountains and forests. As the plains gave way to hills and mountains, the warehouses and backlots yielded to the posh houses and celebrity-owned estates that studded the upper reaches of Silver City.
In an expansive Craftsman mansion high up in the hills, Hanz von Stroheim strode across the open veranda of his mansion toward his private movie theater. A large man in a pinstriped suit, he lumbered past the posters lining the theater’s outer wall, passing an advertisement for Olaf Arkadin’s Mind Strengthening Techniques before he came to a stop in front of the main poster box. Blinking light bulbs danced around a poster proclaiming the movie Stars Never Die.
Hanz wore a smug smile as he admired the image on the poster: a tombstone set in a black field, a star engraved in its pale gray face. After a moment of silent reflection, he crossed under the marquee and into the theater.
Inside the auditorium, royal burgundy reigned: the carpets running down the aisle, the seat upholstery, the curtains hanging over the walls and framing the projector screen. Film canisters littered the theater’s interior, haphazard stacks heaped in the rows of seats and loose spools sitting in piles on the steps up to the balcony.
Near the theater’s entrance, Janet Kelly and Rex DuPont loitered, waiting for Hanz. Janet wore a stylish blazer paired with a designer skirt and heels, and Rex wore a custom-tailored suit with a few too many wrinkles and a skinny tie.
“Hanz!” Janet greeted him. “So lovely of you to invite us, dear! I can’t wait to see what you’ve come up with for us.”
Rex smoked a cigarette in silence and didn’t smile.
“My leading stars! I’m just glad you’re here. Not all my friends are so excited for me,” Hanz sulked.
“So sorry to hear that, honey,” Janet said, patting the director’s arm. “We’re here for you.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m just here to see what Hanz has done for my career,” Rex said through his perfect white teeth, his lips moving very little as he spoke.
“Not just yours, Rex. This film is going to be my great comeback.” Hanz wheezed as he chuckled. “Come. Let’s view it from the balcony.”
He led them up the balcony steps, dodging loose film canisters, and maneuvered them to the only three seats in the front row not occupied by film clutter. Once they were seated, Hanz waved at the projection room.
A plain-looking, brown-haired man peeked from the booth and down at Hanz.
“Cue the movie, George,” Hanz called to the man.
“Very good, sir,” plain-faced George called back in an officious tone and disappeared into the projection booth.
“Who’s the dweeb?” Rex asked.
“George is the projectionist sent over from the main backer,” Hanz replied.
“Arkadin Entertainment?” Rex asked. “Did they ever find the CEO?”
“Yeah! Didn’t he disappear?” Janet asked.
“Yes, yes,” Hanz said. “But the money didn’t, though they insisted we use their projectionist.”
Hanz sat in the middle of the balcony’s front row, and Janet and Rex sat on either side of him. He produced a silver flask from inside his suit coat and unscrewed the cap.
“A toast.” He lifted the open flask. “To my masterpiece and my two beautiful stars.”
Janet and Rex laughed as Hanz downed a gulp of liquor.
A huge synthesizer swell exploded from the theater’s sound system, bass pushing into them like a wave. The screen lit up with the Magnate Movies logo, the image of a winged Liberty, one hand raised, the planet Earth cradled in her fingers.
Hanz smiled and passed the flask to Janet. She giggled and, as she reached to take it from him, glanced up at the light of the projector flickering from the booth. As a second note of synthesizer bass hammered them, she witnessed a disturbance, like a pulse of television static, emanate outward from the booth in a slender ripple.
“What’s tha—” She fell silent as the wave passed over her. Her face went slack.
The ripple of static continued outward. As it passed over Hanz and Rex, their facial expressions went blank, too. The image on the movie screen cut to the Arkadin Entertainment logo, a mountain, red at the base, rising in a lined gradient to a white peak. The static wave dissipated as it reached the curtained theater walls.
As the soundtrack swelled again with staccato bass notes, the movie cut to the opening credits. Hanz pushed his old bulk from the chair, turning to face his two lead stars. He stared at them, blank-faced, and they stared back at him with identically dead gazes as they, too, started to rise from their seats.
Before they could fully stand, Hanz grabbed both by the hair with large, meaty hands. He lifted them and slammed their heads together, his face lit up by the projector.
Janet and Rex stood up within the projector’s beam of light as if nothing happened, their expressions blank.
Hanz took a big, slow swing at Rex, who dodged it and punched the larger, older man in the throat. Hanz went down to one knee, sucking for air. Rex pulled Hanz to the edge of the balcony as Janet grabbed a film reel from a nearby pile of canisters and unwound it.
Stars Never Die played, Janet’s face spread large across the screen as she looped film around Hanz’s neck multiple times. Rex took the other end of the film and tied it around one of the seats bolted to the balcony floor.
Rex looked at the celluloid loops around Hanz’s neck, then at Janet. Their blank stares matched.
Without a word between them, Janet and Rex pushed wheezing Hanz over the balcony’s railing. The large man went over the side like a ship’s anchor, the strips of film thrumming like a bass string as they tightened under his weight.
Rex and Janet looked at each other over the taut lines of film from which Hanz dangled. Janet grasped Rex’s lapels and toppled backward over the railing, her dead weight dragging them both to their shared demise.
Outside in front of Hanz von Stroheim’s mansion, a sleek, black limousine crept by, its electric motors whirring quietly, its darkly tinted windows impenetrable.