Fragments from Zeroville

By Chris Darke


the DREAM memo

The bad news was he had to go back to the city.

As the lift sank silently towards sub-level five Danny Lampman considered the news. The lifts in the DREAM building were all mirrored within and rather than observe his own reflection curving off to infinity, Danny carried something with him to read. As he scanned the memorandum, warped shards of himself troubled the periphery of his vision. The content of the day’s internal mail was more interesting than usual. His contract as a Research Operative with Digital Resources Exploitation and Management was up for its six-monthly renewal, a matter that Danny had thought would be a formality and which the first paragraph of the memo confirmed.

The lift doors hissed open at sub-level three. He looked up to see a crowd passing along the vast corridor. At its head, harried clerks clutched sprays of paperwork which they pressed forward for scribbled authorisations. Duly signed, the documents were brandished aloft then snatched back by the clerks who split off from the train. Danny held the doors open, expecting a handful of crumpled administrators to toss themselves in beside him. Struggling to keep pace at the rear of the crowd, a clatter of porters wheeled canisters of film. Had there been dust to be raised in the antiseptic thoroughfare it would have hung in the air for them to inhale. The hubbub swallowed itself and fled from his sight. No-one joined him in the lift. Danny hit the button for -5 and went back to reading the memo.


It was the second paragraph that held a surprise. They were sending him back to London. To Zeroville. He’d taken the job at DREAM to get away and now they wanted to send him back. Why him? It usually required the full two years as a Research Operative before being sent out on ‘research’. As an offer it was non-negotiable. Even if it had been, Danny wouldn’t have bothered. He’d settled in at DREAM and was content with the routine that the job provided. Regular hours, regular pay and an office of his own five stories down beneath the soft suburban topsoil. Perhaps a spell out of his windowless den would do him some good. The doors slid open and the lift exhaled him into the corridor. As the doors contracted, Danny glanced back. He half-hoped he might catch sight of someone else trapped behind its mirrors.

Sub-level five was where the films were turned into data. Countless lengths of celluloid, innumerable frames of faces and bodies were fed into the mouths of sophisticated machines which scanned, processed and stored them. The corridors at this level were wide and the ceilings low, but the space was deceptive. Turn the wrong corner, as Danny had done in his first days wandering the labyrinth, open an unmarked door and you would find yourself in storage rooms the size of aircraft hangars in which elevated chariots glided along racks of film reels, fetching out the raw material. Danny had no say in what got chosen for reprocessing. He wasn’t even sure if choice came into it. DREAM was a voracious institution; it required ‘turnover’. Whatever was out there and on celluloid was what it wanted. In his time, Danny had signed off acquisition forms for all manner of films. For countless cartoons. For documentaries commissioned by local authorities about ambitious road-building schemes. For a feature film shot in Iceland in the 1920s, an adaptation of a local myth about a wood-sprite taking revenge on behalf of villagers against a rapacious landowner, shot in the style of German Expressionism, all glowering forest-blacks and sparkling arctic-whites. He’d had to watch them all and write short descriptive captions for the archivists’ records specifying film gauges, running times and special features. Danny, who had once been sure that he loved cinema, had fallen into the business of measuring it by the foot. In truth, he was indifferent to whether the films were being saved for posterity or not. Others made the decisions about the uses to which they would be put.

There was a long walk from the lift to his office, past the storage depots and processing plants where people worked wearing masks and white cotton gloves. Everyone on sub-level 5 had started out there. Danny had done six months until he was shunted up to a desk-job because one of the Research Operatives had suffered a nervous breakdown. He had been found in a projection booth, which he’d locked from the inside, wrapped in hundreds of feet of film unwinding from the still-spinning spools. He was weeping uncontrollably as he was finally disentangled from the glossy tendrils. Danny’s colleague Alex Burden was there when the door to the booth was forced open. He had told Danny that it was like the scene from the Buster Keaton film in which Buster works as a projectionist. Nodding off during a screening he wakes up swathed in the coils of the main feature. Alex was a grim-faced Geordie with a lacerating sense of humour. “It takes a tough man to work here” he had cautioned when Danny moved to his department. “Keep your head screwed on or you’ll end up doing a Buster.” The episode had passed into DREAM lore. ‘Doing a Buster’ became shorthand for all manner of mishaps. From technical misdemeanours – in one case, the entire collection of 1970s Honduran crime thrillers had been erased, “Bit of a Buster, that one” according to Alex – to other accidents.


The evidence of one such event was still there for Danny to appreciate as he turned into the corridor where he and Alex had their offices. The ceiling rose in this part of the building and the ‘industrial plant’ aesthetic gave way to open-plan, glass-partitioned hutches where the Research Operatives worked. One of the partitions was still taped-up and scarred with cracks. The dark stain on the carpet near the impact zone was Alex’s blood. The local pubs and restaurants did a roaring lunch-time trade; no-one in their right mind stayed this far down when they could grab an hour above ground, and Alex was one of their most loyal customers. One pint too many at lunch last week and, not noticing a pot-plant, Alex had pirouetted, forehead-first, into the glass. It was only a thoughtfully placed poster for The Wild Bunch that had saved him from serious injury. When he returned to work the next day with a bandaged pate, Danny tried out the ‘Buster’ line on him. “Bugger Buster!” came the rejoinder. “I was bloody Peckinpahed, man!”

Caroline Crystaldene made Danny feel like he’d crawled out of a doorway, been given a wash and brush-up and sent off to work down in the image-mill. There was something proudly anachronistic about Crystaldene’s clipped diffidence. Without an ounce of class shame and patrician to a fault, she was a petty bourgeois’ wet-dream. Danny wondered whether the summons was a ploy to make him feel privileged and that the research trip was not so much a job as a diplomatic mission. He was being turned loose on Crystaldene’s say-so to hustle with charm, to inveigle his way with a chequebook (‘DREAM Consortium Inc.’) into archives and private collections and he was being given a lesson on how to get the goods.


“I don’t need to explain all this to you, Daniel.” Rhetorical lead-in, formal first name, I don’t need to, but I will , all delivered with weary exactitude. He felt himself automatically straightening his socks, his spine, his vocatives and fricatives. By the end of the meeting he’d want this job more than anything else in the world. It should have been Alex’s assignment but his “little mishap” (a pause, a cough, if it didn’t sound so stage-schooled he’d swear it was for real) plus the fact that Alex had been out “in the field” (he loved that) twice already in the past year meant that it was Danny’s turn. But what merited DREAM showing a public face? Acquisition took many forms. Most of it was on an industrial scale, skip-loads of stuff shipped from the four corners of the earth, the strata of all the world’s moving images strip-mined on a ‘you’ll never know when it’ll come in handy’ basis. No, this must have to do with …

“The much-rumoured missing reel of a much-loved cult film. Very valuable and something of a myth.” Danny was about to ask which film when Crystaldene abruptly changed tack, opening a desk drawer and bringing out a portmanteau folder. “DREAM will authorise you to deal in Eurodollars on this, Daniel. There is an upper limit. Which we don’t expect you to reach, of course.” She opened the portmanteau and raised her glasses, half-moons on a green bead necklace. “The majority of this material is simply a matter of mopping-up, bits and pieces of Renoir and Bresson. But it’s the missing reel of Alphaville that we really want to acquire.” She lowered her half-moons, the light from her desk-lamp reflecting in the lenses and obscuring her eyes so that she looked like a watchful cat in the gloom of her office. “I take it you know the film?”

There are times when reality becomes too complex for oral communication. But legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world.

Danny practically knew Alphaville by heart. He’d had to make a physical effort not to recite the film’s opening lines to Crystaldene. In French. He could even have managed a passable impersonation of the voice that said the words, the first in French that Danny had memorised since school. The ugliest, most alienating croak in all cinema: the voice of the computer that presides over the city of Alphaville. The director had used a tracheotomied actor with a voice-box for the part. The sound of his voice was like that of someone who had swallowed a radio broadcasting a bulletin from Armageddon.


“I hear you’re off for a spot of dust wrangling.”

Alex pushed his lunch tray away and leaned back in his chair. Danny stirred his cup of coffee and nodded. A tiny cosmos of bubbles swirled and dissolved on the surface of the grey liquid.

“Anything interesting?”

“Sixties stuff mostly.”

“Such as … ?”

“French auteurs. Bresson, Renoir, Godard …”

Alex nodded appreciatively, letting out a soft, low whistle.

“It’s leftovers, really.” added Danny. “Kind of mopping-up all the extras that get the DVD manufacturers horny.”

Danny still surprised himself at the uninflected ease with which he used the word ‘horny’. It was like a password that they all used, a light gesture of contempt for those who would sell on the treasures the ‘wranglers’ went out to find, and a self-deprecating indication that they all knew what they were doing. Like doctors at their scalpels or morticians at their slabs, the operatives at DREAM shared a private language, at once technical and vernacular. They were all ‘wranglers’. Those who dealt with finance and negotiations were known as the ‘rights wranglers’. Those who transferred film material to digital formats were ‘bytes wranglers’. And those, like Danny and Alex, who trawled the archives and sought out the films were ‘dust wranglers’.

From a novel-in-progress by Chris DarkeChris Darke is a writer, critic and lecturer. His essay collection Light Readings is published by Wallflower Press.

Images By Pinky Ghundale and Thierry Bal