BB Danser, the patriarch of the eccentric and zealous Danser family, narrates his life story in View Finder. Set during Hollywood’s Golden Age of greed, corruption, and scandal, his memoir is one of madness, passion, murder, and his desperate, lifelong effort to escape the confines of real and modern life.
The son of the famous actress Elizabeth Stark, BB is caught in the middle of his parent’s tumultuous relationship and his father’s crushing megalomania and jealousies. Desperate to escape, he becomes obsessed with movie cameras and cinematic storytelling, becoming transfixed with the metaphorical question: Is it better to view or be viewed?
A roller coaster story of hope and vision, BB searches for the truth about himself and his family in a world of industrialized fantasy making.
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ACT ONE REDWOOD
One who saves, preserves, or delivers from destruction or danger
Mumm and I and her film crew were in a caravan of cars driving north out of Hollywood. The two-lane road weaved along the coastline while she and I used sunlight to illuminate the interior view of our raised View-Masters. This was 1951 when automobiles were shaped like turtles with an additional hump.
Mumm's driver, Mr. Brenton, "Call me Brent," asked, "Enjoying the view?"
Neither of us replied. Mumm tapped my hand and I accepted the offered reel, Grand Canyon. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw Mr. Brenton was looking at Mumm the way most men did when they were so close to a breathing movie star. His eyes were furtive like a squinting woodchuck, and he had a greasy smile. If a gaze could breathe, his was sucking in Mumm. He tapped the ash tip off his cigarette out his vent window. I removed Wild Animals of Africa, inserted Grand Canyon, and aimed my View-Master to the sun and ocean to take in the view.
I laid Africa on the top of our lunch basket on the seat between us. The warm air entering the car smelled like sea salt. The scent was safe. Mr. Brenton spoke a few more times, I think, but whatever he said was like the noise of a ball game on the radio. Mumm and I viewed and shared slides in silence, and our caravan traveled further up into the California summer day.
Two hours later, our row of automobiles stopped for fuel at a service station. Mumm opened the basket while our driver and the film crew went inside to eat. She handed me a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a bottle of cola, and we ate quietly with our View-Masters in our laps. For dessert, she unwrapped cellophane and offered me a blossom of orange wedges. I chose one, knowing better. I took a single breath from it and lost the next few minutes to spiraling confusion.
Since I was a boy, certain smells could send me off. I had taken the "nasty fall on my noggin," as Father explained it, when I was four. I had been to Mumm's doctor and specialists over the years, who I overheard talking to her about my "faulty synapses."
Mumm liked the studio team but wouldn't dine with them. She didn't want to be recognized in public. We were on what she called an idyllic — a rare adventure together.
After lunch, we placed the papers and bottles inside the basket, and Mumm asked to see the storyboards. I pulled my satchel up onto the seat and eased the white cardboard panels out. The story that we were traveling to film was told in my brief notes, sketched camera angles, and character silhouettes. Mumm asked for the first two panels and rested them in order from top to bottom on her lap. She traced her small finger from shot to shot of my latest rescue story, tracing the inked dialogue in my drawings and reading them aloud in her soft British accent.
"Your story defines a new twist on saving." She smiled.
I was pleased. She asked for the next two panels and read them silently with her fingertip save for one question about transition. She asked her questions softly, and her thoughts were focused and concerned. And kind. She and I went through all the storyboards to the last, which she knew I wouldn't share. She handed me the panels, and I slid them back inside the satchel. Mumm pointed to the open carryall, to the letters bound with a green ribbon.
"How is that mystery going, darling?" she asked.
"I received a new letter last Wednesday."
There were bothersome dust motes in the warm air of the rear seat. I looked away from Mumm to the tan fabric of the car door beside me.
"Do you know where she is yet?" she asked gently.
I rolled my window down and breathed in the fresh air.
"I think so, yes. She's near a town called Greenland. I found the town on my map, but I don't know where the house is."
"Is she still in danger? Are you planning to go to her? To save her?"
I frowned at the door fabric.
"I want to, yes. But I think I'm too young."
I turned to Mumm and watched her consider. She and I had talked of the letters before, about the mystery and concerns for the girl, but this was the first time we had spoken of a possible next step, an actual rescue attempt. I looked at Mumm's beautiful gray-blue eyes and watched how her pensive expression tilted the right side of her lips into a rare smile that, when shared, had stolen millions of hearts.
She was poised to speak, and I was eager to hear her hopefully encourage me on, but the film crew was spilling out of the diner, animated and laughing, making their way to their cars and ours. Mumm raised a finger to her lips and breathed over it. "Darling BB, later."
I nodded, feeling sad, but I understood. Our car jostled, and Mr. Brenton climbed in behind the wheel. Mumm leaned forward and spoke to him while I closed my satchel. When I looked up, Mr. Brenton was handing Mumm a scarf, sunglasses, and a wide-brow fedora. I watched her put them on while Mr. Brenton climbed back out and circled to Mumm's door to open it. He followed Mumm to the diner and then to the side yard to the restroom door, which he opened. After inspecting the interior, he stepped back for her to enter.
He took up a position in front of the door, scanning the side yard and road. I heard our other automobiles starting up and took my View-Master from the seat and began to sort through the slides. Inside the next three-dimensional reel, a lion was bounding through tall grass toward a deer that was peacefully unaware.
* * *
OUR SUNLIGHT melted into the sea. A while later, the road climbed into the foothills, and I turned on the dome light. Mumm and I View-Mastered using that light as our train of cars rose higher and higher. When I looked out my window between reel changes, the evening was a medium blue, and tall oaks and pines had replaced the foothill grasses. The safe scent of pine trees colored the cool air coming in through my window in good contrast to the heat from earlier.
Before I raised my View-Master, I turned to Mumm, who was relaxing sideways against her door with her beautiful face raised, her slight pale hands elevated, holding her viewer toward the amber dome light. She was viewing Scenic Mexico.
"BB, tell me about the new letter?" she asked, not lowering her viewer.
I set my viewer down and took up my satchel. Mumm knew the backstory, how I had seen her first post in the letters column in the third issue of the comic Black Kisses.
Right off, I was enticed by seeing a letter from a girl in a comic — most of the letters I read, and I read all that I could, were from guys.
"She is beautiful and ripe with lust. So am I," was how the girl described the femme fatale.
Lust really caught my eye. Ripe made my emotions swirl. After her first paragraph, she went off the tracks.
"Foggy from medications, frightening dreams, the ropes have burned my skin."
She closed with a plea for help and signed, "Luscious."
In response, the Black Kisses' editor wrote, "Looks like we have one reader who needs help getting untangled and plucked from danger." Plucked. I recall spending hours refining my ideas about that verb.
I wrote to Black Kisses, and they actually published my letter citing it as one of a million other offers to rescue the damsel. It is clear to me now that the magazine was treating her plight tongue-in-cheek, pleased by the attention and increased sales.
When her second letter was posted, it made no pretense to address the story or the art of the new issue of Black Kiss. She repeated her plea for help in fearful and seductive language promising a "sensual and warm reward."
I was hooked. So were many others. The letters column normally carried four topics to spark readers' interest, but this issue only read, "Will You Help Our Seductive Damsel?"
I penned a second letter, this one to the editor asking that it not be published. Instead, I asked for the girl's address. I wrote out my worries for her safety and included my willingness to save her. I didn't mention the reward she offered, but it was close to my heart. They published my letter anyway along with five others from guys who had similar hopes and designs.
The editor had the last word. When the next issue came out, he explained to the readers that the girl had, in fact, been rescued and went on to suggest five new topics of discussion.
I knew better by then. I had received a letter from her. It included her address.
I wrote to her in a passion. I offered to save her or die trying. I didn't mention the reward, but she brought it up when she penned her reply.
"I'm losing sleep and days because of the medications. I'm so frightened. Almost all my clothing is missing. Please hurry. Untie me, save me. My swelling breasts and luscious lips await you."
The correspondence continued. I had shared this with Mumm. Well, most of it.
Now in the car on the winding road with Mumm beside me, I removed the most recent envelope and opened the letter, which was lavender perfumed like the others. The pale purple scent was troublesome, causing me to spiral when breathed from too deeply.
"She wrote out directions," I said. "And drew a map."
Mumm asked for the letter, and I handed it to her knowing that, like with the others, she wouldn't read it. Mumm breathed from the paper and responded with a secretive smile. "You're not too young, my love. You're fourteen. And a rescue would be admirable."
I felt relief. No, I felt lifted. My half-planned thoughts about how to get to Greenland, California, began to swim and consolidate.
"I will have to smooth this for your father."
I deflated downward, down into the reality of being fourteen and having a father with a quick temper and quicker fists.
Father had what would later be described as an anger issue. IM, as he insisted everyone call him, didn't approve of Mumm's or my absence from what he referred to as "our cocoon." I traveled directly between school and home, and Mumm was escorted at a quick drive between the studio and the mansion and the evening dinners and events.
The current idyllic Mumm and I were on was a rare break from the cocoon and made possible by IM being away for four days — he had accepted an emergency lighting job on a shoot in Yelapa, Mexico. It seems that the lighting of a few key exterior shots required his expertise. A half-hour after he left for the airport, Mumm had green flagged, as they say during movie preproduction, our trip. She and Mr. Nash had chosen the crew and off we went.
We rode in silence for a few miles. I looked out my window into the real world. I saw a road sign that read "Santa Cruz — 9 Miles."
Mumm held her viewer in one hand and rested her other on my knee. I breathed from the letter one last time, slid it within the green ribbon holding the others, and stowed them in my satchel.
The road grew steeper and the turns tighter. When our car stopped, Mr. Brenton said, "I'll go check," and I listened to him open and close his door. I looked up and watched him appear in our headlights, walking to the lead car, where he spoke to the driver.
The front car was turned off the road and into the entrance of a driveway that rose steeply into the trees. Flickering lanterns defined the driveway's edges as it rose to a hilltop residence. A man dressed in white appeared behind the gate, unlocked it, and walked it open. Mr. Brenton climbed back in behind the wheel, and our train of four cars rolled up to the house.
We came to a stop in the center of a curve under a trellised awning of redwood beams. On Mumm's side of the car, wide steps rose to an expansive landing and open double doors that offered a warm, welcoming light. Another man in white stood up there and waved as Mr. Brenton circled and opened Mumm's door. She handed me her viewer and eased off her seat. Mr. Brenton followed her up the stairs, three steps back as usual, and they went inside.
I collected all our slides and our viewers and stowed them in my satchel. The film crew was climbing out and mixing at the base of the stairs with their suitcases. The other three automobiles were moved to the parking area a short way past the house. Mumm's automobile remained at the base of the stairs for her use, if necessary.
After Mumm had been escorted inside, the film crew and I reverted to a first-name basis. For them, Mr. Mayer became Ezra, and I was no longer addressed as Mr. Danser but instead as my first name, BB. There were seven of us, and the mood was light and fun as we climbed the wide stairs as a group and entered the massive foyer.
A different man dressed in white welcomed us and asked that we leave our suitcases there in the entrance. He then asked if we were prepared to dine or preferred to freshen up first. The consensus was, "Let's eat."
Mumm was nowhere to be seen, but I was used to this happening — certain that our hosts had whisked her away for their exclusive enjoyment.
I went out to Mumm's car and retrieved my wicker Samsonite from the truck. When I was back inside, I saw the tail end of the crew entering tall glass doors that I assumed, correctly, was a dining room.
The dinner table was long enough for twenty, and the crew had taken to the far end, where most sat with their backs to the wall of full bookcases. The room was elegant — the table was lit by candles under glass, the dinnerware was a simple gold China, and a light piano sonata fell from speakers set in the ceiling.
I took the chair at the edge of the crew. Ezra said grace, and dinner was served by four young waiters in white. The meal was excellent, and the conversation was quick and random, weaving through many topics at once. There was a lot of joking and warmth. Only Ezra was focused, asking the others technical questions about the next day's shoot. I took the storyboards from my satchel, and they circled among the crew in sequential order as we ate.
I knew I was being treated with kid gloves and indulged as the son of the famous actress, Elizabeth Stark — only I called her Mumm, at her insistence. At the production meeting and meal before we left Hollywood, the crew's questions went to her until she asked, one time only, that they be addressed to me. The film crew was treating this one-day shoot seriously, and each of them applied their expertise to the discussion.
After dessert and coffee, our lead technician excused himself. He would be working most of the night running power and water to the set as well as unloading our equipment trailer.
A waiter came in with a plate of room keys and handed them out. He apologized for the residence, which was one room short of accommodating all of us separately. Ezra offered to share his, and I raised my hand. We all headed upstairs. I paused halfway up, looking deeper into the house, wondering where Mumm and our hosts were. I knew, having watched the canisters carefully loaded, that a current Elizabeth Stark film had been packed to be shown. The house was quiet, and I saw a waiter seated beside a tall fern and double doors and decided he was at the ready if our hosts or Mumm needed anything.
There was a fireplace in our room, and I liked that and insisted, as best a teenager could, that Ezra take the bed and allow me to have the couch before the fire.
* * *
LATE IN the night, I was woken by the sound of distant laughter and confusion and perhaps dinnerware and furniture being moved about. I didn't hear Mumm's voice, which would have contrasted with the Americanized English.
When I woke again at dawn, Ezra was already gone. I dressed to the sounds of the crew's conversations out in the hall. I headed downstairs with the others but turned away from them as they made their way to the dining room.
I opened the double doors to what I believed was the screening room and confirmed my assumption. It was an ascending room with couches aligned downward, enough seating to accommodate sixteen. The room was lit by dim lights that glowed downward on the golden walls.
At the base of the room, three men were clearing the dining table centered on the stage before the movie screen. As if on cue, the projector came on and cast a rectangle of white light on the men and the clutter of toppled chairs and the table littered with the previous night's serving trays, dinners, glassware, and bottles, some tipped over and a few on the ground. The once-white tablecloth was stained and madly uneven, pulled hard to one end as though someone had attempted that old magic trick. And failed.
The men in the light from the projector looked ghostly. I opened my satchel and found my hand-me-down Tewe director's lens. Raising it to my eye, I composed the image of their efforts framing the stage.
A silver cart appeared in the composition from the right side of the stage pushed by a waiter. It was a vignette of white and silver and conflicting shadows on the big screen. The men worked slowly as though familiar with cleaning up after a prior night's chaos.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "View Finder"
Copyright © 2019 Greg Jolley.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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