Dear Nelson and Gert,
Food, that great leveller of the estates of men, has arranged for me several encounters with fame. Of the more noteworthy: while stopping in Sedona in 1984, I was seated near the table of Orson Welles, who was jovial in an Olympian sort of way. (When he became saturnine, it was only acting.) He made sporadic, flirting conversation with his waitress but dined alone, which for a mortal would have been equivalent to dining with three others. (I speak both gastronomically and intellectually.) Many years later, during a visit with Nelson in Santa Monica, a bearded, bespectacled cherub entered the restaurant where we were dining; the creature brandished a copy of its latest book as if to confirm suspicion of its identity: Leonard Maltin. This last month, I happened to spot the filmmaker Serban Ra at Chez Guevara, an establishment that fuses, or at least conglomerates, two cuisines; I leave it to you to decipher which. Of course, the probability of my running into someone like Ra was higher than normal, as I was attending the annual — Film Festival.
Ra was there to promote his short Exeunt Omnes, about a dying actor portraying a general of the American Civil War. (I shall write about this in a later article.) I noticed Ra several tables over in the generously uncrowded restaurant. He saw the adhesive nametag (HELLO! MY NAME IS… Montag) that I had forgotten to remove. His cheerful, nonchalant salesman act was quite good. It began with an unsolicited handshake and his staking himself at my table. To grease the gears, as it were, I mentioned that I had been impressed by Exeunt Omnes. “Oh, really?” That film never came up again. Instead, Ra pitched his next endeavor to me. It is titled Dandelion and is an extended meditation on the titular form.
The film opens, as seen above in a picture taken from the mock-up press kit that Ra pressed upon me, with an enormous, globular dandelion held against the setting sun. A wind rustles, but does not detach, the parasol seeds. Cut (match cut on form, for the 101 students) to a roiling, orange star in the depths of space. There is no sound. Pull back to reveal that this is a still plate being developed in a darkroom. The astronomer responsible, Louis Miller, scrutinizes his work. An uncaring colleague opens the door, ruining the plate. The colleague is the “new guy” (film pitch shorthand) at the observatory. His name is Barry Center. Miller chastises him, which does not stop Barry from asking a large favor: could Miller take care of his daughter over the weekend? You see, Barry’s wife is flying back on Friday from her “camp” in the Andes (we are meant to assume that she is a fellow scientist), and the kid would cramp his style. More to avoid further conversation with Barry than to do him a good turn, Miller accepts. Before Barry leaves, Miller asks him for the “gravitational microlensing” results.
At this point in our conversation, Ra began a tangential discourse on methods of extrasolar planet detection. My gaze and practiced nods suggested intent listening, but I confess that a glaze set over my mind which reduced me to the level of a canine whose attention flits from master to passing butterfly and back again. I gleaned a few terms from Ra’s lecture, however, such as “wobble” and “binary lens event.”
The pitch continued: Miller is at home, poring over reams of data. It is night and it is raining. Miller comes to the vocal conclusion (a scientific tradition since Archimedes’ Eureka!) that the distant star he is studying both has orbiting planets and is a likely candidate for a supernova. A car pulls up outside. Barry has arrived to drop off his eight-year-old daughter, Sally. She is burdened with a garish backpack and a large stuffed animal, with which she makes Miller exchange one-sided pleasantries. Miller then has a word with her father: Did Barry forget the conference that Miller has to attend? Barry produces a plane ticket. “What are government grants for?”
Sally proves precocious in oddly functional ways. She wakes well before Miller, fixes breakfast for herself and her host, and, when there isn’t anything to do, leafs interestedly through Miller’s library of astronomical texts. Every now and then she will ask a question, an extraordinarily intelligent one, about Miller’s supernova study. He is sure that Barry and Mrs. Barry must have adopted her.
Miller and Sally sit beside each other on an airliner. The inflight movie is Exodus. Miller cycles through the computer slides for his approaching talk. He pauses on the star, the imminent supernova. Sally asks if anyone lives there. “Maybe.” She has several follow-up questions, which are rather profound but are phrased innocently. (“Where will they move to?” &c.) These play in voiceover during a montage of Miller and Sally walking through a bustling New York City to their hotel. The atmosphere is a dusty orange; the sun is setting on Man’s metropolis.
That night, Miller dreams his supernova. A roiling, orange star in the depths of space dominates the screen (will dominate, if Ra gets his budget). Push in slowly to reveal countless gigantic porcelain-white spaceships that hover over this solar tempest. They are patterned on parasols or, more aptly, dandelion seeds. The star’s intensity grows; it expands rapidly. Blinding white light. Miller wakes up.
Cut to the following day, the day of Miller’s talk. He wears a suit and tie and carries a briefcase – unusual accoutrements for him. (And, like me, he probably wears an anonymity-piercing nametag.) He has taken Sally to a park. It is oppressively sunny. (Ra’s description of the park was reminiscent of Portrait of Jennie, though in the wrong season, and I told him as much. He said it is meant as an hommage, with Miller as Eben and Sally as the sprite Jennie, but I digress.) Miller keeps looking at his watch as Sally plays with the other children. They launch toy sailing boats into a gargantuan fountain. A Father approaches Miller and asks if Sally is his daughter. No, he’s just taking care of her. The Father points vaguely at the children and says, “That’s mine right there.” A silent moment passes, a “beat” in dramaturgical parlance. The Father then says that Miller won’t be giving his talk; the conference is cancelled. Miller is confused. He asks the Father how he knows him, and why is the conference cancelled? “Because it’s true. Because you’re right, Mr. Miller.” We learn what Miller is right about: There is life around the star that he’s been studying, and when the star goes supernova, the life will escape by riding the explosion like a wave to “…near luminal velocities.” Will this life ever reach us? The Father gestures to Sally, who plucks a large dandelion. “Her great-grandchildren might meet them.” And how did the Father know all of this? He takes out a small tape-recorder and plays back Miller’s greeting to Sally’s stuffed animal. Then who is Barry? “Sally is adopted.” She comes running, and the Father scoops her up in his arms. She holds the dandelion aloft, against the sun, a near repetition of the opening shot. The Father turns to leave. Sally blows on the dandelion. The globe of seeds explodes outward. Fin.