If this were a movie, you’d witness its opening scene from way up here. Think God’s eye view.
It is dawn. Artificial fog. Sort of a fifties noir effect. Far below, through a break in the haze, a knockout blonde wearing a low-cut red and white poka dot swings a ten pound sledge, pummeling the front bumper of a green pickup. Very deliberately. Taking her time.
You’re too far up to hear the wallops. But even from this distance you’re already hoping she’ll appear naked in your movie. Her name is Chloe, and she’s everything you ever dreamed of having or being. And you’re wondering why she’s doing a number on the green truck parked in the middle of an isolated lot in what you’ll soon learn is an old section of Memphis.
You’re hoping now for a close-up. Because when the glamour girl in the polka dots takes that hammer back, the result is poetic harmony in form and movement, something iconic about that snapshot instant, arms extended to the heavens, head tossed back, a kind of vintage pin-up pose. Her perfect figure becomes an indelible freeze-frame locked inside your imagination. But exceeding your visceral, erotic response is curiosity: who is this polka dot avenger and why is she assaulting the green truck’s bumper?
Cut to the eyes of the male lead, Pete Hump, who slowly wakes to a terrifying realization. His head and hands are duct taped to the steering wheel. Waking is a painful thing and Pete, who looks a lot like Nicholas Cage, is still drunk from the night before. His startled eyes search for help, find none. He passes out again, and we enter Pete’s dream, a flashback:
Pete and Chloe in bed inside their sinful love nest in Charleston, South Carolina. In the dream, he wakes at Chloe’s touch. Soon the two are entwined in a kind of horizontal slow dance. She coos in a hot, bourbon scented voice: “Pete Hump’s Heat Pumps,” and they go at it. This in part satisfies our longing to see Chloe’s delicious flesh while giving us a context for the opening scene.
Then we’re back with wide-eyed Pete, who doesn’t so much hearChloe’s heavy hammer probing his bumper as hefeels the hammer’s vibration, like a ball-peen on an anvil. Each stroke lands in perfect time to Lynard Skynard’s Free Bird.
Next, in a flashback we get back story on Pete Hump.
Extreme close-up: Pete’s bloody face looks like somebody dunked his head into a blender. In fact it takes us a second to realize it is Pete Hump. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal:
Night in a wide, empty lot. Pete teeters on his knees, his hands taped behind him. Hanging far away in the black sky is a lighted billboard for his plumbing company. Looming in the darkness, a giant of a man towers over the kneeling Pete Hump. Shot from a low angle, the enormous man appears to have a block head, meant to suggest Frankenstein and thus evoke fear and pity in us. We will learn that he is Chloe’s husband, Russ Watts.
“This is the last time I’m asking, Pete,” Russ says. “Where is she?” Russ has clobbered Pete into a near-death experience. And now we know why.
The hands of Russ, the cuckold, attach one end of heavy copper jumper cables to the battery terminals of Pete Hump’s Truck #2. We wince and want to look away when he slowly clamps the other end of one cable to Pete’s right ear. Pete squenches shut his eyes. When the teeth of the second cable shut down on his other ear, we see the trickle of blood there and wait in perverse and collective wonder for some high-tech special effect and the thrill of the sudden fiery eruption from the top of Pete’s head. His pleading eyes bend up to us.
Wrapped around Russ’ fist is a wire lead that trails to the throttle arm of the truck’s engine. Russ pulls the lead and the motor howls, Wa-WOWWWWWW. The green pickup’s headlights quiver. Pete’s eyes look like a Betty Davis Chihuahua’s eyes. But at that moment of intense macabre anticipation, this flashback abruptly ends.
We return to the knockout in the red and white polka dot dress somewhere in Memphis.
“Chloeee?” Pete shouts in that pleading, whiny Nicholas Cage voice, “What are you doin’, darlin’?”
Chloe pauses from her Barry Bonds number and wipes a blonde ringlet from her damp cheek.
“I’m searching, Pete.”
“What for, darlin’?” Pete calls.
“The connection,” she answers.
“Me, too, Chloe. Me, too, darlin’.”
“No,” she says. “There is a sensor somewhere on this bumper, and when I strike it just right, your brains will go flying against the back glass of Pete Hump’s Truck #1.”
Cult fans of the film Pulp Fiction about wet their pants.
Pete, who looks a lot like Cage in Raising Arizona, pleads, “Chloe!” He draws a deep, hopeful breath. The hammering resumes. We really want another look at Chloe, but we don’t get it. This, we know, is a tease.
Fighting now to free his duct-taped hands, Pete squirms from side to side. He looks like he’s dancing The Charleston. Again the hammering stops. Pete opens his eyes and slowly rolls them way, way up.
Chloe stands at the driver’s side window. She’s worked up a sweat, and her blonde hair falls in thin wiggly crescents over her cheeks. Her face is moist and flush. Male or female, you feel a stirring down there. And so even under dire circumstances, Pete’s whanger does a summersault. She is the most beautiful woman you and Pete and I have ever seen. Her perfect lips move, but he can’t read them. He doesn’t want to read them. He just wants to watch them move. She tilts her head to the side then steps out of the frame.
Pete waits for the pounding to resume, knowing, as we do, that with every blow the law of averages turns a little more against him, that when Chloe finally strikes the hidden sensor he will see the big light that Russ Watts saw when he was struck by lightning, only Pete won’t come back from that eternal tunnel. We wiggle in anticipation of the Quentin Tarantino reverse-angle splatter moment. We can’t wait.
Through the magic of surround-sound and a gazillion speakers, we hear the echo of Pete’s hyperventilating inside his head.
A bright light nearly blinds us.
In that suspended moment, subliminal edits remind us of the jumper cables attached to Pete’s ears, the taut wire tugging the throttle arm, and we again experience the titillating anticipation of Pete’s blown head gasket.
Pete’s eyes fly open.
The dazzling morning sun at her back, Chloe stands before the pickup’s open door in breathtaking, hourglass silhouette—holding a dagger, a six-inch metal fingernail file. Tears puddle her eyes. (The ghastly look of Pete’s reaction in this shot will become the focal point of the poster outside the theater entrance.) Her dagger-loaded fist goes up and up, Hitchcock-like, and every hair at the base of our collective neck stands at attention.
Chloe’s fingers cover his eyes.
“Chloe, please,” he whimpers in that hangdog Nick Cage voice.
What follows is a digitized, slow motion blur: David Lynch-like, the sharp tip of the nail file explodes through the duct tape and enters Pete’s ear canal.
Her fingers ease away from Pete’s wide, wild eyes. No pain there. His hearing returns, as if he has surfaced from deep water. The white noise he’d heard isLynard Skynard singing Free Bird on the two-way radio.
“Last chance, Pete,” Chloe says. “Say you’ll let me go.”
If he could say it, he would. She just looks at him.
“Bye,” she says.
Then she slams the door to Pete Hump’s #1 and walks out of his life.
All of this happens in maybe three minutes. The hope is that you’ll remain completely under the story’s spell for seven more minutes. If you’re not immersed by the ten minute mark, it’s a good bet this movie will lose money.
Chloe walks, and we are with her. In the distance, Pete’s pleading voice echoes from inside the truck cab. The Van Zant boys wail in the background. Chloe doesn’t look back. We track along beside her, the pain on her face telling us that her heart falls a notch each time he calls her name, like it fell when her husband Russ pleaded for her to stay. The way it has when every man who ever called her his watched her walk away. Still, she takes a deep, determined breath and lifts that gorgeous, suffering face to the Memphis morning sun. She’s not turning back. Because now it is her heart she’s trying to save.
Somewhere, somehow, there is something better waiting for her, a stronger, truer voice calling—a voice that has been speaking to her all her life. A voice she has resisted until now.
The voice of Don LaFontaine, the movie trailer guy.
Before the show is over, we’ll learn how that voice summoned her to Dollywood and cried out to her at Graceland. But for now, all we know is that there is no turning back.
Behind her, a brilliant orange sunrise fills the screen, and we oooh and ahhh at the heavy symbolism. Chloe grips her purse and at a snappy Dolly Parton pace puts as much distance as she can between herself and Pete’s sad begging.
There’s more in that walk than any acting school can teach.
“Once you know a thing,” she says to us, “you can’t not know it. It’s better to be a one hit wonder than to spend your whole life wondering.” And we all nod a big uh-huh.
In this movie, as in all movies, when the cab driver’s eyes linger too long in the mirror, we get queasy, especially in Memphis rush hour traffic. Add to our anxiety a maniacal driver in a truck identical to Pete’s who, unbeknownst to the cabbie, swerves across lanes like a meth freak, a predator, and our sphincter contracts. To our relief, the fool doing ninety flies past, Skynyrd blasting from the cab of the green truck. Finally the taxi driver says into his mirror, “Ma’am, if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll forgive me, but are you a movie actress?”
“No, sir, I’m not,” Chloe says in a flat Dolly Parton voice, her eyes never leaving the landscape that once belonged to Elvis.
“Are you in the stories? On TV?”
Chloe gently turns her head from side to side.
After the cab driver drops her off at the car rental place, his mouth opens involuntarily, and he whispers reverently: “Them’s the finest fashion accessories I ever laid eyes on.” The driver is a quiet man and a good Christian by Memphis standards, and he considers himself a professional. He respects people’s privacy as he respects his own. But this woman makes him violate standard taxi driver protocol.
“The very finest,” the driver laments as she walks away. He can’t stop himself from looking into his mirror one last time as she disappears into the rental office.
At this point, about the five-minute mark, we suspect that what we have here is a quest story, that Chloe is in search of something essential to her being, that from now on we’re in for a journey of self-discovery, a chick flick.
Cut to Chloe at the wheel of her rental, something classic like a Mustang. She drives slowly across the lot and in a close-up interior shot inhales deeply the new car smell. When she stops at the street, she doesn’t know which way to turn. Literally. She turns right…gets this look on her face…then jerks the wheel. Horns blow, black smoke everywhere. There must be sixty edits. The spin makes us dizzy.
Chloe completes the U-turn, looks up into our eyes and says, “I’ve spent my whole life going with the flow.” In answer to that realization, we see her foot stomp the gas pedal. A cloud of burning rubber spews from the asphalt. And because that’s exactly what we’ve spent our life doing and because she is everything we ever dreamed of having or being, we do a silent little hell yeah and reach for the popcorn.