If you think 6:00 a.m. is too early to go to a movie, you obviously neither know nor care anything about the Mark Mulberry saga, and you think nothing like the hundred or more young men—and a few women—in their mid-twenties and early thirties who, on a late July morning in the year 2000, the sun less eager to rise than them, are walking down a network of converging streets still dark and wet with overnight rain, strewn with paper coffee cups and discarded flyers for pizza delivery and various live sex shows lying prostrate on the ground. A similar group is converging on cinemas and shopping mall multiplexes not just here in H—town but in every major city in the developed world this morning in the expectation that they are about to participate in a “cultural watershed moment.” After all, that is what three years of carefully orchestrated hype, slowly ratcheted up to an insane pitch, has promised them. In the rush to acquire their tickets, some will absent-mindedly abandon their children in parking lots; others will deplete those same children’s college funds by hundreds of dollars to buy from scalpers. After nearly twenty years of waiting, they will either skip work today, cut out early, or rise long before they are due at their places of employment to catch the earliest possible show, as Natheny Baruwal has done this morning.
Why? To follow the taut narrative lines and thrilling backstory of Mark Mulberry, hero of two of the highest-grossing movies of all time. It will, they hope, deepen their appreciation of the previous two films; revive their flagging, slouching-toward-mid-life spirits; and return them to the innocence and wonder of the earliest years of their childhood, when those two beloved films burned themselves onto the collective retinas of an entire generation.
Natheny, for one, expects nothing less.
It had become a cliché to say that the Mulberry movies, written and directed by Australian-born American filmmaker Frank Howard Castle, had given birth to “a modern mythology.” A murder-mystery adventure film blending genre elements of film noir, science fiction, and fantasy, Ghost in the Machine (1979) quickly became one of the most successful films in box office history, as did its tonally and thematically darker sequel, Mano a Mano (1982), universally hailed as superior to its predecessor.
Thus, diehard fans—Natheny among them—had strenuously objected when, in the lead-up to the prequel, Mano a Mano was rereleased in an ‘enhanced’ version with a new coda. Although Mark Mulberry meets his fate on an icy ridge of the Swiss Alps in his climactic final confrontation with Gareth Draclo (a former industrial rival—and the likely murderer—of Mark’s father, Arthur Mulberry III), the offensive new appendage implied that our hero had, in death, nonetheless achieved a moral victory over his nemesis. Incensed fans saw it as a retreat from the ambiguity and even nihilism of the original, and called for the removal of the coda from all subsequent dvd and box-set releases of the films.
But it was a mythology that only meant something to you if you happened to have been born between about 1965 and 1975. One generation of young people were deeply smitten with it, their imaginations—and, in cases like Natheny’s, 75 percent or more of their childhood playtime—consumed wholly by it. Whereas those born five years before or after this wave were often mystified as to what was so ‘holy’ about this holy text. It was also, largely, a guy thing.
As Natheny rounded the corner onto Grande Avenue, H—town’s main thoroughfare, and joined the self-selected group of fellow travellers where they formed their guilty line in front of the Revue (a repurposed vaudeville-era live theatre still dotted with gold sconces and oozing red-velvet sophistication), he found them remarkably quiet. They didn’t need to discuss what they were doing there. They were all in tacit, blood-thick agreement about the significance of the event in which they were about to participate.
Despite being sullied by that abominable rerelease, these were brilliant, genre-bending films that deftly combined a maturity of themes with the child-like wonder of the best fantasy stories of old, all without condescending to their audience or candy-coating the consequences of violence—no mean feat. And the prequel, if it was any good at all, promised to renew their faith.
Unfortunately, early reviews had been spilling out via the Internet for the past few weeks, and they were scary—very scary. So it was a rather anxious mission that brought Natheny and his peers to the Revue at this rather embarrassing (if safely anonymous) hour. Most of the devotees were here alone. They had each come to the same nerve-wracking conclusion—they had to face this confrontation with aesthetic greatness, or potentially irredeemable artistic calamity, in the solitude of a crowd.
The doors opened and the charter members of the Society of True Believers shuffled toward their transformation or doom. Beaming ushers were waiting—decked out from head to toe in studio-issue Mark Mulberry tie-in hats, t-shirts and pins—to tear their ticket stubs, whether purchased from scalpers or through a harrowing Internet auction process that granted access to the kingdom of “I saw it first!” The look on the faces of the shovellers of popcorn and drawers of soda said, ‘We know! We’re about to explode too!’ The original films were masterpieces—none of the staff or patrons would have disagreed—and their creator, Frank Castle, was a living god. Those were the tenets of their Faith.
On the way to his seat, Natheny blew past an elaborate display of memorabilia occupying a large alcove in the lobby. He was not alone in being too wracked with nervous tension, his mind fogged over with unfathomable doubts, to take any interest in it.
These Children of Mulberry, perched on musty-smelling velveteen seats, huddled in encroaching darkness, each a tiny hub in a vast network of anticipation, had not only worshipped these films through repeated viewings on video (in Natheny’s case, more than fifty times each), but had also collected mountains of ancillary merchandise (he more than $2,500 worth). And with the advent of the Internet, like ever-hopeful gamblers unable to step away from the table, they had doubled down by devoting countless hours to an astonishing proliferation of websites dedicated to the Mulberry saga’s intriguing mythos, scouring the web over the past three years for any and all information on the upcoming prequel.
Castle Pictures, of course, was just slightly more secretive than the cia, and doled out tidbits of information to the hungry mobs in carefully rationed doses.
In unguarded moments, Natheny was capable of being honest with himself about the depth of his addiction, his ambivalence about the way these stories held his imagination in thrall. They were well-made popular entertainments (to be sure), but they were just movies, after all. Yet, somehow, over two decades, they had become freighted with all the hopes, dreams, and ambitions of a generation, sentimentally commingled with their warm, fuzzy feelings about childhood, coming of age, even their sexualities, as well as (of course) their notions of heroism and good storytelling. They were the films that taught them they could all be the heroes of their own stories.
But the Mulberry saga had also become something of a bottomless pit, the illusory depths of which rootless young people like Natheny endlessly plumbed, their lives devoid of any similarly satisfying religious faith.
An aspiring screenwriter, Natheny was painfully aware of his inability to finish a screenplay of his own, having missed a spring deadline he’d set for himself before the new Mulberry film had the chance to engulf him. So part of him was here to get an answer to the question of whether his own imagination could compete with that of his greatest childhood influence. Now the movie had arrived, exactly a week before his 27th birthday, and Natheny feared that if this new film was good, he might sink the entire bounty of his as-yet-unexploited and still underdeveloped creative energies into more sterile Castle worship.
The dimming of the lights was met with a heartfelt cheer, but as the theatre was only a third full, it didn’t reach the necessary crescendo. It was merely aspirational, a wager of hope.
In any case, Natheny’s voice was absent from it, and a moment later the cinema had returned to an almost moon-like silence.
An irritating ten-minute program of commercials and trailers prefaced a lacuna for which no one would be able to account two-and-a-quarter hours hence.
First came the Castle Pictures logo and theme music (another affectionate cheer from the hundred and fifty or so assembled cult members), then it was the quiet swell of the Prague Symphony Orchestra (cheaper than the London, and almost as good), and then an explosion of music, images, and sounds from a distantly remembered childhood refreshed, rehearsed, and re-etched into deeply worn mental pathways via vhs and dvd. The audience was buoyed up briefly by a wave of nostalgia more intense than that of Odysseus pining for home and Penelope, yanking at every heart in the room till it came unstrung.
But within thirty seconds it was obvious that something had gone terribly, horribly wrong at the conceptual level.
The first film had begun with a manuscript letter, the second a typewritten one, each filling in the immediate backstory and ushering the audience into the heart of the new adventure. In this third, the letter was replaced by a note detailing a secret weapons project, one hastily scribbled on a strip of toilet tissue and passed from a diplomat to a spy under the partition of a washroom stall.
‘Toilet paper?’ Natheny thought, doubting its tastefulness.
But it was the subsequent flushing of that toilet which gave the clearest indication yet that a terrifying principle of inversion was at work. The conventions and precedents of the previous films were being followed only to lampoon and undermine them before their very charm and significance had been established in the chronology of the Mulberry world.
And everything Natheny saw over the next two hours, everything that attacked his very soul with its inanity, its disrespect, its cursed curseless vulgarity, only served to confirm this.
When the credits arrived with a rousing final surge of the warmly familiar theme music—the one element kept unchanged from the original—it was jarring to be reminded that this grating cartoon was supposed to have been a Mark Mulberry film.
Natheny staggered out of the theatre in speechless silence, as did many of the other brave, shell-shocked souls who had been waiting in line with him at that ungodly hour just 145 minutes earlier. The smiles were gone from the faces of the ushers and cashiers, who now looked like so many popcorn-shilling dupes. The sun had long since risen and its light had never seemed to Natheny so cruel. The world was not noticeably changed, but everyone in that theatre (and thousands of other ‘I saw it first!’-ers) had been. Something intangible, something spiritual, something deeply good and right had gone out of the world, and out of those who had for so long been its faithful keepers.
And the worst part was, Natheny had signed up to do it all over again at 7:00 that night with three of his closest friends.
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