Mark lived in Maple Grove, a suburb northwest of Minneapolis, in a pristine neighborhood of brick and beige homes surrounded by landscaped yards. I met him at his house on the audaciously named Vineyard Court.
I started shooting as I arrived. The houses were mammoth and held superfluous but expensive yard paraphernalia like reflective orbs, ironwork windmills, statuettes of storybook figurines set among the shrubbery. The edges of the grass on Mark’s street were cut as if by laser-guided apparatus. At one house on his block, a power washer sat atop the sparkling concrete drive, set there as if in a victory pose over grime. I circled the block and came back past this house again, the driver’s side closer, and made my shot one-handed with the camera. I slowed. There were troubling overtones about the scene, as if it advertised a wonderful machine that could bring flawless beauty into your domestic life, but there were dark consequences to this obsession. The chemicals down the drain. The whole earth headed towards scorching, and this sheen the height of superfluity.
We took Mark’s car, a maroon Honda Civic 2-door.
Mark liked to talk of other Marks. Referring vaguely to what he’d been doing in the house before I arrived, he brought up Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars). “I was thinking about Marks. Other Marks.”
I’d heard much of this before in our weekly meetings, and I knew it would be a feature of the footage.
My read on it was that he regarded other Marks not so much as role models but as mystical guides. They were his Namesake gurus. They perhaps stood in for a figure of fatherhood.
We raced for some time down the freeway, Minneapolis’ skyscrapers on the horizon looking down 94 East, an 8-lane highway that passed through some of the city’s toughest areas. Mark talked glowingly of Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur and sports-team owner.
As we dipped behind Target Field, the open-air baseball stadium, he said, “One time I was landing on a flight from Milwaukee at night, and we circled down to catch a runway. It brought us right over the stadium. I could read the big screen. Morneaux had just hit a home run!”
“Get outta here!” I said. “That’s amazing.”
But when we got onto Washington Avenue, in Minneapolis’ warehouse district, Mark put the question to me as to whether I thought Mark Hamill and Mark Cuban were “good guys.”
“Mark Hamill—I think he is a good guy,” I said.
In a way, this wasn’t what I wanted from Mark’s footage, but I knew it was only the start. There’s always the cutting room floor. I told Mark I thought Hamill would have to be to a good guy to play Luke as well as he did. I told him I thought Hamill was very likable, that young men everywhere identified with him. Skywalker was an archetype now, he had to have been good in some way.
Mark was not very confident in his opinions. Wearing a green vinyl jacket with hockey patches on it, he drove with his shoulders shrugged, and now he leaned against the door as if wanting to get away from the question, even if it cost him his life. I took this as a measure of his discomfort with expressing an opinion that someone might disagree with: a tendency of Mark’s that I knew from our meetings.
Gaining confidence with women was one of other things Mark spoke frequently about in meetings. In terms of women, he wanted to stop falling back on the things he tended to fall back on, one of which we were going to see now. I knew the place, having worked down the block years ago making closed captions and subtitles.
Anyway, whatever the question was, Mark wasn’t giving me an answer. I said, “Do you think an actor can just play the part of good person, a hero, convincingly, without actually being one—a good guy?”
“Nah,” Mark said finally. His Accord needed muffler work, and thankfully he spoke up to compete with the flutter of exhaust coming from under the car, where the leak was. Mark was present that way, very keenly aware of his environment, attentive to the attitudes and tones of others. (I had suggested he go to Jim’s auto shop to have the muffler looked at, but he said only, “Yeah, I might.”)
“I guess it would show through,” he said. “I guess that would be unignorable. I mean, when I was an asshole, I was an asshole even when I was trying not to be. I just couldn’t help it. I was an asshole in everything.”
We came upon 3rd Avenue and Mark nabbed a spot at a meter that gave us a view of the apartment building we’d come to see. He put the car in neutral, set the parking brake, and left the engine running. (It was late autumn, jacket weather; the heater was running.)
We’d talked about this. He’d given me the address. It goes without saying that I had his permission to film. I had a memory card cleared and the battery fully charged. Mark and the car were darkened, but there was just enough reflected street light to illuminate Mark’s eyes, cheeks, chin, forehead. Otherwise, he was cast in shadow.
“So tell me about this place here, Mark.” Whenever I gave myself lines for my behind-camera role as interviewer and friend, I tried to recite them with the blandness of many narrators I’d heard on This American Life. Vapid, a tonal blank slate.
“Yeah, okay,” Mark said, chuckling shyly. I could see nothing of his reddish, curly hair, but the druggy puff of his head was evident in the dim light. One of the anti-depressants he took had a side-effect of water retention. With his mustache and wire glasses, he looked like a parade balloon of James Joyce.
I knew Mark as a bashful and shame-haunted man, but he did seem to be gaining strength in the shelter of the dark. “This place is an apartment building,” he said.
And then just like that, he lost it.
He had questions about what I wanted from him, and I assured him nothing special. Just the straight story. What I often told my students in screenwriting workshops: there’s no wrong answer. “You’re doing great,” I told Mark.
“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath, running a hand through his hair.
I said I would ask questions, we’d try that.
I started rolling again. “So, we’re on 3rd Avenue, outside an apartment building. Maybe condos. Mark, whose place is this that we’re sitting outside of?”
“This is Pam’s place.”
“And who is Pam?”
“Pam is a woman I would call on the phone.”
“Oh, right. Calls that you would pay for, right?”
“Calls I would pay for. Pay a lot for,” he joked.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the ads. Like in the back of the local entertainment rags.”
“That’s the kind place Pam works for. Or worked for—I don’t know.”
“Oh, so you don’t make those calls anymore.”
“I do not. That’s inner circle stuff now, and I’m on 25 months here.”
“Good for you. Good for you.”
I didn’t want to think of it in these terms, but Mark is bipolar, and sometimes at meetings he is much more animated and verbal—I don’t want to say that’s him in a “manic phase.” Maybe that’s just a good mood, I don’t know. But one thing was clear, he was in a trough today. Not manic. Maybe even a depressive phase. There was more story to the building though. I just hoped I didn’t have to tease it all out of him.
This, I suppose, is the hazard of documentary: the subject is not always scintillating or eloquent. But really the subject doesn’t need to be eloquent so much as expressive. Sometimes in my academic circles I spend too much time with material that seeks to be literate more than true. In this film I sought to combat that, to refute it as an ideology, and that required battling with my own drive for success as well as the obligation to please the foundation who’d awarded me grant money to film people like Jim, Tom, and now Mark. But ultimately getting the work done and getting it done well required me to let go of my own character defects: perfectionism and impatience. That was the subtext behind all this, the thing I was praying for off-camera.
“So how did you come to know where Pam lived?” I asked Mark.
“Through means that are illegal.” He suddenly took a judicious tone, and smiled at his cheeky diction.
I was quiet.
“Well, maybe.” Again, the shoulders hunch: his stubborn self-doubts.
“I knew her real name. She offered that. Because I would call her so often, and she knew I was harmless.”
“So you would talk a lot?”
“All the time. And that’s the thing, I wasn’t just calling for the dirty talk. I would stay on with her for two, three hours.”
“Wow. But you were paying for it?”
“I racked up thousands.”
At my urging, we got out of the car. It was after hours, so Mark didn’t have to plug the meter. We crossed 3rd Avenue to the building.
“What I did is,” Mark said, standing against the brick wall near the entrance. “I looked her up. All I knew was that she lived in the Twin Cities. She didn’t say St. Paul or Minneapolis.”
“Latino, right?” I said.
“A Latino name, yes. But multiple entries for it.” Mark shoved his hands in his jacket pockets—not exactly the warrior pose of Skywalker with Light Saber poised, as we seem him on the trading card, feathered hair, burlap blouse. Nevertheless, there was a certain excited pride in Mark’s manner now: his actions showing his cleverness, he hoped. “I knew if I heard her voice,” he said, “I’d recognize it. I’d recognize it anywhere. We’d been talking over a year now.”
I gave Mark my then-what-happened? look.
“So I started going to addresses from the book. A website. YellowPage.com. This is the place that it turned out to be hers.”
“I see. So you wanted to see her in person.”
“Absolutely. I wanted to see her in person. I don’t know what I thought might happen. Part of me imagined sitting on her couch. But I knew she might not like it, me coming there.”
“So what happened, Mark? Did you use The Force and break down the door?”
I don’t know why I said that. I couldn’t resist. The guy just reminded me so much of those pudgy sad boys I knew in grade school who had no friends and were loathed by the girls.
He laughed. He didn’t mind a ribbing. It just took him by surprise. It was true I was deadly serious in this project at times. Maybe my remark came out because of my own need to release some steam? All this talk with these men about these times, it did have a tendency to draw one back into a mindset.
“Gary, can you show us the intercom?” I said.
“Sure, it’s around here.” He headed to the front, pausing to let some pedestrians pass.
We went in the lobby. There was no doorman, but there were cameras.
Gary stood by the intercom, with its digital directory. “I got her on the intercom, and I knew it was her.”
“I see. What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Hi, it’s Mark, from Night Moves.”
“That’s the phone line.”
“Did she recognize you, acknowledge you?”
“Oh, sure. She knew exactly who it was. But she wouldn’t let me in—as she should not have.” (This was the kind of inelegance Mark was capable of.)
“She should not have let you in?”
“No. Definitely not.”
He looked up at the camera, and looked questioningly back to me. I nodded and gave him a smug look of it’s fine.
He scratched his head doubtfully and looked at me through tilted eyes.
I waved him on.
He took a breath. “Well in fact what happened was, not only did she not buzz me in or invite me up, she called the cops on me, and they gave me a warning. Came around to my house later that night. And then the next time I tried to call to Night Moves—“
“Wow, the cops came around to your place?”
“Yep, two men in blue came knocking. Gave me warning not to go near her building.”
“Yeah, I told you.”
“OK, I thought it meant near her in public.” Mark had told me about certain legal admonitions issued verbally.
“Her residence,” Mark clarified.
Back in the car, Mark wrapped up the story. The short of it is, because he had nearly been arrested, the woman threatening to file for a restraining order, Mark came to his senses about his attachment to the phone, and his other behaviors.
“It was a wake-up call,” he said.
It wasn’t nearly so cut and dried, but shortly after that Mark joined the Friday meeting.
“What do you think you’ve learned in that time?” I asked Mark.
Mark asked if we could get going.
We had a conversation off camera about whether the interview was over. Mark said he had to get to his meeting. His Wednesday meeting. Many people like Mark attend multiple meetings during the week, drawing on a stable of sober friends to manage what they alone cannot manage: the ability to be home alone with the: TV, internet, phone.