How The World Ends: a short story

“It’s called dermatillomania,” explains Gary’s agent. “There’s, like, support groups for it, I think. Point is, do what you need to do to keep from popping them. Let the makeup guys handle it.”

“No prob,” Gary says, but he can feel the zits on his face, their hot infected pressure. If he were a normal 15-year-old, it’d be normal acne, but his is worse because of all the makeup he has to wear for work.

Four Of A Kind is in its second season and everyone’s holding their breath. The network had bet heavy on the first season, with a plum timeslot and a massive marketing blitz to go with its big star, a former A-list comedian making the transition to the small screen. The numbers had been great to start with, but dropped off steadily, and through the first half of the second season had been holding steady somewhere around just-okay. Reviews ranged from “A return of the classic multi-camera sitcom” to “fourth-wall gimmicks can’t prop up outdated material and hackneyed plotlines.”

Gary plays the lazy, wisecracking, but lovable teenage son of the comedian, and part of the marketing blitz had been selling him to young girls as a heartthrob. Some weeks he spent more time on photo shoots for magazines and posters than he did on set making the show. Hours and hours sweating under lights, caked in makeup to make his skin smooth and poreless and sexy-cute but non-threatening. Under the makeup, the oil and pus build up, bubbling out the surface of his face. But he can’t relieve the pressure, can’t pop.

He’s doing fewer photoshoots in the second season; the young girls haven’t been showing up in the numbers and the magazines don’t call as much. Somewhere in an office a producer is arguing that the young girls don’t show up in the numbers because they’re watching the show on every device in the world except a television. Maybe that’s the argument that’ll save them.

Actors are superstitious. They’re still on set, still filming, the back half of season two almost complete, but they all know that any day, the word could come down that the plug’s been pulled, there’ll be no next season, everyone’s mortgages and car payments aren’t going to be made after next month. Everyone’s doing something to stop that happening, in their own ways. The woman playing the comedian’s long-suffering, sarcastic, but lovable wife crosses herself before she steps over the threshold of the set, every single time. The lighting director’s been wearing the same Monsters Of The Millennium Tour T-shirt for a week. The comedian doesn’t talk to the rest of the cast a lot, but it’s known around the set that he starts every day in his trailer reciting Billy Crystal’s declaration-of-love monologue from When Harry Met Sally to the mirror. For his part, Gary’s not popping. He’s doing what he’s supposed to. They can’t get mad at you if you’re doing what you’re supposed to.

“It’s called a supervolcano,” says the girl who plays Gary’s idealistic, headstrong, but lovable TV sister. Off-camera, she’s into libertarian politics and fringe science. She turns her laptop to show him a diagram of an overlapping batch of calderas, giant subterranean pools of lava lying underneath Yellowstone Park. “It’s bigger than any volcano in the world, and it’s ready to erupt at any time. When it does, it’ll wipe out half the country in one day, and that’s not even the worst part.” There’s an odd, excited relish in her voice. “It’ll put out so much ash that it’ll cover the sky, like in The Matrix. No sun means nothing on earth can survive. The government knows about it, but there’s nothing they can do so they just don’t tell anyone.”

Gary nods. He knows what it feels like to not be able to do anything about the end of the world.

That night, brushing his teeth before bed because he’s supposed to, he looks at his red beard of blemished skin, dotted irregularly with yellow-white heads. Right below the corner of his mouth, a nest of pimples has grown into each other, a shared pool of infection, and when he smiles he can feel them stretch, feel the hot painful pressure of them wanting to burst, but he can’t. He won’t. He’s doing what he’s supposed to and the word will come down that they’re renewed and it’ll all be okay.

He looks closer at the pimples on his chin, and it strikes him that they’re the exact same shape and configuration as the diagram his TV sister was showing him earlier. He’s not even surprised. Of course they are. They’re the same. They’re connected. As long as they don’t burst, the world will keep spinning, he already knows that to be the understanding.

It makes it easier to resist the urge. He’s not just doing it because he’s supposed to, he’s saving the whole world with his noble, iron-willed control. He feels the pressure under the makeup, he feels the stretch when he smiles and says “Hey, that’s not my problem!” on cue, and they give a beat and a half before the next line to allow room for laughter, but he doesn’t pop. He wants to, but they’re all depending on him. The world is depending on him and that makes it easier.

Today they wrap the season finale. Everyone’s tense. The comedian is drinking gallons of mediocre coffee and muttering “…you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible” under his breath between sips, but every time the camera goes on he relaxes into the charming, easygoing lovable loser that he’s built his career on, and he’s knocking every punchline out of the park. Gary imagines himself giving an interview years from now, talking about how much he learned from the comedian, how great it was working with him on all five seasons of Four Of A Kind before he started his movie career. The calderas on his chin throb with his heartbeat, but he’s not going to let everyone down now.

There’s only two setups left when the producer appears from somewhere and asks everyone for silence. Everyone complies, though they know everything from his tone. Word’s come down. They’re pulling the plug. No third season.

The producer says some stuff about how he got them to agree to show the rest of the second season in the same timeslot, like that’s a big concession. He says some other stuff about how proud he is to have worked with them all. He says some stuff.

The comedian’s slumping like all the strength has gone out of him. His TV wife is visibly not crying because she’s still in makeup. Half the crew are crying, though, and most of the rest seem to be swearing softly under their breath. Gary’s TV sister just keeps saying “I knew it, I knew it the whole time, I saw this coming.”

Then they go to film those last two setups because everyone says the show must go on, even when it’s not actually going to go on. Gary’s only needed for the first one of those setups, a two-shot with him and the comedian, and they both nail it, just nail it. One take, clean and easy.

After, while they’re setting up the last shot, Gary goes back to his dressing room. He sits and looks into the mirror as he slowly, mechanically removes his makeup. There’s not a TV star in the mirror any more. There’s just an acne-raddled 15-year-old who won’t be getting interviewed about his movie career someday. He won’t even be getting the old commercial gigs any more, no more being blown away by the super-chocolatey taste, because he’s that guy who used to be on that show.

That’s all that’s left for him now. That guy who used to be on that show.

The cream wipes the pancake away and there’s his chin, his real chin, not his TV chin. The superpimple throbs again, waiting. He doesn’t have to fight the urge any more. He’s just a regular teenager now. He doesn’t owe anyone anything, least of all forestalling the end, because the end comes anyway no matter what you do. He leans forward and presses his fingernails into his skin on either side of the nest. The release is agonizingly pleasurable, and for a second he wonders if the shotgun splatter of sebum on his mirror will be the last thing he sees.

It isn’t. It takes two hours for shockwaves from the explosion to trigger the San Andreas fault, and the ash wall doesn’t hit the still-burning ruins of L.A. until the next morning.

Oscar Project articles

Wings (1927)

It’s hard to remember now just how amazing airplanes were in the 1920s. Barnstormers used to cruise from one small town to another, charging impressive fees just to show off their miraculous flying machines. That sense of wonder deeply informs Wings, in a way that’s hard to understand from here in the miracle-jaded future. The story of two young pilots and their service in WWI is nothing new even for the time, but the flying shots are spectacular, and in 1927 they might as well have been magic.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

I hated this movie. Hated it. Hated it in a way that started to feel weirdly personal after a while. The title song is repeated every five minutes by someone or other, which would be tolerable if it were a good song, but it’s not. There’s not a single likable character in this movie, which is a serious problem since we’re supposed to find them all charming. It’s about various people trying to achieve true love and showbiz stardom, but I didn’t want anything good to happen to any of them.

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

This is the earliest Best Picture winner that doesn’t require any apology or explanation before showing it to contemporary friends. It holds up perfectly, a stark and even angry look at the pointless, brutal cost of war. Its characters join the German army as teenagers full of idealism and hope and all that dulce et decorum est crap, and everything goes downhill for them from there.

Cimarron (1931)

This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Watching Grand Hotel, the 5th-ever Best Picture winner, it struck me how rapidly I was seeing the art of filmmaking develop. An audacious plotline-juggling comedy, this movie makes remarkable use of the camera in ways that haven’t shown up in previous films, but will continue showing up in subsequent ones. (Except for the fact that Greta Garbo has a proprietary lighting system that exists only for her character, as though she’s in a whole different movie by herself. That one’s all Garbo.)

Cavalcade (1933)

This was based on a play by Noël Coward, and the nicest thing I can say is that maybe it worked better on stage. On film, it’s a godawful tedious slog through two generations of affluent London life, showing the great upheavals of the 1899-1933 period via a bunch of colorless, unlikable characters who mostly die, but not soon enough to suit me.

It Happened One Night (1934)

This movie feels like the beginning of an era. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Frank Capra directing, and a romantic-comedy plotline we’re still using today. These are all elements that became dominant over the coming years, but here they all still had that new-star smell. The storyline’s nothing new, your basic fall-in-love-over-an-involuntary-journey bit, but the journey in this case provides a wonderful look at 1930s Americana, all the little motel cabins and logistical weirdness that made up a pre-freeway road trip.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)

A scene I’m 100% sure took place in Irving Thalberg’s office at MGM one day in 1935:

“So, last year Gable took his shirt off in It Happened One Night, and we made… how much money again?”

“All of it, sir. All the money.”

“Oh yeah. That was great. We also won enough Oscars that I had to have my mantelpiece reinforced. Anyway, having said that, what’ve we got this year?”

“We’ve got a picture where Clark Gable is shirtless for literally half the running time.”

“Good start. What’s he wearing the rest of the time?”

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Do you like long, slow musical numbers that involve almost nothing but looking at showgirls’ legs? No? Well, tough shit, because you’re in for a LOT of them. Get comfy.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

This is what you call surefire Oscar bait: a period biopic that talks about an Important Social Issue. The Life of Emile Zola is a weirdly-paced story with a strange two-part structure. First, we have your conventional biopic. Zola starts out penniless and living in a garret, but perseveres and works hard and finds success with Nana, because it turns out sex sells. He raises a family, yadda yadda yadda, and his career and the film are both slowing down by the halfway mark.

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Of the various films in the genre of “Frank Capra directs Jimmy Stewart and several other stars in a surprisingly funny drama about socioeconomic injustice”, You Can’t Take It With You may be the least of them. Adapted from a George S. Kaufman play, it feels stagebound and claustrophobic, lacking a strong sense of visual expression. The story is just about a rich guy meeting a houseful of Manic Pixie Dream Anarchists, and some of the jokes don’t really work in the 21st century.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Gone With The Wind is a serious problem for me.

On the one hand, as a movie, it’s pretty good. The cinematography’s great, the actors are gorgeous, the sense of an epic is powerful and heartfelt, and the score is top-notch.

On the other hand, most of that is also true of Triumph of the Will, and it’s hard to escape the comparison.

Rebecca (1940)

In beginning this review, I had to double-check the date. Rebecca was seriously released in 1940? Weird. It feels later than that, like maybe 1950, give or take a couple years. The product of another ten years of the development of film as a storytelling medium, in other words. That may have been what tipped it over to victory; it’s not just emotionally compelling and visually gorgeous, it has a level of nuance and emotion in the structure of every shot and scene that one just doesn’t see in other films from that year.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: nobody actually thinks this was the best movie made in 1941. Nobody thought it back then either. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Citizen Kane is better than How Green Was My Valley, but that William Randolph Hearst was a vindictive sonofabitch who owned half the newspapers in the country and had Louella Parsons on permanent payroll. It simply wasn’t safe for voting members of the Academy to support Kane, so they went with a safety.

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

This film is part of a brief, awkward period in Oscar history: the two years following Hitler's invasion of Poland and preceding Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. From 1939-41, there was a very strong "America First" movement in the U.S., which opposed America's entry into the war, often because they were outright Nazi sympathizers. This demographic was not well-represented in the film industry, because many of Hollywood's leading figures, like Lubitsch, Wilder, Dietrich, and others, were German by birth.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca. What can I, or anyone, write about this movie that hasn't been written a hundred times? That it's awful darn good? It is. You may have heard this is a very good motion picture. I must inform you that you heard correctly. Glad we had this talk.