“Careful on that. That’s where my father fell and fractured his skull. I mean, really, climbing up there at eighty-two . . .”
Ludovic paused an instant, then rushed forward. He thought of the old man, so passionate about his films that he’d died for them. He climbed as high as he could and continued shopping. Behind The Kremlin Letter, on a hidden shelf, he discovered a black canister with no label. Balancing on the ladder, Ludovic picked it up. Inside was what looked like a short, since the film took up only part of the reel. Ten or twenty minutes’ projection time, tops. Probably a lost film, a unique specimen that the owner had never managed to identify. Ludovic grabbed it up, climbed down, and added it to the stack of nine cult films he’d already chosen. Anonymous reels like this always added spice to the screenings.
He turned around, playing it cool, but his pulse was pounding.
“I’m afraid most of your movies aren’t worth a whole lot. Pretty standard stuff. And besides, can you smell that odor?”
“Vinegar. The films have been affected by vinegar syndrome. They’ll be worthless before long.”
The young man leaned forward and sniffed.
“You sure about that?”
“Absolutely. I’m willing to take these ten off your hands. Shall we say thirty-five euros apiece?”
“All right . . .”
Ludovic wrote out a check for four hundred euros. As he was pulling away from the curb, he noticed a car with French plates looking for a parking spot.
No doubt another collector—already.
Ludovic emerged from his home projection booth and sat down, alone with a can of beer, in one of the twelve fifties-style leatherette seats that he’d scavenged when they closed the Rex: his own private movie theater. He’d created an authentic auditorium for himself in the basement of his house, which he called his “mini-cinema.” Fold-up seats, stage, pearlescent screen, Heurtier Tri-Film projector: he had it all. At the age of forty-two, the only thing he was missing was a partner, someone to squeeze close while watching Gone with the Wind in the original English. But for the moment, those lousy dating sites had yielded only one-night stands or washouts.
It was nearly three in the morning. Saturated with images of war and espionage, he decided to round out his marathon screening with the unidentified, and incredibly well-preserved, short feature. It must have been a copy. These unlabeled films sometimes turned out to be veritable treasures or, if the gods were really smiling, lost works by famous filmmakers like Méliès, Welles, or Chaplin. The collector in him loved to fantasize about such things. When Ludovic unspooled the leader to wind the film into the projector, he saw that the strip was marked 50 frames per second. That was unusual: normally it was twenty-four per second, more than sufficient to give the illusion of movement. Still, he adjusted the shutter speed to the recommended setting. No point watching it in slow motion.
Within seconds, the whiteness of the screen yielded to a dark, clouded image, with no title or credits. A white circle appeared in the upper right corner. Ludovic wondered at first if it was a flaw in the print, as oft en happened with those old reels. Thee film began.
Ludovic fell heavily as he ran upstairs.
He couldn’t see a thing, not even with the lights on.
He was completely blind.