Duncan, though, was having a far more challenging experience of Los Angeles. Her movie—Alice Underground, about two girls from a New York prep school who abduct a rock star—had entered a vicious cycle: gaining momentum and then suddenly petering out, over and over, until the option expired. To spend so much time and energy talking about the idea of doing something, to listen endlessly to the hollow enthusiasm that drives the film industry: Here were the forces that have maddened countless writers and artists. Time passed. She wrote new scripts, pitched smaller projects, freelanced as a critic. More time passed. She created her blog, The Wit of the Staircase, taking on a variety of topics (Kate Moss, poetry, reality TV, philosophy) with her sharp-tongued brand of pop erudition. By 2005, Alice Underground was at Paramount, but here the same patterns repeated themselves. This was not an unusual story in Hollywood, where most projects languish for years before colliding with the voodoo necessary to transform a script into a film, but for Duncan it was a first: a case in which sheer force of will and personality were not enough to build the world she was striving to create.
There are those who can make a career out of failure in Hollywood, those who retool their original aspirations, who put them on hold as they search out the rewrite work, the handsome paychecks to develop hackneyed projects that will never see the light of day. Duncan had no interest in compromise. What she sought was a specific career of which there are at any given point only a few examples: the Wes Andersons, the Sofia Coppolas, the studio-supported auteurs. Every setback came to be viewed as a cloaked personal attack, the smallest tremors felt as earthquakes. Sometimes she believed it was because she was an attractive woman that she wasn’t being taken seriously. (She used to wear glasses at meetings to appear less girlie.) Other times it was because she had not grown up in the privileged world of film school and family connections. (How often she spoke of her blue-collar upbringing in Lapeer, Michigan, as a cross she was proud to bear.)
Their deaths became a story of wrathful envy, of toxic ambition, of fame obsession, of madness.
As had always been the case, Blake did not doubt that her concerns were justified; Duncan’s opinion was the final word on all matters. And so as the joy of success had once been felt in tandem, these frustrations were experienced as being inflicted upon them both. Blake, never an aggressive personality before, became increasingly antagonistic and distrustful of “the system.” They seemed to fuel something in each other, growing convinced that what they were experiencing was not the fickle, indifferent hand of Hollywood, but larger, more sinister forces working toward their ultimate destruction. It was never an easy thread to follow, never a comfortable moment when they laid it out for you. There was the cocktail party the couple threw in December 2005, for instance, a small gathering, only six people, which had begun like any other night at their house: good drink, better conversation, a fire going, the ashtray on the coffee table filling up. But then Blake, triggered by nothing in particular, spent 45 minutes talking about his relationship with Beck, about how the two grew close after working together on the album cover but ultimately had a falling-out because Beck was a practicing Scientologist, and Scientologists, Blake was confident, used networks of spies to watch over anyone they perceived as a threat to the church. (Beck says that he last spoke to the couple in the summer of 2004. “There was never any discussion of religion or anything personal,” he says of their friendship. And the Church of Scientology told the Los Angeles Times: “Never heard of these people. This is completely untrue.”) Later that evening the topic turned to Miranda July, whose independent film Me and You and Everyone We Know had recently been released. Suddenly Duncan and Blake were going into detail about how July, whom they also suspected of being a Scientologist (though she is not affiliated with the church), was “stalking” them, how she was somehow connected to the larger scheme, out to sabotage their careers and possibly their lives.
In retrospect it would seem like an affliction of sorts, a miswiring of the mind, a case of the city’s “terrible boredom” playing tricks on them. Throughout 2006, they began to accuse close friends of somehow being involved in the plot; some were asked to sign formal “loyalty oaths,” others were bombarded with vicious e-mails that had little connection with reality. Christine Nichols, who offered Blake his first solo show at her gallery Works on Paper, was mystified when Blake abruptly terminated their friendship. Reza Aslan, a young Islamic scholar who socialized with the couple, was startled to be accused, over e-mail and on Duncan’s blog, of being affiliated with the CIA (Duncan believed that the Church of Scientology was a front for a government intelligence agency). Blake abruptly dropped out of his film project, telling Schlei, the producer and by this point a close friend, that he was unknowingly dating a Scientologist. Schlei denied this; Blake stopped speaking to him.
An old friend suggested that Blake see a psychiatrist, that what he was experiencing was connected more to his impressive imagination than to anything else. Blake was dismissive, claiming that therapists were part of a “new world order.” Shortly after that, they lost the Venice cottage. Some say they were evicted, that they had been forced out after Blake tossed urine onto the barbecue of a neighbor they believed to be a Scientologist; others believe they were simply scaling back on expenses. They moved into Blake’s studio—not the airy space in Santa Monica, which he had given up, but a far more modest corner of an office complex at the edge of Venice. And then, in early 2007, their old friends in New York began to receive excited phone calls from the couple.
“Guess what?” they said. “We’re moving back.”