Jim Henson was dead, to begin with. A freak bout of pneumonia had taken away the man who was at the centre of countless projects and characters; the very voice of Kermit himself. Richard Hunt—who performed Beaker, Scooter, Sweetums, and Statler, among many others—had also died, and the number of beloved characters that had been shelved out of respect was ever growing. How could The Muppets survive after such a monumental loss? It would be foolish to think that the idea to shut down Muppet Studios wasn’t bandied about across more than one boardroom table. How do you come back from that? How do the children find the strength to go on when the father has died?
One of the truly remarkable aspects of the Muppets was that despite all of their endearing self-deprecation (early Gonzo) and in-fighting (Fozzie vs. Statler & Waldorf), they were not only susceptible to, but also revelled in great moments of pure, unadulterated optimism. During the climactic showdown between Kermit and an obsessive restaurateur in 1979’s The Muppet Movie, the beloved frog (then still performed by Jim Henson) delivers one of the most genuine, heartfelt, and unquestionably true monologues on the nature of friendship. What he says is this:
I’ve got a dream too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And, well, it kind of makes us like a family.
Over the course of his journey, Kermit’s dream has been scoffed. He has encountered hardship after hardship, not least of which is a psychotic frog-leg enthusiast, and as Kermit struggles to find the words to reconcile his frustration with his pursuers and his generally positive outlook on life, he stumbles on this immutable true revelation on the nature of friendship; that what you are doing with your life is not as important as the people that you are doing it with. This may well be the central ethos to the entire family of Muppet performers. What choice did they have but to pick up and keep going?
Choosing their next project would be an incredibly difficult task. It would need to be a story that embodied their commitment to positivity, featured a wide variety of memorable characters, and had a solid emotional core. By choosing to adapt Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, they got all of those things. At its heart, this story is about redemption, about coming out of the blackness of solitude, denying cynicism, celebrating love, and above all, carrying on tradition. In embracing these themes, the Muppeteers were also committing to a sea change; with Jim gone, the status quo had been swept away, and shaking things up was a necessity.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is a true ensemble work. Michael Caine brilliantly fills the shoes of Ebenezer Scrooge and provides a performance with seemingly boundless range. He is cruel and flinty; broken and remorseful; joyful and loving; all without sacrificing the continuity of his character. Seeing Scrooge experience happiness is like watching a newborn fawn finding its legs. He simply does not know what to do with himself! Caine’s performance is also noteworthy for being one of the only human characters in the film, a stark contrast to 1984’s cameo-packed The Muppets Take Manhattan (Kermit and the gang’s last big screen outing). With fewer humans filling up the scenery, it’s up to the Muppets themselves to fully populate this world. The way that these characters are used is another indicator of the evolution of the Muppets; for one thing, Kermit and Fozzie don’t have any scenes together. The original trinity of Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear is downplayed in favour of the interactions between Gonzo and Rizzo. The chemistry between these two characters is unmatchable and completely fresh. Kermit and Miss Piggy form the emotional core of the film, ruminating on the nature of family, love, and togetherness, while Gonzo and Rizzo form more direct connections with the audience, breaking the forth wall with delicious precision and intent (when the narrators don’t want to stick around because the story is getting too scary, it’s a fairly good indicator that something frightening is about to happen). How does one talk about the casting of a film in which most of the characters are puppets? “The manufacturing?” Whatever the vocabulary, the characterization is beautiful. With 20 years of characters to fall back on, it would have been easy to rely on established personalities rather than forge ahead into new territory, but here again we find the Muppeteer’s commitment to change.The three ghosts that Scrooge encounters work so well for their particular idiom that the idea of shoehorning Scooter into the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past seems perverse. Where Muppet cameos are used, the old familiar faces appear in ways that instantly resonate (Robin the Frog as Tiny Tim jumps instantly to mind, as do Statler and Waldorf as Jacob and the ingeniously named Robert Marley). It’s a clear indication that the Muppeteers are not resting.
Much credit must go to Brian Henson - Jim’s son - who picked up the reins and directed this film as his first feature. While it may seem strange to comment on mise en scène in a film that contains talking rats, it is an important aspect of what makes this film so well-crafted. The Muppets are always shot to fill the frame, a trend which would diminish with each subsequent Muppet film until (during the ghastly Muppet Wizard of Oz), the puppets are relegated to the bottom half of the screen.
Look at this frame from 1999’s Muppets From Space. That is 18 inches of wasted headroom. Perhaps it was the changing trends in aspect ratios that forced the Muppets into wider and wider angles, and that Muppet movies were meant to be seen in the old 4:3 home video format, but whatever the case, that the Muppets are treated with the same (sometimes more) care as the human performers speaks volumes about Brian Henson’s commitment to his father and his friend’s creations.
Just as Scrooge found salvation in his fellow man, so too the Muppeteers must have found solace in each other. When Scrooge is confronted by the regret of how he spent his younger days, and how the manner of his ways cost him the love of his life, he curses the Ghost of Christmas Past. She replies by saying “These are the shadows of the things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me.” Above all things, the past is unchanging and unapologetic, but the future (so terrifyingly depicted here) is mutable. Every year that passes is an opportunity. Jim Henson is gone and we cannot change that. What we can do is try our best to live up to his ideals and the ideals of this film; to make a positive connection with the people around us, and to revel in the togetherness of loved ones, whatever form they may take.
Onscreen, James Bird’s Eat Spirit Eat is a story about missing fathers, ad hoc families and a tight-knit group of amateurs fumbling their way through a movie. Off screen, James Bird’s Eat Spirit Eat is a story about missing fathers, ad hoc families and a tight-knit group of amateurs fumbling their way through a movie. The film follows twenty-something orphan Oliver trying to meet his actor father by casting him in a movie staffed by a hastily-assembled, family-like team of film-amateur friends. It’s part screwball deconstruction of the film industry, part twee wish-fulfillment fantasy of a boy looking for a father but finding a family in his friends. Writer/Director Bird knows both well; he partially based the film on growing up with an absentee father and, like Oliver, staffed it with his own tight-knit cadre of under-experienced friends. Bright Wall/Dark Room spoke with him about families – real, fictional, natural and otherwise.
BW/DR: You are touring with two very different movies you wrote that shot within a year of each other: Eat Spirit Eatand the straight-laced Danny Glover romance, Chasing Shakespeare. Eat Spirit Eat seemed to be a lot more personal, which is an odd thing to say about a movie with a zombie robot. Is it strange to transition between the two?
JB: Well actually, I write so much now. I really love to explore all different genres. The first one I wrote was a sci-fi. And then Chasing Shakespeare, a love story, and then Eat Spirit Eat, a comedy. I just wrote an action one. They all kind of follow the same message, that what matters most is friends and family. But I love to explore all kinds of ways to tell a story.
BW/DR: Are you going to keep writing in the cameos? You showed up as a reporter in Eat Spirit Eat and in Chasing Shakespeare.
JB: I’m actually going to try, if the movie doesn’t suffer. I’m not going to just throw a reporter in there, but-
BW/DR: You just wrote an action movie. You can blow up.
JB: Yeah, action movie for sure. I’ll be reporting during a shootout and have my head shot off. I’ll definitely kill myself off in that one.
BW/DR: Is being a reporter how you see yourself as a writer? As sort of like an observer to the story?
JB: Yeah. I never write outlines and I never obsess over it. If I write a script, I write it from page one until the end. I don’t edit. I don’t go back and read what I wrote. I want to be surprised by what happens, just like an audience. I don’t want to plan the story out so much that it becomes boring to write.
I would kill to do that. I would never finish a script because I’d get so obsessed with making each scene perfect that I’d just keep working on the beginning.
BW/DR: If you’re writing in literally every genre, how do you narrow that down to write a story? What about Eat Spirit Eat made it a story that you wanted to pursue?
JB: Well, it’s kind of autobiographical. I never met my dad. And the actors, a lot of them have stories about being removed from their fathers. Like [producer] Anya [Remizova] - her dad died during the shooting of Eat Spirit Eat. And Adriana Mather who played Vera, her father died before she came out to LA to pursue acting. Eze — Ezequiel Stremiz, who played Inny — he lost his mom. He’s a huge celebrity in South America and then he moved here and he had to start from scratch without a real support network. And this was his second American movie. Chasing Shakespeare was his first.
I just noticed that there were so many broken families and that it was really easy to view that immediately sad or negative. I wanted to show that broken families could be super positive because that means there would be open slots for new people to fill.
Chasing Shakespeare was a big budget, with trailers and Danny Glover and fifty people. Eat Spirit Eat was a group of my closest friends. So I got to really build my own family here, like Oliver.
BW/DR: Why hadn’t you met your dad?
JB: Well my mom’s from Minnesota. She met just some guy and they came out to California, and she got pregnant with my brother. Three years later she got pregnant with me and I guess my father didn’t want another kid and my mom didn’t want to get an abortion. So she chose me and my dad took off.
And then so from age one to maybe fourteen or fifteen we were homeless, I lived in a car. At the time life was fine, I didn’t know any different. But now that I’m grown up, I’ve realized “Wow man, life was tough.” Like how I always thought it was normal that a sheriff comes at the end of the month and throws all your stuff out. That was how people move, you know? Living in a car in a church parking lot I thought was pretty normal. And not knowing my father was actually pretty normal because basically everywhere we grew up it was a poor neighborhood. None of my friends none of them knew their father, you know? So I always thought movies were where dads were. Because in real life I didn’t know anyone that had a dad. But in movies everyone has a dad.
BW/DR: Is that why you made the father an actor in Eat Spirit Eat?
JB: Yeah. Young Oliver spending hours every day flicking through channels to find his dad is a more literal example of that. I only saw dads on TV. So Oliver keeps searching TV for his dad.
BW/DR: Those flashback sequences—the ones with young Oliver—were a lot less absurdist than the present day sequences. You go from these Muppet-y present day sequences to a slightly more somber past.
JB: When I look back at my memories, they’re actually more emotional than when I was experiencing them. So I looked at the past to as the sad part of your story. And realism is easier to view as a sad thing, but the point was to make sure that today, the present, you can be as naive and absurd as you want if you make that your reality. Oliver makes everyone around him believe in this off the wall weird plan, because in the end, they all just want to be kids again.
That’s what the whole entertainment industry is, a bunch of adults trying to play. Trying to be kids, you know?
BW/DR: It’s hard to overstate how much of a family Eat Spirit Eat’s cast is. You had a huge group travel to the opposite coast for the Orlando Film Festival screening — I think four actors, you and Anya — and all of them got emotional telling the story of Anya and her father. Leah Briese, who played Vill, was the first one to try and tell it and she couldn’t get all the way through before getting too choked up to continue.
JB: Yeah. I met Anya on Craigslist and she became a roommate. It was me, Adriana, Anya and I think Ezequiel might have lived with us at that point. And we wanted to make this movie, Chasing Shakespeare. Anya and her father were never close. They had never bonded. Her family is in Russia, and she’s the only one that moved to America. They wanted her to pursue business and you know take over the family business, which is factory work and all that. But she met us she really developed this love for art and for her passion, music.
Since she never got to be close with her dad, I think this was an opportunity for him because he got diagnosed with cancer. It’s sad but pretty sweet that her whole life she didn’t really have a father she could talk to, but in the last days of his life he became the best father in the world. So he gave her money for us to make Chasing Shakespeare. And that’s unheard of, really. So we actually made Chasing Shakespeare. And then the cancer got worse, and he went to the hospital, and as a goodbye present he gave us the money to make Eat Spirit Eat.
BW/DR: Was it just a coincidence that Eat Spirit Eat was this story about fathers?
JB: I wouldn’t say it’s a coincidence, I would say it was fitting that it came with all these family stories. We were all pretty tripped out about it too. We’re making this movie about fathers and her father gives us the money to do this and then dies. So it was kind of meant to be, you know.
BW/DR: So this movie really is the family you said you built.
JB: The entire, the entire cast was all friends. I mean, my mom is in there, my brother is one of the cops. The entire cast — we cast it ourselves, we didn’t have a casting director — didn’t have audition. I just met with all these people that were really good friends. I was like, “you’re perfect for this.” And I would just need to make sure that you could do it.
In reality we were a bunch of kids that were thinking, “Okay, we’re going to go make a movie.” We’d never done it before independently. I’ve never directed before, and she’s never scored a film before. Adriana’s never had a lead role before. We went into it thinking we were going to have so much fun learning how to do this. We were like Oliver and those orphans. We were so naive about everything.
The crew actually, like within the first, maybe four days of filming, they thought we were absolute bananas. They didn’t know, like, what was going on. They said, “This is not how you do it. This isn’t how you make films.” After week one they were all super, super on board, saying, “I’ve never had this much fun making a film before, this does not feel like work at all” you know. So it was cool, we just had to recruit them into our belief system. And the movie came out beautifully because everyone believed in the same thing: We’re all doing this because it’s fun. There’s not a lot of money, no one’s here for a paycheck, it’s all because we want to enjoy this and you know, the whole crew got behind it.
BW/DR: You’ve said at film festivals that on the soundtrack, some pretty big bands literally gave you songs for no paycheck and just because it’d be fun.
JB: The Watson Twins live pretty close to me, so I just walked up and talked to them about it. You know, walked to their house. Once they read the script, they were like, “We have to be a part of it, because that’s what the movie is about, you know? You’re supposed to come here and we’re supposed to join in and be super naive about this, right?” And I’m like, yes. So we got them. They completely waived all the fees for everything — publishing and marketing.
And then they’re like, “Okay, what other bands do you like? We’ll help you get them.” Well, I really like the band Everest. And they’re friends with Everest. When Everest , “I guess we kind of have to do the same thing as the Watson Twins, right? The whole movie is about just doing it for the love, and if we say we need all this money, we’d be evil.” So they jumped on and they gave us a song. And then Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros did the same thing. They didn’t ask for money. Mishel, who’s Ana Banana, is really good friends with that band now.
We found out if you become a human, if you don’t just do this on email and then say, “Direct me to your publishing rights guy,” if you’re actually human about it, if you actually tell them what the story’s about if they’re able to see your passion about it, they’re musicians, they’re artists; they want to be that passionate about what they do, too. So the second we became humans to them is when everyone just offered up their stuff. It helped that being human went along with the message of the movie
BW/DR: Is there a way to replicate any of this on your next movie? You sort of lost the nativity, just doing it for fun thing with the success of Eat Spirit Eat.
JB: The next movie is called Honeyglue. It’s about a girl who has three months to live. She meets this cross-dresser ex-junkie guy that’s the polar opposite of her, and he shows her how to live life in the three months that gives her a whole new perspective on life. It’s a little bigger budget and we have offers out to some really good actors.
For Eat Spirit Eat we were pretending we knew what we were doing, and now we’re figuring out, “Holy shit, what we were doing is right.”
We are now officially accepting unsolicited pitches for the December issue of the magazine. The theme for the issue is simple: A Movie That Stuck With You in 2013.
We only have 2 spots left open in the magazine, but are certainly willing to consider running additional essays on the site itself if they fit within the theme, are well-written, and feel like something we can use.
If you have any interest in sending us a pitch or an essay for consideration in the December issue, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dogtooth, Parenting, Home Schooling, and Obedience
by Dan Schindel
I was home schooled for my ninth and tenth grade years. Exiting middle school, my parents didn’t find the local high schools up to snuff. Plus, an education controlled by materials selected entirely by them meant that they could ensure that I learned certain subjects “correctly.” And so I was taught creationism as science, among other inaccuracies.
Being stuck at home day in and day out, with no one but a dog for company, was dreadfully dull, to say the least. During that time, the house became my entire world. That’s often how it is with the home schooled. I can only imagine how much worse it is for kids who spend an entire tutelage in such an environment.
Or is it worse? When one knows nothing else, the world you inhabit is the world you become comfortable with. A human being is the sum of their experiences, after all, and one often determines happiness or unhappiness by comparing what is encountered with what they are already familiar with. To me, having already spent ten years in normal educational institutions, home learning felt insufferable. As someone who had grown up in conservative Christianity, though, I knew many people who lived with no other frame of reference. They didn’t think that anything might be amiss with their experiences until they encountered mainstream culture.
As they felt their influence over the mainstream beginning to diminish, evangelical churches crafted an alternate culture of their own in order to shield their children from the “sins” of the world. Guitar Praise instead of Guitar Hero, October Baby instead of Juno, the entire PAX network. It became another America within America, one that outsiders don’t understand and and are often quick to mock; insiders fearing the outsiders.
But, to an extent, every family does something similar. Each household is its own little world universe. When we are very young, it is the sole environment we know. Family shapes our expectations for all of life to follow. Dogtooth simply takes that phenomenon to its greatest imaginable extreme.
The movie is about a Greek father and mother who have completely isolated their children from the rest of the planet. The two daughters and one son, all in their early twenties, have never stepped foot outside of their house. It is a lavish compound, a large house full of top-line furnishing and appliances, a swimming pool, and a lush garden, surrounded by high walls. Only the father ever leaves, to work. Under the supervision of the mother, the children spend their days performing chores in return for stickers, competing to see who can earn the most.
The only old things in the house are the television, which plays nothing but VHS tapes, and a record player. There is no communication with the outside, save for an old phone the mother keeps hidden. According to the parents, the airplanes flying overhead are toys, and if the children are lucky, one may fall to the ground, in which case the first one to retrieve it can keep it. That is how thoroughly reality is controlled. The very laws of the universe are different to these young people.
The father tells of an older brother who was disobedient, who ventured outside of the house and is now trapped there. According to the rules, a child cannot leave until they “lose their dogtooth.” When a cat ventures into the yard, the children are terrified, having never seen one before. The brother kills it with a pair of pruning shears. Their isolation is total, in the service of ensuring that they never, ever leave. It’s a horrifying vision of the parental protective instinct gone awry. And it’s made even more chilling by the fact that the parents’ motives remain largely unknown to the audience.
There are hints, though. The father rebukes someone by telling them that he hopes their kids, “have bad influences, and develop bad personalities.” Everything, it seems, is in the service of keeping his children “pure.” To him, this manifests as utter obedience. When he plays a record of “Fly Me to the Moon” for the children, he helpfully “translates” Sinatra’s lyrics so that they speak of the love that parents have for their offspring:
“My parents are proud of me /
because I’m doing just fine.
I’m doing just fine /
but I will always try harder.
My house, you are beautiful /
and I love you /
and I will never ever leave you.”
The irony is bitter, given that the actual song is about the exhilaration of freedom. This is how the father and mother control their kids: by making sure the mere idea of an outside world never even enters their heads. Humans are creatures of language. Jean-Pierre Gorin made a documentary, Poto and Cabengo, about two young girls who, having interacted much with the world, developed their own language. Words are how we build our concepts. Identity starts with a label.
In Dogtooth, every label is warped. Here are a few samples of the alternate language that these parents have constructed:
A “sea” is a comfortable chair. Something from the outside is now something firmly interior.
A “phone” is a saltshaker. A word for something that links to things beyond the walls instead signifies a tool of the table.
“Zombies” are little yellow flowers. The dangerous is innocuous.
A vagina is a “keyboard.” The sexual is functional.
That last example ties into the most sinister aspect of this incarceration. The sexuality of the two daughters is denied, while the father brings in one of his employees to pleasure the son. This is the one way he allows the outside to penetrate this bubble: so that his boy can get off.
The employee is the only character in the film that has a name: Christina. The children know themselves and each other solely in relation to the rest of the family. I am the older sister. That is my father. That is my brother. I am the daughter. Our names are the beginning of our individual identities. But having an identity means that you will define yourself on your own terms, which is something that the father and mother in Dogtooth will simply not permit, for it marks the beginning of a separation, which leads to disobedience.
It’s no mistake that the named character is the one who disrupts this careful arrangement. The elder daughter finagles two videotapes from her: Jaws and Rocky IV. They are the first movies she sees that are not home videos. It is impossible to imagine how a young adult raised in such an alien environment would understand these films, but the effect they have is seismic. For the first time, she acts the way a real child would, playing out scenes from the films. Eventually, she tells her younger sister to call her “Bruce.” Exposure to the outside has made her dissatisfied with her reality.
Christina’s transgression is soon discovered and she is fired. The father attempts to use the elder daughter as a new sex object for the son. This is her final straw. For the first time, she takes her life into her own hands, changing her reality. She “knows” that she won’t survive beyond the walls as long as she has her “dogtooth” so she smashes it out of her mouth with a barbell and makes a break for it. After a taste of the apple, Eve leaves the garden on her own, rather than getting kicked out. The knowledge of good and evil intrigues rather than scares her.
All things considered, what kind of paradise is she in, really?
That “paradise” wasn’t going to last, anyway. There’s no possible way for the father and mother to continue the charade indefinitely. What was going to happen when it came time for them to die? Likely, they would have initiated some kind of murder-suicide, a neat end for their perfect family.
Dogtooth is funny because it’s ridiculous. It’s scary because it’s a few steps away from what some people really do to their children - and the extreme end of what all parents do to their children. Think carefully on what you tell your sons and daughters of things, the words for those things, and the meanings of those words. Reality itself is only what we’ve perceived through biased senses, so the best we can hope for in creating people who can engage with it in a healthy way is to not try and seal them off. The world is messy and ugly, but purity is not the answer – it’s just tidy and ugly.
Dan Schindel lives, writes, and does everything else in Los Angeles. He tweets at @DanSchindel.
I try to write a story about something that’s happened every single day. But because I live a quiet life, relatively speaking, this means a lot of corny tales about what I’ve eaten or where I’ve visited or the person’s initials that I’ve hung out with the night before: C. and I had dinner overlooking the canal; red berries and tea. Simple things on a quiet day.
It’s hard to seek refuge in solitude and tell tales at the same time, so I’ve been watching a lot of movies instead. Catherine Breillat’s “Bluebeard” and The Sleeping Beauty and Fat Girl. These are nice films to watch when you’re bored because they provide double the entertainment value of their running times. Two hours for watching, two hours for chewing over restlessly, three or so hours for fragmented and inspired dreaming: bloody women and crashing cars that symbolize the loss of your virginity. These are the types of things in a Catherine Breillat film.
When I watched Bluebeard I dreamt that I was in a plane that lost altitude. After The Sleeping Beauty, I didn’t sleep for a week, but it’s possible the two were unrelated.
Why would Catherine keep me up at night?
I could make guesses. For one, she is Very French. One of her earliest films, Romance, was passed over by British censors despite containing scenes of graphic sexual violence because even they deemed it “very French.” This is a true story. She is also a skilled consciousness-worm, more adept at tissue-digging than a pop song, and her work groans at the seams with double meanings. For example, while preparing to play a game of life-or-death bowling, the miniature protagonist of The Sleeping Beauty is heard to whisper, “I am real, the rest is false.” On one level, this is a base acknowledgement of reality. (The girl is dreaming.) On another, it is a declaration of autonomy against fate. And we haven’t even gotten into the bit about the bowling ball being a man’s skull yet.
Every inch of a Breillat film is loaded like this, another reason to stay up at night. Each scene, phrase, screen swipe, and hairstyle feels like an unlockable, individual secret. I’m certain, once accumulated, they’ll reveal something tremendous. So I watch them once and then twice. I read film reviews for their educated insight, but most drive in wide circles around the idea of “meaning.” Instead, they lapse into basic observation and commentary on technical detail. “The settings are sparse” and “the lighting is good.” Many of them also refer to Breillat as “feminist” because she depicts sex frankly and creates films centered around women.
Catherine keeps them up at night.
Sex! Women! Feminism! It’s true that Breillat’s films are dominated by complex females — specifically, by sex with and around those females — and that she deserves credit for resisting easy correlations between sex, power, and meaning. She also refuses to conflate “choice” with “empowerment” — instead, challenging the very existence of “choice” in the first place. If Option A and Option B are still part of System X, what does it matter which we pick? For this, I like to think of her work as “feminist.” I am glad that she is asking these questions.
She never does so better than in Fat Girl, a film about two sisters on a family vacation. Their environment is bored and restrictive — lots of television and motherly chiding — and their apathy plays itself out in knowing jabs at each other’s weaknesses. The younger sister is smart, but conventionally unattractive. The older is beautiful and absorbed with her newfound desirability. Neither sister is “good.” Both are complicated consequences of their surroundings, struggling to understand what they can clearly see, but are forbidden to acknowledge. (I’m talking about sex.) These are the dynamics that Breillat lays out for us.
Except sex is inevitable:
Both sisters end up losing their virginity — the older, at the hands of a manipulative college boy who coos every line in the book (“If you won’t, I’ll have to go to another girl”), the younger at the hands of a rapist. Neither outcome feels like a choice. Both scenes are graphic and uncomfortable, and both offer the same set of consequences: fear, revulsion, and shame. When the older sister is discovered, her family is horrified and hastily relocates her, demanding she be “examined.” When the younger sister is raped, the audience’s reaction is fear and empathetic humiliation. From this angle, forcible sex is as emotionally devastating as permissive sex — but, even when being permissive, Breillat won’t let us ignore the fact that allowing sex is not the same as wanting it. The distinction is relevant, and the lessons are biting: You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. When things are hidden from the light, they become monsters.
Perhaps that is why Catherine keeps me up at night.
The economy of a Breillat film is simple: people live, have sex, are complicated, and die. First time actors — “real people” — are frequently cast. Experiences are stitched together from Breillat’s own life, often at the expense of her personal relationships. (Her sister did not speak to her for years after the release of Fat Girl, leaving one to wonder on whose experiences the older character’s sexual awakenings were based.) Things feel very real, but are often quite fantastical.
This is the mark of a successful story. Or a dream. Or — I keep forgetting — a fable.
A lot of the literature on Bluebeard, Breillat’s true-to-the-bone retelling of the infamous French tale, describes it as a “feminist subversion.” I don’t know if I think it’s feminist so much as it is clever. It presents the story almost exactly as it was first recorded by Charles Perrault in 1697: a beastly aristocrat, the titular Bluebeard, who takes a young, recently impoverished bride. He provides her full run of his castle, save one room that she may never enter. She disobeys him, discovers the murdered bodies of his previous wives, and is saved from losing her own neck by the chance passing by of two swordsmen.
The traditional fable tends to present Bluebeard’s death as a victory. The bride inherits his money and lives out the rest of her days, rich, remarried, and — presumably — happy. Not so for Breillat, who deftly undermines this happily ever after with a single, unnervingly extended shot of the young wife, standing at her dining room table, her former husband’s head on a plate before her. She strokes his long hair lovingly with one pale hand, hey eyes set in an expressionless, gazing face. She looks, but no longer sees.
The question Breillat asks is this: What does it mean to be saved when the act itself becomes a kind of trauma? What comes after? The difference between being captive and being saved, in this case, is just that the containment becomes psychological.
The tragedy here is palpable. It’s also made literal, because Breillat doesn’t just tell the story of Bluebeard. She couples the tale with a parallel narrative of two sisters, this one set in the ’50s. The girls have found the storybook in an attic and the younger reads it aloud to the older. Their story ends when the older sister, cowed by the frightening tale, steps backward through an opening in the floor, and plummets to her death.
Words can be dangerous.
And here’s a deeper point that Breillat strives to remind us of — how our storylines, and thus our poisons, may perpetuate themselves. We learn where we belong in the world by telling stories to ourselves and by projecting ourselves into these stories until they become our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. It’s no coincidence that the climactic scene in Bluebeard, where the young bride discovers the bodies of her predecessors, features not the girl herself, but, suddenly, the character of the present day, younger sister.
"I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid," the girl chants to herself, small feet sliding in the slippery blood that has accumulated beneath the bodies.
It’s all pretend until it is not. It is all a story until it’s your life. Words have very real and frightening consequences, but — even more importantly— so too do the absence of words. The stories we tell are the options we have, and it is our priority to create new and thoughtful narratives. The question being asked is: what do we lose with a limited vocabulary?
At least, I think that is what Catherine is trying to tell me. So, I try to write a story every single day.
Last night I dreamt:
“Do you still love me as before?” asks the princely lover of The Sleeping Beauty.
“As before. Except now it’s after. You see, I went alone into your world,” is her wooden reply.
I am drinking mostly hot water with a little bit of coffee in it. Americano. Said with an accent, just like that, emphasis on the third syllable.
Cassie Marketos is a writer at large. Current location: Somebody’s Couch in Somewhere, Europe. Tweets: @cassiemarketos.
You Are How You Eat: A Collected Analysis of Bill Murray’s Eating Habits On Screen
by Andrew Root
“You know what I like about restaurants?” asks mob boss Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. “You can learn a lot, watching things eat,” he seethes, licking a freshly smashed fly off his hand. I never knew what to make of that line. It seemed like a needlessly intense button on an already terminally intense scene; another excuse for the virtuosic Jack Nicholson to really show us what he could do, but I’ve recently come to agree with him – in one particular instance: Bill Murray. You can, in fact, learn a lot, watching Bill Murray eat.
Watching Bill Murray eat on film is a strangely heightened experience; every motion seems over-the-top and not quite real. Admittedly, it’s difficult to do something commonplace when you know you’re being watched intently—not only by the cast and crew, but by the future viewers—and maybe he was cracking under the pressure. At one point, my working theory was that he simply didn’t know how to eat properly. Such a theory was too absurd to hold up under scrutiny, and further research indicates that Bill Murray knows exactly what he’s doing when he eats (on film), and in fact, matches his culinary performance to reveal subtle details about character and scene and to supplement the film as a whole. Sound crazy? Let’s take a look.
Murray’s Don Johnston is on a reluctant quest to find the mother of his son, a son he didn’t know he had until an anonymous letter from a former lover dropped through his mail slot. Sent on his way by his overly-enthusiastic neighbour, Don sets out to track down the five women he dated around the time of the alleged son’s conception. The second woman on his list is Dora (Frances Conroy), a quiet, precise woman who believes in the future of the bottled water industry. Over an unbearably perfect meal consisting of a square of grilled fish, a collection of perfectly sliced carrots, and a circle of rice topped with a cherry tomato slice and a sprig of parsley, Don, Dora, and Dora’s husband Ron (Christopher McDonald) share an intensely awkward conversation fraught with barely concealed subtext and more than a few unanswered questions. Murray fastidiously spears five carrot slices, leans down and puts the entire forkful into his mouth, sets down the fork, and nods in the barest hint of approval. In these methodically awkward movements, Murray sums up the entirety of the scene; Ron’s barely concealed resentment (he shows Don a photograph of a younger, freer Dora – a photograph that Don himself took - then remarks pleasantly that it’s funny how people’s lives change), Dora’s pleading looks (“I don’t know that I would have had the time and patience to be a good mother to Ron’s children”), and the heavy, heavy silences that punctuate every question and remark. Murray, his black suit a sharp contrast to the clean whites and soft pastels of Dora’s prefab home, eats the impossibly perfect carrots with resigned awkwardness and nods, tacitly acknowledging that is it funny how people’s lives change. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny.
No one has ever enjoyed a cob of corn as much as Bill Murray’s Bob Wiley. The scene around the dinner table is seen primarily through the eyes of Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfus), who stews in frustration as Bob masticates the corn, murmuring fervently, asking if it’s been “hand-shucked.” The scene takes on strangely sexual overtones as Bob – in a display that would set Dr. Freud’s pen to scribbling – wraps his lips around the end of the cob, raises his eyebrows provocatively at Fay - Leo’s wife - and when offered more chicken, asks Leo innocently “do you want the breast?” This dichotomy of innocence and explicitness is what so infuriates Leo – the idea that despite all his flakiness, Bob knows exactly what he’s doing. Leo is a man who expects boundaries to be respected, and to find Bob at his vacation home, cozily seated at his table, taking the choicest bits of the meal, and warmly endearing himself to Leo’s family through what Leo would term grossly inappropriate displays is more than he can bear. Murray knows how to toe quietly across the lines of good taste, all the while with a “how did that happen?” look on his face. I first saw this movie when I was ten years old, and I always thought Dr. Leo was nasty, short-tempered and genuinely unlikeable. Yet – however unsympathetic the character – I have to feel for the guy who Bill Murray cuckolds by slyly complimenting the quality of his wife’s biscuits.
When the flimsy premise you’ve come up with to talk to the girl you like runs out, you have a few options: Some people tell bad jokes in an attempt to stay in the conversation. Some abandon their attempt at charm, lapse into an awkward silence, make excuses, and beat a hasty retreat. Bill Murray’s Herman Blume eats a carrot. While I am thoroughly acquainted with the first two strategies, I can’t say I’ve ever tried the third. Herman and Rosemary (Olivia Williams), brought together by their mutual friend, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), have begun stealing sidelong glances at one another. And while they may not be giving each other hand jobs in the swimming pool, their attraction to one another is taking on a palpable tension. Herman knocks on her door, then walks back down the steps, turning to face her at a safe distance – a distance which communicates all the reasons they shouldn’t be speaking; Blume is a married man. Max would be (and ultimately is) crushed by a relationship between his two closest friends. But Herman’s need for escape from his dreary loneliness and his pull towards Rosemary compel him to remain in her orbit. When the conversation lapses and she offers him a carrot from her small, ornately decorated plate, he takes it, returning to his safe distance to chew things over. Realizing that things have gone as far as they can without a clear signal, he starts to leave, pausing to clear a few bits of vegetable from his teeth. His eyes drift back and forth, looking here and there until Rosemary suggests that they go for a walk together. The look in Herman’s eyes in this moment convey a desperate longing, which, supported by his unusual handling of the carrot, reveal a man clutching at straws. Swallowing the crutch he’d been leaning on, Herman climbs the stairs and gives himself over to Rosemary.
Bunny Breckinridge has a secret that he can’t wait to tell you. While attending a wrestling match with Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Dolores Fuller, Bunny peers through opera glasses, coyly inviting guesses as to where he’s going (Mexico, pronounced “Meh-he-co”), and what he’s going to do once he gets there (have his first series of hormone injections, thus beginning a long-awaited sexual reassignment surgery – not lie on a beach, thankyouverymuch). Bunny punctuates his declaration by taking a chomp out of a perfectly phallic hot dog, but this punch line and subsequent chomp - hilarious, perfectly timed, and delivered with deadpan panache – is only the first part of the story. Murray continues the scene, chewing fastidiously, counting the proper number of macerations required before he could share the second part of his secret; that he and his love, Jean-Claude, will be married; Bunny will be a June bride. This attention to protocol and propriety is paramount to Bunny’s character; his crisp suits, dignified, stoic demeanor, his respect (if thinly veiled) for everyone. This may well be one of the most important and self-revelatory announcements of his life, but one simply does not make such an announcement with hot dog bun stuck in one’s teeth.
Murray’s ability to find humour in Wes Anderson’s melancholy scripts is unparalleled. Lines as bleak as “I hope the roof gets blown off and I get sucked up into space. You’ll be better off without me” from Moonrise Kingdom, or “I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one” from The Life Aquatic take on a sparkling quality in Murray’s hands, showing that he completely gets it: the joke is the absurdity at the heart of these characters – that someone would get to a point where they would actually say something like this. As Raleigh St. Clair, the cuckolded husband to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum, Murray delivers his finest eating performance by not actually eating anything at all. Margot, prone to lengthy lock-ins in their shared bathroom, jumps at the opportunity to return to her family home. Leaving Raleigh very abruptly, she intones that she does still love him, if only kind of. Time passes, and husband seeks out wife for tea and a weighty talk. When Margot tells him that she might not ever be coming home, he shakes his head and reaches for a cookie. “Well,” he says, “I want to die.” He raises the cookie to his lips and – in a coup de gras for Murray – cannot find the strength to take a bite. This, to me, is the quintessential Anderson/Murray collaborative moment; Deep emotional turmoil lit by a keen, knowing sense of humour. Of course Raleigh reaches for the cookie. It’s a comfort, but it also runs counter to his exhausted, impotent salvo. He doesn’t want the cookie, he wants his wife. He wants her sweet and happy and light, but he can’t make her that way. And so he puts the cookie down. It could be the heaviest of moments, but the childlike absurdity of seeing Murray hold that cookie is far too funny to tip the scene into maudlin territory. It’s cute, and sad, and poignant, and perfectly Anderson-ian.
Andrew Root had dinner with Bill Murray once, but no one will believe him.
“The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.”—Virginia Woolf, from her 1928 essay "The Cinema"
The well-heeled Angelenos of Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money (2006) come together in the opening sequence to celebrate a birthday. Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful but increasingly embittered fashion designer, is turning forty-three, and despite the $800 she charges for thin, muted peasant blouses with beaded appliqués, she’s floundering. “I think this birthday was hard for you,” her husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), comments later. “You’re in your forties now. It’s real.”
Jane’s friends are scarcely more stable. Christine (Catherine Keener) and David (Jason Isaacs), screenwriting partners piling an ill-considered second story atop their house, strive to save their marriage with the prospect of an ocean view; Franny (Joan Cusack) and Matt (Greg Germann) are ensconced in a life of conspicuous consumption. “They throw a party so rich people like me can spend $10,000 on a table, and then they give it to the sick people,” Franny explains about a charity fundraiser, as though she’s trying to convince herself. “That’s how it’s done!” And there’s Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), listlessly applying free samples of anti-wrinkle cream and staking out her ex-lover’s house. “She’s the only one of our friends not married,” Jane worries. “Is a pothead. Is a maid.”
As Olivia knows, there comes a moment in the unattached life at which it becomes evident you’ve fallen to the far end of the bell curve. In the abstract, you understand that the visible membrane of other people’s lives — engagement photos, wedding invitations, and “gender-reveal parties”; promotions and accolades; new homes, marathon times, compost piles, inspirational quotations — is an unreliable index of happiness, but the lonely imagination is a concrete tropic. No amount of rationalization can shake the impression, suddenly tangible in every interaction, that the ad-hoc family of close friends you gathered in early adulthood sped up at the very moment you stalled.
"You know what, fuck all of you guys," Olivia says. "I’m sorry I don’t have my entire life figured out."
In Nicole Holofcener’s universe, figuring it out is the organizing principle. The way of life on display in her five features as writer-director is a narrow one, coded in the rambling dialect of white, liberal, urban affluence. But her design for living, pulling you through shadowy, regretful places until you emerge, load lightened, on the other side, intimates a wider understanding of what it means to forge, or to lose, one’s sense of attachment.
In Walking and Talking (1996), Amelia (Keener) girds herself for her best friend’s wedding. Laura (Anne Heche) is the girl with whom she examined The Joy of Sex at the lake house one summer, scanning the illustrations as they lay on the bed in their bathing suits, but now Laura’s met Frank (Todd Field) and everything will change. Is changing. Has changed. “Listen to what I’m listening to,” Amelia jokes in one of the many messages she leaves on Laura and Frank’s answering machine. “Music to slit your wrists by.”
Amelia reconnects with an ex-boyfriend and stalks the video store clerk with whom she shared a single failed date, but in the end her messages are for Laura. This is the detail in the film that strikes me most forcefully as an emblem of change, and not only of the technological sort. Amelia convinces herself that the reason she’s so resistant to Laura’s marriage is the envious knot that forms in your stomach when the couples pair off after dinner, but in truth she’s afraid that Laura won’t always be there listening on the other end of the line. “Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me!” Amelia tells Laura near the end of the film. “That’s all I want.”
The desire for this kind of empathy is Holofcener’s center of gravity, the force that holds her films’ constellations of family and friends in orbit. As the reversals of Lovely & Amazing (2001) suggest — the insecure, beautiful actress (Emily Mortimer) mauled by a dog; the married artist (Keener) who takes a job at the one-hour photo and embarks on an affair with a teenager; the mother (Brenda Blethyn), incapacitated by complications from surgery, who can no longer care for her daughters; the adopted child (Raven Goodwin) testing the waters of adulthood — everything does indeed change, except for the need to be understood.
The films’ almost uncanny naturalism stems not from the loose, halting dialogue or the simple aesthetic, then, but from their stories of people whose empathies are thrown out of balance by the fear that theirs will be the next screened call. In the moment of viewing, Holofcener’s work is awkwardly funny, but in retrospect it’s a catalogue of regrets. If you hadn’t laughed at your friend’s engagement ring, would she have answered your call? If she had answered your call would you have avoided falling in with the man who didn’t support your career, and would that have prevented the argument about the addition to the house? And if you hadn’t had the argument would it have saved your marriage, and if you had saved your marriage would your daughter be so angry, and if all of this were true would you have avoided the warp of your guilt? Did you listen, weigh the consequences of your actions, walk a mile in the other person’s shoes? And if you had done all of these things would it have turned out differently?
All of these examples are drawn from one or another of Holofcener’s films, but might just as easily be mistaken for an ordinary person’s moment of doubt. “I was trying to figure out what I knew,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ divorced masseuse remarks in Enough Said (2013) on this point, flipping the pages of her wedding album. But of course what we know is always limited by who we are: empathy, the necessary ingredient in any relationship, is also the most difficult to access.
When my friend Jesse’s younger sister, Molly, stayed with me for a few days this summer, she presented me with a gift of Japanese office supplies — felt-tipped pens in an octagonal case, five notebooks as crisp as starched shirts — and the news that her brother had recently married.
It’s been nearly a decade since I took a bus to New York for the Fourth of July and slept on the couch in Jesse’s apartment near Union Square, smoking pot on the roof during the fireworks and shoveling down arepas at a place called Caracas on East 7th. In those days, which I mostly remember for how I tried to shed my reputation as a kid who always colored inside the lines, Jesse featured prominently in my quiet rebellion. We left the dorm after curfew to share cigarettes and found ourselves sitting on the floor of my room, hazily high from a few cribbed Percocets, but as is often the case with this sort of thing, we gradually, almost imperceptibly, slipped out of touch. Life intervenes. Time passes. As I write this I’m sitting at a table in the courtyard of my New Orleans apartment, considering how strange it is that nothing much happens and yet everything changes, is changing, has changed. I checked Caracas’ website recently and discovered that it now lists four establishments — “Manhattan,” “Brooklyn,” “Rockaway,” “Roneria” — and though the last of these refers to the chain’s “specialized rum bar” on Grand Street, it’s been so long since I was last in New York I assumed it was the name of a neighborhood.
I recognize that drifting apart (from Jesse, from New York, from my former self) was probably inevitable, but I still suffer these periodic flashes of surprise that I am, in fact, an adult, one whose lapsed attachments now outnumber his extant ones. The digital lineaments of modern friendship, designed to hew us to each other across thousands of miles, cloud the uncomfortable truth that scrolling past posts, tweets, images, links, and hashtags demands even less attention than the call that goes straight to the answering machine. To Laura, Amelia’s plaintive voice is at least a forthright presence: for the length of the message they are in the room together, despite the growing gulf between them.
I can also imagine Walking and Talking set in the present, the relationship similarly imperiled, only Amelia would discover the engagement by way of a sepia-toned iPhone photograph, and her insistent desire for contact would register in Laura’s world as alerts and status updates, DMs and funny cat videos, a few more bytes of information absorbed in the feeds we use to measure the length of our days. Holofcener’s unmannered realism transcends the moment of its making, but the most underappreciated aspect of her films is how lo-fi they play. The low-key chatter of the immediate experience remains the leading part in her melody: nothing much happens, but everything changes.
I don’t mean this to sound like a paean to the analog, but it does seem to me that Olivia’s confrontation with the unattached life is qualitatively different from my own. Sitting in Franny’s living room or walking alongside Jane at the farmer’s market, Olivia bears witness not only to the material evidence of their successes, but also to the subtle vibrations of their failures.
"What are you so angry about lately?" she asks Jane.
"You buy your two-year-old daughter $80 shoes from France, and you’re giving me a hard time," she accuses Franny.
The Internet’s cold ether upends this balance: rare are those who use social media to report road rage, cold pizza, routine sex; half-remembered arguments, ungrateful children, credit card debt; disappointment, alienation, ennui. And so we fill in the unseen spaces of other people’s lives using the visible evidence. By this metric, most of the people I know, or used to know, spend their days falling in love, eating street food in Singapore, and meeting foreign dignitaries. Celebrating anniversaries, births, awards, bonuses. Changing the world or at least grabbing hold of it. Keeping in touch. Staying attached. Figuring it out. I watch these developments from afar, in the grip of the same selfish impulse, increasingly difficult to ward off, that animates Amelia — the same fear that there’s no one listening on the other end of the line. Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me.
The evening Jesse’s sister told me he had married, I noticed the green dot of the Google chat feature next to his name. I considered writing to say congratulations. I am ashamed to admit that I did not. Instead I repurposed both items Molly presented to me that day. The news about Jesse became part of this piece, and one of those Japanese notebooks became my critic’s journal, a magpie’s nest of arrows, asterisks, quotations, and stray thoughts about the movies I’m meant to review:
Film Notes (Sept. 2013 —
Please Give (Holofcener, 2010)
Keener plays Kate, who buys furniture and artwork @ estate sales, refurbishes it, and resells it @ a huge markup, sort of takes adv. of the fact that ppl. don’t know the 1st thing about what their shit is worth.
Responsibilities, obligations (Rebecca Hall) v. fun, freedom (Amanda Peet, hilarious)
Keener searches the Internet for volunteer opportunities, gives money to ppl. on the street, but isn’t particularly charitable in her own life.
"Old furniture has ghosts."
Opening song, last lines: “Some folks lose, some folks win.”
When I started writing this I think I was searching, at least in part, for an explanation of why I failed to respond to the beckoning of the green dot, but you see now that I had the answer in front of me all along.
"You know what, fuck all of you guys," Olivia says in Friends with Money. “I’m sorry I don’t have my entire life figured out.”
I want to say I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry I was relieved when my call went to voicemail. I’m sorry I bailed on dinner at the last minute and grimaced at the photographs of your wedding. I’m sorry I burned the bridge between us or just ignored it until it became impassable. I’m sorry I broke my promise to keep your secret, I’m sorry I lied, and I’m sorry I told the truth. I’m sorry I drank too much bourbon and screamed at you in the backyard that night. I’m sorry you have not convinced me to quit smoking. I’m sorry I picked a fight I had no interest in winning on the ride home from the party one bitterly cold Christmas, that I kissed you under the restaurant’s eave on my twenty-sixth birthday (because even then I already knew I would never say “I love you” back), that I didn’t fly home for your funeral. I’m sorry that I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. I don’t have my entire life figured out, and I know, at some level, that I never will.
Writing about Holofcener in the memoir’s intimate first person feels appropriate. Her tacit project all along has been a time-lapse portrait of the women of her generation. No single filmmaker I can think of has rendered with such precision the full complement of pathways through adulthood available to this particular cohort — a depiction preternaturally attuned to the absurdities of this milieu without ever succumbing to satire. Holofcener is the foremost auteur of where our empathies lie.
And so this philatelist of regret, collecting it, collating it, pinning it down, is also the purveyor of what comes after. What Olivia hears next is as important to understanding Holofcener’s work as the apology itself.
"Olivia, we love you," Franny tells her. "We’re the ones who love you."
For Holofcener, a family is made up of the ones who love you. It is the ultimate form of attachment and the most difficult to sever, because to love someone is to know that he or she craves the same understanding you do. Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me.
I suspect that Holofcener’s characters live on somewhere after the camera stops rolling, encountering new mistakes to regret and changes to absorb, but the final act always suggests a refreshed sense of attachment. This is her design for living: to forget for a moment that you did not hold up your end of the bargain and grasp your best friend’s hand as you walk down the stairs to her wedding, or join your sisters to welcome Mom home from the hospital. To give the right guy a chance, to help your neighbor in her time of grief, to make amends.
I’m probably not old enough to be allowed so many regrets, but consider this an attempt to make amends to the ones who love me. As Jane says in Friends with Money, I don’t know what I’d do without you guys. I think about what my days would be like without having you as friends and I would just want to die.
NOBODY’S PERFECT is another thing I wrote in my critic’s journal, but you already knew that.
Matt Brennan is a freelance writer and film critic whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Bright Lights Film Journal, and other publications. He currently contributes to Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood! blog and tweets about movies @thefilmgoer. He lives in New Orleans.
George lives his life on a budget of colors. The vibrant moments when our protagonist’s eyes are filled with crimson and sepia and California orange must be repaid in a long series of cloudy, gray scenes. Skin is not tanned and sensuous for much of the film, but the color of a cat’s dirty milk bowl. Unfortunately George cannot help but absorb these depressed hues, as the people around him are quick to point out.
A Single Man is about a gay British professor named George Falconer living in the early 1960s. He cannot exorcise the ghost of Jim, the love of his life who died a year earlier. If the film were set today, George’s days would likely unravel at expensive therapy sessions, talking to doctors who do not understand him and who prescribe him pills to numb painful memories. But to the brilliantly vivid and brutal memories, George has found his own solution: he is going to kill himself.
George’s task of excising his grief is doubly hard. Not only has he lost the love of his life; he must hide that fact, too. He must live invisible in a world afraid of a minority that threatens the wholesome American way of life. George explains this fear to his dumbstruck English class, raving about the fear of communists, Madison Avenue, advertisements, and fear itself. Does anyone in the class understand this? It doesn’t seem so.
Until this point, the film is divided between George’s memories of Jim and his preparation for suicide. There are beautiful, fleeting moments of temporal presence in the world, moments where time seems to slow and George briefly betrays his depression with a smile. George sees tulip red lips and sweat-gleaned bodies proportioned like Greek statues, but he is always pulled back to the ashen world before he can enjoy the moments much.
Enter his young student in the mohair sweater, Kenny. Perhaps he reminds George of Jim, who was also considerably younger than “Old Man” George. Maybe he feels as if he can teach this one, too. Though wasn’t Jim, in the end, the one teaching George?
The boy’s dramatic minefield of a youth is interesting to George. They walk to the campus bookstore and, for a moment, we see the skeleton of the film. The boy, Kenny, buys a red pencil sharpener the same bright color his lips have become. It is the color of rage and lust, George informs him. “No kidding,” Kenny says, smiling and flirting. What is red really but the color of passion left in George’s world?
George is reminded again and again of life’s beauty: by the powder blue dress on the girl next door; by the green eyes of a Spanish prostitute who looks like James Dean; by the pink cigarettes of his vain friend Charley (performed wonderfully by Julianne Moore).
But the past is never far behind him, because George does not ever wish for it to be. It’s a terrible nightmare, but a nightmare he must endure to keep Jim alive. And that’s why we are so empathetic. What is scarier than letting go of someone taken from us too soon? Will they cease to exist if we forget? Does our love still exist without them? Or does love exist on a higher and inviolable plane, left undestroyed even in death?
Can we ever learn to live without our lovers by our sides?
After an interrupted suicide attempt, George finds himself at the old sailor’s bar where he first met Jim. The cherubic face of Kenny comes to the rescue again. Red saturates the screen. The color has shifted its meaning now, representing not just rage or lust, but also what George refers to as “clarity”. In Kenny’s presence, the vibrancy of the present world is almost overwhelming.
And perhaps these brief moments of passion are enough. Maybe, if we saw the world in it’s wide spectrum all the time, it would begin to look like an overexposed photograph. George’s passion explodes like a star and he is, finally, left with the faint glow of happiness. Nothing more needs to be done.
Of moments like this, George says, “it’s as though it has all just come into existence.”
WHY ARE YOU MESSING WITH THE FANTASY? WE KNOW REALITY. DON’T MESS WITH THE FANTASY, OKAY?
by Noel Nickol
Three or four times a year our fifth-grade teacher, the owl-faced scout master Mr. Kidd, would allow us to push our desks into one corner of the classroom, clear the floor, and spend the afternoon having a classroom-sized dance party. It wasn’t the gym, exactly, but it worked well enough. And most importantly, it gave Mr. Kidd, thoroughly grey and well past the age he had planned to retire, a much needed afternoon off from teaching. So, we would hook up the big beige school-issue tape player, gorge ourselves on store-brand ginger ale and chips, and gleefully waste the rest of the day playing the biggest hits of 1988.
The class looked forward to these afternoons all year. Or, most did. For my part, I was largely ambivalent about these brief respites from school work. While I looked forward to an afternoon free of long division, there was one particular aspect of these little parties that I came to utterly despise: slow dancing.
Not because I didn’t like slow dancing. Because I never got to slow dance at all.
We would be listening to something harmless and fun – “Parents Just Don’t Understand” or some Milli Vanilli – when out of nowhere, someone, usually a girl, threw on “Never Tear Us Apart”. The strings glided in and Michael Hutchence began his particularly feline version of a croon.
Then the moment of dread arrived: boys and girls mysteriously broke off into spontaneous couples, spending the entire song locked together in robotically awkward but utterly enviable embraces.
I was never a part of one of the these couples. Instead, I would pass the song standing against the wall, walking through the crowd or, most of the time, finding something completely fascinating in the room to read—the fire escape plan for instance. I was, again and again, one of the odd boys out. It was embarrassing. But beyond the humiliation, I was also just confused. How did these couples form? How do you walk over to a girl and ask her to dance? But what seemed even more mysterious to me, what remained entirely out of reach until years later, was how I could ever become one of those lucky guys with a girl stuck to him, locked in something so casual but secretly meaningful, swaying an afternoon away to INXS.
When I found Weird Science at 10 years old, it instantly became my favorite film. I was aware of previous films about outcasts, of course—I’d even been lucky enough to catch an uncensored version of Revenge of the Nerds late one night, long after my parents had gone to bed—but those seemed like cartoon caricatures of what it meant to be an outsider. I wasn’t Poindexter. I didn’t wear a pocket protector. Hell, I wasn’t even good at math.
But Weird Science didn’t have grotesque, Hollywood-style nerds at its center. Instead of the buffoonish outcasts featured in most films of its type, Weird Science had Gary and Wyatt: two gawky but relatable guys, standing with their faces perpetually pressed up against the glass of high school society. And then one night, in one of the best edited and most entertaining “creation” sequences I’ve ever seen, they use Wyatt’s computer—along with just the right dose of occult hoodoo—to create Lisa, a magical woman who looks and acts just like Kelly LeBrock.
At age ten, it felt like a film constructed almost entirely out of the detritus of my pre-adolescent mind, a cinematic pastiche composed from a thousand comic books, fantasy novels, computer games and burgeoning daydreams about the opposite sex.
Weird Science was pure male fantasy for sure—just look at the scene where Kelly LeBrock asks the clerk at the lingerie store if she has anything that comes in barbed wire—but it was a specific kind of male fantasy, evident right from the EC Comics-style typography of the opening title sequence and the hyper-angular nerd-rock of Oingo Boingo that accompanies it. It’s a fantasy directed at the subset of guys who never made any sports teams, who never even tried out for them; those shadow dwellers who carried beat-up copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in their back pockets. It’s a peon to the alienated, the outsiders, and the weirdos.
In other words, it’s a film from John Hughes to his younger, nerdier self.
Throughout the ‘80s, Hughes set a string of teen-centered films in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, a place he patterned on the affluent Chicago suburbs he called home. But while the first three of these films—Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—have enjoyed classic status for quite some time now, Weird Science is often considered the weakest of the cycle. Perhaps it’s because the other three come across as more immediately earnest and heartfelt: we empathize with Sam and her forgotten birthday in Sixteen Candles; The Breakfast Club, with its cross-cultural high school group therapy sessions, seems designed to appeal to basically every teenager on planet Earth; Ferris Bueller, for all of its slick anarchism and cool kid vs. the institution antics, contains a thick, wistful streak of teenage self-reflection and pensiveness about the next stage of life. Each of these films come off as brave and honest. Weird Science, meanwhile, has always been considered something of a romp, a teenaged wet dream rendered in a form just tame enough to earn its PG-13 rating.
I’ve never thought this assessment was a correct one. In fact, I’m going to go out on a particularly long, lonely limb here and say that, with the possible exception of She’s Having a Baby, Weird Science is John Hughes at his most personal.
Consider the star. If Molly Ringwald was Hughes‘ female muse, Anthony Michael Hall was his on-screen surrogate (Hughes even has a cameo as Hall’s father in one of the very last scenes of The Breakfast Club). And while the rest of his films cover the entire social strata of the high school experience, it’s only with Weird Science that he goes all-in with a focus on the outcasts, putting them at the very center of the plot.
It’s also the only one of Hughes’ High School films to move from a relatively realistic portrayal of teenaged life into the realm of complete fantasy. There are no frozen grandparents in The Breakfast Club, no post-apocalyptic biker gangs in Sixteen Candles. Weird Science isn’t a movie about the high school experience as it was—it’s a movie about high school as we wanted it to be.
It’s an approach made clear from the very opening scene, in which we find Gary and Wyatt—two bobbing Adam’s apples—watching girls in gym class. Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) launches into a brilliantly unrepressed daydream that mirrors the film we’re about to see almost exactly: showers, parties, girls - the whole thing. He delivers the monologue with hilariously rubber-faced gusto only to be interrupted by Wyatt, reminding him flatly: “Nobody likes us. Nobody.”
“Why are you messing with the fantasy?” Gary replies. “We know the reality. Don’t mess with the fantasy okay?”
It’s a scene that serves as a manifesto for the entire film. It’s a declaration of intent: this is not The Breakfast Club. This is pure fantasy.
Not that Hughes doesn’t put his boys through the stations of the cross. Over the course of the film, we slide back and forth between a world of unfettered male fantasy and the brutally bleak reality of high school. For every scene where Gary drives around in a Ferrari or Wyatt makes out with Kelly LeBrock, there’s a scene where the guys are bullied by Bill Paxton or humiliated at the mall. In addition, the dialogue is filled with references to past traumas the duo have suffered – Gary talking about how a girl kicked him in the crotch in front of everyone at his family reunion, or the girl at the perfume counter who insists on bringing up the fact that Gary and Wyatt were beat-up at the homecoming game. In this way, Weird Science works a bit like an exorcist, continually bringing forward the adolescent demons of rejection, humiliation and physical weakness, and then, through the power of fantasy, destroying them.
Weird Science is about a world where The Breakfast Club’s Brian is more than just a “brain”. It’s a world where, despite the unsure beginnings of having no one to talk to (or slow dance with) at their own party, Gary and Wyatt eventually become not just popular, but actual heroes - saving the gym class girls from marauding bikers in front of everyone in the entire school.
For me, Weird Science was a trip into a world where everything works out. A shared fantasia belonging to every kid who never fit in. It was film that made it possible, if only for ninety minutes, to dream that things might turn around for you, just like they turned around for Gary and Wyatt. And while, at times, the movie might feel a bit disjointed and ridiculous, it’s also heartfelt and beautiful and honest.
And the best kinds of dreams often are.
By day, Noel Nickol can be found making TV commercials. By night he can be found here.
Back in the nineties, the thing to do for grade schoolers was to have slumber parties and watch scary movies. These sleepovers intimidated me. Up until then, I’d occupied most of my free time listening to and staging my own basement productions of classic American musicals, so I was out of my element. More than once, I faked illness and had my mom come pick me up.
I suffered that unique trauma inspired by mediocre horror: sleepless nights and haunted thoughts with none of the accompanying satisfaction that comes with a respectable scary movie like Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Jaws, or The Shining. Like good food, a good scary movie should be sublime while you’re watching it and, once the credits roll, a good memory. You shouldn’t have to pay for it afterward. The average sleepover features left me with horror indigestion.
And the granddaddy of all mediocre and therefore unfairly disturbing scary movies? Pet Sematary. No other film has haunted me as much. I saw it during that 4th-grade slumber party phase, at a sleepover for my friend Katie’s birthday. After watching Pet Sematary, we all slept on the floor in Katie’s sister Mo’s bedroom, which was at the end of an upstairs hallway.
Just like Zelda’s room in Pet Sematary.
But more on that later.
I spent that night huddled on the floor, reading the most innocuous book I could find in Mo’s room. Periodically one of Katie’s parents would come in to check on us (I would pretend to sleep) and turn the light off (I would turn it back on as soon as I dared and go back to reading The Babysitter’s Club).
My fear extended for weeks, and the memory of the movie loomed large. I watched it again in high school, this time by choice and armed with much more film savvy. My friend Mark had also been traumatized by Pet Sematary as a child, so one late night we rented it and watched together. We ended up re-horrified and, this time, outraged because we now knew enough to know that this film had CROSSED THE LINE. It seemed to deliberately concoct the most upsetting images possible, whether or not they were necessary or relevant (see: Zelda). And it did not earn its terror footprint. There’s no worse cinematic cocktail than one part horrifying imagery, two parts depressing predictability and camp.
I vowed never to watch Pet Sematary again.
But now it’s scary movie week and I can’t deny Pet Sematary. It is the one truly scarring film of my childhood. And so this week I watched it with my boyfriend (Casey) and two roommates (Josh and Jonathan), a hardboiled and responsive bunch if ever there was one. Thanks to this last viewing, I can declare with confidence and at least some rational judgment that Pet Sematary: a) does indeed cross some lines, b) is indeed a mediocre-to-bad movie, and c) has finally been exorcised from my nightmares. Turns out all it took was a MST3K-style showing and twenty years of living life and watching movies.
The plot of Pet Sematary: Maybe the book was better…
Pet Sematary offers its own twist on the classic horror movie viewer response Don’t Go In There!, usually manifesting here as Don’t Bury That! or What Part Of “The Ground Has Soured” Do You Not Understand?!
The movie opens like many horror films, with a young family, the Creeds, moving into their new home. They are:
Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff): Generically handsome doctor.
Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby): Generically (and a bit creepily) beautiful wife. Icy.
Ellie Creed (Blaze Berdahl): Daughter, 6-8 years old. Styled to be the poor man’s Ellen from Fatal Attraction. Precocious and whiney. You may remember her as Lenni on Ghost Writer.
Gage Creed (Miko Hughes): Son, toddler. Strangely the most relatable and interesting member of the Creed family. You may remember him as Michelle’s friend Teddy on Full House or as Tom Hanks’ heartbreakingly concerned youngest child in Apollo 13 (“Was it the door?”). This was the only comforting thought I could muster about the film growing up, that the actor who played Gage ended up in a much happier place than the character did.
Churchill “Church” Creed: Cat, grey and round-faced.
The Creeds’ new house sits much too close to a narrow country road down which huge semis roar, evidently every two minutes or so. We quickly learn via the Creeds’ folksy neighbor Judd (Fred Gwynne, with a delightful Maine accent) that there is a pet cemetery nearby where neighborhood children bury all the pets that are killed by semis.
So, following basic dramatic logic, we now figure: someone will probably be killed by a semi.
By Thanksgiving, Church the cat is, duh, killed by a semi. Louis secretly buries him in the Indian burial ground that is hidden behind the pet cemetery (just go with it), and the next day Church turns back up at the house, alive but pretty clearly evil. Louis elects to uneasily coexist with the demon cat rather than tell his daughter that he let her beloved pet get run over by a semi.
Somewhere around here, Rachel tells Louis about her older sister Zelda, who died of spinal meningitis when they were alone in the house together. I mention this not because it furthers the plot whatsoever, but because the Zelda flashbacks were the traumatizing scenes that reduced me to reading The Babysitters Club for eight hours in a row back in the early nineties.
But more on that later.
Meanwhile, Baby Gage gets—you guessed it—run over by a semi. It’s a genuinely upsetting sequence, with the entire family plus Judd running to try to catch him before he totters into the road in front of the rapidly approaching truck. The blow of seeing a baby become road kill is softened considerably by Louis’s Oscar Moment reaction. He drops to his knees, throws his head back, and bellows, “NOOOOOOO!” It is, mercifully, hilarious. Even worse (or better) is a segment on the DVD special features in which actor Dale Midkiff brags about how naturally that moment’s passionate performance came to him. Oh, dear.
Things only get worse for the Creeds/better for snarky viewers like my roommates.
Rachel’s father punches Louis at Gage’s funeral. [INAPPROPRIATE IMAGE ALERT: Louis falls onto the casket and a dead baby arm flies out.]
Louis buries Gage in the burial ground.
Gage comes back evil, duh, randomly wearing different clothes from the ones he was buried in (Jonathan: “Why is he wearing weird Crucible clothes?”) and kills Judd. [INAPPROPRIATE IMAGE ALERT: Evil Gage fells Judd by slicing through his Achilles tendon, then slices him across the mouth, then bites his carotid artery like a tiny vampire.]
Evil Gage then kills Rachel.
Louis gets wise to what’s going on and grabs his doctor bag. He uses a syringe to do a test kill on Church the cat, marking the occasion with the nonsensical gem, “Today is Thanksgiving Day for cats—but only if they came back from the dead.” Seriously, what?
Louis kills Evil Gage with the syringe.
Louis burns the house down and carries away Rachel’s body (Casey: “He should probably bury her to see if she comes out nice.”)
Louis buries Rachel in the burial ground (Casey: “He’s gonna try it? I was just joking! ‘Sometimes dead is better!’”)
Evil (?) Rachel comes back with bodily fluids oozing out of her eye socket. [INAPPROPRIATE IMAGE ALERT: She and Louis have a sickening make-out session.]
She raises her hand behind him, wielding a giant knife. Cut to black (Josh: “All things considered, it’s not the worst way to commit suicide.”)
The credits roll with a spirited track from The Ramones that wails, rather unnecessarily, “I don’t want to be buried in a Pet Semata-ray!” Neither do I, Joey Ramone. Neither do I.
Zelda: Is this really necessary?
These flashback sequences really messed me up when I was little, and they still seem way over-the-top grotesque. An eight-year-old Rachel edges down a long upstairs hallway toward the terrible croaking sounds of her dying sister. Zelda lies writhing on the bed. She chokes when Rachel tries to feed her. Her spine, conveniently visible through her unbuttoned dress, is impossibly twisted and protruding. Her face is a contorted prosthesis.
I noticed this time around that Zelda also seems about thirty years older than the young Rachel. I did a little IMDb research to see if I could find the birth year of the actress who played her. And I found out Zelda was actually played by a man (Andrew Hubastek). According to IMDb, Hubastek was cast because they couldn’t find a woman bony enough. So Zelda’s age was not exactly a concern. Just get her to look scary enough and it’ll be okay, right?
I resent all of this Zelda imagery because its disturbing quotient is gratuitously out of proportion with its necessity to the film. The flashback explains a bit about Rachel, but who really cares? This is not a character-driven film. It also reinforces the movie’s “Sometimes Dead Is Better” tagline, but really, aren’t the demon-eyed pets and killer babies enough? The most frightening images from the best scary movies are there for reasons beyond merely infecting the thoughts of the viewer. Hitchcock don’t play that game.
After Rachel finishes the story, Louis says, blaming her parents for leaving her alone with Zelda, “If I ever needed another reason to dislike your mother and father, I have one now.”
Thanks, Louis; that’s exactly how I feel about Zelda and Pet Sematary.
Then he hops up to get his wife a Valium. Which is exactly what I needed after first watching Pet Sematary. Being nine and not having a generically handsome doctor husband to prescribe my medication, I made do as best I could with The Babysitters Club.
In my high school English class, we were taught that there are many definitions of monstrous. A monster does not necessarily have to be a boogeyman hiding under the bed, or a werewolf lurking in the Yorkshire moors. A monster is something that scares us and threatens us; something inherently different to what we are. In that class, we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, examining the links between monsters and language. Humans often tend to differentiate between Us and Them based on barriers and differences between languages. Caliban, Bertha, and Friday are all human, and are all treated as something less, something Other, because of differences in communication.
In Tod Browning’s Freaks, the differences between trapeze artist Cleopatra, the strongman Hercules (her boyfriend), and the sideshow freaks they work with are physically obvious, but more subtle on the inside. Where the freaks are honest and trusting, the “big people” speak a language of deceit and disgust.
The story revolves around Hans, a dwarf in possession of a considerable inheritance, and Cleopatra’s scheme to marry him, poison him, and run off with his money (and Hercules). Though Hans leaves his fiancée Frieda, another little person, for Cleopatra, she is the only one who continually verbalizes the reasons why Hans should avoid the monstrous Cleopatra. ”To me you’re a man,” she tells Hans, “but to her, you’re only something to laugh at!”
Among the freaks, there is predominantly a culture of mutual respect. The microcephalics of diminished capacity are well cared-for, and treated as innocent children. Those born without limbs, or with other physical anomalies, are prized for what they can do, instead of shunned for what they cannot. “Normal” circus employee Venus, though physically different to them, identifies as a freak, and abides by their code of ethics. It’s the viciousness of Cleopatra and Hercules that sets them apart.
But when Hans is too lovestruck and trusting to believe what Frieda and the others are saying about his new bride, everyone accepts that they will have to welcome her into the family. There is resistance. Frances, a girl with no arms, is convinced that “Cleopatra ain’t one of us. Why, we’re just filthy things to her.” But the wedding feast carries on, and the freaks dance and celebrate and revel in family.
Cleopatra and Hercules laugh riotously, and only Frieda can see how they are laughing at Hans, at her, and at all the other freaks gathered around the table. The freaks begin their ceremony of welcoming Cleopatra into the fold by sharing a goblet of wine with her. By now you’ve likely heard their famous chant, “Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us…” The rhythmic nature may be objectively unsettling, but to the freaks it is mirthful. To Cleopatra and Hercules, it is perverse, instantly snapping them out of their snide laughter, and terrifying them. Cleopatra sees the freaks as monsters, abhorrent. She hurls her drink at them, shouting and mocking them, leaving Hans racked with embarrassment.
Cleopatra’s monstrous nature has been visible, but mostly under the surface, until now. Hans could not see it. When they were alone, they spoke in whispers, sipping champagne, and kissing softly, Cleopatra’s lies matching Hans’ earnest murmurs. Now, though, everyone has seen her outburst, witnessed her slow poisoning of Hans, her illicit trysts with Hercules. She is no frightened woman in a sea of townsfolk out to get her, but rather a monster in their midst, attacking one of their own, and she must be stopped. She must be punished.
The freaks chase her into the woods. She would be the typical archetype of a damsel in distress, a blonde beauty terrified by the sets of eyes peering out from the shadows, running screaming into the woods. But instead we see her as a criminal being sought for revenge, and the freaks, crawling through the mud, as vigilantes out for justice.
It is revealed that as time has gone on, Cleopatra has survived, working as a sideshow freak known as “The Human Duck.” Her face has been slashed and maimed, her legs cut off, her hands deformed to resemble webbed duck feet. Why not simply kill her? Why make her into a freak? By turning her into one of them, the freaks have effectively stripped her of her monstrosity, cutting out that part of her that felt better than them, willing to hurt them. For them, life as a freak is normal, is all they’ve ever known. But they know that placing Cleopatra among their ranks would be her very worst nightmare, easily a fate worse than death.
In Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, the limbless sideshow attraction Arturo creates a cult of lonely followers who pay to have their body parts removed, one by one, in a search for religious ecstasy. Unlike actual individuals with body integrity identity disorder—who yearn for a disability in order to make their corporeal form match their perceived self-identity—Dunn’s Arturists are in pursuit of becoming like their hero, who preaches “Peace, Isolation, Purity.” When the freaks turn Cleopatra into one of them, they are bringing her to their level, and giving her no option other than to be isolated, and in her impotence, pure.
It may be easy to think of the sideshow of “human oddities” as a relic of years gone by, to think that the modern media consumer is somehow enlightened, finding such entertainment to be distasteful. But it’s also sometimes hard to remember that there was a time before the internet, before the average person had access to peer into the lives of people from all walks of life, all around the world. To become desensitized to the most disgusting range of stunts and unusual range of human variety. Every day there is another television show about little people, extremely tall people, super morbidly obese people, anorexics, hoarders, addicts, people with extreme religious beliefs, progeria, massive tumors, and more sensational situations than we can often even name.
When I was in college, a school-sponsored party hired little people to come entertain as Jell-O wrestlers. That the school would endorse such minstrelsy when even the faculty included a little person as the chair of a department, was disgusting to me. But there is clearly still a market for people to be gawked at based on appearance alone, and there is profit to be made. As long as we can follow Venus’ model, embracing and respecting our uniqueness and differences, instead of using them as a crutch to enable hatred and fear, we can try to stay on this side of monstrous.
Katherine Spada is a Hollywood assistant, and her curiosity has taken her to some of the most mind-boggling reaches of the internet and basic cable. When the mood strikes, she blogs here.
I believe in ghosts. I do. When I was a child, I often visited my grandma and great-grandma in the huge, old schoolhouse they shared. During the day, the house was a child’s dream - chalkboards in every bedroom; a secret passage between closets; a long, wide hallway with wooden floors, perfect for sliding down in socks. At night, the rooms seemed too dark. The hallway, too long. In the bathroom at the end of the hall, across from the room where I slept, there was a door to the attic that would never stay latched. I won’t invent a misty figure in the night, but there was a feeling, a physical sensation, of something other in the house. I still have dreams about it, the attic stairs, the glowing light coming in through leaded windows, the vast, empty orchard outside. Belief in hauntings is irrational, science certainly does not comply, but I choose to believe because it’s better than the alternative: needing to explain dark feelings, dark thoughts.
"Big rooms get bigger at night," Flora says. Flora is one of The Innocents, a young girl raised by nannies and maids, living on an English estate with her brother, Miles, and a host of domestic help. There is the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. There is the nameless cook. There is a brand new governess, Miss Giddens, just-arrived. One of the first things Flora says to Miss Giddens, after telling her they are to sleep in the same room, is “promise now, you won’t go away.” People have gone away from Flora before. The new governess makes a solemn vow.
There is something desperate in Miss Giddens, played to the hilt by Deborah Kerr. We see it in her first scene, when she interviews with the children’s uncle, a Londoner who has no room in his life, “neither mentally nor emotionally,” for his nephew and niece. We see it in the way she stares at the man, the way she trembles when he clasps her hands and thanks her, thanks her ever so much, for consenting to take the job. The implication is that this is the first time a man has touched her bare skin. The implication is that Miss Giddens has been lonely for so long.
"You must never trouble me, never, never," the man says. "Whatever happens, you must handle it alone." Flattered, breathless, she consents.
The house at Bly is large. At night, the wind blows hard, curtains flapping violently in its wake. There are voices in the halls, footsteps overhead. There are dangers lurking about — at least, Miss Giddens thinks there are. Her unease creeps in slowly. On her second day as governess, she sits in the garden with Flora, reading a letter from Miles’s school. The boy has been expelled for mysterious reasons, and will be arriving home shortly. The governess has yet to meet Miles. She is curious, she is concerned.
"Oh look Miss Giddens," Flora says. "A lovely spider, and it’s eating a butterfly!" Cue ominous violins.
Miles arrives with a bouquet of flowers. He tells Miss Giddens how pretty she is. The governess is all aflutter. That night, Miles asks how big her house was, the one she left to come to Bly.
”Oh, very small,” she says.
”Too small for you to have secrets?” He is a ten-year-old flirt, all pompadour and wry grin. Miss Giddens and the boy hold hands.
Truman Capote wrote most of the script, and Miles is all the proof we need. The boy is pale, cunning, vaguely eroticized. Picture Capote, pausing in his work to phone a friend with his latest revelation: “The boy will smack a gelatin bunny in act three.” The Innocents is based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. In Capote’s hands it is Victorian gone Gothic, a mash-up before the term existed. Much of the film is straightforward suspense, wide shots and shadows, things lurking, minds playing tricks. But always there is a heat, an intrigue, a need. In the garden, just before her first ghostly vision appears, Miss Giddens watches a beetle crawl from the mouth of a cherub statue without arms. Something is rotten. Something else wants to feed.
There are two ghosts in The Innocents, ghosts only Miss Giddens can see. They are her predecessor, Miss Jessup, and Peter Quint, the former valet. The housekeeper tells Miss Giddens their story: they were lovers, their affair was violent, he died, she killed herself.
"Rooms used by daylight as though they were dark woods," the housekeeper says, shaking her head at the scandal.
Hot damn, says Miss Giddens’s face. “We must confront these horrors” are the words that come out, and we know she wants so much more than to confront. She is enraptured. She is desperate. She will handle things alone.
And that is as much set-up as you need, as much of the story I can tell. In the style of the original theatrical trailer, here are some things that happen in The Innocents that will FRIGHTEN AND AMAZE:
A face appears suddenly in a window!
A door is mysteriously locked from within!
A confrontation takes place in a dusty attic room!
A little girl dances alone to the warped strains of a broken music box!
Two people who shouldn’t share a passionate kiss!
The Innocents is as much about what is heard as what is seen, what is intuited as what occurs. Atmosphere and suspense are obvious qualities, a given when discussing scary movies, and in many ways, The Innocents plays directly to genre. It is the psychology that sets it apart. The central question in The Innocents is, What is imagined, and what is real? Does Miss Giddens see real souls left to wander the earth unfulfilled, or are they ghosts of trauma, of imagination, of a loneliness and longing so strident it leaves our heroine shivering in candlelight, praying hard? Either way, the fear is real. Either way, Miss Giddens wants, and her wanting leads to dark things indeed.
Elisabeth Geier is a writer living in Missoula, Montana. She is, like Miss Giddens, a damned dirty-minded hag.
Some engineers, pilots, a scientist and their captain are on a ship returning home. It’s a long journey so they sleep much of the way.
Traversing one of the lesser known regions they intercept a strange message. Maybe an SOS. The dictates of their order compel them to alter course and investigate. They set out in a lifeboat toward the source of the transmission. They dock in a cold, hostile, primordial port. The captain asks for volunteers to venture further.
At sunrise they reach the ruins of an immense and ancient craft. Inside the captain and his men discover the mummified corpse of a giant human frozen prone beneath his telescope. A castaway from a grand race of astronomers, starward journeymen infinitely advanced beyond humankind in learning, perception and compassion.
The captain and his men fiddle with the body. They get bored and move on.
After they’ve returned to their ship and resumed the homeward path one of the pilots decodes the alien transmission. Instead of an SOS the message is one of warning, of quarantine, broadcasting on a loop, perhaps for centuries. But already it’s too late. The First Officer has contracted the sickness.
One by one the crew dies off. Alone in the dark the survivors turn against each other until only the pilot who decoded the message remains. In a last attempt to stop the spread of the disease she destroys the ship and its cargo, fleeing with her cat in an escape raft. The sickness follows her. She strips nude and blows it out the airlock. Finally she goes back to sleep.
For all there is of Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, however, Alien is not a film about women. It is film about the failure of men. Their absent recesses. The weight of their shadows. For much of the film Ripley remains an ancillary star, orbiting until engaged by default elimination. All the men die so she picks up the crumbling mantle.
Mostly she fails. She can’t control her fear, her emotions. She panics and detonates a starfrieghter in a misguided attempt to kill something she doesn’t yet understand. The men remain calm until death, perhaps because they don’t live long enough to become hysterics. Kane is the First Man, the Adam, the serene sacrifice we all must acknowledge. Brett and Parker are man as he is now. A pair of mechanics arguing for a greater share of misery in the face of annihilation. Lambert, the only other woman, is moody and unreliable, reticent until hesitance erases her completely. Captain Dallas is the bluecollar buffoon, blunthanded and dullheaded, ordering the android Ash to get that thing off Kane’s face.
Ash listens to Dallas with various stages of repulsion. He ignores Brett and Parker altogether. He knows Lambert will die quickly. He is man as we would like to be. The absolute worst of us. Detached, efficient, brutal, deceptive. Full of rape. But for all of his reflex and all of his knowledge, his vision - and that of the supercomputer Mother - is very narrow. Indeed it is nothing compared to that of the petrified Astronomer, locked to his scope, ignored by the humans as they vex themselves in pursuit of their dark beast. Turn away from God in favor of the incredible fuckable egg.
Limited vision; limited abundance. Overstuffed children at a sad carnival.
In waking life we wander the hallways of the Nostromo. Bereft. Shunning the divine to chase that which destroys us. The pure consumptive void, the merciless arbiter, the alien whetstone equally vacant of grace and forgiveness. A thing without eyes.
Perhaps we do not want to be forgiven. Perhaps we do not want to see. Not here. Not now.
With daylight we roam the melting corridors and at night we dream with the Astronomer.
Where does he take us? To what mirrors? To what rings? Drifting through the ticketbooth of sleep we remember not. In the morning we’re godless again amongst wails of chains. We forget the overtures sounded from the Astronomer’s trumpet. Maybe a vestige remains, some eternal sustain we hum as we seek selvage by reciting our daily bread, check chest for life, hunt out dark corners in hopes we might be glamoured again.
We succeed only in becoming a recluse tribe, roughknuckled and husking. We confuse emptiness with solitude, silence with peace. While gone in prayer we murmur hallelujahs, convinced the white light we see is God, when really all we’ve realized is the onset of cataracts, blindness from being too long in a cave, pecking at some stones without the glow of stars while we wait to dream again.