“Movies, if they’re very good, aren’t a conversation; they’re an exaltation, a shuddering of one’s being, something deeply personal yet awesomely vast. That’s what criticism exists to capture. And it’s exactly what’s hard to talk about, what’s embarrassingly rhapsodic, what runs the risk of seeming odd, pretentious, or gaseous at a time of exacting intellectual discourse.”—Richard Brody
I am five years old. Crisp white paper crinkles underneath me as I shift on the table. It is very cold and bright in the room, but I am sweaty. My palms stick together. I look at my mom and at the big jar of red, yellow, and green lollipops. Then I look at the nurse, who is holding a syringe up to the light. Clear drops of fluid spritz off its sharp end.
“Now,” she advises, pointing the needle at the meat of my upper arm. “Look away.”
But I can’t. The needle moves closer and closer.
Some images are too powerful to forget. Wherever and whenever they appear, they poke at dark things that lie just beyond the reach of our consciousness. They sear our brains. Whether we seek them out or stumble upon them, they reel through our minds like a refrain, unbridling fear and obsession.
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is full of such images. I was fourteen when I saw it for the first time, on a class trip, and I was not ready for it. I walked out of the theatre that day, its violent, sexually charged scenes filling my mind, cues for brand new nightmares.
In the film’s iconic opening sequence, the peace of a quiet neighborhood in Lumberton, North Carolina is shattered when a man collapses on his lawn. Inside the house, his wife watches a mystery program. A dog drinks from the man’s hose, which he still holds in a viselike grip. Nearby, children laugh as they cross the street and flowers in deeply saturated colors play against a bright blue sky. Bobby Vinton croons “Blue Velvet” in the background.
This could be Anywhere, America. But the man’s stroke has taken away its anonymity. Violence is particular: it peels open what’s expected, to reveal what’s curious underneath. Below this man’s immaculate lawn, thousands of bugs gnash at the soil and at one another, eroding the idyllic afternoon with each bite.
My mother is watering flowers in the backyard. When she steps away from a pot full of bright purple petunias, my brother and I see that a rust-colored rattlesnake is coiled next to it, almost the same color as the planter.
It flicks its tongue. We scream and pound on the window.
The man’s son, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to Lumberton from college to visit his father in the hospital. While cutting through a vacant lot on the way home, he finds a severed ear. It buzzes like a radio between stations, as if Jeffrey must turn it to the right frequency to understand its hidden message. Jeffrey bags and pockets it like a key, opening the door to an enigmatic, frightening world that’s been lying just under the surface of his sleepy hometown.
With his open face, sensitive eyes, and strong jaw, MacLachlan is a Romantic hero, a physical embodiment of trustworthiness and virtue. Lynch once said of him, “Kyle plays innocents who are interested in the mysteries of life. He’s the person you trust enough to go into a strange world with.” This is especially true for Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter, who catches wind of Jeffrey’s discovery and other details of the case by eavesdropping on her father’s telephone conversations. In a local diner, Jeffrey and Sandy make plans to find the connection between the ear and the police’s current person of interest—a club singer named Dorothy Vallens—by breaking into her apartment.
My father cracks open the lid of the electric breaker on the back wall of the house. Inside, a huge spider stretches across the switches. Her spindly legs gather together as the sun hits her. She hisses.
My father slams the breaker shut.
It’s within Dorothy’s flat that Lynch’s noir undertones take full flesh. We’d heard echoes of it in Angelo Badalamenti’s score, an orchestral track calling to mind deeply-dipped fedoras, slinky cocktail dresses, and smoking guns. Now, in a setting worthy of Hitchcock, Lynch’s femme fatale, played by the inimitable Isabella Rossellini, catches Jeffrey red-handed as he rifles through her apartment looking for clues. She holds a butcher knife up to his throat. She demands that he remove his clothes.
You can’t look away from Dorothy. Dark-haired and pale, she drapes a blue velvet robe around her shoulders and examines herself in the mirror. She leans against walls, folds in despair to the floor, and looks up through half-lidded eyes. With her bright red lips and bruise-blue eye shadow, she’s the picture of open, violent passion, the antidote to Sandy’s pink-and-white bloom. She is the smoking gun. She is the afternoon mystery program that the women of Lumberton turn on to forget the suds in their sinks. She is so alluring that a man named Frank kidnapped her husband and young son in order to make her his sexual slave.
Frank (Dennis Hopper) lives up to his name: he is a straightforward brand of evil. Jeffrey, Sandy and Dorothy, their names ending in y, decorate the action of the film like adverbs decorate a verb. But Frank is pure action. He interrupts Dorothy and Jeffrey’s brief interlude by pounding on the door. By the time Dorothy whisks Jeffrey into the closet, he has entered the apartment, his movements brusque, every word punctuated by obscenities. He has come to take what is his. As Jeffrey watches from the closet, Frank subjects Dorothy to a series of humiliating and violent sexual acts. He presses a mask to his mouth and gasps at an unidentified substance. His eyes bug out. But neither his person nor his crimes are as disturbing as Dorothy’s obvious enjoyment of them. At the tail end of a punch, her lips curl into a smile.
I shift uncomfortably in my red velvet theatre seat as Frank finishes dry-humping Dorothy and leaves. She folds her legs up to her chest, a patch of her blue velvet robe missing where Frank cut it. Naked, Jeffrey emerges from the closet. He folds Dorothy into his arms. “Are you okay?” he asks her.
“Hit me,” she whispers.
I am not ready to see this, but I cannot look away.
With Blue Velvet, Lynch satirizes an antiseptic small-town America and creates its antithesis, a terrifying villain—but it is through Dorothy that he makes his most important point. She may love her husband and child, but when they were taken away, she discovered that she loved pain, and humiliation, and degradation, too.
We are almost never ready for the things that end up shaping us the most. Innocence kidnapped, flesh bared, we wait for whatever lurks in the darkness. As viewers, we take Jeffrey’s place in the closet and wonder at Dorothy’s world, where blue velvet symbolizes the complex dichotomy of human desire, at turns soft and rough, dark and light. We are Little Red Riding Hood who, in the original tale, was so fascinated by the wolf that he was able to gobble her whole. We are voyeurs of violent fantasies, rubbing at the hurt until our fear and desire explode.
As Jeffrey deepens his relationship with Sandy, he gets caught up in Dorothy’s world. One moment he shares a tender kiss with Sandy in the local diner, the picture of 1950s high-school innocence, the next he punches Dorothy during sex. Like Dorothy, he has a relationship with two very different people, but he separates his encounters by night and day, location and type, whereas Dorothy links her savior and her captor by desiring violence from both of them.
Fear is brawny. It beats the pulp out of our other feelings until it has left scars on all of them. We turn to it like a bad habit, and no wonder; it’s been with us the longest, longer sometimes than comfort has. It takes us further into the future than love. It carries us to the outer reaches of our character: how fast we can run and how much we can stand. Sometimes it takes us far enough to bring us to what we thought we’d never do.
A young boy and his brother are playing outdoors after dark. From where they play, they can see the rose bushes in their front yard, the bright friendly white of their picket fence.
Suddenly, they hear a thin wail. Walking down the street towards them is a naked woman, arms across her chest, dazed and crying. The young boy’s eyes fill with tears. He is not ready to see this. He cannot look away.
Dorothy’s appearance, naked and battered, in the idyll of Jeffrey and Sandy’s neighborhood, is what marked me the most when I first saw Blue Velvet. Her bruises made sense to me (she had just escaped from Frank, after a particularly horrific event), but the erotic satisfaction with which she spreads her body open did not. How could a woman already so harmed desire to degrade herself further?
The nakedness was an obvious choice. It did not surprise me to learn later on that the scene is actually based on Lynch’s childhood experience. Had the troubled woman in his past also laid herself bare? Doubtless she had been pried further and further open as the image echoed in his mind like a refrain, until, like a symbol, she had no shame, only meaning.
Like humor, violence often occurs in the space between what’s expected and what actually happens. In a society where the two so often remain separated, humor—or violence—becomes a natural reaction. Both are particularly-shaped puzzle pieces that cement the often ill-fitting parts of human desire. If you despise a man, you can laugh at him or kill him. Satire is punishment on a grand scale; violence is punishment on a particular scale. Lynch manages to do both in Blue Velvet.
If you were to separate the two worlds in the film, you’d find that both have the power of a gut-punch: each one alone is enough to sear you. They dredge up fear and obsession; they demand laughter or horror. But together, they elicit a curious blend of both.
“What kind of movie is this?” my classmate whispers. I am peeking around my fingers as Frank searches Dorothy’s apartment for Jeffrey, gun in his hand. He throws open the closet doors, where Jeffrey has been hiding. Jeffrey puts a bullet in Frank’s brain.
I laugh. My classmates laugh, hysterically.
We are laughing to save our lives.
This essay currently appears in the July 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or subscribe online for just $2 a month and receive full access to the issue online.
Christopher Cantwell, co-creator of Halt and Catch Fire (and long-time Bright Wall/Dark Room contributor), discusses the discussion around his show—its lead, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the difficult decisions that go on in the writer’s room around anti-heroes and “petting the dog”—and makes the case for why people should give the show a chance to tell its full story before rushing to judgement.
(His wife Elizabeth lays out a similar case, elegantly, here).
So let’s discuss Halt and Catch Fire! The seventh episode airs tonight on AMC - are you watching? Have you been watching? If not, WHY AREN’T YOU WATCHING? Let’s keep this thing going!
Since the show’s premiere, I’ve been fairly good about avoiding all discussion about the show. Fairly good. It takes an insane amount of willpower and I fail constantly, and Elizabeth just goes and looks at stuff anyway and then I find out what people are saying for better or worse. There are days where I’ve felt positive, and days where I’ve been so depressed I’ve felt physically ill. It is what it is; it’s my first time on this roller coaster and I’ve found myself ready for neither praising high-fives nor the blindsiding gut-punches that come frequently and often simultaneously.
But I’m very glad Elizabeth saw this post, because Melissa is so right! It was tremendous to read a thoughtful criticism like this (and I’m amazed Melissa actually re-watched the previous five episodes, too).
One particular I was immediately struck by in her writing: “save the cat.” That is the HEART of the issue with Joe MacMillan, and has been from the very beginning. The only difference is, in our writer’s room, we call it “petting the dog.” We really do! And we—along with our fellow writers, our showrunner, our producers, the network, Lee—have been discussing at length for going on three-and-a-half years now precisely when to let Joe MacMillan “pet the dog.”
Joe MacMillan! Man. He is a tough one. Rogers and I created him in a small windowless office in January 2011, admittedly without the forethought or audacity to believe he would ever traverse past a sample pilot episode on paper. But lo and behold, we’ve had the good fortune to be able to tell his longer story.
An admission: there were multiple (multiple) drafts of the pilot developed with the network and Gran Via where we attempted to humanize Joe more from the get-go. Juan Campanella, the director of the pilot, is an ambassador of warmth and beautiful human nature and one reason we brought him in was precisely to help figure out Joe (aside from being a brilliant director, Juan is also a brilliant writer).
But it was exceptionally challenging. Joe’s human underpinnings are so difficult to reveal in the right way. Too much in one direction, the character loses spark and magnetism, all bark, no bite. Too much the other, he risks being cold and opaque and sociopathic. Writing him is a constant tightrope walk.
Another admission: Joe’s stories were ALWAYS the hardest to break in the writers room. Every single time. For the exact reason I stated above. ”Okay, what about Joe?” Dead silence. But because of that struggle, we often found discoveries about him to be all the more rewarding.
Ultimately, we made a choice: we barely refrained from showing that Joe was even remotely capable of petting any dog for the first five episodes. 42 minutes x 5 = WHOA. Half the season! Was it the right move? I don’t know! I know it asks a lot, maybe too much, but I also feel like that’s what makes the reveal he’s human so much more gratifying. If we had immediately cracked through his mask right out of the gate, I just don’t know if it would have had the same impact. The mask would have been flimsy, had no real purpose except to be dropped. Maybe we just couldn’t figure out the right way to do it. But for me, the mask needed to be stronger, needed a sledgehammer to even crack it, which is why the last scene of episode 105 is my favorite of the season, because to me it is The Beginning of Human Joe. It’s an arrival.
I will say that Lee Pace has definitely informed how this character is written. He is such a thoughtful and powerful human being that I feel there is no way his portrayal of Joe could ever be 100% emotionally dead, even when the character is at his worst. I think there are other actors who would’ve done things Joe did this season and people would’ve gone “FUCK YOU NO!” (I guess people have already done that, but…). With Lee, we knew we could challenge ourselves and see how far we could push the character, because the actor’s humanity would anchor us. Now, I’m not saying we wanted to seewhat we could get away with, but… I hope we haven’t pushed him too far. Joe is still going to do terrible things. That is part of his makeup. But there is also much more person to be revealed in there. Ideally, I’d love to spend an entire series completely stripping the character down to his essentials. We often talked about how Season 1 in many ways is really about the “reverse engineering” of Joe MacMillan himself. The same is true for all the other lead characters as well.
In fact, THAT is the part of Joe’s character that excites me the most. I don’t think any of us are interested in maintaining an anti-hero for very long, really. For one, we’ve seen that executed very well already, and two, the character (and audience) deserves more.
We want to get to human Joe, we just want to EARN it, and make it HARD for him to get there. It’s tricky, right?
One important distinction, at least in my head, is that Joe isn’t interested necessarily in classic financial gain or absolute power. The thing that I cling to when writing Joe is that he BELIEVES in what he’s doing. Genuinely. He believes he’s right. He wants to do this with all his heart, and he’ll do anything to make his dream a reality. Literally, anything. And it’s made him this train-wreck of a person. And to me, there’s a kind of wonderful innocence in that.
I love the way Lee approaches Joe, because no matter what scenario we throw at him, Lee is able to justify Joe’s actions in his mind as the right and necessary thing to do. He justifies the mask, the suit, the identity, the behavior as a means to an end for his vision. But he could be wrong, and he very well may be proven so.
This coming Sunday’s episode is a good one I believe, but my stomach is already in knots over it. Because I’m already asking myself “did we reveal too much of Joe this time? Is it not enough? Did we pull back? Did we push him over the edge?” The truth is, there’s no real answer. That’s what makes the character fascinating to me. He’s elusive and can’t be pinned down. Too much sunlight and he wilts, too much shadow and he risks being an empty phantom and a caricature.
Anyway. Thank you, Melissa! Today you made me like the internet.
I do love this show and think it’s fascinating, but I also think it has issues and one of them just might be that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good. This becomes especially apparent when you go back and watch all the episodes back-to-back and get a better feel for character arcs than watching one episode a week.
So this is partly about Stuff I Noticed This Time Around and a response to this sweet, impassioned plea from the wife of one of the show’s creators. This is going to be another long one, I suspect. More under the cut.
A CRASH COURSE IN HOW TO STOP BEING AN L-7 WEENIE AND START HAVING THE BEST SUMMER OF YOUR LIFE
by Erika Schmidt
Meet Scottie Smalls.
He’s your classic 1960s grade school nerd. Squeaky clean baby face. Hair slicked and parted on the side. Khaki shorts. Collared shirt tucked in with a belt. Baseball cap with a giant, stiff bill that sticks straight up. Bedroom full of complicated erector set creations. Concerned mom. Distant stepdad.
Scottie’s new in town, and, as his grown-up voiceover tells us at the beginning of The Sandlot, “It was a lousy way to end the fifth grade because I had zip time to make friends before summer. And that’s about where it all started.”
Where it all starts is when Benny Rodriguez (Oh! Benny Rodriguez!) turns up in front of Scottie’s house, rechristens him “Smalls,” and invites him to come play ball. He gently instructs Smalls to toss the cap with the oversized bill into the fireplace. It’s only the first of many valuable lessons The Sandlot offers.
Know your baseball -OR- Do not admit ignorance.
If you do not already know who The Great Bambino is, find out. Or you will be ridiculed.
Dress the part.
For those without a Benny Rodriguez to outfit them with a new/old cap, here’s what your ensemble should include: dirty jeans (holes are okay); t-shirt or ¾ sleeve baseball shirt (stains are okay); worn-out cap with a bent bill (you can achieve this bend by wrapping a rubber band around it and leaving it overnight); sneakers (PF Fliers are best).
Know how to hurl an insult. And how to make a s’more.
This double lesson comes courtesy of Hamilton “Ham” Porter, the player most put out by Smalls’ lack of useful skills and knowledge. (You’re KILLING me, Smalls!) Hold nothing back when your team’s honor is at stake. Maintain eye contact and go for the jugular. Toast the mallow. Put the mallow on the graham.
Use any means necessary to make that lady yours.
It is not beneath you to fake your own drowning in order to steal a kiss from your dream woman. Especially if your dream woman is bombshell lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn, and you would otherwise have no chance in hell of ever touching her. Here’s the plan. You will trick her into giving you mouth-to-mouth. You will throw your arms around her neck and kiss her. Your friends will watch in awe. “This Magic Moment” will play. She will slap you and chase you off the premises. You will be banned for life from the pool. But you will also marry Wendy Peffercorn and have eight million babies.
Don’t forget to spit.
Go ahead and steal some Big Chief chewing tobacco. “All the pros do it!” Take it to the carnival. Share it with your friends. But do not: a) neglect to spit, or b) go on the tilt-a-whirl. You will puke all over yourself and everyone in the vicinity. It will be gross. But “Tequila” will be playing, so it will also be kind of delightful.
Stop for fireworks -OR- Leave some room for wonder.
Remember you are playing America’s sport. Play a night game by the light of the fourth of July fireworks. Skid into home and look up. Pretty great, right?
Beware of dog -OR- Respect The Beast.
Do not hit the ball over the fence at the far end of the outfield. You will never get it back. If you want to know why, ask Squints to tell you.
If you meet The Babe in a dream, follow his advice.
Heroes get remembered; legends never die. Follow your heart, kid. You can never go wrong. If your heart tells you to save the day by jumping over the above-mentioned fence, stealing back the ball signed by Babe Ruth, getting chased through town by The Beast, and finally making friends with The Beast and James Earl Jones…well, just make sure you’re wearing a pair of brand new PF Fliers.
Don’t underestimate the power of play.
Once, in sixth grade, my class was standing in line at the water fountain. This kid named Bryan was taking a long time drinking—I mean, he was really gulping it down. It was taking forever.
Someone finally piped up: “Hey, come on! My clothes—” and everyone else in line joined in to yell, “—are goin’ outta style!” It was the first time I experienced a communal movie reference. It felt good.
I don’t remember the first time I saw The Sandlot. I never saw it on the big screen. I just remember it being part of the kid vernacular in my hometown. The classic one liners in The Sandlot are almost all delivered by child actors who seem to have been directed to ham it up as much as possible. Emphasis is important:
If you’da been THINKING, you wouldn’ta THOUGHT that.
And THAT’S how I got us into the BIGGEST PICKLE ANY of us had EVER SEEN.
YOU play ball like a GIRL.
I grew up in Indiana, in a small town on Lake Michigan. I played my fair share of baseball, mostly in empty lots much like that in The Sandlot, but with more trees. We also played a lot of basketball—half court in people’s driveways. Every house had a basketball hoop. The type of friendships that form playing street sports are really special, and sadly lacking in today’s world of overscheduled, overprotected children. The boys in The Sandlot spend all day outside getting dirty, yelling at each other, laughing at each other, and generally taking everything really seriously before leaving it behind at the end of the day. That is what summer should be.
Erika Schmidt grew up in Indiana, lived in Chicago for years, and recently relocated to Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction for her story, “Story About a Family.”
My father can fix your plumbing or your grammar, restore an old radio or build a table and put a nice finish on it. Back in the 1970s he installed solar panels on our roof and devised the system that heated our water. One summer, my brother and I helped him build a deck; it was so hot outside that we actually fried an egg on the pavement. I used to help him reconstruct the rusted-out edges of our cars, back when car bodies were made of metal. Every now and then I would accompany him on his freelance gigs around town, fixing people’s domestic disasters. Sometimes we’d have to stop off for parts; to this day the smells of a hardware store get my synapses firing.
At one time not too long ago—back before there was an internet and no one had ever heard of Wal-Mart——people relied on small chains from their own part of the country for their wares. There were also local mom-and-pops, although not the type we tend to think of when we wave the flag on Small Business Saturday; these were dark, dingy places. Quiet. Serious. No one was going out of their way to fuss over customers, and the customers were happy to be left alone. Sometimes you’d need something, and they didn’t have it. You’d have to go to the bigger stores. These places were local in that they had what they needed in stock, and that was enough. This wasn’t Amazon or eBay or Alibaba. Most of these places eventually closed down. Some were charming, some really sucked.
There was a Mobil station in my hometown that had full-service. The attendant was old, his cheeks were sunken in and he had a perpetual phantom chew, no doubt due to years of tobacco use. He would fill up the tank and wipe down the windshield as he brought out the tired chit-chat that my mother did her best to tolerate. This was the way the world worked. Sometimes it was ugly, but things got done.
I’m not exactly sure why Two-Lane Blacktop brings these things to mind. I guess it’s because Monte Hellman’s film, on its surface, is about people going from place to place, getting what they need, and moving on. When you look at the film now, you can see why it’s touted as a document of an older America, right before the highways and franchises began to grow up all around us like weeds, choking us from the inside.
Two-Lane concerns two car-freaks: The Driver (James Taylor, of singer-songwriter notoriety) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys), who go drag racing from town to town in a souped-up ‘55 Chevy looking to earn some extra cash. They pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird) along the way, and soon run into GTO (Warren Oates) who challenges them to a cross-country race from the west coast to Washington, D.C. Winner gets the loser’s car.
Americans love to talk about the road as we once knew it: getting our kicks on Route 66 and so on. It makes me think of baseball, a thing I love, and the new monuments cities have been building at their citizens’ expense that ironically reference the older stadiums they tore down and replaced with the multi-purpose monstrosities of the 1960s and 70s (again, at their citizens’ expense). Within these new old-school stadiums, they’ve created a Disney-fied version of baseball, one where you can buy a luxury condo in the outfield along with your 10 dollar hot dog, and your kids can distract themselves with all sorts of expensive mindlessness that has little to do with the actual game that allowed all of this to exist in the first place. In truth all of these cash-flow ball fields are disturbingly the same, the only difference between each one, aside from their “quirky” dimensions, might be the iconic player’s name that’s been stamped on the bronze statue outside the gate.
Mass-produced quirk. Shoot. It gets ugly out there.
I had a friend in college who was pursuing architecture as a profession. He talked about wanting to change the way we think about public spaces, like shopping malls. These are places we spend a lot of time visiting, he reasoned, so why should they be such giant black holes of suck? The ancient Greeks had it right. Their buildings were meant to inspire, regardless of their function. We occasionally reference this in America, with our public buildings and squares, our monuments and parks. We also happen to do things like tear down Penn Station and spray Twizzlers and M&M’s into the middle of Times Square.
The shopping mall as an architectural phenomenon has always taken a back seat to the commerce it bolstered. Its fountains and piped muzak only enhance its depressing effect on the psyche of a rampant consumer culture, akin to the casino effect where everything is engineered to hypnotize patrons into a 24-hour gambling splurge. Of course now the mall as an entity is dying a slow painful death; a quick google search suggests they have about 15-20 years left in the tank. Like the aforementioned multipurpose ‘toilet-bowl’ stadiums, they too will likely go unmourned.
But getting back to the road; I’ve never been cross-country, and I don’t know much of anything about Route 66. I wasn’t alive in the early 70s and had I been, I doubt I would have been exposed to the kinds of lives The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, and GTO were living as they raced from one end of the country to the other. But what ties my heart to Two-Lane, besides its restless souls, is its sense of place. It’s a time capsule of the open road the way it really was, the version we lost in our haste to bottle it up and sell it back to ourselves.
The characters are constantly pulling over as they cross state lines, running into people selling them a cheeseburger with everything on it and a Coke; a shot of rye and a glass of beer; a carburetor rebuild kit for a 1970 GM Quadrajet; some high-test gas. Sometimes there’s chit-chat, sometimes not. All of it covered by cinematographer Jack Deerson’s quiet, steady, unobtrusive camera work. By using Techniscope, a widescreen aspect ratio that exposes half the frame of negative, in conjunction with flat, deep-focus lenses, Deerson was able to achieve a certain clarity within the film’s crammed, layered frames; a definite plus, since so much of the story takes place in and around cars, with characters staggered in multiple planes of view, using only available light.
They stop at a gas station in California, and the locals crowd around their Chevy to speculate who in town might be able to take them on. They invade a sleepy town in Oklahoma on a Saturday morning, swapping their license plates for local ones - I get nervous in this part of the country - until they’re chased away by some cops. In Arkansas they encounter what qualifies as a run-in, with a local who isn’t too happy to see what he imagines are hippies coming through his hometown, but it all ends in a most cordial and memorable manner.
Redneck: Well, sure did talk to ya.
GTO: Sure did see ya.
There is a bit of desperation in each character that only reveals itself in solemn, late-night confessions: daydreams of future plans, new homes, new adventures, new lives, thoughts that bring temporary reprieve, yet are soon forgotten when reality comes swinging back at them like a punch in the gut. That’s when it’s time to move along again, a little bit further down the road. You can never go fast enough.
Nothing much happens in Two-Lane Blacktop and yet, by the end, everything about its world changes and falls apart. It’s one great big American ache disguised as a cool, laid-back road film. It’s one last contest down the abandoned airstrip for the score, for the unfettered thrill of it all, until the celluloid burns off and, in its cultural wake, we’re forced to put on our training wheels and trademarks and warning labels with side effects, and generally over-think our lives right into a cozy, paralyzed stasis.
There’s a scene near the beginning of Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast where the mad scientist of a father is hatching a plan to leave the states. “Look around you Charlie,” he says to his son at an intersection that’s covered in fast food joints and shopping centers, “this place is a toilet.” There’s been an ugly, stale sameness spreading out all over this country for some time now, and there’s more of it going up every day. When we go anywhere, we run into exactly the same things in exactly the same way, like a science fiction trope come true. None of this is news. But we’ve grown to expect it, tolerate it, even turn it into entertainment. There are shows where couples shopping for houses say things like, “I don’t know honey, this one only has 5 bathrooms and the in-ground pool isn’t heated and I don’t like the shade of this marble countertop.”
To be fair, all this sour talk has a flip-side. People are having moments. Enough of this, they say to themselves, I’m cutting out on my own. Others are cheering them on and donating to their cause. They’re starting up shops, inventing, writing, creating, sharing their craft, saving the landscape. I don’t know about you, but I love seeing a new hand-painted ad on the side of a building. Someone made that. I’m trying to keep my eyes open for these sorts of things. A few months ago I went down to Charleston for a wedding. Instead of taking a cab or an airport shuttle, I took the local bus into town. I had some time, so I thought, why not? It wasn’t a big deal, but in retrospect it felt as if I had taken the blinders off and sidestepped the hermetically-sealed route. I took the back roads, I talked with locals. By the time I got off the bus, I had a real feel for the place. I was relieved to find that it’s all still out there.
Those satisfactions are permanent.
Alexander Newton is a filmmaker living in Brooklyn where he is gearing up to make his first feature. He works in independent film distribution and is a freelance editor for companies such as Vice and The New York Times.
If I were trying to talk a child into watching The Princess Bride today—because it seems you’re always having to negotiate their buy-in on anything that is actually good for them; kids are officially the worst at knowing anything about what’s good for them—I would say this:
“Listen, there’s going to be sword fighting and princesses, pirates and true love. Rodents of Unusual Sizes and burning castles, screeching eels and flaming swamps, magic spells and torture racks. Mental trickery and revenge, poison and riddles and wistful gazes cast from balconies. Billy Crystal and Andre the Giant are going to make you giggle and you’re going to love it. It has the best gang of characters of any movie you’ve ever seen. Vizzini with his sleazy cunning and Fezzik with his kind brute force, Miracle Max with his bullshit and Inigo Montoya and his noblest hunt to avenge his father’s death. Six fingered villains and princes manipulating kingdoms, albinos and legendary pirates! NOW PUT DOWN ICE AGE AND JUST GIVE IT A DAMN CHANCE, OK?”
What I wouldn’t tell them, is this: This movie is going to delight and entertain you right now, but you’re probably not going to really appreciate it until you’re much older and, even then, aspects of it are still going to drive you a little mad.
Because frankly, that’s not a terrific sales pitch.
The Princess Bride is, of course, the story of a farm hand who is maltreated by his employer’s daughter - an impossibly flaxen near nobility who clearly resides on the posh side of the proverbial tracks. But love is a funny thing and Princess Buttercup, against her snooty judgment, eventually finds herself ass over tea kettle for quiet Westley. To make a name for himself and presumably to secure a dowry for her hand, Westley departs to conquer the world. Years pass without word and Princess Buttercup, sure that her beloved is lost, somehow agrees to marry the loathsome Prince Humperdinck.
Days before the wedding, Humperdinck stages Buttercup’s kidnapping to justify a war he’s itching to wage. Enter Dread Pirate Roberts – an undercover Westley who has inherited the infamous title and its power – to steal her back. Chases ensue. Wesley rescues the girl, pisses off the girl, renews pledges of eternal love with the girl, and loses her all over. Is all but killed, is brought back for love and rescues the girl again.
When I was a kid, I watched The Princess Bride with my breath held. I lay on my stomach in the basement, on the unkind industrial carpet my father installed to withstand children and I studied the adventure like an alien documentary. I loved the music, Buttercup’s silky silhouette, the menacing Cliffs of Insanity, the way Wesley’s hair slipped from his ponytail and his furious smart ass gaze. I knew it was a fairy tale, but I sensed there was also so much more there that I didn’t quite understand yet. There was mystery.
Do you know what I love more than just about anything? Something clever and layered enough to evolve with you. Something that means one sparse and beautiful thing to you at ten years old but a hundred different things to you at thirty.
At ten, I couldn’t understand why Westley would leave, would come back as someone other than the man Buttercup loved. They had each other in the start – why on earth wasn’t that enough?
Today, I think The Princess Bride is fascinating because it’s a fairy tale about the most realistic, pragmatic thorns of love: The balance of power. The importance of autonomy.
When I was a kid, it drove me crazy that Princess Buttercup was always leaning around, succumbing to impassioned vapors and waiting for Westley to save her. Or worse! Giving up on Westley and giving in to the next man waiting in line….still half-hoping that the old farm boy would come around in the nick of time.
And still, it vexes me a little. I watch my seven year old nieces watch the princess and I want to pull them aside and give them each a cigarette. Listen, I’d say, It’s going to be tempting once in a while to put all you’ve got in a man’s hand. To give him your worth and your allegiance and wait to see if it’s enough. Don’t do it. The thing you’ve got to know from the start – I’d tell them through the smoke – is that you’ve got to keep some semblance of control. No man can be your entire fate; because even the best disappear for a hundred reasons sometimes beyond their power and you’ve got to be able to get yourself out of that damned arranged marriage on your own. You know what I’m saying?
But kids shouldn’t smoke and they wouldn’t understand my lecture anyhow. They’re busy swooning over Buttercup’s satiny get-ups and dreaming of braiding her hair with pink ribbons they twirl deliriously on the couch. They’re busy taking turns pretending to marry Westley and cheering as he comes back to life to save his seemingly helpless love.
Maybe the wisdom in The Princess Bride is halfway between their romanticized childish acceptance and my guarded feminist doubt.
I used to get so pissed off at Westley for leaving and for staying away so long, for breaking Buttercup’s heart, for not revealing his identity the second he moored. The minute he earned his freedom from the Original Dread Pirate Roberts, he should have fled back to Buttercup, I decreed.
But I’m starting to reconsider a little. I think of Westley’s brow-beaten love in those young years, how humbly he worked to be enough for Buttercup. And I understand that he needed a little time to exceed that goal: To become a good enough man for himself.
And I see Buttercup’s penance, too. I see how love tames your early superiority and how it abides outsiders misunderstanding your late resignation. How it allows you to be contentedly mocked for waiting for what you want, for having grace with each other’s evolutions. For submitting yourself quietly to what might arrive in time. I see too, maybe even, how you can only love a certain way once.
The Princess Bride makes me feel tremendously confused, consternated and inspired. And I suppose that’s a rare thing for a children’s movie. But then, weren’t the best movies of our childhood mostly lost on us then? Maybe the beauty of being a grownup is that I can stay up too late tonight with a coffee mug of wine in my hand and watch it one more time, one more time in the hope that I’ll get it yet.
Erica Cantoni works in the non-profit world by day and writes by night. She believes in Radical Sincerity, aims to earn admission to the Travelers Century Club before she dies and reveres movies, books and things on the internet that make her cry in the best possible ways.
When Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac opened earlier this year, it met with confusion. It was called a “joyless sexual tantrum,” (Brody, The New Yorker) and “art porn,” (Denby, The New Yorker) and led many to ask “what was the point”? The film unfolds as a kind of psychoanalysis, and seems to perplex viewers wanting a more conventional story or plot. Von Trier reveals Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsborough) distinctly human conflict between being fully absorbed— having an experience, or in her words, “a sensation”—and making meaning. It opens with a stranger, the cerebral and asexual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) leading the nymphomaniac, Joe, out of a dark alleyway and into his flat. He makes her tea, helps her into bed, and pulls up a chair. Seligman assumes the role of analyst; Joe, the patient.
Nymphomaniac is still distinctly a story, “beginning when an event…radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life.” (Robert McKee, Story) But von Trier departs from the pacing of a traditional story, instead employing conversation to transform Joe, almost unconsciously. In the first scene, Joe warns Seligman that she’s a bad human being. “I’ve never met a bad human being,” he says. “Well you have now,” she says, beginning to discover what she feels. The subject quickly changes, Joe digresses, Seligman makes incoherent references to math equations, conclusions are arrived at, and surpassed. By the end, she no longer thinks of herself as a bad person. She redescribes herself. ”Perhaps the difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more of the sunset,” she tells Seligman. “More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.”
The form of psychoanalysis allows von Trier to discover the extent to which Joe’s character is intractable, and the limits of what she can change about herself. It chronicles her life from birth until age fifty. “I discovered my cunt when I was two,” she says. Like Freud, who gave unprecedented authority to the patient’s narrative, Von Trier gives Joe’s narrative total authority. As in psychoanalysis, her telling and retelling are woven together to form intricate patterns and connections, which change and displace themselves as the situational context undergoes constant transformations.
Nymphomaniac‘s narrative moves forward not by plot, but by the gap between what Joe feels and what she is able to say about it. Joe hesitates and digresses, and Seligman digresses in turn. “What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way,” British analyst Adam Phillips explains. “The trouble is that we use knowing in bits of our lives where it doesn’t work, or where it’s actually not the point.” Sometimes it’s useful to make meaning, and other times making meaning preempts an experience. If you have sex, for example, thinking “what does this mean?” you aren’t experiencing the sex.
As in psychoanalysis, Nymphomaniac is not about alleviating suffering, but rather uncovering what makes life worth living. Seligman encourages Joe to talk. She describes being a child and waiting outside the surgery room for her operation. “It was as if I had to pass through an impenetrable gate all by myself,” she says. “It was as if I was completely alone in the universe, as if my whole body was filled with loneliness and tears.” Von Trier repeatedly shows Joe fingering through her leaf collection, longing for connection. She never seems to get it, and is constantly frustrated. “Frustration,” Phillips writes, “is the experience of not having an experience.” In the course of freely talking with Seligman throughout the film’s uncut 269 minutes, Joe comes to see how much aliveness she can bear, and how much she has anesthetized herself from meaningful relationships.
Conversations with Seligman center on Joe’s anxieties about her sexual appetite; psychoanalysis is about the recovery of appetite. Joe describes denying the connection of emotions, of love and sex, and being unable to avoid it. She tells Seligman she was determined to remove sex from our “love fixated society”. She describes joining a girls club with the dictum, “We have the right to be horny,” and vowing to never sleep with the same guy twice. Though Joe falls in love with Jerome, her sexual appetite is undiminished. She is as conflicted as ever. Von Trier plays with Freud’s idea that societal regulations force us to repress certain aspects of ourselves, and that many of our inner urges are too disturbing for the conscious mind and society at large.
Joe, however, is undisturbed by her own lust until it becomes undeniably destructive. At this point, she follows the instructions of a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, and rids her apartment of everything that reminds her of sex. She boxes and wraps everything in sight. While silly, the scene is underpinned with Joe’s fear of not feeling: death. It illustrates the conflict between what Freud terms “Thantos” (death drive) and “Eros” (life instinct); the death instinct, as described by Freud, expresses itself in self-destructive behavior. Joe finally rejects the term “sex addict.” “I am a nymphomaniac,” she cries, as if declaring her will to live. “And I love my filthy, dirty lust.” Her statement contradicts her pain.
In Vol. 2, Joe describes a turning point in her life where she lost all sensation of sexual pleasure. She tried everything she could to have an orgasm. She invited two men for a threesome, but the men are distracted by an argument with each other. Joe, removed as always, slips away. Joe seeks out K (Jamie Bell), who ties her up and whips her. Still, nothing. Joe’s predicament is possibly aphansis, a term that analyst Ernest Jones once described as loss of desire. “People,” Phllips writes, “might call it depression, but it wouldn’t be the right word for it…” it’s “a very powerful anxiety living in a world in which there’s nothing and nobody one wants.” Joe’s digressions reveal the road not taken: what she might really want.
Seligman, like any good psychoanalyst, helps Joe not feel the need to know herself (not to describe herself as a “sex addict” or a “nymphomaniac”), but instead to re-open her to experience. He tries, as Kafka once wrote, “to break the sea that’s frozen” inside of her. In a notably long, seven minute —sexless! — digression, Joe tells Seligman about an incident where her sexual appetite destroyed one of her sexual partner’s lives. His wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) comes to Joe’s apartment and asks her if they could “show the children the whoring bed.” The children peer into Joe’s bedroom, and in a deadpan tone, Mrs. H remarks, “so this is where it all happened.” The scene, like the rest of the film, resonates as a psychoanalytic session. You are fully absorbed, you lose sense of what you know, but find yourself feeling and thinking, anyway. What happened? What was the point? Joe has revealed what it might be to be married, in love, and have kids, and that is the point: to live a life is to be preoccupied with what we are missing and what we have lost.
Even as a kid, I knew my interest in the 1987 film Baby Boom was bizarre. Growing up in a small mountain town, all I did day in and day out was long for the excitement of the city and resent my parents—who grew up in D.C and Chicago—for extracting me so completely from the world of culture. We had one little video store in town, attached to a gas station, where my mom would let my sister and I take turns picking out movies to rent. My sister suffered from debilitating perfectionism, and could barely pick a video without a panic attack, but all I wanted was to watch J.C Wiatt (Diane Keaton) navigating the world of motherhood, via a baby she randomly inherited, and having her big-deal NYC life turned ass over end. Baby Boom was nothing to write home about, a brainless potshot at the plights of modern women, with a little romance thrown in, but for some reason, it became my most longed for video rental. I would pass the movie on the shelf at the video store and think about how badly I wanted to watch it all over again, even though the last time I picked it out my mom had given me a very long look. I was about 9, and my mother—an actual working woman in the 80s, and with two kids at that—clearly thought the film was bullshit. So I would take a last glance at the cover of Baby Boom, with Diane Keaton in her 80’s power suit, precariously balancing a baby on one hip, and say a silent goodbye. Repeated rentals would surely only draw more attention to my ever growing weirdness, which began in the third grade when I insisted that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie had been filmed by the real actual, living giant turtles (I had a crush on Raphael) and continued well into the late 90s, as I endlessly watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. I suppose I somehow knew, even then, that being a Kubrick fan who maybe wanted to fuck a ninja turtle was preferable to being the girl who can’t stop watching 80s baby comedies.
Occasionally, as an adult, I’d reflect upon my strange attachment to Baby Boom and be amused by the child I used to be. I hadn’t seen the movie in a long time but I felt sure it was stridently unfeminist, preaching values about staying home with your baby over pursuing a career, a woman’s true place, women’s supposed maternal instinct, ticking clocks, etc. etc. Despite my childhood love for Baby Boom, I had never pined for traditional female pursuits, perhaps because I did not have a ‘classic’ female role model of a mother. My mother was very passionate about her own career, became nauseous at the sight of a sewing machine, and, when pestered on weekends to chauffeur us places, would often snort and say things like, ‘ask a friend’s mom who doesn’t work’ . My mom was a speech pathologist who highly valued her independence and ability to work in a field she found interesting and intellectually stimulating. ‘If I had to stay home with kids all day,’ she told us many times, ‘I’d probably kill myself.’
I remember listening to my mother recount, with strained horror, how when she was a little girl she thought all you could be when you grew up was a mom, a nurse or a school teacher. ‘You can’t buy this album,’ my mom told me once as I held up a copy of the first album by Garbage. ‘It has a song called ‘Stupid Girl’ on it and girls aren’t stupid.’ She then purchased my sister a Spice Girls tee with ‘girl power’ written on the front. In my private time as a child I was more likely to make my Barbies go to a fashion show, or spend hours meticulously arranging their environments so that they seemed like ‘real’ apartments, than to have them get pregnant or get married. Playing house, the exhausting ritual of actually acting out getting married and becoming pregnant, was something my playmates had to talk me into, or bargain with me for. My parents had a wedding sometime in the 70s which neither of them seemed particularly sentimental about. If life had flavor, for them, it was in work, travel, social life and books. My sister and I were cultivated to their tastes and, as such, baby dolls were usually on short supply. We had stuffed animals instead. I would create wars between them and then heal the rift that had split our happy arrangements of man and beast. Domestic affairs, I seemed to feel, were only for children who couldn’t come up with anything better.
So why did I love Baby Boom so much? A movie where a woman is saddled with a two year old that utterly dismantles her urban life to such an extent that by the end of the film she is almost unrecognizable; an organic baby food maker on a small farm in Vermont. As an adult, imagining my own life turning out as J.C Wiatt’s did—dream city abandoned for a tiny Vermont town with baby in tow—fills me with despair. At one point in the film J.C is overcome with despair as well, and wants desperately to return to NYC. But then she has one night of great sex with a hot veterinarian in town and makes the insane decision to cash in all of her chips, hoping it works out with this doctor of horses and cows, making baby food for a living.
Strangely, though, my favorite parts of the movie are when J.C has to give up NYC and move to Vermont to live with baby. I like it when she’s getting to know her way around the farm house, when she’s in confused transition dealing with the yokels and their funny country ways, when she’s so desperate for activity that she begins to make baby food and sell it at the country store. I feel comforted and warmed by these choices. I like looking at her big, rambling farm house with its barn and lake and orchard. I like it when she goes apple picking, when she milks the cow (though the film gives zero explanation on how she learns to do any of these tasks). As a child I found these scenes highly enjoyable, and I still do. Even though they are not the choices I would make, I am rooting for J.C, going, “Yeah, get out of NYC! Adopt that strange cousin’s baby who you never knew before! Make the shit out of that applesauce! Don’t sell your baby food company to the company you used to work for in NYC for three million dollars! Tell them to go fuck themselves! Marry that vet! Look how great he is with your adopted second cousin who is now your child!”.
The child that J.C inherits and then adopts is a docile, affable two year old, who plays a surprisingly small part in the film, with very little cutesy-wootsyness or catchphrases. She seems pretty ok with whatever is going on and asks for very little attention. She’s what I would consider my ideal baby to be like: unselfish, low on crying and basically capable of meeting most of her own needs. Maybe that’s part of why I like the fantasy of the film. It seems like the only possible way I could come about having my own baby, an event I feel as ambivalent about now as I did back when I was cornered into playing house as a child. Only now, playing house is for real; real marriage, real house, real baby, and the choices one makes come with a lifetime of consequences. But if someone could give me a baby like J.C is given a baby, about two-ish, already kind of formed and pleasant, serving as more of my sidekick or non-stressful inspiration than as an exhausting reason to live/carrier of all my genetic material, then the whole thing would seem more inviting to me. There’s no pregnancy or tears for J.C.; just a nice looking toddler and all-of-a-sudden a country house in Vermont. Perhaps even as a kid this seemed to be the best of all possible ways to come about traditional adulthood; that unavoidable jump in which all the things you want are forsaken for all the things you never knew you wanted.
Reviewing the movie as an adult woman in her thirties, I still found it enormously enjoyable, and did much less tut-tutting about its feminist principals than I imagined I would. Perhaps it’s that millennial feminism has evolved to include a larger scope of womanhood, so it allowed me to see J.C.’s choices not as necessarily derivative of how all women want to be (and must be) mothers, but of J.C.’s own desires. In the end she hasn’t cashed it all in for a baby, but has instead redirected her skills into running a business that doesn’t require her to take a lot of time off from her baby. There’s nothing so damning in that. And as to why I enjoy J.C turning her back on culture, career and society for the Vermont wilderness, I think it has something to do with seeing her stop fighting the current, stop being an individual and becoming more like everyone else. I have made so many nontraditional choices in my life that resting the load of my fierce individuality, and enjoying the guilty pleasure of watching a woman throw it all away and start playing house, can feel perversely good. It feels good to cheer her on as it all falls smoothly into place; the baby just what she wanted, the man stalwart and true, the house like a Town and Country photo shoot, money from the organic baby food rolling in, the life forsaken a funny memory, regrets few and far between.