Foreword

by Chad Perman
 

Bright Wall/Dark Room was initially founded on the floor of my living room in the summer of 2009, as I was counting down the days until the birth of my second child. And today, as my son quickly closes in on his 4th birthday—seeming light-years away from that moment when he first emerged into the world this new, gawking, and loveable thing—so too does BW/DR now find itself grown into something else entirely.

The original site was originally started on a whim, borne out of a small seed of an idea floating through my head back in 2009: how can we talk differently—more emotionally, more humanly—about films? There seemed to be this great and growing gap between the film criticism I was reading and this very real and tangible thing that films themselves actually do to each one of us, how they make us feel. Most critics—professional and amateur and everywhere in between—were quite proficient at writing a very specific kind of review, one that described the film’s basic plot, some of its performances, and whether they ‘liked’ it or not. But I kept thinking there had to be something other than this quick, streamlined, and often lifeless response to a medium that is—initially and essentially—an emotional medium, an art form that can immerse us more wholly in its world than any other form of entertainment available to us.

And so I created BW/DR, with the idea of gathering more personal and creative responses to films; a different lens on the medium, if you will. I didn’t want standard movie reviews on the site, so instead of seeking out proper film critics, I contacted novelists, poets, essay writers, filmmakers, painters, and musicians, as well as a handful of trusted friends—people who could approach and engage with movies in new and interesting ways. And from that small kernel of an idea (and a whole lot of late nights spent at my computer), BW/DR has grown into the sprawling and fantastic community of writers and readers that it is today.

Together, our small staff has managed to cover hundreds of films. We’ve kept growing and growing. Two of our writers met through their mutual work on the site, and have since gotten married. Our essays started being regularly linked to by imdb.com and other outlets. We receive fan letters and requests and pitches—from film professors, aspiring writers, and casual readers—from all over the world, and feel continually humbled by all the response to our little-engine-that-could website.

And so, last month, we finally decided it was time to take the next step.

Which is how we arrived here, excited beyond belief to have the chance to turn this long-time labor of love into something even bigger, hoping to reach even more people who are inspired and passionate about film, essays, ideas, and writing. Our goal, simply stated, is to put out a movie magazine of the highest possible quality on a monthly basis, and to make that content available to you, the readers, for $1.99 a month (cheaper than your morning cup of coffee!) in the hopes of gaining enough subscribers to allow us to pay talented and hard-working writers and artists (both staff and freelance) for their contributions.

We feel this is an exciting new model and opportunity for us, writers and readers alike. A way to prove to whoever is watching that a thing like this can actually work. That a few passionate people can start a site—simply and only for the love of something important to them and the desire to write about and wrestle with that thing in unique, personal, and interesting ways—and eventually grow that site out into a successful and profitable magazine without an ounce of compromise, outside meddling, or advertising influence of any kind. That freelance writers and illustrators can and should be paid for the difficult and wonderful work they do. And that a community is willing to support all of this if they’re approached directly, transparently, and in good faith. That this is a business model that works. That we can do this.

We deeply appreciate all the support so many of you have given BW/DR over the years, and we sincerely hope you’ll choose to sign up today and come along with us on this brand new adventure, wherever it may take us.

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


Ring of Fire

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

A circus story always roams the territory of myth. Its citizens exist outside society – parallel, parasitic, exceeding limitations even as they occupy less than exalted territory. It’s an occupation for people who have both lesser and greater skills than those needed to negotiate everyday experience. Its performers occupy the space of gods and ghosts.

In Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is such a totemic figure. The picture’s first chapter giddily tracks its exalted subject in the heady ramp-up to a death-defying performance. Cianfrance beginsPines with a bravura uninterrupted take, trailing Luke as he moves through a carnival and into a circus tent, sits astride his motorcycle and launches into a cramped metal globe with two other stunt riders. The actor, introduced as a body and not as a face, becomes metaphor. And the encompassing camera establishes Cianfrance’s scale for the dramatic action: here is a man, here is the garish stage where he lives as a hero.

As an actor, Ryan Gosling exists between two poles: between less than and more than, between humility and vengeance, between tenderness and violence. For his audience, he is both the ardent Romeo in The Notebook and the acme of brutality in Drive. Maybe it is a question of physicality, the plaintive cast of his mouth and eyes, the imperfect quirk of his nose, but an air of gentleness trails Gosling even as he transfigures into such an intensely toxic persona as Luke. The actor’sproliferating internet memes find their basis in the strange impossibility that unites politicians, musical front men, and movie stars—in Gosling’s sincerity and specificity—the feeling that a message is being conveyed very specifically toyou.

"Perhaps most central to The Place Beyond The Pines is the feeling of compulsion: that each man falls neatly into a dilemma that will undo him."

Eva Mendes’ Romina is victim to these devilish contradictions. When she finds Luke after his performance, Romina says she wants only to see him, but her humble claim conveys everything: their fraught past, her longing and her ambivalence, his carelessness that brings pain while masking vulnerability, the awakening their union also brings to him.

From the start, Romina is a girl cut in two, easily falling into poisonous rapport with her baby’s disappeared father. She loves and respects Kofi, the dutiful man who gives her shelter, but Luke is the guy who gets her, who elicits the most precarious emotions. Tears spill when she’s with him; they’re provoked by joy and by an unease foreshadowing doom – a glorious condition, if its effects weren’t so shattering.

Director Cianfrance telegraphs intensely specific feelings in his films. His first feature, Blue Valentine, depicts the tender spring of young love cheek by jowl with that attachment’s painful winter, as a couple played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams is divided by the differences that maturity discloses. As in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a play that charts the unspooling of a relationship in reverse, Blue Valentine’s chronology suggests that endings are often implicit in beginnings, and that supremely optimistic gestures of love can be underpinned by weak and destructive impulses. If Blue Valentine is an elegy for a couple’s prospects, Cianfrance’s second effort, The Place Beyond The Pines, offers cautious hope for an individual’s chances.

When Luke learns that the young waitress Romina gave birth to their child, he finds a sudden spine for his life. Luke now must navigate the more crushing challenges of ordinariness. “Each man has a particular skill set,” Luke’s adoptive friend Robin tells him as he prompts him to a life of crime. Robin has the nervous, dilated eyes of any man living too long on the fringes of society. Like boys, these inchoate men befriend each other when they steeplechase their motorbikes through the woods.

Years before, Robin had been a bank robber—and this access to easy cash, along with its risky thrills, propels Luke to knock over banks for Romina and their infant son. The dangers of his new vocation are manifest. Perhaps most central to The Place Beyond The Pines is the feeling of compulsion: that each man falls neatly into a dilemma that will undo him. “If you’re going to ride like lightning you’re gonna crash like thunder,” Robin warns Luke.

The Place Beyond The Pines is curiously timeless – the fashions and small town attitudes reflect the town’s backwater status. The story begins in the early 90s, where Mendes’ mom-waisted cutoffs and Gosling’s bleached hair, metal band t-shirts and peg-legged pants may have been current. While anchored in a setting (“the place beyond the pines” is the translation of the Indian name, Schenectady), the story is not particularly about an era or a working class town, but about how chronology works within a provincial place, about the casual and causal links between characters who barely meet before their lives spark together like deadly live wires.

The triptych drama unfolds over fifteen years through a nimble dovetail of events—the careless circus daredevil turns responsible criminal and dies at the hands of an Oedipal cop; the rookie law enforcer becomes an ambivalent hero whose antipathy to his own son seems to engender the ruthless bully we meet in the movie’s final confrontation. You could say that the film is about the crimes of fathers revisited upon sons, but that suggests a more deterministic story thanPines resolves to be.

We meet Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross as a new cop grappling with a challenge that exceeds his extremely narrow experience—the rookie pursues an armed bank robber into a suburban house. Cross is wounded in the encounter, and afterwards finds himself at the center of a hero’s celebration, an internal affairs investigation, and his own debate. Did he follow correct procedures? Was he justified in changing the course of several lives? For his own survival, Avery must create a single, unambiguous story and sell it.

In Luke’s last scenes, it’s unclear if he is waiting for death or for jail, but he implores Romina, “Do not tell our son about me.” Romina is faithful to his request, but Luke’s presence haunts the balance of the movie. Children carry on unspoken inheritances from their parents. Intuitively, the teenaged sons inPines liberate their repressed family histories. Avery Cross, Junior (Emory Cohen), is a cherub-lipped brute, free of sensitivity, doubt, self-reflection or awareness. His unswerving impulse is destruction, and when his stewardship is passed to his politician father, Avery Jr. locks onto Jason, a loner stoner at his new school, as the target of his elemental attention. The two teens are arrested for buying drugs, and Avery Senior discovers Jason’s true identity. This bruised youth is the baby he made an orphan, from the kill upon which he based a career.

Any story about redemption is a fable. When the terrifically fragile Jason (Dane DeHaan) discovers his dad’s identity, he carries out an orphan’s fantasy by attempting to reclaim his unknown heritage. He follows his real dad’s example and embarks on a motorbike journey, destination unknown. In spite of Luke’s life’s outcome, Jason’s beginning is still hopeful. Pines demonstrates that men’s lives are shaped by the unpredictable alchemy of individual character and chance encounters. We hope that Jason, with his double inheritance of decency and agency, of ordinary and mythical, has better luck than his parents.


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.


I Won't Have My Heart Broken

by Erica Cantoni

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The small tender heart of Mad Men isn’t obvious in the plot lines. It’s not in the divorces or the hasty marriages, the mergers or fledgling reinvented firms—as fun an amuse-bouche as those tasty tangents are.

It’s in this moment:

Ginsberg at his dark office window, typing. Peggy watching him in the reflection of a glass frame, as he chooses ten or fifteen precise words from a coin purse of millions in his mind, and spends them on the Holocaust and outer space. It’s in Peggy listening without breathing or moving or demanding explanation, as he speaks with frustrating, unfulfilling eloquence, ofthe absurd futility of assimilation. It’s in us glimpsing two percent of Ginsberg and blowing apart in wonder at the unreachable remainder.

It’s in a dozen twilight office conversations like this, patiently garlanded out over five years. So small and telling, you want to lean forward and cup your hands around them. Protect them from the wind and eat them before they blow away.

I’ve never had a good memory. Put less endearingly: I forget almost everything. Not because none of it matters. It’s just that the communal experience does not stitch into me. I value it less than the isolated moments, less than the space I protect in my head for lines of books that call themselves up off a page like an echo and the particular shade of navy blue that a Malaysian mountain sky might be at 3 am. The smell of the feet of cats who have died. (Popcorn, incidentally. That’s what the feet of cats I have put down used to smell like.)

I remember how you used to clean your bathtub for me, when I would come to stay in your studio apartment. And the light that shone down from the open window above the brick wall, above the water where I sat and read while you were at work. But I do not remember the date of our anniversary or all the movies we have seen together. For so long, I kept forgetting your middle name. But I remember the sound of your voice, the first time we spoke, going an octave lower and quieter when I told you your mean joke hurt my feelings. I remember that you were never so casually rough with me again.

"What hooks my mind on a stringer for days is the utter subtlety of the show. The literal restraint of the characters—their buttoned-up loneliness. The moments of elegant non-response and suffocated reaction. "

At a work retreat, once, we were instructed to write thank you letters to our favorite teachers. Everyone else addressed theirs confidently, but I hid mine in a purse and spent weeks mouthing variations of her possible surname in the middle of the night, on line at the grocery store, browsing rental videos. Trying to recall. Blenquist? Blumkush? I have used up the space that held her name, but I remember that she introduced me to Anne Sexton to bookmark my Plath, and lent me a book of poems from her personal library, which I never gave back—too enthralled with this implication of equality and the last line of a verse about divorce. I recall her blond bob and the clergy husband and that she told me I could write and she was too smart for me not to believe her. But I can’t find her name.

The collective data and synopsis of life is mostly lost to me. People who fling out movie quotes and historic dates like streamers, like something flimsy and whimsical that they’ve not worked at all to retain, amaze me.

If I hadn’t cheated and read episode guides, I would have forgotten that Peggy actually had the baby. That Kinsey had an African-American girlfriend and once dated Joan, and that Pete’s father died in the airplane crash. That he remained so wholly unflapped that they asked him to attend the airline pitch meeting anyway.

I have forgotten all the major stories, and yet I could carve in bone my memory of a dozen tiny, quiet scenes:

Betty, sitting in a late-day Roman glow, her hair whipped and molded into a European chignon. Looking so modern it was as if she alone dragged in the backdrop change, inventing the ’60s. As if she’d finally shed the kids like a dead skin or a fire and emerged, victoriously golden. Reborn. How the Italian men hit on her and insulted Don when he approached, as a stranger. Which was perfect, right? Because how long had it been since they’d known each other at all? I’d etch in how he fell back in love, madly so, with Betty for two days. With this restored, empowered version of her. All cold upper class beauty, all superiority, all linguistic-flexing power. Too good for him, which is the key to everything.

I’d etch the repose of Roger’s tired face when he calls Joan late at night, with Jane, the regrettable wife, passed out beside him.

Peggy’s hand on Don’s after Anna dies. This single brief touch a complete swelling orchestra composed to explain the depth of their bond and its tenuousness. How vital and still wildly vulnerable this tie is in the possession of a man so accustomed to scorching any tenderness entrusted to him.

Everything encompassed in the moments Don calls Betty “birdie.” The whole rattling film projection of their courtship and marriage and children and infidelities and lies and second tries and reheated dinners. And the end that Betty pretends comes with the bang of Dick Whitman’s betrayal, and not years of whimpers. Every aching sweetness remains in “birdie,” somehow fossilized and surviving but useless as a mate-less bull.

The moments of elegant non-response and suffocated reaction. The things they do not tell each other, the fights they don’t finish, the slaps that aren’t delivered.

I would like to sit down across from Matthew Weiner and tell him he gets a few thing wrong, just to keep him humble (Don furiously chasing Megan through their apartment to represent “passion” and the embarrassing, unsustainable silliness of Fat Betty), but then declare to him that he may be the world’s greatest master of conveying so much through a nearly wordless dance.

Sometimes, I find myself watching Mad Men through a sort of fantasy lens, as if it were an underwater ballet. A cold, slow-floating drift of Asian dance and sad, silent theater.

It’s hypnotizing.

Leaves me captured and confused, weekly. Not by the chuckle-worthy, antiquated nods to bourbons at noon or unused seatbelts and ashtrays in the boardroom. Not by the adultery or sexism or racism or nepotism or homophobia.

What hooks my mind on a stringer for days is the utter subtlety of the show. The literal restraint of the characters—their buttoned-up loneliness. The moments of elegant non-response and suffocated reaction. The things they do not tell each other, the fights they don’t finish, the slaps that aren’t delivered. The communicative release they never allow themselves (even as it might be their salvation).

And the writers’ unrivaled ability to tell so many stories while saying so little.

Look at Don Draper. Look at how we understand that the desire that surged in Don for the unbaggaged Betty in Rome is the same spark that went out when Megan quit the ad game years later. Everything we needed to know was never even hinted at, let alone verbalized. It was stuccoed in Don’s disenchanted face when he walked into their Manhattan kitchen and found Megan barefoot and happily cooking.

Mad Men has inherent respect for the intelligence of its audience; no ham-handed narrator barges in to explain that Don loves women masquerading as men. Don himself doesn’t know it—even as he chases an endless line of females with an edge of masculine power. Ambitious, accomplished, smart and clever women who are driven by careers. Midge the bohemian, unrepentant painter. Rachel Menken the retail tycoon. Dr. Faye, triumphant at the top of her innovative industry and mired too deep in the logic of psychology to be beholden to emotions. (Until she isn’t, and then she is cast aside.) Teacher Suzanne, curt and unwanting—a disciplined athlete. Betty, before or away from the kids. Betty, when she is the calculating, educated, un-needing thoroughbred he first bet on. Megan when she aptly finesses and charms Heinz and thinks like Don thinks, before he can. When she is a better version of him. I have known men like this, though it took a therapist to name them. The way Weiner deftly—almost nonchalantly—illustrates Don’s penchant in a dozen separate plot points of light across a five-year sky is extraordinary.

If Weiner is the master of delicacy, his characters are obedient disciples. I could sooner breathe water than relate to their starched self-possession.

Do you remember the scene where Lane Pryce kisses Joan? And she so gently opens the door with her measured movements and perfect posture; as if the cause and effect had no correlation at all. Pivots and resumes their conversation, unacknowledging. Remember Joan—when her fiancé rapes her and she marries him anyway. When Roger disappoints her yet again and she has his baby because it is her own, more so. How she never berates him, how she simply steps right up and over everything he can’t be, and carries on.

If we were establishing a monument to Joan (not the worst idea ever), I’d demand it be two-fold. Half to honor whatever fantastical genetic engineering delivered her impossible physique. And the other half to her strength. There is an inexorable calm and mettle to Joan that makes me want to cry. I am petrified by her unflinching judgment and intoxicated by her ability to graciously deflect everything in which she does not wish to become entangled.

I am confused by her grace, so foreign to my brash, clumsy earnestness. By her ability to lead without recognition and keep afloat on the delicate crust of tactful, unceasingly appropriate professionalism I’ve smashed through always, despite every attempt to be above gossip and provocation and injustice. How she manages the office and the men who pursue her and the women who begrudge her and the husband who fails her and does it all without stooping to tears but once.

"I want to line up every character and demand that they tell me how to be satisfied. Or how to live your whole life without satisfaction."

For my part, I’ve almost never felt something I did not verbalize. Every emotion has gushed through me in loud roiling riptides and tsunamis. Erupting in howling wails at lovers and tears at work. In depthless anger and longing at parents and in wild, reckless joy at kindred spirits.

And anything I have not yelled, I have written and shared and over-shared. I own absolutely none of Don’s acumen for compartmentalization, none of Joan’s elegant ability to brush aside that which might be uncomfortable to hear. No share of Roger’s almost total irreverence, Anna Draper’s easy forgiveness, Sally’s preternatural calm.

As loudly and plainly as possible, I have presented my laments and talked through them laboriously. After all of which, you can assume: When I am devastated, you will know it. My comfort zone is the cacophony of modern desperation. When we are unhappy—incidentally or profoundly—there are an unbearable number of mediums to broadcast it and no expectation to hide it.

So this is the aspect of Mad Men that scares me most: the implication that every single character is so discreetly and quietly unhappy. Am I the only one that feels almost every last character is (to varying degrees and levels of awareness) desperately, wildly, deeply, paralyzingly unhappy? So unhappy they grapple and tear at and stampede and betray and smother each other in some savage effort to salvage their own lives.

Or maybe I am projecting. It’s impossible to tell if they’re happy, because they speak of the concept so infrequently it’s as though it has never even occurred to them. But I know I have never burned down a version of my life in which I was actually happy. Dumb and selfish and impulsive and impetuous as I have been in my youth, every single time I did the wrongest thing, it was not in an effort to hurt anyone else but solely to save myself (whether I realized it then or later).

And this crew? They are the most proficient of emotional arsons.

Before our talk is done, I want to beg Matthew Weiner, impulsively, not to stop. To write and plot out a dozen more shows, or continue this one forever. To spy on into the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s so that I can remember it all. See it again from people too destroyed or tired or self-centered to belabor it. I want to know how Kennedy’s assassination is something that happens to you, around you, on a Tuesday afternoon in between your kids being brats and your extramarital affairs.

But like the show’s namesakes, I’d still be greedy for more.

I want to line up every character and demand that they tell me how to be satisfied. Or how to live your whole life without satisfaction. I want to know if what they are doing is working. What their back-up plan is.

Let’s be clear: Though I love it, Mad Men is not a show that makes me feel good. I marvel at the artistry and the foreign oddity. Understand that the numbness of three afternoon cocktails was imperative, not luxurious. I judge and begrudge and find grace, but I hardly ever end the show smiling.

When I was a little kid, I watched all the James Bond movies with my father. It seemed some tricky death was always befalling villains in an under-lit nighttime swimming pool. Sharks, inexplicably. Or a simple gunshot to the chest, the victim spinning and dropping backward into the water. Drifting downward in a watercolor blur of blood.

But the death that stuck in my mind for years was the suffocation of a pool-cover sliding across, trapping and drowning its occupants.

More or less, that’s what we’re gathering to watch every Sunday evening on AMC: a beautiful, terrible, slow-motion, desperate rendering of the things people will do to each other when they realize they are fatally trapped and voiceless.


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. She and her husband live in Los Angeles with their adorable cat.


I Wish I'd Stayed, Too.

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

My grandfather has an awful disease that, over the course of the past ten years, has taken away most everything from him, including his memories. He now lives in a nursing home near my grandmother’s apartment, a few blocks separating him from the one person he still remembers, his partner of over sixty-five years. She visits him often, despite how much it hurts her to do so. I went to see them at the nursing home recently, sat between him and my grandma for a couple hours. “The hardest part about all of this,” she tells me, “is that we can’t talk about the past. He doesn’t remember any of our life together.”

Joel Barish finds himself on a cold and windy beach one early February morning. Normally predictable as pie, Joel decides at the very last minute to ditch work and hop a train up to Montauk. It doesn’t make sense, even to him, yet here he is. He scribbles in a journal full of ripped out pages, the first entry in over two years. Today is the first day of the rest of his life.

Clementine Kruczynski is on the beach that morning as well, wrapped up warm in her bright orange sweatshirt, her curious blue hair blowing in the wind. Joel looks at her from a distance. He is too shy to approach her, kicks himself for it. They circle around each other for the next few hours, some magnetic force seemingly drawing them to one another. He sees her at the diner, she spots him later on the train platform. She waves, he smiles. A little while later, on the train, he sits sketching her from afar. She eventually says hello and wanders over to talk with him, her words carrying far more weight than either of them could possibly imagine in that moment: “Do I know you?”

And then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

Now, Joel is driving through the night, crying. We don’t know what to make of this at first: the film’s scrambled timeline and patch-work narrative has yet to be made clear. We have seen the first bright blooming of a brand new love and then the tattered aftermath of its apparent conclusion, all in the film’s first twenty minutes. We wait for the thread that runs through it. We wait and see.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a puzzle of a film, a fantastic Rubik’s Cube of memory, love, loss, and regret that collapses in on itself only to become stronger in the end. It’s clever yet tender, a near impossible line to walk. It jumps off endless narrative cliffs and continually finds its wings on the way down.

We all carry so very much around with us—hope, fear, joy, sadness, compassion, jealousy, love, hate, patience, selfishness—in these tiny little brains of ours. We are, often, simply over-matched; bombarded by external stimuli, beset by endless internal monologues. Things happen to us and we hold on to them, gathering them up to create the memories that eventually tell us about ourselves, about who we are and where we’ve been. Our mind has to keep all these things, an infinity of moments. And, in such a way, we each create our own lives.

My grandparents, mid-1940s

My grandparents, mid-1940s

But what if that weren’t so? What if there was a loophole, a short cut, aneraser of sorts? What if one could stretch out that great plain of memory and somehow extricate from among its many tangled branches a perceived thorn? What if you could forget—forever—that embarrassing moment, that traumatic event, that big regret? What if you could erase from your mind the girl that broke your heart?

Joel: Is there any danger of brain damage?

Dr. Mierzwiak: Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage.

Clementine erases Joel impulsively, after a late-night argument, both of them at their very worst. Joel erases Clementine, initially, out of misguided revenge: if she did it, I’m doing it too. Soon, though, there will be no one left to remember the years they spent together.

Oh my darling, Oh my darling, Oh my darling Clementine / You were lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine.

There is within us all an aching need for connection. A buffer against the vast existential winds. Another person to cling to, to help fill the void, numb the pain, and ease the loneliness. As a writer, Charlie Kaufman has always understood this. For what else are his most successful films if not extended riffs on being alone, trapped inside of your own head, unable to truly connect?

My first girlfriend, the first real one anyway, broke my heart. One day I was young and in love and the next day my whole world had ended. She had found someone else. I spent days alone in my room, crying. I emerged, slowly, unsure. Full of anger and everything else. Had the opportunity existed in that moment, I would have chosen to erase her from my mind. It hurt too much to have her there.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

But what about the day we first met and the note she left on my bed for me to find later? Or that day at the fair when I realized I loved someone for the very first time and told her and my heart opened up in ways it never had before? Or all those lazy afternoons we spent driving around in her blue ‘67 Mustang, and how the entire world seemed almost brand new?

My heart was broken, but still, I wanted to keep those things.

Meet me in Montauk.

In the middle of the night, Joel changes his mind. He doesn’t want to erase Clementine. But the process has already been set in motion: he is hooked up to the oddly-shaped memory eraser contraption, fast asleep. Half of their relationship is already gone. Joel, stuck inside his own mind, tries to will himself awake, to no avail. Desperate to hold onto her in any way he can, he convinces Clementine to hide out with him in places they would never think to look for her. They hop around in his brain, a couple of Billy Pilgrims come unstuck in time.

They end up in his childhood. Little Joel sits under the table as his babysitter, now Clementine, talks with his mother before she leaves.

“I really want her to pick me up,” he says. “It’s amazing how strong that desire is.”

It works, momentarily. They are off the map.

But Dr. Mierzwiak finds them. The erasing continues.

Meet me in Montauk.

An invocation, a wish, a desire. This idea that there is a somewhere else out there, a something else that keeps us going, propelling us forward. That such a place exists at all, even if only inside of us. That love is a stronger force than memory. That you can’t eradicate it, not ever. That it is capable of moving through great fields of anger and disappointment, enormous skies of sadness, undeterred. That it finds a way to replenish itself and breathe once more anew:

Meet me in Montauk.

I asked my Dad, when we were in the car a few days later, if he’d ever had his heart broken. And how does one ever get over it. “Does it ever not feel like this?”

“Yes,” he said, “but it takes time.”

Clementine: This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.

Joel: I know.

Clementine: What do we do?

Joel: Enjoy it.

She is almost gone. The relationship has nearly been removed from Joel’s mind. They are down to the last memories, or in this case, the very first ones. He sits with her on the steps at the beach, at the party where they met for the very first time. She takes some of the food off his plate and eats it. This is how it all began. This is how it all will end. They feel the warm sun shining on them. They breathe in deeply.

Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.

My grandmother is the only one left with anything to remember. My grandfather no longer remembers the day they first met at the Boeing factory, the six decades of oatmeal breakfasts they shared, the struggles over money, or even the family they raised together. But my grandma does. And she tells him all he’s forgotten. She tells us, too, whenever we remember to ask. And in that way, maybe, nothing is ever really lost. At least not yet.

At the end of the film, in its final words, a leap of faith is or is not made. And whether or not you take that leap and choose to believe—in hope, in change, in redemption, in love—says everything about you.

Reader, I took that leap.



Chad Perman is the founding editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is a writer and therapist, living in Seattle with his wife and their two children.


A Speculative Wes Anderson Filmography (2014-2065)

by Andy Sturdevant

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“I read this article that said all the Italian workers at Cinecitta are saying, like, ‘He’s the Maestro, he’s Fellini, come back to life!’” 
– My friend Dave on Wes Anderson’s work on The Life Aquatic, 2005

“I’d blown it, Friedkin had blown it, Altman went into eclipse, one flop after another, Francis went crazy, even Raging Bull didn’t do any business. Everybody kind of blew it in varying shapes and sizes.” 
– Peter Bogdanovich, 1997

“His often damaged characters are viewed in a compassionate light.” 
– Wikipedia

The Dreyfus Affair (2014). Following two well-received films, The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Anderson writes and directs a bizarre remake of the 1937 Paul Muni biopic The Life of Emile Zola, with Jason Schwartzmann in the lead role as Zola. Though the film wins praise for its meticulous art direction, carefully composed 19th-century Paris setting, and anachronistic Yves Montand soundtrack, critics savage the film. “He seems more interested in getting the waxed mustaches of French military officials correct than in understanding the life of Emile Zola,” complains one. Some over-analytical critics feel the film is a misguided attempt to refute the type of unsentimental naturalism Zola championed; others find this over-analytical criticism ridiculous and suspect Anderson simply wanted an excuse to make a movie with lots and lots of beautiful 19th-century Paris interiors. A slow-motion scene of Emile Zola purchasing a live lobster at the Saxe-Breteuil Market for dinner and silently walking back to his apartment to the strains of Montand’s “Les Feuilles Mortes” is particularly celebrated and/or lambasted.

The Last and Best of the Peter Pans (2017). Anderson isolates himself in an furnished apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for several months with the complete unpublished works of J.D. Salinger, obtained from an unscrupulous rare book dealer. The screenplay he emerges with is an account of a wealthy young heir (played by John W. Stillman, Jr., son of Whit Stillman, in a breakout performance) who becomes the first male to graduate from a prestigious eastern women’s college. He subsequently strikes up an odd friendship with a self-sacrificing Pakistani ice cream man in Central Park. Some hail it as a return to form. Detractors agree, noting that the form being returned to is the form of “youthful, damaged elites in a romanticized New York City interacting with near-mute foreign-born stock characters.” Reviews are mixed.

The Sisters Tagliatelli (2019). Anderson seems here to be self-consciously addressing his reputation for consistently writing thinly-developed female characters. “Three chic, mysterious women (Kat Denning, Kristen Stewart, and Emma Watson) silently and mirthlessly sit around an apartment in Venice smoking for two hours and listening to Leonard Cohen,” complains one critic. “Barely a movie,” grouses another. The film is light on dialogue, heavy on “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

Mission: Impossible X:II [aka M:I:X:II] (2022). Inexplicable commercial forces compel Anderson to step in for an ailing Paul Thomas Anderson to direct Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible XII. Tom Cruise weighs 275 pounds and is former governor of Ohio. Adrien Brody and Luke Wilson play estranged twin brothers that force Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character out of retirement when they threaten to destroy Connecticut with invisible Tesla frequencies. The soundtrack is entirely pre-T. Rex Marc Bolan solo recordings. A box office disaster—and the beloved franchise lies dormant until it is reinvigorated four years later with Sofia Coppola’s reboot, The Impossible Mission.

The Black Maria (2025). Anderson’s audacious attempt to make a feature-length commercial film using turn-of-the-twentieth-century silent kinetoscopic technology gets him exiled to France for ten years. The film features a grainy, stand-out performance from Anjelica Huston in her final role. The film is celebrated in certain neo-Luddite circles as America enters its sixth SuperRecession in ten years, but distribution is limited. Anderson’s insistence on a live piano score any time the film is publicly screened further cripples the film’s commercial prospects.

Rushmoreville (2035). Anderson’s 35-years-later sequel to Rushmore, written with Owen Wilson and 100-year old fellow Texan Larry McMurtry, proves one of his most controversial films. Adrien Brody steps in for the tragically deceased Jason Schwartzmann. Max Fischer is now in his fifties and president of Bloom Amalgamated Offshore Manufacturing, Inc. He is confronted with the return to town of Margaret Yang, who harbors a painful secret. All assume Max and Margaret will resume their high school romance. Can these friends find equilibrium in middle age? Mixed reviews.

Seen Those English Dramas! (2037). A well-received 4D concert film of peerless rock icons Vampire Weekend’s legendary thirtieth anniversary residency at Madison Square Garden. “Two timeless institutions make rock music history together,” enthuses one respected Internet commenter. “A bunch of twee old farts reliving the Noughties,” gripes a college-aged Internet commenter.

Well-Respected Men (2040). The death of Ray Davies in 2040 at age 96 seems to have shaken Anderson and plunged him into a period of reflection. He isolates himself in an apartment in Lambeth, London for several months. The screenplay he emerges with is an account of two eccentric, emotionally-shattered musician brothers whose 1960s beat group travels from the UK to India in search of enlightenment with a large supporting cast of oddball characters. Internet commenters complain Anderson has been repeating himself for forty years, butWell-Respected Men sweeps the Oscars, including prizes for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and a long-denied award for Best Director. A generation of young American filmmakers, having weathered the hardships of a near-continuous series of SuperRecessions, idolize Anderson and admire the now-vanished, never-was world of affluence and whimsy his characters inhabit. The turbulent 2040s are marked by a resurgence of interest in Anderson’s work in the American film industry. However, by this time, the American film industry is generally considered by the rest of the world to be an inconsequential outpost for crass, post-Empire nostalgia; the world film establishment is unquestionably dominated by Bollywood. The new generation of celebrated young Indian filmmakers are unimpressed with Anderson’s body of work, and his popularity remains a strictly provincial Western phenomenon. The hero of all young Bollywood filmmakers during the 2040s? Andrew Bujalski.

This is Anderson’s final film before War Between the States II: This Time, It’s Personal tears the Republic into small warring factions in 2049, bringing large-scale American film production to a halt. Anderson retires to a villa in the People’s Republic of Greater Maine, where he dies peacefully in April 2065.


Andy Sturdevant is a writer and artist living in Minneapolis. He has written about art, history and culture for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications and websites. He also writes “The Stroll,” a weekly column on art and visual culture in the neighborhoods of Minneapolis-St. Paul for MinnPost. Many of these pieces are collected in his first book, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow.


Who Are You?

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

If you’ve ever watched a David Lynch movie, you know the category of “plot summary” usually receives an “N/A” on those mental checklists you fill out after the credits stop rolling.Lost Highway is no exception to Lynch’s disregard for linear and/or comprehensible story lines. And yet it solicits more curiosity than frustration. It reaches out to the viewer and says:try to understand. This landscape is not unknown to you. This terror is something you hold close.

After frantically drawing out a very incomplete plot map, and reading a lot about the film on the ever-so-trustworthy Internet, I think I have a grasp on its mechanics. But only the most slippery of grasps. Because it’s such a strange viewing experience, the idea of “spoilers” doesn’t totally apply, but if you think you might not want to know anything about the apparent plot … maybe don’t keep reading.

Basically (by which I mean not basically at all), the film follows Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a tenor saxophone player who lives in a lovely and creepy-as-shit house in the Los Feliz hills and has a really creepy-as-shit marriage with Renee (Patricia Arquette). During one of the (many!) unsettling sex scenes in the film, I actually said out loud, “If this were how I experienced sex, I would never want to have sex.”1

In any case, Fred and Renee live a quiet life in this creepy house and they have lots of unfulfilling and kind of upsetting sex and one day they start finding videotapes on their front doorstep. The first videotape is just some really grainy footage of the front of their own house that closes in on their front door in a terrifying way and then drops off into static. “It’s probably from the real estate agent,” Renee says. Yeah, okay, Renee. I’m sure that’s what it is. IF YOUR REAL ESTATE AGENT IS A SECRET DEMON.2

From there things only get worse. One of the tapes ends in a traumatic and horrifying crime—and Fred himself is in the middle of it. Did he commit this crime? He doesn’t remember. What happened? That’s sort of the question we’re trying to answer for the rest of the film, as Fred gets sentenced to death row; suffers a killer headache; and seemingly morphs into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a car mechanic who becomes romantically involved with an oversexed woman named Alice (Patricia Arquette again).3

Alice’s fingernails change color in almost every scene.

You know how sometimes you are just sitting around—maybe watching TV, maybe snacking on something bland, maybe staring numbly at your own hands—when a very real desire comes over you, echoing throughout some chamber of the brain—“I really wish I were someone else right now”? The basic premise of Lost Highway seems to be: what if your desire for another life were so strong that just imagining this transformation could make it happen? What if you had gotten yourself into a situation that was so messed up that you went into a fugue state—that you were able to conjure up a whole new body for yourself, a whole new life?

But because you have gotten yourself into such a bad situation, because you were essentially going insane, this new life—this new body—might not serve you any better than the last one. This new body might actually run into all the same problems.

We like body swap movies because they allow us to dream about escaping the boundaries our very constraining flesh imposes on us. When we’re kids, we like to dream about becoming an adult for a day (but still keeping our fun kid minds). When we’re teenagers we like to dream about becoming someone more popular, more attractive, less awkward. When we’re adults? It gets weirder, maybe. We like to dream about becoming someone who made the choices we didn’t make. Someone who opted for a different (more fulfilling?) job, a newer car, a healthier diet, a prettier wife. Someone who lived more dangerously, who nearly wrecked the newer car, who supplemented the healthier diet with risky substance ingestion, who fucked the prettier wife in front of a video camera.

Lost Highway is born of these more disturbing wish-fulfillment fantasies. The psychological landscape it captures is worthy of a horror movie (in fact, Lost Highway has often found a place on those ubiquitous “Scariest Movies Of All Time” lists). The most frightening thing about it is not the conceit, not the I-had-a-psychological-break-so-I-invented-another-body-in-my-mind-to-inhabit—it’s the realization that there are huge holes in this mental body swap. And seeping in through the holes are really creepy, unnerving events that should never happen in real life. These surreal events hold a key to Lost Highway, showing the attentive viewer that this strange second story line (after Fred transforms into Pete) is not happening in real life. Rather, it’s all unfolding inside Fred’s brain, which in turn is too weak and disturbed and distracted to keep its fantasy pure. The fantasy is corrupted in a really horrifying way.

One of the most upsetting scenes occurs near the beginning of the film. Renee has dragged Fred to a scene party in some mansion near the Observatory. Fred is hating it, Renee is drunk. There are a bunch of people milling around who look exactly like the kind of people you’d never have any interest in knowing. Downing shots at the bar, Fred turns to see a person we will know only as the Mystery Man—a white-faced, eyebrowless, androgynous being dressed all in black 4. The Mystery Man approaches Fred: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

In this context, the stale pick-up line turns into a nightmarish scenario.

The movie is full of dark wells like this—moments when the realism of a scene shivers and ruptures and lets in something completely un-realist but also chillingly recognizable. Recognizable because, if you want to know the truth, the fabric of our lives5 is full of little ruptures. Usually they are subtle enough that we can feel okay about overlooking them or laughing them off. Sometimes they are not. Once my husband Chris and I were at Disneyland and, as we were walking to our car in the giant parking structure, I saw another couple walking the other direction. They were wearing the same color shirts as we were, roughly the same styles of jeans, had our same hair colors, and looked to be about our height/weight. Jokingly, I turned to Chris and said, “Look, it’s us!” The couple continued to walk away and we never saw their faces. Chris laughed and then later said something like “That was weird, those two people really did look like us,” and I agreed, and the whole thing just made me feel a little bit nauseous and very glad they hadn’t actually turned around.6

There are things that happen to us that we can’t explain, things that bubble up from some other reality or some other dimension and erupt out of our nice, mowed backyards and through our safely locked doors. David Lynch knows this and Lost Highway shows this and nothing is resolved in a neat or acceptable manner.

Fred says at one point in the film that he hates video cameras. “I like to remember things my own way,” he explains. This sounds nice for a second. But what is the cost of remembering things your own way? How much of a leap is it from having a memory that romanticizes that night on the beach to having a memory that completely represses not just an event but an entire side of your own personality? You can out-drive a hundred policemen but you can never outrun your own mind.

Lost Highway plays on our secret fears that we, too, have repressed memories—that we, too, have perhaps done things in our pasts that our brains have whitewashed for the sake of our own sanity. This is how interrogations and false confessions work—after being battered with the question “But did you do it?” for a certain number of hours, even the sanest human being begins to doubt her own mental reliability, her own version of events.

How many people is “I”? How many times have we met the Mystery Man before and not remembered? How many miles have we driven to try to escape our realities?

How many bodies have we inhabited?


1The little MPAA explanations at the beginning for the film’s R-rating include the category of “bizarre violent and sexual content,” which seems like a description tailor-made just for Lost Highway.

2“Just walk away, Renee,” for real.

3Arquette is the victim here of Lynch’s well-documented doppelgänger obsession. She does her best with the two characters, and I actually really buy her performance as Alice, but I don’t know why on earth Fred would EVER have married her super untrustworthy and super suspicious Renee.

4Robert Blake plays the Mystery Man and is basically as terrifying as possible, and the later context of Robert Blake’s actual life—the whole “Oh, he probably shot his wife after dinner that one time”—only makes this role that much more disturbing. Especially since Lynch has talked about the O.J. Simpson murder case as a subconscious inspiration for Lost Highway, and there are unsettling parallels between Robert Blake’s alleged crime and O.J.’s alleged crime (down to the criminal acquittal and the civil conviction), and … anyway, the whole thing is weird and makes for bad dreams.

5cotton

6Most Disneyland experiences feel pretty upsetting and surreal, actually.

Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.


Define Sex & Then Define City

by Sam Donsky


Define sex & then define city. Either way
I am riding a horse to the center of it.
Whatever metaphor you’re offering
you should have offered sooner;
whichever membership you’re voting on
I’m flattered but abstain. For the last time
here’s how I got the stitches: I wrote an email
to X about coming undone. “Don’t say that
in print,” one is warned, sort of constantly,
but it’s 2010 & if your emails
aren’t poetry by now I don’t know.
One either learns or one doesn’t. One
either invents a new thing or writes
forever of old ones: telephone, guillotine,
Facebook—It’s cool. City, boredom,
summer’s end: it’s True Love, the name
of the horse, I mean, the names of my
very worst emails, the name of the
box in which I keep my favorite
country-pop ballads. I’m writing this
(if you’re reading this) out of generational
grief; that’s a joke; out of coffee or gin,
maybe; out of bad wood; out of brain-freeze;
out of the palm of my heart-arranging,
dominant hand: my kiss-blower
my air-pistol my thumbs-up jam.
(My high-five my West Side my fuck you
my peace.) I am about to invent
a brand-new version of sex: it’s called
Philadelphia in October & it’s rife
with acceptance: my hair thinning
toward the finish-lines of temperate
coasts; your skirt & genius held aloft
like two dolls in a box. “Off with their
heads” — that’s the punch-line. That’s the
love in return, that’s the world on the street.
I am about to invent a brand-new
strain of the city: it’s called Sex in October
& it’s sheathed in bad books: Grim Reaper:
The Collected Poems; Ivy League Cleavage:
A Novella. Each day a new one on sale.
Each day a knock at the door; each night
a change of address. Each step a phone call,
a brick, a stitch in the body’s abstention.
Until everything I’ve ever invented
comes-to: printing press, country-pop,
split-atom—It’s cool. Today I call X
& then again a day later: the sequel
flops badly & there won’t be a third.
“We weren’t ready,” they’d remark,
“& you’d aged in between.” Define sex
& then define city. With every
moment I am remapping
my answer. With every sentence
we are brand new; are less wretched;
are reinventing the horse
or re-escaping from bed.

 


Sam Donsky is a graduate student in Philadelphia. He is in the process of writing 100 poems for 100 films.


In Defense of Dead Poets Society

by Christopher Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Last night at 11:30, I turned on the TV and Dead Poets Society was just starting. I ended up watching it all the way through, until 2 a.m.

I hadn’t seen this movie since my freshman year of high school—watched it in English class, of course—and I barely remembered it. I vaguely remembered that one of the kids killed themselves at the end, but I couldn’t remember if it was Robert Sean Leonard or Ethan Hawke.

I also thought there was a scene at the end where the parent of one of the kids who didn’t kill themselves had a tearful moment of realization with his son and said something like “I never want anything like that to happen to you,” which then lead to an elevated level of mutual understanding between child and father. Apparently, I completely invented this scene, and in retrospect I’m glad it wasn’t in the movie. More on that later.

As I started watching, I had a fleeting feeling that this film was suspect in many intellectual circles, and that many of its memorable parts were seen as cliché or trite.

Let’s go deeper. I’m going to mention that I’ve always had a subconscious dread or haunted feeling about the actor Robert Sean Leonard. Even though I didn’t remember specifically who had killed himself in this movie, I had a gut feeling that it was RSL, though it was something I never addressed in my head. In retrospect I now believe that whenever Dead Poets Society popped up in my thoughts, I would immediately go to RSL killing himself. Then I would try to “correct” myself, thinking “No, it wasn’t him, actually, it was one of the other guys.”

Still, every time Robert Sean Leonard appears in anything, I think of him killing himself in this movie. I’m a big fan of House, and RSL is charming and funny in that show. But every time an episode starts and he walks onscreen, I think “Robert Sean Leonard killed himself in Dead Poets Society.” Apparently, the idea of Robert Sean Leonard killing himself terrifies me. So much so that I built a construct in my head denying it had happened.

I went to an all-boys private high school. Not a boarding school, but a uniformed prep school steeped in tradition. My first reaction is to say “that has nothing to do with my intrigue over this film,” but it HAS TO, right? I mean it’s impossible for it not to. Also, my wife is a poet. I’m sure that has something to do with my interest.

But ultimately it was about the suicide. “Who kills himself?” is what I kept morbidly asking. There was relief to be found in thinking it was going to be Ethan Hawke. Why? Because I wanted to disprove my subconscious knowledge that it was Robert Sean Leonard. I honestly don’t know why. I’ll take a stab, but I feel like it will make more sense to you than it does to me. To me, it still feels like I’m grasping at straws.

There was an upperclassman at my high school and he was heavily involved in the theater (like the character of Neil Perry). This boy killed himself when I was a freshman, probably right around the time I first saw this movie. I knew him fairly well, because I was also heavily involved in theater. Now, it’s clear to me 14 years later that this boy who died was gay. Not out, but certainly gay. And it’s clear to me that Robert Sean Leonard’s character Neil is certainly gay. Since the movie was made in 1989, Neil merely wants to act. He’s cast as Puck and his father is disdainful. It’s left at that. But it seems carefully chosen—Neil’s father stands in the back of the theater during the play and watches his son dance around and afterward takes him home and tells him he’s going to military school. If this were just a story about Neil wanting to be an actor, he would’ve been cast as Hamlet and his father would’ve seen him and there would’ve been one of those scenes where afterward he’s blown away by his son’s skill (“I was wrong”) and then a happier ending. But it must be on purpose that the performance Mr. Perry sees his son give is one where the only thing to take away from it is “Wow, my son is GAY.”

I also want to point out that I feel Neil is comprised of a lot of the vulnerable things about me—optimistic and idealistic; high-strung; always aware of a father looming large in his life (though my dad is very different from Mr. Perry). When this character takes his own life, it chills me to the core.

In a larger sense, I am personally invested in all these young men for reasons like the above. Sure, a lot of the film comes off as didactic, but what isn’t at that age? I want Knox Overstreet to get that girl he wants (because I’ve been there). I want Todd Anderson to find a voice (because I’ve been there). Yeah, maybe Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) isn’t that realistic, but he seems to be made up of all the things that wake us up around that age. And Keating has some very human moments. When he finds his volume of verse in Neil’s desk and then just breaks down—losing a student that he inspired—a person would carry that for the rest of his life. Keating also graduated Weldon in ’42, which makes me think he served in the war. It would be a believable motivation that someone would come back from that atrocity with a weird obsession about our inevitable deaths, then devote his life to motivating young people to enjoy it while they can.

All of which leads me to say that this movie is good, or rather, I liked this movie. It wears itself on its sleeve. I appreciate that part of it because it’s done well, and it deals with a period in life when we usually wear ourselves on our sleeves. And I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the parts we see as cliché and quote ironically now…well, we do so because those parts are good enough to stick around and linger. In our subconscious.

I can see people’s self-defense mechanisms easily being triggered by this movie. However, I leave a lot of the criticism it generally receives to the emotionally arid.

And here’s why I’m glad Dead Poets Society doesn’t have that scene of reconciliation between Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) and his father after Neil’s death. Because instead, we get that beautiful wide shot of Todd running and falling, screaming and crying, out into the endless frozen winter tundra beyond his school.

And God, if that doesn’t feel like growing up.


Christopher Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season.


An Interview with Kevin McCallister on the Anniversary of His Abandonment

by Bebe Ballroom

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

He is forty minutes late. I am sitting on a bench in Central Park. I have been waiting motionless and the pigeons have claimed the seat next to me. The six-dollar pistachio hot chocolate I bought for him is cold now. My phone buzzes loudly and sends the pigeons scattering. The text message is from him:

Traffic! ={

He shows up twenty minutes later, walking briskly in a gray hooded sweatshirt, unzipped and flapping in the wind, revealing a black t-shirt underneath that reads, in tall white numbers, 14:59. His jeans are rolled up past his ankles, which expose themselves as boney and pale. His fingernails feature chipped charcoal nail lacquer. His lips are chapped, his hair is still blonde, though not the bright blonde he was known for when he was younger. Kevin McCallister takes one long drag of his cigarette before extinguishing it on his tongue. He bites the tip off and spits it out, placing the remains of the cigarette in his pocket for later use.

“The pigeon lady taught me that trick,” he said. “Right in this park.”

It is December of 2012, the 22nd anniversary of “The Home Alone Kid.” That’s how most remember McCallister, the 2nd grader who was left behind when his parents traveled for the holidays. He was eight years old when it first happened, and nine years old when it happened again. That’s right, for two consecutive years the McCallister family boarded a plane without their youngest child, the inventive and sharp-tongued Kevin, in tow.

Kevin McCallister apologizes for being late.

“The city does these things to you,” he says.

He lives in New York now, the same city he found himself in by accident, all those years ago, when he took a second’s pause at Chicago O’Hare International Airport to load fresh batteries into his Talkboy. When he looked up from his recording device, he followed a man wearing his father’s calf-length caramel mohair trench coat onto the wrong flight. Soon after, his family was in Florida and he was in New York, though thankfully with his father’s wallet (which matched the atrocious coat).

“What else has the city done to you?” I ask him.

“Some things you can read about and some things you can’t,” he says and smiles smugly.

When his family went to Paris and forgot him in 1990, he spent the holiday week alone in the large Chicago McCallister residence, enjoying his new-found freedom and suddenly guardian-less world. But in an almost unbelievable twist, he wasn’t as alone as he thought. While Kevin ate ice cream sundaes for dinner and jumped on his parents’ bed, his entire neighborhood was actually being cased by two wanted criminals. The criminals Marv and Harry (who came to be known to the police as the “Wet Bandits”) intended to rob the houses, vacated by their owners for the holidays. Kevin noticed suspicious activity on his street and soon discovered just how dangerous the Wet Bandits were. They soon became aware of Kevin as well and dismissed him for a “snot-nosed twerp,” but they should not have underestimated that resourceful 8-year-old with prime real estate to defend in his oblivious family’s absence. When they came to claim the McCallister household valuables, Kevin was ready for them. In just several hours, he had booby-trapped his entire house, using objects like paint cans, broken ornaments, and even matchbox cars in fresh and painful ways. The Wet Bandits had no idea of the hurt they were in for.

“Some have questioned your incredible ingenuity in creating instruments of torture at such short notice,” I say.

“I see where this is going,” he says.

“Do you like violence, Kevin?”

“I like Tarantino films, if that’s what you mean.”

“Did you have any pets growing up?”

“I wasn’t allowed any. My big brother got to have a tarantula though, that dumbass.”

“You had of lot of siblings. Did you fight with them frequently?”

“Yeah, I mean, what kid doesn’t? I was the youngest, I was a speck to them, an electron. But I never got violent with them if that’s where this is leading.”

“Never? I believe an entire gymnasium full of students and parents saw you punch your brother Buzz in the face, sending dozens of children from the risers and the piano accompanist backwards off the stage.”

“That whole thing was bullshit. Buzz was using two battery-operated candlesticks to illuminate my ears and also mock-drum on my head… He was begging for it.”

“How long has it been since you and your brother Buzz have spoken?”

Kevin McCallister pulls a balled up straw wrapper out of his jeans pocket and begins to unravel it.

“Not long enough.” He balls the straw wrapper up again.

“What happened after Christmas of 1990?” I ask.

“After I brought those guys down?”

“Yes, after the Wet Bandits were incarcerated.”

“That spring everything changed. I was on TV a lot. The phrase ‘Tiny American Hero’ was tossed around.”

“Did fame come too fast?”

“It wasn’t fame just yet. It was novelty then. I was a novelty. Fame came after New York.”

“How did you feel when it happened again, with them in Florida and you in New York?

“I felt nothing. It felt familiar and I felt nothing.”

“What happened in New York?”

“You know what happened.”

The whole world knew what happened. The headlines read “Lost in New York”. The Home Alone Kid was back. The McCallister family tried to keep this second occurrence of abandonment out of the papers. And it might have worked, if not for the Wet Bandits, who had escaped from prison and hitchhiked their way to the Big Apple in the back of a fish truck.

“Were you shocked to see the Wet Bandits in New York?” I ask him.

“Yes. What was even more shocking to me was that two despicable men chased a defenseless nine-year-old kid for five city blocks and not one person, not a single person in this whole city would help.”

“They told you about their plan to rob Duncan’s Toy Chest?”

“Yeah. That didn’t sit well with me. Having purchased some silly slime there earlier, I knew that the day’s earnings were going to a nearby children’s hospital.”

“You once said, ‘You can mess with a lot of things but you can’t mess with kids on Christmas.’ Do you still believe that?”

“Yes.”

“You had an uncle in New York.”

“Yeah, Uncle Rob. He and my aunt were in France. Their inner-city brownstone was being renovated.”

“You led the Wet Bandits there.”

“They came because they wanted to do harm to me,” he says.

“You did harm to them.”

“I did the only thing I could do.”

“Which was what?”

“I turned my uncle’s house into a deathtrap.”

“Why didn’t you go to the police?”

“Not my style.”

“Do you think that part of you, even if only a small part, was grateful at another opportunity to deliver justice?”

Kevin McCallister doesn’t answer.

“Did you know this would put you back in the limelight?” I ask him.

He replies, “Does the truth change what happened?”

Once again the Wet Bandits fell for his traps, and once again they found themselves in prison, where they’ve been ever since.

The Home Alone Kid was back in the headlines, and stronger than ever. He hosted the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. MTV featured him as a guest VJ. He threw the first pitch at a Cubs game. A video game was made, exploiting the dramatic events. Kevin’s growing celebrity made it difficult for his classmates to focus, and his teachers convinced his parents that it would benefit everyone involved if he were home-schooled.

“Did you miss your friends?”

“Those clowns? Naw, I just made new ones.”

New ones included Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Elijah Wood, Anna Chlumsky, and somewhat controversially, Michael Jackson.

“How were you affected by the death of Michael Jackson?”

“That’s not something I want to talk about.”

“You had controversy of your own. The Division of Family Services put your mother on trial for reckless neglect.”

“That was a very dark time in my life. I was eating a lot of cheese pizzas in limousines.”

“You were on the cover of Esquire that year.”

“It didn’t mean a thing to me. My mother liked it. I’m glad it made her happy.”

“What was your relationship with your parents like after Lost in New York?”

“Have you ever made strudel?”

“Strudel? No.”

“You have to stretch the dough out, slowly, slowly. It is prone to holes and breakage. And then you have to roll it. Talking to my parents was like making strudel. And I was the pastry dough. They pulled me thin too quickly and I started to tear and then they tried to fill me with things. They could never get over the fact that they left me, forgotten and misplaced— twice, even. They tried to fill me up with gifts. Gifts from guilt.”

“Has your relationship gotten any better?”

“No.”

“You married an unknown actress at 17,” I say.

Kevin McCallister touches his chin.

“You divorced at 19.”

“I did those things, yes.”

“Do you feel that for reasons beyond your control you had to grow up too fast?”

“Yeah, don’t you?”

“Some say that in your teens, you travelled to other states—other countries, even—alone and without supervision. Were you trying to become lost again?”

“What can I say, I read Catcher in the Rye and it stoned me. I had been there, I had seen those ducks on that frozen pond. I was also reading a lot of Kerouac at that time. I still feel lost most days.”

“What do you fill your days with?”

“I’m a sculptor,” he says.

“You sculpt tables and chairs, right?”

“I sculpt pieces with right angles.”

“Can you sit on it?”

“Would you sit on the Mona Lisa’s face?”

“Do people commission work from you?”

“Michael C. Hall has one. We met at a house party in the San Fernando valley last year. He said he liked my work, and I’m a huge Dexter fan.”

“Do you identify with the character of Dexter Morgan?”

“Uh, no.”

“Whatever happened to the pigeon lady, the homeless Scottish woman you met in this park nineteen years ago?”

“That was Susan Boyle. Sometimes we have coffee in the park. She understands what it’s like to be catapulted into the spotlight.”

“She was very special to you, wasn’t she?”

Kevin McCallister pulls a small white ceramic ornament from the pocket of his sweatshirt. He rubs his painted fingers over it as if it were a talisman, capable of wondrous things.

One of the bird’s wings is broken.


Bebe Ballroom writes from a small river town in Missouri, where she does not possess her dream job of naming shades of nail lacquer or house paint. She was born on the same day as Woody Allen and Bette Midler, which makes too much cosmic sense to dismiss. She has cultivated inadvertent collections of chopsticks, bobby pins, loose glitter, and neglected musical instruments which haunt her from the corner of the room.


These Things Matter

by Brianna Ashby

all photos courtesy of the author

all photos courtesy of the author

I have trouble throwing things away. I have plastic bins full of boxes labeled for each year of high school, one for college, and a couple that hold miscellaneous trinkets and paper goods that I’ve collected in the years since. If you open the drawer in our desk that is designated for my use you won’t find a single office supply, but you will find: bits of ribbon, postcards, greeting cards, newspaper clippings, my old Billy Idol velcro wallet, letters, photos, and a pouch containing the ticket stubs from all of the concerts my husband and I have seen together, as well as the ticket stubs from all of the movies. The ones that didn’t go through the wash, anyway.

Synecdoche, NY at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, The Informant at the Bow Tie Landmark Cinema 9, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Delirious, Choke, No Country For Old Men, The Savages, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Darjeeling Limited, Juno, Margot At The Wedding, There Will Be Blood, I Am Legend, Four Christmases, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight, Taken, Away We Go, The Happening, Sherlock Holmes, Milk, Where The Wild Things Are, Rachel Getting Married, Burn After Reading, In The Loop, Transformers

Transformers was actually the first movie we ever saw together, he and I. And, had I not already felt secure in our cinematic compatibility, this likely would have thrown up a red flag the size of Texas. (Thankfully, though, his favorite movie is The Royal Tenenbaums—which comes in just under Rushmore on my own list, but by a very, very small margin.) Nevertheless, I still had some misgivings about paying $25 to see 120 minutes of explosions and Shia LaBeouf, who was most likely not going to die in any of the aforementioned violent explosions, thus leaving me with no real desire whatsoever to watch the actual story play out. Still, my husband claimed it was a certain kind of nostalgia that compelled him to want to see the film, and I can be played rather like a fiddle if plied with enough charming childhood recollections. And so, off we went.

As we sat in the theatre that day, I kept wondering how I would react if he likedTransformers. I mean, really enjoyed it. Would I be forced to rethink this entire relationship? Could a judge possibly consider “divergent tastes in cinema” an irreconcilable difference in the divorce proceedings? You laugh, but I had to face facts—anyone with an actual appreciation for Michael Bay would not make for a suitable husband. Not for me, anyway.

Thankfully, as we watched Transformers, I noticed that we laughed at all of the same moments that were unintentionally funny, looked at each other in disbelief at the more ridiculous CGI sequences. Leaving the theatre, I heaved a huge sigh of relief, knowing that the man walking next to me would be the one leaving every movie with me for the rest of my life.

There are probably a million reasons why going to the movies has been a typical “date night” activity in our culture for decades, but mostly I think it’s because taking someone to the movies with us is a sort of test. You can tell a tremendous amount about a person based on who they are as a moviegoer—not just on the movies they choose to see or claim to love. (“Claim” sounds a bit cynical, I know, but let’s face it—first impressions and all that. Few people in this world are comfortable enough with themselves to admit that something likeMeet the Fockers is their all-time favorite movie, especially to someone they’re hoping to actually sleep with.) Does your moviegoing partner offer to get the refreshments? Do they remember that one time that you mentioned something about Junior Mints and so they hand you a surprise box along with the popcorn and the soda? Do they hog the armrest? Do they text during the movie or do they turn their phone off? Do they put their feet up on the seat in front of them?

And that’s just the cursory analysis.

The true revelations often come during the film itself. If it’s a drama, are there tears? If it’s a thriller, do they jump or grab your hand? Do they give you those knowing looks during a movie that proves to be terrible? Do they laugh sincerely during a comedy?

The initial phases of a courtship are dodgy—one wrong move and the whole thing could implode—and it is in this initial phase that words most often fail us. The euphoria of new love is always perilously close to nervousness and anxiety and we fall all over ourselves trying to keep the two apart, our words getting caught in the crosshairs, turning our mouths into ticking time bombs. Sitting in a movie theatre, though, and forced into silence, we get to know the person sitting next to us without much opportunity for self-sabotage. Of course, I realize this is all a bit superficial. On occasion my husband has forgotten the Junior Mints and I try not to hold it against him, because the real magic of the movies lies not in the availability of snacks, but rather in the way they connect people. Silent, bathed in blue light, we radiate feeling between us as we are absorbed into the screen.

When a movie really touches you it becomes personal. You internalize its message, its images; someone else’s story is suddenly yours. It would be terribly boring (and a bit frightening) if you and your partner loved and hated all of the very same movies. But if someone can’t understand why you loved or hated a particular film, how can they really understand you at all? We connect to those characters that remind us of some version of ourselves, or those families that mimic our dysfunctions; we long for those places we’ve lived and seen, and dream of all the places we have yet to go. The fictions that we hold close to us are incredibly revealing, and a list of our favorite movies can speak volumes to anyone who cares enough to listen.

At the end of Away We Go, my husband and I sat in silence, holding hands, watching the credits roll while everyone else in the theatre gathered up their things and bustled out. We had both long-avowed to lead childless lives, but sitting in that theatre, squeezing each other’s palms, something clicked. We hadn’t said a word. When we got outside, the city had taken on a new life, and we had taken on a new purpose. We wove around hundreds of people on the sidewalks of Manhattan and he never let go of my hand. The silence was finally broken at some point. We talked about our favorite parts, laughed out loud recalling the funny ones. And, as we walked and talked, the world became our set and we, together, had slowly started to rewrite our own script. I can’t say that the movie changed us, but it did manage to awake something that had been lying dormant under both our skins.

Two months later, we found out we were going to be parents.


Brianna Ashby is the Art Director and Lead Illustrator for Bright Wall/Dark Room. She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Illustration, and an unofficial minor in Costume Party Appreciation. She currently resides in Connecticut with her husband and daughter, where you can find her baking, eating baked goods, thinking about eating baked goods, and drawing things for money.