Roll, Jordan, Roll

by Matt Brennan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and unto God the things that are God’s.
—Matthew 22:21

Standing before a rose-strewn trellis, looking out over the rows of men and women bound to labor in his Red River lumber mill, Baptist preacher and Louisiana slaveholder William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) recites from the Book of Matthew. Though director Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave depicts but an excerpt, the chapter from which Ford draws his sermon registers as troubling, even alien, to modern ears. In the parable of the marriage feast, Jesus relates the tale of a prince’s wedding to the doubtful Pharisees—of rejected invitations and destructions waged, of an underdressed guest the groom’s father demands his servants to “Bind hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” To Jesus the nuptials resemble the kingdom of Heaven. “For many are called,” he remarks, “but few are chosen.” The epigraph that begins this essay is the passage’s most famous phrase, but it is a few verses hence that the camera captures Ford’s stern, sonorous oration and the enslaved staring back at him, unmoved: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” he says.

Against the thousand variations of violence to which 12 Years a Slave bears essential witness—the image of kidnapped Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging from the long arm of an ancient tree as the routinized horrors of the “peculiar institution” carry on behind him, or of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) after a whipping, her back’s patchwork of bleeding wounds weaving a narrative of torture that surpasses the power of the word “evil” to describe it—Ford’s sun-dappled sermon at first appears unworthy of note: the emblem of a planter whom Northup himself described, in his memoir of the ordeal, as a “kind, noble, candid, Christian man.” Upon further reflection, however, the sequence seems to rest at the heart of McQueen’s rather radical project, which is to show history as it was rather than as we wish it had been—to resurrect Northup’s voice from the maelstrom of misconceptions, omissions, and outright lies that has defined the American cinema’s treatment of slavery almost since the moment of its invention, when The Birth of a Nation inscribed a new grammar for the seventh art by erasing—indeed, by desecrating—the past.

Historians have long noted that the slave’s narrative, of which Northup is one of the foremost authors in English, functions less as a transcription of enslavement than as a tacit negotiation with the white, abolitionist interlocutors who often facilitated publication. This is not to suggest that Northup’s account is not “true,” nor to deny that by comparison with the virulent Edwin Epps, played in the film by Michael Fassbender, Ford should seem humane, even gentle. It is only to propose that Northup’s narrative proves more generous than even his most generous owner, and that 12 Years a Slave, adapted by John Ridley, subtly implies Ford’s “benevolence” to be at best misapprehended, at worst feigned. In the final estimation, the preacher William Ford fails to understand Scripture as malleable, multifarious, and open to interpretation. He glosses over the chasms in his exegesis, for he is the ruler of a kingdom that murders and mauls those unwilling to pass through its gates; that binds them hand and foot and tosses them into the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing; that neglects the hubris inherent in seeing ownership of people as the mark of Caesar and of God. Historians have long noted that the God of the enslaved was in fact the God of Moses, who levied his faith in a land of milk and honey against the immediate experience of Hell on Earth, but to talk about 12 Years a Slave is to talk about how much history has failed us, and we it.

*

Spend enough time poring over chicken-scratch plantation ledgers, crumbling wills, stained congregational registers, taped-together press reports, and miserly court dockets, and it becomes possible to glimpse the profound gulf that opens between the slaveholders’ God and the slaves’—between Caesar’s tribute and Canaan land, master’s Heaven and bondsman’s Hell. In the archive, cold and church-quiet, musty with the scent of volumes opened for the first time in centuries, one confronts the abyss of the past more directly than in any historic house tour or costume epic. Something about the fragility of the paper, the bleed of the ink: here is the hard evidence of former lives, the faintest reflection of a desk-bound clerk or cotton king worrying over his subsequent sentence. 12 Years a Slave, sketching at once the raw intimacies of slavery and its irrevocable distances, is for me the movies’ closest kin to the bleed of the ink.

The documentary record of American slavery, and particularly of the slaves’ experiences, offers little in the way of firm conclusions, forcing the historian to suture together maddeningly elusive scraps of the past into something resembling a narrative. It’s this notion of history as an unfinished puzzle that most appeals to my sense of nonfiction writing as a craft, less like painting than sculpture or collage, a matter of refashioning the materials to reflect at once the order of a story and the chaos of life. As a graduate student in the colonial and antebellum history of the U.S. South, this is what I do: I pin slaves’ ghost stories to the wall in thematic clusters, arrange index cards inscribed with census data on the floor, treat the spindles of yarn I discover in the archive as sweaters waiting to be knit, unraveled, and knit again until I understand what happened, or at least understand that understanding what happened is not these labors’ inevitable outcome.

This is, as you might expect, a frustrating endeavor—history is a horizon line, omnipresent but always out of reach. In moments when the ghosts resist description, when the sweater emerges full of holes, it is impossible to stave off the onrush of doubt, impossible to ignore the niggling feeling that I’d do better by the subjects of my scholarship if I admitted defeat in the face of their bold and endlessly complex humanity. By comparison, historical films—especially those that play fastest and loosest with the facts—seem comfortably whole, and though I understand this to be an illusion, an evasion, I find it easy to sink into their plush assurances. Though I no longer count Gone with the Wind among Hollywood’s finest films, unable to set aside its Lost Cause mythos to focus on the drapes, I still sometimes discover it on television and awake from my reverie a few hours later, drugged by its venerable charms.

Perhaps it’s this fugue state in critical thinking that many movies strive to produce which makes historians so prickly about accuracy. We understand intuitively, because the conclusions in our own work necessarily prove so incomplete, that no peer-reviewed article or scholarly monograph stands a chance against Selznick’s romance or Spielberg’s grace. And yet I struggle, balancing a career that demands a commitment to the truth with another, film criticism, so frequently dedicated to appreciating fiction, against historians’ severity — or, to put it more charitably, their rigor. The impulse to ensure that the most widely disseminated images of the past honestly reflect its complications is surely a virtuous one, but at what point do we risk missing the forest for the trees? If filmmakers have an obligation to history, what obligation do historians have to art? Where do we draw the line between the forgivable elision and the unforgivable sin?

As it happens, 12 Years a Slave is a vastly more accomplished piece of work than either Selznick’s or Spielberg’s, both better history and better art. Certainly, McQueen’s drama has its detractors—scholar Carole Boyce Davies decried the absence of black resistance in the film, while Armond White, now somewhat infamously, described the film as “a repugnant experience,” depicting Northup without “spiritual resource or political drive,” its “mawkish” rendering of “existential victims” allowing the viewer to “feel good about feeling bad.” I wondered, reading Davies’ measured investigation and White’s rhetorical grenade, if either had in fact seen the film, or only spied it through their fingers. Davies, at least, is correct in noting that Ridley’s adaptation excises scenes of resistance that appear in the memoir, and admits that no film can be expected to mirror its source material with “absolute fidelity.” But what of those sequences that do, in fact, suggest opposition to mastery? What of Northup planning to abscond in the woods, only to come upon a group of white patrollers and (accurately) assess his chances of escape at that moment as approaching zero? What of his decision to fight resentful carpenter John Tibeats, of his betrayed plan to write home about his kidnapping, of Patsey’s bar of soap or the mutinous passengers on the ship to market or Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) relating with certainty that “in His own time, the good Lord’ll manage ’em all”?

I do not profess to know all there is to know about the entwined histories of slavery as it was and slavery as the cinema has imagined it. I do not wish to see12 Years a Slave left unquestioned by scholars and critics and ordinary viewers solely because it’s been marked with the imprimatur of praise. I do not have an answer to the question of where history ends and fiction begins, where our obligations fall when it comes to our past, or to our art, where understanding what happened becomes understanding that we will never exactly understand what happened. My vocabulary shrinks before the enormity of what was done, and of what has been done since to distort it.

When I wrote before that to talk about 12 Years a Slave is to talk about how much history has failed us, and we it, I meant to suggest that we have never done a very good job in this country of reconciling stated ideals and lived reality, current politics and foundational crimes. But sometimes a work of art approximates the bleed of the ink so closely as to bring the horizon line infinitesimally nearer, and this may be the most we can ask.

*

In retrospect, William Ford’s terse reading of Matthew manages to express the core conflict of slavery’s terrible regime, which is that planters, benevolent and brutal alike, believed the enslaved to be Caesar’s, while the enslaved understood they were God’s. That Armond White considers Solomon Northup to be without “spiritual resource” seems, in this vein, to reflect White’s contrarian politics more than the film itself: the moment in 12 Years a Slave that cuts the deepest is Northup’s rumbling, sorrowed rendition of “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”

Northup—a free black musician from New York—has been tricked into joining a pair of derelicts in Washington, D.C., drugged, chained, and sold into slavery on the far reaches of the Mississippi River Valley. The scene features the enslaved assembled at the corner of a burial plot—unmarked graves fenced in by gnarled branches—a stone’s throw from the veranda of the plantation manse, responding to an elderly woman’s (Topsy Chapman) clapping, heavy-hearted call. At first Solomon keeps silent, staring dazedly into the ever-receding horizon of his unknown future and his stolen past, but as the voices of his fellows grow in strength he joins in with the faintest whisper, and then with a fierce and desperate groan:

Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll!
My soul will rise in Heaven, Lord,
For the year when Jordan rolls.

Perhaps it is only fitting that we should demand so much of 12 Years a Slave. So rare is the film that strives to represent the full complement of slavery’s complexities that we must, perhaps, hold it to account for all of the misperceptions, omissions, and outright lies that preceded it. So uncommon is our culture’s confrontation with the abyss of the past that when it arrives we demand to know what it renders pornographic and what pretty, what suffering it emphasizes and what resistance it silences, where it fails history and where it does it justice.

It is worth noting, then, that the bondspeople depicted in 12 Years a Slave respond not to the master’s sermon but to the enslaved woman’s spiritual—a song reflecting African heritage and American experience, terrible burdens and otherworldly sustenance, intimate sadness and communal strength. In this stricken chorus I see a microcosm of the film’s foremost accomplishment, which is to recognize that slavery was never just one thing, but an almost incomprehensible multitude. It encompassed slaveowners who used the lash sparingly and those who used it sadistically; those who raped and those who preached; it encompassed slaves who rebelled, who ran away, who talked back, and those who grieved, who despaired, who sought suicide; it encompassed the innumerable avenues by which the enslaved made families and found God, and thereby squared a space, against seemingly insurmountable odds, in which it was possible to envision the year that Jordan rolls. Slavery was tobacco and rice and cotton and sugar, Baltimore docks and Texas frontier; it was house and field, city and country, industry and agriculture; it was at various moments in our history North, South, East, and West. It was—is—inextricable from the nation itself, and whatever its imperfections, 12 Years a Slave honors this fact by refusing to flatten it.

I am a white man born more than a century after slavery’s end who spends his days studying the distant lives it so profoundly shaped, living in a carriage house once worked by slaves, in a city built by slaves, in a country made by slaves, in a world defined by slaves’ deaths and—more importantly—by their survival, and it remains impossible to express the enormity of it.12 Years a Slave falls short on this count, too. It succeeds where so many other artifacts of popular culture have failed not because it is “true”—the seeming wholeness of “Truth” is, after all, its most insidious lie—but because it is honest, and because this is perhaps what we must ask of history, and of art.

I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the Bible reads.

For many are called, but few are chosen, the Bible reads.

Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, the Bible reads.

My soul will rise in Heaven, Lord / For the year when Jordan rolls, Solomon Northup sings.

Who is Caesar, and who God?

This is what 12 Years a Slave asks, which may be its way of indicating that what is in fact unforgivable is the past itself. That is the foremost mark of its permanence.


Matt Brennan is the TV critic for IndieWire's Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, and Slate,  among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he's watching @thefilmgoer.


Blessed Are the Meek

by Patrick Vickers

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In 1881, Jesse James was in the twilight of his career as one of the most famous men in America, mythologized in his own lifetime as a model of the heroic bandit. Stories of his adventures were told and retold across newspapers, pulp novels and ballads. After his death, photographs of his corpse packed in ice were available in corner stores everywhere. Many actors would play him in many films over the years, and later he would come to be idolised by the likes of John Dillinger, another criminal who developed a popular reputation the likes of which is all but unthinkable today. By October 1883, the man who murdered him — Robert Ford — could be identified by more citizens than could the President of the United States.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is as much about the incalculable weight of this mythology as it is the titular deed. The act which made Ford famous rings through the violence of so many other lonely, troubled young men hopelessly misled by the pre-packaged dreams of the new century. It’s about the failure of fiction to console, to ever adequately prepare us for the harsh complexities and contradictions of the real world.

The film is a slow, thoughtful piece, a Western that’s also about Westerns. Any film about Jesse James’ retirement is bound to be something of a winding-down, and as such this is a genre piece which features a single robbery and only one real gun fight. The latter is so short and absurd it could be hilarious if it weren’t so weirdly plausible — it, like most of the violence, is blunt, intimate, ugly, always at stark odds with the rest of the imagery. Regular Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins has made perhaps his most beautiful film here, reminiscent in many ways of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and the films of Terence Malick, and emulating from time to time the photography of the late nineteenth-century with a languorous, over-exposed look, a subtle blurring around the edges of the shot.

The style is elegant, natural and nostalgia-free, though the attention paid to domestic details is more reminiscent of a period drama. Look at the steam from the bathwater, those winding horse-trails across immense, snowy hillsides, the cast-iron stoves and the condensation on the inside of the windows of the warm cabin, the plates of stew and biscuits. Late in the film, Robert wanders around Jesse’s empty home touching his things, tasting his water, lying on his bed – exactly as we want to do in this most tactile film. Space, depth and light are almost palpable. You could take virtually any frame from this and hang it on your wall.

Much of this attention to detail is also present in Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name, which was Andrew Dominik’s original source for this movie. Having since read the book, the movie now seems to me like not only a faithful adaptation but an incredibly careful one. Much of the voiceover narration is sourced directly from Hansen’s writing (‘…Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rain fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified…’) and where the two differ, it’s easy to see why those creative choices were made. At heart, the film never departs from the novel’s core depiction of the relationship between James and Ford as one characterised by a kind of fascinated incomprehension.

Coming to the novel as I did, after the movie, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Casey Affleck in the role of Robert Ford; with his high, wavering tone, his graceless words often verging on the indecipherable, Affleck captures perfectly the most irritating adolescent tics familiar to us from youth. Even when he’s only being a jerk to get back at his brothers, we feel sorry for him because Robert is always hopelessly sincere — and never more so than when he’s lying through his teeth. Unlike the rest of the gang he’s incapable of being a ‘yes-man’, something which Jesse notes and appreciates. Robert seems humourless, but that’s only because he’s always the butt of the jokes.

His laughter lives in a world of its own, always set at an angle against the reality that’s mistreated him. We’ve all suffered the humiliations of being left out and found out, of having our secret shoebox-worlds split open and scattered across the floor. We recognise the most delicate parts of him in ourselves, and this in turn makes it all the more difficult to see his crimes for what they are. In all his messy humanity, Robert Ford is everything the mythology wants the assassin of Jesse James not to be.

Compared to those around him, Ford often seems quite sane. It’s worth noting that virtually all the central characters in the film would probably be diagnosed with all kinds of psychological problems or personality disorders by modern standards. It’s not just Bob and Jesse who seem troubled; the James gang are violent, unpredictable, sleazy, double-crossing womanizers. Even Robert’s sensible brother Charley, played brilliantly by Sam Rockwell, eventually succumbs to insanity. Only Frank James seem to remain level-headed, and yet the voice of Ford’s heckler near the end of the movie is (I think) his — though whether or not it’s only heard in Robert’s head is another matter. Frank is the film’s original father figure, the one who confirmed what Robert had feared his whole life: that he just didn’t have the ingredients.

Brad Pitt has always seemed to revel in his own mythos, having spent most of his career playing versions of ‘Brad Pitt’. His Jesse is in fact an interesting inversion (or subversion?) of his role in Fight Club, another movie where the big famous handsome star was playing a big famous handsome star, running wild in our minds as well as Edward Norton’s. But Jesse James was the original Tyler Durden, the role model and psychological Id for fawning dreamers everywhere, and as in Fight Club, his death is also an act of self-destruction on the part of the dreamer – once it’s done, his body can’t simply be dumped in a creek and forgotten about.

Paranoia is all-pervasive in this film. But just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, and that particular form of mental illness is depicted as having a close relationship to intuition, something which all the characters have in varying degrees. Ed, Dick Liddil and Wood have next to none. Charley Ford has a little more, but not enough to see anything remarkable in Robert. Frank, Zee and her children have more still – they find Bob unsettling, but they can’t say why. But it’s Jesse who possesses almost supernatural powers; swathed in dark furs, he cuts a menacing, shamanic figure, melting in and out of the darkness. He claims to take trips outside his body, and possesses a natural affinity with the earth, a grounded wisdom that makes up for his limited worldly intelligence. ‘I’m not sure I even know what stars are,’ mutters Ed, as they ride together in the dark towards his end.‘Sure you do,’ Jesse says. ‘Your mind forgot, but your body remembers.’

It’s a film about homosocial relations — which is a pretty way of saying it’s a very manly film. Women are relegated to the sidelines, propping up the main plot without ever quite participating in it. There’s Martha Bolton, the sister of the Ford brothers; Jesse’s wife, Zee; Sarah Hite (the wayward spouse of Wood’s deaf father); and Ford’s companion in later life, Dorothy Evans. All of them have relatively small roles, but if they seem portrayed as cold and distant, that may be because the camera is more or less on Robert’s side throughout: we see the world as he sees it. When he tries to explain his actions to them, he fails at every turn because his total self-absorption prevents him from relating to them as anything other than a potential vessel for his confession and absolution.

Still, if we buy into the idea that Jesse’s death is effectively an invisible contract between men, a kind of assisted suicide, the implication from Robert’s failed explanation to Dorothy would seem to be that a woman simply couldn’t understand. But on the other hand, can anyone, male or female, understand? That all these women might have meant something too is something Robert does eventually come to realise once the deed is done: ‘He thought, at his angriest, about visiting the kin of Jesse’s slaughtered victims: Mrs. William Westfall in Plattsburg, the Wymore family in Clay County, perhaps even Mrs. Joseph Heywood in Northfield, Minnesota’, the narrator tells us, in Ron Hansen’s words. ‘He would go to their homes and give his name as Robert Ford, ‘The man who killed Jesse James.’ He imagined they would be grateful to him.’

The film doesn’t end with Jesse’s death. Remarkably, after the deed was done, Robert and Charley Ford became actors, replaying the act that defined their lives in the public eye, reconstructing their crime and murdering ‘Jesse James’ well over eight hundred times on stage before paying audiences. The film’s depiction of this, with Rockwell and Affleck hamming it up in lurid white greasepaint, perfectly captures our fascination and revulsion with them and those who followed them, the many strange and apparently motiveless murderers of the eminent who would go on to haunt the twentieth-century.

The danger is that for all its supposed authenticity, this film could be accused of creating a parallel James-mythology to the one which already exists. Yet it makes no pretence to truth – there’s no serious historical revisionism, no great revelations to be had here. Though we’re invited to sympathise with both of them, the film is no more an apologia for Jesse James than it is for Robert Ford. In the end, the film undercuts the implications of its own title: Robert is shown to be anything but a coward through the quiet strength of his hidden convictions when he raises his gun in a moment that is less the treachery of an assassin than a strange act of love. He would spend the rest of his life failing to atone for that, but as it is, the film is a beautiful, sensitive portrait of his failure. ‘You’re gonna break a lot of hearts,’ says James at his most tender, and he did – he broke the heart of a nation. Robert was neither good nor bad enough for the mythology of Jesse James, but nor are any of us.


Patrick Vickers is an editor of the kind of stuff nobody would willingly read. Occasionally, he is a writer. He blogs on video games, books, and his life with his partner in West London.


Los Angeles Eats Itself: "Infrastructure Noir” and the Revisionist History of the San Fernando Valley

by Caroline Golum

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I’d avoid traveling back to Los Angeles if I could help it, but as a native, holidays and birthdays warrant an appearance. Should you find yourself in the same position, may I recommend booking your flight into Burbank—pardon, I mean Bob Hope—Airport. Bob Hope offers an increasingly rare experience at an American airport: deplaning on the tarmac just like a movie star, matched luggage, fumes and all.

To step off the plane in Los Angeles is to step through the looking glass. When Johnny Carson still manned the desk at the “Tonight Show,” Los Angeles was shorthand for “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.” The tourists arriving at Burbank every day must ask themselves: Where are the mansions, the glistening pools, the mile-long Rolls-Royces? What is this flatland, densely populated by Korean donut shops and low-slung economy apartments?

Capital-H-Hollywood has been rewriting its history since the Wilson administration; hell, even the idea of pictures made in “Hollywood” is a misnomer. The first “movie towns” were little more than caravans of flatbed trucks and pop-up tents, renting their locations from orange farmers in present-day Studio City. That unassuming sprawl before you is the Man Behind the Curtain, the realest iteration of “Hollywood”: the San Fernando Valley, with a history as malleable as the primordial silt of the Arroyo Calabasas.

After a century of retelling the Greatest Stories Ever Told™, how does Hollywood recall its own humble origins? You may be surprised to learn what makes the final cut.

“Los Angeles is a desert community,” warns Sam Bagby, the fake mayor in a fake story about a town that produces fakery. Fourteen minutes into Chinatown, Jake Gittes—a paint-by-numbers Private Dick—has trailed Hollis Mulwray—the DWP’s chief engineer—to a stifling midday council hearing. It’s 1937, and, as if the Depression weren’t enough (note the giant, ominous portrait of FDR in the courtroom), Los Angeles is in the middle of a drought. There’s hope in a new dam—the Arroyo Vallejo—with the promise of “shovel-ready” jobs and fresh water. Mulwray, a sort of overgrown boy genius, is the only one who can build it. He publicly refuses and, shortly thereafter, his battered corpse turns up in the L.A. Reservoir. From then on a cut-and-dry matrimony job expands, cancer-like, into a story of rape, corruption and collusion.

It’s a testament to Robert Towne and Roman Polanski that, forty years later, audiences are still mistaking Hollywood noir for gospel. Even I, to the Ranch House born, would flip the bird driving past a DWP building in my parents’ Prius. In grammar school, we had approximately one semester of “California studies” between Christopher Columbus and the Civil War. Sure, we were hip to the Missions and the Gold Rush, but what about the ground beneath our feet—or, more likely, beneath our favorite mall?

The story of the Valley, as told by Robert Towne, was an admixture of real, ecological betrayal and scandalous fictional politicking. In the 1937 of Chinatown, proud-but-poor shepherds and their citrus farming brethren are driven from their land and hastily bought out by Noah Cross, a Robber Baron of the old school. The unglamorous truth is that, by 1937, much of the San Fernando Valley had been purchased for a quite handsome price by the decades-old San Fernando Mission Land Co. Sure, a few old hands had held out as late as 1930, but none so dramatically as the poor schmucks in the film. The real story of how Los Angeles seemingly conjured up billions of gallons of drinking water is far more nefarious, but lacks that star quality, babe. Which film would you rather see? A glamorous epic about a tortured detective, a beautiful widow, her husband’s cruel murder, and a dirty land grab? Or an unsexy downer about an aqueduct, a dried-up lake, and a bunch of farmers from Flyover Country?

The source of L.A.’s water, the Owens Valley, is about 225 miles northeast from Los Angeles. For the last hundred years, it has provided my hometown with nearly 75% of its available water (that’s a lot of lawns!). Since 1924, it has also been ground zero for one of the longest-running feuds in California history. When the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, the city was just beginning to stretch its limbs: cinema, aerospace, oil. These industries, then in infancy, were only a few years away from becoming economic bedrocks. Los Angeles’ power brokers couldn’t have done it without water, and they couldn’t have that water without stealing it from the people of the Owens Valley.

By the time Chinatown was written, it looked as though the “California Water Wars” would remain a historical footnote. Of course, no one counted on the Owens Valley to become a veritable pet cause among the Sierra Club set. After the completion of a second aqueduct in 1970, the Owens Valley Committee sued the second largest city in the country. After a few false starts, the Owens River was finally “re-watered” in 2008. By that point, the initiative was purely symbolic. After a century of resource theft, the agricultural economy of the Owens Valley—and its tenuous ecosystem—were beyond repair. Today, Owens Valley is better known for its proximity to Manzanar, the notorious WWII-era Japanese internment camp, than for its long-gone fecundity.

With a rapidly expanding city and a seemingly limitless water supply, Los Angeles attracted millions of new residents in the years after the Second World War. By 1947, its population exceeded 3.5 million.

Unfortunately, Census data doesn’t indicate what percentage of residents identified as “‘toons.” In the universe of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, L.A.’s population is divided along metaphysical (as opposed to racial) lines. Robert Zemeckis’ live action-meets-golden-age-animation “neo-noir” was unleashed upon the world in 1988 (same as yours truly) as a seemingly innocuous family flick with a hardboiled plot just wacky enough to warrant a “hard” PG-rating.

Gumshoe Eddie Valiant is hired by oily studio executive R.K. Maroon to tail Jessica Rabbit, wife of Roger Rabbit, Maroon Studios’ biggest star. Valiant stakes out the Missus at her place of employ, the Ink and Paint Club—think the Copacabana by way of Tex Avery—where human sleazeballs go to ogle the cartoon staff. Valiant snaps a few salacious photos of busty Jessica playing “patty-cake” with Marvin Acme, the owner of Toontown and owner of the ACME gags fortune. A sign at the entrance (guarded by a baritone-voiced gorilla, no less) reads “HUMANS ONLY, NO TOONS.” The implication is clear: the ‘toons of Toontown know their place, and living to entertain mankind is their highest ambition. The next morning, Marvin Acme is a stiff and Roger Rabbit, cuckolded and hysterical, is the number one suspect.

Why would anyone want to frame America’s ‘toon heartthrob for the gruesome murder of a prominent human? Like any great film noir, all is revealed: Marvin Acme’s Toontown—a technicolor ghetto—is primed to be replaced by a freeway. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?shares a common—if apocryphal—history with its cinematic predecessor. Originally conceived as a triptych, writer Robert Towne had planned two sequels to Chinatown, each centered around the large-scale corruption of a city utility. The first, The Two Jakes, was such a notorious flop that it effectively eliminated any interest in the saga’s final installation: a fictionalized account of the dismantling of Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric Railway trolley system, and its subsequent replacement with the I–110, L.A.’s first freeway.

Fortunately, Roger Rabbit is a children’s movie, where good ultimately trumps evil and Toontown is returned to its rightful owners, who are free to let their freak flags fly. Even the “Red Car,” L.A.’s original public transportation system, is spared. The Los Angeles of “Roger Rabbit” is reborn, free of the Robert Moses-ing that turned so many of America’s thriving “urban villages” into sprawling car parks. And we, the audience, are left pining for what could have been: a movie-making paradise free of eminent domain-shrouded bigotry and gasoline dependence.

Growing up in Los Angeles, pile-ups and sig alerts occupied my earliest memories. I vividly recall squirming in the backseat while my parents scanned the radio for traffic reports. My sister and I would get antsy, and my dad would distract us by pointing out—nearly every time—that we were idling on the Roger Rabbit freeway. Interstate 10, as it is known, was built over three decades with the express purpose of connecting Downtown L.A. with Santa Monica. The years leading up to its completion, in 1965, were turbulent ones, fraught with protests from local church groups and community organizations. Noise, pollution, the surgical splitting of schoolyards and neighborhood blocks—just a small price to pay for the convenience of careening across town on five concrete lanes.

By mid-century, San Fernando Valley residents were no longer isolated from the big-city bustle of Los Angeles Proper. The transition from rural outpost to squeaky-clean bedroom community was complete: there was water enough for countless lawns, and a freshly-paved path from your doorstep to the office. Property values continued to grow as Angelenos, wary of “inner-city life,” vaulted themselves over the Hollywood Hills and into a little patch of paradise.

By the time I’d arrived on the scene, in the late 1980s, the Valley had morphed from a ticky-tacky collection of subdivisions into something all together bland—strip mall after strip mall, each with its own combination of nail salon/donut shop/7–11. School-sanctioned tales of Spanish Alta California and the ghee-whiz boom of the late 1940s held no appeal. I plugged my ears at the truth, preferring instead a history born on the backlot at Paramount. By now, I’m sure I’ve seenChinatown and Roger Rabbit a hundred times apiece. For years I conflated their plotlines with historical fact, despite knowing in my hearts they were purely fictional. The annexation of the San Fernando Valley was a pyrrhic victory—not the bitter, brilliant ending of Chinatown, or Roger Rabbit’s utopian alternate universe. Decades of bureaucratic collusion and mendacity, of unholy unions between private interests and public initiatives: this is our story. Thankfully, Hollywood’s insatiable desire to rewrite its own history provides Angelenos and filmgoers alike with a far more exciting alternative.


Caroline Golum works a day job to support her expensive filmmaking habit.


She's a Marshmallow

by Tess McGeer

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I was a child and then I was a girl.

The abrupt farewell to those hideous boys department cargo pants that zipped off into shorts and the cotton candy scented cloud that became omnipresent around me were symptoms of (but not the cause for) this change. I was a thirteen-year-old girl when my best friend and I spent an entire summer hiding in the bushes behind her house and watching, with a giddy fascination that lived close to fear, the teenage boys next door shoot each other with water guns and fall dramatically into the pool, playing dead in burgeoning bodies and neon board shorts. I was a thirteen-year-old girl when I read The House of Mirth and when I went through my Katharine Hepburn phase and when I had my first kiss during a game of manhunt with a friend’s older brother who was wearing a “YANKEES SUCK” t-shirt. I was a fourteen-year-old girl in a mixed grade high school gym class—stunned and mesmerized by the senior girls chatting naked in the locker room with wet hair—when I decided to buy a ridiculous bra. I was a fifteen-year-old girl when I won my first student journalism prize and when a boy held my hand even though we were both clammy and wrinkled from swim practice. I was a sixteen-year-old girl when I stayed up all night after a dance saying things about always; when I learned to drive; when I wrote terrible poetry about romantic bruises and bleeding hearts. I was a seventeen-year-old girl when I smoked my first cigarette, hand-rolled by a guy with a goatee at my first real college party, watching the city from a rooftop and pretending not to worry that I wasn’t excited, and I was an eighteen-year-old girl when I had to come home. I was a nineteen-year-old girl the first time I cried on a public bus. But I was a nineteen-year-old girl, too—and older, younger—was a series of girls with the same bangs—when I laughed so hard and loved so much leaning out a car window that it felt like I’d forgotten everything I had ever learned, like it had swirled in me so long that now my body was made of what had been broken, and I was different, but not new. Stronger, but not smarter.

Before any of this, I met Veronica Mars.

Veronica Mars was a television show that first aired on a limping UPN and then on a newly-minted The CW between 2004 and 2007. Veronica Mars is a private detective, a teenager, a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, a survivor. Veronica Mars is a champion of the disenfranchised and disregarded, and sometimes she’s a real jerk. Veronica Mars is a danger, a force of nature. Is smarter than you. Veronica Mars is battered but unbeaten. Veronica Mars is anger: anger with blond hair and limbs, anger righteous and less so. Veronica Mars is not going to rest until she has the truth. Veronica Mars is a girl hero, and what’s more: a hero for girls.

The show’s first season is the most important season, unless the system by which you measure importance is based on how many of the episodes include Logan and Veronica kissing. In this case, and no other, season three would win. (As it happens, that is the type of system I used at fifteen.) In any case, the first season is about searching for the truth, even while the world around you runs happily on lies. It revolves around Veronica’s desperate mission to uncover the truth about her best friend Lilly Kane’s murder. I use the word “desperate” to imply extreme intensity; I do not use it to imply the shaking hands and scattered speech—the tear-soaked neediness—we often mean when we say “desperate.” Even in the throes of despair, Veronica Mars is not desperate. She’s quick, smooth, a step ahead.

In addition to Lilly’s murder, Veronica is searching for the truth about her own rape. She is tracking down her mother, who ran away. And, in her obviously ample spare time, she’s solving other people’s mysteries for monetary gain and friendship points. There is a quality to Veronica that resembles the shark who can’t stop swimming or it will drown. There is a fragility in her doggedness that is as clear to me today as it was invisible in 2004. There is a trick to racing one step ahead of your own trauma. There is the high of finding all the answers and the crash when it means there is nowhere left to run.

I watched the first episode of Veronica Mars in my bedroom on a Wednesday night while doing eighth-grade social studies homework. I was twelve. I was a baby raised with a TV Guide in hand, and television has always been important to me in a manner intense and earnest and probably a little strange. I have a bond with that blue light—it keeps me warm. I might preface the statement I am about to make with something like, “I don’t tend toward hyperbole, but–” …except that I do, and except that it isn’t, truly, hyperbole: Veronica Mars changed my life. Veronica Mars came to me witty and wanting and brave at a time when I needed that most. Veronica Mars came to me when I was only beginning to become, and she helped shape who I would be.

There is what Veronica Mars was to me then and there is what she would become to me later. Those first feelings aren’t to be discounted—the fervid praises of AOL Instant Messenger user marsinvestigationsx317—but their importance is tempered by the fact that I was, at that point in my life, dedicating most of my time to begging my mother to let me wax my eyebrows and secretly (ashamedly) reading my old Baby-Sitter’s Club books. I was a kid and Veronica was a superhero. I felt the power of her fury, and I knew right away that I wanted to find that in myself, but I did not yet know what it was to hunger for the truth. All my stories were simple then, and no one yet had tried to contradict them. I loved Veronica, but I couldn’t really know her.

I liked Veronica Mars when I was twelve because she was funny. She was cool, but not, like, cool cool. Not like she was trying or like she’d be mean to you at the mall. These days, I’m something close to an adult, and I still like her for that. She’s sharp and quick and smirking. She knows how to protect herself and how to fight back when that fails. I didn’t know about defense mechanisms back then; I played pee wee soccer. Sometimes I think that what I love most about Veronica is the way her pain is never written so as to break or better her, but rather as a part of her, as a change to be weathered. A factor, but not the final fact in her identity. We don’t get trauma as a “teaching moment” here.

It would be nice if what I liked best about Veronica Mars were her quips and the hilariously bad flashback wig they stick Kristen Bell in sometimes. I’d like to like that best, but I can’t tell a story that’s not mine. In the face of horrors, Veronica got hard—got tough—and she wanted to get even because she believed that was possible. She didn’t know any better then, at sixteen. If the killer walks free and the lies torpedo what you know and what you say, if wrong wins—it is in moments like those that Veronica Mars taught me to keep going, to stand up straight, to be brave for your own sake and your own story. She also taught me that sometimes you have to make out with your dead best friend’s ex-boyfriend a lot even though he is a noted Terrible Dude, but, I mean, not all of life’s lessons can be inspirational office poster material. And, besides, nearly a decade of life, several heartbreaks wreaking varying degrees of mess and destruction, a revolving door of bad boys with—no, I swear—good hearts, a million drunken tears, and many hours of therapy all have yet to turn me into the sort of person who doesn’t love “obligatory psychotic jackass” Logan Echolls with every fiber of my being—so, no judgment, V. If anything, it’s sort of a comfort to know that I am not the only otherwise smart and self-assured woman over whom calamitous Logan and his sad, sad eyes have some incorruptible psychosexual hold.

There are journals, years of secrets, and they are mine but they do not speak with one voice. There are hearts of hurt, filled up in turn with what was and what wasn’t, and even if I claim them all and bear the weight I cannot recite it back so it makes sense. It feels, sometimes, like I stand so far from where I started, like I have labored over infinite wanderings, but any sense of reason proves that isn’t true at all. It has been barely any time at all, and the difference of these ten years will make no blip on any timeline but the one I keep for myself. It feels so long because I worry over the details. It feels so long because: all that was good and all that was bad (and all that was good and turned bad)? I want to keep it. I have to keep it.

A boy in a raincoat called me an emotional hoarder once while his back made puddles in my bed. “You always have to know everything about everything, like the world is going to fall apart if you forget.” He was right about that, and probably other things, too. If it’s a character flaw, I’ll stomach that, it’s okay. I don’t need to be easy, but I need, always, to know.

Inside fear I won’t admit to, I wonder what I’ve ever learned; standing under the improbable light of day, I know with every movement that lessons have reshaped my bones and spiraled through the marrow. What you’ve done, you carry—not a punishment, just a life. What was done to you, you contain, too—not as a cancer to corrupt or to overcome, but as a new piece, another fact in the tale.

Time is weird. I haven’t even used up that much of it, and still the mess feels like it could fill up a forever. I do the work of ironing the kinks from my history, I line it up, I say, “I was there.” I’d have to do this anyway—we all do, to find something we can call the truth and some way to face it—but now I do it guided by a fictional TV heroine. It’s not What Would Veronica Mars Do?, exactly, but How Would Veronica Mars Do It?. I want to make her intensity a part of me (but she and 2004 can keep all the choker necklaces).

While Veronica Mars never quite caught on ratings-wise, it did amass a dedicated cult following. Last week, nearly ten years after it premiered on TV, Veronica Mars is back by way of a Kickstarter-funded feature film. When I see the movie, I won’t be alone. I will bring with me every girl I’ve been so far, every girl who loved Veronica and every girl Veronica was there for when she needed to heal or laugh or just fill a Tuesday afternoon when she skipped class because life is hard and it was raining. I will eat Twizzlers and I will definitely cry, and I’ll be every girl I ever was, even twelve-year-old marsinvestigationsx317.

Though I did finally get my eyebrows fixed.


Tess McGeer wrote the screenplay for a teen vampire comedy as her major senior project last year. Unbelievably, the degree this earned has not translated to a slew of lucrative job opportunities. It’s okay, though, because her childhood bedroom in Massachusetts is as good a place as any to re-read Judy Blume books and shop for nail polish online.


Everything I Know About Vietnam I Learned From The Movies

by Zach Low

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When I was in high school, I saw my Uncle Dick have a Vietnam flashback.

(Ok, that’s only partially true. For starters, he’s not really my uncle, and it wasn’t so much a flashback as it was a brief mental lapse. But stay with me here.)

We were on our way to dinner, all piled in the family minivan, and my dad and uncle were talking about their time in the Navy together (Dick was my old man’s CO, hence the “Uncle”). At some point in the ride, Dick asked, “Remember Đà Nẵng in ’69?” The van got quiet.

“Dick,” said Dad, “I wasn’t in Đà Nẵng. In 1969, I was ten years old.”

“Oh,” said Dick, and turned his head.

He didn’t say anything else until we got to the restaurant. Our server had blonde hair, and I ordered a steak.

*

Everything I know about Vietnam I learned from the movies. That includes my untested-but-not-unfounded theory that many Vietnam veterans would rather not discuss their time in Southeast Asia. Which is fine with me: I wasn’t going to ask anyway. I got my education elsewhere. Sure, I took the required American history classes in high school, as well as a course specifically on the sixties during undergrad, but those mostly just taught me how to cram two hundred pages of (immediately forgotten) reading and a five-page essay assignment into a single night. I could memorize some dates and names long enough to take a quiz, but after that, the information disappeared. My knowledge of the war remains roughly equivalent to Max Fischer’s when he wrote and staged “Heaven and Hell” at the end of Rushmore. It’s based in little actual fact, and colored completely by popular culture. Vietnam may have been the first Great Televised War, but the films about it are what define my understanding.

As a child of the nineties, the first movie I remember seeing that involved Vietnam was—what else—Forrest Gump (1994). I must have been eight or nine when I saw it (a little young, but my broad film education started early). I liked it as much as any kid would, I guess. I remember getting caught up in the shots of the helicopters flying over the rice paddies while “Fortunate Son” blared. This was Vietnam, I thought. Rock and roll, and machine guns, and sacrifice. I understand. I bought the double-compact disc soundtrack on a summer trip to Vermont, along with a used advanced promotional copy of “Nevermind.” I eventually realized that Zemeckis was just using Vietnam to inject some reality into a fantasy about a simpleton with very special timing. He was not crafting a serious consideration of the war.

The year before that, my family had gone to Washington D.C. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, and I stared quietly at the Wall. I bought a short, age-appropriate historical book about the war. Around that same time, I was permitted to start seeing (parent approved) R-rated movies. The Oliver Stone one-two punch of Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) were near the top of my most-desired list, as I’d learned they were the products of an actual Vietnam veteran. At that point, I craved authenticity. I had already outgrown Zemeckis’ by-the-numbers, emotional manipulation; I wanted to see what it was like in the shit. I watched those films several times as a kid, but aside from developing an early appreciation for Willem Dafoe, not much stuck.

By the time I got to high school, I started trusting myself with the American Masters. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) took a couple of viewings to wrap my head around. I found the lack of combat scenes early on to be a bit boring…until I realized that was kind of the point. I thought Vietnam looked too grey and blown out…until I realized that was kind of the point. (I later found out it was filmed in England, and they had the palm trees flown in.) Kubrick, having already made the great anti-war film Paths of Glory, brought his unique vision to a more contemporary war, one whose effects he’d actually been around to witness. He makes Southeast Asia something like an alien world, and basic training like astronaut prep (if astronaut prep also involved total humiliation). R. Lee Ermey’s performance as Gny. Sgt. Hartman ensured that I would never, ever enlist.

Apocalypse Now (1979) was love at first napalm blast. I’ve always found Coppola’s claim that his film “isn’t about Vietnam,” but rather “is Vietnam” to be ridiculous bullshit, but it sort of makes me love him more (that, and the fact that he essentially lost his mind and almost died making the movie). The film, like his statement, is larger than life, and it takes his vision of the war very seriously. It has pop music like many of the others—but instead of John Fogerty or Nancy Sinatra, it’s Jim Morrison’s nonsense and fuck noises over a naked, bleeding Martin Sheen going nuts in a boiling hotel room. “Saigon. Shit.”

The only way Coppola felt he could appropriately address Vietnam was by turning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into the ultimate bad trip. Apocalypse Now cemented my vision of Vietnam as a nightmare in a different way than the other films. Yes, good men died: honest men, and friends, too. But in this version, there were former movie stars who got fat and bald and were waging wars of their own. There were men hanging from helicopters chasing Playmates, and shooting up boats because of puppies. There were fuckin’ tigers. None of the films made Vietnam look pleasant; Apocalypse Now made it look like Hell.

Michal Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) brought the war back to the States. They returned the broken men who’d gone off to fight back to hometowns and people that either held them up as heroes (usually to the soldiers’ discomfort), or couldn’t be bothered with them. Cimino used the war as a catalyst for unraveling what he was really interested in: the bonds between men, and the toll war takes on them.

One of the most striking scenes in The Deer Hunter isn’t in Vietnam, but back in Steel Country Pennsylvania. It finds Robert De Niro fresh off his tour and clearly out of sorts. Having avoided a welcome home party in his honor, and hiding out in a hotel rather than facing his friends, he finally goes to the local market with Linda (Meryl Streep). He is greeted by doting, smothering employees who nearly push him out of the frame. This isn’t an accident, and Camino’s camera doesn’t move to accommodate the actor: his back against a wall, he is surrounded by others, yet totally alone. Unable to communicate his pain (physical or otherwise) through the barrage of kisses and handshakes from those who couldn’t understand, he suffers the Veteran’s Curse. I had never seen this captured in film before, and I’d certainly never seen an actor in uniform portrayed as so totally vulnerable.

Hal Ashby, that great humanist hippie, eschews combat completely in Coming Home, and focuses instead on the conditions of the men who make it back from the war in various states of disrepair. The film deals with soldiers’ difficult readjustments to quote-unquote normal life. As one man says, when you get back home, “They don’t tell you anything about going back to society.” Ashby injects an otherwise simple love story with a biting social critique about the state of Veterans Affairs. The near-constant rock and roll soundtrack and romance between Jane Fonda and Jon Voight contrast—sometimes ironically—with Purple Hearts, suicide, and (like the Hendrix song) manic depression. Voight gets the big moment giving his speech in the gymnasium at the end of the film, but it’s the unhinged Bruce Dern whose line rings the most true: “How can they give you a medal for a war they don’t even want you to fight?”

Sometimes, when you’re faced with an event so massive, so unwieldy, so violent, and so incomprehensible, there’s nothing to do but try to mold it into something strange and lasting using whatever tools you have on hand. These directors picked up their cameras and tried to make sense with them. To focus their lenses not on dates or death tolls, geography or battle maneuvers, but on something far more elusive: the human element.

I know I’ll never fully comprehend the tragedies and complexities of Vietnam, but if movies can help me understand a man staring out the window on a silent car ride to a steakhouse, then I’ll keep watching them.


Zach Low is a Columbus, Ohio-based writer, textbook slinger, and Bloody Mary enthusiast.


The Man in the Mirror

by Elisabeth Geier

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished.

“What if you could go back in time?” asked anyone who ever regretted anything. Do the one thing you always wished you had done. Unmake your biggest mistake. It’s a soothing fantasy, and Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula in his prime) believes it is possible. His study in string theory supports a lifetime that can be tangled up in itself, so when he steps into the Quantum Leap accelerator, he can leap into any year in his own lived past. (Try not to worry about the science too much.) The possibilities for change are endless, or would be, if Sam had any control over when and where he ended up. Instead of landing in his own life, in his own form, he “leaps” into the lives and bodies of others. And so, Dr. Sam Beckett sets off on a metaphysical journey of reinvention, not for himself, but for strangers in time.

He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better.

Quantum Leap ran on NBC for five seasons, during which Dr. Sam Beckett inhabited almost 100 lives, each episode a new face in the mirror, and each face a new set of problems to solve. Some of the faces are famous (Lee Harvey OswaldElvisDr. Ruth), or at least fame-adjacent (Jack Kerouac’s friend, Marilyn Monroe’s chauffeur, Stephen King’s creepy neighbor). Most of them are regular Americans, representative of the historical and pop cultural standards of their time: a 1960’s girl group; a 1970’s mafia apprentice; a 1980’s beauty pageant contestant; a reluctant inductee to the Ku Klux Klan; a college student protesting the Vietnam war; a housewife at the height of women’s lib. Sam’s leaping takes us on a tour of the second half of the 20th century, hitting every major historical event, political movement, and social justice issue along the way. Wherever he ends up, Sam’s main motivation is to save lives, whether that means preventing an unnecessary death or stopping someone from making a bad mistake. The show hits hard on the idea that human history is made up of individual moments, decisions, and lives. Sam leaps in to fix one person’s life, and once it’s fixed, he can leap out.

Unfortunately, Sam’s leaps through time leave him with a “swiss-cheesed brain” — he retains his abilities but can barely remember who he is. And whois Dr. Sam Beckett? A Nobel Prize winning physicist. A talented musician skilled in several martial arts. A sensitive Midwesterner who respects women and always tries to do the right thing. Sam is a capital-H Hero, with the brains, brawn, and skill-set to survive any situation, but he barely recalls his own life, his own adult experiences, and the friends and lovers who may or may not be waiting for him at home. This hero’s journey renders him a cipher, a man with no memories or past. To an outside observer, planted firmly in the present, Sam’s plight is tragic.

His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.

Al (Dean Stockwell) is the wisecracking, womanizing, cigar-smoking voice of reality inQuantum Leap. Where Sam is stuck in corporeal form—with all the limitations that entails—Al functions as a ghost, walking through walls, projecting his holographic form from place to place (again, don’t let the science of it bog you down). Al is the angel and devil on Sam’s shoulder, more often devil, encouraging him to linger with beautiful women he encounters, or to stay out of harm’s way at the expense of another living soul. Because Al lives in the present, brain un-swiss-cheesed, he retains the benefit of accumulated experience, leaving him far more cynical than Sam could ever be. Al becomes a stand-in for the audience, armed with the full knowledge of history, beginning to suspect Sam’s mission is futile, but too devoted to abandon him in time.

When Sam’s leaps intersect with an important historical event, like the Watts race riots or the Vietnam War, Al reminds him, “You can’t stop this.” Sam can change history, but only by changing one life at a time. His med student in South Central Los Angeles can’t stop the riots, but he can survive and help the neighborhood rebuild. His soldier in Vietnam is powerless to change the course of the war, but he can save Sam Beckett’s own brother, and, in turn, an entire platoon. In episodes of the show driven by real, specific historical events, Sam’s swiss-cheesed brain may be his greatest asset. He is unburdened by what Al (and those of us watching at home) can clearly see: that repercussions of the riots and the war will reverberate for generations to come, and that history will repeat itself, again and again. His inherent optimism about human nature, and a belief that the right choice at the right time can change history for the better, remain untainted by accumulated experience. As observers, we see the dark side of humanity every time Sam leaps, of the oppressive systems and cycles of violence that rarely seem to change. But Sam sees only the person whose life he is there to save—and it’s this tunnel vision that allows him to do his job. Without it, and without the “unknown force” that keeps him stuck in time (what the show calls “God or fate or whatever”), our Hero would have to give up.

And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.

If we believe in a soul, then we believe in some intrinsic self, one that resides in our physical body while we live, and goes somewhere else when we die. Sam’s soul sticks with him from decade to decade, life to life, so that even when he forgets his own name and occupation, he maintains his capacity for good. Each leap out is a death: Sam dies so that others may live. Each leap in is a birth: Sam is reborn to serve again.

Oh, let’s just say it: Dr. Sam Beckett is Jesus Christ.

And it’s this Christlike perfection that makes Sam a little hard to stomach as an adult.Quantum Leap was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid (and Scott Bakula one of my formative crushes), but re-watching it now, I struggle to relate. Sam helps one person, and maybe that person helps a few others, and maybe the butterfly effect kicks in and many lives are saved, but surely, history will repeat itself with or without his intervention. If Sam Beckett is still out there leaping, and lands in 2014, what will he see? Another hate crime gone unpunished, another discriminatory law passed, another senseless war about to start. Sam, fueled by his do-good spirit and a conveniently spotty memory, can maintain hope in the face of certain defeat. Hope is hard-fought for the rest of us, hard-imagined for some of us who are struggling to make it through another day. Maybe it’s just me, growing increasingly cynical and scared as I age. Maybe you’re capable of a more positive outlook. Maybe it depends on your mood, on your bank account, on your most recent interaction with a stranger. Maybe it’s just a TV show, and real life is far more complex, and our dystopian future has been with us all along.

In the final episode of Quantum Leap, we learn that somehow, subconsciously, Dr. Sam Beckett has been controlling his own leaps all along. He is his own God, and He never does make the leap home. It’s a dark, divisive ending to a sci-fi adventure series about a time-traveling, super-genius savior, but in it lies a message of what real heroism and humanity might look like. Sam’s mission is in some ways as futile as we’ve feared, his own hopes left unfulfilled, his journey through time doomed to repeat. But still, he leaps on.

Perhaps a true hero is one who throws himself again and again into the breach, knowing he can never save himself, but is devoted to saving others, one mirror image at a time. The ultimate message of Quantum Leap is as paradoxical as time travel. It’s a message of optimism and despair, victory and defeat: helping just one person is a heroic act, even as history loops itself over and over, leaving us doomed from the start, tangled in each other’s timelines, grasping for hold and hoping hard.


Elisabeth Geier is a writer, teacher, & etc. living in Portland, Oregon. She has previously lived in Dallas, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Lafayette, California. She would be happy to direct you towards the best pizza in these locations.


Four American Political Figures Who Deserve Big Studio Movies About Them

by J. Ryan Stradal


As a hopeless U.S. history nerd, I’m heartbreakingly bored with seeing the same old damn Presidents in every major Hollywood historical picture. Film archives offer no solace; since 1909, twenty-nine movies have portrayed Abraham Lincoln, twenty feature George Washington, thirteen Franklin D. Roosevelt, and eleven John F. Kennedy.

Of course, it’s obvious why these folks dominate Hollywood narratives; everyone knows that they were memorable leaders during high-stakes eras, and have dramatic, violent, and sometimes sexy stories. It’s just a shame they have to dominate cinema so thoroughly.

Even Richard Nixon, who has arguably the most complex legacy among recent Commanders-in-Chief, has only inspired nine dramatic roles. This number includes James LeGros’ character Roach in Point Break, who impersonates Nixon in a cartoon mask, and dies beautiful and apt, stubbornly bleeding in a tornado of stolen money. That, to me, sufficiently qualifies. It does not, however, include Nixon’s 356 archival footage appearances, like All the President’s Men or The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Even so, I believe that his true Lincoln-level dramatic oversaturation is yet to come. To paraphrase the man himself, we will have Richard Milhous Nixon to kick around for all eternity.

Until such time, there are dozens of much more obscure and underrepresented political figures in U.S. history whose mostly-untold lives are beyond ripe for dramatic portrayal. I’ve squared it down to four, and for me, it sure wasn’t easy. 

Warren G. Harding

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Somehow, Warren G. Harding is one of the two U.S. Presidents to have never been represented by an actor on film (the other is John Tyler). While he has appeared on TV, notably in Boardwalk Empire, Warren’s life is as cinematic as it gets, and his legacy as perhaps the worst President of all time should, really, only work to his advantage.

His supporting cast is unbelievable. His Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, is the first cabinet member to end up in prison for corruption. Jess Smith, a staff member in Harding’s equally corrupt Attorney General’s office, shot himself in the head, anticipating an investigation into the department’s wrongdoings. Charles Forbes, a WWI vet and director of Harding’s brand-new Veteran’s Bureau, skimmed money for himself and his playboy lifestyle, was choked out by Harding in the White House, ran to Europe with another man’s wife, was served divorce papers by his own, and eventually ended up in prison.

Among the unsavory lot were also a few rising prospects; Harding’s Postmaster General, Will Hays, is the only Postmaster General with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Commerce secretary Herbert Hoover became President himself in 1928, promptly ushering in the Great Depression. Harding also had friends in entertainment, and pal Al Jolson wrote and performed Harding’s campaign theme song, which included the line, “We need another Lincoln / to do the country’s thinkin’.”

Another Lincoln, Harding was certainly not, but he was a famously easygoing boss, who never fired a single employee in his thirty-plus years publishing the Marion Star out of Ohio. While his no-nonsense wife Florence ran the paper and kept it profitable, Harding was out gambling, drinking, womanizing, and carrying on a years-long affair with the wife of a friend with whom the Hardings frequently double-dated.

Getting wrapped up in Ohio machine politics, Harding built a long career as a charismatic, carousing, friendly drinking buddy to powerful men. Because everyone liked him, and he looked good, sounded good, and avoided controversial political stances, he found himself in increasingly important positions. By 1920, Harding had emerged as a compromise Presidential candidate when the smarter, better-qualified Republicans of the time had made too many internal enemies.

Once in the White House, poker games and drinking parties couldn’t carry the day, and the friends who Harding had appointed to positions of power had thoroughly taken advantage of him. By summer 1923, one of his mistresses had a baby, Teapot Dome was blowing up, and his trusted lackey Jess Smith had killed himself – the sharks were closing in. Had he not died of natural causes that August, it’s more than likely he’d have been impeached within a year. One of Harding’s other underlings, Gaston Means, published a book suggesting that Florence poisoned her husband as revenge for his infidelities or to spare him from the collapse of his Presidency; she didn’t allow an autopsy and died shortly thereafter herself, so we’ll never know for sure.

One scene that will make this a great film: During the Democratic National Convention, in suite 404–6 on the 13th floor of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, a quorum of party leaders huddled over a table, and after hours of debate, finally decided on Warren G. Harding. At one point they even called him up to the room and asked him point-blank if he had any skeletons in his closet, which, after a long pause, he denied. This is the meeting that inspired the phrase “smoke-filled room.”

It’s easy to imagine the end of the meeting as one long Steadicam shot with no edits, including the moment where Harding opens the door and they ask him if he’s done anything they should be worried about. The shot will continue to hold, on a wide shot of Warren standing alone, as he works up the courage to lie to these men and let ignorance, his and theirs, change the course of American history.

Elevator Pitch: Guileless playboy rises to top with the help of his douchey bros and satisfyingly goes down in flames. Being There meets Wolf of Wall Street, but with the Hollywood ending that Wolf didn’t have. Cast: John Slattery (Warren G. Harding); June Squibb (Florence Harding); Rainn Wilson (Jess Smith); Richard Gere (Charles Forbes); Shia LaBoeuf (Gaston Means); Shaun Ryder (campaign manager & Attorney General Harry Daugherty). 
 

Helen Gahagan Douglas

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

There was a time when Helen Gahagan Douglas couldn’t do anything wrong. Once named “one of the twelve most beautiful women in America,” she was a Broadway star at age twenty-two, and married the handsome leading man Melvyn Douglas. Choosing to study voice, she discovered another natural talent, and made her debut in a production of Tosca in Prague. In movies, her performance in the role of the Empress of Kor in the movie She won her mass acclaim, inspiring the character of the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

For the brilliant and charismatic Helen, politics was just as easy as show business at first. Running for Congress from her Los Angeles district in 1944, she won easily, becoming one of nine women in the U.S. House, and quickly rose to prominence, becoming a frequent guest at the FDR White House, and an outspoken leader in a new wave of support for civil rights. Mary McLeod Bethune even called Helen “the voice of American democracy.” She handily won re-elections in 1946 and 1948 and became an enormously popular spokesperson on liberal issues.

While in Washington, she met an ambitious and caddish Texan named Lyndon B. Johnson and, although they were both married, carried on a very public relationship with him while they were in Congress together; even if they weren’t sleeping together, it seemed like they were. Crazy as it seems today, this appears to have had little effect on either person’s career. When Helen ran for Senate from California in 1950 as the heavy favorite, a bold new adversary named Richard Nixon would come at her from a different angle.

Nixon, also a Congressman, was also running for his first Senate seat, and although his assault on the liberal Democrat Helen was in the red-baiting style of the times, Nixon, unsurprisingly, was excessive. His staff published a pamphlet on pink paper, called the “Pink Sheet,” with allegations that she was soft on Communism. He went Anti-Semitic on her, attacking Helen’s Jewish husband. Nixon also capitalized on the words of one of Helen’s former opponents, who’d called her “The Pink Lady,” and said that she was “pink right down to her underwear.” The ceaseless character assassination worked, and Richard Nixon won a landslide victory to become a freshman U.S. Senator. The margin of victory seemed to validate Nixon’s claims in the public eye, and Helen became box-office poison in the eyes of Democratic committees. Helen, exhausted from the attacks on her family, never tried to run for public office again.

She did get in one last, enduring jab on Nixon – her nickname for him, which was to follow him throughout his career: “Tricky Dick.” She lived a mostly quiet life thereafter, also failing to return to substantial roles on the stage or screen, but did live to see Nixon’s political career go down in flames, twenty-four years after he destroyed hers.

One scene that will make this a great film: Helen emerging from Lyndon Johnson’s car, and walking hand-in-hand with Lyndon to the Capitol, encounter a pair of journalists on the street as they pass by. After they’re gone, one journalist asks the other if Helen and Lyndon are an item. The more veteran journalist shakes his head and says, “Impossible. They flaunt it too much for it to be real.”

Elevator Pitch: Like Erin Brockovich, except the bad guys win at the end. Cast: Keri Russell (Helen Douglas); Jeremy Renner (Lyndon Johnson); Paul Dano (Richard Nixon); Aretha Franklin (Mary Bethune); Justin Kirk (Melvyn Douglas). 
 

Shirley Chisholm

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents from British Guiana and Barbados, Shirley’s is the classic American story of a person rising from obscurity to become a legend. Sent by her parents to British-style elementary schools in Barbados, she returned to the U.S. in 1934 at age nine as a sharp, supremely well-spoken, and ambitious young girl. Earning degrees in education from Brooklyn College and Columbia University, she encountered a professor, Louis Warsoff, who encouraged her to enter politics due to her “quick mind and debating skills.”

She threw her hat in the ring several years later, in the manner of many effective politicians, by acting locally. She agitated to overturn the white Democratic political machine that dominated her Bed-Stuy neighborhood, and when they attempted to mollify her by placing her on the board, she got even louder, and they kicked her out. It was a temporary setback, and Chisholm outlasted the old-guard boys’ club, eventually being elected to represent the Bed-Stuy area in the New York State Assembly in 1964.

After four successful years in the State legislature, she decided to make her first run for Federal office, and in 1968, using the campaign slogan “Unbought & Unbossed,” became the first black woman elected to Congress. Party leadership ridiculously placed the Brooklyn-based representative on the Agriculture Committee, and she demanded a more relevant assignment and received it, moving to the Veterans Committee. “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” she said at the time.

She was also placed in her top choice, the Education and Labor Committee, where in time she rose to become its third-highest ranking member. Knowing that, as she said, “tremendous amounts of talent are lost in this country just because that talent wears a skirt,” she drew from that vast, underrepresented talent pool when she hired only women to work in her Congressional office – half of them black. In 1972, she became the first African American to seek a major party’s nomination for President. This truly put her on the national stage, and at a time when many more open, avowed racists held positions of power across the country, this wasn’t just brave, it was dangerous. She survived three assassination attempts on the campaign trail.

Though she knew that victory was remote, she refused to look upon her campaign as merely symbolic. “At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination,” Chisholm said, “perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” She finished seventh of the fifteen Democratic candidates who received votes, and carried the states of New Jersey, Mississippi, and Louisana in the Democratic primary. The campaign over, she returned to Congress, where she served until her retirement in 1980. She’s in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and was featured on a U.S. postage stamp for the first time earlier this year.

One scene that will make this a great film: George Wallace, a Southern segregationist and opponent of Shirley’s in the 1972 Democratic primary, was shot five times and paralyzed while on a campaign stop in Maryland by fame-seeking assassin Arthur Bremer (who in part inspired the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). Though they were each other’s ideological nemesis, and many of Shirley’s constituents were happy to see this paragon of the segregated South get shot down, Shirley had the grace to visit Wallace in the hospital.

Elevator Pitch: Your classic Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, but with a motivated African-American woman instead of your usual reluctant boring white boy. Cast: Angela Bassett (Shirley Chisholm); Lupita Nyong’o (mentee, and future congresswoman, Barbara Lee); Tom Sizemore (George Wallace); Wendell Pierce (first husband Clifford Chisholm); Regina King (Brenda Pillors, Chisholm’s legislative director in D.C.) 
 

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Thomas Jefferson was twenty-six, representing Albemarle County in the House of Burgesses, and in love. He’d met this striking, funny, talented young widow in Williamsburg named Martha, and although she had a couple of other suitors, they’d hit it off immediately. Martha and Thomas were both musicians, and bonded over meeting up to kick out the jams, which was something the other two guys couldn’t do.

Two years later, Thomas and Martha got married, and had set out home from their honeymoon into one of the worst snowstorms yet on record in Virginia. With their carriage paralyzed by three feet of snow, they completed the last several miles on horseback, and returned to a freezing one-room outbuilding that was to be their home while Monticello was being constructed for them. Still, they were happy. They were one of those couples who were so into each other, I bet it made their neighbors and servants want to stab themselves in the face with a quill. Their marriage was the happiest time of Thomas’ life. Martha, while delicate in constitution, was furiously active; she started a brewery at Monticello (she was a huge beer enthusiast), befriended the locals, played music for guests, kept a detailed ledger of the property’s accounts, created impressive works of embroidery, and employed her tastes in literature to help fill out the generous library (she, like her husband, was an indefatigable reader).

Even with their home complete, and Thomas’ prestige on the rise, the devoted couple faced serious emotional hardship, as four of their beloved six children didn’t survive past age one. The last child, a little girl named Lucy, finally wrecked her mother’s fragile constitution, and Martha’s health irreversibly deteriorated. Before she died, Martha asked Thomas to please never marry another woman, and he never did.

Thomas, inconsolable, didn’t leave his room for weeks after her death. When he finally did, he spent several hours a day riding alone on horseback through his property. He never did marry again—his daughter Patsy served as White House hostess during Jefferson’s two terms as President—and it would be years before he’d have so much as a romantic interlude.

As it turns out, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, had several children by his longtime concubine Betty Hemings, and when John died in 1773, many of Betty’s children came to Monticello in the will. One of them was Martha’s half-sister, Sally. You know the sequel.

One scene that will make this a great movie: One evening, when Martha’s other two suitors came by to see her, they first heard, and then saw, Martha and Thomas happily playing music and singing together. The scene would open on the two of them, chatting amiably on horseback, approaching the Wayles’ country home, hearing the melodies, voices, and stomping coming from somewhere as they approach, until finally, one of them figures out that it’s Martha, but who’s she with? They peek through the window and see Thomas with her, and they’re both laughing and singing, oblivious to the spying faces in the glass. It is in this moment where the two suitors look at each other, get back on their horses, and ride back into town, knowing they no longer have a shot.

Elevator Pitch: Like Shakespeare in Love, except with Thomas Jefferson instead of Shakespeare, crossed with Rabbit Hole and The DescendantsCast: Zooey Deschanel (Martha Jefferson); Jared Leto (Thomas Jefferson); Kerry Washington (Betty Hemings); Tom Waits (John Wayles); Adam Driver (suitor #1); Andy Samberg (suitor #2); Alina Foley (Patsy Jefferson).


J. Ryan Stradal's writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Rattling Wall, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Nervous Breakdown, Joyland, Trop, and NFL.com, among other places. He lives in Los Angeles, where he volunteers at 826LA, helps create products and materials for the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, co-produces the literary/culinary event “Hot Dish,” and works in TV on programs like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, and Storage Wars: Texas.. He likes wine, books, root beer, and peas.