Letter from the Editors

by Chad Perman & Elizabeth Cantwell


The July before my sixth-grade year—that strange ugly void between child and adolescent, discomfort and confidence, no and yes—my family went to Austin, TX to visit my aunt, uncle, and two cousins. I don't remember whether we were there for the 4th of July or not, though the sense of the vacation that I have when I think about it now bleeds red, white, and blue. I know there were family car rides with four kids packed in a minivan; I know there were hot dogs and Coca Cola cans; I know there were games and amusement park rides and sprinklers. I know one night we went down to the bridge where the bats live on Congress Avenue and we stood outside under the smudgy, humid sky, and we laughed, and we waited for the spooky awful things to creep their way out from under the overpass. And when they finally did, they shuddered and swooped and shoved their way out into the urban streets to look for flies or fruit or masses of tangled hair or little sleeping kids or whatever it is that bats look for at night, and this collective mass of people turned their wide-eyed faces to the sky, and the clouds hovered, and it rained.

Or, at least, our parents told us it rained. And then were very insistent that we all take baths when we got back to my aunt and uncle's house, even though I'd had a shower that morning, and I really didn't think I needed to bathe twice that day. Years later, when recalling that night with my mother over ice cream, I was told that the "rain" was, in fact, bat pee or bat poop or bat spit or anyway some sort of bat excrement. And I'm sure my parents weren't the only ones spinning out a little white lie to their kids that night, pointing at the clouds and trying to explain away the moisture in our hair as something harmless, to scrub and laugh and bubble bath their way into a mild fantasy, one that allowed their children to enjoy the concept of something rather than face its unpleasant flesh. This is America, after all. If there's a way to spin a bleak reality into a fairy tale—to take a flawed body and airbrush it into crystalline beauty—we will do it, every single time.

Our love of narrative matches, if not exceeds, our love of democracy, baseball, and apple pie. The stories we tell are simultaneously glorious and terrifying—illuminating our shared experiences, while also helping create and shape our understanding of what it means to be American.

When you grow up in a place it's often hard to understand what that place is. How those trees and hills and lakes and skies have polished your skin like a stone. You need to get some distance from it, to see your own particular experience through someone else's eyes: a semester abroad your junior year; a thirty-something summer revisiting the haunts you used to frequent as a teenager, touching the wood on the tables in the old pizza joint, trying to figure out where things went wrong. A long conversation with a grandparent, working back through the family tree, staring at aerial pictures of farms you've never walked through.

And sometimes, that distance can come in the least distant place possible—your living room, your friend's bedroom, a movie theater on a summer night. Getting popcorn butter underneath your fingernails, watching the screen as some young woman or some old man drives down streets all too close to your own home, saying things you've said too many times (or heard said), crying at the things you've cried at. Loving things you've loved. Impossibly, in 105 minutes, a piece of the place we've come from—a winged strip of celluloid circling around our cities, our neighborhoods, our dinner tables.

The issue you’re about to read got its start as a small seed of an idea, as many of our issues do, a casually tossed-off “what about something like Americana?” from one of the editors during a monthly brainstorm. It made immediate sense, especially for July—a month of fireworks and American flags—and we set out to solicit essays on films that in some way spoke to, wrestled with, or reflected various aspects of America. The essays we got back from our writers were so compelling and important in their disparate takes on American identity that we found ourselves unable to whittle them down into a single issue. Which perhaps shouldn't be too surprising, given a country and culture that finds ample room for both Frank Capra and David Lynch, American dreams and darker underbellies. And so we’ve simply decided to include all of the fascinating essays we received, spreading them out over two consecutive issues (July and August).

This month’s pieces travel from those bat-peed-upon streets of Austin, TX (Boyhood) to the South Dakota badlands; from the suburbs of 1950s Connecticut (Far from Heaven) to the U.S. Capitol itself (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); from a quintessential American small town (Blue Velvet) to the crowded floors of a Vegas casino (Lost in America); from high school football fields (Friday Night Lights) to a deserted movie theater (The Last Picture Show).

For nearly all of this issue's writers, America is something compellingly curious. How do we understand this place we’ve been born into? How do we make sense of both its physical realities and mythical dimensions, its small-town values and big city lights? What do these stories we tell ourselves, all these films we consume, tell us about ourselves? How do these narratives help inform, define, and shape the American experience?

Capra and Lynch have both recreated the terrain of this impossibly disparate, too-large country on the big screen, and—as our writers this month would assert—each of those depictions is, for better or for worse, precisely accurate.
 

—Chad Perman & Elizabeth Cantwell


American Idols

by Kara VanderBijl

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I am five years old. Crisp white paper crinkles underneath me as I shift on the table. It is very cold and bright in the room, but I am sweaty. My palms stick together. I look at my mom and at the big jar of red, yellow, and green lollipops. Then I look at the nurse, who is holding a syringe up to the light. Clear drops of fluid spritz off its sharp end.

“Now,” she advises, pointing the needle at the meat of my upper arm. “Look away.”

But I can’t. The needle moves closer and closer.

Some images are too powerful to forget. Wherever and whenever they appear, they poke at dark things that lie just beyond the reach of our consciousness. They sear our brains. Whether we seek them out or stumble upon them, they reel through our minds like a refrain, unbridling fear and obsession.

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is full of such images. I was fourteen when I saw it for the first time, on a class trip, and I was not ready for it. I walked out of the theatre that day, its violent, sexually charged scenes filling my mind, cues for brand new nightmares.

In the film’s iconic opening sequence, the peace of a quiet neighborhood in Lumberton, North Carolina is shattered when a man collapses on his lawn. Inside the house, his wife watches a mystery program. A dog drinks from the man’s hose, which he still holds in a viselike grip. Nearby, children laugh as they cross the street and flowers in deeply saturated colors play against a bright blue sky. Roy Orbison croons “Blue Velvet” in the background.

This could be Anywhere, America. But the man’s stroke has taken away its anonymity. Violence is particular: it peels open what’s expected, to reveal what’s curious underneath. Below this man’s immaculate lawn, thousands of bugs gnash at the soil and at one another, eroding the idyllic afternoon with each bite.

My mother is watering flowers in the backyard. When she steps away from a pot full of bright purple petunias, my brother and I see that a rust-colored rattlesnake is coiled next to it, almost the same color as the planter.

It flicks its tongue. We scream and pound on the window.

The man’s son, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to Lumberton from college to visit his father in the hospital. While cutting through a vacant lot on the way home, he finds a severed ear. It buzzes like a radio between stations, as if Jeffrey must turn it to the right frequency to understand its hidden message. Jeffrey bags and pockets it like a key, opening the door to an enigmatic, frightening world that’s been lying just under the surface of his sleepy hometown.

With his open face, sensitive eyes, and strong jaw, MacLachlan is a Romantic hero, a physical embodiment of trustworthiness and virtue. Lynch once said of him, “Kyle plays innocents who are interested in the mysteries of life. He’s the person you trust enough to go into a strange world with.” This is especially true for Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter, who catches wind of Jeffrey’s discovery and other details of the case by eavesdropping on her father’s telephone conversations. In a local diner, Jeffrey and Sandy make plans to find the connection between the ear and the police’s current person of interest—a club singer named Dorothy Vallens—by breaking into her apartment.

My father cracks open the lid of the electric breaker on the back wall of the house. Inside, a huge spider stretches across the switches. Her spindly legs gather together as the sun hits her. She hisses.

My father slams the breaker shut.

It’s within Dorothy’s flat that Lynch’s noir undertones take full flesh. We’d heard echoes of it in Angelo Badalamenti’s score, an orchestral track calling to mind deeply-dipped fedoras, slinky cocktail dresses, and smoking guns. Now, in a setting worthy of Hitchcock, Lynch’s femme fatale, played by the inimitable Isabella Rossellini, catches Jeffrey red-handed as he rifles through her apartment looking for clues. She holds a butcher knife up to his throat. She demands that he remove his clothes.

You can’t look away from Dorothy. Dark-haired and pale, she drapes a blue velvet robe around her shoulders and examines herself in the mirror. She leans against walls, folds in despair to the floor, and looks up through half-lidded eyes. With her bright red lips and bruise-blue eye shadow, she’s the picture of open, violent passion, the antidote to Sandy’s pink-and-white bloom. She is the smoking gun. She is the afternoon mystery program that the women of Lumberton turn on to forget the suds in their sinks. She is so alluring that a man named Frank kidnapped her husband and young son in order to make her his sexual slave.

Frank (Dennis Hopper) lives up to his name: he is a straightforward brand of evil. Jeffrey, Sandy and Dorothy, their names ending in y, decorate the action of the film like adverbs decorate a verb. But Frank is pure action. He interrupts Dorothy and Jeffrey’s brief interlude by pounding on the door. By the time Dorothy whisks Jeffrey into the closet, he has entered the apartment, his movements brusque, every word punctuated by obscenities. He has come to take what is his. As Jeffrey watches from the closet, Frank subjects Dorothy to a series of humiliating and violent sexual acts. He presses a mask to his mouth and gasps at an unidentified substance. His eyes bug out. But neither his person nor his crimes are as disturbing as Dorothy’s obvious enjoyment of them. At the tail end of a punch, her lips curl into a smile.

I shift uncomfortably in my red velvet theatre seat as Frank finishes dry-humping Dorothy and leaves. She folds her legs up to her chest, a patch of her blue velvet robe missing where Frank cut it. Naked, Jeffrey emerges from the closet. He folds Dorothy into his arms. “Are you okay?” he asks her.

“Hit me,” she whispers.

I am not ready to see this, but I cannot look away.

With Blue Velvet, Lynch satirizes an antiseptic small-town America and creates its antithesis, a terrifying villain—but it is through Dorothy that he makes his most important point. She may love her husband and child, but when they were taken away, she discovered that she loved pain, and humiliation, and degradation, too.

We are almost never ready for the things that end up shaping us the most. Innocence kidnapped, flesh bared, we wait for whatever lurks in the darkness. As viewers, we take Jeffrey’s place in the closet and wonder at Dorothy’s world, where blue velvet symbolizes the complex dichotomy of human desire, at turns soft and rough, dark and light. We are Little Red Riding Hood who, in the original tale, was so fascinated by the wolf that he was able to gobble her whole. We are voyeurs of violent fantasies, rubbing at the hurt until our fear and desire explode.

As Jeffrey deepens his relationship with Sandy, he gets caught up in Dorothy’s world. One moment he shares a tender kiss with Sandy in the local diner, the picture of 1950s high-school innocence, the next he punches Dorothy during sex. Like Dorothy, he has a relationship with two very different people, but he separates his encounters by night and day, location and type, whereas Dorothy links her savior and her captor by desiring violence from both of them.

Fear is brawny. It beats the pulp out of our other feelings until it has left scars on all of them. We turn to it like a bad habit, and no wonder; it’s been with us the longest, longer sometimes than comfort has. It takes us further into the future than love. It carries us to the outer reaches of our character: how fast we can run and how much we can stand. Sometimes it takes us far enough to bring us to what we thought we’d never do.

A young boy and his brother are playing outdoors after dark. From where they play, they can see the rose bushes in their front yard, the bright friendly white of their picket fence.

Suddenly, they hear a thin wail. Walking down the street towards them is a naked woman, arms across her chest, dazed and crying. The young boy’s eyes fill with tears. He is not ready to see this. He cannot look away.

Dorothy’s appearance, naked and battered, in the idyll of Jeffrey and Sandy’s neighborhood, is what marked me the most when I first saw Blue Velvet. Her bruises made sense to me (she had just escaped from Frank, after a particularly horrific event), but the erotic satisfaction with which she spreads her body open did not. How could a woman already so harmed desire to degrade herself further?

The nakedness was an obvious choice. It did not surprise me to learn later on that the scene is actually based on Lynch’s childhood experience. Had the troubled woman in his past also laid herself bare? Doubtless she had been pried further and further open as the image echoed in his mind like a refrain, until, like a symbol, she had no shame, only meaning.

Like humor, violence often occurs in the space between what’s expected and what actually happens. In a society where the two so often remain separated, humor—or violence—becomes a natural reaction. Both are particularly-shaped puzzle pieces that cement the often ill-fitting parts of human desire. If you despise a man, you can laugh at him or kill him. Satire is punishment on a grand scale; violence is punishment on a particular scale. Lynch manages to do both inBlue Velvet.

If you were to separate the two worlds in the film, you’d find that both have the power of a gut-punch: each one alone is enough to sear you. They dredge up fear and obsession; they demand laughter or horror. But together, they elicit a curious blend of both.

“What kind of movie is this?” my classmate whispers. I am peeking around my fingers as Frank searches Dorothy’s apartment for Jeffrey, gun in his hand. He throws open the closet doors, where Jeffrey has been hiding. Jeffrey puts a bullet in Frank’s brain.

I laugh. My classmates laugh, hysterically.

We are laughing to save our lives.


Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.


Tumbleweeds and Lonely Roads

by Kelsey Ford

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

This world is black and white and simple. Tumbleweeds languish outside empty gas stations. Trucks rattle down the lonely road. There’s the street with the picture show, the diner, and the pool hall. There’s your car, parked alongside the curb. All empty and open and waiting.

You’re a young woman, or a young man, or a mother remembering what it was like to be young, fickle, and fresh. You want someone to touch you. Anyone to touch you. You want to get out, or you failed to get out, but staying alive in this place requires a fight you don’t always have in you.

Here, everyone knows everybody else and you wish there was a way to escape that, but there’s not.

You play basketball, feel your girlfriend up in the backseat of the bus, go fishing with Sam the Lion, listen to his stories about youth and love and loss.

It’s Saturday night and the only thing to do is go to the picture show and grope in the back row, but evien this has lost its amusement. You want more, but you don’t know what more means. You’ve already seen this picture three times.

Sex isn’t what you expect. It’s not erotic or sweet or romantic. You bear it and hope it will change, that the act will grow into the expectation. Because if it doesn’t, if this is all there is, then that’s too empty to bear.

You’re beautiful and blonde. You’re young and foolish but so assured you’re neither. You expect actions to mean something, and when they don’t, you broaden your strokes, try harder, press yourself against different flesh.

You’re a pretty young thing and you know this won’t last.

You’re a teenager, dating the prettiest girl in school. You see your entire future out in front of you, right here: marriage, a modest job, evenings in the pool hall. But that gets shattered against everyone’s selfishness and you’re left wanting.

Your best friend is dating the prettiest girl in school and the girl you used to date was chubby and rude. You find yourself drawn to your coach’s wife and the bald way she seduces you. The attraction is simple and there until it’s not. She loves you. She’s found something in you she thought she’d never have. But you don’t understand that, because you’ve never felt that lack the way she has. You break it.

You watch television at night, listless, and when an attractive older man comes in and asks you to the pool hall, you tag along. You feel something clutch inside you when he hits the balls cleanly into the side pockets, and he sees this. You let him see this. You are so bored that you throw yourself on that table and let it happen. Want it to happen. Want to feel the way it’ll make you feel.

But it isn’t that. It’s never that.

You let him unzip your skirt. You let her push against you.

The pleasure isn’t where you think it must be. So you chase after fire, choosing to be talked about, rather than forgotten. And it goes just the way you planned, even if that plan left bodies on the street behind you.

You can’t see the same anymore, after all of that.

These are the wounds you bear: the man who loved you but couldn’t feed or house you, the woman you loved but was too distracted to mind, the eye bruised by a best friend’s thumb, the man who died while you were out of town, the friend that died because sand blocked a driver’s vision.

You bear the wound of having felt something, once.

Because the ones who feel it, even if for a moment, carry it with them for the rest of their lives, along with that small stone of bitterness, the knowledge that they’ll never feel it again.

“You know what, Sonny,” you say to the boy that just married your daughter. “It's terrible to only meet one man in life who knows what you're worth.”

The pool hall is empty. Its door bangs open again, again, against the clapboard side.

It’s the last picture show at the theater and you want it to be perfect, and just right for that night, but it’s not. You leave.

The road is empty. You’re past the city limits. You turn around and drive home.

It’s the simplest of gestures. Reaching across. Taking her hand.


Kelsey Ford is a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. A recent Los Angeles transplant, via Brooklyn, her work has previously appeared in Her Royal Majesty and Storychord.


This American Boy

by Tracy Wan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

My memories of the American South are few and far between, but they start on a sunny spring day in 1997, when I walked off a plane from Beijing and onto Mississippi soil. For the next three years, before a permanent move to Canada, I would aggregate impressions of this so-called American life—scenes that to this day fill me with a nostalgia for both what was, and what could have been. Driving past golden farmland, skirting swamps, country songs curling from the radio. Going to college football games, then Bible school. The sheer magnitude of the Fourth of July. The list goes on—America, after all, is excess. I couldn't help but be filled with it.

To an outsider, or maybe just this outsider, there are fundamental Americanisms - a set of characteristics typical to American culture that is both grossly generalistic and vastly true: a love for pastimes, performances, polar politics, popular culture. These are but a few, part of the essence of America that floated up to the border, which I greedily devoured. After all, there's something so likeable about Americanisms, something about that braggy but genuine affinity for oneself. (I’m fond of Kanye West for the very same reason: how can you fault someone for being unapologetically in love with themselves?)

The most likeable Americanism, of course, is the Dream, if you believe in it—that with the right work ethic, we all get what we want, no matter what small town we come from, what our parents did, how we fucked up as teenagers. Maybe that's what the presenter at my screening of Boyhood in Toronto thought about when he said, "It is one of the most important American films you will see this decade." And by the way—he was right.

Boyhood is 12 years old when I meet it for the first time, but it feels like I've known it all of my life. Shot in a total of 39 days, spread out across these twelve years, the film has an inherently impressionistic quality—a dreamy in-and-out state not unlike recollections of childhood itself. In its 164 minutes, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a quiet, introspective Texan boy, and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter) grow up in the wake of their divorced parents' foibles and fortunes. These parents are played—heartbreakingly, soul-stirringly well—by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, whom we see mature, both literally and figuratively, alongside their children. And we root for them at every conquered step, we do. It's hard not to: spend a dozen years with anyone, on screen or otherwise, and you're bound to love them a little.

In direct defiance of its title, Boyhood shows an endearing aversion to the stereotypical highlights of growing up. 

Boyhood is one of those unspoilable movies. There are no major plot points; no one dies and no one gets hurt, at least not permanently. We watch this atomized family go through several moves, gain a member, lose a member. It is a modern American narrative, a thick weaving of single parents, academics, alcoholics and veterans, immigrants, religious conservatives, and bohemian liberals. Olivia (Arquette) marries then divorces her college professor, and—a degree and a teaching job later—her student. Mason Sr. (Hawke) trades in a bachelor musician life and a muscle car for a lovely conservative wife, a newborn and a minivan. Like protons circling a nucleus, the kids grow into themselves but never quite disband from their parents, despite all that movement. If there is a qualifying test for teenagers, Samantha passes with flying colours: ostentatious hair, petulance, the inability to talk about contraception without dying of embarrassment. And Mason, the quiet one, the one who watches it all happen—we watch molt before our very eyes.

In direct defiance of its title, Boyhood shows an endearing aversion to the stereotypical highlights of growing up. Linklater chooses, instead, to document the in-betweens, the concurrencies: we don't see Mason fall in love or smoke pot for the first time—they kind of just happen. We blink, and he's taller, and his voice has dropped, and his acne has come and gone. As if to say, so it goes. He is six when the movie begins and nineteen when it ends and, despite the glaring omissions, we don't ever feel like we're missing much.

But what the film lacks in personal chronology, it makes up in cultural milestones: in one scene, Mason Sr. is filling his children's heads with a diatribe about the Iraq war; in another, he is encouraging them to steal McCain signs from a stranger's lawn. Later, Mason Facetimes with his father, makes a sarcastic quip about the NSA, decides to quit Facebook. As he grows, America grows, too.

These are but a few ways in which we glimpse Linklater's obsession with personal histories: although never specifically dated, Boyhood will always tell you what time it is. The soundtrack in itself is our personal metronome. They are songs so popular, so embedded in our cultural memory, that they still carry with them the emotional ghosts of who we were when they were last played on repeat. When the film started, I cringed hard: I came along, I wrote a song for you, Chris Martin crooned. I remember that time: it wasn't pretty. Then, we check off Britney Spears (my first CD, by the way), Lady Gaga, Bright Eyes, Flaming Lips, Gotye. And, with these music cues, Linklater is casting Boyhood in amber—a memory so specific it could never be mistaken for another time or place.

"It's a big element, isn't it, of our medium?" Linklater asks, in an interview with Sight & Sound. "The manipulation of time, the perception of time, the control of time." And if cinema is the art of time, he is a master of the art—from his fictional histories emerge a truth beyond the medium, that of experiencing life's passing itself. If the Before trilogies are a microcosmic representation of his obsession (three days, 18 years apart), we can only look at Boyhood as the Linklater macrocosm: 12 years, in three hours. It is filled with what he does best—documentations of life in suburbia, streams of consciousness, revelations of personal philosophies.

Here, what he captures is not the story of a boy growing up, but boyhood as identity: the edification of one small American dream. We learn about Mason as he learns about himself—in time. He, unsurprisingly, is just as obsessed with the concept—we watch Mason pick up photography as a hobby, and then as a major. There is no pretension: his photographs aren't revelatory, just a product of his attention. And the same can be said for Boyhood. Its smallness is its charm. At ten, Mason asks his Dad: "There's no such thing as real magic in the world, right?" And then, at nineteen, watching the sun duck behind canyons in the Big Bend, we see that he gets it. The magic is the world. It is here now, and now, and now.

It's called Boyhood, but parents will hurt. They will ache for Olivia, who laments all the past milestones as her nest empties in front of her. All this, and for what? What do we work for after we get what we worked for? We all just watched someone grow up and leave us. But for me, it was no loss: the magic was in reliving my childhood alongside Mason, triggered by the same songs, nostalgic about the now-obsolete objects I used to hold dear, recalling just how vivid and important some events felt until they weren't, and how some of them I still replay in my mind. Boyhood maps vignettes of an alternate life, a fundamentally American life, but it hits so very close to home all the same.

"What's the point? I sure as shit don't know," Mason Sr. says to a newly-graduated Mason towards the end of the movie, speaking to him in the rare, confessional frankness of a parent-now-peer. "We're all just winging it." And what if that is precisely the point? Like children's heights notched into a yellowing door frame, our lives are but a collection of measured growths. As Ethan Hawke said this, I looked around in the movie theatre, the light from the screen catching on the wet eyes of spectators all around me. It's a lesson that takes a whole lifetime to learn: we always think there will be more, but this is it, and it is beautiful while it's playing. Tears start running down my face (again—it's not the first time). The woman a seat down from me quiets a small, happy sob, and smiles at me when our eyes meet. Maybe that's the most American thing about it, I think. We're all here, just winging it. From my seat, I can hear small sniffles all around me, the sound of our collective growing pains.


Tracy Wan is a writer living in Toronto, although she's not quite sure what she's doing there. She loves good advertising, bad television, and discovering novelty flavours.


The Surface of Things

by Matt Brennan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

"In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud."
— Wallace Stevens, "Of the Surface of Things" (1919)

During the lonely, small-town summers of my adolescence, I stayed up watching movies. I outfitted my room with an old television and an off-brand DVD player, set atop a short, wonky bookshelf with a cheap walnut stain, and laid on my stomach at the foot of the bed until dawn filtered in through the windows. I relished those disappearing hours when the rest of the house fell silent, after Mom turned off Leno in the living room and the creak of her footsteps gave way to the soft hum of traffic on a distant road. Finishing Mulholland Dr. or Lost in Translation at 3:30 a.m. in the depths of August, I felt like the only person in the world.

The Boston suburb where I spent the years in question seemed practically a caricature of the form. On Main Street, two coffee houses, a barber shop, a florist, and a bank bustled with activity, and after completing the afternoon's errands the women in chic sunglasses and their little children piled into SUVs to return to faraway cul-de-sacs, carved from stands of high pine. Sprinklers opened like daisies at the same time each morning, ensuring each velvety lawn remained the same shade of green, and the paperboys and landscapers and bus drivers and mailmen puttered from place to place on their unchanging rounds. We played the same sports, joined the same clubs, spent weekends at the same beaches. We barbecued in June and lit sparklers in July. We mostly shared the same skin color and inhabited the same tax bracket. This is what we did: we fit in.

Though I tried, sometimes desperately, fitting in was not a skill I mastered. I aped the uniform of the pubescent suburban male, but my cowlicked comb-over and oversized Abercrombie tees proved a thin skein for the near-sighted introvert who feigned only the most rudimentary interest in organized athletics. I drank beer when it was offered and smoked joints as they circulated at one or another surreptitious gathering, but these were the decisions of a doubtful boy rather than a rebellious one. I "dated" a girl in seventh grade for about six seconds and dry-humped with another on the shore of a New York lake, failing to understand my lack of interest in the opposite sex as something other than a consequence of their lack of interest in me. I realize now that I waited out entire years of my life by lying. Most frequently, as it happens, to myself.

The cliché has it that movies "transport" us, yet my relationship with the medium was always more complicated than immersion in another world. Fantasies, science fictions, and comic-book superheroes largely failed to sustain my interest—in part, I think, because I was already hard at work cultivating what felt like "taste," the self-imposed exile of being the only person in my admittedly tiny universe to see You Can Count on Me . In my family, whose cinematic predilections ranged from Charles Bronson's Death Wish (Dad) to any romantic comedy that could reasonably be described as "cute" (Mom, little sister), this earned me a well-deserved reputation for snobbery. I wore out our Blockbuster card on stacks of five, six, seven obscure foreign titles and American independents at a time, nearly exhausting the local franchise's slim selection. "Sometimes I think you pick weird movies just so no one else will want to watch with you," Mom would say, and though I always denied this accusation, she clearly had me pegged. To invite another set of eyes into the space I'd squared in the screen's blue light would have been to disrupt the sympathetic magic I hoped to marshal: I wholeheartedly believed that the movies I consumed would remake who I was, and thereby conjure up the person I wanted to be.

The cliché has it that movies "transport" us, yet my relationship with the medium was always more complicated than immersion in another world.

You may loathe the chain's merciless dismantling of the independent video store, but Blockbuster was a connection to films the nearby multiplexes never deigned to run. In between entire walls filled with copies of the latest big-budget adventure (GUARANTEED IN STOCK!), the manager squeezed the low-fi, the challenging, and the simply odd, and as I made my methodical way around the store I plucked these discoveries by the handful. Loving, hating, underrating, and overestimating, I developed a nascent point of view, a sense of the directors, performers, genres, styles, and stories I preferred and even an inkling as to why. In truth, though, I had seen so little of this Goliath we call "the movies" that I was destined to be jostled awake.

In the life of every critic, I suspect, there is a work of art that cracks open one's most basic sensibilities, and Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes' near-perfect reinterpretation of the suburban melodrama, was just such a bolt from the blue. I scarcely possessed the vocabulary to describe what I witnessed—I doubt the names Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, and Douglas Sirk had ever crossed my lips—but in this case no words were necessary. I understood only that this admonishment of color had provoked in me some profound and inexplicable longing, a stirring beneath the surface of things.

*

In the autumn of 1957, while the country convulses with the first foreshocks of what would come to be called "The Sixties," Connecticut housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) prepares to hold a party. Descending from auburn foliage to the quotidian details of Cathy's life on the strains of Elmer Bernstein's lustrous score, the camera captures a suburban idyll. Cathy's son, David (Ryan Ward), dawdles; the maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), unloads groceries from the station wagon; daughter Janice (Lindsay Andretta) pleads for new ballet slippers; best friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) arrives in her pink, high-finned sedan with aquamarine swatches for Cathy's soiree. "Magnatech '57, here we come!" Cathy blushes, a Mrs. Dalloway of midcentury America. "Half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves," as Virginia Woolf's iconic protagonist reflects, "but to make people think this or that."

As Cathy and her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), deploy their respective quivers of falsehoods, half-truths, omissions, and silences, maintaining "this or that" illusion becomesFar from Heaven's primary dramatic motor. When Frank is picked up for "loitering" in the early stages, forcing them to miss an engagement at Eleanor's, Cathy is quick to phone in the fabricated excuse; later, as the neighborhood ladies discuss their sex lives during a daiquiri-soaked luncheon, she just smiles wanly, waiting for the moment to pass.

The conformist gleam of the Whitakers' "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech" façade is the product of dissimulation, an unsettling instinct for regression to the mean. This is the terrible truth about the art of deception: practiced enough, lying begins to feel like honesty, until the person you end up convincing is yourself.

Despite the grave consequences of straying out of bounds—from cruel peals of laughter and whispered gossip to violence and social death—the lure of living without pretense proves difficult to resist. Frank, closeted and alcoholic, nervously trails a pair of men to a back-alley gay bar; Cathy, lonely and bereft, befriends her African American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), exciting a clamor on both sides of the racial divide. Haynes and director of photography Edward Lachman cast forbidden spaces in surreal, electric green: the color of the "orgastic future" Jay Gatsby spies at the end of Daisy Buchanan's East Egg dock, the color of Scottie's spectral obsession in Vertigo, the hue of the otherworldly, the dreamlike, the perennially out of reach. Cathy, Frank, and Raymond transgress the strict limits of social propriety, but striving to live sincerely leaves them in a kind of Limbo. In Far from Heaven, the great, gnawing gulf between tradition and the individual will threatens to devour the protagonists whole.

Though Haynes succeeds masterfully in replicating Sirk's aesthetic—vigorous shades of lavender, cherry, and cornflower bloom thick and fast from every corner—pastiche is not his gambit. Subtext becomes text, and the workings of race, class, gender, and sexuality come to seem resolutely modern despite the period detail. A world that compels one to hide in plain sight is not, even fifty years on, entirely strange; it is a certain kind of stasis, rather than progress, that Far from Heaven takes as its subject, and watching the film through modern eyes is an object lesson in the snail's pace of historical change. I find myself wondering about the Franks and Cathys and Raymonds of my suburban hometown at the millennium's turn—of the petty arguments and unspoken regrets and magnificent obsessions that swam beneath the surface of things—if only because I know from whence I speak when I tell you that it is possible to bury the truth so deeply you forget what it was in the first place.

The first boy I loved—or at least imagined I loved—was a skinny, straight beauty with a goofy smile, comfortably all-American in the way of denim and baseball. Our acquaintanceship never in fact suggested much in the way of intimacy, certainly not of the physical variety, but when we spoke I experienced the strange electricity of impossible desire. I say "impossible" not to indicate that he evinced no interest (though he did not), nor to confirm that I kept the attraction to myself (though I did), but because the very premise of what I was then beginning to feel seemed to me inconceivable. Guys my age boasted of reaching second or third base with new girlfriends, not of laying in bed on Saturday mornings fantasizing about a stolen kiss with some golden boy from down the block; and, anyway, the adult men joked so effortlessly of nagging wives and "honey-do" lists that any other future I might have envisioned quickly vanished—otherworldly, dreamlike, perennially out of reach.

"I can't let this thing destroy my life, my family's life," Frank Whitaker confides in his psychiatrist before embarking on a program of "complete heterosexual conversion." "I know it's a sickness, because it makes me feel despicable."

For a long time, I, too, felt destroyed, sick, despicable. The years that passed between unearthing my sexuality and embracing it caused me such strain that I finally came out, as a sophomore in college, because I was tired of waking up in the morning and crying in the shower. The admixture of present and past that marks Far from Heaven is subtle, so I found a reflection of my own experience in the heightened affect of its Eisenhower-era New England. The period setting captures a particularly virulent form of the downward pressure on same-sex attraction that lingered into my lonely summers, but Haynes' real genius is to depict the dull, starving pang of want, which the forebodingly sexless gay characters on Will & Grace managed to elide completely. (We didn't have Showtime in my house growing up, so I missed the contemporaneous and far more frank Queer as Folk.) Quaid's swooning posture during an office dalliance, his vulnerability in another man's arms; the sparking glance and breathless pause of the brief encounter in Miami; the desperate, incantatory cry of "I can't, I can't, I can't" with which he ends his marriage: together, these were the closest on-screen approximation of the knee-buckling, heart-stopping, heaving, relentless desire I felt for something that did not even seem to exist, and which left me so stricken for so long that my conscious mind simply erased it.

"When did you realize you were gay?" To this inevitable question I have never mustered a satisfactory response, because the experience itself—as Frank begins to understand, first to his horror and then to his relief—offered no clear points of demarcation. I stole a copy of Playgirl from a newsstand in sixth grade and exchanged lewd messages in an anonymous chat room a few years later. I craved a kiss from that all-American boy at fifteen and lost my virginity to a female classmate not long after. I enjoyed plenty of sex with my senior-year girlfriend but broke up with her before graduation because her presence was suddenly suffocating. The notion that I might be gay—hell, even the word "gay"—was so implausible that it never occurred to me, though I suppose it was there all along.

The correlative moment in Far from Heaven involves not Frank but Cathy and Raymond, lost in conversation before a painting by Joan Miró. As prim women with turned-up noses look on from across the room, Raymond lyrically explains his theory of modern art—suggesting, in the process, the soulful depths of Haynes' bold vision. "Perhaps it's just picking up where religious art left off," he says of the red, black, and blue abstraction, from the artist's "Constellations" series. "Somehow trying to show you divinity. The modern artist just pares it down to the basic elements of shape and color. But when you look at that Miró, you feel it just the same."

Haynes pares the tension between illusion and reality down to the basic elements of shape and color—the flare of a dress or the curve of flowering witch hazel; red lips, golden leaves, indigo night—until he exposes the lie sewn into the fabric of the place: that desire can be planned, gridded, bottled up, closed off, made plausible. I learned the hard way that it's possible to tamp it down, ignore it, even convince yourself that it doesn't exist—but in the end, you feel it just the same.

*

At the heart of Far from Heaven, to use Eleanor's term, is the "class-A, swanky function" of Magnatech '57, poised at the edge of the irrevocable. Frank, cracking under the stress of reparative therapy, gets too soused to stand, and with his ill-considered joke at Cathy's expense, he violates the rules of the game. He tells the truth. "It's all smoke and mirrors, fellas," he crows about her composed appearance. "That's all it is." After the guests depart, he tries and fails to make love to her in the darkened living room, scything through smoke and mirrors of his own. All will be topsy-turvy after this: "Suddenly everything's changed," Cathy tells Raymond the following day, as they embark on their journey together. "You changed your mind," he replies.

Note the shift in emphasis as Cathy's fatalism bumps up against Raymond's focus on human agency, or the way Moore's face eases into the dance-floor reverie a little later, as Cathy's dutiful performance recedes. Where I once read Far from Heaven as a cold, even mechanistic appraisal of a hidebound society, I now recognize the film to be deeply invested in the belief that choices matter—even, or perhaps especially, when it means that the individual must confront ideology and risk losing. Haynes is never less than clear-eyed about the punishments levied against those who depart from the norm, and Frank, Cathy, and Raymond suffer grave consequences for their decisions. But what ultimately matters is the attempt to choose, even if their choices prove impossible.

"It isn't plausible for me to be friends with you," Cathy laments to Raymond after their day on the town sets Hartford in an uproar, under a cinema marquee promising The Bold and the Brave. "You've been so very kind to me, and I've been perfectly reckless and foolish in return, thinking —"

"Thinking what?" he responds. "That one person could reach out to another, take an interest in another, that maybe for one fleeting instant could manage to see beyond the surface, beyond the color of things?"

"Do you think we ever really do?" she asks. "See beyond those things? The surface of things?"

The conformist fiction of "Americana" has a way of making illusionists of us all, until the weight of desire outstrips the force of expectation and we light out for the territory, unbound.

During most of the years in my life I'm talking about here, I might have taken seriously the idea of the "American Dream," of Gatsby's green light and the orgastic future, but I've since come to consider it just another surface, a skein, a form of hiding in plain sight. The conformist fiction of "Americana" has a way of making illusionists of us all, until the weight of desire outstrips the force of expectation and we light out for the territory, unbound. Frank, Cathy, and Raymond must lose what they have to get what they want and wind up with less than they hoped for, but each manages for at least one fleeting instant to escape the tyranny of plausibility.

"I think that's what's been hardest of all," Cathy admits to Eleanor. "The endless secrecy. Our entire lives just shut in the dark."

By the time the film arrives at its ambivalent conclusion, the light cast on lives lived openly is sobering. Frank inhabits a small apartment with his lover, but finds himself estranged from his past; Cathy balances the checkbook and attends to her schedule's quotidian details, but catches herself in tears unexpectedly; Raymond and his daughter search for a fresh start in Baltimore. Yet there is something faintly expectant in the end of secrecy, too. The silent goodbye that Raymond and Cathy exchange may be the nearest the film comes to its own definition of divinity—pared down, basic, deeply felt just the same—and as she drives away from the train station the camera pans up to a spray of white spring blossoms, signaling a second chance.

In some sense, Far from Heaven is less a story about living in the suburbs than a story about how we leave them. It is, finally, a tale of abandonment, exile, departure from the norm. Watching the film again, I see that its sympathetic magic stirred something beneath the surface of things, but my escape from that place was a decision all my own.

You changed your mind, Raymond says.

I can't, I can't, I can't, Frank cries.

"No one would know us there," Cathy pleads, trying to convince Raymond that they could begin again in Baltimore, together.

The world beyond my room consisted, I learned, of much more than three or four hills and a cloud, and it was not only the movies that transported me there. I chose, even when my choices appeared most implausible, and in the interim I found myself returning to Haynes' bolt from the blue for periodic reminders of just how powerful the individual will turns out to be. More than a decade and many miles distant, I still consider Far from Heaven's admonishment of color an unexpected entry in my personal history, but I suppose that's just another way of saying the past is not such a far country as we sometimes like to think.


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


Into the Blue Again

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

At a recent gig at a New York ad agency, I sat with a 26-year-old creative producer and a 45-year-old director as they pulled the most appealing footage in American popular culture for a spot intended for teens. The evolution of cool, according to the crowd-pleasing mandate of the selling industry, included: Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Marilyn Monroe blowing a kiss, James Dean in a cowboy hat, Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips and windmilling arms, JFK, and MLK. This is the burnished iconography that telegraphs Americana: permissive women, dissatisfied men, the promise of an open road. At the heart of this mythology is self-invention. A rise from obscurity to empire—or its obverse, picking up and dropping out, defying the impetus of capitalism—chases that New World fantasy of boundlessness.

The cocaine-dealing, acid-dropping motorcyclists in Easy Rider were also on that wishlist. The ideals and imagery of Easy Rider remain potent – not one of us was part of the original audience for that film, but the trajectory of its creator (Dennis Hopper) and his fellow actors (Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson) remain the bellwether for any aspirant to counter-culture. Their attitude remains appealingly defiant, boyishly insurgent. There’s something about riding cross-country on a motorcycle that says you’re going your own way.

The hero of Albert Brooks’ Lost in America, David Howard, is a mid-career adman equally enamored of Dennis Hopper’s dropouts, and the spirit of these post-industrial cowboys informs David's journey. At the start of the film, though, David doesn’t plan to emulate his idols. He’s chasing a middle class ideal: power job, bigger house, better car, swelling nest egg. It’s life based on a predicative outcome; so far, its biggest yield is anxiety.

David, sleepless, mulls his anticipated leap to vice president at his agency, and he wakes his wife, Linda, to tally up his prospects. He’s put in his time, he’s invested his creative energies—and, what’s more, he has received promises from upper management. But any adman should know: the world is not a meritocracy. Advancement, small or large, is a carnival workers’s magic act, effective to the extent that one is persuasive, based on the cult of personality and the power of a story.

Lost In America is not a depiction of the ad agency world in the 1980s, but a picture of being middle class during that period. Brooks selected the profession because it was a job that made his character’s outbursts and behaviors credible. David Howard is a creative director, so he has proven ability to spin an idea and to win over an audience. More importantly, he is a company man, and therefore susceptible to the rhetoric of advertising: when it works, it works like a cliché, and obviates thinking.

*

Born Albert Lawrence Einstein, Albert Brooks is a performer who is preoccupied with competition: his antecedents and his contemporaries. In Lost In America, Brooks namechecks what he seems to idolize: not just Easy Rider, but Easy Money and Rodney Dangerfield, and that other wildly successful comic Brooks, Mel.

Albert Brooks’s ambition was to become an actor, not a comedian, and that distinction is informative. As a writer-director-performer whose emotional palette runs from grasping to grouchy, Brooks suffers in his frequent comparison to Woody Allen, a comic performer who succeeded in similar genres and roles. What Brooks could do capably, Allen could achieve effortlessly and with brilliance. You wouldn’t know that contemporaneous Woody Allen was cool until you juxtaposed the two comedians. Both men hit the same notes—they whine and seek reassurance—but only one of them really needs the approval, and that’s Albert Brooks. Allen might pantomime nervousness, but it’s a facile manipulation, for better and for worse. Indifference is an eternal component of cool, and Allen is markedly removed from his need for public approval. Brooks is Nixon to Woody Allen’s JFK.

While Allen might seem Brooks's obvious competition, Brooks clarifies in an interview with Adam Carolla that his earliest rival was most often Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl). After losing a number of roles to the Oscar winner, Brooks was encouraged to build a career as a stand up in order to gain a television and film audience. His sketch work was childlike and character-based: he was the mime who talked; an inventor of an “Impersonation Kit” bit on the Johnny Carson show where he uses household objects to prompt celebrity impressions; various aspirants in “National Anthem auditions,” obviously inspired by tussles with the real-life audition experience.

With this grounding in the comedian’s skillset, from stand up to sketch comedy to narrative filmmaking, Albert Brooks knows what’s legal and what’s not in the land of artifice. There are rules to storytelling; there’s a cheap way to do things and then there’s a cheating way to do them (a reliance on exposition, for example, to convey information—or on explosions, to generate interest). In construction and in performance, Brooks is a craftsman. He is not the soft-shoe, broadly jokey, crowd-pleaser who is that other Brooks (Mel). Instead, he grounds a character with realism. In his work, Albert Brooks calls the bluff of many American comedian-actors, who coast on punchlines or a persona to reassure the audience that, no matter the predicament, they’re top dog. Despite the gentle whimsy, Brooks’s comedy is marked by its lack of consolation.

*

Movies from the 80s liked a high-concept take on the period’s social issues. InGung Ho, Japanese and American car companies must confront cultural differences and work together; in Baby Boom, a career woman inherits a baby and has to reexamine her assumptions about motherhood. Lost In America poses a question of class: what if a young, upwardly mobile couple drops out and takes up an outdated counter-culture lifestyle? When David loses his promotion to a younger, newer executive, he is offered a lateral move to a position in New York. This deviation from his plan is enough to disrupt the vectors of the Howards’ projected lives, together and separately. Is the job placement an oversight or a slight? Is Brooks good at his work but overlooked, or is he merely adequate, and hasn’t yet comprehended his shortcomings? These are the dilemmas of middle age: watching where growth tapers off or halts; finding a response to an abruptly foreshortened horizon.

Because Lost In America is an Albert Brooks film, his hero David occupies the binary stance of relentless self-loathing and insistent self-worth. In effect, Howard doesn’t get what he wants and throws a tantrum, behaving badly enough to ensure that his boss fires him. Brooks’ approach to his conflict is broad farce—once the Howards drop out, they buy a whale-sized Winnebago and then navigate the boxy gas guzzler from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where Linda loses all their money.

(Let’s acknowledge that Vegas is the locus of misjudgment in America. Britney Spears married her high school sweetheart here for 55 hours to know what being married felt like. This is a Las Vegas decision, which is less about risk than unchecked impulse.)

When the couple arrives at a chapel to renew their vows, Linda hesitates. “Let’s stay in a honeymoon suite and wait until dawn,” she urges David, who ineffectively bribes their way into a downmarket bridal suite with twin beds and a stall shower. David falls asleep and wakes to his first surprise about his eminently reasonable wife: she is, with little precedent, addicted to gambling. David, who continues to believe in logic above all things, explains again and again the meaning of a nest egg, believing if Linda understood she wouldn’t have let it go. Then, in his bathrobe, David pitches to the casino boss (played by Gary Marshall) that the best marketing move for the casino is to refund the couple’s lost money.

Julie Hagerty has been working steadily since her debut in Airplane! As Linda, her guilelessness is so steady and thorough you wish she had been a romantic lead in more films. Why didn’t Hagerty get Meg Ryan’s career from 1987 until 1999? Her Linda is adorable without being cute, a charm has everything to do with a lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera. She has a genuine pipsqueak voice and unblinking Betty Boop eyes and is the perfect straight woman to Brooks’s whiny neuroses. Linda, it turns out, has been having her own anxieties about the domesticity that the Howards have settled on, and she cements their expulsion from the American middle class by making them bankrupt.

Only people who haven’t experienced crippling need could throw away advantages so blithely. Dropping out suggests assurance in your own resources. It connotes not just sufficiency, but overabundance. Other generations had no choice about their compromises.

Anxiety, David’s hallmark, is the product of uncertainty but also of hope. His is a conflict of the 1980s, when after a long recession, there was an itch to think about ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfillment’ along with an urge for middle-class stability. The Americans that David and Linda meet on the road don’t suffer the same doubts, because they aren’t gifted with the same opportunities. Does being poor make you honest? No, it just means you have fewer comforts and fewer options. And maybe this is all to say that Lost In America, with its very different and tempered resolution (in which David and Linda long to reclaim their much-interrogated status quo), teaches the same lessons that *Easy Rider* does more darkly: freedom and itinerancy demand a heavy price, and maybe that's too terrible to bear.

A soft sell for normalcy, the sweet spot for Albert Brooks, begins to look like a happy ending.


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.


The Capital Dome, As Big As Life

by Sarah Malone

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The newcomer arrives with out-of-town clothes, and allusions to American political ideals rarely more than a few sentences away. His handlers—the lackeys of a political machine that he doesn’t realize runs his home state—hear his every word as proof he’s “a big-eyed baby,” as the governor who appoints him to a midterm Senate vacancy exults: the new senator “wouldn’t know what it was all about in two years, let alone two months.” Nor notice the machine’s graft embedded in pending legislation, or be able to halt it.

Senator Jefferson Smith—the surname of American ubiquity spliced onto that of America’s founding rhetorician.

Senator Idealist Everyman goes to take up his position in a capital populated by flacks, bosses, hacks—cynics who went there for personal advancement, financial gain and the security of acceptance into the great fraternity-sorority of those who understand the rules and play by them. Of the machine-made men, only Senator Paine—the senior senator from Smith’s state, and one of Smith’s boyhood heroes—seems troubled by a divergence between actions and professed beliefs. Paine participates in the machine to stay in the Senate. He doesn’t like thinking he is in the Senate for the machine.

In Washington’s Union Station, meeting congressional staffers and Senator Paine’s daughter and her friends, Senator Smith manages a glazed thanks to their close-talking banter, the heartiness and ribaldry they switch on and hurry off from to their next appointment while the lackeys hassle with Smith’s luggage. Smith glances over the lackeys’ heads.

“Look! Look!” His voice rises in that startled James Stewart marbling around the mouth up to an urgent bark, observation as imperative. “There it is!”

The gravel-voiced head lackey is irked. “Who? What?”

“The Capitol dome.” Smith gets a reverent hush.

“As big as life,” another lackey says. “Been there a long time now.”

"It’s characteristic of Frank Capra to let the hero locate validation for his ideas in the physical world."

The lackeys could be the wise guys of any business in any big city in a 1930s film. Their natural habitat is interior shots, closed-door offices, transactions in brassy restaurants. Everything about Smith is an imposition to them: his homing pigeons whose crates they have to lug through the station, his assumption that in matters of national feeling everyone should respond as he does—and if everyone doesn’t, it’s because they need Smith to point out what they don’t notice, and what to think about it.

It’s characteristic of director Frank Capra to let the hero locate validation for his ideas in the physical world. Smith’s handlers don’t notice, or else discount, how swiftly and completely Smith recovers his composure after his failure in repartee. He is reclaiming his Washington arrival, recasting it in his terms. Deliberately or instinctively, he repairs to abstractions, and, transfixed, exits the station into the Washington designed to impress visitors: exterior Washington, the tangible symbols of abstract ideas afloat on a low roofline, to be glimpsed between avenue trees from a sightseeing bus—or to enter, head craned up to take in the scale of it all.

Audiences whose daily news came by newsprint and radio announcer must have understood how remote Washington’s landmarks had seemed to Smith until then. In television news backdrops and website banners, landmarks thin to quotidian symbols indicating you are here. Now, to the business of the day—

Smith isn’t a reformer per se—he is chosen, not chooses, to go to Washington—but he partakes in an American vernacular of not-yet elected candidates for Congress and the Presidency. The nation didn’t originate in the capital; the capital was created solely for the nation, and must be refreshed with newcomers if it is to remain in touch with the people. A lack of experience becomes a qualification. Outsiders go to Washington avowedly uninitiated in its customs, with the conviction of untried solutions only they possess or perceive the necessity of. If only the nation could remember its founding principles, as the reformer does! Smith’s is not the reform of Depression-era recovery programs—oblique criticisms of the New Deal pepper the film—or of social programs and public expenditure. “The government has too much on its hands already,” he says. Smith’s reform is intangible.

Smith is certain of one practical thing the nation needs: a national boys camp, to “get the poor kids off the streets, out of the cities for a few months in the summer, and let them learn something about nature— American ideals—” Senator Paine, to distract Smith from the machine’s real interests in the Senate, suggests drawing up a bill for the camp. Smith sounds a note of relief, agreeing. “If I can just do that one thing while I’m here, that boys’ camp.” It’s his first overt reference to an end to his stay in Washington, and his first tangible goal to shut out the overwhelming vagueness of being the new kid on the Senate floor, not knowing what comes next, not even recognizing cues to it.

He envisions boys’ contributions repaying the government’s expenditures on the camp. No one Smith has had contact with in Washington to that point is not laughing at the junior Senator behind his back or to his face, but thousands of boys respond immediately to his proposal, and the question of the camp’s funding is dispensed with. (In Capra’s world, children and small town folk can be depended on to appreciate sincere goodwill.)

The camp is so reasonable, so important, who could demur—except, as it happens, the machine to which Senator Paine owes his career? The machine has arranged for a dam to be built overlapping Smith’s proposed camp location, and the machine boss, Jim Taylor, does not intend to lose money on land he purchased in expectation of selling it to the government.

The machine is an apt adversary for a film in an era of machine politics, and a telling narrative choice. No political parties are specified in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The machine’s only doctrine is itself. “You didn’t ask me!” Jim Taylor complains to the governor about appointing Smith. The machine is government by the boss, for the boss, for money, for ego.

In concept, Smith’s camp is a pastiche of American leitmotifs: Boy Scout ideals of healthy outdoor living, (Thomas) Jeffersonian mistrust of the city, Emersonian rhapsody on the power of natural beauty to refine the spirit, and a vision of the Capitol dome illuminating it, the symbol lifted out of the city without which it wouldn’t exist. Does learning about American ideals require prairie grass and babbling brooks? What will boys learn about each other there that cities forestall? Smith takes his particular experience as a universal prerequisite for civic preparation, with himself unselfconsciously an example of the result.

His body politic is an unquestioned boys’ club. He marvels to his assistant, Clarissa Saunders, “For a woman you’ve done awfully well.” Well—this is the nineteen thirties. His admiration of Saunders’s mastery of the intricacies of Senate procedure, and his gratitude to her, are genuine. She is initially as derisive as anyone is of him. In his first feints at deprecating humor, his downright goofiness, she begins to enjoy his company. She knows that the imagery he clothes his idealism in is “corny,” as she says later (not to him). But as he talks, recognition of his sincere wish to do right is plain in her face.

Her previous associates have all tended her toward cynicism: the political operatives whose corruption she despises but has not resisted except to mock, and the boozy reporters she takes solace in mocking them with. Get ahead and get out has been the best she could do. Cynicism has been a fence against despair.

“Go ahead, be a senator, try to mess up Mr. Taylor’s little graft,” she tells Smith. “But if you can’t—and you can’t in nine million years—go home and don’t stay around here making people feel sorry for you.”

When Smith does try to mess up Mr. Taylor’s graft, and seems to fail—against Taylor and Paine’s false accusations of precisely the kind of profiteering they’ve planned—it’s Saunders who is Smith’s one ally in Washington, and knows to find him at the Lincoln Memorial.

“You had plain decent everyday common rightness,” she tells him. “You can’t quit now. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington.”

Saunders, lifelong city dweller, hadn’t forgotten what her country meant, as Smith said happened in the absence of nature. She’d long despised the machine but had no hope of taking it on with a chance to win. She had no platform to. But Smith does, and Saunders can strategize as he doesn’t know to.

“Clarissa, where can we get a drink?” He has his hat in both hands.

She slaps his knee. “Now you’re talking.”

They’re becoming alike. Or were, all along.

"Is it plausible, the softening of the film’s hardened hearts?"

One of the film’s repeat pleasures is its patience with Senate procedure, its long scenes and returns to the chamber, the rhythm they set of a daily routine: galleries filling, the Senate president calling roll, recognizing Senators to speak, and warming toward Smith, until by the time Smith begins to filibuster, the Senate president sides with him and Saunders.

Is it plausible, the softening of the film’s hardened hearts? Boys with the earnest cadences of 1930s film children rally to Smith’s cause. Senator Paine, a reluctant but forceful crook, confesses on the Senate floor. The Taylor machine is broken. Senators rush down from their desks and crowd Paine, the press rushes off to file wire reports. The camera follows Clarissa and the Senate president, the sound stays tight to Clarissa’s cheers, and the spirit of the day seems to shift.

Smith, passed out from exhaustion, doesn’t hear it. He says his final piece despairing. No senators except, eventually, the repentant Paine, support him. But when Smith faints, Paine is still in his chair, the Senate unmoved by Smith’s invocation to love thy neighbor. Ragged-voiced, vowing that he’s not licked, Smith in the barest terms isn’t licked, as long as he keeps talking. But he’s no longer talking to convince his audience of ideals. He’s asserting fortitude, talking because it’s all he can do.

 

A 2014 Senator Smith could wander off from his—or her—handlers at the airport. Our Taylor would have a lobbying firm on K Street or a media empire, our Smith run afoul of him over drilling rights or a pipeline right-of-way versus a proposed national park. A Taylor machine would hack the phones and emails of reporters covering Smith’s filibuster and issue denial-of-service attacks against their websites. The machine would have to hustle to hijack the hashtag campaigns Saunders would start on Twitter for #ThisLostCause and #JeffTellsTruth.

It’s harder to imagine the Senate floor without the rhetoric of right and left, each side citing the Founding Fathers or Lincoln—or Capra—in defense of imperiled liberty against an overweening government set to trample the rights of the people. One side’s more perfect union is the other’s tyranny. Graft and abuse of office cross ideologies, but it’s the ability of film to cross from naturalism into fable with no break in continuity that lets Capra detach favors and influence from philosophies about the reach and appropriate role of government, the vexed interpretation of everything after we the people. Even “a little looking out for the other fella,” as Smith puts it—what does it entail, what does it look like? We’ve rarely agreed, in nearly two hundred and fifty years.

Let’s go to Washington and talk about it.


Sarah Malone’s work has appeared in Five Chapters, Hobart, PANK, Parcel, The Awl, and elsewhere. She’s working on a novel and tweets at @sarahkmalone.