It’s Only An Island If You Look At It From The Water

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Jaws is a story about men.
 

You start watching Jaws and you are following a girl who is a loner and reckless and maybe a little drunk. She is not part of the group of young people around the fire—she is on her own, and she runs, and she takes her clothes off, and you can’t really see what she looks like naked but you can see what she looks like in the sea. And the music starts, and the boy running after her lies down in the sand, and you know what is about to happen.

This is not a story about that girl, or about the mother who loses her son and shows up in black to slap Chief Brody in the face, or about the wife who loves her pent-up, anxious, striving husband and is scared for him but wants him to do whatever it is he needs to do. This is a story about men. This is a story about three men who go out on the ocean trying to figure out who they are and who they have the potential to be.

This is a story about Quint and Brody and Hooper. The man who distrusts authority, the man who is authority, and the man who wants authority. The man who owns the boat and the man who is wary of the boat and the man who drives the boat. The man with no fear, the man who has always feared, and the man who does not yet understand what fear is.

There is something about all of these men that is simultaneously idealistic and true (which could perhaps be a description of much of Spielberg’s work). Quint (Robert Shaw) at first seems to be a pure male fantasy—both recklessly self-destructive and an expert in his own particular brand of reckless self-destruction. He kills sharks. He doesn’t listen to other men. He sings dirty songs about women. He is utterly in charge of his own destiny. He has scars.

But yes, he has scars, not all of them visible. He followed orders that were given to him by men in air-conditioned offices, he watched thousands of men die around him, he delivered the bomb. He survived. And when, towards the end of the film, he tries to lure the shark into shallower waters, opening up the throttle, pushing the damaged vessel far beyond its capacity, it is not reckless self-destruction at work: it’s the understanding of the nearness of death, of the sacrifice required. It’s maybe a little bit of loneliness. You see Quint at that moment come unhinged and you know he is crossing a threshold you won’t get him back from.

(The hand scratching at the chalkboard. The rows and rows of polished aquatic jaws and nowhere comfortable to sit.)

Brody (Roy Scheider), too, carries a lot of the male ideal about him: a police chief, a husband and father, a slim and tan man who gets things done. He will paint the sign telling children to keep off the beach himself if he has to. He has a uniform. He enforces the law.

And yet he’s afraid of the water, and a little bit obsessive, and second-guesses himself just when he shouldn’t. He’s displaced, he’s somewhere other than home. He worries about his kids, and about being well-liked and respected, and about trusting people versus trusting yourself. He gets drunk and watches another man cut a shark open and thinks there could be a child in there and wants there to be a child in there. And when there’s not a child in there he sucks it up and gets on the boat.

You love Brody because you want to be Brody and because you want to save Brody. You love Brody because he is trying to do the right thing and because the odds are stacked against him and because he has sad flimsy glasses that still can’t bring everything into focus. You love Brody in the hospital and on the beach and in every room he walks into hoping something will make sense, will be easy. You know that nothing is easy.

Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), perhaps, thinks it is. Hooper is a third kind of masculine ideal: the man whose family has money, the man whose hands are soft and white because he can keep them that way. The man who has certainly passed a lot of tests and has certainly written a lot of brilliant papers. The man with all the latest technology, all the right equipment.

And of course Hooper, too, has flaws—has the pejorative “book-learning” looming over him, has faced many academic and theoretical challenges but maybe not too many physical ones. Has an extra layer of flesh around the middle. Has a nonchalance and an intellectual assurance that can be dangerous when the stakes are arms and legs and guts.

(You have probably known this man and you have probably loved this man and you have probably asked this man to be something more and seen how he couldn’t. Even here, Hooper vanishes during the climactic fight, drops off the radar. You think he is dead and then you realize he was just, like, hiding underwater breathing scuba diving air. You get momentarily pissed off that he was just chilling down there while Quint was dying. You realize this is why you broke up with this man years ago. You forgive him and remember that he is who he is.)

Three men on the ocean who are really one man: the brawn and the soul and the brains.

But you can never face a shark and swim away whole.

Jaws is a story about America


You are watching Jaws and you realize it’s the weekend. It’s the Fourth of July weekend! It’s a long weekend and a weekend for celebrating.

Undeniably, it is every American citizen’s natural right to have a Fourth of July celebration on a beach, eating barbeque, drinking beer, watching fireworks. It is every American citizen’s natural right to celebrate freedom by having a day where he does not have to think about the consequences of his actions—does not have to think about how small he is in the context of the greater world. It is the Fourth of July and it is summer in America, goddammit.

It is summer in America in a small town where the families know each other and the shops are owned by men who grew up in that same small town and the salt cuts through the air incisively. It is summer and the houses feel closer together and the money is coming in. The mayor pats people on the back. The boys play out on the pier. The sky opens up like a gift.

(Your son has a pair of Jaws pajamas that are red, white, and blue.)

It is summer in America and everyone is pushing the limit on how long the forces at work that are bigger than us can be ignored. How long the Other can be staved off. How long we can continue to avoid that which scares us or is stronger than us or is pulling us underwater. America is really good at pushing these limits.

If you just lie in the sun on your stomach for five more minutes you will win.

Or you won’t win. You’ll be proven wrong. The evil thing you thought you could ignore out of existence is rearing itself up and taking things from you—things you loved, things you were promised—and you are angry at it, and you are angry at America for blinding you to it. And yet you still need something homegrown and apple-pie-d and full of shooting stars to save you: you need the American Hero: the thoughtful man with something to prove, the honest man with a lot at stake.

It is summer in America and everywhere you look you see people in denial. You are waiting for someone to turn the boat around.

Jaws is a love story.


Your parents tell you about the time they saw it in the theater and avoided the beach for a year. The poster has that terrifying huge mouth full of teeth, pointing up singularly and awfully. John Williams’s score still makes your skin prickle.

But Spielberg is not, at heart, a horror auteur; he’s not John Carpenter, he’s not Wes Craven. He made a movie about a boy and an alien who loved each other—he made a movie about a businessman who saved over a thousand Jewish people from the concentration camps and still felt that it wasn’t enough. He is sentimental in a wonderful and magical way, and Jaws is no exception. Jaws is a collection of little love stories, floating around and bumping into each other and reminding the viewer why we need to confront the Other. Why we can’t just lie around on our stomachs and tan.

There is the romance between man and the open water: the tourists flocking to the shores to reconnect with something wild and free; Hooper easing his small, perfect vessel out into the night; Quint touching the wood of the Orca and smiling, and being a part of that ship, and dying on that ship. (You cannot imagine Quint dying anywhere else; you wouldn’t want his body to be buried in the cold ungiving ground.)

There is the love between a man and his son: Brody agonizing over the decisions ahead and the decisions behind as he sits at the dinner table, touching his face and folding his hands together and looking up just in time to notice his youngest son touching his own face and folding his own hands together in that childish imitation that represents the truest devotion. And you think that perhaps Brody wouldn’t have drunk the rest of that wine and agreed to watch Hooper cut the shark open and gotten on the boat and gone out there to face the dark vastness if it weren’t for that seconds-long moment. That perhaps it is the instinctual desire to protect his son (that American desire, that male desire, that desire born from the most uncontrollable parts of the mind) more than the abstract desire to protect his assigned district that steers him out towards the shark. We do not see Brody reunited with his family at the end of the film but we can feel it.

There is the love of the shark for the ocean: the love that will allow no obstacles, that is passionless but all-consuming. The shark is the ocean. The ocean is the shark. To extract one from the other is an awful sort of violence.

And yes, there is the love between the shark and the man: because even as you watch the shark go down—even as you rejoice in the defeat of the enemy, its complete and total destruction—there is something tugging at you uncomfortably. How beautiful the shark looks as it batters you. How majestic this creature, this insanely impossible creature that has been shot at and speared and stabbed and hated and finally blown up. And how awful it feels to destroy it.

How much like something greater than you has been lost.

But at the end of the day, your love for life is stronger than your love for this ancient and terrible giant of nature. It’s only an island if you look at it from the water, Brody says, and you understand that this choice of perspective, too, is part of surviving and is healthy and is beautiful. Sometimes you have to pick a thing to unsee in order to continue seeing everything else the way you want to see it: blue and blue and long, hovering on the edge of your world, containing multitudes, sparing you. Bearing you back to where you belong.


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


But That's What Happened, Man.

by Tess Lynch

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I divided my childhood between three different states. When I was eleven and had just begun to establish a New York-based identity (Knicks fan, stealthy listener to Z100's "Love Phones," eater of Charlie Mom potstickers, buyer of shoes on 8th street), my family moved to rural Connecticut, and I had to start all over. It was like relocating to another planet where people ate venison unflinchingly, owned canoes and had passionate feelings about junior high soccer games. Three years later we moved to Los Angeles; I arrived fat on New England cream-based soups and with the view that malls were exotic destinations you visited on very special occasions or when somebody owed you a favor. I never felt very American as a kid—how could you make a cohesive collage out of that mess of grungy, 80's-era NYC streets, fall foliage and freeways?—but I sure did become familiar with feeling like a transplanted loser. In retrospect I prefer the term underdog, a word that dresses up the schlubby loser in athletic gear while bearing some phonetic resemblance to the "Under Toad" from The World According to Garp, where it's used as an umbrella term for mortality-related anxiety. The underdog beats the clock, accomplishing what the loser doesn't just before the sound of the buzzer, but right up until that final moment, they're exactly the same.

American Movie's Mark Borchardt sits in an office in his parents’ house during the opening credits, shuffling through his mail. There's a delinquency notice from the IRS regarding an unpaid bill for $81.11, as well as a brand-new credit card. "Oh, God," says Borchardt, "kick-fuckin'-ass, I got a MasterCard! I don't believe it, man. Life is kinda cool sometimes." He is in his 30's, broke, lives with his parents, struggles with drinking too much and is on bad terms with the mother of his three children. If the documentary (directed with sympathetic yet cutting precision by Chris Smith) had not been released in 1999, Borchardt would have been pegged as the perfect example of the modern millennial, an adult living under his parents' roof while working a service job for which he's probably overqualified, if he's working at all: in one scene, a sniffle-ridden Borchardt lies in bed while his mother tends to him, two adults performing roles they've long outgrown. As a teen he was precociously ambitious, gaining placement in the gifted program at school and shooting Super 8 horror movies with his friends, but he dropped out of high school because he didn't feel intellectually challenged (at least according to his parents; one of his brothers confessed that he thought Mark would be best suited to "working in a factory, maybe"). Even when millennials are painted as entitled, needy, lazy brats—one of the loudest and most repetitive thinkpiece refrains from recent years—it's hard to deny that they were entering the job market at a critically bad time and with massive student loans to pay off. Things were easier in the late '90's, it seems, but not for Borchardt, though he lacked circumstantial justifications. He simply refused to deviate from his plan to make movies—very slowly—on his own terms. After a brief stint in the army he returned home to Wisconsin and set to work on his feature-length debut, Northwestern.

Borchardt has no problem hatching ideas, nor does he struggle with imagining how great the finished product will be. It's all that crap in the middle—the work itself—that he just never seems to get the hang of.

The Midwest in the twilight of the '90's was a beautiful place, but maybe I remember the 90's as being beautiful everywhere—not a better time than today, but different, like it's been airbrushed and given a nostalgia filter. Pre-9/11, pre-housing bust, even pre-Y2K, Americans lived on a leaner diet of information. We had more time to reflect, which is exactly what Borchardt does while on his paper route: in his earnest mullet, he wonders what Christ would think of capitalism (while describing himself as half-Satanist, half-Christian). He attempts to manipulate his elderly uncle, Bill, into investing $3,000 in his film, but not because he's a swindler. Borchardt seems to actually believe his own aggressive sales pitch, because he's authentic in a pre-hipster sort of way. At a production meeting for Northwestern he promises his prospective cast and crew that the audience will "get to see Americans and American dreams" and "won't walk away depressed after seeing this [film], period." He's particularly inspired by The Seventh Seal and Manhattan (especially the planetarium scene). Borchardt has no problem hatching ideas, nor does he struggle with imagining how great the finished product will be. It's all that crap in the middle -- the work itself -- that he just never seems to get the hang of.

To bankroll Northwestern, Borchardt decides to complete another unfinished project, a horror film titled Coven, pronounced COE-VIN because, according to Borchardt, a title that rhymes with "oven" just won't do. Coven is Borchardt's version of a day job, though making a movie to make a movie, in these circumstances, isn't the most practical solution (nor is getting drunk on peppermint schnapps and making long-distance phone calls to Morocco during production). If he sells 3,000 copies of Coven, he claims, he'll make the 45k he needs to complete Northwestern. Early footage of Coven includes black-and-white shots of the cast, dressed in black capes, bashing Mark's car with iron rods at an abandoned drive-in theater and dragging Borchardt through a deep swamp puddle repeatedly. He stays focused by driving by newly constructed houses, the kind he'll buy when he finally makes it. He pauses outside a perfectly nice, aspirational brick home, considering it carefully. "Actually," he says, "my house ain't gonna look like this, man. It's gonna be flatter, a lot flatter. Less obnoxious than this."

"The American Dream stays with me each and every day," says Borchardt between trips to the airport parking lot, his preferred writing spot. Sometimes he wears fingerless gloves while he works. I wonder if he'd ever identified with Wayne's World's Wayne Campbell, a fellow Milwaukeean who lived with his parents in adulthood and had a genial sidekick (Borchardt's Garth is his longtime friend Mike Schank, a genial guy with a closet full of Zeppelin shirts and some good acid-dropping stories, with whom he used to party before Schank joined AA). Borchardt has the same feckless earnestness that you can't decide whether to laugh with or at.

The glimpses of yourself you see in Borchardt shift throughout the years. When I first saw American Movie in 2006, I was working at a vintage clothing store and blithely guzzling vodka sodas until four in the morning; I had recently graduated from college and had plenty of time to land myself in a 30 Under 30 list or apply to graduate school without feeling like I had done so out of professional dissatisfaction. There were no failures yet, only promise. Sure, I was spacing t-shirts that smelled like old sweat for a living, but that was part of the adventure. I was 23, with a decade to create my own passion project before I became a Borchardt. Back then, anyone in their 30's brave enough to admit they were still figuring out what they were doing with their lives was a joke. I was sure that I and all my friends would magically mature into Real Adults with impenetrable life plans, probably when we were 25 but definitely by the time we were 27. I thought that outcome was inevitable, and that Borchardt was just a goofy exception to the rule.

Eight years later, I am the same age as Borchardt was during American Movie's filming, and I view things very differently. It's like the moment when you catch yourself in the mirror, scraping your toddler's leftovers off a plastic tray, and you see the 3/4 profile of someone you don't recognize. Someone old. You aren'told, not technically, just much older than you expected yourself to be. What I now see in Borchardt is a person straddling the divide between the underdog and the loser, between youth and maturity, knowing that he's at a critical point in his own self-determination but still clueless about what to do with that information. He endures losses and gains: he finishes Coven, which currently has a 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; he's currently directing music videos and appearing in web series (his beard is now white), so he's better off than in '99—but he's also yet to complete Northwestern, despite the positive exposure he gained from American Movie and a cash pad given to him via Uncle Bill's will. The bar he sets for himself is so high (I mean, come on, The Seventh Seal?) that it's like he's placed it intentionally in his own way, pre-excusing him from failure. His ambition is larger than his capabilities, and the clock is his enemy.

Maybe all of the versions of yourself you've known—the bank-overdraft and sushi years alike—have been the evolution of a dream that time and rejection never quit trying to erode. You'll spend decades trying to defeat them, and sometimes you'll actually win a round or two. Borchardt would seem arrogant or juvenile in his quest for auteurship, except that his belief in himself is as real and tactile as the pre-modern-Internet world that surrounded him. He is a man without an avatar, without a Kickstarter fund, solidly planted in a now-defunctmeatspace but with all of the same frustrations freelance artists face now andhave faced forever. It's his innocence—not just because he belonged to what we can now consider a vintage era but because he really seemed, at that point, like he might be about to pull everything together—that’s what makes him so emblematic, in a way, of the pursuit of happiness. We try and try, looking back over our shoulders at our retreating selves, and promise to do better, work harder, and to get there, wherever "there" is (a flat, un-obnoxious brick house, perhaps). One day the crowds will cheer, and we'll all finish our Northwesterns. The only way to die an underdog instead of a loser is to die trying.


Tess Lynch is one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Grantland, Salon, The Morning News, The Awl, Granta Online, and n+1.


We'll Jump and We'll See

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.”
—W.H. Auden

Joe Versus the Volcano is all kinds of things at once—a fact which no doubt contributed to the poor reception it received upon its release in 1990—but at its heart, it’s a fairy tale. It’s filled with travels and travails, obstacles and the overcoming of them, adventure and romance, symbolism and archetypes. It’s a deeply searching and existential film that doubles as both a satire and a romantic comedy. It absolutely tries to bite off more than it can chew, trying to do far too much in its 102 minutes—and as a result can be a bit of a silly mess at times (especially in certain moments of its final act)—but it’s also, to those of us who love and embrace it, a deeply moving, almost transcendent film.

I have been trying, and failing, to write about Joe Versus the Volcano for over five years now. Trying to find a way to talk about it that does it any kind of real justice, that even partially conveys the enormity of my affection for it. I’m simply worried that I won’t get it right, that I won’t be able to capture the sheer magic of the thing - a movie that is passionately embraced by a championing few (whom I happily count myself among), and derided—or worse, entirely overlooked—by a majority of people today, even film lovers. I don’t doubt my opinion of it, but I do sense all too well the mountain (of either distaste or indifference) that I’m attempting to push up against.

I can understand if you don’t like the film—you’re certainly not alone—but I do feel a bit sorry for you. Because, if you allow yourself to be swept up in its gorgeous sets, highly-stylized prose, and winning performances, it’s a film that can absolutely move you on a bone-deep level. First, though, you’ll have to abandon most notions of what you think a big studio movie should be—especially one starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—as Joe rarely abides by the conventional rules of commercial filmmaking. Playwright John Patrick Shanley, allowed into the director’s chair for the very first time following an Oscar win for his Moonstruck screenplay (and subsequently banished for the next fifteen years following its disastrous reception), crafted a heartfelt fable of a film in Joe, a movie that is in no way interested in realism of any kind, aiming instead for an entirely different target. It’s a film that lives almost entirely in its own world, asking Big Questions about Big Things.

But its heart is large, and its magic deep.

*

“Once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe…”

There comes a time in most anyone’s life when they simply feel stuck in it. When a routine has taken over—intentionally or not—and has chased away dreams and ambitions, burying hopes under a pile of paperwork, bills, responsibilities, and obligations. There is the time it takes for this to happen, and then the time it takes to notice that it’s happened. Thankfully, you can be woken up in any number of ways: an old picture that reminds you of a past life, another you, all the things you once wanted or dreamed of or ached for; a passage underlined by a familiar hand in a book you once held dear; a song that suddenly blindsides you; an old smell that hijacks your limbic system by way of the olfactory bulb and instantly transports you back twenty years. The point is, it happens to all of us at one time or another—this recognition of the space between what you wanted out of life and what you ended up with, the realization of this ever-widening gap—and it either forces you out of your well-carved rut or crushes you even further down. And I’ve come to believe, fully, that what you choose to do at these crossroads, these lightning-bolt moments of awareness, is largely what winds up defining you.

For Joe Banks—titular hero of Joe Versus the Volcano—this realization comes in the form of a peculiar diagnosis from an off-kilter doctor. Joe (Tom Hanks) has been aching for years. Many moons ago, he was a firefighter, a man who saved lives. But the dangers he faced and traumas he endured finally caught up with him and hollowed him out, causing him to drift into a life defined by fear. By the time we first meet him, he’s a shell of his former self, working under the awful and flickering fluorescent lights in the basement of the American Panascope Corporation (“Home of the Rectal Probe!”). He’s been seeking out various doctors in the hopes of, if not a cure, then at least a cause—an explanation for his loneliness, all the constant creaks and pains, the feeling that something just isn’t right.

Turns out, Joe has a brain cloud, and about six months to live.

That he’s never heard of such a thing gives him little pause (and to be fair, when your doctor is Robert Stack, most anything said sounds both plausible and definitive). Putting a name to the maladies he’s long sensed finally answers all those endless, gnawing questions: the hypochondriacal pursuit at last dissolved in odd relief. In one fell swoop, Joe’s suffering is given both an explanation and a definite endpoint; a diagnosis packaged with a newfound sense of freedom.

Joe goes back to the office that day a changed man. Where once there was a resigned lethargy in him, an Eeyore-shaped cloud perpetually hovering, there is now instead a vitality. He quits his job and tells off his boss, packing up his bag with just three books—Robinson Crusoe, Romeo & Juliet, and The Odyssey—and his ukulele. He asks out the secretary he’s had a crush on for years. (She says yes.) The next morning, he agrees to jump into a volcano to save a village. Carpe diem, indeed.

*

“You think I feel good? Nobody feels good! After childhood, it’s a fact of life. I feel rotten. So what!”

The first part of Joe Versus the Volcano paints a vivid portrait of Joe’s well-worn life of quiet desperation, but its second act—easily the film’s most endearing—concerns itself largely with his journey out of this boxed-in world: a quest to strip away the trappings of self, past trauma, and cultural programming; to engage with the present; and to find a larger sense of purpose and meaning in his remaining days.

If this journey is kick-started by his terminal diagnosis, it’s further fueled by a rather unorthodox proposal from an eccentric billionaire. Mr. Graynamore (played with typical late-career craziness by the wonderful Lloyd Bridges) is searching for somebody to voluntarily jump into a large volcano on the distant island of Waponi Woo, to offer up their life in order to satiate the volcano and save the tiny island from its wrath. In exchange for this terminal volcano-jumping, he offers Joe a life of luxury in the time left to him: limitless amounts of money, followed by a guided trip out to the island. Joe, armed with the knowledge that death is coming for him shortly either way, and with no family or friends to speak of, agrees to the Faustian bargain offered up by Mr. Graynamore. He will “live like a king, and then die like a man.”

As he sets out on his long journey—from New York to Los Angeles to Waponi Woo—Joe finally begins to engage in earnest again with the world. To meet it on its terms, with arms raised. To face down fears and take those steps he’d put off taking for so long. The journey is both literal and symbolic—as any decent fairy tale or myth aims to be: a voyage to an unknown land, but also a search for meaning, for wisdom, for the things in life that truly matter.

He’s helped along on this journey by a colorful cast of characters, serving purposes both real and allegorical: the limo driver (Ossie Davis) who dispenses life and clothing advice, the luggage salesman who steers him toward the “water-tight” trunks that will eventually save his life, the Graynamore half-sisters, Angelica and Patricia (both played by Meg Ryan), the former of which, a self-described flibbertigibbet, accompanies him from the airport to the boat, the latter of which takes the fateful sea voyage with him. And on that long trip out to Waponi Woo, aboard the Tweedle-Dee, Joe and Patricia begin to fall in love.

*

“My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement.”

Modern American life has gotten so very good at helping us lose sight of the Big Things. It’s safe to say there’s not a whole lot of room left for the sacred in our lives these days—or, rather, there is space for it, but we struggle to make the time necessary to cultivate or sustain it, so buried are we by the daily grind, so worn out from chasing empty things. We lose the forest for the trees. We give our lives away to a hundred different things, for a hundred different reasons, keeping ourselves perpetually busy and overextended, focused on inconsequential things while the sheer magic and sacredness of this life—the overwhelming wonder of each new day given to us, the miracle that we are even here at all—passes us right by.

Joe is trying to tell us this. It wants us to see how we get trapped, but more importantly, how there’s also a way out.

Joe Versus the Volcano doesn’t speak to the rational part of us—the grown-up part that has dedicated itself to pursuing some facet of the American Dream—nor does it ever really try to. It speaks instead to our childlike sense of wonder, that pure and innocent core in all of us, the part still capable of being swept away by fables and fairy tales. It offers a reconnection to the Big Things, a reminder of what is truly important, of those things we once knew on a very basic level but have spent so much of our frazzled lives forgetting. It reminds us that there’s a whole lot of world-weary out there these days, and nowhere near enough whimsy. That there’s a magic in all of us that’s so rarely considered.

And Joe considers it, fully.

About two-thirds of the way through the movie, in a scene as gorgeous and transcendent as any I’ve ever seen, Joe, adrift with an unconscious Patricia in the middle of an endless ocean, wasted away by dehydration and exhaustion, lips chapped and limbs shaking, watches the full moon rise above him in the middle of the night and realizes (or perhaps, at last, remembers) the vast enormity of the world around him and the true miracle of his existence within it. He struggles to stand up on his fastened-together life raft—the few square feet he has left to him after a lightning bolt destroyed the ship carrying he and Patricia to the island—and reaches up towards the giant white orb in the dark night sky, with a gratitude and sense of humbled awe that can only come from having every single thing stripped away from one’s self, every fear encountered, and yet continuing to breathe, to dance, to beat on. “Dear God, whose name I do not know,” he says with arms outstretched, “Thank you for my life. I forgot how big... thank you. Thank you for my life.”

*

“I've been miserable so long, years of my life wasted, afraid. Been a long time coming here to meet you - a long time, on a crooked road.”

There are lightning bolts running throughout Joe Versus the Volcano, a recurring visual motif that underscores many of the film’s main themes. It’s part of the logo for the American Panascope Corporation, and the path of the road Joe and his fellow workers walk to get there each day. There’s a lightning-shaped crack on the wall of Joe’s apartment when Mr. Graynamore first visits him. A literal lightning bolt strikes the ship carrying him to Waponi Woo, causing it to sink and leading to his marooned-at-sea struggle for survival and eventual moonrise epiphany. And, when it finally comes time to jump into the volcano, a crooked path leads up to its peak.

While its more obvious interpretations might include danger, confusion, or actual fire, there’s a more subtle—and ultimately more important—meaning to be made of the zig-zag symbol. It represents the crooked road we all must travel in order to find our way to our best selves—to face down the demons of our past and confront all the fears that have locked us in and shut us down. The journey from worried to well is never linear, Joe suggests, but rather a jagged road filled with false starts, poor choices, and bad turns. Eventually, though, if we persevere—if we manage to carry on and struggle forward and right our ships—we can find our way out of fear and into life. To gratitude and awe, to connection and love.

To a well-earned Happily Ever After.


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


A Gentleman's Guide to Surviving North by Northwest

by Erika Schmidt

So you’re on the run. The bad news: you’re being pursued by both international spies and by the American police. The good news: you’re a wealthy, white, American male with a snappy tongue and a certain God’s-gift panache about you, so even with a couple of strikes against you, you’ll likely still come out smelling like a rose. Congratulations on that! Still, there are some essentials you’ll do well to remember if you want to escape with that chiseled mug intact.

Do carry cash. You never know when your day is about to be interrupted by a potentially deadly case of mistaken identity. You’ll need to be able to buy tickets willy nilly, hail cabs, bribe bellboys, and execute all sorts of other spur-of-the-moment maneuvers. An empty wallet just won’t do, and with your pedigree, there’s no excuse for having one.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do maintain a friendly relationship with your mother. Much like your wallet, your mother may prove an important resource, should you find yourself in trouble. In jail? Charged with auto theft and driving under the influence? Being chased by shadowy kidnappers? Call your mother. She’ll at least come over and pay your bail. She may not believe a word you say, but if you bribe her, she may also use her feminine wiles for your benefit. And see? There’s another good reason to carry cash!

Don’t ask why your mother appears to be approximately the same age as you are. Just leave it alone – there’s no good answer for this.

Don’t pull the knife out of a strange man’s back and then stand in the middle of a crowded room over his dead body, especially if the press is there. In fact, if a man is knifed in the back just as he’s about to clear your name and solve the mystery, it’s probably best to not touch the knife in his back at all. You’re better off just freaking out like a normal person would and remaining the allegedly intoxicated car thief you were known as in your simpler days.

illustration by Hallie Batman

illustration by Hallie Batman

Don’t trust women. Anyone who looks like Grace Kelly but isn’t Grace Kelly and uses that many double entendres is probably not your friend. Some things are too good to be true.

Don’t roll around while standing up against the wall of a compartment of a moving train.That doesn’t seem safe or sexy.

Don’t go out to the field. If someone tells you to go out to a remote field of some sort in order to get important information, don’t do it. Seriously: why would you do this? This should go unsaid. Haven’t you ever seen Seven? This never, ever ends well. Just don’t do it.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do steal a farmer’s truck. It’s not like he needs it or anything.

Don’t trust women (cont.). If “Grace Kelly” is the one who gave you directions to the remote cornfield where you narrowly escaped being killed by a hail of bullets coming from a low-flying crop duster, you should consider reclassifying her from “lady friend” to “mortal enemy.”

Do close the bathroom door and run the shower so your mortal enemy will think you’re occupied. Works every time.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do use the police as your personal chauffeur. This is not a move that will work for just anyone, but as a suave, clean, white American male, you can and should be so bold. Need to get to the police station? Cause a ruckus at an auction to purposely get yourself arrested so the police will take you directly there. Heck, if you’re really lucky (which you are), when you reveal yourself to be a famous fugitive, they’ll hook you up with just the person to clear your name.

Do roll with the punches. Just when you think your problems are solved and you can go back to Madison Avenue and being on the lookout for the future ex Mrs. You, you may be enlisted to help foil an international espionage plot. When this happens, use your natural charm and the confidence you get from your recently sponged and pressed suit to fall right in line and perform convincingly. Remember, as a high-stakes operative, you probably won’t be briefed on much, and you won’t really know what’s going on, but just go with it.

Don’t underestimate the savvy of your enemy’s “housekeeper.” When sneaking through the house of shadowy spies, remember: just because the spies are out doesn’t mean their “housekeeper” won’t be around to spot you in the reflections of their tchotchkes. She can and will hold you up just long enough for “Grace Kelly” to be whisked away to her death.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do be open to reevaluating your relationships. You know the person who can clear your name - the bespectacled CIA type? You might want to prepare to be surprised by what he has to say about “Grace Kelly.” She might not be quite as much of a conniving tramp as you thought (and loudly proclaimed) she was. No need to apologize, or anything. Just, you know, maybe you could eventually marry her, after all.

Do appreciate the power of an unmistakable visual metaphor. A train thrusting itself into a tunnel only means one thing, and we all know what it is.


Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.


What Happened to You is Freak Luck

by Bebe Ballroom

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

No one ever told me how beautiful Sylvester Stallone was in 1976. Sunken-in eyes, almost able to make out the skull beneath the skin. Big, permanently wounded doll eyes, surprisingly smooth skin, face like a basset hound. How Adrian’s features complement Rocky’s perfectly—fair skin, black hair, deflated cheeks—as if her skull is the female version of a pair, the skulls of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

Like Inception’s dream within a dream within a dream, Rocky is an underdog within an underdog within an underdog. Rocky lives in a small rundown apartment, wins or loses fights for small change, and is mostly alone. When he warns a teenage girl about the consequences of hanging out with the “coconuts on the corner,” he does so with a seasoned tongue, like he’s been one of those coconuts. “They don’t remember you,” he tells her, “they remember the rest.” He’s a southpaw without a trainer who’s been kicked out of his gym of ten years. In a time when calling someone a bum was an insult that carried significant weight, much of the film is people telling Rocky, directly to his face, that he’s a bum.

Rocky moonlights as muscle for Gazzo “You-Don’t-Think-I-Hear-Things,” the loan shark. Despite the fact that Rocky’s a fighter, somehow he’s too much of a sweetheart for this line of work. He negotiates with the marks, allowing one of them to keep his coat, and straight up ignores Gazzo’s orders to break thumbs. When he puts on doofy thick-framed glasses to take notes on Gazzo’s collections, it’s as if a bear has put on giant fuzzy slippers to pursue his prey.

We see Rocky in his daily routine; he wears the same outfit every day—light grey crewneck sweater, black leather large-collared coat, black porkpie hat. As he walks through streets and alleyways, he throws up a small rubber black ball before catching it out of the air, again and again. The schmaltz of the seventies is just barely visible in the choir of street punks ("Take it back, do do do do”) huddled around a blazing barrel. He might visit Paulie, his friend the bitter drunk (Burt Young). Paulie will probably bother him again about getting on with Gazzo—you get the impression that Paulie would bother Rocky about getting on anywhere—and he might visit Paulie’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire) at the pet shop where she works.

This hulking, brooding, big delicious meathead is crushing hard on an awkward, mousy, fully-cardiganed pet shop dame (“She ain’t retarded, she’s shy”). It seems that at any moment, she might collapse in on herself, like a chrysalis you've seen on a tree as a child. When we meet him, Rocky appears to be deep into a routine that consists of:

1. Go to pet shop.
2. Make terrible jokes.
3. Talk nervously (too much) about birds or turtles.
4. Say something wonderful like, “Don’t these birds look like candy, look like flying candy?”
5. Warn Adrian of the neighborhood creepos.

These visits are mostly one-sided, with the exception of the occasional one-word response from Adrian, but this changes on Thanksgiving, when Paulie tells Rocky to “come have some bird” and take his sister out. Paulie says she likes to ice skate. The rink is closed but Rocky pays $1 a minute to coax a man on a zamboni into letting them skate for ten minutes. I did the math of what we see as Rocky’s revenue, and when reasonably projected over one month, he paid roughly 10% of his monthly income for this gesture.

After skating, Rocky tells Adrian that when he was young his parents told him he wasn’t born with much of a brain, so he should use his body. Adrian says her parents told her the opposite, that she didn’t have much of a body so she’d better develop her brain. The next scene is executed like a long con, Rocky slowly pulling Adrian out of her shell and into his arms. How he asks her to come upstairs several times, how each time she responds with a new reason why she shouldn’t. How he finally stops asking and leaves the door open behind him. How she wanders in like a lost cat.

When they get upstairs, Rocky offers the lady all she could ever want, “Yo I got soda, donuts, cupcakes, chocolate.” Adrian’s usual state seems to be that of avoidance- avoiding direct communication or confrontation, but Rocky keeps putting it right in her face. The pinnacle is reached when Rocky stands very close to her, grabs the makeshift pull-up bar and, with arms bulging, begins to interrogate her. “What, you don’t like my place, you don’t like the turtles, you don’t like me, what?” The effect is a tension somewhere between danger and desire, and when Adrian finally gives in you can see the shell completely shatter.

As Rocky’s luck in love takes a turn, so does his luck in the ring. Fighting may be the only thing Rocky has in common with confident Creed. Apollo knows who he is, and who he is is the heavyweight champ. When the contender falls through, Creed makes a brilliant recovery—why not give a shot at the belt to an unknown? In this scene, Creed reveals himself to be a keen businessman—boxing happens to be his business but one could see him successful in stocks, used cars, or the recording industry. He sells the idea of having an unknown contender to his team on the publicity and patriotism alone. New Years Eve in 1976, on the nation’s bicentennial birthday, Apollo Creed will fight the Italian Stallion. He doesn’t know how it could be any more American.

Such a publicity stunt today would probably warrant a reality show documenting the auditioning process for the contender, then Hollywood Week!, where Rocky would receive a makeover (highlights, spray tan, hooded denim jacket, leather wrist cuffs), and then the finals, where Rocky might be disqualified. But it’s 1976, and the truth is Rocky gets picked at a glance out of a book, because Apollo Creed likes his moniker, and because of how American he finds a black man versus an Italian man to be.

It doesn’t take long after the announcement for Mickey to walk into Rocky’s apartment. There’s a rolled-up busted mattress, a poor man’s punching bag. LP’s are secured from a hanger meant for dress slacks (something Rocky probably doesn’t have). A flowered and out-of-place pendent lamp floats over the table, pink and orange with red fringe, a remnant from the sixties. Mickey is played perfectly by Burgess Meredith. The first thing out of his mouth is a lie.

“Nice place ya got here.”

The next thing he says is absolutely true.

“What happened to you is freak luck.”

Mickey picks up a bare-bulbed lamp from an overturned Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. He brings it up to his marred face, shines it over every scar. He tells Rocky he’s had his nose busted seventeen times. Mickey talks about his prime, how he didn’t have anyone to help him. He tells Rocky he’s got heart, as if that makes the difference. Rocky’s reply is, “I got heart but I ain’t got no locker do I, Mick?”

Rocky starts throwing darts in the wall, a physical alternative to release anger. They fly past Mickey’s head. The last time they spoke, Mickey called Rocky a “tomata” in front of the whole gym. He told him that he was a disappointment because he could have been a contender but became a leg-breaker instead. Rocky goes to the bathroom and they continue shouting at each other through the door. Mickey walks out of the apartment and slowly down the stairs. Rocky’s face when he comes out of the bathroom is a rare display of emotion; you can see anger and betrayal and even apprehension. “What about my prime?” he shouts at Mickey, who can still hear him through the building’s thin walls. Rocky runs after him and shakes his hand. We cannot hear what is being said.

This is a film without restraint. The main characters thrash and claw like wild things. Most of those closest to Rocky (Paulie the drunk, Gazzo the shark, Mickey the manager) communicate like Rocky does: with fists. The verbiage is telling even in casual conversation, like when Rocky says he used to be deadly at stick ball or when Paulie says of his sister, “Sometimes she gets me so crazy I could split her head with a razor.” Jesus.

Instead of conversing, they bust side tables with bats. Instead of discussing, they throw roasted turkeys out of windows and into the night. Rocky’s instinct when his gym locker won’t open is to yank the giant copper fire extinguisher off the wall and slam it down on the lock (who wouldn’t?). There is no “my feelings were hurt by your actions”, there is only going to town on this carved-up cow carcass instead of your face. It’s violence as a means of expression, forever shouting the last word, even long after the other person has left. It's a broken way to be, but god if it isn't truly felt.

With Mickey managing him, Rocky puts all that violent heart into his training. He gets up before dawn, cracks several eggs into a clear tumbler and heaves it down in breathless gulps. In Chuck Taylors and grey sweats that have seen better days, he runs the streets of Philly, stretching slightly before starting out. He does one-armed push-ups and spars with his ankles tied together by string for balance. His winning moment isn’t in the ring with Creed but in that iconic shot when he raises his arms over his head, after running to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And he has won Adrian, the sweet and shy girl who tempers his tumultuousness.

Paulie asks Rocky, “What the attraction?” He doesn’t understand what Rocky sees in Adrian, thinks he could do better. Rocky says she “fills gaps.” At first you think he means that this person helps to fill the time, as if she’s simply a stand-in for crossword puzzles or gardening. Then you realize it’s nothing so mundane but something meaningful, profound even. “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.”

We never see Rocky’s family and the only family we see of Adrian’s kicks her out into the street. As different as they are, they both seem to have an immense pressure accruing within them, like tea kettles on the verge of whistling. Where Rocky externalizes the pressure, forever punching at the air, Adrian seems to swallow her pressure, internalizing it. Perhaps being together helps to relieve the pressure. These misfits now have each other, two survivors who don’t have to fight alone anymore.

The night before the fight, Rocky tells Adrien, “It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head. All I wanna do is go the distance.”

Rocky is a film about earning what you already have, of becoming worthy of luck. It doesn’t matter if he wins. After he's gone the distance, all he cares about is what happened to Adrien’s hat.


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


Home is Where I Wanna Be

by Andrew Root

© Universal Pictures

© Universal Pictures

When I was seven years old, I got lost.

For years, there has been a series of free public concerts in the park by Little Lake at the centre of my town, and each show used to be followed by a fireworks display. People turned out by the thousands to fill the park in front of the bandstand, its giant sail-like canopy bathed in coloured light as family-friendly music filled the cool summer evening air. My parents brought blankets for us to sit on, and we crammed ourselves in wherever a patch of ground was available, ripping up handfuls of grass as we listened to the concert. We were never able to see the performers, as the crush of lawn chairs inevitably blocked out the view and our blanket became a square pit sunken beneath the sightlines. It was invariably too loud, the speakers straining to get sound waves to the far side of the park, but it was a comfortable kind of overwhelming; I had the blanket, I had the grass, and I had my brother, my sisters and my parents. I had a place to be.

My brother and I ventured off the blanket to visit the public washrooms set up on the low hill opposite the stage. While we waited in the line that was longer than we expected, the concert finished and the crowd began to shift towards the shore of the lake, jostling to get a better view. Somewhere out there, my little square of familiarity disappeared and I sank smoothly into a deep, black sadness. Apart from a brief flutter in my chest, there was no desperateness to this feeling, no panic; just the silent, sad reality that I didn’t know where my family was.

*

The story of the Mousekewitz family begins similarly to my own in scenario, if worlds apart in scope; with the celebration of a tradition. It’s 1885 in Shostka, Russia, and it’s Hanukkah. Kind-hearted Papa jokes and plays the violin as stalwart Mama enforces the family rules and tries to get the baby to sleep. Sweet Tanya listens to her father’s stories, as her younger brother Fievel reminds his parents of the importance of presents: a new babushka for Tanya, and for Fievel, a hat that has been in his family for three generations. The family settles in for a few of Papa’s tall tales, the tallest of all being the one about that bastion of freedom, where there are mouse holes in every wall, bread crumbs on every floor, and—most importantly—where there are absolutely no cats: America.

The Mousekewitz’s warm family moment is violently broken up, as Cossacks and monstrous, slathering cats descend upon the village, intent on burning it to the ground—a savage mirror of the pogroms faced by the Jews in late 19th century Russia. With their home destroyed and their possessions on their backs, the Mousekewitz family leaves a nightmare behind in search of a dream; they’re really and truly going to America. As they board a transatlantic ship, Fievel asks questions endlessly; is that water the ocean? Does that smoke mean the ship is on fire? Are those seagulls? What are herrings, and how are they different from just a regular ol’ fish?

Fievel’s unbounded curiosity leads him out onto the deck during a storm, where he is swept overboard by the cruelty of the winds and waves. At the immigrant processing centre in New York, Papa’s tears appear unbidden, his jovial nature drained, his sadness complete. Afloat in a bottle, Fievel is exhausted, bewildered and lost. And the sadness—the dark liquid sadness—is very, very real.

An American Tail is an immigrant’s story, and one that feels the importance of America as the land of opportunity. Cast out of their home, the Mousekewitz family has to believe in a better place—a place where there are no cats—because the alternative is too bleak to contemplate. On the ship, before Fievel’s curiosity gets the better of him, a multi-ethnic chorus sings of their trials and tribulations in their home countries before inevitably reaching the conclusion that everything will be better in America. The country takes on a mythic energy; it is the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail and armour of Achilles. It is fulfillment, deliverance from trial, protection from evil. America is happiness and it is home.

But when the Mousekewitz family arrives at Ellis Island minus Fievel, and Mama exclaims “America!” Papa can only brokenheartedly reply “No, no… New York.” Without his family intact, his dream of an idealized home has faded. This is not the land of opportunity. This is just another city. There are as many cats here as there were back home.

*

Lost at the concert, my brother and I eventually beseeched the assistance of the only uniformed adult I could find. He took us to a picnic table by the bandstand and bought us each a popsicle, and I started to picture what life would be like if we never found our family and had to live with this man. There would be a swimming pool, and barbecues every night in the summer. There would be a small scrappy dog that fell asleep in your lap, and we could paint the fire hydrant out front different colours. We’d watch tv on rainy days, do puzzles, and read endless collections of Calvin & Hobbes books. If my old life was gone, my new life was going to be perfect.

I studied his uniform.

“Are you a police officer?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m an air traffic controller.”

I didn’t know air traffic controllers wore uniforms. I didn’t know anyone but a police officer wore a dark blue uniform, and this sudden betrayal of expectations finally brought out the tears. I put my head on the table and sobbed and sobbed for everything and everyone I’d lost.

When the crowds began to disperse and my father found us, I felt like I hadn’t taken a breath in ten minutes. Oxygen flooded my system as I gasped and blubbered and hugged my dad, so relieved, so profoundly relieved. Seven-year-old me learned many lessons that day; about family, about behaviour in crowds, about the kindness of strangers. I still think back on the air traffic controller and his strange uniform, and realize—in the absence of true stability—how much comfort I projected onto him. While I am grateful for his kindness, the fantasy of a summery home life shattered so easily; the feeling of coming home that I found in my father’s arms was epic in comparison.

*

Of course there are cats in America. There are cats everywhere, and cats prey on mice, and if troubles follow and find you no matter how many oceans you cross, what do you do about them?

Many of Fievel’s first experiences in America are horrific, especially for a children’s movie; he is sold to a sweatshop owner, chased by humans and nearly eaten by cats, and his best chance for finding his family lies with a drunken politician who cares more for votes than for helping lost young mice. He is taken in by a group of landed mice, led in spirit by Bridget, an Irish mouse whose chief goal is to “get everyone together about those cats.” This new group of like-minded strays affords Fievel a surrogate family, and while he still dreams of reuniting with his parents and siblings, he is at least buoyed by the group’s mantra that “because this is America we can do something about it!” Papa and Tanya also join in the mouse’s campaign (though they aren’t aware of Fievel’s involvement), and this open-armed inclusion in a movement brings every member of the disparate Mousekewitz family closer to that ideal notion of America; that we’re all in this together, and together we can do something about our troubles.

But it isn’t quite enough. An idealized home with a surrogate family just can’t fill the emptiness in the pit of your aching, hopeful stomach when you know that your family is out there somewhere. Fievel’s victory against the cats is short-lived when an accidental fire separates him from his new friends and he ends up once again unmoored, lost and alone, sleeping in a puddle under a broken window pane. A mournful melody drifts by on the early morning fog, and Fievel hears what he can’t believe; his family is calling for him. Together—finally, finally together—they laugh and fall and hug and hold each other in the golden light and Mama can only whisper through her grateful tears, “America… What a place.”

“America: What A Place” may as well have been the slogan for the country during the immigration boom known as The Great Wave of the late 1800s. Every year until the mid-1920s, 600,000 Europeans heard the call of the land of opportunity, to a place where anything was possible—that call has always been enticing to the poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Perhaps it’s true that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The same ambition that took the Vikings to Greenland and that may one day take us to Mars and beyond would mean very little if we didn’t have something worth going for. You don’t just need a place to be, you need people with whom to be. Freedom of expression and seemingly boundless opportunity may have been the loglines for America, but without togetherness and a common cause to work towards, it counts for very little. A mouse divided will not stand.


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.


And Not to Yield

by Summer Block

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Three escaped convicts and a young man who claims to have sold his soul to the Devil arrive at a political campaign dinner disguised in very obviously fake beards. While the other men perform a song, their leader leans over, pulls the beard down from his chin, and whispers to his ex-wife, “I want to be what you want me to be, honey.”

And in that moment, he seems to believe it.

*

O Brother, Where Art Thou? opens on Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) fleeing through a field, shackled to Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). Everett claims he robbed an armored car and hid the loot in a remote cabin, and now the three of them have to find it before the whole valley is flooded as part of a dam-building project. The journey is a lie from the start—there never was any money or any armored car; Everett went to jail for practicing law without a license, and escaped in order to keep his wife from marrying another man, quite literally dragging Peter and Delmar along with him.

The Coen Brothers’ film is about people wanting to be a better version of themselves, something a little lighter and brighter than the truth. (A lawyer instead of a con man; a husband instead of a cad.) But where other films might warn against the dangers of self-delusion, O Brother celebrates the courage and creativity it takes to change your identity. O Brother is a paean to the wild, reckless joy of self-invention, and the sustaining power of myth to bring us closer to our best selves.

Styling themselves “adventurers,” the three men and their guitarist, Tommy, amble through tall tales about that most self-mythologizing place, the American South. They meet the semi-mythic historical figures Robert Johnson and Babyface Nelson. There are politicians spinning campaign lies (though their old-fashioned bluntness may seem touchingly naïve to a modern audience). There are disguises, including white hoods. There are dishonest, dangerous women and men. There are stock Southern characters, from the wise old black man to the uneducated yokel.

Some of the myths may be uplifting. Some—like the implication that the KKK was a small band of incompetent bullies despised by the majority of white Southerners—paper over some very ugly truths. Even the film itself is falsified, right down to its lovely fake sepia tint (achieved with the then-novel use of digital color correction). And Clooney plays Everett with the self-conscious charm of a star from another era—in other words, he is an actor playing an actor playing a role.

When the Coen Brothers released O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, critics delighted in pointing out the film's many references to Homer's The Odyssey, the epic poem that the Coen Brothers credited with their inspiration even while coyly (and not necessarily truthfully) claiming that neither of them had read the original work. Hades, Poseidon, the Cyclops, Teiresias, the Sirens, and the Lotus-eaters are all present in the tale of Ulysses, the smooth-tongued hustler; Ulysses escapes a chain gang and journeys back home through Mississippi, confronting a series of marvelous adventures in order to reunite with his (ex-)wife Penelope (here, Penny, for short).

The movie is indeed filled with allusions—from men turned into animals to a politician with the improbable name of Menelaus—but the ending of O Brother is different from that of The Odyssey. In Homer's epic, Odysseus (known in Latin as “Ulysses”) arrives home after a decade of wandering, dispatches his wife's suitors, and retakes his rightful place as husband, father, and ruler of his people. In O Brother, Ulysses Everett arrives home only to be sent right back out again—not once, but twice.

*

In Alfred, Lord Tennyson's famous poem entitled “Ulysses,” the former adventurer says, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!”

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,” Tennyson’s Ulysses longs to go off on one last great adventure, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

This is the ending after the ending of every adventure story. The castle stormed, the bomb defused, the princess won—and then what? Where does our hero go after the credits? To sit at home “by this still hearth, among these barren crags,” to pay bills and pull weeds and stand in line at the deli counter? Happily, this is not the fate the Coen Brothers have in mind for their Ulysses.

“I want to be what you want me to be.” Okay: who does Penny want Everett to be? One might expect that she would want him to be the civilized husband and father that Odysseus becomes at the end of his journeys. Instead, she sends Everett off on the flimsiest of pretexts, refusing to take back the father of her seven daughters until he brings back her old wedding ring. Is she really that obsessed with a ring? Does she just want him out of her hair? Or is she, too, a little in love with the roguish gallantry of someone who would dive to the bottom of a lake just to retrieve a ring for her?

Everett and his companions stumble into the sheriff who has been hounding them since they left the chain gang. Just when death seems imminent, they are rescued by a deus ex machina—the valley is flooded, the sheriff killed, and all four men are saved.

Peter and Delmar thank God for a miracle, but Everett plays the skeptic. Floating above the flooded valley that never held his treasure, he says, “Yes, sir, the South is gonna change. Everything's gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways. We're gonna see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yes, sir, a veritable age of reason. Like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon.”

This would seem to be the end—the end for our self-styled hero, who has escaped prison and reunited with his wife; and the end for the myth-intoxicated Southern landscape that made him. And just then, as the old blind seer had predicted, they see a cow on top of a roof. So Penny sends Everett back out for the right ring; and Everett escapes the fate of his Homeric namesake; and we, the audience, are spared the disappointment of imagining a chastened Everett sitting patiently through seven consecutive PTA meetings.

We know that the South was never the sepia-tinted dreamscape the Coens present it to be, not during the Depression and certainly not today. We know that every hero grows old and weak and commonplace. But in O Brother, there's always time left for one more journey.


Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys, The Rumpus, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, PANK, The Nervous Breakdownand many other publications


It's Not Personal

by Katie Zimolzak

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

"...only a half dozen Puritan millionaires stood on the wharf in the wind colder than the impossible snows of the Abruzzi, ready with country clubs and dynamos to grind the organs out of you."
—Sandra Mortola Gilbert, "Mafioso"

Ba-da-boom. Gabagool. Mamma Mia.

Never mind trying to debunk all the stereotypes of lubricious Sicilians that creep into every frame of The Godfather. I mean, fuggedaboutit. The “dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork” only to pose us a problem we can’t refute: if our new citizens start to look like stereotypes, it’s only because America’s standards for assimilation have resulted in their exploitation and oppression.

The vision Frances Ford Coppola presents is a cynical reality that many first-generation Americans experienced in the first half of the twentieth century: you have to live near your own countrymen because your parents only speak that language; you have to eat your country's native foods, because that is what your mother can cook to perfection from memory; but you feel left out, shut out from the larger part of the population. You are blindly dismissed for clinging to another nation’s cultural traditions, for being unable or unwilling to assimilate, even as you are shown no other options.

The Corleones’ story may be every immigrant family’s story. Like the Corleones, my own father’s immediate family is extensive: he is the oldest son of eight children. He grew up as a first-generation American in Hamtramck, a Polish-speaking neighborhood in Detroit, and his family certainly bears some shadowy traces of ethnic stereotype.

Actually, I guess he is first-and-a-half generation: his father was born in the United States to Polish immigrants, but his mother was born in a central-Polish village where she lived until she had to leave at age twelve. Similarly, Vito Andolini has to leave Corleone, his rural Sicilian home. He leaves, of course, under threat of death. This is also how my grandmother left her family. When she was twelve, German soldiers came into her house with the orders—“Pack a bag. We leave in thirty minutes.” She and one of her sisters spent the next seven years in a Nazi work camp. "We went to work on the farm for them" is how she put it.

That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.
 

From the outset of the film, we know that assimilation is going to be a lynchpin for these characters. The mortician Bonasera extols his new home with a thickly accented decree: “I believe in America.” His new life and his new trade give him the opportunities he’d hoped for in a new country. But Bonasera’s daughter has started dating a young man—“not an Italian”—who takes her out with one of his friends, gets her drunk, tries to rape her, and viciously beats her when she fights back. Bonasera weeps, “She was the light of my life. Now she will never be beautiful again.” Wires bind his daughter’s shattered jaw together. Even less is holding together his shattered illusions of America.

For the mortician, seeing his daughter’s attackers go free is a failure of the justice system in a country he wanted to be a dream world. For Bonasera’s daughter, the injury is much greater.

Another stereotype: the Virginal Beauty whose purity must be preserved, whose fall represents acquired knowledge about the darkest parts of the human spirit. The sickish oxidized green of Lady Liberty’s original copper. Imagine trying, as this girl did, to fit in with young Americans, doing whatever you can to stifle the heavy accents and outrun the traditional values of your home culture. You want to kick off the stereotypes—the organ grinder, the greasy mafioso—but you’re met with brutal resistance. Bonasera’s story of departed innocence and beauty parallels the emotional developments that follow Michael’s early assertion that he will never be involved in his family’s violent dealings. Bonasera wants to love America for its possibilities, and yet he hates the country for what its people have done to his daughter. Michael wants to purge himself of mob corruption, but he cannot stop loving his family in spite of their faults.

Throughout the movie, Michael does what he can to distance himself from his family. His name is the least Italian—the most American—of his siblings. Vito calls Sonny “Santino”; the characters use “Freddy” and “Fredo” in nearly equal measure; Connie hears “Constanza” as a stern warning. While Michael is in Italy, the villagers refer to him by his Italian name—Michele—as does the priest during the Latin portion of the climactic christening. To his family, though, he is always and only Michael.

But, much to Michael’s dismay, his blood is more telling than the syllables of his name—it runs red, strong as Sicilian Marsala, even in the veins of a decorated American war hero. He may have brought a beautiful blonde girl in a red and white polka-dot dress—the very image of American assimilation—to his sister’s wedding, but that doesn’t mean Michael is assimilated. Everywhere Kay turns, she sees swarthy complexions and dark brown hair. Michael’s brothers, his sister, their spouses, their children. Michael’s family. Michael himself.

Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again.
 

My grandfather’s platoon liberated my grandmother’s camp. He spoke fluent Polish, and promised her love, marriage, a home, and a job that allowed her to send money to her family. The romancing was a quick process; just like Michael and Apollonia in Sicily, it was a lightning strike. My grandmother spoke no English when she moved to America at age twenty. She only learned as her children did. She didn’t have to know the language any earlier, because their neighborhood was teeming with fluent Polish speakers.

Though they met with occasional ridicule from the larger Detroit community, the Polish family fostered their own prejudices as well. My grandmother found fault with films likeSchindler's List because of what she perceived as historical inaccuracies. "Schindler would never have kissed that girl," she complained; "You weren’t allowed to touch a Jew. He would have been thrown out of society and she would have been killed." I don’t know the extent to which she or my grandfather subscribed to the prevailing prejudices that circulated through Europe during the war. I got the sense they believed this was just the way things were. Echoes of such anti-Jewish sentiments can be heard in Vito’s decree that one trifling favor be handed over to “Some Jew congressman in another district” instead of a fellow Sicilian.

Prejudice not only affects those below you on the social pecking order, of course, but also shapes how you interact with the more completely assimilated. The Corleones’ German-Irishconsigliere and adoptive son Tom Hagen is sent to deal with the Hollywood executive Woltz. Even before he’s in the business officially, Michael knows not to put his favor outside the family: he refers to Tom somewhat dismissively as "not a Sicilian, but a good lawyer."

Michael’s biased account of Tom is very like my family's particular brand of cronyism, which involved deep and abiding suspicions of anyone whose name might remind us of our motherland's recent German and Russian combatants. My mother is a Kay Adams type in her innocuous Americanness and her assimilated Protestantism. Because she sported an unsavory German surname, she had to convert to appease my father’s Polish-Catholic family. When one of my cousins displayed a poster of the Detroit Red Wings' famous Russian Five, some of the hockey club’s most popular players of the mid-nineties, there was a furor in the household.

It’s so much more difficult to avoid these conflicts when your neighborhood in the city butts up against any number that your cultural enemies might inhabit. Corleone and the othercaporegimes of New York’s five families divide their territory to defer just such possible confrontations, but this does not stop someone from feeling slighted if a business alliance is turned down. Virgil Sollozzo—aptly nicknamed The Turk, in another showing of xenophobia—sends men to shoot Vito down in broad daylight. Afterwards, he tells Michael “Blood is a big expense.” It is indeed: Michael has already realized that his family, his blood, makes him who he is. I can never trace exactly when Michael crosses the line in his head to take up the family business, but the “why” of it is definitely in Sollozzo’s attack.

It’s not personal, of course. It’s business. But when you’re in a family-run business, it’s always personal. You can’t get fired from a family the way you get fired from a job. Unless….

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.
 

There are, nonetheless, subtle hints of a new cultural identity, an assimilated or hyphenate Italian-American lifestyle that could make way for beautiful hopes like those Bonasera had for his daughter.

Vito explains similar hopes to Michael: “I worked my whole life—and I don’t apologize—to take care of my family. I refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by all those big shots. I don’t apologize, that’s my life. But I thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something. There just wasn’t enough time.” Not enough time, that is, for Vito to establish himself as a legitimate citizen. And not enough time for Michael to distance himself from the Corleones’ sordid past.

Just because America has dealt someone alienation, however, doesn’t mean that attitude has to continue. Apt, then, that the film begins with a wedding and ends after a christening. This is a new potential for a new generation. Maybe there will finally be enough time to escape stereotypes. To leave the gun. To move forward. To put the violent past behind you.

But there is still gunpowder in the air as you leave the church. This dizzying waltz, the plaintive trumpet, won’t get unstuck from your head. You can’t forget who raised you. These are your roots. You refuse to talk about your business. You close the door on anyone who fails to understand you. You take the cannoli.


Katie Zimolzak definitely believes in the healing power of foods from the motherland, and she will make you pierogi or gołąbki if you ask nicely. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California, where she is completing a dissertation on the multiple uses of promiscuity in 17th and 18th century British theater.


There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
- Samuel Beckett

My mother died on June 17, 2000, the morning of my high school graduation. I was standing barefoot in my best friend’s kitchen when my grandmother tried to lie to me on the phone, her voice twice it’s normal pitch and entirely lacking it’s customary softness and sparkle. Her forced nonchalance made my knees buckle, and the lump in my throat had me nearly gasping for air even before she could finally bring herself to say the word, that word. Then came the lightning strike. White light, white heat. Blindness. The next thing I remember I was shifting anxiously in my plastic folding chair, waiting for my name to come over the microphone, cursing the cap and gown I could have sworn were made of lead. I’m still surprised I even heard it at all. I received a standing ovation when I crossed the stage to claim my diploma - the audience having been led in a moment of silence in my mother’s honor a few minutes prior - but I was so focused on trying to keep my atoms from scattering themselves in all directions that I had no idea. The whiteness blanketed everything; I saw, but I couldn’t see. My world came to a grinding halt, even as things continued to move all around me like they always had, their rhythms unchanged. How could everything be completely different and yet exactly the same? I was a floe of ice drifting aimlessly on a shifting sea.

A heart can be broken, but it will keep beating just the same.

For years I laid in bed at night imagining the world with my mother still in it. I had prosaic dreams where she’d call me on the phone to ask a simple question, or I’d walk by the kitchen and see her standing over the stove. With very little effort I could vividly conjure up her image, picturing the way her nose wrinkled when she laughed, or the way she looked when she was perched on the couch, engrossed in a book. The stunning ease with which I could produce these mirages made it difficult to accept that they were nothing more than a composite of moments already spent. The realization that you will never again see the face of someone you love nearly defies comprehension. When someone is so fiercely alive in your heart, how could they possibly be dead?

Tell me a story.

We are a nation of storytellers, sitting around campfires and dinner tables spinning yarns, weaving tableaus of our shared history. Park benches and barrooms become classrooms, as we tease out the threads of what connects us from the anecdotes that we share. We would be damned without these narratives. Untethered from the past we would have nothing to measure ourselves against. How would we know if we were more or less fortunate than our fathers? If we were as strong as our mothers? The stories passed down to us and the ones we write for ourselves define who we are in equal measure.

Much of the strength of Fried Green Tomatoes is derived from that innate willingness to listen when someone older and wiser has a tale to tell. Structured as a story within a story, the potency of the film lies in our ability to be a fly on the wall as Ninny Threadgoode (a sharp-tongued but grandmotherly Jessica Tandy) forges an unlikely friendship with a beleaguered, unhappy housewife named Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) and regales her with colorful stories about the goings on of the now abandoned town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. Her narrative centers around the origins of the incredible Depression-era friendship between two women - Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) and Ninny’s “sister-in-law”, Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) - whose indelible, and also unlikely, bond was forged through the shared loss of Idgie’s beloved older brother, Buddy. Drawing strength from their grief and from one another, the pair are able to see each other through nearly everything that life throws their way, good or bad: the entrenched racism of the Deep South, the abuse that Ruth suffers at the hands of her husband Frank, the opening of the Whistle Stop Cafe, the birth of Ruth’s son Buddy Jr., even Idgie’s eventual trial for Frank’s murder.

As the story of Ruth and Idgie’s friendship unfolds, the affection between Ninny and Evelyn grows, and Evelyn begins to see that Ninny isn’t just telling her a story—she is giving her the tools to take back control of her own life. She is passing on Ruth and Idgie’s strength. Evelyn sees in them the woman that she wants to be, and, through the lens of their friendship, she realizes what she has been lacking. Through the words of an old woman, the past is resurrected, and with it the boldness and courage of an obvious and immense love, the kind of love that retains its power no matter how much time has passed. We learn about devotion and loyalty and courage. We also learn how hard it is to say goodbye. When Ninny reveals that Ruth died of cancer, our breath catches in our chests; as the seemingly unbreakable bond between the two women has been snapped like a brittle twig. All that can be heard is Idgie’s anguish, as time stops in Ruth’s bedroom.

When I first saw Fried Green Tomatoes, years before I lost my mother, I was overwhelmed with sadness about Ruth’s death, and absolutely gutted by Idgie’s reaction to her loss. I had occasionally entertained thoughts about what it would be like to lose someone close to me, as most children do once they learn that death is a part of life. Still, understanding that people die doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand death. Grief doesn’t exist as an abstraction, so my contemplations would often tend toward the tactical: Would we move out of our house if my father died? Who would sing me "Summertime" while I nodded off to sleep if I lost my mother? But with Fried Green Tomatoes, perhaps for the very first time, I was seeing what it would be like to try and figure out how life could go on without a person that was as vital to your existence as the air that you breathe. It was the first film I had ever seen that seemed real enough to demand my empathy. I sobbed as I thought about Idgie carrying the weight of an incurable loneliness. I sobbed harder when the Whistle Stop Café shuttered its doors and the last vestiges of what Idgie and Ruth had built for themselves were left a dusty ruin.

It was only after I watched my mother slip away years later (like Ruth, a victim to cancer’s avarice) that I really understood that love is transcendental. We may shuffle off our mortal coils, but the spirit of who we were—and what we meant to the people who loved us—lingers on. As long as Idgie remembers the dancing breeze and the look on Ruth’s face when she reached into that swarm of bees for a chunk of honeycomb, she can never truly be lonely; they would always be there, together, in that field, in that moment. If every once in awhile she laughs to herself, recalling the riotous food fight that began over a charming insult, the Whistle Stop Café is never truly closed. Memory is a gift that allows us to carry pieces of the ones we love with us, wherever we go. We have the power to share that gift, to make totems of every beehive, tomato, frying pan, and train track. We can see the glimmers of familiar expressions on the faces of children and teach them about the spirits they are imbued with. There is strength and courage and comfort to be mined in the sound of a laughter you can only hear when you close your eyes.

See, now is the time for courage. I guess you already know that there are angels masqueradin' as people walkin' around this planet and your mom was the bravest one of those.

I no longer have to imagine a world with my mother still in it because I’ve realized that she never really left, not completely. I see her when I’m looking in the mirror and when I listen to Bonnie Raitt. I have sheaves of her poetry and shoeboxes full of notes she left in my backpack and on the kitchen counter. I have her sharp tongue and her sense of humor. Most importantly, I have stories. I understand now that I have a responsibility to share those stories, to not forget. I tell my daughter all about her grandmother, and will continue to do so until she knows in her heart the woman that I knew and cherished, and can draw strength from my mother’s strength. Even though they will never meet, she will know the boldness and courage of an obvious and immense love, and will carry it with her as I do with me.

All these people’ll live as long as you remember ‘em.


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


I've Never Been Much Good

by Arielle Greenberg

gun-crazy.jpg

(Gun Crazy, d. Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

My name is a flag.
Big things.

I was born inside a parade,
my teeth biting down on ridges of a silver baton.

I hold my small chin upward. I killed a man in St. Louis, once.
I wear an iron crown of matches. I’ve started kicking back.

Break all the plate glass windows for me, won’tcha?
Fireworks, then fireworks. A diamond we’ll hawk later.

It’s a dangerous life, and wild:
We are beautiful, scared animals in a swamp.

I will nuzzle you in the mist while God watches,
pearl-handled revolver in his holster.

No double-cross waits in my black eyes.
It’s too good to be close to you.

I was a girl who wanted things to happen. You, for starters.
And you happened to me.


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including GurlesqueShe lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.