Anything That Can Happen, Will Happen

by Andrew Root

llustration by John Lee

llustration by John Lee

I will never be as angry at anything as the man sitting beside me was during my first screening of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As astronauts Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway) traversed the galaxy, slipped into wormholes, contemplated the nature of time and relativity, and teased the existence of fifth dimensional beings for whom time was a physical construct, he sat and fumed, muttering occasionally “Oh my God, that makes no sense.”

By now, a mere month since the film’s wide release, the debate over the merits of Interstellar is at a fever pitch, with prominenttastemakerscriticsscientists and moviegoers weighing in on various details of the film. Interstellar, it seems, must be opined upon; you can’t NOT talk about it. Questions, analogies, explanations and expositions are analyzed in excruciating detail—it seems fashionable to mention the number of times McConaughey cries, or how Hans Zimmer’s score blew out a few theatre’s sound systems; the whole business of commenting on this film is rife with an ironic detachment. Make sense of it. Question it. Pigeonhole it. Talk about it. Find details about it. Disregard it. Get whiplash from the wildly polarizing articles about it. I went into the film for the first time with a mind to understand and I came out feeling overwhelmed by the explanations. Should I be able to understand everything about Interstellar? If I listen enough and think enough and mull enough, will I get it? What happens if I don’t ever reach a conclusion?

WHO CARES. Who cares? Who cares who cares who cares WHO CARES? I don’t care. Do you care? WHO CARES.

Why should we care? What makes us flock to Nolan's films with our phones out, Twitter's engine warm and idling, ready to send our judgement out into the void? What have we done to so miss the point of going to the movies? The point of a film is not to feel superior to it, to declare it “overrated,” to elevate our opinions above a piece of work, because what is often lost in that process is the quiet, personal experience that can be generated by a genuine interaction with a piece of art. What is lost is the opportunity to be swept up in an idea for even a moment and breathlessly whisper “what if…?”

Interstellar has drawn comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey because of course it has, but the main difference between the two seems to be that Nolan feels burdened by the consumptive need to explain himself, whereas Kubrick never did, the stubborn old enigma. It’s hard to say definitively where this need comes from—the man or the culture in which he’s creating. Both films polarized reactions at the time of their releases, derided either for going too far in the wrong direction or somehow not delivering a satisfying enough conclusion, while also being celebrated for their artistry, technical achievement and scope of ambition. Nolan’s films regularly tackle the unknowable - dreams, memory, insanity, magic, obsession - but with a bent to wrangle the subject matter into a framework: in Inception, dreams—for all their capriciousness—have a defined set of rules; in The Prestige, magic is rooted in experimental science; in Memento, memory obeys certain parameters. Look below the surface of the awe and you’ll find a thousand little worker elves making sure the trains run on time. Whereas Kubrick lets an implacable black monolith yawn with things unsaid, Nolan has his chatty characters describe the impossibly complex with asides about quantum physics and absurdly simplistic diagrams.

And this is where reactions to the film begin to churn like ants from a hill. While there’s nothing wrong with either approach, Nolan’s seems to attract detractors; the film gives the impression of a nervous student giving a presentation—he talks too much, explains himself in circles, and even if what he’s saying is revelatory, the whole experience is coloured by the nerves of the presenter. It’s baffling, because in interviews and press junkets, Nolan is unflappable. His suits are immaculate, his scarves fashionable, his blond hair piled and swept just so, his English lilt a calm and beautiful thing. As he sits in these interviews, he is asked time and again about the technical aspects of his film. While his answers are concise and polite, succinctly explaining what a gimble is and the simple reasons he chose not to use green screen during the filming, his characters take preemptive—often extensive—pains to ensure that the audience is still on board with all of the film’s big ideas. Before you ask, the singularity inside a black hole is like the pearl inside an oyster. Get it? Time expands and contracts at particular rates as you move faster and slower and get closer and further away from great sources of gravity, get it? Do you understand?

But again, who cares? Wonder is rarely composed. It’s ok for me not to be fully on board with the science—few are. And while I may not give a hot goddamn about the technicalities of time travel, I realize that those technicalities are important to some, even vital for others. The point is that I don’t have to care about your opinion of the film or its mechanics, and you don’t have to care about mine. What I take into a theatre with me is this, a borrowed and adapted phrase from James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”:

To see the world, things dangerous to come to. To see behind walls, draw closer. To find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of film.

Can Interstellar do these things? In spades, my friend. If you let it.

Perhaps it’s because he’s riding the wave of True Detective and his recent Oscar win for The Dallas Buyer's Club that McConaughey’s is the lead story inInterstellar, but I found it difficult to connect with his roguish Cooper. He’s always right, and even if he’s wrong, that wrong is just a waystation to an even higher truth. What’s to love about a flawless sphere? There’s nothing to grab on to. Anne Hathaway’s Brand is who I identify with; she is (literally) on an emotional journey into the unknown. While Cooper’s journey is inextricably tied in with the goal of securing the future of his children, Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet/Casey Affleck), Brand’s mission is wispier, harder to grasp, more abstract because we never meet the love that she chases—Edmunds, a fellow astronaut who forged the path that Cooper and Brand now follow. We never meet Edmunds, never. Not once do we see them together, and so we have to take it on faith that Brand’s love for him is worth risking quite literally everything for. She could be wrong, but she is willing to hazard all for the slim chance that she might be right. “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space,” Brand says, a notion that raises all manner of fascinating questions. If love can reach its hand across the multitudes of space to grasp the human heart, then what about anger? Rage? Sorrow? Hurt? Joy? Relief? What is the practical function of a feeling? Can a gargantuan mass of unknowable emotion, ringed with blinding, brilliant flames be the key to our salvation? If there is an intersection between art and science, it most certainly must lie in wonder and awe.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is quoted frequently over the course of the film, as characters are told not to “go gentle into that dark night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Taken as a metaphor for the human spirit in the face of desolation, the poem is a fine fit for the film, however with the script’s inclusion of black holes taken into account, the poem must be reevaluated. As a literal object, a black hole is the death of light - or more accurately, the doom of light; it is the one thing in the universe (that we know of) from which light cannot escape—the embodiment of Thomas’ dark night. This particular black hole may also be the doom of Cooper and Brand unless they invoke the surprisingly emotional Third Law of Newtonian Physics: In order to go forward, you must leave something behind. And so Cooper lightens the load, allowing Brand to escape by willfully hurling himself into that dark night, past the fiery cortex of bending light and into the blind unknown. As he enters a world in which time, space and memory form a physical construct, Cooper finds himself in a realm of pure emotion, and from emotion comes salvation. Dr. Brand was right. She follows Edmunds’ beacon and finds a habitable world, somewhere the human race can continue. Murph, so burdened by years of anger at her father, is led to a world-saving discovery couched in his love. The choices we make right now create waves of consequences that echo through the lives of others for generations to come. Now that’s relativity.

I also recently saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, an incredibly interesting film, though rife with it’s own set of problems regarding masculinity and entitlement. Taped to the main character’s dressing room mirror, a talisman against relying on the critics, is a brief maxim: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” I cannot encourage you enough to go and see Interstellar—or any film for that matter—and make up your mind for yourself. Do not feel burdened by the need to understand every part of it—I certainly don’t—or to have an opinion that can be whittled down to 140 characters. There are no prerequisites for going to the movies, and no one has the ability to tell you what you’re going to feel when you see a film. Just go gently into that dark theatre. Let the lights die and allow yourself to be reborn in the firsthand experience. See the world, things dangerous to come to. See behind walls, draw closer. Find each other, and feel. That, above all else, is the purpose of film.


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.


Through the Machineries

by Greg Cwik

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“The reality is in this head. Mine. I'm the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, and sometimes other orifices also.”
—Thomas PynchonThe Crying of Lot 49

Inherent Vice is a feverish contradiction of a film: at once lucid and hazy, self-aware and neurotic, fiercely present and elusive. From the same lineage as Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, the Coen Brothers’ comedy-capers, and David Lynch’s poisonous love letter to Hollywood, Mulholland Dr., Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film uses genre as a tool to dig at something deeper and darker. In a way, Anderson has been building up to the sublimity ofInherent Vice since There Will Be Blood in 2007. A nearly 3-hour expose on American greed and capitalist exploitation, spiked with just enough cryptic weirdness to render Anderson's world familiar yet somehow foreign, There Will Be Blood extrapolates the cruelty underlying progress. Anderson uses his formal proficiency to sustain a singular feeling that trumps plot, buries it underground.

The story, as it were, is simple: Daniel Day-Lewis is an opportunistic, conniving, milkshake-drinking oil man named Daniel Plainview, a monster with crude oil coursing through his veins who sells the last lingering traces of his humanity for a profit. Like Plainview’s greasy mustache, the saprogenic depiction of capitalism is laid on thick and heavy, but when is capitalism ever subtle? When is religious piety ever modest? Anderson sustains his acrimonious atmosphere using bucolic scenery, Jonny Greenwood's inimitable score, and sparse, poetic dialog that subtly insinuates and screams at the same time. While far from plotless, There Will Be Blood eschews the Robert McKee School of Screenwriting in its endless pursuit of ineffable meaning.

Anderson delved ever deeper into the murk of mysteriousness with The Master, his most difficult film. It depicts the enigmatic relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix's unstable WWII veteran Freddie Quell. Across lush 65mm photography replete with azure skies and undulating waves, Anderson again takes his time, lets his camera linger, demands to be analyzed like one of Dodd’s lost acolytes. At once psycho-sexual and abstinent, disquieting and serene, it's prescient of Inherent Vice in its many beautiful contradictions that defy easy interpretation. As Pynchon himself told an inquisitive interviewer, “Why should things be easy to understand?”

And now there’s Inherent Vice, the chattier, yet calmer cousin of Anderson’s two prior films. After penning his own original script for The Master, Anderson turned to Thomas Pynchon, one of the most iconic American post-modernist writers of the '60s and '70s, for inspiration, the way he turned to Upton Sinclair for There Will Be Blood. But this time he follows the novel with exacting loyalty instead of with associative digression, despite the fact that Pynchon's labyrinthine novels, which mingle physics, math, philosophy, history, and sociology—all told with dexterous wordplay that rejects established grammar norms—have long been considered inadaptable.

Inherent Vice, considered "Pynchon-lite" by many a book snob (I'm sort of in that camp, admittedly, but I find it much more enjoyable than Pynchon's "serious" books anyway) has been erroneously described as the novelist's Big Lebowski. The non-hero, Doc Sportello, a burned-out detective with a penchant for pot, tries to solve a mystery that may not even be a mystery at all. Really, he tries to solve three different mysteries. Or maybe he doesn't.

The film is an insubordinate neo-noir in which the Mystery proper rides shotgun while Mysteriousness sits behind the wheel. Anderson weaves a tortuous tale of love and greed masquerading as a detective story. Deceit and death abound. It’s ostensibly a foolish film inhabited by foolish characters, but really it’s the one fooling you. In order to appreciate its hallucinatory beauty, you have to plant it in your memory and allow it to bloom into something more profound, something almost ontological. Inherent Vice needs time to turn, turn, turn over in your mind. As per the novel:

"What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove's difference and the universe can be into a whole 'nother song."

Doc's ex-lover Shasta Fay (a captivating Katherine Waterson, who—apropos of nothing— kind of looks like Lana Del Rey) goes missing, as does a mafia bigwig and Nazi-sympathizer Jew named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Someone gets clipped, Doc is framed, and local detective-cum-entertainer Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, having a hell of a good time as the stone-faced, iron-jawed cop), nicknamed for his habit of kicking down doors and violating civil rights, shows up to make Doc's life hell. Doc and Bigfoot have history, though, given Doc’s decrepit memory, it's a bit fuzzy.

With help from his Maritime lawyer friend Sauncho Smilax (the excellent Benicio Del Toro), Doc embarks on a misadventure full of inscrutable characters and roundabouts. He encounters a coke-huffing dentist/syndicate front man in a deep, almost ultraviolet velvet suit (Martin Short, hysterical and overdue for a comeback); the drug-using daughter (Sasha Pieterse) of the syndicate's lead lawyer (Martin Donovan); a licentious, warm-hearted call girl (Hong Cau); and a coterie of other oddballs. The cast is all-around excellent, though Short steals every scene into which he slithers, all powder-nosed and paranoid, and Del Toro hasn't been this much fun since Sin City (which is painful to type). The whole film is pervaded by a deep, dark, often inexplicable sense of humor—dick jokes, poop jokes, untamed vaginas and deft wordplay are all present and accounted for, and Anderson displays a unique style of humor he only previously insinuated (Day-Lewis gets a few dark howlers in There Will Be Blood, though the jokes are always usurped by genuine horror; milkshakes are all fun and games until Paul Dano gets his skull caved in by a bowling ball pin). When you get down to it, Anderson seems almost ebullient compared to his previous films.

Like Anderson’s last two flicks, Inherent Vice poses questions without answers and offers irrelevant answers to queries unparsed. It demands repeated viewings so it can expand in the mind like a plume of smoke: key pieces of information aren’t so much withheld as they are left unchecked until late in the film; the visuals reveal clues, if “clues” is indeed the right word, that only make sense, if “sense” is the right word, once you’ve seen subsequent scenes. Dialogue is spat out quickly and without room to account for the copious amounts of laughter it spurs. Almost demure in its depiction of the world as a greedy, self-loathing Ouroboros, it offers a different, no less dour but considerably more romantic view of Western Society, propelled by the inertia of a broken heart and guided by dumb fucking luck. Unfurling at the erratic pace of a pot-smoking sad sack’s solipsistic musings, the film converges Sportello’s personal problems and his cases, which leaves him, and the viewers, confused. Pynchon understands the monochrome world of hard-boiled detectives better than most, and his novel is at once a loving lark of the genre and a genuine masterclass in the form. Way back in his mind-fuck of an opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, he revealed the secret to mystery fiction: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.”

In a way, though, Inherent Vice is absurdly simple: Doc is disconsolate because he lost his girlfriend, and his desolation, combined with his smoking habit, is messing with him. The gravity of the situation, whatever the situation is, eludes Doc in the face of his heartbreak. More vitative than vindictive, Doc is one of the few genuinely good, innocent male characters Anderson has conjured—the auteur usually deals in dicks and greed, but the innocuous Doc is chained to his scar-tissue heart. Chandler said dead men are heavier than broken hearts, but don’t tell Doc that.

“Through the machineries of greed, pettiness, and the abuse of power, love occurs,” Pynchon writes in The Crying of Lot 49. By that logic, Doc is just another cog in the vast, well-greased machine, but he’s popped out of place and is rattling around somewhere in the dark.

The world couldn’t care less that Doc’s heartbroken. Everyone wants to get paid; no one wants to get dead. The mystery of the Golden Fang and the missing girl and the missing guy and the other missing guy basically comes down to good old American greed, something a private eye with smelly feet and sloppy mutton chops wouldn’t know much about. Mention greased palms to Doc and his mind is likely to wander somewhere more salacious.

Inherent Vice feels small and insular, a less-than-profound genre romp with little self-awareness. Channeling The Big Sleep (whose lack of conclusion baffled even its director, a Mr. Howard Hawks), Inherent Vice has no closure, or major apparent themes. Already its detractors have labeled it pointless and sloppy; the first is a forgivable misunderstanding, while the second is just lazy-ass movie watching. Senselessness is the theme, confusion is the point. It's hyper-self-aware, like a stoner on edge, to the point of seeming oblivious. It can't see the forest for the trees because it's too busy smoking trees.

As with the contrast and clash of personalities and emotions in The Master, elucidated by the imagery and syncopated rhythm, feeling lost and dazed is the hippie heart of Inherent Vice. Doc doesn't know shit, and neither do we. No one really knows anything—even the one character we think we have a beat on, Brolin's unflinching, admonishing, flat top-sporting cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, manages to elude us in the end. Bigfoot shows up, aptly announcing his presence by kicking down Doc’s door, and proceeds to literally pile handfuls of marijuana in his mouth like a chubby little child in Wonka’s factory. Why? As Doc so articulately opines: “Fucking Bigfoot. Well, wouldn’t you know.”

But maybe you wouldn’t.


Greg Cwik writes, often about movies, sometimes for money. He's a regular contributor to Vulture and Indiewire, and his work also appears in The Believer, Slant, Sound on Sight, Movie Mezzanine, and elsewhere. THE SOPRANOS > THE WIRE.


Hell is Other People

by Bob Schofield

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Sometimes I look at the news and think the world is eating itself. It happens pretty often, but this year more than most. There’s been a lot of viciousness in the air, and little to feel enthused about. It’s the same old story, really. There are people with too much money, too much power, and too many lies, using all three against a lot more people who have nothing to their name. This isn't new, but somehow the seams feel like they’re straining in a way they hadn’t before. I wonder if that’s really the case, or if it's just that I’m getting older, angrier, more cynical. The last thing I want to be is the guy waiting for the world to end with "I told you so” tattooed on his face. Still, there's a pessimistic voice in me I can't ignore. Sometimes I just think it’d be easier to run away, or at least be alone, but there’s nowhere to go. The moon’s too far away, and I don’t know how to swim. If only I could clear my head, or let things get quiet. My thoughts would become steady and soothing. My head would be a clean white room.

There's a moment at the end of Snowpiercer where Curtis (Chris Evans), alone for the first time in seventeen years, enters just such a clean, white room. He's fought long and hard to reach it, lost just about everyone he knows in the process. He's staring into the engine, the "sacred engine" that powers the train that has been carrying the last vestiges of humanity, huddled inside for nearly two decades, trapped as moving parts within a caste system extending in all its rigidity down from the front to the wretched, overcrowded tail section. The world they travel is a frozen waste. Everything outside the train is dead, and, after Curtis and his fellow oppressed tail section passengers stage a bloody revolution, most of the inside is dead too. I see Curtis’ dirt smeared face as he stares into the engine, the soft machine that powers the world. It is row after row of white cylinders, moving in slow, perfected harmony. There’s a low and sonorous humming. The light is blinding after so much darkness, so much grey and filth in compartment after compartment. I’m reminded of Dante reaching the beating heart of the universe. I think of ancient cosmologies. I behold celestial spheres.

*

Snowpiercer works because of its momentum. It goes beyond the obvious symbol of the train, beyond layers of thematic content, and bleeds into Joon-ho Bong’s filmmaking on a technical level. The camera doesn’t let you catch your breath. The film is a marvel of cinematic efficiency. It opens with a series of overlapping soundbites and a single intertitle, informing us that a chemical released into the atmosphere with the intention of halting global warming has, ironically, frozen the earth and terminated all life. The only survivors have crowded inside a massive train, continually circling the globe. The camera opens on crystalline stillness, a planet in the grip of absolute zero. Then the train screams past. Cut to the filthy metal walls of the tail section. We are on board now, traveling the grim, grey world within the world.

We meet Curtis, and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). They rescue security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Kangho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko), who are the only ones that can open the giant, computer-sealed gates separating one compartment from the next, the haves from the have-nots. John Hurt emanates a quiet dignity as Gilliam, the requisite wise old man. He is a calm but inhuman presence, shambling around on makeshift prosthesis. He has no hands, just the crook of a cane or umbrella. His legs are pipes and crutches. He’s a strange, almost humorous sight. One of the film’s many grotesques. What exactly happened to Gilliam? You would wonder if the film didn’t move so quickly, if the viewer was not immediately swept up by the obvious injustice perpetrated against the tail section passengers, and invested in Curtis’ plans to take the train from the mysterious and dictatorial Wilford, and set things right.

But the brilliance of Snowpiercer, what stops it from being just another fast-paced sci-fi/action flick with modest blockbuster aspirations, is the ambivalent undercurrent that runs through the film, and, most interestingly, runs in direct opposition to its momentum. The faster everything gets, the more uneasy the viewer becomes. The conflict between the front and back of the train is always escalating, and lines between good guys and bad guys blur in the process. By the end you’re barely able to pick sides, and asking bigger questions. You wonder what the point of it all is. What can be gained by fighting when so many are left dead? What value is there in surviving when people treat each other like this? You ask yourself if maybe it’d be best if both sides wiped each other out. Maybe people are the plague. Maybe earth should be left alone, one big and quiet popsicle.

*

It’s a testament to the film that it rushes headfirst towards this place of complexity, especially as an action film. It’s always easier with white hats and black hats, but the truth is nothing is that simple. Revolutions are a messy business. That’s a matter of historical fact. It doesn’t take much to tip them toward monstrousness. Monday’s freedom fighter is quite often Tuesday’s dictator, but so much of what corrupts a resistance movement in the real world is contextual and specific. What makes Snowpiercer special is that in its intense linearity—both Joon-ho Bong’s fast-paced direction and the literal one-way train the film is set on—a unique situation is created in which the mechanisms of revolution, circular violence, and moral corruption can be seen in their essence. You’re staring at a cross-section of human viciousness. When the world is a small moving box, its variables are limited, and the film works as a control group. Like any good piece of science fiction, Snowpiercer is ultimately a thought experiment.

So you cannot help but believe Curtis when he tells Edgar, “We’ll be different when we get there.” You believe that he is a good, decent man, fighting for the basic rights of his fellow Tail Sectioners. You believe it because you think you’ve seen this before. Cinema is littered with gruff, reluctant white male saviors. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to assume you’re being handed another one. It’s almost comforting, and would certainly be the less complicated scenario. But after ninety minutes of witnessing a compounding of moral compromises, vicious pragmatism, and straight up butchery, you have to reassess your hypothesis. You have to accept that Curtis is right about himself. He is no leader, no hero, just a hollow sypher of a man, ruined by two decades in inhuman conditions.

Standing before the final gate, the one with the big metal W, Curtis smokes the last cigarette on earth, and finally explains to Nam who and what he is:

“You ever been to the tail section? Do you have any idea what went on back there? When we boarded? It was chaos. Yeah, we didn't freeze to death, but we didn't have time to be thankful. Wilford's soldiers came and they took everything. A thousand people in an iron box. No food, no water... After a month, we ate the weak... You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best… 18 years I've hated Wilford. 18 years I've waited for this moment. And now I'm here... Open the gate. Please.”

The idea of vengeance is the only thing that has kept this man moving. Yona, who was born on the train, asks him what his life was like on earth. Curtis tells her he can’t remember those first seventeen years. “I don’t want to remember anything before the train.” All that’s left in him is guilt and hatred, it’s eaten him alive. So Curtis won’t stop, or rather can’t stop, until he gets to Wilford, He wants that engine. He wants the world.

*

If the train is the world, then Wilford is its God. Or at the very least, its custodian. The train’s architect and engineer, he waits in the final compartment, on the other side of all the surreal decadence of the front section and its dilettante passengers. He lives more or less alone, and sparingly, overseeing his creation and the little people inside it from the confines of one small, sterile room. Played by Ed Harris, there’s a lean efficiency to his bearing, the kind of gauntness you see in very fit older men. His eyes are ice blue, and there’s nothing but cruelty behind those silk pajamas. Curtis has come here to kill him, to take his train, but Wilford is unafraid. If anything, he’s impressed. “You are the first person to travel the entire length of this train,” he tells Curtis. He doesn’t put up a fight. He just talks. Offers him steak, and the chance of a lifetime. He tells Curtis that he has become an old man, and needs someone to carry on his legacy. That person, he has decided, is Curtis. Slowly, methodically, he dismantles each and every one of the younger man’s assumptions. He reveals that Gilliam, who taught Curtis what little he knows about decency, had been working with him all along, just another moving piece. Every revolution was a manipulation, simply a means to thin the herd. The surplus population needed reducing:

“I believe it is easier for people to survive on this train if they have some level of insanity. As Gilliam well understood, you need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety and fear and chaos and horror in order to keep life going. And if we don't have that, we need to invent it. In that sense, the Great Curtis Revolution you invented was truly a masterpiece.”

Ever the engineer, ever the pragmatist, Wilford sneers and chews his steak. In his eyes, the world is numbers and balance. People are just parts, either to be used or thrown away.

In the heart of the engine, he asks Curtis two simple questions, “Have you ever been alone on this train? When was the last time you were alone?” For me, these are the most shocking lines in the film. Every time I hear them, the words rattle my core. It’s another instance in which Snowpiercer proves how solid its world-building is. In a world in which one thousand poor, underprivileged humans have been rattling around in the same two or three metal boxes for seventeen years straight, the concept of “privacy” would have long since gone extinct. And it’s this temptation for privacy, for solitude, that comes so close to being Curtis’ downfall. Wilford whispers his questions, now far more silver-tongued Satan than God the creator, and you see tears well up in Curtis’ eyes. They are tears of fear and gratitude. He is being offered everything he’s ever wanted, and is so close to taking it. Outside, Nam is savagely beating a Front Sectioner with a pipe. “You've seen what people do without leadership,” Wilford says to Curtis, “They devour one another.” How tempting to Curtis, to finally be free of all that brutality, of himself, to exist outside it and above it.

But escape is an illusion. Even one old man, alone at the head of the train he built, is still part of the mechanism, subservient to it. Wilford admits it freely. He runs a rag over the engine, tending to its cleanliness, just as much a prisoner as anybody else. Beneath their feet, small children are at work, sacrificing their bodies, one after another, as spare parts for the so called “Eternal Engine.” But the name is a lie, because nothing is eternal. Everything breaks down. What’s important is knowing when to accept this. When to stop fighting, and call it a day. I can’t think of an apocalypse movie that ends with as much bravery asSnowpiercer, the bravery to dole out the leanest sliver of hope, and admit that maybe the apocalypse isn't so bad after all. Maybe it's the better scenario. Maybe society is a lost cause. Who said people were such a great idea? The world, after all, is older and wiser and more creative than our little species could ever be. Maybe it’s time it tried something new, something besides a naked bipedal ape with a bunch of extra goo in its skull. The only things that walk out ofSnowpiercer alive are two innocent children, and a polar bear off in the distance. Like the train, the bear is magnificent and silent, and needs fresh meat to survive. Maybe that’s always going to be the case. Maybe either you face the monster that looks just like you, or the furry one out in the cold. After this last year we’ve had, I’m leaning towards the polar bear. At least the bear won't lie.


Bob Schofield is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June. He likes what words & pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.


If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

by Erika Schmidt

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Whiplash opens on a black screen with a slightly-too-loud-for-comfort drum roll, starting so slowly we can barely recognize a rhythm. The tempo crescendos, bit by bit, until it sounds like a machine gun. We can barely stand it: when will it break? When will we see an image, see the drummer, understand what it means?

Miles Teller's Andrew is a first-year student at a Juilliard-like music school. He wants to be a great jazz drummer. Early in the film, he catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school's most worshiped and feared director. It isn't until Andrew scores a seat in Fletcher's most elite jazz ensemble that we see how scary the director really is. He uses emotional manipulation (cozying up to Miles outside of rehearsal only to use what he finds out to berate Miles in front of his peers), degradation (name calling, slurs of all kinds), and physical abuse (throwing equipment, pitting drummers against each other in panicked hours-long battles while the rest of the band waits outside) to get the results he wants. Presumably, whatever potential he sees in Andrew marks the boy for unrelenting emotional and physical torture. Andrew doesn't give up easily. Though visibly traumatized by Fletcher's methods, he drives himself harder and harder, practicing until he bleeds, shunning his family and friends, and finally becoming unhinged by the angry tunnel vision, the constant battle. Never once does he seem to stop believing that these lengths are necessary. Why would he? In Fletcher's world, this type of suffering is made romantic. And Andrew has lapped up the Kool-Aid.

The tension of the opening scene continues to catch and release throughout the film in an often-torturous way, with an unbearable barrage of action here, a horrifying silence there. Whiplash takes advantage of our inborn tendency to respond physically to music to ratchet up the stress level over and over again and draw us further into Andrew's experience. As moviegoers, when a football coach orders his players to run extra laps, we sympathize. When we see a dancer’s torn feet, we wince. When Harry Potter struggles to learn Occlumency from Professor Snape, we root for him. But what else other than music, a form that naturally moves us, could make us empathize, feeling the exhaustion and anxiety in our own right? You don't have to be a musician to feel your pulse quicken, just as Andrew's does, when the music grows more intense or, even worse, suddenly stops at Fletcher's swiftly clenched fist. In this world, silence means something bad is coming.

Andrew's moments outside of school—with his family or his girlfriend—don't feel relaxed. They feel uneasy, wrong, frustrating, because we share Andrew's ceaseless anxiety about what will happen when he returns to class, the anxiety that renders him alien to any other relationships or scenarios. The rehearsal scenes themselves—well, even if you never been in a class with a frightening teacher, chances are you'll still feel nauseated. No matter whether you’ve spent a second of your life studying tempo, you’ll be frantically asking yourself whether you’re “not quite on” Fletcher’s.

Whiplash left me electrified with memories of my own teachers. There was one, my first year of acting class in college, who nearly put me off of the thing altogether. She dressed in black. She had us warm up in the dark, with her beating a hand drum, yelling dramatic things like, "Is that hard? Well, Hamlet is hard!" and, "If you're as invested in any of your other classes as you are in this one, then you shouldn't be here!" I quit her class and changed majors soon after. I didn't feel liberated; I felt like a coward. Only after years of hearing stories from the friends who remained in her class (one day she badgered a kid into coming out of the closet during an exercise, another day she told someone to quit because their energy was throwing off the room) and encountering better teachers using the same techniques did I realize that she, not I, was the problem.

It is so easy for teachers to build an aura around themselves, especially when their students are young and serious. So easy to proclaim, intimidate, and demand worship without actually cultivating the tools the students need to survive on their own. One of my favorite stories from college was of a young woman whose acting professor slapped her in the face as she worked on a scene, to "get her where she needed to be." Her response after the fact was wonderfully practical: something like, "Well, that's fine, but it's not like in the real world I'm gonna have a big oaf pushing me around every time I have to perform a difficult scene." The point being: what does she need to learn to be able do it herself rather than being driven there by someone else? Achieving hysteria is easier when your teacher has just slapped you in the face. Sure. There is value in knowing how to deal with a maniac every day, or how to tell the difference between a would-be cult leader and a professor. But that's not what acting students are paying to learn.

The question at the heart of Whiplash is whether extreme, abusive methods are worth it if they bring the genius out of a student artist. Fletcher believes they are. He repeatedly refers to the romantic story of Charlie Parker, who, only after having a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones, drove himself further than he would have otherwise gone to become the revered "Bird." "I push people beyond what is expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity," Fletcher says. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job." He deliberately targets his most promising students with his most vicious abuse, believing only that particular crucible will drive them to greatness.

In the final scene of the film, after months of abuse, after a near-permanent break from the art form, Andrew defies Fletcher onstage. He breaks from the performance's planned program and gives a triumphant, star-making performance. As Andrew gets lost in his own drumming, Fletcher goes from outraged to entranced. He approaches his former student slowly, nodding his head in time, effectively dancing with him, rapt. For the first time in their relationship, he hangs back and supports. A fair interpretation of this scene would be that all of the damage Fletcher wrought was worth this one moment, this turning point in Andrew's career, this ultimate earning of his teacher's respect.

But that's not all that's happening.

When Andrew finally triumphs at the end of Whiplash, the experience is between him and his teacher as much as it is between him and his music. While it's beyond satisfying to see him mouth, "Fuck you" to Fletcher as he goes off book, it's a bit of a shame to know that this moment is as much about confronting a charismatic bully as it is about achieving an artistic breakthrough. Andrew’s performance is revelatory, but we're certainly not seeing an adult mastering his craft. It's hard not to wonder what happens next. Where does Andrew go from here, after focusing all of his passion through the lens of a monster?

Let me be clear. I don't believe that pursuing life as an artist should always be easy. It is categorically not so. I understand Andrew's impulses: to focus relentlessly on getting better, even at the cost of other parts of his life, to beat himself up, to shrug off the comfort repeatedly offered by his father (Paul Reiser). It is hard to be an artist of any kind, and you constantly have to make yourself do things that frighten you; it doesn’t help to have a parent hovering with a warm blanket, tempting you to choose a smoother road. That can be as useless as a slap in the face, because it's not helping you learn how to function in the world you've chosen. Discomfort is part of it. Fear is part of it. You have to learn to live with those things. But I know now, over a decade after I let that first teacher scare me out of acting class, that there is a difference between a pursuit being extremely difficult and a teacher making a student's life hell.

The most frightening—and best—acting class of my life was a Meisner class during the School at Steppenwolf, a ten-week, full-time intensive for professional actors.

Like most techniques, Meisner isn't easy to explain quickly, but in short, it teaches actors to take the attention off themselves and put it on their partners, as well as to identify points of strong emotional resonance. The result is more honest, simple, and courageous work.

Of course, like many techniques, Meisner can be bastardized. In the wrong hands, it can be used as a tool to intimidate students and confuse them into viewing acting class as a therapy session, with the teacher serving, as Fletcher does, like an all-powerful bully rather than a guide. (It’s one of the acting methods that my first, “Hamlet is hard” teacher taught, the one she was claiming to teach when she forced a kid to come out of the closet during class.)

At Steppenwolf, our Meisner teacher, Monica Payne, operated with a tireless calm, creating a safe space for giant risks to be taken. Nothing could surprise her. After every exercise, she would jump up and approach the shell-shocked performers as if the work was just beginning. You’ve finished the scene: now let's break it down so you can understand it and move on to your next one. It was never, ever about her. It was not even about the students. It was about the work. It was professional. It was scary as hell. It changed the way I approach art.

People entered Monica's classroom wound just as tightly as they do Fletcher’s rehearsal room in Whiplash. It was just as sacred of a space. None of us was ever able to stomach lunch beforehand. But it wasn't because we were afraid of being degraded, beaten, or manipulated. It was because we had a pact: this work is important, and we are committing to it fully. Those are the sacrifices that are worth making and the fears that are worth facing. Each day, we left determined, not damaged: concerned about our work, not our teacher. Compared to Andrew, we had it easy. When he enters Fletcher's classroom for the first time, he gets a drum thrown at his head and is ridiculed until he cries.

Another scary teacher? Sheldon Patinkin. I mention him by name because he recently passed away, leaving behind a veritable legion of devoted students talking, writing, sharing their love of him with the world, not ready, never ready, to let him go. I’d like to put him down on paper. Old as the hills, bent, gruff, blunt, always demanding, almost always exactly right, Sheldon was terrifying—and he was the most tirelessly caring teacher I’ve ever had. Invested in the School at Steppenwolf being as meaningful as possible, he continually probed us to tell him what connections we were making between our different classes, whether the curriculum made sense, whether anything was missing. In one of our first meetings, he told us to remember as we went through the program that we were not blank slates. We were adults, and we brought into the room with us all of our own training, experience, and humanity. It was up to us to decide what was useful and what wasn’t.

This wasn’t coddling. (The very idea of Sheldon Patinkin coddling is difficult to summon.) Sheldon wasn't invoking Fletcher's loathed "Good Job." He was putting the responsibility on us. There won't always be a magical monster to push you. You decide who's crazy and who isn’t. You decide what to use. You decide what the definition of greatness is, and you drive yourself there.


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.


The Thing About Ghent

by Fran Hoepfner

all photos courtesy of the author

all photos courtesy of the author

“The thing about Belgium,” I explain to an attic full of comedians, microphone in hand, “is that it’s really a very normal place. It’s like the Midwest of Europe. If Europe was America, Belgium would be Wisconsin and Ghent would be Madison. There’s a ton of college students and one hill and everyone has a deep appreciation for beer and cheese.”

People laugh. I haven’t been back in the States for more than a whole day, but I’ve already written jokes about my time in Europe.

After the show, a guy comes up to me. “So, what, Belgium sucks?” he asks.

I’m horrified. “No, no,” I explain, in the way one should never have to with their jokes. “Fran Hoepfner, the persona, thought Belgium was ridiculous. Fran Hoepfner, the human person, loved every second of being there.”

In July, I found myself very much stuck where I’d been a year ago when I had graduated from college. I still worked in the service industry. I had a dead-end internship. I was writing, kind of, and I was a comedian, kind of, but mostly I was just stuck. On a particularly frustrating day of my internship, I applied to a workshop for young film critics in Ghent, Belgium. I hadn’t been to Belgium. I wasn’t even sure if I qualified as a “young film critic.” But I wasn’t doing anything and I wasn’t going anywhere, and even though I was sure I’d be edged out by grad students and young professionals, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Then, in September, several things happened in quick succession: I got a new job. I got new glasses. I got into the workshop. I called my mom at seven in the morning and said, “I think I have to go to Belgium in a few weeks,” and she said, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

The festival I attended is called Film Fest Gent (in Dutch, the ‘h’ is taken out of Ghent, but either way, it’s pronounced with a mouth-y ‘g’ sound, like you’re perpetually clearing your throat). Ghent is a relatively small city, with about 250,000 residents in total, quite a few of them students at the university. Ghent is beautiful, but not in the expected, larger-than-life European sort of way. It was normal. It was quaint. Most mornings, I was up by 8am, stopping by the corner shop for an espresso and a croissant before making my way to the theater. For about twenty minutes (the length of most walks in Ghent), I walked along quiet canals adorned by small trees, their leaves a perfect shade of October orange. I didn’t get a lot of time off in Ghent, but when I wasn’t writing or watching movies, I walked. I walked through the main square. I walked past cathedrals. I climbed a tower (as one becomes accustomed to doing in Europe).

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During the two week long 41st annual Film Fest Gent, I was responsible for seeing fourteen of the competition films, as well as anything else I could squeeze in. Besides me, there were four other young critics: one other American, as well as critics from Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I was the baby of the group. Not only was I the youngest by about almost a year, but I also hadn’t seen any Godard films yet. There was a lot for me to learn. No one tells you how tired you’ll be all the time when you’re at a film festival. It doesn’t matter what time zone you’re in (though I’m sure the jet lag doesn’t help), you are just very tired. From 9:30 am until about 2pm, I was in screenings. There’d usually be some kind of break in the afternoon, during which I’d either carve out a nook in a cafe to work on reviews or nap (and one time, both). By 7pm, we’d be back at the theaters for screenings until the end of the night. The next day everything would start over and we’d be back at it.

Festivals are amazing, not because they take place in another country or because you get up close and personal with directors and screenwriters and actors, but because everyone is there to see films. It’s all anyone wants to do or talk about. Everyone comes together over a mutual love of cinema, and it doesn’t matter if you like or dislike a film as long as you want to talk about it afterwards.

The other young critics and I met in the press lounge for a catered lunch every day. We broke bread, quite literally, and found a way to disagree constantly about all of the films we saw.

“It was too melodramatic. Too soppy, too ridiculous,” someone would say.

“Are you kidding me? It was completely devoid of any emotion,” someone else would argue.

“I’m sick of movies about men,” someone else (me, almost always me) would say.

Because all the films are part of a festival with some type of submission process, you convince yourself everything is going to be good. Scratch that. They’re all objectively good, no doubt, but just like any feature film experience, some will be engaging and fantastic while others will have you rolling your eyes.

There were three competition films that played on already tired, mean-spirited anti-heroes: Waste Land, from Belgium, Stratos, from Greece, and Black Coal, Thin Ice, from China. There was also the Danish film Jauja with Viggo Mortensen as an 19th century military officer in Argentina. This was shot in small, square frames with rounded edges, like an Instagram photo, and while it could best be described as a Western, there was more desert-wandering than gun-shooting. My dislike of these films, of course, was completely subjective: Jauja won a special mention by the festival judges.

But then there was Leviathan: a beautiful and bleak Russian film clocking in at almost three full hours. There was also an Israeli film, The Kindergarten Teacher, which functioned almost as an anti-Dead Poets Society, asking what happens when a teacher gets too close, too involved. Of the non-competition films, I found myself head over heels with the impeccably charming Pride and quietly romantic Fury. “Did Belgium turn you into a Shia LaBeouf apologist?” a friend from home asked. The answer to that question is yes.

Force Majeure (a Swedish film which I saw under the title Turist) will be one to talk about for years to come. It was both the best film I saw at the festival and the best film I have seen this calendar year. Dark and scathingly funny, it’s about a picturesque family on a picturesque ski vacation.

About twenty minutes in, the family experiences as traumatic event (which, though evident in the trailer for the film, I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t seen it), and they cope with the emotional repercussions for the remainder of the film. Lead actors Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are equal parts wonderful and terrifying as Tomas and Ebba, the married couple in question, who are pushed to the brink of their relationship. They experience almost every possible emotion in their five day vacation. Their anxiety and paranoia spread to other hotel guests, including their friend Mats and his young girlfriend Fanny. Kristopher Hivju, who plays Mats, is perhaps best known for his role as Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones. He’s a comic highlight of the film: big and strong with the self-confidence of a middle-schooler. I would never describe Force Majeure as an outright comedy, but it certainly has enough solid laughs for every moment of cringe-worthy, passive-aggressive dialogue.

The whole film is beautiful. The skiing sequences are overwhelmingly silent. I’m not sure there’s been another film that so accurately captures both the beauty and claustrophobia of skiing vacations. The surrounding mountains and cliffs are immense, but at the end of the day, everyone is stuck in a lodge, forced to cope with the people they came with. Force Majeure is a complete experience, and it’s not one to be missed.

I ultimately watched 22 films during the festival. I came back from Ghent on a Friday afternoon, and by Sunday night, I was already back in a movie theater in Chicago. “I’m sure you’re completely exhausted from movies,” my friend said as we walked up to the ticket counter.

“Is that some kind of joke?” I asked, and then bought my tickets.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


This Is Where I Have Been Living

by Kelsey Ford

The beginning of 2014 could not have been metaphorically kinder to me. The morning of January first, I made a continental landing on Antarctica. I climbed an untouched, pure white glacier and perched on a rock at the top. An iceberg calved and bounced into the bay beneath me. A dry, chill breeze cut against my cheeks. I wanted that moment to be more than a metaphorical blank white page, but I dreaded the new year. I’d gone on Lexapro weeks before. 2013 had shredded me and 2014 already felt heavy and small. I knew my depression was justified, but it wasn’t fixing anything. What had been taken from me was already gone.

The Lexapro kicked in, but it took longer for my actions to follow. I’d curate Sundays in bed around a theme: movies based on books about doubles (The Double and Enemy), movies I worshipped in middle school (Two Weeks Notice andThe Truth about Cats and Dogs and Romancing the Stone), the original and the remake (Sabrina with Humphrey Bogart andSabrina with Harrison Ford). I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on a train ride down the pacific coast; Rosemary’s Baby while home sick in bed; North by Northwest while dog-sitting in an apartment with an envy-inducing DVD shelf.

These marathons were about remapping. My internal topography had been decimated and I wanted to find my new edges: what I cared about, what I didn’t. What bothered me, grated me, hurt me, healed me. And especially: what questions I cared about asking.

On April 27th, during one of those early Sunday marathons, I pulled up The Invisible Womanand hit play. I didn’t know much about the movie. I knew it had been written by Abi Morgan (a screenwriting god), and I knew it was about Charles Dickens’ mistress. This was enough. That it was directed by and starred Ralph Fiennes, alongside Felicity Jones, was just garnish.

When we meet Nelly Ternan (Jones), she is already haunted. Alone on a fogged beach, eyes heavy and solemn, having already lived through the story we’re about to watch: the careful courtship of Nelly by Charles Dickens, after he sees her charmingly amateur performance in a play by Wilkie Collins; the consummation, the sweet and sincere ardor between the pair, the stress of keeping it secret.

The Invisible Woman sings in its silence and the way it settles into sadness. It shows you what Nelly was given, what she was offered, and what was softly taken away. In a particularly brutal scene, the train she’s on with Dickens crashes. Even though she’s hurt, the clandestine couple agrees he should leave her and go help others, lest anyone notice them together and guess at the furtive trip they’d taken.

The fate of a mistress is that of solitude. You will never be coupled. You will never be claimed. You are a secret not even you can tell.

There are beautiful speeches from Dickens—“You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since–on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the lights, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets.” But the movie’s most true moment belongs to Nelly. After Dickens’ death, when she’s married with children, a guest recognizes her from those early years in London and confronts her, guessing at the secret she’s kept all these years.

She trembles with the memory. “Charles understood that however painful it is, we are alone. Whoever we are with, we are alone,” she says. She talks aboutGreat Expectations and how he wrote it so Pip and Estella don’t end up together. “Pip’s final words are – ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ – He ends the book in shadows, you see, a place of uncertainty, of haunting. And that is where I have been living. Do you see – ?”

He ends the books in shadows. In a place of uncertainty, of haunting.

“And that is where I have been living.”

A few months later. July 4th. I’m in San Francisco, visiting on a ten day trip to the west coast. The next weekend, I’d be up in Oregon at an emotional family memorial. I’d planned the trip to SF to frontload that eventual sadness with friendship and views of the ocean.

My friend, A, and I decided to go see Obvious Child, rather than try and hazard our way through crowds we were old enough (mid-twenties) to know we’d hate. We bought a bag of awful sour gummies with a burst of jelly in the middle and settled into two plush leather armchairs in the front row.

Obvious Child is the sharp, witty, emotional movie about Brooklyn and mistakes and friendship and family that I needed. Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, the film is about Donna, her comedy, and the abortion she has after a one night stand.

If I’m grossly over-simplifying, it’s because this movie doesn’t belong to its outline. It belongs to its moments: the scene where she’s packing up the bookstore, sitting in a box, when the guy she just slept with comes in and asks her out to a burrito and she panic-declines him; the line from her comedy set: “Does it count as exercise if you are just squeezing your body all the time super- hard super-tight, cause you’re just crying so hard?”; the scene where Donna stands outside her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, sipping coffee, thinking “If that woman crosses after my second sip I’ll leave” (she does) and she still doesn’t leave, until her ex-boyfriend emerges with his new girlfriend, and she tosses the cup of coffee and flees.

But the moments that mattered most to me—sitting next to A, eating our smuggled candies—were the ones where Donna looked for support and her friends and family gave it, without question, without drama. It’s refreshing, to have a movie tell these moments honestly, rather than dramatically. “Does it hurt?” Donna asks Nellie (played by a dry, loving Gaby Hoffmann). When Donna climbs into bed and tells her mother, expecting to be chastised, she’s given love and reassurance: “I’ve been there too.”

No one questions what she’s done, or how she responds when backed into a corner. OfObvious Child’s many triumphs, I would argue this is its greatest one. There is no moralizing. There’s love and support and plenty of self-deprecation.

After we left the theater, A and I hugged goodbye. It was 8:30 at night on the Fourth of July and we both felt like going home to bed. I walked up the steep streets to the house where I was staying, bought a bottle of wine on the way and opened it on the dusty patio which looked down on the bay. I got there right as the fireworks began bursting, up into a thick layer of fog so the explosions looked like a-bombs going off. Again and again.

Here is another truth Obvious Child gets right: when you’re on the brink, you don’t wait. You jump.

September 6th. I’m back in New York. Friends want me to come out, but I make an excuse and settle onto my couch to watch Frank. A movie about a musician who never takes off his fiberglass head with a painted-on smile and wide-moon eyes.

Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, is in a band named the Soronprfbs. The kind of band you can’t tell your friends about, because you can’t pronounce their name. Things are okay for them––they have their own rhythm and they don’t particularly care about communicating that rhythm to listeners. But then their keyboardist tries to drown himself and they pull in newbie Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Jon is eager to get the band recognition, pulls them into SXSW, and detonates the careful ecosystem the members had built up over years of strangeness.

Jon rattles the careful scaffolding Frank has constructed around his process and his person. When Jon asks Frank to take off his fiberglass head, Frank refuses: “I have a certificate!” When Jon says it’s difficult to know how Frank is reacting, because of the mask, Frank externalizes his emotions: “Welcoming smile”; “Flattered grin, followed by a bashful half-smile.” Frank is the band’s center. When Jon’s meddling pushes him too far, he crumples, acts out, disintegrates, then disappears.

Here’s a new thing that started happening in 2014 for me: crying. I hadn’t really cried in four years, and then suddenly, I’d spend evenings having feelings about something someone said to me, crying, and then going to bed. I was so unfamiliar with the sensation of it that I had to ask a friend: “Is it normal to feel so washed out the day after crying?” Another topographical change I had to chart and catalog.

I cried at the end of this movie, after the band had shattered and before any of the characters made a move to fix what had been broken. I found myself with tear-stained cheeks and a slight sallow feeling in my chest.

There’s a risk and fear and anger that goes into creating anything actual and honest. Any attempt to create is built on a rickety foundation, and when someone comes and kicks it out from under you without realizing what they’ve done? That’s what got me. That swooping sensation beneath externalizing any of your interior, and the immediate after-thought: what have I done.

This is a movie about language and communication. About what needs to be broad, and what should be kept small and specific and singular. It’s about creating and about hiding. It’s about safety and danger and dread.

The next day, I texted my friend again: “Are you sure this feeling is normal?”

A month later. I have a few hours between work and therapy, so I walk down to the Angelika and catch an early evening screening of Tracks. I’d read a review about the solitude that saturates the film, and I wanted that, after a day of being shuffled against and surrounded by strangers in the city.

Tracks is based on a memoir by Robyn Davidson, about the solo trip she took across the outback in 1977, accompanied by one dog and four camels. Played by Mia Wasikowska, Robyn is intent on solitude. When asked why she wants to make the trip, she shrugs and says, “Why not?”

The movie is full of beautiful shots of the outback, stretching out like a rubber-band around Robyn. The palette is dusky, orange, shot through with blue and green.

As if this movie were itself a desert, oases are necessary. Adam Driver is this movie’s shimmering pond and inviting shadow. He plays Rick Smolan, the photographer the National Geographic provided to shoot a story about Robyn’s trek; in exchange, they financed it. At regular intervals, Rick cuts through Robyn’s solitude in his Jeep, blasting music, tracking her progress when she doesn’t want to be tracked. He’s vital to this movie, if only because every fresh absence accentuates the silence and loneliness of Robyn’s journey.

These are the scenes that spoke to me the most, in that intense, visceral way movies do when they find you in the right moment.

There are moments of pristine crystal in Robyn’s dialogue. She says: “I can deal with pigs really easily, but nice people confound me. You know, how can you tell a nice person that you wish they’d crawl into a hole and die?”

But most importantly: “Some nomads are at home everywhere. Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”

After the movie let out, I walked north to therapy and thought. I pushed my way through crowds, and I thought more. And then I sat on the couch and said, again, as I had been saying for months, that I wanted to move. I needed the west coast and I needed space for my introversion. In New York, I’d return home already exhausted and spent, drained by the strangers I’d bumped up against all day. I wanted moments no one else could own.

The Invisible Woman opens with an epigraph from Charles Dickens: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”

Choosing a path you want to take solely because you want to take it doesn’t make that choice selfish. It makes it yours. Even if no one wants to follow you. Even if you find yourself caked with dust and delirious with thirst.

In the final months of 2014, I decided to fight. It was a gambit that felt insane and fake, but somehow became real. A project I’d been working on for the better part of a year finally found its legs and the little it gave me was enough. I left a steady job. I left New York. I moved to California. Let’s see who I can be there, I decided. Let’s see if that person will be better than the one I’ve already been.

As in Tracks: “I believe when you’re stuck in one spot for too long it’s best to throw a grenade where you stand, and jump…and pray.”

And that’s what I did. I chose my secrets. I didn’t answer any questions. I didn’t heal.

I threw a grenade.


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.


Call of Duty

by Matt Patches

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When our family cat died, my parents sent me a text. A mass e-mail was the logical response to a close friend's sudden hospitalization. My most recent job offer came through a Twitter DM. That-guy-from-high-school announced his divorce with a Facebook post. And just last week, an automated message comforted me in a dark moment: Everything is OK, dinner will be there in thirty minutes or less.

The Age of the Phone Call is dead. As a device, the phone is more important than ever —our past, present, and future available with a few buttonless clicks. But line-to-line conversation trembles on a plank's edge, one step away from joining “paging,” “rewinding tapes,” and “burning mix CDs” in the watery graveyard of defunct technology. Though it's hard to imagine phones losing their ability to make phone calls (does 911 have an app?), don't underestimate the Silicon Valley think-tankers and venture capitalist enablers dedicated to making life simpler. In ten years, we'll have a tough time remembering how we lived without [enter name-of-invention-that-ensures-we'll-never-speak-to-one-another-ever-again here]. Life was so hard when we had to express ourselves to invisible interlocutors.

Anything lost from phone conversation's slow death, the good and the bad, is eulogized in writer-director Steven Knight's one-man drama, Locke. Chronicling the title character's 90-minute highway drive from a construction site in Birmingham to a hospital in London, Knight's film is a Bluetooth-enabled life bomb. As Locke (Tom Hardy) stews inside his 2012 BMW X5, he is hours away from the greatest accomplishment of his contractor career: pouring a cement foundation for the UK's tallest skyscraper. But he's not around to oversee the final preparations, sending his coworkers into a tizzy. No, Locke is en route to the city to aid a frantic woman in labor with his child, a one-night stand from nine months prior. At some point, when the time is right, he'll tell his wife.

Locke is the Pinteresque answer to hands-free cell phones. Suffocating confines stress the nuance of dialogue, unique to phone calls. In face-to-face dialogue, personalities entangle, mannerisms complicate sentences, and subtext erupts. There is breathing space when two people are together in a room. Expression can fill silence.

Not over the phone. There's no showing through a microphone. When Locke admits to his wife that his forgettable, drunken mistake resulted in a bastard child, he can't drop to his knees and beg for mercy or somehow prove his regret runs deeper than a line. Words are his only hope, articulating emotion through the mobile ether. Knight allows us to see Hardy build up a defense for his adulterous actions. He plays Locke as calm, though noticeably crushed. Rational. There's no rationality over the phone — Locke can't go beyond the literal. Every apologetic call digs the husband's grave deeper and deeper. His wife sobs on the other end. If only he could reach out and comfort her....

Knight is one of the creators behind the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, famous for its "Phone-a-Friend” lifeline. The game show's ticking clock limited any search engine cheats—the person you called either knew it or not. Locke takes this notion to the next level. All the binders, paperwork, and blueprints in his office can't help a bumbling underling prepare for the following day's concrete pour. Locke needs to phone in with knowledge and confidence. This is not Google's job just yet. Highly sophisticated artificial intelligence doesn’t have the bark to snap a peon out of a two-pint stupor, can't consider the caustic personalities that will go off when a highly detailed parking plan doesn't adhere to logic. Lifelines require a personal touch.

If it sounds dry as hell, it is. That's part of Locke's uphill battle. He can't be there to loom over his coworkers, he has to inspire them with words. This he's good at. Locke pairs detailed explanation with Walt Whitman-isms, that completing this pour means stealing the sky with their magnificent building. He screams at his second-in-command to stop praying for help:“You don't trust God with fucking concrete.” They're words that wouldn't come out in a business e-mail. Locke blacksmiths his words with hammering inflection. This is why we talk on the phone, Knight tell us. To tap into our potential for spontaneity, provoke the poets within.

In Locke, expertly constructed theatrics transform the phone into a new object for every scene. It can be a weapon, Locke firing cannonballs into the UK bureaucracy all from the comfort of his luxury sedan; It can be an emergency kit, sedating his paranoid friend all the way through her turbulent pregnancy; Later, it's a barrier for parental control, Locke keeping his wife's break at bay by distracting his kids with football chitchat. With so many plates in the air, Knight taps the phone to show every side of his Regular Joe character. The writer-director proves that, when Alexander Graham Bell invented electromagnetic voice transmitter, he created the rawest form of communication the planet would ever see.

Locke doesn't attempt tidy conclusions. The long road is still filled with streaked lights and automotive companions. But Locke is changed. Before he was an order-giver, a casual liar, a cold-hearted man outrunning a fear of being a cold-hearted man. He couldn't keep the charade up in a series of phone calls. Alone with his voice, Locke became the best and the worst of himself. There was no more acting (a testament to everything Hardy does on screen). What's lost when the phone call disappears? Ourselves, perhaps. “The cat died” is information in need of heart. A Facebook post avoids the pressure of saying it out loud. Mass e-mails are for no one. Placing a phone call can be painful, complex, revelatory, but as Knight discovers in Locke, it's always full of humanity.


Matt Patches is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured in Grantland, Vulture, Esquire, and VanityFair.com. 


Seen and Unseen

by Mary Joe Hughes

illustration by Nicoletta Gomboli

illustration by Nicoletta Gomboli

I. THE KING OF THE HIGH LIFE

“People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative.” This line from Céline’s 1932 novel Journey to the End of Night introduces The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. The film won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film of 2013 and opened here to widespread critical acclaim. And yet many thoughtful and well-educated acquaintances of mine either walked out or dismissed it almost with disgust.

I myself found it a film of unusual power, and was puzzled to discover that I was in something of a minority among people I respect, so I went back to see it again. And no, it doesn’t work well as drama. It flaunts the illusory quality of its surface story, as if to say that the actual focus of the film is merely a façade. Everything is “a fictitious narrative.” Real life is what isnot on the screen most of the time. The film simply defies assumptions of what cinema should be. This dizzying contrariness, along with the absence of a compelling plot, might explain the polarization in its reception, and it haunted me for weeks afterward. I wanted to understand how The Great Beauty could be so off-putting and so moving at the same time.

The film centers around Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a bon vivant moving among the pretentious excesses of wealthy Romans who carry the age-old tradition of Roman decadence and taste for spectacle into the Berlusconi era. Jep turns 65 as the film begins, informing us that he had come to Rome wanting to be “the king of the high life,” to have the power to make parties a failure. He’s also an occasional journalist writing stories about local events and (generally appalling) performance art, having abandoned fiction after one important success many years past. Mostly, however, he moves from one vacant party scene to another, while witnessing both the arresting beauty and the social vacuity of his surroundings. (At least the tourists appreciate Rome, he observes.)

The audience is forced to watch as he watches, and alongside the scenes of undeniable architectural and artistic splendor, what we mostly see is pretentious contemporary art, hyper-eroticism, and too many parties. Jep appears all-too-conditioned to these social surroundings, asking a neighbor where he gets his suits, coaching an aging stripper on how to dress and act at a funeral, sleeping with random women, and dancing into the night.

As viewers, we see (along with Jep) the self-absorption and preoccupation with show that have largely displaced the artistic treasures of the Roman past. These cultural remnants now stand as a reminder of what has been lost, overshadowed in the present by pure spectacle. In the first party scene, an actor tells his companion that he has played both a pope and a junkie, and they refer to a former TV showgirl who now does nothing since there are no good female roles. This dialogue is no accident. It highlights the indiscriminate nature of performance, while introducing the demeaning objectification (and sometimes self-objectification) of women in the film. Contrast the image of the showgirl to the modestly dressed nuns and yearningly beautiful depictions of Madonna and child, visions that unfold before us as we see Rome through Jep’s eyes. Though he is clearly sensitive to beauty as well as to cant, he continues to live a life that favors show over substance. It’s a hollow performance.

While he watches and wanders through Rome in the wee hours, we are subjected to one repetitive scene after another as we look through his eyes. Much of the drama unfolds within his character, though it is easy to miss given his persistent participation in “nothingness.” A few things happen, of course—including three deaths and the departure from Rome of an old friend—but there isn’t much of a storyline or dramatic climax. Adding to the potential ennui of the audience, the plot is loosely based on Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita, and can be dismissed as nothing more than a pastiche of old material.

In short, this is a film that doesn’t appear to offer what we look for in films: an original story, a plot with sustained and meaningful interactions or conflict among the characters. Instead it is a pageant of shallow behavior and apparently disconnected scenes, though some of them are undeniably gorgeous to see. Reasons for distaste seem obvious.

II. WHAT’S UNDERNEATH

But there is another The Great Beauty going on at the same time, hinted at by literary devices, as well as by art and music. Literary elements can certainly be found in many films, but in The Great Beauty these elements, not the action, play a greater than usual role in conveying meaning. And much of this underground meaning plays out beneath and even contrary to the visual surface, as if parts of that surface were a mask or an illusion. We understand Jep’s invisible interior life not through action, but through language that relies to an unusual degree on irony, nuance, and de-contextualization.

The Great Beauty suggests that much of life is potentially illusory; accordingly, much of the surface of the film is a kind of dream. It is as if the film has an unconscious that is in conflict with its own conscious life, and we the audience must listen carefully to the patient to catch the real meaning.

But before examining this subterranean layer, it is worth establishing what is clear on the surface. This is a film about death. Jep’s 65th birthday signals his own approaching mortality, underscored by the three deaths that punctuate the drama. First, he learns of the passing of the woman he loved as a very young man. This sad discovery is followed by the suicide of the son of one of Jep’s friends, and then the death—presumably from drugs—of the daughter of another. “Everything is dying, people younger than me. I am not cut out for this city,” he observes.

These tragic events lead Jep to consider life’s meaning beneath the surface. Of particular significance is an art installation Jep encounters soon after his birthday—an enormous series of photographs of the artist taken every day of his life, first by his father and then by himself. At first it might be easy to mistake this exhibit for another example of the kind of self-promotion that is rife in Jep’s social set, like the woman who posts nude pictures of herself on Facebook. But this contemplation of life’s passage—mortality acknowledged and raised into art—has a very different effect. Upon seeing it, Jep is deeply moved. The soundtrack underscores such moments of recognition with contemporary musical works of unusual spiritual power. These musical cues in the film are normally, though not exclusively, associated with the artistic treasures of the Roman past—that is, with moments of great beauty.

Faced with this awareness of time’s arrow, Jep thinks his life is “nothing.” He has missed out on the love of his life and failed to live up to his promise as a writer. He all but embodies what has happened to Rome. But though he feels an emptiness, it does not seem to affect his behavior. This is what distinguishes The Great Beauty. We have to look beneath the surface action, following irony or nonverbal clues, in order to grasp Jep’s inner struggle. Even when the cluesare verbal, they point to what is not there in the actual life portrayed on the screen.

Real life, then—Jep’s life on the surface—is merely a façade, and he knows it.

III. ROOTS

What, then, really matters in life?

What matters, according to Jep, is not the “chitter chatter” that has taken over the lives of so many of his acquaintances. Family, he tells a young woman, is “a beautiful thing”—yet there is hardly a trace of family in the film. Instead we see an array of single people and failed marriages. Family is noteworthy for itsabsence.

The lovelessness and aimless coupling that we encounter on the screen signify, among other things, the death of the future, a death symbolized in the film by the younger generation. What matters is what is absent from the future, what isnot there in the life Jep is leading among the socialites of Rome. The future has been lost, cut loose from the past. This, according to an interview with Servillo, is the difference between the films of Fellini and The Great Beauty. In Fellini’s work you could still see a future. The later film represents a different period in Italy.

In fact, the three foci of Italian life—family, church, and community—are all mostly absent from the segment of Roman society we observe in The Great Beauty. “Roots are important,” says that saintly nun at the end. She may be talking about food, but we hear her talking about human connections. In this film, roots have all but vanished. This is surely the reason Jep’s old friend leaves Rome for his hometown. Rome is for the unmoored. What keeps Jep somewhat grounded is the semblance of family he enjoys over bowls of soup with his editor, or joking in the kitchen with his housekeeper. These homey scenes with unglamorous women are offered in contrast to the female members of the beau monde with whom he sleeps and parties. “Roots” are what is mostly not there in the Rome of Jep’s party-going crowd: a loving community, true friends, fellow feeling.

At another point the slippery nature of language again suggests the subterranean layer of the film that is not there on the surface. The same aged nun (La Santa) comments that “you can’t write about poverty; you have to live it.” A cardinal overhears her and looks chagrined, as he revels in high society decked in crimson while pontificating about the pleasures of food. He’s a heavy-handed symbol of hollowness within the church.

But the nun’s comment holds a different meaning for Jep. She had admired his novel, and asks him why he had never written another. He explains that he had been looking for “great beauty” but had never found it. Hearing her say that one cannot write about something without living it surely suggests to Jep that he cannot maintain his stance as a casual observer of social vacuity if he wants to write something of substance, something of “great beauty.”

IV. GOING NOWHERE

It is not by accident that Flaubert’s desire to write a book about nothing comes up more than once. Jep knows that he has preoccupied himself mostly with nothing, and his (later) writing reflects his life.

But when he encounters a rare loving couple, a man and woman who choose to stay home together in the evening and do “nothing,” he exclaims how beautiful they are. Unlike this couple, most people in contemporary Rome have traded substance for emptiness. At the last party we witness, everybody is conga dancing. “Our trains are going nowhere,” Jep says, meaning more than the dance. The visual dimension of the film still portrays him as a man-about-town (albeit a melancholy one), but his responses to genuine beauty and the film’s ironic use of language convey what is not there in the apparent plot and action. The life Jep has been living, the life of much of the drama, is an illusion covering up nothing.

There is show and there is beauty, and he has led a showy life.

V. THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS ENDS

It is true, however, that show sometimes leads to beauty. Think of the Roman colosseum, once the scene of brutal spectacle and now a starkly beautiful ruin that the film (unrealistically) situates across from Jep’s apartment. Sorrentino explores the show/beauty distinction without invariably associating ‘show’ with the present or ‘beauty’ with the past, as if to say that these two levels have been in conflict since ancient Roman times.

This thought prepares us for the lines from Céline that begin the movie:

Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative. Littré says so, and he’s never wrong. And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much. You just have to close your eyes. It’s on the other side of life.

This passage suggests that our journey from life to death is a kind of fiction, as is everything in the material world. It’s a false surface. Yet there is something fundamental on the other side of this deceptive screen.

We could argue that The Great Beauty is a failure because it lacks conventional drama and conflict, and because it elicits and illustrates ennui. We could even argue that it is a failure since its deeper meaning is too reliant on complex quotations at the film’s beginning and end, over which it is impossible to linger as one might with literature. But how else could Sorrentino convey two visual layers at once—the one hollow and the other full of elevated feeling—except through cinema? How else to simultaneously present the great beauty of Rome and its marginalization, except through cinema, a visual medium immeasurably enhanced in this film by the ethereal music of such composers as David Lang (I Lie), Vladimir Martynov (The Beatitudes), John Tavener (The Lamb), Arvo Pärt (My Heart’s in the Highlands), Henryk Górecki, (Symphony No.3: III Lento [Cantabile semplice]) and Zbigniew Preisner, (Dies Irae)? These transcendent works are critical to what great beauty signifies here: the sensory presence of genuine feeling.

It is a complex assignment to transmit two layers of life at once: a present-day focus on cheap sensuality and spectacle, while at the same time real beauty stares blind contemporary Romans in the face. And how else to make the philosophical case that most of the apparent action of the film is an illusion, except through nuanced language? What seems like life is actually “nothing,” while what is neglected or ignored is where all substance lies. The inner life of a perceptive character is more often the preserve of literature, but here we access it through Servillo’s expressive face as well as through artistic and literary clues.

Sorrentino has stretched the resources of cinema in order to present the dualism inherent in a writer’s sensibility, caught between observer and observed. Perhaps this is also the sensibility of Sorrentino, whose visual medium does not prevent him from ruminating on forms of beauty, for which—like roots—there can be no clear sensory evidence. The Great Beauty meditates broadly on what truly matters in the fleeting course of human life, while making a tragic case for the demise of Roman—if not Western—civilization. This is an achievement more than justifying the ennui and seeming aimlessness on the screen. While the message is immeasurably sad, it is some consolation that, by the end of the film, Jep is willing to try serious fiction again, and much greater consolation that we have been able to see and hear such beauty—still alive among the tourists, in the works of contemporary composers, and in this film.


Mary Joe Hughes is a Retired Adjunct Professor of the Humanities at Boston College. In 2013 she published The Move Beyond Form: Creative Undoing in Literature and the Arts since 1960 (Palgrave Macmillan).The Move Beyond Form combines her interests in literature, film, and the visual arts with aesthetic philosophy.


Gifts

by Karina Wolf

Silence and sentiment.
Emotion and fear.
The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.

—The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

When Christopher Nolan mapped the future of film earlier this year, he thought of format and presentation, new technologies and special features, but he said little about the types of films we’d cherish, or the reasons why we still go. What are the uses of cinema when the theater becomes just another platform for content? If television and small screen media take the place of many of the former functions of film – encompass an epic frame; add nuance to a large cast of characters; use the novelist’s eye to embrace wide thematic scope and granular characterization; depict anthropological detail large and small of contemporary life—then what is left for the domain of film? The character study dramas that might once have been the mandate of a Truffaut or a Rohmer tale contain conflicts addressed in a season’s arc on the small screen.

Spectacle is one purpose for cinema. Stories best viewed on a large screen because of the dollars allocated to their effects make the movie-going experience an amusement park. But, as at a theme park, many of the delights of the cinema of spectacle are best directed at the young, whose tastes are still nascent and who are responsive to kinetic thrills.

For the rest of us, cinema's concerns can become smaller and grander. If the takeaway of a movie has become the screen capture—four or five frames that conjure the entire experience—film is no longer at-speed, emotional time travel. It works more concisely, in a few excised images that are an aesthetic index for exalted feelings. The importance of cinema's plastic elements become exaggerated, like an advertisement— but they still carry an emotional heft. The aim now is the beautiful, and the interesting. In this respect, here are the films that demonstrate the power of cinema this year.

illustration by David Delaney

illustration by David Delaney

Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, which shucks off its literary source material as easily as Scarlett Johansson’s alien pulls on a human skin, exemplifies this approach. Johansson is celebrated as champagne in human form, and while she’s a great beauty, the essence of her appeal is her oddity. The difference between a screen actor’s appeal and a model’s has to do with the alchemy between the performer moving through space and the camera that tracks the person. ScarJo’s beauty has an alien oddity, a disproportion that is part of the desire to look at her—not just full breasts and lips, but the wide set eyes, the flared and slightly asymmetrical nose. She’s a cartoon of desire; her imperfections make her more desirable.Skin's narrative is devoted to Johansson’s vocation as predator. She drives a white lorry through Scotland and targets single men who are enjoined to accompany winsome Scarlett for a lift. She takes them to a run down house; the inside of her lair is designed in Kubrickian modern—Scarlett sheds her clothes and leads the willing men into a dark, aspic substancethey can’t escape. The film feels inevitable and persuasive like a bad dream. Like the sampling of Johansson's vocal warm up that overlays the soundtrack at the beginning, the movie is a series of gorgeous syllables in which we get trapped.

The Clouds of Sils Maria does what Iñárritu’s Birdman purports to—evaluates the virtues of a franchise star and of a dramatic actor. Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche, embodying these roles, play a star and her assistant holed up in Switzerland as the actress (Binoche) returns to the play that made her famous. The resulting two-hander is a combat between two traditions. If you wonder if there are really different styles of modern acting, the answer, definitively, is yes—Binoche is the greater in technique and bubbling-over emotion; while Stewart establishes that her career project is sincerity, and forces the film to adjust to her halting rhythms as she makes the dialogue count.

A part of every film should be something that you need to watch—it can't read like a radio play, making sense without taking account of its images. Sils Maria, with its long rehearsals of dramatic dialogue, manages to present us with a visual sublime, in the intimacy between its characters, and with its setting, in the Swiss Alps, which manages to be dangerously awesome in all senses.

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

It seems to be the fate of cinema’s vampires to become reclusive aesthetes. For Jim Jarmusch's blood-sucking couple in Only Lovers Left Alive, humans are the zombies. We destroy, we feed, we crave, but without nuance or appreciation, with lust and without delicacy. In their closeted lives, what Adam and Eve show us, what they do, makes up one of the purposes of cinema—to appreciate and to elegize. Jarmusch's thumbprint is in his gorgeously cool taste, which he records here. We step through the warren of old Tangier, or Detroit's decayed beauty; we pick through vintage rock recordings and antique musical instruments. We cherish artists whose work is so beloved that they feel like old friends, or actually are old friends, in the timeless lives of Adam and Eve.

Lovers' second pleasure is in the perfect calibration of its timing—not only in the deadpan delivery of the actors, but in the choreography of its action. When Adam and Eve trawl Tangier searching for blood sustenance, they stumble across the most serendipitous musical performance. Yasmine Hamdan and her band perform "Hal" in a whisper, with a bassline droning like a call to worship. As Adam and Eve get closer, the camera moves inside to watch the singer. The two peer through an open door, and Adam nestles his head over Eve's shoulder in order to watch. The film praises this deliberateness as a kind of high artistry, as a prayer.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night reminds us of when the 90s came along and broke open cinema again by showing us what independents are good for—revitalizing mythologies. In this Iranian vampire western, the fanged heroine is appealing, but she is not wholly good. She is a semi-silent screen heroine, with the pathos of Buster Keaton and the vengeance of an Old Testament god. She feeds only on the guilty, but the delights of the film are not mainly in vindication and justice. They rest with the mordant solitude of its lead actress, who glides through Bad City’s streets on a skateboard, wearing New Wave stripes and a black burqa; and with the silent screen sympathy of the guy who accepts her violence.

illustration by Nicola Balsebre

illustration by Nicola Balsebre

The film I watched the most last year was a 2013 release, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. It is a film rife with allusions (notably, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2), but never reduced to influence. It is a movie of excess made with modulation and control.

Let’s say the use of the crane in film is an implement of exaltation. If handheld shots and zooms telegraph an attempt at realism (the dropped-in-chaos effect of Greengrass’s Bournefilms) or a parody of realism (the shaky camera and long lenses of The Office), the crane, and to a lesser extent, the steadicam movements in The Great Beauty are an acknowledgement of all that is unnatural in filmmaking; where you feel the hand of the filmmaker presenting an aesthetic experience. Think of the angels' views of Berlin in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire—the crane gives us a movement that begins or ends above the human eyeline—a lofty cosmological viewpoint, no matter the type of world surveyed, godless or pious, chaotic or managed.

This is the crane that introduces us to Jep Gambardella, the film’s central eye, on the occasion of his 65th birthday, also the anniversary of Rome’s founding. The camera rises above the action, surveys the solitary monomania of individual dancers, catches their eye in glance after glance, until we meet Jep. The camera is so giddy and intoxicated with our hero that the frame tilts upside down. Sorrentino's parties show dance as persuasively as it's been depicted on film: the oddity of movement, the pleasure of being in tempo, the isolation within a dance. His camera catches characters as they enjoy themselves and in the blank moments between enjoyment, showing us the desperate uses of distraction.

The Great Beauty is made of pieties—its long, smoothly rolling sequences elevate its subjects. This Roman panorama is not comprised only of geographic splendor, architectural triumph, exquisite haberdashery, one percent good living. Sorrentino finds beauty everywhere—in strippers, faded it-girls, corrupted priests, beatific nuns, in men and women who have failed to live up to their promise, or who have succeeded, but who have not trumped the passage of time. The elegant takes rush toward a statue, a chorus, a performance artist, our hero, Jep. As we peer at each of these characters, the camera and the editing create a great equivalency of faces. Each visage is as treasured as the next—the pristine and the devastated, the masked and the open—a humanist equation that is revelatory, and exalting, because it is so rare.


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


I Heart the 80s

by Elisabeth Geier

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Movies in 2014 were a disappointment to me. Guardians of the Galaxy, Gone Girl,and Maleficent all showed up in fussy packaging that seemed empty inside; visually impressive but in the end, unfulfilling. Muppets Most Wanted and The Grand Budapest Hotel were fun but unsurprising, nothing I hadn't seen before. Even my girl Veronica Mars let me down. I wanted to be delighted and surprised at the movies this year, but was often left feeling frustrated and sad.

Suddenly, in the distance, a hero appeared. Dressed in bright colors and high-waisted jeans, bearing a bullwhip and an electric guitar, driving a Delorean up to the entrance of Portland's many historic movie theaters screening classics films and fan favorites alongside second-run hits of today: the Blockbuster Films of the 1980's were here to save the day. Some I had never seen before, some I had seen dozens of times, and some I never want to see again, but all of them showed me a better time at the movies than any new releases I saw this year.

I saw Big (1988) by myself on an afternoon in August even though I've seen it approximately 40 million times before and in practical terms have no need to ever watch it again. But who can apply practical terms to truest love? Tom Hanks is my favorite movie star, and Big is my most favorite of his early films. So, even though it's on cable constantly, and even though I know it by heart—from “shimmy shimmy cocoa pop” to “sock you in the stomach three more times”—I paid four dollars to see it at the Academy Theater. I paid six more dollars for a small popcorn and a beer because this is the other benefit of Portland's “brew 'n' view” theaters: 21+ screenings where you can drink for cheap.

Despite the shoulder pads, stonewashed denim, and troubling storyline of a 12-year-old boy in a man's body sleeping with a 30-something Elizabeth Perkins, Big holds up, and it's even more magical on the big screen. Penny Marshall's warm directorial style, my Hanksy's timeless charm, childhood wish-fulfillment, and the bittersweet tinge of nostalgia all come together in a film that wins me over again and again.

Back to the Future (1985) is another winner in this regard, a capital-C Classic that has been so deeply ingrained in my film vocabulary that I can't actually remember seeing it for the first time. Usually I catch it on cable, tuning in partway through, so until I saw it in the theater this year, I had actually forgotten all about the perfect opening scene. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is introduced as a pair of high top sneakers, a skateboard, and a guitar plugging into a wall of amps in his friend Doc Brown's garage. He strums one power chord and flies across the room. As he's recovering from the blast, he gets a call from Doc telling him to meet him at the mall that night. Suddenly, dozens of clock alarms go off. “My experiment worked!” Doc says. “They're all exactly 25 minutes slow.” “Doc, are you telling me that it's 8:45?” Marty asks. “I'm late for school!”. Cue Huey Lewis and the News.

This first scene is the perfect introduction to our teenage protagonist, his eccentric mentor/friend, and the electric combination of endearing relationships, funny mishaps, and troubles with time that drive the film. In case you've never seen it (what's the weather like on your home planet?), Back to the Future is about Marty's accidental journey to the past via Doc Brown's Delorean-time machine, and it is a near-perfect film. When I saw it with my friends and boyfriend, there were two women dressed as Marty and Doc at our screening, picture-perfect cosplay at the budget theater on a Sunday afternoon. Here's another point in favor of seeing movies I've already seen: the communal good will of sitting in the dark with a bunch of strangers who are just as delighted as me.

But you know what doesn't hold up, not at all, at least not for me? Indiana Jones and His Whole Deal. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with a group of pals and spent the entire movie wondering why I should care about this jerkwad and his selfish, greedy quest. I can get behind Karen Allen's beautiful bad-assery and the revenge-fantasy face-melting of Nazis, but Indiana Jones is no hero of mine. Temple of Doom (1984) is twice as baffling, and twice as racist, as Raiders. I don't understand why these are such beloved films, though maybe I would get it if I had seen them as an actual child. My friend Adam’s kids, ages eight and nine, came along for Raiders and had a wonderful time, laughing when the bad guys get gotten and cheering when Indy saves the day. Maybe it's that the Indiana Jones stories, inspired by pulp magazines and adventure serials, rely on broad archetypes best appreciated by young viewers and nostalgic adults. Maybe I should apologize for being so negative about a beloved franchise that just isn't for me at this time in my life. Or maybe Steven Spielberg should apologize to me personally for aggressively wasting my time.

Of course, it's never a waste of time to see an old movie with good friends, and that's the main reason these four dollar throwback theater experiences made my year. Consider Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), another beloved time-travel classic of my childhood that is, as it turns out, a giant stinkbomb, despite Keanu Reeve's guileless charm and George Carlin's George-Carlin-ing around. The movie follows Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Reeves), high school best bros and bandmates who have to pass history class or else Ted's dad will ship him off to military school. To accomplish this feat, they travel through time, kidnapping important historical figures (okay) in a phone booth (sure) bestowed upon them by George Carlin (WTF). I remembered the movie as silly fun, a favorite at the height of my 8th grade Keanu phase (when Speed had just come out and I was suddenly hip to the seductive power of toned biceps and a vacant stare. Watching Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure for the first time in a long time with my friend Lauren (who had never seen it before), I noticed a lot of nonsense I hadn't picked up on as a kid, including an abundance of swipe edits and casual homophobia. Bill and Ted have their moments, Keanu remains stupidly cute, and I confess Napolean's adventures at the water park still make me laugh, but overall this is not a good film. Still, it was fun to experience it in the theater, and to have something old made new again by sharing it with a friend. In that context, I suppose even Indy was a winner.

The happiest surprise of my vintage movie-going year was Dragons Forever, a 1988 martial arts comedy/romance starring Jackie Chan, Yien Biao, and Sammo Hung, known collectively as the Three Brothers. They're all very famous in kung fu cinema, but this was the first time I had seen a Jackie Chan film that wasn't in English, and the first time I had heard of the other two stars. is about three goofballs who get in fights. There's also a loose rom-com plot, a secret drug lab rivaling Walter White's under-laundry lair, and a gangster who uses guns at the beginning of the film but deploys kickboxing champions as weapons throughout the rest. I can't remember the last time I laughed so much at a movie, and I want everyone I know to see it. There are pirated versions online, but none of them contain my favorite scene, in which Biao visits his therapist and asks (I'm paraphrasing): "How is it that I, a good-looking man with talents and many friends, living in a patriarchal society that rewards good-looking, talented men, can still be burdened by sadness?" It's a perfect moment of satire in a 90 minute, uber-80's kung fu delight. The friends who invited us to Dragons Forever said it was not a good representative of the kung fu genre as a whole because its comedy was intentional and there was actually some semblance of a plot. I've never seen another kung fu film, so I don't know if this one was “good,” but I can say with confidence that Dragons Forever is the most fun I had in a movie theater this year.

Maybe all of this has nothing to do with whether movies are good or bad, and everything to do with my gravitating towards art that makes me feel young again when I'm increasingly fearful of growing old and irrelevant. Maybe it's just that popular films of the 1980's are so easy. Looking back on these familiar artifacts is comforting and safe, whereas new movies are more likely to disappoint simply by nature of being new. But if that's all there is to it, shouldn't I have loved Guardians of the Galaxy, a feel-good throwback that rubbed me in all the wrong ways, precisely because of its feel-good throw-back-iness? Maybe I'm a cynic: why can't I just lighten up and enjoy the ride?

The best new movie I saw in 2014 was the Doug Pray documentary Levitated Mass, a film all about how art can move people in powerful and surprising ways. Leviated Mass documents the genesis, planning, and realization of land artist Michael Heizer's massive sculpture of the same name, on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art since 2012. The film is a work of art about a work of art that attempts to answer the question, “what is art?” and I loved it so much I'm nervous to talk about it in any greater depth lest I get something wrong. So maybe I'm just a coward; it's a lot safer to reflect on movies people already love than examine something new and relatively unexplored.

But really, I am neither cynic nor coward. Nay, I am hopeful and bold! 2014 was the year I rediscovered how magical the actual movie-going experience can be. It was the year I realized that Indiana Jones is a toolbox, Marty McFly is a dream, and kung fu has been waiting for me all along. It was the year I decided with absolute certainty that Back to the Future is the best movie ever made, unless it's Big, or it could be Dragons Forever but I can't possibly know until I watch it at least eighty more times. Of course, with the holidays coming up, I'll have the opportunity to revisit even more classic films. In the next few weeks, I can go to one of my beloved neighborhood brew and views and see A Christmas Story (1983),Christmas Vacation (1989), Trading Places (1983), Die Hard (1988), and more. I've never even seen Die Hard. I hear it's good. Bruce Willis had nice biceps in the 80's. I'll be sure to let you know what I think.


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