Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman

There’s an old adage in the music industry that a band has a lifetime to write, assemble, and record songs for its very first record, but only a handful of months to put together its second. As a result, second records quite often fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump and, well, suck.

That notion was not lost on any of us here at BW/DR, as we feverishly worked to put together this second issue, attempting to avoid sucking while also working on a drastically reduced timeline. Thankfully, having less time only seemed to make us that much more focused, determined to get everything right. If nothing else, please know that we tried our very best to make this a Doolittle rather than a G N’ R Lies.

On Themes and Throughlines

The first issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room was purposely varied in its coverage, with essays on everything from Tokyo Story to Home Alone 2, because we wanted to offer readers a wide canvas that featured many different ways in. Moving forward, though, we plan to offer a bit more specificity in focus, building each new issue around a particular theme or throughline, with essays hovering in a kind of general proximity to one another. Not connected exactly, but swimming in similar seas.

And so this second issue revolves around entering strange and unfamiliar worlds, a swan dive into the surreal. In the pieces that follow, you’ll visit many places: dilapidated hotel rooms, ancient Roman battlefields, a monastery built on top of an island in France, a dream-like version of New York City at night (shot on a giant soundstage in London), Sgt. Nicholas Brody’s refrigerator, The 2013 Cannes Film Festival, a trailer in an empty field surrounded by expensive and loud stereo equipment, an all-girls boarding school at the turn of the 20th century, and a portal that leads directly into John Malkovich’s brain…

Get ready to get weird.


As we continue to try and grow this magazine in new and interesting ways, we would really love to hear back from you as well. Bright Wall/Dark Room is at its best when it’s a conversation rather than a monologue, and a vibrant community of engaged and passionate readers has been at the very heart and soul of the site since its earliest days. We realize it’s more difficult to translate that same kind of dialogue and energy from a website to a magazine, but we’d still like to encourage all of you out there to contact us with any thoughts, suggestions, ideas, or feedback you may have regarding any aspect of the magazine.

And it’s actually quite easy to connect with us: just tap anywhere on your screen while reading an article, and a little wheel will appear at the bottom left-hand corner of your tablet or device (go ahead, try it). Click on that, and then select “Feedback” from the list that pops up. At that point, you can choose which way you want to interact with us (Twitter, Facebook, email, or directly through our website). We promise to read and respond to everything sent our way.

And finally...

Here it is: Issue #2.

It gets weird, but in a good way.

Dive in.

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief

Too Insidery?

by Sarah Malone

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When Being John Malkovich was fresh from the New York Film Festival, if you worked on the creative side in advertising and promotions you were likely to have at least one client or supervisor present you with a VHS or 3/4" tape bootleg of it for inspiration. Beyond inspiration—life-altering revelation about what was possible onscreen, narratively and spatially. You might think, “What conceivable relation does this have to what we’re advertising?” What you would say was, “Which shot were you thinking of, in particular?”

The client or supervisor, visibly frustrated at your failure to recognize his genius (it would always be a he), would shuttle the tape to the scene you were to replicate … or, draw on: when Craig (John Cusack) first peers into the portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor of the Mertin Flemmer building; or when Craig first takes his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz) down the portal to spend fifteen minutes in John Malkovich before landing beside the New Jersey Turnpike; or when Craig watches with his crush and business partner, Maxine (Catherine Keener), while Malkovich himself enters the portal and ends up in a cabaret of infinite Malkovichs.

Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. The name gets funnier with each repetition, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze—in 1999 the film was more likely to be known as a Spike Jonze film—know it. We’re on a first-name basis with Maxine and Lotte, but every character refers to Malkovich by last name from the moment he enters … or, from the moment we enter him.

The portal could seem a gimmick to excite buzz (“You Must See This Film!”) by way of a memorable visual, but it’s also an essential, functional device. Narratives that tinker with the boundaries of reality have to decide: how much are their characters going to recognize the shift? Is the film’s weirdness going to be an angle on a world that remains recognizable? Or are things going to get truly, fundamentally weird?

Craig enters Malkovich with a board in his hand. When he’s dumped out along the Turnpike, the board is gone. “Did it disappear?” he asks Maxine. “Is it inside Malkovich? How could that be?” (The board reappears alongside Craig when he exits Malkovich for the last time).

"Unnervingly, enjoyably for the audience, the film adheres rigorously to the rules of its skewed universe."

Minor, inexplicable absurdities accrue. Craig is always able to get from Midtown Manhattan to the right spot on the Jersey turnpike in less than fifteen minutes. How did the portal, discovered by Captain Mertin, get into the building that Mertin supposedly built? Mertin/Lester has invited friends to join him in Malkovich. Will they share volition? Merge into a group consciousness? Take turns? When Lester, last of the group, enters Malkovich, the Malkovich body shudders, makes a face and says, seeming pleased to be getting used to the idea, “We’re… Malkovich.” So the others are in there, somehow—and even Lester and friends refer to the actor by last name only. Unnervingly, enjoyably for the audience, the film adheres rigorously to the rules of its skewed universe. But in Being John Malkovich, the appearance of things working out or making sense is a signal to be uneasy.

Characteristically, Craig rushes back from his first, inadvertent sojourn in Malkovich to tell Maxine, “It’s supernatural, is what it is […]. It raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, about the nature of the self, the existence of the soul… Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich?” That’s the last that anyone in the film asks about the nature of the self. They’re interested less in philosophical-type questions than in desire—what can the portal do for them?

Maxine is disgusted with Craig, until she gets the idea of charging admission for fifteen minutes in Malkovich. Craig has qualms—are they really going to use something this significant just to make money?—but he is able to overcome them at the prospect of after-hours time with Maxine. The portal serves where mundane means may have failed, but desires remain definitely in the physical world.

Desires do not, however, all remain constant. The portal is a catalyst, each adjustment of reality it enables enabling another, each attained desire leading characters to new longings. Craig brings Lotte to see the portal, to prove that his story—the facts of it, not his secret motivation—is real. Pulled into Malkovich, Lotte discovers she likes being in a man’s body, and Maxine discovers she loves Lotte—but only when Lotte is in Malkovich. Maxine, ever opportunistic, is willing to continue the arrangement, until Lotte calls her, sobbing, to tell her that for their last few trysts, Craig has been the one in Malkovich. Maxine wonders aloud: if Craig can control Malkovich, and she can control Craig—

Urged by Maxine to stay in Malkovich, Craig does, and just as vessels are powerless to stop themselves from being entered, the performing arts world seems helpless against him, for a time. He instigates a renaissance in puppetry; in an interview, Sean Penn predicts that he and many others will abandon acting for puppetry. Absurdity is infectious. The emperor must be wearing clothes—he’s the emperor, why would his new clothes be…nothing? But Craig doesn’t get a happily ever after—not because he’s left Lotte and stolen Malkovich’s body, but because he hasn’t accounted for Lester … or, it turns out, for Lotte and Maxine.

Most of the main characters use the portal to satisfy persistent, all-consuming desires—Craig for puppetry, Craig and Lotte for Maxine, Lester for immortality. Only Maxine uses it to enact a momentary impulse in a lasting way, forsaking Lotte for money and fame with Craig-as-Malkovich. Only Maxine regrets what the portal gets her. She, more than anyone else in the film, seems by the end an entirely different person, choosing what the earlier Maxine had—could—not. The Lotte who ends up with her is fundamentally the same Lotte who was with Craig, decent and sincere; Lester transports into the Malkovich body, but when we last see Malkovich, he has a fine new head of white hair, much like Lester’s, and is wearing Lester’s habitual burgundy cardigan, speaking in Lester’s cadences, showing Charlie Sheen a wall of photos of the next vessel. “What if I told you I’d found a way for all of us to live forever?” he says. “You, me… Gary Sinise, maybe.”

Lester seems immune from regret, utterly unconcerned that he is stealing vessels’ lives. He will never grow in any philosophical-type way. He doesn’t need to; unlike Craig, he was fortunate enough to want something that turned out to be attainable. But his immortal middle age will always be consumed with securing the next vessel, whoever it might be, and keeping tabs on the vessel after that. He is paused at the moment of realizing he can be immortal, forever unsure until the last minute if the next round will work out. He is as much stuck in his desire as Craig is.

Lester and Craig view the objects of their desire as their right, merited by their perceptual genius in knowing to want them. Consumed with altering the world accordingly, they become unwilling, unable to negotiate the world as it is. Lotte and Maxine refuse the portal, of their own free will. They choose to accede to the world as it is. In the last scene, they’re laughing poolside. Their talk is the freest in the film. There is no want in it, no demand or fear or lack or rush. Emily, the daughter Maxine had with Lotte-as-Malkovich, looks at us. But it’s Craig’s voice we hear, from deep within Emily’s subconscious, plaintively repeating, “I love you, Maxine.” Is Craig, the master puppeteer, truly trapped, as others would be after transporting into an infant vessel? Or does he choose to stay, trapped only by his desires, watching Maxine and Lotte live happily ever after?

The film doesn’t let us know whether they suspect that Emily is the next vessel. She has until midnight, the day she turns forty-four.

The gap between the girl’s knowledge and ours is exquisitely cruel. She has no idea what awaits her. Kaufman leaves us knowing everything, powerless to act. Looking out, like Craig. It raises all kinds of questions, but not the philosophical type. They’re more elemental than that.

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

The Universe Constantly

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Two people have become adults feeling alienated, feeling unlike anyone around them. They have been diagnosed with various disorders. They have scars on their bodies. They have trouble sleeping. They have perhaps fucked up in the past in ways they don’t even understand, ways that have driven others to dislike them, ways that have made them feel they are probably better off alone. They have lied. They have hurt themselves. They have decided not to engage.

But their paths cross, and they see each other—on a train on the way to work, in a small apartment on the beach—and they feel the first shock of that thing, that thing maybe other people feel all the time but which is completely new to them. An apprehension. A recognition. A sudden awareness that one has been perceived. That one has been known.

The flash of a mirror in front of the breath.

And those first, grasping, desperate kisses, the mouth on top of the mouth: I see you. Do you see me.

Two people believe they should be alone but now that they have felt the flesh that is scarred in the same way as their own, this is impossible. Perhaps one writes to the other: I would like to leave this city and move to the forest somewhere. I don’t know if we can be together here but I will take you with me when I go. Perhaps one resists making eye contact. But soon they are both in the middle of a busy street, or they are both drunk in a cab taking a detour in the early hours of the morning, and there is only one thing to say: we’re going to get married.

This marriage may be difficult. It will be strange. It may involve tears in hotel rooms, earrings on the floor, panic attacks, days spent alone without each other picking scabs. It may involve a certain amount of paranoia. Remember that these two people have compulsions they can’t explain. They may believe their bodies have been invaded, operated on without their knowledge, modified to be less functional, to be missing certain vital things. They may be right.

These two people may hear noises in the night that keep them awake. High-pitched beeping sounds. Low rumbles. One may find himself furious, suddenly—feeling trapped, feeling set up, feeling surrounded on all sides by a hostile world. What else is there for him to do but fight. The other may find herself diving over and over into a deep pool, retrieving broken things, repeating lines from books read long ago. What else is there for her to do but cry.

We will never understand all of the strange and horrible and perfect and wriggling things in nature. But they will understand us. They make noises that were the first noises we ever heard. We are tuned to them against our wills. So we chop them down, we throw them up.

Where is the mirror. Where is the art.

We will never understand them, but we can dig them up and swallow them and bang our heads against them if we want to.

It is easier to do this with another person by your side. It is easier to do this with another mind that is like your own mind: anxious, problematic, twisted, defensive. One must hold the other’s hand. One must trust the other one to drive the car, to write the mutterings down, to fill the cabinets with gallons of water. One must carry the gun.

And then - just when nothing seems to promise any escape - how wonderful - how full of the sun - to find something else that is like you, some other living creature that carries inside of it the same worm.

To cradle it.

To promise it a bluer sky.

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

A Tourist With a Typewriter

by Stephen Sparks

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Are you in the pictures?”

The photograph hanging above the desk is the only decorative element in Room 621. The room’s two windows are blind, looking out onto the drab bricks of the adjacent building, and except for this picture of a blonde woman seated on a beach with her back to the viewer, the walls are unadorned.

The woman’s right arm is raised, shielding her eyes as she looks out to sea. An umbrella planted nearby does not cast its shadow over her. The blue horizon, where the sea meets the sky, is the sharpest feature in an otherwise soft image. It’s an unexceptional picture—standard mid-century hotel kitsch—but, to use the parlance of another Coen Brothers film, it “really tie[s] the room together.” And, as with many otherwise innocuous things in Barton Fink, it assumes enigmatic overtones as the plot develops.


Placed atop a pile of books on my desk is a photograph of the sea. My girlfriend, who took it on a beach on Cape Cod, gave it to me. We live in San Francisco, near another sea, but both of us (then unknown to each other) grew up with the Atlantic. For several years, in fact, I lived within earshot of that haunted and historied ocean.

The photograph she gave me is, like the one hanging above Barton’s desk, unremarkable: it’s of an autumnal New England sky, heavy white clouds tinged with gray piling up in the distance. Looking at it, I can almost feel the wind scraping grains of sand along the beach.

I sit at my cluttered desk—piling ever higher with books—and attempt to write. When I feel unable, which is often, I find myself drawn to that image. There isn’t a mysterious figure in the foreground tempting my imagination, nor is the scene as serene as that on the wall in Room 621, but the magnetic pull of the horizon, the way it promises something else, is, I think, similar to what draws Barton out.


The Coen Brothers wrote Barton Fink for John Turturro, whose nervous energy gives the titular character, a naïve but committed leftist playwright who rails against high art in favor of one capable of elevating the so-called common man, a believable sincerity. Barton has come to Los Angeles—Steve Buscemi’s understated Chet, Hotel Earle’s ubiquitous concierge, enunciates those four syllables as if they were four separate words—to write for the pictures. Barton’s initial concern that working in Hollywood would be a betrayal of his artistic and political commitments has been quickly (too quickly?) brushed aside in favor of a thousand dollars a week—a significant sum in 1941. “The common man will still be here when you get back,” his manager in New York assures him.

And so he goes west. As if to reconcile himself to his decision, he checks into the Hotel Earle, a gloomy, ghostly place home to two types of visitors: trans or res. “Transient or resident,” Chet explains. Barton, feeling neither here nor there, replies that he’ll be here “indefinitely.”


A little over six years ago, I moved from New Jersey to San Francisco. I was coming out of a messy break-up and decided, with the desperation of a man pushed into (or, more honestly, backed into) a corner, that I would move three thousand miles away. I didn’t have a job lined up, I only vaguely knew two people in San Francisco, and I had no place to live. The line between bravery and stupidity is often razor thin; I’ve never been able to decide on which side of it this decision fell.

Although my similarities with Barton Fink end with the distance we covered—regrettably, no one was waiting with a check upon my arrival—I think our decisions were based on a common impulse: in order to see more clearly what you love, you sometimes have to look at it from a great distance. To allow thehere to become a there.


The photograph lures Barton immediately. It is the only opening in the room, a view from a porthole in a creaking ghost ship. Early in the film, one assumes that Barton is drawn to the vista as he is drawn to the plight of the working stiff. Yet as the story unfolds we learn that Barton’s commitment to the common man is largely theoretical; this figure is an idealization, an emanation of the writer’s intense inner battle. This, of course, isn’t to say that Barton’s allegiance to the class struggle is feigned; perhaps the most damning criticism one could level against him is that he is too sincere.

Barton’s real commitment, though, is to his Art. The struggle, he shouts from his high horse, is here, finger pressed firmly against his temple. This is reflected in the camera’s focus when he is transfixed by the photograph: for the most part, we look at Barton looking at the picture.

Which is to say: the photograph is watching him.


Throughout the film, Barton’s pretensions as a writer are undercut by those around him. While having lunch with Geisler (an exuberant Tony Shaloub)—the unwilling, overworked producer of the Walter Beery wrestling picture—Barton asks to talk to another writer to get some sense of what’s expected of his new role. Exasperated, Geisler tells him that if he threw a rock in the restaurant he would likely hit a writer. He adds, with delicious contempt, “Do me a favor, Fink. Throw it hard.”

W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, doing a spot-on Faulkner), a man Barton calls the greatest novelist of his time, is a wretched, raving souse without any dignity—or, it turns out, anything left in the tank except for the sloshing contents of a bottle of whiskey.

Even the studio boss Lipnick (Michael Lerner), who is ingratiating when it serves him and whose insistence that Barton is not working on a B-movie clearly demonstrates that Barton is, in fact, working on a B-movie, ruthlessly pulls the plug as soon as he realizes Barton is wasting his time. “You’re not a writer, you’re a write-off,” he spews at the end of the film, spitefully refusing to cut Barton free.

The only figure in the movie who defers to Barton’s self-importance is affable Charlie Meadows, a hulking door-to-door insurance salesman rendered pitch-perfectly by John Goodman. (“Fire, theft, and casualty are not things that only happen to other people,” he prophesies.)


What strikes more fear into the fragile psyche of a writer than seeing another writer sit in a room alone and slowly lose his mind? Despite the film’s apocalyptic culmination, it carries the weight of an allegory of the writing life. The real world, the one that cares very little for the writer’s task, exists. It’s here, it exerts gravity: in that photograph, living next door, pounding on the door.


In his Pensees, Pascal laments that “all of humanity’s problems come from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It’s the photograph—and, in part, what’s on the far side of the photograph—that lures Barton out of his concentrated solitude.

At the beginning, of course, all Barton desires is to sit and work in peace, alone with his mighty themes. But the clamor of the world comes to him, through the thin wall, in the sound of a man weeping in the next room. Or is he laughing? As with much in Barton Fink, the answer is ambiguous, endlessly interpretable, even contradictory.

The horizon, claims French poet Yves Bonnefoy, exists as a temptation, drawing us away from the here and now towards an imagined country—Bonnefoy calls it the arriere-pays. Thearriere-pays (translated imperfectly into English as the “hinterlands”) is not a real country—or even a country; part of its allure is its endless mutability and its ability to keep its distance. You can never reach the other side of the horizon. Therefore, this place or non-place existing on the far side of the unapproachable horizon is similarly out of reach.

For Barton, the horizon exists on several levels: the enigmatic woman whose face he can never know, the unapproachable distant edge of the sea, and what’s just over there, the next room over. (The closest we come to seeing the inside of the room next door happens just after Barton discovers that the woman he slept with the night before has been butchered in his bed. A cold blue light spills out.)

The horizon also represents an escape. And, we sense, there’s little Barton wants more than to escape the situation he has gotten himself into.


Despite my cynicism about our ability to escape certain uncomfortable facts about ourselves, part of the reasoning behind my move from one coast to another was that I would get a fresh start somewhere new. I never say that aloud, because it feels naïve. But now, seeing it in writing, I understand it’s more complex.

The over-there need not always be taken so literally—often it’s more effective as a metaphor. Yet all of us at one time or another feel pulled toward something new and unknown, something that will resonate inwardly, reminding us that we are bells struck by the world whose tones change depending on where we are rung.


The Hotel Earle is an uncanny place. Its yellow-and-green wallpapered hallways are putrid. It’s full of incongruous elements: mosquitoes—which, Geisler emphatically states, do not exist in Los Angeles; a half-dead elevator operator (or, more optimistically, half-alive); seeping walls; and pairs of empty shoes lining its ghostly corridors.

In a film full of uncanny elements, perhaps the most jarring scene is not the revelation of a butchered woman in Barton’s bed, as shocking as that is, but something more uncomfortably close to home: when Barton finally feels a surge of inspiration (only after the fateful crime), he sits at his desk burning with feverish intensity and slips his feet into a pair of shoes, which he realizes are not his.

The layers of symbolism in this scene are rich and understated. (Barton’s ability to create an art capable of elevating the common man is debatable, but he certainly does not measure up otherwise.) What makes it the uncanniest scene in the film lies in the nature of its transgression: it severs the false distance between the mind and the body. At the moment Barton slips his feet into the shoes of a poor working stiff, the distinction is abolished. His feet, down below, are revealed to be just as much a part of his being as his head, where the struggle takes place. And his feet don’t lie: something is off.


Karl “Madman” Mundt rises like a creature from the deep—remember, he resides somewhere within that blue distance hanging on the wall in his neighbor’s room—to prey on Barton. Whether or not we think Barton is deserving of his cruel fate, there are two indisputable facts: one, Barton summoned the beast up from the depths; and two, full of confidence in his ability to speak for the common man, Barton was, like other intellectuals of his time, blind to that common man’s hidden recesses.

A film as ambiguous as Barton Fink invites multiple readings, especially of the relationship between Barton and Charlie. The two are lovers; Charlie is the devil and the Hotel Earle his private hell; Charlie is a manifestation of Barton’s overworked, feverish brain; Charlie, the good-natured everyman within whom lurks a Karl Mundt, is an embodiment of the perversion of National Socialism; etc. Each of these interpretations has its particular merits and each casts the film into a new light, shimmering and shifting like the perpetually moving sea.


Dante reserves the sixth level of his Inferno for heretics, whose punishment is to suffer eternally in flaming tombs. After Charlie—or, at this point, Karl “Madman” Mundt—breaks the bars on Barton’s bed, allowing the unshackled victim to escape, Barton stands in the flaming hallway and watches Charlie enter his room.

Before being freed—not out of mercy—Barton asks Charlie “Why?” Why—this? The murders, the cruelty, the mysterious box? Echoing and perverting an earlier statement that “understanding requires empathy,” Charlie replies, “Most guys I just feel sorry for… I feel for ’em. So I try to help ’em out.”

Then, crushing Barton’s illusions about his role as an artist, he concludes with sadness: “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here.”

Stephen Sparks lives in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared in Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, and the LA Review of Books.


by Amelia Gray

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby


The perspective of a mildew within a pool is such that anyone entering that pool is descending from heaven, and therefore must be an extinguished seraph. Sergeant Nicholas Brody emerges from the godhead followed by his obviously gleaming diamond wings, reaching forward as if to pluck some sad element from the floor and lift it to his mouth and take it in, concealing it between tooth and cheek. The very bones of his body are lighter than a bird’s, and when Sergeant Nicholas Brody chooses to emerge from the pool it will be with such a terrifying power that the frightened mildews will scatter to new corners and pile upon one another and wait, and wait.


Of what does Sergeant Nicholas Brody dream? He dreams of summers as a boy, of course, as a boy in England. A red-faced youth, eyelids a-twitch, the British boy dreaming within the dream of three lenses trained upon him there as he dreams, his thin pale arms committed to a high-definition kind of memory. The man dreams himself a boy dreaming of himself as a man who has a family, a quiet strange daughter and a real blank slate of a son and a beautiful wife with hair dark and smooth like the inside of a shoe—none of whom he truly knows, but who can know anyone, who can be known?


"Ticking time, gentlemen! It is I, Sergeant Nicholas Brody, here wet-faced and ready, a child emerging from the dark human tunnel towards the ball-pit of garish, unstoppable life! Please, all of you, quiet now, every one, take a lesson from this warming light and shine relentless on one another for all time. Love one another from the center of your faces outward. Calm and quiet, hold one another, breathe out longer than you breathe in. Observe my face, men! See my lips, the singular dry piece of my body entire, see how they part, a curtain, to reveal the tiny gleam of a single human eye! Here is my truth revealed! I am whole!”


Everything’s going to be all right, isn’t it? That’s the beauty of a roof; when you fear this old globe is liable to go up like a white Escalade packed with fertilizer, you can lace up your cross trainers, pull a cold-enough brewski out of the fridge and climb up to observe the goings-on of the neighborhood. There’s old Daniels, mowing his lawn like the effort of it isn’t going to kill him next month. And there’s Ginny, tanning her old tits in the backyard while her little shit dogs fight over a piece of bread. Heh, whichever one gets that bread is going to seriously barf everywhere.


“What is in Sergeant Nicholas Brody’s fridge?” Sergeant Nicholas Brody asks himself. “Tabasco, mayonnaise, yellow mustard, Wish Bone dressing, Dijon mustard. We are a two mustard kind of house. Horizon Brand Organic Cage Free eggs, purchased by Sergeant Nicholas Brody’s wife. Why does Sergeant Nicholas Brody’s wife only refer to him by his last name?” It is no matter, for as he observes the fridge, Sergeant Nicholas Brody is pleased to find every condiment brand new, full to the brim, ready for any snack-related challenge. Twenty gallons of tuna salad? No problem. Marinated chicken breasts for the entire neighborhood? Done. It’s depressing, how simple it would be.



Amelia Gray grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Her first collection of stories, AM/PM, was published in 2009. Her second collection, Museum of the Weird, was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. Her first novel, Threats, was published in 2012. She lives in Los Angeles.

Goats and Monkeys

by Patrick Vickers

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

What does it mean to have an affair?

For some, a conversation might be enough. Most would draw the line at a kiss. Matthew 5:28 says that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And then there’s sex, which is certainly a thing. But most affairs never get that far. Most affairs are only experienced in dreams or as fantasy. Perhaps we each commit thousands of betrayals in a lifetime—some forgettable, others deliberate and haunting.

Some would say that there are no innocents. They might point out that our hypocritical society openly condemns infidelity even while encouraging the expression of all kinds of animal impulses in sanctioned spaces screened away from the rest of the world. Perhaps everyone is not only essentially selfish but motivated by sex above everything else. Everyone is having an affair. Everyone is unfaithful. But this is the philanderer’s excuse, you might argue; misogyny posing as fashionable misandry, a plea for moral relativism that conveniently brushes over whatever sins one might have committed in one’s time. All are guilty so nobody is to blame.


Eyes Wide Shut is set in New York at the end of the twentieth century. It’s Christmas. Dr Bill Harford and his wife Alice are going to a party. At the party they will meet people they barely know or have never seen before; at some point, they will go their separate ways and flirt with members of the opposite sex, before falling back together at the end of the night, both changed in ways they had never previously imagined. Alice meets a wealthy Hungarian gentleman, and they dance all night. Bill is pursued by a couple of rich British girls, but his time with them is cut suddenly short when he is called to revive a prostitute who has suffered from a drug overdose.

This is how it ends, the film says, this is what it’s really about: the stark juxtaposition between the glamour of the party and the woman slumped across the toilet upstairs. The old man tugs sheepishly at his suspenders and looks to Bill to fix everything, to make it right, to keep it secret. Later, Alice will make a confession to her husband that will irreparably damage his entire view of her. Even later, both will embrace, fall asleep, dream. Until then, Bill will behave like a professional, calmly ignoring the unpleasant consequences of the indiscretions of his powerful friend. “Look at me,” says Bill, pinching the girl’s chin, gazing into her eyes. “Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.”


It is not long before we realise that something is wrong with this world. The atmosphere is oppressive, and frequently overwhelms any base of realism. As in Kubrick’s other films, the shots are painterly in their elegance, and the cuts are few and far between as the slow, languorous steadicam glides from lush ballrooms to bedrooms to bathrooms, all hung heavy with an impossible amount of expensive art. The lights are low with hardly an exposed bulb in sight; everything is carefully shaded, screened.

I want to say this film is like a dream—it is an adaptation of a novella calledDream Story, after all. And it does seem to possess many of the qualities we often associate with the dreamlike in cinema: unlikely and sinister things occur, people talk in an oddly stilted fashion, the quality of the light is strange and unfamiliar. But if we think of dreams as the unbridled manifestation of the subconscious, then cracks begin to appear in this interpretation: the film is nothing if not absolutely controlled. Kubrick is too mannered to ever think of surrendering his narrative vision to surrealism for its own sake. Nothing is done here out of simple absurdity. Everything is done with intent.


And how better to demonstrate intent than to create your own world? Rather than film on location in New York, Kubrick rebuilt a section of the city on British sound stages from a collection of thousands of photographs. It is in these sequences that the film’s sense of unreality reaches its zenith. The streets through which Harford wanders, alone and confused, are cartoonish in their calculated depravity. Words float like thought bubbles around him. Every store is named after something to do with illicit love: the image of the “Hint of Lace” lingerie store right across the street from the “Verona Restaurant” being perhaps the most blatant signpost of the film’s thematic intent. It’s an odd kind of dream that comes with its own annotations.

Most uncanny of all is the lurid blue light that shines through the windows after hours: an intensely memorable shade, a purely cinematic, imaginary interpretation of moonlight bleeding through to the early hours of the morning. The constant mingling of pinkish-red on blue, so evocative of a repressed sensuality, becomes unsettling when its source is found to be the soft glow of innocent, omnipresent Christmas lights. That is not the night, you think. That is a street inside a large, darkened room. There is no direct indication that what we are witnessing is a dream—and yet light doesn’t look like that. Rooms don’t look like that.


But unlike The Shining, where slow turns of the screw are punctuated by glimpses of extreme horror, Kubrick provides no dramatic pay-off to this tension. There will be no elevators spewing blood here. Instead, Eyes Wide Shut is the cinematic equivalent of a premeditated coitus interruptus. Widely promoted with variants on “the sexiest film ever made” at the time, part of its original attraction to certain filmgoers must have been the chance to see a pair of stars, approaching the height of their fame, actually doing it on screen—and actually, they don’t. This is a film in which the only lovemaking depicted is anonymous, animalistic rutting.

Practically everyone Tom Cruise’s character meets in the film establishes some kind of immediate sexual connection with him: a house call to the home of a dead patient ends up with the man’s daughter throwing herself at his feet; he’s buttonholed by a prostitute walking down the street, then later seduced by her friend when he can’t even begin a session with her; even the waitresses flirt with him, and a hotelier (played with relish by Alan Cumming) gives our man a crucial piece of information for no other reason than that he’s clearly hitting on him. The whole film is pretty much Harford trying and failing to get laid—he isn’t sure what is going on, and neither are we. His befuddlement represents a basic failure to interpret the events before him on the level of either reality or dream.


Tom Cruise is only really interesting as an actor when his persona is pushed almost to the point of breakdown. When playing it cool, he often comes across as dull. As with Nicolas Cage, Cruise often resorts to manic tics and weird expressions when required to emote, but what’s curious about Eyes Wide Shut is the way in which Cruise doesn’t get to do any of that. He’s toned right down, and left strangely still. He seems incapable of demonstrating any emotion at all. And throughout, the camera lingers on this stare that he does—the same cold, angular stare we see shining out from all those CGI-daubed movie posters. In the context of a film, this could barely be considered acting. Cruise rarely looks like he knows quite what he’s supposed to be doing here, and yet this somehow fits perfectly with the disaffected mood of the film; the character of a faintly stupid man without palpable emotions trapped in a world he can’t seem to understand.

It’s worth noting that the infamous orgy sequences aren’t particularly orgiastic. There’s nothing dangerous here, nothing violent. Just bland sex in a series of large, lavish rooms; various couplings in a variety of positions borrowed from soft-core porn. Naturally, the men are fully-robed, perhaps because these are the fantasies of a fairly dull, upper-middle-class straight man. There are the obligatory sexy lesbians, but the only gay men to be seen are the two dancing a tender slow dance in the hall. But the orgy is more than one man’s voyeuristic wish fulfillment: it’s an elaborate inversion of the ‘real’ party at the beginning of the film, a kind of negative image which illustrates how what is apparently a rich and complex world of emotion and character can be reduced to a world of indecipherable ritual, of judges and the judged, the fuckers and the fucked.


You might say that we should take none of this particularly seriously. You could argue that the whole film is essentially one long paranoid dream-fantasy of sexual betrayal on Harford’s part, and that it is too risible, too incredible to be anything like a serious work of cinema. You could say that it has all the significance of a dream. And you might be correct. But as Alice says near the end of the film, ‘No dream is ever just a dream.’ The Freudian formulation has its comforts: it accounts nicely for an implausible plot, and it compensates for any weariness we might feel at the film’s excessive length by explaining its ponderous tone as part of a conventional attempt to convey dream logic on screen.

But to think of Eyes Wide Shut as purely the stuff of dreams makes it easier to swallow. If we can dismiss it as fantasy, its troubling politics become subjective insinuations rather than definite conclusions about our world. And besides, the distinction between waking reality and dream is a strange one to make in a film which chooses neither. It is ultimately a complete fictional world unto itself. IfInception taught us anything, it’s that modern audiences are not only willing, but are actively eager to accept that dream reality and cinematic ‘realism’ are essentially one and the same, with neither of any more ultimate significance than the other.

That critics and audiences largely embraced Inception and rejected Eyes Wide Shut has something to do with Tom Hardy wielding a grenade launcher. It also has something to do with the fact that Inception was built around a vision of liberal interventionism, tastefully furnished with a nostalgic eye for the happy family and a sympathetic ear bent towards the concerns of the very wealthy. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, is completely lacking in all of those things. It’s a vision of a decadent millennial society populated by affectless, amoral people whose only interest in one another can be effectively reduced to the exchange of bodily fluids. There is no love in this world. There is only fucking.

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

Something is Missing

by Letitia Trent

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I moved to Oklahoma when I was twelve, having spent most of my childhood living in a fairy tale-like, forested plot of land in Bennington, VT. I went from woods smelling of pine—a yellow layer of needles carpeting the ground—to the smell of burnt grass and occasional pockets of death (there was always something decaying by the side of the road, buried in the underbrush). I lived in Southern Oklahoma, in the mountain ranges that extend from the Ozarks in Arkansas. A few hours north, the landscape becomes more typically Oklahoman: wide expanses of flat fields, cattle, and McMansions, trailers in rows or circles on treeless lots. I hated both the tangled woods of our home and the flat, featureless landscape of Northern Oklahoma; I couldn’t see the beauty of it. The culture of rodeos and church potlucks and families gathered for high school ball games was lost on me. I missed our family’s ten acres in Bennington, which, despite the difficulty I’d had in school, had been a refuge for me. But as a surly teenager, Oklahoma felt like a pit that I had to climb out of.

That feeling, being stuck in a place I hadn’t chosen and didn’t understand, made me want to travel. When I was finally able to go overseas, I visited France—specifically Paris, Normandy, and Mont Saint-Michel, an island just off the coast of Normandy that features an eleventh-century monastery, which can be reached by taking spiraling steps up to the top of a mountain. When I went to France, I thought I had finally found some place as beautiful as my memory of Vermont was. I had, I decided, been starved for beauty, and it had made me ugly. I determined that, as soon as I could, I would get the hell out of Oklahoma.

"To the Wonder shows Oklahoma in the ways I’ve learned to see it in the decade since I’ve left—beautiful, expansive, and empty."

To The Wonder, Terrence Malick’s latest film, begins at Mont Saint-Michel. Two lovers, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), run up to the top of that same mountain, kiss in the garden in the abbey, and then run along the edge of the ocean as the tide comes in. Marina, who has a ten-year-old daughter from an ill-advised marriage at nineteen, provides a great deal of narration throughout the film—you could fairly say that it is her movie, despite the fact that we never learn all that much about her. We hear about how much she loves Neil, and how happy she is when he asks her to come back to the U.S. with him. When they arrive in Oklahoma, Marina and her daughter marvel over the clean and plentiful grocery store aisles. They dance in the poison-green lawn of their new, enormous, empty home.

I haven’t lived in Oklahoma in about ten years, but I visit yearly to see family. The annual drive down, now familiar, has endeared me to the area: once I no longer felt forced to live there, it became nostalgic—and once it became nostalgic, I could find a way to love it. The landscape has remained essentially the same, aside from a few new convenience stores, but, as the years go by, I’ve started to notice the beauty in that wide expanse of sky, those deserted stretches of highway, all the small towns in Southern Oklahoma where the bait shops sell the coldest beer in town along with miniature bibles on key chains.

To the Wonder shows Oklahoma in the ways I’ve learned to see it in the decade since I’ve left—beautiful, expansive, and empty. The sky in Oklahoma is enormous, the fields endless, the lawns moist and green. Malick shot the film’s Oklahoma scenes in Bartlesville, a town north of Tulsa, and manages to make the treeless lots of manufactured homes look somehow both tragic and elegant. While France is filmed largely in the rain—all greys and blues—Oklahoma is full of bright sunshine, grass, and fiery sunsets. The empty spaces become almost overwhelming, like a constant open-air cathedral. Marina admires it, but cannot completely feel part of it. In the second half of the film, her sister visits from France and says as much: this place is suffocating.

But Marina’s alienation also stems from her relationship with Neil. He has not asked her to renew her visa. There is talk of marriage, but Neil doesn’t seem to make a move. A woman watering her oversized lawn says that it must be hard for a “single mother” like Marina in a new country. Her daughter Tatiana, who doesn’t fit in at her new school, remarks that “something is missing here.” We do not know what Neil feels or thinks, but his physical presence feels distant, wandering in and out of Marina’s embraces. Despite the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of the everyday scenes in the house, something is wrong.

And this is where I began to grow restless with the film—I’d had my fill of nostalgic beauty and vague whisperings by the thirty-minute mark. Malick, too, seems to sense that the Neil/Marina relationship is growing tiresome; the plot, such as it is, soon shifts. Once Marina’s visa expires, she and Tatiana return to Paris, leaving her relationship with Neil unclear. Neil quickly takes up with Jane (Rachel McAdams), who seems to spend a great deal of time running through wheat fields and twirling her dress. We learn that Jane and Neil knew each other in the past, and that she, too, had a child, although her child has died. Like Marina, Jane doesn’t have much of a personality—or any life, really, beyond loving Neil (though to be fair, it’s clear throughout the film that Malick isn’t all that interested in character development).

Neil and Jane have a short romance, which ends when Marina returns to the U.S., this time without her daughter. It is not entirely clear if Neil invited her, or even if he is happy that she has returned. They resume a kind of dance around each other, despite an exchange of wedding rings and visits to a fertility doctor. Jane disappears completely from the movie. Because the film jumps around so freely in time—and because it is unclear exactly how long Neil and Jane were actually together (it takes about fifteen minutes of screen time)—her exit seems rather painless and pointless.

While Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life (2011), utilized a similar fluidity of time, lack of overt dialogue, and beautifully gauzy shots, the stylistic choices seemed to support the story. The Tree of Life tackles the strange journey from childhood to adulthood—the ways in which our parents both shape us and provide us something to push against; the convolutions of memory; the difficulty of forgiving ourselves for not knowing as children what we learn to see clearly as adults. The nostalgic, swirling, fuzzy cinematography serves to reinforce the idea that memory is filtered, imperfect, and constantly being reinterpreted.To the Wonder, in contrast, sometimes seems almost too pretty, too gauzy for its own sake, too focused on surfaces. Instead of adding to the story being told, it instead serves to highlight the lack of compelling interaction between characters, causing this to stand out all the more, a black hole at the center of the movie. There is scarcely a single moment of believable passion, affection, or anger expressed on screen in To the Wonder, but an inordinate amount of time is spent gorgeously showcasing the aesthetics of Jane and Marina’s accoutrements and household décor. How many shots do we need of these women twirling around in pretty dresses with attractively disheveled hair? And when they aren’t standing in fields, orbiting around the silent, blank face of Ben Affleck, the women in To the Wonder are perpetually waiting in empty rooms for him to return, running their hands across curtains and dancing through rooms. Yes, these shots are beautiful, but they are also numbingly repetitive.

The voice-overs used throughout the film, too, reveal another flaw: these women seem to want nothing but to settle down with Neil and be assured that he loves them, expressing this desire through whispered, fevered diary entries. While the actresses do their best with the material (Olga Kurylenko, in particular, infuses Marina with a kind of passionate intensity that seems slightly unhinged), the trite inner monologues that Malick gives them often come across as comical instead of meaningful, almost a parody of themselves.

While I appreciate Terrence Malick’s willingness to eschew character and try to tell a love story in a different way, in the end his reliance on beautiful images only manages to elevate the film so far above any semblance of everyday life that it becomes increasingly difficult to connect with any of his the characters. I felt angry at Marina and Jane for being such pushovers. I felt frustrated with Neil for being such a boring cipher. And I felt disappointed with Malick for lavishing such gauzy detail and rhetorical bombast on a relatively simple love story about a trio of people who don’t seem to have anything all that profound to say.

And then we have Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, who comes into the film to tell Marina and Neil about the love of God and to show us the unfortunates of Oklahoma—drug addicts, single mothers in trailers, etc. He speaks about how the love between man and woman can be like one’s love of God. The Neil and Marina story is, I think, supposed to be a kind of metaphor for the relationship between a person and God, or a parallel story about the difficulty of sustaining that immediate, intoxicating feeling of “being in love.” Unfortunately, I found it hard to care about Bardem’s doubting priest, because he is not really a character—simply a voice speaking over swells of strings—and the connection between the couple’s love story and a larger point about God seems rather tenuous.

I appreciate Terrence Malick’s ability to make beauty out of the stuff of everyday life: dust floating through the air; curtains rippling in the breeze; the white, uniform walls of manufactured homes. But what I wanted from this film was not only to see the beauty of love, but to understand the difficulty of love’s bonds. Yes, the world is beautiful, and difficulty is beautiful, and struggle is beautiful, but at times I would have liked as much insight into Marina and Neil’s lives as I got from the snippets of conversation between Bardem and the unfortunates of the Bartlesville area. Those people—teenagers cradling babies, older men and women, often toothless, talking about their lives—seemed infinitely more interesting than either Neil or Marina.

There is no happy ending. The relationships in the film are all left in liminal states, and there is no final affirmation about the love of God or true love between people. Unlike The Tree of LifeTo The Wonder leaves the viewer in a space of ambiguity. Like the rest of us, Marina has to go back to what her heart wants and what her intuition tells her. For a director who seemed almost overtly Christian in his previous film, this is a brave place to let the movie fall. I wish, though, that the rest of the story had been more emotionally gripping; I, too, wanted to feel the pain of losing faith in the love of both God and man.

Letitia Trent's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Fence, and 32 Poems, among others. Her books include the upcoming Almost Dark (Chizine Publications), Echo Lake (Dark House Press), One Perfect Bird (Sundress Publications) and several chapbooks. Letitia is a horror film blogger for X Factor Films and lives in Colorado with her son, husband, and three black cats.

A Wilderness of Tigers

by Andrew Root

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When I was 17, there was a TV channel that only showed movie trailers, and I sometimes pretended to be sick so I could stay home from school to watch it. The eve of the millennium brought to home video a slew of dark, atmospheric movies with engrossing, unapologetically enigmatic trailers. Eyes Wide ShutAmerican BeautyBeing John MalkovichMagnoliaThe Blair Witch ProjectThe Virgin SuicideseXiztenZ… 1999 was an amazing year for film. After glutting myself on previews, I’d rush to one of the local video rental stores (there were five to choose from at the time) and pick out an armful of tapes. I’d wait until the rest of the house was asleep, then watch two or three in a night, the volume as low as it could possibly go, the room lit only by the flickering of the cathode ray tube. It was the beginning of my life as a night owl.

Provocative in its visuals—but nonsensical in its narrative—thetrailer for Julie Taymor’s Titusfeatures imagery of leaping tigers, dismembered women, and a black man posed like Jesus at the crucifixion, as a voiceover narration fumbles in its attempt to give some structure to the barrage of highly symbolic and referential clips. What was most enticing about Titus was the images, even without context. Take away the clumsy narration, and the trailer plays out with all the poignancy of a nightmare. A boy is held aloft by a clown in a deserted gladiatorial arena. Black bolts of cloth cascade from a rigid, polished architectural structure. A sedan with a snarling wolf’s head ornament prowls through narrow streets. The preview ends as Anthony Hopkins—the titular Titus—throws open a blood red curtain, starkly contrasting with his glimmering white chef’s uniform, and chuckles pleasantly, welcoming the viewer into the film. Come inside. See what happens.

I couldn’t resist the invitation. Searching the aisles of the video stores, past the newly installed section of “DVDs,” I eventually found the tape I sought. Sandwiched between David O. Russell’s Three Kings and multiple copies of Pixar’s Toy Story 2 were the sad, powerful eyes of Anthony Hopkins, vibrant blue clay caked on his face and Romanesque war helmet. The back cover featured Jessica Lange sinisterly tattooed, a dozen metal snakes in her hair and the faint lines of a golden mask painted on her face, floating above a summary list of credits in small, plain font. No mention of plot or characters to be found. Again, the images were doing all the heavy lifting. I paid the rental fee, raced home, and waited eagerly for night to fall before popping the tape in the VCR.

The film opens on a young boy in a decidedly modern kitchen as he plays violently with toy soldiers, dousing them in ketchup blood and lopping their heads off with a butter knife. The boy’s aggression grows unchecked as he drowns tiny regiments in his glass of milk and buries battalions beneath a piece of cake. All the while, a television flickers in the corner. The sounds of war increase and the boy, overwhelmed by the violence which has suddenly become very real, cowers under the table. An explosion sends glass and smoke flying into the room and the boy is picked up by a man in combat boots and an aviator’s helmet and carried to the deserted Coliseum, where soldiers encased in dried mud march their ranks mechanically forward. Infantrymen with swords and spears are followed by divisions of armoured motorcycles, followed again by horse-drawn chariots, leading captured prisoners in cages of barbed wire. Within the first three minutes of the film, we have seen innocence destroyed by 2000 years of warfare and brutality. The boy, who appears here and there throughout the film (sometimes as an observer, sometimes as an active character), serves as a gateway for the viewer. In 1999, it was only too easy for a Western audience to distance itself from the intrusive terrors of war—to forget that a large part of the world has lived through battle and bloodshed in all of its conceivable forms: sword and shield, tank and machine gun. Here, the violence is mandatory viewing.

"Indiscriminate cruelty creates bottomless despair, and while it may be possible to survive such despair, the end result is bitterness. Indiscriminate kindness, then, must have an equivalent effect. Be indiscriminately kind. Help one another. Forgive. Heal."

The back-and-forth anachronism is typical of the film, as director Julie Taymor strives to create a world in which this war is every war, and this empire is every empire. The Roman army is represented as an undeniable force—strictly choreographed—as systematically unyielding as the ticking of a well-made clock. The uniformity of the army’s movement and armour—with its clearly defined ranks and chain of command—is at odds with the captured Goths, who appear huddled in mangy furs, their hair matted, their skin tattooed ornamentally. Taymor gives the viewer images of desperate chaos crushed under the boot of dispassionate order as Titus leads a formal ritual sacrificing the eldest son of Tamora, the conquered Goth queen. The amalgam of military history suggests that such rituals have been ever thus; great and terrible deeds carried out at the expense of the less organized. It took 100,000 conquered slaves to build the Coliseum, after all.

Titus’s act of “irreligious piety” sets off the film’s central struggle, as unbending law and custom more often than not trample over basic human decency to sow the seeds of bitterness and rage. A single act of disobedience to the temperamental new Emperor finds Titus sitting despondent amongst broken statues, and Tamora clothed in imperial gold as Rome’s new Empress, poised to exact her vengeful instincts. As she pours honey in the Emperor’s ear, urging him to pardon Titus, Tamora turns to the camera and from blood-red lips whispers her terrifying true intentions to the audience. In this inescapable close-up, Taymor lays bare the schism between Tamora’s persona as a peacemaker and the pitiless venom of her true, vengeful self. The viewer looks into the eyes of cold, black hatred as Tamora becomes the physical manifestation of revenge.

Aided by her wild, unbalanced sons, the wronged Queen begins to bloodily dismantle the Andronicus family, ripping away from Titus what he holds most dear— his prized honour—and systematically robbing him of his family and his pride therein. Two of his sons are framed for murder and sentenced to death, the third exiled from Rome. But the most atrocious gesture has been reserved for Lavinia, Titus’s sole daughter. Taymor’s presentation of Tamora’s twisted vengeance is hair-raisingly macabre: Lavinia stands on the stump of a tree in a desolate marsh, as innocent from a distance as one of Edgar Degas’s ballerinas. As we draw closer, we see her dress torn, her hands cut off and replaced by crude branches. Her tongueless mouth gapes open, pouring out rivulets of blood, the sole testimony to the horror she has endured. This is the hideous chaos of Tamora’s revenge, a stark contrast to the order and ceremony of Titus’s Rome.

To this point, the violence done to the Andronicus family has been grounded in an easily identifiable form. Depraved and deplorable though it is, this vengeance can be traced backwards. Titus seeks to move forward on the path of vindictive deeds, declaring his intent to “plot some device of further misery” against those who have wronged him. Enter Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s mentor and chief architect in dark deeds, whose visionary evil is made disturbingly palatable by his charm and his constant asides to the camera. Aaron is too upsetting to be called an imp, but his atrocious mischief does house a wicked sense of humour. On the eve of execution, Aaron tells Titus that he can spare his sons’ heads if he chops off his own hand and sends it to the Emperor. The heads of his sons are indeed sent back—in glass jars, accompanied by that selfsame sacrificed hand, delivered by two madcap clowns who dance about to zany carnival music. Titus, at the depths of his woe, laughs, for he has not another tear to shed. It’s now up to the viewer to decide whether to go mad or become incredibly sane in the face of an insane world.

Titus—in a motion that he deems necessary to quiet his aching soul—vows revenge against Tamora, and Rome, and all those who have wronged him and his. He disinherits his tears so that he may better find the path to “Revenge’s cave.” The metaphor of a cave—with one entrance and no exit—is perhaps more apt than Titus recognizes. Vengeance stacked upon vengeance leads to the rotting of the soul, as Titus and Tamora and all the rest become caught in one of the most pervertedly creative acts of revenge in dramatic history. The wholesome image of a pie cooling on a windowsill becomes a cruel joke, and every action becomes precursor to some bloody act or another. At his most dismal, Titus laments, “If there were reasons for these miseries, then into limits could I bind my woes.” Indiscriminate cruelty creates bottomless despair, and while it may be possible to survive such despair, the end result is bitterness. Indiscriminate kindness, then, must have an equivalent effect. Be indiscriminately kind. Help one another. Forgive. Heal.

The music in the second half of the trailer for Titus is paradoxically triumphant—uplifting, even. For a story with this much death and cruelty, it’s difficult to reconcile the notion that hope can still be present. The film ends as it began—with the young boy. In a single shot that lasts three and a half minutes, the boy who started the film in a frantic state of desensitized violence walks slowly and purposefully towards the sunrise. He cradles a baby in his arms, the love-child of Aaron and Tamora, who would have been either killed to hide the empress’s affair, or brought up in Aaron’s footsteps to laugh at misery and repent good deeds. The boy—who is the audience—takes hold of the child and carries it away from the blood, the anger, the violence of the penultimate scene … even away from the judgment passed on the wrongdoers.

The scene is genuinely soothing, and turns the film into a cautionary tale. We were carried into the story when the violence of the “real world” became inescapable, but having seen what that violence can do, we have the choice to walk out of the story, and to take with us the potential that the baby represents. Knowing that violence and cruelty and madness and sorrow can have no depth, and that the same too must be true of kindness and joy and community, fragile as those notions might be. Shakespeare had very little to say about kindness and understanding—they being poor subjects for a dramatist—but he did put these words into Iago’s mouth:

Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners… To have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. (Othello, I.3)

What we have is potential. We may fall to ruin and despair, or we may climb to glory and grace, but whatever happens, the choice will be ours. While it may be easier to fall than to climb, it’s easiest to watch the sun rise from higher up.

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.

Haunted Blondes

by Gray Hendryx

One of the deepest movie-watching experiences of my life happened in the wee hours after a party. I came home slightly buzzed but too keyed-up for sleep. As so often happens in these situations, I craved something to smoke. With no cigarettes on hand, I settled on a pinch of weed tucked into the bowl of a pipe. Still in my cocktail dress, I settled onto my couch, patiently holding the marijuana smoke in my lungs as I flipped on the TV and scanned the titles on my Netflix Instant queue.

Choosing entertainment while high takes a certain discernment. Stereotypically, the more music and color there is—and the less plot and dialogue—the better. I’d had good luck with Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. Despite resembling a failed WB teen drama pilot, there was no resisting its Beatles soundtrack, even when the lyrics were coming out of Bono’s mustachioed mug. Sometimes, however, the “more color, more music” rule could backfire—as when I put on Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. After 20 minutes of flashing lights and frightening oscillations, I had to turn it off lest I give myself a panic attack.

So that night, I sought a comfortable middle ground somewhere between the familiar and the unexpected. I found it in a straw-colored window displayed by my Roku: Peter Weir’sPicnic at Hanging Rock. I’d never seen it, but I was aware of its influence, namely upon the Rodarte house of fashion and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. I figured it would be an undemanding murder mystery—set in anAnne of Green Gables world and wrapped up with lots of pretty cinematography—so onward I clicked. The drug began to wrap its soft, sleepy hands around my brain and my eyes felt the dry prickling of the high to come. The stereo sent out an ominous rumble. Hanging Rock was in sight.

And then, the flutes played.

"I wanted to succumb to whatever pull it was that drew those girls bonelessly to the ground in a mystic swoon. I longed to follow them around the next bend in Hanging Rock."

Some films have made me think, some have made me weep, some have simply kept me from being bored for two hours or so. Few films, though, have slipped so entirely under my skin—and changed the way I experience the world—asPicnic at Hanging Rock. Weir’s bridal-veiled lens distilled a summery languor that my thirsty eyes drank like Chartreuse. The more I watched, the drunker I became, until soon the gray branches of the eucalyptus trees surrounding Hanging Rock swayed like the arms of Matisse’s lithe dancers. “We shall only be gone a very little while,” Anne-Louise Lambert’s luminous Miranda promises, but I knew that I was lost forever. I fell asleep not long after those three girls (and the incongruous Miss McCraw) disappeared. I reawakened to the silence of the Netflix menu screen. I turned off the TV, took off my dress, and went to bed.

Sunday morning, I never came down. I felt as if I were still dreaming. Like Miranda on that sun-dappled Valentine’s Day morning in 1900, I blinked awake and felt as if something momentous might happen. Over breakfast, I managed to find an mp3 of “Doina lui Petru Unc,” the panflute air that made me a reluctant fan of Gheorghe Zamfir (and which, to this day, inspires a Pavlovian reaction within me whenever I hear it). If I put it on repeat—which I shamefacedly admit to doing, often— I’m quickly surrounded by a green vortex of lorikeets. Every single time. I smoked the rest of the weed and watched Picnic at Hanging Rock two more times that Sunday, back to back. And then I watched it every day after, high or not, for weeks.

I struggled to hold onto Picnic’s nameless, numinous mood for as long as I could. Though the film as a whole is a beautiful mystery, the marrow for me was always the first thirty minutes or so—right up until Edith Horton’s piercing screams. After that, I didn’t much care about how or why the four women vanished. The obsessions they engendered in those left behind seemed petty in comparison to Hanging Rock’s grand mysteries. Perhaps that is why Peter Weir, in the Criterion director’s cut of the film, removed subplots and scenes that added more to the plot-heavy second half of the film. Much like Michael Fitzhubert, the awkwardly genteel English lad, once I saw those white petticoats swishing through the dry forests of Hanging Rock, all I could do was follow. I wanted to succumb to whatever pull it was that drew those girls bonelessly to the ground in a mystic swoon. I longed to follow them around the next bend in Hanging Rock.

My serene stoner picnic was increasingly interrupted, however, by a burr in my sock: pathetic, prissy, plain Edith Horton. The spell cast by Miranda’s Botticelli hair, waving like the aureate grasses of Adelaide, was broken every time I encountered Edith’s simpering pout. God, why did she have to go along?! Dumpy, stumpy, whiny Edith, the ultimate harshener of mellows. How could I zone out to the Rock’s subsonic thrum when she was always chattering on about how “nasty” everything was? I found myself wanting to slap her (like Mademoiselle de Poitiers does near the film’s close), though Edith’s only sins were being chubby and outspoken.

That little burr pricked harder when I went on to read Picnic’s source material, Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same name. Weir’s film elegantly elides what Lindsay’s novel rather bluntly states: ugly people are stupid, selfish, and to be karmically punished; beautiful people are good, kind, and destined for great things. After years of reading and watching texts that give lip service to the adage “Beauty is skin deep,” it was shocking to witness such blatant aesthetic prejudice. Over and over, Edith is described as “silly” and “fat” due to her “helping herself lavishly to cream.” The joy her peers experience at Hanging Rock is portrayed as completely “beyond the understanding of Edith and her kind, who early in life take to woollen bedsocks and galoshes.” The film underlines this comparison through Tom, the laddish stable boy who gives a crude running commentary on the four girls as they venture to the Rock. He refers to Edith as “the fat one,” while he luxuriates in describing Irma’s curves and curls.

Like Tom, the novel revels in descriptions of Irma: “[r]adiantly lovely at seventeen, the little heiress was without personal vanity or pride of possession.” Irma’s beauty is apparently so great that it helps her appreciate all the more the beauty of others, as when she enjoys “a sharp little stab of pleasure” every time she looks upon Miranda’s “calm oval face and straight corn yellow hair.” Irma is so selfless, so desirous to see “everyone happy with the cake of their choice,” that she even goes on to generously wonder why “God made some people so plain and disagreeable and others beautiful and kind like Miranda?” As if to prove Lindsay’s point, the film portrays Irma as infinitely patient. She cradles Edith’s head in her lap and strokes her hair when Edith becomes upset during their climb up the Rock. Contrast this with the scene days after the incident, when de Poitiers and the chief of police question Edith about the missing girls. Edith’s recalcitrance is shameless compared to Irma’s tearful remorse.

The more I pulled at that recalcitrant burr, the more things unraveled. Edith’s bespectacled moon-face irritated me because she reminded me of myself at the age of 13. I was just as socially inept as she, bumbling into conversations held by former elementary school friends who had grown into adolescent popularity while I, acne-faced and loud, found myself alone. I was too clueless to tell from their arch smirks and rolled eyes that I wasn’t welcome—until it was too late. She wasn’t the only character I felt I knew, however; Marion and her senescent doppelganger, Miss McCraw, fascinated me as well, somehow managing to escape the beautiful/ugly dichotomy by being the brains of Appleyard College. I like to think that both of them were welcomed into the Rock’s mysteries by dint of their intelligence.

But then there’s Miranda, the beautiful yet vacuous center of Picnic at Hanging Rock. As much as I love to look at her, I could never seem to grasp onto her as a believable character. She’s not meant to be one, really. Both Lindsay and Weir portray her as a cipher: a sweet, inscrutable sylph onto whom the other characters project their hopes, fears, and dreams. She isn’t even given the humanity of a last name, aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a missing persons poster at the film’s end. She is forever just Miranda, only Miranda, as if she were an ethereal sprite without origin. While none of Picnic’s characters are very nuanced, we’re at least given some kind of insight into their personalities: Marion the brain; Irma the funny, compassionate heiress; tyrannical control freak Mrs. Appleyard; good-hearted yob Albert Crundall and his doomed, orphaned sister, Sara. All that we know about Miranda is that she is kind. Any more, and she would seem too human, too specific.

Miranda is one in a long tradition of blank, blonde girls at the heart of a mystery, the granddaughters of Vertigo’s Madeleine Elster. The Virgin Suicides is a particularly interesting exegesis on the archetype, replicating Miranda into not one but five ethereal lovelies onto whom every boy in suburban Grosse Point projects his fevered adolescent longings. The closest we get to the Lisbon girls are the objects they’ve touched, transformed into fetishes of feminine mystique: a diary, a tube of lipstick, a KISS record. The real tragedy of Coppola’s film isn’t so much the deaths of the five girls, but the fact that we’re never given any real idea of who they were, or what interior trauma drove them all to suicide.

"Yet there are cinematic blondes who refuse this blankness."

There are moments of truth, such as when the neighbor boys watch Lux’s short, unsatisfying sexual encounter with a Burger Chalet employee on her roof. The boys’ retort of “That’s it?” likely echo Lux’s, as life proves disappointing and over all too quickly. Yet these scenes are fleeting, crowded out by far more scenes of the sisters languoring picturesquely in their house and yard, all in seeming homage to that same golden hour glow that Weir used to capture his lost girls over twenty years before. Both directors’ cameras linger on their girls’ peachy skin and soft, downturned gazes—and both refuse to interrupt scenes of such beauty with the complication of the girls’ human misgivings. Instead, Coppola provides Air’s “Playground Love” as the perfect accompaniment to the boys’ dreamy escape into Lisbon fantasyland, much as “Doina lui Petru Unc” provides the backdrop to all that hangs over the Rock. And while I enjoy both films, they come all too close to the empty beauty of a perfume commercial: a blankness meant to draw my desire.

Yet there are cinematic blondes who refuse this blankness. One can’t mention blonde and absent ciphers without considering the archetype’s apotheosis: Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks. Whether it’s her smiling prom queen picture or the shot of her naked corpse, she is the ultimate screen of projection, and we learn about each character in the show by scrutinizing what they beam onto her: lust, shame, envy, hatred, love, curiosity. And yet we never know her—her hopes, her dreams, her fears—until the prequel, Fire Walk with Me.

I suspect that one of the reasons Fire Walk with Me tanked at the box office—and earned so much critical ire—was because David Lynch dared to show Laura as an actual person. We see her weep with terror, laugh at inappropriate moments, and transcend her tortured existence within the velvet-hung walls of the Red Room. In short, we watch the mystery of Laura thoroughly demystified—even parodied, as in the awkwardly hilarious scene where she tries to smoke while simultaneously putting on a ridiculous white satin teddy. Sadly, mystery often triumphs over truth, at least when it comes to popular entertainment. Fire Walk with Me was shunned by audiences because, ultimately, few wanted to know what really happened to Laura Palmer. It was easier to watch the investigation of her murder and its aftermath than to witness the unspeakable suffering of her death first hand.

I own copies of both Picnic at Hanging Rock and Fire Walk with Me. They’re among my favorite films, yet I’ve watched Fire only once or twice, while I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat down for PicnicFire earns my feminist respect for getting down in the trenches with Laura, and for showing just how much pain she suffers because people can’t see past her beauty. But at the end of the day, I’m no better than the denizens of Twin Peaks. I want to capture the cryptic pleasures of beauty and make them stay, and so, like Twin Peaks’ evil BOB, I return, again and again, to the scene of the crime, to try and relive that crystalline moment when there was nothing between me and what I saw. Beauty is hard to remember, while truth—like Edith’s pale face, or Laura Palmer’s agony—is never forgotten.

I will watch again.

Gray Hendryx is a writer on the move between West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Peru. Next year, she’ll end up in Pittsburgh with her beloved husband and chihuahua. You can follow along with her travels at Material Spiritualist.

I Think I Cannes

by Matt Patches

all photos courtesy of the author

all photos courtesy of the author


You walk a red carpet lined on both sides by eager paparazzi. To one side of you is Steven Spielberg. To the other—“Hi, Nicole Kidman.” The camera flashes create a steady glow of light. You adjust the bowtie on your tuxedo. I’m at Cannes, a fucking dream come true. You …

You wake up in a panic, a cold sweat. Is your passport in your bag? What’s the flight time? Socks. You need socks. You check your bag again for the passport. Stumbling down five flights of stairs, you hail a cab. The voice of your mother is all you can hear. “France might require a passport at least six months out from its expiration date, and yours only has four months left!” You check your bag for your passport. This is no different from any trip you’ve ever taken. Your hands shake as you enter your reservation number at the check-in kiosk. Cannes. Staring through the window of the parked jet, you flip through the schedule, released only a day before. Not helpful. You listen to the elderly man next to you as he explains his planned three-week long hike through the hills of Spain. The ultimate endurance test, he says. You say you’re about go to a film festival. “You look nervous,” the man says.

From the plane to the air to the Nice airport to a mile-long customs line to the ancient baggage claim to a taxi and its driver who adores Angelina Jolie to the doorstep of an apartment that’s oh-so-French to a screaming woman who reluctantly lets you in despite being three hours late to a futon where you’ll spend the next 10 days of your life back out to the cobblestone streets of Cannes. The Mediterranean air has an instant calming effect. You head into the unknown.

Hordes of people congregate at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, a fortress of cinema emblazoned with photographs of an interlocked Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. There are many doors, but only one that will get you inside. The French do lines differently, a laissez-faire twist on orderly queueing. After a few blows to the face, you obtain your badge. There are levels of access that help you identify your place in the world. You are “bleu,” but there are the kings of the festival (“blanc”), the bourgeoisie (“rose avec une pastille”), the upper middle class (“rose”)—and the only tier below you, the groundlings (“jaune”). Now color-coded, you check a map: The Grand Théâtre Lumière, Theâtre Debussy, Theâtre Buñuel, Theâtre Bazin … where are you? With the remaining energy from last night’s airplane half-sleep, you search for Debussy—location of movie number one, Amat Escalante’s Heli. Twenty minutes of searching reveals a line. You don’t know how the system works — is this the right line forbleus? Is this a free-for-all? Are clubbing weapons allowed in this deathmatch? — but you fortify your place in the sea of people and pretend you’re not as “vert” as you clearly are.

Excitement is in the air, the first movie locked and loaded to screen. The marathon of justgetting to Cannes is over. A thousand people take their seats, the festival fanfare signals the start, and Heli flickers on to the screen. It’s the story of a Mexican teenager, falling face first into the world of drug cartels. It’s harrowing from the get-go. The titular character watches his sister become entangled with a deranged teenager who thinks it’s OK to steal blocks of cocaine from AK–47 wielding monsters. The gang members track the klutz down—and sweeten the deal by taking the sister and Heli. They’re tied up, taken back to the drug den, and tortured. The sister’s boyfriend has his penis burnt off. Heli undergoes his own set of beatings before being thrown back into real life. Grief, anger, despair, end credits. Heli kicked your ass. You run out the door to find a glass of wine, wondering if you’re mentally capable of being challenged by the world film has to offer.

Day one ends on the Promenade de la Croisette, a beachside stretch of food carts, park benches, and—in the case of Cannes—pop-up nightlife. Fireworks light up the sky. You trace the explosions back to the red carpet, the one from your dreams. Ah, that’s the Grand Théâtre Lumière—glitz, glamour, and stars aplenty. That’s not your Cannes. A look at the ocean, lighting up with the fireworks’ colored reflections, makes that perfectly OK.

You arise at the crack of dawn with the taste of white wine still on your breath. In the morning, the stroll down to the Palais makes you feel like Belle in the opening of Beauty and the Beast. You catch François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful (or “The Ozon,” as your wonderfully snobby colleagues might say). It’s perfectly French, the steamy story of a young woman whose sexual passion can only be met by unknown, older men. So she turns to prostitution. Ozon’s style is like flipping through a book of old photographs, glimpses of life that can jump from shocking to warm to humorous to devastating in a moment’s notice. Is it realistic? The point sparks debate, but you were swept up in the young (and beautiful) Marine Vacth’s performance. She makes it realistic. You realize why you traveled hundreds of miles from home to watch movies.

Against better judgment, you wait in line for two hours in the pouring rain for The Coen Bros’ latest. Your lowly place on the social ladder and anticipation demands it. The prioritized mobs of people flood the theater ahead of you, but you manage to be one of ten “bleus” to make it in. Soaking wet, miserable beyond belief, you settle in for Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens’ rhythmic exploration into the ’60s folk music scene has a drying effect. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou, it’s intrinsically tied to the Bob Dylan-esque tunes performed by its main character. The trailers made Llewyn Davis look like Forrest Gump for folk, but it’s much more character-centric and neurotic, Oscar Issac spending most of the movie singing or losing faith in humanity. Little hope, lots of laughs. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver pop up to duet a pop number, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and you instantly know what everyone in Brooklyn will be talking about at the end of the movie.

The days ahead are a gauntlet. The Cannes population will draw blood to be the first to see the new Claire Denis film: Bastards. It turns out to be worth the fight—Denis’ latest is a bold riff on the thriller genre, a film that dropkicks exposition out of the picture in favor making its audience play catch up. You walk miles to a hole-in-the-wall theater space to see Ari Folman’sThe Congress, a transportive, animated epic that fills your mind with swirling colors and cautionary words of wisdom. Folman pushes his style from the autobiographicalWaltz with Bashir to new extremes, throwing The Matrix, Roger Rabbit, Children of Men, Heavy Metal, and the exceptional Robin Wright into a blender and cranking it to high.

Not every attempt works out. You spend an hour waiting for Clive Owen’s Blood Ties only to see the theater hit maximum capacity (luckily, it played to little buzz). But the miss becomes a hit. You catch a documentary on psychedelic Mexican director Alejandro Jorodowsky and his mind-blowing could-have-been adaptation of Dune. Now you’re barreling through Cannes.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is a slick exploitation film that’s completely vacant under the surface. Kristin Scott Thomas finds a way to become Joan Crawford, but karate-chopping Ryan Gosling has only 17 lines and none of them are interesting. Election director Alexander Payne serves up Nebraska, a charming, black-and-white road movie starring Will Forte and Bruce Dern. You’ve always been a fan of Payne’s and Nebraska continues the streak of sharp humor and painfully real characters. There’s talk afterward—does the father/son journey into the past exploit the quaintness of middle Americans for laughs? You throw up a hand in contention, prepared to argue even while seeing the point.

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call is a mess, but All Is Lost blows you away. It’s so perfectly simple: Robert Redford is on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He’s hit by a storm. He tries everything he can to survive the storm. He’s only one man, but a crafty man. For two hours, he remains silent, spending his energy patching up holes and preparing for the worst. Breathtaking.

You make some discoveries. Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza captures the sprawling landscapes of Rome and juxtaposes it with the sprawling life of its author character. Beautiful on every level. You want to book a ticket to Rome immediately, but … movies. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son wonders what you would do if you had a four-year-old son that turned out to be someone else’s child, swapped at birth. This isn’t even a question in your mind, but for the Japanese couples at the center of the film, it’s a test of everything society has taught them. Touching and provocative. Then comes the must-see of the festival you only realize is the must-see of the festival after you see it. The three-hour lesbian coming-of-age drama La Vie d’Adele sounds like every art house movie that’s ever played in the States, but holy hell — you’re a mess by the end. Everyone will focus on the ten-minute sex scene that acts as the film’s keystone, but there’s so much more: the chaotic life of high school, those delicate transitional moments, the romance that inevitably makes everything more confusing. You don’t join the standing ovation. You start it.

One final night. You gather up your colleagues for a meal that isn’t a gyro or a pizza — the only two foods at Cannes that won’t cost a year’s salary. Foie gras, fine cheeses, steaks, gallons of red wine, talk of movies, talk of parties, talk of Cannes, talk of lives, talk and talk and drink and talk. The sun rises and you need to pack. You cram your life into a suitcase and say goodbye to your apartment. Making your way down giant stone stairs, you attempt to soak in the soul of France before a taxi appears to take you away. You wish you had seen more films (24 isn’t good enough). You consider everything that worked against you over a week and a half.

You wonder if it’s worth it. You’re determined to return to this Mecca. You think you need it. You witnessed magic. You turn back around and look past the driver to see the highway on-ramp ahead. You have a moment of anxiety. You search your bag.

Yes, you have your passport.

Matt Patches is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured onGrantland, VultureEsquire, and VanityFair.com.