Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman


Like many people, my introduction to Mike Nichols came by way of seeing The Graduate as an impressionable and vaguely rebellious adolescent. Though the film had been released nearly thirty years earlier, when I brought it home from the library that one fateful day, I felt like it had been made exactly and only for me. In a summer filled with repeat viewings of Pulp Fiction, Annie Hall, and Nashville—films that opened my eyes, for the very first time, to the magic that filmmaking can be—The Graduate came along and further changed the entire trajectory of my life. Everything about it seemed magical and true—the way Nichols used the camera, Buck Henry’s bold and hilarious script, Dustin Hoffman’s awkward perfection, the Simon & Garfunkel music that was almost a character unto itself, the gut-punch ambiguity of its final moments. It immediately became one of my very favorite films. From that moment on, I was always interested in anything that Mike Nichols touched.

And Nichols had his fingerprints on a whole lot of things over the course of his fifty years in show business. He slid effortlessly between comedy and drama, stage and screen, collaborating with seemingly everyone who was anyone, writers and actors alike, telling stories that weren’t always perfect, but were always worth watching. Though critics have attacked him over the years for casting a wide artistic net and never settling into a distinctive thematic groove or directorial voice (as opposed to auteurs of a similar age, like Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, whose films can almost never be mistaken for anybody else’s), such a reading of his art seems to miss the rather obvious point: Nichols’ themewas humanity. He spent the vast majority of his career observing and wrestling with the human condition, endlessly fascinated by relationships, and their boundless capacity to hurt or heal us. A good deal of his work—certainly the best of it, anyway—was most interested in the interplay between closeness and distance, the dance of intimacy and defense. That his very first film (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and his next to last one (Closer) focused almost exclusively on these themes—full of hurt people hurting people—only serves to highlight how he never lost interest in the porcupine’s dilemma.

*

Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931, Nichols endured a lonely and painful childhood, which included going permanently bald following an inoculation for whooping cough when he was four (he’s worn wigs and false eyebrows ever since), fleeing to America with his Jewish family at age seven in order to escape the Nazis, and then losing his beloved father to leukemia at the tender age of nine. By his own account, he “never had a friend” from the time he came to America until he attended the University of Chicago.

And yet somewhere amidst all those childhood trials, traumas, and tribulations, an artist was being formed. As an adult, Nichols learned to harness his past struggles and adversity—his deep loneliness and perpetual sense of feeling like an outsider—and use them to his advantage. Out of necessity, Nichols learned how to observe, and more importantly, how to truly listen to those around him. In time, this became perhaps his greatest asset, informing not just his artistic sensibilities but also his way of being in the world, allowing him to not only capture the cultural zeitgeist of his adopted country across four different decades, but also enabling his legendary ability to get the very the best out of nearly every actor he worked with.

Though serious critical study and adulation often eluded Nichols after his initial burst onto the film scene in the late 60s—with the one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate—his career was arguably among the more wide-reaching, ambitious, and successful of any director in the latter half of the 20th century. This self-described “lonely bald kid,” in time, became one of only twelve people to ever achieve the mythical EGOT, discovered stars as diverse as Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg, mounted award-winning plays from Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Tony Kushner, won both the National Medal of Arts and an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, befriended Elizabeth Taylor, dated Jacqueline Kennedy, and married Diane Sawyer.

*

And so, for our very first issue of the new year, we’ve decided to devote an entire issue to the films of Mike Nichols. We obviously don’t have space to look at each of Nichols twenty-one feature films, so instead we’re focusing on the beginning, middle, and end phases of his vast career. Comedian Fran Hoepfner takes a look at Nichols’ early days as a comic, when he comprised one half of the massively influential duo, Nichols & May; Sarah Malone examines the fiercely intimate and brittle relationship at the heart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Elizabeth and Chris Cantwell watch, re-evaluate, and talk through The Graduate; Arielle Greenberg explores the battle of the sexes in one of Nichols’ most challenging and controversial films, Carnal Knowledge. Then, we jump ahead more than fifteen years and catch up with Nichols in mid-career: Kelsey Ford imagines Working Girl’s Tess McGill giving advice on how to succeed in business, while Andrew Root looks at The Birdcage through the lens of his own challenging role in an upcoming play. We close things out with a handful of Nichols’ final films: my own look at Wit, a vastly underseen end-of-life drama, Kara VanderBijl’s poetic reflection on Angels in America—the film Nichols personally considered his crowning achievement—and Tracy Wan’s take on his next-to-last film, Closer.

Mike Nichols spent a lifetime telling stories, in one form or another. Whether he was performing as a stand-up comedian, producing Broadway plays, directing films—or even just sitting around with a group of friends and regaling them with tales from his past—he always strove to both illuminate and entertain, to show us more about ourselves and give us something to smile about along the way. “I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don't think they're very much different,” Nichols reflected, near the end of his life. “They both have to be true...the whole idea is to reflect life in some way.”

And while his own light finally gave out late last year at the age of 83—still working, as always—thankfully, his reflections live on.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


It Takes Two

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The Birdcage is my favorite Mike Nichols film. It’s a near-perfect movie––brilliantly cast, well-paced, surprisingly progressive, and most important of all, really funny. By the time The Birdcage came out, Nichols had been an established director for 30 years. It was an instant classic. It featured two of the most celebrated roles for Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. But for me, The Birdcage symbolized the long overdue collaboration between Nichols and his former comedy partner, Elaine May, who wrote the screenplay.

Mike Nichols was a man of great vision and humor, but I find myself less interested than I feel I should be in his solo projects. I enjoy them and I respect them, but I’m spoiled. My introduction to the work of Nichols wasn’t throughThe Graduate or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Before I knew the Nichols behind the camera, I knew the Nichols in front of the camera with Elaine May.

When I was a senior in college, I took a semester focusing solely on comedy—how to write it, how to perform it, and where it all came from. We spent several days watching the extended sketch work of Nichols and May. Although a lot of it has been removed, you can still find some of their sketches on YouTube.

The more I watched their work, the more obsessed I became.

Mike and Elaine met at the University of Chicago in the 1950’s. Along with Paul Sills, Del Close, and others, they established what would eventually become the model of sketch and improvisation we now know today. They were involved in a troupe called The Compass Players, a group which would go on to found Chicago’s legendary Second City. They were revolutionaries. Nichols and May, especially, established themselves as benchmarks and innovators in the genre.

Comedy partners take on many forms, but there’s usually a straight man and a funny man. There’s the uptight, rigid player—the one who acknowledges the rules, keeps pacing in check, and whose reaction (or lack thereof) often garners the most laughs. And then there’s the goofy player––the chaotic, absurd, silly one, who gets things wrong, who trips and falls, who is an unflappable loser. This old entertainment trope dominated the American comedy scene through vaudeville in the 1920s and ‘30s.

What’s so magical about Nichols and May is that they don’t play a straight man or a funny man. They’re both, and they’re neither: they’re everything. They balance dry, unwavering wit with chaotic silliness. They drift in and out of established stereotypes, creating new characters much more grounded in reality than those of their vaudeville predecessors.

A lot of vaudeville duos featuring a man and a woman relied heavily on sexuality to relay jokes: his attraction to her, her beauty and stupidity. There was none of that in Nichols and May’s work. Along with The Compass Players, they put into effect one of the most crucial rules in comedy today: play to the height of your character’s intelligence. There are dumb people in this world—a sad truth—but no one is ever trying to be dumb. Everyone is trying to be the smartest version of themselves, and the same attempt should be made in comedy. (If you wonder, as you watch a failing sitcom or comedy film, why you aren’t laughing, it’s probably because this rule is being broken.)

My favorite sketch of theirs is thankfully still online. It’s titled Mother & Son, and it’s worth the five minutes of your time. In it, as you could probably predict, May and Nichols are a mother and son, respectively. The inspiration for the sketch came from something Nichols’ mother once said to him, which more or less opens the scene: “Hello, this is your mother, do you remember me?”

What’s astounding to me is how real the scene is. It’s funny, no doubt—it was funny fifty years ago and it’s funny today, but it’s also just true to life. It recalls so many different conversations I’ve had with my own mother about forgetting to call. Nichols and May both came from Jewish backgrounds, and they’ve both said this mother character was heavily influenced by their own mothers. But it’s not a series of jokes about Jewish mothers. It’s a sketch, and at their best, sketches are statements. This sketch is “you can never please your mother.”

Nichols and May are perfect in it. They never default to any kind of set-up and punchline style. The scene ebbs and flows. May is both harsh and emotional, scoring all the big moments in the scene. But it wouldn’t work without Nichols. He’s affable and exasperated, constantly vying for power. It’s said in comedy that a good scene works if the characters end at the emotional state the other character started in. They switch. They each have their own arc. May begins teary-eyed, pathetic. Nichols is evasive but confident. And in the end? May is gloating, practically cheerful, and Nichols is defeated. It’s a perfect circle.

Watching them change and shift throughout the scene is effortless and astounding. Their natural chemistry hasn’t been rivaled since. They’re fast and they’re funny but they’re also real people. In one of their more famous scenes (unfortunately gone from the internet), they play two nervous teenagers sitting in a car, both too anxious to kiss the other. They engage in small talk. They pause. They look away from each other. When they finally kiss, May’s character has yet to exhale the smoke from her cigarette, and turns away to do so mid-embrace.

Nichols and May only worked together for a brief amount of time. They were successful—they landed on Broadway—but they were also fast and funny and mean. They worked quickly and without patience. They outgrew each other, as many great pairs do, and moved in their separate directions. Since I work as a stand-up comedian these days, I know all too well what this feels like. I work alone and I write alone, because it’s hard to work with other people, especially in your art. It’s hard to share the spotlight, to give up control. Both so sharp and so smart, Nichols and May were too good to stay together for long. They didn’t crash and burn, but they parted ways. They moved on.

Then, decades later, The Birdcage reunited their sensibilities. Having watched so much of their sketch work, it’s amazing to see how The Birdcage flows seamlessly from joke to joke. It’s absurd but relatable. It’s about relationships and parents and children. It’s about guilt. It’s about mothers. It could only be so good because they did it together.


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


A Drowning Man Takes Down Those Nearest

by Sarah Malone

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

You may have known couples like George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). You may have received similar invitations. Come over—it’s no imposition. We’re happy to have guests. You met the couple only tonight. A couple from work. It’s natural, a few drinks. Talk is going well; why end it at the end of the party? You’re new in town. How welcome, to be welcomed in.

For a while you wish you hadn’t come. She is screaming at him as he opens the door. They insult each other and confide in you theatrically. They invited you, you suspect, to avoid addressing each other directly. Or—a shivering doubt—they address each other through you. You have been drafted as a puppet, a prop in the acrimony you witness. It takes a few drinks to quell that thought, a few mutually admired barbs. It’s easier to enjoy things you succeed in.

The second act of the evening. The halves of the couples pair off. Conversation moves outdoors. The near stranger who set you up for putdowns indoors reminisces mournfully, offering you sadness, and in return you offer painful, intimate stories, the doubts you bear through sober daylit hours behind genial public imperturbability, the energetic, good-looking young professor, the nice young faculty wife. You take care to appear so, daily, habitually. You aspire to be as you appear. But now it’s carefully nourished wounds that you want to let into the still night, the couple’s house stage lit, the surrounding town obscured behind old trees at the end of summer. You bare inadequacies you’ve never admitted to your spouse. Candor, the rarity of it, as much as what you say, knots you to this rumpled stranger whose failures you fear you’ll repeat in some fashion, or already have repeated before tonight’s hot current of bourbon and revelation.

And then George or Martha turns on you. Really, did you believe either one of them would align with you or your spouse over each other? You thought George and Martha loathed each other. They also understand each other. They don’t need either of you as soul mates. They need you to be vulnerable in a party game they were playing years before you arrived in town. They move from cruelty to solace from one line to the next, experts in pain, incapable of exit, managing, haltingly to cope. Would—will—you do as well?

*

Released three years after Cleopatra, and after Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s infamous on-set affair, the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was from the first—as director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman intended—difficult to consider separately from the fame and charisma of its stars. The casting ensured commercial success, but it also works for the script. Taylor and Burton’s physical awareness of each other is palpable, moment by moment. They calibrate their positions and postures to and against each other, playing off what each can anticipate the other will do in a room.Neither entirely exists absent the other. In the small interiors of George and Martha’s house, they own the screen.

Nichols frames much of the film as a close-up on them. The camera tracks faces, filling the screen with expressions of distress and triumph as accusation turns to flirtation that turns to condemnation, and line-by-line the initiative shifts from Taylor to Burton and back. His piercing eyes, their wide-set wariness, are tempered much of the time behind thick-rimmed glasses. On the bed, fully clothed, drinking before their guests arrive, Taylor handles him with violent liberty. Her voice is brittle, her full mouth rarely still. She sneers, smokes, cackles, yells, contorts, enraged. Virginia Woolf’s profanity may not shock as it once did or was predicted to, but the force of Taylor and Burton’s delivery, their bare aggression, compel attention, both their guests’ and each other’s.

Playing Martha, Taylor sought credibility as a serious actor that she didn’t feel she had from her previous roles. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. It was the peak of her box office draw.

*

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nominated in every eligible Academy Award category and won five awards, including, in addition to Taylor’s Best Actress, the final Oscar awarded for Black and White Cinematography. Until the final scene, the entire movie is by night, all light artificial. Anything illuminated, faces, walls, flatten into a factual glare, stripped of color, at times painfully bright against the dark. Taylor blinks irritably into her own house in one of Nichols’s close-ups. Outdoors, Burton is gray by porch lights, his skin pitted and creased. Both Burton and Taylor look exhausted, unhealthy. The town behind them is unpopulated or asleep. Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler keep the focus shallow, the New England trees and houses transfigured by defocus into a fluid play of lights. It is nothing that can be reached. It exists only through the properties of the camera, in the lens and on film, while in the foreground George and Martha talk their way to daybreak.

George’s aggression is from the sidelines. He stokes Martha, his accommodation derisive, his admonitions taunts. He refuses to release his temper as she does. At a roadhouse the couples detour to, Martha finally goads him enough. The camera dizzyingly follows her leading him on and George strangling her until the young professor he’d mocked and led into imprudent confidences pries him off and hurls him to the floor.

“Violence!” The young professor’s wife drunkenly claps.

Is violence what Martha wanted, for George to impose his will by force? Daughter of the college president, she chides George incessantly for his failure to attain a leadership position. Is imposition of will all that she respects? Or has she, at last, provoked a reaction she didn’t expect and cannot accommodate?

Back at the house, George says that his and Martha’s son died in a car crash. The crash’s circumstances resemble those of a school acquaintance’s car crash, years ago, that George had described to the young professor earlier in the evening. Martha weeps that he—George—can’t do that. No, he agrees; he’s not a god; he doesn’t have the power of life and death. He is acquitting himself. The young professor, horrified, realizes that the son is a fantasy; Martha and George are unable to have children. Martha weeps, “I’ve wanted to [mention the son] so often.” How can she ever again, with the fiction, the possibility of it debunked? No more games. George has made them impossible. It’s time, he says; things will be better, he and Martha together, the two of them. He touches her shoulder, haltingly tender. She is at the point in grief where what preceded and what will follow are equally ungraspable. He almost whispers the film’s title, the refrain Martha had previously repeated, demanding everyone find it funny. Now she answers it seriously, in daylight.

*

Last call at the roadhouse is about an hour into the film, daybreak an hour later. But scene-to-scene, the dialogue, largely true to the play, is contiguous. Nichols compresses time, converting the limiting considerations of the stage—how quickly or frequently can sets be changed or set changes indicated without jarring audiences out of the action—into screen sleight of hand. Solar time passes faster than dramatic time. Slightly over two hours of film suffices for a night of dark souls.

Nichols was a rising star directing for the stage, and famous for improvisational comedy with Elaine May, but he’d never directed for the screen before Virginia Woolf. He must have reveled in his ability to point audiences’ gaze close in at the character speaking, to zoom in on George and Martha clasping hands and rack focus from their hands to the college buildings out the window behind them. He must have been as pleased to have the biggest stars in film in his leading roles as they must have been to get a million dollars each and the challenge and intellectual credibility of Edward Albee’s play. It was as fortuitous a fit as Martha and George were a poisonous one. George and Martha do fit. It’s in Burton and Taylor’s faces through the screaming night. George and Martha find pleasure, inflicting pain, knowing how to inflict it. By morning, they are bereft.


Sarah.png

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


Talking Through The Graduate

by Chris & Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I. We Figured Out The Movie


Elizabeth: Can I start?

(silence)

E: So, about five minutes ago, I wrote down: “actresses who turned down the role—why?” because we were looking at the Wikipedia page of actresses who turned down both Mrs. Bancroft … Or, no, not Mrs. Bancroft, that’s not a person, Mrs. Robinson, and—

Chris: I mean, it is a person.

E: —and Elaine. So, I have a theory as to why so many people turned these parts down, but do you—do you have a theory, too?

C: Is this a loaded question?

E: No, I’m just asking—

C: I hate this already.

(pause)

C: Why they turned it down? Well, I understand why a lot of people turned down the part of Elaine. You don’t know why she’s interested in Benjamin, because of all the terrible stuff that’s happened. She’s flirting with the idea of marrying him, and she seems kind of—not out of control, but like, uh—she’s not in control, or—I don’t know what I’m trying to say.

E: Yeah, I was really bothered by—how passive she was?

C: Oh, yeah, passive, that’s the word I’m looking for—

E: Yeah—

C: But that’s—I think that’s on purpose.

E: Exactly! While I was watching it I was getting that feminist reaction of “This movie doesn’t hold up, she’s passive, she makes no decisions for herself, she’s just shepherded”— but now that I’ve watched it again, I feel like that’s on purpose.

C: Yes, I agree. I figured the movie out.

E: Me too.

C: The movie—I figured the movie out finally, which is that: she’s passive and doesn’t make any decisions for herself. But Benjamin is also passive and doesn’t make any decisions for himself.

E: Exactly.

C: Until—well, he kisses Elaine, right?

E: Yes.

C: And then he gets this crazy idea that he’s going to marry Elaine, even though she hates him.

E: Yes.

C: And the whole movie is basically, like, here are two young people who have never made decisions for themselves, and their parents have made all their decisions for them their entire lives, and now they’re going to make a performative gesture of making a big decision in their lives, which is what they do. She’s like “Maybe I will marry you, maybe we should get married,” and he’s like “I’m going to marry this woman,” even though they haven’t thought it through, and I think when he does go to her and interrupt the wedding, and they decide to run off together, it’s the first decision they actually make. You linger on them in the bus at the end, and it’s clear that now they’re entering the adult world, where you make big decisions for yourself and then you live with the doubt that comes with those decisions.

E: Yeah, and that’s why Mrs. Robinson is so happy at the end. She says “He’s doing it!” like, he’s really doing it

C: No, that’s not what she says.

E: Okay, well, my interpretation of it—

C: No, she says—No, that’s wrong

E: Okay, well, can I just finish the thought, because you talked so long—

C: Okay, go ahead—because I talked so long? Okay, finish your thought, which is based onyou not hearing the line correctly from the movie.

E: Okay, I think she’s actually proud of him—

(audible disgusted sigh from Chris)

—for actually acting. But here’s what I—

C: No—

E: —wrote down in my notes: “At least at the end of the movie he’s running and not standing still.” The opening shot of the movie is him standing on that moving sidewalk at LAX, and the way it’s shot is so fascinating, because he’smoving on the moving sidewalk but the camera’s moving with him, so it really just looks stagnant. There are so many images of total stagnation in the film. So at the end of the movie, when he’s running, that’s like the literal—he’s actually taking action. I wrote, “This is not a movie about love, it’s a movie about the exhilaration of having finally made a decision for yourself, which is a total triumph,” and then I wrote, “but not.”

C: That’s great.

C: But—let’s go back to what you just said, which is that you think Mrs. Robinson is proud of him, or happy for him—

E: Yeah.

C: That’s wrong. Because what she says in the church is “He’s too late.” Elaine already got married. She’s the one who rushed the wedding through!

E: I know. But I think, internally—

C: No! She’s not proud—she doesn’t care about Benjamin at all. When she says “He’s too late,” she means he can’t do anything to stop what’s happening. But, of course, he does, and later you see her yelling at him and, you know, you don’t hear the words—and you see Mr. Robinson doing the same thing, and you see the Makeout King, her new husband, doing the same thing. She’s not happy.

E: Can we talk about how that guy would never be the “makeout king,” because he’s theworst, slimiest guy.

C: You don’t know. He has, like, two lines, which are saying hello to Elaine in the zoo and then saying hello to Benjamin.

E: Well, everyone in this movie is pretty gross, actually. And that’s why I thought that Mrs. Robinson was proud of him, because I felt like her emotionscould change that fast. Everyone is so fickle—

C: No! She’s one of them—

E: I believe you! I was also really bothered by how creepy Benjamin is. I would call the police if he stalked me to another city and wrote my name over and over on pages, and then was like “I’m gonna marry you,” even though we’ve been on one date?

C: Okay, but let’s also get into his head space—he’s been fucking Elaine’s mom at her direction, so he’s totally spun out. He’s decided he loves Elaine, but we understand his mental perspective because of what he’s going through.

E: Right. And I think we know—

C: So we don’t just want to call him a creep.

E: —that this relationship isn’t going to work out—

C: Well, we don’t know that! We don’t know!

E: Well, my interpretation of the end of the film is: it’s a happy ending but not because they’re necessarily going to be in love. I don’t think that relationship is going to last more than two weeks. They’ve never had a conversation about anything.

II. Mrs. Robinson


E: Isn’t that idea—of making your own decisions—isn’t that probably what Mrs. Robinson thought when she had sex with Mr. Robinson and got pregnant? Like, “I defied authority and had sex with this man and made my own decision”?

C: No. No, I think that she was in college, and she never got to make any decisions for herself. She went right into being with this man in his car, and then getting pregnant—which was another thing that was decided for her by her own biology—and then she had the baby—so the marriage was decided for her—and now she’s lived her whole life having never made a decision for herself. The first decision Mrs. Robinson makes in her life, you could argue, is when she goes to the party and says “Benjamin, drive me home,” and then “Benjamin, follow me inside,” and then she takes her clothes off in Elaine’s room and says “I want to sleep with you because I find you attractive.” That’s Mrs. Robinson making the first decision she’s ever made in her life.

E: I find her the most sympathetic character, actually.

C: More than Benjamin?

E: Yes, for sure. Because—

C: No, she’s already broken—she’s already in the past—

E: But we can sympathize with her plight, and I find her story the most emotionally engaging—

C: You can understand her—

E: And I feel so sad that she never got to think about art any more—

C: The best villains in movies are ones where you understand where they’re coming from emotionally. You know what I mean? That’s the poignancy of that scene in the hotel where she’s talking about how she had a major but doesn’t think about it any more, and how she and Mr. Robinson conceived Elaine and all of that. You understand where she’s coming from, and you understand how she’s become this kind of manipulative person who is very much into control, because it’s almost an over-correction for her life that has come before all this.

III. Who’s Buck Henry?
 

E: I think all the water in the movie is symbolic of that passiveness. When you’re in the water, you can’t move in the way you do above water. Everything is slowed down, everything is—it’s harder to go anywhere. All the scenes of himfloating—literally and metaphorically, right?—he’s just floating, he’s not actively swimming, he’s just letting waves around him take him wherever they do, and/or he’s in a diver’s suit underwater where he’s completely confined and unable to do anything but look out of this little mask at this little world that other people have decided he should see in this confined way. The first time we see Mrs. Robinson it’s through that fish tank—the camera sees her through the water, which I thought was really interesting—

C: His parents are looking at him in that diving suit kind of like how he’s looking at the monkeys in the monkey house—

E: Yes, and we see the diver in the aquarium in that opening shot of him.

(pause)

C: We should talk about Mike Nichols.

E: Okay.

C: This wasn’t the first movie he directed, was it?

E: Oh, I don’t know.

(looking on Wikipedia)

C: Here we go. He directed this movie when he was 36. Okay, hold on. Filmography. (quietly)Can’t we just—why does Wikipedia do this to you? All right. Okay. Oh! He directed—oh my god. Okay, so I totally blanked on this, but he directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

E: Oh!

C: So that’s fantastic. Okay.

E: So he really believes in marriage.

C: (defensively) Well, I don’t know what his personal life was like. He might have been married and happy.

E: Just kidding.

C: He might have not.

E: God. You’re so confrontational.

C: No I’m not! Would you call this movie a comedy?

E: I think it’s actually funny in parts, yeah.

C: I think it’s a comedy.

E: Like, when he puts the crucifix through the doorway at the end, that’s a funny moment, and when she says “I’m going to call the police,” and she calls the police.

C: Well, just in the way that Dustin Hoffman—in how a lot of this stuff is staged and rehearsed, and the stuff with Buck Henry in the hotel …

E: Who’s Buck Henry?

C: Buck Henry is the writer of the film.

E: Oh.

C: And I pointed him out to you while we were watching it—

E: I forgot his name—

C: and I said “That’s Buck Henry, he’s the screenwriter.”

E: Well, I know that he was the writer.

IV. I Was An Alcoholic
 

E: Did you think it was weird that there was a bar in the home of a former alcoholic? And also, she drinks a martini, so that’s not, like, twelve steps—

C: Did she say, “Did you know I was an alcoholic”?

E: Yeah—

C: But that might imply “I am an alcoholic.”

E: Oh, you think she still is? She doesn’t seem drunk

C: I don’t know if she’s a recovering alcoholic or a current alcoholic… She’s clearly not doing well, if she’s in recovery.

E: No, she’s not. That’s so horrifying, that shot of her in the black dress after she’s been rained on—after Elaine finds out—it looks like a horror movie shot. Where the camera pulls back on her in the hallway? I mean, the film’s a comedy, but it’s also terrifying.

C: She looks completely broken in that scene.

E: She looks dead. She looks corpse-like.

C: Here’s a messed-up thought: Do you think she tells Benjamin that she’s an alcoholic in order to justify this weird kind of screwed-up thing she’s doing with a younger man?

E: Or to get him to feel sympathy for her—and want to care for her in some way.

C: You mean she says that so he could take pity on her?

E: Yeah, possibly. She’s very lonely. And as cognitive as she pretends to be, in seducing him, she’s also scared to have a conversation with him—

C: Well, she draws very clear boundaries with him—

E: Because she’s frightened of actually opening up and having an emotional connection with someone. But at the same time, she doesn’t want him to date her daughter, because shedoes have an emotional connection with him, I think—

C: Yeah, why do you think she doesn’t want him to date—

E: I think she loves him, in a way—

C: You think that Mrs. Robinson loves Benjamin?

E: She certainly has more of a connection with him and more of a reason to love him than Elaine does. Elaine ate a burger with him and cried because she took him to a strip club.

C: I don’t know. That’s interesting. But I wonder if she doesn’t want Benjamin to be with Elaine because Benjamin has been tainted by her world—this bleak, sad world that she drew Benjamin into because she needed someone. And she wants her daughter to not live anything similar to what she’s gone through, to go off and be happy somewhere else, and marry the makeout king—

E: But if she really wants her daughter to be happy, then she wouldn’t force a marriage on her daughter at age 19, the same age she ended up getting married—

C: I think that that’s true, but that’s—I mean, the character’s clearly misguided.

E: I think she may love Benjamin.

C: I think she becomes possessive of him.

E: Yes.

C: But I don’t know if it’s love.

V. Jaws


C: Can we also talk about how Mr. Robinson is the mayor in Jaws? And speaking of actors who are in Jaws

C and E: (simultaneously) Richard Dreyfuss!

C: Richard Dreyfuss shows up for two lines, which are “I’ll call the cops! Do you want me to call the cops?” And that’s all he says in the movie, and then he leaves.

E: Whoa, what if he goes off after that—so he’s at Berkeley in this boarding house, and what if he’s actually learning about marine biology—

C: Okay, this is good, now we’re tying the worlds together—

E: This is actually—

C: This is actually in the same universe as Jaws. So he’s playing the character Matt Hooper. And he’s studying icthyology at Berkeley. Mr. Robinson is so humiliated by what happens with his wife and daughter—

E: He gets a divorce—

C: He gets a divorce, has to change his name, and then he runs for mayor of Amity. He moves back to the East Coast—

E: He remarries—

C: He has a kid, who’s very young, right? Because his son was on the beach—“My son was on that beach, too.” He remarries and changes his name and becomes the mayor of Amity.

E: I love it.

C: Who else is in this movie? Norman Fell is in this film—

E: I don’t know who that is.

C: He’s the landlord. He plays a lot of landlords.

E: I thought that was kind of a silly part. I feel like landlords are either racist caricatures of Asians or just, like, “I don’t want you in my house!”

C: Well, let’s understand that cliches start somewhere, and that this film was made in 1967, so it’s almost 50 years old.

E: Oh, that’s old! I thought it was in, like, ’83.

C: (incredulous) You thought this movie was made in 1983?

E: (laughing) Yeah, I did! Wow, then this film is really advanced.

C: So, wait, this film has gone from being cliched and hackneyed in its portrayal of landlords—they should put that on the poster. “The Graduate: Cliched and Hackneyed in its Portrayal of Landlords” —Elizabeth Cantwell.

VI. The 60s


C: I feel like I would have been extremely irritated in the 60s. The people who are at the drive-thru? The versions of those people I see today, which are 1/100th of what those people are like, still make me want to die inside and run away to the woods.

E: And Elaine and Benjamin don’t fit in with all of that around them.

C: Do you think that’s a product of the story and the actors, or do you think that’s Mike Nichols—who clearly is a generation above the Vietnam protestors—kind of making a judgment about the 60s kids?

E: I don’t know if it was that. I think Nichols wanted to show that there were these two people who felt displaced and isolated in various ways. The whole film feels very claustrophobic. That opening party—the way he shot it, you feel like you want to leave the house with Benjamin. The house feels very small and crowded, and the people’s faces are really big in the camera, and you’re just, like, “fuck, I need some AIR.” There’s a creepy clown picture in the hallway, which is funny, but it’s also like—“I just need to get out.” You get that feeling of claustrophobia in multiple ways. Even the blinds in the hotel room—

C: Benjamin keeps trying to open them—

E: Yes, and you see their shadow across him confining him. He has to roll up the car window when they’re in that drive-thru restaurant because it’s so loud around them—he’s confined behind the glass at the end—he’s in a phone booth—he’s always trapped. 

VII. The Ending
 

C: I heard a story that they’re so tenuous in the bus at the end because Mike Nichols was trying to get something very specific from the two of them, and was doing take after take, and got frustrated, and actually screamed at them really loudly. So they were in a really fatigued place when they rolled on that final take. But I can also see that story being untrue. Either Nichols intentionally yelled at them to get them to that weird place, or he just told them to act that way and they acted it really well. Or it was one of those serendipitous film moments.

E: Or he directed it. They actually literally alternate who’s smiling. They’re never both smiling at the same time. I think that had to be a direction.

C: Oh, you think he was behind the camera going, “You smile. Now you smile”?

E: Yes. Because it was so clearly alternating, showing that they were never in sync.

VIII. The Alfa Romeo
 

C: I guess. Do you think maybe part of Dustin Hoffman’s method [acting] was that he drove an Alfa Romeo up and down the California coast seven times? Can we talk about how dirty the Alfa Romeo was by the time he got to Santa Barbara?

E: I liked how realistic that was.

C: Is that realistic? Because he went up to Berkeley, and then back down to LA, and then Mrs. Robinson calls the cops and then he goes back up to Berkeley, and then he goes down to Santa Barbara. Would that really make your car that filthy?

E: He drives over some yards and stuff, I think.

C: He drives over some yards??

E: Because he’s trying so crazily to get to the church on time. He’s driving, like, through parks—

C: The car runs out of gas on the road!

E: No, but before he gets to the gas station—

C: That is a HUGE assumption, that he is driving through parks and on private land

E: We can deduce from the state of his car and himself: he’s been all over.

C: I think they just dressed the car too dirty, and made him look filthy. I think they drive it home a little bit too much. But it’s still great, because it makes him look so out of place and so desperate by the time he gets to the wedding.

IX. Questions
 

E: Whatever happens to the ring he buys her?

C: Why is the church locked when there’s a wedding going on inside?

E: Is this movie just a judgment on parents? Like, don’t manipulate your child, or don’t over-helicopter parent your child? Let them make their own decisions?

C: Maybe. But I think it’s maybe more a grass-is-always-greener thing. We see things through the perspective of these young adults. They think they’ve been cowed and pushed into corners by their elders. But when they finally don the mantle of decision-making, they see how unwieldy and scary it is to be an adult. If anything, by the end, they finally begin to understand how their parents became the people they became.

E: I think that’s probably true.

C: Do you want to talk about the Simon and Garfunkel of it all? Does anyone give a shit?

E: I don’t know. I mean, you know, it’s nice music. But I don’t know that it always fits the themes of the movie.

C: (laughs) “Its portrayal of landlords is hackneyed and cliched, but, you know, it’s nice music.” —Elizabeth Cantwell, 2014. That’s your Amazon review. I think you can’t have the film without the music. That’s how we know that film. And yeah, even if Paul Simon was working on those songs before, and then they re-purposed some of them for the movie, the way that they laid the tracks down…They clearly went into the studio, especially for the “Mrs. Robinson” renditions, and laid down specific versions that fit with the different driving scenes and the different anxious scenes. I think the music is what makes the movie transcend into something that’s iconic. You have good music like that, and it’s firing on all cylinders, and you have the cool shot of driving over the Bay Bridge and you have, you know, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel…I imagine they were probably watching that shot in a sound stage and laying down the guitar.

X. So That’s The Graduate
 

C: So, that’s The Graduate. And I enjoyed it.

E: By Mike Nichols. In 1967.

C: You should’t say “by Mike Nichols.” I mean, he directed it. But let’s ease off on the auteur theory.

E: By the screenwriter, Ben – Ben – Ben Hurley. What’s his name?

C: Did you just call him Ben Hurley?

E: (laughter) I forgot his name again!

C: When Buck Henry passes away, and we do the retrospective on that for Bright Wall/Dark Room, you are not going to be invited.

E: (still laughing) Okay.

C: You can write an article called “Ben Hurley: We Will Miss You.”

E: I’m on it.

C: “And We Really Liked Your One Show, Get Smort, And That Movie You Wrote.”

E: Okay, let’s go to sleep.

C: (agreeing) Let’s go to sleep.


Chris Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season. Elizabeth Cantwell 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). They live in Los Angeles with their son.


Scoring

by Arielle Greenberg

© MGM DVD

© MGM DVD

Jaw-droppingly, like nothing since, this film understands, early 70s,
this thing that will be called, in the years to come,
by women sitting in consciousness raising circles and women’s studies classrooms,
rape culture,
and all the dimly-lit wide shots and medium shots capture it—
how heterosexual intercourse is sport,
with sides and versus and tallying,
and a man can win, or—

for example—

          how thwarting the dream of big tits and perfect understanding—
          a girl you can talk to and also feel up—
          built, but not a tramp, you know—

          or how Jonathan looks at every inch of the person opposite
          as if she or he may be his next meal—

          or how Sandy chews his cud—

          or how girls who are overly bright are nonetheless graded in make-out math:

                   Susan, sharp as a hair comb in no one’s back pocket and laughing so hard
                   from terror—

                   Bobbie, a black velvet painting who wants to make her own meaning—

                   Jennifer mutely crying and crying on the white sofa—

                   How can it be fun for you if I don’t want it?

                   (the film, in murky collegiate browns, attesting that even if it’s a white boy from a good college, a lawyer on a clay court, a hippie in a fur vest, this is still rape.)

The boys stand in the wind in belted trenches—
          call each other bullshit artists with tight smiles—
          because it’s possible that one or more men will lose—

          You can’t make fucking your life’s work.
                    Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.

And anyway, the winner wins zilch, becomes a prick in loafers,
          with a groovy shag rug pad and a silver swing-over lamp,
          lone with his bad vibrations

          can’t get it up without feeding lines to the worker—
          a lie about his member(ship) she’s paid to utter as
          a talisman against the ballbusters
          a spell about power so he can watch himself try to get hard—

You’re gonna be left holding those heavy-hearted Saratoga hand melons yourselves, boys, the film says.
         No one is coming to be your love teacher.
         No one is coming to teach you anything.


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


A Postscript to Working Girl (Or: “Tess McGill Doesn’t Like Others Doubting What She’s Earned”)

by Kelsey Ford

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I’ve been at Trask Industries now for a few years. Moved up a few floors, got a new secretary. I go to meetings, I wake up early to keep up on the reading necessary to be ahead and not behind in this business. I’m as important to this place as any man, but I still feel the raised eyebrows as I walk by, and the skepticism any time I pitch a merger.

So I’d like to set the record straight.

Yes, these are some things that happened: I keyed “David Lutz is a sleazoid pimp with a tiny little dick” into the company ticker; I drunkenly told my boyfriend, “I have a head for business and a bod for sin”; I took over my boss’s apartment and job and closet while she was laid up with a broken leg in Switzerland.

But you have to understand, the first happened because the guys I worked with set me up with a man I thought was interviewing me for a job, when really he was only interviewing me for his bed; the second happened because my best friend, Cyn, gave me valium right before the party where I met Jack and he fed me tequila shots; and that last one happened because Katherine tried to double-cross me, and I don’t take something like that laying down.

Because, the thing is, I’d been operating at a low level of anger for so long, by the time all of these things happened, I was primed and ready to go for it.

No one thing pushed me over. I’d been on the brink for awhile.

I thought Katherine was going to be my ticket out. When she walked into the office on that first day, there was such a hush from everyone around her. She seemed like the kind, no-shit-taking mentor I needed. When I told her how I’d never worked for someone younger than me before, or for another woman, she asked if that would be a problem.

Of course it wasn’t a problem for me, but turned out to be a problem for her.

She backed me into a corner. After finding out she planned to steal my idea, and then going home and finding my boyfriend in bed with our bouncier neighbor, I decided I had two options: back out, or go all in. So I put on my boxing gloves. I got a haircut (“You want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair”) and I scheduled a meeting to move forward with my plan on my own, without relying on Katherine’s “kindness” to guide me.

Which is all what got me this job: I called Katherine out for being backhanded and having a bony ass, and Trask offered me this position, because he liked the pluck he saw in me.

I was pretty scrappy in my day.

Although, to be fair, I still am. You have to be, here. You have to be scrappy to earn your seat at the table, and as soon as you do, you have to continue to prove yourself, again and again, day after day. That one first win that you fought so hard for has to become three wins a day.

This is how it is in Manhattan. You falter, and there are hundreds already dressed and stilletoed and ready to step in. An average day in New York is full of bruises and set backs.

It can get pretty lonely, too. I came to New York from Staten Island. No one there gets what I’m doing in the city, and no one in the city gets where I came from. Combine that with being a woman in a mostly male workplace? There will be days you feel like no one speaks your language.

You have to have the nerve to be pushed and push back. There’s a mettle in staring down a superior and winning. But how do you teach that? I grew up with it. I’m scrappy and alien to this world, and I want it. I wake up wanting it and I fall asleep wanting it. I’m doing well for myself, but there’s always another rung ahead of me, and I’m always leaning toward it, grasping for whatever I can grab.

I don’t vacuum my boss’s house while topless anymore, and I don’t have a boyfriend that gives me lingerie for my birthday. I have a woman at Saks that sets aside all the hot pant suits with shoulder-pads. I still occasionally buy dresses with bows on them, but only for special occasions. My accessories are understated and professional. I dress in neutrals and only hairspray my hair to a certain height.

I wonder how much of this the others understand, and how much they don’t, whenever I can feel their incredulity following me down the hallway. I’ve earned everything I have. I’ve fought for it and I don’t regret anything. But it’s not all rainbows.

So when you look and me and make a jibe about me getting my “happy ending,” you’ve got it wrong. That term is a misnomer. It’s one moment and it’s one win, but then you move on and have to confront the reality that win got you. You have to keep proving that you earned that Happy Ending, even if you move on from that job and that boyfriend.

If I seem angry or indignant, it’s because I still am. I have to be. My Happy Ending was more like a semi-colon. I still have to finish the story.


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.


I'm Quite Aware of How Ridiculous I Am

by Andrew Root

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In a somewhat incomprehensible turn of events, I have recently been cast in the role of Angel for an upcoming production of Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent. For the unfamiliar, Rent—based loosely on the Puccini opera “La Boheme”—tells the story of a year in the life of a group of young artists living in poverty under the looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1990’s New York City. Angel is a street drummer, fashion aficionado, and a kind, loving spirit who acts as the group’s unwavering ray of positivity during the bleakest year of their lives. Angel is also a transvestite who wears three-inch heels and a collection of dresses that hug, pop and swish like a breeze in springtime. I’ve dropped about fifteen pounds for this role, taken singing, drumming and dance lessons, and I’m re-learning how to walk (more from the hips, less from the shoulders). We start makeup tests next week.

More than singing the wrong notes, dancing in heels (you’d best believe that if there’s a table on stage, at some point I’ll be jumping onto it), more than drumming while doing all of the above, donning Angel’s garb has me incredibly anxious. I’m a firm believer in inner beauty trumping the facade every time; the body as an instrument for the deeds of the mind, the separation of brain and butt, yet I am often wholly overwhelmed by the anxiety not that I’ll look silly (the sexiness of a man in a drag not being up for debate; just look at Eddie Izzard) but that I’ll look ugly. I’ve been in dozens of plays over the years and it’s often incredibly liberating to lean into the ugly side of a character, their deeds, their actions, their appearances, but I’ve never had to be beautiful on stage, and that prospect terrifies me. Add back in a throat-paralyzing fear of singing in front of anyone and the cumulative case of nerves rivals my fear of snakes, heights, and outer space put together.

Unless, of course, I find a way to make the fear not matter.

Despite having watched The Birdcage countless times since its release in 1996, I was surprised to learn that it was directed by Mike Nichols, a filmmaker I’d come to associate with the less-than-functional relationships of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Closer, and The Graduate. For all their bickering, the film’s central characters, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) work together beautifully; Armand owns a popular South Beach, Florida cabaret nightclub—The Birdcage—and Albert is his leading lady, the star of an incredibly popular drag show. They have a routine, a dynamic, an identity hard-won. Williams is wonderful as the straight man (ha-ha) in the duo, channeling his natural comedic timing and boundless charm into a sense of control over his wild, wooly environment. Not everyone can keep a tight rein on a nightclub filled with drag queens like Armand can, especially with such a radiant flamboyance in the spotlight. As Albert bemoans the gum-chewing of his new dance partner (“He blew a BUBBLE with his GUM while I was singing. He can’t DO THAT while I’m SINGING!”) Armand keeps things on course. “This may be a drag show,” he says, “but it still has to be a good drag show, and if possible a great drag show.” Albert is the buttercream frosting in the bag, Armand is the nozzle which shapes it into a beautiful floret, even if Albert doesn’t exactly see it that way.

“Whatever I am, he made me! I was adorable once, young and full of hope. And now look at me! I’m this short, fat, insecure, middle-aged thing!” Albert cries, refusing to go on stage.

“I made you short?” asks Armand, genuinely bewildered and more than a little exasperated.

Thank Elaine May for that little gem of dialogue, among countless others in a genuine diamond mine of a script. May’s screenplay (a remake of the French farce “La Cage Aux Folles”) is peopled by characters who seem comfortable with who they are, even if they’re not always comfortable with who other people are. Armand and Albert have a son, Val (Dan Futterman, the Oscar nominated screenwriter for Capote). Well, he’s more Armand’s son – the result of an experimental heterosexual tryst in college—and he wants to get married… to a girl, Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart). Since a farce wouldn’t be a farce without a good clashing of values, enter Mr. and Mrs. Keeley, a right-wing conservative senator (Gene Hackman) and his dutiful wife (Dianne Wiest) who has the thankless task of managing her husband’s image. Sen. Keeley has just formed the Coalition for Moral Order, an attempt to politicize the moral nature of such controversial topics as abortion and same-sex marriage. This isn’t a great time for his daughter, Barbara, to announce that she’s marrying the son of a gay cabaret owner, and so the truth is pretzeled until every character becomes someone else who is less problematic than who they really are. Got it? Neither do they.

It makes for more than a few good laughs (Albert trying to imitate John Wayne’s signature walk, the stark redecoration of Armand’s apartment), and also a number of achingly truthful moments in which Armand and Albert push back against the redesign of their identities. As Val attempts to throw draperies over anything deemed “over-the-top,” Armand spells out what this ruse is costing him: “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am. I took me twenty years to get here.” It’s sometimes easy to forget how demanding it can be just to know who you are.

As part of the research for playing Angel, I met with representatives from a program called Gender Journeys which provides education and support for people going through transitions of gender identity. Together, we talked for a long time about the difference between discovering and claiming your own identity and what that discovery means to people you interact with on a day-to-day basis:

You can’t control the reactions of other people; they are this whole ball of issues and fears and prejudices and whatever their life was before they met you in that moment. Coming out is an important moment for any gay person, but when you’re gay, every day comes with the question ‘how many times am I going to have to come out today?’

All of the comedy of The Birdcage - from Albert’s attempts to be the perfect manly man (“Oh god, I pierced the toast!”), to his turn as a staunchly conservative wife (“The fetus is going to be aborted any way, so why not let it go down with the ship?”), from Armand and Val’s frantic attempts to control the constantly worsening dinner party with the Keeleys (“Shut up! We’re alright! It’s fine! Just shut up, goddammit! It’s alright! Stop crying! God damn you! What are you standing there for? Go! Go! Fuck the shrimp!”) to Hank Azaria’s hysterical Guatemalan housekeeper, Agador Spartacus (“You see, I never wear shoes because... they make me fall down.”) - come from people lying about who they are, because really, it’s silly to lie about who you are, isn’t it?

Of course, that’s an incredibly privileged viewpoint. My own lying about who I am comes with the safety net of belonging to the safest, most powerful demographic in human history. If my lie comes forward, I’ll still be a white male in the marketable range of age 18–49. I’ll still be able to get a job, ride the bus and go to the movies to see stories about people just like me. Many, many more don’t have that luxury to fake it without fear, or just to be who they are without running headlong into someone else’s prejudice. I asked the Gender Journeys workers how Angel might reconcile this fearful existence with her unwavering love and generosity for her fellow man. “What it probably boils down to,” they said, “is self-confidence and a bit of luck. She knows exactly who she is and she surrounds herself with good people. When you can stop letting the fear matter, then you don’t let any of the rest matter.”

What elevates The Birdcage beyond what could have been a look-at-the-man-in-a-dress comedy are the script, direction and performances that afford dignity and completeness to Albert and Armand’s relationship. We can see that they’ve found one another, and that finding has made all the difference. When Armand sends Albert away because his natural flamboyance seems insurmountable, he’s genuinely hurt. “Oh yes, another jibe, another joke at my expense,” he says on his way out the door. “Well, why not? I’m not young. I’m not new... And everyone laughs at me.” For all his camp mannerisms, Albert knows exactly how silly and over-the-top he can be, but he’s comfortable with it. He’s lived his life exactly as feels proper to him, as choices become habits, habits become routines, routines become personality, and personality becomes self. Take me, baby, or leave me. Armand tracks Albert down to a bus station bench and talks about selling his burial plot so the two can be buried in the same cemetery, next to each other, never missing a laugh. These two have every intention of living out their years together, laughing and loving, friends, companions, husbands on no one’s own terms but their own. Fearless, unapologetic, and in good company. It’s a good way to live life.

When Armand is talking to Val about redecorating to please the Keeleys, he concludes his speech by saying “Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.” I’ve started using that phrase as a mantra before doing anything as Angel. It helps me remember that the character is fearless and unapologetic in every aspect of her life; her appearance, her outfits, her sexuality, her ability to hit a high G and hold it for six bars. She is kind and forgiving to everyone, herself included. It’s been an invaluable lesson, and not just for the play. I look forward to the day that I can forget that the senator even exists, at which point I may well achieve Beyoncé levels of self-confidence. Until then, I am quite aware of how ridiculous I am. It just doesn’t matter anymore.


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.


Break, Blow, Burn, and Make Me New

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

"I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see I have been found out."

It's very easy to get lost in our own heads. Some of us do it out of habit, others boredom; some out of safety, others by necessity. We can be born that way—genetic wiring bent towards internalization—or have it shaped into us by early, formative experiences. Either way, by the time we emerge into adulthood, many of us have learned how to shut things down. To intellectualize rather than feel. To wall off instead of allow in.

The problem is, sooner or later, the fortress becomes a prison.

Defenses, by way of simple definition, defend against—but overused, they run the risk of locking us in, becoming a way of taking in the world that creates a story we’re telling ourselves, rather than the actual truth of the matter. And then we get attached to that story, because we’re so sure we need it, so sure that the world is a much too dangerous place to be open or vulnerable within.

Dr. Vivian Bearing’s favorite defenses—intellectualization and a dry, sarcastic humor—have served her well in her 48 years. She’s relied on them to keep herself mostly out of the muck of real, actual human life. She fell in love with learning and language at an early age (we see her in a flashback from early childhood, mesmerized by her father’s explanation of “soporific” one sunlit afternoon) and soon took up residence among them, becoming a doctor of philosophy and a renowned expert on John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, as well as a famously demanding and uncompromising professor of 17th century poetry.

Her parents are deceased. She’s never married, and has no children. Instead, she’s devoted her life to academia, preferring the library to most social interactions, knowledge to frivolity. She’s been fiercely independent and driven for as long as she can remember, a rigorous and exacting student of complex metaphysical poetry. Emotion, vulnerability, humility—these things simply aren’t a part of Dr. Bearing’s make-up; if grappled with at all, they must be done so with ironic detachment, intellectual ferocity, and mordant wit. She observes, analyzes, and remarks drolly on life, rather than ever much participating in it. Even Donne’s poetry, which she feels “explores mortality in greater depth than any body of work in the English language,” is something to be wrestled with cerebrally, an intellectual puzzle to be worked out and solved.

And then her body—that earthly, messy, corporeal thing she so long took for granted—breaks down, and everything changes.

*

“Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from death everlasting. It is very simple, really.”

We spend most of our lives focused on just about anything but its inevitable outcome, the one sure thing promised to us by virtue of being born. Death haunts us from day one, but mostly in the background: something to be thought of occasionally, then cast aside. One school of thought posits that the very concept of defense mechanisms—those myriad internal machinations which work overtime to keep our psyches from feeling continually overwhelmed—initially developed as a way to help us move through life on earth as the only species cursed with an awareness of our own mortality. Which makes a good deal of sense, I guess. When you step back and try to get any kind of objective lens on it, the fact that each and every one of us—as well as everyone we’ve ever met, known, or loved—will one day die, is incredibly horrifying.

(And so we find our many ways to, mostly, never think about it.)

Mike Nichols’ Wit, however, puts death center stage and never pretends otherwise. We’re told in its earliest moments, by the main character herself, that she will spend the film dying: “I have stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no stage five.” From that point on, we have no real illusions that Dr. Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) will survive. Wit—co-written by Nichols and Thompson, and based on Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play—is not the story of her miraculous recovery but instead a chronicle of this once well-defended, fiercely proud scholar’s long, humiliating, and messy capitulation to the cancer that will one day claim her.

It’s rare to see a film look this closely—this frankly—at death and dying. To show us steady decline, and a steadfast grappling with it. To illuminate all the ways a medicalized modern death robs us, day after day, of our defenses and our dignity. Watching Vivian Bearing—bald and vomiting and depleted from aggressive chemotherapy, helpless and humiliated and proud and trying to make sense of it all—is to run right up against an ancient, awful fear: our body’s resignation to a fate our mind has always refused to accept, our feeble defenses no match for death’s relentless march.

*

"I am, in short, a force."

At the beginning of the film, Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) tells Vivian that she will need to be tough and resolute, that she was selected for an experimental course of treatment that requires nothing less. She knows, from the start, that this aggressive treatment won’t save or cure her, though it will likely offer invaluable contributions to medical research. Vivian, long-known for her punctilious fortitude—and with no family or friends in her life to try and talk her out of it—agrees. With erudition and wit wrapped around her like armor, she steels herself against the inevitable horrors of treatment.

As luck would have it, her primary doctor is a former student of hers, a still-young man who who once took her metaphysical poetry course as a challenge, and now credits it with helping sharpen his own rational, intellectual prowess. Dr. Posner (Jonathan Woodward) is the medical equivalent of Bearing’s academic, a man obsessed with cancer in all the ways Bearing once was with Donne, approaching it rationally and studiously, while neglecting its human element and emotional undercurrents. He treats Vivian’s cancer like a fascinating puzzle, her life as his research, her body as a text. It’s a taste of her own medicine at the very worst possible time.

By contrast, she is also under the care of a compassionate nurse (Susie Monahan), a maternal, warm, and decidedly unintellectual woman, as well as a fierce advocate for her patients’ humanity. It doesn’t take long for Vivian to learn to prefer her company to that of either Dr. Posner or Dr. Kelekian. Vivian’s humanity had been so long denied—by both herself and others—for so many years, that she’d forgotten how good it can feel to simply be taken care of, to allow a bit of kindness and compassion into her life.

Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once theorized that intellectualization develops as a substitute for mothering, that an over-preoccupation with logic and knowledge is borne out of a kind of emotional impoverishment, and becomes a way for one to “mother the self.” Words, logic, and rational observation take the place of attachment, warmth, and love. But this trade-off comes at a sizable cost: one is forced to become an island. And as Donne himself once famously noted, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” To forget that, as Vivian did for large swaths of her life, is to miss out on a good deal of what makes life worth living.

*

"It is highly educational. I am learning to suffer...Once I did the teaching, now I am taught."

Vivian uses every ounce of her sizable force, humor, and ferocity to withstand the daily onslaughts to her humanity: Dr. Posner, awkwardly administering a pelvic exam (“I wish I’d given him an A”); a team of medical students observing her for their studies (“I feel right at home, it is just like a graduate seminar”); vomiting endlessly into a basin she has to offer up for measurement (“If I actually did barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline. Of course, not a few of my colleagues would be relieved”).

At first, she finds refuge in these frequent dry asides—delivered directly to the camera in a continual breaking of the fourth wall—attempting to maintain a modicum of detached observation over the awful absurdity of her situation.

But in time, as her situation worsens, Vivian learns to value simpler things, small acts of human kindness and connection. Suffering begins to soften her, to open up her heart. Though wit continues to provide her a sense of strength and solace, so too does an an orange popsicle shared late at night with her nurse, as they talk over the details of what will happen when her heart finally stops beating.

Even as her intellectual self pokes fun at such a “maudlin” moment, she is able to realize its ultimate truths:

I can't believe my life has become so corny. But it can't be helped, I don't see any other way. We are discussing life and death, and not in the abstract, either. We are discussing my life and my death. And I can't conceive of any other tone. Now is not the time for verbal swordplay. Nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis and erudition, interpretation, complication. No, now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness.

*

As someone who places a great deal of value on my own intellect and an ability to find humor in most any situation, Wit basically wrecks me. While the coldly rigorous and demanding parts of Vivian Bearing are almost entirely foreign to me, her defenses, sadly, are not. I’m in my head constantly, and most at home all by myself. I can get lost in words and ideas for hours, and far too often use humor as a defense to both diffuse tension and deflect attention, quite often to the detriment of truly connecting with those in my personal life. And it’s often tempting to think that this is enough, this careful distancing, that the world can be rationalized or analyzed or quipped away, forever kept at an arm’s length. That there’s a kind of safety in not letting others all the way in.

But Wit strips all that away, exposing the flaws in such an approach. It deftly illuminates how these types of defenses and maneuvers only go so far in matters of actual life and death—they might be valuable tools to have in the bag, but they damn well better not be the only tools one brings to the party. Life requires far more vulnerability than that. It requires openness, authentic engagement, boundless compassion. A willingness to show up for each other.

*

"It came so quickly, after taking so long. There's not even time for a proper conclusion."

When death is finally at hand, Vivian receives her first and only hospital visitor. E.M. Ashford, her former college mentor and professor, comes into the room with a bag full of books, on her way to a birthday party for her great-grandson. Vivian, now reduced to nearly nothing, sedated by the morphine drip that will lead her into her final hours, writhes in recognition. Seeing the immense pain her former student is in, the professor sits down by the bed and attempts to console her.

“Shall I recite something to you, would you like that?” she asks. “I’ll recite something by Donne.”

“No,” Vivian sputters out, between tears.

And so the wise old professor climbs into bed with her, cradling her fragile head in her lap, and reads The Runaway Bunny to her instead. It’s no longer Donne and his tortured sense of salvation anxiety that Vivian wants or needs—that old intellectual balm has so little to offer to her now. Instead it’s the primal comfort of an old children’s book—a book which promises that, in the end, all of us will be found.

‘lf you become a bird and fly away from me,' said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’

It’s a moment of intimate simplicity and grace, a warm and caring mother reading her sickly child to sleep. The entire world outside her hospital room falls away in that moment. Vivian, at last, doesn’t need to be her own parent any longer. Steadfastness is no longer required; the carapace can finally be dropped. Recalcitrance, finally, has given way to a kind of acceptance.

And we, watching this surrender, feel an aching swell begin to rise in us, an almost religious sense of redemption and release. How very complicated we often make the simplest things, how hard we work to fill the void. How lost we are and how badly we want to be found. How lonely we walk through this one life we’re given, unnecessarily, and how wonderful it feels to finally come home.


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


Entertaining Angels

by Kara VanderBijl

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

There’s an old biblical mandate—“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it”—that’s had the faithful chattering for millennia. Across pulpits and potlucks, in prayers and prophecies, these people thank God for the stranger who mysteriously disappeared after pulling their children out of the path of a moving car, for the comforting presence at the foot of the bed, for the almost-physical peace that flooded them during a long illness.

They say, “Thank you for visiting us in our time of need.”

And they miss the point entirely.

But Angels in America, the Mike Nichols-directed adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play of the same name, plumbs these old words’ poignant depths. It may seem strange to speak of biblical mandates and angels in the context of this story: one of a splintering nation, gay sex, the AIDS epidemic, addiction, abuse of power, and betrayal. Still, Angels in America proves that tenderness, and truth, are closeted alongside paradoxes.

It’s 1985. Ronald Reagan is the president. In Manhattan, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) tells his lover of four and a half years, Louis (Ben Shenkman), that he’s dying. Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the powerful—and closeted—right-wing fixer, finds out he’s in the advanced stages of AIDS. Cohn’s errand boy, Republican attorney Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), seesaws between his political ambition and his wife Harper’s (Mary-Louise Parker) agoraphobia, not to mention his Mormon beliefs and his own hidden homosexuality.

Somewhere above San Francisco, the angels mourn God’s absence.

As the world breaks, an angel visits Prior in visions of glory, telling him he’s been chosen as the prophet of the modern age. It’s not hard to see why. Between the drug-and power-addled, he’s the only character in Angels who has made peace with himself, so, like the virgin of old, he’s got something to deliver: authenticity, or at the very least unapologetic self-acceptance.

In a tale of underground identities, Prior’s act is revolutionary. Almost every character in Angels in America makes a plan with their ego, their religious convictions, or with one another, to hide their true natures. Louis insists that he loves Prior, but abandons him as AIDS begins its ravage; Roy rejects his own diagnosis, claiming that gay men have no political clout; in denial over the reason behind her sexless marriage, Harper pops Valium and hallucinates, and Joe, her husband, takes a walk in Central Park, his self-deluding cover for watching the gay sex that takes place after night falls.

Prior may be dying of AIDS, but after the angel visits, the disease, too, takes on a new identity: Prior’s the prophet, AIDS the proverbial rags and sores integral to this role. As the illness lays waste to his body, Prior is stripped down to his essence— “I’m not a prophet. I’m a sick, lonely man”—and, ornaments shed, he can only offer himself, which is in fact the crucial message.

Prior isn’t the only messenger in Angels. Taking cues from Kushner’s play, the series employs a few actors in more than one role. This tightens the narrative’s ambitious sprawl, planting well-known faces in pivotal places. For instance, Emma Thompson —the angel, all glory be— is also a no-nonsense nurse who looks after Prior, and a homeless crone slurping soup in the Bronx. Meryl Streep threads through the story, at turns an ancient rabbi philosophizing about the arrival of immigrants to the U.S., at others the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg come to haunt Roy Cohn in his desperate last days, and at even others the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, level-headed Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother, who comes all the way from Salt Lake City to save her fallen son and look after her delusional daughter-in-law. Finally, Jeffrey Wright is Belize, a former drag queen cum nurse who, against his better judgment, cares for Roy Cohn, while also playing Mr. Lies, a dapper travel agent who happens to be a figment of Harper’s Valium-flavored imagination.

These doubles do more than solidify the story; they tell us that visiting angels aren’t always dressed in robes of light, that a dying gay man can have sex with an eight-pussied, double-winged woman, that the message you’ve begged of heaven might come from an unlikely place, that what you do to take care of yourself might be what’s killing you, slowly, one pill at at time, and the thing you thought would kill you might save you, feverish swallow after feverish swallow.

Angels in America belongs in a psalter—not because of its spiritual rambling, its “out of the depths I cry to Thee,” but because of its poetry. This is an elegy masquerading as prime-time television; you hear rhymes in the rhythm of its dialogue, and you see drama in its characters’ performances. Joe and Harper’s confrontations suggest high theatre: they deliver rather than speak their lines, not so much to one another as at some undefined audience. Their sparse Brooklyn apartment is the cardboard set Harper steps in and out of during her pharmaceutical voyages, and the backdrop to their heartbreaking dialogue. They speak more poetry to one another than the rest of the characters combined. That the most beautiful language should be between two characters who couldn’t be further apart burns more than Joe leaning in to his wife for a “buddy kiss.”

Kushner must take credit for the writing (he adapted his own play for the screen) but we must thank Nichols for the angels he coaxed and the demons he exorcised from the cast.

“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion once wrote, and her prophetic message easily extends to the people we are, whether we’d admit (to) them or not. We’ve got to mother our demons: rock them to sleep, hold their hands across streets, love them when they wake you in the night. If we neglect them—if we forget their names—they’ll put on costumes and come back to haunt us. Nichols had a gift for seeing this mutability in the actors he worked with, encouraging some of the best performances of their careers (think: Dustin Hoffman or Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Richard Burton said of him, “He conspires with you to get your best.”

Which, in Angels, can mean the worst. Pacino’s Roy Cohn, perhaps the most believable character (in fact, he’s modeled on real life) is also the most despicable. Still, we’re drawn to his bedside to watch and to hold his hand as his childish defense mechanisms, his mind, and his body all fail him. Golden boy Patrick Wilson’s Joe Pitt attracts us with his social innocence and reviles us with his effortless betrayals. Louis, eaten up with guilt, is about as easy to watch as a pride of lions tearing its lunch to pieces. His self-delusion rivals Harper’s drug-dreams.

Angels bring heaven to earth but they also elevate the earthy, taking us by the hand and leading us into our enemies’ sickrooms, sitting us down next to foreigners’ fires, so that we’ll see beauty in all things, a dual purpose that Emma Thompson’s angel, nurse, and homeless woman peel back the veil to reveal. Less symbolic, but no less shattering, Jeffrey Wright transports us into no man’s land: unflappable, impossibly cool Belize throws a scarf over his shoulder, rubs soothing cream on Prior’s ravaged skin, rips into Louis, and happens to be the night-nurse when Roy Cohn ends up in the hospital. Their conversation— Cohn’s bigoted comments and self-importance, and Belize’s no-nonsense refusal to take the bait — entertains as much as it stings. “Aren’t nurses supposed to wear white?” Cohn barks at the black, and sequined, Belize.

Belize’s double Mr. Lies, winging through Antarctica with Harper in a hallucination, may be less mouthy but he’s no less sympathetic. He brims with slogans, claims, and reassurances: Harper is dubious, but she’s also completely under his (the drugs’) spell. It’s a classic addict’s delusion, that she’s in control; still, her captor is compassionate. “If the duck was a song bird,” Mr. Lies says, “it would sound like [the oboe]: nasal, desolate, the sound of migratory things.” Like Belize, who knows Cohn’s got few cards to play and none that will beat death, Mr. Lies knows Harper’s weaknesses. But neither takes advantage of their power.

Like its players, Angels is a drama wearing funny clothes, a political piece whose politics fail it, a religious meditation that does away with God. Beneath every costume, its essence hums, true to beauty, true to discovery, true to truth. It’s a visiting stranger, searching for a hearth. One must only have enough faith to see the beauty beneath the rags.

There’s a moment, soon after Prior has met the angel, when he and Belize attend a funeral for one of their friends, a renowned drag queen. Brimming with color, beauty, and diversity,the church sways in song. Sequins and feathers, as ubiquitous as tears, stream into aisles. It’s a performance, a ritual, the opposite of a funeral. Still, in its defiant joy, in this church crowded with the unchurched, the scene is the most religious thing you’ll see in a series full of angels and flaming scrolls.

It’s doubt in drag.


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


Hello, Stranger

by Tracy Wan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Looking at something beautiful is like whispering the unspeakable into a tree: the mere act of it is ripe with pleasure, fulfilling on some level an unconscious need for self-indulgence. The goal is never to make eye contact, or to be heard; it is gesture for gesture’s sake, both in consumption and in release. And in looking, ours is a culture that fetishizes what we see—we fantasize in visualizations, take in beauty with our eyes, penetrate with our gaze. We came, we saw, we devoured. We never dreamed that they would look back.

This is how Mike Nichols’ Closer opens—with the characters we will come to know as Dan and Alice steadily eye-fucking each other as they converge at a busy intersection, two strangers drawn to each other in an undulating current of passersby. Their eye contact is only broken when Alice, distracted by Dan’s baby blues, walks into the path of a taxi and crumbles onto the street. He rushes to her side. When she comes to, she looks him straight in the eye, and delivers the world’s most intimate, flirtatious first words: “Hello, stranger.”

Closer is a film about eye-fucking beautiful strangers—just take a look at the poster—or, to break it down into its parts, a film about strangers, and beauty, and looking, and fucking. There is no need to chart out the trajectory between each point; this is a landscape we are all too familiar with. Our characters, four strangers named Alice, Dan, Larry and Anna (Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) meet and become entangled in one another, four pulsing dots in a shifting love rectangle. They look until they catch another person’s eye—and then they play.

And in the game of seduction, these characters are all skilled players: they fall in love fast and fall out of love even faster, giving them just enough time to lie, cheat, and manipulate each other with a chilling level of indifference and contempt. When Dan leaves Alice for Anna, he tries to absolve himself of any responsibility: “I fell in love with her, Alice.” Her response is biting: “Oh, as if you had no choice? There’s a moment, there’s always a moment. ‘I can do this, I can give into this, or I can resist it.’” Well, in a movie called Closer , resistance doesn’t factor into the physical equation. Our characters only disband after they’ve collided into each other and made everyone else collateral damage. As if to say, and so it is. These are the rules and ruins of desire. Those who look don’t get to touch, and those who touch are the ones who hurt.

Put your finger on any scene in Closer , and there’s a chance you’re punctuating the sightlines between two characters. The spaces between them are deliberately intimate; the conversations even more so. They develop a cruel rapport with each other by gazing at each other, into each other, and through each other. The carnal encounters, although pivotal to the narrative, are uninteresting; the sex in this movie happens in the ellipses. What we see is what they see: the charm, the beauty, the seduction—and then the aftermath.

In one such scene, Alice asks Dan, who’s a writer, to describe her with an euphemism. She takes off his glasses as she does so, to get a better look, or maybe to be the one seeing clearly. Disarming, he replies. (They’re an articulate bunch, these four; always saying the right things to hook the other characters and the audience alike.) And he couldn’t be more right. She’s disarming because she’s beautiful to look at, of course, but also literally—because she’s the one in control.

In another scene, Anna (a photographer hired to shoot Dan’s headshot for a book, which is how she enters the story), is taking a photograph of Alice for a series called Strangers. Having been at her studio earlier, Dan has already successfully seduced Anna, and Alice is aware that something’s going on. When Anna tries to apologize to her, Alice—with tears rolling down her face—cuts her short: “Just take my picture.” The resulting photograph is sad, but a sadness masked by its intrigue; exactly as she intended. Later, when asked what she thinks of her own photograph: “It's a lie.” Her tone is biting. “A bunch of sad strangers, photographed beautifully.”

In addition to being strikingly beautiful, Alice is, in her profession, a stripper: all too well-acquainted with the power dynamics of the gaze. She is always looking, and constantly aware of being looked at. Hello, stranger. If seeing is knowing, and knowledge is power, then she knows it is in her interest to control the look. Because once it’s broken by action, whether a kiss or a fuck, it is too late. Looking is innocuous, safe; gestures carry with them the weight of truth.

I can’t take my eyes off of you, Damien Rice sings throughout the movie, which could be construed as a compliment, but has all of the tones of a plea. His song, “The Blower’s Daughter,” bookends the movie, washing over everything with a coat of melancholy. In the opening scenes, it flatters: Dan and Alice can’t take their eyes off each other. In the closing scene, it condemns—look what happens when I do. The pupil in denial. Of course, what we don’t know at the beginning is that it was a lament all along: when Rice sings these words for the last time, his voice drops below a whisper, and adds: … ‘til I find somebody new.

The power of the gaze as an optical illusion for the truth is something director Mike Nichols is hyper-aware of, and deftly manipulates. Throughout Closer , we make eye contact with different characters, through mirrors, through cameras, through watching them watch others. The truth is always the currency, but rarely do they get what they give—after all, they are most honest when it comes to admitting their deceptions. Lies beget more lies, even if you’re telling the truth about lying. In a seminal scene where Larry finds Alice working at a strip club, he is desperate for her to give him something real, a token of intimacy. “Tell me something true,” he insists. She replies, “Lying's the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off—but it's better if you do.” He doesn’t believe her, even though the truth is right in front of his eyes. Tunnel vision can be blinding, too.

Discerning between a desire to see the truth and seeing the truth of our desires is perhaps the central tension in Closer . After all, seeing is believing, or so the saying goes—but no one talks about how seeing is deceiving, too. “Seeing the truth” is the greatest lie we tell ourselves, the same hubristic logic we employ when we think we see something true in the portrait of a stranger. How could we know anything beyond what they put forth to the surface? We look for lies and we look for answers, but really, we look for desire—to see what we want to see. Look no further than the film’s tagline: If you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking.


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