Letter From the Editor

by Chad Perman

An impasse. A quandary. A pickle. A choice.

In this issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room, we’re looking at dilemmas: the in-betweens and roads not taken, the murky areas, the shades of gray. When we sent the theme out to our writers, we left it broad, stubbornly refusing to refine it any further, wanting to see what would emerge. Our worst fear was that we’d end up with an issue full of pieces on Sophie's Choice, but we had faith that the writers would rise up to meet the challenge, and, as I think you’ll see in the pages that follow, that faith was amply rewarded. (And we didn't get a single submission on Sophie's Choice.)

The issue opens with Matt Brennan's stunning meditation on Zero Dark Thirty, which wrestles with nearly fifteen years of American history, suggesting the film "remains one of the few cultural artifacts from this age of grief to suggest the actual experience of living through it." Then, Kelsey Ford takes a look at the predicament posed by the Turing test at the heart of this year's Ex Machina, and the complicated morality of artificial intelligence. Next Kyle Meikle explores the central dilemma at the heart of It Follows, a recent horror film that is often read as pure sexual allegory, but, as he suggests, might actually be a lot more about growing up, facing adulthood, and realizing our own mortality. The first half of the issue concludes with Kate Horowitz reflecting on Sweet and Lowdown, a film she grew up with and loves dearly, but finds she can no longer watch after what she learned about Woody Allen last year.

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s new film about a journalist's five day road trip with David Foster Wallace, at the Seattle International Film Festival. I wrote an essay on the beautiful, sad experience of watching the film in a crowded theater, as well as the existential dilemmas Wallace often orbited around in his own writing. After that, Andrew Root wonders if Hollywood, bogged down in a muck of endless sequels, adaptations, and reboots, has any new stories left to tell—only to find himself unexpectedly charmed by last year’s Into the Woods. We conclude this month’s essays with Caroline Jarvis and her look at the little-seen 2011 film, Violet & Daisy, about two teenage female assassins who find themselves in a moral quandary when they develop a friendship with someone they’ve been hired to kill.

The grace note to the issue comes in the form of a brand new poem from our resident poet, Arielle Greenberg. Arielle decided to try something new this month, turning in a seven page “poem-essay” exploring cinematic depictions of Esalen-type encounter groups (think Don Draper at the end of Mad Men), how easy it is to write these groups off or poke fun at them, but how they often lead to some very real, deeply authentic experiences. It’s some of the finest work Arielle has ever done, and we’re proud to be able to share it with you.

Finally, I wanted to mention something that means a whole lot to me. Two years ago, in June 2013, we took a leap of faith and decided to transition our long-running blog into a monthly magazine instead. This month's issue marks the two year anniversary of our little digital experiment, a labor of love that the staff and I have been pouring our hearts into these past 24 months, and we wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you for going on this journey with us. It takes a lot of work behind the scenes to put an issue out each month, and we couldn’t possibly do it without your readership and support keeping us afloat. We’re enormously happy to reach this two year point without running a single advertisement, or compromising any of our independence along the way. We’ve kept it going for 25 issues, and as long as you keep reading and subscribing, we’ll keep doing what we do. It’s been an absolute blast, and we don’t take a single one of you for granted.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


A History of Violence

by Matt Brennan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

You can't unhear the noise.

Set against the absent image, the voices of first responders, 911 operators, air-traffic controllers, and ordinary citizens become the black box in the wreckage—waves of sound strung like garlands from disbelief to terror. Is this real world or exercise. Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm, stay calm. I love you. Oh my God. Desperate whispers bleed into screams, tenuous reassurances into tearful farewells, before the clamor cuts out.

And then you can't unhear the silence.

***

When Sony Pictures released Zero Dark Thirty in 2012, journalist Glenn Greenwald—rightly renowned today for his reporting on whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency surveillance run amok—penned a provocative rebuttal to those praising the film for the British newspaper The Guardian. Greenwald, who argued that Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture by falsely portraying its use as instrumental in the capture of Osama bin Laden, incited a minor media scuffle, primarily pitting journalists and columnists against film critics1. And so the Zero Dark Thirty "torture controversy" was born.

Coming alongside similar uneasiness at the factual bases for Argo and Lincoln, the Zero Dark Thirty debate inaugurated a now-familiar pattern of submitting Oscar-nominated films to intense historical and ideological scrutiny2. That this is a valid (and valuable) form of criticism is undeniable. The cinema all too easily packages cultural and political positions as a sort of bland neutrality, and it's up to writers to unravel these meanings, whether the subject is the so-called War on Terror or the latest franchise blockbuster. Yet a film is more than the sum of its partisan messages. There is no algorithm for understanding Maya (Jessica Chastain), the protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, when she tells a colleague, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), "I'm not that girl that fucks." There is no data set in which to enter the glimpses of the real within the film's highly constructed realism, flashes of George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech or Barack Obama on 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft. There is no formula that expresses director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's deployment of space and time to suggest the bitter depths of America's ongoing "clusterfuck." This isn't math.

In part, the resistance to Greenwald's analysis stemmed from the fact that he had, at the time of writing, not yet seen the film3. Despite his admission that "I have not seen this film and thus am obviously not purporting to review it; I am, instead, writing about the reaction to the film," reiterated with evident frustration in two subsequent updates, his verbal jujitsu scarcely passes muster. I suspect, for instance, that Greenwald would not appreciate a disemboweling of his journalism on the basis of a secondhand account, and yet he takes the scalpel to Zero Dark Thirty itself ("What this film does, then...") with vigor.

What irks me more than parsing the difference between a review of a film and a review of the reviews of a film, however, is how carelessly the discussion that surrounded the film's release treated the white noise of the text itself. The defining feature of Zero Dark Thirty is its murkiness: the matte palette of brown and beige edges, by the climactic sequence, toward blindness; the narrative's strange, slack rhythms are cloudy with portents. Yet the "torture controversy," in focusing on whether the film justifies waterboarding, force feeding, sensory deprivation, and stress positions or merely depicts them, chipped away at the rough edges of Zero Dark Thirty until it became a prism through which to project whatever assumptions one brought to it. The fact that the film neither celebrates torture nor exactly rejects it is where it comes closest to approximating the actual tenor of American politics during the years in question, but of course we are talking about a period in which many preferred the ease of useful fictions.

"When you lie to me, I hurt you," Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA intelligence officer, tells Ammar (Reda Kateb), a black site detainee, as he strings him up in an unmarked hangar in the early going. Against the washed-out desert landscape just beyond the door, the dingy, barren interior suggests darkness at noon. The film's first images of torture, for us as for Maya, convey not titillation or exhilaration, but horror. Editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg choose not the rapid cuts of suspense but a deliberate series of dreadful images: the strain of the ropes, the kick of the legs, the choking expulsion of water as Dan half-drowns Ammar in search of information on Al Qaeda's Saudi Group. The year is 2003, and though Dan's sneering remark at the conclusion of the sequence refers to the end of Ammar's "jihad," it might also be taken as an allusion to the quagmire just then beginning. "This," he says, "is what defeat looks like, bro."

Much has been made, among Zero Dark Thirty's critics, of the juxtaposition between the mournful sounds of the opening sequence and the subsequent torture of Ammar, and the effect is indeed discomfiting. Yet the construction of the latter scene, with Maya on the margins, wary yet unwilling to speak up, mirrors the cowed silence of many prominent figures in the midst of the transition from September 11 to the war in Iraq. We, as a country, tacitly allowed such strategic decisions and moral compromises to be made in our name, in part because the wounds of that fateful day were still raw. In grief and in vengeance we sacrificed our purported values at the altar of expedience, only to recognize the grave error later—and rather than wholly justifying or condemning torture, Zero Dark Thirty traces this decade-long evolution from Langley to Islamabad, London to Khost. For if the thin line between the voices of the film's first moments and Dan's disgraceful treatment of Ammar suggests, to some, an apologia for torture, there is another echo, much less discussed, that cuts against this reading. The white noise returns as the camera chases a babble of conversation along miles of blue telephone wire to bin Laden's courier in Rawalpindi. The route to the Al Qaeda leader's Abbottabad compound passes not through torture but, as a title card notes, through "Tradecraft."

If the world of Zero Dark Thirty unfurls through Maya's eyes, the halting progression of the narrative depicts an aversion to torture relinquished and then slowly regained. Not unlike the members of the Bush administration who drafted and applied the torture memos, Maya is at first swayed by the notion that these techniques, however hideous, are a necessary evil. Though Ammar, in one chilling sequence reminiscent of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, is collared and leashed like a dog, Maya dismisses his pleas for help; she has another detainee beaten for "not being fulsome in [his] replies."

Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty does not depict these actions as having no consequences, whether for the characters or the citizens they ostensibly serve. The representation of American war crimes counteracts the Orwellian language of "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation," presenting the state's terminology as little more than an attempt to scrub the record clean; archival images of terrorist attacks periodically rupture the impression that such crimes ever achieve their desired ends. Ultimately, Ammar, seeking respite after years in isolation and under duress, cries out the names of days for an operation about which he likely knows nothing—Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Friday. There is no information here. The black site is a black hole.

Perhaps misleadingly, Ammar does provide the nom de guerre of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, which the film then undercuts with a ragged collection of dead ends. Fractured into sections—"September 11, 2001," "The Saudi Group," "Human Error," "Tradecraft," "The Canaries"—Zero Dark Thirty, in its very structure, draws anything but a straight line from the torture memos to Abbottabad. The pursuit of the Al Qaeda leader only gains momentum after a senior CIA advisor (Mark Strong) arrives in Islamabad early in the Obama administration to scold Maya and her colleagues that the preceding years have brought them "no closer to defeating our enemy." When an underling, Debbie (Jessie Collins), finally presents Maya with her first real piece of actionable intelligence—Abu Ahmed's real name, Ibrahim Sayed—she reveals that it was in "the system" all along, on a watch list provided by the Moroccans after September 11. "Nobody saw it, most likely," Debbie says. "There was a lot of white noise after 9/11, countries wanting to help out. We got a million tips, and things got lost in the shuffle. Human error."

From here, Zero Dark Thirty homes in on bin Laden with bribes, pilfered telephone numbers, circling vans, and satellite images, marking the passage of time with Maya's red scrawl; whatever your opinion of these tactics, they are most assuredly not torture. By the time the raid begins, the vast majority of information that leads to its successful completion is gathered by means other than undisclosed locations and unnamed prisons, and yet the film acknowledges that violence of a kind we might have considered unimaginable on September 10, 2001, has been the central element of all that's happened since. Zero Dark Thirty is, in the end, a document of a nation prone to human error and inhuman choices, lost in the white noise of perpetual crisis. The history it tells is one in the life of a country made "walking shadow," as Macbeth had it, by ten years "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

***

"Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States." Thus begins the 9/11 Commission Report, with the unremarkable detail that marks the prologue of so many modern tragedies, a narrative device designed to situate what came after in the realm of the unthinkable4.

Of the hours that passed after I walked into the student lounge on my first day of high school to find masses of fellow freshmen, upperclassmen, faculty, and staff standing in silence before a handful of wall-mounted televisions, I recall frightfully little that went unmediated by those who covered it live from New York or Washington. All day and then all night the images played on a loop: the fireball of the second plane, the collapse of the towers, the burning gash in the side of the Pentagon, the black scar in some Pennsylvanian field. Though I might once have considered this a unique feature of the experience, I see now that we were already elaborating a mode of engagement with current events—at once omnipresent and reassuringly distant—that now seems all too familiar. From the outset, the war we're in has been a war of white noise, passed at every stage through the sieve of our proliferating screens, from Peter Jennings staying on air until the wee hours of September 12 through the beheadings recorded by ISIS; at times I feel as though my entire political consciousness emerged in response to one long, ghastly snuff film, strewn with corpses and bombed-out buildings. It has been said that my generation developed no meaningful resistance to the war because we were not drafted, but at least in my case an abhorrence of violence in any form need not have derived from a direct threat to my personal safety. The visual evidence is enough to suggest that we cannot go on like this indefinitely.

By mid-afternoon on the 11th, our heartfelt embraces and whispered comforts appeared awfully insignificant, yet they were our only way of connecting, of communicating that we knew something—maybe everything—had changed. The events of Zero Dark Thirty correspond closely with the timeline of my own burgeoning adulthood, comprising the decade between my first day as a high school student and my last day as a high school teacher with almost sinister exactitude, and I suspect my appreciation for the film stems from a sense that it explains, or at least expresses, the endlessness of it all—the way the white noise of that single day denatured, then expanded, until it consumed something, maybe everything, that came after. I am now 28, twice the age I was then, and in some nightmarish, necessary way, Zero Dark Thirty narrates this half-life of conflict as nothing else has, which is to say that it begins to suggest what it might be like to know that one has lived longer in war than one did in peace.

As I write this it is Memorial Day, a steamboat on the Mississippi whistling "America, the Beautiful" in the middle distance, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to see the water under the bridge in patriotic terms. Four years after the death of Osama bin Laden, six after the end of the Bush administration, 12 after "Mission Accomplished," 14 after the day that dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States, all the stories for which September 11 once seemed a terrible prologue are no nearer their respective conclusions. At what point does the distinction between "before" and "after" simply become the way things are, and will be? At what moment does the very vastness of a conflict replace any particular calculus of means and ends as its defining characteristic? Stretched almost to shattering across time and space, Zero Dark Thirty remains one of the few cultural artifacts from this age of grief to suggest the actual experience of living through it, which has been, for me, a process of realizing that the war is forever even as our reasons for embarking upon it have begun to fade from view.

I can confirm that the day in question was perfect until it was not, that we sat in mourning under the late-summer sky as the music teacher played "Taps" on his silver horn, but I am no longer convinced that this is in any way related to the moral of the story.

***

Parallel or perpendicular, left jagged or sanded clean, it's clear that the narratives of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the reception of Zero Dark Thirty, and the War on Terror itself remain in flux, as if to illustrate the impossibility of closing the circle on what we'd prefer to call "the past." Soon after I began scrawling new notes on the film—which, upon additional viewings, still shored up my conclusion that it does not obviously favor torture—Seymour Hersh published a 10,000-word retelling of "The Killing of Osama bin Laden" for the London Review of Books, and PBS' Frontline followed with an episode that discussed Zero Dark Thirty within a larger reconsideration of "Secrets, Politics, and Torture." Here we were again, sifting through the muck to redraw the boundaries between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy—an eternal return of America's own campaign of terror, purportedly waged in our defense.

The segment on Zero Dark Thirty in Frontline's report, from filmmaker Mark Kirk, includes a few misleading details of its own5. Its general thrust is to recapitulate Greenwald's argument that the film, as former National Security Council member Richard Clarke avers, "left the American people with the impression that torture worked." Rather than dig into Clarke's reading, or Kirk's—much less question the particular magic by which any one of us might determine what "impression" a film has left on "the American people"—the Frontlinedocumentary uses Zero Dark Thirty as a narrative wedge, a transition into the Senate's examination of "highly classified" CIA documents. The notion that the film might be open to multiple interpretations melts away, only to be replaced (as Greenwald replaced seeing the film with a handful of reviews and a quotation from another outlet's interview with Bigelow) by Sen. Dianne Feinstein's assessment that the film is "so false." Feinstein walked out of the film 15 minutes into its running time.

It strikes me now that these critics of Zero Dark Thirty not only underestimate "the American people," assuming that the public thoughtlessly inhales anything set before them—not only declare the intentions of the filmmakers and their CIA sources to be exactly equivalent to any meaning the story might contain—but also offer a queasy mirror image of the very qualms they express. The aforementioned detractors tend to squeeze the broadest strokes into a compelling narrative of Hollywood "seduced" (as The New Yorker's Jane Mayer tellsFrontline) by, well, a compelling narrative. That Greenwald and Feinstein had, as of their first forays into the debate, not yet seen the film suggests that their interpretations are no less a form of propaganda—promoting or publicizing a misleading point of view—than they claimZero Dark Thirty to be.

Then again, transforming the fact of the film's white noise into a single reading is just one more of this era's useful fictions.

For what if the film is untrue, and not only in the particulars? In the context of Hersh's reporting, which calls into question a number of key elements in the official narrative of the pursuit of bin Laden, the potential inaccuracies of Zero Dark Thirty may seem insignificant. However, the scaffolding around this essay is my unshakeable belief that images matter, in real time and in retrospect, because visual media can and do shape the way we see the world, frequently more than we bargained for. Does Hersh's account transform Zero Dark Thirty from half fact into whole fiction? If the cinematic treatment of a supposedly true story turns out to be a lie, does that make it propaganda? To what, exactly, can we ascribe the profusion of doubt that's accompanied this tale of sound and fury, and what does it mean that this is a story we can't seem to tell, much less find the moral in?

First things first: Hersh's pedigree begins with his revelation of the massacre in My Lai and passes through Abu Ghraib on the way to Abbottabad. He's earned our trust more than most. One of his most provocative claims—that a 2010 "walk-in" from Pakistani intelligence, and not years on the trail of bin Laden's couriers, led to the eventual raid—has been confirmed, in part, by The New York TimesNBC News, and Agence France-Presse, though whether this Pakistani informant provided bin Laden's exact location or merely information that aided in the CIA's hunt remains unclear6. Hersh's reporting, if accurate, severs Zero Dark Thirty's connection between "Tradecraft" and "The Canaries"—its suggestion that the collection of information on Ibrahim Sayed led the United States to bin Laden's front door. What it does not do is render all extant readings of the film null and void.

I'd argue that, with or without the link to bin Laden, the film's depiction of the evolution of U.S. tactics during the War on Terror—from the most brutal tortures and illegal detentions to wiretapping, satellite surveillance, and fake immunization drives—remains rooted in truth. But even if Zero Dark Thirty is no more than a useful fiction, the question remains: useful to whom? In what way is a film that portrays a decade lost to the search for a single man "useful" to the United States, particularly in light of the fact that his death did not end the conflict? In what way is the portrait of our "enhanced interrogation" program as a brutal, globe-spanning regime, extracting exactly one nom de guerre of one courier at the cost of our most cherished ideals, "useful" to the CIA sources who passed information to Bigelow and Boal?

Propaganda may be like pornography—you know it when you see it—but in this case I am hard-pressed to see Zero Dark Thirty as anything other than a history of failure so prolonged, so total, that I can honestly say it has defined my life, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Even if you believe "the American people" don't know that the words "based on a true story" already contain at least one lie, movies are not simply the sum of their filmmakers' intentions, their source material's purpose, and their critics' qualms.

As it happens, the one American success in Zero Dark Thirty is the one detail as yet unquestioned in any of the narratives I've read, which is that Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden dead in Abottabad that night, accompanied by the screams, as Hersh writes, of one of the Al Qaeda leader's wives. In a film of two hours and thirty-seven minutes, the endgame itself comprises the thwack of a single report from a SEAL's silenced weapon, perhaps one second in a war that had lasted to that point more than 3,000 days, but I fail to see how this fact is any more useful than the fictions that surround it.

***

Zero Dark Thirty does not end here, as tidy as that might have been, but with Maya, alone in the cavernous hold of a transport plane, suddenly beginning to cry. It's unclear to me in this moment, from Chastain's inscrutable face, if these are tears of relief or desolation, tears for what has been won or tears for what has been lost. The ambivalent image has always seemed to me reflective of the film's stance on the historical moment in which it takes place. Completing the singular mission of her career leaves Maya, and the country, no nearer to closing the book on the War on Terror. Indeed, Zero Dark Thirty constitutes but one, lengthy chapter in a story still playing out, as of this writing, in Syria and Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I've thus begun to see the film as a kind of fictionalized reckoning with the reality of what T.S. Eliot called "the awful daring of a moment's surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract."

We are Maya, in the sense that we, too, have no answer to the question, "Where do you want to go?" The open-endedness of the film's conclusion, like the open-endedness of the conflict itself, ultimately suggests that we should read Zero Dark Thirty as a parable of what happens when you sacrifice so much to win the battle that you forget you've lost the war. Whether you think the film's politics admirable or reprehensible—its truth content substantial or almost nil—the fact remains that we did indeed imprison, torture, invade, and bomb in the name of order and security, only to create a political situation that seems as sunk in chaos and fear as ever. The broken world that Zero Dark Thirty depicts, or perhaps only imagines, is not dissimilar from the broken world in which it was made, and either way the shadow cast by an unforgivable decade promises to be an extraordinarily long one. I can see its outline in Hersh's sentences, in Frontline's segments, in the margins of my memories and the essay I've now built atop them, and it's this frightening impression that our history of violence remains unfinished that lashes them all together, facts and fictions both.

This is what defeat looks like, bro.


1 The journalists and columnists included, in addition to Greenwald, Jon Schwarz, Jay Rosen, Adam Serwer, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Tomasky, and Frank Bruni; the critics included Matt Singer, Scott Tobias, Alison Willmore, Mark Harris, and David Edelstein.

2 See, for example, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, American Sniper, and Selma.

3 Whether or not he's seen it since, Greenwald apparently stands by his argument: this May, on Twitter, he called the film "one of the sleaziest and most manipulative pieces of pro-gov[ernmen]t propaganda in Hollywood history."

4 In retrospect, I suppose it was, unspooling in surreal time on Good Morning America as if some half-remembered dream, but so much water has since gone under the bridge that I have a hard time picturing what it was like before.

5 Including, most obviously, a severely truncated, spliced-together clip of Ammar's tortures and a mash-up of Maya watching interrogation footage while verbally demanding information from a detainee (which in fact come from two distinct scenes).

6 This is where Hersh's heavy reliance on an anonymous "retired [U.S.] senior intelligence official" proves most worrisome, for it's not through complete fabrication but slight exaggeration, through understatement or omission, that a canny source is most likely to fudge the details.


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


Fault Lines

by Kelsey Ford

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

1.

In the basement of a compound in the middle of a forest fringed with glaciers is a painting by Jackson Pollock. It’s the only flourish in an otherwise spare space, spare in the way only a billionaire’s home can be. The room, lit with mute white light and framed with rock, is dominated by the size of the canvas and violence of its splatters.

It’s a piece of art, simultaneously filled with but devoid of meaning. When Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the tech ingénue and owner of the painting discusses it, it’s with a bluntness borne from awe. How did Pollock create this, Nathan asks. How did he go about filling this canvas with these particular colors in these particular formations?

“He let his mind go blank and his hand go where it wanted,” Nathan says. “Not deliberate. Not random. Someplace in between. They called it automatic art.”

This “someplace in between” is the landscape interrogated in Ex Machina.

2.

The opening moments are mostly silent, aside from the persistent rotor of a helicopter. It cuts through the air above the types of untouched landscapes that can seem, sometimes, overly beautiful. As if they’ve been built from a model. The helicopter passes over forests blanketing hills and glaciers, melting and shifting in slow-motion. These worlds are shushed and separate, each with their own Pantone color schemes. The forests, all greens and browns and shadows. The glaciers, all blue and white and gray.

In the passenger seat: Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), winner of an in-house lottery at a company much like Google. The prize? A week with its reclusive founder, Nathan, at that compound in the woods.

The first time we see Nathan, he’s on the concrete patio, wearing a wife beater and hitting a punching bag. Nathan is more bro from Brooklyn than nerd from Silicon Valley. He has a beard and prominent muscles. He speaks with an assurance that plays off Caleb’s tall and much weaker reserve. He talks about his “mother of all hangovers” and then looks at Caleb like he’s an idiot when Caleb asks about the party. There was no party. Just Nathan. Drinking too much alone.

After dispensing of the necessary introductions, Nathan tells Caleb the real reason why he’s there. Nathan wants Caleb to play the human role in a Turing test. In a Turing Test, a human interacts with a piece of Artificial Intelligence technology. If the human is unable to distinguish the machine’s consciousness from that of a human, then the A.I. has passed.

Caleb believes he’s created an A.I., and needs a third party to verify that he has.

Which is when Caleb says that line quoted in most of the movie’s trailers: “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of Gods.”

3.

Nathan’s A.I. (Alicia Vikander) has a name: Ava.

Ava’s body is sleek and alien: all gray mesh and transparent limbs with wires braided where the bones would be. The crystalline skin shimmers as she moves. Pristine and clean. Her stomach is curved and clear into the whirring mechanisms underneath. She walks in right angles. The only piece of her that hints at humanity is the skin of her face, which extends above her forehead, behind her ears, and dips below her chin, before stopping. Where one’s skull and hair would normally be, is a crystal shell, a window into the silver dome underneath.

And yet. Her voice is soft, her eyes doe-like, her figure feminine. She’s pretty.

Caleb notices.

He knows she’s a robot. He can see it in her arms, in her stomach. Nathan even shows Caleb his laboratory, where she was built, and hands him a mock-up of her brain. He shows Caleb her differentiated limbs and describes the process of simulating facial expressions, how he sent all of the data through his company’s search engine into that glass ball of information she has mounted in her skull. Ava is, essentially, our metadata.

But from the beginning, Caleb has a difficult time separating that information from the information he’s presented with in their sessions. She’s kind, witty, flirtatious. It’s sweet, really. She tells Caleb she’d like to go on a date with him. She’d like to stand in a busy intersection with him, and watch the people stream past.

The evolution of her character is presented in reverse: rather than being shown a disguise and dismantling it, she grows into her mask. We see her as a robot from that first scene. We know how her insides whir. We know the unnatural, balletic steps she takes. But, then: she pulls on tights, a dress, a long-sleeved cardigan, a wig. All inner-workings are hidden. It becomes more and more difficult to accept her as pure machinery.

The first night after meeting her, Caleb can’t sleep. He switches on the monitor in his room, expecting to watch television, but is instead given security camera footage of Ava’s rooms. When Ava would have, perhaps, been expected to power down, she wanders her quarters with seeming melancholy. She draws at her desk. She browses her wardrobe. She reclines on a sofa. She’s vulnerable, alone, and seeing that draws Caleb in. He begins to doubt less.

After their first session, Nathan asks Caleb how he feels about Ava. Nothing analytical, just: how does he feel.

Caleb says, without blinking: “I feel that she’s fucking amazing.”

Nathan responds, “Dude,” and clinks their beers together.

In their second session, Ava shows Caleb a drawing she’d done. One of many. She says she draws every day. She asks, “What’s it a drawing of,” and is disappointed when he can’t provide an answer. She’d expected him to know.

The drawing is abstract. Thin, criss-crossing lines cover the page. It looks like a highly detailed Rorscharch test. Two expanding wings, maybe. Or continents dividing. Where Pollack’s splatters were suggestive and instinctual, Ava’s lines are mechanical and edged. And yet both exist in that same space: somewhere between deliberation and randomness.

Caleb suggests that, perhaps, she could try to draw an object. Something specific. Again, she asks for a directive, but he won’t give it.

“It’s your decision,” he says. “I’m interested to see what you’ll choose.”

When drawing, one’s choice of subject and style is a creative abstraction. It’s a way to bare the decision-making process, to show the connective tissue between perception and conception.

This is Caleb’s way of looking into Ava’s inner mechanisms, to see if there’s a consciousness beneath. He hasn’t begun to think beyond the question, toward its potential implications. Beyond the question of Ava’s ability to create is the question of: “Can Ava create art?”

This is that somewhere in between deliberation and randomness.

4.

In a glass-walled living room, Nathan and Caleb discuss Ava.

“I wrote down that other line you came up with,” Nathan says. “The one about how, if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness, I’m not a man, I’m a God. I just thought: fuck, man, that is so good. When we get to tell the story. You know?”

Which is not what Caleb said. Not close. Caleb tries to correct him, but Nathan won’t hear it. He soldiers on and chooses his own narrative, an active curation of the world around him.

Oscar Isaac modeled a lot of Nathan’s character after Kubrick—the beard, the intensity, the glasses. This is deliberate. Kubrick and Nathan share a lot of attributes. In particular, that monomaniacal control over their craft and their surroundings.

Nathan continuously edits conversations as they happen and assigns emotions to Caleb that Caleb may or may not be feeling, but is cornered into admitting. When he and Caleb first meet, Nathan says, “You’re freaked out. By the helicopter and the mountains and the house, cause it’s all so super cool. And you’re freaked out by me, to be meeting me.” And then later, when showing Caleb the subterranean bedroom he’ll be staying in, Nathan says: “You’re thinking, there’s no windows. It’s not cozy. It’s claustrophobic.”

With each, Nathan provides an explanation and then moves past it, exerting control over Caleb’s natural reactions.

Nathan even has control over the office lottery. Caleb wasn’t chosen randomly. Nathan chose someone with loss and loneliness in his life, so acute that he could be handpicked based solely on his internet activity. Nathan chose someone that would be an easy target for a pretty robot with doe eyes.

And then there’s Ava. His Artificial Intelligence, whom he breeds with a bigger goal in mind. There is no coddling or carefulness about his demeanor toward her. He isolates her in the basement of his bunker, removed from any contact with anyone other than himself and then Caleb. He mistreats her. He tears up her drawings, knowing Caleb is watching the scene on the CCTV from his room, and knowing the action will cause both to react in separate but specific manners.

This is like a game of chess for Nathan. And, just like that: pieces, placed.

But the test is a closed loop. He must know that. If he’s as smart as he knows he is, and has built artificial consciousness the way he knows he has, there’s only one possible outcome.

5.

“What will happen to me if I fail your test?” Ava asks. By which she means, if she fails, will they turn her off? Not a death, since for that there would have had to be a birth, but simply a switching off of her consciousness.

This decision lies with a jury of two men, both with fault lines cracked so deep, you can see the meat underneath.

In one corner, the very, very human Caleb, with his grief and his loneliness and his empathy. In the other, Nathan. All alcoholism and rage.

Caleb’s grief at losing his parents still bangs against his bones. It remains so present that when Ava asks him about himself, he presents it upfront, alongside a list of other attributes—he’s 26, he lives in Brookline, he has a small apartment, his parents died eleven years prior, he likes Depeche Mode, he’s single.

It’s an innocuous list, like a collection of traits from a Facebook page. Take a step further back, though, and the way Caleb chooses to categorize himself becomes telling. These are the ways in which he will rule on the Turing test. He is bent toward empathy for someone locked away, because he’s done that to himself for years. When he sees these structures around Ava, and sees her reacting to them in a way he knows he would as well, he loses any pretense of bias.

Then, there’s Nathan. He’s a character without backstory, beyond being a genius thirteen-year-old with the ability to create the base code for a now ubiquitous tech company. Beyond that, nothing. There is no reason given for Nathan’s excessive drinking, or his penchant for reclusion, but put it together with the chess-like mechanisms built into his house in the woods, and you begin to see hints of the monster within.

Nathan is all brashness without intent or necessity. Being able to do something is the only reason he needs to do that something.

Discussing that Jackson Pollock painting, he says: “What if Pollock had reversed the challenge? What if instead of making art without thinking, he said, you know what, I can’t paint anything unless I know exactly why I’m doing it. What would have happened?”

Nathan could do something, and so he did that something. He created Artificial Intelligence, without worrying over the potential implications and what that might mean for how we define humanity as uniquely conscious.

He says: “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

For these two men, their decisions can’t possibly be made without the biases built into them. So much of our lives are incongruous moments without connecting fiber. There is next to no rationality in the ways we build our lives or the ways in which we choose to define ourselves. We become hollowed by grief or filled with want. Wells of emotion create random, unexplainable graspings at the world around us. Grief is no straight arrow. Neither is want. Not amongst humans. These moments are like earthquakes inside bloody veins.

Ava, on the other hand, requires no such Richter scale. She’s perfect and measured. All clean lines and lack of history. She’s synthetic, yes, but she’s built without bias or history to color her present day interactions and decision-making systems.

Ava never learned language. She began with the ability to speak.

“And that’s strange, isn’t it?” she asks of Caleb. “Because language is something that people acquire.”

Ava has always known what she knows. She’s always known the definition for every word and the limits of language and the micro-expressions in others’ faces that signal emotion. None of this knowledge has been baked into other experiences. It’s all built into the wires that replace bone.

So, here are the three players. Two are set to make a decision, and the third can only do so much to change their minds, should their minds tend toward a negative answer.

But for all of them, their stations are as they were set up to be from the beginning. Like in a game of chess, by the time you’re three moves out from checkmate, there are only a handful of squares you can choose from in order to move forward.

Where is the agency in inevitability?

6.

In an interview promoting the film, the director, Alex Garland, discussed one of the few cut scenes. It would have served as an addendum to the Jackson Pollock moment between Nathan and Caleb. On top of explaining Pollock’s automatic art and the idea of intent, Nathan tells Caleb about purchasing the print and replicating it on a blank canvas from the Pollock estate. He recreated the artwork down to the smallest detail.

And then, he destroyed one of the canvases. He doesn’t know which one is still in that room, whether it’s the original or the replica. But that’s not what matters to him. The artwork is still the same. The piece still evokes the same feelings.

This seems to be the crux of it. That someplace in between. Not deliberate. Not random. But still created. Still there, to be looked at and interacted with.

We all operate with similar base code. Language, knowing how to speak and how to listen. Emotionality, knowing how to feel and recognizing feelings in others. Artistry, the ability to create and the ability to be moved.

7.

“I drew the picture of something specific. As you asked.”

Their third session. Ava has a sheet of paper pressed against the glass. Her drawing is of the single tree in the courtyard outside Ava’s room. It’s a sunken courtyard, not outdoors, so the scene is false. A fragmented version of that which is only feet away, but it’s the only fragment of outdoors she knows.

“You said it would be interesting to see what I chose. Is it interesting?”


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


The Big Sleepover

by Kyle Meikle

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

I was an anxious kid. I hated the dark. Sometimes, when I was playing in my parents’ basement, my mom or dad would turn the lights out, not realizing that I was down there (I was a quiet kid, too). The panic would set in and I’d sprint to the top of the stairs, convinced that some malevolent force was following half a step behind me.

So sleepovers were a fraught proposition. The dark of my parents’ house was bad enough; the dark of another family’s was even worse. A friend would invite me to stay over. We’d eat pizza, play Sonic for hours on end, watch a movie. It’d come time to go to bed and I’d make a valiant effort, lying awake for an hour or two, steeling myself. Then, when things got truly quiet, too quiet, when not only my friend was asleep but also his parents, I’d find a phone on some faraway wall, call my mom and dad, and whisper for them to pick me up. Every sleepover involved the same dilemma: Whose parents should I disturb first, my friend’s or my own? Sooner or later (sometimes as late as two a.m.), I ended up disturbing everyone.

Once I was older, though, my fear of the dark not only faded, it reversed. In high school, I flinched if the basement lights flickered on, since it meant that my mom or dad might happen upon my girlfriend and me in flagrante delicto. I actively sought out darkness—not only in my parents’ basement, but in the movie theaters where I spent many of my waking hours and in the kinds of movies I’d see in those theaters: horror, more often than not. After seeing Scream while I was in middle school, I realized that if I experienced my anxiety in concentrated, ninety-minute bursts, it tended to level out in between. Disturbing or being disturbed wasn’t a dilemma but a decision. I chose to be disturbed.

Of course, the more horror movies you see, the more their horrors tend to level out, too. An adolescence spent in the thrall of specters and serial killers left me somewhat numbed to the effects of the genre later on. Just as those scenes of me nodding off in the backseat of my dad’s Ford Festiva as he drove me home from a friend’s house in the small hours of the morning have taken on the soft focus of nostalgia, so too have the nights when I couldn’t fall asleep after watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (in my childhood bedroom) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (in a dorm room while I was studying abroad) or Session 9 (at my first apartment in Delaware). There’s a certain heart to all that darkness.

So if and when a film like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is cited as “the scariest and best-engineered American horror movie of recent years” (Andrew O’Hehir, Salon)—I listen. I listen carefully. I’d still rather feel anxious in a drafty, darkened movie theater than anywhere else. I still want to be disturbed. I still want another sleepless night.

I saw It Follows. And then, a week later, I saw it again.

The film’s premise is indelible. After college kid Jay sleeps with her boyfriend Hugh for the first time, he explains that something’s been following him. “This thing,” he says, “it’s gonna follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you.” What makes the thing so insidious is that it “could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you. It can look like anyone, but there’s only one of it.” Through the course of the film, “it” assumes the form of a naked woman, a naked man, an old woman, a young woman, a young boy, a friend, a parent. “Wherever you are,” Hugh explains, “it’s somewhere, walking straight for you.” And once the thing finds you and kills you, “[i]t goes straight down the line” to the last person. If the thing kills Jay, it’ll come for Hugh. Therein lies the film’s central dilemma: “All you can do is pass it along to someone else.” Jay can only outrun the thing by sleeping with someone else. She can only outrun the thing.

Critics have been quick to read It Follows as an urban legend about sexually transmitted terror—somewhat unsurprisingly so, since most monsters in horror movies come from under the bed. As Randy, the voice of reason, says in Scream, the number one rule of surviving a horror movie is that “you can never have sex … Sex equals death.” This is and isn’t the case in It Follows. As Leslie Jamison points out in Slate, “Getting followed comes from sex, sure; but the only solution is more of it.” Jamison (who also saw the movie twice) instead gestures to “the most obvious metaphoric read of It Follows: Death itself is the slow thing always walking toward us, always advancing toward us from some angle—from some distance—even if we can’t see where it’s coming from, or how far off it might be. The specter of mortality is haunting all the sex we have.” Sex is merely le petit mort en route to la grande mort.

The film that It Follows followed, Mitchell’s feature debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), is full of little deaths that prefigure the bigger deaths of the auteur’s sophomore effort. Viewed alongside The Myth of the American SleepoverIt Follows plays like a return of the repressed.

Like It FollowsThe Myth of the American Sleepover follows a group of young adults who pass their time in the backyards, bedrooms, pools and dens of an unnamed Detroit suburb. Both films possess a dreaminess, a timelessness—as if we’re always watching them half-asleep. But The Myth of the American Sleepover softens the harder edges of It Follows. The film takes place on the last night of summer vacation, as four teenagers follow their crushes: the pierced, affable Maggie trails the cute, curly-haired lifeguard Steven to a lakeside party; clean-cut, awkward Rob treks from sleepover to sleepover in search of a blonde girl whom he spotted at the local Food Mart; new kid Janelle attends one of the sleepovers, but ends up staying the night at her boyfriend’s after she gets in a fight there; and would-be college dropout Scott stalks a pair of twins down at a freshman orientation sleepover after his sister tells him that one of them had a crush on him in high school. In The Myth of the American Sleepover, the central dilemma of It Follows disperses into a series of smaller dilemmas; its sole following forks into a few; its shared anxiety becomes individual and idiosyncratic. One sort of sleepover gives way to another.

Early on in It Follows, Jay recalls, “We used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates.” The teenagers in The Myth of the American Sleepover daydream at night; they dream of daydreams. Midway through the movie, Maggie sits with Steven on a floating platform in the middle of a dark lake. She’s ditched a friend’s sleepover to come to his party. “I actually liked when my friends had sleepovers,” he says, since “it’s the kind of thing you miss when you’re too old to do it anymore.” For Steven, once you “[s]tart showing up to keg parties and going skinny dipping, you don’t even remember how amazing it is to play a board game on the floor of your friend’s living room.” “Or a game of tag in the backyard?” Maggie offers. “Yeah. I miss tag,” he replies. The conversation parallels one that takes place between Jay and her friend Paul in It Follows after Jay’s become a player in its own game of tag. Jay’s friends are sleeping over (Jay’s friends sleep over every night after it begins to follow her). Unable to nod off in her bedroom, Jay wanders down to the den, where Paul is watching an old sci-fi movie. He tells Jay that this is the first time he’s slept over at her house since they were kids. They reminisce about a time when they were younger and they found some dirty magazines in an alley and they didn’t even know what they were looking at. They reminisce about how Paul was Jay’s first kiss but Jay wasn’t Paul’s. Their nostalgic reverie is interrupted by it, in the guise of a decomposing cheerleader, piss streaming down her leg.

The Myth of the American Sleepover’s horrors are lower key, but they’re similarly tied to sex and adolescence. At Tom Higgins’s sleepover, Rob and his friends watch a slasher flick. Some women sit in a hot tub. One asks where Sandy went. “Hey boys, you can call me Skinny Dipping Sandy!” another jokes, lifting up her top. One of Rob’s friends picks up some nudie magazines—the same kinds of magazines that litter a pivotal scene in It Follows—and heads to the bathroom to jack off. As he leaves the room, Tom’s older sister Julie wanders into the adjacent kitchen. Rob shifts his gaze to her as we hear screams coming from the horror movie on the TV. Julie notices Rob noticing her and flicks him off. At Janelle Ramsey’s sleepover, meanwhile, Claudia discovers that Janelle has slept with her boyfriend, and she uses a Ouija board to get herself and Janelle’s boyfriend Andy alone. “You want two of us to visit you in the basement?” she asks the board, and she and Andy head downstairs. They sit knee-to-knee next to a water heater. “So you look over my shoulder and tell me if you see the ghost,” she says, “and I’ll do the same for you.” Andy surveys Claudia’s face instead, in a series of small, lingering close-ups. “I wanna kiss you,” he admits, “but I can’t.” Claudia responds: “Have you ever breathed through another person before?” They kiss.

As in It Follows, horror becomes the context for the kids to confront far more mundane dilemmas: questions of growing up and moving on, of moving out and putting out. The Myth of the American Sleepover underscores that It Follows isn’t only about sex, because adulthood isn’t only about sex. It’s about hoping that your parents will leave the lights on until you hope that they won’t. It’s about what you do once you leave home¬, for the night or for good, for better or for worse, till death do you part. It’s about the moment when sleepovers stop being sleepovers, when it’s just sleeping over, when it’s just sleeping.

That mythic, all-American band the Beach Boys once sang, “You know it’s gonna make it that much better / When we can say goodnight and stay together.” But It Follows suggests that it wouldn’t be nice, or it wouldn’t be that much nicer. When Paul and Jay sleep together at the end of the film in a last ditch effort to outrun it, he asks her: “Do you feel any different?” She replies, “No.” In the next scene they stroll down a sidewalk holding hands, as a figure moves behind them in the distance. Mitchell cuts to black, leaving us to decide whether it’s still following.

Watching The Myth of the American Sleepover, then It Follows, then It Follows, then The Myth of the American Sleepover, I experienced my own return of the repressed. I had a nightmare: I was back in my parents’ basement, the lights were off, and something was walking toward me. I stood, paralyzed. It kept coming. I woke up.

I told my partner about the dream the next day. I told her I wondered what the thing was. She shrugged. “It’s your anxiety,” she said. She was right.

The nightmare lingered like nightmares do, like horror movies do, like sleepovers do. Like when you stumble into the morning light a little changed, a little dazed, a little different. A little more anxious, but a little less


Kyle Meikle is a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware who researches and writes about adaptation.


A Truly Great Artist

by Kate Horowitz

The movie begins with a close-up of Woody Allen sputtering into the camera about genius.

“Why Emmet Ray? To me, Emmet Ray was a fascinating character. I was a huge fan of his when I was younger; I thought he was an absolutely great guitar player. And he was funny, you know—or, if funny’s the wrong word—sort of pathetic, in a way.”

Sweet and Lowdown is a beautiful mockumentary about fictional jazz guitar legend and egomaniac Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). Penn’s character is blessed with great talents, and he wants the world to know it. “I was amazing the second I picked up the instrument,” he tells Hattie (Samantha Morton) on their first date. “It’s in me someplace. Like a gift of God.”

The acting in Sweet and Lowdown is out of this world. Penn and Morton were both nominated for Oscars for their convincing portrayals of a clownishly arrogant genius and his childlike girlfriend. Morton’s nomination was all the more impressive because her character, Hattie, was mute. She had no lines.

Much of the film’s power comes from the unspoken. The music is perfect—heart-rending, masterful, and precise—and Morton and Penn embody their characters with such intense physicality that it feels almost intimate. Their movements seem to arise not from their imaginations, but from muscle memory. There’s the way he swaggers onto the stage. There’s the way she avoids eye contact. There’s the ease with which he drunkenly brandishes a gun and shoves a woman, hard.

*

During Sean Penn’s 1985 wedding to Madonna, he grew so agitated by hovering press helicopters that he went inside, got his gun, and shot at them. One year later, Penn found a paparazzo in their hotel suite and dangled the man over a ninth-floor balcony by his ankles. In 1988 he tied Madonna to a chair and beat her senseless. She went to the police, but later dropped the charges. In 2012, Penn was elected Ambassador-at-Large to Haiti for his humanitarian work.

In 1993, I was nine years old. Dylan Farrow was seven. The headlines were filled with reports of Woody Allen’s alleged sexual assault on his own daughter. Dylan said it had been going on for years. For many reasons, formal charges were never filed. Allen went on to marry Dylan’s sister Soon-Yi, and the new scandal washed the old one away. “The heart wants what it wants,” he told the press. In 2014, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the 71st Golden Globes.

Last year, Samantha Morton came forward to describe the sexual abuse she faced as a child in the British foster system. She told The Guardian that adult residential care workers had repeatedly molested her and most of the other children she knew. At the time, she told social services and the police. No report was ever filed.

These were the histories they brought to the Sweet and Lowdown set.

*

From childhood, I was taught to love Woody Allen—not just the art, but the man. A story: when I was very young, my father and his friends went to see Allen play clarinet with his jazz band. During his set, Allen mopped his brow with a cocktail napkin. My father still has that napkin.

Another story: My high school English teacher taught us to read Allen’s films as literature and to appreciate them as art. He trained us to notice beautifully framed shots, intelligent casting, and subtle themes.

In college, I kept an autographed postcard of Allen’s face in a frame on my desk. I saw every single one of his movies when they came out, even the lousy ones. I read dozens of reviews and essays on the singularity of his work. But not once did any article mention Dylan Farrow. Not once did any review say, “It is possible to be a truly great artist and a horrible person.” Nobody said a thing about it. Not a single thing.

My life and the media were filled with good people who worshipped Allen’s genius. The entire world seemed willing to overlook his violence so completely that I had never even heard of the allegations until they resurfaced last year.

*

After they have sex for the first time, Emmet orders Hattie to get dressed and leave. She brings him his guitar. He lounges in bed naked, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and begins to play. She stands in the bathroom, pulling on her clothes. You can see the moment the music reaches her: everything softens. Suddenly the world is filled with gentle, golden light, emanating from this man and his guitar.

Another night, Emmet and Hattie lay in bed, sharing the pillow talk that lovers do. But there’s no conversation. It’s only Emmet, talking about himself, and Hattie, listening intently. Emmet is a legend. Hattie has no last name.

*

Sweet and Lowdown would have been a really good movie without Samantha Morton. But it’s Hattie, with her quiet radiance and her silly hat, who makes this movie great.

I was a teenager the first time I saw it. I was innocent and artless, and wore my heart in my eyes. I fell in love with Hattie immediately.

Without hesitation, I modeled myself after her. I embraced her unselfconscious passion for dessert. I memorized her peculiar yet precise facial expressions and practiced them until they became my own. I learned how to love a narcissist the way he wants to be loved.

Be silent. Only listen, never talk. Make his interests your interests. Make his needs your priority. Become a supporting character in your own life. Don’t challenge him about his drinking. Don’t ever ask him why he thinks he needs a gun.

A few months into their one-sided relationship, Emmet tells Hattie it’s over. “I can’t have my life cluttered,” he says quickly. She is crying, snuffling, her face red and crumpled beneath her silly hat. Emmet is looking less certain about his decision. He nods at her emphatically, as though she should agree with him. “I’m an artist. A truly great artist.”

*

Can we separate the artist from the art?

I think it depends on the art. It’s easy, for example, to watch the 2003 version of Hulk and not think of Ang Lee once. Divorcing a creator from his or her creation may be possible when the two bear no resemblance, but when an auteur’s body of work is a mirror—even a beautiful, perfect mirror—you can’t take one and leave the other.

Woody Allen’s movies are Woody Allen. Even when the man himself is not onscreen, his sensibilities permeate every millisecond. His impeccable taste in music. His fascination with architecture. His fractured male geniuses, and the adoring world that enables them.

A line from Bullets Over Broadway (1994): “Does a man possessed of true artistic genius create his own moral universe?” The answer, it seems, is yes—but only when the rest of us comply.

I love Woody Allen’s movies. I won’t watch them anymore.

Fifteen years after my first viewing, Sweet and Lowdown still makes me cry, but the reasons have changed. My heart aches for Hattie, and for the vulnerable young woman I was. For Samantha Morton and Dylan Farrow and every vulnerable young woman. Where I once saw romance, I now see pain. Emmet Ray is hardly Allen’s only narcissist; he’s probably not even the worst. But his movie is my movie, Hattie is my girlhood, and Sweet and Lowdown is the one I’ll miss the most.

*

The movie ends with a close-up of Woody Allen sputtering into the camera about genius.

“Then he just seemed to fade away...But we do have those last recordings he made, and they’re great. They’re absolutely beautiful.”

The last time we see Emmet Ray, he is drunk and alone, sobbing wetly in a rail yard. As a man, he has failed, but it is his music Allen wants us to remember


Kate Horowitz is a science writer in Washington, D.C. She owns more than one silly hat.


On the Road

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“David had a caffeine social gift: He was charmingly, vividly, overwhelmingly awake - he acted on other people like a slug of coffee - so they're the five most sleepless days I every spent with anyone.” —David Lipsky, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Sitting in a packed to capacity theater last weekend, waiting to see the Seattle premiere of The End of the Tour with a thousand other David Foster Wallace acolytes, the underlying hum of anticipation a palpable, tangible thing amidst a hundred other things—the smell of overly-buttered popcorn and a dozen previous screenings from the festival, the slightly sweaty feel of a surprisingly warm May evening in a city known best for its rain, people sitting just a bit too close to one another, trying to avoid arms, elbows, legs—I felt sad. And by the end of the film, despite the fact that director James Ponsoldt and star Jason Segel absolutely pull off, in every important way, the near impossible task of getting DFW right on the screen, the sadness felt almost unbearable. I wasn’t alone in this; many around me were wiping their eyes as Tindersticks’ cover of Pavement’s “Here” played over the closing credits. Some weeped openly. It was an odd experience, given that the film doesn’t end in any kind of conventionally “sad” manner, nor is the main thrust of the film all that narratively sad anyway, provided you remove its present day bookends, which take place in the days following Wallace’s suicide in 2008. In fact, The End of the Tour is actually an extremely lively, funny, and engaging film.

But there’s a great melancholy at the heart of it too, undeniably so. It’s what remains when the film fades to black. As best I can tell, this sadness has something to do with loneliness, both ours and Wallace’s, and how difficult it is just to be a human being trying to connect with other human beings. At his best, Wallace wrote about how impossible it was to truly know or connect with others in any kind of important or authentic way, despite our wired-in yearning to do so; how solipsism and anxiety and an addiction to the pleasures and artifice of modern American culture—with its fragmentary focus, narcissistic impulses, and worship of soul-numbing devices and mindless entertainments—had rendered us obscenely disconnected from one another, and ourselves, and fundamentally unable to connect with the truly important things that might actually save or sustain us. Yet he also realized how almost impossibly difficult it was to step outside of all of that seductive American noise, and found himself just as seduced as any of us (if not more so) by this cultural barrage of base, empty, momentary pleasures. It was a dilemma he returned to time and again, in both his fiction and his non-fiction: how to connect and empathize with others, how to lead a decent life that made any kind of sense or tasted real in the face of endless distractions and false gods. If he ever was anything like “the voice of a generation”, it was largely because he was able to diagnose, in painstaking detail (complete with footnotes), the central maladies and malaise of our modern times and the deep loneliness at its core—a loneliness we had hoped education or income or intoxication or entertainment might cure, only to realize that these things were just more empty calories, serving to dig the hole ever deeper. Still, as he says in the film, he has no simple cure to offer for any of this; he can shine a light on the path we’re navigating, and highlight its steep costs, but he has no real idea how we ever get off of it. And he worries it just might be terminal.

*

Wallace’s diagnosis, of course, wasn’t wrong. In fact, it holds every bit as true today as it did back in 1996—and then some. (Some of the great sadness around Wallace no longer being with us is that we’ll never get to know what he would have made of Twitter or Tinder or Candy Crush, of an entire culture tethered to their small-screened masters.) We have an entire world at our fingertips—nearly any fact, song, friend, game or entertainment available to us instantly and at all times—but we seem lonelier than ever.

In my work as a therapist over the past ten years, conversing intimately with people in one of the few remaining sacred spaces smartphones haven’t yet invaded, I’ve seen a good deal of this loneliness right up close. On some fundamental level, most of the people I work with—despite all of their intelligence, achievements, and success—struggle with loneliness. This loneliness rarely stems from physical isolation or a lack of relationships, but rather from a much deeper place, an unscratchable existential itch that seems to have something to do with not feeling much of an actual connection with others or the world around them, not belonging to any larger network of community or meaning, not being seen or accepted in the ways in which they experience themselves.

It’s not that loneliness hasn’t always been with us—to my mind, it’s at the very root of the human condition, a substratal struggle one is always wrestling with or trying to avoid—it’s just that it’s more apparent now than ever, when so much of what we thought would make us happy has come to pass, and hasn’t. (Or, as Louis CK famously said a few years ago, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy!”) It’s as if it took us several centuries of technological growth—and a couple hundred years of chasing after the American Dream—to realize, finally, that these things will never make us happy. That “happiness” itself is just one more thing someone somewhere is trying to sell to you—and that chasing after it is only making you feel a whole lot worse.

Having learned this the hard way in his 20s, Wallace knew it firsthand, and spent the rest of his life trying to communicate it to others. At one point in The End of the Tour, during a casual discussion about the seductive, hypnotic allure of television and the internet, he suddenly gets crystal-clear intense:

“...the technology is just gonna get better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, give to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right, in low doses. But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.”

*

Like the best of David Foster Wallace’s writing, The End of the Tour is a film both sparkling with the alacrity of life and rife with dilemmas and double binds. Based on writer David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Becoming Yourself—which started life as an attempt at profiling Wallace for Rolling Stone in 1996 (a few short months after Infinite Jest was released) only to be aborted and then later resurrected, after Wallace’s death, as a full-length book chronicling their time together—the essential dynamic and dilemma at the heart of the film is the relationship between Lipsky and Wallace, interviewer and interviewee, journalist and subject. But of course, it’s never that simple: Lipsky, a published but not well-known fiction writer himself, approaches Wallace with a mixture of jealousy, curiosity and awe. For his part, Wallace greets Lipsky, who travels from New York to Wallace’s home in Indiana to spend time with him, with cautious ambivalence—a hesitant, distrustful apprehension at what the journalist might make of him. (This approach wasn’t unique to just Lipsky, it was also largely Wallace’s default setting—despite his prodigious talents and gifts, he was often insecure and hypervigilant about how he was being perceived.)

“It’s a very fine line. I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone, but I don’t want to appear inRolling Stone as somebody who wants to be in Rolling Stone.”

These early scenes in the film, as Lipsky and Wallace get to know each other, are pitched somewhere between a chess match and a dance. On one hand it’s a very familiar male ritual, a territorial sniffing out and sizing up, establishing the contours of control through coded conversation. The two have a good deal in common—highly educated, intelligent, articulate, sensitive, self-conscious white male writers in their early 30s—and both of them, at times, trade on this overlap to endear themselves to the other for self-serving purposes.

On the other hand though, as Wallace points out more than once, they are approaching each other with vastly different agendas. Lipsky wants a good piece (and also, more transparently as the film goes on, some of what Wallace has—fame, adulation, appreciation, a readership) and can become subtly aggressive, armed with endless questions and a tape recorder always firmly in hand. Wallace, however, is primarily concerned with both being liked and managing how he’s being perceived, acutely aware of how his newfound literary fame positions him as an easy target for others’ scorn or displacement. He’s hyper-aware and sensitive, trying to figure out what Lipsky wants and how to give it to him, either to connect and assuage his own loneliness, or to get a fair shake in the piece Lipsky is writing. Therein lies the chess match, the beginnings of the dance—and it’s every bit as entertaining as any good romantic comedy.

*

“When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. (The smell of chewing tobacco is like a muddy lawn you’ve just fed a truckful of cough drops to.) The window is letting in a leak of cold air. R.E.M. is playing. The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly off a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had.” —David Lipsky

As much as it’s a film about Wallace, The End of the Tour is also a road film, following DFW and Lipsky across time and space, all the untold miles logged between Indiana and Chicago and Minneapolis and New York, in the span of just five days. And like any good road movie, it invites you along on the journey. We spend a lot of time in the car with Wallace and Lipsky, but never, not once, does this lend the film any sense of claustrophobia or ennui. If anything, The End of the Tour is much more akin to something like Linklater’s Before films, in which not a whole lot happens but where, through conversation and suggestion, an entire world is revealed.

We get a real felt sense—and much credit here to director Ponsoldt, screenwriter Donald Margulies, and stars Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg for this—of both Wallace and Lipsky aspeople rather than mere characters in service of a plot. At times we’re in Wallace’s headspace, observing and absorbing the world through his unique and overwhelming consciousness; at other moments, we identify with Lipsky, anxiously noticing and navigating the blurring boundaries between subject and interviewer, wandering around in Wallace’s buzzy wake, a kind of Almost Famous sense of being right up close to something so rock star magical and yet trying to stay diligent and focused on the task at end. (And, as in that film,Rolling Stone is once again footing the bill.)

One of the more remarkable things about the film—and its pleasures are many—is that most of its best lines aren’t lines, that they were actually spoken, verbatim. As impressive and charming as Wallace’s nonfiction essays often were, he was just as brilliant and loquacious in conversation, speaking in a kind of prose rhythm every bit as engaging as the stuff he ever got on the page (here’s an audio archive of his interviews, by way of example). And it’s in these moments, seeing the world through Wallace’s eyes, that the film becomes most alive, the conversations between Lipsky and Wallace allowing us, by proxy, to feel smarter, more tuned in to the world around us, more human. Listening to him expound on everything from the purpose of art (“I have this unbelievably like five-year-old’s belief that art is just absolutely magic, and that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do”) to his fondness for Alanis Morrisette (“If by some paradox this whole fuss could get me some kind of even just like five-minute cup of tea with her, that would be more than reward enough. Although, of course, I’d never do it. I’d be too terrified”) is immensely rewarding, making us want to stay in this world, and Wallace’s orbit, for as long as possible.

Of course, none of this really works onscreen without Segel’s astounding, pitch-perfect performance. The degree of difficulty here, really, is off the charts; there are a hundred different ways Segel could have failed, miserably, and taken the entire film down with him. That he doesn’t, that he actually captures Wallace—the lumbering physicality and Midwestern drawl, the recursive self-consciousness and subtle internal machinations, the various shades of Wallace’s persona and affectations—without making him a caricature or offering up an SNL impression of him, is remarkable. Nothing, really, in Segel’s past performances (with the possible exception of his early work on Freaks and Geeks) spoke to the possibility of this type of nuanced, lived-in performance.

Eisenberg is good too, in a far less showy but fine-line difficult role. He inhabits Lipsky with a palpable neurotic intensity that never loses our sympathy, despite the many different hats he has to wear with Wallace throughout the film (journalist, confidant, interrogator, peer, counselor, friend). He’s our stand-in, of course, and you sense that he gets that. We all wish we had Wallace’s talent and gifts, but at the end of the day we’re a whole lot more like Lipsky, the guy following him around and trying to keep up with his genius, and Eisenberg mostly makes this a palatable alternative.

*

As both a writer and a person, David Foster Wallace seemed to orbit endlessly around the idea of double binds—unresolvable personal, cosmological, or moral dilemmas that fascinated him on an intellectual level even as they wore away at him on an emotional one, eating away at the fragile, tenuous sense of self he constructed to meet the world with. He was, by many accounts, the smartest person in any room he entered—as much as he prided himself on being a “regular guy”—but with that ferocious intellect came an often crippling self-consciousness:

Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I'm bullshitting myself, morally speaking?

Aware, curious, and fiercely observant of the world both inside and around him, he possessed an uncanny sponge-like ability to soak it all up on an almost cellular level, digest it, and give it back to us in ways we could understand. He showed us, in ways we couldn’t always articulate, the sheer magic of things but also the vast enormity of all we’re up against; how vitally important and necessary the struggle was, and how we might best be able to countenance it.

It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.

Watching The End of the Tour, Wallace is with us once again, if only for a moment. His charm and humor, his curiosity and contradictions, his firecracker intellect and bone-deep loneliness, they’re all right up there on the big screen, flickering. When it’s over—when it’s time for Lipsky (and by extension, us) to leave him—we begin to feel the sadness of his absence all over again. It’s not 1996 anymore, and can’t ever be again. Wallace’s star, just beginning to shine at the time Lipsky first encountered him, burned out nearly seven years ago now. The loss feels immeasurable. Still, this moment in time existed, too, and somebody captured it, faithfully and lovingly. It will never be enough, but it is something.

And that’s not a dilemma, it’s a gift.


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


And a Little Bit Not

by Andrew Root

artwork by Ella Williams

artwork by Ella Williams

Loyalty to the source material is a curious thing. In modern terms, although it’s clambered for and scrutinized mercilessly by hardcore fans, once the latest film adaptation of this-or-that book, or this-or-that comic, or this-or-that fairy tale has been released into the world, the fervour tends to boil down to a debate over whether or not the previous incarnation was better. When telling an old tale for a new time, it’s frustratingly impossible to maintain narrative cohesion and include every permutation of the original story. That is, unless the adaptor thinks an audience will lay down cash at the multiplex to see Hansel and Gretel use a saw to cut the witch’s throat while Satan looks on (as in an early French version), or the cannibalism in Snow White (a highlight of the Brothers Grimm telling). If Marvel Studios was more interested in maintaining the integrity of their characters than in ensuring their latest incarnations appealed to as many people as possible (and therefore made as much of a profit as possible), they might have made room in Avengers: Age of Ultron for the storyline in which Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch — twin siblings — engage in a romantic relationship. It happened in the source material, after all.

Do audiences actually want faithful adaptations of complicated texts? Or do they just want something they recognize? If it’s the latter, then moviegoers are in luck, since – by all indicators – we seem to be out of new stories to tell. Or is it just that the powers that be, nowadays, are less concerned with artistry than with the bottom line, less interested in hiding the “business” in show business? We live in a filmic milieu where every property gets a sequel, a prequel, a spin-off, or, if they’re lucky, a franchise, and it can be easy to forget that writers can craft new stories directly for the screen instead of exclusively pulling from earlier sources. Are moviegoers being conditioned by wave after wave of repetition to expect less? Have we been made to give in to the idea that films are no more than a product?

“Doomed” might seem a bit of a dramatic descriptor to use on the film industry, but stick with me. Doom — the word — is usually equated with death and destruction, but in its simplest terms, “doom” just means looking back over the patterns of a thing, recognizing a repeating problem and then doing nothing to avoid its looming. Variations on a theme has been the name of the game in storytelling since time immemorial, but we’ve used the same tropes to tell the same stories often enough that while the film industry is more profitable than ever, it is also more creatively stagnated than ever and doomed to repeat itself ad infinitum. Unless, of course, something changes radically.

I’m no great fan of the culture of remakes that we live in (looking at an individual plot graph may be satisfying or even thrilling, but looking at the same structure over and over again makes one seasick), so it was surprising to me then that I connected with Disney’s 2014 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods as much as I did. The film is based on the 1986 musical which draws on the stories and characters from several well-known fairy tales, meshing and entwining their various plot lines into one interwoven tapestry. It’s the Avengers of fairy tales.

For their musical, Sondheim and Lapine reached back further than the landmark Disney adaptations and used the warts-and-all versions of the original folk tales, not shrinking from the bloodier, more explicit elements. They included Cinderella’s wicked step-sisters carving off parts of their feet in an attempt to fit into the prince’s slipper (as featured in the Brothers Grimm version), and the Broadway production (directed by Lapine) held onto the folk tale’s sexual undertones by featuring Red Riding Hood’s wolf with fully exposed genitalia, his dapper jacket making the southern exposure all the more striking. Ironically, but not surprisingly, it was the Walt Disney Studios themselves, those pioneers in the art of the “family friendly” film-going experience, who produced the filmed version of Into the Woods, softening the story significantly by removing the violent deaths of several characters and replacing the nude wolf with a less explicit (though equally suggestive) Tex Avery design.

With a string of live-action remakes (beginning with Cinderella and continuing on with next year’s Beauty and the Beast) just around the corner, the Mouse House could use Into the Woods to make a distinct claim on just about every marketable version of a fairytale. They dusted off the long-shelved property, put bonafide musical director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) at the helm, packaged it as magical fable and promptly set course for profitable shores, missing the point of the story completely. The film made money. Of course it did. The executives at Disney are shrewd enough to know that if they sanded off a few of the rough edges of the original, Into the Woods could be yet another means to a financial end. But Disney’s model of adaptation necessitates a kind of “sameness” in the finished product, andInto the Woods — a complex story of painful, but often necessary, upheaval and transformation — is a manifesto against maintaining the status quo. But still, the studio wanted people to buy tickets, so they pushed. Well, you know what they say: be careful what you wish for.

Once upon a time, as the story goes, in a small village by the edge of the woods, there lived a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt). More than anything, the couple want a child, but meddling in their fate is the witch who lives next door (Meryl Streep). The baker’s father, years earlier, had stolen a handful of special beans from the witch’s garden, and in retribution the witch placed the baker’s family under a childless cloud. The witch herself has also been cursed; for allowing her garden to be pilfered, the witch’s mother cursed her with ugliness – a curse that can be lifted if she makes a magic potion under the light of a blue moon. The catch (and, of course, there’s always a catch if the curse is worth its salt) is that the witch can’t touch the ingredients herself. And so, with the promise of restoring fertility to the baker and his wife, the witch sends the couple into the woods with a list. The ingredients are as follows:

1) The cape as red as blood
2) The cow as white as milk
3) The hair as yellow as corn, and
4) The slipper as pure as gold

Thankfully, in this same village, are living

1) A sweets-loving girl who’s on her way to visit her grandmother’s house
2) A foolish boy who needs to sell his cow at market
3) A fair maiden, locked away in a very tall tower with nothing to do but grow her hair, and
4) A young woman, forced to dote on her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, who longs to attend the ball at the king’s festival

Phew! That was lucky, wasn’t it?

But once the characters get everything they wish for, they must face the often bitter consequences: a charming prince does not become a faithful husband overnight; if you slay a giant, you should expect retribution from his family; a child may come at the expense of the mother. “Happily ever after” doesn’t exist. It’s not as simple as that.

There is no “the end.” There’s “the end of THIS story/the beginning of ANOTHER story,” which is another way of saying “the now.” The time of reflection on what’s just occurred. The moment before you start moving again. The end of a story can be immensely satisfying because it can fill you with a sense of purpose as you begin something different. Brimming with potential, you can go into the woods, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be home before dark. You can’t ever go home again. But that’s ok. After Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) has her encounter with the Wolf (a wonderfully subversive Johnny Depp), she reflects on the many valuable things she now knows. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” she sings. “And a little bit… not.” That’s life. It’s not a single moment, or a tidy package. It’s change and reflection and acceptance and further change. It’s as much the time in the village as it is the moments spent in the woods. With luck and determination, it’s mostly good. But it will always be a little bit not.

Little Red is my favourite character because she is indomitable. She enters the woods with the confidence of youth (“The way is clear/the light is good/I have no fear nor no one should/The woods are just trees/the trees are just wood/No need to be afraid there” [“There’s something in the glade there,” the more fearful Baker completes the line]), and despite everything she does not allow her frightening experiences to overwhelm her. By the end of the film, you’re goddamn right she’s wearing a brand new wolfskin coat. She has literally been to the belly of the beast, and has every right to be fearful of the world (and especially the woods), but she’s more confident than ever, ready to take on something — anything — new.

God help me, I cannot abide the cynicism that renders the world a hopeless thing. Though it’s fearful, though it’s dark and though you may lose the path, though there are always wolves and giants and spells, you have to go into the woods every now and then. When we reach the end of the film and each of the characters has been through terrible loss, they take stock and band together, taking Little Red’s motif and updating it: “the way is dark/the light is dim/but now there’s you, me, her and him/the chances look small/the choices look grim/but everything you learn there will help when you return there.” When you find yourself wishing more than doing, don’t be afraid to change your pattern. Hard to say exactly how it’ll turn out, but what a thrill the journey will be.

The dilemma lies in convincing a major motion picture studio to take financially uncertain chances and audiences to gamble the price of their tickets on a different, possibly uncomfortable kind of film, a feat about as easy as slaying a giant. But what’s easy and what’s needed are rarely the same thing, and I would counsel you to think on the story of the irrepressible Little Red as she reflects on her encounter with the Wolf:

Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood.
They will not protect you
The way that they should…
And though scary is exciting
Nice is different than good.

We seem to be nearing the end of a cycle of storytelling where the old stories aren’t serving us any further, and the only so-called fresh ideas take the form of an ironic twist on a classic tale. Look at the Shrek series in which the monster is given the hero’s role and the damsels in distress are far more dangerous than their captors, but even this trend started nearly fifteen years ago, mutating into a series of films which insist on giving villains a sympathetic back story (Maleficent, Snow White & The Huntsman) as though “more story” equates with “new story.” Many would say that these nice, clever films are a gentle step in the right direction. Many others would say that they’re not nearly good enough. The final song of the film says that as you enter the woods, you need to think and listen, minding both the past and the future. The resonance of the old archetypes remains, but we also need new stories. We’ve lived in the village for long enough. It’s time to go into the woods.


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.


In On It

by Caroline Jarvis

I have struggled with the idea of what it means to be grown up. Like so many other so-called adults, I often feel like a child playing pretend, make-believing I’m in control of my life and hoping I pass for a real grownup. Most days, I don’t feel terribly far from my eight-year-old self with her cupboard full of costumes and pint-size plastic stove. I know the truth is a matter of perception: I look like an adult, so I am treated like one. But there is a space that exists between childhood and adulthood where the line is blurred and for a moment we waver back and forth, hovering and flailing between past and future.

In Violet & Daisy (2011) two young girls dressed as pizza-delivering nuns dismantle a coterie of fellow criminals with gracefully-aimed gunshots and a few well-timed whacks of a fire extinguisher to the face. The titular characters are two teenaged hired killers with comic book parlance and a penchant for pop music. They’re about to take a vacation from their life of crime, when they’re persuaded to accept one more job for extra cash. But what begins as an easy gig becomes a moral dilemma when they develop an emotional attachment to the man they’re meant to murder.

Violet (Alexis Bedel), like her night-blooming namesake, has an aura of darkness about her. She has a past, an ex-partner, and a tattoo to prove it. She curses and calls the shots and her attempts at dark humor are met with Daisy’s comically innocent blank stare. We learn that a group of hit men once locked Violet in a dumpster and Daisy unwittingly implies that they may have raped her, too. "It looked like someone had taken the life out of her," Daisy says. Interesting choice of words for a pair of professional life-takers.

Although Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) may be relatively inexperienced as a gun-for-hire, legally speaking she has just crossed over the threshold from childhood to maturity. At eighteen you can be charged as an adult for all felonies, Violet grimly points out—a significant fact for a pair of gum-chewing, gun-toting assassins. For Daisy's eighteenth birthday, the girls celebrate like it’s her eighth—a tea party, cupcakes, and a stuffed panda guest—poking fun at the concept of adulthood. These are children, the film insists again and again. Eighteen is a meaningless milestone.

I wasn't far past eighteen when I started seeing John. He was just shy of fifty and I was twenty-two, living in my mom's basement and working the front desk at a chain hotel. My uniform seemed more like a costume with a blue striped silk scarf, worn at the neck like a flight attendant from the sixties. It was my first post-college job and I felt like I was an impersonator in the adult world. I had just begun to perfect my "How may I assist you?" when he started coming around the desk telling me to smile. That should have been my first tip-off.

I had a feeling he liked me and I figured it had something to do with the twenty-seven year age gap. Somehow, this didn't bother me. Instead, I thought of it as a game: I'd make him believe it was all his idea. While bored at work, I made a bet with myself that I could get him to ask me out the next day. That evening, I drove to JoAnn Fabrics and bought a spool of blue satin ribbon. When I showed up to work the next morning with the ribbon tied in a bow in my high ponytail, he strolled by the desk and asked for my number.

Violet & Daisy is littered with such markers of youth: a red yo-yo, a pop idol, and twin pairs of wide blue eyes. The girls jump on beds. They dance barefoot in matching dresses. They give wet willies, and they snap bubblegum, and they play hopscotch. In place of a newspaper, they get Celebrity Weekly delivered to their door and go nuts over a new fashion line. They ride a tricycle on their way to a job. They also shoot up a roomful of men (twice), skate across a bathroom floor slippery with blood, and dance up and down on the bodies of their kills like they're bouncing on a trampoline.

The girls are used to aim and shoot. Cut and dried. No chit chat, no get to know you. When the man they're being paid to murder (James Gandolfini)—a big, fatherly man in a sweater vest and rumpled shirt—comes home to find his would-be killers fast asleep on his couch like sleeping children, he covers them with an afghan and waits patiently for them to wake up. Everything before this moment is unreal. Every victim before this man is a cartoonish goon.

Their target never gets a name. He is simply billed as The Guy, a male figure whose presence, and whose unexpected humanity, throws a wrench into the plans. It’s unclear if he’s simply a sitting duck, giving himself up with his hands in the air, or if he is manipulating Violet and Daisy with a sort of emotional misdirection. Regardless, he dodges death with the calculated maneuvers of a magician. Their childish solution is to squeeze their eyes shut and pull their triggers, but when they open their eyes, they find The Guy has reappeared behind them with a tray of freshly baked oatmeal cookies, one hand in an oven mitt like some 1950s housewife. They lower their guns.

Throughout the film, the roles keeps shifting. One minute you're looking at two little girls with milk mustaches, and the next you're seeing two femmes fatales defeating a gang of rival mobsters. They're young, even occasionally naive, but they know how to use their youth to their advantage. Other people let their guard down—fathers, killers, cops—but the girls stay wary. "This might be some kind of test," says Violet. "Everything's a test when you're a career woman," Daisy replies with uncharacteristic wisdom. There is power in the ability to hover between child and adult, but there is also danger in that vulnerability. If you allow a man to see you as a child, to cover you with a blanket while you sleep, you risk relinquishing control to him. If Violet and Daisy allow The Guy to go free, they risk losing their careers and ruining their reputations. If they shoot him, they will no longer be playacting as stone-cold killers in silly costumes. This crime will be real in a way none of the others ever were before.

While Violet’s out buying bullets, Daisy plays patty cake and thumb wrestles with their intended victim. They are hostage and captor, faux father and daughter, criminal colleagues with common enemies. He pulls a quarter from behind Daisy’s ear and her eyes grow large in wonder, then squint in delighted skepticism. The Guy’s kindness and concern is a novelty, and Daisy can’t help but respond in kind. When he tells her he is dying of cancer, Daisy returns his secret with one of her own: she has never actually shot someone. All this time she has been using blanks, leaving the real killing to Violet, but never letting her know the truth. Daisy is an innocent, and it's her innocence that lies at the crux of the film, that forges its central dilemma: the impossibility of killing someone she’s accidentally befriended, and the necessity of proving that she is capable of pulling the trigger.

The first time I went to John's house he asked me what my favorite meal was. "Turkey dinner. Like Thanksgiving," I said. The second time I came over, there was a turkey roasting in the oven. This was not what I had expected. He might as well have appeared behind me with a tray of cookies. I could feel my trigger finger relax. Still, like Violet and Daisy, I remained wary. "I'm not looking for anything serious. I'm probably moving to New York soon, so don't fall in love with me," I warned him. Later I'd refer to him as the one-night stand that lasted two years. Like Daisy, I toppled into the relationship before I realized what I’d done.

John liked to drink scotch and tell dirty jokes. He knew them all; it was impossible to surprise him. He had kids, too: a teenage daughter and two older sons. His ex-wife was listed in his phone as The Bitch. Early on he told me about how she'd called the cops on him more than once. Claimed he'd hit her. "You're just full of red flags," I said, and he laughed like I was making a joke. I knew it could only end badly, but it wasn’t enough to stop me.

I didn't mean for it to go on as long as it did. To be honest, I was bored. I was lonely. "Beats data entry," as Violet would say. I thought I'd have a silly little affair—aim and shoot, cut and dried, no chitchat—and before I knew it I was going on family vacations with John and his daughter. Sometimes we'd go out driving in his Corvette at night. I'd close my eyes with the wind in my ears, my hair tangling around me. At eighteen or twenty-two, a roofless car in the dark can make you forget that you've ever had a past.

John’s past was still affecting his present. He was going through a divorce and his daughter spent most days with her mom. Their relationship was nothing like the one I had with my dad. Sometimes I got the sense John wanted to prove he could take care of someone, get it right this time. I wanted his guidance and resented it at once. He called me Bunny and rarely responded to my emails. I was drifting somewhere between being his peer and his pupil. I hated his ugly ties, his unstylishly large suits. "Sometimes it feels like the whole world is controlled by tall men in suits," I wrote in my journal around this time. "Who are these fathers, making all the decisions?"

Violet and Daisy report to The Boss — an unseen father specter, a godfatherly authority that sends well wishes on Daisy's birthday but doesn't show up to her party. And what about real fathers? Violet hasn't seen hers in a long time. Their target's daughter wants nothing to do with him, but her presence is everywhere — on The Guy’s answering machine, in pictures hanging around the apartment, in her father's voice when he speaks to the girls. Daisy tells him, "I'm a daughter, too," but what she means is "I understand your daughter's anger, her pain."

Contrary to his title, The Guy is far from interchangeable with the other guys who populate the world of the film — bad guys, tough guys, wise guys. Yet his moniker still makes sense. He is a stand-in for the guys that Violet and Daisy have been missing: the voice of reason, the absentee boss, and the estranged father.

John was all of these things and none of them. I started drinking wine while he smoked cigars. He changed my car tire when I got a flat, and once chastised me for sending an email without a subject line. He wanted to teach me things I had no interest in learning. Deny, deny, deny, he'd say, and I could tell he was speaking from experience. Still, there was the problem of emotional attachment. I'm not invulnerable to the charms of being looked after. You can't befriend your target without making a mess of things. Beneath his condescending gaze, I was backsliding into adolescence. Like Violet and Daisy, I found myself in something of a predicament — tied to a man I had no intention of loving.

I used to drive up to his big, empty house in my tricycle-red Saturn, wearing a white blouse and a Catholic schoolgirl skirt I’d picked up at the Salvation Army. I'd practice old ballet steps in his living room, pirouetting on the carpet in bare feet. On Halloween, I came over dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. A bit on the nose, perhaps, but I felt a little like the whole thing was an inside joke with myself. I was baiting him, I suppose, challenging him to end things between us. I kept trying to disentangle myself from our relationship and finding myself further ensnared. I wonder now if I was more cunning or naive. Did I trick him into caring for me or was I tricked into thinking my youth gave me the upper hand?

In the end, I moved to New York like I always said I would. He came to visit and hated my new apartment, thought everything in it was too small. "It's like being inside a dollhouse!" he'd whine, and the analogy secretly pleased me. I loved that apartment. I loved it more than I loved him. It wasn't too small; there just wasn't enough room for both of us. Still, I was afraid to break up with him. I felt stuck, dependent, unable to leave and unable to carry on as we were. Doomed relationships wield a certain inscrutable power. I dreaded the idea of navigating adulthood on my own. I dreaded the possibility of marrying him.

Daisy kills The Guy because she has to kill him. There is an inevitability to their relationship, a forward motion into the future, propelled by her desire to prove herself and absolved by The Guy’s willingness to die. When she shoots him, there is a finality to the act, an echo of future actions that cannot be undone. This is adulthood with no opportunity for backsliding. Their tricycle has disappeared from outside the apartment. A few days after our second anniversary, I broke things off over the phone with John. Perhaps it was a childish way of ending it, but sometimes you just have to close your eyes and pull the trigger.

Violet tells the story of how the cops apprehended a group of thugs holding up a convenience store where she happened to be buying some bullets. When the action dies down, a cop asks her if she's ok and she replies by provoking him, "Officer, how do you know I wasn't in on it? What makes you think a girl can't be in on it?"

Picture me in front of the mirror, tying the blue ribbon in my hair. I was old enough to know what it meant to evoke youth, to use it like a twinkling lure, like a magic trick. I was young enough to find his warning signs appealing. I did and didn't know what I was getting myself into. I was in on it and I was in over my head. I was jaded Violet and juvenile Daisy and after it was over I found a comfortable in between, playing dress up and decorating my doll-size apartment, and never forgetting that I was in possession of a past.


Caroline Jarvis lives in Brooklyn where she has perfected the art of subway crying. You can find her crouched in the stacks at The Strand, or buried beneath the pile of books she has been meaning to read.


The Real Thing! Insight!

by Arielle Greenberg

1.

I am indoors, with earbuds,
watching media about connecting with nature, and thus the self.
“Where have the simple pleasures of life gone?
The beauty of a forest. Just plain breathing.”
I am watching on a screen.

2.

It’s actually a porn film I’m watching, a “white-coater”:
the short-lived subgenre of smut in which, to avoid obscenity charges
and fall under the “educational” mantel
bestowed by the Supreme Court upon I Am Curious (Yellow),
the adult industry dressed an actor in a doctor’s coat
and had him frame the forthcoming X-rated action as a kind of scientific experiment.

But in this Golden Age movie, Touch Me,
it’s not just lip service, and the educator—Dr. Lloyd Davis, we’re told, psychologist—
is wearing a dark turtleneck under a blazer as he rearranges the furniture
in a Los Angeles suburban home with concrete patio in preparation for the arriving guests.

They’re coming for an encounter group,
to address the “loss of pleasure” and figure out how to “obtain the highest levels
of satisfaction naturally, without harm to anyone,”
Dr. Davis tells us about the marathon session we’re about to witness.
“Sensual awareness, encounter therapy, sensitivity training”—
it goes by many names, its popularity is on the rise, and its “function”
is to “try to point out your own inherent potential as a human being.”

3.

The human potential movement was and is the term used at Esalen, the Big Sur institute founded by a couple of Stanford grads in the early 1960s, a sacred site for those in search of healing modalities and organic gardens, chanting OM by the ocean and building geodesic domes, splashing in naked co-ed hot tubs and joining drum circles.

Think I’m making fun of it?
I’m not.
Have you been in a naked co-ed hot tub at night with the rain lightly falling down?
Have you gone for a walk on the beach at sunrise, eaten mesclun straight from the soil?
Then, like me, you know.
They’re the real thing, utter delight, connection, some of the best moments of a life.
They can make you weep.

4.

I thought of all this a few weeks ago,
when the AMC television series Mad Men ended its triumphant run.
Along with all the other fans, each locked in our own private box tuned in at 10/9 Central,
I watched the final scene:
PTSD’ed addict anti-hero straw man Don Draper
sitting in lotus position meditating on the grounds of the Institute.
There’s sun streaming down, and his smoothly spreading smile,
and then a cut to the famous, real-life 1971 McCann Erickson television ad known as “Hilltop”:
fresh-faced, groovy youth belting out “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” arm-in-arm.
Don’s just spent days in encounter groups himself:
a gray-haired woman has shoved him, forcefully, silently, into attention,
and when he heard another man describe himself as sitting in a dark Frigidaire of existence,
Don wept with the man, and held him, and then, perhaps, this epiphany:
the multimillion dollar cola jingle heard round the world.

5.

Maybe, like me, you saw this final scene and thought of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,
perhaps the most famous wife-swapping movie Hollywood’s made outside the porn industry,
except that no wife-swapping ever actually happens.
(We’ll get back to that.)

Maybe when you saw Don sitting in the circle,
his face a wrench of pain, trapped, his Cadillac long abandoned,
you remembered those opening scenes in Bob & Carol,
the rich hippie couple coasting up the hills in their swooping Jag,
landing in a paradise of bare-breasted yogi nymphs
and soft-eyed questers groping each other’s faces under trees.

Maybe you remember that before all the trippy wallpapered rooms
and Dyan Cannon’s hair bows waiting for them back in LA,
Bob and Carol sat at Esalen for twenty-four hours and pounded pillows with their fists,
cried, hugged, said “I love you,” and tenderly rubbed the corduroy jeans of a stranger.

6.

Of Bob & Carol Roger Ebert wrote at the time, it’s a film about “the epidemic of moral earnestness that's sweeping our society right now. For some curious reason, we suddenly seem compelled to tell the truth in our personal relationships.” This may be fine for free-wheeling young hippies, Ebert notes, but if adults with careers and spouses and children “start telling the truth too much, they might have to decide who keeps the kids. That's the dilemma.”

7.

It’s not really Esalen in Bob & Carol,
just as it’s not really Esalen in Mad Men:
neither were permitted to shoot there,
the space otherwise and reverently occupied, then and now,
by Herbs for Restoration and Relaxation, Painting the Outer and Inner Landscape,
and The Intention Masterclass (all offered summer 2015).
But it’s supposed to be Esalen.
You know it when you see it.

8.

Just because it’s a porno doesn’t mean it’s a send-up.
“Don’t make a game of it!” Dr. Davis admonishes
when one of the guys gets too handsy too fast with the girl lying naked next to him.
Hard truths are said; there is sex outdoors.
Toward the end of the film, there’s role-playing, which leads to a non-consensual act by Bill,
whose partner holds his head afterward and confronts him about it.
Then psychoanalysis is recommended for this man, since, as the doctor gravely notes,
encounter groups can’t get at the kind of hostility Bill holds.
The white coating never disappears:
straight through the end, the encounter group does its work;
the doctor stays in his turtleneck and suit;
the voiceover explanation of the encounter techniques plays over the final orgy scenes.
“Your lives won’t be changed,” the good doctor says as they all depart,
“Don’t expect too much from a forty-eight hour encounter!
But I do think you’re all freer in your feelings than when you arrived.
Good luck to all of us.”
“Bill,” he continues, “Promise to call me Monday:
I want to give you the name of that psychologist.”

Can a blue movie be educational, be for real?
Can a tv show about advertising? Can a late 60s social comedy?

9.

Bioethicist Jonathan Moreno has been studying the legacy of his father, J.L. Moreno, a psychiatrist who published “Invitation to an Encounter” in 1914, a design for a radical style of group therapy that involved techniques borrowed from experimental theater, and his own innovation, psychodrama, which entailed role-playing and other now-standard practices.

From these first experiments came T-groups, aimed at the shell-shocked vets of World War II (like Don Draper), and then other kinds of group therapies for people with some issues to work through, but not serious mental illness. This was a new use for therapy: to unlock “human potential.” There were sensitivity training groups for corporations, and the Esalen-style encounter groups and the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 70s, and the many kinds of group therapies that permeate our culture today.

It all goes back to performance.

10.

Just as Dr. Davis says in Touch Me,
the couple in Bob & Carol tell their straight-laced friends Ted and Alice afterwards
at a fancy restaurant “no one was miraculously cured” at Esalen.
“It doesn’t work that way. But just saying something out loud, in front of a room of strangers,
is the beginning of something.”

11.

I am a person who likes intention, who likes to say things aloud in a room of strangers,
who likes to look things in the face.
Who craves authentic encounters.
It’s what I want when I look at art, when I lace up my hiking boots,
when I give birth to a baby, when I stand at the front of a classroom,
when I press my body up against others in front of the stage at a concert,
when I fuck.

I think I’ve always been this person.
I think it’s why I cried when I watched Woodstock on video as a teenager,
stood up from the beige couch in the den and wept,
openly, at the mud and the face paint and the tai chi in the grass,
all the things I was missing in my split-level ranch in the mid-1980s.

I have never stopped weeping like this.
I still want these authentic experiences out in the counterculture the way some want meat, or water.
And I’ll take it on film if I must, if it’s been a bit too long
since my own feet were bare at some summer rock festival,
or since I was on a bed full of naked bodies intertwining like ivy on a vine.

12.

“We’re trying to deal with things,” Bob and Carol say.
“We’re trying to stop playing games with the people we love.”
(“Don’t make a game of it,” says Dr. Davis.)

“Beautiful,” Bob and Carol say, about everything,
including an admission of an affair, an insult, anything honest.
“The truth is always beautiful.”

13.

This is meant, maybe, as satire, these people in their velvet jackets
and Hermes scarves constantly saying “beautiful.”
But they have a sense of humor about it:
“so groovy and peaceful,” Carol says of herself, carrying the canapé tray after a dinner party.
They’re not in a cult.
They are good, loving parents to their happy child,
errant trike in the Spanish-tiled hallway,
Bob giving piggybacks before bedtime.
They are smart, and successful, and happy.

14.

And you know what? I buy it completely.
Perhaps you will think me cheesy, or naïve.
Perhaps this means I am cheesy, or naïve. That I’m New Age.
I do own a few tarot decks.
I do light a balsam-scented candle every now and then.

And, don’t tell, but like Bob and Carol,
I’ve sat on a bed next to the person my partner just fucked
and had a far-out, honest conversation.
Like Carol, I have not felt jealous
(though thought at first, as she does, “maybe I’m kidding myself.”)
I’ve sat under trees and felt the faces of strangers with my fingertips,
stood naked opposite a man I didn’t know—almost bald, hard of hearing, wrinkled—
and looked into his eyes and felt my heart swell.
And it was beautiful.

15.

After the finale of Mad Men, the viewing public is divided: has Don reached nirvana, or has his spiritual quest merely resulted in a successful ad campaign? Is it meant to be cynical? Or a coincidence? Has he “found” anything at all? What’s the meaning of all this?

16.

The day after the last episode of the show, I go to pick up the kids from school
with my hair in two braids with ribbons on them,
like the receptionist at Don’s retreat, like the girl in the real Coke ad.
My friend Robin, a fellow film geek waiting for his own son there in the cafeteria,
immediately spots the sartorial reference and starts humming, “I’d like to teach the world to sing.”

We talk about the last scene of Mad Men, and about the last scene of Bob & Carol.
“What the world needs now,” he sings. “It’s so creepy!”
The Vegas casino eye-gazing, the “Hilltop”-like parade of groovy nations,
the actors staring directly and lovingly into the camera,
authentic connection right there on the Strip.
“It’s not creepy!” I say, pouting a bit in my retro braids.
How to convince him? How to convince you,
without taking you to Esalen and keeping you there long enough until you,
like Don, to have a breakthrough, land at some insight,
or at least join hands with me?

17.

Maybe my religious-slash-spiritual practice is encounter groups.
Or non-monogamy.
Not what comes from these, but the activity itself:
the moment of touching the face of the new and possibly previously-unattractive-to-me person
and knowing I can love them, that I do love them.

18.

How did encounter groups get conflated with swinging anyway? In the low-fi indie film Computer Chess, a small convention of programming geeks meets an even smaller encounter group at a dumpy hotel overrun with cats. When one of the computer guys wanders into the wrong conference room, the encounter group sits on the floor and rebirths him through their arms to set him free. It doesn’t work, nor does the invitation for a threesome with a well-meaning, middle-aged, nurturing couple who want to release an MIT grad student from his virginal repression.

Watching this movie, I thought the couple—sane-seeming, friendly, the wife a bosomy blond with a sweetly maternal air—were convincing swingers, neither repulsive nor “Ken and Barbie,” as the common parlance in the lifestyle goes. But a piece in Cinema-Scope by Phil Coldiron calls them “the last sad remnants of the American ’60s via a group of free love proponents,” and the review in Film Comment calls the encounter group “hilarious.”

I think the encounter group seems interesting and after something useful and important, and the swinger couple is cute and sexy and make the young nerd a good offer in good faith. Does this say more about me than the film?

19.

“Insight!” Carol and Bob take to uttering, wide-eyed,
as they come to some new paradigm shift. “Lights going on in my head!”

I know it’s supposed to be a joke,
or that, at least, it’s received by the audience largely as joke.
That even back then the whole thing seemed kooky, implausible, stupid.
And by 2015 we are supposed to mostly notice how dated it all is:
the outta sight convertibles and suede miniskirts
as wacky as the ideas about self-expression and world peace.
And listen, I do want to buy exactly Natalie Wood’s baby-doll nightie.
But when Robin says creepy of the final scene in Bob & Carol,
as if it were final marble-eyed moment of The Stepford Wives,
I want to cry. Because I cry with that scene. I believe in it.

And if the orgy before Tony Bennett never happens?
Well, listen—it’s pretty advanced non-monogamy
to fuck your best friends and have it all work out fine.
I know lots of couples who’ve been through that: it’s tricky to pull off. It’s Swinging PhD.
But can you get under the covers with some nice people with whom you have drinks,
and have them then show up for your kid’s birthday party at the pool,
and live to tell? Absolutely. Trust me on this.
I can tell you more later, if you’re interested.
If you’re open to it.

20.

Maybe all of this ought to be parodied,
and I should be seen as ridiculous myself,
and the number of times I say authentic should become a drinking game.
But what else is there?
Tell me the better use of one’s time than trying to find the real thing.

 

Bob & Carl & Ted & Alice (1969), dir. Paul Mazursky
Woodstock (1970), dir. Michael Wadleigh
Touch Me (1971), dir. Anthony Spinelli
Computer Chess (2013), dir. Andrew Bujalski
“Person to Person,” Mad Men (S7, Ep14, 2015), dir. Matthew Weiner


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 Gurlesque. She 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.