Letter from an Editor

For those of us who grew up loving them, there has always been a great sense of ritual around watching movies. A gathering of company, a preparing of food, a dimming of lights. You didn’t start until everyone was there. If anyone needed to use the washroom or get another snack, you paused the film and you waited. You certainly didn’t come in late and demand an explanation. You weren’t just watching a movie, you were sharing an experience. The viewing was a ceremony, and ceremonies are bigger than any one person.

When we decided to run our first ever unthemed issue this month–an entire issue devoted to the notion of giving writers a place to purely geek out over their favorite film-related things–we were quickly hit with a flood of submissions and it became abundantly clear that we are not the only ones who find great comfort in front of a flickering screen. As it took shape, this issue gradually came to feel like a gathering of like minds. We’re with our people. We could sit and talk for hours.

As such, we’ve got a wonderful grab bag of cinematic ephemera for you this month: essays on a wide variety of particular films (Kelsey Ford on A Very Long Engagement, Gray Hendryx on The Holy Mountain, Karina Wolf on Desperately Seeking Susan, Anneke Schwob on A Zed and Two Noughts, Brad Nelson on White—a continuation of his look at Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy), returning tv shows (Sophia Nguyen’s look at The Knick, Arielle Greenberg’s found poem, created using pullquotes from two not-so-very different tv shows), as well as some delightfully outside the box features. We can’t wait to hear what you think of Zosha Millman and Eloise Ross’s exhaustively researched respective takes on accents and grapefruits on film.

We’re also very excited to showcase Charles Bramesco’s coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the first festival BW/DR has been officially press-accredited to covert, and we’re thrilled that Charles, formerly of The Dissolve, was able to attend.

Finally, as an extra special treat, award-winning writer Justin Hocking has entrusted us with an exclusive first excerpt from his upcoming hybrid memoir The Depths: A Reclamation. His piece, “Groundshock”, provides a fascinating look at Project Plowshare, a government initiative in the ‘70s which tested the feasibility of using nuclear warheads to excavate underground caves (and, because we’re a film mag, the excerpt also touches on Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Hocking’s previous book, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld garnered praise from The New Yorker, Junot Diaz, and Cheryl Strayed (among many others) and was the Winner of the 2015 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

As always, the issue is accompanied by absolutely stellar artwork from our art director Brianna Ashby–and if you are as charmed by her work as we are, we strongly suggest you purchase some at her society6 page–as well as Sophia Foster-Dimino, the 2015 Ignatz Award-winning artist for Promising New Talent, Outstanding Series and Outstanding Minicomic.

Bright Wall/Dark Room has always been a fan magazine, perhaps never more so than with this issue. While being spread out across the world is the nature of our digital enterprise, this truly feels like we’re all together in the same room, sitting on the couch or cross-legged on the floor, sharing what we love. Be it the story of the time a beloved director read our tarot, a discussion on whether Madonna “acts” or just “is,” a painting, a chapter from a book, a piece of fruit, or the movies that have brought us so many wonderful gifts. It is our unbelievable privilege to share these gifts with you.

—Andrew Root, Senior Editor

Guts and Glory

by Sophia Nguyen

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Scissors and clotted sponges left to protrude from a uterus. A leather harness strapping the arm to the face, a flap of skin sewn to cover the hole where the nose was. An open abdomen in flames. You have never seen the body like this is the kind of promise a carnival makes, and wheeling through The Knick’s ten episodes comes a caravan of sufferers on stretchers. What’s grotesque is how easily they could be healed.

But this is the early twentieth century: surgery’s barely moved out of the back room of the barbershop, and most regard the hospital as an overcrowded rest stop on the way to the grave. The story centers on the Knickerbocker Hospital in downtown Manhattan, where chief surgeon John Thackery commands the attention of everyone in the surgical theater. High on hubris and liquid cocaine, he experiments with radical procedures, using instruments he designed (and, in the basement, smelted) himself. Thack is the ringleader of the place he calls his circus; so too does Steven Soderbergh stand front and center of his show, having abandoned all pretense of retirement from the biz. Half the fun comes from watching the director slum it so happily at Cinemax, his camera scurrying down cobbled streets, up tenements, into basements as he follows the characters conducting their dirty business. He shoots the Knickerbocker’s spaces in blinding whites; below, where assistant chief Algernon Edwards runs a secret surgical ward for black patients, everything is brick and candlelight. Wait, there's more: the hospital embezzling administrator, deep in the red to a loan shark, shuttles between backrooms and the whorehouse. The ambulance driver robs the dead of their jewelry. The Catholic nun provides abortions.

The Knick fills out its running time with stylized little melodramas: a mother gone mad with grief, sent straitjacketed to the asylum; the demure nurse, seduced into the heady world of narcotics; the first-wave feminist with a cadaverous fiancé and lecherous father-in-law; her father, the shipping captain, making ruinous business deals out West. You could decry these characters as cardboard, but that’d be missing the way they’re cut so pleasingly into Gothic silhouettes. Pulsing with the alien hum composed by Cliff Martinez, The Knick's vision makes the past feel excitingly undetermined. Mad Men had the look of a museum exhibit, faintly necrophiliac in its obsessive curation; The Americans’ bottomless wig closet seems like a sly joke on era-appropriate production design. Here, the detail—down to the color of the dirt dressing the set—suggests another direction for the period piece: Soderbergh makes sepia look squalid.

In taking up the small screen as his canvas, the director showily brings his talents to bear on another, downmarket, television genre: the medical drama, which makes the body into a metaphor. Lying back, side characters count back from ten and are rendered inert, transformed into vessels for the principals’ emotions. Each physical ailment symbolizes some sticking point in an interpersonal conflict; every organ is telltale. Though the work be bloody, the surgeons sheath themselves in papery cornflower blue, and double-glove their hands in latex; the swelling indie ballad in the background offers another kind of local anesthetic. The windows opened into skin offer views as cheerfully decorous as a class trip to the aquarium. By the end of the hour — whether or not they survive — the cases turn back into people, with skin stitched up and hands held by teary loved ones.

In The Knick, the body is mystery meat. Squelching and sticky, it has a reality that repels abstraction and houses a dark disorder that wrecks any pretensions to mastery. Soderbergh, speaking to critic Elvis Mitchell, offered a theory of the medical soap’s appeal, that “proficiency is compelling, especially on-screen”—but that isn't quite right. Proficient describes the staff of Grey's Anatomy or ER. It's a word for hands whose motions have had precedent. Mortality has a different density for the patients of the Knickerbocker, where each survival is a miraculous theft from an undefeatable god. All but making it up as they go along, Thackery and Algernon force their way into comprehension of the flesh. Only the viewer knows how little they know; that's what bates our breath.

The characters constantly deal in bodies, extending a recent theme of Soderbergh’s work. His films from the past few years could be roughly constellated via a shared interest in the body’s uses: for athletic feats in Haywire and artistic ones in Magic Mike; doped up (Side Effects) and for sale (The Girlfriend Experience); walking virus reservoirs (Contagion). Lightly arching over the show—like a structural beam; necessary but not much to look at—is a plot concerning the hospital’s financial future, since it caters to poor and immigrant communities while its competitors have fled uptown. Ambulance drivers from rival institutions brawl over patients; the Knick's administrator sells the goners to universities, and pig ashes in urns—“cremation services,” he claims—to the bereaved. Med schools make bids for cadavers to practice on. For lack of them, Thackery and his blushing protégé, Bertie, hire a pair of prostitutes from his favorite Chinatown opium den to help refine a surgical technique, in which a rubber balloon is inserted into the uterus; they do it all Sunday night. Thack’s rakish joke about whores being cheaper than corpses has a nasty edge that cuts a layer deeper than the show’s equipped to understand. So I’ll spell it out for the gallery: it’s racial. With the last episode signposting setting up that the kingpin Ping Wu — a Yellow Peril fever dream, armed with ludicrously Oriental (but, I’m sure, period-perfect) blades — as the Big Bad of season two, the decoratively naked extras feel like a reminder: Hollywood, too, prices some bodies higher than others, allowing some to become faces while others remain props.

If the medical drama leverages life-and-death stakes to wash viewers in emotion—those great, bathetic waves of romantic agony and release—Soderbergh refurbishes it into a delivery system for sensation. He earns the descriptor “visceral.” No show has ever made me so aware of my stomach acid, my clenched jaw. I couldn’t eat while I watched it, not because the sights were revolting—though they were; whole scenes seemed built to suspend the viewer in nausea—but because I was too distracted by how food felt, how slowly it went, slipping down my esophagus. Though Thack, like his colleagues in network TV, sees the operating theater as an arena for his ego, its primary use is as a brightly lit stage for Soderbergh’s tableaux. The doctors scrub in by plunging their hands into a shared series of basins, no one thinking to refresh the pinkening water. They go forearm-deep and bare-skinned into the sick. Blood is vacuumed by hand crank, filling glass jars in splutters. The man’s eyes stay open but his face goes slack, as he gets a hit of cocaine straight to the spine. With at least one grisly show-stopper per episode, The Knick shares some DNA with Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Both offer up schoolboy thrills, the jaw-drop of getting away with something. But in Hannibal, the body is the site of a voluptuous, Baroque violence so aestheticized it becomes a ghoulish parody of connoisseurship. Thackery’s jagged-edged interventions into the bodies of the underclass are a world removed from Dr. Lecter’s craft butchery. Soderbergh keeps things gleefully ugly. The devil’s in the details, and every second spells death.

Soderbergh's is an assertive style, designed to stand out in a television landscape which tends to treat cinematography as a secondary concern—competent, efficient, studiedly neutral to the point of invisibility. But The Knick’s marquee talent is its director, not its writers; we know who's running the show. It feels insistently visual in a way that not even Breaking Bad or True Detective was, with their much-lauded and forceful displays of aesthetic unity. Here the style hangs less naturally on the at-times skeletal scripts. Not content to just prettily frame the dialogue, the images seem almost to tug against its exigencies. Soderbergh’s direction has a childlike impatience, a willful wonder. If a scene calls for an argument among the doctors, the camera will watch a nurse pulling down the blinds; if another is about Thack’s presentation to his colleagues, it will stalk up the aisle toward him, rather than study the podium or survey the audience. Though time is precious in television, the second episode features a single take showing the staff’s converging commutes to work. The sequence carries absolutely no water for the plot—it just sets the tempo. It's a superfluity. It's swagger.

Ironically, given the show’s serious investment in the lurid, what Thackery can’t see proves his undoing. Coked out, manic, he convinces himself that he can cure a little girl’s anemia by giving her a blood transfusion. He hooks up a tube between them (he’s certain it’s got something to do with platelet size; he hasn’t read his rival’s research into antibodies), and she dies silently and within seconds, her blood clotting inside her. It’s the opposite of spectacular; it’s invisible. Then the last minutes of the finale, with a humbled Thackery recuperating in rehab, smash the reset button for the next season—punctuated by Soderbergh's indulgent rack focus shot on the heroin bottle on the bedside table. The episode also includes an abortion, a wedding, and a vote to move the hospital to a posher lot, but these developments seem like so much rearranged furniture. Thack will be Thack, track marks and all. Soderbergh claims that The Knick should be experienced like cinema, a ten-hour movie, but its familiar, recursive narrative beats are made for broadcast, bidding for renewal.

This returns us to the domain of difficult men, home to the usual suspects: the bad bosses, put-upon lovers, enthralled underlings. Soderbergh might never have aimed to break new storytelling ground, as he marked off the territory with more cinematic stakes. It’s unfair to impose a different standard of ambition; his show’s a looker, not a talker. Yet if The Knick’s innovation lies entirely in anti-nostalgic styling, it’s telling that this aesthetic doesn’t eschew glamor. There’s a lot of glitter in grit, and glory in those misunderstood guts. Like many shows that valorize singular, anti-heroic genius in tough industries, The Knick doubles as an allegory of its own creation—and injecting history with the adrenaline of the contemporary has a way of making our present feel exhaustingly hard-earned. Some fictions about the past, in reverse-engineering the status quo, reveal a subtle conservatism. They teach us that we mustn’t take for granted what we have. They ask, what more we could want? As with medicine, so with culture: it took so much for us to get to now.

Sophia Nguyen lives and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Witch Dance

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In a bedroom on the second floor of a home in the French countryside, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) watches the door. If the dog pushes it open before dinner is called, then her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is still alive. Later, while peeling an apple, she’ll decide that if the green curls into her palm in one clean ribbon, then Manech didn’t die beneath a spray of bullets.

This pattern continues: if the train comes out of the tunnel before the count of ten, if she reaches the bend before the car turns around it. If any of these things happen as she prays they will, then it means he’s still alive. He’s still out there, for her to find.

A Very Long Engagement, the 2004 film from Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is set in France in the year 1919. Mathilde’s fiancé, Manech, was one of five French soldiers sent into No Man’s Land as punishment for self-mutilation. There’s no proof of his death, beyond the government’s word. A sergeant who was there in the trench finds Mathilde, but he didn’t seeManech die. The only assurance he can give Mathilde that five bodies were recovered comes secondhand from a raving corporal, blinded by chlorine gas, inches from death and malicious until the end.

This isn’t enough for Mathilde to believe Manech is truly dead, and her resolve becomes a mission. Until she’s given the proof she requires—if not a body, then someone who saw him die—she won’t believe him gone. “If Manech were dead,” the narrator tells us, “Mathilde would know. Since the death notice, she stubbornly holds onto her intuition, like to a flimsy wire. If that wire doesn’t lead her to her lover, never mind. She can always use it as a noose.”

This isn’t the first time Mathilde has faced loss. Her parents died in a bus accident when she was three. Then, two years later, she came down with polio. She survived, but for chronic problems and a lame leg. Despite the love of the aunt (Chantal Neuwirth) and uncle (Dominique Pinon) who raised her, these losses inform her present. At twenty, she stares at herself in the mirror as she braids her hair, violently muttering: “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.” She plays the tuba because it’s the only instrument able to approximate a call of distress.

She knows what loss feels like, and Manech’s absence isn’t that. It’s something else: undefined, unseen, unreasoned. He becomes her phantom limb.

They first met when Mathilde was nine and Manech was ten. She paced home, slow with her heavy leg, and he orbited around her, peppering her with questions: does it hurt when she walks, does she want to be friends, has she ever been to the top of a lighthouse? To each, she shakes her head and keeps walking. Perhaps she thinks this boy is inspecting her like another exhibit, a strange thing to be examined. She isn’t that. She won’t allow herself to be sidelined as other.

But that night, she has a dream where he saves her life. She dangles from the lighthouse. He pulls her up to safety. They clutch at each other, a bright light shining behind.

The next day, when she sees him, she asks, “Can you see far from the top?”

Ever since, they’ve been bonded to each other, necessary fixtures in the other’s life. This was more than a childhood romance. These were two sweet, soft humans, recognizing a familiar. In their world, neither were alpha. They were victims to the greater, growing forces: buses, polio, machine guns. Having each other and loving each other became their own weapon. They didn’t need to be steel in order to survive. They were Manech and Mathilde.

When Manech is in the trench, small and young and scared, the other men take care of him. They’re gnarled and scarred, and they like seeing a man not so used up. Magically, the chef finds him soup and toast with truffle butter. When they ask if he has a sweetheart back home, his face could be a lantern. He nods. Yes. “Mathilde,” he says. “Her name is Mathilde. I hear her heart beating, like morse code.”

No matter the protestations of her aunt and uncle, Mathilde begins to search for Manech. She has a rolling tally of theories: he could have been taken as prisoner; he might be staying with a German girl with braids and big boobs; he’s lost his mind; he’s in hiding. He’s not dead. She hires a private investigator. She places ads in the newspaper. She steals confidential documents from the government. She follows bread crumbs: a pair of German boots that were traded in the trenches; a knit red glove, too tight to fall off accidentally; a coded letter from one of the condemned men to his wife. The news that comes with each clue is a mix of good and bad. They saw him fall to the ground, but they didn’t see him die. Nothing is definitive. Mathilde doesn’t want to hear that time heals all. She wants to find the man she loves. She wants him to be alive.

This angry hopefulness bled through Europe in the years after World War One ended. Trench warfare brought with it chaos and confusion. In previous wars, death came coupled with order and expectations. No more. There was an incredible disconnect between the ferocity of the new machine guns and the men’s understanding of what was possible. Commanders advised sentries to put more of their body above the trench when they looked out. That way, it was less likely the bullet would be fatal.

In the wake of the war, no one knew how to act, how to trust. They ached with nostalgia for a world that had meaning. Bodies were buried without being catalogued. Dog tags were used inconsistently and often incorrectly. Identifying the dead became a haphazard practice only practical when time allowed. Mostly, soldiers went permanently missing. Families who did receive a notice in the mail would mount them on the mantle, unopened; so long as the envelope stayed sealed, their soldier might still be alive. In the battle between grief or false hope, false hope often won out.

In his book, The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer writes about the memorials that came from the war and how they all seemed paused in midair, like pieces of marbleized static. Heroes are carved mid-step, as if not sure which direction to turn. They’re stuck between the past and the future, barely awake in the present.

This is how A Very Long Engagement feels: like it’s paused in various moments. The separation and stagnation is what prevents forward movement. If the disparate moments could be sorted through and resolved, then a future might be possible.

To the other characters, it seems as if Mathilde is stuttering through the stages of grief, stuck in denial, but what’s holding her in place isn’t purposeful blindness. It’s the belief that there’s something the past isn’t telling her. She has to figure out what that is, before she can move ahead.

A Very Long Engagement is told retrospectively. Dyer noted in his book that even during the war, it was as if people were living nostalgically, aware that they would look back and remember. It was the only way they could get through their day-to-day: to live as if already in a memory.

Mathilde isn’t alone. She realizes early on in her search that she’s two steps behind another woman whose lover was also sent out into No Man’s Land with Manech. Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), a Corsican whore, wants to find her Angel (Dominique Bettenfeld). And when her search turns sour, her attention shifts to the men who made the order. Tina isn’t like Mathilde. She weaponizes her grief.

When Tina and Mathilde finally meet, Tina acknowledges what we all know: these two are alike. Their methods may be drastically different, but Tina nods at Mathilde. She knows, if their circumstances were switched, Mathilde would have done same. At this, Mathilde shakes her head. She doesn’t think she could. She’d be too afraid. Mathilde isn’t saying that she wouldn’t want to. She’s protesting the courage it would take to pull the trigger.

In the years after the war, German choreographer Mary Wigman became famous for the Witch Dance (Hextentanz). The choreography is ugly and uncomfortable. The videos available show Wigman seated in the center of a spotlight. Her body begins to move, as if her limbs are divorced from her brain. The movements are violent and angry. It’s as if her body is possessed. The arms jerk upwards. Fingers scratch down. Wigman makes it seem as if there is something inside of her, fighting to get out. It’s a dance that externalizes that moment in history: unknowable and impossible and strange.

This is how I imagine Mathilde and Tina’s grief, although the manifestation for each is wildly different.

In their world, trying to bring back the dead is dangerous. But they can’t help it. Grief is a hollowing force. The mourning is most acute when the absence is still present, like that mottled purple bruise that won’t leave your hip. Always there, always worse when you insist on hitting that slab of flesh against the table each time you walk past. Sometimes because you forget not to, and others because it’s worth something to remind yourself that you exist in a body in the world.

For Mathilde, her search is about more than a stubborn belief. Her aunt and uncle are uncomfortable about the grief they’re sure she’s burying, and the intent she brandishes instead. They worry about what might happen on the other side, if her hope proves false. But Mathilde doesn’t care. She conflates Manech with her own heart. She’ll face his death when it’s time to, but no sooner. Not until she’s shown definitive proof that his lifeless body has been buried. More than anything, she wants to find him. She wants to place his hand over her heart again, and let his warm and alive skin feel the morse code of her heartbeat. Even when her uncle tells her to cry or to talk or to do anything to get that sour look off her face, she won’t. Crying or talking would be the same as admitting she thinks he might not be out there, and she won’t admit that. Not until she has to.

Mathilde lives in her memory. Each new clue, each step forward, drives her further back into the past. She remembers the first time they slept together, the hazy orange warmth of the room and each other, and the small spider that hung down from the rafters overhead. She remembers Manech carrying her to the top of the lighthouse, where they kissed through mottled panes of glass. She remembers the top of a church spire, where Manech hit a hammer and chisel against the bell again and again, the loud bongs ringing over the village, as he carved three ‘M’s into the bell.

In the original French, the three ‘M’s stand for “Manech aime Mathilde,” a play on the French verb “aimer” (this particular conjugation pronounced as ‘M’ and meaning “to love”). The English translation contours the phrase into “Manech Marries Mathilde,” a linguistic cheat which nevertheless evokes the deep playfulness and affection and need that dug itself into their bones, so that when one went missing, the other went searching.

But in that moment, they don’t know this truth about their love. Not yet. He yells “Manech aime Mathilde! Mathilde aime Manech!” again and again, claiming the phrase, insisting on it. They’re both exuberant and happy. Anything taken from them, up to that point, is healed by the other. They don’t worry about the future. They don’t know to.

These echoes push Mathilde forward. Their story hasn’t ended yet. She wants their future.

The men who saw Manech in No Man’s Land, remember him carving those three ‘M’s into a lone tree in the center of the muddy, pocked tract. They saw him fall, yes, but they didn’t see him die. When Mathilde clings to this last hope, she’s told: “False hopes will only make you suffer.”

She shakes her head and says: “They’re not false.”

Her lawyer calls to tell her news that, he says, she’s already supposed to know, and can no longer ignore. The five men sent into No Man’s Land have been interred in the Herdelin Cemetery, after temporarily being buried under a tarpaulin in a bomb crater.

She visits the grave. His wooden cross is one of thousands, spread out across a field, too far for the frame to capture. She’s there to face his death, but still, it’s not enough. A wooden cross stamped into the ground isn’t proof of a body, isn’t proof of a permanent absence.

“The wire’s snapped, Manech,” she says. “But I’m not giving up. I need to be sure. You understand, right?”

A Very Long Engagement is a fable about grief and young love. Mathilde and Manech belonged to each other before they were old enough to choose. If Manech had died, Mathilde would know. They paired themselves that childhood afternoon, when Manech circled Mathilde. He might have run ahead between questions, but he always waited for her. He perched on a building, paused until her limping gait caught up to him. Their soft rhythms anticipated each other. They became like two intrinsic, interwoven melodies.

Mathilde loves Manech, but she also feels she owes him this. At his grave, she jokes, “You used to brag about being one year older than me. Now I’m older than you.” But if he is still the older one, and he’s still out there, she’s waiting. She’s asking and she’s searching.

When the dog doesn’t come through the door, it doesn’t mean Manech isn’t alive. When the car that comes around the bend isn’t his car, it doesn’t mean he won’t come home. It doesn’t mean he didn’t survive. It doesn’t mean he isn’t waiting. It only means their inevitability won’t be as clean as they once thought it might be.

Mathilde believes this. She has to.

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


by Justin Hocking

1) They wear respirators and white radiation safety suits. Eight men gathered around a 7,000 foot hole in the ground, the rising Colorado sun flaring on their silver hard hats. The smell of engine oil, sagebrush, creosote. Strapped to a diesel flatbed next to the drilling platform awaits a large silver cylinder, bearing the ominous yellow and black nuclear radiation symbol, also known as a trefoil: three thick black wedges radiating from a central circle.

Just beyond the din of the machinery and the men's voices, a sage grouse coos above a trio of speckled eggs, the eggs coincidentally arranged in a loose trefoil, a word that derives from the Latin trifolium, meaning "three-leaved plant." In ancient Christianity, the trefoil symbolized the trinity: father, son, Holy Ghost. The radiation trefoil represents its own trinity: the three neutrons released by the splitting of a Uranium 236 nucleus, a three-leaved atomic bloom.

The men have been here for weeks, drilling. Using a mile-long, telescoping bit, they pierced the surface alluvium and bored through the upper and lower aquifers, the water source for local corn and wheat crops, for grazing livestock, for human consumption. They pressed though the Green River formation at 5,000 ft., the Wasatch formation at 2500 ft., the drill bit chewing through layers and layers of shale and sandstone. They stopped at the edge of the Fort Union formation and the Mesa Verde Formation, just around sea level, where they found what they were looking for: fine-grain, low-permeability sandstone and claystone.

The exact kind of earth needed to withstand and contain a nuclear blast—a chain reaction of atomic blooms—and half a million years of radioactive fallout.

As planned, the men around the drill site carefully attach the silver cylinder to a cable; a crane lifts it from the flatbed to the platform. With their white-gloved hands on the cylinder, they resemble doctors handling a newborn infant, a grouse turning its eggs. They maneuver it above the shaft, insert the base and begin the slow process of lowering the device into the ground, like a birth in reverse.

The cylinder's name: Rio Blanco 1.

Rio Blanco 1: the first of three 33-kiloton thermonuclear warheads with which they will seed the earth, then simultaneously detonate 6500 feet below ground, generating an explosion with the power to decimate six mid-sized American cities.

Thirty miles away, outside of the town of Silt, population 200, my parents are home, having breakfast, drinking coffee, ironing a white nurse's outfit and western-wear shirts with wide, 70s era collars. Their modest bedroom contains a newly assembled crib, a nest of factory-lathed wood and blankets.

My mother, six months pregnant, sits on the edge of the bed, waiting.

2) On screen: a small, earthy mound rises from the ground, a slow motion birth. A male voice with a smoker's timbre and perfect enunciation narrates the film, shot in the 1960s as a propaganda campaign for Project Plowshare. "To perform a multitude of peaceful tasks for the betterment of mankind," the narrator explains, "man is exploring a source of enormous, potentially useful energy: the nuclear explosion."

On screen, the mound expands into a steep, swollen hill.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the—

Plowshare: an agricultural implement for turning soil, for creating a cleft in the earth. The archetypal idea of the plowshare derives from the Book of Isaiah, in which warriors are implored to beat their swords into plowshares.

On screen, the hill grows into a mountain, and then the mountain—which is not a mountain—erupts, a hulking black mass edged with feathery projectiles, a pyrotechnic finale of soil and shale.

Under the auspices of Project Plowshare, scientists, engineers, miners, and military personnel detonated twenty-seven nuclear bombs in subterranean shafts of various depths across the continental United States. The project lasted seventeen years, from 1965 until 1973—the year of my birth. "For the benefit of all nations," the narrator explains.

Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, supervised Plowshare. Strauss was the man responsible for stripping J. Robert Oppenheimer, co-inventor of the atom bomb, of his security clearance. In Strauss's opinion, Oppenheimer's increasing concerns about nuclear proliferation and radioactive wastes were pedantic, alarmist.

Strauss and his Plowshare operatives had colossal ambitions. They envisioned large-scale nuclear excavation and quarrying: canals, railroad cuts through mountains, dam construction. They hoped to blast a harbor-sized hole in Cape Thompson, Alaska and cut a channel through an oceanic reef in the Marshall Islands, all to enhance commerce and transportation.

Their grandest plan: to supplement or even replace the Panama Canal.Four possible routes across Central America were selected and studied. In the Plowshare film, a crude animation illustrates a zipper of nuclear blasts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to excavate a sea-level channel up to 200 feet wide and 1000 feet deep, a superhighway across Costa Rica or Panama. Here are La Corbusier's and Robert Moses' visions for unimpeded industrial transportation writ large—a freeway in the sea, a clean slash across the American continent.

Another Plowshare application involved underground engineering and extraction of natural gas and petroleum. Operation Rio Blanco was designed for just this purpose, to frack vast pockets of gas and oil, thirty miles from my parent's house.

3) The Christian concept of hell has origins in the New Testament, where it's described in the Greek as Hades, or with the Hebrew word Gehenna. The actual Gehenna was the "Valley of Hinnon," a garbage heap in a low ravine on Jerusalem's shabby outskirts. A place where refuse was burned. Bodies of suicides were thrown in, to smolder with the muck and char. Authors of the New Testament used Gehenna as a metaphor for the final place of punishment for the damned. A linear narrative: hell as perpetual destination, endpoint, a fiery conclusion. The place where Dante cast endless sinners, upside down in hellholes of their own carving, or in the tangled forest of suicides, or with the fratricides in the ninth circle, all of them eternally condemned.

Our inheritance, then: the concept of the deep underground as a wasteland, a dump, the terminus of the unredeemable.

4) Western Colorado towns named in honor of their mineral wealth: Crystal, Marble, Redstone, Gypsum, Basalt, Silt, Copper Mountain, Leadville. New Castle, Colorado, was named after New Castle, England—an historic coal-producing city. On my father's side, Hocking ancestors originated in Cornwall, England; they likely made their living as coal or tin miners, in the epicenter of industrialized mining.

Four years after they married, my parents bought a small ranch outside Silt, across the Colorado River and south of New Castle. My father wasn't a miner himself, but as a civil engineer he made structural plans for tunnels and sewers—underground work. He was, like generations of Hockings before him, following mineral wealth. In this case, it was the early 1970s boom in the oil shale industry on the Western Slope that attracted him. He performed surveys for infrastructure around local oil shale operations; he engineered sprawling man-camps to house shale miners.

My parents fixed up their modest ranch house; they mended fences and corrals. They raised horses and an Australian Shepard with different colored eyes, one brown, one crystal blue. Regular visitors to the ranch: coyotes, elk, foxes, crows and hawks, and once, a wolf. The wolf kept his distance, but drove the dog half mad with fear.

They looked forward to their first child—especially my mother, who worked shifts as a maternity ward nurse at Valley View Hospital. By April of 1973, they'd decided on my name. My mother was a careful parent; she avoided alcohol; she ate carrots and lettuce and tomatoes from their garden plot. At the small diner in Silt, she sometimes asked ranchers and miners at neighboring tables to extinguish their cigarettes. This embarrassed my father, a man who prides himself on not letting things bother him.

No one had thoroughly informed my parents about the nuclear testing, but among the residents of Silt, the Plowshare Project was common knowledge. The Rulison Project—in which a single 43-kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated below ground just twenty miles from town—had taken place four years earlier, without fanfare. The planned Rio Blanco test of 1973 was just another subterranean exploration in an area developed almost entirely around mining.

Everyone knew it was coming.

5) Linear versus cyclical narratives: in some non-western cultures, hell is an intermediary period between carnations or stages. Many have no concept of hell whatsoever. In shamanistic cultures, the underworld is a place of ritual, healing, transformation. The Ancient Pueblo Peoples of Colorado—some who once hunted on the high deserts around the Rio Blanco test sight—believed their ancestors first emerged into the world from trickling springs at the back of caves. They commemorated the emergence with a Sipapu, a small hole in the floor of their subterranean Kivas. The ancients were sometimes described asliving below.

6) In the Project Plowshare film, the narrator acknowledges the problem of radiation, and problems other than radiation: the groundshock, the airblasts, the dustcloud. Fundamental distinctions: earth as a womb, or earth as a tomb of eternal punishment. The underground as an origin point, a place to be honored versus the underground as place to be exploited, carved up, left to burn. James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, who once stated "we will mine more, drill more, cut more timber," who believed large-scale strip mining of the West was acceptable, because the Rapture was—

7) In the Plowshare film, the narrator explains that humankind has many needs, “...needs he can see as man confronts the geography nature has pitted against him." Read: a reciprocal war on geography, a salvo against dirt and rock.

8) My father sits on a small wooden church pew outside the ranch house, pulling on cowboy boots, whistling Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings songs. Colorado sun warm on his cheeks, his square chin. The pew and its twin had been given as a wedding gift from my maternal grandparents. My father always thought it was a miserly gesture, to saw a church pew in half and send it to your daughter and her new husband on the occasion of their marriage.

What my father notices first is the silence.

In the wake of the silence, the horses begin to stir; the dog whimpers and cowers beneath the porch, like it had when a wolf stalked the property, months before.

Then it begins—a low, rolling rumble, like a train off in the distance.

Seconds later, it reaches him as what feels like a minor earthquake, like sub-surface thunder. The world wanting to come apart, the layers of the earth buckling, a train peeling off its rails.

My father stands up.

My mother's inside, holding her swollen belly. She's sitting on the bed, which by now rocks violently, nearly throwing her to the floor. She calls out my father's name, Roger.

"Roger" can be used as an affirmative, as in Roger that. My mother's usage is just the opposite.

9) Craig Hayward was eighteen when he watched the Rio Blanco nuclear shot from six miles away. He was the son of the rancher who leased the land to Project Plowshare. The Hayward family was promised a share in revenue, should the nuclear method prove viable for natural gas fracking.

"When they touched that thing off, I saw shale cliffs crumbling," Hayward said. "After a while, I saw the ground rolling. It was like a wave coming through. Cars were parked there. They were rocking back and forth."

Twenty miles away, a small group of protesters gathered at the Meeker Hotel. They were concerned about radioactive nucleotides with a half-life of a quarter of a million years. They worried about contaminated natural gas seeps, contaminated drinking water. As the current owners of the Rio Blanco site are still concerned, forty years later, when energy companies drill for natural gas just a half mile away.

10) The film Hiroshima Mon Amour, by French Director Alain Resnais, explores the inextricable nature of personal and historical memory; it's shot in an experimental style that cracks apart the genres of fiction and documentary and smelts them into a ghostly, shimmering amalgam. Jean Luc Godard described Hiroshima as "Faulkner plus Stravinski." The mostly impressionistic plot (anti-plot?) concerns a married French woman, in Hiroshima to film an anti-nuclear war film—a post-mortem attempt at documenting Japan's holocaust. She has an affair with a Japanese man; both are married, both are still traumatized by what happened during the war. Though she tries to understand the Hiroshima bombing by visiting a museum and interviewing survivors for her film, her Japanese lover tells her repeatedly that she saw nothing of Hiroshima. Susan Sontag called Resnais' work "the cinema of the inexpressible." Other critics point to Hiroshima Mon Amour as the epicenter of postmodernism. It's about the hopeless inability of a museum—or any conventional, linear narrative—to convey the lived experience of such cataclysmic trauma.

Yet, what if the bomb was buried and detonated over a mile beneath the earth, thirty miles from your family's home, two and half months before your birth? There were no mass casualties, no casualties at all, so perhaps narrative is up to the task. But wouldn't the explosion cause the story itself to rock and fracture like those crumbled shale cliffs?

11) The Rio Blanco nuclear shot stimulated a flow of natural gas, as hoped, but the product was contaminated with radioactivity. Unusable. Just as it was in 1969, after the Rulison test.

After twenty-seven nuclear shots, the Plowshare Project was losing popular support. Early activists deemed the blasts and their aftermath as environmentally unsound. Among politicians, the idea of using nuclear weapons to build a better Panama Canal was seen as increasingly far-fetched.

Seventeen years after Plowshare's genesis, Rio Blanco marked the very last underground explosion. The endpoint of the Project's own linear narrative. The Haywards had been promised substantial wealth from natural gas extraction. What they were left with, instead: a few $100 checks from the U.S. government and a radioactive ulcer deep in their land.

12) I'd like to believe that, during the Rio Blanco blast, my mother felt an internal rocking: the child inside her growing restless, uneasy. Perhaps in reaction to her physiological stress response—elevated heart rate, adrenaline spike as the ground shook beneath her—the result of a nuclear blast six times as powerful as Hiroshima.

I was still in the womb; I saw nothing of Project Plowshare. But was I disturbed, even then, by what took place beneath the surface

Justin Hocking is the author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir, winner of the 2015 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and a finalist for a 2015 PEN Center Award. His work has also appeared in Orion, The Normal School, Poets & Writers, The Portland Mercury, Tin House online, The Rumpus, Big Big Wednesday, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches creative writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center and in the Low Residency MFA Program at Eastern Oregon University.

Stranger In A Very Slightly Strange Land



I. If There’s Free Food, Eat

Despite my general air of worldliness, I am not an especially well-traveled guy. I’ve bopped around the Eastern Seaboard and the Deep South quite a bit, but apart from that, the extent of my vacationing has brought me to Nova Scotia and Montreal once apiece (ages eight and eighteen, respectively). In accepting BW/DR’s assignment to report on the fortieth Toronto International Film Festival, I was expanding my horizons on both a professional and personal level: I had never been to a bona fide film festival before, and it had been a while since I’d left America. And so the larger alien sensation of covering a massive film festival for the very first time was then compounded by the city of Toronto, a place that felt at once familiar and foreign, like a song you’ve heard a million times transposed down a half-step.

It was sometimes difficult to discern which exotic aspects were due to the film festival and which were native to Canada. Did everyone seem so good-looking and snappily dressed because that’s just how Canadians roll, or were they actually well-sunned industry types swarming in from California? There’s no way to tell whether the pervading atmosphere of solidarity was a result of Canada’s famed politeness, or a generalized response to the bodily degradation of ten consecutive sleepless nights. In fact, it did sometimes appear that the writer-in-town experience had been specifically calibrated to provoke mental breakdowns: the combination of days packed to bursting with screenings, interviews, and mostly-mythical social engagements, all of which must be rushed to and from, conspire to deprive visiting journalists of the basic needs for human functionality.

Food is eaten hastily, standing up, and at random intervals, if at all. (The advice most frequently given to me prior to the festival: “If there’s free food, eat it. Doesn’t matter if you’re hungry. Eat anything and everything, so long as it’s free.” This would prove to be wise counsel.) Sleep’s a luxury thrown out the window in rather short order, too. The few catchable Z’s in a hostel roomed crammed with seven other men, exactly four of whom spent all night snoring in a timbre somewhere between ‘malfunctioning electric toothbrush’ and ‘riding lawn mower’, couldn’t possibly stand up against impending deadlines or the lure of a night out on the town. (The advice second-most frequently given to me prior to the festival: “Don’t worry about the parties. You’re here for the movies.” Equally wise. Most ‘parties’ amounted to little more than being told by someone with an earpiece that I wasn’t on the list, but could potentially be let in if I stuck around for a little while, doing so, and then being told that no, it’s not happening, and that I probably should’ve just left in the first place. To showbiz!)

II. Day One: Weighty, Experimental, Pornographic Seriousness

When someone spends anywhere from eight to twelve hours in and out of movies over the course of a single day, that individual’s relationship with reality becomes worrisomely tenuous. The films only spill into one another at first, characters and shots getting unstuck and drifting into other movies — what’s Colin Farrell doing in the memory of that Japanese sci-fi drama? — until the line separating the cinematic from the real blurs entirely. The first day of screenings alone, a quartet of superb holdovers from Sundance and Cannes, did a number on this writer’s fragile psyche. Watching four movies in quick succession makes for a daunting task in and of itself, but when those four films are as intense and uniformly weighty as Cemetery of Splendour, Dheepan, Love, and The Forbidden Room, all light seems to take leave of the world. Nothing will ever feel okay again, not your outlook on life and certainly not your buttocks, which at this point run the risk of developing bedsores. It scarcely matters that these films were impressive-to-brilliant across the board.

Cemetery of Splendour finds Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul rhapsodizing on some of his pet themes — the pushes and pulls between nature and industry, the past and the present, the earthly and the mystical, the self and the state — with indelible images to match. In a jungle hospital, rows of poles provide diagnostic information by silently changing colors with an unearthly glow. Dheepan portrays the immigrant experience with guarded emotion and searing violence, handily dismantling what was once thought to be a distinctly American dream for a Sri Lankan in France. Love, the 3D porno from French provocateur Gaspar Noé, was the day’s standout. I entered TIFF with a mental goal of finding something I couldn’t have conceivably seen elsewhere, and it was somewhere in the middle of Love, when a load of semen was gracefully floating out of the silver screen and into my face, that I felt I had satisfied my first goal. The final selection of the day, Guy Maddin’s avant-garde head trip The Forbidden Room, did a number on my already-jellied mind. It took a surprisingly long time to decide whether the visual distension in the frame was Maddin’s handiwork, an acid flashback, or my eyes finally turning on me. Upon consulting a fellow critic in the lobby afterward, it turned out that Maddin was playing tricks on us and I was saner than I thought. For the moment, at least.

III. High-Profile Heavy Hitters

As the festival rolled onward and I started to get the hang of this draining game, the films began to lump themselves into categories. TIFF’s programming slate boasted a handful of high-profile American releases, big premieres expected to fill out Oscar ballots nearer to the year’s end.

Studio projects The Martian and The Danish Girl exceeded expectations, but that’s more of a testament to low expectations than high quality. Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic tipped the scales far too heavily in the direction of ‘sci’, sacrificing things like character and script for the rigor of its meticulously technical explanations. The new collaboration between The Theory of Everything team of Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne outdid itself simply by not being a plodding, manipulative heap of gooey sentiment. Hooper still directed like he wants the audience to know he went to film school, but Redmayne and his costar Alicia Vikander left it all on the screen. A chronicle of the life and times of Lili Elbe, the first trans woman to ever receive gender correction surgery, the film mostly handled its fraught political subtext with sensitivity and delicacy, though Redmayne’s casting in a trans role remains troubling. Sandra Bullock's political vehicle Our Brand Is Crisis had its fair share of problems, such as a script in which Bullock’s character actually says “our brand is crisis.” The film’s intended tone of whip-smart knowledgeability frequently veered into the scriptwriting equivalent of an extended smirk, and despite a token native boasting two whole dimensions, the film’s understanding of the Bolivian locals was cursory at best.

Of the A-lister movies, only a scant handful stuck out as keepers. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of the pop-lit novel Room, the recipient of the coveted People’s Choice Award, provided Brie Larson with the thespian’s showcase she’s deserved since Short Term 12, and Brooklyn was a warming crowd-pleaser with a decidedly sunnier outlook on emigration than Dheepan. A pair of execrable duds — Demolition was merely phony, whereas Stonewall was punishingly, blindingly awful — were offset by a pair of top-ten picks. Tom McCarthy bounced back from the unaccountably poor The Cobbler with the taut investigative journalism procedural Spotlight, an exhaustively researched account of the process by which the Boston Globe uncovered the massive cover-up of pedophilia within the Roman Catholic church. The film never devolved into histrionics, instead letting the story and those that survived it speak for themselves. A deep roster of consummate professionals deliver solid, unshowy work, from Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo as reporters putting feet on the street to Michael Keaton and Liev Schriber as the higher-ups railing to keep the investigative unit up and running. Netflix’s society debut Beasts of No Nation landed on the Scotiabank Theater like an active warhead. The film seamlessly vacillated between three equally harrowing stories, devoting equal time to its main character’s neorealist baptism in the blood of combat, a literally hallucinatory panorama of war’s corrosive effects on the soul, and a difficult character study of Idris Elba’s opportunistic cult leader. Director Cary Fukunaga cherished the chance to stretch his legs artistically, funneling his budget into a series of casually proficient tracking shots that wend through barracks and foxholes, undaunted by explosions and gunfire.

IV. The Contemporary Auteurs (and Best of the Fest)

The second major category claimed auteurist recognition as the umbrella under which its inclusions were organized. These films were mostly referred to as “the new [insert director’s name}’, a terming reflective of their importance more as entries in a larger canon than works unto themselves. That’s not to say they weren’t still good; this subsection contained the most triumphs, by a wide margin. The auteurist obligations, as the esteemed critic Scott Tobias calls them, yielded the pictures that filled out my top five. Jeremy Saulnier’s nasty, no-holds-barred thriller Green Room had the punk cred to back up its show-in-a-bottle premise, which traps the members of a punk quartet in a neo-Nazi clubhouse and tasks them with fighting their way out. The leads, Anton Yelchin in particular, evince enough toughness to carry the film, but not so much that they strain credibility as regular folk. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, widely and rightly touted as a work of perfection from the breathless crowds at the Saturday morning press and industry screening, stimulates the head and the heart in equal measure. Kaufman returns to his trenchant exploration of loneliness and depression, this time shedding the metafictional fireworks and goosing his own style with gorgeously wrought puppetry. It’s a brainiac’s tearjerker—marionette cunnilingus, Cyndi Lauper singalongs and all. Youth, another elegiac masterpiece from The Great Beauty’s Paolo Sorrentino, could’ve passably been about nothing; such is the evident genius of its dizzying formal opulence. It’s icing on the cake that his characters, aging titans of the arts played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, spoke entirely in fortune cookies as written by 19th-century philosophers. Each and every painterly frame made this writer want to stand up before the assembled audience and yell, “Isn’t this art form just the best?”

But the pick for Best of the Fest would have to go to The Lobster, Greek master Yorgos Lanthimos’ debut in the English language. Lanthimos’ signature charred-black humor translated across languages with no losses whatsoever — indeed, his drily acerbic punchlines took on new life when heard in a native tongue. His deviously clever and surprisingly thought-out premise started by deconstructing the romantic comedy, got bored, and then turned on the whole of society, remorselessly exposing the way society makes little impositions on character that get bigger and bigger until all sense of self vanishes. Colin Farrell flawlessly executed a role that’s not both dramatic and comedic, but neither. The Lobster secured its number-one spot when I walked out of the theater and was immediately seized by the desire to show everyone I know the film.

I recommend the new offerings from Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Joachim Trier, Jia Zhang-ke, Ben Wheatley, and Takashi Miike all with the same disclaimer: if you liked these directors’ previous films, you will like their new films. The artists all stuck to their strengths (HHH can make any vista look worthy of immortalization old a painter’s canvas, Wheatley’s violence feels fresh and new again) and wrestled with their same bugaboos (Miike’s lack of focus gets tiresome around the hour mark, Zhang-ke’s desire to do and say everything about Chinese culture sometimes exceeds his grasp). A pair of East Asian talents delivered a pair of curveballs; after the anything-goes lunacy of Why Don’t You Play In Hell? and Tokyo Tribe, Sion Sono dialed it way back for the minimalist sci-fi fable The Whispering Star. The long stretches of silence and sparse monochrome photography will test the patience of those who delighted in the ADD-baiting everything-at-once ethic of Sono’s previous works. Hong Kong’s Johnnie To, having conquered the action flick with Drug War and the romcom with the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart franchise, set his sights on the musical. But To’s idea of a musical ends up as a cracking yarn of corporate intrigue that looks like a Brechtian exercise in experimental theatre, all set outlines and black voids. Songs in Cantonese and Mandarin didn't exactly get feet a-tappin’, but the audacious art design was too entrancing to ignore.

V. Festival Flotsam

I’ve taken to referring to the films in the remaining third category as festival flotsam, indies and curios that might’ve been overlooked entirely if not scouted out at TIFF on a whim. And for the most part, I could’ve gone just as well without seeing them. Rob Reiner’s Being Charlie was the worst at the festival, and the less said about it, the better. After showing such promise with the short film accompanying Kendrick Lamar’s breakout album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kahlil Joseph got lost in his own visual experimentations in the Arcade Fire doc The Reflektor Tapes. Small-town indie The Missing Girl granted a cast of competent actors some off-kilter roles, but still felt too slight to have left any sort of impact. Polish horrorshow Demon was overshadowed by the behind-the-scenes tragedy of its director Marcin Wrona’s shocking death. (Sad stuff, but at least he left behind a serviceable scarefest with some meaty character work to chew on while waiting for the spooks.) Julie Delpy tried her hand at directing once more with the French-as-French-can-be Lolo, which weds a European freewheeling approach to sexual candor with an equally European comic sensibility predicated on malice. I entered Into The Forest completely blind, and was pleasantly surprised by the lived-in performances courtesy of Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. They reframed the apocalypse as a human event with human ramifications; the small-scale drama revitalized a subgenre hide-bound to drab loudness.

That leaves three commendable orphans with their fair share of troubles. Tom Hardy devoured the Goodfellas-lite gangster flick Legend whole, cementing himself as one of his generation’s finest screen actors in his tour de force dual turn as British bad boys Ronnie and Reggie Kray. I wish I could’ve taken the pleasure in Robert Eggers’ directorial debut The Witch that so many of my colleagues clearly and vocally have. The last twenty minutes were absolutely horrifying, sure, but the road to get there could be rather tedious — a desaturated color palette and script hobbled by the colonialese dialect may have contributed to the feeling that this ninety-minute film ran fifteen minutes too long. The final film I took in before jet-setting back to the states was the depraved Danish comedy Men & Chicken. It’s been a while since a film ostensibly passing itself off as a comedy blew through this many taboos; in the lead role, Mads Mikkelsen and his clan of hare-lipped brothers make high comedy out of incest and bestiality.

It may have just been a couple hours north of the American border, but TIFF still privileged this provincial writer with images too rare to be found at the neighborhood cineplex, and those are the memories that’ll stick around long after recollection of plot details and attached personnel have faded: Gaspar Noé’s go-for-broke sex scene scored by Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”; the psychedelic interlude in Beasts of No Nation that sees our pint-size antihero hopped up on dirty African coke and let loose in an innocent village; John C. Reilly’s hand stuck into a toaster as punishment for furtive masturbation. And then, deeper than those, are the experiences lived outside the bright walls and dark rooms of the theater: shooting the breeze with a nonchalant Ava DuVernay in the press lounge; drunken arguments over Gregg Araki’s legitimacy as a high artist of the film medium; being bought a beer by a personal influence, who then tells you he likes your work. In a city slightly different than New York, in the English language, we find miracles like no place else on the planet.

Charles Bramesco is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He's employed as a staff writer at Random Nerds, and his work has also appeared in the Guardian, Newsweek, The Dissolve, Forbes, Nerdist, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, Consequence of Sound, The Gambit, and DigBoston. He's secure in his knowledge that Boogie Nights is his favorite film of all time, but second place is a real toss-up.

All You Are Going to Be, You Are Already

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Do you remember what you saw, what you tasted, what you felt and smelled, the moment before your life suddenly changed direction? Think of the boy in David Foster Wallace’s short story, “Forever Overhead,” his toes rubbed raw on the nubbly platform of the high dive. Ponder Judy Garland’s startled “Oh!” when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz. Think of the instant eternity that passes as the car bumper in front of you smashes into your own, or the smell of a lover’s breath as they lean in to kiss you for the first time. Change electrifies these memories of the mundane with a retrospective power. Recall Dorothy again as she pauses before opening the door onto Munchkinland’s Technicolor. The walls of her house are still a drab gray, but she has transformed. Where once she too was gray, now her hair is brown and her gingham dress is blue. It’s as if the future reaches through the present to color the past.

I didn’t know that night five years ago would contain such a moment. I don’t even remember whose idea it was to go see The Holy Mountain, his or mine. He was an improv actor I was sleeping with in that casual way that he preferred and I resented. The only reason I gave him the time of day was that he could talk movies. His deep passion for film was enough to make up for the lack thereof in bed with me. That, and he had good weed. We arrived just minutes before the screening started; the only remaining seats were on the front row. We claimed the seats and left our drink orders before we ran back outside to the parking lot. There, as the early drunks of Austin’s Sixth Street lurched past, we shared a spit-soaked nubbin of a joint. It left ashy crumbs on my tongue.

Though the roach was small, it was strong. My ears roared with blood. Giddy sparks of euphoria presaged the headrush to come as we scampered to the theater. We tiptoed with the woozy care of the high down the dark aisle. Like magic, our beers were waiting for us. My saison tasted like an alpine meadow in June upon my sandpapery tongue.

The Holy Mountain started.

The theater’s speakers boomed with the chanting of Tibetan monks. A man in black, his face obscured by the wide brim of his hat, sat zazen-style in the center of a white room checkered with black. Flanking him were two women wearing the same kind of dress and heavy makeup that Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. The man in black poured water from a silver decanter and wet a towel. These two simple tasks should have lasted mere seconds, but the man drew them out into a slow ballet, taking almost a minute to set down the decanter and meticulously unfold the towel. With it, he wiped the lipstick and rouge off the faces of the women. Next, in one quick yank, he stripped the women of their dresses, but his decisive movements were devoid of sexual aggression. They sat naked as he, with infinite care, cut and shaved each strand of blonde hair from their heads. Their faces glowed with quiet ecstasy as they were shorn. He gathered them into his arms with great tenderness.

I have seen hundreds of movies in my lifetime. I feel I basically know what to expect. The vast majority have been so-so; a few were either amazing or awful. But only two films in my life have ever moved entirely beyond any distinction of “good” or “bad”. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film was one of them. With that opening scene, The Holy Mountain kicked down the doors of my expectations, but not because it didn’t make any sense. There were recognizable characters, and things happened to them in what can reasonably be called a plot that advanced through space in sequential time (which cannot be said of Inland Empire, the other of the two films that smashed my mind). But Alejandro Jodorowsky—who not only wrote, directed, and acted in The Holy Mountain but also had a hand in its production and costume design—communicated his plot through symbols alone. I’m not talking about a subtle symbol, such as the swirl in Madeleine’s hair in Vertigo, which stands for the dizzy obsession that nearly drowns her paramour, Scottie. Rather, each scene in The Holy Mountain was staged as symbol in and of itself—and they came at me in a ceaseless barrage.

An army of flayed goats crucified on poles. Songbirds flying from the gaping bullet wounds of protesters gunned down in a street. A man screaming his head off in a room filled with papier-mache Christs. An old man taking out his glass eye and giving it to a child prostitute. Dozens of horny toads dressed as Mayans, complete with tiny capes and feathered headdresses. On and on and on it went, one symbol after the other in a rainbow assault. There was no hope in trying to pick it all apart as it came in. It was too much. I felt some levee inside me break under this flood of images. I gave up and let it wash me away.

Of The Holy Mountain and his other films, Jodorowsky has said, “I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill." That much was true in my experience. The beer and marijuana were redundant, because that night, I swallowed Jodorowsky’s pill. I left the theater dazed, yet strangely elated. “What the fuck was that?!” my date and I mused as we went to find a bar where we could drink enough to fuck each other.

It would take some years before that pill took full effect.


Fast forward to earlier this year. My fiance and I settled down on the couch to stream a movie after dinner one night. After a bit of scrolling we found Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary about the man’s grandiose attempt to make a film of Frank Herbert’s novel immediately after the success of The Holy Mountain in 1973. I say “grandiose” because there’s no other way to describe it. Not only did he gather together a veritable Super Friends of talented people to work on the film—among them Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger, and Jean “Moebius” Girard—but the result would have gone one further than The Holy Mountain. Not only did he plan to incite a psychedelic experience in the viewer, but a union with universal consciousness itself. The film would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and lasted 15 hours. Naturally, no studio would take it, and the whole thing was eventually handed over to poor David Lynch. His experience as a big budget hack-for-hire was so bad, he went on to make Blue Velvet in revenge.

What impressed me most about the documentary wasn’t the Dune that never was, but Jodorowsky himself. Though he was no longer the intimidating Alchemist of The Holy Mountain—the years had shrunk him into a snowy-haired old man—his grin was impish. Utterly unselfconscious in front of the camera, the director held forth on the travails of Dune in a mixture of Spanish, French, and English. His attitude was surprisingly sanguine despite heading such a legendary failure. In fact, the whole ordeal galvanized him. His eyes blazed with conviction as he stared directly into the lens and decried the capitalistic industry that rejected him.

“This system make of us slaves. Without dignity. WIthout depth. With a devil in our pocket. This, this incredible money are in the pocket. This money. This shit. This nothing. This paper who have nothing inside. Movies have heart. Boom-boom-boom. Have mind. Have power. Have ambition. I wanted to do something like that. Why not?”

In short, the inspiration I took away from Jodorowsky’s Dune was similar to Samuel Beckett’s famous exhortation: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” I also finished the film with a little filmmaker fan crush on the guy. I joked on Twitter that I was going to dye my pubes green and join his cult. “Kickstarter to make that happen!” one of my friends replied.

Turns out, I didn’t need one. He had one of his own.


I hate myself. I’ve tried a lot of things to get over it. I was a kundalini yoga student and teacher for a while. That involved wearing white and hyperventilating while sitting on a sheepskin rug. When that didn’t work, I went on a silent meditation retreat where I didn’t speak to another soul for ten days. For each of those days, I stared at my nose for ten hours at a time and tried not to go insane. That helped a little, as did six years of psychotherapy and two years of group therapy. But no matter what I tried, any method I used eventually became yet another tool I used to beat myself mercilessly. If only I could meditate more/ be less distracted/ be kinder/ be anything else other than what I am, maybe I could accept myself.

Drugs and alcohol were also handy tools, if double-edged ones. Four glasses of wine was what it took to get me good and happy of an evening, which of course required a pipe bowl of weed the next day to get me over the hangover. Neither of these made me hate myself any less, but at least I could forget myself for a while.

It was on one such wine-soaked evening a few months ago that I stumbled upon The Dance of Reality. Jodorowsky’s newest film, an autobiographical fantasia on his childhood, had popped up on Amazon Instant. My husband was off on a business trip, and a fourth glass of wine sounded like a great idea on a Sunday night, so I pulled it up. While the film was as audacious as The Holy Mountain, with tableaus involving hundreds of extras and enough bodily fluids to drown them all, it was firmly grounded in the personal. It was filmed in Tocopilla, Chile, Jodorowsky’s birthplace. He cast his eldest son, Brontis, as his abusive father (Brontis’ grandfather), Jaime. Throughout, the director narrated events and popped on and offscreen at will. In one scene, his boyhood self (played by young actor Jeremias Herskovits) stood on the edge of a cliff, ready to throw himself off in despair. Jodorowsky materialized behind him.

His arms encircled the boy in a tender embrace. He said to that boy—to himself, “You are not alone. You are with me. All you are going to be, you are already. What you are looking for is already within you. Embrace your sufferings, for through them you will reach me.”

Maybe Jodorowsky is just that good of an actor. Or maybe symbols—such as that of a sad child’s future self reaching through time to comfort him—are important. Maybe it’s never “just a movie.” All I know is that the look on Jodorowsky’s face as he held the stand-in for his younger self made me cry so hard that my eyes hurt.

After this emotional experience, it didn’t take me long to find out that Jodorowsky had a Kickstarter to fund Endless Poetry, the sequel to The Dance of Reality. After the Dunedebacle, he worked almost entirely outside of the studio system, and he was famously proud that none of his movies ever made a profit. I was down with this. I looked at the list of awards, which were the typical Kickstarter prizes: my name in the credits, a t-shirt, a poster, a place to stream the film once it was done. All well and good, but I wanted something more. For $250, I could get a personal filmed thank you from one of the principle actors, or...Jodorowsky himself.

As a Jodorowsky fan, I’d read all about the Tarot readings he used to do for free in Paris, and about the “psychomagic” therapeutic sessions he performed during lectures, also for free. I dreamed about attending one of those sessions or readings, but I knew it would never be. I couldn’t afford to go to Paris, I didn’t speak French or Spanish, and the guy was 86 years old. Getting a filmed “Muchas gracias” would probably be as close as I’d ever get. So I picked that prize and paid my $250. It wasn’t cheap, but what the hell: my birthday was coming up, and in addition to a thank you, I’d get a new Jodorowsky film to watch in a year’s time.

That was on a Friday. I left that weekend to go camping far from any cellphone or internet service. When I returned, I found an email from the Endless Poetry Kickstarter team in my inbox. The first sentence read, “Your video is online, and it’s an amazing surprise: Alejandro reads you your Tarot!!!!

It’s a good thing my husband was out getting groceries, because my scream rattled the windows.

In halting English, the man gazed warmly into the camera, thanked me, and took about five minutes to read my cards. I’d read a bit of his book on Tarot, so I knew he didn’t use it to divine a person’s future. The symbols in the Tarot become a way for the reader’s subject to analyze their own psyche. What I understand of his reading is this: I have a well of creative inspiration that I keep locked up in a tiny, cramped space within me. Some great change must occur to break it open. To initiate that change, I must purify the place where I live, and, as Jodorowsky put it, “open the spring to anoint the world.”

I wept once more, though this time it was of happiness. One of the best gifts I’d ever received was this one, and I’d given it to myself. All it was: a man I admired who held up a mirror and said, “Look. This is who you are.”


It was another Friday night. My husband was out again on business. I had bought a gigantic box of white wine earlier that week to drink while he was gone. I’d had a few glasses on Thursday, went to bed with a headache, and woke up the next workday feeling wretched. Jodorowsky’s words played over and over in my mind. Hoping for some distraction, I called and talked to my mother for a while. I complained that I was so old, I was getting a hangover after only two glasses of wine.

Which was a bald lie. I’d had four.

Lying to my own mother was what did it. I didn’t want to go through life like this anymore. I was through with drinking too much and hating myself. So, after the sun went down, I stuffed a backpack with a paring knife and the nearly full bag of wine taken from its box. The moon shone so brightly that I didn’t need my headlamp as I walked to the park in the middle of town. I found a suitable place hidden among the trees along a dry creek bed. There, under the stars, I would emulate The Star, one of the cards Jodorowsky pulled for me. I had to purify the place where I lived.

Quickly, so the cars passing in the distance wouldn’t see me, I shucked off my clothes and took the wine bladder and knife out of my pack. I placed the bag on the ground and knelt in front of it on the prickly grass. It looked like a severed organ, shining a pale gold under the moon’s silvery light. I took the small knife in both hands and raised it above my head.

“With this I break the bond you hold over me. I release myself from you forever. You will not bother me any more.”

I said the words quietly, then plunged the knife into the middle of the bag. It went in as smoothly as if it had been Jell-o. Then I picked up the bag, stood, and poured the wine out through the gash I made. I put my clothes back on, packed my things, and walked home.

Symbols have power. I remember the feel of the knife and the finality with which it fell. I remember the cards and the order in which they were played. I remember the intoxication that lead me to sit in a theatre before The Holy Mountain. Though I have left those days behind me, I cherish them and the confused, sad, searching person I was, as she lead me to this moment, right now.

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

Black Sheep Club

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

"It costs a lot to be authentic. And one can't be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being."

-All About My Mother, Pedro Almodovar

“I would love to be desperate,” Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) remarks wistfully. She’s tucked under a bonnet dryer at a beauty parlor in Fort Lee. The year is 1985, a time when the distance between the New Jersey Palisades and the New York Port Authority means everything about the person Roberta is and whom she can become.

Roberta's life is the least precarious of anyone she knows. She has what she is told people want: a husband — Gary Glass, New Jersey’s self-appointed hot tub king; a house and a housekeeper; a convertible car; the year's tastefully bourgeois wardrobe. In the style of 80s suburbia, Roberta dresses older than she is; but in the manner of someone who has always been provided for, she behaves much more naively. She is grateful without being satisfied; discontent but unaware of how to achieve a feeling beyond complacency. Roberta is an observer of her own life.

Before the internet, want ads were the period's analog message boards—desire and agency made public in cents-per-word print. In this virtuality, Roberta discovers a relationship between two personal column regulars, “Susan” and “Jim,” that is as untraditional as her own life is fixed. The couple is uncommitted but passionate; drawn together and driven apart; errant but true. The rhythm of their lives is more urgent than Roberta’s unblemished safety. In tracking this alien impulsiveness and unorthodoxy, Roberta invokes her own rebirth.

Above all, Desperately Seeking Susan proceeds by compulsions that propel and connect. When we meet Susan (Madonna), she awakes from the dregs of a lost weekend. Susan’s life is an onslaught of experiences cast off to welcome the novel and the new. Bruce Meeker (Richard Hell), the sleeping man beside her, isn't cherished enough to wake but he’s sufficiently notable to remember. She takes a polaroid of Meeker and of herself, eats room service in her underwear and finds Jim's broadsheet message calling her back to New York. As she departs, Susan pockets a cool Egyptianesque earring, which happens to be a priceless stolen artifact, and thereby captures the interest of gangsters chasing the bangle, and complicates all the lives that connect with Susan’s.

Susan arrives to Manhattan by boat; Roberta by car; they converge in Battery Park where Susan and Jim have arranged to rendez-vous. The couple unites and quickly disbands (Jim departs for a gig upstate), putting Susan at liberty—her best and worst condition—and allowing Roberta to follow Susan as she wanders. Roberta buys a jacket that Susan swaps for a pair of boots, and the magic of the film is conjured. Roberta becomes Susan, all at once (to the other characters who remember Susan's wardrobe and ways more than her face) and little by little (as Roberta becomes more entrenched in her downtown wonderland).

Desperately Seeking Susan is a movie about iconography as a narrative strategy, as a cinematic device, as the foundation of an artistic career. 

All of this plot wrangling is negligible, though; the story has the logic of a magic act or a dream—seemingly effortless, ritualized enchantment. Roberta gains Susan’s jacket, and thereby gains the key to Susan’s identity, specifically, the key to a port authority locker that houses her wardrobe and mementos of her past. And when Roberta loses her memory, Susan’s baggage becomes the only link to who Roberta might be.

Desperately Seeking Susan is a movie about iconography as a narrative strategy, as a cinematic device, as the foundation of an artistic career. Susan's personal magnetism infuses each fetishized object, and the film races to keep up with Susan’s multiplying wardrobe trove: the stolen earring, the jacket, the glittery boots, Roberta's shimmering jacket, which Susan extracts as temporary payment for her missing wardrobe. The most bewitching moments are visual tableaux depicting these items: Susan, changing her clothes in a public restroom; Susan in her adorned pyramid jacket, contemplating the Hudson; Roberta, in the same stance and wardrobe. Susan sits on a railing, striking a match to her boot sole. Susan undulates at Danceteria. Susan in her bra, eats cheese puffs, lounges by Roberta’s pool and reads her diary.

The story was inspired by Jacques Rivette's New Wave classic, Celine et Julie vont en bateau, in which two women are mysteriously linked when one picks up the discarded clothes of the other. Their identities become conflated, and they embark on an adventure through Paris in a nearly silent homage to Alice in Wonderland. While the summary may roughly parallel the plot of Susan, it says nothing about the disparity in tone, a difference that has everything to do with downtown New York in the late 70s and early 80s.

The originally proposed cast were Diane Keaton as a former hippie and Goldie Hawn as her wannabe. The go-to directors were Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) or Walter Hill (The Warriors). When Seidelman was attached to the project, she had completed her first film,Smithereens, about a woman’s madcap attempt to succeed in New York’s downtown music scene when it was desperate and dangerous.

Seidelman reconfigured the script to make Susan a postcard from the edge—a record of New York as it was, commemorating post-punk and New Wave acts, rising actors and crumbling architecture. The background actors at Danceteria are emblematic of the film's artistic success—their halting, robotic dances and stiff, winged hairdos, their black clothes and frilly button down shirts. The Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was shot doubles as the exterior of the Magic Club. We navigate the uptown Port Authority, the downtown thrift shop Love Saves The Day, and the second run Bleecker Street Theater (now a Duane Reade) where Dez makes a living playing genre celluloid to an empty theater. Susan—in its design as well as its characters—is made by gleaners. It’s a movie about desperation made with the audacity that comes from being down at heels.


Looking at Madonna and Rosanna Arquette side by side—Herb Ritts shot the promotional image for Vanity Fair that was licensed for Desperately Seeking Susan’s poster—you witness the difference between an actor and a performer. An actor works best in character and can lag in still images. Arquette, who has a nasal voice and an overbite that makes her seem facile, can be astonishingly beautiful and effective on screen, especially in her early work for John Sayles and Martin Scorsese. She is lithe, more symmetrically perfect, more ethnically anodyne—in fact, just looks more scrubbed up and pleasing than her co-star. Madonna, by contrast, gives the camera the side eye. She is insouciant and baby-faced, as sloppy and unguarded as we'll ever see her. It's Madonna who draws the eye while Arquette looks worried and already forgotten, as if to underscore: playing yourself yields better results than merely being yourself.

In 1985, just before the release of Like A Virgin, Madonna had a lioness's mane of tangled, hairsprayed hair; a wardrobe gleaned from the junk shop and a house of love; an absolute confidence in her own interest; grace in movement that countermanded any insincerity or amateurishness in her voice. Her intelligence is the poise of the teenage runaway; her confidence on fleek even before she had something substantive to say.

Above all, the film’s success depends on her leonine presence. Seidelman says her task in directing Madonna was getting her to just be on the screen. The director could talk to Arquette about character and motivation. With Madonna, she needed to capture the magnetism that paralleled the character’s charisma. Madonna herself described appearing in the film as a matter of learning choreography, an indication of how films can succeed by restricting themselves to a visual moment, to persuasive framing or energy. As an actor Madonna’s delivery always sounds flat or calculated; her gestures, in contrast, are magnificent—story-stopping, not naturalistic but compelling an audience to keep with the picture.

Clearly, Madonna is a performer not an actor—a spectacle rather than an interpreter. If acting prioritizes listening and reactivity, performing demands inner direction and absorption (perhaps the reason so many who are famous as solo performers achieve only lesser feats as actors in an ensemble). "Get Into The Groove", the film’s theme song and anthem, was the b side to Madonna’s "Angel" single. In it, Madonna urges everyone to dance—for inspiration, for intimacy. Dance is a courtship that can be shrugged off at the end of the beat. When we watch her spin loosely around the dance floor, there is no question why Susan is desperately sought and romanticized.

Everyone has a friend who’s main role is mischief; whom you tolerate or cherish because they allow access to something other than normal life. With Susan, the idea of dress up, of play, of improvisation and irresponsibility make desperation and its dangers compelling. Each day all day is a performance. She is cavalier in her relationships and responsibilities; her friends accept the exchange for the giddiness of knowing her.

Who knows if Roberta is better off at the end of the picture? She has a hotter guy and a better wardrobe, but desperation equal parts freedom and uncertainty, lightness and a light wallet. What Roberta wants is not to look at Susan or to imitate her, but to be her—or more accurately, to be a version of herself inspired by Susan. She’s aiming for a condition, not an attitude. The condition is perhaps an act of self authorship, of which Roberta is incapable without Susan’s example. The desire to be desperate is really the urge to transform ordinary unhappiness into something more encompassing, more radical. Maybe, Susan suggests, it's obligatory to destroy oneself regularly, like a Polaroid, like a day old newspaper, in order to be relevant to oneself.

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

How Much of the Body Can You Lose and Still Recognize Yourself?

by Anneke Schwob

illustration by Brianna Ashby 

illustration by Brianna Ashby 

Midway through Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, car-crash survivor Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferréol) cries out despairingly, “How much of the body can you lose and still recognize yourself?” For Alba, it’s a live question: having lost one leg to the car-swan collision that opens the film and kills the wives of her twin now-lovers, Oswald and Oliver Deuce (Brian and Eric Deacon), she now stands to lose the other in an effort by her surgeon, Van Meegeren (Gerard Thoolen), to prevent spinal shock—or to make her easier to trap in his Vermeer-inspired tableaux vivants, one of the two. Alba fears the loss of her body, and with it, her sense of self. Peter Greenaway, though, approaches this same question across Z+00 with less terror than curiosity: what makes a body itself, he asks. For that matter, what makes a movie a movie? If I, Peter Greenaway, give you, the audience, a film that resists doing most of the things that movies are supposed to do, does it still count?

How much of the body can you lose and still recognize yourself?

Trying to pin down what defines an art form is surprisingly tricky. On the first day of an undergrad class in fiction, my professor passed around a Xeroxed definition of “the novel.” As best as I remember, it ran something like this: “Generally an extended piece of prose fiction, although some novels are very short, some are written in verse, and others are not fictional, at all.” That sort of transcendently unspecific non-answer is pretty common no matter the object of concern. Perhaps the most pop-culturally saturated iteration of this definitional problem is encapsulated by Justice Potter Stewart’s famous claim about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Generally, the “I know it when I see it” litmus test works pretty well: the question “Do you want to go see a movie tonight?” doesn’t need to prompt an existential crisis over what, exactly, this “movie” thing is all about. Where things get complicated is when questions of what a medium is become imbricated with questions of success—when what makes a movie good is the degree to which it fulfills the tenets of moviedom. Then, the question is no longer What makes A Zed and Two Noughts a movie?, but rather, Is it important that A Zed and Two Noughts is a movie rather than a novel, or a play, or a series of paintings?

Well, actually, if you’re any of the handful of friends I have individually sat down and forced to watch Z+00 over the past year and a bit, the questions are more likely to be: “What are we watching,” “Do we have to,” and “Is that man covered in snails and/or eating ground glass right now?” Peter Greenaway can be, as Elizabeth Cantwell (née Wilcox) has noted in these very pages, a profoundly alienating director. A Zed and Two Noughts is no less unpleasant than its follow-up, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover, although that unpleasantness manifests along slightly different lines—less spousal abuse and more spoilage. Neither film is a strong candidate for a dinner-and-a-movie date. I owe a lot of people a lot of apologies, is all I’m saying.

I don’t actually think, though, that Peter Greenaway cares if you like his movie. For some of the earliest theorists of film, the experience of watching film was so profoundly different to everything that came before that they decided this—the psychological connection that you, as an audience member, make with the light reflecting off a screen—this was the site of film’s medium specificity. So it’s how that psychological connection is effected—through close-ups, cuts, and other fancy camera work—that becomes the object of these theorists’ concern.

One of the remarkable and disorienting parts of A Zed and Two Noughts, to me, is that Greenaway’s camera dispenses with most of these technical possibilities. (Notably, this is Greenaway’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who shoots almost all of his later work; it’s the dialogue between the two that’s responsible for Greenaway’s distinctive visual palette.) Z+00 opens with a crane shot that swoops in over Alba Bewick’s car wreck; it’s the most mobile the camera will be for the rest of the film. Everything else is static wide shots. This is, notably, the same depth of field that Vermeer preferred, his paintings a visual echo that Greenaway returns to again and again. Close-ups and cuts are equivalently rare. It’s as though Greenaway is anxious to keep us from falling into the trap of psychological identification with his characters. It’s a strange choice for a film that, at least in broad strokes, seems to wade in the psychologically-teeming waters of sex and death and grief.

Two of Oliver’s lines seem to me particularly relevant here. Returning from their wives’ funeral, Oliver turns to his twin brother Oswald and says, “I just can’t bear the thought of her rotting away.” It’s one of the few emotionally raw moments in the whole film—and it’s immediately undermined. Instead of sidestepping death’s aftermath, both brothers become obsessed with it, exploring the evolutionary origins of life through David Attenborough and the biological processes of death through stop-motion films of plants and animals as they decay. (Even the large ZOO sign that echoes the film’s title gets in on this: at the movie’s close, it is filmed from behind, as the animals of the zoo returns to ooz[e].) His struggle to understand life and death, Oliver says, is a process of trying to “separate the real clues from the red herrings.”

Psychology, a certain human way of looking at the world, is Greenaway’s red herring. To categorize A Zed and Two Noughts as any kind of meditation on grief would be to discount the way that Greenaway holds his characters at a physical and emotional remove—using everything from obscure taxonomic naming conventions (twins named Deuce, the surgeon Van Meegeren and his nurse-assistant Catarina Bolnes) to Brechtian declamatory acting. In many scenes—in Oswald’s apartment, in the movie theater where Oliver screens his David Attenborough documentaries—the characters are literally pushed to the sides of the frame. In place of pride at the center of these shots are, instead, the accoutrements of film itself: screens, projectors, the stop-motion camera set-up through which the Deuces film their evolutionary decay. Greenaway foregrounds medium specificity as his thematic concern in these scenes by de-emphasizing the human in favor of cinema’s technological materiality.

This focus on the technological is not incompatible with the movie’s other obsession with death and decay. Rather, in the conjunction of the two, Greenaway finds film’s great possibilities. Oliver asks Oswald to describe for him the steps of his wife’s decomposition: bloat, blowflies, maggots, etc. What he’s really asking his brother to describe, though, is the way that time is made material, is marked on the body. Time made flesh: this is the process of decay. Time made manifest: this is film.

Anneke Schwob is a writer and doctoral candidate living in North Carolina. Most of her time is spent thinking about representations of life, death, and all the messy biology in between.

Afterimages of Comedy

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Things appear white until you focus on them: sunlight, cigarette smoke, wedding dresses. After that they are modified by shadows, or they evolve into different colors, blondes and greys. "White is actually the most difficult color to film,” Krzysztof Kieślowski said in a documentary about White, the second film in his Three Colors trilogy. “I don't think you can really film it. It's not a photogenic color. It's not really a color. It's simply the lack of color." Its presence in White is less talismanic than the blues in Blue, less spectral and omniscient than red in Red. White isn’t invested into objects; it lands in the frame in arbitrary masses. It figures into the film primarily through the lunar snow in Warsaw, the white of which is produced through reflected sunlight. It’s also generously freckled by dirt. There’s no symbolic design to this; in White, things just happen.

For instance, Karol Karol, the main character of White, played by Zbigniew Zamachowski, just happens to be impotent. He can’t explain it. It is sort of ambiently suggested as a physical byproduct of the anxiety he feels at work, the unease he feels around his wife, and the alienation he feels as a Polish man living in Paris. His clothes are too big for him and drape ambiguously from his frame, and his body inhabits the world heavily; one of the first shots of the film is of his feet, which walk toward a courthouse in frustrated, shattered rhythms.

This isn’t to suggest Karol is inanimate or depressing. He’s played by Zamachowski with a kind of elastic gravity. “I was to remember the language and atmosphere of [Charlie Chaplin] films,” Zamachowski said in an interview for the Criterion DVD. His face is capable of conveying both immersive wonder and embarrassment, sometimes at once. In the opening scene, Karol dashes toward a constellation of pigeons on the courthouse steps, and observes the pattern of their flight with a kind of artless, childlike glee. One of the pigeons poops on him, and as he furiously wipes his jacket with his handkerchief, the look on his face compresses the disenchantment of the moment and a longer history of suffering into one mercurial expression. This kind of intricate collapse of moods is a shared feature of the principal actors in Kieślowski’s trilogy. “He was obsessed with details,” Julie Delpy, who plays Dominique in White, says. “He said what defines people is their physical language, not what [they’re] thinking of. Because sometimes a real person doesn’t know who they are.”

The triangulation of Karol’s moods builds his personality throughout the film, and their effect tends to be...funny. Humor is often organic and lacks a physical purpose; it’s something that just happens. According to Kieślowski, White, of all the movies in the trilogy, is the most deliberately humorous. “It’s supposed to be a comedy, but I don’t think it’s going to be all that funny,” he said in Kieślowski on Kieślowski. “I’ve cut out most of what was supposed to be funny...” It shows. White feels like the afterimage of a comedy, a funny movie whose characters seem to fall through its sheer absence of jokes, into ambiguous and oblique gaps. Sequences that could be played for laughs are cropped into something more awkward and indefinite. After his wife, Dominique, divorces him and he resolves to return to Poland, Karol steals a bust of a woman from a display window. The shape of its face resembles Dominique’s. Later, in Warsaw, Karol kisses the bust. It trembles in response.

White engages with the theme of “equality,” but like Blue’s inverse relationship with “freedom,” it mainly depicts its opposite. Karol and Dominique’s relationship is one of inequality; there’s an untranslatable distance between them, which is both rhetorical and physical. “If I say I love you, you don't understand,” she tells him. “And if I say I hate you, you don't understand. You don't even understand that I want you, that I need you. You understand?” When Dominique leaves Karol she also seizes his funds, which renders him homeless for a few days in Paris. While busking in the subway he meets Mikołaj, played by Janusz Gajos, who offers Karol a job in which he’d have to kill someone who wants to die. He speaks in a narcotic, seductive blur. Karol is uncertain, so they conspire to ship Karol to Warsaw in his own suitcase.

If this feels digressive and sort of disorganized, it’s because digression and disorganization are the guiding rhythms of White. “White tells the story of a constantly moving little man,” says cinematographer Edward Kłosiński. “Who is therefore difficult to photograph. And who we therefore have to follow.” Unlike Sławomir Idziak’s generous filtering on Blue, Kłosiński’s touch is light and utilitarian, which conveys a less romantic and more neutral and kinetic perspective. He frames the characters and lets their expressions determine the space and flow of the scene. His camera movements are adrift yet precise, and contract into expressive closeups, as if the camera itself is in dialogue with the characters. Foreground and background are equally significant and in conversation with each other. Karol rapidly acquires land in post-communist Poland; he plots his next movements on a map in his room, and he’s arranged in parallel to the Dominique-esque bust.

White is a movie about land, about environments: France, Poland, the train stations in each—the prescribed fluorescence in the Paris metro versus the indifferent darkness of the subway in Warsaw. The weightless flood of white sunlight in Poland. Moreso than BlueWhite is attached to its locations; it’s a terrestrial film, less inhabiting the reversed gravity of someone’s grief than the feelings and actions of people engaging with their environments.

It is difficult to characterize White except in direct comparison to Blue or Red, a quality that can haunt the genre of middle chapters; a center is supported by its bookends. White can be a curious and inert film. There are two potential deaths in the movie; one is rehearsed and the other is staged, whereas death is the neurotic engine of Blue. Unlike Blue the story isn’t fractured into vignettes—there’s a continuity in White that was inaccessible to Juliette Binoche’s character in Blue. Yet the story feels looser than Red’s, more flexible.

As in Blue, the flow of time in White can resemble melody more than chronology. Here it’s in the opening, a large suitcase gently drifting on a conveyor belt through the guts of an airport, the significance of which only becomes apparent 20 minutes into the film, and foreshadows a kind of chrysalis for Karol, as he transfers from France to Poland, from poor to rich. (Kieślowski: "All three films start the same way: in the underpinnings of a city and its technology...the point was to show that we use all sorts of things every day without realizing how complicated or potentially dangerous they are.") There are also two disconnected scenes of Julie Delpy melting into the shadows of a hotel room. When the movie finally arrives at the scene in narrative sequence, it’s to introduce other lacunae—Karol, post-fake-death, materializes in Dominique’s hotel bed.

White is incidentally the most political of Kieślowski’s three deliberately apolitical films descended from revolutionary ideas. Where Blue describes the harmonic qualities of unification through the symphony that Binoche’s character completes, White portrays the living asymmetries of a unified Europe. The Poland Karol retreats to has slipped rather abruptly into the rhythms of hypercapitalism. It affords Karol opportunities both opulent (a Volvo) and grim (a corpse through which Karol engineers his fake death). “We know from history that many leaders have invoked [freedom, equality, and fraternity],” Kieślowski’s co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz said. “What followed was great misfortune, not to mention graves and bodies.”

White, however, doesn’t resemble Kieślowski’s early polemics, which indicted communist Poland. Its focus attaches less to the systems of exploitation than to the people living within them. The plot is one of interpersonal revenge. Karol acquires wealth and fakes his death in order to extract sympathy from Dominique. It doesn’t make him Dominique’s equal; it makes him “more equal” than her. That these social irregularities play out in a film called White, a neutral non-color that is also a vivid range of all light frequencies, is ironic, is funny, is cognitively dissonant, and also just sort of happens.

White only achieves symbolic resonance toward the end of the film. It appears as a white out, as absence, the complete subtraction and expansion of consciousness experienced during orgasm, which Karol finally occasions in Dominique in her hotel room. Two people approach the total annihilation of identity, one of whom is already systematically dead. It’s the closest they get to being equals.

Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic and the Village Voice.

The Golden Age of Grapefruit

© 1931 Warner Bros

© 1931 Warner Bros

Hollywood has at least one Golden Age, but does it have a Grapefruit Age? Sure, a grapefruit has been part of a healthy breakfast, but there are other reasons it’s a film star. There are other fruits around — in Hollywood Hotel (1937), a publicity man points to his camera with faux-incredulity and asks, “Whaddaya think this is, rhubarb?” Perhaps this is a reference to the saving grace word of actor extras, who mumbled “rhubarb” to mimic generic speech patterns. In Design For Living, Fredric March demands that Miriam Hopkins provide orange juice every morning for breakfast, and a heavy cloud of boredom falls over her eyes.

Yet a grapefruit is never dull; on the contrary, it’s often the center of attention. Its most well known appearance on screen occurred in 1931 in The Public Enemy, when childish, mercurial, borderline-sociopathic James Cagney slams a half one in Mae Clarke’s face over breakfast (and Clarke didn’t even receive a screen credit). “This dame’s been gettin’ on my nerves, that’s all,” he says to a pal on the telephone in his New York twang, as Clarke sits patiently and suggests he take no booze before breakfast. That’s what sets him off. Wearing his rumpled striped pajamas and one of his most angry scowls, Cagney does the deed and their breakfast is ruined. (It’s almost wrong to joke, here. This scene depicts straight out abuse, and led to Clarke’s suffering repercussions and humiliation for just about the remainder of her career.)

Grapefruit on the Table

But James Cagney’s breakfast table at Warner Brothers wasn’t the first place the grapefruit made an appearance. In 1928, in King Vidor’s The Patsy over at MGM, family flop Pat (Marion Davies) is feeling chirpy one morning, determined that she is going to be teased no longer. She strides into the sitting room, spouting a few cryptic mottoes to her mother and sister, and her mother secretly suspects madness; “there was insanity in your father’s family.” Pat begins juggling apples, and then announces, “The apple is famous in history, but it takes a grapefruit to stay in the public eye.” Her family stands by, puzzled. Then she pretends to season an imaginary flower and eats it. The grapefruit will get you noticed.

Why is the grapefruit deemed so famous? Yoko Ono even wrote a book called Grapefruit in 1964, with a yellow one on the cover, but it wasn't really about them. The result of an accidental hybridization produced in Barbados in the eighteenth century, it was once known as a “forbidden fruit”. The forbidden fruit originates in the biblical Garden of Eden, and was eaten by Adam and Eve even though they had been forbidden to do so, leading to their expulsion from paradise. The grapefruit may have been bunched into that group of possible fruits as a relation of the citron. (Originally the forbidden fruit was an apple, but myths tend to have multiple tellings.) Metaphorically, the forbidden fruit has developed alongside concepts of immorality and indulgence. The grapefruit’s identity was immediately striated, interlinked with notions of pleasure and temptation. Prime material to spice up a film scene.

André Bazin, in What Is Cinema?, noted, “In 1931, the stars were living on grapefruit and hiding their bosoms. At the same time, the tidal wave of the Hays office censorship was breaking over Hollywood.” I’m not sure he was right about the bosoms, but censorship and grapefruit, stuck around for decades. Marilyn Monroe, for one, swore by the grapefruit diet, which dictated that you could eat any you wanted as long as you took precaution by eating half a grapefruit for breakfast. This was officially dubbed the Hollywood Diet, an eighteen-day outline that was included in a Mrs C. F. Leyel’s book Diet and Commonsense, in 1936 (still in print). Dr Eustace Chesser also celebrated the grapefruit in his 1939 book Slimming for the Million, but he did allow that the grapefruit could be eaten with a side of bacon and eggs. Hattie McDaniel reportedly rejected the diet: “As for those grapefruit and buttermilk diets, I’ll take roast chicken and dumplings.” Chicken and dumplings sound great, but the grapefruit’s popularity didn’t desist. There was something else about it that meant Hollywood kept bringing it back. Did it provide a way, somehow, of getting certain other indelicacies around the censors?

A list of the grapefruit’s appearances

Called into the action when filmmakers needed to get around something, or needed to communicate saucy details without being overtly saucy, the grapefruit is always worth more than it appears. It makes another appearance in Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933), during a breakfast scene integral to the mood and character of the film. The relationship at the center is the typical pre-Code dynamic: a man who wants to settle down, and a woman who wants to keep having fun and stay independent. The breakfast takes place on a morning after; the same morning that Helen (Bette Davis) has already resisted Don’s (Gene Raymond) marriage spiel (while in the bedroom). Helen’s father drops in unannounced, and basically calls Helen a waste of a woman, a whore. Helen doesn’t care and she just wants breakfast, but Don takes it seriously. “Let’s talk,” he says. “Let’s eat!” she replies. “No, let’s talk.” “Let’s talk and eat!” What follows is a breakfast in the kitchen where he implores her to marry him and she runs through a spate of reasons why she doesn’t think it a good idea. Helen eats half a grapefruit, digs the flesh out in spoonfuls, and some juice squirts up into her right eye. She slaps her hand to her face and cries in pain. The grapefruit here is a commentary on their relationship: both wholesome and unhealthy, bittersweet. Clearly, the hardboiled studio heads at Warner Brothers were feeling hard done by.

It also seems that, just as film fans would never stop playing with the memory of James Cagney and the indecent grapefruit incident, filmmakers kept up the game. In Hard to Handle(1933), Warner Brothers made the grapefruit into a plot device. Erratic entrepreneur Lefty Merrill (Cagney) is down on his luck after a few ideas have gone sour, and he cashes in on Grapefruit Acres, a company in Florida that sells plots and promises that they will “insure your old age.” A billboard pledges, “Dollars grow on trees in Grapefruit Acres” — this citrus seems to have magical qualities. Trying to win back the heart of Ruth (Mary Brian) — who caught him cheating, but that's another argument — he promises her gold-digging mother that he’ll gift her plots in Grapefruit Acres if she turns her daughter back to him. Only thing is, he’s promptly detained by the FBI, who accuse him of fraud. Apparently (unbeknownst to Lefty), grapefruit are hardly worth a cent and isn’t even worth growing. The cops don’t believe his declarations of innocence and throw him in jail — “Lock him up and show him a grapefruit,” they say. So he ends up in a cell with an old partner Mack, who ran off with their money at the start of the film. (The pattern here is that, while Lefty is unpredictable, he’s honest and therefore a worthy love interest.) Mack has lost weight: “Grapefruit, you know, that diet stuff,” Mack beams, and Lefty's eyes light up. He publicizes the grapefruit diet, the price of grapefruit skyrockets, and his venture makes a fortune. It has a narrative function here, and its presence actually changes the outcome of the characters’ lives, so it’s more than just a word or an object. Its role is more developed, and it seems that here, if anywhere, a grapefruit is just a grapefruit. But it still helps Lefty win back the woman he loves.

In The Girl From Tenth Avenue (1935), Warner Brothers (via their offshoot First National Pictures) still has something to say. Bette Davis's Miriam, a shopgirl who drunkenly married a rich lawyer on the rebound, is breakfasting with a group of stuck-up society women when her Hell’s Kitchen manners come through. Miriam suspects the haughty Valentine (Katharine Alexander) of seeking an affair with her husband, and says as much. The women look up from the grapefruit at their table settings. Valentine stutters and gets up to leave, but Miriam stops her gently with her fingertips and says, almost joyfully: “If you do, my dear, I’ll put that grapefruit smack in your face.”

In Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937), one of the most charming screwball comedies of the 1930s at the most charming of studios, Paramount Pictures, Mary (Jean Arthur) and John (Ray Milland) have a perfect meet cute at a midtown New York automat. Millionaire John wants to get out from the barnacles of the family fortune so is slumming it behind the automat window chutes, and there he bumps into Mary, in for a meal after finding an empty fridge at her apartment. He recognises her from “somewhere,” although can’t figure out where — it’s one of those multiple-mistaken-identity premises that screenwriter Preston Sturges was so adept at staging—and follows her around while she looks at various foodstuffs. John reels off a recommendation: beef steak pie is good, and a grapefruit only three nickels more. Although, what the grapefruit comes with, we’ll never know, as Arthur cuts him off with an acerbic, “Oh, shut up.” She only has two nickels, and is so hungry she takes him up on his risky offer to give her food secretly, and free of charge. “I’ll meet you behind the grapefruit,” he tells her. They meet there, he serves her a plate of grapefruit, then a beef pie, and then their plan all goes awry. Of course, like any Sturges film, it’s a fairy tale (and a satirical one). They fall in love and Mary wins the role of wife—or as John puts it, taking pleasure in gendered expectations, she gets to cook him breakfast. Will she give him grapefruit?

In Hollywood Canteen (1944), a cheesy but sweet piece of propaganda for both the American war effort and the film industry, returned G. I. ‘Slim’ (Robert Hutton) finds out that the newspapers are spreading gossip about him. The town broadsheets have announced his marriage to Hollywood starlet Joan Leslie, an exaggeration as they are only courting. The morning after their date he sees the papers, and he upends his hotel room in a rage — including the breakfast trays. His friend Sergeant Nolan (Dane Clark) is knocked to the floor, and as he gets up he pulls something squidgy out from under himself. “Grapefruit,” he says, disgustedly, grimacing. The couple might be innocent, but the stories aren’t; the grapefruit enjoys the drama.

The grapefruit had a few more appearances that year. In Double Indemnity (1944) over at Paramount Pictures, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s script is a collection of fast-paced, innuendo-laced dialogue. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) flirts with a new-on-the-scene insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray): she asks him who takes care of his apartment, and then, “Cook your own breakfast?” Phyllis’s smooth, peppery voice gets her message across; Walter responds, smugly, “Squeeze a grapefruit once in a while.” Walter is unmarried, and his time is more or less his own, so it’s possible that he might, simply, squeeze a grapefruit. But with Chandler, it is safe to assume he will always think about dialogue in terms of its underhanded implications. So Walter could have been angling for something more than grapefruit—for a chance romance with Phyllis, for instance. Chandler was smarter than the censorship board, and it’s safe to say this is a ribald remark.

Mr. Skeffington (1944), directed by the almost unremarkable Vincent Sherman for Warner Brothers, allows Bette Davis to eat a grapefruit again. Recovering from diptheria, the invalid Fanny Skeffington (Davis) is served breakfast in bed, consisting of undercooked eggs, toast, and half a grapefruit — the typical Hollywood Diet. Fanny sugars the grapefruit and scoops portions out, sipping her cup of tea, and she hallucinates the vision of her estranged husband sitting by her bed. The flickering image of Claude Rains haunts Fanny as she vexedly eats her wholesome grapefruit breakfast. Here, the grapefruit’s appearance mocks Fanny’s vanity, as her husband reminds her of a love long past. It isn’t there to censor, but as a droll companion to Fanny’s unfulfilling narcissism. The film, and Fanny, need it.

The Big Sleep (1946), a Raymond Chandler novel with an adapted screenplay by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett, has another go. Assuming a disguise as a bookish historian, wearing glasses and a low-tipped hat, Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe interrogates the proprietor of a bookstore that he thinks may be a front for the gambler Arthur Geiger and his habit for blackmail. After the proprietor, who is tied up in Geiger’s illegal operation, stares blankly at his literary questions, he probes, “You do sell books, hmmm?” She snaps back at him: “What do those look like, grapefruit?” She gestures at her surrounds with no interest whatsoever, as bitter as the fruit itself. Not simply a Warner Brothers grapefruit, this exchange is taken almost directly from Chandler’s book. Chandler is using the forbidden fruit as a decoy, something to flirt around when he really wanted them to talk about sex.

In 1949, the Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin scripted Adam’s Rib, directed by George Cukor for MGM, has a grapefruit in a relatively calm environment — to begin with. Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) and her husband Adam (Spencer Tracy) are preparing dinner together in the kitchen, and while it’s cooking, they share a grapefruit. Their neighbor pops over to perform a new song he has composed, which turns out to be a paean to his own feelings for her. The couple listen to his lyrics while eating their grapefruit. Adam is clearly resentful, but Amanda doesn’t take the neighbor seriously. She just stays in the kitchen, dedicated to her romance with Adam — and her grapefruit.

In a Lonely Place (1951), the Nicholas Ray film adapted by Columbia from Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel, has Bogart square up against a real grapefruit. Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele (Bogart) wants to prepare breakfast for his lover, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), so he suggests he’ll start it while she dresses. It’s as much a kind gesture as an aggressive one; he’s angry that she takes sleeping pills. He goes to the kitchen, cuts a grapefruit in half, and takes another knife from the drawer. It’s bent; he straightens it, and proceeds to slice the grapefruit with difficulty. Laurel enters and he replies, “It was crooked, and I straightened it.” The following scene, as Dix ruminates, is one of the most romantic tableaux in all screen history. “A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit, you sitting over there dopey, half asleep. Anybody looking at us could tell we were in love.” They take breakfast trays into the sitting room with empty coffee cups, and things explode in front of the unassuming grapefruit; he’s pushy for marriage, she’s afraid he might be a murderous psychopath, and the coffee in the kitchen boils over. Here, the disastrous breakfast captures the agony of a dwindling relationship.

Then Billy Wilder gets a few more grapefruit in his films, with at least three references to that early scene in The Public Enemy. There’s a brief gag during a banquet scene in Some Like It Hot (1959), where mobster Spats (George Raft) threatens to shove half of a grapefruit into a minion’s face. (A grapefruit served on ice, with a cherry on top!) In One, Two, Three (1961), a comedy set in West Berlin, MacNamara (James Cagney) tries to coach a passionate young bolshevik, married to his boss’s daughter, to behave like a respectable, rich American. Otto (Horst Buchholz) isn’t cooperating. Looking at the array of dinner cutlery, he shouts derisively, “Which knife to stab the proletariat in the back with!” MacNamara picks up half a grapefruit, braces his arm, and threatens, “How would you like a little fruit for dessert?” He manages to restrain himself, and places the grapefruit gently back onto the table. It’s one of Wilder’s absurd comedic ploys, and also a commentary on the characters. Upper-class MacNamara comes close to being just as common as Otto, using the salacious grapefruit as a weapon.

In Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) spots half a grapefruit in the refrigerator and gets wide-eyed. He seems angry with the grapefruit, aware of its connotations, and suspects his wife Zelda (Felicia Fay) of having an affair. He grabs the grapefruit and spends the scene hiding it from his wife, quizzing her about their wedding and honeymoon as though ready to slam it into her face at the slightest hint of infidelity. The town reverend arrives unexpectedly at the door with a petition to close down the local niterie, The Belly Button, based on “the distinct impression that there’s love for sale on the premises.” “Love for sale, Cole Porter,” Orville responds almost absent-mindedly. Zelda offers the reverend some of their wedding anniversary cake, but he declines — too many calories. Instead, he requests some of the grapefruit behind Orville’s back. Orville looks uncomfortable, sprung: “I was saving it for my wife,” he says, helplessly. The scene cuts to an exterior shot of a Nevadan highway with a sign pointing off-road to The Belly Button. Saving the grapefruit, as a temptation to the good times.

Grapefruit: citrus or sex metaphor?

Although this is a piece about Hollywood’s Golden Age, a few other instances need be mentioned. In The Boom (1963), Giovanni’s (Alberto Sordi) wife Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale) is complaining about her husband, and quips that he has only ever spoken to her of exchange rates and grapefruit. She’s despondent! Oh, the banalities of marriage! Vittorio de Sica had a wonderful eye for the everyday, and for ordinary living; stripped of all they symbolise, grapefruit were a mundanity. And while it is sometimes around during relationship troubles, it seems to mostly symbolise ripe — and perhaps forbidden — sexuality. So maybe de Sica had something else in mind.

The grapefruit is not as popular in films, now; it isn’t as much a breakfast staple as it once was — although it appeared in Black Swan (2010) as part of a ballet dancer’s diet. A new report has announced its unfortunate demise, declaring it an “increasingly underappreciated fruit”. But a recent short filmPink Grapefruit (2015), uses the fruit as a backdrop to two relationships, one burgeoning and one old and bitter. A grapefruit tree provides a silent commentary on romance, helping an awkward couple seduce one another, and adding to the spite within another. Society is generally more open to sexual themes on screen than it once was, so here, director Michael Mohan appreciates the eponymous fruit with tongue in cheek. It’s no longer necessary, but it’s still a lot of fun.

With a long history in cinema that can be tracked alongside a growth in popularity, in America in particular, the grapefruit is something special. It’s never just a piece of fruit. With its forbidden associations, it can be a tempter or temptress, a seductive force, leading people down the path to love. It’s at the core of a once-popular diet. Ultimately, the grapefruit is good for your health, and on screen, it has proven itself as good for the action. It’s a romantic moderator: love beginning to blossom, love falling apart. It’s a weapon of wits, a stand-in for sexuality. Filmmakers have treated it as an unlikely enabler, but it can also be a knowing one (just like the humble ice tea). It’s a performer. It’s a tease. A euphemism, a weapon. It’s at the center of conflict. It’s on the sidelines when conflict is brewing. It observes the contretemps of unfulfilled lovers; it helps lovers become fulfilled. It is, in the end, a pretty saucy fruit.

Eloise Ross is a writer, film programmer, and occasional university lecturer currently living in Melbourne. She is trying to finish her PhD in cinema studies but keeps getting distracted by other films.

Talk This Way

by Zosha Millman

©Miramax Pictures

©Miramax Pictures

Objects in movies seem particularly explosion-prone. Cars, buildings, spaceships: on film they’re all poorly designed, ready to blow at any moment. And when they do, it’s something fantastic—big balls of flame and plumes of smoke streaking across the sky. Our action hero will finally stop running and turn to his associate, damsel, spared enemy, or random bystander. “Well that sh-oure is a mess of fai-yah,” he says with a winning smile, oozing Southern charm.

Most savvy moviegoers will be quick to tell you the explosion was just big-screen shenanigans. But many forget that the accent is, too.

If you’re looking for someone in the South who speaks with that dripping, plantation accent, you’d probably be talking to people who are at least 75 years old. But you wouldn’t know it watching most movies made in the last few decades, where actors dip below the Mason-Dixon line and drop their R’s like it’s a fai-yah sale. The truth is, movies ask their audiences to compromise on a lot of realism—from explosions to exposition—and accent work is just more of the same. But that aural shorthand in a heightened reality shapes perceptions in ways we don’t even realize.

Our real-life accents are a sort of summary of our lives: there is no such thing as unaccented English. Coded into our inflections and pronunciations are our experiences of race, gender, class—life. And like any disbeliefs that are suspended for a film or Chipotle burrito, accent work isn’t inherently bad. Arguably accent work doesn’t even have anything to do with acting ability. But it’s important to know what’s going into what you consume.


I came to the Pacific Northwest by way of the Midwest, hailing originally from New England. Most people wouldn’t know. I have, over the many years I’ve resided in this rainy haven of Seattle, adopted the largely flat inflection: homonyms bleed together, beginnings becomebegin-eens. I can hear some of the distinctions, but like many Pacific Northwesterners I am largely blind to most of the accented traits we bring to the table. To me, the Pacific Northwest carries no accent baggage with it.

Allegedly this is something much of the nation feels; local lore has it that newscasters nationwide commonly try to emulate the flat tone we use. But American English has actually been moving towards a “General American” accent for a while now. General American, the umbrella term for the continuum of accents commonly perceived as lacking ties to things like socioeconomics and location, is actually described a bit closer to a conservative, generalized midwestern accent. You’ve probably heard it. It’s the accent that much of the world likely now associates with America (aside, perhaps, from the exaggerated drawl of cowboy movies), given that an estimated two-thirds of our population speaks it.

Heck, it’s everywhere in the media: it’s present in about 90 percent of what’s heard at the movies, on TV, the radio, and so forth. The style spread even faster once it hit Hollywood. Between that and the increasing movement between towns, cities, and countries, American English accents (and most languages) are really just a dilution of the great melting pot.

But in other ways it’s entirely new to filmgoers, who walk into the theater and hear imagined accents from all over. Those accents are heavily but subtly used to code a character as an “other;” a succinct convention that may not even mean anything outside of the circles from which it separates. Why else would Jafar sport the only British accent in the fictional land of Agrabah?


When you see a film character with an accent, you’re seeing a kind of oral Chekov’s gun: If a character says they were born in the South, or Boston, or Jersey Shore, audiences expect that to be backed up somewhere. So in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire drops his r’s in the middle of words, even if someone of his character’s upbringing wouldn’t. Julia Roberts, who was born in Georgia, over-inflates a southern accent in Steel Magnolias to convey to the audience that she is Southern, not just from the South. It’s also why any film set across the pond prominently features British accents, even when the characters are decidedly not British. Ancient Romans are just as likely to have an American accent as they would a British one, or an Italian one, for that matter. The Brothers Grimm stars an Australian and an American actor, each putting on English accents, to play a pair of German brothers.

Does it make sense when you say it out loud? Probably not. But no one wants to be Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood.

At its most pure, an accent is used to show a cultural divide. On the TV show Vikings, the cast is populated from Australia, Canada, the U.S., and beyond. But given that cultural unity is one of the most important aspects of the show, it’s vital that there be some homogeneity to their tone. So the Nords speak English with a Scandinavian inflection, the Brits with an English one, and when they intersect they make all the actors speak the foreign, ancient languages they likely would’ve at the time.




I’ve lived a few places in my life, and been lucky enough to travel to even more. But for having a life that sprawled across so many time zones, I have no ear for accents. More than once I’ve walked out of the theater bemoaning someone’s accent before a friend informs me it is, in fact, real (I’m looking at you Anna Paquin). But apparently I’m not alone.

Over the years, researchers have shown us more and more evidence that the stereotypes we’ve developed aren’t founded on much. People are well aware that historians now believe that Old English sounded much closer to Modern American accents than Contemporary British, and so on. But clearly it’s very hard to unroot a feeling someone has about how a person should sound, given their background. The classification of characters—and by extension the people we’re expected to believe them as—often happens instantaneously. And the accent they use, their inflection, their tone, can be more important than the way they look.

You can’t tell people where the line of realism should be for a movie to exist. Gravity would never have happened, since NASA has approximately three backup safety protocols for when anything goes wrong. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a career of playing American commandos, officers, and agents while never once altering his heavy Austrian accent, and providing no reason why his character would have one. And there is room for accent work in films; just ask Daniel Day Lewis, David Oyelowo, or any other Brit who’s won acclaim for portraying an American icon. Audrey Hepburn—who was born in Belgium, but attended a boarding school in England at the age of five, and was famous for her prim upper-class British accent—affected a thick Cockney accent to land the transformation of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Whatever there is to say about the classist undertones of the story itself, it’s clear that the accent work was inserted with a point in mind.

But it’s worth asking why we associate accents the way we do, and what verbal shorthand we’re trying to communicate when we open our mouths. (Can we conscientiously shelve Jodie Foster’s uneven and distracting British accent in Elysium alongside the accents in the above paragraph?) Stereotypes are already notoriously slow to change, and things can move at a glacial pace when it comes to big screen portrayals. Sometimes they are rooted in some sort of strange tradition (like Bela Lugosi’s accented English becoming equivalent to “vampire”) that has nothing to do with anything at all. At this point it’s become such a ubiquitous mythology people often forget how they sway our perception. Other times it’s just a perceived societal divide, like a British Accent that carries with it a “snobbish” quality that Americans really respond to, whether we’re supposed to read them as a villain or just somehow superior in culture.

And these implications can be translated back into the real world as gospel. The intelligence of immigrants is judged for their grasp of the English language, even when all it means is they aren’t yet adept at expressing themselves in a second language. Many black people in Francefind it easier to affect an English accent to their French, because they get better service when they do. It’s become an aesthetic, just like shooting in black and white or adding in lens flair to a shot of a spaceship, but it’s one that’s masquerading as a fact. The truth is, like Keanu Reeves, accents don’t inherently make a story or character more convincing just because they’re there. And maybe it’s time we start fighting fai-yah with fire.

Zosha Millman is the editor of legal news publication LXBN by day, and writer of pop culture things by night and other times around day. You can always find her in Seattle, and you can frequently find her on the internet, including Pulp Diction the movie review blog she started with friends.

“This Isn’t like Any Other Profession Out There”: A found poem

All language taken verbatim from S10 E5 of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” a reality show about football rookies in training camp competing for spots on an NFL team, and S14 E7 of Lifetime’s “Project Runway,” a reality show about fashion designers competing for New York Fashion Week.

What should you be?

All over the place.

On the fucking ball.

Hope and pray this stuff holds.

Come up with an idea. Run a play.

Think outside the box. One-two-three-meow!

Don’t mind the cameras till you to talk to them.

I will be back to check on you, of course.

This is the most unstable job you could have.

It’s more important to be creative than sexy.

The reaper or whatever they call it:

I just need to suck it up.

You have to earn your job every single week.

It’s a little intimidating.

Put good shit on tape.

You’re in a competition, so compete.

You’ve got physical skills but it can’t be up or down.

You have a lot of work to do.

You’re never safe.

I guess we’ll feel much better in the morning?

Every snap, every route:

Want to make it strong and sharp.

It might be the end of the world.

I’m still trying to build my confidence and let loose.

Devastated would be a good word.

Fingers are falling off.

Everyone’s looking for inspiration.

That’s terror that you’re feeling.

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.