You Are What You Do

by Sheila O'Malley

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby


“When I first started in pictures, an actor didn’t have the freedom to interrupt the dialogue. But in His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell and I were constantly interrupting each other. The sound men would say, ‘We can’t hear you.’ And we’d say, ‘Well, you’re not supposed to hear us. People do interrupt each other, you know.’”
—Cary Grant

His Girl Friday is known for its faster-than-fast overlapping dialogue, every line rat-a-tat-tatting like automatic weapon fire. There are times—in the crowded press room, for example—when no less than five or six people are all talking at the same time, and yet clarity is never sacrificed. The overlapping required specific timing on the part of the ensemble. Director Howard Hawks said in an interview with critic Richard Schickel, decades later, “Naturally, we used [overlapping dialogue] because that’s the way we all talk… Our little trick of adding a few words in front and adding a few at the end of a line makes it come out as clear as it can be. To me it sounds more like reality.” Reality hyped up on caffeine and cigarettes and sleep deprivation. The end result is something almost symphonic or orchestral, and is still the high watermark for fast-talking ensemble pictures.

But the thing about the fast dialogue that is so extraordinary here—and why imitators often fall short—is that the dialogue is not an empty gimmick. Every line is supported by characterization, motivation, action and re-action. Hawks immerses us in the cynical, hard-bitten world of crime reporters and the newspaper business, where everyone races to get the scoop regardless of who may be trampled along the way. One just assumes (because it is set up so powerfully) that this is how they all talk, this is the world they inhabit. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, heading up the cast, speak as quickly as the rest of them, lobbing linguistic explosives at one another like grenades, laughing when they detonate.

Hawks (and cinematographer Joseph Walker) filmed the action with an unfussy straightforwardness that not only eradicates distraction from the fastest dialogue ever captured onscreen but highlights the irresistible chemistry between Grant and Russell. Except for one or two scenes, the entire action takes place in the cramped unglamorous press room at City Hall. A lot of His Girl Friday is filmed in medium shot, with all of the actorscrowded into one frame. What we are seeing plays out in real time. Hawks doesn’t "zoom in” for you; you have to decide where to put your focus in any given scene. His Girl Friday is one of those rare films that gets more dazzling with repeat viewings.

A remake of the wildly popular 1928 stage play and 1931 film The Front Page (considered by Pauline Kael to be “the greatest newspaper comedy of them all”), written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, His Girl Friday is so cynical that at times you wonder if eventually it will lose its nerve. His Girl Friday does not lose its nerve. As Walter (Grant) and Hildy (Russell) hurry out of the press room in the final frame—reconciled as man and wife and racing on to the next big scoop—she struggles, carrying a purse, her coat, and a suitcase. Instead of helping her out with any of it, he gives her an impatient look and says, “Don’t you want to carry that with your other hand?” In an earlier scene, he doesn’t hold the door open for her, and charges across a room without waiting for her, something she gibes him for. And so nothing has changed. Roll credits. The world portrayed in His Girl Friday is insular, brutal, and heartless. Comedy, and the enormous appeal of Grant and Russell, helps you swallow the pill. But it is still a pill.

"While there are conflicts between men and women in a Hawks picture, he often makes the conflicts look like the best fun in the world.

Howard Hawks had had the bright idea to re-make the film but to change the star reporter “Hildy” (originally a man) into a woman. Hawks was interested in the world of men—the world of work and shared endeavor that bonded men together—but he was also interested in feisty, insolent women who could go toe to toe with men (without sacrificing their femininity). You rarely see portrayals of marriage or domestic life in Hawks’ films. He was interested in the interplay of wit and bravado between a man and a woman who, more often than not, cannot admit to each other (or to themselves) their true feelings. Howard Hawks’ people have a lot of pride. Part of the fun of his films (and they are tremendous fun) lies in watching prideful people ignore their own softness, their own needs and wants, in order to maintain the façade that they are individuals.

While there are conflicts between men and women in a Hawks picture, he often makes the conflicts look like the best fun in the world. David Huxley (Cary Grant), the workaholic paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, has a moment at the end of the film when he stands on his brontosaurus-scaffold, looking down at the dizzy dame (Katharine Hepburn) who has upended his entire life in a matter of 24 hours, and shouts at her, “I’ve never had a better time!” Huxley’s emotional outburst in that final moment is key to understanding Hawks’ unique take on the battle of the sexes. Yes, in Hawks’ male characters’ view, women can be annoying and too emotional, and muck up the serious work of men … but in the end, hanging out with them provides you “a better time” than you’ve ever had in your life.

It was well known about town that Rosalind Russell was not Howard Hawks’ first choice (or the studio’s first choice) for the female lead in His Girl Friday. She wasn’t even the second or third choice. Many years later, Russell titled the His Girl Friday chapter in her memoir “Back Door to The Front Page, or How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice.” She was so pissed off about it that she showed up to her initial meeting with Howard Hawks with wet hair, having just come out of the pool. It is not difficult to picture Hawks’ reaction to this ostentatious display of indifference: she had spirit, she was feisty, she was not intimidated or eager to please. In other words, the perfect “Howard Hawks Woman,” a trope all his own, fine-tuned through picture after picture, showing up in different guises from the beginning until the end of his long and illustrious career. Howard Hawks’ world was a macho one; he made films about pilots and gangsters and cowboys, stereotypically male pursuits. Women in such films normally inhabited a very clear female space, narrow and limited (although no less important as love interests or damsels in distress). Howard Hawks had no interest in those clichés. He presentes us with sassy dames who barrel right into the center of the action, disturbing the all-male equilibrium to often sexy results. Lauren Bacall, making her film debut in To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart, was perhaps the pinnacle of this type of female character. In his direction to her, Hawks kept stressing that he wanted her to be as “insolent” as Bogart. No tears or feminine wiles were allowed—she was a tough gal in a tough world, and, in Hawks’ fantasy, only that type of woman could make a certain type of man happy. In Only Angels Have Wings, poor Jean Arthur is driven out of her mind trying to get close to Cary Grant’s tough-guy pilot.

Howard Hawks had a dream of equality between the sexes, where women were as cool and self-possessed as men, where they didn’t muck up the business of men with dreams of domestication and safety. But he was not interested in women who tried to be like men. He liked women in his films to maintain their femininity, their sex appeal—minus the stereotypical tears and sentimentality. His women are emotional daredevils. Watching Angie Dickinson banter with John Wayne in Rio Bravo is an object lesson of the perfect “Howard Hawks woman,” as is Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

After chatting with Russell for a bit, Hawks sent her straight to wardrobe to get fitted for some pinstripe suits. And that, as they say, was that. Rosalind Russell was Hildy from that day forth. Cary Grant, fresh off Only Angels Have Wings, was already signed on as Walter Burns, the unscrupulous editor and Hildy’s ex-husband.

The first scene in His Girl Friday is rightly famous, and should be studied by young directors who want to know how to present necessary information efficiently and naturally. Hildy, decked out in geometric pinstripes (coat and jauntily cocked hat) that make her look like some sort of manic playing card, swoops through the busy newsroom on her way to inform her boss/ex-husband that she is about to be married to a sweet, conventional guy named Bruce (played by Ralph Bellamy). As she makes her way across the room she is greeted affectionately and happily by everyone who sees her. You understand immediately that Hildy is not in any way, shape, or form a “his girl Friday”—rather, she is a star reporter at the newspaper, the best writer they’ve got. But like most Howard Hawks women, she wants to be a “woman,” too; she wants to have a normal life where her husband won’t cancel the honeymoon because of a coal mine disaster or a union strike.

Hildy bursts into Walter’s office, Walter rises to greet her, and so begins one of the best scenes in American cinema. Critic Molly Haskell remarks in an interview included in the special features of the DVD, that it’s like watching a boxing match between two fighters “in the same weight class.”

What you understand immediately is that the two are perfect for one another not just because nobody else on earth could keep up with them, but also because nobody else would put up with either of them. It’s a match made in screwball heaven. Pauline Kael, in her famous essay on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City”, observed that the 1930s screwball comedies “turned love and marriage into vaudeville acts and changed the movie heroine from sweet clinging vine into vaudeville partner.” Direct descendants of the dazzlingly witty Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Walter and Hildy are obsessed with one another, competitive with one another, and, finally, helpless in the face of the blatant chemistry binding them together. As Barbra Streisand’s Judy says in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (a 1972 homage to 1930s screwballs), “Listen, kiddo, ya can’t fight a tidal wave.”

The strength of His Girl Friday lies in the fact that we can see all of that from the get-go. When Cary Grant’s Walter Burns behaves in often-reprehensible ways, repeatedly jailing poor Bruce throughout the film on trumped-up charges, you understand that it’s only because he can’t bear to lose Hildy. Of course, the question remains: is it just her writing he will miss, or is it her? The beauty of His Girl Friday is that it does not distinguish between the two.

"Hawks is radical in that he makes the woman central to this ultimate journey, when so often the woman is forced to compromise in other films of that era (and ours)."

Hildy, throughout the course of the film, begins to re-discover who she really is: a “newspaperman.” All you need to do is watch Hildy dash like a lunatic between two different telephones in the press room, barking out instructions into both mouthpieces, speaking so quickly it is unbelievable that you still understand every word, to know that this woman is doing exactly what she needs to be doing during her short time on this planet. Her desire to have a quiet life with a nice husband is sincere, but there are more primal drives on this earth, and those who define themselves by what they do will understand.

Hawks is radical in that he makes the woman central to this ultimate journey, when so often the woman is forced to compromise in other films of that era (and ours). You must choose, if you are a woman: domestic bliss or a career. Here, Hildy gets both, although “bliss” is probably a wild misrepresentation. She and Walter Burns will live together, work together, and fight like cats and dogs until the end of their days. Life will be fun, messy, exciting, infuriating, busy, and focused. To Hawks, that’s what “having it all” looks like. And Walter Burns, ruthless as he is, understands that. He finds Hildy hilarious. He “gets” her. She will be safer with him, ironically, than with the more staid Bruce Baldwin.

Pauline Kael, in that same essay, observed, “Clark Gable is an intensely realistic sexual presence; you don’t fool around with Gable. But with Grant there are no pressures, no demands; he’s the sky that women aspire to. When he and a woman are together, they can laugh at each other and at themselves. He’s a slapstick Prince Charming.” When poor tragic Molly Malloy (played beautifully by Helen Mack) leaps out the window of the press room to hit the sidewalk a couple stories below, Walter is not only unmoved, but clearly conniving how he can work it to his advantage. In any other actor, such a reaction would be unforgivable. But in Grant’s hands, it’s deeply funny, and further evidence that Walter and Hildy are cut from the same cloth.

Stella Adler—The great American acting teacher and founding member of the Group Theatre—once said, “It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you DO, and then do it like Hercules.” Her words could represent the Howard Hawks mantra, explored and examined in film after film after film, but His Girl Friday is the zany zenith. Despite all of the hilarity and slapstick, His Girl Friday has a serious, dark heart, and those who persist in believing that the ultimate in life is discovering “who you are” will wonder what all of those people are doing, racing around shouting into telephones at one o’clock in the morning. But Hildy and Walter know the real secret to life: What they DO is who they ARE.

And so they proceed to do it like Hercules.


Sheila O’Malley writes film reviews and essays for , Capital New York, Fandor, Press Play, Noir of the Week, and The House Next Door. She has performed her one-woman show “74 Facts and One Lie” all over Manhattan, and her first play—July and Half of August—recently had public readings at Theatre Wit in Chicago, and The Vineyard Theatre in New York. She is currently working on her second play, as well as a book about Elvis Presley in Hollywood.


Hurdy-Gurdy Man

by Christopher Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Hey man, you really creeped us out.”

The Zodiac first killed on December 20th, 1968, but the film opens with the Zodiac’s second murder, on July 4th, 1969. The first thing the film shows us is murder. Death. It shows us shock and horror. It shows us the black hole, and we fall into it before we even know what’s happening. It shows us Normal Life instantly interrupted by Chaos. It shows us the Very Thing, because before we go down this path, we need to understand what’s pulling us forward. We need to be pulled forward by it. We need to become obsessed; we must first be hooked.

From the first frame, there is dread. We bought the ticket from the man in the booth, we know what the movie is about. We know it really happened (insofar as a movie recreates what really happened). Even if we don’t know the details, we have an idea. So when we see fireworks, families, a young blonde with braces, fins on cars that harken back to a more innocent America, we end up paying more attention to the darkness, the liquid black David Fincher pours into the frame. It oozes out from every corner of brightness. We get scared pretty fast, seconds in. And this is real, we trust this “reality,” and we know there’s nothing we can do to change it. We’re powerless. We get even more scared. Then the Very Thing happens, and we’re stricken. Why, why, oh my God, why, no, no, no—

We’re hooked. Robert Graysmith sees the killer’s cipher sent to the San Francisco Chronicleand he’s hooked. SF Homicide Detective Dave Toschi sees a cabbie with his head blown off and a confusing crime scene and he’s hooked. And the Zodiac killer. Something happened to him before the movie starts. We don’t know what; we fear what it is. We understand that he, too, has become hooked. Now, we need to Know. Graysmith, Toschi, Paul Avery, they need to Know. For Avery and Toschi, it’s primarily their jobs that makes them investigate—Avery’s a reporter at the Chronicle, Toschi a cop. Graysmith, a cartoonist, makes it his vocation, something more than a job.

“Vocation” is often used when describing careers in the priesthood. It signifies a complete devotion. These are people who give their entire lives to one thing and in a way, obsessively pursue it. If you don’t label it God, you could label it Life.

Graysmith vocationally, obsessively pursues Death.

Journalism finds a powerful root in obsession. Journalism primarily concerns itself withgetting to the bottom of something. Finding out. Knowing, so that all may Know. What happened here? What’s the answer? Journalists pursue the truth and they don’t stop until they’ve found it, until they’ve gotten to the bottom of it. The “bigger” the story, the more elusive or Earth-shattering the answer. The deeper the journalist goes. The more impressive his or her career becomes, should he or she find (publish) the answer. Woodward and Bernstein and Deep Throat and so on.

The same is true with law enforcement detectives. They get to the bottom of something—a crime. In its most primal form, a murder. They don’t stop until they’ve found it (the murder weapon, the killer). The “bigger” the case (the more sensational the murder or murders), the more elusive the killer (Zodiac), or Earth-shattering the truth (O.J. did it). The detective goes deeper. He or she solves the case, gets a Gold Shield, the Nice Desk, the Corner Office.

The same is true with the fiction writer, the poet, the scientist, the cleric. Get to the bottom of it.

But what if you can’t get to the bottom of it? What if the bottom doesn’t exist?

"The trouble is, there will always be more details, and when the details run out, there will always be more dots to connect, and when the connections become worn, there will always be more patterns."

This creates a paradox. The journalist, the detective fall into a recursive loop. They desire to Know, but they cannot. They will never. But they are driven by this desire to get to the bottom of it—indeed, it’s the ontological definition of their very identity. They exist, they live, to get to the bottom of it. But they will never Know. So they at least try to know (little “k”) all the details, hoping that these will clue them into the bigger answer. The trouble is, there will always be more details, and when the details run out, there will always be more dots to connect, and when the connections become worn, there will always be more patterns.

That’s when the patterns risk becoming psychosomatic, invented. Now you’re studying Moon phases in relation to the killings in Vallejo. Now you’re suggesting that every murder had something to do with a body of water, even going so far as to point out the taxi driver was shot on the corner of Cherry and Washington. Now you’re muttering to yourself as you run to a diner and write down names on napkins, repeating phrases as you head up the stairs to an apartment that isn’t yours in a city two hours away from your second wife, your children, your son from your first marriage.

Your obsession becomes the date that never ends.

Here is where you’re at the greatest risk of becoming the Conspiracy Theorist. The Fringe Nut. Note: the fiction writer, the poet and the artist skip directly to this step, somehow circumventing the rational altogether and jumping in right here, at the Deep End. They often do it alone, and they go into it knowing that they’ll never find any answer to anything at all. Most of the time they don’t even know the Question.

The Fringe Nut feels shame. He stutters, he excitably interrupts policemen and handwriting experts and his wife because there’s simply too much bursting out of his head. The only way to cast off his shame is to be Proved Right. But as discussed, this is impossible.

The Zodiac case is the Big Story / the Unsolved Murder. It is both, wrapped into one. It consumes. Its victims die or live in fear—those that attempt to Know lose nearly everything. The JFK assassination is another example of something like this. The Original Night Stalker (the one they never found). Events like these have a morbid siren call. They draw you in.

There’s an easy access point these days, a launch from which to wade out into mysterious waters. It’s often referred to as the “Wikipedia Rabbit Hole.”

Here is just a sampling of weirdness pulled from various internet searches. Tell me you aren’t tempted to immediately put search terms into Google:

  • Arthur Leigh Allen wore a Zodiac brand wristwatch. The logo of the company is the same as the symbol used to sign every Zodiac letter.

  • A French terrorist was arrested in Texas the day of Kennedy’s assassination but was released and allowed to leave the country three days later.

  • A photo surfaced a few years ago of the second Zodiac victim accompanied by a man who looks eerily like the original police sketch of the killer.

  • The Original Night Stalker may be confined to a mental institution and may have completely deteriorated psychologically, thus making it impossible to verify who he might be.

Wikipedia and the Internet allow you to become the Hobbyist Fringe Nut. The crazy only lasts a few hours. I’ve repeatedly, for years, gone back to the well of the JFK assassination. I, too, have felt the shame of reading garbage for hours while my wife sat in the house, bored. I read books arguing that Oswald acted alone. I read Libra. I made my way through all 850 pages of11/22/63. I’ve even written a screenplay centered around the assassination called “The Knoll.” Along with my writing partner, I set out to dramatize what a plausible conspiracy would look like on the ground level in the first 48 hours, seen through the eyes of a fictional Dallas patrolman. We researched all the loose ends and controversial “facts” we could find. It gave me an excuse to go through the entire Warren Report at the LA Public Library. It gave me an excuse for microfiche.

Lucien Sarti. The pool of blood outside the Book Depository. The 1950’s picture of David Ferrie and Oswald in the Marines together even though they didn’t know each other. Badge Man. The Mexico City CIA station. The Dallas police officer who claimed he saw a Mauser and not a Carcano rifle on the sixth floor, then was shot at in his car, then shot in the chest with a shotgun when he answered his door, then finally killed himself three minutes after coming home and saying hi to his father who was mowing the lawn outside the house. The changing of the parade route. E. Howard Hunt’s alleged deathbed confession to his son. George de Mohrenschildt’s shotgun suicide on the day he was asked to testify before the HSCA.

All this stuff is in my head. I keep it at bay. I leave it alone. I believe Oswald acted alone. I really do. But I gobble everything up when it appears in acceptable forms like a Stephen King book.

This shit ruins people’s lives, whether they’re right or not. We see the strain on Graysmith’s marriage in Zodiac. We see Toschi lose his homicide badge. We see Avery drink himself into oblivion. Even though Kevin Costner played him as a hero, Jim Garrison’s life was basically ruined in his quest to prove a conspiracy. He’s been labeled a paranoid schizophrenic and a publicity hound and so on and so on. Maybe it’s all true. His life becomes just as much a mystery as the death he investigated.

Everything gets sucked down the black hole.

But another name stays in my head. Arthur Leigh Allen. This is the man Graysmith makes his case against. Graysmith tells his wife at one point that he needs to see the Zodiac face to face. He needs to look him in the eyes. He does this with Allen toward the end of the movie. It’s an extremely powerful moment. A lot of this has to do with the casting. Allen is played by character actor John Carroll Lynch. Many people remember him as Frances McDormand’s husband inFargo—the one who paints ducks (“I’ll make you some eggs”)—but I remember him as Allen.

Casting a part like this can be tricky because, if the movie is doing its job, the audience has thrust its collective horrified imagination onto this person. The actor has to live up to this expectation. So easily, it can become, “THAT’s not him, DUMB.” But there are a few actors who can get it right. Who drive the stake through your heart, scare you to death. Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald comes to mind. With Oldman it becomes “THAT’s him, HOLY SHIT.”

John Carroll Lynch accomplishes the same thing. He’s in two scenes (and one quick shot where he shows up to his trailer in shorts). The scene where Graysmith goes into the hardware store where Arthur Leigh Allen is working in 1983. Looks him in the eyes. And Carroll’s face changes. For a split second, Graysmith Knows. WE KNOW. WE KNOW!

It dissipates as soon as Graysmith leaves the hardware store, because we can never Know.

Why is that?

Because what are we ultimately obsessed with? What is the task of the journalist, of the homicide detective, of the artist? What are we trying to get to the bottom of, but can’t?

It comes in many forms, with different specifics assigned to it.

In life, we know what’s coming. We bought the ticket from the man in the booth. Even if we don’t know the details, we have an idea. This is what scares us. We’re desperate to Know. It will forever torment us, but elude us. We’re powerless against it. The more we pursue it, the more we put ourselves at risk. The more we lose our minds, our souls.

Poe tells us what it is:

It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry – and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night.

Even if the Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen, the Zodiac wasn’t Arthur Leigh Allen. Arthur Leigh Allen died in 1991, but the Zodiac is still out there. No matter how many clues point to Allen, no matter how likely it is that Oswald shot the president, was arrested, then killed, it’s all still out there. It’s all coming for all of us. Because the Zodiac isn’t a man.

It is the liquid black that oozes out from every corner of brightness. The darkness and dread that scared us from the moment the movie started.

It’s the Hurdy Gurdy Man.

And when we least expect it…

Why, why, oh my God, why, no, no, no—


Christopher Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season.


The Lines of Power

by Gray Hendryx

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I’ve been a holdout against smartphones for some time. I don’t like replacing an old tool when it still works. My Pantech, a dumbphone I got for free nearly four years ago, has continued texting for years even through water and wear. I’d admit to my frustrated friends, “Yeah, I’ll get an iPhone once the Pantech goes kaput”—and so it thus refused to die, almost as if to spite them. I even managed to hold out against my own vanity, when my lack of device meant that I couldn’t read my own essays on this fine publication. (I eventually borrowed my boyfriend’s iPhone.) But I have a trip to Pittsburgh coming up soon and, when I imagined carrying a handful of Google Maps printouts with me on the bus, then calling my boyfriend at work to ask, “Hey, could you pull up a map and tell me if I need to turn right or left to get to the Carnegie,” I finally balked.

Though I’m obstinate, I’m no Luddite. I need the power of a device that will tell me exactly where I am and where I need to go in a city strange to me. I want something that will show my dearest: Look, this is what I see. This is where I am. This is what I’m doing there.

*

All the President’s Men evokes a quiet, pervasive anguish. It pulses like the buzzing of high-tension wires in a low-rent neighborhood. A person can live in such a place for years and never notice that electric whine, until one day their head aches and their nose bleeds and their flesh rebels into cancer. They can sue the power company or even move, but ultimately others will accept the noise. New leases are signed. The power stays on. Work must be done.

As journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein underline this tonal unease not by what they say or do, but by whom they encourage to speak. Both actors (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) are famously gifted at understatement, but in President’s, their characters are almost totally blank. In order to deduce anything remotely personal about either one of them, I had to act almost like a journalist myself, employing careful observation. Bernstein lugs his bicycle’s front wheel into the newsroom every morning. Woodward doodles a surprisingly accurate cartoon of a man’s face on a memo pad during a phone call. As the two grow closer during their investigation of the Watergate incident, they fall into a vaguely good cop/bad cop relationship: slier, shadier Bernstein prying ever deeper while Woodward, always forthright, promises anonymity to every reluctant source.

Yet Bernstein and Woodward’s differences are relative and small. Alan Pakula’s camera often shows them as insignificant figures in massive indoor landscapes. We see them toil in The Washington Post’s newsroom, a vast checkerboard of fluorescent lights casting a migraine tinge over their desks. As they spend a day digging through library records, the camera recedes higher and higher into the library’s rotunda, revealing them as tiny cogs in a mechanism whose ultimate purpose they are only beginning to divine. Their coworkers call them “Woodstein”; they are two, but their work becomes one. Their search for answers frames the unassuming faces of those who work directly below the high-tension wire that is the Nixon administration.

That parade of pained faces is the most memorable thing about President’s. Woodward and Bernstein watch as restless hands grip doorknobs in spasms of anxiety. The two listen to halting confessions of Constitutional violations, of evidence shredded and thrown out with the daily trash. Though there are many who open their doors to the reporters, one in particular, known only as the Bookkeeper (Jane Alexander), stands out from the rest—and in so doing, stands for them all.

Alexander imbues the Bookkeeper with a wry dignity that steadies her gaze even as her face threatens to run away from her. Her superiors and the insistent reporter drinking her coffee have split her between two mutually opposing demands: security and accountability. Her desire to tell the truth—to hold herself to account—is so strong that it impels her to speak, though her every other word to Bernstein is “No.” Yet her allegiance to the rule of Cover Your Ass, that merciless god of all bureaucracy, forces her to answer in code. She and Bernstein dance in a minefield of the implied. The cost of one straight word from her is her livelihood, maybe even her life. An unseen gaze bores into her. Her face shines with the sweat born of fear.

*

Is it a harm to merely know with certainty that you are being monitored by the government? There’s certainly an argument that it is. People under surveillance act differently, experience a loss of autonomy, are less likely to engage in self exploration and reflection, and are less willing to engage in core expressive political activities such as dissenting speech and government criticism. Such interests are what [the] First and Fourth Amendment[s] seek to protect, so if they don’t count as harm in this context, what would?

Woodrow Hartzog, The Center for Internet & Society at Stanford Law School

*

I feel a special affinity for the Bookkeeper, for I am one, too. Like her, I maintain the financial records for my department, which is one of many in a large, complex bureaucracy. Like her, I can afford a cozy apartment in a cosmopolitan city.

Unlike her, I have never been caught in a conflict of interests, and I probably never will be, as my immediate superiors are decent people, and my department holds little power. Yet I, too, feel the wrath of Cover Your Ass looming over me. Notice that I haven’t been specific about where it is I work or for whom. Such coyness is for politeness’ sake, for I know full well that any reader who really wanted to could find out my workplace, my phone number, and even how much I’m paid per year with a bit of judicious Googling. I live in peace because no one has ever wanted to seek me out—not yet, anyway.

What amazes me about All the President’s Men is my own amazement. This film is practically a documentary on investigative journalism before the Internet, and that is one tedious world that I am glad we do not live in anymore. (Not that any serious investigation is free of tedium nowadays, but the Internet definitely helps.) The sheer amount of dead ends, repetitive phone calls, and slavish searching of analog sources that Woodward and Bernstein suffer is astounding. The two climb mountains of paper. I’m similarly shocked by a scene inMichelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, where the camera focuses on a photographer who carefully prints and enlarges a photograph in real time, a process that takes nearly twenty minutes (an eternity in movie time). All that work for a single picture! Though we might not yet live in the fantasy future ofCSI—where simply barking “Enhance!” at one’s computer yields instantaneous results—we’re closer to that world than we realize.

I am also surprised by the Bookkeeper’s paranoia, which soon spreads to Bernstein and Woodward as they get closer to the men chosen by Richard Nixon to manipulate his way into a second presidential term. Woodward feels compelled to blast Rachmaninoff during visits to Bernstein’s apartment. (They’re listening.) Bernstein feels the eyes of photographers on him while he questions a source on Pennsylvania Avenue. (They’re watching.) In the famous scene where Woodward descends into the echoing concrete hell of a 2 a.m. parking garage to meet his Virgil, the sepulchral Deep Throat (Hall Holbrook), I leaned in to watch with great interest. Here was the scene that inspired my favorite show during my teenage years, The X-Files. And then I paled. The X-Files was a story. This…happened. And even Deep Throat was afraid.

Woodward and Bernstein’s paranoia shocks me because their fear seems so innocent. It is a forgone conclusion to me that those in power were (and are) willing to do most anything to further their cause—how could the journalists act so surprised? And even more naive, now, is the sense of victory that hangs over the film’s end, as Woodward and Bernstein’s articles eventually lead to President Nixon’s resignation. They sued the power company and won—but others moved in, and more power lines had to be built.

*

I live in a state where several representatives used underhanded bureaucratic tactics to pass a bill that violates my bodily safety and integrity. I live in a country whose security administration can look in on my calls and emails at any time. Though I highly doubt the NSA will ever turn its eyes on me—my life is lived well within the bounds of the law, at least for now—the possibility is there. When I read recently that Edward Snowden had been offered asylum in Venezuela, the first thing I thought of was my Venezuelan friend on Facebook, and how he had suddenly become a node that PRISM could see and use. (I also thought about a skirt I admired on Zappos yesterday, and then how an ad for that skirt followed me onto Facebook, and then onto The Huffington Post.)

The news angers me, though not as much as it should. I was born under the whine of these power lines. Perhaps I have grown too used to their sound. I can easily drown it out with the minor everyday worries of work, love, and leisure. Yet my head aches these days. I am unexpectedly tired.

I do not fear power. I fear the morning I will wake to find that cynicism has metastasized, turning my bones to fire and my eyes to lead.


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.


Why Not Me? Why Not?

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“This is America, where everyone has the right to life, love and the pursuit of fame.” 
—Ryan Seacrest, American Idol

If Rupert Pupkin were to be airlifted out of 1983’s The King of Comedy and dropped directly into our current cultural moment, he’d likely resemble an overeager child set loose inside an enormous candy store. In the many years since the unhinged, fame-obsessed Pupkin ransomed his way onto television one desperate night, our culture has changed in ways that even he could never have imagined, accelerated to a point where wall-to-wall reality television now regularly makes celebrities out of awful people, bestowing them with fame and cultural currency merely for being the very worst versions of themselves. Sure, we’ve always been fascinated by fame and the famous, but never before has access to the spotlight seemed so within our grasp. We are offered up seemingly endless paths toward fame, multiple ways to get our foot in the door, with actual talent often being only a small part of celebrity’s current equation. Kids want to be “famous” more than anything else, and, in a recent survey of 18–25 year olds, 51% stated that becoming famous is now their generation’s most important goal.

We have morphed into a culture where everyone’s mythical fifteen minutes of fame is now happening all the time, all at once, all around us. It’s seen almost as a birthright, something we’ve collectively taught ourselves to believe we’re owed. As a result, many of us end up on one kind of stage or another all day long—even if only on Facebook or Twitter—but nobody seems particularly happy or content. Instead, we’ve mostly built new ways to long for old things—to long for more, always, because “more” holds out for us, as it did for Pupkin, an endless promise of something that might be able to fill us up. But nothing ever does.

Rupert Pupkin would no longer need to resort to crime to get himself on television. Instead, he could simply stand in line to audition for America’s Got TalentThe X Factor, or Last Comic Standing, networking with other mediocre hopefuls, tweeting at his celebrity idols from his smartphone to pass the time (“great show last night @ConanOBrien! men like us have a duty 2 entertain!”). Thirty years ago, Pupkin’s obnoxious and delusional lust for fame seemed scary enough, but his character could still be seen, at the time, as a proverbial canary in the cultural coal mine, a warning of what we, as a society, were in danger of becoming if we continued to raise our kids in front of the warmly glowing tubes of a television babysitter, while promoting celebrity as the highest form of accomplishment. But now, in 2013, Pupkin no longer serves as a cautionary tale. Instead he’s become an eerily prescient mirror, reflecting us back to ourselves. A nation full of Pupkins.

“A kind of banalization of celebrity has occurred: we are now offered an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup.” 
― J.G. Ballard

Pupkin—the smarmy, obsessive, and awkward man who drives the uncomfortably dark heart ofThe King of Comedy—desperately wants to be a star. Or, more specifically, to be on television, a late-night talk show host in the vein of his personal hero, Jerry Langford (a Johnny Carson/Bob Hope amalgam, played by Jerry Lewis). His misguided, cringe-inducing attempts at achieving this fame ultimately lead him (along with Masha, an equally unhinged celebrity stalker, played by Sandra Bernhard in her big-screen debut) to kidnap Langford one night out of desperation and demand from him, by way of ransom, that Pupkin be allowed to open that night’s show with his stand-up comedy routine. He insists that guest host Tony Randall introduce him as “the new king of comedy”, and that the pre-taped show air uncut and in its normal fashion. After the show airs, he will let the FBI know where Jerry is, and turn himself over into their custody. Backed into a corner, the network agrees, and a star is born.

Rupert Pupkin happens to be every bit as obnoxious as his name would suggest. When first we meet him, he is forcing his way into the backseat of Langford’s limousine after a taping of the show, under the guise of helping protect him from overzealous fans. It turns out, of course, that Pupkin is the one who ought to be feared. Not because he is particularly intimidating or imposing—physically, he appears as harmless as a fly—but rather for a far more insidious trait: an absolute and utter inability to take “no” for an answer—or, really, to take any kind of hint about anything at all. Pupkin is naive, inept, annoying, cloying, clueless and largely untalented, but armed with a single-minded perseverance that is able to overcome each and every one of these deficiencies. Not in a feel-good, overcoming-the-odds, Rudy-type way, though. In fact, not a single thing in this film ever, ever feels good. It’s a large part of what makes the whole thing so disarmingly, uncomfortably brilliant.

“The King of Comedy was right on the edge for us; we couldn’t go any further at that time.” 
—Martin Scorsese

The fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro—and the one given the rather daunting task of marking the pair’s follow-up to Raging BullThe King of Comedy was, for many years, an often overlooked and undervalued film in Scorsese’s vast filmography. Thankfully though, it has grown quite a bit in stature in the years since its release, moving from box office disappointment to cult favorite to a respectable and prescient work, largely owing to Rupert Pupkin’s terrifying resonance.

Robert De Niro crafts the vexatious Pupkin from the ground up, from gait to mustache. He finds a way to inhabit Pupkin’s skin in a way that immediately gets under ours. We cringe when he crashes through people’s personal space and violates all sense of decent boundaries, when he takes a clear brush-off line from Langford (“Call my office some time”) as an honest and open invitation, when he sits on the couch in his mother’s basement hosting a pretend talk show and playfully interacting with the life-size celebrity cut-outs that surround him. Even by today’s standards, with characters like Larry Sanders, George Costanza, David Brent, Michael Scott, and Larry David having all but turned turned cringe comedy into an art form, Pupkin still manages to stand head and shoulders above the pack—likely because we are never given anything remotely redeeming about him to hang onto—and De Niro’s performance remains, all these years later, a deeply uncomfortable tour-de-force of ungainly inappropriateness. According to Scorsese—who directed him in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino—it’s the best performance De Niro has ever given.

But why is a film like this so tough—almost painful at times—to watch? Why does watching Pupkin create such an internal reaction within us? Most of us can stomach far more horrific characters onscreen (Hannibal Lecter, for example) with far less physical reaction—but how can that be?

In large part, the film’s discomfiting nature is due to former film critic Paul Zimmerman’s air-tight and darkly satirical script, as well as De Niro’s full immersion into Pupkin’s delusional world. But a lot of it also has to do with the purposeful and decidedly un-Scorseseian directorial decisions made by Scorsese throughout the film. The King of Comedy doesn’tlook like a Martin Scorsese film, and it often doesn’t feel like one, either. The camera stays dead still, pinned down and motionless within its frames despite Scorsese’s known penchant for pushing cameras in, out, and around his characters in nearly all his other films—often dazzlingly soThe King of Comedy, though, employs no flashy cinematic pyrotechnics, no fancy camera movements to help open up the film at all or allow it to breathe in any way, no directorial flourishes to offer up even a moment’s escape or help countenance the almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia that builds throughout the film. Instead we are, quite literally, stuck with Rupert Pupkin—whom Pauline Kael once referred to as “Jake LaMotta without fists”—from beginning to end. At times, it’s almost unbearable. We want to look away.

And this near-inability of ours to be stuck with Pupkin—our almost visceral reaction to his plethora of inappropriateness—appears to stem from something that modern neuroscientists call “vicarious embarrassment”. Recent studies are beginning to show that the areas of our brain which light up whenever we see a person doing something embarrassing—especially when they themselves are unaware of the embarrassment—are often the very same areas in the brain associated with feeling and processing pain. In this way, then, it can literally “hurt” us to watch someone like Rupert Pupkin—and, according to these same studies, the more sensitive and empathetic you are by nature, the more unbearable it becomes. It’s why we squirm with anxious anticipation when Rupert shows up at Jerry’s guest house uninvited (with a date he’s hoping to impress!) and begins making himself at home while waiting for Langford to return. Germans actually have a word,fremdschämen, for this very particular type of feeling. It means, essentially, to be embarrassed by proxy.

“The amount of rejection in this film is horrifying. There are scenes I almost can’t look at.”
Martin Scorsese

And watching The King of Comedy is nothing if not an extended experiment in embarrassment by proxy. It fills nearly every inch of the screen for 109 minutes. It’s what caused Roger Ebert to declare it “one of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I’ve ever seen.” It’s what kept audiences away in droves, causing the film to be, financially, one of the biggest box office disasters of 1983. Whatever it was that audiences were looking for back then, it wasn’t this. Still happily bathing in the feel-good glow of Reagan’s Morning in America, nobody seemed particularly ready to take a closer look at the culture’s darker underbelly.

Perhaps the toughest part of watching Pupkin is how totally naked he often is, how openly he wears his intentions, and how misguided they usually are. Despite the lack of any discernible talent he remains drawn to fame like a moth to fire, seeing it as a magic something to annihilate all his nothingness. No longer would he be a lonely guy in his mid–30s, living at home with his mother, chock-full of ambition and perserverance, but nothing else. Fame could be his bulwark against insignificance, a gift that, once bestowed, might fix his miserable little life. He could find acceptance at last, maybe even respect. He could finally get the girl (Rita) he’s been in love with since grade school. He could prove everyone else wrong, silence all those internalized voices of rejection he’s amassed throughout the years. In celebrity there would be a kind of salvation. There would be grace. There would be love.

And this love, well, it would likely look a whole lot like it does in Rupert’s fantasies, both a specific and a universal embrace. A handful of these sequences are scattered throughout the film (though they remain, like the film itself, very plainly shot and absent any visual sense of being “fantasy” scenes). Each one involves Jerry and Rupert being colleagues or friends of one kind or another, and, when taken together, they offer a series of small windows into Pupkin’s psyche in a film otherwise largely unconcerned with delving much into the interior life of its main characters.

In the longest and perhaps most telling sequence, Pupkin imagines himself appearing as a beloved guest on The Jerry Langford Show. And it is here, about halfway through the film, where Scorsese and screenwriter Zimmerman finally begin hinting at all the long-buried but still present emotional trauma likely driving Pupkin’s relentless itch for stardom. Langford, after introducing and praising Rupert, proceeds to “surprise“ him, talk-show style, by bringing out his old high school principal from backstage. The elderly schoolmaster greets him warmly, informs us that he’s also now an official justice of the peace, and proposes that an impromptu wedding take place live, on the air, between “the king of comedy and his queen” (Rita, of course). As the wedding gets underway, the principal/minister launches into a monologue:

Dearly beloved, when Rupert here was a student at Clifton High School none of us - myself, his teachers, his classmates - dreamt that he would amount to a hill of beans. But we were wrong. And you Rupert, you were right. And that’s why tonight, before the entire nation, we’d like to apologize to you personally and to beg your forgiveness for all the things we did to you. And we’d like to thank you personally, all of us, for the meaning you’ve given our lives.

Rupert nods in acknowledgement. The audience claps. It’s a quietly disturbing scene in a film full of them, as well as a reminder that we all carry our pasts with us, wherever we go, looking for something or someone to heal the wounds. This is only natural, of course—we all do it, and in a large way it’s what becoming an adult is all about—but when that desire becomes entangled with fame, when we look to the world to acknowledge and approve of us as a way of measuring our worthiness or validating our appeal, our moorings and morality can quickly become the first casualties.

For Pupkin, it’s a trade-off he’s more than willing to make. He is counting on fame to prove his worth to a world that has long rejected him, and has aimed his ship toward its shore accordingly. Morals, integrity, and stability are of increasingly little value to him; getting on television is his only goal, and he is ultimaely able to convince himself that the ends justify the means. Sadly, it’s a narrative that now seems all too familiar in our world of Real HousewivesBig BrothersHoney Boo-Boos, and Jersey Shores. Anything for our fifteen minutes.

After he’s performed his stand-up routine, but before he’s officially taken into police custody, Pupkin walks into the bar where Rita works and—to the slight dismay of a handful of patrons—changes the channel on the television. The Jerry Langford Show is just beginning. He looks triumphantly around the bar as the show airs behind him, no hint that he regrets even a single second of the decision to kidnap his way into the limelight. Jail time awaits him, but so, too, does fame. And if that’s the price he has to pay to become known, he’s more than willing to pay it. Rupert Pupkin has to make something grand out of his life because otherwise, well, he’s stuck being himself.


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


The Things They Wore

by Michelle Said

Murphy Brown’s red blazer

Mary Tyler Moore’s beret

Hildy Johnson’s chevron striped coat with matching hat

Lois Lane’s omnipresent women’s suits

Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks

Brenda Starr’s eye twinkles

Miranda Priestley’s inimitable ‘do

Jenny Lerner’s delicate pearl necklace

Sabrina Peterson’s fabulous trenchcoat

Bridget Jones’s embarrassing bunny costume (Bridge Jones’s Diary)

Gale Weathers’s changing hairstyles (1)(2)(3)(4)

Jane Craig’s covetable sweaters

Suzanne Stone’s pastel print paisley minidress

Jose “Grossie” Gellar’s feather boa

April O’Neal’s classic yellow jumpsuit


Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast hostShe currently freelances and works on her novel in New York.


Paper Me

by Patrick Vickers

photo © Walt Disney Pictures

photo © Walt Disney Pictures

I first saw Paperman at my desk at work. I watched it in a small window, hunched over a monitor, listening through my earbuds. People had been writing about it on the internet as if it were the most amazing thing – this happens all the time, but in this case the words “short film“ and ”produced by John Lasseter" were enough to catch my attention.

About seven minutes later, it was over. I didn’t tell any of my colleagues about it. I closed the window and pretended I had something in my eye and I got back to work. There’s a deep pleasure in encountering something amazing and forbidden in the workplace and keeping it to yourself.

We fit little movies into our lives in odd spaces, and they frame our days in unexpected and curious ways. Through online distribution, Paperman has been incredibly successful. More people have seen it now than if it had been strictly confined to cinemas. Simply scrolling through the “Paperman” tag on Tumblr is enough to clue you in on its success: it’s become a geek phenomenon, inspiring fanfic, art and cosplay everywhere.

*

I saw Paperman for a second time when I went to see Wreck-it Ralph. This time I enjoyed it more in admiration than rapture. Back in my office, there was an element of escapism, as if I were peeping through a little portal in my screen into another world. But in the darkened room of the cinema, the film seemed more like a hyper-sophisticated delivery vehicle for a gentle, conservative, and thoroughly Disney storyline.

Boy meets girl; boy longs for girl to notice boy; girl notices boy – and the rest is history. He’s gawky, long of limb and large of nose, and incapable of emotional restraint. She’s a princess in the making, with the wide eyes of a Bambi and the flowing hair of a Belle, and the cute and oddly squishy face of a modern, fallible heroine. They meet on the platform of a train station. He helps her with her papers and then they part, and it seems like they’ll never meet again. Apparently she has forgotten him. But he becomes obsessed. He sees her working in the building across the street. He will not be forgotten.

When you break it down like that, it’s kind of a creepy story. It’s easy to imagine a parody emerging on YouTube set to the score from a Hitchcock movie. This guy really has no idea whether this woman is into him or not – he doesn’t even know her name! they’ve never talked! – and yet here he is, actively harassing her? Not only that, he is actively wasting company resources in pursuit of this woman; he’s inconveniencing his colleagues, and costing both his employer and their clients time and money in lost paper. And this paper represents something more than just paper – it’s paperwork that he is exerting on her. The flow of paper represents his attention and imagination brought to life.

But the tropes at work here are bigger than Disney. It’s the old story of the dreaming fool who comes out well in the end. It’s a tale still that appeals to dreamers and fools alike. It appeals to those who enjoy the thought of being thought about. To all the lonely princes and princesses, pawing endlessly at their little glass portals into other worlds. It’s appropriate, then, that even while this film invokes some of the oldest of cinematic conventions, every frame is carefully calculated and hyper-modern in its delivery. It’s a good example of a perfect harmony of form and meaning: just as the animation of Paperman is rendered in a synthesis of digital and analog techniques, its themes attempt to reconcile an old-fashioned love of print media with a twenty-first century approach to communications technology.

While the style evokes a generation gone by, the themes at work are thoroughly contemporary. It’s not a nostalgic film pining for the days of typewriters, hand-written love letters and spilled ink – the actual paper in this movie only exists as a kind of abstraction. Just like the streams of digital data we exchange every day, we know it’s there, but we only experience it in the superficial sense; we feel it most when it moves us in waves. Much as the hero of the movie hurls his paper planes towards the object of his affection, so we write our little emails and blogs and tweets and we cast them out into the world. Perhaps we don’t always admit to having such a specific goal as his doe-eyed love, but the basic end is the same: we all crave a sense of recognition.

*

I’ve had a blog in one form or another for a very long time now. As a teenager, I kept a Livejournal as a way of keeping up with friends, but in recent years I switched to a more-or-less anonymous Tumblr as a way of putting my writing on the internet. I told myself that I had no particular interest in writing about my personal life, and that I wanted solely to post things about my hobbies and short pieces of fiction. I had the rather noble idea that my writing ought to speak for itself; it would be a sort of secret retreat, a better endeavour than the life I was living at the time.

And so I’ve stumbled along, lacking in direction compared to many writers online. I’ve made a few friends. But I prefer not to think about what I’ve achieved (or haven’t) because for me it is far too similar to that painful image inPaperman of all those paper planes lying unread in a forgotten space between two buildings. All that time, and all those words. Who was I really writing for? And was it worth it?

It was worth it for the hero of the movie. His work stirs itself into life, and it goes after the girl for him. It’s a neat inversion of that moment in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil when Robert De Niro’s rogue plumber is brought down by a flood of paperwork; now that the flow of information is back in the hands of the individual, with sufficient momentum it will push us towards our dreams whether we like it or not. If only real life were quite so simple.

But perhaps I am forgetting the other side of the equation. After all, the hero’s goal inPaperman is not only self-actualization; it’s the attention and companionship of one other very specific individual. This is a very different thing than pursuing an abstract notion of success. And as much as I might want to scoff at this film for portraying an idealized version of modern romance, the essential dynamics of those flows of paper are not so unfamiliar to me.

All the relationships I’ve ever had have involved a complex exchange of messages over a variety of media — and it’s this body of private writing, exchanged in countless fragments over days and months and years, which has really come to define my own life in ways that my literary ambitions could never match. Perhaps the most radical thing about Paperman is the way in which it reconsiders this trail of digital “paper” not as an opportunity for oppression, but as a way for individuals to define a space in the world in which they might pursue their own desires.


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


There's Something About Mary

by Erika Schmidt

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Summer, the mid-nineties. At the end of the day, pleasantly exhausted, my sister and I would retire to the downstairs bedroom and sit in the air conditioning as it got dark outside, watching Nick at Nite’s “Block Party Summer.”

The best night was Mary Monday.

We first knew Mary Tyler Moore from The Dick Van Dyke ShowLaura Petrie. She was so pretty, and her clothes were so cool, and sometimes she would do musical numbers with Rob and they were so great.

And she was funny as hell.

Then there was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Richards. Still pretty, still dressed to the nines. Not a stranger to feminine charm, she could, as the song says, “turn the world on with her smile.” But Mary Richards was not Laura Petrie. She was unmarried—for seven seasons she dated around, but remained unattached. She lived alone. She had close friends, both male and female. She worked, and placed a high premium on doing her job well.

The portrait of Mary Richards that often gets referenced these days is the Mary from the show’s opening credits: stylish, confident, independent. Digging her car out of the snow. Modeling spectacular fashions. Striding across the street. Making it on her own. In short, a rather generic feminist icon.

But watching the show again—as I did to prepare for this essay—it’s easy to see what’s missing from that summary: in short, her personality.

Unlike Laura Petrie, Mary Richards didn’t come from the U.S.O. She didn’t feel comfortable onstage, or in any kind of spotlight. She didn’t want to be in charge. Put on the spot, she often stammered and seized up. Watching her reluctantly take a leadership role in her early days at WJM—such as when, during an election-night blizzard, she takes over producing the disastrous live-results news coverage only after Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) repeatedly orders her to step up—can induce cringes.

Mary’s confidence emerged in other ways. When she was highly invested, she would forget to be self-conscious. When she was hashing something out with her friends or coworkers (which were often, on this show, one and the same). When she was ensconced at home or at the newsroom, enjoying the people in her orbit. In these moments, her intelligence and humor were undeniable, and whatever vulnerabilities she had didn’t equate with weakness.

"She wasn’t an avatar for women’s liberation; she was the real thing. And, in the deft hands of Mary Tyler Moore, she was funny as hell."

The conflict between Mary’s natural charisma, her integrity, and her nagging imperfection is often what was so special about the show. It’s what made Mary Mary. She had a lot going on at once. It didn’t all make sense, and it wasn’t all smooth-edged. She wasn’t an avatar for women’s liberation; she was the real thing. And, in the deft hands of Mary Tyler Moore, she was funny as hell.

Take the very first scene between Mary and Lou Grant, in which she goes into the WJM television station to interview as a secretary and comes out with a job as an Associate Producer of the evening news:

Mr. Grant: What religion are you?

Mary: Uh, Mr. Grant, I don’t know quite how to say this, but you’re not allowed to ask that when someone’s applying for a job. It’s against the law.

Mr. Grant: Wanna call a cop?

Mary: No.

Mr. Grant: Good. Would you think I was violating your civil rights if I asked whether you were married?

Mary: Presbyterian.

This is a good old-fashioned bit, but it’s also an introduction to Mary’s perspective, as we see her choose which vulnerability to protect: her sense of justice or her pride. In one short exchange, we glimpse her shaky earnestness, her self-deprecation, and her deadpan wit all at once.

That same famous scene ends with what is arguably the show’s most famous exchange:

Mr. Grant: You got spunk.

Mary: Well, yes—

Mr. Grant: I hate spunk.

The punch line endures because it’s about Mr. Grant, not Mary. That classic surprise reversal is growled by the quintessential gnarled newsman, with liquor in his desk, sweat under his collar, and a picture of himself in a football uniform on the wall behind him. It snaps Lou Grant into focus for us, seconds after he first appears on screen. Here is a man who uses the word “spunk” not as a demeaning compliment (because spunk is a pretty damn condescending thing to attribute to someone; no one would ever say that to a man), but as a setup for a more straightforward slam. How refreshing! No, really, it’s refreshing. For all his blustering force and her nervous conviction, Mr. Grant and Mary are on a level playing field right from the start. He treats her just as roughly as he treats everyone else, and she acquiesces in only the most superficial of ways.

The seven-season relationship between Mary and Mr. Grant ultimately becomes a profound illustration of the complexity of the show’s treatment of the life of an unmarried woman.

In the series’ penultimate episode, “Lou Dates Mary,” a romantically discouraged Mary describes her elusive male standard to Georgette (Georgia Engel): "Someone who doesn’t care how I look because he’s more concerned with who I am. Somebody strong and intelligent, who respects me, who I can respect, who has gentleness in him.”

Georgette, insightful as only she can be, suggests Mary give Lou Grant a try.

Mary balks, then proceeds to rhapsodize about the gruff boss we viewers have all been in love with for years. “I mean, sure, I enjoy his company and yes, he is someone I respect and I have a good time with him, and he doesn’t play little games and I am…comfortable with him and he is straightforward and intelligent and fun…”

You see where this is going.

The ensuing episode takes all of the deep camaraderie developed between Mary and Mr. Grant over the years and dares to ask the question: what if there weremore between them? It’s a junction many shows have explored, but rarely with such satisfying results or fidelity to the characters. An episode supposedly about a date becomes emphatically about a friendship between a woman and a man.

The tenderness shared by the two is never more apparent than when they soldier through supreme discomfort in order to give the experiment a chance. They take turns being vulnerable: she asks him out, he admits he’s thought of her “that way,” she reciprocates, he brings flowers, she wears the dress he likes and turns down the lights, he agrees not to talk about the office during their dinner. She calls him “Lou.”

And finally, the brilliant moment, when they interrupt dinner and decide they can’t go on until they kiss and see what happens. They agree to get it out of the way. They kiss! And they’re kissing, they’re kissing, we’re so uncomfortable and yet so wanting these two beloved people to find the happiness they deserve, we’re so conflicted, and then—

Their eyes peek open and they start laughing.

In the type of blessedly synchronistic moment that can only happen between friends, they both just know: “it’s not going to work.” And that’s okay. They go back to the dinner table. She turns up the lights. He launches into a story about something dumb Ted did that day. She calls him Mr. Grant again. And you’ve never seen two people with a higher regard for each other, or more content in each other’s company. Single but unalone.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t make me a feminist. What it did do was show me a woman who lived her life according to what she determined was best, who was a challenge to define by anything other than the shades of her character."

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was about a woman in her thirties living her life. Not within the context of her perfect marriage, or her continued wacky attempts to sneak into her husband’s show, or her quirky adventures as a mom/witch. It was, comparatively speaking, real. She worked, she dated. She threw terrible parties. Her friendships were of obvious and incalculable value. She was graceful, clumsy, timid, brave. She developed before our eyes. Mary Richards can’t be described in one sentence. And that is the point. That is what makes her a feminine icon.

Back during those nights of “Block Party Summer,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t make me a feminist. What it did do was show me a woman who lived her life according to what she determined was best, who was a challenge to define by anything other than the shades of her character. It trusted that that would be compelling enough.

Today, multidimensional and label-eluding women exist onscreen—Leslie Knope, Cristina Yang, Mary Crawley, every female on Mad Men—but they’re still too rare. The stories out there are endless, and they need to be told more, and better.

This year, I turned thirty. I’m the age Mary was when she moved to Minneapolis and interviewed at WJM. Last summer, I had an exchange with an acquaintance in which I said I couldn’t wait to turn thirty and she responded, “Really? Why?” I was unprepared to explain that feeling, so firm had been my assumption that it was universal, but it was still easy to do: my twenties were tough. I’ve worked hard to begin to figure things out, and I’m hopeful that the next decade of my life will be better than the last. I’ll be better. I’ll be stronger, less afraid, more at peace with who I am. I will more often dwell in clarity.

And it will be interesting as hell.


Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.


Wires and Lights in a Box

by Christopher Fraser

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I wonder what Edward R. Murrow would have made of social media.

“Social media” is shorthand, of course, for the rapid turnover of cultural phenomena, the reduction of earth-shattering events to three second GIFs, and the hysterical obsession with actors, political gaffes and media self-commentary. And I say I wonder because, watchingGood Night, and Good Luck (2005) again recently—three years after my initial viewing—I was left with quite a different reaction.

Back in 2010, knee-deep in literary fiction and armed with a decidedly jaded view of the Internet as an unwelcome distraction, Murrow’s stark warning that television, as a medium, might be a corrupting influence was intoxicating to me. Contained within Good Night, and Good Luck is the sense of a turning point, with networks beginning to bow to advertisers and chase ratings rather than being led by the dogged pursuit of truth and inspiration. When things begin to fall apart, Murrow’s producer (played with surprising restraint by George Clooney, who also directs the film) murmurs “we might as well go down swinging”, but the implication is that everything that Murrow represents is already being lost.

Nostalgia for a time when newsmen fought for truth and justice—and they were, overwhelmingly, men—is hardly a new idea, and it’s executed brilliantly here. Time goes by, though, and that nostalgia becomes a bit muddied. Good Night, and Good Luck is a brilliant exposé of McCarthyism, but it revels in its own quiet scandal largely because other issues were still under the radar. The first wave of feminism was a tiny blip on the horizon. Laws against sodomy were still enforced across the United States, and would be for at least another couple of decades. Edward R. Murrow had room to breathe, because so many abhorrent laws and attitudes were treated as simple and uncomplicated. We often see the post-war era as a better time because any glimmer of righteous fury was silenced in an instant. Murrow was free to pursue Joseph McCarthy because it fit into the idea of preservingthe idea of a utopian USA, rather than actively creating it.

The era that Good Night, and Good Luck portrays was one in which the family television set represented a nightly tradition, a centralised force through which people could reasonably be expected to accept what they were given. This was largely made possible by a notable lack of diverse opinions offered up by the media. There is a sequence during the film wherein the network’s reporters and producers stay up all night, following Murrow’s first unflattering report on McCarthy, to wait for the early editions of the next day’s newspapers. All but one of the responses are flattering, and while this is certainly a good thing for our protagonists within the context of the film, it makes one wonder where debate—in principle, a great tool for cultural reform—might fit in. Despite all the extremity of opinion that comes from our modern access to the internet, the wide-ranging amount of diversity and an ability to join in on national and international conversations can drive momentum, shape stories, and shine a light on topics that Murrow and his ilk would likely never consider.

"Stopping the constant flow of data has become an active choice, rather than something we fall into naturally."

Of course, for every grassroots social reformer, there’s a hundred One Direction fan bloggers. Rather than flat-out complain about every moron with a keyboard, though, there’s a growing sense that what’s really needed these days is the ability to develop more cultural filters. Everything, now, is at my fingertips; a dozen pictures of adorable cats are suddenly a lot more accessible than a daily newspaper. It’s all a question of selection, though. The thought of paring down a thousand Facebook friends to a small handful isn’t a task I should find especially daunting. Choosing to spend the day reading a novel rather than obsessively keeping up with Twitter feeds shouldn’t fill me with anxiety. Stopping the constant flow of data has become an active choice, rather than something we fall into naturally.

What we often fail to see, largely because it doesn’t come with nearly as loud a fanfare, is that important and engaging media is actually easier to find than ever these days. The problem, though, is that by democratising everyone’s creative power, there’s just as much (and arguably more) meaningless fluff, the type of media that feels like honeycomb—delicious, but disappointingly light. And since we haven’t yet learned how to effectively isolate the excellence from the nonsense, we struggle to develop culturally. In fact, there’s a resurgence of the notion that an idea like developing a discerning eye is somehow elitist, as if Buzzfeed listicles are as fulfilling and important as War and Peace. It’s hard to concentrate on illuminating, sober journalism when a harshly literal interpretation of the word “illuminating” immediately precedes it – flashing lights and captions that provoke a smirk and/or a feeling of total emptiness, luring us away from the stuff that might dare to fill us up.

I found my fiancé through the internet. Not through sifting through dating websites, or scouring Craigslist personals, but through a shared interest in an adventure game released in 1998. There was no single-mindedness in the way we got to know one another, no aggressive pursuit towards a relationship, and I say this because it was all against a backdrop of immediacy – we were a thousand miles apart, each exposed to an endless and rapidly-updated stream of (often inane) information, but somehow found a way to exist within that system and forge something meaningful out of it.

Amongst the noise, I met someone with a fascinating and unique spark, and it wasn’t the first time. Online friends and acquaintances of mine now provide insight and alternative perspectives to me from all around the world. I’ve grown to find comfort in this odd sort of familiarity – one characterised by great physical distance, but often containing just as much emotional power as the relationships I have with people that I see on a day-to-day basis. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Assuming that the Murrow represented in this film corresponds to his real-life counterpart, I have to believe that he would eventually see through all the furious chatter of online activity today and note some valuable developments, both culturally and interpersonally. People have a voice now who were previously stifled – if not maliciously, then by lack of consideration. Granted, now there are billions of wires and billions of lights, and plenty are abused with impunity. Some use the power of open and unrestricted speech to be hateful. Others see a blank page and feel the desperate urge to tell thousands what they ate for breakfast.

Good Night, and Good Luck is bookended by Edward R. Murrow’s speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958, warning against a shift towards mindless entertainment. He ends with this:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate - and yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

If every encounter with wires and lights was packed with power and pathos, we would be overwhelmed; screens are omnipresent in a way that Murrow likely never imagined. But moving past that, the fact that the power to create has been so aggressively democratised means that the illuminating, inspiring media he hoped for will always be around, long after every parody Twitter account has burned out in a blaze of idiocy. It is so easy to look at the media landscape today and dismiss it as petty, sensationalist, and often facile; giving billions more people a public platform will tend to do that. But reporters like Murrow are still out there. We just need a keener eye.


Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.