Letter from the Editor

Loving a mostly unloved thing is one of the quieter joys of movie fandom. While there can certainly be a good deal of pleasure found in joining a choir of near-unanimous approval around a particular film—feeling a part of something relevant and important as its happening—there is a wholly different satisfaction in finding yourself one of the lone champions of a piece of art. It becomes almost more special to you somehow, a thing you feel increasingly protective of as you defend its good name against an onslaught of criticism. Popular films don’t need your support, but the unloved (or worse, entirely overlooked) ones do, and you find yourself going to bat for them, over and over. In time, you come to wear it like a badge of honor.

The internet, as it has done with most aspects of our lives by now, makes this both better and worse. In the blink of an eye you can find an exact aggregated percentage of just how poorly a film you love has fared with critics, how dismally this special little thing you hold dear to your heart has been received by the entire world around you. But at the same time, it’s never been easier to find fellow fans of lost cinematic treasures. For many years, I thought I was one of only a handful of people with a deep affection for Joe Versus the Volcano—me, my fellow video store clerk Ed, and Roger Ebert—but the internet eventually showed me otherwise. There are entire sites now dedicated to the wonders of John Patrick Shanley’s magical film, a movie considered so awful at the time of its release that it actually got its writer/director banished to “movie jail” for nearly 20 years.

Most avid movie watchers, if they’ve been at it for any length of time, have gathered up a small collection of these unloved films to call their own. These are the movies we push, gently at first but more forcefully if necessary, on those within our circles—hoping at the very least to make some small dent in the popular perception held against them. But really, on some level, we’re looking for kindred spirits.

So, when we set about creating an entire issue called “The Unloved”, we knew what we were getting into. Passionate defenses of everything from Road House to Bratz! flooded into our submission box. In the end, what’s emerged is an issue as eclectic as it is encompassing, filled with essays on all kinds of overlooked, forgotten, underappreciated, and unloved things.

The issue begins with our cover story, Angelica Jade Bastién’s defense of Keanu Reeves, which looks at the way in which Reeves’ transfixing stillness often belies the deeper work he’s doing as an actor. Next, Brad Nelson looks at time, entropy, pop culture, and the apocalypse in Joseph Kahn’s strange and little seen high school horror film, Detention (2011), followed by Taylor Hine’s exploration of Cameron Crowe’s infamous 2002 flop,Elizabethtown. Andrew Root rounds out the first half of the issue with his insightful look at the many ways The Hobbit trilogy goes wrong, and why that’s ultimately ok with him.

The second half of the issue kicks off with Sophia Cross on the much maligned Cameron Diaz film, The Sweetest Thing, and why its depiction of genuine female friendships within the context of a mainstream Hollywood rom-com still feels groundbreaking to her. Then, David Nilsen explores his relationship with his father through the prism of Bellflower, a film full of muscle cars, misguided men, and problematic machismo. Alissa Wilkinson lightens things up a bit with her “Drink and a Movie” column, looking at her favorite overlooked comedy, the 1997 Bill Murray spoof The Man Who Knew Too Little. Wrapping the issue up is our resident poet, Arielle Greenberg, reflecting on Jill Soloway’s vastly underseen 2013 film, Afternoon Delight, a movie that hints at many of the thematic notes Soloway would return to a year later in her breakthrough television series, Transparent.

Finally, we’re excited to announce the addition of a brand new monthly column, “Now Playing”, from long-time contributor Fran Hoepfner. Each month, Fran will be writing about a film currently in theaters that has piqued her interest. Fran’s column will dovetail with the overall theme of the issue at times, but most months (like this one), she’ll be doing her own thing. Either way, we couldn’t be happier. This month she’s taking a look at the relationship drama, 45 Years.

And so here it is, our loving look at unloved things. By the time you’ve finished up the issue, it’s our sincere hope that you’ve added at least a few new films to your queue—and possibly even found a kindred spirit or two.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


The Grace of Keanu Reeves

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I. Transfixing Stillness

Keanu Reeves missed his calling as a silent film actor.

Critics and viewers alike refer to him as stiff, shallow, fake, always playing himself. These opinions have been repeated enough that they’re treated like fact. But this critique misses something. Keanu’s power lies not in transformation or the ability to wrap his mouth around clever word play. No, Keanu is at his most powerful when film is at its most elemental. Like Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and the greatest of silent actors, Keanu has immense screen presence and a keen understanding of communicating story through physicality, albeit with a very modern inflection. A simple glance or curled lip can unfurl lengthy character history or upend expectations.

But this isn’t the commonly held image of Keanu as an actor. He’s been steadily working since the mid-1980s, his earliest defining role one-half of the titular loveable but dim-witted duo in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Through a variety of high profile blockbusters, low-key dramas, and interested misfires in period pieces, Keanu is still stuck in the amber of our first impression; we don’t treat him with the seriousness he deserves. At best, Keanu is regarded as a guilty pleasure. At worst, he’s seen as a truly bad actor of little worth. No matter where you fall, you likely believe he isn’t worthy of critical study or even much respect for his craft. But this image—of odd blankness, affability but dim wit, worth only found in action films—ignores how purely cinematic his acting style is. For Keanu, acting isn’t a mode of transformation but a state of being. He transmutes story into flesh.

In the biography Furious Love, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger recount Richard Burton’s bafflement, acting alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the splendidly overwrought Cleopatra (1963), at her seeming lack of technique: “‘She’s just not doing anything,’ he complained to [Joseph L.] Mankiewicz.” But the director pulled him aside and showed him footage “that took his breath away.” Burton, Kashner and Schoenberger explain, “was struck by Elizabeth’s absolute stillness,” and learned from her “how to tone down the theatrical performances for the camera’s cool eye.”

I’ve often wondered if Keanu’s costars ever think the same thing, since he has a similar transfixing stillness. Bret Easton Ellis once noted that Keanu has a “stillness, an awkwardness even, that is unusually empathetic. He is always hypnotic to watch.” When you watch him opposite actors with more pronounced tics—like Robert Downey Jr. in A Scanner Darkly—Reeves almost seems like he’s doing nothing. But still, your eyes gravitate toward him.

Because of Keanu’s style, the gap between his good and bad performances is a chasm. There is no middle ground for him (which perhaps explains some people’s distaste for his work). Keanu’s failed performances are those that push him toward a theatricality against his natural instincts. They also tend to be the kind of roles actors use to challenge or prove themselves—difficult accents, lush period pieces, reliance on verbal dexterity. The most damning performance in his career is that of Jonathan Harker, the fiancé to the legendary vampire’s object of obsession in Francis Ford Coppola’s fever dream take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you ever come across a list of the top acting miscasts, Keanu’s performance in the film is likely on it. The critical reaction to his role is so poor it has its own subsection on the film’s Wikipedia page. It’s hard to figure out which review is the most damning. Total Film writes dismissively that “[y]ou can visibly see Keanu attempting to not end every one of his lines with ‘dude.’” Entertainment Weekly said he appeared “out of his depth.” AskMen was especially vicious, writing, “It’s one thing to cast Keanu Reeves as an esteemed British lawyer, but it’s quite another to ask him to act alongside Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins[...] [They] ran circles around the poor Canuck, exposing his lack of range, shoddy accent, and abysmal instincts for all to see.”

Yes, in Dracula Keanu is overburdened by the period costumes, lost in the details of each frame as if he were another illusion, appearing as though he’s wandered onto the wrong set. This isn’t because he’s out of his depth. It’s because he’s fighting against his natural instincts as an actor. The harsh criticism of Keanu’s performance in Dracula seeks to dismiss his career as a whole. But Keanu wouldn’t have such a long-running, successful career without fulfilling a cultural need or tapping into something primal that draws our attention.

II. The Crossroads of Virile and Vulnerable

One critical consistency between Keanu’s virulent pans and more beloved roles (think of the tender-hearted hustler in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho) is the common refrain that Keanu always “just plays himself.” The harsh ring of “just” implies a lack of craft and worth as an actor. The statement also assumes we truly know the personalities of stars. We can rattle off details of Keanu’s tragedies during the 1990s (stillborn child, death of his girlfriend eighteen months later), find plenty of platitudes about his kindness, and get a narrow view of his personality through interviews. The act of thinking we know a star as high-profile as Keanu isn’t novel, especially in the age of never ending press cycles and paparazzi. What’s more fascinating, though, is what the “playing himself” criticism says about Keanu as an actor.

Critics and audiences alike have a warped view of the history of acting, as if “true” cinematic acting began with the deification of Marlon Brando, followed by the 1970s glory days of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Each of these actors pronouncedly transform themselves from role to role. They take on various accents with panache, layer on idiosyncrasies, whittle their bodies down or bulk themselves up. A character is a costume to put on and never take off until the last camera rolls. It isn’t a coincidence that Jake Gyllenhaal and Matthew McConaughey’s recent renaissances and newfound respect both involved dramatic weight loss. Keanu is one of the few high-profile modern actors to not go in for willful physical transformation or uglify himself for gravitas. If you’re not “transforming” as an actor, there is a belief that you’re doing something wrong. This line of thinking harkens back to the idea that we must suffer for our art. But Keanu is more powerful than actors who rely on physical transformation as shorthand for depth, because he taps into something much more primal and elusive: the truth.

The first time we see Keanu as FBI Agent Johnny Utah in the beloved surfer-crime dramaPoint Break (1991), he sits on the hood of a car seemingly unperturbed by the rain pouring down on him. It takes a moment to recognize the shotgun that sits in his lap. His hair slick. His tight black shirt and jeans clinging to his impressive body. The camera holds close to his lips as he unfurls a piece of gum and puts it into his mouth, and then we see a sequence of him blasting through a gun course at Quantico. This introduction gives rise to the kind of action star Keanu grows into, much different than his 1980s predecessors who tended to be powered by an unerring confidence and machismo. Their emotional landscapes weren’t as developed as their biceps. The opening of Point Break illustrates how Keanu’s relationship with the camera informs his onscreen masculinity. He carries himself with a supple vulnerability, at times even a passivity, that seems at odds with the expectations for an action star.

I’ve found myself attracted to Keanu’s presence because of the way he marries typically masculine and feminine qualities. He’s both intense and vulnerable, kind and tough, honest and mysterious. Keanu, of course, isn’t the first star to exist at the crossroads of virile and vulnerable. Actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Paul Newman embody a similar alchemy that have drawn women (and men) to them. But these actors often seem to fight against the lustful gaze of the camera, while Keanu supplants himself to it. Where they seem cynical, disinterested, or too wounded as a romantic lead, Keanu is utterly open.

In Point Break, he’s a hotshot with a gun and a badge. But he’s also an object of lust for the camera (and audience), with a disarmingly open smile. Furthermore, without the help of a woman—the short-haired pixie vixen surfer Tyler (Lori Petty)—he wouldn’t be able to integrate himself into the gang of robbers/surfers led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). This artful dynamic—a woman of greater skill guiding a passive man into a world beyond his imagination—develops even further in The Matrix (1999). Some of this, of course, exists on a plot level. But Keanu tends to let his scene partners take the lead, becoming almost a tabula rasa on which they (and we) can project our ideas of what it means to be a hero, a man, a modern action star.

III. Modern Loneliness

Constantine (2005) has a lot working against it. As an adaptation of the Hellblazer comics from Vertigo, it isn’t memorable. But as a continuation of Keanu’s thematic exploration of loneliness as an actor, it is. Constantine casts off most of the comics’ canon for the screen. Gone is the London setting, the character’s British background. The cynicism, chain smoking, and dark humor remain, even though Keanu (who is of Chinese, Hawaiian, and English descent) looks nothing like the blonde-haired comic character. Searching for emotional truth in a fantasy comic adaptation involving a working class magician who can see angels and demons and toys with the black arts seems like a fool’s errand. But sometimes you find grace in unlikely places. Amongst CGI demons, Tilda Swinton’s androgynous take on the archangel Gabriel, and lots of hellfire, Keanu somehow provides a trenchant take on the burden of loneliness in the big city.

(When looking closer at Keanu’s career, loneliness comes into focus as a thematic preoccupation. He’s often disconnected from the world around him, forging relationships only with intense effort or by accident. While he’s a great romantic lead—more so in films where romance isn’t the main plotline—I think he’s even better suited to moments when he’s wading through the cold, dark waters of spiritual isolation.)

The loneliness that comes with the modern metropolis—like Los Angeles, where Constantine resides—has a different tenor than loneliness anywhere else. It’s magnified to such a great degree in part because of the bizarre effects of population density. Everyone handles loneliness differently. Many, like Constantine, take to trying on addictions and seeing which fit. And addiction aside, most people dealing with loneliness—including myself—acquire weird habits to fill the darkness. A small moment about thirty minutes into Constantine (just before he meets Rachel Weisz’ earnest, Catholic cop who has yet to realize she’s being swept up in a battle between heaven and hell) illustrates the idiosyncrasies that come with loneliness.

Constantine sits alone under the harsh fluorescent lights of his apartment, doing what he does best—slow self-destruction at the hands of smoking and alcohol. A spider as sickly as the peeling paint on his walls tumbles across the table. He puts the spider under an empty glass, watching it for a few moments with dull curiosity as it makes sense of its tiny, glass prison. He blows some cigarette smoke into the glass, but keeps the spider trapped. “Welcome to my life,” he remarks. It’s a series of small gestures only the lonely think of, then actually go through with. Enacted by other movie stars, this moment could come across as maudlin or empty. But the great beauty of Keanu’s skill makes the short scene at once painfully earnest, chillingly lonely, and aching with self-pity.

Constantine taps into a lot of what makes Keanu sincerely watchable and an actor of surprising depth. An emotional truthfulness? Check. Strong physicality? Just watch the way he plays with a pack of cigarettes or curls his body when he has a coughing fit. Interesting handling of modern masculinity? It’s all there, even if the film isn’t always aware of it. And nine years later, Keanu would finally find a vehicle that perfectly amplifies his strengths.

IV. Keanu Reeves, Action Star (A Certain Baggage)

John Wick (2014) stars Keanu as the titular former assassin, so feared he gained the nickname Baba Yaga (The Boogeyman). From the moment we see Keanu as John Wick, he carries himself like he’s wounded. These psychological wounds eventually give way to physical ones. His peaceful retirement is first interrupted by the death of his wife, then his old life creeping back in. Before her death, his wife arranged for him to receive an adorable puppy named Daisy, meant to help him grieve, and Wick gradually warms up to the dog. Unfortunately, he crosses paths with Iosef (Alfie Allen), the obnoxious son of a powerful mob boss/former associate. Maybe if Iosef knew of Wick’s reputation, he wouldn’t have brutally beaten Wick, killed Daisy, and stolen his 1969 Mustang. This crime leads Wick on a quest for revenge through a deadly world full of the ghosts of his past profession. John Wicksynthesizes Keanu’s greatness—his central, thematic loneliness; his command of physicality and stillness; and his peculiarly vulnerable masculinity.

On the surface, John Wick is a simple, classic story of revenge with some of the most impressive world-building I’ve seen in years. Beyond that, though, it metatextually capitalizes on the story arc of Keanu Reeves, Action Star, regaining his title in the genre. He sells every punch given or received, every thrown knife, every ounce of blood spilled. There is weight to the action in the film. You see the toll it takes on his body and, at times, a minute shift of his expression acknowledging how age affects performance. When he’s already wounded and gets into a fight for his life with Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), we feel it.

Wick is cut from the same cloth as Alain Delon’s assassin in Le Samourai (1969), whose cool stoicism and impressively-styled badassery yields a heavy influence. But while Delon and his kin seem sharp and cold, like cut glass, Wick is powered by something altogether different—longing, loss, connection. In Keanu’s hands, Wick isn’t void of emotion—or struggling with its first pangs—but brimming with it.

The film frames Wick as mythic. His face moves from mournful to vengeful at a clip. His eyes lock with a man just as he stabs him in the gut until he dies, while lights the color of cotton candy blue and magenta shift the architecture of his face to something fearsome. Keanu tells Wick’s story through his body—the way he wears a suit and his wedding ring, the cool determination in his eyes, the flash of warmth in a brief scene with Addy (Bridget Regan), the slackness in his face when he sees Daisy dead. This is a man who has nothing to lose, who carries the weight of his history with each step—and “his” history here is both Wick’s and Keanu’s. Stars like Keanu bring a certain baggage with them—the roles we’ve loved, the bitter taste of when they’ve failed us, half-remembered gossip. This context informs John Wick.

There are actors we admire, and then there are the stars we love. The best of them get under our skin, becoming a part of our lives, following us through tragedies and triumphs. Keanu is one of those stars for me because of the sheer joy watching him brings. But there’s also the joy for the medium that radiates off him. Actors like Keanu—who find beauty in stillness—are why film was created in the first place. It’s a medium that can show us the truth of the human condition in a way no other form can. Keanu often taps into the truth of the shifting boundaries of modern masculinity, of how our bodies tell as much of a story as what we say. John Wick is as much a slick revenge flick as a fairytale. Keanu Reeves is back, the film seems to be whispering to us.

But was he ever gone in the first place?


Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She writes about film, television, pop culture, and mental illness. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Movie Mezzanine. She currently writes for Vulture. She can be found at her website, Madwomen and Muses.


Pop Apocalypse

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

According to the second law of thermodynamics, time flows toward entropy, into a world characterized by disorder and collapse. This principle also suggests that a moment in the past will be inherently less entropic than the present. In Joseph Kahn’s film Detention, the character Ione Foster travels from the present—the density and anarchy of 2011—to the year of 1992. She meets a high school student packaged loosely in flannel and a Soundgarden T-shirt, who informs her that Kriss Kross doesn’t qualify as “retro.” Ione turns toward the camera and exclaims, “I’m never leaving this place!” 1992 presents a clearer system of values to her than her own time. It’s a less chaotic universe; it responds to her desires. She can be the agent of disorder. She invents an abbreviation for guacamole: “guac.”

Detention mostly takes place in 2011, in the high school of a small town called Grizzly Lake. It’s a universe ruled by entropy. The main character, Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), is suicidal. We’re introduced to her in the center of a suicide attempt; she pours a small mountain of pills into her mouth, only to spit them out when a song she loves issues from her alarm clock. Riley also has romantic designs on her childhood best friend, Clapton Davis, played by Josh Hutcherson with a captivatingly neutral cool. Clapton is, unfortunately, dating Riley’s former friend Ione, and is possibly in danger of being beaten out of existence by Ione’s old boyfriend, high school quarterback Billy Nolan. This seems like the general ecosystem of a teen movie, but structurally, Detention is a deeply nested meta movie; it qualifies equally as a teen movie, as a slasher film, and as inextricably knotted science fiction. Pop culture references overlap until they’re dense and unreadable as hieroglyphs. Clapton teaches himself how to fight by simulating the 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House; “Patrick Swayze didn’t get Kelly Lynch without ripping some throats out,” he says. Ione’s inflexible attachment to the ‘90s is mostly expressed through her temporal crushes: Michael Keaton, Luke Perry, Richard Grieco. “You’re as funny as Bronson Pinchot,” she tells Clapton when they start dating. (Clapton is incidentally attracted to her because of her excessive familiarity with the discography of Sting.)

Detention appeared in theaters in 2012, a year after its tour of film festivals. Critics were mostly bewildered. Richard Roeper found it “more exhausting than entertaining...a directorial drum solo,” although he also conceded that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a cult hit.” Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that “everyone must have been chugging Mountain Dew between takes,” and that “there will be young moviegoers who proclaim this genius, and more stodgy audience members who find it torturous.”

Their reactions are understandable. Kahn’s method of storytelling runs on the hysterical kinetic energy generated by its overlapping allusions; at a certain point Detention approaches something like infinite recursion. There’s a serial killer in the film who dresses as a collage of mummy and prom queen; the killer resembles Cinderhella, the titular character of the film’s internal horror movie. When the murders are reported to the cops, one of the officers says, “This attacker you’re describing sounds just like that movie.” “Cinderhella?” “Scream.” “It’s so obviously a conspiracy to make everyone think I’m a total loser making pre-emptive mid-’90s pop references,” Riley tells Clapton after the second attack. Even Kahn’s own filmography is consumed in the density of the film’s metatext. “I just mean, it looks like Clapton’s going to ask out Ione,” Sander, Clapton’s best friend, says. “Which makes about as much sense as that stupid movie Torque.”

Detention is Kahn’s follow-up to Torque, a fluorescent and incoherent action movie mainly defined by the inhuman drift of its camera. In Kahn’s movies, cars and motorcycles and axes move through the air and the camera follows them through walls, through surfaces, into impossible space. You can detect the rhythms of Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and even Richard Kelly in Torque and Detention, but the scenes shift too quickly to be isolated to one aesthetic. It’s as if Kahn’s films obey a scattered, dilettantish pulse. His camera is also remarkably sensitive to sound and music, which is most likely inherited from his extensive work as a music video director. At this point he’s famous for directing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood,” but my favorite music video of his is “Always” by blink-182, in which three horizontally layered split screens melt into and detach from each other. In each, a member of blink-182 is pursuing the same woman through a revolving shot of her apartment; the scenes are almost identical, so whenever they merge it’s like three subtly different timelines collapsing.

In Detention, time doesn’t pass. The characters move through it and alter its substance. Time itself has a kind of invertebrate structure in the movie; it drifts forward, backward, into adjacent pockets of space. A revelation about a character will occasion a flashback, and these flashbacks themselves will manipulate the timeline; when Ione travels to 1992, her mother inhabits her body in the present, which is why her only frames of reference are ‘90s hunks. Later in the movie the characters discover that the world’s about to end; they make this discovery while stuck in detention in 2011, but the explosion that unmakes the world actually occurs in a chemistry class in 1992.

The movie seems to conceive of time as less of a thermodynamic arrow than a kind of cubist block. In the novel The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a physicist named Shevek develops a theory of simultaneity, which describes time as something that doesn’t flow as much as happen all at once, past and present infinitely occurring and contaminating each other. “Well, we think that time ‘passes,’ flows past us, but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new?” he says. “It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers.” Shevek elaborates that people do not experience time exclusively as succession: for instance, in dreaming, time and its engines, cause and effect, can become displaced or meaningless. “In a dream there is no time, and succession is all changed about, and cause and effect are all mixed together,” he says. “In myth and legend there is no time. What past is it the tale means when it says ‘Once upon a time’?”

This is an opportunity presented by fiction, that the nature of time can be warped until it resembles our actual experience of it, in reality and dreams. Time is unstable fabric, able to expand or contract depending on how we move through it or how we observe others moving through it. Is a minute in conversation the same shape as a minute of solitude? Detention distorts this principle even further, until time is so shapeless that any adjustment will cause a rupture in some distant beyond or before.

When Sander is revealed as the agent of the apocalypse, the reasoning behind it is craven; Riley wouldn’t have sex with him, so he orchestrated the end of the world. Sander is a character we only access through his desperation and his references, which are themselves so narrow and hollow that they are tiny rhetorical ends of the world. He wears a Star Trek uniform to a party; before he kisses Riley he says, “Engage.” “Sander saw no future for us because he lived in the past,” Riley says at the end of the film. “So his experiment was to end time itself.”

Is it strange that a movie so densely referential would characterize nostalgia as a form of apocalypse? Pop culture references themselves can resemble collapsed universes, contextless and meaningless collisions of time. The most legitimate form of travel, the film wants to say, is simply living. In The Dispossessed, Le Guin similarly characterizes Shevek’s own experience of time: “Everything that had happened to him was a part of what was happening to him now.” Riley nearly says this outright. “We now know the greatest experiment isn’t traveling through time or making bombs,” she says. “The only way to change the past is to change the present.” But then she’s distracted by another form of time travel, one in which time is compressed and becomes repeatable. She interrupts her monologue and enters a kind of reverie. “...I can’t think to this song,” she says.


Brad Nelson is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic and the Village Voice.


Save Yourself

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

For my thirteenth birthday, I hosted my first-ever sleepover. I printed paper invitations in curlicued fonts and slipped them into the letterboxes of my girlfriends’ houses, inviting them for pizza and a trip to the movies for the opening day of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. A rom-com starring Orlando Bloom–what could possibly be better for a group of thirteen-year-old girls?

I know, I know–a lot could have been better, right? Elizabethtown was the movie that inspired writer Nathan Rabin to coin the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”–or, in other words, a female character whose sole purpose is to charm the male lead out of his existential funk. Her job is to save him from himself. In 2014, Rabin wrote an article for Salon, apologizing for the trope and calling it “a fundamentally sexist one.”

When I read that, I thought, Well, what’s Prince Charming’s job, then? Is having to rescue the princess from the highest room of the tallest tower, or the evil stepmother, or the fire-breathing dragon supposed to be a given?

The first time I watched Elizabethtown, in the middle seat of the middle row, surrounded by my chatty and giggly friends, I silently rooted for the girl to save the guy.

The movie opens with Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) considering throwing himself from a helicopter. Drew is on his way to a meeting with his boss, Phil (Alec Baldwin), to mourn the $972 million he’s lost his shoe company. It hurts to see his almost-ex-girlfriend Ellen’s (Jessica Biel) expression, creased with embarrassment, as she walks him to Phil’s office. What a fiasco.

“As somebody once said, there's a difference between a failure and a fiasco,” Drew narrates.“A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fiasco–a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others, that makes other people feel more alive. Because it didn’t happen to them.”

+

The summer after I first watched Elizabethtown, I fell in love with a boy. Some friends invited me out to see a movie–Scary Movie 3, I think. They’d dressed up–skirts, heeled sandals, too-bright eyeshadow–and neglected to tell me they’d also invited two boys. I showed up in jeans and a sweatshirt with my hair in a messy ponytail. They were already in the crowded theater, and there he was, sitting at the end of the row closest to me. He looked up when my friends motioned for me to join them–and smiled. My breath caught; it was a natural smile and it lingered, saying, Sit next to me. He was pale, with dark hair and hazel eyes: a real-life dreamboat who belonged on the big screen.

“Taylor!” one of the girls, Katie, called. “Come sit next to me.” Disheartened, I realized that this was some sort of setup for him and our friend Laura, who had a crush on him. She was cozying up to him before the credits had even started. But then a couple sat down next to Katie and there was only one seat left; I’d have to sit next to him.

“Oh well,” he chimed in sarcastically, patting the empty seat. Katie and Laura glanced at each other knowingly; I was going to be watched like a hawk for the next two hours. But it didn’t matter much; even though I looked like hell, he’d picked me.

We “dated” throughout the summer–we met up at the movies, at various parks, and talked on the phone for hours at a time. He told me about his less-than-ideal childhood, how he still wasn’t over his parents’ divorce, and about butting heads with his stepmom. I listened more than I spoke; I absorbed his troubles and they became mine, too, but only to a certain point: I broke up with him in a letter before school started; I wasn’t ready to have sex yet, and he was dropping hints like a bad juggler.

+

Drew gets the call from his sister (Judy Greer): their father, Mitch, has had a heart attack in his native Elizabethtown. “You have to handle this. You’re the oldest. You’re the responsible one,” she says tearfully. She doesn’t know he’s been getting ready to kill himself with an admittedly laughable contraption fashioned out of an automatic exercise bike, a chef’s knife, and some duct tape. Drew’s immediate plan is “to get back on that bike” once his father is buried.

Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) shows up in Drew’s life inconveniently. He’s the only passenger on a red-eye flight to Louisville, Kentucky, and she proves to be much more than a stewardess to him. She keeps him awake long into the night, giving him directions to Elizabethtown from the airport and analyzing people in his life based on their first names. (In this instance, Mitches are fun and full of life, while Ellens are unpredictable.) She leaves her number on the map she draws for him, just in case he needs anything.

She’s earnest, I thought. Genuine–she means what she says. My girlfriends all thought she was desperate, too forward. But how else do you let someone know you’re interested? You have to do something. Maybe she’ll make him change his mind about (killing) himself?

After we broke up, we still kept in touch every so often, via not-exactly-accidental text messages and Facebook. Our “tradition” was to meet up at Barnes & Noble and browse books while catching up on each other’s lives, then move on to the smoothie place next door or down the street to the park. We always reconnected during the summertime, and I liked to think that we were watching each other grow up. That wasn’t the case, however: I would always end up pandering to his problems, and he had a lot. Regardless, it was a reward when he said, “I feel like I can talk to you about anything.” I thought I was waiting in the wings; he’d realize, eventually, that I was the right person for him, that I did right by him in the waiting.

But that’s never how it works out, is it?

+

Claire knows that Drew needs a vacation from himself. She creates an entire experience for him after his father’s funeral: a road trip, complete with eclectic bartenders and landmarks to visit, and a soundtrack for the entire trip, all with his father’s ashes in tow. When Claire instructs Drew to visit a magazine stand to read an article about his business failure, she narrates, “You have five minutes to wallow in the delicious misery. Enjoy it, embrace it. Discard it. And proceed.” The trip, in the end, presents him with a choice: look for her at a Midwestern farmer’s market, or continue on to Oregon.

Recently, I re-watched Elizabethtown after many years. The way Drew gazes doe-eyed at Claire when he finds her at the farmer’s market startled me this time around. He barely knows her! All he really knows is that she’d created a fictional boyfriend to arouse jealousy in him (Ben–apparently, Ellens are less predictable than Bens). Claire was certainly a creative and clever–not to mention manipulative–planner; she knew even less about him, and yet she knew more: she was able to convince him, with nothing more to go on than his good looks and his demeanor, that she was the perfect solution to his self-absorption. And Drew looks at her as if he really does need her.

But that was what I’d wanted, too, right? To be needed, to be rewarded. Claire wanted to be rewarded for taking an interest in Drew that went past a glance and a clever come-on, and she wanted to make damn sure she got that reward. What I’d loved about Claire, before I’d ever fallen in love, was her gumption. She didn’t wait around for him. Instead, she set to work on showing him what life with her could be. Claire was my hero.

What were Drew’s fringe benefits in this whole arrangement, though? That’s a questionElizabethtown largely fails to answer. Perhaps we’re supposed to assume that Claire’s saving him from himself is enough, but I’d be curious to see how their relationship actually pans out after the final credits finish rolling. Does Drew grow out of her, realize that he doesn’t need saving? Does Claire find a new project, someone else who needs a fresh start, now that Drew has been taken care of?

The last night I saw my old boyfriend, years ago, he was on leave from boot camp. It was a cool April night, humid, the scent of rain permeating the air. We’d agreed to meet at an all-night cafe. As I walked across the brightly lit parking lot, I saw him sitting at the bar, facing me through the tall window, though he avoided looking in my direction—out of shyness, I thought. Goosebumps erupted on my arms.

There was this girl, he said, that he was planning to marry after he got out of boot camp. She was gorgeous—in the photo he showed me, she was tall and tan with the pearliest of whites—and she loved him exactly as he was.

“And she has hair that actually reminds me of yours,” he said. I fingered my own chin-length hair nervously, offering an empty, conceding smile. He saw things in this girl that I’d always wanted him to see in me.

I’d wasted years of my life hoping that I was his possibility, that I would become his plan. When we parted that night, I was relieved: he was no longer my responsibility. It hadn’t been love at all; it had been a one-way street.

It can make you feel like you’re a whole person, a heroic person, to put someone else first. I love Elizabethtown because it’s a lesson about what not to do. Once, Drew’s narcissism was amusing to me (now it’s just boring) and Claire’s selflessness was admirable (now it just reads as somewhere between manipulative and naive). Really loving someone doesn’t mean waiting for that someone to love you, and you can’t force love by doing what you think that someone needs. They have to save themselves, and so do you


Taylor Hine is a writer living in Asheville. She is a regular contributor to This Recording.


Concerning Hobbits

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Some time ago, I came across the argument that maybe we as moviegoers should knock it off with the opinion that “Movie X was not what I wanted it to be.” The argument seemed to boil down to the idea that complaints and negative reactions to a piece of art are inherently not as interesting as the art itself, and I have to give that argument its due. Because what really gets accomplished by complaining about a bad movie? The movie does not change. The filmmaker usually doesn’t issue an apology, or promise to consult the complainer next time (admittedly this has happened before, though it’s noteworthy for its rarity). The complaints often spark arguments that—because this usually takes place on the internet—are not always the most amicable or conciliatory in tone.

Things get negative. Suddenly the movies aren’t fun anymore. But there are times when saying that a movie is not what you wanted it to be is a valid point of view because it says more about you and what’s in your heart and mind than the film itself. With that in mind, friends, let’s talk about The Hobbit Trilogy, known collectively as The Hobbit: There and Back Again and separately as 2012’s An Unexpected Journey, 2013’s The Desolation of Smaug and 2014’s The Battle of the Five Armies. These movies are not what I, nor many others, wanted them to be, but ultimately that’s sort of ok.

Films like The Hobbit exist in a world of sincerity, a world of absolutes. People are good because they’re good and evil because they’re evil. People find their courage and are corrupted by their greed. You tend to know who the heroes and villains are, when to cheer, when to boo. That’s not to say you can switch off when you’re watching these movies, but more that you can be open to the big emotions that come with telling a big story. It’s too bad that these kinds of clear, uncomplicated moments are few and far between in the trilogy, but if you do the research, hoboy, does this situation ever become understandable. And if you don’t want to do the research, don’t worry! I’ve done a LOT of the legwork for you.

To avoid a Silmarillion-esque exploration of the making of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, suffice it to say that it was a troubled production since its inception. Complicated issues with rights ownership of J.R.R.Tolkien’s 1937 classic children’s book, labour disputes, lawsuits over lost wages, scheduling conflicts which led to director Guillermo del Toro’s departure from the project and the subsequent last minute hiring of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson made for a perhaps less-than-jovial atmosphere for the making of the film. It’s important to note that these frustrations lasted for nearly twenty years, from when Jackson and his creative team (including writers/producers Philipa Boyens and Fran Walsh) first approached Harvey Weinstein about making the film in 1995. With the rights set to expire in late 2010, Jackson—who had publicly stated that he did not want the exhausting, emotionally draining and “unsatisfying” job of essentially competing with his previous Middle Earth films—stepped into the director’s chair with only three months until filming began (compare that with the three and a half years of pre-production work on Lord of the Rings).

Does that perhaps less-than-willing participation and rushed schedule excuse some of the trilogy’s more egregious notes (such as the inclusion of an entirely non-essential scene which features the painful torment and death of small woodland creatures, or that godawful dishwashing scene, or the fact that the title of the first installment—An Unexpected Journey—is apt because the protagonist’s choice to go on the journey is completely out of character and totally unmotivated), or explain the tense atmosphere shown on set in the behind-the-scenes features (Jackson is shown repeatedly chuckling while making the cast do things they very much do not want to do—such as pouring buckets of dead salmon over the head of actor Adam Brown, who has a serious phobia of fish)? Does the pressure of competing creatively with a more-prepared version of yourself absolve the final product’s uneven tone, the lack of focus, the overstuffed backstory, the grasping attempts to connect the films to Lord of the Rings? Honestly, it might. With such a short time to prepare, Jackson and his collaborators were laying track in front of a speeding, 745 million-dollar train, and released what is functionally a three-quarter billion dollar first draft.

But I’m not asking you to let these films completely off the hook because they had a bad childhood. I kept a series of notes while watching these films that fell into qualitative categories; Egregious, Bad, Neutral, Good, Transcendent and Other (the last of which was for instances when I knew I was falling far short of objectivism), and exactly 50% of my seven pages of notes fall into the “Bad” category, with “Egregious” outweighing “Transcendent” at a score of ten to seven. The scene which introduces the central characters feels resigned to the confusion of ever telling them apart from one another; Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) gives us very few reasons to care about his story; the stakes in just about every one of the action sequences are incredibly low and thus very easy to tune out of. They’re long (of course they are), they rely very heavily on not-always-convincing CGI and green screen (of course they do) and they really should’ve been titled “THE DWARVES.” These are not great films. These films are unfocused, uneven and truly unloved, perhaps especially so by their creators (sample any five minutes of commentary from any of the three films and you’ll hear Jackson be rather liberal with language like “stupid,” “dodgy,” major character developments are described as “taking the easy way,” and my personal favourite, “this would’ve been a good trick for a first-time screenwriter.”) So why, whyyyyyyyy can’t I stop talking about them and what I wanted them to be?

It’s because when we love a film—or more truly, part of a film—we are seeing something in ourselves. Something we are or something we want to be. And with that in mind, I present what I wanted The Hobbit to be, and what that says about me.

THINGS TO LOSE:

  • Tauriel and the Love Triangle. While I admire the decision to include a new female character to break up the 99.9% of the male cast, I’m disappointed that she fell into the trap of fulfilling an unnecessary romantic subplot. Evangeline Lilly does an admirable job with what she was given (and really gives her all in the action sequences), but as soon as she locks eyes with the (arguably) most attractive dwarf (I’m a Dwalin man, myself), you can tell exactly where her story is going to go for the rest of the trilogy. I’m bored to tears by more of the same white, male protagonists and while I’m not convinced that having no women is better than one woman with a boring story, this feels obvious, dumb and very limiting. More interesting roles for more interesting women, please.
     
  • The White Council. A huge part of the trilogy involves Gandalf (Ian McKellan) going off on his own to investigate the rise of Sauron with the help(?) of the White Council, made up of the powerful Elves, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and the powerful wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). The Council was formed to prevent the rise of evil in Middle Earth, but instead of answering Gandalf’s calls to action when we have no reason to doubt him, the scenes are mired in bureaucracy and pat denials of evidence. The Council is so tedious that Gandalf eventually just strikes out on his own, ending in his capture and imprisonment. Quite apart from the fact that not knowing where Gandalf is puts enormous pressure on the company of Dwarves and increases the dramatic tension of the film substantially (remember when he disappeared for 2/3 of The Two Towers?), it’s not exactly enjoyable to have to endure endless debate on something that we, the audience, know for a fact is happening. This is how I feel about almost every single committee or council I’ve been a part of: it’s just not worth it. It’s typical these days to lament how difficult it is to be an adult, but being an adult is only difficult because of other adults. Escapist fantasy films shouldn’t contain scenes with as much or more frustration as the real world, period. Can’t we all just work together?
     
  • “More” is not “Better.” Several times in the behind-the-scenes documentaries and commentary tracks, Jackson uses the justification “well, it was in the book” to explain the presence of an awkward bit of dialogue or a ridiculous CGI creature. The trilogy, which was to be two films originally, crams in dozens of links to The Lord of the Rings, some subtle, some flagrant, only one or two necessary. Should Bilbo have found the One Ring? Absolutely. That episode not only sets the scene for the events of LOTR, but leads to the definition of Bilbo as a tragic hero, changing the fate of Middle Earth. Should Jackson have included a scene in which the Dwarves sing in unison while washing the dishes after supper? Let’s see; does it add anything to the story? Nope. Does it come back during a battle sequence, as though it was planted early on to show us the simpatico fighting style of the Dwarves? Nope. Was it in the book? Sure was! An adaptation of Tolkien’s book demanded one film, two at most. This story, the story they decided to tell—which chronicles Sauron’s rise to power and links the events of The Hobbit with The Fellowship of the Ring—could have been four films. But the idea that more of what worked before will surely work again is the same argument that’s stretched out multiple franchises like butter scraped over too much bread. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it usually seems to be at the insistence of the businessmen. Record box office numbers are not why people go to the movies. They go for the artistry, the technical expertise, the escapism, the stories. Don’t ever forget what happened to Joss Whedon and don’t let it happen again.

THINGS TO KEEP:

  • The “chamber confrontations.” Any scene in which Bilbo has to reckon with something more powerful or more dangerous has an exceptional energy to it—his confrontations with Gollum (Andy Serkis) in An Unexpected Journey and Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) in The Desolation of Smaug especially so. These scenes have been criticized for being overlong, but really, point to any single thing in these films that couldn’t shoulder that same criticism. The action slows and in its place is an extended battle of the wits, developing character and showing the surprising resourcefulness of our protagonist. A character like Bilbo—that is to say, not a warrior or a wizard like his compatriots—who cannot fight his way out of these daunting scenarios is forced to delve deep and find his true strength; his cunning, his charm, his intelligence. Please don’t make me explain why an unathletic indoor kid with a penchant for books would respond to this kind of scene.
     
  • Scenes you can feel. The sequence from The Desolation of Smaug that’s set in the claustrophobic Mirkwood forest is a wonder of queasy filmmaking. Old tricks like double-exposure and filming short scenes backwards are combined with a cave-like sound design and twitchy performances to create a wonderfully disorienting effect. When Bilbo finally climbs above the treeline to get his bearings, you can feel the coolness of the fresh air fill your lungs along with him. That short sequence alone is a masterclass in creating atmosphere, in evocative screencraft that makes an audience respond with their whole body. That’s the kind of visceral artwork that reaches out and grabs you, and the kind that I will always line up for.
     
  • The themes of home and belonging. In An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), following a series of unbelievable (some would say in-credible) brushes with death, attempts to leave the company. He is seen by the dwarf Bofur (James Nesbitt) who tells him “you’re homesick. I understand,” and he does. The Dwarves have lived their lives on the road, never able to settle in any one place, always with the knowledge that their home was cruelly and violently stolen and that even with their best efforts, they may never return. Bilbo gauchely points this out and is keenly ashamed of himself. After a few more brushes with death, and now armed with a magical, invisibility-inducing ring that would allow him to escape, Bilbo chooses to remain with the Dwarves. “You don’t have a home,” he says. “It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.” The entire quest, everything that was, everything that is, everything that will happen is legitimized; the Dwarves seek a place in which to feel safe and Bilbo gives up his own safety and comfort to help those in need. That’s an emotional journey I can get behind for two more movies. That’s the world I want to live in; where people do kind things, even when they’re afraid to and have no reason to be kind.

There’s more (believe me, there’s a lot more) in my perfect version of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, but acceptance of things as they are is a cornerstone of moving through the world. You can want more and expect more and when you don’t get it, how you respond is what defines you as a person. Does that mean you should let the world go to seed? Of course not. What it means is that if you’re not seeing the stories you want told in the world, then you need to pitch in and join the narrative. So go ahead and complain! But if all you’re doing is complaining when you’ve got a brain in your head and shoes on your feet, you’re missing out on a great adventure.


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.


If You Wanna Be My Lover...

by Sophia Cross

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I love finding other people who’ve seen The Sweetest Thing, especially if I’m just getting to know them. If realizing that you love the same movie is an instant connection, realizing that you love the same critically panned romantic comedy is an instant kinship. Especially one that includes:

  • Changing room sex with a guy wearing an elephant costume
  • A grandpa in a “Who Farted?” t-shirt
  • A shopping montage in a small-town boutique featuring some amazing hats
  • Parker Posey having a pre-wedding meltdown
  • A cock ring getting stuck in Selma Blair’s tonsils

The entire movie is so much fun - Christina (Cameron Diaz), Courtney (Christina Applegate), and Jane (Selma Blair) are three single gals in San Francisco. One night, Christina meets Peter (Thomas Jane) at a club and they have some great banter, and maybe it’s something, but then Peter’s brother Roger (Jason Bateman) drags him away. Christina’s left with the sense that Peter could be the one, knows that he’s going to a wedding that weekend, and knows where that wedding is - so she and Courtney embark on a road trip to go after him. By the end of the movie, everybody's learned that sometimes you need to open yourself up to the possibility of getting hurt in order to find true happiness with another person. Which, honestly, is pretty solid advice.

But outside of The Sweetest Thing’s shock-value gags, outside of its capers and shenanigans, there’s a deeper reason I’ll always have a special place for it in my heart: it’s a major Hollywood romantic comedy that showcases genuine friendships between women. I unabashedly love schlocky romantic comedies in the same way I love Oreos or anything else moment-­to-­moment enjoyable, but watching them usually requires me to suspend any knowledge of how real women actually interact with one another. This one doesn't.

The Sweetest Thing came out during the initial renaissance of post-Ephron rom-coms, a simpler time between 2001 and 2003 when every woman under the age of 30 had an endless supply of sleeveless turtlenecks and Matthew McConaughey was just another set of abs. Around this time, the “working girl really just needs to find love” trope hit the new millennium with movies that were charming, entertaining, and only expected the viewer to scrutinize the relationship between the film’s central couple. As such, the romantic leads' banter and chemistry was almost strictly confined between the two of them. Outside of the central relationship, the air got thinner and things became a little more utilitarian.

It’s probably best not to think about all this too hard, but here’s what happens when you do...

There’s The Heroine. She’s A-list actress beautiful. Despite this, she tends to have problems with love because she’s too focused on her career. Her friends can sometimes remind her that she’s too focused on her career. Her friends can also do other things: They can highlight class solidarity and establish The Heroine as the underdog against her upper-crust romantic rival; they can arrange a group outing and then bail at the last minute so The Heroine and her love interest can have an unexpected first date; they can emphasize how far The Heroine has strayed from her hometown roots by being relentlessly chic New Yorkers; they can help demonstrate how The Heroine is sweet, relatable, and One Of The Girls even though she also loves beer, basketball, and ribs. (Or her friends can simply not exist to begin with, reinforcing the notion that The Heroine is way too focused on her career and needs a duke from 1876 who’s fallen through a temporal wormhole leading to present-day New York to show her the true meaning of romance.) Examples are taken from Maid In Manhattan, The Wedding Planner, Sweet Home Alabama, How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, and Kate And Leopold, respectively—no single movie contains all of these scenarios, though if such a movie did exist I would consider it a personal failure to not have already seen that movie multiple times.

None of this affects how enjoyable these movies are to watch, of course, because a romantic comedy operates under the same premise as any other fantasy universe - as long as that universe and its rules are clearly established, the viewer’s knowledge of their own reality will eventually cede to what the story requires. This also applies to things like discovering family heirlooms just when a person needs to believe in love again, or constantly falling asleep with makeup on yet never getting a zit. It’s such a seamless process that one of the only ways to really notice how poorly most rom-coms treat female friendship is to place them right next to one that unabashedly revels in it.

The Sweetest Thing is that rom-com. Despite the quest for love being the ostensible centerpiece of the plot, friendship is what gets the most screen time and those relationships are clearly the most important. Courtney and Jane aren’t just there to provide a sounding board for Christina’s romantic woes. These women have a rapport, a history, a deep-­seated love and respect for each other. And this is rare!

Because generally, when someone fills the role of “the best friend” in a rom-­com, it means they’re only there to be found exaggeratedly sluttier, exaggeratedly prudish, less pretty, less romantically adept, or generally less interesting than The Heroine. A best friend has to lack the girl-­next-­door spunkiness that would make them worthy of their own central plot, which is why being “the best friend” in the romantic comedy universe has come to be mostly an insult. It insinuates that you’re destined to stand outside the arena of love, offering advice to people actually playing the game but never participating yourself, at least not in a way that anyone might care about. Best friends are not portrayed as real people, because they don’t need to be in order for the romantic comedy universe to function properly. They don’t need to be real people in order for true love to conquer all.

And a rom-com is first and foremost there to provide that kind of sweeping wish fulfillment. It’s intended to leave viewers with the reassurance that everything is going to work out. That’s the basis of the genre's entire appeal, its raison d’être; a rom-com being synonymous with a “feel-good” movie isn’t exactly a coincidence, if you want to look at it in terms of Netflix categories.

Rom-com wish fulfillment primarily operates on the premise that romantic love is head and shoulders above any other kind. Friendships, particularly female ones, are just paltry compensation. Rom-com wish fulfillment is steeped in the idea that something in you will be fundamentally redeemed by romantic love, because something’s wrong with you if it doesn’t. It’s manifest of a desire to escape a morass of the unloved, to essentially be reassured that you really are interesting and pretty and likeable enough to be the protagonist of your own life. That desire is easy to recognize as bullshit when it’s laid out in a sentence and read with the full presence of your conscious mind; it’s significantly more difficult in the bathroom mirror during the small hours of a Wednesday morning when your eyes are squinty from lack of sleep, the artificial light is doing a roll call of every single one of your flaws, and it suddenly becomes an objective fact that nobody could ever fall in love with you.

Cultural devaluation of female friendships as lesser or shallow is nothing new, and neither is the idea that women can only gain personal worth through their romantic relationships with men. When Aristotle extolled “virtuous friendship” in Nicomachean Ethics, it was intended as a given that the friendship in question is between two men; the women of 350 BCE weren’t considered capable of such a noble sentiment, because their limited social and political agency rendered their friendships meaningless. Aristotle would probably be gratified to know that as far ahead as 1960, C.S. Lewis would still be dismissing female friendship as “endless prattling” and a contributor to the “modern disparagement of [male] friendship” in The Four Loves, thus doing his part to uphold the deeply entrenched historical pretext for decrying friendships between women as secondary to duties towards one’s husband, family, and home. This pretext, by default, led to the equally entrenched idealization of a (heterosexual) romantic relationship as the zenith of personal fulfillment for women. Today, the insult of telling a woman that she’ll ultimately wind up alone draws its power from this still-pervasive belief that a woman without a central we’re-making-out-in-the-rain relationship is somehow a failure, regardless of whatever else she might have in her life. Rom-coms didn’t create this belief. They’re simply its most modern reiteration.

Unless a conscious effort is made to unlearn that mode of thinking, living in proximity to the cultural dominion of romantic love becomes an internal race against the clock of a woman’s perceived fuckability in terms of whether or not society-at-large might believe that she’s alone by choice and not because she’s fundamentally undesirable - which brings us right back to rom-com wish fulfillment. The rules of the genre’s fantasy universe dictate that the Heroine of a rom-com will not run out that clock. At the end of the movie, she will be freed of the worry that she might one day lose the possibility of having inarguable value; she will look in the bathroom mirror in the small hours of a Wednesday morning and know that someone was able to fall in love with her, because that is the absolute most she could possibly want.

Every scene in The Sweetest Thing—Courtney decorating a sleeping Christina’s face with toothpaste, Jane half-abashedly disclosing her new guy’s dick situation to her friends, Christina and Courtney singing along to a throwback from college in their laundry day underwear after grappling with an exploding rest stop urinal—is a rejection of that premise. Christina and Peter get together in the end, of course, and she definitely has all the requisite Realizations About Love, but that doesn’t come at the expense of her friends being relegated to perfunctory wooden characters. This particular iteration of wish fulfillment doesn’t involve being saved from a lifetime of emptiness by The One—because Courtney, Christina, and Jane already have one another and any talk about romance or finding Mr. Right is approached with the assumption that their friendship is a necessary constant. It's wish fulfillment for women who don’t need to be convinced of their worth, and it’s so nice to enter a facet of the rom-com universe that’s been amended to include the sheer amount of joy and, yes, personal fulfillment that comes from loving and being there for your girls.

Also, there’s a musical number called “The Penis Song”:

Your penis packs a wallop
Your penis brings a load
And when it makes deliveries
It needs its own zip code!
(Nine! Double zero! Penis!)

Copy that out in script and put it in your next Valentine’s Day card. You’re welcome


Sophia Cross is a native San Franciscan currently living in New Orleans. Her work has previously appeared on This Recording. She's almost reached her second year of using Twitter, which puts her fairly far behind any cool moms you happen to know.


Muscle Car Emotions

by David Nilsen

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

A 1972 Buick Skylark in primer black burns rubber in slow motion, sliding threateningly sideways toward the camera, white block letters stenciled onto the sides of the car: Medusa. Flames erupt sky-high from the vertical exhaust pipes poking through the trunk. A miniature dash-mounted TV relays surveillance images from the cameras mounted around the car. This apocalyptic image is inspired by Mad Max but is actually the visual talisman of an emotionally intense nano-budget indie from 2011, Bellflower. The two young men who build the car (Woodrow and Aiden, played by Evan Glodell and Tyler Dawson respectively) are not what you picture as car guys. They are tender in their friendship and open in their affection for each other. They sport MC Hammer t-shirts and awkward beards. They draw cartoons and joke about being warlords when the apocalypse arrives. They are bored, white trash hipsters in a forgotten and depressed coastal town in California who happen to know how to build things. The car is part inside joke, part ironic affectation, part sincere and subsumed projection of masculinity in denial.

My dad was a car guy, though an unlikely one. I guess it was in his blood: he grew up poor in Detroit in the 50s, and by his teenage years in the late 60s was street racing a dragon-green 1965 Plymouth Fury III with a 383 small block, a car with about as good a chance of winning a drag race as he had of winning a date at that point. He wasn’t popular or good looking, though he was smart in a way we’ll call bookish. Car Guy was the only available identity he qualified for that wasn’t social suicide. Over time he added Born Again Christian, Husband, Male Nurse, and Dad.

I joke sometimes that I grew up at drag strips, but it’s not really true; I grew up dirt poor in a trailer park. When my dad started making enough money as a nurse to afford more exciting options for escapism than an occasional trip to Pizza Hut, he started taking me to drag strips: Gainesville, Indianapolis, Detroit, and more rundown rural tracks than I can list. He never made enough money for us to buy even an entry-level drag car of our own to race, so we happily sat in the stands and took turns picking our cars for each race, gloating when our picks won. It was a metal-and-oil Monopoly game for us, a chance to pretend we really owned a hotel on Boardwalk. These weekends were a chance for me to soak in my dad’s undivided attention before things got complicated in our relationship, and despite my adult sensibilities I can’t deny these hours at the track were fun. It’s more or less impossible for a child to be bored when grown-ups are piloting death rockets down a racetrack for your express entertainment. I spent more Friday nights watching sexually frustrated men do burnouts and aborted wheelies in bondoed mid-80s Camaros and Monte Carlos than I can remember.

In high school I discovered music and writing and actual human emotions; I also discovered irony, and suddenly cars were not cool anymore because they were Too Cool. I spent several years, well into my twenties, pretending I was over them. The guys who liked them were dumb brutes and their cars were bad for the environment and I was above it all. A few more years went by before I finally accepted that regardless of my worldview and general aesthetic there were few smells more instantly evocative to me than high octane racing gas (which smells nothing like what we put in our cars) and vaporized rubber, and cars and I settled into an uneasy peace with each other. They can be cool now, with qualifications, with understandings, with asterisks, with self-aware nostalgia.

Everyone saw Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive in 2011, and for good reason. Stylized to the gills, slickly self-aware, irony-soaked but playing straight and never winking for the camera, the film successfully subverted the hyper-masculine car-and-heist tropes of an older generation of films, defining cool on its own terms while never losing sight of the fundamental absurdity of that word. No one saw Bellflower that same year, but they should have. It was the punk rock, lo-fi cousin to Refn’s film, and the DIY ethos of its production and on-screen presentation made it feel grittier and truer than the Gosling vehicle. Drive was cool but it shopped at The Gap. Bellflower grabbed something dirty to wear from its friend’s beer-can-cluttered bedroom floor or else scoured the bins at the Goodwill on the poor side of town. The film was made for only $17,000 but you’d never know it. Beautifully shot and scored, Bellflower is well-acted and competently and assuredly directed. These characters are people we all hung out with right after high school or met at parties with people who did. They are affable losers, harmless drifters who don’t feel threatening at all until they really, really do. The violence surprises us in Bellflower, and when we realize it’s coming the intensity of dread makes our hearts beat faster. These are people we walk past on sidewalks and assume are normal, and they are. But normal people can do bad, bad things.

Moroso Motorsports Park, Florida, 1989: a jet-powered dragster blasts off from the starting line fifty feet in front of me and rockets down the track. The crowd gasps audibly as the driver loses control of a machine evolution did not prepare his reflexes for, and the vehicle rocks onto two side tires before he lets off the power and the car levels out. Gainesville, Florida, 1990: the first time I’ve ever seen—or rather, felt—a top fuel dragster open the throttle. The air concussion makes it difficult to breathe, and the noise is surreal in its atmospheric violence. One of the cars blows a tire and a hundred-pound piece of fiberglass fender launches high into the air above the crowd. My dad grabs me by the shoulders, preparing to throw me out of the way if it comes down on us. It does not. Back to Gainesville, 1995: A dragster flips over backward from its own traction at 200 mph, shatters, and rolls endlessly before coming to a stop. Rescue crews rush to get the driver out of what remains of the crumpled roll cage. Every one of these scenarios is patently, categorically absurd, and these are just a sample. The entire enterprise is ridiculous: gross monetary excess, flagrant environmental disregard, outsized egos among the drivers, general douchiness among the fans. Fifty-thousand people paying a day’s wages to watch helmeted maniacs pilot advertisement-spackled suicide machines down a track so fast they need parachutes to slow them down at the other end.

Bellflower is similarly absurd, and only gets away with it on the strength of its earnest humanity, the way it exposes the brokenness of its characters without ever drawing charts for the audience. More than anything else the movie is about the violence ordinary people are capable of when their hearts are broken, and the sickness at the core of American masculinity even when that masculinity doesn’t look like the stereotypes.

The film was written and directed by Evan Glodell (who also stars in it), and he and his team actually built all the silly toys in the movie. They spent months looking for the car, and then dropped a big engine in it (shooting was delayed months when the motor blew) and outfitted it with all the gadgets seen in the film. The phallic exhaust pipes really do shoot flame, the surveillance cameras work, bleach sprays onto the tires during burnouts to soften the rubber and create a smokescreen. The flamethrower the pair builds in the movie really works. None of this real-world functionality is necessary of course, and plenty of wonderful movies exist—the majority of them, in fact—with props that don’t actually work. But the functionality in a movie like this seems to mean something. Glodell, however artistically inclined he may be, however emotionally in-touch and sensitive, however hip and punk, is on some level an actual busted-knuckles-and-greasy-hands Car Guy.

My dad was an amateur mechanic. He did most of the repair on our cars growing up, and tried in vain to pass this appreciation and aptitude on to me. I spent a whole lot of hours on my back staring at the filthy undercarriages of late model American sedans before my dad finally accepted at some point in my teens I was never going to be able to swap out a rear differential on my own. I can change the oil and a tire and, with a set of instructions, a set of brake pads, but mostly I hand everything over to my mechanic, a trustworthy young dude who loves the Fast & Furious movies and asks inappropriate questions about my divorce every time I drop off my Hyundai.

Because I am not mechanically inclined, and because my other interests don’t dovetail often with those of gearheads, it generally comes as a surprise to people to find I actually know quite a bit about cars, that I spent so much time at major drag races growing up, that I know the cubic inch displacements of just about every American V-8 offered between 1960 and 1980—even if I wouldn’t know how to so much as change the spark plugs on any of them. I am the automotive equivalent of an overweight sixty-year-old who’s an expert figure skating commentator. And I learned what I know at my dad’s side on countless summer nights, even if we rarely speak these days.

My relationship with my dad is, as you might have gathered by now, complicated. He loved me; loves me still. He is, however, thoroughly unequipped to do so with any measure of grace or skill. He never knew his own dad, and the streets of Detroit were a poor classroom for picking up the nuances of how healthy relationships are supposed to work. He found Jesus as a teen and devoted his life to studying the Bible as an adult, which smoothed off the rough edges of his personality but only served to back up his poor parental reasoning with ever more abstract authority. When you’re a teenager and your dad tells you something you’re doing is wrong, it pisses you off. When you’re a teenager and your dad tells you something you’re doing is wrong and explains why with Greek and Hebrew words, invoking the Almighty, it’s not so easily shrugged off. Still, I can’t deny the fun we had when I was a kid, and the things I learned while handing him tools and holding flashlights for him underneath various cars growing up.

Bellflower’s Woodrow and Aiden learned about cars from someone, too. They learned about electrical wiring, and firearms, and the plumbing they use while assembling the flamethrower, from someone. These characters most likely have not spoken to their parents since they left Wisconsin a year earlier, and, if they knew their fathers at all, one assumes those men now look on their sons with something less than approval. Still, those fathers Woodrow and Aiden want nothing to do with any more once built the cars these young men now tinker with, and probably taught them how. Is there really much difference between who Woodrow and Aiden are at the beginning of the film and who their fathers were at their age? And by the film’s end-once the capacity for terrible violence in both friends has been horrifyingly exposed-can their behavior do anything else but echo the false machismo of their fathers?

Bellflower is a film of raw, metal-rattling emotional intensity, one that cleverly subverts the totems of the American masculinity cult to tell a story in which the sins of that religion are still being committed and atoned for. Two friends move to California, to both escape whatever was behind them and because they think it will be cool. They laugh and dream about building a car from which to rule a post-apocalyptic American wasteland, and then, because someone taught them how, they actually build it. They want to love their friends and their girlfriends, and because someone also taught them how, they totally fuck it up. They are nothing like their fathers, and everything like them.

But hey, they have a pretty badass car


David Nilsen is a librarian at a public library, where he curates and leads the library's classic film program. He is the editor and lead critic of the Fourth & Sycamore literary journal, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Ohio with his wife, daughter, and irritable cat.


Drink and a Movie: The Man Who Knew Too Little

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

For years, if you’d asked me about my favorite comedy, I would have paused and thought for a second and then remembered: I love The Man Who Knew Too Little, which I’ve probably seen five times now, splitting a gut every time Bill Murray arrives at the airport in a Scottish tartan newsboy cap, or when the German dinner party guests nod politely as Peter Gallagher locates “downtown Brussels” in their home country.

Murray plays Wallace Ritchie, a Blockbuster employee (ah, the 90s) from Des Moines, Iowa who surprises his more cosmopolitan brother James (Gallagher) at his home in London at an inopportune time. James shuttles him off for the evening to the “Theatre of Life,” an interactive theatrical experience that’s all the rage in London. The participant is called on a payphone and given instructions that, when followed, involve them as a performer in the thrilling production. (Side note: eerily, this sort of theatrical production and variants thereof are now common in major cities around the world, from New York to Paris.)

I consider myself to be a critic of Taste and Refinement (don’t we all), so you can imagine my surprise when I popped over to Rotten Tomatoes recently and discovered that The Man Who Knew Too Little had an aggregate fresh rating of 42%, including a searing pan by Roger Ebert himself. In the closing paragraphs of his one-star review, Ebert faults the film for “never even clearly establish[ing] how we can see the RDR”—the red digital readout of the civilization-ending bomb hidden inside a doll, that is—”since it is inside the doll.”

This is an uncharacteristic moment of bone-headed criticism—the crazy thing about movies being that sometimes they let us see things the characters can’t see—but no matter. I get it. Not everyone laughs at the same things. And you’ve got to find something more to say than just “this sucked.” Ebert gives it a shot: for him, the fact that the film “concocts conversations that all have the same thing in common: They can be taken both ways” is a huge problem, and not funny.

I suppose that’s exactly what I love about it. The Man Who Knew Too Little relies on some jokes but mostly dramatic irony for its comedy. I have to look up the definition of dramatic irony every time I write about it to make sure I’ve got it right, so here it is: It’s a literary technique originated by the Greeks in which the audience knows the significance of a character’s words or actions more fully than the character does.

The Greeks used the technique in their tragedies, but it’s often been co-opted in our day to make people laugh, particularly in sitcoms—chief among these the classic trope in which one character thinks he’s talking about football while the other character is discussing, say, a date he went on last night. Whatever they say is much funnier to us than to them, because we know both sides of the equation. It can be overdone, but it’s overdone precisely because when it’s done well, it’s hysterical. Even kids love it.

Perhaps my love for an entire movie of this sort of humor just proves I’m a kid. I love a film that stars the world’s biggest kid, Bill Murray, bumbling his way fearlessly through a string of terrifying situations. In the movie, he plays an accidental idiot savant who thinks he’s in an immersive play but is actually taking out bad guys, defusing bombs, saving the world, and getting the girl, all because he has stumbled backward into that old maxim: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

The film draws on a number of tropes and references, most notably Dr. Strangelove, for a very light-handed skewering of Americans’ blundering into global politics and—it would seem—accidentally saving the day. (The only two Americans in the film are the Ritchie brothers, and while Wallace is a goofball who is an accidental genius, James thinks he’s a genius but actually can’t place the aforementioned Brussels into the right country.)

Those allusions are somewhat covert—you don’t have to know them to enjoy the film, thanks to the ease of access that dramatic irony provides. Watching Bill Murray laugh in the face of a few knife-wielding muggers (one of whom is played by then-newcomer Eddie Marsan) because he thinks he’s flubbing lines, or dance with a bunch of Cossacks tossing around a bomb hidden in a doll, is just funny. It’s not sophisticated funny or complex funny or slyly knowing funny: it’s just funny.

The film's most obvious debt is to British spy thrillers, though. Wallace has his female sidekick in Lori (Joanne Whalley), a call girl who first introduces herself as “Lorelai” when he stumbles upon her and involves her in his “plot” (rather than the actual plot). She's the kinda Bond girl to his accidentally brilliant agent, with whom he has an actual romantic connection.

So then, the drink to accompany this film is a shoo-in. I’m calling it a Lorelai.

The Vesper Martini was invented by Ian Fleming in the 1953 James Bond novel Casino Royale: three parts gin, one part vodka, half part Lillet, with a lemon peel. Bond orders one and then names it for Vesper Lynd. It’s a more ladylike twist on his own favorite, a traditional martini (gin and vermouth with an olive). It’s also utterly appropriate for The Man Who Knew Too Little, with the vodka and gin, given that the film’s villains are a conspiring pair of dastardly officials, one Russian, one British.

But we’ll mess with it a little. Keep the vodka, of course. Keep the Lillet; it’s French, for the costume Lori is wearing when Wallace first encounters her. But we need to mess with the gin to give it an American flavor, something to unsettle the whole concoction.

I thought about this long and hard, and even went and had a Vesper for research while pondering the best possible way to do it. Then I remembered that Wallace is a proud employee of Blockbuster Video in Des Moines, Iowa. Turns out the wild prairie rose is the unofficial but widely-accepted state plant in Iowa. Wild roses produce rose hips (most domesticated roses have had them bred out)—the round, Vitamin C-rich fruit of the plant. You can buy them dried and in bulk.

So you want to make a Lorelai? First, buy dried rosehips. Take a cup or so of them and mash/smash them up, then put them in a big jar with a bottle of gin and let it sit for a week. Strain it, then use three parts of this rosehip-spiked gin with one part vodka and half part Lillet to make a fine cocktail. It doesn’t really need a garnish—rose hips are tart, like lemon—but you could always add a little rose petal. Who wouldn’t love that?

Don’t be surprised if your guests are tempted to quote Lori: “Are you going to bring me that martini, or do I have to suck it out of the glass from here?


Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington PostThe AtlanticThe Los Angeles Review of BooksPacific StandardMovie MezzanineBooks & Cultureand other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the Worldco-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans in the spring.


Now Playing: 45 Years

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The sun rises. An older woman, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), will take the dog for a walk. She moves, briskly, through the fields of the English countryside. It’s damp, it’s quiet. She trudges through thick, long grass in boots, determined but relaxed. She returns home by breakfast. The mail is already there, and she brings it inside, setting it on the kitchen table where her husband Jeff (Tom Courtenay) sits. She fills a small glass with water at the kitchen sink. She drinks it.

Routines are built; they are learned. You cannot know them overnight.

+

I don’t like knowing anything I don’t have to know about someone. That probably makes me sound ignorant or lazy. It’s possible that I’m one of those things, if not both. The less I know, as I see it, the better. That’s not to say I don’t ask about someone’s day. That’s not to say I’m not curious. But if something’s being hidden, I don’t dig. I don’t look at texts on another person’s phone if I know I can read them from where I sit. What would I do with someone’s email password? Probably nothing. I’d make a horrible teenage detective.

On a first date, I got asked the worst thing I’d ever done. I laughed, nervously, jabbing a straw into a glass of cranberry juice as if digging for something at the bottom. It wasn’t that I was afraid to share—I’m not sure I’ve ever been afraid to share—it was that I knew it would turn, that soon I’d know the worst thing my date had done.

I looked up after what felt like too long and smiled. “Let’s talk about something else.”

+

Here is what happened: over fifty years ago, Jeff and his girlfriend at the time, Katya, were hiking in the Swiss Alps, when she fell into a crevasse. An unseen crack in a glacier. A scream and then silence. And then, out of nowhere, the week of his 45th wedding anniversary with his wife, Katya is found.

She’s still there, embedded into the ice, 27 years old, just as he remembered her, frozen in both time and place.

Kate asks some questions, nods sympathetically, does all the right things. What is there to do, really, about something that happened so long ago? Jeff answers questions about Katya, at first cautiously and then openly. He wants to resuscitate the memory of her, bring it back to the surface. When Kate and Jeff eat dinner together that night, it’s as if Katya is right there at the table with them, frozen in the past.

+

I move quickly after a breakup. I delete text threads; I unfollow on social media. I put up an invisible wall. I can’t see them but they can see me. Much of the time, that’s what easiest. I spent too many nights in my early twenties scrolling through text messages from someone who used to ask me questions about myself.

If I can’t see what happens to them, where they go, who they spend time with, I can let someone I used to love fade into memory. My brain will twist and turn them into a version of themselves. It’s the easiest way of letting go. I have never sent a desperate, pleading message in the middle of the night because I burn the bridge before it can happen. The only things I hang onto, and even then, tenuously, are the memories. And hopefully, over time, those too will freeze into the past.

Hopefully.

+

Slowly but sure, Kate asks more questions.

“Was Kayta blonde?”

No, Jeff tells her. She had dark hair, just like Kate. Even their names are similar.

Kate processes information about Katya slowly, deliberately. She nods. She blinks. She thinks about a woman she cannot ever know. It hurts, she realizes, to know she shares qualities with this mystery woman. She wonders if she’s a replacement. She will never know her husband’s grief, only her own.

Kate asks the question she cannot un-ask and gets the answer she fears most. We think knowing is closure, but it’s not. Knowing is just a new road, a new path.

In the attic, by herself, Kate flips through pictures of Katya. She tries to make sense of this woman’s smile. She tries to see in her what Jeff might see. She clicks through, faster and faster. It is a madness, trying to know.

+

Here’s a fun anxiety game I like to play:

Inevitably, at the beginning of a relationship, there is a point at which I don’t hear back from the person I am seeing for an amount of time I consider “too long.” Maybe they’re busy. Maybe I’m being ignored. And then my brain will immediately skip to the worst possible scenario. Something’s happened, there’s been an accident, who knows.

I’ll have been the last person they were seeing. It’s four dates in, but who knows what it could have been. I’ll have to meet their parents, I’ll have to send condolences. People will feel sorry for me. It’s a self-centered, stupid fear, but I can’t rid myself of it. It follows me through every relationship. I’m afraid the last thing they’ll know is me, and they’ll barely know me at all.

“How was 45 Years?” a friend asked after I saw it.

I thought, and then: “It makes a good case for dying young, if nothing else.”

+

We can start over at any time. Kate and Jeff tell themselves that. They decide to begin again, 45 years into their marriage. Every day there is a new sunrise, a new walk to take, a new breakfast to eat. There are new conversations and new experiences together. And yet—

+

We are all so afraid to be hurt by something we cannot change.


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


The Bomb

© The Film Arcade

© The Film Arcade

I. Wife says to Husband, I’m sorry I threw a bomb in the middle of our beautiful life. The bomb is a girl. A girl who got thrown: McKenna. Put in the maid’s room at the bottom of the Silver Lake contemporary. McKenna the stripper. The hooker. The whore. The sex worker, she keeps saying, but somehow no one seems to know what this means, not even the lesbian therapist with the striking acetate eyeglasses. How can it be, in Los Angeles in 2013, that no one knows what this means?

II. But the world of the Couple is car wash small. Espresso truck small. Buttery-chunk highlights small. One tweet small. Frozen soy cheese pizza small. Tasteful dainty gold necklace small. Small as a Groupon. As a Real Simple article. Jello mold small. Small as the crunchy kale salad recipe they found on a blog. So small it can be contained in a Honda Odyssey minivan, the one they probably bought when they thought they were having more kids. They did not have more kids. Just the one small one. Still, the Wife never threw out her tan nursing bra.

III. Not everyone gets to be happy, Husband scolds Wife.

IV. While the Wives work the school auction and arrange soccer pick-ups, the Husbands surf, light a bong, turn up the amp in the garage. They drink amber things in stout glasses, smoke cigarettes, play poker. They have a means for escape, and seize them.

V. McKenna is fifty-five days sober. She is twenty-two, but she says she’s nineteen. Her mom is Wiccan. She has a child’s wonder voice, and wears almost only pink. She is a full service sex worker, and she works for herself. She has clients she likes, who pay her up front and tell her she’s beautiful. She has good boundaries, and is skilled at what she does, which is to act kind and attentive, and make people feel adored.

VI. When the Wives find a moment to gather, they drink too much wine from bulky goblets and talk about their rape fantasies and their abortions and their date rapes. They feel old. They are locked in the minivans of their stripped-down desires. Everyone agrees: the scariest, worst, most coveted thing in the world is an eyes-open orgasm. Because what would we see then? Who would we be?

VII. When Wife has a cold, McKenna takes away her smart phone, then scoops up a fingerful of VapoRub and massages it into Wife’s foot, then puts on a sock and firmly pats it down. When Wife asks her to babysit for her friends’ little girls, McKenna buys shiny plastic rings and glittery nail polish to make them a princess sleepover. And when they all dick her over, treat her like shit, she gets drunk and cute and lets one of the Husbands fuck her, her menstrual blood all over the high thread-count sheets, to ensure it’s a clean break, and everyone is clear on what has happened.

VIII. Because McKenna has sex with her eyes open, they all hate her. Because she has sex at all. Because she gets paid to do it. Because she doesn’t not fuck Husbands out of a need to be sisterly to Wives. And they fear her, because she knows there is no shame, no surprise, in the fact that Husbands want to fuck her. They look down, look away from her terrycloth crotch and her black bra and her smudged eyeliner and her wad of crinkled yellow hair. Away from her witchy power. It is only at her expense—her eviction and exile and return to her proper place, installed downtown, laughing with friends in front of the club—that the Couples can hold hands again, rebuild toward a tentative happiness, the Wife’s flushed and laughing orgasm.

Just beyond this movie: another movie, one without punishable sin. A fun parlor game, a pantomime at sinning, smooth and lush as the green felt of the poker table. Everyone in this movie smiles knowingly and placidly about being bad, about fucking, about the true and restless nature of human desire. When they watch someone—even someone they love—fucking someone else, they feel only cheer, good tidings. Everyone gets to be happy. Everyone keeps their eyes open.


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.