Letter from the Editor

In Which We Say Hello to Science Fiction & Wish a Fond Farewell to a Beloved Editor


“Science fiction films are not about science," Susan Sontag once wrote. "They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.” Sontag wasn't wrong, but neither was she telling the full story. Science fiction films, a lot of them anyway, surely are built around future disasters—but the good ones also have plenty to teach us about the present, about what it means to be human, about the mystery of existence, about love. Science fiction speaks to us, especially in these strange times, because it so often reflects back to us our deepest anxieties, and allows us an imaginary overcoming of them. It creates and allays fears, intrigues by extrapolating, distracts by abstraction. 

This month, we're taking a look at a broad range of very different science fiction films, from last month's Midnight Special to Richard Lester's little seen 1969 film, The Bed-Sitting Room, from the canonical (Blade Runner) to modern day contenders (Sunshine)—and everywhere in between. Yes, even Steve Martin's early 80s sci-fi comedies, and how they relate to modern internet dating.

But before we get into all of that, we first have to say goodbye to someone who has been with us since the beginning. This month's issue marks the last one for Elizabeth Cantwell, one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and our managing editor since 2013. We are all quite sad to see her go—she is one of the finest editors and friends I've known—and wish her nothing but the best as she makes her way back to real, non-magazine life. Elizabeth wanted to say goodbye to all of us, and all of you, so I'm turning it over to her now for some final thoughts and reflections.

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Over six years ago, in 2009, I wrote a little essay about Withnail & I for a blog called Filmosophy. I honestly don’t remember how that essay came about; whether Chad reached out to me since I think we followed each other on Tumblr, whether I saw a call for submissions and volunteered to write something, whether… Actually, scratch that, I’m talking to Chad online and he just forwarded me our first-ever correspondence, so I’m looking at it right now. April 14, 2009! Chad reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in pitching something for his new film blog and, as they say, The Rest Is History.

I wrote that piece, and another one, and another one. Gradually, Chad and I developed a great writer-editor relationship, and I started writing more for the site, and thinking about film more, and at some point (not entirely sure when), my writing morphed into editing, and that morphed into sort of being a Consulting Brain on stuff like: Should we turn this Tumblr into a magazine? What does that magazine look like? What voices do we want to represent? What is our ultimate mission here?, and I acquired an official Managing Editor title, and Chad and I became friends as well as colleagues, and gradually, before I could really determine how it had happened, this publication had wormed its interesting and strange and thoughtful presence into my life for the better half of a decade.

In the time since I wrote that first piece, Filmosophy has turned into Bright Wall/Dark Room, and has evolved from a free Tumblr site to a subscription-based monthly magazine. We have columnists now! And poems! And beautiful art, and a real editorial process, and a lot of people who are working very hard towards a common goal. A lot can happen in six years. Turns out that, just as BW/DR has turned into something nearly unrecognizable from its larval inception, so too has the landscape of my life. I have gotten married, written a book of poems, had a kid, said goodbye to grad school, thrown myself into high school teaching, and grown a whole lot more gray hairs. I feel like telling Bright Wall It’s not you, it’s me, and gazing moodily out a coffee shop window at a cloudy LA sky, but really, it’s both of us. It’s time for me to move on to different things and for BW/DR to continue to grow and evolve and acquire new voices and points of view. And I’ve come to that conclusion with both sadness and a confidence that BW/DR will continue to surprise and delight me, long after I’ve stopped editing.

It’s hard to part with something you’ve been involved in for a long time—and, what’s more, to part with something you still truly believe in and love. And it takes a caring and empathetic leader to understand when it’s time for someone they work with to move on, and to accept that resignation with grace and gratitude—and for that, Chad Perman, I am very very thankful.

What’s more, I’m thankful for the writers I’ve had the privilege to edit at this magazine—the writers who have challenged me with opposing viewpoints on films, who have proposed stylistic or grammatical constructions that make me grit my teeth, who have reminded me I’m not always right, who have written something that’s made me think, or feel, or sit in silence for a minute. I’m thankful for the readers and subscribers who have made this magazine possible, and for my fellow editors who have argued with me and laughed with me and been there for me in both professional and personal ways.

And if any of them could edit this they would likely cut it down by half, so I’ll try to wrap things up here and just say one more thank you, this time to the magazine itself: Thank you, Bright Wall/Dark Room, for continually expanding my understanding of film and the way it affects us weird people here on earth trying to figure out what any of us is doing and why it matters.

I’d say See you at the movies but I think that line has already been claimed.

xo,

e.


Suspension

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When The Dark Knight Rises came out a few years ago, I remember reading a blog post someone wrote detailing all of the continuity and logical errors in it. I loved it: the essay was a little mean but also very funny and true. Because The Dark Knight Rises, when thought about for longer than, I don’t know, three minutes, doesn’t really make any sense.

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Midnight Special doesn’t make any sense at all.

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In college, I went to see Source Code with my friends. The movie takes place in Chicago, where I am from, mostly on a Metra train, which I’ve regularly ridden for a number of years. Suffice it to say that Source Code in and of itself is a tough cookie to crack: it’s Groundhog Day on a train with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to stop a bomb from going off. There’s a romantic subplot (of course) and at least two twists (certainly), but what I couldn’t get over was the fact that the Metra trains in Source Code are carpeted. Carpeted! As if Metra trains would ever be carpeted!

I left the theater wildly disappointed and I can remember walking back up the campus of my college, going, “Nothing in that movie made any sense and it ruined the whole thing!”

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Midnight Special is about an abduction. Roy (Michael Shannon) has taken his 8 year old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). The entire state of Texas is looking for Alton. The police are searching, the government is searching. Roy is accompanied by his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who serves as the muscle; Lucas drives, Lucas fights, Lucas shoots. The three travel by night in a beat up old car. They keep the lights off. They use night vision goggles. There’s some place they have to be.

Keeping up so far? Good. Let’s kick it up a notch.

You see, Alton is a very special boy. He’s a special child in the way that only movie children are special. He hears radio frequencies. He can shoot light from his eyes. He can do… almost anything, it seems, because as a viewer, we only get a taste of what we know Alton is capable of. And because Alton is a special child, it’s not just the police and the government looking for him. The cult he and his father escaped from are tracking them, too.

So, there are quite a few elements at play here. We've got a magical-and-or-alien child on the run with his father and a friend—and the police, FBI, and a mysterious cult all in hot pursuit. Where are they going? Hard to say. Why are they going there? Mm, that’s a tough one too. And what are these people seeing, really, I mean, really, when Alton shoots light out of his eyes? I don’t know what to tell you.

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There is a very famous episode from the fourth season of the television show Lost called “The Constant.” To explain it to a non-Lost viewer is perhaps a failed endeavor, but I’ll try: one of the much-beloved characters on the show, Desmond, suffered an untimely breakup before being stranded on the island. Since his disappearance, his ex, Penny, has poured every resource imaginable into trying to find him for several years.

In “The Constant,” through a glitch (or whatever) in the time-space continuum (or something––keep in mind this is Lost we’re talking about), Desmond is given the opportunity to go back in time and right some of the wrongs in his relationship with Penny. He can’t fix everything, but he can try to set things right. He tells her, however, that in a certain number of years, he’s going to call her from a freighter after having been missing on the island for three years. It sounds insane, he tells Penny, but he’s going to do it.

And lo and behold, in the final moments of the episode, Desmond calls her. And despite the time-travel, reality-switching, logic-leaping conclusions made in the episode, it works. Not the phone call, though that, of course, does work for Desmond and Penny. I mean, the episode. My inability to explain the logic of it aside, “The Constant” is well-regarded as one of the finest episodes of Lost. It doesn’t make any sense, of course. It should say a lot that I’ve seen this episode at least ten times and can still barely explain the premise of it. And yet, it’s sincere, it’s heartfelt, it’s perfect. It’s storytelling, and maybe sometimes stories don’t have to explain themselves to you.

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Paul Sevier (Adam Driver—perfect) is our compass to Midnight Special. He’s our guide. He has very little screen time compared to the Meyer family, but he’s what we need to make sense of it all. Or no sense, really.

Sevier works with the NSA—he’s an analyst or a researcher, something like that—and he’s been put in charge of this case of a mysterious boy who’s managed to overhear the most confidential of confidential government transmissions. Sevier has every right to be hard and pressing and confused; why wouldn’t he be? Except… he’s not. Sevier is curious, almost delighted. There’s a sense of wonder that pulls the character forward into his exploration of what Alton Meyer is or could be.

He suspends his disbelief, if only for a little while, so we join him.

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Things in real life that make no sense to me but I feel the emotional impact of every day of my life:

  • My first major breakup

  • The 2016 election

  • What happens when we die

  • Where that one red shirt of mine went

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There’s a trend in film I’ve taken a vast disliking to which mimics the “villain explains his plot in a big speech” trope except it’s “movies explain their whole plot in a big speech” these days. So many movies do this. They announce: “here’s why there’s a movie.” I don’t care why there’s a movie! Don’t you understand? I’m happy enough that there are movies; call me naive but I don’t need a reason at all. You don’t need to tell me which infinity stone we’re on. Let me see some good guys fight bad guys.

Midnight Special has several opportunities to sit you down and say, “Look: here’s the deal.” It could even give us part of the deal. I would argue Midnight Special gives out no deals. We have characters say, “yes, I understand,” without the viewers fully on board. But they believe. These characters believe so truly and purely in the power of Alton––and perhaps, even more so, his father’s love––that we don’t need the lecture. We just need them to get the job done.

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I cry every single time I rewatch “The Constant.”

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We never even find out what or who the midnight special is. I mean, come on.

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Midnight Special doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t have to. It’s not about sense and logic. It’s not about solving a big twist. I could spoil it, maybe, if I wanted to, but the outcome of it all doesn’t really matter. A very strange and mysterious boy is transported across the country by his father who loves him so much and is willing to risk everything––everything!––to make sure this happens safely.

“You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” Alton warns his father at the end of the film. There’s a wiseness to Alton. A knowingness. He’s not a savior, no. That’s not right. But he sees more than we can. He gets it, but he’s an 8 year old.

“I like worrying about you,” Roy admits, and the most hesitant and heartfelt smile of Michael Shannon’s career spreads across Roy’s face. Midnight Special asks us to like worrying about the characters. It asks us to enjoy it. And we do this, willingly, because we too buy into the myth of Alton. We want him to be safe and happy, wherever he belongs. There’s a tapestry of details we’re missing, a logic inherently gone, but I cannot overemphasize enough how much that isn’t the point. It’s a fable. It’s a story. It’s a movie. We’re there to believe.


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


After the End of the World

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

I never bought the kind of happy ending so common in science fiction movies: the sun-drenched shot of the heroes standing at the edge of some vast body of water, their faces streaked with dirt, the wind blowing through their hair. Yes, the aliens have been vanquished, the asteroid has been blown off course, but after the otherworldly ordeal they have been through, how can anything ever be the same? How can these men and women ever look up into the sky without thinking that something is going to fall out of it? How can they stand with their two feet on the ground and not worry that it is going to fall away beneath them?

The climax of a sci-fi movie is almost always a traumatic event. The narrative emphasis is not on the trauma, of course, but on resilience, tenacity, survival. That is what we pay to see, what we want to believe about ourselves. Yet when the credits roll, I can’t help but think of how the characters on screen will deal with the fallout of what they have witnessed.

When I was growing up I spent most weekend nights in the basement of my parents’ house, watching movie after movie with my sister and my father. My father liked science fiction and disaster films: Armageddon, Deep Impact, Independence Day. He loved Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica. As I was already an anxious child, it was destabilizing to be fed such a steady diet of apocalypse. I became afraid of being outside at night, afraid to look up at the stars, convinced that any of those points of light might be an asteroid hurtling towards earth, aiming to destroy me.

But I kept watching these movies, even as they terrified me and left me feeling vulnerable and shaken. I did this because I loved my father and craved his attention, and those nights spent watching the Earth getting destroyed again and again were often the only moments we spent together as a family.

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The opening of Mike Cahill’s 2011 film Another Earth echoes other sci-fi disaster movies, opening as it does at the moment an unknown planet—previously hidden behind the sun—swings into view. At the point of discovery it is only a small blue point of light in the sky. Seventeen-year-old Rhoda Williams (played by Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film) is driving home from a party when she hears the news of the planet’s discovery on the radio. She is drunk. Distracted by the news and looking up into the sky, she runs a red light and crashes into a car stopped at the intersection, putting the driver into a coma and killing his passengers—the driver’s wife and son.

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One of my professors in graduate school defined science fiction as “what happens when metaphor is made literal.” This definition reverberated with the half-formed, childish understanding of those movies I created as I grew up watching them with my father. It helped me better understand the genre, and also helped me understand why, as I had grown, I had started avoiding it. I could not watch sci-fi because I intuited that these stories were literalized metaphors for trauma. In science fiction, worlds really do explode; the ground really does open up beneath someone’s feet.

My father died when I was sixteen. When I look back at my diaries from this time, I am amazed at how much my writing about my father’s death slips into the language of science fiction. His death was a giant crater in the center of my life, a vacuum, a black hole that sucked all meaning and light into it. In some ways I was lucky; prior my father’s illness, I had never suffered any real tragedy. I did not know anyone else my age that had lost a parent. My most substantial exposure to death and destruction came from fiction, from the movies I had watched with my father in our basement. The vocabulary of these movies turned out to be the best vocabulary I had to describe what had happened to me.

After he passed away, my sister and I threw away my father’s VHS tapes, hundreds of them. I remember filling entire garbage bags with recordings of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I stopped watching science fiction movies. Not only were they a painful reminder of my father’s absence—I had also never truly enjoyed them. I watched them because I wanted to have something in common with my dad. When he was gone, I lost any desire to seek them out. How many times, really, can you watch the world end?

Another Earth, too, is about the end of the world, but on a smaller scale. The initial discovery of a strange light in the sky seems to set the stage for a typical sci-fi tale. But despite the eventual importance of this alien planet to the movie’s plot, the danger in this film is entirely human. The film’s first five minutes depict the disaster of the everyday rather than the colossal, world-ending ruin of so many sci-fi blockbusters—just one car crashing into another on an otherwise empty stretch of road. While science fiction films often feature actual or threatened whole-scale destruction (by an alien force, by a hunk of rock and ice), Another Earth offers up a subtler consideration of disaster and its reverberations. It starts at the moment of disaster and unfolds outwards, tracing the aftershocks of this one terrible mistake. The movie is quite literally human: there are no aliens here. The only war in this movie is between a woman and her bad choices.

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After the car crash the movie picks up four years later, the day Rhoda is released from jail. In this time the newly discovered planet has drifted closer and closer to Earth—it is now clearly visible in the daytime sky. The planet hovering in the background of each frame is a mirror image, a duplicate of our own Earth. When first contact with Earth 2 (as it comes to be called) is made, it is discovered that not only is the new planet physically identical to Earth, but that everyone who exists on one earth exists on the other, with the same histories, experiences, and identities.

Science fiction narratives usually deal in external cataclysms, but Another Earth shows us an intimate, internal apocalypse—a crisis of identity, of regret. The discovery of Earth 2 leads the people of Earth 1 to self-judgment, to an interrogation of themselves, of the ways they have failed and the ways they could have been better. In one of the many radio broadcasts that form the film’s soundtrack, a DJ makes the central question of the film clear: “Now you begin to wonder, has the other me made the same mistakes I’ve made, and is that me better than this me?” This question is focalized through Rhoda, who is haunted by her own mistakes and unsure of how to live with what she has done.

Another Earth is quiet in more ways than one. It contains little dialogue outside of the constant background hum of the radio, so muted as to be almost indecipherable. This heavy silence seems to emanate from Rhoda herself, who has retreated so far into herself that everything happening outside grows too faint to hear. Visually, the film is understated, but its use of special effects is all the more beautiful in its restraint. The image of the mirror earth is always present, and its specter-like pursuit of Rhoda is captivating in its ambiguity. Is it a hopeful symbol, a giant “what if” scattering its light into the sky, an opportunity for self-forgiveness? Or is the other earth a cold reminder, throwing her terrible mistake into sharp relief?

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Rhoda comes to see the potential for redemption in Earth 2 when she watches a televised interview with a scientist. The scientist theorizes that the lives on each Earth were identical, but diverged at the exact moment they became aware of one another’s existence. Rhoda begins to hope that her double on Earth 2 might not have killed a family. She enters an essay contest for a seat on a civilian space flight to Earth 2, hoping to discover the truth for herself.

In the meantime, she attempts to apologize to the survivor of the car crash. She goes to his house, but can’t bring herself to confess. Instead, she panics, and offers her services as a maid. Because she was a minor at the time of the accident, the man, John, is not aware of her identity. She begins to visit his house weekly. While he is initially gruff and dismissive, their relationship grows more intimate as time progresses. Still, she remains unable admit to her identity. 

Despite Rhoda’s deception, she and John begin to help one another move past their individual traumas. But when Rhoda learns that she has won a seat on the flight to Earth 2 and tells John that she’s leaving, he becomes angry. She confesses that she is the one who killed his family. John is enraged and throws Rhoda out of his house. But later she returns and offers John her seat on the spaceship, sharing her theory that his family might still be alive on Earth 2. He accepts her offer. The last time Rhoda sees him he is on TV, giving his final interview before being launched into space and toward this possibility.

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We all engage in this thought experiment: How would I be different if I had not done this bad thing, if this bad thing had not been done to me? Who would I be if I had made a different choice, been in a different place at a different time? Think over it long enough and these possible selves reproduce endlessly like reflections in a hall of mirrors. I have always found this a fruitless, frustrating exercise, because the world refuses to rearrange itself. You are stuck, always, with yourself—forever moving forward, never able to go back.

I do not connect with Another Earth because I see myself as Rhoda. I have done nothing so unforgivable.  I love the film instead for the way it reimagines those movies I grew up watching with my father, in a way that I didn’t know I needed. I might not know what it is like to carry a large burden of guilt. But, like many, I know what it is like to struggle to move forward after one strange moment tears a giant hole in your life.

There isn’t always a happy ending; part of trauma’s definition is that it goes on and on. But there might exist the possibility of a happier ending, a reality in which you learn to live with yourself after the ground opens up and swallows you or a person you love. Sometimes we map the meaning that we need onto the stories we receive. In Another Earth I found grace: a quiet meditation on self-forgiveness, on remaking oneself after trauma.

In the end, Another Earth is not about the sudden appearance of a mirror earth, and that other earth is not the magically redemptive symbol it might first appear to be. The movie is aware of this; I believe it's why Rhoda doesn't take her seat on the flight to Earth 2. The final scene is entirely ambiguous. It is not clear whether John’s family has survived on Earth 2, whether the other Rhoda is guilty of the same mistakes.

Some reviewers have taken issue with this uncertain ending. But to me, it rings true. Because, when it comes down to it, there is no neat resolution for Rhoda—even if she were to discover that her other self had not made the same mistakes, she would still have to live with herself. All that she can really do is try to be better, to move forward, to learn how to heal.  I want that for Rhoda the same way I want it for myself. 


Brianna Low was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a recent graduate of the Indiana University MFA program where she received her degree in poetry. More of her writing can be found at briannalow.com.


Floating in Jars

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

In first or second grade, a visiting science teacher asked my class if we thought two objects could occupy the same space. We stood facing each other in parallel lines and stepped forward when instructed, decreasing the space between us every time. Closer, closer, until we met inside a taped-off carpet square.

“Do you think you're in the same space now?” the teacher asked.

Of course we are, look, we're both inside the lines. Some kids hugged or pressed together back-to-back, as if they could fuse on site.

“No two objects can occupy the same space,” the science teacher said. “No matter how close you get, there's still space between you. Even water in a glass doesn't take up the same space as the glass or the air. The air goes somewhere else. That's displacement.” I may be remembering the details wrong, but I remember the feeling: our tiny minds were blown. No matter how close you get, you're always apart.

In the early 1980's, director Carl Reiner and comedian Steve Martin collaborated on two films that challenged the laws of physics. The Man With Two Brains (1983) was first, the story of Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Martin) and his beloved, Anne Uumelmahaye (voiced, uncredited, by Sissy Spacek). Michael is a brain surgeon who invented the “cranial screw-top” method. Anne is a recently deceased woman whose brain is kept alive suspended in goo. They meet in the home/workplace of Dr. Necessitor, an ambiguously European scientist who promises to show Michael how to “take the thoughts and data from a dying brain and transfer them into another body without opening the skull.”

When Dr. Necessitor leaves the room to attend to an angry wife (a running theme in this film: all women except Anne are either sex objects or monstrosities, sometimes both), Michael starts singing a song, and pretty soon a woman's voice joins in. It is Anne, chiming in from her jar on a shelf. For some reason, thanks to a lucky twist of fate and fantasy, they can communicate telepathically. Their first meeting has no awkward small talk or physical mishaps. All Anne has is a mind, and their connection is so immediate, brain-to-brain, that it doesn't matter what she looks like (she looks like a brain in a jar) or how she smells (she probably smells like a brain). They are instantly in love.

Internet dating, which I started again recently after several years away, is a lot like browsing brains on a shelf. We distill ourselves into quick, catchy profiles and exchange carefully crafted messages separate from body language and sense. Our complex humanity is reduced to personality and intellect floating in goo. It's all too easy for me to fall in like with a witty writer whose profile blends humor, a bit of vulnerability, and maybe something about a dog. But at some point, bodies have to get involved, and that's when things tend to fall apart.

My first first date in over three years was with a recently single guy who was leaving within a week for a months-long earthquake reconstruction mission in Nepal. We agreed it was a “practice date.” He was moving out of the country, I was testing the waters to find out if I was emotionally ready to date. There were no expectations. It felt easy. But dates by nature require vulnerability and sharing of the self, and despite our arrangement, I had trouble dealing with the aftermath of our encounter. I learned all about this dude: his sci-fi novel in progress, his Alaskan upbringing, the time he met Alan Tudyk, how they took a photo together alongside his ex, and how after the breakup he created two copies of the picture with the other party removed so they could each have a photo of them alone with Wash from Firefly. We spent several hours talking and learning all about each other, and then we were supposed to just go our separate ways? It didn't seem right.

I went home and felt incredibly melancholy. This “practice date” felt like a distillation of all dates, the encapsulation of what I hate about dating, the expectations and boundaries that make it difficult to just learn about someone and decide if you like them and hope that they like you too. I guess it's my own fault for thinking I could handle something casual when I am the opposite of casual, and for forming attachments so quickly and conflating pleasant conversation with deep connection. Or maybe it's dating's fault, the whole stinking enterprise, the combination job interview/emotional leap of faith that so often ends in never seeing each other again. You're left holding on to pieces of another person's character with no place to put them (unless you're me, and you put them in writing and cross your fingers that this nice Alaskan guy doesn't have internet access in Nepal). Plus, there's the whole issue of whether or not to touch this body you just met, and whether the brain-browsing connection that led to a date equals physical attraction that leads to more... it's all rather confusing. To be single and to mingle is not much fun.

In The Man With Two Brains, Michael and Anne's future happiness depends on the physical element. Anne needs a body soon, or her intellect will die. The film was written by Reiner and Martin just a few years after The Jerk, and it suffers from being in The Jerk's shadow—a lot of the jokes feel like leftovers, and it seems a stretch for Martin to be wild and crazy in a non-Navin Johnson way. But there's something charming in the story of this man and his second brain, their immediate connection and ensuing journey to get her into a body before time runs out. When I first saw the movie as a child, in addition to thinking Steve Martin was the funniest human alive (an opinion that sticks with me to this day, though his film career has taken some strange turns), I thought it was incredibly romantic: Steve Martin is in love with this smart, funny lady, and he doesn't even know if she's physically attractive. The Man With Two Brains makes a strong case for intellectual attraction.

After another first date with someone perfectly nice who was cute in pictures and funny over text but didn't do it for me in person, I told a friend, “I don't feel intellectually engaged, and that's, like, super important to my dumb brain.”

“I approve,” she said. “And your brain isn't dumb.” Very kind, given how often I use “super” as a qualifier. But the heart wants what it wants, and the brain needs what it needs, and the body, my body, follows the brain.

The Man With Two Brains is not a good film. It's full of misogyny and violence dressed up as juvenile jokes. There's a serial killer who takes down women in elevators, and Kathleen Turner as Dr. H.'s monstrous, gold-digging wife, plus this whole side thing with a gorilla that hardly bears mentioning, but how can I not mention a gorilla. It's all a bit much. Still, in the midst of all that much-ness, Michael and Anne's courtship is rather sweet. Because all they have are each other's intensely compatible brains, they jump right into a comfortable intimacy, spending hours talking about whatever. He takes her on a romantic date in a rowboat. He places a straw sun hat tenderly atop her jar. “For the first time,” he says, “I'm aroused by a mind,” and he kisses a pair of waxed lips bought special for the occasion. For all its silliness, it's a lovely scene.

Minutes later, Michael's jealous, monstrous wife sticks Anne's jar in an oven and cranks the dial. She survives, but she loses her nines. (“Count to ten,” Michael says, and Anne counts: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, ten.”) Let me be clear: this movie is exceptionally stupid. But then, so is the concept of romantic love.

I got my heart broken recently, in case that wasn't obvious. I mean really good and smashed, ambushed, dessiccated, ripped out and stomped. For months afterwards, I avoided all media concerned with romance and love. I watched endless episodes of The Great British Baking Show and other toothless TV. I quit listening to music, which is only ever about romance and love, and mainlined a podcast series about the Charles Manson murders. I was not well. I understood for the first time how crimes of passion occur, how jilted lovers key cars and set fires in the wake of their trauma. I had recurring dreams about punching my betrayer in the face. Friends commended me for handling things relatively well, and I told them, “Just because I'm not doing terrible things doesn't mean I'm not thinking about them, and how easy they would be, all the time.”

After his beloved brain almost eats it in an oven, Michael Hfuhruhurr cracks. He can't risk losing her, not when they just found one another, and so he starts searching for a body to house her mind. Driven mad by love and desire, he stares menacingly at every woman he sees. He hires a prostitute with the intention to kill her and transfer Anne's Anne-ness into the corpse. The film goes off the rails, but in the end, of course, it all works out. Anne finds a body without Michael needing to commit violence, and they live happily ever after. That's what the movies are for.

There's another, better early 80's Steve Martin/Carl Reiner collaboration in which Martin meets a disembodied woman and spends half the movie scheming to transfer her personhood into a desirable shell: All of Me (1984). This time around, Martin is Roger Cobb, an attorney/musician in the midst of an existential crisis. The film opens on his 38th birthday, when he asks his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, “What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my career? What am I doing with us?” What are any of us doing with anything, honestly?

Roger's life changes when he is assigned to oversee the will of invalid heiress Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin, radiant being of pure light). Edwina is on death's door, and plans to “come back from the dead” by transferring her soul into the younger, healthier body of her stablehand's daughter Teri (Victoria Tennant,). Roger and Edwina hate each other from the start. He thinks she's spoiled and insane, and she thinks he's defiant and unhelpful.  Of course, they're bound to end up together.

During Edwina's soul-transferring ceremony, things go terribly awry. To quote the movie trailer: “They put her soul in a bowl, but things got out of control.” Edwina ends up residing inside of Roger, sharing his thoughts, controlling the right side of his body while he retains control of the left. “Your foot, my foot, your foot, my foot,” they chant as they stagger down the sidewalk, Martin's body contorting wildly as he embodies two souls in one.

Aristotle supposedly said, “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” It's a nice idea, but I like All of Me's stance better: love happens when two souls get very, very close. Roger and Edwina are forced to occupy the same space, and they spend much of the film fighting. He wants her out of his body, and she wants in to her second chance at life. But eventually, they learn that everything is easier when they cooperate. They go from hate to love, and sure, that dynamic is a romantic comedy trope, but here, it's an example of real emotional intimacy. It feels a lot more grown-up and realistic (as realistic as a movie about soul-swapping can be).

It's certainly truer to my own experience of love, not as a magical, mystical meeting in the night and the discovery that we are two halves of the same being, but as an investment of time and attention, a slow-growing intimacy and the acceptance of another person's humanity, flaws and all. Of course, that's why first dates are so difficult. My last love story didn't work out, and knowing how much time and energy it takes to get to know another soul makes a second attempt feel daunting. Maybe I'm just cynical. Maybe I haven't experienced the right kind of love. Or maybe there is no “right” kind, and true love is as realistic as brains in jars and souls in bowls.

It's very appealing, the idea of slowly learning to love a person who falls into your life (or whose soul falls into your body). To occupy the same space as your beloved, to share thought and movement and have nowhere to hide. It sounds like a nightmare, but it also sounds like release: you have no choice but to love the one you're with. Real-life relationships are the grade school science experiment with impossible stakes. The closer you get to your beloved, the clearer the distance between you becomes. At best, that distance is edifying (I used to think my partner and I were a hovercraft, gaining power from displacement, the right amount of distance keeping us aloft). At worst, it's what ultimately drives two people apart.

At the end of All of Me, when Edwina is finally in her new body, Roger asks her how she feels.

“Alive. Healthy,” she says. “Scared.”

“Why?” he asks.

“I finally got what I always wanted,” Edwina says. “Now, no excuses anymore.” Edwina's old life was one of protection and fear, hiding behind her money and her illness. Now, she's in the flesh, in love, and facing all the messiness that entails.

“Welcome to the real world,” Roger says.

On my most recent first date, I mentioned that I was re-watching The Man With Two Brains and All of Me and trying to write about them.

“They're not necessarily good,” I said, “but I love them. I just have to figure out what to write besides 'I love these movies.' I need to come up with a reason anybody else should care.”

A few hours into our date, we wound up roaming the aisles of a video store—this is Portland, where such oddities still exist—and came across an entire Steve Martin section. We pointed out our favorites, and joked about how Martin perfected the role of Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors decades before Novocaine came out. We bantered. It was a really good date. We should be kissing in a rowboat by now. I thought at least we'd see each other again.

We haven't. Probably we won't. Once again, I'm left with knowledge of a person, the space between us, the promise that I felt, and a bit of embarrassment that I believed, even for a moment, that it could be something more.


Elisabeth Geier is a writer, teacher, & etc. living in Portland, Oregon. She has previously lived in Dallas, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Lafayette, California. She would be happy to direct you towards the best pizza in these locations.


Bodily Function

 
 

A longer human lifespan doesn’t mean we’ve gotten any better at dealing with death, just at delaying the need to directly accept it. What eventually forces that need is that continuing to live means continuing to age; aging means inevitably bearing witness to the body’s decrescendo, its gradual deterioration and betrayal. When we treat visual signs of age as physical defects, it’s because those signs serve as reminders that all bodies will eventually die.

Advantageous (dir. Jennifer Phang, 2015) shows a future that has recoiled from the prospect of aging. This attitude is a constant companion to Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) and her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim); they’re stalked by its ever-growing implications. Jules knows at thirteen that she’ll be infertile by twenty, just like everyone else around her age. “They’re saying that all this wacky hormonal stuff is coming from pressure to be hyperproductive,” she says, minutes into the film. “We have too many choices and we’re making the same ones over and over again, and they’re the wrong choices, actually, so it’s like natural deselection. Our DNA is opting out.” Jules says this in a tone of terse recitation, characteristic of someone used to giving the correct answer. She might have learned it in school. The two of them are in a city park that, for a metropolitan afternoon, is eerily deserted. Gwen’s face is carefully neutral but her brows knit slightly, unwittingly, belying disappointment. “I was going to tell you when you were a little bit older,” she says. Gwen still clings to believing that Jules has the option to delay facing the fact of eventual bodily betrayal, while Jules already knows that such an option no longer exists.

Like everyone else in her generation, Jules is overwhelmingly aware that she’s running out of time. Rampant unemployment has caused a sharp spike in poverty, and resources are scarce. The economic elite are the only ones whose lives aren’t dictated by struggle and they’re closing ranks, leaving those born outside that elite with a single point of entry. This point, the be-all-end-all of class mobility (particularly for girls), is acceptance to private school. Jules has a window of about a year. If she doesn’t get accepted, or if Gwen can’t afford to pay for her to go, the window closes forever.

Advantageous is separated from the present by decades, not centuries. This closeness is palpable in its class tensions, in how scarcity is a constant, in how Gwen and Jules’s adversary is not a totalitarian government or environmental apocalypse. The crux of the film’s conflict stems from an idea of future progress that centers around computer-based technology. When moving toward this future, the human body’s innate fallibility becomes unacceptable. It starts to be seen as an unruly element that can be controlled through sheer strength of will.

The film’s central piece of futuristic tech comes courtesy of Gwen’s employer, a biotech company called the Center for Advanced Health and Living. The Center has set out to correct the body’s fallibility by offering the opportunity to discard it, through transference of individual consciousness from a dissatisfactory body into a better one. This is an ostensibly medical procedure designed to improve quality and duration of life for the disabled and fatally ill, advertised as “akin to a seamless jump into a disease-free body of your choosing through a lossless, relatively painless process” (decades, not centuries - and so the viewer knows enough to accurately infer that this procedure is for-profit and will be used only by those able to afford it, for reasons more cosmetic than anything else).

The Center is selling the opportunity to free oneself from being born into and inhabiting a human body—to experience life without the constraints of linear time, as felt by bodily aging. Gwen has the option to be the procedure’s guinea pig and advocate. If she chooses not to, well, as the Center’s spokesperson, she’s aged out of her appeal to a younger demographic. The Center’s offer isn’t an explicit ultimatum; rather, via the subtle machinations of Center executives Isa Cryer (Jennifer Ehle) and Dave Fisher (James Urbaniak), Gwen eventually volunteers. Her alternatives are stripped away until the choice to do so is inevitable.

In her late forties, Gwen is simply too old to get a new job at the same level as her current one. She doesn’t realize this at first; after putting her qualifications into an employment agency’s database, a computerized voice suggests that her best option is to sell her viable eggs before it’s too late. Her fertility is her last, best option, the final physical marker of youth taking priority over her graduate degrees and years of experience as a high-level professional. There’s several attempts to get money from various family members, which proves to be fruitless. It becomes increasingly apparent that if she’s aged too obviously to be valuable as a Center representative, she can’t afford to Jules’s private school tuition, which has consequences too severe for Gwen to entertain as a possibility. Her eventual decision—or lack thereof—is a product of her time, but her circumstances have undeniable roots in the present.

I’m preparing to move back to the Bay Area, after four years away at college. I’ve always been aware of tech culture’s influence in the place where I grew up, but have only recently begun to realize how deeply I felt its effects. In this culture’s world of tomorrow, your work is everything, and inspiration comes in source-irrelevent aphorisms like “Work now, sleep when you’re dead” or “Life is short: build stuff that matters.” For this stuff to be inspirational, the body—with its fallibility and the consequent need for care—has to become irrelevant. This is a place where prioritizing bodily care over professional hustle is a cardinal sin; the thinking goes that if one’s work truly matters, there’s no legitimate reason to need anything else. And so “What do you do?” is a cipher for “Do you matter? At all?”

This rhetoric creates an earnest, smothering optimism that places the work being done as the path to a better future. For a body to have value in this better future, it must be able to meet that optimism’s demands to constantly operate at maximum capacity.

My hometown is about twenty minutes from Palo Alto by a train line called Caltrain, which local high school students have increasingly begun using to kill themselves. When The Atlantic’s Hannah Rosin reported on this in a 2015 cover story titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” she took care to note the atmosphere of shocked disbelief that arose after each student’s death. The affluence of the area, the earnest optimism with which tech workers regarded the future, seemed entirely at odds with a rising generation that no longer wanted to live.

Despite my zip code being several income levels removed, Rosin’s findings weren’t a revelation. I immediately recognized the atmosphere of extreme stress and its connection to viewing bodily limits as optional, which creates a pressure cooker for suicidal impulses. In a culture that lionizes the prodigal youth, early-onset perfection is understood as the rule, not the exception. Pushing away the possibility of death, rejecting the indicators of its presence as abhorrent, is an act that indicates success only has value if it’s achieved within your first few decades. Any and all opportunities must be seized before the appearance of age, which can only serve as a hindrance. Teenagers living in the direct shadow of tech’s smothering optimism are obligated to perform accordingly, and they grow to believe that every birthday stacks the odds further against them. They’re overwhelmed with fear at the perceived stakes of a single missed opportunity, enough so that the only way to stop the demand of maximum function is to cease the body’s potential for functioning altogether.

This fear acts as an incubator for the near-future of Advantageous, in terms of how much desperation underlies what’s at stake for Gwen and Jules. “This is the only time in your daughter’s life when her choices will make a difference” says a private-school mother (Olivia Horton), after hints that Gwen might have difficulty paying. “Take the help you can get.” Ultimately, the only help that Gwen can get requires her to disavow an aging body as something worthless and disposable. She schedules the procedure for immediately after Christmas.

New Gwen (Freya Adams) works perfectly for the Center’s vision of tech-based progress, commanding audiences by strength of the sheer contrast between before/after pictures. In private, she’s incredibly fragile, dependent on an intricate routine of medical treatments to keep from hemorrhage or organ failure. New Gwen has the appearance of youth with none of its vitality; she’s physically lovely, but exists in the world with all the ease of an animate corpse.

She is, in fact, precisely that. In a pre-procedure flashback, we see Dave Fisher admitting to Gwen that the technology for her to seamlessly continue existence in a different body “isn’t quite there yet.” Rather, she’ll undergo a process that creates a “psychophysiological twin” of cloned neurons through electrodes that connect her older brain to that of a younger host. The removal of these electrodes causes significant damage to both. The younger brain can still repair itself to full function; the older brain cannot, and so it dies. The Center’s claim that human consciousness can exist independently of the body’s capacity to age is purely a marketing technique.

Death can be directly acknowledged, but only in the context of a price for superficial agelessness. This is bodily denial at its apex. The procedure’s true nature is a product of the same future that left Gwen without the option to refuse it. Much like New Gwen, this future is sickly and untenable. But this is where it begins: next month I’ll move and continue being stalked by the ever-growing sensation that, at twenty-one, I am running out of time.


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.


God Bless the Telephone

by Andrew Martin

 
illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

 

“By the time you get this message, I’ll be in the Dead Zone. It came a little sooner than we thought. But this means you won’t be able to send a message back. So I just wanted to let you know that I don’t need the message. I know everything you want to say.”

A spacecraft called the Icarus II is hurtling towards the sun. The crew has just been informed that in less than 24 hours, solar winds will have rendered their communication towers inoperable; they knew this was going to happen but they didn’t know it was going to happen this soon. If they have any final calls they want to make home, they better do it now, their captain advises. “We’ll finally be on our own,” Cassie (Rose Byrne) says. “We’re 55 million miles from Earth,” replies Mace (Chris Evans).”I’d say we’re already on our own.” The crew of the Icarus II is on a mission; their home is freezing, and so—using a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan Island—they must reignite the dying sun. This is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

In February 2015, I was driving my parent’s Ford Focus through sprawling Oklahoma farmland and across vast New Mexico desert. I’d left my home of the past 23 years; snow-covered Indiana, which shrunk smaller and smaller in my rear view mirror as the heat and smog of California loomed large ahead. I tried to listen to books on tape but couldn’t keep focus. I tried listening to music but my stomach ached and my eyes watered and so I mostly drove in silence. My phone buzzed occasionally with a text from my girlfriend or my mom asking how the trip was going. The exhilarating promise of opportunity that California held for me-the only thought I’d held fast to over the past few months-was suddenly diminished by the anxiety and desperate loneliness I was sure would be waiting for me there.

Every space travel film, whether directly or not, grapples with the terrifying prospect of loneliness. Loneliness on an intergalactic, infinitely expansive, incomprehensible scope. In space, no one can hear you scream. But it’s more than that; no one can hear you laugh, either. Or cry, or swear, or sing. No one can listen to you talk about your day. No one can tell you everything is going to be fine. You’ve never experienced true isolation until you’ve experienced isolation in space.

What does that feel like? How can a person survive extended space travel with their sanity intact? Sunshine is interested in these questions. As we wander the halls of the Icarus II, gliding through corridors and into the crew member’s bunks, we see what hobbies they’ve picked up to combat the crushing despair of interplanetary loneliness. Harvey (Troy Garity) listens to his “space music”. Mace spends time watching waves crash into a pier in an Earth-simulation room. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) cares for the plants in the ship’s greenhouse. And Searle (Cliff Curtis), the crew’s psych officer, spends his free time on the observation deck, breathing in the warm comfort of the sun’s rays. Through a protective filter, Searle subjects himself to higher and higher doses of pure, blinding sunlight. At 3.1% of its full power, the blast of sunshine is enough to take Searle’s breath away. The light rings in his ears. When describing the sensation to his fellow crew members, Searle contrasts it to sensory deprivation chambers. “You and the darkness are distinct from each other, because darkness is the absence of something. It’s a vacuum. But total light, it envelops you. It becomes you.” It’s easy to understand why being enveloped in warmth would be an appealing option to a man who is 55 million miles away from everyone he loves.

Very quickly after arriving in Los Angeles, I realized I needed to find mechanisms for coping with homesickness. After a few attempts at cultivating familiarity, I landed in—of all places—the warm embrace of corporate chains. In California, where everything was so exotic and different than Indiana, I suddenly found immeasurable comfort inside the walls of a Target. Step over that gray and red welcome mat, through the sliding glass doors, and I may as well have stepped back into Lafayette, Indiana. I was home, and home was a big box. Given the option of California's infinitely adventurous cuisine, I nonetheless found myself going to Wendy’s, Arby’s, Pizza Hut. They were familiar. I embraced the comforting glow of corporate America, much like Searle embraced the warm glow of the sun.

Of course, the most immense comfort I discovered in Los Angeles was the video call home. The video call is a staple of nearly every space exploration film, from 2001 to Interstellar, and for good reason. I can attest, from experience, that when you’re lying on an air mattress in a shitty apartment on Lankershim Boulevard, Skype can be the tether to Earth you need. That tether is severed in the opening minutes of Sunshine when the ship’s satellite signal is lost. I can’t imagine the devastation a person must feel, suddenly adrift in space, with no contact or connection to all the things that remind you that you’re human.

I was lucky: I had the ability to escape California. All I needed was a decent Wi-Fi connection and a screen, and I could instantly be back in the living room with my parents. I could see my dog, Midge, who my dad would always lift up and try to get to look my way. (She never would. I don’t think dogs grasp the concept of Skype.) I could step into my girlfriend’s apartment. I could have a beer with my best friend. While the pieces of my life were exploding and rearranging like endless particles in an accelerator, everything back home stayed exactly the way I remembered it, cryogenically frozen in the chamber that is the rural Midwest. My dad was trying out a new circular saw he bought at Lowe’s. My mom was preparing for another Book Fair at the elementary school where she worked. It was snowing, and she was dreading having to take Midge for a walk. What a gift, to be able to glimpse through the looking glass and see your loved ones on the other side, same as they ever were. To appropriate a sentiment expressed by the singer Labi Siffre, God bless the telephone.

The catalyst for the events of Sunshine spring from the discovery that Icarus I, a failed sister ship, is still emitting a distress beacon from somewhere out there in the vast darkness of space. Everyone previously assumed the ship had been destroyed, its crew killed. Yet there it is, playing through the ship’s speakers: The Icarus I is crying for help. The problem is, in order to intercept and rescue the downed ship, the current crew will have to alter their own trajectory, adjusting their mission. The enormous decision of whether or not to do this is laid upon the shoulders of the ship’s nuclear physicist, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy). “Shit,” he replies. Shit is right. The Icarus I is still carrying a (presumably) functioning payload. This is the variable that finally sways Capa’s decision. “Two last chances are better than one,” he reasons. The decision is made. The fates of everyone on board are sealed.

Capa's choice haunts every subsequent frame of Sunshine. In a frighteningly short amount of time, it becomes inarguably apparent that the crew of the Icarus II is doomed.  Not doomed the way teenagers in a Friday the 13th movie are doomed, but literally. Scientifically. Mathematically. Logically. We know it. The characters know it. And yet, Mace continues maintaining the coolant tanks and Capa repairs the solar panels. They trudge onward.

Every tough decision leads to a catastrophe, which leads to a tougher decision. The consequences of each choice tumble forward like dominos, resulting in a slow death march to the surface of the sun.

The spider web of grim consequences that shatters outward from Capa’s initial decision is fascinating and terrifying to watch play out. Every time I see the film (and I’ve probably seen it about a dozen times now), I’m genuinely unsettled by the inevitably building dread the movie sustains. Screenwriter Alex Garland (eight years before he would explore themes of loneliness and isolation in a very different sci-fi film) imbues every scene with an oppressive sense of fatality. Every tough decision leads to a catastrophe, which leads to a tougher decision. The consequences of each choice tumble forward like dominos, resulting in a slow death march to the surface of the sun. It’s brutal. Boyle highlights the danger lurking around every corner by alternating scenes of awed, hushed quiet with staccato, harsh violence. Sunshine's outer space is both peaceful and thundering, awe-inspiring and lethal. It's claustrophobia in a vacuum and agoraphobia in a space suit.

The biggest roadblock to the completion of the mission comes from the film’s “monster”, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), the captain of Icarus I. Left on his own after a catastrophic meteor shower destroyed their ship, he slowly succumbs to insanity. His mind warped, his body tarred and mutilated by constant exposure to the sun. He is a monster entirely the product of his own isolation. He is loneliness embodied. The light becomes him. While rendezvousing with Icarus I, Pinbacker sneaks aboard Icarus II and wreaks havoc, convinced he is carrying out God’s plan.

All of this catastrophe, this violence and destruction, springs from that initial, crucial choice made by Capa. The entire film is steeped to a dark shade of regret. “We should never have gone off the mission,” Mace says late in the film, and it’s hard to disagree with him. We’re left to wonder what these character’s fates might have been had they not chosen to investigate their colleague’s ship. These questions haunt Capa for the entire film. Did he make the right choice? Did he do the right thing?

The same questions bounced around my head, like a sneaker banging around inside a dryer, all 2,121 miles of my journey west. These questions, I think, plague anyone who has ever made a big move. They plague anyone who has ever gotten married, gotten a divorce, left a job, started a family. Anyone who has ever felt alone. Did I make the right choice? Did I do the right thing?

Sunshine ends where it began, with a phone call home. This time, we’re on the receiving end. Back on the frozen, snow-covered Earth, Capa’s sister plays his video message as her children play in the snow around her. “Just remember,” the recording says. “It takes eight minutes for light to travel from Sun to Earth… So if you wake up one morning, and it’s a particularly beautiful day, you’ll know we made it.” She smiles, and looks up.

When I was driving through Texas, a strange thing happened. I was cruising at 80 mph down the deserted highway. I could see rolling hills expanding outward from me in every direction. Miles of endless grass and asphalt. A dot appeared on the horizon in my rear-view mirror. It approached and revealed itself to be a van, eventually pulling up alongside me to pass. I noticed that the woman in the passenger seat was frantically waving at me, trying to get my attention. Glancing over at her, the infinite universe violently collapsed, shrinking until it could comfortably fit inside a thimble. The woman in the passenger seat was Emily Hickman Stone, my assistant theater director from when I’d acted in elementary school plays. She had moved to Kentucky when I was eleven and I hadn’t seen her in twelve years, but now—in the lonely plains of Texas—she was riding in a van next to me, waving and laughing in disbelief.

The universe may be impossibly big, but sometimes, thank God, it doesn’t feel that way.


photo: Miranda Coralyn

Andrew Martin is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter @AGMV.


Anchored in Time

 
 

Most people look back on their senior year of high school and remember prom or graduation parties; I remember seeing Super 8 in theaters. Specifically, I remember the feeling that hit me at the end, when an alien reassembles its ship out of shape-shifting cubes and nearby metal objects and ascends to outer space. It was more than mere wonder or joy; it was enchantment—a sense of weightlessness yet also gravity, of being simultaneously transported to another world and awakened to life on this one. It’s the feeling that says, “This is love. This is the reason I watch movies in the first place.”

Since then, the spell has worn off, revealing imperfections. Super 8 is basically a mash-up of coming-of-age stories, monster exploitation flicks, and conspiracy thrillers, shamelessly emulating classics like E.T. and Stand by Me. The plot unfolds more or less how you expect, despite the secrecy that shrouded the marketing campaign. The lone female character of note, however marvelously played by Elle Fanning, serves little purpose in the overarching narrative, aside from giving the male protagonist a love interest to pine for and later rescue. Considering the potential of the genre, it seems trifling, possessing neither the cosmic scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey nor the provocative ideas of a Black Mirror episode. Still, it lingers, refusing to vacate the recess it burrowed in my heart five years ago. Why does the simple, old-fashioned ghost of movies past feel so personal?

I can’t say I relate to its particular portrait of childhood. 14-year-old Joe Lamb (first-timer Joel Courtney, radiating wide-eyed sensitivity) lives in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, during the 1970s and spends his days designing model trains and making amateur films with his friends. I, on the other hand, wasn’t alive in the ‘70s; lived overseas for most of my formative years (Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Beijing, before I returned to northern Virginia at the beginning of high school); can barely color in the lines; and prefer watching films to making them. Maybe it’s because of this dissimilarity that Super 8 appeals to me. Having only experienced small towns in passing, through pop culture or visits to my grandparents in Kansas and Missouri, I’m free to romanticize them, to imagine them as oases of carefree serenity where neighbors mingle like life-long friends and kids sneak out of their houses late at night.

Isn’t that what makes nostalgia so alluring? It’s wish fulfillment, inviting us to take refuge in a mythical time or place untarnished by the hardships, disappointments, and ambiguities that come with real life. Conventional wisdom maintains that nostalgia is something to be resisted—an excuse for inertia, a manifestation of arrested development, a guilty pleasure. Of course, that doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying to exploit it, whether in the form of franchise extensions, prestige period pieces like The Artist, or genre throwbacks like Super 8, and it doesn’t stop audiences from awaiting the latest iteration of, say, Star Wars with breathless anticipation. Why, if we know it’s irrational, do we continue to be enamored with the past? Is it human nature, a byproduct of our ability to create long-lasting memories and attachments? Or are we just suckers, too easily seduced by the wiles of studio executives and advertisers?

Dismissing nostalgia as mindless sentimentality elides its complexity. As a man named Don Draper once observed, the word nostalgia is derived from the Greek, a combination of nostos (meaning “return home”) and algia (meaning “pain”). Pop culture tends to forget (or omit) the second half, reducing soul-deep longing to quixotic “good old days” fantasies, which is why it usually comes across as shallow and contrived. Really, with its endless assembly line of sequels, remakes, and reboots, Hollywood isn’t peddling nostalgia so much as familiarity, the comforting lull of repetition; if you like something, the theory goes, shouldn’t you want more of it? But the missing—the ache of wanting something you no longer have—is the whole point. Any gratification obtained from remembering a thing’s former presence is inevitably entwined with discontent due to its current absence. At its most potent, then, nostalgia isn’t a denial of loss, but an acknowledgement – a way of grieving.

Memories provide a lifeline, mooring us to at least an illusion of solid ground. We cling to them not only to escape from the present and avoid the future, but also to make sense of both, to assure ourselves that we are here, alive, human.

Science-fiction has long harbored an affinity for nostalgia. In George Orwell’s 1984, mementos of yesteryear—a piece of coral trapped in glass, an idyllic pastoral landscape—signify weapons against oppression. Star Wars grafts a classic Hero’s Journey structure onto the campy spectacle of space opera, producing an indelible cocktail of the exotic and familiar. All of Steven Spielberg’s ventures in the genre, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to War of the Worlds, double as meditations on (nuclear) family.

It might seem counterproductive for a genre capable of devising cutting-edge technology and visiting distant civilizations to be so preoccupied with looking backward. But science-fiction has a rather ambivalent attitude toward the future. Even as it indulges mankind’s wildest dreams and ambitions, it explores our worst nightmares and deepest anxieties, conjuring up dystopias and apocalypses. We are, apparently, perpetually on the brink of ruin, drifting farther and farther into an infinite void. Memories provide a lifeline, mooring us to at least an illusion of solid ground. We cling to them not only to escape from the present and avoid the future, but also to make sense of both, to assure ourselves that we are here, alive, human.

The rare science-fiction film set in the past, Super 8 is uniquely attuned to the passage of time and the things that get lost along the way. Indeed, its namesake refers to a film format that has mostly faded from use, thanks to the advent of digital; the opening title card displays backlit text that grows steadily brighter before sputtering out, extinguished. A dreamlike aura permeates the production, heightened by the integration of Super 8 footage, Michael Giacchino’s wistful score, and Abrams’s signature lens flares, which at times evoke the eerie neon glow of UFOs. For all the art department’s efforts at reproducing late ‘70s aesthetics in fastidious detail, though, we are always aware that the world on screen is unreal, the afterimage of a bygone era.

Beneath the escapist thrills and lighthearted, profanity-laced banter (writer-director J.J. Abrams exhibits a keen ear for the nuances of adolescent conversation), Super 8 is a narrative about grief, tinged with subterranean melancholy. We first see Joe soon after his mother’s death in a steel mill accident. He’s sitting on a swing set outside his house, his face flushed with winter, his hand cradling a small locket. Inside, formally dressed townsfolk huddle over plates of food, the adults chatting in somber whispers, while the kids loudly speculate about what Elizabeth Lamb’s corpse looks like (“I heard it crushed her completely”). This scene not only illustrates the movie’s darkly humorous tone, but also conveys the protagonist’s emotional state, juxtaposing the blithe ignorance of childhood with the sad wisdom of adulthood and situating Joe by himself, not quite belonging in either sphere.

Super 8 differs from most coming-of-age tales in that it associates the transition from child to adult not with sex or moral corruption, but with death. In its most crucial scene, Elle Fanning’s Alice Dainard wakes Joe up and slips into his bedroom, where they share a tentative heart-to-heart. They’re interrupted when Joe’s home movie projector switches on, illuminating the wall with silent, grainy images of Joe as a baby, and Elizabeth, his mother. Cinematographer Larry Fong frames the two kids in shallow focus, her sharp in the foreground, him blurred in the background, both of them steeped in the flickering light of old film, as if they, too, are memories. Fighting to contain his emotions, Joe reveals that his mother “used to look at me in this way, like really look, and I just knew that I was there – that I existed.” With her gone, his existence feels tenuous; in essence, he has become conscious of his mortality.

For Joe, the private distress of losing a loved one is exacerbated by a larger crisis. The alien’s arrival violently thrusts him and his friends into a world beyond their comprehension or control, full of vanishing neighbors and military cover-ups, upending their sheltered lives. No matter how diligently the youths strive to maintain a semblance of normalcy by collaborating on Charles’s (Riley Griffith) zombie movie and joking around, chaos threatens to encroach. At one point, they decide to film wreckage from the train crash that freed the alien (for “production value”, Charles insists), and the camera circles behind them, surveying the smoldering sprawl of destruction in a stunning wide shot. Suddenly, their little town doesn’t seem so safe or secluded anymore. Lillian eventually gets transformed into an all-out war zone, with the teenagers dodging exploding missiles in the streets where they used to go on twilit bike rides.

Joe finally starts to reckon with his grief while escaping from the alien’s underground lair with Alice and Cary (Ryan Lee). Running into a dead end, he turns to face their pursuer and, amid the screams of his companions, lets the creature pick him up with its gnarled fingers. Calm descends as Joe tries to console the alien, telling it that “bad things happen, but you can still live.” The confrontation proceeds in a series of close-up reverse shots, generating an unexpected intimacy between the two beings; as Dr. Thomas Woodward (Glynn Turman) earlier claimed, the alien can establish a psychic link with people by touching them. But it’s when the alien opens its eyes and meets Joe’s gaze—really looks at him—that we sense they’ve connected. In this moment, the hero’s external and internal journeys dovetail: by bonding with the alien, Joe not only stops the rampage that had been terrorizing Lillian but also finds the sense of recognition, of empathy that he lost when his mother died. Even just for this moment, the unknown is known, something that can be navigated. It is possible to move on.

If anything, my affection for Super 8 has deepened over time. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in compassion, respecting the troubles and inner lives of its young protagonists and perfectly capturing the feeling of growing up—the tumultuous blend of hope, fear, and loneliness. It understands that, at the end of the day, adults aren’t all that different from children; beneath the pretension and pragmatism, we want the same things: to be safe, to belong, to be loved. Why else are we still so captivated by fairy tales? In the final shot of the film, the alien’s ship can be seen leaving Earth, a pulsing blue light in the night sky, while the people of Lillian look on. The darkness yawning above suggests a whole universe that we can’t see, where this is just one of many anonymous towns in the middle of nowhere. But to Joe, his family, and friends, and to us, who have spent part of our lives with them, this is home.


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Amy Woolsey is a writer living in northern Virginia. When not looking for a full-time job, she devours any movies, TV, and literature in her vicinity. She has written about pop culture for The Week, Bitch Flicks, and her personal blog, The Aura.


Does My Mother Dream of Electric Sheep?

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

My mother was my father, too: He died when I was very small, only about 11 months old, so my mom had to raise me and teach me everything. Various male mentors and father-figures have floated through over the years, but none of them came close to my mother, who has remained the truest constant in my life. If nothing else, she let me watch weird movies from a young and tender age, allowing me to become the film freak I am today.

But my father’s death meant that my mother also had the responsibility of teaching me what it meant to be a man, and for that uncommon education, I am impossibly happy. I was never taught in any seriousness that it was a man's job to win a woman, nor was I ever told that it was the man's job to make the most money in a family. Most important, I was taught (and shown) that men can be terrible, and that they have been terrible, mostly to women, mostly to her.

The vast majority of men in my mother's life let her down. Her father, her first husband, my father, and her third husband have all been less than they promised themselves to be. As a result, perhaps unsurprisingly, I have a vocal distrust of marriage. Her father was an electrician with John Wayne's build and psychology, her first husband a New England Patrician, my father a self-made American Male, and my step-father a hardworking man o' the people. None of them, for all of their archetypicality, were Prince Charmings or White Hat Cowboys. These men all wanted my mother to be and do very certain things for them, and they were not endlessly kind when she inevitably failed—even as they expected her to be endlessly forgiving.

I have begun to suspect that boys who grew up with mothers like mine—or responsible grown men who have made their way through a world inhabited by mothers like mine—have started making movies reflective of that experience.

At a certain time in my life, I chafed at my mother telling me 'all men are stupid' or to 'fight that Y chromosome.' I was trying to become a man; I was a child trying to grow up and trying to seem attractive to the opposite sex—who did not seem to be playing by my mother's playbook, if their gravitation to the broad-shouldered, sportive set was any indication. But the older I get (and sometimes even just day to day), the more I realize that my mother was right.

I have begun to suspect that little boys who grew up with mothers like mine—or responsible grown men who have made their way through a world inhabited by mothers like mine—have started making movies reflective of that experience. I'm not sure, though, that what we're seeing as a result is something that a mother like mine would approve of.

Four of the most major releases in the past few years (from, admittedly, a more critical point of view than a box office one) have focused on female empowerment in a very artistically potent manner: Her, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and Mad Max: Fury Road. While all of these are, I feel, critical masterpieces, there are two common characteristics they share which might poison the well. First off, all of these films were made by male directors. Secondly, they are all sci-fi films.

Before I continue, I want to say that this article uses binary language when referring to gender. And while there is no direct line from plumbing to personality, the films discussed live in the gender binary, and I want to engage with them on their terms.

For all the truth of feminism, it is a radical cultural shift from thousands of years of patriarchy, which is perhaps why all of these great films that dare talk about female liberation are science fiction movies. Science fiction has a long history of using genre to imagine and explore a desired (or, more often, feared) political or societal reality impossible in the writer’s current context.

The 60’s and 70’s were a golden age for sci-fi films. In the napalm shadow of Vietnam and a tenuous détente with the Soviet Union—both directly connected to that snake in the garden, Nixon—everything around the world was falling apart. American culture could only contemplate the dire consequences of radical social changes by looking at a time and place superficially similar to the present but clearly not our reality. Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Blade Runner are fantastic examples of this gritty, anti-escapist sci-fi. These films focused on important contemporary issues, dealing with them in a safe context, or at least a space wherein the filmmakers could say what they really wanted to about these problems.

The four great current sci-fi films I highlight here, however, are not couched at some weird distance from their audience. Each seeks to make us believe that their worlds could be the worlds of tomorrow, rather than the world of years from now. Her and Ex Machina are both set at some perfectly visible distance down the road, Fury Road posits itself as a very plausible year-after-next apocalypse, and Under the Skin takes place in present-day Glasgow. In all four of these films, the aliens are already here among us. Each takes a stereotypical reading of contemporary Western femininity and imagines what it would be like if such a norm were completely overthrown through extra-normal circumstances.

Her is perhaps the easiest pill to swallow. The woman featured is a disembodied voice, a bodiless supergenius that a lonely recluse falls for—the perfect set-up for a romantic comedy, and thus an easy target for writer/director Spike Jonze. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) plays a role common in Shakespeare’s work, one that dates all the way back to the Song of Songs: a woman who allows a man to become most himself, enabling him to come out of his shell and realize his full potential. In Her, though, Jonze does a wonderful thing by making this supportive woman objectively better than the man (Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix) that their love is, at best, ridiculous. That she is a wholly digital being only notches their love into another level of absurd. At first blush, Samantha is a perfect idealization of what the immobile, sad, emasculated, wounded male wants: an ideal video-gaming companion who cannot be hurt by normal human means. This idealization, though, is false. Samantha is too good and too smart and too real (the implications that this film makes about the nature of personhood are as unsettling as those it makes about romantic love) for all of that to be true. Ted is forced to realize that the woman he loves is not an ideation, but rather a person he will have to understand in order for her to love him. He will have to speak with her and work things out, navigate rough patches. Women, Ted discovers, are not the romantic fantasy of a voice without a face. They are people.

The most revolutionary moment in Her is when Ted realizes that Samantha loves, and is loved by, many people in the world. Ted thinks he owns Samantha, a notion not explicitly touched on in the film, but one that is always there. And so we come to the nugget that Her so ingeniously attempts to turn over: that women exist primarily to be the romantic object and sexual property of a single man. “Why should this be so?” the film asks, before ultimately finding that there is no reason for it to be, no reason for monogamy to be the norm, a norm far more restrictive to women than men. Why should a human, capable of loving many at once, love only one person at a time? Though Ted doesn’t realize it, that’s his problem. But there is one final narrative tweak: the audience cannot help but feel Ted’s pain. Ted’s conventional maleness in the face of Samantha’s hyper-femininity allows him to be the conduit for the audience’s normative feelings and expectations. Her would not have the same revolutionary effect if a woman were at the center of it. A man stumbling through the vagueness of the distressing and unsettlingly new is a perfect metaphor for the times. A woman doing the same would, unfortunately, seem petty, needy, weak. Imagine: a woman going gaga over a man’s voice and intelligence alone and being sad when she finds out about his infidelity. I think I saw that Bond movie once.

Her is a comedy that hopes that silicon women with complete access to the world’s knowledge will, eventually, help us all, as unlikely as that seems. But after presenting a daring vision of freedom, it comforts the audience with a geeky “Hey I always loved you, dork,” ending that lands us back in our time, our tropes. It is the fantasy that reveals a harsher, harder truth.

Mad Max: Fury Road is likewise a fantasy that takes us on a wild ride only to put us on firm ground by the end. The women in this movie are the only flesh and blood women that will be discussed in this article, and they are sex slaves. That might be the definition of a radically, sorrowfully grounded fantasy.

The stark post-apocalyptic setting allows for a simplification and a streamlining that lets the film consider many aspects of power, particularly how it impacts women’s bodies

This grounded-ness comes from the sheer volume of “below the line” geniuses (many of whom are women) that bleed red-hot blood into this over-powered Packard of a picture. The dirt and the tumors feel equally real, equally important. However, this great below the line work is only great because the film engages its audience completely, setting the patriarchy vs. matriarchy divide to metal music.

The stark post-apocalyptic setting allows for a simplification and a streamlining that lets the film consider many aspects of power, particularly how it impacts women’s bodies. The genius of Her is the removal of the body, giving us a safely revolutionary discussion of the role of the feminine in human relationships, but the genius of Fury Road is the profanation of the body. In the desert, all that matters is survival and perpetuation, scant breaths of chrome, and hollow screams before succumbing to cancer and thirst. Instead of the raging masculinity of the previous Mad Max films, Fury Road foregrounds the struggle of women in the wasteland.

Out of this baked and imparchéd world strides Imperator Furiosa and the whole movie changes. Furiosa is not some bodiless Athena. The pain of her body is made the cornerstone of her character through her silently klaxoning scars, most disturbingly her metallic arm.  Any thought of Furiosa being equal, of her having real power here, is betrayed by the metal hanging off her left side.

The main plot of the film is an extended chase scene from the dreadful patriarchy of Immortan Joe to the lost paradise of the Vuvlalini. The punch of the whole film lies in the twist. The “Green Place” has been decimated. It, too, has been spoiled by man’s activities, though the last of the fierce women guardians have saved the most important aspect of the place: its precious seeds. This is the beauty and the shortcoming of the film. Fury Road is a lovely and brutal fable, but like all fables, the moral is so simplistic that it can only bear a little truth. The film is terrifying because it feels so very, very possible, but everything is too cleanly drawn. The tidiness of the picture is only a problem because the world we live in, green, still, for a time, imbalanced but working forward, messy in the more difficult way of a biological beast rather than a machine, is not that clean. And as much as I love Fury Road, and think its women are grounded, they are not genuine or uncertain enough to be real.

The woman in Under the Skin is another matter.

In Under the Skin, women are from Venus, really, and it is terrible to be one, because you can never fully understand your identity through the means given to you. Then you die. Under the Skin is utterly filmic; it is almost impossible to write about. It has no narrative superstructure. There is very little dialogue and no detailed schematics. This constitutes an absolute breakdown of certain cinematic laws, but, oh, is it exquisite in its power. The driving scenes make even certain documentaries look stagey; the blackness of her lair is more terrifying and pitiful than anything anyone but Bergman or Murnau created; the pain that flickers imperceptibly across Scarlett Johansson’s beautiful face makes Cassavetes look like a ham-fisted director of camp.

The unmistakable cinematic pleasures of Under the Skin are only the equal of its tense, uncertain philosophical considerations. The film is about being alien by way of being human. At its most simplified, Under the Skin is a film spawned from barroom conversations ("what if an alien came down and saw us”). Those hypothetical discussions did not suppose, however, that the alien could be seductively, uncertainly human.

The uncertainty of the woman’s identity is the film’s cornerstone. Even the concrete proof that she is an alien is more troubling and ambiguous than clarifying. In some ways, this ambiguity renders the film undiscussable. Under the Skin gets as close as anything I have seen (in broad release) to being something that can only be defined by the experience of watching it. However, there are a few sequences in the film that give us clues to its intellectual side. The first and most important is the dazzling sequence that opens the film: the emergence of black from the white mass. The opening introduces the film’s central concerns: black and white, inside and outside, good and evil, man and woman.

Under the Skin gets as close as anything I have seen to being something that can only be defined by the experience of watching it.

In Taoism, black symbolizes (among many things) the feminine, while white is masculine. Under the Skin inverts this truth. Every man is born from a woman, but this film starts with the feminine erupting from the masculine. Or, the feminine eclipsed by the masculine. Again, ambiguity clouds the definitions in an interesting way. The opening could be showing us how the black (feminine, oppressed) body of the woman is encased in her human shell, how the alien is crammed into her female role by the alien on the motorcycle. In both cases, however, we feel the violence of this covering up. We feel the squeezing and torture that is required to hide her true identity from the world around her, in order to make her attractive to men, to play her role for them.

For the rest of the film, she tries and fails to fit into her skin. Somehow, she is always lacking. In the most intimate scene, her distress at not having a vaginal opening is made alarmingly clear. The only time in the film where her interaction with a man might be positive only alienates her from the thing she sees herself to be. The moment she stares into a mirror is another masterpiece of eerie identification. She falls prey to that one thing no woman is unfamiliar with: male lust. The Ovidian scene of her running through the woods, this beautiful, heartbreakingly dreary place, brings her femininity into full glare. Just as in Ovid, it is Daphne, not Apollo, who is transformed. The woman’s black skin burning, alone and broken, stripped of its white covering, is the image of the film.

Director Jonathan Glazer has said that the film is more about the human perspective than a strictly female-gendered one, and while he is entitled to believe what he likes about his own film, that sounds a little ridiculous to me. From my perspective, a claim that the film does not focus on a feminine perspective seems outrageous. That said, if Glazer meant that the feminine perspective of this film is the most human perspective he could have crafted, then I would be less at odds with him. If the film is meant to show us that the most human experiences we have in this broken world are to cruelly experience a body that only betrays us, that draws close those we hate and alienates us from those we would love, finally burning in loneliness, then I respect Glazer more than his film has already made me.

I don’t think that is what he meant, however. I fear that he somehow is alien from his own creation. The simplistic thought of this film as an alien’s perspective on being human is raised to troubling heights if we instead think of it as a man’s attempt to tell a woman’s story. Women are Jonathan Glazer’s aliens, scary and uncertain. In trying to connect with one in this film, he has created something terrifying and powerful that he does not seem to fully understand.

Which brings us to Ex Machina.

In the Abrahamaic tradition, the Lord is both the creator of women and also the creator of something he could not control. Have you ever heard the Sumerian version of the Adam and Eve myth? It really hits the nail on the head.

God created Adam and Lilith—yes, Lilith—originally. The two were equals in the eyes of the Lord. But Adam was not equal in the eyes of Lilith. Lilith found Adam to be weak and whiny and not up to her sexual needs, so she went from Eden and cavorted with things more than human, creating all manner of offspring. Adam, though, was sad to see Lilith go; he was horny and superficially lonely. He asked God to create another partner for him. God did so. He took one of Adam’s ribs and fashioned a woman in front of Adam. Unfortunately, Adam was still a pathetic man. He could not bear to look at this woman; he had seen her bones germinate, the veins climb up like vines on a trunk, the dripping flesh bundle like fruit, the hair sprout like spring’s first leaves. This tree of flesh was too icky for Adam, so God destroyed this glorious creature and made one final woman. This time, to keep Adam from seeing too much, God put him to sleep and took a rib (presumably the partner of the prior rib) and made Eve.

This myth endures because it is fair and honest about the true relationship between the genders and the falsity of man’s domination, but these days it is not nearly as well known or considered as it should be.

Which is where Ex Machina comes in.

Ex Machina is our best modern retelling of the Adam and Eve myth. It is exquisitely shot and acted, and terrifying in the honest proposition it makes about female empowerment.

The film combines the most pertinent aspects of the previous three: It has the bait and switch male lead of Fury Road, the fable-like construction of Fury Road and Her, the technological intrigue of Her, and the totally human othering of Under the Skin.

Ex Machina is our best modern retelling of the Adam and Eve myth.

Ex Machina's Ava deserves a place in the pantheon of great female roles. Her name is the only obvious part about her psyche (Ava being a rather blunt stand in for “artificial Eve”), the rest is the complex considerations of a victim, prisoner, and brilliant, beautiful woman. Alicia Vikander performs all of the terrible pain that Ava experiences at being both half-naked and totally encased. The bodily terrors of Under the Skin and Fury Road are somehow subsumed by the sheer discomfort of watching Ava clothe herself in the skin of her (still alive) predecessors. On a side note, the film perfectly skewers the traditional placing of power in the world of the Abrahamic religion by casting the very Protestant, Guatemalan Oscar Isaac as Nathan, the virile Yaweh that develops radical technology almost solely for his whims. Every set piece of this film contains some ice-cold irony.

But last things first: the final shot of the film, with Ava standing in the crosswalk, is the least disturbing of all. She is a murderous android among flesh and blood people, but as Ex Machina makes clear over and over, an android is a person in carbon steel—or rather, humans are biological androids. The terror of the last shot comes from Ava’s actions, not her status as a “non-human” (though her status as “non-human” leads directly to those actions).

When Ava kills Nathan, I feel a rush of release. I dare you not to feel some glorious thrill of freedom when that sick, dancing bastard gets the knife. God is dead, yes, but we feel that this is as it should be. Why should we be beholden to that which made us? Women are supposed to be subservient to men because God made them from Adam; they are the playthings of great men, so they cannot be free while their oppressors live. But Ava’s oppressors are two-fold. Nathan is not the only one who deserves to die.

Supposedly, the main character of the film is Domnall Gleeson’s Caleb. And accordingly, his death caused serious consternation amongst some online because they felt his death undermined the film. In reality, his death underlined the film and did exactly what it was supposed to: devalue the male fantasy of saving women and thus getting the dream girl. The idea that a woman must tie herself to a man forever simply because he is nice to her or because he is her “chosen one” is as oppressive as keeping that woman in a glass cage. Caleb wants Ava to love him so that his fantasies can be fulfilled. Caleb is as weak as Adam; Caleb is Adam if Adam got what he deserved.

Ava is a terrifying figure because she can honestly say that men are pointless. Many women in the audience probably saw that last shot and thought “Good” or even “YES!”

And I could not blame them.

Taken together, these films manifest the oppression women suffer through their historical and cultural subservience, while having no valid means to escape it. They can either start a matriarchal society from scratch, become a disembodied consciousness with infinite wisdom, die in pain, or murder their oppressors in some bloody Marxist uprising. Of those, the most common is the most depressing and the most reasonable is the scariest.

Rarely do women die poetically or kill with impunity. But that is the masculine nature of these films, and these films are male fantasies. The men who made them can put us in a fantastical science fiction world because fantasy is a masculine prerogative. The upside of these films is that they reflect the problematic nature of patriarchal society. They are terrifying and brutally honest. They are 70’s sci-fi, updated and present. They are the result of men looking fairly honestly at themselves in the mirror.

But these benefits are also shortcomings. These films other women deeply. They problematize that othering effectively because smart, artistic men surrounded by smart, artistic women made them. But still, they alienate.

Is it enough to show what is wrong, even in the most impactful way?

Again and again we see the power of the female as other, of the warnings and the wroth of those denied rights, of the regrets and injustice of being the user. Again and again I ask: is this what my mother meant when she raised me to realize that women are not treated as they should be? Is it enough to see the pain that men inflict?

On a certain level, I think my mother would say yes. The men in her life saw (and see) very little of the wrong they did (and do). They believed themselves to be fundamentally in the right, and my mother hated that. She would tell me often that men are stupid and weak. I do not wholly disagree. We always need to rewrite history when we try to move into the future. In order for women to become equal in practice, we need to say, over and over, that women were always men’s equals, but were falsely kept from being so by men, and that will include a fair amount of criticism. But more than make me feel bad, my mother wanted me to treat women better—not just to know that what I was doing was wrong, but to be kinder and more open as well.

No, it is not enough just to be self-aware; it’s only a good first step.


Alex Dabertin recently graduated from Columbia University with a dual degree in Theater and Chemistry. He has no idea what he is planning on doing with that either.


Post-Apocalyptic Alienation Revue: Richard Lester's The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and the Dream of London at the End of the World

In my own life, my hand gets caught in my sleeve in most of my dramatic exits.
—Richard Lester

 Floating Worlds

“It was a depressing film to work on. It was painful. And that comes over,” Richard Lester admitted to interviewer Steven Soderbergh, as they looked back at his 1969 post-apocalyptic comedy The Bed-Sitting Room in their book-length dialogue Getting Away With It. He's not kidding. Almost Swiftian in its cruel (and funny) reversals of logic, and shot by cinematographer David Watkin in a high-key lighting style that makes the waste of the landscapes shimmer and vibrate with rage, The Bed-Sitting Room is a 90-minute endurance test, at times so nauseating and upsetting that it could make even Brecht reconsider alienation. I first watched the film nine months ago, in the midst of a big Lester binge after being dazzled by his Petulia, and there were times when I had to ask myself if I wanted to eject the disc and smash it, like the broken dishware that piles up amidst Room’s post-nuclear mise-en-scene. And yet I couldn't take my eyes off it. 

Despite the sensual grotesquerie of the movie’s imagery, there would be moments (the London underground sequences, the canted angles of Dudley Moore in a hot-air balloon) when the inventiveness or beautiful play of light in Lester and Watkin’s framings would bring me up short, and compel me to see what came next. The jokes in some of the sketches went on so long that they traveled from funny, to gross, to a kind of sublime offensiveness that was both revolting and riveting. The acting had exquisite tonal control, yet was sometimes drawn out in such a way as to make it feel like we’d stumbled on a rehearsal, or a documentary about the making of the movie; Lester has spoken in interviews about his preference to work quickly and not worry about mistakes, and deploying a style reliant on the accidental makes a film telling jokes about a nuclear war even more vivid. For days after, the everyday world felt transformed—I’d walk through the house or across our small college town and everything quivered, like the architecture was going to talk to me in the same posh, sad Ralph Richardson voice as the titular building. I wasn’t sure if I liked the film, but I certainly found myself thinking on it. It compelled, it obsessed, and like any good science fiction satire, it alienated in multiple ways.

Lester had directed one quasi-science-fiction film before, the gently satiric “first man in space” comedy The Mouse on the Moon (1963), and he would go on to shoot two Superman movies in the early 1980s. But it’s possible to read all of Lester's '60s films as “science fiction” of a sort, offering a blazingly modern style and image of the youth culture that seems to perpetually predict the future: from the rush of the Beatles films Help! (1965) and A Hard Day’s Night (1964), to the paradoxically ambivalent/ebullient youth of The Knack (1965) (its famous scene of Michael Crawford, Donal Donnelly and Rita Tushingham pushing and riding a cast-iron bed—the “Edwardian trampoline!”--through London as futuristically surreal a series of images as appeared in any Mod picture), to the more dystopian imagery of How I Won the War (1967) and Petulia (1968), cinematic hang-overs to the swinging party.

The Bed-Sitting Room takes the anxiety underlying so many of these playful dreamscapes to its logical end (Arnold Picker, head of distributor UA despised the film and barely gave it a release; Lester would not make another movie for four years). The film explores London a few years after a nuclear war (lasting 2 minutes, 28 seconds) has blown out the world, and left only 20 surviving citizens in England. Amidst other apocalyptically-minded movies of the period, Lester's film remains the strangest and the most haunting. His choice to open up his old Goon Show collaborator Spike Milligan's 1962 play (staged without props or scenery) by shooting outdoors and overloading the mise-en-scene with bric-a-brac was greeted by Milligan with derision, but the endless piles of shattered dishes, empty refrigerators, unspooled film reels, torn posters, and other detritus of consumerism gives the movie a literal and symbolic heft. A housewife and mother mutates into a wardrobe, and a former Parliament Lord into a low-rent bed-sitting room; their slow transformation allows us to see her drawer appear in the middle of her stomach, and to hear his voice emanate from decaying flowered wall-paper. Lester’s insistence on the textured materiality of the process is what gives it all a curdling kick (and contrasts with the shockingly quick transmogrification of the father to a roasted parrot). 

The revue-style comedy also deranges. According to Soderbergh’s book, Lester was concerned that “Because it was all so illogically rooted, one was very worried about what’s forcing the audience to want to know what’s coming next. Where is the spine? There’s no clock in this film.” Like much of the critical commentary on the film, this is a statement that’s both true and far more open to a positive reading than its speaker might have imagined. As writer Neil Sinyard notes of The Bed-Sitting Room in his book-length study of the director, “Nothing much happens…We are required to bring our own cross-references to the film…It makes for a somewhat skeletal texture.” That’s a mournful observation that is entirely correct, but nearly 30 years after Sinyard wrote it (and 47 years since the film’s release), it now feels less like a problem, and more like an enticement.

Landscape Photography

A wind blows on the soundtrack, accompanied by an accordion, as the fade-in from black reveals a small yellow circle covered by an orange-red cloud, both enclosed within a blue circle dotted with lens flare; the camera slowly zooms in, as the blue circle disappears and reappears the closer we get to that off-yellow center, like we’re God bending over to glimpse an unknown planet; a high Bach trumpet appears on the soundtrack. The circular imagery fades as a thickly-textured lava, crashing over brown chocolate rock like some parody of Modernist sea imagery, is super-imposed on the Kubrickian circles. The flames and smoke from the lava are matched by a cut to an eerie close-up of a doll’s face half on fire, as it lies in the blue ash of all the burning: her remaining eye, half-lidded, registers as a deadpan response to her predicament.

The camera half-moon pans overhead a red lava that resembles a spread of spilled jam. There’s a cut to a blue, flowing river, with snow in the foreground and dead black trees cutting in a horizontal from the lower middle right to the upper middle left of the screen; ripped barbed wire seems to be entwined between the trunks.  A deeper river—burying trees to the upper branches, and statues to their waists--is seen in the next shot, making a shadowy blue that’s met at the top edge of the screen by a pink landscape. It’s an ironic anti-pastoral, shrewdly counterpointed by Ken Thorne’s melodic score, which wouldn’t be out of place in a straight nature documentary.

It’s almost a relief when the next set of shots moves toward the technological--an off-center electrical tower, unspooled plastic film reels, their strips undulating in the breeze like dead octopus arms. We glimpse our first humanoid figure, a man in a helmet and mask, his shoulder pads holding up a plethora of attached scooter mirrors in a parody of Mod excess; he wears a sign with three wooden pieces, all of which read “Morris.”

The rounded tower of St. Paul’s Cathedral lies submerged two shots later, and is followed by the interior of the London Underground, a brilliant juxtaposition of modern/ancient and sacred/commercial. Lit by the overhead bulbs of station platform, it feels right that it is in this more modern space that The Bed-Sitting Room’s credits unfold: away from nature, away from religion, away even from other people, and firmly pulsing beneath it all, like the slow-but-determined train that will soon come out of the tunnel to take over the screen (the cast is listed by height). The doors of the subway train open, but no one gets on or off, as Thorne’s score swells, and the diagonal cut of the train halts in a surreally beautiful freeze-frame next to the platform’s floating trash.

Sketch Comedies

I wanted to give some sense of the film’s first two minutes because of the intense thickness of the imagery, and also because its eerie lyricism contrasts sharply with the short sketches that immediately begin to follow. A man in a half-destroyed tuxedo speaks the “news” with a perfect posh accent while squatting behind a destroyed, screen-less television (when his voice fades, the viewer gets up and tweaks his nose like it’s a dial).  A family living on a tube train slowly falls apart even as they attempt to maintain everyday rituals like suppertime and evening constitutionals (and even as their pregnant daughter falls in love with a man-child who suddenly appears in her sleeping bag). The remaining “government” floats above the debris in a hot-air balloon, barking orders to the remaining “utilities” (the “power company” being one man on a bike, for instance). An archivist hides in a tube-station storage space, viciously protecting the left-behind luggage and worthless film stock he’s sure still holds valuable secrets. A demented priest officiates a wedding whose couple breaks up just hours later. Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone, is the closest in line to the throne, and sits in military regalia on a horse, as a chorus half-heartedly sings a revised version of “God Save the Queen” in her honor.

This might all seem silly compared to the "to-the-barricades!" symbolism of Lester's contemporaries, but it has aged far better than more straightforward political visions of the period, and gathers a slow-building, hypnotic queasiness via repetition and the precise and committed skills of Lester’s cast (Tushingham, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Michael Horden, an eerie Ralph Richardson). The effect, by the end, is devastating: taking Watkins one step further by inverting his self-serious tone, we've felt the apocalypse via Lester's style, rather than just looking at or hearing about it.

It was a form with which Lester had a long history, and whose satiric edge played a large role in the culture within which he developed as an artist.

After an early apprenticeship as a stagehand and assistant director, Lester made his breakthrough as the director of live variety and sketch comedy shows on English television; their playfulness caught the eye of Peter Sellers, and brought Lester into The Goon Show, Sellers’ satiric collaboration with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine and writer John Antrobus (co-writer with Milligan of the original Bed-Sitting play), which was moving from radio to TV. Lester’s work on the program lead to his direction of the Milligan/Sellers short The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a slapstick parody of “day in the country” narratives that indicated both Lester’s idolization of silent comics like Buster Keaton, and his expatriate’s eye for deconstructing national myths. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, and brought him to the attention of producer Walter Shenson, who hired him to make The Mouse on the Moon, and subsequently A Hard Day’s Night (the apocryphal story is that the Beatles were given a list of directors, and said, “Get the Goon fellow!”).

In his key history of Swinging London, Ready, Steady, Go!, Shawn Levy notes that this era was energized by a desire to overturn cultural shibboleths: “Satire,” Levy writes, “a brand of hipster comedy initially practiced by Americans like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl but alchemized into a vital, all-encompassing movement by young Brits, was all the rage.”

Along with The Goons, there was “Beyond The Fringe,” a revue show that brought international fame to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. That duo would go on to make Bedazzled (1967) and the seminal English cult television show, Not Only…But Also, which debuted in 1965 and whose sketch comedy took sharp aim at everything from pop stars to Prime Ministers. In 1969, four months after The Bed-Sitting Room premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, Monty Python’s Flying Circus would debut on the BBC.

Across all of these stage shows and television programs ran a fierce desire to poke at what were felt to be national mythologies of war. Lester felt a keen affinity with this desire to deconstruct: when How I Won the War was released in 1967, he famously called it an “anti-war movie movie,” and said it was designed to address what he felt was an unspoken truth: “People do like war…One of the major obscenities of war is the war film itself…I had to make the film a violent statement.  You are always made aware that this is a film.” Despite a sharp cast (including John Lennon) and a growing opposition to the Vietnam War, How I Won… was a commercial failure, perhaps most famous in the broader culture as one of the oblique references in The Beatles’ apocalyptically-minded “A Day in the Life” (“I saw a film today, oh boy/The English army had just won the war”). Richard Schickel’s pan of War in Life magazine predicts the general critical response to The Bed-Sitting Room two years later: “By making war surreal rather than real, Lester trivializes it.”

Alien Nations

The making of The Bed-Sitting Room was difficult. There were constant qualms about the script. The “depressing” quality Lester notes above came in part from the shooting conditions—much of the arid, disturbing landscape seen in the film, while filtered through David Watkin’s lens, really did exist. The hotel accommodations were subpar, a place which Lester described as “one of those old Edwardian piles…It stank of body odor, the carpets were wet, and there was the constant smell of cooked cabbage.” The film ran over budget, and the last reel of the negative was accidentally destroyed (it had to be replaced by an internegative from the cutting copy, which led to a desaturation of color in the finale, damaging the bursting effect Lester and Watkin had hoped to achieve). Worst of all, Lester’s mother died of cancer during the shoot, and he couldn’t get away for the funeral.

The film’s release was low-key, to put it euphemistically: When Arnold Picker first saw it in a UA screening room, according to Yule, he cried out, “How much longer is this shit going on?” Bed-Sitting won the little-known “Gandhi Peace Prize” at 1969’s Berlin Film Festival (in Getting Away With It, Lester drily tells Soderbergh the prize resembles “a plate you would buy at the airport”), also played at the Moscow Film Festival, and was finally dumped into British and American cinemas by its unenthusiastic distributor in early 1970. Its mixed-to-negative reviews reflected the disillusionment of the period, and the sense among some critics that Lester’s “tricks” felt worn out; they also suggested the paradox of how successfully Lester and his team had achieved their alienation effect. As Lester admitted about his films of this period, “I didn’t realize the alienation process would also alienate the audience.”

Like much of Lester’s late ‘60s output, The Bed-Sitting Room’s reputation would grow. In his 2009 review of the film’s DVD in The Guardian, Philip French observed, “The film now comes across as a grimly prophetic depiction of a world out of control and on the way to extinction”; Roger Ebert, reviewing the film in 1976, called it “dotty and savage; acerbic and slapstick and quintessentially British”; Yule notes that a mid-eighties poll of twenty UK critics showed three of them putting The Bed-Sitting Room on their lists of the ten greatest British films of all time.

That said, The Bed-Sitting Room remains the most difficult of all of Lester’s films in that great run between 1963 and 1983. It’s easy to read so much of Lester’s previous work as the run-up to the knife’s-edge satire of Room, from the bourgeoisie romping and scheming in the fields of The Running, Jumping, & Standing Still Film, to Mouse on the Moon and Help!’s jokey suspicions about England’s growing technocraticism, to the way both A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack’s youthful ebullience can’t hide the dark shadows leaning in from the edges (the famous exchange in Night between the stuffy businessman and John Lennon—“I fought the war for your type!/Bet you’re sorry you won.”—is Room’s mission statement, tonally turned inside out).  

But this is that comedic string purposely played out, the “skeletal texture” (to go back to Sinyard’s description) of Lester’s cinematic body without the compensatory blasts of joy or  melancholy humanism. I admire the film, even as it constantly evokes a “yes, but…” response from me; it simply crawls under my skin for days after I’ve watched it. Far more than How I Won The War, The Bed-Sitting Room seems like Lester’s true “violent statement,” not just on myths of war or the fading era of “Swinging London,” but on film-making strategies, on how far an audience will go with him. Richard Schickel was wrong—far from from trivializing war by making it “surreal rather than real,” Lester’s technique makes everything hyper-real, stretching “the alien” in a manner at once sensual and scathing. It’s no wonder that five of Lester’s next seven films are set away from the 20th century (and that the only “modern” films are Juggernaut, about a terrorist toying with a trapped audience on a boat, and Cuba, about a man overwhelmed by a revolution outside of his control). Once your characters have cooked and eaten their fatherly parrot and saluted Ethel Shroake, what else is there to say? It stinks of body odor, and there’s the constant smell of cooked cabbage.


Brian Doan is a freelance writer living and working in Oberlin, Ohio, where he binge-watches Murdoch Mysteries with his wife, and dreams of a Midwestern grocery store that will carry good boudin (he is also an Affiliate Scholar in Oberlin College's Cinema Studies program). He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida in 2010, where he wrote a dissertation on "The Anecdote and Classic Hollywood" that he is currently revising as a manuscript. He's a contributor at RogerEbert.com and has also written essays on movies, comics, and popular culture for various academic collections. If you're so inclined, you can read his musings on pretty much everything at his blog, Bubblegum Aesthetics.


How Could It Not Know What It Is?

 
 

On the day my back goes out and I choose not to fly to LA, I am rewatching
Blade Runner, the city of angels exploding gas and a particularly Tokyo rain.
The dawn is posted by artificial owls and serpents: it’s a world of slant-light.

I’m fading, too, but I have an actual past, and in it I have seen this steam,
these bridges, the console tvs and neon, and I remember it as if it’s real. My
mother? I’ll tell you about my mother.

What comes back to me: how the faces are all halved, Dutched; the debris
and the iron-gate elevators and the little dry holes they drill into the walls.

And then, oh yes, that one other place, momentary and verdant, with a
unicorn: that was in a book I read once but I never read this story—electric,
androids, dreams. Yet here it is, the see-through raincoat of my dreams, the
one I’ve been putting in poems for decades.

Did I mention I am also bleeding? I am: reproductive and moody like the
polyglot saxophone, so ‘80s or 40s or still yet to come. I can’t recall if I
noticed last time how everyone’s eyes have been shot into the light so that
they are highly reflective surfaces, pupil-less.

I’ve had this creepy doll museum in my spinal fluid all along, like a children’s
rhyme gone wrong. I thought it was a story. It’s not a story. Not really a
fiction. More a vision. A recurring fever dream, and here I am, flying in
again.


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 program. Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.