Letter from an Editor

If you’re a person who keeps up with the critical conversation about film— and if you’re reading this, there’s a nonzero chance that you are— you’ll have noticed that, in the last several years, we’ve been talking about identity a lot. The highly visible platform of film has made movies a lightning rod for discussions about whether and how groups of people see themselves represented. If movies are truly a populist art form—if movies are for everyone—then it’s important that we talk about how well they’re telling stories about us. Now that we pretty much all know about the Bechdel Test, we can start employing the DuVernay test, too. Many of the most clickable articles about film these days focus on identity politics in some form or another—on Zootopia as an allegory about race in America, or the weird outrage over the female-dominated Ghostbusters reboot, or whether the Star Wars series will get a queer character.

This is good. We’re having conversations that have been put off for far too long, and we’re honing our understanding of how to tell and talk about the stories of marginalized groups.

There’s more to identity than identity politics, though. Behind the broader external questions of identity (With what groups do I identify? How are those groups being represented in the films I watch?) lie the specific, internal, existential questions of identity (Who am I? What am I here for? What is it like to be alive in my body?).

It makes sense that watching movies can lead us into these questions. For one thing, movies are about people, and watching other people puts us reflexively into a kind of relationship with them. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey best describes this phenomenon in her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world.

Mulvey compares the recognition we experience while watching a film to the “mirror stage” described by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan— the stage in infant development where a child recognizes its own image in the mirror. When we look at the images gliding across the screen, mirror-like, we see human figures and we look for our selves in them.

The medium of film itself tends to push us toward identification, too. The camera looks at things, and we look at things with it, and we forge a subconscious connection to the film’s protagonist—to the character doing the looking. This is the line of reasoning that led Mulvey to coin the term “the male gaze,” to describe the way the camera in a Hollywood film tends to adopt the look, or gaze, of the male protagonist. Filmmakers can direct us to identify with characters by letting us see things through their eyes. And when audience members can identify with a character in a film, they become emotionally invested.

It’s been debated whether identifying with a film is all that worthwhile a pursuit. In her New Yorker essay “The Scourge of Relatability,” Rebecca Mead bemoans the cultural slide from identifying with stories to asking that all stories be “somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experiences of the reader or viewer.” Earlier this year at The Walrus, Jason Guriel wrote a takedown of what he calls “confessional criticism,” in which critics “locate cultural objects in relation to their own lives” and “can’t seem to keep themselves out of their sentences.” The valid concern that runs through both these essays is that we will become so consumed with our image in art’s mirror that we will stop empathizing, stop looking at things for their own sake, unable to stop tripping over our pesky selves.

And yet ourselves we are, there in the theater: our bodies, our brains, our eyes, our hearts. It’s where we start, and in a certain sense it’s all we have. We can do our best to make sure we learn about the wide world outside ourselves, but we can only do that from inside our own skulls. Identification doesn’t get in the way of empathy and knowing others— it’s a prerequisite for it. Empathy is, after all, feeling with: it’s a relationship. Roger Ebert put it simply and tenderly in the introduction to his memoir, Life Itself:

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said in his book I and Thou, “All real living is meeting." So too would I contend that all real watching is meeting. We meet the people who made the film. We meet the characters in it. We meet the film itself, and that first meeting between it and us in the dark can change our lives.

On a certain level, every issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room has been an identity issue. A lot of the essays we’ve published have been stories of these meetings between a person and a film, and I think it’s safe to say that’s an essential project of the magazine. For this issue in particular, we’ve assembled an array of perspectives on film and identity that span the spectrum between the analytical and the personal. Katherine Murray considers the selves we keep on our DVD shelves and what it means to buy a physical copy of a movie in 2016. Karina Wolf and Arielle Greenberg consider the question of celebrity identity as presented in film, focusing on Purple Rain and Amy respectively. Kyle Meikle and Lindsey Romain offer us narratives of growing up alongside a beloved character—The Jungle Book’s Mowgli for him, The Wizard of Ozs Dorothy for her. Angelica Jade Bastién dives deep into The Apartment to talk about loneliness and home and how a movie can run parallel to a life, and Chad Perman and Sheila O’Malley talk about growing up and family identity in Running on Empty.

We think it’s worthwhile to talk about what it’s like to be ourselves watching movies. We hope you’ll meet us there.


-Lauren Wilford, Senior Editor


In Rainbows

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby & Harper Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby & Harper Ashby

 

R -

I am four and my mother is braiding my hair so I can look like Dorothy. I think all children have this need for affectation; there was my Ariel phase and my Belle phase but there is most importantly my Dorothy phase, not even a phase but a birthmark, something of skin. Judy Garland’s eyes pucker and her red-apple cheeks rise with the heaves of her chest and I rush to the mirror to emulate this motion. It is my way of translating ideal pre-adulthood, girlish but leveled. Even now, 20-something years later, I am captivated by Dorothy’s unique presentation. She is somehow both ageless and juvenile, both vulnerable and inviolable. We have grown together, symbiotically; through tragedy but with the gleam of something rainbow-tinged.

A great aunt likes to tell a story from around this time. How I would come to my great-grandmother’s house and ring the doorbell and when she answered I would say, before anything else, “Hi, I’m Dorothy.”

O -

I am six and there’s a package for me at the door. Mom comes in—milk-soft in the eerie preservation of memory—and hands it to me. It’s from my aunt and it’s a letter and when I open it out falls a handful of poppies from her garden. Orange flaps of skin with disproportionate stems, like thin fibers propping paperweights. “How do they stay up?” I ask, and mom tells me they grow in thick and have each other.

I have no memory of the first time I watched The Wizard of Oz. I am told I was two and that it piped me down from a fit. It is perhaps funny to tract movies to soul, but I cannot separate the striated muscle in my chest from the bits of filmstrip that bring Oz to life. That I do not recall our first introduction means that I can pretend it’s always been there.

I get poppies in the mail because they are another artifact of The Wizard of Oz, with which I am now I tangentially associated. Every birthday is Oz-themed. Every Halloween costume is blue gingham. Mom rummages garage sales for treasures—Baum books, Garland-gilded plates, Cowardly Lion Hallmark ornaments—and grandma orders pricier items, like collectible Glinda Barbies, from catalogues. For one winter month I am allowed to display these things in a window sprawl at the local library. I take to standing there and telling passersby that the collection is mine. Owning something, like becoming something, is another stripe of childhood pride.

The poppies smell like clean soap and I imagine them crunching under Dorothy’s slippers as she crests the hill before the Emerald City and falls victim to the witch’s flower potion.

Y -

Mom is “sick” now. Changed from the operation. I say sick because there is no other word for her transformation that makes sense to me. When we visit her in the hospital, she tells me to remember to feed the horses. We’ve never owned horses.

“If I only had a brain,” the scarecrow sings. If she only had the right one.

After the hospital is the rehabilitation center. They call it The Lighthouse, one of those fake, saccharine names that looks handsome on a placard. It conjures up images of foggy lakes, boats lost on grey water, a yellow beam of light to mark the shore. But mom’s lighthouse is none of those things. It is a hall of mirrors, each door masking its own unfortunate story: Of accidents and illness, of sanitized surfaces, of IV bags full of unknown, milky substances.  

One day, they let her visit the house I now live in—grandma’s house—and when we’re alone we decide to bust out the Crayolas and color side-by-side. It is from a bygone era, one where we sit at the table in the old house and draw. She was an artist by trade and by heart and I was jealous then of how easily she could bring life to lines and soul to surface. Watching her color, the only art she can claim post-trauma, fills me with gelatin sadness, thick through every orifice. She’s got a Disney Princess coloring book open to a Cinderella page and I wince at how she wrongly made the midnight ball gown purple and the glass slippers magenta. The pumpkin coach is crimson, the ground beneath it marigold.

“Like the road to Oz,” she says when she shows me, and winks. I am relieved. This was on purpose. She’s still in there somewhere.

G -

Much has changed but there is still the Oz poster on my closet door, a relic of the childhood that has whizzed by in rapid succession, straight through the good stuff and into a murkier permanence. My room is now in a basement and my mom is gone. Dead. Outdoors, the world twists grimly around me. There is a garden full of things that aren’t poppies—day lilies and dragonhead and tulips and lamb’s ears—and a vibrant wood, almost sickly green in the wet summer.

But I stay indoors. Almost always indoors.

In the dark of my room, certain markings on the poster stand out: Margaret Hamilton’s cackling face, turrets of emerald cityscape in the background, the proud font of the MGM logo.

I used to put Post-Its on the witch’s face so I could sleep at night. Now, I torment myself with it. I force myself to feel her careening presence, to remember her final melting words: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” I force myself to feel anything.

“Hi, I’m Dorothy.” I think it until my brain rots.

B -

 

My college roommate has never seen the movie. I forgive her because there are classics that have surpassed me, too: Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, Snow White. But I know I have to show her. We are growing close and this is more revealing than any conversation.

We put the DVD in and a sepia Kansas is summoned to life. It’s funny to see that familiar, colorless country when I’ve grown accustomed to cityscape. Our apartment, for instance, is nineteen stories in the sky, in a fold of atmosphere where you can taste every shade of blue.

As we settle in, I realize it’s been ages since I really watched it. I am almost uncomfortable in how it floods back to me: the familiarity of the farmhands, the pitch of Toto’s barks, Dorothy’s pigtails popping from her head like a mattress spring. When she sits on the iron bike and belts “Over The Rainbow,” I am met unexpectedly with a violent distortion.

“If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?”

As an untouched child these were merely pretty words. As a motherless 20-year-old they are a prying reconnaissance.

I -

Dorothy lives with her aunt and uncle and so did I. That was the post-death habitation plan for an unwanted kid and her sister. I tried in every possible way to be normal. I didn’t talk about my dead mother. I didn’t talk about much of anything. Those spacious years between her passing and the eternal now are consciously vacuumed. I don’t need them. Middle school, high school, early college—nothing sticks. I have pledged myself to the moment. Old feelings are easily rekindled but not easily processed. They come to me sharply, unwanted. I am a broken thing.

And so I romanticize my pain. I make myself interesting both because of and despite it. You know more, I tell myself. You see the world in shades and not in the primary colors of easy people. You are an indigo child, like the ones of New Age lore: Born of the stars, possessed of preternatural senses. You find it hard to love and be loved, but love is for a lesser kind. Love is for people who need to feel special, and you already are.

This is what I say. Over and over until I might believe it.

V -

In my grandparents backyard is a memorial garden with stones that bear the name of both my mother and her dead brother. I do not know if they are buried there or are scattered ashes or there at all. We don’t talk about these things in my family. We don’t talk about them, except in staid details and forgettable fragments.

I thought once that maybe Mom hadn’t really died and was instead carted off somewhere top secret. Experimented on. Made right again.

She is dead—at least according to the death certificate I paid $2.99 to own digitally—but she is somehow more present than any living thing I know. Always, always on the mind.

I think the memorial garden is stupid so I’ve never even walked through it. I see it from faraway, regard it like an ugly thing: Wrought iron bench, bundles of violet catmint, a pebble pathway, threaded together by grapevine and discarded apples from a nearby tree.

I hate it for what it isn’t. It isn’t her.

And yet despite these ugly coils—the resentment and the burden—I am proud of how I’m strung together, of how I go on. I think of Dorothy in her Kansas yard, dreaming of worlds she cannot yet touch, and I am happy for having touched them. For getting out. For steering the tornado to my own Oz, or at least to a yellow brick road that might lead there. I haven’t made it over the rainbow—I don’t know that I ever can—but there it glistens in the periphery, beckoning.

I was Dorothy then. I still am.


Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. 


Mowgli and Me

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Kyle Meikle

Midway through 1967’s The Jungle Book, Baloo (the great gray bear voiced by radio fixture Phil Harris) and Bagheera (the black panther voiced by English character actor Sebastian Cabot) debate whether they should return their charge, Mowgli—a young boy raised by wolves after his parents meet some vague Disney fate—to civilization. “Baloo, birds of a feather should flock together,” sighs Bagheera. “You wouldn’t marry a panther, would you?” Baloo chuckles and nudges Bagheera: “I don’t know. Come to think of it, no panther ever asked me.”  

Mowgli’s proverbial feathers are, of course, the source of The Jungle Book’s central back-and-forth. Throughout the film, Mowgli flocks with other birds, ever tempted by Baloo’s calls of the wild—just the bare necessities—even while Bagheera nudges the “man-cub” closer and closer to the nearby “man-village.” And Mowgli is happy to follow in Baloo’s footsteps, right up until his eyes fall upon a village girl (“Forget about those, they ain’t nothin’ but trouble,” the bear warns) who ruffles his feathers with a song about finding her own home: “I must go to fetch the water/ ’Til the day that I am grown/ Then I will have a handsome husband/ And a daughter of my own.” The meaning is clear: Mowgli will get grown; Mowgli will become her handsome husband. Mowgli forsakes the call of the wild for a different sort of calling, or a different sort of wildness.

In the end, Mowgli goes straight—a punch line made punchier by the earlier exchange between Baloo and Bagheera (who all but set the template for ambiguous Disney duos like Lumière and Cogsworth and Timon and Pumbaa). Bagheera begins the film by purring, “Many strange legends are told of these jungles of India, but none so strange as the story of a young boy named Mowgli.” None so strange, says Bagheera, but he might as well say, none so queer. He might as well begin, “A bear and a twink walk into the jungle…”

***

Whatever queerness creeps into The Jungle Book has long been trampled underfoot its weightier racism. The film is “Inspired by the Rudyard Kipling ‘Mowgli’ Stories” (so say the opening credits) and, as io9’s Katharine Trendacosta helpfully reminds us, “Rudyard Kipling Was a Racist Fuck and The Jungle Book Is Imperialist Garbage.” It’s difficult not to think of The Jungle Book as “from the author who brought you ‘The White Man’s Burden,’” and Trendacosta notes that Disney fairly fanned the flames of said dumpster fire by creating the character of King Louie whole cloth—an ape who sang “I Wan’na Be Like You” in a movie released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jon Favreau’s recent remake of The Jungle Book—the occasion for Trendacosta’s essay and, really, my own—goes to some lengths to redress the original’s ugliest inferences, turning Louie, for instance, into a Colonel Kurtz-like Gigantopithecus (voiced by Christopher Walken). More surprisingly, however, the film doesn’t end with “Enter village girl,” doesn’t end with “My Own Home,” but with Mowgli lounging on a branch between Baloo and Bagheera; roll credits. The movie doesn’t straighten Mowgli out (not yet, at least—a sequel is in the works).

This revision struck me as hard as it did because I’d lived through Mowgli’s meet-cute so very many times before: Laughed as he fell from a branch into the pool in which the girl is fetching water; felt the swell of sadness as Baloo concedes defeat from afar (“but I still think he’d have made one swell bear”); watched as Baloo and Bagheera walked off into the sunset, arm in arm, to a reprise of “Bare Necessities” after Mowgli shrugs—actually shrugs!—them off. I wore out my VHS of The Jungle Book waiting for a happier ending, a gayer ending, that never came.

***

I first saw The Jungle Book when I was five years old, at a movie theater in a mall in Virginia. Disney had re-released the feature in advance of its home video debut—and just in time for the Boomers who’d seen the film some twenty years earlier to share it with their own kids. The movie had clearly meant something to my parents, who would’ve been ten when it came out, and who, as children growing up in Scotland, held a particular fondness for the British flavor of the thing, between its tenuous links to Kipling (born in Bombay and sent back to England when he was five), its cast (Cabot, George Sanders, J. Pat O’Malley), and its silly, sweet parody of The Beatles (in the guise of a quartet of vultures).

I don’t remember the experience itself—it would’ve been the summer, there might’ve been a thunderstorm—but an array of artifacts in my parents’ basement attest to its effect on me: stuffed animals from the Disney Store, Happy Meal toys, a snow globe, a framed, 300-piece puzzle of the film’s poster—never mind the shelves of cassettes, records, read-alongs, and picture books. I borrowed my elementary school’s copy of The Jungle Book so often that the librarian eventually let me have it. My mom, an AMC devotee, introduced me to the 1942 Jungle Book starring Sabu. I devoured Kipling’s Just-So Stories, hoping that Mowgli might make an appearance. And, hungry for more Jungle Books, I wrote and illustrated my own, including an early effort (Crayola marker on loose-leaf, c. 1990) featuring a totally nude Mowgli traipsing amongst trees.

In some sense, The Jungle Book’s legacies in my life are obvious: I’m a writer; I’m an academic. I can sketch a clean line from dressing up as Kipling for an author’s day in third or fourth grade to dressing up as a professor, gesturing to the problematic instead of (however unwittingly) embodying it. Even my scholarly focus—adaptations across centuries and across media—can be said to have sprung from the Jungle Books, with my desire to hold all the different versions of the story (yes, even TaleSpin) in view, to wonder at that moreness. But only Favreau’s rewriting attuned me to the messier lines from then to now, to the somewhat less straight lines of the original itself, to its other curves and undulations, to its other reverberations.

***

The Jungle Book is a picaresque that should be a Bildungsroman. That is, what should be a straight story about the lowly Mowgli’s gradual transformation from cub to man is really a series of short stories—like those that inspired it—in which Mowgli guest stars before landing an ongoing role in the rom-com hinted at by the film’s ending. There’s Mowgli’s failed attempt to enlist in a regiment of not-so-orderly elephants (an obvious sendup of the British Raj); there’s his kidnapping at the hands of King Louie’s monkeys, who entreat Mowgli to show them the power of “man’s red flower” (he can’t); and there are the aforementioned vultures, who attempt to cheer Mowgli up with some barbershop harmonies after a spat with Baloo and Bagheera. Each group welcomes and expels Mowgli in turn: hello, then goodbye, from the other side.

When I was a kid, though, no scene in The Jungle Book stirred me more than Mowgli’s initial encounter with Kaa, the great python, who attempts to lure the man-cub into his maw by means of hypnosis. In a movie that amounts to a series of detours (vultures and monkeys and elephants, oh my!), this is one of the weirdest—not in the least because Kaa is a villain in a film that doesn’t need one: Shere Khan, the jungle’s resident Bengal, is already Mowgli’s sworn enemy. Kaa is extraneous—or extraneousss, as Sterling Holloway would hiss, leaning as he does into the sibilance of the snake’s speech.

So: a lisping serpent whose hypnotic draw is signaled by his eyes turning into kaleidoscopes of aqua, lavender, and bright yellow—colors all but absent from the rest of the film. Kaa’s rainbow gaze is the surest and, beyond the Beatles riff, maybe the only clue that the movie was made in the late sixties. It’s a precursor to David Bowman’s trippy blinks in 2001: A Space Odyssey (released the following year), or a tryout for the slightly psychedelic breakdown in Disney’s next animated feature, The Aristocats (featuring both Holloway and Harris). Kaa is Charlie Manson: flower power gone wrong.

But Kaa isn’t a murderous messiah—he’s the serpent himself, with all the psychosexual import of his Biblical progenitor (Favreau’s film recasts Scarlett Johansson in the role). I felt tempted by Kaa when I was a kid, but I couldn’t say why, or into what. Like the other animals in The Jungle Book with whom Mowgli flirts, Kaa is a diversion en route to the village girl, just a particularly perverse diversion. He offers neither the orderly regime of the elephants nor the loose camaraderie of the monkeys nor the Beckettian rapport of the vultures. He’s a loner. He’s far out.

By the end of elementary school, I had two pet snakes.

***

Kaa’s contours—he transforms into a set of stairs and a loop de loop in his second attempt on Mowgli—could ultimately stand for the film as a whole: diversions, paths leading nowhere in particular, the man-cub trying on different sets of feathers until he flies the coop. As queer theorist Jack Halberstam writes, “Animated films for children revel in the domain of failure,” and The Jungle Book is full of missteps. Mowgli escapes from Kaa only to interrupt the elephant’s march, to be taken by King Louie’s crew, to waste time with Baloo and, later, to dance with the bored foursome of vultures. Mowgli doesn’t belong anywhere; Mowgli doesn’t belong everywhere.

As a kid who drifted from one group of friends to another, I saw myself in Mowgli’s tentativeness, his questioning. Halberstam repeats Kathryn Bond Stockton’s claim that “childhood is an essentially queer experience,” one “long lesson in humility, awkwardness, [and] limitation.” The Jungle Book, for all of its faults, is an essentially queer experience, too: one long, awkward walk, one long lesson in limits to which Mowgli finally accedes when he enters the man-village, a domain differentiated in a way that the jungle is not. But the film stops at the village; it doesn’t start there. When Mowgli shrugs off Baloo and Bagheera, he shrugs us off too. We follow the bear and the panther back into the jungle to revel with the vultures and the monkeys and the elephants again, to idle with Baloo and dawdle with Kaa. This isn’t my fair Mowgli. It’s a strange story—none so strange—about the unfixed nature of identity, about mobility. It’s a loose adaptation about loose adaptation.   

Favreau’s remake reminded me of all that strangeness, much of which it lacks, for better and for worse. In the new film, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks turn Mowgli into a maker, an enterprising man-cub whose prowess with branches, leaves, and vines allows him to sate Baloo’s appetite for honey, rescue a baby elephant, and eventually defeat Shere Khan. Mowgli doesn’t find his own home; he makes it.

The same night that I saw the film, I watched the original again for the first time in years. I thought of what a comfort the movie must’ve been to a strange boy, a boy with foreign parents, a boy who tended to make friends more easily with girls than with other boys. With eyelids as heavy as Mowgli’s under Kaa’s spell, I drifted off to sleep before the ending.  


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


The Lonely City: On the Empathy and Isolation of C.C. Baxter in “The Apartment”

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

A man frets over a typewriter, a pencil behind his ear. His face shifts from bemusement to tentative yearning as his co-workers buzz around him. The place is full of polite chatter and the low hum of technology. Everyone glides around each other, barely talking, barely interacting. The man who draws our eye doesn’t speak to those around him. With a few changes, he could be anyone: The barista at your favorite coffee shop whose name you don’t know, the young bookseller who frets when anyone raises their voice, that man in your office who carries himself with a bruised disposition. But the man in this office isn’t just anyone. He’s C.C. “Bud” Baxter, the nebbish and complicated lead played by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment.

The Apartment is many things. A keen understanding of the way empathy manifests, a sharp look at human weakness and how geography shapes identity, and, probably, one of writer/director Billy Wilder’s best films. But more than that, it is the foremost portrait of loneliness in big cities.

The opening credits play over an exceedingly lonely image: An apartment building with a single light on as everyone else is asleep. Then it shifts to an overhead shot of New York City—its gargantuan skyscrapers and buildings make the people bustling to and from work that we see next seem all the more insignificant. Baxter’s voiceover makes careful efforts to mention the population of New York City in 1959 (over eight million) and the amount of employees who work for his same insurance company (over 31,000). We see the impressive density of this population in Baxter’s office. They hustle and work and drink coffee and lean against elevator doors and check the clock but rarely seem to see one another. This dynamic betrays what makes living in the modern American metropolis such a lonely experience. Despite continually being surrounded by people, we rarely truly interact with anyone. Like many of Wilder’s films, The Apartment brims with great supporting roles. But the story pivots around three characters: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the sweet, wounded elevator operator Baxter grows fond of, and Baxter’s boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the quintessential narcissistic married man who uses various flings to feed his own ego. Then there is Baxter himself, whom Lemmon emboldens with impressive physical humor even in moments of startling darkness.

The film follows Baxter through crowded offices, outside well-lit theaters, into bustling bars as he tries to fill the time until his small apartment is no longer occupied. The reason? He’s been loaning it to executives at the mammoth insurance company he works at so they can entertain mistresses without the consequence of being caught or the price of a hotel. Trading his apartment so the executives can have their flings is framed as his way of getting a promotion. Baxter seems like a man who yearns to be touched, to be seen, to be wanted. But if you look closely this choice speaks to an intense masochism and the side effects of prolonged loneliness.

The Apartment doesn’t explore New York City in the way you’d expect. Wilder bypasses most iconic landmarks, instead exploring how the city leaves an impression on its characters in more minute ways. Most of the settings reflect the terrain of the lonely: the apartments of bachelors, crowded and seedy bars, cramped office environments, the steps of apartment buildings. The influence the city has on Baxter’s emotionality and the way the film understands human connection is a constant presence.

"Despite the humor of the film, Baxter’s relationship with the city is one of profound disconnection."

Baxter doesn’t so much experience New York City as he does sequester himself from it. He deals with people through barriers: glass office doors, empty phone conversations, miscommunications. Like many lonely people, he’s a creature of habit. In this way, despite a few touches, The Apartment could exist in almost any major metropolis, making the story feel incredibly timeless. Despite the humor of the film, Baxter’s relationship with the city is one of profound disconnection. We don’t see him having any friends or family in his life. Instead, he surrounds himself with charismatic and temporary substitutes for the intimacy he’s lacking—the buzzing television as he eats a TV dinner, the brief conversations he has in the hallway with his neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), off-hand exchanges with co-workers.

In her amazing book The Lonely City, from which this essay draws its title, Olivia Laing writes, “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.”

I know this hunger very well. It’s bottomless and aching.

I’ve been living in Chicago for my entire adult life. Nine years ago, I rushed here just after graduating high school, desperate to escape the over-heated, rotten paradise of Miami. It took me leaving Chicago for several months last year to realize how much this city has come to define me. When I went back to Miami and New Orleans, the cities that shaped my upbringing, I no longer saw myself there. My childhood home had been taken over by strangers. A carport has replaced what was once the den where my brother played video games and I obsessively watched The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. New Orleans has grown increasingly gentrified in the years since Katrina. Whole neighborhoods that once teemed with the city’s vibrant black population have been upended by young, white disaffected youth who love the cheap rent and down home quality they are forcing out. I came back to Chicago because I had nowhere else to go; it is by far the hardest decision I had to make. While I have a few close friendships, there is no family for me here. Chicago is a city it is easy to feel isolated in. People tend to stick to their respective neighborhoods, fiercely tying them to their own sense of self. I came back just a few days before Halloween with two suitcases and my cat in search of something I can only put into words now. Hope. I felt much like Baxter in The Apartment—a raw nerve.

Cities inform our identities in major ways—the way we speak, the speed in which we walk, the food we crave. But there are also smaller, subtler effects. Ask any person in Chicago to draw a map of their neighborhood and you’ll find each looks wildly different. Our understanding of cities is shaped by the experiences that leave impressions on us, like the remnants of fingerprints on ripe fruit. The geography isn’t literal, it’s emotional.

Despite living in New York for at least a few years and being in his thirties, Baxter treats his home as transitory. This isn’t to say the city hasn’t shaped Baxter. It’s his relationship with the city itself and its inhabitants that provide the most humor. He moves like quicksilver—all boundless energy and odd quirks. Just look at how he strains his spaghetti with a tennis racket with practiced ease. Or pay attention to the shape of his language and the way he moves on the street. The fast, neon bright, cutthroat nature of New York has seeped into Baxter. It’s these qualities that make it easy for him to be a bachelor, and to loan out his apartment, even as he grows increasingly uncomfortable with the arrangement.

This dynamic underscores the sense of desperation in how he interacts with Fran. He may be comfortable with his bachelorhood but the way he’s drawn to her suggests a level of empathy and yearning he may not be willing to own up to. He unfurls detailed suggestions for evening plans while they scuttle off from work before she even agrees to anything. He seeks her opinion on his choice of hats. He hinges upon her every word. Yet Baxter can’t quite see the disquiet roiling beneath her attractive surface until it’s nearly too late.

If Baxter embodies the loneliness of reluctant bachelorhood, Fran is the incarnation of the different issues single women face. I’m not only talking about romance. We don’t get much of a look into Fran’s life. Most of what we learn about her outside of work deals with her affair. But it is clear from the way she carries herself that she doesn’t have many, if any, deep friendships. After all, if she did, wouldn’t she have been warned away from being involved with a man toying with her as obviously as Sheldrake does? Fran’s loneliness is rooted in the mistakes many single women make—going after men that see them as placeholders, even as she imagines a permanent place in their life. That the man in question is the married and much older Sheldrake gives the affair a sordid sheen. Without the brutal emotional poetry of the script, Wilder’s direction, and MacLaine’s understanding of the character, Fran could easily become no more than a mirror for Baxter’s problems. But instead she feels like a whole person wrestling with her own self-destructive impulses. One of the most poignant exchanges in the film comes toward the end. Thanks to using Fran’s mirror (which he had seen before without knowing it was hers), Baxter realizes she’s the woman Sheldrake has been taking to his apartment.

Baxter: The mirror...it’s broken.

Fran: Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel.

In that single line she’s trying to reach out, nearly begging Baxter to ask why she feels broken. She’s also guarding herself from potential disappointment. MacLaine plays each moment far quieter than you’d expect. Fran is drifting in life, desperately hoping for something or someone to give her meaning. MacLaine undersells the emotions in order to communicate the sadness at Fran’s core, as if she’s growing numb to her situation. She’s cute and funny, sure, but if you look closely when no one’s around, I bet you’d see the same cracks she hints at sharing with her mirror. Or perhaps you’d see a wandering look cross her face, much like it does when she meets Sheldrake when he tries to convince her to get back together. He uses the lie every married man uses: that he loves her, misses her, and he’s leaving his wife.

"Wilder understands, more than one might expect, how the weight of loneliness shifts for single women."

Fran hasn’t been his only conquest in the office. Even though common sense should tell her that, it takes Sheldrake’s secretary and former lover, Miss Olson (Edie Adams) to cue her in. But she’s desperate to prove she’s an exception to the rule; hoping for love from a man who’s only interested in how his image looks in the eyes of whatever woman he’s currently playing with. Wilder understands, more than one might expect, how the weight of loneliness shifts for single women. This resonates not only in Fran’s storyline, but that of Miss Olson. She later undoes all Sheldrake’s conniving by calling his wife to let her know the truth. Her version of loneliness is far rougher around the edges.

There is a brief aside when Miss Olson spots Sheldrake and Fran at the Chinese restaurant, which seems to be a familiar haunt for many questionable encounters. She carefully studies the intimacy in their interaction, suggesting she remembers what it was like to be in Fran’s place. The gentle way she takes off her glasses is devastating. How many unrequited loves exist in the city on any given night?

Watching The Apartment, I’m reminded of something Sylvia Plath once wrote in her journals: “God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter - they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” 

The problem with loneliness is how easily it lets us isolate ourselves. You want to break free from your routine, but isolation comes so easily. You want passion, but not heartbreak. You want to be seen for who you truly are, but you’re afraid of what will happen when someone finally takes a closer look. Modern city life makes it easy to commodify the approximation of intimacy, so at least for a little while our needs are met.

The way the affair between Fran and Sheldrake plays out—at times nearly being discovered by Baxter—is perhaps one of the reasons Wilder gets labeled as a cynic. But with co-writer I.A.L. Diamond there is no cynicism. Instead you’ll find an honesty and poeticism about human nature sharp as a piece of cut glass. Fran’s suicide attempt and how it affects the men around her is a testament to that. While Sheldrake shirks any responsibility, Baxter’s innate empathy comes into focus.

Throughout the film, Wilder conceives of the human experience in wide frames. This is visual shorthand meant to communicate how easily loneliness can breed in environments of such grand, overpowering scope as the modern metropolis. There are many striking images in The Apartment but those that cut deepest take place during the loneliest time of the year: the holidays.

Wilder takes a dim view of this season. Amongst all the glittering decoration and champagne-soaked conversations is a frightening truth: you can’t treat joy and connection as transactional. The holidays lay bare our worst impulses by putting everyone’s emotional connections under a microscope. It’s then that Fran tries to kill herself after a disheartening encounter with Sheldrake. The image of her teetering around Baxter’s apartment (which she still doesn’t know is his), the anemic plastic Christmas tree in the background, is haunting. The film turns sharply in a different direction when Fran goes into the bathroom to wipe her tears only to decide to kill herself. Which is communicated by a single glance at a bottle of pills.

Wilder doesn’t shy away from using a withering gaze on the gaudy, fake sense of cheer that pervades this time of year. But he also uses it to smartly show Baxter finally connecting to Fran. Baxter cares for Fran in his apartment, highly attuned to her recovery. He shares his own romantic battle scars, including a story about wanting to kill himself but only ending up with a bullet wound through his thigh. It’s played for laughs but there is an undercurrent of something much darker than Lemmon’s smile is letting on.

While Baxter obviously cares for Fran, it’s apparent he hasn’t seen her clearly until now. She’s obviously suffering and struggling in her own way. But he can only see in her the potential for connection he so desires. As she recovers at his apartment, they start to see each other as people rather than means to an end. He’s candid and self-deprecating. When having dinner one night, Baxter makes clear his situation, although he couches it in jokes. Lemmon sings and is light on his feet as he maneuvers through his small surroundings, setting things up. But then his voice will deepen unexpectedly. He says he was “shipwrecked amongst eight million people” before meeting Fran.

Fran: Do you usually eat alone?

Baxter: No, no. Sometimes I have dinner with Ed Sullivan, sometimes Dinah Shore, Perry Como. The other night I had dinner with Mae West...of course she was much younger then.

Lemmon plays it as a bitter truth dipped in honey. He uses pop culture for company when the flesh and blood variety feels impossible. Haven’t we all done the same? As a teenager I created a pantheon of madwomen from film and television who operated as the mothers, aunts, sisters, and comrades I wanted in real life but struggled to find. Wilder suggests in this scene that this can only be so fulfilling for so long.

I came to understand this when I returned to Chicago. I was surprised to learn my internal rhythm was still attuned to the city. Over the last seven months, I have explored in order to find my own sense of home. I’ve now been here long enough that certain streets feel as much a part of me as the scar that is etched across my left knee. I dipped into the quiet streets of Bridgeport. Walked dogs in Wicker Park. I passionately kissed a man for the first time in over a year, somewhere in Pilsen drunk on cheap beer and the energy in the room during Dave Chappelle’s set. Had panic attacks that set my nerves aflame amongst the beauty of Andersonville. Tipped into self-harm in Ukrainian Village. And finally I found a place to call my own in Logan Square, just bordering my other favorite neighborhood, Humboldt Park.

"Loneliness in the big city is both wide-ranging and utterly specific, daunting and always underscored by the potential to be broken, given the amount of people surrounding us."

Throughout all of this, I feel the ghosts of former selves just over my shoulder. The girl I was fresh out of high school who spoke quietly and still relaxed her hair. The girl who associates the Western Blue Line station with a suicide attempt. The girl who had no idea who she was right after college, scarcely writing, scarcely interacting with the world. Chicago is as much, if not more, a part of my identity than the cities I associate with my youth. There have been moments when I have cried because of its ragged beauty, knowing this is where I am meant to be. The woman I am today is stronger, more vibrant, more complex. She’s also far more lonely. When you’re twenty-two, the prospect of your only close friends moving to other cities and never having been in a serious relationship is vaguely uncomfortable. Closing in on thirty, loneliness starts to root itself a bit deeper. I share with Baxter one of the qualities that exacerbates loneliness—having to stitch together a sense of family from memory, hopes, and friendships that, due to age, can become long distance.

Loneliness in the big city is both wide-ranging and utterly specific, daunting and always underscored by the potential to be broken given the amount of people always surrounding us. Even more so than during the era Baxter lives, today’s modern city makes it easy to never have to meaningfully interact with another human being. Making loneliness fester unimpeded.

In modern dating, cruelty masks itself as efficiency. We can dip in and out of relationships. This isn’t to say this same sort of ethos didn’t exist in the 1950s. The way the execs at Baxter’s insurance firm commodify their adulterous flings is in its own way a means to fight away loneliness (or to feel young again) and also allows these women to never get too close. But in modern times, there are endless options. Technology has repackaged the idea of human intimacy into something that is enjoyable enough to keep coming back to, while still leaving us hungry due to its ephemeral nature. Which isn’t to say these bonds have no purpose. I’ve formed great connections online, some of which have translated into real life. Yet why do I, and so many others, still feel so alone? There is something about talking to someone in person, or in the simplicity of a hug, that no amount of heartwarming online interactions can possibly replace. For all the darkness that pervades my history in Chicago, though, there is still a lot of hope. I find it by cherishing small moments of kindness, the few friendships I maintain, and by being more open than I ever have in my life. The dichotomy between needing to connect and the fear of rejection that comes with loneliness is something The Apartment demonstrates all too well.

Toward the end of the film, Fran and Baxter think they have what they've always wanted. He’s steadily risen to assistant director, second only to Sheldrake. Fran thinks Sheldrake left his wife for her when in reality he was kicked out. (Thanks, Miss Olson!) He has no intentions of settling down with her. He wants to be a bachelor, something he mentioned earlier that he was jealous of Baxter over. Their hollow victories culminate on New Year’s Eve. Baxter quits his job. Fran finally realizes who Sheldrake (and Baxter) really is to her, amongst the boisterous party streamers floating around her.

The Apartment ends winnowed down, foregoing the expanses of the city for a single apartment. It doesn’t end with swelling music and a passionate kiss or another suicide attempt. Instead, Wilder settles on an ending more true to life in all its murkiness. Baxter confesses his love while Fran beams at him, slyly saying, “shut up and deal.” A deck of cards in her outstretched hand and a small smirk on her face. This ending doesn’t negate loneliness but puts it in sharper focus. How can you truly love and cherish such moments of divine understanding without knowing its exact opposite? It doesn’t matter what the future holds for them, their budding relationship in the closing scenes lights a spark of optimism. What was once a pipe dream is now close enough to touch. For all his supposed cynicism, Wilder ends his greatest film with hope. Perhaps, we can rewrite our identities, be released from the shackles of loneliness that cause anxiety and depression to loom over life like a dark cloud. Perhaps the potential of connection a city holds is possible to grasp. Perhaps our emotional landscapes can be reshaped, reconfigured, and made whole. 


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


Prince's Natural Voice

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Karina Wolf

It is hard to find evidence of Prince before he was Prince. If you catch clips of his first TV performances, on a variety show called The Midnight Special and on American Bandstand, he’s got frizzy, hot-rolled hair and stalks around in a bikini and thigh-highs like he’s still getting used to the elevation of his heels. He’s touchingly tongue-tied, so edgy he can’t stand still. His moves echo Jagger’s (he opened for the Stones in 1981); his style is some outgrowth of disco and soft core porn. Here is a fledgling rock star.

The only competition for Prince’s musical brilliance can be found in the mononymic myth he created around himself. His vulnerability—the sensitivity in his face, the paradoxical feelings described in his music—was belied by his mastery of his tight band, his body, his relentless schedule, his entranced public, his artistic forms. Anecdotal evidence paints Prince with commonplace enthusiasms—basketball, breakfast food, the comedy of Zooey Deschanel—but these pleasures proved idiosyncratic. Even in ordinariness, Prince’s compass oriented according to superhuman talent and discipline and a gnomic set of beliefs. He is (was, remains) a riddle made of symbols.

As with many singers, his stardom was amplified by a hit film and warmed a public that might have resisted the g-strings and dirty-minded lyrics of his early shows. Still, Purple Rain was not a pre-ordained success. Onscreen, there’s a perceptible divide between performer and actor — an entertainer breaks the fourth wall to reach an audience, an actor pretends it doesn’t exist. To breech the challenge, Prince allowed Purple Rain to take the shape of autobiography with an attendant psychology that he later rejected. Like the singer, who had been named after his father’s jazz trio, the film’s protagonist is molded according to his musician parents’ gifts and faults. The Kid is all self-thwarting talent and inchoate passion, risking success and personal connection for artistic autonomy. The Kid is a mystery to everyone, possibly even to himself.

The story arrives in Minneapolis with Apollonia, a scrappy young woman with pop star aspirations. She discovers a city that thrives on musical rivalries — a potent opportunity for any ambitious talent. Two bands battle for headliner status: The Revolution led by The Kid, a mercurial and tormented polymath; and The Time, a zoot-suited troupe of crowd-pleasers fronted by Morris Day. The manager of the venue First Avenue has a glut of good acts, and he’s alienated by the Kid’s dysfunctional themes and kinky performances. “No one digs your music,” he warns. A subjective judgment, of course, and an empirical fallacy — anything Prince performs onstage is riveting. But the challenge provides a natural arc for The Kid’s story:  will the young performer get past his foibles to attain glory or will he falter and be forgotten?

In romance, The Kid is the king of the persuasive neg. He compels Apollonia to strip down and purify herself in a freezing lake, then chides her about getting his motorcycle seat wet. She pawns her jewelry to buy him a guitar, then he slaps her for pursuing her own music with help from Morris Day. Perhaps all this plot is parenthetical. In MTV’s earliest years, Prince understood that the world consumed songs visually (the video for “When Doves Cry” is essentially a three-minute segment culled from the film). At times, Purple Rain feels more like a music delivery system than a movie: its characters are thinly-drawn, its acting wooden, its comedy cartoonish, its episodes held together mostly with the allure of its stage acts. If it nonetheless works (and I’m saying it works wonderfully), it’s thanks to the enigma machine that is Prince. The film’s triumph can be measured in the extent that its narrative overrides the star’s origins and explains his modus operandi.

In his art, Prince was America’s answer to Schopenhauer—he was a lightning rod, an earworm, an internal monologue from outside. 

Let’s posit that Prince was an introvert as well as a control freak, that the single-mindedness and sensitivity compelling him to create songs kept him out of sync with the every day. (When he adds quotidian details to his songs, they feel heightened and surreal:  fruit cocktail, starfish, coffee, they’re all estranged when Prince invokes them.) In question and answer, in canned dialogue, he appears in his detriment. Prince’s language is call and response, hook, bridge and chorus. His element is music - making it, performing it, conveying it to audiences, interpreting it with his body, employing it for a higher purpose. Let’s not forget, Prince shaped the roles and songs of all the movie’s musical characters. So in Purple Rain, Prince works as a tuneful poltergeist, synthesizing musical trends, idioms and emotional triggers in order to speak across all media. This ventriloquism proved a pattern beyond Purple Rain - even before Prince changed his name to a symbol, he wrote under pseudonyms and for other artists and inspired fellow musicians to write in dialogue with his own songs.

The idea of a self, a singular cohesive subjectivity, is always problematic, especially with regard to this protean performer. David Bowie, whose genius took similarly mutable form, managed to find naturalism in acting, but maybe his unguardedness linked to the lifestyle Bowie searched for and later achieved. Normalcy was the Starman’s final guise. Prince, on the other hand, manages spontaneity amid well-rehearsed choreography. Only in performance does his character become multi-valenced: a hyper-energetic, hyper-sexual showman, an arrogant and unparalleled soloist, a talent raised up and kept apart by his genius.

When asked in interviews what he wanted the public to know about him, Prince answered simply: “the music.” He seemed allergic to confession. He replied to interviewers in a pleasing murmur, sometimes humorously, always uneasily when a host like Arsenio Hall tried to introduce private Prince to his public. His replies to Oprah were coquettish. “[Am I] weird? Well maybe strange for other people,” he allowed, batting his lashes, fawn-like and beautiful. Prince gave himself tirelessly and intimately but publicly only through music and only on his terms. His themes were spiritual and carnal—not an opposed binary but an ouroboros, each feeding the other—but even that lyrical frankness doesn't mean he wanted to be known.

In Purple Rain, the filmmakers have The Kid hamlet his dilemmas — exposing inner conflict through a puppet he manipulates and addresses. More than anything the device foreruns the final scenes of The Double Life of Veronique, when a god-like, omniscient storyteller, also a puppeteer, seduces the heroine as research for a drama he is writing. He wonders if it’s possible to possess a woman only through elliptical and mysterious signals; that is, through the compulsion of her mind. The resulting romance is not necessarily driven by the desire to create intimacy but by the urge to elaborate a private preoccupation. And here we recognize Prince, who was worshipped for creating so extensively but who seemed to work only in dialogue with himself, or with another form of divinity. The film reaches its pinnacle with its title song, a rock ballad that uses the language of spiritual redemption as a form of personal apology. You can posit many meanings from the lyrical personae, but the words and the guitar line are moving and transcendent. When Prince performed live, the eight minute hit could stretch to twelve or fifteen minutes - it’s a song no one wanted to leave.

It is matter of course that Prince’s death is so stunning; beyond his avowed, rigorously clean living and unequaled energy, he was the master of the seductive tease. A syntax of looks, grooves, moves, glyphs, iterative identically-stunning proteges, and, most notably, absences and surprise appearances, stood for Prince. Prince doesn’t go silent forever—only as long as his disinterest persists. His eclipse from Earth feels like a cliff-hanger in a serial that is meant to continue. In one of Prince’s last interviews he explained the reason for his deadbolted storage space that housed a career-spanning catalogue of unreleased tracks, enough material to release an album a year for the next hundred years. At times he had vowed to burn its contents. More recently, he decided the vault was for when “I don't want to speak in real time.”

According to Zadie Smith, the German philosopher Schopenhauer describes “the gift of genius [as] nothing but…the ability…to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world.”  In his art, Prince was America’s answer to Schopenhauer - he was a lightning rod, an earworm, an internal monologue from outside. Almost no one could relate to Prince as a peer — perhaps, in fact, Prince savored the grade of peerlessness — but maybe he feels so singularly intimate because of his own occulted identity. We can console ourselves that his idea of an afterlife allowed for a transpersonal self: “Life spans are getting longer," he told a Rolling Stone reporter. "[P]eople are learning more about everything, so then the brain makes more connections. Eventually, we'll be in eternal brain mode because we'll be able to hold eternity in our minds.” He is the real life analog to Luc Besson’s sci-fi heroine, Lucy: against his will and by design, Prince uploaded himself through his work to the ether. Lucky for us, he's left behind a good deal — still unknowable, he’s everywhere.


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


Our DVD Collections, Ourselves

 
illustration by Nicoletta Gomboli

illustration by Nicoletta Gomboli

 

Until recently, my grand unified theory of art appreciation was: “We like things that remind us of ourselves.” American Beauty was my favorite movie because I saw a patchwork of my own experiences in its characters. I loved The Fountain, in spite of all its flaws, because it reflected back to me my own almost all-consuming fear of death. Sweeney Todd shared my dark sense of humor, and the cult sci-fi series Farscape was about surviving in a universe that felt arbitrarily hostile — an accurate depiction of my worldview in 1999.

It’s true that I see aspects of myself in the movies and TV shows I choose to identify with, but lately I’m starting to wonder if it works the other way, too. I’m starting to wonder if our liking something—or deciding to like something, deciding to tie our identities to it in some way—also changes who we are.

The thing that made me wonder about this was the day I pre-ordered a DVD of The Great Beauty.

The Great Beauty won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2014 and, when I first saw it a few weeks beforehand, I walked out feeling like I didn’t enjoy it that much. The film’s main character, Jep Gambardella, is a wealthy writer who spends much of his time complaining with his friends about how hard it is to be the idle rich. The story is a series of slow-moving, loosely-connected and not-in-themselves-very-interesting vignettes that, strung together, make a very simple point: life is a series of fractured, fleeting moments, and it’s foolish to sit around waiting for something amazing to happen — you have to take your beauty where you can get it. It’s a moving insight and it resonates with me, but I understood the message well before we reached the end. And, since buying the DVD, I have actually never managed to sit through the movie again without turning it off. But I like looking at it. I like knowing that it’s there, nested on my shelf, with all the other DVDs. And I’ve been trying to figure out why.

The first question is why I bought a DVD at all. We have on-demand streaming services now (I’m subscribed to three), to say nothing of pay-per-view rentals or library access. The wait to have a physical copy of something delivered can feel excruciating. There’s also a sense that, while your DVDs wither and die on a shelf—getting corroded, collecting dust, and waiting to be surpassed by the next big thing in home entertainment—streaming and digital files are forever. I don’t disagree with any of these points, but there’s something in me—some magpie-like instinct to drag objects back to my nest—that makes me want a hard copy. I want it to occupy space, and be part of something curated—an altar I’ve built to myself.

The first and most obvious explanation for why this particular thing ended up on the altar is just that I’m pretentious and like to remind myself that I can appreciate high culture, even if I sometimes yawn so hard it makes me cry. I first studied criticism at a school where it was “brave” to say that I liked popular things. So whenever I sit down to watch something that’s not in wide release, I feel duty-bound to find something I like about it, just to prove I’ve understood.

If the reason I bought The Great Beauty is to remind myself that I’m a serious critic with the ability to appreciate serious movies, I’m probably not alone. Social psychologist Sam Gosling has written an entire book about how people curate a sense of identity by hand-picking the items in their homes. In Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Gosling writes that “identity claims” are one of the three main functions our possessions serve. Other-directed identity claims are messages we want to send the world about ourselves — “Katherine owns a copy of The Great Beauty, so she must understand important cinema.” Self-directed identity claims are messages we send to ourselves, reminding us of who we are or want to be — “I own a copy of The Great Beauty, so I must understand important cinema.” 

So perhaps I bought this DVD just to make myself look smart. The only problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t account for the fact that, deep down, I actually do like something about The Great Beauty, even if I have no desire to see it all again. Looking at the DVD reminds me of that resonant message at the film’s core — that ambivalent, paradoxical feeling, where acknowledging that there is no great beauty becomes the great beauty and enables us to all move forward with our lives. It’s a feeling that I can hold onto for about five seconds before the normal day-to-day concerns of my life overtake me again and I start to forget. In that sense, I like, and stare at, and choose to identify with The Great Beauty because I’m trying to remind myself of an idea I don’t want to forget — I’m trying to induce myself to be the version of me that remembers.

"What I wonder, though, is whether the act of identifying with The Great Beauty has actually changed who I am. I wonder whether identity is a stable thing we reference, express, and discover, or a fluid thing that we actively craft all the time."

In Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong argue that, among other things, we use art for remembering and self-understanding. By way of example, they write, “You could point to this image and say, ‘that’s what I’m like, sometimes, and I wish I were like that more often.’” Art keeps our insights accessible to us, and gesturing to art allows us to articulate ourselves more clearly since “we are mysterious to ourselves and therefore no good at explaining who we are to others.”

In fact, I bought a copy of Art as Therapy after reading it through the library not because I thought I’d ever read it again, but because I wanted it to remind me that for at least a few minutes, while I was reading the book, I was the sort of person who understood fine art, and I would like to be that way more often—just as I would like, more often, to be the sort of person who remembers that life is a series of moments which are not very impressive in themselves but add up to something worthwhile.

My choosing to identify with The Great Beauty—to make it part of my movie collection, a self-and-other-directed identity claim about me—is surely an attempt to remind myself of the sort of person I sometimes am and want to be more. What I wonder, though, is whether the act of identifying with The Great Beauty has actually changed who I am. I wonder whether identity is a stable thing we reference, express, and discover, or a fluid thing that we actively craft all the time.

For much of my life, I’ve been told that I will either become or discover who I am—as if it’s a destination I’ll arrive at without any effort on my part, something that will happen naturally over time, perhaps something I’ll simply grow into. But I’m also told that self-discovery is like an excavation—we uncover something that’s already there. We find our true selves, leaving what I suppose must be our false selves behind. The older I get, though, the more I think that self-discovery isn’t an excavation at all. It also isn’t something that naturally happens, without any effort or choice. The older I get, the more I think that our natural state is to constantly change—to be carried forward on a rushing river, past boulders and trees and moose and logs, and it’s only when we consciously decide to try to stop ourselves—when we lasso one of the trees to hold our position—that we actually start to slow down.

Identifying with anything—choosing to attach ourselves to movies, or stories, or artwork, or people, or the versions of ourselves we are when those movies and stories and works and people are in front of us—is choosing to stop in the river. Deciding what, in the great rush of things passing by, has meaning for us, and means enough to hold onto, is how we become who we are. It’s how we construct who we are: how we freeze something when its natural state is to move.   

Psychologists have known for a long time that our personalities and life stories change more often and more radically than we believe. We constantly adjust our own perceptions of the past to suit what’s happening now, and while we may recognize that we’ve changed in the last few years, we underestimate how much we’ll continue to change in the future. Tethering ourselves to identity markers can be a way of defending against the unknown future—the present self staking a claim in hopes that the future self will abide by it. As Gosling writes in Snoop, “You don’t tattoo yourself with a message you believe is going to be transitory.” You also don’t tattoo yourself with a message you want to be transitory.

If identity claims are a way to stabilize an inherently unstable sense of self, that goes a long way toward explaining why people fight so hard to hold onto the anchors they’ve chosen. For the right person, die-hard fandom can be a religion. Looking to a particular movie, TV show, or book not only to reflect your personal identity, but to actually be a part of your identity, can make you bristle in response to criticism, or to alternate, less flattering interpretations of the text. The often mean-spirited comment that fans should “get a life” can even be read as meaning, “Anchor your identity to something else; something that I perceive as more valuable.”

It seems true that anchoring our identities to more than one thing will make them harder to destabilize. But I wonder if stability is what I actually want. The point of The Great Beauty—of this thing that I put on a shelf to remind me of who I sometimes am and want to be—is that there’s no grand narrative that links the moments of our lives together, no transcendental event that tells us “This is what being alive is about.” In order to appreciate the beauty of our lives, we have to content ourselves with things that are impermanent—with the way that the world shifts around us from moment to moment—without trying to freeze it and hold it in place. And I wonder if it isn’t just as beautiful to be content with selves that are always in flux—to look forward to finding out who we’re going to be tomorrow, or ten years from now, and accepting that who we are today will flicker past as quickly as any other moment in our lives.

There could be a version of me a year, or five, or ten from now that thinks this essay is awfully misguided. A version that looks back at it over the rim of my glasses and says, “Oh, that was before. Before I knew who I was. Before I discovered whatever thing it is now that anchors me here, in the river.” And there could be another version after that – and another, and another, each believing it’s the last. Each believing it is wise.

There may come a day when I get rid of my DVD collection, or when The Great Beauty doesn’t seem like a thing I want to tether my sense of self to anymore. There may come a day when I have some other totem that means some version of the same thing (or the opposite thing), but for me, for now, the exciting part is just to wait and see.


Katherine Murray studied creative writing at Saint Mary’s University and the University of New Brunswick, where she also served as co-managing editor of Qwerty magazine. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in several different places in print and online, including Bright Lights Film Journal, Pop Matters, and the feminist website Bitch Flicks. She currently lives and works in Toronto.


"Why Do You Have to Carry the Burden of Someone Else's Life?"

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

 

Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988) is a small, powerful, brilliantly-acted gem of a film. It tells the story of a family of four, the Popes, who have been living as fugitives for fifteen years, wanted by the FBI following the parents’ bombing of a napalm lab, an act of protest against the Vietnam War that inadvertently wounded a janitor who wasn’t supposed to be there. Perpetually on the run, changing locations and identities several times a year, the family has found a way to survive that mostly works for them. But their oldest son Danny (River Phoenix) is now seventeen, and in love with a girl (Martha Plimpton), and attracting the attention of places like Julliard with his musical gifts. It’s clear he needs to break free from his family—and the only kind of life he’s ever known—if he is to have any hope of building a future for himself, but both he and his parents struggle mightily with the weight of what that means for all of them. It’s a film that looks deeply at family, love, and commitment; at relationships and parenting and the interpersonal dynamics that sustain us; at the choices we make and the way those choices echo throughout our lives.

Sheila O’Malley is one of the most intelligent, illuminating film writers working today. We’ve been fortunate enough to have her contribute a few essays to Bright Wall/Dark Room over the years, and when I found out she was as big a fan of Running on Empty as I was, I knew we had to find a way to talk about it. So, one morning near the end of last month, we both cleared our schedules out for an hour or so to send a series of emails back and forth to each other, discussing the film and what it’s meant to us over the years. What follows is a transcript of that conversation (with some links added in later to provide additional context). Oh, and if you haven’t seen the film, be forewarned: spoilers abound—though the film is 28 years old at this point, so maybe don’t worry about it.

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Chad Perman: I'm so happy that we’re finally able to make this happen, Sheila! Running on Empty is a film we both love so much, and have been talking about talking about for months now, ever since you reached out to me last August about it. Life got in the way for a bit, and then we couldn't find an issue that it made sense to talk about in, but once we decided to go with “identity” for this issue, I knew it was time to finally figure out a way to make this conversation happen. There's so much to talk about - identity, family, growing up, parenting, the choices we make, THE MUSIC, Sidney Lumet in general - but I thought we could maybe start by talking about how we both first came to the film, and our respective journeys with it over the ensuing years. When did you first see Running on Empty?

Sheila O’Malley: I saw it in its first release in the movie theatre. I was an enormous Sidney Lumet fan—seeing Dog Day Afternoon when I was 12 got me hooked on acting—as well as a huge River Phoenix fan. I remember that first viewing vividly: it was an emotional onslaught, which really starts with the scene between Christine Lahti (Annie Pope) and Steven Hill (playing her father), and then flowing on towards the end. The rest of the film is rather gentle in its approach—intelligent, low-key, humorous, with eerie undertones of unease … but once she meets up with her dad, there’s no going back.

CP: That’s an amazing scene in so many ways.

SOM: I couldn’t breathe watching that scene. It still affects me that way. I’ve seen the film many times since then, and much of what worked for me the first time continues to work: the scene where the family and Lorna (Martha Plimpton) dance to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” as they clear the table (a scene with no cuts! 5 people in the frame at the same time. One shot!), the brief scene where Artie (Judd Hirsch) questions his son about the relationship with Lorna, the chilling scene between Annie (Lahti) and Gus (L.M. Kit Carson), her old revolutionary buddy coming back to call in a favor. These are all excellent scenes. There are some political nuances that I hadn’t picked up on in my first viewing, the critique of the revolutionary Left that is there, but in general, I still think it’s an extremely powerful family drama. Overpowering, near the end.

For me, one of the key lines comes from Annie, when Gus asks her how she manages to keep the little suburban life going. She says, with a smile, “I’m a good liar.”  And she is. World-class. Danny (River Phoenix) says the same thing later to Lorna, when he comes clean. The traps in lying about who you are is a huge theme in the film, and it’s evident in every character, not just Artie and Annie. They all have to struggle to be who they actually are.

CP: That's very true, and a great point. You actually bring up so many things I already want to dig into and talk about—it looks like many of our favorite moments overlap, which maybe isn’t that surprising—but let me start where you did, with my own experience with the film over the years.

I've seen Running on Empty more times than I can remember, and it still never, ever fails to move me to tears in its final moments. I first saw it with my parents, on VHS, a few years after it was released, and it still reminds me of them somehow, or at least that feeling I had of watching it with them back then. Especially my mom, though I couldn't say why exactly. I was already a River Phoenix fan—I think this came out the same year as another spy-ish film he did (Little Nikita), and of course I knew him from Stand by Me as well. But I knew, even back then, that this movie was something else entirely, and I loved everything about it, even the parts I probably didn’t understand all that well. I was 11 or so, and remember trying to imagine what it would be like to be living on the run like that, changing identities all the time, never being able to get close to anybody, just being this really solid unit of four. I had some experience with this - my parents weren't fugitives and we were weren't on the run obviously, but we moved around a lot the first ten years of my life; by the time I was in fifth grade, I had been to five different schools, and the idea of having to start all over with each new move really resonated with me, especially back then. The environment around you completely changes, but there’s this strong, loving constant at the center of it, the family you’re in and how you interact with them, and how that familiarity grounds you despite the change.

I saw it again as a teenager, twice in two days, and was mesmerized by Phoenix all over again, imitating his mannerisms for weeks afterwards, in that way a teenager often does when they find an identity that speaks to them or intrigues them in some way. I even took up piano lessons again, having abandoned them for the (so much more cool) guitar a few years earlier, specifically just to learn the little portion of Beethoven's “Pathetique” that he plays in one of the early scenes for the music teacher at his new school. It's one of the few piano pieces I still have memorized to this day, and not a week goes by that I don't play it, and thus, think of this film in some way. Watching it now, though, I also see the story just as much through the eyes of his parents - it's impossible not to, once you have kids. Whereas before I identified so strongly with Danny and his adolescent struggles to find his own life and way for himself, and needing to break away from his family despite knowing how much they need him, now I find myself with just as much empathy for his parents, how hard they must have worked to raise and protect him and his younger brother over the years in the midst of this crazy fugitive lifestyle, and how agonizing it must have been for them once they finally realize (on slightly different timetables) that it's time to let him go. I cry big ol' tears at the end still, but now they're every bit as much for the parents as they are for Danny.

SOM: It’s interesting you mention the music, which is so much a part of the story, and also speaks to identity. Tony Mottola did the score for the film, lovely, lilting and sad, but the film is filled with music: Madonna, Beethoven, and James Taylor being the obvious anchors to three very important scenes. But on a deeper level, what music MEANS to the people in the film is also part of how they see themselves, how they respond to the world. Annie gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to go off-the-grid and blow buildings up. Her father mentions the “irony” in the fact that she now asks him to take in Danny, to immerse her son in the life she ran away from. Later, when Danny wants to go to the chamber music concert at his music teacher’s house, Artie flips out. Artie eventually says that Danny can’t go because Danny will not be safe on display like that, but until that moment, Artie goes on and on about how it would be fine if it was a “rock and roll show”, and that he doesn’t want Danny to sit there listening to white-skinned privileged “crap.”

Artie’s snobbery is as pernicious as the so-called snobbery of the music teacher. You can see why Annie choosing Artie as a mate—a man who felt this way about her background—was an enormously rebellious act for her. Choosing Artie was giving her parents the middle finger. You can still see the rebellious teenager in her when she sits across the table from her father. For Danny to respond to Beethoven in the emotional way that he does, is threatening to Artie. Artie would be comfortable with a kid who loved punk music, or folk music. When Artie meets Lorna for the first time, and Lorna turns out to be cool, he asks her, “Are you sure you’re Phillips’ kid?” He’s joking, but it’s a mean comment. Artie hasn’t even met her father, and he has written her father off as worthless and snooty because he teaches music.

And then we have Lorna, who, like Annie, has rejected her privileged upbringing, and rejected what she sees as her father’s elitist interests. If Artie wishes that his son was a miniature version of himself, then the same thing has happened with Lorna and her father. Her father looks at her like, “How have I created this slightly scary teenager with a Bob Marley poster on her wall? Who is this person?” Lorna has taken a summer job at a gas station. She, too, is searching for an identity outside of the one assigned to her. 

CP: Yes! I'm so glad we're looking at the music—and the role of music—in Running on Empty. I think it's one of the keys to the whole thing in terms of telling the story, establishing characters and alliances, and providing both a thematic and emotional throughline to the film. Mottola's score, especially the main theme, is absolutely perfect (and criminally unavailable for some reason - I've been listening to the main theme on YouTube all morning because it's the best available option currently). It's delicate, melancholy in the best kind of way, and manages to both capture and enhance the way the entire film feels to me, all in just a couple of minutes.

It's interesting to note that the rest of the music that fills the film was hand-picked by Lumet himself, and you can tell the love and care and attention he put into each choice. “Pathetique” is, to my mind, one of the finest pieces of music ever composed by a human being—another piece that perfectly sums up the mood of the film in a very short space of time—and the rest of the classical music chosen and performed in the film radiates that same kind of feeling; even the Mozart piece Danny plays for his Julliard audition, “Fantasia, K. 475”, is performed in a slower, more reflective and aching way than the piece is traditionally played. Lumet pays so much attention to small details like this in the film, to building and sustaining an emotional tenor to the whole thing. And it works, beautifully. You can imagine another filmmaker going with a much different approach - this is, at least externally, a suspense/fugitive story - but you get the sense that that's just the canvas that Lumet and screenwriter Naomi Forner chose to paint on, that what they're far more interested in telling is this small, intimate family drama, full of the stuff that all our lives are made of. 

The "Fire and Rain" scene you've referenced a couple of times, my god, it's just a knock-out in every way. A scene of a counter-culture family, singing and dancing to James Taylor as they clean up dinner, is practically waiting to be made fun of, or to be dismissed out of hand for milking cheap sentimentality. Yet somehow, the scene not only works, but manages to emerge as this powerful, full-beating heart at the center of the film's narrative. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, but it toes the line perfectly—and, as you mentioned, with no cuts! - and offers a wallop of an emotional payoff. It's like this brief calm in the middle of an oncoming storm—you know things are going to get rough, soon, and some very tough decisions are going to have to be made - but for a moment we get to pause and just revel in this wonderful little moment.

SOM: The family dancing to James Taylor is that very, very rare thing: a perfect scene. It appears to just be happening, unfolding (partially because it all goes down with no cuts, and they’re all in the frame at the same time) - but of course, Lumet set it all up very deliberately, and the actors had to create it. It’s perfect. It works every time. 

Let’s get back to lying, though. In a normal healthy family, children are taught not to lie. In the Pope family, they absorb lies with every breath. The children are trained to participate in the family fictions. Their parents have made them co-conspirators. Danny and his brother are used to it. Danny has not questioned that part of his upbringing...until he met Lorna. His first line in the film is “Baseball is my life …”, coming after he strikes out, wildly, at his school baseball game. Danny deadpans that line: baseball is not his life at all...but it’s something he says to throw people off the scent of who he really is. He does this automatically, and Lorna clocks him on that tendency instantly. He wants to be with her, he pulls away. She asks a question, he rolls down a hill. He initiates a passionate kiss, and then flees away from her. His survival skills - his lying skills - have been compromised by his friendship with her. It is the only time he has felt close to someone. And he cannot be with her at ALL if he can’t be with her entirely, truthfully. Lorna is the catalyst. Nothing is possible without her. Gus, who shows up and steals the credit card for the getaway car, is the tip-off to the FBI, but Lorna is the emotional catalyst for Danny’s transformation.

Most people feel bad about lying. Annie and Artie lie so well that they feel no shame about it. Annie STILL defends blowing up that building when she talks with her father. Members of the radical 1970s “organization" the Weather Underground (the model for Annie and Artie’s group) fled underground, some of them for decades. In the documentary about the group, very few of the members show any repentance or second thoughts about what they did. They still feel that their violence was justified. (When Artie shows Gus’ guns to his kids saying, “Guns were never what we were about”, the sheer level of denial in that line is breath-taking. Judd Hirsch plays that complexity beautifully. 

River Phoenix’s performance is heart-wrenching because of how much Danny is drawn towards transparency, sensitivity, openness … and yet the cult of his family cannot allow him that space. He’s like his mother. He’s a good, good liar. It’s a hell of a legacy to give to your kids, and Annie finally realizes that. As we’ve discussed, music is also a catalyst, as well as the silent way Danny and Annie connect. She has passed on her legacy to him, her love of music, which is also - when you think about it - her childhood, her past, her heritage, all of the things she threw away. Danny’s music is a way to keep that part of herself alive.

CP: That's so very true. I was just about to touch on the relationship between Danny and his mother, because it actually interests me far more than the father-son relationship in the film. His father - who Hirsch captures brilliantly - is a rather typical patriarchal figure in many ways, the one that Danny-as-adolescent needs to rebel against in an archetypal sense to break away from his family and become his own person. Though the context this plays out against is uncommon given their lifestyle, the basic dynamic and theme is one of the oldest, most common stories we have. So, while it's interesting on some level to me, what's far more interesting is the relationship and dynamic between Danny and his mom. Because you're absolutely right: he is just like her. He doesn't seem to have an ounce of the dominant masculine energy that Artie often exudes; he's not a leader by nature, he's a follower, an appeaser (and, I'm guessing, an INFP). And even if it's never made explicit, I always get the sense that, to some degree, Annie was caught up following Artie in their Vietnam-era activities—not that she didn't have anti-war views, but that her drive to follow Artie in protesting likely came from a desire to make the world a better place in some vague, compassionate way, whereas Artie's motives likely had more than a touch of stridency and vitriol to them. 

So then she ends up in this situation where she has to go on the run, give up all her own dreams for what her life could have been, and make the best of this chaotic, mercurial reality she's in. She has to figure out an entirely different way to raise their two year old, and as much as her life becomes about survival and lying and staying one step ahead of the game, she's still a mother, and so her life is just as much about raising these kids and trying to give them sense of stability, grounding, protection, and love - even as she knows this is no way for a kid to have to grow up. And then Danny turns out so much like her—musical, creative, compassionate, sensitive, loyal—and she's caught between wanting so badly for him to live out the life she never got a chance at, and knowing that if she does so, she'll put him through exactly what she went through around his age, being cut off from his family forever. And she'll lose him. But in doing so, part of her—the artistic part—will get a chance to live on. 

I'm also interested in the notion of how lying is normalized in the Pope family, because I hadn't really thought about it that explicitly until you just brought it up. The ramifications to closeness and intimacy are obvious, but I hadn't thought much about the warped morality of it all, in terms of raising children that way, where lying is not only second nature, but absolutely necessary. (We don't spend much time with the younger brother, Harry, but I'd love to know how he gets through his life.) It's strange to imagine growing up in a family where being a good liar is something to be proud of, with its own set of rules, and how normal that seems to kids growing up in that environment, because that's really all they know. But of course, that only works if the family unit is isolated and insulated. And so once Danny starts connecting with Lorna, and really opening up about everything to her, he gets exposed to this totally different, outside perspective on how he's grown up, and how messed up and unfair it has been, and starts to think about what he wants and needs for himself, apart from his family, for the first time. You're absolutely right that Lorna—and his love for her—is the true catalyst in the movie.

SOM: I have a slightly different take on Annie, at least in terms of her being “caught up following Artie” in their Vietnam era activities. That’s how her parents chose to look at it, blaming their daughter’s criminality on Artie, but she says to her father, in regards to blowing up the building, “It was my idea.” I believe her. Artie jokes he was raised by “old Jew Bolsheviks”, and it seems that his political behavior was seen in the context of their own political activity, part of how the family had operated, their shared values of political action and resistance and all the rest. But Annie—like Patricia Hearst, like the Manson followers, like the Weather Underground members—mostly emerged from upper- or middle-class backgrounds. Self-hatred, or class-hatred, was a huge motivator, as well as sticking it to her parents. She called her father an “imperialist pig” (recall the creepy Patty Hearst recordings done while she was in captivity, and how she talked about her father), and so I get the sense that she was much more of an “ends justify the means” person than Artie was. When Gus re-appears, it is clear that there was a bond between he and Annie. Artie barely matters to Gus. The way he asks about Artie, the way she answers, suggests a lot of inner conflict: Annie not wanting to say anything bad or unflattering about her husband to this man who had probably once been her lover as well as her comrade. Gus sneers at how she has copped out, sold out. But listen: When he says to her, “Why don’t you take this nice little suburban family, and turn them all in? Cut them loose!” What is her answer? It’s not, “I could never turn my kids in” or “I need to be near my kids.” Or “Never, not in a million years.” Her answer is: “I wish I could.” It's chilling. It’s human. It’s extremely eloquent. Gus looked at her and saw a mirror. She was a leader, like he was, not a hippie-dippie follower in over her head. 

Time, and isolation, has changed her. Being a mother has changed her. Seeing her children pay for her mistakes … that’s something she did not expect, something she cannot abide. Danny is 17. Think about it. Annie and Artie have never really discussed what the hell the plan is for their kids - which is part of what is so touching about this family. There’s a naiveté there. Annie and Artie are living another kind of lie, not just that they are on the FBI Most Wanted List … No, the deeper lie (or, fiction, perhaps is a better word) is that the family will be able to stay together always. They seem to truly believe it. They seem truly blindsided by the college-application conversation, as though they never saw it coming. They haven’t looked ahead of next week. It’s like Danny has grown up while they weren’t paying attention. 

In their different ways, both Artie and Annie suddenly realize that Danny is not a child anymore. There’s that gorgeous scene (played out with no cuts) where Danny sneaks home late at night, and Artie is up. Artie asks him if he’s been with Lorna. Danny nods Yes. Artie then begins to talk about how much he likes Lorna, and the scene is awkward and sweet, with Danny not saying a word. Out of the blue, and in the same quiet tone, Artie says, “Are you sleeping with her?” Danny, startled, doesn’t have time to lie. He nods. Artie nods in response, and says, “Okay. Get some sleep.” What a scene. The look on HIrsch’s face after Danny quietly goes up to bed speaks volumes. Artie knows now. If there’s a harbinger to Artie’s swift and unexpected action in the final moment of the film, it’s there in the look in Hirsch’s face that closes out that nighttime scene. It’s beautifully set up.

CP: That’s an absolutely wonderful scene. The whole film is full of such perfect, understated, human moments like that. It's a credit to the screenwriter (who was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for the script - and is Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal's mother by the way!), as well as to Lumet's impeccable direction. It's really hard to overstate how well he works with this material. To think of all the different kinds of films he was able to make over four decades, it's really something, and I think he gets astonishing performances out of the entire cast here. 

It's interesting to hear your take on Annie as well, because I can totally see what you're saying, even while not completely agreeing with it. I mean, yes, she does tell her father the bombing was her idea - but at the same time, you were just mentioning earlier how great a liar she is, almost reflexively by this point. So I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility to conclude that this was another one of those lies, told to her father as a way of doing what her lying often does - pushing him away, because it's too painful a discussion to navigate otherwise. She's hardened by that point, because she has to be. Either way, the entire scene is so heart-wrenching, both in the moment itself and what it portends for both of their futures - and Danny's as well. They'll be getting a version of their daughter back, in Danny, whom they've never met, and she'll be losing her son, as well as her Dad all over again. It's such a small, intimate scene, but the stakes are so high.

SOM: I still think that Annie’s relationship to Gus, the clear closeness she has with this truly frightening individual, speaks volumes about who she was, still is (“Take a walk with him, Artie,” she encourages), as well as her role in the group back in the day. Her guilt, so apparent it vibrates off of her, comes as much out of the guilt at her leadership role as anything else. “He wasn’t supposed to be there,” she says to her father, of the janitor who was blinded in the bomb explosion. She’s still making excuses. It may sound like I’m being hard on her. But that’s not my relationship to the character (or to any character I respond to emotionally in film). She’s emotional, selfish, extremely kind, exhausted, and not entirely trustworthy. Still. And I think she knows it. If Artie hadn’t walked in the door, how much further would it have gone with Gus? I think she still feels the draw of violence.  I think she still could be talked into it. She’s a very complex woman. I love Christine Lahti’s performance because it doesn’t plead for our sympathy. She doesn’t “make a case” for this woman’s actions. Instead, we just get a person, who made horrible mistakes, continues to make mistakes, and is trying, trying, to hold it together. It’s very powerful work.

CP: You know, the more we’re talking about this, the more I'm realizing just how much of this film really, truly is about parenting - how to be a good parent in difficult situations. The choices and sacrifices Annie and Artie are making to give Danny a shot at life, the decision her own parents make to take Danny in as their own, despite how badly she's hurt and saddened them by her fifteen-year disappearance (they found out they had another grandchild from the media!). So much of Running on Empty is about how the choices of one generation affects the one that follows, how the “sins” of the parents are passed down to their children. Yet there's love, between all these characters. Such powerful love, by the end of the film; the best kind, the selfless kind that wants for someone else's happiness.

SOM: I agree with your observation that the film is about parenting. There are multiple parents in the film. Annie and Artie. Mr. Phillips (no mother in the picture, apparently). The evocative reference to Artie’s parents. And the glimpse we get of Annie’s mother and father. I just want to mention the scene where Danny tracks down his grandmother, pretending to be a pizza delivery boy so that he can get a look at her, maybe to feel a connection to his severed past. She seems pretty “uptight,” as Danny’s younger brother observes when he sees their picture in the newspaper. He’s right. Danny shows at the “service entrance” of Annie’s parents’ brownstone in New York City (the fact that it even has a service entrance says it all). The maid is baffled. Nobody at this house has ordered a pizza. Nobody has probably ordered a pizza from that address ever. Annie’s mother (Augusta Dabney) appears, at first hidden behind a gigantic vase of flowers, and then comes to the door to see what this all might be about. Note the expression on her face. She is not imperious. She is not offended. Instead, she is concerned that the delivery boy will have to pay for the pizza himself. You know that she would give him the money if that were the case. Now I don’t know about you, but that is such a precise detail, a tiny moment that tells me everything I need to know about her. 

This leads to the final moment. Knowing that Danny will be going to live with that woman we saw in the doorway, a kind and open face, worried that this poor kid will have to shell out money for somebody else’s mistake, is comforting. He will be cared for, even loved. 

CP: I so wish we could talk about this movie forever - but I know we need to wrap up. So let's talk about that very last scene then, by way of conclusion. Danny rides his bike vigorously towards the meet-up spot, after having just said goodbye to Lorna for the last time, ready to head back out on the road with his family, to assume a new identity and leave New Jersey—and a spot at Julliard—behind for good. The truck is ready to go and he dutifully throws his bike in the back. Then his dad tells him to take it out and you see this look come over Danny’s face. There's so much going on emotionally in those final minutes, but also very little actually said out loud. Take me through what those final moments do to you, as a viewer.

SOM: Well, one of the best things for me about the final scene is that Artie’s change of heart, his resolve to let his son go, has happened internally, off-screen. Up to that point, he has been terrified at the thought of breaking up the family unit, and very bully-dominant towards his almost-grown-up son. There was the expression on his face following the late-night talk with his son about Lorna. His realization that Danny has made a connection, a connection that teenage kids are supposed to start making. Who is Artie to deny his son that? But the Oscar-nominated script lets us reflect upon how he came to the decision, if it was made in advance, or if it came to Artie in that very moment when he saw his son barreling towards the truck on his bike.

What then follows is a bombardment of love, three people on one side pouring it onto the solitary figure outside the truck, a kind of love that is white-hot unbearable in its intensity, and leaves the audience wrecked and depleted. Artie wants to give his son something joyful and positive to remember them by, final moments being so crucial. Annie’s final moment with her father back in the day involved her calling him an “imperialist pig” and holding him responsible for the Vietnam War and everything else that was wrong with the world. Her father’s face has absorbed the devastation of that - you can SEE it on him, as impassive as he may appear. You know that any time he looks at her baby pictures, or school pictures, he will not remember that smiling happy young daughter. He will only remember the recrimination of that final moment, her hatred and contempt for him. That rejection has marked him, ruined his life. Artie holds whatever loss and sadness he may feel in check. So does Annie. Let’s give the kid a final glimpse of his family that is worthy of the best part of us: our love, our humor, our closeness. Here ya go, kid. Never forget that this is who you are, this is who WE were, and it is GOOD.

You can’t help what family you are born into. It’s sheer accident. Some people are lucky. Some people are unlucky. Children grow up in the midst of their parents’ adult problems and issues. If the adults handle themselves like grown-ups, the child will be protected. If the adults don’t handle themselves well, the child absorbs stress and pain and chaos with often disastrous consequences.  (I’m thinking of Henry James’ “What Maisie Knew”: two monstrous narcissists go through a messy divorce, and the book is seen entirely through the eyes of their extremely young daughter, who tries to understand what is happening. It’s a devastating book, an indictment of parents who do not protect their children’s innocence.) In Running on Empty, we see family partially as accident, but mostly as intentional. They are outlaws, and so all they have are one another. In one respect, it’s like being a member of a cult with well-defined rules. (Artie expects his son to groove to rock ’n’ roll, not be drawn to the kind of music he himself doesn’t care for personally.) But one of the things Running on Empty does really well is show a family that deals with one another intentionally because taking one another for granted would be dangerous to their survival, and a betrayal of their shared values. And so their family dynamic is filled with conscious intentions, creating moments that work for them, that ground them to the earth (the birthday ritual), focusing on the things that matter to them (caring for each other, not getting swept up in materialism, not caving to conformist “keep up with the Jones” values that crush so many families). Family is seen as a conscious act, an act that must be renewed on a day to day basis. It’s hard work. It’s worth it. 

Running on Empty is one of the few films that made me call my family members afterwards and tell them how much I love them.  

 


Life is Short

 
 

Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia, 2015) 


Give us a one-second flash? 
Please, baby? For our own personal private movie?

Bathroom mirror. Backseat of the car.
In between auditions at the empty bar.

Bored in an interview. Brighton cab.
Putting on lipgloss with a nickel bag.

Playing pool. Lights-off party.
Throwing a tantrum at her mother’s knee.

Watching the telly. Pitchers of beer.
Drooling on a pillow while out on tour.

Sitting down on stage at the Isle of Wight.
Handstands on the beach in black and white.

Shot for Spin with broken mirrors.
Chased by paparazzi to an elevator.

Scratching and slurring at a red carpet gala.
Sprawled on the couch with paraphernalia.

With crusted tongue. On her nan’s knee.
Smiling with fuzzy pink kitten fleece.

Crying on holiday. Crap concrete patio.
Recording while drinking whiskey & cokes.

Packing in a palm tree wallpapered closet.
Gob-smacked at Grammies with Tony Bennett.

Covered in scars. Berated by her dad.
Falling mid-song at an arena in Belgrade.

Boyfriend prison visit. Caking on makeup.
Happily eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup.

Crack, alcohol, cocaine, heroin.
Blinded by flash bulbs. Getting her hair done.

Playing Mexican houseboy. Eyeliner a mess.
Newlywed on a boat in a cherry-print dress. 


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.


Now Playing!

by Fran Hoepfner


CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

Marvel has done something truly ingenious (and evil!) with Captain America: Civil War, which is present all of its current characters as barely likable—seemingly everyone seemed to live long enough to see themselves become the villain—so much so that the new characters seem increasingly likable by comparison, guaranteeing I will see whatever new origin story comes out.

This is a long-winded way of saying how much I love Tom Holland’s Spider-Man.

We live in an age where it seems like every movie knows it’s a movie; Marvel films, in particular, have gotten aggressively self-aware over time. They love to wink at their audience. They want us to know what they’re doing. While Captain America: Civil War is certainly one of the stronger films in the franchise, I wish it was self-aware enough to know that it meanders. It hems and haws. It thinks it’s more interesting than it actually is. That’s fine, because when it’s fun, it is legitimately fun. The rest of it, however, is just a movie and really ought to know it.

Rating (on a system of 4 stars): Two and a half stars. This movie is two and a half hours long.


HIGH-RISE

©BFI

©BFI

Too many dogs die in this movie for me to say anything nice about it.

Rating: One star. Luke Evans is having a great time.
 

 

 

 


GOAT

©Killer Films

©Killer Films

First thing’s first: Nick Jonas is a good actor. I don’t know when this was a thing we were supposed to realize, but it’s true now and it always will be.

Goat is already one of the finest movies I’ve seen this calendar year. It’s a deeply sympathetic and haunting look inside the American fraternity system and its ritualistic hazing under the guise of brothership. Its protagonist, Brad (the very good Ben Schnetzer), is the victim of a violent carjacking the summer before he is supposed to start his freshman year of college. He spends his summer recovering before joining his older brother Brett both at school and at his fraternity.

It will be easy for the marketing team to sell this as a movie about how horrifying fraternity hazing can be, which is fine, but the movie isn’t not about that. Goat was about post-traumatic stress disorder;  about violence. It understands that an attack is never just an attack. We say “accident” about things that are fully purposeful. Violence does not exist in a bubble; it’s everywhere. Brad carries his wounds with him, openly displaying them on occasion (much to the discomfort of his friends and family) and sometimes burying them so deep you wouldn’t know both his eyes had nearly swollen shut. He looks at his injured face multiple times on his phone. He can’t forget it. It can’t be unseen.

Goat is not perfect—can any movie with an extended James Franco cameo be considered perfect?—but it is true and thoughtful where it counts. I carried my own wounds with me out of the theater.

Rating: 3 stars. Nick Jonas didn’t go to college in real life but he could have fooled me!
 

MY BLIND BROTHER

To see My Blind Brother a day apart from Goat was an unexpected but fascinating pairing. This film, a comedy, with Adam Scott, Nick Kroll, and Jenny Slate, is a much more subversive and almost farcical take on trauma and pain. The movie explores the relationship between two brothers—Robbie (Adam Scott) who is handsome, athletic, and blind—and Bill (Nick Kroll), who is lazy and somewhat manipulative. Because this is a movie, they find themselves in love with the same woman, Rose (Jenny Slate), who is mourning the loss of an ex-boyfriend for whom she feels responsible for killing.

My Blind Brother is about being good and being bad and the things we do to make each other feel a certain way. Whereas Goat is a movie about pain and how it is inflicted, My Blind Brother is about guilt. These characters carry their shame and their disabilities with them, and do what they can to erase those things from themselves. Guilt is toxic. These characters try to make each other feel good, not out of a goodness, but out of a desire not to hurt. It’s just as dangerous and painful.

I don’t know if My Blind Brother is very good (which probably means it isn’t), but it is a nice little character study if nothing else. It was a glass of lemonade of a movie: sweet, tart, necessary on a warm day. It’s not permanent, but most things aren’t.

Rating: Two and a half stars. It’s just nice to see funny people all together. :)


LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

©Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

©Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

In high school, we had a month to read one of seven books. There were some Brontës, there was a Hardy, there were some Austens. I vehemently refused to read Jane Austen and opted, instead, for the Dostoevsky. I thought I had something to prove. The truth was: I had nothing to prove, I did not enjoy Crime & Punishment, and when I finally read Pride & Prejudice in college, I was furious at myself for waiting so long.

Jane Austen is not funny if you are a woman. Jane Austen is funny, period. Her works are funny, and Whit Stillman successfully brings an unfinished novella to life in Love & Friendship. Led by the phenomenal Kate Beckinsale as the flirtatious, manipulative, narcissistic sociopath Lady Susan, Love & Friendship is about all the havoc one woman can cause just by talking. I laughed so hard during this movie. It is a treat. You owe it to yourself to enjoy Jane Austen. You have nothing to prove.

Rating: Three stars. A nice time!
 

©IFC Films

©IFC Films

STREAMING: IN THE LOOP (2009)

I rewatch this movie at least twice a year. It’s always perfect.

Rating: Infinite stars.


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