What's It Like for You?

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Elisabeth Geier

Walking and Talking was released 20 years ago this summer, six years after it was written, making the film around the same age as its protagonists. It’s tempting to joke about the awkwardness of being in one's mid-to-late-twenties and still figuring out your identity, but the thing about Walking and Talking—and every film from writer/director Nicole Holofcener—is that it knows exactly who it is. The characters may cast about for purpose, connection, a clue, but the film itself is deft and direct, like that one friend you can always count on to plainly tell you the truth.

The night I rewatch Walking and Talking for the umpteenth time, I call my friend “M” to make plans to hang out. She had emailed me earlier in the week to propose a weekend getaway, some “uninterrupted friendship rekindling.” M and I met in grad school in Montana, two California city girls pursuing vanity degrees in (what felt to us like) a rural western town. For two years, we were together all the time: movie nights, road trips, a royal wedding-themed thesis reading complete with commemorative plates. A classmate once said, “It’s cute how you two are each other’s boyfriends.” Then we graduated and lived in separate states for a while, and though we’re in the same city now, of course, things have changed. I’ve shrugged my way through several jobs and basement apartments; M  has launched a career and bought a house. I fell in love for the first time and then got my heart broken right around the time M entered a serious relationship. We see each other often, but lately, something is off. On the phone, M says, “Not that anything necessarily needs rekindling, but… .” Maybe it does.

Amelia (Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche), the best friends in Walking and Talking, are in a similar lull. They grew up together, were at one point roommates and co-cat moms, but now Laura is engaged (“grotesquely in love,” as Amelia tells her therapist), Amelia and the cat live alone, and the two women struggle to be there for one another while dealing with their own lives, all the while ramping up towards Laura's wedding. Laura has work woes—she's a newly-credentialed therapist who worries she's terrible at her job—and pre-wedding doubts; she flirts with a waiter and freaks out about a mole on her fiance’s chest. Amelia has boy problems; she has an awkward fling with the clerk at her video store who she and Laura call Ugly Guy (Kevin Corrigan), and she keeps loaning her ex-boyfriend money. They both feel like they’re drifting away from their best friend.

Holofcener gives both women complete, complex attention, but to me, Walking and Talking is Amelia’s film. The camera tags along through her life as she works at the newspaper classifieds desk, rents movies, washes dishes, and leaves rambling answering machine messages for her friend. In his 1996 review, Roger Ebert described Amelia as, “A person of reasonable intelligence who stands on the sidelines and watches the sweethearts on parade.” Hi, this is me, meekly raising my hand.

As I told M while clumsily asking permission to write about our friendship as it relates to Walking and Talking, “I expected to have grown out of this by now.” In fact, I feel more Amelia than ever. I've been through a major social restructuring in the past year. My long-term, live-in relationship ended; one of my closest friends fell in love and moved across the country; other friends (M included) are in the midst of personal and professional successes that seem to leave less and less time for me. Like Amelia, I find myself spending a lot of weekends watching movies alone.

In the wake of so much change, and the threat of complete isolation, I’ve tried to expand my social circle. I started “putting myself out there,” joining MeetUp.com groups, introducing myself to women at the gym. My therapist calls this “planting seeds,” and says I just have to be patient while I wait for my garden to grow. (My therapist also says she’s proud of me, but I’m paying her, so who knows.) I do my best, but tend to overwater the seeds I’m most excited about; divulging too many intimacies and sending too many exclamation-pointed texts until they retreat into the ground. Or I get overwhelmed by the energy it takes to tend a new friendship, retreat completely, and watch them dry out. Or I write stupid gardening metaphors to avoid plainly telling the truth, which is that I’m lonely and I need a full-grown friendship, and all this planting, watering, and waiting sucks.

There's no rushing the kind of intimacy Amelia and Laura have. They borrow each other’s clothes. They order for each other at restaurants. Several times throughout the film, they just show up at each other's doors. No phone call, no warning, sometimes not even a knock. How many people can you do that with? Being honest, I can count two, and both of them would think it was an emergency rather than a good old-fashioned swinging-by.

"As a woman in my mid-thirties now, it's incredibly gratifying to see that experience, and that vulnerability, reflected on film. In fact, I can't think of another movie that reflects it so completely and so well."

In one scene, Amelia swings by really needing to talk, and Laura isn't home. But her fiancée Frank (Todd Field) is. The two of them get stoned over a pile of laundry and, while watching at home, I decide to get stoned too. Recreational pot is legal where I live, but it still feels illicit sometimes, the way buying a six pack felt when I was newly 21. I don't usually keep it in the house, but I bought some from a dispensary a few months back while en route to a weekend away with friends because intoxication is a time-honored bonding activity, even for grown-ups in their thirties. It certainly bonds Amelia and Frank. Neither one of them knows where Laura is, and it’s unusual for them to be alone together, but pot seems to put them at ease. They talk about Frank’s work designing jewelry; Amelia concedes she hasn’t shown much interest in it before, and he seems genuinely excited to tell her about it. Of course, the conversation turns to Laura. She’s the main thing they have in common.

Silly and stoned, holding one of Laura's socks, Frank says, “Isn't this the teeniest, tiniest, most adorable thing you've ever seen?”

“She wears an eight,” Amelia tells him as if she’s breaking bad news. She seems baffled and amused by his mooniness. Of all the things to love about Laura, a gym sock?

This scene between Amelia and Frank is a quick three and a half minutes in the middle of the film, but it captures the sometimes-awkward dynamic between best friend and best friend’s lover. They both love the same woman, but Amelia has loved her longer, and she’s protective of that fact. She likes Frank, but she’s jealous. She laughs at him because in this moment, her own feelings towards Laura are more complex than an adorable sock. Or maybe she only laughs because she’s stoned. Maybe this is me, projecting.

In a later scene, in the midst of her complicated reaction to Laura’s engagement, and her own troubled dating life, Amelia asks her ex-boyfriend Andrew (Liev Schreiber), now her close friend, why they broke up. After dodging the question a few times, he finally, reluctantly tells her: “You made me too important...like I was everything.” Amelia doesn’t say it out loud, but the look on Keener’s face is enough: Isn’t that the point?

Like Amelia, I sometimes struggle with feelings of jealousy and rejection when it feels like my life has stalled and everyone around me is moving forward. It’s hard to feel like you’re suddenly on the outskirts of a friend’s life when you used to share the center. Usually, I can get over myself and handle a weekend alone. But on this particular night, I am edgy and stoned and staring at my dogs who sometimes seem like the only creatures that will ever love me the way I need to be loved: silently, out of dependence and until they die.

Keener was 36 when Walking and Talking began shooting, which makes me feel a lot better for how intensely I identify with her character today. Holofcener never makes clear exactly how old Amelia and Laura are supposed to be, but Amelia embodies a certain thirty-somethingness: she's unsettled, but comfortable in her skin. She has a career, an apartment, and good friends, but is still trying to figure out who she is. She's a grown-ass woman, but that doesn't mean she's not lonely, selfish, and vulnerable sometimes. Holofcener was around 30 herself when she started writing the film, and 35 when it finally got made, so it's no surprise she gets it so right. As a woman in my mid-thirties now, it's incredibly gratifying to see that experience, and that vulnerability, reflected on film. In fact, I can't think of another movie that reflects it so completely and so well.

In a 2011 column for IndieWire, Holofcener recalls film executives initially turning down the script for Walking and Talking because it was too “soft.”

“I thought that was bullshit,” Holofcener writes, “but at the same time I didn’t fight what they said was 'soft' about it—that there was no big hook and that it was about women. (It’s funny, because it has the same hook as Bridesmaids: Single girl’s best friend gets married and her life falls apart.)”

When I was thinking about my favorite movies about women, movies that reflect the important friendships in my own life, Bridesmaids was near the top of the list. I love the performances, the jokes, and the scene where Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph have their come-to-Jesus talk in the bathtub. But what Bridesmaids does so well, Walking and Talking did first, more realistically, and for a lot less money.

Life doesn't always have big hooks. More often, it just sort of happens, and that's what I appreciate about the lives portrayed in Holofcener's films. I had an improv coach who used to say that a good scene was almost always either “another day at the Joneses, or the day the shit hits the fan at the Joneses.” Holofcener's specialty is doing both at once: showing the quotidian lives of her characters (in an early scene, Amelia sniffs a cantaloupe at a bodega; in a later scene, she throws away the rinds) while also showing the shit (Andrew’s dad has Alzheimer’s; Frank and Laura almost break up; Amelia and Laura argue over whether or not to pay for chemotherapy for the 14-year-old cat they once shared).

“It’s episodic,” my friend “S” texted after watching Walking and Talking at my urging (funny thing about this film: you will immediately want all of your closest friends to see it). I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s apt. Holofcener uses short scenes and soft edits to mirror how time passes in real life. One thing happens, and then another, and tension builds, but there’s not a big, obvious arc. Amelia and Laura are in crisis, individually and as a pair, but crisis doesn’t have to be an explosion. Sometimes, it’s an unanswered phone.

"Maybe this is what it means to be a grown-up best friend: to accept that change is inevitable, and sometimes hard, but we don’t love each other any less."

It takes Amelia and Laura most of the film to directly address the growing tension between them. Another of Holofcener's specialties is writing confrontations between people who love one another, and the scene where Amelia and Laura actually say what they mean is some of her finest work. They have their come-to-Jesus talk when Laura shows up at Amelia’s door after a disastrous pre-wedding hair and makeup appointment. Amelia washes Laura’s hair in the kitchen sink, and while she’s combing out the tangles, things finally come to a head.

You used to need me,” Amelia says. “When something happens to me now, good or bad, I tell you. When something good or bad happens to you, you tell Frank. It feels unfair.”

After ninety minutes of watching Amelia and Laura struggle to communicate, it’s such a relief to hear her say these words out loud (maybe because I haven't said them myself, at least not to the people they're about). Laura’s response is sympathetic and defensive all at once.

“Nothing I do is ever enough for you,” she says. “It’s like when Frank and I got engaged, you decided that I don’t care about you anymore, and that is just not true.”

In the classic form of someone being told an uncomfortable truth about themselves, Amelia doubles down on her accusation: “You're so wrapped up in what's happening to you that you don't even know what I'm going through. Stop for a second and think of what it's like for me.”

“What is it like for you?” Laura asks.

“Hard,” Amelia says. “Sad. I miss you.” Then, she catches herself (Keener’s face in this moment is everything), and realizes she should be asking, too: “What’s it like for you?”

“It’s lonely.”

My friend “J” recently tweeted, “Life became more gentle and less judgmental when I began to think of the people in it as the narrators of their own memoirs.” This has become a useful rubric for me in my own think-of-what-it’s-like-for-me moments. We're all telling our own stories; the more intimate the relationship, the more two stories may overlap, but each narrator will tell it in a different way.

In Amelia's story, her best friend has abandoned her for a man; the men in her own life have rejected her for reasons she doesn't understand; she is aimless and lonely; and then her cat dies (spoiler, sorry). In my story, I got dumped, my best friend fell in love, my other best friend also fell in love and moved across the country, and it often feels like the people I want to be closer with are too busy to make time for me. But part of being a grown-ass woman is recognizing other people's narratives, and gently reminding them to recognize yours.

I worry that in talking about why Walking and Talking is so important to me, I haven't said enough about why it might matter to anyone else, and I want people (not just my friends) to watch it. So: Walking and Talking is funny. Holofcener’s dialogue is hilarious, true-to-life, and exposes her characters’ smart, messy, selfish humanity. Keener and Heche are brilliant and beautiful, just like your real-life best friends. The side characters are endearing and real in a way that makes it clear they have their own stories to tell (as much as I love Amelia, and a film about women, if the camera shifted to follow Andrew or the Ugly Guy, the resulting film would probably be just as good). At one point, Schreiber does muscleman poses in tight leather pants. Trust me, it’s good.

Most of all, Walking and Talking is the kind of movie that makes you immediately text a friend, maybe a friend you recently lost to a cross-country move, whose everyday presence in your life you took for granted until she was gone. A friend whose life-changing romantic relationship came with so much joy, along with a healthy side of “it feels unfair.” A friend you haven't talked to much in the months since she's been gone because you don’t feel needed anymore.

As soon as the movie ended, I texted my friend “L” all the way in Massachusetts: “I just rewatched Walking and Talking and it made me think of you [yellow heart emoji].”

“If I hadn't already removed all moisture from my body today via crying, this would make me cry,” she wrote back. “I've been feeling so un-missed.”

I've been so busy wallowing in my own loneliness, getting stoned and sad and watching movies with my dogs, I’ve sometimes neglected to consider the narratives of the people I love. I’ve made some selfish assumptions, and avoided saying the simple things that need to be said.

When Amelia and Laura finally acknowledge each other’s experiences out loud, the tension dissipates almost immediately. Laura is still getting married, Amelia is still a little lost, and nothing is going to be the same as it was. But they’re re-committed to experiencing whatever comes next together. Maybe this is what it means to be a grown-up best friend: to accept that change is inevitable, and sometimes hard, but we don’t love each other any less. To mourn the past version of our friendship while nurturing whatever it looks like today. To do our best to pick up the phone and say the simple things that need to be said: I miss you. I love you. I’ll always be your friend.


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


 

 

Battleborn

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by A.J. Bradley

There's a scene in A League of Their Own in which one of the members of The Rockford Peaches, a World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team, brings her small, irritating tornado of a son on the team bus, since her unemployed husband won’t be bothered to watch the kid at home. “Stilwell, angel,” she calls to her little boy over the exasperated eye rolls of the rest of her team, the kid running amok through the bus aisle, as Mae (played by Madonna) threatens to kill him with a baseball bat from the back seat. In the movie’s comedic version of these female ball players’ stories—indeed, real-life “all-girl” teams did play for a total of twelve years, in the wake of the Second World War’s draft of many male players—these women are ultimately strangers to each other. They are strangers to living lives away from their families, strangers to traveling, and strangers to adventure, before making the League. And, in one of many shrewd choices made by director Penny Marshall and the screenwriters, the word “friends” is hardly used anywhere in the movie. If at all.

Once you get past the knee socks and bubble gum of the Rockford Peaches, A League of Their Own is dug-out (ha!) of those relationships in our lives that are not quite friendships and not nearly enemies; relationships just as rife with loyalty and respect as with distrust and competition. These aren’t the types of relationships that will bloom over time into deeper friendships since the time just isn’t given to us. We get to know certain people in such tense, life-altering scenarios for a very limited timeframe, but through some magic of human alchemy, we are often able to learn more from these brief, intense interactions than we might with more familiar acquaintances in our everyday orbit. “Dirt in The Skirt,” reads the splashy motto on the back of a team bus—and there is a lot of dirt to be found in these teammates’ complex loyalties. The women in A League of Their Own, to borrow a phrase from modern reality television, “didn’t come here to make friends.” They came to play ball and do their civic duty while the men were away at war doing theirs. And sure, if they made a friend along the way, that was peachy too. But it wasn’t the point.

A League of Their Own is not a movie praising unconditional female friendship and bonding, despite what its feminist storyline might have us remembering—from its sepia-tinted cinematography to its big band soundtrack and nostalgic faux news-reels—decades after the film’s release. A League of Their Own is about something tougher. If the crowd looks a little closer—stops munching peanuts for a second, listens past the lipstick and curled hair—what is going on between these characters is a little darker, a little lonelier, something a bit more like begrudging, obligated allegiance.

The heart of the plot, even, is not one of female solidarity. The film begins and ends with a focus on the sibling rivalry between two sisters, Dottie (Geena Davis, in her apple-cheeked, beanpole-bodied, auburn-haired glory) and Kit (Lori Petty, with her giant blue saucer-eyes). Dottie is the older sister, already married to a man away in the war. Hers is a near-flawless embodiment of beauty, virtuosic athleticism, strategic smarts, and manufactured humility—an older sibling elixir any younger sister would dread trying to match. Early in the film, before being recruited to play for the Peaches, Dottie and Kit are walking home following one of their games. Dottie had coached the younger, less-talented Kit to stop swinging at all those “high ones” she can never seem to hit—but Kit, stubborn and defiant, had done so anyway and cost the team the game. Dottie is more than happy to remind her younger sister how she’d told her so. Sick of feeling inferior and overshadowed yet again, Kit tries to explain her aching feelings of inadequacy: “You ever hear Dad introduce us to people? ‘This is our daughter Dottie, and this is our other daughter, Dottie's sister.’”

A League of Their Own understands that for women it’s also a “different ballgame,” with different rules—rules that often make female companionship and competition quite a bit harder to reconcile.

Once they’re on the road with the Peaches, Dottie quickly becomes a centerpiece for the media, nicknamed “The Queen of Diamonds” and doing splits in her skirted uniform to catch a baseball to the flash of the cameras. With Dottie thrust into the spotlight, the two sisters inevitably get into a screaming match, as the entire team listens from outside the door of their boarding house. Kit, her tremendous blue eyes welling with tears, yells “When you’re here it’s like I’m not here!” These are almost cute interactions, unless you’ve lived through them—or until you watch the movie as an adult woman and realize this is still a well-known worry for most women in the professional world: being overlooked, or underestimated, simply because of beauty or personality. It can be argued that to this day men in the workplace (or on teams) are primarily judged for their skill sets, above all else. But A League of Their Own understands that for women it’s also a “different ballgame,” with different rules—rules that often make female companionship and competition quite a bit harder to reconcile.

If you were part of a certain American generation growing up during the ‘90s, chances are you were raised seeing A League of Their Own in perpetual syndication, flipping past scenes as it played after school, after dinner, or on late night TV. And you were either allowed to watch it or not, and you either thought it was dumb because it was about “girls playing baseball,” or you loved it because it was about girls playing baseball. But regardless of anyone’s personal relationship with the film, its entire premise certainly seemed sweeter through the lens of 1992: “War” still felt very far away to Americans, even with the cloud of the first Gulf War having faded away just a year earlier. (In hindsight, of course, the cloud never did fade, we just looked away very, very quickly.) With the drastic, previously incomprehensible shift in war dynamics and world politics since 2001, concepts of alternate American histories and identity have started to seem more necessary to understand where we find ourselves now. A League of Their Own, you could argue, is strangely sturdy considering its somewhat corny conceit. The United States now, in 2016, is not a country not at war with multiple other countries. And so the center of the movie’s controlled veering, the core of it all told through flashback, lifting and lowering like a ball player herself, sliding between comedy and the hovering threat of tragedy from scene to scene, is maybe even more impressive (despite the soft-focus melodrama of the opening and ending segments, or the credits rolling over “This Used to Be My Playground,” sung by Madonna herself).

Most of the film takes place around 1943 and is rather perfectly-paced, composed only of scenes essential to the storytelling. The editing moves between physical and vaudevillian comedy—from Jon Lovitz as the foul-mouthed recruiter to Tom Hanks’ drunk and washed-up manager Jimmy Dugan, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell’s tough New Yorker ball player shtick to “Stilwell Angel” wreaking havoc with his little chubby Cracker Jack-box insolent face—before landing lightly with moments of touching, low-lit sincerity.

We find true kindness in small scenes like the one in which Dottie, having finally earned Jimmy’s respect with her on-field abilities and cool-headed leadership, sits at the front of the bus with him. He borderline flirts with her, asking about her husband away at war, while twilight Midwest fields roll past them outside. Dottie tries not to look at him when she mentions she hasn’t gotten a letter from her husband in three weeks. When she tries to distract herself by asking Jimmy if he’s ever been married, he swoops back up from the sadness to make a joke about one of his ex-wives.

Dottie: You ever been married?

Jimmy: Well, let me think… yeah, twice.

Dottie: Any children?

Jimmy: One of them was, yeah.

In the same scene, Doris (O’Donnell) takes out a photo of a guy she’s seeing back home, causing one of her teammates to resort to a tired platitude: “Well, looks aren’t the most important thing.” Like a true stand-up comic, Doris delivers the zinger. “That’s right the important thing is he's stupid, he's outta work and he treats me bad…” And then, in a rare show of emotional vulnerability, she confesses: “…the other boys ever uh... always made me feel like I was wrong, you know. I believed them too, but not anymore you know. I mean look here. There's a lot of us.” Doris thinks for a second. She rips up the photo. Paper scatters out the window, over the dark plains.

Meanwhile in the back of the bus, Mae is trying to teach her illiterate teammate Shirley (Ann Cusack) to read. For a second it appears we might have found an unfettered glimpse of altruism between teammates—until Shirley stumbles over the words “mm-milky ww-white…breast,” and we realize she’s reading a pulp fiction smut novel. Mae, without batting an eyelash, turns the page and says matter-of-factly: “It gets really good after that.”

But for every touch of hard-earned sweetness—even the ukulele fight song in the locker room, a little anthem of unity—there is also an argument (or three arguments). For every moment of forged camaraderie, there is a thorny exchange while changing socks, or a screaming match with a dozen teammates listening in around the corner. And perhaps that’s as it should be: These women had never met before being recruited and each is the best athlete from her respective state; the world is locked in an uncertain, multi-country war; they’re playing double-headers in 100 degree heat; their reputations—and a feeling of contributing to something greater, something that matters—are all at stake.

For every moment of forged camaraderie, there is a thorny exchange while changing socks, or a screaming match with a dozen teammates listening in around the corner. 

Making A League of Their Own was no cakewalk, either. Director Penny Marshall decided it mandatory that all cast members playing ballplayers actually learned how to play baseball. Prior to filming, the cast trained six days a week for eight months—about which there is nothing cute. It was reported that all the injuries caught on film were real too, like the massive “strawberry” bruise on one of the actress’s thighs, captured for a headline in the movie by a photographer’s flashbulb. Even if the rumors aren’t true, and the injuries weren’t real, they still mirror the historical hazards these female players suffered regularly: bleeding, flesh-ripped welts on their thighs from sliding into bases wearing only skirts. “Faye Dancer pays for sliding into base with her bare legs protected only by a skirt rather than the male players' pants. ‘Strawberry’ marks are painfully frequent,” reads a real Life magazine caption beneath an image of a ballplayer with a bandage on her thigh, harsh evidence in black and white.

The women push each other around. Kit gets thrown in a cold shower by Jimmy after she lashes out at her sister on the field during a game. Mae literally poisons their long-suffering chaperone’s food so they can all sneak out to a swing club and have some booze and boys for a night (forbidden things, just as they were for the real teams). There are STI jokes, and pissing jokes, and penis jokes, and a lot of somewhat uncomfortable slut-shaming jokes. And, despite Hanks’ famous line—“There’s no crying in baseball!”—there is a lot of crying. Oh, there is absolutely crying in this kind of baseball. But that doesn’t mean there is any less grit. Grit is all over this movie, if you can just get past the feel-good newsreel headlines—sugarcoated with the kind of language we’re still being fed, decades later—about how darn inspiring and impressive it is that women play sports at all, as if inferring, even now, that no one expects them to do so.

Until the Peaches make the playoffs, Jimmy loses himself in his drink every game, gets into fights with umpires, harasses his female players, mumbles and complains about how these aren’t ball players. Not real ball players, not a real team. And in some ways he’s actually, ironically, correct. This isn’t a real team, it’s a community of people who otherwise never would have been professionals—or even met each other—had the idea of an all-female sports league not been born out of the void of a wartime draft. And so, no, they are not a real, traditional sports team. But what they are is something perhaps even tougher because they trust each other less, know each other less, are respected less. And they have more to lose for all of it.

Early in the film, the women, elated at making their new teams and seated together in sunlight on a baseball field, are shown what their uniforms will look like. Management brings out a model striking poses in a short yellow-skirted outfit, belted at the waist, legs bare except for knee-high socks. Doris yells out, “What do you think we are? Ball players or ballerinas?” It’s not just a 1940’s oversexualizing of women playing sports, or a marketing tool of the new product of all-girls’ baseball, it’s a message: Their athleticism, their muscle, their resilience, are all secondary. A League of Their Own, as entertainment, is packaged similarly, too. But over 24 years later, it’s still proving—just like some of the more short-lived, intense, high-stakes, unusual alliances in our lives—that dirt in the skirt don’t shake off too easy.


A.J. Bradley is a Midwesterner living in New York City. Her work has been featured by Rattle, the Poetry Foundation, Monkeybicycle, and other places. She is the kind of person who takes selfies in good bathroom lighting. She hopes you come visit her soon at ajbradley.org.


 

Don't Look Down

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Taylor Hine

“I don’t believe one ever knows people in their own surroundings; one only knows them away, divorced from all the little strings and cobwebs of habit.”  Vita Sackville-West

How often have you fantasized about what it would be like to be friends with someone you admired from afar? Set the scene: It’s a work party, and you’re wearing the outfit that best describes your personality (do you dare to wear your short-sleeved blouse patterned with bright red lobsters?)—one that happens to mirror what the Admired Person might wear. Or you exchange email addresses with someone whose blog you love and plan a trip to the city they live in, not without remembering that they live there; you arrange to meet, and you dazzle this person with your wit and intelligence at their favorite bar, which you insisted on going to—and you make it a point to order their favorite champagne, too. You mimic their mannerisms, or read their book recommendations and listen to their playlists, and think, If only I had the chance. We would get along so perfectly. Should the friendship happen, it would be the stuff of myth. You don’t realize that you don’t want to share yourself, but an altered version of yourself you think this person would love and accept. What’s more, it probably doesn’t occur to you that they might be putting on a bit of a show themselves, that the myth is just that: a myth.

This is the only way I’ve ever known how to make friends, molding myself to fit an image of the person I admire. Luckily, the best friends I’ve ever had have been able to tease out the real me with relative ease. I learned that I didn’t need to try to impress them. These friends are few and they are precious. They’re small, quiet friendships, without many grand or epic moments. Thelma and Louise begins with such a friendship, as far as we can tell: Two friends living commonplace lives somewhere in Arkansas, planning a weekend fishing trip over the phone, which is likely the first trip they’ve ever taken alone together.

When we meet Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, respectively), it’s the beginning of the day, and they seem to be living not-dissimilar lives. Louise is gliding through the breakfast shift at a diner, pouring coffee and advising young women not to smoke (“Ruins your sex drive.”), then stepping into the kitchen to light one up. Thelma offers her husband and high school sweetheart, Darryl (Christopher McDonald), a cup of coffee and some kind words for the work day ahead and is met with scorn and condescension. When Thelma admits to Louise that she hasn’t asked Darryl’s permission yet to go on a weekend fishing trip in the Arkansas Ozarks with her, Louise asks forthrightly, “Is he your husband or your father?” It’s probably not Louise’s first time daring Thelma to break the status quo; Thelma happily acquiesces. Louise is likewise leaving someone behind: her boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen), who’s been touring with his band and hasn’t called. A weekend away from their lives is just what they need.

When they stop at the aptly named Silver Bullet, a smoky country bar, they’re practically ambushed by a cocky, self-assured man named Harlan (Timothy Carhart).

“What are a couple of Kewpie dolls like you doing in a place like this?” he asks flirtatiously. Thelma is instantly charmed, not oblivious to the fact that he’s hitting on her but enjoying the attention. Louise snaps, “Minding our own business, why don’t you try it?” Before long, Harlan is twirling Thelma on the dance floor, beers in hand, until she gets so dizzy that he suggests taking her out to the parking lot for some fresh air (his ulterior motive is painfully easy to read on his face). Before long, Louise is brandishing the pistol Thelma brought in case they encountered “psycho killers, bears, or snakes,” and holds it up to Harlan’s head as he tries to rape Thelma on the back of a car.

“In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having any fun,” Louise seethes. Harlan surrenders, but not before challenging her: “Bitch. I should’ve gone ahead and fucked her.”

There’s a lot to envy about Louise’s heroism in this moment; she doesn’t hesitate to hurt the man who’s hurting her best friend in one of the worst ways imaginable. But we can’t help but wonder how she knows exactly what to say to him—and then how she’s so effortlessly capable of silencing him for good.

I’d like to think I’m capable of risking my life to save my best friend’s. Every time I watch Louise shoot Harlan and tell him, “You watch your mouth, buddy” as he’s slumped against the bumper of the car, I think I could be.

They decide to flee to Mexico; they have nothing worthwhile left to go back to now, and it’s incredibly unlikely that Louise could plea convincingly that the killing was in self-defense. Somewhere between their hometown and Oklahoma City, at a dusty gas station in the middle of nowhere, Darryl commands Thelma to come home immediately. She silences him by telling him to go fuck himself. She stumbles out of the phone booth right into J.D. (Brad Pitt), a virile and felonious hitchhiker. He rides with them to Oklahoma City, where Louise has arranged for Jimmy to wire her life savings. Instead of just wiring the money, he brings it to her in person at the Vagabond Motel.

Perhaps the most defeating scene in the whole movie is when J.D. comes back to find Thelma at the motel. They spend the evening playing Red Hands (a game that involves slapping the backs of your opponent’s hands before they can pull them away—he removes her wedding ring, citing an unfair advantage in the game), trading stories (he’s a talented and rather polite thief), and having sweep-everything-off-the-table sex (the envelope with Louise’s money is sitting on the bedside table). Meanwhile, Jimmy is proposing marriage to Louise to keep her from slipping away. They spend the evening reminiscing about the beginning of their relationship and going over what went wrong. He lets her keep the ring; she ends up trading it for a few bucks and an old man’s straw hat in the middle of the desert. Thelma has the most fulfilling night of her life, but at a cost: J.D. robs her and leaves them penniless by daybreak. Louise says goodbye to a flawed but well-intentioned man she loved, never to see him again. All they need now—all they have—is each other.

The longer they’re on the road alone together and the further away they get, the more they revert to a state of nature, both externally and internally. Louise can’t bring herself to put on lipstick when an old woman sadly peers at her from a café window (perhaps reflecting on what it was like to be young and beautiful and to have the world laid out before you; or remembering how naïve she was as a young woman); Thelma says, “Something’s, like, crossed over in me, and I can’t go back. I mean, I just couldn’t live.” What would be the point of putting on appearances anymore? Was there ever a point?

We don’t know what drew Thelma and Louise together in the first place. When Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) searches Louise’s apartment, we see a photo of the two in high school, holding textbooks and smiling widely. What we do know is that they’ve grown together, and never more so than when Louise saved Thelma from being raped. We also understand that you can actually know very little about your best friend, no matter how long you’ve known one another. Louise refuses to go into detail about what happened to her in Texas all those years ago. She informs Thelma, “Look, you shoot a guy with his pants down, believe me, Texas is not the place you want to get caught.” Detective Slocumb tells Louise, “I know what’s making you run. I know what happened to you in Texas.” We can only guess at what happened, like Thelma does. We’re only allowed to know so much.

What could it have been that drew these women together in their youth? Darryl was no doubt a sticking point in their teenage years—there likely would’ve been a good deal of competition between him and Louise, both vying for Thelma’s attention. Perhaps Louise tried to convince Thelma that she was too good for him, that there would be other, more meaningful romances after high school. No doubt, too, each admired something in the other (Don’t so many friendships begin this way?): Perhaps Louise envied Thelma’s innocence and subconsciously made her protection a priority; perhaps Thelma admired Louise’s headstrong manner from afar and wanted nothing more than to be in this girl’s orbit. They’ve always stayed close to home, likely confined within the walls of a neighborhood bar, or Thelma’s house under Darryl’s watch, and very rarely alone together: Thelma admits to Louise at the beginning of the movie that she’d “never been out of town without Darryl.”

It’s through Louise’s instinct to protect and empower her best friend that Thelma is able, ultimately, to be freed of her husband, of everything that’s ever been expected of her. No longer does she have to stay home while Darryl’s “out doing God knows what,” or ask him what he wants for dinner, or be scolded for asking him that question. By killing Harlan, Louise gives Thelma the encouragement to thrive for the first time in her life—and she frees herself, too, of any inhibitions she might’ve had about defending her best friend against anyone who ever held her back. Such a gesture of friendship—of love—can only be paid back in full in one way, and Thelma delivers: She sees the journey through to the end.

Some friends demand more of you than you’re able to give. Sometimes, someone you admire is underwhelmed by you, despite (or because of) your attempts to impress them. But other times, you’re just the kind of presence that person has been looking for—or that they didn’t know they were looking for. This friend is impressed less by your talent or wit than by how natural it is to be around you, how you respond when the friendship calls on you to step up and, eventually, your ability and willingness to act on their behalf. In these friendships, small acts of generosity and kindness can turn into gestures of love, and—if you’re persistent enough—into a great story.


Taylor Hine is a writer living in Asheville.


Now Playing: Hell or High Water

 
© CBS Films

© CBS Films

 

by Fran Hoepfner

It’s been a long summer. I decided to go without air conditioning this summer to, I don’t know, save money? It was a stupid decision. It’s been hot. August has trudged along for years now. I keep thinking back to my last summer without air conditioning, which was in 2012. I was living in Michigan at the time. We tried to shoot off fireworks in a grassy field on the Fourth of July, and the police came––not to tell us to stop, necessarily, but warned us that there hadn’t been rain in six weeks, and if the field caught fire, well, that would be on us. That week,  I took myself to see a double feature of The Amazing Spider-Man and Magic Mike in the same day just to sit in a cool room. Those were good. Well, maybe they were good. At least I felt good.

I can barely remember what movies I’ve seen this summer. They’ve been pretty awful, these past few months, haven’t they? All of these big budget, 3D whatevers blur together. I didn’t see the new Independence Day movie but I bet I could tell you what happened in it. Do I sound old? I’m sorry. I guess maybe I feel a little older than I used to.

After a long and stressful weekend, I went to go see Hell Or High Water by myself, and it absolutely gutted me.

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Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine & Ben Foster) are brothers living in West Texas. They’re poor; everyone is poor. The money is in oil and truly nothing else. Their mother has just died, medical expenses leaving the family destitute, and the bank is about to take the house. Not a bank—The Bank. Texas Midlands Bank is going to take their house and everything they have left.

Toby knows the bank doesn’t owe him anything and yet—this stings, it hurts. Is this all there is, after his mother is gone? He and his brother and his family—his two boys and ex-wife—left to starve and wither in the middle of Texas because of The Bank? So he hatches a plan. He and Tanner are going to rob Texas Midlands Bank to pay off Texas Midlands Bank. If this sounds stupid, you’re right: it is stupid. It is a stupid idea from the jump. But people do stupid things for all sorts of good reasons, so carry on.

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I have often taken it upon myself to defend a useless movie. I don’t think this is a particularly noble cause, but I will champion a blockbuster, a sequel, a franchise, a Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates (except not really, for that one) because sometimes I think they’re precisely what we need.

In the summer of 2014, I felt heartbreak for the first time. I needed The Fault In Our Stars and I needed Obvious Child.

In the summer of 2015, I felt recklessness. I needed Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike: XXL.

It’s nearly September and I don’t know how I feel this summer about anything at all.

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You can’t, of course, just rob banks and expect people not to notice. (See above: stupid.)

A Texas Ranger, Marcus, (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) take notice of the brothers. Well, they take notice of the banks, and how they’re missing money. Marcus is mere weeks away from his retirement, but why not go out for one last ride? It’s a Western, after all.

It doesn’t take much for the rangers to figure out what’s going on here, but it’s not as if they have help. The folks who have seen the Howard brothers don’t have much to offer in terms of information. They might have sat there. They might have looked like that. They might have worn that shirt, those jeans. Who is really on the side of justice in 2016 when there’s so little of it going around? Does anyone really want to be rooting for a sheriff when we feel like every single one of us is a Robin Hood? When Marcus is forced to confiscate a $200 tip Toby left for a waitress as evidence, she refuses to offer up anything else.

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I’m hard-pressed to say that no one’s favorite movie is a summer release. Sometimes, very excellent movies come out during the summer, and that’s a nice surprise. But the movies that are meant to last and be held up in some regard—be it critical or personal or emotional—those come later in the year when the days are darker and the nights are longer. It’s cooler, then, and there’s time to think about art and meaning.

So what are we owed, exactly, by a summer movie? The 2016 cynic in me screams, “Nothing! Absolutely nothing! If you don’t like something, it’s your own fault.” Cultural criticism is so saturated to a point where every bit of writing explains why something is Actually One Way or Actually Another. Most movies are Actually just movies. That’s a reductive opinion to have, I know. But I don’t need a summer movie to save my life or to fix feminism or to reinvent the comedy or anything else like that. Is it bad that I don’t care whether or not Ghostbusters is progressive, because it also didn’t make me laugh at all?

I just came out to have a nice time in some air conditioning. Why does it feel so difficult this year?

A more thoughtful version of myself, one that has slept in and stayed hydrated, expects a summer movie to be cathartic. It’s a release from thought and worry for 120 minutes. Summer movies are all ethos, but this summer I needed pathos.

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Hell Or High Water is not the first movie to have a crime-committing duo where one is Noble and Good and the other is a Firebrand. This is old; it’s a trope. Toby is in it for his family. He wants his sons to escape the poverty that has plagued his family for decades. Tanner has already gone to jail. Tanner has already done everything. He drives fast because it feels good. He hits someone because it feels good. I don’t know if he’s a sociopath, but he’s dangerous enough for even Toby to feel occasionally unsafe.

The state of movie scenes where two characters say “I love you” to each other is extremely bad, but Hell Or High Water’s is good. Toby and Tanner don’t even make eye contact when they say it. It’s not a declaration; it’s an obligation. They’re not professing love; they’re confessing it. Love is deep and shameful and binds them together, even as they plummet into a bloodbath of stupidity and uselessness.

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I wanted to write about Suicide Squad this month, but what is there to say that everyone hasn’t already, ten times over, two weeks ago, and much funnier than I would? It sucked!

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Maybe it’s about authenticity.

The movies that come out during the summer are movies. They’re not so much honest as they are distractions. They’re not reflective; they’re fake. You say: “that’s special effects, that’s a green screen, that’s acting.” The movies that are films—the ones people write their dissertations on or whatever people do with films—are real. They’re the art. They’re about Us and How We Are and How We Live.

Someone I spoke to didn’t like Hell Or High Water because it felt staged. To him, it was fake and inauthentic. “No one sounds like that,” he told me.

Of course no one sounds like that, I wanted to shout. It wasn’t real. It was a summer movie, no matter how small it felt.


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