Dear Olive

by Erica Cantoni

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Dear Olive,

How should a person be?

Love,

Sheila

***

Dear Sheila,

The summer I was seven, I spent two days on the middle bench of an airless yellow VW bus driving from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, with my family decomposing all around me.

The summer I was seven, my grandfather taught me to dance to distract me from our family burning down to their knees. He was the best partner I’ll ever have.

That was the summer my brother Duane stopped talking. When he painted giant positive negative portraits of Nietzsche on bed sheets and carried around a paperback copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that he curled open like the Red Sea. By no longer investing any energy in being a member of the human race, he was freed to obsess over becoming a test pilot. Push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups. Every repetition climbing a bit higher toward the goal of getting stronger, sharper, more disciplined, better. He grew his hair long that year; his bangs hiding his eyes like a cave and I hoped that if he missed talking to anyone at all, it was me.

My father was gone a lot that year, out delivering motivational training seminars to mid-sized businesses in the industrial ring around Albuquerque. When he was home, I could hear him through our stuccoed walls, discreet as curtains. Typing at an angry clip or leaving messages for his agent. Talking too loudly about the selling power of his book on the Nine Steps to Success. I don’t remember the steps but resilience must have been one. Not shame though—you couldn’t possibly have any shame and leave as many messages as my dad did for Stan Grossman that summer. That was the least happy I ever saw my dad, though the question of happiness never would have occurred to him. Life was about the polarities of winning and losing. And he was suffering the incredible discomfort of wandering around some uncertain land between.

Mom always said Dad was the most handsome boy she ever dated. And she dated plenty of others. A wealthy boy named Evelyn (which made Grandpa and me laugh and laugh), who used to come into the coffee shop mom worked at during college. Every Thursday morning at 7:15 he’d sit down at the counter and ask her out. Two eggs, scrambled hard. A side of bacon and rye toast. And what are you doing Saturday night? The city attorney’s son even proposed to her, home on Christmas break from a fancy medical school in Tennessee. But none of them had what Dad had. Mom said the moment he walked in, the coffee shop shifted. The diners felt him pass and couldn’t stop themselves from turning to stare. That’s the kind of charisma we’re talking about, Olive, she said. You could feel it like a bonfire. It was the way he stood, or the perfect wave of his hair. Or that smile that made people want to offer him everything they had and feel proud if he accepted. Somewhere along the way, though, I guess that flame got a little smaller. Even if dad still believed in himself, people had started to turn back to their food.

When my Uncle Richard came to stay with us that summer, I saw how mom would smile behind her hand when he made fun of Dad for being uptight or cheesy or tyrannical. It was like she knew she needed to stand beside him, but her legs were getting tired. And Uncle Richard’s invitation for her to sit down awhile was just a new flood of water in our family’s sinking life raft.

I couldn’t blame her really. Dad had plans. Opportunities. Pitches. But Mom had work. Every day, every week, overtime. The whole weight of life was hanging from the wrinkles around her eyes. Casting her mouth down into a frown she shoved off whenever she saw me or Duane. Sometimes, I’d climb out of bed and sneak down the hall to watch her at night. Sitting at the dining room table with a cup of flat Sprite, pushing her hair back until it rose up in crooked, static clumps like swamp reeds. Looking from a stack of papers to the calculator and pounding in numbers over and over, like a safe combination she’d forgotten. My grandpa said she was so beat all the time because it was exhausting work for the woman to be the man of the family. I don’t think she ever stopped being the mom either, so maybe he was right.

Grandpa was my favorite and I was his. He made fun of Duane and dad over dinner and told you the things adults are always trying to hide away or pretty up for you. What it was like to shoot a Nazi or take drugs or how he loved grandma but was also really happy to be able to get other women to love him when she died. And then he’d shuffle off to the bathroom and leave you alone to figure out what you thought of that.

So there we were that summer. Duane, who hated everyone. Dad whose life had run away from him. Uncle Richard, crushed into powder because the boy he loved didn’t love him back and his big job was gone. Mom, swimming across the ocean with us all on her back. Grandpa. And me.

In the midst of this mess, I got invited to compete in a beauty pageant, 800 miles away. All I cared about that summer was being a beauty. I was a seven-year-old girl and there was nothing more magical than the way Miss America’s face flicked on like neon when they announced the runner-up and she suddenly knew she had won. In a world full of women, it came down to her. She was the perfect mix of Snow White and Helen of Troy and Jessica Rabbit. The world had deemed her inscrutable, and what could be better than that?

Looking back, I don’t know why they decided to go. My family had no energy, no money, no time. Nothing left. And yet they took the road trip. For me.

And it saved my life. Not because I won the contest—oh no. Not even because the trip was a happy memory. It was terrible: The car was ruined by the time we arrived. Grandpa died halfway to California. Did I mention that? My grandpa / best friend died without a single noise while I slept eight feet away in a 20 year old motel bed. I tried not to be too sad because I knew he would have thought it was funny to go like that. My parents fought all night and dad lost his book deal. Duane found out he was color blind—you’ve never heard an animal howl like Duane did when he realized he couldn’t be a pilot. Uncle Richard was still on suicide watch, still dragging the carcass of his life behind him to politely keep up with us because someone had decided he couldn’t be trusted alone anymore.

We were in shambles. I was stewing in the sewage of my family’s fear that summer. Their insecurities and loneliness and resentment at life. At the weight of expectations upon them.

They were losing faith and I was getting lost alongside them.

Looking back, I guess I thought winning a pageant—being judged the very best girl—might be enough to save us.

We fled into the pageant like refugees. Tired and forlorn and carrying our dead. While outside, tan dads on Bluetooths parked black SUVs so shiny they looked perpetually wet in this seaside desert. Inside, blonde, taut moms hugged blonde, taut daughters and reminded them to smile.

I went in earnestly hoping that the world would discover it had been wrong about me—waiting for its change of heart was getting exhausting. But spending three hours in a sweaty South Bay Hilton taught me one thing that changed my life forever: I’d been trusting the wrong people.

It came to me in the middle of my dance routine. Picture this: I’m up on this temporary ballroom stage, hitting all my moves and keeping perfect time. Doing it better than I’d ever done it. But these people—they don’t get it. Their faces are flinching at the music and the girls are laughing and pointing at my outfit.

And suddenly, just like that, I realized the world was a tyrant. A boring, unappeasable tyrant with terrible taste. It couldn’t see what an epic song grandpa and I had chosen. Or how impossibly tricky it was to rip off Velcro pants without missing a step. How hard my grandpa had worked to sew them, even though it made his hands twist and cramp up and his eyes sting and blur. They didn’t even get it.

You see, Dear Sheila, there’s a moment in this life when we each get to decide: Who are we going to trust? Who will we choose to stand by?

I’d known these pageant dummies for all of an hour. They had long waxy smiles that they presented to the world, but off stage no one even responded when I said hello. Or I like your pantyhose. Or did you sew that bow on your butt yourself?

But me? I had known me for seven years. I had kept me company when Mom and Dad yelled behind their bedroom door and Duane’s silence flooded the house like a fog. I had calmed me down and cheered me up and made me laugh.

I trusted me more than I trusted them.

So I stood up on that stage and I danced for grandpa, who trusted himself too, and I danced for me and I danced in celebration that the verdict didn’t matter anymore. My family even came up onstage, leaving behind that quiet, awkward crowd with their tsking and their pursed lips. Just stepped right up out of the failure and judgment and danced like they’d finally been released. Elbows flying and butts bouncing. Spinning and spinning and laughing right next to me in that hot fat freedom.

I didn’t win the pageant, Sheila. I got kicked out, actually. Dad did lose his book and Duane lost his dream and we all lost Grandpa.

But somehow all that loss paved a way. We got back to trusting that we were good enough.

So what’s the meaning of life? How are people supposed to be? Well, Sheila, this is what I believe: The only secret is knowing—in your bones, in the sinew that winds around them and the blood that flows above them—that you are good enough.

More than that, that you are Enough.

Believing this is the start to everything. Nothing really ever grows unless it’s planted here first. You might argue this is narcissistic but I assure you: Nothing more surely guarantees a life of miserly self-absorption than the constant fear that somehow you are not good enough. The plague and marathon of insecurity is what dooms us. It’s what makes us do the worst things to each other.

But accepting that you are just what you need to be? That’s what sets you free. You are able to create without worry. To teach without ego and learn without judgment. To root for the rest of the world to win. To forgive people who don’t root for you. To give and love without expectation for reciprocation or praise. Knowing that you don’t need the world’s endorsement (and “the world” is as big as the media and as small as your boss or boyfriend) brings an abundant peace that you’ll never find through competition or achievement or beauty.

And it will build you a tribe of people who need the same sweet grace. Because what people are drawn to more than anything is others who can teach them, convince them, pardon them and endow them with the sacred understanding that We Are Each Enough.

So this is your job: Believe in the wholeness and beauty and weirdness and sanctity of yourself—just as you are, despite what you do—and then become a disciple for this faith.

When you are well convinced of your own irrevocable enoughness, start paying attention to the goodness in others and reflect that light back at them like you are ending a blackout. It is a search after all, my friend, and they are lost. Go find your tribe and gift this enoughness to them. There’s no more sacred work in the world than spreading this grace.

We are enough.

Hallelujah.

You have been Enough for as long as you’ve been anything at all. You are already what a person should be, Sheila. And the faster you figure that out, the sooner you’ll be free.

Love,

Olive


Erica Cantoni works in the non-profit world by day and writes by night. She believes in Radical Sincerity, aims to earn admission to the Travelers Century Club before she dies and reveres movies, books and things on the internet that make her cry in the best possible ways. She and her husband live in Los Angeles with their adorable cat.


The History of the Future

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

If you’re looking for trouble, that’s what you will find. —Talking Heads

In 1991, the world was resolving 20th century problems: genocide in the former Yugoslavia; the Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait; the Rodney King case; the Anita Hill hearings; the eighth marriage of Elizabeth Taylor.

It was the year M. visited my high school as an exchange student. She was—is—Croatian, from Dubrovnik, an ancient port (now resort) town on the Adriatic. I’m probably misremembering that she was made to live in the basement of her first host family; in any case, she was self-possessed enough to request a transfer out of that house and town, and that’s how she ended up attending my school. M. was always singular—elegant, silent, unsmiling but not unfriendly—for good reason. In the year that she was meant to improve her English in America, her father, a politician, was assassinated, and her boyfriend, a photographer, was killed in a bomb blast. Her mother left Yugoslavia for safety in Germany.

The world was bigger than my experience. I recognized it, but there were few people who were a direct link, who were proof. In the hallways and the classrooms, M. existed apart. This wasn’t a considered retreat; she was polite. She didn’t complain or cry. She didn’t refuse to tell her story. There were many who wanted to befriend her; it was the flawed or slightly broken ones who became her confidantes.

I admired her difference: the compact way she carried herself, with arms and belongings held neatly to her body; her precise sloping handwriting, the product of some alien school of penmanship; the way she intoned poems in halting English when I helped her compose a letter. When you’re young—maybe, ideally, always—you’re looking for ways to be, for examples that lead beyond your experience. Here was a person whose every identity—from national to familial—was pulled apart within one year. I was sympathetic toward her, and reverent, awed at how inadequately I could understand her condition.

Movies about the end times are exactly what you want when you think you want truth. One of the films M. and I saw that year was Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Though not the director’s most successful, the film is arguably his most ambitious—a role-reversed Ulysses story that describes a woman’s travels across the globe and a man who waits for her return. It is a 20th century story: unlike current ideations of the apocalypse, there is a home to return to—the world is home. In 1991, global citizenship was still a fantasy and a privilege. And the year 1999, in which Wenders’ movie takes place, was a tessellation of unknowns, a metaphor for modern anxiety or, as in the Prince pop single, an opportunity for hedonism.

Until the End of the World is not a love story, though love’s byproducts, jealousy and desire, kickstart the plot. Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin)—free spirit, commitment-phobe—is at the apex of an amatory triangle. She awakes in the aftermath of a bad party in Venice, and decides to return to Paris and her unfaithful boyfriend. En route, she crashes cars with two good-natured bank robbers, and she agrees to smuggle their stolen cash for a cut of the holdings.

Enter Sam Farber (William Hurt) who aids Claire when she’s pulled over for speeding. Farber’s a good con, which should red-flag his nature as a romantic prospect. But for Claire, elusiveness is catnip. Farber steals a bit of her money, and Claire is smitten. She uses the rest of the cash to track him around the world: Lisbon, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, San Francisco, the Outback.

There’s not exactly anything admirable about the relationship between Claire and Sam—the film describes the loneliness of obsession, how its dreams can feed without nourishing—but the lovers’ story also reflects the gloriousness of what an Other can elicit. Romance can be an anthropological excavation inward; but it is also the great voyage beyond the self.

Claire’s travels are a chief pleasure of the film. One of its best sections is relayed through video, when Tourneur travels the Trans-Siberian to Asia and faxes footage back to her ex. Suitably, Wenders’ production company is called Road Movies—the genre glamorizes the wanderer, even though the director’s itinerant characters have left home for unhappy reasons. Like the work of many of his German and Austrian contemporaries, Wenders’ films explore estrangement. For his characters, traveling seems to be a pathology as well as a consolation. Perhaps this is why devastated landscapes recur in Wenders’ films. These settings convey emotion in suspense or in holocaust.

*

We can divide fears of modernity into three periods: those of industrialization (depicted by the Dadaists, Surrealists and Modernists, who relished the acceleration that technology brought); those of the atomic age (when the world became aware of how technology can turn against us); those of globalization (where technology becomes either our demise or our means of escape). Until the End of the World manages to capture all of these views sequentially. At the time of shooting, Wenders arranged deals with Sony’s R&D department to inform the story. The technology in the film prefigures much of what we take for granted today— video chat, GPS, voice recognition, and our reflexive reliance and an endless appetite for these proliferating devices.

There is so much to Until the End of the World that there is arguably no definitive version of it. According to rumor, Wenders’ original cut ran up to twenty hours long. I switched my old laptop permanently to Region 2 settings so I could watch the 280-minute director’s cut, released on DVD because of his disappointment in the theatrical version. But perhaps his objections are as relevant as Ridley Scott’s on the release of Blade Runner—they’re useful as a window onto the director’s tastes but not necessarily as a blueprint for a better picture.

Wenders is a master of patient observation, but all you need to see is in the briefer American release. The story nests several films: there are noir conventions as a woman (and many bounty hunters) tracks her criminal lover; a road movie that conveys the beautiful, granular variety of travel, and then the film’s final story, a creation story.

To help Farber’s mother (Jeanne Moreau) regain her sight, Farber father (Max von Sydow) and son have developed a technology that allows the extraction of visual imagery from the brain and its digital recreation. (I thought of this movie when I first heard of Christopher Nolan’s film about dream thievery, Inception.) Even as a nuclear satellite detonates, and the characters are cut off from the world, the entire family, including Claire, becomes engrossed in the production of images.

The movie prefigures the solipsism of the virtual world: Claire, her lover, and his father, become addicted to the visual content of their dreams, which they record and play back until they run out of batteries. They ignore emotions, accountability, physical need. It is a compulsion that kills some characters and transforms others. We’re left with the idea that the only sensible person is the one tapping away at his manual typewriter; or he could be another ineffectual person consoling himself with his own mania for stories. The movie doesn’t linger on these questions, though. The film works best when Claire is aloft, and we are allowed the pleasure of watching her next incarnation, working in outer space.

Some of us learn to articulate emotion through communion with music. The sensational achievement of the film’s soundtrack is that it feels apocalyptic not because of darkness within the songs, but because of the thankfulness within them. Wenders asked his collaborators to write the songs they felt were ten years in their future. What we hear, what we see in Until The End Of The World is a commemoration of love, renunciation and grief, an elegy for time on earth.


karina.jpg

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.


A Connoisseur of Roads

by Chad Perman

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

I am thirteen years old. We are on a family vacation. It is the summer before 8th grade, and I have a small cluster of pimples scattered across my chin for the very first time. We have just returned from dinner and we sit down on the couch together, the four of us, to watch the movie I picked out at the video store earlier in the day. I had chosen My Own Private Idaho—actually managing to convince my parents to let us get something R-rated—almost entirely due to the fact that my dad had loved Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure a couple of years before, my mom had really liked Running on Empty around that same time, and I was just starting to be old enough to like the idea of River Phoenix and all the rebellion I imagined he represented. Also, it had the word “Idaho” in the title, and we had lived there once, for exactly one year, when I was four years old.

It turns out, though, that these are actually really terrible criteria for selecting which movie to watch with your sheltering parents and younger sister on a family vacation.

And, had the internet only existed back then, all of what was about to happen could have been avoided entirely. My parents would certainly have consulted some site like this before allowing us to watch any rated-R movie, and would quickly have discovered that “this film about street hustlers contains frequent references to and sometimes scenes of gay male prostitution. The hustlers in the film use drugs (cocaine) and alcohol frequently, and they also steal and lie to each other. There is frequent cursing throughout (“f–k”).” But, of course, the internet wasn’t around yet. Thanks for nothing, Al Gore.

Thus did it transpire that our family soon experienced what could fairly be deemed “an uncomfortable moment”. About five minutes in, after a gorgeously constructed opening montage that I was in no way old enough to appreciate yet (but would one day write an entire paper on in college, natch), the film cuts to River Phoenix, in a chair, getting a blow job from an old man. A house crashes down from the sky as Phoenix climaxes, and the man throws some money on his bare chest. At that point, my parents decided that my mom should accompany my younger sister out of the room. My dad and I made it another fifteen minutes or so—fifteen very uncomfortable minutes—before he turned to me and said “Hey, let’s turn this off”. Followed rather quickly by “Why did you pick this?”

We never really spoke of it again after that, at least not directly, but the next time around my sister picked out the movie for Family Movie Night. It was abundantly clear to all involved that I wouldn’t be the one picking out much of anything again for a very long time. My taste was now forever suspect, my selection privileges suspended. When I was finally given another chance months later, I picked Airplane! instead.

*

I am in my early 20s and alone in my Seattle apartment. It is the middle of winter. My roommate is gone for the night, which is fine because we’re not really speaking to one another these days anyway. I still have a smattering of pimples. I am a junior in college, working part-time in a video store, with basically no idea of what I want to do with my life. I try to call my parents at least once a week, but sometimes I forget. I watch a lot of movies, attempt to play music and write stories, and am slowly making my way toward an English degree at the University of Washington. I have a lot of anxiety. Often, I feel completely lost.

I watch My Own Private Idaho—having brought home a VHS copy from the store after finishing up my closing shift—and I have an experience with it. Especially near the beginning, tearing up unexpectedly as Phoenix imagines resting his head on his mother’s lap, as she runs her fingers through his hair and tries to comfort him: Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright.

I feel less alone and more alone all at once.

I miss my family, or more specifically, a sense of home. Because home no longer existed for me, at least not outside of my memories of it; I could go back to the actual house, walk among its rooms, but it was no longer a place that I lived. It was now somewhere I had outgrown and moved away from. My old bedroom had already been turned into a makeshift home office; my younger sister had left for college the year before. I was living on my own, feeling adrift, and desperately missing the stability of a place to call home, and a mother who could soothe all worries with a few well-chosen words.

Soon after that night, I start to think of My Own Private Idaho as one of my very favorite movies. I mourn the loss of River Phoenix like never before, watching every film he ever made, and all of Gus Van Sant’s as well. I switch my major in college to film.

*

I am in my mid–30s. I own the Criterion Special Edition 2-DVD set of My Own Private Idaho. I bought it the very day it came out, years ago, but still haven’t watched it. I know that it once meant a whole lot to me, but I’m worried that maybe it no longer will. Maybe I’m scared of that—of it not being what I remembered of it—or maybe I’m worried that it’s exactly the same, but that I’m simply too different now to connect with it, that it can’t possibly speak to me in that way something does when you’re twenty years old and everything seems so impossibly urgent.

I’m married now. I have a mortgage and other assorted monthly bills, which I pay on time. I’m a family man with a respectable job, two wonderful kids, and a truckful of adult responsibilities. And I’m not sure how My Own Private Idaho fits into any of that, exactly.

I finally force myself to rewatch it by assigning myself the film for this issue of the magazine, and then I quickly commission accompanying artwork from an artist I greatly admire to make sure I can’t wiggle my way out of writing the essay. I watch the film, and engage withMy Own Private Idaho all over again.

It is exactly how I remembered it. It is nothing like how I remembered it.

*

The film opens like this: a dictionary definition of narcolepsy, a bright blue title card that reads “Idaho”, and then a shot of a vast, empty, endless road. Mike (Phoenix) enters the frame, wanders around it, looks at a pocket watch intently. His bag falls over behind him. Music floats underneath the scene, lulling, vaguely nostalgic, or graceful, or both. A couple of minutes pass, in the middle of nowhere Idaho, as he considers the road:

I always know where I am by the way the road looks…There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road - I mean exactly like this road. It’s one kind of place, one of a kind.

Clouds pass by, the sky a pale blue eternity. His hand begins to shake, his eyes twitch and roll. He falls over in the middle of the road, asleep.

*

“You ache with it all; and the more mysterious it is, the more you ache.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky,Notes from the Underground

*

We are always, all of us, looking for home. Literally and figuratively, so many of our maps point us back there. We have a sense of something lost now. Something resembling warmth and comfort and belonging. Something nostalgia can only ever barely get at. We spend our lives searching for our lives.

Home—either the endless quest for it, or the pushing away from its trappings—runs throughIdaho just as much as any road does. Home as an imagined mother that will always hold us, or a demonized father that we struggle to escape. The pre-verbal comfort of loving arms juxtaposed with a developmental need to grow wings and fly away. An endless, aching search for love and context.

Mike is a lost and vulnerable soul, a drifting narcoleptic, a male street hustler with a hard time following through on things. He falls asleep at the best of the times and the worst of times. His wounded but hopeful, almost childlike search for love and comfort—from a lost mother, a difficult brother/father, a straight best friend, a half-remembered sense of home—leads him down many different roads, literally and figuratively, on purpose and by accident.

He wakes up in Portland, Seattle, Idaho, even Rome. He’s forever chasing the vapor trail left by his mother, who abandoned him so many years ago. He was almost too young to remember, but not quite. Memories still flicker in his mind, remembered as old home movies shot on grainy Super 8, scenes of her smiling, waving, dancing.

He will always be chasing her—the love and home she represents—even when he’s not. But he’s managed to put together a makeshift family of sorts in the meantime; a patchwork quilt of fellow NW street kids and hustlers that try to keep each other safe, afloat, and entertained.

One of these hustlers, his best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves), is mostly vamping, prostituting himself to defy and disgust his rich and powerful father, while waiting to gain access to his large inheritance. Whereas Mike spends the film looking for his lost mother, Scott spends a good deal of it decidedly pushing his family away.

“If I had a normal family, and a good up-bringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person,” says Mike, as he and Scott huddle around a campfire one night.

“What’s a normal Dad?” Scott replies.

*

My Own Private Idaho is beautiful, liminal, disorienting. It’s a film full of references, allusions, and visual poetry—a (literal) smashing together of two different screenplays and a short story, all written by Van Sant, that seem to clash awkwardly into one another at various points (especially whenever Keanu launches into his particular type of dude-speak Shakespeare). It’s an intriguing battle that is waged throughout the film, artifice and intimacy pushed up against one another, wrestling for control of the film’s ultimate aesthetic. As a result, it can feel like several different films all at once, even within the very same scene.

So, while the film is certainly an inordinately sad one at times—especially when centering around Mike’s bone-deep loneliness and perpetual vulnerability, or his endless longing for a home he likely never knew to begin with—it’s also filled with a great many other things: comic vignettes, ill-advised heist schemes, gorgeous time-lapse photography, a soundtrack incorporating everything from Eddy Arnold to Madonna to The Pogues, and, famously, an extended re-working of parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV by way of Orson Welles’ little-seenChimes of Midnight.

Somehow, though, the disjointed, stitched together feeling of the overall narrative actually works, largely due to Van Sant’s ingenious decision to filter the film almost entirely through a character who, by the very nature of his narcoleptic condition, experiences the world in just such a jumbled, confusing way. Using Mike’s narcolepsy as a framing device allows us to take in his world—and all its various people and adventures—in much the same way as he himself does: slightly off and out of sync, a series of almost random moments and events, falling asleep and waking up to brand new things which he (we) have to slowly acclimate to and learn to make sense of.

*

Time passes, because that’s what time does. I grew up, because that’s what people do. And somehow, My Own Private Idaho is now twenty-three years old; older, in fact, than River Phoenix ever was.

Time is a house crashing down on us all.

At thirteen, Idaho was a mysterious—and rather quickly banished—film in my life; I didn’t necessarily understand it, but I understood that it was something that I wanted to understand.

At twenty, I brought my own sense of loss and lostness to the film, and, not surprisingly, found those very same things reflected back to me. Watching it over and over again that year, it never failed to produce the same ache in me, the sense that I was watching myself be made sense of, not in the particulars of the plot or its characters, but in the expansive universality of that ancient, primal longing for home.

At thirty-five, I’m not really sure what I’m bringing to the film any more—and perhaps that’s why I’m not entirely sure how to sort out my feelings about it at the moment. I know that I can still feel echoes of the film’s original mystery, as well as the resonance of its longing and all that it’s meant to me over the years, but there’s also a detached (grown-up) distance from it now. I connect with it, still, but not with the same sense of urgency. Maybe I’ve just come to accept that some aches will always be there—that loneliness and loss are part and parcel of the human condition, things to be wrestled with but never solved—and I no longer need (or expect) a resolution to Mike’s journey, or Scott’s, or anyone else’s. Roads take us places but they also bring us back. I still long for the past—or at least my best memories of it—but I’ve managed to build myself a home, too, and it is enough.


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


Hitchhiking Down the Highway of Love

by Elisabeth Geier

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

If, in 2013, the daughter of a multimillionaire ran away after eloping with a famous aviator (what is the modern equivalent of a famous aviator? A travel show host? Anthony Bourdain?), she would book a flight on Virgin America and spend the journey staring at the tiny computer in her hand and the satellite tv inches from her face. She would fly right over the road, miss all the majesty and mustachioed dreamboats that non-urban America has to offer, and be cornered by paparazzi at the other end. Still, the thrill of escape is a timeless one.

For a 75-year-old movie whose biggest plot point (and joke) hinges on the sexual inexperience of its central female character, It Happened One Night is still remarkably fresh. Technically, “it” happens over the course of at least four nights, and is rather hard to define. A plucky heiress and a boozy newsman fall in love? An opportunistic reporter manipulates a naive young woman? Two attractive strangers team up for a whirlwind romance along the eastern seaboard? Whatever “it” is, it set the standard for thousands of road movies to follow: unlikely travelling companions, madcap adventure, and the redemptive (and often seductive) power of the road.

It Happened One Night begins with Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a sheltered rich girl who runs away from her father when he disapproves of her marriage to famous aviator King Westley. (I will not spend any time discussing the non-character that is King Westley, save to say that King Westley is the greatest name ever for a famous aviator and/or a Wheaton Terrier.) Ellie is spotted in a Greyhound station by Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a mustachioed dreamboat newspaperman who recognizes the runaway heiress as the headline of his life. Their first exchange makes clear what will follow: “That upon which you sit is mine,” says Peter, gesturing vaguely towards her bus seat, or perhaps something else. “I beg your pardon,” says Ellie, clutching her purse. They hate each other from the start, so clearly we know that they’re bound to fall in love. Eventually Peter reveals that he knows who Ellie is, and promises to help her get to New York if she gives him an exclusive story. If she refuses, he’s going to turn her in and claim the $10,000 reward. Blackmail: turning adversaries into lovers since 1934.

While romantic comedy surely existed long before Shakespeare ever set Benedick and Beatrice at odds, It Happened One Night is nonetheless considered one of the very first modern rom-coms. It’s also widely acknowledged to be the first-ever “road movie,” as well as one of the earliest screwball comedies. Thus, it’s fairly impossible to watch the film now without comparing it to everything it engendered. What was groundbreaking in 1934 might seem rather clichéd now, but it was this movie that started it all: the meet-cute on public transportation; the couple who bickers endlessly until they fall in love; the wacky minor characters we meet along the way; the impromptu singalong that unites a motley crew of travelers. On the second day of the Miami-to-New York journey, a traveling band plays “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” in the back of the bus, while passengers trade off singing verses. At first Peter and Ellie just listen, then slowly they start to mouth the chorus, and finally the bus driver join in, too. It’s a delightful scene, a lingering glance at road trip camaraderie removed almost entirely from the actual plot. Personally, I can’t watch it without thinking ofWilliam and Penny singing “Tiny Dancer” on the Stillwater tour bus, but your reference may depend on your particular taste: do you flash to Harold and Kumar wailing “Hold On” as they drive towards White Castle? The Rockford Peaches singing their own praises as “members of the All-American League?” The Bellas smoothing over inter-acapella group conflict with an impromptu-yet-perfectly-arranged “Party in the USA”? Road trips demand singalongs, and we’ve seen this scene a hundred times, but everything It Happened One Night recalls is everything it actually pioneered.

Perhaps the most familiar cliché in the film—and the most appealing to a certain type of audience member (namely, me)—is the dominant but kind man taking the clever but sheltered girl under his wing. Peter Warne loves the sound of his own voice. Over the course of their northward journey, he lectures Ellie on travel etiquette, money handling, how to properly dunk a donut, appropriate piggyback ride technique, and, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, the undressing habits of the modern American male. Peter is a scoundrel, a blowhard, and a bossy son of a gun, but he’s also Clark Gable in high-waisted pants and an unbuttoned shirt. His air of hyper-masculinity is tempered by the fact that Peter is an inherently decent man. He squires Ellie cross-country, looks out for her at every turn, and never makes an untoward move. Sure, his kindness is self-serving, at least at first. “You’re just a headline to me,” he says. But his actions belie his decency; he looks out for Ellie even as he is using her.

When Ellie is approached on the bus by a sleazy traveling salesman named Shapely (“when a cold mama gets hot, boy how she sizzles!”), Peter stands up and demands to sit next to his “wife.” They go on to play married at a roadside motel, enacting the classic “man and woman fake relationship for mutual gain and inevitably fall in love” routine. Think Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds inThe Proposal, or John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in The Sure Thing. Of course in 1934, it wasn’t classic yet. It was scandalous to have a married young woman and a single, older man share a room at a budget inn. Good thing they maintain propriety by dividing the room with a blanket on a rope (“the walls of Jericho,” Peter says).

Claudette Colbert’s Ellie is an archetype, too: the sharp, independent, yet vulnerable woman who lets her guard down for the right man. She starts off an entitled princess, but as we get to know her better, we see that she’s not just some spoiled brat letting men guide her through life. She’s clever, funny, independent, and as turned on by a little domestic role play as the next girl. This is every role Meg Ryan played between 1989 and 1995, only less cute, and more self-aware. “This is the first time I’ve ever been alone with a man,” Ellie tells Peter that first night at the motel. Then, sarcastically: “It’s a wonder I’m not panic-stricken.”

In the end, Ellie and Peter’s mutual cleverness and good intentions are what keep us invested in their story. He’s an opportunistic rascal, but he’s not a creep. She’s an entitled brat, but she’s not a fool. They’re evenly matched, intellectually and emotionally. They argue so astutely, with such passion and playfulness, that the sex is bound to be good. Of course, given the era, the sex is bound to be off-screen. We don’t even get to see our couple kiss. Peter and Ellie get together, as we know from the start they must, but according to Hollywood legend, scheduling conflicts kept Gable and Colbert from set when the couples’ final reunion was filmed. Instead of seeing the climactic kiss we would expect from a modern road-screwball-rom-com, we see an exterior shot of another roadside motel, and hear a trumpet blast that lets us know the Walls of Jericho are a-tumblin’ down.

So what happens to Peter and Ellie after the screen fades to black? Are theyHarry and Sallybeing interviewed on a couch, or Benjamin and Elaine in the back of the bus? Peter is still a newspaperman with a drinking problem, Ellie is still a socialite who’s never lived outside her family home, and eventually they have to leave that motel. As Sandra tells Keanu at the end of that other great bus-based rom-com of our time, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances never last.” And, as Before Midnight so deftly demonstrates, young people in love can become older people in stasis. Relationships change, and sometimes the pair whose playful arguments end in passionate sex becomes the pair whose knock-down drag-out fights leave them wasted and lonely in a shared bed.

Not all film couplings beg follow-up, but I’d love to check in with Peter and Ellie after the honeymoon wears off. It Happened One Morning: years after their impromptu wedding, Ellen and Peter take a day trip to Massachusetts to tour boarding schools with their daughter, and in the close quarters of a commuter train we see their marriage straining at the seams. It Happened One Mid-afternoon: years after their divorce, Ellen and Peter reunite at their daughter’s graduation from Pembroke, where they bicker through the commencement address and exchange sad smiles over cocktails at the reception. Despite their delightful start, I don’t foresee much chance of happily ever after for these two, but at least they had a few great nights.

And they’ll always have the Greyhound bus.


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.


Into the Great Wide Open

by Letitia Trent

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When my husband Zach leaves home for a weekend Aikido seminar or a job training or anywhere that involves me sleeping alone and him driving long distances, I think He could be dead right now and I wouldn’t even know it, at least not for a few minutes, or maybe even hours. It seems impossible that I could even think of him alive—think of telling him something or curse him for leaving his whiskey glass half full by the bed where I spill it—when he could be gone.

This isn’t anxiety or obsession. I don’t believe that he is dead when he leaves, and it doesn’t make me pace the floors, and I don’t call him in tears asking for reassurances that he is still alive right now, this minute. It’s not irrational, really, because it is technically possible, but it’s a kind of possibility we have all decided to live with.

Still, we are always surprised when it actually does happen—somebody goes on a cross-country trip, and you receive a call at night telling you that they are gone and you’ll need to come identify the body. What would life be like if I were aware of this possibility all of the time, even more than I already am?

Even presence can’t protect us from death. A person can die while we are watching them. I just typed this, and it strikes me as strange—I can be speaking to you one moment, then you might hold your throat or touch your temple or feel a weakness in your arm and fall over and then, gone, your words practically still in the air. You might read this page, my words in your head, puzzling over the meaning of all my run-on sentences, and then, suddenly, the words blur and you’re gone. I could be gone, too, before this sentence is finished.

*

In The Vanishing, two lovers drive their small, European car through France. They are from Denmark and speak a language that sounds harsh, like an older, alcoholic uncle of English. The woman, Saskia, has freckles and red hair. The man, Rex, looks like his name—hard edges of jaw and black hair and moods that flicker between petulant and cruel.

They drive through mountain passes, the rocks leaning in sheets away from the road. They enter a cut tunnel, dark, where their car stalls and lights dim. She says she can find the flashlight, just wait a minute for her to find the flashlight. He tells her they must go—they could die in the tunnel, no lights, cars whisking by.

Put yourself in his place. He’s afraid but doesn’t want her to know. She lingers for a touch, though the lane is narrow and the trucks roll through, their horns echoing, and he leaves her.

There is no time to talk about dreams.

This is not the vanishing of the title. When he comes back, he finds her outside the tunnel, the flashlight in her hands. The tunnel is only a small vanishing, a foreshadowing. Each frame of the movie contains it: how she slips from his peripherals, how he leaves her and does not turn when she calls for him. She’s constantly at the edge, about to exit, always waving with her body if not her hands.

The vanishing in this movie is like all absences. No matter how protracted, still sudden, still strange that in one moment we could speak and hold a hand still animated and then a moment later it’s gone or limp and sparkless. Some speak until the end, and some are walking and talking until the moment it hits them—something literal like a car or a bullet, or the metaphorical hit: a heart attack, a stroke, something sudden that bursts vein walls or blacks out entire segments of the brain.

*

Several years ago I took a bereavement class at the local Hospice. For our training on how to comfort the recently bereaved—on what to say and not to say, how to understand the normalcycles of grief as opposed to abnormal grief—we met in an idyllic Vermont town, one with an autumn festival and a white church at its center. We carpooled to the training, so I waited for a carpool to the second meeting at our usual spot. The driver was late, and I worried someone had forgotten me. I usually think that plans will go wrong, I’ll be forgotten, I’ll ruin the training. But they came, eventually.

We couldn’t reach the last member of the carpool, Ed, who was supposed to bring snacks for the meeting. He was tall and fluent in Tibetan and Sanskrit. He coughed into his purple scarf (he was just getting over a cold), and during the first meeting, as we introduced ourselves (all artists, social workers, or writers), he had said that hospice work made him think about being conscious at the moment of dying. I didn’t know what he meant then. I thought that sounded awful, being aware of your own death, your life being tugged away from you like a piece of fabric so slippery you can’t hang on to it.

The carpool that second day finally left without him. We called him and left messages on his cell phone, which rang and rang until he said leave a message in the same voice each time. When we drove past his home, the road behind his house was blocked off with police tape. We drove around it. Surely he’s fine, the woman driving said. The other one said she had a feeling in her stomach that she’d had before. Had there been a white car on the street? He drove a white car. And what about the tape? What about the police officer directing traffic away? We drove to the meeting anyway. People don’t die so close to home, not so early in the morning.

Later that night, I received a call from Melissa, the woman running the training. Ed had been killed that morning. I said something stupid, then—Are you serious? She said yes, she was. He’d been hit by a car. He’d been hit by a drunk driver at eight in the morning, his body thrown from the passenger side of the car and into the street, where a woman (a nurse) had held him as he sputtered and bled and soon died. The driver of the car had kept going, her grandchild in the backseat late for school.

I think of that phone ringing in his pocket as his body was on the street, unable to respond. In that minute, still alive, and with the next call, not.

*

In The Vanishing, the lovers Rex and Saskia stop at a gas station, where she buys a frisbee and they sit in the grass under a tree. She gives Rex something and saysfrom the girl who loves roses, especially in 8’s, which seems almost like a gesture of forgiveness for his behavior back at the tunnel, when he left her in the darkness.

I like how it sounds, though I don’t understand it: from the girl who loves roses, especially in 8’s.

She disappears. Rex cannot find her after asking the cashier and the men at the pumps, after bursting in on the manager who seems amused at the foreigner’s fear. Rex slams the car door so hard he shatters the window and curls up in the place where her body had been, to sleep.

He examines his polaroids. He can see her, a small blonde dot near a truck. That’s her, he tells the convenience store manager, that’s her, she was here. As if her presence in the picture means she must still be out there, somewhere.

*

Like the rest of us, villains plan. They test the sedative effects of chloroform with stopwatches. They test the echoes in the landscape, how loud a scream must be before it reaches the neighbor’s house. Their wives feel vaguely neglected though the sex is regular. The children think father has a mistress—he’s sometimes not quite here, and the car is always about to run out of gas.

The villain in The Vanishing is named Raymond Lemorne. He is careful. He keeps lists. He is not the kind of man who does anything on a whim, or out of stupid desire like the rest of us. He practices his lines to prepare, a nervous actor, and perfects the way that he’ll shut the car door behind his victims—not too loudly, not aggressively in a way that might scare them. He doesn’t want to scare anyone.

*

After three years, we meet Rex again, back in France with a new girlfriend. This new woman—dark where Saskia was light, grave and fully-dressed where Saskia was buoyant, with clothes that always seemed ready to slip off—says I’ve had enough of your sacred places.

Rex’s face now bears the hurt of an adolescent who’s received a blow that might lead to a future limp or slumped shoulders or a cringing face. He breathes through his nose in anger, like a cat does when you pull its tail or touch it where it doesn’t want to be touched. He cannot be relieved—though it’s curiosity, not grief, which seems tp move him now. He goes on television and says that he doesn’t want to hurt the person who took Saskia. He doesn’t want revenge.

He just wants to know what happened.

*

When a person dies, the first thing we say is how did it happen? Zach and I sometimes sit on the porch of our apartment building to eat dinner or smoke and not get the smell of cigars or my little chocolate cigarettes in the carpets or on our clothes or in nicotine blotches on the walls. I asked him why he thought people ask about the details of a person’s death. Why should it matter? Why do we want to know the details, the specifics, the day and the hour?

I was thinking about this because of Rex, three years after Saskia’s disappearance, and how he speaks directly into the camera on television to the man (he assumes it’s a man, as we all do) who has taken her. I just want to know what happened, he says. I don’t want to hurt you, and I won’t turn you in. All he wanted was to know, but how would knowing help?

We sat on our porch in dusk in late April, the streetlights coming on so slowly we hardly noticed until their orange light filled the new leaves and spilled out onto the street. I had a theory about why we need to know the details of death: because knowing details, knowing what happened and how and exactly when, gives us some feeling of control. That place of darkness in our head where death is can be filled with an image. But why? Why isn’t the sheer fact that the person is gone, inaccessible, no longer available in the way they were before, enough to make us stop trying to gather information? Knowing things can’t bring them back.

Zach had another theory. He said that people want to know the details as a matter of survival—if we understand the reasons why people have died, we can assess our ability to avoid their deaths. He mentioned Jeff Buckley, a honey-voiced, Keatsian singer-songwriter who died after jumping into the Mississippi River for a swim while drunk.

His answer surprised me. It had not occurred to me that there could be a practical reason for asking these questions. And I don’t believe it, at least not in all cases. I don’t believe that we are nearly as rational as we like to think. There we were, for example, smoking cigarettes after our family members had died from lung cancer, after we’d seen commercial after commercial giving the raw data to prove that cigarettes can kill you.

I once badly sprained my ankle in a stupid, absolutely avoidable accident. I had unintentionally turned a treadmill up to an impossible running pace and tried to jump off the back to avoid being spun off the belt. Instead, the treadmill sent me flying back into the wall and I landed on my ankle, my left foot twisted to the right, with the full force of my weight on the small knobby bone of my left ankle. In the moments right after the accident, as I limped myself out into the main floor of the gym looking for Zach to show him my enormous, swollen ankle, I played the scene on a loop, trying to locate the exact moment when I could have changed the outcome.

For weeks afterward, as I lay in bed and couldn’t move, I would replay the scene in my head. I’d imagine what might have happened if I had instead hit the enormous red “stop” button on the panel. Or what if I had jumped on the outside edges of the treadmill and turned down the speed manually?

Later, I realized why I was doing this: some part of me, some part beyond logic, believed that if I could isolate that exact moment and re-imagine it, I could somehow change the outcome.

But maybe it’s just me. Maybe Zach is right: we want to know the details because we want to learn, to catalogue that knowledge and use it to keep ourselves safe.

*

Towards the end of The Vanishing, I began to feel sick to my stomach. I wanted to know what had happened to Saskia, but I was also afraid to know.

I liked Saskia. Remember earlier, when the lovers’ car stalls in the unlit tunnel and she is afraid, and he is afraid, and they cannot figure out how to tell each other how afraid they are? So she takes the flashlight and holds it tight in her hands until he returns, which endeared me to her. I like her red hair and her freckles.

I want her back like Rex, and like Rex, I know she is gone and I really just want to know how she was killed and where her bones are and if she was afraid. But should a lover be curious? I don’t really know her. Would I be curious if a person who had killed Zach, let’s say, came to me and said he/she would explain it all if I’d come along? I can’t imagine going. But then again, I can’t imagine any of it.

*

Once, when Zach and I were driving up to Montreal for a short vacation after a long stretch of work—in late August, I think, when it was sweltering and sticky even as far north as Quebec—we passed an accident on a highway. It had just happened, perhaps a dozen or so cars before us, and we drove slowly as the traffic assumed shape and form and flowed around the accident.

The term rubbernecker assumes that the desire to see is a kind of sin, is for only the most prurient reasons—to see a real skull split, for example—but I looked because I had to: this woman had been alive minutes before, and now she was dead. She lay face down next to the highway guardrail. She was still. Her t-shirt had ridden up, revealing a roll of fat and her bra strap pinched into the flesh of her back. Her arms were spread out and covered in cuts. Her shoes were on. She was faced away from the road and the top of her head was covered in blood—just a mound of red soaked through her hair, or maybe where her hair had been. The way she was laid out on the ground made it clear she was dead (arms pinned and twisted, face in the pavement), but it wasn’t until I saw the blood that I knew it, and my stomach turned and I had to look away. I spent the rest of the trip trying not to think of it, wishing I hadn’t looked. I imagined how quickly it must have happened for her—a skidding off the road, her car door opening, her body hitting the ground. Did she die on impact?

When we got home, I looked up information about the accident. I googled the highway and accidents and found it—a woman, 45, had died on Highway 89 North, just south of the Canada/Vermont border. I searched for a week for more information, but there was never anything else. I wanted to know what the car was doing—was it speeding? Was there a domestic dispute (her husband had lived, according to the newspaper)? Had they been hit by another car? I wanted to know more, not because I was morbid but because seeing her had reminded me of how close we always are to suddenly being gone. If we had started out on our trip five minutes earlier, we might have passed the van and seen her alive, her arm hanging from the driver’s side window in the sun. The time difference seemed too small to fit a death into. It wasn’t like a hospital death, slow and gradual, first the person’s health going, then motion and finally speech. It was too sudden.

*

After I finished The Vanishing I wanted to immediately wash the feeling of the movie away. I was afraid of people and the thoughts in their head that aren’t visible from the outside, what people are capable of and how little we know of why. I went to the IMDB message boards to see if anyone else felt the same. I learned that the ending of the movie is famous, that the director never made a movie so good again, and that The Vanishing was re-made as an American film. The American film had a happy ending, though I can’t imagine how. A happy ending would make it a completely different movie, the message destroyed. But what is the message?

Rex would have been happier if he had let Saskia go—is that the message of the movie? Is needing to know what happened, beyond all reasonable doubt, thereal villain here, as opposed to the quiet man with a simple haircut and a family waiting for him back at his summer villa?

Like cats, we are killed by our own curiosity. Or sickened when we look at the body facedown on the highway, afraid to ask how it happened and did they suffer and if it took long. But we ask anyway. We seem unable not to know when knowing is possible, and offered.


Letitia Trent's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Fence, and 32 Poems, among others. Her books include the upcoming Almost Dark (Chizine Publications), Echo Lake (Dark House Press), One Perfect Bird (Sundress Publications) and several chapbooks. Letitia is a horror film blogger for X Factor Films and lives in Colorado with her son, husband, and three black cats.


A Frog, Escaped

by Stephen Sparks

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The Muppet Movie was filmed in 1978 and released the following year. This was nearly a decade before legendary French auteur Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer was translated into English, rendering doubtful the pervasive, if little known, rumors that Kermit, who not only starred in but also directed the Muppets’ first feature length film, consulted Bresson’s notes during production. As any Muppet aficionado knows, Miss Piggy’s command of French is somewhat dubious1 and it is therefore unlikely that Kermit had the work translated for his personal edification by his overbearing love interest.

Nevertheless, Kermit’s working notes for The Muppet Movie, felicitously discovered by this author while capturing field recordings of Emmet Otter’s jug band in a swamp in the Deep South, reveals that Kermit was intimately familiar with Bresson’s book, quoting it at length—often in playful disagreement, pitting the pragmatic and anxious to please Amphibian-American mind against the more theoretical French version. (To characterize this battle of minds as Frog vs. Frog would be a joke in bad taste… So, naturally, it has to be made.) Just as often, however, we see Kermit using Bresson’s insights as hopping-off points for his own unique philosophy of filmmaking.

How Bresson’s notes came into Kermit’s possession will for now remain a mystery, but one less remarkable than the revelations apparent on each leaf of Kermit’s logbook. Like Bresson’s, Kermit’s meditations reveal the workings of a lightning quick and penetrating intelligence, one prone as much to gnomic utterance as to the delightfully aphoristic aside.2 Kermit’s grasp of his fellow Muppets’ characters, both in their individual and universal aspects, reveals a capacious mind, one seemingly at odds with the apparent simplicity—some might say gullibility—of the frog’s on-screen persona.

In addition to his grappling with Bresson’s stringent aesthetic principles, Kermit also confronts head-on in these pages pressing existential issues. In fact, quoted on the front flap of the notebook is Camus’ dictum: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” (Just beneath this is a line by Dostoevsky written in another hand, one can easily surmise the hoof responsible that reads: “On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering.”) It would be indecorous to say that the turbulent late 1970s brought Kermit to the brink of a crisis, but the previously unrippled surface of his personality seems to have been broken by some unknown event or series of events. Speculation proves idle given the scant biographical details of that era—even his memoir, the Kierkegaardianly titled Before You Leap, glosses over these years with sunny affirmations—but the fact remains that throughout the notebook Kermit quotes a steady diet of deep (and sometimes murky) thinkers: Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Simone Weil, and E.M. Cioran, among others.

Even without the backdrop of this recently discovered trove of writing,The Muppet Movie is, I believe, one of the pillars of 20th century comedy. Sadly, though perhaps inevitably given its subtlety, the film’s true greatness has yet to be recognized by all. It is my hope in offering a selection of Kermit’s jottings that the complexity of the film will become apparent to critics, who will surely begin to recognize the ambitions of its director. The Muppet Movie, like all truly great art, focuses myriad points of anguished thought and feeling into a single beam of light—in this case, literally—to demonstrate, with a simplicity that belies its depth, its own magnificence.

I also hope that for the general reader the following passages, which only skip across the surface of Kermit’s profound reflections like a pebble over a pond, lend themselves to thoughtful meditation. In the event that the reader only takes away a single thing, let it be that Kermit, in so ably convincing viewers of his plainness when so much depth lurks behind his unblinking eyes, is one of the greatest actors of his generation.3

*

[Editor’s note: for reasons of clarity, I have retained Bresson’s notes, in black, and follow them with Kermit’s, in green. Other selections have been attributed.]

The ejaculatory force of the eye. [Sheesh, this is a family movie.]

model Muppet. Enclosed in his mysterious appearance. [Enclosed in felt and cotton.] He has brought home to him all of him that was outside. He is there, behind that forehead, those cheeks. [The animating principle a hand.]

A Muppet. His actual being external. Internal, alien.

What our eyes and ears require is not the realistic persona but the real person.

A Muppet does not exist without the “real person.” (Does a Muppet exist once the hand is removed? Questions of the soul.)

THE BONDS HANDS THAT BEINGS AND THINGS ARE WAITING FOR, IN ORDER TO LIVE.

A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously. – Camus

Draw from your models the proof that they exist with their oddities and their enigmas. [What, exactly, is Gonzo? Should we feel comfortable with his love of Camilla the Chicken?]

I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously? – Cioran

Model. Two mobile eyes in a mobile head, itself on a mobile body. [EDIT: Muppet. Two immobile eyes on a mobile head, itself on half of a semi-mobile body.

How to wink without eyelids?

No intellectual or cerebral mechanism. Simply a mechanism.

Animal as this mechanism.

Fozzie as this mechanism.

Gonzo as this mechanism.

Model. “All face.” [But also, for this movie, arms and legs.] 4

It is from being constrained to a mechanical regularity, it is from a mechanism that emotion will be born. To understand this, think of certain great pianists.

Rowlf. Tickles the ivory but elicits no laughter.

YOUR MODELS MUST NOT FEEL THEY ARE DRAMATIC.

PIGGY ALWAYS FEELS DRAMATIC.

A Muppet cannot attain the real. The Muppet must alter reality.

Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence. [This is a head-scratcher.]

To your models: “Don’t think what you’re saying, don’t think what you’re doing.” And also: “Don’t think about what you say, don’t think about what you do.” [On 2nd thought: no need to clutter up things by mentioning this. This is not a concern.]

Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way. & Empty the pond to get the fish frog.

I have crossed the seas, I have left cities behind me, and I have followed the source of rivers towards their source or plunged into forests, always making for other cities. I have had women, I have fought with men; and I could never turn back any more than a record can spin in reverse. And all that was leading me where? To this very moment… – Sartre

What is the rainbow connection, anyway?

“All of us under its spell. We know that it’s probably magic.”

Ambiguity, illusion. Vision quest in the desert, a splitting of selves. Which is real? The hand or the being it animates?

Not artful, but agile. [A frog is, if anything, agile. Artful, on the other hand…]

The other hand: does it exist?

Models mechanized externally, internally free. “The constant, the eternal beneath the accidental.” [Mechanized internally, externally free.]

All those effects you can get from repetition (of an image, of a sound). [… Or a running gag.]

Voice and face

They have formed together and have grown used to each other. [Swedish Chef.]

The noises must become music. [Although sometimes the music is just noises.]

On their faces nothing willful. [Check.]

The sight of movement gives happiness: horse, athlete, bird.

The road as mirror—two-dimensional—of the screen. Roll across it. But let it contain hidden depths.

How much my life has changed, and yet how unchanged it has remained at bottom! When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the Anura community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a frog among frogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow frog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair. [Ed. note: this passage, by Kafka, was amended by Kermit.]

In every art there is a diabolical principle which acts against it and tries to demolish it. [Doc Hopper’s pursuit—disguised as a pursuit of wealth—really an embodiment of this diabolical principle.]

The real is not dramatic.

Obviously, this guy’s never met Piggy.

Eat a live frog in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. – Twain. [This holds true as well for the poor frog who was eaten.]

*

In all, Kermit’s tattered and waterlogged notebook holds ninety pages, densely packed front and back. Some passages I have bypassed out of discretion: these private musings, unfit for my purposes here. Other notes are abstract or too speculative and are therefore of little interest to a general audience. Kermit also jotted down rough outlines of jokes5, working notes for gags, predictions, lists, even a few recipes. At present, here in the pages of Bright Wall/Dark Room, it is my hope that this tantalizing glimpse into the mind of one of our great actor/directors will begin the long overdue reconsideration of the place of The Muppet Movie in the pantheon of American comedy movies.


1See The Muppet Show, episode 510 for verification.

2This view is not mine alone. In an article published in the Telegraph in February 2012, Kermit was described as “an intellectual and raconteur, propounding a philosophy of all that is important and beautiful in this life, the metaphorical swamp.”

3Technically speaking, the average lifespan of a frog is about ten years, which means that Kermit, who made his first appearance in 1955, could therefore be considered one of the greatest actors of the last six generations.

4The Muppet Movie marked the first time a Muppet’s lower extremities were displayed.

5“What is green and smells like pork?” he asks, leaving the question unanswered.


Stephen Sparks lives in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared inTin House, 3:AM Magazine, and the LA Review of Books.


The Day After Yesterday

by Michelle Said

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The two things people remember from Sideways is that Miles will not drink any fucking Merlot and that he loves Pinot Noir. Maybe, maybe, people also remember the speech Virginia Madsen gives in the middle as Miles is falling in love with her, but mostly not. After the movie came out, I went wine tasting in the same region as Miles and Jack with my then-boyfriend. We were blissfully, willfully drunk and everybody was buying up all the Pinot like crazy because Miles was so in love with it.

All I could think was, Miles would hate this.

In Sideways, Miles is at the bottom of several bottles of wine. He is hungover and late. He is pretending at emotions, he is sneering and wide-eyed when he smiles. He is middle-aged and stuck and completely, utterly in love.

With wine.

He loves wine because wine allows him to disguise his drunkenness with culture, to make him feel like he is the man he was always meant to be, the kind of man who is revered and respected for his stunning intellect. In the same kind of way you find the people at the local trivia night who were always a little bit better than average in school and know obscure facts that nobody cares about. Miles is of the same ilk.

"He loves wine because wine allows him to disguise his drunkenness with culture, to make him feel like he is the man he was always meant to be..."

I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I, too, am one of those nerds who gets upset when people misuse the word “complement” or don’t know the names of all the original Monkees (Davey, Peter, Mickey and Michael). But Miles belongs to a breed more ornery than your typical, run-of-the-mill trivia master. Miles would be categorized under the genus trivius nerdus within the specific species ofoenophiliac grumpus, the neurotic wine savant. He knows that nobody or nothing understands him quite as well as an empty bottle of wine does.

Well, that is, wine and Jack, his freshman-year roommate from college.

Two men couldn’t be more opposite on the outside. The new millennium’s Odd Couple. Miles is stodgy, Jack is fun-loving. Miles is pedantic, Jack is pedestrian. Miles is petrified of opening himself up to someone else, Jack is, uh, too open.

The threads that tie them together are their shared history and immaturity. As far as it appears, neither has matured at all beyond the age of 18. Two grown men stuck in the emotional state of college freshmen.

But they are not freshmen, not anymore. Both men are entrenched in their forties now, sharing a history of disappointment and unrealized dreams. Miles has been divorced for two years, while Jack is preparing to get married in a week for the first time, a resounding defeat over his playboy past. Career-wise, they haven’t fared much better: Jack is an actor whose biggest success came in the form of a soap opera decades ago; Miles is a writer who can’t get published.

And yet, despite their overwhelming failures, they keep trying. They are, after all, not destitute. They are alive, they are middle class and they still take pleasure in life, in women, in wine.

Miles’s idea of a bachelor party is to take a trip a few hours north of their home in San Diego to Santa Barbara. He wants to show Jack a good time in the only way he truly feels comfortable: wine tasting. And despite the breathtaking views, the casual and rarefied atmosphere of the coast, there is this underlying feeling that this is, really, nothing more than two men on an extended spring break.

Jack treats it this way—using the trip as his free pass. His intent is to get consistently laid before he becomes a married man. Miles just wants to disappear into the bottles, but tries to keep his dignity intact by making bold statements about regions, tannins and vintages.

The movie’s light and goodness comes in the form of Maya, played by Virginia Madsen. Maya is a waitress at a local restaurant. She is beautiful, in that sort of classic, earth-goddess way, the kind of true beauty that warms you from the inside out. She is sincere in a way that Miles can’t even fathom: he has been unhappy and pretending for so long that just being around her makes him uncomfortable.

Yet the two have an intimate and sincere moment together deep into the night, despite (or perhaps aided by) getting drunk off of an unknown quantity of wine. She asks him why he is so interested in the varietal Pinot Noir. He stammers:

“Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know. Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”

There, right there, he comes clean—about who he is and what he needs. It is a truth he has most likely never articulated before, despite feeling it for years, deep down inside.

I recently went for ice cream with friends at this place called the Bent Spoon in Princeton. It’s one of those artisanal creameries with dramatic flavors, like Basil or Blueberry Mascarpone. We had just gone to the wedding of dear friends and there were unusually many of us, loitering in a circle just outside of the restaurant. We went around describing the flavors we had picked. Some went for the standard—vanilla—some went for more exotic (chocolate habanero sorbet). I, basking in the novelty of choice, picked sage honey and lavender. It felt somewhat romantic to be eating what was, essentially, the contents of a potpourri satchel. But as we went around the circle, we all decided that what we had picked in this place was somehow indicative of our larger personality.

I have heard time and time again that our choices don’t really matter, that the things we like or find ourselves drawn to aren’t really grand signifiers of our inner essence. I find that people most often say this when they are giving other people dating advice: “When I was dating around, I said I could never date a guy who liked sitar music, but then I met Stan, who is an avid sitar player, can you believe it?” or “Yes, Sally happens to be an ax murderer, but she’s so great. I mean, I always figured I would never be with someone who is is a psychopathic killer, but love blindsides you. Know what I mean?”

In reality, what we like is so much a part of who we are. And of course that can change—I used to be someone who hated Harry Potter before I ever read it, just for snobbery’s sake. Then I became the person who almost considered canceling a trip to Spain so I could buyHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the first day it came out. People change. We evolve. But who we are at our core remains consistent.

Miles is desperately trying to tell Maya the truth about himself in that soliloquy: he is difficult, but he is worth it. He can’t flourish just anywhere because he is thin-skinned and temperamental. And of course, he is certainly not for everyone. His favorite wine is more than a quirk of taste buds.

During that wine tasting trip to Santa Barbara county, just after Sideways came out, I was only beginning to learn about wine. I tried all the various Pinot Noirs the wineries had laid out for me, like so many other consumers eager to snap up the latest Hollywood-inspired trend. And I was repulsed. Pinot Noirs were bitter, too smoky, too peppery. I gravitated to the lush, juicy Zinfandels and the bold, oaky Chardonnays. After tasting all day, experiencing everything the region had to offer, I purchased a sweet, Jolly Rancher-esque rosé to bring back with us to my apartment in Los Angeles.

That was almost a decade ago. In the time since, I have grown and changed in many ways, and that particular relationship has dissolved. I moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Dublin and finally to New York, where I have lived for the past four years. For our first anniversary, my boyfriend and I went to a wine bar after an oyster dinner and I picked out the most expensive glass they had on the menu. I was celebrating, it was $14, I said, why not? The wine was a Pinot Noir, from France. I held it to my nose; it was rich, earthy, a little spicy. I took a sip and the flavor explosion was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, a most sumptuous, unheralded concoction. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland when she obeyed the Drink Me sign—although instead of getting bigger or smaller, I had this world of taste open up to me and I just got it, in the way that sudden epiphanies can grab you.

So now I get Pinot Noir. I get it completely, utterly, totally. And I understand Miles more than I had ever understood him when I was younger.

As Maya says in her soliloquy, “I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity.”

Every day that goes by, we are subjected to incremental adjustments in who we are. Every day there is a choice: remain stuck in the false allure of the past or embrace the truth of the present. Who you are today is not the same as the person you were yesterday or the person you will be tomorrow. It is important—no, vital—to drink up. Embrace the day.


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


You'll Never Make the Six

by Taylor K. Long

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

My family doesn’t have many family traditions. Ever since my father passed away, when I was about 3 years old, my immediate family has consisted of just my mother and me. As such an insular family, we tend to bounce around between various branches of our extended family for holidays and birthdays. We drive out to see this or that grandparent, this or that collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins, this or that group of family friends. When you’re adopted by a larger group of people, you don’t generally start the traditions. You bring your side-dish and you get initiated into someone else’s rituals. But my mom and I do have one family custom that’s ours, one that has endured over the years, through cross-country moves, family feuds, and a rotating list of participants. And that tradition is watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles every Thanksgiving.

Holiday travel is one of the few kinds of travel that isn’t especially fun, interesting, or exciting but, having grown up traveling through most holiday seasons, I’ve become something of an expert. For example, I know that you should always bring snacks and refreshments (regardless of the mode of transportation, none of the food options are ever tasty or reasonably priced) and should always go to the bathroom before leaving (or when you stop for gas, or if others in your row are going, too). You should definitely try to travel directly whenever possible (less chance of getting stranded), and always arrive early—it’s far better to wait in the bar with a beer and a good book than to miss the boat completely. Most of all, though, I know that adopting a zen approach is the easiest way to get through it all.

Of course, disasters happen: ticket reservations get subjected to human or machine error; you lose your cab or your wallet or your phone; you get stuck sitting next to someone who won’t shut up, or someone who snores, or in front of a child who won’t stop kicking your seat; weather reroutes planes or simply prevents them from leaving at all; trains or buses or cars catch fire. Any combination of these is enough to make the average person snap, which is why it’s especially hysterical to watch Neal Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) be subjected to every single one.

"Watching the movie growing up, it was the humor that always drew me in, but as an adult it’s the humanity."

Neal, an advertising exec on his way home to Chicago, and Del, a traveling shower-curtain ring-retailer, are stranded in Wichita, Kansas, after a snowstorm reroutes their flight. Thanksgiving is in three days, and all Neal wants is to get home in time for his kids’ pageant and the family dinner. Del—the embodiment of an overly-chummy salesman—steps right in with his business connections and helps Neal find a hotel room for the night. It doesn’t take long for proper, uptight, leave-me-alone Neal to snap at gregarious, slightly crude, overbearing Del for his spilling beer on a bed they’re forced to share, and his guttural wheezing, and his incessant chatter, and his restlessness, and…

Though I’ve seen it dozens of times, watching Neal lay into Del is still difficult. Because at our worst we’ve all been Neal, harshly judging someone we barely know for the shallowest of grievances. This scene, and the next morning’s now-infamous “Those aren’t pillows!” moment, sets the tone for the way the film deftly balances the harsh realities between the ways we sometimes react to strangers with hostility, and the times when we manage to see beneath situational or personal annoyances and rise above them.

My Thanksgivings have changed a great deal since my mother and I first started watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles all those years ago. We used to watch it with my mom’s side of the family back in Seattle, but for the past few years we’ve been watching it with my father’s side of the family. After I’d moved out to New York City for college, we started joining them in Connecticut for Thanksgiving and, for maybe the very first time, we were invited to bring our traditions along with us (coincidentally, by my uncle, who reminds my family of Steve Martin). Planes, Trains and Automobiles was our only offering—and now they own it on DVD, too. There have been times when, fittingly, unforeseen circumstances have barred us from watching it— technological difficulties have arisen, one year we went to Boston instead—but inevitably we always make up for it in some way, catching the last half on cable somewhere, or watching it later, closer to Christmas. And, much like the company and surroundings, my emotional relationship with Planes, Trains and Automobiles has evolved with age and circumstance, as well.

Watching the movie growing up, it was the humor that always drew me in, but as an adult it’s the humanity (and, sometimes, the cruelty) behind that humor which often keeps me watching. When the rental car company assigns Neal a missing car, he’s forced to hike back across the runway and quickly proceeds to unleash the word “fucking” on the woman at the front desk eighteen times in a single minute. The humor in the scene, though, comes not just from the rampant profanity—or even from Steve Martin’s brilliant physical comedy—but also from the fact that most of us have likely been Neal at one time or another, ripping into some poor and undeserving person who just happened to be the face or voice behind a company that did us wrong (Comcast, Time Warner employees, I’m sorry). Revisiting the film with more life experience under my belt, I can see all the raw, emotional undercurrents that run beneath the laughter and how they resonate with my own flaws or losses—the times I’ve been judgmental and rude to strangers who didn’t deserve it, the absence of male role models in my life to illustrate all the ways in which husbands and fathers are supposed to interact with their wives, families, and each other.

When I was younger, Planes, Trains and Automobiles felt like a peek into this secret world of men that I knew so little about. And it took some time for me to understand all the ways in which Neal and Del are both flawed, deeply and almost unbearably so. Neal, behind all of his frustration and anger, is really just a man trying to get back home to his family. Growing up without a father around, I always liked that about Neal. I wanted to think that all fathers would be that way, just doing whatever it took to get home to their kids, and that my father would’ve been that way, too. As a kid, I tended to cast my sympathies moreso with Neal because of this – seeing John Candy as the goofy man in a devil costume who was a burden to regular guy Steve Martin. But these days, I find my heart going out to Del, just wanting so desperately to be liked, to connect with someone, that he seems oblivious to all the ways he’s overwhelming and occasionally rude. He is put through the very same hell as Neal (or worse, even), but always manages to keep a smile on his face. And so now, every time I want to pull a Neal and unleash a hellstorm on someone, I try to remember Del first, to grin and think, “Shit happens.”

As our first Thanksgiving together approached, I discovered that my boyfriend’s family has a Planes, Trains and Automobiles tradition, too. And, reading various articles and essays about the movie and its associated traditions over the years, it sounds like I share this tradition with many other families as well. But I was surprised to discover that there are those who actually don’t like it, people who feel it’s too clichéd, or that Neal and Del aren’t likeable, or that the underlying sadness simply overrides all the humor. However, that doesn’t much bother me, or make me argumentative like it might with other films. Because for me, Planes, Trains and Automobiles exists in its own world; it’s not just a movie, it’s a tradition. Revisiting Neal and Del’s road trip every year is about more than just having something to put on the TV after stuffing ourselves full of food and attempting to come down from our own holiday travel nightmares. It’s a reminder that strangers, like family, are worth some extra patience and kindness. Whether it’s the person sitting next to you or the one standing on the other side of the counter, everyone comes with their own life experiences and things to offer, be it the last hotel room in Wichita, or a free truck ride to the train station. And out on the road (or rails, or skies), we can all use a little help.


Taylor K. Long is a writer, editor, and photographer. She lives in rural Vermont with her cat, Alcatraz.


I Hear Your Voice All The Time

by Hillary Weston

Original poster/design by Brandon Schaefer

Original poster/design by Brandon Schaefer

Even taken out of its context, there’s a Sam Shepard quote that has always stuck with me, existing near the tip of my subconscious:

She refers to her past as the time before she was ‘blown away.’

It’s a sentiment I have long carried with me, one that acknowledges a definable moment of impact that delineates the end of everything which has come before, a line drawn in the sand that clearly marks everything else as "after.” It’s a realization that has come with time and reflection, looking closely at the person I used to be, and understanding there was a particularly vulnerable period in my life during which I was exposed to just the right sort of alchemy to open me up to a place I’d never been before. And that place was Paris, Texas. In the ensuing years, Wenders’s film has become something of a state of being for me, a state of the heart which I return to time and time again to search for myself.

Paris, Texas was a mythological film to me before I had ever even seen it in its entirety. I dreamt about it before the credits ever rolled. In my sophomore year of college I took a class called “Broken Homes in Literature and Film” in which we were shown clips from the film and discussed them in relation to the Raymond Carver and Richard Brautigan we’d been reading. That was months before I bought the Criterion edition, but I spent the intervening time watching those clips on repeat, staring at stills, and imagining a film that I began to believe would never quite live up to all the expectations I had built up around it. Around that same time I happened upon a tattered old collection of Sam Shepard’s plays in a bookshop on St. Marks and decided to shell out the $2.50 for it. Before I knew it, I had spent my entire Saturday night in tears on the couch, completely enamored with the seamless juxtaposition between Shepard’s cowboy mouth and battered heart. By the time I finally did get my hands on Paris, Texas, I was hypnotized.

There are few sensations—outside of falling in love—like the ineffable feeling that comes when a work of art truly and utterly connects with you. There may be no articulating the exact feeling, but you know it when it’s there and it begins to live inside you. And with Wim Wenders’s films—whether it’s his existential poem of mortality, Wings of Desire, or one of his inventive documentaries—there’s a central theme that runs beneath them all. In his 2011 ode to Pina Bausch, Pina, she says:

What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?

And it’s those words that capture the essence of his films—work filled with an aching sense of yearning for something which you cannot quite name but still know as your own. Wenders once told me that Pina taught him more about men and women than the entire history of cinema, without a single word. Through his own films—and Paris, Texas in particular—he has done the same for me.

Paris, Texas is actually an amalgamation of both Wenders’s sensibilities and those of writer Sam Shepard—whose Motel Chronicles inspired Wenders to write the first iteration of the film. “This film, more than others, grew from my dreams…It started with dreams of collaboration,” Wenders once said. “For a long time I wanted to work with Sam Shepard…our love of the road…his love of the west, to me, was almost a reflection of my admiration for America…he’s held onto something that most of the Americans I know today have totally lost.”

Wenders, who grew up in post-war Germany (where “the only world I knew was destruction”), looked at the vast west of America and its stillness as a utopia. But for Shepard, the west was all he’d ever known. It’s the world he was raised in and, even as he traveled to New York and found success in a world far removed from that which he came, all those vast western landscapes and rough-tongues remain deeply ingrained in his writing. Together, along with Wenders’ pastiche fascination of the west, and the pair’s mutual affinity for work that operates just on the edge between dreams and reality, the two were able to create something remarkably profound and beautiful.

As in a dream, where we find ourselves existing in the middle of a moment without questioning its origin, so begins Paris, Texas. We meet Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a man found wandering through the sweeping desert, having been missing for the past four years. He reappears without a single explanation for where he has been. In his absence, he left behind his young son Hunter, who now lives with his brother Walt and his sister-in-law Anne. Assuming Travis was dead, the two had been raising Hunter as their own—until the day Walt gets a call telling him Travis has been found, and is now under the care of a German doctor practicing in the middle of the desert. He travels to find him and, upon finally tracking him down, brings Travis back home to Los Angeles, where he’s reunited with his son. After a few days attempting to reacquaint himself with civilization, Travis decides to embark on finding Hunter’s mother Jane, who also left without a trace—save for the name of a bank in which she periodically deposits money for their son.

Hunter—once reluctant to his father’s advances—decides he wants to join Travis on the road to find Jane, giving the plot much of its narrative shape. But it’s the small, tender moments of the film, along with Wenders’ melancholic use of mise-en-scène, that comprise the film’s true essence, carrying far greater dramatic weight through mood and feeling than in any of its words. The real characters of Paris, Texas are the lacerations of the soul and the “demonic attachment for a man and his only woman".

Back when Paris, Texas was merely a film I’d constructed from fragments of my imagination, I always believed that I knew what it was about, was sure I understood the poetic words hanging in its vacant space, and thought I felt the aching beauty of it all. I loved it in that perverse and wonderful way you can only love something unattainable, cherishing it like a worn-out photograph that lives forever in your back pocket, something that has seen the world even when you could not. But it wasn’t until recently that I felt I truly listened to what the film was trying to say, opening myself up to what it had to teach me about coping with the pain of love and the patience of longing.

Perhaps this is so, or perhaps it’s simply a testament to all the ways a film can live alongside you over the years, like a true companion, growing up with you and showing you more about yourself as you reflect back on it. Though with a film like Paris, Texas, it’s not only about the moments in which you’re watching it, but about the echoes it leaves behind. Sure, you can appreciate the flickering neon lights in the distance and the pastel skies cast against the browns and greens that rise in the landscape—the ode to still life Americana that once was and may never be again—but if you can’t feel all the yearning in its silences or recognize the crushing weight that comes with looking love in the eye and knowing you must let it go, then you haven’t allowed yourself to fully succumb to what lies at the very core of Wenders’ film.

While back in Los Angeles, after dinner one night, Travis, Walt, Anne, and Hunter sit down to watch some old home videos. The footage is from a family vacation on the coast, when Hunter was only a toddler. As the Super 8 starts to roll, you quickly begin to realize that what they’re seeing projected isn’t just old footage, but also the physical manifestation of memory—an artifact of a moment lost to time. We all collect these artifacts of course, building monuments to love, an essence shrouded in a pink cloud of impressions upon the brain. When we peer back into these memories that haunt us—the ones that we cover up in the daylight so that we can press on and live—they flash and burst forth with more power and more sensation than most any present moment ever can. And it’s all these impressions of moments that Travis can’t forget: the way Jane lifts her arms as she twirls on the beach or her pink lips puckering or her blonde curls cascading on his neck. Her skirt billowing in the breeze.

It recalls the end of one of Shepard’s poems:

In the midst of all this sleepless blood
Your pink lips
Your arms upstretched

I can’t breathe without you
But this circle of ribs
Keeps working on its own.

Shepard’s words echo through these home movies without a bit of dialogue. Jane is introduced to us as a memory, appearing on the screen from a more perfect past. Hunter, having seen the videos before, now watches them through the desolate look on his father’s face. We begin to understand for the very first time that it wasn’t a lack of love that led Travis to escape, but rather the immense power of love and the burden that comes along with chaining yourself to someone else’s heart. Living through romantic woes of my own, I’ve become cognizant of just how vivid those memories can be. I’m often paralyzed by the power they hold over me, the lucidity with which I can recall all those small, intimate moments, like scenes from a film unspooling in slow motion before my eyes. Like Jane dancing on the beach, it’s the sensory elements that haunt me. I’ll never remember the words uttered, but I can describe to you the exact color of the air or the precise curvature of our bodies’ shadow as we slow-danced in the dark. Living these moments was one thing, but revisiting them time and time again, bringing their full sensation back to life—therein lies the pain.

After watching the Super 8 footage, Hunter asks Anne if he thinks his father still loves Jane. He says he could tell by the way he looked at her, even knowing “that’s not really her…that’s only a movie of her a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Seeing these old movies acts as the spark that ignites Travis’s desire to search for her. So Hunter and Travis hit the road to go after her, finding her working at a peep booth parlor—run by John Lurie—where men pay to sit and interact with her through a one-way mirror in various settings. The men can see her, but she cannot see them. So, when Travis walks in one afternoon and she begins her usual act—brilliantly vibrant yet still harboring a palpable sadness— it’s only their voices that interact, their bodies separated, both physically and literally, by a glass of tarnished memories. She’s placed in a sparse motel setting, a place both Shepard and Wenders know so well, harkening back to their mutual love for transient spaces and the effects they have on our ability to assume an identity. Jane tries to illicit a reaction from the man on the other side of the glass but Travis remains silent. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax,” she says. “I don’t mind listening, I do it all the time.” But it’s as if even the mere presence of her is too much to bear, and so he leaves.

The next day he returns, but this time he picks up the phone, turns his back to her, and begins to tell a story. He details their relationship, from beginning to end: ”I knew these people…They were in love with each other…He was kind of raggedy and wild. She was very beautiful, you know?” He expresses the adventure and excitement they found in being together and how they ached to be in each other’s presence to the point where he’d quit working just to be with her. But as his story progresses you see how that tremendous passion unraveled them both, how quickly love can turn to resentment, even violence. The primal act of falling in love shakes the core of our foundation and forces most of us to submit to our emotions in a way we find frightening. What fractured Travis and Jane’s love came from the larger existential questions that linger between most men and women—an insular battle with self-destruction that caused a rift too large to patch. One of life’s most painful truths, although we refuse so often to admit it to ourselves, is that love is not enough. It may be the most profound and astonishing thing two human beings can share in this crumbling world, but it cannot fill all the gaps that rest between our bones or mend the wounds that will never heal. No matter how hard we try.

By the end of Travis’s speech, we’ve gained more true insight into their relationship than we could have possibly gained otherwise. We no longer need to see their past played out before us to understand the intensity of the time they spent together, or how it left scars that will likely never fade. As Travis talks, Wenders intersperses shots of Jane, slowly awakening to the identity of the man behind the glass. Finally, Travis asks her to turn out the lights so that she can see him. He tells her that Hunter is waiting for her at the Meridian Hotel, Room 1520.

She pounds on the glass asking him to stay.

And then it’s her turn, finally, to voice the words she’s been carrying with her. She sits on the floor—her back to him. “I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me.” Working in a parlor where she spends her days entertaining anonymous men is a way for her to exorcise that yearning for Travis and to feel like she has a place to put all the love that has stored up inside her. “And now I’m working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice,” she says. And no matter the time that’s passed, or how far gone he’d gone—how she learned to live in that absence he left behind—still every man that walked into her parlor carried a piece of Travis to her.

She presses her face to the glass, he looks directly at her—their reflections mingling in one another’s, evoking the Cesar Vallejo line quoted in Shepard’sDay Out of Days:

Never did far away charge so close.

But instead of trying to force them back together or even appear to her physically, Travis chooses to escape yet again. He leaves Hunter in a hotel room where Jane later finds him and embraces him, their blonde locks blending together like two lost parts of a whole. Although Travis has chosen to remove himself from their presence, he isn’t abandoning them—he’s freeing them. In bringing Mother and Son together he is allowing them to exist, with each other, in a way that he knows he’d never be able to. Speaking to Travis’s decision, Shepard noted that “even pulling together the broken pieces of the past isn’t enough.” What’s shattered inside Travis is something so deep that he needs space to discover and deal with it, unrestrained by the emotional expenditure that comes with love, relationships, and family. Rather than stay with Jane and Hunter and allow life’s cyclical nature to rear its ugly head and corrode their family from the inside out once again, he chooses to be alone instead. That, he ultimately decides, is better than hurting them even more.

I pray for a break
from all thought

a clean break
in blank space

let me hit the road
empty-headed

just once

I’m not begging

I’m not getting down on my knees

I’m in no condition to fight


Sam Shepard

Still, for the aching sadness of it all, there’s a hopefulness in the reunion that Travis has given them. Jane and Hunter now have a new beginning in which Travis’ shadow may always loom somewhere above them, but won’t necessarily act like an endless weight upon their lives. No longer will every man have Travis’s voice.

Earlier in the film, when they’re are looking through an album of old photographs, Hunter asks his dad if he could ever feel that his parents were dead. “I never felt like you were dead,” he adds. “I could always feel you walking around talking, someplace.” But whether it’s actual death or metaphorical death, when you love someone that strongly, their presence never truly leaves you. Those pink impressions are burnt upon your brain forever. Shepard and Wenders both create hyper-sensitive realities in their work, where love is synonymous with pain and yearning and is always complex, mirroring the broken world in which we live.

My whole life has felt propelled by a deep longing, always desperately searching—but for what? And if I ever found it, would I even realize its presence until after it was gone? Yearning for something which you cannot name or feeling inextricably linked to a place you wouldn’t even be able to pinpoint on a map is as confounding as it is exhausting, and like Travis and Jane, its easy to look at love as a way to fill the saudade that rests over us. But falling is the easy part; love is the thing that kills us. As I’ve come to understand what it truly means to fall prey to this kind of love myself—to care for someone with the most fervent and unconditional passion only to have to say goodbye, knowing it could be no other way—only then have I finally heard the cries of Paris, Texas. I now see that the heartbeat of Wenders’s film isn’t just found in its overwhelming beauty, but also in its desire to understand all those silent screams that live inside us, and how far we will travel to fathom their voice.


Hillary Weston is currently the Senior Editor of BlackBook Magazine, where she has been writing articles about film and art for the past four years, alongside running the mag’s tumblr account. Her work has also been featured in the pages ofInterview. When not devouring movies, she can usually be found teaching herself Pina Bausch choreography in the dark.


It's Showtime

by John Pels

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Official Memo

From: Wienclawski Consultancy Group
To: The Spectrum Theater - Board of Directors
Re: Recommendations for Revitalizing an Independent Cinema

Hello! Thank you for your interest in our company. If you reviewed our website, you already know that Wienclawski Consultancy Group is a top-notch creative team dedicated to delivering powerful results through innovative and cutting-edge strategies. Below are the key takeaways from our research. A downloadable .PDF of the full report is available upon request.

A Revitalization Plan for Your Independent Theater

  • We’ve made some major strides in developing technological advancements for the concession stand. On page 138 of the full report you’ll find a detailed schematic drawing of the Self-Serve Popcorn Trough. Not only will this 50 ft. stainless steel bin of popcorn save on labor (fill it once a day, no concession workers needed), but it will also increase your theater’s Fun Factor! by having hungry viewers use one of the provided novelty scoops to fluff their own popcorn and shovel it into a bag they’ve selected from the Popcorn Bag Vending Machine (schematic drawing on page 139 of the full report). Additionally, our newly designed soda fountain reinterprets the standard beverage dispenser as an elegantly crafted three-tier fountain that allows the soda to flow in an aesthetically appealing manner like an actual fountain. You would only need to install as many individual, four-foot fountains as types of soda you would like to offer.

  • We took note of the fact that you requested information about IMAX installation and its potential benefits, but we feel this isn’t the right direction for you. Let’s be honest: IMAX is dead. It’s everywhere now and has lost a bit of the luster it once had. The bold new direction for you is in developing a revolutionary movie-going experience we’re proudly calling iMIN. It harnesses the rising appeal and prevalence of viewing movies on mobile devices and brings it directly into your cinema. By replacing one or two of your screens with a mounted iPad, iPad mini, iPhone, or other mobile device, you immediately transform the space into a cutting-edge venue. You will also save thousands of dollars by passing over those clunky IMAX projectors, screens and high-end sound systems.

  • Speaking of mobile devices, you should seriously consider rebranding in order to align yourself with a younger and more digitally-connected audience. We spent hours in Research and Development fine-tuning a new name for your business that we’ve enthusiastically agreed is tuned-in to the times: The Sprectrum Theatr. It would position you as a trendy, forward-thinking and thoroughly modern establishment. (If you want to push the envelope a little more, we also tossed around the idea of The Spectrm Theatrrr.) It’s easy to see either option on your marquee in big, flashing lights, signifying you as the vanguard of a new cinematic movement.

  • Kids and young adults are a target demographic for your industry and it’s vital to cater to their needs. Through no small amount of investigation we found that children and teens are becoming desensitized to media at an alarming rate while their attention spans fall precipitously. To cut through all the noise, it’s imperative for you to install the newest class of Wienclawski-tested, high-octane arcade games: Neon Dance Fever IV, Bloodbath: Plumber of Rage and Inexperienced EMT Freakout Racing. Our team is supremely confident these systems would ensure a more than adequate level of sensory stimulation for your younger movie-goers.

  • It would, however, be foolish to ignore the additional media needs of the rest of your audience. People are increasingly drawn to more participatory events, especially if they integrate seamlessly with their social media platforms. Creating hashtags for each screening would engender conversation among those watching the film (ex: #5pmLeeDanielsTheButler). And to take this a step further, using a ticker along the bottom of each screen to display the tweets that correspond with each movie would increase the collective enjoyment of the film by nurturing a greater sense of shared experience. Also, the social aspect doesn’t need to end when the movie does. Encouraging movie-goers to use proprietary InstaReview Booths (schematic on page 274) to record brief reactions right after watching the movie, which would then be looped on screens in the lobby, has great potential to heighten feelings of self-worth. Movie theaters have been serving as halls of monastic devotion to film for a long time and this is your opportunity to shatter that paradigm. Ultimately, you’re proclaiming yourself as a new type of contemporary theater with its finger on the pulse—and, as this report shows, we’re just the team to help you do that.

Please keep in mind that this is only a top-line overview of all the information compiled in the full report. And just as a bit of professional housekeeping: An invoice for the total cost of our research and development ($186,000) is attached and is expected to be paid in full no later than the due date indicated.

It’s truly been a pleasure working on this project, and we look forward to discussing next steps.

Sincerely,

Marc Wienclawski
C.E.O.
Wienclawski Consultancy Group


John Pels is a writer living in New York City (typical) and is left-handed (marginally atypical). His work can be found on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and his personal website, An Educated Fool.