Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman
 

“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” ― Ram Dass

November is that time of year when many of us naturally begin to turn our thoughts a bit more toward family—for better or for worse—and so we decided that it made a whole lot of sense to build an entire issue around films that examine family dysfunction or wrestle with family dynamics in some elemental way.

Family tends to humble, inspire, and frustrate us like few other things, reminding us that no matter how much we manage to accomplish in this life—no matter how intelligent, independent, mature, empowered, or enlightened we’ve struggled to become—we are still also and always someone’s son or daughter, sister or brother.

And so, as George Bernard Shaw once famously said, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

With that in mind, each piece in this issue tackles different concepts of family, from the full-blown dysfunction on display in films like CarnageShame, andWhat’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, to the ancient familial echoes of The Tree of Life, the friends-as-family motif running through the films of Nicole Holofcener, and the plethora of narrative possibilities offered up in Stories We Tell. Hopefully, wherever you are, you’ll find a little something to hold onto in these pages, as we head into the final holiday-laden, family-heavy months of 2013.

*

This issue also marks our official half-year anniversary, also known as “six months of trying to figure out how to run a magazine”. And, while we’ve had our fair share of growing pains for sure, we arrive here at this sixth issue feeling both proud of what we’ve managed to put out into the world thus far, and quite hopeful about the future of things, in general. Thanks to the support we’ve received from all of you who subscribed and signed on to be a part of this, we’ve been able to (slowly but surely) make many important in-roads toward financial viability and, more importantly, to put out a product we feel passionate about each and every month. We can’t wait to see what comes next, and look forward to embracing the continued twists and turns of DIY magazine-making. It’s been a lot of hard work and late nights every step of the way, but it’s also beenentirely worth it.

All of which is to say, thank you. This thing only exists because you allow it to exist, and for that we remain forever in your debt.

And so now, let’s talk family.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


Cruelty and Splendor, Chaos, Balance (or: It Gets Worse)

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

ALAN: Nancy, it’s absurd to drink in your condition.

NANCY: What condition? I’m perfect.

I spent a night drinking with old college friends a few weeks ago, and the next morning, I had to wake up early and go to a family get-together. I excused myself early on into the lunch to puke up half a banana in the bathroom, and when I got back to the table, I whispered to my mother, “Hey, just so you know, I’m working with a pretty nasty migraine right now. I might need to head home early.”

“What did you drink last night?” she asked.

“No, I have a migraine,” I clarified, as if she was a stupid person.

“Uh huh, what did you drink?” she clarified, as if I was a stupid person.

I sighed, because in this situation, I was the stupid person. “Gin.”

She sighed too. “You don’t learn, do you?”

*

PENELOPE: I don’t have a sense of humor, and I don’t want one!

I feel like it’s safe to say that I am not the target demographic for Carnage. I’m not a parent, nor am I a career-driven professional. There is no “entry point” for me as a viewer. I cannot truly relate to these people. When Nancy (Kate Winslet—icy, vicious, drunk) refers to herself as an investment broker, I’m not totally sure I know what that means. And yet, when I sawCarnage in theatres, in the winter of 2012, I was a 20 year old college student, and this movie made me laugh. It made me laugh harder than it had any right to. And for a movie that ends on the line, “This is the worst day of my life, too,” the whole thing made me feel pretty good about myself.

Based on the 2006 French play Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) by Yasmina Reza, the Roman Polanski film adaptation is good—not great, but good. It doesn’t particularly benefit from being adapted from stage to screen, but it doesn’t suffer either. Carnage unfolds in a single afternoon. It is the story of the Cowans—Nancy and Alan—and the Longstreets—Penelope and Michael—and their failed attempt to resolve a conflict between their 11 year old sons. Though the afternoon begins with both couples on equal, soft-spoken terms, it quite quickly devolves into chaos.

By the time Nancy vomits all over the Longstreets’ living room, everything is already a disaster.

*

MICHAEL: The couple is the worst ordeal that God has ever inflicted on us. The couple and the family.

I graduated from college in June with a degree in English and a job in nothing. I am your statistic—your unpaid intern, your hyper-technological millennial, your Time and The Atlanticfocal point. I’m in debt. I live at home with my parents. Not a girl, not yet a woman. My peers look better, at least on paper. They’re educators, campaign managers, and consultants. One of my friends made a reference to her “clients” the other day, and I nearly choked on a piece of bread.

I had dinner with an old friend a few weeks ago. In between conversation topics like her future wedding plans and her future baby plans, she leaned across the table and whispered dramatically, “Aren’t you embarrassed? Just, like, a little bit, to still be living at home? Not really, like, doing anything?”

My parents work 9–5 jobs. I work evenings in the food service industry. I come home at 1am most nights, stumble into whatever seasonal decorations they’ve spent the evening putting up (this past week, it was dried ears of corn), and lie on the foot of my parents’ bed.

“I’m home,” I’ll tell them.

“Okay,” they’ll say. “We’re asleep.”

Sometimes I recap my day for them, sometimes I just let them go back to bed. They wake up around 5:30 in the morning and head off to work before I’m even awake. It’s more like being a tenant at a B&B than it is living at home. We exist in a baffling in-between, where I am not really a child and they are not really my parents. I can make my own decisions, come home whenever I want, and they’ll be grumpy, but that’s about it.

On one particular Sunday morning, when all of us were home, my parents took half an hour to balance the checkbook and do bills while I ate breakfast. I pitched some questions—“You guys wanna see a movie today?” and “How about the Bears, huh?”—to no response. They were content to ignore me while they finished their business. Pay attention to me! I wanted to shout. I’m never here. I have things to say.

“You love me, right?” I asked instead.

“Yes,” they said.

“But you also kinda resent me?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, good,” I said, and finished my breakfast.

*

MICHAEL: Look, we’re all decent people, all four of us.

Each set of parents in Carnage comes with their own mask. Nancy and Alan (Christoph Waltz) are a high-powered executive couple, an investment broker and an attorney. They’re detached and poised. I could watch Nancy disinfect her hands with a small bottle of Purell and touch up her make-up for hours. For her, appearance is everything, all of it. Alan’s Blackberry is essentially glued to the palm of his hand.

Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), on the other hand, are false mediators perched on a high horse of justice. Penelope is a writer who speaks of the horrors of Darfur with a simpering know-it-all attitude. In one of my favorite lines from the film, she scolds Alan, “Don’t you tell me about Africa. I know all about suffering in Africa!” Michael, a salesman, is a coward: a simple, short-tempered fearful man.

Penelope and Michael’s son Ethan is the victim on the surface level. In a physical altercation with Nancy and Alan’s son, Zachary, he loses two teeth and suffers nerve damage after taking a stick to the face. Zachary, however, was provoked as Ethan barred him from joining his “gang.” And in turn, Zachary is also the victim. But—of course—so is Alan, who is meant to be at work during the day, and Penelope, who is traumatized by her son’s disfigurement, and Nancy, who doesn’t particularly care, but pretends, and Michael? Well, his punishment is just having to be there.

Alan and Nancy fall from grace, but in the sloppy, undistinguished way that those who groom themselves constantly do. Both robbed of their primary loves by the end of the film—for Alan, his phone, and for Nancy, her purse—they sit, together, throwing insults at the Longstreets with nothing left to lose. Michael is reduced to an angry giant, practically bursting out of the sweater his wife has forced him to wear. Penelope, however, falls the furthest. She believed in a higher power, a true sense of justice, and only as she gets drunker (and, in turn, sadder) does she realize it means nothing. “Doing the right thing is just futile,” she sobs. “Honesty is just stupidity.”

And when Alan invokes the laws of chaos—praying only to the god of carnage—one begins to think that Penelope might just believe him.

*

PENELOPE: Why does everything have to be so exhausting?

No one actually tells you how to graduate from college. There’s this mysterious thing where everyone just starts referring to post-grad life as “the real world,” as if you’ve been living on a fake planet with a bunch of male feminists and composting enthusiasts for the past four years. And, okay, maybe that is a fake planet, but it doesn’t make it less real. But you start to get convinced that there’s a shift somewhere. For a long time, you are a fake person, and then at some point, you become a real person. Apparently.

The other week, I worked nearly 55 hours, balancing a freelance reporting gig with my nearly full-time food service job and non-paying arts industry internship. I knew I would break at some point during the week, and I did. After four days of working over fifteen hours straight, I sobbed through the entire drive home, through my evening shower, and at the foot of my parents’ bed at two in the morning.

“We want to help you,” my mother said quietly, “but also we’re not sure how to help you. And it’s two in the morning.”

The next morning, I woke up at 6:30, gearing up for my last day of this schedule. I sat across the table from my father, who drinks tea and reads the paper and generally keeps to himself in the morning. My head was buried in my arms, trying to catch a few more seconds of sleep while coffee brewed.

My father looked up from the table. “I’m sorry you’re stressed,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

He thought for a moment. “I know you’re tired and you have a lot—well, just. This is what life is, you know? It’s pretty shitty.”

I laughed. “That’s your advice?”

“It’s not advice,” he clarified, “it’s what it is.”

*

MICHAEL: We’re born alone, and we die alone. That’s it. Who wants a little scotch?

Carnage isn’t really the kind of movie you can spoil. People set out to accomplish a task, and they fail. There is a hint of a twist, though. On the outside, Carnage is a movie about adults trying to solve the problems of children; deep down, Carnage is a movie about children trying to solve their own problems. They drink, they cry, they vomit. Teeth are broken, but so are toys. You can go halfway across town to fetch a nice bouquet of tulips, but at the end of the day, flowers are just flowers, and they’ll be gone soon enough.

The truth is, you don’t become a real person. You never become a real person. I don’t know anyone who is a real person. My parents don’t resent me because I am their child. My parents resent me because they’re children, too. We’re a household of children, some just a little more tired than others.

I can put on a blazer and a skirt, and I can hand you my résumé and talk about marketing. But I can also sit across from you at a bar, listen to you talk about your wedding plans, and try to figure out which utensil will work best if I need to puncture my own ear drums. The god of carnage is there, perched in a corner, waiting to strike whenever called upon. The impulse to pick up a stick and whack someone who calls us a name upside the head is still there, only a little muted, dulled with age. When I was mistreated by a supervisor, my mother asked if she needed to make a phone call about it.

“You don’t need to do that,” I said. “I’m an adult.”

“Well, I’m an adult too, and I know how to scream at someone.”

And that was when I realized—we are the same. We’re adults. We’re children. It doesn’t matter. We both fight that urge to scream and yell, and mostly we send passive-aggressive emails.

In the last few minutes of the film, Penelope accuses Nancy of not even caring about the well-being of her own child, let alone the well-being of the injured Ethan. And Alan suggests—correctly—that no one ever cared.

“But I do care,” Nancy protests, barely sober enough to figure out what is happening. “I really do care.”

Alan pats her hand. “Yes, we care. In a hysterical way, not like heroic figures of a social movement.”

This is how we care: crying, vomiting, heads cradled in hands at kitchen tables, barely acknowledging our own faults at two in the morning. We threaten to yell, to scream, to hit, but more often than not, we just go back to sleep. It might be the worst day of my life, your life, but then there is a new day. A better day, maybe, but probably the same. Or worse.

So we keep going. This is how we care.


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


Design for Living

by Matt Brennan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The well-heeled Angelenos of Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money (2006) come together in the opening sequence to celebrate a birthday. Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful but increasingly embittered fashion designer, is turning forty-three, and despite the $800 she charges for thin, muted peasant blouses with beaded appliqués, she’s floundering. “I think this birthday was hard for you,” her husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), comments later. “You’re in your forties now. It’s real.”

Jane’s friends are scarcely more stable. Christine (Catherine Keener) and David (Jason Isaacs), screenwriting partners piling an ill-considered second story atop their house, strive to save their marriage with the prospect of an ocean view; Franny (Joan Cusack) and Matt (Greg Germann) are ensconced in a life of conspicuous consumption. “They throw a party so rich people like me can spend $10,000 on a table, and then they give it to the sick people,” Franny explains about a charity fundraiser, as though she’s trying to convince herself. “That’s how it’s done!” And there’s Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), listlessly applying free samples of anti-wrinkle cream and staking out her ex-lover’s house. “She’s the only one of our friends not married,” Jane worries. “Is a pothead. Is a maid.”

As Olivia knows, there comes a moment in the unattached life at which it becomes evident you’ve fallen to the far end of the bell curve. In the abstract, you understand that the visible membrane of other people’s lives — engagement photos, wedding invitations, and “gender-reveal parties”; promotions and accolades; new homes, marathon times, compost piles, inspirational quotations — is an unreliable index of happiness, but the lonely imagination is a concrete tropic. No amount of rationalization can shake the impression, suddenly tangible in every interaction, that the ad-hoc family of close friends you gathered in early adulthood sped up at the very moment you stalled.

“You know what, fuck all of you guys,” Olivia says. “I’m sorry I don’t have my entire life figured out.”

In Nicole Holofcener’s universe, figuring it out is the organizing principle. The way of life on display in her five features as writer-director is a narrow one, coded in the rambling dialect of white, liberal, urban affluence. But her design for living, pulling you through shadowy, regretful places until you emerge, load lightened, on the other side, intimates a wider understanding of what it means to forge, or to lose, one’s sense of attachment.

*

In Walking and Talking (1996), Amelia (Keener) girds herself for her best friend’s wedding. Laura (Anne Heche) is the girl with whom she examined The Joy of Sex at the lake house one summer, scanning the illustrations as they lay on the bed in their bathing suits, but now Laura’s met Frank (Todd Field) and everything will change. Is changing. Has changed. “Listen to what I’m listening to,” Amelia jokes in one of the many messages she leaves on Laura and Frank’s answering machine. “Music to slit your wrists by.”

Amelia reconnects with an ex-boyfriend and stalks the video store clerk with whom she shared a single failed date, but in the end her messages are for Laura. This is the detail in the film that strikes me most forcefully as an emblem of change, and not only of the technological sort. Amelia convinces herself that the reason she’s so resistant to Laura’s marriage is the envious knot that forms in your stomach when the couples pair off after dinner, but in truth she’s afraid that Laura won’t always be there listening on the other end of the line. “Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me!” Amelia tells Laura near the end of the film. “That’s all I want.”

The desire for this kind of empathy is Holofcener’s center of gravity, the force that holds her films’ constellations of family and friends in orbit. As the reversals of Lovely & Amazing (2001) suggest — the insecure, beautiful actress (Emily Mortimer) mauled by a dog; the married artist (Keener) who takes a job at the one-hour photo and embarks on an affair with a teenager; the mother (Brenda Blethyn), incapacitated by complications from surgery, who can no longer care for her daughters; the adopted child (Raven Goodwin) testing the waters of adulthood — everything does indeed change, except for the need to be understood.

The films’ almost uncanny naturalism stems not from the loose, halting dialogue or the simple aesthetic, then, but from their stories of people whose empathies are thrown out of balance by the fear that theirs will be the next screened call. In the moment of viewing, Holofcener’s work is awkwardly funny, but in retrospect it’s a catalogue of regrets. If you hadn’t laughed at your friend’s engagement ring, would she have answered your call? If she had answered your call would you have avoided falling in with the man who didn’t support your career, and would that have prevented the argument about the addition to the house? And if you hadn’t had the argument would it have saved your marriage, and if you had saved your marriage would your daughter be so angry, and if all of this were true would you have avoided the warp of your guilt? Did you listen, weigh the consequences of your actions, walk a mile in the other person’s shoes? And if you had done all of these things would it have turned out differently?

All of these examples are drawn from one or another of Holofcener’s films, but might just as easily be mistaken for an ordinary person’s moment of doubt. “I was trying to figure out what I knew,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ divorced masseuse remarks in Enough Said (2013) on this point, flipping the pages of her wedding album. But of course what we know is always limited by who we are: empathy, the necessary ingredient in any relationship, is also the most difficult to access.

*

When my friend Jesse’s younger sister, Molly, stayed with me for a few days this summer, she presented me with a gift of Japanese office supplies — felt-tipped pens in an octagonal case, five notebooks as crisp as starched shirts — and the news that her brother had recently married.

It’s been nearly a decade since I took a bus to New York for the Fourth of July and slept on the couch in Jesse’s apartment near Union Square, smoking pot on the roof during the fireworks and shoveling down arepas at a place called Caracas on East 7th. In those days, which I mostly remember for how I tried to shed my reputation as a kid who always colored inside the lines, Jesse featured prominently in my quiet rebellion. We left the dorm after curfew to share cigarettes and found ourselves sitting on the floor of my room, hazily high from a few cribbed Percocets, but as is often the case with this sort of thing, we gradually, almost imperceptibly, slipped out of touch. Life intervenes. Time passes. As I write this I’m sitting at a table in the courtyard of my New Orleans apartment, considering how strange it is that nothing much happens and yet everything changes, is changing, has changed. I checked Caracas’ website recently and discovered that it now lists four establishments — “Manhattan,” “Brooklyn,” “Rockaway,” “Roneria” — and though the last of these refers to the chain’s “specialized rum bar” on Grand Street, it’s been so long since I was last in New York I assumed it was the name of a neighborhood.

I recognize that drifting apart (from Jesse, from New York, from my former self) was probably inevitable, but I still suffer these periodic flashes of surprise that I am, in fact, an adult, one whose lapsed attachments now outnumber his extant ones. The digital lineaments of modern friendship, designed to hew us to each other across thousands of miles, cloud the uncomfortable truth that scrolling past posts, tweets, images, links, and hashtags demands even less attention than the call that goes straight to the answering machine. To Laura, Amelia’s plaintive voice is at least a forthright presence: for the length of the message they are in the room together, despite the growing gulf between them.

I can also imagine Walking and Talking set in the present, the relationship similarly imperiled, only Amelia would discover the engagement by way of a sepia-toned iPhone photograph, and her insistent desire for contact would register in Laura’s world as alerts and status updates, DMs and funny cat videos, a few more bytes of information absorbed in the feeds we use to measure the length of our days. Holofcener’s unmannered realism transcends the moment of its making, but the most underappreciated aspect of her films is how lo-fi they play. The low-key chatter of the immediate experience remains the leading part in her melody: nothing much happens, but everything changes.

I don’t mean this to sound like a paean to the analog, but it does seem to me that Olivia’s confrontation with the unattached life is qualitatively different from my own. Sitting in Franny’s living room or walking alongside Jane at the farmer’s market, Olivia bears witness not only to the material evidence of their successes, but also to the subtle vibrations of their failures.

“What are you so angry about lately?” she asks Jane.

“You buy your two-year-old daughter $80 shoes from France, and you’re giving me a hard time,” she accuses Franny.

The Internet’s cold ether upends this balance: rare are those who use social media to report road rage, cold pizza, routine sex; half-remembered arguments, ungrateful children, credit card debt; disappointment, alienation, ennui. And so we fill in the unseen spaces of other people’s lives using the visible evidence. By this metric, most of the people I know, or used to know, spend their days falling in love, eating street food in Singapore, and meeting foreign dignitaries. Celebrating anniversaries, births, awards, bonuses. Changing the world or at least grabbing hold of it. Keeping in touch. Staying attached. Figuring it out. I watch these developments from afar, in the grip of the same selfish impulse, increasingly difficult to ward off, that animates Amelia — the same fear that there’s no one listening on the other end of the line. Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me.

The evening Jesse’s sister told me he had married, I noticed the green dot of the Google chat feature next to his name. I considered writing to say congratulations. I am ashamed to admit that I did not. Instead I repurposed both items Molly presented to me that day. The news about Jesse became part of this piece, and one of those Japanese notebooks became my critic’s journal, a magpie’s nest of arrows, asterisks, quotations, and stray thoughts about the movies I’m meant to review:

Film Notes (Sept. 2013 —

Please Give (Holofcener, 2010)

Keener plays Kate, who buys furniture and artwork @ estate sales, refurbishes it, and resells it @ a huge markup, sort of takes adv. of the fact that ppl. don’t know the 1st thing about what their shit is worth.

Responsibilities, obligations (Rebecca Hall) v. fun, freedom (Amanda Peet, hilarious)

LIBERAL GUILT

MONEY

Keener searches the Internet for volunteer opportunities, gives money to ppl. on the street, but isn’t particularly charitable in her own life.

“Old furniture has ghosts.”

Opening song, last lines: “Some folks lose, some folks win.”

When I started writing this I think I was searching, at least in part, for an explanation of why I failed to respond to the beckoning of the green dot, but you see now that I had the answer in front of me all along.

*

“You know what, fuck all of you guys,” Olivia says in Friends with Money. “I’m sorry I don’t have my entire life figured out.”

I want to say I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry I was relieved when my call went to voicemail. I’m sorry I bailed on dinner at the last minute and grimaced at the photographs of your wedding. I’m sorry I burned the bridge between us or just ignored it until it became impassable. I’m sorry I broke my promise to keep your secret, I’m sorry I lied, and I’m sorry I told the truth. I’m sorry I drank too much bourbon and screamed at you in the backyard that night. I’m sorry you have not convinced me to quit smoking. I’m sorry I picked a fight I had no interest in winning on the ride home from the party one bitterly cold Christmas, that I kissed you under the restaurant’s eave on my twenty-sixth birthday (because even then I already knew I would never say “I love you” back), that I didn’t fly home for your funeral. I’m sorry that I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. I don’t have my entire life figured out, and I know, at some level, that I never will.

Writing about Holofcener in the memoir’s intimate first person feels appropriate. Her tacit project all along has been a time-lapse portrait of the women of her generation. No single filmmaker I can think of has rendered with such precision the full complement of pathways through adulthood available to this particular cohort — a depiction preternaturally attuned to the absurdities of this milieu without ever succumbing to satire. Holofcener is the foremost auteur of where our empathies lie.

And so this philatelist of regret, collecting it, collating it, pinning it down, is also the purveyor of what comes after. What Olivia hears next is as important to understanding Holofcener’s work as the apology itself.

“Olivia, we love you,” Franny tells her. “We’re the ones who love you.”

For Holofcener, a family is made up of the ones who love you. It is the ultimate form of attachment and the most difficult to sever, because to love someone is to know that he or she craves the same understanding you do. Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me.

I suspect that Holofcener’s characters live on somewhere after the camera stops rolling, encountering new mistakes to regret and changes to absorb, but the final act always suggests a refreshed sense of attachment. This is her design for living: to forget for a moment that you did not hold up your end of the bargain and grasp your best friend’s hand as you walk down the stairs to her wedding, or join your sisters to welcome Mom home from the hospital. To give the right guy a chance, to help your neighbor in her time of grief, to make amends.

I’m probably not old enough to be allowed so many regrets, but consider this an attempt to make amends to the ones who love me. As Jane says in Friends with Money, I don’t know what I’d do without you guys. I think about what my days would be like without having you as friends and I would just want to die.

NOBODY’S PERFECT is another thing I wrote in my critic’s journal, but you already knew that.


Matt Brennan is the TV critic for Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he's watching @thefilmgoer.


Someday We'll Fall Down and Weep

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

For a somewhat significant period of time, I was terrified of elevators. I had nightmares about them—never about an elevator crashing to the ground, or even about getting stuck in one, but about the elevators themselves. In the dreams, I would enter an elevator and suddenly have an extreme feeling of dread. I didn’t know what would happen when the elevator doors opened. Where I’d be. What strange, unforgiving landscape might await me.

*

Several years later, in college: an impound lot. My father and I stared at the crumpled car in front of us. The way the steering wheel nearly touched the driver’s seat beneath it. The hood like a used tissue. I signed the form to legally identify it as my brother’s car, held the sleeve of my father’s coat. I heard something like a desperate voice: How did I get here?

What is this moment made of?

*

The images in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) flow from just such sensations, such moments. On what we understand to be the anniversary of his brother’s death, Jack (Sean Penn) has a moment in an elevator where he, too, wonders How did I get here? along withHow can I find you?

*

Glass and water.

Glass walls, waterfalls. The amniotic fluid we all swam happily in for months.

The glass we can break more easily than see through. The water that forgives. The water that takes and takes without sympathy.

The glass no one can hide behind. The glass we turn into cathedrals of solitude, of escape.

*

The “you” is simultaneously Jack’s dead brother, God, and Jack himself.

Going into the theater, I was prepared for a lack of plot—but, contrary to what I thought I’d read, The Tree of Life is not a film that chooses image over character or story. Rather, it revolves intensely around character and story, just not in any way we’re used to. As Jack relives the formative years of his childhood, we overhear whispered thoughts—pleas, really—that cement the psychology of his character in a more crystalline way than any planted backstory conversation in a coffee shop could do.

We watch as baby Jack discovers how to smile, as he learns to plant a tree, as he follows his mother’s gaze from the smallest clod of soil to the most magnificent view of the sun. That’s where God lives, his mother (a transparent Jessica Chastain) tells him. We watch young Jack (Hunter McCracken) find joy, and then we see him lose it.

As we all do, Malick implies—the eternal (yes, represented literally) loss of innocence that creates a space for doubt, introduces us to hatred, makes us break windows, pushes us to hurt the people we love. To hurt ourselves.

*

A boy with burn scars covering the back of his head, a freakishly tall man in an attic room. A convict, a dead frog, a father who asks you to hit him and will hit you back.

The things we are afraid of that make us harder. That make us less naïve. That take away our ability to fly, twisting in the air like a contorted Sleeping Beauty.

How will you act when grief seeks you out? How did you act before you knew it could?

*

The Tree of Life is, really, a cinematic experience narrated in prayer.

Not that the film preaches a specific belief system, in any way—but it is told through the language of spirituality that comes to us all in our most helpless moments. In some cases,prayer may just be the things we say to ourselves in idle moments, when we feel sorry, when we feel less than whole.

Watching the images unfold across the screen—especially that both glorious and controversial beginning-of-the-universe sequence—we, as audience members, are forced out of our default passive stances and made to “pray” with Jack. I found myself thinking things like How do we heal? Whose side am I on? Do I expect an answer to these questions?

Should I?

*

Walking out of the theater, I felt very quiet. I did not want to talk to anyone. I did not want to wait in the parking garage with my validated ticket.

I wanted to stay in the desert that is nevertheless an unexpected paradise, in the reminder of what it means to feel like the odd one out, the one who deserved less. To not forget what doors we can walk through and what doors we can’t. To accept whatever landscape awaits me on the other side of the elevator doors.

To be forgiven, if not by a God, then at least (or at last) by myself.


Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.


Let the Story Lie

by Elisabeth Geier 

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Somewhere, on an 8mm cassette, buried under a pile of dusty artifacts in my parents’ garage, lies an old home movie taken on a family trip to Yosemite. I am operating the camcorder.

“I can’t see anything! It isn’t working!”

“Did you push the button?” my father asks. “Is the red light on?”

I am trying to film a waterfall. I want to narrate it like a nature documentary on TV.

“It’s all black!”

In my memory, my parents keep walking away from me, up the trail, as my frustration turns to panic. I still can’t see anything. It still isn’t working.

Then, a stranger’s voice: “The lens cap is on.”

The arrival of a video camera in our household coincided with the arrival of my younger brother and older sister, distant cousins who joined our family after their mother died. Despite the upheaval in all of our lives, and the lasting joys and conflicts that ensued, our home movies from that time are fairly unremarkable. These days, we can quickly capture most any moment on our phone and immediately share it via e-mail, so it might seem to strange to remember that, back then, home movies took a lot more planning—and the footage was often much more boring as a result. There’s a forced singalong around the piano at Christmas time; there’s my sister rolling her eyes at my father’s, “Tell the folks at home what you’re doing!” There’s a different trip to Yosemite, this time in winter: all of us sledding down small, self-made hills, trying to enact a scene worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos. We never stood a chance, our “bloopers” end in giggles and our cries for help ring false.

I’m certain I am remembering important details wrong, but even if I watched these home movies today, and recounted the events exactly as they occurred, my perception would surely differ from my siblings’. My truth about growing up in our patchwork family differs wildly from my older brother’s, but our two truths are much closer to each other than to the truths of our three younger brothers. We’ve argued over the details of what happened when we were young, but as adults it’s often easier to live in our isolated truths. Like many dysfunctional families (like all families, as the joke goes), we seem content to let the story lie. It can be hard, often painful, to interrogate family mythology in search of some unified truth.

Say “truth” enough times and it loses all its meaning.

Stories We Tell is Sarah Polley’s deft, open-hearted interrogation of her own family’s scattered mythology. The initial facts are clear enough: Sarah Polley was born to Michael and Diane Polley. She was the youngest of five siblings. When Sarah was eleven, Diane died, and Michael raised her alone. When Sarah was eighteen years old, she discovered that a longtime family joke was true: she was not her father’s biological daughter. The film eventually reveals Sarah’s paternity, but the most compelling mystery is her mother, Diane, the one member of the family no longer alive to speak for herself. Polley interviews the small galaxy of people who orbited Diane, including her siblings and her mother’s old friends, in an attempt to get the full story. It may sound like a documentary, and it sort of is, except for the parts where it’s not.

In the film, Polley explicitly states that she is trying to get at her mother, to reconstruct her from what was left behind. Separating the art from the artist has its merits, but here it is impossible, as Polley lays her artifice bare: from the opening scenes the audience sees the shot being set, the director directing, and the narrative taking shape. Polley casts herself in dual roles – the blameless child at the center of her family’s story, and the mastermind behind the camera – and this duality is what makes Stories We Tell sing. In harnessing the conventions of storytelling to tell an untellable story, and in letting the audience see all the strings, Polley creates one of the most affecting and honest films about family that I’ve ever seen.

Based on conversations I’ve had with friends who’ve seen Stories We Tell, there seem to be two common reactions to the film. The first is to tell your own family’s secrets, the story you would tell. The second is to discuss the universal truth that all families are self-mythologizing to a certain extent, that each repeats certain secrets and stories that they feel represent a larger collective truth. But inevitably, that second discussion brings about your own family secrets, and there you are again, telling your story—so maybe there really is only one common reaction to the film. Like all of my favorite works of art, it inspires intense recognition.

People love to tell the stories of their family because it seems to explain something about them. If you knew what I grew up with, then you’ll know why I am the way I am. I saw Stories We Tell with a new acquaintance, and afterwards, we spent an entire hour on a bench sharing the deepest secrets of our families like some sort of crash course in friendship: Why I’m Fucked-Up 101. In interviews, Polley has remarked that people keep coming up to her to share their stories after they see the film, and she seems surprised, both that people have been so moved by her intensely personal film, and that their reaction is to immediately let her in on their own intensely personal stories.

The stories my family tells are enacted over and over again through our actions towards each other, as when one sibling quits speaking to the others over some imagined slight, or another calls his genuine hurt and frustration “imagined.” One time, my brothers and I were playing Trivial Pursuit, and the question was, “Where is Otis Redding from?” and my older brother said, “He was ‘sitting on the dock of the Bay,’ so San Francisco.” I said, “’He left his home in Georgia,’ idiot,” and even though it’s the smallest thing, I have always felt guilty about that response. The smallest hurts echo the larger ones. In my family, we communicate through sarcasm and insults, and I carry that into my interactions with the world, which is perhaps why it is challenging for me to write earnestly about a film that I truly loved.

I want you to watch Stories We Tell. I am speaking to you, the reader; I am speaking to my family, who may or may not be among you; I am speaking to the world at large, throwing my semicolon-laden sentences into the ether in the hopes that someone sees them, starts in recognition, and decides to take a look. The Polley family’s experience is singular, but it’s also the same as all of ours.

I never plan to write about my own family, but, well, I always do. Truth in fiction, as the old trope goes. I can’t speak for all writers, but in my case, fiction is simply a more comfortable realm in which to explore old truths. The storyteller holds the power here—or most of it, anyway—and for those of us from large families, or broken families, or households where we were often left to entertain ourselves with imaginary worlds, it’s a power that we simply lacked growing up. Writing gives me space to figure out what I think, and to be more emotionally honest—more in control of my own truth—than I am capable of being otherwise. Watching Stories We Tell, it seems that directing offers much the same. While Polley certainly pays respect to everyone’s version of the story, ultimately she has the final, artful word. And in her control, in all its specificity, her story becomes universal, as all great stories must be.

When it comes to family, all of us are artists.


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.


James Bird on Eat Spirit Eat

by Joe Uchill

photo courtesy of James Bird

photo courtesy of James Bird

Onscreen, James Bird’s Eat Spirit Eat is a story about missing fathers, ad hoc families and a tight-knit group of amateurs fumbling their way through a movie. Off screen, James Bird’s Eat Spirit Eat is a story about missing fathers, ad hoc families and a tight-knit group of amateurs fumbling their way through a movie. The film follows twenty-something orphan Oliver trying to meet his actor father by casting him in a movie staffed by a hastily-assembled, family-like team of film-amateur friends. It’s part screwball deconstruction of the film industry, part twee wish-fulfillment fantasy of a boy looking for a father but finding a family in his friends. Writer/Director Bird knows both well; he partially based the film on growing up with an absentee father and, like Oliver, staffed it with his own tight-knit cadre of under-experienced friends. Bright Wall/Dark Room spoke with him about families – real, fictional, natural and otherwise.

Bright Wall/Dark Room: You are touring with two very different movies you wrote that shot within a year of each other: Eat Spirit Eat and the straight-laced Danny Glover romance,Chasing ShakespeareEat Spirit Eat seemed to be a lot more personal, which is an odd thing to say about a movie with a zombie robot. Is it strange to transition between the two?

James Bird: Well actually, I write so much now. I really love to explore all different genres. The first one I wrote was a sci-fi. And then Chasing Shakespeare, a love story, and then Eat Spirit Eat, a comedy. I just wrote an action one. They all kind of follow the same message, that what matters most is friends and family. But I love to explore all kinds of ways to tell a story.

BW/DR: Are you going to keep writing in the cameos? You showed up as a reporter in Eat Spirit Eat and in Chasing Shakespeare.

JB: I’m actually going to try, if the movie doesn’t suffer. I’m not going to just throw a reporter in there, but-

BW/DR: You just wrote an action movie. You can blow up.

JB: Yeah, action movie for sure. I’ll be reporting during a shootout and have my head shot off. I’ll definitely kill myself off in that one.

BW/DR: Is being a reporter how you see yourself as a writer? As sort of like an observer to the story?

JB: Yeah. I never write outlines and I never obsess over it. If I write a script, I write it from page one until the end. I don’t edit. I don’t go back and read what I wrote. I want to be surprised by what happens, just like an audience. I don’t want to plan the story out so much that it becomes boring to write.

I would kill to do that. I would never finish a script because I’d get so obsessed with making each scene perfect that I’d just keep working on the beginning.

BW/DR: If you’re writing in literally every genre, how do you narrow that down to write a story? What about Eat Spirit Eat made it a story that you wanted to pursue?

JB: Well, it’s kind of autobiographical. I never met my dad. And the actors, a lot of them have stories about being removed from their fathers. Like [producer] Anya [Remizova] - her dad died during the shooting of Eat Spirit Eat. And Adriana Mather who played Vera, her father died before she came out to LA to pursue acting. Eze – Ezequiel Stremiz, who played Inny – he lost his mom. He’s a huge celebrity in South America and then he moved here and he had to start from scratch without a real support network. And this was his second American movie. Chasing Shakespeare was his first.

I just noticed that there were so many broken families and that it was really easy to view that immediately sad or negative. I wanted to show that broken families could be super positive because that means there would be open slots for new people to fill.

Chasing Shakespeare was a big budget, with trailers and Danny Glover and fifty people. Eat Spirit Eat was a group of my closest friends. So I got to really build my own family here, like Oliver.

BW/DR: Why hadn’t you met your dad?

JB: Well my mom’s from Minnesota. She met just some guy and they came out to California, and she got pregnant with my brother. Three years later she got pregnant with me and I guess my father didn’t want another kid and my mom didn’t want to get an abortion. So she chose me and my dad took off.

And then so from age one to maybe fourteen or fifteen we were homeless, I lived in a car. At the time life was fine, I didn’t know any different. But now that I’m grown up, I’ve realized “Wow man, life was tough.” Like how I always thought it was normal that a sheriff comes at the end of the month and throws all your stuff out. That was how people move, you know? Living in a car in a church parking lot I thought was pretty normal. And not knowing my father was actually pretty normal because basically everywhere we grew up it was a poor neighborhood. None of my friends none of them knew their father, you know? So I always thought movies were where dads were. Because in real life I didn’t know anyone that had a dad. But in movies everyone has a dad.

BW/DR: Is that why you made the father an actor in Eat Spirit Eat?

JB: Yeah. Young Oliver spending hours every day flicking through channels to find his dad is a more literal example of that. I only saw dads on TV. So Oliver keeps searching TV for his dad.

BW/DR: Those flashback sequences – the ones with young Oliver – were a lot less absurdist than the present day sequences. You go from these Muppet-y present day sequences to a slightly more somber past.

JB: When I look back at my memories, they’re actually more emotional than when I was experiencing them. So I looked at the past to as the sad part of your story. And realism is easier to view as a sad thing, but the point was to make sure that today, the present, you can be as naive and absurd as you want if you make that your reality.

Oliver makes everyone around him believe in this off the wall weird plan, because in the end, they all just want to be kids again. That’s what the whole entertainment industry is, a bunch of adults trying to play. Trying to be kids, you know?

BW/DR: It’s hard to overstate how much of a family Eat Spirit Eat’s cast is. You had a huge group travel to the opposite coast for the Orlando Film Festival screening – I think four actors, you and Anya – and all of them got emotional telling the story of Anya and her father. Leah Briese, who played Vill, was the first one to try and tell it and she couldn’t get all the way through before getting too choked up to continue.

JB: Yeah. I met Anya on Craigslist and she became a roommate. It was me, Adriana, Anya and I think Ezequiel might have lived with us at that point. And we wanted to make this movie,Chasing Shakespeare. Anya and her father were never close. They had never bonded. Her family is in Russia, and she’s the only one that moved to America. They wanted her to pursue business and you know take over the family business, which is factory work and all that. But she met us she really developed this love for art and for her passion, music.

Since she never got to be close with her dad, I think this was an opportunity for him because he got diagnosed with cancer. It’s sad but pretty sweet that her whole life she didn’t really have a father she could talk to, but in the last days of his life he became the best father in the world. So he gave her money for us to make Chasing Shakespeare. And that’s unheard of, really. So we actually madeChasing Shakespeare. And then the cancer got worse, and he went to the hospital, and as a goodbye present he gave us the money to make Eat Spirit Eat.

BW/DR: Was it just a coincidence that Eat Spirit Eat was this story about fathers?

JB: I wouldn’t say it’s a coincidence, I would say it was fitting that it came with all these family stories. We were all pretty tripped out about it too. We’re making this movie about fathers and her father gives us the money to do this and then dies. So it was kind of meant to be, you know.

BW/DR: So this movie really is the family you said you built.

JB: The entire, the entire cast was all friends. I mean, my mom is in there, my brother is one of the cops. The entire cast—we cast it ourselves, we didn’t have a casting director—didn’t have audition. I just met with all these people that were really good friends. I was like, “you’re perfect for this.” And I would just need to make sure that you could do it.

In reality we were a bunch of kids that were thinking, "Okay, we’re going to go make a movie.” We’d never done it before independently. I’ve never directed before, and she’s never scored a film before. Adriana’s never had a lead role before. We went into it thinking we were going to have so much fun learning how to do this. We were like Oliver and those orphans. We were so naive about everything.

The crew actually, like within the first, maybe four days of filming, they thought we were absolute bananas. They didn’t know, like, what was going on. They said, “This is not how you do it. This isn’t how you make films.” After week one they were all super, super on board, saying, “I’ve never had this much fun making a film before, this does not feel like work at all” you know. So it was cool, we just had to recruit them into our belief system. And the movie came out beautifully because everyone believed in the same thing: We’re all doing this because it’s fun. There’s not a lot of money, no one’s here for a paycheck, it’s all because we want to enjoy this and you know, the whole crew got behind it.

BW/DR: You’ve said at film festivals that on the soundtrack, some pretty big bands literally gave you songs for no paycheck and just because it’d be fun.

JB: The Watson Twins live pretty close to me, so I just walked up and talked to them about it. You know, walked to their house. Once they read the script, they were like, “We have to be a part of it, because that’s what the movie is about, you know? You’re supposed to come here and we’re supposed to join in and be super naive about this, right?” And I’m like, yes. So we got them. They completely waived all the fees for everything – publishing and marketing.

And then they’re like, “Okay, what other bands do you like? We’ll help you get them.” Well, I really like the band Everest. And they’re friends with Everest. When Everest , “I guess we kind of have to do the same thing as the Watson Twins, right? The whole movie is about just doing it for the love, and if we say we need all this money, we’d be evil.” So they jumped on and they gave us a song. And then Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros did the same thing. They didn’t ask for money. Mishel, who’s Ana Banana, is really good friends with that band now.

We found out if you become a human, if you don’t just do this on email and then say, “Direct me to your publishing rights guy,” if you’re actually human about it, if you actually tell them what the story’s about if they’re able to see your passion about it, they’re musicians, they’re artists; they want to be that passionate about what they do, too. So the second we became humans to them is when everyone just offered up their stuff. It helped that being human went along with the message of the movie

BW/DR: Is there a way to replicate any of this on your next movie? You sort of lost the nativity, just doing it for fun thing with the success of Eat Spirit Eat.

JB: The next movie is called Honeyglue. It’s about a girl who has three months to live. She meets this cross-dresser ex-junkie guy that’s the polar opposite of her, and he shows her how to live life in the three months that gives her a whole new perspective on life. It’s a little bigger budget and we have offers out to some really good actors.

For Eat Spirit Eat we were pretending we knew what we were doing, and now we’re figuring out, "Holy shit, what we were doing is right.”


Joe Uchill is a journalist and screenwriter. He contributes to outlets ranging from Milwaukee’s largest weekly to The Encyclopedia of Women and American Popular CultureB-Side, a film he co-wrote with director Amos Posner, recently won both “Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking” in its category at the Newport Beach Film Festival and “Breakout Film” at the Flyway Film Festival.


All in the Family

by Alison Felus

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Just a few weeks after I saw Shame in the theater for the first time, my younger sister moved in with me. (I know, right?) Unlike the little that’s revealed of Brandon and Sissy’s backstory in the film, I knew ours all too well: mother dead from cancer in 1987, father put into a nursing home after a debilitating stroke in 2004, bipolar brother living on the other side of the country since 2007.

What I didn’t know, until my boyfriend delicately pointed out the possibility upon meeting her for the first time, is that my sister is autistic. High-functioning enough to have managed to complete a bachelor’s degree over the course of about eight years, but still: autistic, severely depressed, with no money and nowhere else to go. So.

In Brandon and Sissy’s fight near the end of the movie, the one that catalyzes their respective binges of nastiness that make up the film’s climax, they bitterly debate the terms of their relationship.

“I make you angry all the time. And I don’t know why.”

“No. You trap me. You force me into a corner and you trap me. I’ve got nowhere else to go. I mean, what sort of fucking shit is that?”

“You’re my brother.”

“So what. I’m responsible for you?”

“Yes.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you fucking are.”

“No, I didn’t give birth to you. I didn’t bring you into this world.”

“You’re my brother. I’m your sister. We’re family. We’re meant to look after each other.”

“You’re not looking after me. I’m looking after myself.”

“I’m trying to help you.”

“How are you helping me, huh? How are you helping me? You come in here and you’re a weight on me. Do you understand me? You’re a burden. You’re just fuckin’ dragging me down. How are you helping me? You can’t even clean up after yourself. Stop playing the victim.”

As unflattering as it is to admit, I have had these very same arguments with my sister on more than one occasion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that has quite so accurately portrayed this kind of conflict—not just the essence of the interpersonal dynamics, but also the sickening rage that bubbles up inside me in the moments when it becomes clear to me that my life is not, and possibly never has been, my own. As much as I care for my sister and grieve for her obvious struggles, there’s no denying that a very real, very angry part of me starts shrieking in protest when I see that I’m expected to pretty much single-handedly solve a problem that I didn’t create.

"The shame of the title isn’t about depraved sexual predilections or scarred wrists; it’s the shame of wanting to run away from who you are and the things that made you that way, and the compounded shame of having those feelings in the first place."

We’re clearly meant to sympathize with the case Sissy makes, both in this scene and others, for their taking care of each other, especially given the narcissistic light in which Brandon’s behavior is portrayed. But in the dark of the theater, my chest constricted and my blood pressure rose as I instinctively aligned myself with his desperate desire to just be left alone. His life of one-night stands, internet porn, and cold leftover Chinese takeout might be hollow and unfulfilling, but at least it belongs to him and him alone.

As Chinatown’s screenwriter Robert Towne once said, “A movie, I think, is really only four or five moments between two people; the rest of it exists to give those moments their impact and resonance.” Even though director and co-screenwriter Steve McQueen (Hunger12 Years a Slave) resists giving us as viewers much in the way of explanation for Brandon and Sissy’s familial tensions, to me, the whole point of Shame is in the confrontation scene I describe above. It’s not about Brandon’s porn addiction or his inability to sustain an adult relationship; it’s not about Sissy’s flibbertigibbet career as a jazz singer or her own relationship problems. The shame of the title isn’t about depraved sexual predilections or scarred wrists; it’s the shame of wanting to run away from who you are and the things that made you that way, and the compounded shame of having those feelings in the first place.

Some reviewers have speculated that there are incestuous undertones to Brandon and Sissy’s relationship—they’re constantly barging in on each other naked in the bathroom, he wrestles her down onto the couch while clad in nothing more than a loosely draped white towel that falls off eventually anyway, she tip-toes into his room and crawls into bed with him in the middle of the night, claiming that she’s cold. If read in the light of sex being the most important part of this movie, then sure, those exchanges make a pretty convincing argument. But if, as I read it, the film is primarily concerned with tracing the ways that unacknowledged family trauma infects even benign daily activities, these moments signal the characters’ blindness to how haunted they are by their own dysfunction, even when it is actually standing naked in front of them.

It’s no mistake that the one prolonged moment of affectionate warmth that they share, the morning after her arrival, is in the subway. In one sense, their bond is bedrock, the fundamental truth underlying all the other bullshit. But in a larger sense, the underworld is the only place they can openly relate to each other. Subterranean darkness is the only safety they know, the absence of light the only way they can recognize each other. Offering monetary aid that’s refused with kindness, goofing about a piece of errant fluff—the tenderness is shy, halting, nearly furtive. Their playfulness is almost ratlike, clearly the mode they both prefer for slinking under the radar, creating as much havoc as they can until they’re busted.

By contrast, the emotion they both struggle to hold back during her rendition of “New York, New York” in the glittering club high above the city streets is too much: too pristine, too pure, too uncut—it threatens and ultimately overwhelms their tentative peace. It’s too high, too raw, too honest, too visible. It can’t survive at that altitude; in their own ways, they’re driven to choke the life out of it.

Though Brandon rails against the idea of marriage on his spectacularly awkward first date with his coworker Marianne, it’s the longevity of commitment that he’s clearly uncomfortable with, which is precisely the thing he can’t wiggle out of with Sissy. He admits that the longest relationship he ever had lasted only four months. Even so, girlfriends (and cam girls) may come and go, but family is forever. Regardless of whether or not you ever speak to your family again, as Sissy fears will happen if she leaves Brandon’s apartment, that doesn’t make you any less related to them. The bond of blood can’t be refuted, and when Sissy opens her veins on his bathroom floor, that’s exactly the point she ends up making.

Brandon, though, with his borderline OCD—revealed by his frantic wipe-down of the toilet seat where he goes to jerk off midday, or his scolding of Sissy to use a glass instead of chugging orange juice straight from the container—is above all obsessed with maintaining control over his life, allowing only for the messes that he creates himself. The literal messes that Sissy makes in his apartment (his withering disdain for her fuzzy scarf discarded on the living room floor is very funny) or the interpersonal messes she creates in his life (by having sex with his married horndog boss) drive him buggy, to a degree that feels less like the response of a grown man and more like, perhaps, a 16-year-old boy guarding his bedroom and belongings. Considering that Brandon mentions to Marianne that his family moved to the States from Ireland when he was 16, this seemingly trivial fact actually serves as a potent indicator of his intensely arrested development.

Remaining frozen in a 16 year old’s state of mind (and loins) has clearly limited not only his ability to sustain relationships with other people but has also trapped his sexuality in an exhausting cycle of penetration, missing—as Marianne points out to him with pity—the possibility of silent, loving connection.

These days I go back and forth between the apartment where my sister lives, for which I pay the rent, and the apartment where I cohabitate with my boyfriend. Much like Brandon straps on his headphones to find isolation and independence on a jog through the streets of Manhattan, I’ll often find myself similarly tethered to my iPod, taking the long way around Chicago’s Loop on the el train, carving out a bit of breathing room for myself where I can.

Just as Shame cuts abruptly to black at the end, leaving unresolved the question of whether Brandon has modified his behavior at all, the question of what I’m supposed to do about my own sister likewise remains unanswered. Though we’ve stumbled into our own kind of peace over the past two years, have my attempts to help her actually done any good at all? Though she seems superficially more stable at the moment, will it all fall apart, bloodily, when my lease ends this spring, or if I simply decide I can’t take the stress anymore? What form would my own hypothetical version of an all-night sex spree take, if my frustration boils over to the point where I’m driven to act out on it?

Before it gets that bad, though, maybe I should simply listen to her sing.


Allison Felus is a writer, editor, musician, and clairvoyant living in Chicago. She can be found online at allisonfelus.com.


Hello to the Other World

by Alexander Newton

photo courtesy of the author

photo courtesy of the author

As a kid, Witness was the chunky bright red VHS tape that I wasn’t supposed to watch. It was too ‘adult’ (which, in this case, translated into boring) and, therefore, was not for me. But I also knew that Han Solo/Indiana Jones was in it, and that it essentially took place in my backyard, so I bookmarked it for a later version of myself.

I grew up minutes from Amish country, an area mostly situated in and around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It’s a place I’ve come to recognize as a beautiful piece of earth, one that I took for granted as a kid, when I viewed the Amish as merely the mysterious occupants of nearby farms and towns. Many years later my parents still live there, and though much of the life I knew has disappeared, it still can be counted on for some stunning sunsets over rolling green landscapes, as well as the occasional horse and buggy ambling down the road.

I’m currently working in Manhattan and living in Brooklyn. After five years of calling New York City home, the routine has boiled down to work, freelancing on the side, friends, and short-term hermitages—lasting from a few hours to an entire day—to stop, think, and write so that my passion projects don’t fall too far to the wayside.

Recently though, I’ve been heading back to Pennsylvania more frequently to check in on family. When I get to Penn Station and wait for my train to be called, the business of the day naturally begins to fade and I start to think about where I’m headed. It’s a different kind of wait, not the same as eagerly leaning out over the platform to look down the subway tunnel, as if mere impatience can will a thing to arrive. Instead I’m reminded that waiting can have value, that this is a time where I don’t need a countdown at the bottom of some screen to tell me how much of this unbearable moment is left, but instead is a chance to just be myself, alive.

This is how it begins for me every time.

*

After the death of her husband, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her son Samuel (a young Lukas Haas), leave their Amish community to visit extended family in Baltimore. While stopped in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, the boy witnesses a brutal murder in a public bathroom. The two soon meet John Book (Harrison Ford), a police officer who takes on the case. He quickly uncovers some dirty dealings within his department tied to the murder, forcing him to go into hiding within the Amish community of the boy and his mother. While there, Book slowly begins to assimilate into their way of life, taking on chores and becoming a surrogate member of the family, while developing a relationship with Rachel. Their connection is, of course, controversial to the Amish, and creates the added complexity of a love triangle with Rachel’s Amish suitor, Daniel (Alexander Godunov). As the killers’ search for Book’s whereabouts intensifies, he and Rachel must come to terms with their feelings towards one another, and the inevitable doom of this bond, brought about by cultural divide.

There was a fair exchange in place between director Peter Weir and Hollywood in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Fearless, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Showmade the studios happy, offering them some potential Oscar bait, while Weir was kept happy because he got to do his own thing, exploring various thematic culture clashes through setups in which images often trumped words. Witness is a strong example of this: a fairly straightforward cop story that develops far greater meaning by taking on larger themes of pacifism and violence, tradition and change, duty and desire.

Silence is prevalent in all of Weir’s work. When discussing the topic recently, he denounced the modern screenplay as being “choked with dialogue,” his preference being to let images speak for themselves. In Witness, the sparseness is expansive. The horse and buggy overwhelmed by modern mechanized traffic. The young Amish boy at the train station staring up at the imposing bronze statue of Michael the Archangel, which seems to be looking back down at him, a canny use of foreshadowing. The moment where he recognizes one of the murderers in a photograph, (the blocking and shot design of which feels like something M. Night Shyamalan has ripped off time and again). The barn-raising montage, where the love triangle between Book, Rachel, and Daniel is put on public display. The car radio that plays Sam Cooke’s “What A Wonderful World” as Book leads Rachel into a dance, the quintessential high school moment she never had the chance to experience. The restraint found in the scene where Book encounters Rachel naked in her room during a rainstorm, his voyeuristic gaze matched by her full embrace of the moment. The care with which she removes her bonnet and places it upon the table before running out to Book in the field, a symbolic gesture that acknowledges both her way of life and her own free will at the very same time. And the finale itself, accomplished entirely through expressions that tell the story’s end - a move contested by the studio until Weir was able to convince them that, if he’d done his job well up to that point, no words would be needed.

*

The train takes me from New York down to Philadelphia, and then over into the area where I was raised—incidentally, the same train route that the Amish mother and son take on their way to Baltimore near the beginning of the film. I always think I’m going to get some reading or rewrites done with all this free time, but I inevitably find myself staring out the large windows instead, watching everything go by, the way I once did as a kid. Some of it ends up on Instagram, vistas of blue skies and farmland that sit on my profile next to shots taken of my goings-on in Brooklyn. Someone always comments: “Whereare you?”

That feeling from the station continues to grow as the scenery changes, the sharp grays of the city giving way to the organic greens and browns of the country. I find myself transitioning into a different mindset, a slower, more contemplative state.

I now tend to think of the area where I grew up as being off the beaten path, but as a kid it seemed like the center of the universe. The land stretched out endlessly in every direction, touched by purple sunsets in the west, all of it highly impressionable to a young mind. This expanse not only proved to be excellent for childhood dispatches into the wilderness, it also carried with it a distinct sense of possibility. As the years went on, this feeling grew into a fervent desire to escape and move on, but, in retrospect, I can see it was a nurturing place for me, one I had to break away from to more fully appreciate.

Clearly these sorts of musings are a product of transit, a sense of being in-between that allows for wandering reflection. But I now find that returning home holds more than just a feeling of nostalgia. It also generates a greater sense of exploration and discovery.

Watching Weir’s sequences of agrarian Amish life play out over Maurice Jarre’s ethereal synth score, I’m struck by a strong sense of comfort, seeing the world I knew as a child but also feeling astonished at the way Weir is able to elicit a surreal otherness from the land, its people, and their ways. Like certain tonal elements in Weir’s earlier Australian work, Picnic At Hanging Rock, it is both beautiful and haunting, an unlikely companion to the more conventional Hollywood plot elements that come into play once the city of Philadelphia and Ford’s character enter the film.

In what is probably my favorite scene, the Amish grandfather sits the young boy down at the table where Book’s gun and bullets are laid out, and the two discuss violence and the taking of life that a gun represents. It’s a pinnacle moment, one that finds Weir fully prepared to tackle the themes he’s been setting up all along, highlighting the differences between these two conflicting cultures. “What you take into your hands, you take into your heart,” the old man tells the boy. It’s a message that’s especially chilling today given more recent events, and, for me, can’t help but bring up memories of the mass shooting several years ago at West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster where several children were wounded and killed. Afterwards, in the face of all this senseless horror, the Amish families of the victims offered forgiveness to the family of the deceased shooter, the two factions ultimately finding a kind of consolation and peace between each other. This kind of reconciliation was almost as difficult to fathom as the violence itself, but it speaks to the depths of love and forgiveness we are capable of in the times when it’s most needed.

*

There’s no doubt that the dichotomy between where I grew up and where I live now has become quite pronounced. A childhood friend (who also moved on from early pastoral roots) commented on one of my Instagrams: “Hello to the other world.” And she was right to call it that. In some ways it is an entirely different way of life, old-fashioned, out of step with the times. Sometimes it feels as if these two worlds really do represent the past and the present—tethered by tracks, roads, fiber optics, and childhood memories—allowing us to travel back and forth at will.

Of course, it’s not really about time travel so much as it is about what we choose to leave behind and what we choose to keep and carry with us. In years past, my trips home meant mostly the same thing as they would mean to anyone who goes back: warm meals, free laundry, a chance to kick back, turn off, and take in all those old amusing irritations that we once so boldly left behind. But now, many years later, going home has become a healthy, substantial reminder that life is not short (if we’re lucky)—that it is long and complex and requires the things that all families require: endurance, patience, and selflessness. These realizations are often easy to misplace when life throws at us its various distractions, but that’s all the more reason to try and hang onto what truly matters.

Or at least that’s what I’ve come to decide, taking train rides into the country.


Alexander Newton works in distribution for independent film and is a freelance video editor for companies such as Vice and The New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn where he is currently finishing a draft for his first feature film.


Goodnight, Never Goodbye

by Lauren Cierzan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

We are quick to name the feelings that tether us to our families. Whether they unfurl as lists or cement themselves in a single word, our answers are often as assertive as they are wildly inconsistent, their specifics varying by the minute, the day, the events of the last holiday gathering. We cling to decisive statements, ones spoken with a little too much force, delivered like a verbal punch. Of course we love our family, how could we not? Of course wehate them, who can blame us? In the end, our insistence is only a more comfortable alternative to embracing the truth, because we have no exact answers. There is nothing emotionally definitive about these blood ties that send us reeling in every imaginable direction. They are not a feeling or several feelings, but rather an explosion of the entire spectrum. Love and hate and every emotion in-between scramble onto each others’ backs, teetering like a block tower just shy of toppling over.

Their clamor rings clearly in Gilbert Grape’s slack narration. Hidden off-camera in the film’s first moments, he describes his family — and the nowhere that is Endora, Iowa — in a tone that wavers between fondness and dripping cynicism. He confesses the burden of his little brother Arnie, nearly eighteen but stuck with a five-year-old’s brain, a miracle that he wants alive some days and dead others. His voice swells hopefully when mentioning his sisters, tightens when addressing his dead father and long-gone second brother and finally bottoms out with grief as the massive expanse of his mother’s body swallows the screen.

Gilbert’s own brushed-aside introduction completes a preliminary sketch, the bare bones ofa Grape family portrait. Together, its members form a hurricane of wants and needs that Gilbert feeds from the place he’s staked at its quiet center. Arnie is a chore. His sisters, in their struggle to keep house, nag relentlessly. His mother, the ‘whale’, engulfs the living room couch, her endless, sorrow-stoked appetite a black hole whose pull none of them can escape.

It is fairly easy to determine who deserves our sympathy, given this initial impression. All signs point to Gilbert, nearly every aspect of his existence epitomizing underdog: his dead-end employment at Lamson’s Grocery, its wholesome business choked by the arrival of a Food Land supermarket near town; his failure to wrangle Arnie, despite all of his best efforts; the sorry affair he carries on with Betty Carver, a married, manipulative snake of a woman. You can’t help but feel for the guy. It’s impossible not to empathize with his position and its mess of contradictions - both scapegoat and savior, breadwinner and errand-boy. He plays the part of thankless saint, bearing the brunt of his family’s burden and the wealth of their criticism while doing so. This “poor Gilbert vs. the world” angle quickly wears thin, however, spurring a shift in the story’s viewpoint. As narrative bias is exchanged for an honesty that is far more compelling, its characters experience a sea change, their one-note roles splitting open to reveal a wonderful, tragic complexity.

It all begins with an interruption. The lives of the Grape family are plodding miserably along, buoyed somewhat by the anticipation of Arnie’s eighteenth birthday party. The routine that Gilbert drifts through— days spent stocking shelves, rendezvouses with Betty —is shaken by the appearance of a mysterious girl, a traveler temporarily stranded in Endora. Becky’s arrival startles the stagnant community, drawing stares from locals, and from Gilbert especially. She is irresistibly unfamiliar, far removed from the hopelessness of the town, his tired friends, his ramshackle home. Wandering the country in their trailer, she and her grandmother are free in the face of the Grapes’ fixedness, proof of the possibilities that exist outside Endora’s dusty limits. (Her vaguely punk-rock, dreamily stoned, too-cool-to-care-what-I’m-wearing brand of good looks don’t exactly hurt, either. Kudos to Juliette Lewis, forexpertly playing Juliette Lewis.) While delivering groceries to their broken-down truck, Gilbert is enthralled by Becky’s strangeness, her easy kindness to him, and to Arnie. Their brief first encounter is enough to spur his unraveling.

Soon after they meet, a scene around the Grape dinner table boils over without warning. A barb Gilbert aims at his sister spirals into a fit of screams and table-banging, the frustrations of the entire family tangling into a fury, a moment that marks a turning point. The home environment that once seemed dismal merely due to disorder now shows itself to be something far more volatile. Trapped together, the family members exact their stir-crazy irritation on one another, lashing out without warning. Each outburst exposes more deeply the roots of the Grapes’ dysfunction. Their father was a ghost long before he hung himself in the basement. Their mother is eating herself to death for that very reason, and her children can do nothing to stop her. Their worlds revolve around her weight, each one collapsing a little more with every pound that she gains.

Gilbert’s glum resignation disappears overnight, replaced by a growing confusion. The emotions he’s tabled in order to serve others’ needs, the years of quiet rebellion, have begun to fight their way loose. Internally, he’s always been more of a cynic than a saint, his love for his family laced thick with resentment. Their reliance on him is dead weight, an obligation he construes as oppression. He is bitter because he’s angry, guilty because he’s bitter. Ashamed because his family is the butt of every joke. Devastated because they deserve better than their endless bad luck. Slowly, he recognizes himself as a coward. The fear he has of trying, of pushing the boundaries past what little he knows to actually succeed and save himself—from loneliness, from a wasted, empty life—stirs in him a self-hatred that he quickly converts into blame. He claims his family as the source of his unhappiness, comfortable to sulk in their shadows.

Off-kilter, Gilbert repeatedly flees to Becky’s trailer. To him, her lifestyle is a respite, the antithesis of the chaos awaiting him at home. He is blissfully unaware of her role as a catalyst, that their contrasting lives are what has awakened his restlessness, that hers is the objective perspective he so badly needs. She doesn’t put up with his dejection. She ignores the snide comments about his mother and insists on meeting her. Above all, their budding relationship is a lesson in love as a choice. Gilbert wants to need Becky. He has no desire to need Arnie, his immovable mother, his sisters. Until he makes that choice, until he wants to need them, there is no hope for a healthy balance in their love. Becky proves that he’s capable of choosing. Their interactions, directly and indirectly, exorcise the ugliness churning inside of Gilbert, a difficult catharsis but a necessary one all the same.

A flurry of mistakes are made in the process. Gilbert’s affair with Betty implodes when he attempts to end things, destroying her own family in ways he never could have imagined. His lack of attention to Arnie lands his brother in jail. Later, his unstable temper pushed to a breaking point, Gilbert hits Arnie when he misbehaves and is immediately mortified by what’s he done. He speeds to the edge of town in a panic, ready to leave Endora far behind, but stops just short of crossing the line. It’s then that he is finally faced with a decision. He has a choice and he chooses to stay. The path to that pivotal moment is littered with small casualties. He’s stumbled. He’s caused damage. But it’s only in the aftermath that he’s finally able to abandon his own martyrdom and acknowledge the people he loves for what they truly are. How fragile his brother is, his desperate need for Gilbert’s protection. How acutely aware his mother is of all the embarrassment she causes, the regret and pain that have rendered her helpless. His sisters’ desperation to hold everything together. Realizations wash over him in tides, the final brushstrokes needed to complete the family portrait. By the time the credits roll, its once rough lines have been made fully three-dimensional, a group of figures rendered in light and shadows. The Grape clan appears as love encircling a hard knot of hurt. They force their way around the darkness at their center, struggling to hold tight to each other, determined to never let go.

The title of this film is asked, not stated. What is eating Gilbert Grape? To say ‘family’ only partly explains, if only because this single word does not represent a singular idea. Instead, it is the sum of a hundred tiny parts arranged in the shape of an answer. It means grief and guilt and rage and pride and joy and disappointment and on and on, an endless, erratic array of feelings, collected over the course of a lifetime. We may not have a mother big enough to break the floorboards, but we have a mother. We may not have an absent father or a disabled sibling, but we have a father, a sister, a brother. Our feelings for them are still the most potent, the most deeply rooted, because they were the first to teach us what those feelings were. They form the beginning of an emotional history too detailed to decipher, a history that can never be pinned down with a proper name. If, in time, we’ve learned what Gilbert learns, its lack of definition is insignificant: whatever form it takes, however intact or broken—family, blood, that glorious mess—it is ours.


Lauren Cierzan is a writer and hearty Midwesterner currently based in Nashville, TN. Her work can be found at This Recording and hiding in various corners of the internet.