Radical Honesty

by Alina Simone

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When I was a junior in high school, barely hovering above the dread waterline of irredeemable unpopularity, I miraculously came to be best friends with one of our school’s most popular girls, a sophomore I’ll call “Sophie”. Sophie was bitchy, smart, widely-feared and fiercely loyal to the vanishingly small group of people she decided to anoint as “real” friends. Though we both knew that she had rescued me from certain social death, she never mentioned our obvious difference in rank or otherwise made me feel like a victim of noblesse oblige. I had earned her favor by becoming her boyfriend Nick’s math tutor—and, eventually, confidant—but to keep it required practicing a new form of friendship I’ll call Radical Honesty. No topic could ever be deemed too dark or too squirmish to be shared. For a while, Sophie and Nick and I formed an awkward platonic love triangle. Then one day Nick broke up with her, then broke up with me, and all Sophie and I had left were each other.

Sophie became one of the great loves of my early life. It was the kind of love that didn’t involve sex, though it did involve sleeping in the same bed and constantly telling one another “I love you” and making up enough secret codewords to fill a Moleskine and sealing ourselves into a private duoverse that made even the most well-intentioned visitor feel like a suppurating plague carrier. We told each other everything, purging mortifying details like Franciscan flagellants walking the Camino de Santiago. To not to do so, to ever hold back, would have been seen as the gravest of best-friendly sins.

Frances, the protagonist of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, also has a best friend (and roommate) to whom she tells everything and demands the same. Her name is Sophie. And, like me and my Sophie, the Radical Honesty they practice begins to choke off all avenues of potential growth. Whereas Frances makes the sacrifices necessary to keep their hothouse doors shut, Sophie decides she wants more than this stunted-houseplant existence, and takes a less-favored friend up on her offer to share a better apartment in a choicer neighborhood. Thus begins Frances’ forced march to adulthood.

Frances Ha is about friendship, but it’s also about figuring out how to make a job out of doing what you love, and what to do about money, and how exactly to grow old when all the old people you know seem to have lost their capacity for spontaneity and joy. As in life, there are no real villains in this movie. Every time I expected Sophie (or Frances’ dance troupe boss, or one of her new, trust-funded roommates) to turn into the kind of screenplay-science antagonist specifically designed to “raise the stakes” (read: make things more movie-ish and less real), I’d be surprised by an act of grace. Even when the characters inFrances Ha lash out at one another, it reads more as an act of defense.

"Frances Ha is about friendship, but it’s also about figuring out how to make a job out of doing what you love, and what to do about money, and how exactly to grow old when all the old people you know seem to have lost their capacity for spontaneity and joy."

Watching it, I can already anticipate some of the negative reactions to this movie. There are those who will complain of its jewel-box scale that “nothing happens,” and hipster haters (this group includes self-hating hipsters) who will dismiss it out of hand for its precious characterization of white, Brownstoned, artistic strivers. But I love Frances Ha for shining a rare light on complicated truths: it is possible—even preferable—to thrive within constraints; paying rent can be a form of bravery; and when you move beyond that stage in life when time seems infinite, love becomes a zero-sum game.

As Frances moves farther out of Sophie’s orbit, she becomes a tourist in other people’s lives. At a dinner party with a group of older sophisticates, her dorm-room-confessional style of conversation makes her the object of muted eyerolls. But she feels just as alienated by hipsters her own age—not because they fail to tailgate her pop-culture references or go blank at her non-sequiturs, but because they are rich. In many ways, Frances is a proxy for the New York arrivistes of an earlier age, when it was possible to be poor, live cheap and even enjoy a certain degree of glamour. Those days, needless to say, are gone. The new bohemians are trust-funded, just as the balls-to-the-wall, it’s-passionville-or-bust artist living on scraps has been replaced with the day-jobbing, multi-tasking, part-time artist whose teeth get a good cleaning twice a year. Whereas her mortifying encounters with bougie professionals only remind Frances of how far away adulthood’s milestones (kids, jobs, 401ks) remain, the trust-fund kids leave her either begging off, apologizing or scrambling to keep up. It’s hard to say which type of casual humiliation is worse. All I know is I kept having to pause the movie when the tight feeling in my chest got to be too much.

My Sophie was also rich. Her father drove us to school in a Lexus whose leather seats had butt-warmers—an unthinkable luxury in my neck of Massachusetts, circa 1991. I will also never forget Sophie’s schoolbag, which cost three hundred dollars; was 100% genuine, creamy suede; and would literally make me wince whenever she’d throw it on the ground outside an ATM. Having a rich best friend taught me some painful lessons. I liked to think of myself as a “generous” person, when the truth was, I couldn’t afford to be. My generosity of spirit remained abstract, whereas Sophie’s hard cash made our lives more exciting in ways you could measure in mileage, brunches, movie tickets. It was with Sophie that I first began to covet money—not to buy things for myself, but to buy things for her. I needed the favors to stop accruing on one side of the ledger. Watching Sophie move through the world with so much confidence, I realized it was much easier to be kind, to act brave, and to feel free when you didn’t have to worry about, er, being broke. Somehow, instead of making me feel worse, this revelation actually blunted my shame at feeling so pinched and cautious and scared all the time. I guess I have Sophie to thank for that.

It’s the combined weight of revelations like these that sends Frances scurrying back to the comparative safety of her old college—this time as a low-wage employee. Back in the cosseted world of rolling woods and grand buildings, Frances can no longer ignore the contrast between her wished-for life and reality. And yet, if Frances’ post-college life isn’t what it could be, the student life she remains nostalgic for isn’t particularly appealing either. Nor does Sophie’s new life turn out to be nearly as charmed as she’d imagined.

The Frances and Sophie of Frances Ha are far warmer, wiser and tolerant than Sophie and I were at that age. Our friendship is the story of apocalyptic flameout; theirs, a story of redemption. After college, my Sophie and her girlfriend (she turned out to be gay, but I still believe that had nothing to do with our friendship) moved in to the spare room in the house I shared with my boyfriend, where we learned our love for one another just couldn’t be spliced four ways. We wanted things to go back to how they were, to keep telling each other everything, but by now we realized secrets were a form of currency too. Our lovers wouldn’t accept recycled intimacies — they wanted our first, best selves. Besides, the juiciest gossip was always the sex stuff, the pillow talk, the treacherous doubts you have staring into the refrigerator late at night. Sharing these began to feel like a betrayal to the ones we loved, well, more. Unlike Sophie and Frances, we were unable to lay down new ground rules and figure out a different but still-satisfying way to be together. Instead we stockpiled our secrets, avoided, then accused one another, and hosted increasingly volatile shouting matches in my grassless backyard until Sophie and her girlfriend packed up her things one day and left. No goodbyes.

Considering the aggressively modern ennui Frances Ha portrays, the fact that it is filmed in black and white seems odd at first. While the novelty wears off quickly, the feeling that this is a period piece lingers. The period happens to be one minute ago, but even as we live it, this era of Now seems more fragile and uncertain and restless than most. Stripping it of Technicolor is Baumbach’s way of keeping the emphasis on the film’s more universal themes, to be sure. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the digital age has altered the tenor of our relationships to the point where it’s become far easier to mellow into maturity, to be the Frances and Sophie of Frances Ha. These are the questions I ask myself about Generation Z, or π, or whatever their latest hashtag might be: Girded with iPhones and Google Glass and apps that find dates for them, do they charge less hard at life? Are their highs less high and their lows less low, making compromise easier? And, if so, is that…well, good?

The answer Frances Ha gives seems to be a guarded “yes.” Frances’ transition to adulthood is not without difficulty, but she’s not leaving any steaming, twisted guardrails in her wake, either. Looking back, my own fiery friend break-up seems like an anachronism from that misty pre-Facebook time when break-ups were forever and you could love someone so much it just turned to hate. This isn’t an era for haters, Frances Ha reminds me, it’s an era for likers. Maybe it’s actually the Era of Friendship, or at least an easier time to be friends.

I don’t know. I hope so.


Alina Simone is the author of two books, the essay collection You Must Go and Win, and the novel Note to Self. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, andLos Angeles Review. She is a contributor to BBC’s “The World.”


I'm Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

by Andrew Root

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When I was six years old, my grade one teacher sat the class down in a circle and told us about outer space. It was March of 1989, and the Discovery space shuttle had just been launched, three years after the disaster of the Challenger. We had a lot of questions.

“Why are they going to outer space?”

“How fast does the rocket go?”

“What do the astronauts eat?”

Caught up in the enthusiasm of this brave new frontier, I threw my hand up in the air and asked “What’s it like in space?” The circle fell silent, and we all leaned forward, waiting to hear what my teacher would reveal.

“Well,” she said, looking around the circle, “in outer space, it’s very cold.” She looked to a new face. “In outer space, there’s no water or plants.” She looked to me. “In outer space, there’s no air.”

“No air?” I asked. How could there be no air? Air was everywhere, duh.

“That’s right,” she continued, “and because there’s no air in space, the astronauts have to wear special suits with the air caught inside of them.”

“What happens if they take the suits off?”

“Oh,” said my teacher, furrowing her brow, and leaning forward to underline the seriousness of what she was about to say. “They can’t do that. If they take off their suits, all of the air gets sucked out. If you were in outer space and your glove fell off… you would die.”

The only other thing I remember from that day is standing outside at recess, short of breath, desperately trying not to look at my gloves. It was winter. My gloves fell off all the time. Was life really that fragile? I didn’t understand a thing about death. My family’s beagle had died two years previous, and all that meant to me was that she wasn’t there any more. Death was not being—the bright, cold winter sunlight, gone. The clouds of warm breath coming through my scarf, gone. The sounds of my classmates playing tag, the loud school bell, lining up to go back inside—gone, all gone, and there was nothing I could do about it because my glove fell off and I was gone too.

“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.”

My hands are shaking right now. My neck is tight and I keep forgetting to breathe. Between the last two paragraphs I had to walk away from the computer for an hour because I couldn’t calm down. I think it was an anxiety attack.

When I bought my ticket for Gravity, I felt a low-level prickling of the skin on my back. In the first ten minutes, as George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floated around the screen—and partially into the audience, thanks to the 3D effects—I was calm but wary. The enormity of the planet loomed quietly above them as Clooney’s Matt Kowalski flitted this way and that on a pneumatic jet pack, and Bullock’s Ryan Stone worked carefully on a piece of machinery, her voice thick with tension, her clear discomfort a dark mirror of Kowalski’s serene nature. I identified closely with Ryan – a relationship I would regret as the film progressed. Rogue satellite debris tears across their orbit, destroying the space station and cutting Ryan’s tether, setting her hopelessly adrift into the blackness of the yawning void. Spinning dizzily, her frantic breath quickly depleting her oxygen, she carries us with her as the Earth whips in and out of frame. Then, in a moment that realizes a deep and terrible fear, the camera detaches and we watch her momentum carry her into the blackness.

“What do I do? What do I do?”

I’ve experienced blind panic—the kind that seizes your entire system—only once before. I was exploring a national park near my town called Warsaw Caves. As the name would suggest, there are a series of subterranean structures that hikers are free to explore, extending as deep at 40 feet below the surface. I was following my brother down a crevasse when we came to a tiny opening that we had to crawl under. My brother, the slimmer half of the spelunking duo, slipped through with relative ease, and so I followed… and got stuck. It quickly became dark in the cave, the only source of light shrinking away as though being pulled through a huge tunnel. The rock ceiling dug into my back and my chest was pressed to the ground. I couldn’t breathe deeply, and my arm was caught beneath me. Couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back. Trapped. My breathing turned into ragged hacks that couldn’t carry oxygen into my lungs, and sweat burst out of every pore of my flailing body. It took intense mental effort to form the word “help.” I couldn’t see anyone.

No one was there to help me.

“We’re all going to die. Everybody knows that. But I’m going to die today.”

Panic is different from fear. Panic speaks to a sudden loss of control (ironically exacerbated by wild attempts to regain that control), while fear stews itself in dread and is often accompanied by an unacknowledged reverence. The panic I felt as a child was triggered by an entrance into something unknown. When my grade one teacher told me how easy it was for life to slip from my fingers, she revealed the universe’s vast indifference toward me—toward human life in general. When I was trapped in cave at ten years old, I panicked because I was being hurtled into that great indifference and there was nothing I could do about it. Panic is the agent, fear is the consequence.

Gravity provoked in me the strongest sensation of panic that I’ve felt in twenty years.

Ryan Stone fears death in all its forms. Her daughter died by complete happenstance, tripping and hitting her head during a game of tag. “Stupidest thing,” she intones, being towed behind Kowalski, helpless even when rescued. She has fled literally as far as she can to avoid fully confronting her fears, living a shell of a life in which she wakes up, goes to work, drives her car until she can’t stay awake any longer, and goes to sleep. While she fears death, she might fear life even more. The chaos of the universe took her daughter away so dispassionately that she has a victim’s mentality: keep your head down. Don’t let them see you sweat. You’ll be okay if you can only avoid eye contact. Throw yourself into work, a project, something, just don’t ever, ever, ever, let them know that you’re weak. That you’re hurting. That you suffer.

“You have to learn to let go.”

Life in this idiom is not life at all; it’s surviving—and life has to be about more than just survival. Director Alfonso Cuarón (who also wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas) has crafted a story that charts the process of recovery, from denial to confrontation to acceptance. The chilling use of 3D to create an infinite depth of space—and to allow debris to cut right in front of your face—accentuates our protagonist’s sudden confrontation with the deep, dark fears that haunt her; just as she can’t fathom the tranquility that her co-astronaut displays with his penchant for twangy country music and flirty conversation, she also can’t fathom herself ever being comfortable with her seemingly infinite emotional shit. The only solution is just to keep moving away from it all. But as she travels from set piece to set piece, Ryan undergoes a process of rebirth; from a peaceful—though temporary—incubation aboard the International Space Station, to a painful process of pushing through the atmosphere, to the first shaky steps on uncertain legs into a strange new world, Ryan comes to terms with living. She’ll either make it through and have one hell of a story to tell, or she won’t—and that’s ok. The important thing is to seize control when you’re able to and live life unafraid.

I forced myself to go and see Gravity twice in the theatre. Each time, the scenes of the debris attacking the space shuttle and Ryan’s subsequent careening through space made me grip the armrest so tightly that I nearly ripped it off. As soon as I’d heard about the film, I knew I was going to attend—I knew it would provoke a deep-seated anxiety, but I went to see it anyway. I don’t hold myself in esteem because I went to see a movie, but I do feel some small sense of pride that I confronted something that I’m deeply afraid of, in however removed a capacity. Admittedly, I feel a chill when I watch Chris Hadfield covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in zero gravity, but I still make myself watch it. I’m slowly chipping away at age-old fears, and every time I do, I open myself up to wonders I can’t even imagine. It’s okay to be helpless sometimes. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do. But it’s a beautiful shade of blue, isn’t it?


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.


Fire, Fire, Everywhere

by Gray Hendryx

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I work for a small natural history museum owned by a large university. On October sixteenth—National Fossil Day—my coworkers and I were called into an emergency meeting in the director’s office. Our paleontologist was in the middle of identifying a fossilized camel tooth when she was ordered in. Ashen-faced, the director told us that the Dean’s Office was cutting our funding. Most of us would be laid off in ten months’ time. Tears flowed. Our IT administrator had been with the museum for over forty years, the gift shop manager for twenty. As the baby of the office, I had been there only five years, but had thirty-five more hanging like a promise in my head. And in one afternoon, that promise was gone, leaving only a gaping hole where my future used to be.

I couldn’t look at that hole without bawling for a good week or so. Since then, I have found ways to keep myself from noticing it. Applying for jobs. Watching old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Running until I can barely breathe. Drinking. And working, of course—there are still many things to be done. Xerox bills to pay, phone calls to answer, spreadsheets to tweak. Ten months is a long time, though when I risk a glance at that hole on the other side, I know it’s really not that much time at all.

*

In All is Lost, Our Man (Robert Redford) wakes to a hole punched in his sailboat by a shipping container filled with children’s shoes. Seawater sloshes into his tidy cabin, instantly ruining his laptop and radio. If I was in that boat, I would freak the fuck out. Fuck you, Nike, for making so many shoes! Fuck you, kids, for having feet! And fuck you, too, ocean! What the fuck am I going to do now?! But Our Man does not panic. Instead, he assesses the hole. He calmly ascends the stairs to the deck.

He stabilizes the container with a sea anchor. He carefully steers the boat so that the punctured side rides high above the waves. He moves slowly as he steps onto the container to retrieve the anchor, for Our Man is an old man. His weariness is apparent as he manually operates the bilge pump, but he keeps at it, steady and patient. Once that job is done, he must move on to patching the hole, which he does with the same unhurried skill. He never says a word. All is Lost portrays all of this in near real time and we’re soon reminded just how rare it is for a film to take this kind of time, to grant so much space to watching someone complete a series of tasks. Though Our Man’s plight is uncertain, director J.C. Chandor’s patience allows each scene to feel like a long, cleansing breath.

Even rarer, perhaps, is getting the chance to watch someone competent. In most other “lost at sea” films, the protagonist is a stranger to the sea. It’s easy for me to identify withCastaway’s Chuck Noland, a middle manager who finds himself stranded on a desert island with no one but a volleyball for company. In Life of Pi, my heart ached for Pi Patel as he suffered under the sun’s unrelenting glare. A gentle son of a zookeeper didn’t deserve that fate. Where those characters scream and flail, though, Our Man is silent and sure. He is in his element, and to watch him confront each challenge as it comes is to feel strangely comforted. It reminded me of the time I watched my father pull a fish hook out of his thumb. I was six, and I stared in awe as he brought the same triage skills he used on car wreck victims to his own hand. Without so much as a whimper, he pulled the hook out with pliers, soaked his thumb in alcohol, and said to my mother, “Please bring me some Tylenol.” Watching him made me feel safe. If I was ever in trouble, this guy had my back.

Our Man allows himself a moment of contentment once his boat is patched. His brow softens as he sits at the helm, watching a fiery sun set over the vastness of the Indian Ocean. The leak, in destroying his electronics, has left him well and truly on his own, yet he is largely unperturbed by this dangerous fact. I can understand accepting such risks. In my experience, no good hiking trip is without a hint of danger. Getting lost, being bitten by tropical parasites, nearly stepping on a cottonmouth—these all made for great stories once I returned home, though they were harrowing at the time I was experiencing them. Perhaps Our Man feels the same way. In the end, everything will be all right. It will make for a good story.

But the moment passes. The only thing left to do is to eat dinner and contemplate the hole. It is crudely covered with epoxy and cloth, and it gapes at him like a wounded, bandaged eye. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Our Man averts his eyes from the hole’s baleful gaze. He fills a glass with whiskey.

*

On my thirty-second birthday, my father called me.

“Ah, thirty-two,” he sighed, his voice a rueful rasp in my ear. “That’s when my body started falling apart.”

I’m thirty-three now, and the slow dissolve is underway. When I first started my job at the museum, fellow riders on the commuter bus would look at me and my backpack and ask, “What’s your major?” They don’t ask that anymore, though I still carry the exact same backpack. Nights I once slept dreamlessly through now haunt me with insomnia, and the pizza I used to consume regularly as an undergraduate now only leaves me sick with heartburn. Drinking three glasses of wine was once the beginning of a party. I can’t drink now without guilt, as even one leads to a morning of headaches and a burning sensation in my bladder. My neck protests against its daily duty—holding my head in front of a computer screen for eight hours at a time—with pain and nausea. Not long ago, my right elbow grew so sore from mousing that I taught myself to use it with my left hand. Now my left elbow is starting to ache.

I attend to these loosening ends as best I can. I lift weights. I drink a lot more water than I used to. I eat kale and melatonin and antacids. I should probably moisturize. But every time I try to batten down one of these figurative hatches, something else seems to come apart. And I’m still young, relatively speaking. I am lucky enough that diet and habits work, for now. Others are not so lucky. Five years ago, I met a new friend over a plate of gooey cheese fries. Three beers later, she spontaneously invited me to an S&M party. Now, she is crippled with a metastasizing list of chronic pain issues. First it was interstitial cystitis, the same bladder problem I have, except that hers is so bad she has to wear ice packs in her underwear. Then she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which cramps her mousing shoulder into agonizing knots. Then came endometriosis. Pain pills don’t work. She no longer dreams of having children. She’s often too nauseated to eat. She’s thirty-five.

Though several degrees of suffering separate us, we both look with growing dread upon the coming years. Our baselines have shifted; the lives we once led before these changes have now been given up as lost. We look to our bodies and ask, “What next?”

*

A storm approaches Our Man in the night. His struggle to ready his craft for the coming violence is valiant, and in vain. He retreats below the deck to wait it out. What happens next is terrifying. All we see is Our Man in his cabin. We are left to imagine the terrible waves and winds that turn his tiny, fragile world upside-down. He tumbles amongst his things, which fly like the white plastic motes in a snow globe. It is a miracle he survives with only a minor gash on his forehead.

The sun rises upon disaster. The mast is gone. Water floods the cabin. Redford has always been a subtle actor, and All is Lost is his master class in the quiet reveal. Every expression and movement conveys Our Man’s thoughts as clearly as any spoken word, so clearly that I often failed to notice the film’s lack of dialogue. The foremost thought that directs his weathered hands is “What next?” He must abandon ship, or perish. He salvages what supplies he can and tucks them all into a rubber orange life raft. Chandor’s choice not to give Our Man any sort of backstory gives the viewer’s imagination room to roam, and mine soon wondered over the items he chooses to save.

Chief among them is an old-fashioned sextant, kept in a water-tight box that appears to have never been opened; it is so pristine. It is paired with a book on navigation—its spine similarly uncracked—as well as some maps. Our Man, being a practical gent, kept these items as backup in case he ever lost GPS contact, though he’d never used them. I like to think the items were a present from a well-meaning daughter or a wife, determined to give the man who so rarely voices his wants something he can use. Maybe her name was Virginia Jean. Maybe he named his boat after her.

He settles in to watch the Virginia Jean sink. He has lost so much, he is in danger of dying of thirst or exposure, and yet he perseveres. He keeps trying. He unfolds his glasses and begins reading the book. Though he can’t steer the raft like he could the sailboat, he at least wants to know where he’s drifting. He has nothing but time to learn.

He soon discovers, however, that he has no time at all.

*

Once upon a time, the Buddha stood on a mountaintop and told 1,000 monks that everything is on fire. This sermon, unsurprisingly, is called “The Fire Sutra”. And if you’re the kind of Old Joy stoner-philosopher who likes to (mis)use the language of quantum mechanics to describe the mysteries of existence, then yeah, ever since the Big Bang, literally everything has been on fire. But that’s not what the Buddha meant:

Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

In other words, absolutely everything we perceive is on fire with our desire to have things the way we want them to be. I love flying to see my parents in Hawai’i every Christmas so much, I wish I could do it every day. Many Native Hawaiians hate that they have to live in crappy apartments while time-shared condos owned by rich folks stand empty and unused. No one wants to acknowledge just how much climate change is going to affect everything. The world is constantly punching holes in our lives, and regardless of whether we ignore them or stare them down, we burn. We want things to be different.

The biggest hole of all is the fact that our lives will end. I spend hours in a meditation hall every week trying to come to terms with that damned hole. Sometimes, I grow numb with despair. What’s the point of riding the bus, recycling, picking up the trash left by rude middle school kids on a museum field trip? If it’s all going to end, why bother?

The answer to that question, as best I can fathom it, is a non-answer: “Chop wood, carry water,” that old Zen adage, as banal as a bad joke. Or “Just keep swimming,” a similarly goofy bit of advice from Finding Nemo’s Dory. The point is in the trying. Here is the fine line between working to distraction, and simply working. I can keep busy in order to numb myself to the hole in my life, pretending it isn’t there, or I can do what needs to be done. I work, I live, and I am mindful of the hole.

And when it comes to it, I can, like Our Man, step through it.


Gray Hendryx is a writer on the move between West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Peru. Next year, she’ll end up in Pittsburgh with her beloved husband and chihuahua. You can follow along with her travels at Material Spiritualist


After the Trigger Warning

by Chris Cantoni

illustration by Pam Wishbow

illustration by Pam Wishbow

Grace has some problems. She works in a short term housing project for teenagers, she’s dating her co-worker, and she’s pregnant. Grace has been pregnant before, we learn. She’s had abortions before, too, and this one will likely be no different. This is how things begin for Grace in the first few minutes of Destin Cretton’s debut film, Short Term 12.

Grace is only a supervisor of the teenaged residents at the foster care facility Short Term 12, but it’s hard not to think of her as a mom. She and Mason, her co-worker/boyfriend, preside over the tenants as both disciplinarians and friends. The kids are there because their parents were abusive, or incapable of being parents, or maybe in jail. Grace and Mason are not therapists or child care professionals of any kind; their duties are rather limited, but they pour their heart and souls into the job all the same.

Short Term 12 is not an easy movie. It demands much of you. It will make you uncomfortable and probably make you cry. But, in a credit to its filmmakers, it never once feels manipulative. Each moment, as Grace deals with her dark past and the difficulties of the kids placed in her care, feels put together with genuine emotive heart. They earn each one. All of the residents get to have their moments as well, whether it’s new supervisor Nate, who receives a face full of spit in his first week, or Marcus, the oldest tenant at Short Term 12, about to turn eighteen and unable to come to grips with the terror of having to return to his drug-addicted mom, or when a new tenant named Jayden arrives, with a history of cutting and abuse that echoes Grace’s own. These characters are presented with such earnestness and skill that at times they feel more like documentary subjects than actors.

Despite the decidedly serious subject matter of Short Term 12, the film still manages to mix in humor in the most genuine of ways. The slice-of-life tales that Mason tells of his work at the facility throughout the film manage to bring about laughter, both onscreen and off. And when Nate foolishly tells everyone he feels lucky to be working with “underprivileged kids”, Marcus is quick to respond with a hilarious but well-earned “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” The funniest moments in this film aren’t “jokes” per se, but rather a light shining down on one humorous truth or another.

There are so many narrative strands knit together in Short Term 12 and the film does such a perfect job of letting all these disparate pieces simmer and stew. Marcus, the soon-to-be eighteen year old terrified of having to fend for himself after he’s kicked out, is also an aspiring rap artist. When he performs his latest song for Mason, the result is raw, and utterly heart-wrenching. Marcus, the eldest tenant, is sent reeling when his pet fish dies. He takes a piece of glass from the fish bowl, and Grace quickly becomes worried that he’s going after Luis, a tenant he’s been fighting with recently. But then Grace discovers that Marcus has cut himself, instead. And that’s when the movie breaks you. This is the great success of a film like Short Term 12, that each supporting character is allowed to develop into a fully formed human, a person you grow to love.

"Short Term 12 doesn’t waste its time trying to understand why terrible things happen. It doesn’t examine the guilty, but instead focuses on the innocent. The film takes a long hard look at the victims of abuse, how they work their way through it, and how they struggle to overcome its awful legacy."

Despite how much they clearly love each other, Grace continually keeps Mason at arm’s length, refusing to let him too far into her world, though we’re not sure why. Midway through the film, Mason and Grace attend a party overflowing with joy, and we soon learn that Mason was raised by the hosts of the party, his own foster parents. He toasts them and tells them they are the reason he’s been as happy as he has been in this life. And that’s when the movie breaks you again, when you realize that Mason is emotionally damaged as well—just like Grace—but in his case, parents turned out to be the remedy, rather than the cause.

Grace’s father is scheduled to be released from prison shortly, but we aren’t able to fully grasp the weight of this news until much later in the film. When Jayden tells Grace a story of a tortured octopus being eaten by a shark, and then leaves for a weekend with her father, Grace races after her, convinced something monstrous is happening. The two of them sit together in Jayden’s yard, in the dark, and Grace confesses to her that her own father sexually abused her, and got her pregnant, before she was finally able to gather the courage to testify against him years ago. That’s when the movie breaks you even more, reminding you that there is some seriously ugly shit in the world, but still managing to handle it with a delicate and sensitive touch.

Short Term 12 doesn’t waste its time trying to understand why terrible things happen. It doesn’t examine the guilty, but instead focuses on the innocent. The film takes a long hard look at the victims of abuse, how they work their way through it, and how they struggle to overcome its awful legacy. Grace isn’t “fixed” after her confession to Jayden. She’s still damaged. But she’s also able to move forward, and learns to let Mason in just a little bit more along the way.

When I was a freshly minted driver at the age of sixteen, I rear-ended someone. The airbags didn’t go off—which was fortunate, as I probably would have broken a wrist—but the whole front of my parents’ minivan was caved in and the exhaust pipe of the car in front of me cut a perfectly round hole in the front license plate. While we pulled off to a side street and waited for the police to arrive, my pastor happened to be driving by and before I knew it he was standing right next to me. He wrapped me up in a big hug, and that hug told me I could begin to breathe again. That hug reminded me that everything would be okay.

And that’s how Short Term 12 feels. It grabs ahold of you, and brings up many difficult things. It makes you feel scared and vulnerable. For a little while you begin to feel like maybe things are going to get stuck there, that you’re going to have this feeling forever. Then it wraps you up in a big hug. The hug doesn’t erase or deny any of things that came before it, but it does remind you that there’s still hope: that things will get better.

All the bad shit is only short term.


Chris Cantoni was one of the earliest Bright Wall/Dark Room contributors, writing regularly for the original website from 2009-2012. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, who is smarter than he is, and their cat, who is not.


Shadows of What May Be

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Five minutes into Iron Man 3, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) puts the finishing touches on his latest prototype of the Iron Man suit. As he prepares to put the suit to use, he instructs Jarvis—his nervous, Paul Bettany-voiced, robot assistant—to start some music. A jazzy rendition of “Jingle Bells” begins.

I turned to my friend sitting next to me in the theater and whispered, a little too loudly, “Wait, is this a Christmas movie?”

“Shut up,” she said.

“Yeah, but did something go wrong? Was this supposed to come out at Christmas?”

“You’ve got to stop talking during this.”

I was not the first person to wonder about thisIron Man 3 is, in fact, a Christmas movie. It’s a Christmas movie that was released in early May. Furthermore, it’s the Marvel franchise’s interpretation of “A Christmas Carol.”

I know this might sound silly. It doesn’t really make sense for Marvel to have adapted “A Christmas Carol”, or for them to have put out a Christmas movie during the blockbuster movie season. Keep in mind, however, that Iron Man 3 was the first Marvel film to follow The Avengers—that record-breaking, super-star-stuffed movie of all movies. And how do you possibly follow something likethat?

Well, you strip it down. Right to its electromagnetic core.

For all of its bells and whistles and its multimillion dollar budget, Iron Man 3 is mostly a movie about a man learning to rebuild his life in a new world, learning which things are worth keeping, and giving up the rest. It’s about sharing burdens and taking on the responsibility of a changing, difficult world. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a piece of literature, it certainly comes much closer than any of its Marvel predecessors.

*

In the aftermath of a catastrophic alien invasion, it’s safe to say that Tony Stark is more than a little worn out. The public knows him both as a wealthy, arrogant, tech-savvy billionaire as well as by his Iron Man alter ego, but Stark isn’t particularly keen to live up to either of those expectations any more. He’s sleep-deprived and manic. He focuses only on his innovations, ignoring his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who serves as the head of Stark Industries, and his good friend, Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), rebranded by the United States government as the Iron Patriot.

There’s a host of shady, new characters introduced in this iteration of Iron Man. At the helm of the terrorist movement tormenting the US government is the Mandarin, played by a deep-voiced, cloth-draped Sir Ben Kingsley. Equally threatening is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist formerly blown off by Stark in the late 1990s, who has since gone on to found his own rival biotech company, AIM. And somewhere in the middle of these two men is Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a botanist who specializes in regrowth and confused loyalties.

Iron Man 3 is about ego and identity—becoming who you are meant to be rather than who you’re supposed to be. Tony Stark is arrogant and fast-tempered. After a mysterious bombing in Los Angeles which leaves his head of security hospitalized, Stark issues a personal threat to the Mandarin, giving out his home address, waiting for a fight. It’s not until his Malibu mansion falls—and his cars and suits and computers crumble around him in the ocean—that we are left with the Tony Stark who existed before Iron Man. We are left with Scrooge. Without Pepper and computers, without his money and reputation, there’s just a man. A bitter, selfish man.

We’re left with Scrooge.

*

In “A Christmas Carol”, Ebenezer Scrooge is, of course, visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. While Stark’s ghosts don’t necessarily follow this exact trajectory, there are still three of them. They move in and out of the film, playing their part and then fading out of the picture, allowing Stark to act as his own agent of change.

In the midst of his house being decimated, his wealth tumbling into the sea, and nearly drowning, Stark wakes up in a snowback in—of all places—the Midwest. Prior to losing all of his material possessions, he had been researching the history of mysterious explosions, and in a last ditch effort to both escape an attack as well as pursue his research, his latest suit takes him to Rosehill, Tennessee. There, Tony Stark breaks into the tool shed of a young inventor named Harley.

Harley has all the makings of a young Tony Stark. He may not be wealthy, but he has attitude and resourcefulness. He points a homemade potato gun at Iron Man, and goes so far as to fire a warning shot just to prove his point. Stark is not particularly sympathetic in general, let alone towards children, but there is an earnestness in Harley that makes him endearing (albeit a little annoying, too). Harley has gone through some stuff; we don’t see his mother and he mentions his father walked out on them a few years back. He doesn’t demand sympathy. He demands respect. He’s bullied, but he’s not a victim. He’s just trying to get by.

The two cooperate. They’re mechanics, idea men. In this tiny tool shed in Tennessee, the two use wires and digital watches—not robots or holograms—and begin to make repairs on the new Iron Man prototype. Tony Stark doesn’t talk about himself as “Iron Man” in the presence of Harley. He calls himself “the Mechanic” instead. He doesn’t need to be anything more than that, because Harley doesn’t expect that of him. He expects a partner, and not much else.

When Stark leaves Rosehill, the two have an unsentimental goodbye and yet, in the epilogue of the film, we see Harley’s redesigned tool shed—complete with computers and electronics and an updated potato gun. Before Stark even bothers to rebuild his old mansion, he gives what he can to the future generation of inventors and mechanics.

*

The second of Stark’s ghosts is a little more complex, of course, because this ghost is Tony Stark. Only, this ghost of Tony Stark is the one who walks away from the disaster in New York City. It’s Tony Stark’s PTSD. His anxiety disorder. For a movie full of explosions and zingers (and the occasional girl in a bedazzled bikini), there are also a lot of very realistic reactions to trauma.

Stark had no reason to survive what occurred in New York, but the anxiety he feels isn’t survivor’s guilt, necessarily. In The Avengers, Stark constantly blows off and ignores Agent Coulson, an amiable member of SHIELD, and by the end of the battle for New York, Coulson is dead. In Iron Man 3, his chief of security, frequently the butt of his jokes, winds up in a coma. Pepper Potts vanishes mid-film. Captain Rhodes is taken too. Stark’s anxiety is the anxiety of not being able to save people, and not just any people, but his people. He’s saved civilians before, sure, but there was always a certain amount of glamor in it. When it finally came time to save the world—the universe, truly—the pressure of self-sacrifice proved to be unbearable, and the knowledge of this haunts him throughout the course of the film.

The Tony Stark who existed prior to The Avengers didn’t have much at stake, but now he’s grown up. He’s seen what happens to people in very real wars and struggles. The ghost of who he once was comes in the form of an increased heart rate and slight hyperventilation. There is nothing glamorous about being a superhero, he learns. Tony Stark is not used to struggling, but saving lives—especially lives so intertwined with his own—turns out to be a panic-inducing, traumatic experience indeed.

*

The third and final ghost in Iron Man 3 is also its most frightening, though he might not seem so at first glance, in the prologue of the film. A crippled, awkward Aldrich Killian, hobbling around on a cane, corners Stark in an elevator and begs him to take a look at as his ideas. He wants to be a business partner, or maybe even a friend. Killian is a little too eager, a little too pathetic. Tony Stark, on the other hand, is selfish. He doesn’t do business partners, let alone friends. It’s New Years and he’s in an elevator with a beautiful woman. He pulls Killian aside and tells him to meet him on the roof of the building in five minutes. And then Stark never shows up.

Over a decade later, Killian is a changed man. He walks upright—his disability cured, thanks to a frightening biochemical glowing ability (which just might come with the power to breathe fire, too)—and expresses himself with confidence. He is also a bitter man, scorned both by Stark (professionally) and Potts (professionally and romantically). Killian is Stark without the heart. He’s all progress, all manipulation. He’s got slicked-back hair and a bunch of one-liners, but he doesn’t work for anything beyond himself. Stark, in turn, realizes that he’s more than the sum of his parts. He’s also every person around him, working for a brighter and better future, rather than just strength and power for their own sake.

In the penultimate moments of the film, Killian and Stark fight each other man-to-man, and the conversation turns to Pepper Potts. “You really didn’t deserve her, Tony,” Killian sneers.

“You’re right,” Stark admits, “I don’t deserve her. Here’s where you’re wrong: she’s already perfect.” And despite the cheesy nature of this line (and, hey, it’s a Marvel film), the honesty is still there. People don’t belong to other people. You do not deserve someone simply because you are smart and powerful and good-looking. People are people.

*

“We create our own demons,” Stark narrates at the end of the movie. Aldrich Killian, Maya Hansen, and the Mandarin (and that one particularly evil glowing henchman) might all be “evil”, but the true villain of the film is the Tony Stark/Iron Man empire. Defeating the villains is one thing, but it’s the destruction of his personal empire that shows the most genuine emotional growth in the film. Tony Stark is Iron Man whether or not he has all the bells and whistles that come along with that title. There was much speculation following Iron Man 3 as to whether or not there could truly be another Iron Man movie. Perhaps Tony Stark’s narrative has ended here: waking up on Christmas morning and finding there doesn’t need to be all that much in the world beyond that which you already have. He drives off with Pepper Potts, the ruins of Jarvis the robot in a small trailer, to a place unknown, to a future uncertain.

It’s popular these days to have morally ambiguous films where the viewer is left wildly uncertain at the end about who is a hero, and who is a villain. The Marvel films are anything but ambiguous. Tony Stark is a hero, and we know this, as viewers, because he becomes kind and generous. It might be a little silly to have movies with moral endings in 2013, but there is something refreshing about a hero that grows and actually becomes better. Sometimes we need morals, and not only around Christmas time. “A Christmas Carol” may not have had regenerating explosive villains or an Adam Pally cameo, but it was about learning and sharing and growing nonetheless. This kind of positive growth—again, not in the exploding villain type way—can happen at any time of year. And what better time to remind movie-goers that there is some good out there than on the cusp of summer as they walk out of the theater, blinking back tears in the fresh May sunlight.


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


A Magical Ice Castle of One's Own

by Michelle Said

Possibly more than any other signifier, the true mark of a Millennial woman is having grown up with the onslaught of Disney’s coterie of princesses. Today it is commonplace to see these princesses being marketed to young girls, but it wasn’t until 1989, when The Little Mermaid and its heroine Ariel hit theaters that things really took off.

The Princess Invasion was persistent, with five movies released in the span of nine years. Ariel was followed by Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), who was followed by Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992), who was followed by Pocohontas (Pocohontas, 1995), who was followed by Mulan (Mulan, 1998). Disney raked in mounds and mounds of cash via merchandising, Broadway adaptations and Top 40 singles. Who could have guessed that those simple seeds planted in the soprano trill of Snow White (1939) would go on to influence a generation born half a century later? Girls, it turned out, really liked princesses.

If you are a young woman today, you probably remember dissecting which princess, exactly, was “yours.” The one that you were most fond of, the one who possibly looked most like you, or the one you just thought had the most interesting story. Mine was Belle, because I thought she was beautiful, and she was brunette, and she was smart, and bookish, and fiesty. I was certainly brunette and bookish, and I wanted to think of myself as smart and fiesty. Plus, how can you beat falling in love with a beast for good storytelling?

When I recently rewatched Beauty and the Beast, I was once again charmed by Belle’s pluckiness and bookishness, the lush animation, the sweeping songs. But I suddenly felt disgusted by the core romance. As a little girl I truly believed that love should conquer all, but seeing a petulant, abusive beast at the center of it all a couple decades later made me question my original take on the film, and, in fact, the core of all the Disney princess films.

The thrust of these stories is always romance, probably because love stories are the easiest to tell. There is a clear and definable arc. Meet a boy, encounter obstacle, sing some songs, overcome obstacle, sings some more songs. While it’s not a mistake, per se, to have movies about girls centered around romance, Disney princess tales are invariably about that moment when a girl falls in love. By seeing this message repeated over and over and over again, one gets the sense that falling in love is the only thing that matters in a girl’s life.

Disney’s most recent princess outings (The Princess and the FrogTangled), while mostly charming and clever overall, still left me wincing in parts, simply because these scripts were so clearly written by full-grown men for an audience of little girls. The movies were entertaining, but there was ultimately a flatness to their heroines, a nagging sense that they were somewhat shapeless. And there it was: the love story, front and center once again.Frozen, unlike every other Disney movie, was written and directed by a woman, Jennifer Lee (who pennedWreck-It Ralph), and I would argue that this difference is key to distinguishing it as a truly modern fairy tale within the House of Mouse.

(An aside: I discount Brave here because, although it may be cited as the original subversion of the “princess” stereotype, it was actually created by Pixar, outside of the alchemical spell that comes from being based on fairy tales and historical yarns per the Disney tradition. Although Merida is currently at a Disney theme park near you, she is purely Pixar at heart, for better or worse.)

A cynical person might look at the poster for Frozen and see a tired retread of this same worn material, particularly since the princesses are very obviously cut from the same Disney mold—wide eyes, impish grins, perfect hair, impossible figures. An even more cynical person might look at the poster and wonder if Disney simply doubled-down on the princess motif to double the merchandise sales. And while that’s likely true to a certain extent (after I saw it, girls who had attended my screening were casting themselves as either Elsa or Anna in the bathroom), the one thing that Disney can point to as its ace in the hole is thatFrozenhappens to be very, very good, and, perhaps even better: it is very, very good for girls.

I kept turning Frozen over in my brain after watching it, and I tried to figure out why it had resonated with me so deeply. The songs stayed with me, for one thing: insanely catchy, witty and somewhat subversive, they hooked me instantly, like only the best musical numbers can. Which makes sense as Robert Lopez, the genius behind the songbooks for The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, had crafted them with his wife, Kristen. The settings were gorgeous as well: a palette of deep purple, cool blue, glowing magenta and cool teal permeate the movie’s stunning, ice-covered kingdom. It manages to be funny, too, without being winking or insipid. (Olaf, a snowman built by Anna and Elsa as young girls and then magically brought to life later on by Elsa, makes for a genuinely wonderful sidekick with all of his warm, childish naivete.) All of these elements, though, wouldn’t have connected with me nearly as much if the movie didn’t have a heart. Which it does: a great, big, hulking one that touched me down to my core.

Everything in the story comes back to the theme of isolation, and the problems we create when we shut ourselves out from the world. Elsa (Idina Menzel) was born with witchy, wintry powers that allow her to create ice and snow out of thin air. Yet she can’t control her abilities fully: like a Disney-fied Hulk, they manifest whenever she is feeling strong emotions, like fear or anxiety. During childhood, she almost accidentally kills her bubbly, adventurous sister Anna (Kristen Bell) during a late-night game of play. As a result, her concerned parents tell Elsa that she must get a hold on her abilities and shut her in her room until she is able to do so. But the memory of the event haunts her, and the fear of it happening again renders her incapable. She hides in her room for years, even when her uncomprehending sister begs her to come out and play.

After their parents are killed in a convenient boating accident, Elsa is to take the throne, which means the castle doors will open for the first time in over a decade. Anna is overjoyed, running around the castle like an excitable puppy, having been shunned by her sister for almost all of her life and desperate for company. But Elsa is petrified. If anyone finds out her secret, she fears she will be made an outcast, despite her regal lineage. Worse, a monster.

There is a refrain Elsa repeats to herself over and over again: “Be a good girl.” The kind of refrain that women have heard since the dawn of time. “Be a good girl and don’t show your true emotions,” or, “Be a good girl and don’t think too hard,” or, “Be a good girl and don’t talk back.” To see this acknowledgement of the harmful language that has repressed women for centuries in a movie—not just a movie, but a movie for little girls—is not only impressive, but also important.

Elsa’s repression of her powers for the sake of being a “good girl” never allows her to fully grasp her abilities and so, when she gets into a fight with her sister in the middle of her coronation ball, her anger reveals her true nature to the entire kingdom. Overwhelmed and afraid, she flees to the top of a mountain and creates a stunning ice castle out of thin air. Elsa is elated to be alone and finally free to do as she pleases, but has unknowingly sparked an eternal winter back in the town.

There is a bit of Virginia Woolf in her, literature’s original ice queen, so isolated, so haunted, so longing to be understood. Elsa’s journey up the mountain, the creation of her magnificent cathedral of ice, her exultant song “Let It Go"—all could be seen as a Disneyfied version of Woolf: “Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.”

If Elsa is the Virginia Woolf of Frozen, then we can call Anna its Dorothy Parker: a party girl who is witty, clumsy, a little dorky, and eager to find love and excitement. Most importantly, Anna is loyal to Elsa, despite her sister’s years of apparent indifference, and is determined to talk it out. As she makes her way up the mountain, she meets her band of brothers, so to speak: the prickly ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad). Despite everything, Anna believes that her sister will come back with her and reverse the spell, and that belief keeps her moving up the mountain.

There are two love stories in the film, and I won’t spoil either of them here. The movie does acknowledge that boys are cute and fun and they can be great partners, but there is a firm message that a romantic partner should neverdefine who you are as a person and that no relationship is a magic bullet to happiness.

In the end, what is so wonderful for someone like me, having grown up with Disney’s princesses, is that Anna and Elsa are so different but yet still so strong and admirable in their respective ways. Anna is the spunky, irrepressible extrovert looking for adventure, while Elsa is the protective, steadfast introvert looking for her own peace of mind. Neither feels formulaic, they feel like real people you might actually know—fully formed, with flaws, strengths, and needs that go beyond trite romance. The sisters are not looking for true love or the throne, they are looking for each other. I feel like all along, I was looking for them.


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.


Of a Thing Which Could Not Be Put Back

by Evan Bryson

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

End of the world cinema—especially those films concerning long sad uninhabitable stretches of the smoking globe, those films that ironize the plight of overpopulation by emphasizing a vast reduction of humankind—have about them the glamour of the chosen few. 2013 was a good year for the chosen few, though a moment of global austerity—loan defaults, collapsed currencies, prolapsed markets, civil wars, insolvency of every stripe—seems to have capped a bit of the gilding, at least so far at it touched disaster movies. Our heroes inAfter Earth and Oblivion, two of this year’s most perplexing fare (in a year crowded by brainier, brawnier crowd-pleasers like Upstream Color and Pacific Rim), were sober and sad, and wore mourning garb. This bleak finery was all for Earth—for its extended funeral, played out in the year’s sci-fi spectacles.

Katai in After Earth (Jayden Smith vamping as a kicked puppy) wears camouflaging neoprene and kevlar; his father, Cipher (Will Smith acting like a very disappointed dad), wears a pilot’s uniform that fits like Body by Calvin Klein. Their garments self-repair rends, hold hidden wings, and monitor vital signs. These uniforms complement the fact that their wearer’s actions in the film are guided by an ascetic renunciation of feeling. An Ursa—a kind of bear-insect hybrid—is on the prowl, and the only way to avoid its detection is by mastering ones fear, entering a trance-like state known as “ghosting.” Critics and click-baiters have made much of After Earth’s philosophical indebtedness to Church of Scientology teachings, but the movie could just as well be a Puritan allegory with its insistence on labor, fear, and modesty.

M. Night Shyamalan directed, so the movie’s climax has a wondrous uptick in its last fifteen minutes; the film’s Hitchcockian bottom drops out, the measured stateliness gives way to a kind of math rock punch, and Katai hauls off on his demons. I recognize that After Earth is not a “good” movie, but I remain very taken with the wild way it depicts our future planet. Alpine forests, fanged leeches, eagles as big as Volkswagens—Shyamalan sometimes succeeds and at other times completely fails to integrate the ferocious CGI animals into the prelapsarian backgrounds, a defeat that feels somehow true and humane in its depiction of a perilous ecology. (Think of the digital wolves in The Day After Tomorrow or the bioluminescent caribou in The Last Winter. Computer animation is simultaneously a talisman against nature and an attempt to magick nature back to a pristine and cunning condition. Think Avatar. Hell, think Wall-E.) As a fantasia on the world after men, Will Smith also makes sense as a casting choice. There is poetry—a mystifying, internally consistent logic—in a cinema that counts Independence DayI, Robot and especially I Am Legend as the starry, super-financed, B-grade sci-fi of our time, with Will Smith somehow saving the world in each. But we are inured now; we can leave behind the glassine highrises, the androids, the insane supercomputers. We can leave the earth behind. We can imagine bringing our sons back to the scene of our crimes, and siccing them like dogs again on the terrain.

 

"There is poetry—a mystifying, internally consistent logic—in a cinema that counts Independence DayI, Robot and especially I Am Legend as the starry, super-financed, B-grade sci-fi of our time, with Will Smith somehow saving the world in each."

After Earth, with its wholesale remake of an abandoned planet, suggests very neatly what critic D. N. Rodowick calls CGI’s “digital will,” or animation technology’s tendency to remake the world. In his essay “21st Century Cinema: Death and Resurrection in the Desert of the (New) Real”, J. Hoberman uses this idea to assert a paradigmatic shift in cinematic concerns: a “new real,” “post-photographic,” and “post-human” cinema. Neither Rodowick nor Hoberman suggests a “death of cinema,” however, it is difficult to uncouple their observations from the fact that the indexical nature of film (light reacting on a chemical emulsion, thereby imprinting an ontological reality onto the strip) will be a novelty in a generation. More striking to me is an essential irony in their discussions: digitally willed cinema takes as its special provenance the disaster movie and science-fiction. It attempts to imagine a world remade without humans. To more harrowingly, more faithfully, and more viscerally, show the end of us and the great success of our absence. If, as Paul Virilio advanced, the history of warfare is the history of speed, the history of cinema is likewise the history of our erasure from its images. The idea of a film without actors (or acting) could be one joke made at the expense of After Earth, but I think this film and Oblivion’s limited casts and widescreen landscapes are redolent of a quality far less funny. They portray an anxiety that advocates our demise. No more chosen few.

Because, in addition to routing us from screen time, the digital will also seeks to show a verdant paradise. The future in After Earth and Oblivion—limp, liminal, sparse—looks both lush and irradiated in these films: the bare shoulders of smoking mountains roll into impossibly fertile tundras, and rivers trek to the sea and fan outwards, as ravishing synecdoches for the blood paths in our bodies. The landscape has long been one of the outsized antagonists in sci-fi of this ilk, where substitutions for future topographies are played off existing places: Iceland, Appalachia, the Gobi. One of cinema’s responses to climate change (the large-scale and irreversible manmade destruction of the environment) has been to recast the world as villain—to show us, in some dumb way, there, we were right all along to rape its seas and poison its soils and obliterate its biomes, because Earth has had it in for us since we crawled up on its shores. Earth has had it in for us. (Pompeii, exploding on screens Spring 2014, qualifies for this thesis.) But the tide has changed (and so quickly, since last year’s 2012). Whether we like it or not, we were all drafted under the surfeit of green products, our faces lit under eco-friendly bulbs, readying ourselves for the culinary revolution in fried bugs. The lateness of our arrival accounts for the lateness of cinema’s own. Katai and Cipher are marooned on uninhabitable Earth almost as Earth has become a distant memory (the planet’s atmosphere is toxic and the werecats have pretty much become an impossible infestation). They arrive after irreversible damage, a cataclysm that fully warns away human return, and though the world is dangerous it remains numinously beautiful, an object for spiritual contemplation and ritual mourning.

Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion assumes a similar sacerdotal air. The film’s score, provided by M83, is sweeping and elegiac, a two-hour dirge embalming its images while enhancing them. The images are monochrome, timeless—or they exist in the dolorous haze of ’50s paranoia, like an Apple Store in an episode ofThe Twilight Zone. I haven’t made up my mind. Tom Cruise—playing an iteration of his previous roles in Minority ReportWar of the Worlds and Jack Reacher—has about his person another fine, cream-colored jacket, as neutral as the rest of gray Earth in the film, where our cities are worn to pebbles. His sometime-bride, played by Andrea Riseborough, wears a sacral smock and has perfect hair in the morning. They wake as from a dream, into an eternal balmy day, high above the planet, alone together, like princesses in a tower awaiting the right kiss to restore them to their former glory. They come lately to the planet, too—sleeping while a grave, techno alien menace annihilated humanity and drove survivors underground. The aliens want our oceans, and they park their tetrahedron-shaped space-ships above gorgeous seashores and begin to suck the sea away, for use as fusion fuel. That these envoys of the digital will want our oceans resonates, again, with the devil’s compact between CGI and nature, the non-negotiable fact that, excepting a revolution in 3D printing, the world will not be remade in the likeness of Photoshop touch-ups.

This disappointing reality is interrogated at greater length, and with more sensitivity to its cold, hard answers, in Kosinski’s first feature, Tron: Legacy. Of course, Legacy borrowed a strict and totalitarian visual schema from its early ’80s predecessor, Tron, and then expanded on the limited palette of colors and forms. The world inside Legacy has all the poise of a Japanese rock garden, a motif Kosinski dilates throughout the film, but it is inherently pastiche, bound to its predecessor’s forms, an innocent and inert cyberworld predating Simulacra and Simulation and The Matrix. We know that zen gardens symbolically extrude chaos and order from their materials, from the raked rocks, the little pools stocked with blood-red koi, and the only apparently withering bonsai. We know that zen gardens are reticent, and that reticence must be their appeal. Maybe zen gardens even effect some harmony in visitors. Still, most ofOblivion resonates at a zen frequency, and so much of it looks like a rock garden—gravel, bones, the serenity of barren hills and dells—but the object of inquiry is not harmony, or the materiality of a natural order whose elements are arrayed pleasantly for the poetic imagination, the reflective sigh; instead, they suggest erasure and extermination. Forest dells provide relief from this hellscape. BothAfter Earth and Oblivion rely on conifers—spruce, fir and larch—to assert an idyll reborn. The protagonists swan through Christmas tree groves, pad over pine needles, before climactic showdowns in plain scorching day.

Both films were largely shot in 4K resolution using Sony’s CineAlta F65 camera, as if to anticipate our fascination with the clarity of rocks and pine cones, icy vistas, volcanic ash fall, golden sunsets, skittering fauna. This log of the natural world, in such stunning high definition, makes good on the essentially valedictory premise of disaster movies. Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novelThe Road ends with a similar invocation:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

In the frames of After Earth and Oblivion (as in the words of McCarthy), we are not imagining the future. We are, rather, projecting the past—an unrecoverable past from a corroding present—into omnipresent, depressing IMAX.

Susan Sontag, in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster”, noted how the disaster film “is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess.” She noted, too, that science-fiction movies provide “sensuous elaboration” for “the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the destruction of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.” The end of the world comes so often that even fifty years ago—the half-life of film’s existence as a medium, give or take—we were still running the same lines. Yet something has changed; the apocalypse is no longer absolute pandemonium. Disasters are less social now—they are more singular, serving-sized, individual: a father and son lost in the woods; a husband and wife high above the planet. The disasters befall us and abandon us, leaving us orphaned from our home world. Sontag finishes her essay with the famous declaration, “Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under the continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” We could die alone. We could be the last of us. It’s boring and horrible, but the views are breathtaking, at least while they remain.


Evan Bryson is a writer from Indiana. He blogs at duckbeater.tumblr.com.