Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman

Well, it’s a brand new year, and so we’ve decided to try something a bit different for our very first issue of 2014. Whereas previous issues largely focused on essays that gathered together under some kind of thematic umbrella, this time around we’re splitting the issue up a bit differently, featuring essays on a handful of fantastic films (HerThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Fargo), offering up a mini-theme of sorts by turning the spotlight on a trio of films from director David O. Russell (American HustleSilver Linings Playbook, and I Heart Huckabees), and then—since this is BW/DR after all—we’ve wrapped the whole issue up with the only essay you will ever read in your entire life comparing Clueless (1995) and The Hunger Games (2012).

Sometimes an issue comes together thematically and it’s a beautiful thing. Other times the ends are a bit looser, the throughline a bit more complicated to piece together, but that can be a beautiful thing, too.


2014 is shaping up to be quite an intersting year for our little magazine. We have a whole lot of things (and themes) in the pipeline, and we can’t wait to start rolling them out for you with each new month. This month, in particular, is a special one for us as it marks the long-awaited release of an entirely web-based version of the magazine, thanks to our good friends at TypeEngine and Tugboat Yards. No longer will subscriptions be limited only to those with iOS devices and iTunes accounts - now, finally, anybody with a computer will be able to subscribe online and fully access the magazine! We couldn’t be more excited about this, as it allows us to expand our reach a great deal and get our essays a bit further out into the world. The goal here has always been community and connection, with films and one another, and so having the magazine fully accessible and available to any one with an internet connection is something we feel immensely hopeful about.

The release of the web-based version should happen within the week, and in fact, there’s a good chance that some of you reading this are actually reading it a week from now, and are doing so on our new platform! If so, please, tell all your friends and whoever else will listen (especially if they’re film and/or writing geeks) that Bright Wall/Dark Room is now more available than ever - and still only $2 per month.


We’ll also be offering up a whole host of brand new offers, discounts, and opportunities—including the chance to purchase some of the actual artwork used in the issues—through our new partnership with Tugboat Yards. If you haven’t connected with us there yet, you can do so here to see what we’re selling - and to be kept in the loop about all things BW/DR.

And so, to another a year of movies!

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief

Where All the Women Are Strong

by Kara VanderBijl

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

When I moved to Chicago three years ago, I brought four large boxes of books and zero pairs of socks. I wasn’t oblivious to the cold, hard fact of the average Midwestern winter, but until then I’d spent most of my life in Los Angeles and the South of France. I’d only seen winter in the movies. When you’ve only seen winter on the big screen, you start to think of it as an idyllic season of cozy hibernation. You forget that it’s actually a study in natural selection.

Inevitably, November hit. I walked to Target in a pair of flimsy ballet flats, coat collar up to my ears. I shed four or five layers of scarves in the entryway before I could see well enough to find the sock section. Finally armed with appropriate winter footwear, I was forced to admit that I was out of my element, something the rest of winter 2011 took great pleasure in proving to me over and over again.

In the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard walks into a North Dakota bar in a cloud of discomfort and, we imagine, arctic air. It’s the winter of 1987. Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy, wears a hat over his earmuffs and anxiously touches his chin and lips. Jerry’s a car salesman who has run into some financial difficulties, and he’s come to Fargo to arrange for two criminals, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), whom he met through an ex-con mechanic in his employ, to kidnap his wife. He hopes to convince his father-in-law Wade to pay $80,000 in ransom, a share of which Jerry plans to keep. In exchange for their services, Carl and Gaear will receive the other half of the ransom money and a brand new 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.

Pulling off a crime, even a well-planned one, is no easy feat – something that’s easy to forget when you’re watching incredibly attractive actors execute complex heists and spectacular getaways once or twice a month. But just like a cold, hard Midwestern winter, Fargo reminds us that there are no schemes without slip-ups, and that interesting characters—rather than interesting plots—create the most compelling stories.

I saw Fargo for the first time at the recommendation of my boyfriend, Jens, who’s a native Minnesotan in every way, from his sports teams of choice (Gophers) to his ability to leave the house without a coat until the mercury hits 40 degrees. Fargo is one of his favorite films, and he laughs the whole way through.

“Who’s your favorite character?” I asked.

“Definitely Jerry,” he said.

I didn’t understand at first. How can you sympathize with a man who has his wife kidnapped for money? Not to mention that Fargo is rife with characters that I felt to be far more interesting: Carl and Gaear, for example, who are about as enthused with Jerry as I was, especially when he fails to deliver half of the money up front as agreed. Jerry, whose Minnesota niceties are overshadowed by a habit of saying too much, too quickly, has little business trusting them, either. From the beginning, they’re more of a comedy duo: hotheaded, mouthy Carl offset by drowsy, disinterested Gaear. At least, I thought, they’re funny.

Despite some reluctance on both sides, Carl and Gaear accept the job and, after a quick stop in Brainerd, Minnesota to screw a couple of prostitutes in a sleazy motel, they arrived in the Twin Cities where they abduct Jean Lundegaard. Meanwhile, Jerry’s facing growing pressure at work: GMAC is threatening to recall loans, and Wade refuses to accept a real-estate deal that his son-in-law had been promoting. Jerry’s peace of mind now rests entirely on the kidnapping, and as he walks through the door into his own silent, ransacked home, his wife’s struggles against her assailants evident, it’s clear that his professional life is not the only one unraveling at the seams. That’s when I began to see him in a new light.

Jerry spends a lot of time in Fargo sitting down—behind a desk, in his car, on a bench in the front entry of his house struggling to remove his snow boots, across tables from interrogators and criminals. Sometimes he’s doodling. Sometimes he’s holding his head in his hands. By walking into a bar in North Dakota he set his plan in motion, and now he must sit and observe the consequences, watch the ice gather thick on his windshield. Don’t we all feel like that sometimes—like one simple decision determines the crash course of the rest of our days? How many of us wouldn’t lie, steal and cheat if it meant saving our skins?

On their way back through Brainerd, Carl and Gaear are pulled over by a state trooper because the stolen Ciera lacks the required license plates and tags. Carl’s attempts to bribe the trooper fail, so Gaear pulls a gun out of the glove compartment and shoots him. As Carl drags the trooper’s body off the road, a couple passing by in a car sees him. Gaear pursues them in the Ciera, and when they swerve off the icy road, he murders them.

Like I learned early on, you don’t mess with a Midwestern winter. In Chicago, the temperature isn’t the only thing that plummets; crime rates drop in the colder months, too. It may be that subzero wind chills cool tempers, butFargo provided another explanation that I hadn’t yet considered. It’s no stretch to say that the film’s Minnesota winter is not only a backdrop, but a key player. Each character’s movements are recorded in sharp contrast on its blank white board. Covering up your tracks isn’t just a pretty proverb when you’ve recently killed someone in the snow.

All of the characters in the film grapple with winter in one way or another. Jerry tries to erase it like he tries, angrily, to scrape ice off his windshield; he is just as evasive with the weather as he is with the people around him. Carl and Gaear can’t hide from it. We’re a third of the way through Fargo when Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), winter’s pal, winter’s foil and ally, shows up. What the snow can’t capture, Marge does. Marge, Brainerd’s chief of police, a woman and seven months pregnant, enforces socially what the bleak winter exposes naturally: uniformity, a standard by which everyone is measured.

I loved Marge immediately. Her singsong, her sweaters, and her (very polite) refusal to put up with anyone’s crap endeared her to me. Plus, aside from Jerry’s kidnapped wife and the prostitutes Carl and Gaear spend a night with, she’s the only woman in the film. If her pregnancy adds nothing to the plot, other than a few moments of comic relief, it’s essential to our understanding of her character. When she’s investigating bodies, it’s morning sickness – not the sight of gore – that makes her nauseous. Her condition makes her vulnerable, but it does not compromise her professionalism. In fact, she’s at the apex: not only of womanhood, in the sense that she is accomplishing something only a woman can, but also at the top of her game as a police chief, outthinking everyone around her. You’ll notice that while the male members of the police force do things like track phone calls and collect tips, she’s the one on the ground studying tracks and interrogating witnesses.

Until Marge’s arrival, we’d been dealing with characters who possess uncertain identities: Jerry, the family man who is also a thief, a liar, and a double-crosser; Carl, whose impetuousness gets in the way of his ability to perform the job; and Gaear, drowsy, nonchalant, lethal. But Marge is Minnesota. She demands the survival of the fittest, and the fittest are those who conform to the values important in her state: hard work, social responsibility, moral rightness, and independence.

In one of my favorite scenes, a policeman interviews a local bartender who has a tip on Carl and Gaear’s whereabouts. After a hilarious exchange, the two men lapse into conversation about how a cold front is coming in. Both of them look up at the sky, as if to observe the weather, turn their backs on one another, and part ways without another word. This simple moment, to me, captures Marge’s Minnesota, a place where politeness is king and social discomfort is avoided at all costs.

Carl and Gaear are antagonists in the film not only because they’re criminals, but more importantly because they embody two different antitheses to Marge’s Minnesota. Carl is an alien; he doesn’t belong. He is “funny-looking”, which becomes a recurring joke among the locals, and which disrupts his and Gaear’s anonymity. Plus, he’s incapable of playing nice, which really sets him apart.

Gaear is stoic to a fault; he barely speaks. However, he after he murders the state trooper and the witnesses, his reticence communicates instability and sociopathic tendencies. Making quick work of anyone who stands in his way, Gaear is the perfect foil for Marge, who matches him in her ability to get the job done. However, where Gaear’s emotionless countenance reveals a lack of empathy, Marge’s composed, rational manner speaks to confidence in her intuition and decisions.

That’s why I can’t relate to Marge Gunderson.

On the other side of the table, doodling nervously, sits Jerry. He isn’t a “bad guy” – that label is far too simple. Sure, he’s after some cash, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. But let’s not forget that the reason for his troubles is shrouded in mystery, even from the beginning: he refuses to tell his partners in crime why he’s in trouble, stating that it’s a “personal matter”. If you’re an ace police chief or an ace scoundrel, you’ve got an infallible raison d’etre: you’re in it for justice, or you’re in it for the money, or you’re in it for blood. But if you’re Jerry, you’re in it because you’re a run-of-the-mill Minnesotan who made a mistake somewhere along the way and desperately wants to make it right, somehow without losing his place in the community at the same time. Nowthat’s relatable.

My boyfriend loves, and is fiercely loyal to his home state; I’ve heard this feeling is common among natives of the land of ten thousand lakes. Since I’ve been living out of moving boxes for almost as long as I can remember, this feeling is foreign to me. It’s also what I want more than anything in the world. I want to kidnap it and demand that my rootless childhood pay ransom for it. It is probably why I love Marge, why her settled strength is so appealing to me.

For those of us who can only identify with Jerry, Fargo isn’t a summer blockbuster. It’s a wintry tale of human struggle that, like its characters, dons several identities; it’s a subtle force of nature that doesn’t take sides but instead records movements, like tracks in the snow. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about living in the Midwest, it’s that if you have proper footwear, you’ll be just fine. You might even belong.

Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Roomthe previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.

A Heart in Winter

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The hero of Spike Jonze’s Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), moves in the fugue state of the bereaved. His is a morbid kind of grief: for too long, Theodore has refused to sign papers for his divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), a driven writer whom Theodore complemented rather than completed. He was nurturing; she was ambitious. When Catherine leaves, Theodore can’t move on.

Twombly is a dreamy loner, receptive to ideas that more pragmatic types might scorn. For work, he skims the surface detail of people’s lives in order to give voice to what they’re unable to express. Some days, Theodore says, I’m my favorite writer. His clients and co-workers are moved by Theodore’s emotions, which are ventriloquized in commissioned letters printed to look hand-written.

And here is the subject of the film, in fact of Jonze’s oeuvre – the search for the authentic in a digital world of copies and no originals. Jonze’s feature debut,Being John Malkovich, exposes the diminishing thrills of breaching a portal into a movie star’s privileged body.Adaptation tracks a writer’s battle with his conscience as he attempts to fashion a Hollywood film out of a non-fiction reportage about the hunt for rare orchids. Where The Wild Things Are transposes a beloved picture book into an aching story of a little boy’s estrangement from his divorced family and escape into a fantasy world. The heart of Jonze’s fictions is found in the combination of low fi and sci fi. His aim, like so many of his auteur colleagues (let’s include in this list: Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, among others), is to elegize the singular among the homogenizing tide of the universe.

As a director, Jonze’s approach is anchored in the uncanny use of the mundane. Her’s aesthetic is willfully unshowy: the demeanors are tentative and the costumes buttoned-up and sexless. It’s as if the ease of obtaining nearly anything has made Theodore and his friends anything but powerful: they seem softer, more childlike, and more ingenuous when they relate. A chat room partner may feel bold enough to ask Theodore to talk dirty, but face-to-face intimacies are alarming; first dates are desperate for connection but show no understanding of how to read another person. Theodore’s face—his brushy mustache and sad eyes—suggests the silent pathos of a Charlie Chaplin character, burdened by disconnectedness.

Love offers the hope of a bridge. When Theodore hears about a new development in computer operating systems, he imports his own. He answers a few comically rudimentary questions (what is your relationship like with your mother?), and presto: he is presented with his newly-born digital Girl Friday, the self-named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) who exists only as a throaty murmur in his ear.

So many movies create a female love interest only to further the male hero’s development or assist him in achieving an externalized goal. Lately, films have featured a purely symbolic female character—the blow up doll in Lars and the Real Girl, or the imaginary muse in the Pygmalionesque Ruby Sparks—in which a writer has a relationship with his own literary creation. These love objects offer the troubling suggestion that young men cannot relate to a person with her own demands and needs; or, perhaps those films suggest that a large part of any romance is the struggle to get past the limitations of the self. To Her’s credit, plucky Samantha is a dynamic creature who follows Oscar Wilde’s dictum: The aim of life is self-development, to realize one’s nature completely.

Relationships take shape according to a Jungian kind of science: if there’s any kind of chemistry, both sides are transformed. In this sense, Samantha performs the function of any romantic partner. She acts as Theodore’s cheerleader, his muse, his goad, his electronic Venus. She draws him out about his present condition, his past hurts, his aspirations, amplifies his life. But the film also depicts the coming-of-age of this digital being. Impressed by her intimacy with Theodore, Samantha seeks out other intelligences to augment her experience of the world.

The dialectics of Her follow the limitations and liberties of technology and of humanity. The film exams all the complications of any relationship: how to have a sexual relationship, how to integrate another into your physical and emotional world, how to socialize in a group, how to commit, how to navigate the insecurities that might arise on both sides—in this case, the insecurities of a bodiless lover and a human-brained and emotional one.

Theodore’s idea of love centers on an ideal of fidelity, a chosen limitation that’s a gesture of sufficiency declaring, this Other is enough; I can retreat from the world with this one other being. At times, Jonze employs lenses with such a shallow depth of field that Theodore’s nose is in focus but his eyes are not. It’s as if Jonze says: this is the human perspective – whatever we think we know, we are limited. We are all inching along illuminated by the limitations of our consciousness. Samantha, on the other hand, shows a love that is much more impersonal—it’s romantic love filtered with grace. She loves the essence of Theodore and prizes his unique self, perhaps because of the sea of human and artificial intelligences she encounters. Love can be the most specific and also the most generalized feeling.

The story culminates with the operating system doing what you’d never expect a machine programmed to serve would do – Samantha and the other OSes leave their jobs and human connections for a more fulfilling existence…elsewhere. The abandonment hurts Theodore terribly, but the relationship always occupied a kind of dream state, a virtual space where Theodore could take risks he wasn’t prepared to take in life. The rejection, like Samantha’s affection, is uncritical and impersonal, and perhaps more bearable for it.

The film’s emotional currency favors the lover who prizes the unrealized and the hopeful within a beloved. Though Samantha would seem to have experienced the greater growth, from birth to love to individuation from her human master, it’s Theodore who would be bereft if he weren’t left with Amy Adams’ simpatico soul. Any love object is a Rorschach test—a scrying device about the concerns, values, strengths and weaknesses of the self—a mirror with divine powers. Samantha, on Theodore’s behalf, helps him perform the inventory that the best relationships demand while Amy allows him to find a mature relationship, perhaps platonic, perhaps romantic, with a flesh and blood woman.

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

I Heart Hustle

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

David O. Russell has had a busy past few years. Following a six year hiatus from making movies—a self-described “lost” period for the director—he emerged in 2010 with The Fighter, and followed it up quickly with Silver Linings Playbook, both of which garnered major accolades, including a couple of Oscars. His latest film, American Hustle, looks poised to do much the same. Russell has established himself as one of the most interesting directors around, able to get spirited and precise performances out of his actors. His films are loud and strange, his characters are louder and stranger.

It’s very easy to think that Russell’s latest works are wildly different from his older pieces (Spanking the MonkeyFlirting with DisasterThree Kings). They’re less quirky and “more Oscar bait-y,” some would argue—pandering to critics and mass audiences—but the truth is a bit more complicated. I watched American Hustle and I Heart Huckabees in the same week.American Hustle is beautiful: the costumes are wonderful, the cinematography is stunning, and the whole thing is set to a rolling 1970s soundtrack. I Heart Huckabees, the last movie Russell made before his directorial hiatus, is an ugly movie. Its characters are weird and unsettling. The pacing is inconsistent and the dialogue is choppy. And yet, it feels like each of these films could not exist without the other.

In American Hustle, Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfeld asks, “Who’s the master: the painter? Or the forger?” I liked American Hustle, a lot. It was wonderful to watch and entertaining as all hell, although I’m also not quite sure there were ever really any stakes or if anyone was ever being honest about anything or what was truly supposed to be important. Critics and viewers are about as split on Hustle as they were on Huckabeessome loved it,some hated it, some wondered what the whole thing meant anyway.

I Heart Huckabees, which feels like a precursor of sorts, asks the same kind of questions like, “Why is this important?” or “What does it matter?” or “Which version of ourselves is the most honest?” It deals in binaries: real and fake, corporate and environmental, business and poetry, ugly and beautiful. And if I’m making this all sound more complicated than it is, then I’m really only beginning to capture the essence of I Heart Huckabees.


The story driving I Heart Huckabees is relatively simple. Alfred, a young environmentalist played by Jason Schwartzman, is unsettled by the path his life seems to be headed down and also finds himself running into the same stranger several times. The stranger, as it turns out, has little to do with it. Alfred is plagued by the thought of a young corporate executive named Brad (played by a spectacular Jude Law, functioning at his highest level of “douche”), who is slowly manipulating Alfred out of his own environmental group, Open Spaces, in order to get access to marsh to build a brand new Huckabees store. Brad has everything Alfred seems to desire: a purpose, a can-do attitude, and a gorgeous model girlfriend, Dawn, played by a very funny Naomi Watts.

In his confusion, Alfred seeks out two existential detectives—a couple, Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, respectively)—to help him find out what it all really means. The detectives subscribe to a romantic type of philosophy, one they call “universal interconnectivity,” a belief that everything is connected and all of it matters. Through the Jaffes, Alfred is introduced to his “Other,” a firefighter named Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Tommy is both confident and vulnerable, physically strong but sensitive. (If it sounds like the character might be a bit of a joke, it certainly had every bit of potential to be, but Wahlberg does such an excellent job that, in the end, it’s not.) Tommy is also a client of the Jaffes, but he’s grown frustrated with their techniques. As a result, he seeks out a rival detective/philosopher, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), to find some counter-philosophies. Vauban sends Tommy’s life—and in turn, Alfred’s, and in turn, Brad’s, and then Dawn’s, and so on—into a spiral of chaos. Eventually, they all come out on the other end, a little confused, but also feeling a little bit better.

If you’re not well-versed in philosophy, I Heart Huckabees does a fairly good job of parsing it down. On one hand, there’s the Jaffes’ school of thought: universal interconnectivity, all of it is important, everything is connected, and we all matter. And then there’s Caterine Vauban’s philosophy: everything is chaos, nothing is important, and none of us matter.

It’s everything or nothing in I Heart Huckabees—except for when it isn’t. (Get it?)

To say I liked I Heart Huckabees would be lying, but I didn’t dislike it either. It pushed me and pulled me around. I found parts of it brash and out of control; other parts—particularly Tommy’s entire subplot—were kind-hearted and sympathetic towards its characters. On the whole, no one in the film is particularly likable or sympathetic, though; you can despise Brad for falling into the corporate, yakkity-yak scene (repeating the same horrifying anecdote about Shania Twain for every client), but he’s no worse than mopey, selfish Alfred.

There’s a similar dichotomy presented in American Hustle. In theory, we shouldn’t like Christian Bale’s Irving all that much: he cheats on his wife, he’s a criminal, he’s self-obsessed. And yet, we’re no more drawn to Bradley Cooper’s Richie, despite his honorable charge. They’re one and the same: obsessed, driven men who have crossed paths and now find one another in each other’s way.

So to say that Russell came back from his almost five year hiatus to make completely different films is, quite frankly, untrue. The films he made before and after are different, certainly. They’re more polished and a little more harnessed. But The FighterSilver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle all possess elements of that same madness that seemed so key in earlier Russell films. They’re still loud and ugly at times, just in a glossier way.

While Russell hasn’t necessarily dealt in philosophical comedies since I Heart Huckabees, his protagonists still ask themselves the same questions. They’re all about identity and binaries. Who are we?

Can we look out for ourselves and still be good, crook or lawmen alike? (American Hustle.)

Can we maintain our identity and still be a part of the machine, poet or businessman alike? (I Heart Huckabees.)

Are we an extension of our family or do we make our own families? (The Fighter.)

Are we crazy? Are we not crazy? Wait, is the whole world actually crazy and we’re the only sane people in it? (Silver Linings Playbook—though, to some extent, all of these films.)

Russell was allowed to feel a little lost after I Heart Huckabees. I don’t think he was the only one. The thing is, Russell’s still doing what he did back in 2004 today—he’s just doing it with a bigger budget and a better soundtrack, more lipstick and sparkles. He’s still shouting and twisting and turning. I Heart Huckabees laid the foundation for his past four years of smart, funny, and occasionally heartbreaking films. Making Huckabees meant everything to Russell’s career. Or, he was always going to go down this more prestigious path anyway and I Heart Huckabees doesn’t really mean anything at all. Or maybe—you know what, never mind.

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

Everybody Hurts

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I think people miss the point when they see love as a thing that is supposed to fix you. It doesn’t; it can’t. Love will never fill all the holes inside your heart, will never right all the wrongs, won’t undo the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Even when you find love, there will still be loneliness. There always, always is.

But love can do some things. And a film like Silver Linings Playbook shows a bit of what it can offer to us, in all our various states of brokenness. Not a fix, not a cure—but a salve of sorts, a reprieve. Love (the right kind of it, anyway) can pull us out of our own silly little heads for a while, can open up and expand our tiny worlds, can make us feel a part of something. Love is connection and support: a shelter in the storm, if not the promise that a storm will never come.

And we need that shelter, that buffer. Because it’s no secret that life, real actual life, is almost impossibly hard. Everything that truly matters—family, friendship, health, meaning—takes a tremendous amount of work and a whole lot of stumbling. We expect it to be this way after a while. Nothing worth having ever comes easy, after all. But we often don’t anticipate the intangibles that arise: a brain that doesn’t work in quite the ways you want it to; the loss of someone you love; the necessity of stepping outside of your comfort zone, of having to confront your past and all the messes you’ve made, of going home again and struggling to change, clawing your way toward some kind of redemption. The battle to be our best selves, at times, seems endless.

So when a film comes along and tries to grapple, honestly, with all of these things—with the mess of how things are for so very many of us—it’s something to admire. And when that same film also manages to find humor, not in laughing at the mess of its characters’ lives, but rather in embracing their struggles and fragility and humanity, it’s something to hold on to. And when that very same film somehow manages to accomplish all of this while also redefining what a “romantic comedy” can actually be in these fractured times—playing almost entirely within the rules and confines of a worn-out genre, but giving new life to its old, familiar rhythms—well, that’s when you stand up and cheer.

An intentionally unstable film about unstable people, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a deeply compassionate, painful, hilarious, and redemptive work of art. At its best, it reminds us that nothing ever happens in the ways in which we think (or hope); that healing takes time; that love and connection – familial, romantic, whatever – is both the cause of and solution to so many of life’s problems. It’s never pedantic, though; it doesn’t preach. Rather, it does what most good films find a way to do, holding up a mirror for us to gaze into (and project upon): to show rather than to tell. And in its honest and all-encompassing efforts to do so, Russell’s film lets us in on a handful of lives that end up feeling a whole lot more familiar than most of us are probably willing to admit. Because who hasn’t been these people, to some extent? Who hasn’t had their heart broken, their spirit crushed, or felt the world had turned against them? Who hasn’t, at one point or another, struggled to make important changes in their lives, fallen into self-destructive patterns, or fought to transcend the perceived shackles of family?

Part of Russell’s genius here lies in the ways in which he structures the film to resemble the mental illness that lies at the heart of its narrative. Bi-polar disorder, more aptly referred to as manic depression in its earlier (and much less frequently diagnosed) days, is a condition characterized by alternating bouts of mania—experienced as hyper-exhilarating, even intoxicating by some—and deep, bone-crushing depression. And Silver Linings Playbook is no stranger to either end of the spectrum; it’s a film filled to the brim with high highs and low lows, tonal swings that lend an often chaotic quality to the whole affair, a sense that the film is often teetering on the brink of coming apart at the seams. It’s a chaos that can seem unintentional unless you’re paying close enough attention to realize that Russell is actually constructing the whole thing—with a loose brilliance that perhaps no other director could pull off—to mirror his primary characters’ internal states. The film feels claustrophobic and unstable at times, but that’s exactly the point; Pat and Tiffany experience the world this way. It also, in its most sublime moments, feels almost magical. Because, again, life encompasses both extremes.

When the film begins, Pat has just been released from a mental hospital. He has spent the past eight months there, following a psychiatric breakdown triggered by coming home from work one day to find his wife in the shower with the history teacher. Their wedding song—“My Cherie Amour”—is playing in the background. Pat beats the history teacher to a bloody pulp.

After he is diagnosed, locked up, and medicated, Pat sets about bettering himself in a very systematic, regulated way, striving endlessly to make himself a better person in the hopes of getting back together with his wife, Nikki, who has a restraining order out against him. He’s not allowed to contact her, but he refuses to let this deter him. He’s delusional in this way (as well as others), but he is also resilient. He emerges from the hospital determined to find a silver lining.

Tiffany has her own plethora of problems, seemingly triggered by the tragically young death of her husband, which she partially blames herself for. In the pain and confusion that followed that loss, she began to act out sexually—eventually getting fired for “sleeping with everybody in the office.” And although the extent of her mental health issues are never explicitly stated—many psychologists who have discussed the film on record have guessed that it’s borderline personality disorder (and I wouldn’t disagree)—she is clearly grieving, unstable, vulnerable, and struggling.

When it comes to mental health, people very rarely get well, or even better, in the ways in which we think they will. The part of us wanting to make sense of things often searches out an ever-elusive silver bullet of causation, something to help us make sense of the dysfunction—a chemical imbalance, a childhood trauma, a broken heart—and we are equally drawn to a magical cure: a pill, catharsis, a new love. But the truth of the matter is that mental illness, far more often than not, is vastly complex in its origins: an interplay of past experiences, learned responses, neural wiring, environmental stressors, and genetic predisposition. Finding your way out of that hole is often just as multi-faceted (and usually far more practical than romantic)—some combination of support, medication, therapy, exercise, structure, routine, mindfulness, and a handful of other things. And some disorders—including the ones most on display in Silver Linings Playbook—can’t ever really be wholly “cured” at all.

The admirable thing about Silver Linings Playbook is how readily it grasps the complexity of illness and healing and how it finds a way, subtly, to depict this onscreen. If you’re not paying attention you might think that love (and/or a dance competition) somehow cures Pat’s bi-polar disorder. But, if you look a little closer, you’ll soon notice that a whole host of other factors played into his recovery—regularly taking his medication, for starters (which is typically one of the most difficult things to get someone with bi-polar to do), but also exercise, routine, therapy with a therapist he actually trusts and connects with, family support, making new social connections and renewing old ones. You’ll also notice that, by film’s end, he’s not “cured”—it’s made more or less clear, even in the final scene, that this is something he’ll have to live with and stay on top of and manage forever. He’s just happier now—in love and less alone, with some hard-won victories under his belt—which tends to make any life at least a little bit easier.

And, while Pat and Tiffany’s struggles are painted with the largest brush, Silver Linings Playbook makes space for a handful of supporting characters who also suffer, in one way or another, with various personal issues. It’s a film filled with flawed (but trying) characters—from Pat’s own parents (his father’s explosive temper has gotten him a lifetime ban from attending Eagles games, and is now mostly repressed through various obsessive-compulsive rituals and an awful gambling habit; his mother is the classic peacekeeping enabler), to his best friend (trapped in a domestic straitjacket of a life by a controlling wife, left with little outlet but to listen to old Metallica records in his basement late at night and fantasize about smashing things), to his well-intentioned but certifiably unstable roommate (Chris Tucker) from the psychiatric hospital, to the next-door neighbor boy who keeps trying to “interview” Pat about being crazy (played by none other than David O. Russell’s own bi-polar son, who was the original inspiration behind Russell’s decision to make the film).

These characters, each with their own tangible energy, swirl around each other throughout the film, a panoply of human frailty and resilience. We know these people, though, because we are these people. Silver Linings Playbook is not simply “a movie about mental illness.” It has its sights set on a much larger theme: the human condition (or, in Russell’s own words, “the fabric of life”). How we live, love, and connect. How we struggle, disappoint, and persevere. How we dance and watch football and find ways to pass the time. How we need each other, families and friends, in various ways, large and small. How, at the end of the day, we’re all just walking each other home.

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

Define: Hustle

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby


Many of the (glowing) reviews of David O. Russell’s American Hustle begin with the beginning: the opening scene, in which Irv Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) stands in front of a hotel mirror, patting and glueing and arranging and smoothing and otherwise meticulously curating the most elaborate toupée and comb-over ever put to film. It’s no surprise we are drawn to this scene; not only does Bale manage to capture all the idiosyncrasies and strengths and fatal vulnerabilities of his character in just one short montage (a fitting juxtaposition to his morning grooming routine in American Psycho), but the scene also metaphorically captures the soul of the film itself.

Before we can talk soul, though, we have to talk body. (And boy, what bodies.) Russell drapes his direction over a wily frame—a story not really very truthful, but “some” of which “actually happened”—a comedy about sad people—a con artist yarn spun from the stuff of the FBI ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the start of the film, we watch Bale’s surprisingly empathetic Rosenfeld, a career con man, find his match and partner-in-crime: Amy Adams’s steely and supple Sydney Prosser, who assumes a British accent and an appropriately silly name (Lady Edith Greensley) to help Rosenfeld trap unfortunate, desperate men in loan schemes. The two get caught in the act by FBI Agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper), who forces them to work for him to entrap other con artists.

For a few brief moments, the film’s plot is straightforward. Then we discover that Prosser is, in addition to being Rosenfeld’s soul- and team-mate, his mistress; Rosenfeld goes home at night to an enjoyably unbalanced wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), with whom he stays ostensibly for the fighting and the fucking, but really for the son he’s adopted and grown to love. And then we discover that Riche Di Maso may not really be the intelligent, intimidating government protagonist we think he is—that his attempts to bring “justice” to his world may, in fact, be more toxic than anything else we’ve seen.

These plot twists don’t unravel with a slow suspense. These characters don’t linger on emotive moments. They flash by you, they sneak up on you, they’re ahead of you. They want to get somewhere just out of sight and they want to get there fast. They’ve calculated the angles. They’ve hustled.


to obtain by energetic activity, especially underhanded activity.


Russell’s take on his characters is Whitman-esque: they contain multitudes, they are ecstatic and wild and give of themselves too easily, they are indiscriminate with their bodies and their hearts, they are in a state of constant revision. They are you, they are me, they are the guy down the street we run into getting coffee, they are the man on TV we hate, they are the women from our past we fear.

American Hustle captures us because it gets us. We get up in the morning and we stare at our faces and we drink our coffee and we try to mold ourselves into the thing we want everyone else to see when we walk out the door. This thing is fragile and it is carefully constructed and it is beautiful and it is insane, like those towering cakes made from impossibly thin spun sugar and unstable buttercream that people have to transport from hotel rooms to banquet halls on certain Food Channel pastry competitions. O America, O nation of comb-overs. We are here and we are tired of the game but we are still playing it, goddammit, until the very last awful second.

It takes energy to keep up appearances. It takes vigor and optimism and a healthy dose of self-esteem and lots of caffeine—or, you know, a measure of some even stronger substances, depending on your proclivities. It takes a rollicking late–70s soundtrack and a riotous camaraderie among your performers and quick-fire banter and townhall meetings and heart medication and mob tactics and Louis C.K. and hair curlers that just won’t quit. It takes sex and gambling and fights in the women’s room and joy in the shape of a gun and invisible fiancées and sequins and imported nail polish. It takes despair. It takes hope.


to obtain money by fraud or deception; obtain by illicit action; swindle, cheat.


American Hustle is, of course, about fraud—personal and political, monetary and emotional, (notionally) historical. You can’t have fraud without deceit, and you can’t have deceit without transformation. The things and people that dupe us do so because they have been altered—because they purport to be something they are, at heart, not. Russell’s lens on the film’s action seems less interested in the deceit itself than in the power of the transformation. The power of the flesh: its malleability, its willingness to bend itself and stretch itself and manipulate itself to suit The Other. (Its susceptibility to toupees.) His characters perform all kinds of self-renovations in their attempts to win others over to the selves they wish they were: rows of tiny pink hair curlers in Richie DiMaso’s hair to crimp away his desperate wish to be anything but what he is, to be Important; a peculiar, particular, sweetly rotten nail polish on Rosalyn Rosenfeld’s nails; Sydney Prosser’s barely passable feigned British accent; Mayor Carmine Polito’s garish suits; The Combover.

Russell’s film gains from its slightly meta nature; the actors he has chosen here have all also undergone their own reinventions. Bale’s body is, of course, famously and constantly in flux; to think of Christian Bale is to understand the power of the will to transform the flesh over and over and over again. To bulk out, to starve, to re-tone, to sculpt, to strain, to fatten. And somehow, as the pot-bellied, soft-bodied, tragically-maned Rosenfeld, Bale has never been moreconfusingly alluring. It’s as though this new layer of flesh has pillowed him out a little. Has allowed him to embrace where he used to brace back. (At the film’s close, I desired him.) Amy Adams, too, has sculpted herself in the spirit of her character; her body is incredible, her sex appeal undeniable, her lithe leg-crossings understandably seductive. (Watching Herthe night after American Hustle, I had to keep reminding myself that it was the same actress. Adams truly melts into her characters.) Sydney’s assumed accent reminds the viewers of the actors’ own vocal manipulations. Jennifer Lawrence has mastered the art of appearing to be fully “Just Herself” while also performing wildly in character, with complete abandon from the self.

So yes, our ability to transform—and, thus, to deceive—can be (and is!) celebrated. Exquisitely. Fooling the world: a classic, eternal dance we all by turns engage in and observe with relish. Fooling yourself, though? That’s something else. And here’s the dividing line between Rosenfeld and Richie—we sympathize with the one who puts on a face for others. We revile the one who can’t see his own face clearly enough to be able to disguise it properly. Who uses others to perpetuate a dangerous and solipsistic imagination.


shove, press; hasten, hurry.


Rosenfeld and Sydney bond over a Duke Ellington record. Before we know it, they are pressed together between dry cleaning racks. They shove their “real” lives out of the way for each other. They are in a hurry to share their deepest secrets, to bond together over their easy manipulation of other people—of people who, of course, deserve to be manipulated.

Everyone in this movie is in a hurry to do something. To rise to the top. To get out of jail free. To transform a neighborhood. To take out the bad guys. To get the fish out of the ice. To tell their stories. The quick back-and-forth of the lines, the improvisatory nature of Russell’s filmmaking, only adds to this feeling that we don’t have enough time to cram everything we want in. We are hungry. We are always hungry. The music stops but we want more. Who cares whether or not the heart can take it.


a catchall name for some disco dances which were extremely popular in the 1970s.


I like you, Richie admits to Sydney in what is simultaneously an old cop trick, an FBI play—win the target over, make them think you’re on their side—and a truth: he really does like her.I like you, he mouths silently.

It’s hard to tell who the antagonist in this movie is, if there is one. The obvious choice is the bang-up team of Rosenfeld and Sydney—after all, they’re the ones duping poor guys into losing thousands of dollars. They’re the ones running the scam. They’re the ones who get arrested. But there is something so utterly truthful about them, so appealingly sad and needy and deluded and earnest. So we could say that the quick-to-bribe Mayor Carmine Polito, the eventual target of Richie’s unapproved FBI operation, is the one we should cast aspersions on. He’s corrupt, he’s underhanded—but, then again, he also cares about his community. Indeed, as the film unfolds, Richie’s ambitions look more and more suspect. He’s not as interested in taking down crime as he is in building up his own reputation. But we have to have some soft spot in our hearts for him, too—for his struggle to become something more than what he is, for his desire to grasp at this American Dream we are all promised.

Oh. The soft spot in our hearts. Perhaps now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s our human susceptibility to caring for others, after all, that’s going to take us down in the end. It’s the reason Rosenfeld and Sydney get exposed in the first place—though Rosenfeld gets the feeling something is off with Richie’s purported offer, Sydney has a soft spot for the man, and takes his check perhaps against her better knowledge. It’s the reason Rosenfeld sticks with his poisonous, toxic, but oh-so-fun wife; he doesn’t truly love her, but he’s developed a serious bond with her son, his adopted child. It’s the tragedy at the heart of it all: if we didn’t have to care about each other, if we didn’t ever form those incredible friendships that we’d later torpedo, if we didn’t fall in love, if we didn’t have the caress in the bathroom stall, none of this would hurt the way it does. The heart wouldn’t give out. The door wouldn’t slam.

Opening ourselves up to others, it would seem, is synonymous with leaving ourselves vulnerable to a scam, a deception, a fraud, a fall. A fatal slip. A double-cross.

Or, perhaps, a dance.


Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry,  Nights I Light 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.

Here’s Your Quintessence

by Andrew Root

[Editor's Note: All three illustrations used in this essay were created by students in a Visual Art class at Cobourg CDCI West high school, under the tutelage of Ms. Sarah Tye. The first is from Tobijah Parker, the second one is from Mandy Toope, and the last one comes from Alyn Woolsey.]

“God, you’re noteworthy!”

I work with teenagers that come from terribly unstable backgrounds. They live with maybe one parent, or a slew of older brothers and sisters, younger cousins, “street sisters,” aunts, uncles, social workers. Most don’t attend school regularly, and the ones that do, do so begrudgingly. Many have been to jail, or at least to court. I’m not a social worker, so I’m not responsible for helping these kids amend their behaviour. I’m a recreationist; my job is to provide a safe environment for kids from low-income families to take part in positive-minded activities with their peers. This mostly takes the form of dodge ball tournaments and internet access with a healthy snack and a no-swearing policy. Spending time with these kids, their patterns of behaviour crystallize pretty quickly; they’re better than you are at just about everything. They’re faster than the police. They’re smarter than their teachers. They’re fluent in obscure languages, and they’re the only ones who know how to bypass the internet firewall, which is pretty complicated and you wouldn’t understand anyway so whatever. After knowing them for two years, I’ve seen their real, genuine personalities only a handful of times.

Everyone pretends.

"I pictured you as a little grey piece of paper.”

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is not a particularly mentionable person. He leaves his eHarmony account largely blank because he’s only ever been to Phoenix, Arizona, though he can’t remember why he made the trip. He works in a darkened office with one other coworker in a job he’s held for sixteen years. Walter is the guy behind the guy: a negative assets manager for LIFE Magazine. Daring, intrepid photographers go on stunning adventures, braving ungoverned regions of the globe to capture images of warlords and endangered animals—and then they mail their blood-stained film to Walter, who processes it for them. Walter is a pretender; he has a tendency to “zone out” when things aren’t going his way. When his boss makes a crack at his expense, he imagines himself delivering the perfect zinger (or, in one particularly spectacular sequence, beating him up and throwing him out of an elevator); when he overhears the object of his affection, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), joking that she spent the weekend being read poetry by her Latin lover, guess who suddenly fills the role of the honey-tongued love interest? Walter’s daydreams are an eccentricity at best; more often than not, they’re interpreted as a symptom of something worse. More than once, his mother, his sister, or his coworkers roll their eyes at his little trances, tacitly implying that Walter will never move beyond his station if he doesn’t snap out of his own little world.

“I used to have this idea of who I wanted to be.”

I understand where the kids I work with are coming from. I’ve had more imagined conversations than real ones. Fully-realized scenarios in which I am offered grandiose apologies from tearful ex-girlfriends; brutal takedowns of sneering part-time bosses; even something as simple as a passing compliment in the hall during high school. My ego growing up was as fragile as crystal, and I often used fiction as an escape. I admired protagonists like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach, and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (to a somewhat less tortured degree); I longed to be able to abandon everything in search of an adventure while simultaneously sporting a look that would make the girls in my class wish they were Kate Winslet or Claire Danes circa 1997. In my mind I was solitary; imaginative; dreamy; instantly resourceful; and desperately, romantically lonely. I was Walter Mitty. I still am.

Walter’s work is misunderstood and overlooked, most of all by Ted Hendricks (a pitch-perfect Adam Scott), the managing director overseeing the purchase of the magazine; its transition into an online entity; and its final, historic print issue, complete with a cover photo by renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). If Sean is the adventurous ideal, then Ted represents all the things that attack us. Both are difficult models to deal with—Sean is quixotic and near-impossible to find, jumping from place to place around the globe. Ted is the kind of person who demands that you repeat what he asks of you so he has proof that you heard him. Sean: the beckoning id. Ted: the overbearing superego.

When the negative for the final issue’s cover photo can’t be found, Walter answers his beckoning id. Following a hunch, he boards a plane to Greenland, jumps out of a helicopter into shark-infested waters, skateboards down a winding stretch of highway, and barely escapes a volcanic eruption. A genuine adventure.

It’s thrilling and more than a little uplifting to see a person following their bliss. When I first heard about this film, I hadn’t read the 1939 short story by James Thurber, or seen the first film adaptation from 1947 (starring Danny Kaye as the title character). I grew up in a filmic milieu that suggested that dreamers (or just generally inward people) all secretly wanted to be brought out of their shell; I’ve seen too many films in which a character’s problems can be solved if they simply take off their glasses, let their hair down, skip work, skip school, or any number of other clichés that telegraph that they’re throwing caution to the wind. So I worried that this new interpretation would be the story of a quiet character who is pressured to leave his dreamer’s ways behind, that Ben Stiller’s incarnation of the character would be subject to some heavy-duty criticism for his dreamer’s ways. I can’t get behind a story that posits that dreamers are maladjusted. I certainly don’t agree that there is such a thing as “too much imagination.” I feared that Walter would go out into the world because he thought it would make him into something that Cheryl would want—or, worse, something that Ted saw as acceptable. That he would kill his dreams with forced experience. That all he needed was to “get out of his own head.”

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to; to see behind walls; to draw closer; to find each other; and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Thankfully, Walter goes on his adventure at his own behest because he sees its importance. He’s following a true passion—for Sean’s work and his own. It’s not a journey undertaken for self-improvement, although that is one of the side-effects; rather, Walter’s adventure is driven by a commitment to something bigger than himself, by a sense of duty—a rare characteristic these days.

My father had a friend named Myrtle Lane (affectionately known to us as Aunt Myrtle) whom he met while on a work placement in university. She lived to be 99 years old, and was one of the most remarkably kind people I’ve ever encountered. She regularly set the table for myself and my brother and sisters with $500 worth of antique china, waving off any concern with a sassy remark. “If it breaks, at least it was broken being enjoyed. There’s not a thing in my house that you can’t use.” As a child, Aunt Myrtle had suffered from an illness that drained much of the family’s meagre bank account. Strong-armed by no one but herself, she vowed to repay every cent that her parents spent to keep her healthy. Aunt Myrtle was a schoolteacher at a time when you couldn’t be both a teacher and married, and when the love of her life got down on one knee, she turned down his proposal because it would mean that she couldn’t earn her own money to give back to her parents. Eventually, her father died and she took her mother into her home, caring for her as she lost her sight and ultimately died as well.

I’ve been told that Aunt Myrtle’s story is a sad one, but I disagree. Hers was a life spent following her truth, her commitment to her family, her personal code of duty. Hers was a rare life indeed—and while she may not have climbed the Himalayas I believe that she could have done anything she wanted.

“Can you hear me Major Tom?”

Admittedly, I still get annoyed when one of the kids I work with tells some tall tale designed to win attention, as the attempt is usually transparent, and—more often than not—humourless. (“Really? You threw your desk against the wall and spit on your teacher because they asked you for your homework? That’s incredibly intense.”) They take these ruses very seriously because they come from a place where care is at a marked deficit. What they really desire is to be recognized as strong individuals who want for nothing, and I can’t fault them for that. I’d love to want for nothing. But the truth is that I do sometimes find myself dreaming of a more exciting life, just as they do.

And here’s where I want to make myself clear: the way to a more exciting life is not to stop dreaming. This iteration of Walter Mitty daydreams because of the all-too-human tendency to want what we want right now – a familiar sentiment to the crew of troubled teens I see four times a week. If claiming to be the best at something gets these kids through the day, then who am I to take that away from them? I’m not Ted Hendricks, after all. But I’m not quite Sean O’Connell either. I’m Walter Mitty…or at least I imagine that I am.

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.