The End of the End: An Evolution of Faith, in Five Films

by Jenny Hollowell

photo by Chad Perman

photo by Chad Perman

My mother became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses while pregnant with me. She and my father were living in Santa Cruz at the time. A woman came to their door preaching about the coming Paradise, the unending perfect life awaiting the righteous after the wicked are destroyed at Armageddon. A few months later my mother got baptized in a dunk tank in the middle of Candlestick Park. It was the summer of 1974 and Armageddon was predicted to come in 1975. She was six months pregnant with me, and in the nick of time. I believe she thought she was saving us both, though I was already immersed in water, already floating.

§ Pinocchio
“A boy who won’t be good might just as well be made of wood.”

The first movie I ever saw was Pinocchio. I was about four. My mother told me I cried when Pinocchio got swallowed by the whale and when the disobedient boys got turned into donkeys. I think it reminded you of Jonah, she said. I knew that story. I recited Bible verses for strangers when my mother took me evangelizing. I had a book of Bible stories that illustrated the Old and New Testaments, as well as the End depicted in the Book of Revelation: the death of a drunken harlot riding on the back of a seven-headed beast. I did not know what a harlot was, but she sure wore a lot of makeup. The illustration showed fire raining down from heaven, her hair burning, wine spilling from her golden goblet, and her rouged face contorted in screams. These were my bedtime stories. The lesson of Jonah was: you cannot flee from God.

We moved to Virginia. The End was coming soon. It was coming soon in 1979, and 1984, and 1989. In elementary school, I prayed that I would get to middle school before the End came. I wanted a chance to have a locker and to eat lunch in a cafeteria. In middle school, I prayed that I would get to high school. I wanted to take Driver’s Ed and get my license. Who knew if there would be cars in Paradise? I wanted a chance to drive. Was it wrong to wish for the wicked world to continue just a little longer? I was afraid of all of the ordinary things I would miss when it was gone.

§ Dead Poets Society
“When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.”

These were the rules for movies. No R, no PG–13. PG and G only. No Christmas, no demons, no Halloween. No birthdays, no cursing, no sex. No blood, no guts, no ghosts. Few films passed the test. But my mother had a weakness for poetry, which is maybe why I was allowed to see Dead Poets Society. She studied literature in college and though she discarded most vestiges of her secular life, our bookshelves still held–––alongside stacks of books and pamphlets from the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, including You Can Live Forever In a Paradise on Earth and a slender blue volume known as The Truth Book–––volumes of poetry she had treasured for years. Whitman, Tennyson, Plath, Shelley. Every other book on our shelf was there to prove and affirm, but these were different: language devoted to doubt. In his In Memorian A.H.H., Tennyson wrote:

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last — far off — at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

We know not anything. Maybe every fourteen-year-old is a narcissist, but the thirty- nine year old narcissist in me likes to think I was exceptionally so. Every novel, every song, every poem, and every movie was about me. Especially Tennyson, especially The Smiths, and especiallyDead Poets Society. I read those verses, I was paralyzed by those expectations, I gazed out of my bedroom window at a frozen landscape, I cried those tears. I longed. As I sat in the theatre watching the film I found myself doing something that felt like translation. As solipsistic as an English-to-English dictionary, only it was Dead Poets Society-to-Me:

Welton Academy = Jehovah’s Witnesses
Headmaster = the church elders
John Keating (Robin Williams) = books and art, both blowing my mind
standing on desks = watching Dead Poets Society
military school (for Neil) = not being allowed to go college (for me)
the Dead Poets Society = no equivalent, though I desperately wanted one
Walt Whitman = Walt Whitman
Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) = me
Neil’s father = my parents and the church elders
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for Neil) = college for art & writing (for me)
suicide (for Neil) = ? (for me)

It’s that last question mark that persisted. What comes next, if you cannot deliver what is expected?

§

I went to college, despite my congregation’s concerns. The elders were worried, and warned I would be exposed to worldly thinking. I must have seemed like a child to them, insisting that it wasn’t really faith unless it could withstand things. I wanted to please them and please myself, something that still felt possible.

I lived at home and went with my family to the five weekly meetings at the Kingdom Hall. I preached from door-to-door and on street corners downtown. Then I spent my nights making things for my art classes. Apples bristling with pins; pillow covers sewn from leaves; a cocoon formed from parchment and inscribed with poems, worn like a hood over the head. Inside, you could only see poetry.

§ La Jetée
“They are without memories, without plans.
Time builds itself painlessly around them.”

The End was coming soon. I married someone from the religion, a boy named C. I was nineteen and he was twenty. I did not know him very well. C worked the night shift, so I did not see him much. When I returned in the evening he was usually already gone. Sometimes I thought I was imagining him. If I woke late, he would be home and sleeping beside me. I watched him sleep and wondered if he was dreaming. Did he dream about me? He was an unknowable as a photograph.

My days were spent in class. One day my film class screened La Jetée, the story of a man haunted by a single moment, only to discover that the moment is the scene of his own death. I watched it with fascination and horror. Here was the black and white world, the post-apocalyptic After that followed the rumored End. No one wants to live there. It is frozen and perpetual, suspended in static frames. Only a single, blinking moment of real time, a lovers’ gaze, provides relief. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until that moment. Suddenly I was gasping, released from stasis. A look of love and recognition–––the world seemed to hinge on this axis.

I walked home from class through dirty snow. We had a blizzard that winter, unusual for Virginia. Tree branches and snow, soot and snow, charcoal and snow. Everything was black and white, frozen and imperfect.

§ Manhattan
“Why is life worth living?”

At church meetings, I stopped singing. I stood with my song book open and mouthed the words, listening to the voices of the congregation singing around me. Could their voices replace my voice? They sang about longing for Paradise. I would drive home, drowsy in the dark, longing for my warm bed at the end of the car ride.

In a world of doubt, I looked to the real. My warm bed was real. Music was real, books were real, movies were real. Manhattan was real. In the film, Woody Allen’s character Isaac Davis speaks into a tape recorder and lists the things that make life worth living. His speech mentions no Heaven, no Hell, no Paradise, no talk of Redemption or Justice, no promise of Eternal Reward. Instead, he says:

Why is life worth living? It’s a very good question. Um…well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh…like what…okay…um…For me, uh…oh…I would say…what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing…uh…um… and Willie Mays…and um…the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony…and um… Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues…um…Swedish movies, naturally…Sentimental Education by Flaubert…uh…Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra…um…those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne…uh…the crabs at Sam Wo’s…uh…Tracy’s face…

Art, and music, and comedy, and film, and literature, and food, and love. I could believe in these things. I made my own list.

I did not go to the Kingdom Hall anymore. I stopped evangelizing. C and I divorced. You are going to die, he told me, but I already knew. We all are.

I went to graduate school and moved to New York City. I remarried, wrote a book, had a child, and moved to Los Angeles and back again. I did not think about death very much. When I did, I watched Manhattan.

§ Melancholia
“What star is that?”

I saw Melancholia at the Angelika in New York, the year before we returned to Los Angeles. I went alone, on a weekday afternoon in January. Some movies are like that. You don’t want anyone to watch you watch them. You need the space to feel whatever you are going to feel.

I was one of only about three or four people there, and took my seat just as the theatre was going dark. The thing I always forget about the Angelika is how the subway runs directly beneath it, rumbling like the earth is going to split open. So it was on that day, the floor shaking beneath me as I found my place in the darkness. Suddenly, here was a series of shots: the young bride Justine, alone in the forest in her puffy white wedding dress, her limbs entangled in long, black vines; Claire, her sister, slogging through mud in wellington boots––like those worn by myself on this January day––her child clutched in her arms; the Earth rolling forward, helpless in its orbit, towards the collision that will end it all.

The subway rumbled and shuddered as this overture gave way to a wedding story. Despair alongside love, on a starry and temperate evening. I was five months pregnant at the time, and the baby seemed to kick in time to the subway. Five months is small enough to float freely, to explore what might feel like outer space to them. She thrashed and twisted and I felt every kick, every quickening. Each frame of the film is like a photograph, an exquisite picture I could hang on my wall if the wall were still standing. In the End, though, the walls come down. The harlot’s wine spills, the many-headed beast roars, the men and women and children die in flame and darkness. Until the End, there is only the fear of it and the wish for it, living side-by- side. Come please, End, so that the End will be over. When the days seem meaningless, or when they mean too much; when I feel unloved, or when love is so plentiful and good I live in fear of its loss; when my work is absurd and difficult, or when it is rote and unchallenging; when I feel alone, or when I feel suffocated; when I lie awake counting my worries, yes, it is easy to wish for an Answer.

What star is that? Justine asks. Melancholia is The End, the brightest star, the one that draws your eye. The End is the Answer to everything: none of it mattered or ever will again. You are absolved from further action. Smash the wine glasses. Let your lists remain unfinished. Walk out into the darkness and wait for it.

Only, I have to admit, I want everything to be okay. I am Claire in this story, impotent in my rubber boots. My fear is real, my solutions bourgeois. If the world is ending, let’s have drinks on the veranda, let’s play a little music. We will tuck the little ones into bed as on every other night. Maybe, by some miracle, the stone walls will hold, and we will open our eyes and wake to a changed world.

§

I have two small daughters. The idea that they have no concept of my life as a Witness is comforting and good but also sad, a kind of low-level, homesick hum. I’m from a place they’ve never been. It’s like being from a lost city, one that sank into the ocean. We sang songs there. The boys wore suits and the girls wore dresses. Maybe one day I will show them these films and tell them what they meant to me—a kind of origin story.

How do you undo something? I think you can only mask it. It is like painting a red wall white, adding coat after coat until it turns from pink to blush to a bluish milk color. Years later, if you scratch the wall with your thumbnail you will find the red underneath, as essential and permanent as blood. But mostly, you get used to the blankness. You leave it untouched. You hang pictures. You project movies on it. Sometimes, in certain light, you still see pink.


Jenny Hollowell is a writer and music producer. Her novel, Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe was released by Henry Holt in 2010. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, the Norton anthology New Sudden Fiction: Short Stories from America and Beyondand was named a distinguished story by Best American Short Stories. Her work has been performed by Selected Shorts at Symphony Space, and she has been a guest on RadioLab, NPR’s Weekend Edition, and WNYC. She currently lives in Los Angeles.


After Midnight

by Tracy Wan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

[ sunrise ]

Three summers ago, tucked between its gauzy, languid days, I found magic. I was twenty and alienated—by my own choosing, but also by a lack of choice. I needed magic, although I wouldn’t know that until, well, now. It was the kind of magic made possible through nostalgia for no real particulars, or the kind that makes this nostalgia possible, I’m not sure. Here’s what I know: the singularity of some experiences you will never accurately appraise until they disappear, like the sobering hues of the world as you take off your sunglasses at sunset.

But that summer was for sunrises, the very beginnings. In Before Sunrise, a young Julie Delpy says to baby-faced Ethan Hawke, as Celine to Jesse: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.” He was silent, and I was too. And then she said, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something,” and I felt it sink into my porous being.

In that little space between myself and these characters, that script, was the start of something affirmative, a pattern I would not see until much later. Because then, in June, I fell in love.

On occasion, life will come at you with a momentum so strong you have no choice but to allow it, let your body be carried by it, make your decisions as you’re moving and never jump out of the car. When Celine stayed with Jesse in Vienna, she was acquiescing to this moment, and aren’t we all so glad she did? When Jesse says, “I would marry you, alright?” we know he’s already there.

It feels wrong to compare falling in love to falling in love in the movies, but I’ll do it, because we met on a film set and that should be enough. And if that’s not enough, I’ll say that the day I met him I told my best friend, “I met him,” and she understood, and I meant it. It’s hard to deny or ration something that lands fully-formed into your chest. And if that’s not enough, well, if you asked me a thousand days from that day, I still would nod, as in, I had no choice, as in, “Let me get my bag.”

That summer we saw a lot of sunrises together. On a fall day he said “I love you” and it was not a learning, but a truth. I caught the red in his beard once and—you’ll laugh—thought of Jesse. How could I not.

[ sunset ]

A year later, I left.

As you move away from someone you love the impulse is to justify it with growth, as though through the inflation of each other’s independence and particularities you’ll bridge the gap together. Some people are gifted at collapsing distance upon itself, reducing it to an abstraction, but I couldn’t. I counted the days, the miles, the silences between everything. We stretched thinner and thinner with every phone conversation, fighting over who was giving up more, measuring who was sadder, always threatening to snap. I did most of this.

The first mistake was to move away for work, assuming that labour could turn into love, and that the one you love will catch up. Because, as irony would have it, love also turns into labour, and it’s harder to keep up with.

When we see Jesse and Celine again, it’s in Before Sunset, and it’s been nine years. They did not meet again in Vienna, and then life happened: he got married and cynical, and she got political and cynical. “Young and stupid,” Celine says of their former selves, but reaffirms the very connection they drew nine years prior: “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” Their conversation swells and gushes from the very moment they see each other again, and never ceases. Celine confesses that more than loneliness, she hates feeling estranged from a lover, but the convenience is that Jesse would never fit the profile. Despite the intercontinental distance, and despite the decade in-between. Later, she hugs him:

Celine: I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules.

Jesse: How am I doing?

Celine: Still here.

Jesse: Good, I like being here.

Being here was all he had to do. He wrote a book to call out to her, and she came.

The Before films have gathered many accolades—all of which they deserve, some of which are credited to the writing. The “realism” of the dialogue is so vivid, so intimately touching to us that we wonder if it’s improvisation (no; all three are completely scripted) or the actors/co-writers playing themselves (maybe a little bit). I keep thinking about this realism as a Linklater Reality—the idyllic, topmost layer of reality as we know it. Sampled from life. Skimmed, curated. The best of the best and the worst. It’s hard not to make it exemplary. When I watch Celine and Jesse together, a little creature mewls in my chest. It’s the heart’s lament: Could it be this easy? Is the only thing we need presence, and attention? And worse—will I not see the beauty in these days, until the light is gone?

“You feel far away,” I’d whisper on the phone sometimes, hesitating to release the words into the universe.

“You feel like you’re next to me,” he’d reply. But when he said my name, it felt like an apology.

[ midnight ]

Like developing a sudden affinity for cilantro, falling out of love is surprising, but not dismaying, to the body fostering the change. Previous relationships had come and gone, following the ebb and flows of a growing self-knowledge and a shrinking attention span. But some loves you don’t fall out of—even the word “falling” relieves you of your responsibility. It’s consolation. It’s not your fault. Some loves you have to wrestle out of yourself, kicking and screaming and very much alive.

Around the time Before Midnight started playing in theaters in Toronto, I knew it was the end but did not know how to tell myself this yet. I’d asked him to come visit and see it with me—the one thing I ask, it’s important to me, don’t you know how formative they are to me?—but he didn’t, couldn’t, something about work. Labour became love, and love became labour, and somewhere between these two moments in time we had stopped believing in the same things.

So I went with a friend, and afterwards found myself sitting in a plush seat in the dark, angry at Celine and Jesse for the first time, the very immature, over-emotional boil of not getting what you want. What I felt was no longer the perceived magic of a twenty year old falling uncannily in love in tandem with other twentysomethings on screen, but instead a very palpable chasm. Their love did not feel real anymore, which does not stem from the credibility of the film as much as it did from my emotional concerns at the time: in truth, my love did not feel real anymore.

I clenched my fists when I watched them at their worst, which was still better than most worsts. “Can you be my friend for two seconds?” Jesse asks her in the middle of a fight, in the middle of their ten years of unmarried-married life. She nods, smiles briefly, and they hold hands. It’s a beautiful moment, but someone entrenched in their own precocious self-pity would never see that, and I didn’t. Later, Jesse reminds her, “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real,” and I said under my breath, “Please.”

The romantic in me believed this “real life” of theirs, she truly did, and will again. In this world, love is always a possibility. Will they meet in Vienna in six months? Will Jesse miss his plane? Will they love each other for 50 more years? The temporality of the films allows for as much: with every before is the implication of an after. With them, we see the sun rise, set, and disappear.

“Still there, still there, still there, gone,” Celine says quietly, as she and Jesse watch the sun tuck itself into the Ionian Sea. But the camera stays on their faces—not gone yet. We see a passing glimpse of sadness, but it is just that: passing. As the film’s last line, she says, filling all of us with hope: “It must have been quite the night we’re about to have.”

And maybe that’s the permission that this Linklater Love gives us. An infrangible faith in potential, in the slow walk down stony paths that will always lead to somewhere beautiful. The hope and the danger. “That’s what fucks us up,” their friend Ariadni cautions, during their last lunch in Greece. “Romance, the notion of a soulmate.” And although Celine and Jesse (and Richard, and Julie, and Ethan) try very hard not to echo this archetype, they are soul mates—blemished and bruised and brooding, yes, but still soul mates, their frequencies humming to an intuitive, otherworldly understanding of each other, their conversations philosophical, their banter perfect. The privilege of years of writing and rewriting, I suppose.

And for a while, that was charming; a flawed but ideal love. It was bright, and it was the best hours out of eighteen years, and I was blind to the possibility of anything else. Myopia is often a side effect of falling in love—the magic of this life seems very close, and very clear. It’s an ignited world, punctuated by sunrises and sunsets. But then, inevitably, midnight came for this love of mine, a less-than-cinematic love. In this chronology, when before runs out there is noafter. It was still there, still there, still there. Now it’s gone.


Tracy Wan is a writer living in Toronto, although she's not quite sure what she's doing there. She loves good advertising, bad television, and discovering novelty flavours.


You & Me

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

"It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love." - Raymond Carver

Essentially, we’re hard-wired to root for love. We want relationships to work out, both onscreen and off. We want to believe couples make it, because we want to make it, too.

We want to meet cute. We want to fall, head over heels. We want to write songs and have songs written about us.

We want things to work out. We want to love and be loved. We want happily ever after, or at least a chance to believe that exists.

Which is exactly why a film like Blue Valentine is so very hard to watch. Hollywood, so long complicit in the perpetual fueling of our happily-ever-after fantasies, here turns around and slaps us in our face by giving us the whole story. The beginning and the end (with all the various highs and lows in between). It’s draining. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s also one of the finest relationship movies I’ve ever seen. Not because all relationships are awful—some are, some aren’t—but rather because they are, so often, such hard work. And so rarely do we get to see all that tremendously hard work—the messy and complicated rollercoaster of a living, breathing relationship—onscreen.

The toll that a life takes, together or alone. The way the years add up to a point where some days they outnumber the reasons to stay. The way keeping a family together takes everything you’ve got, but how you still have to wake up each and every morning and find a way to give a little bit more. The way cute becomes cloying, lust wears itself out, and spontaneity gives way to endless routines.

And that silly, stubborn part of you that refuses to let it all go.

It’s like some old Carver story writ large on the silver screen: decent and well-intentioned people accidentally imprisoning one another; a worn-down relationship coming apart at its seams; lost souls drinking a bit too much, caring for each other deeply, but never quite seeming to get it right; an innocent child caught in the midst of two colliding parental orbits.

Blue Valentine traces the flow of a particular relationship—Dean and Cindy’s—showing you it’s bright flickering beginnings and it’s sad, hollowed-out, gut-punch ending. It follows their courtship and conclusion in a non-linear fashion, sublime scenes of those honeymoon-lit first few moments of a new relationship, alternating with the burdensome, claustrophobically sad scenes from that same relationship’s final days. By doing so, the film highlights the painful inevitability of so many of those relationship dances we all try and do with partners that, in the end, are just not quite right for us—no matter how close to right they manage to seem for a time, or how promising the relationship’s start. It’s a seduction and a warning all at once, showing us love in the same ways thatTrainspotting showed us heroin: how magical and soaring that first high, how awful and destructive that final crash.

Yet we all try to recapture the magic of love’s first high in some way. And it’s not hard to see why: it’s a magic that moves mountains, creates great art, and starts wars; a magic that allows us to go on, literally—creating new life while simultaneously making our own lives feel worth the living. At its very best, it’s a feeling of everything finally working out. An integration. A completion.

And to lose that—to have it and to know it and then to lose it—that takes something awful out of us. We are never quite the same. We recover, we go on, we heal, but we remember. We beat ourselves up with what-ifs and should-haves, trying to pin down the exact moment where it all went wrong, as if such a singular moment ever existed.

We regret being so vulnerable, putting ourselves out there, and we wonder if it’s ever worth risking ourselves, our hearts, again. (It is.)

It wears us out, love.

It wears us out.


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.


Howl at the Moon

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Ron Shelton’s 1988 comedy Bull Durham is a movie that follows the fortunes of a minor league baseball team in Durham, North Carolina. In other words, it’s a movie about sports. For anyone who doesn’t know, full disclosure: I know almost nothing about athletics (witness: the time I asked the distance of the Dublin marathon, not understanding that all marathons are the same length). I find them hard to watch – the tussle enacted on the field/court/pitch and the chest-thumping territorialism that is inherent when one team confronts another. For me, all sports are like the mimes-playing-tennis scene in Antonioni’s Blow Up—an absurdist exertion, another way to blot out our allotted time on Earth. I hold this opinion steadfastly, but with a secret fear that I’m utterly incorrect; pastimes are admittedly a question of taste.

Baseball, with its slouchy pajama uniforms and endless stretches of inactivity can be a baffling subject of fervor. It’s one of the most cherished subjects for film—maybe it’s because baseball is synecdoche for an American ethos, or maybe because the geography of the game, the diamond itself, is so photogenic. I’m sure some people can enjoy Bull Durham for its insights—its dialogue is rife with allusions, trivia and superstitions linked to the sport. The film is populated with baseball figures, and its story is in some way derived from real life athletes (Crash Davis, one of the heroes, was a minor league player). Somehow, though, writer-director Ron Shelton has linked the love of the game with other kinds of transcendence: sex, religion and romantic love. And the best reason to watch Shelton’s baseball comedy is for what it has to tell us about the human condition.

The movie is not, in fact, about the allegiance of a team; rather, it considers the collection of men and women who are united in the glorification of the sport. As team members, players accept that they are chess pieces, swapped according to their utility—their personal ambition is foremost to stay in the game. Those that manage it can continue the childlike gift of play as vocation. But success in the field is a result of a cocktail of god-given gifts and disciplined application: talent combined with canny observation and emotional toughness, reverence for the game matched by unswerving dedication. The players are warriors, but they are also poets. This mix of control and wonder make the activity hallowed and ennobling. And the sport can never disappoint, since human error is an integral part of its narrative, which begins with promise and culminates with vindication or failure.

Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who teaches beginning composition at a local junior college, is a baseball fan in the way that Penny Lane is a music enthusiast in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Annie is a kind of high priestess and a groupie. For the provincial Durham Bulls, she is legend: each season, she selects a player and teams up with him—the bargain is that she has a lover, and in return the player receives the envy of his teammates and the attention of a mistress who likes light bondage, canonical poetry and game time strategy.

At the start of this particular season, Annie finds two likely options as paramour. Ebbie Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is a hot-headed young pitcher with major league promise; Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is a world-weary catcher who is hired to train the rookie. “Crash is really different,” a friend tells Annie. “I actually saw him read a book without pictures.” Since Annie loves words as much as she loves sport, the attraction between her and Crash is matter-of-course.

“Does anyone choose anyone?” Annie asks, after she brings both men home to her place for a kind of orientation. “Nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other. I mean, it’s all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing.” Her locutions bring a nice kind of kismet to how people come together and what keeps them apart. But watching these characters, we can see that they (like all of us) get in their own way; their successes or failures have much more to do with internal handicaps and flawed belief systems.

Annie uses her theories like a stun gun—she immobilizes men who will “listen to anything if they think it’s foreplay.” But what’s an overeducated woman doing fishing for men in the minor leagues? LaLoosh listens to Annie talk quantum physics of the heart like it’s a foreign language. He’s waiting to see if anyone’s going to fuck (his language). The great thing about LaLoosh is his openness—he’ll accept anything from Annie. The detriment is that he misses all of the nuance.

Crash, on the other hand, can match Annie word for word. “I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap,” he begins his manifesto. Crash likes to give speeches; they both do. Their beliefs are not a one-to-one match, but complementary. Annie’s principles are electric because they’re eccentric and amusing and thoroughly thought-out. Crash’s are impassioned, direct, urgent.

What’s interesting is that, despite her obvious chemistry with Crash, Annie persists in staying with impetuous LaLoosh, whom she catchily nicknames “Nuke.” Maybe Crash pegs her correctly when he tells Nuke, “Annie’s only with you because she can boss you around.” And maybe Annie is rightfully wary of a man who insults her when she doesn’t immediately throw over Nuke for him. “I know women like you,” Crash spits it out like an insult, not willing to linger in hopes of Annie’s interest. “After 12 years in the minor league, I don’t try out.”

These gorgeous fantasists are lonely but not alone, although it’s also clear neither of them is an easy mate. Crash has a temper and a chip on his shoulder. Not too many athletes are sophisticated enough to parse Annie’s goofy New-Age spiritualism and continental bordello chic (just before they break up, Nuke pounds on Annie’s door saying, “I know you’re in there. I hear that crazy Mexican singer” about her Edith Piaf records). Still, they circle each other. There’s intrigue in meeting an equal; but there’s fear in that meeting and safety maintaining an imbalance of power.

It takes a spiritual crisis to bring them together. Crash has an easy smirk when he’s confronted with the puppy-faced arrogance of Nuke—Crash can anticipate the rookie’s every thought. But the older player is less sanguine when confronted with Nuke’s athletic gifts. Crash is trying to make a living in the most poetic way; according to his dreams. His curse is to have enough brains to get to the major leagues, but not quite enough talent to stay there.

Failures are the milestones of maturity. We can treasure the potentiality of youth, even if we smile at its ignorance. The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness, Annie remarks wryly. But Bull Durham also shows us what we should love about growing older—how external and internal circumstance define possibility, and increase pressure to use time most preciously.

When Nuke is called up to pitch in the major leagues, the movie culminates as it should—the circumstances of the movie’s dramatic questions change. Nuke makes it to the show; Crash is left with the aching knowledge that he groomed Nuke for a hero’s journey that he himself won’t make. Crash can’t find joy in the young man’s success; he incites a fist-fight which they both regret. “Sometimes I like to howl at the moon, you know what I mean?” Crash asks, to Nuke’s incomprehension. Nuke is too young to be parsed; he hasn’t yet glimpsed his own limitations. “You will [know],” Crash warns him.

Equally, Annie wrestles with her shortcomings. She is philosophical about unsatisfactory romances: women are “strong and powerful creatures,” and bad trades are an invariable part of the baseball season. Her character proceeds from Sarandon’s life in pictures up to that point: from the soft core camp in genre pictures like Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) andThe Hunger (1983) to her dramatic work in Pretty Baby (1978) and Atlantic City (1980). Sarandon’s cartoonishly prominent eyes and stick figure limbs always made her a kind of Betty Boop; here, age manages to make her more attractive because of her knowingness and accountability.

Indeed, the movie works best because of its surprises. Kevin Costner is best suited to a character who’s a failure rather than a savior. He’s so much better when he’s not allowed to take himself seriously, or when that tendency is used for comedic purposes. His voice rests in a natural monotone, but he has a nice sense of irony.

What does all this have to do with love? In a high definition world, there are glossy pairings of actors, but is there desire? I suppose entertainment allows us a kind of surrogate sexuality, what it would be like to be intimate with this or that example of human perfection. But what movies are better at is not a glossy view of physical perfection but the portrayal of emotion conveyed through flesh.

Bull Durham has created two people who are perfect for each other; has kept them apart for reasons that seem arbitrary but in fact are essential to their natures. And when they come together, it is delectable. Annie is Southern belle by way of Anaïs Nin. She needs an erotic and spiritual equal.

“I hit my dinger and hung ‘em up,” Crash explains to Annie, after he discretely surpasses a minor league record and then parts ways with life as a player.

“I quit, too. Boys, not baseball,” Annie replies.

“Do you think I could make it to the show as a manager?”

“I think you’d be great…great,” she says.

You look for religion when you’re in a crisis; when an old belief system has failed. Baseball is the source of the characters’ strength and wisdom, the structure for their days and nights. Annie’s and Crash’s lives are on a timer, and their methods of getting by will run out at some undetermined moment when they are no longer needed—when Annie is no longer desirable and when Crash is no longer valuable as a player. The serendipity of the pairing is that both recognize that they need to retire from these lives at exactly the right moment— when they’ve found their perfect match for a new idea of the future. They make second chances look better than first love.


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.


Habitual Emotion

by Christopher Fraser

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I have often found men my age to be hard to tolerate.

I say this as someone who went to a nice school, and then a nice university, in a nice city, populated mostly by nice people. At the age of twenty, I lived in a house with five other men, and we all got on fine. There were no slanging matches, or brawls, or quiet hostilities; in fact, it might have been just what I needed around that time.

Nevertheless, though, there was an attitude towards women that I found hard to parse. There was a level of casual objectification—never portrayed in an unpleasant manner, almost always appreciative—that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. It wasn’t that personalities didn’t matter, exactly; it was more that things like boobs and butts absolutely did. There was a grudging acknowledgement that yes, these creatures did have inner lives of their own, but that talking about those things was a downer – or, god forbid, could signify that the speaker might be a little bit gay.

The titular character of Don Jon is nothing like those old housemates. He is a muscular, strutting ape of a man, quick to dismiss women with opinions as “bitches,” thinking nothing of rating women in nightclubs on a numerical scale. Jon is a man for whom the phrase “on the prowl” was invented. Oh, and he has a porn addiction. Probably.

I say “probably” because this film takes the bold step of centering the narrative on the character least equipped to articulate his feelings; even during the voiceovers that pepper the film, there’s a bro-ish frankness that requires the viewer to piece together what’s really going on. From the first beat, we’re introduced to Jon’s porn routine, in explicit detail; when he talks about why he finds it so thrilling, though, he’s nearly lost for words. He describes it as losing himself, a time where he can tune out from the rest of the world—a peculiar framing of absence, rather than the presence of anything in particular. We witness the same visual beats as he does, in flashes so brief that they provide empty titillation; a direct shot of arousal without navigating any of the complexity you might find with another human.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars and directs, and the film is aggressively centered on his character throughout. Once his routine has been established—a blind and brash dedication to his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and, above all, his porn—in come the elements intent on messing with that routine, forcing him to question his dependence on the steady beats to which his life thumps along.

In the Don Juan myth, the protagonist’s predilection for womanizing and violence meets with calamitous results, and his total refusal to repent ends in his eternal damnation. Popular interpretation casts the story as not just a lesson in humility, but also a finger-wagging promotion of chastity, and it’s on this point in particular that Don Jon evolves considerably. Without spoiling too much, Jon’s bad boy makes good by the end of the ninety-minute running time, but there aren’t any huge, teary confessionals—in fact, the film takes a rather dim view of these, turning Jon’s Catholic remorse into yet another routine. And while there is a certain degree of moralizing at the film’s core, it centers on a specific attitude around sex, not the act of sex itself.

I don’t think Don Jon is anti-porn either, much in the same way that I don’t think Leaving Las Vegas is anti-alcohol. Instead, Don Jon shows the pathology of addiction around a substance that is rarely conceded as addictive in the first place. It asks questions about what happens when a world that incorporates the softcore into every facet of society starts affecting the psychology of young men, and begins to come up with some answers.

The casting of the women gives me pause, and at first glance represents the closest this film gets to its romantic comedy trappings. Yes, the first woman Jon finds himself drawn to is played by International Sex Symbol Scarlett Johansson, and she eventually finds herself followed by Recognizable Nuanced Female Julianne Moore, but the film at least makes an attempt to subvert these stereotypes. Johansson is given the typical (and deliberate) male gaze that follows her wherever she goes, but she’s also portrayed as someone with her own inner life, albeit one that follows just as many unrealistic expectations as Jon’s.

Moore, on the other hand, has all the wisdom in the world, and fulfils the stereotype of leading the male protagonist toward a more worthwhile existence. But she does so in a way that lays bare her own insecurities—it is the scenes in which she appears where Jon is at his quietest.

Jon fumbles his way in the dark, guided at first by his libido and second by morbid curiosity—a broken relationship and a new woman (as these things often go) lead him to reassess his priorities in a way that feels less about drama and more about a glimmer of self-awareness. Beneath the cozy routines is a very angry young man, and it only takes a few things falling out of alignment to bring that anger forward. Don Jon has no illusions about its points of tension—for the protagonist to look critically at his hunger for a quick fix, he first needs to be forcibly taken out of his addictive cycles.

After at least an hour of exposed breasts and dozens of orgasms, the single most erotic scene in Don Jon plays out with both actors partially clothed, with no distractions, portrayed as simply as possible. By the last few minutes, the performance of Jon’s life seems to be stripped away.

That, ultimately, is what lies at the heart of this film. Don Jon forces the viewer to acknowledge that both pornography and cinema are performative in nature, and that using either to learn about anything other than the basic anatomy of sex is a misguided venture. It shines less of a light on porn and romantic comedies, and more on the backdrop they are against—one where frank discussions of sex and intimacy are still painfully taboo in many circles, particularly among young men.

There’s one scene, about halfway through, where Jon and his family sit down to dinner. In the background, a huge television blares sports, and cuts to a commercial for Carl’s Jr., a fast-food restaurant. In the commercial, a glistening woman with an hourglass figure and a barely-there bikini eats a burger in slow-motion. The camera zooms in on her lips as she bites into the burger, while soft rock plays in the background.

It’s utterly absurd when the film shows it (in its entirety), because it’s intercut with the dead-eyed, slack-jawed expressions of Jon and his father (played by Tony Danza), while his sister (Brie Larson) and mother (Glenne Headly) look increasingly awkward. We’re made to witness the male gaze twice, and it’s that second round—the one where two sweaty loudmouths are rendered silent and stupid—that really hits home. This film has something to say about love—in that sense it can still be called a romantic comedy—but the more impressive feat it achieves is exposing the background noise of every viewer’s life and questioning how innocuous it actually is.

Don Jon has been compared to (500) Days of Summer, presumably for the fact that both are unconventional romantic comedies starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Beyond that, though, these films are powerfully different. Most romantic comedies start out with men who are all smiles and charm, but who see women as objects of conquest until the credits roll; Don Jonbucks that trend by making its protagonist initially odious, and using the women to force him to humanize and respect the people around him by the last scene. It threatens to make those watching it—especially young men, but really everyone—think critically for once.


Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.


Hello, I Must Be Growing

by Tess McGeer

illustration by Betsy Dye

illustration by Betsy Dye

In the very first moments of Todd Louiso’s Hello I Must Be Going there is a close-up on Melanie Lynskey’s eyes where they are so dark as to look pupil-less, or all pupil, a void left wide open and swallowing her world whole. Striking and doleful, this long-lashed gaze is the only part of her lethargy that retains any sort of prettiness. Her character, Amy, is fully in tatters—fully frozen inside a life she never meant to have. A reluctant divorcee with no career prospects to speak of, Amy is hiding out inside her parents plush Connecticut home (literally, she has not left it in three months) less to lick her wounds than to luxuriate in them. The film is her rebirth story, one that suggests she was never really much alive to begin with.

Melanie Lynskey makes a very winning loser. She fills Amy with a kind of quiet earnestness that keeps this moping mess of a lead from ever becoming too loathsome. Amy begins the film raw and helpless at the hands of her own fear, her shame; she shuffles and sighs and seems scared even in this lazy slow motion, an adult woman wrapped in dirty t-shirts and bruised feelings and sleeping all day. She’s bathed in the kind of pain that you don’t want to look at—so easy to recognize, so easy to remember all the holes in yourself. The hurt of what was done to you by someone else and the greater hurt of having let them; this throbbing ego, weak and stinging now. Amy, sweating in a clothing store and shrinking down inside herself before a high school classmate, a tenderness we find obscene while knowing the taste entirely. But her dark eyes are commanding even as they’re flickering nervous or hanging wide like a startled deer, a sadness that’s never made glamorous but still retains a certain ability to compel. The change Amy undergoes in the course of the movie can be mapped just by watching the way her gaze begins to settle and intensify, a metaphorical light sputtering back on behind her eyes.

Amy meets a boy. A boy-boy. Jeremy. He’s nineteen. It’s the dude who dumped Brian Williams’ daughter on Girls (otherwise known as Christopher Abbott), here with shorter hair and looking incredibly, dew-drippingly young. They meet at a dinner party in service of her father’s business. Her father is an aging lawyer who needs to seal one last big deal with an important client—a man named Larry with neat hair and a low throaty laugh to prove he’s moneyed—before he can retire and pass the business on to Amy’s eager brother, and finally take her mother (Blythe Danner, excellent in a beleaguered, pecking-hen role) on the trip around the world she’s been planning in vain for years. The trip has been titled “Gallivanting Around the Globe.” Late at night, over a Marx Brothers movie, Amy asks, “It has a name?” and, with an eye roll in his voice, her father says, “Oh, all the best trips do.” It’s a small moment that goes far toward establishing the ways in which their father-daughter closeness takes its root in a distancing from the mother they both find alternately cold and silly.

At dinner, sharp words here and there eventually send Amy running from the table and Jeremy, the client’s stepson, follows. Jeremy is an actor, the reluctant star of a popular children’s television show who is now making his mark in Serious New York Theater. He is also pretending to be gay, due to a misunderstanding which occurred while he was playing Robert Mapplethorpe, one he failed to correct, knowing how his psychologist mother “likes to be accepting.” This detail is unimportant except to color him in with shades both soft and suggestible. Amy and Jeremy are both uncomfortable with their families. They say nothing, they kiss.

A sweet and stunted little affair ensues. They have sex in Amy’s mother’s car, parked at the beach while rain pours outside. They smoke weed and Jeremy complains that he hates acting. Amy cringes at the sight of legos and baseball sheets in the bedroom Jeremy hasn’t occupied since he was twelve. She tells her family she has gone on anti-depressants and then skinny dips with a teenager instead.

Jeremy is a perfect caricature of that hushed, fleecy boy known to anybody who has spent even a single weekend at a liberal arts college, and Christopher Abbott has the cherubic good looks to pull it all off perfectly—chewed lips and round eyes, smiling shyly. He listens and cares when she tells him about her life, about her abandoned photography, about her marriage, about how she had been happy, about how she never saw it coming, the end. Amy needs to say these words aloud so that later she can see that they aren’t the truth. He is gently enamored with her and she quickly blossoms under his sugary attentions as the summer beats on; naked together they make plans to run away, plans that quite obviously will never come to fruition. It’s the kind of talk that is only ever words and useful only as a kind of warmth, a heady gift of imaginary love. And in this way, their eventual parting helps Amy out far more than their time together ever did. When Jeremy’s mother arrives home early from a trip to the city (“Uh, there was an understudy for Patti LuPone, so, we decided not to stay. We wanted to see Patti.”) to find Amy and her son playing naked in the pool, Amy bolts. That night Jeremy rides his bike to Amy’s house, tossing rocks at her window—all of it so achingly adolescent—and she lashes out at him with an embarrassment about the entire ordeal that is understandable, if also unkind.

Amy was all fragile edges after no longer being wanted by the man she thought would be the center of her life forever. Before Jeremy, she couldn’t see that this want had never done her a single favor anyway, that it wasn’t evenreally wanting, not the kind that comes from inside your bones and that matters. Tolerance, maybe. Her memories of her marriage are memories of services performed for an important husband—giving parties and entertaining guests—and piece-by-piece it becomes clearer and clearer that this thing, which she mourned so heavily on her parents’ couch, was actually the very force that broke and stole and misloved the girl she used to be (or could have been).

At a lunch in the city, Amy wears a black suit and faces the man who left her, with a spine that is new, or healed at least. He checks his phone. He looks at her like she’s a broken toy. He says, when pressed, that the reason he ended their marriage was that he knew exactly what his life was going to be like every single day until he died if he stayed with her. He mentions this casually like it isn’t something awful, and then adds, “but we were great friends, right? That was great.” Amy sits across from him and the new resolve in her eyes is unmistakable. She looks puzzled, almost, as to how this was ever something she thought she would miss.

“It’s okay. It’s– I’m not sad. I’m not sad, I just don’t feel like seeing you. Because, I feel bad about myself when I’m with you. I feel really bad, and I always have, but I didn’t know it. I was just so used to it. And, I think, I just thought that was being alive. To always feel bad and wrong and, just, insecure, and invisible. So, thank you. Thank you for ending our marriage, David. I really mean it, because I wasn’t happy with you, and I would’ve never ended it myself.”

Here so small a victory, and, still, a victory that hit me with a force I never would have expected, watching the movie half-sleepily and suddenly exhilarated, almost clapping in my bed. This is a credit to Lynskey’s performance, but also to the script by Sarah Koskoff. Together, the two allow for an awakening in Amy that is as subtle as it is stunning, and in this way so very real. So true to the path of human growth, sputtering slowly with spinning wheels and then speeding forward all at once, starts and stops and leg flying over leg, like being powered by a force beyond the self that is, in the end, a force entirely of the self. Fumbling on colt-limbs and then racing, we find a way forward, feeling, while going, a sense of surprise. Amy unlocks her own potential simply by realizing that it’s there.

The most affecting parts of the film are a pair of scenes between Lynskey and Danner. In the first, they fight. Amy stumbles into the house drunk and breaks a sculpture that her mother has, of late, focused all of her energy into acquiring. The dynamic between these two characters is nothing revolutionary, but Lynskey and Danner manage to feel magnetic together in these small moments: the daughter feeling judged and poorly loved, the mother feeling unappreciated and ignored. So clearly two halves of a whole, but numb to it and bent on banging.

At the end of the film, Amy finds her mother crying as she sorts her jewelry box. Her father isn’t retiring after all—he never was, and Danner appears thawed just barely by the burn of this disappointment. This new Amy—her fists wrapped tight around something odd and thrilling called self-worth—can now see her mother in a way she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) before, back when she was too busy making her a villain.

Mother and daughter will go on the trip together, of course. Amy will take pictures of her mother standing beside rivers and they will, neither of them, be ignored. Symmetrical sadnesses and a strong current to wash them away, gallivanting girls.

It’s near autumn and dark outside when Amy tells Jeremy that he taught her what it was to be loved, the two of them standing close once more in a lonely recess of her parents’ house. Jeremy is wearing a jacket with no tie, so much the boy he seems to be. Sheepish there in shadows, Oberlin-bound, looking at his feet, he says to her, “that was a good thing to say.”

And he’s right.


Tess McGeer wrote the screenplay for a teen vampire comedy as her major senior project last year. Unbelievably, the degree this earned has not translated to a slew of lucrative job opportunities. It’s okay, though, because her childhood bedroom in Massachusetts is as good a place as any to re-read Judy Blume books and shop for nail polish online.


Be Fair to Love

by Neil Fox

illustration by Paul Nabuurs

illustration by Paul Nabuurs

Didier sings songs of faith with his entire physical being, but he doesn’t always have faith.

He doesn’t believe in God, religion or the afterlife; he’s just as frustrated with evolution, angrily bemoaning how birds have not passed the danger of windows down to successive generations. He has beauty in his life, but at times it overwhelms him; its presence reminds him that life is also about its absence. Sometimes he can’t bear it. Elise, his beautiful wife, knows all this, too—but she has some faith, and puts her stall in it. Perhaps, though, the purpose of having faith is to have it tested.

When Elise tells him she is pregnant, Didier’s response is: “Maybe I don’t want that.” It’s a familiar moment, a familiar retort from the bowels of a male ego—and Didier is gone, fleeing the responsibility.

When he returns he is armed with decorating supplies and a comrade, ready to turn his dilapidated house into a family home. He has changed his mind, his initial emotion subsided, and he makes a decision: believe in something else. Let love carry you. Have some faith.

Is Didier rewarded? It’s hard to say. His faith in love is certainly tested. In The Broken Circle Breakdown, love doesn’t necessarily survive. Because sometimes, the film seems to say, it can’t.

*

Elise was searching for herself—for happiness, for contentment—until she found Didier, and could finally stop searching. She grows to feel safe in the life that they lead and the music that they play.

Didier, meanwhile, is besotted by American mythology, obsessed by the very concept of America. He has a pickup truck and an encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous music – particularly bluegrass. He’s got wild horses and a caravan full of cowboy paraphernalia.

When Didier and Elise are naked, or when their bluegrass band plays, or when their daughter, Maybelle, is jumping up and down on the bed, it’s perfect. It’s so utterly perfect.

Why does real life always have to get in the way?

*

Maybe my wife did leave me because she fell out of love, and it was that simple.

Maybe it was a mistake I’d made, something that hurt her, affected her so much that she no longer saw me as that same person she once fell in love with.

Maybe love fled in that moment, in the form of the man I was before my errors of judgment.

*

I wonder if we destroy others’ belief systems because of an ultimate lack of faith in our own? Surely love is too fragile a thing to survive such a war.

Elise and Didier’s marriage is not one that shrinks after the arrival of their child. It remains a passionately physical relationship, challenging the conventional wisdom that sexual chemistry necessarily dwindles after marriage and kids. It’s a love that remains potent from its first moments until their daughter’s final moments–final moments that come far too soon, when Maybelle, only six years old, loses her battle with cancer.

And then it’s gone. They know it’s gone and they know they can’t get it back because they can’t get Maybelle back. So while the film disrupts one common notion—that time and children tear down physical intimacy—it simultaneously reinforces another—that the death of a child often leads to marital separation. And it’s in this constant push pull of the familiar and the specific, the mythical and the real, that the film holds most power over me.

*

Yes, my situation is nearly the same as anyone else’s. Separation and divorce are not uncommon. But at the same time, my experience is utterly unique in the strange way that love—and the end of love—almost always is.

*

Ultimately The Broken Circle Breakdown feels like a film about belief systems, of which love is one. It highlights how we build our relationships with others through the use of abstract concepts (concepts we often need just in order to cope with life), how we imbue these relationships with more responsibility than they can take, and how we don’t know what to do when they buckle under all this weight. Didier and Elise both gloss over their pain and grief and, slowly, the (I want to…), becomes simply: fuck you.

The film places the beautiful right alongside the brutal and ultimately makes a statement about acceptance. Acceptance that your belief system is just that: your belief. Acceptance that we can’t control love any more than we can control whom we love. Acceptance that we cannot control other people, that we can only try to control ourselves. And acceptance that, as T.S. Eliot said, there is only the trying; the rest is not our business.

In the end, all of Didier’s and Elise’s belief systems betray them except for one: music. America, Love, Life and Faith all come up short, but Music remains—to heal, to comfort, to shine a light on the path toward acceptance.

*

The Broken Circle Breakdown is based on a play of the same name—written by Johan Heldenbergh (the actor who plays Didier) and Mieke Dobbels—and the creative team behind this adaptation plays around with time to extraordinary effect, creating jarring juxtapositions and parallels. The film plays out like memory: jumping between the good and the bad, the sexy and the shattering—everything is jumbled together.

Marcus Aurelius tells us to “limit time to the present,” but how could you not sometimes get stuck like a scratch in a vinyl groove, in an eternal moment from the past? Like the fraction of time when Maybelle was there, before that infinity when she was not. As Didier and Elise move beyond that moment, their own hope for recovery quietly fades away. Elise covers up his tattooed name on her body.

As they slip from each other for the final time, the film cuts to a scene in the hospital, before Maybelle dies. She asks her Daddy to tell her again about the stars. With an aching heart, he does. What is a star?

A sun that is a very, very long way away. And its light has to travel a long way for a long time to reach your eyes. Sometimes it’s possible that the little star has already gone out before the light reaches your eyes. So you see something that is no longer there. But that doesn’t matter, because the light from a little star like that carries on travelling, past your eyes. Further and further. So that little star will exist forever. Forever and ever and ever.

*

I’m proud of how I came through the end of my love, though the death in this case was merely symbolic. I still see the light shining, but I know that the source has burned out. All I can do now is marvel at the wonder and look for a new star, a new sun.

I choose to go again. I choose to accept that the next love might not last, that it might not work out. It won’t betray me because it promises me nothing. Love is not marriage. (It might be. It might not.) I will take the risk because it is too beautiful, too wondrous, and too rewarding to not go after utterly and completely. I accept my part in it.

I accept that I can’t control it.

*

As the tragedy of unfolded events becomes potentially too much to bear in The Broken Circle Breakdown, the band strikes up, and the pain is eased somewhat. Hope glimmers for Didier, and the music transmits that hope to all us kindred souls. For me, it’s the most moving performance of the film, alongside the somber and elegiac a capella rendition of “Go to Sleep You Little Babe” at Maybelle’s rain drenched graveside. Like every other emotional cue in the movie, the music feels truthful, vital and necessary.

*

I know I made big mistakes with my heart in the right place, thinking what I was doing was for us. Mistakes that ultimately might have led to our love moving beyond repair. Whatever the cause, it didn’t survive. Our marriage never reached‘til death us do part. And, since last May, some of my beliefs about love and marriage have changed. Our love lasted as long as it was meant to last.

When I look back now, I have no doubts, no anger, no remorse for what I did or didn’t do.

And now here I am, at the outset of a new and beautiful love, trying not to second-guess things. Trying not to be the person that made those past mistakes. Like Didier, as he comes to terms with all that has passed and decides to keep on playing—to strike up the band—I’ve picked up my own metaphorical banjo, and I strum again.

From the top, boys.


Neil Fox is a screenwriter, critic, and academic who lives and works by the sea in Cornwall, UK. He walks his dog, swims in the sea, drinks vats of coffee and can’t stop listening to the new Sun Kil Moon album.


6 Sonnets for Bright Star

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I Know Girls Like Fanny Brawne

I knew I loved Fanny from the moment
I saw her: girl of yellows and bright reds.
The world a stupid game, filled with token
idiots wearing heavy, plaid-strewn threads.
Dances are dances, parties a big waste
of time. She goes, of course, it’s expected.
At the end of the night, she leaves with haste:
her hair pulled back, her ego protected.
Watch out for her. Fanny does laugh, laughs hard.
But when she feels rage (and oh, does she), would
you step aside or risk being left scarred?
I know such fierce girls like Fanny Brawne:
chew their bottom lip, leaving the skin raw.

Fanny Wants a Knife

Run down to the kitchen, sweet little girl
and fetch a knife because Fanny is through
with this pathetic life. Young thing, curl
your fingers around the handle and do
not fear. This is for Fanny’s own good. Bring
the knife, walk it up the stairs, slowly and
pointed face down. Big knives are heavier
than you think, they pull your whole tiny hand
to the floor. Drop to your knees. Fanny cries—
hide the knife behind your back—and clutches
your shoulders. With each eager sob, she dies
a little more. She holds your hand, touches
your face. She no longer needs the big knife,
but my god, is it hard to be alive.

What You Actually Should Know about Poetry

It is more of a machine than you think—
sit, write, think, scrap, and so on. A science?
Barely. Poems don’t end, Fanny. But ink
runs out, readers get bored. It’s defiance,
if anything, a form of blunt protest
against all that hurts us (though mostly love).
The work is best when you write what you guess.
In the end, we are all unworthy of
poetry, so don’t let it hold you back.
Take the books, Fanny, I give them to you.
Pile them up against the wall, let the black
covers grow dusty with the seasons. You do
not have to read them, but you can pretend
to understand their words, what was once penned.

One Last Sonnet for Butterflies

There is a dull scrape of wings against wood
as Mother sweeps up what’s left of this spring.
Splinters slice through oranges and blues. Could
never keep the floor clean. Fanny just thought
they’d brighten the place up. Butterflies won’t
simply die, you know. They crumble and rot.
She is an undertaker, clearing bones.
Pick up the butterfly corpses, then lunch.
(In a college workshop, I was once told:
“Don’t write a poem about butterflies.
There is nothing left to say. It’s too old
of a subject. It’s anything but wise.”
It’s not wrong, but those butterflies lay strewn
across the bedroom won’t leave my sight soon.)

For the Man in the Garden

You pick flowers early in the morning:
posies and daisies, a few violets.
You find him by accident. No warning
of him beneath the bush. He’s not dead yet,
but he might as well be. He fell asleep
on the grass. At ground level, everything
above you looks like a star. Sickness deep
within him, his breath is so thick, it stings
his lungs. Pick him up, pick him up. So ill—
and yet his eyes glow nonetheless. His death
will come soon, but, shush, don’t tell him. He still
hopes (or so we think). Under baby’s breath
he thinks he’s resting, not dying. Pull him
out of the garden before the light dims.

Bright Star (2009)

I don’t mean to discount the tragedy
of this film, but it didn’t make me cry.
There’s death, dying, enough brutality
for a lifetime. No tears, just heavy sighs.
Call me heartless, unsentimental but
I refuse to watch a girl cry one tear
standing at a cold window. No, just cut
to rage, ugly gasps—fists shake in raw fear
at the foot of a staircase. In poems,
we learn to know ourselves through others’ work.
In films, we see ourselves down to the bone,
and turn it off. Walk away, changed and irked.
I did not cry but I did shake and breathe
as the credits rolled, as the story ceased.


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


Film's Best Friend

by Elisabeth Geier

To start, an understatement: human relationships are full of ups and downs. You can never know exactly what your partner is thinking, and no matter how close your bond, humans be humans: moods shift, conflicts arise, affections stray. With dogs, it’s a whole lot easier. You can never know exactly what your dog is thinking, but assuming he’s a good boy—oh yes he is, what a good, good boy—you know what you get: loyalty, affection, and long-term commitment.

I took a workshop with the poet Eileen Myles a few years back and produced a string of essays about dogs I’ve known. They were well-received by my peers, but in conference, I told Eileen I wasn’t sure the dog stuff “counted” because it was too easy to write. I wondered if writing should be more of a struggle. Eileen disagreed. “Maybe the easy stuff is what you’re supposed to do,” she said.

Eileen Myles knows from dogs. From her Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, in a passage about watching her dog Rosie take a shit:

"When you love something–someone you become attuned to their ‘invisible’ or maybe it’s faint. There’s the faintest adjusting of the butt. The muscles surrounding. She holds. 
“It’s when I see the world. My dog arching about to dump a load is the lens."

For those of us who understand what it is to know and love a dog, this makes perfect sense. There is something miraculous about the dog’s interaction with the world, driven by instinct and biological need, often in direct conflict with our socialized, sterilized lives. To watch them exist, and be part of their existence, makes us pay closer attention to the world. There is intimacy in handling another creature’s excrement.

Film rarely addresses the baser aspects of animal companionship; when I polled my friends for memorable movie dogs, the most common answers were Benji, Old Yeller, or the gang from Homeward Bound. These are noteworthy canines, touchstones for a particular kind of movie manipulation (read: tears), but they’re a bit too sappy for my taste. I’m interested in something deeper, something that may seem silly or overwrought to people who don’t have animals in their lives. I’m talking silver screen love stories between human beings and their dogs, the deep connection that makes holding a baggie full of shit an act of love. What follows are not necessarily the most famous or most lauded dogs on film, but a few of my personal favorites, the human-dog relationships that ring most true.

Spoiler alert: the dog dies.

Maybe not on film, maybe not immediately after the credits roll, but always, eventually, the dog will die. That’s the thing about falling in love with a creature with a creature whose lifespan is 1/8th our own. We always know how this story is going to end.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Summer School (1987, Dir. Carl Reiner)

Summer School stars Mark Harmon as a Mr. Shoop, a high school substitute tasked with a summer class of burnouts, wasteoids, and a pregnant Courtney Thorne-Smith. Wonder Mutt is his best friend, a Basic Brown Dog who eats peanut butter out of the jar and carries a dirty old doll head in his mouth at all times. Shoop and Wonder Mutt exemplify the easy compatibility of a dude and his dog. Wonder Mutt accompanies Shoop on long, reflective walks on the beach. He cuddles with him on the couch after a long day at school. He’s a steadfast companion through the long, crazy summer. In the final scene, Mr. Shoop gets the girl (Kirstie Allie in her prime) and kisses her passionately on the beach. Wonder Mutt is there, of course, and as the couple writhes, he bounds over, drops his dirty doll head in the sand, and gets in on the action. The final shot is of Shoop breaking away from his human love to kiss Wonder Mutt square on the lips. Now that’s true love.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Turner and Hooch (1989, Dir. Roger Spottiswoode)

Tom Hanks and a hulking French Mastiff take on organized crime, and only one of them survives. Guess which one. The depiction of Hooch throughout the film is sensual, near-pornographic, all bulging eyes and quivering jowls slick with saliva. Hanks’s Turner is a man unaccustomed to dogs who treats him callously at first. As in all great rom-com relationships, theirs starts with a meet cute: Turner flat on his back in a junkyard, Hooch’s jaws around his neck. Miscommunication and bickering ensue, then tenderness, and eventually a passionate embrace. As in most human-dog relationships, man outlives beast and is forever changed as a result. (Hanks revisited the human-dog bond to lesser effect with a Golden Retriever named Brinkley in You’ve Got Mail).

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2001)

Royal Tenenbaum is a man incapable of selfless love, and his relationship with Buckley the Beagle speaks to the darker side of the human-dog bond: dominion. Royal tells Buckley to sit, and Buckley obeys. Royal commands without compunction, which drives a wedge between him and his family members, who have to confront their scheming, callous father. Loyal Buckley can only obey. Though there is redemption for the humans in the end, what redemption for Buckley? Crushed in Eli Cash’s mescaline-fueled joyride and instantly replaced by a firehouse Dalmation conned right off the truck. Wes Anderson’s track record with dogs is not great; consider beautiful, doomed Snoopy, killed by an arrow in Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson is likely not a dog person in real life, but in movies, he shows us something true: the good, loyal dog who lives to serve and dies betrayed.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Beginners (2010, Dir. Mike Nichols)

This is a movie about falling in love and losing your parents and learning to be a better person and more. Ewan Macgregor inherits a little dog from his father (Christopher Plummer), whose death anchors the film. The dog moves in with the grieving son and gives him a reason to leave the house. He cocks his head perfectly and says things (in subtitle) like, “Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now.” His words are projections of Macgregor’s character, of course; the dog allows him to name his despair. Dog as therapist. Dog as conduit for the emotions we try to hide. Dog as reflection of what we sad and lonely humans need. When the late father’s lover, a man Macgregor has kept distant in his grief, is reunited with the dog late in the film, he buries his face in its wiry coat and cries. The dog connects him to his dead lover, to a vital part of himself. He finds memory, grief, and healing, all in the warm and able body of a hyper-intelligent dog.

I admit it: I romanticize dogs. It is too easy to project my fallible human emotions all over their animal lives. I have two of my own, Ralph the Girl (a discerning intellectual) and Radar (a blustering buffoon), and together they are the loves of my life. It’s not a substitute for human love, but sometimes it feels just as big. I picture our life together in montage: walking merrily through the rain; jogging slowly on a sunny day; a gang of three, bound by leashes and everything else. Ours is a love affair of cinematic proportion. The eyes water, the heart surges, the music swells. In this world of shit, I am grateful to hold theirs in my hand.

Eileen Myles on watching Rosie run free in the woods: “The dog was still the poet I wanted to be.”


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