We are now officially accepting unsolicited pitches for the December issue of the magazine. The theme for the issue is simple: A Movie That Stuck With You in 2013.
We only have 2 spots left open in the magazine, but are certainly willing to consider running additional essays on the site itself if they fit within the theme, are well-written, and feel like something we can use.
If you have any interest in sending us a pitch or an essay for consideration in the December issue, please do so at email@example.com
Dogtooth, Parenting, Home Schooling, and Obedience
by Dan Schindel
I was home schooled for my ninth and tenth grade years. Exiting middle school, my parents didn’t find the local high schools up to snuff. Plus, an education controlled by materials selected entirely by them meant that they could ensure that I learned certain subjects “correctly.” And so I was taught creationism as science, among other inaccuracies.
Being stuck at home day in and day out, with no one but a dog for company, was dreadfully dull, to say the least. During that time, the house became my entire world. That’s often how it is with the home schooled. I can only imagine how much worse it is for kids who spend an entire tutelage in such an environment.
Or is it worse? When one knows nothing else, the world you inhabit is the world you become comfortable with. A human being is the sum of their experiences, after all, and one often determines happiness or unhappiness by comparing what is encountered with what they are already familiar with. To me, having already spent ten years in normal educational institutions, home learning felt insufferable. As someone who had grown up in conservative Christianity, though, I knew many people who lived with no other frame of reference. They didn’t think that anything might be amiss with their experiences until they encountered mainstream culture.
As they felt their influence over the mainstream beginning to diminish, evangelical churches crafted an alternate culture of their own in order to shield their children from the “sins” of the world. Guitar Praise instead of Guitar Hero, October Baby instead of Juno, the entire PAX network. It became another America within America, one that outsiders don’t understand and and are often quick to mock; insiders fearing the outsiders.
But, to an extent, every family does something similar. Each household is its own little world universe. When we are very young, it is the sole environment we know. Family shapes our expectations for all of life to follow. Dogtooth simply takes that phenomenon to its greatest imaginable extreme.
The movie is about a Greek father and mother who have completely isolated their children from the rest of the planet. The two daughters and one son, all in their early twenties, have never stepped foot outside of their house. It is a lavish compound, a large house full of top-line furnishing and appliances, a swimming pool, and a lush garden, surrounded by high walls. Only the father ever leaves, to work. Under the supervision of the mother, the children spend their days performing chores in return for stickers, competing to see who can earn the most.
The only old things in the house are the television, which plays nothing but VHS tapes, and a record player. There is no communication with the outside, save for an old phone the mother keeps hidden. According to the parents, the airplanes flying overhead are toys, and if the children are lucky, one may fall to the ground, in which case the first one to retrieve it can keep it. That is how thoroughly reality is controlled. The very laws of the universe are different to these young people.
The father tells of an older brother who was disobedient, who ventured outside of the house and is now trapped there. According to the rules, a child cannot leave until they “lose their dogtooth.” When a cat ventures into the yard, the children are terrified, having never seen one before. The brother kills it with a pair of pruning shears. Their isolation is total, in the service of ensuring that they never, ever leave. It’s a horrifying vision of the parental protective instinct gone awry. And it’s made even more chilling by the fact that the parents’ motives remain largely unknown to the audience.
There are hints, though. The father rebukes someone by telling them that he hopes their kids, “have bad influences, and develop bad personalities.” Everything, it seems, is in the service of keeping his children “pure.” To him, this manifests as utter obedience. When he plays a record of “Fly Me to the Moon” for the children, he helpfully “translates” Sinatra’s lyrics so that they speak of the love that parents have for their offspring:
“My parents are proud of me /
because I’m doing just fine.
I’m doing just fine /
but I will always try harder.
My house, you are beautiful /
and I love you /
and I will never ever leave you.”
The irony is bitter, given that the actual song is about the exhilaration of freedom. This is how the father and mother control their kids: by making sure the mere idea of an outside world never even enters their heads. Humans are creatures of language. Jean-Pierre Gorin made a documentary, Poto and Cabengo, about two young girls who, having interacted much with the world, developed their own language. Words are how we build our concepts. Identity starts with a label.
In Dogtooth, every label is warped. Here are a few samples of the alternate language that these parents have constructed:
- A “sea” is a comfortable chair. Something from the outside is now something firmly interior.
- A “phone” is a saltshaker. A word for something that links to things beyond the walls instead signifies a tool of the table.
- “Zombies” are little yellow flowers. The dangerous is innocuous.
- A vagina is a “keyboard.” The sexual is functional.
That last example ties into the most sinister aspect of this incarceration. The sexuality of the two daughters is denied, while the father brings in one of his employees to pleasure the son. This is the one way he allows the outside to penetrate this bubble: so that his boy can get off.
The employee is the only character in the film that has a name: Christina. The children know themselves and each other solely in relation to the rest of the family. I am the older sister. That is my father. That is my brother. I am the daughter. Our names are the beginning of our individual identities. But having an identity means that you will define yourself on your own terms, which is something that the father and mother in Dogtooth will simply not permit, for it marks the beginning of a separation, which leads to disobedience.
It’s no mistake that the named character is the one who disrupts this careful arrangement. The elder daughter finagles two videotapes from her: Jaws and Rocky IV. They are the first movies she sees that are not home videos. It is impossible to imagine how a young adult raised in such an alien environment would understand these films, but the effect they have is seismic. For the first time, she acts the way a real child would, playing out scenes from the films. Eventually, she tells her younger sister to call her “Bruce.” Exposure to the outside has made her dissatisfied with her reality.
Christina’s transgression is soon discovered and she is fired. The father attempts to use the elder daughter as a new sex object for the son. This is her final straw. For the first time, she takes her life into her own hands, changing her reality. She “knows” that she won’t survive beyond the walls as long as she has her “dogtooth” so she smashes it out of her mouth with a barbell and makes a break for it. After a taste of the apple, Eve leaves the garden on her own, rather than getting kicked out. The knowledge of good and evil intrigues rather than scares her.
All things considered, what kind of paradise is she in, really?
That “paradise” wasn’t going to last, anyway. There’s no possible way for the father and mother to continue the charade indefinitely. What was going to happen when it came time for them to die? Likely, they would have initiated some kind of murder-suicide, a neat end for their perfect family.
Dogtooth is funny because it’s ridiculous. It’s scary because it’s a few steps away from what some people really do to their children - and the extreme end of what all parents do to their children. Think carefully on what you tell your sons and daughters of things, the words for those things, and the meanings of those words. Reality itself is only what we’ve perceived through biased senses, so the best we can hope for in creating people who can engage with it in a healthy way is to not try and seal them off. The world is messy and ugly, but purity is not the answer – it’s just tidy and ugly.
Dan Schindel lives, writes, and does everything else in Los Angeles. He tweets at @DanSchindel.
Catherine Keeps Me Up At Night.
Of Insomnia and Fairy Tales.
by Cassie Marketos
I try to write a story about something that’s happened every single day. But because I live a quiet life, relatively speaking, this means a lot of corny tales about what I’ve eaten or where I’ve visited or the person’s initials that I’ve hung out with the night before: C. and I had dinner overlooking the canal; red berries and tea. Simple things on a quiet day.
It’s hard to seek refuge in solitude and tell tales at the same time, so I’ve been watching a lot of movies instead. Catherine Breillat’s “Bluebeard” and The Sleeping Beauty and Fat Girl. These are nice films to watch when you’re bored because they provide double the entertainment value of their running times. Two hours for watching, two hours for chewing over restlessly, three or so hours for fragmented and inspired dreaming: bloody women and crashing cars that symbolize the loss of your virginity. These are the types of things in a Catherine Breillat film.
When I watched Bluebeard I dreamt that I was in a plane that lost altitude. After The Sleeping Beauty, I didn’t sleep for a week, but it’s possible the two were unrelated.
Why would Catherine keep me up at night?
I could make guesses. For one, she is Very French. One of her earliest films, Romance, was passed over by British censors despite containing scenes of graphic sexual violence because even they deemed it “very French.” This is a true story. She is also a skilled consciousness-worm, more adept at tissue-digging than a pop song, and her work groans at the seams with double meanings. For example, while preparing to play a game of life-or-death bowling, the miniature protagonist of The Sleeping Beauty is heard to whisper, “I am real, the rest is false.” On one level, this is a base acknowledgement of reality. (The girl is dreaming.) On another, it is a declaration of autonomy against fate. And we haven’t even gotten into the bit about the bowling ball being a man’s skull yet.
Every inch of a Breillat film is loaded like this, another reason to stay up at night. Each scene, phrase, screen swipe, and hairstyle feels like an unlockable, individual secret. I’m certain, once accumulated, they’ll reveal something tremendous. So I watch them once and then twice. I read film reviews for their educated insight, but most drive in wide circles around the idea of “meaning.” Instead, they lapse into basic observation and commentary on technical detail. “The settings are sparse” and “the lighting is good.” Many of them also refer to Breillat as “feminist” because she depicts sex frankly and creates films centered around women.
Catherine keeps them up at night.
Sex! Women! Feminism! It’s true that Breillat’s films are dominated by complex females — specifically, by sex with and around those females — and that she deserves credit for resisting easy correlations between sex, power, and meaning. She also refuses to conflate “choice” with “empowerment” — instead, challenging the very existence of “choice” in the first place. If Option A and Option B are still part of System X, what does it matter which we pick? For this, I like to think of her work as “feminist.” I am glad that she is asking these questions.
She never does so better than in Fat Girl, a film about two sisters on a family vacation. Their environment is bored and restrictive — lots of television and motherly chiding — and their apathy plays itself out in knowing jabs at each other’s weaknesses. The younger sister is smart, but conventionally unattractive. The older is beautiful and absorbed with her newfound desirability. Neither sister is “good.” Both are complicated consequences of their surroundings, struggling to understand what they can clearly see, but are forbidden to acknowledge. (I’m talking about sex.) These are the dynamics that Breillat lays out for us.
Except sex is inevitable:
Both sisters end up losing their virginity — the older, at the hands of a manipulative college boy who coos every line in the book (“If you won’t, I’ll have to go to another girl”), the younger at the hands of a rapist. Neither outcome feels like a choice. Both scenes are graphic and uncomfortable, and both offer the same set of consequences: fear, revulsion, and shame. When the older sister is discovered, her family is horrified and hastily relocates her, demanding she be “examined.” When the younger sister is raped, the audience’s reaction is fear and empathetic humiliation. From this angle, forcible sex is as emotionally devastating as permissive sex — but, even when being permissive, Breillat won’t let us ignore the fact that allowing sex is not the same as wanting it. The distinction is relevant, and the lessons are biting: You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. When things are hidden from the light, they become monsters.
Perhaps that is why Catherine keeps me up at night.
The economy of a Breillat film is simple: people live, have sex, are complicated, and die. First time actors — “real people” — are frequently cast. Experiences are stitched together from Breillat’s own life, often at the expense of her personal relationships. (Her sister did not speak to her for years after the release of Fat Girl, leaving one to wonder on whose experiences the older character’s sexual awakenings were based.) Things feel very real, but are often quite fantastical.
This is the mark of a successful story. Or a dream. Or — I keep forgetting — a fable.
A lot of the literature on Bluebeard, Breillat’s true-to-the-bone retelling of the infamous French tale, describes it as a “feminist subversion.” I don’t know if I think it’s feminist so much as it is clever. It presents the story almost exactly as it was first recorded by Charles Perrault in 1697: a beastly aristocrat, the titular Bluebeard, who takes a young, recently impoverished bride. He provides her full run of his castle, save one room that she may never enter. She disobeys him, discovers the murdered bodies of his previous wives, and is saved from losing her own neck by the chance passing by of two swordsmen.
The traditional fable tends to present Bluebeard’s death as a victory. The bride inherits his money and lives out the rest of her days, rich, remarried, and — presumably — happy. Not so for Breillat, who deftly undermines this happily ever after with a single, unnervingly extended shot of the young wife, standing at her dining room table, her former husband’s head on a plate before her. She strokes his long hair lovingly with one pale hand, hey eyes set in an expressionless, gazing face. She looks, but no longer sees.
The question Breillat asks is this: What does it mean to be saved when the act itself becomes a kind of trauma? What comes after? The difference between being captive and being saved, in this case, is just that the containment becomes psychological.
The tragedy here is palpable. It’s also made literal, because Breillat doesn’t just tell the story of Bluebeard. She couples the tale with a parallel narrative of two sisters, this one set in the ’50s. The girls have found the storybook in an attic and the younger reads it aloud to the older. Their story ends when the older sister, cowed by the frightening tale, steps backward through an opening in the floor, and plummets to her death.
Words can be dangerous.
And here’s a deeper point that Breillat strives to remind us of — how our storylines, and thus our poisons, may perpetuate themselves. We learn where we belong in the world by telling stories to ourselves and by projecting ourselves into these stories until they become our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. It’s no coincidence that the climactic scene in Bluebeard, where the young bride discovers the bodies of her predecessors, features not the girl herself, but, suddenly, the character of the present day, younger sister.
"I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid," the girl chants to herself, small feet sliding in the slippery blood that has accumulated beneath the bodies.
It’s all pretend until it is not. It is all a story until it’s your life. Words have very real and frightening consequences, but — even more importantly— so too do the absence of words. The stories we tell are the options we have, and it is our priority to create new and thoughtful narratives. The question being asked is: what do we lose with a limited vocabulary?
At least, I think that is what Catherine is trying to tell me. So, I try to write a story every single day.
Last night I dreamt:
“Do you still love me as before?” asks the princely lover of The Sleeping Beauty.
“As before. Except now it’s after. You see, I went alone into your world,” is her wooden reply.
I am drinking mostly hot water with a little bit of coffee in it. Americano. Said with an accent, just like that, emphasis on the third syllable.
Cassie Marketos is a writer at large. Current location: Somebody’s Couch in Somewhere, Europe. Tweets: @cassiemarketos.