What Maisie Knew (2012)
THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD.
by Erica Bean
The first time I encountered two parents fighting I was fifteen years old, and they were not my parents. They were the parents of my first boyfriend, and it was a shock to the system to hear such ugly words being hurled across a kitchen island. I was one of the lucky ones whose parents were still happily married, though this happiness did nothing to prepare me for a real world full of arguing adults. Their love never showed me all the ways that married people sometimes do not love—or even like—one other.
As an adult I can understand why my boyfriend didn’t seem disconcerted in any way, but as a teenager, I could only stare in surprise at him as he took me by the hand and walked with me into the backyard to sit by the pool. We sat at the edge of the pool and made circles in the water with our feet.
I pretended not to hear the arguing still going on, but all those angry words smashed into a million pieces inside of me, shattering everything I thought I knew about the way people were supposed to speak to each other. I wondered how my boyfriend survived, how he coped all these years. I remember asking him, has it always been this way? He answered casually, practiced—I don’t know anything different. His words marked a distinct point in our relationship where I felt the gap between what he knew and what I thought I knew about life. From the pool where we sat, I could hear the tone, the inflections, the harshness. The lovely, gracious people I had known for so many years had turned into people I no longer recognized. We rested our backs on the hot cement under the summer sun, our knees hanging over the edge of the pool.
This is what I think about when I see Maisie watching her parents yelling at each other. I think of the ripples, and the affects of that loudness, the piercing harshness. I see her recognize the arguing, the angry look on her mother’s face when she is calling her father an asshole, and I see her take herself away—shifting her body to a place away from all the noise—with a look on her face that says all this fighting is normal. She no longer hears it. Instead, Maisie is humming, she is playing tic-tac-toe, or laughing with her nanny, she is letting herself win at her own game, drawn on a pizza box with a blue crayon.
What Maisie Knew has two directors, David Siegal and Scott McGehee, and the cast is exceptional: Julianne Moore as the mother, Alexander Skarsgård as Lincoln, Joanna Vanderham as Margo the nanny, and Steve Coogan as Maisie’s father. But in the end it is Onata Aprile, as Maisie, that we can’t look away from. Hers is a soft voice in a loud room, a smiling child despite a temperamental mother, a tiny and perceptive human being, wholly focused through the camera as she carries the film with her two tiny hands, every moment a graceful reminder of what it means to forgive all of those who let us down.
Maisie’s parents do all the things parents shouldn’t do when they are divorcing. They force her to take sides, they ask her about the other parent’s life. Maisie keeps herself occupied as her parents remain preoccupied with their own lives, spending far more time fighting about their daughter than actually spending any time with her. She is watching the secrets form, the way they weave in and out of her life. She is left to wait late, after school, forgotten by her mother and her father. She is a patient, and obedient child, but still a child. She often doesn’t understand what is happening all around her.
Her father marries Margo, and her mother marries Lincoln. The nanny is now her new step-mother, and a bartender her new step-father. The hardest part of watching What Maisie Knew is watching Maisie navigate her way through this new, dismantled world in quiet solitude. And yet, she remains the brightest spot in every scene—she is the shining light, the laughter and joy and color on a summer day. She is too young to feel resentful toward her parents, the way they wander in and out of her days. Maisie is the reason the pieces of her fractured family keep smashing into each other like stained glass, bright and sharp and shattered, but she forgives them for breaking. She loves them in spite of it. Because, despite the terrible ways in which they behave, they are her parents, her biggest sense of permanency. She consistently displays her sense of forgiveness, choosing to love her mother and father despite their mistakes, or their absence. Maisie’s childhood innocence and habitual love creates a bubble in which she finds a way to survive her parents’ divorce.
As an adult I know that life is not always conclusive, that failures usually speak to the heavy burdens we’re forced to carry on our own, and the ways we get stuck when trying to let them go. Sometimes the questions are hard but the answers are easy. People are complex: it’s not as simple as mothers or fathers not wanting their children, even if they have the utmost obligation in their heart to do so. We see Maisie being held and kissed by her mother and told that she is loved while also being left, or forgotten, or playing in her room, watching her mother cry. Everything we know is everything Maisie knows.
In the unfolding of her days Maisie still finds joy despite all the shuffling from parent to parent, from place to place. Even while she listens one morning as her father tells her he is moving to England, her small mouth chewing up her breakfast, there is that unwavering grace, a small resilience smoothing out the edges of her new life without all the things she used to know.
Margo takes Maisie to a beach house. Here, she can be a child. She runs into the sea, the cold water rushing over her bare feet. Her small hands building something, even if only with crumbling, dry grains of sand. She sits on the shore and holds a shell up to her ear, listening to the ocean. She is listening to a world that is finally listening to her back.
Her mother comes for her one evening. “Let’s go Maisie,” she says. But Maisie doesn’t move. “Maisie, come on,” she repeats, impatient, the tour bus parked and waiting. But Maisie wants to stay, she wants to go on the boat the next day like she was promised. She does not want to leave behind hope in exchange for disappointment. Her mother, for once in touch with an awareness outside of herself, understands this with sharp clarity.
“Do you know who your mother is?” her voice breaks to ask, kneeling in front of her daughter, scared that she has been replaced by the very people she’s had to rely on to take care of Maisie in her absence. But Maisie, her beautiful and delicate daughter, does not let her mother fall through the cracks.
“You,” Maisie replies softly, placing her hand on her mothers shoulder, in reassurance. In comfort.
On that summer day when I was fifteen, I can see how like Maisie I was—the child in a room full of knowing adults. I knew nothing more than what I’d been told, or what belonged to me from my own limited experiences. The things I thought I knew were changing, but on that day, this is what I knew for sure: that there was arguing inside a beautiful house and that it was summer and I was young and that I knew so very little about people, about how they could lash out in hurt, or how they coped with all the twisted things inside of themselves. All I knew was that I needed to keep moving, to keep breaking the surface of the water at my feet. I knew that I had a lifetime ahead of me to figure it out.
Erica Bean is a writer and photographer living in San Francisco, California. She uses the occasional “y’all” and sometimes goes to movie theaters just for the popcorn. You can read more of her work here.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978)
THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD
by Elisabeth Geier
It starts quiet, with Martin Scorsese’s introduction to San Francisco, a brief journey through the streets surrounding the Winterland Ballroom, where on Thanksgiving Day 1977, The Band played their “final” performance. Various incarnations of The Band recorded and toured through the 1990’s, but this was the last time all five original members would play together, joined by a roster of superstar guests. This was the big show, and the movie became a big deal, but watching it thirty-some years after the action, it’s most interesting as a commentary-free observation of a group of guys going their separate ways, still united by rock ‘n’ roll. It all starts with the journey to the venue, a director-driven ride around the corner. We see members of the audience, briefly. We see the venue sign with its burnt-out bulbs. We go inside and meet The Band.
"You’re still there, huh?"
The first song we hear is the encore — the end is the beginning is the end. “We’re gonna do one last song, that’s it,” says Robbie Robertson. He seems indifferent to the audience, a little annoyed that they’ve stuck around so long. Scorsese doesn’t care about them, either; if not for the establishing crowd shot and some background cheers and applause, we might think they didn’t exist. In a way, Scorsese is the only audience for the show. When Robertson asked him to shoot the Band’s “final” concert, he was just a fan, and it’s evident in how the show is shot: tight close-ups of the performance, deep in the action, with no regard for the ballroom full of ticket holders. This is how every fan wants to feel at a great show: like they are the ones enjoying it the most, like the music is happening especially for them. There’s no room for the thrill of the crowd in Scorsese’s vision of The Band. There’s only room for being caught up and carried somewhere by a song.
"You know what happens when you have too much fun."
One fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, What Drug(s) Is the Current Speaker On? The answer is probably cocaine. Another fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, Which Song Is Going to Make You Cry? The answer is probably Neil Young’s “Helpless,” particularly when a clear soprano comes in on the chorus you’re not sure who it is until you see Joni Mitchell in silhouette, harmonizing from backstage. Neil Young knows a thing or two about cocaine; Scorsese famously edited a visible rock out of his nostril, but if you look hard enough, you can tell it’s there. Party like a rock star. Party like a film director, too; Scorsese was partaking in the same substances as the band throughout filming, and beyond. A couple years after The Last Waltz, he made Raging Bull, and Robert DeNiro helped him kick the habit. According to most accounts of the time, Marty was in a bad way when his favorite band asked him to film their final show. Still, Scorcese points to The Last Waltz as the most fun he ever had making a film, and we believe him, because of how lovingly he frames the songs.
"It’s not like it used to be."
The Last Waltz is a farewell to an era, as much as a band, and that finality casts a wake-like pallor on the proceedings. We know what happened to these people after the cameras went away. We know that Richard Manuel, strung out and rambling onscreen, went on to commit suicide at 46. We know that Danko died of a heart attack while on tour with a reconfigured Band. We know that Levon Helm hates this movie, didn’t want it made, and doesn’t care for its legacy. We know that Marty and Robbie are still good friends, Robbie is still contributing to Martin Scorsese Films, and The Last Waltz captures their nascent partnership in a way that sometimes seems to cast aside the rest of The Band. This is all on Wikipedia, but before you find it there, you will see it in the film, in how people talk at and past each other, how everyone looks just a little (or a lot) burnt out.
None of these tensions are directly addressed; Scorcese rightly focuses on the songs. It’s easy to get caught up in a particular look between Robertson and Danko, a particular strain in Levon Helm’s voice, the particular way Bob Dylan’s enormous hat and bad attitude commandeer the stage. But then a sweet guitar solo lifts us out of the intrigue, and we’re left with only that sound and the players on stage, where Scorsese holds us to remind us what really matters.
"We wanted it to be more than a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration."
Watching the personalities on film, it’s sometimes hard to spot the celebration. In one of several awkward interviews, The Band recalls their “glory days” of meeting women on the road, shoplifting for meals, playing their first show in New York City (“New York was an adult portion,” says Levon Helm), and it’s all tinged with a bit of regret, a bit of what have we done with our lives? But counter the tension, the visible fatigue, with their performances on stage. Counter the questions (and answers) about what happens to these people after the 80’s arrived and America’s musical taste changed, with the way they play it out.
It has to come back to the music. When Garth Hudson sidles in with his saxophone on “It Makes No Difference.” When Van Morrison yelps turn on that radio! and we get caught up in the swell of the crowd. When Levon gets to yodelin’ at the end of “Up on Cripple Creek,” and Robbie and Rick just grin. These are the moments where it doesn’t matter what went on before and after the The Last Waltz, where viewing feels like dancing and Scorsese’s fandom shines a light on the rest of us and brings us right in to the songs. And what songs they are. What a band. What a show.
Elisabeth Geier is a writer living in Montana. She thinks Rick Danko is the dreamiest, but Levon Helm is the overall best.
Running on Empty (1988)
I JUST FEEL KINDA LOUSY
by Hallie Cantor
I’d been in bed since 8 even though my bedtime wasn’t until 8:40. I think I’d been bored and I’d found some small thrill in changing my routine, lying there awake, listening to the radio I had on a thirty-minute timer every night to put me to sleep. When I woke up it was past 9, and the radio was off and I heard music and laughing from downstairs.
I went downstairs to my parents’ bedroom and found them dancing with my older sister in her nightgown. She’d had some project to do for school about waltzes, one of those weird assignments she always had, like painting a giant replica of Fort Henry in the laundry room, that entered the family space and left us all with more in the way of family memories than book learning.
We never hung out in their bedroom. We weren’t that kind of spontaneous family, the kind that did things like kiss and hug for no reason. When I came in, no one told me to go back to bed.
We all waltzed together. I danced with each parent and then they danced with each other, and everyone was really happy. I could tell at the time that it was going to be a memory. I could tell that it was a weird, special moment that I would think back on and not talk about.
I hadn’t thought of that night for years until I watched the scene in Running on Empty in which the Popes dance to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. The scene feels like a memory, and in a way so does the whole movie.
I just feel kinda lousy, you know?
You’re supposed to feel that way at 17.
Arthur and Annie Pope blew up a napalm factory during the Vietnam War. Now they’re on the run with their two sons, building new lives in a new town every six months. The family can’t move past its past, and their teenage son Danny can’t leave the nest to start his own future.
We actually don’t find out Danny’s real name for much of the movie, and that doesn’t really matter. River Phoenix plays the role with a funny kind of blankness. I kept waiting to see the real Danny, the one that wasn’t an act for his teacher or his parents or his girlfriend. But there was no real him. Maybe at that age, there never is.
What about you?
I don’t know.
The family members take their names and identities from printouts of archived obituaries. Michael Manfield. Blond hair. “Baseball is my life.” Mother’s name Cynthia, father’s name Paul. With this kind of list, it’s difficult for others to understand who we are, to see the selves we might be trying hard to communicate.
You want to know who he is, why don’t you talk to him? He’s a person. He’s not a computer printout.
Danny owns up to his real identity to his girlfriend Lorna (Martha Plimpton, much younger but every bit as awesome as she is these days on Raising Hope) before they have sex. He can’t be with someone else without being himself. It’s hard enough to be with someone else when you are yourself: figuring out what they mean with the turn of a head, the aimless path walked in a circle around a tree, the shift away from you in bed.
You don’t transmit too much information.
I said, you don’t transmit too much information.
The real Popes are as hard to understand as their aliases. All the ways we define ourselves can only do so much. The after-school activities, the ways we misbehave at the family dinner table, the clothes we wear and the politics we espouse – how can these things make up our whole selves? How can baseball be your life? Is Arthur Pope, the social-action-organizing, co-op-forming, unionizing, James-Taylor-listening liberal, a complete character? One of the most affecting moments in the film is Judd Hirsch’s great drunken monologue:
Don’t call me Paul. I am Arthur. I am Arthur Eli Pope. Arthur Eli Pope. Born Plattsburgh, New York, July 16 1944. U.S. Citizen! My mother’s maiden name is Silbowitz. My father’s real name is Popov, Morris Popov. Driver’s license number is 435711. My draft number is MS893584. My name is Pope.
The desperation with which Pope clings to the facts of his identity feels oddly enough like a yearning for something beyond those facts, some kind of personhood that isn’t regulated by roles in a government or family system.
Being a teenager feels “kinda lousy” because it’s painful to try to be a person instead of a computer printout. It’s lousy to try to be three-dimensional. It’s lousy for me to try to be a person who can be cantankerous and Liz Lemony sometimes, and sincere and warm and earnest sometimes, and lazy and girly and passionate and depressed and pissed off sometimes. It’s lousy to be myself at a time when I’m writing and re-writing my resume so much that if someone asked who I am, I’d instinctively recite bullet points about internships and extracurriculars. Lousy to try to be myself in a way that can change, that isn’t just “baseball is my life” or “I am a comedy writer” or the posters on my wall or my hair color. It’s lousy because I don’t want to disappoint the people in my life who are trying to understand me.
The choice Danny has to make in the film is whether to become his own person or to stay connected to his family. Lorna makes that choice, too:
You want to know what I think? I think I’ll go to New York, and I’ll learn to write, and I’ll come home every Christmas and everyone will be really polite.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
To grow up is in part to go away. When I was dancing with my family, I was the younger sister, the know-it-all jokester who wouldn’t shut up. I’ve gone away now, and I’m not really any of those things anymore in my real life. But I have that memory. And when I go home, I am those things again.
It seems weird that the only way you can be the real you is by leaving the place and people that have shaped that real you. But that’s how it is. That’s how it feels in that closing shot of Danny standing by his bike after his family drives away. Or in that moment when they drive away after moving you into your dorm and you’re finally, really alone. And there isn’t any role for you to slip into, or anyone to dance with you or stop you from dancing, or any computer printout telling you who you are.
You just are.
Hallie Cantor is a writer living in Providence.
Free essay from our new issue: Tracy Wan on Before Sunrise, Before Sunset & Before Midnight
by Tracy Wan
[ 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 no after. 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.
This essay currently appears in the February 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or purchase a copy of the issue for just $1 and receive full access to the issue online.