their currents turn awry

Continuing the theme of Movies Which It Turned Out Had A Much Greater Impact Than I Anticipated, I thought I would rewatch a movie I hadn’t seen in a long time: What Dreams May Come. I’d seen it on our shelves, and was touched that someone else (who? when?) had liked it enough, as I had (back when I saw it in theaters in 1998), to want to keep it around. Also I figured it would be a safe choice, as I knew the kinds of loss discussed therein wouldn’t touch on my own.

“You can say everything you want to. Even goodbye. Even though she can’t understand it. And you’ll have the satisfaction that you didn’t give up. But that has to be enough.”


Setting that aside for a moment though, can we talk about how the art design for this movie is fucking amazing?


Yeah, that’s the paint part. You’re damn right I’m talking about the paint part.


Long story short, it’s easier for the main character to deal with the world as a painting rather than as a reality, so paint it is. I saw this on a big screen as a twelve year old with my painter friend, and we lost our shit. I worried, before we got to this part, that the advance of technology since then would have rendered it crap. But, like Jurassic Park’s animatronic dinosaurs, which still look better than lame CGI concocted a decade later, the paint part of What Dreams May Come is absolutely gorgeous. A quick google informs me that part of this may be due to its use of Fuji Velvia film, which “is known among landscape photographers for its vivid landscape reproduction.” Okay. But there is “good looking landscape” and then there is “my eyes are melting and I’m okay with that.”

Even setting aside the wonders of the painted world early on, the amount of care taken to frame and center things is painstaking, almost to Wes Anderson levels sometimes.




I wasn’t in a position to notice or articulate it, as a twelve year old, but damn. Damn. Yes, the slow-mo and constant tinkling laughter flashbacks can get a little maudlin, but you forget to roll your eyes when another fantastical vista takes your breath away.


Hell, even the hellscapes are impressive.


But, ah…I didn’t rewatch it because it was pretty. I was worried…I always worry when I reengage with things I used to love…that what struck me before, watching it, would come off as hackneyed now. And as that CinemaBlend article earlier makes clear, the path to resentment of emotional button-pushing was clear, if you were an adult watching this move as an adult in 1998. But I wasn’t then, and I still can’t dismiss the whole thing as more hackneyed than not now, for one reason:


I don’t know what Robin Williams meant to adults in 1998. He was their Mork, maybe. Their John Keating. But for the two of us sitting poleaxed in our seats in that theater — and on through to today, for people of that age — he was our Alan Parrish, our Peter Panning, our Genie, our Jack. His was the voice that taught you how to weave between a wisecrack one moment and abrupt earnestness the next, with a nakedness of heart that made my stomach turn over. He could build his characters up to bombastic levels of brashness, but then tear them down immediately, in front of you, where you had to see and hear it happen. Even if it wasn’t even his face you were looking at. That ducking and weaving of his voice, in and out of vulnerability and the transparent attempt to conceal it, was…exhausting? But also, because it was everywhere in 90s kids’ movies, it was a voice you knew. Even if you knew it might pull the rug out from under you at a moment’s notice, you knew it.

And there is a ton of voiceover in this movie. Half of it is narration. By him. I didn’t read many words about him when he died because it always seemed unseemly. To pounce on someone real, so recently breathing, whose real loved ones are actively mourning them, as a way to get pageviews or something, I don’t know. Maybe the profundity of memories  regurgitated by so many people made it seem tawdry to me. Maybe I’m just bad at mourning — let’s not leave out that possibility. But the fact is that Robin Williams’ voice piloting us and the story through this movie was and remains emotionally arresting in a way, for people who grew up listening to that voice, that is possibly more impactful than anyone planned for. When your go-to extremes, the ones people associate you with, are grandiosity and tentative honesty, and when you slice clean down the middle and settle on desperate assertions made in a wobbly timbre, to someone who should know you and who no longer does, that they are okay and are going to be okay…well, shit. I had forgotten the memory loss component of this plotline, and so was completely unprepared for this scene:


That is his face as he watches his wife ramble mindlessly, not knowing him, not knowing herself, and just, crap. Crap. I did not sign up for this.

Except I did, because I knew that watching this again in my thirties, where I actually knew something of loving people and losing them, was going to be different than watching it two decades prior. I just thought it would be more instructive. Less destructive.

Which is okay — again, I’m not satisfied with a drama unless I am crying, although this means I really should watch all dramas alone — but it’s worth a watch or a rewatch if you’ve seen it before. Even now, when the call to critique seems especially, justifiably, sharp. Look, the movie has problems, okay? I know. Here are some in bullet form:

1.) You should feel bad when your kids take other bodies because they think you’ll respect them more, or because you said something that made them think they’d be more attractive that way

2.) You should not love your spouse so much more than your kids that they demand you try to remember some memory you shared with _just_ them
3.) Women do more than laugh and look pretty

4.) They also do more than get depressed and kill themselves

5.) The flying people look dumb

6.) We are able to locate ourselves solely in the psyches of these people because they have literally no other problems than their loss: plenty of money, a huge house, love. This makes it easier to focus on their pain but it also makes the sheer lavishness of their lives somewhat distracting. While not entirely fair, this is still true. They met while piloting boats they rented for sailing around a lake in Switzerland, for godsake. And at least one of them was wearing a polo shirt and a sweater vest when doing so.

See, that last smarmy jab is where I feel present-day reflection is supposed to stop, right? There were these problems and that’s why the whole thing is shit, moving on. That’s kind of where CinemaBlend stopped, and heaven knows they’re not alone in finding the chink in a cultural artifact’s armor and jabbing it with a fondue fork until there’s nothing left inside but mush. But that does such a disservice to everyone — perhaps most importantly to you, the viewer.

If you turn this movie off fifteen minutes in because their ridiculously posh home says to you that the people in it are undeserving of empathy, then you’re going to miss a flurry of flashbacks whose physicality is frankly stunning. I’ve talked mostly about Robin Williams’ voice here but again — the tenderness in some of his gestures and body language is unnerving. Like you’re intruding by seeing it on film. At one point, fumbling with his wife’s hand, he kisses the side of it, where the index finger connects to the hand. Who even does that, right? No one kisses hands because hi, this isn’t a throne room, and anyway that is a rough part of your hand, that pushes carts and hauls thick backpack straps and gets blisters from shovels. It’s such a workaday part of the body. But he fumbles for it and presses it to his lips like he needs it. Such a sidenote of a body part and it’s his most treasured thing, for a moment. So much so that we almost shouldn’t be seeing it.

And the restraint, over and over again, when he realizes he should pull back and only just manages to do so. The space he gives his wife, who is unraveling beneath his hands, with which he knows better than to touch her. Especially this scene:


As a still, that looks creepy, right? It would be so easy for this to have come off terribly; for him to have seemed intrusive, abusive even in the ferocity of his conviction that she get better. But he doesn’t. Instead of smothering her with comforting hugs, or standing tall and keeping a stiff upper lip because Being Strong Is What You Do For Your Mourning Wife, he keeps his distance, and unravels too.

And that, of course, is was what I missed as a child too entranced by the visuals, and too leery of feelings, and too young by half, to see: she only comes back to herself because every much-lauded version of masculinity trotted out by this admittedly nice guy gets thrown aside, in favor of mutual dissolution. Obviously taken to extremes, this is a terrible example. But what seemed to me at twelve be mythologically simple — “resign yourself to hell to be with her, okay!” — takes on so many more shades now. He’s bidding her farewell but also himself. His knowledge of himself, his life, his children; his values and his friends.

Don’t think I am unaware of the wrongness of this in real-life situations. Remember my fury at Firewatch, which presumed to chastise the main character for “abandoning” his dementia-ridden wife? I was livid. Do not condemn, I seethed, the surviving loved one to a lifetime of seeking recognition and healing in those who will be host to neither. Do not condemn my father to that. Do not condemn my husband to that.

But even retaining that stance, even speaking as one who will quietly walk out of this world rather than put my husband through what my father went through, when the time comes, I still collapse a little, listening to him patiently explaining to this woman who no longer knows him how he will remain, until he no longer knows her, either.

It is I guess, again, the power of fantasy. That chance for winning. I don’t reject it when it is trotted out as a mere fantasy. I reject it when it is used, as it was in Firewatch, to condemn those who truly had no other choice. Dissolution, that choosing the worst, is a noble and beautiful choice in fiction, as in What Dreams May Come. But that’s because it’s fantasy, and “sometimes when you lose, you win.”

In life, it’s less picturesque. You just lose. Your partner, your children, yourself. Or you force them to lose you, bit by bit. And if your voice carried a generation from childhood to adolescence, you force them to lose you, too. To wonder if they have any right to a sense of loss, and to stumble onto your work years later, and be twisted up by it.

Which maybe makes you a little less lost, but it’s still no painted valley.



this is halloween (alas)

I love fall! Pumpkins. Cider. Blowing leaves. Non-IPA beer again, finally. Sweaters! Love me some sweaters. Know what I don’t like? Halloween.


Candy is great! Dressing up is fun! But fear sucks. It really sucks. I was never a big fan of it and I like it even less as I grow older and, I suspect, become that stick sinking even deeper into the mud. How did this happen? Let me present Exhibit A:

The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Topping even Enter the Void as my most-loathed movie ever. Yes, I know, even though it’s something of a cult classic now. Even though people — people my age! — still throw money at shirts and bags and statues  and all manner of paraphernalia embracing this movie. This movie made in 1993. It’s that old.

In 1993, I turned seven. My grandmother, possessing a great deal of money but perhaps not a deep understanding of the psyches of kids, showered us with plastic Nightmare Before Christmas figures. Every single one. We went to see the movie together on one of her rare visits out to see us, and afterward she sent us all…all…of the plastic figures from the movie. Maybe as a sort of memento of our brief time together.

Every night I heaped my toy box high with books and hoped the toys wouldn’t murder me in my sleep.

Jack was so skinny he could fit through the plastic Fisher Price handle hole, I figured, so I tied him up with shoelaces first. Then I worried that this might heighten his animus towards me and thus that I was worsening my chances by risking his skeletal wrath. Eventually, though I remember no conversations about it, the toys were removed (double-bagged), placed in a box in the garage, and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least until a move years later, when Jack’s skeletal hand ripped through the bags during the moving day fracas, and even my fifth grade self recoiled in horror. We donated the toys to charity shortly thereafter.

The songs, though, never leave you alone. “Making Christmas,” with its maniacial, mechanical dirge that I’m sure was meant as commentary on the materiality of Christmas (oh-so-deep, 90s!) but which comes off to a 7-year-old as just creepy and awful. “This Is Halloween,” which keeps appearing again and again in pop culture, like some sort of chronic disease that can’t be cured. When I hit the Halloweentown world in the first Kingdom Hearts game, I put the controller down and walked out, offering my sister multiple bargains (hours of uninterrupted EverQuest game time? homework assistance?) if she’d just play through it for me. Even the colors of the world, entering it, scream at me to run. Tired orange, rotting purple, that gray-brown wash over everything…that fucking mayor with his twisty head…that is no space I ever want to inhabit. No love story can draw me in; I don’t care about Jack and Sally; I just want out. As someone who always tended to hover on the sidelines of cultural acceptability, this was an awkward hill to die on, popular as the movie was with people who weren’t, well, popular. But as soon as the Jack Skellington handbags come out, I am gone. Peddle your creep factor elsewhere. That uncurling vine ramp can curl right the fuck back up, thanks.

Which brings us to Exhibit B:

The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t.

It’s a strange thing about millennials at the upper end of the age bracket: we got to sop up a lot of the cultural beats of the 70s, because that’s what had made its way onto TV (and therefore recordable and endlessly-rewatchable VHS tapes), even though more recent cultural moments existed. I know almost none of the TV specials, holiday or otherwise, that aired brand-new in the 80s, for example. I was too young (see: an infant), the shows too new, and anyway my parents didn’t get cable for years. But the 70s? Oh, the 70s, via 90s reruns, gave us a bucketload of feel-good gooey peace and love holiday gems, and The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t was one of the best.

We aren’t talking a big budget here. Judd Hirsch, Mariette Hartley, Henry Gibson, all — at one point — in their disco finery. Rubber masks. Plastic bats on (visible) fishing lines. Go ahead and google it; you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. But if you’re looking for doom, gloom, and gore, you won’t find it, despite the profundity of vampires, werewolves, mummies and every other Halloween horror that typically sets my teeth on edge, for the simple fact that this movie is about being lonely. And about realizing that that needn’t be the case.

“Nobody loves a witch!” Marriete Hartley’s witch snarls through the keyhole in her tower, as she once again refuses to fly over the moon, inaugurating Halloween and allowing it to happen. The pleas of her sometime-boyfriend, Judd Hirsch’s Dracula, matter little. No one in the town dresses up as a witch, and this makes her sad. Everyone just expects her to be sullen and cruel and scary, and she’s sick of it, and she’s not going to do it. Halloween can go to hell, as far as she’s concerned.

But a little girl from the town (nervous, in no small way, given that she has been led by Igor and a werewolf and a Frankenstein monster up into the scary mansion that overlooks the town, in the faint hope that her voice might reach the Witch where no one else’s has) pipes up in the hallway, informing her that no, she loves witches. Has dressed up as one in fact. Because she thinks they are cool and magical, and have great hats, and also they can fly so I mean, bonus points.

The Witch, who has been crying, opens the door and can’t believe her eyes. She has one fan — this kid in her home-sewn pointy hat with a dollar store broom and cape. After confirming that this child is indeed real, she relents and flies over the moon, on one final condition: that she and Dracula go disco dancing like they used to. Which they do.

This is the only Halloween movie I can think of that warms my heart. All the others, even the cute ones made for kids, are scary or sad or both. Casper’s all alone. Linus waits eternally for a great pumpkin that will never come. And I think this is what makes me a Halloween stick in the mud, more so even than my abominably low Tim Burton tolerance or a pronounced distaste for the undead: I want to have my heart warmed. Movie, book, video game, doesn’t matter — let there be something moving at the heart of it. Not because I am particularly fond of Hallmark goop, but because of Exhibit C:

Things are so bad we have embraced a cartoon dog telling us how bad they aren’t, as flames consume him, as an indicator of badness.

Or, Life is Shit and Short and Messy and Halloween’s fixation on this, on the frailty of our meatbag selves and the minds that pilot them, frequently to do terrible things, doesn’t make any of that feel better. It’s not distracting, it brings no relief, I get no rush of schadenfreude. I don’t need a dark night and a mist-wreathed lake town to remind me there is evil in the world. We kind of get that, in 2017. Big time.

And maybe ultimately my issue with Halloween and horror in general is broader and more selfish still. Maybe I just hate that we don’t win. In fantasy stories, you might win. The emotional stakes might be high, and people might die, but there’s still that chance. The formula demands that possibility of triumph. It’s fantasy, after all. But the formula for horror, while no more complex, is a good deal grimmer. Shit sucks, we pause to reflect on the depth to which shit sucks, and then people stop screaming. The end.

And that’s probably what I dislike most about creepy!Halloween. We lose. We always lose. The killers escape, the ghosts come back; hell, even the bodies of people we love come back, drained of their affection and, worse, even their recognition of us. (Did you think I wouldn’t go there?) Everything is terrible in horror, yes, but everything is terrible already. By adhering to the shitty horror formula, you ensure that even the ghosts (har har) of redemption, or of healing or of hope, never make it across the page or the screen. There’s only the flash of fangs or bones or metal, and then failure. Death and darkness. Over and over and over again.

And not only is that not what I want to hear now, it has never been what I want to hear. Or see, or say, or play. If I wanted — indulge me in my melodrama for a moment — to see a horror story unfold, I’d have myself tested for the APOE e4 gene. But I won’t, and I never will. Because horror stories are a dime a dozen. Hope has value.

Also, fuck Halloweentown forever.


Today was Free Comic Book Day.

I didn’t know that, because I’m not really much of a comics person. I found out via an almost slapstick line-of-sight reveal: from going up the wrong ramp, seeing a fence I couldn’t get past, looking back the way I came, encountering a man in a spacesuit and cape, dismissing him as irrelevant to my escape, then realizing that he was out there advertising the comics shop hidden behind the adobe wall forming one side of my enclosure.

Ta daa. Free Comic Book Day.


I’m not traditionally a comics person, but I do try. I love Batgirl of Burnside, for example. I’ve seen…half…of the big movies? A lot of the reasons I’m turned off by superheroes are pretty cut-and-dried, I know. Nonsensical costumes, gravity-defying boobs, dumb love plotlines. A too-eager reflection of the real world, but tweaked, when what I typically want is a depiction of Anywhere But Here (see: Ferelden! the Shire! Morrowind!) with all the narrative and emotional pull of life as we know it.

But, costumes and gender problems aside, I also always took issue with the portrayal of hero flaws. They seemed far too pronounced. Even in third grade, tasked with writing a super hero story, I chafed at the weakness I was given to write about (we pulled weaknesses, like strengths, from notecards in a basket). “How can she be old enough to be super if she’s afraid of water?” I argued with my teacher [conveniently forgetting my own mandatory, remedial swim class for Kids Who Are Afraid Of the Deep End]. “Real people don’t do this!”

What I meant, or what I’m reinterpreting what was probably a much less nuanced argument to have meant, is that real people’s weaknesses aren’t so clear-cut and laid out there, plain to see. You don’t just fall apart at the exposure of your weakness, whether that’s water or cancer or the discussion of either. Right? I spent decades eschewing superheroes not so much for their superpowers as for their over-pronounced frailties. Everyone has weaknesses, sure, I thought. But you deal with them. They don’t weigh on you for episode after episode, lurking in your subconscious or your body like bombs, waiting for the proper moment to blow your plans to smithereens.


Except, that’s exactly what they do.


When Peter Quill’s father tells him he put the tumor in his mother’s head, his reaction was instantaneous and 100% what I screamed for him to do in my head (albeit mostly in profanity): he attempts to blow this guy the fuck away. That the speaker is technically his father matters not one jot: here, personified, is the reason his mom died. Blam. You absofuckinglutely attack that. Thumbs-up, Starlord.

The deep satisfaction I got from Quill’s kneejerk reaction was not lost on me. Coming out of the theater to a confusing barrage of dammed-up texts about my mom’s hospice care, it was not lost on me. Maybe not as a third-grader (let’s be real: the cultural critique game is not that strong in those afraid of the deep end) but definitely as a teenager onward, I had disparaged superheroes for the giant bullseyes they walked around with, glued to their backs. “Hey father issues, over here!” “Oi, Krypton, pick me!” “Enclosed spaces! Come at me bro!” People, I thought, don’t work like that. Everyone’s issues are deeply buried and they only come up in the quiet of your own mind, are dealt with, and then are shelved away, hopefully a little better cataloged than before, but otherwise ignored.

Yeah, um. Nope.

If I someone were standing in front of me who could somehow credibly claim to be responsible for my mother’s illness, I’d beat the everloving fuck out of him. It’s a giant emotional bullseye that I was just too sheltered, or lucky, to realize I’d have to carry around one day. I wouldn’t even pause — as Peter Quill doesn’t even pause — to reflect upon the recriminations, legal or moral or otherwise, of my actions.

I have acquired my bullseye. I pick up an issue of Runner’s World magazine, see an article on one man’s doomed attempt to keep running in the face of Alzheimer’s and bam, slap that sucker right back down on the shelf, unwilling to bring that freshly energized sadness into my day. (Still haven’t read the article.) I walk into a movie theater with a bunch of friends to see X-Men, knowing zero things about X-Men, and suddenly I’m burrowing nine miles back into the depths of my hoodie, fleeing Patrick Stewart’s all too accurate portrayal of dementia’s viciousness.

It’s not that I didn’t think people had (and I’ve tried not to use this word, because it has been co-opted by too many people to mean too many different things, and not with the best of intentions) triggers. I grew up in the nineties and aughts. From What About Bob to What Dreams May Come, we knew shit went down. That people got fucked up. But I always thought it would be…well. Other people, I guess. Not me.

The level of fuckery required for superhero-level bullseyes, I thought, didn’t apply to me. Unlike families I’ve since come to know intimately, no one in my house screamed at each other or threw things at each other, or starved themselves or drove their cars into trees on purpose, and I thought well, good. Bases covered. I’m safe from bad things. I knew the disease was coming, had seen it take my grandmother, and figured I was as ready as one can be.

I was wrong.

In a movie rife with enjoyable comedic and emotional beats, Guardians‘ portrayal of Quill’s reaction there is still my favorite moment. Because it is so true. (And, I guess, a little forgiving, if I think of it as true.) No one presses pause there to make judgmental Instagram reposts of Pinterest quotes in Lucida Handwriting pontificating that they would have shown compassion to their mother’s killer. No one chastises Peter for having feelings. They just do their best to help him mow down the fucker who killed his mom. And who also, okay, will kill everyone else if left to his own devices, but that, for me (if not for Quill — this is why he’s the superhero and I’m not) is beside the point.

Maybe, then, the unrealistic thing about superheroes isn’t their giant bullseye weaknesses just waiting to be exploited.

It’s that they get to overcome them.


broken hook


For the record, I massively love in Moana how the guy who presents as a cocky jerk is broken apart so visibly. Obviously there’s the fem main character too (plus her sexuality not being part of the plot), but I knew about that going in and I was already on board for it. But I didn’t expect to see some self-aggrandizing jock torn up, not just via implication but verbally and openly. He places all his self-worth in this tool outside himself, and without it he sees himself as nothing, and he says it. That’s the sort of thing you usually surmise about people after they die and you try to put together the pieces of their life in a way that makes sense to you. And we are just out and told it, in dialogue and in song. It twists up my stomach, the way I first remember the shrinking episode of Lois and Clark (yeah I know, of all things!) doing. That kind of vulnerability (its exposure?) makes me a little nauseous, but it’s so worth portraying. Self-awareness, people! Self-awareness. Even if it turns you a little green.

“Chasing the love of these humans
Who made you feel wanted

You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough”


ah, so these are triggers

Degree to which I can deal with Patrick Stewart’s performance in Logan: NEGATIVE NINE THOUSAND.

ME: This is fine.

BRAIN: No it’s not that’s Mom up there 

ME: He’s just doing a great job is all.


ME: The frail cruelty switching unexpectedly to tenderness and back is particularly true to–


Seriously. I have zero stakes in the X-men — I know little about them; they’re not a fandom of mine. But criminy. I cannot deal. After the movie over drinks and dinner I did elaborate pirouettes around the subject of Patrick Stewart, desperate not to have to discuss it or return there emotionally because oh my god. No. I can’t. There are no hoodies deep enough to hide the tears. Most of the feels for that movie were supposed to be elsewhere but I spent every scene with Patrick Stewart on-screen sitting there poleaxed, one supportive shoulder squeeze away from complete meltdown.

grief has no wide angle


Normally I’d post a spoiler cut for a movie still comparatively recent in its release date, especially one with a limited distribution. But that doesn’t apply here, obviously. What’s new isn’t what happens but how you get to see it, and how Jackie shows us grief is really powerful.

Namely, you’re smashed into close-up after close-up — I wouldn’t be surprised if something like a third of the movie was a close-up — in an endless too-close encounter with grief you’d prefer to see from a bit more of a distance. I can’t emphasize how valuable that is. What you want, as a viewer, is distance, and context. You want the camera to back up so you know where you are, what the room looks like, what the surrounding territory looks like. Hell, you’d even in some scenes settle for a view of someone’s coat or shoes, versus being trapped in the lines of John Hurt’s face or the smears streaking Natalie Portman’s cheeks and chin. But you don’t get that distance. You don’t get to pull away, even when you want to.

There is no wide angle on this grief, no neatly-arranged tracking shot that tidies up a personal disaster. This, of course, is where Jackie tries to go — not the route of national disaster, which is a story we know well by now, but a personal one. And the camera brings us too close to it. Not because of decaying statues of decorum vis-a-vis presidential families but because no one wants to be that close to grief, famous or not. The camera doesn’t give us a choice in Jackie, and that is so powerful. You’re trapped. You don’t get to pull away, even to try to understand this constant shattering within its own national landscape. That would require the distance that people cavalierly summon when they write obituaries or biographies or dissertations. This is not that.

There is also, as perhaps was known to people more familiar with the subject matter than I, a great deal of anger, and that was fantastic too. Glued close to the drooping eyelids and withered lips giving voice to the same old platitudes about everything being for a purpose, you are smashed up against the ludicrousness of those platitudes in a way that I hope hurts people who still use them. I hope it cuts deep. See how grandiose and all-knowing you appear when all you are is a frail face full of wrinkles squinting in a strong wind. See how much comfort you offer, and understand why anger in the face of that grotesque hollowness persists. The film doesn’t let you pull back from that.

Nor should it.