Get Over Myself (d1)

Note: this is a first draft of a poem about time and self. I’ve always enjoyed looking at completed poems and wondering how they got there (“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop is a good example of the efficacy of drafts), so I thought I’d make the process transparent for something I’m working on. I also want to include a piece of art with each draft, with this version’s accompaniment being “Woman Descending Staircase” by Gerhard Richter. While I like the little experiments in each stanza, they aren’t yet connected in a meaningful way.


Get Over Myself

Pipes jut in the sad remnants of our once-was basement

and I find myself by the goodwill sofa, whispering to

myself that I never properly got the bookshelf stocked.


Indiscernible invisibility, specks of ourselves play

in a song that never finished once we were done with it.

Rain pickled on the porch, the porch processed

the scene as we trampled up the stairs, eyes stared

at the exposed brick of next door’s brownstone.


You kissed me like a retronym in the bedroom, right

by the rotary phone and my stack of floppies

with wimpy ideas. Tasked with pushing the light

across the room, I sat and traced the shadow lines

until they came around again.


Far above, I thought (still think) that I failed

too many times, not for abundance of failure but

for lack of trying. I made it about me, and

there you (were) lost.


The great thing about time

is that it goes on.


The rain does crazy things

It was already hot enough when the power went out, so that’s when I really started swearin’ up a storm. I had been watching Key Largo. That Bogey. He reminds me of how blood gets twenty grit sandpaper tough to the touch. He made you feel it, that burn, whether it was for him or for the dame he was holding. Even if she wanted to rip his face off rough with thirty grit sandpaper. Ghastly stuff.

Kathy was with her People magazine and went to the bathroom with a flashlight to finish. The sky was like the light those film makers put gels in front of to make it look like fire. Or lightning, depending on the violence of the gel.

I spend most of the night by the window, and though the thermometer said it dropped ten degrees in ten minutes it was still hotter ‘n hell. I was foul. I waited five minutes and it was hotter ‘n hell, then held out for a longer five minutes and it was hotter ‘n hell, and then didn’t even look at my watch and, sure enough, five minutes later it was still hotter ‘n hell. My beer was sweatin’ and it felt like I was grabbing a hesitant and well-lotioned arm. My back was all sweaty and the couch told me to get up, so I did. I went to the fridge and found some apple juice that was still pretty cold and figured what the fuck and poured it into my beer. I figured what the heck. This doesn’t happen often and it happens more than once.

I nicked myself shaving. I decided yo shave because my shirt was already off and I noticed the left side hairs were a bit thicker than the right. Every morning the same face and I didn’t notice it. The blood beaded and seemed to fizz as it drooped down. Like I did anything in the morning. And it’s noticeable. I was probably drunk the last time I shaved, on account of the blood and the whiskers. I was getting good at that.

After I wanted some food from the kitchen. I wasn’t really hungry for food but it was there, and I was here, and these things don’t happen often. In the pantry there was peanut butter and crackers, and my mom  used to make sandwiches from them and lay them on a plate in a circular fashion, saltines and peanut butter and a large glass of milk not in the middle of them, but of to the side. I’d meet lips with the giant mouth on the plate, part, and then drink that delicious cold milk. The milk ripples and the glass shakes when the bathroom door shuts. I shouted.

“You in or out, Kathy?” I realized she’d been in there the whole team. Reading People.

She said out, now and walked into the hall so that I couldn’t get a look at her. By then I had a candle and was pretty used to the darkness, but she just walked out of the doorway down the hall. As soon as I turned back to the pantry the milk and the crackers and the peanut butter were gone. Gone? Eaten.Kathy in the doorway, eye aye.

“Tom, hey.” I could tell what she wanted before I turned around. Then I did.

“Jeeze, Kath, you look like a ghoul.” Her make-up was all over. Smeared in most places. Really off. The sweat around her eyes blotted the make-up and hid her eyes in a shroud, her whites barely visible in all the cloud. She looked wild, unfinished. There was something in the heat that made her look hot. She pivoted, but not before looking into my eyes briefly. “Where you goin’,” I asked, as if I didn’t know. She could have been going to her grave, looking like that. I could’ve followed, looking like this.

“To water,” she said, and sauntered clumsily back up to me. Somebody was tipsy. Then past. I almost turned the wrong way looking. The apartment was new to us but really old, the wood floors squeaking like crazy. Like it needed work. Most things do.

“There she goes” played in my head, and I guess that’s how it went. “Don’t go,” I said to myself saying to her. The wind was blowing through the windows. I couldn’t tell if it was raining or not, it was that slow. I couldn’t tell how hot I was, I was so hot. I couldn’t plain tell. I couldn’t tell if–

She got up to me and got real close, kissin’ neck hair close, and licked my cheek. Straight licked the sweat off. Like the foam off espresso, the crisp back draft cutting downward. The candle had been out, from before, and looking at her, it seemed darker. Something burned, I could smell. The candle? Or else–.

She licked my other cheek. Wetter than the other. I licked hers. A well, well. Even as we dried I could feel our skin touch and dissolve. Lacking words, we left the kitchen, in search of water. We were thirsty.

Pass, Sing

Originally posted on Medium  | Feature image from GarlandCannon


The Perseids are among the most storied and reliable meteors in the sky, their first noted appearances dating back thousands of years. Named for how they seem to radiate from the constellation Perseus, they too fling off in random directions of startling and seeming import. Much as Perseus’ exploits fill our conception of the night sky through constellation, his sons come about in greatest force mid-August, a reminder that it is the young and bold that pass through brighter than the constant and old.

On the peak date of the Perseids in 2013, August 12, I can’t see a goddamn thing. The air is cool and rising, with low-hanging clouds streaking across a half-soft-red sky. The red is the same hue as the reflection of a setting sun in a shallow pool, and indeed the night sky has a faint glow that won’t be extinguished. A storm has to, or will, happen.

The Perseids are fascinating not only because of their astonishing regularity, but also due to their sense of progression: multiple scientists have pointed to an irregular mass distribution in the Perseid stream that leads to a period where the meteors are brightest and their streaks are most distended, followed by shorter, faint meteors that end up looking like random marks of punctuation.

The only streaks of light that dash across my eyes come from the road, passing cars that emanate that almost-comforting hiss as they pass by along the road. In my backyard, their headlights clash up against the side of my neighbor’s house, the light beam flattening onto the surface, focusing into a rectangular shape, and tracking across the length of the house before flitting off and out of sight, returning in an instant to the now-visible car, which promptly zooms by. This happens just often enough for me to be unable to avoid it, and my unwillingness to avert my eyes from the sky above means that the stars I’m trying to look between appear to be blinking.

I had a beautiful explanation for this blinking when I was younger: the stars, most long-dead, were communicating with us with so much energy their history, to the point where a static lingering light was not enough to tell their story. They were active, not radiant but radiating, not charged but absolutely buzzing. I wrote a poem about them, calling them generals of the Civil War era; though their markers were still there, they were long-gone. Their histories long forgotten, their stories long lost. Or so my poem went.

Another car passes by, only this one has those new LED lights which seem brighter by provoking contrast. The light seems to reach inside my neighbor’s house, and even around the side to briefly hit the trees in their backyard. And then it’s dark again, because it’s 1:35 in the morning and the person in the car is by themselves on the road, and thus like a solitary moviegoer sitting in the last row. The starkness of the light, the speed, the mutability of the moment and my only-just ability to register it are startling, but then I realize that it is startling not because a car just passed by me, which happens every day, but because an acquaintance of mine from college just died in a car crash yesterday.


photo by Todd Hido

I can’t truly say we were real friends, that our relationship-as-punctuation would be anything other than a weak comma that would probably get thrown out in a second or third round of edits. We shared a writing class together, and I recall being impressed by her essays fixated on obsessions and compulsions. Impressed because they weren’t weird for the sake of weirdness, rather they were interested in stripping bare these compulsive acts (of cleanliness? of certain chess moves?) and laying them neatly among the normalcies of life.

That’s why it was the abruptness of it, the loud clap that signified its coming, that was just as shocking to me as the realization that the event itself, the accident, and the deaths it caused, had passed long before, while I was oblivious. Lightning before thunder, youth before age. A bright light in a murky sky.

Giving up on the sky, I went inside and tried to write. Write this. And though the transitions and proximity of paragraphs lend a nice feeling of consistency, of reliability, it is just the trickery of light and shadows concealing a poor effort. Every time that I don’t seriously write for a while, say days strung together through laziness, weeks down the drain from long work days, months blinked by due to habit, I become increasingly resigned to the idea that my time has passed, my skill is gone, I’m washed up, if ever dry to begin with. If I’m not writing, then I’m not a writer. And if I’m not a writer, why am I writing?

That feeling doesn’t last, of course; it too passes.


“Laura and Brady in the Sahdow of Our House” Abelardo Morell

The word ‘Pass’ has for its roots the Latin passare or passus, which bound further back toward ‘pace’ and the notion of a step as a single unit, or even the religious connotation of “in peace or by favor”. The idea of the word erupting from its most basic unit, a single step, heedless of direction or intent, is I have to admit a romantic one. And yet none of those ancient considerations matter when observing how flexible the word is: used as noun, idiom, verb; used with an object, or without; maintaining energy, but also capable of passivity. It contains within itself both our recognition of a moment narrowly missed, combined with some ineluctable feeling that we are just coming upon it, if only we proceed attentively. Time and the elements can work just as eagerly against us as our own aspirations and fixations can work for us.

So much of what revolves around our lives is just that, the endless stream of events, circumstances, realizations, and yes, people and places that pass us by. We feel held down, and are, but by a restlessness that keeps our eyes looking at a static point that presages movement. But if we’re orbiting the object of our fixation, then it is just that, fixed, and only we can pass it by. Either it goes, or we do.

It’s now 2:52. I think, lest I let the tenuous bit of coherence I have left pass me up, I better pass out.

Great Quotes on Film #3

“Tarkovsky was sitting in the corner of the screening room watching the film with me, but he got up as soon as the film was over and looked at me with a shy smile. I said to him, “It’s very good. It’s a frightening movie.” He seemed embarrassed but smiled happily.
Then the two of us went to a film union restaurant and toasted with vodka. Tarkovsky, who does not usually drink, got completely drunk and cut off the speakers at the restaurant, then began singing the theme of Seven Samurai at the top of his voice. I joined in, eager to keep up.
At that moment, I was very happy to be on Earth.”

-Akira Kurosawa, on watching Solaris with Andrei Tarkovsky

Flutters and Stutters: Time and Again in “Chungking Express”

In his essay “Time Pieces: Wong Kar-Wai and the Persistence of Memory,” critic Chuck Stevens summarizes Wong Kar-Wai’s approach to film-making perfectly: “Passionate about ideas, possessed by the errant flashes of whimsy and misfortune that haunt modern loves, [Wong Kar-Wai] transforms emotional free-fall into infectious rhymes and deliberate coincidences, willfully missed signals and capricious possibilities for romance.” The quote refutes the criticisms of Wong as an auteur of style over substance, as someone who can’t think of anything meaningful to say so he just finds interesting things to shoot. And while Wong’s approach may seem frenetic and romanticized, a closer look at his 1994 film Chungking Express will uncover a director who utilizes the expansion and contraction of time, as well as a progressive sense of repetition, to create meditative works about relationships and individual’s natures within them.

possessed by the errant flashes of whimsy and misfortune that haunt modern loves, [Wong Kar-Wai] transforms emotional free-fall into infectious rhymes and deliberate coincidences

As a swift introduction, Chungking Express‘s plot can be summarized as follows: the film contains two stories about two cops who separately experience the breakdown of their relationships and wander around similar patches of Hong Kong until they each meet a (different) mysterious, inscrutable woman who challenges their sense of self, both independently and in a relationship. The first story features Takeshi Kaneshiro  as Cop 223 (aka He Qiwu) and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia as “Woman in blond wig” (though I call her Blondie), while the second story stars Faye Wong as Faye and Tony Leung as Cop 663. Both intersect at the Midnight Express eatery, as well as a few other minor locations. Neither relationship between the pairs end up “working out,” but each player ends up in a fruitful location, if physically if not emotionally.

Oh my life, is changing every day
in every possible way

The distinctive, kinetic style CE is lauded for is the work of Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau, the cinematographers for the film (who handled the first and second story, respectively). While they actually vary their techniques widely throughout the film, producing patient-yet-inventively framed shots one moment and feverish, blurred shots the next, the film’s reputation was built on the frenzied sense established in the latter, as can be seen in the choice of opening shots in the trailer.

As the film begins, we follow Blondie through shady hallways and streets while classical music with a noirish languor plays along, before cutting to Cop 223. He brushes past Blondie before chasing a criminal through the crowded streets of Hong Kong, an effect Wong amplifies via a stutter-step technique that at times is kinetoscope-esque. The effect, postulated by Mike D’Angelo to be the removal and duplication of certain frames, is used throughout the film in different ways, but always to the same effect: to dilate and contract time. Here it represents the contraction of time, the bodies blurring by in a way to make both them and the criminal 223 is chasing indistinct.  Cop 223 failed to catch his mark, and so the moment plays as a memory best forgotten. In addition, 223’s sense of disconnection from the people around him (his girlfriend dumped him, his childhood acquaintances have moved far beyond him) is ingrained in him that others appear literally indistinguishable to him, such that the contraction of time serves to get them “out of his way” quicker.

The chief moment of time dilation, however, comes when 663’s ex, a flight stewardess,  stops by the Midnight Express, but on his off day, and leaves a note the Express owner (and every other employee, including Faye) is quick to read. Unlike the others, who only find humor in its brief message, Faye sees the heartbreak it will cause, which makes it tough for her to reveal it to 663 when he comes by. She does, and is surprised by his refusal to see the letter (“after my coffee,” he claims), at which time begins to dilate in distinctive ways in the same shot: in the foreground, people flash in, across, and out of the midnight express.pngscene as colored blurs, nebulous figures sped up in the shot. In the background, Faye and 663 are at the counter of the Midnight Express, 663 leaning his left side on it and staring through space, Faye leaning on the counter and staring at him. Unlike the figures in the fore, however, Faye and 663 seem to be moving in slow motion, their actions choppy and deliberate compared to the chaos in front of them. What results is a shot that perfectly embodies how senses of time are subjective, and can deepen and chasm for one individual (663, his world coming apart as he realizes this is the relationship’s true end), stretch for another (Faye, anxious to read 663’s reaction to the letter’s contents), and remain unaltered/appear hyperextended for other (everyone else in the shot, whose own lives are unaffected by this minor drama).

The narration also often dilates time to great effect. 663’s heartbreak over his  ex-girlfriend is undercut by the ways in which Faye influences him, as she used the key his ex left behind to sneak into his apartment and clean in it, daydream in it, and eventually redecorate it. But a new level of nuance is then added when 663, suspecting things are being tampered with around his place, starts returning home at unorthodox times to catch Faye. While he’s physically trying to confirm Faye’s appearance, and transpose her from dream to reality, a distance is kept by the way his voice-over narrates this discovery, with scenes seeming to imply he’s crying apt.pngabout to catch Faye, but which are really about little routines he performed with his ex. What seemed to be a synchronous moment is
either ironically asynchronous or a projection/reflection of 663 over the moment as-it’s-happening. A similar technique occurs when Cop 223, after a jog on his 25th birthday, places his pager on a chain link fence, the voice-over informing us that he left his pager behind because he knew ‘no one would call him anyway.’ As he walks away from both the camera and the pager, presumably providing closure on the scene, it beeps, and he immediately runs back to check it. Either the voice-over is out of sync with 223’s emotional state, or it is withholding information it finds to precious to share; either outcome proposes a temporal disconnect that adds nuance to the character.

I want more, impossible to ignore
impossible to ignore

Besides modulating time, Wong utilizes repetition in Chungking Express to great effect. The most obvious example is structurally, as the film is two halves connected by a location, the Midnight Express, an all-night cheap eatery in Hong Kong’s trendy Lan Kwei Fong district. While the title gets its second half from that location, the first half refers to the Chungking Mansions, a den of dilapidated hotels and vindaloo joints in the city’s Tsimhatsui district. (At least at the time. Apparently the Midnight Express is now a 7/11.)

Pulling backwards from the film and looking at its production, repetition also abounds. Chungking Express (CE) was created during a hiatus in the filming of Ashes of Time, Wong’s wuxia film. It was originally intended to have three parts but Wong ran out of time, and instead expanded the excised section into its own film, 1995’s Fallen Angels. He did this by employing the same technique he used in CE: creating two stories that echo each other thematically and intersect each other physically.

final shot

The final scene of the film is awash in repetition of intention, but with a sense of progression, like a spiraling point that maintains momentum and direction but finds itself further and further out with each revolution. Near the end, Faye has returned from California (she spent most of the film accompanied by “California Dreaming“) an air hostess, but rather than mirror his past relationship Cop 663 quits his post and ends up buying and renovating the Midnight Express. Faye, not thrilled with the reality, rejects her California dream while 663 embraces his, the boombox playing “California Dreaming.” While she failed to show the first time, here it is her seeking him out, and while she again leaves him, she reconnects as a way to both affirm and reinforce change. Similarly, though Cop 223 leaves his own apartment as a way to let Blondie leave without confusion or embarrassment, it is she who ends up reaffirming 223’s commitment to staying connected with people, as signified by his instant about-face on his decision to leave his pager behind. The reason? A simple ‘Happy Birthday’ message from her.

Audrey Yue, in her essay “In the Mood for Love: Intersections of Hong Kong Modernity,” notes that Wong has a tendency for dual narratives, and compares their form to tête-bêches. The connection is readily apparent: the stories cover the same ground, with characters that could be considered interchangeable. And yet the direction is unmistakably altered, Faye and wig lady.pngleading to new approaches, new discoveries that seem almost alien to the previous version’s concerns. The “paired” characters embody this: while Cop 663 is clean-cut, dignified (if boring), and in uniform, Cop 223 is sloppy and emotional, willing to call childhood schoolmates to allay his loneliness. Blondie, meanwhile, wears obscuring clothes (and of course the wig) to conceal herself, and is reserved in nature, though cerebral in effect, while we meet Faye with a sleeveless undershirt and pants, bobbing her head to The Mamas and The Papa’s “California Dreaming” and losing herself in the music so she “doesn’t have to think so much.” The slight variations continue in ways big and small, from eating habits to how characters are predominately framed within a shot, and paradoxically amplify the sense of distinction between the stories, while tying together their similar themes of progression and connection.

And oh, my dreams, it’s never quite as it seems
cause you’re a dream to me
dream to me

In a way, relationships seem like excitement, untarnished ebullience, yet they often mellow into routines, and if the players involved come to rely too much on those routines, the relationship can break its back over them. By evoking reality but staying tantalizingly out of reach, the relationships in Chungking Express are transformative: they impel stasis into action, ask to reconsider the spaces around which life happens, or the ways they are navigated. The refracted stories of 223 and 663—jilted cops loosed from physical paralyses—and Faye and Blondie—unconstrained women whose dreams are at odds with their realities—create resonances that reward the patience, the observant, the conscious. For all the stylistic flourishes of the film,  it’s really about how people change and are changed.  Like the pop songs it recycles throughout its running time, it’s about seeing the distinctions amongst the repetitions. Tired lines may seem trite in one moment, revelatory the next. Rhythms may entice toe-taping one moment, a twinge of pain the next. The essential question Chungking Express asks is not which one you prefer, but if you’re willing to get to one from the other.



  • This post is an entry in the Criterion Blogathon, graciously hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Check out these sites, and all of the blogs contributing to the blogathon, today!
  • I didn’t have time to get into it in the essay, but Chungking Express does a lot of interesting things with diegetic/non-diegetic music. If you’d like to learn more about interactions between diegetic and non-diegetic music, check out my essay on sound in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

Heathers (1988): A “Wobbly” Kind of Beauty

(This article was originally published at

It’s like, they’re people I work with and our job is being popular and shit

There are dozens of formative teen films, and each takes on the trappings of its individual generation not only to frame the story, but to more often be the essence of the story. Dazed and Confused’s ambling, unmoored approach echoed both the 70s cautious and bewildered look to the 60s and the 90s’ similar look back to the 80s. American Graffiti achieves similar effect but in the opposite direction, with the characters’ crazy adventures on that night in ’62 about to be made naïve as the decade progressed.

But rarer are the teen films that capture their own generation as it is happening, and while the most recent may be Dear White People (reviewed on this very site), undoubtedly the most well-known is Mean Girls, the 2004 film written by Tina Fey based on the Rosalind Wiseman book. And, whereas the previous “generation films” focus primarily on the male protagonists, and their efforts to “score” or “make sense of their lives,” Mean Girls provides a compelling, hilarious, and truthful look at high school’s effects on its inhabitants. Far from ‘one wacky last night outside the school,’ in Mean Girls the school itself is the liminal space, akin to a nuclear power plant in that it fosters and induces cramped conditions and, therefore, chain reactions. Because while communities and cities have their own ideological, political, cultural, or spiritual groups, high school throws all of that into a pressure cooker, sets a timer, and then leaves the kitchen while it boils over.

Heathers Review

But Mean Girls was not the first film to achieve a female-centered narrative that didn’t devolve into trite cliché, and it arguably isn’t even the best at what it does. I’d argue that title goes to Heathers, a 1988 dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Both films feature an exaggerated clique leading the school, a smart girl who can move in, out, and among their grasp, and a high school as the battlezone. But while Mean Girls doesn’t pull any punches about how cruel the high school experience can get, it fails to get as dark or hilarious as Heathers.

The film takes place in Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio and centers on the eponymous Heathers, a group of rich, pedigreed girls whose popularity equals power over the rest of the school. While Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) is the adopted fourth member of the group, it’s clear she yearns for something more, or at the very least a return to her prior life and friends. (Perhaps this is what drove her to the Heathers in the first place, as the lead Heather, Heather Chandler, tells her that she teaches people “how to spread their wings and fucking fly.”) This impulse is tested when J.D. (Slater) arrives in town, a new student with a penchant for the psychotic. He befriends Veronica, and they develop a relationship that gets pushed to the extreme when J.D. seems willing and able to put Veronica’s teenage whims, captured quite eloquently in her diary, into action. This means a series of deaths made to look like suicides, most notably Heather Chandler’s. Any illusions Veronica had that Heather’s death would change the dynamic of the school take a turn for the worse when, upon discovering her forged suicide note, the school begins eulogizing Heather. Among this craziness J.D.’s psychotic nature emerges, forcing Veronica to save the very school she is by-turns enamored, frustrated, and fed up with.

Mean Girls by no means retreads the ground Heathers walked over, as you can tell by the crazy second and third acts, but they do share some plotting and characterization similarities. And the debts the former has to the latter aren’t totally formal, either; they’re also direct: the writer of Heathers, David Waters, has a younger brother named Mark, who just happened to direct a film called Mean Girls. David himself wanted his film to be seen as “the final word on high school films”—a pronouncement audacious in scope until you learn that he also wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct it. While neither happened (and, let’s be honest, Mean Girls might very well be supplanted in the next decade), Heathers nonetheless leaves an indelible mark of satire, teen angst, and infinitely quotable lines (which I’ve lovingly used as section headers in this essay).

Heathers Review

What’s Your Damage, Heather?

Like any good diary, Heathers gets better the more you read into it. And it starts with the names: among the leads, Veronica Sawyer combines Archie’s Veronica with Twain’s Tom Sawyer, and J.D. (Jason Dean here) is obviously a corruption of James Dean. The main Heather, Heather Chandler, takes her last name from the Middle English term for a “retail dealer in provisions and supplies or equipment of a specified kind,” the assumption being that, as group leader, this Heather is dealing in coolness and popularity. Second rank is Heather Duke, which in Latin derives from ducere “to lead,” although a duke is understandably lower than a queen. Finally, we round out the gang with Heather McNamara, probably the strangest name as it leads us to JFK’s and LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, a man who wasn’t the chief one in the spotlight but nonetheless knew how the strings were connected. Even the town, Sherwood, Ohio, alludes to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories about a town whose inhabitants make high school students look like trained show dogs.

The names matter because, while the characters are well-developed and their predicaments are (for the most part–but we’ll get to that) believable, the film functions as a dark comedy by way of satire. The Heathers are chiefly distinguishable by their color-coded dresses, the jocks in the film are meat-and-potato-heads, the reaction to the suicides is ludicrous and borders on a perverse hero worship, and one needs only to look at Slater’s vice grip-squinted face for a few seconds before they convulse into conniptions. It’s never explicitly shouted, but the problems here, however real, are upper class ones: in between existential questions in a diary or public shamings in a cafeteria, the characters reside in posh houses with patios and marble statues, playing croquet because, in suburban Ohio, that’s about as close to a royal hunt as you can get.

Heathers Review

And then there are the politically incorrect lines, which date the movie, but maybe not in a bad way. Lines like “Does Africa have Thanksgiving?” or “Save the speeches for Malcolm X, I just want to get laid” probably wouldn’t fly these days due to the casual way in which they’re thrown off in the film. The suicides, shootings, and near-bombing of a totally-full school also would draw ire with the seemingly careless way they’re handled (not unlike another similar humorist who tackled a similar subject faced…), but they work in Heathers to place the drama in both ludicrous and logical terms. It makes sense that, for a girl like Veronica who can eat pâté and casually deride her father in front of him, the only thing that would really shake her up is her vicissitudal social standing in her immediate surroundings. (Yet another reason it’s set in small town Ohio?) The scene where Veronica and J.D. bicker/flirt over how to punish Heather Chandler for taking Veronica to a college party, with Veronica going for the classic milk-and-OJ-combo while J.D. favors an electric blue Drano-type liquid, is borderline Lynchian in how its implications bash up against the Play Date-esque way it’s handled and, indeed, framed. It can’t be surprising, then, that Heather dies from the mixture, with both the shocking (she falls through a glass table that shatters resoundingly) and the silly (her last words? “Corn Nuts“) colliding.

Perhaps Heathers would have been even more groundbreaking had the original ending been retained. Known as the “prom in Heaven” ending, it also features Veronica killing J.D., but, upon seeing the little good it does in stopping the status quo of cliques eating each other alive at Westerburg, she then decides to let the bomb that J.D. planted go off in the school, killing both herself and everyone else. Cut to a reverse fade to a bright light, then a scene coated in white, with poppy music playing and everyone from Westerburg High, regardless of sex, race, creed, or social standing, dancing together in Heaven. And upon all this Veronica looks on approvingly, while a banner unfurls overhead proclaiming “What a waste, oh, the humanity.” That great equalizer, however intriguing, is probably too dark of an ending, even for a dark satire like Heathers, and it leaves the film in a less complicated place: everyone’s dead, but happy. With the original ending, we get most of the people living and happy—with the lingering sense that said happiness won’t last forever, and that the goodwill of purging the school will lead back into distrust, conflicts, and cliques. Whether it will return to that status quo before or after Veronica graduates (Stanford or San Quentin?) is another question. 

Heathers Review

Fuck Me Gently With a Chainsaw

Finally, a confession: part of my love of Heathers stems from my infatuation with Winona Ryder. I had an irrational crush on her since I saw her in Beetlejuice, it became serious when I saw her in Edward Scissorhands, deepened (and maybe even matured) with her roles in Mermaids and The Age of Innocence, became a little edgier in the mid-90s with Reality Bites and The Crucible, and then kind of petered out in the early 2000s when I remembered she was in Mr. Deeds.

Seeing Heathers for the first time in college, I remembered that my fixation on her stemmed not only from my crush on her, but due to her penchant for picking up complicated-yet-grounded roles in films that otherwise would whirl out of control. What I appreciate most in Beetlejuice, for example, is not Michael Keaton’s manic performance (though, come on, it is brilliant), or the plain darkness of the plot, but the grounded nature of Ryder’s performance. The same goes for her turn as Kim Boggs in Edward Scissorhands: she doesn’t have the silent movie affectations of Depp, but she also isn’t cartoony and buffoonish like the rest of the town.

Yet if you’re confusing her unabashedly individual roles for that of the bland foil, think again. Kim Boggs is a deceptively simple character, yet the whole conceit of the film, that it is Kim bookending the film by telling her granddaughter the story of Edward, would fall apart if Ryder weren’t able to suffuse it with a trenchant and approachable melancholy. Abigail in The Crucible is wild-eyed girl who treads the line between demonic and sexual. And, in Heathers, it is Veronica’s ability to oscillate between the different cliques, and the ethical dilemmas this causes, that gives her character. Ryder can imbue her characters with this depth due to her own seeming contradictions: she has big, shiny, 1940s movie star eyes and lips, yet the mannerisms and inflection of a Gen X’er, resulting in an alluring beauty, or a beautiful acerbic. In an appraisal of her role in Heathers, writer Waters called it “wobbly,” which I think is great for the way it catches the range of her work, and the inherent instability and flux of her very best roles.

Great Quotes on Film #2

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)

Great Quotes on Film #1

“. . . Do you know what film is?” Bergmann cupped his hands lovingly, as if around an exquisite flower. “The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion, it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It cannot explain itself. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion. This explosion we have to prepare, like anarchists, with the utmost ingenuity and malice . . .”

– Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet (1945)

“It’s just a show, I should really just relax”: New Dimensions of Fear

I don’t scare easily. I can get as startled as the next guy, and the typical realms of death and gore usually manage to shake me, but getting a good honest scare out of me through a movie is tough. It may be because I didn’t really grow up with any of the classics–I saw The Blair Witch Project as a youngster, and was frightened for a whole week afterwards, but I didn’t see Halloween, The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street, or any of the other classics until high school, when I started looking at them with a more critical, less sensational eye.

What I did grow up on, though, was a whole different kind of horror, the horror that strikes you not with how terrifying the film is, but with how terrifying it is that the film got made in the first place. Films that, because of some magical mix of poor production values, scattershot direction, and an obsession with capturing the misguided zeitgeist of their times, fail so spectacularly that I’m entranced. Not because the monster is dreadful or gruesome, but because it is definitely glued together. (Though I won’t cover it here, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is an exceptional example of this.)

Somewhere in this shot is a monster of unspeakable horror. Yeah, I can't find it either.

Somewhere in this shot is a monster of unspeakable horror. Yeah, I can’t find it either.

These kinds of films have attained a stature in my mind equivalent to the landmark horror films. To name a few, my new pantheon includes Plan Nine from Outer Space, The Giant Gila Monster, The Corpse Vanishes, Devil Doll, and Manos: The Hands of Fate. Black and white or color, monster supernatural or scientific, and featuring a group of college kids or a rag-tag band of survivors, these films have plenty of differences. But there is one thing that brings nearly all of them together: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to adoring fans) was a tv show based in Minnesota that ran from 1988 to 1999. It began in the exalted annals of public television, and though it eventually moved to Comedy Central, and then the Sci-Fi Channel, it never dropped its humble production values and Midwestern attitude. The premise was simple: a bumbling janitor (first Joel Hodgson, then Mike Nelson) is launched into space by evil scientists, who perform “experiments” that amount to forcing him to watch terrible movies. To cope, he builds robot companions to help him “riff”, or mock, the movies, thereby retaining his sanity.

But this simple conceit allows for some of the wittiest, blistering, and most referential humor ever. And its sacrificial lamb is every film that skimped on its monster budget, or forgot to move its camera while filming. In short, my horror pantheon. Indeed, the ingenious terror of these “scary” movies MST3K uncovers is that, for all their vague gesturing to a not quite conceivable force invading (read: the monster) reality, they make reality itself a not so conceivable thing.

With a guy like Mike Nelson in charge, what could go wrong?

With a guy like Mike Nelson in charge, what could go wrong?

Take, for example, the episode “The Touch of Satan“, where Mike and the bots are forced to watch a 70s flick about a youthful wanderer who happens upon a farm with a bit more history than he had hoped for. The young lad meets a pretty girl on a farm, sees her unnaturally-old “grandma” (really her sister) kill a policeman, and then he decides he loves her. The movie is a mess, featuring an overly-long credits sequence, clunky dialogue spoken by one-dimensional characters, and no less than two appearances of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. And the “terror” of the film, that these sisters were forced to consign with Satan to save themselves and now, cursed, murder random farmers, is constantly undermined by the kabuki-actor appearance of the old grandma and the sputtering dialogue the two leads share. These blinding flaws are turned into humorous scenarios by Mike and the bots, who gleefully reduce (or elevate?) the films mistakes. Why is the farmer tending to hay bales when he works at a walnut farm? What does a walnut farm even look like? Why am I wondering about a walnut farm when I should be getting scared out of my mind? Nothing about The Touch of Satan will frighten you while watching it, but trying to piece together how this movie makes sense? Now that’s a frightening prospect.

After this movie, I'd give my soul to get those 90 minutes back

After this movie, I’d give my soul to get those 90 minutes back

But these “horror” films do share one thing with the tv show that so mercilessly mocks them: they’re both honest endeavors with big hearts. In the case of some of the giant monster movies, more literally than others, but behind the shlock and cheesy effects, obscured by the obfuscating and confusing dialogue, is the intent to make a movie, and have a good time at it. There’s a level of determination there that, even if horribly flawed, is inextricably human.

And that’s something that appeals to me infinitely more than most contemporary horror films, which not only show little sympathy for their lead characters, but more often than not exhibit a cold and distant touch in their approach. Contemporary horror films seem designed to simultaneously inspire hate in their protagonists, which allows viewers to experience glee at their deaths, and instill alienation towards their monsters, which leads us to learn nothing from or about them. What’s left is akin to a cut power line in the street: lots of sparks and fizzes, but no actually information being relayed.

Ultimately, contemporary horror films create cold, indifferent films that don’t allow you to appreciate the frailty of life because they ask you to revel in the deaths of their characters. They scare me not because of their dark, tense atmosphere, or startling jump cuts, but because they remove the humanity from not just their characters, but from their viewers as well. I can think of nothing more terrifying.

MST3K, conversely, injects humanity into cheesy horror films by pointing out their failures, which posits them as wholly human efforts. The boom mic might be evident, and the rubber makeup of the monster quite apparent, but the effort made to create that world, however scattershot and unbelievable, represents a human endeavor that I am much more inclined to buy into then, say, this. There’s a line in the theme song meant to act as back-story for the show, but I find it more useful for explaining why I love my cheesy horror pantheon: “If you’re wondering how [Mike] eats and breathes, and other science facts (la-la-la), just repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show, I should really just relax . . .””.

The good ol' Satellite of Love