alburquerque

Hello, readers.

I keep hearing this voice in my head. It sounds a lot like Bugs Bunny.

Perhaps, for many of us, this is the feeling of being alive in 2021. That feeling that we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Maybe a grimey sort of self-doubt. Perhaps born out of a habit of hiding. Or being asked to hide.

Maybe it feels new. It feels a bit new to me.

I think, perhaps, this is how it always feels, though.

It is like love in that way. Or, at least. Like falling in love. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Something like this happens everyday.

Also. Always. I am suspicious of these visitations of feeling. Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. This self-doubt could be a bit of undigested nutritional yeast.

And yet. I know, like Scrooge, these ghosts are here as omens. As guardians. As guides.

Everything that protects us is a monster.

Earlier this week, I read some of George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I thought. Oh. This is how it feels to wake up inside of trauma. I thought. Would you look at that.

I cried a lot. I’m not sure why. Also I know why. I am lonely. I am grieving for those things not entirely gone. I am filling my life with as much joy as I can stand. And sometimes it’s too much. And sometimes it’s not enough.

It has been a very long time. It has been a very long time for us all. Since we met. Since we held hands. Since we hugged. Since we kissed. Since we made love.

Separation isn’t easy.

Perhaps, for some of us, that grew up in the grips of one form of depression or another, that grew up queer in one form or another, it is easy to imagine things are worse than they are—not just because this is an aspect of depression or loneliness, but because one can remember becoming attached to these feelings of loneliness, of monstrosity. That feeling that no one wants to touch you. That feeling that no one wants to be touched by you. That feeling that there would in holding hands be something overwhelming and scary.

And so much of everything comes down to this.

The desire to hold hands. The fear to touch and be touched.

There’s this scene in It’s a Sin, the new Russell T. Davies show. In this scene there is a character and they scream, “Don’t touch me! You can’t touch me!”

They say, “You can’t touch me because I have AIDS.”

I cried a lot here, as well, and I knew why. I knew because of now. I knew because of growing up in the shadow of a disease that so many used as a confirmation of their culture’s collective nightmares about sex. About touch. About queerness. About pleasure.

There have been days and weeks during these past months that have been some of the clearest and best days and months. It is strange. And, also. I suppose. Really. It’s not strange. My partner and I separated a little while ago. It was maybe not the best time to do that. But, also.

Once, not all that long ago, I heard someone say something like, “Right now, every one of us needs more than anyone has left to give.”

And, so. Rather than sharing all this with any particular person, I have shared it with the internet.

I have written my doubt into the arms of the ether.

I hope it is not too much. I hope.

In other news.

It is Wednesday and, I am reading Neil Gaiman’s retellings of Norse Myths. There are here mostly stories of Thor and Loki. Gaiman, in his introduction, points out the lack of stories concerning other gods and goddesses. He points out that too many stories have been lost.

The other day I asked Em what they thought of Loki. They said that Loki represented the sort of energy I don’t want anymore in my life. They asked me what I thought. I said that Loki, like The Coyote or The Monkey King or Doctor Who, possibly represented something like the energy of the mind, racing, feckless, by turns delightful and infuriating. In the stories Loki seems to be the cause of everyone’s problems and also the source of so many of their blessings—Thor’s hammer, for example, came about from some of Loki’s mischief.

Things I didn’t say: I identify a lot with Loki. I identify a lot with all of these characters defined by their reckless race from one shape to the next.

Em asked who is Coyote. I told them about the trickster and my lamentable lack of knowledge about the specificity of Native American myth.

Wait, Em said. Like. Wile E. Coyote?

Well, I said. It’s right there in his name, isn’t it? The wily one, endlessly chasing that which is unattainable.

I’ll say this for Wile E. Coyote, though. He’s one focused son of a gun. Nothing stops him from going after what he wants, not rock or anvil or gravity. When Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, he acknowledges his mistake, and then he falls, and then he tries again.

I wonder if he’s enjoying himself, though?

Perhaps it’s a Sisyphus thing. Perhaps we must imagine him smiling?

I’d rather not.

I’d rather imagine that one day Wile E. Coyote reads adrienne maree brown’s book, Pleasure Activism and begins a journey of recalibration in which he reconnects with those aspects of life which turn him on. I like to imagine this. I like to imagine Wile E. Coyote sitting still, contemplating the beauty of a single flower, remembering what it means to grow.

Happy Wednesday, readers.

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trouble don’t

Hello, readers.

It is Friday.

Friday is the day, of course, on which we celebrate fried food and love*.

I will be making tonight a pan-fried chickpea bread called socca, and also I will be thinking about the episode of Euphoria I just watched called, “Trouble Don’t Last Always.”

In this episode, two characters sit in a diner and talk to each other for an hour. There’s a cigarette break at one point. And there’s sometimes music. Sometimes by Labrinth**. Mostly it is just these two people and their conversation and the space that conversation opens up between and around them and into which we, the viewer, are invited .

It is an episode about death and gods and forgiveness. It is an episode in which two humans share truth and tenderness and touch. It aired first on December 7th and it is, in its way, a Christmas miracle. Perhaps not in the reality of the show. But in our reality. In the reality of distancing—both social and societal. In the reality of demonization—personal and political.

It is an episode that is my favorite ever episode of television right now.

Possibly it is my favorite kind of episode.

It is like when Chandler got trapped in an ATM vestibule.

It is that thing where characters get trapped into intimate surrounds and intimacy abounds. It is that episode where the detective talks to everyone and this is how they solve the crime. It is conversation. It is connection.

It is bacon and eggs and pancakes and your grandfather talking to you about stocks and bonds and life and death.

Maybe this last bit is just me.

Here are other things I have loved this week.

  1. The British Museum: Curator’s Corner.

It is not possible to go to The British Museum. But, I have discovered that it is possible to watch people who work at The British Museum geek out over their favorite bits of the museum.

It is called Curator’s Corner.

I have this week watched a video in which a woman talks about a helmet and also I have watched this video from Imma Ramos about Tantric philosophy.

Here is a slightly longer video in which we are given a tour of the Tantric exhibit.

p.s. Here is Imma Ramos talking about witches and wicked bodies.

2. Taylor Swift

I continue to be in love with the most recent two albums from Taylor Swift. It is nice to be in love.

Also there is the dress in this video.

The Power of Myth.

During the last two years of his life, Joseph Campbell talked with Bill Moyers at Skywalker Ranch. This aired in the U.S. on PBS in 1988, and many years after. It was the thing PBS always showed during fundraiser time.

It is the thing that around the age of fourteen, I watched over the course of one long afternoon with my grandmother and during and after she and I talked about life and death and ghosts and gods.

I am rewatching it for the third or fourth time. Em is watching it for the first time.

She believes I am lucky to have been exposed to this conversation so early in my life.

I believe she is right.

It is also true that we find what we are ready to find and we learn what we are ready to learn.

And, it turned out, that my grandmother and I were ready that day to spend an afternoon in conversation with two men in conversation about the invisible foundations of reality.

And, right now, it turns out that I am ready to learn that this life-changing interview between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer has the same structure as two characters in a diner talking about addiction or Chandler trapped in an ATM vestibule trying to get a date.

Happy Friday, readers.

I hope that you are having an okay week, readers. I hope if it is not okay that it is, somehow, still okay.

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* Friday being the day of Freya, that lady of the forest known for her love of those things in life most delicious—love, sex, war, appetite, possibly pancakes.

** I love this video about Labrinth’s song All for Us.

the body

[source]

Hello, readers.

Recently, I made hot chocolate.

The way I made hot chocolate is that I put some amount of cacao powder in a pan. And also I put into this pan some ground cardamom. Then I toasted these things in the pan before adding some milk and whisking it up and then adding some more milk and warming it to not quite boiling.

Then I tasted this and it was very yummy and I have made it on other days and some days I put inside this hot chocolate a tiny bit of salt and maple syrup and you should be careful with this amount of deliciousness because you should do things with your life other than making and consuming hot chocolate.

Not very many other things, perhaps. But some things.

Speaking of things.

Body (official video) – YouTube

I enjoyed this thing that is a song by Gia Margaret and also less of a song and more a bit of musical bedding for some spoken word by Alan Watts, a British human who is apparently known for popularizing certain mechanisms of thought in English-speaking countries. He published a book in 1957 called The Way of Zen.

Gia Margaret is a Chicago musician whose work you can read about here.

Speaking of bodies.

Em and I are in the midst of rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Also, Angel. Though for Em it is the first time of seeing Angel.

Tonight, we will watch "The Body." In this episode of Buffy someone is dead and their body is discovered on a sofa. It is an episode of much harrow and humor and there is no music and sometimes people talk about negative space. It is the first work of art, I think, that caused in me actual grief.

Sometimes watching Buffy this time around it has occurred to me that certain moments of this show live in my body the way trauma lives in bodies. It is fascinating to understand how much I identified with this show and how that identification lives still in my body and I get goosebumps sometimes, or my heart races, and it is all a memory of a memory and happening still. These characters. These actors. These moments. These bodies of art and the spaces inside myself into which I imagined them.

Happy Monday, readers.

I hope your body is not a burden. I hope your body is, perhaps, more like Japanese Breakfast imagines it to be—a blade that cuts a path from day to day.

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long, strange trip

Hello, readers.

Here are some things.


Thing one.

Once upon a time there was an episode of X-Files in which Mulder and Scully found themselves reunited in a courtroom. I do not remember why they had been so long apart. I do not remember why they met in a courtroom. I do remember the feeling of them being apart and the feeling of them coming back together.

Sometimes it is possible to feel these feelings in one’s own life.

Sometimes it is possible to feel these feelings not about other people but about various parts of yourself.

When Mulder showed up in that courtroom, Scully hugged him and she smiled and she asked, “Where’ve you been?”

Mulder said, “It’s been a long, strange trip.”


Thing two.

It has been two years since I last posted here.

Many things, as happens, have occurred.

Among them, I have a new story up at Quarterly West. This story is called “Some Things About Love, Magic, and Terror.

It is a sequel of sorts to an earlier story I wrote called “Some Things About Love, Magic, and Hair.”

I did not mean to write a sequel to that earlier short story, but sometimes, as has been noted, things happen whether you meant for them to happen or not.

Perhaps one day I will wake up and happily discover that I have written a five-part trilogy of short stories.


Thing three.

Taylor Swift said this one thing recently. She said that if you’re going to have to recalibrate everything then you might as well start with what you love most.

This other time Taylor Swift sang about the grass in Centennial Park in Tennessee and I cried because I miss Nashville and traveling and, while I don’t miss grass, I do miss sitting in the grass with hundreds of people gathered together to hear someone sing about something as simply and beautifully as Taylor Swift sings about grass.


Thing four.

I have been watching Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass. It is a good class if you like listening to Neil Gaiman and do not mind not being in a class.

One of my favorite things I have taken from this Masterclass is to keep at the back of my notebook pages labelled ‘Compost Heap’ in which I might write down those memories and occurrences and phrases and slants of light which catch my attention.

Listening to Gaiman talk about things reminded me of listening to actors talk about things on Inside the Actor’s Studio. This was a show that aired for a long time on a tv channel called Bravo. It was hosted by James Lipton. It inspired the questionnaire that lives at the end of those interviews I did for that one podcast, Storyological.

Once on Inside the Actor’s Studio there was this exchange between Harrison Ford and a student in the audience. (~46:10)

Q: Hi, there. My question is regarding you being known as a somewhat private person in real life—whether that has ever affected your ability as an actor to extend to your character that intimate side of yourself that we all strive to give to each character we portray.

A: I’m a private person in my private life. In my working life, I expect to grant my audience complete and total access. Everybody’s got a backstage pass. You have to be willing to live in front of people. Let them see the good, the bad, the ugly, the weak, the strong, the conflicted, the terrible. One of the things about acting that gives me the greatest satisfaction is the opportunity for that emotional exercise. That investment to the point that it produces true emotion. It’s not about you. It’s about the continuity between you and the rest of your race. It’s about being human and it’s about sharing and knowing that humanity.

It is the true ambition. To give yourself to that moment.

Welcome to December, readers.

See you again soon.

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the favourite (2018)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

favourite

A costume drama, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite cuts a deliciously cruel and filthy figure. The characters here do not play coy with their ambitions or their pleasures. “No, I don’t think I will send her away,” one woman says to another. “I like her tongue in my cunt.”

We are at the turn of the eighteenth century, in the time of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman). England is at war. The noblemen race ducks along the halls of power. Everywhere one encounters foppish manners and ridiculous wigs and bizarre dances that appear to have been improvised according to the direction: “Be weird! No! Weirder!” It is a time of madness. Much like most times, I suppose.

The film centers on three women. There is the aforementioned Queen, a half-mad, somewhat ineffectual human being. There is the queen’s closet advisor, and secret lover, the the cunning and ambitious Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). And there is the pretty and capable young thing, Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen aristocrat who shows up looking for work one day, a glint in her eye and a face full of shit.

“Have you come to play with our children?” Lady Sarah asks. “Have you come to be their little monster?”

Abigail does not need to think very long about this. She scrunches up her face. “I can be a monster,” she says. And then she raises her claws and growls. Grr.

In his earlier film, The Lobster, Lanthimos created a world in which single people were forced to find a partner lest they be transformed into a beast. The film starred Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and it was a dark and funny take on the desperate nature of us humans. Particularly the desperation of our need to belong to someone, or something, else.

There’s something of a similar theme in The Favourite. We watch as Abigail endeavors to ingratiate herself up the rungs of power, using her naked wiles and bare shoulders to woo men and women to her cause. Lady Sarah admires this. And she is wary of it. There is a scene in which she takes Abigail out to shoot pigeons. Abigail takes aim and misses. “There is always a price to pay,” Lady Sarah says. “And I’m willing to pay it.” She then shoots down a pigeon. “Are you?”

It is Abigail’s turn next. The pigeon flies. Abigail raises her rifle without hesitation. She fires quick and sure. Blood spatters Lady Sarah’s face. Abigail is a fast learner. She does not miss twice.

Lanthimos shoots here sometimes with a fish eye lens. This has the effect of showing you more of the world, but it comes at the cost of warping everything out of all reality. Other times, he comes in close to study the set of Lady Sarah’s jaws or the shadows at play in Abigail’s eyes. In those moments, we see these individuals, and their souls, with startling clarity. But the world, oh the world. It is all lost.

Lady Sarah reveals, about halfway through the the film, the flaw she sees in Abigail’s character. She is the type of girl, Lady Sarah believes, who craves two things above all else, “safety and favor.” And, to be sure, as the stories barrels on towards its tragic and victorious conclusion, we realize the truth of that earlier scene in which Emma Stone’s Abigail transformed, at a whim, into a monster. She will do, we come to understand, anything in order to win, if for no other reason than the imagined safety she believes waits for her at the foot of power. As such, she indulges the Queen’s madness and, in the end, is overshadowed by an insanity of rabbits. Lady Sarah, as ambitious as she may be, will not pay that price. She will sacrifice everything but herself.

maniac (2018)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

maniac

Maniac is a trippy sort love story. There is a man, Owen, played by Jonah Hill. And there is a woman, Anna, played by Emma Stone. The man struggles with schizophrenic episodes. He finds it difficult to know what is real. The woman struggles with moving past her sister’s death. She knows all too well what is real. Her problem is that she doesn’t know how to move on from that reality.

The two meet at the intake of a pharmaceutical trial. She is there to score more of the drug that allows her to relive the death of her sister. He is there in the hopes of learning how to live.

The world in which they live is a wackadoo place, equal parts Douglas Adams and William Gibson. It is the future as we once imagined it. Neon signs, clunky keyboards, blinking cursors. The IBM of all possible worlds. There are, too, scattered throwaway gags—like the adBuddies or the Statue of Extra Liberty—that recall something of the whimsy, and benevolent cynicism, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The trial where Owen and Anna meet is run by Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech. The culture here is American Japanese. Or possible Japanese American. The head scientist is Dr. Mantleray, a hassled and mother-wrought man played by Justin Thoreux. His second-in command is Dr. Fujita, a no-nonsense woman with a bowl-cut and giant glasses played by Sonoya Mizuno. The AI that helps runs their experiment is voiced by Sally Field, who also happens to play Dr. Mantleray’s mother. The series, for all its technological trappings, is a deeply Jungian text. Everything is archetype.

During the trial, Owen and Anna and the other subjects receive three drugs. These drugs are labelled ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. They are meant, respectively, to force a subject to relive their deepest trauma, learn the defense mechanisms (lies) they built for themselves in response to that trauma, and enable them to move on from that trauma. Each instance of the trial we disappear for part of an episode into the minds of Owen and Anna. We experience their pain as various forms of film genre. Indie realist, neo-noir, and high fantasy. If you ever longed to see Jonah Hill as a brooding, existential thug, or Emma Stone as a pointy-eared, and delightfully bitter elf, here you go.

This is psychotherapy done with a healthy dose of cinematography.

Loosely based on a Norwegian comedy show of the same name, this version of Maniac is run by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers). Each has made a name for themselves with series seen as existential and vaguely, if not as in the case of The Leftovers–literally– apocalyptic. Maniac has something of that feel, as well, with each episode’s mind-bending journey through pain and deception, leading us ever onwards towards a sense of revelation. It never quite gets there, but then, as we all know, therapy is a process, not a destination.

to all the boys i’ve loved before (dir. susan johnson, 2018)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

lana

Based on a wildly successful young adult book of the same name, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before contains a sprinkling of those tropes typical of much YA fiction—a dead parent, a charming parent, a bitch, a jock, and a character in love, perhaps a little too much, with books and their own imagination. Happily, these tropes, and any misgivings one might have about them, get swept aside both by the charms of the young actors and the tendency of the film to sit with them in moments of complicated emotion and allow them, and us, to forge a real connection with these characters.

Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is a sixteen-year-old girl in love with her older sister’s boyfriend. To deal with her tormented feelings she writes this boy a letter. She does not send it to him, though. As she says, it is only for her. It is a way to work through something for herself. In a way, she says, it has nothing to do with him.

Lara Jean is an experienced imaginer of love. She has written four other such love letters to four other such boys. She keeps them all, sealed in addressed envelopes, in a small box given to her by a long-dead mother. She might be, I suppose, writing as much to her imagined mom as she is writing to these imagined boys.

It is an error common to most—this desire to live in one’s imagined version of the world—but in the form of crushes, I think, it is an affliction most often imagined as being a disease peculiar to teenage girls, child’s play if you will. This is poppycosh, of course. Crushes are violent things. They are, often, literally crushing. You don’t have to be a boy or a girl to experience them, nor must you have a crush only on a boy or girl, either. You can have a crush on a way of life, a forgotten home, a lost parent. A crush is at heart only a longing for a world that seems impossible.

The thing you know must happen, in a story with secret letters, does happen. Lara Jean faints at her first confrontation with the consequences of her imagination. One of the boys she loved before shows up holding one of her letters and down she goes. When she comes to, there’s his big dumb real face. Beyond him, there is yet another boy she loves approaching–her sister’s recently ex-boyfriend, in fact. Lara Jean does what she believes she must. She kisses the boy with the big dumb face who she used to have a crush on in order to distract the boy she still has a crush on from knowing how she really feels about him.

There are scattered scenes throughout of Lara Jean having conversations with her imagined versions of these boys. They pop up in the hallways of school, sometimes. Mostly in her bedroom. One of them one time sees her look out the window at the real version of himself. The imagined boy tells the real girl that he knows he’s more important to her than the real boy. This is the heart of the film, I think, and I longed for more such scenes. One imagines the book is full of them. But the film does what it needs to do, I think, if not what I wanted it to do. Later on, when Lara Jean’s father speaks of her mother, we see how hard it is for him, for anyone of any age, to share what is real. “You deserve to know about who your mom really was,” he says. “But I was too sad for too long to share those things with you.”

Lana Condor had a very small, if brightly fashioned, part in X-Men Apocalypse as Jubilee—one of my favorite characters from the X-Men cartoon series I watched religiously with my sister in the early-to-mid 90s. Jubilee is a young girl in a long, bright yellow coat with giant neon hoop earrings and the power to shoot electricity from the tips of her fingers. There is something of this ability to spark that seems innate in Ms. Condor. Her face has such exquisite expressiveness, her nose the most miraculous scrunchability. You always know exactly how confused and wondrous she feels. Her arms twist in elegantly awkard arcs. She plays nervous well. And when called on to be still, she does that, too. Listen to her voice. Hear how it changes depending on who she’s talking to. You will very likely have a cursh on her by the end of the film. I imagine many boys and girls will be writing letters to her.

Sometimes I imagine everything I write is a letter to someone. In this case, I suppose, I have been writing to you.

Good luck out there, today, whoever you are, in your attempts to interact with the real world. It’s the only place where anything really happens.

the host (dir. bong joon-ho, 2006)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

the-host-hyunseo

The Host is a movie about monsters in the same way that The Goonies is a movie about treasure maps—that is to say that the presence of the monster mostly serves as a way to lead us through the emotional landscape of the lives of our heroes.

In this case, rather than a bunch of misfit friends, we have a misfit family. There’s the Olympic archer who failed to earn gold because she couldn’t bring herself to let go in time. There’s the young man who sacrificed his youth in the protests that led to the democratization of South Korea and now mopes about mostly unemployed and bitter. There’s the father stupid and hopeless with everything except his love for his daughter—he collects change (stolen from his father’s food stand) in a ramen cup, in the hopes of one day having enough to buy her a new phone. I think deep down he knows it will never be enough. I think deep down she knows that he loves her more than anything and that this is more than enough.

When the monster steals the daughter away, the entire family gives chase in a determined, if hopeless, sort of way that reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine. But, you know, with a higher proportion of dismemberment and an even more overt political commentary. The monster is born from an American ordering a Korean to dump toxic chemicals into the Han river. The monster at the heart of the film, you see, is the literal product of the polluting presence of American power. It’s not all fun and games and tentacles. There’s something for everyone.

In the end, all of the family’s dysfunctions aid in the fight against the monster. Archery. Protest. A stupid amount of love. The film ends on a note of melancholy, though, that would be almost impossible to imagine in films like The Goonies or Little Miss Sunshine. That is only one of the reasons why I love it so much.

You can read more about such reasons, and also how watching this movie led to me moving to South Korea,  in a short essay I wrote for Volume H of Shelf Heroes. It’s out this month and available online and in shops like MagCulture or the BFI. I’ll post an excerpt a bit later on, readers.

 

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why don’t you play in hell (dir. sion sono, 2013)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

fumi_awesome

“Give me a Japanese girl, small and strong. Bare arms and naked blade. Hair in her eyes. Blood on her cheek. Don’t worry. She can still see well enough to separate you from your heart.” (scribbled in a boy’s notebook after watching this one film of which you are about to read a review)

I don’t know where this began. This desire for a woman both deadly and cute. Maybe it began with Buffy. Maybe it began that one afternoon in the aisle of a grocery story in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee when a man told my mom she had such a cute daughter and I felt this rush of confused shame. Maybe I am always searching in art for the redemption of some shameful part of myself. People say they want to see themselves on screen, but I don’t know about that. Some of us never saw ourselves in the mirror, and so, when we watch movies the last thing we want to see is someone who looks like us. We want to see someone who feels like us.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a Sion Sono film. In an early scene, a group of young film obsessives (The Fuck Bombers) runs into a group of warring yakuza gangs. The Fuck Bombers, led by their fearless leader Director Hirata, don’t bother trying to break up the fight. Nor do they do the sensible thing and run the other way. Instead, they film it. At first, the yakuza are annoyed. Then confused. And then, finally, compliant. They take direction as to how best to murder each other in front of the camera. Hold your sword here. Swipe like this. Yes. Fantastic. Cool. Ready? Roll tape. Action.

Sion Soho’s film concerns itself, as many of his films do, with love and perversion. In a Sono film, characters are defined, for the most part, by whatever all-consuming obsession warps their reality. Earlier of his films have seen him explore incest, religious cults, suicide, rape, upskirt kung-fu, and murderous hair extensions. This film does not really deal with that sort of thing. For the most part, the characters in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? are perverted not in their love of themselves or others, but in their love of celluloid. They are perverted by their desire for a life that feels like the movies.

The film begins with a commercial for toothpaste that features an irresistible jingle. You can watch it here. Its star is Mitsuko. Mitsuko is the daughter of a yakuza boss. Her career as a child star gets sidetracked when her mom is arrested for murdering a bunch of yakuza who dropped by their house hoping to kill Mitsuko’s father. Later, we encounter Mitsuko as a young woman tied to a chair, surrounded by a group of thugs. It turns out she has a habit of running away. Possibly because her father has attempted, throughout her life, to turn her into a film star. Her entire childhood has been spent in a movie her father has been trying, and failing, to make. She has grown up trapped in the stories her father wants to tell about her.

In a madcap turn of events, Mitsuko manages to escape, for a time, and she tries to elude detection by asking a random man on the street to pretend to be her lover. This works about as well as you can imagine. He definitely falls in love with her. She definitely still gets discovered and recaptured and now her faux boyfriend is on the chopping block for having supposedly aided in her escape. Mitsuko tells her father, though, that this man is actually a super amazing director and he will make her a star if only he might see fit not to separate him from his head. Of course, this guy isn’t a director. But. Never fear. Through more madcap hijinks, the Fuck Bombers—as older, though no less deluded folk—find their way back on the scene. All the pieces come together for a finale in which a real-life yakuza battle is fought in order that it might be filmed as a film in which Mitsuko might emerge an action star.

Some have pointed out that the director character in Sono’s film bears a passing resemblance to Quentin Tarantino. It’s also true that in the action-packed finale, in which the warring yakuza gangs fight for the benefit of the Fuck Bomber’s cameras, Director Hirata asks that the yakuza forego their guns for samurai swords and their subsequent fighting—in which fountains of blood are spilled and Mitsuko, at one point, decapitates an entire ring of gangsters with a single mighty swing of her sword—bears more than a passing resemblance to those fantastically bloody bits of Kill Bill set in Japan.

This is Sono’s most straightforwardly delightful film, and I think this is probably because, in the end, it’s all about looking good. Films—particularly certain Japanese samurai and yakuza films, as well as, yes, the many films of Tarantino—have a way of turning violence into something beautiful and admirable. Sono wants to explore the horror of this. And, in so doing, he has produced a film that looks and feels amazing, even as it constantly reminds you of its own stupidity. Mitsuko tells a character at one point that she was born stupid and will die stupid, but she has always wanted, at least once, to shine in a big way. At another moment, she also admits that she has always wanted, at least once, to really kiss someone. Not on screen, but in real life.

Mitsuko spends this whole movie trapped between a desire for something real and a desire for something that feels more real than real. She never manages to escape the fantasies of others. Sono, for all his skill, never quite brings her to life until the very end. Perhaps, in some way, that’s the twisted point of the whole thing. Mitsuko wanted to shine big and, as the curtains close, she does just that. Sono sacrifices her to the gods of film in a moment both dumb and heartbreaking. Her final words: “I looked good, didn’t I?”

edward scissorhands (dir. tim burton, 1990)

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edward

We begin with an Avon lady. A woman who sells the modern ideal of beauty—or, more precisely, the appearance and means of achieving that beauty. When she meets Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp)–a leather-shrouded man locked away in a dark house on a tall hill with, literally, scissors for hands–she meets her greatest challenge. A person immune to the means of beauty, but deeply in touch with the meaning of it.

The Avon lady, Peg (Dianne West), takes pity on Edward and brings him home. She attempts to acclimate him to normal life. She begins by getting him to look the part. A fresh, white shirt, an old pair of trousers, snappy suspenders. She dabs his scars with concealer. At dinner, Edward struggles to use his knife and fork. The son, Kevin (Robert Oliveri), struggles not to stare. Peg tells him it’s not polite to stare. The daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), struggles to hide her frustration and embarrassment at everything. Peg asks her husband how it went at work. There’s nothing so lonely as being surrounded by people pretending that you might be something other than what you are.

Edward Scissorhands has, for a long time, held a special place in my heart. Not for what it meant to me so much as for what it meant to someone I loved. She grew up in Florida, where the film takes place, and she saw in Edward Scissorhands, I think, a mirror of herself. A grotesque creature in love with, and shunned by, the idea of beauty. A tender, if awkwardly assembled, creature who believed themselves unable to touch anything without destroying it.

Edward is a great artist because of his awkward assembly. As a creature constructed from a hodgepodge of curious hope and industrial machinery, Edward knows what it is to construct beauty from the humdrum materials of our world. Women from all over town fall in love with his ability to recognize the beauty tucked away beneath the surface of things. They see him turn hedges into art sculptures and, before long, they get him to style their hair. They hope, I suppose, that as go his skills with topiary, so go his skills with women. They hope that he might cut free the beauty trapped inside of them.

It is the mission of Tim Burton, I believe, to transform fear into tenderness. Edward is not a natural being. Like all of us, he is a constructed one. And, like all of us, he is unfinished. He wears in his body a permanent state of incompleteness. No amount of make-up will make him appear more beautiful. He already contains all the beauty he needs. We hope he understands this. We hope even more that everyone else does. It is a hopeless hope. Most hopes are.

Peg brings Edward down from his dark house atop that tall hill, but she is not really interested in him so much as she’s interested in what she can make of him. She wants to force him into a role that doesn’t quite fit. She is either unwilling or incapable of engaging with Edward as he is. This is true of almost everyone in the film. No one seems capable, or willing, to grapple simultaneously with the horror and pain and tragedy and beauty and rage and love and gentleness which comprise Edward’s life and heart. See how the husband imagines that Edward can just go to the bank and get a loan. See how the son imagines Edward a kind of deadly cool monster thing worth bringing to school for show-and-tell. See how that one neighbor sees him as an exotic creature destined to unleash something warm and dark from inside of her.

Depp plays Edward as an innocent in the way a child is innocent, which is to say not all that much. He wants and feels and loves and when betrayed, when the world, or a person he cares about, fails to live up to his expectations, he goes into a rage. He lets go of all the safeguards that have kept him from destroying himself. In these rages, he confirms his worst ideas of himself. He destroys. He destroys. He destroys.

For most of the film, Edward is happy to play along with what people ask of him. He cuts their hedges and their hair and their dogs. He tries to eat with a fork. We laugh and we cringe and we cry because this doesn’t seem like the life for him or for us. But it does seem to be what we’ve built for ourselves. It seems to be all that we have.

Kim’s boyfriend, at one point, wants Ed to help him break into his own house and steal many of his father’s fine and beautiful things. Kim knows this is wrong. But, she asks Ed for help anyway. It all goes wrong, of course. It was always all going to go wrong. Kim asks him why he ever agreed to do such a thing if he knew that it wasn’t going to work out. Ed has a very simple and heartbreaking answer for her. Because you asked me, he says.

This is, I think, Burton’s most delicate, and perhaps saddest, film. It is the story of a creature perpetually misunderstood and doomed to solitude. In that way, I suppose, it is–like all great art–a description of someone so individual as to contain within them the plight of everyone. Who among us isn’t doomed, in one way or another, to being perpetually misunderstood and, for the most part, entirely alone? If there is any hope here–in this film anyway–it is that Edward experiences a moment of love and connection with Kim.

Still. I’m not sure whether to think of this as hope or tragedy.

I think often of the end of the film. Of how, it turns out, Edward lives on, forever honoring the memory of that moment of love, carving its image over and over, but never finding his way back to it in real life. He is always, and forever it seems, kept separate from the reality of love. He can only ever imagine it. Maybe this is true of all of us. I like to think not, though.

Kim is the teller of this story. She is a grandmother at the beginning and end. The story belongs to her, in this way, more than it has ever belonged to Edward. For most of her life, she has been afraid to go and visit Edward. She arranged his “death” to protect him, and so, perhaps, at the start, she left Edward alone because she needed to protect him from the town. But, now, when her granddaughter asks why she doesn’t go visit Ed, Kim says that she is too old. She doesn’t want him to see her like this.

Has she forgotten, or has she never really known, what Edward was like? Out of all of them, he was the one who could see the hidden shapes inside of bushes. He could see their true form. That she refuses to go and see him, and that she imagines, or truly believes, it is because of how she looks–well, that breaks my heart. I imagine this was Burton’s intent.

I have had trouble with Burton, from time to time, as one can only have trouble with an artist, or lover, or family member, who seems to struggle with many of the same questions as you, but who seems to have made of their life some very different answers.

Where in my own work and in my life, I have worked to see everyone, including monsters, as people, in that they are made of a mess of good and evil and sin and innocence. Burton often works to see monsters as innocent of good and evil and people as monsters of both. I think, at one time, I thought this was too cruel in regards to people and too simple in regards to monsters. I have changed my mind.

Monsters are, for the most part, only symbols. They don’t really exist. And so, by definition, they exist outside of our ideas of good and evil. People do exist. And, in the way that Edward cuts beauty from the heart of the world, people cut good and evil. People aren’t the real monsters. But they are the only species of life, perhaps, capable of creating them.

Of all the monsters here, only Kim seems to have glimpsed something of the true nature of Edward’s soul—and in so doing, perhaps something of her own and of life’s true nature, as well. I like to imagine when she tells Edward, “I love you,” that it is a love that will sustain for her a new way of seeing. That she tells his story to her granddaughter means that perhaps it has. That she refuses to visit him makes me doubt. There is no answer here. I don’t know what Burton meant. I don’t know if I am right. I love this film for so many reasons. It took me a long time to come to terms with that love.