some things about ‘on the way down’

Hello, readers.

It’s been a while.

Here are some things.

Thing one:

A story of mine came out this month. It’s called “On the Way Down.”

You can read it, along with many other wonderful things, in the eleventh issue of  formercactus. They are cool. Look at this cool art, for example:


Thing two.

Here are some things about “On the Way Down.”

It can take a long time for a story to get published. People say this all the time. So much so that you probably forget sometimes that it’s true. I bring this up now because “On the Way Down” took about ten years to get published.

I wrote the first draft not long after a friend introduced me to the amazing Stuart Dybek story, “Pet Milk.” My story is not as good as that story. If you only have time to read one yearning, bittersweet short story then you should probably go read that one.

In “On the Way Down,” I wanted to capture something of the way Dybek played around with time in “Pet Milk.”

I wanted to speed it up and slow it down and generally make a mess of it. This is where I began thinking about a story of a couple in a hotel room standing at a window and thinking about the different paths their lives took to get them to this moment.

This is not at all what my story ended up being about. Or, well, this is exactly what the story ended up being about, but not at all in the way that I thought it would be about it.

This is how stories go when they really go. They get away from you. A poem that ends up being about what it started being about is not a very good poem. The same is true of stories.

While working through that first idea of the story–of those people in the hotel room–I heard one of the characters telling the other character about a dream they had where they jumped off a building and ended up floating in front of a woman’s window. I thought this was neat because it would sum up the character’s emotional state—mid free-fall.

But, then, I wondered: why am I writing about someone’s dream in a story when I could just write the story as a dream? Isn’t that what stories are anyway? Shared dreams?

So, a night came when I sat down, and I wrote the dream. I wrote the story of a man who fell off a building and stopped, mid-fall, in front of a woman’s window. I let that moment of magic stretch and encompass everything I felt about time while reading “Pet Milk.”

It was the first time in my writing life that I had that feeling of a story arriving, more or less, complete. This wasn’t really the case, at all, of course–since I had been thinking about it for weeks, but this was how it felt.

I sent it to many places. And I showed it to many people. No one wanted to publish it, and this was sad. But, two people who really enjoyed it told me how to fix it so that it would be the best version of itself, and this was wonderful.

One of these people was a teacher. The other an editor at The Paris Review. Both said the same thing. Alas, I didn’t figure out what they meant, though, until ten years later.

At which point, I sat down one afternoon, and I rewrote the story.

The version I wrote that afternoon is the version you can read in formercactus.

I hope you like it.






somewhere (dir. sofia coppola, 2010)

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Sofia Coppola understands aloneness and loneliness better than most. She knows, for example, that aloneness and loneliness are not the same thing. We are all alone, but we are not always lonely. To be alone is to be alive. To be lonely is to feel cut off from life. Her films consist almost entirely of characters cut off from the possibilities of life. Somewhere along the way, though, they meet with someone, or some event, that threatens to wake them up. And, in the end, we will see them riding, or walking, off into the sunset. Often, they are still alone. This is okay. Their victory in these stories is not to find and hold onto love, but to rediscover that such things are possible. Whether they are about queens or movie stars or lonely Americans in Japan, Coppola makes films about us, and, like us, they tend to be relatively straightforward, if enigmatic, creatures.

Somewhere is a simple and enigmatic film. It is about a world famous actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dourff) and his relationship with his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). We don’t get much of glitzy parties or boring junkets. We don’t get much, really, of the events of Hollywood lifestyle. We do get the trappings, though. We get penthouses and pools and muscle cars and private pole dances. By the time Marco’s daughter shows up, we already know that Marco lives an empty life and we are not surprised to learn that he hasn’t been around for much of her life. Wherever Cleo has been—even if they shared the same room—Marco has always been somewhere else.

I have seen Coppola’s style of filmmaking described as detached. People say this, I think, because they believe that since her characters rarely find the words to tell us what they want or how they feel that Coppola doesn’t know how, or isn’t interested in, communicating to us what her characters want and feel. This makes sense. We have become accustomed to thinking of film as an art-form in which very little is asked of us as viewers. We expect there to be a central conflict and a series of smaller conflicts which reveal and frustrate a character’s desire until such time as we reach some sort of resolution. In films like this, we often imagine we’re observing characters when what we’re really observing are arguments between metaphors. Coppola constructs her scenes more like those found in the old masterpieces of Europe. La Dolce Vita. L’Avventura. Le Mepris. We linger in moments. There are no metaphors. Only people. There is no rush to find the next obstacle to our character’s desire. We already have everything that we need.

Most Hollywood films teach us to identify with and see ourselves in the actions of a hero. They do this by attempting to construct conflicts as universally as possible. I wonder, sometimes, if this has led people to fall out of the practice of observing and imagining the interiority of characters. It is rare to see, as in Coppola’s films, a film that asks us not to identify with, but to enter into empathy with a character. To imagine them, as it were. I have had many arguments with people who believe film to be a passive art form. I wonder if they have as much trouble imagining the reality of real people as they do imagining the reality of the people they see on screen. There is no such thing as a passive experience. There are only people experiencing things passively.

Coppola’s films are all show and no tell. They invite misunderstanding and approach great art. There is a scene, about halfway through, in which we find Marco alone in a make-up chair, his face vanished beneath a shell of white plaster. Coppola takes her time here. We zoom in on this faceless man with a great and delicate slowness. There is no soundtrack. Only the sound of his breath. In and out. He is no one. But he is someone. We can’t see him. But we know he’s alone.

Without his Cleo, Marco is lost. With his daughter, he comes to life. They play ping pong. They have tea at the bottom of a pool. Elle Fanning, as Cleo, floats through these scenes, pale and lanky and so obviously desperate for her father to be a father. Dourff, for his part, plays Marco’s slow unfurling, his slow becoming, so delicately that there’s never a moment where we go, Aha! There he is! But somewhere along the way, perhaps at ping pong, or at the bottom of that pool, we know that we’ve known it for a while now. Here he was, we think. There they are.

Late in the film, in a poolside scene, Coppola reverses the shot she filmed of the faceless man. Here Marco and Cleo sit side-by-side, and Coppola leaves them there, drifting slowly back. We’ve seen all we need to see, she seems to be saying, and now it’s time to go.

That’s the secret of a film like this. It gives you the space to lose yourself in the lives of these strangers. And when they find what they need, so do you. I have rarely been so affected by a film.

carpool karaoke: sophie turner and maisie williams

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There are those times on the road, stuck in traffic or rolling down free along the highway, that you are passed by a different car, and, while you can’t hear the music, you can see the people in that passing car singing and dancing and you think and you wish, if only for a moment, to be a part of their world, to be in that particular car, with those particular people, sharing that particular joy.

Carpool Karaoke, a skit that began on James Corden’s late night talk show in the US before evolving into Apple’s first mildly successful TV offering, grants its viewers that wish. Through some combination of a surprising number of cameras you are put in the car with a couple of celebrities as they drive and sing and dance and talk to each other and try to remember to watch the road.

I’ve only ever watched one episode of Carpool Karaoke and that one featured Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, Arya and Sansa Stark, respectively, from Game of Thrones. I remember less about the songs they sang, and more of how they sung them. For example, in their rendition of “Wrecking Ball” by Katy Perry, they seemed to be competing to see who could render the most tragically wrecked performance. Maisie, at one point, looking over at Sophie’s broken, weeping face, almost bursts out laughing because she can see what we can see which is that her friend is a fucking amazing actress.

There is a somewhat hackneyed, late-night, skittishness still draped over the show—a feeling that these bits are in some uncanny valley between improv, scripted, and actual. One bit, in which they visit a Game of Thrones event at South by Southwest, is both cringey and kind of wonderful. Another bit in which they each read sentences and generally carry on in the voices of Ned Stark and Jon Snow is just wonderful. There’s also a bit where they do some kind of magical psychic mind-reading thing. I don’t really know what that was about, but they made me believe however silly and weird it looked that there was something true and sweet and lovely about it. Much like this episode.

I don’t know if I ever need to watch another episode of Carpool Karaoke, but I’m very glad I watched this one.


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.


Here we are in a kitchen in Shropshire. Cry of lambs, scuttle of kettle. I’m finishing Kaveh Akbar’s collection of poems, Calling A Wolf A Wolf. The radio is on. You told me once that your family always has the radio on. You said that this is a mark of class. On Radio 4 today, they’re discussing the American Civil Rights movement. Martin and Malcolm and Black Lives Matter. “Racism,” someone says. “We have been on the right side of that argument for five hundred years. The system won’t birth justice anymore than a chicken will birth a duck.”

I finish my book of poems as this story ends.

You sit down across from me. You smile. You drink your cup of coffee. The lambs keep crying.

I think about how farming in one way or another has given birth to all of our favorite metaphors.

I think about how one way or another we are all seeking resurrection.

a review of the royal tenenbaums (2001) in five chapters

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Chapter 1: This one girl

In Mississippi, I once met this one girl who enjoyed very many different kinds of tea and also peacock feathers. She often had to explain to people that though her face always looked like it was frowning, she was almost always not all that unhappy.

This one time, several months after I first met this girl and not long before I was to leave Oxford forever, she bought me a copy of The LIttle Prince as a goodbye present.

She wrote a note inside letting me know that the secret truth that she had learned during our time together was that I was, in fact, the little prince.

It was one of the better presents.

The other thing about this girl is that she told me once that she never really liked very many movies.

Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, she said. She said that movie was basically a true story about her family.

This is how I first came to watch my first Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Chapter 2: The Innumerable Failures of Love

The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s third feature-length film after Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, concerns a family of geniuses not all that dissimilar to the Glass family—a brilliant, and occasionally depressive, brood that featured in several of J.D. Salinger’s short stories1. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the father. Anjelica Huston plays Etheline Tenenbaum, the mother. In an extended prologue, we learn how Royal left the family early on and how Etheline, through a precise and exacting regimen, raised their three children into the very model of modern major child prodigies. In this extended prologue, we also learn that this is the type of film that features an extended prologue.

The Royal Tenenbaums is divided into chapters. Each chapter begins with an insert 2. This insert takes the form of a chapter’s opening page. If one were so inclined, one could read this page and note that it corresponds more or less exactly to the scene we are about to see in the film. Anderson once before said that all of his films, no matter how they begin, end up as fables. The Royal Tenenbaums, though, is the only one that appears to have been literally adapted from an imaginary storybook.

When we encounter the Tenenbaum children later in their lives, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Chas, Richie, and Margot are played, respectively, by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and each of them, more or less literally, find themselves in an extended montage of feeling entirely at sea. They have all, despite their promising starts, arrived at a point of failure. This is also true of their father, Royal Tenenbaum, who has run out of money and time. Not long after his eviction from his home in a hotel, he learns that Etheline is considering remarrying. This inspires him to spin for Etheline, and his children, a tale of his impending death in the hopes of bringing the family back together. “I’ve got a pretty bad case of cancer,” he says. He doesn’t bother getting too specific. That being, of course, the great giveaway of any lie.

His plan is not entirely unsuccessful.

The Royal Tenenbaums only contains one actual attempt at suicide, but, so far as I can tell, everyone is looking for a way out. Margot, married to a moribund Bill Murray, spends most of her time in the bathroom. Ritchie, broken by his unrequited love for Margot, has run away to sea. Chaz, still traumatized by his wife’s death in a plane crash, runs constant fire drills in his home so that he and his children might maintain the proper preparedness for the inevitable need to escape from one or another of life’s little terrors. There’s also this one falcon called Mordecai. He lives on the roof of the Tenenbaum’s old home. Let me tell you. He almost steals the film. Really. Look at him go. Seriously. Look at that little guy go.

As it happens, each of the Tenenbaum children, in their final retreat from life, will escape back into the relative safety of their childhood home. There they will encounter their mother, who seems to have gotten on just fine without them, and their father, who seems desperate to introduce himself back into their lives through a bewildering combination of apology and reckless abandon.
Chapter 3: You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown

One of the dangers of a Wes Anderson film is that the diorama he has so carefully constructed—and which so particularly captures a very particular kind of not exactly unreal life—will collapse under its creator’s suffocating precision.

One of the ways in which The Royal Tenenbaums avoids this trap is through music.

There’s the moment, for example, when Margot, returning home in a cloud of depression, gets accompanied by a sad string of solitary piano notes pulled from the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Or the moment not too long after, when Ritchie—convinced of the futility of his love and his life—attempts suicide in the bathroom. Anderson plays overs this scene an Elliot Smith song called, “Needle in the Hay.” It’s worth noting, however appropriate the song may at first have seemed, it now seems much too appropriate. Elliot Smith committed suicide in 2003, two years after the release of this film. Somehow this accidental echo, this collision of reality and artifice, suits the film even as it darkens it.
Chapter 4: Mordecai Comes Home

Something you need to understand about Wes Anderson’s films is that they always function as a kind of window on the endless tug-of-war between the forces of order and chaos. Here, in one corner, we have Etheline, who shows her love for her children by carefully scheduling their lives, and, in the other corner, we have Royal, who demonstrates his love by, seemingly at random, causing his children great harm. At one point, while in the midst of playing war with his children, he turns on the son on whose side he was meant to be fighting. “We’re on the same team!” a young Chas screams. “Hahahaha,” says Royal.

Ritchie keeps a pet falcon on the roof. This is the aforementioned Mordecai. Mordecai lives in a small cage and wears a tiny leather helmet. At one point, Ritchie sets Mordecai free and Anderson follows him on his flight across the city. This may be the first and only time in any Wes Anderson film that you will see a shot lose its focus or fail to frame its subject precisely. Mordecai soars and turns among the city’s towering brownstones, and it is all Anderson can do just to keep up with the little guy. We feel such a rush of freedom in these scenes, and we understand that this feeling, exactly this feeling, is what the film and its many children have been searching for this whole time. Everyone here has tried, in one way or another, to fly the coop. And they have all met some trauma in the world that has brought them back home again, afraid of the world and its many wild terrors. Just as Mordecai, later in the film, returns home, his feathers turned white from some fright he has suffered out there in the big, bad world.
Chapter 5: Go Garbage Truck, Go!

The Royal Tenenbaums I believe, along with Grand Budapest Hotel, remains my favorite of Anderson’s films. I think it has something to do with the way it never quite finds the balance its seeking. Its characters, despite reaffirming the endless well of love they share for each other, never quite find themselves on solid ground. This is because, of course, love doesn’t really make these characters safe. As Margot says, at one point, to Ritchie, “I think we’re just gonna to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that.”

For much of this film, Royal spends his time trying to wake his children up from the doldrums which have so thoroughly engulfed them. He begins doing this because he wants their love as a treasure, I think, with which to win back the affections of Etheline. Or, perhaps, to be both more precise and vague, to win back some long vanished idea of the man he imagined himself to be.

There is no answer to the questions Anderson poses in this film. There is no way to be both fully alive and entirely safe from harm. There is no way to fly without risking a crash back to earth. I think of Chas, early in this film, hustling his children out of bed, of the comfort of their home, in preparation for some imagined terror. And then I think of Chas at the end of this film, with his wildcat of a father and his children by his side, the bunch of them pilfering a ride on the back of a garbage truck. You see in the way they swing loose, in the way the wind pulls at their hair, that they have found if not an answer to the questions of their lives, at least some kind of peace with the inevitability of that failure. I think of them there holding on tight and soaring a few feet off the ground and I smile that life, and Wes, has afforded them such a moment of breathless joy.

  1. Here is a fun fact. Are you ready? One of these characters goes by the name, Beatrice “Boo Boo” Glass Tannenbaum, and she is described at one point as “seafaring.”
  2. a still image inserted into the otherwise continuous flow of the film

the perks of being a wallflower (stephen chbosky, 2012)


A familiar, if gut-wrenching and ultimately refreshing, take on the trials and tribulations and perks of being a sensitive teenage soul in a world that often seems so very especially well designed to punish those it deems too sensitive to its cruelty and its beauty. We’re in high school again. There are the requisite bullies. And the requisite cameo appearances of young adult literature’s greatest hits: Cathcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc. Paul Rudd appears as the friendly English teacher. It’s a solid choice.

I’m happy to say that, before too long, the film drifts away from the familiar, or perhaps it just drifts deeper into it. This film doesn’t force its characters into standard narratives. It doesn’t accept the stories so often told. Of misfits and jocks and bullies and parents. It doesn’t accept what the world believes about love. Not because it doesn’t believe in love. But because it wants to finds its own path towards understanding what it means that so many of us, for so many reasons, only ever learn to accept the love we think we deserve.

It stars Logan Lerman as Charlie, Ezra Miller as his friend Patrick, and a luminous Emma Watson as Sam. It is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who literally wrote the book on the perks of being a wallflower. I don’t know of that many other examples of authors writing and directing the film adaptations of their work. Considering the effort involved in translating what works in prose to what works on film, it makes the success of this film all the more magnificent.

In lesser films, I think, there might have been a revenge plot against the bullies. There might have been a refusal to let go of the narrative impetus to win-the-love-of-the-girl-or-boy-or-whatever. Though Charlie and Sam kiss, more than once, that’s not the end of this film, because it was never the point. The point is Charlie learning to wrestle with his own pain and in so doing, perhaps, learning how to not be overwhelmed by the pain of others.

There is a scene, at one point, where Charlie explodes in violence. He asks, later, “You’re not scared of me?” And we are, a little bit. And Sam is, as well. But she doesn’t say so. Because she’s not, really. And neither are we. No more than we are scared of anyone. We all have the capacity to betray each other. We all have our reasons. A lesser film might not accept the ways we betray each other, and so it would not know what it really means to learn to love and be loved in return.

In the end, Charlie visits a doctor. Things got bad. But his friends visit. His sister and brother visit. Charlie says he doesn’t know how to deal with pain. But he’s learning. There isn’t really an answer. There can’t be. But there is hope. And there is driving down a dark tunnel with your friends singing along with David Bowie. There are perks, you see, to being.

That truth–that we accept the love we think we deserve–spoken by Charlie at one point, is as true of moviegoers as it is true of anyone. A lot of people, I suspect, accept that movie blockbusters are supposed to be dumb and that romantic comedies are supposed to, in one way or other, uphold the status quo. They’re commercial enterprises after all. What can you expect? I’ve always thought this spoke more about the filmgoer than it did the films to which they went. Not because Hollywood blockbusters aren’t often dumb, or romantic comedies not often so very quo, but because I don’t think we should ever stop being disappointed in the world. Disappointment is a prerequisite for wonder.



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.



in which a review of my kitchen table in the context of free will. or possibly the other way around.


I was looking at my kitchen table a little while ago, and it got me to thinking about free will.

When I look at my kitchen table, sometimes it occurs to me that it doesn’t really exist. What I see as a kitchen table is really just a collection of various sorts of stuff which itself is surrounded by various sorts of nothing. Mostly, there’s just nothing.

When you think about it, this is true of most things.

Free will, for example.

It’s very possible that there’s no such thing. It’s very possible that, in the same way my kitchen table is not really as solid as I perceive, the concept of free will might well be less solid than we imagine. It’s very possible that only at our scale of reality, in the world of our perceptions, can we imagine that such concepts as kitchen tables and free wills exist.

Some people find this distressing. They think that if a study reveals that free will doesn’t exist that it will mean free will doesn’t exist. It scares them to think of a world in which there is no choice. But that’s not what it would mean if we discovered free will doesn’t exist. Anymore than it would mean that kitchen tables don’t exist. Science proved the non-existence of kitchen tables ages ago but, for the most part, the world carries on pretty much the same as it always has. At least when it comes to kitchen tables.

Whatever happens, I imagine that it’s probably best to go along believing in the notion of free will in the same way that I believe in my kitchen table. Just because something doesn’t make sense in one reality, doesn’t mean it becomes meaningless across all realities. That’s not how reality works. A lot of the truths we cling to are only true from a certain point of view.

If tomorrow I adopted the point of view that my kitchen table didn’t exist, for example, then I would be faced with the decision of where to put my coffee.


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the last jedi, a commentary track by director rian johnson

Star Wars The Last Jedi GIF by Star Wars-source

There’s this one myth. It is the myth of the auteur. This is how it goes. When it comes to film, it is the director that matters above all. It is a singular artist with a singular vision which determines the success, or failure, of the thing. This myth emerged in the 50s and 60s as part of the French New Wave led by such as Godard and Truffaut. It was in response to other modes of thinking about film, such as that they were studio or star-driven. It is, as most myths are, not entirely untrue. Directors matter a lot. But, so do studios and actors and so much else. It is also, as far as myths go, not all that different from any of the great man myths, which are, really, not all that different from any of the chosen one myths. Which brings me around to Star Wars.

Star Wars The Last Jedi GIF by Star Wars-source-3

Just as The Last Jedi affirms, even as it dismantles, certain heroic myths, director Rian Johnson’s commentary for The Last Jedi, affirms, even as it dismantles, the myth of the auteur. Mostly because, for the most part, Rian spends the entirety of the commentary talking about other people. The lines Carrie Fisher and Benicio del Toro came up with. The advice from editors as to the importance of grabbing at least one cutaway to BB-8 in every scene. The laugh from Kathleen Kennedy that told him everything he needed to know about the Porgs. The instructions on directing Yoda’s entrance passed on to him by Frank Oz. The conversations he had early on, in walks along the beach, with a production designer about the big, personal questions a film like this could address. It’s only a very few times, and mostly near the very end—possibly, actually, the very last scene—that Johnson reveals something of what this film, and the legend of Luke Skywalker, meant to him. And by de-centering himself, you might think he’s unmything the myth of the auteur except, well, here’s the thing.


The Last Jedi begins with a scene of heroism from an unexpected place, and it ends with the possibility of heroism arising from all corners of the galaxy. It is a film about making room for all kinds of heroes from all kinds of places. It is a film that says there is no chosen one. It is a film that embraces the idea that the hero’s myth belongs to everyone. And seeing the same sort of generosity in Rian’s commentary kind of confirms how much his vision—one of expanding definitions of heroism and heroes—defines this film. He affirms the myth of the auteur by affirming his vision of making room for the vision of others. Just like how Luke, at the end of Last Jedi, affirms his own legend by making room for, and inspiring, a whole new generation fo heroes.

I love this film so much.


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in the aeroplane over the sea (neutral milk hotel, 1998)

in aeroplane

This is one of those songs I imagine playing at my funeral. The other is “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens.

This song might also be my answer to what song is playing when I’m at my happiest1. Well. This or the main title of Star Wars. Come to think of it, the main title of Star Wars would be a pretty good one for my funeral, too. That music more or less played me into the world. Why not out of it, as well?

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is a love song unstuck in time. Past, present, and future exist all at once. Every verse occurs in the present tense, no matter where in the timeline of love we might imagine ourselves to be. There is only now, and so much of everything that it breaks your heart. Here’s how the song begins: “What a beautiful face/I have found in this place/That is circling all round the sun/What a beautiful dream/That could flash on the screen/In a blink of an eye and be gone from me.”

The song consists of five verses. Each verse learns from the one that came before it. The second verse imagines that knowing this can’t last forever means we must “count everything beautiful thing we see.” The third verse imagines counting every beautiful thing: light, music, trees. In the fourth verse, love is lost to the past, though we remain in the present. “But now we keep where we don’t know/All secrets sleep in winter clothes/With one you loved so long ago.” In the fifth verse, the song ends back at the beginning, repeating the opening three lines before coming to rest in the wonder of having loved and lost and discovered how much love remains with you still.

For the most part, there are only four chords—G, Em, C, and D—played in that order, in 6/8 time, over and over, for nearly the entire length of the song2. There is only one moment in the song where this changes. The chords shift in the fourth verse to a different progression—Em, C, G, D—and each chord is held for twice as long. It’s almost as if the song, having been trapped in its endless circles, finally finds a way to soar, and in soaring, it doesn’t want to let go. Because of the extended chords, we imagine, along with the song, that it might last forever. That this soaring occurs in the memory of all that’s been lost perhaps tells us something about the song. Or about ourselves. I’m not sure which. Probably it’s both. When we really understand something—whether it’s a song or a book or a film or a person—we usually understand something more of ourselves, as well.

The fourth verse doesn’t last forever, of course. Nothing does. No matter how beautiful it sounds. In the fifth verse, when we return to the old chord progression, when we return to the circling, something of the soaring feeling remains. The song has learned something, I think. And so have we. That it doesn’t last forever is part of what makes it all so goddamn beautiful. It doesn’t hurt any less to understand this. I’m not sure what it does, really. But it’s that understanding, I think, that propels the song to its final line, to its final perfect wonder: “How strange it is to be anything at all.”


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.



  1. Kathy Nightingale: What’s so good about sad?
    Sally Sparrow: It’s happy for deep people.
  2. Note, these chords I’m talking about come from a version I’ve learned to play on ukulele. They are possibly not the same as actually played in the song. I don’t really know.

marie antoinette (dir. sofia coppola, 2006)



Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is in such bad taste. It’s perfect. The first time I saw it, I discounted it as a shallow indulgence in style and soft-focus. What a fool I was. To be sure, many people agreed with me. And many, I suppose, still do. But, here’s the thing. Marie Antoinette, love it or hate it, is a masterpiece. It is a vision fully realized. Here are four reasons.

reason one

Film is, first and foremost, a sensual experience, not all that different from a sunrise or a night of fireworks. Marie Antoinette contains scenes of both and more besides! We trundle through glimmering forests in lavender carriages. We race across golden green fields, our hands waving free. We feast upon colorful towers of macarons. We thrill to the mysterious invitation of a fan unfurled across rosy cheeks. Coppola has worked with Kirsten Dunst before, in Virgin Suicides, and she would work with her again later, in The Beguiled, but it’s here, in Marie Antoinette, that she may have captured best the beauty and spirit of her muse. Dunst plays the soon-to-be beheaded queen with a mix of naiveté, recklessness, and a fragile, if altogether willful, joy. Coppola frames her in moments sometime rigid and sometimes loose, sometimes formal and sometimes intimate. We see Antoinette with her hair piled high, her waist cinched tight, her décolletage exquisitely décollated, and we see her also in bed, in despair and wonder, in loneliness and anticipation, sometimes buried under blankets and sometimes all bare shoulders and ruddy legs, giggling at the prospect of some unfettered joy. We know what happens to her in the end, and Coppola knows her job here isn’t to remind us of that fact at every turn. Her job is only to remind us that all this beauty, as much as it might be decadent and escapist and rapturous, also serves as a prison, and it is no less beautiful because of that. That it is so beautiful, in fact, only makes it hurt all the more.

reason two

There are three moments in this film where Kirsten Dunst breaks the sacred etiquette of film and stares straight at the camera and into the eyes of the viewer. The first time happens right at the start, in an opening scene of Antoinette in her home in Austria. She’s in a chair, in repose, among blues and pinks, cakes and plushed velvet. At one side of the screen, a maid in black-and-white, fits on her mistress a shoe. Dunst licks a bit of frosting from her fingers, and then she catches our eye and gives a slight tilt of her head as if to say, “What are you looking at?”

The second comes in her exchange from Austria to France. She is to be married off to the young Dauphin, Louis, so as to cement the alliance between their two countries. We have arrived at this moment after a long, beautifully dull carriage ride. Antoinette approaches the tent constructed across the border. Once inside, they strip away her dog. And then her rings. Her necklace. Her hat. Her shoes. Her socks. They slip off her dress and her underclothes. It is traditional, she is told, for a bride to leave everything behind. Coppola films this scene from behind, from the point of view of Austria. She cuts next to a shot from the French side. Antoinette walks out of the tent, wearing her new costume, right into the center of the frame. The shot is almost Wes Anderson-esque in its suffocating precision, and so it centers us in Antoinette’s experience of being crushed from all sides into a new shape. This shot should do away with the notion that Coppola prefers soft filters and gauzy ephemerality because it’s all she knows how to do. Here she shows how hard and precise she can be when it appeals to her and here it appeals to her because Antoinette has walked out of her childhood and into an unforgiving adult world in which, above all else, she will be put on display. Dunst stares at us in this moment, dead-eyed and uncertain, as if to say, “Well. Here I am. Is this what you want?” Everything of the film is here in this one shot. It’s magnificent.

The third moment occurs after the birth of a child not belonging to Marie Antoinette. We have seen, at this point, many examples of Louis’ indifferent, if not simply ineffectual, affections. And we have seen Antoinette greeted, each morning, by the crowd of onlookers that gather at the foot of her bed. We have heard the whispers that follow her as to her failure to produce an heir. We have read the letters from her mother lamenting the same. And we have just seen Dunst act the hell out of a scene in which she allows only her joy, and none of her sadness, to greet the happy couple and their new baby. But now we are alone with her in her bedroom, and we watch her crumple against the door and proceed to cry. It is a private moment, for a woman allowed no privacy. But, of course, we are there, too. And she finds our gaze and holds it. There is no sarcasm here. No condescension. There is something less and more. There is a woman and she is looking at us. Coppola wants us to be unsettled. And she wants us to never forget that Antoinette, while so often trapped in the gazes of others, is never without her own gaze.

reason three

Coppola scores this film, for the most part, with a procession of 80s bands like The Cure, New Order, Aphex Twin, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In a film where so much care and expense has been paid in order to achieve such a period-perfect look—all those hats! every scene shot on location in France, in Versaille, or Chantilly, and so on—why deign to wake us from this dream? Why take us out of the moment? Why shatter the verisimilitude? I think because, as in those moments when Dunst stares out at us, the inclusion of dated pop electrifies these proceedings. They provide a shock of life, of rules broken, for good or ill. And, so, their presence helps ensure that the spirit of Antoinette shines out among the aforementioned hats and palatial beauties. Whatever else she is, or was, Antoinette is a girl whose heart, however excessive in its desire and however chained by its place in history, is her own. As those meta moments of wall breaking remind us that her gaze is her own, the soundtrack reminds us that her emotions are her own, as well.

As well, there is, I think, the fact that Coppola wants us to imagine Antoinette, herself, as a kind of 1980s pop star, and to imagine the time of her reign in France, as a gilded mirror held up to that decade, what with all its excess of greed and lust and the inevitable crash to come. And so we have this Antoinette caught in the prison of her own privilege. She is always on display. She is always the center of gossip. She is beloved and hated as the emblem of a regime she had no part in building. She is Madonna. Not the holy mother, but the wicked pop star. She is a symbol, for some, of all that’s wrong in society, and for others, for all that’s beautiful and empowering. In one way or another all of Coppola’s films deal with women trapped in the gaze of others, who nonetheless posses a gaze and beauty all their own. So it is here, too. Antoinette is never wicked nor role model. She is, for better and worse, only herself.

reason four

In The Beguiled, as here, we have a group of people seemingly cut off, and protected, from history. In one, a seminary of girls hidden by the Virginia woods from The Civil War. In the other, a queen and her court sheltered away in palaces and retreats from the mob calling for their heads. In both, the narrative turns on how the world that shelters them also imprisons them, and in some cases, dooms them. Marie Antoinette, in this film, only visits Paris but once. She is a palace girl. She is a diva out of necessity. What else can she do? She could speak out, of course. She could empathize with the mob. But who has ever empathized with her? Who has ever taught her by example? None. How could she look at a mob of people and not just see another mass of humanity, like all the others, looking at her and seeing whatever they want to see? Another set of eyes, for her, only means another set of demands. Some may accuse Coppola, I think, of trying to have her cake and eat it, too, calling on us to care for a woman of privilege, and to bask with her in the decadent and destructive nature of the beauty of her world, while only cursorily calling it all into question. But I don’t think so. Coppola doesn’t let Antoinette off the hook. Nor does she let us off the hook. She simply stages the hook in the wings. She trusts that we can see it for ourselves, even if we never see it. She trusts that, at the end, as the carriage takes Antoinette to her fate, we see what we must. A girl, with her face against a window, watching the world fall away. “Admiring the view?” her husband asks. “No,” she says. “I’m just saying goodbye.”


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.