Four Old Articles

In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.

Tell Your Children:

Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation

sexmadness1

[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]

Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.

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See Wayne and Swoon

pictureplay_johnwayne1

In 1932, John Wayne was washed up. “Since [The Big Trail] Wayne has done nothing of consequence, and his future looks none too promising,” declared Picture Play Magazine columnist Madeline Glass that April, in a piece on disposable “One-day Stars.” It had been six years since the beginning of his film career. Stagecoach was still seven years away. “Hollywood prophesied that John Wayne’s future would be brighter than Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s diamonds. So then what happened?… You’ll see [him] in an occasional ‘quickie,’ ” scoffed Photoplay’s Katherine Albert in August. He was still working consistently; that summer alone he appeared in Columbia’s Two-Fisted Law, Paramount’s Lady and Gent, and Warners’ Ride Him, Cowboy. But for the duration of the Depression, his career trajectory would remain a horizontal line.

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In November, Gladys Zimmerman’s letter ran in Picture Play. She was writing from Lisbon, North Dakota, a town about an hour southwest of Fargo which even now holds scarcely over 2,000 people. Its Main Street runs south from the Sheyenne River, a path first charted by homesteader Joseph Colton in 1880. If you follow it for five blocks, you’ll end up at the Scenic Theater, which first opened in 1911 and today bills itself as the “oldest continuously run theater in America.” Perhaps Gladys’s passion first flowered there, in the glow of a 10¢ matinee.

Perhaps she saw an outlet for that passion in Picture Play. Within the magazine’s pages, her missive and its fervor would hardly have been outliers, since every issue abounded with similar declamations: fans trashing Norma Shearer, lusting after George Brent, gossiping about Garbo. What makes Gladys stand out, however, is the object of her desire—a future legend then experiencing his professional nadir—as well as the earnest giddiness of her prose. She opens with demands directed at her fellow moviegoers: “Wake up!” and “What are you going to do about it?” That’s the voice of a woman who’s standing on her soapbox and will yield to no one.

Throughout her letter, Gladys asserts the power of the female gaze. She’s undressing Wayne (who was then 25) with her words: “a real man’s physique… those broad shoulders, that magnificent body… half the female portion of the audience swoons in ecstasy.” It’s a mere degree removed from erotic poetry, and it outlines a fundamental truth about cinema: since the art form’s inception, actors have been put onscreen in part because they turn the audience on. Gladys, though, isn’t content just to watch her idol in cheap westerns. She may not go as far as her friend, who plans a trip west presumably for the sole purpose of bedding John Wayne, but she does end her letter with an entreaty: “please write me about him.”

Like much of the letter, that last line may initially provoke gentle laughter. It’s symptomatic of a young woman’s crush. But (like many crushes) it’s poignant, too; suggestive of loneliness. She wants to get closer to this tall, handsome man she’s seen in shoot-outs and stampedes. He’s smiled at her from the screen, stirred her feelings, entered her dreams. Maybe he’s made her more aware of the shortcomings that tarnish Lisbon’s eligible young men—for what real-life beau could ever measure up to a movie star?

A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937)

About five years later, A Star Is Born was released. It’s a show biz melodrama about a farm girl named Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, who lives out Gladys’s friend’s fantasy by actually moving to Hollywood and marrying a star. The film opens with Esther coming home from the movie theater, kid brother in tow, gushing about actor Norman Maine. Her father, fiddling with his outdated stereoscope, is indifferent, but her aunt embarks on a full-blown tirade: “Gadding around picture shows, house all cluttered up with movie magazines… and the other day, I caught her talking to a horse with a Swedish accent!” This girl is spending too much time in her dreams. “You’d better be getting yourself a good husband,” advises the aunt, “and stop mooning about Hollywood.”

Esther’s family lives in Fillmore, North Dakota, which is a real place roughly four hours northwest of Lisbon. (Recent reports make it out to be a “ghost town,” devastated by the loss of a nearby railroad line.) If Gladys ever saw A Star Is Born, she may have identified with its heroine and her yen to migrate west. The movie is very deliberately structured as a small town girl’s wish fulfillment fantasy, allowing lucky Esther to metamorphose from a moviegoer into Vicki Lester, movie star: from the looker into the one who’s looked at. She may suffer, but it’s cathartic suffering that ends with her as the brightest star in filmdom’s firmament. Vicki and Esther and Janet Gaynor herself become avatars into whose stories young women can project themselves.

Hollywood becomes a paradise (“Metropolis of Make-Believe,” as A Star Is Born puts it) about which they can fantasize. It has all the romance and adventure that their Depression-blighted hometowns in the Midwest lack. Two years later, that same longing would find its apotheosis in the plaintive voice of another young woman who’d go on to star in her own A Star Is Born: Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy may not be pining for a John Wayne or a Norman Maine, but her Emerald City isn’t too far from Gladys and Esther’s Hollywood. It’s somewhere other than a dusty farm. Somewhere she can do what what she wants and fashion herself as the person she wants to be. It’s like something she’s seen in a movie—it’s her dream.

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Cartoon from Photoplay in November 1932. Artist uncredited.

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2014: Darkness and Light

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The act of making an end-of-year top 10 list is an exercise in futile vanity. It’s reductive, repetitive, more in keeping with the behavior of a butterfly collector than that of an aesthete. (I wonder: do butterfly collectors ever get sick of being used in stale metaphors?) But, as with so many critical bad habits, the fact is that it’s also perversely fun. So here’s my end-of-year top 10 list.

I’ll preface it with a trio of “honorable mentions” which I couldn’t include on my list proper due to byzantine, self-imposed eligibility guidelines: (1) the first season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, which straddles the increasingly permeable TV/movie border and contains some incredible “filmmaking” (or whatever you want to call it); (2) YouTube user Mia Munselle’s minute-long found footage opus “Camera falls from airplane and lands in pig pen–MUST WATCH END!!” which to my knowledge has never screened theatrically yet which is still an accidental gonzo work of substantial artistic import; and (3) Hong Sang-soo’s heartbreaking comedies Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi, both of which have been consigned to an inter-year limbo (as far as American critics are concerned) by the vagaries of distribution. Whether any of these items falls into the category of “2014 movie” is up for debate, but all are nonetheless relevant to any discussion of film form as this particular year winds to its close.

And now, about that “list proper”… well, first I have more honorable mentions; 15 of them, in fact, in alphabetical order. I just can’t help myself. They are ActressBlue Ruin, CitizenfourThe DoubleDouble Play: James Benning and Richard LinklaterErnest & CelestineGone GirlThe Grand Budapest HotelIt Felt Like LoveJealousyA Most Wanted ManObvious ChildOnly Lovers Left AliveSnowpiercer, and Stranger by the Lake. If you were to gently nudge my top 10, it’s possible that one of those could fall into a slot of its own, because listmaking is (enjoyable) bullshit.

I have 10 “runner-up” performances to cite, too! Patricia Arquette, for her maternal weariness in Boyhood; Emily Browning, dancing and lip-synching her way through God Help the Girl; Macon Blair, a hangdog sad sack out for blood in Blue Ruin; Zac Efron’s comic Adonis in Neighbors, especially impressive given the incoherent writing of his part; Charlotte Gainsbourg, agonizing to watch as the title character of Nymphomaniac; Liam Neeson as a brick-hewn embodiment of human duality in The Lego Movie; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl as the year’s definitive femme fatale; Tilda Swinton as a Yorkshire-accented burlesque of bureaucracy in Snowpiercer; Paul Rudd as They Came Together’s archetypal romcom leading man (“handsome, but in a nonthreatening way”); Christoph Waltz further proving his versatility while (like Efron) making bad writing sound better in The Zero Theorem; and lastly Robin Wright, acting with body and voice as a sci-fi-skewed iteration of herself in The Congress. Whew! (Oh, and if for some sick reason you want a fuller picture of my year-end activities, I voted in both the Indiewire and 12 Films a Flickering polls.)

These past few years, I’ve handed out awards for Best Performance in a Documentary. Recipients have included Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Joyce McKinney in Tabloid, Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter, and Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing. This year’s addition to that informal hall of fame is Brandy Burre in Robert Greene’s Actress.

And now, the list proper.

Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

10) Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Although its frames are heavy with the ethical weight of 21st century living, this is still a crackerjack thriller: formally exact, noose-tight, never the slightest bit didactic. Bank heists have been pulled off with less precision than Reichardt brings to her camera angles and shot durations, which over time make even the Oregon wilderness feel as restrictive as a jail cell. Though its point (you can run, you can hide, but somebody’s always watching) has been reiterated by generations of paranoid thrillers, seldom has it been expressed with such rigor.

Kim Dickens plays Gone Girl’s hard-ass policewoman with screwball agility, her performance divvying up sympathy between the misled law and Ben Affleck’s patsy.

Though loosely inspired by Philip Roth, the aging literary giant played by Jonathan Pryce in Listen Up Philip functions broadly as a stand-in for a whole generation of successful assholes, their book sales counterbalanced by impotent rage.

9) We Are the Best!, directed by Lukas Moodysson

The mere fact that this is a positive, realistic movie about teenage girls’ friendships is refreshing enough, even if that alone may not a great movie make. (“You know,” I tweeted recently, “between Whiplash, Birdman, & Listen Up Philip, I really appreciate Vi ar bäst! depicting art as not strictly a macho pursuit.”) What does a great movie make, however, is ensemble energy yoked to episodic coming-of-age plotting and sharp-eared dialogue. We Are the Best! nails both the pains of growing up and the giddy pleasures of artistic collaboration.

Amy Seimetz’s role in The Sacrament could’ve been a throwaway “horror tour guide” part. Instead, she invests it with sisterly affection and evangelical zeal, drawing a straight line from friendly “hello”s to mass carnage.

Unlike many of my cinephile friends, I don’t follow wrestling, but I am consistently impressed by wrestlers onscreen: The Rock was my #1 supporting actor last year, and Dave Bautista is the best part of Guardians of Galaxy, as endearing with his deadpan line readings as he is lethal with a blade.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

8) A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

This tripartite avant-garde/doc whatzit is like an invitation to a trance state. Its audio plumbs the extremes of black metal and forest-shrouded silence, mostly forsaking dialogue; its ambulatory camera pushes on through open-air baths, firelit nights, and lakes whose waves lap against a lonely rowboat. It’s maybe baffling, definitely abrasive, yet still tantalizing as it weaves that wondrous spell.

I don’t expect Emily Blunt’s work in The Edge of Tomorrow to receive any awards attention; as far as Academy voting is concerned, acting rarely happens within action movies. But she’s the real deal (here, in Looper, in Your Sister’s Sister, in The Five-Year Engagement), providing the battlefield bravado that makes Tom Cruise’s death-by-death redemption possible.

I keep imagining Birdman as a mediocre remake of His Girl Friday, and maybe that’s in part because Edward Norton has such an old-fashioned charm to him. (See also: his “Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith” riff in Death to Smoochy.) I could see his strut, ego, dick, and all transplanted into the 1930s with minimal fuss.

Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

7) Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

By now, I’ve seen innumerable 2014 “best of” lists that foreground Boyhood, whether by naming it an ecstatic #1 or by crowing about its conspicuous absence. But I want to get away from all that, away from the “for or against” atmosphere fostered by a movie’s status as consensus favorite, and back to my feelings when I walked out of the theater this past August. I was gobsmacked, not merely by the unorthodox longevity of the film’s production, but by its dialogue and its complex ideas about family and the self, as well as its frequent grasps at the sublime from within the quotidian. It speaks to cinema’s possibilities, but also to its limitations, like the tragedy that a movie can only run from its beginning to its end.

With her bloodlust and blond mane, Mia Wasikowska injects a necessary dose of goofy id right into the middle of Only Lovers Left Alive. (She’s not half bad as the flawlessly coiffed object of “nice guy” desire in The Double, either.)

J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash is admittedly blunt and showy, alternating between a couple of vicious notes for the whole of his screentime. But sometimes a movie needs an actor to be like a wrench to the rear of the skull, and Simmons is exactly, fatally that.

Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

6) Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

Watching this acrid comedy is like having a vial of misanthropy splashed in my face, yet counterintuitively it remains a pleasurable experience. The film zigzags through novel-emulating arcs of asshole behavior with no real comeuppance to be found at the end, yet still I relish its sour aftertaste. That’s because Listen Up Philip is satire that doesn’t resort to caricature, instead frankly replicating the headspace of a very intelligent young man (i.e. the worst type of human being) then dismantles its subject from the inside out.

Typically with a movie like Listen Up Philip I’d expect the antihero to have a “woman who holds him back”; instead, Elisabeth Moss plays “the woman he held back,” and her face (caught in close-up over the span of their break-up) says as much as Philip’s reams of smartass dialogue.

Although Boyhood’s most ballyhooed spectacle is that of a child aging from 6-18, it also depicts Ethan Hawke’s progress through his thirties into early middle age, accompanied by his character’s steady evolution: from songwriting “cool dad” to the uncool dad who drives a minivan and accepts his responsibilities.

The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

5) The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

I think of myself as pretty inured to horror movies’ scares at this point. I still watch them and love them, but—well, it’s like that bit in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman punches a plank of wood until her fist is numb. And watching The Babadook is like someone chopping that fist off at the wrist. Not only does the film boast immaculate craftsmanship (metronomic editing, monochrome production design) but it also makes motherhood—this fundamental fact of human existence—scarier than any bogeyman you could conjure up. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” indeed.

In Night Moves, all of Jesse Eisenberg’s usual mannerisms are tamped down, everything shoved below a stolid surface, with his interiorized fear and despair only bubbling up through his quavering voice and forced half-smiles.

As the author surrogate in Catherine Breillat’s autobio-drama Abuse of Weakness, Isabelle Huppert provokes sympathy and terror, her body put graphically through simulacra of strokes, PT, and a halting recovery.

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

4) Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

You can break this experimental doc’s conceptual simplicity down into numbers: 11 shots, 2-3 people (plus occasional animals) per shot, 1 angle from which a static camera captures it all. Yet even forgoing most conventionally “cinematic” embellishments, the film still supplies a myriad of sights to see and miniature dramas to experience. It’s simultaneously a retreat back toward the basics of filmmaking and a leap forward via the primal power of the frame.

Even saddled with a phony German accent, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a fitting farewell performance in A Most Wanted Man. The nexus of the film’s anti-terrorist web, he visibly bears the weight of its moral compromises on his wide, world-weary shoulders.

What impresses me most about Jenny Slate in Obvious Child isn’t her motor-mouthed joke delivery, nor the way she subtly shades her sardonic reactions with pathos, but instead her fully demonstrated capacity for joy—a trait too often undervalued among performers.

3) Goodbye to Language, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

If Manakamana can be both a retreat and a leap forward, then the same is true of Godard’s foray into 3D, albeit in a more berserk fashion. It’s as if this old film-historical trickster god had invented a time machine that could carry him simultaneously into the future and back toward a pre-Lumière past. Breaking old rules, inventing new ones, taunting the viewer with unsolvable visual riddles: this is Godard all right, crafting (with the aid of stereoscopy and a curious pup named Roxy) a movie as fun, beautiful, and mind-bending as it is inscrutable.

Joaquin Phoenix may play a villainous pimp in The Immigrant, but his performance also disrupts such easy labels; though he may radiate wickedness and abjure audience sympathy, he’s still playing a human being first.

Scarlett Johansson’s anti-star turn in Under the Skin is a testament to her wealth of thespian imagination. It awes me that she even attempted to play an incomprehensible alien being, let alone that she succeeds to a terrifying degree.

The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

2) The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

Even though this rich melodrama only squeaked into theaters in 2014, it already feels as if it’s been around for decades. As if it’s an artifact from a bygone era, perhaps carved by Gray from a chunk of solid history, as one might make an amulet out of an elephant’s tusk. Walking into a new release this year, I never expected to see anything so pure, full, emotionally direct, and morally thorny. But then, The Immigrant has zero interest in playing to expectations.

The same applies to Marion Cotillard, who takes on a timeworn character type (“Gish-esque waif”) as the star of The Immigrant and makes the part hers. You can add her close-ups (like Elisabeth Moss’s) to the annals of great screen acting, right alongside Bergman and Garbo.

The aspect of Jason Schwartzman’s performance in Listen Up Philip that cuts me the deepest is the obvious sadness that will never be met by another human being’s compassion, because he lacks even a shred of the requisite humility.

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

1) Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

I hate to hyperbolize, but this is probably a new landmark in science fiction history.  Here, let me put that in hacky pull-quote form: “First came Metropolis, then 2001Star Wars, and now… Under the Skin.” To be terse: it’s just not like other movies.

No actor this year got to me quite like Essie Davis in The Babadook, whose performance incorporates notes of depression, abject terror, and homicidal resentment. She melds uncomfortable realism with outsize metaphor in the way she moves and screams.

And finally, Davis’s total inverse: Ralph Fiennes as the cosmopolitan Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He handles the role’s ornate dialogue, physical comedy, and latent melancholy with the same foppish grace.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beyond the Lights, Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, Love Is Strange, National Gallery, Selma, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and Two Days, One Night.]

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On Madness and Art: An Art Dump

There’s a strange social narrative surrounding bipolar depression, formerly known as “manic depression.” The sickness is often associated with artistic types, as many famous artists had (or are thought to have had) bipolar depression: Sylvia Plath, van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, etc. Sometimes artists themselves perpetuate the idea that the illness helps fuel their art. There’s even a very interesting book, Touched with Fireon this subject that I really want to finish reading someday.

As a person who sometimes makes art and is also bipolar depressive, this narrative annoys the shit out of me. When I was in the hospital I journaled a lot about how frustrating and dangerous this romanticizing is. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, and sure, it’s totally possible that the boundless energy that comes with a manic phase could result in a lot of work getting done. For me though, mania also gave me panic, paranoia, and a complete inability to focus that energy on any one thing. And the thing about mania is that you can’t have it without the depression. So, I get to go from being unable to get anything done because I’m hopped up on mania to not being able to do anything because I’m so depressed I can’t even function.

Despite the fact that sometimes mania feels good because at least it’s not depression, bipolar depression is still not a good or functional disease, and it doesn’t lend itself well to getting shit done. Any and all art I am able to create is in spite of my illness, not because of it.

During my hospital stay, I was worried that the amount of art I was churning out would somehow reinforce the idea that bipolar depression and creativity are linked. I made more art in the week and a half I was there than I have in the rest of the year combined. But being in a mental hospital is not quirky or cute or fun. The only real reason it was more conducive to creativity for me is because there was literally nothing else to do. I didn’t have my phone, there were no computers, and we had limited access to phones or televisions or even radios. From the time we woke up to an hour or two before lights out we were either in group/individual therapy or eating as a group. We spent our entire days in the group room which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the only room where we were allowed pens, pencils, and crayons. I had the time, safe space, and tools to spend entire days making art. It was a crucial aspect of my recovery and in no way motivated by my illness itself.

I’m very proud of the art I made there and am happy to share it now, knowing that it’s a sign of my recovery rather than my illness.

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“Zipper Girl,” the last piece I made in the hospital

Lyrics from Tom Waits' "9th and Hennepin"

Lyrics from Tom Waits’ “9th and Hennepin”

I learned that colored pencils are fun

I learned that colored pencils are fun

This isn't as done as I want; maybe I'll come back to it someday. Skirts are made from wallpaper.

This isn’t as done as I want; maybe I’ll come back to it someday. Skirts are made from wallpaper.

Another Zipper Girl; she was really popular among other patients and they all wanted their own. I got really good at drawing her.

Another Zipper Girl; she was really popular among other patients and they all wanted their own. I got really good at drawing her.

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2014

Journey to Italy

I’ve been compiling lists like these for the past couple years, and they’re so much fun, because they give me an excuse to rifle through my past year of viewing logs, remembering what great movies I watched when. Like that time I pushed through my exhaustion to catch The Saragossa Manuscript at my local art house and was duly rewarded for my efforts. Or the time I was cuddling in bed between two people I love, experiencing One from the Heart for the first time. These movies, which span the globe and most of film history, are a big part of what I’ll take with me from 2014. So are the performances in them: by Oliver Reed and Isabelle Adjani, Glenn Ford and Thandie Newton, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Jones. (And John Gilbert, Nicole Kidman, Richard Attenborough, Veronica Lake, etc.) Now, I suppose, it’s just about time to get started on next year, with these movies growing in my memory.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) · The Angelic Conversation (1985) · Apart from You (1933) · The Big Parade (1925) · Birth (2004) · Blonde Crazy (1931) · Black Sabbath (1963) · Brighton Rock (1947) · City Streets (1931) · Cluny Brown (1946) · Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) · The Devils (1971) · Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) · Elephant (1989) · Equinox Flower (1958) · The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) · Flirting (1991) · The Great Garrick (1937) · High School (1968) · Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) · The Hole (1998) · Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) · I Married a Witch (1942) · Journey to Italy (1954) · The King and the Mockingbird (1980) · The Lady Without Camelias (1953) · Lessons of Darkness (1992) · Lola (1961) · Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) · Lost in America (1985) · My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1985) · Nostalghia (1983) · One from the Heart (1982) · Point Break (1991) · The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom (1993) · Possession (1981) · Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) · Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) · The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) · Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) · The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) · Storm Over Asia (1928) · There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) · 3:10 to Yuma (1957) · Throne of Blood (1957) · Throw Down (2004) · Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) · A Woman of Paris (1923) · Yesterday Girl (1966) · Zorns Lemma (1970)

[NB: This list consists exclusively of pre-2014 films. I’ll have a list of my favorites from this year up in the next couple weeks.]

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Men I Met in the Hospital

I guess it was silly of me to think I’d be safe from sexism in the nut house. Beyond the fact that there’s an long history of institutional sexism in mental health facilities themselves, there’s a simple reason why I should’ve known better: men would be there.  Men don’t stop participating in sexism or perpetuating microaggressions just because you’re all sick.

The most overt example was the man who told me how beautiful and sexy I was every chance he got. Who waited until we were alone in the group room to tell me how much he “liked me” and that he was single and I was far away from my partner so, you know, if I need a hug or even a kiss that could happen. Gross as his aggressive come-ons were, he was the easiest to deal with. His explicitness made it easy to report him to the techs. I felt his wide eyes moving over me even though he stopped speaking to me. I watched him move on to a patient who was more receptive to his grossness. I listened to him in group sessions rage against the mother of his child for refusing to take him back. I was relieved  that he’d stopped talking to me.

There were other men who were more difficult to deal with. Their bullshit existed on a more subterranean level that can often be difficult to make others see or believe.

One man, a white guy who rapped about “the man” (“the man” being a conspiracy theorist’s idea of the government), took my joking that bigfoot wasn’t real as a cue to talk at me about it for an hour. An hour. About bigfoot. As I stared straight ahead, giving no acknowledgements or signs of interest, he talked at length about (extremely shoddy, easily debunked) science that proved bigfoot was real. All the reasons why the government covered it up. All about his bigfoot website, which he encouraged me to visit so I could learn “the truth.” In general, I’m exhausted with men who think they have something to teach me (and assume that I want or need to be taught in the first place). And here I sat next to a man who wore a shit-eating grin while implying that I’m some kind of rube for not believing in bigfoot. I only took my eyes away from the craft I was working on long enough to say, “I bet you watch Ancient Aliens.”

And I swear to you, this man said yes, excitedly, and proceeded to tell me more now that the subject of aliens had come up.

Other men had infuriating tendencies to insert themselves in conversations they shouldn’t be in. I never got emotional in any of the group therapy sessions until the day before I left. Another girl had come to The Meadows a few days before, and we clicked: we were both students at Penn State, had similar histories and symptoms. In our last group together we had an intense conversation specifically about the pressures young women feel and how difficult it is to deal with. While this incredibly cathartic, intimate moment was happening, several of the men in the group felt it appropriate to throw out their defensive opinions.

“I don’t even like skinny girls!” “Yeah, same, I like women who eat, haha.”

I was furious. How dare they choose this moment, a clearly painful bonding moment between women, to shove their “not all men” bullshit at us. I turned towards them, eyeliner running down my face.

“It doesn’t matter what you like. The pressures still exist for us and telling us that you like something else is just a different kind of pressure.”

The worst one, the one I hated more than all the rest, is only named Mr. Toxic in my journal. (If I try, I can remember his name but I choose not to.) Imagine Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: an interloper, an instigator, someone who thinks he has all the answers. Now imagine him as a real person in a real hospital where real people are trying to get better.

Mr. Toxic was a con man. He was at the hospital to avoid jailtime, which is not uncommon and also not something that is inherently bad. But he made it quite clear at every chance that he didn’t want to be there and thought it was all a waste of time. Not just for himself but for the rest of us as well. In-session, he talked endlessly about how he didn’t need medication or therapy because all you need is a “higher power.” He tossed out bullshit truisms and always sat with a smug smile on his face, uninterested in anyone else’s discussions. Out of sessions, he glorified his past drug use and made general commotion around the hospital. He shit-talked all the therapists (who were, admittedly, a mixed-bag; we had 10-12 groups sessions a day so our group leaders varied from very skilled therapists to newbie techs) and sneered at the idea of medication for treating mental illness.

Essentially he was every anti-med, anti-therapy, “it’s all in your head” shit stain who’s ever told you to just get out of bed and change your perspective as if you’ve never fucking tried that before.

Unfortunately, he was also a strong enough personality that many of the other patients were drawn to him. When you’re mentally ill, sometimes you want to believe that the doctors are all quacks, that you don’t need your meds, and that you really can just power through it without help. Even if you know from your own experiences that it’s not true. Which is why I hated him so much–he indulged every maladaptive habit the patients had and validated our harmful thoughts.

I tried, for the sake of relaxation, to abstain from calling him out. But in or out of the hospital I can’t change my nature. And my nature is calling pompous, arrogant men on their bullshit. He spent a lot of time rolling his eyes when I pushed back against the idea of a higher power being necessary or something that can fix you. Same with my insistence that some people actually fucking do need their medication. But it all really came to a head the day he was set to finally leave.

He’d been saying loudly for days that if they didn’t release him soon he’d do something drastic so I was pleased they were discharging him. In one of our midday groups, one of the younger guys who rarely talked was actually opening up about his addiction problems and how he wanted to get better.

I spent most of my time at the long table in the group room drawing, crafting or journaling. (Only in the group room were we allowed pens and pencils; there are large sections of my journal written in marker because that’s all I could have in my room.) For certain therapists I would join the group circle but most of them were content to leave us at the table, and that’s where I wanted to be anyway. So that’s where I sat, drawing, when I heard Mr. Toxic say to this kid, “You’re not done yet. You’re too young; you gotta leave here and live more before you’re done.”

I fucking lost it. For nearly a week I’d listened to this asshole put on fake godly bullshit in groups while constantly belittling our attempts to get better and simultaneously encouraging our worst behaviors.

“I cannot believe you’re telling him that he’s not done. He’s trying to get clean and you’re encouraging him to leave here and go right back to doing the same things. You don’t get to do that. That’s disgusting.”

And he lost it too. I guess he was tired of it after a week of me calling him out.

“You don’t know shit about anything! You don’t know anything about him or me or about life!”

And because I’m spiteful, I laughed and asked, “If you know so much, if you have all the answers then what the hell are you doing in here with the rest of us?”

At that point, the therapist broke us up. Mr. Toxic left a few hours later and I never saw him again.

I resent all these men. I resent them for invading the already limited physical and mental space I had there. I resent being sexually harassed in a place where I was supposed to be safe. I resent being expected to feign interest in their bullshit or tolerate their entitlement or allow them to damage other patients. I resent them for trivializing my illness and my recovery. I resent being reminded, even in a place of rest and comfort, that I can never be safe from this kind of bullshit.

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It’s Alive!

If not obvious by the new post, Pussy Goes Grrr is back! This space has been more or less dormant for a few years. But things are different now: I’m not in college, I moved states and I’ve got a lot more free time on my hands than I used to. So keep an eye out for new content here over the coming weeks!

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