Hello! I’m in the process of transferring older work from another site to this one, and will be adding some new work soon. Things will be a bit spare for a few weeks but work is underway. You can find bite-sized bits of my thoughts on my Twitter account.
Day 4 was kind of a grab bag, with films from multiple countries. We chose two films that featured very famous stars in early roles.
A Woman’s Face: From 1938, this film features Ingrid Bergman before she went to Hollywood. Already a star in Sweden, she wanted the opportunity to play a less-glamorous role and stretch her skills. This mesh of noir ideas with a romantic drama was the result, and it seems to have achieved what she was after—well enough that Hollywood remade the film a few years later with Joan Crawford.
Bergman plays a woman left disfigured by a childhood tragedy. With her options limited by her disfigured face, she has become hard and bitter, driven to taking part in blackmail schemes to get by, with the hope that wealth might ease the emptiness she feels. On a mission to squeeze as much money as possible out of one target, she ends up getting caught; but the person who catches her makes a choice to offer her kindness, and a path towards changing her life. This one choice provides her a new identity, new opportunities, and the discovery of what warmth and love can mean. But the ties to her old life are still there and threaten what she’s built.
Eddie Muller argued that this film isn’t really a noir—“too much redemption for my taste,” he said, citing the happy-life and romance elements it contains. But the setup for this story isn’t all that different from noir classic Kiss of Death: a criminal is given a second chance and finds the happiness they crave, but it’s threatened by their criminal past. The only thing we’re really debating is the framing, and I feel like saying this isn’t really noir because the framing is more about a realm of stereotypically female-focused elements is, well, not the most thoughtful position in this context.
American noir tends to be hard-boiled, sure. But that’s not a requirement, particularly when working with conventions of another culture. The redemptive elements in this film (particularly Anna’s final choices) are very Scandinavian, reflecting a utilitarian viewpoint that looks at a broader view of a person’s life and the impact one has on others. A Swedish noir isn’t going to look like the American version no matter what. And I appreciated seeing a noir story that came from this cultural viewpoint, and that centered a woman’s choices.
As to the draw of Ingrid Bergman, she’s fine in this movie, but she was only 22 and it’s clear she wasn’t yet fully in control of her craft. Too much of her characterization as the bitter disfigured version of Anna revolves around spitting her lines and smoking furiously, using markers rather than a sense of personality. In other parts of the film she’s over the top in strong emotion, not yet fully confident in commanding her voice and her abilities. It’s astonishing that Casablanca was only four years after this one; her abilities grew enormously in such a short time.
Never Let Go: This 1960 British film builds a noir story on the conventions of the kitchen-sink drama. The owner (played by Peter Sellers in an early and very rare dramatic role) of a garage runs a chop shop on the side, hiring young bikers to steal cars that are given new tags and papers to be resold. They steal a car belonging to a cosmetics salesman (Richard Todd), who is distraught at the loss; living on the edge of solvency, he made an expensive investment in the car as a bid to improve life for himself and his family. He becomes obsessed with recovering his stolen car, which puts him up against the garage owner, who is equally invested in hiding his side hustle and maintaining his own appearance of respectability. These conflicting goals cascade into increasingly violent circumstances that ripple beyond just the two men.
This is a really well-structured noir thriller. Todd’s character’s obsession with the car and his recklessness in pursuing it have drastic consequences for his life, but he’s so focused on the car as an icon of improving his situation that he can’t see beyond that…which means that he doesn’t grasp how dangerous Sellers’ character is. He also can’t understand that the interest of the police investigating the case is to break the car-theft ring, not merely get his individual car back; this leads him to undercut their efforts for his own specific goal. He won’t listen to his wife and he makes unbelievably foolish choices at work while trying to manage the stress of the search for the car. (One of the most shocking moments isn’t an act of violence, but when he insults a salon manager who refuses to grant him an appointment because he was an hour late.) And he also endangers others in his overwhelming obsession.
The cast is all good, but Sellers is extraordinary. His public face is sharp clothes and careful details, unction with a toothy tight smile, surface-level accommodating to the police and insisting that he runs a “legitimate business,” a phrase he returns to with increasing urgency as the plot unfolds. Behind the public face is a dangerous predator, ferociously controlling every tiny detail around him (including things like scolding his young mistress for not using a coaster on the expensive console table) and just enough violence (as much emotional as physical) to keep people cowering and in thrall. As Todd’s character continues to press on the stolen car, Sellers’ control of his world starts to come apart: his exquisitely detailed apartment becomes messy, he doesn’t shave, he stops paying attention to his careful wardrobe. And as his control comes apart, his violence increases. It’s a fantastic, terrifying performance, and while certainly unexpected for the time (when he was entirely known as a comedian), it captures the sense of emotional violence that often lurked under his comedy (and was, by all accounts, present in his private life).
But the thing that made me truly love this film, the reason I’m going into so much detail, is that it is a feast of class issues in the rapidly-changing culture of late 1950s/early 1960s Britain, which is what cements the noir feel of it. This isn’t merely a clash of law-abiding vs. criminal; it’s a clash of regional cultures and stereotypes that inform everyone’s behavior.
Todd’s character and his wife are ostensibly middle-class Londoners and should be living comfortably; but they’re hanging on by a thread and his choices are compounding the problem. His issues at work are embodied by a younger colleague who is dressed more sharply, has a more posh accent, and is adopting new sales methods that rely on data rather than personal connection. The social upheaval of this era stranded many people who thought they had a comfortable place in the world.
Sellers’ character is a Northerner (the accent dances weirdly between Merseyside and Yorkshire, but is definitely from the northwestern part of England), a demographic that is typically derided by middle and upper class London as thick, uncultured, and suitable only for rough labor; this means he has to work extra hard to overcome the stereotype. Thus the public image of expensive clothes and trappings and the carefully controlled details, along with the insistence that he runs a “legitimate business,” even as he’s leveraging the benefits of criminal activity to support his lifestyle and image. His resentment at being treated as a criminal (even though he is one) arises in part because of the way he is boxed in by where he came from.
His employees are mostly East Enders, locked out of the good life by their upbringing and accents, yet ubiquitous in manual trade in London, their value to the day to day operation of life made invisible by their class. The mistress of Sellers’ character is also from this demographic and dialogue indicates that she was an orphan who ran away from care; she’s the definition of someone discarded by society, unwanted because of her class, her family status, and her gender. She’s attached herself to Sellers’ character because she has little to offer aside from her beauty and her willingness to give up her body; he accepts her despite her drawbacks because her youth and beauty support the image he seeks, and he offers her a measure of physical comfort, which she pays for by surrendering much of her autonomy. She naturally gravitates towards one of the young thieves, because they have more in common due to both age and background, and because he offers her respite from the garage owner’s violence; and when the salesman and his wife show her kindness and treat her with dignity, it changes her approach to the world.
Finally, the kids in the bike gang, clearly intended to evoke the Teddy Boys and Mods, are presented as rowdy, undisciplined, and threatening to “good” people (like the protagonist), even though part of their behavior arises from the limited options available to them as lower-class kids. They are trying to find their space in a world that has made decisions about their vale solely because of where they came from; their rejection of who they are supposed to be based on their class is part of what makes them threatening.
A good noir story will work even without a rich context like this. But this foundation of class conflicts and challenges provides an additional level of story that makes everyone’s choices more understandable and more sympathetic—even Sellers’ monstrous criminal. I spent this film feeling like I was chewing on the most satisfying meal, reveling in the sociology used to underpin this tense story. This was a real discovery for me and I’m thrilled to have seen it.Outfit Details
Day 3 was all Japanese 1960s gangster films that also crossed over into noir. I have a long-standing love for Japanese gangster/detective films generally; there is something about the style of these, the way they break the conventions of Japanese propriety while still exploring Japanese mores, that I find extremely compelling. So three of these films, of wildly different tone and style, was really a feast.
A Colt is My Passport: This film is fairly famous in the U.S. but somehow I’d never encountered it before. It’s a moody, atmospheric story of a hitman’s existential challenges that also contains a couple of the most wildly-imagined shootouts I’ve seen. A hitman (the legendary chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido, a.k.a. “Joe the Ace”) is commissioned to take out the boss of a rival gang, but the way he chooses to do it angers his own gang as well as the rivals. When their escape plan falls apart, he and his apprentice are sent to a small seaside town to hide out until things cool off, unaware that agreements are underway that will make them collateral losses in a larger plan. They find unexpected allies in the truckers and ship workers, as well as a young woman with a story of her own.
The story here is fairly straightforward; the joy is all in the telling. The film synthesizes a number of other film elements of the time, including nouvelle vague camerawork and story structure, spaghetti western blocking and closeups as well as music (love the flamenco-flavored jazz on the soundtrack), and the “doomed protagonist running out of time” conventions of American noir, all expressed with uniquely Japanese style. The way all of the gang members show up everywhere in sharp suits, no matter the setting, emphasizes Japanese propriety and the importance of role and status. The use of many natural elements like birds, insects, and the waves and wind in the hitman’s decisions call to mind aspects of classical Japanese poetry and Shinto. And the final confrontation, rightly notorious, is over the top, absurd, and yet perfectly in tune with the rest of the film.
Is it noir? It’s noir enough for my purposes. The overall tone is right, and the sense of racing to beat impending doom along with betrayal certainly fits. Even Mina, the woman who brings her own backstory to her interactions with the gangsters, is well in line with the tradition of complex noir dames, including holding on to her agency and refusing to be intimidated. I might not have considered this a noir film if I’d seen it outside this context. But in this context, it’s a great fit.
Branded to Kill: This was the film that made be bounce and clap my hands in glee when I saw it in the listing for this year’s Noir City. I’m an unabashed fan of the deliberate chaotic weirdness of Seijun Suzuki’s films, and my introduction to his work was Tokyo Drifter, so seeing another gangster pic from him, in this context, was a joy. And it also meant introducing my spouse to Suzuki, on a big screen, which couldn’t be better.
There is theoretically a plot to this but it’s not all that important. Joe Shishido is our star again, and again playing a hitman, though this time far more dramatically than in the previous film. There’s a framework of a legendary “ranking” of hitmen with everyone desiring to be No. 1. And there’s an instigating incident when our protagonist encounters a mysterious woman who hires him to carry out a highly specific, absurdly difficult hit. But everything around that is just surreal, delightful weirdness.
There’s a hugely dramatic story surrounding the existence of this film, built on the notion that Suzuki didn’t have the resources to make a coherent, saleable movie, and ended up being fired for his inability to deliver. But c’mon. There’s nothing unintentional in this film, and Suzuki always did just what he wanted to do. There’s a lot of deliberate surrealism, timelines broken out of all coherence, avant garde camera work, and over the top performances. It’s highly (almost comically at points) symbolist, and it includes elements I’ve seen in other Suzuki films referring to the conventions of traditional Japanese theater styles. And sometimes it’s just funny and dumb, because it can be. All films about hitmen are fundamentally existentialist and wrangling with the presence of mortality, which is something they have in common with many typical noir concepts. Very few such films are as deliberately outlandish as this one, though.
Did I enjoy it? Of course I did. I find Suzuki’s films exhilarating in their weirdness, even when they don’t totally work (which is often, and which this one doesn’t in several points). There is real joy in watching an artist throw out all expectations and make something weird; and while you might not like or agree with Suzuki’s choices, he was always very good at what he was doing even if the result was chaos. He’s one of the best examples of an artist who understands his form well enough to break the hell out of it. You should finish a Suzuki film alternately laughing manically and with a headache from the bizarreness.
Oh yeah, and it was a successful introduction for my spouse. At multiple points I caught him grinning and giggling gleefully. So there will be a trip to Scarecrow Video for Tokyo Drifter and Pistol Opera, at minimum, in the near future.
Pale Flower: Going from Suzuki’s chaotic existential carnival ride to the quiet, measured melancholy of this film was a big shift; but it was also an excellent demonstration that the genre can contain so many styles. Another hitman story, another mysterious woman, another reckoning with mortality, this time in a way that asks the viewer to travel into the loneliness of this life.
This time our hitman is recently out of prison for a previous killing. In the time he’s been away his gang has formed an alliance with the gang he killed a member of, which leaves him uncertain of where he fits in. Drifting into a gambling session, he encounters a young woman who bets recklessly and intrigues him with her sensation-seeking approach to her existence, even as he struggles to figure out the meaning of his own life.
There’s an unexpected delicacy to this film, even though there’s nothing delicate in the story or characters. Every moment feels achingly evanescent, framed in gorgeous use of light and shadow and camerawork that emulates the way people look at each other and around them. The soundtrack builds the music on the sounds of the actions onscreen, like the clicking of gambling tiles and the betting call of the dealer, the rhythm of city trains and cars on city streets, the actions of people eating and drinking. The performances are measured and slightly opaque; we aren’t meant to know exactly what the characters are thinking, and it contributes to the sense of loneliness that suffuses the film. Despite this, I didn’t find it depressing or nihilistic; it’s more of a meditation on how we find meaning in our existence, and how we deal with the consequences of our choices. This is a genuinely lovely expression of this eternal search, and an essential noir concept.
This was an unreservedly excellent day of screenings, and gave me new ways of thinking about the idea of noir.Outfit Details
Day 2 of this year’s festival brought a slate of French films. As it was a weekend day, that meant four screenings. Because of logistical issues and the sheer physical challenge of watching four films in a day, we ultimately decided to go with just the last two.
Le doulos: As co-host for the day Rosemary Keenan noted, you can’t do a slate of French noir without including Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville’s obsessions with American crime pictures and the trappings of them are a crucial piece of the story of noir in Europe. And this film, fundamentally noir and also starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, is pretty much a hall-of-famer for Euro noir.
The film’s title is explained at the beginning as French crime slang for a type of hat and the kind of person who would wear such a hat, which is ultimately a reference to a police informant. The plot of the film is built around a major heist and a series of interlocking crimes relating to that, as well as suspicion about who in the circle of criminals involved is the informer. It’s beautifully made, with gorgeous use of light and shadow, circular camera pans and POV shots that feel like surveillance cameras or the urgent fearful glances of frightened people. The storyline works well and the way information is withheld from both individual characters and the audience builds to some unexpected plot points.
But I ultimately found it long and kind of tiresome. It sometimes seems infatuated with its own sense of clockwork plotting, and the final 20 minutes feel unnecessary after what came across like a natural conclusion to the story. I was impressed by the high level of skill (particularly Serge Reggiani as the burglar whose actions center the plot), but I can’t say I have any particular liking for it.
There’s one other major problem. Recall my thoughts from day 1 on the surprising presence and agency of the women in those two films. The women in this film are quite literally tools and nothing more. Their characters exist for the men to make use of in furthering their own ends. They are given little in the way of personality or differentiation, and their fates are brushed off as not vital to the plot. This in itself is a major difference from American noir, where women may be constrained by the good girl/bad girl archetypes but still express complexity of character and play active roles in the plot. The treatment of the women in this film left me cold and disimpressed.
Any Number Can Win: This is not really a noir film under my definition; it’s a caper/heist story with a lot of humor. But there are noir-ish points in the framing of its characters’ circumstances and how they are motivated to participate in the heist, which are reminiscent of influences in late 1940s/early 1950s American noir about the challenge of making an honest living.
The story begins with a classic “one last job” scenario, in which an aging thief wants to get the final big score that will allow him to retire comfortably. He needs help to pull it off and calls on a young former cellmate to assist, who brings in his struggling brother-in-law. And the three of them take off to the Riviera with their elaborate setup for the heist. It’s absolutely charming and a lot of fun, and I enjoyed watching it for what it is.
Jean Gabin is amazing as the aging thief, doing all of his acting with the most subtle shifts of expression and body language and still communicating every feeling he’s dealing with. Alain Delon, “stupid-handsome” as Rosemary Keenan described him, is the opposite: a whirlwind of intensity and emotion and rash behavior, always on the edge of being despicable but not quite falling over. The heist itself is an elaborate Rube Goldberg construction with multiple possible angles of disaster; my spouse (both experienced in undercover operations and an aficionado of heist films) was cringing and stuffing his fist in his mouth as we watched to prevent himself from yelling about everything they were doing wrong. The outcome of the film is both hilarious and poignant. On the whole I enjoyed this, and can see its influence in other modern heist films.
But the woman problem exists here too. The two major female characters are there for the men to act at and to give responses to the men rather than having purpose of their own. The wife of Gabin’s character is essentially a call-and-response mechanism for his desire to take on the final heist. The brother-in-law speaks about the toll of his financial struggle on his wife and children but they’re never given voices or faces of their own. Delon’s character initiates a relationship with a woman as part of the heist setup and then ends up falling for her, which complicates his mission; this story thread shows the promise of becoming something else, and yet she ends up shoved into a good/bad box and removed from the story without any real resolution. I’d have loved to tease out her story further, since the hints of her story we’re given are fascinating and it could have fit well with more of the story. But ultimately, she was just another tool for a male character, not all that different from the women in Le doulos.
In the end, neither film felt like something I would come to cherish the way I do many other noirs, nor delightful discoveries the way the day 1 films were for me. And the problem of the women characters is a part of that. I’m setting myself a task of watching some Agnes Varda films after Noir City is done to make up for this.Outfit and details
…or maybe I should say Night 1, since, y’know, noir. They are doing some daytime screenings. But it’ll mostly be nighttime. In any case, last night was opening night for this year’s Noir City in Seattle and we were there.
We’ve gone to some individual screenings at Noir City in Seattle three of the past four years. It was always a wonderful time, offering the opportunity to see some beloved classics in a cinema setting, see some classics of the genre I hadn’t seen before, and discover some films that I didn’t know about. But we always had to choose a few and cluster them on the weekend because of both cost and my work obligations, and it meant agonizing decisions and major FOMO. One year we had to miss Shadow of a Doubt. Last year I’d have gladly swapped two of the films we chose for two different ones based on reviews from a friend.
For this year, with some changes in my job responsibilities easing my schedule, and my desire to minimize missing out, I decided that we would get passes for the full series. We can choose any screening we want for the duration of Noir City. And for the first time, we hit both opening night screenings.
I bought the passes before the schedule was announced. Previous years have been a mix of known films of various levels of fame with more obscure works; sometimes there was a rough theme, like all 1950s works. I was eager to see what we’d get this time. When the schedule and theme were announced, it was unexpected: Noir City International, with all the films from countries other than the U.S. And at first I was taken aback; would I get my money’s worth when nearly all of the films were unknown quantities?
But as I read through the listings and descriptions, I got increasingly excited. One of the reasons I enjoy noir is sociological; I’ve been fascinated by the ways different eras of U.S. film interpret this often harsh genre and express the cultural themes of their time. (Early 1940s noir tends to be more mystery-focused; immediate post-WWII noir is often about how badly the American Dream has failed people; 1950s noir tends to lean more on examinations of masculinity and concepts of “good” and “bad” for women.) How exciting would it be to see those sociological elements as explored in noir from other countries? By the time we got to the Egyptian I was practically thrumming with excitement. And the opening night films delivered. Both from Argentina, both versions of other works framed through the viewpoints of an Argentinean filmmaker working in the early 1950s, both little-known until recently, they gave me the sociological meat I craved along with great entertainment.
(note: There’s some discussion of plot points below, and for one of the films a comparison to another very well-known work. If you don’t wanna know anything, skip the next couple of paragraphs. But I hope you’ll consider that knowing plot points is not the entirety of a film experience.)
Something I noticed about both films was a high level of emotional intelligence, and a marked lack of the kind of simplistic sex roles and celebration of toxic masculinity that is often present in American noir. The protagonist of The Beast Must Die (which is based on the famed novel by Nicholas Blake) weeps from grief, has a breakdown due to that grief that is presented as a natural outcome, respects the autonomy of a woman who is attracted to him (even though he ultimately admits that he’s being dishonest to her for his own ends) while trying to protect another, and tells a boy that his fear of abuse and tears at being unable to help his mother are evidence of his strength of character. Two of the male characters who exhibit what’s often thought of as typical male behavior are presented as despicable; some of this is plot-driven but it’s also clearly meant to demonstrate that such behavior is unacceptable. The women characters are complex; there’s no good girl/bad girl dichotomy as might be the case for women in an American noir but instead a clear understanding that they are trying to make the best choices they can in a world that isn’t favorable to them.
The Black Vampire is a retelling of Fritz Lang’s iconic M; while I haven’t seen that film in quite a while, the story beats in The Black Vampire map fairly closely to those of the earlier film from what I recall. What’s markedly different in this version is the presence of women. Three women characters have vital roles in this story, and help reframe both the actions of the killer and the behavior of the investigator trying to catch him. Two of the women work at a cabaret that is offering the services of sex workers (unspoken but made clear through references); despite the attempts of some of the male characters to degrade them for this, they refuse to accept the derogatory labels and emphasize, again, that they are making the best choices they can in an unfavorable world. There are multiple instances of women asserting their autonomy against the desires of men. Many of the women characters offer kindness to the killer in various ways, which helps highlight the torment of the killer at the impulses he can’t stop himself from acting on while also demonstrating that the excuses he tells himself are nonsense; there’s nothing special or exculpatory about the ridicule and lack of attention he’s experienced. The women also show the driven investigator that his genius and high status don’t excuse his misbehavior and entitlement; they will not be the collateral damage in his efforts to capture the killer at any cost.
But both films totally honor the feeling and themes of noir: The harshness of the world we live in and the consequences of the choices the characters make, often at risk to their own existence and integrity. It was a terrific way to start off this year’s Noir City and I’m very eager for what else is to come.Noir fashion highlight
Today I went out for a walk in the park, which is a thing that I normally do. I have a standard route and I know how long it will take to walk.
Unexpectedly I was forced to make a detour from my normal plans.
I found myself in an unknown place, and shortly came to a bridge I had never seen before. I was startled to find this bridge, and nervous; what might lurk beneath it? With great trepidation I crossed the bridge and continued my journey.
And suddenly I realized that I was lost in the forest, all alone, with no idea which way to turn to return home and a foreboding path ahead.
I thought perhaps the forest dwellers might come to my assistance; but there were no magical beings or woodland creatures nearby, just the dark shadows of the forest.
After a few moments of wandering, I remembered the oracle I had in my pocket. I asked it for help and it slowly guided me out of the forest and to the right path.
I made my way to the gate that would take me home, but things were not right. I returned to my base knowing that time had slipped away and I could not control it.
But I am grateful the forest did not try to keep me.A Translation for our current time
My earliest political memory is Nixon’s resignation. I came into the TV room and my grandfather seemed agitated so I asked what was going on and he said the President was resigning. I understood that it was a major thing but I didn’t really grasp any of the context because I was too young. I don’t recall any particular mood or conversation around my house in the runup or after; I was a little kid, I cared about books and bike rides and exploring the neighborhood, and my grandmother had died the year previously so things were still fraught in my family. But a President resigning to avoid being impeached was the start of my political understanding.
I honestly don’t remember a lot about Clinton’s impeachment either. At the time of the vote I was coming off a brutally hard work stretch (at the time I had a job where I would work 80-hour weeks for two months at a time) and was involved with an abusive partner who would mistreat me because work was keeping me from devoting my attention to him, so it was all pretty bad and my thinking and memory were not clear or fully functional. I know I was angry about the circumstance of what led to the impeachment, even as I had significant reservations about Clinton’s political and executive behavior around the relationship with Lewinsky (as opposed to his personal behavior, which was disgusting but not a matter of governmental concern in my view). I was relieved when the Senate didn’t convict but I recognized that there was worrisome fracturing in our political systems.
And now the second impeachment in my lifetime has happened. After the vote on the second article spouse poured us a little scotch and we had a recognition of the historical significance. And then I started crying, because while this was absolutely necessary and absolutely the correct thing to do, it’s utterly wretched that we are here, and that it is unlikely to lead to anything changing because the Republican party has given its allegiance to Trump instead of the Constitution. I remain convinced that this country won’t survive Trump, one way or another, and not least because our vaunted system is hopelessly inadequate for the size and fractiousness of the nation as it is now; and I’m pretty sure I’ll recall this moment as the point where it began to break apart. But I doubt I will forget how I felt about it.
Originally published January 2, 2003
Context: This was done as part of a challenge to write one’s story as a personal myth. In ruminating upon it I decided that a märchen format suited me better than mythos. Inspired by my love of folklore, my appreciation for the reimagined fairy tales in the story collections edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, and my fandom for a certain
evil misunderstood fairy, I created this to tell my tale.
The child was born in the misty-green lands between mountains and sea, a girl-child, born to a golden doted-on princess who gave up her claims to aristocracy for love (oh so foolishly) and a dark artisan who would lose himself somewhere in the midst of searching for his muses.
Shortly after her birth, there were visitors. They were seen to come in, but no one could quite remember what they looked like, or when they left. Maybe they hadn’t visited at all, actually. Maybe everyone misremembered.
But they were there. They clustered ’round the cradle, looking thoughtfully on the sleeping chubby girl-child, her face still blank and waiting for life to begin etching upon it.
Finally, one of the visitors looked up. She was beautiful, but not in a way one could describe; one moment she seemed fair and red-haired, the next raven-locked and smoldering, the next something else entirely. Her tasteful sheath dress was white and cut simple, without adornment, so as not to distract from her beauty. She waited until she had gathered the gaze of all her companions, and then she spoke, silver sweetness all through her voice.
“I will give her a smile that lights the air around her, and a laugh that rings with joy like a hundred glorious bells.”
The others nodded and murmured, and a soft sound of rustling filled the room.
Another of the visitors looked down at the child again, pushing her heavy black spectacles back up her nose. Her dress was rather old-fashioned, narrow in the waist and full in the long skirt, as if she hadn’t left the previous decade yet, and was the color of old cordovan and gilt; across her back lay a coat–was it a coat?–of thin, crackling material that called parchment to mind. After pushing her spectacles up once more, she too spoke, in a soft voice with the sound of pages turning in it.
“I will give her words. They will be her sturdiest tool and her sharpest weapon, her window to the world and her connection to others.”
More nodding, more murmuring, more rustling.
A third visitor stretched on her toes and spread her arms; her multicolored caftan rippled around her, as did the iridescent veil that fell down her back, and the myriad of bracelets and rings she wore jingled. “My turn now!” she said brightly, with notes of laughter and song in her tone. She brushed the child’s face with her fingertips, and spoke again: “I will give her skill with adornment–of herself, with clothing…and of other things as well, things for bringing beauty and comfort into one’s surroundings and making others lovely. I think this one can handle more than one iteration of it.”
The murmuring was louder this time, and the visitor in the old-fashioned dress said, “You’re feeling feisty today, eh?” The visitor in the caftan smiled.
One of the visitors had been pacing behind the cradle, hands in the pockets of her trenchcoat and the back “cape” flaring, stylish yet comfortable boots making soft tap-tap-tap sounds on the cement floor. Now she stopped, and looked down at the child, and spoke in a voice toned with dust and distance. “I’ll give this one a restless spirit. She’ll want to travel, and search, and see as much as she can, in whatever way she can manage.” She reached down and gently patted the child’s head.
“Are you sure that’s a gift?” the one in white asked, her sweet silvery voice hesitant.
The one in the trenchcoat grinned. “It will be for her.”
Suddenly the room filled with the crackle of beating bird wings and the harsh notes of raven calls and an abrupt, sickly-green light. The child stirred, and made small fitful noises, but didn’t wake. When the sickly light cleared, there was a new visitor, tall and thin like an autumn-bare tree, and dressed all in leathery black, with the shortest of short skirts and the trendiest go-go boots and a coat with a strange, sharp hem to it. Cold yellow eyes glittered out of layers of black eyeshadow, and the white-lipsticked mouth was in a sneer.
“HOLD ON!” The voice was like the sound of glass breaking. She raised her arms, and the coat looked like wings. She tossed her shag-cut black hair. “I will not be denied my gift-giving! Even though my invitation was withheld and my presence shunned–“
The one in the spectacles interrupted her. “Oh, stop it, Mal. You’re never invited because everyone knows you’ll just show up with the sturm und drang and make a big fuss anyway. Besides, there’s no one here to see it, just us and the baby.”
The visitor in black lowered her arms, her expression petulant. “You have absolutely NO appreciation for showmanship,” she said, the screech of nails on a chalkboard underscoring the words. “At least I am still making an effort.” She looked at the baby and sneered again. “All right, sprog, a gift for you. I give you…” She paused for dramatic effect, and swept her arm in a grandiose arc. “I give you as your gift…DESPAIR! Blackness in mind and psyche, like a leech at the back of the brain–“
The others in the room groaned. The one in the caftan stamped her foot impatiently. “Mal, PLEASE! You give that to every second child these days. You are so horridly trendy. Can’t you be just a little original sometimes?”
The one in black sniffed haughtily. “Bah. You all want them each to just be a little bit different, and it makes so much work for us. It’s much simpler to just have a couple of choices for all of ’em.” She sighed dramatically. “But, fine, I’ve got a new coat and I feel like humoring you all today. This one can keep the despair…in fact,” and she peered into the cradle, looking closely at the child for a moment, “in fact, this looks like one of those who’ll actually enjoy it and use it productively, so it’s not as nasty as it could be. But I’ll find something else for her as well.” She turned to the one in the trenchcoat. “What’d you give this one?”
“Hm.” She turned back to the child, tapping her black-lacquered fingernail against her teeth, looking thoughtful (if a sneer can ever look thoughtful). “Ah, got it!” She smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “Doubt. I give her doubt. Everything she does will be shadowed by doubt; she’ll question everything. That’ll slot nicely with the restlessness, and feed nicely off the despair.” She grinned, self-satisfied, and it was the expression of a wolf that has cornered its prey.
A soft sigh ran through the other visitors. The one in the spectacles shook her head. “I must admit, Mal, you are a genius at this when you set your mind to it. It’s a pity that you use it for such unhappy things.”
The one in black waved her hand dismissively. “Without me, the rest of you wouldn’t have anything to play off of. You know we all need each other.” She lit a cigarette, despite the disapproving looks of the others. “All right, we’re done. Let’s get out of here. We’ve got to do some year-hopping for this date in this nasty damp little burg.”
The beautiful one in white raised her hand to her mouth. “But…we aren’t done! There’s still–“
One more visitor stepped out of the corner of the room. Her dress was like a ballgown, long and flowing, and yet oddly formless, and it shimmered and shifted, from pale shining silver to darkest gray and all the colors between, but all the colors were visible only when looked at from many angles. Her face was mild and unremarkable, and yet compelling, like her outfit. She moved as if she had all the time in the world to spare.
The one in black gaped at her. “What the hell. You haven’t done yours yet?” The gray one shook her head. “Bloody hell, woman! You know I’m supposed to come last! What are you doing dawdling around? Damn it! Now mine’s ruined, because you’ll give her something all wonderful to counteract it! Haven’t any of you learned how to do this properly, damned amateurs…”
The one in gray paid no mind to the ranting and grumbling. She gazed down on the child in the cradle, her expression kind and yet somehow forbidding at the same time. When she spoke, it was with a whisper of water over rocks.
“I give her…empathy.”
The room fell silent, except for a gasp from the one in white. Slowly, the others turned to look at the one in gray, their faces crossed with awe and wonder.
“Oh my word,” said the one in the spectacles, softly.
The one in black shook her head, her eyes wide in admiration. “Damn. You’re meaner than I am!”
The one in the trenchcoat took the one in gray by the arm. “You know…you know how big that one is, and how it’ll react with the despair and the doubt. You know how hard it will be for her to use it.”
“Yes,” said the one in gray, her voice and face still mild. “I know.” She laid her hand on the child’s cheek.
The one in the caftan moved forward, everything jingling and clattering in contrast to the quietness of the gray one. “We aren’t supposed to overload them! You know the rules. She’s already gotten Mal’s two, how can you give her something so hard?”
The one in gray smiled. “Because she needs it. And because the world will need her to have it.” She stroked the baby’s wisp of hair. “It is not too much. It will take her a long time to grasp and to use well. It will make her strong. And that is what’s needed.” She stepped back from the cradle. “All right, we’re done now. Shall we go?”
The room was quiet again, and the girl-child slept on, the gifts of the visitors clutched invisibly in her chubby baby hands.
Originally published November 3, 2016
I was kind of struggling with what I’d write about today, after a too-late night yesterday and a hard day at work. Then I got into a conversation with a friend about marine animals, and that led to me remembering this piece I originally wrote back in 2013 for a blog I never really used. At the time I was working with a wetlands conservation org in New Jersey, with part of my activities being in their aquarium. I’m not currently doing any work in a marine-education setting (though I hope I’ll get the chance to return to that), and my basic views on this remain the same. So I decided I’d polish up the language a little and finally share it as part of this project.
A lot of the education work I do is at touch tanks with children, and I love doing this. I love the opportunity to introduce them to animals and environments they might not have encountered before, to see a spark of interest as they learn something, and to share my passion for these things. I feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to do this, and I’m always aware that there’s a responsibility inherent in being given the chance to provide education, even informally.
When I’m at a touch tank, I’m often introducing these kids to creatures they’ve never had exposure to before, creatures such as sea urchins, crabs, skates, and sea snails. These are all animals that have wildly different anatomy and biology than the kinds of animals they’re more likely to be familiar with, and can seem very strange when kids first touch them. It’s fairly common for kids, particularly very young ones, to react strongly to how alien these animals look or feel, and sometimes they—or the adults with them—will deem something about an animal “icky!”
My response is always to say, “No, not icky—it’s just unusual/weird/different. I don’t like to say the animals are icky.” I’m especially adamant about this with very young children, and with girls.
Words, especially descriptive words, have a lot of power. The descriptions we use can frame how we think about something for years to come. When we call an animal “icky,” we’re deeming it something negative: vile, off-putting, unpleasant, upsetting, something not to be touched or associated with, something to recoil from. And I don’t want kids associating these concepts with animals that are simply different or unfamiliar to them.
Certainly, a lot of these creatures can seem very alien. The bodies of sea snails feel moist and squishy, and the way a gastropod’s foot moves isn’t like anything most people have experience with. Sea urchins have such distinctive anatomy that many people don’t even realize at first that they’re animals, rather than rocks or plants, and their upside-down (in comparison to humans) build is pretty much guaranteed to get some squeals from kids. (Want guaranteed reaction from a kid at an aquarium or tide pool? Tell ’em that sea urchins poop out the top.) Crabs have pincers that can be intimidating (even small ones that can’t really hurt a human) and mouthparts that are completely unlike anything a vertebrate animal has, along with multiple legs and a skittery way of moving. Skates have rough skin and a mucus coat, and the sensation of touching those can feel very odd. Even sea stars, which many children are enthusiastic about because of their shape, can be kind of wibbly-making with their tube feet and how they feed. It’s absolutely understandable that people, and kids in particular, might find all this weird. And I’m okay with “weird,” and “strange,” and “unusual” for animals that people don’t have a lot of experience with. Those words aren’t necessarily negative, and they’re an accurate reflection of how someone might regard an animal they aren’t familiar with.
But none of these animals are inherently icky—there’s nothing that makes them automatically vile or unpleasant. When kids hear an animal deemed “icky,” they start to associate that animal with negative things; they often won’t want to touch it or have any interest in it, and that association can spread to other animals and sometimes even to marine life in general. That makes it more likely that those kids will grow up having negative associations with ocean animals, and more likely that they will place less value on marine creatures and marine environments, because the only animals that live in the ocean are “icky,” right?
We can certainly make efforts to dispel these ideas with adults, and that’s part of the education work I do. Ultimately, though, I’d rather keep these ideas from taking root in someone’s mind in the first place. I’d like to help kids see that these marine creatures are not “icky” at all, but fascinating in their diversity and anatomy and biology. I’d much rather get them excited about these animals and enthusiastic about our oceans and looking after them. And thus, I will never call a marine creature “icky” or let it pass unremarked if someone else uses that term.
I also have a particular aversion to using the word “icky” with girls. There are a lot of things in this world that are more likely to be deemed “icky” for girls than for boys. This seems to particularly apply with animals that aren’t considered cute, fuzzy, cuddly balls of adorability, and with environments that involve dirt or mud. We have a lot of cultural constructs that say that it’s perfectly fine for boys to get messy when they do things, to play outside in the mud, and to be fascinated with critters that are slimy or scaly or weird, but that it’s “inappropriate” for girls to be interested in such things. Girls are supposed to be dainty and not muss their clothes and to be frightened or repulsed by animals that have spindly legs or pincers or scales or mucus. Girls aren’t supposed to do things that are “icky.”
But when we tell children this, when we set up this divide about what is and isn’t acceptable based on their gender, we limit them. When we tell girls they shouldn’t do things because they’re “icky,” we shut off avenues of interest. A girl who has been told that she shouldn’t play in the mud or sand because she’s a girl, that she shouldn’t touch animals that are slimy or scaly or weird because she’s a girl, is going to be less inclined to think of these activities in a positive way and to consider hobbies or careers that involve them. And therefore she’s going to be cut off from a huge number of opportunities to act on their interests and abilities. How many potential marine biologists or dive-tour guides or science educators were sent off in other directions because they were girls and were told marine environments and animals were “icky”? I hate to think about it.
By the same measure, when boys hear that girls aren’t supposed to play in the mud or like animals that are slimy or scaly or weird, they’re more likely to make fun of girls who do, which further reinforce those divides and the cultural constructs that limit girls and women. And when boys are told that they’re supposed to like those things, they’re more likely to feel that they’re odd and out of step if they don’t like them, and to fear that they’ll get made fun of by other kids (or even by adults) for not liking “boy” things. It’s not of any benefit to boys to reinforce this divide either.
So for me, avoiding calling anything “icky” is about removing negativity on multiple levels. It’s about normalizing these creatures with unfamiliar anatomy and biology so they’re not scary, and giving kids permission to be interested in them and interact with them—but it’s also about giving them permission to not interact with unfamiliar animals, to take time to learn more, and to not receive any shame or pressure for that reaction. Kids who are encouraged are more likely to be interested, and kids who aren’t pressured or shamed are more likely to give things another chance.
I hope every kid will find marine animals and environments as fascinating as I do. But I want that fascination to be organic, and I want it to not be shaped or tainted by stereotypes that divide their reactions by gender. For me, that’s part of the responsibility of being an interpreter and informal educator, and it’s part of what makes doing this work so rewarding.
Originally published summer 2003
In the evening, in summertime, just before sunset, the crows come in for the night.
They fly in over the lake. Sometimes they come in a huge flock, hundreds of birds trailing in a black veil, and sometimes they come in waves, groups of ten, twenty, thirty birds every minute or so. Single stragglers come in at the very end, a couple of minutes after the rest, like tardy students running to class.
They roost in the greenbelt on the on the other side of Aurora. The first birds start at the north end, crossing over where the elder trees and English ivy have been allowed to run wild in someone’s yard. As the trees fill up, the pattern shifts south, over the stairs, over the building due north of us, over our building. The stragglers always come in over the building due south of us, without fail.
And as the crows head to the greenbelt on the other side of Aurora, their paths cross with flocks of smaller birds, the sparrows and finches, as they head southeast, to their own nighttime roosts–where, I don’t know, I just know they’re southeast of here.
Tonight, when I saw the first wave (tonight was a wave night), I went onto the balcony, and I watched them, watched the waves sweep in over the lake and to the north and over my head, till they were all in. There appeared to be some cross-currents up where they were; several seemed to stop in the air, as if against a wall, for a second or so, beating their wings hard, until the air current shifted and they suddenly burst forward again. The very last straggler had a great deal of trouble with the currents; I watched it come from high and east over the lake for a good minute or more, fighting the air the whole way. And when it finally got the best of the currents, it went over the building to the south of us, without fail.
And now the sun is gone and the air is lavender, quickly going blue, and there is not a bird to be seen anywhere around.
Good night, friends. I’m glad to share my city with you.
Originally published November 6, 2019
This piece discusses plot points of Mad Max: Fury Road. Assume spoilers.
When we found out that the Black & Chrome edition of Mad Max: Fury Road would be playing at Cinerama, we immediately pounced on tickets. It was my favorite film of 2015, by a very wide margin, and the opportunity to see it on Seattle’s best screen, in a version that provides an alternate view of the filmmaker’s vision, was pretty much catnip.
The Black & Chrome edition, for those not obsessively paying attention to things relating to movies like I do, is the film in monochrome, and according to director George Miller, his preferred version. It’s a stark contrast to the original theatrical release, which contains intense, super-saturated colors, a deliberate decision on Miller’s part (since he wasn’t permitted to release a full B&W cut). And while I don’t know if I think Black & Chrome is the “true” version of Fury Road, it does create a profound extension of a movie that I already deeply love.
The first thing I noticed is that the removal of the color creates a diffused, dreamlike atmosphere–while the color version feels immediate, urgent, almost painfully hyper-real, this version feels like it takes place in a world outside of reality. There’s an idea in Mad Max fandom that within the world that exists in the Mad Max films, most of the stories of the films aren’t “true,” but are instead the equivalent of oral folklore: communities pass the tales of “Mad” Max among themselves, not as verifiable fact, but as tales of a mythic figure of their world. Black & Chrome makes this case very strongly, whether it means to or not; the effect isn’t so much distancing as one of being enfolded into a world that exists on a different plane, where dream dominates. Fury Road, perhaps more than any other Mad Max film, works very deliberately in the realm of myth and the power of received knowledge as compared to the solidity of fact (I remain somewhat in awe at how well the movie created its own internal mythology, as demonstrated by the beliefs of the War Boys). Creating this effect of dreaminess reinforces the sense of myth and a larger narrative.
The next thing that really drew my attention is the places where the monochrome improves the visuals. In the saturated-color version, the sandstorm is terrifying and thrilling, but in a way that feels like spectacle to be admired. In Black & Chrome, with everything in shades of gray, the sandstorm becomes visceral and immediate, with no way to tell where the storm ends and anything else begins–but at the same time, it’s stunningly beautiful, with the movement and the texture and the sparkle of the sand being highlighted more intensely; the flare drop at the end feels almost mystical. Max’s flashbacks also become more immediate, more contained within that sense of dreamtime, and therefore more effective. And I found I was better able to focus on the designs of the vehicles; with the distraction of color removed, the genius of the details and the solutions for functional concerns became much more obvious, and gave me even more admiration for both the film’s fabrication crews, and how the people of this world might have envisioned and created these vehicles.
The same effect comes through in many of the scenes focused on the characters. In the original release, I agreed with criticisms that the scene where the Wives are bathing ran uncomfortably close to objectification. In Black & Chrome, the intent becomes more clear: they’re simply women who have been in the hot, filthy cargo bin of a truck for hours who are washing away the dirt. Furiosa’s cautious glower through the grease on her face is more piercing, more foreboding; the moment where she learns of the loss of the Green Place and allows her grief full rein is made more powerful by the starkness and the lack of color. Angharad’s sacrifice, her willingness to put her body and her pregnancy between her compatriots and their tormentor, is somehow even more shocking and deeply felt, since our attention is on what happens and not on the whirl of color and motion surrounding it. And the faces of the older women–Miss Giddy and the Vuvalini–become more pronounced, where the light and shadow plays on the contours of their expressions and highlights the sense of experience they bring.
And I found that, without the intense saturated color taking my attention, I thought more about the themes of the film, and about the way it communicates its ideas without needing to say them explicitly. With the play of color on their bodies removed, I found it more piercingly clear that the Wives aren’t willing participants in a polygamous marriage–they are sexual slaves, their role as “breeders” brutally forced on them, and reflected by the bleached, monochrome reality in which their existence is happening. The hauntedness behind Furiosa’s eyes–the sense of trauma and defiance that many survivors of sexual violence know as part of their reality–becomes a greater focus, and her rage more distilled and intense. And the lack of color punctuates the Vuvalini elegy for the Green Place; with no color, no way to imagine what it might look like, we feel the loss of it even more deeply.
Some things do work better in the color version. The lack of color lessens the impact of Max’s line about how his “world is blood and fire” in the prologue. We don’t get the illness of the War Boys as clearly when their ghostly white skin isn’t such a stark contrast to the colors around them. The moment where Immortan Joe runs through the greenhouse doesn’t have the same impact since we can’t see the contrast of the green against the stone and desert. Some of the spectacle and visual manipulation of the Citadel war party is lost without color–I admit, not seeing the Doof Warrior’s bright red union suit and the flame shooting from his guitar makes him less absurdly awesome. And the Dead Place sequence doesn’t really work in Black & Chrome; what makes it effective in the color version is the stark contrast of its darkness against the saturated colors.
In the end, I think both versions complement each other. Either one would be a magnificent work of filmmaking, and and we’d be fortunate to have either version. But I’m grateful we have both, and to have had the chance to see both on the big screen.