Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns you somehow.
I thought I understood this song before. I had no idea.
Sufjan Stevens released “Carrie and Lowell” last year and I went through the usual cycles of album appreciation. Repeated listens, changing rankings of favorite songs, long considerations of where it ranked in his repertoire, and finally moving on, returning to it once in a while but trying not to listen to it ad nauseum.
Carrie and Lowell feels new now, because before now I could not begin to understand it. The above lyrics used to strike me as poetic. Now I realize: like the best poetry, it is a description of real feeling, not a metaphor. I always assumed grief would be a single swing into despair. It’s so much more complex than anything I’ve been through. Since my mom died, some days go by and I realize I haven’t felt terrible and that feels triumphant. Car rides, dinner, and the routine of finding my mom every morning to greet her, to seek her out to say goodnight, are when I most notice she’s gone. That, and every single time I look forward to something and realize that I’m not sharing it with her.
Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow.
There are no stages of grief. If I didn’t know that was a myth already my experiences would have confirmed that anyway. Clearly delineated stages are far too neat to resemble life. At times “The Only Thing” is the only song- not just on this album, but ever sung- that feels true. But the disorienting haze of grief inevitably dissipates. I move on. And I will return to it, and then move on again. Grief has no stages. It’s not a path, but a whirlpool.
Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?
Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch
My mom died four weeks ago today. “Surrounded by her family” is how the obituary reported it. Obituaries typically attempt to paint death as something resembling idyllic. But the truth is, the last few hours of my mom’s life will haunt me forever. There is no softening that trauma; there is only not allowing it to paralyze me. The most vivid and difficult part of grieving for me has been realizing that there are no true comforts when someone you love dies. The best I can do is move on, and to be there for my family.
There’s another Sufjan Stevens song I’ve been thinking about and listening to a lot lately. It has nothing to do with death. It has everything to do with memory. The horror of the memories of my mom’s death are countered only by memories of her life. “The Only Thing” is the truth of grief. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” is the truth of memory.
Yes, it’s about children at a summer camp and first love and heartbreaking nostalgia and it has nothing to do with anything in my life. In the past I’ve always loved it for its sheer beauty.
But it’s the one song right now that truly comforts me. It is about feelings and moments and fragments of time long ago, so vividly rendered that I can place myself in them. And that is what I cling to. Someday the dark cloud, still so thick after four weeks, will dissipate enough that I will feel again the sunlight on the days I walked with my mom to the Dairy Queen in San Diego as a child, the evenings spent listening to her stories of growing up in the Philippines, of sharing our love of stories and telling them as I followed her footsteps into journalism school. Someday I will tell those stories myself, and if I can find a shred of the clarity and honesty that this song has, I can make sure my mom’s story continues to be told. Perhaps not today. Four weeks later, the sadness still sits heavily. The trauma, the horror, are still raw. But someday. Never trust anyone who says words don’t matter. Words have the ability to bring memories to life like nothing else. And my memories of my mom are what I have to hold onto right now. Someday, I will do them justice. That is my source of light.
Lately I’ve been avoiding entertainment. So much reminds me of when my mom was alive. A week and change ago I saw a bottle of iced tea in the fridge that I had purchased for her. It set off waterworks.
New stuff is also hard to get into. I simply haven’t been in a good emotional place for movie watching. I watched Captain America 3: Civil War twice for its escapism. I saw Zootopia and enjoyed it for the same reason. I saw Green Room the other day for pretty practical reasons. It’s an indie film that was likely leaving theatres this week. I’d wanted to see it for some time. I love scary movies, and I loved Jeremy Saulnier’s first film, Blue Ruin. This was probably my last shot at seeing this movie in theatres.
I showed up at the theatre, got my popcorn and a blue raspberry Icee, entered the theatre and proceeded to almost have an anxiety attack right there as I took my seat. My anxiety has been through the roof since my mom died. It flares up unpredictably. The theatre was totally empty, had just gotten dark, and the trailer for The Conjuring 2 was playing, very loudly. I almost ran out of the back of theatre. Instead I went to the lobby, took deep breaths, and took a sip of my drink. I saw a young couple walk into the theatre. The thought of Green Room as a date movie amused me. That tiny shift into amusement, and not being alone in the theatre any more, just sharing a space with other people, calmed me down. I went back in, took my seat, and the movie began.
I’m not in a mental place right now to give this movie the proper review that it deserves. It is a sensational thriller. Tight, technically splendid, well-acted. All meat and no fat. When it was over, I was startled at how calm I felt. This wasn’t for the movie lacking intensity. Rather, I’d finally found an outlet for rattled nerves.
In tough times I’ve often found my outlet in expressive, fanciful fiction. I love horror. I also love science fiction, animation, video games, and musical theatre. Green Room is not the sort of escapism I’d think I would be drawn to in a time when the most overriding feeling in my day to day life is intense sadness, but here it was and so was I.
My favorite escapist entertainment engages and overwhelms my senses. My biggest escapes are less with movies that allow me to turn my brain off than those that don’t let my mind wander. This can happen in a number of ways. Mad Max: Fury Road was such an staggering experience that it propelled me out of my head and into the present like no other movie I’ve seen: there was no room left for thought beyond what was unfolding in front of me. Green Room isn’t such an overload. However, it engaged my anxiety in a way that few thrillers like it ever have.
Horror films aren’t usually so thorough and meticulous in their buildup. Opening scenes are usually perfunctory, the necessary steps to get to the action. Green Room presents an anxious person’s nightmare. It shows a fairly normal day for normal people suddenly turning into cold terror. It actually goes through the motions of a fairly typical day for a punk band, touring and living in an old van. Slogging through an interview for a college radio station. Muscling through a terrible gig. Taking another gig at a sketchy as hell location because they need the money. Realizing that the location is full of white supremacists, putting their heads down, and playing on but making sure to play an anti-Nazi song while they’re at it. The first half of the film could come right out of a punk rock band’s biography. And then, a wave of swift, remorseless violence. It all unfolds so indiscriminately, so randomly. I’ve had nightmares that resemble this movie; they’re the worst kind, that are so grounded in a sense of possibility that they are the hardest to shake when I awake.
As I said, I’m not in a place to give Green Room the review I’d like to, though I have a feeling it’s going to be high on my list of my favorite films of the year. I have no idea how others will feel about this film. It is certainly too grim and vicious for many. My feelings about the film, right now, are entirely about how it made me feel moments removed from an anxiety attack, weeks removed from the worst day of my life, and temporarily interrupting the routine of grief I’ve been working through since. Green Room didn’t really provide escapism, not the way the buoyant cheer of Zootopia and the action and broad pathos of Civil War did. Green Room trapped me, confronted me with some of my worst fears, and left me feeling exhilarated when I walked out of the theatre, having stared them down and not let them get the better of me. In a time when it hurts to feel much of anything, that was a thrill that I had missed.
You never gave up. You always fought. It was second nature to you. You had no time for complaining. Complaining was wasting time that could be spent problem solving. You never, ever stopped looking for solutions.
You moved to the United States from The Philippines in a way that you absolutely would: getting off of your college chorus tour bus and simply not getting back on.
You nearly left us 11 years ago. Your doctors said you should have. There wasn’t much explanation for your surviving a stroke, pneumonia, and heart failure. But you survived. Your entire body conspired against your spirit, your life, and you fought back and won. When you could talk again you told us: you weren’t going to leave us, not then. Not while you could fight.
You always fought for your children. You listened to us, trusted us because you raised us to be honest and worthy of your belief. As I grew up I was astonished by how many people didn’t have that. With you it was never a question: if we needed someone to fight at our side, you were always first in line.
I know you fought until the end. I know that if you could have fought your illness any more, you would have. I know that your soul has an eternity’s fight in it. Eventually, cancer would no longer let your body keep up. But you never stopped stopped fighting. You let us know that, in your final words. Cancer didn’t win, mama. It could never conquer your spirit. Your spirit will continue to fight for our family, for us, and through us. We will continue your fight for you.
Happy mother’s day, Mama. I love you. Never stop fighting.
Those two words still don’t feel like reality. My mom Kathleen passed away almost precisely 48 hours ago. In the time since I have broken down sobbing dozens of times. And yet I read those two words and I still can’t quite grasp what they mean.
I know the rawness of her loss will linger for a while yet. There will be times when I can’t hold in my grief and I will stop in my tracks and allow my sadness to overwhelm me for a moment. I know that there are going to be moments of sadness that I can’t yet predict, as I go forward in my life and realize all the little things about her that I took for granted. I’ve begun to have some of those. I recently began work on a book. As I started it, before my mom died, I thought how much I was looking forward to reading her passages as I progressed with my writing. As much as I can continue my writing it in her honor, I know I will catch myself looking forward to reading to her in the future tense, to seeing her smile, hearing her laugh, feeling the love of writing that she shared with me.
I know that there will be times in years to come that I will miss her unbearably, in ways that I can’t begin to predict in the present rawness. A wound hurts differently than a scar.
I am more acutely aware than ever how my mom shaped who I am today. Once upon a time, her blog was something I occasionally read with a smile, a space that I let her have to herself to reminisce and reflect on her remarkable life. Now it is precious to me. It is the closest visible link I have to her love of writing and mine. I read her stories here and realize how much I owe to her, as a writer, and most of all, as a person.
My mom loved people and loved their stories. In the aftermath of her death, I have been stunned by the massive outpouring of support and love from so many people around the world. The morning after she died, I was awoken by a bombardment of texts and Facebook messages. Cataloguing every tribute to her, many from people I didn’t know personally, has been a nearly full-time effort. I’m not surprised, of course. I was aware that she kept regular correspondence with old friends, many of whom she joyfully reconnected with on the internet. The stunned feeling stems from the scope of it. I knew she was a remarkable woman. I didn’t realize just how many people knew that as well as I did.
She’s gone. I know that. She lives on in many ways. I think everyone who knew her can agree with that statement no matter what their belief system. As a Catholic, I believe her spirit lives on in a literal sense. As her son, I burn with a need to carry on her legacy of loving people and telling stories. She, herself, blazed a path that traveled the world and connected deeply with more people than I can comprehend. No matter your take on the aftermath of death, if you knew my mom, she lives on with you in some fashion. I can’t believe my mom is gone. Part of that is grief. But part of that is also the knowledge that she lived too fully to ever really leave.
My mom Kathleen, my dad David, and me at my grad school graduation
My mom and me when I was newborn. I had life-threatening health issues as a baby; the joy on her face here reflects that I had just been given an all-clear and could soon go home. She was finishing college at the time and took me with her to her classes. She got me started on my love of learning, reading, and writing at an early age.
She is overcome with excitement at the beauty of the day. She runs into a particularly warm patch of sun. She stops and just basks there for a moment. That’s it. That’s the moment. That’s when I knew Whisper of the Heart was made for me.
Not all movies that I love are made for me. I love many, many movies that weren’t. I love The Godfather because it’s a damn perfect movie. But it’s not made for me. It tells a gripping story with style and humanity and an alternating sense of warmth and brutality and it’s absolutely an all-time favorite of mine… but it wasn’t made for me.
A movie being made for you isn’t a mark of quality, see. It’s more serendipity. Of a director crafting a moment that transports you into your own memories and feelings. You know you’re watching one when it feels like a movie is holding a mirror to your soul.
Whisper of the Heart knows when a sunbeam is the best feeling in the world, or when you feel a bond with someone you haven’t met over a shared love of books, or when a city at night feels cozy and warm, or when a city at day feels like a maze of doubt. I return to it every year, knowing it a bit more every time, and learning a bit more about myself along the way.
Nothing on the screen makes sense. It’s all whispered dialogue coupled with shots of the cosmos. Stars are born. Earth, the planet that contains all of human history, looks like a pinprick against the sun. And then, the movie turns to the story of a family on Earth. The this film is their story, told a stage that consists of all of history and all of the universe. Suddenly the sense of scope is overwhelming, followed by a feeling of total peace. That’s when I knew The Tree of Life was made for me.
As a child was I often overwhelmed by the scope of all things. It was very easy to feel insignificant. But then, isn’t life, and the little pocket of it we have here on Earth, an astonishing thing in itself? These are questions I long put away as I got older. To have them pulled out of me during a movie is something I never expected. But then, you never know how a movie that’s made for you will treat you. It might give you a joyous high, or a deep feeling of introspection, or even despair.
Enough with despair for now; I’ve dealt with enough sadness this year. Besides, when a movie is made for you, the relationship between the events on screen don’t necessarily correlate perfectly with how they make you feel. It’s like when you fall in love; the moment you realize you were made for each other can be surprising and unexpected.
The first time I realized a movie was made for me, I was 16 and falling in love with the movies. I thought I knew what it was to love a movie. I’d seen movies that had thrilled me, made me laugh, made me cry. But I had never seen a movie that rendered me speechless like this one. A girl is watching the sky. A dragon, visible only as a tiny sliver, shimmering in the distance, holds her attention. She stares at it in awe. I’m right there with her. The moment doesn’t stop. It holds her attention, and mine, and I’m suddenly in tears at the beauty of it. Not just at the dragon soaring in the sky. But at the realization of this feeling. This was made for me.
There were always two. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Two masters with wildly different approaches to their art. Together they created one of the greatest empires of artistic expression in movie history, but it’s been Miyazaki who has garnered much more attention. It’s not for lack of merit; by my estimation Miyazaki has made several classics without a single bad film to his name. His films have numerous entry points to viewers of any age. His stories tend to have the sweep of fairy tales and epics; they are compulsively watchable and easily accessible without any dilution of his vision. His films are international box office hits that have garnered him roomfuls of awards.
Takahata? He’s more of an enigma. The same year Miyazaki debuted My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps his first film to achieve significant global recognition, Takahata gave us Grave of the Fireflies. The films could not be much more different, save for being about young siblings. Totoro is a delightful family fantasy that occasionally dips into moments of sadness that anyone can relate to. Grave of the Fireflies is a harrowing, headlong plunge into the despair of war. It flaunts the conventional wisdom that animated films shouldn’t tell realistic stories. Takahata still imbued the film with a touch all his own. His sense of pacing is impeccable; he gives the story room to breathe around the tragedy. We cry out of empathy, but we don’t feel pummeled with nihilism, as can happen with films this bleak. He was absolutely the right director for this story; he just happens to be an animator.
As Miyazaki continued to make inventive fantasies, Takahata seemed to do… whatever he wanted to do, without much rhyme or reason. His next film was perhaps his best: the plaintive, bittersweet Only Yesterday, about a woman in her late 20s who reminisces about her childhood as she casts an uncertain eye toward the future. His follow up films, Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas were zanier, more comedic fare; I haven’t seen them yet, but from what I know about them they are a massive departure from Grave of the Fireflies. His style is famously deliberate; he finishes films when he wants to, at his pace. In the essential documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki- a relentlessly hard worker0- openly complains about Takahata’s slow pace of filmmaking. Again, these two men seem to differ in every aspect of their approach.
Here, then, is something of a surprise: after all these years, Takahata has made a fairy tale. And what a tale it is. The Tale of Princess Kaguya has some of the hallmarks of Takahata’s other films. The constant tone of bittersweetness. A theme of a central character trying and failing to find a place that can be her home. But there is a deep feeling of ancientness to this tale, a sense that Takahata is lovingly rendering a tale that has been passed along for centuries. Indeed, the story the film is based on originated in the 10th century. The Tale of Princess Kaguya doesn’t simply feel timeless; it feels suspended in time.
The film opens with a bamboo cutter finding a tiny girl inside a bamboo stalk. The girl turns into regular-sized human baby, and he and his wife decide to raise her. The girl grows quickly, and the man wonders if his adopted daughter is fated to live a greater life than he can provide cutting bamboo. When the same bamboo stalk that birthed her spills gold and fancy robes, he takes that as a sign from heaven. He moves the family into the city; with his new riches he tries to have his daughter embrace nobility and find a rich husband. She takes on the name Princess Kaguya.
Studio Ghibli’s trademark has long been an astonishing attention to detail, no matter who is directing. At first, The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks like a departure from that trend. The edges of the screen are often unfilled; at times there is more negative space on the frame than ink. It’s jarring at first, but it’s also in keeping with the concept of ma, so essential in Japanese art. Miyazaki once described ma as the moment in between two hand claps. Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps the greatest Japanese filmmaker, regularly included silent shots- a tree, or clothes hanging from a line- in between scenes (Roger Ebert loved to call these “pillow shots”). Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are both quite spacious in their narratives, taking the time to look at the world around the characters before moving on with the story. Fairy tales like Princess Kaguya don’t usually have the luxury of that sort of patient storytelling. Almost every scene in Princess Kaguya advances the narrative to some degree. It’s a surprisingly rich tale, and its 2 hour and 18 minute runtime flows by unnoticed.
My point; the negative space of the film’s opening is Takahata’s hook for the audience. Once we grow used to it, he can manipulate space to fit his narrative needs throughout the film. There is an incredible scene about halfway through the movie where Kaguya, overhearing a conversation where a group of men crassly demand to see her, grows overwhelmed and bolts from her new palace home. In the palace, every corner of the screen is filled and detailed the way we expect from a Ghibli and Takahata movie. And it’s suffocating. Kaguya sheds her robes and explodes down the road outside,and the world opens up again. By the time she reaches the woods, the art style becomes sketchy, aggressively spare, and the effect is liberating. Back in her visual element, Kaguya can be free, if only for a moment.
This is not the sort of film where further explanation of the plot would do anyone any good. It’d be like trying to tell a campfire scare story at breakfast before anyone has had any coffee. The visuals here aren’t simply style for its own sake; they are an essential aspect of taking in this story. And, well, they are gorgeous in their own right. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a fitting cap to Takahata’s enigmatic career. For his last film he reached back in history and folklore and found a story he could tell better than anyone had before. Yes, it’s been told for centuries. But it was always meant to be told like this.
Empathy is important. That’s not a statement many would disagree with. But think for a minute: how often do you not really abide by it? How often do we presume the worst about perfect strangers, to judge them for bothering us and nothing else? A person who takes too long at the ATM is clearly an inconsiderate asshole, not someone harried and flustered by the very fact that they’re holding up a line. A terse waitress is unprofessional and mean, and not simply at her wits end after a long day with little sleep. A friend who doesn’t immediately respond to a text is flaky, not genuinely busy with worries that supersede your conversation. Everyone has moments like these, myself included. We pick and choose when to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s easier not to be curious.
Stories about empathy fascinate me because they have to, by design, be curious. They have to be about human beings and why they do things, not simply the things they do. I have often described horror as my favorite genre because, well, I love scary things. But horror is rarely described as a genre that relies on empathy. But… well… isn’t it? Horror movies essentially rely on the audience being scared for the sake of the characters. Most horror films get this wrong. They aim to shock, not stoke empathy. The best ones are often those that go out of their way to get the audience to relate to the characters’ feelings, to have more investment in the film than startled responses to jarring stimuli. In recent weeks I’ve seen two films; It Follows and Under the Skin; that burrowed into my mind and never left. They unsettled and intrigued and hypnotized me, and they wouldn’t have done so without their deep wells of empathy.
Under the Skin* takes the most original approach to a story about empathy that I’ve seen. It isn’t about a human being at all, but an alien who kills people. Why? To understand them. As the film progresses, she learns empathy. And as in real life it’s not always pleasant.
*Some might object to my calling Under the Skin as a horror film, but I think it clearly contains horror in its multitudes; horror is a much broader and more varied genre than many give it credit for.
A cursory look at the plot of Under the Skin makes it sound like a sleazy exploitation film. An alien played by Scarlett Johannson picks up men, seduces them, and then kills them. But what a strange, hypnotizing story lies within. The pulpy veneer vanishes in the opening moments, as Scarlett Johannson’s nameless character undresses an apparently dead woman’s body on a stage that consists entirely of a white void. She changes into the woman’s clothes, and finally stands over the body, regarding her face. She sees a tear roll down the woman’s face. She studies it, her face blank, and she moves on. She goes around Scotland picking up men and luring them to a dark room where they sink into black liquid, where they are suspended for… well, the purpose isn’t clear, but there’s a rhyme and reason to it. A man on a motorcycle follows the woman around, cleaning up any evidence of her actions. The moment we see the fate of the men under the liquid is horrifying and raises as many questions about these odd aliens as it answers.
The woman eventually has an encounter that is… different. She can’t shake it the way she usually does; she gains a desire to actually understand what is to be a person, instead of experimenting from afar. Her efforts to engage in human behavior make up the second act of the film. Some of the moments are oddly touching, while some are deeply disturbing. The woman learns the scope of human behavior first hand, both good and bad. We’ve seen material like this before in movies, but never from the perspective of someone trying earnestly to learn empathy. It’s jarring in its simplicity. By the end I was shaken, not just from the events on screen, but because I found myself wanting this character to succeed, for everything she’d done to amount to something. And then I remembered that she was, in effect, a serial killer at the film’s outset. And then I remembered that she was, from her perspective, a researcher, not actively doing wrong. And then I realized that director Jonathan Glazer had, in making a film about a character learning empathy, also made me deeply empathize with her. Under the Skin isn’t a film that makes you feel good, but there’s something astonishing about it. It’s like looking down and realizing you’re walking on a high wire.
It Follows is much more a traditional horror film than Under the Skin. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, its story is an inversion of one of the most well-known horror tropes: death by sex. Slasher films, starting with Halloween, established the trend of characters dying shortly after having sex. It was a sort of weird, toxic brand of hypocritical puritanism within the genre; offering women’s bodies up for titillation and then immediate slaughter. It Follows appears to be a clever nod to the trope on its surface. It’s about a slow-walking, shapeshifting demon who relentlessly pursues its target until they have sex. Then it pursues their partner until they pass it on; otherwise, it kills them and pursues its previous target again. The film’s protagonist is Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student whose first sexual encounter with her new boyfriend leaves her running for her life.
The portrayal of the demon is both a nod to and a twist on classic horror movie killers. Michael Myers popularized the slow-walking, relentless killer. However, the shapeshifting nature of the killer in It Follows prevents it from taking on any larger-than-life image. Most slasher movies turn their killers into icons. It Follows leaves its killer perpetually in the background. As a result, we’re forced to focus on Jay, and it’s here that its sendup of the slasher genre reveals its depths. Most horror films provide numerous bodies for the killer to slaughter, and one screaming girl who makes it to the end. The characters are archetypes and cardboard cutouts for a reason: the action is the point, and the director’s skill is what makes the film scary. Many good horror films fit this bill. My favorite horror film of all-time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is not a showcase of deep character writing. And although It Follows won’t remind anyone of a Richard Linklater film, it does force us to spend ample time with its main character as she reckons with her horrifying fate.
It Follows teases an exploitative premise and ends up being about just how nightmarish this scenario would be, and how arbitrary and unfair it is for Jay to go through it. The film could have branched into many other directions with its premise; Mitchell chose the correct one to make the most narrative impact. In a genre that usually cares so little for on-screen victims, he forced us to reckon with the experience of being chased by an unstoppable killer. Perhaps the end result is less scary than it could have been, but it is also much more gripping.