Writers I Love

A Font of Horror: Stranger Things

The type is called Benguiat. It's the font of my childhood, big and mysterious and curving in a way that suggests the edge of something sharp, something dangerous. Something we, as children, should not be handling. Viking used it, in part, to make Stephen King's name iconic on their covers, though most would agree (myself included) that King himself did the real carving out, cutting his name into our imaginations like a mad-skilled butcher -- but not with Benguiat, no; he did it with the dull, spoon-like edges of an Underwood's Courier-shaped keys. And in this way, the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things affects us. It entices us with a font, makes us remember a very specific set of iconography, then draws us into something far deeper, far richer: a collective well of imagination.

The pitch is easy to imagine. It's Stephen King meets Steven Spielberg, the ultimate campaign: boys on bikes and a telekinetic girl battle monsters from another dimension. The execution, of course, could have been terrible. Nothing sits so uneasily as half-baked nostalgia that doesn't pay off. Super 8 is testimony enough to that. It tried. It wanted us to believe. It struck out in the last inning, gave us a monster that couldn't live up to its forebear in the great white shark from Jaws. The glorious thing about Stranger Things is that it seems to understand this danger throughout, and it negotiates the inherent pitfalls with wit, grace, and masterful storytelling. It's an eight-hour campaign that never flags, a novel that never disappoints; both keep you up late into the night. Catching references to Goonies, E.T.Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Stand by Me, Carrie, Cujo, It, Firestarter, The Stand, Silver BulletNightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Poltergeist, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Breakfast ClubJaws, Gremlins, or even Tobe Hooper's re-make of Invaders from Mars is only half the fun. The rest is in how these things all seem at once familiar and new, like how old artifacts stuffed in boxes become treasured memories you'd forgotten.

It's the Upside-Down, as the Duffers call it: that place that's like our world but not, the Vale of Shadows -- the place we escape to, are dragged to, and, upon waking, hopefully return from. It's a post-modern technique that's less critique and more compliment, suggesting that modern American horror stems now from not only a shared or collective unconsciousness but a pop-cultural unconsciousness. It's a fantastic conceit, one I see bearing fruit in the works of a whole new slew of great horror writers, among them Joe Hill, Nick Cutter, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Buehlman, and Stephen Graham Jones. It's almost as if the Duffer Brothers have re-opened a mainstream gateway to horror, at a time when a few of us were already wandering into the woods again anyway -- in part, I imagine, because the evils of our present dimension have become so commonplace and frequent that we tend to overlook those monsters that have always lurked in the periphery. No Eater of Worlds likes to go unnoticed.

My favorite image in the series is a baby's crib topped off by a mobile of clowns. It's a visual metaphor for so much in the series and in the genre. It suggests that horror is the stuff of childhood dreams from the very beginning, that we're shaped by it almost immediately after exiting the womb, whether we want to be or not. It's always present. It suggests that adults are oblivious to the monstrous nature of what they impose on innocence. It suggests that terror hangs over us when we're least expecting, least equipped. And, of course, in a very literal way, I guess, it (or It) suggests that, well, clowns float.

And we all know how that one goes, don't we. Say it with me, friends: "We all float down here...."

"The Film is a Poem..."

The first line of Roger Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself, is the kind of opening line most writers wish they had written: "I was born inside the movie of my life." It's an elegant, humble start to the story of a writer who became the only movie critic to ever win the Pulitzer prize. The only movie critic, it is said, that many people ever read. Well, for the sake of movie critics everywhere—and here I think Roger Ebert would agree with me—I hope that's not true.

Ebert left behind a lifelong career of loving movies, a body of written work unparalleled, save maybe in the works of the great Pauline Kael, a body of work he planned to continue building even as his own body was failing him. I knew him through his writing, and I found his prose always to be warm, witty, and eloquent, even when he was being downright acerbic. His criticism I sometimes liked less, as he occasionally got his facts wrong, misremembering or misquoting. Still, he always had an eye for the loving details, as in his review of Star Wars, where he notes Luke's landspeeder reminds him "uncannily of a 1965 Mustang."

A decade ago, when I began watching movies in earnest—which only means, with aspirations to write about how and why they move me—I usually disagreed with Ebert's overly generous, three- and four-star reviews of popular American films. His reviews of the great movies, though, I absorbed, so conversational and approachable was his style. As the years have gone by, I've mellowed in my own conversations, gotten more approachable myself when it comes to movies, and I see his work now in a different light. He was that rare and gifted writer who bridges the gap between his subject (cinema) and his readers (everyone). No small feat in a nation that still holds little respect for movies as art.

Tonight I watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the greatest movies ever made about longing, isolation, love and loneliness. Ebert wrote this about it, in one of his finest reviews: "It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come—not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem—an elegy for the dead."

It's a fitting kind of mourning, I think, to revisit this movie tonight. Ebert has been an undeniable influence upon this blog, just as another writer I once knew, Barry Hannah, was of immeasurable influence upon my fiction. I once thought Warren Beatty's achingly beautiful line—"I got poetry in me!"—might have been attributed to Barry, who spent some time in Hollywood in the seventies and worked with Robert Altman doctoring scripts. A friend chased that theory down and, straight from Barry's mouth, debunked it. But it's still the kind of line Barry would have written, probably wished he had, when he thought about it. And so McCabe & Mrs. Miller has always held a special place in my heart as the movie that reminds me of a writer who taught me, who teaches me still. Now, I guess, two such writers owe the film a debt.

In Life Itself, speaking of his own death, Ebert says, "What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins's theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, cliches that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting, and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes."

That list of memes seems like a thing McCabe might rattle off to himself, mumbling his heart out before a mirror, putting bullets in his pistol. Unlike McCabe, Ebert will be remembered for a much longer while, and he never mumbled.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2013.

Gone, Baby. Gone.

In March 2010, I was having dinner at a Mexican restaurant with a handful of other teachers and the writer Judith Ortiz Cofer. Cofer was the visiting dignitary to the two-year college where I work here in small-town Georgia, and six or seven of us had taken her to the only joint in town with decent grub. Over the chips and salsa, Cofer was lamenting the gone-baby-gone days of the "bad boys" of the trade — writers like James Dickey who, when hired to read on a university campus, would end up drunkenly serenading the college President's fifteen-year-old daughter at five in the morning from the lawn beneath her bedroom window. Those were the days, Cofer said, when writers were dangerous.

Well.

I don’t know about that.

But I do know that Barry Hannah is often remembered as being of those days, and so when the conversation inevitably turned to his legendary gun and trumpet, I couldn’t help smiling.  The truth was I, now a teacher of the trade and a struggler at the craft, had not known a dangerous man. In fact, I had learned to write at the feet of a man who, when he smiled, resembled nothing so much as someone’s sweet grandmother. A grandmother, sure, who wore leather and rode a motorcycle down the back-roads of rural Mississippi. A grandmother, sure, who professed a deep admiration for the intricate mechanisms of firearms.

But dangerous?

There was nothing dangerous about the man I saw in Walmart in 2006 on a snowy night in Oxford, Mississippi, wearing a woman’s scarf and gray sweat pants and pawing through the five-dollar bin of DVDs, looking, like me, I guess, for something special to watch on a cold winter’s evening.

In the 2004 winter issue of The Paris Review, Barry Hannah tells interviewer Lacey Galbraith about the incident in Alabama that became infamous, how he once brought an empty pistol into a workshop and “twirled the chambers to explain six movements in a short story.” This had been a lifetime ago, a drunken mistake that became the specters of things Barry had done only vaguely, haunting him into old age. In the interview, Lacey kids him as to whether he remembers what the six movements were. “No,” he tells her. “I could make something up, but it would be untrue….”

In the wake of his death, one or two writers out there have attempted to canonize Barry’s apocryphal past. If you’re like me, you’ve probably read a few of these in search of something honest.  One of the worst pieces I read was by a New Orleans writer. He paints a picture of a shit-faced but ambitious skirt chaser casting a fly rod from a balcony on Decatur Street. All things the writer of the piece didn’t witness, mind you, because he was too much of a ninny to drop by his buddy’s party and actually meet Hannah. The piece celebrates the writer’s cowardice. It’s a strange, mealy kind of tribute, one I’d wager Barry would have been baffled by. Secondhand tales set down as first-person remembrances, all done in the spirit of love.  Odd.

Barry always spoke of his past in interviews as a joyous, messy time, stopping well shy of naming regrets. By the time I knew him, though, his bad-boy days — the booze, the carousing, the guns and trumpets — had become as central to his life and writing as his forgotten six movements. Instead, he’d tell you it was a vision of Christ that had begun to inform his life and work, a deeply tanned man standing quietly at his sickbed. “I haven’t paid you enough attention,” Barry told him.

Dangerous?

No.

Kind. Generous.

Considerate.

At a party I attended my first year in the program, Barry’s wife Susan — gone, as well, now — found me hugging a wall and suggested I “quiet down.” Moments later I shared my first words with Barry, who sat in a chair in a corner, drinking a Red Bull. I learned he, like me, didn't care for these academic shindigs. My God, though, how many of them he must have gone to in his life, and this was only my first. I loved him immediately, if only because his soul seemed that of a quiet, thoughtful man’s who’d rather be home reading with a dog at his socked feet. So that’s pretty much what I did when it came to parties for the next three years: stayed home.  Barry went, of course. In truth, he carried the mantle of writing god with immeasurable grace in Oxford, a place at once expert and ignorant of men like Barry Hannah. They love their mythic drunken writers so in Oxford, toast them with champagne and without irony when they’re over a decade sober. It’s no secret that Barry sometimes chafed at that love, likening Oxford, as he put it, to a kind of “theme park for writers,” more enamored with myth than truth. If he was dangerous, he was dangerous only to everyone’s idea of themselves. He walked taller than the pretenders, and there were a lot of pretenders in Oxford.

Anyway, now that Barry’s gone, I hope the legends unspool until there’s nothing left to hold them together, and the only thing that remains is this: he lived, he wrote, he taught, he loved, he died; he did all of these with grace and as much dignity as they required.

Someone somewhere, I know, remembers James Dickey sitting quietly in a room, feeling old and thoughtful. But where’s the fun in telling that story? It’s not even a story, not by the standards of Barry’s fiction. No beginning, no end, just interminable middle. No thrill. No danger.

Just an old man looking for a good story cheap on a cold night.

I guess I could make something up, but it would be untrue.

This essay was originally published alongside a number of others from Barry's students in a special issue of Drunken Boat.

Death Proof

"Look, I don't know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun."

"Look, I don't know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun."

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 2007.

My wife is a self-proclaimed post-feminist. This means that she talks about things like "the male gaze" in movies while folding my socks very neatly. She says that Tarantino nails girl-talk, and I believe her. He also subverts genre and creates something new out of what might have been pure exploitation. We move from the celluloid fantasy of girls' asses swinging to jukebox rhythms to the reality of women who carry guns to avoid being raped while doing laundry late at night to women who are indestructible. Call them death proof. Zoe the cat and her infinite lives. Death Proof, a guy once said, is just the kind of movie you enjoy with friends. As I have no better friend than the woman who folds my socks, what can I say but, "This is true."

Ladies, that was fun.

White Dog

"You got a four-legged time bomb!"

"You got a four-legged time bomb!"

Written by Curtis Hanson and Sam Fuller. Directed by Sam Fuller. 1982

I envy Curtis Hanson, then just a young screenwriter who got to sit in a room with Sam Fuller and "co-write" this script. Fuller's style is usually described as hard-hitting --for reasons literal as well as figurative -- but no one talks much about his tender side. Like Kurosawa he seems noted for one thing, relegated to his own brand of greatness. Cigar-chomping, pistol-packing, etc. There's a great deal of beauty here --imbued with truth -- that might go unseen if you're not watching closely. Hanson lobbied against the window featuring St. Francis, but Fuller knew exactly what he wanted and why he wanted it. That's greatness among directors.

There Will Be Blood

"What's this? Why don't I own this? Why don't I own this?"

"What's this? Why don't I own this? Why don't I own this?"

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2007.

"I have a competition in me," Daniel Plainview says. "I want no one else to succeed." Plainview isn't driven by greed so much as contempt. He sees the worst in people, hates everyone. His soul is the black liquid he hauls up and deposits in the dirt, sometimes shooting skyward, his crooked, wobbly frame the flaming derrick burning long into the night and morning, infinite reserves. There Will Be Blood is a great movie that leaps time a little too quickly in its third act, but it ends at the perfect moment. Plainview's monologue begins the movie with the address, "Ladies and gentlemen...." He ends the movie with, "I'm finished." Appropriate, as it's a movie showcasing not only a single actor -- a titan, a colossus in American movies -- but also a single character. I'll always prefer the internalization of Barry Egan's violence, but this is, next to that, Paul Thomas Anderson's finest movie.

I Shot Jesse James

"Gold is nothing but that last corruption of degenerate man. But to be a little corrupt for the sake of art, that I wouldn't mind."

"Gold is nothing but that last corruption of degenerate man. But to be a little corrupt for the sake of art, that I wouldn't mind."

Written and directed by Sam Fuller. 1949.

"If a story doesn't give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes," Sam Fuller said, "throw it in the goddamn garbage." Here's a story that does that, figuratively speaking (though I imagine I'm meant to feel more than that, somehow, when John Ireland washes Reed Hadley's back). Let's say this: I genuinely care about the coward Robert Ford, and I could give a damn about John Kelley the magnanimous marshal --reactions I know the director, in his slap-dash wisdom, hopes of me. Sam Fuller famously fired a Colt .45 into the air to signal the first shot of this, his first movie. Number one with a bullet, you might say. I'm not sure, though, it's all about a girl. Ford's dying confession: "I loved him."

Punch-Drunk Love

"I didn't do anything. I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me 'that's that' before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say 'that's that', Mattress Man."

"I didn't do anything. I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me 'that's that' before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say 'that's that', Mattress Man."

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2002.

I believe the best love stories spring from lonely characters, and Barry Egan is as lonely as characters come. His and Lena's walk hand in hand down the hallway of the Princeville Hotel in Hawaii is the sort of scene you crave in movies: the consolidation of two lonely hearts observed discreetly. For much of the movie, we're in Barry's head. Not here. Here, the director knows it's time to step back and watch these wondrous characters from afar, to give them their privacy, and we're oh so happy for them. "Perfect for Romance" is the Princeville's motto. Punch-Drunk Love is perfect for it, too.

The Straight Story

"The worst part of gettin old is rememberin when you was young."

"The worst part of gettin old is rememberin when you was young."

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney. Directed by David Lynch. 1999.

The Straight Story opens with the sounds of crickets over a field of stars, and among its first images is a fat woman eating pink cupcakes while sunbathing in her back yard. So despite the witty double entendre of its title, the movie is very much a David Lynch film, playing to the director's great warmth and curious sense of humor. When I first saw it in 2000, I was watching it for the wrong reasons and had no frame of reference for Lynch. Now, I find it poignant, funny, and occasionally preachy. Still, Alvin Straight's ministrations to the folks he encounters on his journey always reveal new facets of his character, not theirs, and the scene in the bar where he and another old man recount their wartime ghosts is as powerful as such scenes get. He recalls the faces of his buddies who never came home, how they've remained young while he's aged.

Inland Empire

"From Hollywood, California -- where stars make dreams, and dreams make stars."

"From Hollywood, California -- where stars make dreams, and dreams make stars."

Written and directed by David Lynch. 2006.

So much of the early dialogue in Inland Empire is near inaudible -- and for good reason. It isn't really necessary. For a time, words are secondary to image. This becomes less the case in the second half, as nightmarish faces and ghost-like spaces are intercut with Laura Dern's violent (and quite funny) monologues -- neat vignettes offering glimpses of character in the dark.

But words, we understand from the beginning, are not the point. Everything Lynch has ever had to say about women in trouble (the film's nifty catch-all phrase), creepy bedrooms, whores, and Hollywood is here. He's said it all before and, yes, to greater, tidier effect. But to presume he's commentating on these things is to miss the intent of Inland Empire. Lynch's subconscious is on display here, the great dark region of his mind that doesn't plot but gives birth. It's appropriate that so many of Dern's close-ups share similar composition to Lynch's photographs: the movie is more an art show occupying many galleries than it is a narrative.

I've decided what makes David Lynch a great filmmaker is his defiance of any standard other than his own. There's not a rule of cinema you can hold him to or expect him to obey. And so we're tempted to measure each new film by comparison to his others. The end credits make it plain that Lynch is aware how redundant some might see this film, how self-indulgent it might seem. But a lumberjack sawing away at a bit of wood is the nod and the wink required, I think, the compact between Lynch and viewer: now you come to this only because it is a David Lynch film, and your expectations are both fulfilled and defied.

And it's fortunate, as Lynch has said, to be an adult and still be doing what you want to do.