February 19th: On The Blair Witch Project
It is 1999, and the Internet as we know it does not yet exist. We have just finished watching The Blair Witch Project at the local AMC. I am leaving your house. Or, perhaps, you are leaving mine. You (and/or I) are sprinting from the front door of one of our houses to the driver’s side door of one of our cars. We are fleeing, and we are convinced we are about to be caught.
Myrick and Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project is a ghost story about ghost stories. Their dark allure. Their fatalistic tug. Re-watching the film yesterday, re-watching it again today, I was struck by the fact that the original audience (both that of its Sundance showing and its wider release) was led to believe that the three students who had filmed it had died. That the footage they were watching had been recovered a year later. That the terror and panic they were witnessing was real. That a ghost story had spawned another, and now that ghost story was spawning thousands more.
The film makes this theme (that ghost stories are fecund; that absences possess an inescapable gravity) clear within the first twenty minutes. We follow Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael C. Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard) as they interview the residents of Burkittsville, Maryland about their recollections of the legend of the Blair Witch. Their responses vary: some deny the story entirely, while others report firsthand evidence of the Blair Witch’s presence. One man tells them the story of Rustin Parr, an old hermit who murdered seven children in the cellar of his home. As part of this ritual, the child waiting for their turn to be murdered would face the corner of the basement, averting their eyes as the child before them was killed. After he was done, the man reports, Rustin Parr emerged from the woods bearing the news that he was “finished,” that his work was done. He had performed the murders, it soon became clear, under the influence of the Blair Witch. The man, in the film’s present, stops speaking; Heather, who’s filming, lowers the camera. And so the story grows.
In interviews they gave following the film’s unexpected success, Myrick and Sánchez located their inspiration for the film in documentaries of haunted locales—especially those made by amateurs. Kids out in the wilderness, assessing the veracity of their local legends. Paranormal enthusiasts exploring abandoned amusement parks, mental asylums closed in the 1980s. Ghost stories were scary, sure—but scarier still were the stories that these tales gave rise to.
It is in light of this that Heather’s camera, as the film works itself up to its iconic conclusion, takes on an eerie thematic significance. As Josh, previously the most passive of the trio, at last begins to crack, he turns on Heather: “I can see why you like that camera so much. It’s not reality. It’s not quite reality.” And then, perhaps three minutes later: “I want to make movies, Heather. Isn’t that what we’re here to do? Let’s make some movies.” It’s not enough that the three students are doomed—it’s that they feel the need to film their doom. Until the bleak, black-and-white end: Mike, facing the corner of Rustin Parr’s old cellar, repeating the actions of the children who died there long ago. The past folds in on itself; Ouroboros devours its own tail. And yet we keep coming back, searching for proof, attempting to tap this final and most vital mystery of them all. As Heather herself puts it, refusing to turn off the camera even as she goes to her death: “It’s all I’ve got left.”
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of The Blair Witch Project, though, is that no story like it will ever be released again. Now, within a second or two, Google would prove that the three filmmakers were actors. The Internet would reduce the ambiguity that had made the film’s original release so compelling to a gimmick within minutes. Within a week, every background would have been canvassed for pale faces in the underbrush, every shadow obliterated by the Internet’s sterile white light.
1999 was an exciting, frightening time. One in which it was quite possible that a witch lay in wait in the woods. Now, over two decades later, ghost stories still spawn ghost stories. As progress accelerates, though, and as more and more of our world is reduced to code, it’s becoming increasingly clear even a ghost story can die.
February 20th: On The Endless (2017)
The Endless (2017) begins with two quotes. The first is from H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The second is from an unnamed source, and aphorizes this: siblings only reveal their true selves to each other on their deathbeds. Taken together, the pair of epigraphs economically convey (as they were, of course, meant to) why it is I find Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s third film so compelling. The Endless’s concept is high (or High, capital h), but its conflict is as common and unwanted as dust: as much as we’d like to put our faith in the ones we love, life makes this difficult. And thus we search. We reach out, and reach out again, and sometimes a Lovecraftian deity able to manipulate time and space itself takes hold of our hands.
The film centers upon two brothers, Justin and Aaron Smith, whose characters are played by the directors themselves. A decade after Justin, the older of the pair, freed them from a death cult when they were young children, the two return to Camp Arcadia, seeking the closure that has escaped them in their years away. Back in the compound, it quickly becomes clear that Aaron resents his older brother for his actions ten years before. Even if the death cult is, in fact, a death cult, he’d rather stay and accept his fate rather return to the anhedonia they’ve endured in the years since. Even if Hal (Tate Ellington), Camp Arcadia’s leader, is right, and the alien entity that has trapped the cult in an inescapable time loop is real, Aaron would prefer to remain.
At about the three-quarter mark of The Endless, just as Act II is coming to a close, Justin, alone in Camp Arcadia’s arid wilderness, comes across the house from the directors’ first film, 2012’s Resolution. It was at this moment, re-watching the film yesterday, that The Endless’s thesis came into focus for me. Resolution follows Mike Danube, a man who tracks his former best friend to a house in the desert wilderness, attempting to save him from the drug addiction that’s killing him. It’s a film that, at its heart, is about two people who find the world lacking, and go in search of something to make up for this lack, only to realize that the thing they found lacking wasn’t, in fact, lacking at all. Mike had a wife, with a kid on the way; Chris had a world, which he traded for a pipe. Both wanted more, a definite answer to the great why at the heart of life. What they find instead are videotapes of their own deaths. Something else is out there, and it wants the same thing they want: an ending.
What makes The Endless so frightening is that it doesn’t provide a clean answer to this question. Ultimately, Aaron does put his faith in his older brother. They trade the predictability of Arcadia’s time loop for the potential of the wider world. They set out, leaving safety and comfort behind. All they have is each other, and this has to be enough. But it’s not clear that it can be enough. The Endless is titled what it’s titled for a reason, after all. As apes whose brains are too big for our own good, our biology simultaneously compels us to search and to find nothing at the end of this search. As Justin says to Aaron, in the last line of the film, referring to their car’s dash, which says they’re on empty: “You figure it out.”
February 21st: On Resolution (2012)
The first definition Google provides for “resolution” (which is itself provided, Google claims, by the OED, but who knows) reads: a firm decision to do or not to do something. This is our New Year’s resolution, our relationship-saving oath. I will be better. I swear. Whereupon we cheat in a month, a week. This is our promise. I swear. Again, despite our best intentions, we prove ourselves weak.
This is one of the three themes at the heart of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s Resolution, the pair’s 2012 debut. The film follows Mike Danube (Peter Cilella), a man who tracks his former best friend, Chris Daniels (Vinny Curran), to a derelict house in the southwestern United States wilderness, attempting to save him from the drug addiction that’s killing him. Mike makes this decision after receiving, via email, a series of clips that depict Mike smoking meth, firing a rifle at the sky, screaming at an offscreen entity. He sets out the next day, leaving behind a wife, a kid on the way. Neither we nor Mike see his wife again, although we hear from her a number of times. On the other side of the line, for example, as Mike calls her from rest stop parking lots. Or—and this is the last time we hear her voice—dying, as Mike plays back the most recent snuff film left for him by the paranormal entity just about finished toying with him.
We want to be better. We all want to be better. But being better is hard. Even the most noble of acts are, at their core, at least a little narcissistic. Mike goes to save his best friend, but also to salvage his view of himself. Chris removes himself from the world, seeking to protect it from his own shittiness, but also to protect himself from the shittiness of the world.
There is no such thing as a purely selfless sacrifice. But this does not stop us from attempting to sacrifice ourselves. Moorhead and Benson’s partial sequel to Resolution, 2017’s The Endless, takes up this theme again in an equally compelling way.
A good bit into the film (around the start of Act II, if you think in such terms), Mike starts finding, scattered about Chris’s desert property, certain clues. The first is a book of unsettling campfire tales; thereafter follow a series of film slides, tapes, and reels. The footage contained within these artifacts grows increasingly grim. One tape shows Mike and Chris, engaged in the same argument they’ve just resolved (!), instead coming to blows. Another displays funeral photos of the best friends’ faces. Another, which they only listen to, features the two of them pleading for their lives, then screaming as they die.
The second definition Google provides for “resolution” is this: the action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter. Or, if we’re thinking about stories: the end. Or: The End, capital t, capital e. All stories depend upon conflict. Only when the conflict ends may a story likewise die.
This, too, is what Resolution is about: our need for closure, and how self-destructive this need can be. Mike goes back, seeking to rewrite the end of his friendship with Chris. And then he lingers, seeking to bring to a close the mystery of the impossible tapes. He speaks with Byron, a member of the French research team that investigated the area long ago, and finds out the entity haunting them is one who feeds off stories, one who needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The tapes Mike is finding are nothing more than stage directions from this alien presence, notes meant to nudge Mike toward a more satisfying conclusion.
At the end of Resolution—spoiler—the entity at last reveals itself to the pair. Chris genuflects, while Mike pleads: “Please. Can we try it another way?”
Spoiler: as The Endless reveals, they can. They can try it an infinite number of other ways. And the outcome does not change.
The fifth definition Google provides for “resolution” reads: the smallest interval measurable by a scientific (especially optical) instrument; the resolving power. This is the standard 720 and 1080 pixels of film, the 2K and 4k fidelity now being reached by the best PCs money can buy. This resolution is the quality of an image: the limit upon which how hard our eyes can strain before the act of God that is our reality breaks down into 0’s and 1’s, line after line of fractal code.
I think this, more than anything else, is what Resolution is about. What does one find when they pursue too deeply the question of why? What happens when a day job as a graphic designer (!) does not become enough? When one’s wife and unborn child are not enough? In Resolution, the answer is at once simple and unknowable: there is nothing else except the life Mike’s made for himself. There are only cosmic impossibilities beyond our powers of comprehension, the uncaring laws of a universe structured to reduce us (and all things) once more to dust, and time to something less than dust. In the absence of anything else, one must make of their allotted interval of light what they will.
This didn’t fit into the preceding three sections, but I feel obligated to include it here. Resolution, the directorial duo’s first outing, was released in 2012; their second film, Spring, which is unrelated to the events of Resolution, was released two years after that. In 2017, The Endless, which both takes places in the same universe and addresses many of the same themes as Resolution, came out; two years after that, the directors’ most recent film, Synchronic, was released. If this pattern holds, we can expect Act III in 2022, providing a resolution to what might very well end up one of the most compelling filmic trilogies of the start of the 21st century. In this way—and perhaps in this way only—2022 cannot come soon enough.
February 22nd: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory
As a writer (and still this self-identification squeaks through gritted teeth), I find the experience of reading the memoirs of writers to have come before me akin to the sensation of walking in a city in the rain. Ahead and above and behind and around me: light, sound, the mixed aromas of cleansing and surfaced filth. A bar that peddles Belgian beer and Belgian mussels. Homeless women under mouse-gnawed tarps. A skyscraper under construction. The demoted statue of William Penn. The Past and the Future collapsing upon the ill-coordinated intersection I (and the memoirist) call my Now. And yet we do not look up. We shuffle along with our heads down, our hoods up, our feet numb. Perhaps we have an umbrella; more likely we have forgotten it at home in our reluctant haste to start the day. And in the puddles at our feet we see the world, broken and blurred, reshaped into something even more strange: the marigold burst of a school bus, the grim monochromaticity of the inverted buildings above. Life—ours, another’s—with all its beauty and unpleasantness and chaos taken to the 10th degree. Every once in a while, though, we huddle at a bus stop, under a hotel lobby’s awning, in line at La Colombe—and we see, in the puddle at our feet, darkly reflected, ourselves.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, these moments of reflected clarity—of Nabokov alighting upon an unusually precious vein of language and recollection; of me identifying myself in these resurrected scenes—occur at a clip of one to two per chapter. The frequency of this correspondence, at least for me, was more or less expected; a good memoirist, like a good novelist, writes not only of a life, but of all lives. What surprised me was the character of the scenes in which I found myself. Given a behind-the-scenes tour of the drafting of a chess problem, I thought back to my own experiments in combinatorics and calculus in undergrad. Lepidopterology (the study of moths and butterflies), the third of Nabokov’s three great passions, he describes as “a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” This description maps neatly onto my sensation of the fourteenth mile of a marathon, the wind at my back, my face flushed, trusting the rhythm of the moment to last me the twelve miles and change to go, and so too every mile after that. Nabokov’s brief, passionate seaside tryst as an eight-year-old lad was also mine; so too the discomfort he felt, as a teenager, of witnessing a friend outgrow their childhood games. It is a testament to Nabokov not only that these scenes instill in me the deja vu they do, but that the scenes that do this are not those in which he is writing. Every writer, tautologically speaking, puts a pen to the page. It is whatever preceded this moment that differs. It is whatever words emerge.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t identify with aspects of Nabokov’s writing life—just that the moments within which I did locate myself struck me as remarkably (pardon the pun) prosaic. I have not yet read Lolita, nor Pale Fire; Pnin and Bend Sinister lie in wait atop my desk, teetering amidst a miniature Babel of a thousand other to-be-reads. Before reading his autobiography, all I knew of Nabokov was that he was one of the best; I therefore expected (if unconsciously) to find in his Künstlerroman a genesis similar to Joyce’s, Faulkner’s, Capote’s: brilliance, yes, but also an undeniable strangeness, obsessions and routines beyond the capacity of the human body to bear, untenable depths of substance abuse. Instead I read, midway through Chapter Eleven, as Nabokov, describing his apprehension, as a youth, of a finished verse, deemed his words an “atrocious betrayal.” I read of the nerves Nabokov felt upon presenting his mother with a completed poem: “Never had I been more vulnerable.” I read as a decade later, at Cambridge, Nabokov devoted himself to his craft with a fervor, reading ten pages of a dictionary a day, harvesting its choicest words. There is no epiphany in Nabokov’s autobiography (or, if it is, it is small, or occurs off-screen). Instead he illustrates for us a series of minor revelations—the parallels between a chess problem and a well-told tale; the twinned tasks of the lepidopterist and the novelist. And he does so almost always without saying so; this, after all, is the autobiography of one of the twentieth century’s most respected writers. Everything is about writing—especially the writing that doesn’t appear to be about writing. And Nabokov is wise enough to trust us to have long ago figured this out.
Writing, like love, is mostly work. Also like love, though, a large part of writing is, well, love. It’s taken me a large part of my twenty-five years to learn this, and it’s going to take however many years I have left to follow this truth to wherever it leads. One day, after reading more of Nabokov’s work, I think I’ll return to Speak, Memory. Find myself again—reflected, briefly—in its still-stilling black.
February 23rd: Little humor piece. Perhaps you shall read it one day somewhere else. Perhaps!
February 24th: On The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry
I love anthologies and collections equally, but for opposite reasons. A collection, to me, is an end. The collected works of ___ represent a natural terminus to my investigation of the soul of a person and a place and a time. Ten to twenty artifacts of a soul’s expression equals a fair approximation of the soul itself. The last collection I finished and shelved contained some of the best stories of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s career. By the time I turned the page on the last of them, I felt sated. Kiernan offers the uncanny and the lovely and the angry in abundance. Again I had versed myself in the rhythm of her words. I would reacquaint myself with her genius again, but for now I was satisfied; I could move on.
Anthologies, by contrast, are beginnings. A series of semi-blind dates entered into by a literary polygamist. It was within an anthology (edited by Ellen Datlow, the unchallenged queen of horror and SF anthologies) that I had my first experience with Kiernan, and with many of the authors whose novels and collections now litter my desk.
As someone still searching for poets to call his favorite, then, it was inevitable that I would purchase the J.D. McClatchy-edited The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. Now, flipping back through the book, I have decided upon eight poets with whom I will be entering a literary relationship. (My intention, thinking of the fiction anthologies I’ve read, was to discover one or two new poets with whom I synchronized; this anthology rose more than admirably to that challenge.) They are as follows: Denise Levertov, Kay Ryan, Robert Creeley, Mark Doty, Philip Levine, Charles Wright, Robert Hass, and Heather McHugh. These poets share a number of qualities. Some of these did not surprise me. Both Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” and Wright’s “The Other Side of the River” rang within me a familiarly melancholic bell. Creeley and Ryan’s economy aligned neatly with my own sensibilities; Doty and McHugh, who both string together words with a febrile, tactile delight familiar to anyone likewise in love with language, cast me adrift.
Some of the qualities I found myself gravitating toward, though, were ones to which I had previously thought myself averse, or at least indifferent. The vulnerability and (surface) simplicity of much of Creeley and Ryan’s work, for example, existed in stark contrast to the technicality and volubility of previous modernist favorites of mine, like Bishop and Lowell. I found myself seeking out the same naturalism I had scorned in school. Silence, reverie. Plainspoken truths. Standing by a river and tilting one’s face to the sky. So much of our Now is grid and code, prescribed procedures designed to convey one efficiently from point A to point B to death. The joy of an anthology—just like the joy of poetry, just like the joy of walking alone in the woods—is setting out without a definite end, and seeing what one might find.
Delight and despair exist in equal regard in the discovery of a writer worthy of one’s admiration. As I sit here, banging out these daily words, I despair at my delight. I delight at my despair. Creeley, I think, is first. McHugh next. Then the other six. Then more. There are always more.
February 25th: On Manchester Orchestra’s “Bed Head”
After 2017’s A Black Mile to the Surface, I wasn’t sure what I wanted Manchester Orchestra to make next. The album, Manchester Orchestra’s fifth, represented a definite improvement upon 2014’s Cope. Torn down was that featureless wall of power chords and buried drums and resurrected grunge. Now—thank God—I could hear Hull again. On Black Mile, the only problem was that I wasn’t always sure I wanted to. At its best, on songs like “The Wolf,” “The Moth,” and “The Silence,” the band accomplished what I think they set out to, weaving Hull’s personal narrative with the historical drama from which Black Mile takes its name, confidently straddling the inter-genre space between their emo roots and the more radio-friendly alt-rock toward which they’ve since trended. For the most part, though, Manchester struggles to balance these instincts, resulting in an album that feels at once confessional and cold, stripped away and relentlessly overproduced, safe and experimental. Black Mile wasn’t a bad album—it ranks second among the band’s five, in my estimation—but it wasn’t the album I wanted. Either go for broke or don’t. It isn’t the worst thing to play it safe, but it is the most forgettable.
“Bed Head,” the first single off Manchester Orchestra’s upcoming sixth album, The Million Masks of God, has me cautiously optimistic. In it, they seem at last to have shed the self-consciousness that held Black Mile back. Gone is the unassuming quiet and unchecked anger of I Feel Like a Virgin Losing a Child and Mean Everything to Nothing. Here to stay is the violent synth that drove “The Moth,” the distortion and crackle that laced “The Wolf” with unease, the crashing guitars that gave “The Silence” its apocalyptic weight. Here, too, we find Hull writing with the monosyllable simplicity that defined “I Can Feel a Hot One” and “Shake It Out,” the songs that represent, as I see it, his lyrical high-water mark. Black Mile’s historical context, as the album dragged on, became an awkward requirement of specificity and detail. Unburdened by this weight, Hull’s gestures toward universality on “Bed Head” feel unforced and honest in a way they haven’t since the band’s foundation.
On “Bed Head,” the lines “You’re not who you were, but you can’t let it go; / you’re not where you’re from, but you’re always alone” have proven, for me, particularly haunting. They represent both where Manchester Orchestra are in their career and where many of their first fans, now in their twenties and thirties, find themselves. The past is dead. What once was is now not, and never again will be. You may recognize the various other paths your life might have been taken, the ghosts of your quantum selves. You might even pine for them. In the end, though, the only thing to do is, to paraphrase Hull, stick a flag in the ground of your Now. Accept your fate, even if it’s not what you thought you wanted. Figure out what you want to happen next. Do your damnedest to make it so.