Sarah Van Bonn

Turbid Reflection

Sarah Van Bonn

A retelling of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly based on a single viewing that took place years ago.

There is the salience of summertime. How it means the ritual of freedom from ritual. There is a table, al fresco. The atmosphere is lively familiarity, one of comfort derived from closeness, but of course at the same time of a question, a fear, of what’s underneath the surface, and of if, and of when.

There are so many men, so many patriarchs. And there is a young woman: she is sparkling, a light inside the eyes of everyone at the table.

The dinner unrolls the way that dinners do. Maybe a glance is exchanged or words when she is out of the room, or maybe even she’s exchanging them. But the main thing is that the night air is warm and it’s calm, and she’s there. And she’s warm and she’s calm and that’s important too. Like winter is behind us, and its return is not something you think about when it’s spring.

***

In bed, it is her and her husband, who is not her father but is not NOT her father. Who is her caretaker. Who has chosen her and doesn’t unchoose her. She is not tricking him into staying there. She loves him in the way that she can. And he is attuned to her, and can feel the shift, just a slight change in the scent of the air; he sees/feels/smells something and he wonders if it’s real, if it’s IT, if the thing is back.

She is awake in all the quiet small moments, when you feel most alone, and she hears the fog horn, hears the mystery of what it’s saying, or the certainty, the dread of its voice, its message, which sits like a weight inside her and grows heavier and heavier.

***
There is a body of water, vast, that lies at the edges. And it is filled with sounds and with things that are unknowable, and it’s always there. Right at the edges.

***
There is some discussion, some negotiation, and the hope, if it can just be addressed scientifically, adultly, responsibly, if it can be classified, it can be treated. There is the hope that it can be treated. That it WILL be treated.

***
Someone goes swimming or fishing. Maybe a month has passed, or a week, or just a few days. Summer always seems too short. Some of the group (the patriarchs) go on a day trip, or a supply run. They will be gone for a while. But things have begun to change with her, in a shallow way, and by the time they get back, the shadows will be deep.

***
There is the boat. The creaky boat, old and leaking. There is the safety of the familiar. There is the beauty of her and how anything must be done, that beautiful wildflower. How to care for it? How to make it your own?

There may be a storm coming. The boat may be shelter, it may be safety. It isn’t a boat that works. It is a shell of a boat.

No one realizes it was wrong until after. But it is the turning point. Like autumn, the fall.

***

Then there is the end. The day trip returns, from getting food, or medicine, help. They can’t deny it now. It’s back. It is not her but it is her, the other her. Did the brother know who it was? Was he trying to fix her or just comfort her or just comfort himself?

She is in a room that for her is a prison. The room, the world, the mind is a prison. There is movement, pawing at the walls, pacing the floors. There may be something in the room, or in the walls. She is waiting. For help? Maybe she is looking for something, or waiting, not for help but for it to reveal itself. Or she is hoping it will stay hidden, and she is terrified of seeing it emerge. Help comes but there is no help. They are talking like lion tamers, like police to a pistol-brandishing suspect. Put down the gun.

Then something does show. It is the helicopter that is a spider that is god. It is the monster that’s been hiding. It can’t help. All is lost, she is gone. But maybe she is right. God is a spider, or god is a machine, or god is the monster hiding in the walls. God is the promise of help that never arrives, god is a misinterpretation. And the fine line that prevents us from seeing what she sees is a very thin curtain, and behind it is the chaos and fury, not of one deranged mind, but of everything.

***

The water is always there, and it never changes.

A Clearwater Collection

Sarah Van Bonn

1.
A woman in a pink bikini lies on the beach right at the surf—she’s composed looking, like it’s for a photo you see on a postcard, but also you get the sense this is every day of her life. She’s propped up on her elbows, face tilted back in serene bliss/maximal sun absorption.

2.
That may be my worst experience eating an ice cream, says a man wearing a Detroit Pistons shirt as he exits the beach.

3.
I’ve got a bad back from all them waves hittin me! says a little Scottish boy. His dad wears a speedo. His older sister has long thin hair and long thin limbs. Their family looks like something from a Sylvain Chomet movie. I wonder what people from other countries think of Florida.

4.
There are rogue packs of seagulls everywhere. Their snide round black faces contrast against their dingy white bodies. They caw and congregate and on some days are so bold that they’ll swoop down and hover in the air above your head using an impressively sophisticated wing back-beating movement that seems to be specially designed to enable terrorizing and then darting in to attempt to snatch away the sandwich you are eating.

5.
Inexplicable law of physics: how children’s tiny legs can make such enormous Great-now-I’ve-got-saltwater-in-my-eye splashes.

6.
Someone has sculpted a couch out of sand on the beach, across from it a similarly sculpted TV. Two sticks stuck on top form the antenna. It is surprisingly realistic. I imagine some bored parent made it while their kid carried cups of water up from the surf to dump on the sand or whatever kids think is exciting. The artist is nowhere in site. Later a kid, maybe 7, comes over and I think, Great. He’s totally gonna ruin it now. After a few minutes, a lady in bikini comes over. Did you make that yourself, she asks in exaggerated-loud adult-to-kid voice. He must say yes because she goes, “You did??!! Your TV looks awesome!” I hope he is not lying because if he’s not, he’s got a good future ahead of him. When I look over again, he is slowly circling his maybe-creation, holding a plastic shovel, delicately shaping. He pats sand with small hands onto the couch’s baseboard. Later, people come over to sit on it and have their photo taken. What would Baudrillard say, I rhetorically ask no one.

7.
A girl has a small heart-shaped pale area above her hipbone, from where she must have placed a sticker while tanning; another young woman proudly showcases the art of belly bedazzling.

8.
A kid is slapped in the face by a wave.

9.
A man apathetically sweeps the sand with a metal detector.

10.
A herd (is that the proper term?) of jet skis bob at the ready in the surf, waiting to be ridden into the field. Their names: Reel Fast, Beach Buoys, N 2 deep, Get Reel, Cool Breeze.

11.
A businessman and -woman weave across the beach—carrying their shoes and socks, picking their way through the cabanas, umbrellas, and towels.

12.
Two freckled sisters lay on towels feet-to-feet, holding them in the air and pressing them together.

13.
A family of fat people lay out a giant blanket. They have an enormous cooler with them. Every time I look over, one or more or all of them are eating homemade sandwiches, drinking Dr. Pepper, shaking the crumbs from chip bags into their mouth. They stare forward through sunglasses. They don’t look unhappy.

14.
The setting: the town square separating the beach from the roadstrip of restaurants. A fire-eater informs the sizable crowd surrounding him about the whereabouts of the pier’s fire extinguisher and then asks people if they “are ready,” which earns him much enthusiastic vocal assent.

15.
A bar sign on aforementioned roadstrip advertises the band playing there tonight; they’re called the Black Honkeys.

16.
The characters are a “mix-and-match-the relationship” trio of mom-and-daughter and/or sister and/or friend strolling along sidewalk next to aforementioned roadstrip. A gay friend—they’re the best, says one of the younger (sister or daughter or friend) two. I just made a new one the other day, says other friend/sister. They are the best. I haven’t had one in like 5 years. You’ve GOT to have a gay friend, says the mother/sister/friend.

17.
Two big-bellied tan dudes board the elevator, each carrying a 12 pack, one of Diet Sunkist, and one of Bud Light Lime. One of them says during the ascent, Sure hope this is enough beer for them girls.

18.
A kid of about 11 or so dangles a fishing pole over the side of the cement into the marina water, and a few minutes later, he pulls out a wide flat ugly and surprisingly large fish. Good for you, says a woman walking by. He tells her what kind of fish it is: it’s called, like, a spearhead or a razorhead or a pointyhead or something. It looks prehistoric. It gulps weakly through its gills and flaps around on the hot pavement.

19.
“What the heck? I can’t find it! Oh my gosh! It’s in the water!” child shouts from hotel poolside about a ball that’s flung over the pool fence and landed in the marina water behind it. His “surprise” is obviously a sham created to hide his culpability. “We’re gonna need something very, very long,” kid assesses.
“Like a net! a helping kid adds.
“Maybe a dolphin will swim up and start doing tricks with it,” a short-haired (in a Florida, not lesbian way) woman on the sidelines observes.
“Brock, no!” screams mom of original offender.
A man (guessing dad) holds a net pole and a woman (guessing mom) holds a long-handled pool broom, and together they try to fish it out of the water. They almost rescue it but it tips back in.
Man loses his balance and falls backward on his ass onto some shrubs. Fuckers! he yells. (The shrubs?)
Attempt number two successfully brings the ball back up to the concrete ledge. Short-hair woman unhelpfully yells from the sidelines: “Don’t let it roll back in!” It does.
Attempt three. “This time bring it all the way in,” shouts orig. kid. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” chorus the rest of them. Their outstretched hands receive the reward.

20.
These Michigan people know how to party, says a sun-leathered, wiry, twangy-rather-than-drawly-South Southern guy below the balcony. At least they come down to the pool. The rest of these people don’t even leave their rooms!

21.
From far away, the two sides of the suspension bridge look like they are reaching out a hand toward one another across the river.

The Coming Storm

Sarah Van Bonn

We knew how to get ready for it because we’d been through it before, just that fall, when a hurricane came up the coast. They said a hurricane meant violent wind, objects that don’t fly hurtling through the air, and ocean in places it shouldn’t be. It’s like nature getting into a bar fight with itself, the mayor told us.

What was on its way now was the violent kind too, worse, maybe, than the hurricane—worst, maybe. We knew we’d have to spend days inside, likely. I asked my element if you could come stay with us because I didn’t want to be apart from you that long, and they said yes. I was relieved although I also worried about how much food it would take to feed you since you are so tall. What if we ate too much in the first few days and then were running low? There was no way to know how long we’d be indoors. How hungry was too hungry? These were the kinds of things you really had to think about. I didn’t mention it.

I was waiting for you to bring the car over. I kept peeking through the curtain out the window, watching the snow accumulating on the streets. It was a dusting and a few minutes later it was a layer. I was anxious. You said you’d be there at five o’clock, but it was six. I called and your voice was there, thick with sleep. You were just taking a little nap, you said. You had to do a few errands and then you’d be over. You can’t keep doing this, I said or may have yelled. I didn’t yell. I was calm but I was worried; my voice was strained. I called you darling. Darling, you have to communicate with me, especially when you’re not going to be here when you say you are. You can’t take so many naps. Not at a time like this. You acknowledged it: you said yes, okay, of course, from now on, but you may have still been sleeping. Just be here soon, I said. I didn’t want to have to worry any more than I already was.

We gathered everything and made arrangements. We put things on the right shelves, made stacks, tied together bunches, and hung things the right way from hooks. I was heading back from the store where I’d gone to buy tins of beans, or maybe I was heading to the store, wondering how busy it might be, if there would be any bean tins left, because we had to be ready, because it would be there soon, when I noticed.

We were all standing outside. The streets were full. The snow was gone and nobody was wearing a coat and bits of green poked out from surfaces. I tried to remember the details of when, exactly, it was supposed to start getting really bad, but it was hard to pinpoint. How odd, I thought, that the mayor was so responsible last time, out there, all over the airwaves telling us what to expect and how to prepare and what not to do. But this time, silence. Wait just a minute, I thought, had the mayor even said anything at all? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her or heard her voice.

Most of us knew to get ready because our friends knew, and were preparing, and our neighbors knew, and shared the details. And now here we all were, standing on the streets in a silent mass, not even moving, most of us, just standing there, gazing at the sky, waiting. We know, I realized. I could tell in my bones that we did. We’ve known all along what was coming. It may never be over; it may all be over. I was alone. Far away from you and all the others, but I stood still with everyone, all of us separate but linked, staring up. And that was when the first one hit.

Beneath

Sarah Van Bonn

Beneath

Survival of

Sarah Van Bonn

Survival of

A Sliver of Year Seventeen

Sarah Van Bonn

It was after the turn of the millennium–when something was supposed to happen, but nothing had.

Too young for bars, and too suburbanly removed for walking, they spent most of the time at someone’s “place” (generally a run down house where older friends lived in semi-squalor and at least one over-21-year-old enabled the stock of booze to stay high), or in a car on the way to someone’s place, or—during the 2.5 months of decent weather—outside.

In the spring (which barely was one), best friend took Rosa to some new guy’s place. He was a friend of best friend’s boyfriend, and now he and best friend were “such good friends” Rosa “just had” to meet him. New guy made them tea and asked thoughtful questions and they went home before it got too late. He was undeniably fat but almost excusably so, more like “pudgy” and very tall, with stylish glasses and decent hipster style (this was before the word hipster was really THE word for that kind of person–they were sometimes called scenesters, or mostly just “indie” kids).

They all went up to someone’s absent parents’ Lake House for a weekend, drank too much and played barefoot soccer, skinny-dipped and hooted at the cold, and when he put his arms around her in “that” way, she didn’t run away.

He made her a mixed CD with a hand-painted blue-and-orange watercolor cover. It had Arab Strap on it and Cat Power and Jurassic 5 and Sam Cooke and the Last Nite single from before the Strokes got a video on MTV and blew up and everyone shook their heads all ruefully about it. She made a tape of it to play in her car and learned every word and was happy when someone else rode with her because it was a mediumly impressive compilation. He worked at a record store. He was 26. He thought she was a goddess and would stare all intently at her when she played guitar and sang. Given all of that, she figured it was probably okay to date him.

She watched him play basketball at the local outdoor court, relieved that he was actually good at it so she didn’t need be embarrassed. She waited on the warm black asphalt, observing silently, or picking tiny black stones from the palm pock-mark pattern she’d gotten from leaning back on her hands, or reading bits of Bartheleme’s 60 Stories, holding the book up to her face to smell the sunscreen that had saturated the pages on her trips to the Big Lake that summer. (She would sit on the beach next to record-store guy and make sure not to focus on his swimsuit body. She would read her Bartheleme—slowly, because she didn’t want the stories to end—trying to absorb it, or more accurately, trying to let it absorb her. She’d wade out into the freezing lake, open her eyes underwater, and imagine what it would be like to stay there.)

In the end, their relationship was brief and didn’t leave much of a mark on her. When they broke up, she pouted on his porch for a bit and he pushed past her to leave. Where are you going? she asked with maybe a hint more sniffle than the situation called for, given that she’d never even liked him all that much. To David’s place, he said. But David’s MY friend! she protested in genuine shock. You didn’t even know him until we met. He’s my good friend, and you just broke up with me! What if I wanted to go to David’s? But he went anyway and she lingered on the porch for a while before driving back to her parents’ house because there was no place else to go.

It wasn’t a bad breakup or a good breakup. Just a hashmark on a wall. A few but not many years later, she felt secure enough to express to a man she actually loved her puzzlement over why this was a trend: for men to kiss the ground she walked on so much that she’d let them in a little, though she wasn’t really smitten, only to watch through narrowed eyes as they’d then abruptly retreat, blaming some non-excuse that a person would only believe because it was better than the truth, which was unknowable anyway. Loved man waved it off, saying, “They were probably just after one thing and once they got it, they lost interest.” A sense of feminism and pride compelled her to object, but that remark sank its teeth in too, helping itself to her insides like a parasite.

The sounds of the basketball court that day echoed like they’d traveled a very long road from somewhere far away to get there. She felt the air change, grow heavy. Was it thunder in the distance, or something else, some unidentified darkness hidden just out of sight over the horizon?

Boring ≠ Bad: A Defense of Art

Sarah Van Bonn

A top-notch meal requires a skilled chef and an appreciative eater, a soaring skyscraper needs a strong foundation, and a healthy, happy romance calls for heaps of work. No pain, no gain, as the platitude puts it. Right?

The author of this piece in the NYTimes mag earlier this summer lamented what he saw as a pretentious drive to like art that we don’t actually “get” precisely because we don’t get it. He offered Solaris as an example of one of these aesthetic vegetables we don’t like but think we “should eat” anyway (the original—not the bastardized version with George Clooney, about which I just Google-stumbled on a delightful Salman Rushdie quote). In this guy’s view, Solaris was nothing more than long stretches of obscure imagery strung boringly together for the purpose of giving film snobs something to pretend they found meaningful. He readily admits he didn’t “get” it.

What I don’t get is how you can’t “get” something from Solaris. When I watched it, I saw a heartbreaking film about love, loss, memory, the beauty and folly of the human spirit: the main character forced to watch his dead wife parade around, knowing she is a mirage but not being able to help loving her or pretending partly that she’s real; the throbbing faultless malevolence of the planet below, which these astronauts have failed to comprehend the very sentient aliveness of (just as we here in the “real world” fail to comprehend the aliveness of our own planet); the ending’s false homecoming, showing with piercing clarity how much all the tiny little elements of earth matter, and nearly providing comfort—indeed, showing just how much comfort these details can provide—but in actuality leaving us even more bereft because (as every person experiences living out their own coming-of-age stories), it’s too late to return to what we once had, and “Home” has become something of a simulacrum. I could go on.

So reading this Times mag piece, written by someone whose need to be “entertained” was apparently so demanding that he couldn’t spend two or so hours of his life contemplating the very nature of his own incredible ability to contemplate what that life entails, I was grumbling out loud and clenching my fists a little, and feeling sad and honestly a little personally offended, especially when he mentioned Antonioni.

I get a lot of crap, most of it good-natured, from my non-snobby friends about how much I love art that most people find “difficult” or boring (and for how much I don’t enjoy sappy string-pullers or special-effects popcorn vehicles). And Antonioni has been a centerpiece of some of this ribbing. I once went to a screening of L’Avventura with a few friends, one of whom said afterward to my enormous dismay that his farts were more interesting. (The worst was that he actually thought of himself as an Antonioni fan, because he loved Blow Up (probably just for that awesome Yardbirds scene); clearly he failed to recognize the intensely similar thematic undercurrents of these two films.)

I don’t hate joy or fun, as I’m most often accused of when confessing to people that I detest movies like Indiana Jones and Titanic. And I don’t hate being entertained. But I also don’t think “boring” in the sense that most people might use that word to refer to a movie that doesn’t detonate a nuclear bomb every five seconds or feature Celine Dion’s wrought crooning about eternal love is a bad thing. I love a good TV binge as much as anyone, but I don’t actually think the job of good art and film is to entertain us.

It’s like how I’m quick to defend David Foster Wallace’s idiosyncratic prose, his nearly endless clauses, his narrative (un)structuring, his careful wordiness. I’ll do so any time it comes up, passionately (it comes up less often now that he’s proved the seriousness of his brain by committing suicide because of it). I know I can’t stop anyone from disliking him, but I can, and will, at least try to get them to appreciate what he was doing.

I’m not pretending or putting on airs or trying to act smart or be pretentious in my love of “boring” art, and neither are the artists who made it. Some people probably don’t even believe me when I say I LOVE these films. But I do. I really truly do. I don’t love boring art because it’s boring, but I’d never dismiss it for that reason either. Much of it is powerful and beautiful—meant not to confuse us for pretension’s sake, but to show us things we haven’t seen before and things we didn’t know other people could see too; to paint portraits of us so that we can learn not just what we look like but what we are like; to engage us in a conversation, to help us. The Emperor isn’t naked; he’s dressed in something we have to look hard to see.

No doubt artists exist who create obscure work that is really meant to be “ungettable,” but they are certainly far fewer than their detractors would have you believe. And of course, there’s something to be said for accessibility—you probably don’t want to make something so difficult to decode that your audience gets essentially nothing out of it. BUT…

Let’s go back to the oft-maligned Antonioni for a minute. Antonioni was a master of the sometimes-boring. I was recently totally stabbed in the heart by my first-ever viewing of Red Desert, which NYers had the luck of being able to see on the big screen when it played at BAM in September. I’ve always loved Antonioni, but after seeing Red Desert, I’m not actually sure how my past-self could have loved him SO much before seeing this film: it is so spectacular I can’t imagine A or my love of A without it. His first color movie (and he made that fact matter), it overflows with big and tiny elements that bowl me over (and, disclaimer-wise, what’s discussed here is just what I noticed on my first viewing—there is no doubt a bunch I’m missing).

I was hooked from the start:

Great puffs of fire fill the screen with a regularity that only nature or machine could produce. You can’t see where they’re coming from or what is making them (like so much of what we’re surrounded with in our modern lives). They are majestic, dangerous, captivating. Then it’s revealed: they are coming from a smoke stack. A factory. Industry. And what better symbol of human dominion over nature than fire? I mean, where would we be without it?

And then there’s Monica. Monica Vitti’s general amazingness is not really up for debate, but seeing Red Desert as I happened to—the day after attending a screening of L’Avventura at MoMAreally shows just how amazing that general amazingness is. She acts with her whole body: you see it in L’Avventura as she writhes around trying to push Carlo away and bring him into her at the same time, and you see it in the desperation that has drenched her entire body and spirit in Red Desert. Monica’s Giuliana is suffering with essentially the same struggles as Monica’s Claudia, but here they’ve been pushed so much further (to the limit, if there were such a satisfying teleological thing, which there isn’t and that’s part of the point—even suicide doesn’t work). In L’Avventura there’s no direct acknowledgement of the emptiness inside, the sense of slipping away. It is felt but not named. But in Red Desert, Giuliana tries everything she can to draw it out, pin it down, put words to it, identify it so that she has some hope of coping with it.

With the hungry desperation of a starving and possibly feral person, and probably in an attempt to care for her son or herself, G buys a sandwich from a worker standing outside the factory. She doesn’t care that he’s already eaten part of it (someone who knew the rules of care-taking would), and she offers to pay him for it (immediately we see that she could very well have bought her own sandwich, but for some reason was unable to). She doesn’t know how to get it herself so she uses money to buy it—a perfect little analogy for the alienation caused by modern industry and capitalism, the worker alienated from his own labor. How fitting, of course, that G is, as we soon learn, the wife of a head-hauncho at this sprawling menace of a factory.

The factory, indeed the entire movie, is the locus of a troubling sense that things aren’t quite right. As G’s husband and his colleague Corrado stroll the grounds, we see a giant puff of steam erupt sideways, obscuring the landscape (if that’s the right word), the puffs so loud that they wipe out any other noise and destroy the possibility of conversation (again: metaphor). It doesn’t look normal, and a silent exchange between the two men seems to address this. We see the steam and its blanket of unknown awfulness and wonder: Is it supposed to be like that? Is this a mistake? Is something broken? Will people be harmed?

That unasked and unanswered question of IS THIS WRONG? is a silent, pervasive query hovering over everything in the film, from the industrial domination of the natural environment, to G’s eventual infidelity with Corrado, which you can’t bring yourself to fault her for. The movie is a cascade of IS THIS WRONG? and HOW WRONG IS THIS? and WHAT IS WRONG?

Noise versus silence—the unasked, the unanswered. The factory is alive but the streets are dead. That’s the opposite of how it should be, right? People are alive; machines aren’t. Yet in the middle of the night, we see G’s child’s toy robot move aimlessly back and forth in his room, bumping into things, not knowing how to change its path or set itself up, make itself stop, make itself change, make itself right. In this way, the robot toy is more like G than any of her human cohorts.

Antonioni has crafted this world for our viewing, above and beyond even the most auteurist auteurs. Giuliana, in an attempt to anchor herself to the earth, is planning to open a store. What will she sell there? She doesn’t know. What color will she paint the walls? She doesn’t know. Giuliana walks out from her shop that sells nothing onto the quiet gray street, and walks over to a quiet gray table, where a quiet gray man is selling quiet gray wares. At first glance I thought it was clay, but then realized, it is fruit! Antonioni uses paint–a groundbreaking technique (which is also how he achieves the hyperreality of Blow Up’s greenest green fields) to show us the landscape through Giuliana’s eyes. We see through them often (the blurring of faces that shows she can’t get a grasp on identity, the shifting of colors that suggests her shaky grasp on physicality), and sometimes without realizing it. The line between objective viewing and the subjective tint of a mind’s eye is blurred so that it’s not always clear which lens we’re peering though.

Giuliana’s unsuccessful attempts to define her surroundings aren’t limited to her storeless store.  She is helplessly adrift. I just wish everyone who cared about me was surrounding me now, making a wall around me, Giuliana says to Corrado. When she goes to his hotel, and the clerk at the front desk asks her the name of the person she is looking for, she doesn’t understand the question at first. She puzzles over it, Name, what’s a name? before eventually realizing what’s being asked of her.

Corrado is hard to get a grasp on, for us the viewers, and for G. (Also there is clearly some historical subtext I’m missing about his foreignness—he’s Italian but not? A foreigner but not? My knowledge of this kind of thing is totally lacking.) How much of what he expressed to G was real empathy and how much just lust masquerading as understanding, creating a false front of empathy, which is what G so desperately craves. It’s not just emotional intimacy that Giuliana can’t get a hold on. Even the pleasure of physical closeness is denied to her. When she actually wants to make love, she can’t, and when she actually does make love, she doesn’t want to.

And after her failed attempt at gaining something from Corrado, she tries again. Maybe if she leaves this place, this empty gray machine, maybe if she heads to the sea, which she can see is alive, the way she wants to be, maybe then she will be saved. The sea is always changing, she’s told Corrado, which makes it hard to look at the land. With heart-wrenching desperation she asks him: What am I supposed to look at? It’s a sentiment anyone touched by depression’s quiet gray hand can empathize with. She can’t find anything salient on land (as we see repeatedly, when A show us the world through her eyes)—but maybe at sea.

She visits a ship, forms an escape plan, and asks a sailor she finds if there’s a place for her on board. The man replies in another language (I’m not sure which) and she goes on to hold an entire conversation with him without even realizing that they are speaking different languages. Really it’s not that different from all of her other conversations. Language fails. Names fail. Identify fails.

Her grasp on her own identity is as tenuous as her grasp on others’. She describes a girl, who was in a terrible car crash, who tried to take her own life. We know immediately (or at least suspect) that this girl is Giul, and eventually she knows it too. We see another version of Giuliana when she tells a story to her ailing son about a girl who swims every day in the sea. As she narrates, we see through her eyes again, her mind’s eye, and the imagery is stunning. After the bleak dreary gray of G’s actual environment, the beauty of this dream-story beach is a blow to the senses: a feast after weeks of gruel, the smell of thawing earth after months of winter, the ocean after a desert (here: literally). This is what Giuliana wants to escape to, or perhaps what she used to be. The connection between the natural landscape and the self is evident: the landscape sings to her; it becomes alive, the rocks look like flesh. Everything around her is awake and singing. Once she’s realized how alive it is, nothing will be the same.

This is what the environment should be like. But G can’t stay at the beautiful beach; she has to come back to her gray wasteland. She is no less affected by the environment here. The wasteland has its own noise, its own effect. But she can’t stay at sea. She has to come back to land.

The yellow smoke at the end is perhaps the movie’s saddest moment. In a scene that directly parallels the film’s earliest, Giuliana and her son wander the grounds. The anticlimax is just another symptom of the general hopelessness of moving forward or elsewhere, of G’s getting better—all that has happened in the movie has happened, the plot has unfolded, and yet we end up back in the very same place. The sea is always changing, but on land nothing is. As we’re shown by the inexhaustible repetitions of industrial structures that scatter the landscape throughout the film, this environment is recursive, infinite, inescapable.

When her son asks about the sickeningly yellow smoke pouring out of a smokestack, G explains it’s that color because it’s poisonous. What about the little birdies, the son wants to know. The little birdies know not to fly there anymore, G says, because if they do, they will die. This is essentially what G herself is trying to do—stay out of the yellow smoke—and perhaps trying to warn her son to do, but she is failing.

As the movie comes to a close, we see through her eyes one more time, the blur of the industrial landscape, a complex jumble of colors with no discernible features, nothing to hold on to, a sound and fury signifying nothing, which, after we step back from G’s perspective, snaps into focus as a collection of barrels and other factory detritus. Even these simple objects hold no shape to her; she is lost, awash in world with no discernible features and nothing to hold on to, trying her best to keep out of the yellow smokes that fills the bleak landscape of her existence.

So how could this movie not completely blow you away? Well, apparently quite easily. Though my movie companion didn’t fidget in impatience the way he did during the (admittedly slow-paced) first act of the four-hour screen version of The Iceman Cometh I accidentally subjected him to a few weeks prior (it was so good though!), I don’t think he was nearly as enraptured as I was. I don’t think anyone in the theater was, if the number of people scoff-laughing at the end is any indication. (HOW WAS THAT LAUGHABLE? I was fighting back tears). It sounded like they felt they’d been tricked or cheated out of something. That the “boring” anticlimax was somehow an escape on the part of the director, rather than an essential element of his message. I don’t know what film everybody else was expecting something they didn’t get from, but what I saw left me stunned and awed, my eyes a little more open, if also a little bit teary.

That’s the really ironic part.

Being educated postpostmodernism, I’m of course aware that a flim(/texts)’s “meaning” is not a one-on-one author-dictated math formula. Some of the above is perhaps not what A intended when he crafted the flim, and I’m sure I missed much of what he was trying to tell me. Same goes for that other master of “boring”: DFW. That said, I doubt anyone, including these artists themselves, would argue that these art forms are at base FOR and/or ABOUT human beings’ desire/need/maybe-impossible-quest/whathaveyou to connect with other human beings. (I’m referring most specifically to A and DFW here, but it extends.)

These artists who have so thoughtfully, carefully crafted something for us to connect to, whose very art itself is ABOUT the need to connect, the volatility and inevitable disappointing inaccuracy of language and representation, get accused of being obscure, or wordy for words sake, or boring, which they sometimes are, but why is that a bad thing? This is part of why Infinite Jest is so brilliant. Entertainment (lack of boredom) should not be the primary goal of a work of art—look at what “the Entertainment” does in IJ. It literally kills people. ‘Art’/media that is primarily for escapist entertainment purposes creates a neverending and insatiable need for itself. It makes it less and less easy for people to find satisfaction in the real world, driving them further toward escapist entertainment. It’s not healthy and it makes us sad and lonely. (Franzen said a lot more stuff a lot more eloquently about this in that DFW eulogy-of-sorts in the NYer this summer.) I’m also reminded of Cortazar’s short story “The Continuity of Parks” (same guy who wrote the short story Blow Up is based on—coincidence??), which I first read in my undergrad Intro to Comp Lit class (“Reading to Live,” was the course’s subtitle), taught by one of my favorite profs at the University of Michigan. It’s another clear cautionary tale about what passive reading can lead to, and it extends to passive viewing.

We know good things are rarely easy. If you let go of the drive to be entertained, and try to talk through things with your art, the way you would with a lover, you’ll be amazed what you find. It will stay with you for years. It will hold up a dark mirror to your world, show a haunting reflection. It will hold your hand when you’re walking down a dark road alone with what you’ve seen. And in the end, a piece of that closeness we desperately lack (a lack that Entertainment is both symptom and cause of—makes us crave and takes away from us) might just find its way in. For me, that’s worth working for.

L’ombre de ton ombre

Sarah Van Bonn

L’ombre de ton ombre

Tense

Sarah Van Bonn

Tense

Once upon

Sarah Van Bonn

Once upon

A Time

Sarah Van Bonn

A Time

Deixis

Sarah Van Bonn

Every shell was once a home that something lived inside.

We used to live behind ‘us.’ (My private spaces sometimes inaccessible, even to me, overlapped. Yours, I thought I knew, though I never could. Which is how it always is.)

It was the most natural thing, the placement, the filling up, fulfillment. That space was meant for you and you fit like puzzle piece (no funny stretching at the corners, none of that ‘maybe these two go together’ wishful thinking that you allow yourself even though you know they don’t, because the colors or shapes don’t quite match, and there’s something just slightly off about the fit, the cardboard lacking that satisfying click; you know it when you feel it, that fitting click, just like you pretend not to miss it when you don’t). You were a puzzle piece that made the whole puzzle, comprised it. There was nothing to connect you to; you were complete on your own, whole, fit-click, behind that ‘you.’ I didn’t hesitate to feel you there, to keep you there, to show you there. I knew it when I felt it, immediately. You: my one-piece puzzle, no sign of boundaries, of blending, no dotted lines to cut across, no valleys and ridges and mountains nestling their edges against the rest of the landscape. Just you.

In the end, the beginning is just like it, like the end. Eerily similar. The pregnancy of moments. The terrifying wonder, so limitless, its light all over everything, difficult, even, to enjoy, because it can’t last forever and how can anything else compare. And now(/then, as in after). The dark shadow twin. A world of lasts. Knowing it will come, it’s coming, it’s here, it came, it’s gone. And nothing can be done to stop it and there’s no way to ever be sure. The beginning, once it’s made it cannot be undone, but the end continues forever and it’s never really over, never done. It goes on, an empty infinity, your (my) eyes scan the smooth horizon, looking for the smallest spark, a tiny sign that there is something else, something still, new, to live, to collect.

All that’s really left is a hole and the clutter. The lack and the debris. Your own self’s mirror, its reflection of what ‘happened,’ its stupid, inevitable imperfection. But “he” (you) is gone. All that’s left is an imprint, the objects, some dust floating in the air, a swirl of wind from the closing of the door. Eyes heavy with why and how. The pain of the vacating of pronouns. Like they are the door (“behind door #1…”). HE is the shell. but he doesn’t live there anymore.

Instead I have your objects in my space. Your fragments. Your leftovers. Your left behinds. My obsession with chronicling gave me enough for a lifetime of ____. Memories? Reminders? Empty signifiers? Not simulacrum, just vacated signs. Nobody inside them. Nothing there. Shells, sketches, billowing curtains, the door to an empty room. I hate them. I mourn them. I love them. I cling to them. I shove them away, consume them, reject them, vomit them, absorb them. They are precious and despicable. Beautiful, unsightly. captivating, repugnant. Compelling and repulsive. Pulling you in, pushing you away.

You (meaning I) can live with them forever, buried under your skin like slivers of wood the flesh has grown over. You can try to dig them out. You can try to give them all back. Detox. Picking shards of glass out of your body. Counting off. One time or more for each little bit. One pinprick as the backlash. One scar each. Varying shapes and sizes. This little piggy went to market. Count them down, an infinite number. Counting back from infinity.

Sometimes I feel it releasing itself, the vise that cocoons me, the goopy strands that stretch between us. Like petals of an aging flower, falling off one by one, except they are attached with superglue, nails, blood and guts and flesh and tissue and nerves, more like pulling out teeth or fingers. I grasp their fleshy weight and pull, try to remove them. But some grow back, some stronger than before, even harder to tear out. I wrestle with them when I can until I can’t anymore. Then let them go, gather them up to cradle, know that I wouldn’t unburden myself of them, even if I could.

I can no longer open the door to our home to find you with me there. Nobody lives there now, nobody will again, not in that space. It’s shuttered and boarded, and not even we can get in. I’m out on the porch. Me and the bits of you that are still inside me, the bits of other ‘you’s before you, the holes to be filled by other ‘you’s to come. We all sit down to rest, to gather up our strength before we move along.

Houdini’s Ghost

Sarah Van Bonn

The water underneath, dark and deep, secrets buried under rocks, hors du temps, current carving patterns in the face of the earth. It goes by, always.

We were walking over the bridge, and you held it in your hands.

You opened them up and it flew away. Like a helium balloon. Like a bird, I imagined. No longer tied to us, its flight unpredictable, and in a way free.

I tried to look up into your face, but the sun was too bright; tried to follow its flight path with my eyes, but instead saw the blinding blue, washing over me, swallowing me. Caught maybe a silhouette.

We were its keepers. Its liberty and its cage.

———

I searched everywhere but never found a trace, and one day, down a dark back alley somewhere, I turned—from peeking under boards and bricks and wood and lids and doors and pavement—to look beside me, and noticed you were gone.

———

There is a picture of your faced etched onto a wall somewhere. When I see it, I think maybe that is where you disappeared to. I still sing. To it, to you.

It could be that your hands weren’t sheltering, but concealing. An empty space, the ghost of our lost love.

A Snapshot and the Tide

Sarah Van Bonn

I think of driving back into town from the beach. Down the immense hill just before the water starts. A special run off was made, a long straight line of gravel and sand cut into the side of the hill, for “runaway trucks” after a freighter carrying produce couldn’t slow down fast enough on the steep incline and plowed straight into the bay. Cherries bobbing and floating everywhere, I imagine. “Was he okay?” I asked, but Christopher didn’t remember.

I picture it. How safe and strange it feels sitting in the passenger seat next to him, in his hometown. It was months after we started dating before I saw him drive for the first time, and I remember how compelling it was. How I loved to see him perform this activity he’d perfected before knowing me, loved to think of him developing, becoming strong, confident, capable. He is a good driver, aggressive but not unsafe. It only bothers me when he spends too much time looking over at me, into my eyes while he’s driving. I want to look at him so often, but when he returns my gaze, I immediately, reflexively turn away, scared that he’ll be distracted and crash into an oncoming car. Sometimes I berate him: “Don’t LOOK at me!” But he says he is only stealing glances.

Once, I am taking pictures on our drive back from the beach. Because I want a record of everything. Proof. They are lazy snapshots: through the open windows, of our windblown hair, of Christopher’s profile as he laughs. He looks over to me, too long. I am jostled by the car suddenly swerving–the shutter clicks, and the panic, blurriness, the hazy potential register on the screen. He avoids the oncoming car, and we are safe. But later I force him to look at the picture, at the blood and guts and goodbye that could have been, holding it up to his face like a crime scene photo, with the intensity and reprimand, the unearned “knowing better” that comes from an accident narrowly avoided.

Another time we are driving in the dark around a sharp curve hugging the cold water, and he tells me the story of one of the doctors in town. His wife and daughter driving home to him at night, around the same curve, lost control of the car. The water is so much deeper than it seems, Chris tells me. They drowned. And the heaviness of imagining it almost suffocates me–not so much the drowning, but what happens after; not to her, but to him. Chris worked for the doctor for a few summers, including the summer it happened. He was much beloved, this doctor, great with families and children, essentially the benevolent patriarch of the entire practice. And after, he became a bearded recluse, working less and only with older patients.

I tug at my seatbelt and fear, again, that the world will take Christopher from me. Reach down and pluck him out with its blind, indifferent hand. I try to hold on to him as hard as I can, even knowing that can’t make any difference.

Further along, we do break apart. Not because of an accident, or a reason. But because of chronology, the present. Because that’s the way the story goes. Life, roads, coloring in lines on the infinite treebranch of possible futures. You cannot unmake the present once it’s been made; you can’t change a single brick, a single swerve or divot. You have no other choice but to keep following, laying it out as you go. You make your path, and it makes you right back.

Sometimes we want to think that our accidents say something about us, or about the world. But what’s even worse than realizing that normal life doesn’t carry the same weight as dramatic accidents is realizing that dramatic accidents are just as empty as normal life. Bits of life hurl themselves against us as we march along, a tornado of the everyday swirling, encircling; scraps stick to us and we stick to them: tarred and feathered. We choose, but nothing chooses us. We make choices, but the world does not. It simply unfolds. No magic, only realism. We breathe in bits of dust in its wake, try to sort them, shape them, believe that they were given to us, gift wrapped, with a nametag. We pick the pieces off our skin and inspect them. This one looks like a lion, we say. This one has my favorite number on it.

Accidents aren’t happy or unhappy. In the same way that nothing is an accident, everything is: equally accident and miracle.

I remind myself of this when I think of how it felt to let go of Christopher’s hand. When I think of driving down that stretch of road, in different cars this time, separate, the traffic around us ebbing and flowing, and carrying us out to sea.