Green Ray, Pepsi-Cola, Paramusicology


The Review’s Review

The Pepsi-Cola Sign in Gantry Plaza State Park. Kidfly182, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pepsi-Cola Addict, written in 1981 by the cryptophasic teenager June-Alison Gibbons—who refused most communication with anyone other than her twin sister, Jennifer—is as idiosyncratic as one would expect. Preston Wildey-King—the Pepsi-Cola addict of the book’s title—lives in a tenement with his mother and his sister in Malibu, California. How Preston developed an addiction to Pepsi is unknown. This omission begs interpretation—readers must make their own projections onto Pepsi-Cola. Is it a sweet elixir that dulls the bitter taste of Preston’s fleeting childhood? Or a symbol of American overconsumption and excess? Gibbons doesn’t provide an answer, leaving us with a plot point as perplexing as the addictions we see every day. Sometimes a can of Pepsi is just a can of Pepsi. 

—Troy Schipdam, reader

Éric Rohmer’s 1986 film The Green Ray centers on a difficult person. We know that she’s difficult because, during a conversation midway through, she insists, multiple times, “I haven’t been difficult at all.” Her name is Delphine, and she’s a Parisian secretary who broke up with her fiancé two years earlier. While she craves human connection, she flees, sometimes literally, whenever it seems it might appear. In one of the film’s best scenes, she runs away from people who have the gall to invite her to a nightclub. In another scene, she stops to read a sign on a lamppost that says, “Retrouver le contact avec soi-même et avec les autres. Groupes et séances individuelles.” (“Reconnect with others and yourself. Groups and private sessions.”) She walks on.

When a friend tells her she’s sad, Delphine says, “I’m not sad.” She sublimates her loneliness into an obsession with having a good summer vacation. As the film opens, Delphine learns that her holiday plans have been upended: she’s been ditched by a friend who wants to travel with a new lover instead. “The three of us could go together,” Delphine suggests. She’s rebuffed. We soon see why: even when she’s not a third wheel, she’s hard to be around. A complainer who doesn’t enjoy much of anything, she’s resistant to offers of help and advice. When she learns that her sister and brother-in-law are going camping in Ireland, she asks her young niece, “It’s very rainy. Does that scare you?” At a dinner party, when the host has just served pork chops, she extols the virtues of vegetarianism.

An acquaintance takes pity on Delphine and invites her along on a family vacation to Cherbourg, but that goes badly. She then goes on an increasingly disastrous series of trips and spends much of the film in tears. In North America, the film was first released as Summer, but maybe it’s more appropriate to watch it in fall. The story concludes as Delphine is finally heading home after her miserable peregrinations. As she arrives at the train station, there’s a sense that she’s getting older, that not only summer but also her best years have passed, that maybe the sun will set without her finding love again.

But there’s a chance something different will happen. The green ray of the title—and of an eponymous Jules Verne novel that served as Rohmer’s inspiration—refers to an almost mystically elusive optical phenomenon. Under certain atmospheric conditions, in the last moments before it dips below the horizon, the setting sun can flash green. On one of her trips, Delphine overhears some older people discussing the plot of Verne’s book. Its heroine never sees the green ray, but she “manages to understand her own feelings.” Throughout the film, Delphine claims to know her feelings. She may believe that she’s being vulnerable; she even cries in front of other people. But her self-pity prevents her from accessing true vulnerability. It’s not until the very end of the film that she risks sharing her real feelings with another person.

For years, I also confused self-pity with vulnerability, and I relate to the film. I love it not, though, for its relatability but because I find it so strikingly naturalistic. Rohmer purportedly encouraged his actors—many of whom were friends and even family—to improvise their dialogue. That authenticity, which I strive for in fiction, is what I think gives the film its luminosity. Even the green ray captured in the film’s last shot is genuine; rather than create it in the studio, as producers wanted, Rohmer brought a photographer to the Canary Islands to capture the real thing.

—Alena Graedon, author of “No Changing

I discovered the American Museum of Paramusicology through attempts to find more information about the American composer and choreographer Julius Eastman, perhaps the most important artist of the late twentieth century in the United States, although people outside the art world don’t know who he is. The site/journal/publishing concern/archive is run by the musicologist and artist Matt Marble and hosts a range of materials—books, recordings, scores, histories—relating to music by composers whose work is inflected by esoteric spiritual or philosophical practice, among them Alice Coltrane, David Lynch, and Constance Demby. The site and its associated podcast, Secret Sound, recently went subscription-only—but I recommend the five dollars per month. Everything there is totally brilliant and humbling.

—Lucy Ives, Robert Glück’s interviewer for The Art of Fiction No. 260