You Were Never Really Here is a disturbing and poetic piece of cinema. I don’t know whether it’s my favorite movie of 2018—the experience of watching it was too uncomfortable for that—but even so, it strikes me that Lynne Ramsay’s omission from the nominees for best director at this year’s Oscars is difficult to justify. In You Were Never Really Here, Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a tortured, messy veteran and contract killer tasked with tracking down the kidnapped daughter of a senator. Often in movies of this sort, the pressure that builds by the threat of violence is somehow released when that violence occurs. There is no such relief here. In the pauses between violence, Joe returns home to his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) to fret over her health or help her polish cutlery; all the while the violence remains, like a ringing in the ears following an explosion. —Robin Jones Read More
In 1949, Life magazine called my hometown of Rockford, Illinois, a place as “nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.” Today the city of a hundred fifty thousand has one of the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime in the country; every year, it makes the lists of America’s worst cities. My friends, almost all of whom have left, are so accustomed to sharing embarrassing headlines that there’s an air of disbelief when something good comes out of Rockford.
More than disbelief, I felt envy when the director Bing Liu won an award at Sundance for Minding the Gap, a documentary set in Rockford, a city whose story I have tried—and failed—to tell. A documentary about skateboarding, no less. I grew up skating those streets. As the rave reviews poured in, I didn’t read them; I didn’t want to hear someone else’s take on my hometown. I felt guilty, but the jealousy gnawed at me. Still, I wanted to see Rockford writ large on a big screen in Manhattan. I brought my wife and two friends to an art house cinema where Liu was on hand for a Q&A. The theater was packed full of East Coast aesthetes eager to catch a glimpse of Rust Belt cinema verité.
The film opens with a stunning montage of two of the main characters, Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson, riding through downtown Rockford in the golden hour, popping tricks with a grace matched only by Bing’s work with a Glidecam. We meet Keire, Zack, and Bing, a character himself, through montages from parties and skate parks, much of the footage filmed when they were just teenagers. Portraits of youth’s joyful abandon. But that joy is fleeting.
Minding the Gap is more than a film about skateboarding and Rockford. Shot over several years, the film employs skateboarding as a lens to examine domestic violence, race, and the enduring effects of childhood trauma, all set against the dreary backdrop of a city’s decline. Bing, a few years older than the others, is unique in that he left Rockford for college and never moved back. Now he has returned, camera in hand, to find both Zack and Keire struggling with the demands of adulthood. Read More
You can’t write a novel the night before dying. Not even one of the very short novels that I write. I could make them shorter, but it still wouldn’t work. The novel requires an accumulation of time, a succession of different days: without that, it isn’t a novel. What has been written one day must be affirmed the next, not by going back to correct it (which is futile) but by pressing on, supplying the sense that was lacking by advancing resolutely. This seems magical, but in fact it’s how everything works; living, for a start. In this respect, which is fundamental, the novel defeats the law of diminishing returns, reformulating it and turning it to advantage.
This law, which I’m always referring to, can be explained in the following way: imagine there’s a steel spring, a yard high, standing on the ground. We put a three-pound weight on it, and it goes down thirty-two inches, so now the spring’s just four inches high, but to make it go down another inch, you have to add a weight of three hundred pounds. And then to make it go down another fraction of an inch, you have to pile on tons … The same thing happens in intellectual work, not because there is some necessary relation between the intellectual and the physical, it just happens to happen—analogy wins out. Somebody opens up a new field of artistic or intellectual endeavor and in that initial impetus occupies it almost entirely. The classic case is Euclid: once he had the fundamental idea, he was able to complete his book within a few days, or perhaps a few hours, and geometry was done. In the two thousand years that followed, an innumerable legion of geometers, dedicating their whole lives to the field, could do no more than add a few superfluous details. This, of course, is not an example. It’s what actually happened. The fact that something similar happened in other cases (Freud, Darwin) shows that the law of diminishing returns is valid, but doesn’t reduce the protagonists to examples because each particular case is, by definition, a historical whole. That totality is reconstructed each time an artist discovers his or her style. To discover a style is to realize it, in a complete and finished form, and after that there’s nothing left to do except to go on producing. Since artists generally reach this point while they’re still young, they spend the rest of their lives in an atmosphere of futility and disquiet, if not outright anxiety in the face of what seems a colossal task, which would require ten lifetimes to complete, and even then would yield very meager fruit: compressing the spring another fraction of an inch, taking one more step after leaping a thousand leagues …
I thought I had found a way out of this trap, a daily, livable solution, in the writing of novels, since they keep putting off the artistic consummation that serves to justify them. Kafka must have been thinking along these lines when he complained about interruptions and said that a story would spoil if he couldn’t get the whole thing written in one sitting. But for him, writing novels was not a solution, because they became unfinishable. I solved the problem in my own way, by taking the fine art of botching to a new level. I was so bored and ashamed by what I was doing, I felt that I might as well die as soon as the novel was done, but not before, because no one else would know how to finish it. So I would rush on to the end, always arriving sooner than I’d expected (sacrificing quality, it’s true), and then as a mark of relief, I would inscribe the date at the foot of the final page. Read More
On the surface, Mark Mayer seems like a normal enough guy. He’s polite, a little awkward, and a little anxious to please. When we were at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop together, it was his job to set up the chairs and the mics for readings, and the chairs were always arranged in nice, straight, punctual rows. His stories, too, have a veneer of normalcy. Model-train enthusiasts dutifully mind their toys, a nephew worries about his anorexic uncle, a parks-and-rec employee tries to get laid. But you can sense, beneath the normal, an abiding weirdness and darkness, a fascination with the sinkholes in the back of the mind, the places where consciousness plunges through the cloud floor of this world and into some other one.
Mark’s weirdness has something to do with tenderness. Weirdness for its own sake is just quirk, but in Mark’s stories, solid-state relationships undergo a phase change right at the moment when love gets hard. A nephew worried about his aunt and uncle sits in the kitchen creating patterns in the linoleum squares, telling himself there must be some combination that will “unlock” the floor and let him get back to a place he thinks he remembers, a place he calls “the There.” A girl copes with her father’s depression by pretending to have a telepathic connection with a deaf-mute friend, whom she then telepathically dumps. A guy on his way into the navy writes a detailed description of his neighborhood into a text-based online world, imagining it will be a place where he and his girlfriend can have sex while he’s at war.
A couple of Mark’s stories are concerned with how the straight male imagination turns toxic, about how misogyny lives in the mind. One young narrator receives dueling lessons in masculinity from his dad and from his mom’s new lover, a female bodybuilder. A guy who finds a “pet” mountain lion in his tree starts obsessing about his own tameness in his new relationship. In one story, a real estate agent for an ascendant Republican client moonlights—or else imagines himself moonlighting—as a homicidal clown. Strongman, lion-tamer, clown… each of the stories in Aerialists links, somewhat sneakily, to a different circus act or sideshow. As a whole, the book is a spectacular of the weird.
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mark and I were never in class together, but we’ve stayed in touch and occasionally swapped work. I conducted this interview through emails to Paris where he, his wife (the poet Ashley Colley), and their two rabbits are living this year.
There are so many tender relationships in this collection—children and their uncles and aunts, parents, brothers, friends. What is your interest in these dynamics?
Love is a really hard thing to do right in life. I love reading stories where the hero is affronted by something external, a mean neighbor or an alien, but those kinds of conflicts can feel safe to me because all the character has to do, really, is figure out some way to close the relationship, walk away. Intimacy is more vexed. We’re all carrying around our histories—our bad programming, our genders, our wounded egos, our stink—and then we build little brick houses and try to live in them together. It’s a crazy thing to attempt. So I’m interested in stories that go into that space where we can’t escape each other. Family is claustrophobic, love is claustrophobic, which is what makes it meaningful, too. We can’t help but actually encounter each other. Read More
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Sarah Kay is on the line.
I recently had an uncomfortable interaction with a member of my fiancé’s family. This person met my dad, and then later commented to me that they were surprised by “the way he looked.” What they meant was, even though they knew of my pacific-islander ancestry, they were surprised my father was brown. I have been stuck on this interaction, and on other moments in my life when someone has made thinly veiled racist comments to me assuming that my light skin color means I am willing to listen to their derogatory, bigoted bullshit. Is there a poem to help with the frustration and guilt of moving through a world that affords me more safety and privilege simply because I was born with lighter skin than my dad and the other people whom I love dearly?
Passing Through Life
We were brought to the museum, as children often are, to look at ancient things from Egypt. Elsewhere in the galleries were ancient things from Rome and China and Greece, but only in the Egyptian collection was there the threat of seeing a dead body. The promise. We were ten. Of course we wanted to see one, even if it was the teachers’ idea. Perhaps they thought: if you satisfy the bloodthirstiness of children in an art museum they will be less likely to stab each other with compasses during math class.
This was 1975, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was the era of disaster movies: ships upside down, towering infernos, earthquakes. I liked disasters. The year before, in fourth grade, I had written a paper on the immolation of the Hindenburg. Mummies weren’t a disaster: so many dead, so little interest in how they died.
On the way to the mummies we happened upon Watson and the Shark.
It’s an odd painting, awful and hilarious, charged, inexplicable, literal. A disaster movie, an eighteenth-century one. There’s Watson, a naked figure fallen into a city harbor, hair streaming behind him. There’s the shark, rising up with its awful mouth, getting ready to bite off the swimmer’s head.